Best of 2020 #10: Tuesday Night Zooms

…In which we count down a series that recaps my favorite fly fishing moments of 2020…

Marines are trained to improvise, adapt, and overcome obstacles. OK, so I’m not a Marine. But my oldest son is, and I’m going use that as license to borrow this mantra. This spring, with our nation in the grips of the pandemic, speaking in person to fly fishing clubs wasn’t an option. Lockdowns and social distancing in general were challenging for so many of us. And even though I’m an introvert, I dearly missed the chance to interact with other fly fishers. The idea of doing a regular Zoom seemed like a good one. Best if we keep it to the same night every week. But which night? In an homage to one of my mentors, Ken Abrames, I decided on Tuesday. And thus was born the Tuesday Night Currentseams Zoom.

While not as detailed and rehearsed as my paying gigs, I believe these presentations were still loaded with good advice and included a strong entertainment factor. Your reaction and support was overwhelming. There’s nothing worse than presenting to an audience of ten when you were expecting a hundred. Well, I never cracked the century mark, but we got over 75 more than once, and we were almost always over 50. While I intended these simply as a way to get us all to connect through fly fishing, some of you generously offered donations. So: thank you. Thanks for showing up. Thanks for so many great questions. And thanks for your enthusiasm. You gave me something to look forward to every week for a couple months.

As the pandemic continued, some fly fishing clubs discovered that if they held their meetings remotely, members could safely attend. This fall I got back to presenting to clubs via Zoom. In fact, I have a bunch scheduled for 2021 that I’m looking forward to. Many of you have asked that I do some pay-per-view tying Zooms this winter. Those are in the works. And we may still do a freebie now and then. So stay tuned…

This was my last Zoom, back in early June. At its close, I asked everyone to go out and fish and have an adventure this summer. Maybe next time we could talk about how you all did with your homework. I know I did a ton of exploring (new water, new flies, new techniques) for smallmouth. If you’re looking for a full, detailed presentation for your club, here’s my current presentation menu.

What Striper Fly Anglers Can Learn From Pluggers

In short, a lot.

I’m currently reading Dennis Zambrotta’s Surfcasting Around The Block. As you may have read a few days ago, Dennis has asked me to contribute a chapter to his upcoming followup. It’s a little crazy to me that I’ve known about Dennis’ book for years, but I’ve never read it until now. While the focus of the book is on spin fishing the Block with plugs in the surf — and frequently surf under hardcore conditions — there are plenty of secrets that the fly angler keen on building his or her knowledge base will be able to use for their next outing, whether on Block Island or elsewhere. Here are some of my thoughts.

Color matters to needlefish pluggers. The needlefish is a primary choice for pluggers when sand eels are the bait, and the most popular color is fluorescent green. On Block I fish Big Eelies the vast majority of time, in all kinds of colors, and have never found that the stripers have a preference. But now my mind is wandering in to places of color and length. The Big Eelie in L&L Special colors is one of my favorite, high-confidence Block flies. It’s got a lot of chartreuse. Hmmmm….maybe a longer version, seven inches long, with more bright greens?….one way to find out…

Or, maybe the L&L in a Soft-Hackled Flatwing, tied about 7″ long. I really like fishing this color scheme over sandy bottom structure, like Crescent Beach...or on the Cape…

Location matters…and there are so many locations. I like to think that there aren’t too many anglers that know Block Island on the fly like I do, and then I read a book like this and realize how very little I really know — especially when it comes to locations. Part of it is that I’m a creature of habit. Part of it is that I like to fish flats and skinny water more than surf. Part of it is that it can be challenging to fish certain marks with a fly rod in wind and waves (almost constant companions on Block). But I’ve really got to explore more of these boulder fields (check out Gerry Audet’s talk on boulder fields sometime) and the mysteries they hold. In a way, Dennis hasn’t written a book as much as he’s built a roadmap. Follow it to find your own secret spot.

Tides matter. Once you’ve figured out where you’re going to fish, pay attention to the tides. There are certain marks on Block that I fish on universal tides, and others that I’ll only hit at a certain tide. Pay attention to the details in Dennis’ book and you’ll have the code cracked for you on your next outing.

