Monday, September 24, 2018

With a Little Help From my Carps

I'll take a morale boost any day. I know when a carp is a gimme. I know when it doesn't really require much technical skill. Sometimes recognizing these fish is a skill. But truth is in 40 years I won't be talking about the carp that ate and came to hand with no headache, no complex presentation, no hiccups during the fight....

After last week, I'll take whatever help the carp are willing to give me. So, when one presented itself in an almost too easy position I took the shot with pleasure. Simple drag and drop, immediate take, easy hook set, run of the mill fight, beautiful healthy carp on the bank.

What's the best practice though, for someone who legitimately needs it? The hardest fish in the lake. The one under than overhanging bush. The one in clear water, eyes practically above the surface. The one that has been caught before. I was very proud of my ability to deconstruct a feeding carp's behavior for some a long time, even ones that I couldn't directly see. How did I lose that skill? I didn't see as many feeding carp for a year and a half. The only way to get all that back is hard, frustrating, time consuming effort.

Is it worth it? Hell yes.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Rivers and Trout Big and Small

I like to go out and hone my skills before any big trip, especially with trout. This is particularly paramount before my upcoming trip because it was best for us (my dad and I) to ship our gear to our destination before hand. For the first time in my life I'm going to be flying to get to my destination. Montana. Oh yeah. This one has been a long time coming.

Anyway, I wanted to get a little bit of practice in before going to the mountain west. On Thursday I fished my home river. This time of year is odd there. The fishing is probably the toughest it can be here, excepting winter ice lock and drought conditions. The water can be flowing very well and at the perfect temperature, I still struggle to locate good numbers and good sizes of wild browns. Often though this is when the less common brookies come out of the woodwork. That didn't happen this time. Salmon parr and small browns provided some practice with attractor dries and small streamers.

This morning I joined Mike Carl on a morning trip to the Farmington. We had chosen a time frame after some rain passed over a less convenient nocturnal time window before the rain. In retrospect, we almost certainly missed an excellent bite before the frontal passage. We got on the river well before sunrise and both fished different methods that should have produced. They didn't, almost certainly because the bite window had come and gone well before we got there. It wasn't until the sky started to brighten that I moved the first fish, on a fly I tied with a combination of traits from Joe Cermele's Master Splinter and Jackie Treehorn's Dirty Rat. I dub the, the Marabou Mouse. The fish I moved probably wasn't big, because I heard but didn't feel the take. A large taker is often the opposite: felt but not heard. 

I then bounced between fishing a Sparkle Minnow and a pair of nymphs, with no interest on either. Eventually I threw on a more neutrally buoyant articulated fly. On the first cast it got slammed pretty much at the rod tip. On the fifth cast I hooked and landed a handsome young wild brown. Then, back where we started, I got the best streamer take I've had in the Farmington in a long time. Lots of the trout there are, well, sissies. They grab and nip rather than slam. This guy slammed. He was a big fat survivor strain fish. No elastomer, just a clipped adipose. 

So I had one really solid fish on the morning, certainly no 20 incher but nice fat brown. Mike decided to show me some new water. I am never one to refuse to fish a new place, I was into the idea immediately. I already new the section we were going to had big fish potential, though undoubtedly it would hold fewer trout than many parts of the river. You know what? Those are the pieces I like most. I tend to believe that the biggest trout live where there aren't as many trout. And in time, this stretch would prove to be some place I have to fish again. 

I got a solid off hits right away, mostly I think mid sized rainbows. Eventually I got one pinned and landed it, a crisp and clean holdover. 

There seemed to be a pod of fish hanging around right where we started. I caught that bow, hooked and lost one other, and got two smallmouth there. I also missed an exceptionally large smallie and lost a questionable fish. The take and late hookset felt like I may have fouled the fish. The brief fight also indicated that either it was excessively big, or snagged. I'll never know for sure, but I'm sticking with snagged fish because that's the type I'd rather have had come off. 

Working upstream though I had a take for which there was no question: it was excessively big. It was a little unexpected. I was twitching my streamer in front of a partially submerged log that was being bonced up and down by the force of the current. I thought it would be odd for a trout to tolerate lying close something moving constantly and making noise, but a large, very thick, kyped up buck rose up and shadowed the fly for five feet up and across stream in heavy current, tip of his snout just glued to the tail of that streamer. Do you know how many times a legitimately large wild brown like this actually eat the big streamer after a follow of this kind? In my experience it is very uncommon. This one broke the rule and slammed the fly hard. I set as well as I could, and was treated to four of five seconds of violent thrashing, the big trout sending spray high into the air, before the line went slack. My heart sank. I had to take a short. There wasn't really much I could do in that scenario. But as anyone that plays the game of big trout on large streamers knows, missing and loosing fish is to be expected and, if you know it couldn't be avoided, not to be sweated. I continued working the waters with even more focus and intent than I had before because I now didn't just have a hunch, I was certain there were big fish here and that my method was the right one. 

