Looking back on 2018…

Posted in Fishing Conditions, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , on February 11, 2019 by stflyfisher

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

I believe it is very important to take a look back on the year that was, reflect on it, and hopefully learn from it before looking forward to the New Year, making plans and setting new goals. So here is my look-back on another interesting year fly fishing in the Southern Tier…

Water, water everywhere… Mother Nature sent our area some climate curve-balls which had a big effect on fishing – in some cases helping, and in other cases outright shutting fishing down for certain species. One need only look at the climate chart for Binghamton to recognize that precipitation was way above normal.

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And this made some types of fishing challenging, especially for wading fly fishermen. Interestingly, average temps were higher than normal on both ends of the year, like bookends, yet the majority of the year, stayed within historical norms.

A review of the USGS water gauge for local creeks and rivers mimics what the overall climate chart shows:

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My home water, the Susquehanna River, was not wadeable until July, after which flows moved up and down erratically, requiring critical timing to hit windows of lower flows. The river was somewhat fishable for boat anglers, but even then, varying high flows made it a hit or miss proposition. The same was the case for the other warmwater rivers like the Chenango and Tioughnioga and even the Chemung which drains a completely different watershed.

Similarly, the West Branch of the Delaware also ran very high for most of the year. I did not wet a line once on this great river, and just a few times on other trout rivers / creeks for that matter.

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Fishing in my pond has been excellent in recent years, and 2018 was no exception. A winter kill in 2012 wiped out most of the bass and the fishing suffered for a few years but some selective restocking after the winter kill is already paying off. I think the overall balance of the pond’s fish species is better, resulting in fewer but bigger bass and some big sunfish. The grass carp have been restocked too and are thriving in the aquatic-rich pond environment.

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A pre-spawn largemouth out of Grippen Pond…

2018 was my absolute worst year fly fishing for smallmouth bass, my favorite gamefish species. I only got out a few times due to weather and a pretty busy personal life, but high unwadeable river levels are the primary cause for my absence from the river.

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This personal best walleye was the highlight of one of just a handful of outings on the Susquehanna River.

While fishing was way off for me for smallmouth bass and creek / river trout, 2018 will go down in my personal history as the greatest to date in the salt. Part of my saltwater activity was the result of having a place in Destin, Florida. There I have easy and quick access to the beach (the Gulf) and to Cowahatchee Bay. In April, I was able to cash in on an incredible run of pompano in the surf. On one day alone I caught and released over 30 of these “baby permit” that would hit clousers and crab flies aggressively and make high speed runs, using their tall side area to put on quite a fight. Throw in a few big ladyfish and you have quite a day. I also fished the bay and landed my first decent redfish.

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Little speedsters of the surf. Pompano are great game on an 8 weight…

Over Memorial Day weekend, I fished Barnegat Bay and caught 4 nice schoolie-sized striped bass off the sod banks – a first for me.

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Barnegat Bay striper…

The following day I went out with Captain Greg Cudnik, a great saltwater guide and owner of Fisherman’s Headquarters in Ship Bottom, NJ (on Long Beach Island). We fished the North Jetty from his boat and shook the skunk there early in the morning, but the real action turned out to be in the bay. We ended up drifting the flats and had a phenomenal day with schoolie stripers. In some cases I was hooked up on every other cast!

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I went again with Greg in the summer and had great luck with resident striped bass. Unfortunately, the timing of a fall trip with Greg for false albacore was off by a week or so. While we saw big schools of white bait (anchovies) the albies were not around. As is the case with fishing often times, it was a case of “you should have been here yesterday (in this case substitute with tomorrow)”…

Alaska! My wife and I were able to enjoy a dream trip to Alaska. The trip was a sea-land cruise package with Holland America in late August / early September. We cruised up the inside passage in Southeast Alaska. After leaving the ship in Seward, we took a motor coach to Denali. All of that nature got me thirsty for fly fishing. Fortunately, I had booked a one day float with FishHound Expeditions. My wife would tell you I booked a cruise to go fishing but I honestly figured if I am going all that way, I can’t NOT fish even if for only a day. And so we did

That’s right, “we” did fish. Well, more correctly, my wife went along for the ride at least. And with subdued tones, she would later admit it was a lot of fun.

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Another first for 2018 – my wife in waders!

I missed the 2018 fall steelhead / salmon season due largely to work commitments, but did manage to fish the Finger Lakes area where I work for short periods of time. I have found flexibility is key in making fly fishing opportunities happen, particularly when one works for a living. The fall FL trib runs were reportedly strong and I was able to cash in on a nice landlocked salmon on one evening of fishing with my cousin’s husband (he caught a nice lake-run brown – a first for him).

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I was also able to get out a few times to fish the lake at Taughannock Falls. Fly fishing friend John tipped me off on the good fishing with some sound advice and so I made my way there, with my cousin’s husband, John. The fishing was slow at first, almost to the point where I was ready to give up after slinging a full sinking shooting head and heavy streamer for a few hours, but while doing so, I had seen lake trout and even some brown trout milling about in the depths of the lake. These fish seemed a little skittish. But finally, as the sun got low in the sky, a bite materialized, if only for a half hour.

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Another first – laker on the fly!

Looking forward to a better 2019

My log of fly fishing days for 2018 was on the light side. I made it out 35 times, compared to past years when I fished 100+ days. One’s odds of fishing success are bound to improve the more one wets a line. Having said that, this year was truly unique in the number of “firsts”, compared to previous years, so in retrospect, maybe it was a good year of a different sort.

