Farmington River Report 9/29/13: Blue ribbons all around

First Place Winner: James. James is an experienced fly angler who wanted to learn the ancient and traditional ways of the wet fly. He aced Wet Flies 101, got into double digits of fish, and even had a double on a February Red and a Squirrel and Ginger. Good job wading, good job mending, good job presenting. If he keeps at it, James is going to be a dangerous machine. Trout, you’ve been warned.

Almost a grownup. The signature ink of youth has just about faded away from his flanks. A spirited fish, this one. I’m amazed he held still long enough for a photo.

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First Place Winner: The weather. Cool air. Warm sun. Blazing, brilliant sunshine. All day long. Water temp 59. Whoever ordered this day, I’d like to buy you a drink. And a cigar.

First Place Winner: The bite. Thank you, trout, for making my job easy. Your recklessness creates the illusion of genius in the form of a fishing guide. I really appreciate it.

First Place Winner: The hatches. See “The bite.” Caddis (smaller creamy size 16 and big tan size 12s), midges, BWOs, and especially a bumper crop of Isonychia. All our trout came on the Squirrel and Ginger (caddis) size 14, size 12 February Red, and size 12 Hackled March Brown.

James’ brown. The hardest working trout in the Farmington River? Or simply one of the many fish James brought to net?

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Farmington River Mini Report 9/27/13: Like going into Wisconsin

I had just over two hours on Friday afternoon to scout some locations for Sunday’s gig. So I zipped in and zipped right out again. Speed fishing, if you like. Four different spots, all of which held fish that were eager to jump on the wet fly.

I’ve been seeing some creamy mayflies on the river the last couple weeks. A good size, about a 12, late afternoon. Apparently this fellow has been seeing them, too. 

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As usual, I was fishing a three-fly team of wets. Today’s selection consisted of a size 10 Catskill on top dropper; a size 12 Pale Watery wingless wet in the middle; and a size 12 Hackled March Brown on point. I took trout on every fly. With the most recent stocking just weeks old, I was expecting to find plenty of newly released wards of the state. But no. It was all wild and holdover browns along with a few juvenile salmon sprinkled in.

I did have a curious catch, a silvery brown that looked unlike anything I’ve ever caught in the Farmington. At first its color suggested a juvenile salmon, but when I got it to net I saw that it had a flat tail and the eye/jaw placement of a trout. Few spots, but large and haloed like a brown. Could this be a sea-run trout? The sensible side of my brain said probably not. But the side that likes to dream swirled the notion around and tasted the possibility that it could be.

Notes: cloudy skies, air temps near 70. Water temp 60. A strong Isonychia showing. A few caddis, a few of those creamy mayflies, lots of midges. Little to no surface activity. The water levels are lower than normal; they’re drawing down the dam to complete an every-decade inspection of the pipes.

It’s getting to be peak color time on the Farmington.

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The Alexandra Winged Wet

Ray Bergman described the Alexandra as, “A fancy pattern that often proves surprisingly effective.” Fancy, yes. But in appearance only. The Alexandra is a very easy pattern to tie. As to its effectiveness, the fly is said to have been so deadly that its use was actually banned on some fishing beats.

The pattern was created in Great Britain in the mid 19th century. It was also known as “Lady of the Lake,” suggesting that it was intended primarily as a stillwater fly. I’ve only fished it rivers. So, is the Alexandra truly ban-worthy? In my experience, no. That is, you should not expect trout to blithely hurl themselves at the fly just because it is tied to your leader. But yes, you can expect to catch with it. I think it makes a fine tiny baitfish imitation, and what’s there not to like about silver, red, and the rainbow iridescence of peacock sword? I tend to fish this fly in the fall, early season, or when the water’s a little off-color.

The Alexandra

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Hook: 1x short, 1x stout wet fly (this is the Orvis 1641) size 6-12
Thread: Black 6/0
Tail: Peacock sword fibers
Body: Flat silver tinsel
Throat: Red webby hackle
Wing: Peacock sword fibers

Tying notes: I tie this fly two ways: heavily dressed (like the one pictured here) and much sparser. Both work. Peacock sword is easy to work with; I use between 3-6 fibers on the tail, and between 5-16 fibers for the wing. Sometimes I’ll make the wing a little longer than the hook bend, as I’ve done here. In Trout, Bergman lists scarlet hackle as a tailing option. I have a love-hate relationship with tinsel. It’s a pain (for me, at least) to wrap, unlike braid which is basically idiot-proof. Sadly, I have a traditionalist streak that often compels me to honor the materials of yore. Some pattern variants include an oval tinsel rib on the body and a scarlet floss tag. For the throat, color options include deep wine, claret, or black. I think any of those would look spiffy. Some listings of the Alexandra include a dash of scarlet in the wing, and I’ve seen people use a strand of red holographic tinsel for that step. I’ve finished the head here with a coat of Griff’s Thin, followed by three coats of H-A-N.

