Monday, September 22, 2014

Third Branch of the White

I consider the White to be my "home" river.  I fish there at least 50% of the time that I fish.  But, I tend to fish the main branch despite living only 2 miles from the Third Branch.  Why?  Because I tend to find that the Third Branch sucks.  The other guy in my small town that fly fishes a lot says that he gets skunked at least every other trip to the Third Branch.  Recently, he's had some better luck, running into a yellow sulphur hatch and getting some fish, and he's even taken rainbows with mouse patterns.  But, he's a good fisherman and even he admits he struggles on the Third Branch.  A fisherman that I see once a year in Addison county for a fly fishing tournament tells me how lucky I am to live by that river.  I think he may have last fished it 20 years ago, when it had a reputation as a decent river.  These days, it's a struggle and a little more driving almost always yields some fish.  (Well, Saturday morning, I was skunked on the Winooski, so other rivers are not always better.)

Upstream from the town where I live, the state stocks brookies in the river.  From the middle of town down to Bethel, the state stocks browns.  I usually catch a few of those browns every year, but not too many.  I know that there are large wild fish in the river as well.  One of my son's co-workers took a brown close to 30" 2 summers ago.  A friend saw a fish at least 24" spawning in a tributary last fall.  A few years earlier, someone kept a stringer-full of 5 browns and they were all huge.  So, those fish are in there, but I find it to be a very tough river.  For the most part, to be honest, I just ignore it and drive a bit more to fish the main branch.

Yesterday afternoon, I was taking a nap on the couch, planning to fish, closer to sunset, about 20 miles downstream from where we live.  While I was taking a nap, the aforementioned local friend sent a text.  He had found a huge hatch of flying ants midday and was fishing on the Third Branch.  I saw this text a few hours later and assumed I'd missed it completely.  But, shortly after I saw the first text, he sent two more.  He told me where he'd been fishing and said to "just head down to the river and listen for the splashes".

Dry fly fishing opportunities like that don't come along very often, so I headed out quickly.  I found the spot, but had a few issues.  It was a steep descent to the river.  The land was posted against trespassing.  And, even down at the river, I didn't see any easy way to cross to where I needed to fish.  But, I could see fish rising, so I knew I had to fish.  This was right where a small stream entered the third branch.  So, I hopped in my car and drove to a spot where that smaller stream crossed a road, and waded/hiked about 20 minutes downstream.

As I arrived at the spot, things were very quiet.  The flying ant hatch appeared to be over.  I approached the water very stealthily, keeping a low profile, even though the sun was already behind the distant peaks.  As I knelt down to tie on an ant pattern, a fish broke the surface.  Then another.  And another.  By the time I was ready to cast, there were 8-10 fish working the surface.

I tried a few casts (I had tied on an ant pattern hoping to match the flying ant hatch that was winding down) into the lower, slower pool, which is where the fish seemed bigger.  But, they were also wary and I couldn't tempt them to the surface.  Even with a long, fine leader, each cast seemed to put the fish down for a bit.  So, I worked on the lower end of a riffle where some smaller fish were working the surface pretty loudly.  After 10-12 casts and no strikes, I wasn't sure what was up.  I couldn't see my fly in the water, so it was hard to know if it was floating or even in the right lane for the fish.

I reeled in to change flies, and discovered I couldn't see my ant because it wasn't there.  It had snapped off, probably on my first cast or two, and due to a bad knot.  I was really torn on what fly to use.  Finally, I opted for a size 16 Royal Wulff, primarily because it seemed the fish were eating small bugs and this one would be easy to see.

By the time I changed flies, I knew my fishing time was short.  It was already sunset or close to it, and I had a decent hike back to the car.  But, on my third cast to the riffle, a fish hit my fly hard.  It was a decent brown, although I couldn't be sure if it was a wild fish or a holdover from spring stocking:

I apologize for the poor pictures, but when I'm solo, I try to keep the net wet, land the fish, unhook it quickly, snap a quick photo, and get the fish back in the water.  This brownie was probably just short of 12".

