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…
Although 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.
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.
Occasionally, 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!
A 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!
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.
The 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!
For 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.
The 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.
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.
On 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.
After 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…
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…
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!
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.
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!
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…
* * * * * * * *
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…
(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.
In 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.”
The 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?
“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.
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…
(And a Canadian beer for one pike Deceiver and three grayling dries…)
My dad was an adventurer – not the adrenaline junkie type – but the type who yearned to see what was around the next bend of the river. I think that might be a pretty common characteristic of fly fishermen. Although Dad preferred his casting rod to a fly rod, he certainly had a bad case of “next bend” syndrome - a condition that forces you out of your car and into your boat and even out of your boat onto your feet.
I don’t think it got worse as he got he got older, just more obvious. When he maybe should have been out with the local mall-walking group, he was trekking through all kinds of wilderness, fishing rod in hand.
He didn’t care much if he caught a fish; he was mostly interested in seeing a new piece of the planet. The beauty of it was that I could talk him into going to all kinds of places. (Peer pressure isn’t necessarily a bad thing.)
One August, we flew into Munroe Lake Lodge, just a bit south of the tree line in northern Manitoba. It was August and the pike were out of the shallow back bays and into the deeper cabbage beds. If we found some cabbage, we found pike – solid fish from 6 to 8 pounds. With enough bigger ones to ones to keep the anticipation levels high.
However, lakes at that latitude are not incredibly fertile. Being unguided, we roamed all over Munroe Lake’s 12 mile length to find cabbage beds. We saw a lot of beautiful things– sand eskers, shed caribou antlers, stunted black spruce, and cabbage beds, too! The cabbage bed residents loved to slam our offerings. But not always… As pike are prone to do, they would often merely follow. And then watch, and maybe even grin, as we figure-eighted and frothed the water.
Surprisingly, the most effective flies were on the smaller side. Bunny leeches, tan Whistlers, and white Deceivers from 4 to 5 inches long were deadly. An intermediate line seemed to get just the right amount of depth.
As a change of pace, we fished for grayling at the mouths of inlet streams. None were bigger than 10 inches but they were great fun on dry flies and a 3 weight.
One evening, the lodge owner mentioned that trophy grayling could be found down the outlet at the far end of the lake. “Just float down through the riffles until you get to the first good pool,” he said. He had me convinced as soon as he mentioned trophy grayling. And it didn’t take much to get my Dad on board. (Remember what I said earlier about peer pressure.)
The next morning, after a long boat ride down the lake, we eased our 16 foot Lund and 20 horsepower motor into the current of Munroe Lake’s riffled outlet. That particular boat and motor combo is typical issue at northern lodges. A lot of people use boats like that for chasing walleye in Minnesota. They are not exactly drift boats.
After about ten feet, the prop dug in. So up went the motor. After ten more feet, the boat’s hull was stuck on the bottom. So out we jumped.
We had on chest waders and it was kind of fun – hanging on to the gunwhales, half-walking and half-riding the boat down the river. We went about 100 yards and then I looked at my Dad, who was 71 years old at the time, and said, “We’re gonna have to DRAG the boat on the way back. Are you sure we should do this?”
He muttered something about him riding and me dragging and off we went. We probably covered a half mile of river before we found the spot the lodge owner was talking about. It was a beautiful deep glide with large boulders on the bottom. We fished it hard but only managed one sixteen inch grayling.
Our exit from the outlet didn’t involve the same exhilaration as our arrival. It was hard, exhausting work. Instead of riding on the gunwhale, I grabbed it and pulled. Dad was at the back of the boat and, despite his earlier threats, pushing like crazy.
It took us over an hour to get back up the outlet and onto the lake. We were panting and sweating and beat. Our excursion had netted us only fish. Was it worth it?
