Category Archives: Stories

Taking a Break

Yellowstone – A Multi Part Series – 4 of 6

In July of 2012, I was selected to join Chris Hunt and Kirk Deeter of Trout Unlimited, Rebecca Garlock, Bruce Smithhammer, Steve Zakur, and several representatives of Simms, The National Park Service, and The Yellowstone Park Foundation in a tour of Yellowstone.  We were directly involved in removal of the invasive lake trout from Yellowstone Lake, stream study on Soda Butte Creek, and stream recovery on Specimen Creek. This is the fourth of a six part series recounting my adventures. This was my first trip to Yellowstone.

Roughly twenty years ago, I watched a special on the Lamar Valley.  Rivoted to the screen I saw this valley of high peaks and rolling hills and thought to myself, “I have got to see this face to face”.

Sometimes the culmination of dreams takes time.

Twenty years of watching specials, reading articles, surfing the net, wearing my wife out with comments, and daydreams too many to number, I finally found myself in the Lamar.

Our band of merry anglers, still giddy from the mornings adventure on Yellowstone Lake headed north and I felt a level of anticipation that almost matched the vast beauty of this place, this amazing place.

At every turn, every rise, every drop in the road, I kept looking for this storied location until finally the expanse of the Lamar Valley opened up before me.

Honestly, it was almost like driving into a John Wayne western.  The rolling hills just begged to be flecked at their crests with bands of Native American warriors.  I chuckle now when I think of this because out of the myriad of sights I would feast on from that point forward on the tour, I kept thinking that there should be a circle of teepees and dark haired natives riding along on white and brown horses.  It just goes to show how much we are influenced by both our childhood and our addiction to media.

I am not going to be able to do justice to the beauty of this place with words.  It is one of those places that you simply must see to fully grasp.

We pulled to the side of the road and off in the distance to our right was the Lamar River.  As I looked it seemed so small, little more than a tiny creek.  That perception couldn’t be farther from the truth.  It was here that I learned the deceptiveness of distance.  In the land in and around The Great Smoky Mountains National Park that I call home, the hills roll, are full of foliage, and the mountains are softer, being as old as they are I suppose that is to be expected.  But here in the land that I call home, distance is just easier to judge.  The point of reference is so close that feet, yards, and miles are pretty easy to judge.

So….after gearing up, we began walking down to the river.  And we walked….and walked…and walked…and then when we were done walking, we walked some more.  When I stopped long enough to look behind me, I was amazed.  Our vehicles were barely visible.  There again, it bears restating that you just can’t imagine how big Yellowstone is until you have been there. And if you have not been there…you really owe it to yourself to go.

The Lamar River is a truly beautiful place, and as we stepped into the water, Steve calmly waded in very close to a bison that was picking grass near the far bank.  Between he and I was Rebecca.  Farther downstream the rest of the party were barely visible as they sized up the water.

I stood for a long time and just gawked at the place.  It was almost like a kid who has wanted a certain gift for Christmas, and once the prized package was in his hands, he is to shocked to open it and play.

With no obvious risers, I tied on a hopper dropper with a prince nymph and set to work.  Each time I cast, I thought to myself, “I am here”.  The effect of my presence in this place was not the feeling of going home, but it was close.  Sometimes your heart will long to the point that the unknown dwells as close as the familiar, and I looked around me as the big clumsy hopper pitched along downstream, in absolute awe.

I realize that I was in a place where fly fishing was king and fish are bright, vibrant, and wild, but I honestly didn’t care if I caught anything or not.  I was present, and sometimes just being aware of that is enough.  This thought would prove on more than one cast to be prophetic because I was so immersed in the place that I missed multiple strikes as the hopper briefly vanished under the weight of a fish as it engaged the prince.

Upstream from me I see Rebecca raise her arm and that familiar flush of the water as a trout realizes that it has just made a critical mistake.  Beyond her, a billow of cigar smoke drifts above Steve.  We are new friends, but the peace and familiarity we share unifies us as if we had been together since birth.

Rebecca slips the trout back in the water, and begins again as if what happened had never taken place.  She is in her zone, and, as she would later recount to me, she has never been skunked on this river.

Chris, Bruce, and Kirk had very little luck and had traveled back to the cars long before our group had it fill.  In a park like Yellowstone, you can expect traffic jams from time to time, and these guys decided to break the monotony of waiting by creating a traffic jam of their own.  They would wait until a car approached, then they would point and spy out into the vast expanse of the valley, of course nothing was there.  Cars would stop, set up cameras, pull out binoculars, gazing out at nothing.  Its the little things in life that bring the biggest laughs, and later that night we would spend a good portion of time chuckling about it.  Honestly, if I were driving up and saw a bunch of people pointing out to the river, I would stop too.

