Best of 2019: a fun little fly fishing recap

With today’s guide trip cancelled, I turn my attention to reflecting upon the fishing year that was 2019. Here we go, in chronological order:

Fly Fishing Shows in Marlborough and Edison. The Marlborough Show was particularly memorable for the weekend ice storm that paralyzed the region. Let’s just say that — ahem — attendance was light on Sunday. Nonetheless, I had three(!) intrepid anglers at my presentation, “Lost Secrets of Legendary Anglers.” I spent the rest of the morning chortling that I had the day’s biggest crowd, which was accurate until Ed Engle beat me by two. “Lost Secrets of Legendary Anglers” will return in 2020 at 10am, Saturday January 20 in the DT Room C, along with other Seminars and classes. What makes these shows memorable — and appreciated — is the chance to see old friends, connect with peers, and meet you, my valued reader. Please come say hello at the shows in January!

Old friend Tim Flagler is one of the nicest people you’re going to meet at the Fly Fishing Show.

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Speaking of Speaking: every fly fishing/tying club gig I did. This may sound like a shameless attempt to curry favor, but I assure you it’s on the level. Teaching and talking about fly fishing is by far my favorite part of this job, and it would not be possible without your support and enthusiasm. So, thank you CFFA Expo, Cape Cod Flyrodders, Legends on the Farmington (I’m doing another class in February 2020 so stay tuned), Russell Library, Hammonasset TU, Thames Valley TU, Capital District Fly Fishers, Farmington Valley TU, and Nutmeg TU for your patronage.

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Housy and Farmington River features in Eastern Fly Fishing magazine. Wow. I actually get paid to write about two of my favorite rivers? What a country! And thanks to editor John Shewey for thinking of me.

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My new two-handed cannon. Once I figured out the right head configuration, I became a dangerous casting machine. Many thanks to old mate Mike Oliver for his wonderful design and exacting craftsmanship. I now sneer at the wind at the mouth of the Hous. And the west side of Block. So there.

In addition to being a fine rod builder, Mike also brews a delicious cuppa on the beach. Milk is included. Very civilized.

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Trophy Smallmouth on the Little Salmon River. We got kicked in the nuts by Mother Nature for spring steelhead, so a-smallmouthing we did go. They sure grow ’em big up north.

Gordo and Row Jimmy with a bronze slob. 

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Epic June wet fly bites. My goodness, how I love the Farmington River’s Light Cahill/Sulphur/Caddis/Iso bite window of late spring/early summer. Both clients and I enjoyed the thrill of double-digit days.

Figure 1 (of many). Greg’s rod might have permanent bend.

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A hot Housy White Fly bite. If you go enough, sooner of later you’re going to hit the summer blizzard just right. I think I missed it last year; this year on more than one occasion I was snow-blinded in August.  There’s a certain rush you get from drifting a size 10 White Wulff that you can no longer see, then feeling a sudden crushing blow that resonates down to your fingertips. Wow, wow, wow.

Be sure to keep your mouth shut. White flies do not taste good.

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Catching a Scottish trout on a traditional Scottish wet fly. The conditions were disgusting — driving rain and windy — but Cam and I soldiered on and were rewarded with several hefty trout to net. The highlight for me was catching one on a Kate McLaren I’d tied several years before, never dreaming that I would one day be fishing it bob-style on a loch.

Cam with his first fish and guide Graeme Ferguson (wonderful to make a new friend); a kiss for a fellow lover of Kate McLaren.

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Fun at the Striper Moon film premier. It was in many ways a Who’s Who of southern New England striper fly fishing. What a treat to watch Lori Shankar’s film with Ken in the audience.

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(Finally) establishing a presence on Instagram. If you’re not already following me, please do. I post content on stevecultonflyfishing that you won’t find here.

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Big Fall Housy Browns. After last fall and this year’s winter high water, the resident browns had ample opportunity to feed and grow with very little angling pressure. A lot of the Housy faithful I spoke to declared this the best fall fishing in years. Can’t argue with them!

Over 20″ of holdover butter.

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A silver lining to a poor Salmon River steelhead run cloud. I only need one steelhead to make me happy, so landing this big buck on a morning where the temperature never got out of the teens had me in a grinning mood.

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So, you’ve made it this far. Please tell us about your 2019 highlights.

 

Long time no post: steelhead recovery and “Wet Flies 101” next week

Forgive me, faithful readers, but I’ve been away fishing for steelhead. Maybe that should be “survival fishing for steelhead.” Very early rising (I’m used to getting home then, not waking up) and bitter cold took it out of me. So, I ask for your indulgence while I recover, and we’ll have a fun to read (I hope) report next week.

