Friday, September 30, 2011

One Last Time

I've driven nearly an hour under gray looming skies, first down the highway, then the expressway.  Now I'm beating down a very familiar dirt road, deep in the back country.  This is a pilgrimage of sorts, in a couple of different ways- I'm headed to my favorite stretch of water in Trout Country, and it's the second to last day of the trout season here.  I had intended to fish the last day of the season Friday, but the weather man says otherwise, with high winds and rain predicted..  When I pull up to the access I'm gratified to see the lot empty- exactly what I expected on a Thursday afternoon in late September.  It's been one of those weeks, and when I had gotten to town I realized I had left all my fly boxes behind, and so I ran to the local party store/ outdoor gear purveyor.  They sell flies for 99 cents apiece.  I get tired of buying flies when I have boxes full of them and a vise, so I limit my purchase to just five- two stimulators, one Chernobyl, and two elk-hair caddis.  At the river I suit up, put my rod together, lock the truck and wade in.

Where does a season go?  Where did summer go?  What happened?  I think back to all the plans I'd had for this year.  I did manage to reach some goals, certainly had a lot of firsts and personal bests this year, so I guess I can't complain.  But where did the trout season go?  How did the entire thing transpire, so that now I'm blowing off work, to squeeze in a couple of hours on my favorite water ahead of the gale?  A lot has happened.  Goodness it was a busy year.  I accomplished a lot.  I fished for smallmouth and carp on the fly for the first time, successfully I might add.  I caught my personal best brown and brookies.  I got to try new gear, and added a new rod to the quiver.  I finally got what resembles a double-haul down.
dubious record- small fish of the year?

There's a lot I didn't do.  I never did make it down to my favorite stretch of the Manistee to hopper fish.  I didn't get to try any of the UP water I had wanted to get to. I didn't night fish enough.  I know you won't feel sorry for me, but it feels like I didn't get to fish enough period, like I I let the whole thing get away, a summer squandered.

I wade up past the first bend to the first spot that usually holds a couple of fish.  I'm using an olive stimulator.  On the second cast a splashy take announces the first fish of the day.  These brook trout are feeding heavily now, trying to bulk up ahead of the November spawning season.  I bring this fish in, it's colors flashing fluorescent orange off-set by black and deep green.  Two casts later another rise, but within seconds the fish comes off.  I pull in my line to find that my knot has come unraveled.  That leaves  four flies in the box.  I tie on the other stimulator and keep fishing.

I won't bore you with every detail of the day.  I caught a dozen or so fish, but it wasn't epic.  I always see big fish in this stretch, but none show themselves this day.  I don't land anything over ten inches.  What the fish lack in size and numbers they make up for in color and attitude, slashing at my flies, jumping when hooked and flashing those amazing colors.  A couple of the fish look ordinary, but most are painted up better than any artist could.  Some are so black and orange they look fake.  In another day they'll have the rest year off from bothersome fisherman, til next spring when this starts again.  I can't complain really- there's still water that's open to fishing, the salmon runs are going strong, the steelhead fishing will just improve for the next couple of months, and stripping streamers for lake run browns is just heating up.  But the last time that you're able to head to your favorite stream, catch these beautiful little jewels, stand alone in silence far out in the wild, fly rod in hand, knowing that another season has come and gone- it fills me with a sadness.  It's not just this day, or even this season.  It's the flowing of time, the knowledge that it won't stop for anything.  It's a sense of loss, another season gone.  I have good memories, but large parts of it are blank, and I'm struggling to remember what happened.  Did I fish at all in July?
raining on my parade

I fish for almost three hours before the rain starts.  At the last hole, with rain falling steadily, an almost imperceptible swirl announces the big fish of the day, all of ten inches.  He's hooked in the belly, not exactly how I want to end the season.  But it's raining hard now, and it is a long walk out- time to go.  I manage to land one more fish on the way out, with colors so bright it almost hurts to look at him.  When I reach my truck I stow my gear, turn the heater on, and head home in the gathering dusk and storm.  I'll return next season and start this story all over again.
this guy took the color prize

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Michigan vs. the World

Or the Value of Home Waters

hard to beat that Rocky Mountain scenery
I hear it all the time.  "The fishing is ok, but it's not Colorado."  You can replace Colorado with any destination you like- Canada, Montana, British Columbia, New Zealand, Alaska.  It doesn't matter the place, the idea being that the fishing is pretty pedestrian and dull here, the fish being bigger and more plentiful, the grass definitely greener everywhere else.  It seems to be a local mentality, or maybe people everywhere think like that.  I've fished a couple of premier locations- Colorado, the San Juan river in New Mexico, Canada.  I've had some fantastic fishing in all these places, had non-stop action, epic days.  Lots of fish, big fish, gorgeous scenery.  What I've found however, is that in the end it's all just fishing.

