Friday, December 28, 2012

Weird Moments in Fishing #4

I was headed home from Alaska. While our fishing had been terrific for silvers and dollies, it had been especially good for rainbows. We had bounced eggs, skated mice and stripped streamers to entice 22-30 inch rainbows. The pink, chum, king and sockeye runs had been strong. With all the dead, dying, and decaying salmon, flesh and maggot flies had worked well too. These death-driven, disgusting-if-you-think-about-them patterns secured some of our heftiest ‘bows. My last rainbow of the trip had charged a thread-worn maggot fly. He eventually took the grub in less than a foot of water. He was two feet of hungry muscle decorated with a bright red slash down his side.

Now it was early September. I was driving north on I-25. After leaving the airport in Casper, I had pointed my rig towards home and set the cruise control at 82 mph. In the back of my vehicle, I had a pile of damp gear, a bunch of very stinky clothes and an amazing array of fishing equipment from 4 to 8 weight rods and from size 16 dry flies to huge articulated streamers. Stored inside my sleeping bag were the frozen fillets of two silver salmon. I was thrilled when the duffle bag containing this treasure had rolled out at baggage claim in Casper. A quick check had shown the fillets to be still frozen solid. I was looking forward to fresh salmon in the days to come.

Even though I was tired and had the frozen salmon in the back, I knew I would be driving by one of my favorite creeks. And on this creek there was a ranch... and on this ranch there were these fish... you know the refrain. So I thought about stopping to fish, but responsibility reared its ugly head and I decided I should get home.

After a few more miles, I thought, “Geez, I have all my gear in the car, my waders are on top... it would take nothing to fish a couple hours”.

I should do it ...just to do it. Alaska ‘bows one day, Wyoming browns the next. I should do it ...because I can do it. So I told myself I would stop, but if there were no rising fish, I would head home to dry out gear and get a good night’s sleep.

Between Kaycee and Buffalo, I pulled off the interstate and turned down a county road. I drove a couple more miles, pulled into a pasture and pulled on my waders. I had zero Wyoming trout flies with me, so I grabbed my Alaska grayling box. I jammed it in the front pocket of my wrinkled and smelly shirt. I had worn now it for over a week. These grayling flies would just have to do. I had no hoppers, no match-the-hatch baetis and no bead head nymphs... just some big Adams, a few ratty elk hair caddis and some “weathered” blue duns. Content with my options, I slid down the steep river bank and stepped quietly into the creek. Slowly, I made my way up to my favorite slick, then stopped to watch. Nothing: no rises, no bugs on the water, nothing. Just a clear blue Wyoming sky reflected in a long calm slick.

“Well, I won’t be here long.” I muttered to myself. “Laundry, food, sleep... here I come.” 

But, if I could raise one good trout, I could declare my little project a success. I considered casting a streamer, but I wasn’t too excited about the idea. I waded up a bit further to get past a willow clump where I knew I could see around a bend in the slick. Above the willows, the smell of death and decay greeted me once again. In Alaska, the smell was from the salmon, but I was stumped as to its source on this Wyoming creek. Soon I had my answer.

A deer carcass was half in and half out of the water. It was a young doe. Her head and shoulders were lying in the tall grass. Her right front leg was broken. The doe's abdomen was gnawed open and sagged to meet the creek. This was probably the work of coyotes. Possibly attacked before she was dead. If so, this was a tough way to go! Given the fresh scratch marks in the cutbank, she must have fallen down the muddy bank. Exhausted and unable to rise, she must have died where she fell. 

Rubbed raw by fatigue and travel, I felt great sadness when considering the pain and fear she must have suffered in those last awful moments. I chewed on the tart taste of life’s joy and sorrows. But my emotions were quickly quelled when I saw a few ripples of water expand from the carcass. I thought maybe a skunk or mink might be munching on the body. I didn’t want to stink anymore than I already did, so I decided to reel up and go home. I could suffer the ignominity of being skunked, but I didn’t want to be literally SKUNKED! As I wound line on the spool, I watched the deer’s belly pulse again. I knew there must be some small mammal scavenging inside the deer’s belly.

Then I saw a tail. It was not the unmistakeable tail of a skunk or the sleek tail of a mink. It was broad and flat... and wet. It was the tail of a big brown trout. I was intrigued. What the hell was he doing? I watched closely and eventually discerned a pattern. The brown would sweep his broad tail to push into the deer’s belly. He would then drift back with the gentle current slurping something as he did so. It looked as if he was taking emergers from below the surface film. His nose never poked through the meniscus, but his dorsal fin appeared time and time again. What the hell... was he scarfing up rotting flesh or maybe picking off yellow jackets that were feeding on the flesh? Or... then it dawned on me, he was eating maggots! It was Alaska all over again complete with putrid smells, big trout and a disgusting menu. 

