Salmon River Report 11/22-23: Definitely NOT the Everglades

The pre-Thanksgiving Salmon River steelhead float trip is traditionally for myself and my middle son, Cam. But Cam was away at school. Gordo had school and hockey. Yup. Solo road trip! Coming off my Everglades experience, I was mentally prepared (but still dreading) the inclement weather I was sure to encounter. So, armed with my trusty Ken Abrames Salmo Sax #3, neoprene waders, and a pile of hand warmers, I headed northwest.

I have a knack — no, really, it’s a talent of mine — for picking days months in advance that are (ahem) un-ideal for fishing. This year I chose high water (1,500cfs out of the gate) and the coldest two days in the 10-day forecast. I can deal with both, but jeez Louise…again? The first day was the warmest, although it was mostly cloudy and we had long, frequent spells of “Salmon River Sunshine,” aka lake-effect snow. We did the Altmar-to-Pineville run both days, with the bulk of the fishing in the Altmar area. I would call the angler traffic moderately low, as higher water tends to keep the shore anglers away. Early on, we found an open hole that was deep, dark, and mysterious. My leader butt was 10 feet long, and I had four 3/0 shot on, but I still wasn’t getting down — I could tell by the lack of indicator chugging and dipping. So I asked my guide, Jim Kirtland, to build me a butt section of about four feet or so. That little adjustment was everything, as three casts later the indicator dipped, I set, and steelhead on hijinks ensued. It was a chrome skipper in the 16″18″ class, and I was thrilled to be on the board. My 1-for-1 was short-lived, though, as I dropped my next four touches. To be fair, I had no chance for a hook set on two of them as they occurred as I was lifting the rig at the end of very long drifts; one was totally operator error; and, maddeningly, one was a clean tippet break mid-battle. Not the best luck, but surely that can change.
Persistence pays off. I tried not to let the previous misses get me down. We’d moved to a long, swift-flowing glide where I had the comfort of knowing that at 1.5K, any take would be amplified by the indicator. I’d been on my hook sets pretty good, and I tried to remain vigilant. I stuck this guy firmly, which was a good thing given his size, freshness, and propensity for hystrionics. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet was the unique problem we’d created by lengthening the leader. The position of the indicator on the leader system meant that I could only reel up so much line — not enough to lift the fish’s head to the net in a normal fashion. (I was using plastic Thingamabobber-type indicators because of the amount of weight, and those can be notoriously difficult to adjust, let alone in the middle of a battle with a steelhead.) To have a chance at landing the fish, I would need to navigate my way to the stern of the boat, reel the indicator to the rod tip, then lift the rod, arms completely extended over my head while trying to steer the fish to the front of the boat, where Jim would be waiting with the net. Easy enough with a skipper, but a challenge with a chrome buck like this. As you can see, we were successful! The first fish came on a Copperhead Stone. The second came on a small nymph called the Spider. Photo by James Kirtland.
I wish I was signaling that I’m currently engaged with my fifth steelhead of the day, but it’s just a simple “Hi, Mom!” Tuesday was substantially colder than Monday — temperatures never got above freezing — and wind and iced-up guides were a constant scourge. Because of the cold front, the fishing was noticeable slower, and the only touch I had all morning was a certainly foul-hooked fish that began to roar upstream with unbridled speed before suddenly coming off. I also re-discovered that it’s a really good idea to crimp those shot down tight on the leader, as once they start wandering along its length, casting becomes a chuck-and-duck nightmare. On the positive side, I’d like you to notice the angle of attack of the rod. I’ve got the tip low to the water and the fish is being fought off the reel and the butt section. To be hyper-critical, I should probably have the cork of the rod pointed more upstream. Don’t let them breathe, put the screws to them, and you’ll get ’em in fast. Speaking of hyper-critical, we witnessed a steelhead being played to death. The battle lasted well over 15 minutes (not an exaggeration) and may have pushed past 20. You bet that it featured plenty of high sticking and long stretches of the steelhead holding in the current without reel handle being cranked. Inexcusable. Video still by James Kirtland.
Victory is mine. After my success the day before with black and copper nymphs, and little to show for it today, I tied on a fluorescent chartreuse Crystal Meth, and boom! Sometimes you get lucky. I was right on this fish with my hook set, but I dropped one a few minutes later when I was slow on the draw. So, 1-for-3 on the day, which isn’t great, but all I need is one steelhead to make me happy. Photo by James Kirtland.

