Saturday, June 30, 2018

Lake Champlain Region on the Fly: Predators in the Weeds

Final day. One last chance to just tear it up and catch the fish we wanted to catch on this trip. Today it was pike and bowfin. Early we fished the Lamoille. It was decent. Noah moved some pike and caught one hammer handle. I caught tons of panfish and a golden shiner. Then, at the boat launch, looking at schools of shiners, I saw a chance to catch at least one new species on this trip.
Tip: if you are having a tough time getting micros to hold onto a fly long enough to hook, stick a tiny piece of soft plastic lure on there. It doesn't have to be scented, just give them something to chew on. Or, just tie flies for micros that use rubber as the primary material. thread and a piece of rubber band is often enough.

Life list #78, Cyprinella spiloptera
That was good. Something new that I don't have to worry about targeting in the future. Time to find things that eat that species.

We moved a little further down the lake (North. The water here runs north to the St. Lawrence) and looked found a great, sprawling weed bed on a moderate depth flat. The wind died, it got warm, the clouds stayed put. Bowfin rolled all over. This was it. I was about to have one of the best days of streamer fishing big water I've ever had. 

 The pike were there. The pickerel were there. The largemouth were there. And they were all over slow sinking, flashy streamers and spinnerbaits.

For hours, every drift produced something cool. We had so much ground we could cover that there was always un-fished water, but setting up the same drifts repeatedly always produced too. One drift would produce a few pickerel. The next all bass. The next a couple pike. My hits were all jarring and visually impressive, and though the pike weren't big, I've never had a day like this where I just hammered them. I caught 18 pike, had four bite offs, and lost a few others. Unfortunately one of the four that bit me off were in the high 30 inch range and another was probably 40. But catching six times more pike than I had in my entire fly fishing carrier in one day was just awesome.

The fact that for every few Esox lucius there was a nice Esox niger made it even more fun. I never caught a pike or pickerel I didn't like. The way they both pursue a fly, then just hit the gas and blast it... I can't get enough of it.

 Most people fish Champlain for its bass. Noah and I both like bass fishing, but we have kind of the same mindset that it would be immensely boring to just bass fish all the time. This year I have hardly targeted largemouth at all, and for me they have become by-catch. We weren't here for largemouth, but that didn't mean we were annoyed when we caught them, we every much enjoyed hooking and boating them. I very much wish that some of the bass anglers on Champlain and elsewhere would treat their by-catch with the same respect. I have heard too many stories of anglers breaking off gars' jaws and releasing them alive, clubbing bowfin on the bank, and leaving dead pike and pickerel in the water. That's wrong. Absolutely unacceptable.

Noah ended up getting a couple trophies fishing this spot. The first was the only bowfin either of us caught, and it was a monster. The only reason we didn't catch more is that sight fishing wasn't really possible. We could see lots of bowfin gulp air, but you have to see them in the water for a good presentation in this kind of water. Noah actually saw one, hooked it, and it was a monster.

Want to catch stupidly big pumpkinseeds? Fish Lake Champlain! Noah's other trophy was the biggest damn pumpkinseed I have ever seen. The photo doesn't do it justice. It was so big it was funny. 

We probably quit later than we should have. The drive home was dark and dangerously wet. But we absolutely just left them eating there. I simply cannot wait to fish Champlain again, hopefully during better weather. 

Freshwater drum and longnose gar: I have a very specific set of skills. I have acquired those skills over a short but obsessive career. Skills that make me a nightmare for fish like you.
I will look for you. I will find you. And I will catch and release you. 

(NOTE: I forgot about it while writing this, but one of the pike I caught on this day buried a size 2 hook well past the barb while I was unhooking it. ALWAYS have heavy braided line, pliers, and antiseptic if you are going to use flies or lures with more than one hook and bring angry, toothy fish into a kayak or boat.)

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Brief Intermission

(Please play for duration of visit)

I will pick up the final segment of the Champlain adventure tomorrow, but for now, a brief intermission: Night fishing for trout is kind of happening right now. The mouse bite is good on my river. Quite good. And when the mouse bite is good it's what I'm going to do.

I tend to prefer the darkest nights for night fishing, regardless of species. It's nice to be able to see a lot of what's around you, yes. But fish don't feed at night because its bright out. My best nights targeting trout are the blackest, warmest, muggiest, buggiest nights. The water levels are typically low, maybe during the day the temperature peaked at a height that would make targeting trout questionable. As long as it is dark and gross and the water is low and just cold enough, that's when you need to get your butt to the river if you want to find a big nocturnal brown. 

