No more Mid Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide

I received this sad news last week. No more print issues of the MAFFG will be forthcoming. The publishers are currently exploring means of converting the magazine to a viable electronic format. But the days listening to the sweet-sounding rustle of heavy stock newsprint as you devoured the latest issue are over.

Its publishers dubbed MAFFG “the finest regional fly fishing magazine on the planet.” I’d be inclined to agree. I really loved that magazine, both reading and writing for it. There was something in every issue I could count on to make me a better, more well-rounded angler. From a professional standpoint, the editor, Mike Klimkos, gave me one of my first opportunities as an outdoor writer. And as my product matured, he gave me extraordinary editorial freedom.

So, thank you, Mike. Thank you, publisher Paul Rouse, for your kindness and generosity. And so long, old friend.

I’ll take some solace knowing that my work appeared in the last issue of MAFFG.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

“Block Island Stripers from the Shore” in the Oct/Nov/Dec 2016 issue of Mid Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide

It’s the Destination Issue of MAFFG, and we’re all heading to Block Island! A nifty little primer on the island, its structure, flies, gear, and more. While this past year was (ahem) a bit of an off-year for stripers on the fly from the shore, the Block remains one of my favorite places to fish — and write about.

While I truly love answering your questions, let me head you off at the pass: no, I don’t know where you can find a copy of MAFFG. You can try contacting them through their Facebook page. And of course, let them know you enjoy my writing.

Hot off the presses.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Ten Things Every Beginning Steelheader Should Know

“Ten Things Every Beginning Steelheader Should Know” first appeared in the October 2015 issue of Mid Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide. I had a lot of fun with this piece, as it mixes humor with practical advice. Even if you’re an old hand, you might find something useful here. Many thanks to MAFFG for allowing me to share it on currentseams.

So, you’ve decided that you’re going to take up fly fishing for steelhead. I don’t know whether to congratulate you or console you. No other form of fly fishing produces such soaring emotional highs or soul-crushing lows. But, the least I can do – as someone who was once in your bright-eyed position – is prepare you for what lies ahead.

Stop. Turn back now before it’s too late. Steelheading is an addiction. And once you’re hooked, dealers in the form of social media fishing reports, grip-and-grins, river conditions, dam release schedules (not to mention endless discussions about rods, reels, flies and gear) will have you at their command. “Obsession” is not too strong a word. Work, social, home life – will all suffer for the pursuit of fresh chrome. You think I’m writing this tongue-in-cheek. I am not.

Expect harsh weather. Great Lakes steelheading is largely a fall, winter, and early spring game. Be prepared for some of the most unforgiving conditions you’ve ever experienced: single digit (or lower) temperatures; lake effect snow; more lake effect snow; really, any and all forms of frozen precipitation. Truthfully, plain cold isn’t that bad. It’s the thirty-four-degrees-and-raining days that cut to the bone. Dressing like you’re going on an expedition to Everest is rarely a bad idea. Fleece is your friend. Think multiple, breathable layers. And those hand and toe warmers they sell in convenience stores? Buy many, many packs.

Prepare yourself for the demanding conditions of a big river. A skunking can be the least of your worries, as this sign along the banks of New York’s Salmon River warns.

srsign

~

Find a tippet you can trust. The most obvious dichotomy in steelheading is that you’re using a light tippet to land a very big fish. So your tippet material must be small enough to remain unnoticed by the steelhead, and strong enough to withstand a heated battle. Here are two such materials: Drennan six-pound fluorocarbon and Maxima Chameleon six-pound nylon. Be ruthless about the condition of your tippets. Check them frequently for abrasions or wind knots. If you find problems, replace the tippet. You’ll be happy you did when you’re fighting that fifteen-pound hen fresh from the lake.

The flies are a little strange. You can catch steelhead with a tuft of Day-Glo yarn tied to a hook, or a few turns of Estaz wrapped around the shank. You may hesitate to call these things flies. Nonetheless, they work. Don’t be afraid to experiment with more traditional patterns and color palettes. Small, simple black stoneflies (like the 60-Second Redhead) and bead-head Pheasant Tail-types account for a significant number of my Great Lakes steelhead every season.

Fluorescent colors dominate a typical steelhead fly box. While egg patterns, gaudy bead heads and brightly accented stoneflies like these certainly catch fish, so do flies in muted, natural colors.

steelhead-flies

Life is not fair. Neither is steelheading. You can do everything right, from presentation to hook set to managing leaps to applying pressure, and still lose the fish. You can do all those things wrong and then land the fish. You can stand in a lineup while every angler above and below you hooks multiple fish and you blank. The spot where you caught a dozen one day is a barren steelhead wasteland the next. I gave up trying to figure it all out years ago.

Sometimes steelheading makes no sense. On this warm late November day, the river was high from snowmelt, the color of chocolate milk, with visibility of less than a foot – and we still had a tremendous day of fishing.

