Humbled by the Silver King

I should probably be writing about this year’s trout opener, but I couldn’t bring myself to write another post before wrapping up this long overdue one. I hope you’re up for reading, because it’s going to be lengthy.

It’s been almost 10 months since our family vacation to Florida last July. It was a trip largely planned around my daughter’s visit to Disney. We’d spend a few days on the Atlantic side, where my kids would enjoy the big waves and breeze of the ocean, followed by a week on the Gulf side, relaxing on the calmer white sandy beaches. Fishing wasn’t even a consideration at the time. I was clueless to saltwater fly fishing… I’d heard about it and seen pictures of it, but being a resident trout purist from Canada, it’s not really something I ever thought about pursuing.

That is, until about a week before our trip, when some last minute reading prompted me to throw my fly rod in the back of the truck, just in case. I also packed a tying vice and a small selection of tying material, again, just in case. What little research I did left me with images of Tarpon and Snook (along with a few other species) ingrained in my mind. Embarrassingly, the only thing I really knew about these species, was that they were often targeted by fly anglers. I was surprised to read that Tarpon were apparently plentiful on the Gulf, in the Tampa area (which was just south of where we would be staying near the end of our trip). In addition to that, our timing seemed to align with the tail end of Tarpon season.

To be honest, the thought of catching any fish on a fly rod in a great big ocean was overwhelming and seemed hopeless – at least without a lot more information than I had thus far found online. So a couple days before leaving and during the drive up (while my wife shared some of the driving), I started emailing some guides in the area, trying to get an idea of what I could expect or where I could start.

The drive through the scenic mountains of Virginia helped scratch my fishing itch.

I ended up having a conversation with a fly guide out of St. Petersburg: Captain Russ Shirley. He was a pretty open and honest guy. He gave me some ideas of what I might expect both going out on a day trip with him, as well as casting from the beaches near my resort. He had reservations about going for Tarpon, considering I’d never fished saltwater before, nor had I fished for anything even close to as  large as the Tarpon in the area (around 100 lbs!). He was also upfront with the fact that there was no guarantee of even seeing and/or casting to a Tarpon at this time of year, never mind hooking up with or landing one.

Fast forward a week and a half and I’m enjoying the hot sun and gulf beaches with my wife and kids. I ended up booking a half day with Captain Russ and we agreed to start off casting for smaller species with an 8 weight. If that went well, we would try my hand at Tarpon for a bit. I didn’t tell my guide, but I was seriously intimidated by the idea of casting an accurate tight loop double haul with a 12 weight rod for Tarpon! Sure, I thought I was a pretty good caster back home, with 2-6 weight rods for trout. But casting a 12 weight for 100 lb fish was something entirely different. I was half hoping that the first part of the day would convince my guide that I wasn’t up to the task, so I could spare myself the embarrassment and instead be content catching some Sea Trout, Redfish and other small(er) species.

Chilling in front of our resort on the white sandy beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.

Weather forecasts were spotty for most of the week and there was a tropical-storm-turning-hurricane threat to boot. The weather held off though and I was able to wet my line in the salt for the first time from the beaches in front of my resort. The evening before venturing out, I tied up a few simple flies on the kitchen table of our condo: some DT Specials, Deceivers and Crystal Schminnows.

Tying up a few flies at the condo.

My first day casting from shore was pleasant. I was out super early, which I thought would be best both from a fishing standpoint and also to avoid the beach goers. I walked slowly barefoot along the sand, searching for a spot to cast my fly. What I found though, was that I had absolutely no idea where to start. Everything looked the same. So eventually I stepped into the surf and began casting aimlessly out into the gulf, stripping my fly back with varying retrieves. I was sort of surprised at how little I could see… I was expecting crystal clear water, but I couldn’t see a single fish and found it difficult to even see my fly. Somehow, I still managed to land a couple fish that morning.

My very first fish caught in the salt, was barely a fish at all. It was a tiny mutant-like fish, apparently called a Lizardfish. I was almost scared to touch the ugly little thing.

An ugly little lizard fish – my first ever saltwater catch.

About half an hour later, I felt a real tug and ended up landing a second unfamiliar (at the time) fish, this one larger in size – both body and teeth. This time I landed a more respectable Spanish Mackerel. I’ve caught lots of Pike back home and they have teeth too… but the fact that the only two fish I’d caught so far had what looked like razor sharp teeth, was kinda freaking me out.

