Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Finally got out again

This is why I'm clearly an amateur and not a guide or someone who writes for the fly fishing magazines.  I fished yesterday and it was the first time in over 4 weeks.  I had tried to fish one evening late in June, and the water was too warm.  Since then, life has been full of work, a wedding, a long weekend of volunteer work, and some health issues for my father-in-law.  Fishing wasn't at the top of the list, especially with my favorite streams being unfishable due to warm water.

Yesterday, I took the day off work.  My wife and I had done some volunteer work from Friday through Sunday and I wanted the day to recover.  But, I also needed to get out to fish, so I got up early yesterday and headed to a tributary of the White River.  I was assuming the water temperature would be cool enough to fish, and I even got my waders on and geared up before measuring the temperature.  It was 61.4F - perfect.

My last time out, I'd ended the day fishing a parachute Adams as an attractor (truthfully, that fly was on because I was able to see it as it got dark the last time I'd been out), while dangling a size 18 Ju Ju Baetis below it.  The nymph had taken the fish last time.  There were no bugs in the air, so I figured I'd start with these same flies.  The stream was small.  It was really just pocket water.  But, with the water so clear, pocket water is perfect; it allows you to sneak up on fish from downstream without spooking an entire large pool if you make a mistake while wading.  And, I did spook a number of fish and got to watch them swim away despite wading carefully.

On my 4th or 5th cast, a rainbow slammed the parachute Adams.  It was a wild fish, about 9" or so, and just beautiful.  I snapped a couple photos and released him.  I realized it was my first fish on a dry fly this season.

The fish hit the fly so hard that he destroyed the "parachute" part of it, so I switched to a BWO with a dropper.  Shortly after switching flies, I saw a couple BWOs in the air, so I was hopeful that I had the right fly.  But, the fly produced nothing at all.  I was seeing some fish in the crystal clear water, but they didn't seem interested at all.  I started to notice a few caddis flies in the air, so I made a quick fly change.  I also got rid of the dropper and just went with a size 16 Elk Hair Caddis.  About this time, I also emerged from the tree canopy into a stretch with sunlight.  I had to be extra careful about my shadow and the shadow of the fly rod.  I'd also switched to 6x tippet, assuming the only fish in the stream were fairly small and I wanted the finer tippet in the clear water.

The first small pool I hit with the caddis yielded nothing, so I moved upstream a bit.  I found a spot that looked perfect, until I realized that casting was going to be tough.  The little pocket I wanted to target was just below a drop-off.  There were rocks on three sides, and just below my target area, a downed tree was an additional hazard.  I made a few short casts into the closer water, working my way towards my prime target.  After nothing on those casts, I went for the prime spot and managed to land the fly perfectly.  I was still trying to find my fly in the foam when the fish hit.  As soon as he felt the hook, he flew downstream towards the tree.  I managed to not get hung up and a couple minutes later, landed my second fish of the day.

A second cast into the same location produced another smaller rainbow.

As I worked my way upstream, I had a blast with the caddis fly and the rainbows.  Over the next two hours, at least 20 fish hit the fly, rose to it and then snubbed it, or simply inhaled it.  I think I ended up getting 7 to the net.  None were bigger than 9" and a couple didn't make it to 6".  But, the fish were beautiful and fought like much bigger fish.  It was great to watch them take off like rockets when they felt the hook.  And, with a 4 weight rod and 6x tippet, I had to be careful to not let them snap me off.

In the last stretch that I fished, I was essentially in someone's back yard.  I hooked 4 fish in a 10 yard stretch of water.  I'd bet the people who live there have no idea what a great fishing resource they have in their back yard.

I had never fished this tributary of the White before, but I'll certainly fish it again.  My next time out, I'm planning to hit the next tributary upstream from this one.

If you really want to know where I was, drop me a note and I'll tell you.  When the pictures were posted, the geo-location information was stripped.  But, I'd suggest just exploring.  These tiny, cool streams can be amazing, although they can be busts as well.  But, this one is on my list to visit again.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Too busy to fish, regretfully

I was shut out one weekend by high water temperatures in my local streams.  Since then, some water bodies have cooled off a bit, but we also had a lot of rain.  And, I've had all kinds of stuff going on that has prevented me from getting out fishing.  Next weekend will not involve fishing due to a family wedding.  The weekend after that, I'm doing volunteer work all weekend.  By then, it will be August with lots of warm water.