The outfitter told me there were lake trout, arctic grayling AND arctic char at one of his camps and that sealed the deal. Most people don’t get the chance to fish for arctic char in their lifetime and the allure of the exotic was overpowering. So a few months later my Dad and I landed in Rankin Inlet on the shore of Hudson Bay.
The plan was to be helicoptered from there to a plywood shack in polar bear country on the Nunavut tundra. However, Hudson Bay is a large body of water and Rankin Inlet is very cool in the summer – this combination leads to a lot of fog. We actually spent two days in Rankin Inlet waiting for the fog to lift.
The outfitter put us up in his own house. For two days, we walked around town, taking pictures of sled dogs in their kennels and watching the locals bomb along the streets on quads. We also sampled the local cheeseburgers, which were tasty but worth about $12 each due to the fact that all the ingredients arrived by plane. And we joined in a family dinner where the appetizer was a traditional Inuit food – raw beluga whale. It had a mild taste and a chewy texture. Being the rookies in the crowd, Dad and I were given plenty of teriyaki sauce and hot sauce as condiments.
Eventually the fog lifted and a15 minute helicopter ride took us to an area known as Corbett’s Inlet. Up there, the lake trout stay shallow all summer and they like the rivers as much as any lake. If you can navigate to the base of some rapids, you are pretty much guaranteed lake trout. (For a closer look at this type of fishing look at my “Tundra Trout” article elsewhere in this blog.)
The outfitter had pointed out a particularly delectable set of rapids on our map. Being about ten miles from the ocean, these rapids held both lake trout and the sea-run holy grail of this trip – arctic char. We immediately hopped in the boat and set off.
To get to the rapids, the map said we had to pass through a narrowing of the river; however, this narrowing turned out to be a boiling cauldron of whitewater. Being self-guided in the middle of nowhere, we turned around and the Arctic char remained unattainable .
That night, by lantern, in the comfort of our plywood shack, we checked the map and noted the rapids were about ten miles away by boat. But they were only 2 miles away by land. In most wilderness on this continent, overland travel means crashing through dense bush with about the same penetrability as a brick wall.
However, we were on the tundra. There would be no bush, only rocks and spongy moss. I think the light bulb went off in Dad’s head first. “We can walk it,” he said. Brilliant!
So the next day we set off. In consideration of my Dad’s seventy years, I carried the tackle, the lunch, and the polar bear repellant – a rifle and three shells supplied by the outfitter.
Sidebar #1: Three shells are not a lot of ammunition but, according to our outfitter, if you are about to fire your fourth round, you are likely polar bear hors d’oeuvres anyway.
Sidebar #2: I later find out the rifle was a .308. I know next to nothing about guns and hunting, but is that enough artillery for large Arctic predators? I still haven’t brought myself to Google it.
The hike to the rapids was just like the map said – we aimed between the two ponds visible from camp and just kept going. It took about an hour and we did not see any polar bears.
I’d like to say that hyper-aggressive char were stacked below the rapids. We fished hard all day and landed two. They had beautiful, big white spots and were amazingly chunky. Their heads, in fact, were tiny compared to the rest of their body – a likely testament to the feeding they did in the ocean. They fought strong and deep. We left the rapids satisfied with our catch.
The rest of the trip was typical tundra fishing for lake trout and arctic grayling. The day we were ready to leave, we piled up our gear and waited for the helicopter. And waited. And waited. And then we remembered that the outfitter had given us a satellite phone. A quick call told us that our helicopter was down for repair and would pick us tomorrow. Another phone call and we had our outbound flights from Rankin Inlet rearranged. That far north, even the largest airlines become quite flexible and accommodating. We had previously lost a couple days fishing to the fog and just gained one back! Instead of sitting around waiting for the helicopter, we hopped in the boat and headed for a grayling hotspot. Thank God for satellite phones…
The next day, comfortably on board a commercial jet, flying out of Rankin Inlet, all I could think about was our tundra trek to the arctic char. I kept replaying that day over and over in my mind. And I kept hatching schemes to somehow catch a few more. I haven’t yet… But I will…. :)
Much has been written – and deservedly so – about Yellowstone National Park and its fisheries. (Take a look at Marc’s articles elsewhere in this blog for some very interesting samples.) What about the Tetons just south of Yellowstone?