Madison River Wildflowers

The Madness of Fly Fishing

“Sometimes I caught fish – sometimes I didn’t. …….I lived merrily, mindlessly, uncomfortably on the fringe where fishing bleeds into madness.” – Nick Lyons, The Intense Fly Fisherman

There was a time in my youth when I chased fish with all the passion I had within me – with all the force and vigor and excitement I could muster. I would get up two hours before dawn and drive four hours just to reach the first available trout water. I’d fish all day, stopping only to eat a quick lunch or move to another spot on the river. When darkness fell, I continued to fish – pushing the limit of effective fishing and the legal limit of fishing regulations. A four hour drive back home would end with me dragging myself into the house, leaving all my gear in the truck to be cleaned out the next day, or the day after that perhaps. I was “on fire” for fly fishing and I ate it – drank it – obsessed over it – loved it – was consumed by it. 

 

This went on for some time. Years passed, then decades and then one day I experienced a great tragedy in my life when my father passed away suddenly. At the same time, I lost my job. I was devastated. I stopped fishing almost completely. I think I may have spent time fishing, just a few hours each time, only twice that year. In my salad days fishing happened every other weekend for years and years. I fished only twice in that most terrible year and thought several times that I might give it up altogether. Over the next few years, there were times when I felt like flinging my rod and reel into the lake or river. No, I’m not kidding. I just couldn’t get that passion back, even though when I wasn’t fishing it was still there and as strong as ever.

 

I still consumed fishing articles, photos and chat like they were going out of style. I loved to talk about bass on poppers and trout flies that sit just so, right in the film. I’m still a sucker for hearing  another angler talk about a river that’s new to me. Last year I even took my very first trip out west to fish in Montana and Wyoming. I’m fishing more now – probably twice a month or so when I can get away and I’d fish more often if I had the time and money. So, I had to ask myself – what happened? How did I come back from the brink of leaving the sport behind me for good?

I think what it all came down to, was that I had to realize two things: that I didn’t have that 24-hour-7-days-a-week passion that I had in my youth, and that not having that passion was OK. Once I stopped worrying about the fact that I didn’t go fishing as much (and frankly didn’t catch as much either) I was able to begin to enjoy my time outdoors again. These days it’s not so much about the fishing. It’s more about being outside and enjoying time spent around the water. It’s the feel of the river on my legs and the fleeting glimpse of a deer on the drive home. Now that I’ve had a couple of years of this relaxed fishing life, I think I rather prefer it to living on, as Nick Lyons so accurately put it …the fringe where fishing bleeds into madness.” Maybe someday you’ll be there, too. Maybe you already are?

The author taking business into his own hands.

Yellowstone – A Multi Part Series – 3 of 6

In July of 2012, I was selected to join Chris Hunt and Kirk Deeter of Trout Unlimited, Rebecca Garlock, Bruce Smithhammer, Steve Zakur, and several representatives of Simms, The National Park Service, and The Yellowstone Park Foundation in a tour of Yellowstone.  We were directly involved in removal of the invasive lake trout from Yellowstone Lake, stream study on Soda Butte Creek, and stream recovery on Specimen Creek. This is the third of a six part series recounting my adventures. This was my first trip to Yellowstone.

In part two, we saw how involved and messy gill netting for the small lakers can be.  But what about the big boys?  What about the mature adult that is actively reproducing?  Obviously the whole gill netting thing will not work on a fish that size. So instead of the spider web analogy, lets switch over to the corn maze.  Easy to get into one…not so easy to get out.

What happens is this.  A huge live trap net is set in the lake.  This massive enclosure has a series of extensions on it that are like long hallways.  Hallways that are hundreds of feet long.  Big guys swim in, hang out, can’t find the exit.  And then the men on the boat go to work.

This is where the action really picks up.  We left the gill net boat feeling pretty satisfied with what we had just participated in, but we literally had no idea as to the massive undertaking necessary to get rid of the Lakers.  Yellowstone Lake is big and very deep which is perfect for Lake Trout.  They are literally in Laker Valhalla in this majestic body of water, and they do get big.

The crew starts out by retrieving the net.  I never quite figured out if the net was stationary and we were moving or vise versa, but either way, we were in for the surprise of our lives when the catch started revealing itself.

There are some fish that get caught in the net, but most are still alive when the crew started hoisting it aboard.  But the big show was the huge net enclosure that held numbers of biblical proportions.  The sheer number of big fish was astounding.  To compare what we were seeing to the 167,000 plus that had been retrieved up to that point just blows your mind.  I caught myself looking out at the lake an just trying to grasp just how many leviathans were swimming in those waters.

In the picture below you see a tub full of dead Lake Trout.  To get an idea of how large these fish were, the box they are in was about two and a half feet by twenty inches by two feet.  Just about every fish we brought to the boat would be grip and grin status.

 There were several tubs stationed at the rear of the boat.  By the time our work was done.  Every tub would be full.  It bears mentioning again that this operation is taking place, every day for at least ten hours per day.

Tracking devices are placed in some of the Lakers.  The use of these trackers is to identify movement of the fish throughout the lake.  Listening stations placed in various locations in the lake will monitor movement of the fish as they go about their day.  The hope is to positively identify spawning locations so that they can begin the arduous task of killing eggs.  There is still an ongoing discussion as to how they could best accomplish this.  Everything from UV rays to a vacuum system has been brought to the table.  The Park Service, Trout Unlimited, and The Yellowstone Park Foundation are actively pursuing their options with a hope to tackle this next battlefield soon.  The telemetry study was started in August of last year.  141 tags and 40 receivers were implemented.  As of this writing, there are 221 tags and 55 recievers on and in Yellowstone Lake.  This is not a cheap undertaking either.  Trout Unlimited purchased 153 tags at a cost of 85,000 dollars and the National Park Service purchased 68 tags at a cost of 25,000 dollars.