Not to discredit or downplay those experiences.  I was blown away by Colorado and Montana.  I definitely want to go back to Washington and Oregon.  Nipigon Ontario could become an annual trip for me.  But none of these beat the opportunities I have here in my home waters.  Those places and experiences, while dear to me, were no better, and no worse.
Take THAT Montana

I think that this idea- that the fishing here is dull, that it is much better everywhere else, stems from two sources.  First, the people who say them haven't actually been to the places of which they speak.  Second, they haven't explored their home waters sufficiently.

I'll make a comparison with the Rocky Mountain West.  Too many legendary rivers to name.  Way too many unsung creeks and rivers that are just as good.  Just as many secluded lakes you and I have never heard of.  I've gone and fished these places, had epic days, watched big, fat cutthroat trout cruising by the dozens in crystal clear water, set against that astonishing mountainous backdrop.  I've also had bad days, when the weather shut the fish and us down, when the fish took their ball and went home.  Western fish can be extremely hot and cold.  I also know that a lot of these places are inaccessible for large parts of the year.  I heard the complaints of all my western fishing friends this year, about how the spring run-off keeps them from fishing until mid-summer.  This year it was particularly long.  While they were bemoaning conditions, I was here catching fish.

Quite awhile back Field and Stream kicked off a minor storm by proclaiming Michigan to be the best state for fly fishing.  Alex Cerveniak of, a Michigan native and recent returnee, argued for the state of New York.  I'm sure a lot of people had their argument for their own state or favorite.  I argued for Michigan, and my argument is this- we have about 14,000 miles of trout stream, a significant portion of which receive salmon and steelhead runs.  Michigan has a large population of fisherman, but it by no means has the population centers of the east coast, and its rivers see nothing of the traffic that famous national park rivers such as the Yellowstone or the Big Thompson in RMNP get.  If you're not from Michigan I'm willing to bet that the only Michigan rivers you might have heard of are the Pere Marquette and the Au Sable.  Ok, the Two-Hearted river, but only because of Hemingway.  Good luck trying to fish that miserable, tannic, tag alder choked ditch.  But guess what, with 14,000 miles of trout stream and loads of public access and none of this "Private Water" nonsense they have out west, there's tons of river to explore, and if you look hard enough you can definitely find your own Shangri-La.  For every epic day I've had elsewhere, I've had dozens here.  30 fish days, 50 fish days, big fish, little fish.  Michigan does not have the Rocky Mountains, no.  It has its own unique beauty.  Apples and oranges.  Every trout stream has its own charm, each one is a gift, I've never seen an ugly trout stream, not here in Trout Country.  Despite my forays to other places, most of my personal best fish, including an 8 pound brown this year, and a 14 pound steelhead, all came from good ol' MI, not the Madison or British Columbia (to be fair I haven't fished BC- yet.)
sunset in Trout Country

It does take some research and work to find the good fishing.  The locals can hit these streams pretty hard.  Some of the streams' fly hatches peter out in July and the bite can be tough.  The key I have found everywhere here is to get away from the access points.  Be willing to walk in, put some distance between yourself and the parking lot.  The great thing here is that you don't have to climb a mountain to do it, or wait for a glacier to melt.

I'm not pooh-poohing the fishing in these other places, and I have my own bucket list of places to go and  see and fish.  Everyone should.  What I don't believe, is that the grass is greener.  It's just different.  I'm not spitting on your home or favorite destination either.  My intent here, is that if you live in Trout Country or visit it often, appreciate what you have.  There's a reason such places have great fishing-  they tend to be remote, or access extremely difficult, or the weather forbids fishing ten months of the year.  What I know though, is that I have fantastic fishing here, with virtually year-round opportunities on more species than most anglers can dream about.  I appreciate what I have.  Trout are trout, and fly fishing will always be a special privilege, whether there's a mountain in the background or not.
success is sweet, no matter the size or setting

Monday, September 19, 2011

Monday Morning Coffee- September 19

Monday, Monday, MONDAY!!!  It's here again.  No sense crying about it.  Face it and move on.    Let's have some coffee.

After being gone from home four weekends in a row, I had to settle in and get some work done, including yesterday.  I did a car spot for Phil Friday on the Boyne River, and despite there being salmon present, I did not bring my gear.  It still amazes me to see yard-long fish in such a shallow clear stream.  Sunday I made myself go back out on my local brook trout water and see what I could do.