Since the Tetons don’t bother with foothills, the view from the road is incredible. Rugged peaks simply erupt from sage-covered flats. And all kinds of trails lead right into these eye-popping mountains. Naturally, what makes it a complete destination – at least for the typical Pisciphilia reader – is the nearby fishing.
It’s all about the cutthroats in this part of the world. Other trout seem to be merely incidental catches. No need for any size 20 Tricos. Large, attractor dries are the usual fly shop recommendation.
I’m no expert; in fact, I’ve merely sampled the rivers around Grand Teton National Park on a couple of different trips. Nevertheless, I hope my impressions might spike your curiosity and even help you plan out a possible trip…
The Snake River: This is the one you’ve probably heard about. It’s a big, wide river with a relentless, pushy current. Don’t even think about wading across! It parallels the Tetons and then runs south. Common wisdom dictates that a drift boat is the best way to fish it. Nevertheless, it is quite possible to walk along and pick at some very juicy-looking pockets along the bank. Better yet, if you find some braids, crossing a side channel or two will lead to enough water to keep you busy all afternoon. You can even feel a little bit smug, knowing you’ll cover those enticing seams more thoroughly than the guy who zipped by in the drift boat.
The Wilson bridge access, just outside the town of Jackson, leads to a path that runs up and down the river in both directions. Locals walk their dogs there and you might have to relinquish your spot to an exuberant black Lab. Despite that, the Tetons form an impressive backdrop and you can definitely find some nice braids. I have to admit that although the numbers were okay; my biggest fish from the area was perhaps eight inches. Maybe my technique wasn’t quite dialed in?
There are other places, like boat ramps and the Moose Bridge, to access the Snake River for wading. Further researching the resources at the end of this article will likely reveal even more. Although wading is thoroughly enjoyable, the Snake offers a lot of river and a lot of scenery. On my next visit I will seriously look into the guided drift boat option.
The Hoback River: The medium-sized Hoback River follows Highway 191 and pours into the Snake south of Jackson. There are many access points along the highway and the river has a little bit of everything – shallow riffles, rocky runs, pocket water, and deep glides. The good water is much more obvious than on the Snake. It is far more wader-friendly as well and you can cross some sections quite easily. Although the holding spots might be a fair hike apart, there are definitely 8 to 14 inch trout to be had.
The Gros Ventre River: This stream is a little smaller than the Hoback and just as easy to read. It seems to follow a well-defined pattern of riffles and runs. Crossing it to optimize your drift is possible in most areas.
Despite all this, my catch rate on the Gros Ventre was almost nil. Nevertheless, I know the fish are in there and I’ll be back. In the meantime, I’ll blame my lack of success on the bull moose that wandered into the stream and forced me to detour around a couple of prime runs.
Speaking of wildlife, the Gros Ventre River runs right by Gros Ventre campground on the road to Kelly. The river is easily reachable from the road and the sage flats in this region are like an American Serengeti. On more than one occasion, bison delayed traffic as they crossed the road.
Granite Creek is a small stream that is paralleled by a good gravel road as it tumbles toward the Hoback River. It alternates between pocket water in forested sections and a classic meadow stream in picturesque valleys. (Think Soda Butte Creek with far fewer fishermen).
The meadow sections were perhaps my favorite places to fish in the entire region. Although the water looked impossibly skinny from high up on the road, there were actually all kinds of places where the bottom slipped out of sight – undercut banks, around boulders, and just below riffles – where the bottom slipped out of sight. It seemed like most of these places held fish that were extremely adept at quickly spitting out a dry fly.