I've said it before and I'll say it again, if you want to produce well at night, 





Just twitch that mouse. Don't strip it like a streamer, don't swing it like a wet fly, don't rip it downstream. Mice suck at swimming, they can't go anywhere fast. Cast up and across, strip in two inches of line every four seconds, mend if you have to. 

What will always amaze me is how a sizable trout can eat a huge mouse with almost no sound at all in riffled water. Twitch.... Twitch.... Twitch.... 
Heavy, throbbing weight.
It's exciting fishing. Any cast in the right water could produce an absolutely massive trout. It took only the mere thought of catching a trout on a big rodent imitation to get me obsessed with this type of angling. God, I love it! 

Something I've noted this season is how many more browns I catch on mice at night in this river than rainbows and brookies. Initially that may not seem odd, browns are, to us easterners, the most frequently targeted trout with mice. But in the early spring when I use these flies during the day, this is how it works: the fish most likely to take a mouse presented to it is a tiger trout. Second, brook trout. Third, rainbow. Brown trout are fourth. Fourth. It is harder to get a stocked brown to eat a mouse in daylight than any other species or hybrid I have fished them for. I think this provides insight into how long it takes stocked trout to adjust. Right now, late June, the species have fallen into natural behaviors, the population has thinned and filled out, this is when stocked trout fishing is as close to wild as it could possibly be. Take the tactics that work on stocked trout here now and apply them on wild rivers and they will work. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Lake Champlain Region on the Fly: Muskellunge


The muskellunge is about as iconic a fish as exists in the world. They are uncommon, large, and generally impressive looking creatures. Even in the most densely populated watersheds, muskie are one of if not the least common predator fish. That is very typical of apex predators: they reproduce slowly, they grow slowly, they never completely fill out an ecosystem or they'd destroy it and themselves in the process. Another trait of apex predators is a lack of shyness. Muskie simply don't care that you're there most of the time. They'll eat boat-side without hesitation. Find a laid up muskie, if it decides it doesn't want to be seen it won't spook and run like a trout or a bass, it'll sink deeper into the weeds or slowly cruise off. If a muskie isn't taking a fly or a lure, it's mostly because they run on a slow metabolism and only eat in tiny windows. Present something to a muskie outside those feeding windows, they'll follow without committing or just remain unseen. This behavior earned them the much deserved title of fish of a thousand casts. Many, many anglers are willing to make all those casts to catch one muskie because they are phenomenal specimens: thick, muscular, big, toothy, mean looking.

Hours and hours of work. A violent eat. A short but extraordinarily chaotic fight. An impressive fish in the net. That is muskie fishing. 

Aside from spending what many would consider an irrationally large amount of time on the water, muskie have driven anglers to do some crazy things. With such an iconic species, there will always be some dramatics. Hayward Wisconsin is the epicenter of musky country, and the final resting place of one of the most emblematic figures in angling history. The words that open this essay grace Louis Bolser Spray's tombstone. To this day, Louie Spray remains controversial. Did he actually catch three record muskies? Did he even catch one record fish? Was the almost inconceivably large 69lb 11oz muskie Louie claimed to have caught in 1949 actually real, or could it have been an exaggeration or even physically altered? And if it was real, was he the one that actually catch it? Claims that Spray bought fish from other anglers and that stomachs were packed with ground fish to increase weight have come out for more than half a century. The reality is, we may never know for certain. But the history runs deep in Wisconsin. When a new record in 1994 was discredited, to many it was the record coming back home. A muskie mount on the wall of a Hayward building is just as natural as a light switch. 

Miles from Hayward Wisconsin, in a place were musky are really just starting to become a blip on the radar, and fishing with tackle Louie Spray would probably have scoffed at, I moved my first musky with a fly. 

The day was slow anyway. Noah and I were frustrated, not sure of what to do or where to go, just grasping at straws. We found carp spawning. We marked fish in different areas that just wouldn't eat. We tried to find a non-existent bait and tackle shop.

Then, on a whim, we pulled into a random little park, looked briefly for worms to use for drum, then took a look at the river and found the sign found in my last post. I had a thought... if we were going to have such a hard time catching fish anyway, we might as well target big pike and musky. And so I did. 

I made a sacrifice to the fish gods.  Just a little bit of whiskey to the river powers that be. Give me a sign.

A sign.