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.

“Summer on the Farmington” film premier Jan 12, 2022

We interrupt our Everglades story — there are a couple more chapters to go — with breaking news. Director Matthew Vinick has just announced the premier date for his film, “Summer on the Farmington,” (featuring yours truly, among others)! It’s Wednesday, January 12, 2022, at the Legitimus Brewery in New Hartford. That’s all I have for now, other than we should have a trailer to share sometime in the next couple weeks. In the meantime, here’s a very low-res, ultra brief teaser.

The Everglades, Part 2: Float like a butterfly, sting like a…peacock?

I don’t mean to complain, but whenever a guide tells me, “Let’s meet at so-and-so place at 5:30am,” and it involves an hour drive to get there, and I gotta set the alarm for 4am (an hour I’m far more familiar with as a return time) I know two things for sure: I’m going to get a crappy night’s sleep, followed by a bleary start to the fishing. Call it the curse of the night owl. I’d been telling myself that this Florida trip would be a nice change from November steelheading, what with me actually being able to feel my toes and not be shivering (wrong about that, as I’ll soon explain). But the fact is, when it comes to depriving me of sleep, my Florida guide Mark is every bit as sadistic as my steelhead guide Jim.

Tarpon and snook in the Flamingo area of the Everglades was the original plan, but when you’ve got a guide as good as Mark, and he tells you he doesn’t like the conditions down south – and his backup plan is catching peacock bass, which you, Mr. Culton-Who-Loves-Smallmouth, he says, will totally dig – you go with it.

So that’s how I ended up shivering in a boat in a Florida canal at 5:45am.

I’d brought mostly warm weather fishing clothes, but I figured with enough layers I’d be OK. Zipping around canals before sunrise in a powerboat with added wind and a cold front changes the game a little. I had the solace of knowing that dawn would come soon, and perhaps Florida would live up to its nickname. Still, I tightened my arms in a bear hug around my jacket.

My first peacock bass was very respectable. The first light bite was slow; we started with a Gurgler-type fly, but the cold morning had the fish in a mood to stay deep. Absent current, we switched to an intermediate line (yes, you heard correctly) and a pattern of Mark’s, the Blue Claw, which fish that live in the Everglades adore. Fish on, hook set, and we were off to the races. I couldn’t possibly tell you how many peacocks we landed. If you’re puzzling about the title of this post, peacock bass are an introduced species in Florida. The state stocked butterfly and speckled peacock bass. The speckled have not done well; the butterly, pictured here, have flourished. Oh, and they’re not bass. They’re a chichlid. Photo by Mark Giacobba.
The comparison to largemouth or smallmouth bass is not inappropriate. Like smallmouth, peacocks don’t like being hooked, and you can expect them to sound and bulldog as well as cartwheel and tail dance. They’re ambush predators, and I spent a lot of time giggling and cackling at the micro-tsunamis of water that would follow and close on my fly as I stripped it. Photo by Mark Giacobba.
This first day was menagerie day. In addition to peacock bass, I caught a bluegill, an Oscar, several gar (very needlefish-like, but they fight twice as hard) and to my delight, three largemouth bass (above). I love any kind of bass on the fly. At one point, I decided I wanted to make one come up to eat, so I tied on the Gurgler and had at it. It took some time, but it wasn’t long before I was rewarded. Photo by Mark Giacobba.
One more for the road. Crushing hits, highly aggressive – what’s not to like? The ride out was significantly warmer than the trip in. Turns out, I was getting warmed up in more ways than one. Photo by Mark Giacobba.

Housy Streamer Report 10/21/21: First and Last

The trip didn’t start out like I’d hoped. While I was gearing up, I discovered that I’d forgotten my wading staff. (With flows over 1,300cfs, that would have come in handy.) Then, I realized I’d forgotten my streamer reel and line. Since I was dedicating the session to the streamer cause, I lined up with something I had remembered: my integrated full sinker. It was a classic case of, “somehow, it all works out,” because there were so many leaves in the water. By using a full sink and a tungsten-head streamer, I was generally able to avoid vegetation hits.

