An early Christmas present: Izaak Walton’s “The Compleat Angler”

This was an unexpected treasure. One of my wife’s relations was cleaning out some books belonging to her deceased husband, spotted the title, knew I was a fishing kind of guy, and sent it along. I first heard of The Compleat Angler when I read Joe Brooks’ classic Trout Fishing in the mid-1970s. I don’t know that I’m going to read it cover-to-cover, but I will be browsing. Thanks, Santa!

A little piscatorial humor. I don’t know who wrote the inscription, but the owl sticker is covering some kind of personal dedication.

Fishing for broodstock Atlantic salmon in CT

Every once in a while, you gotta do something different. Even if you’re a creature of habit. No, especially if you’re a creature of habit.

Before Tuesday, I’d never gone fishing for broodstock Atlantic salmon. It’s a little curious that I hadn’t, even more so since I enjoyed it immensely, and that was after freezing my toes off and catching…nothing. You can try for Atlantics in moving water in the Naugatuck and Shetucket Rivers; the Shetucket is where I fished. Striper angler extraordinaire Toby Lapinski graciously offered to show me the ropes. We basically went out and had at it for four hours. Unlike much of what I write here, this little piece isn’t intended to be a detailed guide or even a primer. If you want more information, you can check out the CT DEEP site. Another great resource is Atlantic salmon aficionado Ben Bilello’s website.

So. To the fishing. I used my Ken Abrames #3 Salmo Sax in switch mode with a floating line. Leader was about 12′ long, tapering down to 10″ P-Line. I used a bunch of different flies, from classic Atlantic Salmon flies like the Same Thing Murray and Mickey Finn to soft hackled streamers like the Hi-Liter. I did have a few touches; several were from smaller fish that were not salmon. I might have had one salmon touch, but it was not a big boil or roll or even a sharp tug; it almost felt like a striper taking the fly into into its mouth. In any case, no adrenaline rush. The method was the greased line swing and dangle, which if you’ve read my stuff you already know I love. I hated when the clock said we had to go. Folks, I need to do this again.

Cast…upstream mend…upstream mend…another mend…then let the current and the fly and primal attack instincts do their thing. I like to teach big mends, which I call “mending like you mean it.” You actually pick the line up off the water and place it where you want it. A longer rod helps the cause. Photo by Toby Lapinski.

“Summer on the Farmington” film teaser featuring…me

Director Matthew Vinick just released the third teaser for his upcoming film, “Summer on the Farmington.” You may recognize that almost-handsome face, and I’m pleased to note that no cameras were broken during the filming of my segments. Here it is:

You can also find the other teasers featuring Mark Swenson and Antoine Bissieux. The world premier is Wednesday, January 12, 2022, 7pm, at Brewery Legitimus in New Hartford. Tickets are $25 and are available online through the FRAA. Hope to see you there!

Small Stream Report 12/9/21: Speaking of wild trout…

I really felt that I should go to the Farmington River and throw streamers. There was snow on the ground, courtesy of the previous night’s cold front dusting, and it was just around freezing. The trout would be holding deep, but they might not mind moving for the right protein payoff. What’s more, in my mind I could feel the dull thud of streamer hook point meeting kype, and the thought was gaining traction.

But, no. I’d also been picturing this lovely snow-covered woodland with a thin almost-black line snaking its way through. Here the char would also likely be deep, but I might find a player who wanted to come up for a dry. Cigar smoke drifting though the bare tree limbs, not another person in sight, gentle murmur of water flowing over rock…yes. This was where I was meant to be.

Hiking through the snowy woods will generate some body heat, but my extremities were cold for much of the outing. The scene was even prettier than I’d imagined, and although the action was slow, I knew I’d made the right decision. I was also hoping to shoot some footage for a small stream presentation I’m currently building — and I was pleased to come away with a few good shots. As I suspected, the fish have moved off the spawning beds and into their winter lies. Which brings us to this logjam hole. Now, doesn’t this mark scream ambush point? You’ve got a pooling of water, cover, current, and structure. The logjam is recent — maybe two or three years old — and although I hit it every time I’m here I’ve never caught anything. Not even a courtesy swipe. I’m trying hard not be bitter, but come on. Really?
Make ’em come up! I started out dedicated to the dry fly cause, but as the minutes ticked by, I began to suspect that deep was the way to go. I tried jigging some tungsten bead-head soft hackles in the deeper plunges and runs, but no joy. Then I decided to go with a dry/dropper setup. The dropper was a G-R Blue Bead Midge. I was drifting the rig down a slow seam when the dry simply disappeared from the surface. The take was so subtle, I was a little late on the set. I needn’t have worried — the char was a good one and the barbless hook was impaled in its upper jaw. This was my only fish of the day; I had a smaller fish twice bump the dry a few hundred yards downstream but there was no tug forthcoming.

Steve Culton Fly Fishing Show 2022 Marlborough partial schedule

I’m looking forward to presenting again at the 2022 Fly Fishing Show in Marlborough, MA, January 21-22-23! Here’s what I know so far about classes, demos, and seminars:

Friday, Jan 21, 2:30: Featured Fly Tier, Spiders, Winged, and Wingless Wets. This is a demo on the main show floor, covered by your general show admission.

Friday, Jan 21, 4:30pm, Release Room: Modern Wet Fly Strategies seminar. Again, included with your general show admission. This is a new presentation with plenty of never-seen-before material. If you’re interested in learning to wet fly fish, or want to up your wet fly game, this seminar is a must.

Saturday, Jan 22, 8:30-11am: Tying and Fishing Wet Flies with Steve Culton Learn to tie and fish classic North Country spiders and other wet flies that trout can’t resist. The course also covers basics like leader construction, fly selection, where to fish wet flies, and how to fish them. Intermediate. NOTE: This is a paid class that requires pre-registration, which you can only do on the Fly Fishing Show site.

I don’t have my Destination Theater schedule yet, but I’ll post it when it comes in. (I’ll also be appearing in Edison, NJ. No schedule yet.) As usual, I’m hoping for another strong showing from you, my readers. Your turnout and support is always valued and appreciated, and it’s great to meet and put names to faces.

Leisenring’s Spider. Right now, at a secret location in the Nevada desert, top scientists, using only the most powerful mainframe computers, are attempting to calculate how many trout have been caught over the centuries on simple soft-hackled flies.

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.