Thursday, March 6, 2014

Stalking Snook

Fishing with a guide is a very rare extravagance for me. I really can't afford it. However, after more than a few failed attempts at catching a snook on the fly in Florida this past year, I vowed to invest in the expertise of a guide when I returned. I saved up for months, sold some old gear on Ebay, and spent some time looking for just the right guy to fish with. I've only fished with a guide on a couple of occasions before and had walked away both times wondering if I should have spent the money on gear instead. One of these trips didn't even produce any fish until I went out on my own after our time was up and the guide was long gone. I didn't blame him for that though. It's not completely about catching fish- what I really want and need in a guide is some serious instruction and constructive criticism. Not to mention, an experience I couldn't produce on my own. It's a tall order, I know. I had recently read a great story by Thomas McGuane about snook fishing with a known Florida guide who pushed him to the limits and made the experience closer to hard work than a leisurely pursuit. They also happened to catch fish. A lot of fish. This was exactly what I've been looking for. I tracked down this guide and booked a day with him.

The day finally arrived last week and after a nearly wordless introduction, we were in the boat and on plane- flying over clear water that seemed about a foot deep. He took us deep into the back country, away from any other boats or anglers. Or anything at all, really. Eventually he killed the motor and we sank into stillness and quiet. He handed me a rod and we jumped out and set off on foot, leaving the boat anchored in the shallows. We waded barefoot through a passage in the mangroves that felt like an overgrown tunnel, sloshing our way through the roots. Eventually, he turned around and said it was time to be stealthy and not make a sound. "These fuckers will hear you and feel you move, believe me." I did believe him. I tried my best to creep through the knee deep muck without splashing or tripping. Before long we entered a slightly more open area, surrounded by mangroves and dead silence. I saw some large, ghostly wakes cutting through the middle of the water. Every few minutes there were massive splashes in the mangroves and tiny baitfish would explode from the surface. Snook were definitely here. He gestured to walk at his side and told me to pull out some line and be ready to cast. We painstakingly made our way through the still water towards the middle as he scanned the water like a hawk. All I could hear was my heart pounding as my bare feet sank into the muddy bottom.

"Right there. Cast! Cast!"

I spun and clumsily cast to where he seemed to be pointing. Then I saw the black back of a massive snook turn away, several feet from my fly, kicking up a cloud of silt. "Chris. You HAVE to get it right in front of these motherfuckers. And don't turn or move-just cast when I tell you to. He's fuckin' gone." We moved on. Slowly. A missed cast is a missed snook and this fish was now impossible to catch, even if I could find him again. But there were more. The next one was cruising in the shadows of the mangroves, about thirty feet away. "Cast. Now!", he hissed. This time I didn't shuffle into position, but my cast fell short. Not even close. I had been secretly worried that my limited casting abilities would be a setback and it was proving to be true. He told me to let my back cast straighten out more and stop my forward cast higher. "That's your problem". I needed to hear this, clearly, and it helped.

The next target came into sight and I desperately wanted to get this one right. I made the distance this time, but the fly landed too far to the left. "Leave it. Wait. Strip! Strip! He ate it!" I instinctively lifted the rod when I felt the fish and then saw the now familiar turn and a huge puff of silt underwater. It was gone. "You have to strip, don't use the rod". I knew this, but habit and adrenaline had overridden my mind. Classic saltwater rookie move. Now I was really starting to worry. The sun started feeling a little hotter on my neck. If he was frustrated with me, and I'm sure he was, he kept it to himself. And despite my mistakes, he genuinely seemed as excited to be there as I was. "Let's go get these fuckers. They're smart, and they're sleazy, but we'll get 'em."

