Saturday, August 1, 2015

Trouting around

With the Summer heat settling in to the big rivers in the area, colder and higher is usually better.  While some streams closer to Lake level run cooler than even ones that run down mountains, the biggest factor besides the source of the flow is the amount of shade on the water. 

I found myself looking at Google Maps for some new water a few weeks back.  I looked for heavy cover alongside a mountain, which was not hard to find.  There was, however, a 3/4 mile stretch of river where the shade was replaced by sun, the large boulders replaced by sand, and the narrow and deep pools replaced by wide, shallow water.  In other words, not very trout friendly water.  This surprised me, as I'd fished a good 6-7 miles of this river already, and have never run into the same conditions.  I decided to trek in to where the abundance of tree cover started back up on this particular stretch, and fish my way up. 

By the time I got to water, I was pleasantly surprised to see an abundance of deep pools, large boulders and logjams.  I had a bunch of Elk Hair Caddis that were itching to get wet, so I tied one on.  My poor fly was greeted with animosity as soon as it hit the water for the first time.

Being able to witness the fish lock-on to and chase the fly after coming out from an undercut in a rock is always a blast!  I was filled with joy to see such a pretty, wild fish come to hand on my first cast.  I continued on, only to have another fish of the same size shake off after the hookset.  The obvious downside to removing barbs from flies is that many fish will inevitably shake off, but the trade off is worth it  (higher chance of survival)  While 99% of the brookies I catch are usually released without being touched or handled unless necessary (grab the fly and shake off while in the water for the most part) the fish like the one above are handled with care and released immediately. 

While these fish are usually abundant, it doesn't hurt to take extra care in handling them.  You never know when you may run into a large 12 or 13" stream-dwelling giant that may have been a fish that was released a year or two prior. 

After the 5th or so fish in just a few pools, I decided it would be worth it to walk a ways downstream to see how things looked, even IF it didn't look very good on the map.  I was happy to see plenty of pools with undercut banks, and even a 5' deep plunge pool that had a few smaller fish willing to play.  The further down I got, the less desirable the water was.  I chose to fish my way back up to where I started, and walked over to the first pool big enough to hold fish.  A large tree had fallen, and was laying across the river.  Half of it was in the water, and the other half out.  A great place for a big predator to hide.  I leisurely fished my way up, picking up the occasional small brookie.  When I got to the top of the run, I threw out my fly at an angle, landing right above the log.  I skated it halfway across the river before it was pulled under the surface film.  I few quick twitches was all it took before something BIG grabbed it.  At first, it was just dead weight.  I thought I'd caught myself on the tree laying across the river.  Right as that thought finished crossing my mind, it started to pull back.  "wow!" was the only thing I could think of.  Was it a big, wild brown?  I was surprised to watch my reel spin backwards for quite a ways.  Something that is rarely seen when fishing for brookies!  If the fish wouldn't come to me - I'd come to it.  I walked downstream towards the fish, who was bulldogging himself underneath the tree.  I caught a glimpse of it, and assumed it was a brown by the size of it.  It wrapped itself around a limb on the underside of the fallen tree and my heart just sank.  I knew exactly where this was heading..."just another fish story" I thought to myself.  Getting closer to the log, the seemingly shallow water only got deeper.  Before I knew it, I was nearly waist-deep, probing underwater with my leg, trying to find where my line was caught.  Finally, I found the limb and kicked it until it broke free.  I stuck my rod underwater and pulled the fish back underneath the tree....broken branch and all!  Before I knew it, I found myself kneeling on the side of the river, with a big 13" brookie in my net, hooting and hollering.  It was one of the biggest I'd ever caught!

I unhooked the fish and pulled my phone out of my pack to take a picture.  After unzipping the ziploc baggie my phone was in, I positioned it to take a picture - only to find out my net was empty.  I was  Then I remembered the multiple tears in the rubber bag of my net.  It didn't take much for a fish even up to 15" to wiggle its head through and then slip out.  I was more happy I actually landed the fish than upset I didn't get a picture, so I didn't let it bother me that much.  Fishing back up to the car, I found a dozen more fish willing to play, but not any nearly as big as the escape artist. 

This was the widest part of the river I've ever encountered.  It makes it look so much bigger than it really is!

