Farmington River Report 9/30/21: Nature finds a way

Yesterday was supposed to be a shooting day for a film and some personal projects, but the wind was most uncooperative, so we bailed. Already on the river and two hours to kill…what’s an angler to do? If you said, “fish,” you are correct! I decided that absent any consistent rises, and with the gusty wind, indicator nymphing would be my best bet for hooking up. I fished three marks and found players in two of them. I was asleep at the switch for one of the hits, and dropped the fish as I fumbled and bumbled the late hook set. But I did connect with evidence that even in harsh, trout-stressy warm water, nature finds a way. Believe it or not, this was my first outing on the Farmington since June.

This YOY wild brown fought like a tiger and almost refused to sit still for a portrait. Taken on a size 18 soft-hackled pheasant tail. It’s always gratifying to discover that even seemingly fragile creatures have the genetic programming to make it through the most challenging conditions. See you in a few years, OK?

The 2021 Smallmouth Season that Wasn’t. Or Was It?

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.

Not only can you catch fish in high, heavily stained water, you can catch some big fish in high, heavily stained water. This slob could be measured in pounds. It was one of three fish in the 16″ or bigger class that I landed, on — get this — surface bugs in a 2,300cfs flow. As it turns out, it was my biggest Housy bass of the summer. All fish were taken in water about three feet deep about a rod’s length from shore. I highly recommend that you don’t wade in water that you’re unfamiliar with if you can’t see the bottom. And don’t forget the wading staff! My apologies for the substandard photo. But it’s a nice smallie.
I’d rather fish in very high or very low water than in medium-high to high flows. In the latter, there is no consistency to where the fish are from day to day, as they have enough water to virtually go anywhere. So one evening, I’d bang up a dozen quality fish in a pool. And the next, in the same mark, I’d blank or only get one or two. It’s also frustrating to have the river at a level where you just can’t wade into certain very fishy areas due to depth and current speed. I still managed to go exploring, and I fished two brand new marks with varying degrees of success. Pro tip: whether you’re fishing in high or low flows, structure is your friend, as are current breaks between faster water and slower water. Here’s the proof.
In high water, hatches go on. Not only did this’s years White Fly hatch happen, it was one of the stronger showings I’ve witnessed, and it went well into August. Sadly, the surface action was virtually nil, although I did manage a few bass on dry flies over the course of the summer. Wet fly action was a little better, but if you know there’s likely to be a strong hatch, fishing well under it — AKA nymphing — will put a very big smile on your face. I didn’t see that many black caddis this summer, but there were a bazillion sedgy-white caddis, size 18, most afternoons and evenings. The bass liked them a lot.
Some things didn’t change. There continued to be a shutdown moment right as dusk transitioned to darkness. And the Countermeasure continued to produce quality fish at that moment. I had several foot-plus bass on that fly as my last bass of the outing. Here’s to better conditions in 2022!

Farmington River Report 8/1/21: Let’s be careful with those water temps

In a normal summer, August water temps are not an issue on a tailwater like the Farmington. When you get into an extended heat/drought matrix, it’s easy to see how water temperatures can get dangerously high for trout. Less obvious is our current situation. As a result of blowing so much water out of the reservoir — July was the third wettest month on record — the lake is now less temperature stratified. What’s coming out of the bottom isn’t in the upper 50s, but rather in the mid-60s. The issue becomes one of day and night-time air temperatures, and sunshine. Lower and lesser is better. The one current saving grace is that there is still a lot of water moving through the system, and more water means it’s harder to heat up. (Yesterday was 540cfs in the Permanent TMA, and 610cfs in Unionville.)

So, please try to use common sense. Check water temps before fishing, and pick and choose your locations (closer to the dam is better) and times (morning is best, cloudy days, and after the sun goes behind the hills also works) — not to mention your tippet and landing strategies. With that in mind, I was curious about both water temperatures and trout vitality. I fished a mark below the Permanent TMA for an hour yesterday, late afternoon. The water temp was below 70. It was a fast-moving, riffly/pocket water section that was sure to be highly oxygenated. I was fishing a team of three wets with Maxima Ultragreen 4#, which is strong enough to quickly land any Farmington River trout. Finally, I resolved to strip in anything I hooked fast. I stuck four fish and landed two. The two I landed were brought to net in under 15 seconds. They both looked and behaved like very healthy fish, with no signs of stress.