We moved on and silently pushed through the labyrinth of mangroves and skinny water. I occasionally saw the lazy black torpedo shapes cruising through the shadows up ahead, but his eyes usually found what I couldn't make out at all. "There. Cast. Right there." I put the fly roughly where he pointed. "Strip. Strip! He saw it. He's coming. He's on!", and I felt a jolt go through the rod to my hand. One of most powerful fish I have ever hooked on a fly rod was suddenly on the end of my line. The stillness became chaos as the hooked fish tore up and down the edges of the mangroves. I struggled to keep it from getting to the gnarled roots that would allow escape. A few minutes later I landed my first snook and relief coursed through me. Both of us, probably. "That other one you missed was bigger. But you caught your first snook!" I got another one shortly after that, maybe as big as that first one. The three runs it took were unforgettable. The speed and power of a snook is unlike any fish I have experienced and sight fishing for them made it even more of a thrill. We spent more time on improving my casting and fished hard for the rest of the day. Those would be my only fish, but I didn't care.

This was exactly the experience I had hoped for- some unvarnished instruction and an opportunity to stalk and catch a fish that has eluded me for a while. And there was absolutely no doubt that I couldn't have done this on my own. It was a fantastic day, one I'll remember for a long time. And more importantly- I learned enough that I might even catch a snook on my own some day. If I see one anyway. And I have a new goal: cast better. Way better. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Return and a New Year

Well, it's been a while. As planned, the past couple months have been both a blissful blur and a thoroughly exhausting time caring for our new son Oscar. He's perfect in every way and we are so grateful to have a healthy and (mostly) happy little guy. And his timing was impeccable- what better time to hole up and nest than the dead of winter. But, a little fishing on the side sure wouldn't hurt. When I manage to sneak in some sleep,  I still dream of casting to willing trout. And this is a fishing blog, after all. So with much needed extra help for the wife at hand yesterday, I got the green light to get out in the world. With temperatures just over my comfort baseline of 40 degrees, there was no way I'd pass up a day of sanctioned fishing. But where to go? From what I'm hearing, the East Branch is far from productive these days. The water is colder than most winters, which seems to have slowed things to a crawl. So, I swallowed my pride and headed to the Mianus.

I've written about it in the past, but the Mianus is essentially a dog park with a trout stream running through it. It would be easy to write it off entirely if it wasn't a great trout stream. And in late winter, when cabin fever is peaking, it becomes dry fly heaven with an impressive early stonefly hatch. This being mid winter, however, I really didn't know what to expect. When I arrived I was relieved to see a nearly empty parking lot. I geared up and started hiking upstream, where I eagerly fished the first pool I came across. I had already rigged up a tiny WD40 nymph dropper from a size 14 black stonefly (to cover the bases) and commenced to drifting. I was enjoying being reacquainted with the lulling pace of dragging an indicator rig up and down when suddenly the yellow thingamabobber dipped. I lifted the line, probably not as sharply as I should have, and felt the tug of a trout. The excitement of having hooked up so quickly faded as the trout came unbuttoned after a brief tussle. I caught a glimpse of it- it was a fairly thick brown that I would have loved to gotten to the net. Disappointing. I was also dying to know which of the nymphs it had honed in on, but I took this as a sign of the good day to come.  And not for nothing, a reminder to man up on those hook sets. I pushed on and worked my way through the other runs I'd fished last year.  Without all the people around, this place really is a gem of a stream. The water was gin clear and I could see all of the places where a trout could lurk. Though there are a few sections of solid nymphing water, I realized that this is really more of a dry fly stream. The frequent stretches of slow water are ideal for long drifts. I tried a dry dropper rig for a while, just on the off chance I could induce a rise or a take on the nymph, but ultimately that first missed brown was the only sign of life in the stream I saw all day. Not a single strike. I was a little surprised, and disappointed, but just barely. This is winter fishing after all. Being out there in solitude and shaking off the rust was well worth the trip. Even with the cold. Maybe the Mianus isn't so bad.


As it got dark and my thermos ran dry, I made the hike through the barren woods back to the warmth of the truck. That early lost fish was still nagging at me, so I made one final stop at the first pool where I had started. Maybe the lone wolf brown was still hungry. I was on my third drift when suddenly a big stick landed in the water about two feet from my indicator. Then I saw the yellow lab that was furiously paddling towards the belly of my line, making a beeline for the stick. The owner apologized profusely as I reeled in. "So sorry, I didn't see you there. I didn't even know you could fish here!"