Once back to where I started, I kept on fishing upstream and ended up almost a mile upriver from where I started.  By the end of the day, I'd come across some amazing water and the fishing was great, including a beautiful 14" wild  brown that also managed to slip out through the hole in my net while I got my phone out.  Needless to say that later that night I ordered a new bag for my net.  The 1.25 mile walk back to the car gave me an opportunity to reflect on the days fishing, and determine whether or not it would be worth fishing that section in the future.  The answer was simple - absolutely. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Late May steel

While I normally veer away from targeting late season steelhead due to water temps being too high and stressing fish, when I got an e-mail from a friend about seeing a few steelhead in one particular stream that was, for the most part a brook trout stream....I couldn't pass up the chance at possibly hooking into another steelhead!

While there are very few people I trust with "secret" spots, my good friend Chris was one of them.  So after a short talk, he was on board to go chase steel.  The river we fished was small, gradient, and very turbulent.  It made sight fishing a bit tough, but in a good way.  We started low on the river, scanning and fishing our way up.  We stumbled upon a pod of spawning suckers with one HUGE female at the center of all the commotion.  She was probably the biggest white sucker I've ever seen, and we didn't pass up the chance at trying to catch her.  While doing so, we "accidentally" caught a few of the smaller males circling her, which were all for eating nymphs and eggs.  After a while, it was clear that getting a fly in front of her was nearly impossible because she was on the move constantly (and I don't blame her with 8 males crowding her)  Still, Chris wanted to catch this pig of a sucker, so he stayed behind while I scouted upriver.

Not too long after leaving Chris behind, I saw a flash in a pool upriver.  I stopped moving forward, crouched down and waited for more movement in the pool.  A few minutes had passed until I finally noticed that there were at least 2 fish in this particular pool, one being in the low 20" range, and the other was in the high 20" range.  I called downstream to Chris to let him know what I'd found, and he quickly came up to see.

Chris was first at bat, and these fish were putting post-spawn feedbags on for sure.  They were both in feeding lanes, picking off anything that looked edible as it drifted by them.  I hadn't seen the larger one for a while, which probably moved up to the next pool.  Chris worked hard for a hookup, but the fish just didn't seem interested.

Eventually we switched spots and I had a whack at it.  I changed flies a few times before remembering that the suckers down below were mid-spawn.  A sucker spawn fly seemed like the most logical thing to try, so I did.

We have a winner!  A handful of drifts later, I hooked into the smaller one and it started blowing through the pool, nearly flying downstream in water that was seemingly impossible to fight a fish in.  I had Chris block the only way downstream to avoid that and it worked - the fish stayed upriver in the pool.  Chris came in with a perfect netting and celebrations followed.

Some of my favorite looking fish are male steelhead because of the dark maroon color they end up with.
After releasing him, he took off upstream and probably spooked the larger fish in the pool above.  We both worked through the next pool where it had to be, but no hookups.  We spent the next few hours trying to find more, but it seems we may have stumbled upon some of the last fish to drop back.  Still, it was all worth it!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Back to trout with a side of rescue

After getting hit with a few weekdays of rain, I was doing my usual scanning of river flows and noticed quite a few of them were dropping slow, so they were off limits for the weekend.  Not a big deal though - I wanted to make my usual stops on some small water anyway.  This particular river always fishes great after rain and high water.  My brother Nate tagged along again, but since the flows were high and the water was a bit tricky to fish with flies, he opted to spin fish.

The water level was high, and clarity could have been better - but we caught a bunch of fish!  Nate outfished me, but I had caught the biggest on the first river.  A nice, healthy wild brown!  We were both having a blast, and Nate was getting hits almost nonstop!  After moving upriver, he hooked into something with a lot of weight which got us all excited...until it popped off!

I was downriver from him, swinging nymphs and getting a ton of hits from rainbow parr.  It was great to see so many wild fish in this river.  Definitely one of my favorite trout rivers even though I've never pulled anything over 20" from it.  We fished until we couldn't get upriver because of posted property, so we went back to the car and hit another river 15 minutes away. 

Another fun river that almost always produces after rain.  The water couldn't have been any better, and Nate started things off with a bang with a nice bow that was probably 15".  I picked up a nice bow of my own that was all over this swung hares ear. 

