Friday, June 10, 2016

Mid-week on the White River

Last week, at the WRO, there were a handful of small prizes on the table after everyone had either gotten a prize or gotten picked in a raffle.  There were a handful of fly boxes - maybe 6 or so.  People were allowed to grab whatever they wanted after everyone had a prize.  Because I'd placed and won a very nice prize, I stayed back at first.  But, two of the fly boxes were nearly untouched.  I didn't know the name of either of the patterns, but one looked like a great fly for the White River - a sculpin/leech/bugger type of pattern.

Some internet research later revealed that it was a Charlie Craven pattern called the Gonga.  This fly is usually tied in a large size, but these were smaller than normal.  I grabbed a handful of these flies after others opted not to take them.  And today, I'm glad I did.

I worked from home yesterday due to a medical appointment.  I'd worked out hard the three previous days, so I decided I would fish after work rather than work out.  I opted to head to a spot where I knew a couple people had done well in the WRO the previous week.

During the day, I was talking to a friend on FB, and he told me that he'd fished the same spot the previous evening, and that he'd done well with black leech patterns.  So, I opted for a Gonga and a Prince Nymph to start.

I got to the spot around 5:30 and headed to the upper reaches of about 300 yards of water I wanted to work.  I was all alone and looking forward to fishing this entire stretch.  It only took a couple minutes and I'd hooked and landed a stockie.  I was very surprised to catch him on the Gonga and not the Prince Nymph.  I few minutes later, I had a second fish, this time on the Prince Nymph.

A couple minutes later, I had a hard hit early in my drift and I missed the fish.  I repeated the cast and immediately got another strike, and this time, I hooked the fish.  I knew right away this wasn't a normal stockie.  But, unlike most wild rainbows, it wasn't jumping, so I wasn't sure what was on the line.  It was probably 5 minutes before I even saw the fish.  My first thought when I saw it was surprise that it was a brown trout.  Since Hurricane Irene, I've caught very few browns in the main branch of the White.  I do OK with browns on the Third Branch, but not in the main branch.  But, I was also fishing within sight of the Third Branch, so a brown should have been less surprising.  The other thing that excited me when I saw the fish was its size.  I finally got it to the net, and quickly unhooked it, measured it, and released it.  It was an 18" brown - my biggest ever brown from the White River drainage:

The fish didn't have the distinctive yellow belly of wild browns from the Third Branch.  I'm guessing that it was a holdover stocked fish from last year that had moved downstream, but I could easily be wrong on that.

I kept moving downstream and noticed another angler just below me.  At first, I thought he was spin fishing, but eventually, I realized he was tossing flies from the shore and stripping them back in.  I saw him catch a fish.  I got closer to where he was fishing, making sure to give him plenty of room when another hard strike happened.  This time, the fish immediately went airborne.  Then deep,  Airborne.  Deep.  He was putting quite a bend in my rod and the other fisherman thought I had a big fish on and came over with a big net.  I told him I was fine and eventually netted a 13" wild rainbow.

The other guy and I got talking, and it turned out he was a guide who was leading a trip on the White the next day, so he was prospecting.  He was also a Facebook friend, although we'd never met in person before.  We had connected on Facebook through mutual fishing friends.  We talked for a while.  I gave him one of the flies that was working for me.  We talked about cancer - something that has touched both of our lives recently.  We talked about fishing together in the future and made a plan to float the Upper Connecticut later this summer.

He eventually moved down into the water I'd hoped to fish next, and I saw him catch a few stocked trout plus some smallmouth bass.  Because of where he was fishing, I decided to re-fish the same stretch I'd just fished.  I had a few strikes on the way back through.  But, it was getting late, I had dinner to cook, a hockey game to watch, and I was getting cold.

When I got home, I had messages from two friends telling me about another spot just upstream that I should have fished, but I saw them too late.  But, I'll be back there tomorrow, looking for more big fish.

White River Open - Always a Bridesmaid

Last Saturday, I fished in the third iteration of the White River Open fly fishing tournament.  Unlike the Otter Creek Classic, which is on the opening weekend in early April, in this tournament, we are fishing in prime season, after stocking has occurred, and fish are always caught.  Plus, the White is my home river, so I know a lot of the system pretty well.  However, given that there are over 100 miles of water in the White River drainage, I don't know anywhere near all of it.