Time and energy were not on our side though. I got one smaller brown in a pool tailout before succumbing to my lack of sleep. It is rare that I am the one to reel up first, today I did so. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Carp of Darkness

How many times can you mess up before you start to get really frustrated? I'm pretty patient, but I have a limit. I haven't broken gear over lost fish but I have gotten pretty upset over a few particularly exceptional missed or blown opportunities. If seems petty to get worked up over fish missed or lost, well, you probably aren't as engrossed in this sport as some of us.

Carp have been giving me the slip lately, big time. It's not them either, it's me. It's usually blamable on their neurotic behavior. Not this time. And today I got all pissed off.

Last night presented great conditions. It was the calm after the storm, the remnants of Florence had passed through with a little tiny bit of wind and a fair amount of rain and thunderstorms. Things were primed for a good backwater bite. I got to my spot, saw a bubbler, made a less then optimal cast in its vicinity, and was taken aback when the fish actually ate. It's important to note that I had left home with the rod already rigged. I had no clue what shape my tippet was in from the last time I had used it, but I was happy with the fly that was already on there so I wasted no time and just took it off the hook keeper and made the cast at that fish.


Do not follow my lead! That fish broke me off with minimal pressure and I was left standing on the bank cursing my own stupidity. I went over to the other side of the bridge and found a big tailing fish, a perfect target. My first presentation was much too far ahead of her. I overcompensated for the next one and lined her, spooking her hard. a little further up the creek another fish was working. I tried to be more careful this time, worked out what I thought would be a good angle. I didn't give it enough time and cast over the fish's back, something I know not to do. When the fish tailed up I though it had eaten and set the hook. Two chaotic seconds later I was standing there staring at a big golden scale on my hook point, a clear sign that the fish was foul hooked and hadn't actually eaten. Strike three. I was out. Realistically I should have gotten all three of those fish, they were practically begging to be caught. 

I hoped to redeem my game this morning. Given how beautiful it was out last night I expected near perfect conditions. When I stepped outside just before sunrise I discovered the I uttered an unfortunate question: "what the ____ happened?"
There was a persistent northerly wind. My options were going to be very, very limited. When I got to the first of two places I'd have a realistic shot in, I found a big girl feeding with most of her back out of the water. I was pretty gun shy from the previous night's calamities, and that was my downfall with this prime target. I didn't want to line her like I did the two fish before, so I erred too far outside her dinner plate. I snagged up on a branch after 10 casts that were really sheepish, stand offish, and lame. The fish spooked and I didn't get another shot there or anywhere else.
I used to be really good at this. Not to toot my own horn, but up until last summer I think I could go head to head with some of the best fly carpers out there and at least come up even.What happened? I lost the touch. I stopped exercising the muscle.  I haven't fished for the like I used to, and I'm the worse for it. Am I being hard on myself? I don't think so. I know a catch-able carp when I see it, and I know 2016 Rowan would have just torn it up last night and caught three, maybe four big carp. Fall 2018 Rowan just isn't as good at this anymore and needs some practice. 

So you know to expect some more funny titles soon. I've got a bunch of music and literature carp puns running through my head that need to be seen. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Night Fisherman

They say the biggest fish feed nocturnally. Giant brown trout. Hawg largemouth. Cow stripers. Many fisherman night fish because of the notion that it is the time of big fish. And, sometimes, it is.

But there comes a time when most realize that night fishing is about getting lost and fading into the scene.

Maybe I night fish because I sometimes wish nobody could see me.

There's nothing wrong with being a ghost.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Two Days, Three New Species

For life list anglers there is no such thing as "trash fish", no such thing as "too small", and no fish species isn't worth the effort to catch. I'm not the average life lister: to get on my list a species has to be on the fly. No live or dead bait. Most would think that small fish are the easiest fish to catch. Well, they aren't. Especially not on artificial flies. Though many "micros" are quite common, it sometimes takes many attempts to catch one. For me, striped killifish and sheepshead minnows fall into that category. I'd targeted them numerous times and failed to catch them because other species got in the way, they were to skittish, or they simply never got the fly well enough for a proper hookup. Over this weekend I would successfully get both, and one other new species.

On Friday I got a bit of time in fishing the margins of an estuary which, like any healthy estuary, was just teaming with life. My confidence was high that I'd get a new species or two. I started out fishing my typical rig for small species: a size 22 midge tipped with a bit of soft plastic on the bend and one small shot just ahead of the fly on 5x tippet. Initially, I caught a bunch of two familiar species: mummichogs and banded killifsih.


