Stinky Beach…

Posted in Fishing Reports, Saltwater, Thoughts, Writing with tags , , , on August 6, 2019 by stflyfisher

You can’t go home again

Thomas Wolfe

American novelist Thomas Wolfe once wrote “you can’t go home again”. One of his novels, titled as such, explored numerous themes related to home, among them, that once one leaves home, it is never the same over time and one never returns to the same place. The story goes that Wolfe took the title from a conversation with the writer Ella Winter, who remarked to Wolfe: “Don’t you know you can’t go home again?”

I thought about this theme recently as I fished a beautiful stretch of bay beach and sod bank in Ocean City, Maryland. It sits just inside Ocean City Inlet. The inlet was formed during a hurricane in 1933 and separates what is now Ocean City (Fenwick Island) from Assateague Island. The Army Corps of Engineers took advantage of nature’s intervention back then and made the inlet permanent. The inlet eventually helped to establish Ocean City as an important Mid-Atlantic fishing port as it offered easy access to the fishing grounds of the Atlantic Ocean.

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In this photo, the Ocean City Inlet is clearly seen, separating Assateague Island from Fenwick Island (Ocean City “proper”). Stinky Beach is the beach in the middle top of the photo, just south of the Rt 50 bridge on the inland side of the bay.

I was in Ocean City as part of a July 4th weekend visit with my wife’s brother and his family. My brother-in-law had purchased his parent’s retirement home there, a 1990’s 4 bedroom contemporary in Ocean Pines, an old resort community somewhat inland from Ocean City and Assawoman Bay. We would visit the place when my wife’s parents were in retirement, usually around July 4th weekend. Its proximity to good saltwater fly fishing made it all the more appealing to me. My wife’s family, non-fly fishers (golfers no less!) and late sleepers, didn’t mind me slipping away in the pre-dawn hours any time we were there and it was no different this time.

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Once referred to as “Stinky Beach”, the place I always fished on the bay is now officially called Homer Gudelsky Park and that name has an important local story of its own.

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Homer Gudelsky was one of the Washington DC area’s leading real estate developers and investors. The son of Russian immigrants, Gudelsky was raised on a farm in Baltimore County where his father started a gravel business. In the 1930s, Homer and his two brothers took over the business, opening a plant, Contee Sand and Gravel, in Laurel. During World War II, Homer served in the Army in Europe. Returning home from the war, he moved to Silver Spring in 1946, and during the postwar years invested profits from the sand and gravel business in suburban real estate at a time when the Maryland and Virginia suburbs were experiencing vast and rapid population increases. Mr. Gudlesky, with his wife, set up the Homer and Martha Gudelsky Foundation in 1968. The Gudelsky’s wanted most of the funding to go to the state which had been good to the family. Homer died of leukemia at the age of 78. His largesse left Stinky Beach for the greater good.

Stinky Beach – Homer Gudelsky Park – is 100 yards of rock-fortified rip-rap and another 100 of sandy beach and sod banks, with salt marsh tucked behind. A deep channel runs by it, offering boaters access to a harbor, and providing good fishing for “flounder” (summer flounder) – also known as fluke in more northerly salt. Its proximity to the inlet also means good fishing for bluefish, striped bass (rockfish in Maryland), drum, sea trout, and sharks.

Years ago, before development enveloped Ocean City and its surrounds, Stinky Beach was just another sandy, soddy piece of bay frontage. Commercial fishermen would stop there and clean their catch there; hence the name. The place is now a haven for picnic, recreational fishermen and families looking for a place by the bay to relax, swim, and walk their dogs. Lost in a maze of development, Stinky Beach stands at the convergence of two forces – the natural world and the ever-increasing human population. Sadly, it is a last foothold of sorts of the old Maryland shore.

My wife, youngest son, and I got to Ocean City on Wednesday night, July 3rd, and I went to bed much later than I wanted but still managed to get up relatively early for fishing the next morning. I arrived at Stinky Beach around 6:30 am and it was just as I remembered from my last visit, some years ago. The morning was already hot and humid, almost steamy at such an early hour. The sun rose in the east over Fenwick Island, my view interrupted by the island’s development – condos and hotels reaching skyward. Looking at that horizon, I wondered what Fenwick Island must have been like when Homer Gudelsky purchased Stinky Beach – then most likely a barrier island with a few summer cottages, fishing shanties, old-style motels, and a boardwalk.

I geared up, walked to the park, and waded in the bay where the rip-rap ended and the beach and sod banks began. There was little current then, the tide just beginning to flood after slack tide. I worked a heavy clouser off an intermediate sink tip line, casting up current, mending up tide to let the fly sink, then letting my fly swing across the bottom with short strips. I was hoping I’d get into a summer flounder that way, as I had done on a few occasions in the past. There was plenty of bait in the water – killies swam about in the lee of the current break my legs afforded them. Crabs scurried about the sandy bottom too.

As the sun rose over Fenwick Island, the whole beachside world seem to rise with it. It wasn’t long before boats powered out of the harbor nearby, their mates readying gear as their sports smoked and chatted hopefully. Watching them gave me hope too.

People began arriving as the morning hours waned, many led by eager, joyful dogs. I watched one couple with two labs – an older gent of a dog with grayed muzzle and what looked like his adolescent “little brother.” The poor older lab could not get away from his tag-along sibling, the younger dog constantly latching on to the retrieving duck big brother held, trying to play tug of war. If the older dog could speak in human, it would have been “just leave me alone” (add your own expletives).

I fished on and the current quickened with the flood tide. I could see sporadic bird play out well beyond my cast, and nervous water, signs that the baitfish were stirred up by hunters on the prowl. I thought I might have a shot at schoolie stripers or cocktail blues. At one point I had a few snappers boiling at my fly as I hauled it skyward to cast again.

With the fluke seemingly not interested in chasing a fly, I scaled down to a lighter and smaller clouser pattern – chartreuse in color in the spirit of Lefty Kreh, a Marylander and author of the saying “if it ain’t chartreuse, it ain’t no use.” I started casting this lighter fly, stripping a little more aggressively, hoping to steal the attention of gamefish on the prowl.

