New Seminar “Finding Small Stream Nirvana” debuts this Saturday at the Edison Fly Fishing Show

Small stream aficionados, rejoice! Have I got a seminar for you. Finding Small Stream Nirvana — Paradise on a Thin Blue Line doubles as a primer and an exploration into the nuances of small stream fly fishing. It’s loaded with real cool video, much of which I’m excited to share for the first time.

“Finding Small Stream Nirvana” makes its debut at the Edison Fly Fishing Show this Saturday, January 29, 9:45am in the Strike Room. We’ll save a seat for you.

Here are some more details: Fly fishing a small stream is possibly the closest an angler can get to touching fly fishing’s soul. Small streams are everywhere, from remote woodlands to hiding in plain sight in urban areas. In addition to gear, flies, tactics and strategies, I’ll also discuss how to discover your own small stream paradise. Finding Small Stream Nirvana will be eastern brook trout-centric, but will also cover non-natives like wild browns.

Here’s a little taste of the action. Don’t forget my Friday 1/28 seminar at 4:30pm Modern Wet Fly Strategies (also new!), my Featured Fly Tier demo (Spiders, Winged and Wingless Wets) Saturday at 12:30pm, and my class on Saturday at 2:00pm: Tying and Fishing Wet Flies with Steve Culton: Learn to tie and fish classic North Country spiders and other wet flies that trout can’t resist. The course also covers basics like leader construction, fly selection, where to fish wet flies, and how to fish them. Intermediate. The demo and Seminars are included in the price of your admission, but you need to register for the class. Click HERE for details and to register.

CT DEEP’s new Wild Trout Management Plan

Last month, the Fisheries Division of the CT DEEP announced a new draft action plan for wild trout conservation. They recently held two online presentations with the opportunity for public comment, but you can still review the draft plan and tell them what you think. (For the record, I said that while I was all in favor of wild trout conservation and management, DEEP must be cautious about over-publicizing wild fish and revealing specific locations, especially those that aren’t currently “on the books.” It only takes one motivated poacher — or excess angling pressure — to irreparably damage or wipe out a stream.)

It’s no secret that wild, native char populations are under stress not only in Connecticut, but throughout the northeast. Climate change, pollution, angling pressure — the usual suspects are omnipresent. Wild trout and char need all the help they can get. Here’s to hoping that the CT DEEP does everything right.

As The Traveling Wilburys so eloquently sang, “handle me with care.”

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?

Currentseams Tuesday Night Zoom, Feb. 9, 8pm: Small Stream Fly Fishing

Small streams and wild trout are a passion, so tomorrow night I’ll be talking about thin blue lines and the exquisite gems that live in them. If you haven’t been getting the Zoom links — I send them out Tuesday late afternoon — please check your spam box. See you Tuesday night!

Farmington River Report 7/9/20: what a way to go!

I worked with Bill yesterday on his indicator nymphing and wet fly skills. Water conditions were perfect in the Permanent TMA: 325cfs, cold, clear. The trout and bugs were a wee bit more uncooperative. Hatches (sulphurs, caddis, olives) were spotty and the feeding was inconsistent at best. We fished two marks and saw four trout hooked all day, and since we had two of them, we declared victory. On the plus side, Bill landed his PB non-lake-run brown. He nailed it at high noon (we fished from 10am-2pm) while nymphing. I was observing from upstream, and when he set the hook it sure looked like a fish to me. Bill thought he was stuck on the bottom — that happens sometimes with larger Farmy trout — and then, gloriously, the bottom fought back. Sadly, Bill snapped his rod during the battle, but the fish was landed, much to his delight. To say nothing of mine!

Bill’s new personal best, a gorgeous high teens wild brown. Love those halos. He took the took dropper in our nymph rig, a size 18 soft-hackled pheasant tail. Since that hook was a 2x short, it’s effectively a size 22 fly. Do not underestimate the power of tiny soft hackles this time of year. I almost always make my top dropper on my drop-shot nymph rig a soft hackle. Congratulations, Bill!

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Small stream father & son outing

Yesterday was a brilliant day for a walk in the woods. No school for Gordo, so we packed up the 6′ Fenwick glass rod, a couple energy bars and some water, and headed northwest. Our hike was about a mile into the woods, and our reward was a gorgeous thin blue line with a fresh influx of groundwater. Even days after the rains, the brook was tea stained and filled with leaves. The fish were hunkered down — all our takes came on tungsten beadhead flies (size 18 2x short Frenchie and ICU Sculpin), none on the dry. We pricked a bunch, and managed two beauties to net, one brown and one brookie.

