Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Florida: Hillsboro Inlet

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! 

Inlets and piers are probably some of the best places anywhere for a land based angler to target new species. They are by their structural nature just fishy as all get out. There is always something swimming down there. The structure and current they provide is exactly what many species look for at various times and conditions. And, under a wide range of conditions, there may be an entirely different batch of species at any pier or inlet. In the time Noah and I were in Florida there was one inlet that we fished a few times and every time it was different. There were also piers and inlets that we only fished once. This is about one of those that we fished only one time. 

Hillsboro Inlet

Before this trip, I spent hours researching spots, pouring over google maps, and watching fishing videos. Before I even started this research, though, I knew without a doubt I wanted to fish Hillboro Inlet. I had heard great things about the abundance of small species there, and I wanted to see it for myself. When Noah and I got to the water's edge it was clear we were in a good spot. Reef fish abounded, from tiny sergeant majors to bright blue parrotfish. In took me all of five casts to catch the first fish, and it was a new species. I had caught a spottail pinfish already on this trip but had somehow not gotten the very numerous regular pinfish. At least, until then.

Pinfish, Lagodon rhomboides
Believe it or not, the same pinfish. 
Shortly thereafter I started having a tough time getting anything to eat. Then I introduced bread into the equation. I found that if I violently jigged my fly in a cloud of bread that was being frenzied on by dozens of fish, I could catch them. As with the scaled sardines the day before, the fish were taking the fly and dropping it far to fast to react in time to set the hook, but jigging aggressively meant I could basically set the hook without actually trying to strike to the take. I still went through a lot of time without a fish on the end of my line which seems absurd given the number fish, but I had gotten pretty used to it. Getting these species on artificial fly just isn't easy. With persistence and thought, though, I managed to get another new species. A bermuda chub, Kyphosus sectatrix. 

Kyphosus sectatrix and a piece of brain coral

Though there were a lot of other species around, I did not suceed in getting any other than pinfish and bermuda chubs. I did break of a larger mojarra, and missed a parrotfish, but I didn't get any new species. Not even fishing bait (though I wouldn't have counted one to my life list).

Hillsboro inlet is a cool spot that I guarantee I will be back to. Why am I being so forward with this location when I hide virtually every other spot I fish to the best of my ability? Inlets change every day, and ones like this provide far more in the way of small species than they do large staging fish like snook or redfish. It is hard to spot burn an inlet. The fish that were at Hillsborough when Noah and I were there were probably somewhere else the very next tide. And what I want to result from my sharing of my multi-species fishing and life-listing, above all else, is to turn someones's attention to fish species they may never have otherwise. I don't expect you all to go out and try to catch a banded sunfish, or an eastern mosquito fish, or a bandtail puffer. Micro fishing isn't for everyone, I get it. But there is so much beauty and intrigue to be found in the aquatic world, far more than just trout, or just bass, or just... anything. If I can help just one angler open up their mind to the beauty and value of species he or she had previously perceived as a trash fish, I will have succeeded.

So, if it strikes your curiosity, go to Hillsboro Inlet someday. Bring a light fly rod and small flies, a small spinning rod and shrimp, or even just a cane pole and bread, and see if you can catch something you've never seen before. To me, catching a species that I've only read about or seen a few photos of is just as exciting as catching a really big wild trout. And I hope I can pass some of the excitement and fascination I get out of this along to you.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Florida: The Mullet for Whom the Bell Tolls

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.

Have you ever seen a 30 pound jack crevalle lock onto, chase down, and destroy a 14 inch mullet? It is remarkable to watch, and perhaps just as remarkable to hear. Slightly less remarkable in sight but more so in sound is when a 20 pound snook decides it wants one of those big mullet. 

Noah and I had experienced the winter snook fishing in the wilds on the west coast, now we were going to get a taste of east coast snook. There are far fewer really wild spots left to fish for snook in East Florida. The Banana River and Mosquito Lagoon are about the last remaining water of that kind, and their integrity has decreased in the past years of poor water management. But further south remain a number of clean water snook strongholds where the environment has very much been shaped by human intervention. Instead of laydowns, cut banks, creek mouths, and deep natural channels, a lot of what we would be fishing was docks, sea walls, mangroves trimmed like hedges, and other man made or man influenced structure. We would come to find out, though, that this made the fishing no less spectacular. 

