Farmington River Report 10/20/22: My favorite fall color is…wild brown

I guided Jon yesterday from late morning to mid-afternoon. We had abundant sunshine, the air was crisp and chilly, and we had a bit of a breeze to contend with. But by far the most challenging part was the sheer volume of leaves in the water. It was never-ending. Still, the trout have to eat. The trick is to keep at it, and I like to use flies that offer some contrast to all the yellow and orange and red in the water. We fished four marks in the lower river, which was running about 225cfs, a very respectable height, and far better than the double-digit CFSs we’ve had to suffer though in the Permanent TMA.

So: Jon is a beginning fly angler. We spent the session drop-shot nymphing under an indicator. Jon did a great job sticking with it despite all the infernal flora. And what do you know? The indicator dipped, the hook was set, the battle won, and…Jon’s first Farmington River trout was wild brown! Way to go, Jon!

Sparse spotting, lovely halos, perfect rays on the fins, no edge damage to the fins, intact adipose — and a stubborn unwillingness to come to net — all hallmarks of a stream-born wild brown. It was especially gratifying to find this fish in an area of the river that got torched this summer. Nature finds a way (again). A tremendous first Farmington River trout for Jon.

“Surfcasting Around The Block II” is here!

Surfcasting Around The Block II — Forty Years of Striped Bass Surfcasting Stories, Articles and Legends from the Islands of Block and Aquidneck is on the shelves! Dennis Zambrotta’s much-anticipated follow-up to his out-of-print classic Surfcasting Around The Block is actually a group effort with multiple contributing authors — many of them Block Island surfcasting legends. Although the focus is on fishing the island with spinning gear, the astute fly caster will be able to glean a treasure trove of information on fishing the island.

Sitting in my favorite reading chair, looking for intel from Campo, McKenna, Abate, Winters, and that Zambrotta guy…

And yes, there are two chapters devoted to fly fishing Block Island authored by yours truly. The first part is a story about a particularly memorable Block Island All-Nighter. The second covers gearing up for fly fishing on Block Island. Where can you get Surfcasting Around The Block II (ISBN979-8-218-07120-2)? The Saltwater Edge. The Island Bound Bookstore. And The Surfcaster. Happy reading!

What a football of a Block Island bass! This is a really good story. I think you’re going to like it.

“Meditations on the Sand Eel and a Floating Line” in issue #75 of Surfcaster’s Journal — plus a short striper report

I’m delighted to have piece in the diamond issue of Surfcaster’s Journal. Meditations on the Sand Eel and a Floating Line is exactly what it sounds like: my thoughts on fishing this important bait using traditional patterns and salmonid tactics — and catching more striped bass. Most anglers I see targeting stripers feeding on sand eels use intermediate lines and weighted flies. They’re missing out, and typically only catching the stripers that are willing to chase. Some of the answers to the mysteries of “How come I can’t catch those bass?” when they’re feeding on sand eels are unveiled within.

Surfcaster’s Journal is an online e-zine. If you’re not reading it, you should be. Although the focus is primarily on using spinning gear, there is some in-depth fly casting content (like this piece) — and there is plenty of invaluable information that may be gleaned from the traditional surfcasting articles. It’s only 20 bucks for a year. You can subscribe here.

I remember this night like it was just a few months ago: Block Island, July, and a school of 15-20 pound bass were in close harassing sand eels for several hours. The stripers were very willing to jump on. But what about those frustrating nights when you can’t buy a hit? Read Meditations on the Sand Eel and a Floating Line and become a closer.

Mini-striper report 10/16/22: I fished for several hours last night with surfcaster extraordinaire Toby Lapinski. He was plugging and I was on the 2H fly rod. Conditions appeared to be perfect, but the neither the bass not the bait got the memo. Toby managed two school bass and yours truly took the skunk. Toby had a trenchant analysis of the evening, which, as you have not yet heard it, I will now precede to relate: “Bleaaahhhh.” That’s a direct quote.

Small stream anglers, take care: the spawn has begun

The spawn is taking place on some northeastern wild brook trout streams. I recently fished a brook on consecutive Thursdays, and the changes over the course of a week were dramatic. Seven days ago, there were only a few leaves in the water and no visible signs of spawning activity. A week later, the brook was congested with foliage and several redds were apparent. I spotted a large hen on one, and a few active fish on another.

