Monday, March 30, 2020

Snook on Dock Lights

Snook worked their way into my soul in a unique fashion. They were one of those fish that I really wasn't extremely excited about before I'd ever caught one. I'd watched videos, and snook fishing looked fun. They seemed like a beautiful, hard fighting fish that wasn't easy to fool... but that describes a lot of species. When Noah and I first went to Florida, I caught my first two snook in the final day of fishing and my opinion changed quite a bit. They got to me, I have to say. The habitats they use, their behavior, their attitude... I quickly became infatuated with these fish. Andy Mill interviewed Steve Huff and Chico Fernandez recently on his podcast and both talked about their love of nook. They put it into words far better than I could, and naturally so as my love affair with these fish is still young. Look for the Mill House Podcast on Youtube, it is very much worth your time. The way Chico talked about snook especially spoke to my soul and made me reflect on my times going after these marvelous creatures. Three years and two trips with a lot of time dedicated to targeting snook after I'd caught my first, I was going to get a chance to target them in another different scenario: dock lights.

My friend and fellow fish-head, Kirk, has a place and a boat down in Florida now. He invited Noah and I out but promised nothing spectacular. Between Kirk and I, I'm the optimist. I felt confident we'd find something cool with three very fishy people on the same boat. The plan was to head up into the wild waters and see if we could find some rolling tarpon before the sun set, then head into the intracoastal to fish lighted docks for snook and lookdowns after dark.

As we headed into the mangrove lined dark waters that I'd spent hours looking at maps of and trying to decipher spots within, I couldn't help but feel a sense of excitement. Something I'd planned to do and though about for a while was coming to fruition.

We wandered our way around the bends and oxbows, looking for a non-windy corner and rolling fish. Eventually, we did find it. The head of an adult tarpon, looking like a carved piece of chrome, broke the surface, audibly indicated by a sucking sound and followed by the shape of its incredible forked tail. Tarpon are air breathers. They routinely surface to breath, especially in water with low oxygen content. They weren't rolling that frequently here, but enough to give us hope. I watched for rolls and the bubbles that followed as the fish expelled air behind its operculums to get some idea of what direction and speed the fish was traveling so as to cast to it. We were each using different methods, Noah a paddletail soft plastic, Kirk a jerkbait, and I a Gartside Gurgler. This is always a good idea until a pattern is established. We almost didn't catch anything up there in the back country though. I managed a single snook, my first of the trip and my first in more than a year, and that was reason enough for celebration. But we were soon heading back out of the river tarponless, which is about what you can reasonably expect anyway. 

Switching modes and surrounding, we prepared to hop docks late into the night, searching for those with the most active fish. We actually found fish breaking on a dock light very quickly but they weren't obliging. It took a little while to find some fish that were in a good mood and weren't actually just big mullet. Noah struck first. 

I didn't lag that far behind though. My Popovics Jiggy variation (bead instead of cone) got slammed as I pulled it into the darkness outside the dock light and I strip set into a pissed off, high flying snook. It pains me to say it, striped bass are my fish. I could never say a bad thing about stripers. But snook just fight harder. Their initial run is much faster than you can rightfully expect to get out of a striped bass and they will nearly always jump. Less so in deeper water, but a small to mid-sized snook is almost always going to go airborne at least once. Then, once you're done with a heck of a fight, you get to look at quite a unique and lovely looking fish. 

Centropomus undecimalis

The next dock produced a small crevalle jack, and a short time later another snook, again it took away from the light well into the darkness. We weren't seeing any spectacular numbers but the fish were more than abundant enough to keep the energy level up on the boat, and we all hoped that we'd happen upon a dock loaded up with lookdowns, a very unique jack neither Noah nor I had ever caught.

