Salmon River Report 11/22-23: Definitely NOT the Everglades

The pre-Thanksgiving Salmon River steelhead float trip is traditionally for myself and my middle son, Cam. But Cam was away at school. Gordo had school and hockey. Yup. Solo road trip! Coming off my Everglades experience, I was mentally prepared (but still dreading) the inclement weather I was sure to encounter. So, armed with my trusty Ken Abrames Salmo Sax #3, neoprene waders, and a pile of hand warmers, I headed northwest.

I have a knack — no, really, it’s a talent of mine — for picking days months in advance that are (ahem) un-ideal for fishing. This year I chose high water (1,500cfs out of the gate) and the coldest two days in the 10-day forecast. I can deal with both, but jeez Louise…again? The first day was the warmest, although it was mostly cloudy and we had long, frequent spells of “Salmon River Sunshine,” aka lake-effect snow. We did the Altmar-to-Pineville run both days, with the bulk of the fishing in the Altmar area. I would call the angler traffic moderately low, as higher water tends to keep the shore anglers away. Early on, we found an open hole that was deep, dark, and mysterious. My leader butt was 10 feet long, and I had four 3/0 shot on, but I still wasn’t getting down — I could tell by the lack of indicator chugging and dipping. So I asked my guide, Jim Kirtland, to build me a butt section of about four feet or so. That little adjustment was everything, as three casts later the indicator dipped, I set, and steelhead on hijinks ensued. It was a chrome skipper in the 16″18″ class, and I was thrilled to be on the board. My 1-for-1 was short-lived, though, as I dropped my next four touches. To be fair, I had no chance for a hook set on two of them as they occurred as I was lifting the rig at the end of very long drifts; one was totally operator error; and, maddeningly, one was a clean tippet break mid-battle. Not the best luck, but surely that can change.
Persistence pays off. I tried not to let the previous misses get me down. We’d moved to a long, swift-flowing glide where I had the comfort of knowing that at 1.5K, any take would be amplified by the indicator. I’d been on my hook sets pretty good, and I tried to remain vigilant. I stuck this guy firmly, which was a good thing given his size, freshness, and propensity for hystrionics. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet was the unique problem we’d created by lengthening the leader. The position of the indicator on the leader system meant that I could only reel up so much line — not enough to lift the fish’s head to the net in a normal fashion. (I was using plastic Thingamabobber-type indicators because of the amount of weight, and those can be notoriously difficult to adjust, let alone in the middle of a battle with a steelhead.) To have a chance at landing the fish, I would need to navigate my way to the stern of the boat, reel the indicator to the rod tip, then lift the rod, arms completely extended over my head while trying to steer the fish to the front of the boat, where Jim would be waiting with the net. Easy enough with a skipper, but a challenge with a chrome buck like this. As you can see, we were successful! The first fish came on a Copperhead Stone. The second came on a small nymph called the Spider. Photo by James Kirtland.
I wish I was signaling that I’m currently engaged with my fifth steelhead of the day, but it’s just a simple “Hi, Mom!” Tuesday was substantially colder than Monday — temperatures never got above freezing — and wind and iced-up guides were a constant scourge. Because of the cold front, the fishing was noticeable slower, and the only touch I had all morning was a certainly foul-hooked fish that began to roar upstream with unbridled speed before suddenly coming off. I also re-discovered that it’s a really good idea to crimp those shot down tight on the leader, as once they start wandering along its length, casting becomes a chuck-and-duck nightmare. On the positive side, I’d like you to notice the angle of attack of the rod. I’ve got the tip low to the water and the fish is being fought off the reel and the butt section. To be hyper-critical, I should probably have the cork of the rod pointed more upstream. Don’t let them breathe, put the screws to them, and you’ll get ’em in fast. Speaking of hyper-critical, we witnessed a steelhead being played to death. The battle lasted well over 15 minutes (not an exaggeration) and may have pushed past 20. You bet that it featured plenty of high sticking and long stretches of the steelhead holding in the current without reel handle being cranked. Inexcusable. Video still by James Kirtland.
Victory is mine. After my success the day before with black and copper nymphs, and little to show for it today, I tied on a fluorescent chartreuse Crystal Meth, and boom! Sometimes you get lucky. I was right on this fish with my hook set, but I dropped one a few minutes later when I was slow on the draw. So, 1-for-3 on the day, which isn’t great, but all I need is one steelhead to make me happy. Photo by James Kirtland.