It was only a few casts later that I had another take.  This time, the fish was clearly bigger, and it moved downstream to fight in the big, deep water.  At one point, it had taken out most of my fly line, and it was showing no signs of getting tired.  The fish was deep, my fly line was deep, and suddenly the water erupted on the other side of the stream as the fish streaked for the surface.  At that point, I was finally aware that it was a rainbow and not a brown.  After a good fight, I landed the feisty fat rainbow - one of the my better fish of the year.  I quickly got this fish unhooked and back into the water, but I got a decent photo:

At this point, the fish were all down.  The rainbow had seemingly notified every fish within 100 yards to be careful.  I sat on the bank, waiting for any fish to return to the surface.  The first fish to return were the bigger fish in the slower water.  However, they were still very wary and any cast in their direction put them down immediately.  Not long after that, the fish in the riffle started rising again.  This time, it only took one cast and I hooked another fish.  My first thought was that it was a rainbow, because it was tail dancing on the surface the second it felt the hook.  Instead, it turned out to be a brown - the smallest of the 3 fish I'd caught:

At this point in time, it was about 20 minutes past sunset.  I had a tough hike back to the car.  But, I didn't want to quit quite yet.  I waited 3-4 minutes to be sure no fish would return to the surface, but it remained very quiet.  So, I headed to the car.

All told, I probably drove 40 minutes.  I hiked another 40 minutes.  I fished maybe 25 minutes, and probably 5 of those minutes, I had no fly on my line.  Other times, I was simply in a waiting mode.  So, in 15 minutes of real fishing, I took 3 nice fish from a river that rarely gives me any fish at all.  I'd call it quite a successful little adventure.

In 5 days, my fly fishing vacation starts, not that I'm counting down the days...

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Isonychia Dry Flies

Below are pics of some of the isonychia dry flies that I've been using.  The comparadun certainly got smacked around on the White River on Sunday night.

If you like them, contact Vermont Fly Guys on Facebook and order some for yourself:

Monday, September 15, 2014

Sunday Evening on the White River

I got to the White last night with over 2 hours to fish before darkness.  The first thing I did was check the water temperature, even though I was sure it would be cool enough to fish.  Just 2 weeks ago, a friend had measured the river at 72F near the town of Sharon.  A week ago, a small tributary of the White that is almost always very cool was 67F.  Last night, the White was at 59.6F.  This was in the main branch, downstream from Bethel and upstream from South Royalton.  I was very surprised that the water had cooled that much so quickly.

Because I had a good chunk of time for fishing, I opted to start in the lowest part of this stretch of river.  I rarely fish this lowest part and I don't know if I've ever taken a fish there.  But, I had plenty of time and with low water levels, I could wade to a spot that allowed me to access some deeper water that I rarely ever get to fish.  I spent about 20 minutes in this stretch and then decided to move up to a more reliable fishing spot.  When I turned around to head upstream, I was shocked to see 2 other fishermen right in front of me.

I'd checked for cars when I parked.  I'd looked up and down the river as well.  If I'd been able to see anyone fishing anywhere in this stretch, I would have gone elsewhere.  The White is not a crowded river.  The only time I've shared this stretch with anyone other than my son or my wife was during a fly fishing tournament earlier this season.  That day, I was the second person to arrive and I gave the guy who was there first a wide berth.  I fished far away from him, talked to him for a couple minutes, and then went somewhere else.

These two guys had parked close to my car and basically stepped into the river not very far from where I was fishing.  If I'm in Pennsylvania, I'm used to seeing stuff like this on the Yellow Breeches or Little Juniata.  Those are streams that get a lot of pressure, especially on the weekends.  Even in VT, I can think of spots on the New Haven or Otter or Winooski where I might see another fisherman.  But, I've never had anyone step into the river right beside me like that.  But, the White is a big river and I knew I could go around them and get upstream to some better fishing.

