Thursday, January 17, 2019

Florida: One Eyed Willy, the Snook Slayer

As I sit here in a hotel room just outside of State College, PA, with a soft snow falling outside, and some Scottish guy talking about being struck by lightning on the television, thinking about how good the fishing could be tomorrow, it is hard to think of exactly what to write about Noah and my second to last day of snook fishing the Charlotte Harbor area. Honestly, I wasn't going to make this a very long or in depth post anyway because no matter what I do the next one is going to overshadow it.

So, I may as well just make this one funny.

Meet One Eyed Willy, the Snook Slayer. Willy was born to be a big water trout catcher. But he would meet his end in south Florida after a very successful career in fooling common snook.



Exactly what happened to One Eyed Willy's second eye is up to some speculation. Did he loose it from bouncing of a submerged log? Or when a big snooked slammed him? Or was it the doing of the hard jaws of a gar? We will never know.

But I can say without doubt that One Eyed Willy could fool snook with the best of them.

Centropomus undecimalis


When tossed under structure like this...


... One Eyed Willy was sure to draw out a hungry line sider.






So. What was the fate of One Eyed Willy? 


I'm actually not kidding, I don't know what I did with that damned fly. It was the only gamechanger that size I was carrying. I really don't know where I put it. I didn't loose it in a snag, I didn't break off any fish. It just disappeared. 

Where are you, One Eyed Willy? 

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Florida: Redfish

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! 
Thanks for joining the adventure, and tight lines.

Redfish is very near the top of the list of species I want to catch most. They are a fish built very much to fit my style. They are handsome fish with variation in coloration. They feed in shallow water very frequently, where they can be sight fished. They are aggressive predators, taking a variety of streamers and topwater flies. They tend to live in beautiful places. 

And they are not easy to catch. 

That last one has become pretty clear to me. I got a handful of shots at redfish in 2017. I did not catch one. On Noah and my second trip, it was a top priority for me. I really, really wanted to get a redfish. Probably more than I want to get a tarpon. 

We had narrowed our focus to an area on the east side of the Gasparilla Sound. Sea grass was the key. We had to find areas where it was abundant. The area we were in was a good place to look, whereas many other flats in Florida have had huge reductions in the amount of bottom vegetation. Where the sea grass isn't, life is sparse. Where the sea grass is, life is abundant and concentrated. The loss of sea grass and the other life that relies on it can be traced directly to human activity.

Getting to our launch place just after dawn, I was confident we were in the right place. A huge school of mullet came into view as a patch of nervous water 50 yards long and 15 yards wide. They moved by in a long train as we geared up, jumping and splashing and rippling the surface, moving north. 



We went the direction they came from. We found grass. We found mullet. We found some stingrays. Then we found what we looking for. In the low light of the new day, a tail brushed the placid surface, signifying the presence of a feeding redfish. It was a beautiful spite.
And that's right where things went downhill.
In retrospect, this morning was the best chance I had at getting my first red. We saw the most tailing reds, we saw the most redfish in general, and there were the most good shot opportunities. And the half hour after we saw the first tail was the best window all day.

I blew it. I blew it hard. I made poor shots, I made bad drifts, I wasn't patient enough. I got interest from maybe 3 reds in that window. From then on, finding tailing fish was very, very difficult, and we found that targeting the cruising fish in that crystal clear was very tricky indeed. When you can see the fish coming from 90 feet away and you have a pretty good cast, you'd think it wouldn't be hard to convince one to eat. The fish that didn't spook from seeing the line in the air spooked from it and the fly hitting the water, and if they didn't spook from that they gave the fly and leader an extremely wide berth, so wide I knew they weren't even seeing it clearly. Then they'd probably spook from seeing me or the kayak.


What made this all the more frustrating was that some of these reds were just enormous, big enough to blow my expectations. There were plenty of 20 to 30 inch reds around, but I saw a few that were over 40 without a shadow of a doubt. So massive were these fish that I was shaking severely upon seeing them cruising down the white sand strips, though not enough to stop me from making what I thought were good casts. When the fish showed their disapproval and ran away, leaving huge boils and clouds of sand behind, I had to sit down to catch my breath.


There were snook around too, and they were even more snobbish. They were all laid up relatively close to. but not under, the mangroves, and generally near a creek mouth or around a point. These fish were impossible, at least with artificials and probably with live bait too. They were extraordinarily skittish and could see and feel you coming from a long, long, long way out. After a point I just stopped trying for them. There were plenty of more willing fish in the river. I might as well just admire these ones from afar and not bother them.

But my inability to get a redfish was bothering me. Hugely. After that first day we came back every morning. I never got another decent shot. I didn't catch anything there. Not even a sailfin or hardhead catfish, or one of the few big jacks or pompano we'd occasionally see close to the reds.

My inability to get a redfish stands out to me as the most frustrating part of my angling career thus far. Those fish haunt my dreams like no other. Believe me when I say that this post has been a painful one to write. I want to forget every one of the blunders I made targeting these fish, and every time I thought I had nailed it and the fish dissented. And because it will be a long while before I am in red drum territory again, those memories are going torture me for a while.
 It didn't ruin my experience completely, the flat we fished there was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. But I can't get those damned fish out of my mind.

