Archive for the Fishing Conditions Category

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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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.

 

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!

Redfish and the value of fly fishing…

Posted in Fishing Conditions, Fishing Reports, Flies - Local Favorites, Saltwater, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , on October 19, 2018 by stflyfisher

“What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.”

Thomas Paine

I awoke eager to see what the wind was doing early that morning. Looking out the back sliding glass door of our townhouse, I could see the lake behind our place was as still as a mill pond – a nice sight for a saltwater fly fisher. Even the palm fronds were still.

I made some coffee and busied myself with cleaning my line and getting my gear and flies in order. I wanted to get to the bay before the wind came up and while the light was still low on the water.

The bay was still flat when I arrived, with just a few sporadic cat’s paws on the bay’s surface. The water was cool, shocking me more so out of warmer expectations, but once in, it felt just fine as I waded to where the the salt marsh began.

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I started out fishing a small pink and white clouser on an intermediate sink tip line. My 8 weight fly rod – the first fly rod I ever built – proved perfect for fishing the bay water. In a few past outings in spring and fall, I focused my fishing efforts on the deeper water of the bay – the channels, sloughs – and then on the potholes – slight depressions on the flats that sometimes harbor fish. But after dredging the depths with nothing to show for it on this morning, I decided to change the game plan and explore new bay water, well beyond where I’d ever gone.

I waded along the salt marsh grass, stepping as carefully as a blue heron stalking the shallows, scanning the water for shadows or signs of fish. I changed my fly to a small shrimpy looking pattern that cast easily and was light enough to enter the water with little splash.

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The Hot Legs Foxy Gotcha – pic courtesy of Orvis.com

As I approached the mouth of a tidal creek, I noticed two forms slowly move out from the shoreline. I followed their movement and immediately recognized them as good-sized redfish. They didn’t appear spooked but I questioned whether it was worth a cast to them as they lazily swam out. I decided ‘what the hell’ and made a 15 foot cast the put my fly slightly ahead of them and to their right. I allowed the fly to sink a bit and gave it a twitch-strip and I was tight to a red.

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The red bolted bayward and I frantically cleared the slack line and got the fish on the reel. It then swam hard in a long wide circle, swinging back towards me. It was a nice fish and had its friend swimming alongside the entire fight, apparently checking to see what all the fuss was about.

I soon slid the red up on a break in the salt marsh where there was sand. The shrimp fly was perfectly set in the corner of its mouth. Clad in hues of copper, pink, and red, I noticed even dark blue on its tail, and the unmistakable black dot as well.

With that first success in hand, I continued to stalk the salt marsh edges and saw at least half a dozen more fish. One more showed interest, but refused at the last moment.

Later as the sun rose and the wind began to come up, I made my way back to leave the bay, stopping briefly to talk with a spin fisherman who had been casting from a long pier. He had been using a popping cork rig and shrimp. The float was supposed to rattle and pop, attracting the attention of redfish to the bait. It seemed clumsy and I didn’t see that there was any way he’d catch a thing given the low clear water, the high sun, and the “spook” factor of the fish.

“Getting anything?”, he asked as he looked down from the pier. He was old, tanned, white-haired, and dressed in white sneakers, socks pulled up high, a neat T-shirt, and golf shorts, appearing more like he was running errands in town than going fishing.  “I got one nice redfish”, I said. “What are you using?,” he asked. I showed him the shrimp fly. “I’m not a lure guy” he said without a hint of disdain. “I like to use bait”.

We talked a little more and then bid each other farewell. I finished my way back to the bay access and by that time the wind was breezing up and the sun was high in the sky. I was wet from the wade but comfortably warm with the breeze taking the edge off the late-morning heat. The bay was a checkerboard with patches of light water over sandy bottom and alternating darker patches where the turtle grass grew dark green and lush.

As I approached the bay access, I met another man about my age who was relaxing on a bench while his dog ran around the bay beach. He asked me how I did and we began talking about fishing. He claimed to be a fly fisher, saying he had an 8 weight in a closet of his condo but admitted he had never thought of fishing the salt with his fly rod.

This man told me a bit about his life and his fishing adventures, which were extensive. He had owned a big center console boat and had fished the deeper offshore water of the Gulf, but only occasionally in the bay. He finally sold his boat due to the high cost of ownership and the fickle species regulations for offshore waters. He had also fished other saltwater areas, most notably the Keys, but again he had never thought to bring his fly rod along. I told him he should break that 8 weight out and give the bay a try, and maybe even the surf. But I sensed his reticence. Perhaps it was too complicated, perhaps he feared he didn’t have the skills, or maybe he didn’t believe saltwater gamefish would come to the fly.

