It used to be that you’d show up at the Hous in the July with a fly rod and a Woolly Bugger and you couldn’t keep the smallmouth off your fly. You might try to keep count, but somewhere after the second dozen it all became a blur. If you were fishing early morning or late afternoon, with the sun tucked safely behind the hills, entire stretches of the river would light up. At dusk, the river was boiling.
Those days are over. At the very least, the Housatonic River smallmouth population has been dramatically reduced. At the worst, we have a crash.
The fishery has been in decline for several years now. Marks where I was catching dozens of bass five years ago began their slide around 2019, and now it’s to the point where I’m catching one…or two…or none. This isn’t a localized problem; I’ve been covering water from Falls Village, way above the TMA, down to Kent. Miles and miles of river. And the fish just ain’t there.
I’ve got some calls into the CT DEEP to discuss the situation, and I’ll let you know what I find out. In the meantime, save your fishing chips for other rivers.
Hello, all. My apologies for the lack of regular posts, but it’s summertime, and I’m working hard, playing hard. And so much to write about! Here’s what’s going on.
First, the fishing. I am in hard-core summer mode, which usually means long afternoons into nights. I know you won’t begrudge me the chance to get out and fish at the expense of writing here. I hope you’re getting out too. I’m also doing a bit of guiding. Then, there’s the yard and the garden. Speaking of which…
…we need rain! They’ve dropped the flow from the dam on the Farmington to 85cfs. The Still is currently a warm trickle. Ugh! The good news is that what’s coming out of the dam is plenty cold. I suppose we’ll have to rejoice in that.
I’m currently writing a piece for Surfcasters Journal on fishing the sand eel hatch with a floating line. It’s going to be loaded with tips on how to catch those stripers that not everyone can. Naturally, I’ll let you know when it comes out.
Last but not least, I am now officially a Scientific Anglers Pro. I’m a big fan of their Mastery Anadro line, and I’m waiting to give the Mastery Bass line a whirl. As always, I never hump products that I don’t use and love!
I had my doubts about yesterday’s Housatonic smallmouth trip. The water was still a little higher than I like it (410cfs in the TMA) and definitely cooler (upper 60s). Unfortunately, I was right. It hasn’t turned on yet.
I started off in the upper end of the TMA. That was dead as Julius Caesar. All I could manage were two pipsqueaks and a busted wading staff. (Argh!) Off to the bottom end of the TMA where I witnessed spin anglers in the FFO area (called the TIP line, 800-842-4357 in case you don’t already have it programmed into your phone) and managed just one fish, a rainbow trout. He was in and out of the net so fast he didn’t have time to feel stressed. Absent my trusty staff, I fell in and soaked an arm and experienced the dread down-the-leg trickle. Sure, there are worse times of the year to fall into the Hous, but it’s almost always an unpleasant sensation. With a crappy bite and volumes of anglers still around (damn this cool weather), I made the command decision to head south.
7pm arrival, and finally, sweet solitude! Besides smallmouth, I managed a decent bluegill and a rock bass to complete the slam. I took them topwater (Gurgler), film (Countermeasure), and deeper (Soft Daddy). Observations: every one of the fish I caught at this second mark — covering about 250 yards of water — came in frog water about 2-3 feet deep. Every fish I took on the Gurgler hit when the bug was sitting stock still. Rather than ramping up, the bit tailed off at dusk. Swarms of white/grey mottled caddis everywhere, but virtually nothing rising. July is coming…
This is where making such lists gets hard. Is #3 really better than #4? And what about #1? Is it clearly the summit? What if you have two really great moments? Such are the things that we detail-oriented writers obsess about. But I’m happy with my choices. I hope you’ll be, too.
#4 The High Water Smallmouth Slob Bonanza. You know, I waited all year for July to come so I could go smallmouth fishing. Heck, I couldn’t even wait that long. So I went in June. That outing produced far more trout than bronze, so I waited for a few weeks. And then the rains came. And came. And seemingly never left. The Hous would spike and fall and then spike higher and kindof fall and then it would rain some more and….yeesh! What a disaster. Finally, I made the command decision to go fish. Yes, the water was disgustingly high. Yes, it was the color of chocolate milk. Yes, it rained again while I was fishing. (No, really. A line of severe thunderstorms came through, and I had to find shelter for an hour. It poured buckets. And…what a shock. The water came up even higher and dirtier. You can’t make this stuff up.) The good news was that I now had a chance to work on my high/off-color water summer smallmouth game. That first night was an eye opener. I caught more, bigger fish than any outing in a couple of years. The rest of the smallmouth summer was an exercise in patience, timing, and mostly frustration, but I had money memories of that July evening already in the bank.
