Cheeseburger after paradise

There are 365 or so days every year when you can fish the Farmington. I manage, on a good year, to do it about 40 times. But of all those days, none is more important than July 21.

I’ve made a pilgrimage to the Farmington on that day for four consecutive years now. It’s not by accident. July 21 is the day the Summer Stenos come out. Whether they appear earlier or later isn’t important; the Stenonema have their schedule, and I have mine. There’s a certain place I go to greet them, and since it’s an evening hatch, a certain time I like to be there. Admittedly, I have an unhealthy relationship with Summer Stenos. At times I hold them in starry-eyed adoration. Others, I view them with extreme disgust and intolerance. No other hatch on the Farmington so charms me that I have the date burned into my mental calendar months in advance. No other hatch baffles me with its rise-to-hookup ratio that frequently exceeds 10:1 – even though I’ve found the perfect fly for fooling the trout.

On Sunday night I got my first three trout of the year on Summer Stenos. But first, there was some swinging to be done.

I hadn’t fished with Jon in almost two months, and for our reunion outing we agreed that wet flies and riffly pocket water were in order. At 630cfs the run was quite wadeable. Jon took the first fish, a smallmouth bass, but after 45 minutes all we had to show for our efforts was a couple of juvenile Atlantic salmon. While it’s nearly impossible to get down on the bite when you’re swinging wets with an old friend on a delightful sunny day in July, I suggested we move to another spot, upstream. I guaranteed Jon he’d catch a trout there.

Such predictions are a minefield. I had second thoughts about opening my big mouth from the time we piled into our vehicles until he took his first trout a half-hour later. I was still swinging wets, working below Jon, while he had switched over to short-line nymphing. Just as my three-fly team made the transition from swing to dangle, I felt a herky-jerky tug. The fish made two quick micro-runs, peeling a small amount of line off the reel. I thought nothing of it at the time, as the take came in the heaviest section of current. No need to get this fish on the reel.

A big ol’ wild Farmington brown. These fish with a scarcity of spots are intriguing. Check out that tummy. Someone’s been eating well. He took a size 14 Drowned Ant soft-hackle.

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Each fight has the potential for comedy, drama, or tragedy – sometimes all three – but this one quickly declared itself a drama. The trout is usually a good one when you never see it during the encounter. Big fish have a way of hugging the bottom and using the current against you. By the time I had negotiated the trout into calmer waters, I could see that I had underestimated its size. A wild brown with an odd scarcity of spots and, despite his length, only the suggestion of the beginning of a kype.

How can you tell that you should buy a lottery ticket that day? You’re just standing in the water, savoring the moment, line dangling harmlessly beneath you, and you hook another trout. Moments later, a Cedar Waxwing lands on your rod as you hold it over the water like some conjurer’s wand. He waits there. Eyeballs you. Looks as if he’s about flee. Then stays long enough for you to call out to your friend to be your witness.

This rainbow looks like it’s been in the river a while. Jon took him short-line nymphing not too far from where he was standing.

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But, lest you think we have forgotten about the Summer Stenos, rest assured. We have not.

Shortly before 7pm, we were wading into a pool where friend Todd was already fishing. Jon spotted a trout rising against the far bank. Since I was already rigged for dry, he suggested I have a go at it. As I began my false casting, Jon predicted that I would stick him on the first drift. I was thinking the same thing almost as he said the words. After all, it was a day where I could do no wrong. But, after my sixth cast, we agreed I had most expertly put the trout down. There’s nothing like fly fishing to keep a man grounded.

While the hatch hadn’t gained any steam, there were a few trout feeding sporadically on the edge of a pocket. The current seam they were rising in demanded a precision cast perilously close to an obstruction. Then a rapid series of mends to keep the fly from looking like it was on the Scrambler carnival ride. I saw a few size 18 creamy mayflies come off, and switched over to my Pale Watery wingless wet variant that I fish as a dry. With a twelve-foot leader that tapers down to 6x, the line hits the water well before the fly. I was beginning to mend even as the fly was slowly settling onto the surface.

I rose trout several times, but came away with nothing but air. Then, in a glassy plate of water three feet from the shore, I saw another active feeder. This trout obliged on the first cast. A fine Farmington brown, probably not stocked. My first Summer Steno trout of the year. July 21st. The universe is in balance. A half hour later, another beauty, lower in the pool, again on the first cast.