Gordo dapping a dry/dropper in a boiling plunge pool. No customers here, but a few yards downstream…

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We tag-teamed this jewel of a wild brown. Dad made the cast, Gordo landed him. I want to find a better word than exquisite — how about ornamental?

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2017 Farmington River Broodstock Report

The collection for the next generation of Farmington River Survivor Strain broodstock was completed on Monday. The river is now back to a normal medium height (about 240cfs in the permanent TMA). Here are some details on the collection, conducted within the permanent TMA, from Fisheries Biologist extraordinaire Neal Hagstrom:

“We captured approximately 90 brown trout that we took to the Burlington Hatchery for broodstock. The largest was a 22+inch wild male. The state facebook page has some streaming video of the fish workups (visit the CT DEEP Facebook page and scroll down to September 11 — neat stuff!). We also took 15 other smaller or injured trout for general background health checks of diseases, something we do every year.”

Some of the broodstock are Survivor Strain from this year (left red elastomer) and last year (left yellow). About half of the older fish showed no signs of spawning and were returned to the river. The DEEP looks for genetic elasticity in their broodstock combinations, so there is a broad range of sizes, Survivor Strain and wild, and of course  both sexes in the sampling.

Neal commented that while there were plenty of fine specimens, there weren’t a lot of trophy trout. This dovetails with my experience this year: an abundance of high teens browns but not a lot of true brutes. He said the fish should be returned to the river in early December, “and no, we did not take everything. There are still plenty there.”

Thanks, Neal, and thanks to the DEEP for this amazing fishery and breeding program.

We grow ’em bigger than your net. A true 20″ Survivor Strain brown (clipped adipose) taken this summer. It’s hard to photograph a fish this big by yourself, but it’s surely a most wonderful dilemma.

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Farmington River Report 7/26/17: “Get out the chapeaus!”

Or so Jack Edwards might have said if were calling my fishing game. An odd Farmington River hat trick, consisting of browns, a rainbow, and…what? Smallmouth bass? Read on…

I value my fishing solitude as much as anyone. Many days, I choose where I fish as much for alone time as I do for fish-catching potential. I started off yesterday at 6pm on the lower river in a stretch where I might expect to see a dozen anglers all season. Holy mob scene, Batman! Six cars and ten anglers later, I was dragging my horrified self to parts less populated.

For a guy who’s fairly well-known for wet fly fishing, I haven’t done a lot of it in the evening. Most summers, I’m content park myself in some dry fly water and wait for the evening rise. I’m doing things a little differently this week, swinging wets as afternoon transitions into night. Same three fly team as yesterday: S&G, Magic Fly, hackled MB. The hatch activity in this second location was about a 3 on the 10 scale. Sulphurs were the prominent bug. Very little bird activity and even fewer risers. The smallie came first, plowing into the March Brown on the dangle. A few aerials for my viewing pleasure, and for a moment I thought that maybe I was on the Hous. A few minutes later, I was saying out loud to myself (it’s OK, I do that) “There’s really nothing going on here,” when WHACK! Also on March Brown.

I had been dead-drifting the wet fly team through some water better suited for dries when my line came tight with a vengeance. You could count the spots on this guy, and the pattern is about as linear and symmetrical as I’ve seen on a brown. 12″ long and the parr marks have yet to vanish. Full adipose.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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Next, I fished a steep riffle that rushes into a deep, compact pool. No bugs, nothing rising, and I was thinking that maybe I should rig for depth charge when a stout rainbow clobbered the fly as it swirled near the surface. Here’s a trippy low-light shot that begs the question: Is this what C&R looks like at a rave?

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I‘ve said it before and I’ll say it again: dusk can be a magic time. The trout went bonkers on the surface just at the moment when you could no longer see your fly. This brown measured 17″. Full adipose, and look at the size of the anal fin and tail.

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Survivor: Farmington (Browns Built To Last)

“Survivor: Farmington,” an essay about the CT DEEP’s Farmington River Survivor Strain Program, first appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of The Drake. The photo and caption did not appear in the article, and this is my original text. 

by Steve Culton

They took her from the river in September, 2012. She was chosen for her wild traits and rounded belly that indicated a healthy female ready to spawn. Once her eggs were harvested, she was returned to her home waters. But not before a red elastomer was inserted near her left eye. That color and placement would forever identify her as a broodstock female, one of many mothers of the Farmington River Survivor Strain Class of 2013.

The next April, I fished the West Branch of the Farmington. The Hendrickson hatch was winding down, and the trout were transitioning from taking emergers in the film to picking off duns that haphazardly lingered on the surface. Her take was powerful enough to rip the line from my fingertips and cause my drag to buzz in protest. I rarely put trout on the reel; this was going to be my first of 2013. What’s more, this fish was not going to come easy. I ended up walking a fair distance downstream to land her. It wasn’t until I was reviewing the day’s photos that I noticed the elastomer. I had sensed there was something readily distinguishable about the way she hit, bulldogged, and refused to come quietly. Now, it all fell into place. Survivor Strain.

