Thursday, February 25, 2010

It’s all the same in the dark

I’m a recent addict to fishing for striped bass and blue fish with a fly. Being a freshwater stalwart for quite some years, I felt guilty at first: betraying trout streams for the allure of the big, sexy ocean. But I’ve made my peace with that.

My experience fly fishing the salt has been short, but patterns are emerging, fish are being caught, and I’m bathing (quite literally) in the new wonders of moon, tide, waves, sand, and baitfish. There are differences and similarities to the worlds of trout and stripers. Here’s a brief, meandering take.

Most obviously, but I think importantly, is that you must often look for striped bass in a different way. I don’t mean you should affect a particular stance and squint your eyes, nor have you the need for a beret, pipe and cape. But unlike the river, which one can readily read to have a good idea of where a trout will be, stripers move with tide. They are Here, There and Everywhere, then A Long Time Gone (forgive me: The Beatles and CSNY were my musique du jour). I can fish a river at any time of day and I might know where to catch a trout. Go to an estuary at low tide and I will be casting to mud. You get the rather messy picture.

I have a friend – “Bob” – who reckons that finding striped bass is 90% of the bother in catching them. I think he’s dead right, because when I find fish I am usually surprised at how easy they are to catch in numbers and on any lure of my choosing. Of course, there is real skill and knowledge to be brought to “just finding fish”. It ain't easy. Time and patience are required; the stomach to swallow long, fish-less nights an absolute. Time the moon, tide, presence of bait etc, but still yet I might be fishing water devoid of fish, or where those pesky smaller fish predominate (An aside, I think we all covet the big ones where stripers are concerned, but Russell Chatham suggests that fishing for small brook trout could be a more “pure” form of angling; the take, play and landing of the small char being done without the backdrop of sweat and puff required to land a monster).

But it’s fair to say that once you’ve learned where to go – perhaps multiple areas that fish well in different moods – you will probably catch stripers with your eyes closed. And happily, my experience tells that there are times when, with eyes wide open, the bass are popping all around and not one will be caught. Attention to a certain something extra is needed. A puzzle to be solved.

All fishing has this in common. The puzzle. Stripers, like trout, might want a fly presented in a very definite (and not altogether obvious) way, or to a designated lie beyond my own rather average casting reach. I know of striped bass that rise to grass shrimp carried on the tide like mayflies drifting on the Farmington. These bass ask specifically for a dry shrimp pattern fished on a “static” (not “dead”) drift. Others like the fly swung, plucked, stripped, at great depth, or fished higher in the column. How the fly achieves this is for the angler, and not the banality of his chosen tackle, to get right or wrong.

I’m confident that trout can be, and typically are, more choosy than stripers. This makes some sense: trout are comparably sedentary creatures, holding on station and moving little to visit the larder. Tidal fish are probably more opportunistic, less discerning (why else would you eat a snake fly, Clouser Minnow or multi-colored 12 feather flatwing “thing”?) My dry shrimp need not take on the accuracy of size nor the characteristics of a size 22 Trico spinner. Again, you get my drift.

Another close chum – “Brian” – has a deeply contagious fascination with fly composition and selection. His flies seek to deceive fish in yet another way. But at heart I think it is probably his enjoyment of this angle that matters most here – fishing the way that pleases him personally. Once a fish is hooked, it is the same fish with the same number of stripes on it. Another dear Fellow I know of – and probably the finest all-round angler I know – has an astounding breadth of ken about capturing all manner of fish and can work a fly rod as good as anyone, but he doesn’t tend to hang out on trout streams. (Side note: it strikes me that trout anglers are good striper fishermen in waiting, but some good striper fishermen got there independently).

All this serves to prove merely that I’m fond of the sound of my own keyboard. If you made it this far, here’s the good bit. Writing this also reminds me that, like people, no two anglers or two fish are the same. The commonality is fly fishing - for trout, stripers, or bluegills - and something about the ever-fresh wonder that any fish will be quite so daft enough to eat whatever variety of feather, fur and meat hook we throw out. I also realize that perhaps my biggest pleasure in all this is borne of the fly fishing fantasies of others. Being present to their varied and nuanced pleasures, being around to see them unlock the puzzles that we're working through, is to enjoy people as much as the act of working my own rod and line. At any rate, it’s at least a bloody good bonus.

I can tell you with certainty that I have never anticipated a fishing season – river or ocean - like the one just around the next corner.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Few Words

I was a guest on a trout stream today. Early meet, we drove north to the river, which is "within 100 miles of the northern CT border. Not saying which side". I learned how to fish a small stream all over again. I do this every year. Roll casting. Contorted side casting. Houdini casting. We didn't catch fish for a while. Then we started to get them. I only lost one fly, which is something. But enough about the fish. Anglers are very lucky people. We get to wade around in rivers, and sometimes it's just all about rivers. Dark, undercut banks; popply riffles; deep holes; twists and turns; cascades; waterfalls!; overhanging trees of every type (just how do rivers contrive to be so darned pretty?) Fresh, undisturbed snow. Not another soul.

The shape and dynamic of this stream is beyond my limited abilities for the descriptive word. If I could paint I'd show you. But I did see it with my own eyes: so I'm definitely not lying. I was a kid all over again.

The river gave up its three species of trout: brown, brook, rainbow. They liked a Bead-head Prince Nymph, which is well known to American anglers, but a new one on me.

