Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Pre-ice steelhead

With ice on Chamlain quickly approaching, it was about time I started to unpack all of my ice fishing gear.  Some fly anglers take a break from fishing during the Winter and tie flies, but I take to the ice when the rivers are locked up.

I had just told my buddy Jerry about the two explosive weekends I'd had fishing for salmon, and he wanted in.  I only had one day to fish that weekend, so we hit the spot early.  We were greeted with 30-40 mph winds, and muddy water.  The water was blown out from rain, and even I could barely throw a line in the wind.  I was bummed, but we had other options.  Jerry wanted to catch a salmon on a fly, and I had just the spot.  While it's a popular spot that gets heavy fishing pressure, I knew Jerry would have a shot if we had the spot to ourselves.  We got there to find a few anglers wading in the water - usually where the salmon are holding.  We were bummed, but didn't have many other options because of a time restriction.  I geared him up and we walked down to the water.  I showed him the basics of where the salmon hold, which direction, etc.  He stood and practiced casting while I waded out deep in the water and threw some long casts with a streamer on, not expecting much since there was another guy 30 yards from me doing the same.  Surprisingly, my line stopped dead and I set the hook...a fish?  Head shakes confirmed!  A beat-up old male that deserved an underwater release, he'd been through enough.  After that fish, the other anglers that were there packed up and left.  I got out of the water and had Jerry do the same for a little while.  I knew the fish would go back to their original holding spots once the water was left undisturbed.  After 10 minutes, I lead Jerry to the edge of the water and pointed out which seam to fish.  It took a few casts, but he got the flies where they needed to be.  We were both surprised when the 4th or 5th cast had a salmon on the end of his line!  I was standing there and watching him cast - the fish grabbed the fly almost immediately after it hit the water!  Not a big salmon, but fun on a flyrod for a beginner!

After this fish, our time limit was up....and that weekends fishing had come to a close.  It wasn't the action or destination we expected, but he avoided the skunk!

With cold weather in the forecast, I put my time in on the Winooski the weekend after for steelhead after the salmon fishing had dwindled.  Rarely have I seen much of a Winter steelhead crowd on the Winooski, which makes picking and choosing spots a breeze.  This year was no exception.

Needless to say, I had the whole area to myself on the first morning.  It was already cold, and snow was on the ground.  The rivers edges were already lined with ice and it wasn't even December yet! As I walked up to my usual run, there was some slower, shallower water I usually overlook.  I figured since I had most of the day, why not take my time?

It was an easy high-stick and my hunch paid off immediately.  I'd hooked up on the second drift into chrome!
Second and third drift after that luck

Fourth drift, whammo!

Fifth, sixth, seventh...nada

Eight drift, whammo! Followed by tail dancing before throwing the hook...damn!

Talk about hot action!  I fished for the rest of the afternoon before hooking into and landing the final fish of the day.

This fish had been through a lot already
I walked back to my place with a smile on my face, that's for sure!

The following day, after checking flows on other tribs, I chose to make the drive to a smaller, less-known steelhead river.  It was that day that was full of frustration. The water was fairly cloudy, but not too bad to go home.  The water level however, was perfect!  I knew a few holding spots in this river and focused on them.  I don't know how, but for the 6 or so hours I fished the river, I'd managed to hook into 6 steelhead and lose every single one of them.  It got to the point where I was checking my hook points before every drift!  What sucks even more is that at least 2 of the 6 were well above 22"  I never did run into another angler though, which was pretty relaxing in itself.

The next weekend it was back to my home water.  The ice was getting worse, and the slack water was freezing already.  I had the same game plan as before - but this time the water was a bit higher.  I started off plucking out 2 steelies right off.  Great start!

A tagged fish that I forgot to write down.

The hot-headed fly was a huge producer for me

After a few hours, it was time to switch it up.  I walked around to the other side of the river and began fishing a huge whirlpool-like pool.  Drifts were tough, and streamers were even tougher.  All of the conflicting currents made it difficult to tell exactly where my flies were.  I ended up finding a, "sweet spot" by drifting with an indicator in 7-9 FOW.  If I kept enough line off the water, the drift was endlessly circling the big pool.  I remember thinking to myself, "this is friggin cool!" before watching my indicator go under.  I set the hook, lost about 20 yards of line from a hot fish and then slack - it was off.