I like to call these brookies, "hand hangers"  Ones that hang off both sides of your hand...a decent sized brookie!

Nate was once again hooked into something big and heavy.  Judging by the way his rod was bent, it appeared to be a big brown which was not uncommon for this river.  We were both psyched to see how big it was - that is until it got off.  Heartbreak!!  Nate kept fishing the same spot in hopes of another chance, but we both knew the truth, he wasn't going to even sniff anything with a sore lip. 

Less than 5 minutes had passed and I decided to put on something big and ugly.  If there was another big brown hanging around, then surely this big hunk of meat would get it's attention!

I threw in at the top of the pool and let the fly get deep enough before stripping it back.  Right as I went to pull it out of the water, a big football-looking rainbow came up with hit my fly like it owed him money.  I was shocked, and ended up pulling the fly right out of his mouth.  After a few choice words, the pool went dead.  We didn't get a single hit until moving upstream.  Losing one big fish from a pool is one thing...but two???? 

We got to the next pool which was one of the deeper ones on this section of river.  I could see shapes moving around in the shallows - what were they?  I had Nate cast to them and we found out shortly that they were suckers.  Still, we kept on fishing in hopes for a second chance at a big fish.

I remember I kept hearing something that sounded like kids screaming off in the distance.  I didn't think anything of it because we were in a close proximity to a few houses.  It wasn't until about 30 minutes later that I had realized what it actually was.  I was making my way upstream and noticed something was in the middle of the fast water in the river.  At first, I thought it was a dog fetching a stick, and going back to shore.  It wasn't until I got closer that I realized it was a fawn that was trying to cross the river.  I stood there for a moment, hoping it's mother would come help guide it out, but I saw nothing.  All of a sudden, it stood up on its feet and tried to go forward again, but got swept away in the rapids.  It started to tumble downriver towards me.

I remember throwing my rod into the woods and rushing upriver towards the drowning fawn.  I remember the sound of it trying to cry for help, but having a mouth full of water.  Luckily, I got to it in time before it had reached the big plunge pool as I am sure this fawn was way too young and exhausted to actually swim to shore.  Having no other choice, I picked it up out of the water and held it in my arms.  It was violently shaking and crying, but I could feel it didn't have much energy left in it.  I let go of it to assess how much energy it had, but it had only made it a few steps before almost falling over before I caught it.  I wrapped my arms around the deer and Nate began to find the number for a Warden to help this poor fawn.

After about 15 minutes of phone calls, Nate finally got ahold of a warden who promptly said that the State isn't allowed to rehabilitate fawns, and there is nothing he could do.  We were dumbfounded, and called a local vet who said the same thing.  We told her what we were seeing with the fawn, and that it most likely fell down the steep riverbank into the water while traveling with its mother.  She assured us that the mother is probably keeping watch on the fawn from a distance because of the people around.  We went to the edge of the woods in the same area that I had saved the fawn and placed it in some tall bushes.  It stood up and stared at me for a little while before limping off into thicker brush and then laying down.  It wasn't until then that I noticed I had some blood on my waders.  It had an injured leg, but it was still able to use it with a limp.  The vet said it was most likely a cut from the sharp rocks when it fell, and I hoped it was just a cut as well.

It eventually calmed down in my arms and I could feel its heartbeat returning to normal....poor thing!

I felt horrible having to leave this poor thing in the woods, and it just ruined the rest of the days mood.  Nate and I didn't even want to fish anymore because we felt so bad for the fawn.  The vet assured us that the fawn would cry out for its mother who would not leave the area for days until finding her fawn which made us feel a little better.  We left the area shaking our heads, hoping the mother would find it soon and nurse it back to good health. 

It was difficult to get a good nights sleep to say the least....

Smallies galore

With the summer heat approaching and the steelhead dropping back into Champlain, it was time for another run of spawning fish - smallmouth bass.  As the water temps climb due to low water and warm weather, the smallies come and the steelies go.  There are a few steelhead that will stick around a bit longer, which is why some people can sometimes catch both smallies and steelhead in the same day, but that's not always the case.

Since I'm not much of a bass fishermen, I usually don't target them after the steelhead fishing is over, but this year I made an exception.

When they first come in, they're all over anything that moves, even topwater.  As they settle, they can be very finicky and frustrating at times, but if you stick to it and figure out what makes them strike, you've got some great fishing on your hands!