The Everglades, Part 4: Bill and Dad Ride Again!

Before this trip, I’d had only one Everglades fishing experience. That was four years ago, and it was a single day excursion with my oldest son, Bill, who was graduating from law school. Our target on that May day was snook and tarpon, but I never even got a taste of a tug. Sure, the jacks and ladyfish and sea trout were fun, but I was disappointed. The highlight of the day was a fine snook Bill grabbed out of a shallow tidal flat.

And so it came to pass that Bill and I were heading out again. I’d already gotten my snook, and then some, and had an all-too-brief encounter with a tarpon, so in a sense this was a gravy day for me. Bill was getting married in three days, and at the very least we’d soak up some sunshine and enjoy some cigars.

Wednesday turned out to be the warmest of the three days, but there was still an early morning chill that was amplified by the boat slicing through the pre-dawn canals. I wore fleece pants all three days — I’m generally always inclined to be cold — but later on this day I almost broke the shorts seal. I knew what was coming in a couple weeks, and I kept reminding myself that regardless of the action, this wasn’t steelheading — and I should enjoy the blessing of actually being able to feel my toes and fingers.
A left-handed fly caster on the bow and a right-handed spin guy on the stern makes it easy to do double duty. However, as we drifted past this island, I wanted to get some footage of my Marine doing battle. Bill found a pod of sea trout and had at them. These are beautiful fish, and they can be highly aggressive with their follows and takes. We liked this spot so much that we asked Mark to do another pass around. we never saw another boat until the very end of the day.
We made a run to where the Everglades dumps into the Gulf, and I loved this mark: current, loads of structure, and all kinds of birds and mammals and reptiles to eyeball. We actually fished hundreds of yards of shoreline. By now, I felt like my presentations and hook sets had come light years from my first trip. As we drifted past a downed tree within a pocket channel, I thought I saw a shadow. One cast, a couple strips, snook on! A decent fish for sure, but sight casting him in lightly stained water made me feel on top of my game. Bill and I each took multiple smaller snook at this mark. Of course, just when you think you’re all that, a baby tarpon in a cove near a creek mouth will remind you that you aren’t. And so, having touched two tarpon on the trip, I am resolved to get one on my next. Like Boss Rojack said in My Favorite Year, “The fighting is rounds…this is round one”

The Everglades, Part 3: Win some, lose some.

The first time I fished the Everglades with Mark I was green. This is a specialized type of fly fishing, and by the time I felt like I was getting the hang of it, the day was over. What’s more, it was one of those days where the shots at fish weren’t plentiful. I’d gone down with the intention of catching snook and tarpon, but we had no opportunities at the latter and only a couple with the former.

So you can imagine that on this trip, I was raring to go. But, there’s always something conspiring against you, isn’t there? Wind, rain, cold fronts, pandemics…the list of potential villains is endless. Add to that that I have an uncanny talent for picking lousy fishing days months in advance. And so it was that Mark informed me that the Everglades bite had been slow. Very, very slow. But you go and you fish and you do your best, and that’s all any of us can ask.

A few hours in I’d landed ladyfish and sea trout and jacks, but no precious snook, let alone even a sighting of tarpon. Mark, being the guide extraordinaire that he is, thought we might have better luck in some of the more intimate creeks and ponds. Getting to some of these spots is an experience. You use the electric motor or the Evinrude on its lowest setting, and start down these labyrinthine waterways, some of which are not much wider than the boat. Mangrove branches and leaves try to smack you in face, and they’ll swat away anything on deck that isn’t lashed down.