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The ride home…

So I left the bay, hiked back to the golf cart, and headed home, thinking about my experience. I was happy after a nice morning on the water, exploring new water, unique methods, and feeling good about a plan that came together. To top that, my redfish had been a “first”, hopefully to be followed by more in the years ahead on that emerald bay.

But beyond happy, I was thankful for the skills fly fishing had taught me. While no fishing is easy, catching fish with a lure is challenging, but to catch a fish on a fly is, arguably, the ultimate of fishing challenges. That challenge comes in many forms to the fly fisher, and particularly in the salt: wind and current test casting and line control, casting comes with it’s own set of technical difficulties in that lines, flies, and tackle are heavier, and fly rods are often faster action. Finding fish is dependent on a lot of new factors when compared to freshwater fly fishing: tidal changes, wind direction that can move water and vary water temperature, fog, and other environmental factors. And then there are the fish themselves. But for those who can prevail over the difficulty, fly fishing can be far more satisfying. With that satisfaction comes the confidence to keep on, and ultimately, achieve a level of effectiveness one never thought possible.

So I am thankful for redfish and, for that matter, all fish that beckon a cast. Because of them, I am a better angler.

 

Fly fishing Barnegat Bay’s spring bite

Posted in Fishing Conditions, Fishing Reports, Saltwater, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , on June 14, 2018 by stflyfisher

On the Sunday afternoon before Memorial Day, I made the 4 hour trek down to the Jersey shore to spend some time with my Dad and to fish the infamous spring bite in Barnegat Bay. Fishhead Greg, a charter captain I had fished with twice last fall and owner of Fisherman’s Headquarters, had recommended it, after all. Captain Greg had told me that the striped bass fishing can be outstanding in the spring as fish migrate northward on the feed. And beyond the stripers, “racer” blues, so named for their somewhat emaciated appearance (big head and skinny body), invade the relatively warm waters of Barnegat Bay to feed voraciously in the shallows. The bite, as Captain Greg would say, can be “off the charts”, good. In particular, seeing a big bluefish crash a popper in 4 feet of water is something all fly anglers should see at least once in their life.

As recounted in my Memorial Day post, I fished the sod banks on my own on the first morning of my visit and tallied my first striped bass on the fly. With the skunk shook off, fishing with Greg the following morning HAD to be good! Indeed it was…

I talked with Greg the afternoon before our trip. As usual, he talked at length about conditions and possible game plans. He had not had good luck on Memorial Day and was seeking “revenge.” He had some concerns about the cold water that had been flooding into the inlet as a result of prevailing southerly winds. These winds are known to move the warmer top water, resulting in an upwelling of cold bottom water. And that cold water can really put the brakes on the bite.

Greg said that trolling had been a hit or miss proposition, though some big fish had been caught. And since he knew I was really all about fly fishing, he decided on a three-pronged attack for our trip: 1) fish the jetties and inlet, 2) come inside and fish the sod banks, and 3) fish the flats. This would all be done fly fishing. Greg’s rationale was that there is always life in the inlet. If the inlet didn’t fish well, we’d fish the sod banks where I had some success, and then at high slack water, we’d hit the flats where he’d gotten reports of schoolie stripers in abundance. The plan sounded great to me, and after all, I’ve always tried to follow the guide’s advice. They know the water.

And so we met early on an overcast and misty Tuesday morning. It was warmer than Memorial Day and would brighten and warm up more throughout the morning. Greg had his boat, The Fishhead, at a new slip close to Barnegat Light. I arrived at 5:30 am and found him busy at work prepping for the day.

After loading my gear on board, we stowed my rigged rods. I brought a 10 weight Scott Tidal with a floating line armed with a Bob’s Banger popper, a 10 weight TFO TFR (“tough fly rod”) with a sinking tip line armed with a 2/0 chartreuse half and half, a 9 weight Orvis Clearwater with an WF intermediate line armed with a 1/0 clouser, and an 8 weight TFO Professional Series II with an intermediate sink tip armed with a size 2 clouser.

