Block Island striper report: small is the new black

Another year, another seven days to chase linesiders in one of The Last Great Places. What each new season brings is always a mystery until you get out there, and then you can toss all the reports you’ve been hearing because they’re either spot on, nothing like that at all, or varying points of somewhere in between.

In 2017, I’d been hearing credible talk of voluminous schools of sand eels inshore and the Bass-O-Matic running on high. That sounded swell, but there were two x-factors to consider: we were coming out of the new moon into first quarter with a waxing gibbous and its bite-killing light; and the weather. Good news/bad news on both fronts. On the plus side it was cloudy most nights, so moonlight was not a factor. On the down side, it was windy. Like small craft warning windy: 20 knots sustained with higher gusts that pushed the limits of what is reasonable with a fly rod. And wind usually changes everything on the Block.

Like last year, I caught stripers every night. But the bargain of two consecutive years without a skunk was a preponderance of small fish. This was the first time in a decade that I didn’t take a legal bass out here, and I found myself longing for those schools of 15-pounders that would sit off the beach for 90 minutes, having their way with sand eels. I had two double-digit nights, then a six, then three singles, and wrapped it up with another half dozen. But 27″ was the largest bass I could muster.

Sight fishing from the beach during daylight was tough due to wind, but mostly to the clouds that made finding those elusive shadows a chore. What’s more, on the sunny days I spotted very few cruisers. I did get two fish to follow my fly, one of them a good 20-pounder, but in the end they both broke off the chase.

And then there were the Meatballs. I had enough nights where I enjoyed blissful solitude, but there were a few sessions where the Meatballs were out in force and in rare form. I’m usually the quiet sort on the water, but at one point on a certain night I was blasted so often by so many hundreds of lumens that I finally turned and barked, “Please stop shining that light on me NOW!” They left shortly after. I had a cigar to celebrate.

And that’s the thing about Block. Even when it’s bad, it can be very, very good.

I had high hopes for this fish — he went on the reel — but the tape measure didn’t lie and he came up an inch short. I mostly stuck with my usual eclectic mix of Big Eelies. This fish thought the Crazy Menhaden color scheme looked tasty. Kind of a neat stained glass effect going on in the water around him, too.

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Unless there’s a specific hot spot, I always try to mix it up on the Block. I fished the east side and west side beaches, southeast side, off some jetties, in the Great Salt Pond, and — regrettably — the North Rip. I say this only because the Rip had been producing a consistent good bite if you had a spinning rod. The night I slogged out there was about the worst night for fly fishing you could imagine. The wind was rain jacket whipping-fast, and I had to cast my line backhand over my right shoulder (I’m a lefty) to shoot it into the rip, then feed line into the left to right current. So far so good. But, rats. Mung. Every cast. I took this shot when I got back to the truck. Yes, it was that hot and that humid and that foul. I love the Block, but walking a mile and a half in the sand for nothing will make anyone dour.

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I discovered that striped bass have great camo against the sand and rocks — even when they’re dead.

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A public service message brought to you by the National Spell Check Society.

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On the last night I caught bass two ways. First, off the beach, where I found a school of hungry fish feeding in the moonlight; then, inside the Pond on a flat with a team of three flies suspended in the film. (Floating line, of course, for both methods.) My last two fish of the trip came as the flies dead-drifted across the flat. That building pressure I felt let me know a striper was flaring his gills to suck in one of the small sand eel flies, in this case a 3″ Eelie in olive and chartreuse. See you next year, when one of us has put on a few more pounds.

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Farmington River Report 7/12/17: Jungle Boogie

It was positively tropical on the river today. The only relief from the heat and humidity was provided by the random cooling waves of fog that swept across my face and arms. The method was wet flies — and the trout weren’t having it. I fished three “gotta have a fish” spots and I blanked in all of them. (Well, kind of. We’ll get to that in a minute.)

Spot A was a run in the upper reaches of the permanent TMA. It’s a long stretch that features shade, structure, boulders, depth, and riffles. Today it offered a couple courtesy taps from a JV salmon. Ugh. Off to Spot B, a ways downriver but still in the PTMA. This is a dump-in to a larger pool. It’s loaded with trout. Not a touch. Ugh squared. Off to Spot C, the snotty riffles, swift current and treacherous footing above B. There’s always a fish behind that rock, or in that black hole tight to the bank. Blanks, both of them. Do I hear a third ugh?