Once inside the pond or cove, you assume a ready position on the bow. There’s no chatter, only hushed tones that are essentially a loud whisper. If we don’t see any cruisers, we systematically attack the mangrove-choked shoreline. In particular, you look for structure, like downed trees and especially little notches in the shoreline or micro-creek mouths. It’s a precision cast — the closer to the mangrove roots the better, and watch out for those overhanging branches that want to eat your fly — then short, fast strips the moment the fly touches water. I didn’t know it yet, but if there are snook or tarpon lying in wait, they will race to the fly with breathtaking speed.

I was working one of those little notches in a shaded corner when it happened. The water bulged, I felt a bump, and I saw a large shadow turn and melt away into the tobacco-stained water.

Snook. A good one.

There was no hook set, no point-finding-purchase, no sense that the fish was spooked. So I made the same cast.

The bulge re-appeared, moving at attack speed, and the snook slammed into the fly. I’ve screwed up plenty of hook sets in my life, but not this one. Rod tip down and dirty, hard strip back and to the right, and the Everglades exploded.

Right from the start, I felt like I had this fish. (A strong set and 20-pound test is good for confidence.) Still, when you’ve never caught a species before, you don’t know how it’s going to behave. This fish did everything in its power to screw me up, like repeatedly trying to find refuge in the submerged roots and sounding under the boat. I never put it on the reel; it was all hand stripping. “Don’t let him breathe!” was constantly running through my head, and Mark did a great job of kibitzing during the battle. Then, the inevitable. Snook landed.

Time for a victory cigar. My first striper on the fly went 30″. My first snook was in the same ballpark. What a magnificent beast! Snook will color to match their surroundings, and this one is perfectly camouflaged for the dark bottom of its home. Taken on Mark’s Blue Claw streamer. Photo by Mark Giacobba.

Most of the rest of the day was anti-climatic. We found another stretch of shoreline, this time in the sun, that was infested with smaller snook, 12″-16″. It was a great opportunity to observe how snook ambush feed. The speed with which they move to their target is impressive. We didn’t count, but it had to be at least a dozen more snook to hand.

While fun, these smaller fish can lull you into a false sense that you are infallible. I remember losing a pig of a striper on the Cape a few years ago. Dink after dink after dink — then when a really good bass hit, I was unprepared and dropped the fish. You can see where this is going. All of a sudden, I rolled a tarpon. I was so surprised that I was late on the set. I still thought I had him, but after a moment of wild spray and boiling water, it was gone. I stood alone on the front deck, the heat of regret and embarrassment crawling up the back of my neck. You gotta set the hook, Steven. You gotta set the hook.

Still, it was hard to let that moment trump the victory of the morning. I had my snook, and then some. And I also had tomorrow.

The Everglades, Part 2: Float like a butterfly, sting like a…peacock?

I don’t mean to complain, but whenever a guide tells me, “Let’s meet at so-and-so place at 5:30am,” and it involves an hour drive to get there, and I gotta set the alarm for 4am (an hour I’m far more familiar with as a return time) I know two things for sure: I’m going to get a crappy night’s sleep, followed by a bleary start to the fishing. Call it the curse of the night owl. I’d been telling myself that this Florida trip would be a nice change from November steelheading, what with me actually being able to feel my toes and not be shivering (wrong about that, as I’ll soon explain). But the fact is, when it comes to depriving me of sleep, my Florida guide Mark is every bit as sadistic as my steelhead guide Jim.

Tarpon and snook in the Flamingo area of the Everglades was the original plan, but when you’ve got a guide as good as Mark, and he tells you he doesn’t like the conditions down south – and his backup plan is catching peacock bass, which you, Mr. Culton-Who-Loves-Smallmouth, he says, will totally dig – you go with it.

So that’s how I ended up shivering in a boat in a Florida canal at 5:45am.

I’d brought mostly warm weather fishing clothes, but I figured with enough layers I’d be OK. Zipping around canals before sunrise in a powerboat with added wind and a cold front changes the game a little. I had the solace of knowing that dawn would come soon, and perhaps Florida would live up to its nickname. Still, I tightened my arms in a bear hug around my jacket.

