What I Know About Fishing, Part 1: Be Observant

What I Know About Fishing, Part 1: Be Observant

I have been asked by many people to put down on paper my knowledge of fishing. In my mind, there is a direct correlation between knowledge and experience. The keys there are to identify the experience and remember it for future use.

At the top of my list of things to do is to be observant. The number of times that my being observant has resulted in fish is literally countless. I’ll give you an example of what I think might be the first time I applied that theory.

Everything happens for a reason

It was the summer, and I was fishing with my father on the Assabet River in the Maynard/Stow area of Massachusetts. I was probably 13 years old at the time.

The Assabet was notorious for becoming carpeted with small algae that the locals referred to as duckweed. (The ducks did love it, by the way.) It would be so thick on the surface of the water that it would support the weight of many non-metal lures.

On this day, we were drifting downstream when I noticed a disturbed spot in the duckweed. Logic told me that it happened for a reason, and I assumed it was brought about by a fish. So I cast my recently purchased 6-inch black Creme plastic worm towards the spot. I was careful to cast slightly past it and bring it on top of the algae to the slightly open spot.

BOOM! A nice largemouth bass grabbed the worm. My father got so excited that I could not believe it. We landed the fish, which we kept to eat. After that, we caught a few more, but we missed more than we caught. The next time we went fishing, my dad had his own supply of plastic worms.

Later, I would apply the same principle to bait fish. My friends and I would go down to the river downtown with little pea-sized dough balls to catch shiners. We couldn’t keep them all alive so we would wrap them in tin foil and freeze them. Before we put them in the freezer, we would bend them into about a half moon shape. That way when we put a hook in the frozen shiner and cast it like a lure, they would spin on your retrieve. They worked in open water, but they worked best coming across the algae.

Stop and look

There are many obvious instances of being observant when it comes to fly fishing, but here is an unusual one. I was wading at Menemsha Beach on Martha’s Vineyard one fall day while fly fishing for bonito.

I was having no luck, despite knowing that I was casting a fly that was a perfect match to the small baitfish that we call “spearing” that were schooled right in front of me. The bonito were crashing within arm’s length of me, at times even splashing me. To say that I was frustrated was an understatement.

The next time a bonito crashed close to me, instead of casting at it, I simply observed exactly what was going on. A crash came, and I immediately noticed a dozen stunned spearing just quivering and slowing sinking from the shock of the strike. Suddenly, below the surface and out of anyone’s view, these flashing streaks darted in all directions and picked off every one of the stunned spearing. When the next explosion occurred in front of me, instead of retrieving my fly after casting, I simply left it there and twitched it a few times…BOOM! I was on!

Sometimes, things are not what they appear

Many times, early in my fly-fishing life, I would get frustrated by casting at rising fish and not getting a take. What I learned was a simple principle that applies to all forms of wildlife, “The less energy expended, the better.” In other words, “Take the easy way out.” Or, “Why kill yourself for a meal when you don’t have to?”

As it turns out, more often than not, those rising trout were not taking the already emerged dry flies, but rather the emerging ones. Those nymphs lay helpless in the surface film for several moments as they dry their wings. They are so easily picked off, like the spearing on Martha’s Vineyard, why not take the easy lunch?

Take it all in

Being observant can also mean exactly that, in that you want to take in all that is around you.

If for example you aren’t catching fish in your favorite bass pond, but you occasionally hear or see a large splash in the lily pads you can assume that the bass are looking on top for lunch, for something like frogs perhaps.

Trust your senses. If you thought that you heard a splash to your right, you no doubt did, and splashes don’t happen for no reason.

If you notice the slightest movement by a lily pad that seems out of place, you can bet that it is a fish, probably a big one.

Watch the loons and mergansers. There life depends on finding fish. That said I would never crowd either of them. Wait until they move off before fishing that spot. When you are there, take note of the depth and water temperature (when applicable) where they were fishing.