I backed off, climbed out of the river and raced back to my car. I found my flesh fly/maggot box beneath my wet waders. The box was still damp from Bristol Bay river water. I smiled. Now here was an idea I could get behind. In my travel addled mind, all this formed some type of circle. It was poetic justice... the circle of life... the joy that rises from sorrow. Hell, I didn’t know what it was, but it seemed cool, suddenly important and I was determined to do it. 

I repositioned myself below the deer carcass and opened the fly box. It was now warm and dry. Any evidence of Alaskan waters had evaporated under a hot Wyoming sun. I took a size 14 white maggot fly and tied it onto a hefty tippet. I waited for the trout to nose the carcass again, then cast the maggot fly into the fetid mix below. The brown dashed about sucking up the dislodged fly larvae, but never chose mine. I thought this would be easy, but maybe not! 

When the trout began to nudge the belly again, I cast, this time lifting my rod tip hoping to impart a subtle action to my grubby fly. The brown immediately lunged toward my fly. He opened his big mouth and scarfed up my fly.  I struck and he chugged powerfully upstream as big trout often do. He then turned toward deeper water pushing hard with his big tail. As if going through his repertoire, he then leapt high in the air. He was big, at least 22 inches with a deep body and strongly kyped jaw. He fought hard, but in the slow slick he was  relatively easy to control. After another jump and a dogged last tug-of-war, I had him at hand. He was gorgeous. He was 23 inches of muscle, very deep and beautiful with a yellow belly peppered with delicate pastel spots. His clever, if not a bit disgusting, diet had obviously worked well for him. I thought that today I stand 24 hours and a thousand miles away from Alaska and another big trout. Two days, two trout... two wild trout who had both resourcefully fed on what they could find to survive. 

I clipped off my fly and hauled my body out of the river. Soon, I was back on the interstate cruising north at 82 mph. As I drove, I mulled over this unique asterisk to my great Alaskan adventure! If I had not been coming back from Alaska, I never would have had the fly to catch the fish. Now I always have a maggot fly in one of my trout boxes, but I have never had the opportunity to use it again. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Weird Moments in Fishing #3

On a side channel on Montana's Big Horn River, there once was a downed cottonwood tree that arched out a over shallow slick. It was swept away in one of the high water years. But before the log was washed away, it created an area that anglers couldn't easily reach. There were almost always a couple very big trout rising here. Rarely did fish rise below the log where you could get a cast to them. And you couldn't get a drift from above because only about ten feet of the slick remained before it hit a steep cutbank around which the side channel's main current flowed. If you tried an approach from above, the cutbank gave you no window to cast and forced you to be so close to the fish that you would invariably put them down.

This is why there were always trout rising here. It was a very good lie! From below was your only shot. To have any chance to reach this nearly perfect lie from below required a side arm cast driving a tight loop through the arch. If all went well, you could deliver your fly under the log and four or five feet up river to the rising fish. You could screw it up in a dozen ways: hit the log, cast too short, smack your fly, get hung up on the log as your fly drifted back etc. etc. I never saw anyone fishing this spot so I could always give it a try if I needed to thoroughly frustrate myself.

On this day, a single fish was eating midges above the log. He was very big. As I maneuvered into position, I was able to get a good look at him when he rose. As he elegantly sipped the tiny midges, I could see his dark snout pierce the flat silvery light of the slick. After watching him for awhile, I was fairly certain he was a big 'bow. After another rise or two, I was convinced he was a she. Soon she rose again and I rolled my parachute Adams forward then snapped it into a backcast. I dropped into a sidearm cast, tightened my casting arc and let it rip. I bounced off the tree. I'd been here before so there was no swearing or frustration, just a mental note acknowledging my ineptitude. I waited to get back into sync with the trout’s rise rhythm, then I repeated the cast. This time I was able to zip the fly under the log's arch. The fly settled about a foot above the fish and began its drift back to me. 

Like I had planned it, the big bow lunged at my fly. I struck and the line came tight. Immediately, she jumped, smacked the log and my fly popped free. She had hit the downed cottonwood trunk very hard before falling back into the river. I winced. That had to hurt! The big bow shuddered as I retrieved my slack line and then she went still. She was now merely a big silver blob floating downriver. Worried for her safety, I quickly grabbed my net. As she slowly made her way toward me, she tumbled in the current. Before long, I scooped her up in my net making certain she didn't get by.

She was big... 22 inches or so. I did not measure her. I thought she was dead. She was belly up and still. As I reached to try and revive her, she suddenly came to life. She righted herself and finned in the net. She seemed fine. I gave her ample time to show signs of injury, but with time she became more and more agitated. Soon, she began punching against the net's fine mesh. Usually, a netted fish is spent from the fight. But this big Betty has expended very little energy before finding herself trapped in the net. She was very green and on the verge of panic. I tilted the net's frame forward so she could go when she was ready. I then tapped her tail. She rocketed forward and was quickly absorbed by the shine of the silvery surface. I never saw her again.

