Saturday, February 16, 2019

Ice Season

This was a better ice year than some here in central CT, but I didn't get out quite as much as last year. We've still got safe ice down here, but the amount of open water and rotted ice is increasing. How much more I'll get out on the ice I don't know, maybe a time or two. But the more open water there is the more I prefer to just fish the open water. So now is as good a time as any to summarize my ice season. 

I wanted to get walleye. 
That didn't happen.

I wanted to get carp. 
That didn't happen.

I wanted big perch. 
Well, I got one. I got a fair number of perch this year but the majority were quite small with the exception of this mighty yellow chunker that ate my jig right in the hole. 

Bluegills remained the place holders. I may not be the most adept ice fisherman, but I can catch bluegills and small largemouth bass consistently.

I endured some harsh conditions on the water this winter. One day, Rick and I went out hunting crappies with the cold wind making 14 degrees feel about 5. His shanty kept us comfortable but we just couldn't find the fish.

On another night I got walloped by a crazy snow squall, and things went from very comfortable to a little dangerous in seconds. By the time I got home, the snow and wind had already subsided.

That may very well be that. I don't know. I'm more in the mood to get some large late winter brown trout and target strange saltwater species than I am to go ice fishing a bunch more. But the weather may dictate those moves.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

New Water and The Importance of Hemlocks

The Eastern North American forest is not what it seems. If wilderness is defined by an absence of human change, scant few small places in the northeast can truly be called wilderness. less than 1% of the eastern forests are the same old growth that should be here. 99% of the east was cut at some point, and has since been replaced either by urban sprawl or second-growth mixed forest. Man came and decimated the North American forest, then sort of let some of it come back, though with the addition of new plants and animals. What we are left with in CT are places that are wild, but are not wilderness. It takes but an hour's walk to tell the story. Stone walls that once delineated property lines still stand everywhere, in various states of decay. Parcels that stopped being farmed later than others boast relatively new growth, young trees packed so tightly together that one can barely attempt to walk from one side of a re-claimed farm field to the other. In other places, white pine was planted intentionally in a grid like pattern, creating very unnatural feeling tunnels between the lines. What the woods of the Northeast were like when the puritans first arrived here is something I can barely imagine, because we left none of it untouched and didn't do a particularly good job of learning about what we were destroying. This isn't to say that the humans already here weren't having lasting impacts on the forests... indeed they were. Native Americans were not perfectly in balance with nature. In fact, Native Americans were doing things almost akin to slash and burn well before we got here. They cut forest to farm. They burned forest to enhance hunting. They favored trees that produced useful goods over trees that didn't. They cut large areas to live in and develop in their own manor. By the time most European settlers arrived the native population had been killed off by disease brought by the first rounds of explorers, and the changes made by the previously much larger populous had already started to be hidden by new forest growth. Of course, nothing those native peoples did remotely compares to the destruction wrought by industry. If you think about it, it is quite miraculous that genetically diverse populations of native fish survived, and that we didn't destroy riparian zones and fluvial habitat to the extent that non-native salmonids wouldn't be able to survive here. One of the key ingredients in the survival of wild trout streams in CT are hemlocks. They aren't necessary: I have come across a number of healthy wild brook trout streams without hemlocks. But most good streams have them. Hemlocks provide year-round shade, and that really is the key. Beyond being a sign of a good riparian habitat along freestone streams all around the East, hemlock tend to make up my favorite types of forest. Hemlock don't shy away from steep terrain or rocky ground. The cool, moist shade they provide hosts all sorts of lichens, mosses, and fungi. Mountain laurel and rhododendron often aren't far off. Ferns may be numerous, some of them evergreen. I adore mixed forest with lots of hemlock and steep, rocky terrain. It should come as no surprise that the presence of such forest is much of what made me fall in love with my home river.

Last week, Mark Alpert and I found ourselves on another CT watershed with a lot of hemlock, moss, and mountain laurel. And it was unsurprising that the streams those woods were concealing held wild trout.

Though Mark used to fish the large of the two streams when he was in school, he had never fished this stretch. I had never fished any of it, and neither of us had fished the tributary I really thought would be a gem. Actually, we had started the day further west in a stream with brown water and way too much ice. Knowing when to leave is a good skill to have. The walk in to the new spot was a bear compared to many walks to CT streams. Large tracts of preserved land have kept this area relatively wild, though it has had it's problems with water usage. There was no direct trail and the hill was long and steep. It felt good to have to work a bit to get to the stream but them actually be able to fish it, unlike the stream Alan and I had tried earlier in the week. Of course, we discovered later that we easily could have entered from a much closer parking location. I'll never regret a walk in the woods though. Especially not woods as beautiful and dark as those. 

