Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Pure Bronze Fun

2017 has brought with it a lot of memorable moments on the water.  Friday's outing for small stream smallmouth bass was the most enjoyable and fun half day of fishing I have had this year.  Earlier this summer, I fished a new-to-me stretch of water under less than ideal conditions.  I still caught fish, but most importantly, I found some incredible looking water that I'm sure receives very little traffic and I knew should house some good fish.  Seeing a good window of opportunity to hit this stretch again, I took Friday off and hoped the brown bass would have the feed bags on.  A lengthy hike down the railroad tracks took me most of the way.

My high hopes were raised even higher when I laid eyes on the water.  It was absolutely gorgeous.  Very clean with a slower flow than the last outing on this stream.  I continued down to the lowest point I planned to hike so that I could begin fishing upstream in search of smallies.  In this smaller water, smallmouth typically run in the 8-10" range, with my best fish being about 16" in this general area.   

Thoughts of how aggressive the fish were going to be that morning went away quickly.  On the first cast, I had multiple strikes and misses.  On the second cast, I hooked a small but feisty bronzeback.  The fish were hungry and I was feeding them what they wanted.

Not far from where I began fishing, I came to a spot with some deep water, current, and cover.  It had the look of a spot that should hold multiple good fish, and it did not disappoint.  A miss on the first cast to the juicy water was followed by a hookup on the next cast.

Moving very slightly to fish a different current seam in the same location, I found a better fish.  Most of the larger fish I caught on the day had clearly been feeding a lot.  Their guts were getting full and they had been packing on the weight with the cooler weather coming.

As I continued upstream, I cam to a location I had seen on the hike down that looked incredible.  Once again, a combination of depth, current, and cover.  A large log lay against the bank on a deep cut with current flowing right into it.  Casts off the log yielded no strikes, but on the first cast tight to the log I came tight to the best fish of the day.  This fish was about 15.5" in my measure net.

Continuing upstream, I came to some water I had fished in the past and thought it would be great popper water.  Stretches I love to work with a topwater are long, slow moving pools with some depth and no real obvious mid-stream structure or current breaks.  I like "searching" and fan casting these areas with a popper, and the popper produced almost immediately.

Having caught a few fish on a foam popper with a Double Barrel head, I decided to take the silly up a notch and see if I could pop a decent fish on a small deer hair popper.  Another stretch of popper water was coming up, and I had the deer hair bug ready to get blasted.

What would transpire was one of the most bizarre interactions I have seen from a smallmouth with a topwater fly.  On the first cast into a shaded bank with some deep rock, I gave the fly a hard pop and watched the fish come up quickly to the fly, rejecting it, and heading back down.  The fish came so hard at the fly that the water boiled under it.  I gave a quick twitch, and the fish again came up and refused the fly, returning to the deep water.  One more twitch, and the fish came back a third time, and almost without dimpling the water, sipped the popper like a trout carefully eating a mayfly dun.

The 15" popper fish capped off what was a really enjoyable day on the water.  Temperatures were cool in the morning but not hot later in the day, the water felt great for wet wading, I had the stream to myself, and the bass had the feed bags on.  My glass 3wt rod was bent all morning.  I have had outings with bigger fish caught this year, and more fish caught, but this was the best outing of my year...so far. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

New Creek Exploration

Last weekend, by pure luck, I stumbled upon a new (to me) small stream close to home that looked worthy of some fishing attention.  The general area of this stream I have frequented, but I had disregarded the new water because of the way it appears on Google Maps.  Compared to the stream I fish regularly, this flow looked tiny.  In person it was anything but tiny.  Unfortunately I was/am running out of small stream time so I had to make it happen soon.  Small streams near me seem to shut down early in the fall.  In the least, the bite gets markedly slower.  The clock was ticking so I made a go at the flow on Saturday morning.  Entry to this creek is pretty unique.  The hiking trail will take you there in a shade under half a mile, but the trail passes through one of the local abandoned train tunnels. 

I arrived at the water and found it to be in excellent condition.  The water was flowing slower than I had seen it a week earlier on the family hike, and also had much better water clarity.  For a small stream, it appeared to have the potential for some decent sized fish.  The stream had many large, deep holes with wood cover connected by shallower runs.

Worries of a skunking were quickly wiped away at the first stop of the morning.  I connected on a pretty average spotted bass with the Murdich Jig Minnow, and picked up some rock bass and longear sunfish on smaller offerings.

I slowly worked my way upstream, picking off several fish on the way.  The majority of the catch would be rock bass and longears, with a few spotted bass sprinkled in.  The largest bass I saw on the trip, of course, saw me before I saw the bass.  I was working hard to move as gently as possible along a tight shoreline by a deep hole, but my ninja skills were poor and the bass pegged me.  A few casts towards it did nothing to entice a strike.  The HD Craw in size 10, the smallest I have tied the pattern, caught a lot of fish on the day.

Longear sunfish are easily my favorite panfish to catch.  They are never the largest fish to be caught, but what they lack in size they more than make up for in beauty.  This creek had some colorful gems.  

