Archive for the Saltwater Category

Stinky Beach…

Posted in Fishing Reports, Saltwater, Thoughts, Writing with tags , , , on August 6, 2019 by stflyfisher

You can’t go home again

Thomas Wolfe

American novelist Thomas Wolfe once wrote “you can’t go home again”. One of his novels, titled as such, explored numerous themes related to home, among them, that once one leaves home, it is never the same over time and one never returns to the same place. The story goes that Wolfe took the title from a conversation with the writer Ella Winter, who remarked to Wolfe: “Don’t you know you can’t go home again?”

I thought about this theme recently as I fished a beautiful stretch of bay beach and sod bank in Ocean City, Maryland. It sits just inside Ocean City Inlet. The inlet was formed during a hurricane in 1933 and separates what is now Ocean City (Fenwick Island) from Assateague Island. The Army Corps of Engineers took advantage of nature’s intervention back then and made the inlet permanent. The inlet eventually helped to establish Ocean City as an important Mid-Atlantic fishing port as it offered easy access to the fishing grounds of the Atlantic Ocean.

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In this photo, the Ocean City Inlet is clearly seen, separating Assateague Island from Fenwick Island (Ocean City “proper”). Stinky Beach is the beach in the middle top of the photo, just south of the Rt 50 bridge on the inland side of the bay.

I was in Ocean City as part of a July 4th weekend visit with my wife’s brother and his family. My brother-in-law had purchased his parent’s retirement home there, a 1990’s 4 bedroom contemporary in Ocean Pines, an old resort community somewhat inland from Ocean City and Assawoman Bay. We would visit the place when my wife’s parents were in retirement, usually around July 4th weekend. Its proximity to good saltwater fly fishing made it all the more appealing to me. My wife’s family, non-fly fishers (golfers no less!) and late sleepers, didn’t mind me slipping away in the pre-dawn hours any time we were there and it was no different this time.

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Once referred to as “Stinky Beach”, the place I always fished on the bay is now officially called Homer Gudelsky Park and that name has an important local story of its own.

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Homer Gudelsky was one of the Washington DC area’s leading real estate developers and investors. The son of Russian immigrants, Gudelsky was raised on a farm in Baltimore County where his father started a gravel business. In the 1930s, Homer and his two brothers took over the business, opening a plant, Contee Sand and Gravel, in Laurel. During World War II, Homer served in the Army in Europe. Returning home from the war, he moved to Silver Spring in 1946, and during the postwar years invested profits from the sand and gravel business in suburban real estate at a time when the Maryland and Virginia suburbs were experiencing vast and rapid population increases. Mr. Gudlesky, with his wife, set up the Homer and Martha Gudelsky Foundation in 1968. The Gudelsky’s wanted most of the funding to go to the state which had been good to the family. Homer died of leukemia at the age of 78. His largesse left Stinky Beach for the greater good.

Stinky Beach – Homer Gudelsky Park – is 100 yards of rock-fortified rip-rap and another 100 of sandy beach and sod banks, with salt marsh tucked behind. A deep channel runs by it, offering boaters access to a harbor, and providing good fishing for “flounder” (summer flounder) – also known as fluke in more northerly salt. Its proximity to the inlet also means good fishing for bluefish, striped bass (rockfish in Maryland), drum, sea trout, and sharks.

Years ago, before development enveloped Ocean City and its surrounds, Stinky Beach was just another sandy, soddy piece of bay frontage. Commercial fishermen would stop there and clean their catch there; hence the name. The place is now a haven for picnic, recreational fishermen and families looking for a place by the bay to relax, swim, and walk their dogs. Lost in a maze of development, Stinky Beach stands at the convergence of two forces – the natural world and the ever-increasing human population. Sadly, it is a last foothold of sorts of the old Maryland shore.