This was a surprise. Given the conditions, I debated the merits of taking a photo, but I can tell you this with certainty: the char was landed in 10 seconds, kept within the net in moving, oxygenated water, then removed for 3 seconds for the photo. All we can do is our best.

To bead head on point or not? A simple rule-of-thumb for a three-fly wet fly team

The more you fish wet flies, the more you’re going to encounter situations where you want your team of three to behave in a very specific way. This can happen from day to day, location to location, and even from moment to moment within a single run. As always, ask yourself the question “What do I want the fly to do?” Let the answer be your guide.

If you want to sink your rig, then a bead head on point is good choice. Of course, the size of the bead, the material (brass or tungsten), the speed of the current, your leader length, and your mending skills will all factor into how much depth you can achieve. I’ll use red thread at the head to help me identify the tungsten beads in my fly box should I choose to go heavy. I like to keep the heaviest fly on point; I find it easier to cast, and as the heaviest member of the team it will want to pull the entire rig down.

Say you’re fishing a bead head pattern on point, and you notice an active riser above your position. The fish is taking emergers just below the surface. In this case, a sinking rig may not be to your advantage — you want to make it easier for the buyer to buy.

To keep the team of three near the surface, I’ll switch out a bead head point fly for a soft hackle. If I’m making an upstream presentation to a fish that’s feeding just below the surface, I want the flies on my team likewise just below the surface. Of course, match the hatch if you can. We did this yesterday with a trout that was feeding on caddis in some slower, shallower water. Off came the bead head point fly, on went the unweighted caddis, and a few well-placed casts later, bingo! Fish on.

Last night’s Zoom, next week’s Zoom, and the inaugural Fly-Tying Zoom (Sat. Jan 16)

Thanks to everyone who joined me for last night’s Currentseams Tuesday Night Zoom. We had nearly 60 people, which doesn’t suck, and a splendid time was had by all. I’m sorry about the muting issues — I will have it figured out for next time. Speaking of next time, we’ll do it again next Tuesday, January 12. I’ll be talking about winter fly fishing, and winter fly tying — so be there or be square! I’ll post a reminder early next week.

As John Cleese would say, “And now for something completely different.” I’m going to do my first winter fly tying pay-per-Zoom event on Saturday, January 16 at 1pm. This will be about 90 minutes of fly tying/tie-along instruction. The cost is $10. To “register,” you send 10 bucks to me at PayPal (ID is swculton@yahoo.com) and I’ll send you the link to the meeting. Our first session will be Tying the Soft-Hackled Fly. This will cover some basic, useful patterns, and will include the North Country Spider template. It would be ideal if everyone had every kind of hackle, but I know that’s not possible, nor is it necessary. But you should have some basics, like different color threads, different hooks, tools, etc. You should have a partridge skin or at least partridge feathers. Starling would be good to have. If you have any kind of hen cape soft hackle, have that handy. The point is, if you don’t have a specific kind of hackle, you can find it later. This is all about tying basics and templates. Oh! I’d like to show you the Squirrel and Ginger, so please find ginger Angora goat, green Krystal flash, Squirrel fur, and high-tack wax. If you don’t have the goat, you can use another kind of dubbing. Wire can be substituted for Krystal Flash. Questions? You know where to find me.

By popular demand, fly tying classes by Zoom! The first will be two Saturdays from now, January 16th, 1pm, and the subject will be Tying The Soft-Hackled Fly. See above for materials list.

Farmington River Mini Report 11/17/20: A hard day’s nymphing

To be fair, it was only a few hours — I fished from noon to 3pm — but the going was glacially slow. I hit four favorite nymphing marks below (450cfs) and within the TMA (390cfs), and I found a trout willing to jump on in only one of them. I used a combination of tight line and indicator nymphing methods, and I even switched out my point fly and dropper — none of it seemed to make any difference. The angler traffic continues, with nine other folks sharing the water with me during my travels. Mine was the only fish I saw hooked all day, which is not to brag, but rather to illustrate how slow the fishing was. I stopped at UpCountry on the way home to do some shopping, and Torrey Collins said that nymphing has been slow for him lately, too. So it goes.

The day wasn’t a total loss. I scored this beautiful, webby dark dun hen cape at UpCountry. Just what I need for my next batch of Dark Hendrickson winged wets.

Tying wets (what else!) on a wet Friday

Much to do today, and in between projects and responsibilities I’m trying to make a dent in my 800 Followers contest winner swag. Here’s a Hackled March Brown in progress.

