Friday, May 24, 2019

Convergence '19: Raining on my Dreams

The warm glow of streetlights and porch lights, carved up by tree limbs, illuminates the surface of the river. In the reflections, the erratic moves of river herring just below the surface are revealed. Wakes, ripples, rolls, and splashes. The constant trill of american toads is periodically interrupted by the "who cooks for you" of a barred owl in a hemlock. Water drips from my soaked and wrinkled pointer finger as the moisture clinging to my fly line collects on it with each slow, deliberate strip. That finger registers the faint tick of a herring broadsiding the fly. Then both my rod hand and stripping hand register a massive jolt. I point the rod straight, grab the line tightly, and pull back hard with both. Then again. Then again. 50 feet out in the river, a massive striped bass makes its anger known by thrashing violently, sending spray ten feet or more in the air, then rights itself under the water and shakes it's head, sweeping it back and forth furiously and deliberately. My ten weight rod bucks two feet with each shake. Oh yes. This is the one.

And then I wake up.

Even though it's less than 60 degrees in my room, my shirt is soaked with sweat. I sit up and have to focus to catch my breath. My heartbeat gradually goes back to a normal, healthy pace. I grasp for my phone. 1:30 a.m. 
May as well tie a couple flies.

That was the first week of March. It was still cold. The rivers hadn't really started to wake up yet, but obviously I had. I had been waiting all winter. All through late fall, actually too, because it was an awful weather fall. I now live for two times of year: spring and fall. Everything between is just filler. And the spring... I really do get more excited for it than fall. Coming out of the relatively dull fishing of winter, spring's chaos is exactly what I need. Anadromous species make their upriver runs to spawn, joined by the juveniles of the catadromous American eels and freshwater species that also make upriver runs. On their heels are large predator fish, and already waiting for them are birds of prey and a variety of mammals. When they all converge , be it in small coastal creeks, big rivers, or inland tributaries, it is one of life's most remarkable displays. And between The last week of March and the middle of June, there is nothing I'd rather do than traipse all over the state of Connecticut trying to intercept these convergences as many times as possible. It's exhausting. It can be very frustrating. But it has also given me some of the best experiences of my life. I prepare for the spring runs as soon as the last fall run stripers leave in December. Shad flies, sucker spawn patterns, glass eels, giant herring imitations, and more get tied. Leaders get pre-tied and tapered. Gear is gone over once, twice, three times. Rods must be clean and ready, not a speck of dust anywhere, no crack or blemish unnoticed. Reels are unspooled, lines cleaned, and respooled with no kinks or overlaps or poorly tied backing connections. Everything needs to be ready, because there's no time to lose. And when I'm not preparing, I'm thinking about the spring run. Or dreaming about the spring run. But no amount of planning, thinking, or dreaming could actually guarantee I have a good run. And from the start, this spring seemed it wouldn't turn out the way I wanted it to. 

The sucker run began quietly at the end of March. I found fish in a few places, but was hampered by the trout season closure. And when I did find suckers in open water they were entirely uninterested in taking my flies. 

By the time trout season opened, most rivers were so high that sight fishing became an impossibility. The sucker run came in went without me catching a single one. Before it was over, the alewives came. The same problems that prevented me from catching a sucker stopped me from catching holdover stripers moving on the early herring. Heavy runoff plagued the big rivers for weeks. Places I would stand with water just above my ankles were got as deep as eight feet. Mediocre runs plagued a lot of the smaller rivers not as severely effected by the runoff, and those places that had good runs were those I couldn't realistically make it to with any sort of consistency. I had one big bass blow up on a herring right under my rod tip in April, and that's the closest I came to anything for the whole month. Friends of mine caught early arriving schoolies in the marshes. I wouldn't get to some of my April hot spots from previous years at all that month. It sucked. It really did. And it just would not stop raining. My dream seemed farther away than ever. It seemed to me like this would be the spring run that wasn't. Thankfully, big walleye and crappie kept me moderately sane. 

