Archive for the Writing Category

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.

 

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FishHound

Posted in Fishing Reports, Trout Fishing, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , on October 7, 2018 by stflyfisher

“If I fished only to capture fish, my fishing trips would have ended long ago.

Zane Grey

He sat upright in the back of the pick-up truck, like a tall, dome-headed, and very dignified old man. Adam, owner of FishHound Expeditions, opened the back door of his truck and there he was, “Hatch”, a blue-tick coonhound of massive scale and the namesake for Adam’s growing guiding business. I let Hatch sniff my open hand, then pet him. He lightly pawed at me when I stopped. He had those droopy eyes, lazy ears, and goofy charm only a hound-lover could appreciate. I was smitten…

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“Rado”, left, along with the original FishHound, “Hatch”… (picture courtesy of FishHound Expeditions)

Hatch would not be accommodating my wife and I on our fly fishing float, unfortunately, but there was another “guide dog” in the offing. Adam asked if I was OK fishing with “Little Bear”. After meeting the Malamute/Australian Shepherd mix, I was all aboard.

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Little Bear checks out one of many rainbow trout netted by Jay, our guide.

Before launching our raft, our guide, Jay, told me he needed to take his truck and trailer down to the takeout. My wife followed him in our rental car and Adam drove his truck, already occupied by FishHound Expedition’s two official canines, the honorable Hatch and his sidekick, Rado. Before leaving, Jay set me up with a nymphing rig to fish the beautiful riffle and run at the access while he was gone. One of the many nice offerings FishHound Expeditions provides to customers is tackle and waders. In this case I fished a Redington 9 foot 6 weight rod with WF floating line. The rig was a classic indicator set-up. On the business end Jay had an Alaskan favorite – the bead. I fished the indicator rig at the head of the run and worked it from the top to the tail-out. After just a few casts, I landed a 14″ rainbow that spent more time airborne than in the water. A little later I hooked a 18’ish+ rainbow – another acrobat – but this one threw the hook after a few fantastic sky-borne jumps. Then just in time for the return of Jay, Adam, and my wife to the access, I was into my third rainbow.

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Early success! This third rainbow really made my day and we hadn’t even started the float!

Jay netted my fish and Adam high-five’d me. Shortly after, as we readied the raft for our float, Jay commented that he could see I didn’t need “Fly Fishing 101”, a before-float class he gives to newbie and beginning anglers. It’s always nice to get a compliment from a guide!

Willow Creek is full of wild rainbows. These fish feast on an abundance of salmon eggs in late summer along with the flesh of dead spawned-out salmon. As we began the float, Jay explained that despite the presence of October caddis, midges, and a few mayflies, the rainbows key in on both salmon eggs and salmon flesh as these food sources provide “more bang for the buck” in terms of nutritional value.

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Jay at the oars with Little Bear, ever-present at my side, on lookout…

We launched onto Willow Creek with me in the bow, Jay at the oars, and my wife in the stern seat. My wife was not fishing, but it was a first for me to; 1) have her on a float trip, and 2) have her floating IN waders!

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My wife in waders, and not any low-budget waders, but top-of-the-line Patagonia…

From the access we drifted the clear, cold waters of Willow Creek, a tributary to the Susitna River. We were fishing the lower half of the river. FishHound Expeditions guides the upper and lower Willow, and considers this gem of a tributary to be their home water, and for good reason. The Willow turns out to be one of the most popular fisheries in South Central Alaska, although on the day we fished it, with the salmon run essentially over, it was as if we had the Willow all to ourselves. Located about 60 miles north of Anchorage on the Parks Highway, Willow Creek offers excellent fishing for four of the major salmon species: kings, silvers, chums and pinks. In addition to big rainbows (up to 30 inches), the Willow also holds Dolly Varden, Arctic Grayling, and even small numbers of burbot and whitefish.

Willow Creek gets a strong run of salmon each year because of the excellent spawning habit it holds. The creek’s bottom is a majority composition of pebbles, cobble, and small rocks. And it is full of snags, the result of downfalls of the white spruce that dominate the land. The creek is named for the presence of of the ubiquitous Alaska willow – not the willow of the Eastern US that Southern Tier fly fishers may be so familiar with – but a shrub-like willow that is the preferred forage for the abundant moose. Indeed, during a bio-break to the bush I saw numerous moose tracks and dung.

Since we were nymphing with an indicator, the key to “bead” success was a true dead-drift presentation. Fishing from a drift boat – in this case a spacious raft – made a dead drift that much easier, but I had no problem hooking up when we stopped and waded a bit as well.

