Monday, March 25, 2019

Oddities After Dark: Redfin Pickerel at Night

  I made it a priority this year to start night fishing trout rivers regularly very early. I had initially committed myself to starting as soon as nights we consistently above freezing. But with all the amphibian action already, I knew there was a chance I'd get into fish even before that. I've caught trout in March hacking up partly digested salamanders in frogs. I had no reason to wait until it got warmer.

Saturday night, a little cold, the river was a little high and off-color for my tastes, but I was going to night fish. The water was 40 degrees and I thought I might be able to move some big browns.



Before dark I laid into some stocker rainbows. It was good to knock the skunk off before dark. Though I was hopeful, I wasn't certain I'd get on fish. So, though they weren't what I wanted, I wasn't going to be annoyed about them.

After dark, I started with a large, black, unweighted Heifer Groomer. I worked the flats, back eddies, and around wood structure. That failing, I  switched to a mouse. It was quite cold. I was getting ice in the guides. While I walked between spots my fly froze solid. I wasn't hearing anything going on. Even in December I've heard night action here, so I know temperature wasn't the issue. I just don't think the flow was right. I wasn't getting the kind of drifts I wanted. I know when I'm being forced to fish to fast, and I was absolutely not fishing slowly enough on this night. 




I didn't move squat. I fished until 11:00. In between pools I spent a lot of time seeing what I could see in thew shallows. Don't just use your light to see where you're going and choose and tie new flies. You could easily miss noticing the key to the night if you don't occasionally turn your light on. Obviously, don't do it in the spot you intend to fish, but between spots, point your light into the shallows and see what's swimming around. 




What Saturday night lacked in warmth, Sunday night wasn't going to. So I was going out again. But it was very different water and a very different game. Smaller mice, big nymphs, and big wetflies were going to be the name of the game. 




I fished a couple deep pools initially, but most of this stream is pocked water and I had a feeling big trout would slide in and out of the more slow pockets on the sides of the stream to hunt. I worked these pockets carefully with the mouse, slapping it down as though it were jumping from one rock the swimming across to the next. It was challenging work in the dark. And man was it ever dark last night. Though we had a near full moon it was completely cloudy. Add to that steep canyon walls and hemlocks and I was working about as close to blind as was possible for this game. An hour in something slashed at the mouse. I set the hook, and at first though I had missed the fish. I turned on my light though and got was shocked to see a fat, gravid, 10 inch redfin pickerel just barely hooked on my mouse. While I struggled to get out my camera it managed to silently slip away. I was left annoyed that I had managed to miss what was likely a once in a lifetime occurrence. 

I continued downstream, failed to find any more willing fish, and spent a little time catching macroinvertebrates. 



Going back upstream, I nymphed. For an hour and a half, nothing. Then, something. A very small trout, I thought. But it wasn't. It was another gravid American pickerel. Unbelievable. I've never even seen one in this stream, which I've been fishing for years. Pickerel are also pretty much exclusively diurnal feeders. Targeting them at night is essentially pointless. I've caught one chain pickerel at night. And now, on the same night, two redfin pickerel. I doubt I could do so intentionally, honestly. 
I have been less excited had I caught two 18 inch brown trout. 

 E. americanus americanus



Having caught anything at all, and especially something pretty atypical, I am even more inclined to night fish trout streams in the coming weeks. I'll be night fishing a bunch soon anyway, with the river herring knocking at our door. Things are about to blow wide open, and it can't happen soon enough. I'm getting pretty trout-sick. I crave variety. 

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, and Christopher, for supporting this blog.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Mouse Eaters and Salamander Larvae

I've whipped out the mouse a handful of times already this year. Most day it was a mediocre producer. It just wasn't moving many fish. They hadn't been in the river long enough to be very hungry and the water was cold. I need just one before the snow melted, and fortunately I got it, so I could take this photo:

Time: middle of the day. Foreground: trout with big mouse in his maw. Background: snow. Not as coold as my big snowstorm brookie on a mouse in 2017, but mice, trout, snow, and daylight generally don't mix in most fly anglers' minds.
Then came yesterday. The fish were on. I had to work the pocket water, the fish that haven't already been caught were the ones really willing to move up, but my numbers weren't bad. Six on the mouse. A slow, steady pick. My hookup ratio was phenomenal, actually. I only missed two fish. Normally I'd have to flip that ratio. 