In 2019, I hope to log a lot more time on the water than I did in 2018. Be looking for my annual goals blog post, where I will once again look at how I did against last year’s goals, and lay out some new ones for 2019. I am already wondering what Mother Nature will have in store for us weather -wise. I am itching for much needed relief of bronzeback fever, sooner rather than later. Maybe the spring will be dry and I’ll have a shot at pre-spawn smallies. But there’s that great Pompano bite, drop-back steelhead, pond bass, tributary rainbows, early season creek fishing, and the Delaware waiting in the wings as well. We are certainly blessed with more opportunity for fly fishing than many other locales. There’s just not enough lifetime to do it all. Here’s to 2019!

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Lasts

Posted in Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , on January 26, 2019 by stflyfisher

In memory of John Raymond Hatfield…

1928 – 2004

The salmon were in. From above the tail-out of Plumber’s Pool, I saw them; a big hen holding over a bed of gravel and a handsome buck guarding her as jack salmon took turns trying to dislodge the larger suitor. The water suspended them in its glassy flow, a gift from the river’s far reaching fingers. Just upstream, a towering falls thundered, casting its froth to the wind and cooling the air even more than it should in late autumn.

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From my perch on the bridge, I watched an angler emerge from the scrub of the river bank to fish the pool. He shuffled with elder steps, his stooped posture and bowed head that of a blue heron in stalking. His long mane, white as the falls-cast spray, whipped in waves as the wind buffeted him. He tried in vain to cast high enough into the pool to allow his streamer to sink well before the tail-out. His casting stroke was slow and deliberate – his long rod moved the way it should – but the wind overcame his frailty. Wise in years, he moved upstream and deeper to improve his position, but the unyielding current rebuffed him even as he leaned into it with his wading staff.

The angler’s struggle brought thoughts to mind of my late father-in-law, Ray. I could see his shadow looming through the translucent glass of a doctor’s office door. Framed in rich mahogany, the scene played out: an upright shadow approached, leaning down to him, speaking in hushed tones. At the age of 58, Ray listened to his doctor give the final prescription: he should retire and live out as many years as he could before his failing lungs took their last breath.

Silent to a fault and with a stiff upper lip, Ray never showed what likely ate away at him during those final years. He did the best he could with his sentence, retiring early, and building a house on the ninth hole, a place he duly deserved after 30 years of commuting from New Jersey to New York City while raising 6 kids, living, loving, and perhaps, wanting a bit more. Golf had somehow eluded the busyness of working life, so those first years of retirement were lived deliberately, ushered in with late morning risings, choice tee times, and capped with sunsets and vodka gimlets, both welcomed but measured. Eventually, however, the doctor’s words cast their pall and one day on the very course that hugged his retirement dream home, a final swing was made.

Now, as I approach that same age, I think of my father-in-law sitting before the doctor, the scene that we watch in our own way and that all of us must act in at some point in our lives. Golf, fly fishing – life itself – is a continuum of firsts punctuated by an inflection point, where lasts begin.

And so I watched the elderly angler finally give up the ghost. He looked up at me, as if cursing fate, his mouth gaping open and ringed white from exertion. He ambled into the riverside brush and I followed with my own retreat to a warm car. Fall waned that day and winter waited hauntingly in its wings. And I wondered as I walked away; would he remember his last cast, and would I, my own?

 

The Grinch…

Posted in Flies - Local Favorites, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , on December 23, 2018 by stflyfisher

I am not alone at all, I thought. I was never alone at all. And that, of course, is the message of Christmas. We are never alone. Not when the night is darkest, the wind coldest, the world seemingly most indifferent. For this is still the time God chooses.
Taylor Caldwell

Jack Hoffen arrived in the dark, having hiked a good mile through snow from his car. He looked down-river in the faint light of dawn and took solace in the view. The silver lining in the dark cloud that followed him was that he was the only angler on his favorite Great Lakes tributary.

It felt good to be fishing, especially without the typical crowds, but most of all because fishing always lightened his emotional load. During his most trying times he had made a point of going fishing despite the weather or conditions, as he knew he would end the day with a fresh perspective on a problem or at least with the will to face it on his feet. Today, especially, he needed to get away from his troubles, for it was Christmas Day.

The morning sky had dawned bright and clear and the sun had given Jack some relief from the bitter cold. But as morning turned to afternoon, snow squalls swept in and darkened the sky, coating the ground with yet another layer of lake-borne snow. Fringed in the white of the woods, the river ran quietly by, its sounds deadened to a soft murmur.

Jack had fished a broad riffle and deep run all morning and early afternoon and then made a move to a choke point in the river upstream where big boulders had been placed to protect a high bank from erosion. He watched the swirling waters of the eddy that the boulders formed and thought how similar his emotions had been lately. The spot had been good to him in the past but now, absent anglers, he could fish it better than he ever had. But none of the egg patterns he used earlier that day had worked and it was bothering him. He had adjusted leader length, weight, tippet size, and changed later to an indicator set-up with no luck. Even the Salmon River Gift, a favorite pattern for killing the skunk, was not drawing strikes. It was as if the steelhead and browns had taken the holiday off.

Jack opened his sling pack, searching for answers. Digging deep into his bag, he pulled out a box of woolly buggers. He had not opened the box since the spring when black sparkle buggers had been the ticket for dropback steelhead. The woolly buggers were arranged in tight, orderly rows in the box, much like the sardines he had wolfed down for lunch. He grew sad thinking about the spring and its excellent dropback fishing and how a great day on the river had ended so badly. He remembered returning home that evening, and finding the note. He grew sadder still thinking about where his life had taken him: a cold can of sardines on a lonely river on Christmas Day.

