Housatonic Mini-Report 6/17/21, or: I went smallmouth fishing and ended up catching a bazillion trout

Forgive the brevity, but here’s what happened. I fished from 5:30pm-9:15pm. I started way far below the TMA in search of smallmouth. I managed one on a Gurgler, and a rather large fallfish on a wet fly. The river was lightly stained and running at a normal 575cfs. Water temp was upper 60s. After 90 minutes, I was unimpressed with this mark, so I headed up to the TMA. A massive caddis hatch had occurred, and size 16 tan caddis blanketed the rocks along the shore and swirled everywhere. They were soon joined by a strong showing of sulphurs and Cahills. I managed a stout smallie on a streamer, but the sight of trout eagerly snapping at emergers had me switching to wet fly in a hurry. First cast, bang, and it was all fantastic action until dark. I made the switch to dries around 8pm, and for a half hour it was a trout on every cast. They were greedily feeding just like they do during a Hendrickson emergence, mouths open, launching at the fly. It slowed a bit until I called it at dark, 9:15, but I was still catching on Light Cahill Catskills dries and Usuals. A few rainbows in the mix but mostly browns. With elevated water temps, I used 4x tippet so I could get the fish in fast. All of them looked very healthy. Hopefully they will find the thermal refuges before the water gets too warm.

One of many customers, all of which have been eating well. Spectacular dry fly action!

Farmington River Report 6/17/21: Wet Fly Wizardry

I guided Joe yesterday, and while it wasn’t a textbook wet fly day, we experienced some tremendous action (I lost count of how many trout we hooked and landed). Joe is an experienced angler who has dabbled in wet flies, but wanted some serious instruction in the ancient and traditional subsurface art. We fished from 2:15-6:15pm, and visited two marks, one within the Permanent TMA and one below it, 385cfs and 465cfs respectively. It was a strange kind of wet fly day in that there was no voluminous hatch, nor were there frequent, consistent risers to target. Nonetheless, Joe slayed ’em. This speaks not only to Joe’s abilities, but also to the efficiency of the wet fly. It may not look like anything is going on, but there can indeed be mischief afoot underwater. Joe fished a three fly team of a Squirrel and Ginger top dropper, Light Cahill winged middle dropper, and Hackled March Brown on point. All three flies took trout, a mix of rainbows and wild browns. Several of the rainbows we landed had bird wounds — watch out, trout! A great job by Joe and a fun afternoon of fishing and catching.

After our session, I headed north to catch the “evening rise.” The quotes are sarcastic, as the hatch never materialized. Oh, sure, there were a few caddis and suplhurs and some huge creamy duns, but they were few and far between. The river never got to boiling — the best it could muster was a brief simmer around 8:45pm. I had several swings and misses (I was fishing dry fly) and only stuck two trout. A disappointing performance by Mother Nature, but there are worse ways to spend two hours than standing in a river, waving a stick, and enjoying a fine cigar.

This was the scene for much of the afternoon. I told Joe he was going to become a dangerous wet fly machine, and here’s your proof.

Farmington River Report 6/13/21: Wet fly doldrums, then all dry fly hell breaks loose

I fished a different section of the lower river yesterday, from late afternoon into dark. The water was clear, cool, running at 460cfs — just about right. As is my my custom, I arrived rigged for wet fly, anticipating a typical very late spring pre-hatch wet fly bonanza. ‘Twas not to be. The early evening hatch never materialized. Well, it did if you count three sulphurs and four spotty rises in 90 minutes. But I was sorely disappointed with the lack of activity. I managed a measly four bumps, and only one of them resulted in a hookup. (Then again, the prime wet fly water in the run was occupied.)

At 7:30 I re-rigged for dry fly. It took a while for things to happen, but when they did, it was fast and furious. Observed: sulphurs size 16, tiny BWOs, Isonychia size 12, dark gray stoneflies size 12, and mats of midges. I focused on the yellow stuff, and threw Magic Flies, Usuals, and Catskills Light Cahills, all of which were eaten. Noteworthy: the world’s longest refusal (drifting over a gravel bank into a drop-off, and this guy rose and shadowed the fly for a good fifteen feet, nearly taking it several times before saying no); an epic 50-foot drift where I had three(!) different trout commit to the fly with a splashy take, none of which resulted in a hookset; and a comical take where a brown blasted the fly like it was going to hurt him, which, as it turns out, it did — in his haste to dine he fouled himself in his pectoral fin.