In case you don’t know, a redd is a spawning bed. The fish select an area with enough water and current and the right size gravel, then clear the area of debris and other sediment before depositing eggs and spreading milt. (This is why spawning and post-spawn fish often present with scraped bellies and frayed fins.) Redds are fairly easy to spot; they look like light colored patches contrasting against much darker substrate. On a small stream, redds may be anywhere from a couple of square feet in area to significantly larger. A distinct light colored patch with fish darting about on the bottom nearby is a sure sign that you’ve discovered a redd.

Every small stream angler should know how to identify a redd, or spawning bed. Here’s a classic, can’t-miss-it redd: A dramatically lighter patch of gravelly stream bottom surrounded by darker substrate. There were a few fish milling about, but they scattered when I stood up to take this photo.

Maintaining the integrity of redds and protecting spawning fish is vital to the future of any wild trout stream. The stocking truck is not coming to replenish what humans destroy! Here’s what to do if you see a redd: First, leave it and the fish that are near it alone. Don’t try to catch spawning fish. Let nature take its course. Next, make a mental note of the location. Chances are that the fish have been using the general area to spawn for dozens or hundreds or thousands of generations. Finally, stay out of the water near the redd for the remainder of the fall, winter, and early spring. If you crush the eggs or the developing fry, that would be bad.

Besides, it’s pretty cool to simply sit on a rock and watch the beginnings of the next generation of Salvelinus fontinalis.

One month away! International Fly Tying Symposium tying class and seminars

Steve Culton will be making his first appearance at the 2022 International Fly Tying Symposium, November 12-13 in Somerset, NJ. (I know, sounds like a press release, but this kind of is.) In case you haven’t visited, and are looking for more information, the Symposium site is live. There was a glitch yesterday in the class registration link; that has been fixed. So, if you want to attend my class, Tying Soft Hackles, Winged and Wingless Wets, Saturday Nov 12 from 1pm-3:30pm, you can register here.

I’m currently working on two new seminars that will debut at the Symposium. The first, on Saturday at 10:30, is Tying and Fishing Wet Flies. This will cover some basic wet fly construction, theory, and how to present and fish wet flies — and you’ll also get to see some of my favorite patterns. On Sunday at 11am, it’s Beyond Cast and Strip: Presentation Flies for Stripers. I’ll be covering fly design, use of natural materials, sparseness in design, and — drum roll — presentations other than cast and strip. If you want to attend either or both, you just show up, and I’m hoping for a good turnout from currentseams followers. And of course, I’ll be at a tying table when I’m not teaching and presenting.

If you’re just casting and stripping, a spinning rod is a much better tool for that job. Find out why I tie striper flies the way I do, the secret ingredient in all my patterns, and how to present them — at this year’s International Fly Tying Symposium.

Small Stream Report 10/6/22: Nature finds a way (and then some!)

I hit a hidden gem last week that takes about 2 1/2 hours to get to. That may seem like a lot of effort — you’ll get no argument from me — but it’s usually worth it. And on this day, it was.

Over the years, this brook has seen its ups and downs. I’ve been moderately disappointed by it my last few outings, especially by the size and number of the fish. But you get what you get, and the fact that it still has native char, like it has for thousands of years, is a true blessing. So: I won the weather lottery. A warm, sunny, gorgeous, Indian summer day. After the rains, the water level was spot-on perfect, running cold and clear. In terms of numbers, the fishing was off the charts. I landed dozens (despite my best attempts not to, in order to reduce stress) and pricked dozens more. No beasties in the mix — you like to get a couple in the 9″+ class — but I did dredge up a few 7-8-inchers in the deeper pools. The brookies were everywhere. I started with a dry/dropper, which was moderately successful, but when I switched to subsurface (a tungsten bead head nymph/worm thingy) I couldn’t keep the char off the fly. What a wonderful day to be out in the woods.