So I got stubborn and walked down to B, attached a BB shot above the middle fly of my team of three (S&G, Drowned Ant, Hackled March Brown) and bounced the flies along the bottom. Second cast, fish on the Drowned Ant. Then one on the March Brown. Suddenly, things were looking up.

All because I decided to get down, get down.

 

Farmington River Report 7/9/17: Swell fishing. Catching? Ummmm….

My Wet Flies 101 class won the weather lottery yesterday. Sadly, the price of the ticket was one of the worst bites I’ve seen all season on the Farmy. (I’m going with the cold front coming through the night before theory.) There was enough hatch activity (Isos and caddis) to keep our hopes up, and a few splashy risers here and there, but folks, it was tough sledding. The guys did a most excellent job of staying positive and refining their newly learned craft. Keep at it, gents, and you’ll have enough days that will make you chuckle when you think of yesterday. (Really.)

As an instructor, I find sessions where everyone blanks as frustrating as the students. So I fished the lower river on the way home. The run I targeted was located in a section that got annihilated by last summer’s drought. Yet, I took two beautiful wild browns in 30 minutes. The water was swift and snotty (not well-suited for a class) so maybe that was the difference.

Nature finds a way. This is the first fish. He clobbered the Squirrel and Ginger on the dead drift in a deep pocket. Love the way the wild ones hit and battle, and you just don’t get coloration like this at the factory.

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Farmington River Report 6/21/17: A strange start to summer

The official start of summer isn’t beholden to calendars or warmth or maximum daylight. For me, it begins with liberating my cane rod from the confines of its storage tube and tying a Magic Fly to the end of a 12-foot leader. That this all happened on the 21st of June was a happy coincidence.

Monday’s storm left a swath of destruction in the People’s Forest area. Downed trees and limbs everywhere. The river soared a few hundred cfs, and Grady Allen told me the action Tuesday night was not so good. When I drove through New Hartford yesterday, the roads were wet and steaming from a late afternoon squall. Random piles of hailstones in the woods made me glad that I missed it. The river was down to 450cfs, but still carried a stain and some debris.

Not a lot in the way of catching for me, but I did get a low teens wild brown to hand on a size 18 Usual. I also rose fish to the Magic Fly size 18, Catskill Light Cahill size 14 and 16, and size 10 Convertible (look it up).

To the strangeness. Nothing so odd about the hatches proper: Sulphurs came off like clockwork and 5:30 and 7:30, first the bigger size 16 mayflies, the size 18s following, with the usual 6:45-7:00 lull. A few caddis and Isos here and there. The hatch strength was average. Normally this time of year, the Farmington lights up from 8pm to dark. Last night it was a dimpled surface wasteland. No spinner fall, no straggler hatch, no water boiling with feeding trout. How bad was it? I counted seven total rises during the witching hour (I might expect to see that many in 30 seconds on a good night).

I finished the evening by tossing a size 4 Olive Zoo Cougar into the gloaming. A few bumps and one stuck fish, but that’s not a fly made for cane.

Welcome, summer, even if your entrance was a little oddball.

And the heavens parted and a light shone from above, and a voice seemed to say. “Cast thy flies to the bank, Steve, where the current is softer and many trout are lying in wait.”

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Farmington River Report 6/14/17: Confidence catches fish, Sulphur City

I guided Keith on Thursday and his goal was to leave the river with more confidence than when he arrived. I think we accomplished that. Where to fish, how to fish, which flies to use — keeping it simple is usually a good place to start. So we headed of to a spot below the permanent TMA for some nymphing basics. Spring mornings are almost always a good time to nymph. We did both short line and indicator, and on this day indicator was the more successful method. We took fish on both the dropper (size 18 2x short Starling and Herl) and the point fly (BH Squirrel and Ginger).

Next up: Wet Flies 101. I was disappointed with this second location, downriver from the first. Our drifts were good and we covered some fishy water, but you can’t catch what doesn’t want to eat — or what isn’t there — so we headed off to trout central, AKA the permanent TMA.

Good call. As we worked our way downstream into some slower water, we saw active feeders. Even though the water was better suited for dries, properly presented soft hackles can be deadly during a hatch. Caddis was the bug, and we had two caddis patterns on our team of three (S&G top dropper and Winter Brown on point) with a dark fly (Drowned Ant) in the middle.  It wasn’t long before Keith’s line came tight to beautiful brown.