My wife, youngest son, and I got to Ocean City on Wednesday night, July 3rd, and I went to bed much later than I wanted but still managed to get up relatively early for fishing the next morning. I arrived at Stinky Beach around 6:30 am and it was just as I remembered from my last visit, some years ago. The morning was already hot and humid, almost steamy at such an early hour. The sun rose in the east over Fenwick Island, my view interrupted by the island’s development – condos and hotels reaching skyward. Looking at that horizon, I wondered what Fenwick Island must have been like when Homer Gudelsky purchased Stinky Beach – then most likely a barrier island with a few summer cottages, fishing shanties, old-style motels, and a boardwalk.

I geared up, walked to the park, and waded in the bay where the rip-rap ended and the beach and sod banks began. There was little current then, the tide just beginning to flood after slack tide. I worked a heavy clouser off an intermediate sink tip line, casting up current, mending up tide to let the fly sink, then letting my fly swing across the bottom with short strips. I was hoping I’d get into a summer flounder that way, as I had done on a few occasions in the past. There was plenty of bait in the water – killies swam about in the lee of the current break my legs afforded them. Crabs scurried about the sandy bottom too.

As the sun rose over Fenwick Island, the whole beachside world seem to rise with it. It wasn’t long before boats powered out of the harbor nearby, their mates readying gear as their sports smoked and chatted hopefully. Watching them gave me hope too.

People began arriving as the morning hours waned, many led by eager, joyful dogs. I watched one couple with two labs – an older gent of a dog with grayed muzzle and what looked like his adolescent “little brother.” The poor older lab could not get away from his tag-along sibling, the younger dog constantly latching on to the retrieving duck big brother held, trying to play tug of war. If the older dog could speak in human, it would have been “just leave me alone” (add your own expletives).

I fished on and the current quickened with the flood tide. I could see sporadic bird play out well beyond my cast, and nervous water, signs that the baitfish were stirred up by hunters on the prowl. I thought I might have a shot at schoolie stripers or cocktail blues. At one point I had a few snappers boiling at my fly as I hauled it skyward to cast again.

With the fluke seemingly not interested in chasing a fly, I scaled down to a lighter and smaller clouser pattern – chartreuse in color in the spirit of Lefty Kreh, a Marylander and author of the saying “if it ain’t chartreuse, it ain’t no use.” I started casting this lighter fly, stripping a little more aggressively, hoping to steal the attention of gamefish on the prowl.

A gentleman came by, walking his small dog. He stopped to watch me fish and told me he and his family visited Ocean City often for vacation, and though a fly fisher, he never considered fly fishing the salt. This seems to be a regularly occurring comment when I am observed fly fishing the salt. So many freshwater fly fishers have no idea what they are missing when they take a trip to the beach and leave their fly rods at home.

Maybe it was that thought that turned my luck on. As the man started to walk on, I stripped and came solid to a good fish that exploded out of the water, gills flaring. The fish took off bay-ward and made my reel sing a sweet song. Then I saw my line angling upward and witnessed another jump. I thought this was a nice-sized bluefish, but as I worked to land it, I saw what looked like spots. Sliding it up on the beach, I realized I had caught a spotted sea trout – a close relative to the weakfish we often catch in Barnegat Bay and northern waters – a southern cousin of sorts. This was a personal best for me…

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The Spotted Sea Trout

This fish had the spike-like teeth of a weakfish, fought well, and would have been excellent table-fare.

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A spotted sea trout comes to hand, courtesy of my very own custom made 9 weight TFO BVK.

Contrary to its name, the spotted seatrout is not a member of the trout family (Salmonidae), but of the drum family (Sciaenidae). It is popular for commercial and especially recreational fishing in coastal waters of the southeastern United States. Adults reach 19-32 inches in length and 3-15 pounds in weight. This fish was a very nice specimen and turned an otherwise uneventful morning to a great morning out.