Presentation menu for fishing clubs and events

One of the more rewarding aspects of being a part of the fishing-industrial complex is sharing experiences and information face-to-face with fellow flyfishers. Having spent years in the corporate/office gulag, I am quite familiar with the concept of “death by PowerPoint.” Rest assured, that’s not how I roll. I love speaking in front of a group, and my presentations are highly interactive. For references and testimonials, please see the comments section below. To book an appearance, email me at swculton at yahoo.com, or call 860-918-0228.

CURRENT PRESENTATIONS

THE LITTLE THINGS 2.0

LittleThings2.0

If you liked the original, you’re going to love the sequel. “The Little Things” (see below) is one of my most popular programs. It’s easy to understand why – we’re all looking for an edge when it comes to catching more fish. It is my firm belief that the little things are largely responsible for the fabled 10% of the anglers who catch 90% of the fish. “The Little Things 2.0” builds on the theme of seemingly insignificant things you can do make your time on the water more productive.

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Little Things

THE LITTLE THINGS

They say that 10% of the anglers catch 90% of the fish. If that’s true, it’s not because those 10% are supernaturally gifted angling demigods. It’s not because they are lucky. It’s because they do a lot of little things that other anglers don’t. As a guide, I have the opportunity to observe how people fish. I see their mistakes as well as their triumphs. When I’m fishing, I am constantly making adjustments and trying new approaches. That’s what The Little Things is all about – seemingly insignificant practices that can make a big difference in your fishing.

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WET FLIES 101

Wet flies have been taking trout for centuries — and the fish aren’t getting any smarter. More and more anglers are discovering that a wet fly is often the best way to match a hatch. Explore the wonders of the wet fly as we cover basics like wet fly types, leader construction, where to fish wet flies, and how to fish them.

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THE EASTERN BROOK TROUT

The only trout that is native to most of the eastern U.S., the brook trout (technically a char) has inspired generations of anglers with its stunning colors, aggressive nature, and often lovely habitat. We’ll cover the basics of small stream wild brookie fishing, from tackle to presentations to where to look for these precious jewels.

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Farmington River

WEST BRANCH OF THE FARMINGTON RIVER

Updated in Spring 2015 with new video, photos, and content. We are truly fortunate to have one of the finest trout streams in the northeast here in Connecticut. There’s something for everyone on the Farmington: classic dry fly pools. Mysterious pockets for nymphing. Spirited runs to swing wets and streamers. A classic tailwater, the Farmington fishes well year round, and offers anglers an opportunity to catch stocked as well as holdover and stream-born wild trout.

Thank you to the Hammonasset Chapter TU for hosting me tonight

Tonight I kicked off my 2013-2014 speaking schedule with a presentation at the Hammonasset Chapter of TU: Wet Flies 101. I’d like to thank the group for being so welcoming (What? Food? Yes! Loved the pulled pork and the slaw and, oh, yes, the chocolate chip cookie) and for asking a lot of terrific questions. You made my night an enjoyable one.

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Block Island Diary 2013: Hey! I Remember You. (Kindof.)

If you’ve followed my previous Block Island Diaries, you know that the last two years of fly fishing from the shore have been – ahem – underwhelming. Used to be, a good night on the Block was a dozen stripers. An off night, two or three, with an odd visit from the skunk tossed in to keep you honest. But in 2011, I took only six bass in seven nights. Last year, a measly four bass. Buoyed by a strong 2012 fall run in Rhode Island and an equally impressive 2013 spring migration here in Connecticut, I ventured once again to the magical land of the Manisses.