I was fishing in some fairly technical water, which I often prefer with dry fly because of its challenges. (We’re talking longer leaders, precision mends, and tricky drift management.) I didn’t connect as many times as I would have liked to, but I did hook fish from as far away as 45 feet and a close as a rod’s length. The frenzied feeding really didn’t begin until 8:30, and when I dragged myself away at 9:15, I’d just hooked a trout on a drift I couldn’t see.

A strange but pleasant evening. The first outing with the cane pole is always a treat.

This one’s worth repeating. There comes a stage late in the hatch where trout are feeding on both duns and spinners. Then, it transitions solely to spinners. You don’t need to stress about which stage they’re eating if you’re using a Catskills style dry like this Light Cahill. Trout will eagerly take it even when they’re on spinners. Every year, some of my biggest dry fly trout come on this pattern when the only feeding tell is the gentle, subtle spinner rise ring. Pro tip: you can upsize the fly so you can see it in the gloaming.

Farmington River Mini-Report 6/7/21: I think I’m done with that spot (for now)

I can be a massive creature of habit. But sometimes I like to return to a mark several times within a short period of time simply because I’m curious how things change, evolve, or otherwise go chaotic. I had a little over two hours Monday night, so I revisited an old favorite place on the Lower River. This is where I slayed them two weeks ago, and had a slow night last week. Monday was a repeat of last week: little-to-no hatch activity and even fewer fish rising. I got into a half dozen trout, including some lovely wild browns, but I had to work my butt off for them. I was most disappointed in the lack of a hatch. You’d think with a warm, sunny day, cool water, and not too much of it, you’d get a gangbusters sulphur emergence. Nope. So off to parts elsewhere, when I can, that is. Busy rest of the week. I would think that the vast majority of the Farmington above Collinsville is in its very late spring wet fly wheelhouse. Catch ’em up!

No, I have not forgotten about you. Your time is coming.

Farmington River Report 6/2/21: Hard wet fly times

I guided Larry yesterday and we fished from 2pm-6pm within the Permanent TMA. The river was a very manageable 500cfs, with good water clarity. Angler traffic was light, so we had our pick of pools. Unfortunately, hatch activity — and especially feeding activity near the surface — was also light, and we struggled to find fish that were willing to jump on. We fished three different marks and managed only one hookup. So I had to give Larry the speech that I hate to give. It goes something like this: “You’re not doing anything wrong. Those are fish-worthy drifts. If you do these same things on another day, you will be a wet-fly fishing catching machine.” Kudos to Larry for sticking with it and maintaining a positive attitude! I’m looking forward to getting that email from him where he tells me he hit it right and it all came together. It’s going to happen.

After our session, I ventured upriver to inspect the evening rise. It was a slow wet fly experience there as well (that should make you feel better, Larry!) as I could only manage one trout from 6:30-7:30pm. Hatch activity was solid, with midges, small caddis, and sulphurs, but again the surface activity was not where I would have liked it to be. I switched to dry flies at 7:30 and fooled fish on a mix of Magic Flies, Usuals, and Light Cahill Catskills dries. My two best fish came very late in the game during the spinner fall, both on the Light Cahill, both chunky mid-teens wild browns. A fine finish to a challenging day.

There comes a point in the battle where I wonder, “Is this one of those fat stocked rainbows, or a big wild brown?” No disrespect to the rainbows, but I am highly pleased when the answer is the second choice. Here’s the last fish of the evening. I saw him sipping spinners in some frog water along the opposite shore. Both of these last two browns were hefty, spirited, and refused to come quietly to net. You know you’ve got a decent fish when it sounds and heads for the deepest part of the run. See you soon, fellas.

Farmington River Report 5/27/21: Mother Nature hits the reset button

On the heels of Tuesday night’s red-hot wet fly action, I returned to the scene of the crime. We’d had a little rain Wednesday night, so the flow was up 100cfs to 550cfs, which is still a very average flow for the lower Farmington this time of year. I fished from 6:30pm-8:30pm. Despite a warm, sunny day, neither the caddis nor the Light Cahills came off in any numbers. Rather than being surrounded by trout eagerly taking emergers, I experienced a boil here, a boil there, but nothing steady and rhythmic. Whereas all I had to do on Tuesday night was drift my team over a fishy area or target an active riser, on Thursday I had to work hard just to reach a half dozen trout. Not that I mind that. It’s just fascinating to me how unknown factors can have such a dramatic impact on the day-to-day fishing. I also went for my first swim of the season. It’s not an awful time to experience the sensation of water spilling down your waders and soaking into your drawers, but it’s still mighty unpleasant. As I write this today, the lower Farmington has topped 1600 and is no doubt the color of chocolate milk. More rain is on the way. Reset. Pause. Then we’ll start again.