A very uniquely intact dorsal on a stocker bow.



It was supposed to rain at some point during the day here. It didn't. I fished in quite dry conditions hoping to see some drops. Why? I was anticipating some amphibian movement after dark. Noah and I went out late to look for spotted salamanders and it hadn't even showered yet. With the ground still dry, we went to search the edges of vernal pools. We found salamanders, but not spotteds.



Noah and I found, among the giant cased caddis, crayfish, fairy shrimp, and assorted water bugs, larval marbled salamanders. This was my first time getting to see a larval mole salamander up close and it was awesome.

Marbled salamanders have a unique life history compared to many amphibians. Their reproductive methods are surprising. Unlike their more famous cousin, the spotted salamander, and most of the rest of North American amphibians, Ambystoma opacum drop their eggs under rotting logs, bark, or leaf litter in the dry bottoms of vernal pools in the fall. After the pools fill back up and the water slowly begins to warm, their larvae emerge. Right now, as the pools are loosing their last bits of ice in central CT, larvae marbled salamanders are swimming around in the leaf litter. They look more like fish than they do a mole salamanders, dodging giant water beetles and crayfish, munching on small fairy shrimp, swimming around in water that other amphibian species haven't even really started to lay their own eggs in yet. What a remarkable species!

Eventually it did begin to rain, so we left the trails and took to the streets, driving slowly and stopping when we saw something of an amphibious nature. Well, we ended up stopping a lot. Very cold, stiff, slow spring peepers and wood frogs were all over the place. Salamanders though, were curiously absent. Maybe it was just a little to cold. Or maybe, had we stayed out longer, they would have made an appearance. Who knows?
Pseudacris crucifer



Lithobates sylvaticus
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 and Christopher, for supporting this blog.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Little Bit of Class 1 Exploration

Josh Parsons invited me to fish a class 1 TMA on Monday. That was a pretty easy choice. This stream was one I have done pretty well in previously and have seen the potential for big fish in. It's also just a gorgeous place. Rolling hills, farmland, mixed forest... it's a New Englandy trout stream if there ever was one.



The outing started out with a surprise. Under the bridge, dangling my little sculpin, I hooked up to what I was pretty sure was going to be a big brown. Then I got a good look at it. 


This very not wild rainbow in a Class 1 WTMA is the second I've caught there since November. It's a different fish too, the other was substantially smaller. 

Fortunately I found a real fish not 15 minutes later. 


Kind of a weird think happened. I had my own personal very short bite window. I got two more browns, found some fish rising to extremely tiny midges that I apparently had nothing small enough to imitate (22's didn't work, wet or dry). I did what I hate doing though and pulled a streamer through the risers and had one of the prettiest browns I've ever seen take the fly. 



 A recent, very brief post of mine spoke to how hard it can be to capture what a fish really looks like through photography. My brief encounter with this handsome fish wasn't such a circumstance. 



A little further up I got my third and final wild brown, a long and lean female. Not long after that Josh and I headed downstream, only to find an exceptional lack of action and a stream bed gouged out by this previous year's extremely high water events. A lot of great structure that had been was gone, and apparently a lot of the fish have moved out of that water. It had also clearly been fished a substantial amount too, but I can see there being some potential here for habitat improvement, as long as it doesn't result in problems for the native species of special concern, slimy sculpin.





Though being a little unusual day it was a good one. I got to cover some parts of the stream that I hadn't previously and caught some exceptional fish. I also saw ways in which the stream could be improved to slow erosion and provide better cover for both trout and smaller native fish species. A time goes on I'd like to see some progress made in this watershed.

