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.

Farmington River Report 1/8/21: Fun with long-leader jigged streamers

Every once in a while I need a new project. Since I’ve been on a streamer kick, this seemed like a capital idea: try fishing small jig streamers on a long leader. This video featuring Lance Egan had piqued my interest. The point is not to cover vast stretches of river, but rather to work in close and target likely holding areas, tempting trout with a protein payoff. I’d fished in a similar manner for smallmouth on the Hous, bouncing dumbbell eyed streamers or larger jig streamers (like Barr’s Meat Whistle) along the bottom, but I wanted to try the longer leader thing with a smaller bug.

I reached out to fly fisher extraordinaire Devin Olsen for a quick leader formula. He suggested a basic construct like the one in his book Tactical Fly Fishing: 12 feet of 15# or 20# Maxima, 3 feet of 12# Amnesia, 18″ of 0.012 sighter material, tippet ring, then 6′-10′ of 4x or 5x tippet. I kept fly selection simple with this basic black and silver jig streamer, tied on a size 8 hook. Total length is about 2″.

So I hit the water. The winter crowds continue to astonish. I saw more anglers out yesterday than I do during an entire previous typical winter. I stayed within the Permanent TMA, with was running cold and clear at 450cfs. I shared the first mark with four other anglers; I blanked, and the only trout I saw taken came on bait.

I scored a lovely mid-teens wild brown in Spot B. This fish hammered the fly on the drop. This is a video still so the shot really doesn’t do the fish justice. I thought I had a trophy brown in Spot C, but two-thirds through the fight I could tell that something wasn’t quite right. My suspicions were confirmed when I netted a large sucker, foul-hooked in a pectoral fin.

The last two marks I hit were also blanks, but I counted the day as an unequivocal success. I’ll be working on this technique some more this winter, and will also be using it at times for smallmouth. It’s certainly best for in-close work, not only in terms of presentation, but casting as well. (The rig is an absolute bitch to cast; you’re not so much casting as you are lifting, loading, and lobbing.)

The Return of the New Year’s Eve Brookie Adventure

There was a time when I’d visit a small stream every New Year’s Eve. That fell apart when Gordo started going to hockey tournaments within the same time frame. But there’s no hockey right now, and no better time to re-start the tradition. So on December 31st, off I went to ye olde char emporium. I wasn’t sure what I’d find, what with this year’s severe drought (another thing to thank you for, 2020!). This stream has also fallen on hard times in the last ten years — improved public access and corresponding overfishing have robbed it of its off-the-beaten-path charm, if not its previous viability. Still, nature finds a way. On the hike in, I spooked two brookies that were holding in current at the head of a smooth glide. One was certainly of breeding size, and even though the spawn is over, I decided to leave them alone.

Today I was more interested in census taking than hooking up. I used an oversized bushy dry in the hopes that anything smaller wouldn’t be able to get its mouth around it. Besides the two I observed earlier, I hooked another two at various points along the brook. No pictures were taken, as I wanted to make their ordeal as seamless as possible. Picture parr-marked jewels with impressionistic Van Gogh dots and the vibrant contrast of the fontinalis fin, and you have the proper image. I’m sure there were other residents holding deep in some of the classic winter lies I encountered, but I didn’t bother trying to jig them up.

I’ll see you in the spring, old friend.

This run wasn’t always a labyrinth. The trees came down during one of the big storms a few years back, creating a tantalizing series of pools and hidey-holes that surely house multiple brook trout. The puzzle is, how do you get the fly to them without spooking the entire run? Traditional casting is of course out of the question. (Landing them will also be a challenge. We’ll deal with that when it happens.) I’ve been working on the answers for a couple years now. No one home today, but I’ll be ready April.

Alone in the woods, contemplating my next move between cigar puffs. An E.P. Carrillio La Historia E-III was the final cigar of 2020. Not a bad way to go.

A (Fairly) Good Day for the Five-Weight

Today was tidal creek stomping day with Toby Lapinski, he armed with his light spinning gear and me with my trusty five-weight. The wind was a bit of an issue for me — as was casting room — but once I reacquainted myself with the nuances of casting a three-fly team with a 9-weight line on the 5-weight rod, everything was jake. We hit two marks on the incoming tide. One was a total blank, and the other produced for both of us. Nothing large, but enough to put a nice bend in our rods. It sure didn’t feel like December.

