Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving Silver

The low lying sun hid behind a train trestle and cast a deep shadow across a fast moving run on the lower Grand River this afternoon. The air temperature said September, the water temperature said November. The water flowed green through the run.

Surprised that the run was empty of anglers when I arrived, I waded through the ankle deep water, stood on a boulder the size of an ottoman and tied up a nymph and egg combination. All the things that had kept me off the water -- work, responsibilities and such -- drifted downstream.

Minnow fishermen showed up and fished the tail of the run, which had earlier been disrupted by children skipping rocks. I focused on the fast water hoping that the bridge's shade would appeal to steelhead still acclimating to the ecology of the river after spending the summer in Lake Erie. I was hoping to hook my first steelhead of the fall. Three earlier brief outings were unproductive.

After breaking off early I switched to a minnow and orange egg. I worked the run, first drifting the slower water on the inside edge and then working toward the middle. About 30 minutes into a beautiful afternoon on the water a tug reminded me what had lured me out of the office. A moment after setting the hook the fish ran 20 yards downstream, and I followed. I walked carefully across a shallow riffle and tried not to worry about losing the fish as I regained line and worked at getting leverage. With each run my nerves frayed a little more. I've caught plenty of fish. Lost even more. Landing one more isn't that important, but the first fish of the year is always special. And this fresh hunk of silver made me work for it. Eventually the large male with a fat stomach full of emerald shiners and a pink stripe along his side came into the shallow water. I pulled the orange egg from the corner of its mouth, snapped one more picture and then watched the fish swim back to the run.

A few drifts later, up in the head of the run, a slightly smaller steelhead smashed the minnow fly. I didn't worry about losing this one. And I didn't have to. She came to shore as well and a little later I headed home; thankful for a good start to another steelhead season.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

One and Done in PA

Sometimes one trout is enough. Or, more accurately, it has to be enough because that's all that time and situation will allow.

After a wonderful family camping weekend in the woods above the Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania my wife agreed to allow me to fish a small creek we would drive by on our way back home. The small freestone stream tumbles out of the Laurel Highlands and runs alongside a country road before ultimately trickling into the mighty Yough. I had driven past the waterway on my way to and from the Yough a few times, but had never stopped to explore it. The creek had the tell-tale signs of a freestone stream that gets too much pressure, despite its remote location. Every mile or so there was a gravel parking spot or two along the side of the road. The first two stops produced unappealing water as a week without rain had taken its toll on the flow. My patient wife rolled her eyes as I pulled into a third spot. Braided water upstream wasn't promising. If downstream didn't offer hope, I was headed back to Cleveland without even breaking out the fly rod.

The threads of the creek came together downstream and cut through a wide bedrock shelf. The water tumbled down the shelf and the main flow turned right into a small pool the size of a love seat. A separate, smaller thread of water flowed straight from the shelf past a rock before reuniting with with rest of the stream down below. As I stood back from the aquamarine pool a 12-inch brown trout rose up from the bottom of the pool to consume some flotsam in the foam line.

I quickly walked back to the car, talked my wife into joining me and assembled my 3-weight rod.

While I love small streams I rarely fish them. Bigger rivers are a little more predictable, and predictability is important when a multi-hour car trip is required to find trout water. Small trout streams are challenging for clumsy anglers like me who don't practice often. Tight quarters demand casting accuracy and low water requires stealth. I was down two strikes before my first cast. The angle of the sun through the trees made it hard to spot my fly on the water as it drifted through the pool. (Strike three.) However, I could see the bottom of the pool clearly and the brown trout that rose earlier was missing. (Strike four.)

The forest canopy kept the air and water temperature 10 degrees cooler than out on the road, yet beads of sweat poured down my face as I tied on an elk hair caddis to replace the tiny, invisible Adams. Ideally I would spend hours stalking trout and exploring the tiny pools downstream. But every few minutes the sound of my wife swatting a mosquito on her legs reminded me that both patience and time were running short. The sweat increased with my determination to hook a fish.

I decided to try the narrow ribbon of water that flowed straight out of the shoot. While most of the current headed to the pool to the right, it looked like the secondary flow would be sufficient to hold a trout. From a distance I couldn't see below the surface to judge the water's depth; and I figured at least a fish in the tiny run couldn't see me either.

Casting from the shelf I placed the caddis on the outside of the shoot and the current carried it straight downstream. Just before it went behind the boulder a small splash made the fly disappear. I set the hook and was pleased to see a small, but healthy brown trout flash in the water. My wife kindly netted the fish and let me know my mission was accomplished and it was time to go.

