All posts by Dale

Dale is a high school physics teacher who loves watching his daughter play volleyball. And visiting the places where fish hang out...
2014-08-17 12.09.43

Diary of a Baby Tarpon Addict

I’ve been to a fair number of baby tarpon spots but I finally got a chance to spend three July days chasing them in Campeche, Mexico.  Here’s a sample…

5:35 AM:  The hotel van driver drops me off at the pier in total darkness.  I’m a little worried ‘cause the parking lot is completely empty.  Where is the guide’s vehicle?IMG_0018

5:43 AM:  Ah-ha!  The drone of an outboard answers my question and the guide pulls up in his panga.

5:55 AM: We’re driving through complete blackness at what seems like full throttle.  The only immediate illumination is the guide’s flashlight.  It is my second day fishing and the guide is taking me to the very edge of the usual fishing grounds.

6:09 AM:  The sun begins to peek over the horizon.  With a bit of light, the boat speeds up.  I’m quite relieved that we weren’t going as fast as possible through the dark.

6:50 AM:  The guide pulls up to where a creek pours into the mangrove shoreline.  The channel is about five feet wide.  With the first day jitters behind me, I get a fly tied on and my first cast off reasonably quickly.IMG_0027

6:54 AM:  Fish on!  A tarpon cartwheels to the left into the mangroves.   And it’s gone…

6:57 AM:  Fish on!  A tarpon cartwheels to the right into the mangroves.  And it’s gone…

7:01 AM:  Fish on!  This one  remains cooperatively in the middle of the creek and I land about a 3 pound snook.  I’m pumped!  It’s only the second snook I’ve ever caught.IMG_0046

8:21 AM:  I haven’t seen anything since the snook.  But my casting is dialed in.  I’m actually feeling rather smug.  I haven’t snagged a mangrove in at least half an hour.  I’m dropping my fly in every juicy little pocket that presents itself as we pole down the shoreline.

8:22 AM:  The guide calls out, “Tarpon!  By mangroves! 11 o’clock!”  I see a couple dark shapes in the clear water.   Naturally, my casting ability instantly implodes and the fly ends up in the mangroves about 4 feet above the tarpon. The tarpon simply melt away.

9:15 AM:  A small barracuda grabs my fly.  Luckily he doesn’t bite me off and I unceremoniously strip him in.  When he is ten feet from the boat a gang of three tarpon show up.  They are large for babies – about 20 pounds each – and look like they have mayhem on their minds.  At least as far as the barracuda is concerned…IMG_0050 2

9:20 AM:   The barracuda is unhooked and back in the water.  Somehow, the tarpon don’t notice as it darts away.   They are circling about 30 feet from the boat and they still look like a bunch of thugs.

9:30 AM:  Evidently, the tarpon are shrewd thugs.  They ignore two or three different flies and drift into the mangroves. IMG_0108

10:45 AM: The guide poles us by a large tree that has toppled into the water, extending well beyond the mangrove shoreline.  I crawl a Seaducer along the length of the tree.  Blow up!   A tarpon clears the water three or four times.  He is still hooked; I’m hopeful that this could be my first tarpon to the boat.

10:50 AM:  Yes! It makes it to the boat for a picture and a release.IMG_0045

11:45 AM:  After eating lunch further down the shoreline, we return to the fallen tree.  It’s a good call on the guide’s part because another tarpon inhales the Seaducer and comes to the boat.  But not quietly, of course – thrashing and churning all the way.

1:05 PM:  We’re on a large flat covered in turtle grass.  Every few minutes or so a tarpon comes within range.  It’s like this for about an hour and a half.  These tarpon are pretty cagey and I get mostly refusals.  Nevertheless, three or four end up leaping skward with my fly in their mouth.  But – sigh – all but one fall back down to the water with the fly indignantly tossed aside.  I have to admit I’m used to that.

2:35 PM:  We start the run back to Campeche.

4:00 PM:  I’m in the neighbourhood bar, enjoying a superb Margarita.  Life doesn’t get any better ‘cause I’ve got one more day of fishing left….

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Here’s a few notes about Campeche and the fishing…

Campeche is a great place to take a partner who doesn’t want to spend everyday in the boat.  It is an amazing city with stunning and historical architecture.  There are lots of comfortable hotels and good restaurants. IMG_0021

An 8 weight rod with a floating 9 weight line was perfect for Campeche’s baby tarpon.  I found a leader that was 11 or 12 feet long led to more grabs than the standard 9 footer.  Puglisi patterns, Seaducers, and Mayan Warriors a little better than 3 inches long worked well.   There was a lot of blind casting but a fair bit of sight fishing to both rolling and cruising tarpon.

The tarpon were generally between 5 and 10 pounds.  They were plentiful and grabby.  I never seemed to have to wait very long for my next shot.  Most baby tarpon locations seem to suffer a definite slow down during the heat of the day but the action in Campeche stayed reasonably consistent.  On an average day, I would get at least 10 or 15 strikes.  For the sake of brevity, I left out a few grabs in my diary above.

The diary also left out a couple noteworthy spots that were fished on another day…  Quite close to Campeche, there are some beautiful mangrove islands that seemed to hold rolling tarpon all day.  There are also hidden lagoons tucked into the mangrove shoreline where I literally watched schools of baby tarpon swim laps.  Although my partner never caught a fish, she fished those spots with me and had a great time just soaking up the scenery.

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Although he didn’t speak much English, the guide was great.  As well, he had a good panga with a casting platform.   My outfitter for the trip was Yucatan Fly Fishing Adventures; they also have operations at Isla del Sabalo and Tarpon Cay Lodge.

**Editors Note: Fishwest hosts a yearly trip down to Campeche Mexico with Yucatan Fly Fishing Adventures. Spots on our 2015 trip are still available however they are going fast. For further details please contact us at support@fishwest.com or visit the “Destination Travel” page of Fishwest HERE** -JC

 

 

 

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“Amping” your way to fish

Car camping is when you throw your gear into the car and hit the road.  Canoe camping is when you throw your gear into a canoe and hit the water.  How about when you throw your gear into a modern jetliner and hit the sky?  I’d call that air camping, or amping, for short.

