Friday, November 30, 2018

100 SPECIES (and hybrids) ON THE FLY

Today was do or die day. I was either going to catch my 99th and 100th life list fish today or go home frustrated and have to come back in three weeks for redemption, making that trip more stressful than necessary. Fishing salt water would give me the best chance. I picked a spot on the Indian River and got about an hour to spend there. I was hoping the place was going to be just packed with species, unfortunately it wasn't. The first fish I saw were finger mullet. Then big fat ones that were eating algae off the rocks. I knew my chance of getting one to eat was very slim but any time one made itself a target I cast at it anyway because there was only one other species in abundance in that particular location, more on that shortly. Out of the blue, one of the smaller fish in one of the schools I cast to calmly swam up and slurped down my red and orange woolly bugger. Not at all how I envisioned catching my first mullet, but if I've learned anything over this life-listing adventure it is that fish like to ignore the rules. 

Life list fish #99: striped mullet, Mugil cephalus

The other aforementioned abundant species was sheepshead. These buggers pose a pretty solid challenge. They were being pretty lazy, not really feeding at all, and had almost no interest in my flies. I got a couple half hearted follows. I wandered away from them for a little while to look for easier targets but could not find the puffer I was looking for. I made a couple casts at a small stingray and watched a spin caster land what looked like a snagged pleco and a small trout. I was ill equipped to fish for trout with my 3wt and minimal fly arsenal. Eventually I went back after the sheepshead I rolled a few rocks, and besides finding a few blennies I was too lazy to change up to target, I found some small crabs. I decided to suck up my pride and just see if these fish would take a live crab. I impailed one on the fly and walked back down to where the fish were and dropped it next to a boulder that had probably 15 sheepshead around it. One came over and made quick work of the crab, but once it was all gone he seemed to still have a real interest in the fly. He took repeatedly, and I hooked and lost him twice with not bait on the fly. This got me thinking. I hurriedly went about collecting more crabs, which I broke into little bits. I then hurried back to the sheepshead, tossed the lot out there to where the fish were sitting and milling around, and watched them go bonkers as it all dropped down to them. I cast the fly into the mix and the fish were on it quickly. They were much more suspicious of the fly because it didn't taste or look anything like crab legs, but that didn't stop them from taking it. Four fish were hooked and lost before they got shy again. While I collected more crabs I got a text that signified my time was limited, very limited. I sprinted back, chucked the crab parts out, sunk the fly into the zone, and watched a sheepshead come up and take. This one stayed pinned, thank goodness. 

Life list fish #100 : Sheepshead, Archosargus probatocephalus

So that's it. I've caught 100 different species and hybrids on the fly. I think now I'll just go back to trout fishing, permanently. Nothing else. 

HA! As if. The more I fish the less I can stand to trout fish a bunch of consecutive days. Nope. I'll be doing the same things I have since I started this quest, and there are only two things that will stop me. Death or running out of new fish species to catch. It will be the first scenario undoubtedly, but that won't stop me from trying. To cap off this short, nearly full blown panic mission, I got to see dolphins essentially blitzing on adult sheepshead. It was quite spectacular.

Photo Courtesy Malachi Lytle

Photo Courtesy Malachi Lytle

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.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

New Species and Florida Bass on the Fly

Some of the most easy fishing in Florida exists in the many hundreds, if not thousands of neighborhood ponds, lakes, and canals. Aside from the very numerous bass and bream these water bodies also hold copious amounts of other native and non-native fish. Though the fishing is easy access is basically impossible for the vast majority of these water bodies. Luckily though my grandparents live on one, and though it doesn't have a huge number of species I haven't caught it has a few. The most abundant are the ubiquitous eastern mosquitofish, and I do intend to catch one of those little buggers eventually the ones here seem to be, on the whole, too small for hook and line and indeed too small for all but very fine mesh nets. Other than that I had no idea. Noah and I caught Florida black bass and coppernose bluegill. In my first few casts here this time I caught a run of the mill Florida 'gill, which we hadn't caught in December. They do look very different from the bluegills we northeasterners are used to though. I call them peacock bluegills now because their three dark bars and  green, orange and yellow coloration kinda remind me of peacock bass.

