Archive for December, 2017

Thanksgiving reprise: Stripers and The Promised Land

Posted in Fishing Reports, Saltwater, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , on December 28, 2017 by stflyfisher

We stood there in the cold dark of a pre-dawn November morning talking about the plan for the day of fishing. Lights sparkled about the village of Barnegat Light just across the harbor. Greg said we’d fish “the promised land”, an area off Seaside Heights where the ocean water was warmer, the bunker thick, and where the migrating striped bass were congregating for a Thanksgiving feast. Even humpback whales had been reported cashing in on the autumn harvest…

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A humback whale breaches with a mouthful of bunker. Fishhead Greg is seen in the background working the bunker pods for hungry bass from his 21′ Parker center console boat. This beautifully timed picture was taken by Kevin Fresno fishing aboard Reel Fantasea Fishing Charters with Captain Steve Purul.

Striped bass migrate south in the fall and early winter and on the way, feed voraciously on menhaden, otherwise known as “bunker”. Menhaden is a big baitfish – they can reach 15″ in length – a literal cowboy steak for hungry striped bass, bluefish, and weakfish.

Greg fired up “the FishHead”, his name for the 21 foot Parker center console outboard that he so loves for its shallow water capability and it’s ability to fish near shore waters. We pulled up our neck gaiters and buttoned down as we sped out the inlet, rounding the north jetty where Greg opened the throttle for the long ride north. We were not the only boats on the way either. Big and small, open and cabin, we raced across a flat sea just off Island Beach State Park to “the Promised Land.”

Once at the Promised Land, we began to actively scan the horizon for bird play or other signs of fish. In their absence, Greg was wrestling with what to do. He had already suffered the day before when his client refused to do anything but fly fish. In the end it’s all about the client’s needs, but it was killing Greg to watch his client blind cast the water while boats all around were catching stripers on the troll. I was fine with conventional gear and even trolling gear. I wanted a striper on the fly, but I also wanted to take fish by other means if that was all that was working.

I was, in fact, dreaming of conditions Greg had reported on November 12…

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What every saltwater fly fisher dreams about – the surface feed. Picture courtesy of Greg Cudnik, Fisherman’s Headquarters…

And of the fish he caught on the surface bite that morning while fishing alone…

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Greg Cudnik with a dandy…

We slowly cruised around the area Greg had fished the previous week. The fish finder would go from blank to occasionally showing a big blob and a few random markings. Greg explained that the blobs were schooled up bunker, but he wanted to see them more spread out horizontally. If they were spread out, jigging or using the snag and drop – a technique where large weighted treble hooks are used to first snag bunker and then let them drop in the water and hopefully into the large mouth of a hungry striper. Either method would have been a good way to hunt bass. But as the bait was balled up, trying to position the boat directly over them as they moved about would be difficult, at best and akin to chasing fish. Given this situation and the lack of surface activity, trolling was the only viable option.

And so we trolled. Greg likened trolling to watching paint dry. He masterfully set up a deep bunker spoon on wire line, a mid-depth umbrella rig with swim baits, and a shallow running rapala-like diving plug. We trolled at 3 mph, chatted, but also scanned the horizon. It wasn’t long before the bunker spoon rod took a deep bend, but then almost as quickly relaxed. We’d find out later it was a solid strike that broke the hook off the spoon! Then the shallow diving plug rod bent down, reel screaming. I let the fish run a bit, set the hook, and soon had a nice striper in the boat. This fish was pretty much right at the minimum length but Greg suggested we release it for something bigger.

A while later the umbrella rig rod went down. This fish would be a nice keeper – roughly 16 lbs.

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Even fish caught on the troll can make a happy angler… (Pic courtesy of Greg Cudnik)

We would end up catching another smaller bass on the umbrella rig and missed a few more.

Come mid-morning, the troll bite began to die down, so we cruised in search of bird play. We did find some and I broke out the fly rod and cast a bunker fly. While we did not see any surface action I did get a good whack at one point, but that was the extent of the open water fly fishing.

We then headed to the inlet and fished the North Jetty. I rigged up a 10 weight rod with a sink tip line and tied on a fly imitating a peanut bunker, a juvenile version of the bigger bunker that were just offshore. Greg positioned me perfectly for casting to the jetty. I was casting to the wash around the jetty, the seams off the current over the submerged part of the jetty, and even casting out in the deeper water away from the jetty, varying retrieves and sink time. Harbor seals were about the jetty – so neat to see these beautiful animals coming back along with so much other marine life.