We paddled down the same river we had fished the week before, intending to reach the point where it opened up into an area loaded with docks and seawalls. As we went, I was amazed by the amount of big horse mullet around. Long daisy chains of finning and splashing mullet filled the river channel. It took mere moments of being in the open cove to hear and see predator fish just slamming those mullet. I had on a clouser. In retrospect, not an ideal fly for he giant jacks and snook that were around, but I was still hoping to pull a new species of some sort out and a small fly gave me a better chance, I thought. A few casts to the seawall and I was on. It was a crevalle jack. A small one, but my personal best. The only other crevalle jack I've caught was no bigger than your average bluegill. This one was a little bigger and gave a good tussle, but I want a huge one. Especially after the things I saw on this trip. 
Caranx hippos

 A little further down the wall I spotted something large approaching me. A little bit of a fin protruded above the surface. It got my heart rate going, I'm not going to lie. I've never been on the water with large sharks before, and we knew there were bulls around. As it approached though and I got a good look at it, I was somewhat taken aback to see that it was actually a massive spotted eagle ray, on the order of a couple hundred pound. I then noticed it was swimming in the direction of my fly. Then I noticed that my line was moving. I had gone and gotten myself in a little bit of a pickle. I tightened up and that ray took off at a rather disturbingly fast pace, pivoting my kayak around as though I had tied up to a submarine. I just buttoned down and hoped the line would break. Instead, the fish just started towing me... not in a good way. It pulled me with such speed and force that my bow end started to dip. With just an inch or two to go before the front tip of my kayak was on very much the wrong side of the surface of the water, my hook bent out. That was close.

I switched to a pink and white Clouser and continued on, picking up a couple ladyfish.

Elops saurus

As I paddled out toward the even more open part of the river I was periodically hearing jacks and snook just slamming mullet against seawalls up and down. Sometimes it was pretty clear that I was hearing and seeing them from as much as a third of a mile away. Isn't that just incredible? But then I got an even more up close view of the action. I paddled into a school of very tightly packed, very nervous mullet. A big jack came flying into the edge of the school, first targeting the stragglers. It slashed right, then left, sending spray high in the air and making a hellacious amount of noise. Then it charged right into the school, sending the mullet running in the only direction they could: out and up. This was when I really wished I had had my camera out. The mullet sprayed just like peanut bunker, but these were foot long fish. In a few seconds they were coming at me, then literally bouncing off the kayak. I inhaled at that moment and could I swear I smelled mullet fear. This was one of the most stunning displays of the predator prey interaction I have ever seen. It makes my really want to get back to Florida for the mullet run to see this on an even more grand scale.

Shortly after that I came into some much clearer water and decided to start targeting barracuda. I knew this area was loaded, but I wasn't completely sure how I should be targeting them. I decided to just rip a deceiver with an extremely fast two hand retrieve. It just wasn't working, though I didn't know yet if it was just me doing something wrong or if there weren't any cuda there. I did see sheephead, a couple black drum, some big mojarra, and snook... so I switched to half heartedly trying to get each of those. The tactics for each differ, so just throwing the same fly and leader at all of them was pretty pointless and I caught nothing. I pointed Noah towards the snook. He had changed to a big spook. He got a hit relatively quickly in fairly shallow water. Then another not much further along, which in retrospect I think was a small cuda. Why? Because when we slide along a sweet looking mangrove line on the other side of the river, this happened:

It was pretty cool to watch, and gave me hope, so I kept throwing small stuff. I also fished some really tiny things because there were a variety of smaller fish around, including at least two pufferfish species, some snappers, and others. I only caught mangrove snapper, unfortunately.