I've caught other fish that eliminated the catching part of the equation: I’ve had trout jump and land onshore. I've jumped tarpon that hung themselves in the mangroves. And I've frighteningly had a barracuda leap in the skiff. But I’ve never had a fish knock itself out. With this 'bow there was no fight. There was no pull and only the one jump. That was it! There was no catching... just caught. If you fish long enough you see some strange stuff!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Weird Moments in Fishing #2

The early days in the Seychelles were truly amazing. Not that they aren’t great today, but back then, when only a handful of anglers had explored these atolls, it was off the charts. For instance, in some places, you could strip a crab fly out of the water and pull bonefish  almost out of the water and onto the beach. We caught bonefish on grasshopper flies, two at a time on dropper rigs, and on bare red hooks. We could often get close enough to touch tailing bones with our rod tips and came damn close to grabbing their tails with our hands. Rays often had dozens of bones weaving in and out of the mud they created. We usually had dozens of big GT's cruising off the back of our liveaboard. The GT's would eat anything: fish guts, oranges, paper plates... they were so aggressive we had to make sure we never put our hands in the water!
GT's waiting for a free meal
Off the back of the Tam Tam
These moments were incredible, but one moment really stands out in my memory, I had been circumnavigating a small island in the Amirantes Group picking up bonefish that were nonchalantly tailing in the gentle surf only inches from shore. Suddenly, I heard a splashy commotion and looked up to see a pack of GT’s churning up the surface. These big bullies often charge into the shallows from the deeper cuts to ambush any napping fish giving the phrase “you snooze, you lose”, new meaning. 

When on the prowl like this, GT's are super aggressive. For instance, I had a big dark male bite the tip off my 12 wt. while his partner, a pale blue female, was inhaling my big deceiver. He covered the 20 feet from where I had last seen him to my rod tip in a heartbeat. I had made the mistake of having my rod tip in the water while I strip struck. Apparently, everything is fair game to a hungry GT.

Mike Schwartz with a big GT!
But I digress, let’s get back to this pack of assassins who were ransacking my peaceful bonefish beach.  Like one huge mobile cuisinart, these GT’s were laying waste to everything that came in their way. Those herring, small snappers and other baitfish that weren’t “processed” by the mob were flying out of the water in a last ditch effort to escape.  It reminded me of one of those 50’s movies when a biker gang rides into town and all the town folk scream and run for cover. 

In response, I threw my bonefish rod up on the beach and grabbed my 12 wt. from its tethered spot on my backpack. I pulled line off the reel until I had enough to throw the big green and gold streamer at the pack. They all turned on my fly. One of the big jacks outraced the others and chomped my fly. I struck and the dark blue GT didn’t move. He seemed more annoyed than hooked. It took the trevally awhile to process that something was wrong. The fish finned off slowly while shaking his head from side to side. I could see my big 4/0 fly flashing brightly out of the corner of his jaw. I strip struck again taking the opportunity to insure a good hookset. This time his dignity gave way to fear. My GT deserted the pack and raced off the flat. He soon disappeared into an deep channel.

Photo by Eric Berger 
My fly line was soon gone, then backing spun off the spool. My 12 wt. was bent to the butt and the drag was cranked so I was relieved when he finally slowed up a bit. I tried to work him back to me, but didn’t gain much before he powered off again. This process repeated itself a couple more times. If you’ve ever caught a big GT, you know there is a lot of blue collar work involved.  There comes a point when there isn’t much difference between digging a ditch and fighting a GT. It’s just work. Good work, but work just the same. Finally, after the third or fourth run, he seemed to be tiring. Then he shook his head, jerked hard on the line and raced off again even harder than before.  
I thought, “What the hell?... this is going to be a long fight.” 
I couldn’t believe that this fish had such a strong second wind. I was either turning into a real wimp or this fish was refreshing himself at the Barry Bonds Juice Bar.

A great marbled grouper from Providence Atoll
After a lot of pulling and a lot of winding, I was able to work him out of the deep channel and into the pale turquoise water at the edge of the flat. He was bigger than I thought... and much darker. I was tired and felt like I was pulling a sack of corn towards shore. With sweat rolling down my forehead and into my eyes, I finally got him to where I could get a good look at him. He looked odd... different! I backed up and beached him in the lapping surf. 

This was no GT, this fish was a grouper. This was not the fish that had eaten my fly. WTF! Had the fly pulled from the GT and this fish eaten it without me noticing? Impossible! Had this fish taken the fly from the mouth of the struggling GT? Was this the headshake I felt? That made more sense. How many fish are down there anyway? A fish in peril must be literally mobbed by other predators. In any case, somehow, this marbled grouper had stolen the fly from my GT’s mouth and become hooked in the process. I pulled the streamer from the snapper’s top jaw and released my second fish from the same cast.