We were soon headed straight out to the inlet. The sea in the inlet was mild with barely a light wind blowing out of the south. Greg nudged me up within casting range of the submerged section of the North Jetty. Armed with my 10 weight and a sink tip line, I cast the weighted half and half and let each cast sink on a ten count before I started a fast retrieve. After only a few minutes I felt a bump as the fly neared the boat and then as I pulled the fly up for a backcast, saw a dull blue flash and a boil where the fly left the water. “I think that was a blue,” I yelled. I cast again, counted down, retrieved and BOOM, I was on.

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My 10 weight takes a deep bend thanks to a Barnegat Inlet bluefish… (Picture courtesy of Greg Cudnik)

My 10 weight instantly took a deep bow as the bluefish dug hard in response to the hook-set. I tightened the drag but blues are strong fighters and the fish surged and stripped line, off and on for the first few minutes. Eventually I worked the fish up close and Greg deftly slipped the net under it. As Greg would say, “we shook the skunk.”

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Blue on the fly… (Picture courtesy of Greg Cudnik)

We continued to fish the North Jetty, then fished the South Jetty. but no one seemed to be home and we saw very little action on the other boats. So Greg shifted to Plan B and off we went to the sod banks. We scaled down from the 10’s to the 8’s and 9’s, hoping a big blue or striper might make us think differently about our tackle choice.

Greg worked through some good looking water. But like the jetties, the sod banks were not to be, save one bluefish that sucked in an errantly cast clouser off Greg’s fly rod. Greg had short-cast the fly in preparation for a true cast, and the fish struck at boatside. He had it on for 10 seconds and then the leader parted, victim to the blue’s razor grill.

So we moved to our last hope holdout, another of Greg’s “Promised Land” areas, considered highly productive and reliable. The area we fished is simply known as “The Flats” and is an expanse of shallow bay water that will often hold striped bass and bluefish cruising for a good meal in the spring.

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The flats…

Greg had kept in touch with another fishing friend who reported some action on the flats. His friend was getting stripers in a hole he found amidst the shallow grass-bottomed flat. He was drifting over it, then driving upwind at the end of the run and repeating the drift. The schoolie bass were apparently liking the white soft plastic he was casting to them. So Greg steered towards his friend’s boat and had us drifting the flats about 100-200 yards away. We were blind-casting initially when we saw some signs of surface action. We slowly moved above the surface action so we’d drift down on what looked like striped bass chasing bait on top.

Almost immediately I was hooked up to one of the bigger bass of the day. The fish pulled strong and fought hard and was definitely a great way to start the flats bite.

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First bass on the flats. Can you tell I’m happy? (Picture courtesy of Greg Cudnik)

For the next few hours we drifted over that hole and every drift produced schoolie stripers. At times Greg and I were doubled up. Greg fished a crease fly for a while and had some topwater hook-ups which were visually awesome.

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Captain Greg with a nice schoolie.

It was great seeing such a nice mix of schoolie bass – a healthy sign for sure. Some were up in the 20″+ range, while others were smaller, but each one was carefully released to fight another day. Captain Greg is very much a conservationist. He’s not against harvesting a fish on occasion, but prefers to release striped bass, particularly the larger ones.

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“Go get bigger…”  It takes a striped bass 5 years to reach the 20″ mark and another 10 years to grow past the 40 pound mark… (Picture courtesy of Greg Cudnik)

As the morning aged into noon, the wind came up out of the south. What had started as a hot glassy-calm morning transitioned to a cooler and breezy one. The stronger wind rushed our drift so that each fishing window shortened. The fish were still there and the action continued but the tide was starting to ebb. It was time to leave the flats with the water moving out of the bay. If we waited too long, we’d not make it off the shallows.

We packed it in and left the flats, heading back to the dock. The day had started fast with a nice bluefish, then slowed considerably as we searched the inlet for more life, but ended up in a big way. The spring bite was every bit as good as Greg had said it could be, though it was a very different bite. I had booked the trip thinking we’d get into big blues but instead the highlight of the trip was a non-stop schoolie bite on the flats. We caught some 25+ bass and I once again learned more about the great Barnegat Bay fishery from Captain Greg.

God-willing, I’ll be back next spring. I’ll do more wade fishing and book another trip with Captain Greg. Maybe the bite will be big blues, maybe classy bass in the inlet or off the beach. Whatever it is I’ll welcome the fishing, a new harbinger of spring for me.