I think, sometimes, you can want to catch a certain fish too much.




Tuesday, January 15, 2019

An Intermission: It is Rather Cold

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! 
Thanks for joining the adventure, and tight lines.

I've been home for a week now. I'm still a little well tanned for January, and I'm still not used to fishing in the cold. Which isn't to say I haven't been fishing. I've been out there, getting cold finger tips and catching a few fish. My first outing back was a foggy one. I saw some brookies. My mission was to get my January dry fly fish, and I stuck steadfast to dries despite absolutely no action with them. It was pretty warm, the air was still, the fog was thick... I am not sure why I couldn't coax a char to rise.







 The next day I just continued my hunt for a dry fly fish. It was colder, windy, and brighter... to my eye a markedly worse winter day to try to coax a salmonid to the surface. I was wrong. I fished for less time, only fished one stream, and I did successfully bring brook trout to the surface. This January is my 48th consecutive month of catching at least one salmonid on a dry fly. 4 years. I do wonder when this run will end. It can't go one forever.

Big parts of the stream I was fishing look like what you see in the photo to the left. Getting through that stuff is a riot. Impatience leads to holes in waders and spooked fish. A good bow and arrow cast is necessary. Persistence even more so. Some of the biggest brook trout in the stream live in sections like this, in the past I'd caught fish in excess of a foot long in here. This time something rather startling showed up. I was swinging a parachute Adams across the tail of a run when a monstrous brook trout appeared, sidled up to the fly, missed, missed again, then didn't miss. I lifted the rod... maybe a little too quickly. The fish turned away violently, taking the fly and leaving me to pick my jaw up off the ground. That fish was every bit of 16 inches.


Upstream, in more hospitable terrain for a bipedal hairless ape, I knelt by a pool and shot my Sturdy's Fancy into a seem downstream and across the pool. A couple seconds into the fly's drift, a snout captured it. I defeated January.

Salvilinus fontinalis





I walked away from that outing with a huge smile on my face. I had pretty much forgotten the huge brookie that had stolen my Adams.
That was the last warm-ish day we've had around here.

I could be out on the ice right now if I were so inclined,
whereas that day there were ponds with enough open water to fish plenty effectively.

 Before shelf ice had started to form I payed a visit to my home river for the first time of 2019. It wasn't great. I caught one rainbow. The air was too cold for my fingers and too cold for taking fish out of the water. Between doing jumping jacks on the bank and cramming my hands in my armpits I made half hearted casts. Had I been fishing with more intent, maybe I wouldn't have lost the biggest living wild brown I've seen in my home river in a few years.

She was on for a few seconds.

She was every bit of 18 inches.

She left me with a limp line, and my jaw once again on the ground.



I went back last night. That big brown was still there. And I was probably still not fishing with enough confidence and intent. She remains unmolested. And I remain in a state of unrest. Loosing the brown just made loosing the brookie sting more.

It is winter. Big fish have a way of appearing suddenly in the winter. And even though I know that they are there, and that this is one of the better seasons to seek out those bigger trout and char, I still never expect to encounter one. And big fish have a way of disappearing just as suddenly and surprisingly as they appear.


Sunday, January 13, 2019

Florida: Fish That Make My Heart Stop

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! 
Thanks for joining the adventure, and tight lines.


Snook are an absolutely incredible fish. I doubt I could ever bore of putting flies in front of them. I can't say that about many species, and as most of you know there isn't a species out there that I won't try to catch. Striped bass. Chain pickerel. Brook trout. And snook. I could fish for each every day for weeks on end and not bore of them I got two in an hour's time on the morning of our last day in Florida on Noah's and my first trip in 2017, and it left me wanting more. I had already gotten that many on this trip though both were tiny. And now, Noah and I were going west, to where we had left off. And I was excited. Very excited. Through the fog we drove, through Indiantown then Okeechobee. Then nothing for miles and miles. Then Arcadia, where most main street corners host piles of runaway oranges. Then more nothing, except the first significant  natural rises and dips of inland terrain we had seen in a week.







Then we reached our base camp west. These were familiar surroundings. It felt good to be back. Though I didn't know it, I was about to step into some of the best fishing of my life.

In the winter, snook seek refuge in the backcountry. They often travel many miles into freshwater, seeking good places to be lazy and as warm as possible, and jump out and grab an occasional snack. Snook are ambush predators. One need not look any further than the shape of their head and mouth to see this. Like pike, snook sit in wait on or near structure, and lunge out to inhale whatever hapless baitfish makes the mistake of wandering too close. To find catch these fish in the winter, you have to be mobile, you must be able to get in and out of tight creeks, and you need to bring a cast. This fishing really does remind me of pike fishing. We spent every hour of our time on the river throwing as tight into lay downs, mosquito ditch mouths, and overhanging ferns as we could, then aggressively retrieving our offerings back out.  More often than not the hit was on par with that of any esox species I've targeted. Quick, violent, and with intent to kill. They would miss sometimes, and even that reminded me of pike and pickerel. Snook don't have big teeth like esox, but their rasp and their razor sharp gill plates will tear through an inadequate leader material just as well. We used 40lb fluorocarbon most of the time we were targeting snook. I started out with 20lb mono, and got tired of changing after just getting one thump, then ditched 30lb after having a large snook abrade right through it on the take.

