Class 1 Quickie

I made my annual early spring pilgrimage to some old favorite Class 1 WTMA waters. Just a quick look-see with some obligatory line wetting. Water was medium height, 42 degrees, and clear. I swung and stripped an articulated white mini bugger, but had no takers, nor did I see or spook any wary wild things. On the plus side, the rest of the world was working and I was fishing. There were signs of a healthy invertebrate population, namely midges and early grey stones. In fact, I saw a couple couples of the stones doing their mating dance, and one depositing her eggs. No photos because I left the camera at home.

Please remember, no small stream fishing this time of year unless it’s a Class 1 (or in one of the allowed tidal zones). All thin blue lines re-open 6am the second Saturday in April (instead of the old third Saturday).

Hang in there, folks. Spring is here.

I could so go for some Hawaiian shorts and t-shirt weather right now. You know?

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Small Stream Mini Report 10/24/14

A fairly gloomy type of day with drizzle, heavy mist, and fog-covered mountaintops — also known as breathtakingly beautiful. The drive was long, the woods and water chilly, and the creek was up and slightly stained from the recent rains.

The brookies were hunkered down today. I could tell right away that the dry would be unproductive, but I gave the Improved Sofa Pillow and the Bomber a fair shake. After pricking several and landing a couple, I switched to subsurface. That made all the difference. Weighted micro buggers and bead head soft-hackles in both dark and light colors met with approval.

Mountaintop shrouded in mystery. What secrets would her brooks reveal?

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I wouldn’t say it was a banner day, but one thing’s for sure: three hours on a remote mountain stream beats the tar out of sitting at one’s desk. Especially if there’s a Rocky Patel The Edge Corona Gorda in the mix.

Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” vividly rendered on Salvelinus fontinalis flank.

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Fall colors

The woods were ablaze this late morning/early afternoon. A substantial leaf hatch, though, is a lot easier to deal with on a small stream. The char certainly had no problem picking out my size 16 Improved Sofa Pillow and size 16 Elk Hair Caddis.

Spooky fish today — most of them gave the fly a single whack, and that was it — no return business. Not surprising given the recent low water levels. A good number of them were hanging out in tailouts, making an upstream dry presentation challenging. Many more were locked into the whitewater plunges and deeper runs. I induced a few larger members of the tribe to strike, but most of what I raised was smaller, which I always like to see, recruitment being critical to the next few years’ outings.

Went subsurface on the way downstream, and as usual, stuck some brookies where none were forthcoming on the dry. Even after yesterday’s rains, the water was medium-low, cool, and clear. Creamy midges and size 18-20 tan caddis out today.

I am fortunate to be able to say, “I feel like going fishing today.” And then actually doing it. What a nifty little dark horse. He took the caddis in a seam just off a pocket plunge.

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The Downstream Wet Fly on High-Gradient Brooks

This piece first appeared in the May 2014 issue of Mid Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide. Many thanks to MAFFG for allowing me to share it on currentseams.

It all started with a bushy dry – an Elk Hair Caddis – that I was presenting upstream. I was fishing one of my favorite thin blue lines, a high-gradient brook nestled deep in the Appalachian foothills. “Brook” may be too generous a word; it’s more of a connected series of waterfalls than anything else.

For years, I had been fishing this exquisite gem with dry flies, always moving upstream, casting into the white water at the head of its plunges. While I’d had a few takers on this day, the brookies weren’t throwing themselves at the dry with their usual fervor. Of course, in unspoiled waters such as this, catching is secondary to simply being there. But on my return down the trail, curiosity got the better of me.

Surely, I reasoned, there were char in the pools where I blanked. Maybe they were just bashful about showing themselves on the surface. A quick rummage through my fly box produced a bead-head micro-bugger, about a size 14. The fly had barely settled beneath the surface when it was set upon by a band of shadowy marauders. Clearly, I was on to something.

The science behind the subsurface magic.

Small stream wild brook trout aren’t renowned for their selectivity. In streams where significant, regular hatches may be a luxury, highly opportunistic feeding habits are crucial for survival. But survival isn’t solely about eating. It’s also about limiting exposure to predators. Every time a brookie rises to the surface, it becomes a target for birds and mammals. Bigger fish are older fish, and older fish get that way by minimizing their chances of getting eaten.