Then came May. 

To be continued.... 

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. Also, consider supporting me on Patreon (link at the top of the bar to the right of your screen, on web version). Every little bit is appreciated! Thank you to my Patrons; Erin, David, john, and Christopher, for supporting this blog.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Micros at Night

It didn't take me much time seeking new species to realize that I could find a broad variety of fish at night simply by walking the shallows with a bright light, seeing whatever was there to see. And after I started doing that, I discovered that a certain number of species remain willing to eat while being lit up by a bright light. Why? I don't know. But micro fish especially seem to have a pretty relaxed attitude about being spot-lighted. And, honestly, there's no other way to catch them at night. Micros, bottom feeders, and other species that require sight fishing methods to capture at night using artificial flies at night, I will spotlight. For everything else, it feels dirty to me. And doesn't really work either.
But I digress....
I've spent an immense amount of time walking around in the shallows of lakes, ponds, rivers, small streams, and estuaries at night with a light on. And as things have warmed up this spring I've started to do so again. 
Juvenile American eel ((yellow phase) Anguilla rostrata)  hiding in the rocks. 

Blacknose dace, Rhinichthys atratulus
 With a full moon wrecking the night trout fishing last weekend on my part time home water and only one small brown and a jumbo common shiner on the mouse in a few hours, I made the switch over to spotlighting and tanago hook flies.
Large male common shiner, Luxilus cornutus
 Tessellated darters were the most abundant targets. It's funny, they all have different personalities. Some will spook as soon and the lands in front of them. Others with let you touch them with it repeatedly but won't spook or take it. Others will nip it once or twice then run away. A few will keep eating it even if you've hooked them, lifted them out of the water, and then lost them.
Females are the most abundant and also the most dull, so I tried to seek out the more robust and colorful males. I still ended up with more than a dozen females.

Tessellated darter, female. Etheostoma olmstedi
I was also seeing a lot of small white suckers, and I was determined to catch one of them. It didn't surprise me in the slightest that they wouldn't take a fly alone. But I won't lie, I was a little taken aback by how quickly I got one when I tipped the fly with a little bit of worm. I really thought they'd be harder than that. I caught four in total.

White sucker, Catostomus commersonii

Another surprise was that I caught both a bluegill and a green sunfish. I've found sunfish to be a bear to deceive under a spotlight. The greenie made off before a photo op was allowed.

Bluegill, Lepomis macrochirus
 Then I found what I was looking for, a studly male tessellated darter. What a handsome little beast he was!

Tessellated darter, male.

Spotlighting at night is liable to produce a pretty large number of new micro species for me this year if I can just get to the places where those new species are. I'm running out of them close to home. 

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. Also, consider supporting me on Patreon (link at the top of the bar to the right of your screen, on web version). Every little bit is appreciated! Thank you to my Patrons; Erin, David, john, and Christopher, for supporting this blog.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

A Monster Small Stream Brown

The last time I caught a wild brown trout of 20 inches or better, I was on the lower reaches of the Beaverkill in June of 2017. Since then, I've caught a bunch of 17, 18, and 19 inches. Good fish. Great fish, really. But not 20 inchers. I caught bigger wild rainbows, actually, including a 20" in Pennsylvania and a rainbow of a lifetime at night in Montana. And I got some giant broodstock, but those don't count. Big browns have given me the slip for a couple years. I've had some on and lost them, I've missed a bunch, and I've seen a bunch. But I couldn't get one to hand. Were I as trout focused as I was four years ago I probably would be catching big browns more. But I've been fishing for a lot of other things. I regret it less than none. I'm not a trout bum, I'm a fish bum.
I had some expectations of where, when, and how I'd catch my next wild brown over 20 inches. And none of them were right.

In a plunge pool below a small roll dam on a stretch of small stream that had appeared troutless until just a few weeks ago, an old fish made a critical error.