IMG_1064I have to admit that I like to indulge in a comfy lodge every now and again.  Motels are also awfully convenient.  But camping has advantages.  It gets you right into the middle of some beautiful country, or maybe even right on the bank of a trout-filled river.  It practically eliminates lodging expenses and you can fish as early or as late as you want.

However, if you only have a week for a vacation, you probably don’t want to spend multiple days transporting your tent by car.  This is where amping shines.  Watch your supplies roll down the luggage conveyor belt and you won’t be looking at Internet images of fly fishing paradise that evening…  You’ll be actually be there instead.

Packing all your camping and fishing gear into airline-friendly packages is much less daunting that it seems.  Assuming you travel with a partner, it can be done if each person has a couple of large duffle bags.  Two checked bags per person is a fairly universal maximum for modern air travel.   Make sure they don’t exceed the airline’s size limits!  Backpacks also work but duffles accommodate bulky items with greater ease. Load two of the duffles with personal clothing and fishing stuff; let the others swallow the actual camping gear.

IMG_0656Besides clothing and personal items, here’s a list of what my girlfriend and I took the last time we did this:

  • Sleeping bags, full size pillows, and an inflatable air mattress with a foot pump.
  • An 8 X 8 nylon tent with a full fly and a ground sheet.
  • A single burner Coleman propane stove –minus the propane canister – and an electric lantern.
  • A large frying pan, a medium pot, a minimum of cooking utensils, and a small pail for carrying water.
  • A minimum of eating utensils and glasses or mugs.
  • Waders, wading boots, 2 fly rods and reels each, and one small chest pack with flies and terminal tackle.

I wouldn’t say that this is travelling light.  Notice the two full size pillows!  Although very compressible, a lot of people might do away with them. Some might also swap out the large tent for a lightweight backpacker’s model. Opting for a tiny backpacker’s stove is another way to save space.  (And maybe make room for a fully stocked vest instead of a little chest pack?) Some unlisted miscellaneous items – like a favorite travel mug – are nicely transported in a carry-on bag.   There are probably dozens of ways to compact this list.  Be sure to weigh each bag in advance to avoid surpassing weight restrictions.

Obviously, there are essential items – like food – not on the list.  To remedy this, pick up a rental car and go shopping as soon the plane lands.  Besides groceries, a cheap styrofoam cooler is a smart purchase.  Don’t forget to buy a propane canister for the stove.  Bear spray might also be a good idea, depending on your destination.  Whether bear spray or propane, airlines don’t like the idea of pressurized containers on board their planes…  And rightly so!  Empty boxes from the grocery store will make storing and organizing all the supplies inside the rental car much easier for the duration of the trip. The cooler, propane, and bear spray can often be given away before returning home.

IMG_0937We have managed to see – and fish! – some interesting parts of the continent on “amping” trips.  New Mexico, for example, has some amazing small stream fishing.  We camped on the banks of the Cimarron River, a tailwater that drains Eaglenest lake.  Most tailwaters are broad, flat rivers but the Cimarron is small, intimate, and delightfully varied.  It runs through both forest and meadow.  There are riffles, rocky runs, deep bends, and logjams.  And did I mention trout?  Both wild browns and stocked rainbows.

IMG_0950I’ve always believed that fishing quality is directly proportional to distance from an access point.  The Cimarron really challenged that idea…  One morning a chap fished the riffle right beside our campsite – something I had never even considered – and landed three wild browns on a hopper imitation.

On the same trip, we also visited the lower reaches of the Rio Hondo close to where this rocky little stream joins the Rio Grande at the bottom of the Rio Grande gorge.  Needless to say, it was an interesting descent in the car.  The stream chattered over rocks and ledges; most of its water was far too thin for trout. Nevertheless, some determined hiking led to a few good pools and very willing fish.

IMG_0935Another amping trip led us to Olympic National Park in Washington.  We pitched our tent amongst huge cedar’s and hanging moss, a stone’s throw from a gorgeous (but foggy!) beach.  It was like being on location for The Lord of the Rings.

To be honest, we didn’t have the patience to try for any Pacific Northwest summer steelhead.  Instead, we dropped in on the Queets River for sea run cutthroats.  Reading about sea run cuts told us they liked deep, snaggy, slow water.  Nevertheless, we couldn’t resist fishing the riffles and bouldered runs of the Queets.  The action was fantastic but the fish topped out at a disappointing 6 inches.  They were all rainbows without a cutthroat in the bunch.  I guess that bodes well for steelheaders in the next few years.

IMG_0888Eventually, we did find some deep water near fallen tree.  Voila!  We also found a few willing sea run cutthroat.  They were heavily spotted and covered with a silver sheen, almost devoid of color except the telltale throat slashes.

Throwing all your camping gear on a plane is an economically excellent way to explore some of those far-off waters you may be dreaming about…

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Canadian High Mountain Lakes (Gorgeous views guaranteed! Epic fishing a possibility…)

I am not a dedicated fisher of alpine stillwaters.  I have never planned a fishing trip where these destinations were the main focus.  On the other hand, I am an enthusiastic hiker who is always on the lookout for spectacular scenery. Not surprisingly, some of the most scenic trails wind up on the shore of a high mountain lake. And I am dedicated enough to tote along my fly rod

I have to admit that the fishing on these expeditions has been largely hit and miss, with much more emphasis on the “miss” portion.  Many mountain lakes –  because of short growing seasons, limited forage, winterkill, and a lack of spawning habitat – do not support large trout populations.  Other mountain lakes have a decent trout population, but while I’m fishing, which is usually close to noon in the middle of summer, the trout are hunkered down and uninterested.

Nevertheless, if there is a lake at the end of the trail, I am going to toss a few casts.  Occasionally, it pays off, like this past summer…

My girlfriend Deb and I were in Waterton Lakes National Park in southern Alberta.  We decided to hike the Alderson-Carthew Lakes trail; the word from the Visitor Info Center was that the views were stunning and the fishing was off the charts.  We set off at 9 AM, carrying day packs loaded with rain jackets, lunch, and fishing gear.

1For the first six miles of trail, the only scenery was the forest pushing in on either side of us. It was an uphill trudge through swarms of horse flies.  When the sign for Alderson Lake came into view, we were ready to stop.  About the same time, a hiker from the opposite direction told us that the trout in Carthew Lake –3 more miles up the trail – were going crazy.  So we decided to keep going.