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Willow’s wild rainbows are beautiful, strong, and egg-crazy…

The snags made fishing a little more challenging. The Willow is definitely a “woody” creek and anglers would be advised to have a lot of flies, shot, and rigging materials on hand to do well here. As much as I tried to pull my rig out of potential snags, I still lost flies with some regularity. The saying goes, if you’re not hanging up, you’re not fishing effectively, but I started feeling bad with the number of times Jay had to re-rig me. Nonetheless, Jay always had an alternate rod rigged for the inevitable quick change-out. That alternate rod was rigged the same way but instead of a bead, had a flesh fly on the business end.

As with the bead, I’d never fished a flesh fly. Jay instructed me to fish it dead drift like the bead, but to give it some time to tail out before picking up and casting again. There were dead salmon hung up here and there in the snags, and Jay was able to demonstrate, “in the flesh” (pun intended) what the real thing looks like in the water by nudging a dead salmon. Sure enough, a chunk the size of my fly came loose with Jay’s prod of the oar and it drifted seductively downstream. The flesh fly I was using was tied by Jay, and looked just like the real thing in the water. My first “flesh” drift proved just so as I hooked up with another nice rainbow.

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A flesh fly similar to the one Jay tied and had me use.

Partway through our float Jay decided to change things up. At four different times, smaller rainbows rose to the pink indicator I was using. They were beautiful with their plentiful spots, emerging from the clear green of the creek, pausing a millisecond to study the indicator and then trying to take it with a swirl. I laughed at their vigor and Jay added, “can you imagine what they’re thinking?” “That’s gotta be the biggest salmon egg I’ve ever seen…” But that display gave Jay an idea. He tied on a slightly larger bead with a stronger pink color to it. After our shore lunch he showed me a real salmon egg he had found among the pebbles of the creek’s bottom. The bead egg was pretty close to the size and color (very pale white/orange) of the actual egg, but he wanted to see if the size and color change might further improve our results. First cast with the new bad and I was immediately into a rainbow, followed by many more. We continued to use that new color bead along with the flesh fly.

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This rainbow had a faint lime color to its lower sides…

Midway through the float, Jay pulled us over to a long gravel bar. There he set up shore lunch – a small portable grill and cooler – reindeer brats, chips, apples, beer, water. We stood and talked as Jay cooked the brats. Little Bear lay down on the gravel, very content. And the Willow washed by.

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Guide-turned-chef, Jay, sets up a nice shore lunch…

After shore lunch, we continued our float down the Willow. The Willow often appeared as creek, stream, and river. Wide sweeping stretches with deep holes made me think more of the West Branch of the Delaware, mid-sized riffles – the Beaverkill, and then narrow choke points had a bit of lower Owego Creek flavor.

As we worked farther downstream, we began to see a few silver salmon in the deeper holes. At one nice run Jay pulled ashore and rigged an 8 weight rod with a streamer. He said it might be possible to rouse one of the silvers if they were holding in the deeper holes and backwaters.

We gave it a shot, casting the Dolly Llama, a favorite streamer for salmon in Alaska…

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With no one apparently home in the salmon hole, we continued our float, slipping easily down the Willow.

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Jay deftly maneuvers our raft through a choke point and downfall…

I’ll never tire of indicator fishing. And on the Willow, it was all the more exciting, casting to its deep snaggy holes and imagining what egg-crazy rainbow might be laying in wait. This was new water, truly wild, and a frontier farther west than I’d ever fished.

We hauled out where the Willow met the Susitna River – a big brawling glacial river, slate-grey in color, braided like a pretzel across a wide river valley. Born of Denali, the Susitna flowed to Anchorage and emptied into the Pacific.

Before hauling out, Jay paused long enough to let me get a few more drifts in. I fished the seam where the Willow’s clear flows met the silty flows of the Susitna, and quickly caught three more rainbows – a wonderful send-off to a trip that went way too fast.

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Last cast…

For those who have never fished Alaska, my experience with FishHound Expeditions had me immediately planning a return trip. I cannot recommend them enough! There are a lot of choices of quality outfitters in Alaska, and on top of that, myriad fishing possibilities from fly fishing small creeks for grayling to fishing the big salmon runs. Locations are another choice with overwhelming possibilities, given the size of the state. But I would definitely consider a trip or trips with FishHound Expeditions, particularly if you are in the Anchorage area. In addition to floats of their homewater, FishHound offers trips to the back country via plane or helicopter. These trips expand opportunities in fly fishing to big fish days and luxury back-country glamping.