And yes, some of the Cutthroat are caught.  Here is the statistics as best as I can recall.  In a day when we caught probably close to 1,000 trout.  I only saw two Cutthroat dead at the gill net boat, and I think there were maybe five live Cutties on the live net boat.

The large holding net is brought to the side of the boat and there are literally hundreds of fish swimming around.  A long net is used, and you simply lean over and scoop up a net full of fish.  It is really quite amazing.  And keep in mind that you are scooping netfulls of 20″-30″ fish.  Exhilarating to say the least.  There were a couple that were to big to fit into the net.  You would scoop through the holding net, get the bruisers head in it, and that would be all that would fit.  That is when the crew stepped in and gilled them to the boat.

After the fish are caught.  They are cut, identified as male of female, and the air bladder is ruptured.  A lot were full of eggs.  Thousands of eggs.  This is the point when it all started coming together for me.  We caught and killed a multitude of these fish, but if you also take into consideration how many eggs we removed form the life cycle of the species in this lake, the numbers were staggering.  I really felt like I had done something that was good, worthwhile, and important.  Important to more than just the Cutthroat.  It was important to the total ecosystem of the park.  And that is a very good thing.

Though Lake Trout are a very good food source, and plentiful, these fish are not put into the food market.  My thought was that they could be used to feed the homeless, needy, mobile meals, but the logistics and cost of doing this are just not feasible at this time.  So much would be involved in trying to get this idea off the ground, and the amount of money it would require prohibit it.

So we left that afternoon feeling very good about what we had done.  The conversation among us was like that of a team after winning the big game.  We recounted the events, smiled, shook our heads in disbelief, and made our way north to the Lamar Valley.

 *Photos by Rebecca Garlock, Chris Hunt, Steve Zakur, and Marc Payne

Lake Trout Processing

Yellowstone – A Multi Part Series – 2 of 6

In July of 2012, I was selected to join Chris Hunt and Kirk Deeter of Trout Unlimited, Rebecca Garlock, Bruce Smithhammer, Steve Zakur, and several representatives of Simms, The National Park Service, and The Yellowstone Park Foundation in a tour of Yellowstone.  We were directly involved in removal of the invasive lake trout from Yellowstone Lake, stream study on Soda Butte Creek, and stream recovery on Specimen Creek. This is the second of a six part series recounting my adventures. This was my first trip to Yellowstone.

Okay, how many mornings have you awoke, and over breakfast said to yourself…”yep, today I think I am gonna kill a thousand trout.  That is the goal.  Not gonna eat em, not gonna sell em, just gonna kill em, cut em, and dump em in the deep water.  Then maybe call it a day.”

Lets just settle on agreeing that lake trout aren’t baby seals.  Soft fluffy white fur and big watery eyes will trump a cold slimy fish any day of the week, but still…the wholesale slaughter of a trout seems antithetical to the mantra that we catch and release types chant each time we head to the river.  We will pass someone who is leaving with a stringer full of trout and we assess them as if they are pariah; an unclean blight on the angling world.

I speak somewhat in jest, but it is honestly a very strange feeling to know that your goal is a mix of trout and death.  It just doesn’t roll off the tongue very easily…until you actually do it.

Here is the situation. At some point lake trout arrived in Yellowstone Lake.  I say “at some point” because no one is really 100% certain when it happened.  Yellowstone Lake is a Cutthroat lake, end of story.  The population of this amazing body of water has changed dramatically in recent years, and it has become quite frightening on more than a fishing level.  This issue literally effects every creature in the massive Yellowstone that has Cutts as a food source.

Try wrapping your mind around this statistic. In or around 1978, 70,000 Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout were recorded in Clear Creek.  In 2008, the number had dwindled to less than 500.  You read that right…500.  Keep in mind that we are just talking about one creek, God only knows how many feed into Yellowstone Lake.  You start running the numbers and it doesn’t take a lot of thought to determine that Yellowstone is in trouble.

Lake Trout live and spawn in Yellowstone Lake, they access no tributaries, they live in deep water, and they eat a bunch of Cutthroat which do access the tributaries to spawn.  This leaves only one viable solution.  You must get on Yellowstone Lake and kill a bunch of Lakers.  Each female Lake Trout is capable of laying thousands of eggs, and with each passing season, these hungry invasives feast on the Cutts.

HOW IT IS DONE

We were blessed with the opportunity to travel out onto Yellowstone Lake and take part in the removal of the Lakers. After a coffee and a danish at the boat dock, we gathered round and Todd Koel gave us the rundown thus far.

When you can tally up 167,703 lake trout caught thus far in 2012, and your work is no where near done…you have got a huge task in front of you.

There are two primary methods that are being used in the eradication process.  Gill netting and trap nets, and our merry band of anglers, bloggers, and industry folk embarked on what would become one whale of an adventure.