At this point the trail started to climb into a truly amazing alpine environment. We were soon looking down at Alderson Lake and up toward the peaks that hid Carthew Lake:

2In another hour, we were at Carthew Lake.  It was how you would hope all mountain lakes would look, especially after hiking 9 miles to get there.  Better yet, there were trout rising sporadically.  The sun was high in the sky but the lake was cold enough that the trout – and whatever they were eating – welcomed the warmth.  I threw a small Adams beyond the sun-drenched shallows to the darker, deeper water.  It was engulfed immediately.

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And so it went.  Every cast to the edge of the deep water brought an instant fish.  They were native, colorful cutthroats.  Most of them were eight  to ten inches long and a couple stretched out to twelve.  I was pleasantly surprised by the size; to be honest I was expecting hordes of stunted six inchers.

Casts that fell on the shallow, clear water were even more entertaining. Although a fly that landed on the shoreline shoal was never gobbled instantly, a cruising trout would notice it within a minute.  Then I would have the pleasure of watching the entire take.

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The trout were just as active subsurface. Deb was using a spinning rod and a tiny spoon.  At any given time, she had a fish on and two or three others chasing it.

The fishing certainly wasn’t challenging, but it sure was fun.  After about an hour, we started to make our way back down the trail.   The scenery was just as gorgeous on the way back.

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Post-Script….

A couple weeks later, we were further north in Alberta, on the road between Banff and Jasper National Parks.  We hiked into Helen Lake, a tiny tarn sitting amongst the usual array of peaks and meadows.  We left the fishing gear in the car, figuring that the lake was so tiny and so high that its fish population would be zero.  Wrong!

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From the shoreline we could see dozens of cutthroat finning through the shallows and rising with semi-regularity.  It would have been a sight-fishing dream.  The moral of the story:  Always hike with fishing gear!

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Loading Up The Float Tube

I used to head out on my float tube with a single outfit and one or two spare spools.  It was great in theory but I think I actually changed spools twice in about ten years.  It just seemed like way too much effort on a float tube in the middle of a lake.

These days I head out with two or three complete outfits instead. I realize that the minimalists are now groaning, but maybe the gear junkies are intrigued?  The rods get rigged on shore and whatever isn’t in my hand is lashed to the tube with a couple of Velcro ties.  Swapping one for another takes about a minute and I have no qualms about changing things up whenever the need arises.  The last trip I took for bluegills is a great example…

011It was a July evening and I launched my tube at about 6 PM.  I had a moderate action 3 weight in my hand; a clear intermediate line ran through the guides.  This is my “go to” rod for sunfish. I can’t keep piles of running line from tangling on my stripping apron, so most casts are short and the moderate action rod lends a good feel to this.   The intermediate line is effective because the sunfish are often quite shallow.

I also had a 2 weight with a floating line on board.  If the ‘gills started rising later in the evening, this stick could lay out small dries for them. My last rod was another 3 weight set up to pick off suspended fish in deep water.

That last statement might strike some people as being a bit of a contradiction.  Generally speaking, 3 weights and deep water aren’t mentioned in the same breath.  Neverthess, you can use a fast action 3 weight to deliver a home-made shooting head capable of dropping flies to depths of 10 or 12 feet. To make a shooting head like this, cut off the first 30 feet of a 5 weight sinking line (Type 3) and then attach it to 60 or 70 feet of 20 pound Amnesia with an Albright knot.  The Amnesia, naturally, is the running line and gets attached to your backing.

IMG_0494I found some fish after only about 10 minutes of prospecting.  They were in scattered submerged weeds between a couple docks.  The water was only about 4 feet deep and the intermediate line – with a scud pattern attached – worked like magic.   Jeepers, can a 9 or 10 inch bluegill pull!  They don’t run or jump, but they put an amazing bend in a light rod.  After about half a dozen tussles like that, I decided to try another spot.

I paddled up to a line of reeds growing right beside some thick, sunken cabbage.  The intermediate line had no Mojo in this location; it didn’t seem to be getting the fly deep enough into the weeds, so I pulled out the shooting head, and did my best imitation of a Bassmaster flipping a heavy jig to penetrate cover.

I had about ten feet of the sinking line outside the rod tip.   I paddled along the reeds, lobbing a micro-leech into reedy, weedy pockets.   I wouldn’t strip the fly in but simply dance it around with the rod tip before picking up and lobbing it into the next pocket.   The bluegill seemed to like this approach and several sucked in the leech.  Although usually reserved for deeper water, the shooting head proved it had a place in the shallow jungle.

IMG_0514Eventually, darkness crept in; I kept an eye open for rising fish, hoping to pull the 2 weight off the bench. Although this didn’t materialize, it was still an incredibly fun and satisfying evening….

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Here’s the outfits I carry when I’m not going after sunfish:

Perch LakeSmallmouth or largemouth bass…  I carry a Sage bass rod and a couple of 8 weights – one with a type 2 sinking line and one with a shooting head.   The bass rod, naturally, gets used for poppers around shallow cover.  The type 2 line helps me hit deeper weed beds and the shooting head – either a type 3 or type 6 – is handy for dredging.

Stillwater trout…  A 6 weight with a floating line lets me throw dries to rising fish or dangle chironomids under an indicator.  For the bulk of my stillwater trouting, I wield a  different 6 weight with an intermediate line.  Lastly, I carry the same shooting head system that I would for smallies and LMB’s.

IMG_0484Crappies… I use the same outfits that I do for bluegill.  However, I swap the 2 weight for a specialized 4 weight that delivers small poppers and gurlers.  More details about this rod are in my Pisciaphilia article called, “Canadian Fall Fishing:  Topwater Crappie Action.”

Pike…  I am often throwing BIG flies for pike.  The outfits I use are like the bass selection above but I trade a couple of 10 weights for the 8 weights.

One final note!  Be careful if you’re paddling your tube around with a couple rods hanging off the side and extending behind you.  Don’t back into anything!

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How Run Down Does The Man Get?

I watched the trailer for “Running Down the Man” and I was hooked.  I like wading for bonefish.  I like running for fitness. What could be better than sprinting down some beach after a large, exotic-looking roosterfish?

After a fair bit of research, I booked a trip with Grant Hartman of Baja Anglers in Los Cabos, Mexico. Out of all the guides available, he had the most experience at beach fishing for roosters. He generally does week long trips, but I nabbed him for 3 days as his prime season was winding down at the end of June.