At one point I had a good bump and it ended up being a very large Atlantic Herring. I have caught herring on the fly while fishing the bay and they put up a good fight. They can grow to over 18″ and this one was certainly up there in size. Having said that, it could also easily be taken by a large striped bass.

But no one, even the guys fishing live “spot” were catching anything. It seemed as if no one was home around the jetty. We moved on and tried a beautiful part of Barnegat Bay where a “river” ran through the sod islands off the bay side of Island Beach State Park, but again no luck. And so we called it a day. That evening I would dine on fresh striped bass in the company of family, while dreaming of stripers-to-be on the fly…

Over the rest of that weekend, I spent time with my father and went to visit my mother in Seacrest Village Nursing Home. My mother had suffered a broken hip as a result of a fall a month earlier and in combination with her worsening dementia and stroke-related speech problems, was not doing well.

On my last visit before heading home, my father and I sat by her bedside. She lay in the bed, murmuring at times. It was hard to know if she remembered me, but she remembered my Dad, if only by his name. Her bed was by the window and the sun streamed in brightly. Beyond the window was the parking lot and then the low bay marshland of Barnegat Bay.

My Dad and I talked and tried to engage my mother. She would look at us and smile at times. Her hands shook uncontrollably. She lay before us a mere shadow of the great woman, wife, and mother she had been in her 88 years. And then out of the silence of the room and the confusion dementia casts on days of old, came a moment of clarity. My mother raised her head off the pillow and turning to the light streaming in, said with joy in her voice, “oh, isn’t life good.”

Back Home in the Comfort Zone

Beautiful Barnegat Bay salt marsh. Picture courtesy Greg Molyneux

I left for home the next day with thoughts of my mother weighing heavy on my mind and heart. How ironic, I thought, that a nursing home, where people come to live out the rest of their days, could be built on the great salt marshes of Barnegat Bay where so much life begins. The great striped bass migration started there with the spawn each spring as did the masses of bunker that fed them on their way to “the promised land”. The baymen lived because of the bay’s bounty and Tuckerton, Barnegat, West Creek and so many other bayside towns and villages sprung up around the tidal creeks and sod banks and thrived on the fish, shellfish, and sea ducks all brought about by the marsh. Yet there lay my mother, on the threshold of the life-giving bay, dying…

Two weeks after my visit, the cell phone rang very early on a Monday morning. I glanced at the phone and saw it was my sister. I knew before I even answered that my mother had passed. The most positive force in my life – my guiding light – that everlasting smile – all of that was gone now.

And so I returned again to the shore, to the bay and the marsh with so many tidal creeks running like little fingers into the land. I spent time helping family get ready for my mother’s final goodbye – calling hours, a Mass, and a farewell lunch after. The weather was beautiful, unusually warm, and though deep in grief and busy in the preparations, I could not help but wonder if the striped bass were still around. A peek at Greg’s blog showed that as deep in December as we were, bass were still being caught, and by a few lucky fly fishers, even. And though it had proven to be a much longer striper bite than originally anticipated, it did not surprise me. Mom, in her own way, had asked the bass to stay a bit longer, as if to show to me just how good life was, in the promised land…

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Thanks, Mom!

 

 

 

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The Last Good Country – Part 2 of 2

Posted in Fishing Reports, Trout Fishing, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , on December 10, 2017 by stflyfisher

Part 1 of this post covered the first four days of my Bighorn River fly fishing trip in mid-September. My brother-in-law and I fished those days on our own, and did pretty well. With some initial successes under our belts, we couldn’t wait to spend some time with guides provided by Eastslope Outfitters.

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The Old Hookers Guesthouse – a true fly fisher’s home away from home…

We checked in to the Old Hookers Guesthouse on Tuesday afternoon. We each had our own well-appointed bedroom and bathroom and the run of the house. The house is a very roomy split level – the basement floor had a convenient walk-in to a rod/wader room and utility room, perfect for stringing and storing your fly rod, donning your wading gear, and grabbing a few for the road from the “beer fridge”. Adjacent to the utility room were two of the five bedrooms in the house and a very comfy family room. The conveniences provided at the guesthouse impressed me – cleaning supplies of all types, a stack of cloth patches for line cleaning, and even spare waders and boots, if needed. Upstairs was another family room with fireplace, large kitchen, and dining room, as well as 3 more bedrooms with private baths.