Coppernose bluegill were very much in the minority this time, but they were around. Florida bass though, were not. The were at times blitzing on the mosquitofish yesterday. I didn't see that today, but I suspect the water temperature was cooler even though the air was warmer than the day before. Water takes longer to cool and warm. Always, always keep that in mind and fish accordingly. Yesterday I got a bunch of bass on and Empie Shiner tied by Geoff Klane, and also on a black and purple gurgler. They weren't huge, or even average for this area. But I was fishing 6'6" 3wt, so it was an absolute riot. 

My first new species of the trip was a sunfish. I'm slowly chipping away at the sunfishes and will hopefully have all of them within the next few years. My 15th sunfish species ended up being Lepomis microlophus, called redear or shellcracker. Their appearance is not dissimilar from pumpkinseeds, but they are less round bodied and have a much bigger more up-turned mouth. They specialize in eating snails, hence the name 'shellcracker'. Not only was this my first new species of this Florida trip and my first new sunfish species since my last trip down here

Life list fish #97: redear sunfish

Later that evening, in a mix of bluegills and possible hybrids (maybe more on that later) I hooked something that I initially thought was a small turtle. After a few pulls the thing just came up to the surface, poked its nose up, and slowly slid in. As soon as I saw it in the water I saw that not only was it a fish but it was a new species. It was a tilapia. And there arose an unforeseen challenge. I new very little about identifying tilapia species. There are something like 5 or 6 of them in Florida. A few were ruled out easily enough, but I got stuck between three species and couldn't fully ascertain which of the three this was: blue tilapia, Nile tilapia, or Mozambique tilapia. I spent much of the rest of the night obsessively comparing photos, texting friends, and sending photos to a few of best multi-species anglers and fish identification experts I know of. I put a post up here with just a title and two photos that I never intended to keep up so I could more easily share those photos, so some of you already saw this fish. After all that, I am still not 100% sure, but I'm going with the ID Roy Leyva and Martini Arostegui suggested: Mozambique. 

Life list fish #98: Mozambique tilapia, Oreochromis mossambicus

So, two new species on the first day was a pretty good start. Today I didn't catch anything new but then again I didn't really do anything that would make that likely. We spent most of the day at Kennedy Space Center, which was awesome. We saw some dolphins in the Indian River, which was awesome. And I saw a big old redfish and a big old gar in different parts of the canals around the space center. Also awesome. So no complaints whatsoever there. But tomorrow will be do or die for breaking 100. I don't expect it to be too difficult though.

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 27, 2018

Going Into a Florida Trip With 96

A few nights ago Noah and I went out at night, fishing some small streams, looking for redd raiders. A lot of things like to eat trout eggs, and including a bunch of different fish species. Some of those species, like creek chubsuckers, longnose dace, slimy sculpins, tessellated darters, central mudminnow, and others that either both or one of us had not yet caught. With flashlights and careful, slow wading, we searched the stream bed in the dark hoping to find something we hadn't caught. And we did, in one run that had a couple redds in the tailout we found sculpins.

Life list #96 (species): slimy sculpin, Cottus cognatus. 

This species is listed as "of special concern" in CT, and as such should care should be taken if one is caught, be it on hook and line in a minnow trap. Handle carefully and release quickly. In some states sculpins are a popular fish to use as live bait. Under no circumstances should this be done here! Nor should nighttime spotlighting micros if you don't have an intimate understanding of the fish species, the stream, and how to identify and avoid redds or cyprinid mounds.  After quick photo sessions both Noah and I watched our beautiful, charismatic little sculpins return to their nocturnal routine. We left that stream shortly afterwards to look for a darter for Noah, no such luck. At least not finding one big enough to catch without a tenago hook.

So, I'm going into a Florida trip with 96 species and hybrids. Catching four new species in four days in Florida should be about as easy as catching one new species in a year here in CT. But I don't want to shoot myself in the foot before I even get there. Next time I report, it will be from the land of the exotic invasives, hopefully with some crazy new fly caught species.

