Looking back on 2015
Around this time every year, I take a pause in life and look back. Then, after considering the past year, good and bad, I look forward. The looking back is a good exercise in gaining perspective. It keeps me humble, and clears the way for using my God-given creativity to set a course in fly fishing and with life in general. So take a look back with me at the year that was, through the lens of a Southern Tier fly fisherman.
It’s hard to forget just how bad the winter of 2015 was, particularly as we enjoy very tepid conditions so far this winter.
I actually didn’t get out to fish until after the big freeze began to release its icey grip on the area. Unfortunately, the heavy ice on our pond, in combination with lots of snow, caused a massive fish kill, often referred to as “winter kill”. I was devastated as I paddled the shoreline one sunny spring afternoon, seeing large numbers of hand and even plate-sized panfish and nice bass lying dead along the shoreline. Even the grass carp, which had grown huge in size over the years, couldn’t tolerate the lack of oxygen in the water. I feared this would be the case with many ponds and did, in fact, hear of similar accounts from some pond-owners. And I wondered what impact the cold might have on other fisheries.
2015 was the first year I attended “The Fly Fishing Show”. I was not able to attend any of the earlier ones, like Somerset, but did make it down to the March show in Lancaster, which was a well done affair. I purchased a wonderful JP Ross switch rod while there, watched some fly fishing greats like Joe Humphries, Bob Clouser, and Lefty Kreh, and otherwise enjoyed the “fly-fishy” ambiance. I actually shook hands and spoke briefly with Joe Humphries after one of his casting demonstrations and what a terrific person he is! I paid the price for going though. It was a very hazardous drive down and back due to snow, ice, and sleet. My return trip took some 9 hours as opposed to 5, AND, I managed to slip on a step outside the Lancaster arena where the show was held and broke a rib.
Winter may have been extremely harsh, but it was quick to leave and yield to a spring of generally warmer than average temperatures and gradually drying conditions. For evidence, consider the following chart of May temperatures:
Note the extremes in highs – in some cases close to the mid-80’s!
This USGS chart of the West Branch of the Delaware shows the effects of a dry spring with flows dipping below 200 CFS. Charts of other local rivers, including the big Susquehanna and the Salmon River, have similar trends. Note also the extreme variability of the flows on the West Branch. The constant changes drew alarm and concern from many of the fly shops and fly anglers that fish the river, sparking a public outcry to the commission that supposedly manages the Cannonsville release.
I started the year with my usual “rites of Spring” fishing on beautiful Cayuta Creek. I caught some nice stocked browns in a favorite stretch of “The Little Gem”. I went back a few times as spring turned warm and enjoyed some good dry fly fishing. Cayuta is always a wonderful host for shaking off the casting arm rust…
I also managed to catch a beautiful Salmon River brown (a first) in mid-Spring on a fly I just love – The Salmon River Gift (“the gift”). I had fished with Eric Tomosky and one of his friends on South Sandy Creek in the morning and managed a brief hook-up with a steelhead, but had a hell of a time getting my egg pattern through swarms of big suckers. I will note here that the lowly sucker is an outstanding practice fish for a beginner steelhead fisher. After some time on South Sandy we decided to give the lower fly zone of the Salmon River a shot. Third cast with “the gift” and I felt that great head shake on the end of my line…
Despite the warm spring and low water, I was able to get in some dropback steelhead fishing – a goal of mine and a first for me. Courtesy of two Douglaston Salmon Run season pass-holders, I was able to fish a few times and found some success, initially with some very large smallmouth bass. For smallie anglers like myself, Mr. Smallmouth is much maligned on the Salmon River by some anglers trying to set their hook into spring steel, yet this angler was pleased as punch to tangle with spring bronze.
The dropback fishing was not as good as it can be according Tony and John. Indeed, they claimed their absolute best fishing in terms of numbers and aggressive takes was normally in spring when the steelhead were on what John referred to as the “the see-food diet”. Nonetheless, I enjoyed some good fishing with them, fishing stonefly nymphs under an indicator. An afternoon followed by early morning session produced 3 silver rocket steelhead with another 7 that broke off or threw the hook.
In late May I fished a “marginal water” creek with fly fishing friend, Eric. “Marginal waters” is a fly fishing strategy attributed to local fly fishing legend Joe Goodspeed. Goodspeed was known to fish these “less than desirable” waters where few, if any people fished. He’d prospect these creeks and small streams for areas that had very specific trophy holding water, knowing that the few large browns that called them home were more natural in response to a well fished fly. After listening to a few of his presentations on the subject, I became a believer. This particular creek was already very clear and low when Eric and I first fished it. Many of its pools appeared barren of even stocked fish (which it gets) but did hold a lot of minnows. We hiked up through dense cover and eventually came upon a long deep pool that had a pebbled shoal bank on one side, and steep high clay bank on the other. Toward the pool’s lower end and tailout, a large bush hung out from the bank and, partly submerged, formed what looked like perfect overhead cover for just the sort of brown Joe Goodspeed liked to target. I decided to cast a black wooly bugger just upstream of the overhand, let my fly sink into the shadows of the brushy overhang, and then strip my streamer back. I was using a leader with 4X tippet – definitely undergunned for a streamer. As my fly swung under the brush, my line briefly tightened, then went slack. My fly was gone. A second such cast was met by a brown, butter yellow flash that felt like an electric jolt on the end of my line. I missed what appeared to be a big brown and I thought to myself, there’s no way I’ll get another chance, but cast my fly the same way again. There was no take as the bugger swung under the brushy overhang, but as I stripped the fly back, a big dark shape followed and swatted it good. My 4 weight rod bent and bucked to this solid marginal waters brown…
Smallmouth bass fishing in the summer was mixed, with some disappointing days in places that normally held good fish. This observation was backed by other bass anglers I talked with; they too felt the fishing was off, in general. Perhaps it was the conditions or the brutally cold winter. One such place that under performed was a favorite pool on the lower Tioughnioga River. This spot has a wide riffle that feeds a very deep and long pool. A river braid enters in on the far side of the river, creating interesting current and numerous holding areas for fish. I slowly waded across the riffle and swung a streamer through the head of the pool and picked up only a few less-than-impressive bass. When I reached the opposite side, a man whose home borders the pool, waded out to where I was. He asked me about the fishing and when I remarked that I was disappointed – that this pool – indeed, “his pool” – always offered up some very solid bass, he agreed with my observations. He always did well in his “home” pool, but even fishing bait, had done very poorly that summer and couldn’t explain it.