I put my 12 wt. back on my pack. I didn’t want to use it again for awhile. I sat on the beach drinking tepid water and opening and closing my left hand. Who would ever believe this one?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Trip Report from Inagua

Thanks to Doug Behrman for this this report from his November trip to Inagua in the Bahamas:

Here are a couple of pictures from my trip last week. Thanks for putting us on these big boys!! 11lb. bone and 20+ lb permit!!  Enjoyed the tarpon fishing in the lake and look forward to getting into the snook the next time we come.  A monster bonefish that wouldn't eat still haunts me.  That would have easily been the largest bonesfish ever taken on fly.  Could have added that to my world record list!!  Already making plans for next year!!

We didn't have good tides or cooperative weather, but we had some great opportunities, caught a few really good fish, and can see what it would be like if we could have some cooperation from those two elements.  We had to deal with 20--30 mph winds the whole trip.  Would really like to be there when it was dead calm, Ezzard says the permit really tail in those conditions.

Looking forward to a yearly pilgrimage to Inagua.
Thanks so much,

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Weird Fishing Moments #1

The sun was low and black caddis were everywhere. I was settled-in river left on the long straightaway before the takeout. I was using, and had been for over two hours, a solid black elk hair caddis size 16. This only flies I had were a size larger than the naturals. It did not matter. The catching had been obscenely good. The fish actually seemed to prefer my fly over the naturals. Sated and mellow, I was in that gooey, glutted state we all seek and rarely find. I was now happily lofting sloppy casts and wading clumsily essentially trying to find ways to put the fish down. Nothing worked and I kept catching fish.

After a couple more fish, I waded upriver until I came to a slight indentation in the bank. A big rock at the head of this bay forced the gentle current up against the grassy bank creating a classic feeding lane. A couple big fish were working here taking caddis right off bank. I felt confident I could catch those fish. I decided they would be the last fish of the day. To do any more would be sheer gluttony.

It was then that something caught my eye. One stalk of grass moved suddenly and not in rhythm with the current. This tip of a long stalk of grass was dragging in the water perhaps eighteen inches off the bank. Maybe a muskrat had pulled on this grass and that is what caught my eye. I soon looked back to the feeding fish. Then the grass moved again. Again, I turned my attention from the fish to watch. I wondered what the heck was causing this. 

As time went by, caddis began to collect on the grass stalk. Soon, there were quite a few caddis clinging to the stalk. It was then that a big snout came out of the water and with open mouth, moved up the stalk. At its apex, the trout closed its mouth and slid back into the river pulling the grass with it. The stalk went underwater, then popped up. Almost immediately, the caddis began to collect once again.

I watched the process repeat itself 15 seconds later, then again in another 15 seconds. I was amazed. So, if I had this right, this big trout was sucking caddis off the grass and getting dozens of the bugs every time. You gotta be kidding me! I had never seen this before... or since for that matter. Here was a true innovator. The Steven Jobs of the trout world. If all trout found out about this technique, we dry fly fishermen would be finished! There was no way to catch this fish. Or maybe I could time it just right so that my fly was at the grass stalk when he opened his mouth.

I tried it a few times, but could never get the timing right. The fish would grab the grass just before or just after my fly drifted by. I gave it one more try, but I had really conceded the contest. At least I had a story no one would believe. It was time to quit anyway and this was getting a bit too esoteric. Just as I was ready to reel up to go home, my fly hung up on the stalk of grass. My leader began to drag, but the fly stayed firm to the grass. I knew I could pull it off, but I decided to leave it and see what happened. It wasn't five seconds before the fish rose up to seine the grass stalk.  He rose out of the river past his gill plate. I could now tell he was a big buck brown. This was one enterprising fish! I struck when he closed his mouth.

To make a long story short, I caught the fish. He was big, the fight was great... all the stuff we love. But what was really cool was when I went to take the fly out, it was stuck to a long piece of grass. I looked over and could see the grass was no longer dragging in the river. I had clipped off enough that the stalk now hung six inches above the water's surface. When I struck the fish, he must have ripped the grass off along with my fly. A bit weird, but I've never forgotten this fish and hopefully never will!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Small Shudder

Only a small shudder... just a faint, almost imperceptible, ripple disrupted the long line of chop that rolled ashore on this windy and overcast February day. With my eyes riveted to the spot, I probed the sand with my toe. I eventually found and then shimmied the hefty jack I had just caught back into the mix of wind and waves. Getting a photograph of this recent catch was not on my mind. I was now looking for bonefish sign and hoped for a subtle half-tail to betray the location of the fish that had shivered the surface and shattered my daydreams. My senses were alert. I was prepared to decipher even the most subtle of clues. With the bad weather, I was determined to be patient. This could be my only shot today and I was not going to miss it.

What I got was not the subtle sign of angling lore as seen on the pages of the Drake. No glassine tail snaked delicately onto the dark turtle grass like one reads about on classic posts of Bonefish on the Brain. What I got was not nervous water, but a full-blown psychotic charge as three huge tails abruptly broke the surface and barged onto the flat like a group of high school bullies itching for a fight. They were a marauding band scanning for prey, locked together for security, but determined to out-compete each other for any tasty morsels. The gang charged past me and headed upwind with purpose. I dropped my camera and sprinted up the beach.