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 and Christopher, for supporting this blog.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Piscivores in the Crosshairs: The Tenuous Relationship Between Fish Eating Fauna and Anglers

Anglers and animals that eat fish have long had a complicated relationship, and for obvious reasons. We often have a tendency to perceive fisheries as "ours", and when animals come along that want to eat fish, we say "they've come to eat our fish". I've felt this way in the past, and it wasn't until fairly recently that I've shaken the last bits of these perceptions and have come to accept the importance of piscivorous birds and mammals in our ecosystems. I propose that in nearly all cases the long-lasting decimation of fisheries can rarely be traced to a non-human animal. We are the root of all fisheries problems, and culling another species is rarely the answer. This is a controversial stance, but I am only becoming more firmly balanced here the more I learn. It's going to be a lot harder to budge me from it than it was to get this cormorant to leave his log. 


A big part of my motivation to write this was a Facebook post I saw months ago demonizing mink and otters for the "damage" they do to stocked trout. A few people I had thought better of commented in agreement of that post, and it saddened me. I could sympathize a little because I used to think differently. Through personal observation, study, and a lot of thought both critically and philosophically I realized how ignorant I had been.


Mink and otters were here eating brook trout and Atlantic salmon, as well as other species, well before humans were. Piscivorous mammals and birds and fish evolved alongside each other and through the interactions with each other. The fish evolved to avoid predation by these specific species, and over time a balance was maintained in which the predators were able to take what they needed and the fish populations remained stable. Remember, a predatory species that wipes out its key food source goes extinct. Otters, mink, great blue heron, and cormorants are still here precisely because they don't "eat all of our fish".

Enter the European. Withing a few centuries of being on the continent we wiped out so many salmonid fisheries that they were no longer to our satisfaction. We subsequently decided that the best course of action would be to stock rivers and lakes with trout and salmon, which in some cases resulted in self sustaining fisheries, but far more often resulted in a cyclical fishery that needs to be replenished with further stocking because the fish are not adapted to water we are putting them in. To make a long story short, we stole much of the osprey's, fisher's, mink's, otter's, and cormorant's food supply, replaced it with a cheap knock off, and get pissed off when they use it. How selfish is that!?



The hatred of trout eating wildlife isn't limited to hatchery fish though. I've seen blame for declining numbers of brook trout in certain streams thrown at these same species, and I've done the same myself. I challenge you, fellow anglers, to show me one example of a stream in which native fauna alone permanently extirpated native brook trout. That simply isn't how predator species operate.
A mink will occupy a watershed niche as long as easy hunting exists, leaving for the next location when what is left are the fish most adept at avoiding its predation. This predator prey relationship and natural selection actually improves the genetic vigor of fish populations, though it may temporarily make fishing noticeably slower. It is a crucial natural process that we shouldn't try to interrupt.

In the current time in the Northeast perhaps the most clear example of a piscivore in the crosshairs are seals. While most aquatic megafauna are making modest comebacks in the nearshore and inshore waters here, seals and their primary southern range predator, the great white shark, have exploded onto the scene in a far more abrupt and stunning manner. As seal numbers have exploded there are basically too camps calling for their number to be culled: anglers that don't want the seals eating "their" fish, and people that don't like the sharks that the seals attract. Based on what you have read here so far you probably know where I am going. I don't believe either camp has a leg to stand on.


Seals eat an immense tonnage of fish, that is factual. And they are one of an adult striped bass's only three significant predators. They almost certainly eat more than sharks. 

But that's where things break down. The idea that culling seals is good for striped bass fisheries is dangerous when the third and final predator of striped bass is Homo sapiens. Based on every bit of data I have had access to recently, it is human consumption and release mortality for which the bulk of the decline in striped bass can be attributed. The fishing in areas where seal numbers have increased, like Monomoy Island, has gone downhill, but to suggest that because those striped bass aren't there means they aren't anywhere seems ridiculous to me. This is important to note: when we're talking about a migratory species being influenced by a great many factors, different places have their times. Migratory striped bass have been dodging seals for thousands of years. Monomoy had its time, and it may someday have its time again. But I suggest that we should let seals do there thing, let the seal's predators cull them naturally, and cull the human take instead. I have not seen data that indicates that seals are a driving force in population-wide and range-wide shifts for striped bass, and as with brook trout the striped bass have evolved in correlation with non-human predation. I do not see a reason to point the finger at seals for the striper population crash. You can certainly point at seals as the reason for a lack of stripers in certain areas, but we need to get over that. Healthy ecosystems are more important than our recreation, and the only way seal numbers will be culled naturally is by letting their numbers fluctuate normally and attract more and more sharks. Only under circumstances in which seals could be singled out and proven to be pushing striped bass towards a legal listing under the ESA should culling be considered. This has only become my stance as of very recently and I know and respect a lot of people that will disagree. But at this point some really substantial evidence would need to be put in front of me to change my mind.  