Good news though!  It meant that there were indeed fish in this big pool.  I continued to fish the same way, almost zoning out while doing the, "endless drift".  It took about 15 minutes before another take, this time the fish wasn't as lucky. 
A great way to end the day!  The next day I was back at it, this time hopping from spot to spot which eventually paid off!

Bank fishing with jeans on in December for steel!

The following week was frigid, and the smaller Champlain tribs were just getting over being blown out.  I drove to another trib the following weekend to find very difficult conditions.  The water was stained, a little high, and the loose ice chunks made it nearly impossible to drift anywhere.  Still, I'd made the drive and I figured why not give it a shot?  I started with the well-known spots first without even a bump.  It wasn't until I moved downstream to a "rock" I like to fish that I finally hooked up!  It took me by surprise, and it was actually very tight to the bank when the fish hit.  It was one of those, "might as well try here" kind of drifts.

Good way to test a new reel!
The next day I decided to make a last trip for salmon of the year, and somehow found a salmon that was still aggressive!

That turned out to be the last productive trip of 2014 for me!  I'm already itching to get back on the rivers soon!  Looks like the hard water fishing will hold me over until then though. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Back at it

After catching so many fish in NY, you think most people would take a break from fishing....well not me. 

I was back at it the next weekend after arriving home in November.  The salmon were all duking it out for spawning rights, the steelies were putting feed bags on for the Winter and the hunting season put less pressure on the rivers.

Since I don't hunt, I took full advantage of the lack of pressure on the rivers.  I don't know why, but I felt the urge to get a fish to hit a swung streamer.  I had a ton of extra flies from weeks of tying in preparation for NY.  I had a dozen big, heavily weighted orange slump busters that looked very fishy.

The water was still pretty low, but I knew there were steelies roaming around - a friend of mine had landed a few and lost a large one a few days prior.  I don't think I was more than 5 minutes into swinging this big, ugly slumpbuster before it got whacked by a feisty steelie.  One of my favorite takes is from swinging, whether it be mid-swing, or at the end of it.  

While it wasn't a big fish, it put up a great fight, and it fulfilled my need for a fish on the swing!

Went in for the kill but ended up with a mouth full of metal!

Not long after landing this fish, I was in the mood for hitting some different water.  I know they say don't leave fish to find fish, but I just had a feeling.  The spot I ended up I've known about since I started spin-fishing, but have only fished a few times.  Just hard to fish new spots when I was so close to such good water!

I had no clue what was about to unfold - it was pure mayhem.  There was nobody there, which is about normal for this spot.  It's known by many, but it doesn't get much pressure because it's relatively close to another spot on Champlain where the salmon stack up in front of a hatchery brook.  Anyone that knows anything about salmon fishing will know where I am talking about of course.  This is another spot I've known about for a while but really have no urge to fish it for more than one reason.  I geared up and walked down to the water to find it was very low and clear.  The fishing was phenomenal to say the least.  I was able to sight fish many salmon, a few of which were close to or over 7 lbs.  The first fish came in minutes.  It chased down and inhaled a white slumpbuster - the same fly as the steelie grabbed earlier in the morning but a different color.

Off to a great start!

In the next few hours, I'd landed another 10, yes TEN salmon and losing another 3.  I couldn't believe what was going on.  These fish were going nuts for a simple black bugger with a generic orange bead-headed nymph.  The current made for perfect high-sticks through the slot I was fishing. I was lucky enough to watch fish react to my flies, and even witness them grab my flies.  For some reason, they were all over the two flies I had on.  I don't even think I changed them all day!