The full moon and relatively clear skies both Friday and Saturday night hampered the night bite on the bigger waters. I slugged it out until 12:30 on Friday and then just gave in and spotlighted tessellated darters and juvenile white suckers, which was a blast, and I will write about that in the next post. On Saturday I decided to fish the streams I had done incredibly well in the weekend before last (11 Hours) in the evening hours. Given that these streams hadn't been fishing well at all, at least for trout, any time I'd tried them in a good number of years, I wasn't willing to let a good thing slip away. I wanted to enjoy this while it lasted. I brought out the 5wt, and fished my confidence fly, the Ausable Ugly. I was promptly into the same small browns that I'd found to be so abundant last time.
And while I found the brown trout, the ticks found me. This is shaping up to be a really bad tick year.

After catching that one fish and missing another of equal size, I continued down to the stream the tributary feeds, and found there that the bite was just as good as it had been before, despite the tributary having been much less loaded. There were tons of trout. There were trout in just about every bit of good holding water. It reminded me of Spring Creek... just trout everywhere.

 I had it set in mind to go downstream only as far as a hole in which I had lost a substantial fish in last time before turning around and fishing some water I hadn't yet hit this spring. I got to the spot, covered the secondary lies and caught a smaller brown, then made the difficult cast into a gap between branches, landing the fly hard because I knew the fish was upstream of where I could drop the fly and it would have to be a "lateral line take". If the fish didn't feel the fly, the fish wouldn't know it was there. The presentation did exactly what it should have. The fish came out, spotted the fly, ate it, and I stuck her. It was a great small stream wild brown and a phenomenal fight.

I hiked my way upriver to the new water, skipping a bunch that didn't provide the kind of habitat trout need, and popped back down into the stream at this great long run:

Three fish to hand and two small ones missed in there. Phenomenal! I hadn't fished this water as much as the stretches downstream, but wen I did it was even more bleak. I still don't fully understand where these fish all came from.

I picked pockets as I continued upstream, and like below, there were trout just about everywhere there should have been trout. I was missing most of them because they were tiny, but the were there and that's all I wanted to know. It didn't take long for me to catch lucky number 13. Number 13 was brookie! From that point on I caught 1 brookie to every 3 or 4 browns, which made me even more happy.

I had caught my 28th trout when I got to the small dam, a spot that I'd fished twice over the winter and was amazed didn't produce fish. It was such a classic spot. I knew I was going to catch something out of it this time. Had expectation that what proceeded was a likely scenario.

Right in the tailout I missed a small fish. Directly in line with it and four feet upstream I hooked up and a powerful, large-spotted fish of 11 inches came to hand. I should have brought this up, but all of these fish were really fired up. I've caught wild brown trout in New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Montana, and of course Connecticut, but pound for pound these ones were beating trout I've caught everywhere else except PA limestoners, which they were easily tied with. These fish threw down. Wild fights.

After letting that fish go I worked the heart of the pool. Nothing. I was a little surprised about that. A solid fish in a tertiary lie and nothing in the secondary? Of course the primary holding spots in any good roll dam plunge are where the current has undercut the structure, right under the plunge. That's where I cast next, and I wasn't at all surprised when another solid fish took and charged right under the dam. But I was very surprised by what happened next: That guy turned tail and came flying out from under the dam at full speed, coming right at me. I just barely kept tension, but the fish stayed on. What would cause a fish to make such a move? 

Enter Dave. 

Dave is the name I've given to the monster of a small stream wild brown trout that came out from under the dam chasing my hooked fish. As soon as I saw it I swore out loud and went stalk still. I moved only my lower arms and the rod, hoping I could land what now looked like a rather small fish without the monster seeing me. The smaller trout jumped over and over trying to escape the big cannibal right on it's tail. Eventually the big fish calmly slid back up into the white water and I landed, photographed, and released the hooked fish. 