The memory of that one small brown trout on a small stream will have to hold me for a bit. But there's another family outing ahead in another place where trout like to hang out. And if I'm lucky, I won't be one and done in Montana.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Hot Week on Steelhead Alley

Every spring on Steelhead Alley there is at least one hot week. A week where each riffle and run seems full of steelhead either making their way up from or back to Lake Erie. A week when aggressive males and hungry drop-back females will crash through a riffle to catch up to a swung minnow fly.

This is that week.

This week the steelies carry every color in the rainbow, and a few more, on their bodies. The old fish are black. The
fresh fish chrome silver. Green backs, pink sides, red gills, yellow eyes and white mouths.

This week pods of new fish enter a run every 15 minutes or so. Anglers laugh with joy and give thanks with each new arrival.

This week the fish, powered by warm water temps, leap from the river, sending thousands of tiny water drops into the air. The fish make reel drags sing and 10 foot rods bend into giant capital "Cs."

This week the catching is almost too easy. This week the arm will tire before the sun goes down.

This week makes one almost forget about the frozen feet, iced eyelets and fishless days of December; let alone the iced over rivers of January and February.

This week the wild ramps cover the forest floor. The buds on the trees are beginning to pop. The geese are more aggressive than the steelhead. And the mallards are paired up.

This week likely won't last a full week. But it is hot week. Fish on.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Rocky River Solitude

More than 4 million people live about an hour drive from the Rocky River so when I walked down the well worn path toward a favorite spot a little bit before 8 a.m. today I had to be prepared for disappointment. But I wasn't. The pool, run and riffle above were empty. Indeed, as far as I could see both upstream and down there wasn't another soul.

As I munched on my granola bar and took in the scene, I could see a few aggressive geese doing their water dance about a half mile upstream. The wind carried their angry shrieks elsewhere. The water -- which has often been brown this spring -- flowed clear through the pool. The low sun rising above the willows and sycamores on the far bank was shrouded by a thin veil of clouds. Eventually, I'd have to cross the stream to get the sun at my back so I could see under the surface better. For now, I was content to watch the river flow north and listen. A woodpecker drilled for food nearby. A distant train rumbled to the south. And in front of me the water crashed over rocks and pressed against a downed tree.

The pool looked promising and the run in front of it looked even better. With the clear water, I assumed the fish would be more comfortable in the deeper runs than the riffle. I was wrong. Fifteen minutes of prospecting produced no hits and an occasional splash in the riffle made it clear something was working the skinnier water.

I worked my way up the run, casting as I went and watching the riffle. Last week the conditions were similarly promising farther downstream (and up), but the steelhead were elusive. I was hoping for something different today. Perhaps no one else was here because they knew the fish were elsewhere. I stuck with it partly because no one else was around. Five fishermen were in the parking area when I arrived, and several more were visible from the road as I drove along the river. My goal was to fish in solitude. Not an easy goal to achieve in Steelhead Alley, but usually a 15 minute walk will get you away from most anglers. If I had to trade fish for solitude, I'd take solitude. But I was betting the fish were present. I just had to find them.

Since I needed the sun at my back, I walked across the tail of the riffle to the far bank and then slowly started moving upstream. I watched more than I walked, which turned out to be a good strategy. A steelhead moved across the shale bottom in about three feet of water, its dark body visible against the pale blue shale. I stopped, stepped back and waited. It's easy to start seeing things when trying to peer through moving water. But after awhile, the brain begins to discern the boulders, rocks and shale that make up the bottom, and the wave of a fish's tail is easily distinguished. Wait. Watch. No one else is here, so there's no need to rush. I stand tight to the bank, and drift my egg and minnow pattern through the deepest part of the riffle. Four fish are hooked from the run before I step away from the bank to check out how many males are behind a female spawning in a shallower piece of the riffle.

Aggressive males are easy to entice to eat a minnow fly when they are waiting their turn behind a spawning female. Three males did what I thought they would do, and I was ready to call it a morning. But before heading back to the car, I decided to check out the head of the riffle. A school of fish were hanging together in the fast current just below the lip of the pool above the riffle. Apparently they weren't interested in making the long trip through the shallow pool to the next stretch of good holding water. They held in the fast water, nearly nose to tail. It looked like at least six fish, but there were clearly more than that as my first drift attracted a large silver female that I didn't even see. A dark male quickly followed.

A few drifts later I broke off on the bottom. Since the fish were so aggressive, I figured I'd try a dry fly. I've been fishing these rivers 20 years or so and I've never even tried to get them on the dry. It was worth a try. I tied on a large stimulator -- at least it's large for stream trout but probably not large enough for steelhead. The fly looked tiny drifting over the heads of trout approaching double digits. God must have been amused. He unleashed a ferocious downpour. The fly disappeared in the millions of divots the rain created on the river's surface.

I could tie on a streamer or call it a morning. As I walked back to the car along the river, I saw one man walking his dog. Otherwise, I enjoyed the solitude.

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.