Reaching the century mark: Steelhead #100

Finally, after so many disappointing outings, I hooked and landed my 100th steelhead. Not the prettiest fish given the time of year, but beautiful and perfect in his own way. It was an eventful day — full report to come next week. In the meantime, here’s a picture worth a hundred words.

Striper report 4/11/21: The walk of shame

This one’s going to be brief, folks, because I have nothing good to report. Well, that’s not entirely true. I got to meet up with old striper partner-in-crime Bob. We each enjoyed a cigar on the walk out. And I got to shake some of the rust off my two-handed casting. Beyond that, it was cold, the wind was blasting out of the east at 15mph (with higher gusts), it rained most of the time we fished, seaweed and grassy detritus was an issue, and neither of us got a single touch. I saw one striper caught by a spin angler. I talked to another fly angler in the parking lot who said he caught two small fish, and that it had been fairly slow thus far. I wish I could tell tales of the Bass-O-Matic, but that will have to wait for another day.

Dr. Griswold performs the walk of the skunked. I was right there with him, just out of camera range.

Farmington River Report 4/9/21: Nature (quickly) finds a way

Just a quick two-hour session on the lower River last Friday. The sun was shining, the air was warm, the water was low and crystal clear, and there was a strong caddis (size 16-18) hatch. I fished three marks and found acton in only one. I purposely stayed away from areas that I knew had been stocked as I wanted to try to find the Salmo that had made it through the winter. I tried several techniques, each to match the conditions and marks I was fishing: tight/long line micro jig streamer, tight line drop shot nymphing, and then indicator nymphing.

Funny thing! I had just landed my first fish, a tiger of a wild brown, when lo and behold, Ye Olde Stocking Truck showed up. What I found fascinating — and I’ve witnessed this before — was that within minutes, the fresh fish were porpoising and snapping at caddis emergers in a back eddy. It doesn’t take long for them to discover where their next meal is coming from. It’s genetic programming at its finest.

Love these holdover/wild fish. They just refuse to come to net without a furious argument. This guy fought way above his weight class.

Me and Cam and a couple of brookies

Three hours in the woods is good for the soul, especially if it involves a thin blue line and fishing with one of your sons. In early spring the woods hold so much promise. The buds look ready to burst, the skunk cabbage pips are poking through the swampy sections of forest floor, and if you’re lucky you can be fishing in shirt sleeves. I prefer these tiny woodland wonders when there’s canopy, but I’m always curious about what the day will bring regardless of conditions. We both fished bushy dries, save for a few exploratory plunges with an ICU Sculpin. We didn’t find many players, but those we did attacked the fly with fervor. (All photos by Cam Culton save for the one of him fishing.)

We paid a lot of attention to the white water and its borders around the plunge pools, but what was lurking beneath didn’t feel like coming up. Areas like this one are usually money once the warmer weather arrives.
Contemplating my best approach to this logjam of a pool over an Olive Serie V Melanio.
We saw a fish rising in the tailout of pool. Turns out the brookie was holding a few feet upstream near a submerged tree limb and opportunistically falling back to feed. She took my fly on the first drift. To be able to cradle such a treasure and then release her…this just never gets old. Our outing was a mid-to-late afternoon jaunt, and while there was no significant bug activity we did witness sz 14 caddis, midges and what I can only guess were some tiny olives. We pricked about a half dozen fish; this was the only one brought to hand.
Young man at work. We found a player in a small run who slashed at the fly maybe a dozen times over the course of 15 minutes. (Part of that time was spend sitting stream side, resting the pool. Not a bad way to spend five minutes.) We switched out the big bushy dry for a smaller Yellow Humpy, but even thought the char was a decent size for this brook, we couldn’t get the hook to stick. We tried a Snipe and Purple, and finally the ICU Sculpin, then tipped our hat to the fish and began the long hike out of the woods.

Steelhead report: Wreck of the Old 97

Number Three Son Gordo and I fished the Salmon River for two days last week and it was a slow bite. Conditions were about a s good as you could expect for this time of year: 875cfs at the Pineville gauge and clear water. Monday was in the teens to start and it never got above freezing. Tuesday was another frosty launch, but we were in the mid thirties by noon. This was a float trip with my guide friend James Kirtland, aka Row Jimmy. We did the mid-river run (Pineville to 2A) both days. I was happy with this as every boat we spoke to coming down from Altmar described crowded shore and drift conditions with a nearly non-existent bite. So if the fishing’s going to be slow, I’d rather be mostly alone.

