Thursday, November 5, 2015

A Return to Mattamuskeet

In my childhood years my family made all kinds of trips for all kinds of reasons.  During some of our sporting outings we discovered a special place located in the coastal swamps of North Carolina, more than 400 miles east of our home in the Smokies.  The earliest trips were ones where we camped in November to hunt, getting a jump on deer season by hitting a part of the state that opened earlier than the mountain region.  We'd also tow the boat along and fish some of the Carolinas' only natural lakes,
the miles of canals around them, and some coastal plain rivers like Pungo, Alligator, and Scuppernong.  Eventually those trips started including spring break trips where we'd go there purely to fish.  We caught big yellow perch in Lake Phelps and largemouth bass in and around Lake Mattamuskeet.  We'd also pick up slab crappie, white perch, bowfin, and the occasional gar.

By the time my brother and I were into high school traditional trips to Mattamuskeet had been established - spring fishing trips and fall hunting-fishing combo trips.  About the time I was done with college, the fall trips had become a permanent fixture.  They began to include an uncle and some cousins.  The biggest buck I ever took in North Carolina came on a trip down there, and I got to share the shot with both my dad and my uncle at the same time on a fluke chance that we all met up at once.  That was also my last trip.  After getting married and moving away, my participation in the fall tradition ceased.   A dozen or more years have passed.

late 1990s

My dad and uncle still go every year.  Sometimes my cousins join them.  The trip has gotten bigger.  It lasts longer and has grown to include salt water trips for redfish and trout.  In the time since I last went, my dad and his brother have turned grey.  My cousins have grown into men.  I have my own six- and seven-year-old children.  A man we met while staying in his sportmans' motel for spring fishing trips became a family friend.  Llamar Spencer hosts the trip every year in his little motel and allows hunting on some tracks of land.  He too is a grandfather a few times over now.  I realized one day that the trip, which I've taken for granted for the past decade, can't go on forever.  The time had come to suck it up, buy some airfare, shell out a huge chunk of coveted vacation hours, and fly with my own son from Montana to North Carolina and take part in the annual fall trip.

For the first time there were three generations hunting together where I was not the kid.  My son Cooper has been on small hunts with me in Montana.  Before this fall he'd seen one deer taken.  Now we've shared some experiences new to him that will make lifetime memories.  We swatted mosquitoes, watched deer up close, listened to great horned owls in the dusky dawn, slogged through the swamps, bounced across the waves - tasting sea spray as we chased redfish and watched dolphins.  It may be something that helps shape my son's perspective on the outdoors.  He really knows nothing outside of Montana when it comes to outdoor adventure.  Now he knows there's more, a whole other realm of outdoors unlike the world he lives in that is equally grand in its own ways.

We caught turtles and hermit crabs, hid in ground blinds, ate wild grapes, poked holes in the floating duckweed, and turned our motel kitchen into a full-blown meat processing facility.  We watched cotton fields get baled, peanuts harvested, and soybeans picked.  We hit a little marina cafe for some fried flounder, hush puppies, okra, and tea sweet enough to stand a straw in.  We hung out as six guys, ate like six guys, watched baseball playoffs like six guys, and mulled over hard decisions together - like whether to fish fresh or salt the next day, or whether to hunt.  Or maybe to both fish and hunt.  Tough stuff.

We all met up at the Hyde-Away (aptly named for those folks heading out on sporting getaways to Hyde County, NC) on a Thursday and settled in for the next ten days.  Even got in a little fishing before dark that evening.  The next day we walked the property we'd be hunting and set up ladder stands, hung chain-on stands, and built a few ground blinds.  Saturday was opening day, and that morning found my dad and my son sitting together in a pair of ladder stands set up side-by-side. It was my son's first experience in a tree stand and my dad's first experience hunting with his grandson.  As dawn broke over the swamps I was sitting a short distance away in a sweet gum, hidden by a tangle of vines, and listening to frogs and the general din of eastern woods that I hadn't heard in a long time.

My cousin Ryan connected with two deer that morning, and by evening they were butchered and in the chest freezer we'd brought along for the sole purpose of filling with game and fish fillets.  Over the next few days we took five more deer, all of us punching at least one tag.  It was a meat hunt, pure and simple.  Some good bucks were seen, but either beyond property boundaries or after shooting light.   Over the course of the week we also saw turkeys and four bears.