In the first year of the tournament, I caught 6 fish.  The amateur winner caught 16, I believe.  However, lots of people got skunked and I finished in the top 3 or 4.  Last year, I caught 5 fish, but I was only 9 inches or so out of first place.  I lost 2 fish right at the net, and either of them might have won it for me.  So, I'm always close, but never at the top, it seems.

This year, there was some controversy.  For the time of year, the river was at near record low flows and very warm.  A number of friends decided not to fish due to water conditions.  One friend was planning to fish until Friday, when he took a number of water temperature readings in the 70s, including one at 78, and he bailed.  I had a number of messages from friends that weren't going to fish, and they seemed to be hinting that dropping out would be the right thing for me to do as well.

At the pre-race meeting, I voiced some concerns about water temperatures.  One competitor made a very sarcastic comment to me, saying that it sounded like I wanted the tournament to be cancelled.  I stated that this wasn't completely true, but that with so many connections to Trout Unlimited, we were responsible to be good stewards of our fishing resources, and I was concerned that we had no rules in place to prevent people from fishing water that was too warm.

My personal rule to stop fishing is 68F.  I know most people stop at 70F, and many just keep fishing no matter what the water temperature is.  I've seen fish struggle at 68F, including one fish I'd caught a week earlier in the White, at just under 68F.  I deliberately chose my most stout rod for fishing, so I could land fish quickly and release them quickly.  Despite the low, clear water, I also stuck with 4x tippet.  I might have had more strikes with 5x or 6x, but I wanted the stouter tippet material to land the fish more quickly.

The tournament organizers did change the rules somewhat, although I wish they'd gone a bit further.  The end of the tournament was moved from 3:30 in the afternoon to 11:00 a.m.  I wish we'd had a thermometer requirement and we would have been required to record the water temperature every time we caught a fish.  I'm guessing some fishermen weren't carrying thermometers, but I'd reply that any responsible catch and release trout fisherman should own a thermometer and carry it if temperatures are marginal.  But, enough with the proselytizing.

I had a beer with my wife at Worthy Burger after the meeting, headed home, loaded the car with my gear, ate some dinner, and got to bed early.  The legal start time was a bit unclear.  At the meeting, they explicitly said first light.  The written instructions said 5:00.  I decided to go with the instructions at the meeting.  I was planning to fish a well known spot, so I wanted to make sure I got there before anyone else.  I set my alarm for 3:40 and I was out of bed before 4:00 and on the road by 4:15 or so.  As I pulled into the turnout at my first spot, I was happy to see no other cars, despite the fact that it was past first light.  I geared up quickly and stepped into the river at 4:45.

I often fish three flies at once, but for the tournament, I wanted to maximize fishing time.  Three fly rigs tangle a lot more often than 2 fly rigs, so I went with just 2 flies.  I started with a small olive woolly bugger and a size 14 Prince Nymph.  I really expected to only catch fish on the nymphs, but my hope was that the bigger fly would help to get my flies deeper and also perhaps attract some fish to the general location of my flies.

On my third cast, I hooked a fish.  And, I lost it almost immediately.  I was in a pool where I'd caught 8 or 9 fish the previous Saturday, and despite a few strikes, I caught nothing in 15 or so minutes.  I started moving down, and quickly hooked and landed a fat stocked fish.  My first fish came at 5:09 a.m. and its length was 10.75 inches.  It would be my biggest fish of the day, but not my best catch.  I worked through the next 100 yards of water slowly over the next 2 hours.  Despite numerous strikes, hook-ups were rare.  By the time I'd gotten to the bottom of the run, I'd caught 3 fish, had one snap me off (bad knot, not a big fish), and I'd missed many strikes.  At the bottom of the run, the water runs into a long rock ledge that creates some deep water.  It's tough to get the fly the whole way to the ledge and get a clean drift, so I tried an alternative approach.  I waded out far into the shallower water above and cast.  Then, I would strip line and let the fly drift.  Reel it in a bit.  Strip more than I'd reeled in.  Reel in.  Strip, Etc.  Eventually, I was at my backing, so I decided to slowly reel in the entire 25 yards of line.  On this slow retrieve, I managed to catch my 4th fish of the day.