As I write this, I am at once missing the good country, great fishing, and the hardy people that make Alaska. This wonderful day on Willow Creek offered a fine taste of a place that beckons me back. One day I’ll return, and maybe, just maybe, spend an extended trip in the backcountry with fishhounds…

Youth…

Posted in Flies - Local Favorites, Smallmouth Bass Fishing, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , on July 6, 2018 by stflyfisher

Youth has no age.

Pablo Picasso

I arrived at the post office parking lot in Lisle and parked my car as I normally do, off to the very far corner of the lot facing the flood dike, a mountainous wall of green. Beyond the big berm that protected the village lay the river, flowing timelessly, emptying itself to bigger rivers downstream, it’s brother the Chenango, and its bigger brother, the mighty Susquehanna. Soon enough a mini-van pulled up alongside and 3 happy kids burst out the doors. I greeted them and asked the first, Ben, the boy twin of 15, if he knew what river we were fishing. His response was immediate, “the Tioughnioga”, pronouncing it correctly to my surprise. Then I asked him to spell it, which he did almost as easily. I was impressed…

It took a while to string up the 4 rods; one each for Ben, Corrine (twin sister to Ben), Bodie, younger brother, and Mike, father and coworker. I searched a streamer / nymph fly box and tied on what I thought might work for the smallmouth bass and fallfish that called the river home. I chose a variety of nymphs and streamers, including the Carey Special, tied by fly fishing friend Eric Tomosky.

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One version of a Carey Special. Picture courtesy of fellow fly fishing blogger, PlanetTrout.

Soon we were off on our way to the river, crossing the flood plain, then climbing up the tall dike bank and stopping at its top to survey the river below, moving clear and happy. Mike’s kids then scrambled down the grassy bank, with Mike and I following them to the  river’s edge.

The river edge was a high clay bank, a man’s height to the water, steep and abrupt as if it was guarding the river from easy access. The bank was the result of years of spring floods cutting the mud and clay of the flood plain. Those floods had scoured and cut the bottom to its bedrock over time, creating a long deep pool. As we spied its depths, we could see big carp cruising up river, then sliding back into the murky depths of the pool, like they were playing a game in the current. Here and there, smallmouth bass, walleye, and fallfish swam about, and for all of these fish it was tempting to cast to them but experience had taught me to skip the fishing there for now. The area was completely void of trees and was open to the bright sun, making all the pool’s residents very wary, and rightfully so with eagles and ospreys around. The setting sun would beckon us back when the time had come.

Just below the bridge the pool tailed out and ended with the start of a riffle. We crossed there to fish from the far bank where it was shallow and forgiving to hapless waders such as kids may be. On the way down-river the kids busied themselves with the life of the river. Ben immediately caught a crawfish with his bare hands and examining it, patiently unpricked the crustacean’s hold on his fingers with the patience of Job and without so much as an “ouch.” The little crawdad was a mix of colors – dark olive and faint orange. As we waded across the rock-strewn shallows, they scattered by the dozen like cockroaches do to a newly lit light.

The riffle we crossed fed into a run that cut against the opposite bank. This piece of water had always been rich with small bass, fallfish, and walleye. When I first fished it, I became almost agitated by the plenty of small fish. It was one of those places that screamed bigger fish but several years of summer and fall fishing had never produced anything larger than 10″, so I deemed this spot beginner’s water, but never ceased to fish it quickly and thoroughly on the way to the deep pool below it.

We waded in at the head of the run, spread out, and began casting. I left my rod at the bank and moved around Mike and his kids, giving pointers, untangling lines on occasion, trying to be a good “guide” and hoping my advice might produce some fish. For whatever reason, the smallmouth bass were on vacation that day but fallfish and small walleyes filled the void. Mike caught a few, then Corinne caught one but Bodie and Ben were fish-less.

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Mike and his kids lined up fishing the Tioughnioga.

While Corrine and Bodie were enthusiastic, it was Ben who stood out as one who really enjoys fly fishing. I watched him cast apart from the others. His casting stroke showed promise. He’d look up as he cast, even watching his back-cast. His determination was admirable, especially with a fly rod and line that was, in my opinion, holding him back from improving. At one point I tried casting his rod and found it flat. The line itself seemed like level line and the rod was slow and awkward. At that point I picked up my own rod and asked him if he wanted to try fishing the deeper pool below.

We waded down below the rest of the group, moving down the river a few steps at a time, casting with each few steps. I would cast and hand Ben my rod, instructing him how to strip the fly, how to point the rod tip low at the fly, and how to keep in contact with the fly. He picked this up quickly. We waded down into the deep pool where the week before, as well as many times before that, I had caught large channel cats.