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The man who had passed by came back over, excited with my fly fishing success. He took some pictures to show fishing friends and then took a few for me. I released the sea trout and fished a little longer, but soon my time there was up. I headed home to a house of still-waking family. I fished the next morning, hoping for a repeat or at the very least, a few summer flounder, but it was not to be.

It was a nice July 4th weekend, all in all. There was good food and drink, family “catching up” and lots of laughs. The hot steamy weather reminded me of so many other visits when my children were little. Way back then I did not fly fish and knew little of the fishing opportunity that Ocean City held for saltwater anglers. Eventually, after getting started with fly fishing the sweet water, I ventured into saltwater fly fishing. I bought my first saltwater outfit and Ocean City beckoned.

On a hot and humid July morning, so many years ago, I sloppily cast a clouser, and let it drift with the hope only fishermen have, and a fluke rose off the sandy bottom and took it. That day added another dimension to my fly fishing life, one that grows as the years go by. Thomas Wolfe was wrong, I think. Stinky Beach, Homer Gudelsky, and a hurricane in 1933 said it all to me on my recent visit. You can go home again…

 

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.

 

Heaven on earth

Posted in Saltwater, Thoughts, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , on May 13, 2019 by stflyfisher

Steps

Like ev’ry flower wilts, like youth is fading
and turns to age, so also one’s achieving:
Each virtue and each wisdom needs parading
in one’s own time, and must not last forever.
The heart must be, at each new call for leaving,
prepared to part and start without the tragic,
without the grief – with courage to endeavor
a novel bond, a disparate connection:
For each beginning bears a special magic
that nurtures living and bestows protection.

We’ll walk from space to space in glad progression
and should not cling to one as homestead for us.
The cosmic spirit will not bind nor bore us;
It lifts and widens us in ev’ry session:
For hardly set in one of life’s expanses
we make it home, and apathy commences.
But only he, who travels and takes chances,
can break the habits’ paralyzing stances.

It might be, even, that the last of hours
will make us once again a youthful lover:
The call of life to us forever flowers…
Anon, my heart: Say farewell and recover!

Hermann Hesse

Jack Hofen sat on the trunk of a fallen white cedar and looked out at the bay. The cedar, a casualty of the ebb and flood of tide and the hard nor’easters of fall, lay where the bay lapped the sedge island. Jack’s free hand was resting on the bare wood of the trunk – waxy smooth and buttery yellow. It was lovely to the touch and somehow comforting on this Mother’s Day.

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Jack looked out on Meyer’s Hole, the deep water just inside the inlet and the lighthouse, and the beginnings of Barnegat Bay. He was waiting for the tide to ebb. The tide was at full slack, the bay’s surface as motionless as a mill pond. He needed the moon to act so that the waters of the great bay would be drawn back to sea, that magical pull draining the bay all the way up its tiniest tributaries, even to the distant pineland bogs where the sweetwater and bay brine intermixed. Then the richness of the backwater, the great salt marsh, would yield to the pull, giving itself to the bay and the inlet. The backwater would drop, forcing killies, spearing, shrimp and crab to come out of hiding. And the striped bass, tide-runner weakfish, and bluefish would be waiting, set up to gorge themselves as the tide washed its bounty seaward. As Jack waited, he remembered an Athabascan Indian saying: when the tide goes out, the table is set.

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Jack checked his leader and tied on his favorite fly – a white half and half. It was weighted with heavy eyes and on an intermediate line would get down to where the fish would be holding. He carefully tied the fly on to his leader with a loop knot that would give the fly more life in the current. After doing so, he wondered if he should have tied on a bite guard. Experience had taught him if he had a take and the leader was cut clean, it was time to tie on a bite guard. He decided to wait, hoping that fishing “naked” would bring him good luck.