My first day targeting them was probably the best.  I'd landed almost 20 fish over 15", with most between 17" and 19".

  After a week of picking away at them and probably landing over 40, I took my brother out to another river for some bass that weren't as pressured.  Since he had to work until later in the afternoon and we only had about 3 hours to fish, I spent the morning scoping out the water, making sure there were still some around.  I was seeing plenty of fish, and knew he'd have plenty of opportunities to hook up.  I brought my spare 5 wt and rigged it up for him.  Since he's never fly fished, I knew this would be a good learning experience since these fish can be caught at close-range.  Within minutes of being on the river, he'd already spotted a big smallie in a pool, cruising around.  He was shocked to see such a big fish in such small water!

I showed him the basics of what to do with a fly rod and explained to him how it worked and had him do a few practice casts before he started fishing.  He picked it up well, but as with any beginner his timing could use some work.  He wasted no time in getting this big smallie in the pool to strike!  After a few missed hooksets, he was hooked up!

First ever fish on a flyrod....and a big one at that!
 The next pool presented a challenge.  A big smallie was under a logjam, and would come out and nip the very end of his fly every time, but never grab the hook.  After finally hooking up, I went to snap a picture of him fighting the fish - but right before I took the picture the fish got off and I caught his reaction just in time.

"No way!  Are you serious!!?"

 We kept on moving and found some more fish in pools.  Some were aggressive, others spooked away when we got close.  He was having a hard time getting the fly placed in the right spot, so I took over to show him how it was done real quick.  A few seconds later, I was pulling in a smallie of my own with a grin on my face.  I handed him back the rod and we kept moving.   He got a few small ones that weren't worthy of a picture, but were good practice for the big boys coming up!

Took a while to net this big one...feisty!
As time was running out, we headed back upriver to make our way to the trails back to the car.  He wanted redemption for earlier, so he tried again at the fish under the log.  He was doing everything right, and just as the fish seemed like it was going to inhale his fly - a smaller one came over and sucked it in!  Fish on!
Got the picture this time!  Look at that determination!
Not the big one he was fishing for, but hey - we'll take it!

 Nate was all smiles when we got back to the car, and he had fun.  I was happy to have put him on some nice fish on the fly.  I think the fly seed has been sewn if you can't tell by the smiles in the pictures!

Monday, June 29, 2015

Catching dinner

I got a text from my friend Drew about targeting walleye in the Winooski River, which along with a few other Champlain tributaries, gets a spring run of spawning walleye.  He was interested in getting a Master Class walleye (25" or better).  We picked a section of the Winooski that I knew were holding fish, and went after work one day and launched his canoe from the bank.  The water was high and a little stained, but easily fishable. 

I had a great feeling!  After catching up and exchanging fishing stories from the days prior (he had landed a giant of his own around the same time as my steelhead)  We started upriver from where we launched and quickly found out the current was a bit too fast for us, even dragging an anchor.  We moved downstream where the river widened and the current slowed.  We targeted some deeper runs that I've caught fish in before.  The setup was simple, and I showed him the technique used for jigging walleye with minnows.  Before long, he had a fish on!  He pulled it up close enough to the canoe so we could see what it was, and sure enough it was a walleye!

I netted the fish and he eagerly took it out and measured it.....BINGO!  26"!  This was his Master Class walleye!

I was glad he was able to get his walleye out of the way, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I hooked up into one myself.  The current made for tough fishing, and being in a canoe with high water and strong current is difficult to stay in the area you want.  We spent most of the time on the water paddling upstream, or positioning the canoe to where we wanted.  I got my turn at a fish a little while after, but it didn't stay on long.  I hooked up shortly after though, into a nice 28" slabber!  It was getting dark out and we had a ways to paddle back, so we gave it about 15 more minutes before heading in.  We didn't have long to begin with, and being in a canoe without a motor made things difficult, but I think we did well considering. 

28" of marble eye!
Targeting walleye is something I'll be getting more into once my boat is ready to roll.  I've had luck catching them from the bank, but I know that a boat with a motor makes it 100 times easier, and that night only proved it!

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Hendrickson buffet

Finally, the rain stopped and the sun came out during the work week.  I watched the LC trib levels closely.  It was the beginning of the end of the steelhead run for Champlain.  The smallies would soon enter the rivers, and the steelies would drop back into the Lake.