Speaking of next week, I’m going to be presenting Wet Flies 101, Tuesday, November 19, Nutmeg TU, 7pm, Port 5, Bridgeport, CT. If you’re interested in this highly effective and underutilized subsurface method, Wet Flies 101 provides an overview and gateway into this ancient and traditional art. Hope to see you there!  You can find the Nutmeg TU Facebook page here and their website here.

That’s my breath, not cigar smoke. 17 degrees on your Fahrenheit dial.

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Salmon River Report 11/19 &20: Steelheading isn’t fair

You’ve heard me tell that my mother used to say that life isn’t fair.

I hated hearing that, but over the years I’ve grudgingly accepted it. I know she had my best interests in mind. But if she really wanted to help me, she would have added, “And steelheading is even more unfair.”

Cam and I fished the Salmon River last week. We had cold, warm, ice, snow, and sunshine. We had 350cfs and 750cfs. We had fish on and fish off. And we had the cruel fickleness of the beast and the sport.

Day One. After a slow start, Cam gets into a slob of Lake Ontario’s finest. He went three for three. This is his first of the morning.

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It was Jim’s birthday, and since we were both taking a break we insisted that he fish and catch a celebratory steelhead. This guy’s good. Here’s proof.

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A different perspective on the grip-and-grin. We kept all the fish in the net in the water until it was time for a quick photo op.

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By now, you’re asking, “But Steve — where’s your fish?” Ahem. I pounded the same water as Cam all morning on day one and not. A. Touch. Steelheading isn’t fair, remember? On the way downriver, I fouled one first cast in a deep hole. Farther down, I went one-for-two in another deep pool while Cam blanked. Are we seeing a pattern here? This is Cam’s last fish of day one. I dropped my first fair-hooked fish to an incredibly bad set. The second was camera shy, but was about the size of this one and polished metal bright. One steelhead to boat makes it good day.

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Oh, the injustice of Day Two! This tank of a buck is the only fish we boated. Now, anyone who’s steelheaded for years can tell you that fish are often lost to operator error. They’ll also tell you that you can do everything right and still lose the fish. Friends, I’m here to testify (with Jim and Cam as my witnesses) that I had four indicators go under, and I was dead-balls-on every hookset. Fast, sweeping downstream, hard — sticky sharp hooks — and every fish came unbuttoned. Three right after set, and one that I managed to keep on for a couple runs. You can do what you can do, and beyond that it’s up to the steelhead gods. Repeat after me: Steelheading isn’t fair!

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Salmon River steelhead report: Cruel to be kind

I do my best to understand, dear, but you still mystify — and I don’t think I’ll ever know why.

Why does a cold front always seem to come through on the day I booked months ago?

Why won’t the steelhead take the fly — any fly — on this particular day?

Why do steelhead glom onto only small black stones or only fluorescent orange eggs or…?

Why do I subject myself to this?

These are the questions I ponder at night over a glass of single malt. Finding the answers isn’t necessarily the goal — or even a realistic outcome. It’s just part of the Kabuki known as steelhead madness.

Monday: I call it “Salmon River Sunshine.” It refers to the snow, rain, sleet, and the more esoteric forms of lake-effect precipitation. Today it was white pellets and snow. It started around 7am — we’d launched at 6 — and it went full throttle pretty much all morning. The stuff stuck to the boat, our gear, hoods, gloves —  no horizontal surface was spared. Now, I’ve had plenty of good days fishing in crap weather, but this wasn’t one of them. Not a single touch the entire day. We were surely fishing over steelhead, because Cam hooked five, landing three. Okay, so he was using egg sacks. But shouldn’t I have gotten at least a courtesy tap?

I tend to view these situations as a half full/half empty dichotomy: I’m fishing well, my drifts are good, I’m alert and ready to set the hook, and I know there are steelhead below. But as much as I will it to be so, they just won’t take the fly. That’s more than a little frustrating when you’ve driven hours so you can shiver in your boots for the skunk while standing in five inches of slush in the bottom of a boat.

Of course, the salve for this day was how well Cam fished. (He hooked and landed more steelhead than any other angler we saw or spoke to.) Being a proud papa can do wonders for your spirits, so I went all in on that. And I reminded myself that in any multi-day trip, the fighting is in rounds.

When I sent this photo to my wife, her comment was, “Even the fish looks cold.” That’s our guide, James Kirtland of Row Jimmy Guide Service.  I’ve become a much better steelhead angler because of him. Highly recommended.