Water level plays a significant role in how you decide to fish a brook. Many small streams are dependent on rainfall to supplement their flows. During extended periods of low water, wild fish settle into survival mode. They keep activity to a minimum, especially in daylight. You may not see them, but they’re there, hunkered down along the bottom, beneath deadfall, submerged ledges, and undercut banks. Good luck getting these ultra-cautious, spooky fish to rise to a dry. But, a submerged fly is an entirely different matter. Even the wariest trout finds it difficult to resist the temptation of a meal drifting past at eye level.

High or deep water also presents a unique set of challenges. Some of the plunge pools I fish are overhead deep, even during normal flows. Trying to coax a brook trout to move six feet to the surface to take a dry is not a high percentage play. Use a weighted soft-hackle to shift the odds in your favor. James Leisenring encouraged anglers to fish their fly “so that it becomes deadly at the point where the trout is most likely to take his food.” Translation: fish beneath the surface. Make it easier for the brookies to eat.

What’s more, brook trout are highly curious creatures. They are eager to investigate new arrivals to their world, especially if it poses no threat, looks alive, and seems like it might be something good to eat. Just as it happened that first time I fished a deep wet, I find that brookies will race each other to take the fly. Often, the competition doesn’t end until the last char has been hooked.

Presenting the downstream wet.

I like to position myself in front of the head of the pool I’m fishing; that often means I’m standing in the tailout of the pool above, along its banks, or on the rocks that create the waterfall (if there is one). Stealth is a matter of conditions and experience. Some pools have a deep holding run with a lane of whitewater or a riffly, mottled surface; in these, you can take a more cavalier approach. Others demand that you channel your inner commando, crouching, crawling, or hiding behind saplings and boulders to get into casting position.

In a plunge pool, I’ll begin by jigging my fly into the whitewater. Delivering the fly can hardly be called a cast; I’m simply dunking it and manipulating the rod tip with an up-and-down motion. If I don’t get a strike – and I’m always surprised when I don’t – I’ll strip out a few feet of line and repeat the process a little farther downstream.

Shallower runs invite you experiment with classic presentations such as the wet fly swing or the mended swing. With the former, you’re making a quartering cast down, then letting the fly swing across and up toward the surface. To slow the speed of the fly as it swings, simply add a few upstream mends.

Letting a soft-hackled wet fly hold in the current downstream – also known as the dangle – is almost never a bad idea on a small stream. As the hackles flutter in the current, they whisper to the brookies, “I’m alive.” By all means, add to the illusion of life with short, pulsing strips, or by drawing the fly toward you, then letting it fall back in the current.

Three proven small stream wets.

Starling and Herl
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Hook: 1x fine, size 10-18
Thread: Black
Body: Two strands peacock herl, twisted on a thread rope
Hackle: Iridescent starling body feather

In the warmer months, terrestrials are a major component of the small stream trout’s diet. The Starling and Herl is an old English pattern that makes a fine imitation of an ant, a beetle, or even a dark caddis or stonefly.

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ICU Sculpin
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Hook: TMC 5262 size 14
Bead: Chartreuse tungsten
Thread: Black 8/0
Tail: Black Krystal flash
Body: Black peacock Ice Dub
Hackle: Grizzly
Sculpins are a favorite snack of wild brook trout, but this pattern is more of an impressionistic attractor than an exact imitation. Whatever the brookies think it is, the high contrast of the ICU Sculpin’s chartreuse bead against its dark, sparkly body makes this fly easy to see, even in a pool several feet deep.
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White Mini-Bugger
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Hook: TMC 5262 10-12
Thread: White
Bead: Copper tungsten, seated with weighted wire
Tail: Short marabou wisps over pearl Krystal flash
Body: Small white chenille, ribbed with pearl flash, palmered with soft white hen

I’ve made several strategic changes to the classic Woolly Bugger template. The tail is shorter and sparser, which cuts down on nips away from the hook point. The hackle and collar is soft hen. And with a tungsten head and wire underbody, this fly sinks like a stone, causing it to rise and fall like a jig when you strip it.

Thanks TU Naugatuck/Pomperaug

Last night I presented “The Eastern Brook Trout — Connecticut’s Wild Native” to the TU Naugatuck/Pomperaug Chapter. It was my second time speaking before the group, and a splendid time was had (I think) by all. Great to re-meet and re-greet, many thanks for the all the questions and, of course, the pizza.

Wishing I was chasing him instead of being chained to my laptop.

