Drat this cursed rain! Last year the river was pathetically low. This year it’s disgustingly high. The upper Housatonic has been mostly unfishable this month, and as a result we’ve missed out on what’s normally a very productive period. I’ve been feeling bitter about the whole thing, so I decided to take a drive out to the river and see what the conditions were first-hand, and maybe even wet a line. You know — you don’t know if you don’t go.
Surfcaster’s Journal 68 is live right now — it’s an online-only ‘zine — and within its fantastic digital walls you can find my latest story, “Sensei Elmer & The 50-Fish Nights.” This is a piece I wrote a long time ago, revisited, rewrote, re-edited — and now, instead of hiding on my hard drive, it can be yours to read and enjoy. You get to see some decent photos taken by me, and some extraordinary shots from my immensely talented brother David . (You can see more of David’s work on Instagram @theplayoflight.) “Sensei Elmer” is about two memorable fly fishing nights I had one October. Or is it about something far deeper than catching fish?
Most of what I write eventually ends up here, but this piece won’t — so if you want to read it, you’ll have to subscribe to the Surfcaster’s Journal. It’s only $20 a year and you get six issues. Tell ’em Steve sent ya.
Happy Friday! I hope your summer is going along nicely. If you’re a river and stream angler here in southern New England, it’s been a tough July. But it looks like we’re going to get a fairly long semi-dry spell, and that should allow the rivers to come down. I’m curious to see what, if any, negative impacts the flooding created. Rest assured, there will be impacts. As for the Farmington River, they’re still blowing water out of Hogback (over 2K cfs), but I think there’s a good chance they may lower the flow for the weekend. Check the USGS Water Data site for Connecticut for real-time information. In other happenings:
I’m working on a short piece about using a floating line in the surf. It takes the form of a case study, using a specific location/conditions, and it will be a currentseams exclusive.
Yesterday, I recorded a podcast for Fish Untamed. The subject is “Trout Fishing For Striped Bass,” and I’ll let you know when it goes live. (Give it two weeks.)
Drat this high water! I had all kinds of smallmouth fly experiments planned for July, and they’ve been blown to smithereens. So, we punt. I’m hoping flows drop enough in the next week so I can proceed. In the meantime, to the tying bench…
My article for Surfcaster’s Journal, “Two Nights in October,” should be live next week. This is an online subscription-only zine, so if you want to read it you’ll have get a subscription. It’s $20/year, which isn’t much for quality writing and storytelling, is it?
Stay safe, be well, and thank you as always for reading.
The best system for organizing your fly tying hooks and beads is the one that works for you. In the case of my ever-growing collection of such stuff, that means storage compartment boxes. But not just any boxes. They need to be adjustable, stackable, and easily transportable. Since I’m not fishing this week, I’m using the time to organize the disaster area that is my tying space. I thought I’d share my process of sorting and storing hooks and beads with you.
Let’s start with the storage boxes. I’m a big fan of the 3700 Series Plano Prolatch(TM) Stowaway(R) and 3600 Series Deep Prolatch(TM) Stowaway(R) bulk storage containers. I’ve been using them for years. You can find them at many hardware and big box retailers, and you can also order them directly from Plano. They’re very reasonable priced, and they’re a quality product. I like these boxes because they allow custom configuration; you can create numerous different-sized compartments within each box. The boxes stack neatly atop one another. And if I’m doing a show or a class on the road, I just latch the box and toss it into a larger container for transport. (Plano offers many more options in the way of fishing hardware/lure storage — it’s worth browsing their site if you’re looking for ideas.)
I can’t tell you how to organize your boxes –that’s up to you — but I can tell you how I organize mine. I have one box for beads and dumbbell eyes, sorted by color and/or material. For example, I have one compartment for brass copper beads and another for tungsten copper beads. But there’s only one compartment for gold beads, regardless of material, because I don’t have a lot of gold beads. There’s a box for freshwater streamer hooks, and a box for saltwater streamer hooks. My smaller hooks box is organized by hook type, with compartments for light wire hooks, heavy wire hooks, shrimp/scud hooks, heavy steelhead hooks, egg hooks, etc. Again, there may be many sizes and different makers within a compartment, but I can easily find the right hook for a size 14 North Country Spider (light wire hooks section) or a size 12 Dark Hendrickson winged (heavy wire hooks section). Easy-squeezy.
Twelve stripers to hand, and not a single picture of any of them? It’s true. We’ve all seen enough cookie-cutter bass photos; the one striper that was photo-worthy escaped into the waves; and several of them were landed in very fish-photo-unfriendly conditions. So, you have to settle for this (slightly) humorous photo essay of my week on the Block. Oh! You may also learn something…
After last year’s feast or famine full-moon struggle, I was really looking forward to fishing the dark of the moon on Block. To add to my excitement, the shore fishing in the weeks leading up to my trip was en fuego. I’ll quote Chris Willi of Block Island Fishworks: “I haven’t seen this much bait and bass and blues and shad in the pond in 20 years.” Captain Hank chimes in: “There’s life in the drink everywhere!”
By the time I arrived, it was all gone.
The front that came through on July 4th weekend sent everything packing. To add to the weather mischief, tropical storm remnants swept through mid-week and further cocked things up. The result was some of the poorest fishing on Block I’ve experienced in the last decade. A dozen fish over the course of seven nights was the best I could do, and I felt like I did really well given the conditions. To give you some perspective, I got a dozen fish or more on four different nights last year. I did not see another angler catch a striper from the shore, fly or spinning, for the entire trip. I did not speak to any anglers who managed more than two stripers the entire trip. Perhaps worst of all, this is now the third consecutive year that I have not caught a bass over 28″ on Block. Not good.
