Block Island All-Nighter VIII: All by my(our)self

This year’s Block Island All-Nighter played out a little differently than in years past. Once I found out I would be flying solo, I decided to ask my 11 year-old, Cam, if he would like to go. He was all over it. I think he liked the idea of heading off for an overnight as much as he did the chance to go fishing. But I really didn’t care what his motivations were. It would be nice to have his company.

The last two BIANs were busts. My intel on the Island had warned me of epically slow fishing in the last week — “Be prepared to tour the Island to find fish” was the mandate. For a time, it looked like BIAN VIII would crap out. Then, a trickle of fish. And suddenly, the heavens opened and the light — hell, it was more of a beacon — of good bass fortune shined upon us. Here’s a little timeline and some photos from our adventure.

6pm-8:30pm: Take the six o’clock boat over to the Island. The surface is flat as a dinner plate. Speaking of dinner, no better way to start a BIAN off than with the fried scallop platter from Finn’s, washed down with an IPA draft.

My stash for the evening. You’re thinking, “Steve, why would you bring so many cigars?” Just in case. Someone might ask for one. Someone might deserve one for sharing the water. Or, on a dead-calm night like this one, I might forget my bug spray and be inundated by millions of biting no-see-ums. There’s no mention of cigars as bug repellant in the Boy Scout Manual. But this ex-scout was indeed prepared.

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No Fisherman’s IPA this year, so we went with Loose Cannon. Another hop bomb with some nice fruity notes.

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8:30pm-11pm: We arrive at the spot. It is mobbed. Like, we get the last place to park mobbed. Not to worry, I tell Cam. It’ll empty out in short order. Witnessed: The largest, longest school of sand eels I’ve seen on the Block since 2007. The bait was smaller than normal for this time of year: matchstick to 2″ long. But scads of them. And then some. The water looked like it had a moving, breathing oil spill beneath its surface. Cam fishing with a 1/2 oz. bucktail jig bangs up some fluke. Dad goes touchless. We walk to another spot. Dad’s proven fish-producing spot. There, Cam, you see? A couple bass rising. We display our wares to them. Nothing. Hmm. Not usually how things play out on the Block. We borrowed some bug spray for Cam, but he’s still getting pummeled. Cam announces he’s tired and is ready for nap #1. We start the long walk back to the truck. Looks like it’s going to be one of those nights.

11pm-1am: The stars! What a galaxy we live in. The air so calm I can blow smoke rings. The ocean is still mirror flat. So flat that I can easily see those rise rings thirty feet off shore. Multiple active feeders. I tell Cam his nap plans have been placed in a holding pattern. I’m going to cast to some fish. They seem oblivious to my fly. No wonder. There are enough sand eels here to feed every striper in Rhode Island. I connect with a few, and let Cam reel in a couple. At midnight he decides to call it. I keep fishing and catch a half-dozen or so more. This is already better than most of the last two years.

And I have no idea what’s coming.

Tight lines with the long rod. Cam has a knack for getting stripers in quick. No wonder. Look at the angle of the rod. I may have reinforced fighting the fish off the reel and the butt, but he basically taught himself. 

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One of Cam’s prizes. Most of the bass from the first part of the evening were in the 18″-24″ range. Block Island remains the only place I’ll put a sub-double-digit pounds striper on the reel.

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1am-3am: I’m walking along the beach, trying to decide where to fish, when the decision is made for me. A squadron of seagulls are milling about the water’s edge, chattering excitedly. Bass have the sand eels trapped and are picking them off with gusto. The gulls are cleaning up the leftovers. All I need to do is choose a rise ring, lay my fly over it, then start stripping. Sometimes the fly barely has a chance to get wet before the glassy surface is shattered and I’m on. It is a school of good stripers, ten-to-fifteen pound range, and every one of them came tonight to eat. For the better part of 90 minutes, the action is non-stop. It’s like striper fantasy camp. It’s so intense that I wonder how much longer it — or I — can go on. One fish obliterates the fly — this one’s over 30 inches — and as it rolls on the surface it spooks what look like another dozen stripers the same size.

Best of all, what I predicted earlier has come to pass. There isn’t another soul on the beach.

A 15 pound Block striper, classic big shoulders, belly full of bait. I know, fish on sand is not ideal. I risked this one for a photo; all her sisters were lipped and released within safe confines of the ocean.

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The white cavern, the last thing a sand eel sees before it disappears into the void.

