Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Warmwater Season has Arrived

Though I use the term warmwater even to describe fishing for certain species in shallow lakes and ponds when the water temperature is well cold, right now I can use that term quite reasonably. Most lakes and ponds have edged past what I consider warm, and so have a lot of creeks. It's the season where I expect anything anywhere, and fish have filled out every little niche of stream and stillwater ecosystems. Basically, it's multi-species season. I divert a lot of my attention away from trout for their own safety and target true warmwater fish. Yesterday was an odd mashup for Noah and I, though it wasn't intended to be.

The initial target was grass carp. A target that has established itself as being almost absurdly difficult in this area. But here's one. Tailing. I'd not seen that before, and I was pretty sure it would be a somewhat less difficult to fool. Nope. I put five different flies in front of that fish, probably a dozen presentations, it never took.

The little commons that fill this pond were obliging as usual. Both Noah and I caught a few, a couple on flies and a five or six on bread. Annoyingly, we both also caught snapping turtles on bread. Including the same turtle twice. I caught three. I'll readily catch snapping turtles on purpose, but I hate leaving a hook in their mouth after they eat my fly or bait. Two of mine were successfully freed, the third broke off.

What I very much did not expect from that pond, though I knew it to be stocked, was to catch a trout. The water was more than 80 degrees! But it happened, and ugly little rainbow. He swam off, though I know his chances of surviving the rest of the day were slim.

After running out of bread to chum up the carp we switched gears and headed over to a small river with pretty good multi-species potential. That's just what we got. I fished a black hares ear and various small streamers, Noah fished a marabou jig, and we picked a few fish here and there. 

We found fairly quickly that there were still some trout around, things there haven't warmed up too much yet. Of course after getting a rainbow in 80 degree water I'm not really sure what to think.

This morning I wanted to get a better carp, size wise. With a north north-west wind I knew I'd have plenty of sheltered bank to sight fish. I got of to a slow start and there really weren't that many fish around. When I eventually did find a willing participant, it was far from the best looking carp I've ever caught. This year so far I just haven't done much carping, and subsequently I think my precision with it has waned. I need to put more time in and I plan to. 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Night Fishing an Impossibility

The nocturnal habits of the wild brown trout on my 'part time' home water have continued to befuddle me. I unlock little pieces of the puzzle every now and then, but less frequently than I'd like. More nights than I'd like to admit, I've walked away not really sure I'd learned anything useful.

Last night wasn't one of those nights.

I caught nothing. I never even heard any evidence that big fish were around and active at all. But I learned a lot more than I had on previous trips. It had everything to do with biomass, and it didn't teach me how or where or when I could catch a big trout at night on this river. I learned a lot about why I almost certainly wouldn't at night at this time of the year.

And it has everything to do with biomass.

To many, it is a cardinal sin to turn on a bright white light while night fishing. But if you are smart, you will for some amount of time every night you fish. Not to tie on a fly, tippet, or undo a tangle. For that I use ambient light as much as possible, and a concealed flash light whenever necessary. I can tie on most larger flies in the dark without turning on a light of any kind. But a bright light is a very useful tool at night, simply because it lets you see what's there. And if I hadn't spent nearly an hour with a light on seeing what was there, I would have learned very little about the goings on last night. 

What I discovered when I first turned on my light last night, was that I had been standing in a blizzard. There were warning signs... the feeling of tiny things dancing on my arm hairs, thing in my nostrils that just didn't belong there, an all too frequent bit of "protein" in my mouth that got there of its own volition. Yup, there was a midge hatch going on. An apocalyptic midge hatch. Breathing became perilous any time I had a light on for more than 15 seconds. I've seen some midge hatches in my day. Midge hatches so strong it made it look like a light fog was gathering. Midge hatches that were actually audible. But nothing like this.

The biomass was not limited to the air either. The emerging midge pupa and swimming freshwater shrimp of were so thick all a trout would have to do to eat its weight in the course of the night would be to open its mouth for two seconds every other minute. Add to that about 25 fish fry per square foot in any slow moving water and there is very little reason for any trout to need to eat a big streamer or mouse or wet fly under these conditions, and anything small would just be lost in the maelstrom of actual food drifting and swimming around.  

So. I'm still not dialed in on getting big trout at night there. But I know I can't do it at this time of year in that stretch. 