Here she is in all her glory: the actual fish I was writing about.

Big Survivor Strain brown hen

The Farmington River Survivor Strain program was initiated in 1993 by what is now known as the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP). Neal Hagstrom, DEEP Senior Fisheries Biologist, describes the program as, “an attempt to use the river to select the best possible animals for that environment. We take certain trout to the hatchery, spawn them, then put their progeny back in the river, assuming that those fish will be best adapted for the conditions they’ll face.”

Survivor Strain’s inaugural class were descendants of stocked Cortland, Rome, Bitterroot, and Seeforellen browns. “The hope was that we would get improvements in production and survival,” says Hagstrom, “and we saw that in the first year. We went from about a 20% holdover rate to about 50%. We now find fish in the West Branch that are upwards of eight years old.”

Broodstock for the program are collected through electroshocking. Each September, the Metropolitan District Commission draws down the flow from Hogback Dam so that DEEP crews can complete their harvest. Their goal: one hundred brown trout worthy of producing the next generation of Survivor Strain. Like an NFL scout on draft day, Hagstrom explains the DEEP’s talent evaluation process. “We try to get fish that have spent at least a year in the river. We want genetic diversity. We want browns from multiple age classes, and multiple sources like Survivor Strain, and most importantly, wild fish. We want a lot of different parents to get as many possible combinations of genetic material.”

The DEEP harvested approximately 80,000 eggs in 2013. That biomass will generate 70,000 fry. In keeping with the tenet of genetic strength and diversity, the hatchery will set up dozens of parental combinations for the young ‘uns: wild mother/ wild father; wild mother/Survivor father; small wild father/large Survivor mother; and so on. This elasticity creates a population that is well equipped for the natural challenges of the river – not to mention heavy fishing pressure. Young-of-year Survivor Strain are wary of humans, even in their hatchery pens. Where standard-issue stockers are indifferent to people, Survivor Strain fish will dart away. “When we first saw it, it was like, wow, this is really cool!” says Hagstrom. “We had two tanks together, and their behavior was like night and day.”

To facilitate their annual trout census – and inadvertently, enable you to track your catch – the DEEP color codes Survivor Strain trout with elastomers. Left eye placement means the fish is an adult; right eye, a yearling. Colors change every year; 2011 yearlings received red or yellow, while 2012 yearlings received green. Thankfully, for those of us who are color blind, Survivors also have their adipose fin clipped off.

Not surprisingly, anglers are the program’s biggest fans. What’s not to like about cantankerous trout with breathtaking colors that grow to trophy size? As a bonus, the West Branch has seen an explosion in the wild brown population since the introduction of the program. A new record was set in 2013 of just over fifty percent of trout that were naturally spawned in the river. That bodes well for those of us who live for chasing gator browns. Mike Humphries, DEEP Inland Fisheries Biologist, says it’s a myth that the river’s lunkers are pen raised. “The highest percentage of big trout on the Farmington aren’t hatchery fish. They’re wild.”

And to think it all started with one tough mother of a stocked brown.

Small stream report 6/3/15: Alive and well and living in Connecticut

The original plan was to throw streamers in the murky waters of the Farmington. But the river wasn’t high or dirty enough for my liking. Still, needs must fish. What better option than the outgoing tide on a small stream? None, as it turns out.

Conditions were perfect: 68 degree air temperature, water at a medium-high level after the rains and running clear and cool (58 degrees). Oh, the bugs! Yes, indeed. There were the usual suspects, like caddis and midges and mosquitoes. But how about size 16 sulphurs? Size 14-16 golden stones? Heck, let’s throw in some mongo golden stones (size 4-6?) into the mix — I’ve never seen those on this stream. And some egg-laden mahogany dun spinners, size 16.

The brook fished very well. I pricked dozens of fish, many of them in pools where I haven’t caught anything in years. Mostly brookies, but three wild browns in the mix. All on the upstream dry (elk hair caddis and Stimulators).

After the draconian winter of 2014-2015, how comforting it is to have nature reaffirm that she will always find a way.

Intriguing markings on this hen.

Brookie 6-2015

Another hen, this one of the Salmo trutta persuasion. Best hit of the day. She all but slaughtered the fly. You’ll have to bear with me on the substandard photography. I lost my good camera, and my backup had issues today. I hope to have the situation rectified in a few weeks.

Brown 6-2015