I don’t typically do a lot of flats or sight fishing on the beach for stripers in the summer. But on those rare occasions when I do, I have a small box ready to go. This is a small Orvis Day’s Worth Box (sadly no longer available). I also like this box a lot. The dimensions are roughly 4 1/4″ x 3″ x 1 1/4″. It’s not waterproof, but its clamshell snaps shut tight thanks to some strong magnets. Smooth foam on one side, and scalloped foam on the other.
Okay. We’ve got the left side filled in with all kinds of sand eel patterns and smaller shrimp, crustaceans, and other tidbits. What goes into the right side? Much, as it turns out.
Organizing and replenishing my summer striper box is an annual ritual. I thought you might like to see how I do it. The left side of my box is the busiest, in terms of number of flies and how often I’m dipping into it. This is the left side, the sand eel side, and I’m covered for both matchstick sand eels and larger ones up to about 5″. Let’s start with the box: it’s a C&F Design Permit Box, completely waterproof, four rows of slit foam, 7 3/4″ x 4 1/2″ x 1 2/3″. I’ve had this box for years, and I love it.
I had my doubts about yesterday’s Housatonic smallmouth trip. The water was still a little higher than I like it (410cfs in the TMA) and definitely cooler (upper 60s). Unfortunately, I was right. It hasn’t turned on yet.
I started off in the upper end of the TMA. That was dead as Julius Caesar. All I could manage were two pipsqueaks and a busted wading staff. (Argh!) Off to the bottom end of the TMA where I witnessed spin anglers in the FFO area (called the TIP line, 800-842-4357 in case you don’t already have it programmed into your phone) and managed just one fish, a rainbow trout. He was in and out of the net so fast he didn’t have time to feel stressed. Absent my trusty staff, I fell in and soaked an arm and experienced the dread down-the-leg trickle. Sure, there are worse times of the year to fall into the Hous, but it’s almost always an unpleasant sensation. With a crappy bite and volumes of anglers still around (damn this cool weather), I made the command decision to head south.
7pm arrival, and finally, sweet solitude! Besides smallmouth, I managed a decent bluegill and a rock bass to complete the slam. I took them topwater (Gurgler), film (Countermeasure), and deeper (Soft Daddy). Observations: every one of the fish I caught at this second mark — covering about 250 yards of water — came in frog water about 2-3 feet deep. Every fish I took on the Gurgler hit when the bug was sitting stock still. Rather than ramping up, the bit tailed off at dusk. Swarms of white/grey mottled caddis everywhere, but virtually nothing rising. July is coming…
I don’t know if there’s a best sand eel fly, but the sand eel pattern in which I have the highest confidence is Ken Abrames’ Big Eelie. And right now’s the perfect time to be tying them up. My Rhode Island spies tell me that sand eels are out in good numbers. Surfcaster extraordinaire Dennis Zambrotta, author of Surfcasting Around The Block, tells me that unless you had a sand eel teaser rigged next to your plug the other night, you didn’t hook up. (This was at an undisclosed oceanfront location in SoCo.) One of the things I love about the Big Eelie is that it lends itself supremely well to different color combinations. I tie all manner of variants (do a search on this site for recipes, and I’ll even start you off with one, the L&L Big Eelie). And of course, the original colors (white/yellow/olive/blue) remain deadly as ever!
Every day is different. For proof, I offer yesterday. Yesterday was my worst wet fly fishing outing of 2022. If you had shown me the conditions, the mark, the number of actively feeding fish, the time of day, then offered a bet that would not catch a fish, I would have taken your money without another thought, Then, for over 90 minutes, I would have been frustrated to the point of incredulity. I would have eventually won the bet, as I managed one 11th hour trout, but the lack of wet fly hookups was a mystery that I pondered as I re-rigged for dry fly.
My best guess as to what was happening was that the fish were keyed on really small stuff — and they wanted the fly delivered on an absolute dead drift. Over the course of two hours, I had two bumps, both coming when I raised the rod tip to cast. This kind of reaction strike that doesn’t result in a hook set is clearly the result of a fish not committed to the take. I was fishing with Toby Lapinski, and he was working some slower water below me. Toby had a good dozen bumps on his team of three wets, but no hookups. Clearly, these trout were feeding on something other than what we were throwing, and how we were throwing it. Still, I’d expect at least a few accidents — trout being the small-brained-wired-to feed-opportunistic creatures that they are. The final piece to the puzzle that clued me in to the fact that they would only eat on the dead drift (rather than the mended swing or dangle) was that each of our wet fly trout came on an upstream dead-drift presentation.
I often talk about making adjustments to increase your fishing success. But sometimes you’ve got to be prepared to fail, and fail miserably, in order to figure things out. To wit: I kept fishing wets on mended swings and dangles to prove that the trout were keyed on small bugs on a dead drift. I was also fascinated by the prospect that they would not hit any of my wet flies (Squirrel and Ginger, Partridge and Light Cahill, Hackled March Brown) even when presented directly over their lie. It’s all more useful data for the fishing experience bank.