Steel Cam and Me

~

Be prepared to put in your time. It took me forty hours of fishing to land my first steelhead. (It took my nine year-old son only thirty minutes. That was three years ago, and I’m still bitter about it. See “Life isn’t fair” above.) Experience will be your greatest teacher. Pay attention to factors like water temperature and water levels. For example, if the river is low, I know to head for what I call the hot water – snotty whitewater riffles and pockets. Learn where steelhead hang out in the cold winter months. Watch how other people fish. Note the methods of successful anglers. Most of all, get out and fish. You can’t catch steelhead from behind a desk.

Go find the fish. Don’t get lulled into thinking that because steelhead are migratory, they could show up at your feet any minute now. I’ve spent far too many hours – if not days – waiting for something to happen that never did. If you’ve blanketed a run with presentations and have come up empty, move. The fish that want to eat are somewhere else. And it is often true that where there is one hungry steelhead, there are many others.

Tom’s 60 Second Redhead, so named because it only takes a minute to tie. In this version, the abdomen is black Krystal Dub; the head red Ice Dub. This simple pattern excels in rivers with little black stonefly populations.

60Second RedHead

~

Hook set is everything. I suspect that more steelhead are lost to poor hook sets and dull hook points than any other factors. Most of the steelhead I lose come unhinged in the first few seconds of the fight. Get in the habit of checking your hook points early and often. If they aren’t sticky sharp, replace them. If you’re presenting under an indicator, watch it like a hawk. Look for a reason to set the hook on every drift. Set hard with a downstream sweep. Get tight to that fish fast, and set the hook again. Then, hang on. This is where the fun begins.

Don’t let them breathe. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of a steelhead being in charge of any fight (though it’s true to some extent). Still, don’t let the fish intimidate you. Once your steelhead realizes that it’s hooked, it will want to run. Let it. It may want to leap and cartwheel. Enjoy the spectacle. But when it stops its histrionics, point the cork of your rod handle upstream, and crank that reel fast and hard. The fish stopped running because it’s exhausted. Don’t let it catch its breath. With a good hook set and a reliable tippet, you can put far more pressure on a fish than you think. Let the fish run again if it wants. Same drill: don’t let him breathe. Find that perfect equilibrium on your drag that makes the steelhead work hard for every foot of line without popping the tippet. Your goal is to land the fish as expeditiously as possible. The longer you play a steelhead, the more things can happen – and most of them are bad.

5mm neoprene insulated boot foot waders. In my opinion, this is the single greatest development in fly fishing for winter steelhead in the last 50 years.

Why we steelhead. Brilliant chrome from Lake Ontario, taken in two feet of whitewater during low flows on a black and purple North Country Spider Egg.

Fresh Chrome, November 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Nighttime Fishing for Big Trout” in the Aug/Sept issue of MAFFG

“Ten Things You Should Know About Nighttime Fly Fishing for Big Trout” is in the current (August/September 2016) issue of Mid Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide. Part how-to, part humor, it’s a piece I’m proud of. You should read it.

Hot off the presses and top billing. Whoo-hoo!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Words flowing through the article pipeline

It seems like I am always writing. Some of it ends up here. Some of it never goes anywhere (sloth, concept that never gelled, editor indifference). And some of it makes its way into glorious print. Here’s what’s coming soon to a news stand or mailbox near you.

A feature article on wet flies in Field & Stream. Sometime this summer.

The Little Things V2.0. This summer in American Angler. More seemingly insignificant things you can do to help you catch more fish.

An shorter conservation piece on the failed Atlantic Salmon restoration project (Connecticut River strain-specific). American Angler, this summer (I think).

A primer on Block Island stripers on the fly from the shore. This fall in the Mid Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide.

Thanks for your continued readership and support. Speaking of support, I see we are tantalizingly close to 400 followers. Once we crack — and hold — that barrier, we’ll do a fly giveaway.

Working the night shift with a Rock Island flatwing.

IMG_0255

 

 

 

 

 

 

How To Tie And Fish Dropper Rigs For Stripers

“How to Tie and Fish Dropper Rigs for Stripers” first appeared in a 2010 issue of Mid Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide

Not every day is April on the lower Housatonic when the stripers are ready to pounce on your fly with reckless abandon. No, this was an August evening in Rhode Island, and while the bass were open for business, hookups were few and far between.

I was fishing a spot where a rocky bar merged with a shallow sand flat before dropping off into a deep channel. Pop! Tock! Every few minutes, I could hear the distinctive tells of feeding fish, all within casting range. The water was loaded with dense schools of silversides. Peanut bunker were in the mix, and I had even seen clamworms earlier in the week. But what were the stripers feeding on tonight? Within a few minutes, I would have my answer. I cast my dropper rig into a surface seam, and started mending for a greased line swing.