 

 

 

Memorial Day, Barnegat Bay, and Roger’s River

Posted in Fishing Conditions, Fishing Reports, Saltwater, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , on June 2, 2018 by stflyfisher

Oh, I know the sound the river makes,

By dawn, by night, and by day.

But can it stay me through tomorrows,

That may find me far away?

Roger’s River by Ralph D. Conroy

I woke up at 4:30 am on Memorial Day and lay there in bed, knowing I should get up and get going, but after a full weekend of yard work while the spirit was willing – the flesh was weak. ‘Think of what they did on this day’, I thought, and that thought finally ended the fight.

Unlike past years, I would not be fishing Ball Eddy on the West Branch of the Delaware that day. Instead, I had decided to visit my father, a Korean War veteran, and engage in some fly fishing on Barnegat Bay. In the Spring, Barnegat Bay is known for its good striped bass fishing as the bass are migrating northward along the East Coast at this time of year. It’s also a time when “racer” bluefish – referred to as racers because their starved bodies are so thin in comparison to their heads – invade the warmer waters of Barnegat Bay to feed up. Blues can provide outstanding topwater fishing on the flats of the bay.

Most fly anglers know the saying: you fish to the fish’s schedule, not yours. This is particularly true when fly fishing the salt. The tides can make or break the bite as can the wind and water temperature. Fortunately for me, all of these factors were aligned nicely this Memorial Day. I just had to hustle and get out to Barnegat Light before the tide hit slack high.

I drove out to the island from mainland New Jersey and crossed the great Barnegat Bay on the Long Beach Island causeway. To my left I could see the bay’s waters stretch seemingly endlessly and in the distance could just barely make out Barnegat Light. The wind was coming out of the northeast and rippled the bay. A grey overcast hung over the water and the island – a good thing for the light-shy bass. I was feeling hopeful.

It’s a 15 minute drive down Long Beach Island’s main boulevard to get to the northern end of the island but it always seems an eternity. On the way, you pass the once sleepy towns of Ship Bottom, Surf City, Harvey Cedars, and Loveladies, and finally enter Barnegat Light – established in 1692 – the town around the lighthouse and the literal end of the road. Then, turning left off the boulevard, you pass the fishing fleet, the party boats, and the charter boats, and make your way to a part of Barnegat Light referred to as High Bar Harbor.

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The commercial fishing fleet at Barnegat Light. In the distant background is part of High Bar Harbor and to the right stretching into the bay, lies “the dike.”

Arriving at the state park at the end of High Bar Harbor, I rigged up and set off through a cedar and bayberry canopy and emerged onto a great bay beach, referred to by locals as “the dike.”

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An aerial view of “the dike” seen as the long thin spit of land that stretches from High Bar Harbor to a sedge island. The dike is man-made of dredge spoils, built to create a harbor and divert tidal flows around the sedge island at its tip. Barnegat Inlet is to the far center right of the picture.

The northeast wind blew gently and immersed me in a bath of fresh salty air. Gulls and osprey soared and wheeled overhead. I had the entire beach to myself and as I walked in the sullen light of that morning, I wondered how it must have been to make a beach landing in war, the air ripped by bullets and filled with the cries of dying men.

It was a 15 minute walk to reach the end of the dike where the sod banks began. The place looked fishy and felt right. The current was flowing like a river along the banks and the water was a beautiful blue-green, reminding me that the emerald beaches of the Gulf have their own beauty but it is not the only beauty that water can have.

I found a point that protected a sandy cut behind it. It looked like a perfect place for bass and blues to set up and ambush or intercept prey.

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The sod banks…

My 8 weight was rigged with an intermediate sink tip line. I tied on a 1/0 chartreuse and blue clouser. Casting slightly up-current just like I would fishing a trout river with a streamer, I let the fly sink, counted down to 10, and began to strip the fly back on the swing. On just the third such cast, the fly stopped with a solid throbbing jolt. The rod tip danced and bowed in a deep arc and I cleared the line and got the fish on the reel. What followed was a good deep fight, filled with head shakes and lunging runs…

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A solid Barnegat Bay schoolie striper complete with chartreuse and blue mustache…

I was elated: this striper was a first on the fly and I caught it using the basics I had taught at a BC Flyfishers meeting held the week before.