A few hours into the fishing, I had to call my buddy Chris and let him in on the action.  He was eager to catch salmon, which he hadn't had a ton of luck doing so far in the year.  It was a tough year for a lot of people.  I kept catching fish while he came to meet me, but as he got there, I set him up and showed him how to drift the flies through to get the fish to take.  Funny thing is, why I was giving him a quick demo with his own rod, I had a fish take and handed him the rod to land it.  We both got a kick out of that.  For the rest of the day, we both continued fishing, and Chris had hooked into and landed a few fish which I was very happy to see. 

I had no idea I'd be landing so many salmon in one was just insane!

After the hot action on Saturday, I went back on Sunday morning and got into even more fish!  One thing that I was noticing was that these fish did NOT want to be handled at all.  I had half a dozen fish that slipped away before I could snap a quick picture, and even some of the ones I got pictures of turned out pretty bad.  No worries, I've got the memories of the ones that got away!

A big, 26" hen!

Hands down the most salmon I'd ever landed in one weekend in VT!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Western NY

After the close of trout season, the salmon fishing had slowed, but not by much.  November is usually a month when salmon search out gravel bars, suitable for spawning.  But this also means the males and even females are very very aggressive towards almost anything, even a tiny nymph!

Since the days are shorter in the Fall, I wasn't able to get out after work anymore, so my fishing was limited to weekends.  Kenny and I had made plans to go to NY for the middle of November, just for a weekend.  I fished for salmon for a total of 3 days before Kenny and I took off to NY to chase some truly monstrous browns, and then steelhead. 

The fish were much harder to find than usual, but I found a few that were willing to play, including one of the biggest for the year, and probably the fattest salmon for its length I've ever landed. 

It was around 27", a very respectable fish for Champlain, but the girth on it was ridiculous as you can see. 

Over the few days I fished, I'd seemed to have lost more fish than landed, but was happy with the outcome!

A perfect example of a salmon in disguise.  It looks very similar to a brown trout!
After getting into more salmon, I was ready to rumble for NY!  I met Kenny at his house in NH after work on a Friday, and we spent the night driving over 8 hours to NY.  When we got there, we met up with his friend, "Steelhead Steve" and a friend of his.  Steve was an awesome guy, and very easy to get along with.  He lived just as far away from the rivers out there as we did, but probably spent more time on them than most!  He really knew his stuff, and I'm very grateful he could share his valuable information with us.  Huge browns and steelhead are not uncommon for Great Lakes tributaries, and that's what we were after!

Kenny and I had an incredible experience, and while the weather wasn't very cooperative for mid-November (it was below freezing for two of the mornings) we landed a TON of fish!  We started at sunrise, and I immediately hooked up into a huge resident rainbow on a small tributary of Ontario. On the first day, we fished this particular river pretty hard, walking upstream quite a ways.  We found fish at almost every pool and slot.  The best thing?  Compared to the Salmon River in Pulaski, this river was getting barely any pressure.  Sure, there were guys out there fishing, but we ended up stopping at a stretch of river where we barely even saw anyone.  We caught fish after fish, and it was just amazing.  I don't know how many times Steve caught a fish in water that I would walk by! 

The second day, we hopped around all of the place, trying to find BIG steelhead.  We probably visited over a dozen rivers, fishing almost all of them.  It seemed like the big Fall run of steelies hadn't quite come in yet, and we struck out.  Kenny did hook into a big steelie on an Erie trib, but it quickly popped off.  We were on the move constantly, trying to find which river had the most fish.  Towards the end of the day, was clear that the steelhead fishing was very slow, and we actually headed back to the Ontario trib where we'd caught all of the browns, resident bows and steelhead on the first day.  While we didn't find any 12+ lbers that we were looking for, the numbers easily made up for that!  I have no clue how many fish all of us landed, probably well over 50!  We fished until sunset, changed clothes and grabbed a bite to eat before making the 8 hour journey back home. 

One thing is for sure, Kenny and I are definitely planning for a Spring trip out there, along with a week-long Fall trip next year.  The fishing was amazing, and I can't wait to feel the pull of a 20 lb steelie. 

Fish on within the first 5 minutes!  A fat resident rainbow!

Friday, February 13, 2015

A week off (end to 2014's trout season)

The end of October is the end of Vermonts trout season on many rivers and tributaries to those rivers (unless specified otherwise by the State)  This means all fishing is prohibited from Oct 31st to the second Saturday in April. 

