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.

 

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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

 

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!

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?