Monday, June 22, 2015

Flat Water Clinic Part 2 - No Rules, No Problem

Evan with an absolute toad. Wonder why the Hungry Trout Facebook posts caught my eye!
I was sitting in frosty Pennsylvania a few winters ago, when I stumbled across some pictures on facebook of some of the most gorgeous brook trout I'd ever seen. They were caught by the folks at The Hungry Trout Fly Shop on a brook trout preserve in the Adirondacks called "Twin Ponds." I remember showing Jess and saying, "Someday... someday, I'm going to do this!"

I kept following the Hungry Trout via social media and in the winter of 2014, they announced that they would be hosting a 2-day clinic with Loren Williams on fishing stillwaters. The testing grounds for the skills being taught would be... Twin Ponds, the Jurassic Park of Brook Trout. There was no chance I was going to miss it. It was a fantastic trip and I learned more about targeting trout in lakes than I could have learned in years from reading books and trying on my own. Read more on that here.

Twin Ponds Map. Yes, everything I have that is paper has a coffee stain.
Twin Ponds is located within a 2,000 acre wildlife preserve. Brook trout were reintroduced to this lake through stocking of heritage strains of hatchery raised fish. As the story goes for brook trout populations in many other areas, development (habitat loss), acid rain, increasing temperatures, over harvest, and invasive species spelled major trouble for brook trout populations. In many lakes, they were completely wiped out. The state of New York has worked to reintroduce fish through stocking programs, but more in the "put-and-take" mentality; whereas the Hungry Trout stocked fish to develop a self sustaining population of wild brook trout.

I would say that in general, I'm NOT a fan of private "pay-to-play" water. For the most part, these waters are overstocked with obnoxiously sized trout that the particular stream they are in could not produce, nor can they healthily sustain. Twin Ponds on the other hand, is managed as a catch and release preserve with access limited to only anglers guided by the Hungry Trout. When it was observed that the lakes could sustain a healthy, reproducing population of these fantastic fish, stocking was ceased and Mother Nature was allowed to take over. Without excellent stewards like those that manage Twin Ponds, places where wild trout can live in peace are continuing to disappear.

I imagine Twin Ponds is what the Adirondacks looked like before the influence of man was so prevalent. Clean, clear lakes with shores covered in dense green woods, mountains jutting into blue skies, waters teeming with brook trout, eagles soaring overhead looking for their next meal, and the eerie laughter of loons reminding you that you are only a small part of the natural order of the wild environment.

I had such an amazing time at last year's clinic with Loren that I told my dad, "If we can get you a spot in this year's flat water clinic, you HAVE to go. You HAVE to see this place!" The clinic is restricted to only 6 people and, respectfully, was open first to those who attended last year. Fortunately, a few spots were still open and the two of us booked our spots. Due to a scheduling conflict, Loren was not able to make it this time. We definitely missed out on learning his style and observing his expertise on Loch-style fly fishing.

This time around, the class was taught by Evan and Jeff of the Hungry Trout. Though they may not have the experience of fly fishing stillwater all over the world for countless species, they have spent more time than anyone fishing this particular water for these particular fish. Also, Loch-style fishing adheres to competitive fly fishing rules. To me, fishing is purely meant to be fun. No rules, no problem.

In fly fishing competitions, trolling or casting your fly behind the boat is illegal. I don't think you'll ever hear me say, "Man, I can't wait to get to the lake AND TROLL SOME FLIES." It's certainly not the preferred way, but damn is it effective. Of the 6 fish I caught on the 3 different ponds, half of them were caught trolling flies while en route to where I was going to target structure. It's a great way to locate fish and see how they are behaving. In my mind, trolling is the stillwater version of nymphing. It's not the most fun, but it puts fish in the net when nothing else seems to be working.

The first morning, my dad, Evan, and I started on Little Duck Pond (See map), a short portage from the main pond. Prior to this trip my dad and I each bought FishCat Scout inflatable float tubes to use on stillwaters. The FishCat Scout boats are so easy to portage at only ~35 lbs, they slide over land with ease. I started on this pond last year and watched guys boat the two largest brook trout I had ever seen. I fished hard, but to no avail. So, this year it was my turn. I got into position and started casting my multi-fly rig on my type 6 sinking line toward the sunken deadfalls and counting down. I was covering water and varying my retrieve. It's going to happen...

It was about that time... my dad out in no man's land, not in position yet, yells "fish on!" (What! we just got here! You're not even fishing yet!) Bam! +20" Brook Trout. What an unbelievable fish - photographed, admired, and safely released. It's on!

I continued to bust it. Repeated casts, staying tight with my flies while the sinking line plunged them into the depths, starting my retrieve once I'd counted down to varying depths. I had a nice drift in the float tube, 60' from shore, dredging along drop-offs, freaking workin' it. Evan hooked up twice - another two brutes! The fish are here!