A gentleman came by, walking his small dog. He stopped to watch me fish and told me he and his family visited Ocean City often for vacation, and though a fly fisher, he never considered fly fishing the salt. This seems to be a regularly occurring comment when I am observed fly fishing the salt. So many freshwater fly fishers have no idea what they are missing when they take a trip to the beach and leave their fly rods at home.

Maybe it was that thought that turned my luck on. As the man started to walk on, I stripped and came solid to a good fish that exploded out of the water, gills flaring. The fish took off bay-ward and made my reel sing a sweet song. Then I saw my line angling upward and witnessed another jump. I thought this was a nice-sized bluefish, but as I worked to land it, I saw what looked like spots. Sliding it up on the beach, I realized I had caught a spotted sea trout – a close relative to the weakfish we often catch in Barnegat Bay and northern waters – a southern cousin of sorts. This was a personal best for me…

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The Spotted Sea Trout

This fish had the spike-like teeth of a weakfish, fought well, and would have been excellent table-fare.

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A spotted sea trout comes to hand, courtesy of my very own custom made 9 weight TFO BVK.

Contrary to its name, the spotted seatrout is not a member of the trout family (Salmonidae), but of the drum family (Sciaenidae). It is popular for commercial and especially recreational fishing in coastal waters of the southeastern United States. Adults reach 19-32 inches in length and 3-15 pounds in weight. This fish was a very nice specimen and turned an otherwise uneventful morning to a great morning out.

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The man who had passed by came back over, excited with my fly fishing success. He took some pictures to show fishing friends and then took a few for me. I released the sea trout and fished a little longer, but soon my time there was up. I headed home to a house of still-waking family. I fished the next morning, hoping for a repeat or at the very least, a few summer flounder, but it was not to be.

It was a nice July 4th weekend, all in all. There was good food and drink, family “catching up” and lots of laughs. The hot steamy weather reminded me of so many other visits when my children were little. Way back then I did not fly fish and knew little of the fishing opportunity that Ocean City held for saltwater anglers. Eventually, after getting started with fly fishing the sweet water, I ventured into saltwater fly fishing. I bought my first saltwater outfit and Ocean City beckoned.

On a hot and humid July morning, so many years ago, I sloppily cast a clouser, and let it drift with the hope only fishermen have, and a fluke rose off the sandy bottom and took it. That day added another dimension to my fly fishing life, one that grows as the years go by. Thomas Wolfe was wrong, I think. Stinky Beach, Homer Gudelsky, and a hurricane in 1933 said it all to me on my recent visit. You can go home again…

 

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Remembering Don…

Posted in Smallmouth Bass Fishing, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , on August 3, 2019 by stflyfisher

In memory of Donald A. Calder

A great bass fisherman, an even better fisher of men…

9/5/29 – 8/3/15

I quartered my streamer up-current and let it sink, dead drift, in the river braid. As it swept past me, I pulled it back in short strips interspersed with a pause – letting the olive marabou and the silly legs of the fly do an enticing water dance. Midway back the fly stopped abruptly and I swept-set the hook. My fly rod took a deep bend with the pull of a solid fish. Nothing exploded skyward on the set, so I knew this was not a smallmouth bass. Whatever this was just throbbed in the current, moving powerfully upriver, then twisting back with random but decidedly heavy surges that tested my drag. The fight continued a time; a tug of war followed by heavy sullen plodding. I started to think I had a big channel catfish on the line.

The fish continued the fight even at my feet, then finally emerged, turning away once more with the slap of its tail. I saw in that boil of river water, green and gold and white and began to wonder about this “catfish.” Then I brought to hand the biggest walleye of my fly fishing life…

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I pulled him up carefully, respectful of his canines and sharp gill plates, and laid him where the river lapped the bank. Standing back with camera in hand, I marveled at his length, the green mottling of his back against golden-hued flanks and his ivory-white underbelly. His river camouflage was that of a warplane – coloring that made him invisible against the sky from below and perfectly invisible against the river bottom when seen from above.

After a quick picture I returned the walleye to the river. With one hand beneath his broad pectoral fins and the other grasping the narrow of his tail, I held him head-up into the current. His gills flared and as I felt the life come back to him, I loosened my grip at the base of his tail. With a strong sway of his head he pulled away and slipped back to the river, swimming slowly across the braid, melting into the bottom. And that is when I remembered Don and smiled to myself at the thought of his disdain for walleyes: “they fight like a bag of rocks”, I’d heard him say on more than a few occasions.

“All Americans believe that they are born fishermen. For a man to admit a distaste for fishing would be like denouncing mother-love or hating moonlight.”

John Steinbeck

It was in August of 2015 that I got a call from Bill – Don’s son and a best high school friend – that Don had passed away from cancer. And so I made my way down to northern New Jersey on a hot humid day to attend his memorial service and to give the family my personal condolences. The service was light-hearted, as I am sure Don would have wanted it. Afterwards, there was a reception at “The Legion”, a place Don frequented to have a beer with old warriors.

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Don with a nice Wisconsin musky…

Now, some 4 years since Don forever hung up his spinning rod, I continue to fly fish and I think of Don. I target the smallmouth bass, my favorite gamefish – and Don’s favorite as well. But us anglers cannot always choose the fish that respond to our offerings. And on that recent foggy summer morning, a walleye took my fly, and Don came down to earth…

A part of my personal philosophy is that fishermen are born but never really die. Those that eventually slip the grips of gravity end up hanging around us, the water-bound, and watch the casts we make. We are reminded of these old fishermen in odd ways. When I am lucky enough on my home water, a nice smallmouth will launch skyward after taking my streamer and will invariably bring a smile to my face just as it did for Don. I pass an angler at the fishing access, enjoying a cold can of Budweiser after a hot day on the river, and I am again reminded of him, a tall lanky guy who sported a ball of a beer belly later in life, and who was rarely seen when land-borne without a Bud in hand. The wind whips up on the river and there he is again – Don just hated the wind, though as a spin fisherman, I never completely understood why – us fly fishers have a bit more of a valid objection. Pike remind me of him too – that peculiar smell of their slime has never left me ever since first landing one on a big Mepps spinner fished from Don’s boat. And of course there are stories from times I did not fish with him – the time Don used a large spring-device to keep a pike’s toothy yap open while removing a hook. After removing the hook, Don released the pike, forgetting that he needed to remove the spring!