In these politically charged times, here’s something we can all agree on.

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This one didn’t make it. We saw scores of dead bunker, especially at the second mark. Many had bird wounds (post mortem?). Apparently there was a substantial fall invasion of these crazy menhaden.

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You’ll experience fewer tangles with a three-fly team if you slow down your stroke and open your loop a bit. Photo courtesy of Toby Lapinski.

Farmington River Mini-Report 12/4/20: What streamer bite?

It’s been a tough streamer bite my last two outings — another blank, with only two bumps today compared to half dozen on Wednesday. The river is in fine shape, 500cfs and clear, just in time for tomorrow’s deluge. I hit four marks today, all within the Permanent TMA, and had a bump in each of the first two, but neither felt like a good fish. I played around with size, color, and presentation, but whatever I was throwing, and how I was throwing it, the trout just weren’t that interested. So goes the battle. Just a note that if you’re going to fish the Boneyard, there is an active shotgun season, so be safe and wear some blaze orange.

I lost a Barr’s Meat Whistle to the bottom gods in a very deep pool of the Farmington. Even though it’s tied on a jig hook, this happened when my full sink line got tangled around an obstacle.

Farmington River Report 12/2/20: The high water streamer tease

One question I get a lot is, “How do you determine how you’re going to fish the Farmington?” The answers can be complicated, but sometimes it’s simply dictated by conditions and, especially yesterday, what I feel like doing.

First, conditions. We had a high water event Monday night, the river spiked, and now it was coming down. 875cfs in the Permanent TMA is not for novice or foolish waders, especially in very late fall. That water is moving and it’s cold. You need studded boots and a wading staff, and especially you need to stick to wading slower, shallower stretches (that’s often where you’ll find the fish).

I liked yesterday’s overcast, and we even had a few snow showers to boot. Or is that to glove?

Next, method. I felt like swinging streamers. I fish for my own pleasure, and even though winter streamers on the Farmy can be dicey — the trout are either biting or they’re not — when it’s on, it’s good. And fun. I was using an integrated full-sink tip line with a short (3 feet) leader and a mix of weighted and neutrally buoyant streamers. I also played a bit with different colors.

So, how was the fishing? It started off great, with a bump on my first cast. I made the same cast and the fish hit it again. But no real grab. Sadly, this was to be the pattern of the two-hour session: lots of bumps, but no real takes. I fished two marks hard, then packed it in around 4:30pm.

Salmon River/Creeks Steelhead Report: Comedy is hard. So is steelheading.

By all accounts, it’s been a challenging fall on the Salmon River. That was the main reason I skipped my usual early November trip. But now, later in the month, it was time for my annual father/middle son Cameron steelhead bash. Prepared for the worst, but hoping for the best, we headed northwest. Here’s how it went down.

Monday, November 23: Too many teardrops for one heart. I generally don’t count fish, but steelhead being what they are, I keep track of my landing-to-hookup ratio, and especially my total landings. For those of you keeping score at home, I was at 96 landed at the start of this trip. A combination of egregiously slow action and bad timing in the last 18 months had slammed the brakes on my progress. But with a clean slate of two days to fish, the magic number of 100 was certainly in reach. One good day — hell, a few good hours — could get me there.

As always, the Cam trip is done under the guidance of my friend James Kirtland, aka Row Jimmy. Given the dearth of consistent action in the upper and mid-river boat runs, we made the decision to wade the lower end of the Salmon. Jim’s clients had hooked 10 at this mark yesterday. But you know how that goes with steelhead — here today, gone tomorrow, and at 8am, Cam and I sans hookup, the last thing I wanted to hear Jim say was, “I don’t like this. We had a half dozen fish on by this time yesterday. “

But all it takes is one, so when I set the hook on a dropping indicator and felt the bottom shake its head, I was stoked. My set was fast and sharp (with a second one thrown in for good measure) so I was a little surprised when the fish came undone about a minute into the skirmish. That’s the thing about steelheading. You can do everything right and still drop the fish. Something uncontrollable, like the wrong angle of attack or a bony insertion point can spell doom, and there’s nothing you can do but wonder why.