I ran 25 yards before I tripped and sprawled in the sand. Managing to embarrass even myself, I leapt up giggling and quickly spotted the huge tails once again. I waded two feet offshore and lofted a sloppy cast four feet in front of the lead fish. It was a good thing that I was alone, for if the flat’s police had been present, I could have been arrested for CUI (casting while under the influence). Guilty as charged officer... yet another adrenaline impaired angler. Remember, if you're going to do adrenaline, always select a designated caster before the day begins. 
Confidently and without pause, the head bully streaked ahead and engulfed my pink whatchamacallit Charlie. At the precise moment that my line pulled tight against my thumb and forefinger, I saw my fly line disappear through the guides and quickly morph from pale blue to bright orange. It was not a discernable process and I was not a party to it. It all just happened to me. I meekly watched as backing melted off my reel’s spool like an ice cube thrown on a hot plate. I thought I had no chance with this fish - too much coral, too many channels and cuts and too much line out already. I hoped to get a look, but I was not optimistic. I knew this fish was big. I had seen his tail and even with my historically overactive imagination, I knew he was worth admiring at close range.
With rod held high I waded out, climbed onto a crunchy coral pan and worked him towards me. He ran along the edge of the reef, then swam up and over another coral patch. I knew all was lost now. I just wanted my fly line back and prayed that he would break off at the leader and not at the backing.

But somehow I kept retrieving line. Over time, I felt his resolve begin to weaken. I backed out of the water and carefully back pedaled up the sandy beach. He made a few more short runs, but eventually tired. I hauled him ashore. He was a thick, huge bonefish that lacked the cute, cuddly look of a school fish. A big, triangular dark green plate on the top of his head gave a menacing slant to his eyes. I was truly thrilled and after photographing him, measured his thick body from fork to pale pink snout at 28 inches. Probably ten pounds... and if he wasn’t, he was now and would be for perpetuity. To me he was a true trophy and I was reluctant for some reason to let him go. I let him fin in a shallow pool ostensibly to revive him further, but really because I wanted to be with him a bit longer. Eventually, I released him, then watched him disappear into the mesmerizing mix of wind and waves on this suddenly beautiful Bahamian day.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

More on tarpon flies for the Yucatan with Doug Jeffries

More info on flies from Doug Jeffries after his November trip to The Tarpon Coast out of Campeche. This is all very good info!

Doug writes:
Regarding flies - we did use a few more this time than usual because we found a ton of fish loitering around on the grass flats outside the rio mouths and they seemed kind of picky. We also had a couple blatant refusals in the rios that caused us to switch flies. Sadly, they completely ignored my shrimp pattern and I had high hopes for it. Guess it becomes a bonefish fly next.

Doug's shrimp pattern
We tried the rattle fly, but I think the deer hair head caused it to float too high. I think I caught one fish on it.

Doug' s version of the deer hair deceiver

Raul's version of the deer hair deceiver
Regarding flies, yellow with a red hackle collar was probably the best producer this trip. All black was a very close second, especially in the rios. We did use more flies with lead barbell or bead chain eyes this time. It seemed like getting the fly 12 - 18 inches deep worked better.  After the last day I opened my box for Raul and Fernando to choose a few and they took all the yellow & red and interestingly took most of the San Felipe Specials.

Marco Ruz Ceballo developed the San Felipe Special.  I remember on my very first trip to Tarpon Caye you described a fly for me that had a deer hair spun head, clipped close, with a hackle wound through it.  The wings splayed outward.  I think my first versions had the entire shank spun in deer hair and they didn't work well.  Marco showed me his fly and I tied up a bunch using his gear that trip.

The other thing I learned on that trip that has stuck with me ever since was how much better the Gamakatsu hooks stuck.  I had tied all my flies on Mustads and lost 80% of my fish on the jump.  I recall a big fish, guessed at 30lbs., that ate outside one of the rios and I lost it on the third jump.  Marco had been using Gamakatsu hooks so the flies I tied under his tutelage were on Gamas.  And I don't think I lost a fish after that.  I learned what a truly sharp hook feels like.

Anyway, here's a picture of a San Felipe Special.  The wings splay out and the grizzly feather on the outside is intentionally about half to 2/3's as long as the rest of the wing.  The deer hair keeps the fly in the surface film and with a retrieve of short, fast, 4 - 6 inch strips, it looks like a frog kicking across the rio.  The fish in Campeche haven't been enticed by the San Felipe Special as the fish over at Tarpon Caye.  But the guides took all but one of those flies from my box.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

So What Does Make a Great Fisherman?