A few docks later, I got a take that wasn't at all snook like, and an extremely odd feeling fight. I could tell it was a very broad sided fish, as it would turn against me and I'd feel the vibrations of its tail pulses transmitting through my fly line. I was pretty sure I had a lookdown, and indeed I did. This was on of the strangest fish I'd ever caught, without question. It was so strikingly alien looking that it didn't matter that I'd seen many photos of them, holding one in my hands was a bit of a shock. Just look at this freak of nature:

Lookdown/moonfish, Selene vomer. Life List Fish #149. Rank: Species

We bounced docks for about an hour before we found another that was loaded up with fish. From a distance we could see the activity; fish breaking and bait spraying. On closer inspection it became clear we'd not catch any fish on this particular dock. There was far too much bait and probably only a few snook or lookdowns feeding. For here in the northeast Noah and I had come up with the "Triple P" or "Peanut to Predator Proportion" to describe the all too common scenario brought about by the presence of far too many peanut bunker and not nearly enough predator fish. Such a high proportion of baitfish makes for a visually spectacular blitz but often very poor catching. This, I guess we could say, was an undesirable "SSP" or "Silverside to Snook Proportion". We moved on and found the motherload.

Two docks, not 30 yards apart, held more snook between the two of them then we'd seen all night. They popped and boiled on bait and sat like ominous shadows in the green light of the docks. Kirk had been playing the dock light game a while now but he'd not seen anything like this. It was pretty stunning, and the action wasn't slow. 

We each hooked fish off of one or both of those two docks, and the fish never seemed to get completely tired of our intrusion. We actually had to leave them chewing there as it was no longer that same day we'd started fishing on, and we couldn't really ask for much more anyway. Right before we left, I snagged one of the docks and we had to go in to retrieve my fly. I learned two important things from this: first, and Kirk had already talked about this, use an anti-shock tippet above your heavy fluoro so you can break off when you inevitably snag (we typically use 30lb fluoro on snook because their rasp and sharp gill plate make quick work of lighter less abrasion resistant leader material). And second, though the fish looked like they were milling around within two feet of the surface the whole time, they were actually substantially deeper. I suspect, had I not switched to smaller but unweighted flies and simply trimmed down a Clouser or Jiggy that I could have actually caught even more fish. That's definitely an optical illusion to take into consideration if you fish lighted docks for any fish species. All told, it was a pretty spectacular experience. I thank Kirk for his time and sharing his new home waters with us, and it was really an exciting learning experience. Noah and I both left the boat launch that night feeling we'd learned a lot, and that our fishing resumes had been added to in a not insubstantial way. To me, that's what it is all about. 
Until next time,
Fish for the love of fish.
Fish for the love of places fish live.
Fish for you.
And stay safe and healthy.

Thank you to my Patrons; Erin, David, John, Elizabeth, Brandon, Christopher, Shawn, Mike, Sara, Leo, and Franky for supporting this blog on Patreon.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Reef Fish Frustrations

If you go to South Florida and you want to catch reef fish, don't use a fly rod and flies. It's probably the stupidest thing you can do. I got fairly lucky in getting a number of species to eat on my first attempts more than a year ago, but I caught far fewer fish than if felt like I should have and I spent most of my time watching my flies sink through hoards of brightly colored fish that had little to no interest in it or would merely give it a tiny peck and then move on. I had a sneaking suspicion that, having gotten the easy species to fool with artificials out of the way on the first couple tries, I'd probably have a much harder go at it this time. But we rolled up to Boca Raton Inlet knowing full well we'd see a ton of odd and unique fish there, and I felt I had a few tricks up my sleeve.

I didn't, nothing changed.

I've made no progress in determining better ways to target these species on the fly, and I'm not sure there even is progress to be made. Maybe a little but not much. That said, collectively "reef fish" are a treasure trove of really cool new species and I find it really hard to ignore them. So, I beat my head against the wall for a while... then I tip the flies with bait for a while just to catch a bunch of fish quickly. Then I beat my head against the wall some more. And I do it for hours. And it hurts a little knowing at any moment, I could catch something really damn cool on bait that I haven't caught on the fly yet. Somehow, though my catch ratio on bait to on flies is something like 8/1, I'd managed to avoid such a catastrophe simply by not putting bait on species that I could see would be new and spending the majority of my time fishing un-tipped flies. This wouldn't work forever, as it turns out. Or, rather, when I got sick of not catching as many fish as I could be and started fishing bait exclusively, I caught some things I'd not caught yet. But that's a topic for another day. Every fish pictured in this post caught by myself was caught on an artificial fly. All you need to know is that trying to catch reef fish on artificial flies is a grind. I brought this frustration upon myself, you may say, so I have no right to complain. And you might be right.