Rigged up and ready, Jack sat and watched the water. A light sea breeze soon came up as the sun crept above the horizon. He thought about his mother. He remembered her smile most of all, and how she gave endlessly to others. He remembered her making breakfast for him on Opening Day, driving him to the Saddle River while it was still dark, just so he could get a good spot. He remembered birthday lunches – thick roast beef sandwiches and a Hostess cherry pie. He remembered her enthusiasm about his fishing, how he always felt the hero coming home with fish. And he remembered one of the last fish meals they made together – fluke with a delicious Chablis sauce. The dementia had started creeping into her life then, so he gave her simple repetitive tasks that made her smile.

His mother was a devout Catholic and her faith had been everything to her. Since her passing he had wondered what faith meant at life’s end, for though he believed in God, and believed she was now in heaven, he did not know what or how to think about heaven. Catechism taught about the soul but it had not taught where it went, other than “to heaven.” Heaven seemed like the universe – endless – but how did one think of “endless.” And what was heaven like – was the soul in heaven a person, a thought? Did it come and go like the wind? All his life all he had known were the Hollywood images – people clothed in white, the soft light, and the clouds. It bothered him that he had never asked his mother about it while she was alive.

Soon enough, the bay began to stir. Jack saw sea grass on the surface, moving imperceptibly with the still young ebb tide. Now he waited anxiously. The breeze had freshened and left cat’s paws as it skimmed the bay’s mirror-smooth surface. There was no bird-play as far as he could see. He knew from experience that the herring gulls and laughing gulls would sense the fish long before he did. And so he watched the sky and the horizon for them.

With time, the tide ebbed, the water now flowing like a stream past the sedge island on its way to the inlet and the sea beyond. Jack got up from his perch and walked to the sod banks. They were soft and spongy and bounced as he walked them. The strong tidal currents had undercut them in places and he knew enough to fish them carefully. The drop-offs could be 2 feet from the edge and plunge to 20 feet or more. He knew of a fisherman who had drowned at the very spot, and he wondered what heaven was like for him.

The birds finally arrived and wheeled overhead. They were seeing things that Jack could not. He laid out some line and began to false cast, shooting his fly, quartered up tide, just like he had done so many times when fishing a streamer in rivers. He mended a few times to let the fly get down deeper, then let the fly swing in the current, bringing it back with short strips. He repeated this as he moved along the sod banks and saw an area where there was a point in the bank. He looked at this area as a good ambush site, where fish could hold just off the current in the lee of the point, much like trout might hold behind a big boulder. He cast again quartered up current and let his fly do its seductive dance as he stripped it back on the swing. The fly stopped and Jack instinctively strip-set, feeling that good heavy sponginess of life on the line. His rod took a deep bend with each surge of the fish, so powerful that they had all the markings of a bass.

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He fought the fish in the current for several minutes. The fish surged heavily with the tide, using its broad, powerful tail. He gradually got the fish out of the current and slid it into the shallows. It was broad-shouldered, bright, and thick – everything a striped bass should be. He released it quickly, smiling as it sprayed him with water with a broad slap of its tail.

The fishing continued with a slow but steady pick over the next hour. They were mostly schoolie stripers with a few that pushed the mid 20″ mark intermixed. But as all good things must end, the pace soon slowed to nothing but unrewarded casts. The lull seemed odd to Jack as the current was approaching full ebb and running at its strongest.

And that is when the blues showed up. They arrived under circling, hovering birds, like a swarm of hornets, slashing at a school of baitfish, sending it flying in all directions. The birds dove into the fray, risking being bitten in the effort to feast on the bait now pinned to the surface. It was barbaric how nature played. He watched the blitz surround the edge of the sedge island.

Jack stripped line and made a quick cast. The fly landed in the midst of the fray, the line coming tight with a thump that nearly jerked the rod from his hand. A bluefish raced off and bored deep into the current, stripping line with ease. Jack tightened the drag and his rod doubled over, bucking with the fight. Where striped bass were all torque, blues were all speed and power. They were fast, dogged battlers, yellow eyed demons, armed with razor-sharp teeth.

