Farmington River Report 7/9/20: what a way to go!

I worked with Bill yesterday on his indicator nymphing and wet fly skills. Water conditions were perfect in the Permanent TMA: 325cfs, cold, clear. The trout and bugs were a wee bit more uncooperative. Hatches (sulphurs, caddis, olives) were spotty and the feeding was inconsistent at best. We fished two marks and saw four trout hooked all day, and since we had two of them, we declared victory. On the plus side, Bill landed his PB non-lake-run brown. He nailed it at high noon (we fished from 10am-2pm) while nymphing. I was observing from upstream, and when he set the hook it sure looked like a fish to me. Bill thought he was stuck on the bottom — that happens sometimes with larger Farmy trout — and then, gloriously, the bottom fought back. Sadly, Bill snapped his rod during the battle, but the fish was landed, much to his delight. To say nothing of mine!

Bill’s new personal best, a gorgeous high teens wild brown. Love those halos. He took the took dropper in our nymph rig, a size 18 soft-hackled pheasant tail. Since that hook was a 2x short, it’s effectively a size 22 fly. Do not underestimate the power of tiny soft hackles this time of year. I almost always make my top dropper on my drop-shot nymph rig a soft hackle. Congratulations, Bill!

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Block Island Report: If you can say, “It’s a braw bricht moonlicht nicht,” then you’re not catching stripers.

Those of us who grew up with off-the-boat Scots grandparents know the song “Wee Deoch an Doris” well. For the uninitiated, as you have not heard it, I shall proceed to translate and offer context. The song is about having one more drink before you head home. “If you can say it’s a braw bricht moonlicht nicht” (if you can say it’s a good bright moonlit night), then you’re a’ richt, ye ken (not nearly as intoxicated as you may think). So, have another.

That also made me think of Chip Diller getting his paddling in the Omega initiation scene from Animal House.  I might as well have been saying “Thank you sir, may I have another,” to the moon this past week, because when it was out and braw and bricht I took a right spanking.

To misquote Starbuck, moonlight feels wrong. I lost the moon lottery big time — quarter going into full is by far my least favorite time to fish for stripers at night.

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I won’t bore you with the minutia, but here’s the story in numbers: Seven nights. Three skunks, including two in a row. The last time I took such a beating was 2012 or 2013. For context, I had one skunk in my last 15 Block outings over the past two years. I ran into an angler — I’ll call him “J” — whose response to me telling him that I hated fishing under the full moon was, and I quote, “you’re crazy.” Now, I appreciate J’s enthusiasm and confidence. And I desperately wanted to be proven wrong. But the fact is, whether flat or surf or dredging deep bottom, I scored a big, fat zero — not even a courtesy tap — on every night the moon was out.

To continue the kvetching, size — or lack of it — continued to be an issue. Used to be that I could count on Block to produce a high percentage of legal fish. Heck, in 2018, a third of the bass I landed were over 28″. This year, not a one. OK, so there were no micros in the mix, and a 24″ Block bass battles like a 30″er from the Hous…but the continued lack of bigger striped bass from the shore is disturbing, although not surprising.

Was it all misery? Heck, no! I had four fun-filled nights, three with double-digit numbers. I played around with my fishing schedule and was able to beat the moonlight — even this old dog can adjust. One night the weather gods appointed a magnificent cloud bank to shroud the Island. The stripers said yes. And I got in some seriously wonderful trout fishing for stripers.

I’ll tell you more about it soon.

Block Island All-Nighter X: The X Factor

You never know what you’re going to get on a Block Island All-Nighter. My tenth reminded me that I’m not young anymore. The spirit is willing, but after nine straight hours and no sleep, the body protests. The last time I did this was 2015 — I had to look it up — but the conditions were perfect in terms of tide (high at dusk), moon (new) and weather (consistent SW flow), so going was almost an imperative on principle alone. Besides, I’d have company, old pal Peter Jenkins, owner of The Saltwater Edge. So off we went aboard the 7pm ferry.

Logistics were a challenge. Be advised that fewer ferries are running and passenger numbers are limited. We couldn’t get a car reservation, and taxi service on the Island was deemed spotty due to the current situation. That meant renting a Jeep, which worked out just right. Here’s Jenks doing some leader prep as we sail past Crescent Beach. I like a simple 7’6″ straight shot of 25# or 30# mono. Block bass are not leader shy.

Jenks

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Angler traffic was light throughout night, as a few hardy souls came and went. The bass traffic was similar: not here. Then here. Then gone. No large schools or consistent feeding. But the fish that showed came to eat. I had the early hot hand with a half dozen bass by midnight. Then Jenks caught fire. No keepers in the mix — I had bass in the 20″-24″ range with a couple 26″ers thrown in. What the fish lacked in size was made up for in pugnacity. Here’s a scrapper from early on. 

