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

The state of the Farmington River and other shocking news

In case you didn’t know (and if you’ll pardon the inflamatory headline) the Farmington River has lots of trout. Lots of big trout. And lots of wild trout. All good news if you like to fish the Farmington.

We know this because every September, the MDC draws down the flow of the dam and electroshocks the river. The electroshocking has two purposes: trout census, and gathering broodstock for future generations, aka Farmington River Survivor Strain. (For more on Survivor Strain, see my article in the Spring 2014 issue of The Drake.)

I didn’t attend, but the DEEP delivered their state of the river address to the FRAA a few weeks ago. Here’s their story in numbers:

Farmington River Report 9/24/14: Move it

If you’ve seen my “Wet Flies 101” presentation or fished with me, you know I’m a proponent of moving along until you find fish. Yesterday was a perfect example of why.

I swung wets for two hours in three locations. My team was a size 12 Squirrel and Ginger on top, a size 10 Hackled March Brown in the middle, and a size 10 soft-hackled bead head Pheasant Tail on point. The first place I fished continues to vex me. It screams wet fly. I know there are trout that live there. And I still haven’t gotten a touch in three trips. Moving right along…the second place was a lot of walking for a single JV Atlantic salmon, Salar the Leaper Jr. though he was. Finally, the last spot — ding-ding-ding. A nice assortment of wild browns from the sub-foot to mid-teens class. They were all attractively colored up for fall. Such impressive fins and tails on these stream-born fish. The hands-down favorite fly was the SHBHPT, and every take came on the dead drift phase of the presentation.

This brown attacked from his ambush position between two boulders in a slick-surfaced run.

9:14 Brown