Put in your time. And move around. If the bass aren’t biting where you are, give them a chance to move into the area you’re fishing. If that doesn’t work, move. One of the beauties of the Block is that everything is accessible and everything is short drive from where you are.

Okay, so the days of the multiple 30, 40, and 50+ pound bass blitzes from shore are over. (Dammit! I can’t believe I missed that. Oh, to have been a striper fly fisher on Block in the early to mid 1980s…) It’s been a slow last couple years for me for slot fish and above on Block, the opportunity still exists. Here’s a very respectable double-digit pounder on the fly from two years ago. Miss you, sweetheart.

From the archives: A Winter Steelhead Baptism

As promised, here’s a pre-currentseams oldie but goodie. The events took place in December 2009, my first real winter steelheading trip. It’s amusing now to read this over a decade later, recalling how raw I was and little I knew about hooking and landing steelhead. I’ve included a link to a video old fishing buddy Todd Kurht made where you can see the battle and the beast. I hope you enjoy this little slice of steelhead dreaming,

“That Boy is a P-I-G pig!” With apologies to Babs from Animal House (and the steelhead involved) he truly was.

We started out on a beautiful winter morning with moderate temperatures and plenty of sunshine in a pool I had never fished before. The water was low (>350cfs), cold (33 degrees), and crystal clear. I had high hopes for this trip, my first winter steelheading venture, and I thought the conditions would only help us out. I sparked up a churchill to start enjoying on the walk down to the river. An hour later, I was still puffing on it, fishless. Bob had moved to spots elsewhere, and Todd and I were beating the water thoroughly. I just didn’t know this spot well. I spent a half hour around a really sexy-looking stump tangle before wading over to discover that the water was much shallower than I thought. 

Then, I waded though a deeper channel that I didn’t know was there, and realized that that was where I should have been fishing (later confirmed by Trapper, one of the good guides, who shared the pool with us and his client). But, such is the learning curve on new waters. 

I had tied on an Opal Blue Estaz egg and was fishing a current seam along the far bank when the indicator paused. I set the hook like I had already done dozens of times today, only this time the rig didn’t come flying out of the water. It stuck. And then the water boiled up 50 feet away from me.

I could see it was a good sized fish, but I didn’t have the full picture until the first run. Criiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiink! The drag sang out in the warm December air. The fish rolled again, and I could see once more that it was a good fish. Todd was on the scene by now, and confirmed it was a sizeable steelhead. And that’s when the line went slack.

Well, I told myself, that’s why they’re called “steelhead.” At least I had hooked a big fish, and at least I had my adrenaline rush for the day. Can’t win them all.

So why is my fly line moving upstream at a very rapid pace?

You must understand that I have a minimal corpus of knowledge when it comes to steelhead. “Rookie” would be accurate. I had forgotten how quickly they can turn on a dime and shoot upstream. The last time this happened was the first steelhead I hooked over a year ago. I lost that fish. Frantically, I stripped and reeled line as the fish passed me. Yes! Still on. I reset the hook as hard as I dared, and the fish dashed downstream at a breakneck pace, peeling line off the reel like I’d never experienced. 

Again, understand that my experience base of fighting a fish like this on single digit test tippet is nil. The steelhead melted through the flyline in a matter of seconds. I was into the backing good. Of course, Todd is kibitzing the whole time, providing moral support, and telling me this is a great fish. I kept thinking, “Todd, you just put the whammy on me.” I decided nothing ventured, nothing gained. I was uncomfortable with well over a hundred feet of line out, so I started to reel in. Every time I felt weakness on the other end, I reeled in more. I regained the majority of the line before the fish blistered off on another long run. But all this oxygen-burning fury was taking its toll. And for the first time, cigar clenched in my teeth, puffing away, I felt good about landing this beast. 

Finally the end was in sight. I had the fish in the shallows. At this point I felt if it broke off, I had at least achieved a moral victory. Todd came up behind the fish, tailed it, and a prize that was measured in pounds, not inches, was ours.