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I had wished Ben could have felt the tug of a nice channel cat on the fly rod…

I wanted badly for him to feel the solid stop of the fly on the strip, or better yet, a jolting take, and then the good hard “tug of war” that catfish play so well, but it was not to be that evening.

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The deep hole where I have caught many channel cats on the fly. This is leech water too!

As the sun set, I decided it was time to make a move upriver to the deep pool above the bridge where earlier, we had watched large carp, smallmouth bass, and walleye flirt in the current. I moved up there with Ben in tow. Corrine and Bodie followed, with Mike in the rear. Fishing from the far shore did not produce anything, so we waded back down at the tail of the pool, crossed, and walked back up the steep bank where we could have a better look at what was going on.

The fish were still there. At least a dozen big carp were milling about, some displaying feeding postures as they ransacked the bottom with their rubbery mouths. The smallmouth were there too, often times trailing the feeding carp waiting for a morsel the carp’s bottom carousing might stir up to drift downriver, hapless and helpless – an easy meal. And we could see fallfish and walleye as well. So we began to cast.

Mike started picking up small walleye here and there. They seemed to like the movement of the large black hackle on his Carey Special. I surmised it looked leechy in the water, and no walleye can pass up the seductive dance of a swimming leech. Ben, Bodie, and Corrine all tried, but with time Bodie and Corrine seemed to have had enough, and wandered off back to the car to change out of their wet clothes. Ben was relentless and his fervor grew more intense with every walleye Mike caught. Mike would hand his own rod to Ben but the magic seemed to vanish, only to come back when Mike cast again.

I was casting for a shot at the carp. Again, if I could entice a take, I wanted to give Ben a chance to feel the power of these fish. I cast and cast, trying best to lead the feeders but sometimes forgetting to take into account the drop of the steep bank. Eventually I got better and at last got a nice follow from a carp. It pursued my crayfish imitation with serious interest, but I ran out of water. I let the fly go to the bottom and the carp nosed down at it but just short of sucking it up, turned away. Smart fish, they are.

We continued fishing as dusk came. Corrine and Bodie returned from the car, Corrine pointing to a fat leech on her leg. I laughed as Mike continued to fish. I had warned him days before our trip that without waders, one could pick a leech up in the muddier parts of the river. He later explained the kids were used to them from their vacations at big backwoods lake in Maine. Indeed, Corrine seemed unfazed as Mike tried to remove it. It was firmly attached and I slipped my hemostats under the head and finally yanked it off without so much as a word from Corrine, tough girl that she was.

We decided to give up the ghost as the light faded. Back at the cars we said our goodbyes. The kids were in Mike’s minivan as fast as they had bust out of it earlier that evening.

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Looking downriver on the Tioughnioga as dusk approaches. The native American Indians that called the Southern Tier home named it to mean “meeting of waters”. Difficult to pronounce, the name is as beautiful as the river and its surroundings.

Driving home, I paralleled the Tioughnioga through the village of Whitney point, passed the Chenango in Binghamton and then crossed the Susquehanna as I sped along Rt 17. My mind relived the hours past – walking down to the river bank with the anticipation of a kid on Christmas, seeing the great carp as they held in the current of the river, watching young Ben eyeing his back-cast and beginning to form loops, drinking up the enthusiasm Mike’s kids brought to the river. I realized then how important it is to fish with kids, even if just once in a while. For heading home that night, I was young again…

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.

Grippen Pond – back to life…

Posted in Fishing Reports, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , , , , on May 23, 2018 by stflyfisher

Grippen Pond sits a mere 50 yards off my back deck and is, at last, reborn. I thought about making that call last year, after hooking and losing a nice bass and following that with a 15″ rainbow trout (a first ever for me in the pond and most likely a holdover from a neighbor’s stocking), but for the rest of the year, the pond just didn’t fish like it used to, especially in summer and fall. My first saunter back to it on an early evening this year convinced me otherwise and left me grinning and looking forward to times like the good old days.