My first “real” saltwater fish: a Spanish Mackerel

It was still before 9 am and I thought… wow… I’m actually not bad at this. I must be doing something right. So I kept doing what I was doing: casting aimlessly out into the gulf and hoping something would eat my fly on the way back. After another ten minutes, I landed my last fish of the day. Another small unfamiliar fish, one that seemed refreshingly harmless compared to the last two.

Last fish of my first day in the salt… turns out, I probably should NOT have been holding this innocent looking creature like this.

Well, I could be wrong in identifying this fish – but I’m pretty sure it’s a leather jack. Turns out, I was dead wrong about this little guy being more innocent than the previous two fish. Apparently they have spines on top that are capable of producing an extremely painful sting. As one website describes it: “Many who’ve been stung report that the pain far exceeds a sting from a catfish or even a stingray“. Alright, now I’m really freaked out to touch anything I catch in the gulf…

I continued casting for a couple more hours without as much as another bite. I called it a day once the beach traffic picked up and figured the sun was too high in the sky. Given my overall lack of strategy and feeling of cluelessness, I was quite sure that my earlier catches were pure luck. I’d come out hoping to be sight fishing to Snook, but instead I was casting aimlessly with nothing but a wish. Still, I was happy and proud to have caught that Mackerel.

The next morning I met my guide at a marina in St. Petersburg. It was a perfect morning and as we left the docks and discussed the day to come, we were greeted by an Egret looking to hitch a ride.

Egret hitching a ride, on our way out into the Gulf.

Captain Russ wanted to know my goals for the day – which I responded were simply to learn a little and catch a couple fish. He ensured me that the catching part was going to happen and the learning part definitely happened as well! Our first stop in the gulf looked just like every other part of the gulf, that is until we were on top of it and I realized why so many fish would look for food and refuge there: a nice weed bed and some shallower water. On our way, I had discussed my successes and failures of the prior morning and he shared some useful knowledge and tips that might help me the next time I was out.

I was set up with a 8 weight rod, 12-15 lb tippet (from what I remember) and a Clouser in about size 2. We had some discussions about my prior fly fishing experience, and given his past guiding experience with trout anglers, he seemed slightly concerned about my abilities to cast a tight loop with a heavier rod at distance – which would be necessary if we were to try for Tarpon later. After a couple casts, he was surprisingly happy with my casting ability and declared that we would have no problems. He then instructed me where to cast and to begin stripping. Before I could get the fly back to the boat (on my first real cast), I hooked up with my first fish of the day: a small Sea Trout.

My first fish of the day, a small Sea Trout.

While not in any way related to the trout I’m used to catching, it somehow felt appropriate. I instantly felt some relief and with a shot of confidence, I was feeling good about the day ahead. Fortunately, AND unfortunately, this would actually be the last fish I landed. On my very next cast, which was only my second of the day, as I stripped the small clouser with confidence, the gulf water boiled and disappeared around my fly – almost as if it had been sucked down in some kind of vortex or whirlpool. It was a Tarpon… and a big ass Tarpon at that!! I hooked a damn 100 lb Tarpon on my second cast, with an 8 weight, 15 lb leader and size 2 clouser…

I wasn’t the only one surprised… my guide couldn’t believe it. He pulled up anchor, rushed behind the wheel and turned on the engine. He expected it would be a quick fight, as the gear I was using was wildly under powered (not to mention, he didn’t yet have a chance to brief me on how to fight or land a Tarpon). What was about to ensue was by far the most intense and exhausting fight that I’m sure I’ll ever experience.

The fight of my life was on… 100 lb tarpon on an 8 weight.

It didn’t take long for the sliver king to begin its acrobatics. Somehow, to both my guide’s and my own surprise, I survived the first leap with leader and rod intact. I can’t recall how many times the fish leaped after that, but in was in the realm of 10 to 12. And somehow, I kept the fish on for every one of those.

Crazy acrobatics… zoom in to see the insanity!

To make things even more interesting, after the first couple jumps, a second Tarpon began following the one on the end of my line. Every time my fish came up for air, its “friend” also came up for air beside it. It was very bizarre and exciting at the same time. My guide, in all the years he’s been doing this, said he’s never seen anything like it.

Late reacting to the jump, but still managing to hang on.

Quite literally, the fish dragged us around for over 2 hours. In retrospect, any normal Tarpon fight should not last anywhere near this long. However, I simply didn’t have the power to horse the beast to the boat. We got close a couple times, but it used its size and strength to keep its distance and I could do nothing to prevent it from continuing to come up for air – and to continue to find the energy to leap afterwards.