Then I got what I was looking for. Lifelist fish #88, striped killifish. I kept targeting them, hoping to get both a male and female example to photograph (male and female striper killies have drastically different patterns) but all I could get were males.

I was also plagued by Atlantic silversides. I examined each one though, hoping to see the slight variation that determined I had caught an inland silverside. I never did. I also got a couple tiny scup that did not want to be photographed.

Walking through the marsh I examined each mosquito ditches. You never know what you'll find in one of those. Today it was needlefish. Eventually I found a ton of them stacked at the mouth of one larger mosquito ditch. Catching one turned out to be a frustrating cast, which was predictable. Like gar these little guys have very bony jaws, getting a hook to penetrate is very difficult. Eventually I found a winning method: a midge trailed just inches behind a green weenie. The needlefish attacked the green weenie and, when I was lucky, got hooked by the midge. I caught a bunch. Lifer #89, Atlantic needlefish.

banded killifish
 The next day Noah and I visited the same water to get him these species. I also wanted to give sheepshead minnows a better shot. We both fished much the same manner, with small, plastic tipped midge flies, and caught a bunch of killifish. I finally got some female striped killies,. Interestingly there seemed to be as many of them as males this time. I wonder why their representation was so poor on the same tide the day before? There may not be a real answer to that.
female striped killifish

textbook mummichog

Noah's lifer striped killie. A very distinctly patterned female.
 Then I hit paydirt. A fat little marble of a fish took the midge and I somehow hooked it. My sheepshead minnow! Life list fish #90. Hitting another benchmark. I am now almost certainly going to break 100 by the end of this year.

We then went to get Noah his needlefish. It took a while, and in the process I caught a bunch more for myself. They are fun little fish with big personalities. I don't think I'd specifically go out of my way to target them again, not this species (there are a bunch more needlefish species out there), but they are hilarious little fish.

After Noah got a couple Atlantic needlefish we went back to targeting real micros again hoping he could get his own sheepshead minnow. It didn't work: I caught the only other one!

As the sun started to sink I knew there was a fair chanc we'd have a good window for getting some bass. We did find some, though not where I'd hoped and not as big as I'd hoped. There were schoolie fish ranging throughout the river. We both got a few, none particularly large but all very healthy fish. As we were paddling back to the take out we spooked a bunch on the mud flats. What they were feeding on there is anyone's guess. I only got one, on a hollow fly dragging behind the kayak. They might have been on crabs. The fact that it was dark negated effective sight fishing entirely. I don't think any were very big so it wasn't much of a loss.

Very near the take out I took the time to examine a rocky area with my flashlight. Aside from millions of grass shrimp, their eyes glowing orange, there were a couple odd fish around. Two were something I cannot identify. They were somewhat sculpin-like but to the best of my knowledge don't match any specie of sculpin in Long Island Sound. I may never know, there were only two on one specific rock. I did catch one little oddball there, a tiny oyster toadfish!

The life lister has to put a lot of effort into persuing their query. You have to be a polymaths. A jack of all trades. I can't just do what every angler knows and expect to catch every species on earth. Micro fishing may seem dull, unglamorous, and much of the time it is. But if you really care about fish you don't need to have one scream drag or get into the backing. That's thrilling, and I'll never bore of it. But I think those that get a thrill out of biology can probably get the most out of fishing: They see the big picture of these little things. Some of you may look above and see photos of fish you don't care about because they are all so small. But some will see works of art. The oyster toad, with its amazing camouflage; the needlefish, with its sleek build and mouth, perfect or eating tiny baitfish; the sheepshead minnows' and killies' abilities to sift sift through bottom materials for food. These fish are the products of millions of years of evolution. Though they don't excite me as gamefish like a sailfish or tuna would, they are no less fascinating or beautiful as parts of the natural world. And that's I won't rest until I've caught every species that I possibly can. 

If you enjoy what I'm doing here, please share and comment. It is increasingly difficult to maintain this blog under dwindling readership. What best keeps me going so is knowing that I am engaging people and getting them interested in different aspects of fly fishing, the natural world, and art. Follow, like on Facebook, share wherever, comment wherever. Every little bit is appreciated! 
Thanks for joining the adventure, and tight lines. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Electric Wednesday: Big Striped Bass and Lightning

Mark Phillipe occasional regales me with the tale of "Electric Tuesday", a day where he got stuck out on the water with a serious electrical storm bearing down on him and the bass biting like crazy. Yesterday Mark Alpert and I had our own crazy day. Electric Wednesday. The striped bass were seemingly willing to bite all day, and the weather, well, electrified anything tall in the boat. It's a day I don't think either of us will soon forget.