Don was more than a fisherman who could tell stories. He could engage one so very well that once he caught you, it was rare you’d ever want to be released from his sense of humor and maybe too, his wisdom. For memories of fish and fishermen have always been magical in their ability to grow larger than life. The smallmouth Don caught and released will always be bigger than my own. This is a fisherman’s right, just as it is to pick and choose the stories that we leave behind. And, as with Don, a fisherman but always first a fisher of men, some of them scorn walleyes…

 

 

Memorial Day weekend – four days on Barnegat Bay

Posted in Fishing Conditions, Fishing Reports, Saltwater, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on June 18, 2019 by stflyfisher

The call came in on Thursday afternoon while I was in a meeting at work. It was from Captain Greg Cudnik of Fishhead Charters. I had originally booked a trip with him for the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, then canceled it and rescheduled it for the following Monday because of Friday’s forecast, which I had been watching all week. The winds were forecast to be 15 – 25 knots with gusts up to 40 knots for that day. That would make fly fishing difficult, if not impossible depending on wind direction.

Greg’s call was a courtesy call of sorts. He reported that the fishing was really good on Thursday in the inlet and he felt like it was worth a shot, despite the forecast. He left it up to me but wanted to make sure I didn’t come down Friday night, only to hear, “you should have been here yesterday!” He felt we could deal with the wind.

The reports of good fishing excited me. I had wanted to get into big “yellow-eyed demons” (a commonly used term for bluefish) on the fly. Ideally, it would have been on the flats of Barnegat Bay – where spring “racers” often invade in their search for food. These fish look emaciated early in the year, with their big heads and sunken stomachs. They seek out the warm waters of bays to gorge on the abundant young of the year baitfish. The fishing for these starved demons can be very exciting (read, “topwater”) as it takes place in the shallows of the bay in 2 to 4 feet of water.

And so I made the call – I sped home after work, packed up for a 4 day weekend, and drove the 4.5 hours to the Jersey shore, with thoughts of stripers, blues, bite guards, big flies, and fast strips, on my mind…

Day One – fishing with Captain Greg

Bright and early I crested the causeway to Long Beach Island, the sun not yet risen but lighting up the eastern horizon. The bay did not look half as bad as I feared. The wind was up but not howling at least. I drove the long island boulevard to the high sandy end of the island known as Barnegat Light. I made a left past Ella’s Hotel – a tiny hotel that I can remember back when I rode and fished the party boat fleet. Soon I was at the marina. I dressed up in foul weather bibs, pulled out my gear, and met Greg at the dock.

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Greg’s boat ready for a dawn patrol. Note the specialized fly rod holders Greg built off the rear seat. The boat can carry 4 rods off the seat, another 4 up top, and 4 under the gunwales.

We rode out to the north jetty in Greg’s 21 foot Parker and the tide was ripping like a whitewater river, racing by the rocks. Greg decided we’d be better off fishing from the north side, out of the inlet, where the water was calmer. He positioned the boat’s bow on to the jetty – it’s green teeth protruding, the sea washing the rocks like the spit of a dragon over its jagged teeth. There was a lot of foamy wash due to the tide and wave action. And so it began – a 10 weight with type 9 sink tip, short leader, and a big jig fly.

I cast the my fly into the rocks and wash, stripping it out, then letting it sink, then varying my retrieve back to the boat. We drifted down the face of the submerged jetty this way, Greg holding the boat as close to the rocks as possible. The wind was out of the northwest and though it did not impede my casting, we knew it would continue to build, possibly ending the fishing early. Time was of the essence!

An angler was positioned on the end of the north jetty, tight to a fish. We watched him land a nice bluefish, release it, and cast a large white surface plug into the wash. It was a good sign to start the morning. After a few more casts I felt a solid deep thump and was soon also hooked up with a blue. The fish fought hard and deep, my rod tip arcing to the water. Give and take ensued until finally the fish was diving around the boat. Greg showed the net and off he went. After a few more runs he tired.

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A yellow-eyed demon on the fly. Picture courtesy of Captain Greg Cudnik of Fishhead Charters.

The bluefish was nicely hooked in the corner of the mouth, the wire bite guard untouched. The hook was removed and the fish quickly released. The morning bite went on like that for nearly two hours. We lost track of the count but they were all good fish in the 4 – 8 lb range. Every one of them would clamp shut on Greg’s pliers with the speed and force of a steel trap. Every one brought smiles to our faces.

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Bluefish, fly fishing tackle, and smiles go hand in hand… (Pic courtesy of Captain Greg Cudnik)

We worked over the very tip of the submerged jetty where the wash and foam was thickest and caught a nice striper and then a gator blue. The gator stopped the fly abruptly as I stripped it through the wash, then jumped clear of the water like bluefish sometimes do. The power of this fish was a new test for my fly reel’s drag. It jumped again, then dove deep, sending me scrambling around the boat following its maniacal runs.

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Big blue dog! Note the wire bite guard. For this fish, that wire saved the day.

This fish had taken the fly well. The black nylon coating of the bite guard was stripped off near the snap swivel, the wire permanently crimped. And the fly was a twisted mess…

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This clouser jig fly served well after being chomped and mangled by over a dozen blues. I retired it when the biggest of the bunch bent the hook and shank in a twisted mangle.

We fished a bit more but the wind really started to blow. Not only did this make for challenging casting, but Greg was starting to have a hard time holding the boat in position along the jetty. After over 2 hours on the water, we decided to call it a day and went back to the dock and on to a big breakfast at Mustache Bill’s Diner in Barnegat Light.

Day Two – fishing the dike on my own

I was up bright and early on the second day of my Memorial Day weekend at the New Jersey shore. I left the house at 0530, and headed to the dike near Barnegat Light. I had one rod with me this time – my 9 weight TFO BVK that I built myself.