He met me at the Cabo airport and we hopped in his pickup for the hour long drive out to Los Barriles, a small town on the East Cape of Baja – north of San Jose del Cabo on the Sea of Cortez. As we drove, Grant’s passion for roosterfish, especially on the fly and from the beach, bubbled up. He compared them to permit and maintained that even a single big one, or “grande,” in one trip was a real accomplishment

Los Barriles is a very comfortable place for tourists and visiting fishermen, with good restaurants and a variety of accommodations.  A beautiful, white sand beach stretches the town’s entire length.  Grant dropped me off at my condo at the Villas de Cortez. (Note:  On the East Cape, booking a condo through a site like HomeAway is a great alternative to a hotel room.) “See you at 9AM tomorrow and don’t forget to wear something drab,” he said.

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At 9 AM the next morning, we were in Grant’s truck again, bouncing down scenic back roads through cacti and low hills. After about 20 minutes, we pulled up at a fairly deserted beach; a couple of vacation homes were the only things around. Immediately, we started rigging up my 10 weight. Before knotting on one of his custom 10  inch long flies, Grant asked me how much backing was on my reel. “About 225 yards,” I replied confidently. “Better use this,” said Grant, and he handed me his personal reel with about 400 yards of gel-spun.

What followed was a crash course in Grant’s highly refined tactics for beach roosterfish – the approach, the cast, the retrieve, and the hook set. I’d love to describe them but I’ve been sworn to secrecy!  It was all based on wading the shallow surf and spotting the fish before it spotted you. One thing I can mention is that the line of choice was a tropical Outbound Short with an intermediate head.

The preliminaries took about half an hour and then we were walking along the beach looking for roosters. After about 15 minutes, the first one showed – a dark shape I’d get quite familiar with over the next few hours, swimming parallel to the beach and maybe 60 feet out. Grant had done a great job at prepping me but I don’t think anything can really ready you for that first shot. My running line got tangled in my feet and my fly got impaled in my pant leg; there were no more chances for that fish.

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Nevertheless, another fish showed minutes later and my second shot fared slightly better. The running line and the fly both steered clear of body parts but the latter was a disappointing 15 feet short of the target. I frantically stripped in line and started to run down the beach for another cast. And promptly tripped, tangled in the running line again.

A third rooster showed up and I finally managed a good cast – right across its line sight. The fly had absolutely no impact on the fish and it kept motoring down the beach. So I stripped in my line and sprinted to get ahead of it. The next cast was also shunned. More stripping and more sprinting led to a third cast… And a third refusal.

I was about 200 yards down the beach from my starting point, breathless and sweat-soaked. (Remember, this was Baja in the summer!)  Mercifully, the rooster had disappeared to deeper water.  Grant seemed like a speck on the horizon and I trudged toward him.

Then another fish appeared… That meant three more reps of casting, stripping, and sprinting. Now I was three hundred yards from where Grant stood. When I finally got back to him he grinned broadly, “Some good casts, bro, but I think those last three were to a milkfish…” I very quickly learned to make out the characteristic tube shapes of milkfish and ignore them.

The action was quite consistent that first day.  We visited several beaches, ranging from completely pristine to somewhat populated.  Sometimes we walked along the beach.  Sometimes we drove.  Sometimes we just waited at a likely spot.  I probably had shots at upwards of a dozen roosters.   They often just swam past me – no running required.  But some needed a burst of speed – along with the requisite heavy breathing and perspiration – to overtake the fish and get in position. Roosterfish are not like bonefish, meandering along and rooting around here and there.  Most roosterfish seem to have a pace that is unfailingly linear and brisk.

The end of the day came around 4 PM, due to the lack of a high sun for spotting fish.  I had experienced nothing but refusals, but a couple of them were spectacular…

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One “grande” – that Grant estimated at fifty pounds – broke from its flight path and closed the distance to my fly in an instant.  I stripped frantically, desperately trying to move the fly, move as fast as possible.   The rooster tracked the fly perfectly, always an inch or two behind it.  When the leader was a couple feet from entering the guides, all I could see was the mouth of the roosterfish trailing my fly.  It looked enormous, like it could swallow my fist whole.  I was on my knees in the shallow surf, trying to stay invisible to the fish.  As the leader entered the guides, the fish abruptly swam off.  I was almost shaking with excitement and didn’t even try for a second shot.

Not too long after, a rooster of about 25 pounds peeled off towards the fly and followed it from about three feet back, staying deep enough so that all I could see was a dark shape.  When the leader was almost in the guides, it accelerated towards the fly and its spiky dorsal fin, or comb, broke the surface.

To me, the comb is what gives a roosterfish rock star status. When I saw it bristling out of the water, I braced myself for a hit and thought, “Strip strike… Strip strike.”  And then the fish vanished, leaving me with no more than a permanent image of its comb in my brain.

The second day of fishing dawned much like the first.  The sun was bright, perfect for sight fishing.  But the wind was howling, making the water on the turbid side.  Grant said it would be a tough day and he was right.   We tried most of the same beaches but saw absolutely nothing.  Grant even tried teasing some from the deeper water out of a fly rod’s range. He used a nine foot spin rod to bomb a hookless surface plug about the same distance as most golfers hit a five iron.  Then danced it back into shore. My job was to throw the fly in behind the plug when it came into range. Regardless, nothing showed itself.

Finally, about an hour before quitting time, we staked out a spot where a couple near shore troughs ran towards each other and met on a shallow bar. A roosterfish swam out of one trough and onto the bar, close enough for an easy cast. Unfortunately, it ignored my fly and quickly made its way towards the blue water. This happened twice more, in quite rapid succession, before we called it a day. I had been quite discouraged but the flurry of action gave me a shot of optimism for the next day.

My third and final day looked pretty hopeful. Grant took me on an isolated highway through the mountains and the sun shone brightly. Although the road was paved, it was still very much an adventure.   We stopped to help three young locals with a flat. “Never pass anybody in need in the desert,” said Grant. Their spare wasn’t the proper size, so Grant gave them his aerosol tire sealer and inflator.