Eventually, seeing more huge jacks just unloading on adult mullet, I broke down finally and tied on a huge howitzer game change. From there, things went very much downhill. Noah found a ton of big snook hanging on one particular dock. He missed one... right around the time a pelican flew into my line, got hooked, and utterly refused to let my help it. The damn bird thrashed its wings, clapped its beak, and gave me the stink eye for five minutes while I tried to unhook it. I tried the known method of grabbing his beak to restrain him. That sucker just wouldn't let me do it. Eventually, it was either flip the kayak, get bit a bunch of times, or cut the line and leave the bird with a huge fly stuck in it. I chose the third option. Honestly, screw you pelican. That was your own doing. To make things more fun, while this was going on Noah hooked into a snook every bit as big as the one I had gotten on New Year's Day. After a short battle in which he definitely did not let the fish tire out enough, he got it on the board where it thrashed hard and threw the hooks. In a panic he tried to grab the fish, which only ended with a serious cut from the snook's gill plate and no snook to photograph. We had gotten done with my nightmare and went over to the same dock, where it didn't take me long to hook into a good snook that I leadered but did not touch. Really, that's where our outing there ended. Noah got a few more missed blowups, I caught a couple small mangrove snapper. Nothing special. We left for some inlet hopping, but we were definitely coming back the next morning.

I decided  not to screw around. This was going to be our last good chance to get some snook on this trip, so I decided to make the best of it and just target snook and jacks. I stuck with big hollow fleyes and it payed off. I found the pattern fast. The snook sat at either two locations: where a dock met a seawall, or a corner on a seawall.

Centropomis undecimalis

That little thing protruding from the surface and the wake is being made by a 150lbe eagle ray.

 I'm not going to lie, I was feeling pretty good about myself on this morning. It certainly wasn't as though I could do no wrong. I did miss a few fish, I made a few poor casts, I came in too hot on a few docks. But this was a fishery I had less than 6 hours of experience on and I was holding my own pretty well. I know of a few people who fish this particular area quite a lot, and I've seen what they catch. I was doing well. I was catching snook. I had gotten better at predicting where they would be. I had gotten better at convincing them to eat. I had gotten better at hooking them. I had gotten really good at fighting them.

I think I've got snook pretty well figured out. I know I have a bit left to learn, I've not yet caught them from the beach and I haven't sight fished to layed up snook. But I think it wouldn't take long to decipher the ins and outs of both. One of the biggest things I took away from this trip was how well I can do when dropped into a new fishery if I'm confident and fish with purpose and intent. I was in a fishery that was almost completely new to me and I was comfortable. I knew that when I watched a big jack come along the wall chasing a mullet, then fling that mullet up so high it was a foot above the level of the lawn atop the wall and catch it on the way down. I was able to just watch and experience it. I was fully content. No need to make a panicked, mediocre cast.

 I wasn't a fish out of water here. But that mullet was, briefly. It was for him that the bell tolled.

mullet school

West Indian manatee, Trichechus manatus

Monday, January 28, 2019

Florida: Swamp Life & Mayan Cichlid, Walking Catfish, Warmouth Catch & Cook

A big part of fish bum living is finding free or cheap accommodations while on the road on a fishing trip. Noah and I have slept in his van in a variety of parking lots all over the northeast. We've slept in sleeping bags right on the beach too. But with a multi week trip well over 1000 miles from home it is smart to have much more secure accommodations. And Florida provides these in the form of free camp sights, to be reserved through the FWC and various water management districts. Choose one close to a good fishing area, stick the permit in the car windshield, and enjoy camping in the swamp.

I loved it. It gives me so much satisfaction, just camping and fishing for days and just really living it. You get to experience so much more this way. Wildlife. Weather. The night sky. Camp meals. Exhaustion. It's all a part of the story.

As densely populated as many parts of Florida are there are still some truly wild places left, with miles of pinewoods, hardwood hammocks, and swamps. Unlike CT, FL still has enough North American cougars that the state has to recognize their presence. There are still plenty of bears in FL too. The wild places that are left truly are teaming with wildlife. And spending almost two weeks right among all this native and non-native flora and fauna is quite an experience. 