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TFO BVK 9 weight – custom built by yours truly…

I walked the eastern face of the dike and started by fishing the sod banks towards the tip of the dike. I had success here last year but with the wind blowing out of the east, casting was troublesome. As I rounded the tip, two anglers came crashing through a thicket on to the bank. They had been spin-fishing the bay side of the dike and had found some stripers there. I watched where they came out of the sedge island woods – a well-trod fisherman’s path led through the narrow wood, opening up on the beautiful bay.

I wandered the back, western side of the dike – a maze of tributaries, pools, sand, seagrass, and sod. Double Creek channel ran across its edge, creating a steep drop-off in places and sand shoals in others. I continued fishing an intermediate line but the current was flowing to fast for me to get the fly down. I soon changed to a fast sink-tip and missed a fish as my fly swung in the current. A little while later I got a solid hookset on a cocktail blue that fought 10 times larger than its size.

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I continued to fish down the edge with the current and off a small cut in the sod bank, picked up my first striper, a schoolie full of piss and vinegar.

I fished the entire length of the dike’s back bay shoreline. At the end of it was a point where there was a nice rip and a good seam of slower water. I cast into the current and let my fly swing around into the slower water, then stripped it back. On my second cast I got a solid thump…

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Beautiful schoolie…

I fought this fish out of the current and into the slack water behind the point. It was beautifully marked with close to perfect stripes. I removed the fly easily, then watched it disappear into the bay with a strong swipe of its tail, the perfect way to end the morning.

Day Three – fishing the dike with John

John and I drove out to High Bar Harbor and the entrance to the park, commonly referred to as “the dike”. It was daybreak and the wind was coming up from the west. We walked the inlet-side beach out to the sod banks at the tip of the dike. We were sheltered there – Meyer’s Hole was flat except for a breeze-rippled surface.

We hiked through a cut in the sedge island. Emerging from the dense scrub, we broke out onto the open salt marsh. There before us lay the salt marsh and beyond it, the inner bay, wide and blue. The marsh was a maze of tidal cuts, like river braids, where the bay’s flood and ebb had found weakness. We continued on to the edge of the salt marsh – to sod and sand. Double Creek channel swept by us as we cast from its edge, the wind blowing in our faces and freshening with the morning.

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Looking east from the bay-side of the dike, with Old Barney and the inlet in the distance…

 

 

It was tough fishing early on. The strong ebb tide swept even John’s full sink line up and out of the current like it was gossamer thread. Despite our best efforts – shortened leaders, heavy sparse flies, casting up-current and mending – we could not get our flies deep. We walked down Double Creek channel until we came to a point in the sod bank where the channel tailed out. There was a nice rip at the point and a seam of slower water. I had scored a nice bass here the day before and told John we should focus our efforts there where the bass could hold in the softer water and intercept bait washed down the channel. Casting was also easier as the wind was now somewhat behind us. We watched a guide in a flats boat and his fly fishing client fish this area, validating that the spot was productive. Soon I picked up a small schoolie bass and then John too was fast to a fish, his rod bucking as he howled with delight. It was John’s first striper, a nice schoolie at that, and it truly made the day after such tough fishing early on.

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John with a grin and his first striper…

Day 4 – fishing with Captain Greg

I had originally booked Monday, Memorial Day for a trip with Greg, cancelling the Friday before. I wound up keeping Monday’s booking based on the fishing over the weekend and hoping for more of the same.

Greg fired up the Fishhead early Monday morning and we motored through the grass-edged channel that led from the docks to the main channel. From there it was a quick run to the inlet and the north jetty. It was a different day, with lower winds predicted from the north. The inlet was again rough so we started fishing the north side of the north jetty.

The fishing started off slow. And from what could be seen, we weren’t the only ones with the skunk haunting us. On one drift I tried casting a Bob’s Banger popper over the wash while Greg took my sink-tip 10 weight outfit and cast a bit on his own. We fished, watched, and talked as we drifted and then Greg grunted as he hooked up to a good fish. The blue fought deep, the 10 weight’s deep bend – rod tip to the water, a testament to its size and strength.

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Captain Greg with a gator…

We fished another hour along the rocks with nothing more to show. A friend of Greg’s had reported the day before that good fishing came later in the tide, so we went on the hunt to other places. The south jetty looked promising but again we had no luck. From there we fished the bay – a spot along sod banks where the tide ran strong. We cast smaller clousers now and the fishing reminded me of so many floats down rivers throwing streamers to the bank for browns.

I fished from the bow and laid out casts that kissed the sod bank. I’d pause and let my clouser sink deep off my sink tip line. Casting ahead as we drifted and mending allowed the fly to get deep and after a second drift my line came tight. The fish fought well and used the current for leverage. It was a nice schoolie striper – one of several we caught repeating the drift.

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One of several schoolies caught drifting the sod banks… (Pic courtesy of Captain Greg Cudnik)

We checked out some other areas of the bay without results and then sped out to the inlet to see if the bite was on there. We worked the rocks for about an hour and noticed one angler in a boat in the inlet hooking up on conventional gear. He was casting a jigheaded swimbait, letting it sink and then jigging it deep. I did everything possible to get my fly as deep as possible to mimic what he was doing but the current was making it difficult. I switched to a sparsely tied heavy clouser hoping it might solve the problem and shortened the leader but none of these actions seemed to help. Finally, I removed the bite guard thinking just maybe the normally ferocious blues were leader-shy.

By 11 AM it was starting to look like nothing would happen despite a somewhat steady pick by some of the conventional fishermen around us. My trip with Greg would soon end, but I kept casting. Greg, ever the optimist, was sure we’d get into fish. He held the boat around the end of the jetty where the wash was best. A few strips in from a cast and suddenly I was into a gator. We watched him as he cleared the wash, fighting the fly. He went deep after that and a good battle ensued.

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My 10 weight bows to a blue… (Pic courtesy of Captain Greg Cudnik)

Unfortunately, my earlier move to remove a bite guard came with some risk – a risk I came to face as the big blue broke off close to the boat, with only bitten-off tippet to show for it. I added a wire bite guard and we were soon back at it.

Greg kept positioning the boat along the rocks, and I got more follows and takes. I watched one nice blue swim aggressively out of the wash to my fly with another close by. Then another cast into the wash was rewarded with, as Greg refers to them, a “blue dog.”