Results according to my unofficial poll:

Most fly fishermen have at one time or another wondered what it takes to be great. Most of us are fascinated by this. We want to know the answer not only so that we can get better, but we also want to know by what criteria success is measured. In other words, what do we do to get better and when will we know when we get there. We know the answer lies in more than just the ability to cast and catch fish, because we all know too many anglers with poor skills that can catch fish. If you ask those that should be able to answer such a query such as guides, shop owners and experienced old salts this question, you might expect to be told the usual stuff. You know, you might expect to hear that such and such an angler is a great caster or that he presents the fly better or that he has superior skills to fight and land a fish. Sometimes these experts do answer with this and just this. They delineate the requisite skills and stop there. But more often than you might imagine, the pondering angler quickly glosses over these essential skills by saying something like "sure you have to be able to cast well, tease the fish to the fly and fight and land a fish", but they often add "yeah, but lots of guys can do that... the great anglers I know have something extra."

When pressed on this point, the conversation gets really interesting. The perfunctory answer quickly gives way to a genuine attempt to describe what qualities separate the truly exceptional angler from the rank and file. So, I thought you might be interested in the qualities mentioned that separate the merely good from the great. Some may surprise you and others may not, but I think delving into these attributes may just help all of us to become better anglers. So here are the results from my unofficial poll that has been conducted over many decades and many more beers:

Without a doubt, the number one quality ascribed to upper echelon anglers is the ability to concentrate. Some anglers seem to be able to do this better than others. Elite anglers are somehow able to shut out everything, but the task at hand. They are fully engaged most, if not all, of the time. I consistently heard that some of the best fish sighters have only mediocre eyes. I've heard stories about the fellow with thick, coke-bottle lenses who can spot fish with the best of them. Somehow they see flashes, ripples, rises, nervous water, birds and a myriad of other clues that betray the presence of fish. These elite anglers have an ability to concentrate and block out distractions. As a result, they simply see more fish or fish sign than others do.
 The second attribute most often mentioned is the ability to stay the course and work hard over the long haul to find fish. Repeatedly, I heard anglers described as "He never gives up." or "He has the patience to wait for that second rise" or "He will wait patiently until the time is right." This drive to be successful on the hunt was finely tuned in our ancestors. Those that didn't have it simply didn't last long. Great fishermen have tapped into this reservoir of indomitability and patience. Put simply, good anglers are tenacious.

By far the most interesting quality that guides and other professionals feel is essential to achieving greatness is an unrelenting sense of optimism. In other words, you must have faith. Without it, you might just as well sit in your room. For the elite angler, each new day is filled with hope and the promise of big fish. To these fishermen, yesterday was yesterday, today is today. One old timer put it this way. "What could have been is a wasteful question. Better to ask what is and what will be". Expert anglers are generally positive people who rarely complain about anything, even if there is reason to do so. They don't dwell on what could have been or the errors of others. They see it as a distraction that cripples their powers of concentration and drains their energy. They never complain and they never blame others for their inadequacies. They say people with positive attitudes live longer, but we'll add that they also fish better. And if they do indeed live longer, then its just practical to be positive... with a longer life, you'll get to fish more and seemingly do a better job at it!

I also often hear when conducting my poll that the best fisherman don't compete. These guys genuinely don't care if they are the "top dog". Of course, they want to catch fish. That's the whole point of the exercise, but they somehow understand that to want it too much again interferes with their powers of concentration and blurs their focus. They only compete with themselves. These anglers have a certain generosity of character too. They are helpful and encouraging to other anglers and are always willing to share their fishing acumen. Lefty Kreh comes to mind. If ever there was an elite angler who was generous to others, it is Lefty. 
The next quality falls under the heading of "relax... it's not brain surgery". The best anglers can simply relax, especially under pressure or in the heat of battle. Maybe it's because they are not competing. Maybe they're just too busy concentrating! Intense yes, but also relaxed. They are somehow confident and know that if the fish are there, they will find them. These guys push hard, but they don't push so hard that it becomes a distraction. They let the day unfold. They are determined, but not hyper. 

To a person, experienced anglers all felt that the best fishermen are in reality, excellent hunters. These anglers think like hunters whether it be in a boat, bank side or wading a flat. They are quiet. They move slowly. They plan their attack whether it be to move upwind on a bonefish flat or to hide in the shade of a big cottonwood tree when casting to a trophy brown trout. They take the time to make a plan and execute it successfully and above all, quietly. I once had a guide tell me that so and so was a great caster, but not a very good fisherman. He said he just made too much noise whether it was wading the flats or shutting the lid on the boat's cooler.
So there you have it. It is interesting to note that not one of the qualities so often mentioned above involve technical skills. Perhaps the necessity of having technical expertise is a foregone conclusion, but perhaps the acquisition of technical skills only puts you at the threshold of true greatness. Whichever the case, we hope you found this food for thought. It certainly provided something for me to chew on... and emulate.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Doug Jeffries Trip report on Nov. Tarpon Trip

As you might remember, Doug Jeffries was going to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula to fish for baby tarpon out of Campeche in mid-November click here to see post.  Doug gave us a peek into his fly box then and now we get this great trip report: THANKS DOUG!