After many fly changes, it was getting closer to time to head back for dinner. Evan instructed my dad to go try a few casts under a large dead pine close to where we put in. First cast, BANG! My dad was into another trophy brook trout. After a solid battle, Evan nets the fish and says, "Uh, Chase, you're going to want to reel up and come see this one..."

Pardonnez mon Francais, but HOLY SHIT. I happened to have a tape measure in my boat bag for just such an occasion. 21 inches long, by 11 inches around. Three guys, floating on a pond, grinning from ear to ear, admiring first hand a truly beautiful animal. As my dad started to drift away, I had the pleasure (the best part, really) of releasing the fish. Wow.

I think by that time, the other two were feeling sorry for me a little bit. With a little time left before dinner we switched over to the main pond and rowed off in the drift boat. More casting, more working the water, and more nothing for me. Then finally, it happened. Trolling a couple flies near the Division, I picked up my first fish of the trip. A small foot long brook trout (only at Twin ponds have I ever thought that sentence made sense). It was time to call it a day, set up camp, and have some dinner.

After dinner, a few beers, and some apple turnovers warmed on the fire, there was time to reflect on an awesome day. So, I hadn't caught the fish I was after. I think it was even better seeing my dad catch those fish. Honestly, seeing Evan, who has probably caught dozens of fish like this, still get so excited speaks pretty highly for these big, wild, speckled trout. This truly is a special place. It wasn't easy to sleep that night with all the snoring and loons wailing, but that hardly matters on cloud nine.

The next morning, we were off to fish Big Duck Pond. I had never seen this pond and I remembered the year before, no one caught a fish there all weekend. The fact that I'd never fished it bothered me though. I love the challenge of new water. On the way over, I was trolling (of course), and picked up two smaller sized fish, but it certainly got my hopes up.

Three of us made the portage over to Big Duck and started searching for feeding fish. "Damn, this water looks good," is all I could think about. One shore is steeply sloped into a deep drop off, the other is more of a gradual drop, but covered in downed lumber (which I repeatedly had some of my best strip sets directly into). After one pass, I trolled back up and started the drift again. Same approach, and bang! Fish on. It's pretty hard to beat aggressive fish scarfing up flies on the strip. After a lengthy battle full of violent head shakes, I slipped the healthy char into my net. The fishing at Twin Ponds is not overly easy - these fish make you work for it. The rewards though, are SO worth the struggle.

With only a couple hours left in the trip, we all chatted over lunch about who would go where to finish the day. As plans unfolded, Evan looked at my dad and I and said, "Are you guys ok going back to Little Duck?" Dude, I thought you'd never ask!

We set off to the portage for our last session. At this point, the long drive, the few nights of sleeping in tents, rowing miles around the lakes, and two days in full sun and wind was starting to catch up with us. Fatigue overwhelmingly pales in comparison to the opportunity to catch giant brookies. As we dropped in, I noticed my dad was a little less giddy than I to catch a last chance toad. "Why don't you go ahead. I'm going to take my time and take a few pictures of the pond," says the guy with over 40 inches of brook trout after two fish.

Back at it, I notice my casts dropping a few feet shorter. My double haul is starting to lose some of its pop. "Fish!" I hear in my dad's voice. I couldn't help but shake my head and laugh as I rowed over to once again play photographer for another spectacular trout. Sometimes, you're just meant to be the guy behind the camera, not in front of it.

 Just for kicks, I put it on the measuring tape in the stripping basket in the float tube. It's amazing how perfect these boat are for this type of fishing, they're just not designed for Little Duck Pond because the tape only goes to 18". Yet again the fish was past the end. A solid 19" I'd say. (He CAN catch trout under 20 inches!!)

I love the types of fishing that can be almost zen-like. As much as I wanted to boat a trophy trout, I was beginning to feel content, thinking about a weekend full of floating around, shooting casts, and breathing in the fresh air. Stillwater fly fishing, to me, is damn fun. It's just totally different than what I've always done.

So, on what was nearly the last cast of the trip, I continued stripping into what I figured must have been another branch. Except this branch was doing the brookie head shake! "Fish on!" This felt like a heavy fish. As they seemed to do, the fish was coming right at me. Just as I got a glimpse, he must have seen me too. He surged toward the depths, peeling line and making my drag scream! A few powerful runs and he rounded out the battle with a series of death rolls at the surface before being scooped into the net. Dang...

We always dream that a fishing trip will fully live up to all the excitement you have during the planning phase. It's rare that the trip actually exceeds your expectations (flyfisherman are an overly optimistic bunch, haha). Twin Ponds sets the bar higher every year. Great destination, great people, and the fish we spend lifetimes dreaming about. I really need to get my stillwater fishing system dialed in for next year. Who knows what could happen!