As the flies swam across the current, the water exploded. I set the hook, and soon a fine striped bass was in my hands. With the dropper rig, he had three fly choices: a clamworm, a small bucktail menhaden, and a Ray’s Fly. He chose the menhaden. A few casts later, bap! Another striper on the menhaden. Satisfied, I clipped the other flies off the leader. Once again, droppers had proven to be the fastest way to find out what the fish wanted.

Dropper rigs take a little more effort than store-bought tapered leaders, but they’re easy to tie and the rewards can be great. A dropper rig is a terrific searching tool, giving the bass multiple targets, and letting you present at different depths on a single drift. I’ve always been the curious sort, and I like the surprise a dropper rig provides when I discover which fly fooled the fish. And, as an angler who embraces traditional methods, the dropper rig has proven itself — you’ve heard of a brace of wet flies — over the course of hundreds of years.

The original article had an illustration of a three fly team by Ken Abrames;  I’m replacing it with a detailed rigging diagram. It’s a simple leader — you’re basically making a triple surgeon’s loop and then tying two triple surgeon’s knots.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Here’s a pdf: Striper Dropper Rig

A basic dropper rig is about seven to eight feet long, with two dropper flies and one fly on point. The flies are spaced 18 to 24 inches apart, and the dropper flies are tied on tags that extend a few inches out from the leader. I use 20, 25, or 30 pound mono to build my dropper rigs. Start with a length of mono a little over four feet long. Tie a loop about the circumference of a baseball at one end; this will be the butt of the leader. I use a triple surgeon’s knot, but you can use the knot of your choice. Always wet the mono before you tighten your knots, and remember the wisdom that no knot is worthy of your trust. I test every knot I make before I fish any leader system.

Next, take a three-foot section of mono and attach it to the butt section with a triple surgeon’s or double uni-knot. The tag of the butt section will form the first dropper, so be sure to leave plenty of material (about 8”) for it. Snug that knot up good and tight, then repeat the process to form the second dropper. You should now have a length of mono with two tags, spaced about two feet apart, extending toward the point fly end of the leader. All you need to do now is tie on some flies. I like them between four and six inches away from the leader.

What flies? Think different: Different sizes. Different colors. Different species. Give the fish a choice. They will tell you when you’ve made the right one. In my experience, this rig fishes and casts best with the largest fly in the point position. Don’t be afraid of fouling or tangles. You can cut down on their incidence by slowing down your casting stroke, and making sure the line straightens out on your back cast before making the forward stroke.

Here are a few simple guidelines to help you decide if a dropper rig is a good idea. Use one when:
• You’re searching for fish.
• There are multiple baits in the water and you’re not sure what the stripers are feeding on.
• There is an abundance of small bait in the water, i.e. anchovies, grass shrimp, clam worms, sand eels.

A dropper rig might not be the best choice if:
• There are bigger fish about (landing multiple large fish on a single leader can be a dicey proposition).
• You’re having difficulty casting into a strong wind (use a shorter leader and a single fly).
• You start consistently hooking doubles or triples.

Droppers aren’t a magic bullet solution. But if you want to catch more fish, they are an excellent arrow to have in your quiver.

Winter Fly Fishing on the Farmington River

“Winter Fly Fishing on the Farmington River” first appeared in the February 2015 issue of Mid Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide.

The best part about winter fly fishing on the Farmington is not that on any given day, you have a good chance of catching trout. It’s that on any given day, you have a good chance of catching trout on a dry. Or a wet. Or a nymph. Or a streamer.

A classic tailwater, the West Branch of Connecticut’s Farmington River starts at the Hogback Dam in Barkhamsted, and flows some 60 miles to its confluence with the Connecticut River in Windsor. Between Barkhamsted and Unionville are dozens of miles of blue ribbon trout water, much of it open to anglers year round.

Resident salmonids include brown trout, rainbow trout, brook trout, and juvenile Atlantic salmon. In addition to stocked and holdover fish, there are substantial numbers of stream-born trout and char in the Farmington. (The 2013 DEEP census placed wild fish at 50% of the trout population.) Because the Farmington is a tailwater, it remains cool and trout-friendly in the warm summer months. It also means that during the unforgiving bitterness of winter, the source water is well above freezing. That’s good for trout. Good for hatches. And of course, good for fishing.

Small flies catch big winter browns on the Farmington. This buck was taken on a size 18, 2x short bead-head Pheasant Tail.

Culton_Winter_Brown2

~

Winter access and gear

Often, the most challenging part of a winter outing on the Farmington is finding a place to park. Only a handful of lots are plowed. Dirt roads are not plowed, and many are gated until spring. During snowy winters, the pulloffs that line East and West River Roads along the TMA are buried beneath an impenetrable hedge of snow and ice. A four-wheel drive truck with good tires and ground clearance will help you negotiate spots a sedan can’t manage. The river in winter doesn’t draw close to the crowds it sees in summer. Still, on a mild day, popular places like Church Pool are likely to be busy.