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Jack landed the first blue, rushing to get it released and to throw another cast before the blitz moved on. He hooked and landed a second blue that ran him into his backing – a big chopper stuffed to the gills with baitfish. And then they were gone almost as soon as they arrived. That is how they were – a brutish hit and run wolfpack. All that was left of them now were pieces of flesh and vomited baitfish drifting in the current, the aftermath of their lust to gorge. He watched as birds again circled and dove in the distance, now far out of reach. His mind drifted off again.

He thought about the call in the middle of the night from his sister. He knew before he even answered the phone that his mother was gone. His brother had gone to the nursing home to identify the body and as he returned and drove up the road to the house, he saw an unusually bright light. The light was at telephone pole height, and arced across the black night sky from the house and in the direction of the nursing home. His brother did not know what to think of it. It was too low to be a shooting star or low flying plane. And it was too bright and too fast also.

Jack thought more about heaven while searching the bay for more life. He could not think of heaven as a spring creek cutting through a soft meadow where every cast was met by a big rainbow or brown. This did not seem real to him. He wondered if heaven was no more than a void where pain, suffering, and fear did not exist. Or maybe it was like it was before he was born – unknown, unreachable, unthinkable. He was sure his mother was in heaven, but where?

The ebb tide gradually slowed to slack low and Jack knew he’d have to wait hours for the flood tide.  It had been a nice morning. He had gotten into them good and he smiled for that. But gnawing underneath was still the question.

It would be a long trudge to his car, skirting deep drop-offs on the sod banks along the back of the sedge island. He set off, the sun creeping higher in the sky, heating the day, and with the heating of the land, the onshore breeze stiffened.

As he waded along the sedge island, he caught movement in the grass nearby. Looking closer, he saw a terrapin struggling. It was tangled up in a mass of mono-filament line, exhausted by its bindings. Jack bent down and pulled the terrapin from the tall grass. He laid him on his bag and cut away at the tangle with his nippers. At last he freed him, carefully placing him back where he had found him.

The terrapin slowly moved deeper into the island grass. As it disappeared, a cool soft breeze seemed to envelop Jack and the heat of the day lifted, the sounds of distant laughing gulls, hushed. Jack stood up and looked around. The blanket of air surrounded him for a few minutes, then moved off, exposing him again to the heat of the sun and to the sounds, smells, and sights of the bay. But what was momentarily stilled seemed now much more clear and alive.

He continued his hike to the car, coming to the trail that crossed the sedge island. The trail weaved in and out of bayberry and holly, patches of sea grass, and stands of cedar. The sun was bright and high in the sky, and the laughing gulls cried out in their jesting way as if to make fun of Jack’s struggle. He stopped to look out on the bay one last time as he approached the access, the bay deep blue and white-capped. He felt his mother’s presence more clearly now than he ever had since she had passed. Looking back on the morning, he realized she was there in everything he saw and sensed. And it occurred to him then that his search had been too deep – his thought of heaven had been far more complex than it needed to be. Heaven, he believed, had always been right right under his nose – in his struggles, his passions, his needs, his questions, his joys, and his tears. And his mother, and indeed all of those he knew who had passed, were with him every time he thought of them.

Jack Hofen reached his car and raised his eyes to the bright sky. He was thankful for good fishing, but more so, for a catch he would not release. Heaven truly was, on earth.

 

 

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.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

 

Good Gear – The Seiko Monster 2

Posted in Gear, Saltwater, Uncategorized, Watches with tags , , on March 22, 2018 by stflyfisher

I’ve revealed my dark side here before. Besides my penchant for everything fly fishing, including good outdoor clothing, I’m a watchie. My collection of watches is right up there with the number of fly rods I own.

Loyal and steadfast readers of this blog will likely remember a post I did on the Seiko Monster and the Monster’s little brother, the Seiko 5. I concluded in the post on the Seiko Monster that the Monster is a great fly fishing watch, and my experiences afield, astream, and in the salt continue to validate my initial take on this watch.

