Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Only Brookie In the Lower Upper

I stayed close to home today. I finally got out to fish the local small streams that I've badly wanted to fish for the last month and a half, although the conditions were not especially good. The water was fairly high, not discolored, but high and colder than it had been on Saturday. The air temperatures weren't great. The insect activity was evidence, there had been tons of bug out late last week but today the hatch activity was very minimal. I fished the two brook trout streams closest to my house first, catching nothing in one and just one small fish in the other. 

Then I just kind of wandered off in the direction that felt right. After a bit I realized there was one particular piece of water that was calling my name. Why I do not know, I don't fish there often for the simple reason that I have never seen fish there. It was strange that this short stretch of water that I call the "Lower Upper" was so attractive to me at this time but I went there to figure out why.

I call this place the Lower Upper because it is in the far upper reaches of the stream but is naturally disconnected from the headwaters in such a way that fish from the headwaters can come down, but they won't likely be able to go back up. It has distinctly different structure than the "Upper Upper" and a lot more water. The disconnect is clear enough that I've always felt this stretch of water, though it is well up the watershed, didn't fit in with the rest. It's the lowlands of the uplands, the slow bit after the fast high bit before the low high bit. It's the Lower Upper. And I've ever seen a brook trout there, unlike every other part of the stream.

You never really know what will change in a few years though and it has been a few since the last time I put a cast in the water. And, as is often the case, I had a feeling that this stretch of deep water with very few fish, like many streams, may very well have the biggest fish. I thoroughly fished two runs without any signs of life. Looking up to watch a finch fly past something caught my eye in the slow pool just downstream from me. A rise? Or something falling in the water. There was no sound to suggest something fell in. But the rings were substantial enough to last for nearly a minute, rippling up and down the smooth pool. I changed to a cdc caddis and carefully waded into a position from which I could present the fly where I thought the riser, if that is what it was, would be. I made a dozen casts with no signs of life. Just when I was completely convinced it must have been something falling into the stream after all, a dark hole opened up around my fly. The fish turned down and I lifted the rod. As soon as I saw it roll I knew it was an exceptional brook trout, not only for being the only fish I'd ever seen in this stretch of stream in 7 years but for being an enormous and ancient fish. After a battle in which my rod maneuvering skills were put to the test in every way this fish new how, I held probably what is without a doubt one of the most spectacular brook trout I've caught. He was big, especially big for this area. As I watched it swim away it's size contrasted the environment it had grown in. It looked too big. 

Maybe I won't fish there again for a while. I'm not sure it'll be calling my name again anytime soon. It called, I came, I caught one fish, I left surprised. I caught the only brookie in the Lower Upper.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Juvenile Salmon, The Last Stand

After Hurricane Sandy the multi state federal Connecticut River Atlantic salmon restoration program ended. It was the unfortunate point of most certainty that salmon would indeed never be coming back to sustainable numbers.

There has been a lot of misunderstanding about this program, why it ended, what the state of CT has done since, and why Atlantic salmon won't be coming back any time soon. There is an awful lot of ignorance about fisheries in the general public and even in the fishing community, as was evidenced by the brief excitement in 2014 when salmon redds were documented in the Farmington. A lot of people that knew I fished brought it up to me ."Did you hear about this? Maybe they're coming back after all!" Meanwhile, fisheries biologists and those who had a decent understanding of what the situation looked at the same information and just shrugged. It was interesting, but it was not a good sign. Some of the last salmon from the huge federal stockings returned that year, and because the hatcheries had already been closed, these salmon were allowed to proceed up river through the fish ladder at Rainbow Dam. Every year during the duration of the program fish were trapped in the fish way, trucked to a hatchery, and spawned under controlled conditions, thus skipping much of the mortality that would occur with the adults in the river during the summer, during spawning, and in the first weeks of the juvenile salmon's life. The offspring of these fish would then be stocked into the appointed rivers. So salmon spawning in CT was not a good sign of things to come, but a symptom of their eventual death.