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Tuesday: Having blanked on two of my four steelhead days this fall, I was ready to negotiate an agreement using my fly fishing soul as collateral. I’m talking, of course, about trout beads. Yes, they are proven steelhead catchers. No, they are not flies. But it’s my trip and I can do whatever the hell I want. Purists among you will be pleased to know that I blanked for the two hours I used them. (I have to confess that I wasn’t all that upset about it, either.)

I’d had some success the previous week on a pattern called a Breaking Skein Glitter Fly. It’s basically a Crystal Meth with a pearl Krystal Flash tail and some white Estaz ribbed between the fluorescent orange braid loops. Wasn’t I the happiest angler on the river when my indicator went under and the line thrummed with energy?

After 11 consecutive hours of skunk, that’ll put a smile on your face. I had to earn this one. It was a fresh, energetic fish, and after a couple line burning runs it decided that the boat was a cut bank and parked underneath it. Picture me leaning over the bow, rod tip in the water, trying to coax it out. Seconds became years, but we finally had our grip and grin.

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This year’s fishing was different for me in that all my steelhead came on bright, flashy patterns. I spent many hours presenting small black stones (Redheads, Copperheads, etc.) and any number of natural-toned soft-hackles to no avail. They wanted the bling. (I did hook and drop a fish on a 60-Second Copperhead). By the time ice in the rod tips was no longer a factor, Cam had boated three, and I’d taken my second on the Breaking Skein Glitter Fly.

It’s a very, very, very good sign.

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It was now early afternoon and time was a thief. I’d gotten a bump on a hot orange Salmon River Rajah fished under an indicator, so I rolled the dice, ditched the yarn, and embarked on a little swinging adventure. I gave it the better part of an hour, but in the end I went back to the Breaking Skein well. My last steelhead ate the fly with fierce conviction, but I whiffed on the set. We got a good look at it when it boiled, and we ruefully concurred that it was the biggest fish of the day. Oh, the cruelty! I kept pounding the slot the fish had been holding in, and ten minutes later the steelhead gods showed their kindness as the fish struck and I buried the hook in the corner of its mouth. Like my first fish, this buck cartwheeled down the pool, then made a beeline for the security of under the boat. At double digit pounds, this steelhead needed some firm pressure to get him to relinquish his position. In the end, the hoop of the net encircled him, and smiles decorated every face.

On Tuesday, November 21st, 2017, the steelhead loved this fly. On Monday, November 20th, 2017, they ignored it. Don’t ask me why.

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Cam was high hook both days and for the trip, with seven total steelhead, three of them in some nasty, difficult conditions. Dad was three-for-five. But as I tell Cam, if I can land just one steelhead, that’s a good day.

Lee Wulff was right. As was Nick Lowe. (In the right measure.) 

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Salmon River steelhead report: a little boating, a little hiking, and (finally) some catching

Tuesday: The Salmon can be tough on the fly at 1,650cfs. Then again, I’ve had some of my best days in four-digit flows. With all that water, the fish would have been on the move, then doing their best sardine impression once they reached their wintering destinations in the pools above Pineville. What’s more, a drift boat would give me access to places no fly rod could reach.

You can maintain a positive outlook, plan for the best — or if you’re superstitious, make burnt offerings to the steelhead gods. But in the end, they are in control. And today their answer was no. We saw five steelhead hooked all day from Altmar to Pineville. Four of them came in a 15 minute window, and three of them on plugs. My day’s excitement came when I fouled one below Ellis Cove. I don’t think that fish stopped until it reached Port Ontario.

I fished hard and I fished well, which is all any angler can do. But the best thing I can say about the day was that I got to sleep in. Getting up at 4am for the skunk would have been mortally depressing.

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Wednesday: A-creeking I did go. I was on the water by 7am, my optimism unswayed by two discouraged anglers heading to their truck. They had been there since first light without a touch. I blanked as well, and then for good measure hiked a quarter mile downstream to blank again. I drove to Creek B and never got close to the water. A guide was making his way across a field with two weary clients in tow. The walk of shame is highly distinguishable from the march of victory, and I knew what their answer was before I asked the question. In fact, the guide reported, there were pinners using egg sacks who blanked. With a sigh I headed back to the Salmon.

This was supposed to be a picture of a steelhead. But since there were no willing subjects, I had to settle for an early morning still life.

