Monday, August 13, 2018

Champlain on the Fly Redux: Bowfin, Gar, and Drum

The last time I fished Lake Champlain left quite a bit to be desired. I got a bunch of pike and bass, that was fun. But leaving a body of water that had great numbers of a bunch of species I had never caught with just one new shiner species was a tiny bit painful. This time was going to be different This time was going to be the best warmwater fly fishing I'd ever had in the Northeast.

Noah and I left on Saturday morning and were at the South Bay boat launch before noon. South bay would provide us with our best opportunity to target longnose gar, a species I am particularly partial to gar because of their prehistoric nature and gorgeous coloration. They are a much maligned fish. There were times when there were moves to eliminate them completely from ecosystems. Even today people treat gar poorly. I have heard stories from Champlain of bass fisherman breaking their jaws off and releasing them alive. The mere thought makes me sick to my stomach.

We were presented pretty immediately with a problem: The lack of sun. With the sun out gar tend to lay up at the surface where they can be sight fished. Clouds makes this less likely, and even if they do lay up top they are harder to see. I started out fishing a gar fly anyway, though I didn't see any around. A fly for longnose gar typically incorporates some kind of long synthetic fibers. Gar have extremely bony mouthes, longnose gar even more so than the other species. It can be extremely difficult to hook them. But getting fibers tangled in their teeth increases the odds of bringing one to hand. The first taker on my "rope fly" was a largemouth bass, unsurprisingly pale in the chalky water.

Sliding into a cut in the water chestnut mats looking to see what there was, I saw the big head and elongate, undulating dorsal of a bowfin. Then another a bit further in. Without hesitation, I changed to a streamer I tied specifically for bowfin. Slow sinking, muted colors, with a very heavy very sharp hook: a tool of bowfin deception. Bowfin are an aggressive fish, but very often they appear not to want to move more than a couple inches for a fly. I got a bunch of shots at bowfin in that cut, many of them actually spooked, probably six of them took the fly. Hooking bowfin is basically a game of luck. You put the iron to them and hope the hook finds meat, not cartilage. After having two come off almost immediately, both big, I dropped my fly on one's nose, twitched it a little, and set hard when it ate. I've been using my ten weight a lot lately for warmwater fish, and I was very thankful for it on this trip. These bowfin fight hard and they were in very snaggy, weedy areas. I had to fight them hard, close, and fast and the ten was up to the task. I didn't loose one bowfin to the weeds.

I got two beauties before we gave that cut a rest. The first large and pale, the second smaller and colorful. I don't think I've caught a bowfin yet that wasn't a downright violent fighter. These suckers act a lot more angry when hooked than bass or pickerel. Since I almost always am in their eye-line when I get them to take, and I know they see me, I think they realize they shouldn't have eaten that enticing looking fly and it pisses them right off.

After a little while it was clear that despite there still being tons of bowfin there, they had grown  weary, so we gave them a rest and headed over to a bridge where we had seen someone catch a sizable crappie. Both of us had kind of forgotten that this part of the lake was a hot spot for white crappie, a species we both needed. It really didn't take long for Noah to catch a couple trophy sized fish. 

A little while later I caught a smaller one, finally adding Pomoxis annularis to my life list. It was not very big, but it was a white crappie. 

To sweeten things just a little bit more, a few drops later I came up with a small drum. Aplodinotus grunniens, freshwater drum. Life list #82. 

While we were under the bridge the sun came out for a bit and the wind died. And, like magic, the gar came out. Tons of them. Big gar, small gar, rolling gar, slapping gar, laid up gar... we drifted a deep flat with gar visible playing all over it. It took me a bit to find ones that I could effectively sight cast to (the gulpers went down too quick), but when I found a laid up of cruising fish, without fail it ate the fly. The rope flies worked. An SF blend bunker worked. I would have liked to have caught a few more of the takers I had, and I'm going to be experimenting with more materials for gar flies in the future. But my first three beautiful longnose gar made the afternoon one I won't soon forget.