CT is the last state doing anything at all with Connecticut River Salmon, and it isn't a restoration program. It is what's being called a "Legacy Program". Basically, we are trying to maintain a little bit of the genetic stock while producing some limited fry and surplus broodstock for stocking. It won't result in a viable population, but it is something. Almost certainly a hopeless something, but even a hopeless something is better than nothing.

Last week I helped a crew volunteers and seasonal employees lead by CT DEEP Fisheries biologist Bruce Williams stock unfed salmon fry in two Connecticut River tributaries. The odds that even one or two of the fish we released comes back in 4 years is are nearly zero, but what we were doing was not without its benefits. These little fry will a fraction of the biomass that is missing from these streams without the natural presence of salmon reproduction. These little fish will act as a food source for numerous organisms between here and the North Atlantic, from wild brook trout and striped bass to macroinvertabrates and microbes to birds and mammals. It isn't much but it's something. It is nearly impossible for humans to replace what we have destroyed, but trying is a lot better than mindlessly going about the destruction and pretending we aren't doing anything wrong. So I carried my bucket of tiny fish for a mile, distributing them in the best possible habitat and keeping them as happy and healthy as possible, all the while knowing that if this needed entirely to be about getting wild salmon back it would be an exercise in futility but as a way of making this habitat just a little bit more natural, it was a service to the stream.

The result. 
If you really want to help Atlantic salmon, which are at some level of risk everywhere the exist, there are a few things you can do.

The first is to stop eating them. Farmed, wild, it doesn't matter. There is no sustainable way to maintain Atlantic salmon as a commercial food product at this time.

Another way is to help raise awareness. If you yourself are not informed well enough, you can still help those who are get their message out. A friend of mine, Brandon, has written a children's book about Atlantic salmon with illustrations by a student of his. He wants to be able to publish at least 200 hard copies. Please consider donating here: www.gofundme.com
Not only will the book itself inform children on Atlantic salmon, but a portion of the proceeds will go towards salmon conservation. 

These are spectacular fish. The hope may be gone for the Connecticut River, but we shouldn't let them disappear from the rest of their range. 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Trout Opener 2018

Once again, Dad and I did opening day right. Away from the crowds, away from the stocking trucks, small and medium sized water, mostly wild fish. It was gorgeous day out there today, So nice I was actually comfortable wet wading for short periods of time. We fished different streams with wildly different temperatures from 47 to 57. The smallest stream of the three was my favorite, because despite having been told about it by Alan and a few other small stream addicts, it managed to exceed my expectations. It is tiny, very tiny, but the number of wild brookies I saw in there was amazing. I can't wait to fish all of this water again.

Look at those red spots... what a gem!

Another native, the fallfish, caught on a mouse. one of three or four.
 Some anglers are content to spend opening day in a crowd. I've never been comfortable in crowds, and my father and I have shared quite a few fishing trips that took us to places where others didn't venture. Today we didn't go quite so far into the sticks to avoid signs of humanity, but it was secluded enough. However you all spent your opening days I hope you had a good time and did everything withing the law and morality. This week I'm sure I'll be spending some time picking up trash after the crowds, and I'd appreciate some help, I can't clean up ever stream as much as I wish I could!

Friday, April 13, 2018

Convergence 18': White Eyed Whale

After seeing both a walleye and a huge rainbow on Wednesday, I just had to go back to the tidal river yesterday to see what I could catch other than suckers. Not that the suckers got boring after just half a dozen, but the two other species are far less frequent in that water and catching the odd fish out is always more exciting to me than catching just a few of the same.

It was cloudy. Much, much better conditions for catching both trout and walleye during the day. What exactly my odds were I did not know, fish can and do come and go from this water in a matter of hours. Intercepting migrations is not always cut and dry.

Well, I won't tip toe around things... I got really stupidly lucky. The same school of suckers I had worked the day before that had the big rainbow in it no longer had that fish as the weird renegade, but I could see something in the mix, significantly bigger than all the suckers. I stared at it for 10 minutes trying to figure out what it was. My instincts told me striper. No herring were in the river yet but an early striper is never out of the question this time of year. Then, two suckers readjusted their positions and I got a clear look at the tip of the fishes tail. It was white. This was a walleye. And a good one. I knew I had disturbed the school on my approach because a small rock slid down the bank and plopped in the water, so I quietly left to hunt for the monster rainbow in the meantime.

