Southern Tier Fly Fisher

Looking back: Fly fishing in 2017 – adapt, improvise, overcome…

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2017 will go down in the annals of the Southern Tier Fly fisher as very unique year in a myriad of ways. Some fishing for me was off compared to typical years but I am grateful that for every ying, there was a yang. The United Sates Marine Corps trains its Marines to “adapt, improvise, overcome”, under challenging conditions and so it was with fly fishing in 2017. Where I could not fish one venue due to conditions, I was able to roll with circumstances and create fly fishing success in other areas. I believe this is a key trait of good fly anglers: the ability to accept what Mother Nature hands us and still make lemonade out of lemons…

Before looking back at fly fishing, let’s review the weather history for the year, as so much of fishing often depends on the weather and climate. The following climate summary chart says a lot about the year, and in particular, that it was a very wet one…

Daily temps were overall on par with historic norms, but precipitation was certainly anything but normal…

Weather highlights for the year were:

Record snowfall

Binghamton NY achieved the status as snowiest city in New York after Stella left a whopping 35″ of snow on March 14th, the most snowfall Binghamton has ever received in 24 hours.

Yours truly digging out during Winter Storm Stella…

High precipitation

The big snow-pack left by a snowy winter in combination with some significant rain in spring/summer made for some high water levels in area creeks, streams and rivers. In particular, the Susquehanna watershed took longer than usual to dry out, leaving the warmwater rivers high and largely unwadeable through mid-summer. My own records show I didn’t really start fly fishing for smallmouth bass until early August.

Water flows on the Susquehanna in Vestal averaged in the 8 – 10K CFS range through early August, putting off fly fishing by wading. Once the Susquehanna watershed did dry out, the river dropped significantly.

But all the water made it a good year for trout, after last year’s long summer drought.

Flows on the West Branch of the Delaware River were on average very healthy for 2017, but there were still some big swings due to continued water flow mismanagement on the part of the DRBC.

A cooler late spring and summer…

Temperatures varied around historical norms for most of the year, but there was one significant trend of average to cooler than average temperatures from mid-May through early September. It was a cool summer and there’s no doubt that was good for the coldwater fishery.

Fly fishing in 2017 – a summary:

Rod building

I started building a fly rod for my brother-in-law in January, enrolling for the second time in BC Flyfisher’s Rod Building Class, led by master rod builder, Joe Swam. I built up a TFO Finesse, 8′ 9″ 4 piece 5 weight rod using all of TFO’s original components. THis moderate action rod was just the ticket for fine presentation, according to TFO, and the rod performed outstandingly on the Bighorn during the trico hatch in Jeff’s able hands.

Fly tying

I also enrolled in BC Flyfisher’s annual fly tying class, though I could not attend all of the classes. Led by a cast of several very experienced BCFF members and guest tyer Joe Cambridge, the class once again added to my skill base and provided some simple guide fly patterns to add to my fly boxes. among them the Utah Killer Bug and The Turd.

Casting

One thing I tried to do a lot of in 2017 was casting practice, especially during high water conditions. It is said that the best anglers will practice casting BEFORE fishing, particularly to shake off the casting rust at the beginning of the year, to develop and perfect better casts and in preparation for guided trips. I found that it was important to have a curriculum set so there was some purpose to the practice. There are a plethora of casting videos on YouTube to use as part of any curriculum. Local fishing clubs will usually hold casting classes, as did the BC Flyfishers. I found practice helped me tremendously in preparing for my Bighorn trip as well as my saltwater trips, where being able to cast in windy conditions can make or break the day.

Different color hula hoops, a lawn, a fly rod of choice with clean line and a lawn fly – tuft of bright yarn at the end of the leader – are all one needs to work on becoming the next Lefty Kreh.

Thank God for trout

While the warmwater rivers were high and not wadeable / fishable, I relied on the trout fishery for my fly fishing options from spring to early August. A significant blessing we anglers of the Southern Tier enjoy is the diversity of fisheries available to us. We have tremendous opportunities in cold and warmwater angling along with very unique fisheries that offer a variety of spawning-related runs of lake fish.

In early spring through May, I fished the local creeks for stocked, holdover, and native browns. I fished some typical haunts and a few new ones and found the fishing good.

Yours truly releasing a nice upstate brown, pic courtesy of Eric Tomosky.

I had some very good days swinging a classic old pattern introduced to me (and tied by) fellow angler Eric Tomosky.

The Carey Special, a classic western wet that seemed to appeal to eastern browns…

I also fished the bigger rivers, including my favorite, the West Branch of the Delaware.

Late start to Smallie fishing

The USGS water gauge for the year says it all; unless one had access to a boat, many of the warmwater rivers were off limits due to high unwadeable flows for all of the spring and much of the summer. It’s certainly always a hit or miss thing to get into the pre-spawn smallmouth bite in May as flows are normally high then, but this year I couldn’t get a break until early August. What windows of opportunity there were seemed to coincide with my work schedule.

I fished the Tioughnioga River alone and with some fly fishing friends, including Eric Tomosky and my cousin’s husband, John Greco. The Tioughnioga fished well for smaller bass and fallfish and at least one very big bass that ended with a just-beyond-the-reach release.