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Another big blue dog… (Pic courtesy of Captain Greg Cudnik)

The bite continued another 30 minutes or so with a mix of fish from gator down to cocktail blue size range. The day ended as Greg predicted, on a very strong note. We were all smiles as we made our way back to the dock.

In the past, I’ve fished Memorial Day at a favorite spot on the West Branch of the Delaware. But for the last two years, high water forced me to look elsewhere. Life has a way of playing us, where at first take, we’re disappointed that things have not gone our way, i.e., weather, water flows, “life”… On looking back, the early disappointment of high water turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Had it not been for high water, I may have never experienced and explored the great saltwater fly fishing we are fortunate to have so close to home. So I am ever grateful now to have two solid places to count on each Memorial Day for good fishing, reflection, and remembrance – the lovely West Branch of the Delaware and beautiful Barnegat Bay.

 

Heaven on earth

Posted in Saltwater, Thoughts, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , on May 13, 2019 by stflyfisher

Steps

Like ev’ry flower wilts, like youth is fading
and turns to age, so also one’s achieving:
Each virtue and each wisdom needs parading
in one’s own time, and must not last forever.
The heart must be, at each new call for leaving,
prepared to part and start without the tragic,
without the grief – with courage to endeavor
a novel bond, a disparate connection:
For each beginning bears a special magic
that nurtures living and bestows protection.

We’ll walk from space to space in glad progression
and should not cling to one as homestead for us.
The cosmic spirit will not bind nor bore us;
It lifts and widens us in ev’ry session:
For hardly set in one of life’s expanses
we make it home, and apathy commences.
But only he, who travels and takes chances,
can break the habits’ paralyzing stances.

It might be, even, that the last of hours
will make us once again a youthful lover:
The call of life to us forever flowers…
Anon, my heart: Say farewell and recover!

Hermann Hesse

Jack Hofen sat on the trunk of a fallen white cedar and looked out at the bay. The cedar, a casualty of the ebb and flood of tide and the hard nor’easters of fall, lay where the bay lapped the sedge island. Jack’s free hand was resting on the bare wood of the trunk – waxy smooth and buttery yellow. It was lovely to the touch and somehow comforting on this Mother’s Day.

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Jack looked out on Meyer’s Hole, the deep water just inside the inlet and the lighthouse, and the beginnings of Barnegat Bay. He was waiting for the tide to ebb. The tide was at full slack, the bay’s surface as motionless as a mill pond. He needed the moon to act so that the waters of the great bay would be drawn back to sea, that magical pull draining the bay all the way up its tiniest tributaries, even to the distant pineland bogs where the sweetwater and bay brine intermixed. Then the richness of the backwater, the great salt marsh, would yield to the pull, giving itself to the bay and the inlet. The backwater would drop, forcing killies, spearing, shrimp and crab to come out of hiding. And the striped bass, tide-runner weakfish, and bluefish would be waiting, set up to gorge themselves as the tide washed its bounty seaward. As Jack waited, he remembered an Athabascan Indian saying: when the tide goes out, the table is set.

Barnegat wide

Jack checked his leader and tied on his favorite fly – a white half and half. It was weighted with heavy eyes and on an intermediate line would get down to where the fish would be holding. He carefully tied the fly on to his leader with a loop knot that would give the fly more life in the current. After doing so, he wondered if he should have tied on a bite guard. Experience had taught him if he had a take and the leader was cut clean, it was time to tie on a bite guard. He decided to wait, hoping that fishing “naked” would bring him good luck.

Rigged up and ready, Jack sat and watched the water. A light sea breeze soon came up as the sun crept above the horizon. He thought about his mother. He remembered her smile most of all, and how she gave endlessly to others. He remembered her making breakfast for him on Opening Day, driving him to the Saddle River while it was still dark, just so he could get a good spot. He remembered birthday lunches – thick roast beef sandwiches and a Hostess cherry pie. He remembered her enthusiasm about his fishing, how he always felt the hero coming home with fish. And he remembered one of the last fish meals they made together – fluke with a delicious Chablis sauce. The dementia had started creeping into her life then, so he gave her simple repetitive tasks that made her smile.

His mother was a devout Catholic and her faith had been everything to her. Since her passing he had wondered what faith meant at life’s end, for though he believed in God, and believed she was now in heaven, he did not know what or how to think about heaven. Catechism taught about the soul but it had not taught where it went, other than “to heaven.” Heaven seemed like the universe – endless – but how did one think of “endless.” And what was heaven like – was the soul in heaven a person, a thought? Did it come and go like the wind? All his life all he had known were the Hollywood images – people clothed in white, the soft light, and the clouds. It bothered him that he had never asked his mother about it while she was alive.

Soon enough, the bay began to stir. Jack saw sea grass on the surface, moving imperceptibly with the still young ebb tide. Now he waited anxiously. The breeze had freshened and left cat’s paws as it skimmed the bay’s mirror-smooth surface. There was no bird-play as far as he could see. He knew from experience that the herring gulls and laughing gulls would sense the fish long before he did. And so he watched the sky and the horizon for them.

With time, the tide ebbed, the water now flowing like a stream past the sedge island on its way to the inlet and the sea beyond. Jack got up from his perch and walked to the sod banks. They were soft and spongy and bounced as he walked them. The strong tidal currents had undercut them in places and he knew enough to fish them carefully. The drop-offs could be 2 feet from the edge and plunge to 20 feet or more. He knew of a fisherman who had drowned at the very spot, and he wondered what heaven was like for him.

The birds finally arrived and wheeled overhead. They were seeing things that Jack could not. He laid out some line and began to false cast, shooting his fly, quartered up tide, just like he had done so many times when fishing a streamer in rivers. He mended a few times to let the fly get down deeper, then let the fly swing in the current, bringing it back with short strips. He repeated this as he moved along the sod banks and saw an area where there was a point in the bank. He looked at this area as a good ambush site, where fish could hold just off the current in the lee of the point, much like trout might hold behind a big boulder. He cast again quartered up current and let his fly do its seductive dance as he stripped it back on the swing. The fly stopped and Jack instinctively strip-set, feeling that good heavy sponginess of life on the line. His rod took a deep bend with each surge of the fish, so powerful that they had all the markings of a bass.

