The Currentseams Best of 2021: #7-#5

(to be read in Casey Kasem’s voice) We’re counting down the 10 most memorable moments of 2021 on currentseams-dot-com. (to be read in singing chorus voices) Number Seven!

#7 Teaching Wet Fly Fishing. I didn’t have as many guide trips this year as usual, mostly because of high water — and then I cancelled most of the summer due to elevated water temps on the Farmington. But in the spring, I did get the chance to do what I enjoy most about being a teaching guide: introducing people to the ancient and traditional art of wet fly fishing. The bite gods generally smiled upon us, and we had multiple memorable outings. You’ll be able to learn more about tying and fishing wet flies from me next month at the Fly Fishing Shows in Marlborough and Edison. Of course, there’s nothing like an on-water lesson. April and May are coming!

Eric was just one of several clients this year who locked up on bunches of fat Farmy trout with wet flies. (I was smiling, too.) Well done, everyone!

#6 Peacock Bass Fishing in south Florida. When you’ve never caught a tarpon or snook, and you’ve been fantasizing about doing so for months, and then your guide tells you that conditions in the Everglades aren’t good so you won’t be realizing your dream today…well, that just kinda sucks. But wait, he says. I’ve got a plan B: peacock bass. If you love smallmouth, you’ll love peacocks. They’re aggressive and feisty and leapers and beautiful fish to boot. Plus, I know a spot. Okay, you say. You’re still disappointed, maybe a even little reluctant. But you go because it is what it is…and then you discover that what it is is fan-freaking-tastic. But wait, there’s more: find the right water and it’s bass after bass after bass. What a delightful way to wreck your forearm.

Hooking a peacock bass is like reenacting a fight scene from the old Batman TV show. Pow! Biff! Smash! Crunch! They blast the fly, and if you apply upward pressure they leap and cavort and tail-dance (and sometimes do that regardless). Tremendous sport, especially in the 2-5 pound range. I love living in a seasonal climate, but there’s something about Florida fly fishing that really appeals to me. Photo by Mark Giacobba.

#5 Being a Contributing Author to the Followup to Surfcasting Around The Block. When surfcasting legend Dennis Zambrotta asked me to contribute a chapter to his new book, I was thrilled. I pretty much knew what I wanted to write about, and after much drafting and polishing I sent it off to Dennis. My piece is called “The All-Nighter and the Nor’Easter.” The book’s working title is Surfcasting For Striped Bass: Fifty Years of Legend and Lore from the Islands of Block and Aquidneck. Target publish date: fall 2022.

Sacred fly fishing grounds. Dagnibbit, you can see all my secret spots!

The Everglades, Part 4: Bill and Dad Ride Again!

Before this trip, I’d had only one Everglades fishing experience. That was four years ago, and it was a single day excursion with my oldest son, Bill, who was graduating from law school. Our target on that May day was snook and tarpon, but I never even got a taste of a tug. Sure, the jacks and ladyfish and sea trout were fun, but I was disappointed. The highlight of the day was a fine snook Bill grabbed out of a shallow tidal flat.

And so it came to pass that Bill and I were heading out again. I’d already gotten my snook, and then some, and had an all-too-brief encounter with a tarpon, so in a sense this was a gravy day for me. Bill was getting married in three days, and at the very least we’d soak up some sunshine and enjoy some cigars.