This was typical of the size of fish I was landing. I also had dozens of smaller char attack the fly, the vast majority of which did not result in a hookup. I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll repeat: please try to limit the number of fish you photograph. The less time they spend out of the water, the better their chances for survival. It goes without saying that you’re wetting your hands and using barbless hooks, right? What precious gems, our beloved Fontinalis.
Life is mighty good when you’re taking a shot like this one. Another word of caution: we’re getting close to the spawn, so be on the lookout for redds. They’re fairly easy to spot, usually a lighter patch of gravel beside darker surroundings. If you notice a redd, make it your policy to stay out of the water, period. And of course, be a good sport and leave any fish on or near a redd alone to do their thing. Remember, the stocking truck isn’t coming back to replace what gets wiped out. Thank you for your consideration. 🙂

Small Stream Report: Nature finds a way, Part MMXXII

This is a very late report from last week. After a hot, dry, droughty summer like the one we experienced in 2022, I like to head to a few small streams to get a handle on how the natives fared. This trip was last Friday, well before this week’s much-needed soaking. As I suspected, the water level on this brook was on the low side of low. Much of it was unfishable. But there was plenty of good news.

The water temperature was bracing and cold, certainly colder than it ever was this summer, but this brook has many places for the char to go to escape the summer heat, even in low water. I saw dozens and dozens of fish, many of which looked to be young of year. I also found a few pods of bigger brook trout — nothing really huge, but in the 7-8″+ class. On an outing like this, I do get to do some fishing, but a lot of it is more inspection-oriented, with the intent of spooking fish. Often, with the water so low, the natives want nothing to do with the sight of you or your rod waving around. I got no interest of the dry fly, and pricked two with a weighted jig-type fly.

Then, yesterday after the rains, I visited a different stream. What a bounty! But you’ll have to wait a couple days for that report…

At a normal level, the flow should be covering the rocks you see center photo. This pool is usually good for a couple of hungry swipes; on this day it was a barren brookie wastleland. A reminder as we get near spawning time: be on the lookout for redds. Consider not wading into brooks at all. Redds are pretty easy to spot; usually a lighter area a foot or two in diameter against a darker gravel bed.

Striper Report: All good things to those who wait, or: The Sure Thing

On page 77 of my copy of A Perfect Fish, scribbled in the margin just to the right of the recipe for the R.L.S. Sure Thing, is a single word. Fall. Then, below that, in smaller letters, 8-9″, night time when there’s a little moonlight KA 3/12/10. These are the notes I took from a phone conversation I was having Ken Abrames on that date. If you went through my copy of the book, you’d find notations like this one sprinkled throughout. Such are the benefits of befriending the author.

The funny thing about the Sure Thing is that up until last week, the only thing that was certain about that pattern was that I would blank when I fished it. To be fair, I didn’t fish it a lot. But over the years it got enough time in my rotation to cause a chuckle whenever I thought of the name. Pshaw! Sure thing, indeed.

Nonetheless, I tied one up last Thursday because I was going out in the fall with a little moonlight, just after dusk. I made it 9″ long like the man said. And I remember thinking, as I lashed feather to hook “If not tonight, when?” Besides, Toby (Lapinski, surfcaster extraordinaire) had done well his previous outing at this mark with a yellow needlefish. The Sure Thing is a three-feather flatwing with at least one yellow saddle and plenty of yellow bucktail. It would be a very reasonable facsimile of Toby’s plug.

My newly minted R.L.S. Sure Thing, as yet unshaped, but ready to hunt. I’ll try to remember to feature this pattern and recipe in a future post.

We settled in and began to cast, me with my two-hander and floating line and Sure Thing, Toby with his surf rod and bag of plugs. Right away Toby was into stripers. Nothing too big by his standards, but enough to whet our big bass appetites. Even though it was early in the incoming, the current was already beginning to pick up speed as it rushed across the rocky bottom. This was my second time here, and I knew what I had to do: make a cast, immediately throw a large upcurrent mend, gather in the slack, and let the fly greased line swing over the bar.

Big fish don’t miss, and this one drilled the Sure Thing with precision accuracy. The beauty of the greased line swing manifests with such takes; you feel the heaviness of the fish, see the surface erupt in a chaotic whitewater geyser, and hear the distinct sound made by a large object as it thrashes on the surface. My cast had only been about 70 feet, and I quickly came tight to the striper.