Less than 100 yards from the launch, I laid out a 60 foot cast under an overhanging tree and alongside a sunken log. As the leader got to the tip of the rod, I began to L-turn the fly next to the kayak. When I'm streamer fishing, I don't focus on the fly. I look behind it. I know what the fly looks like, what I need to know to adjust my retrieve is if and how a fish is engaging with it. On this occasion, while peering into the murk behind my huge black fly, I saw a monster silently rise out of the depths. For a second time just stopped. I was looking at an alien monster, and it was looking back at me as if to say "Really dude? I'm not eating that". 

The amount of shaking my knees did for the next two hours was rough. 

Did either of us end up catching a musky? No. Did we need to? Not really. But the image of that fish coming up out of the darkness, more to check me out than to pursue the fly, won't leave me until I hold one of those fish. 

The afternoon was not without fish though. I caught a very good looking carp in deep water, Noah caught the only smallie of the weekend. 

Monday, June 25, 2018

Lake Champlain Region on the Fly: Rivers and Waterfalls

On Friday Noah and I left CT early enough that we would get to the part of Vermont we wanted to fish with plenty of time to work with in the afternoon and evening hours. The working plan from Friday night into Saturday morning was to start in the south end of one drainage and work north to the mouth. Basically it was and slow start in water with trout, fallfish, and panfish, then work up to pike and bass, then bigger pike, gar, drum, and, though we almost certainly wouldn't catch any....

In fishing a new watershed, there are a few types of structure I will always gravitate to. Dams and waterfalls are among the first spots I will fish on a new river. They are a choke point at the very least, a migration barrier at most for many species. There are always fish under a good dam or waterfall. 

Our first spot was probably the most likely to produce a trout. The water was cold and clear at 63 degrees. Some caddis were coming off. There were a lot of baitfish around including some of the biggest blacknose dace you could find. We caught no trout, though Noah did see what was most likely a large brookie. 

Fallfish, however, were willing participants. 

 Northward we continued, looking for more variety. We found it in a deeper pool bellow another waterfall. Bass, bluegill, pumpkinseeds, and an absurd number of cookie cutter rock bass provided an hour's entertainment, but it didn't seem like much of size was there and eating.

Numbers done.We didn't need to catch more of the same fish. We moved north once more that night, looking for pike in the spot where I caught my first on fly. The situation was very different from that trip, the water was more than four feet lower. The places I found fish that trip weren't fishable this time. It got dark before we could find any pike. It was an interesting night. Frogs and flies dominated the ambiance, though great horned owls and moose vocalizations interrupted the drone of grey tree frogs, green frogs, and mosquitoes.  Fire flies filled the field and the trees we camped near. 

The next morning we were up early to get to the final set of falls we would fish before actually reaching Champlain. 

The two species we really wanted here were freshwater drum and gar. It was pretty clear, based on the overall conditions that drum were probably the only of the two we could hope for. Gar are far easier to fish for if you can see them. Throughout the weekend, I saw gar come up and gulp air three times, all in deep murky water. What we needed was a calm, hot, sunny day. We just weren't getting that. It was the exact opposite. So we focused on drum. An unexpected amount of fishing pressure in the form of a derby probably threw of our chances. 

To find drum we needed to go right to the mouth of the river. We were seeing fish on the graph, lots of fish. A kayaker posted up right across from the launch was steadily filling a bucket with white perch.It seemed like we could get lucky here. But it seemed like finding a needle in a haystack. The needle wasn't a drum in general, it was the one drum out of the bunch that would be interested in eating something. Anything. And Noah found the needle. 

That was it, one of the two species we really made the trip for. Noah got his drum. In the end, I wouldn't find mine. Time would tell if I could add something else to my life list. 

Friday, June 22, 2018

Trip Prep Fly Tying

So. Did I fish yesterday?


Was it worth writing a post about?


No. No it was not. I caught two fish, Dan caught one. They were all tiny. If you are wondering what the plastic bag is, I use it to keep my camera safe. Though it made a rather mediocre photo it was either keep the fish out of the water longer to put the bag away or let the bag blow away. Neither are good options, and because it isn't every day that I catch a 10 inch striper, I just had to showcase this monster in all its magnificence. 

So. Nothing yesterday made itself worth writing a post about, and I am about to be away from the interwebs for two days. In the past I have had this kind of thing absolutely destroy my readership for as much as a week. Like stray cats, it seems if I don't keep feeding some of you, you'll leave. 
Did Rowan just call us stray cats? I think so. I think he did. I'm outraged. 
Calm down. I don't think you're a cat. If, however, you are a cat... welcome. I am about to post some photos of things you would probably enjoy batting around on the floor. 