Herps are particularly abundant in Florida, which is no surprise: it is perfectly suited for them. Very warm most of the year, and a dichotomy of both very wet and very dry. The rat snakes, corn snakes, coral snakes, rattlesnakes and tortoises love the dry parts, the alligators, turtles, frogs, and water snakes love the wet parts.

Where we camped near Jupiter we had a lot of friendly alligators close by. Actually, the started out mostly on the other side of the pond from our camp. Then, when they figured out we had discarded some fish carcasses, they started to relate to that corner of the pond. There's a reason they say don't feed the wildlife folks! The way I chucked the fish wouldn't have given the gators much to put two and two together with, but if you stood on the bank of that pond every day and splashed a fish carcass around, those little buggers would start attacking people standing on the banks. The speed with which they had figured out where there was a new food source was, though not surprising, pretty impressive. As well as the speed with which they figured out what time that food was going to show up. Given another two nights of the same behavior those gators would probably have known that our presence in the camp site meant food. So... don't huck your fish carcasses in the pond.

Another piece of advice: the ground is hard. Don't forget to bring a sleeping mat or air mattress. Neither Noah nor I brought one. That was a mistake. There ended up being a few things that I had to buy on this trip, including a new sleeping bag. For some reason I didn't bother with a pad as well. I will say, though it isn't restful sleep, hard ground sleep is easy to wake up from in time to get on the water before the sun does. 

On two of our last nights, we decided to catch and kill for our dinner. Whether we admit it or not part of the satisfaction we get out of fishing comes from our deeply rooted need to provide food for ourselves. It's just in our nature. 

There are fish that I personally don't think should ever be harvested, fish that I don't think should be harvested in certain circumstances, fish that I think should be harvested selectively, and some fish in some circumstances that should be harvested with extreme prejudice. I am also of the opinion that a fish released to die does not equal a fish wasted, but that is something I may touch on ore thoroughly at another time. In Florida, we had a plethora of invasives and some extremely prolific natives at our doorstep. We were in a very undeveloped area, so we were safe to assume these fish were clean, and keeping them would do no harm. So we decided to keep a bunch of a few species we hadn't heard much about in a food context: warmouth, walking catfish, and Mayan cichlids. We knew walking catfish were popular in the Vietnamese community, and their introduction was actually a result of that. But we didn't know a thing about cleaning them or how they would taste. I had never heard of anyone eating a warmouth, but a sunfish is a sunfish... I couldn't see how they could taste bad. As for Mayans, I knew the local Latin Americans ate them but once again I had no idea how they would taste. 

The regiment on the first night was filet, coat in Doritos crumbs, and fry. We had walking catfish and warmouth only that night. The Dorito crumbs did not do much to provide flavor but it made a good enough breading, so we got a pretty good idea of what the fish tasted like. Walking catfish... tasted like nothing. They had no flavor. The texture wasn't my favorite, and I'm not really sure how to describe it. Overall it was good, but nothing to write home about. Warmouth? Entirely as expected. It was just typical, good eating sunfish. 

The next night we ended up getting a good pile of Mayan cichlids, which was great because it just meant we had more meat to work with. We had went and gotten some Old Bay to make up for the lack of flavor from the Doritos, and that was ideal. It certainly made the walking catfish more flavorful (duh). We cleaned and cooked in the same way. I have to say, Mayan cichlid may well be the best freshwater fish I've ever tasted. It was like extremely tender chicken, just the perfect light, flaky, subtle flavored fish. I will go out of my way to eat fresh Mayan cichlid out of clean water (a lot of Floridian canals are just so polluted I'd have to be starving to eat something out of them) any time I am in state. They were that good.  

Living out of a van in the swamps and forests of Florida was a hell of an experience. I will do undoubtedly be doing it again, because there is so much there that I have yet to experience. I do love that place. 

Friday, January 25, 2019

Florida: Hairy Fish

Have you eve caught a fish with a full head of hair? Me neither. But I have caught a fish so hairy that it's in the name.