Birds and mammals aren't the only animals targeted by frustrated anglers. Oftentimes, other fish are the target. Many anglers value some fish species over most others, and it isn't infrequent that fish like suckers, gar, bowfin, and muskie are singled out for eating the eggs, fry, or adults of fish that are considered more desirable. White suckers and redhorse are left to rot on the banks for eating trout eggs. Bowfin and gar are maimed for eating bass. Muskie are killed for eating bass or walleye. In all of these cases their is little actual evidence with which to justify the actions. I have no problem with killing and using non-native species withing the law and reason, nor the killing with prejudice of invasive species. But I do have a huge problem with the killing, maiming, and wanton waste of native species because they are perceived as a threat to oftentimes non-native, "more desirable" species. As with everything I have discussed so far, this is something I am guilty of doing at one time. I killed fallfish in a brook trout stream because I was ignorant and because I valued brook trout more. That I did such a thing disgusts me. I am deeply, deeply ashamed that I did this. Since coming out of the dark and actually learning the realities of native species and small stream ecology I have been doing all I can to try to right those wrongs. It makes me sick to my stomach to know I had been so destructive and prejudiced towards something I now absolutely adore and would put myself in harm's way to protect. Even though fallfish, gar, white suckers, bowfin, and muskie are in absolutely no danger of extinction at the present, killing them for no reason other than perceived damage to a species you like more is despicable, disgusting, immoral, and beyond reproach. 

Longnose gar, most likely beheaded by an ignorant fisherman. (photo courtesy Tim Aldridge)

(photo courtesy Tim Aldridge)


This brings us to my conclusion: biodiversity is far more important than human recreation. Admit it or not, we are selfish creatures. I am no more immune than anyone. I wish I could go to Monomoy and catch a bunch of big stripers on the flats. I wish every brook trout stream I fished was always consistently loaded with tons of brookies. But more than that I want to live in a bio-diverse world with as little human interference as possible. What the kind of fishery we want isn't always the kind of fishery nature can provide. I recognize that there are circumstances in which human intervention is necessary because we've already messed things up so severely, but I also recognize that the angling community is very heavy handed and shortsighted with its condoning of human intervention. Piscivorous predators are a natural and vital part of every fishery. We need to learn to live with them. I am trying my best to. It is frustrating sometimes, it is difficult too, but if we keep trying make every animal and ecosystem bend to our every whim, we are going to kill this whole thing, ourselves included.

Though that is my conclusion statement I want to end this on a more positive note. A fluffy, adorable positive note. 
In 2017 I came up to see one of my favorite wild brook trout streams in what to me looked like a shambles. Three young common mergansers were diving and hunting for fish, making a huge ruckus. Infuriated to see fish eating birds in "my" stream, I hollered at them. They flew off, and I was left to walk around looking at all the dead fish they had left, mostly suckers and brook trout. I was appalled. I was so angry at those bird for ruining the stream. I talked about it for months. 
Well, those birds didn't ruin the stream. Not even close. If I were to go back today it would be just as good as it was before that incident. I felt bad for how I acted towards those birds and how I talked about them later. So, when I watched a mother merganser abandon her last surviving chick last spring after seeing the rest disappear one by one, I didn't see much of a choice. I was to become that little fuzzy merganserling's interim mama. I dropped everything I had planned for that fishing night and saved that duckling from near certain death by turtle, fish, or hypothermia, and I'm glad I did. I did what I could to take care of it while my mother reached out to some of our old rehabilitation contacts (this was not our first wild animal care experience). One of our friends was eventually able to take the little guy off our hands. Hopefully he has a long, happy life and eats lots of fish. 


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 and Christopher, for supporting this blog.