Gill netting is not pretty.  It is a messy, smelly, methodical task that takes a strong constitution and a certain degree of speed to do the job well.  So, imagine my surprise when we pulled up to the gill netting boat, and a young blonde coed climbed out and welcomed us aboard.  I envisioned a crew of bearded and somewhat scruffy fishermen using foul language, smoking filterless cigarettes and drinking coffee from an old rusty percolator.  This boat had two gentlemen who were very polite and soft spoken and a crew of nothing but girls.

With my personal stereotypes completely shattered we put our hands to work.  Gill netting was the focus of this boat, and though it wasn’t Deadliest Catch it was pretty intense at first.  The best way to describe gill netting would be to envision a massive underwater spiders web.  These nets are dropped or “soaked” for several hours and basically the fish entrap themselves within the holes of the net, struggle, tangle, and die.  Then comes the dirty work.  The net is retrieved and it is the task of the deck hands to extricate the fish from the nets.  I knew this was gonna be messy when the captain of the boat handed out blue rubber gloves.  Sometimes this involved actually pushing the internal organs of the lakers from one part of their bodies to the other just so they would go through the holes in the nets.  This procedure can also cause what the girls on the boat called “poppers”, I won’t go into details, but imagine a balloon that is squeezed just a tad to much.  Only this balloon wasn’t full of air….

For ten hours a day, six days a week these co-eds place nets, pull up nets, removed dead fish and repeat, and they actually seemed to be having fun doing it.

So where are all the big lake trout?  This particular process is used to remove the smaller fish.  On the next post we will take a look at how the big boys meet their maker.

Tetons

Yellowstone – A Multi Part Series – 1 of 6

In July of 2012, I was selected to join Chris Hunt and Kirk Deeter of Trout Unlimited, Rebecca Garlock, Bruce Smithhammer, Steve Zakur, and several representatives of Simms, The National Park Service, and The Yellowstone Park Foundation in a tour of Yellowstone.  We were directly involved in removal of the invasive lake trout from Yellowstone Lake, stream study on Soda Butte Creek, and stream recovery on Specimen Creek. This is the first of a six part series recounting my adventures. This was my first trip to Yellowstone.

 There is always a slight risk involved in dreams.  So often we paint pictures in our minds about these enchanted desires, thoughts that grow, doubling each time they wander across our mind.  Then we are somehow placed in a situation in which we can actually see this dream come to pass and it feels empty, shallow, and unfulfilled.

 Thankfully, this was not the case in my dream of Yellowstone.

 My friend Steve Zakur didn’t touch down in Jackson until late in the afternoon/ early evening which gave me time to soak in the Tetons in their glory.  When his plane landed and we shook hands, the dream which I carried for so long gained life.  Go time had arrived.

 Steve has visited the park several times.  He knew what to expect.  So that evening over drinks we made a plan that in retrospect was quite ambitious.  We were going to start at the south entrance and head northeast before meandering our way around and back to the south entrance.  I had no idea just what I was in for.

The next morning Steve and I took off from Jackson on a grand tour de force of the park.  It was a complete mind blower.  Crazy as it may sound, you literally cannot look in any direction without a photo op.  This place is a photographers Valhalla.

We had not even entered Yellowstone yet, and all I kept saying was “wow”.

Steve, being a seasoned vet of the park, graciously played tour guide for me and just let me gawk at the shear majesty of the place.  It just overwhelms everything about you.  I had thought of this place for so long and had focused so much on getting ready for this trip that it just left me numb.

In the center of the park there is a road that basically is a loop.  That was to be the focus of our day as we worked around toward our final destination which was Flagg Ranch (more about them later), and our rendezvous with the other folks that would be on tour with us for the week.

But of course, Steve and I being anglers, there came a point in which we could wait no longer and fishing became the focus.  Saying fishing became the focus in Yellowstone is almost a misnomer.  There are so many places to ply the angle as they say that you literally are overwhelmed in trying to find a spot.  We settled on the Gibbon which is a smaller river that joins the Firehole to become the Madison.

It was a warm afternoon, the water was perfect for wet wading, and the little browns that call this particular body of water home were willing to at least give Steve and me a taste of just how good it could be.  We ended the afternoon with three small browns each.  Nothing worthy of the grip and grin that is almost a mandatory validation of success (to which I strongly disagree), but we felt the drug that is the tug, and that was quite enough to settle the spirit.

We finally made our way back to Headwaters Lodge at Flagg Ranch and met those who were to be our companions for the rest of the week. (More on that next time.)

What it's all about!

Yucatan Baby Tarpon

Baby tarpon react to a hook like their oversized parents; they try to put as much air as possible between themselves and the water.  However, they are far more accommodating.  When fishing for adults, a great day is 5 fish jumped and 1 landed.  With babies, jumping 15 and landing 5 is definitely not out of the question.  And the babies aren’t exactly puny – 5 to 10 pounds is a common size.

I am by no means a seasoned tarpon hunter, but over the last few years I’ve managed to visit some of the Yucatan’s premier baby tarpon fisheries.  Although not definitive, my impressions might be helpful if a trip is germinating in your brain.