My first peacock bass was very respectable. The first light bite was slow; we started with a Gurgler-type fly, but the cold morning had the fish in a mood to stay deep. Absent current, we switched to an intermediate line (yes, you heard correctly) and a pattern of Mark’s, the Blue Claw, which fish that live in the Everglades adore. Fish on, hook set, and we were off to the races. I couldn’t possibly tell you how many peacocks we landed. If you’re puzzling about the title of this post, peacock bass are an introduced species in Florida. The state stocked butterfly and speckled peacock bass. The speckled have not done well; the butterly, pictured here, have flourished. Oh, and they’re not bass. They’re a chichlid. Photo by Mark Giacobba.
The comparison to largemouth or smallmouth bass is not inappropriate. Like smallmouth, peacocks don’t like being hooked, and you can expect them to sound and bulldog as well as cartwheel and tail dance. They’re ambush predators, and I spent a lot of time giggling and cackling at the micro-tsunamis of water that would follow and close on my fly as I stripped it. Photo by Mark Giacobba.
This first day was menagerie day. In addition to peacock bass, I caught a bluegill, an Oscar, several gar (very needlefish-like, but they fight twice as hard) and to my delight, three largemouth bass (above). I love any kind of bass on the fly. At one point, I decided I wanted to make one come up to eat, so I tied on the Gurgler and had at it. It took some time, but it wasn’t long before I was rewarded. Photo by Mark Giacobba.
One more for the road. Crushing hits, highly aggressive – what’s not to like? The ride out was significantly warmer than the trip in. Turns out, I was getting warmed up in more ways than one. Photo by Mark Giacobba.

The Everglades, Part 1: Nature on steroids

The Everglades is big and wild and intimidating. It’s also intimate and beautiful and serene. I know, this sounds like the beginning of a middle schooler’s essay. But it’s truly a challenge to describe the place. One thing’s for sure: we don’t have anything like it at home.

In case you’ve never been, the Everglades is an enormous subtropical wetlands that ranges from Lake Okeechobee to the southernmost Florida mainland. You see things like palm trees and sawgrass and mangroves, and it’s evident that you’re in a warm, wet climate. But when you’re out in a boat in the middle of one of the expansive watery areas, a glance at the distant verdant shores could make you believe you’re on a lake in Minnesota. The only clue that you’re not is that there are no houses dotting the landscape. The lack of ego in the form of architecture definitely adds an allure of mystery. 

But you’ll see birds and fish and reptiles…and mosquitos. Fortunately, my experience this time was mosquito light. (Not so four years ago in May, when those bloodsucking flesh drillers were so aggressive and relentless that I literally had to sprint from my car to the visitor center in Everglades National Park to find sanctuary.) 

Parts of the Everglades have an extensive canal system, and on the first day we fished one of them for peacock bass. I managed to hook ten different species over the course of three days. Some of them were old friends from Connecticut like largemouth bass and bluegill. Others were recent acquaintances from a few years ago, namely jack and ladyfish. But six of them were brand new to me: gar, oscar, peacock bass, speckled trout, snook, and tarpon. 
To get to the Flamingo boat launch in the southern end of the Everglades, you need to travel a two-lane road that cuts a straight edge for most of its 50 miles. Once you launch, you head along a canal much like the one in the first picture, then out into what I call “the lake.” There are all manner of rivers and creeks and islands and coves to explore off the lake, and this is where the massive Everglades can reach that wonderful state of intimacy. Here’s a still from a video I shot. We’re water bushwhacking — those are mangrove trees — though a creek that’s not much wider than the boat. You had to parry the branches away from your head and body. It leads, as many of them do, to a small cove that resembles a New England salt pond flat. You go into stealth mode — whispering and hand signals only — and you look for cruising fish or travel lanes or little pockets against the mangroves to cast into. We blanked in most of these, but a few of them produced, and in a week where the bite was considered to be slow, you take those moments and don’t ask questions.
Air plants are epiphytes, meaning they grow on other plants, in this case a mangrove. These look like the dried tops of pineapples. They draw their water from the humid air and from rainfall. One of the best parts of fishing in the Everglades is that you get to see and hear and sometimes even touch plants and animals that aren’t ever found where you’re from. Speaking of humidity, it wasn’t very warm or humid the first two days on the boat, but by the third the layers were getting peeled off as sunrise transitioned to mid-late-morning.
Bon appetit! Monday’s quarry was peacock bass. This gator beat me to this particular fish, but I’ll tell you all about my first experience with peacocks next. Spoiler alert: there were lots of them, they provide great sport, and I want to catch more. Photo by Mark Giacobba.