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. 

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Species Profile: Sea Lamprey

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 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. 

Yup. You read that correctly. Sea lamprey. Quite possibly the most maligned and persecuted fish in America in this day and age. After years of seeing article headlines like "The Most Hideous Fish in the World" and "Most Gruesome Animal in History", I felt obligated to spread the word that these fish are important. They are not a pretty fish, and they don't make good sport, but they do not deserve the hate they receive. So, for better or worse, I'm going to profile one of the most fascinating species on the planet: Petromyzon marinus.

Lamprey are truly ancient, oft considered the most basal of existing vertebrates. All of the almost 40-some lamprey species are eel-like in shape, jaw-less, and have circular suction cup-like mouths. Sea lamprey are yellow-brown, often mottled, and can grow to nearly 50 inches. Of the many species two are native to the CT, sea lamprey and American brook lamprey. The brook lamprey, Lethenteron appendix, is listed as endangered in this state. Sea Lamprey are not but declined dramatically in numbers for a variety of reasons. They have suffered from most of the same things that rendered the Connecticut River's wild salmon population extinct. But they have a life history that has allowed them to return more easily, and a native lamprey run exists now in the river many times greater than it was before. Though we don't know much about what sea lamprey do out in the Atlantic, it is safe to assume they follow a very similar lifestyle to other parasites like leeches and ticks, attaching to and feeding on big bottom dwelling fish and not killing them. Unlike salmon, lamprey don't home. At present we are almost certain that adults are attracted to spawning water by pheromones being released by ammocoetes (larval sea lamprey). They may swim the whole way to the spawning grounds, but evidence suggests at least some also attach to large migratory species like striped bass and let them carry them closer. This type of hitchhiking generally doesn't put the lamprey's carrier at much risk of mortality at all. Once in the river, female lamprey carefully construct nests by moving rocks and gravel around with there mouths. Males grapple for position to fertilize the eggs. The spawn typically occurs in May and June. Like Pacific salmon, lamprey all die after spawning, providing the river and it's surrounding with rich nutrients. After ammocoetes emerge they do much the same thing a muscle does. So, when you wade through an East Coast stream and remark at how clean the water is, you probably have the humble sea lamprey to thank (among other things, of course). There is something special in regards to CT and lamprey. We have some very forward thinking fisheries biologists and are currently one of the only states on the coast doing lamprey run restoration work. We have one man in particular to thank for this: Steve Gephard. Gephard and a few others saw what most other still don't in these wonderfully weird fish: they aren't some demonic alien come to destroy our pretty trout and stripers, they are an invaluable environmental asset that we need to protect. Every year CT DEEP counts lamprey in fish lifts and does nest surveys. To restore runs, ammocoetes and adult males have been planted to attract the migrating breeders. And our rivers are all the better because of this. And because of the work CT has done, rivers in other states are getting better lamprey runs too. But because we are really the only ones working on this, there's only so far it will go. Other states need to follow suit.

One of the reasons Americans still despise the lamprey is the destruction of great lakes fisheries by these parasitic fish. Lamprey are not native to the great lakes, and have been relegated to a landlocked population there. Unlike the ocean there are no huge bottom fish for Lamprey to feed on in the lakes, so the feed on walleye, lake trout, brown trout, and salmon. They kill them. It is gruesome, and a massive ecological disaster. Every last Great Lakes Lamprey should be killed, and many states are undertaking that impossibly difficult task. Alas, this destruction and the mere appearance of these ancient animals left such a bad taste in millions of people's mouths, and now the policy with lamprey everywhere seems to be kill first, ask questions never.

And that is a damned shame. 

In late spring of 2015, I sat at the tailout of a pool on the Salmon River and watched a female sea lamprey build her nest. Her body undulated in the current, much the same color as the rocks and moving like a long strand of algae growth. She moved rocks one at a time, carefully forming a bowl shape in which to deposit her many eggs. I wasn't looking at a hideous, gruesome, evil creature, I was looking at another of nature's beautiful fish doing what it evolved to do where it evolved to do it. Right then and there I new I could never again leave a negative remark about native lamprey go without retort. I care about these fish as much as any wild, native species and I will fight to the death to keep them around.