Unfortunately, though Noah was actually getting more takes than me he couldn't catch one. While he kept at it I sneaked off to check on the bowfin again. I was quickly rewarded when I spotted a very large one. I dropped my fly in front of it. That fish took some effort. It was not sure it should eat. But I am very convincing, and I ended up bent double on my biggest bowfin after a solid minute of teasing it. I landed it, but I'm not sure who beat up who. I felt like I got my ass kicked even after I let that fish gently swim off.  

So, I ended day one with my biggest bowfin. What a brute to end an awesome day. Three bowfin, three gar, a couple bass, a white crappie, a freshwater drum.

The next day was going to be a little bit different, but no less productive. So stay tuned. 

Friday, August 10, 2018

Hello Carpness, My Old Friend

Ah yes. I am very satisfied with that title. Cheesiness and all.

If you are one of those that isn't a fan of carp, read on anyway. I have some cool cloudscapes to share. And some fireworks. The natural kind. Also, a bit of something for you fiberglass rods and vintage gear enthusiasts.

You know, the the first legitimately big fish I targeted to any degree on fly tackle were carp. Though I actively targeted big bass, and big trout, in the waters I regularly fish a big bass in five pounds and a big trout is 3 pounds. They get bigger, but if you've caught one that size, it's a big one. And to me those really aren't big fish. Carp get over 20lbs regularly... that's a big fish! I love fishing for them, but not only because they're big. They're also damned smart. Catching them is challenging. I also get some weird pleasure from the fact that any time someone asks me what I'm fishing for and I answer "carp", I get a strange look. That makes me smile and chuckle.

It has been a somewhat strange summer. I haven't targeted carp much, and what little bit I have done has been extremely unproductive. It might even be less productive than last year. Ouch! On Wednesday though I targeted them a little bit. Thunderstorm were on the horizon. They weren't going to impact where I was fishing, but the fish could feel the disturbance in the atmosphere and were chowing down.

The carp weren't just chowing down either, some of them were chowing up! To the left in this image is a surface feeding common. She was a big girl, I figured probably 20lbs. And I was going to catch her. But it was going to take some time.

I watched her for a while, eventually I gave her a name. I believe that when playing the game of whits one on one with a fish you want to catch, humanizing them a tiny bit doesn't hurt. I named her Splotches. She had and interesting splotchy white head and a couple color abnormalities on her body. So the color abnormality made for an easy name and fairly easy identification. Now I had to break down what she was doing, and turn that into a way to catch her.

I didn't think I would be able to deceive her on a dry fly. For the most part I could tell that the surface feeding was on small clumps of algae in which small macroinvertebrates like to live. She was also exhibiting what I believe to be zooplankton feeding, just sucking in and ejecting what looked to be empty water. Lastly, I saw her make definite moves to bottom feed. It was probably what she did least, but it was also what I was going to focus on. Her bottom feeds seemed almost random, like she was just spontaneously deciding to eat one thing off the bottom once or twice every minute or so. There was no timing, no pattern, no direction. So I concluded she was eating things she saw or felt move. Dragonfly nymphs, water beetles, crayfish, tadpoles... anyone who has waded a pond or lake or creek edge really slowly and knows what those things do when a large, moving object nears. They dive into the muck or weeds or debris. So. I wasn't going to give her a dry. I was going to drop the fly I already had on, a big Hare's Ear, fairly delicately a foot away from her and let it drop to the bottom. I was going to chose a moment when Splotches wasn't preoccupied eating something and I had the best angle on her. She gave me plenty of time. I chose my moment. Made the presentation. Splotches saw the fly fall, went from surface to bottom in one of the most decisive moves I have ever seen a big carp make, and ate with zero hesitation.

Now I should mention I was using my 5/6 weight CGR, light tippet, and a vintage Ted Williams reel with no backing on it, just fly line. Fighting a big carp on that tackle might seem like a loosing battle. If you know how to play fish, you can do so not only without loosing the fish, but without exhausting it too death. It has been said to death that anglers don't fight fish with side pressure enough. And yet I still see many not using it. It has been said to death that anglers don't put enough pressure on the fish. And yet they still don't. I don't get it. If I can do it it can't be that hard. With gear that is too soft, too old, too light, I fought and landed a near 20lb carp in less than five minutes.