Boca Raton Inlet is a known spot by lifelisters all over the country and the world. If you are heavily invested in the search for fish species you've never caught before and pay attention to what other people with the same obsession are doing, you've seen Boca Raton named and you've seen fish that were caught there on video or in photos. So I don't particularly mind naming it, because that's really what the place is best for and a bunch of lifelisters sporadically showing up trying to catch small unusual reef fish isn't really the sort of thing that ruins a place like this. There's really not much else that it is consistently good for. 

My strategy, basically, was to put small pale nymphs or bread crumb flies in front of the smaller species, and things that looked like sargassum, algae, or chunks of meat in front of the larger species. I also fished some small brightly colored nymphs, and things with rubbery or foam element in their construction to give fish something to chew on. I even fished mop flies a bit. Considering how many fish were down there in the rocks, hovering under the buoys,  and schooling along the wall, nothing really drew a lot of attention. It seemed pretty random. Every once in a while, very suddenly, a fish would take a fly. The sergeant majors and spottail pinfish though were very easy, those could be fooled relatively easily simply by chumming them into a frenzy and dropping a fly in the mix and I'd catch plenty otherwise anyway. They become very annoying very fast.

Abudefduf saxatilis

Diplodus holbrookii
Down in the rocks are probably the third easiest fish to catch on the fly in Boca Raton Inlet, the blennies. Fortunately for me, the first blenny to come topside on our first visit this trip wasn't a hairy blenny, the species I'd already caught, but a masquerader blenny, distinguished by a more ambiguous black oppercular spot lacking a complete white/blue ring around it. 

Labrisomus conditus, masquerader blenny. Lifelit fish #146. Rank: Species
One of the diverse grouple of fish I was hoping to pick off a few new species from we grunts. There are a lot of grunts I've not yet caught. Of course, I've gotten the easier ones out of the way it seems and could only catch those. 

French grunt, Haemulon flavolineatum

Sailor's grunt, Haemulon parra

Tomtate, Haemulon aurolineatum
 Even when I thought I had a new grunt species, an odd looking small specimen with three distinct lateral bars and a black caudal spot, it turned out to simply be a juvenile sailor's grunt.
Haemulon parra, juvenile
Meanwhile, Noah was catching parrotfish, which I found very hard not to be jealous about. 

Stoplight parrotfish, initial phase, Sparisoma viride
Parrotfish are wrasse, and I was catching wrasse. Just not particularly cool wrasse. The most abundant species of wrasse in most of the south Florida inlets seems to be the aptly and humorously named slippery dick. I think they're cool looking fish, but they're so difficult to handle it makes it less fun to catch them. 
Slippery dick, Halichoeres bivittatus
Eventually though, I managed a sea chub. Knowing well there were two very similar species I'd only caught one of, yellow chub and Bermuda chub, I photographed it thoroughly. Not much later I caught another and did the same. And right at the end of the day I caught a third, not including the two others I'd caught in between on bait. Bermuda chubs have 11 soft anal fin rays, Yellow chubs have 12-14. I caught one or the other back in January 2019, I'm not sure which, so one of the two is lifer #147 as I caught both species on the fly this time.

Bermuda chub, Kyphosus sectatrix

Yellow chub, Kyphosus incisor
A third and final new species found its way to hand somehow as well, a new damselfish species. 

Longfin damselfish, Stegastes diencaeus. Lifelist fish #148. Rank: species.