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I’m often asked, “How do you figure out what the bait is?” I suppose by now I qualify as a old salt, and old salts know that this time of year on Block it’s sand eels, sand eels, sand eels. You can feel then plinking and ploinking against your waders if you shuffle your feet. And sometimes the answer can be found in a photograph (look along the lateral line).

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The Big Eelie is a high-confidence pattern for me on Block. I fish it on a floating line on a dead drift, or with very short (6″) erratic, drunken strips. It doesn’t matter what color I choose (and I fish everything from dark to lighter fluorescents to dull hues) — it’s a profile and action pattern. And, as you can see, the bass love it. This used to be a beautiful Crazy Menhaden Big Eelie. Now it’s missing two saddles and most of the marabou collar. I was still catching on it when I switched it out at false dawn for a…wait for it…Big Eelie in RLS False Dawn colors.

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We did some surf fishing on the west side after midnight and again at sunrise. Conditions were about as good as you could hope for: a moving tide, moderate surf, and best of all, no weeds. Fish were present both times: stripers in the dark, and bass, bluefish, and shad in daylight. Here’s one that went bump in the night.

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There comes a point in the wee hours — for me, it’s usually around 2:30-3:00am — where the gas tank nears empty and the boilers almost out of steam. That’s when I take five (literally). It may seem counterintuitive to introduce a central nervous system depressant into the equation, but after closing my eyes I poured a wee drap of Highland whisky (Old Pulteney Navigator, which seemed highly apropos). I re-slogged out to the beach just before false dawn, and wouldn’t you know? I had hits on my first four casts. Never underestimate the mojo of single malt and a cigar! 

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7:00am. Breakfast at Ernie’s. Hungryman Special: two eggs, two pancakes, bacon, and toast. (Thank you, Jenks, for being such a swell fishing partner.)  It feels amazing to have your first real meal in 12 hours. That hard wood bench on the ferry is going to feel even more amazing. I was lights out before we left the harbor. I don’t remember if I had any dreams, but right now I’m drifting off to a place where that sharp tug tells you the bass has committed to your fly and the ensuing battle is a bulldogging fight that only a Block Island striper can produce.

Ernies

Block Island All-Nighter X preview: not too shabby

I did my tenth Block Island All-Nighter this past Sunday into Monday. My fishing partner was old friend Peter Jenkins from The Saltwater Edge. I’m still in recovery mode (and playing catch-up on a bunch of other projects) so I haven’t had time to do a full write-up. But here are some broad brush strokes.

We flayed the water from 9pm to 6am. The fishing was good enough — 6.5 of 10. No consistent feeding, but stripers did show up in small bunches (and if you were willing to walk to find them). No keepers, a grim reminder that we are in a downturn, but on the flip side no micros: the vast majority of bass were 20-24″ with an occasional 26 mixed in, and those fish are great sport on a fly rod. Sand eels were the bait (and Big Eelies the fly) not present in great numbers but there. And yes, we had a darn good time.

A spunky 22-incher, set against a mosaic tile bottom. We repeatedly marveled at the raw power of these fish. Happy Father’s Day to us!

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Farmington River Report 6/17/20: a little wet, a little dry, a lot of fun

I guided Stephen Wednesday afternoon. We fished within the Permanent TMA from 2:15-6:15PM. Water was 280cfs and plenty cold. I wish we had a better hatch — there was no consistent hatching (and thus, no corresponding consistent feeding). Still, we managed to stick a bunch of fish. Best of all, we had the entire mark to ourselves, an increasing rarity on what has become a crowded destination river.

Check out the big wet fly brain on Stephen! This was not an easy fish to catch — it was haphazardly rising in some in-between water. We got nothing on our first three drifts. Surprise on the fourth! In my experience, if a trout doesn’t take the wet on the first pass, he’s less likely to take on the second, and even more so on the third. Thankfully, I don’t need to be right. Middle dropper was the selection, a Partridge and Light Cahill.

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We spent most of the session working on wets, in particular casting and presentation. Even though there was no sign of trout taking duns off the surface, we capped off the day with some dry fly fishing, again with the emphasis on casting and presentation. I also turned Stephen on to the The Usual (you’ve got a bunch a creamy colored ones from 16-20 in your box for sulphurs, right?). As you can see, the trout got turned on, too. Great job, Stephen!

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A hefty mid-teens Survivor Strain brown, taken on a Hackled March Brown wet.

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Farmington River Report 6/16/20: Wait for it.

Tuesday was shooting day on the Farmington. I met filmmaker Matthew Vinick and his crew around 2pm above the Permanent TMA. They reported an active hatch and feeding session in the early afternoon, but by the time we started filming at 2:30, it was…over. Done. Nada.