Talk about good fortune: the egg fly was dangling from a paper thin section of tissue in the steelhead’s mouth. We took some pics then released it, watching it porpoise as it skulked back to its lie. Not a bad steelhead to be your first on a fly you tied. And here it is.

This caption was not part of the original piece, but the photo was. I believe this is still the largest steelhead I’ve landed, and I’d estimate it to be about 15 pounds. You can see the fly dangling by a thread of tissue — such is the case when planets align and good fortune is in the forecast.

I went and sat on the bank to savor the rest of the cigar. I was shaking. I think I giggled out loud for a half hour.

The battle preserved on video. Maybe I’m being too hard on myself, because I think I at least look like I know what I’m doing. The main even is from about 0:23 through 1:03.

You are Cleared for Small Stream Takeoff

A few months ago I asked that you suspend fishing on Connecticut’s small streams until the drought was remedied and the spawn was complete. Check on both boxes. With a favorable amount of water for two months, the locals that survived the harsh summer conditions have had a chance to recover, fool around, and now prepare to hunker down for the winter. I have two requests (I know, I ask a lot) if you must fish small streams. First, try to stay out of the water as much as possible. The thought behind this is that you don’t want to walk over a redd and destroy the next generation before they’ve had a chance to hatch. Two, consider using a bushy dry with the hook point removed, or an over-sized dry that the little guys can’t get their mouth around. It’s nice to hold a small wild char in your hands and release it, but truly, isn’t the fun really derived just from fooling a fish? I appreciate your consideration. Tight lines, be safe, and be well.

The stark beauty of a small stream in winter. Please respect the brook and its residents. We all thank you.

Tip of the Week: Prevent runaway line when you’re changing flies

If you fish a two-handed rod, or if you use a modern shooting head integrated line (like Rio Outbound or Airflo 40+) with your single hand setup, you’ve undoubtedly encountered this scenario. You want to change your fly, or check the hook point, so you tuck your rod under your armpit and gather in the line. Problem: while you’re fiddling with the fly, the current grabs the line — those shooting heads have a lot of surface area — and downstream goes your head, taking your running line along with it. Now, you’ve got to re-strip 60, 70, 80 feet of line again — time you could be fishing.

Solution: wrap a couple loops of the running line around your off-hand wrist. I like to gather in the running line till the shooting head is just outside the rod tip. The orange running line below my wrist remains inside my shooting basket. This way I’m ready to cast as soon as I change flies. That’s more time spent fishing, and that means more potential time catching.

Tip of the Week: Save your welded loop with a heavy mono butt section

Many, if not most, modern fly lines come with a factory welded loop for an easy leader connection. The problem is that if you’re using a straight shot of leader material that’s under 40lb. test, the diameter of that leader can cut into the the welded loop while fighting a big fish, trying to free a snag, or inducing any other stress that puts extreme pressure on the connection.

Solution: create a short mono butt section to act as a buffer between your welded loop and leader. I’ve been using a foot-long length of 50lb. or 60 lb. mono. Just tie a perfection loop (here’s a great tutorial from Animated Knots) at both ends, and you’re good to go! I’ve been using this system with my two-handed shooting head for over a year.

If you want to catch more stripers, learn presentations other than cast-and-strip

One of my goals with currentseams is to help you become a better angler — and hopefully catch more fish. So if I could somehow distill a “Top Ten Tips” out of my brain’s fly fishing storehouse, one of them would certainly be: Learn presentations other than cast and strip. Especially if you want to catch more stripers.

When I see questions like, “How fast do you retrieve the fly?” or “Do you strip with one or two hands?” — and I see these questions a lot — I despair. Rarely does anyone ask the question, “Does it have to be a retrieve?” The answer would open many doors to greater fish-catching glory.

Even if you were going to fish for stripers using only retrieves — and there are many outings over the course of a season where I do just that — there are an abundance of retrieve options that are rarely used or discussed. For example, for sand eels, I like a hyper short (1-2″) rapid pulsing strip. For a large squid fly like the Mutable Squid, I like a slow hand-twist retrieve. Last week I fished a large deer-hair head fly with a fast strip-strip-strip-strip….pause….wait for it….then strip action. And there’s always the surface popper trick of landing the fly with a splat….then doing nothing. Once the landing rings dissipate, give that bug a twitch. You could present in randomly timed, spaced, and distanced strips, creating the drunken action of wounded prey. The list goes on. And the stripers will always tell you when you get it right.