Emotions welled up while Jack looked at the box. Reality bit as hard as a steelhead taking a fly on the swing. His eyes clouded up with tears, several of which dropped into the box and onto the flies in their neat rows. And that is when Jack noticed a different color bugger emerge that had, until then, lay hidden by its black and olive box-mates. Pulling the fly out, he recognized it as a pattern a guide had him fish on the Bighorn River many years ago, in happier times. The pattern was called “The Grinch”, and for good reason: it was dressed in glorious Christmas color; red and green sparkle chenille body, red wire counter-wrap, and an olive tail accented with red flash. Maybe, he thought, this pattern was different enough to rouse a strike. Darkness was approaching as he tied on this last hope of a fly. He decided to fish it dead drift off an indicator, letting it swing as it tailed out downstream.

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The Grinch (picture courtesy of East Rosebud Fly and Tackle)

Jack lobbed the rig up above the river chute and high-sticked it, watching the white indicator as it bobbed down the fast water of the chute and into the run below. Once it had swung out, he let it hang briefly in the current and repeated the process like any good steelheader would do. After a few drag-free drifts, he changed his cast so the rig would drift closer to the large boulder that formed the choke point in the river. The indicator rode the heavy water, then shot underwater as it passed the eddy formed by the boulder. Jack immediately swept his rod down and to the side and felt the heavy sponginess of a good fish. It was all he could do to recover the slack caused by the fish as it immediately reversed course and rocketed down the river. At last the line came tight and the drag brought the fight to the fore. A lengthy battle ensued up and down the pool.

Jack beached the fish on the smooth gravel bank at the tail of the pool. The buck steelhead laid there looking almost as dark as the water, with the Grinch prominently adorning the point of its kype. He removed the fly, briefly admired the fish, and then held the big steelhead in the current to revive it. Slowly its strength came back and then it was gone, back to its icy black world.

Day’s end neared now: the sun had dropped behind the hills to the west and Jack began to think about the long hike ahead of him through the deep snow of the woods. He wished he had brought his snow shoes. Before leaving the river, in a moment of charity that belied his troubles, Jack clipped the fly off and left it on a prominent flat rock at the pool tail-out. ‘The Grinch may have stolen Christmas, but this Grinch gave it back’, he thought. Perhaps some lonely, discouraged angler, like himself, would discover it. And perhaps too, it would do more than catch a steelhead on an otherwise luckless day, as it had for him.

Jack started the hike back to his car. The snow was deeper than he thought and he labored against it, breathing heavily as he lifted his legs high to move forward with each step. The sky had cleared again and the wind had dropped. He could see the stars overhead, bright pinpricks that winked at him amidst the inky black heavens. The woods was beautifully silent and still.

Jack thought about the steelhead and the fly that saved his day. The fly reminded him of  characters of Christmas stories whose lives, sad, destitute or seemingly doomed, had been saved: the Grinch’s heart had grown three sizes larger, Ebeneezer Scrooge had become a better man, and George Bailey discovered that one had no troubles who had friends. Jack could not be sure his wife would ever forgive him or even return to him, nor could he bet that his children would ever open their hearts to him again. But for the first time in a long time, Jack Hoffen looked forward to the future. Hope had come to him in the form of a fly. He had a lot of Grinches to tie before this Christmas ended.

 

 

 

Redfish and the value of fly fishing…

Posted in Fishing Conditions, Fishing Reports, Flies - Local Favorites, Saltwater, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , on October 19, 2018 by stflyfisher

“What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.”

Thomas Paine

I awoke eager to see what the wind was doing early that morning. Looking out the back sliding glass door of our townhouse, I could see the lake behind our place was as still as a mill pond – a nice sight for a saltwater fly fisher. Even the palm fronds were still.

I made some coffee and busied myself with cleaning my line and getting my gear and flies in order. I wanted to get to the bay before the wind came up and while the light was still low on the water.

The bay was still flat when I arrived, with just a few sporadic cat’s paws on the bay’s surface. The water was cool, shocking me more so out of warmer expectations, but once in, it felt just fine as I waded to where the the salt marsh began.

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I started out fishing a small pink and white clouser on an intermediate sink tip line. My 8 weight fly rod – the first fly rod I ever built – proved perfect for fishing the bay water. In a few past outings in spring and fall, I focused my fishing efforts on the deeper water of the bay – the channels, sloughs – and then on the potholes – slight depressions on the flats that sometimes harbor fish. But after dredging the depths with nothing to show for it on this morning, I decided to change the game plan and explore new bay water, well beyond where I’d ever gone.

I waded along the salt marsh grass, stepping as carefully as a blue heron stalking the shallows, scanning the water for shadows or signs of fish. I changed my fly to a small shrimpy looking pattern that cast easily and was light enough to enter the water with little splash.

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The Hot Legs Foxy Gotcha – pic courtesy of Orvis.com

As I approached the mouth of a tidal creek, I noticed two forms slowly move out from the shoreline. I followed their movement and immediately recognized them as good-sized redfish. They didn’t appear spooked but I questioned whether it was worth a cast to them as they lazily swam out. I decided ‘what the hell’ and made a 15 foot cast the put my fly slightly ahead of them and to their right. I allowed the fly to sink a bit and gave it a twitch-strip and I was tight to a red.

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The red bolted bayward and I frantically cleared the slack line and got the fish on the reel. It then swam hard in a long wide circle, swinging back towards me. It was a nice fish and had its friend swimming alongside the entire fight, apparently checking to see what all the fuss was about.