Wednesday turned out to be the warmest of the three days, but there was still an early morning chill that was amplified by the boat slicing through the pre-dawn canals. I wore fleece pants all three days — I’m generally always inclined to be cold — but later on this day I almost broke the shorts seal. I knew what was coming in a couple weeks, and I kept reminding myself that regardless of the action, this wasn’t steelheading — and I should enjoy the blessing of actually being able to feel my toes and fingers.
A left-handed fly caster on the bow and a right-handed spin guy on the stern makes it easy to do double duty. However, as we drifted past this island, I wanted to get some footage of my Marine doing battle. Bill found a pod of sea trout and had at them. These are beautiful fish, and they can be highly aggressive with their follows and takes. We liked this spot so much that we asked Mark to do another pass around. we never saw another boat until the very end of the day.
We made a run to where the Everglades dumps into the Gulf, and I loved this mark: current, loads of structure, and all kinds of birds and mammals and reptiles to eyeball. We actually fished hundreds of yards of shoreline. By now, I felt like my presentations and hook sets had come light years from my first trip. As we drifted past a downed tree within a pocket channel, I thought I saw a shadow. One cast, a couple strips, snook on! A decent fish for sure, but sight casting him in lightly stained water made me feel on top of my game. Bill and I each took multiple smaller snook at this mark. Of course, just when you think you’re all that, a baby tarpon in a cove near a creek mouth will remind you that you aren’t. And so, having touched two tarpon on the trip, I am resolved to get one on my next. Like Boss Rojack said in My Favorite Year, “The fighting is rounds…this is round one”

The Everglades, Part 3: Win some, lose some.

The first time I fished the Everglades with Mark I was green. This is a specialized type of fly fishing, and by the time I felt like I was getting the hang of it, the day was over. What’s more, it was one of those days where the shots at fish weren’t plentiful. I’d gone down with the intention of catching snook and tarpon, but we had no opportunities at the latter and only a couple with the former.

So you can imagine that on this trip, I was raring to go. But, there’s always something conspiring against you, isn’t there? Wind, rain, cold fronts, pandemics…the list of potential villains is endless. Add to that that I have an uncanny talent for picking lousy fishing days months in advance. And so it was that Mark informed me that the Everglades bite had been slow. Very, very slow. But you go and you fish and you do your best, and that’s all any of us can ask.

A few hours in I’d landed ladyfish and sea trout and jacks, but no precious snook, let alone even a sighting of tarpon. Mark, being the guide extraordinaire that he is, thought we might have better luck in some of the more intimate creeks and ponds. Getting to some of these spots is an experience. You use the electric motor or the Evinrude on its lowest setting, and start down these labyrinthine waterways, some of which are not much wider than the boat. Mangrove branches and leaves try to smack you in face, and they’ll swat away anything on deck that isn’t lashed down.

Once inside the pond or cove, you assume a ready position on the bow. There’s no chatter, only hushed tones that are essentially a loud whisper. If we don’t see any cruisers, we systematically attack the mangrove-choked shoreline. In particular, you look for structure, like downed trees and especially little notches in the shoreline or micro-creek mouths. It’s a precision cast — the closer to the mangrove roots the better, and watch out for those overhanging branches that want to eat your fly — then short, fast strips the moment the fly touches water. I didn’t know it yet, but if there are snook or tarpon lying in wait, they will race to the fly with breathtaking speed.

I was working one of those little notches in a shaded corner when it happened. The water bulged, I felt a bump, and I saw a large shadow turn and melt away into the tobacco-stained water.

Snook. A good one.

There was no hook set, no point-finding-purchase, no sense that the fish was spooked. So I made the same cast.

The bulge re-appeared, moving at attack speed, and the snook slammed into the fly. I’ve screwed up plenty of hook sets in my life, but not this one. Rod tip down and dirty, hard strip back and to the right, and the Everglades exploded.

Right from the start, I felt like I had this fish. (A strong set and 20-pound test is good for confidence.) Still, when you’ve never caught a species before, you don’t know how it’s going to behave. This fish did everything in its power to screw me up, like repeatedly trying to find refuge in the submerged roots and sounding under the boat. I never put it on the reel; it was all hand stripping. “Don’t let him breathe!” was constantly running through my head, and Mark did a great job of kibitzing during the battle. Then, the inevitable. Snook landed.

Time for a victory cigar. My first striper on the fly went 30″. My first snook was in the same ballpark. What a magnificent beast! Snook will color to match their surroundings, and this one is perfectly camouflaged for the dark bottom of its home. Taken on Mark’s Blue Claw streamer. Photo by Mark Giacobba.

Most of the rest of the day was anti-climatic. We found another stretch of shoreline, this time in the sun, that was infested with smaller snook, 12″-16″. It was a great opportunity to observe how snook ambush feed. The speed with which they move to their target is impressive. We didn’t count, but it had to be at least a dozen more snook to hand.