I took a mix of stocked rainbows and wild browns. My first fish came in some pocket water along the bank. Squirrel and Ginger was the winning fly. Parr marks, halos, a never-say-die fighting ethos — man, I love these wild jewels!

Farmington River Report 5/25/21: Spectacular wet fly action

After my Instagram (stevecultonflyfishing) post the other day, I wanted to see for myself. So, following the advice of my rose bushes, I headed for the lower end of the Farmington River to fish the Light Cahill hatch.

The water has come down nicely — in fact, I’d call 445cfs just about right — and it’s still plenty cold. I started off at a favorite mark around 5:30pm, and worked my way down a series of snotty riffles and pockets. The action wasn’t quite what I expected, even though I stuck a half dozen trout. There just wasn’t nearly the hatch activity I’d expected, nor were there many fish feeding near the surface. I’d started out with a Squirrel and Ginger (sz 12) as top dropper, a Starling and Herl (sz 14) in the middle, and a Partridge and Light Cahill (sz 12) on point. After no hookups on the dark middle fly, I made two command decisions: replace the Starling and Herl with a Pale Watery Wingless (sz 12) and move to a new mark.

And those two choices made all the difference. I was in the water by 7pm, and for the next 90 minutes I took trout after trout. It was one of those I-have-no-idea-how-many-fish-I caught nights. What was most interesting to me was the difference a half mile makes. The new spot had more bugs and far more active feeders. The fish were mostly stocked rainbows (and a bonus big brook trout), but I did get a few wild browns in the mix, including a hefty 16″wild thing.

If you’ve taken a wet fly lesson with me, you’ve heard me say that when you hit it right, wet flies will make you look like a fly fishing wizard. I caught every riser I cast to, save for one. I caught them on all three flies. I caught them on the mended swing, the dead drift, the dangle, and the Leisenring Lift. Folks, I hit it right, and you can, too. Wet flies, people. Wet flies.

Lousy picture, nice fish. 16″ of wild Farmington brown taken on a size 12 Magic Fly on a dead drift. He was slashing at emergers at the wrinkled head of a pocket run. It took be a short while to figure out what I’d hooked — it was either one of those fat stocker rainbows or a chunky wild brown. I was glad it was Option B. This guy bulldogged and battled and generally behaved very poorly. I love him for that.

Farmington River Report 5/24/21: finding fish with wet flies

I guided Eric yesterday and we had a mix of sun and clouds and moderate, cold flows (380cfs in the Permanent TMA and 445cfs on the lower River). We fished two marks with mixed success. At the first, there was very little hatch activity and we observed no fish rising. One bump was the best we could do, so we decided to seek our pleasure elsewhere.

And that’s one of the best pieces of advice I can give you if you want, like Eric, to learn how to fish wet flies: if one spot isn’t producing, find one that is. And, once you get there, work the water. Cover as much of it as you can. Determine where you think the trout will be holding and feeding. We fished a three fly team of a Squirrel and Ginger on point, a dark soft-hackle of Eric’s creation in the middle, and a BHSHPT on point. All of our action came on the point fly. Eric did a great job of navigating some not-that-easy-to-wade water (sometimes it pays to get into those more difficult areas). While the second mark was not as productive as I’d hoped — the caddis hatch was disappointing, and there were no regular, active feeders — Eric managed to stick four nice trout.

The answer to the question, “Why is this man smiling?” can be seen in the foreground. Great job, Eric! You’re on your way.

Striper Report: All you can eat (grass shrimp)!

Last week, while you were asleep — certainly some of you were, as the tide widows crept into the wee hours — I was banging around several marshes and estuaries looking for stripers feeding on grass shrimp. I found substantial numberqs of grass shrimp in every mark I visited, and varying numbers of bass. Grass shrimp are present year round, but they spawn when the water warms, and it’s getting to be that time of year. You can find grass shrimp swimming around if you shine your light in the shallows, but they mostly prefer to skulk along the bottom. They’re translucent creatures, so they’re not as easy to see as, say, a green crab. Their eyes reflect your headlamp beam, so that’s an easy way to spot them.