One morning I took a deer with my son practically in my lap.  Another evening I sat side-by-side with my uncle and shared in the moment with him as he took a deer, something we hadn't done in years.  Sometimes my son and I watched deer together with no intention of shooting them - aside from hoping a bigger buck would show up.  He observed whitetail habits and behaviors, listened to them splash through the swamp and flooded cornfield as they walked.  

The deer we did take was a little buck who stepped out into a grassy lane and walked within twelve yards of us.  My son was in my lap, trying to keep from shivering on the frosty morning.  I could do nothing but watch as it came from 50 or 60 yards and walked passed us before catching the movement of my son turning his head to watch it go by.  The deer bolted back to where it'd come from and stood broadside, trying to decide whether there was a threat or not.  I asked Cooper if he wanted me to take this one.  He  enthusiastically whispered "Yes!" and slid slowly off my legs behind our screen of brush.  The deer stood just long enough for me to settle the crosshairs and squeeze a shot, Cooper taking in the whole event.  It promptly ran off and few yards and sank in a canal.  I marked the spot and half an hour later it appeared on the surface.  We fished it out with a long stick as my uncle and cousin Sean linked arms and hung onto me while I leaned out over the canal to reach the deer. 

Hunting gave way to fishing as the weather warmed and the freezer filled to a level of venison everyone was satisfied with.  The wind diminished and two absolutely perfect days emerged in the forecast for some runs by boat out onto the bigger salt water.  We had two boats - my uncle's and my dad's.  We launched inland within a canal and ran out into various bays of Pamlico Sound.

My dad had dialed the water in over the previous dozen years, and we zoomed from spot to spot, catching fish upon arrival at nearly every place he had in mind.  We caught trout where he said there'd be trout, found redfish where he said we'd catch redfish, and picked up flounder along stretches he said would hold them.  There were points of land jutting from the marsh where both redfish and trout were stacked together.  We caught fish on various plastics, suspending plugs, walk-the-dog topwaters, and Glass Minnows (more on those and the fishing HERE).  We were fortunate enough to get into some hot trout action and to hook some brute redfish.  I got to scratch an itch that had been festering for more than ten years, and even took a big red on a topwater bait for icing on the cake.

In one afternoon my dad and I landed five redfish between 24 and 29 inches.  Cooper didn't seem to care too much about hooking fish on his own, but he fought several to the boat when we handed him a rod and got an absolute kick out of netting the ones my dad and I landed.  He loved to measure them to see if they were keepers and let them go if not.  He maintained the live well and its water quality.  But driving Grandaddy's boat was the highlight of each day....

One evening at the end of our trip I slipped out for a solo hunt.  Instead of taking a stand, I moved slowly through the flooded woods, checking field edges and glassing deep into the tangle, hoping to catch up with a buck my uncle had spotted earlier that was sticking to the woods.  While following a scrape line I came up on two bedded does that I watched at close range for a while before they figured out I was there.  Later I detected a larger animal moving my way that turned out to be a bear.  It got to about 35 yards, then found a carcass to gnaw on and spent the next 40 minutes crunching bones just a short distance away, never aware of me.  The swampy vegetation was just too dense to get a picture, and bear season wasn't yet open.

Our final morning found us loading up the pick-up trucks and boats like gear-laden gypsy wagons.  The trip was over - seven deer, a few hundred fish, and plenty of comradarie later.  Six Allisons.  Three generations.  Five of us hadn't been in the same room together since my cousins were toddlers.  Cooper was a new addition, and he'd heartily jumped in with both feet.  The trip was long overdue, yet also timed very well.  Throughout the days as my dad and uncle Ed reflected on previous trips, they realized they were having a hard time mentally separating one trip from another.  Memories ran together.  But I have a feeling this one will stand out in each of our minds and will be referred to fondly for years to come.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Kit's Tackle: Glass Minnows on Pamlico Sound

I had the opportunity this October to pack some Glass Minnows from Kit's Tackle on a plane east out of Helena, Montana and introduce them to some salt water fish in the Pamlico Sound between the Outer Banks and the North Carolina mainland. It had been nearly a dozen years since I'd targeted redfish and speckled trout. This trip was a long overdue adventure to join my dad on a blast-and-cast he and his brother Ed make every year. I was once regularly a part of it back when the tradition was being born more than 20 years ago. It also includes some freshwater fishing and whitetail deer hunting, but I was particularly excited to hit the salt.