The first hour or so working upriver was fruitless in terms of fish moved. There were a couple "maybes", on "probably", and a bunch of "I thought it was for a second"s. But then I hooked up. Somewhat to my surprise, it was a holdover rainbow, which threw the hook not long after it started to fight. By that point I was already right at the tributary I wanted to explore, so up it we went. Brook trout were expected, and they were in there. I got a little brown too, which wasn't out of the question but also not what I expected. 

Satisfied that this was a stream to come back to during the spring, we went back downstream and plied the dark, cold water river a little more. Immediately above the tributary was a long pool with a great run dumping into it. Somewhere in the middle, I stuck a large fish. I was pretty excited with the thought that this could be a quite large wild brown trout. I'm not going to lie, I was a little disappointed when the pale color and bent dorsal revealed it to be a holdover. It was a nice fish, regardless.

Then, in the same run I had lost the rainbow in, I found what I was looking for. I now had two streams to add to my list, and two streams I definitely need to come back to, both cloaked by the shade of hemlock.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Species Profile: Rock Bass

As most of you hopefully already know, I am a life-list angler. I target, document, and count the number of species, hybrids, and subspecies I catch, specifically on fly tackle. Because of that I spend a lot of time learning about and fishing for many different species of fish. This means I'm more adept at identifying and fishing for an extremely broad range of species than the average fly angler. This series will attempt to outline species identification, some life history, and methods for targeting with fly tackle. Maybe I'll get to every fish on my life list, but considering it is ever growing... it would take a while. Mostly, I hope this will get a few of you interested in going out and learning about or catching something new. 

Rock bass, Abloplites rupestris, is an abundant sunfish species occupying a variety of water types. They are native to most pf the Midwest from the far east portions of the Dakota's east to the Lake Champlain watershed in Vermont and South to the very northernmost portions of Alabama and Georgia. They have been widely introduced outside of their range, including CT. In some areas where they were introduced they have wreaked havoc on native endemic species; including Roanoke bass, which are very similar, share the same niche, and can hybridize with rock bass; and an isolated population of trout-perch for which the extinction of was blamed on the introduction of rock bass.
Rock bass are generally less than 14 inches though individuals up to 16 and 17 inches have been recorded, rock bass as heavy as three pounds. An 8 inch fish is fairly typical. They may live as long as 10 years. These fish have a large mouth as sunfishes go, are deep bodied, generally golden to brown or olive in color with some dark spots and/or patches and a lighter colored belly. In the spring, when they spawn, their belly may darken, as in the large specimen below:

Six anal spines and frequently bright red eyes also help to distinguish rock bass. They can change their skin pigmentation in correlation with their surroundings so a broad range of colors and patterns exists within the species.

Rock bass are primarily carnivorous, eating other fish, insects, crustaceans, and small amphibians. They typically spawn from April through June around the time the water reaches 58 degrees. They spawn much in the same way other sunfish do, digging nests which they actively guard and frequently mate with multiple partners.

A prime location for rockbass in Vermont.

Rock bass are readily available to many anglers and are great sport on light fly tackle. They prefer clear-water lakes, rivers, and small streams, and are generally one of the most abundant species in the places they are found. Though they don't fight as hard as othe sunfish species, they do take topwater flies, streamers, and nymphs with aggression. The ideal setup is a 4wt rod with a weight forward floating line, and a 6 or 7ft leader tapering down to 3x. Small panfish poppers, Chernobyl ants, Woolly Buggers, small Clouser Minnows, and virtually any small streamer and any nymph pattern will dupe rock bass in different scenarios. I find sight casting to rock bass with nymphs in small rivers and streams and just twitching the fly in front of them to be very productive. In lakes and big rivers the effectiveness of a steady, slow figure 8 retrieve for any subsurface presentation is unparalleled.

Fish around rocky areas, as the common name of the species suggests. It is very possible to catch rock bass on the surface, especially in shallow water. But if you are interested in catching a really big rock bass it may be a good idea to swap out a floating line for a sink tip and fish larger Woolly Buggers or small Belly Scratcher Minnows on rocky structure in 10 to 20 feet of water. Targeting large rock bass can also be done during the spawn, when large fish move into the shallows to spawn.

Rock bass are a fun fish to target on occasion and they can also be very pretty. Go give them a shot when our lakes and rivers thaw out!

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! 