A long deep pool on the Tioughnioga River…

As the Susquehanna dropped I shifted over to this favorite water, one I consider my home water, and found solid fishing for smallmouth bass in fall feeding mode…

A beautiful chocolate fall smallmouth bass. This bass hit a white Murray’s Dying Minnow fished off a large tree downfall along the river’s edge.

Another smallmouth bass that couldn’t resist a streamer…

The catfish bite, however, was disappointing for me and did not compare to past years.

My lone channel cat of 2017. I miss their hard hits on a fly and the deep bend they’ll put in an 8 weight fly rod…

Saltwater fly fishing in Florida

As previously mentioned, while some forms of fishing suffered in 2017, others took off. Such was the case for me and saltwater fly fishing. I enjoyed a repeat of fly fishing Choctawhatchee Bay in Destin, Florida in April and caught some trout, a redfish, and flounder on the fly there. Though most of the fish I caught were small, these catches were a good start in my quest to learn how to fly fish the vast saltwater flats of this 130 square mile bay. Like learning to fish for trout or smallmouth bass, each fishery requires time and dedication in order to achieve a level of mastery.

To walk the beach with a 9 weight and fish the blitzes of ladyfish was heaven…

I had read of ladyfish, considered by some anglers as a trash fish and even a pest for their sheer ferocity and willingness to attack anything that swims. They are present in big numbers in the bay and surf along most of Florida’s coast. I returned to Destin in late August and decided to fly fish the surf. I found the ladies very willing to take the fly. It was not uncommon to catch 20 to 30 of these saltwater speedsters in a few hours of fishing. And boy, do they dance and jump!

Bighorn River trip

I was able to return to “the last good country” in mid-September and wet a line with my brother-in-law on the fabled Bighorn. It was a great trip, all in all, featuring some phenomenal dry fly fishing during the trico hatch as well as some solid nymph and streamer fishing.

Float trip with Todd

While I did float the river in my kayak twice in the fall, I had the privilege and pleasure to float the river with Todd Smith, Sayre, PA resident and proud owner of an awesome 16′ Towee skiff. For those not familiar with this boat and the brand, the Towee skiff caught my eye a while ago as a true design hybrid that just might be the ideal fly fishing boat for rivers, lakes, saltwater flats, and even nearshore salt. This combination driftboat, skiff, and canoe is very stable and draws only 4″ fully loaded.

Looking forward from aft on Todd’s beautiful Towee skiff. Note the clean layout, rod storage, electric trolling motor, storage, and partially seen, a 30 horse Evinrude jet outboard (Pic courtesy of Todd Smith).

After emailing back and forth and trying to juggle schedules most of the year, Todd and I were finally able to meet up for a nice afternoon/evening float on the Susquehanna in late September. We caught a few fish and enjoyed some banter about our different military backgrounds (Todd – Army, Me – Navy). Best of all, I got to see what Todd’s Towee could do on the river. As low as the river was in late September, I was impressed with how well it could skim over shallow riffles. It’s stability was also very impressive. Todd and I stood and cast flies all afternoon without an issue.

Saltwater fly fishing off New Jersey

I had two quality shots at northeastern saltwater fly fishing from a boat thanks to Fishhead Greg (Greg Cudnik), who owns and operates Fisherman’s Headquarters in Ship Bottom (Long Beach Island), NJ. Greg guided me on two occasions, the first for albacore in October and the second time for stripers in late November. The albie fishing was on fire and I fulfilled a goal to catch not one but 3 of these saltwater rockets on the fly rod. The stripers never came to the surface but the troll did produce…

Mom

I can’t end this 2017 fly fishing review without the mention of my mother, who I lost on December 18th. She died of dementia and other complications after taking a fall that broke her hip. She was 88. As is often the case when dealing with the death of a loved one, time is spent looking back on their life, recalling wonderful memories. As part of this process, I had the opportunity to sort through hundreds of pictures chronicling her life, and my early life just as well. Among the pictures, I found a few of her as a young lady fishing on a party boat in the fall. According to my father, this was a trip fishing for cod and other bottom fish out of Boston. I’m not aware of her ever fishing again, but she loved the fact that I fished. I was raised in a non-piscatorial family and outside of a few saltwater fishing trips my Dad took as part of business, I was the only one in our family to pick up the long rod, or any rod for that matter. Nonetheless, my Mom was always there for me, whenever fish called. I can remember her making me a big breakfast and then driving me to the Saddle River in suburban NJ for put and take trout fishing as a 10 year old. I can remember her making a cooler of food any time I went fishing on one of the party boats out of Barnegat Light. When I brought fish home, she was always there to cook what I caught. She was a fishing cheerleader if there ever was one. And though her dementia eventually dimmed the light of her life, to the very end she was the most optimistic force in my life. I could do anything in her eyes on this good earth.

A favorite picture of my Mom with my older son Chris, at his college graduation from Campbell University in December, 2015. At this point in her life, her light, a great guiding beacon that always steered one straight, was just starting to fade…

So I look back on 2017 with some sadness, having lost the greatest fishing guide in my life. But I wade forward into 2018 knowing she is still there for me; in the riffles, the river runs, amidst the pretty morning hatches, and the blitzes in the surf.

 

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