Want to keel a woolly bugger? Crimp a splitshot or two on there!

In less than two hours I will be off to a very different land. A land of big and numerous pike. A land where chances of hooking a musky aren't zero. A land of huge bowfin, carp, and bass. A land with freshwater drum and longnose gar. 

My preparation tying consisted of filling out my carp box, tying some flies that freshwater drum should find appetizing, throwing together some rope flies for gar, and lashing together more flash than I have ever put on a single fly. I am armed to the teeth. I just hope the rain doesn't shut down our chances of catching some new species and bigger specimens of ones we already have. 

Lake Champlain, here we come. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Small Streams, Native Fish, and Memories

Some places, despite a superficial mediocrity, imprint themselves in my memory. There are streams and ponds that I fish from time to time, knowing that there isn't much more for me to learn there. Big strides will not be made. I know I have caught as big a fish as exists in some of these places, or as many species as are there. Perhaps I know these spots well enough to fish them "perfectly". I hate that word, because if perfection in angling ability exists at all it is extraordinarily rare. But there are a few places where I know I can fish as thoroughly and effectively as possible. Why, then, should I return?

My memory works in a manor of association, and being in a place will conjure up every little bit of experience I had there. From there I will journey through memories made in the company of certain people. Then maybe memories about a certain fish species, or a certain animal. Sometimes, I visit a stream or pond not to fish, but just to remember things that make me smile and laugh.

This old iron bridge over a insignificant a frankly quite dumpy central CT small stream is exactly the place where my passion for small stream trout fishing was born. Today was the first time I'd seen it in a few years. The exact date of that this occurred is anybodies guess. I had yet to pick up a fly rod. I knew next to nothing about fishing moving water. All I knew about trout at the time was that they could be found in streams this size.

I would probably not have fished this stretch of water were it not for the fact that my best friend lived just up the road. I mean that in the most literal sense: to get to the stream, we would leave Dalton's house, walk down the dead end street, and follow the remnants of what had once been a continuation of the street down to the slowly disintegrating skeleton of a bridge crossing the creek. Occasionally, as a change of pace, we would leave his home and go straight through the woods, but that was rare. Oftentimes we were accompanied by Bob. Dalton's dog Bob was probably the most pleasant dog I've ever met. He was immensely cheerful, didn't need to be watched, and I don't recall him ever messing up our fishing. If Bob got bored halfway through an outing, he went home. He was never leashed, didn't need to be. There was only one time that Bob did something rude... more on that to come.

The first fish I caught out of the creek was almost certainly a fallfish. We definitely did not know it was a fallfish, I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I was part of the ignorant masses and called them chubs for far longer than I should have.

Fallfish, Semotilus corporalis, in their juvenile form, are frequently mistaken for dace or creek chub. It is a forgivable mistake, they have a defined black lateral line that fades but is still to some degree visible under water in their adult form.

Dalton and I caught many, many fallfish in this stream. Some big, many small. I caught my first on a fly here on an olive Hare's Ear. Most were caught fishing small Panther Martin spinners. That was our go-to lure. It was deadly. Dalton absolutely thrashed me one day with it, catching probably 10 big brook trout including one of 16 inches. That was well after I had pretty much converted entirely to fly fishing, at least on streams, and that beating pushed me to do something I had not done before. A couple days later I came back with an orange, green, and gold Phoebe and caught some exceptional trout. That spring, four years ago I believe, was the only one in which we caught trout with any consistency here. The state have since stopped stocking this stream. It gets extremely low and warm in the summer, but it does have a tributary with wild brook trout in it. Today I payed it a visit. Many a day has been saved by a visit to one pool there.

Today, the three brookies I pulled out of that pool on an x-caddis were all about as beautiful as summertime brook trout get. They were the essence of why I fish for these little cold-water dwelling salmonids. It isn't for a battle. It isn't because they are challenging to fool. It's because they are painted with every color that I'd never expect to see on a fish living in such an environment.

I'd be lying if I said I remembered every single brook trout I ever caught. In the last six years, I have caught an awful lot of them. Some do stick out though, and one that I caught in that same short stretch of stream is one such fish. It was caught after one of the more brutal fishing winters I've experienced. It had probably been more than a month since I had caught a brook trout. There was still more than a foot of snow on the ground that afternoon, but I had seen through the bus window on the way to school in the morning that the water was open, ice free, and clean. I walked to the stream i n waders that didn't fit me, gave myself a severe blister and had to essentially crawl over anything that would require lifting my leg more than about two feet. I caught one fish, just when I thought all hope was lost, on a Floss Pinkie. It was stunning, flanks just glowing in neon purple. I will probably remember that fish until the day I die. 

