Friday, July 22, 2016

Searching for Water

The positive outlook on a dry summer is not having to mow your lawn! The downside is absolutely minimal flow in our creeks and rivers. I hadn't seen mentionable precipitation in over a month. My lawn is crispy, and the creeks are in pretty sad shape. I've gotten out to visit some of my favorite waters and explore a few new spots where water temperatures remain low, but fishing for trout around here just seems cruel at this point. To drive the point home, a week ago I visited a headwater stream I new would be downright cold. Temps were perfect, but a nice transitional riff between two good pools that is normally about shin deep was nothing but muddy creek bed stamped with coyote tracks. It's bad. But, with adversity comes opportunity. I decided to pack up the trout wagon and hit the road on down to Dixie!

Time to Rain Dance
My plan was to leave work a few minutes early, but my boss called a surprise meeting at the last minute. I ended up a few hours behind schedule. Fortunately, my tent is pretty easy to set up. I arrived well after dark to set up camp a short distance from the river, make dinner under the headlamp on the hood of the car, and get some rest before my buddy showed up to meet at daylight in just a few short hours. There are few things better than listening to gushing plunge pools in a productive wild trout stream as you're drifting off to sleep.

The next day full of fishing was a blast. We were primarily targeting brook trout, but fishing to brown trout this size in this rough of water was a pretty unique experience. Typically these plunge-y rivulets are home to brook trout and rainbows with brown trout being sparsely mixed in. The buttery trout were the most active this day, but that was fine by me.

Photo by Bill D.

After a full day of traversing slick boulders and frigid water in the heat from daylight to dark, an ice cold IPA slid like never before. I was beat and ready to call it a day. Poor me, I had to get up at daylight and fish a few more hours before heading back North.

Traveling across the east in search of Brook Trout, I've noticed the ridgelines covered in dense deciduous forest intertwined with lush pastures and grassland perfectly reflect the vermiculations on the backs of our native fish. By seeing so much new water, I've really had my eyes opened to all the different obstacles we impose on these fish. So far, I've fished brook trout populations negatively affected by acid precipitation, acid mine drainage, invasive fish species, didymo, habitat destruction, drought, over-harvest, increased temperatures, logging, and erosion, yet they're still there in spite of our disrespect. On my way home driving the thistle and chicory choked corridors, I dreamed about which state would be the next target for catching a brookie. Time will tell.

Green = Complete      Red = Incomplete      Yellow = bonus non-native brook trout caught

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Wood is Good

FBD - Will the engineering geeks, please stand up?
(Graphic:USDA Computational Design Tool for Evaluating the Stability of Large Wood Structures)
It was Tuesday, February 23rd. I was at work and it was freezing outside. I had an email pop in on my phone. "Large Wood Structures for Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration and Management Workshop." I swear I did a double take.

The class was being organized by the US Forestry Service, Trout Unlimited, and the White River Partnership with the description, The workshop will teach aquatic restoration practitioners the design methodology to engineer log structures that mimic the form and function of naturally-occurring log jams.  Topics covered will include the role of wood in ecosystems, design of engineered wood structures, and all salient topics of large wood restoration. Here's the kicker - the class was free. Unfortunately, it was in Vermont, 450 miles away. Oh well, it was probably going to be cool.

When I glanced over at my calendar, I just so happened to see the words "Flat Water Clinic - Twin Ponds" in the adjacent squares. No flippin' way. I was due to be in the Adirondacks, just down the road from Vermont, for a stillwater fly fishing clinic the day after the workshop ended. Call me Mike Wolfe (American Pickers) because I just became king of the bundle!

The class was three days long. Two days in a classroom setting and one day of site visits. Presenters ranged from Forestry Service folks, to private consultants doing river restoration work, to people from local Trout Unlimited chapters. Everything was discussed from planning and permitting, to management and monitoring.

The location of the class was chosen in order to take an in depth look at a Large Wood Project that had been successfully implemented. In response to the devastation in New England from Hurricane Irene, the Vermont Highway Department entered a section of the White River and began hauling loads of river gravel away to fill washed out roads. Some sections of river in this area were the straightest I had ever seen and had very homogeneous gradation of gravel. The rivers are full of wild trout, but very few reach larger sizes in the degraded habitat. 

Due to the amount of trout I've pulled out of wood habitat, I was sold on the benefit of wood in rivers before I arrived. However,  the technical backstory of wood's effects on rivers was really driven home. For centuries, we have removed wood from stream channels for transportation of timber during log drives and FEAR of the negative impacts we've been told wood has during flood events. This could not be farther from the truth.

A straightened river is an unhealthy river. Flash flooding, poor sediment retention, and shitty fish habitat are a few of the obvious issues with homogeneous channels. Over the years, with increased velocities, stream channels become "incised" and cut themselves off from the flood plain. So what does it mean when a stream doesn't have access to the floodplain?