But I’d had enough experiments. By 7:20 I was in position and rigged for dry fly. I started with a size 20 because the rise forms were textbook smutting trout. Remember last week when I told you that I stuck fish on seven consecutive casts? On this night, I rose nine consecutive fish before I could rack up a hook set. By then, it was after 8pm and I’d made the command decision to go with a bigger fly. Our Lady of Blessed Magic Fly (size 16) don’t fail me now! And she didn’t.
Any misgivings I may have had about catching fish during this session were gleefully crushed by the last half-hour of dusk into darkness. Using a mix of Usuals, the Magic Fly, and Catskills Light Cahills, I took a good number of trout on the surface. We stayed until dark; my last two customers came when I could no longer see my fly. One was bucket method hook set, the other a sharp tug as the trout, Mykiss the Leaper, came tight to my reel. Toby was still casting to rising fish as he slowly made his way out of the pool in the indigo darkness.
The Farmington will do that to you.
A quick in-and-out trip with #2 son Cam last night to a favorite grass shrimp mark. The water was loaded with bait doing the mating dance. Sadly, assembled diners were few and far between. Whether it was the waxing gibbous, the cold front, or just not our night, pops were at a premium. We managed one small bass and the tiniest shad I’ve ever landed. On the plus side, these father-son outings feel really good. And there’s something about standing in a marsh in early summer soaking in the midnight moonlight that restores one’s soul. We’ll get ’em next time.
Man does not live by Farmington River trout alone. At least this man doesn’t. So Monday I headed to the northwest hills to see what was happening with the Hous. Specifically, the smallmouth.
We’re in that post-spawn-smallies-getting-too-warm-for-trout weirdness, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The water was 71 degrees at 7pm in the TMA. At 475cfs, the river, while dropping, was still a little high for my liking. It was more off-color than usual, which I thought was strange since there had been no rain events in days.
Angling activity commenced at 5pm at a mark below the TMA. In addition to this being my first smallmouth outing of the year, I was also test driving a new custom build rod. Like your humble author, this rod is different. At 10 1/2 feet, it’s long for a 6-weight. It’s a soft, slower action blank. So not what you’d expect from a standard streamer rod. But it’s perfect for the way I like to cast and fish. I had matched it with an 8-weight Sci Anglers Anadro floating line, and I was unhappy with that pairing. Once I figure out what the rod wants, those longer casts with a big bass bug will come much easier.
My mood was chill, so I headed to the familiarity of the TMA. Holy crowds, Batman! Cars and anglers everywhere, trying to squeeze out the last drops of trouting before the fish that don’t make it into the thermal refuges turn into trutta crisps or osprey snacks. I did a little hop-and-drop fishing with the Soft Daddy — this new stick is genius for that — but I didn’t like the water so I headed upriver. Wow. Even more crowds. I decided I would need to park and walk for some solitude, and after doing so the fishing resumed.
I’d like to tell you that I stayed ’em and that the smallmouth wouldn’t leave anything I threw at them alone, but it wasn’t that kind of night. There was a barely decent evening hatch (sulphurs, Light Cahills, caddis), although I did not try wet flies since I was committed to the streamer cause. I’d give the fishing a 3 out of 10. That is going to change as we move squarely into summer.
Once I get the rod dialed in, I’ll tell you more. Hope you’re enjoying this wonderful weather.
It’s almost mid-boggling how a river can go from nothing to boiling in a matter of a couple hours. When I arrived at my mark below the PTMA around 5pm, there were a few haphazard sulphurs, but you’d have been stretching it if you called it a hatch. The surface was dimple-free. That was all good with me, because I knew what was coming. Or at least I thought I did.
There is a distinct meter to most sulphur hatches. This one, as sulphur hatches often do, began slowly. A sip here. A bulge there. Nothing really that would suggest the full-bore frenzy that was to come. I was standing on a gravel bar that drops off into some deeper water, and as the shadows stretched across the surface of the water the fish began to move into feeding lanes. I chose a group of two or three sporadic risers that were about 20 feet downstream. The ignored my mended swing, so I decide to try the Leisenring lift.
The Leisenring lift is one of the most misunderstood presentations in fly fishing. It’s also a challenge with a shorter rod (I was wielding my 7’9″ cane.) To do it correctly, you’ve got to effort the rise of the flies so that it coincides with the exact position of the trout. Even if you do it right, sometimes the fish just won’t have it. But on this day, I had a bump on my first cast. I made the same presentation and felt another bump.
The third time was the charm. The trout struck and set herself. When she rolled, she sounded large. Right away, I could tell this was going to be an adventure on a whippy cane rod.
Whew! I took a short breather and waited for my hands to stop shaking. When I got back into position, I could see that while the hatch was beginning to ramp up, I was in the wrong spot to fish it with wet flies. Most of the good, slashing-at-emergers activity was in the faster water above me, but that real estate was occupied. I didn’t dare move, especially since I knew this small area would be money once the feed turned to surface action. I had no doubt, though, that if I was in a position to fish the faster water, I would have done very well.