Monday. The plan was to cherry-picked marks that had recently produced. The first was a blank. The second provided a classic “Life isn’t fair. Neither is steelheading.” moment. I had drifted through a patch a half dozen times in the previous hour and the indicator had gone under every time due to a shallow. On the seventh time it was a fish, and I nonchalanted the hook set. Fish on, briefly, then off. Operator error.

In the afternoon, we spent some time picking pockets and seams and Gordo was rewarded with a standard-issue dark horse buck. Skunk’s off for the boat, and that always feels good. Sadly, nothing for me, although I do have to say that my precision casting game was on.
Holy chrome hen, Batman! I missed my shot as I was rigging up while the guys were covering water. Jim hooked it, Gordo landed it, and we were all blinded by light. About a half hour after this, my indicator dipped, and I set the hook. The line screamed upstream at a breakneck pace, then went limp. Clearly, that was a fouled fish. It was also our last touch of the day.

Tuesday. We expected this to be a better day, since the temperature would be rising and we now knew where there were pods of fish. As it so often happens, just when you think you’ve figured it out, nature smacks you upside the head. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Move the boat. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Finally, I hook into a good-sized dark horse buck, somewhere in between the size of the two fish pictured above. He realizes he’s hooked, runs, and leaps. I regain line. He runs again, and leaps two more times. But I can feel that that was his last big run. I’m not letting him breathe, cranking that reel handle. This will be steelhead number 98. And then, he’s gone. I look at Jim. Jim looks at me. We both opine that this was simply a case of bad luck: fast hookset, hard hookset, well-played. What else can you do? And that, ladies and gents, was our only touch of the day. It really is a cruel sport sometimes.

Where baby stoneflies come from. These early black stones, size 16-18, were all over the place. It may have been a function of lack of steelhead, but I didn’t have any takes on stonefly/natural color/soft-hackled patterns. We also saw midges (very tiny).
I got to visit an old friend on Tuesday. This little slice of heaven didn’t produce any action, and it was a hard hoof through the snow, but it was worth the few minutes we got to spend together. And so, dear reader, I remain stuck at 97 steelhead landed. Better times are surely coming. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

Late February notes from a small stream

Last week I made the decision to fish a small stream. My logic was sound. First, I had no interest in dealing with what would surely be a crowded Farmington River. Second, due to some arcane fishing regulations, I wouldn’t be able to fish this brook until early April. Finally, and perhaps most of all, I wanted to see what was going on. Here’s what I found out.

Up solitude! Not another angler for miles. My introvert shone through.

What a workout — no need to do a treadmill cardio session later. I had not planned (foolish on my part) for shin deep virgin snow. I was perspiring gallons after a hundred yards of snow/bushwhacking.

On days like this one (upper 30s, bright sun) you never know what you’re going to get. With all the snowpack, there was certainly going to be a significant melting event. Would that influx of cold water kill the bite? It’s happened before. On this day, sunshine held the trump card. I saw midges and small stoneflies everywhere, and even witnessed char taking emergers in the film.

Lesson re-learned: be careful where you walk. Shelf ice, of course, is never to be trusted. But also be wary of snow pack that hides dangers like this. A step on solid footing, then one through the snow and into the void. Thankfully, no damage, but (if you’ll pardon the expression) you get my drift.

In 90 minutes, I pricked six fish. A few of them were repeat offenders who could not get their mouth around the hook. After a couple of attempts, I let them be. For me, it’s all about fooling the fish.

Since my goal was searching (rather than catching), I stayed with a bushy dry the entire time. I was very surprised at the number of customers. The fish have started to wander from their winter lies, and I did my best business in shallower glides and riffles. Of course, that makes sense given the method — you wouldn’t expect to draw dry fly strikes from fish hanging on the bottom of deeper pools. But 60 days ago those fish were not even present in the shallower water.

Farmington River Report 2/18/21: Icy cold (and not just the streamer bite)

I fish the way I want to fish, and sometimes that means I go fishless. I’m OK with that. When it lines up, I may be doing battle with multiple high-teens browns. When it’s a day like yesterday, I get the not-a-touch trudge through the snow back to my car, wondering if my feet will ever be warm again.