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I gave two runs in the middle river an hour. It was still morning, so I headed for the LFZ lot in Altmar. I had enough wanderlust left in me to make the ridiculous decision to walk to the UFZ. It’s a proper haul by itself, never mind in 5mm boot foots. I hadn’t fished the top end of the UFZ in years, and while it was pleasant enough getting reacquainted, it was far too much work for the consolation prize of a single YOY steelhead.

I made it back to the truck by 4pm. I’d always avoided the LFZ — crowds are generally not my thing — but with the specter of another lousy trip ominously stalking me, I headed in. And that simple choice made all the difference.

Starting the transition from chrome to dark horse.

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Thursday: There are two things I’ll get up early for, and steelhead is one of them. I was awake without the alarm at 4:44am, first vehicle in the lot, and on the water before false dawn. I met up with UpCountry Sportfishing’s Torrey Collins and some of his friends, and everyone got into steelhead. Great bunch of guys to fish with. The sharing energy extended beyond hookups, from rotating the line to netting fish to passing out victory cigars.

My last fish of the day was a memorable one. I was telling Torrey about the fly I was using, the Salmon River Rajah, when I got snagged on the bottom. (I’d found the inspiration for it, The Rajah, in a book called Fly Patterns of Alaska. I didn’t like a lot of the materials the pattern called for, so I switched them out for ones that I thought moved and breathed and gave the fly an entirely different energy.) Two roll casts failed to free the fly, so I waded upstream and pulled until it came loose. As I was stripping the fly in to check the hook point, whack! Steelhead on. And soon, landed.

Grinning like a ‘possum eating a sweet potato. I caught my first steelhead in 2009, and while I don’t generally count fish, steelhead are different. I’ve been keeping track over the years, feast or famine, and this is the 75th steelhead I’ve landed.

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Steelhead can’t think, but if they could, that buck might have decided, “I want that!” Change bucktail to soft hackle fibers, tinsel to holographic braid, chenille to Estaz, and polar bear to Arctic fox, and you’ve got a Salmon River Rajah. More than once I’ve seen a steelhead go out of its way to eat this fly.

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I went to Pulaski and all I got was this lousy snow storm

The trip started poorly. Whiteout conditions in the Berkshires followed by heavy lake-effect snow near Syracuse turned a five hour drive into six and a half. They had been forecasting 3-8″ of snow showers and 20 mph winds — not exactly the model of fishing-friendly weather — but we had reservations and deposits and the will to see things through. By the time we (this was my annual late November trip with #2 son) woke up Monday morning, we realized this was going to be far worse than your standard-issue Salmon River Sunshine. Winds of 20-30mph with gusts up to 50. Snow that covered the rear bumper of the Jeep (the Syracuse area received up to 30″). No shovel or plow in our near future. We  stomped on the snow to flatten it, and we made it to the Byrne Dairy OK, but when our guide’s truck and trailer had to be towed out of a drift, the bummer decision was made: no fishing today.

And that’s how Cam and I spent most of last Monday afternoon watching the Science Channel in the Pulaski Super 8.

You often hear exaggerated  claims of precipitation falling sideways. But we can attest that it does really happen. This was one badass storm.

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We made a brilliant plan to fish the creeks on Tuesday. So brilliant that I was already counting our fish on the drive north. Water levels had been up for two days, and those two days were dark and perfect for legions of steelhead to have safely made their way upstream. I’ll cut to the chase and tell you we blanked. We fished long, hard, and thoroughly at multiple fishy spots, but as far as any of us could tell, the closest steelhead were still somewhere in Lake Ontario. The only angler we could find who had any fish to hand was AJ Berry, who took several domestic rainbows on egg sacks. (I mention AJ’s name because he was incredibly generous in sharing water with us.)

I realize that steelheading is not fair. But I would be lying to you if I said this trip didn’t sting more than a little.

The salve for that sting is that we went winter steelheading. We had an adventure. There is honor in attempting something difficult — and whether we succeeded or failed is really a matter of your point-of-view.

The day after the big one. If it looks nippy, it was. Iced guides were a constant hassle, and residual winds made casting an adventure. Highest marks to Cam, who didn’t complain once during two days of truly challenging circumstances. Asked to sum up the trip, Cam said: “It was cold. It snowed. We tried to fish. The fish didn’t help.”

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Shakespearean Steelhead in the Fall 2015 Issue of The Drake

A little angst and black humor, something any steelheader can relate to. It’s called “Steelheading: A Tragedy in Several Acts,” and you can read it in the current issue of The Drake. It makes the supposition that Shakespeare may not have really been writing about Danish princes, Roman emperors, and star-crossed Italian lovers….

Did Shakespeare chase chrome? Let’s find out.

Drake Cover Fall 2015