It should be noted that all my trips took place in July or August.  Visiting the Yucatan in the heat of summer sounds a bit twisted but it’s actually prime time for baby tarpon.

The gear for baby tarpon is simple – an 8 or 9 weight rod, a floating line, and a reel with a smooth drag.  Most baby tarpon will not take you into your backing.   Some veteran baby tarpon fishermen recommend stripping them in without putting them on the reel.  A decent fly selection would include baitfish patterns, poppers, and Seaducers – all on 1/0 or 2/0 hooks.  A very functional leader looks like this:  5 feet of 50 lb mono for a butt section, 2 feet of 25 lb mono for the tippet, and 2 feet of 40 lb fluorocarbon as a shock tippet.

Now, here’s a look at some baby tarpon destinations…

Tarpon Cay Lodge in San Felipe (Rio Lagartos)   www.yucatanflyfishing.com

San Felipe, about 100 miles west of Cancun, is a sleepy, pleasant village where walking around gives your camera a taste of real Mexico.

The baby tarpon fishing starts after a 5 minute boat ride.  It’s mostly blind casting the mangroves off points or in the rios, which are saltwater creeks.  Oftentimes, rolling fish provide targets.

Once you’ve shaken the jitters when fishing to babies, San Felipe can give you the opportunity to come unglued in front of much larger fish.  A boat ride of an hour or so will take you to a spot offshore where migratory adults up to 100 pounds hang out.  This is sight casting to rolling fish over deep water.

Isla del Sabalo at Isla Arena    www.yucatanflyfishing.com

If San Felipe is sleepy, then Isla Arena is comatose – in a good way.  Even though you are only 100 km north of Campeche, it’s like the edge of the world.

The fishing is very similar to San Felipe with the addition of sight fishing on the flats in front of the mangroves.  (N.B.  Tarpon are much easier to see than a bonefish.)  Some of the guides like to go WAY up the tiniest of creeks.  Bring a mosquito repellant and don’t forget to duck under that mangrove branch!  I found a Sage bass rod a great tool for such close quarters.

You will likely fly into Merida, which is an incredible colonial city.  It’s like being in Europe, but the tarpon are much closer.

Paradise Lodge on the Costa Maya Coast   www.tarponparadise.net

Between Chetumal Bay and Espiritu Santos Bay, Paradise Lodge has a breathtaking variety of fishing opportunity.

Baby tarpon are the backbone of this fishery; they hang out in cenote lakes, which are land-locked lagoons connected to the ocean via underground channels.  Each day starts out with a truck ride as your boat is trailered to one of these lakes.  Bring your casting arm – you’ll blind cast the mangroves like crazy.  Nevertheless, you’ll probably see enough tarpon to keep your motivation in high gear.  One of the lakes has a good population of both snook and barracuda.

During your stay at Paradise, you’ll probably drive south to sprawling Chetumal Bay to chase bonefish and permit.  I caught my only permit in Chetumal Bay.  I’d like to say I made  a 70 foot cast to a tailing fish but I actually flipped a crab pattern about 30 feet into a HUGE mud.  The permit that popped out was VERY small.  At dinner that night, I downplayed my catch and was promptly chastised by the lodge owner.  “A permit is a permit!” he insisted.

If baby tarpon are the backbone of the Paradise Lodge fishery, then Espiritu Santos Bay is the jewel.  It’s a long, pre-dawn drive to the north.  Punta Huerrero, an obscenely picturesque fishing village, guards the bay’s entrance.   Once your skiff ventures into Espiritu Santos Bay, you’re not on the edge of the world, you’ve actually gone over it!

Very few people fish Espiritu Santos. Its flats are beautiful, wild and abundant, just like its bonefish.  Chances are you’ll see permit, too.  My guide even pointed out a few wily snook underneath the mangroves.  I didn’t believe they were there until he chased them out with his push pole.

Isla Blanca by Cancun  www.yucatanflyfishing.com

Cancun, as you probably know, is fueled by thousands of beach and bar-seeking tourists.

However, 30 minutes north of the sunscreen-slathered hordes lies Isla Blanca and its tremendous variety of fishing environments – hidden lagoons, picturesque bays, mangrove tunnels, small flats, large flats.  Is your boat careening towards a solid wall of mangroves?   Relax, the guide knows exactly where the opening to the other side is. Baby tarpon, a few bonefish, and smallish permit roam all over these waters.  The permit, although small, are numerous.

If you want a break from fishing, and perhaps Cancun’s frantic pace, there are loads of guided excursions to Mayan ruins, traditional villages, and cenotes.

Isla Holbox   www.holboxtarponclub.com

Isla Holbox is comfortably touristed but in a golf-carts-on-funky-sand-streets sort of way.   It is about 60 miles northwest of Cancun; the last part of the journey is onboard a ferry.

Although Holbox is noted for big, migratory tarpon in the open ocean, the backcountry flats and channels in the lagoon behind it have excellent populations of babies.  Tired of slinging 500 grain heads on a 12 weight?  The babies chase poppers and streamers and put on a great show when connected to an 8 weight.  I found sight-fishing for the babies to be excellent.