My final fishing trip this year was back down to Campeche, Mexico where we fish for juvenile tarpon. I think this was my 7 or 8th time down there. The fishery is amazingly consistent (but with enough unknowns to keep it interesting) and the town of Campeche is beautiful, safe, with good water, and several really excellent restaurants. Raul Castenada is the outfitter and he and his guides are some of the best I've ever fished with - just a real pleasure to share a boat with. 

I went down on Nov 12 and fished Nov 13, 14 & 15. I flew in and out of Merida which is a two hour drive from Campeche. You can fly directly into Campeche but that requires flying through Mexico City on Aero Mexico. I prefer to use my frequent flier miles and go through Houston. This trip we stayed in the Ocean View Hotel which is right on the esplanade. It is a little farther to walk into the town plaza for a beer and dinner but they do a better job of breakfast and we walk right across the road to load out in the morning. We've also stayed in the Castel Mar Hotel which is about two blocks from the plaza.

Our typical day began with breakfast at 5:30am. Breakfast was very good with cold yogurts, cereals, fruits, choice of breads and muffins, eggs with ham, mushrooms, cheese, coffee and tea (actually we started with the coffee and tea). Raul would join us sometime and at 6am we'd get our gear and walk across the road, step over the sea wall and into the pangas. After the first day our rods would already be stowed on the pangas so we didn't need to wrestle them out hotel room doors, etc. Raul has a lock room at the marina where they rinse down and secure the rods each night. If the tide is high early, we might start a little later as low or dropping tides are usually better fishing.

The guides typically like to motor north pretty far and then work back toward the marina as the day goes by (not always though).  But these days we motored out for about 30 minutes and then started checking the turtle grass flats for cruising and rolling tarpon.  If the water is smooth we may head off shore a little farther and check a couple spots where the guides have marked large schools of fish.  These can usually be slightly larger fish so it's worth the time.  As the day passes, the wind often picks up and the fish tend to move into the mouths of the rios or even up into the rios.  So we follow.  We watch for rolling fish and if the water is clear enough and the sun high we can even sight fish for them.  This trip we found good numbers of decent size snook in addition to the tarpon.  We saw a couple snook that weighed probably 6 - 9 pounds but didn't catch any that large.  Tarpon and snook aren't the only fish we caught.  We landed bar jacks, horse eye jacks, pargo snapper, mangrove snapper, ladyfish, and one octopus (the octopus was in a rio and was accidentally foul hooked.)  Since it was octopus season there, Fernando (one of our guides) kept it for his family's dinner.

The fishing is typically done by watching for rolling tarpon.  Once we find them, we position the boat so we can present the fly in front of the fish.  We typically cast minnow imitations.  We strip them back with long strips with a little twitch at the end of the strip.  We try to keep the fly in front of the tarpon for as long as possible as sometimes they will follow it for a long time before eating.  When a fish takes the fly, we pull hard on the fly line without raising the rod tip (we call this "strip striking").  If you try to set the hook by lifting the rod tip like we do when trout fishing, you'll likely not get a good hook-up and the fish will escape.  That's because the tarpon's mouth is very hard and boney.  Tarpon usually jump a few times when hooked and with larger fish you have to "bow" (lower the rod and allow slack in the line) when the jumps to prevent it from breaking the line.  Tarpon are one of the harder fish to land which makes them one of the most entertaining fish to chase.

As the day passes and the wind picks up, we typically head up into the rios to search for fish.  The rios are tightly edged by mangroves and often completely roofed over.  When we get far enough up the rios, we're typically casting from our knees and roll casting and inventing other casts to get the fly to the fish without hanging up in the mangroves.  When a tarpon is hooked up in the mangroves it's even more of a challenge to land them due to the amount of mangroves surrounding the water and the mangrove branches under the water.  That's another reason this fishing is so much fun.

The guides bring sandwiches from a local deli, chips, and drinks on the boat for lunch.  We eat lunch on the boat around 11:30 - noon.  Then we check some more rios.  Often times the wind drops when it changes direction midday.  So sometimes we'll check the far off shore flats for the cruising schools of fish.  The day usually ends around 2:30 - 3pm (when we start at 6am) and a cold beer goes down real well on the boat ride back to the esplanade.

After a shower we walk into Campeche.  Like most Mexican towns, the plaza is the center of activity.  All plazas are built around a large cathedral and Campeche is no different.  It's a beautiful old cathedral with twin bell towers and high vaulted ceilings.  There are easily a half dozen excellent restaurants in the plaza which makes dinner a delight.  I prefer places which serve local meals but you can get typical American fast food if that's your poison.  There's even an Applebee's restaurant a block from the Ocean View.