However, a few actually came to hand. They were solid, gorgeous cutthroats up to 14 inches. Given the size of the water they came from, they seemed like true lunkers,
Granite Creek also had a couple of bonus features built into it. One was a spectacular waterfall near the end of the road – a great place to simply admire, or cool off by splashing around. And if you cooled off too much, there were some hot springs right at the end of the road.
Miscellaneous Notes: A standard 9 foot 5 weight worked great on all the above rivers except for Granite Creek, which was more suited to an 8 foot 4 weight. When large attractors like Chernobyl Ants and Turk’s Tarantulas did not get eaten, smaller patterns like Trudes, Humpies, Irresistibles, and Goddard Caddis filled the gap. Drifting the odd nymph or swinging the odd sculpin pattern also worked.
Book: Flyfisher’s Guide to Yellowstone National Park by Ken Retallic. (It includes a chapter on the Tetons!)
Fly Shops in Jackson, Wyoming: High Country Flies and also the Snake River Angler. (Be sure to check out their websites.)
(A sample of the fishing and – the non-fishing – in Cabo San Lucas.)
To me, a “non-fishing” vacation involves fishing – just not the majority of the time. So even for a “non-fishing” vacation, I research the fishing possibilities well before any flights get booked. And I’m sure you can imagine why my girlfriend and I wound up in Cabo San Lucas this past March…
Halfway through the trip, I had a full day charter booked with Baja Anglers. At about 7 AM that morning, I hopped on a very fishable 26 foot Glacier Bay catamaran with my captain and mate. Our first stop was getting the bait part of “baiting and switching” from a local pangero; $20 got me a half dozen, 8 inch goggle eyes.
We started fishing almost as soon as we left the marina. The mate ran the boat slowly along likely beaches and rock outcroppings while the captain bombed out long casts with a spinning rod and a hookless surface plug – the teaser. My job, with a 9 weight and 350 grains of sinking line, was to land a Clouser just beyond the teaser as the captain skipped it back into range. And then strip like crazy. Sounds simple, right?
The persistent swell, which was likely great for surfing, was not terribly noticeable when just sitting in the boat. However, it felt like a mechanical bull was out to get me while casting. I have to admit that for the first 15 minutes I was pretty sure that my entire day would be stumbling around the stern of boat while trying to avoid “clousering” myself and the crew. Eventually, however, my casting smoothed out.
I actually found it helpful to throw my fly on alternate casts of the teaser. Every other cast of the teaser, I would merely watch, ready to throw if a fish showed behind it. The whole routine was a bit hypnotic, even zen-like…
Until fish crashed the party. About every third spot we tried, a gang of jacks assaulted the teaser. It was very visual – sometimes they were a dark, swarming mass and sometimes they churned the surface. Regardless, before they could touch the surface plug, the captain jerked it away and I replaced it with a fly.
The jacks were hyper-aggressive. The first struck so violently, I seriously thought my rod was going to break; I froze and the fish shook off. A second jack was well into the backing before it came unbuttoned. I finally landed jack number three and was shocked by its lack of size. The way it tested my backing knot and bore under the boat, it felt much larger than its 6 or 7 pounds.
When the action slowed down for jacks, the captain harnessed a goggle eye to the spinning rod and slow trolled along the shore, hoping to attract a roosterfish within casting range. Unfortunately, the roosters did not make themselves available and we changed gears again.
This time we headed about a half mile offshore, towards a loose gathering of other charter boats. I should point out, that up to this point, we weren’t exactly fishing in the wilderness . One of the jacks was taken with a construction site as a backdrop; many of the other spots were just off major resorts. So heading into a pack of boats seemed like no big deal.
“Spanish mackerel and maybe some yellowtail,” said the captain as we took our place in the formation over about one hundred feet of water. Fishing this depth was VERY relaxing. I believe I polished off a sandwich as my fly sank toward the bottom.