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He fought the fish in the current for several minutes. The fish surged heavily with the tide, using its broad, powerful tail. He gradually got the fish out of the current and slid it into the shallows. It was broad-shouldered, bright, and thick – everything a striped bass should be. He released it quickly, smiling as it sprayed him with water with a broad slap of its tail.

The fishing continued with a slow but steady pick over the next hour. They were mostly schoolie stripers with a few that pushed the mid 20″ mark intermixed. But as all good things must end, the pace soon slowed to nothing but unrewarded casts. The lull seemed odd to Jack as the current was approaching full ebb and running at its strongest.

And that is when the blues showed up. They arrived under circling, hovering birds, like a swarm of hornets, slashing at a school of baitfish, sending it flying in all directions. The birds dove into the fray, risking being bitten in the effort to feast on the bait now pinned to the surface. It was barbaric how nature played. He watched the blitz surround the edge of the sedge island.

Jack stripped line and made a quick cast. The fly landed in the midst of the fray, the line coming tight with a thump that nearly jerked the rod from his hand. A bluefish raced off and bored deep into the current, stripping line with ease. Jack tightened the drag and his rod doubled over, bucking with the fight. Where striped bass were all torque, blues were all speed and power. They were fast, dogged battlers, yellow eyed demons, armed with razor-sharp teeth.

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Jack landed the first blue, rushing to get it released and to throw another cast before the blitz moved on. He hooked and landed a second blue that ran him into his backing – a big chopper stuffed to the gills with baitfish. And then they were gone almost as soon as they arrived. That is how they were – a brutish hit and run wolfpack. All that was left of them now were pieces of flesh and vomited baitfish drifting in the current, the aftermath of their lust to gorge. He watched as birds again circled and dove in the distance, now far out of reach. His mind drifted off again.

He thought about the call in the middle of the night from his sister. He knew before he even answered the phone that his mother was gone. His brother had gone to the nursing home to identify the body and as he returned and drove up the road to the house, he saw an unusually bright light. The light was at telephone pole height, and arced across the black night sky from the house and in the direction of the nursing home. His brother did not know what to think of it. It was too low to be a shooting star or low flying plane. And it was too bright and too fast also.

Jack thought more about heaven while searching the bay for more life. He could not think of heaven as a spring creek cutting through a soft meadow where every cast was met by a big rainbow or brown. This did not seem real to him. He wondered if heaven was no more than a void where pain, suffering, and fear did not exist. Or maybe it was like it was before he was born – unknown, unreachable, unthinkable. He was sure his mother was in heaven, but where?

The ebb tide gradually slowed to slack low and Jack knew he’d have to wait hours for the flood tide.  It had been a nice morning. He had gotten into them good and he smiled for that. But gnawing underneath was still the question.

It would be a long trudge to his car, skirting deep drop-offs on the sod banks along the back of the sedge island. He set off, the sun creeping higher in the sky, heating the day, and with the heating of the land, the onshore breeze stiffened.

As he waded along the sedge island, he caught movement in the grass nearby. Looking closer, he saw a terrapin struggling. It was tangled up in a mass of mono-filament line, exhausted by its bindings. Jack bent down and pulled the terrapin from the tall grass. He laid him on his bag and cut away at the tangle with his nippers. At last he freed him, carefully placing him back where he had found him.

The terrapin slowly moved deeper into the island grass. As it disappeared, a cool soft breeze seemed to envelop Jack and the heat of the day lifted, the sounds of distant laughing gulls, hushed. Jack stood up and looked around. The blanket of air surrounded him for a few minutes, then moved off, exposing him again to the heat of the sun and to the sounds, smells, and sights of the bay. But what was momentarily stilled seemed now much more clear and alive.

He continued his hike to the car, coming to the trail that crossed the sedge island. The trail weaved in and out of bayberry and holly, patches of sea grass, and stands of cedar. The sun was bright and high in the sky, and the laughing gulls cried out in their jesting way as if to make fun of Jack’s struggle. He stopped to look out on the bay one last time as he approached the access, the bay deep blue and white-capped. He felt his mother’s presence more clearly now than he ever had since she had passed. Looking back on the morning, he realized she was there in everything he saw and sensed. And it occurred to him then that his search had been too deep – his thought of heaven had been far more complex than it needed to be. Heaven, he believed, had always been right right under his nose – in his struggles, his passions, his needs, his questions, his joys, and his tears. And his mother, and indeed all of those he knew who had passed, were with him every time he thought of them.

Jack Hofen reached his car and raised his eyes to the bright sky. He was thankful for good fishing, but more so, for a catch he would not release. Heaven truly was, on earth.

 

 

The Golden Bear

Posted in Rod Building, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , on May 1, 2019 by stflyfisher

“And how you should make your rod skillfully, I will tell you. You must cut, between Michaelmas and Candlemas, a fair, smooth staff six feet long, or longer if you wish, of hazel, willow or aspen; and heat it in an oven when you bake, and set it as exactly straight as you can make it; then let it cool and dry for four weeks or maore. Then take it and bind it tight with a good cord to a bench or to an exactly squared timber. Then take a plumber’s wire that is straight and strong and sharp at one end. Heat the sharp end in a charcoal fire till it is hot, and pierce the shaft with it through the pith of the shaft — first at one end and then at the other until it is all the way through. Then take a bird spit and burn the hole as you think fit, until it is big enough for your purpose and like a taper of wax; and then wax it. …. In the same season, take a rod of white hazel and beath it even and straight, and let it dry in the same way as the staff; and when they are dry, make the rod fit the hole in the said staff…”

from “The Treatise of Fishing with an Angle” (1450) as modernized in “The Origins of Angling” by John McDonald (1963 Doubleday)

We got in late, unloaded the car, and settled into our place. Once everything was put away, I made my way to the owner’s closet. Inside, leaning against the far wall, was the big tube that housed a rod that had spent the last 7 months in fly fishing hibernation.

