The B.I.G. Big Eelie Variant

I’ve had the B.I.G. Big Eelie variant on my brain ever since I read Dennis Zambrotta’s Surfcasting Around The Block. In case you’re unfamiliar, Dennis devotes an entire chapter to the popular needlefish plug — and he details how bright, fluorescent lime green was all the rage among needlefish aficionados. Dennis dubbed the color, “Block Island Green,” and it was so popular back in the day that you could always find an incredible number of fluorescent lime green spray paint cans at the island hardware store. Fortunately, you don’t need to summon your inner painter to tie the B.I.G. Big Eelie. All you need is some bucktail, a few pencil thin saddles, and a sandbar over which to swing this bright green striper catching machine.

The B.I.G. Big Eelie

Hook: Eagle Claw 253 3/0

Thread: Fluorescent green or chartreuse 6/0

Platform: 30 hairs white bucktail

Tail: First, a white saddle; second, 4 strands light green Flashabou; third, three chartreuse or bright green saddles. (All saddles pencil thin.)

Body: Pearl braid

Collar: Fluorescent green marabou, tied in at the tip, 2-3 turns

Bonus Summer Striper Box: The Sight-Fishing/Flats Box

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.

In which we keep it simple: dumbbell- and bead chain-eyed crabby stuff on one side; ditto slender, sparse baitfish on the other side. Oh! And a bonus small jiggy-thingy just in case. Now we just need the right light and surf conditions…wait…I see you…

Re-Stocking The Summer Striper Box, Part Two: The Bigger Stuff

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.

The right side of the box is a hodge-podge of patterns: a few more tiny shrimp and baitfish, some smaller bucktails and single feather flatwings, some weighted patterns just in case, a Gurgler and some already used Big Eelies if bluefish are around. Time to fill in that top row.
The top row gets the bigger stuff: squid patterns, Gurgling Sand Eels, Eel Punts, etc. I usually keep a dropper rig in my chest pack, pre-tied and ready to go, sealed in a zip-lock baggie. And there you have it. Let’s hit the surf! And the flats. And the salt ponds. And the estuaries. And the boulder fields…

Re-Stocking The Summer Striper Box, Part One: Sand Eels

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.

The top two rows are for sand eel patterns, so I start by removing every fly and taking inventory: what stays, what goes, what needs to be replaced? The bottom two rows are mostly small stuff, like shrimp, crustaceans and isopods, clam worms, and tiny baitfish. Then, I fill in the third row with smaller sand eels. Left to right, The Golden Knight, Ray Bondorew’s Marabou Sand Eel, and Ken Abrames’ Eelie on various hooks and in different color schemes. These smaller sand eels are most likely going to used as part of a dropper rig team of three.
Now I’m ready to fill in the top row with Big Eelies. Note that I carry multiple color combinations (and I have more in reserve at home that I can use to fill in the blanks). I’ll choose a pattern based on conditions, light, bottom structure, ritual, tradition, and — most importantly — feeling. It’s easy to lift up the tail to see what’s beneath; this system allows me to maximize available space. I also carry a few extra Big Eelies in a baggie. I hand these out from time to time to people I meet on the beach. Right, John?

Housatonic Mini-Report 6/20/22: A Housy Slam (of sorts)

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…

Why it’s called frog water. There were far more tadpoles than rusty crayfish, although I did well hopping the Soft Daddy along the bottom.

Time to tie up some Big Eelies

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!

A Crazy Menhaden Big Eelie, still hot on the vise. You can find this and many other Big Eelie variants right here on currentseams.com. In fact, I’m playing around with a couple new variants that I’ll share with you soon.

Farmington River Report 6/12/22: Frustratingly slow, then fantastically frantic

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.

A hefty mid-teens rainbow taken by Toby on one of my size 12 soft-hackled Hendricksons, which is a fair stand-in for an Isonychia. The late afternoon Iso hatch was pretty good — I’d give it a 7 out of 10 — and yet the trout were not keyed on that bug. That’s too bad, because if they were I have no doubt we would have caught far more trout on wets. We never heard any of the loud splashy takes that are so typical of trout feeding on Isos. The sulphur hatch was disappointing — that gets a 2 or 3 — but hatches progress and evolve and it up to you to crack the code. Which, as it turns out, I did once the pattern changed. (Photo by Toby Lapinski.)

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.

Striper Mini-Report 6/9/22: Not so much

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.

Pondering…wondering…calculating…where did the bass go?

Housatonic River Report 6/6/22: Meanwhile, in another part of the state…

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.

A baptism bass for the new rod. Looks smaller than its actual foot-long length, but the fight was terrific. He smashed a chartreuse Gurgler casted toward the bank of a frog water section below a beaver lodge. I’ll take smallmouth any way I can get them, but topwater is the bomb.

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.

Farmington River Report 6/5/22: Trophy rainbow on a soft-hackle, then even more spectacular dry fly action

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.

To add to the challenge, I was also using an old click-and-pawl reel. But I had a good hook set and 4-pound Maxima on my side. You pressure the fish as much as you can, don’t let ’em breathe, and if the planets align the fish is in the hoop before you know it. Now, I could have used a bigger net for sure. My net opening is 17″ — she was well past that — and as you can see, baby got some back. And that pink band! This shot really doesn’t do the fish justice; she’s over 20″. Thanks to Joe for being my photographer. Taken on a Hackled March Brown, size 12.

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.

I did manage another cracking rainbow on a wet fly. This lovely trout, taped at 17″, gave me a spirited battle. On any other day, it could have been the fish of the evening.

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.

Wow.