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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.