I need to get rid of my job and all of the other things in my life that are messing with my fishing.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Time to seek out the smaller waters

My wife and I tried to get out fishing Saturday night.  Our target was the main branch of the White River, near Royalton.  I was happy when I saw the water levels at my targeted spot.  I haven't fished this spot yet this year because wading has been too dangerous.  The water was finally low enough for wading to be safe.

But, before we geared up, I needed to check the water temperature.  Regretfully, it was 71.5F - too hot for catch and release fishing.  I didn't really have a backup location in mind, and every option I could think of meant a significant drive.  So, we headed back home without fishing.

Next weekend, we are going to head north to stay with my in-laws at their summer camp for a few days.  In that part of the state, there are a few rivers that I'm sure will have cooler water temperatures, so we will be able to get some fishing done.  I will certainly target the Black River and its population of small wild rainbows.  If the temperatures downstream are acceptable, I may try for browns below Coventry.

I really need to re-think my options closer to home.  Only the smaller mountain streams are going to be under 70F for the next month or two.  Regretfully, the higher quality streams of this type are not really close to our house.  This will mean driving anywhere from 45 minutes to 90 minutes each direction to go after small native brookies.  I guess I'll be doing some exploring unless our current heat wave breaks and the closer waters cool down a bit.  We could use a break from the heat and it's still June.  We also could use more rain, although most rivers are running a bit above their median water flows for this time of year.  But, the water levels are below optimal for fishing on a lot of rivers.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Rising Water Temperatures

I took a vacation day to fish yesterday, heading to Addison County in western VT in search of big browns.  But, due to rising temperatures, the day went nothing like I'd originally hoped.

The day before, I'd checked in with the Middlebury Mountaineer, and their main fly fishing guy told me that some of the waters I wanted to fish were at 70F already.  Both of those spots were on Otter Creek, so that ruled out those waters for the day.  Regretfully, the Otter is a tough spring river and I still haven't fished it this year.  It is a big river (don't let the Creek in the name fool you), and it takes a while in the spring for water levels to drop low enough for safe wading.  This year, about the time the wading was getting safe, the river got too warm for catch and release fishing.  Most people who practice catch and release fishing for trout advocate never fishing water at or above 70F.  I tend to cut things off at 68F, just to be a bit safer.  I don't want to be responsible for the death of a fish in warmer waters.

So, with my plans changed, I first fished on the Middlebury River.  Given its sources, the Midd stays cold a lot longer than some other rivers.  I checked the water and it was 60.5F.  The water was also low and the pocket water I was fishing was challenging.  I opted for a stonefly as my lead fly (I tried golden and brown stones), and played around with various nymphs for my trailing fly.  As careful as I was in and around the water, I did manage to spook a few trout, and I had no strikes.

Next, I stopped at the Middlebury Mountaineer to buy some flies and talk about fishing options.  As I looked at some of the recommended flies, I realized my flies on the Midd had been way too big.  I'd been fishing size 6 stones, with a size 12 dropper.  I picked up five patterns at the store:

  • Size 14 Yellow Sally stonefly (bead head)
  • Size 14 Kyle's Yellow Sally (bead head, a bit more orange than the first fly)
  • Size 16 Sloan emerger (Hendrickson nymph pattern, bead head)
  • Size 18 Master Baetis  (bead head)
  • Size 18 JuJu Baetis 
I can easily tie the latter three flies, and I will plan on adding them to my tying rotation.

The guide at the store recommended a couple places to fish, well south of Middlebury.  I headed that way and immediately ran into two things when I arrived at the river - a dense cloud of mosquitoes and two high school boys fly fishing in the same area.  I covered myself with bug spray and found a place to fish away from the boys.  At one point, one of them decided to invade the area I was fishing, which made me rather unhappy.  So, I took off upstream, driving to a new location.

I spent the next three hours fishing up a narrow gorge, fishing for allegedly big browns and brookies in small pockets of water between the drop-offs.  This was some of the most challenging wading/hiking I've ever done for trout.  At one point, I was thinking that I was working harder than if I'd gone to the gym instead of fishing.  I had the water to myself, but I did not see a single fish, I didn't get a single strike, and I saw no bugs other than mosquitoes.  I did find a very large black stonefly fly in a tree, so some other fisherman at some other time allegedly believed there were big fish in this river.  I also saw very recent footprints low in the gorge, so someone else had fished there as recently as yesterday morning.  But, after three physically intense hours, I hiked out of the gorge and returned to my car.  I decided to head back to Middlebury and see if I could find some cool water on the New Haven.  I pulled into a parking area about 15 minutes before sunset.  I was surprised there were no other cars at this very popular fishing spot.