While fun, these smaller fish can lull you into a false sense that you are infallible. I remember losing a pig of a striper on the Cape a few years ago. Dink after dink after dink — then when a really good bass hit, I was unprepared and dropped the fish. You can see where this is going. All of a sudden, I rolled a tarpon. I was so surprised that I was late on the set. I still thought I had him, but after a moment of wild spray and boiling water, it was gone. I stood alone on the front deck, the heat of regret and embarrassment crawling up the back of my neck. You gotta set the hook, Steven. You gotta set the hook.

Still, it was hard to let that moment trump the victory of the morning. I had my snook, and then some. And I also had tomorrow.

The Everglades, Part 1: Nature on steroids

The Everglades is big and wild and intimidating. It’s also intimate and beautiful and serene. I know, this sounds like the beginning of a middle schooler’s essay. But it’s truly a challenge to describe the place. One thing’s for sure: we don’t have anything like it at home.

In case you’ve never been, the Everglades is an enormous subtropical wetlands that ranges from Lake Okeechobee to the southernmost Florida mainland. You see things like palm trees and sawgrass and mangroves, and it’s evident that you’re in a warm, wet climate. But when you’re out in a boat in the middle of one of the expansive watery areas, a glance at the distant verdant shores could make you believe you’re on a lake in Minnesota. The only clue that you’re not is that there are no houses dotting the landscape. The lack of ego in the form of architecture definitely adds an allure of mystery. 

But you’ll see birds and fish and reptiles…and mosquitos. Fortunately, my experience this time was mosquito light. (Not so four years ago in May, when those bloodsucking flesh drillers were so aggressive and relentless that I literally had to sprint from my car to the visitor center in Everglades National Park to find sanctuary.) 

Parts of the Everglades have an extensive canal system, and on the first day we fished one of them for peacock bass. I managed to hook ten different species over the course of three days. Some of them were old friends from Connecticut like largemouth bass and bluegill. Others were recent acquaintances from a few years ago, namely jack and ladyfish. But six of them were brand new to me: gar, oscar, peacock bass, speckled trout, snook, and tarpon. 
To get to the Flamingo boat launch in the southern end of the Everglades, you need to travel a two-lane road that cuts a straight edge for most of its 50 miles. Once you launch, you head along a canal much like the one in the first picture, then out into what I call “the lake.” There are all manner of rivers and creeks and islands and coves to explore off the lake, and this is where the massive Everglades can reach that wonderful state of intimacy. Here’s a still from a video I shot. We’re water bushwhacking — those are mangrove trees — though a creek that’s not much wider than the boat. You had to parry the branches away from your head and body. It leads, as many of them do, to a small cove that resembles a New England salt pond flat. You go into stealth mode — whispering and hand signals only — and you look for cruising fish or travel lanes or little pockets against the mangroves to cast into. We blanked in most of these, but a few of them produced, and in a week where the bite was considered to be slow, you take those moments and don’t ask questions.
Air plants are epiphytes, meaning they grow on other plants, in this case a mangrove. These look like the dried tops of pineapples. They draw their water from the humid air and from rainfall. One of the best parts of fishing in the Everglades is that you get to see and hear and sometimes even touch plants and animals that aren’t ever found where you’re from. Speaking of humidity, it wasn’t very warm or humid the first two days on the boat, but by the third the layers were getting peeled off as sunrise transitioned to mid-late-morning.
Bon appetit! Monday’s quarry was peacock bass. This gator beat me to this particular fish, but I’ll tell you all about my first experience with peacocks next. Spoiler alert: there were lots of them, they provide great sport, and I want to catch more. Photo by Mark Giacobba.

And we’re back!