Patchy fog was forecast for a short period in the morning. We were intending to make a run a few miles to a spot we would use the teasing method for some big bass. We couldn't see the landmarks we needed to see to safely navigate out to the spot though. I'm sure we could have gotten there just fine, but fog is not something to be toyed with. You don't know how long it will last, if it will get worse, or what other worse weather is hiding behind its blank gray mask. So we were reluctant to leave sight of land and never did. That was a good thing, there were periods of time in which the visibility was less than a 300ft.

There are days when this would have killed our chances at good fishing. But we got really lucky. We didn't go far at all before we found fish, and they weren't just little schoolie fish. Bass started to blow up just beyond were we started fishing, so we slid over to them quickly to get our shot. The first cast I made, with a white Game Changer, got followed in by a big bass. She shadowed the fly right up to the boat but never took. It was an encounter that lasted an especially long time, at least it felt like it did. I think it's one of the most thrilling things in fly fishing, to have a big striped bass follow the fly right to the boat, nose just glued to its tail the whole way. So, there were big fish here and we wouldn't need to do any teasing. That's preferable, honestly. I'm more confident in getting more than one big bass with two flies in the water rather than just one fly and a hookless plug, but they have to be really worked up for it to pan out and these fish seemed to be. Mark and I doubled up not much later on good fish and got them to the boat, but they weren't what we were looking for. By this time the fish had stopped blitzing where we were, but before we got a chance to move far off the spot A fish started busting next to it. We both cast to it. Mark missed a take, then I got absolutely slammed. I stripped hard, then did a couple quick sets with the rod. "Big fish Mark! Big, big fish!" After initially dogging next to us and giving me a real scare as the line slipped in my hands and I was stuck with a few feet of slack, she charged towards the shoreline with authority. I was afraid she was going to get into the rocks and break off, a very common big bass tactic, so I didn't give her much leeway. Eventually the fish turned out towards open water and I knew it was going to go my way. When Mark lipped her I breathed a sigh of relief. We made a trade: I grabbed the fish, he took the camera.

This wasn't "the fish". That one I'm still looking for. By weight she was probably my biggest striper, but at least 2 inches short of my longest bass (38 inches). My goal for the last two years has been 25lbs or better on the fly. This gorgeous fish was probably 10 bunker short. If nobody kills her, the thought of which makes me feel sick to my stomach, she'll grow big enough to surpass my really big fish threshold by next spring. 

After a short revival this beautiful animal dove back down into the depths, leaving me with a feeling of immense gratitude. I fished a whole season for her. The last time I touched a good striper was mid May. This fish have gotten far fewer and farther between. This fishery really is in trouble folks. Things can't keep going the way they are. We need to speak up, or we'll lose them. And I'm not sure I could live without wild striped bass.

The good fishing continued. Mark and I put a bunch more stripers in the boat, and not one of them was under 20 inches.

 Mark and I both had our issues today. Hookup percentages for both of us weren't great. I'm very happy to report though that I didn't miss even one of the fish that I really wanted to get. There were no losses or misses that will come up in my dreams from this day. After two years of nearly every time I find big stripers resulting in heart breaking misses and losses (yeah, that's a very sobering thought) this day was a standout. I missed a bunch of fish, but I can't say I'd trade any of them for the ones I caught.

Eventually, with the tide coming up, the fish stopped surface feeding. I think the bait had gone, but since it was still dark and foggy the fish didn't all leave the spot as they often would on a sunny or partly sunny day. They were still there, and when we picked the spots apart we could find little pockets of them. It was nearly always in the most treacherous points in the drift: virtually every hookup happened right at the point where we had seconds left before we had to start up and re-position.

We kind of left them feeding too. That's not something either of us like to do, but towards the end we heard thunder rumble a couple times. It was still very eerily foggy, we couldn't see the cloud structure to know where the storm was. So we waited it out. Then, as we set up a new drift, I noticed a bizarre high pitched fizzing sound. Initially, I thought nothing of it. But then I noticed when I lifted my rod higher in the air that this fizzing, buzzing noise, like TV or radio static but higher pitched, changed pitch and volume. And in an instant I set the rod down. I new exactly what this was. The only other time it had ever happened, I ducked down and balled up just in time to watch a tree on the end of the dam I was fishing from literally get blown to bits. We were in a dangerous spot here. Lightning was going to strike somewhere, and we didn't want to be the target. We got the boat on the trailer, chatted with a few fisherman at the launch, and got on the road just in time for all hell to break loose.

I fish nearly 300 days a year. In that many days there may only be a dozen or so that really stand out, whole outings that I can look back to and remember every bit of, because they were exceptional. This day was one of those days.