Good Start on the Chemung…
STFF Staff Hydrologist Dan called this past Saturday, as promised, and confirmed that the Chemung was in good shape. But the siren call of Sunday’s NASCAR road race at nearby Watkins Glen was a little stronger than the prospect of an evening jaunt on the Chemung with the southern tier flyfisher. Dan graciously bowed out, leaving me to weigh my options. I considered fishing the Tioughnioga, but the thought of not testing the Chemung River was eating at me, so the Chemung won out.
I was on the water by 5 pm, and the river was looking quite handsome. The flow was nice – the water was just slightly stained. I walked down to the fast water below the bridge and noticed a lot of big sculpin darting about frantically in the shallows. That convinced me that an olive Whitlock’s Near Nuff Sculpin would match the hatch. I tied the fly on a 5 foot leader with 2X tippet and used my sink tip line to fish the fly deep.
The water below the bridge was running pretty fast. I waded in at the head of the riffle and began quartering my casts downstream, giving the sculpin time to sink in the current, and then slowly stripping it back. After only two casts I had a solid take. The fish initially held deep in the current, gave me a few good head shakes and then bolted downstream. Based on the intial run, this could have been a nice bass, but when the fish kept sulking in the current, I knew it had to be something else. Gradually I worked the fish into the slower pool water and was pleased to see a nice walleye, complete with teeth only an orthodontist could love. A coworker by the moniker “Jigging Jim”, an Oneida Lake regular and possible future staff member for the STFF, would have been proud.
After releasing the walleye, I waded down the pool, working my fly slow and deep. I didn’t get too much time to fish that beautiful stretch of water alone, however. A group of young teens armed with zebco fishing outfits spilled out onto the boat ramp upstream near the bridge and made a beeline for my pool. I felt some tensing of the jaw – gritting of the teeth as I tend to get a little territorial when fishing. When alien company calls, I get irritated, much like a big brown bear when another bear approaches a pool where the salmon are stacked up. Eventually I settle down, rationalizing that; 1) I don’t own the river, and 2) that most people don’t know any better when it comes to fishing etiquette, particularly fly fishing etiquette. I’ve often observed that even when casting, people file right behind me, or worse yet, just stand behind me, as if they were immune to the sting of a flying hook.
It didn’t take long for the boisterous group to capture spots above and below me. A young woman, perhaps a mother, watched the pincer movement from afar like some Wehrmacht field commander at war. I decided to get out of the water and walk downriver to solitude, wondering what kind of water awaited me.
Now, another word about my favorite hydrologist, Dan. He’s not the type who gives a lot of detail when it comes to fishing. He’s the guy defense attorneys love and prosecutors hate. He’s a big believer in fishing as far off the beaten path as possible, and I’m in that camp too, but after much questioning in advance of this trip, I just couldn’t seem to get good “intel” out of him on the type of water that lay downstream of the access. So I waded on and found the water pretty flat and dull and slow and deep – looking very, well, walleye-eee – making me wonder whether there was any smallmouth water to be had in this stretch of the Chemung.
Eventually I found a spot downstream with some current. I could see very large rocks here and there – possibly a place where smallmouth might hold – and I decided to give it a try. The water was shallower here, so I switched out my lead-eye sculpin for an unweighted Murray’s #6 Dying Minnow pattern. I cast out across, let the fly swing a bit, and then worked it back in short strips. Part way through the swing on one cast the fly stopped dead. I set the hook and immediately felt a good headshake. The fish held solid in the current, then moved upriver some, shook its head again, and then set off across the river with what I’d call DEE-termination. I cranked down on the drag as much as I dared and started to think I’d hooked a big carp. The run was not fast – just steady and powerful – finally stopping just before the backing started exiting my spool. The fish sulked again, and then turned downstream with the current on another run. I quickly sloshed downstream below him – and there we tussled another five minutes. Gradually, the fish gave ground, slogging deep, twisting and turning, and eventually I beached the fish – a big channel cat – gun-blued back, olive-gold flanks, and whiskers as thick as a pencil sticking some 4 – 5″ off either side of its mouth. Channel cats are certainly not pretty and fast like trout, nor do they jump and dig like a bass, but they are amazingly strong. I’ve caught them before on a fly, this being my fourth in as many years, always down and deep while using a sink tip line and a big buggy fly.
I was pretty pumped by this time, thinking this could be the making of a Chemung River Slam. All I needed was a nice smallmouth to complete the evening – and it was only 6 pm. With darkness approaching, the fishing could only get better, especially if I could find the tail of a good pool, where smallmouth would be setting up for the evening.
I walked downstream some more, arriving at a big riffle – the kind I’m used to on the Chenango, the Susquehanna, and to a lesser extent, the Tioughnioga.
I switched to a floating line at this point, tied on a #6 Shenk’s White Streamer, and started working it across the riffle. I hooked up with small bass almost immediately – jumping, “electrified” bass – but, nonetheless, not the quality I was hoping to catch. It was a steady pick through the riffle, with a few stragglers whacking my fly as I swung it at the tail. I switched to a popper when I saw a few white flies coming off, but there were no takers. As darkness set in, I decided I’d better hoof it back upstream. I got back to the car at 8 :15 pm, broke down my rod, stowed my gear, and lit up a cigar for the drive home. It was a good smoke, and a good way to celebrate an evening on the Chemung – a hopeful first of many more to come.