Whew. It’s been a hectic — albeit very pleasurable — couple of weeks. (Spending a chunk of time in Florida in November will always introduce an element of pleasure. Not to mention, skin that isn’t horrifically New-England-in-late-fall dry. And, with my eldest son now married, we can all shout out a hearty woo-hoo!) So, time to get back to one of the things I enjoy the most: providing original, meaningful content on currentseams. It will come as no surprise to you that I arranged to spend several days fishing. I managed to hook ten different species, including my first snook and peacock bass, and my first tussles with tarpon. I think the best way to tell you about it all is to divvy it up by days. So tomorrow I’ll be writing about day one. Stay tuned…

My guide, Capt. Mark Giacobba, and me burrowing our way through a mangrove-choked creek deep within the Everglades. Mark is an exceptional guide, and I’ll be writing more about him in detail. If it looks like we’re dressed for steelhead, not quite — but we did have chilly starts to our days.

Everglades Report: Absolutely, positively, definitely not in Kansas anymore

I fished in Everglades National Park on Wednesday and it was — well, like nothing I’ve experienced before with a fly rod. I’m not sure what I expected, but like any fishing trip, the day had its highs and lows. I can tell you this: it was never boring.

Let’s start with the mosquitos. There were more per cubic foot of space than I’ve ever seen. Ravenous little suckers, too. The most remarkable thing about them was how quickly they descended upon you the moment you opened the car door — or stopped the boat in a cove. Unlike some of the noseeums I’ve encountered, these could be kept at bay with standard-issue bug spray. Still…wow.

SkeeterMeter

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This outing was part of Number One Son Bill’s UMiami Law School graduation present. He was spinning, I was fly rodding. We murdered them at our first stop (technically accessory-to-murdered them). To wit: one of the ladyfish Bill caught got whacked by a shark after he released it. The fish floated away about 30 feet when the shark came back and rolled over on it. It gave me a new appreciation for watching trout take spinners. Bill had an Everglades hat trick of ladyfish, sea trout, and reef snapper within 30 minutes. He outcaught me about three-to-one.

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The Everglades is an intimidating place. The wildlife ranges from the innocuous (butterflies) to the annoying (mosquitoes, snook, tarpon — we’ll get to those last two in a bit) to the potentially deadly (sharks, crocs.) I was amazed that they let people canoe in a canal where we spotted three crocs in the space of 50 yards. The heat and sun can get to you, too, especially if your last outing was in neoprene waders. Then, there’s the structure of the place. From the point-of-view of a boat in a watery expanse, it looks like any big lake. But its creeks and diversions and coves are labyrinthine, mysterious, and untamed. Our guide, Capt. Mark Giacobba, did a great job getting us in and out of some very fishy looking water. As you can see, he knows how to dress for his job.

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We spent most of the day working the mangrove-layered shorelines, but my favorite spot was the tidal pond — I dubbed it “Dead Mangrove Cove” — we poled into. You can’t see from the photo, but in many places the water is only 1-2 foot deep. The snook were not in thick, but there were enough over the course of 90 minutes to keep us on high alert. Now, if you’ve never sight-fished for snook in shallow water under bright sun, you don’t know from spooky fish. I was wholly unprepared for this. We spooked one by pointing at it — and it was 50 feet away. I spooked several starting my first false cast. Hell, I think we spooked a few by just thinking about them. They say that wild brown trout are wary. My new perspective is that that’s just about laughable.  

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It took me a good hour to remember not to step on my line — using a shooting basket in perpetuity will do that to you — while I was casting. The zip ties along the edge of the deck are a brilliant idea when there’s a breeze. So here it is: I blanked on snook. I had one good presentation and follow, but the fish turned away at the last moment. I would have loved a second day to redeem myself, but that will have to wait. The tarpon were even more bashful than the snook. We finally found a diversion where a couple rolled, but by the time we poled over they’d either vanished or been spooked. As the final insult, a school of seven tarpon swam purposefully past the boat as we prepared to leave. They wanted nothing to do with my fly. Bastards.

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Objection! Bill outfished his old man! Overruled, and that’s not a bad first snook. Bill just about dropped his cast in the fish’s mouth. Bill confirmed that this certainly made up for those three miserable snowy days in Pulaski a few years ago when he didn’t get a touch. Great job, kid.

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