Not that I’m complaining. I had a blast. Due to the inclement weather, angler activity was almost at its Farmington River-winter-ten-years-ago level. You still can’t access the majority of dirt pull-offs (they’re currently snowplow pile pull-offs) so you’re stuck with the major parking areas. That didn’t prevent me from going for a walk to find solitude. I fished three marks within the Permanent TMA (no slush, 370cfs). I started off tight-lining jig mini-streamers, but that was a problem with the 24-degree air temp; frozen beads of river clinging to the exposed leader. So I switched locations and did the traditional full-sink line. I did catch a lot of the bottom. Sadly, it never fought back.

Then, I decided to experiment. What would happen if I fished the mini-jig under an indicator? I could bounce it along the bottom, or suspend it near the bottom. I had one of my bigger home-brew yarn indicators with me, so I re-rigged and had at it. I tried it in different kinds of water, from fast-moving glides to languid dry-fly pools. In the faster water, I had to constantly check the indicator upstream and mend to prevent the fly from moving too quickly, but the rig proved to be the answer to the iced-up leader problem. Just because I didn’t connect doesn’t mean it won’t work on another day. More research to come…and I encourage you to try new things when you’re on the river.

Farmington River mini-report 2/5/21: A tough day for streamers

I spent two-and-a-half hours yesterday early afternoon banging around the Permanent TMA. Cloudy, 37 degrees, water about 250cfs. The mission was streamers and the method was tight-lining/jigging and then full sinking line with more traditional patterns. I hit three marks and only found fish in one, and they were more concerned with smutting on some midges than whacking my streamer. I did get one take, but it was so soft I thought it was the bottom; I did a tip set and by the time I felt the head shake, the trout was off. So it goes. By the way, many of the river’s parking pullouts are not plowed, so easy access is limited.

Speaking of reading fly fishing books and discovering little gems: John Nagy’s Steelhead Guide 4th edition is where I found the pattern German’s White Nightmare. It’s the one at upper left. I keep a few in my box for trout, and it was a good choice for the full sink line in yesterday’s lower flows. Oh — it was also the only pattern I had a touch on all day.

Farmington River Mini-Report 1/22/21: The fastest two hours

I got a late start and had to run a few errands, so I didn’t get to the river until noon. I fished above and within the Permanent TMA. I made the decision to look for unpopular winter water, and so I had three marks all to myself. The river was up a tad from last week (400cfs) and we had a few snow showers. Observed: midges and Winter/Summer caddis, although not many of either. The method was tight line\small jig streamer. I only had one take, and I missed the fish; it was a very subtle pause, and I didn’t even get a head shake into the bargain. Wow, where did the time go? Reluctantly, I left to tend to responsibilities that were far less fun than tracking a drift through a fishy-looking run.

It’s beginning to look a lot like winter.

Farmington River Report 1/14/21: Jiggin’ and Strippin’ and Catchin’

Yesterday I fished with Toby Lapinski, a long overdue payback for all the striper outings he treated me to this fall. We decided to go for big instead of numbers, so streamers it was. We started in the Permanent TMA, although we first bounced around looking for a mark that didn’t have the equivalent angler population of Manhattan. (Hint: stay away from the big name pools.) Conditions were perfect for winter streamers: 325cfs, clear, no slush ice, 40 degree air temp and overcast with occasional mists and drizzle.

Rule one of winter streamer fishing: find the fish that want to eat. We decided to mix it up at the first mark. I was long-leader-tight line small black jig streamer in faster water; Toby was traditional fly line with a white jig streamer in slower, deeper stuff. I blanked, but Toby scored a big, bad brown. You can’t see it in the photo, but that’s just over 20″ of trutta buttah. Awesome trout. Observed: a modest midge hatch and trout rising to them in the frog water. We started with the place all to ourselves; by the time we left, there were five other anglers.

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Although anglers were seemingly everywhere, we had the second mark all to ourselves. Oh. This guy was there, too. He was hanging out in some faster water and hit on the drop as the streamer was jigged downstream. I missed him on that first take, but fortunately I didn’t deviate from the presentation, and he came right back and struck on the drop again. Here’s to second chances! Great photo by Toby. I had one more hit on the jig, then I switched over to a traditional streamer winter streamer setup: full sink tip line and short leader with a weighted fly (Coffey Sparkle Minnow).

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Winter fishing requires attention to detail. If you’re not ready, you might miss it. Here’s a hawk-eyed Toby focusing on his sighter. I had one little bump on the Sparkle Minnow, then we moved to the third mark. Only one angler there, but he left after 5 minutes and again we had a long section of river all to ourselves. I managed a fine 13″ wild brown and then we called it a (victorious) day. We fished from 11:30am-4:00pm, and I was grateful for the time spent on the water, the action, and the good company.