I soon slid the red up on a break in the salt marsh where there was sand. The shrimp fly was perfectly set in the corner of its mouth. Clad in hues of copper, pink, and red, I noticed even dark blue on its tail, and the unmistakable black dot as well.

With that first success in hand, I continued to stalk the salt marsh edges and saw at least half a dozen more fish. One more showed interest, but refused at the last moment.

Later as the sun rose and the wind began to come up, I made my way back to leave the bay, stopping briefly to talk with a spin fisherman who had been casting from a long pier. He had been using a popping cork rig and shrimp. The float was supposed to rattle and pop, attracting the attention of redfish to the bait. It seemed clumsy and I didn’t see that there was any way he’d catch a thing given the low clear water, the high sun, and the “spook” factor of the fish.

“Getting anything?”, he asked as he looked down from the pier. He was old, tanned, white-haired, and dressed in white sneakers, socks pulled up high, a neat T-shirt, and golf shorts, appearing more like he was running errands in town than going fishing.  “I got one nice redfish”, I said. “What are you using?,” he asked. I showed him the shrimp fly. “I’m not a lure guy” he said without a hint of disdain. “I like to use bait”.

We talked a little more and then bid each other farewell. I finished my way back to the bay access and by that time the wind was breezing up and the sun was high in the sky. I was wet from the wade but comfortably warm with the breeze taking the edge off the late-morning heat. The bay was a checkerboard with patches of light water over sandy bottom and alternating darker patches where the turtle grass grew dark green and lush.

As I approached the bay access, I met another man about my age who was relaxing on a bench while his dog ran around the bay beach. He asked me how I did and we began talking about fishing. He claimed to be a fly fisher, saying he had an 8 weight in a closet of his condo but admitted he had never thought of fishing the salt with his fly rod.

This man told me a bit about his life and his fishing adventures, which were extensive. He had owned a big center console boat and had fished the deeper offshore water of the Gulf, but only occasionally in the bay. He finally sold his boat due to the high cost of ownership and the fickle species regulations for offshore waters. He had also fished other saltwater areas, most notably the Keys, but again he had never thought to bring his fly rod along. I told him he should break that 8 weight out and give the bay a try, and maybe even the surf. But I sensed his reticence. Perhaps it was too complicated, perhaps he feared he didn’t have the skills, or maybe he didn’t believe saltwater gamefish would come to the fly.

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The ride home…

So I left the bay, hiked back to the golf cart, and headed home, thinking about my experience. I was happy after a nice morning on the water, exploring new water, unique methods, and feeling good about a plan that came together. To top that, my redfish had been a “first”, hopefully to be followed by more in the years ahead on that emerald bay.

But beyond happy, I was thankful for the skills fly fishing had taught me. While no fishing is easy, catching fish with a lure is challenging, but to catch a fish on a fly is, arguably, the ultimate of fishing challenges. That challenge comes in many forms to the fly fisher, and particularly in the salt: wind and current test casting and line control, casting comes with it’s own set of technical difficulties in that lines, flies, and tackle are heavier, and fly rods are often faster action. Finding fish is dependent on a lot of new factors when compared to freshwater fly fishing: tidal changes, wind direction that can move water and vary water temperature, fog, and other environmental factors. And then there are the fish themselves. But for those who can prevail over the difficulty, fly fishing can be far more satisfying. With that satisfaction comes the confidence to keep on, and ultimately, achieve a level of effectiveness one never thought possible.

So I am thankful for redfish and, for that matter, all fish that beckon a cast. Because of them, I am a better angler.

 

FishHound

Posted in Fishing Reports, Trout Fishing, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , on October 7, 2018 by stflyfisher

“If I fished only to capture fish, my fishing trips would have ended long ago.

Zane Grey

He sat upright in the back of the pick-up truck, like a tall, dome-headed, and very dignified old man. Adam, owner of FishHound Expeditions, opened the back door of his truck and there he was, “Hatch”, a blue-tick coonhound of massive scale and the namesake for Adam’s growing guiding business. I let Hatch sniff my open hand, then pet him. He lightly pawed at me when I stopped. He had those droopy eyes, lazy ears, and goofy charm only a hound-lover could appreciate. I was smitten…

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“Rado”, left, along with the original FishHound, “Hatch”… (picture courtesy of FishHound Expeditions)

Hatch would not be accommodating my wife and I on our fly fishing float, unfortunately, but there was another “guide dog” in the offing. Adam asked if I was OK fishing with “Little Bear”. After meeting the Malamute/Australian Shepherd mix, I was all aboard.

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Little Bear checks out one of many rainbow trout netted by Jay, our guide.

Before launching our raft, our guide, Jay, told me he needed to take his truck and trailer down to the takeout. My wife followed him in our rental car and Adam drove his truck, already occupied by FishHound Expedition’s two official canines, the honorable Hatch and his sidekick, Rado. Before leaving, Jay set me up with a nymphing rig to fish the beautiful riffle and run at the access while he was gone. One of the many nice offerings FishHound Expeditions provides to customers is tackle and waders. In this case I fished a Redington 9 foot 6 weight rod with WF floating line. The rig was a classic indicator set-up. On the business end Jay had an Alaskan favorite – the bead. I fished the indicator rig at the head of the run and worked it from the top to the tail-out. After just a few casts, I landed a 14″ rainbow that spent more time airborne than in the water. A little later I hooked a 18’ish+ rainbow – another acrobat – but this one threw the hook after a few fantastic sky-borne jumps. Then just in time for the return of Jay, Adam, and my wife to the access, I was into my third rainbow.