Kent, Jeff’s co-worker and part of the original “10 year group”, had joined us on Sunday afternoon and fished with us on Monday. Kent arrived minus a prized fly rod, lost somewhere in the luggage on the flight to Billings. He was able to replace it with a brand new Sage, on sale at the Billings Cabelas. On Tuesday, the rest of the group trickled in – this included Dave, another of Jeff’s coworkers, and Jace and his daughter. The group represented a diverse mix of angling experience, from beginner to advanced angler. Fortunately, Jim and Joyce’s team of guides handled the mix of experience exceptionally well.

After everyone settled in, our cook prepared hors d’oeuvres and the beer and wine began to flow. This was a nightly ritual. Jeff and I had considered fishing that first evening, but we knew we’d be up early, so we decided to relax with the rest of the group, enjoy dinner, clean our lines, and get to bed early. It was customary for Jim and Joyce to stop by every evening around “happy hour” and check in with guests – a very nice touch. Besides getting to know their guests, they also used that time to make arrangements for the next day, including pairing anglers with guides.

Wednesday started early with coffee and a light breakfast and it wasn’t long before the guides pulled up, drift boats in tow. For my first day, Jeff encouraged me to fish with Jim, aka “Stretch”, while Jeff went with guide Jason and fellow angler Dave. Kent accompanied me for the day. Jace and his daughter went with Tyson. The two wanted to fish together and Tyson ended up being a perfect match for the mix of their fly fishing abilities.

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Looking downriver at daybreak from Jim’s drift boat.

Jim does double-duty as Eastslope co-owner and guide. I was eager to fish with him: Jeff had nothing but raving reviews from previous years and claimed Jim could see fish where none seemed to exist. We launched that first morning from the 3 mile access and were soon drifting downriver while Jim talked about the plan for the morning.

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Jim, left, rigs Kent up with a tandem trico dry fly set-up.

Jim talked about the trico hatch and the area of the river we’d fish. He rowed us downriver past cattle, grazing on the aquatic grass, and white pelicans getting set for their own fishing. After a 30 minute drift, we anchored along the river bank and got out to wade and sight fish. Jim set Kent and I up with tandem trico dry flies. He preferred to fish the dropper on 6X tippet. In his opinion, this removed doubt as to whether 5X was too much and putting the fish off. He also used desiccant on the flies pretty regularly so they would float well. He started me fishing and then walked with Kent upriver to get him situated.

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Looking upriver on the Bighorn, with Kent fishing along the weed edges. Big pods of browns cruised upriver feeding in much the same way Jeff and I had observed on our first days on the river.

Eventually, Jim waded back down to me. He scanned the river for fish, his height and slightly stooped posture making him look like a big blue heron on the stalk. It wasn’t long before he sighted some browns slurping the steady downstream drift of trico spinners. He had me quietly move into position below them, then instructed me to put the flies just 6″ ahead of the fish at the tail of the pod. It was maddening seeing these fish feed with reckless abandon and at times almost bump my fly as they took the real thing. But both the odds and fishing Gods were in our favor: I watched my point fly disappear in a rise. “Set” was the word Jim loved to use to tell you when to set the hook on a take. And following his timing cue was a sure way to stick a brown.

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Kent points to a mat of spent trico spinners pooled up in the river edge weeds.

I landed two nice browns under Jim’s guidance and though I was pleased as punch at the early success, he wasn’t satisfied with the number of shots I was getting. The pods were very sporadic in his opinion, popping up, going for a few minutes and then vanishing, reappearing elsewhere. He told me to continue to look for rising fish while he headed downriver to scout out another area. I managed another hook-up before he called me from the high river bank to tell me to follow him downriver. He led me to a nice run below the broad tail-out where we’d previously fished. As we waded back upriver, I could see a large pod of fish – at least a dozen or two – gulping tricos along the weed edges. Jim had me work the lower fish first. The tandem rig did its job and we picked away at the pod, yielding many quality browns in the 16″ – 18″+ range. Partway through the morning, Jim had me change to a glass bead sunken spinner. This fly would sink and the lead trico emerger would act as an indicator when a trout picked up the sunken fly. It worked like a charm and I enjoyed a little dry fly indicator fishing.

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Jim gives my new Orvis Helios 2 6 weight fly rod a test cast. He loved it…

The hatch began to dwindle as morning faded. The pods of voracious browns were gone except for an occasional and sporadic riser. Jim suggested we move on down the river.

We strung up our streamer rods and began casting. Jim pointed out one area where a fellow guide had a client hook into an 8 pound brown – the biggest of the year it turned out – that they fought quite a ways down the river. But this big fish went to a “hacker” – a client with little fly fishing skill. Jim’s guide friend had wished it on someone like Kent or I. Beginner’s luck is apparently alive and well even on the Bighorn River!