The Cut was a barren bait and striped bass wasteland. Charlestown Beach likewise. The flats fishing, my favorite form of Block Island fly fishing entertainment, stunk. Even the East side beaches were spotty, with a fish here, a fish there — and that’s if you could find a weed-free zone. And yes, I hit up the South side and SE sides. Blanks.
But enough kvetching. There were some positives. I did not blank on any night. I fished three marks that I’d never fished before, and found fish in two of them. (In fact, one of them became my defacto skunk saver.) I loved all three spots, and I will be adding them to my rotation. I spent more time fishing open beaches in wind and wave, and the two-handed cannon once again proved its mettle. On the opposite side of the rod spectrum, I finally baptized my five weight with a Block Island bass. And let’s face it: anyone who gets to spend a week banging around Block Island with a fly rod and a humidor full of premium cigars has a pretty good lot in life.
There’s always next year.
Now, if the rivers would just come down so I can harass some smallies.
I had planned on some serious smallmouth expeditions this week, but Mother Nature and the new normal — extreme weather — have put the kibosh on that. Last year it was drought, heat, and low water. This year, it’s torrential downpours and flooded rivers. This is now the sixth rainiest July on record, and here’s the kicker: we’re not even halfway through the month. (Anyone who doesn’t think we are experiencing climate change should note that of those six rainiest Julys on record, three of them have happened since 2001.) Some of you have inquired about wet fly guide trips, but I’d like to see the Farmington come down below 500cfs before we plan. Hang in there folks. Tie some flies, fish the salt or small streams, and sooner or later it will stop raining….for months…and we’ll be in another drought.
In his classic Stripers and Streamers, Ray Bondorew serves up an unimpeachable truth: fly tyers tend to overcomplicate things. Nowhere is this more true than in striper fly tying, where realism is king. Sand eels, also known as sand lances, are pretty basic — slender body, pointed snout, lighter on the bottom, darker on the top. Yet, as Ray observed, “Many sand eel patterns have been devised over the years, and many seem to involve much work to copy such a slender, simple bait. Complex bodies with Mylar tubing, Corsair, and epoxy have evolved. Several patterns require tandem hooks.” He doesn’t mention my pet peeve: eyes, which do a fantastic job of catching anglers. But I digress. I’ll let the man continue.
“I have always thought,” Ray said, “that there must be a way to formulate a simple, quickly tied, and effective pattern, especially for sand eels less than four inches long.” So Ray went forth and prospered at the vise. Ray’s Marabou Sand Eel is another favorite of mine, along with Ken Abrames’ Eelie, for imitating small sand eels, three inches long or less. Like Ken, Ray has some very specific thoughts on how best to tie this pattern.
“The trick here,” he says, “is to use as little marabou as possible.” Any thicker than a paper match width is, as Ray calls it, “overdressed.” Wet your fingertips and run them along the length of the completed fly to see if you’ve achieved your goal. Those who channel their inner sparse, impressionistic fly artist shall be rewarded with fat, cantankerous stripers.
Tying notes: As with Ken Abrames’ Eelie, I use the Eagle Claw 253 or other light, wide gap hook. No monocord for me, so I use Olive UNI 6/0. Leave a 3″ tag of thread near the hook bend; use this tag to bind down the wing. (Ray says if you choose to go the non-bound wing route, the pattern makes a fine silverside fly.) The pearl flash should extend beyond the wing by 1/2″. Use high quality marabou quills, and keep it sparse. What’s pictured here is as heavily dressed as I go.
Many of you know that Ken Abrames’ Big Eelie is my favorite sand eel fly. I use it primarily when the bait is at least 3″ long, or when I’m fishing an open beach or need a sand eel searching pattern. Oh, did I mention that it’s my favorite fly for Block Island? But smaller bait requires a smaller fly. Enter Ken’s Eelie, little brother to the Big one. The Eelie is basically a Big Eelie minus a saddle and the soft hackle. I rarely tie the Eelie longer than 4″; 3″ seems just about right. I love this fly as part of a three fly team; that’s how I most often fish it. Like the Big Eelie, the Eelie lends itself to all manner of color variations (try white, chartreuse, and olive, with a chartreuse body).
The Eelie is an exercise in sparse construction (some bucktail and a few hackles), simplicity (it’s a fast, easy tie), and impressionism (no eyes). The key to the Eelie is its thinness. I’ll quote Ken from Striper Moon: “The secret of tying effective sand eel flies is how thin you make them. Sometimes, an eighth of an inch thick is too heavily dressed.” You’ve been so advised by the master himself.
Tying notes: Ken’s original recipe is listed above. I make a few changes when I tie the Eelie. For years, I’ve been using the Eagle Claw 253 1/0 and some smaller hooks from brands like Gamakatsu; the key is to find hooks that are short shank, wide gap, light and strong. I match thread color to body color (here I used UNI 6/0 white). Instead of tubing, I use pearl braid for the body. Follow Ken’s instructions for thinness, and you’ll make the bass — and yourself — very happy.
Happy Birthday to the United States of America. I hope you’re have a safe and fun Fourth of July; maybe you’re getting together with family, or perhaps you’re out on the water. To help you celebrate, here’s bonus from the archives: the Olive Fireworm Big Eelie variant. This is my traditional 4th of July favorite sand eel pattern. Tie some up, and let the fireworks begin!
Boom. Ooh. Ahh. Ohh.