I floated the upper Tioughnioga River with fellow angler Bob Card and his son, Brian. We put in at the Messengerville bridge and slowly floated the very low and clear river. I was immediately impressed with the scenery and the variety of holding water but it took a while for the fish to show off their river. I’m convinced the low flows, crystal clear conditions in combination with the warmer water temps really had the bass on the spook. It wasn’t until halfway through the float that I hooked up and that was in a very deep pool where the bass no doubt felt safer. I caught 3 nice smallmouth on a streamer, then landed one of the biggest fallfish I’ve ever taken. We continued our float through another long and clear pool and it was there that I saw smallmouth swimming with carp, but again, exceptionally wary and skittish. Fallfish, however, jumped streamers cast to the shaded areas of the pool. It was a memorable float and one I will definitely do again.
Towards the end of August, fellow fly fisher Eric Tomosky and I fished the West Branch of the Delaware at night. This was a goal we had set early in 2015. We fished the Gentleman’s Pool – the no-kill area just downstream of the Rt 17 overpass bridge. We caught nothing but it was certainly an interesting experience and one we will do again in 2016.
The fall was absolutely beautiful for fly fishing. River flows were summer-like, as were water and even air temps. I increased my river fishing with the low water levels, but found the smallmouth fishing lackluster. In fact, while the bass fishing seemed to be off, other species stepped into the fray in a big way.
I found the channel cats very willing to take the fly. Most years I will run into one or two, but 2015 was a record for me with at least a dozen or so hook-ups and most landed. Labor Day weekend, in particular, was spectacular and remarkable – remarkable in that after much observation, I believe the channel cats were feasting on large emerging mayflies near the river’s surface at the tailout of the pool I fished. It was an early morning pattern I happened to stumble upon that repeated itself reliably over three great days of fishing.
I got in a second float of one of our warmwater rivers, this time on the Susquehanna. This trip was unique in that I floated down through a productive stretch of the river and then paddled and wade-towed my kayak back up, saving me the hassle of staging cars. I hooked up with some beautiful bass and even had a musky chase my fly at one point.
I achieved a first with my older son Chris in 2015. I booked a trip on the Big Jamaica II, a 125′ party boat out of Brielle, NJ, in early October. This would be a 22 hour offshore trip to the Hudson Canyon for a variety of species; tuna, swordfish, mahi, wahoo and even white marlin, on occasion. The initial trip was cancelled due to a ferocious Nor’easter, and then, as luck would have it, I was able to book Chris to join me. We left on a beautiful and still warm October afternoon and came back with two yellowfin in the 50 – 70 lb range. I’ll write in detail on this trip in a future 2016 post.
We didn’t have a very hearty fall or fall/winter transition, for that matter. Conditions were dry and relatively mild well into November, as seen in the following chart of November temperatures:
And December was not much better…
But October, November, and December were good months to be “up North” as fellow angler Bob Card would say. Bob and I fished the Salmon River on a number of occasions, the first being in late October – an outing I would consider a banner day with Kings, Coho, and steelhead. The fishing for kings was best described as violent, a description one doesn’t apply to fly fishing much but with big spawning king salmon a very much applicable one. And while I never landed one, just hooking up with one of these brutes is a terrific experience. I managed to land 2 coho salmon, however, between the October and November outings – another first.
The mix shifted to steelhead later in November and December.
I caught some very nice steelhead and for my last outing of 2015, enjoyed a float trip with guide Tony Gulisano and Bob Card. That too was some good fishing AND learning…
While I enjoyed the fishing in the fall / early winter up North, the overall consensus of the season from a number of veterans of the Salmon River was that it was another “less than spectacular” year. 2014 was reportedly terrible for salmon and that trend improved only slightly in 2015 with another lackluster run that was also very spread out – some cohos and kings being caught far later in the fall than normal. Some speculated that the fall was too dry and warm, forcing the spawning salmon to rocket up the river at night, causing the lower and mid-river to be barren of fish. Others seem to feel that it was just another bad year for the fish. The steelhead run suffered too. Indeed, as we drifted the river to Pineville, Guide Tony Gulisano noted the lack of fish in areas that would normally hold 20 or 30 steelhead. And while we did manage to catch some nice steel that day, I left the Salmon River with mixed feelings about the season as a whole – the wild swings in river flows, the strange weather patterns, and the odd changes in fishing patterns. Perhaps this is the new norm, one that is less based on traditional seasons of fairly steady and reliable fishing – and more based on unpredictable swings of fishing goodness and badness – a catch-as-catch-can era of fishing. I guess we’ll see…