Water temperature isn’t that important at certain times of the year. For example, in a shallow lake in late July, the temperature is going to be pretty uniform throughout. However, if you are fishing a few weeks after ice out, a one- or two-degree temperature difference from one spot to another is huge!

I kid you not

Don’t forget the little boy or girl in you. When you went to a pond or river as a kid, what did you do? You looked for all the neat things that lived and grew there. Keep that in mind the next time you launch your boat. If you see many pollywogs, for example, you can bet that the game fish are fully aware of them too. 

Tadpoles

Tadpoles

If you are fishing a body of water that is next to a ripening corn field, you can bet that little rodents are making many trips to that corn and are in need of a drink or a swim.

Look at what is under those rocks. Are there nymphs or leeches? Neither is pleasant to most of us, but they’re high on any game fish’s menu.

Dragonfly Nymph

Observe the elements of your success or failure

For example, August is without a doubt the toughest month to catch trout, especially on a fly *most* of the time.

Many years ago, I fished a heavily fished trout pond on a rainy, foggy, muggy August morning, and I had a spectacular day. Now every August I head to the pond on days just like that. In fact, that pond, which had long been one of my favorites, I have yet to fish this year. It has received much publicity, and it is very popular with kayakers so fishing it in good weather is no longer pleasant. Fishing it in unpleasant weather is much more relaxing and productive.

On a similar note, my very best days there have been in early season snowstorms; I kid you not! 

In fact, one of those days is a perfect example for this topic. In late April of 2011, we had a very cold snowy opening day of trout season.

Ian and Your Guide in the Snow on Opening Day

Ian and Your Guide in the Snow on Opening Day

I had my grandson Ian in my boat, and Tony had my grandson Sam in his. The pond had at least a dozen other boats on it when we got there.

We started by trolling close to shore to try to locate some fish. We did in less than 10 minutes, and we stopped at that spot to cast. A couple of hours later, we had the place to ourselves, and we had landed 77 trout that we released.

Sam's First Tiger Trout

Sam’s First Tiger Trout

It seemed that we could have caught fish all day, but I insisted that we leave because Tony and both of my grandsons were wet and shivering. When we got to the launch, the local warden was waiting for us.

Dave asked how we did. He was shocked. He said none of the other boats had landed a single fish. He said that he was called all kinds of names including a liar when he assured the other fishermen that it had been stocked.

Why did we catch fish when no one else did? We were observant and smart. After the very first hit that we got trolling, I stopped the boats for two reasons. First, I knew that this early in the season the fish would be schooling. Second, I knew that they would seek “structure,” meaning rocks, logs, etc. for protection.

That is exactly what happened. My very cold and wet grandsons were very happy.

It was a memorable day for sure.

Another example that you might remember from my August 2014 blog post called “Rapid River: A Challenge and a History Lesson” is when Tony spotted a backwash that no one else spotted. He learned about the benefit of backwashes from fishing the Cape Cod Canal, where we often catch schooled striped bass who target bait fish caught up in backwashes.

The fishing at the Rapid River was challenging, and the banks were crowded with fishermen. I can count at least nine fishermen in this one photo that Tony took that day. 

A School of Rapid River Fishermen

A School of Rapid River Fishermen

If it weren’t for the nice backwash that Tony spotted and many other fishermen missed, our success would have been very different. We caught most of our trout and salmon on dries, which is preferable, but with the river so properly named, every fish was a challenge to land. Why were the fish attracted to this backwash? Like in the Cape Cod Canal, the backwash traps food. In this case, insects.

Tony caught what was then his biggest native brookie (16 inches) along with several others and several nice salmon. He earned them because he was observant enough to spot that nice backwash that was holding so many fish.

Tony's 16-Inch Brook Trout in 2014

Tony’s 16-Inch Brook Trout in 2014

Keep your eyes open, and think about what you are looking at. 