Geek Break!

Q = V*A

Ah yes, let's revisit Algebra 1. You know, it has no relation to every day life right? Why will you ever need that? In the equation above, Q is volumetric flowrate (cubic feet per second, or (ft^3)/s), V is velocity (feet per second, ft/s), and A is cross sectional area (square feet, (ft^2)).

So what does that actually mean? When the amount of water coming down stream increases, and the area stays the same (because it can't spread out over the floodplain) your velocity goes up. More velocity; means more energy, means more scour and erosion.


So how does wood come into play? Wood slows the flow and helps retain and sort various sized stone and sediment particles. Think, have you ever been on a stream where all the stones were roughly the same size? Was it a fairly straight channel? How was the fishing?

Wood can remedy these issues by creating step pool elements which can act as grade control, it can define channel boundaries, it can create and maintain scour in the areas we want it, and it increases floodplain roughness. By increasing floodplain roughness, you force the water to take the path of least resistance and redevelop stream meander in areas where it is currently absent. Wood is deposited on the outside of bends and over time forms log jams which fortify the bank and create habitat.

Grade Control Using Stone

On the inside looking out.
Large wood on the Outside bend. Note the pool forming in front and debris accumulating on the inside after only 1 year.
Demonstrating the relationship between compacted and non-compacted soil.
When I went to this class, I expected to walk away with tools and design knowledge for implementing wood structures to improve our streams through Trout Unlimited. I got that, but what I also learned was that we need to educate the general public that wood has endless benefits in stream channels. If we can get people to leave the wood that accumulates through natural recruitment in streams, we will see huge, low-cost benefits. So many landowners want to remove wood at the first opportunity because it was common practice for over a century. Even now, I occasionally happen upon un-permitted wood removals and stream channelization to mitigate effects from flooding. One thing is for sure, if wood is removed from streams and channelization and incision continue, flooding will only get worse.

Wood can, unfortunately accumulate and have adverse impacts on bridges and culverts when it occurs in the wrong setting. Maintenance and monitoring of drainage infrastructure is critical under any circumstance. Large wood is not something to be messed with, but without it, the health of our streams and the quality of fishing is not going to improve. If there is more large wood in streams, more complex structures will accumulate and will be less likely to move and create problems.

Over the last couple years, we've been hearing about the invasive Woolly Adelgid attacking our Hemlock population. I have lost quite a lot of sleep thinking about the warming that will occur in our headwater streams without shade from these ubiquitous evergreens. One of the speakers totally changed my "doom and gloom" outlook on this impending environmental disaster. "Instead of worrying about the catastrophic loss of hemlocks, think of it as a once in a generation opportunity for wood to be restored through natural recruitment." Wow. He was absolutely right. If we can educate the masses to NOT remove these dead trees, we could restore the natural wood load so much more than we could by adding structures. Here's our chance to improve the fishing, people. All we have to do is not screw it up.

There was a little room for fun while I was in Vermont. My wife went with me to the Green Mountain State and we sampled some fantastic local food.  I was also able to cross Vermont off the list of places where I had never caught a brook trout!

Bluelining Vermont - Note the  Voluntary Large Wood Debris

Bridge over Lake Champlain... Headed to the Adirondacks.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Flat Water Clinic Part 3: Hanging in Heaven

A few years ago, I wouldn't have had the first clue about fly fishing for trout in lakes. I have certainly picked a few things up in my last two trips to the Hungry Trout Fly Shop and Twin Ponds. For a little more backstory on twin ponds, see Flat Water Clinic Part One and Part Two.

After a great trip last year, there wasn't even a possibility we wouldn't return for another shot at wild trophy brook trout. Add to that, this year was going to include an additional night of camping and best selling author George Daniel would be headed north to add his knowledge of fly fishing stillwater he accrued over his many years of dominating the competitive fly fishing scene. How could it get any better?

Evan and George giving us the crash course
We arrived to set up camp and prep our water crafts. The boat staging area was stacked with canoes, john boats, and inflatables to be propelled by everything from fins and oars to trolling motors and four-stroke engines. Tents were raised, hammocks were hung, and car/truck/van nests were fluffed into place. All that was left was to eat a hearty dinner, make a few impatient casts, down a few hoppy libations, and plan the attack for the following day. My dad and I were to be dispatched to Little Duck Pond, a short portage from the main pond, known not for numbers but big fish. Who would complain about that?

Little Duck Portage
The fishing was slow but after multiple fly changes, altering techniques, and changing locations, the ice was broken. My Dad hooked into a good fish but lost it in the fray of head shakes and slack line. Soon after, I felt the weight of an angry char that was evenly matched with the power of my 6 wt. I had made a cast toward submerged structure on the shoreline, counted my line down and retrieved. As my hang marker slipped through my stripping guide, I initiated the "hang." The fish surged for the depths but wasn't able to get away. We were on the board!