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The first bass of 2018…

Followers of this blog will remember posts I made years back. After moving my family into a bigger house in 1998, I did a recon of the pond on which we had frontage and deeded recreational access and found it teeming with small sunfish and frogs. Weedy and mucky, the pond looked old. Locals claimed it was once a place where kids swam and dairy cows drank cool spring water…

Ponds, like us fishermen, grow old and eventually die. The life of any pond will pass through 3 phases: 1) Oligotrophic, 2) Mesotrophic, and finally, 3) Eutrophic. County Soil & Water Conservation surveyed the pond years back and confirmed it was old and dying. The only way to rejuvenate it effectively would be to drain it and excavate. Early on (we’re talking pre-1900), the pond was quite possibly Oligotrophic: deep and clear and having a low concentration of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Over time, keeping in mind it was on land that became a dairy farm, the pond transitioned to the Mesotrophic stage: having more nutrients and, therefore, more plant and algae growth. As a result of the plant and algae growth, the bottom of the pond began to fill in with organic material. The substrate that was once rock, sand, or gravel, now would have consisted of mud on top of the rocks. Gradually, Grippen Pond became Eutrophic as it is today – extremely well nourished with nitrogen and phosphorus, leading to an abundance of aquatic plant growth. The bottom of the pond is now filled with organic sediment and mud – I’ve waded in areas were I sank in up to my knees. In the heat of summer, vast mats of aquatic weeds and duckweed give the bass a shady hiding place, safe from the herons that hunt the pond’s shallows. The depth of the pond at its deepest point is over 10 feet but I am sure it continues to fill in as all of that aquatic vegetation dies each year. As the pond or lake fills in and weed growth accelerates, the total open water area will shrink. Eventually, Grippen Pond is destined to be a swamp or wetland without intervention.

In 1998 it was evident that Grippen Pond lacked a population of bass to control the sunfish population and I decided to attempt to balance out the situation by playing bucket biologist, stocking some bass from a coworker’s pond.

Scroll forward a few years and the bass were alive and growing…

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Years back, a bright, beautifully marked, largemouth bass

Unbeknownst to me, however, my neighbor on the other side of the pond and owner of the pond, was doing his own stocking. Fathead minnows, crappie, largemouth bass, and rainbow trout were apparently planted almost every year. He had good intentions, but the rainbow trout certainly wouldn’t survive the warm water of the pond, especially through summer, though I now know at least one did. Quite possibly, the deep part of the pond has cold springs that allowing a few to survive. I’ve never caught crappie, but I have caught some supersized sunfish that took bass-sized poppers and wooly buggers with mouths big enough to lip.

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Big enough to take a bass popper…

The big male pumpkinseed sunfish in the picture above eventually met a far worse fate than being caught and released by yours truly. The winter of 2014 – 2015 was not kind to Grippen Pond as the Southern Tier of NY was hit with incredibly cold weather. On the way to work one morning I measured a low temperature of -27 degrees F! The arctic environment sealed the pond shut with a thick layer of ice that lasted well into April. And on top of the ice, the winter’s snow layered up into a very heavy coat.

These conditions can set up ponds, especially shallow ones, for “winter kills”. A winter kill occurs when the ice cover cuts off oxygenation of the water and then snow cover on the ice cuts out sunlight to aquatic plants, causing them to die. The dead plants, in turn, use even more oxygen as they decompose: a deadly downward spiral for all aquatic life.

And so that spring of 2015 was a rough one. I remember scanning the shoreline from my kayak, finding hundreds of sunfish, good numbers of bass, and a few very large grass carp, all dead. Spring turned to summer and the pond was unusually quiet. Gone were the sounds of bass crashing bait in the shallows in the evening. Gone too were the toilet bowl flush swirls at any popper tossed close to a weed edge.

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A very large grass carp that took, of all things, a chartreuse bass popper! I caught this monster in May of 2014 – the spring before the winter kill. It towed me around the pond in my kayak for quite a while…

After a disappointing 2015, I once again patrolled the pond in the spring of 2016, hoping to see signs of a comeback. Paddling about in my kayak, the pond’s owner, a friendly, elderly neighbor, came out of his house to talk to me one evening. I told him the 2015 winter kill had eliminated the bass and large sunfish and that the pond was overrun by small sunfish and frogs. Tadpoles that spring overwhelmed the shallows.

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My kayak ready for duty. The pond owner’s house is in the background. Grippen Pond is a good 1.5 acres in size in the shape of a distorted kidney bean.

My neighbor listened intently to my suggestion that we re-stock some bass and acted on it that year, adding a bunch of decent-size bass from another pond.

As a result of this re-establishment of the bass population, sunfish appear to be under control. And the tadpole population also seems to be thinning. I think I know just where most of those have been going…

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Another 2018 dandy from Grippen Pond…

 

Pompano on the fly

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

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

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

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

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

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

permit pompano spearfishing today

A tale of two cousins…

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

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

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The Permit – picture courtesy of Gray’s Taxidermy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vlahos sandflea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The beautiful Emerald Coast of Florida…

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