Kent and I didn’t move a fish with streamers. We stopped bankside for lunch and enjoyed a delicious venison meatloaf sandwich, salad, chips – a gourmet river meal if there ever was one (word was Jim makes the lunches). After stuffing ourselves, we pushed off and drifted downriver, ready to give nymphing a shot.

Jim anchored his boat tight to a high bank and along a fast and deep run. He rigged Kent and I up for nymphing with an interesting sliding weight, similar to a steelhead slinky but much smaller and made with lead putty. The nymph rig was “tractor trailer” under an indicator. Initially Jim had planned on using scud patterns, but Kent wanted to try the split case PMD that had performed so well for me when I was fishing on my own.

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The split case PMD – a very effective Bighorn pattern…

I wondered whether the split case PMD would work wonders like it had originally for me. It didn’t take long before Kent was hooked up, validating the nymph’s effectiveness.  I started hooking up as well, including a really nice rainbow lost at the net.

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Kent, seen here, is nymphing the deep and fast run just downstream from where we anchored for lunch.

We ended the day fishing streamers to the takeout. Once again, the streamer bite was not there, but after a lot of fish in the net, it was nice to just cast away and enjoy a beautiful river. Jim proved to be a great guide – knowledgeable, wise in the ways of trout, patient, and fun. His forte is dry fly fishing, so if the hatches are on, he’s the guide you want for at least one day on the Bighorn.

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An abandoned farmhouse on the Bighorn River…

Jeff had fished with Jason that first day. Relatively new to the Eastslope stable of guides, Jason was also knowledgeable, professional, and very capable. Jeff had good fishing with Jason and my second day of guided fishing would certainly validate that.

Jason picked us up bright and early on Thursday and discussed his plan of attack as we drove to the river. We would fish the same red bluff area that he’d taken Jeff to the previous morning. The hatch had been good there and the fish were willing. After that we’d fish streamers.

We reached the red bluffs and anchored up. Jason sent Jeff upriver to a spot that had some fish already working. He then climbed the steep bank with me in tow. We walked a trail downriver to a spot where the feeding was on. We descended below these fish and carefully waded up river towards them.

Jason rigged me up a little differently than Jim had. In Jason’s world of dry fly fishing the Bighorn, there was no need to use less than 5X tippet and in some cases he preferred 4X or even 3X. An interesting aspect of fishing with multiple guides is that one gets exposure to a variety of fly fishing methods, techniques, and tactics. Some differ significantly in their approach and views, but all of that is good for the angler who will listen.

Jason used his own flies and I could immediately tell he was a skilled fly tier. We fished a tandem rig of trico spinners and emergers. He had me work the pod from the tail but once again, the fish I hooked did not seem to spook the other risers. Jeff and I fished the hatch well, netting numerous good fish, losing some as well. Jason taught me to pick up the slack after every cast and to stay relatively tight to the fly to ensure a good and quick hook-set. It turned out to be a stellar morning.

As the morning hatch petered out, we set out downriver and switched over to streamer fishing.

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Jeff hangs out in our drift boat while we break for a shoreside lunch.

Jason set me up with a sparkle minnow streamer (his own tie) as the lead fly.

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The Sparkle Minnow had amazing movement and flash.

He then tied off the first streamer an 18″ section of tippet to which he tied a smaller streamer called, of all things, “the grinch”…

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The Grinch – a streamer that might not steal Christmas but certainly will steal some trout…

Together, these two flies seemed like a perfect one-two punch; the sparkle minnow moving the fish and the grinch giving any hot trout a second chance if they missed the lead fly. Most fish were caught on the grinch but a few couldn’t resist the sparkle minnow streamer.

Jason was an excellent streamer guide, calling out where and how we should fish the river as we drifted. He’d say, “I want you to fish left here, give it a 5 second count”, “be ready to cast to the bank”, or “pick your flies up while we drift through this shallow riffle.” We fished the deep parts of the river using a sink-tip line, letting the flies sink up to a 10 second count depending on river depths. Jason also had us pounding the banks on a relatively short and fast cast. The visual of watching a nice brown peel off the bank to chase down a streamer made the repeated casting well worth it, even if they didn’t always take. Jason explained that when fishing the bank, you want to cast slightly behind the boat (upstream) so the fish has time to intercept the fly naturally and turn with the current rather than making the fish chase upstream. He also corrected my long strips, instructing me to work the fly in very very short staccato strips that better imitated baitfish movement. He explained the rationale very simply: how many baitfish can out-swim a big brown? By the end of our float, Jeff and I had done reasonably well but Jason felt the bite was off.