On the way past, I talked to them a bit.  They had never fished the river before.  I pointed out a seam in the main pool that they were working, and suggested they focus on that.  I suggested some flies to them, but they had never heard of isonychia (or the more common name - Slate Drake).  I tried to find some in the air to show them, but the iso's were sparse last night.

They didn't have any of the standard nymphs that they should have been carrying - Prince, Hare's Ear, Pheasant Tail, RS2, etc.  One of them was fishing a muddler minnow and I don't know what the other guy was using.  If they hadn't crowded me out of a spot I was going to fish, I might have given them a couple flies to try.  But, I guess I'm not that nice, so I simply headed upstream.

I got at least 50 yards upstream before I put in another cast, determined that I would not crowd them as they had done to me.  I did see them each catch one fish in the lower pool, so maybe I should fish muddler minnows in the White more often.  To be honest, I don't think I've ever thrown a muddler minnow in the White - a river dominated by rainbows (my last brown in the White was caught almost 2 years ago).  I tend to find that if rainbows are going to eat streamers, a white or olive woolly bugger is usually going to work.  And, I had no luck in the pool above them.  By now, I'd tried hare's ears, an isonychia nymph, a BWO nyph and a prince nymph variation, along with a grasshopper pattern.  No strikes at all.

I headed further upstream.  This was where I had a clear advantage over the other 2 guys on the river.  I know this stretch of water inside-out, and the best fishing is the topmost pool in this half mile stretch of water.  I continue to work the nymphs as I headed up.  With the cooler temperatures, I worked some shallow riffles that never produce anything when the water is warm, but sometimes produce in cooler water.  Nothing.

As I got to the lower end of the top pool, I decided to try a strike indicator.  I prefer to fish without them and really work hard to feel the strikes on my own.  This is probably foolish, as I know they work and they can really help with a dead drifted nymph.  I had no luck with the added strike indicator either.  I was now wondering what was going on.  I don't think I'd fished this stretch this year without a strike, and it was getting close to sunset.

Insects in the air were sparse.  I'd seen two iso's and a couple BWOs.  I hadn't seen one fish rise, although the 2 guys below me had seen one fish come to the surface.  But, I was looking at getting skunked, so I decided to try a local version of an isonychia comparadun.  I know a local guide who claims he fishes this fly all through the autumn, even when no fish are rising.  As I was tying on the fly, I saw two more iso's in the air, which I took as a good sign.

On my third cast, I got a strike. I was so surprised that I didn't even set the hook.  A few casts later, a big fish came up for the fly and missed it, but flew completely out of the water.  He was easily in the 16"-18" range.  A few casts later, I caught a feisty wild rainbow.  Not long after that, after the fly had sunk at the end of the drift, I hooked a fish while retrieving the fly underwater.  Then, I caught another fish.  Missed a few more.  Had another strike while the fly was underwater.  Caught another on the surface.

By the time it got dark, I'd had at least 10 strikes on the surface and 2 sub-surface.  I only got 3 fish to the net, but it was a very exciting 30 minutes.  I guess I'm going to be a bit quicker to go to this pattern for the next few weeks, even if we don't have many bugs in the air or fish coming to the surface.

A 12-day vacation devoted to fly fishing around the state of Vermont starts on 9/27.

Monday, September 8, 2014

White River Tributary

Late last week, I got some flies from The Vermont Fly Guys.  It's great to have a local company that will custom tie flies at a reasonable price.  They know the local waters, they fish the same rivers I fish, and I can give them a rough idea of what I want, and they'll hook me up.  If you fly fish in VT, and you don't tie all of your own flies, I highly recommend these guys.

I had ordered a bunch of isonychia patterns.  I wanted them to cover the entire life cycle, from swimmer through spinner.  I expected to get some comparaduns, the standard dun pattern for isonychia.  They also did some articulated duns, which was pretty cool.  The spinners are very interesting, taking advantage of more modern materials and adding a little bit of bright foam for visibility and flotation.

