Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Home River During the Spawn

This is a less than easy time of year on my favorite stream. It's wild trout population has a tendency to migrate quite a bit up and down stream, especially during the spawn, and it can be tricky to find them up until the second week in December. But I like to go regardless, because the fish are rarely prettier than they are right now and I also like to find and make not of fresh redds so I can avoid them when they start to turn dark again (when fresh, the gravel is light colored and clean, but algae and vegetation will grow on the gravel before the alevins emerge). Beyond that, it's just fun to watch trout spawning. If I get really lucky and find a big communal redd cluster with anywhere from 5 to 15 trout on it, there's often a ton of fish immediately downstream that aren't spawning and are there to eat loose eggs. In the last couple days I made two visits. The fishing was as slow as I expected it to be, but very much worth while. On the first visit I caught one brown and lost a big fish, likely 14 or 15 inches. That was almost made up for by the number of wildly colored juvenile salmon I caught.

On day two I took four casts in the first pool I fish almost every time I come to my home river, a pool that had produced six salmon parr the day before and nothing else, and pinned an absolute stud of a brown and missed two similar fish. What a difference a day makes. 

One of the progeny of the late great Grandfather? He has the same coloration. Not that parr marks are still visible. I hope to encounter this fish if and when he reaches 18 inches. 
That had me hoping that this would be a bang up day, fish after fish after fish, and maybe a few big ones. Nope. I caught browns, but not double digits, and none as spectacular as the first fish. And I don't mind that it let me cover more water. I refuse to catch and release more than 12 wild trout in a day during the spawn. I want to limit my impact. If I'd caught that many in a quarter mile of water I wouldn't have seen as much of the river to look carefully for redds. I did find redds, which I will avoid for the next few months, but didn't see any trout actively working them. I suspect they were there but saw me coming. 

The last fish of the day was a big old holdover which was cool to catch. I leave anything that held over the summer alone. It's lucky for this fish we didn't cross paths in April, I may not have treated it well.

The stage is well set for early winter, one of my favorite times of year. On Christmas Eve Morning I will be on this river, as with every year for the last five years. And that day has a lot to live up to. 

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. 

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Search for Landlocked Sockeye

Sockeye are kind of the weirdo among their other salmonid brethren. It doesn't look out of place in the mix with other Pacific salmon. And it doesn't behave particularly differently either. Except from one glaring oddity. Oncorhynchus nerka eats zooplankton. Virtually every juvenile salmon and trout does, but none maintain their affinity for dining on tiny life forms quite like sockeye salmon do in their adult ocean going form. Like Atlantic salmon, sockeye can survive just fine as a landlocked population. This form of the species is called kokanee.

CT has some kokanee, in just three bodies of water. Two have good fisheries, one hopefully will in years to come but doesn't yet. Throughout most of their life cycle they are nearly impossible to catch on the fly. But when they spawn, they get snappy and may hit small streamers, San Juan Worms, and eggs. It's a short window, like all Pacific salmon sockeye are semelparous, spawning only once and dying immediately thereafter. So when I saw that kokanee were being caught last week in varying degrees of decay, I knew I wouldn't have long to attempt to add one to me life list this year. Noah and I made our plans. Hopefully we wouldn't miss them.

What we definitely didn't expect though, was snow.

The lakes that have kokanee in CT don't have any significant streams feeding them to get a spawning run of sorts, which is unfortunate because that would be really darn cool. Instead they attempt to spawn along lake shorelines that have a little bit of current and the right kind of gravel. So that's where we were going to focus out efforts. In our first spot we saw fish rise, probably trout, and I thought I saw a few red forms swimming around but couldn't be sure of it. We got cold hands and no hook ups, so we went to get some hand warmers. After a little while this spot lost it's shine and we wanted to try somewhere else. Unfortunately that somewhere else was somewhere I knew even less about.


That was definitely less productive in terms of finding anything that felt remotely like the right water for kokanee. I caught one perch before we gave up for more familiar fish, in hopes of just catching something remotely interesting. Another big lake, another unfamiliar kind of fishing. Trout and salmon in bigger lake is something I rarely ever do, so this was all largely experimental. We found some fish at creek mouths. Rainbows, not the big brown we were expecting and hoping for.