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The White Mini-Bugger

This time of year I redouble my efforts to visit small streams. The canopy is in full, providing cover and shade for bashful trout. Water temperatures remain moderate (especially after a cool, rainy spring like this year’s). Food sources are plentiful.

I don’t always manage to get out as much as I’d like, but small stream dreaming has me thinking about one of my favorite flies for wild trout, the White Mini-Bugger. Oh, it’s a Woolly Bugger alright. But I’ve made several strategic changes to the classic template. For starters, it’s just smaller, the easier to be eaten by trout measured in inches. The tail is shorter and sparser, which cuts down on nips away from the hook point. The hackle and collar is soft hen, which flows and breathes. With a tungsten head and wire underbody, this fly sinks like a stone, causing it to rise and fall like a jig when you strip it. If the light is right, you can clearly see this fly even in a deep plunge pool. Try not to laugh when you watch the shadowy marauders surround and pummel the fly as you work it through the depths.

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White Mini-Bugger
Hook: TMC 5262 10-12
Thread: White 6/0
Bead: Copper tungsten, seated with weighted wire
Tail: Short marabou wisps over pearl Krystal flash
Body: Small fluorescent white chenille, ribbed with pearl flash, palmered with soft white hen
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Tying notes: Of course, you can tie the Mini Bugger in any color your heart desires. I tend to be boring, so I mostly stick to white and black/grizzly. Same deal with beads: I have a thang for copper. (Thinking of tying some of these up in black with a copper bead for Salmon River steelhead? You should. It works. And with a chartreuse bead. And orange. And…) The shorter, sparser tail has absolutely increased my hookup percentage. To form the tail, I use a single piece of Krystal Flash, and double it/cut it multiple times to get a 16-strand tail. The body hackle is Whiting hen neck, the same I use for standard-issue wet flies. Tie the feather in by the tip, and if you have enough hackle after winding the body, try to form a collar.
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The White Mini-Bugger Rogues’ Gallery:
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There’s cold in them thar hills

You get a day like today and it’s easy to think that finally, winter is over. But last week when Grady Allen — owner of UpCountry Sportfishing — and I ventured over the hills and far away, there were constant reminders that winter’s grip can be tenacious.

We fished River X in the Berkshires. I had never been before, and the first thing I noticed on the drive up was that there was still white stuff on the ground. The banks of the river were a patchwork of earth, snow, and ice. Frozen shelves still extended from the shore, and while clear, the water was high from runoff. Even more telling, its temperature was a bracing 34 degrees. In April. Not so good for the fishing. Grady took one lonely brookie on an ICU Sculpin, and your humble scribe wore the collar. Here are a few photos from our adventure.

“I’ll have a block of ice with my boulder, please.” Must have been some winter up here.

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Grady working an upstream seam. We only managed one cigar each this morning; we cut the trip short for lack of a bite. (I always like to fish with people I consider to be better anglers than me. That way, if we both blank, I don’t feel like such a loser.)

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Amidst the hoary streamscape, a green totem of spring.

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January thaw on a small stream

I broke one of my cardinal rules today: never go into the woods if you’ve recently watched Deliverance.  There were no mountain men bent on buggery — and sadly, precious few bugs. I was hoping a near 50-degree day and some sunshine would trigger a hatch, but all I saw was one lonely grey big midge/small stonefly thingy flitting over the water. Although the creek was up due to yesterday’s rains, the water had cleared nicely by the time I threw my first cast, around 1pm.

I did the upstream dry thing, then the downstream subsurface thing. No takers on the dry. I wasn’t surprised, given the height of the water and its temperature. (I forgot my thermometer, but I experienced the sting when I had to go up to my elbow to liberate a fly from the bottom.)

A satellite image of the Chesapeake Bay’s frozen tributaries. Well, it could be.

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More fun with photography. See if you can find the duck’s head and the hawk’s head.

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My only strike of the day came on a downstream presentation with a weighted wet/streamer. A fine brown hen, long and lean, a good size for a brook this small. She was hiding in a deep pool that courses between two boulders. One touch was all I needed, and releasing her was almost as gratifying as catching her.

Your first trout of the year should be a memorable one. What a staggering array of colors on her gill plate. Also note the blemish on her nose. I couldn’t tell if it was an old wound or just a cosmetic oddity. I had not caught her before today.