You keep hoping that it’s going to pick up — I mean, it will eventually, right? — but we were plagued with five hours of virtually no visible hatch activity and no feeding trout. You’d see a trout come up occasionally. But then, nothing. No rhythm, no continuity, no consistency. I felt awful for Cosmo and Byron and Matt, but when Mother Nature feeds you a poop sandwich, ya gotta hold your nose and eat it. And so we did.

It is my considered opinion that the State of Connecticut chose wisely in the naming of its state flower.

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So, after going oh-for-three, I stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the ninth and hit one out of the park. It was a 17-inch (a true rarity among all the 18-inchers on the Farmy, he said with good-spirited sarcasm) Survivor Strain brown buck who was lazily feeding in about a foot of water six feet off the bank.

See that frog water just off the rocks? That’s where the fish was holding, just at the left edge of the frame. I made a lucky cast, and the brown rose with confidence to the fly, fully committed to the take. Cosmo and Matt were shooting on either side of the rise, and I’m hoping they got a great moment of incidental magic on film. 

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Mr. Day Saver, taken on a size 16 Light Cahill dry. Accurately taped at 17″.

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Of course, after the crew went home the river lit up. Many active feeders beginning around 7:45, and continuing till dark. The trout in the faster water were keyed on sulphur emergers (a Magic Fly or Usual would serve you well), while the trout in the slower water were putting on a spinner sipping clinic. I couldn’t buy a fish for hours; in the last half hour, I stopped counting after six. At one point I had a fish on four consecutive casts.

The rousing finale had me galumphing this 20+” wild brown into my net. Taken on a size 16 Light Cahill dry. Here’s the release.

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Farmington River Mini-Report 6/16/20: Never leave the river before the spinner fall

Otherwise, you might miss opportunities like this. Taken at 9pm on a size 16 Catskills Light Cahill.

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More details on yesterday’s shoot tomorrow.

Cape Striper Report: XS, M, and one regretful L

Four fishing trips in three days on the Cape sounds good to me. So let’s get started.

Thursday 6/11 PM: Arrival. The weather wasn’t great — wind and rain storm remnants — but we (myself and Number Two Son Cam) had a two-hour night window, so we jumped on it. We fished a mark in Chatham with a ripping current. I wasn’t crazy about the speed of the tide, but there were bass, albeit in micro form. I hooked up on my first non-cast — I was simply stripping line to get the shooting head out. Cam, who was spin fishing with a Yozuri Crystal Minnow, modified with single barbless hooks, landed two. We called it after and hour so we could rest up for our morning outing, which was…

…the Brewster Flats. Before:

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And after. This is the largest tidal flat in North America. While it’s unique and beautiful, it’s one place you don’t want to overstay your welcome. 

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Friday 6/12 AM: We met up with guide Cynthia Harkness of Fearless Fly Fishing. Cynthia is professional and knowledgable and does a great job communicating the wonders — and potential dangers — of fishing the flats. Despite the crowds, she picked out a great mark for us. Larger cruisers are always a possibility on the flats, but our lot was to be trading size for volume. On the plus side, skipper bass are a hoot on the surface. I wasn’t hooking up with a submerged fly, so I tied on a white Gurgler. Hilarity ensued. I lent Cynthia one of my spares so she could join the party. As the tide slacked, the bite faded, and we headed back to shore.

Striped bass will color match to their surroundings. These coin-bright skippers had a sea green back to contrast with their brilliant flanks. Here’s Cynthia’s first of many flats bass on a Chartreuse Gurlger.

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Friday 6/12 PM: The change of light can be a magic time, so we secured our mark early. I was hoping for some larger players, but it was skippers and more skippers. Cam and I hiked down the beach a half mile to try another mark, but it was still skipper city. By now it was night proper, and the tide was really moving. All these small fish proved to be my downfall — along with an out-of-the-box reel on which I hadn’t yet set the drag — when a 15-pound bass came calling. I should have known from the two rolls on the surface that I had a legal-plus fish. But I made the rookie mistake of not setting the hook. Once the bass realized it was hooked, it raced out into the channel, taking way too much line for my liking. When it reached deeper water, it sounded. I frantically tried to gain line, and when I did I couldn’t budge the fish. Increased pressure from me resulted in the sickening sensation of a slack line and the knowledge that it was all due to operator error.

Back at the house, I contemplated my shortcomings over a dram of 18-year old Sherry Oak The Macallan.

Saturday 6/13 PM: Solo trip. Revenge night? Not quite. The big one eluded me, although I did enjoy the flush of a half-dozen bass in the 20-26″ class over the course of 3 and 1/2 hours. Tremendous sport in a powerful current, and as an added bonus I got to learn the particulars of the drag. My last bass came after midnight. I’d moved to a different mark with less current. I missed him first shot, but a few casts later he came back. A perfect fish for a perfect ending. I hummed aloud as I followed my single-file footprints in the sand back to the Jeep.