As you can see, my tying bench trends toward messy. There’s something mad scientist/struggling artist that I like about materials and tools scattered everywhere…

Some wet fly notes and lessons from recent outings

If you want to catch more fish, pay attention to the little things. You’ve heard that from me before — heck, I’ve got three presentations and written several articles on the subject — but it bears repeating. Here are a few lessons I hammered home to both clients and myself (we all have to pay attention to the little things) on some recent wet fly outings.

On the swing and especially the dangle, don’t set the hook. Let the fish set itself. When you feel the strike, ask yourself, “Are you still there?” The answer will always be yes, if you allow the fish to turn away and drive the hook point home.

Look for consistent, active feeders on emergers. You’ll know the bug/feeding stage from the rise form (slashy, splashy, showy) and that there are no duns visible on top of the water. Those are the fish that will rush to eat your wet flies. Just left of center in this photo is what I’m talking about.

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Match the hatch! If you see size 16 creamy/sulphury mayflies coming off, and you don’t have anything like that on your leader, get some on. Now.

Give the fish a choice. Droppers are always the fastest way to find out what the fish want. Different sizes, colors, species, life stages. The fish will always tell you when you get it right.

The Hackled March Brown continues to be a consistent summer big fish producer. It’ll be my default point fly pattern through August.

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Farmington River Report 7/29/20: “We can catch that fish.”

I guided Andrew yesterday and our focus was wet fly fishing, reading water, and finding productive water. We fished two marks into late afternoon/early evening, one within the Permanent TMA and the other above it. Conditions were as about as good as you could want for this time of year, with a healthy 270cfs flow and the water plenty cold. The first mark was frustrating as we found feeding fish, but not a high percentage of players. Like many beginning wet fly fishers, Andrew needed to learn to let the fish set the hook. In fairness, most of these trout were smaller, their feeding sporadic, and as I told Andrew, the bigger fish don’t miss when they commit to the wet fly.

The second mark was a snotty run loaded with boulders, pockets, and all kinds of rocks that wanted to trip you up if you’re not careful. But Andrew was game and we went exploring. Things began slowly, but then we started to see sulphurs, olives, and Isonychia, along with one giant yellow mayfly (Potomantis?) and a corresponding spike in feeding. We found a big rainbow carelessly slashing at emergers at the end of a pocket run, and I said to Andrew, “We can catch that fish.” And then, “Remember, don’t set the hook.” Second cast, bang! Off to the races.

You can see that smile all the way through the mask. Andrew and his prize, a mid-teens chunker rainbow. Not an easy fish to land in a ripping current, but the trout hooked itself neatly on a Hackled March Brown. (Note arms bent at a 90-degree angle. There’ll be no fish thrusting on this site!)

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~

The battle won, the fish kept wet in the net until a quick photo is taken, then the release. Always a  highly gratifying moment.

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We finished up in another long pocket run that was populated with trout feeding on sulphur emergers. They proved to be tougher customers, but we landed a few on the Partridge and Light Cahill and called it a day. Great job, Andrew! I took a break and then got in a little wet then dry fly session. Hatch and feeding was about a 5/10. But you get what you get and you don’t get upset, especially when you have and entire pool to yourself at dusk.

Tip of the Week: Find the moment you should switch from wets to dries

Late afternoon into early summer evenings can be a highly productive time to fish wet flies, especially if you have a strong hatch and active feeders. Of course, it’s a good idea to fish a team of three (give the trout a choice) and match the hatch (you can match multiple hatches with a team of three wets). If you hit it right, you’ll be the angler that everyone wants to quiz in the parking lot.

Wets will often out-fish dries during the early and mid-stages of a hatch. But there comes a time when you should stop fishing wets and switch to dries. Some of the cues are visual: you begin to see trout taking insects off the top of the water, or the rises leave a bubble (indicating the fish has broken the surface while eating). Others are self-evident: you’ve been pounding up fish on wets for an hour, the feed is still in full swing, but you’re no longer getting hits. Learn to find this moment in time consistently, and you’ll be on your way to catching more fish. Keep a dry fly leader in a handy pocket so you can make the switch even faster.

I have not been fishing Stewart’s Dun Spider nearly enough this summer. This soft hackle has sulphurs written all over it. Change the silk to a light olive for Attenuata? Hmmm…

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