Sunday, March 29, 2015

Review: Air-Lock Strike Indicators

At last check there are about 763 different kinds of strike indicators (read "bobbers") on the market for fly fishermen to choose from. I've tried nearly all of them. Most work, but they all have drawbacks. And most of the drawbacks have to do with the effect they have on the leader.

Some either put a kink or knot in the leader; others fall off the leader too easily. And some leave a coating on the leader.

A new player on the indicator scene, Air-Lock, distinguishes itself by protecting the leader with an ingenious screw-top feature that sits atop a plastic ball.

Casting with a plastic ball on the leader is far from elegant. A guide with Trout Bum 2 introduced me to the concept more than 10 years ago, the ball he used was actually a small balloon. The technique is highly effective. While I still prefer fishing without an indicator, I've learned that they can make a huge difference when fishing in specific conditions. The Thingamabobber made blowing up balloons streamside unnecessary. But I've grown to hate the Thingamabobber for a few reasons. Looping the leader through the small hole at the top puts a kink in the leader that cannot be straightened out. Worse, I've had the leader break where it rubs against the edges of the hole.

Enter the Air-Lock. It features a slotted screw and an o-ring nut mechanism at the top of the plastic ball. The leader slides into the slot in the screw. The nut fits over the top of the screw and is tightened down to hold the leader firmly in place. The leader isn't damaged or kinked by being slid into the slot in the plastic screw. And the nut doesn't appear to do any damage to the leader either. As I said, every strike indicator has its drawbacks. The Air-Lock's drawback is this: it requires two hands and fairly nimble fingers to attach. Steelheaders accustomed to fishing in sub-freezing temps will find attaching the Air-Lock to be rather challenging. I haven't dropped a nut into the river yet, but I know it's coming.

As drawbacks go, it's a minor one. The Air-Lock will be my go-to indicator when drifting deep runs and slots on Steelhead Alley. It's not as subtle as the New Zealand Strike Indicator, but it floats much better with heavily weighted flies; a must for steelheaders. I expect I will be using the Air-Lock until indicator #764 comes along.

First Fish

First fish are special fish. The one to the left came at the end of a drift in an inside run. The run is downstream of a popular flat where at least one female was busy clearing off a bed.

The run used to be a very narrow slot, but winter ice had carved a deeper, bathtub-sized hole along the east side of the river bank providing plenty of room for at least a few fish to hold on their on their southerly journey.

I hooked one fish on my second drift through the run, only to lose it. This one wasn't as lucky. The fish picked up the root beer-colored sucker spawn that was hanging below a black woolly bugger. After a long, cold winter it felt great to land a steelhead on the first outing of March.

A week or so later I hooked and landed my first spring fish on the swing using the Spey rod. I was using a gray ghost-style articulated pattern that Greg Senyo tied. Greg gave me the fly at a Bar Flies event earlier this winter hosted by Schultz Outfitters. Greg doesn't have the pattern on his fly tying blog. Maybe he'll be kind enough to add it.

The fish was hanging out against the far bank in a long, deep pool. Winter had transformed that pool, as well. It is much deeper and straighter than years past. It should continue to be an attractive pool to swing big flies through when other anglers aren't present.

The fish affirmed that the "tug is the drug." More Spey time is in my future. (I didn't take a picture as I'm trying not to remove the steelhead from the water this year. The Keep 'Em Wet campaign is targeting native, wild fish. But the fish doesn't know it's not native.)

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Drifting the Missouri with a Headhunter

Gray clouds filled Montana's famed Big Sky and pressed down on the Big Belt Mountains to the south as I drove I-15 from Great Falls to Craig; the place that the NY Times called the "World's Best Trout Town" back in 1999. My destination: Headhunters Fly Shop, which wasn't even open back at the turn of the century. Craig is home to three fly shops. The shops fill about half the commercial buildings in the tiny town on the west bank of the Missouri River. All of the shops come highly recommended. Greg Senyo, a guide/fly tier who knows how to have a good time, told me that the guys at Headhunters are great fun to fish with. That was enough for me. I don't fish with guides very often, but I've learned from experience that some guides take themselves way too seriously. I prefer guides who laugh a lot and don't get frustrated spending a day with an angler like me, more enthusiastic than skilled.

I started looking into the fishing on the Missouri River early last year after our son learned he'd be stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base. He moved there in October and he's been teasing me ever since with stories about the beautiful river valleys he flies through. Ohio's arctic winter gave me a terrible case of cabin fever that I decided to treat by taking a solo trip west. After a great weekend of hikes and back-country drives with my son and daughter-in-law, I headed south to Craig on Monday morning. The temperature gauge said 36 degrees, and wasn't moving much higher all day. Thankfully rain and snow had been dropped from the forecast and the wind was a modest-for-Montana 10 to 15 mph, much less than the previous two days.