Still going strong, while dragging us around the gulf.

Another jump…

My forearms and hands were numb, I gulped back water for quick breaks to keep hydrated. But I didn’t care, I wanted nothing more than to land this fish.

Must be getting tired… I sure am.

Need… water…

Getting closer.

In kindness to me and seeing that the fish was still healthy, we tried our best to land the it, or at least to get a leader touch. Near the end of the fight, Captain Russ was on his knees at the front of the boat and mere inches away from grabbing the leader, when it turned for yet another run. At that point, I realized it was now or never and applied as much force as I could to try and turn it back around. Finally, the leader gave up and snapped.

Almost there.

Gone!

As sad as it was to lose the fish, I was more than ready to let it go. While getting to touch it would have been an added benefit, we got to see it up close and it was an experience I’ll never forget. If I’m ever to land one of these (as big) on an 8 weight again, I’ll most certainly just break it off. Hopefully though, if I land another, it will be on a 12 weight.

The next morning, with my arms still sore, I got up early again to stalk the beaches and hope to continue my success. Captain Russ had mentioned that sight fishing for Snook was easiest when the sun was high, since it would shine down into the water making the bottom (and fish on it) much more visible. He mentioned I may not even see the fish either, but that I’d be looking for subtle moving shadows.

Despite his advice, I still wanted to get out early and make the most of my time. Try as I might, I could not see anything early in the morning, other than a few schools of fish swimming close to the surface every once in a while. I managed to hook another small Jack species this way, which I think is a Blue runner. From what I read, this one actually was harmless for once.

Small Blue runner jack (I think)… only fish of the day.

Again, I headed in once the beach got busy. Which meant, I didn’t really get a chance to test out the “high sun” strategy. Later that day though, while at the beach swimming with my kids, I finally did manage to see a few fish – swimming surprisingly close to us. For some of them, I could make out the fish itself, but for others I was only alerted of them by their shadow – just as my guide had told me.

On our last day at the resort, I went out to give it a final try. As usual, early morning was slow and I couldn’t make anything out, so I had to resort to blind casting. Again, as the sun got higher, the beach got busier. However, this time I decided to stick it out and continued searching for whatever empty beach I could find between the sun bathers and swimmers. Instead of focusing on casting and fishing, I instead focused on trying to spot fish. I tried to focus on what I had read – a small ridge of sand very close to shore and another ridge a bit further back than that one.

I was fairly sure I was starting to see fish. As I walked along the shore, most of the time I thought I saw a shadow, it would quickly disappear as I walked closer to it. Eventually I found a strip of beach, about 100 feet wide almost directly across my from the resort, which was almost devoid of people. Aside from swimmers on both sides of this strip, and beach walkers strolling by, I was able to walk this section back and forth for a good hour or two during the busiest part of the day. With rod in hand and a DT Special tied on, I located my first shadow on this stretch, approached stealthily, crouched down and cast in front of it. A couple strips later, smash!

First Snook on the fly – and I finally figured out how to find and target them!

Snook on, landed and released! It was super rewarding and I felt like I may have finally figured it out. Over the next couple hours I was able to reproduce that success and spot and hook into several more. None were exceptionally large (for Snook, I guess), although they put up an excellent fight on my 8 weight.

One of several more Snook caught in the period of a couple hours of high sun.

Those couple hours were some of the most fun I’ve had fly fishing. It was very comparable for me to casting dry flies to big rising trout – which, let’s face it… is not exactly a regular opportunity, even if it’s what comes to mind first when we think of fly fishing. The weirdest part about it was being able to do it on a busy beach, full of tourists, sometimes with kids swimming and splashing only a few meters away.

I consider myself extremely lucky to have experienced so much luck and success my first time fly fishing saltwater, especially considering this was really just a Florida family vacation and fishing was not intended to be part of it. I owe my wife and kids much of the thanks, since they had to put up with me sneaking out those mornings and sometimes not coming back until almost lunch time!

Big Water, Big Flies, Big Fish

It’s been a season of big trout for many fly fishermen in southern Ontario this year, at least according to those I’ve talked to and (to a somewhat lesser degree) my own experiences. It makes sense though… the rivers have had an abundance of water, keeping big trout holding in water that might otherwise be warmer, shallower and clearer. High dirty water has also kept dry fly purists at home, reducing fishing pressure on many rivers.