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Tail Up, Mouth Open, Crab Gone

It really isn't hard to see why striped bass are so captivating. They are a very handsome fish, with their scales painted silver, blue, purple, green, white, and black. They lend themselves well to easy handling, with their sandpaper teeth and firm jaw, only a gill plate and a few fin spike to be concerned about. They are one of the most versatile of any saltwater or freshwater fish. They could be virtually anywhere in saltwater or fresh between the St. Johns River in Florida and the Gulf of St. Lawrence and places North that doesn't have an impassable barrier, and has a tolerable water temperature and quality. They could be in a shallow flat, a deep rocky ledge, a strong rip, a tiny creek, a salt pond, a river, a sandy beach, a rocky jetty, a grassy marsh. They are a challenging fish to target, especially in these times of declined population. Catching big striped bass takes skill, knowledge, versatility, and time. More so if you are intent on only doing so with a fly rod.

Right now is flats time in CT, LI, and RI. There are other things going on, obviously, right now you really could catch a striper in most habitats they frequent and using many different methods, but when big stripers are on the flats, to me, that's the ultimate. That's where I'm going to concentrate my effort. 

Juvenile sundial.
And right now I'm on a crab bite. I haven't caught any big fish yet, but when you hook an 8lb striper in a foot of water it acts big. On Thursday I had one fish take me into the backing in an attempt to leave the flat completely. I thought it was going to be the big one. Instead, this was the guilty party:

All of the fish we've been catching have been fat, healthy, and carrying a few sea lice. It seems like most of the fish that are in now just got here recently. They are nearly perfect specimens, though a few pounds and inches short of what I really want to be finding. 

In the morning on Thursday Noah and I were lucky enough to find a few fish tailing. I got probably the best take I've ever had on a crab. I saw a fish swirl, mad a cast ahead of it, watched it push up on the fly, pause, push again, then tail up and eat. I missed that fish, but it didn't really matter. It was a beautiful thing to watch. 

My hope is that while I'm away from the salt this weekend some big fish will push up and they'll be there to target during the week. The bite has been good. Really good. But I'm hunting for something more.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Flats Fishing on My Birthday: Stripers on Crabs

What would I want to do on my 21st birthday? The answer was easy. I didn't want to cut loose, to get drunk, to party it up. 

I wanted to do the thing that makes me most happy and then celebrate it with steak, pie, and just the right amount of whiskey. 

Stripers were the target. My preference was to sight fish for them in shallow water, and though other possibilities were explored it was the sight fishing that was fortunately most fruitful. I am more and more obsessed with pursuing big stripers, but when the query can be seen in shallow clear water, stripers of any size are challenging. Big fish are possible. But it they are also likely the most difficult targets on the eastern seaboard. 

Stripers feeding on the flat are the most neurotic fish I've ever seen. They are the furthest thing from reckless. They examine everything. They move quick. There is no room for error here. Sight, stalking, casting, presentation, fly, hookset, and fight, all have to be on point. If you aren't so good at just one of those things, that's going to be the one thing that leads to you not catching fish consistently. It's tricky stuff, and it takes practice. I'm still learning but I'm definitely adequate.

After a slow morning I found some fish willing to eat sand eels around a bridge. They were testy, most of them would dart back and forth as they examined flies, unsure whether to attack it or to run away, but when they ate it they ate it hard. Then, later in the day, when the tide was right, I was able to access water where crab eaters live. the conditions were great. Tide, wind, lighting... I could have asked for better. I could walk down wind and search for tailing and cruising fish see them from 50 feet away, and make quick cast to them with fast sinking crabs.

It was spectacular. The fish were about as easy as they could be on this day, practically biting their own tails in their haste to grab my tan Merkin. I caught some of my best crab fish yet, including on over 28 inches. She wasn't one for the camera though, popping off and gently swimming away as I leadered her. I followed her for two minutes, taking in every detail of that special little fish.

 The fishing was good. The best it has been for me in the salt this spring so far. Some things are just slowing down. Others are about to pop. I'm excited to see what happens next.

To wrap this all up, I'll share the first fish I caught in the morning. It's a new species for me. #77. Oyster toadfish, Opsanus tau. An objectively ugly fish, but when I look really, really closely... I see those striking color patterns, the resemblance to an algea covered rock, the evolutionary perfection... I see beauty.

Most importantly though, I have to thank my mother, for taking time off to spend a beautiful but tiring day on the water with me.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Ambush Predators: Topwater Pike and the Perfect Bowfin

I have a bit of a thing for ambush predator species. There's something about the image of a big predator fish sitting in place in the weeds, fins undulating ever so slightly, eyes scanning it's surroundings for any movement at all, something that makes me shiver with excitement. I've had legitimate panic attacks while approaching and trying to present flies to big ambush predators, had my heart rate increase to a point that gave me a headache, gotten so dizzy I had to sit down. It's the anticipation that kills me, because I know that if I don't blow it I'm going to see something startlingly spectacular. As sedentary and docile as an ambush predator appears as it sits and waits, when prey gets to exactly the right spot it explodes into motion. Leaving no room for error. Inhaling its prey alive. Sending spray to a 10 foot radius. Sometimes leaping completely out of the water. I'm shaking right now just thinking about it. 
It's one of those moments that I live for. 