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Early success! This third rainbow really made my day and we hadn’t even started the float!

Jay netted my fish and Adam high-five’d me. Shortly after, as we readied the raft for our float, Jay commented that he could see I didn’t need “Fly Fishing 101”, a before-float class he gives to newbie and beginning anglers. It’s always nice to get a compliment from a guide!

Willow Creek is full of wild rainbows. These fish feast on an abundance of salmon eggs in late summer along with the flesh of dead spawned-out salmon. As we began the float, Jay explained that despite the presence of October caddis, midges, and a few mayflies, the rainbows key in on both salmon eggs and salmon flesh as these food sources provide “more bang for the buck” in terms of nutritional value.

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Jay at the oars with Little Bear, ever-present at my side, on lookout…

We launched onto Willow Creek with me in the bow, Jay at the oars, and my wife in the stern seat. My wife was not fishing, but it was a first for me to; 1) have her on a float trip, and 2) have her floating IN waders!

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My wife in waders, and not any low-budget waders, but top-of-the-line Patagonia…

From the access we drifted the clear, cold waters of Willow Creek, a tributary to the Susitna River. We were fishing the lower half of the river. FishHound Expeditions guides the upper and lower Willow, and considers this gem of a tributary to be their home water, and for good reason. The Willow turns out to be one of the most popular fisheries in South Central Alaska, although on the day we fished it, with the salmon run essentially over, it was as if we had the Willow all to ourselves. Located about 60 miles north of Anchorage on the Parks Highway, Willow Creek offers excellent fishing for four of the major salmon species: kings, silvers, chums and pinks. In addition to big rainbows (up to 30 inches), the Willow also holds Dolly Varden, Arctic Grayling, and even small numbers of burbot and whitefish.

Willow Creek gets a strong run of salmon each year because of the excellent spawning habit it holds. The creek’s bottom is a majority composition of pebbles, cobble, and small rocks. And it is full of snags, the result of downfalls of the white spruce that dominate the land. The creek is named for the presence of of the ubiquitous Alaska willow – not the willow of the Eastern US that Southern Tier fly fishers may be so familiar with – but a shrub-like willow that is the preferred forage for the abundant moose. Indeed, during a bio-break to the bush I saw numerous moose tracks and dung.

Since we were nymphing with an indicator, the key to “bead” success was a true dead-drift presentation. Fishing from a drift boat – in this case a spacious raft – made a dead drift that much easier, but I had no problem hooking up when we stopped and waded a bit as well.

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Willow’s wild rainbows are beautiful, strong, and egg-crazy…

The snags made fishing a little more challenging. The Willow is definitely a “woody” creek and anglers would be advised to have a lot of flies, shot, and rigging materials on hand to do well here. As much as I tried to pull my rig out of potential snags, I still lost flies with some regularity. The saying goes, if you’re not hanging up, you’re not fishing effectively, but I started feeling bad with the number of times Jay had to re-rig me. Nonetheless, Jay always had an alternate rod rigged for the inevitable quick change-out. That alternate rod was rigged the same way but instead of a bead, had a flesh fly on the business end.

As with the bead, I’d never fished a flesh fly. Jay instructed me to fish it dead drift like the bead, but to give it some time to tail out before picking up and casting again. There were dead salmon hung up here and there in the snags, and Jay was able to demonstrate, “in the flesh” (pun intended) what the real thing looks like in the water by nudging a dead salmon. Sure enough, a chunk the size of my fly came loose with Jay’s prod of the oar and it drifted seductively downstream. The flesh fly I was using was tied by Jay, and looked just like the real thing in the water. My first “flesh” drift proved just so as I hooked up with another nice rainbow.

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A flesh fly similar to the one Jay tied and had me use.

Partway through our float Jay decided to change things up. At four different times, smaller rainbows rose to the pink indicator I was using. They were beautiful with their plentiful spots, emerging from the clear green of the creek, pausing a millisecond to study the indicator and then trying to take it with a swirl. I laughed at their vigor and Jay added, “can you imagine what they’re thinking?” “That’s gotta be the biggest salmon egg I’ve ever seen…” But that display gave Jay an idea. He tied on a slightly larger bead with a stronger pink color to it. After our shore lunch he showed me a real salmon egg he had found among the pebbles of the creek’s bottom. The bead egg was pretty close to the size and color (very pale white/orange) of the actual egg, but he wanted to see if the size and color change might further improve our results. First cast with the new bad and I was immediately into a rainbow, followed by many more. We continued to use that new color bead along with the flesh fly.

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This rainbow had a faint lime color to its lower sides…

Midway through the float, Jay pulled us over to a long gravel bar. There he set up shore lunch – a small portable grill and cooler – reindeer brats, chips, apples, beer, water. We stood and talked as Jay cooked the brats. Little Bear lay down on the gravel, very content. And the Willow washed by.

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Guide-turned-chef, Jay, sets up a nice shore lunch…

After shore lunch, we continued our float down the Willow. The Willow often appeared as creek, stream, and river. Wide sweeping stretches with deep holes made me think more of the West Branch of the Delaware, mid-sized riffles – the Beaverkill, and then narrow choke points had a bit of lower Owego Creek flavor.

As we worked farther downstream, we began to see a few silver salmon in the deeper holes. At one nice run Jay pulled ashore and rigged an 8 weight rod with a streamer. He said it might be possible to rouse one of the silvers if they were holding in the deeper holes and backwaters.

We gave it a shot, casting the Dolly Llama, a favorite streamer for salmon in Alaska…

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With no one apparently home in the salmon hole, we continued our float, slipping easily down the Willow.