Time races when you’re dry fly fishing. Probably because you’re so keenly attuned to the rhythm of the rises, and the limited opportunities presented by a waning hatch. Evenings, there’s also the looming specter of darkness. Can’t see your fly, can’t dry fly fish. Or at least, not easily. Dusk was just crossing the no-man’s-land into night when I hooked my last trout. I had been repeatedly casting to a small riser – or so I thought. The splashy feeding tells were slight enough to suggest a juvenile salmon. But like that big brown, I underestimated the size of this brute, a well filled out rainbow that ignored several entreaties to come to net.

A good day on the river longs for a happy ending. So I am pleased to report that if you leave the Upper TMA, waders off, rod broken down, gear stored, by 9:20, you can make it to Five Guys in Farmington before their 10pm closing. With several minutes to spare.

So much water the stream was on fire

I had taken about six steps into the brook when I fell in. A poor foothold, a little water ballet in a desperate attempt to regain my balance, then flat on my seat, left forearm soaked and a shot glass-worth of water into my waders.

Well, I thought, things could only get better.

They did. The creek was up, but at a perfect medium-high level, almost imperceptibly tinged, and running at a cool 63 degrees. What’s more, the skies were a grey block of granite. Rain was coming. But for now, it was just me, the woods, the brook, and the trout.

How you can tell it’s mid-June in the Connecticut woods. Our state flower, the mountain laurel, grows wild anywhere there’s shade. Some of the shrubs don’t produce flowers, but plenty of them were decked out in their white streamside finery.

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I spent the better part of the morning committed to the dry upstream cause, even though I knew it was costing me fish in some of the deeper pools. Most of the trout I raised were small — three inches or less — and very few of them were actually hooked. That was OK with me, though. Just to know they’re there tells me the brook is in fine shape, and those fish will be seven-inch lunkers in a few years.

My best brookie of the day took a dry presented upstream in a dappled seam that rushed along the side of a large boulder. She ran all the way into the bottom of the next pool. Terrific little fighter, this one.

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One product of receding high waters is that the fish are spread out in the brook. I found trout almost everywhere I went, including some places where I usually don’t. Many times I could see them bull-rush the fly (a size 16 Improved Sofa Pillow) as soon as it hit the water. When the water’s up like this, I like to plop the fly in the middle of a glassy micro-pond at the edge of a plunge pool or current seam. The brookies suddenly  materialize from beneath the maelstrom, or the inky protective edge of underwater structure. I had a lot of first cast hits today.

Not much going on hatch-wise: midges, mosquitos, and a few stay caddis.

On the way out, I decided to take a page from my recent Upstream, Downstream, Small Stream article and fish a few of the deeper pools with a downstream weighted wet. The fly was a beadhead Grey Hackle Peacock, and among the trout that found it to their liking was a spiffy brown, who tracked the fly on the retrieve before striking.

Halo, I love you. Nice brown, lousy photo. This is what happens when your good camera runs out of battery and you’re forced to go with a quickie from the phone.

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I was able to coax the better part of two hours out of this morning’s cigar, a Gispert Churchill. The air was still enough to blow smoke rings over dark waters, where the fishing was incendiary.

Industrial-Strength Wild Browns

Not all trout streams are created equal. There may have been a time when this one could have been called pristine. But that was a good industrial revolution and dozens of deserted factories ago.

This river may have hit every branch on its way down the ugly tree, but it is not without its charms. If you can get past the cinder blocks, broken glass, and discarded aluminum siding, you’ll find ducks. Plenty of invertebrate life. And wild brown trout.

Just look at those pecs. Someone’s been working out. My best fish of the day.

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I had originally planned to go striper fishing today, but unfavorable reports, unavailable cohorts, and a nasty south wind put that idea to rest. Still, I needed to fish. So I decided to head over to a Class 1 WTMA. Before this past March, I hadn’t fished this stream in years. Buoyed by my success 10 days I ago, I thought I would explore it a little further.

Nothing says “wild trout” like urban factory blight. You could hit this building from the stream with a good enough cast.

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Second cast, and I was into the fish pictured above. Today’s fly was a white beadhead min-bugger, and this lovely brown clobbered it on the downstream strip. It’s funny how you find fish in the same sections of river over the years. This one was sitting in — where else? — a current seam. I took a few more smaller fish in parts below, then headed up to another section.

I find that old heater hose gives any fly fishing experience that romantic je ne sais quoi. Don’t you?

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That was a mistake. Most of the river was densely overgrown with saplings that made even roll casting impossible. The bottom was covered with fly-eating branches and in one pool, some kind of evil magnetic-to-tungsten bead flies metal grate.  By the third snagging encounter, I decided to pack it in.