The object of Dave's interest.
Without much thought, I lopped my leader down to an adequately stout length and diameter and tied on a five inch articulated streamer that didn't look entirely unlike a small brown trout. I made four casts to the spot where I thought the big fish had come from. Nothing. The fifth cast was made further to the left. I had almost given up on that cast, the fly was already well out of the good zone, when the monster came charging downstream out of the white-water and slammed the streamer. I strip-set hard and he was on. The first move was just what I'd expect under the circumstances. He wanted to go back to his home under the dam. But I had other plans. I jumped into the hole and angled my rod low and away from the fish, the top two feet of it under water at that time. I was surprised by how easily I pulled him back out, but I also don't think he had fully grasped what was going on yet. The fish rolled and shook near the surface, and I worked him right over to me. I decided I should let the fish know it needed to work harder. I might have landed it right then and there but I knew he was way too green, and such a fast landing can end badly for both anger and fish. So instead of trying to tail him I gave in a little slap on the tail. 
He responded accordingly. He tried to get back home again but I stopped him. he then spent the remaining time tail walking all over the pool like  a complete maniac. 
Then I got him. 
This was a small stream beast. An absolute stud. CT small streams don't produce trout like this often, and I've been lucky enough to catch two of them. A small stream wild trout like this deserves the utmost respect. To kill one like it is sinful and will bring bad karma. Handle them gently, admire them, and speak of them reverently. And, of course, give them a good name. 


Dave measured 22 inches, from the butt to 3 and a half inches past the 'p' in 2pc on my rod. What an awesome, stunningly beautiful, impressively gnarly trout. He was just about exactly the same size as Grandfather was when I caught him (Grandfather), but from a stream about half the size as my home water. Dave is probably at least 12 years old. Had that wise old fish not come out after the smaller fish I highly doubt I would have caught him. That was his critical mistake. Luckily for Dave, I know how special and valuable fish like him are. 

It has been so, so long since I touched a brown trout like that. Hopefully I won't have to fish nearly as long for the next. This spring's fishing has been probably my best ever on a lot of levels. Hell, this whole year has been great so far. I should have known it would be when my first fish of the year was a 38 inch snook. Hopefully my good fortune persists. 

33 trout to hand and one 22 incher. Something special is happening in that little stream. I will be back soon. 

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. Also, consider supporting me on Patreon (link at the top of the bar to the right of your screen, on web version). Every little bit is appreciated! Thank you to my Patrons; Erin, David, john, and Christopher, for supporting this blog.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Look at These Fish

It pains me to see the onesightedness of many fly fisherman, and I feel obligated to every now and then voice my opposition to this. It has gotten better, I think. But there are still so many anglers that cling to a type of fish to the exclusion and sometimes destruction of others.

Trout aren't everything.

If I had a dime for every time someone said "show me a more beautiful fish..." in reference to a specific species, I'd be drowning in dimes. I believe this attitude is destructive for both the sport and conservation. When it comes to native species, valuing one over another is dangerous. And when it comes to non-native species, valuing one of them over a native species is even more dangerous.

My continued frequent featuring of a wide range of native and non-native fish species is an attempt to combat this. Fish are beautiful. Fish are amazing. I've said it before and I'll say it again. I don't photograph fish to say "look at me!", I photograph fish to say "look at these fish!".

So... look at these fish!

There is no such thing as a trash fish. Period.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

"Weeding Out" Big Striped Bass

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. Also, consider supporting me on Patreon (link at the top of the bar to the right of your screen, on web version). Every little bit is appreciated! Thank you to my Patrons; Erin, David, john, and Christopher, for supporting this blog.