A little further up the road, sections of roadside pavement were missing. The only thing taking their place was a steep drop down a cliff. After about an hour, the “highway” transformed into a rocky track through scrub and cacti. I was glad Grant drove a 4X4. Eventually, we steered off the rocks and headed down a sandy path toward the ocean. After about 100 yards of this, we emerged onto a very isolated beach. It was rockier than those we fished the last couple of days. As well, the hills seemed to be crowding it into the ocean. Although there was one beach house off in the distance, I got the impression that we had somehow left civilization far behind.

Geographically, it seemed like an ideal place, but meteorologically, things had gone down hill. It was completely overcast and the wind was howling. The water was choppy and dirty; sight casting was impossible. To be honest, back casting was also impossible. The wind had a fierce tendency to blow my fly into the back of my head with every forward cast. The only thing I could do was lay the fly line down behind me on the beach and launch it without a backcast. (You have probably heard of water-loading a forward cast. … This was beach-loading.)

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Nonethless, Grant had me blind casting and working my way down the beach.

And then I got bit! Strip strike! Rats, I missed it… Then another hit and another miss on the same retrieve. With the next cast, 18 inches of silver torpedo rocketed half a rod length out of the chop. “Ladyfish!” yelled Grant. I grinned. It sure felt good to have a fish attached to the line.

And so went the day. The ladyfish action was incredibly entertaining and almost non-stop. Every so often we lost contact with the school; however, with a bit of moving around, we always found it again. I have now seen why ladyfish are sometimes called a poor man’s tarpon; they are amazing leapers. They are not big but they certainly are fun. Grant cut back the 10 inch roosterfish fly to a ladyfish-friendly 4 inches. “Careful,” he warned, “Roosters like to snack on ladyfish and that fly is still big enough to tempt a rooster.”

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The certainty of a jumping ladyfish and the possibility of a hulking rooster kept me busy all day. The wind and the clouds never disappeared but they did not bother me in the slightest. As we drove back to town at the end of the day, I thought about the last three days. I had not caught a roosterfish but the trip was still a success in my mind. I had seen a rooster’s comb bristle at my feet and also caught a bunch of ladyfish. For me, both were firsts…

The trip still was not quite over. The next day was spent snorkeling at Cabo Pulmo, a marine preserve south of Los Barriles. The tropical fish below the water and the stark headlands above the water were both beautiful. Even though I didn’t bring a fishing rod, I have to admit that I kept glancing around, looking for the dark shape of roosterfish gliding alongside the beach…

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Canadian Fall Fishing: Topwater Crappie Action

I’ve come to realize that crappie take top-water flies with incredible enthusiasm. Although not a “classic” fly rod target, their surface-slurping tendencies – especially in the fall – deserve your attention…

13 inch Minnewasta CrappieAlthough the spring crappie bite can be awesome, late summer and early fall can be even better.  At my latitude in southern Manitoba – just north of the U.S. border – this time period typically runs from the last week in August through the first two weeks of September.

When the weather is pleasant and settled, crappie at that time of year turn on like crazy.  I usually fish small, shallow, flatland reservoirs and the fish swarm into the same weedy bays they frequented in the spring.  They are also drawn toward turns and points on rocky shorelines.  The rip-rap along a dam is another magnet.

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The magic really starts to happen an hour or two before sunset.  The crappies often give themselves away as they swirl after baitfish and other critters.  Better yet, they eagerly suck in #8 to #12 streamers attached to a intermediate line and a 3 to 5 weight rod.  A type II line also works well, especially if the water is 5 or 6 feet deep.  Some of my “go-to” patterns are shown in the accompanying photos.

IMG_1369Occasionally, if there are sunfish around, I will use a #12 or #14 nymph.  Both crappie and sunfish will hit a small nymph but I really believe that crappie prefer something a little bit larger.

Wait a second… Didn’t the title of this article say something about top water?  Don’t worry, it’s coming…

As dusk moves in, put away the streamers and tie on a panfish-sized popper or gurgler.  Short, rhythmic strips – and the resulting surface commotion – draw the fish in.

My favorite outfit for presenting poppers and gurglers was inspired by a Sage Bluegill.  A Sage Bluegill is probably a bit heavy for most of the panfish in my area so I’ve taken a crisp action 4 weight that is 7 ½  feet long and matched it up with a 6 weight line and a light reel.  The resulting combo loads great with a short line; it is amazing at hitting little pockets in rip-rap or any other target.  Plus, an 11 inch crappie puts a good bend in it!

IMG_0639A boat or a float tube are great for working fall hot spots but walking along the rip-rap face of a dam is also effective.  Actually, as dusk turns to night – but the fishing is still lit up – walking on shore with a minimum of equipment is perhaps preferable to being in a boat or a tube.

Crappie are a great way to say good-bye to the dog days of summer and say hello to fall!

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Alaska’s Unknown Floating Fishing Lodges

(Warning:  Cute kid fishing pics contained herein.)

The dream:  Alaskan fly-out lodge.   The problem:  Dream exceeding budget.  The solution:  A cruise ship.

Seems highly unlikely, right? Swapping a cruise ship for a floatplane.  But it works…  Even though a cruise ship won’t immerse you in Alaska’s remotest fishing, it will get you places a road won’t go.  And the scenery may be even more spectacular.  Better yet, the whole family can come along for about the same price.

With that in mind, my daughter Kerri and I hopped on the Norwegian Sun, a cruise ship traveling from Vancouver up the Inside Passage into Alaskan waters.  The first port of call was Ketchikan, where we took in a lumberjack show.  No fishing was on the agenda but the town’s main drag was a salmon river.  The downtown shops overlooked glides and riffles instead of concrete and traffic.  Handrails ran alongside the wooden sidewalks; if you leaned over the rail, you could see pink salmon running upstream.  The whole place was a great, big fly-fishing appetizer.

KetchikanThe next stop was Juneau.  Kerri stayed on board at the ship’s daycare.  With all the activities they had planned, she wouldn’t miss me one bit.  I hiked off the boat and down the street to the local fly shop, where I met up with Luke Woodruff, my guide for the day.  About an hour, Luke anchored his boat where a small stream poured into the salt.  We were relatively close to Juneau but could have been anywhere along Alaska’s wild coastline.

We waded the beach, sharing the water with hordes of pink salmon.  They were very eager; my rod was almost constantly bent by a four or five pound pink.  Although pink salmon, or humpies, register lower than cohos or kings on the desirability scale, the fun factor of any 4 or 5 pound salmonid should not be overlooked!