When I came back an hour later I took no chances. I knew the school would probably still on edge so I couldn't just walk up to them. It took me 25 minutes to get from the top of the trail down the bank and into casting position. Once I was there I changed flies, re-tied twice, and added a splitshot in front of my fly, all the while only moving my forearms and head. I knew the fish would react poorly to the fly plunking loudly in the water, all it would take was one over anxious sucker to flinch and the whole school would spook. So I performed swing casts. Not exactly dapping, casts that kept the fly low and allowed me to actually slow its descent to the surface of the water. It took me a while to get the fly to drift the way I wanted it to, and I was being very, very picky. Remember, this fish was in a thick school of suckers plastered on the bottom. There were times when the walleye's head was actually underneath one or two suckers. I knew the fly had to be right in the fish's face to elicit any kind of response. I also new that in all probability the response would be a refusal. But I had to try, and when the fish I'm looking at is something like this one you can bet my attempt is not going to be half hearted.

I made one move that by all mean could very well have been what ended the game. I let the fly fall too deep well behind the walleye and it caught gently on a sucker's tail. I sat there just lightly shaking my rod tip and cringing. I knew that if I snagged that sucker it was game over. Eventually the fish was bothered enough by the extra weight on its tail that it shook it off. That lead to an unexpected chain reaction of suckers readjusting their positions that gave me a clear path to drift my streamer right in front of the targeted fish. I knew this was my chance and I began to shake. By now I knew where I had to cast to get the fly to fall into the right place to swing it by the fish. I did it right, somehow.

Thump thump.

The fly did what I needed it to do, falling into the clear line formed by the parting suckers.

Thump thump.

I gave it a light pull to lift it off the bottom, landing it again a foot ahead of the walleye.

Thump thump.

I lifted, making the last action I would make that would either spook the big fish or convince it to eat.

Thump thump.

The walleye turned hard towards me, ahead of the fly, making a move that appeared to be a refusal, then it swung back agressively, opened its mouth, pinned the fly against the bottom, and exhaled sand out of its gills.

This is where an EKG would have shown me to be flat-lining. Even though I was clinically dead, I still managed to set the hook.

I've never had a walleye run as far as this one did. Granted, I'd also never hooked a walleye in moderate current with a 5wt fiberglass rod before either. When my heart started working again I gave chase, which turned out to be unnecessary as the fish turned and charge upstream past me. Every time it shook it's head gave me chills, I could see that it was skin hooked. Every now and then I get lucky, and this time... I got lucky.

Some fisherman may not fully comprehend why I've gone crazy over what really isn't that big a walleye in the grand scheme of things. Well, it's pretty simple really.
I'm enamored with targeting these fish with a fly rod. I caught them incidentally on spinning gear, and enjoyed it, but I never exactly fell in love with them. I have since then. There's something fascinating to me about fly fishing for walleye. I live in a place that just isn't that good for walleye fishing in general. It's OK, but I wouldn't even put CT in a list of states to go to catch your first walleye on the fly or on spinning tackle. The body of water where I caught this fish, well, it isn't even a walleye fishery, just a place that happens to have a scattered number of them. If there are any other people at all targeting walleye here, it is a number in the single digits. Targeting sea run browns may actually be a more productive proposition.

And here I was, holding the biggest walleye I had ever caught, having just sight cast to it in a small channel of a not much larger freestone tidal river, watching it quickly regain energy as water welled up and roiled the surface from its gills workings. She let me know she was ready and I let go, watching her swim off strong. I could still see here against the sand 70 feet away and she sped up and left the channel entirely, undoubtedly thinking to herself how dumb it was to have holed up in that shallow channel.