I worked my way up the dike, casting and working the fly deep on the swing. The bass seemed to be holding in close, just off the current, no doubt picking up baitfish and crustaceans flushed loose from the banks by the tidal current. The bite lasted another hour during which I tallied three more nice schoolie bass…

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The current died when the tide reached high slack water and this lull would last a bit before the great bay had absorbed the ocean’s rush and started pushing it back seaward. I decided to pack it in, happy with my success. I had, after all, achieved one of my fly fishing goals; to catch a striped bass on the fly.

The walk and wade back was a long one. I was tired from the morning’s fishing and the soft sand underfoot made the hike all the more taxing but gave me time to once again reflect on the meaning of the day. Just before going to bed the night before, in an effort to calm my excitement over fishing the next day, I pulled out a Field & Stream anthology of short stories. The book seemed to naturally open to a story titled “Roger’s River“. The author, outdoor writer Ralph D. Conroy, was born in 1939, grew up in Massachusetts, and was an Army veteran. Mr. Conroy was a regular contributor to Guns & Ammo magazine, and was also published in Reader’s Digest and Field & Stream. In his short story, “Roger’s River”, the author writes of many themes familiar to stories with fly fishing as a backdrop, but it was the theme of connection and subsequent loss in war that resonated with me most that evening.

The story takes place during the Korean War. The author, recently graduated from high school, ventures afield in the Vermont countryside to set up camp by a river and fish alone. He is a week away from reporting for basic training in the Army and this is his last time to fish before heading off to war. He arrives at a small town and meets another young man who turns out to be a local fly fisherman familiar with a stream close by. The young man’s name is Roger. The two young men only briefly chat before Roger sets off to what the author later describes as “his river.” This is the only time the two men actually talk to one another in the story.

The author sets up camp that evening and hears the distant wail of a harmonica as he sits by his campfire. The next day he discovers Roger’s camp – neat and orderly – as he returns from fishing the river. There he finds the makings of a poem scribbled on some paper that hints that Roger too, will soon be off to war. After packing up, the author has the feeling that he is leaving more than the river behind.

Fast forward a year and the author is back home from his tour of duty in Korea. He returns to Roger’s river and finds Roger’s camp a mess – littered and in disarray. He leaves the camp on a mission to find out what may have happened to Roger. Courtesy of a local gas station attendant, he locates Roger’s house and meets his father, who reveals that his son had died in a helicopter crash in Korea a week before he was supposed to come home.

Over 54,246 men were killed during the Korean War with 7,704 still unaccounted for as of 2018. As I walked up the beach to the wood line of bayberry and cedar that marked the path out of the dike, I remembered the prose of Conroy’s story, recalling the meaning it carried, like the clarion call of taps in the evening. I thought of those lost in that war, like Roger, who may have carried a fly rod to cherished water, fished it one last time, and then left it behind for a higher calling. I stopped, took pause to view the bay, then turned and left it behind me, feeling fortunate for the morning’s fishing, but more so, for what they gave so that I could return to my own river and fish another day.

Pompano on the fly

Posted in Fishing Conditions, Fishing Reports, Saltwater, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , on April 26, 2018 by stflyfisher

Hey, are you Jeff Lowery? You sure look like him. He’s a fly fishing legend around here. 

Shout-out from an old beach bum in Destin, Florida

He looked like Jim Harrison, the famous writer, squinty-eyed, wrinkled, and tan as old leather. It was the second time in two days he had asked me if I was Jeff Lowery.

“You asked me that yesterday”, I said with a grin. “Oh, well you sure look like him”, the old beach bum replied. “He’s a fly fishing legend. He fishes from a step ladder on the first bar”. And with that he promptly moved on down the beach in his quest for the elusive fly fishing legend.

I had arrived early with the morning sun painting the beach and dunes sugar-white and the calm surf in hues of emerald and azure. The first and second bars were clearly visible with the deep blue of the troughs beyond them. The first bar was out 25 to 50 feet. That is where I needed to wade to intercept fish that cruised the trough and crashed bait against the shallows of the bar. It was late-April and the fishing report was that the pompano run was a strong one.

permit pompano spearfishing today

A tale of two cousins…

Pompano are a smaller cousin to the permit – the saltwater fish of fly fishing dreams and one of the three gamefish of the tropical saltwater fly fishing “grand slam”, the other two being the bonefish and tarpon.