I did notice that the suckers were in for spawning. There was also a strong midge hatch. Most of all, there were gloriously-colored wild browns, alive and well in living in their own little version of paradise.

Beauty truly comes from within.

Two-handed casting practice.

You don’t know if you don’t go, so this morning I headed to Ye Olde Spring Striper Spot to see what the outgoing would bring.

I can’t remember the last time I saw ice in saltwater, but there it was, a hoary reminder of last night’s unseasonable cold.  Water was slightly off-color and a sparkling 41 degrees. A most unbenevolent 10-15mph wind lashed at my face, turning the water into a frenzied chop that made riplines hard to see. The four fly anglers who had been fishing were retiring for the day, and the two spin guys weren’t very far behind.

Yup. Didn’t look like it was going to be my day.

On the plus side, I got to re-acquaint myself with my old friend the sea. My morning cigar was splendid, though the wind made short work of it. And I got to shake some of the rust off my two-handed casting (to be fair, there was enough oxidation there to want a wire brush). I test-drove the four-foot T11 sink tip I made over the weekend, and discovered that I could easily get my fly to the bottom in current  with some strategic mends. Best of all, I had the whole place to myself.

So, not yet. But soon. And, like Ah-nold, I’ll be back.

Small Stream Wild Browns For Lunch.

No, no. Not the kind you eat. The kind you use as an excuse to avoid that pitfall of adulthood: Responsibility.

Back when I had a salaried job, I was fortunate to work within short driving distance of two Class 1 WTMAs. Many were the warm spring days when I’d take an elongated lunch to wet a line. Well, just because I’m working from home now doesn’t mean I couldn’t do likewise. And so today, I did.

I hadn’t been to either of these streams in years. “Hello, old friend,” I said to the first as I stepped out of the truck. The water was a perfect height, clear, 44 degrees, and there were midges and small grey stones flitting about. After last summer’s drought I wasn’t sure what to expect. So I decided to hedge my bets by fishing a size 14 beadhead white mini-bugger. I never met the wild trout who didn’t like a flashy streamer in early spring.

Hello, Mr. Stone. You successfully navigated to this rock without falling prey to Mr. Trout’s jaws. Fly and be free!

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It felt both familiar and comforting to cast, mend, and swing that fly across my old stomping grounds. Nothing in a few of my favorite pools, then – bump – was that a fish or the bottom? Next cast I’m on with a lovely little brown, about five inches long. A fish to hand is currency, and with that trout my trip was bought and paid for. More nothing as I waded downstream. Then, near the tailout of a languid pool – was that a rise? You betcha. Small fish, smutting, and the best solution I had in my box was a size 20 Winter/Summer caddis. First drift, up he comes, but the hook point found no purchase. And that was that. Try as I might, I couldn’t coax a reprise.

With my time budget melting like the remaining snow pack, I motored over to WTMA number two. Fished a run where I’d had some early season success before, but drew a blank. I was just getting ready to leave when I talked myself into venturing about 50 yards downstream. There, in some shallow riffles, I hooked another small brown who liberated himself as I pulled him out of the water. Then, in the run below, bang! Classic hit on the strip. A stunning brown about ten inches long, his tummy the color of aged cheddar and pectoral fins the size of kayak paddles.

So what if I would have to work tonight?

Farmington River Mini-Report 3/21/13

The best time to go fishing is when you can, and all that. So even though I wasn’t stoked about overnight lows well below freezing, snow showers, and a NNW wind of 15mph, I made the command decision to ignore the piles of work on my desk and head to the river. Surely two hours on the Farmington beats the tar out of eight hours behind a desk.

Given the forecast and the fact that it was a weekday, the river was fairly crowded in the Upper TMA. Water was 35 degrees, clear and running about 435cfs. I had ice on my guides for the first hour. Then the sun came out, and with it some midges and an unidentified mayfly that looked to be about a 20 or a 22.

My suspicions about the weather knocking the bite down were confirmed. None of the other anglers I spoke with today had so much as a tap. Saw only one trout caught in two hours, and I’m delighted to report that it was at the end of my line. A standard-issue holdover brown who found my bead head, fur-hackled caddis nymph to his liking. Funny thing: I had been watching all my drifts up to that point like a hawk. On the one drift where I’m daydreaming, the indicator goes under. How often has that happened to you?

In a few weeks, the air and water will be warmer. And so will the fishing.