Yesterday was remarkable. Noah and I went looking for ambush predators and found them. It took time, work, and patience, but nothing worthwhile doesn't. 

I caught some bluegills, Noah caught some bass, we paddled from the cove we started in to an entirely different one, then I found something. I laid a long cast up under a tree handing in the water and two strips in a missile locked onto my popper and went full "kill" mode. It was a pike. Not a big one by any stretch of the imagination. But when a pike of any size hits a topwater lure or fly it does so with evil intent. 

Probably a half an hour later, a pike went ballistic for Noah's buzz toad, going four feet into the air. A subsequent subsurface presentation with the same lure resulted in a solid hookup and another northern boated. 
Photo Courtesy Noah Johnson
With a couple pike caught and a couple others missed or lost, we were already having a damned good day, but we had more on the agenda. We went back to the cove we had started in hoping that the dropping sun would convince the bowfin to come out and hunt it did. I covered a bit of shoreline, standing in my kayak and looking for static or cruising fish. The first one I spotted moved away too quickly for me to get a cast at it. The next one presented a fantastic opportunity. I dropped my clouser ahead of it, made a couple short strips, the fish turned on a dime and inhaled it. I set the hook hard. A short time into the fight I got a good look at the fish and my jaw dropped. 

You see, when I first decided I wanted to catch a bowfin on the fly a couple years ago I had this picture in my head of the perfect one. Size wasn't that important but I wanted it to be big enough to put a serious bend in the 8wt. It would be a very fat, healthy fish. Most strikingly, it had to have bright emerald green fins and a bit of green on the belly, grading into yellow and then the almost olive brown on the back. The eye spot had to be perfect, clear, and highlighted with bright yellow or white. This fish was very nearly their, I mean he was a stud. I got him in the kayak and paddled over to some logs for a quick photo session. The fish was very cooperative. 

After I released the bowfin of my dreams I excitedly got ready to do it all over again, and in the excitement fell off the log ass first into the wonderful grey river mud...  for the rest of the evening I had chalky mud that smelled like death on my arms, shoes, legs, and kayak seat. But it was worth it. 

Before I had even fully gathered myself, Noah got hooked up. It wasn't a bowfin, it was the member of the Esox family that had until that point remained mysteriously absent this day. A very good chain pickerel. 

 I got back into the good piece of shoreline where the bowfin had been hanging around and quickly spotted another one, this one somewhat bigger than the last. I had to get my Clouser literally right on its nose to get it to eat, I mean my fly's tail was tickling that fish's whiskers, but it did take. It took abruptly and violently. I set hard but not hard enough, the hook pulled in seconds. I didn't let it effect my mood, that is bound to happen with these fish. 

We made a full loop of that part of the cove before we saw another bowfin. It was going past me at a fair speed, right towards Noah. He made a short cast that was still way behind the fish and began retrieving to catch up. He told me to say when to drop it. Simultaneously, I said "now" and the bowfin exploded on his toad. 

Spurred on by that fish we continued further down the shoreline to find more. We did, but unfortunately I ran it over with the kayak before I saw it. Time was running out now, the mosquitoes were starting to converge. Noah headed back to the launch, which wasn't far. I wasn't ready yet. I was running out of good weedy shoreline and time when I spotted one. It was static, right until a small pumpkinseed crossed it's nose. It ate it swiftly, leaving a puff of mud behind. When it settled back down I started presenting flies to it. For some reason it just wouldn't take. It moved and resettled twice but wouldn't acknowledge anything. Then, it tucked behind a clump of weeds and I noticed another bigger fish, with it's head sticking out on side of the clump and tail out the other. This one took on the first presentation without hesitation. It then treated me to a spectacular fight, running hard, jumping, and dogging into the weeds. I refused to let it win though, because the first good look at it had proven to me that it was the one, the perfect bowfin, the fish from my daydreams. 

I landed him. He was unbelievable. A big male in full spawning dress. Emerald green is a seemingly unnatural color for a freshwater fish to be, and yet here one was. Fins and stomach greener than any green I had seen on a living creature. It was surreal. 

Fish are amazing. No matter the size, no matter the locale, no matter the method of capture, no matter the edibility. Every species has different challenges. All are fascinating.

And, most importantly, there is not a species on this earth that deserves the designation of "trash".