Ultimately, you’ll need to learn presentations other than cast-and-strip for those outings where the stripers will not chase. One of my recent trips included a puzzle where school bass were cruising and feeding, but would not move to a stripped fly. The answer was found within traditional salmon presentation tactics. Those willing to invest in the floating line — I’m not talking money, but rather in taking the time to learn how to harness its power and master a few basic presentations — will see their catch rates soar. And while you’re at it, pick up a used copy of “Greased Line Fishing for Salmon [and Steelhead] by Jock Scott.

Fly fishing is all about line control. So take charge. Presentation is not difficult to learn. Remember that a fly rod and line is only, as Ken Abrames once observed, “a stick and a string.”

Learn presentation and start bringing your fly to the fish — not vice versa.

Proof That The ASMFC Doesn’t Get It (this time it’s menhaden)

The dumpster fire that is the ASMFC continues to burn brightly. If you want evidence that their conservation model appears to be based on the theme, “Kill more fish,” look no further than this week’s meeting of the ASMFC’s Menhaden Board.

I’ll let the ASGA pick up narrative. “Disappointing news coming out of this morning’s meeting of the ASMFC Menhaden Board, which had a great opportunity to show the public its commitment to recognizing menhaden’s critical role as a forage species. Despite the Board’s August decision to adopt Ecological Reference Points (ERPs), today it adopted 2021 and 2022 catch limits that have greater than a 50% chance of exceeding the fishing mortality target, undermining the intent of ERPs and disregarding public comments urging a precautionary approach to menhaden management. ‘Decision: Move to set a TAC of 194,400 metric tons for 2021 and 2022. 13-5-0-0 Roll Call.’ More details to follow in our full debrief of the ASMFC meeting.”

Stupid is as stupid does, and when it comes to conservation and fisheries management, nobody does stupid better than the ASMFC.

Tip of the Week: When nymphing, set downstream!

A lot of anglers leave the river after a nymphing session wondering why they dropped so many fish. It’s the hook set, baby! This is such a simple principle. Adhering to it will result in a noticeable increase in your catch rate. Check out this diagram:

A proper nymphing hook set goes downstream, into the mouth and the mass of the fish.

If you accept the proposition — and I feel strongly about this — that most fish are won and lost at hook set — a good set is critical to nymphing success. Picture your fly moving downstream, a few inches off the bottom. The trout is facing upstream, sees the nymph, and decides to eat. You detect the strike (look for a reason to set the hook on every drift) and set the hook. Don’t set upstream. Doing so essentially takes the fly away from a fish that has said “yes” to your offering. Instead, drive the hook point home into the fish’s mouth — downstream — using the mass of the fish against itself. What if you’re indicator nymphing and your drift has the fly 30 feet below you? On the take, sweep set off to one side.

Do this every time and you’ll be netting a lot more fish. And of course, you’re constantly checking your hook points to make sure they’re sticky sharp…right?

Tip of the week: find the tiny BWO the trout will eat

It’s fall on the Farmington, and that means it’s time for tiny Blue-Winged Olives. Depending on your point-of-view, this hatch can be a blast or a scourge. The flies are small (20-26), but when conditions are right (frequently overcast, damp days), the trout will line up and sip them for hours.

So, what do you do when you’ve got the hatch matched, the right leader/tippet (12-15 feet is a good length to start), your presentation is spot on a feeding lane, drift is drag-free, and you get…nothing? Or worse, a refusal? It might be that you’ve got the wrong fly. Experience has taught me that sometimes the same size fly in a different style makes all the difference. So carry a bunch of different style dries, and enjoy the tiny BWOs of fall.

My tiny BWO dry fly arsenal includes, from left, comparadun, comparadun with Z-lon shuck, parachute, Pat Torrey’s Tiny BWO soft hackle, and foam wing. The trout sometimes favor one of these over another, and the only way to figure it out is to cycle through patterns. By the way, this concept applies to other tiny hatches, like midges.