I won’t say it’s been a record season for me though, as I had an especially difficult time keeping big fish on the line earlier in the season. I’m not sure if I’ve finally shaken the dust off my streamer fishing skills, or if the trout have had a change in attitude (or both), but hook-ups with big fish have picked up somewhat over the last month for me. I suppose I can also attribute this to the arrival of warmer weather and the corresponding increase in night fishing success.

A big wild brown from last week, caught just past dark.

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Happy New Year

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and all that!  I’ve been pretty inactive on the blog lately… a typical case of the winter blues while I wait 7 long months for trout fishing to re-open (down to 4 now).  I hope everyone had great holidays.  Santa didn’t treat me to any new fishing gear this year, but a new pair of waders are definitely on the horizon since my Simms Headwaters waders found their way to the trash after last season.

I meant to post these earlier, but never got around to it.  I was experimenting with a few Christmas flies last month.  Here are a couple first attempts that we hung on the tree.  The deer hair snowman was especially fun to tie.

A couple Christmas flies I made with my daughter to hang on the tree

A couple Christmas flies I made with my daughter to hang on the tree

 

Preparations

June turned out to be a busy month both on the water and on the fly tying bench. The rivers are now teeming with bug activity and you just never know when that epic day on the water might arrive… where everything comes together to produce those perfect conditions that bring even the most wary of trout to the surface.

This is the time of year where our fly boxes need to be the most diverse. Depending on the time of day, river and hatches, you might be casting streamers, nymphs, wet flies, emergers, tiny dries, large dries, or even huge topwater patterns. Consequently, I’ve been hitting the tying bench a lot lately, trying to cover all my bases. In what has been an increasing trend of mine, I’ve concentrated more on sub-surface patterns this season to up my odds when fish are either not rising, or when they’re rising but refusing dry flies. Below are some flies I’ve been tying and fishing on some of my local waters.

Grand River

If you fish the Grand River, you know how frustrating it can be if you rely on dry flies to match the hatch. Although I don’t spend as much time on the Grand as I do other rivers, I’ve come to realize that it’s a largely sub surface and emerger river. In response to this, I tied a bunch of the following emerger patters in various sizes, mainly for caddis and blue winged olive hatches. I’m sure that by simply swapping out different colors and materials, these could be used to imitate a much wider variety of caddis and mayflies.

Caddis or BWO emerger, loosely based off a Snowshoe Emerger pattern

Caddis or BWO emerger, loosely based off a Snowshoe Emerger pattern

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Blog Updates

As usual, I haven’t seen much fishing since trout closer. I attended a steelhead clinic a couple weekends ago with a friend and we’ve been trying to setup a steelhead guided trip, which keeps getting pushed back. I’ve convinced myself that I’m simply waiting for the colder weather to drive the mobs of fishermen off some of the more accessible steelhead water – we’ll see if that actually holds true.

Interestingly, my two youngest kids have suddenly become fascinated with fly tying. This isn’t surprising I guess, since they are at that age (junior kindergarten and grade 1) where crafts occupy a large part of their time at home and school. They’re constantly asking to tie flies with me, so I’ve started letting them participate. I always make sure I de-barb my hooks at the vice when tying flies, but de-barbing isn’t quite enough when a 4 and 5 year old are carrying them around the house. So, I completely remove the hook bend, making them safe decorations but pretty awful fish catchers!

My son tells me his favourite fly is the “Wuggy Bugger”. He helped me tie this one and he liked it so much that he’s been taking it to bed with him. It’s not a real Wolly Bugger of course, as it has no hook or hackle, so I hereby declare this new pattern the Wuggy Bugger, as named by my 4 year old son.

My 4 year old son, snug in bed with his "Wuggy Bugger"

My 4 year old son, snug in bed with his “Wuggy Bugger”

Portable Fly Tying Table

I mentioned during the off season that I’d been considering building something to better organize my fly tying tools, which up until now have been stored in a bunch of boxes and ziplock bags. I considered everything from full blown desks to much smaller portable tying stations. In the end I decided to go with a simpler portable tying table, which takes up less space and allows me to easily move my tying area around the house (or even on a trip).

The design I ended up using was based off this one. I used pine for the base and all of the other wood. It’s still pretty bare bones since I have only incorporated my main tools so far. As you can see, there’s lots of room for additional tools and containers, but it’s already much more functional than what I was working with before.