Thursday evening was windy with big gusts firing off the mountains and roaring across the river valley. Dust was blowing everywhere – a sure sign a front was coming through. Sure enough, as forecast, Friday dawned very cold and rainy – highs dropped from the 90’s to the low 40’s in just 2 days! Jim and Joyce’s advice to pack and be ready for almost any kind of weather was spot on.

Jason picked Jeff and I up early Friday morning at the lodge. As we drove out of Fort Smith he discussed his plan. He was concerned that the heavy overnight rains might begin to cloud up the water and that it would only get worse the farther downriver we fished, so rather than start at the 3 mile launch, he wanted to launch at the Yellowtail dam access, drift and strip streamers, then pull out at 3 mile and do another loop.

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The after-dam access. This is the highest up the river you can launch on the Bighorn.

We were fine with the plan. Once we launched we were immediately hit head-on with a stiff cold wind that came right up the river. Though Jeff and I had foul weather gear on and had layered up under our waders and rain gear, the rain wet any exposed skin and the cold winds soon numbed fingers and faces. Neck gaiters and wool hats helped, as did the heavier work of casting and stripping tandem streamer rigs on sink tip lines.

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Jeff cinches down while guide Jason re-ties a streamer. Jeff, from Northern Cal, was not so used to this type of fishing weather. For me, a north-easterner, it was not so bad. As the saying goes, “there’s no bad weather, just bad clothing“…

Despite the weather, I enjoyed the streamer fishing. Jason set me up once again with the sparkle minnow streamer as the lead fly and the grinch riding tail gun.

We picked up some fish, mainly browns in the deep pools, and then came to a river braid that Jason felt might hold some good fish. This braid was often overlooked apparently. We anchored at the end of the island and wade-fished the braid. I could see some fish periodically rising to something very small but nymphing this stretch was not moving any fish. After a while I asked Jason if I could try throwing a streamer. He was all for it so I pulled out my Helios2 6 weight and gave it a shot.

I walked up to the top of the braid and made casts across and up, letting my streamer sink and swing down. Occasionally I short-stripped across, and sometimes I did this on the swing. Just below the head of the braid was a large log-jam and perfect cover for trout. I worked my streamer through this area and had a solid splashy take.

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The first of 6 trout from Jason’s river braid…

Repeated swings down the length of the braid and below where the water cut into a red clay bank brought many strikes – some short and some solid – for a total of 5 browns and 1 rainbow.

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This rainbow smashed the sparkle minnow on the swing.

We continued our drift, throwing streamers, and hit the 3 mile pull-out at noon. We were pretty wet and cold and per Jason’s suggestion, drove back to the lodge to eat our lunch in the comfort of the dry and heated rod and wader room.

Jeff was done with fishing at that point. His rain jacket had been not much more than a wearable sieve to keep the big raindrops out; he was soaked through from the driving rain. I was pretty dry and wanted to give the fishing another round.

And so we went – just Jason and I – back out into the gray cold rainy afternoon. It was the same drill; casting, stripping, casting again, but oh how good it was to get out one more time. I caught some nice browns and lost a really good rainbow that I considered a final “thanks” offering to the river.

We all left the lodge the next day for home. I was the only one heading eastbound – the rest traveled westbound by plane or car. By 2 o’clock that afternoon, I was wing-borne and climbing high over Montana. From my window seat I got one last look at the khaki high desert landscape marked by little veins of green and gold. Then we were in the clouds and the last good country was gone. But, like Hemingway’s own northern Michigan woods, I now realized that one never really loses such a place.

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Ernest Hemingway posing with a nice trout caught from the East Branch of the Fox River. This river was the river portrayed in his classic short story, “Big Two-Hearted River.”  And it was the very definition of Hemingway’s “last good country.”

My thoughts turned to fly fishing the Bighorn: the pods of rising browns, the trico hatches so thick they looked like rising smoke over the river, the sight of an indicator plunging down in fast water, the savage strike of a big trout intercepting a streamer on the swing, the company of friends, good food, a cigar and bourbon on the deck, the sun setting ablaze on high desert mountains, the good tired feeling after fishing hard all day, a worn-out casting arm, and the unfailing work of great guides. And I decided then, I’d return as long as I could to refresh my fly fishing soul in my last good country.