WLAGS

Typical September Fishing

Whenever I am asked about trout fishing in September,  my answer is always something like this:

  • The fishing can be slow.
  • The fish are moody.
  • They are thinking more about reproducing than eating.
  • The weather conditions can vary greatly, also affecting their moods and urges. 
  • That said, the fish are in peak condition in both strength and appearance. 

So the quick, two-day trip that Tony and I took just after Labor Day proved all of that.

We started our fishing at one of the most famous spots on the Magalloway River–the Mailbox Pool. We never fish there because it ALWAYS has so many fishermen that I feel like I can’t enjoy myself in a crowd that size.

So when we saw no cars there, we decided to see what was so special about this spot. When we got there, it was obvious why it was so desirable. It looked like the picture perfect trout water.

Your Guide at the Mailbox Pool

Your Guide at the Mailbox Pool

We fished it without a hint of a fish. I think I saw one fish rise. So when a young man showed up with *two* fly rods and his dog, and apparently had fished here many times, we decided to move on.

Local Fisherman and Dog at the Mailbox Pool

Local Fisherman and Dog at the Mailbox Pool

Surprisingly, when we got to our car, there was no other vehicle there. We assumed this young man walked there. That said, there is only one house within a mile or more of this place, which seemed to confirm our belief that he was very much a local.

Now we moved on to our secret place on the river, downstream a few miles. This spot is rather innocuous, but it simply holds fish, big fish. You might remember this spot from this spring’s story of the big brookie that Tony hooked briefly. It was easily the biggest brookie we had ever seen in the lower 48.

Our Secret Spot

Our Secret Spot

So we fished that pool–or more accurately a bend–and for quite some time, there was little to get excited about. Suddenly a nice sized fish broke right in front of me. Thankfully I was in such a position that I was almost instantly able to put my flies (a dry with a nymph dropper) right on the spot. There was a splash, and I was on. Tony knew, even at a distance that it was not your typical 9-inch brookie, and he dashed over to help.

The bank there is the very definition of steep and deep. It is a few feet deeper that Tony is tall. He literally slid down the bank, having to be careful not to go too far so as not to end up in the very deep river.

Eventually, I got this beautiful native brook trout to Tony’s waiting net–a very small hand net that you hang from your wading vest. What we needed, and I’ve since created is a long-handled net.

If Only We Had This Net

If Only We Had This Net

Now Tony needed to get up the bank. That was no small feat, but eventually he made it. The trout was a beautiful 15-inch female that we returned to the river very quickly. That made the trip.

My 15-Inch Brook Trout

My 15-Inch Brook Trout

This place is within a short drive of one of the most heavily fished brook trout pools in all of New England–or maybe the Northeast! We have only once seen another fisherman there, and even that was very briefly, thankfully.

At midday, we went to the dam. That resulted in each of us catching a trout and a salmon.

My 13-Inch Landlocked Salmon

My 13-Inch Landlocked Salmon

Tony’s salmon was the biggest at 15.5 inches. It was a nice couple of hours.

Tony's 15.5-Inch Landlocked Salmon

Tony’s 15.5-Inch Landlocked Salmon

That evening, we returned to our secret spot. Just after sunset, I heard an excited Tony as a salmon took to the air. I went over to help, as it appeared something was wrong. Sure enough, the salmon had taken Tony’s line under a log, not once but twice, wrapping the line around it, and making it impossible to move him. I held Tony’s rod while he once again climbed down the steep bank and into the river, lifted the log, and rolled it to untangle his leader. The fish and the fly were gone.

It worked out for this very smart–or more likely lucky–salmon, as the resistance of the log was enough to break the leader at the fly, which was one of the yellow soft hackle streamers that I tie. Luckily, Tony took a picture of it before he tied it on so I can recreate the fly that he lost.

My Yellow Soft Hackle Streamer

My Yellow Soft Hackle Streamer

The next morning we returned to the dam, and Tony caught an average sized brown trout.