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Reservoir trout on the fly

One of my longtime goals has been to catch a Kensico trout on a streamer and yesterday it finally happened. It was a perfect windless day to be on the water, so I got out there at dawn and headed for deep water. Kensico is a huge body of water and in order to encounter a cruising trout the best method by far is rowing with sinking line and using sonar to find the fish and the bottom structure. I covered a lot of ground while slowly trolling an articulated rabbit fur streamer, as deep as I could get it. At one point I marked a cluster of fish holding roughly where I thought my streamer was. And then suddenly the rod bowed deeply. After reeling in about 100 feet of line (with 50 feet of fluoro leader) and two long runs at the boat, I had a thrashing laker in the net. Not a huge trout, by reservoir standards, but it was pretty satisfying after putting in a lot of effort trying to catch one on a fly for a while now. The ultimate goal is to connect with one of the monster browns that these reservoirs hold and I think I have a chance now that I've figured out an effective trolling rig. And when the water gets even colder they'll be near the shorelines, within casting reach. That's something I'd love to accomplish and it seems slightly more possible now with the right conditions. And a lot of luck.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Casting Lessons with Joan Wulff


I've always wanted to go to the Wulff School of Fly Fishing in Livingston Manor, run by Joan Wulff herself- a legend of fly fishing and the widow of famed angler and author Lee Wulff. I know people who have taken the two day course and they just raved about it. It's on the bucket list for me, but in the meantime, the next best thing is this new free online series of casting instruction videos from Winston Rods starring Joan Wolff herself. I'm a s̶l̶o̶p̶p̶y̶  self taught caster, so I'm really looking forward to watching these and hopefully improving my technique.

Check it out.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Fall Streamers

Yesterday I dedicated a morning to trying out a rig I've been meaning to fish with for a while- a sinking poly leader, streamer and nymph dropper. This being late October, there's only one open stream nearby, so I hit the East Branch at sun up. I love fishing there in the early morning. The crowds have yet to appear and everything just feels fresh and full of possibility. It was cold, in a bracing kind of way that fills you with energy. I was already feeling pretty good about this outing.

rigged up a black wooly bugger with a green copper john and stripped it through a run that spills into a deep hole.  It didn't take long for a rainbow to grab the streamer and make a break for it. I felt comfortable putting a little pressure on him, I was rigged up with 4X- so I brought it to the net pretty easily. Well, I guess the poly leader works. I fished my way through a few more runs, trying different ways of fishing the streamer. I seemed to have the most luck with a dead drift- it was like nymphing without an indicator or split shot. I caught some nice little rainbows, and a brown that fought so wildly I actually wondered what the hell was on the end of my line until I saw it. Spirited little guy. As it got later and sun was getting higher the fish seemed less active . I made my way downstream and saw a couple guys fishing the two runs I had my sights on. Time to move on.

I still had some time to fish, so I drove down to a lower section that seems to get less traffic. One part in particular has some deep runs and pools that I wanted to check out. I'm glad I did. The very first cast connected with a sturdy fish that put the 4x to the test. At this moment I was not missing the intense anxiety that comes with 6x tippet and a big fish. I felt pretty confident I would land this one and it was so much fun to be able to firmly lead it upstream without fearing that dreadful pop and then nothingness that has plagued me this season. Nonetheless, I was still very relieved to get it in the net. It was a fat 16" rainbow with a gorgeous magenta slash and gill plate. Just a beautiful creature. It felt good to watch it swim away. This was the rare kind of day where things went as planned and the fish were in a cooperative mood. I felt uncharacteristically fulfilled with the morning I'd had. I packed up and went home. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