That take, that sudden change of mind that the fish made right as the fly got to it, that amazing beautiful thing that happened in full view of me in just 5 feet of crystal clear water among a huge school of suckers. I will never, ever forget that. I'm not sure I'll ever see a walleye eat a fly again, almost certainly not in that detail. That's what fishing is all about for me. Every now and then I get to experience something that gives me a feeling of awe that is impossible to describe with words.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Convergence '18, Bottom Feeder Edition 1

The water is warming. Buds are beginning to change from red to green. Birds and frogs are singing. Turtles are basking on the floating logs. Spring has sprung in CT. This is a magical time of year to be a fisherman. One of the most exciting parts of spring fly fishing is the migratory species. Water that was completely devoid of fish just weeks go is suddenly teaming with life. Fish come in from lakes, coves, deeper river channels, and from the ocean, converging on small freestone rivers and streams where they will spawn and feed. Migrations have captivated me since I was a little kid. Biomass in motion. It's incredibly exciting stuff.

And right now there's a lot of biomass entering the river that I will be frequenting for the next two months. The species of highest concentration right now is one that many don't give a second thought. But I, never one to turn done any fish species, I love them. White suckers are making their way into the river in huge schools right now. There are limited time periods during which these fish make themselves viable targets for fly fisherman and this migration time is perhaps the best. During the day they find safe water to hold up in and await darkness to continue their upstream journey. They feed recklessly. And getting them to suck a fly off the bottom is a challenge I very much enjoy.

Around the schools of whit sucker were a handful of other migratory fish. Below, a walleye, resting and waiting for nightfall. This is they time of year when walleye spawn in river mouths. They are exceptionally uncommon in this location, so I was quite surprised and excited to see it. Though I didn't get a chance to photograph it I also spotted one of the biggest rainbow trout I've ever seen.

I used three splitshot to get the fly down quickly and just roll along the bottom at a much slower pace than the current. Takes were subtle. The fights were not. These fish make catching largemouth bass feel like dragging a wet sock in.

Most look at a suckers strange rubbery mouth and oddly shaped head and call it ugly. I look at a sucker and see it's big, fan like dorsal fin, redfish-like scales, and broad tail and I call it beautiful. Evolution gave them a face made for sucking algae off the rocks and eggs out of the sand. Who are we to call them ugly for it?

I hooked about a dozen of these sizable white sucker and landed half of them. Hopefully overnight they will continue their upstream push today the weather isn't as good for sight fishing, but the cloud cover will give the fish more reason to feed. So I'll be out there again, hoping to intercept one or two of the species converging on this piece of water. It's going to be an interesting couple of months. I hope you all enjoy coming along for the ride.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

2 Days

I really don't hold opening day of trout season to much of a high regard. Really, I look down on much that it represents with a bit of disdain, because it exemplifies most of what I hate about trout management in the Northeast. But for many it holds good memories, time with family and friends, maybe some of their earliest days on the water, and I respect that immensely.

For me, the biggest reason to celebrate opening day... I can finally trout fish wherever I damn well please again! It's been a long month and a half, and the little brook trout streams down the road and most importantly, my home river, are calling my name! This cold weather pattern has pushed back the blue quill (Paraleps) hatch here, which means I get to fish it on my home stream instead of travelling to TMA's where the hatch isn't as good and the surroundings not as familiar. It'll feel nice to be able to walk down the street again and catch a few small native brook trout on dry flies. Spring, you've hidden from me long enough! I see you now!

My dad and I will be on the water Saturday, rest assured it will be someplace far from the crowds where wild trout reign supreme.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Where is Everybody?

This basically sums up the first two places Noah and I fished yesterday. 

where is everybody twilight zone gif

Where there had been huge schools of fish just days before there were none. A cove with brush filled with perch eggs and fish eating birds seemed to be a ghost town underwater. Where the hell did all the fish go? 

The thing with large river systems is that fish can just leave an area altogether. Pack up and take a hike. A place that was teaming with life yesterday may have so few fish today you can't even get a shiner in a cast net.  

The thing is with small ponds...
They can't do that. So off to some small ponds Noah and I went, where we caught pint sized versions of a few species. Happily one carp took pity on me and slurped down my dry fly, so despite it being a very small carp I still got a good fight in from what was really a day of fish in miniature.