Another attraction at Holbox is the opportunity to snorkel with whale sharks.

Nichupte Lagoon (Cancun) and Campeche

These are a couple places I have yet to visit.  The former is the lagoon directly behind the Cancun hotel strip.  The latter is a colonial city.

Dragon Fly

The One that Got Away

What would fishing be without “the one that got away?” Much better! I hear you – but there’s something good about losing a nice fish, too. Actually, there are a few good things about losing the big one, right?

For starters, we know he’s still in there. Somewhere in that big bend or deep cove, that fish still swims – or at least one or two like him. We know we had him on the line, and now he’s a little smarter than before maybe, but he’s still out there. If we fish long and hard enough, we may run into him again.

Secondly, the next time we see him, he might be even larger. Not everything in fly fishing is about bigger, faster, stronger – but you can’t deny that most of us would rather catch big fish than little ones, right? If you do run into that lunker from your past again, maybe he’s put on a couple of inches or a few pounds. That’s something to look forward to, isn’t it?

Hang on a minute! Is this just going to be a list of reasons we should be happy about losing a nice fish?

Why no. This is going to be a story about losing a nice fish and why, ever since the day I lost him, I try to look on the bright side of things when it comes to “the one that got away.

I was 16 years old and sitting in a borrowed boat with my very pretty new girlfriend. We were having a wonderful day fishing and I’d already landed several small bass and a few bluegills. She was getting the hang of it, but was enjoying the sun and water more than the fishing.

I cast a #6 black wooly bugger alongside a floating dock that had some brush sticking up just off to one side. Something struck! I struck back! The fish headed for open water and I got all cocky and said “I’ve got a big one this time, baby!” The fish zigged and I zagged, he went deep and I held on. He pulled my drag – I palmed the spool. (This was before the days of affordable, quality drags in freshwater fly reels)

Then, Mr. Bigmouth jumped into the air. All roughly 9 pounds of him! Airborne. Thrashing. Shaking. Mouth as big as a basketball. I yelled out “Nooooooooo!” but it was too late.

The wooly bugger landed two feet in front of the boat with a pitiful ker-splat and it was at that moment that I heard crying. I’d let the big one get away. There was despair, anger and an immediate depression over the loss. It was the biggest bass that either of us had ever had on the fly. There was some whimpering and some kind of guttural sobbing sound. This wasn’t just the one that got away, it was a monster that got away. The whimpering continued and… I suddenly realized that it was ME! You can only begin to imagine the ridicule I faced back at school. Crying over a bass. The very idea. How stupid.

So, if you can…don’t let the one that got away worry you too much. There will be others – or maybe even that same fish, if you put in the effort to try and find him again. Try to remember that fishing isn’t always about the catching and that there’s no crying in fly fishing or bass fishing …there’s just no crying in fishing at all, OK?

At least, not when you’re bigmouth girlfriend is in the boat.

A Day To Remember

I felt it in the air the night before.  Like fish under the spell of the moon, I could feel it: tomorrow would be a great day,  one of those days when it all comes together…the steady temps of the week before, the moon, the warming late winter water and a powerful longing of fish and fisherman to hit the shallows: fish, looking for early hatches of nymphs, grass shrimp and baitfish, all drawn to algal blooms and warmth; fisherman, in hopes of hitting that convergence of perfect conditions and the desire of fish to feed ravenously.

In vivid color I could visualize perfectly stained water, the telltale sign of a resurgence of life on a lake awakened by the warmth of the late winter sun.

It was a fitful night of sleep with no need for an alarm; it was set in my soul.  Two hours before dawn I stood over a pot of fresh brewing coffee.  The aromatic wisps of steam conjured a light fog lifting in gentle swirls on the lake, back-lit by a rising sun.

A half hour drive to the lake gave plenty of time to paint mental pictures…slam-dunked strike indicators, heavily bowed rod and huge fish swirling, spinning below, trying to free themselves from my line.

At the launch, it was still dark, the water black, and no light revealing its true color or condition.  Still, I imagined it to be perfect.  I unstrapped the boat and, as always, made certain the motor would start.  I gave her a couple of swigs of gas with the primer and hit the starter…she immediately came to life. She was as anxious as I to hit the lake. I backed the boat in the water just deep enough to set it free.  It glided back into the black night, now in its favored element…she came tight against her leash.

Having to wait at least thirty minutes before safe light, I poured a cup of hot coffee from my thermos, sat on the rod box, lit up a cigar and removed my fly rod from its restraints.  As anxious as I was to fish, those few peaceful moments of pure silence were divine…the christening of a beautiful day to come.

At safe light I fired up the outboard; never cold natured, always eager to do her thing, she never lets me down.  There is something joyful and satisfying about the smell of an outboard’s smoke regurgitated through the underwater exhaust; an essence of fishing and fun.

My grandfather, in preparation for a fishing trip, would send me into his dirt-floored garage to dig red worms from an old washtub full of peat.  He kept the tub on a wooden bench, where, close by, hung an old and faded Wizard outboard.  The perfectly blended smell of peat, red worms, 2 cycle oil and gas is a memory burned deep within me, a smell I will never forget, in which one breathes fishing and life’s unforgettable days.