#3 You Oughta Be In Pictures. Director Mathew Vinick’s love song to the Farmington River, Summer On The Farmington, will premier January 12, 7pm, at Brewery Legitimus in New Hartford. I’m excited to have been a part of this film, and I’m really looking forward viewing the finished product. Hope to see you there!
#2 My First Snook on the Fly. There are two things I’ll get up at 4 o’clock in the morning for, and one of them is fishing. It’s a 90-minute drive from Miami to Flamingo, and you go through some of the most barren country in the U.S. But the Everglades are a beautiful, wondrous place, and you can catch snook there. Well, sometimes. No snook for me on my first trip a few years ago. But this year… yeah baby! What a great fish upon which to break the snook seal. (Kudos again to my guide, Capt. Mark Giacobba.) Now, I gotta go back and get a tarpon…
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.
I don’t usually double dip my Instagram (stevecultonflyfishing) and Currentseams posts, but I thought this one was worthy of a more in-depth discussion. It’s a video of a smallmouth blowing up on a dead-drifted Wiggly about 70 feet across the river:
Now that you’ve seen it, let’s get to what appears to be a problem. One sharp-eyed viewer made a trenchant comment: “Mend!” He noticed the long downstream belly in the line. It’s a fair point in the abstract, but it doesn’t address the situation or the presention in its entirety.
Let’s begin with conditions. We have very low, clear, slow moving water. That usually means spooky fish. Now, smallmouth are not known as picky eaters, but the longer you fish for them, the more you discover that they can be as difficult to entice as the world’s most finicky trout. I was fishing a Wiggly, which, if you’re a Wiggly purist, is supposed to be presented on a dead drift. Any angler-induced motion should include the legs only. That’s a daunting proposition, especially at 70 feet. It doesn’t mean that the fish won’t hit a waking or stripped Wiggly. It just means that you’re only going to get hits from aggressive, willing-to-chase bass. And sometimes, that eliminates the bigger fish.
Now let’s talk distance and tackle. 70 feet away is a challenging length to dead drift a dry fly. The 5-weight I’m using, although 10 feet long, isn’t enough stick to make a 70-foot mend with an 8-weight, weight forward long taper line. I could, of course, lengthen the leader if I was concerned about moving the fly on the mend. But that’s a moot point if you can’t make that mend in the first place.
So, how did I handle this situation? I began by determining where I wanted the fly to have the longest period of dead drift. I aimed my cast about 10 feet above that point. I made an aerial upstream mend, then a hard, full upstream mend with as much line as I could manage. The fly moved a bit, but that didn’t concern me — I was simply setting it up for where I thought the strike zone would be, well downstream. (I had seen this fish sipping bugs off the surface, and it appeared to be one of the larger bass in the pool.) As the fly dead-drifted downriver, I made another upstream mend with about two-thirds of the line — this was about as big a mend I could afford without disturbing the fly.
That sets up the large belly you see in the video. It’s not ideal, but it’s a necessary evil to obtain the drift I wanted. What you can’t see is me tracking the drift with my rod tip, then pointing my rod downstream, and extending my arm as far out as possible to make that drift last just a…few…more…feet. (I could also have stripped out line and fed it into the drift, but that tactic makes long distance hooksets even harder.) And that’s the rub: with that much line out, and that much slack from the downstream belly, it’s a challenge to get a good hookset. You have to rely on a sticky sharp hook and hope the fish does most of the work.
When it all comes together, as it did here, you understand that while catching isn’t necessarily the best part of fly fishing, it most certainly doesn’t suck. In the end, we are presented with one of the most important questions in fly fishing: “What do you want the fly to do?” If you answer that question, and figure out a way to make it happen, you’re going to catch a lot more fish.