We took fish on some standard plastics, some suspending plugs, and some walk-the-dog topwaters - but there was always at least one rod in the rack with a Glass Minnow attached. It won MVP of the trip hands down, responsible for taking the most fish and the widest variety of species. It also took my three biggest reds and my largest trout. It picked up some flounder. On days too windy to head out into the Sound it caught largemouth bass in the more sheltered freshwater.
We primarily fished the Rainbow and Jailbait patterns in quarter ounce and three eighths. Water depth was rarely over five feet and often as shallow as two. The retrieve was a standard jigging retrieve, but almost always making contact with bottom on the fall. Sometimes it was a more subtle swimming retrieve, or a 'hover' in current. Long casts to the marsh grasses, paralleling cutbanks, and perpendicularly across points were the rule.

My dad knew the water, having dialed it in during my absence over the previous decade or more. We hit the spots he knew would have trout, we hit the spots where he always sees reds, and we jumped to points of shoreline that seem to always produce. He pulled flounder off the sandy bottoms, we found reds over rougher ground -  such potholed stretches or oyster beds - and nailed the trout anywhere there was current and along steeper banks carved from the marsh clays by wave action.

Trout were the primary fish, and the Glass Minnow landed a couple hundred. Most were small - the bigger trout of fall hadn't moved into the Sound in numbers yet. We did boat a couple around the 20 inch mark. Most of the reds we caught were 14 to 18 inches, but we got up over 20 several times and nearly broke 30 inches with a few fish, the Glass Minnow taking three between 26 and 29.

The jigs took a beating, standing up to fish after fish.  Even when a bait had to be retired because the toothy trout had cut away nearly all the skirt and the hook shank had been reshaped a few times after being crushed by multiple reds, the painted heads showed little wear.  My dad was impressed and commented how they'd earned a permanent spot in his arsenal.

Tossing jigs was only a portion of this fantastic outdoor adventure that spanned ten days and three generations, seven deer in the freezer, old friends, revived memories, family kinship, and thousands of miles of travel.  But Jiggin' the Dream was brought to life in the Pamlico.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Something out of nothing

I hadn't planned on writing anything about my last trip. There wasn't much to it.  But then I realized what I had just done was the very thing this blog promotes and encourages.  Always travel with fishing gear: Be prepared and grab an opportunity to fish somewhere new, even if just briefly and opportunistically. I learned some new water, took notes for next time, and caught fish in the process.

Travel for work took me along the Clark Fork in Western Montana. I've never fished it that I recall. Maybe a cast or two at some point. A fly rod and a couple spinning rods were at the ready in the back seat.  The first evening I had about an hour of daylight remaining as I intersected the river on my way to a hotel for the night. I strung up a long spinning rod - anticipating trout and expecting to benefit from the extra reach in the swift, big water - and slid down a bank under one of the numerous I-90 bridges. I readily picked up some chunky pikeminnows, watched twin whitetail fawns play like kids, saw an osprey grab a fish, and marveled at a glowing rainbow on the tail end of a passing storm. After 30 minutes I eased on down the road and dropped in again a couple miles downriver. I caught a feisty 16-inch rainbow and a few more pikeminnows. The rainbow nailed a jig along a rock wall sloping back under my feet.

The next day I was much further downstream, down in a warmer water fishery, and found myself with about another hour of available time. I beat around trying to find access and bailed out in a likely looking place where ownership was apparently public. This time with a shorter spinning rod for working topwaters and jerking jigs in slower water.  I targeted smallmouth bass and caught several smaller ones. Nothing over a half pound. Pike were in the back of my mind, but I never saw any. I was fishing a 4lb mono but had a spare spool filled with a super line I could swap out if pike showed up.

I started out with a good "attractor" jig that would generate hits from anything I expected to be here - bass, pike, maybe trout. Once the smallmouth showed their presence, I switched to a Heddon Torpedo to force some surface bites. Had some of my first topwater bass action in quite some time.

I switched back to a jig when I came across a nice run with some depth that was begging to be probed.  I bounced bottom with some slow rolls of a 1/16th-ounce bait. Slow water, slow flutter with a lightweight lure.  I felt a big pick-up on the end of a drop, ensured tension contact, and set the hook into some poundage. The fish stayed put, then throbbed with pulsing thrashes of a fish with heft and length. It didn't take off in a blistering run like the bass or pike I was anticipating. Brown trout crossed my mind, but when I saw the trademark white tip on the tail I realized my quality walleye streak was continuing.

I fished a total of a couple hours within a 24-hour window. Caught four species. Caught what I targeted and some bonuses. Was blessed with a surprise trophy.