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Yours truly with a nice steelhead caught some years back. Note the Orange Seiko Monster with rubber dive strap on my right hand.

Most recently, however, I caught the phrase “Seiko Monster 2” out there in the blogosphere. I investigated and was delighted to find that Seiko had improved what I had already considered a horological masterpiece.

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The Seiko Monster 2 continues the Monster tradition with its legendary water-tightness of 200 meters thanks to the same screw-down crown. It also retains the essentials of the original with an excellent bracelet, case and bezel, and only slight changes to the dial. The dial’s hour markers are shaped like shark teeth with the Monster 2 instead of the mostly rectangular shapes and the inner sixty minute markings are no longer displayed making for a cleaner, less cluttered look. But it’s what beats buried deep in that stout stainless steel casing that makes the Monster 2 an even better watch: the new 24-jewel Seiko caliber 4R36 automatic movement.

An improvement over the original Monster’s 7S26 movement is that the new Monster’s 4R36 movement can be hacked and hand wound. Hacking is handy for synchronizing the watch with another timepiece; just unscrew the crown, pull it out to the 2nd position and the second hand will stop while you set the time. Hand winding lets you power up the watch manually after it has sat unworn for a few days. The 4R36’s 24 jewel movement runs at 21,600 vph with a power reserve of 41 hours.The new movement is also more accurate than the caliber 7S26 used in the original Monster.

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The heart of the Monster 2 – the 4R36 24 jewel movement…

The powerful Seiko LumiBrite luminescent material is of course still used in the Monster 2 and it retains the same brilliant glowing properties that made the original Monster such a huge worldwide phenomenon with watch enthusiasts and scuba divers. It is a very slightly different shade of blue-green this time but is still an awesome sight in the dark after charging it with a bright light source. You will also notice a new nicely machined crown that is a bit easier to grip than the previous version.

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The lume on the Seiko Monster 2 is impressive and comes in handy for fly fishers who like either of the darker ends of the fishing day…

The new Monster comes in a total of five versions spanning a standard black dial (SRP307K1), orange dial (SRP309K1), black case with an orange/brown sunburst dial (SRP311K1), black dial with red markers (SRP313K1), and lastly with a black bezel and chapter ring over an orange dial (SRP315K1). All models continue to feature a unidirectional countdown bezel, screw-down crown and a Seiko-traditional day/date display.

I agree with one watch review that noted that while the included Seiko rubber strap is fine, it tends to be a little long. I’ve always found the rubber strap to be very durable and comfortable and of course better for fly fishing in that there’s no flash. Having said that, the stainless steel bracelet is beautiful and rock solid. Models SRP307K1, SRP309K1, and SRP311K1 come standard with the bracelet. There is even a blacked-out version available which would be more suitable to fishing conditions where stealth is important.

And so, if there was ever a time to own a Seiko Monster, now is that time. With the new Monster 2 in the market, prices of the original monster may soften a bit, for one. That means the uninitiated watchies out there can get a great fly fishing watch and still fly under the girlfriend’s or wife’s finance filter (as in, “you spent that much on a watch?”!). And if you really want to own the more improved version, you’ll have more choice in the Seiko Monster 2 in terms of colors and you’ll end up with an even better fly fishing watch that should perform for decades to come…

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I’ve worn my original Seiko Monster while fishing under a range of demanding conditions. Whenever and wherever I fish, my Monster is there. It has never failed me and this includes the very rough and tumble world of party boat fishing for yellowfin tuna.

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

Posted in Fishing Conditions, Rod Building, Saltwater, Smallmouth Bass Fishing, Trout Fishing, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , , on January 5, 2018 by stflyfisher

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…

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

Weather highlights for the year were:

Record snowfall

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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Another smallmouth bass that couldn’t resist a streamer…

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

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.