If there’s an extended cold snap, some of the slower pools will build up shelf ice along the shore. Never attempt to walk across shelf ice to get into the water. While I like to target days when the mercury is above thirty-two degrees, be aware that runoff generated by some of the warmer thaws can send water temperatures plummeting. Extended periods of consistent weather often mean good winter fishing. Conversely, a sudden cold snap is usually bad for business.

Dressing for winter fishing is a matter of common sense: know the weather forecast, and know your body’s limitations. I tend to run cold, so my best friend is my 1,000 grain insulated boot foot 5-millimeter neoprene waders. Breathable layers and hand and toe warmers are essential gear. I highly recommend studded boots and a wading staff – falling in the river is never fun, even less so in January. Remember to get out of the water and walk around for a few minutes every hour to avoid frozen leg/feet syndrome.

An angler patiently waits for risers on a cold February morning.

Culton_Winter_Greenwoods

~

Winter Dry Fly Fishing

Just because there’s snow on the ground – or in the air – doesn’t mean you won’t find a pool that’s simmering with rise rings. The Farmington River has a fairly consistent winter midge hatch. Some of those midges push the size 18 envelope, but when planning your fly selection, think small, smaller, smallest. The tiny blue-winged olives (size 22-28) of late fall often carry over into December. But the real hero hatch for winter dry fly aficionados is Dolophilodes distinctus, the Winter/Summer Caddis.

In the winter, I don’t usually arrive on the river much before 11am. An exception is the W/S Caddis hatch, which is usually an early morning event. Distinctus is appropriately named. They rise to the surface as pupae, size 18-24, then scoot across the water to the shore where they complete their emergence. During this scooting phase, they are highly vulnerable to feeding trout.

This W/S Caddis Pupa pattern is a favorite of Farmington River dry fly anglers. So simple: dark grey foam body and dark dun hackle, size 18-24.

Culton_Winter_WSCaddis

The trout will always tell you how they want the fly presented during a W/S Caddis hatch. Hedge your bets by targeting actively feeding fish. If you’re not getting any takes with a classic drag-free drift, try going down a size or two. If that doesn’t produce, try waking the fly, replicating the pupal dash across the surface. Sometimes that movement is the feeding trigger.

Winter Streamer Fishing

For years, I never considered fishing a streamer on the Farmington in the winter. Then, one January day, I saw a spin angler take trout after trout on a small jig-head soft plastic. I returned to the pool he was fishing the next afternoon with a full sink (7ips) integrated line and a tungsten cone-head streamer. Needless to say, I went home happy, and now there are days when I am committed solely to the streamer cause.

Deep, dark pools with water moving at a walking pace or slower are the first places I’ll start. Getting the streamer down, and a slow-to-moderate retrieve have produced the best results for me. I stay out of the faster runs, although I sometimes do find willing customers in the transition water at the heads of pools. In shallower runs, I like to let the streamer swing and dangle like a wet fly before I begin my retrieve.

Winter Nymphing/Wet Fly Fishing

Swinging a team of wets through the current seams of a boulder field is a sound spring, summer, and fall strategy. But as the winter cold slows trout metabolism, the dead drift in slower, deeper waters – and the seductive upward swing of the flies – becomes the higher percentage subsurface play. That’s why I like to fish a nymph and a wet on my two-fly indicator setup.

Two flies give the trout a choice: color, size, species, and life stages. Because what is hatching this time of year is typically small, I like at least one of the flies to be in the 18-20 range. Eggs and attractor nymphs certainly work, but I prefer to stick with more natural colors and patterns. Don’t be afraid to include larger (6-12) stonefly patterns in the mix. Because the soft-hackled fly straddles the line between nymph and emerger, I’ll rig that fly higher on the leader so it will always be closer to the surface than the nymph. Keep it simple. A soft-hackled Pheasant Tail or Hare’s Ear will serve you well.

I’m a big fan of indicator nymphing in the winter for two reasons. One, it lets me cover more water. Two, the takes of winter trout can be nearly imperceptible. Sometimes those micro-twitches, shudders, or stalls are the only sign of the take. Look for a reason to set the hook on every drift. As you complete the dead drift phase of your presentation, let the flies swing up. If an emergence is taking place, aggressive feeders will often chase and strike.

An exquisitely parr-marked wild Farmington brown that chased a nymph on the upward swing.

Culton_Winter_Brown1

Where to fish

The Farmington River Anglers Association (fraa.org) has updated its popular book A Guide to Fishing The Farmington River. The guide includes comprehensive river maps and pool descriptions. For daily reports, weather, and water flows, visit UpCountry Sportfishing at farmingtonriver.com.