My second hookup was a chromer that treated the lineup to several entertaining aerials. When that fish got off, I was beginning to question my capabilities. Have I lost it? I don’t think so. I wasn’t doing anything differently. Then I saw it. Scales impaled on the point of my chartreuse Steelhead Hammer. Clearly a fouled fish.

Well, that explains that.

My final touch of the day also ended bitterly. This time it was a snapped tippet. I can’t remember the last time I broke 6-pound Drennan. Surely this was due to an abrasion or other accident of war. Regardless, the result was disappointment, and I was left to cry, cry, cry, cry, 96 tears.

Tuesday, November 24: Down to our last strike. Tuesday’s options were run the mid-river or try creek stomping. The Sunday night/Monday early AM rains were just enough to make us think that some fresh fish might have wanted to make the run, so creeks it was. I settled into a favorite pool while Jim and Cam headed upstream. You’ve always got to be ready with that first light first cast — a take is a damn good way to start the day — but an hour later I still didn’t have a touch.

Then, the indicator slowed, and I set the hook. (Today was a strong case for learning the nuances of indicator nymphing. Of the three fish I hooked in this pool, none of them pulled the indicator under — it simply slowed or deviated from its downstream path. You’ve heard me say it before, and it’s probably the best advice I can give you for this style of fishing: look for a reason to set the hook on every drift.) A powerful head shake, then fish off. C’mon. Really? When I hauled in my rig for an inspection, my tippet was again sawed off. Good grief. But about 15 minutes later, a domestic rainbow decide to eat, was landed, and I was somewhat off the schneid.

Finally, this egg-laden hen pounced. She kept to the pool during our tussle, and once she was safely in the net, I couldn’t help but admire her glorious iridescent colors. She reminded me of the hen on page 10 of Matthew Supinski’s book Steelhead Dreams. I’d just admired that photo last night, and I wondered if somehow I channeled her into taking on that drift.

Whereas Monday was well above freezing, Tuesday was not. Iced-up guides were a constant challenge, as were cold hands. Funny how you forget all of the sensory negativity when you’re fighting a fish.

Then there was poor Cam. He didn’t have a touch(!) on Monday, plus a disaster leak in one boot foot compounded his misery. Tuesday’s shot at redemption was even more frustrating: he had several takes and no good hook sets to show for it. (We don’t think Cam was at fault, either. In the interest of finding fish, Jim had a line in the water too and missed three steelhead — and he’s a really, really good angler.) And now, it was early afternoon and just about at the end of our session. I could tell Cam was emotionally done, but I encouraged him to take a few last casts while I walked downstream to cross the river.

And that’s when it happened. Two outs, down to our last strike, bottom of the ninth, and we drill this walk-off steelhead. I think I’ll just shut up and let you appreciate the simultaneous fatigue, relief, and joy on this young man’s face.

Not everyone was as enthusiastic as Cam, but we appreciate you playing, Mr. Buck. We surely do. This was the second time we’ve had a last-cast, day-saving steelhead while fishing with Jim.

Steelhead (semi) success and happy Thanksgiving!

I just got back from a two-day steelhead trip with middle son Cam. You’ll understand that I’m a little wiped, and with the holiday tomorrow, a little busy. So the full story will have to wait. I can tell you that the conditions were challenging and we had to work hard for every fish. Until then, here’s a little salmonid taste to tide you over on turkey day. Be safe, be well, and please know that I am truly thankful for your readership and following.

Skunk’s off. Also something to be thankful for.

Farmington River Mini Report 11/17/20: A hard day’s nymphing

To be fair, it was only a few hours — I fished from noon to 3pm — but the going was glacially slow. I hit four favorite nymphing marks below (450cfs) and within the TMA (390cfs), and I found a trout willing to jump on in only one of them. I used a combination of tight line and indicator nymphing methods, and I even switched out my point fly and dropper — none of it seemed to make any difference. The angler traffic continues, with nine other folks sharing the water with me during my travels. Mine was the only fish I saw hooked all day, which is not to brag, but rather to illustrate how slow the fishing was. I stopped at UpCountry on the way home to do some shopping, and Torrey Collins said that nymphing has been slow for him lately, too. So it goes.

The day wasn’t a total loss. I scored this beautiful, webby dark dun hen cape at UpCountry. Just what I need for my next batch of Dark Hendrickson winged wets.