Saturday: Red Right Return

There’s a reason Luke Skywalker doesn’t blow up the Death Star at the beginning of Star Wars. Unfortunately, you don’t have the luxury of manufactured drama in non-fiction. You get what the fates throw at you. And what I got tonight was a good old-fashioned summer blockbuster climax. It was so humid it felt like you could grab handfuls of air. Low clouds and fog banks whipped past, accentuating an already mysterious setting. Five casts in, and I had my first bass of the trip, a porcine twenty-one-incher that went immediately on the reel. Twenty minutes later, I’d already caught more stripers here than I did all last year. Halleluiah! These bass were gathered for one purpose: to eat with extreme prejudice. Sand eels were the entree, and I could hear them plink-ploinking through the water as I waded. There were stripers everywhere, and they attacked my fly, a Big Eelie in a Crazy Menhaden color scheme, with undisciplined fury. Missed strikes were frequently followed by punishing returns. Without a sealed drag, the moisture in the air and an occasional dip in the water reduced my reel to a shadow of its locked-down-tight self. Once hooked, the bass were off to the races, and I did my best to palm the reel. My knuckles took a beating as the handle repeatedly whacked them, but it was a good hurt, and I laughed at my clumsiness. The commotion I created sent several spin and fly anglers scurrying over to join the fray. By some perverse twist they all caught few or no fish. Some muttered as they left, and others departed with a palpably grim silence. Twice I told myself I would give the spot a rest and seek my pleasures elsewhere. Twice a fifteen-pound fish talked me out of it. The action slowed only when Mr. Boating Dipstick 2013 set a course for the wrong side of the channel marker – despite his blazing, brilliant spotlight – and momentarily hit the sandbar. But that was the only wrinkle in an otherwise flawless night. When it was over, my thumb looked like a pound of ground chuck under cellophane. My fly had been surgically reduced to a couple hackles and some forlorn strands of bucktail. Even when I tried to stop fishing, I couldn’t. I caught a legal fish just reeling in my line. One of the stalwart souls still on the beach called out to me. “Are you leaving?” Yep, I’ve had enough. “How many did you get?” I don’t really know. I stopped counting after fifteen. “You had some big fish there.” At least a half dozen in the 15-pound range. “Can I see what fly you were using?” Absolutely. “Wow. That’s it? It doesn’t even have eyes” Nope. Here, take this fly, and this one too. Color doesn’t matter. Good luck to you! Then I began the long walk back to the truck. As I trudged through the sand, I switched on my headlamp, and basked in the warm red glow of an absolutely righteous return.

Any night filled with ten to fifteen pound stripers doesn’t suck. I know, I know, it’s not the most fish-friendly photo. If it makes anyone feel better, I lipped the rest.

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That’s gonna leave a mark. The price of admission for a dozens-of-bass outing. 

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Sunday: The five most feared words in fly fishing

My friend Bill arrived on the Island today, and I’ve been regaling him with tales of gluttonous bass, buckets of bait and thumb-wrecking action. Word travels fast about a good bite, and the parking lot is mobbed. The weather and the wind are a carbon copy of last night. All we have to do is wait for dark and a little more of that flood tide. Unfortunately, there are more anglers than bait. Or stripers. Plenty of skates, though, in thick and beaching themselves, wings flailing away, frantically slapping against the sand. The wind picks up in intensity, and brings with it brief tropical downpours. I can see a light grey band in the skies over Block Island sound, then a foreboding line of India inkiness over the mainland. In the end, the bite never materialized. I managed a single bass by moving around and fan casting with a black, blue, and purple Big Eelie I call the Bruiser. I couldn’t blame Bill when he bailed after the second squall came through. As he walked off I called out to him, “You shoulda been here yesterday!”

Until someone brews up Silver Stoat Stout, Todd’s Norway Ale, or Flyrodder Lager, I’m still the only dude in my crew with his own label. (“The Fisherman” is my internet forum nom de voyage.)

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Monday: Gettin’ jiggy wid it

The wind is banshee bitch, even more so than the previous two outings. The fishing’s about the same as last night, possibly a degree less of suckiness: three fluke in about 90 minutes of fan casting over an expansive flat. Einstein’s definition of insanity being what it is, I decided to go for a wade along some shallows that border rocky structure. I spooked a fluke, then saw some suspicious upheaval on the surface about 50 feet away. I climbed up onto a rock to investigate. Three casts and two bass later, I had my answer. The fish were standard-issue Block Island mid-twenties schoolies, which is to say that they were rotund, powerful swimmers that went on the reel. Not much else going on, and I was in bed by 2am. While I was sleeping, Ravi, who works at the Block Island Fishworks, was jigging for squid in New Harbor. At 3:30am, he hooked a squid, which moments later was swallowed by a 31-pound cow. He said her stomach was full of calamari, from 2” to over a foot long. Now, which box do I keep those Banana Squid flies in?