I could have simply driven by. But that's not me. True to form I squeezed in an opportunity and capitalized on it. It panned out in big ways. I saw new beautiful places. I breathed in the smell of forest and river - a break from the hum of tires on the road.  And now there are a couple more places in my hit-list for later, with some ideas of species to target - along with other gorgeous water I drove by and drooled over but didn't get to sample that's now tucked away into memory.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Weekend Walleye

This passed weekend involved two floats. Each was primarily focused on searching for walleye, but also looking for trout and maintaining a fly rig to cast to tailing carp.

Saturday began bright and early. Well, no, it was dark. Temps had dipped to the upper 30s overnight thanks to a cold front that had graciously volunteered to push the nasty smoke out the region from wild fires across the West. The trip had been planned for more than two months. Erik, the friend I was with, works in the medical field and has very limited time to hit the water. I like to make our opportunities to fish as productive as possible, but he's always quick to remind me that floating down a river amid gorgeous scenery is already more than productive.

After running our shuttle, we slipped the Stealthcraft into the river in a balmy 40 August degrees. Snow dusted the mountains from the night before. A nippy wind forced the need for jackets.  The preceding day had been in the upper 90s. Today we would be lucky to hit 70.

We began by floating along nice banks and riffles and passed the better part of the first hour without a hit. Erik hadn't caught walleye before. Because of that and how infrequently he gets to fish these days, I certainly wanted to get into some action.

We came into a run where a side channel dumped back in from behind an island - good depth, good flow, and a nice distinct seam. I called it out as the best run for walleye we'd seen yet this morning and started pointing out where I thought they'd be holding. Very gratifyingly, and almost instantly, I had one on. It was massive, bigger than anything I anticipated catching today, and even at my first glimpse of it through the steely water I wasn't convinced it was a walleye. Turned out to be 27 inches and pushing 7 pounds. First fish of the day!! After a few pictures and some oohing and aahing back it went to live life in the river.

The drift down that run produced other solid fish in the 16 to 20 inch range. Once we seemed out of the holding water, we motored up and redrifted. One of the first fish on this second pass was Erik's big catch of the day - a hefty walleye of 25 inches and well over 5 pounds. The summer walleye in this river I've caught before haven't been on this scale at all. We anchored up and took some more smaller ones, some of which landed on the ice in the cooler.  Fish tacos were now on the menu....
Glass minnows ruled the morning.

The day began  to warm  as we drifted on.  We continued to take a walleye here and there, but the action slowed as the sun grew higher and the clouds thinner.  We started seeing some carp along the banks and in the shallows.  We tried our hand at stalking a few by foot.  We made casts from the boat into foam lines where they were skimming the scum.  No takers. Should have just brought the archery equipment.... 
After casting to a thick pod under the afternoon sun and having them eventually scatter, I lifted my line and layed out a cast to a current seam behind a point of rock just downstream, kind of laughing to myself that I was intentionally casting to carp.  My fly was picked up by a heavy fish and it was quickly apparent it wasn't a carp.  Ironic I should be casting with carp on my mind and pick up a 20-inch rainbow.  After a quick net job by Erik and a couple photos, the trout slipped back to where he'd come from.

Erik tied into a large trout later on but it was off before it could be netted. 
I launched again the the next afternoon with a friend named Jeremy to repeat the upper portion of the previous day's float. The plan was to drift down and motor back up.  I had brought the gas motor for that purpose - the versatility of Stealthcraft boats.  I generally try to do motoring floats in reverse order (as in motor up and float back) in case of motor trouble, broken props, etc.  You can always float back.....  But the water we wanted to hit was downstream of the nearest launch, so we took the risk. 
After an entire spring and summer of flawless service, and on the only downstream run of the year, the motor jammed. Fortunately we were early in the float, and it was sooner than we would have normally fired the motor up.  But after catching a couple small walleye we had decided to motor up for a second drift and discovered the problem.

A cow moose came out of the woods and stood in the middle of the river to mock us while I dismantled the motor with my Leatherman.  She was so amused that after crossing and climbing the bank, she came back down to watch some more.

Parts were physically broken, so we beached the boat, strapped on some gear, and hiked the high water mark. We took a couple walleye in a likely-looking side channel. Plenty of carp were tailing in the shallows, but we ignored them having left the fly rod in the boat.

We eventually came to a nice run on the main river that dominated the time we had left. It was a couple hundred yards long with a good mix of ideal flow and depth.  Glass minnows were again the big producers, but we also took some on plastics and a couple on plugs.