However, once more, the fish interrupted. Something pulled my rod into a deep bend and kept pulling until the backing knot was deep in the water. I thought it was a big yellowtail, but it turned out to be a 5 or 6 pound Sierra mackerel.
And so it went… Another half dozen sierras reluctantly came to the boat and a couple were kept for delivery to our resort’s kitchen later. As strange as it may same in that deep water, the sierras occasionally boiled on the surface and offered a visual target.
With an hour left in the charter, the captain still wanted me to experience a roosterfish, so we went back inshore to a couple more beaches. However, the roosters played shy and we were soon heading back to the dock, escorted by a squadron of low-flying gulls.
As I left the marina, a few locals filleted my catch for a few dollars. That night, with the wizardry of our resort’s kitchen, the sierras provided our best meal of the trip. Sierra mackerel definitely are definitely too tasty for their own good..
Overall, it was a great part of a non-fishing vacation. But what about the truly non-fishing aspects? Here’s a few things both my girlfriend and I would recommend:
Rent a car and drive out of town. Visit Todos Santos, a picturesque village with quaint shops and galleries. On your way, pull down a side road and look at the giant cacti. Maybe even find the beach at the end of the road….
Take a guided hike to a waterfall in Baja’s interior mountains. The scenery is incredibly unique. And the water is incredibly refreshing (icy?) if you decide to take a dip.
Stay at a resort that is off on its own with a quiet stretch of beach. Pueblo Bonita Pacifica is one such place. Watch the surf roll up. Watch for whales in the distance. Stroll down the sand to the rocks at either end of the beach.
A kayak tour and some snorkeling – those are a couple things we didn’t do in Cabo San Lucas. Someday, I’d like to get back there and try’em. Maybe in November, ‘cause I heard that’s a good time for striped marlin…
(P.S. For non-fly fishing significant others and family, Baja Anglers is adept with ALL types of light tackle.)
Editors Note: To catch lake trout in the summer, you generally need very deep water and very heavy jigs – maybe even down riggers. But not necessarily..
Myself, Dad, and our friend Ben squeezed into what used to be a 10 seater Cessna. Today it was a 5 seater with a lot of gear and supplies. Even though there was no flight attendant, the food service promised to be superb; a big cooler sat in the middle of the plane – full of sandwiches, chips, cookies, soda pop, and maybe even the odd beer.
We were flying from Thompson, in northern Manitoba, to Keith Sharp’s Arctic Outposts in southern Nunavut. The word southern is a relative term because the Canadian territory of Nunavut stretches to the north pole. There were no trees at our destination, just Arctic tundra. And even though it was mid-August, the water would be frigid and the lake trout would be shallow. Did I mention that the lakers would also be ravenous? They only enjoy about 3 ice-free months each year.
I thought the cooler stuffed full of food would be the highlight of the flight but it turned out to be the caribou. Shortly after crossing the treeline, the pilot was scheduled to land at an old air strip at an abandoned fishing lodge. There was a fuel cache there; he needed to top up and maintain his emergency reserve.
However, a herd of caribou was lounging on the gravel air strip. “No problem,” said the pilot. He had obviously dealt with this before. “We’ll just give’em a bit of a buzz.” He lowered the plane to about one hundred feet and roared past. Lazily, the caribou ignored us.
With the next pass, I’m pretty sure I heard an antler the plane’s underbelly. The caribou bolted onto the tundra and the pilot landed. He filled up the plane and the rest of us cracked open a beer and toasted the caribou.
We also got our first look at the tundra. The bareness of the landscape actually shocked me. Pictures and video didn’t prepare me for the reality of all that nothingness. As far as the eye could see, there were no trees – not even shrubs. Nothing, except for the odd boulder – and that herd of lazy caribou – was higher than your ankle.