This trip was even more interesting because Dr. Aaron Adams was there with Rafael (I can't recall his last name) who is a biologist with the Sian Kaan Reserve.  They were there setting up a tagging operation to allow them to track the tarpon movements and recapture rates.  Tagging involves measuring a fish (nose to fork), inserting a tag behind the dorsal fin that has an ID number and contact information to report if the fish is caught again.  The data is recorded and computerized by Rafael.  We tagged over 25 tarpon this trip.  I had also requested some DNA capture kits from Florida Marine Fisheries.  This involves rubbing a scratch pad on the upper jaw bone of the fish to grab some skin cells.  The lab with analyze the DNA which will be used to identify migration patterns and recapture rates.  We filled all 12 sample bottles this trip and I'll be mailing them to the lab in Florida.  It would be cool if one of these fish was later caught again in Florida or Texas, which would prove they migrate all that way.  If that is the case, it adds emphasis that to truly protect the tarpon fishery, we have to do more than just protect the waters around Florida and Texas.


Monday, November 26, 2012

Big Bones Are Different

The road to wisdom?
Well it’s plain and simple to express...
Err and err and err again, 

but less and less and less.
Piet Hein (1905-1996)

It had been some time since I had caught a big bonefish. By big, I mean those big-shouldered, flat-headed monsters that have left the cute and cuddly class reserved for poodles and hamsters and entered the realm of Rottweilers and wolverines. In front of me was a real beast. While small bones bob and weave on the flats as if looking for a handout, big bones slink onto the shallows like invisible assassins. They've got an attitude... they act like any hunter worth his salt should act. This guy in front of me, when visible, was the only the palest of green. He moved very slowly and seemed at times to be nothing more than the bottom and a shadow. This is precisely how bonefish got their name, the grey ghost. With these big fish you’re never really sure you see them until the light is just right. Then two and a half feet of grey-green vapor suddenly becomes a direct link to your adrenal gland. If you don't keep your vision concentrated and your mind focused, these fish will disappear just as they came... a wish becomes an apparition... excitement becomes nothing more than hope.

After a few days of catching dinks, this big bone seemed to be sent by the central committee to restore the species storied reputation. I knew from experience that this is the moment when casts fall apart. A thousand things can go wrong and often do. Fly lines can wrap around fanny packs and fighting butts can reach out to grab any loop not battened down. If you do manage to get your line in the air, there are lots of traditional ways to screw it up and I always find a few new creative ways to botch a cast on each trip. Of course, you can screw it up by throwing too short or too long... or you can pile your leader... or you can noisily smack the fly. Other popular choices include lining the fish or popping the fish on the head with the fly. But the result is always the same. You get nothing... nada... nothing. You are left just a big goose egg on the scoreboard and an overwhelming and somewhat masochistic need to relive what you just did.
At times like this, you might swear out loud or look to the heavens. Some anglers drop their rods to their side and their necks droop as they stare at the water. We all know this posture of defeat. We can read it a mile away. Shoulders slump and rods drop as assorted and highly descriptive expletives loudly waft over the pale yellow flats. You cheesed the cast, you screwed it up, you blew it… now have plenty of time to think about what just happened.

But if you do somehow manage to make a good presentation, no such leisure time exists. Things happen fast from here on in. Through the adrenaline haze of a thumping heart and buzzing fingers, you must now get the fish to eat. If you do, your journey continues. If not, you have another block of time to think of all the synonyms for rejection.
But if the big bone eats, it begins! If there is one moment in fishing that we all seek, it is that nanosecond before and the few seconds after, the hookup. This is when all hell breaks loose. When a big bone decides to take his considerable bulk elsewhere, he leaves an angler with a fly line ripping through the air as he struggles to keep up with his oxygen intake. If you manage to get the fish on the reel and avoid plinking your 10 lb. tippet like a broken violin string, line begins to melt off your spool. You hope you set your drag right as thoughts of getting spooled replace the dozens of other concerns: the cast, the retrieve, the hookset, that you just successfully put in your rear view mirror.
Fighting a big bonefish is a different game. If you haven’t done it for a while, it can be a real shocker. What may have been routine with the poodles and the punks becomes an all consuming exercise with their larger, supercharged brethren. If you’re lucky, you get to see your fish. You have to do a lot right to get to this point. But if you do it right and if you are really lucky, you get to measure and release your catch.

Numbers now have real meaning...28, 30, even 32 inches translates to 9,10, maybe 12 pounds. Anything over ten pounds is considered the fish-of-a-lifetime. You may get a bigger one, but it will never be any better. You found your Holy Grail and you know this even after the release and before you begin to once again scan the flat. You think about bonefish, in Latin, it's Albula vulpes, in legend, it's the grey ghost. Whatever you call them, you think their reputation is well-deserved and now duly noted.
But I was at the beginning. I thought I could see my monster, my Holy Grail, my fish-of-a-lifetime. With a dry mouth, I slowly took another step forward. Time would tell whether I was up to the task.