Keith shows us how it’s done, much to the delight of his instructor.

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We took fish on all three flies, but only one on the dark middle fly. We got nearly into double-digit numbers, a mix of stocked browns, rainbows, a Survivor Strain brown and a few wild ones. I was intrigued by the parr marks on this rainbow. He wasn’t all that delicate, though, putting on an impressive aerial display during the fight.

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Finally, I fished from 5pm-7:15pm way downstream in an area that got torched by last summer’s drought. I wanted to see what the Sulphur hatch was like, and, more important, was anything taking advantage of it? Good news, bad news: tremendous sulphur hatch (I’d give it an 8 out of 10) with swarms of yellow bugs everywhere. Bad news: like my experience in April in the same area with Hendrickson, precious little surface activity. Sure, there were a few trout that were feeding, but the rises were infrequent and seemingly random. I rose three trout but failed to get a hookset. Also witnessed were caddis, tiny BWOs, and a few Isonychia. I think we’ll have to wait another year or two for the trout to re-establish.

Hello, old friend. Always happy to see your face.

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The Staccato Symphony, performed by an Acre of Feeding Bass

Another late (or early) bedtime Sunday morning — 3:15am if you’re keeping score — but well worth it. I arrived at the mark with the tide still motoring in, and amused myself by sitting on a rock in the dark, absorbing the sights and the sounds of an estuary at night, with a Gispert Churchill to keep me company. I wasn’t hearing the sounds of feeding bass, but I could see plenty of bait meandering along the shoreline. So I tossed my three fly rig (soft-hackled shrimp on top dropper, Orange Ruthless in the middle, foam-back floating shrimp pattern on point) into the flow and managed a scrappy schoolie.

Ten minutes after the turn of the tide, I began to think that maybe I had made a mistake. Or that that cold front had knocked the feed off. Or the fish were simply elsewhere. Wrong, wrong, and wrong. Moments later, the salt pond was lit up like night sky on the Fourth of July. Pop! Pop! Pop! There were bass everywhere, and the sharp reports of their feeding made it sound like I was at a rifle range. This went on for the better part of an hour.

These fish weren’t easy to catch, but that’s what made it so enjoyable — kind of like when you finally figure out that hatch and you fool that brown who’s been refusing your best efforts. I got them on the swing, the dangle, and especially by sight casting to the rise rings of active feeders.

Trout fishing for stripers with small flies and a floating line? Yes, please.

It would be safe to say that this fly was a popular choice that night. A re-palmer and it will be good to ride again. Tied on a #8 Atlantic salmon hook.

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Farmington River Report 6/1/17: Heavy water experiments

The rains that came through last night boosted the flows in the permanent TMA to over 500cfs. But I wasn’t going to pass up my first good opportunity in weeks to fish the Farmington.

I was dismayed to see four cars in the lot, then delighted when I walked through the woods and there was no one in the main pool. So I waded in and had at it. Nymphing was the method, 54 was the water temp, caddis was the hero hatch, and the weather was New England crazy. I fished in brilliant sunshine, mixed clouds, dead calm, gusty wind, and a couple of steady downpours — all from 11:15am to 2:30pm. While I had to work for them, I got into a double-digit number of trout. Here are some particulars.

Things started slowly. My fish came in bunches, leading me to believe that their feeding activity was matching the hatch cycle. Some dry fly guys told me later that they had the same experience.

I found all my fish in the hot water, mostly at the heads of pools. If it was raging and boiling, it was good. No luck along the softer edges, which surprised me in this many cfs. Shows you what I know.

Intriguing markings and dramatic dots on this one.

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The rigging was drop shot with two BB shot, two fly system. Fished three patterns: a size 14 Squirrel and Ginger nymph on point, and a size 18 Starling and Herl or a size 14 Hare and Copper on the dropper.  All caught fish.

I did some indicator nymphing (and caught fish), but the rest of the time I went with the short line/tight line approach. I felt the indicator was moving along too quickly in the heavier flows, and the wind was affecting its drift as well. That being said, the indicator did me proud when I had to reach some far-off currents I couldn’t wade close to.

Almost all my tight line hooksets today were tactile; that is, I felt the strike before I saw the sighter lag behind vertical. Still trying to dial in to the straight line presentation and strike detection thing. More experiments necessary. (Dang.)

Fish don’t lie. They’ll always tell you when you get it right.

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