For swimmers, this is what I got (both pictures are from the Facebook page of the VT Fly Guys.  I didn't take these photos):

For emergers, this is what I got:

And, I got a few other bead head nymphs as well.

The delivery of these flies cause me all sorts of logistical problems.  I spent Saturday going through my flies and fly boxes.  To be honest, I had no idea how many flies I owned.  I have two big boxes of large streamers that I only use early season, in high water, or in the fall for browns.  I have a box of various woolly buggers.  I have 2 boxes of all dry flies.  One box dedicated to stoneflies of all sorts.  And then, I had 3 more boxes of nymphs.  I did a quick count of the flies.  There were too many to be precise, but there were over 600 flies spread among 9 boxes.  The buggers and big streamers are boxed appropriately.  I carry those boxes only when I expect to need them.  The stones are boxed appropriately and I carry them all the time.  The classic dries for Vermont (Hendricksons, BWOs, Cahills, Quill Gordons, Caddis, sulphurs, terrestrials, plus attractors like Adams, Royal Coachman and varieties, stimulators, humpies, etc.) are all in the 2 boxes of dries.  I catch fewer than 20% of my fish in VT on dries, so it's not a huge collection.  But, it's probably at least 150 dry flies.  Then, the nymphs needed some work.  I re-organized them into a box of the core patterns that I always need - mostly the classics like PT's, hare's ears, zug bugs, various baetis nymphs, Sloan emergers, RS2's, etc.  The other bigger nymph box got was filled with the flies I use less frequently, but I need them sometimes.  And finally, because the iso's are so seasonal, I put them in a box of their own.

I can't imagine how guides deal with carrying so many flies and always having the correct fly for their customers.  There are times I feel the need to carry up to 6 of these boxes, which is a pain.  But, I'd rather not be a mile from my car and find fish feeding on something when the appropriate fly is back in the car.

So, after all of that work, I headed out to a favorite White River tributary last night.  Despite easy access, I've never seen another fisherman on this stream.  The wading is easy.  The water temperatures are usually cool, although at 67F last night, it was as warm as I've seen it.  But, the main branch nearby was 74F and not fishable.

At the car, I tied on a yellow humpy.  I know this fly doesn't get used a lot in VT.  It's probably a throwback to my days fly fishing in the Sierra Nevada in CA, where all you needed most of the time were elk hair caddis and humpies.  And, they were often interchangeable.  I like the humpies because the little bit of extra color makes them easy to see.  They also float well.

After tying on that humpy, I brought 6 boxes of flies with me - 2 boxes of dries, two of nymphs, one of stones, and one of isonychia patterns,   I then fished for 2.5 hours and never changed my fly.

That's the conundrum at times.  When I hit the water, I can probably name 3-4 flies that will be all I need most of the time.  If I could go to 10 flies, I'd be covered 99% of the time.  Yet, I somehow carry over 100 patterns on a regular basis.

As I got to the stream, I looked in the air and in the water.  Everything came up caddis flies, although there were a few midges around.  I did see a solitary BWO at sunset.

The fishing was a bit slower than the last time I fished this stream.  The water was clearer and two holes that always seem to produce gave me nothing.  I did have 8 strikes in the first 30 minutes or so, hooking 2 and landing 1.  And then things went dead for a while.  I did see 2 decent size fish in one pool and they didn't seem to have seen me.  But, multiple casts right over them provoked no interest at all.  I debated changing flies, but I'd just had a bunch of hits on the humpy, so I stuck with it.  Finally, as sunset approached, the action picked up again, despite the lack of bugs in the air.  I caught another fish.  Missed a couple.  Hooked and lost another.  Missed a couple more. 

By the time it got dark, I'd hooked 4, landed 2, and missed maybe 10 other strikes.  Not bad given the low, clear, warm-ish water.

I've got some time off work later this week, and with our temperatures heading down, I might try to see if the White is fishable in the morning late in the week.