Father n daughter pinksFor a change of pace, Luke suggested hiking up the stream and trying for some cutthroats.  Five minutes down the path, a mother brown bear and her cub ambled into view, about 50 yards away.  We looked at each other and reversed direction without a word.  Our pace was definitely brisk on the way back to the beach.  A few furtive, over-the-shoulder glances confirmed that the bears were not following.  Although Luke carried a 12 gauge shotgun with slugs, I was quite relieved that he never even took it off his shoulder.

The next stop for the cruise ship was Skagway; both Kerri and I headed off the boat.  But this time for the mountains instead of a salmon river. Some rock climbing – guided and beginner friendly – was on the agenda.  After Skagway, the ship headed up the Tracy Arm for some serious scenic fiord cruising and iceberg spotting.

Untitled-1The final port of call was Wrangell – another chance to fish! This time Kerri joined me and guide Marlin Benedict had his jetboat waiting just down the pier. We headed up the silty lower reaches of the Stikine River to a deep pool in a clearwater tributary.

Once again, the pink salmon were thick. We could see schools swimming by underneath the boat.  Often, the take was visual and I watched a humpy inhale my streamer.

Double header (1)Kerri – who was nine at the time – used a spinning rod and the pinks kept it under strain.  Marlin enthusiastically netted Kerri’s fish and that process intrigued her immensely. To be honest, after four or five salmon, she actually convinced Marlin to use the rod and let her control the net. In the spirit of true customer service, with perhaps just a hint of sheepishness, Marlin hooked fish after fish, and let Kerri net them.

Kerri nets oneOn the trip back downriver, Marlin revealed another facet of his repertoire.  He allowed the boat to drift slowly downstream and we looked for the hulking shapes of king salmon amongst the pods of pinks.  It was a unique and unexpected opportunity for sight fishing watching for big, dark outlines and making a cast.

With time running out, I actually connected with a king.  Kerri cheered, the reel buzzed, and my backing made a rare but welcome appearance. There were a couple tense moments involving some tree branches but eventually about 15 pounds of chinook were brought on board for a quick photo.

King salmonAfter that,  it was full throttle all the way back to the Norwegian Sun.  There were no more stops scheduled so we enjoyed the ship’s amenities for a full day and a couple evenings all the way back to Vancouver.

Being a full size cruise ship, there were a lot of amenities – far more than most fishing lodges.  Come to think of it, a cruise ship actually makes a pretty good Alaskan fishing lodge…

Crab

’55 Chevys, Mojitos, and Bonefish – A Cuban Adventure

From the title, you can probably guess that this article is about fly fishing in Cuba. Cuba is an amazing place and its fly fishing is definitely one of the reasons why.

To be honest I only fished two days in Cuba. And one of those days wasn’t even a good one. Nevertheless, from what I saw, I would recommend fishing in Cuba to anyone…

Typical flat
Typical Cuban Flat

A quick web search will reveal that most Cuban flats fishing are controlled by an Italian outfit named Avalon. Any monopoly has drawbacks but in this case I think it has been very healthy in preserving the fishery and the environment.

Avalon has fishing operations throughout Cuba, including Cayo Largo, a beautiful island south of the mainland with a handful of all–inclusive resorts. So when my girlfriend Deb and I booked into one of these resorts, it took about 5 minutes for me to send an email off to Avalon. I was hoping to book a day trip and chase some bonefish.

Here’s one of the drawbacks to a monopoly… “Not possible,” they replied. “We only do full weeks. Contact us closer to the date of your trip and we’ll see what we can do.”

I had previously devoured the Avalon website and really wanted to experience their fishery so it was an agonizing wait. Finally, a few weeks before we departed, I begged and pleaded with the Avalon representative and managed to book two day trips. I won’t mention the price – that’s another drawback of a monopoly!

Havana
Havana

Our very first night in Cuba was in Havana. It was actually New Year’s Eve and we saw a grand Cuban tradition – hurling a bucket of water into the street from the front door. Luckily, we saw it from a distance…

The flight from Havana to Cayo Largo was on board a big dual-prop plane that looked like it dated from the 1960’s. It was terribly noisy but it still gave us a good view of the immense flats that spread out from Cayo Largo.   The landing – on a modern airstrip – was surprisingly smooth.

Cayo Largo is an idyllic Carribbean island with only a handful of resorts. A white sand beach? Scenic, rocky coastline? Palm trees? Scub pines? Starfish in pristine water? You can take your pick and with a little effort, you won’t have to share with anyone.

On our first day of fishing, we taxied to the Avalon fishing center and were met by the fishing director and three guides. Yup, our guide and two others. It was a bit like a NASCAR pit stop; we had five outfits with us, and they had them all completely rigged in about 2 minutes. Another minute passed and we were in a state-of-the art skiff, planing towards the flats.   I had in my hands a fly box that the fishing director gave me; it held a dozen proven local patterns.

Deb's fish
Deb’s fish

I have to admit, however, our first day fishing was not too remarkable. Deb is not a fan of long boat rides so we fished the closest spots to the dock – a few large flats that were fairly deep and often held permit.   However, a cold front had blown through a couple days before. Unlucky for us, the temperatures were still down and the winds were still up.

I think I spotted three fish that day; most of the time the guide was directing my casts across wave-rippled water.   Regardless, he was excellent, with eagle eyes and a very patient manner. By the time we pulled up to the dock, both Deb and I had landed a couple bonefish.

We spent the next couple days exploring the island and sampling the excellent mojitos at the resort.   When the cold front had thoroughly passed – and the winds lay down – I showed up for a second day of fishing. Deb had elected to spend the day at the resort.

I was paired with a different guide – although his patient, professional demeanor was very much the same as the first. Our plan, he said, would be to fish along a string of small cays that stretched outward from one end of Cayo Largo.

The first spot we pulled up to held an immense school of bonefish. They circled away from us and then towards us. I had absolutely no problem spotting them.   It was about as easy as it gets in flats fishing – cast your fly about ten feet in front of the wriggling, cruising mass. Wait ‘til it gets close… A couple strips… Watch five or six fish peel after your fly… Fish on!