The hatch intermission came around 7pm. I took the opportunity to re-rig for dry, warm up my legs, and light a victory cigar. (For those who will want to know, it was an EP Carrillo La Historia E-III.) By 7:30, I was back in position. I reckoned I had a good 75 minutes left to fish. If time does indeed fly, it does so with unmatched alacrity during the waning hour of a sulphur hatch. Depending on the mood of the fish, that hour can be an exercise in frustration and humility or a giddy delight. The fates chose option B for me. Trout rose to my dry flies (The Usual, The Magic Fly, Light Cahill Catskills style) seemingly at my command. During one fortuitous stretch, I stuck a trout on seven consecutive casts. I don’t usually count fish in volume, but I thought tonight that might it might be fun to do so. I was having so much fun, I forgot to keep track after a dozen. The overage was certainly impressive.
As is my SOP, I was the last angler off the water, long after it was practical to have a hope of seeing my fly in the darkness, even if it is a size 12 and white. The last two fish I landed inhaled the fly without any visual clue of the transaction; I knew I was on only after I felt a sharp tug-tug.
You’d think that a writer could come up with a better word for an ending. But sometimes simpler is better, even if it’s unimaginative (or dare I say lazy). So we’ll go all in.
I guided Dan yesterday from noon-4pm. Dan has attended several of my wet fly tying classes and seminars, and now it was time to put those lessons into practice. We began in the Permanent TMA; there was no visible hatch activity, but we managed a swing and a miss before we connected with a gorgeous wild brown on the top dropper, a Squirrel and Ginger, in some faster water. (The current flow, 175cfs, is on the bottom end of ideal for wet flies. You’ve got a lot of fish looking up, but unless there is something going on subsurface, you’ll find your best action in the faster water, riffles, dump-ins, and pockets.) Next up was a mark below the PTMA that’s usually good for a fish or two. Sure enough, Dan scored a nicely colored brook trout on the point fly, a Hackled March Brown. We finished at another mark upstream, but couldn’t find any trout willing to jump on. It was kind of a funky afternoon, with a cold front coming through the night before, rain showers, and very little bug activity. So Dan did well with two in the hoop — great job, Dan! You’re on your way.
After our session, I decided to do a little experimenting. I was curious about the mark below the PTMA Dan and I hit earlier, so I started there with a team of three wet flies: Squirrel and Ginger on top, Partridge and Light Cahill middle, Hackled March Brown on point. This was about 4:30pm. It was slow. I managed a few bumps from smaller fish and two bigger brothers to net. When I left, creamy mayflies were just starting to show.
I headed a few miles downstream to walk a snotty run. It was just OK; I covered water, kept moving, and banged up a few fish. My wade brought me to an oddly-structured riffle that dumps into deeper water. It’s now about 5:30pm. Still no bugs in the air, but I began catching fish on wet flies in earnest. I wasn’t crazy good, but I was steadily connecting with fish with no bugs in the air and no visible risers. This is usually an indication that there is something good coming your way, namely a strong hatch. Now I could see creamy mayflies and sulphurs and an occasional March Brown. The surface began to simmer. I don’t often change flies on my wet fly team, but on a hunch I switched out the Hackled March Brown for a Pale Water Wingless, AKA The Magic Fly. The trout immediately demonstrated their approval.
I have no idea how many fish I landed before 7:15. (There’s a lull in these evening hatches, and it usually comes in the 7pm-7:30 time frame. It lasts about a half hour, and then the party resumes.) What intrigued me the most was that while I was fishing in a steady rain, the wet fly takes near the surface remained unaffected by the barrage of droplets. I doubt that if I was dry fly fishing I’d have had the same success.
Once you see duns being snapped off the surface, it’s time to switch to dry. So I did. The rain stopped, the hatch came back with a vengeance, and the feeding frenzy began building exponentially to its crescendo. I fished a mix of Usuals, the Magic Fly, and Catskills-style Light Cahills. All three produced multiple fish. Around 8:15 I tied into an obstreperous trout that immediately went on the reel. The way it peeled line and cartwheeled subsurface made me certain that I’d foul hooked it. Nope. It was just a pig of rainbow, powerful, spirited, and worthy of honorary steelhead status.
Fish were rising everywhere. I had two or three that were working less than a rod’s length away. There were so many bugs and so many feeders that it became a challenge to focus on a single area or trout. (I recommend you find an active feeder, observe its rhythm, and target that fish. If you go shotgun during an event like this, you can get lost in frantic shuffle.)
All good things must come to an end, and since it was long past the time when I could see my fly, I began the wade back. Of course, I fished along the way. Thwack! One more glutton nailed the Light Cahill. I lost the trout to a popped 5x tippet, no doubt compromised by a toothy mouth of gill plate.
This was the kind of night that you dream about during those dark winter days. You relish them because they don’t come along too often. I wish I were going back tonight, but duty calls on the home front. But that doesn’t mean you can’t go fishing tonight.
In fact, I think you should.