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The winning fly. I like to fish small hybrid wet/streamers with tungsten heads on small streams. It’s a simple fly, easy to tie, and it uses a mix of natural and synthetic materials: A copper tungsten head, some weighted wire on the hook shank, black Krystal Flash tail, black Ice Dub body, palmered then hackled with grizzly hen. This fly is unnamed. (For you detail-oriented folks, that’s not ice. It’s a big chunk of stream side quartz.)

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Out with a shiver

The last blast of 2013 was a late afternoon excursion to a small brook a few miles from my home. The temperature never got above freezing, and there were some snow flurries to embellish the wintery streamscape. Despite a generous pre-outing application of Stanley’s, ice in the guides and on the leader were a constant problem for the 90 minutes I fished. Shelf ice was everywhere, but it was easy to break through with a well-placed, forceful step of the boot.

The brook was running cold today. Black ice on some of the rocks gave them the illusion of being wet. It almost cost me a swim or two (three cheers for studded boots). This ice halo just looked pretty. I liked its contrast against the green moss.

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To the fishing. There was plenty of that. Catching, not so much. I decided to cast my lot in the subsurface direction, swinging and stripping a small streamer (or a very large wet, depending on your point of view) without finding a favorable response. The last ten minutes, I fished dry. No dice. On a positive note, I got to be blissfully alone in the woods and the snow with a Casa Magna Extraordinaire diadema.

I probably won’t go back to this brook until April. The fish will want to play then. I’ll be about ready, too.

I didn’t get a water temperature, but it must have been in the low 30s. We’re in for a cold snap, so these mushroom caps won’t go away any time soon.

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Somewhere out there. (Thataway.)

Middletown isn’t actually in the middle of Connecticut. It’s more like the mid-point between New York and Boston. Being centrally located has its benefits. I’m 45 minutes from Housatonic stripers. Just over an hour to Rhode Island. The Farmington River is as close as 35 minutes. But to get where I was going Thursday, I needed about two-and-a-half hours. One way.

In addition to drive time, the price of admission includes a hike that sends your heart rate soaring. (And, if you like to detour off the trail to get to those feeder streamlets that tumble down the sides of mountains as much as I do, some semi-treacherous bushwhacking.) It’s definitely not for everyone. But for the adventurous soul, rich rewards await in the form of magnificent solitude. Seductively clear water. And armies of obliging brookies.

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The day began grey with dense fog banks and light drizzle. My energy on the way into the woods was the typical I-can’t-wait-to-get-my-line wet rush. It usually takes a lot to distract me when I’m in hurry-up fishing mode. But I was captured by this splash of color against muted brown.  Sitting here at home now, I’m glad I stopped.

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We haven’t had much rain in the northeast during the last month. The brooks were way down compared to last fall. (And nice and cold at 50 degrees.) But even the feeders were teeming with char. Nature finds a way. Like this hemlock, growing hard against a rocky outcrop, roots searching for precious water, splayed out like the tentacles of a beached squid.

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I began fishing downstream, dry, with a size 16 Improved Sofa Pillow. When streams are this low and clear, the bite is often better if you go subsurface. It’s easy to figure why. The fish are feeling vulnerable in the lower flows. Whereas they’re bashful about showing themselves on top, they remain undisciplined gluttons below.  Once I made the change to weighted beadhead soft-hackles, I saw an exponential increase in strikes. The nips began the moment the fly settled beneath the surface. One of the flies I used — as yet unnamed — was a soft-hackle with a hot chartreuse bead head I tied up a few weeks ago. I could easily track the fly in the water, as well as the dark forms that would materialize out of nowhere to attack the intruder.

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“Unnamed”
Hook: 2x stout, 3x long, size 14
Thread: Black
Bead: Tungsten, chartreuse
Tail: Black Krystal flash
Body: Peacock Ice dub
Hackle: Grizzly hen

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Most of the brookies I pricked and brought to hand were in the 3-6″ class. But there were a few more substantial fish in the mix, like this handsome buck, ablaze in fall spawning colors. A proper Brobdingnagian, he’s been in the brook for quite a few years.

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Turned out nice again. It’s hard to manage the thought of the coming snow and shelf ice when the mercury’s pushing 65 and the sun is dancing off the tree tops.

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Can you stand to look at one more picture of a brook trout in blazing fall technicolor? If we must. I could wax poetic about the Fontinalis fin, the haloed spots, and the vibrant belly. But the camo pattern on the dorsal fin is inspired.

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Like fishing trips, all fishing reports regrettably must end. This is the fish from the photo above just at the moment of release. Till we meet again.

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