Initial version of my portable fly tying station

Initial version of my portable fly tying station

Features so far include:

  • Metal rods to hold spools: thread, silk, tinsel, wire, etc
  • Slots to hold main tying tools: scissors, whip finish tool, bodkin, thread bobbin, hair stacker, wax, etc
  • Larger holes for containers
  • Hangers for larger more awkward tools, such as hackle pliers
  • Hole to hold my magnifying lamp
  • Enough table space to hold my vice, a tying book and some materials
  • Space under the rear ledge to store materials or containers

Possible additions/modifications I’m considering:

  • Pull-out drawers under the ledge at the back to store hooks, bead heads and the like
  • Additional metal rods to hold more spools
  • Additional holes and hangers for more tools and containers
  • Possibly a different finish for the base

Wet Flies

For most my fly fishing years, I have favoured the dry fly more than all other types of flies. My very first trout was taken on a dry fly, my most memorable days on the water involve dry flies and they produce arguably the most exciting takes from fish. I would typically rather prospect for trout with a dry fly than tie on a nymph or streamer, even when the fish are not rising. Considering most fish feed under the surface, this is a bit stubborn.

I’ve grown to appreciate the nymph and streamer for what they are and I certainly fish them more now than I did in the past: but still, I don’t enjoy them as much as I do fishing closer to the surface. Most trout fisherman generally consider these 3 types of flies: dries, nymphs and streamers. There’s also the more recent hybrid emerger, which is fished just under the surface flim, but these are what you’ll find predominantly in most fly shops and fly boxes. Yet, the sport of fly fishing grew up exclusively on another type of fly, one that is largely ignored by most anglers today: the wet fly.

I’m not stating anything ground breaking here. This subject has been brought up by lots of others, on the internet, in books and elsewhere. Speaking of which, I just received a copy of a new book, which is why this subject is fresh on my mind:

Wet Flies by Dave Hughes

Wet Flies by Dave Hughes

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Merry Christmas!

Just a quick post to say Merry Christmas! Woke up extra early this morning to 3 very excited kids and things are just settling down. Hope Santa was good to all of you and hope you have a great holiday and happy new year.

While searching the infinite database that is the internet, I came across a couple fun tying ideas that I think I will use as inspiration next year. Enjoy!

Christmas Bugger (source)

Fly Ornaments (source)

That Time of Year…

As is obvious from my sudden lapse in blog posts, things have been pretty slow to non-existent on the fishing front since the trout season closer. This is the norm for me around this time of year, when the weather gets suddenly colder and rainier and the fishing slows down.

That doesn’t mean I’ve got nothing to write about though.  As we get some drier days and the crowds thin down I’ll be getting out for some fishing here and there.  Also, this year I’ll be spending more time on the fly tying bench restocking my supply and experimenting with new flies.

In fact, I’m currently in the midst of doing some research for a little side project: building a custom fly tying station. I haven’t quite decided yet whether this will be a full size fly desk, or a smaller, more portable tying station. There are some neat ideas out there and I plan on combining them to make something of my own.  Here’s a couple links I have been looking at with some neat plans:

Fly Tying Desk
Portable Fly Tying Bench

The idea is that this will cost very little – possibly using nothing but scrap wood I have lying around my garage. I’ll post some more details and pics as I flush out the design and start working on it.

2012 Trout Closing Weekend

Well, trout season is officially over here in southern Ontario, which means my fishing days are going to be limited to some remaining warm water fishing (bass, pike) and possibly some steelhead fishing if I can manage to find a place and time where the crowds aren’t too bad.

My wife graciously agreed to let me spend way too much time on the water this past weekend, to finish off the trout season. I took Friday off work and managed to get out for three consecutive days, all of which were spent on different sections of my favourite local river. By the way, you’ll notice that I rarely mention river names or locations. This is on purpose, in an effort to avoid random lazy people from typing a couple words into Google and going away with sensitive and hard earned fishing locations. If you really want to know where I fish… well, I probably won’t tell you unless you’re family or friend 🙂  But, you’re more than welcome to ask.

Anyway, on with the report!

Friday, September 28th

Friday was supposed to be a full day of fishing, but I slept in a bit more than I would have liked and as usual, I needed to do some last-minute fly tying to top up my box. The main ties included a bunch of Red Humpy dry flies (which are always productive on this river), as well as a number of Simulators and a couple Gartside Gurglers for a bit of night fishing.

Lots of Stimulators in sizes 12-14 would be the main go-to fly during the days

Gartside Gurgler (size 6) for hopefully enticing some hungry Browns at night

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