Housy Streamer Report 10/21/21: First and Last

The trip didn’t start out like I’d hoped. While I was gearing up, I discovered that I’d forgotten my wading staff. (With flows over 1,300cfs, that would have come in handy.) Then, I realized I’d forgotten my streamer reel and line. Since I was dedicating the session to the streamer cause, I lined up with something I had remembered: my integrated full sinker. It was a classic case of, “somehow, it all works out,” because there were so many leaves in the water. By using a full sink and a tungsten-head streamer, I was generally able to avoid vegetation hits.

First cast with a Mickey Finn soft-hackle, and whack! I hadn’t even begun my strip cadence. It was a quartering cast downstream, and as I fumbled for the line, the streamer sank and began to move down and across. That’s when the hit came. It was a lovely holdover brown, about a foot long, and I thought this was going to be the start of a day where you land a pile of fish just by showing up. ‘Twas not to be. I didn’t see another angler hook a fish over two hours, and there were plenty of people out and about on this fine fall day.

The night before, I tied up two old Housy favorites, the soft-hackled Mickey Finn and Black Ghost. This is an old, crappy photograph, but essentialy the flies have a template of marabou tail, then a contrasting marabou hackle and some black Ice Dub for a collar. There’s flash, too; sometimes I use Krystal Flash and sometimes Flashabou. I’ll try to put together a complete recipe and shoot some better photos of the steamers.

A few minutes later, I stuck what I thought was going to be my biggest trout of the year. I’d felt a solid bump on the cast before; I repeated the cast, and the fish did not miss the second time. It sounded and bulldogged and I realized I might have hooked into a trophy brown. When I finally got its head up, surprise! Smallmouth. A good one, too, mid teens and fat, with dramatic fall camo colors. That’s the latest in the season I’ve ever caught a decent smallie on the Hous.

I visited a second mark and managed a courtesy tap, but with the clock ticking I moved to the last spot. This section was moving faster than the previous two pools, and with a well-defined slot I made the decision to switch to the long-leader jigged mini-streamer. Slow going, but I was rewarded with a fat stocker rainbow on my last cast. And that, I thought, is the perfect way to bookend a two-hour streamer set.

Farmington River Report 10/15/21: Slow. Slower. Slowest.

Doug and Paul chose a spectacular fall day for a session with yours truly. Unfortunately, the bite didn’t match up to the conditions. We fished two sizable marks from 10am-2pm, and all we could manage was one bump and one hookup. That actually isn’t as bad as it sounds; angler traffic was fairly heavy for a fall weekday, and I didn’t see anyone else hook up the entire time. So well done, Doug and Paul! The river was running medium high (530cfs) and the water is beginning to cool nicely. Observed: caddis and a few tiny BWOs. Leaves are a bit of an issue, and we had all our action on white streamers. (I should have mentioned that we were dedicated to the streamer cause, both traditional presentations and long-leader jigged micro streamers.) Both anglers fished hard and well, and on another day might have connected with dozens.

Doug having at it. Perseverance helps on slow days, and Doug was rewarded not too long after I took this shot.
Paul makes the point that there are worse ways to spend a few minutes on a sunny fall afternoon than sitting on a log with your feet in a river. I loved how Paul asked so many questions. Thinking anglers are better anglers. A most enjoyable day, gents!