I pulled the fly rod – affectionately named “The Golden Bear” –  from the tube and with maker’s pride, joined its two pieces and assembled the removable fighting butt to the chrome reel seat. The rod felt as good as ever in hand. I admired the shiny green blank and the green and gold wraps, glistening with the high gloss of multiple coats of marine spar varnish. I sighted down the guides and felt great satisfaction and then a twinge of guilt for my pride, Catholic that I am…

I had built this rod with fly fishing the salt in mind. The guide set is PacBay, saltwater grade. The butt section sports three big stripper guides versus the normal two and all the snake guides and tip top are larger for shooting line. It has a 2″ fighting butt that helps with “putting it to the fish”, as they say. The PacBay blank is a medium-fast action – buttery smooth – faster with floating line and slower with sinking or sink-tip lines.

I caught some nice smallmouth bass with this rod in its first year…

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The Golden Bear and some bronzeback…

It was righteously baptized when I hooked a good-sized carp that ran far out into heavy river current and put a deep bend in the rod.

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Big carp are a rod-builder’s best field testers…

Its first year of freshwater rites of passage led to a one-way trip to Destin, Florida, where The Golden Bear has spent some good days in the surf and the bay. Heading up the beach one day I passed a young couple, fly fishers themselves from Colorado, who flagged me down to ask about the fly fishing. As we chatted, the husband seem to be fixated on the rod. “You made this?”, he said, almost in disbelief. He held it and gave it the fly rod wiggle. “Man, this is nice”.

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Redfish meets The Golden Bear…

 

And as recently posted here, the Golden Bear has also served in the freshwater of Destin.

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While I enjoy tying flies, I find rod-making a higher calling and a potentially marriage-threatening addiction. It is both technically interesting – there is an element of design in it – and a true act of craftsmanship. In rod-making, one combines skill and creativity to make a tool that can be used and admired, given as a gift, or sold. The same applies to fly tying, but a rod fished will be around a lot longer than a fly fished.  Too, it is a legacy craft. The very rod I fish may someday be the same one that starts another generation of fly fishers, remaining in family hands.

The Golden Bear has younger kin. I’ve now completed my fourth rod, the three descendants being an 8’9″ 4 piece 5 weight TFO Finesse given to my brother-in-law as a 60th birthday gift, a 9 foot 4 piece 8 weight built as a prototype river rod, named “The River Rat”…

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The River Rat…

…and a 9 foot 4 piece 9 weight TFO BVK aimed for saltwater duty in the Northeast.

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The 9 weight BVK blank getting wrapped…

Down the road, I plan to build a 9 foot 8 weight TFO BVK and a further improved 9 foot 8 weight River Rat. Also, recently added to the list is a 5 weight my cousin’s husband has asked me to build.

Graphite or glass rod making is the process of finishing a rod as opposed to bamboo rod-making where the actual rod blank is built and then finished. The equipment needed to build a graphite blank and the process is capital intensive – not that bamboo rod-making equipment is cheap – but potentially more in reach monetarily for the true enthusiast. But whether finishing or truly building a rod from the blank up, the process is soulful. Wrapping starts with symmetry and builds from there to inlays and other ornamental wraps. And while most makers coat their wraps with epoxy, I prefer to use marine spar varnish, in the tradition of master maker and teacher, Joe Swam. Varnish is more flexible and I think more weatherproof than epoxy, though more time-consuming in its application since 5 to 7 thin coats take much more time to apply than one coat of epoxy. The varnish lays flatter over the thread wraps – there is no bulge of coat like one often sees with rods that use epoxy – and ultimately varnish holds its gloss longer. And then there is that intoxicating and rich aroma…

Building a fly rod takes patience, something fly fishers should already have in spades, but also skill, an eye for detail, a creative sense, and the drive to see the build through. I think for as long as I walk this good earth I will continue to build fly rods, particularly in the cold winter months when a warm crackling fire burns in the fireplace, the snow coats the ground sugar-white, and the wind batters like a gale at the windows. Then, entranced in the act of building, interspersed with a sip of good scotch, I’ll think of the good days to come and another fine fly rod of my own to take me there…

Ole bucketmouth saves the day

Posted in Fishing Conditions, Fishing Reports, Saltwater, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , on April 25, 2019 by stflyfisher

It was an auspicious start. The first day of the annual spring vacation in Destin was too windy and stormy for fishing the surf or bay, so an evening visit to the lake just steps off our deck was in order.

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Just steps off the deck…

As the sun began to drop, I sight-fished the shoreline for largemouth bass and after some careful stalking took a personal best fish that jumped like a largemouth should and fought like they normally don’t (as in hard). As Kirk Klingensmith once said during an excellent presentation on fly fishing for bass, “for largemouth its all about the explosive take” (he relegated to smallmouth their rightful place as the harder fighter and no less a jumper). This largemouth bass must not have heard Kirk’s presentation.

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A personal best Florida largemouth…

What made that catch even more ego-stroking was the crowd that gathered as I landed it. Adults staying in townhouses adjacent to where I did battle were on their decks for cocktail hour. Before long I had a group of them hooting and hollering and giving praise. I felt righteous, indeed. After a quick picture, I released the fish, and headed back to my own place with a definite skip in my step.

But sometimes a little good luck is a bad thing, at least in the fishing world. I headed off the next day, eager to conquer the salt, full of optimistic visions from my last spring trip to Destin. Surely this year’s pompano run would afford me some great action, and unlike last year, I was eager to actually keep a few of these silver bullets of the surf. Pompano are, according to many in Florida, phenomenal table fare. Their flesh is light, fair, and firm to the point where they can be grilled with the skin on.

So off I went in the morning to the surf, high hopes and 8 weight in hand. I walked out across the dunes and there it was – disappointment immediately smacking me in the face. The typically clear emerald waters were dirty and rough. A few bait fishermen using sand fleas for bait – a favorite of pompano – had caught nothing. I walked the beach, cast for a little while into some deep sloughs between the beach and the first bar, and returned home with a big skunk on my back. Hero to zero…

I fished the bay, also turbid and seemingly void of fish. A conversation with the local Orvis fly shop’s fishing manager confirmed that the bay was off due to the rain and that I’d be best off to fish the surf. So with renewed hope, I returned to the surf again. The water was colder than last year and previous high winds from the south kept the surf on the rougher side, but clarity was improving and the wave heights were dropping with each passing day. I visited the beach a total of 4 times, and though each subsequent trip saw better conditions, my casts went unanswered. A conversation with a local fisherman confirmed that unusually cold weather had kept ocean temperatures in the low 60’s, whereas normally they’d be approaching 70. This would push back the fishing to later weeks in April or even early May.