The most surprising fish of the day ended up being my new personal best rock bass.  My day was coming to an end earlier than I had hoped due to a splitting headache, and this fish was caught in the second-to-last large pool that I fished.  Of course it pounced on the Murdich Jig Minnow and had me thinking it was a spotted bass.  For a rock bass, it had a great paddle. 

I closed out the day with the best bass of the day, yet another Jig Minnow victim.  No matter where I have fished this pattern, it has not failed to produce.

A product that is new to me this season that has been extremely handy for trips like this is the Tacky Tube.  To be perfectly honest, when I saw it for the first time, I thought it was an odd product.  The more I thought about it, the more sense it made as a small "working box" to keep small streamers handy and accessible on outings like this.  I can quickly load it with a variety of flies I expect to use and have them easily reached at all times.  

With the days getting shorter and the nights getting cooler, I am not sure if I will make it back to this stream before next year.  As it always goes with wade trips like this, after rechecking the maps when I returned home I saw that I had barely covered any water.  On a short outing to new water, I could not have asked for much more.  I'll definitely be returning next year and hope for more success.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Ohio River Magic

I have lived my entire life within a short drive of the Ohio River.  The definition of "short" has changed a bit with some moves, but I have never been more than a 35-40 minute drive from the river.  Most of my earlier childhood through high school, it was more like a 10 minute bicycle ride away from the front door.  Having not picked up fly fishing until around the college age, I have pretty limited experience fly fishing the Ohio.  I've made an effort to change that in recent years.  There is no denying that the Ohio holds some incredible fish, but fly fishing the big river throws some hurdles at you, as well.  Shore fishing can be tough.  Wading is not much of an option.  So when a friend called over the weekend and offered a seat on his boat for Monday morning, I jumped at the opportunity.  This buddy and I go way back, and he has no issues cracking jokes and poking fun at my fly rod usage from his fiberglass bass boat.  I expected the same for Monday, and got it.

We went into this 1/2 day outing with no real solid plan.  Tackle and gear was brought along for most scenarios and species we expected to encounter.  I brought an UL spinning rig in case we found sauger in 20+ feet of water, a heavy weight baitcaster rig for catfish, and my Orvis Access 9' 7wt.  We started off fishing near an industrial site along the river with some large pilings that create some current breaks.  This spot usually has a lot of baitfish, which attracts the skipjack and larger predatory fish.  I did manage the first fish of the day on the fly there, this feisty little smallmouth that was chasing bait near the pilings.

The Murdich Jig Minnow, from last week's tying tutorial post, in a size 2 was the only fly I threw on this outing.  Even in the larger size, and presenting a larger meal, the fly casts easily and gets down well considering the fairly light weight of the fly.  After failing to catch catfish for about an hour and a half, we changed gears again and decided to hit the rocky shoreline below the tailrace.  Upon motoring up, we immediately saw small baitfish getting blitzed by skipjack.  After a few minutes, we saw a larger boil, indicating something bigger feeding here, as well.  A long cast tight to the rocks got me bent again on the 7wt, this time with a chunkier smallmouth.

They were getting bigger.  We had made several drifts down one particular current seam with both of us catching fish.  He was getting channel cats on a bottom rig, I had caught a smallmouth and lost another unidentified fish that felt heavy.  A tiny point of rock that jutted out into the current was the location of repeated boils, but no hookups after repeated casts.  On the next drift, barely in casting reach of that rocky outcropping, I laid out a long cast on the money.  One strip...boom.  I felt a hard grab and set the hook.  

On the hook set, I told my buddy "Good fish." A split second later, a huge smallmouth erupted from the water and crashed back down.  I turned back and shouted "Holy fecal matter!" or something similar to that.  What ensued was a crazy battle with hard surges to the bottom and towards the rocks, followed by leaps out of the water.  I knew from the moment I saw this fish that it was by far the biggest smallmouth bass I had ever hooked.  Repeated attempts to land the fish by my friend at the front of the boat failed, so I took matters into my own hands.  I got the fish near the back of the boat, dropped quickly to my knees, and got the beast lipped.

Fish Ohio is the trophy fish certification program in Ohio.  For years, the minimum qualifying length for smallmouth was 20", heavily influenced by the tank smallies of Lake Erie.  I had never come that close to a 20" fish and always assumed it to be out of my reach.  This year they added the qualification size of 18" for non-Lake Erie smallmouth which I had met on one fish this spring.  This fish measured 21".  There have not been many fish that have left me shaken, but this bronze beauty did just that.  We snapped a few quick photos, took a quick rod measurement, and I got her back in the water.  Once she was ready to go, we parted ways.    

For years, I have heard the stories and seen the photos of smallmouth like this being caught from the Ohio River on conventional gear.  I knew they were there, but I honestly never thought I would ever find myself attached to one on the fly.  Most of the stories I have heard revolve around deep structure, the types that are almost impossible to effectively fish with fly gear.  The location where this fish was caught had everything: food, current, cover, shade, and nearby depth.  Add it all up and it was sort of the perfect storm to allow a fish of this caliber to be in reach of a fly angler.  I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time to make a memory that will last a lifetime.