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Winter at Home

Home means different things to different people. Too me, home is a specific small mountain stream in Eastern CT, sheltered by hemlock and laurel and hidden in a steep walled canyon. Dace, fallfish, sunfish, and wild brown and brook trout swim in its dark, turbulent waters, and only a handful of anglers will ply those waters during the course of a year. My home isn't the most hospitable. Summers bring warm and low water and trout hiding under rocks. Winters bring extremely cold water, shelf and anchor ice, and blow outs the take down trees and scour the banks, forming ice and log jams, moving huge rocks and changing the shape of the stream in mere hours.

There have been winters during which I haven't been able to actually fish my home river for as much as two months. There was just too much ice to make it worth it, or even too much snow to safely get to and from the stream. This winter, though, has provided me a number of chances to fish. The water was still cold and the fish very much in winter mode, but I know this stream and I know it's fish. I also know how to approach and present flies to where the fish are holding. And I know that no matter how well I fish, I'm not going to catch a lot of trout despite covering a lot of water. But the ones I do catch are usually going to be of above average size. This post includes photos from three different trips out of six I made in January and February. In all six trips combined I caught a dozen wild brown trout. All 12 were larger than eight inches. A few were larger than a foot in length.

Because of its location and structure, my home water stays far colder than many streams. A general assumption is that liquid water must be above freezing, but this is not the case for moving water and this plays a part in fish handling. Ever get ice in your guides when you know the air temperature is above 32 degrees? I have. This happens when the water is below 32 but won't freeze because it is in motion. The water pauses long enough in you guides and on your line that the crystallization process is catalyzed. It is important to keep with in mind when handling fish, because the moment you take a fish out of water that's just below freezing and that water stops moving it will crystallize on the fish's skin, fins, and gills, and it may prove fatal. If you are getting ice in your guides, if you see ice forming on rocks on the bottom of the stream in fast water (anchor ice), or if you take the temperature of the water and its between 31 and 33 degrees, don't remove the fish from the water for more than one second no matter how warm the air is. A few of the bigger and more colorful trout I caught during these trips were caught during tines when I knew the air was above freezing, but I was still getting ice in the guides. I didn't even remove those fish from the water to extract my hook. I either let them shake it or poked it out with my rod tip. I am so careful now largely because I wasn't in the past. When it was pointed out to me I felt the ones doing so were trying to clarify their superiority, and I didn't react in a way I am proud of. I know now exactly why I was criticised. I was being provided with information, not being put down. That information has undoubtedly lead me to kill fewer fish that I didn't want to.

It is for fish like the one below that I put up with iced guides, leaky waders, shelf ice, cold hands, frequent tangles, and being forced to do nothing but fish extremely heavy nymphs. Panning for gold in the dead of winter is taxing, but when it pays, it is really special.

Winters at my home are often strenuous. But I wouldn't have it any other way.

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! 

Thursday, February 7, 2019

A Special Day in February

Some days are just unforgettable. Near 60 degree days in February are hard to forget anyway, but add a new and exceptional wild brook trout stream, a good friend, a few stoneflies and midges, and rising fish, and you've got yourself something truly special indeed.

On Tuesday Alan and I put in some time trying to access one stream. I had fished it before but in a different area, and it had some beautiful brook trout. But this section we were trying to fish was hard to reach and also really hard to fish. It didn't have the best bottom structure, it was very sandy, and the amount of briers made the banks nearly impossible to navigate. We gave up after less than half an hour at that stream.

Our plan B was a tiny stream not far away that I had heard had brookies but had never even seen in person. And it really was tiny. Upon seeing it, I was a little skeptical about how good it would be. It was quite shallow there. It was all hardwoods around it, no hemlock at all. But as I waded downstream my preconceived notions were quickly dismissed as a spooked a number of brook trout and a few of surprising size. Then, in a slow deep pool, I had a substantial rise to a Lime Trude. The fish didn't want to come back for that fly, so I switched to a Sturdy's Fancy. It took me a couple of casts to hit the right spot, but when I did the fly vanished in a large boil. I set the hook and was quickly into a brook trout powerful enough to demand careful rod angles. As the fish tired my leader tangle in an over hanging branch. I rushed down to land the fish and fortunately was able to do so.

This was an exceptional fish for such a minuscule stream, and on a dry fly no less... it would take a serious disaster to make this a bad day, and I'm pleased to report that nothing of the sort happened. In fact, the day only got better.

Though not warm, the water wasn't as cold as it often is in early February. 42 degrees is not half bad.

Brook trout were far from the only abundant life in the stream. A variety of cased caddis, rock worms, mayfly nymphs, and even large golden stonefly nymphs had found the stream bed more than suitable.

When you have a day like this in February, it certainly is one to be remembered.  Though we aren't far from days like this being quite abundant, the stark cold and ice of January and February put good conditions to explore new water with dry flies at a premium.

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!