With my reel buzzing, the guide would pole like crazy away from the school. We’d land the fish. And then repeat. These were solid 4 pounders. Every one of them went well into the backing. I’d wish I could say that after five fish I was ready for more of a challenge but to be honest – it my personal bonefish paradise. Lots of good-sized, eager, easy-to-see fish!

Bigger fish
Dale’s Bigger Fish

Nevertheless, the guide didn’t want to educate too many fish and he suggested we push on. And so it went for the rest of the day – from one tiny little cay with a gorgeous flat to the next… It was perhaps the most perfect day of bonefishing I’ve ever experienced.   There were no more huge schools, but plenty of singles and doubles and small groups. The water was gin clear, perfectly calm, and never more than knee deep. The bottom was a magical white sand that didn’t hide fish very well. I landed 10 or 11 bonefish that day with a couple going 5 or 6 pounds. I could have landed more but the guide talked me into so many other things…

Like checking out a tiny cut through some mangroves for tarpon. They were in there – four or five good-sized juveniles! They finned lazily, wickedly obvious in the clear water.   And just kept on finning lazily as my fly swam past. After a few casts, they melted back into the mangroves.

I also chugged a popper across a couple deep channels for barracuda. One showed himself but turned away. In disdain? I really think that barracuda are way smarter than most anglers think.

The guide even had me tossing a jig on a spinning rod into a couple more channels. He wanted me to sample some of the snapper fishing. Success! A four or five pound mutton snapper grabbed the jig and pulled like only snapper can.

Actually, that mutton snapper was quite an inspiration. Because shortly thereafter, we were about a mile offshore, and my tarpon rod was rigged with a sinking line. I was working a Clouser down among the patch reefs. To no avail, unfortunately. But just the anticipation of a big snapper on a fly rod made it worthwhile.

Before we headed back in, we checked out a couple deeper flats for permit. Truth be known, Cayo Largo actually has quite a reputation for permit. Maybe it’s a good thing that none showed themselves that day; I was riding a bit of an adrenaline high after all the action and a permit might have pushed me over the edge.

Back at the dock, in the comfort of the Avalon fishing center’s couch, I had a couple beers and a slice of pizza and gradually came down. If you ever decide to come to Cuba, bring a lot of gear. It seems the possibilities are endless…

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Here are a few additional notes if you every make it to Cuba…

It might be a tad inflexible, but Avalon runs a first class operation. They rotate anglers through well-defined zones to spread out the pressure. Both guides and boats are top notch.

A day or two in Havana is mandatory! Catch a jazz club, stroll the Malecon, admire the architecture, get a cab ride from a ’55 Chevy (or maybe a bicycle) – it’s gritty and grand at the same time.

The countryside near Vinales – about an hour from Havana – is incredibly exotic.   Lush green farms with red soil are butted up against huge domes of vegetation and limestone.

Did I mention the great fishing?

**Editors Note: Being that Dale hails from Canada, It is very easy for him to be able to travel to Cuba for excellent adventures like this one. On the other hand us Americans are not so lucky…

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Calico Bass: Reel Action Near Hollywood

Family Fishing OutingCALICO BASS – REEL STARS NEAR HOLLYWOOD

(Being the ultimate fly fishing tourist in southern California…)

One of my best fishing memories is from a family trip to southern California as a 13 year-old. In between Disneyland and Universal Studios, my dad took me on an overnight party boat to Catalina Island. I caught calico bass like crazy with my spincast rod. (Side note #1: I spent the remainder of the vacation unsuccessfully pestering my parents about sending me on a 3 day long range boat to Mexico.)

Calico bass are the size of freshwater smallmouths – about 14 pounds is the all-tackle world record. They love structure like rocks and kelp. I’ve never been able to get them out of brain; “fly fishing for calico bass” has been a popular Google search with me for quite awhile.

The weird thing is that calicos garner minimal web exposure. (Side note #2: Surf perch seem to have a fair bit of web notoriety.) Nevertheless, there are pockets of enthusiasts giving calico bass the attention they deserve. One such enthusiast is Captain Vaughn Podmore – a guide from Huntington Beach, California. So when my daughter and I started planning a trip to Los Angeles, I immediately booked a charter with Vaughn.

We actually stayed in Santa Monica, which has great beaches and teenager-friendly shops. Our calico bass adventure was sandwiched between a day of exploring Hollywood and day of surfing lessons. (Side note #3: Got pummeled by several waves during the latter.)

We were supposed to meet Vaughn in total darkness at 5:30 AM but a freeway snafu delayed us. What trip to Southern California doesn’t include at least one freeway snafu? Regardless, we pulled up to the desigated boat ramp south of LA around 6 AM.

Rocky BreakwaterIn short order, Vaughn had us along a rocky breakwater that ran for miles along the outer harbor. Directly in front of us, stands of kelp grew close to freezer-sized boulders. Beyond the breakwater was the open Pacific. Behind us, across the harbour’s expanse, we could make out massive cranes and container ships. But the kelp and the rocks held the most intrigue; they screamed the calico bass of my past.

Vaughn set my daughter up with a spinning rod and a plastic grub. I was using an 8 weight with a type 6 shooting head. To about 4 feet of fluorocarbon leader, Vaughn attached one of his custom flies. It looked incredibly fishy, with big lead eyes and a rabbit strip tail poking out from a collar of spun deer hair and Silli legs. It was predominantly orange and tan and my first thought was how good it would look in my largemouth box.

The fly’s real magic, however, lay in its twin weed guards of 40 pound Mason mono. “Throw it right up against the rocks,” said Vaughn. ” Give it a couple quick strips and then let it sink. The weed guards will take care of the kelp. If you can get it into the lanes between strands, that’s great… But don’t stress over it.”

Calico Fly SelectionThe fly worked exactly as advertised. But only after my daughter stung a couple quick fish. I felt fatherly pride with the first but a tinge of “daughter outfishing me” panic with the second. (Side note #4: As she gets older, I find the panic replacing the pride at an alarming rate…)

Being early March, the water was fairly cool and the calicos would often seductively nibble at the fly. But more often than not, it was a solid and decisive grab. Then the rod would double over…

And it stayed doubled over. There was no getting these fish on the reel. If they got 6 inches of line, they would be wrapped around a rock or some kelp. A typical fish was between 12 and 15 inches but they consistently pulled the rod tip down to the water. Calico bass are definitely tug-of-war champs.