Craig is located about 10 miles downstream from Holter Dam, which turns the Mighty Mo into a giant, albeit artificial, spring creek beloved by fly fishermen for its massive hatches and selective trout. On a cold, gray March day the bugs promise to be sparse and the fish lethargic. But I don't mind one bit. I haven't fished since Christmas eve and I need a fix. My guess is the fish won't be overly picky about eating a drifted nymph, and if I'm lucky a mid-day midge hatch will bring a few of the legendary heads out of the water to sip dries on top.

After turning off the highway, I spot the town's two larger fly shops and drive right past the small shack that is home to the folks Jess McGlothlin, aka FireGirl, calls the Missouri River Rowdies. I pull a U turn and park in the small lot in front of Headhunters. Inside I meet Dewey and others on the team. I purchase the obligatory trout shop ball cap featuring the Headhunters slick logo and pay for the guide trip. A few minutes after my arrival, Ben Hardy, the shop's head guide, arrives and asks me the question that assures me that I will have a good day: "Chris, what would you like to do today?" Some of the guides I've fished with prefer telling their clients what they'll be doing. Ben made it clear from the jump that his goal was to make sure I had a good time.  I said I was up for anything, but really hoped to get a few shots at fish on a dry fly since I rarely get the chance to fish on top. Considering the weather he made no promises, but he said we'd make sure to give it a go.

We hop in his truck and pull his drift boat up to Holter Dam. The plan is to spend about 8 hours drifting back down to Craig. A few bald eagles fly overhead as Ben rows us out into the main current. The river is about 40 to 50 yards wide and is flowing at about 4700 cfs. Ben rigged up a Helios 2 rod with two pinkish scud patterns and a split shot hanging beneath an orange thingamabobber. Not exactly the most elegant of rigs, but very effective. Within the first hour I exceed my expectations, landing a half dozen or more rainbows in the 14 to 20 inch range. I stopped counting fish a long time ago; after the first few I just relax and enjoy the experience. I know I lost a few. But most of the hooked fish are landed thanks to Ben's swift net work. Some of the fish are indeed lethargic. But a few leap from the water and make reel-screaming runs. They all put a nice bend in the rod. The rainbows range from silver with light pink stripes to dark with deep red gill plates.
The first of many rainbows to find the net.

Nymphing from a drift boat is a very effective way to catch trout. Casts are short. A drag-free drift is relatively easy because the boat is drifting along at about the same pace as the flies. Of course Ben had to remind me to mend about 50 times and my sloppy casts didn't help much. But the hook ups are pretty steady. Ben would row us back upstream to take a few extra shots at particularly good runs. And Ben knows the river well, breaking the big water down into smaller sections and pointing out the slower seams to the uninitiated. He's been with Headhunters from the beginning and this is his ninth season on the river. He's an East Coast guy who loves the mountains of Montana. He's also a brand new father, so we trade stories about our families and rivers that we've fished as we do our best to stay warm. I'd spend time checking out the Golden Eye ducks, the beautiful cabins that line the river and the other scenery, and then Ben would inform me of the strike I had just missed.

About two hours into our trip Ben rowed the boat near the bank on the inside portion of a bend so that we could land a sturdy rainbow in the slow water. After a quick release, I look upstream and see the unmistakable rise of a trout in the slack water. A second rise quickly follows, then a third. Ben had rigged up my 5 weight St. Croix rod with a small parachute midge pattern and he encouraged me to take the rod and hop out of the boat to stalk the risers. As I slowly walk along the rocky bank, I laugh out loud at the site of fish heads rising out of the water. After inhaling a midge, the trout's shoulders and then their tails would emerge as their heads tipped back underneath the black, glassy surface. The trout were rising just like I had imagined. The hatch was meager, but sufficient to keep about a dozen fish feeding steady within a 20 yard stretch tight against the near bank.

Missouri brown trout
I am very thankful that it's early in the season because the trout aren't overly picky. I struggle to get my fly to land anywhere close to the desired spot, but every once and awhile the wind dies down and my casting stroke stays tight and the fly drops in the feeding lane. Ben helps me keep an eye on the tiny fly as it drifts back toward us. After what seems like an eternity, but is probably less than 10 minutes a fish rises, inhales the fly and I gently set the hook. I fight the fish for a bit, but he gets off as Ben ran back to the boat for the landing net. But several others come to the net over the next hour or so, including the day's first brown trout. Expectations exceeded again.

We stop for lunch (fresh from the Yeti cooler), and then resume drifting downriver. I fail to entice any fish to the surface while drifting, but
nymphing remains effective. My back aches and my finger tips are numb, but I could stay in the boat forever watching the Montana landscape slip by. About 5 p.m. I land the second whitefish of the day -- the Missouri's native fish. And then we call it a day, pulling into the Craig boat ramp.

We fished for about eight hours and saw four other boats and three fishermen wading. Ben said that in the summer there can be more than 100 boats on the water. I prefer the solitude of March, but want to experience the summer hatches, too. I look forward to my next trip back to Headhunters and the Missouri River.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Winter of Our Discontent -- The Sequel

Last winter was the first Ohio version in 23 years that reminded me of the six frigid winters I spent in Duluth. And according to the National Weather Service this one is even colder. I last fished on Christmas Eve. There was a narrow window of opportunity one weekend in January, but otherwise sub-freezing (and often sub-zero) temperatures have kept the Steelhead Alley locked up in ice for two-plus months.