 Now, you may see that I caught ten species and three new species and wonder how I could possibly complain about how difficult the fishing was with the fly. Now consider the fact that I was looking into water just packed full of fish species I'd never caught, hundreds of possible targets, and I only managed to catch three new species. The bulk of what I caught was the same fish: sergeant majors. So many sergeant majors. If I could opt out of ever catching a sergeant major ever again, I gladly would. They're beautiful little fish but I'd settle for just seeing them in the water and never hooking another in my life. All the parrotfishes, other wrasses like bluehead wrasse, the burrfishes, the filefish, the cowfish... they seemed like long shots. But I wouldn't stop beating my head against the wall just yet, and occasionally, I was breaking a piece loose.

Tricolor heron hunting and boat-tailed grackle sizing it up for a potential mugging.

Until next time,
Fish for the love of fish.
Fish for the love of places fish live.
Fish for you.
And stay safe and healthy.

Thank you to my Patrons; Erin, David, John, Elizabeth, Brandon, Christopher, Shawn, Mike, Sara, Leo, and Franky for supporting this blog on Patreon.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Eurotackle Z-Spender

Because the Covid19 outbreak is hitting the economy hard and those who stand to lose the most financially are small business owners, I find it pertinent to use this space to promote my friends in the fishing industry. I very rarely use this blog as a platform to try to sell anything, but with trade shows getting cancelled and the economy absolutely tanking, I want to help my fishing friends out in any way I can and this is the best I can do. If we're at all friendly, have chatted on occasion, and you are small business owner who is worried about how things will turn out with this pandemic, please get in touch and let me know what I can do to help.

The Eurotackle brand first found its way into my feed through my now friend and popular multi-species fishing YouTuber Leo Sheng. I was immediately struck by the unique extremely small soft plastics Eurotackle was putting out. I'm not a conventional gear angler in open water but I was getting into ice fishing, so this stuff intrigued me and looked notably different. As more and more people I trusted started talking up Eurotackle, my friend Adam Chabot, a very adept ice fisherman, shared his success with a very unique scud imitation plastic put out by Eurotackle, the Gamma Scud. I promptly ordered some and another micro finesse plastic, the Eurogrub Jr, and had immediate success with them. Fast forward a couple weeks and I fished with Leo for a few days. Ben, the owner of Eurotackle, recognized me from Leo's posts. As it turns out, Ben operates Eurotackle out of his own house in the same town I live in! We got to talking and eventually got together to fish, having a heck of a day hammering trout.
RM Lytle Photo

I like Ben, I've seen what his creative lures can do, and he's as local a company as I can find, so even though I'm lot a lure fisherman, when I asked him if there was anything he'd like me to plug for him and he suggested the new Z-Spender 2" jerkbait I was happy to. I'm a streamer junkie when it comes to, well, most fish that are big enough to eat other fish, and there's really not much difference between that and slinging a slash bait or jerkbait. Sorry purists. The Z-Spender is a cool piece of finesse hardware and it will catch fish. Here it is in a big crappie's face:

I don't care what tackle you fish, if that doesn't get you even a little bit excited, we might not get along very well. Look at that thing, it is a hoss! Early spring crappies like this one can be fickle, and the Z-Spender is a great tool for coaxing them to strike. That goes for any predator species keyed on a smaller profile bait species like darters, shiners, or young of the year perch and herring.

Direct from Eurotackle:
"Unique in the micro jerkbait category, we made our 2 in Z-Spender 1/8 oz and perfectly SUSPENDING which makes it the only one with that specification in its size category.
The profile, one-of-a-kind erratic action, balancing system and realistic or original color patterns all contribute to the incredible fish-catching ability of the Z-Spender.
This deadly package is finished off with two Eurotackle custom treble hooks, designed to increase hookup percentages with superior light-wire penetration.
The lure will excel on Crappie, Trout, Bluegill, Perch, Walleye and Bass.
The Eurotackle Z-Spender is at its best when fished with 3lb. to 6lb. fluoro, with a sweet spot in the 4 and 5 lbs test range. Line diameter will affect the depth it is able to reach and the castability.
Twitch it, Pause it and set the hook!"