Rules and Conditions

They say to never fish during a full moon. Or is it always fish during a full moon? And who are "they" anyway? I really can't answer any of these questions, as a Friday trip to the Farmington made clear. Friday happened to be the day of a full moon and also a picture perfect day to fish (see photo). And after last time, I was feeling somewhat confident that this could be a good day of fishing on a blue ribbon stream. But, for some reason things just seemed off. Having generally fished less than I'd like to these days, I felt a bit rusty. Even when I warmed up I still felt clumsy. And it seemed that the trout were not interested in eating much of anything. The only fly that brought a couple fish to the net was a tiny little blue wing olive wet (size 22) that I tied on as a dropper. This fly is just a few wraps of green thread that form a minuscule body and a hint of a wing- but apparently it doesn't go unnoticed. Aside from a small brown and a gorgeous little rainbow, this fly also hooked the biggest fish of the day- which unfortunately made quick work of my 6x tippet. But I won't get into that. What was really kind of shocking was the late afternoon caddis hatch that sent hundreds of little tan sets of wings fluttering around without a rise in sight. Not a single one of them fell victim to a trout. And this was in a spot that I'm certain holds many fish. Very strange. Normally I'd chalk this all up to my own shortcomings as an angler- but no one else there seemed to be doing any better. Except for that guy using bait with the stringer of rainbows. I won't get into that either.

Weather and solunar tables have always been something I've had a hard time putting any faith in. For example, I have a beautiful antique fisherman's barometer that my wife gave me as a gift that claims to tell you when the fishing is best. Which is supposedly when the pressure is high or rising. Well, this happens to be the complete opposite of current theories that claim the reverse. I understand technology has advanced a little since this thing was made- but I can't quite account for a complete 180 on the science here. In my own experience, here in modern times, I definitely have had better fishing during the low pressure that precedes a storm or heavy rain. But not always. And I've also read that prolonged periods of high pressure can create ideal conditions for fishing. Ok then. And I can't even begin to speculate about moon phases and fishing. I have a handy little iPhone app that shows the best days of the month to fish based on the moon phase. Guess which day was rated the absolute best day for fishing this month? You guessed it: Friday.

"They" also say the best time to fish is when you can. And as my life gets more complicated, I can certainly get behind that sentiment. It's probably the only reliably true thing that can be said about this pursuit. And I'm still glad I fished on Friday, it was a fantastic day even if the fishing was slow. But, I sure could do with some consistent information on the subject of what makes fish active or not when it comes to conditions. If any of you guys have some illuminating experience with this, or otherwise, tell us about it in the comments.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Last Call at the Amawalk

My apologies for the lack of posts in recent weeks. Between a demanding new job and trying to prepare for the birth of our first child there hasn't been much free time for fishing. And honestly, the little fishing I have managed to fit in hasn't been much to write about. For whatever reasons, fall never seems to be the productive fishing time for me that it seems to be for others. I'm still hoping to get in a few good days before winter arrives and parenthood takes over, so don't give up on me just yet.

This past week was closing time for many of our streams, so I felt it was my duty to visit the Amawalk one last time. This stream was a real favorite of mine this year and it produced one of my best browns. So, on a beautiful Sunday I took the morning to hike and fish the lower section that leads to the Muscoot reservoir. The reason they close the Amawalk so early, I'm told, is to protect the spawning trout that enter the stream from the reservoirs.  My goal was to encounter some of these guys pre-spawn, so I wanted to make it as close to the reservoir as I could. I fished all my favorite runs and pools along the way downstream, but they were totally unproductive. I tried a variety of nymph rigs and streamers, but there were no signs of life to be seen or felt. I kept moving, further than I'd ever ventured before, until I reached the water where the current just about stopped before it enters the Muscoot. And that's where the fish were. I could see several large browns darting through the shallow slow water, somewhat aimlessly. They didn't seem to be feeding, just kind of passing through. I crept up as stealthily as I could and carefully put down my dry dropper rig in the lazy current. Amazingly, it didn't spook any fish, but as it crept into their space they bolted when they saw the nymph dropper approaching. Wow. There was no way I'd be catching any of these fish, they were clearly on high alert and not looking for a meal. It was definitely disappointing to have walked that far, found the fish and then been turned down- but it was a beautiful day and I hadn't seen another soul. Sometimes being out there is as important as the fishing to me and I was still grateful I'd taken in one last perfect day at the Amawalk. I did catch some tiny little browns on the long hike back up, but even if I hadn't I still wouldn't have felt any less satisfied. I'm already looking forward to springtime and returning to this idyllic little stream. I might even bring my son.