First cast with a Mickey Finn soft-hackle, and whack! I hadn’t even begun my strip cadence. It was a quartering cast downstream, and as I fumbled for the line, the streamer sank and began to move down and across. That’s when the hit came. It was a lovely holdover brown, about a foot long, and I thought this was going to be the start of a day where you land a pile of fish just by showing up. ‘Twas not to be. I didn’t see another angler hook a fish over two hours, and there were plenty of people out and about on this fine fall day.

The night before, I tied up two old Housy favorites, the soft-hackled Mickey Finn and Black Ghost. This is an old, crappy photograph, but essentialy the flies have a template of marabou tail, then a contrasting marabou hackle and some black Ice Dub for a collar. There’s flash, too; sometimes I use Krystal Flash and sometimes Flashabou. I’ll try to put together a complete recipe and shoot some better photos of the steamers.

A few minutes later, I stuck what I thought was going to be my biggest trout of the year. I’d felt a solid bump on the cast before; I repeated the cast, and the fish did not miss the second time. It sounded and bulldogged and I realized I might have hooked into a trophy brown. When I finally got its head up, surprise! Smallmouth. A good one, too, mid teens and fat, with dramatic fall camo colors. That’s the latest in the season I’ve ever caught a decent smallie on the Hous.

I visited a second mark and managed a courtesy tap, but with the clock ticking I moved to the last spot. This section was moving faster than the previous two pools, and with a well-defined slot I made the decision to switch to the long-leader jigged mini-streamer. Slow going, but I was rewarded with a fat stocker rainbow on my last cast. And that, I thought, is the perfect way to bookend a two-hour streamer set.

Small stream report and observations

I’ve been focusing on small streams this month, partly to scratch an itch and partly to shoot video content for the new small stream presentation I’m building. Small streams are cool because they’re like any bigger river or ocean: weather changes, water levels (or tides) rise and fall, water clarity and temperatures fluctuate — you never know what you’re going to get until you get there. Here are few photos along with some things I’ve noticed that might help you on your next small stream adventure.

Micro Wigglies work — here’s proof. But I’ve been very disappointed by the generally poor reception the brookies have given them. Micro Wigglies are almost useless in high water, and even in low water need to be stripped to induce a strike. If you’re committed to the dry fly cause, it’s hard to go wrong with a big, bushy dry. What’s “big?” If I’m not necessarily interested in hooking sub-4″ fish, 14 is as small as I’ll go. Of course, you de-barb your hooks, limit photos, and only handle wild fish with wet hands. It goes without saying (but I’ll do it anyway) that you should never lay a fish down on rocks or dry leaves or sand for a photo. This may be self-evident, but the better dry fly days are the ones when the water is lower rather than higher.
Using roll and bow-and-arrow casts helps you avoid annoyances like this. My rule of thumb for awkwardly-placed-by-nature streamside vegetation is: If it’s living, I never remove it. If it’s dead, it must not be visibly supporting life (spider webs, for example) or creating good natural structure/cover for the subsurface residents. So, if it’s a spindly twig that got knocked into the river last wind storm, and it keeps eating your streamer, feel free to toss that sucker.
Dry flies are a hoot on a small stream — make ’em come up! — but the bigger fish are usually taken subsurface. I marvel at how curious these char are about any intruder in their underwater world. You can feel them bumping the fly moments after it hits the water. What is it? Food? Not food? Threat? Don’t mess with those teeth! I

Farmington River mini-report 10/8/21: filming fools

Yesterday I wrapped up some drone footage with Director Matthew Vinick for his upcoming film “Summer on the Farmington.” Elevated flows (650cfs in the Permanent TMA) and leaves were an issue, but we got it done. Adverse conditions didn’t discourage the legions of anglers I saw out enjoying the river and weather. I had 30 minutes to fish for pleasure after the shoot, so I hit a favorite mark for some tight line nymphing. Sadly, every stall of the sighter or tangible bump turned out to be either bottom or debris. I was not alone — of the dozen or so anglers I shared water with, I did not see a single trout hooked. On a positive note, the water is noticeably cooler than it was a week ago. Things can only get better, right?