Tony's 10.5-Inch Brown Trout

Tony’s 10.5-Inch Brown Trout

Later that afternoon, we returned to the dam and caught a couple of small smallmouth bass.

Tony's 7-Inch Smallmouth Bass

Tony’s 7-Inch Smallmouth Bass

When 10 high school students began to slowly portage their kayaks over the dam, we decided to move on.

Invasion of the High School-Aged Kayakers

Invasion of the High School-Aged Kayakers

That night, we returned to our secret spot. It started off quiet and uneventful. There were no rises to take note of.

Suddenly, about a rod-and-a-half length from me, directly in front of me, the largest salmon that I have ever seen south of Labrador, jumped in a classic arch.

One of Our Salmon in Labrador

One of Our Salmon in Labrador

It–and I mean this very honestly–took my breath away. I could not even speak as I tried to yell to Tony. I finally caught my breath, and it became obvious that at even 75 yards away, Tony had heard the splash and seen the rings.

This is going to sound crazy to some, but like the appreciation for the big brookie earlier in the year, we felt lucky just to be fishing in a place that a magnificent fish like that called home. Actually, he probably does not live there. He is more likely there for the sole purpose of spawning. He’ll then leave, but he’ll be back. So will we.

WLAGS

Wild Food Crops

Wild Food Crops

My initial take on the wild food crops looks like this. EVERYTHING is running late this year. You name it and it is true.

Apple Crop

Slightly more than half the trees have apples. The trees that have them have a lot of them. Those trees that have a good crop are also producing small apples.

J.E. Apple Tree With Blossoms in 2015

J.E. Apple Tree With Blossoms in 2015

Most of the apples are now smaller than a quarter in size. What’s my guess as to why that is? This spring’s heavy rains took down many blossoms on some trees, but late blooming trees benefited from those rains. The trees that produced fruit produced so many that it is limiting the size. Many orchards actually pull off excess apples to enable the trees to produce bigger fruit.

Another two or three weeks will tell us much more about the size of the crop and the fruit.

Acorn and Beechnut Crops

It’s too early to draw any conclusions about the acorn and beechnut crops. I have seen both very small and some larger acorns along with some trees that have no crop at all. Again, mid-August will be a better time to assess things.

Berry Crop

The good news for the bears in particular is that the blueberry crop is both big and late. The rains have made the berries big but ripening late by (you guessed it) about two weeks. The field at J.E. is loaded with low-bush blueberries. Wild red raspberries are also in great supply now.

That did not stop a bear (or bears) from hitting John’s feeders again last night, which he forgot to bring in. Which makes me renew my question: Did they smell the seeds, or do they check his yard every night in hopes of finding food? I think it is the former. Although birdseed does not have a very strong scent, it certainly is strong enough for them to smell it from great distances. They ALWAYS show up the night that you forget to bring in the feeders.

The rains produced a bumper crop of many kinds, including bulb plants, like iris that bears also love. Remember my video of them eating iris at the swamp?

I have not come across much mountain ash yet to assess that crop.

The highbush cranberries appear to be having a good year as well.

WLAGS

My Day as a River Helper

My Day as a River Helper

On Sunday, June 9, Tony and I took part in program called Casting for Recovery to help 14 ladies that are all breast cancer survivors to celebrate a new lease on life.

We were told that this was the first such event to be held in New Hampshire, but it was one of about 40 being held nationwide.

I was invited to take part by my primary care physician, and as soon as Tony heard about it, he said he would love to participate as well. There were 14 helpers; the goal being to a have one-to-one helper-to-participant ratio. Fly fishing really is taught best with that one-on-one system because the teacher needs to watch the student intently.

The River Helper and His Student

The River Helper and His Student

The setting was on a local trout pond, and the only observers were a few kayakers and a bald eagle. It was a beautiful day to have such an event. The sky was crystal clear, and it was warm with only the slightest hint of a breeze. However, fly fishing at this time of year in those gorgeous conditions was not going to yield many fish. We were all aware of that, and we accepted that premise upfront. Most of the ladies had fished before, but most had never held a fly rod until this weekend.