Hairy blennies, Labrisomus nuchipinnis, are so named because they do look hairy. Little protrusions, like tiny catfish whiskers, cover the top of their head. The same features exist above each eye, looking like eye lashes. Their range span much of the western and eastern Atlantic and the Caribbean. They are quite abundant in the right habitat, living in the rocks and weeds, sitting in ambush most of the time, blending in with their surroundings. When they mate though, they color up so brightly it would make a brook trout blush. Males and females of the species both exhibit different coloration and physiology, which changes even more when they prepare to breed. The uneducated would be liable to assume that a spawning colored male, a spawning colored female, a normal colored male, and a normal colored female were each different species. Noah and I ended up catching probably close to 50 of them, all in non-spawning colors, and not one looked the same. The variation and size of some of them is much of the reason we put up with them for as long as we did. In fact, while we fished Sebastian Inlet, that was the only species we caught!

Aside from the blennies, the hoards of bait and lure fisherman flogging the water, and swimmers also basically flogging the water, there were a few sea turtles about. Being the herpetology nerd that I am seeing them put me in a good mood. I have a tendency to talk to any animals I meet in my adventures, but I'm far more likely to do so with turtles, snakes, and lizards than anything else. To me, they seem to have personality. What I would have most liked to have seen on this trip was a coral snake. I know, they are extremely dangerous. But they are just so handsome. Seeing sea turtles in the inlets was a nice consolation for the overall lack of snakes. 

There's only so many of one species I can catch in a day though before I want to move on. We continued south towards Jupiter. On the way we made one stop at the first place I had caught a snook on this trip. I decided to do a little exploring there and found a tiny ditch loaded with micros, some of them potentially new species. With light fading, Noah and I struggled to weed out something we hadn't yet caught. I did hook some sort of goby or darter that I lost. If it was a bigmouth sleeper, Noah needed it more than me. Otherwise, I have no clue what it was or if I'll ever see one again. I do know that nothing else I got there was new: bluegills, spotted sunfish, and mayan cichlids. Eventually we had to move on.

Cichlasoma urophthalmus
That night, our dinner was a very unique one. Something I never thought I'd do, merely because I wouldn't have thought to in most other scenarios. But that will be covered in the next post, as well as other important aspects of living out of a van in the swamp. 

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Central PA Wild Rainbows and Joe's 90th (Pt. 2)

Late Friday evening we made our way to The State Theatre right in town to watch a screening of "Live The Stream", and visit with Joe Humphreys and his family. This was the reason we had come to State College this time... the fishing was secondary.

The documentary was spectacular. The producers, Meigan and Lucas Bell, managed to capture an awful lot of what makes Joe such an exceptional person and put it together in a beautiful way that tells the story well. I was hooked in from the first moments. A scene shows Joe crawling through think brush to get into position on a tiny brook trout stream, them performing what can only be described as a miraculous cast. This hit home for me in a big way because it was watching a video of Joe fishing a small brookie stream that planted the seed that grew into my obsession for seeking out these types of waters and the incredible little animals that swim in them. Joe Humphreys is honestly probably the best small stream caster alive today, and quite possibly in history. The firsts minutes of the film set the standard high for me, and the rest did not disappoint. If you fly fish, you should make an effort to see this movie. Screenings can be found on the website,, and hopefully it will be coming out in DVD form in the near future. It is worth getting on the mailing list.

The theater was packed. We exchanged pleasantries with Joe and his daughters and Mike and I got a photo with him, but it was tough to carry a conversation with so many others looking to meet him and chat with him. One of these times, hopefully, I will get to actually sit and chat with the man. He turned 90 the very next day. Still tough as nails.

The next morning, we planned to fish right up until the snow started then run out ahead of it and get back to CT before the storm got there. We went to the stretch of spring creek we had started at the day before. This time Mike went up and I went down. I did not go far before bringing quite sizable, though beat up, wild rainbow to the dropper nymph. Then a much cleaner smaller one on the tail fly.

I had gotten into the rhythm quickly, which was ideal, then went through a lot of water without a touch which wasn't, but I know why and it didn't have to do with how I was fishing that water... the fish had moved a little bit. I figured out the type of water I should be fishing and was into fish again. Eventually I stuck one that I though was going to by a nice brown. It turned out to be a fat, egg laden rainbow of hatchery origin. Not ideal, but a hard fighter that made me work for it. 