Pro tip: when there are so many orange/yellow/red leaves in the water, try going dark or white with streamers — and make sure one of your nymph droppers is small and dark (it’s tiny BWO season). A small Starling and Herl soft hackle would be a fine choice.

The 2021 Smallmouth Season that Wasn’t. Or Was It?

I had big plans for this summer. I was going to go on smallmouth fishing binge the likes of which I’ve never experienced. I was going to conduct a bunch of experiments with presentation and techniques and different flies. I was going to find and learn some new water, and I was going to do some in-depth study of water I discovered last year.

And then the rains came. And came. And came. And kept coming. It was one of the wettest summers on record. The Housy was stuck on a black or blue dot on the USGS page for the entire month of July. August wasn’t much better.

But I’m a stubborn sort and I wanted to fish for smallmouth. I was damned if little things like flood stage and water the color of chocolate milk was going to stop me. So I went fishing. I managed well over a dozen outings, for which I am giving myself a gold star. I mostly had fun. I even got into fish. Here are some of the things I learned and re-learned.

Not only can you catch fish in high, heavily stained water, you can catch some big fish in high, heavily stained water. This slob could be measured in pounds. It was one of three fish in the 16″ or bigger class that I landed, on — get this — surface bugs in a 2,300cfs flow. As it turns out, it was my biggest Housy bass of the summer. All fish were taken in water about three feet deep about a rod’s length from shore. I highly recommend that you don’t wade in water that you’re unfamiliar with if you can’t see the bottom. And don’t forget the wading staff! My apologies for the substandard photo. But it’s a nice smallie.
I’d rather fish in very high or very low water than in medium-high to high flows. In the latter, there is no consistency to where the fish are from day to day, as they have enough water to virtually go anywhere. So one evening, I’d bang up a dozen quality fish in a pool. And the next, in the same mark, I’d blank or only get one or two. It’s also frustrating to have the river at a level where you just can’t wade into certain very fishy areas due to depth and current speed. I still managed to go exploring, and I fished two brand new marks with varying degrees of success. Pro tip: whether you’re fishing in high or low flows, structure is your friend, as are current breaks between faster water and slower water. Here’s the proof.
In high water, hatches go on. Not only did this’s years White Fly hatch happen, it was one of the stronger showings I’ve witnessed, and it went well into August. Sadly, the surface action was virtually nil, although I did manage a few bass on dry flies over the course of the summer. Wet fly action was a little better, but if you know there’s likely to be a strong hatch, fishing well under it — AKA nymphing — will put a very big smile on your face. I didn’t see that many black caddis this summer, but there were a bazillion sedgy-white caddis, size 18, most afternoons and evenings. The bass liked them a lot.
Some things didn’t change. There continued to be a shutdown moment right as dusk transitioned to darkness. And the Countermeasure continued to produce quality fish at that moment. I had several foot-plus bass on that fly as my last bass of the outing. Here’s to better conditions in 2022!

Read “Old-School Striper Patterns are Still Deadly During the Fall Run” at Field & Stream online

Fly anglers are always looking for the next best thing. Especially when it comes to fly patterns. But often, “new” doesn’t translate to “better.” Some of these patterns are decades old, but they still get eaten because the stripers haven’t gotten any smarter. So if you want to see what’s in my fly box this fall — and at the end of my leader — read “These Old-School Striper Patterns are Still Deadly During the Fall Run,” brought to you by our good friends at Field & Stream.

The Magog Smelt Bucktail didn’t make the article, but it’s another fall favorite of mine. You can find out more about this pattern here.

“8 Flies Smallmouth Bass Can’t Resist” at Field & Stream Online

You can read my newest piece, “8 Flies Smallmouth Bass Can’t Resist,” right now at Field & Stream online. Even if you’re more of a trout person, I’d recommend giving it a read as many of the patterns translate to the Salmo family. Naturally, I’ve included a few of my own bugs, like the August White and the Countermeasure. Besides, it’ll give you something to do while waiting for all this water to recede…

I’m pretty sure this guy ate a TeQueely, one of the featured patterns in “8 Flies Smallmouth Bass Can’t Resist.”