Monday, July 16, 2018

Small Water Exploration

Over a year ago I discovered a small (small) stream that you would never expect to be fishable by looking at a map.  I found the stream by sheer luck on a hike with my wife and son.  From the moment I saw it, I knew it had potential to be a fun little stream to wade with a light fly rod.  Due to the isolation and the effort needed to reach it, I expected pressure to be minimal if not non-existent.  The stream is a tributary of another stream I have fished quite a bit, making it a tributary of a tributary of the Ohio River.  Last summer I made a very short trip in to fish a small piece of the creek and caught several fish.  That trip only served to light a fire to go back and hit some new water farther in off the lightly beaten path near a supposedly haunted train tunnel.

For this trip I packed light.  Too light.  I forgot one critical piece of gear needed for this area, and I paid the price dearly.  I mistakenly presumed my bug repellent was still in my car while it was actually in my larger fishing pack.  The one I did not take.  The relentless swarm of blood-suckers ultimately ended my outing prematurely.  What I did remember to bring was a small assortment of crawfish and baitfish flies, along with my trusty Moonlit Shadowcast 3wt glass rod.  Early on, the outing was baffling.  I found gorgeous water with depth and cover...but the action was slower than slow.  The bite picked up quickly and I discovered the creek was loaded with rock bass.

Rock bass are fun to catch, but they are not the main "draw" for me on streams like this.  What I am truly after are the spotted and largemouth bass, as well as the most gorgeous of sunfish: the longears.  I soon saw a spotted bass trailing my crawfish fly, but the fish was not acting overly aggressive.  I worked way too hard to get this bass to eat.  It took repeated casts, speeding up and slowing down the craw, before finally getting the eat.  I was hoping this wasn't a bad omen for bass fishing the creek, but it turned out to be the only bass that was so passive towards the fly.

Now for the part that's difficult to believe without photographic evidence.  I spotted a great bass for this creek, a solid 13-14" fish, holding in shallow water at the tail of a pool.  I managed to flip my craw fly in its vicinity and the fish did the rest.  Just one problem, I broke off on the hook set, rolling the fish.  The bass swam up into the large pool and actually jumped once just to pour a little salt in the wound.  I moved upstream, now fishing a brown version of the same craw that fish ate (which was black/blue).  I caught one small bass, then had a more solid eat.  I lipped the bass and started laughing hysterically.  I got my fly back. 

Continuing upstream, I at long last found a few of the hidden gems of SE Ohio, the longear sunfish.  Longears are never going to be the largest fish you catch on an outing, but you will be hard pressed to ever catch a fish more gorgeous than a brightly colored longear.  I was fortunate to find two of them on this trip, along with a nicely colored green sunfish sprinkled in between.

Roughly halfway through the stretch I intended to fish, I was running out of patience dealing with the mosquitoes.  My choices at that point were to turn back, or try smearing stream mud on my exposed skin to try to turn them away.  After catching a few more rock bass and a well-hidden spotted bass that was hiding under some logs, I reached the breaking point and started back.  Mosquitoes won the war and I learned my lesson to always be sure the bug spray is where you think it is. 

The walk back was briskly paced, and even that didn't keep the mosquitoes from trying their best to get another drink from me.  The outing produced a large number of fish, some surprisingly large fish given the size of the stream, and eight total species of fish caught (spotted and largemouth bass, rock bass, bluegill, green and longear sunfish, creek chub, and shiner).  I only managed to cover about half of the water I had intended to fish, so a return trip will certainly be in order.  It was a great outing for peace and solitude, minus the company of the mosquitoes.  You never know what small streams like this might hold, so get out and explore.  You might find a gem hidden close to home on 100% public ground, just like this.


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Plans Change...and Change...and Change Again

2018 has been a year I won't soon forget in terms of fishing in southern and southeastern Ohio, but not for good reasons.  The weather has been simply awful this year.  Our typical "season" for fishing rivers and creeks will run from late spring after the rainy spring subsides until fall.  In a normal year, prime fishing is happening on waters I like from roughly mid May through November.  This week, now in the second week in July, our flows are finally in good condition for the first time since early April.  Weekly powerful thunderstorms and rains have been relentless and had a huge impact on my local fishing prospects. 

On this past Saturday, a good friend and I planned to hit one such flow for spotted and largemouth bass.  The online USGS gauge was looking "iffy" at best.  The water had just dropped back near normal levels, but it was still a higher flow than we prefer and that also meant the water would likely be stained or off color.  We arrived and found what we had suspected.  An already difficult stream to tread around on the bank, it was horribly unsafe to walk on Saturday with the thin layer of wet mud left on the banks by the recent high water.  The water was clean enough to fish but the walking conditions along the stream were too dangerous to ignore.

Attempts were made to wet some flies where we could reach the water safely, and I did manage to catch two small bass, but a broken fly rod or injured fisherman seemed inevitable.  Plan B was a different stretch of the same creek that we had hoped would have less steep banks coated in what seems like industrial lubricant.  This also was a strikeout.

On to Plan C, which was to hit some local farm ponds my friend had access to fish.  We debated whether or not the fishing would be good enough to warrant the drive to those ponds, when Plan D was about the same distance away and offered the chance to wade a safer stream bed for smallmouth bass.  The risk in this option was muddy water.  Compounding the risk involved was the lack of an online USGS gauge for this stream, so it was a leap of faith that our day would not be a near complete bust.  We took the chance and headed west.  When we arrived, the water was stained but fishable and our hopes of finding brown bass willing to eat rose significantly.