I continued downstream, steadily picking off small rainbows, all from the same sort of water. I was expecting at some point to hit something pretty big, and eventually I thought I had. I picked up on tiny rainbow from this seem and on the very next cast set into something heavy and very authoritative. I couldn't stop this fish. It stuck to the seem for a few moments before running out into the middle of the pool in the fast water, where it freaked out for a second, then just slowly started moving up. I put a lot of pressure on the fish trying to turn it. I hadn't even seen it yet. It turned fast and just tore off downstream. I gave chase. At that point, it came to the surface. It was a rainbow, maybe 16 inches... hooked in the tail. I stumbled, lost tension, and the hook popped out. I was very disappointed, not to have lost a 16 inch bow but because that fish hadn't turned out to be the behemoth brown I thought it was before I saw it. Weirdly though after that point I stopped catching rainbows altogether and got only browns.

I should add at this point that I had been wading like a complete madman the entire time. Going way too deep, crossing in crazy spots, bouncing my way to rocks that I could cast from... right before I turned back upstream I almost got myself in a bit of a predicament. I had my eyes on water downstream and just sort of bounced down through a stretch of moderate speed wast-belly button deep water with a steep bank on either side. Eventually it became clear that I wasn't getting to the water I wanted to, it just kept getting deeper. The bank I was next to was just peoples yard and I honestly wasn't sure I could make it back to the other side. I turned to see if going back up was an option. Nope, too deep and too swift. I briefly considered just climbing the bank and crossing somebody's back lawn. But I looked at the curve of the river and thought I could possibly just be on the deep side. That did turn out to be the case, I barely got across without fully soaking the bottom half of my jacket. My pocket hand warmers did get soaked through. Rivers can be deceptive. Be careful, especially in the dark and in the winter. This is a good demonstration of the kind of thing that can really screw you while night fishing, and it's the reason I don't night fish stretches of river I haven't thoroughly explored during the day.

As we pulled out of Milesburg and got on the highway it was snowing pretty well, but we were just chasing the leading edge. As we got close to an area where we had found a quite exceptional small stream, Mike suggested we stop just to get some photos: fresh snow on the hemlocks and laurels, dark winter water, it would definitely be beautiful and worth the stop. Naturally we ended up rigging rods and trying to find a few brook trout. Yeah, it was beautiful... but it's hard to pass up even a brief opportunity to catch something special. 

In the back of my mind was this one pool we had stopped at when we came here last August. I decided I was going to fish that pool. I remembered what it looked like and where the fish had been sitting at the pool and planned my approach out in my head before I even got there. I had to cross the creek twice to get up there which was fun. I made one crossing on a log and the other on partly submerged rocks (keep in mind I didn't have waders on). Then I had to shove myself though briers and rhododendron to get to where the pool was. I was going to approach it from the opposite side we had before this time. It was a difficult approach, most of that bank was steep and undercut, excepting just one spit of rocks which was my objective. I basically Tarzaned my way to that casting spot. From there, my battle had just begun. The deep bucket of the pool was upstream from me right under a big hemlock bough. Downstream, more limbs were there to catch a typical back cast. I was at an advantage here using my 5wt. I would have the muscle to power a cast through the gap I was presented with.  But I would have to compensate for the very overkill 9ft length of the rod (only stick I brought). I made an initial bow and arrow cast just to get the fly out there. Then I used the water to load the rod and made the lowest back cast I could, then hauled hard and shot my Ausable Ugly 20 feet upstream underneath and past that bough. I let the fly sink, stripping line to maintain contact, then saw my fly line jump. I set the hook and quickly had a stunning brook trout at hand. 

For me, that was the fish of the trip.  

Mike and I made it to CT before the storm got there. It has been very cold since and the only fishing I've done in the intervening time has been on the ice. The rain yesterday ruined that and has blown out all the rivers. Hopefully this weekend will provide some opportunities. 

But there is a lot more Florida content to come, so stay tuned.