For the few true fish nuts out there that want to see lamprey, visit a freestone river in early June and look in the same water that trout would spawn in, gravelly tailouts. My favorite place to observe lamprey is the Upper Delaware and Beaverkill rivers. On sunny days one may see dozens carefully working their nests their in crystal clear riffles.

Catching a lamprey on the fly is an odd proposition but I have done it. Like a shad or salmon they hit out of aggression to protect their nests. If you are going to attempt to catch a lamprey on the fly use barbless streamers. The females are the ones most likely to grab and a broken or cut off fly in their mouth will make their nest building job much more difficult. Getting one to grab is very easy. You can handle the fish it you want to, but I recommend a "medina release": poke the fly out with the rod tip after photographing the fish. Of course, I don't expect many to follow up on any of this advice. Only crazy life-listers like myself. But that's fine.

I hope this post opens a few minds. These fish really are remarkable. Respect the lamprey.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Don't Overlook ANYTHING!

It's amazing what water I've caught trout out of over the years. Really hard stuff, so white and fast and frothy it'd seem like a fish couldn't possibly hold position. Soft, almost still water only 4 inches deep and right out in open sunlight. That's always a surprise. Step pools between waterfalls. I always wonder how long those fish had been there. I've learned throughout the years that there is, over the course of the year, very little water that I'd overlook circumstantially. Everything has it's time and place. This time of year the fish are in transition. They're mostly done spawning, it's getting cold fast, and the fish have a lot to do really quickly. They have to eat a lot to bulk back up, they also have to get into winter lies which are typically the polar opposite of the water they spawned in. In very small wild brook trout streams good wintering holes can be a long way from spawning water sometimes. So this time of year the fish are moving a lot, and you may find them in places you wouldn't quite expect as they transition.

The other day I was on a brook trout stream moving up, picking the pockets. There's a long rock slide that I climb with one little step in the middle. As I approached that step I saw the tell-tail olive colored back and red fins of a brook trout. This water was only inches deep. There was a little bit of cover there in the form of a fallen birch tree and an overhanging rock, but believe me when I say this fish was in barely any water at all. Hardly anybody would give this little step much thought, including myself most times.

I made a few casts and the fish showed interest by following right to the edge of the step each time. Eventually I took the hint and just let the fly settle. The fish picked it up off the bottom. The hook-set alone was enough to pull it out of two inches of water. At hand it was pretty obvious that I had caught this fish before. Last time was 100 yards upstream about a month before and she was gravid. Now she was quite thin and I kind of felt bad for catching her again. I hope she spawned successfully. This stream has been so dramatically changed over the last year that I can't help believe that it was challenging for the brookies. But that's a story for another day.

Basically, the what you should take from this is to fish a stream as thoroughly as possible and that water depth isn't a particularly important factor in what determines holding water vs. dead water, especially in mountain streams. Don't overlook anything with cover and a little current. This goes for just about any species in any water body really, fish follow their own rules first an foremost. I could go one and on: big bass in seasonal springs, carp tailing in storm drains, striped bass in mosquito ditches... you could miss out on something really special if you don't give everything its due.

The water just brushed my gravel guard where that fish was sitting. 
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. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Thank You for the Places You Took Me

Thanksgiving rolls around every year and I always have a lot to be thankful for. But this year I'm just feeling thankful for having broken into saltwater fly fishing three years ago. Since then, I've chased striped bass, bluefish, and false albacore from Jersey to Maine. These fish have taken me on an incredible journey, and I am so blessed to have been witness to some of the most spectacular displays of life in the world. These things go on right under the noses of millions of people who just don't know about them, and yet I get to experience them on a near weekly basis. It's been a remarkable three years. Here's to many, many more. Morone saxatilis, Euthynnus alletteratus, Pomatomus saltatrix, Cynoscion regalis, Sarda sarda... thank you. All of you.  And every single person who enabled me to get to experience these fish.
 May you never stop running. 

(35 moments of zen) 

Happy Thanksgiving everybody.

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.