Another frontal storm hit Destin on our second and last weekend there. High winds, rain, and cool weather prevailed. On our last day, Monday, the skies cleared bright blue, the sun warmed the air, and the winds abated. The beach had rip-tide warnings posted and the surf was still high, so I returned to fish the lake. We had a late afternoon flight that gave me enough time to get out one last time.

The bass were still around, though in most cases the spawning beds were empty. In some cases fingerlings could be seen in tight schools flitting about the empty beds. I sight cast to fish I saw and enjoyed the challenge of making precision casts. The smaller males guarded a few nests while the larger females hung back in the shadows of the adjacent depths. Both were cautious and spooky and not at all aggressive as they might be early in the spawn. But I did manage to get a few eats, missed a few, and landed a couple more.

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One of a few to wrap up our spring trip to Destin…

One never knows what may be in store when travelling to distant places, fly rod in hand. Weather can change and conditions can deteriorate, or conditions can be great and the fish just don’t show up. The great days, the ones that make a fly fisher thank his lucky stars or kiss his good luck charm can both bless and haunt. In the end it is really all a matter of doing thorough preparation and research, damping expectations, and arming one self with confidence and a bit of optimism. Once “in country”, one must try to recon conditions, use weather forecasts and river gauging, and visit local fly shops and talk to fishermen, including the spin guys, the bait guys, and even the commercial guys. All of these sources can help one steer towards a successful trip. Obviously, a fishing destination that is characterized by one “pattern”, as in one river system or one type of fish, carries more risk of the skunk in comparison to areas where there are multiple opportunities, such as in Destin, and our own Southern Tier. I never knew it, but Destin has turned out to be a terrific fishing destination. Most times I’ll always aim first for the salt, but now more than ever, I know ole bucketmouth is always there to save the day.

 

Goals…

Posted in goals, Rod Building, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , on March 16, 2019 by stflyfisher

I put down the windows for the rush of air and to discourage conversation. I’m thinking of one of the last times Chester and I ever fished together. We had a remarkable day of catching, and he turned to me as he winched the boat onto the trailer. He had a giant cigar clamped between his teeth, and a large grin. “Those are the kind of days that keep you young, son,” he said, and then he cranked the winch handle like a man half his age.

Fish Pimping

Callan Wink

I believe in goals. Without them, my life would feel rudderless – a ship at sea drifting, with no destination and ultimately no purpose. Every year I set goals, then circle back and look at how I did against them. Some years I do well, others I find myself to have strayed, but as once said by General Dwight D. Eisenhower;

In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.

And so, every year I do my best to look into the future and project a path for all areas of my life, including fly fishing. I am convinced I am a better fly fisherman for doing that.

My goals for 2018 were aggressive, perhaps too much so for the year that was. As mentioned in my looking back post, it was a difficult year for a number of reasons, and one that kept me high and dry, rather than wader wet, more often than I would have liked. So what follows is my assessment on my performance to 2018 goals:

  • Expand my knowledge of smallmouth bass. Never happened… (0%)
  • Read books related to fly fishing, talk to and fish with experts, and study smallmouth bass biology. (0%)
  • Read Dynamic Nymphing by George Daniel. Did not happen… (0%)
  • Learn to fly fish for Muskie. (0%)
    • Purchase line and leader
    • Tie flies
    • Study muskie fly fishing
  • Saltwater fly fish in Destin, FL. Scored big here! (100%)
    • Expand bay and surf fishing activity. Fished both extensively.
    • Target reds, trout, ladyfish, jacks, and spanish mackerel. Caught a nice red, lots of ladyfish, and lots of pompano.
  • Saltwater fly fish the NJ coast: Here again I scored big! (100%)
    • Spring bluefish bite – the spring bite was more about stripers, but I did get one blue. I’ll try this one again for 2019.
    • Fall albie bite – my timing of the fall albie bite, was off, but I did get out. 
    • Possible tuna trip – never made this one.
    • Stripers – got out in August but not in the fall.
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Dawn patrol, Barnegat Inlet…

  • Continue fly tying – learn to tie 5 more patterns. (100%)
    • Tied a number of unique patterns along with some of the usuals. One such pattern scored me my first ever Lake Trout!

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  • Float-fish the local warmwater rivers (6X). Did not float the rivers at all, mainly due to high water. (0%)
  • Fly fish, practice casting, or attend fly fishing events 100 times this year. As previously reported, I only got out 35 times in 2018. Attendance to fly fishing events was poor as was my practice of casting. (25%)
  • Learn to build leaders. (25%)
    • Buy leader kit – not done.
    • Buy leader micrometer – Completed.
    • Fish my leaders – I have built some leaders and fished them. (50%)
  • Night fish for trout. Never got out. (0%)
  • Build more fly rods / advance my rod building skills: I’ll give this one 100% considering:
    • “River Rat” prototype. Started late 2018 / completed in early 2019.
    • Saltwater fly rod. Started and completed in early 2019.
    • Fly rod for BCFF auction. Push this into 2019 / 2020.

 

Trying best to summarize with an overall score for 2018, I’d say I landed a 40% – not very good. But I’ll take the highs and plan for a better year in 2019.

After assessing my overall performance, I always take time to rethink and re-tool my goals. For 2019, I have re-categorized my goals, to give me a little more focus.

  1. Knowledge
    1. Read Dynamic Nymphing
    2. Study smallmouth bass biology
    3. Study casting – read books, watch videos
  2. Fishing
    1. Fish 100+ times.
    2. Recon / fish 5 new areas
  3. Casting
    1. Practice 25 times
    2. Study FFI Certified Casting Instructor
    3. Video my casting
  4. Tying
    1. Tie 5 new patterns
    2. Learn 1 new tying technique
    3. Perfect the Wooly Bugger, Clouser, and Half and Half
  5. Rod Building
    1. Build 3 rods
    2. Improve wraps
    3. Learn new inlays
    4. Establish rod workshop