The 10-day forecast only predicts one 24-hour stretch with the temperatures above freezing. Most of the snow will likely be gone by the end of next week, but the rivers will likely won't be free of ice until after St. Patrick's Day. Last year, I was fishing by March 9. The sequel is always worse, except for the Godfather II.

Scientists are now warning that these frigid winters are going to be the norm. If that is the case, I will making more trips like the one I have planned for next week. I'm headed to balmy Montana (forecasts call for temps in the mid 50s) to see the 1st Lt. and his bride. I will make my inaugural visit to the gang at the Headhunters Fly Shop in Craig, and if the weather cooperates I'll try to catch a midge and/or BWO hatch on the mighty Missouri. March in Montana. Something to look forward to in the winter of our discontent.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Sounds of Steel

Brian Bull of ideastream recently captured the sights and sounds of fly fishing on the Rocky River; which is my home water. Brian spent the morning on the river with me and my freind, Terry Uhl.

His audio report and slideshow made me and Terry sound like we know what we're doing. There are many other anglers who spend more time on the water and catch many more fish than I do. But I doubt there is anyone who gets as much pleasure and value from the Lake Erie tribs. I'm thankful to Brian for capturing the beauty and importance of the Lake Erie watershed.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Defending Steelhead Alley

Recently Trout Unlimited named the Lake Erie watershed as one of 10 special places at risk due to "fracking" in the Central Appalachian region. Since no significant fracking is being done in the Lake Erie watershed (yet) reasonable folks can argue with the designation.

But the good news is the announcement prompted Brian Bull, a reporter for ideastream, the Cleveland-based NPR affiliate, to want to learn more about our precious and fragile watershed. A friend connected me to Brian and a few anglers met Brian on the Rocky River this morning to show him a piece of Steelhead Alley. Mike Durkalec, aquatic biologist for the Cleveland Metroparks and author of the weekly fishing report, provided the technical expertise. My friend Terry and I tried to provide a little color commentary.

Brian wasn't equipped to wade -- which is a good thing since he was carrying a digital recorder. But he did walk the bank and demonstrated a high-degree of patience as I took him in search of steel. (I hooked and lost a few; and foul hooked a few more while Brian was with me. Of course, this one came to the bank shortly after he left the river.)

Throughout the morning I tried to put into words how important the fishery is to me and my fellow steelhead fanatics. Fly fishing has long been my best form of mental therapy and the opportunity to catch a steelhead as long as my leg is why I call Northeast Ohio home. More than anything else, it is what has held me here for nearly a quarter century.

While I have decidedly mixed emotions on issues like shale oil and gas drilling, I tried to be clear to Brian that fans of Steelhead Alley need to do more to take care of our land and water. Every property owner along the Lake Erie tribs and regular visitor to our Metro Parks has seen the effects of poorly designed developments and inadequate water drainage systems. When so-called "100-year floods" become annual occurrences, we should all take heed and think more about how and where we build. But issues like storm-water runoff have rarely held our attention. Aldo Leopold's call for a land ethic was prescient but we no more hear his wisdom today than we hear the thumping wings of the passenger pigeon.

Yet, I remain an optimist. I am hopeful that if more of us love our rivers we will do more to protect them. Yes, a consequence will also be that more anglers will crowd our rivers. But the only way that I can think of to protect Steelhead Alley is to have more people love it. I look forward to hearing how Brian captures this story. And I hope the attention will encourage more people to experience and protect the Lake Erie watershed.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Things I Thought I Knew

I haven't fished nearly as much as I'd like this fall. Maybe that's why I've forgotten so many things that I used to know. One full day of mistakes fishing reminded me:

  • Don't leave fish. If you're hooking fish and then things slow down a bit you are better off trying different flies or techniques than you are going for a walk to a new spot. You may never find them again.
  • Set the hook. The most basic fundamentals of fly fishing can be forgotten while one is worried about the ice on the guides or daydreaming of warmer days. Just because you and the fish are cold, doesn't mean the hook doesn't need to be set.
  • Re-tie bad knots. There is nothing more disappointing than having a big fish break your line. There is nothing more maddening than seeing the tell-tale pig tail at the end of your line that indicates the knot pulled out. Frozen hands often tie poor knots (so do warm hands...). I can tell when a knot isn't quite right. But rather than re-tie, I decided to warm my hands and keep fishing. Bad decision.
  • Get down. Steelhead usually are near the bottom. That means your fly has to be there. If you're not catching fish add weight. Yes, it's a pain to add/remove split shot. But the idea is to catch fish not miss fish.
  • Enjoy. The fishing can be slow. The temperature can be cold. But the opportunity to stand in a river is to be cherished.