A nice selection from Angler's Choice Flies
The twist, is that I had contacted Michael Schmidt of Angler's Choice Flies some time back about getting some hopper patterns from him for an article I had in the works.  Mike went on a big trip to Alaska, and I did my Nipigon trip, but when I returned home from Detroit last week, I found an envelope in the mail with half a dozen flies in it.  With no real hatches happening, terrestrial is the only way to go right now, and the brook trout are feeding, trying to get ready for fall spawning.  Mike's flies didn't disappoint, and I had a rise on the very first cast. I managed to catch a couple of fish which was gratifying.  When I reached a very large beaver dam I had to change it up a bit.  It held fish, but they were very line shy, and not inclined toward naturals at all. That orange/black Chernobyl ended up producing.  I only caught a half-dozen fish, but with clear skies, very low and clear water, high wind and spooky fish, I counted the day as a success.

One thing I want to say about Angler's Choice Flies- Mike Schmidt is one of the best contemporary tiers out there.  He does it all, but his specialty is streamers, and his streamers are incredible.  Mike definitely has a style.  His streamers hit all the buttons, and if you're after big trout you need to check his website out and order some flies.  He has everything from classics, to modern patterns by Senyo and Galloup, to his own original creations which are on par with anything out there.  Check it out, get some.  Mike also has a blog that cover's his tying and fishing that I think you'll enjoy, if you're not following it already.

As I write this we're receiving our first big rain of the fall season, which will push the salmon into the rivers big-time.  I may have to head out this evening and see what I can find.  I also have to put together my September piece for my Angler's Year series, so I'll try to get that up this week.  I hope you all have a great week.

Let's get after it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Brook Trout Theory

Author's note- I wrote this piece not too long after catching what was at the time my biggest brook trout ever in June of this year.  I wrote it to share some insight and techniques, but also because I was surprised at some criticism I received over my choice of fly etc. never mind that I had actually caught the fish.  I wrote the piece for Fontinalis Rising, and at the last minute submitted it to The Cedar Sweeper Magazine for publication.  It ended up being my first published piece ever.  My thanks to Chuck Sams for his continued interest in my work.  I'm posting it here now so that my blog audience can read it.  As you know, I went to Nipigon Ontario later this summer and caught much bigger brookies than this one but found that my ideas pertaining to brook trout held true; some pics of those fish are also included toward the bottom.  I hope you enjoy and find this piece useful.  JT/FR

Since I am a newly minted expert on brook trout, having landed a personal best 16-incher as of late, I'd like to share some nuggets. Yes I'm chest thumping.  Please forgive.

I've gotten some sourgrapes criticism for catching my big brook trout on a chernobyl pattern, which is basically a Whopper wrapper on a hook.  I have one thing to say to this, but a picture is worth a thousand "Ha, ha"s.

I have three methodologies when fishing brook trout- Match the Hatch, Stimulator, and Sub-surface.  Guess which produces the most? It ain't Match the Hatch.

Here's what I've found.  Brook trout are not brown trout.  For example, I fished that river, that day, because I knew that the weather would have the browns put down, but that I'd have a snowballs chance at a nice brookie.  It was overcast, chilly and we had had a serious dump of rain, but that stretch of river does not dirty up readily.
this fish will always be a favorite
Now, given those conditions, and that there were no active bugs, I went Stimulator.  What is it?  It's anything from a stimulator pattern, to a Whopper-on-a-Stick - yeah, a Chernobyl.  Stimulator is legs, eyes, color, flash, hair and size- anything that pushes buttons, usually to the extreme.  A natural insect has legs, which they articulate and pulse in order to swim or in distress.  Big rubber legs pulse and twitch, like legs cut off by a freight car.  It hits that button, with a jackhammer.

I use Stimulator patterns any time the fish are down, the bite is off, the weather is changing, it's bright, it's hot, it's cold and so on.  Any type of disturbance in the Brook Trout Force.  That big Chernobyl, that day, said big meal to a big trout, and with flash, size, and legs, it pushed a lot of buttons.

Sub-surface- i.e. streamers etc.  Brook trout like all trout do most of their feeding underwater.  They are most comfortable not having to show themselves to land- and air-based predators.  Nymphs work, but soft hackles are deadly on brook trout.  Swing, baby, swing.  A lot of brook trout rivers are too small and have soft bottoms that aren't suited to downstream fishing.  You can fish soft hackles upstream, or even indicator fish them.  They love partridge and orange.
Streamers are my favorite for brook trout, and I've landed nice fish, 10" and up on muddlers, black nosed dace, and Mickey Finns.  Red and yellow are big draws for brook trout, and I've recently started tying size 6 Zoo Cougars with a red collar- I have a hunch this will catch the biggest brookie in any river.  I'll get back to you on that.  I could lull you to sleep with the blah blah on woolly buggers.  Yes they work. 'Nuff  said.   Black, Olive, purple- knock yourself out.  Skunks are a red hot fly for brookies as well.