When the fishing’s slow, you look for ways to amuse yourself. Here’s my attempt at an abstract: a long exposure of boat masts swaying in the wind, accentuated by a rogue fireworks shell burst.

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Tuesday: A very deep trough

Nothing. I fished the snot out this Island tonight, and nothing. Nothing at the Saturday night heroics spot. Nothing at my favorite jetty. Nothing at Charlestown Beach. (Not that five minutes of beleaguered casting in hellacious 20mph crosswinds counts for much.) Bill came back out tonight, and I talked him into trying a spot on the west side I’d never fished before. We were sheltered from the wind by a kindly bluff, but it’s generally a bad idea to wade out into unknown waters at night, even if you scouted them from the shore in the daylight hours. Bill gave it 15 minutes, but he just wasn’t feeling it, and after he left I got the standing-in-the-ocean-at-night-by-myself-catching-nothing blues. The visibility was so poor that I couldn’t even make out the horizon. All it took was one good gut-high wave to knock me off the rock I was standing on. Off to more clement waters, where, of course, I caught nothing. There was the mystery of the glow-in-the dark shooting basket to keep me entertained, though. I noticed that at odd intervals, the inside of my basket would glow a dull red. It was a puzzlement until I realized it coincided exactly with each draw I took on my cigar.

Yup. That about sums it up.

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Follow the fish. If only finding stripers was this easy.

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Wednesday: The natural

Tonight I’m taking my 10 year-old out with me. Last year was Cam’s first time night fishing for stripers, and although we didn’t catch any bass, he aced the outing. Whether it’s because I’m with my new fishing buddy or I’m attuned to some angling sixth-sense, I feel like we’re going to see some saxitillus tonight. Cam is fishing a 4” jig-head Sluggo, and lands a fluke in short order. We move to a different spot where Dad hooks a bass. It’s a standard-issue schoolie, but Cam is more than happy to land it on the fly rod in the misty twilight. Our last stop is the jetty. We experience our first double, although it is curiously strange that we have both hooked skates, Cam’s from the bottom and mine on the surface. We go out in a blaze of glory when I tie into a keeper bass about 70 feet away. I set the hook, and hand the rod over to Cam, who’s never fought a striper that large before, let alone on a fly rod. I take a quick picture, then clamor down the weed-covered rocks, telling Cam to let the fish run when it wants, reel it in when he doesn’t, and take his time until I can get down into the water. I’m standing at the bottom of the jetty, about to tell Cam to start getting the fish in, when I see a splash at my feet. Cam’s already beaten the striper, and there it is, waiting to be lipped. I got goose bumps when I realized that he’d landed his first keeper bass a lot quicker than his old man did.

A portrait of the artist as a young man, focusing on the job at hand and doing his father proud.

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Thursday: Fireworks cancelled due to fog

And the bass followed suit. At least for me they did. We all put our waders on one leg at a time, and tonight I’m living proof. Everything that could go wrong did. Everyone caught a striper but me. It’s not much fun when you’re going through it. At least afterward you have the comfort of humorous remembrance. Things started poorly when I drove a spot on the east side that was on lockdown – and they were catching fish. No room at the inn, so I drove to the west side where my line repeatedly insisted on wrapping itself around my rod. Literally sprinted a hundred yards down the beach after an angler reported blitzing fish on a sand bar – and found nothing. To make matters worse, I was wearing my stubborn hat tonight. I stayed out way too late. At least the birds weren’t singing by the time I drifted off into the fog of sleep.

Fortunately, there’s nothing in Chapter 10, Section 9 about carrying a cold one out on a jetty.