We selectively started amassing a stringer to carry out.  When it was time to go, we hung the stringer on a pole between us to pack back to the boat.  We hadn't even kept full limits, but the chain broke as we hiked along. Jeremy said it was the best walleye action he'd had in 15 years.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Summertime Kids

Much of my fishing this past spring and summer didn't find me with a rod in my hand.  I have been on a string of little adventures with my kids.  We have camped.  We have floated.  We have hiked.  And we have waded streams.  Usually the actual endeavor of fishing gives way rapidly to other more interesting and pressing activities.  Such as catching bugs or collecting rocks. Chasing minnows.  Climbing rock walls.  Even playing legos on the floor of my drift boat.

I don't really relate to this diversion. Of course I did my share of catching frogs throughout childhood, but by the time I was the age of either of my children I was begging my dad to take me fishing.  I craned my neck from my car seat as a toddler when we went over bridges and asked like clockwork "Are there fish in there?"  I practiced casting rubber plugs in the yard at home for fun before I was in kindergarten.  I fashioned tiny hooks from straight pins with needle-nosed pliers and caught minnows in the creek by the house.  Neither of my two little ones have been bitten by the bug quite like I was, but hopefully it will come.

I'm increasingly convinced that its harder to teach fishing to one's children than it is to any other member of the human race.  Or maybe its just my children.  I didn't really expect that.  I'm sure there are lots of reasons.  A primary one is probably that just about anyone else I take fishing wants to go.  They've gone through effort to make a trip happen.  They made it a priority, and probably worry that if they don't give their best "they're wasting my time".
In contrast, my little guys probably see fishing the same way they see taking a bath or eating supper - facts of life.  Both have to happen, and both can be fun, but not always.  To them, fishing is probably just as "normal" an activity as checking the mailbox.  Not necessarily something special.

To my son, fishing is merely a trip to the grocery store.  And he views it the same way most men view a trip to the supermarket - get in, get the goods, get out.  One of his absolute favorite meals in the world is fish and corn on the cob.  He'd probably be just as pleased to pick corn from the garden as he would be to hook a fish.  Not to say there aren't plenty of smiles once he's got one on the end of the line, but so far, the pursuit of it brings him no reason to get excited.  And trying to convey catch-and-release to him brings only weeping and wailing.  Plus, he's awfully perfectionistic.  He can't stand to be wrong, and he can't stand it if he's not instantly the best there ever was.  Which is never.  He doesn't seem to understand that I've been fishing longer than four times his entire life span and that of course it should mean that I'm better than he is.

My daughter shows signs that she may spark real interest first. Her casting and her questions are more intuitive. She actually has asks to practice in the yard sometimes.  Fishing works its way into her play - she'll make rods from sticks and string for pretend, she'll play in the drift boat in the driveway.  And she's eager to be the one who personally gets to let every fish we catch go.

One thing that they've latched onto more strongly than anything else is fly fishing.  Floating a fly and trying to keep up with it is a game in itself, and very visually satisfying.  Having a fish take the fly right in front of their face is thrilling. Even the fight is almost entirely visible.

Several folks may balk at this, but I think fly fishing is also simpler to teach.  At the most basic level, it is very simplistic and straightforward.  No casting and reeling.  No guesswork. No bait.  No lures to bring life to.  Just fling and float. 

So far the only catches either of my kids have made unassisted have been on flies.  And don't tell my son, but his little sister is beating his pants off.  On a recent trip to a prolific little stream loaded with small cutthroat, I had them trade off.  One would cast till they caught a fish, the other would net it.  Then they would trade gear.  Lets just say that my daughter had plenty of time to net butterflies....  And when she had the rod, I mostly just stood by and gave pointers.  When my son holds the rod, direct interaction is usually required.

On a recent float my daughter hooked and landed her first trout from the casting brace in the bow of the drift boat. At dusk the hatch became so thick and the trout activity so heavy that even my son put down his legos and picked up a rod. I anchored on a good seam that was loaded with feeding fish and put my daughter to work in the bow. My son moved to the back and started making his own casts - earnestly flopping his fly toward every rise within his reach. I was on a steady march back and forth from bow to stern untangling lines, digging hooks out of flesh, and facilitating casts on occasion. It was mayhem, but they were really getting after it.

Our adventures by no means involve only fishing.  There's lots of tree climbing.  Holes to dig. Fires to build.  Rocks to turn over. Buckets to fill.  Bikes to ride.  Bike crashes to recover from.  "Caves" to explore. Bears to chase.  Stuff to watch in the binoculars.
You know, summertime.