A few more highlights... Who doesn't love great brook trout pictures?

***Huge thank you to Evan Bottcher for sharing his photos for this post***

Ted with a solid fish 
Chris with a healthy double!

Ted using his kayak to get at the fish
2015 Twin Ponds Crew

Monday, June 8, 2015

Rattlesnake Country

My whole life, I've known people who are afraid of snakes. Big ones, little ones, doesn't matter - a snake is a snake to them. I can't say I like them, but I know they have their place in a balanced food chain. The way I see it, snakes eat things that carry ticks: the less critters that carry ticks, the less ticks, right? The enemy of my enemy is my friend... Well, sort of, I guess, maybe.

My stance changed a little bit this weekend when I was walking through the woods in pretty low, shady, nondescript vegetation. "There won't be any snakes in here," I thought. Then I see a 2' rattlesnake going the other way. Shit. "Well, I'll play it safe and stick to the creek and gravel bars." After about 20 uneventful minutes of good fishing and happy hiking, I spook another rattlesnake about the same size sunbathing on a gravel bar. "Welp, I guess I'll keep my feet wet the rest of the day!"

This strategy worked pretty damn well, except when there were enough blow-downs to create an impasse. Then, I had to climb over logs and stumps and stumble through more vegetated gravel bars. The pucker factor was pretty high walking through weeds where I couldn't see my feet.

After almost 9 and a half miles, I saw one more snake at the base of a tree on my way out. Ugh. I don't think it was a rattlesnake but at that point it didn't matter. It was totally worth the handful of near heart attacks. I saw hundreds of healthy brook trout, 4 turtles, 3 snakes, and a porcupine. Pretty cool. Say what you want about my dislike for snakes. As long as I keep my distance and they do the same, we're all good. There's only one reason I'll willingly wander into their domain.

Fuck snakes.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

No Shortage of Good Days

One of my professors at Drexel described trying to grasp all the engineering fundamentals in our 10-week classes as " trying to drink from a firehose." That describes fly fishing in Pennsylvania in the month of May. Bugs are popping like crazy and fish are on the prowl for their next meal. If ever there was a sure thing in fly fishing, it's that if you can make it to the river this time of year, you're gonna have a good time. Finding the time to get a taste of it all is the hard part.

I've spent more time this year than any other searching for new water and running down the stories and tips I've heard about good wild fish around my area. In some cases it's paid off and in others, I've been left scratching my head wondering what I'm missing? One thing that's for sure is there is a lot of water I won't have to spend time dreaming and wondering about anymore.

Wild Sulphur Eater
Stocked Sulphur Eater - see the difference?
The biggest thing that has been on my mind, why do I get stuck in a comfort zone fishing? Why fish the same spots over and over, when I KNOW there are fish there? There are hundreds of miles of wild trout water that I have never seen. It's the time spent exploring and looking for that next good run that keeps me searching, keeps me hungry, wondering what's around the next bend? Sure, the fish may not be as big as they are in our best wild trout water but those big fish will still be there this winter. Right now the brookies are doing back flips trying to smash bushy dry flies and I just can't ignore that.

Musky Dom after small stream wild trout. I guess now I need to catch a musky?
Another highlight to the month of May is the annual God's Country Project Healing Waters Event. Project Healing Waters' goal is to expose Veterans to the powerful healing quality of fly fishing. It aims to heal the physical and psychological scars of war. For three days each year, the generous folks of Potter County have the honor and privilege to host Vets (usually 12-15) being treated at VA Hospitals mostly from Batavia or Erie, but some from all across the country.

The Event begins with a parade through the county where people from all around can greet the honored guests. They are then taken to the First Fork Lodge (First Fork of the Sinnemahoning) where they stay the next few nights. Over three days, they're introduced to fly casting and fly tying, and then they have the entire Trout Preserve at Big Moore's Run to match wits with huge brown and rainbow trout.

Every year, it astounds me how thankful these guys are. "You mean, you took vacation days from your job... to spend time with me... to teach me to fly fish?" In reality, it's us, the volunteers that have the honor of spending time with these heroes who risked so much to serve our country. A few hours spent giving back to these guys is so little in comparison to what they gave for all of us. It's because of these folks that we have the rights and freedoms we enjoy every day. It's truly been an honor to meet, fish with, and talk to multiple recipients of the Medal of Honor and Purple Heart Award.

Trying to get enough good fishing in the month of May really is like trying to drink from a fire hose. The hard part is taking a minute, stepping back, and appreciating how good it really is. One thing for sure is there are no shortage of good days. I don't think the trout will notice when we flip the calendar page. Enjoy the best time of the year.