Tony's Participant Brenda Makes a Cast

Tony’s Participant Brenda Makes a Cast

I often have thought of fishing as being therapeutic, and this was more evidence of that. It can and does provide both physical and mental relief when needed. It was suggested that the casting motion was also good exercise for the recovery of muscles after surgery. It was also meant to be a bonding experience for the participants, and I feel it succeeded in that for sure.

The 14 Participants Bonded

The 14 Participants Bonded

This was the last of a three-day weekend for them. On the previous two days, they were given casting lessons and some fly-tying lessons as well. So this was going to be their first attempt at putting what they learned to the test.

It was emphasized to us, the river helpers, that this was not about catching fish, but rather about having a good time, laughing, and presenting the sport to them in such a way that they could judge for themselves whether they thought they might like to expand their interest. I think we succeeded in those goals. We did manage to catch a few small fish, and they were very much appreciated by all.

Just Enjoying the Water

Just Enjoying the Water

The ladies were very enthusiastic to say the least. They cheered each other’s accomplishments as if a small fish represented a Super Bowl win. They were patient, attentive, and always smiling. I know I left there with an appreciation for their inner strength and their zest for life. I got at least as much out of this experience as did my student Michelle, I’m sure. Tony felt the same way about his student Brenda.

Brenda and Tony

Brenda and Tony

We got to enjoy a great lunch together after the fishing was done. That further bonded us together.

A Hardy Lunch for a Hard Day's Work

A Hardy Lunch for a Hard Day’s Work

I asked Tony at the end of the day’s events whether he shared my thoughts about the day’s success. He said that he enjoyed it and would certainly consider doing it again.

That’s a good thing because we were told by the organizers that we would be called on next year for sure.

WLAGS

 

A Plan and a Whim

A Plan and a Whim

On our last day, we made plans to fish a small and somewhat difficult pond to reach. On the drive there, we had the pleasure of seeing a cow moose kneel down right beside our truck to drink while her calf (a young bull with knobs on his head) whimpered like a dog. He was more concerned about our presence than she was.

Cow Moose Drinking with Baby Bull

Cow Moose Drinking with Baby Bull

That was quite a sight, and it was a great way to start our morning. Now on to that remote pond. It would require carrying the boat and all the equipment over a fairly steep, rock-strewn and root-covered trail.

Heavy Lifting

Heavy Lifting

As usual, Tony did most of the heavy lifting as we dragged his 15-foot canoe and all the necessary equipment to the pond. And thanks to the cold, wet spring we had, the black flies were mixed in with the mosquitoes, even though it was Father’s Day weekend, not Mother’s Day weekend when you’d normally see black flies.

We made our way to the brush-choked shore. It was worth it almost for the view. It’s a gorgeous little pond, even by Maine standards. We were anxious to get started.

Can't Beat the View

Can’t Beat the View

The weatherman had promised an overcast day and maybe even a little drizzle. No such luck! As soon as we launched, the sun broke out of what turned out to be a cloudless sky, and the temperature shot up; not exactly the prime conditions we were hoping for.

We did as well as could be expected, catching my first creek chub, and a few small brookies–both stocked and native.

My First Creek Chub

My First Creek Chub

We lunched on the porch of the only camp on the lake.

A Rustic Camp

A Rustic Camp

It was a throwback in time in its structure and what passed for furniture and equipment. The only access is by boat or across the ice. It looked like it had not been used in several years, but one can only imagine the many wonderful days and nights spent there by so many hopeful hunters and fishermen.

A Hopeful Fisherman

A Hopeful Fisherman

Of note was the cardboard cutout, which was often done back then so you could eat your catch, of a 17-inch brookie with the date and name of the lucky fisherman and the fly. After lunch, we left our respite and headed across the pond to our truck to make ready for an evening of fishing.

