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.


Thursday, August 6, 2015

Blue Moon Brown Blues

I had big aspirations for July's second full moon.  I made an effort to set time aside and managed three outings.  Once on the waxing moon, once on the full moon itself, and once on the wane.  Each was a very different experience.  My intention was to target browns on mice, and I spent the bulk of my nighttime hours slinging them.  I've been tossing them on a stiffer 5-weight 9-foot rod that I loaded with a weight-forward 6-weight line.  I've kept my leaders heavy and around 9 feet.  I had some disheartening break-offs earlier in the summer and decided the leader just takes too much abuse in the dark not to go heavy.  But, looking back over my summer so far, my best action has been with a lighter leader.  Maybe under a bright moon the leader has more visual impact than I might think. But the jury is still out. Those earlier trips were also on darker nights.

I had my only blue moon action from browns on the first night.  The mouse was hit three times, and I hooked up with one.  It was a decent brown around 22 or 23 inches, my second biggest mouse fish of the summer.  Later
that night I actually saw a natural mouse get taken.  It skittered out from the bank onto a weed mat, then back in.  Out and back.  Out and back.  It was so fast that it took two or three times of going in and out before I realized what I was looking at.  Then, on its fateful trip to the outer edge of the weed mat, the water exploded, and there was no return pitter-patter to the shoreline.  I roll-casted my mouse onto the spot within the second and swam it along the weedline and over the same place the real one had met its demise moments earlier. But the fish had cruised on.
There's no way I could mimic what that mouse was doing.  But I logged it away that perhaps redundant casts onto weed mats would be worthwhile.  I love the bassy-ness of chasing big browns with topwater.....

The next time out a couple nights later on the full blue moon was a different approach to the water altogether.  I'd hooked up with a new friend who fishes with the same crazy intensity I do and we headed onto one of the lakes in the series of dams here on the Missouri.  His forte is jigging the lakes, and he makes his living doing it though specialized tackle production and guiding. The thought was to toss mice, among other things, to the canyon walls in the moonlight.  So far he has been unable to dial in the nighttime bite and wanted to see if maybe mice would be the ticket. We passed the night working the shorelines without a hit. Still no leads on solving the lake's nocturnal feeding habits for browns - unless they just don't. But how could that be...

It wouldn't be fair to say we caught nothing.  Before the sun went down and we reverted to the mousing-a-lake experiment, we took several fish on jigs - rainbows and few walleye.  One beast of a fish hit a beast of a plug right at dusk, but we didn't get to see what it was.  Likely it was our one encounter with the brown we were hoping to meet that evening.

My last night out was in awesome conditions. A perfectly beautiful, windless 72 degrees.  Moonlight like daytime. I hiked along the river where I'd caught my last two biggest mousing browns.  I fished 5 or 6 hours without a hit.  Yet fish were very active, more so than most nights.  Typically you'll hear the occasional fish hit the top.  But tonight there was lots of feeding all over the full width of the river.  I came to a spot where it was apparent that larger fish were present judging by the consistent heft in the sound of the takes.  They were holding in an obvious current seam, its boundaries illuminated by the silvery moonlight's crisp sparkle where the two flow speeds met.  After no action on the mouse, I set the fly rod aside and started launching plastic jigs into the seam.  I'd packed along a spinning rod, holstered in the waist pack behind me.  I was quickly into fish, and good ones.  I landed half a dozen rainbows that were all above the twenty inch mark.  Comically, I dropped the biggest one while trying to pose for a snapshot. I don't know what they were taking from the water surface, there was no overwhelming hatch.  But they were more than willing to inhale a passing minnow in the moonlight.  Big rainbows were definitely active.  A couple small walleye came to hand as well.  

Rejuvenated with some solid fish action I resumed slinging my mouse.  Its soft "splat" onto the water seemed too enticing to pass up.  But the night ended without one take.  I suppose it was only too enticing to me - one more cast, one more cast, one more cast.

I peeled myself off the water and made it home for a nap just before the sun came up.  Maybe if I'd stayed till daylight......

Still, I suppose the stats are looking pretty good.  It was the first night this summer I'd spent mousing on the river without any action at all.   Every other trip has resulted in multiple takes, and I go home satisfied if I only get one strike in a night.  A brush with a big brown is a thrill.  Fishing for them in this manner is like somehow combining the hunt for steelhead with bass tactics.  Or does that describe musky fishing?  What's not to like!