I hiked to the water and pulled out my thermometer - 66.5F - cool enough to fish.  I started with an elk hair caddis and a juju baetis dropper.  On my fourth cast, my elk hair caddis submerged unexpectedly and I set the hook, eventually landing a wild brown.  A couple casts later, I missed a second fish. Both strikes had come on the baetis and there were no fish on the surface, so I decided to try to double my odds by fishing the baetis behind a yellow sally.  This failed miserably, and 20 minutes later, I went back to the dry and dropper configuration.  It was getting dark and a few fish were working the surface by now.  I got a small wild rainbow on the baetis very quickly.  I had other fish come after the dry fly, but they were either just playing or they were too small to even get it into their mouths.  It was a size 14 and I assume they were small fish.

Finally, it was too dark to see my dry fly any more, so I called it a day.  I had fished hard for 9 hours and I landed 2 trout.  The first 8 hours produced no strikes at all.  Despite arriving home at 10:30, sweaty, smelly from bug juice, and completely exhausted, it was a good day.

It's raining today, which might help our water temperatures a bit.  But, we might soon be entering a period of limited stream fishing, except for high up in the mountains in small, well-shaded streams.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Slow morning on the Winooski

I was lucky to fish at all this past weekend.  Friday night, we had dinner with friends from the gym.  Saturday, most of the day was reserved to celebrate my son's birthday.  Sunday, I had to mow the lawn and we were going to a party at another friend's house.  I also needed to get in a run sometime, do some cooking, and I wanted to tie some flies.  That's simply too much for one weekend unless you don't sleep at all.  As much as I would like to decline every single social engagement and just fish, my wife insists that I participate in the non-fishing world at times.  I'm not really sure why, but she is adamant.

After dinner Friday night, we got home at 11:00.  I set my alarm for 4:45 and I was up by 5:15.  I packed the car and my wife and I were off to the Winooski River.  The flows were low, which helped with wading, but the fishing turned out to be pretty slow.  We fished at the confluence of the Mad and the Winooski, a spot that always seems to give up a few fish, and occasionally a big fish.  Because of the low water, we fished it a bit differently than normal.  My plan was to put my wife high in the seam where the clearer waters of the Mad met the murkier waters of the Winooki.  But, despite new wading boots, she was a little bit uncomfortable in the water, so I stayed with her and helped her.  After she worked through a portion of the large hole we were fishing, I would use some longer casts to hit areas she hadn't reached.  We got a few gentle strikes at the top of the pool, but no hook-ups.  I tried an RS2 for the first time this year because there were some BWOs in the air.  Not a lot, but they were there.  After no luck with the RS2, and having lost it, I switched to a green caddis larva.  I had seen a few caddis flies as well and wondered if that might work.  Essentially, we crossed the river above the hole, fishing the top of the pool, then fished down the other side, crossed back, and my wife took a break while I fished the final section we hadn't touched.

I did managed to get one small wild rainbow, on the green nymph.  Hare's ears, various versions of Prince nymphs and PTs did not really get much action.  The water temperature was 62F.  We are now at that part of the year where my thermometer is with me all the time.  I heard that the Otter Creek (really a misnomer - it's a huge river) hit 70F today, so we might be done with that river until September.  That is disappointing to me because I planned to fish the Otter tomorrow.

Back to Saturday...

After we finished at the initial location, we went downstream, to the other side of Waterbury, but above the Bolton power dam.  I posted a picture in a recent post of a big fish I'd taken on the Winooski last fall.  We went to that hole.  There are a number of approaches to this hole, but most of the action seems to come by wading to the middle of the river, above a big hole and then casting towards the shore where we started, letting flies drift into the main part of the pool that way.  Other times, long casts from the other side can be effective as well.  And, it's often effective to let your fly drift in the current, and occasionally strip 3-5 feet of line, letting the fly head downstream.  Pickups are common at the end of these drifts.  Lastly with woolly buggers or muddler minnows or sirloins, fish will take the fly on the strip or while it's being reeled in slowly.