Pompano can range up to 8 lbs., but finding fish over 5 lbs., is rare. Even so, they are built for speed with their forked tail and tall compact body. Their saltwater habitat is typically inshore and nearshore warm waters (70-89 °F), especially along sandy beaches, oyster bars and over seagrass beds. Because of their temperature preferences, pompano migrate northward in the summer, and toward the south in the fall. Their range extends from Massachusetts to Brazil, but it is most common to areas near Florida. Like permit, pompano feed on crustaceans: sand fleas, small crabs, and shrimp. But they also eat mollusks and small baitfish. They are a member of the jack family (Trachinotus carolinus) and like most jacks, are very fast swimmers and live in schools. They are bottom feeders with very short teeth made for crushing and their mouths are rubbery, much like a carp.

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The Permit – picture courtesy of Gray’s Taxidermy

I was not sure how to fish the pompano run so I started with a small clouser in blue and chartreuse. The 9 weight cast it well on an intermediate line and a 6 foot leader tapered down to 15 lb test. There was little wind to knock the fly down and almost immediately I felt solid taps on the retrieve. As I lifted the fly to re-cast, several small fish came screaming by the fly. I’d deal with these feisty fish all day, dime-bright bullets with tails of egg yolk yellow.

After a few more casts to the deep blue edge of the trough I felt a soft grab, somewhat tentative, followed by a few head shakes and then the jolting of the line and bright flashes in the water. The fish suddenly “grew” in size and made off on a run that pulled my rod down to the horizon, bucking wildly, and had me doing everything I could to keep the slack line feeding cleanly through the rod guides. In no time I had the line on the reel, the drag screaming as the fish tore off to sea.

At times I gained on the fish, then it would reverse and peel out. This continued for 5 minutes and then wondering and hoping it was a pompano, my first pompano, I saw its gleaming deep side and the forked tail. I waded back off the bar into a small trough and up the beach. The fish slowly tired, but still fought in the surf. I walked up the beach some more and dragged the fish out of the surf.

It was a pompano – speed demon of the gulf surf! Its body shone bright in the sun – hues of silver and light blue, its back dark gray with hints of yellow on its underside and the tail fin. The fish had inhaled the small clouser so I clipped the line as close as I could and released it, feeling good about catching my first pompano.

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My first pompano on what would turn out to be one of those days to remember…

I waded back out to the first bar. The water was still relatively cool but the sun warmed me. The day brightened and the sea around me turned on with color. I now tied on a fly that imitates a sand flea, one of the principal foods of the beach-running pompano. Like permit, the pompano has a downcast mouth made for eating the bottom dwelling sand flea, among other crustaceans.

Vlahos sandflea

This sand flea pattern was just the ticket for the pompano that ranged the surf the day I fished. This fly was designed by Nick Vlahos and sold on his website (www.sandbarflies.com). The pattern I fished was sold at the SanDestin Orvis store and is called Vlahos’ Marbled Sand Flea.

I fished this fly deeply with short twitches and it wasn’t long before I was fast to another pompano. These fish are truly built for speed in the shallower waters of the surf, and it was evident why when I watched large porpoises in the outer bar that were likely feeding on these fish.

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Dolphins were not the only predator for pompanos on the day I fished. This fish fought hard for being so critically wounded by what was probably a small shark.

As the sun rose higher in the sky I could see the pompano is schools cruising up and down the beach. I was able to sight-fish them, casting ahead or just short of the school. Though pompano are known for their Jekyll and Hyde feeding personality, on this day the “pomps” were turned on and lit up. Most casts I made were followed and the fly would be attacked even when it meant an about-face. While the sand flea fly was very effective, switching to clousers and other bright saltwater streamers didn’t seem to make much difference.

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This fish displayed some yellow on its fins and a somewhat darker gray/blue back.

The fishing continued red-hot most of the morning into the early afternoon with 30 fish landed and quite a few more lost. Quite possibly the ultra clear water conditions and bright sun eventually ended the active bite. Pompano are known to prefer turbid waters so maybe too much sun was a bad thing.

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The beautiful Emerald Coast of Florida…

After 5 hours of epic fishing in the sun-drenched clear waters of the Gulf, I decided to give the rest of the day back to the fish. I had that good tired feeling as I walked the two miles to the beach access with the sound of a screaming reel and the sight of a deeply bent fly rod accompanying me the whole way. The pompano definitely put a smile on my face and a skip in my step and I was thankful to have met such a beautiful gamefish. I will be sure to return next spring, hoping the timing is in tune with the spring migration and maybe too, in time to meet my apparent fly fishing clone, the legendary Jeff Lowery.