Before I was even rigged to start fishing, my friend already had landed two smallmouth bass on a small streamer he was throwing.  My confidence in a good bite lead me to trying a small deer hair diver initially.  An hour later, I had zero strikes and zero bass to show for it.  I moved down in the water column trying a small Murdich Jig Minnow streamer, but managed to strike out on this fly, as well.  I reverted to my #1 confidence fly for stream bass, a size 6 HD Craw in black/blue.  A strong pattern quickly emerged, and it wasn't that surprising: depth, rocky bottom, and cover was money.  Toss in some shade from the hot sun and it was a sure fire combination to hold some smallies.  I essentially dead drifted the HD Craw through the likely holding areas and let the bass do the rest.

This trip marked the first time I had been to this Ohio stream in quite some time.  A good friend of mine dated a girl from a nearby town back in our college days and we fished this stream often.  It had been years since I had returned.  I had honestly forgotten how gorgeous the scenery was on this little stream.

Nearing the end of our outing, we came to a long and deep pool.  At the tail of the pool was a good bit of rock scattered along the bottom, a narrow and deep run, and the only shade in the entire pool.  I knew without a shred of doubt that there had to be a bass or two holding here.  Quickly a small brown bass was caught and released, then I made a drift closer to the log on the shaded bank.

The strike was typical for the day, a soft thump interrupting the slow drift of the craw fly through the strike zone.  I was fishing a 9' 5wt on this outing, and smallmouth like this one reminded me why I prefer them so much to their larger green cousins.  Smallmouth bass have so much fight in them and never give in.  This bass fought harder than a green bass twice its weight and had my 5wt nearly noodled over on a few runs.

 In the end, cycling through plans was a blessing in disguise.  We ended up where we really did not intend on fishing but had a wonderful day filled with spunky bass, bent fly rods, and gorgeous weather.  Saturday also stood as a reminder to be flexible when the primary goal or options are not working out.  Change locations, change tactics, whatever is necessary to stay on fish.  The trip also reignited my desire to fish the stream more often.  Even with less than perfect conditions, and a slightly more difficult bite, we did quite well.  And even better, the extended forecast for the next 10 days looks quite dry.  It appears we could be finally turning the corner on the extended wet weather in Ohio and that will mean it's time to start pounding the moving water again.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Panfish Assault at the Beach

During the last week in June, my family made the annual migration to the SC coast for a family vacation.  We started staying at a community called Oceanside Village in Surfside several years ago.  The community sits right across the road from the Atlantic Ocean and has a series of ponds and canals located on the property.  Early on, I didn't know what to expect from fishing the ponds but was pleasantly surprised almost immediately.  There were strong populations of bass and sunfish, including both coppernose bluegill and redear sunfish.  The bass, while I have caught a few nice specimens, get pressured hard by the community guests.  The panfish, on the other hand, seem to be almost pressure-free and are present in both quality numbers and size.

I left Ohio prepared for all I could anticipate.  Along for the trip was a 9' 6wt for bass (which I expected to get minimal use), as well as a glass 3wt for windier days and my trusty 1wt for calmer days.  Wind can be an issue down there due to the proximity to the ocean.  The first two days I fished the 3wt glass rod primarily due to that wind, but luckily it calmed down for the rest of the week and I fished the 1wt almost exclusively.  The 9' 6wt did not come out of the rod tube all week, as I presumed.  Faced with the decision of whacking panfish for two hours or scratching out a bass or two in the same time frame, I choose to chase the panfish.

The fish did not disappoint, as usual.  Water in the ponds down there is very dark, taking on a tannic look, which makes spotting fish more difficult in most circumstances.  I actually did spot a few fish hanging over spawning beds, which seems very odd.  The spawn has long been over here in Ohio but seemed to be still going on (to some degree) in South Carolina.  Roughly 80% of the fish I caught were near beds, located off the deep edges near them within 4-5', with the remaining fish coming directly from beds.  I fished a dry/dropper rig virtually the entire trip.  The dry was a Foam Dragon of Fly Fish Food design (Tutorial) but the dropper changed daily.  I fished these sunfish 5 straight days and the bite slowed on a particular fly from day to day.  Popular offerings were the Nothin' Special (Tutorial), the infamous Squirminator, and Steve Gibson's Myakka Minnow.

Coppernose bluegills are simply gorgeous.  The markings on their heads are very unique and often the first thing I would see as a fish moved towards a fly.  The "copper" patch is usually lighter in color so as the fish would come up from the depths you could see the lighter color patch heading towards your fly.  They also run very dark down there, with some fish having very distinct dark barring.

I picked up a few "bonus bass" as bycatch while I was catching panfish.  They were typically smaller bass, but still good fun on light fly gear.  Another interesting tidbit about the dry/dropper fishing was that very few fish were caught on the dry.  In 5 days, roughly 2-3 fish per day would eat the dry with dozens eating the dropper.  I did fish a size 10 deer hair diver on the 1wt for a while just because it's fun to fish tiny deer hair bugs on light gear.

While I caught a lot of really solid bluegill throughout the week, the fish of the trip came on the last day I could fish.  I had only caught a handful of redears (I believe they call them shellcrackers down south) and none were terribly big.  Then, fishing a spot popular for guests to feed waterfowl and turtles, I set the hook on a fish that ate my Squirminator and my 1wt doubled over.  The fish quickly came to the surface, allowing me to see how large it was, then went berserk.  After a few strong runs, I got the fish to hand.  I still haven't measured the rod, but I don't have to measure to know it was my personal best redear sunfish.

That fish capped off another fun week of whacking panfish within sight of the Atlantic Ocean.  It's odd to be within sight of the ocean and smell the salt in the air while catching freshwater fish, but it's a real blast on the light rods.  I saw a lot of other anglers, but as usual, they were all bass fishermen.  The fish in these ponds probably only see flies one week per year, and I'm happy to be the one to do it.