Slowly I made my way toward the boat road and headed to the westernmost side of the lake. As I envisioned, there were dancing swirls and wisps of fog rising from the water: the lake had indeed warmed.

The night before I decided this was the best area, heated earliest by the late winter sun.  The primary creek feeding the lake enters this westernmost cove.  The upper reaches are choked shut, impassable with young cypress and heavy aquatic vegetation that stretch a great distance, a perfect nursery for grass shrimp, crawfish and untold varieties of aquatic insects, nymphs and small bait fish.

I hoped a heavy rain, some days before, had flushed a lot of bait into a shallow flat just to the east.  The main feeder creek runs through the middle of this flat.  The edges are lined with aquatic vegetation:  gator grass, hyacinth and a spattering of coontail…a perfect combination.  With an average depth of three and a half feet and six in the channel…it is perfect for fly fishing.

If it were a little later in the year and the water a bit warmer, I would start with a popping bug. Today I fish a bugger some two feet under a strike indicator.

As I approached the western edge, I killed the motor as the remaining three hundred yards or so require a trolling motor in the shallow water with numerous stumps.  Slowly, I wound my way up the creek toward the flat, dodging stumps and cypress knees. The last two turns are marked by several large, stately, moss-draped cypress.  The trees mark the point where I pick up my rod and free the fly from its keeper.  Making the final turn, I pull four or five strips of line from the reel…the clicking of the pawl quickens my pulse, sharpens my senses.

An osprey passes overhead in what I hope is an attempt to beat me to “the spot.”  Surely he must know something: he is a professional…my intuition might just be correct.

As I round the final turn I see the flat before me…stained perfectly.  So heavy is the plankton, it is visible; clear enough for a fish to see a fly; yet stained enough to provide cover: perfect conditions…just as I imagined.

Entering the flat, I head to a small circular pocket of water some seventy-five feet or so across.  A small cypress stands guard near the mouth of a narrow channel which winds through gator grass.  It begs for a cast. A quick loading of the rod, sends a perfect cast toward the base of the tree.  A Pop’s Brown Bugger and its little pink companion, a half inch Thing-a-ma-bobber,  politely land a foot from the tree.

I hesitate to move the rig for a moment when suddenly…the pink is gone, only a telltale ripple left behind.  In disbelief, I almost hesitate too long.  I give the line a brisk strip and raise my rod, which promptly bends double, the line shoots straight to the right.

Like a kid at Christmas ripping wrapping from a gift, I strip line trying to catch up to him and catch up with time.  My mind is whirring: “Let me at least see him.”  A minute or so later I see the flashing silver and black side of what I know is a large, heavy crappie…“Damn, the fish are here, or is he just one of those loners?” You know…the ones that make you wonder, “Now, why the hell was he in here and no others?”  I bring him alongside, kneel and lip him into the boat…a beauty of a fish.

My second cast lands nearly in line with the first, but a bit longer.  Promptly the indicator begins to move slowly to the left.  I anxiously watch as it moves a half foot or so before bringing the rod up and against the fish.  He pulls hard and fights more violently.  He is pulsing and throbbing…the recognizable fight of a large bluegill.  The line zips and sings back and forth as I try to keep pace with the rod.  A short fight later, a fine heavy bluegill comes to hand.

 In Louisiana we refer to large bluegill males as bull bream…really huge males as bull-a-gators.  This fish was approaching bull-a-gator in size.

I worked the area over for a while, landing dozens of fine crappie and large bream.  By now, I know, “They’re here in numbers, they are big and they are hungry as hell!”   I am giddy!

Giving this area a rest, I anxiously move further up the flat.  The southern edge has a nicely shaped bottom…going from a foot or so deep, right next to the vegetation, to several feet deep and dropping again to six feet or so in the creek.  The fish have several distinct areas to stage and feed.  Before the day is up, I will have success in all.

I quietly approach an indention in the edge, bounded by two trees approximately six feet out and twenty or so feet apart, forming a beautiful pocket.  A long cast deep to the back is promptly rewarded…the indicator is slowly going under.  With a brisk strip set and raising the rod…all hell breaks loose.  A heavy fish is having its way with my rod. All I can do is give him some rod, feather the line…lots of line and hold on for the ride, first this way, then that.

After several minutes, I still have no control of him.  My mind is trying to unravel clues as to what he is.  There is no thumping to indicate a bream struggling on its side or the heavy, yet compliant, pull of a large crappie.  If it were a bass, he would have gone airborne by now or headed for deeper water.

My mind is once again begging, “I just want to see …just let me see what he is.”  After what seems like five minutes, but more likely two, I get a fleeting glimpse of a huge, beautifully colored chinquapin, known to some as shell crackers, lake runners or red eared sunfish.  In Louisiana, these fish get huge.  This fish is freaky big.  Catching a glimpse of me, he takes off as if he has seen the meanest creature in the world.  He takes line at will. By now, I really don’t mind if he tears loose or brakes off…I have seen him, he has given me a thrill…he has slaked my Jones.