I took the last week of October off to do as much fishing as I could.  To say I fished hard for the whole week would be a huge understatement.  I was free to do what I absolutely love, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

This time of the year, big browns migrate to proper spawning habitat just like salmon.  If you're lucky, you can time it right and run into BIG browns in BIG numbers.  While they might not cooperate, it is very exciting to see.

I spent one day on a Winooski trib and spotted 8-10 browns over 20".  I moved half of them, and spooked the other half. My stealth could use some work I suppose.   I managed to get a few to grab metal, but I couldn't get a good hookset. 

A good buddy of mine, Drew, who guides both cold and warmwater species in Vermont wanted to take a trip out to some tribs on another big river in Vermont.  He'd taken time off as well, and we planned for an early start, and late return.  It was time to find some hogs - and find them we did.

Drew is probably the best sight fishermen I know.  He knows exactly what he's doing, and can spot a fish from a mile away that I couldn't see from a foot away.  It takes experience to spot a camouflaged fish, and he has it.  I always like to pick his brain when we fish, and I always seem to learn something new, so it was great fishing and great conversation.  Long story short, we BOTH broke personal bests, with mine being a 26" prehistoric looking male in full spawning color.  After the day was done, I took a friend two days later after making him swear to secrecy.  Not as experienced, he had trouble casting in the tough conditions, but did manage an 18" brown.  I landed a thick 25" brown towards the end of the day followed by a few smaller ones.  The fishing was much harder than a few days before.  Still, a 25" brown is an awesome fish and I was super psyched. 

Yup, I could fit my hand in his current personal best VT brown!

I told myself I would put more time in chasing trout in October, and I did just that!  It was hard to leave the salmon for a few days, but absolutely worth it!

I spent a few days looking for salmon on the upper stretches of the Winooski River and its tributaries. I struck out the first day on two tributaries and a few sections of the main river, but the second day I was in luck.  While on a tributary on Halloween(last day of trout season), I was taking my time, going from pool to pool when I happened to spot a suspended fish.  I remained motionless, and watched the fish for 5 minutes.  It moved a few feet leisurely while I watched, but wasn't feeding.  I could tell right away it was a salmon.  It was just resting in a pool.  It must have been migrating up this tributary to spawn, but there were no redds in sight.  Had I stumbled upon a salmon on a redd, I would have moved on.  The State moved these fish to spawning water so they can spawn, I'd hate to bother or see someone else bother a fish that will most likely naturally reproduce if left alone.  With rod in hand, I went with a stealthy approach - two small nymphs, a 16 and an 18.  The drifts were dead on, and the fish showed no interest.  I changed nymphs, colors, sizes, presentation types, reaction from this fish at all.  What the heck?  "Alright" I said to myself, let's see what it does for this.  I tied on a big and heavy white bunny leech.  I got the fly wet first (rabbit hair is annoying like that) and proceeded to cast upstream of the fish.  Once I saw the fly was at the same depth as the fish, I began to strip.  Long, steady strips.  I was hoping for the fish to show interest, and was surprised when the fish turned and bolted towards the fly.  It didn't just charge the fly, it destroyed it.  The fly disappeared in its mouth, and as I set the hook, I could feel a solid hookset on the fish.  It started to shake its head and tail-dance to rid itself of the white fluff in its mouth.  No dice, she was in my net in 5 minutes.

A beautiful, silvery-blue female.  Once I had her in the net for sure, I dropped to my knees, threw my rod on the bank, clenched my fists and threw them up in the air in excitement.  Yes, I even shouted like a happy little kid.  At that moment in time, the world stopped.  I could have been the first person in a decade to catch a salmon in this tributary, and it felt utterly amazing. 
Stunning color on this beautiful female Atlantic.  She was tagged and transported upstream almost two weeks prior to me catching her. 