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Jay deftly maneuvers our raft through a choke point and downfall…

I’ll never tire of indicator fishing. And on the Willow, it was all the more exciting, casting to its deep snaggy holes and imagining what egg-crazy rainbow might be laying in wait. This was new water, truly wild, and a frontier farther west than I’d ever fished.

We hauled out where the Willow met the Susitna River – a big brawling glacial river, slate-grey in color, braided like a pretzel across a wide river valley. Born of Denali, the Susitna flowed to Anchorage and emptied into the Pacific.

Before hauling out, Jay paused long enough to let me get a few more drifts in. I fished the seam where the Willow’s clear flows met the silty flows of the Susitna, and quickly caught three more rainbows – a wonderful send-off to a trip that went way too fast.

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Last cast…

For those who have never fished Alaska, my experience with FishHound Expeditions had me immediately planning a return trip. I cannot recommend them enough! There are a lot of choices of quality outfitters in Alaska, and on top of that, myriad fishing possibilities from fly fishing small creeks for grayling to fishing the big salmon runs. Locations are another choice with overwhelming possibilities, given the size of the state. But I would definitely consider a trip or trips with FishHound Expeditions, particularly if you are in the Anchorage area. In addition to floats of their homewater, FishHound offers trips to the back country via plane or helicopter. These trips expand opportunities in fly fishing to big fish days and luxury back-country glamping.

As I write this, I am at once missing the good country, great fishing, and the hardy people that make Alaska. This wonderful day on Willow Creek offered a fine taste of a place that beckons me back. One day I’ll return, and maybe, just maybe, spend an extended trip in the backcountry with fishhounds…

Youth…

Posted in Flies - Local Favorites, Smallmouth Bass Fishing, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , on July 6, 2018 by stflyfisher

Youth has no age.

Pablo Picasso

I arrived at the post office parking lot in Lisle and parked my car as I normally do, off to the very far corner of the lot facing the flood dike, a mountainous wall of green. Beyond the big berm that protected the village lay the river, flowing timelessly, emptying itself to bigger rivers downstream, it’s brother the Chenango, and its bigger brother, the mighty Susquehanna. Soon enough a mini-van pulled up alongside and 3 happy kids burst out the doors. I greeted them and asked the first, Ben, the boy twin of 15, if he knew what river we were fishing. His response was immediate, “the Tioughnioga”, pronouncing it correctly to my surprise. Then I asked him to spell it, which he did almost as easily. I was impressed…

It took a while to string up the 4 rods; one each for Ben, Corrine (twin sister to Ben), Bodie, younger brother, and Mike, father and coworker. I searched a streamer / nymph fly box and tied on what I thought might work for the smallmouth bass and fallfish that called the river home. I chose a variety of nymphs and streamers, including the Carey Special, tied by fly fishing friend Eric Tomosky.

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One version of a Carey Special. Picture courtesy of fellow fly fishing blogger, PlanetTrout.

Soon we were off on our way to the river, crossing the flood plain, then climbing up the tall dike bank and stopping at its top to survey the river below, moving clear and happy. Mike’s kids then scrambled down the grassy bank, with Mike and I following them to the  river’s edge.

The river edge was a high clay bank, a man’s height to the water, steep and abrupt as if it was guarding the river from easy access. The bank was the result of years of spring floods cutting the mud and clay of the flood plain. Those floods had scoured and cut the bottom to its bedrock over time, creating a long deep pool. As we spied its depths, we could see big carp cruising up river, then sliding back into the murky depths of the pool, like they were playing a game in the current. Here and there, smallmouth bass, walleye, and fallfish swam about, and for all of these fish it was tempting to cast to them but experience had taught me to skip the fishing there for now. The area was completely void of trees and was open to the bright sun, making all the pool’s residents very wary, and rightfully so with eagles and ospreys around. The setting sun would beckon us back when the time had come.

Just below the bridge the pool tailed out and ended with the start of a riffle. We crossed there to fish from the far bank where it was shallow and forgiving to hapless waders such as kids may be. On the way down-river the kids busied themselves with the life of the river. Ben immediately caught a crawfish with his bare hands and examining it, patiently unpricked the crustacean’s hold on his fingers with the patience of Job and without so much as an “ouch.” The little crawdad was a mix of colors – dark olive and faint orange. As we waded across the rock-strewn shallows, they scattered by the dozen like cockroaches do to a newly lit light.

The riffle we crossed fed into a run that cut against the opposite bank. This piece of water had always been rich with small bass, fallfish, and walleye. When I first fished it, I became almost agitated by the plenty of small fish. It was one of those places that screamed bigger fish but several years of summer and fall fishing had never produced anything larger than 10″, so I deemed this spot beginner’s water, but never ceased to fish it quickly and thoroughly on the way to the deep pool below it.

We waded in at the head of the run, spread out, and began casting. I left my rod at the bank and moved around Mike and his kids, giving pointers, untangling lines on occasion, trying to be a good “guide” and hoping my advice might produce some fish. For whatever reason, the smallmouth bass were on vacation that day but fallfish and small walleyes filled the void. Mike caught a few, then Corinne caught one but Bodie and Ben were fish-less.

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Mike and his kids lined up fishing the Tioughnioga.

While Corrine and Bodie were enthusiastic, it was Ben who stood out as one who really enjoys fly fishing. I watched him cast apart from the others. His casting stroke showed promise. He’d look up as he cast, even watching his back-cast. His determination was admirable, especially with a fly rod and line that was, in my opinion, holding him back from improving. At one point I tried casting his rod and found it flat. The line itself seemed like level line and the rod was slow and awkward. At that point I picked up my own rod and asked him if he wanted to try fishing the deeper pool below.