 Fortunately, what the larger stream lacks in wild trout it makes up for in other native species. Redbreast sunfish made their presence known as soon as the water warmed and the flow dropped in mid to late spring. Today, many were spawning. I immediately stopped targeting the bedding fish when I saw juvenile fallfish swarm the nest of one while I fought, landed, and released one. Though their population in plenty healthy, they are a native fish in a fairly natural habitat and I hate to impact them in that way.

One of the other natives that calls this stream home is the redfin pickerel. These little fish lead fairly secretive lives. When water is high, they will be any place they can't be seen or caught. When it is low, the are about as skittish and evasive as a bobcat.  Today, they were extremely evasive. I spooked many. I fooled and brought to hand only one. But that one was a heavy brute of a redfin. Yeah, they are small fish, even the largest examples of them, but I love them. More so than either of the two larger Esox species that live in CT. 

The reason for that, aside from there strikingly musky-like coloration and ability to live in the smallest, shallowest water imaginable, is that the redfin pickerel and I go way back....

Many years ago, before I ever picked up a fly rod, and before I was even a reasonably adept bass fisherman, I was drowning worms under a bobber in a trout park pond when I caught a world record. At the time, I had no clue what I was looking at. I dropped my bobber in the weedy, muddy, bluegill filled margin, it dunked under, and I pulled in what was only identifiable to my uneducated brain as some sort of pike. I can see it now in almost painful detail. I say painful, because I now know that at 12 years old, I caught, held, and released a redfin pickerel that would have absolutely shattered the all tackle world record. Frankly, I don't care about being recognized, not for a world record. But I wish I had recognized then the magnitude of what I was holding. It was just a novelty then, a surprise catch that I couldn't identify with certainty. I wish I could go back. I wish I could see that fish again. Photograph it. Gawk at it.

Fallfish beds. Tedious work done by very determined fish. 
Redfin pickerel are the fish that set into motion my species quest. Unless you can afford to travel the world it really doesn't make sense to build a life-list if you aren't willing to target very small fish. It takes realizing that just because a fish is tiny, considered a trash fish, or less than handsome doesn't mean it is boring, to turn into a real life-lister.

Crayfish. Crayfish are funny little animals. I have a bit of an irrational fear of getting pinched by crabs, bit by a big beetle, or pincered by a hellgrammite. I'll pick up a very angry northern water snake without hesitation, but when a crayfish wields his claws and spurts backwards as they do I yank my hand away like a complete wuss. I was catching crayfish way before I even lived in CT. The spring spilling out of the hillside below my grandparent's house had them. I found them rolling rocks in Oil Creek and small creeks near Justus Lake. Crayfish were a significant part of my youth way before brook trout were. Turtles, though less significant, exist in a few striking memories. 
Today I found a couple different turtles. Two painted turtles checked me out in different meadow sections. I spotted a small snapping turtle tucked in the rocks. 

The first wood turtle I ever remember seeing was in this creek. Dalton and I were headed back upstream after an exceptional session, with some great trout and a surprising number of bass caught. We spotted it crawling on the bottom in probably four feet of water. Never one to avoid a challenge, Dalton jumped right in after it. I wouldn't have done so, but we got to get a close look at that turtle because he was markedly ballsier than me. 

It may have been that same day that Bob abandoned us. We were taking an overland route back. There was a little bit of a clearing in the tree canopy that we hadn't seen before. The first thought: maybe there's a pond there. Always thinking fish. We headed that way. Bob hurried into the brush ahead of us. A few moments later, there was a tremendous commotion. Bob came sprinting back towards us, blasting head first through very thick briers. He passed us at a full gallop as if to say "screw this, I'm outta here", and just kept going. We turned and looked back in the direction we had been going and saw a very large thing blasting through the brush in an arching line past us, just out of our sight. A bear. It had to be. Nothing else is in the woods that's that big and runs that quickly and loudly. Bob was gone, and soon we were following him. 

Things have changed. There aren't trout in the creek anymore. Some new trees have fallen, others have grown. Three generations of fallfish have come and gone. Beavers built dams, moved on, and the dams breached. Bob passed away. Dalton joined the army. 

The stream is still there. Native fish are still there. The memories are still there.