The fishing was very steady and we made our way to the ocean side of the breakwater. Vaughn used an electric trolling motor to keep his 28′ center console in a rock-solid casting position. The Pacific swell was widely spaced and hardly noticeable. My daughter and I were slightly shocked to see the swell almost cresting over the breakwater. The bite continued and a whale even blew close-by…

Around 11 AM, the wind came up and Vaughn ran to the sheltered, “business” side of the harbor. On the way, we stopped for a look at some resident seals – plump and lazy and not concerned with us at all.

By this time, I had boated about 15 calicos. My daughter had actually quit after 7 or 8. She said she just wanted to enjoy the sun but maybe the idea was not to make me panic anymore?

Urban Fishing Results“Welcome to the Southern California back country,” announced Vaughn as we pulled up beside some concrete pilings. There was a parking lot just off our bow and a container ship about 400 yards off our stern. I like pristine wilderness, but – truth be told – urban fishing has its own charm. Maybe it’s the idea that I’m getting away with something that I shouldn’t be doing?

After several casts and a couple grabs inside this industrial fishing haven, it was time to head back to the ramp. By 1 PM, my daughter and I were on the freeway headed toward the next tourist item on our agenda – downtown LA.

Calico bass are definitely a low profile fish in a high profile place. But they are worthy targets. Vaughn also mentioned something about a top water bonito bite in the summer… Rats, the bucket list never seems to get shorter.

Maybe when I go back I’ll hop on a Mexican long range boat as well? And maybe I’ll get up close to the surf WITHOUT a surf board; I’ll bring a pair of waders and chase surf perch instead? For sure, I’ll chase after those bonito.

Lunch Stop

A Green Winter: Utah Winter Fly Fishing

I landed in Salt Lake City in late March. Although skiing was on my agenda, I pointed the rental car toward something even more enticing – the Green River downstream of Flaming Gorge dam. 12,000 trout per mile, with a reputation of feeding hard year ‘round, were calling my name.

It was dark when I got to my room at Trout Creek Flies in Dutch John.   Motel rooms – no matter how spartan – are so much more welcoming with a fly shop attached and a river nearby.  Before retiring, I did some visiting with the group beside me; they convinced me to book a guided drift boat trip for one of my two days on the river. At about 9 AM the next morning, I wandered over to the fly shop for the requisite fly recommendations.  I also booked my guide for the next day. Therein lies the beauty of winter fly fishing:  leisurely, late morning starts and no need for reservations.

By 10 AM I was on the river.  It was cloudy and about 38 degrees.  But with a fly rod in my hand and moving water beside me, it felt absolutely tropical. My 5 mm neoprene waders weren’t hurting, either.  The river looked completely gorgeous – perfectly clear water slicing through red rocks dusted by white snow.  I hiked along a well-trodden path and fished as I went. However, the 12,000 trout per mile remained remarkably well hidden.  Eventually, in a side eddy alongside a faster chute, I spotted some trout finning.  They had a penchant for zebra midges and orange scuds under an indicator – not a desperate hunger, mind you – but a definite penchant that kept me busy for a couple hours.

Near the end of those couple hours, the temperature dropped below freezing and the snow started.  Although the flakes were big and friendly, my hands felt like blocks of ice.  Fingerless neoprene gloves, it seems, have a threshold of effectiveness that I was trying to cross.  I started the hike back to the car. About 5 minutes from the car, I stumbled onto the weirdest, most beautiful winter scene imaginable.  (For me, anyway.)  Trout were poking their noses into the snowstorm.  Nothing de-ices fingers, or at least enables the mind to work with icy fingers, like rising trout.  Out came the 6 X tippet and a Griffith’s Gnat.  And then a tiny emerger.  And then another tiny emerger.  And then another…  After several numb-fingered fly changes, I gave up and headed back to the car.  I should have been frustrated but mostly I was stoked with just the idea of casting to rising fish in a snowstorm.

I slept well that night, looking forward to the guide’s drift boat the next day…

During the next morning’s leisurely start, as I shuffled off to the fly shop to meet the guide, the air had a biting cold.  Being from the Canadian prairies, it was not unfamiliar. The strong wind pushing fresh snow along the ground was something else my prairie brain immediately recognized.  Back home, it’s the kind of wind that makes you sprint from your house to your car and from your car to your final destination, minimizing time outdoors at all costs.  I was thinking that this is not fishing weather, my neoprenes won’t even keep me warm, and my trip is going to get cancelled.

Nevertheless, the guide was in the shop, ready to go and perfectly optimistic, even confident.  I bought a pair of Simms fishing mitts and officially relegated the fingerless neoprene gloves to back-up duty.  I made a quick stop to throw on all the clothes I brought, including ski pants underneath my waders.  Then we set off for the river.Once on the river, I quickly forgot about the cold.  The 12,000 trout per mile were definitely showing themselves.  Through the clear water, as we slid down runs, I spotted schools that were quite content to let the boat drift right over their heads.

The guide had me throwing a heavily weighted, green Woolly Bugger with an 8 weight floating line and a 10 foot leader.  The drill was to let it sink as deep as possible.  In the deeper, slower water it sometimes pulled the last few feet of line under.  The fish certainly liked it.The action wasn’t non-stop but it was certainly steady.  Every five minutes or so I dipped my rod in the water to melt the ice in the guides.  After every third or fourth dip, I seemed to have a fish on.

They didn’t seem to prefer any particular location.  Some were in deep eddies, some were along steep banks amongst boulders, some were at the base of riffles and rapids, and some were right in the riffles and rapids.As the day wore on, around 2:30 PM, the sun came out and the air lost its bite.  (Notice I didn’t say it got warm.) A long, shallow run in full sunlight had some regular risers.  We were almost at the take-out point but the guide rigged up a BWO dry on my 5 weight. It was time to exact some revenge on the picky risers from the day before…

On my third or fourth cast, a 12” brown slurped down the fly.  It was not a huge fish, but definitely special, considering I had woke that morning to the remnants of a winter storm.  I unhooked it with great care – maybe even reverence – just as the guide beached the boat. Later that evening, as I drove away from the river and toward the ski hill, I was already planning my next winter trip and thinking about replacing the skis with an extra fly rod…

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