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3am-6:30am: This time of year, the first glimmer of light appears in the east around 3:45am. I fished hard in those first forty-five minutes because I could sense I was running out of steam. I continued to walk along the beach, targeting active feeders. The bass seemed to get more aggressive as the sun’s disc neared the horizon; several times I had fish on as soon as the fly hit the water. By five I was done. I chatted up a a few anglers on the walk out, and presented a fly to a gentleman who proudly told me that today was his 81st birthday. After rinsing down our equipment, we headed into town to wait for Ernie’s to open. Breakfast is going to be glorious.

The pre-dawn crescent moon accompanied by the morning star. If you look closely just to the left of center, you can a see the remnants of a rise ring.

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Geez Louise. I gotta be more careful with that belt sander.

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6:30am-8am: Breakfast. Three pancakes for Cam. Pancakes and eggs for dad. Bacon for both. Off to the dock. Delirious from lack of sleep. Or all those stripers.

I can’t remember which.

Cindy Loo-Who has been punching my car ticket for decades now. Our meetings are always bittersweet: “Hello, old friend,” combined with the melancholy of leaving my favorite Island.

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“A Team of Three Wets” in the current issue of Mid Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide

Calling all wet fly junkies! This article discusses the how and why of fishing a three-fly team of wet flies. It includes a diagram that shows you how to build a three-fly leader. MAFFG is distributed free in fly shops all over the — well, Mid-Atlanctic area. Who knew?

This magazine is an underrated gem.

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Farmington River Report 6/18/14: Thank goodness for 7pm

Kevin and Aidan took my Wet Flies 101 class yesterday evening. The upper TMA was a perfect height, 375cfs, running crystal clear and 55 degrees. A little stream side classroom, then on the water at 5pm. The sulphurs made a showing along with some caddis, but there was nothing rising. We gave the spot 90 minutes, then decided to move. Right call. We found some river that was a good transition point between classic wet fly and classic dry fly water. It had bugs coming off and fish rising. Best of all, it was unoccupied(!?!). The hatch was strongest from 7pm to around 8:15. Plenty of size 16 sulphurs with the trout keyed on the emergers — I didn’t see a single dun taken off the surface. I rigged Kevin up with a Magic Fly for some wet-fished-as-dry action (we started off with an 18 but downsized to a 20) while Aidan stayed subsurface with the swung wet. Both guys did a great job targeting active feeders, and both connected with trout. Around 8pm I rigged Aidan for wet-fished-as-dry and he stuck several fish. Great job, gents. We won the hatch and weather lottery.

Kevin battling a wild brown who fell for a Pale Watery wingless wet.

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A good number of trout were enjoying the sulphur hatch as much as we were.

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Attentive anglers catch more fish. Aidan focusing on his drift, ready to strike.

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After the gig, I took a break and waited for the dark of night. It was not a good night for me to forget my headlamp — it’s an adventure stumbling across a boulder-strewn riffle or trying to stay on the path through the woods in total darkness. Not quite on the darkness, really. The fireflies put on a spectacular light show. I’ve never seen so many, so active.

I fished from 9:45 to midnight, throwing big streamers in hopes of connecting with a big ol’ brown. Not tonight. I did get three bumps, but no hook sets. Oh. And a beaver stalked me in one of the pools I fished. That’s always fun. I was glad I didn’t hook him. Though if I did, it would serve him right.

The Greased Line, The Sparse Flatwing, and the Big Three-Oh.

This was a weird spring. It was cold. Rainy. I suffered from a debilitating case of tennis elbow. Without my switch rod, there’s no way I could have even fished for stripers. Things started late – I didn’t get my first bass till well into April. Most of what I was catching was in the sub-twenty-inch class. While that bodes well for the future, April and May of 2014 will go down as a complete vexation for courting the big girls. Two of my traditional big fish spots were depressingly unproductive. It was weeks into May before I even had a legal sized striped bass. But, oh, what a bass. Here’s how it went down.

I was fishing a new location that had big bass written all over it: current, structure, and the presence of herring. Attached to my floating line was a seven-foot length of twenty-five pound test mono. The fly was one I’d tied several years ago: Ken Abrames’ Razzle Dazzle. This particular fly was a veteran many striper campaigns. Its top two saddles were long gone, and over the course of the seasons, some of the bucktail had likewise gone AWOL.