We waded down below the rest of the group, moving down the river a few steps at a time, casting with each few steps. I would cast and hand Ben my rod, instructing him how to strip the fly, how to point the rod tip low at the fly, and how to keep in contact with the fly. He picked this up quickly. We waded down into the deep pool where the week before, as well as many times before that, I had caught large channel cats.

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I had wished Ben could have felt the tug of a nice channel cat on the fly rod…

I wanted badly for him to feel the solid stop of the fly on the strip, or better yet, a jolting take, and then the good hard “tug of war” that catfish play so well, but it was not to be that evening.

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The deep hole where I have caught many channel cats on the fly. This is leech water too!

As the sun set, I decided it was time to make a move upriver to the deep pool above the bridge where earlier, we had watched large carp, smallmouth bass, and walleye flirt in the current. I moved up there with Ben in tow. Corrine and Bodie followed, with Mike in the rear. Fishing from the far shore did not produce anything, so we waded back down at the tail of the pool, crossed, and walked back up the steep bank where we could have a better look at what was going on.

The fish were still there. At least a dozen big carp were milling about, some displaying feeding postures as they ransacked the bottom with their rubbery mouths. The smallmouth were there too, often times trailing the feeding carp waiting for a morsel the carp’s bottom carousing might stir up to drift downriver, hapless and helpless – an easy meal. And we could see fallfish and walleye as well. So we began to cast.

Mike started picking up small walleye here and there. They seemed to like the movement of the large black hackle on his Carey Special. I surmised it looked leechy in the water, and no walleye can pass up the seductive dance of a swimming leech. Ben, Bodie, and Corrine all tried, but with time Bodie and Corrine seemed to have had enough, and wandered off back to the car to change out of their wet clothes. Ben was relentless and his fervor grew more intense with every walleye Mike caught. Mike would hand his own rod to Ben but the magic seemed to vanish, only to come back when Mike cast again.

I was casting for a shot at the carp. Again, if I could entice a take, I wanted to give Ben a chance to feel the power of these fish. I cast and cast, trying best to lead the feeders but sometimes forgetting to take into account the drop of the steep bank. Eventually I got better and at last got a nice follow from a carp. It pursued my crayfish imitation with serious interest, but I ran out of water. I let the fly go to the bottom and the carp nosed down at it but just short of sucking it up, turned away. Smart fish, they are.

We continued fishing as dusk came. Corrine and Bodie returned from the car, Corrine pointing to a fat leech on her leg. I laughed as Mike continued to fish. I had warned him days before our trip that without waders, one could pick a leech up in the muddier parts of the river. He later explained the kids were used to them from their vacations at big backwoods lake in Maine. Indeed, Corrine seemed unfazed as Mike tried to remove it. It was firmly attached and I slipped my hemostats under the head and finally yanked it off without so much as a word from Corrine, tough girl that she was.

We decided to give up the ghost as the light faded. Back at the cars we said our goodbyes. The kids were in Mike’s minivan as fast as they had bust out of it earlier that evening.

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Looking downriver on the Tioughnioga as dusk approaches. The native American Indians that called the Southern Tier home named it to mean “meeting of waters”. Difficult to pronounce, the name is as beautiful as the river and its surroundings.

Driving home, I paralleled the Tioughnioga through the village of Whitney point, passed the Chenango in Binghamton and then crossed the Susquehanna as I sped along Rt 17. My mind relived the hours past – walking down to the river bank with the anticipation of a kid on Christmas, seeing the great carp as they held in the current of the river, watching young Ben eyeing his back-cast and beginning to form loops, drinking up the enthusiasm Mike’s kids brought to the river. I realized then how important it is to fish with kids, even if just once in a while. For heading home that night, I was young again…

Fly fishing Barnegat Bay’s spring bite

Posted in Fishing Conditions, Fishing Reports, Saltwater, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , on June 14, 2018 by stflyfisher

On the Sunday afternoon before Memorial Day, I made the 4 hour trek down to the Jersey shore to spend some time with my Dad and to fish the infamous spring bite in Barnegat Bay. Fishhead Greg, a charter captain I had fished with twice last fall and owner of Fisherman’s Headquarters, had recommended it, after all. Captain Greg had told me that the striped bass fishing can be outstanding in the spring as fish migrate northward on the feed. And beyond the stripers, “racer” blues, so named for their somewhat emaciated appearance (big head and skinny body), invade the relatively warm waters of Barnegat Bay to feed voraciously in the shallows. The bite, as Captain Greg would say, can be “off the charts”, good. In particular, seeing a big bluefish crash a popper in 4 feet of water is something all fly anglers should see at least once in their life.

As recounted in my Memorial Day post, I fished the sod banks on my own on the first morning of my visit and tallied my first striped bass on the fly. With the skunk shook off, fishing with Greg the following morning HAD to be good! Indeed it was…

I talked with Greg the afternoon before our trip. As usual, he talked at length about conditions and possible game plans. He had not had good luck on Memorial Day and was seeking “revenge.” He had some concerns about the cold water that had been flooding into the inlet as a result of prevailing southerly winds. These winds are known to move the warmer top water, resulting in an upwelling of cold bottom water. And that cold water can really put the brakes on the bite.