I spent most of the day on this tributary, searching for more salmon.  Unfortunately, I didn't find or spook any.  I even disturbed some of the deeper pools on purpose just to see if I could spook any (after I'd fished it already)  The further upstream I got, the more dangerous it was.  Since I was alone, I just couldn't risk going beyond a certain point, and I headed home.  On the walk back to the car, I got a call from my girlfriends father about a 10 lb salmon he'd just landed from the Winooski.  I didn't believe him at first until the picture went through to my phone, and wow.....

I got in my car and drove to one of my favorite spots on the river where he'd just landed the fish and started fishing.  It didn't take long to hookup, and this time it was a male that contrasted the bright silvery female I'd landed earlier in the day.

Often mistaken for brown trout, the male salmon get a kype, followed by a darker, butter-like color and even orange spots like brown trout. 
A few ways to tell apart spawning salmon from brown trout are the tails, the teeth and the mouth.  The tails on salmon are slightly forked, but not always.  Browns almost always have a square tail.  The caudal peduncle (where you'd grab a fish right near its tail) is generally thinner in a salmon than a brown.  The end of the jaw is usually in line with the back of the eye on a salmon, whereas on a brown trout, the end of the jaw(maxillary) goes beyond the back of the eye.  Hence why big male browns have huge mouths.  The final the most definitive thing to look at is the teeth on the roof of the fishes mouth.  A salmon has a single line of "vomerine" teeth on the roof of its mouth, where a brown has a zig-zag pattern instead of a straight line.

Upon landing this fish, I didn't have much time before having to head home.  It was Halloween, after all.  I couldn't have asked for a better week off, and I loved every second of it.  I may even have to take two weeks off next year! I love October!

Steady action

Finally, the Winooski was back at a fishable temp!  It was early September, the days were still long, the sun high, and the fish...well....aggressive!

Since I live so close to the river, I was able to put in a few hours after work every other weekday.  For about 3 weeks straight, the action was steady.  I even took some beginners out on the weekends - one that hadn't fly fished in over a decade!  He ended up landing 3 salmon in one morning on some of my streamers right below the surface.  We both got to see all of the takes too.  Lots of hooting, hollering, and cheering!  They weren't the biggest salmon around, maybe 20", but the excitement was palpable when we got to see the fish follow the streamer for a good 10-20 yards before hitting.  There were many, many last minute bails from fish (probably from over 15 different fish)

I learned in August that the State had decided to transport out Atlantic salmon upstream this year, utilizing the fish ladder at the Salmon Hole and then putting them in a large holding tank and then bringing them over 20 miles upstream to water that is more suited for spawning.  I was happy, but at the same time, I knew the fishing might be slower.  Luckily for me, that wasn't the case!

My jaw dropped when I heard of and saw a picture of Jon(who operates the Hydro One Dam) holding up a 14, yes FOURTEEN pound male salmon!  Shattering the current record of 12 pounds, 10 ounces.  The fish was moved upstream the same day, where he had access to over 20 miles of river, and tributaries of the Winooski.  I'm sure he ruled with an iron kype in that area.

I continued fishing the lower Winooski, in hopes of another monster migrating from Champlain.  While I didn't find any fish over 8 lbs, I found many, many salmon(and even a few nice steelies) that were more than willing to tango.
Funny story about this little steelie.  I was messing around in some very fast water and he nabbed my dropper and took off straight downstream.  I honestly thought it was a huge salmon by the weight and speed of it at first.  Turns out...a 15" steelie. 

Behind this blur is actually a thick steelie!

I call these minis. Still a great fight. 

Some of the big producers.  Royal Coachman, and marabou Black Ghosts. 

Luring the fish to the, "landing side"

Two fish in 5 minutes after work...nothing better!

Having a chat with a fellow angler...lazily drifting a tiny little pheasant tail and all of a sudden this guy flies out of the water. "WOAH!"  Oh, hes got my fly in his mouth!  Ha!  I had to chase this big guy down quite a ways.  Very exciting!

Proof that it really does pay to put your time in on a body of water, and get to know it like the back of your hand.  When I close my eyes, I can picture every single slot, boulder and holding spot in the area....I just love it!  I can't that that about many bodies of water, but I'm proud to say it about the Salmon Hole.