I had some free time after work to check the water clarity for the weekend, so I packed up the RAV and took off after work.  It was crowded at the usual spots, which I expected.  The water level and clarity was picture-perfect.  I knew fish would not be in the usual spots, so I began walking.  I ended up on a section of river that gets mostly ignored due to shallow and swift water.  I saw a few Hendricksons on the river when I pulled in to park,  but they had tapered off by the time I was geared up and trekking into the woods.  I started off throwing eggs through the swift pools without even a bump. I switched over and swung some big streamers in hopes of an aggressive take.  I had this aching feeling that I was drifting and swinging by fish, so I decided to go with a nondescript Hendrickson nymph.   High-sticking to a swing is the way to go during the Hendrickson hatch, which is what my plan was.

Before I could even start the slow swing, my line went tight.  No, not bottom....unless the bottom was moving?

What happened next was pure mayhem.  After tying on a Hendrickson, I had 3 fish in my net in 3 drifts.  What?!

Well, that was a pleasant surprise!  I decided to book it downstream to a few more runs before it got dark out.  I went as far down as I could without running out of light before getting back to the car.  I couldn't believe what had unfolded...I landed 6 steelies and hooked into 11.  I had a few steelies actually chasing my flies in shallow water during the swing.  I was loving it!!!

I was catching fish in water that people wouldn't even considering fishing, it was just amazing.  If only I had more time!

After landing and fumbling the 6th fish back into the water, it was pretty dark out.  I was still still on the other side of the river, and needed to cross.  I made my way up to some safer looking water.  I happened to look just upstream of me and saw a nice little pocket in front of a big boulder.  I tossed above it and drifted through it.  On the swing out of the water, I could see a big shape follow and swipe at it as I pulled it out of the water.  He ran himself into a foot of water, and I could hear his tail trashing in the shallows, "tsh tsh tsh tsh" as he swam back into his pool.  It was a hog!  I collected myself and waited a few minutes.  I knew he had to cool down before I could try to trick him again.  I threw in the same spot, expecting him to smash the nymph. After a dozen drifts, I was left scratching my head.  I didn't have time or even the daylight to switch flies, so it was back to the car I went. 

I don't think I've ever had such hot steelhead action in such a short time-frame.  Thank you, Mr. Hendrickson. 

Wouldn't it be funny?

The rain was swelling up LC tribs, so I had big browns on my mind.  I knew where at least 2 were hanging on account of hooking into them opening day. I asked Chris if he wanted to tag along, and he was reluctant.  He hadn't done well yet on this particular river.  I assured him the big browns would be out and about with the high flows.  With not many other options in terms of trout, we hit the river early.  The clarity and flow was perfect, I was all giggly when pulling into the first spot.

Chris brought his spin gear with lures and we covered water quickly.  One of the bigger pools that I've never done well in was on fire .  I'd had 2 short grabs and Chris landed a beautiful 16" brown and had another grab right after releasing it.  While fishing upriver, we came across one of the pools that I'd had a big boy break me off.  As we stood there looking into the water, I grinned and said, "Wouldn't it be funny if we caught the fish that broke me off and it had my fly in it's mouth?" I started swinging big streamers at the top of the pool, and Chris worked the the lower section.  I just happened to look over and watch as he had a big brown grab his Rapala less than 5' from his feet.  It started to flail around and do gator rolls in the shallow water.  He was dumbfounded and didn't even know what to say.  I ran over and scooped him up before he got his bearings in the deeper water.  We were ecstatic!  I was unhooking the Rapala from its lip when I saw some rabbit strip in the net.  I grabbed it and tried pulling it out, thinking it was a fly that fell off my foam patch into the net (which happens often) but when I pulled, the fish moved with it.  I flipped the fish over and my eyes went wide.  My slumpbuster was in this fishes mouth!!  This was THE brown that broke me off a few weeks prior!

The 23" Master Class brown that broke me off on opening day.
After he released the fish, I felt a little better knowing it wouldn't have a big streamer stuck in its face.  We soon took off to head back because Chris had some errands to run.  Watching a friend get into and land big fish is just as satisfying as doing it myself, so I was very happy without even landing a fish myself!