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Friday: Right where he’s supposed to be

It’s good practice for any serious striper angler to know a spot – and know it cold. I’ve fished the Island long enough now to have a certain level of competency. I have a mental index of where to fish at what tide, wind direction, moon, etc. Tonight I had my heart set on catching a striper at X. There were a few problems with my plan. X is generally a two-hours-either-side-of-the-flood spot. Tonight was fireworks night with the family. That would put me there well into the third hour of the dropping tide. The best I could do would be to have the truck pre-loaded so I could make tracks even as the finale’s last boom! was echoing across the hills. There was enough bait in the water to keep me hopeful, even after a fruitless fifteen minutes of casting. Then, bump! Missed him. Mortal depression. This being such a mercurial week, that might be my only touch of the night. But somewhere out there, in the rapidly fading twilight, I could hear the mischief of a bass feeding. I couldn’t quite place him; there was enough wind chop to make sighting the rise rings impossible. Bump! He hit it again. I let the fly sit there. Gave it a short strip. Bump! What gives? Must be a small fish. Another strip. Whack! Got him now, a silvery ten-pound striper that was the perfect fish in a perfect place at a perfect time. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to embrace the concept of, “I don’t need to be right.” But oh my goodness, sometimes it feels so damn good when I am.

A perfect fish. Just what I needed to close out the week. As tradition dictates, taken on a Big Eelie in the original colors.

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El Rey Del Mundo

I used to work at an advertising agency where the owner would go from floor to floor and ask each of us, “Is this the best job you’ve ever had?” At the time, for me, it was. But as it turns out, now I’ve got the best job I’ve ever had. I work for myself. There are multiple tradeoffs with any entrepreneurial venture, particularly in writing for a living. For example, I don’t get any paid vacations. But I do get to set my own schedule. And no. I’m not trading with you.

Because last Friday, I decided I needed some photos of small stream wild trout for an upcoming article. So while most of the rest of the world was working for someone else, I was heading out into to the woods on one of the Ten Best Days of the Year. You know the kind. Bluebird skies. Sun that coats your body with gratifying warmth. Cool, crisp air you can almost taste as you suck it into your lungs.

When this tree fell, it changed the whole structure of the pool. I don’t often use it for a bridge, but ants and squirrels do.

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The brook was at an ideal height, 60 degrees, and running clear. While there wasn’t much in the way of hatch activity (impossibly small creamy midges and some size 16 tan caddis), the water was teeming with aggressive brook trout. I started working my way upstream on the surface with a size 16 Improved Sofa Pillow. (At first glance, you’d think the fly was a Stimulator, but among its differences are a tail made of soft fox squirrel. I like that material, as it makes it easier to get a hook set with smaller fish.) I pricked dozens of brookies, mostly in the four-to-six inch range. Some of them I could see as dark forms materializing from the mosaic of the streambed, lunging at the fly as it skittered along the surface before resigning themselves to defeat, or stubbornly refusing to relinquish pursuit until the prize was theirs. Others launched themselves clear of the water, cartwheeling across the surface once hooked. All of it made for magnificent sport, and if there’s such a thing as rapture while fly fishing, I do believe I have reached that state many times now on waters like this.

Clearly, Mother Nature needs to have her name added to the list of great impressionists.

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Once I reached the top section of the brook, I switched to subsurface. I discovered a long time ago that wild brookies are of a curious mien; when you introduce an artificial fly into their world, they rush to examine it, and more often than not, try to eat it. Deeper holes that drew no rises to the dry were packed with trout that weren’t the slightest bit bashful about telling me they preferred their dinner wet. I was using some underweighted flies: a black and grizzly beadhead micro-bugger, and a beadhead version of the classic Gray Hackle Peacock wet. Both served me well in the more substantial plunge pools, where I could swing, jig, and strip them across the depths.

The Kate McLaren makes its small stream debut. Stonefly? Salamander? Sculpin? Clearly something that looks alive and good to eat.

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Then it occurred to me. I’ve never fished that size 14 Kate McLaren I tied up last winter. It seemed like the perfect fly for dapping along the broken surface. On it went. Nothing at first, and I began to regret my decision. Surely there would be some takers. Yes? You betcha. There, in that shallower run. On the other side of that seam. Between those two boulders. Just past that undercut bank with the sapling ready to keel over during the next freshet. I was having so much fun, I almost forgot the reason I came out today.

Having a job like this makes me wonder whether, in fact, life actually is fair. I don’t know the answer. But I do spend a lot of time laughing while I’m working.

A picture perfect day. A small stream filled with hungry brook trout. And an El Rey Del Mundo Flor de Llaneza. Surely I must be the king of the world.

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