We decided to give our first spot one final go, one last chance at a kokanee. A few casts in I felt a pull and looked up to see a flash of deep red. Then it was gone.
So close yet so far. Till next year, kokanee.

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. 

Friday, November 9, 2018

Species Profile: Hickory Shad

In an attempt to diversify my content and hopefully teach my readers something new, I've decided to start a new regular series. 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 to 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 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 and catching something new. 

Alosa mediocris
(hickory shad)

Hickory shad belong to the Clupeidae family, the herrings. Like all species in the family they are a brightly scaled fish with a silvery white belly and darker back. Hickories typically have an olive back with a lavender to blue iridescence. They have one very prominent black spot behind the gill plate and may have a number of more faint spots in line with it. Aside from being notably smaller on average than American shad, hickories have a lower jaw that extends past their upper jaw when closed. Hickories caught in NY, CT, and MA are unlikely to be small enough to be mistaken with menhaden, river herring, or ocean herring. The typical specimen is about 16 inches and just under one pound.

Like American shad, blueback herring, and alewives, they are anadromous, historically spawning from the St. Johns River in Florida to parts of Maine. Spawning is now uncommon north of Chesapeake Bay, though it has been recorded in the Connecticut River. This is the primary reason why hickory shad are not a common bi-catch for shad fisherman in the Connecticut and it's tributaries during the spring run. Between Florida and Virginia, the two are often encountered in the same water during the shad run. In attempt to restore hickory shad runs to historical levels, some states prohibit keeping hickories. Hickory shad are piscivorous and may be found eating silversides, bay anchovies, and small peanut bunker among other things. Though more common in tidal creeks and rivers it is possible to find hickory shad on the beach front when they are migrating. There is very little known about the migratory habits of these fish when they are in ocean waters. 

In Connecticut, hickories can be caught from late April through November, and may stick around as late as December when conditions are right. Feeding hickory shad often give themselves away with splashy surface displays and numerous jumps, which they also preform when hooked. 

Though I have caught a fair number of hickory shad from beaches, both rocky and sandy, including some of my biggest, if you want to have a near sure bet at catching one fish around bridges. These concentrate both current and bait, and hickory shad are certainly not afraid of a little current. Fish the middle of the tide, when the current is strongest. Though there is no time of day that you can't catch them, low light periods are preferable. Any rod rated 4, 5, or 6 will work well for this type fishing. Use a floating or intermediate line with a simple 6ft leader (3ft of 20lb trilene big game to 3ft of 12lb trilene big game). At times hickory shad can by downright reckless. I have caught them on 10 inch long black flatwings and deceivers tied on 4/0 hooks. Other times, they seem as picky as rising trout and will take nothing longer than an inch and a half. Small surf candies in pink and chartreuse are a great choice for picky hickory shad. 

Though it will vary day to day and tide to tide, I find these fish to be more partial to a swinging fly retrieved with long slow strips than any other presentation. A medium speed two had retrieve is often too much for them, but sometimes when there are tons around blitzing on small peanut bunker this retrieve with a faster sinking line will work wonders. Once hooked up, don't pull too hard. These fish have paper thin mouths and too much pressure will result in dropped fish again and again. Given their propensity to jump repeatedly when hooked, lost fish are a part of the game regardless of how appropriately you fight them.

It is important to not that these fish are fairly delicate. Even gentle handling will result in shed scales. Do whatever you can to mitigate handling if you intend to release the fish. Though not as big as American shad or as glamorous a lot of the other species that occupy the same waters, hickory shad a readily available and probably the closest thing to a juvenile tarpon in our waters. They are a lot of fun on light tackle.