In another hour, we landed on a gravel air strip built by Keith Sharp, our outfitter for the trip. Again, there was nothing higher than your ankle all the way out to the horizon. The air strip serviced his main facility, Ferguson Lake Lodge. Although Ferguson Lake had top notch fishing, we transferred our gear over to a float plane destined for a much smaller outpost on the Kazan River near Yathkyed Lake
After twenty minutes in the air, the plane drifted into the dock at our home base for the next 6 days. It looked like a big, ugly plywood box but it held bunks, a fridge, and a propane stove. Most importantly, it was right on the Kazan River and there was a boat with an outboard parked at the dock.
The fishing for the next six days was amazing. The Kazan River at that particular place is more like a narrow lake. Our box – or cabin – sat right on a severely necked down portion, where the current quickened and swirled. A few miles downstream, there was a large set of rapids. We didn’t have a guide; there was absolutely no need. The rapids held fish, and so did the eddies and riffles beside the cabin. Both lake trout and arctic grayling…
Lake trout smashed streamers at the base of the rapids and in the deeper eddies beside the cabin. As long as it was at least 5 inches long, the lakers liked it. My favourite patterns were purple or grey Deceivers. I liked to think that purple imitated a grayling and grey imitated a sucker but the lakers were likely more starving than cerebral. A floating line was all that was needed.
Since three guys in a fishing boat can be a bit of a disaster, we generally just waded. And there was no bush to crash through alongside the river! The boat was mostly for transportation.
Regardless, we put on neoprene waders right after breakfast and didn’t take’em off until supper. There was a good reason for the lakers being so shallow, and a layer of neoprene felt good in the water and out. Forget about breathability! When it rained, out came the old-fashioned yellow rubber rain suits.
Wading along the shallow riffles beside the cabin, or beside glides and pockets within the rapids, was prime for Arctic grayling. They gobbled down any dry fly or nymph.
A few lakers terrorized these spots and several unfortunate grayling linked angler and trout in tugs-of-war. Sometimes the trout won; sometimes they didn’t.
The trout that lost these tugs-of-war were not good losers. They were definitely fired up; we learned pretty quick to have a big streamer handy so they could vent their frustration.
The sheer size of the lake trout made them fun to catch. Most were 6 to 10 pounds but a few heavyweights were closer to 20. All of them put a saltwater size bend in a beefy 10 weight and a few even exposed the backing. They were thugs that smashed your fly and brawled among the boulders on the bottom. They definitely didn’t like skinny water; just before landing they invariably flew into a thrashing, twisting rage.
The grayling were just as fun to catch, but for different reasons. Although most topped out 14 to 18 inches, their big dorsal fin, purple hue, and aerial tendency made them consummate entertainers on the end of a 6 weight.
In many ways the tundra is fly fishing utopia; there are no backcast-hungry trees, for example. But the wind tends to howl with no respite from it. Truth be told, we sometimes used conventional gear to cut through the wind and reach juicy holding water far from the bank. Any thigh-high boulder became prime real estate during lunch breaks, and all three of us would try to tuck in behind it.
The wildlife was another reason to brave the wind. We saw cranes, geese, article fox, caribou – even a muskox and a grizzly. The caribou were pretty camera friendly but the muskox and grizzly looked way too grumpy to stalk with a camera.
If you’re looking for a technical, match-the-hatch experience, the tundra might not be your place. But the fun factor is huge and so is the adventure quotient. It’s the kind of place that makes you think you’re first person to walk on it. I think it should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Note: This article is based on a trip to the Yathkyed Lake camp of Keith Sharpe’s Arctic Outposts. However, in the accompanying photos, there are shots from different trips to Keith’s Kaminuriak South and Corbett Inlet camps. Unfortunately, Keith is no longer in the fishing trip business but a quick search of the web yielded one lodge which would likely offer a similar experience: Tukto Lodge (www.arcticfishing.com). There are also outfitters who offer guided wilderness canoe trips down the Kazan River. One of these is Wanapitei Canoe (www.wanapiteicanoe.com/trips.asp?ID=19).