I fished back upstream, moving more quickly this time, and got very little action.  Plus, the sun was starting to hit the water, so I opted to head for a different spot.  It was about 8:30.  The water temperature had been 65.7F when I'd started and I checked it again before moving on.  It was down to 64.5F - a good sign.

I got in my car and headed upstream to another well known spot.  A friend's car was parked there, but when I got to the water, I couldn't see him anywhere.  I really wanted to fish a 50 yard section right near the parking area that was still in the shade, and he wasn't visible, so it seemed like I wouldn't be crowding him.  The water temperature was 63.5F - even lower than downstream.

On my third or 4th cast, I tried a slow retrieve in some deep, clear water and caught a small stockie.  A few minutes later, I caught my 6th fish of the day.  I eventually worked my way to my favorite part of this water, and dropped my flies (I was now fishing a double nymph rig - a yellow stone and a Prince nymph) into a riffle above a deep hole.  As the flies drifted past me, I felt a bite and set the hook.  The reaction was odd.  I'd hooked a fish, but its movements were really erratic.  I finally decided that I must have foul hooked the fish, but kept trying to get it to the surface.  When I got the fish to the surface, I was shocked to see that I had 2 fish hooked - one on each fly.  I was guessing I'd never get both of them to the net, but eventually, I did:

I was pretty happy at this point in time, with 8 fish on my scorecard at 9:30.  I'd gotten 4 fish at this spot in less than an hour, after working hard for 4 fish at the previous spot in more than 3.5 hours.  I had covered this water pretty well, and decided to finish my fishing at a favorite spot that rarely gets fished, and was much closer to the tournament headquarters.  This would allow me to fish later and know I'd still turn in my scorecard in time.

I was dismayed when I saw the water at this next spot.  Despite it being a favorite spot, I'd only caught one fish (it's a series of 4 holes) there so far this year, and the water was super low and clear.  The best water is a seam that requires some stealth in good conditions, and these were not good conditions.  The water was 67.8F and the sun was fully on the water.  

Pretty quickly, I caught a stocked fish.  And then, a wild fish - my only wild fish of the day.  Because of the low conditions, I was able to wade farther across the river than normal, and fish a small deep run that I rarely fish.  I got another fish here as well.  After a few minutes of no strikes, I moved upstream.  The next hole was too low to give me much luck.  My flies kept hanging on the bottom.  Plus, I was running out of time and I still had one good hole to fish and it was 150 yards upstream.  I normally fish the length of water on my way upstream, but time was important.  I hiked to the best water, and I had maybe 10 minutes to fish there.  My first 5 minutes were fruitless.  So, I decided to try the slow upstream retrieval of my flies.

Almost instantly, the water boiled as I had a strike right below the surface.  Over those last few minutes, I had about 8 strikes overall, and a strike on 5 straight casts, but I couldn't hook the fish.  I finally bailed, waded downstream quickly (there were now some out-of-staters fishing the hole where I started.  I'd seen them park right in front of my car earlier, and I really wish I could park somewhere stealthier for this spot, so it remains unknown), and headed to the car.  

I turned in my scorecard - 11 fish and 107 total inches - at 10:55.  I was told that I was in the lead as of that time.  I didn't see anyone else turn in a scorecard before 11:00, but when it came time for awards, first place was 120 inches of fish.  Second place was 112 inches.  I was third.  I'm just going to assume that I misunderstood the comment about being in the lead or there was an error when I turned in my scorecard.  I'm hoping that no one allowed a late scorecard, because I likely could have caught a fish or two more if I'd been allowed to be a couple minutes late.

I won a nice collapsible wading staff from Folstaff as my prize.  It had been donated by LL Bean, and I very much appreciate their support of the tournament.  After that, a bunch of us headed to a nearby tavern for some lunch and fish stories.

One of these years, I'm going to win this thing.  I finished third this year, but I know of at least 3 very good fishermen who stayed home due to water conditions, including the person who won 2 years ago.  Luckily, I was able to fish in waters cool enough to protect the fish.  I know that some people fished water over 70F, and I find that dismaying.  This year was certainly a weather anomaly, although it may become the norm in the future.  When Vermont streams are too warm to fish the first weekend in June, something is wrong.  Luckily, 2.5 inches of rain the next day and a cool weather week dropped river temperatures quite a bit.