So, at the literal end of he rainbow I found my first pot of gold in far too long. Pretty cool, that fish. I was pleased with myself. Pleased enough that I only made a few more casts that evening when the sky stole the stage. One of those few casts produced a big crappie, but even while I was landing that fish I kept glancing towards the heavens. 


What goes on in our own atmosphere is, to me, somewhat alien. Weather is so grand, so massive, and seemingly so complicated. Landscapes form, bigger than anything down here. They form like mountains, plateaus, plains, waterfalls, whirlpools... then they disintegrate. Almost like geology, but so fast that everything is much more turbulent. Violent. Earthquakes are destructive. So are volcanic eruptions. But the speed with which a completely clear blue sky can bubble into a supercell thunderstorm that could produce multiple powerful tornadoes then turn back into calmness and clearness again is remarkable. And more so that the same thing could happen in the same state the very next day. It's incredible. Even though we know it's all in the simple behaviors of heat, moisture, pressure, and wind, we struggle to comprehend it. 

On this day the atmosphere boiled and bubbled over Connecticut. The ingredients weren't there for tornadoes. But cumulonimbus clouds blasted miles into the air with speed and velocity so substantial it actually caused moisture in the atmosphere above the towers to condense into cap clouds called pileus. I have seen these many, many times before. But I don't remember the last time I watched a cumulonimbus cloud form and bust through pileus caps like this one did. It was a beautiful show. For frame of reference, the next photo sequence was taken over a span of less than 60 seconds. 

This little storm cell was already producing rain. As it mushroomed out, ice crystals that had formed around bits of dust in it's updraft knocked into each other and produced a charge. Somewhere on the ground near the storm to it's rear flank was an area with the opposite charge. 
A bolt of lightning left the side of the storm's tower and probably burnt the bejesus out of some tree somewhere far enough outside the periphery of the cloud that many would think they were safe from lightning there. It was pretty clear what I was going to be doing for the rest of my time on the lake. 

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Chasing Striped Bass... It's Exhausting.

Some believe that fly fishing is such a relaxing, peaceful sport. Yes, sometimes it can be. But if you were in my shoes, you'd see it differently. Today we're going on a trip to Rhode Island, and I'd like you to take a walk, and a paddle, in my shoes:

It's 9:00 and still impossibly muggy. There is a breeze out of the southwest, but on this side of the point it is coming over the trees and cliffs too far over your head to dry the sweat that just won't stop building up. Clambering over unbelievably slimy rocks is never easy but definitely less so in the dark. You find a spot where barnacles make standing more easy, dump line into the stripping basket, and send a big squid fly just past the break. Two strips in you're tight to a bass. Oh yes, this is going to be a good night.

The night bite was good. Many fish came to hand. But it is time to get some rest. 

It is important to note that three hours of sleep in a van with your fishing partner is not equivalent to three hours of sleep at home, in your own bed. 

You wake up not much less tired than you went to sleep. But you have to be up early. The clock is ticking on this trip. You and your fishing partner both have to work today. You clamber back out onto the ledges. Things are more quiet this morning though. A few fish boil just out of range. 

From up on the cliffs you watch the sunrise. In the distance, a blitz manifests itself. Striped bass boil on rain bait a long way away. They put on a show, and you watch knowing you won't catch those fish right now, but also that you don't need to. 

With the sun coming up and the wind oddly dying, you make the move to look for tunoids out in open water. The paddle out of the inlet is a tiny bit sketchy and you take two waves over the bow. Not enough to need to bail water, but enough to make things annoyingly wet. You head straight out, looking for birds and breaking fish. You find them about a mile offshore, but they aren't bonito. They are stripers, and, oddly, sea robins. 

The fish dictate your moves. The blitzes move out, and you follow them into trawler territory. You cast, move, cast, move, trying to keep up. Takes happen. Hook ups do not. That's frustrating, these are all nice fish. The time of day pulls you away from them. Now you have to paddle a mile back in and shoot up the inlet against the tide. Then put the kayak and SUP on top of the van. Then you have to ride for an hour and go to work in the heat of the day.

Fly fishing isn't what I do to relax. If it were, I doubt I'd be as good at it as I am.