The Z-Spender and Z-Cranker in Natura Green UV.
Now, it must be said that I can't vouch for these lures having fished them. I haven't. But I've seen them fished, I've seen them in person, and I have fished some of Eurotackle's other products. I am impressed and I think they fill a niche that needed to be better filled with higher quality products. Eurotackle finesse lures do a better job at something fish haven't seen that much of yet in open water fishing and a better job at something already widely practiced in ice fishing. I like Ben and I like his lures. Give Eurotackle some love if you're looking for some finesse fishing products.

Until next time,
Stay safe and healthy.

Thank you to my Patrons; Erin, David, John, Elizabeth, Brandon, Christopher, Shawn, Mike, Sara, Leo, and Franky for supporting this blog on Patreon.

*All photos in this post courtesy Eurotackle unless otherwise captioned.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

This is The Jungle

I have a special connection to small watercourses in as close to a natural state as they can be. In Florida, watercourses are much altered. Manicured, straight canals cut across the flat lands, man's way of forcing water to bend to our will. A lot of this land would by impossible to develop otherwise. Much of it would be wet year round and quite a bit of the rest would at least be wet part of the year. These canals have great fishing, both with native species and a plethora of invasives that we humans have introduced intentionally or accidentally, but they don't speak the same language as a natural watercourse. Water still rebels against our will when we try to beat it down. Ask anyone that was in New Orleans on August 29th, 2005. Yes, a river is best left to do what it wants to do, not what we want it to do. 

There's a small watercourse tucked away right within the urban jungle of Florida's East Coast that I've decided to call the Jungle Stream. It must be noted that it isn't in its natural state, nothing in Florida is anymore. But it is a far cry from the golf courses, packed suburbs, and busy strips just miles away. Because there are so many people it isn't even easy to avoid them in the Jungle Stream, but it is still unquestionably that place I'd rather be and has become one of my favorite places to fish since Noah and I first visited it more than a year ago. The plethora of fish species we'd seen and caught in this foreign feeling place certainly didn't hurt, one of my favorite of which is the bigmouth sleeper, Gobiomorus dormitor. These fish aren't generally considered an ugly by-catch for anglers fishing for other fish species. But to me, they are a remarkable fish of which I can't possibly get enough of. The species starts its life in brackish water then moves into freshwater rivers, streams, and canal, as well as sometimes moving into still waters. They are classic ambush predators, laying in wait for a prey item to swim overhead. I've seen numerous sleepers laying in ambush on submerged logs and branches, on which they blend in incredibly well. I was very pleased when the first sleeper I saw on our first visit to this stream this year ate my fly without hesitation. My only bigmouth sleeper prior was a very young one, and this one wasn't big either but it had grown into its big boy colors. The adults look very different from the tiny individual that was my lifer.

It was fitting that one of the first fish I'd catch out of this creek this trip would be this wonderful native sleeper. I enjoy targeting Florida's plethora of exotic invasives, and their presence certainly improves my ability to build my life list., but I'll always be a native fish lover. The fish, as it would be, where it should be.

Spotted sunfish, Lepomis punctatus

The creek wanders through the most wonderful woods. Parts of it are slow but very deep, and the dark waters make it impossible to see the bottom in some of the holes. They look bottomless. On our previous visit, we'd seen snook an striped mojarra in a lot of these holes, as well as huge Florida bass. This year we saw very little except schools of spotted tilapia in these holes. There are a few small roll dams on the creek though, and for a stretch beneath each the creek flows faster and is more interestingly structured. It was from immediately below one of these dams to about 200 yards below it that Noah and I found the most life. 

Cichlasoma urophthalmus, Mayan cichlid.
Where fish congregate, other wildlife is likely to congregate as well. Paddling with gators is something I've now gotten used to. I talk to them. I compliment them. I tell them how awesome I think they are. I can't believe I've been allowed the privilege of getting to see and interact with these modern day dinosaurs. I don't fear them at all, but I respect them immensely. Later on this same trip though I encountered an animal while paddling that legitimately scared me. I can't wait to tell that story!