Greg said that trolling had been a hit or miss proposition, though some big fish had been caught. And since he knew I was really all about fly fishing, he decided on a three-pronged attack for our trip: 1) fish the jetties and inlet, 2) come inside and fish the sod banks, and 3) fish the flats. This would all be done fly fishing. Greg’s rationale was that there is always life in the inlet. If the inlet didn’t fish well, we’d fish the sod banks where I had some success, and then at high slack water, we’d hit the flats where he’d gotten reports of schoolie stripers in abundance. The plan sounded great to me, and after all, I’ve always tried to follow the guide’s advice. They know the water.

And so we met early on an overcast and misty Tuesday morning. It was warmer than Memorial Day and would brighten and warm up more throughout the morning. Greg had his boat, The Fishhead, at a new slip close to Barnegat Light. I arrived at 5:30 am and found him busy at work prepping for the day.

After loading my gear on board, we stowed my rigged rods. I brought a 10 weight Scott Tidal with a floating line armed with a Bob’s Banger popper, a 10 weight TFO TFR (“tough fly rod”) with a sinking tip line armed with a 2/0 chartreuse half and half, a 9 weight Orvis Clearwater with an WF intermediate line armed with a 1/0 clouser, and an 8 weight TFO Professional Series II with an intermediate sink tip armed with a size 2 clouser.

We were soon headed straight out to the inlet. The sea in the inlet was mild with barely a light wind blowing out of the south. Greg nudged me up within casting range of the submerged section of the North Jetty. Armed with my 10 weight and a sink tip line, I cast the weighted half and half and let each cast sink on a ten count before I started a fast retrieve. After only a few minutes I felt a bump as the fly neared the boat and then as I pulled the fly up for a backcast, saw a dull blue flash and a boil where the fly left the water. “I think that was a blue,” I yelled. I cast again, counted down, retrieved and BOOM, I was on.

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My 10 weight takes a deep bend thanks to a Barnegat Inlet bluefish… (Picture courtesy of Greg Cudnik)

My 10 weight instantly took a deep bow as the bluefish dug hard in response to the hook-set. I tightened the drag but blues are strong fighters and the fish surged and stripped line, off and on for the first few minutes. Eventually I worked the fish up close and Greg deftly slipped the net under it. As Greg would say, “we shook the skunk.”

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Blue on the fly… (Picture courtesy of Greg Cudnik)

We continued to fish the North Jetty, then fished the South Jetty. but no one seemed to be home and we saw very little action on the other boats. So Greg shifted to Plan B and off we went to the sod banks. We scaled down from the 10’s to the 8’s and 9’s, hoping a big blue or striper might make us think differently about our tackle choice.

Greg worked through some good looking water. But like the jetties, the sod banks were not to be, save one bluefish that sucked in an errantly cast clouser off Greg’s fly rod. Greg had short-cast the fly in preparation for a true cast, and the fish struck at boatside. He had it on for 10 seconds and then the leader parted, victim to the blue’s razor grill.

So we moved to our last hope holdout, another of Greg’s “Promised Land” areas, considered highly productive and reliable. The area we fished is simply known as “The Flats” and is an expanse of shallow bay water that will often hold striped bass and bluefish cruising for a good meal in the spring.

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The flats…

Greg had kept in touch with another fishing friend who reported some action on the flats. His friend was getting stripers in a hole he found amidst the shallow grass-bottomed flat. He was drifting over it, then driving upwind at the end of the run and repeating the drift. The schoolie bass were apparently liking the white soft plastic he was casting to them. So Greg steered towards his friend’s boat and had us drifting the flats about 100-200 yards away. We were blind-casting initially when we saw some signs of surface action. We slowly moved above the surface action so we’d drift down on what looked like striped bass chasing bait on top.

Almost immediately I was hooked up to one of the bigger bass of the day. The fish pulled strong and fought hard and was definitely a great way to start the flats bite.

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First bass on the flats. Can you tell I’m happy? (Picture courtesy of Greg Cudnik)

For the next few hours we drifted over that hole and every drift produced schoolie stripers. At times Greg and I were doubled up. Greg fished a crease fly for a while and had some topwater hook-ups which were visually awesome.

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Captain Greg with a nice schoolie.

It was great seeing such a nice mix of schoolie bass – a healthy sign for sure. Some were up in the 20″+ range, while others were smaller, but each one was carefully released to fight another day. Captain Greg is very much a conservationist. He’s not against harvesting a fish on occasion, but prefers to release striped bass, particularly the larger ones.

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“Go get bigger…”  It takes a striped bass 5 years to reach the 20″ mark and another 10 years to grow past the 40 pound mark… (Picture courtesy of Greg Cudnik)

As the morning aged into noon, the wind came up out of the south. What had started as a hot glassy-calm morning transitioned to a cooler and breezy one. The stronger wind rushed our drift so that each fishing window shortened. The fish were still there and the action continued but the tide was starting to ebb. It was time to leave the flats with the water moving out of the bay. If we waited too long, we’d not make it off the shallows.

We packed it in and left the flats, heading back to the dock. The day had started fast with a nice bluefish, then slowed considerably as we searched the inlet for more life, but ended up in a big way. The spring bite was every bit as good as Greg had said it could be, though it was a very different bite. I had booked the trip thinking we’d get into big blues but instead the highlight of the trip was a non-stop schoolie bite on the flats. We caught some 25+ bass and I once again learned more about the great Barnegat Bay fishery from Captain Greg.

God-willing, I’ll be back next spring. I’ll do more wade fishing and book another trip with Captain Greg. Maybe the bite will be big blues, maybe classy bass in the inlet or off the beach. Whatever it is I’ll welcome the fishing, a new harbinger of spring for me.