Last bass of the trip, taken on a 6″ white deer-hair head contraption.

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Farmington River Report 6/10/20: Verrry interesting…but not funny

Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, the game changes. Nature’ll do that to you. Yesterday was a perfect example.

We had a warm, humid day with stable flow conditions. The late afternoon/early evening  sulphur hatch was a shell of its Monday self — I’d give this one a 3/10 at best. Very few caddis, thousands of super small midges, and I saw one lonely Iso. Correspondingly, the wet fly action was slower. I landed only a half dozen trout on wets from 5:15pm-7:30pm, although I did have one hot stretch during a micro flurry where I scored trout on three consecutive casts. (Biggest fish, a hefty rainbow, came on the Magic Fly.) And there was the strange trout behavior: I had two incidences where the trout struck at the wet, but failed to grab it. This rarely happens when I fish the subsurface wet during the sulphur hatch. Certainly the feeding activity just wasn’t at the same level as Monday. Yet, that is.

Sidebar: I was also hampered by the fact that I couldn’t move around freely to prospect some prime feeding lanes. Crowding continues to be an issue on the Farmington. (I plan on addressing this problem in a future post.)

One sulphur pattern remained stable: the 7:00pm-7:30pm doldrum. Things picked up as the hour hand moved north, and around 8:00pm the switch was thrown. This hatch was easily a 9/10, with the air and water surface cluttered with size 16 yellow duns. By now I’d switched to dry fly, but I messed up. The hatch was so intense that the trout were gorging on the bugs with the same ferocity as shoppers racing for the hot new toy at Walmart on Black Friday. Usually, the transaction is a more patient process; the Magic Fly or the Usual serve the angler well when the sulphur emerger or cripple is the food. I missed ten minutes of trout dry fly fantasy camp before I realized they wanted the fly high and dry. Once I switched to Catskills Light Cahills, it was a trout on every cast.

Anglers of a certain age will reflect upon the title with a smile. At the time, I didn’t see the humor in the trout ignoring so many perfect presentations. But since I’m willing to learn, the joke ended up on them.

For years, I’ve been using classic Catskills dries like the Light Cahill with great success. I carry them in sizes 10-18. My SOP is fairly consistent: match the hatch size, then move to increasingly larger as the light begins to fade. This makes it easier for me to track the fly, and as the darkness grows the trout become less concerned with size matching. What’s more, if the menu changes to spinners, Catskills dries continue to be effective. Here’s a great tying tutorial from my friend Tim Flagler.

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Farmington River Report 6/8/20: Our Lady of Blessed Magic Fly, or: spectacular sulphur wet and dry fly action

I fished last night from 5:45pm until 9:15pm, well past when I could no longer see my fly. I started out swinging and dead-drifting wets, sometimes prospecting, but mostly casting to active feeders. I had to work for my fish, but that was OK since some of them were larger wild browns. My rig was a size 12 Squirrel and Ginger top dropper, size 14 Partridge and Light Cahill middle dropper, and Light Cahill winged wet on point. All three patterns took fish. Hatch activity was a 7/10: caddis, sulphurs, Light Cahills, mobs of midges, and a few stray Isos. Around 7pm I switched out the winged Light Cahill for a size 14 Magic Fly after I saw a batch of larger sulphurs hatching. The fish opened their mouths in approval.

You can’t tell from the photo, but this is a high teens wild brown, taken on the Squirrel and Ginger. He was feeding in a narrow slot about a foot deep. The presentation was an oblique angle upstream cast, then dead drift. WHACK! (Editorial: I’m proud to say that on this website there are no photos of trout being thrust into camera lenses, angler arms fully extended. I know my readers are far too intelligent and sophisticated to put up with such shenanigans.)

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All the while, I was vastly outfishing the anglers around me. I mention this not as a brag point, but rather as a teaching point. Properly presented wet flies have been, and will continue to be, the best way to fool trout during the early stages of a sulphur hatch. Every other angler was fishing dry, which can work, provided you’ve got the right pattern and presentation. But when trout are on sulphur emergers, I’ll go with a team of wets every time.

However, there comes a time during every hatch where the trout begin want the topwater fly rather than the subsurface wet. So at 7:30pm I switched to surface presentations, mostly the Magic Fly (dusted with silica powder), a few drifts with creamy-colored The Usual, and finishing off with Catskills Light Cahills. Classic spectacular dry fly action: I took trout after trout until darkness enveloped me. By then I was gloriously alone. Well, not really. Just me, the trout, and about a million bugs.

Life is good with a cane rod on a sunny June evening on the Farmy. I thought it both poetic and proper that my first surface Magic Fly trout this year was a chunky mid-teens wild brown.