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. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Esox Minor

It's no secret that I adore pickerel. Tenacity is something I respect in any species, and nobody could deny that Esox niger is one tenacious fish. I also like to break out the lighter tackle now and then and still target fish that pull hard and eat with bad intentions, and CT's big pike demand a heavier tackle class than the more readily available pickerel. This time of year these savage little fish really start calling my name. They don't mind the cold water, in fact they prefer it. So on days when the smallies are hugging the bottom and unwilling to come up, I'd rather just rip flashy streamers a few inches under the surface for something toothier and of a similar size. Watching them wake up on a fly then unload on it, mouth wide open and gills flared, just never gets old for me no mater how many times I've seen their bigger brethren do the same thing. I recognize species is it's on class, so for me it's just as exciting to catch a 26 inch pickerel as it is to catch a 45 inch pike. Each is a trophy, each a challenge to catch on the fly.

I got once last week and briefly yesterday to sling some feathers at the least respected member of the Esox genus and I had a grand ol' time. The waters were dark and tannin stained from the freshly fallen leaves and rain. The air was calm and wet both days. And the fish were in attack mode.

Yesterday I hooked four pickerel, all over 20 inches, and landed three of them. Of course the one fish I dropped was a slop at easily 25 inches and extremely fat, she spat the hook right at the bank and left me with slumped shoulders and a sour look on my face.

Generally I keep targeting these fish until ice stops me from doing so. Given how much I progressed in ice fishing last year, don't doubt that I'll be out looking for some slime darts even after the fly rod is no longer an option. These fish are just to fun not to try for through the ice too!

Monday, November 5, 2018

A VERY Important Question

There's a very important question that is about to come up for every outdoorsman in CT. Tomorrow, if fact. And I kind of regret not bringing this up earlier. It isn't a question from me to you. It is a question from the state legislature to all of us: should the state need the public's input before selling public land?

The answer to that is, or should be, quite obvious. Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes! Without this proactive change the state has been free to sell, trade, or give away wildlife management areas, parks, and forests, with no consultation of those that actually own those places: US!

So, tomorrow, vote with conservation in mind, vote with environmental sustainability in mind, and vote yes on question 2!

Saturday, November 3, 2018

A Day to Remember

Some fishing days slip through memory without much effect. They aren't special days, nothing out of the ordinary happens, nothing remarkable gets caught, no interesting people are met while out on the water, and they melt into the background of typical days, never leaving a mark in the anglers mind. Thursday was not such a day. It was something special. And though I've had many far better days of catching striped bass, only a handful rival Thursday, November 1st 2018 in the aspect of spectacle.

Mark Alpert and I knew pretty quickly upon exiting the breachway from our chosen launching place that we were going to at least catch fish. There were at least three flocks of birds over breaking fish within close proximity. We got right on the first ones and were into fish right away. the average for the rest of the day was set right then: easy fishing, huge schools of absurdly fat school bass, and bigger fish that were far to easily missed and lost.

Now, one of the differences between this day and some other spectacular striper days I've had is that, although there were huge, gigantic, massive, colossal schools of bass out there feeding, they never condensed into big sprawling blitzed where we were. It was kind of like the day of the hundred acre albie blitz last fall (flyfishingcts.blogspot.com): There were just huge spreads of fish feeding in a broad area, with smaller groups of fish busting and a more of less even distribution of fish not actually breaking in between those smaller groups. There were thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of striped bass under us on this day.

At slack tide the action stopped for us there so we moved west, relaunching in CT. I had talked to Phil Sheffield and he had been on fish. We didn't even get to the intended spot before doubling up.

What we saw along the beach was not particularly spectacular. Fish were there, but they were scattered. Mark suggested we go around Watch Hill, for sometimes this time of year you can go around that point and see that chaos is unfolding on the opposite side, hidden from view to the west by the point. That's exactly what was happening, and for the rest of the evening we were on some of the biggest schools of striped bass I've ever seen. There were big fish in the mix too, we'd see them swirl on the bait periodically or follow a my fly back all the way to the boat. When I was fishing a popper, which was one of the more productive flies, it was not unusual for there to be 4, 5, 6, probably up to 8 bass underneath it if it made it boat-side without a hook up. If I just let it sit at the end of the retrieve, often one would come up and take it like a bluegill sipping a dry fly. One of the fish that did that was a definite 30 incher. No, I did not boat that one.

Really, there's only one thing I would change about this day if I could.
I wish it had been flat calm! In the swell we had, it was impossible to get photos that did it any justice. It was a show like I've never seen before.