Match-the-Hatch.  Yes, there are times when brookies are keyed in and keyed up on specific bugs.  The other night it was blue-winged olives, but only in certain stretches of river. In other stretches, it was sulfur emergers.  I've had maddening evenings, with nice fish rising and big mayflies in the air and on the water, only to find, belatedly, that they were feeding exclusively on the few caddis that were hatching.  Why?  ??  ?????  Yeah, your guess is as good as mine.
this fall fish went for a BWO

In the end, what I've found is that big brook trout don't care that much about flies.  You'll catch fish in the 8"-14" range on bugs, but after that they want meat.  Crayfish, sculpins, your mothers gallbladder.  It's funny, but that fish I caught last week was not an anomaly.  They actually become more vulnerable to Big Ugly as they get older and bigger.  While browns are the fly connoisseurs, brook trout don't sip.  They gulp and glug.  I caught a ten inch brookie on the Rapid River about 6 years ago and noticed he had a twig sticking out of his mouth.  I pulled the "twig" out and found out it was attached to the half-digested body of a mouse.  A TEN INCH brook trout ate a mouse.  Makes you think, don't it.

What brook trout want, is respect.  You have to be quiet, cautious, accurate and direct.  Flub the presentation and you're done.  Line them on a clear day- move on to the next hole.  While last weeks fish was a personal best, I've caught a lot of 14 inch fish, and learned a lot of lessons.  One fly for brook trout? That orange Chernobyl.  Two?  A Joe's Hopper.  Three? A skunk. Four? A sculpin of your choice.  I'm not fishing for tiddlers.  After that? A stimulator, a size 12 elk hair caddis, and soft hackles.

Now go get 'em.
Fontinalis and fontinalis, Nipigon ON

Monday, September 12, 2011

Video Post- BIG Nipigon Brook Trout

I'm out on assignment right now, so in lieu of Monday Morning Coffee, I'm posting this video of one of my biggest brookies from the Nipigon trip.  Mind you, every gas station in Nipigon has polaroids on the wall of fish twice this size, but this one is a personal best, one of about five I caught on the trip in this size range.  I lost or missed two fish in the 5-6 pound range.  This one was about 3 1/2 pounds and 20 inches long.  We were there in the off-season and so I thought we did pretty well. I'll let the video say the rest.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Kings and the Revenge of Max Quordlepleen

my big fish of the week
Another week flips by, another holiday weekend, and where does the time go?  I'm hearing from you- where's Monday Morning Coffee this week?  I've got to be better prepared.  But you know how it is- what was supposed to be quick weekend trip to Metro Detroit to take care of business and spend time with my daughter turned into a whole weekend and several hundred dollars in vehicle repairs.  And I ate at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

Not really, but close enough, and it was just the kind of place that Douglas Adams was lampooning in his book- poorly lit, overpriced, Au Jus on the steaks, a vast dining room full of people celebrating anniversaries and birthdays, amid a sea of white and blue hair.  The band, complete with Max Quordlepleen, played Sinatra standards and Happy Birthday, while the oldsters swayed back and forth, using the moves they perfected 50 years ago while dating.  The waitress was actually proud that the menu hadn't changed in 40 years, and it tasted that way.  No cows implored us to choose a steak before offing themselves, but I'm pretty sure that the universe ended, just a little, that night.  If you walk out the doors of said establishment, it does indeed reek of destruction, the wrecked neighborhoods, businesses and lives stretching on for miles, this being Metro Detroit.  Inside, the last generation of people with pensions or health care ate their steaks and celebrated what's left of their lives.  When they die, this place will go out of business.

Then my brakes failed Sunday, and so several hundred dollars and another day down there, we fixed them and I returned home like everyone else- tired, wondering where summer went, shivering in the cold that blew in the moment September arrived, thinking about the start of a work week and a school year.

I did go last Tuesday to the Betsie River near Traverse City for kings, and the fishing was fantastic, this despite a couple of hundred people being there.  We got into some nice kings and so I'll share a couple of pics and go to work.  There were hundreds of fish in the river, and I think we hooked up about 35 times between the three of us.  The down side was that with all the pressure the fish weren't biting, and only the minority were fair hook-ups, and most got off without too much struggle.  Still, it was a a great day and we got into some nice fish.  Hopefully the runs will start in my home rivers soon.

Pig of the day

Phil into a nice fish

this one made good its escape

another pig