Several times I bring him along side, only to have him keep going out the other.  Finally, I reach and lift one of the biggest chinqs I have ever seen.  I have caught big ones before…but none as thick and tall.  This fish is like reeling in a mad hub cap.

I sit there for a few moments to soak in what has happened and what is surely to come.  Picking up the sleeping cigar, I puff it back to life.  Ah…a hot cup of coffee and a few delightful draws from a good cigar are ample celebration.

Sitting there soaking up the moment, I hear a wren in a nearby bush roll out a short, beautiful song.  The last note sounds a little funny, just a tad off key…she then makes a scolding chatter, as if griping about hitting a bad note.  I can’t help but chuckle.  In this one small spot there is so much to see, so much to hear and so damn many fish to catch.

The osprey, now circling at the far western edge of the flat, suddenly folds his wings, and drops like a stone…making his first catch of the day.  He rises fifty feet or so back into the air, pauses in mid-flight, and gives a violent shudder, shaking off water droplets that cling to his chest.  I offer him up a cloud of aromatic smoke, raise the small shiny chrome cup in a salute and give him a smile.  It is a great day for us both, …a day to remember.

Hypertension Hole

Maybe it’s just me, but I have this problem with a certain fishin’ hole that has it in for me.

It’s just a little run, no different from a thousand other little runs I’ve fished. One low-hanging tree limb complicates the cast a little, but not too much – and the fish that live there are almost always eating.

Easy, right? You’d think so! However, year after year this spot that I’ve named “Hypertension Hole” denies me a fish. I’ve been fishing, and “not catching” Hypertension Hole for almost 7 years now and it’s always the same…

 Six years ago, I first fished the little creek. I rounded a corner in the stream and there it was – the prettiest little trout house you’d ever hope to see. It had a deep enough run on the left bank, a nice big rock to hide under, and an overhanging tree that would keep less skilled anglers from casting to it effectively. It was perfect. It was beautiful. It was just waiting for a schmuck like me to get lucky and make a good cast. Or so I thought…

After catching nothing but 6 inch trout all morning, my heart rate got a little faster when I saw a good trout rise two, three, four times in row. Who knew what he might be eating? This was the South and trout normally just wait in a buffet line and gobble up whatever buggy-looking thing floats by them. I’d go with what I had tied on, a #14 Elk Hair Caddis.

I wiped the sweat out of my eyes, returned my polarized glasses to my nose, and stripped out twenty feet of fly line. The trout rose again and this time, he’d chased whatever it was he was eating five feet below him. This was an aggressive trout – the kind of trout that hits before you’re ready. The kind of trout that makes you set the hook too soon and curse loudly without looking around first to see   if anyone might be nearby. I false-cast twice and promptly put my fly into the overhanging branch.

I let the fly sit there, the line hanging over the Hole. I’d probably blown it. But then – the trout rose again, right under the line! Was this guy suicidal? Wiggling the line, the fly miraculously popped free and landed on the water, but too much in the shallow water to get the trout’s attention. If he’d hit then, with all that loose line rumpled up on the water, I’d have needed 10 foot long arms to set the hook.

Two more false casts. Easy now….that’s it! Right under the limb… the caddis imitation landed with like a feather. POW! He blasted it! I slammed home the hook! Fly line and leader and tippet and fly went whizzing right by my head and the big trout rolled on the surface and slapped his tail in defiance. I remember it like it was yesterday. Twenty more casts wouldn’t bring him back up and in fact, probably pushed him further under that rock or a quarter-mile upstream.

Each year I visit that stream at least once, and each year I sneak up on Hypertension Hole. And so far, each and every year, whatever trout is living there leaves me with a slack line and a smushed fly. But high blood pressure or not, I’d miss it if it wasn’t there. I’d miss the game if I ever won it.

Despite the frustration of Hypertension Hole, I always end up hoping that there is never a trout living there that is somehow more stupid that I am. Maybe you have a spot like that? If not, I hope someday you find one just like it. Just don’t forget to take your meds if you do.

This submerged field was ALIVE with carp.

Carp Invading the Back Forty

When the spring is wet and prairie rivers are high, I’ll stop my car where they spill over their banks. If I’m lucky, I’ll spot some carp. Flooded fields and ditches are usually the best.

Carp can be tough to catch but the ones cruising these places seem particularly ravenous. It’s all sight fishing – either from the bank or wading. For cruising fish, I like a large, buggy nymph – dragon fly imitations work great. For tailing fish, I go with a size 8 or 10 Woolly Bugger with brass eyes. An 8 weight rod and a 9 foot bonefish leader deliver the fly and land the fish. Although a 10 pound carp will often successfully dispute the latter.

Even with reasonable water clarity, casts to tailers – with their snouts in the bottom – have to be very precise. And seeing or feeling a take can be almost impossible. I have to admit, my luck with tailers ranges from rotten to so-so.

Cruising fish, however, are much more accommodating. Lead them by a few feet, let the fly sink to their level, and then give it a few short, slow strips. Magic!

Below are a few pics taken while wading a flooded field and nearby ditch…