For two-and-a-half hours, I fought the good fight: cast. Upstream mend. Another mend. Another. Swing. Pulsing strip. Let the fly fall back. Retrieve. Repeat. If nothing else, greased line for striped bass is meditative, so absent any hits, the routine was comforting and pleasant.

But, it was time to leave. A walk down-current to a different section, then ten more minutes.

The takes on the greased line presentation are usually either a sensation of building pressure, or a sharp pull. Hers was neither. Suddenly, she was simply there, rolling on the fly, taking line downstream. I had dropped a substantial fish the week before when I couldn’t get a good hook set. With that wound still festering, I drove the point home. Hard. She felt strong. But I didn’t have a idea yet of what I was dealing with.

Every big bass fight presents a unique set of challenges. As expected, her first run was downstream. She peeled line off the drag, but I was surprised by how little it was – probably about thirty feet. I pointed the rod at her and set the hook again.

She turned abruptly, and headed upstream. I was simultaneously delighted and horrified; the former because in this heavy current she’d be burning a tremendous amount of oxygen in her flight, the later because of the memories of all those steelhead who shattered my heart with relentless upstream runs and hook-spitting leaps. The challenge was to re-gather line as fast as possible, staying tight to the fish. She was faster than my hands, though, and I was sure I was going to lose her. I raised the rod tip. Still there. I lowered the tip and re-set the hook.

Now, she sounded. I’ve heard that big bass will try to rub their cheeks against the bottom to rid themselves of a fly. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that the bottoms of rivers and oceans and estuaries are vast depositories for nature’s junk. Who knows what multiple opportunities for snag hell awaited below? I pulled on the line. It didn’t move an inch.

Unbelievable. Stuck on the bottom. Another good striper lost.

But wait. Did the bottom budge? Yes. A little. I moved the rod tip back and forth in a 180-degree arc over the water, trying to stir the fish. It worked. Instead of ripping down-current, she ran uptide. Paused. I re-set the hook. Again. I decided it was time to try and get her out of the abyss and onto the gravel bar. She would have none of that. “Down goes Frazier!” Or, as I imagined it in my head, Cosell shouting “Down goes Culton!” She sounded a second time.

Again, I couldn’t budge her with a straight pull. The rod wagging thing worked once before, so I tried it again. Now she came up a little faster. I could sense she was tiring. Once I coaxed her out of the depths, she took advantage of the shallows, ripping off a series of short runs. But all that sprinting was taking its toll. I still didn’t know what I had. I was hoping for twenty-five pounds. I decided to try to land her on the beach.

I put the rod over my shoulder and walked her in close, then pulled her to the water’s edge. Now I could see the fish. My mouth fell open, searching for words. My pulse rate skyrocketed. After lipping twenty-inchers all spring, her mouth felt like that of some alien creature. Its opening dwarfed my hand. The flesh between my thumb and forefinger was substantial. I could easily see a small dog disappearing down that gaping maw.

I held my rod against her length. Her gill plates came about to the first guide on my two-hander, thirty-four inches away from the butt. This was a striper over forty inches. The big three-oh in pounds. A new personal best on the fly from the shore. She certainly had been eating well, with a distended belly that gave her a perch-like shape.

Wouldn’t you know that this was the one night all spring I left my camera at home? Fortunately, I had my phone in my pack. I took a couple hurried shots, and felt guilty about it, because I really wanted this fish to live. I took hold of her – good Lord, what an impressive mass – and guided her into the shallows. I was expecting a lengthy revival. But no. Almost immediately she felt ready to go. Just to be sure, I held on a few more seconds. As I was re-adjusting my grip, she thrust from my hands.

She slipped away into the darkness, leaving a gentle wake.

Miss Piggy. A thousand apologies for the sub-par photography. This is what happens when you forget your good camera and are reduced to using an iPhone wrapped in a ziploc baggie. But, you can get a good sense of the sheer mass of the fish. The bottom guide is 34″ from the butt, and her tail extends farther than you can see. Look at that belly full of herring.

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A better shot in terms of detail, but you don’t get the full length effect.

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The winning fly. An old Razzle Dazzle, missing two saddles and a fair amount of bucktail. Here we make the case for sparse and impressionistic. This fly is now retired. I may put it out to stud.