That was the only fish we netted before lunch, but the juice was certainly worth the squeeze. We portaged our boats and headed back to the lean-to where the unmistakable smell of burgers on the grill was enough to make you drool after a morning session on the flat water.

As boats were making their way back out on the water, Evan and I had lingered behind. Just as he was making his way to his boat, a loud SPLASH came from the edge of the lake! Where an apple core was floating on the surface, a savage brookie took a wack at it. "Did you hear that!?" Evan shouted. "Oh yeah." Nothing is too small for these hungry trout to grab.

The wind had picked up on the main lake for the afternoon session. I was looking for some water no one intended to fish. I headed for a vacant shoreline that doesn't usually get much pressure. I worked a few shore-ward drifts, piloted by the wind and had busted a few flies off on stumps a few feet below the surface. I anchored up to re-tie and Evan and Brian's boat paddled past as I heard a rise just downwind of us. I shot my newly attached flies toward the now-gone rise ring and waited for my Type 3 line to sink my offerings. SLURP! Ten seconds into my planned twenty five second drop my streamer was eaten like a dry fly and a solid fish was attached to my reactionary trout-set. "No way!" the guys said as they continued past. What a day.

I then made my way down the lake and fished good looking points and coves and trolled less likely sections until I reached the very far end of the lake, Spring Pond. I picked up a small fish on the troll who came out of some pretty dense wood. After I sent him on his way I made another cast into where he came from. Once again, on the hang a solid fish grabbed my fly.

The hang is a tactic where, at the end of your retrieve, you slowly lift the rod tip, changing the angle of the fly's path in a desperate attempt to trigger any non-comittal fish following your fly into grabbing. And it's damn effective. Trolling flies is a traditional method in the historic brook trout pond region but is much maligned by fly anglers fixed on stripping flies back. In fact, it's illegal in the competition world where Loch style tactics are the norm. I say, if it gets the fly in front of willing trout, it's fair game. I'm headed from A to B anyway, seems foolish to not keep my flies in the water. Trolling is a great tactic as well for finding fish and figuring out what they want to eat. When you've figured those two things out, your odds are much more favorable and you can focus your efforts in the troutiest water.

After a full day of fishing and rowing/kicking a float tube around a 10 acre lake, dinner sounded so damn good. I trolled the whole way back with not a bump. No tactic works all the time but it's definitely worth mixing it up.

The next morning, the plan was to check out Big Duck Pond. Mike, a guide for the Hungry Trout, fired up the outboard and headed over to check out the pond and see if it was worth the portage. Another angler, Thad, had headed out early and was on the lake. After coffee and a few pastries, I couldn't wait any longer. I decided to wait out on the lake for the final verdict on Big Duck. I passed Thad at the boat mooring area on his way in and he said he'd found a willing fish. "Nice! Could be a good day."

I crossed paths with Mike on his way back to camp. The algae bloom on Big Duck had made it unfishable. So I headed to the Divide to wait for everyone to come out and let me know where to go. It didn't take long at all to find fish. I made a cast near shore, waited for the line to sink about three feet and on the second strip, BOOM. Fish on. Unfortunately, he came unbuttoned at the net. "Oh well, how many pictures of 16" colored up brook trout does one really need?" Said no one ever. So I kept at it. Two casts later, same thing, cast, wait, BAM! Fish were really holding tight to structure today.

Not much later, I saw the armada headed my way. I decided I'd leave the Division, one of the most productive spots on the entire lake, to the next guys coming out and I moved on. Two fish just like that and they'd probably be the only fish I got all day. Leave some for the next guy, right? As soon, as they got there, I was just a few hundred feet away and I hear "OH YEAH! Double!" First cast, Chris was into them. Man, the fishing was looking good. I had just drifted to the mouth of a small bay and zipped a cast into the soft water just inside the wind line coming off the point like current in a river around a rock. A soft, but solid THUD struck the end of my line before it started swimming directly at me! A tremendous weight surged for deeper water. Then, it happened - I saw the most beautiful sight any brook trout enthusiast can see. From the dark water below my tube, I saw three amply spaced white stripes appear out of nowhere. After a couple runs that took the tip of my bent rod a few feet under water, he slid into the net. Strong fish.

The Edge at the Division - Money in the Bank.
I had seen three float tubes headed back to Little Duck Pond and figured it was my dad, Evan, and someone else giving it a shot. The fishing was good in the main pond so I decided to keep moving. Drifting up on windward points, firing casts at the shore, letting them sink three to six feet and ripping them back. Man, the fishing was hot. I trolled in between spots and everything was working. Just one of those days.