Spotted tilapia, Pelmatolapia mariae
Spotted sunfish, spotted tilapia, bluegills, Mayan cichlids, bigmouth sleepers, and redear sunfish dominate the roll dam pool itself. I caught my fair hare of good looking fish and some large specimens of a couple of the species, but Noah, drifting a night crawler on a jighead, nailed the most impressive fish. This monster redear sunfish was the largest of the species either of us have seen:

Lepomis microlophus
Noah has a habit of catching huge Lepomis on our out of state trips. His Champlain "mega-seed" Lepomis gibbosus a few years ago is another such catch. I like big sunfish, so I was both stoked and green with envy. He caught another only a little smaller just a short time later. Photos did justice to neither, they were brutes. The species does get quite a lot bigger though, and we' both love to get a proper leviathan redear. I'd get some big Lepomis on this trip too, but it wan't my time yet. I was just happy to be catching a few sleepers! While Noah continued fishing the dam hole, where the fish had gotten finicky towards my artificials, I waded off downstream to see what I could get. Mostly Mayans as it turned out, but it was nice to do some wading rather than standing on the kayak or on the bank. The water felt cold, but it wasn't really. It felt like it should be within trout range, but it was really in the 70's. Wet wading is a connection to the stream I miss all winter at home.

Wading white sand and shell bottom under the tree canopy in the evening... Heavenly! 
We'd be back here a few times, but in the meantime we had other special places calling our names.
Until next time,
Fish for the love of fish.
Fish for the love of places fish live.
Fish for you.
And stay safe and healthy.

Thank you to my Patrons; Erin, David, John, Elizabeth, Brandon, Christopher, Shawn, Mike, Sara, Leo, and Franky for supporting this blog on Patreon.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Devlin Blends and Captain Ian Devlin Charters

Because the Covid19 outbreak is hitting the economy hard and those who stand to lose the most financially are small business owners, I find it pertinent to use this space to promote my friends in the fishing industry. I very rarely use this blog as a platform to try to sell anything, but with trade shows getting cancelled and the economy absolutely tanking, I want to help my fishing friends out in any way I can and this is the best I can do. If we're at all friendly, have chatted on occasion, and you are small business owner who is worried about how things will turn out with this pandemic, please get in touch and let me know what I can do to help.

My friend Ian Devlin makes some of the best flash blends I've had the pleasure to tie with. My largest ever snook and biggest striped bass were both caught on flies that use Devlin Blends, and I am certain that the flash blends made a difference in the performance of those flies. Ian's yak hair and slinky blends certainly make it easier to tie really big flies. He makes these by hand, and they are basically descended from flash blends Dave Skok was making.

If you are planning to spend some of your quarantine time tying large baitfish imitating patterns for big brown trout, pike and musky, striped bass, largemouth bass, sharks, tuna, taimen, wahoo, baramundi, snook, you name it... get yourself some Devlin Blends.

If tying big flies is too intimidating for you but you're looking to try fishing something large for herring, shad, and bunker eating stripers this season, Ian also ties and sells some excellent imitations of these baitfish with his blends. Ian can be found through Devlin Blends and Captain Ian Devlin's Charters.
Ian is still booking trips now for fly and light tackle striped bass fishing in western Long Island Sound. I'd certainly especially recommend booking a trip with Ian after things settle down. Ian is one of my favorite people to fish with. His knowledge base and teaching ability are exceptional. He knows his water, he knows casting, he knows how fish operate. He's also extremely knowledgeable of birds if you have any interest in that. If you want to catch fish and learn a lot while doing so, Ian has got that covered. And his custom Lake & Bay is a great skiff to ride and fish from. Give him a call and book a trip. Buy some flash blends. Definitely do what you can to help your local businesses through this situation.

Until next time,
Stay safe and healthy.

Thank you to my Patrons; Erin, David, John, Elizabeth, Brandon, Christopher, Shawn, Mike, Sara, Leo, and Franky for supporting this blog on Patreon.

*photos in this post are courtesy Ian Scott Devlin unless watermarked.