We tried all of these techniques.  We even tried some dries after one huge trout cleared the water completely twice and a third fish also rose.  There were a few light Cahills around, so we tried that pattern with no success.  It seemed like the fish were playing rather than feeding.  Or perhaps they were taunting us.

My wife did manage to hook one fish on the strip and drift method, but it wasn't on too long.  I'm guessing it was a good fish, primarily because I never catch small fish here.  It seems to be a pool full of large wild rainbows and nothing else.

Finally, about 11:00, the sun was high, the wind was making casting difficult, and we needed to head home.  So, we got just one fish for the day, and maybe half a dozen strikes.

Saturday turned into a late night with a nice restaurant dinner for my son's birthday, and when the alarm went off at 4:45 on Sunday, I was exhausted.  This was my only chance to fish on Sunday, and I have to admit that I opted for sleep instead.  It was a bit easier to do that, knowing that I am taking a vacation day to fish tomorrow.

I'm heading to Addison County, the land of big brown trout, for the day tomorrow.  I haven't caught a brown yet this year, and my goal for the day is one large brown trout.  More would be nice, but the goal is size over quantity.  Regretfully, with the Otter at 70 degrees, two of my planned fishing holes are now non-options.  A third spot is perilously close to 70F as well.  I e-mailed the local fishing shop for advice, and told them I'd be stopping by tomorrow.  They told me they can give me some good advice on some cooler streams that hold big browns.  That sounds great to me.  I'll report back on Wednesday.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Is it Ethical? Why do it at all?

I saw this quote on Twitter yesterday, and it got me thinking (again) about something that I wonder about all the time:

"All the romance of trout fishing exists in the mind of the angler and is in no way shared by the fish." - Harold F. Blaisdell, 'The Philosophical Fisherman'

As much as I enjoy fly fishing, I really wonder at times if it's an ethical thing to do.  I wonder what the point is for doing it at all.  The comments below are somewhat rambling, but this is just how they came out of my head and onto the screen.  I'm just going to put this out there, rather than try to make it more coherent or cohesive.

When I was a teenager, I kept and ate most of the fish I caught.  I fished for trout from mid April until mid-June.  After that, I focused on bass.  The streams where I fished for trout had no sustaining populations, and all the fish we caught were stocked.  The two primary lakes where I fished for bass were different though.  They weren't huge, and I had a handful of high school friends who fished the same two lakes.  We created enough pressure on these two lakes to seriously affect the population of bass if we kept fish, or if we didn't.

One of the lakes in particular, Lake Lehman, was owned by a local company - a paper mill.  They sold memberships to "The Lake Club", where people could swim, canoe, play tennis, picnic, and fish.  The paper mill really maintained the property as a back-up water supply.  Paper-making is a water-intensive business, and the company needed reliable water sources.  The Lake Club, in those days, was managed by a curmudgeonly older man named Guy Bievenour.  He had managed the Lake Club since at least 1948, according to a reference I found on newspapers.com.  I started fishing there about 1974 or 1975.

Mr. Bievenour wanted to preserve the fish population in the lake, and we quickly discovered a way to take advantage.  He would pay fisherman $1 per fish to release fish that they had caught and they were planning on keeping, assuming the fish were still alive.  We took advantage of this for a couple years, making some money.  We had no sense of "catch and release"; it was only a way to make a buck.  I remember my dad being constantly mad at me for spending time fishing and not bringing home any fish to eat, despite the fact that I caught fish all the time.

Over time, something changed in the lake.  As the only people who fished the lake hard took advantage of the bounty paid to release fish, the number of fish in the lake increased.  We were very competitive fishermen (boys, really), and we kept track of how many fish we caught and who caught the biggest fish.  In our junior high years, a good season might be 20 fish or so over the course of a summer.  But, our skills improved with age and time on the water, the fish population increased, and I remember taking 26 fish on opening day one year, probably 1979.  By then, no bounties were available, because Mr. Bievenour would have gone bankrupt paying half a dozen of us for all the fish we caught.  I was by then routinely catching 100+ bass per season from this lake.  On our own, a catch and release ethos had been created.  We liked the hunt, but had no taste for the kill.  We felt good about releasing the fish.  It was a small enough lake that we would catch some fish multiple times, often recognizing larger fish from their "home location" in the lake.

But over time, we stopped catching large fish.  By not keeping any fish at all, the lake became over-populated and the fish fought for food.  Catching them was easy, but the plentiful fish were small.  Despite our belief that overpopulation was the cause, we never did start to keep fish from the lake, to see if larger fish would return.