Looks like this guy had a close call with a loon!
Some fish just hate having their picture taken. Lots of fish flop photos.

Wait WHAT!

Of course, when I got back to camp, I was greeted by a few ear to ear smiles. My Dad had caught the fish of the trip. Never Freaking Fails.

We had lunch and headed back out. A few more fish were picked up. Just icing on the cake, to be honest. A few hours later, we packed up camp and headed out of the woods. My cup was full and I couldn't have had more fun fishing what, in my mind, is the perfect chain of ponds with a fantastic group of guys. I CANNOT wait for next year.

Planning for next year's clinic is already underway. The Clinic is an excellent program for expert anglers and good casting is a pre-requisite. Being able to double haul and shoot line with long leaders (13 feet or longer) is pretty essential for getting proper presentations and efficiently covering flat water. Get a hold of Evan at the Hungry Trout Fly Shop for more info.

Holy loons!


Out Take

What's a successful fishing trip without a good laugh at someone's expense? It just sucks I had to be the butt of the joke this time! Haha.

While preparing for this trip, my plan was to have my Dad rigged and ready with two rods. A six weight with a type 6 line and a five weight with a type 3 line. I wanted to make sure that at no point in the trip would he have to stop fishing because his line was tangled. He started by using both and alternating just to change things up. A nice luxury to have. Especially since Evan brought up the possibility that, "Maybe our type 6 lines are too heavy and we're fishing below fish? I think some people should start with the type 3." Hmmm... very possible. But I've had good luck using the type 6 so that was definitely what I'd be using.

After releasing the fish on Little Duck in the first session, I sheepishly admitted to having a major bird's nest in my running line. "Well, I tried to work on it, but I had thirty to forty feet available and I couldn't stand not fishing! It worked, right?" Yeah, don't do that. Evan, being the great guide that he is, insisted that I let him work on it during lunch. I can't over emphasize how horribly epic this knot was. Like a bowl of spaghetti in the middle of my type 6. George just couldn't help grabbing his camera and documenting the monstrosity. For scientific purposes, I'm sure... It'll probably be on the cover of his new book, "An Idiot's Guide For What Not To Do While Fly-Fishing."

The line was almost straight when we decided "Ef this. There is fishing to be done."

"Hey Dad, give me that rod with the type 3 line."

Well my friends, you have the secret for success. The type 3 was the ticket that day in my opinion. Listen to your knowledgeable guide the first time he suggests something. OR do something catastrophically moronic that forces you to fish the way he suggested in the first place and crush fish. Same difference, right?

Disclaimer: No fly line was permanently damaged during this trip. All knots have since been humanely liberated... for now.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The King's Whiskey

A few weeks ago, I hooked, fought in an epic battle with, and lost at the last moment the most beautiful trout I've ever seen. Not the largest, but color-wise and spot pattern, second to none. I only got a few glimpses of him, but I saw enough to know this was a special fish. A whiskey drinker without a doubt. (A phrase coined by the Troutbitten boys, see Traditions.)

After a few weeks had passed, I still couldn't take a step in a river without thinking about that fish. Wondering if he was still ruling his same domain. It's interesting, where this fish was, there are probably three or four nice looking runs in either direction from which I have never seen or caught another trout. The King had claimed his territory, Brownlandia, and any other trespassing trout probably became lunch.

Pursuing trophy trout can be extremely rewarding, but it takes time and dedication. It's not for the impatient or short-sighted. The highs are high and the lows can be oh so low. There is certainly a bit of luck involved and there's nothing more important than being able to take it on the chin when luck isn't on your side. However, upon my return quest to Brownlandia, luck was on my side and the day was mine.

 After being dragged up and down the creek by this fish for a second time, it was extra sweet winning the battle this time. For a trout to achieve that size on its own in the wild is nothing short of incredible. From egg to Emperor. It took the better part of ten years for that miracle to happen. Seriously, take a minute to think about that. Think about every morning you've slept in, called in sick, or just been lazy over the last ten years. If this fish had done any of that and not been on top his game, he'd have been a merganser's breakfast, a raccoon's midnight snack, or getting freezer burned in some bait-slinger's freezer. The river never sleeps. Through sub-zero temps, flooding rains and droughts, wild fish endure it all. Survival is the only game a trophy trout plays. Please release your wild and native trout. Seriously.

It was an honor to shake hands with the King and a privilege to watch him swim away. Back to survival mode for him.

I generally try to travel pretty light. I don't carry my own flask of whiskey. I have to admit, it's not as regular of an occurrence for me to catch whiskey drinkers as it is for the Troutbitten guys. As payback for releasing the fish, the river gave me a nod. At the tailout of the pool, perfectly unearthed by rising flows was a small bottle of the King's whiskey. Cheers to the King... Let them swim.

Long live the King.