This question was posed by Pat in a comment yesterday: how do you weed through small striped bass to get the big girls? (not verbatim). I see this question come up fairly often, and I've also seen a lot of different answers. And I can say that no simple answer I've seen is right. I've only been fishing for striped bass really consistently since 2016, but in that time I've been through a trial by fire. I learn almost everything by doing, and there's been an awful lot of doing for me since I caught my first striper on the fly. What I haven't learned by doing I've learned from people that have had a lot more time to learn themselves than I have. My methodology comes from a broad range of striped bass angling ideologies. I can look at everyone I've fished for stripers with since I've started and see what I've learned from them and how I've incorporated it in my own fishing. So don't take this as some yahoo newbie thinking he's all that and knows what's what. I've only got one 40" bass on the fly under my belt, I'm not a big bass authority be any stretch. But I am big bass focused and big bass obsessed, and I know people that put up larger fish consistently. So I don't think this is something I can't shed some light on, though my answers may not be what you want.

I personally believe that in most scenarios where there are large numbers of small schooling bass, there aren't many truly large stripers to weed through the small fish for. Big stripers and small stripers act differently and like different things. Just because there's a thousand stripers in a spot doesn't mean there's enough 35-50" bass for it to be possible to catch one that size. My first answer to the question "how do I weed out a big striper" is simple: don't. Go when and where there aren't small fish, but are big fish. The divide could well be very short, like the distance from one bar to the next one out from the beach, or the 35 second it takes for a group of schoolies to quit blitzing and move on and the big clean up crew cows step up to the plate.

The distance between this fish...

...and this fish....
...was the distance between the beach lip and the bar. I couldn't reach the bar that day, and couldn't have with any manor of fly tackle. But Alec could with a long, stiff surf casting rod and a hefty wooden topwater plug, and he caught a good number of really big bass that day. I probably could have too, and I had a few takes from monster bass, but I spent far too much time chasing the breaking schoolies while the big fish were lurking outside of the blitz. My biggest of the day came when I lagged behind the blitz and hooked one of the cleanup crew.

Looking for the cleanup crew is a great way to get on a bigger bass when you've been on a bunch of smalls. You can try to sink a fly through the blitzing fish, and that can work. Big fish are often just under the schoolies, picking off dead and dying bait fish fluttering down to them, but I've honestly had better luck just sticking around in a spot after the blitz has died or moved on. 
Last year, early in the fall, Mark Alpert and I were on a really good morning blitz in the fog, and the busting fish had moved well down the beach to our North when I hooked up with a big bass right where they had been a minute ago. Not many days after that, on the boat with Mike Roy, I hooked into another really nice fish in virtually the same exact circumstances. Then again not long later, on the boat with Mark again, I hooked a big bass and lost it in the rocks where the blitz had just been.

Photo courtesy Mike Roy
My absolute best fly for pulling bigger stripped bass out from below or behind a blitz, or just off rocky structure with no breaking fish at all, is a big white Game Changer. Big fish are lazy. They are looking for something injured or even dead, something they don't need to work to catch, and the Game Changer, fished with an erratic retrieve and long pauses, acts just like a bait fish that a schoolie or snapper blue didn't quite finish the job on.

In the rare scenarios where you actually may have to weed through small fish in the same place as big fish, and I personally have never seen such a thing, you have very limited options. You can up-size flies progressively. Then you can try fishing deeper in the water column. Then you can fish the fly at a very slow pace.  But even an 18" bass will try to eat a 12" fly fished deep and slow a lot of the time. And you are out of luck if the fish are selectively feeding on small bait. If there are tons of 20" bass in the way, you are going to catch those fish first. If you can't just get to the bigger fish by fishing deeper, bigger and slower, we are still left with my first answer to the big question. Don't try to weed through the small fish. It seems crazy to some to leave a fish every cast bite to go look for one taker, but I do it often. I'll stand in one spot for three hours making the same cast and mind numbingly slow swing or retrieve over and over and over looking for one or two big eats. And that's just not something many fly casters will put up with. But most fly casters will never catch a 30lb striper on the fly either. So it's up to you... do you want to run with the crowd and catch the fish that everyone can catch, or do you want to catch big striped bass?

If it's the latter, go where and when there aren't as many schoolies instead of trying to weed through them.