We used barbed hooks in those days.  Rubber worms were our primary weapon.  After a fish took a rubber work, often by the tail, we would let the fish "run" with the worm, until it stopped and swallowed it.  I am sure that those big (hook size up to 2/0) hooks deep in the gullet of the bass inflicted way more harm than we realized.  Yet, we had no compassion or thoughts for the health of the fish.  We were just "scoring points" in an adolescent fishing competition.

The fish certainly didn't enjoy it.  We did.  But, what was the allure?  Was it competition?  Was the fishing itself what we loved?  I assume it was both, to some extent.

I am still in touch with a few of the people I fished with in those days.  To the best of my knowledge, I am the only one who still fishes regularly.  So, perhaps it wasn't simply the love of fishing itself that had us out there.  Who knows?  Perhaps my other friends simply don't have time in their busy lives to fish any more.  Perhaps they don't have the financial resources.  Fishing can certainly be expensive, although it doesn't have to be that way.

Today, I'd like to claim my fishing is more "civilized".  I use barbless hooks.  I follow regulations designed to protect waterfowl (no lead weights) and rivers (no felt soled wading boots that can easily spread didymo, an invasive diatom that can easily spread from one river to another).  But, I still catch trout.  When I hook a trout, it doesn't just swim to the net to be released.  It fights with all of its strength to escape, coming to the net only when exhausted.  I rarely touch a fish.  I have an expensive net designed to reduce harm to the fish's outer "slime" layer.  I use hemostats to remove the hook, make sure the fish is breathing OK, and send it on its way.  Clearly the fish feels some sort of pain when the hook penetrates its skin.  However, most scientists seem to agree that it's not like a human's reaction to pain as we know it.

I am a meat eater.  I try to eat local meat, raised ethically by farmers that I know.  I visit the farms that produce my food.  I know the farmers.  I recognize that by eating meat, I'm participating in the death of an animal.  I accept that.

Fishing is different.  I am inflicting some level of pain or discomfort on an animal for the purpose of my own "sport" or entertainment or passion or hobby, or whatever you want to call it.  If that discomfort is minimal, is it OK?  I guess I'm not sure.

Which always leads me to my next thought.  I have thousands of dollars worth of fishing equipment.  I spend more money every year to replace worn out equipment, replace flies that I lose or that are destroyed, to travel to fishing locations, for my fishing license, etc.  I truly enjoy my time on the river.  I enjoy the time whether I catch fish or not.  There is a very rhythmic and peaceful pattern to fly fishing that is quite relaxing.  The surroundings are beautiful.  I get to spend quality time with my wife or my son.

But at the end of the day, I'm spending time and money (and natural resources) to try to fool a fish into thinking a pile of feathers is a meal, I inflict some level of pain on that fish, and then I release the fish.  I have photos and memories.  No tangible "reward" for my time on the water.  It seems absurd.  The part about trying to "outsmart" a fish seems especially ridiculous, to be honest.

At the same time, doesn't this describe most human leisure activities?  Going to a sporting event?  Playing a game?  Competing in a marathon or a triathlon or other athletic event?  Playing golf?  Going out to dinner at a restaurant?  Skiing?  CrossFit?  Are they all essentially pointless or is some kind of leisure activity like this necessary for our mental or physical health, or both?  None of them seems essential to survival, yet we all have some leisure activity that we enjoy and pursue.

Clearly, in the parlance of the day, this is a first world problem.  I am not starving and using fishing to feed my family.  If I wanted to feed my family by fishing, I would pursue small warm-water species that are easier to catch than trout.

I have no intention of giving up fly fishing.  I'm not apologizing for doing what I do.  But, I do certainly think about these things at times.  I don't claim to know the answers.  But, I haven't quit fishing either.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Or maybe not..

I love this store and their staff.  I think the guy who writes these reports has done a tremendous amount of good for fly fishing in the state of Vermont.  But, I find this report on water levels to be a bit optimistic, given that it's pouring outside right now:

Middlebury Mountaineer Fishing Report

I do think the rain is good for the season in the long run.  I don't buy that wading will be OK this weekend, but I could be wrong.

Looking at the USGS water flow reports, the White has dropped a bit already and the Winooski has stabilized.  We'll see how fast things drop once the rain stops.