After a hearty supper, we started to head for one of the more famous rivers when I once again got a whim. I turned to Tony, as we passed a stretch of a river that looked great and suggested that we drop the canoe in there.

It is one of those places that is very difficult to wade, and it is almost impossible to cover all of the good water with a fly rod.

So we dragged the canoe down yet another steep, rocky bank, and we launched. This worked out great. The darker it got, the more fish rose, and we had a great night of dry fly fishing.

Landlocked Salmon

Landlocked Salmon

We landed five salmon and one brook trout, and one rainbow trout, along with the odd fallfish and smallmouth bass.

Rainbow Trout

Rainbow Trout

Again a whim paid off!

WLAGS

Apple Blossom Time

Apple Blossom Time

As I walk through the woods, the things that amaze me most about New England are the stonewalls (which I consider a greater feat than the Great Pyramids) and the apple trees.

As I’m sure you are aware, there are no apple trees native to the Americas. All these trees came stock and seed from Europe, starting long before we were a nation.

There are literally thousands of varieties, many of which grow wild in our woodlands, that are found nowhere else in the world. They are varieties that have no commercial value in today’s world, but are of extreme importance to the wildlife that depend to varying degrees on them. That’s why we were thrilled on our recent trip North of the Notches to see hundreds and hundreds of these trees in full bloom. It makes it so easy to see them for a few days a year when they are otherwise camouflaged into a green world of leaves and limbs.

I call them wild trees because they are no longer in the care of humans and survive as best they can. Tens of thousands have died over the last century. I can find almost a hundred just here in town, but thousands still remain.

Most of them are more, much more than 100 years old. Some twice that. The tree that I shot that buck from in Vermont in 1967, is a good example. It was, according to the farmer there, a hundred years old then, and last I knew it was still alive, 50 years later, having survived being mangled by bears and a lightning strike.

So it should come as no surprise that I cherish them and help them, when possible by cutting out competing saplings and in some cases pruning and feeding them. This picture of the apple tree at J.E. shows how that effort pays off.

J.E. Apple Tree Blossoms

J.E. Apple Tree Blossoms

A tree full of blossoms does not ensure fruit later, but a lack of blossoms equals no chance of fruit.

Long live the apple tree!

WLAGS

Winter’s Victim, Part 4: Winter’s Savior

Winter’s Victim, Part 4: Winter’s Savior

From March 14 through my visit on the March 30, there were varying intensities and frequencies of visits. The most notable was from a vulture because they are not frequent visitors in the winter. My guess is that it was migrating because it only stopped by for a meal on the go.

Turkey Vulture Takes a Turn

Turkey Vulture Takes a Turn

Another surprise was the fisher, not because it came at all, but rather that it only came once.

A Fisher Checks Out the Carcass

A Fisher Checks Out the Carcass

There were countless visits by coyotes, even after all of the deer was consumed, except hair, including the morning that I checked the camera. You can see in this photo from that morning how little was left at that point.

What's Left

What’s Left

The bobcat visits were much less frequent, but did provide some great photos.

Bobcat's St. Patrick's Day Feast

Bobcat’s St. Patrick’s Day Feast

The ravens were a constant, and they were by far the most photographed critters over the last two weeks.

The Ravens Were a Constant

The Ravens Were a Constant

A mouse even got involved. I had to look closely, but one night as a coyote approached you can see a mouse scooting away. The coyote barley gave it a look, unlike almost any other time when he would have turned himself inside out to catch it.

There were more great photographs than we could reasonably include in a few blog posts. Instead, we’ll just include a slideshow here.

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All in all, this young buck provided much needed sustenance to many forms of life during the very trying days—the most trying days—of winter, as fat reserves are all but gone this late in the winter for most of these animals.

Having said that, I still am sorry that this little spike horn buck did not live to see his second spring.

WLAGS