The better pictures here were taken by my host. I'll call him Tidal to preserve his modesty, but you'll find him and his work here. He's been visiting this river since early childhood and knows it like he knows the rooms in his own house. Today was sheer pleasure, and I'm grateful to him for that.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

That Special Relationship

I will get to real fishing when we thaw. Meantime, I wanted to capture some simple thoughts on what it’s been like to be a fly fisher on two continents. The simple answer is damned lucky, but here goes:

*It’s far cheaper here. In the UK you often pay-as-you-fish. Trout fishing $40 a time, anyone? Much of the fishing, particularly salmon fishing, is privately owned and expensive.

*Ergo, in New England we have considerably more access to more fishing. The grass is greener for the omnivore angler who likes brookies, stripers, carp, trout – you name it.

*All for $50 a year.
*In Scotland trout fishing largely means drifting in a boat on still water. These are called lochs (loughs in Ireland) and pronounced with as much spittle as you care to generate. This is a wonderful and highly developed branch of fly fishing; from the wet fly loch-style of the north (long rod, 4 flies), to the nymph disciples of the south’s rainbow reservoirs.
*In CT our trout are mostly in rivers.
*In the UK streamers are more aptly called “lures”.
*There are thousands of “put and take” trout fisheries throughout the UK. Some are puddles in the ground, others are beautifully landscaped oases. One can catch large triploid rainbows there, typically on lures. I once caught a 10.5lb rainbow in one such place. It had half a tail and was probably happy to meet my priest (poor beast).
*A priest is a blunt instrument for the dispatch of fish. If you didn’t know this, good for you.
*One pellet hog rainbow does not equate to one 6oz wild brown in my world.
*In Scotland, if I wanted to escape the rainbow stew ponds, I had my choice of wild brown trout, brown trout, or maybe some wild brown trout. A point labored, perhaps; I also had wonderful Atlantic salmon rivers, and I miss them terribly, but they were pricey, and it’s a very fickle end of our sport (pay thousands of pounds in advance only to find the river dry? Hard cheese).
*Spent brood-stock salmon are like stockings filled with mulch by comparison to their fresh run cousins. Think steelhead.
*When I arrived in the US I caught new and wonderful creatures: carp, sunnies, 3 species of bass, 3 of trout, salmon (by accident), creek chub etc etc. The UK has a long list of “coarse” fish too, but not usually caught by the fly angler.

*Sea robins. Weird.

*There are pike and other coarse fish in Scotland, but more so in the richer chalk waters of England (these are 9 hours drive from Edinburgh. The Country’s not that small).

*There’s a whole separate angling genre in the UK and it is practiced by several hundred thousand people. It is called “coarse fishing” because these fish were thought to be inedible at one time. Beautiful fish like dace, chub, zander, perch (the same yellow variety), carp (same), tench, bream, roach, pike (same). They are angled with bait and spoons.

*Trotting maggots under a float is dreamy. Try it.

*I miss Thymallus thymallus, the beautiful Lady of the Stream.

*The UK also has some saltwater angling, but we are blessed in CT/RI/Maine with stronger stocks of stripers and blues, neither of which inhabits UK waters.

*In southern England a saltwater mullet (a “thick lip”) might take your fly. If is does, hang on as best you can.

*A sunfish is a thing of wonder to a grown man who has had brown trout coming out of his ears since the age of 12. It is from the same Martian world as the Sea Robin.

*I saw my first brook trout at age 35. I am having an affair with brook trout. I’m wedded to browns.

*The greatest trout fishing in Scotland is in the wilderness areas and typically requires a stint of vacation to sample (most of the populous live in cities). In CT our streams are on the doorsteps of our rural townships.

*Wearing tweed and drinking whisky is obligatory on all Scottish salmon rivers (it’s my blog, my fantasy).

*The River Spey is in Scotland. Spey rods are American.

*A trout rod in Scotland measures 10’ long. A better bet than 9’.

*Witnessing a 20lb river pike attack a live bait is only bettered for sheer scare-the-tuna-salad panic by the prospect of dealing with the beast once grassed.

*Last year a 5lb bluefish tried to crack my knuckles then eat me. More please.

*In recent years salmon fishers in the UK have taken a leaf from Yankee brethren and instituted catch & release. The same cannot be said for our treatment of wild brown trout, where a culture of kill and eat still prevails.

*This is fine in the acidic lochs of northern Scotland, where tiny trout compete for limited food. An ecologist would tell you that harvesting fish is healthy in this scenario. I believe that.

*I learned good fish handling in America.

*Cuba’s famous export is available in Britain. But there are good options here.

So, some vague generalities, some of them true. The experience of fishing these two countries leaves me grateful for their vast differences and wonderful similarities. I’ll catch a trout on Connecticut's Farmington River this spring on a fly that last saw the waters of Loch Leven when I was age 15. That’s pretty cool, but of course the trout will be none the wiser.

I hope it’s a brownie.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Rivers of a Lost Coast

My chum got me switched onto the old school steelhead anglers of America's West. They were true pioneers in fly fishing. Back in the 30s and 40s the rivers were stacked tight with these big, chrome anadromous rainbow trout. The country was wild and the people were hard and fascinating. Many Americans will tell you that they lack depth of history compared to Europe; it's a younger place, after all. Picking up from Russell Chatham's book "The Angler's Coast", this film captures a valuable piece of American heritage. It also gives stark warning, as today many of these great rivers are devoid of life. Will we take notice? Tom Skerritt narrates.