The river itself was hauntingly beautiful. This was old Florida. With all the life here, the abundant fish, the birds, it was too easy to forget that not that far away were places that had been robbed of this by the greed of man. It will take years before much of Florida recovers from the red tides of the last few years which were caused by polluted water discharges from Lake Okeechobee. The drone of airboats and paddling past the occasional sandbar cookout reminded us that we weren't that far from civilization. But slip way up into a skinny, Brazilian pepper lined creek, and you are as good as alone. You also stand a chance of finding fish that haven't seen a fly in a while.





After missing a few and loosing one, I got my first west cost snook of the trip. He was on a laydown with at least on other fish. The take was spectacular, the fight equally so. Even a small snook puts a serious bend in a 10wt rod. Standing in my kayak, I was forced to maneuver the rod around the bow and stern carefully. These fish seem to know that staying under the yak is advantageous and they do it a lot. Once I got it topside, I could admire a very handsome fish.

common snook, Centropomus undecimalis

Of five takers on our first evening I landed only one. I was not going to let that kind of percentage happen again.

Micropterus floridanus occupy much of the same water these snook do in the winter.


The next evening we went back to much of the same water. Noah had still not gotten his snook, so we split the water in what I thought was his favor. What I hadn't accounted for at the time was that snook seem to like me. A few casts into my first short drift a fish came out and inhaled my Game Changer. It wasn't a big fish but it was an acrobatic fish, spending as much of the fight out of the water as in.


Noah didn't get a fish in his longer drift. We moved to a stretch where he had a bunch of action the day before. I split off to hit a couple lay downs where I had seen snook blow up bait the previous evening while he worked that bank. I fished the first lay down. Nothing. I fished the next lay down. As I accelerated my strip, making the GC glide back and forth at speed, a fish that I hadn't seen had followed the fly 15ft from the structure and slammed it right next to the kayak. The fish took a moment to right itself before blasting under the kayak and over to the other side of the river with startling speed. I reached the rod tip around the bow of the kayak and as much tension on the fly line as I could without letting it burn through my fingers. That snook went 70ft in just seconds. When it decided that run was over it started jumping. Six times she cam up. Big, thrashing, violent jumps, sending spray like sparks from illumination by the setting sun. This wasn't a huge snook but it was my biggest at the time, and it took some skill to land her. A paddled over to a sandbar, holding the fish by the lip and allowing her to regain some energy. After a quick photo, I knelt in the water, felt her power up, and watched her swim away. I then went and just laid down on the sand bar, laughing to myself and letting the mosquitoes bite my ankles. I was satisfied. In the last days of 2018 I was catching gorgeous snook in gorgeous weather in a gorgeous place.



Little did I know that on the first day of the new year I would catch a snook that would make this one look little.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Florida: A Fish of a Lifetime

Dawn in the Swamp
Noah and I awoke on our last morning at our base camp east before our four day west coast stint intent on hitting our favorite ditch again before continuing westward. I wanted desperately to catch a brown hoplo. They had other ideas though, and were nowhere to be seen. Walking cats though, were present as always and a little bit willing. I took one on a Walt's Worm. I must wonder how many times a Walt's have been affixed to a fly angler's tippet in the state of Florida? I can't imagine many. On this trip I had already caught a swordspine snook and more than one walking catfish on one. But I was about to catch something much more special.

Clarias batrachus

The lake chubsuckers presented themselves as tantalizing targets on this morning once again, sitting motionless in the water column. But unlike previous visits to the ditch, for one reason or another some of them exhibited interest in my fly if I let it fall slowly in front of them. When I actually had one nip the fly I was taken aback. I kept at it, and sure enough....


Lake chubsucker are a very odd little fish. They demand clear, still water with extensive weed coverage. They are omnivorous: plant matter, algae, small crustaceans, and insect larvae make up their diet. Though wide ranging and fairly population-stable, catching a lake chubsucker on hook and line is very unusual. Doing so with an artificial fly? Basically unheard of. Though I cannot say it with the certainty with which I could my barrelfish, it is a distinct possibility that I am the first to do so. This odd little cyprinid is a fish of a lifetime. I still can't believe I caught it.

Lake chubsucker (Erimyzon sucetta)
 From that point it was pretty anticlimactic on my end of things. I caught some Mayans and some sunfish and a couple bass. No big deal.

Cichlasoma urophthalmus

Noah held out though and got a new species. We think this is a Nile tilapia, but identifying tilapia is a gigantic pain in the ass. If you think we are wrong, please do tell. If not a Nile, I assume it must be a blue tilapia.

Oreochromis niloticus?
Shortly thereafter, we began our cross state drive. On the other end, we would encounter redfish that continue to haunt my dreams and snook that do too, but in a very different 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! 
Thanks for joining the adventure, and tight lines.