I set the hook. Then again, and once more. Normally, I’d put a bass this size on the reel, but I’d already begun stripping her in. It wasn’t until she was about 25 feet out that I questioned my decision. I let her take a little line from hands, and used the rod tip to deflect the more frantic short bursts. She was close now.

Always fight a big fish from the bottom third of the rod. Note that the rod angle is below 45 degrees. I was confident in my hook set, and the fact that I had a sticky sharp 3/0 hook and a 30-pound mono leader. It’s only when I feel the fish is running out of fight that I raise the rod tip to lift its head and lip it. The raised rod tip also cushions any sudden late bursts by the fish, which are sometimes difficult to manage when you’re hand stripping a larger bass. Photo by Toby Lapinski

Twice I thought I was in a good position to lip her. Twice she refused. And then it was over. The camera was readied, rod tucked under arm, fish supported — she never left the water — and then the most satisfying part. Release. Watching her melt into the dark waters of Long Island Sound, knowing you may catch her again some day. Perhaps it’s the fist bump from the friend who was there to share it with you that is the most satisfying. Or, maybe the victory cigar.

Whatever. It doesn’t have to be a sure thing.

38″, 20-pound class, R.L.S. Sure Thing. This has been my best year since 2018 for bigger bass. Photo by Toby Lapinski

Striper Lesson & Report 9/26/22: Love that dirty water. (Or not.)

Bert took a striper lesson with me on Monday. We banged around two different tidal marks near Long Island Sound. The wind made for a few casting and mending challenges, and the water was heavily stained. Bert learned about non-stripping presentations where the angler brings the fly to the fish. The greased line swing, the dangle, strategic mends — these are all now part of Bert’s striper fly fishing vocabulary. We even had a tug in the midst of this mid-day maelstrom. We also covered fly selection, dropper rig construction and presentation, and baitfish ID. If you want to catch those hard-to-catch, unwilling-to-chase, and (most of all) bigger striped bass on a regular basis, you need to learn presentation. Great job, Bert!

Despite the low visibility, we saw several bait balls of juvenile Atlantic Menhaden. Nice loops!

Then, Monday night, I ventured to the Ocean State. It never occurred to me that the entire southern New England coastal waters might be stirred up by the blow. Yep, the estuary I fished was the same sandy mess and weed farm. Bait was everywhere — mullet, peanuts, silversides — but the only thing that was on them were a few bass in the 12″-16″ range. In a little over two hours I managed a couple hits from these smaller guys, but no hookups. I stayed out way later than I should have, and I didn’t hit the pillow until after 3am. Maybe next time.

Thank you Basil Woods Chapter of Trout Unlimited (and the Question of the Day)

A late but hearty and heartfelt thank you to the Basil Woods TU chapter from central New Hampshire for hosting me via Zoom last Thursday! I presented my original “The Little Things” to a very enthusiastic group. More and more fly fishing clubs and TU chapters are taking advantage of technologies like Zoom to hire guest speakers like me. If you’re outside reasonable driving distance, you can do the same. For more information on programs, visit my Presentation Menu page here.

Here’s a brief Q&A segment from post-show. Q: Do you arrive at the river rigged for streamers or do you start with emergers? A: It depends. Sometimes I make up my mind well in advance that I’m going to fish a specific method, consequences be damned. For example, there are days in the winter when I’ve decided that I’m going to fish streamers solely because I’m willing to risk catching one large trout — I hope — rather than a bunch of smaller ones. Or maybe I just don’t feel like nymphing. There are times in the spring and summer when I’ll plan to swing wets, and then, as the hatch moves out of the emerger stage, switch to dries. Other times I’ll get on a nymphing kick, and that’s how I’m going to fish — simply because that’s what I feel like doing. So, fish the method that pleases you most. And know that if you want to catch more fish, you’ll need to be fluid in your choice of methods as conditions and time of day/year dictate.

Happy angler syndrome occurs when you a) Fish the way you like; b) Fish the method that is most productive for the conditions; or c) ideally, both.