I see your beady little eyes. These guys are in less than six inches of water.

I almost always fish the grass shrimp swarm with a team of three. The patterns vary, and sometimes I’ll throw a clam worm like the Orange Ruthless into the mix, but last week I fished a deer-hair head on top dropper, a black General Practitioner on middle dropper, and Micro Gurgling Shrimp on point. I took fish on all three flies, although I was intrigued that I only caught bass on the black GP on the one night when I had bright moonlight. (The lessons are never-ending.) The fish weren’t very large — 20″ was the best I could manage — but I could tell from some of the feeding pops that there were bigger bass around.

My most recent three-fly grass shrimp team. L-R: Black GP, Caddis Shrimp, Micro Gurgling Shrimp. This gives you a good idea of the size of the naturals, which are the size of these flies or smaller. Note that none of these flies attempt to be a carbon-copy of the actual bait. They’re simply designed to match size and profile, to look alive, and create a favorable impression on the stripers. Ultra-realistic flies are to be admired for their craftsmanship, but not necessarily for their fish-catching ability.

Farmington River Report 5/17 & 5/18/21: Caddis, Cold Water & Red Hot Wet Fly Action

Mark contacted me over the winter about learning the ways of the wet fly. He booked two half day sessions, a brilliant move on his part, as we experienced a mixed bag of weather and catching on the first day, and then the Farmington River at its finest today. We fished both days from 11am-3pm. Water was 425cfs in the Permanent TMA, and 600cfs below it. The water is a little colder than usual, due to not only the weather but also the greater percentage influx of water from the dam. Caddis is king right now, and we saw good numbers both days, particularly today. Midges, too, and some tiny olives on Monday, par for the damp day course.

Monday 5/17: We started out with brilliant sunshine, then got poured on. Our first mark had the dreaded guide-catches-on-the-demo-cast (I’d rather the client do that), but we eventually connected with a couple fish, though none of them made it to the hoop. There was a decent amount of bug activity, but little in the way of consistent risers.

We had our first taste of success at Spot #2 with a gorgeous little wild brown. I never get tired of these jewels, or the way they attack a wet fly with primal fury.

Thunder eventually drove us off the water. Rather than wait it out, we solved the problem by driving miles away from it. We finished up below the Permanent TMA, and this set the stage for Tuesday. We found some trout that were willing to eat, and even though the numbers were not what I expected, the day absolutely qualified as a good one. Mark was a solid caster, a dedicated student, and best of all, a strong wader. That meant we could get into some areas that many anglers would find a challenge to navigate.

This is how we do it. One of the biggest challenges a new wet fly fisher faces is how to let the trout do the hook-setting work. After dropping a few fish Monday, Mark began to figure it out. By the time we finished up on Tuesday, he was sticking every trout. Awesome job, Mark! I spent Monday night ruminating where we should fish Tuesday, and decided that on…

Tuesday 5/18, we would pick up at the same mark where we left off Monday. I wanted to see if the warmer air temps and sunshine would kickstart the hatches –and the trout — and that’s exactly what happened. Caddis, caddis, everywhere, size 12-14 — and then huge swarms of micro caddis. We didn’t fret about those, since the trout were more than eager to jump on the bigger flies. We took them on Squirrel and Gingers (top dropper), Starling and Herl (middle dropper), and generic bead head gray soft hackles on point. We took them on the dead drift, the mended swing, the dangle, and with upstream presentations. I lost track of how many trout, which is always a good day on the river. On Monday, I had kept telling Mark, “You’re doing everything right. You just need to find some cooperative trout.” I’ve made that speech to numerous clients, so it was gratifying to be there when the cooperative trout showed up. We played through the run, then walked 500 yards upstream where Mark — now a dangerous wet fly machine — connected with a spunky rainbow. Great job, Mark!

Mark’s best fish of the trip was this mid-teens wild brown that we witnessed repeatedly slashing at caddis in a feeding lane. Or, as Mark said: See the fish. Present to the fish. Catch the fish. He did just that, and his instructor couldn’t have been prouder. A Squirrel and Ginger did the trick.