Small stream report and observations

I’ve been focusing on small streams this month, partly to scratch an itch and partly to shoot video content for the new small stream presentation I’m building. Small streams are cool because they’re like any bigger river or ocean: weather changes, water levels (or tides) rise and fall, water clarity and temperatures fluctuate — you never know what you’re going to get until you get there. Here are few photos along with some things I’ve noticed that might help you on your next small stream adventure.

Micro Wigglies work — here’s proof. But I’ve been very disappointed by the generally poor reception the brookies have given them. Micro Wigglies are almost useless in high water, and even in low water need to be stripped to induce a strike. If you’re committed to the dry fly cause, it’s hard to go wrong with a big, bushy dry. What’s “big?” If I’m not necessarily interested in hooking sub-4″ fish, 14 is as small as I’ll go. Of course, you de-barb your hooks, limit photos, and only handle wild fish with wet hands. It goes without saying (but I’ll do it anyway) that you should never lay a fish down on rocks or dry leaves or sand for a photo. This may be self-evident, but the better dry fly days are the ones when the water is lower rather than higher.
Using roll and bow-and-arrow casts helps you avoid annoyances like this. My rule of thumb for awkwardly-placed-by-nature streamside vegetation is: If it’s living, I never remove it. If it’s dead, it must not be visibly supporting life (spider webs, for example) or creating good natural structure/cover for the subsurface residents. So, if it’s a spindly twig that got knocked into the river last wind storm, and it keeps eating your streamer, feel free to toss that sucker.
Dry flies are a hoot on a small stream — make ’em come up! — but the bigger fish are usually taken subsurface. I marvel at how curious these char are about any intruder in their underwater world. You can feel them bumping the fly moments after it hits the water. What is it? Food? Not food? Threat? Don’t mess with those teeth! I

Farmington River mini-report 10/8/21: filming fools

Yesterday I wrapped up some drone footage with Director Matthew Vinick for his upcoming film “Summer on the Farmington.” Elevated flows (650cfs in the Permanent TMA) and leaves were an issue, but we got it done. Adverse conditions didn’t discourage the legions of anglers I saw out enjoying the river and weather. I had 30 minutes to fish for pleasure after the shoot, so I hit a favorite mark for some tight line nymphing. Sadly, every stall of the sighter or tangible bump turned out to be either bottom or debris. I was not alone — of the dozen or so anglers I shared water with, I did not see a single trout hooked. On a positive note, the water is noticeably cooler than it was a week ago. Things can only get better, right?

Pro tip: when there are so many orange/yellow/red leaves in the water, try going dark or white with streamers — and make sure one of your nymph droppers is small and dark (it’s tiny BWO season). A small Starling and Herl soft hackle would be a fine choice.

Striper report 10/6/21: Daytime bliss, nighttime suffering

On Wednesday Alex took a striper lesson with me. He did a fantastic job. The point of these short (2 hours) lessons is to give students feel for how to approach multiple situations involving current — and especially for them to discover the expansive fly fishing life beyond cast-and-strip. We do it in the daytime (the better to eyeball things) and while the immediate goal isn’t to catch — that will come later — I have the highest amount of respect for those who want to invest in upping their game. Alex did a tremendous job; he has an intuitive feel for current and presentation. Now all he needs is some bass to play with.

As it turns out, so do I. I drove to Rhode Island that night to fish two different marks and, once again, I was disappointed by the paucity of striped things that swim. The first mark was one of my “guaranteed” spots. You know — a place you go to save a night when you desperately need a fish. No longer. I’ve fished it three times this year, blanked all three times, and it’s the first year in decades that I have not caught a bass there. Fooey. Not to be outdone, the second mark had plenty of bait, and not a single striper. So I casted, mended, and tried to pretend that maybe a bass would show up. Instead, I stayed out way too late. I won’t be going back this year (he said bitterly).

Alex really nailed the greased line swing. What a lovely day to be out fishing.