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Farmington River Report 6/16/14: Business (almost) as usual

Since I didn’t get to go fishing on Father’s Day, Monday was my night. I was sure with the warmer weather the bugs would be thick. I was wrong. I arrived a popular dry fly pool on the upper TMA at 5pm. (Thanks to Ed and his friend, whose name I didn’t catch, for sharing the water.) Very little action for the first hour. Even when the hatch picked up (I’d rate the sulphur hatch a four on a scale of ten points) there were few fish rising, and most of them only sporadically. Every trout I hooked over the course of the evening was an active feeder. I fished the first hour with a size 18 cream Usual and landed three browns. Then I switched over to the Magic Fly, size 18. The fly was refused three times, but after I moved down to a 20, no more refusals (the naturals were probably a 16). Once darkness enveloped me, it was the classic Catskill Light Cahill, size 12. Two more on that. On the last one, I completely missed the take. I was picking up the line to recast, and I noticed the leader moving upstream. So, while the hatch wasn’t epic, I managed about a dozen fish. Which is a darn good way to spend the day after Father’s Day.

And still: what’s with everyone leaving once the game gets going? I had the whole pool to myself from 8:15-9:00pm.

Today’s lesson: that tiny rise ring that could only have been formed by a juvey Atlantic salmon that you cast to anyway because there were no other targets? It’s really a well-fed, 14″ wild brown. Happened to me twice.

River stats: 400cfs, 53 degrees, sulphurs, lots of midges (grey and cream), a few small size 18 tan caddis and a few size 16 black caddis.

You find irises like these everywhere on the Farmington River. They’re really quite lovely.

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Tying the Magic Fly (Pale Watery wingless wet variant)

The Magic Fly (Pale Watery wingless wet variant)
Hook: 1x fine, size 16-20
Thread: Pearsall’s Gossamer silk, primrose yellow
Hackle: Light ginger hen
Tail: Light ginger hen hackle fibers
Body: Rabbit fur, color to match the natural

I will be the first to tell you that I don’t believe in magic flies – you know, flies that you tie on and you automatically start bailing fish. This pattern is the closest I’ve found to being the exception. The Sulphur hatch is notorious for producing stillborn flies and frustrated anglers. The same could be said of the summer stenos, which have left me muttering to myself and spitting oaths on numerous occasions. The first time I fished this fly, it was a classic June Sulphur night on the Farmington. I had a whole pool of trout at my command. They rose to the fly with such confidence that I couldn’t believe what was happening. It must be magic! I treat this fly with silica floatant (my favorite is Frog’s Fanny) and fish it like a dry, on a long leader on a dead drift. The soft hackles and spikey body create a must-eat-me-now illusion that turns trout stupid. Alter the size and color and you’ve got a fine match for dorotheas and stenos.

The Magic Fly is based on the old English Pale Watery wingless wet pattern.

If there is a downside to this fly, it’s that it is a victim of the materials that make it such a success. The wet fly hackle quickly absorbs water, sinking the fly deeper into the film. Sometimes this is a good thing. Most nights, though, I find the trout want the fly a little higher on the surface. Even repeated shakes in a floatant canister and a re-dusting of silica won’t keep the fly where it needs to be. So make sure you tie up a half dozen in each size. Speaking of size, of the trout aren’t taking the fly, try going down one size. Sometimes that makes all the difference.

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The Magic Fly Rogues’ Gallery:

Brown PWWwet

 

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High-teens long, fat Farmington brown taken 7/21/14 on a size 20 Magic Fly

Big Brown on Magic Fly

 

Happy Father’s Day from currentseams

I hope you had a good one. I certainly did. A little work this morning in the rose garden, then an afternoon watching Number Two son play in a soccer tournament, and finally off to my dad’s house for dinner. Grilled vegetables, a Caesar salad, and some succulent rib eye steaks (rare for me, please) paired with a delicious California cab with a little age on it (Atticus John 2007). After dinner, the traditional Culton men’s cigar (Flor de las Antillas Belicoso for me — outstanding smoke) and a wee drap (18 year old Macallan).

While we were sipping, dad retold the story of how he took me and my friends trout fishing on the Salmon River in the mid 1970s. There were four of us teenagers, and when we got to the river, dad asked us which way we were planning on fishing. We pointed upstream. Dad’s intent was to get some separation from us, and what with all our hormones, adolescent angst, and noise, can you blame him? He headed downstream. Five minutes later, he turned to see us all in a line, closely shadowing him. Can you blame us? We wanted to follow the master angler.

Happy Father’s Day, dad. Thanks for taking me fishing. And thanks for teaching me where trout like to hang out in a river.

Both of these things are old, but in a good way. He who taught me how to fish, his cigar, and his whisky.Image