January 20, 2011

There’s No Place Like Home (Water)

by Michael Goldstein

This summer, my son and I travelled to Alaska for the “fishing trip of a lifetime”.  We flew to Anchorage and Bethel in commercial jets, and then to a remote lake in a Beaver pontoon plane.  We were dropped off with a raft, food, and camping gear.  With the help of an experienced guide, we floated 8 days down the Kisaralik River, reputed to be one of Alaksa’s best streams for rainbow trout and salmon, camping streamside each night.

Sounds like a dream trip.  

It wasn’t.  The plane dropped us off on what was the 30th consecutive day of rain.  The stream, which had been fishing OK even 3 days before our trip, “blew out” on the day we arrived, and for 5½ days we barely caught a fish.  The weather broke towards the end of a grim and chilly drift through the wilderness.  We finally experienced one day of pretty good fishing, and two half-days of fair fishing (when I had at least some expectation that focused effort might result in catching a fish).  But nothing like we expected when we booked the trip and wrote the big checks.

Is this unusual?  Maybe not.  As preparation for writing this blog entry, I reviewed and rated my personal experience booking 20 years of fishing trips.  For this exercise, I counted only trips which were scheduled principally for the purpose of fishing.  I ignored outings that were scheduled for other purposes (i.e. tagged onto family vacations or business trips), when arguably one might not expect optimal conditions. 

When I added it all up, I realized that my adventure fishing date picking hasn’t been all that great.  I counted 85 days of fishing over 20 trips in 20 years.  Of those 85 days, I rated only 23 days (27%) as “good”.   35 days (41%) were “poor”, days when conditions were so bad that there was no expectation of catching a fish (even if you pick up one or two by “accident” in the course of the day).  The balance, 27 days (32%), I rated fair. 

Given the need to reserve lodges, guides, air travel, and coordinate work and your friends’ schedules, when book exotic fishing trips, you end up picking a set of dates long in advance, and have to live with the consequences whenever you show up.  It’s in the nature of fishing and fishing habitat that a lot can go wrong:  it can be too cold or too hot.  There can be too much water or too little.  It can be too sunny or too cloudy.  No wonder the hit rate is so low!

Imagine watching the weather reports for Greymouth, NZ.  “Gee, it’s been awfully rainy these last few days.  I think I’ll push-off my trip for a week….”  Good luck informing your guide of this decision.  It’ll be the last dates you ever book with him.  Not to mention the change penalty on the airline ticket you booked 3 months ago (if you can rebook your seat at all).

Part of what makes home waters so attractive is that you can be a whole lot more flexible about when you go out.

Last April, I’d been itching to go out in the early season.  I tracked the 10-day forecast on religiously, and waited for the first sunny day that was forecast to break 70 degrees, a few days after a “fresh.”

Sunday, April 19, 2009 is a day I’ll never forget.  I hit the early stone fly hatch perfectly on one of NJ’s small wild trout streams.  Fish rising constantly! I don’t think I had more than 3 casts without a fish on the line.  I landed about 25 in less than 2 hours, all of which slammed my little black elk hair caddis.  Most were 10-12”.  Much bigger than average for this stream, but small by comparison to western fishing, or even the Catskills, and laughably small by NZ standards.  

But the NJ fish were wild and beautiful.  They fought gamely, and were entertaining to land using my light, small-stream rod.  I was home for breakfast and dinner. My out-of-pocket costs were $11.50 for gas and $2 for flies.  Why would I want to go anywhere else?

We rarely fish in bad conditions on our home water.  We track precipitation and stream levels, watch the weather forecast, and adjust our plans accordingly.  Did it rain a little bit too much on Friday?  Instead of going out on Saturday, it’s easy enough to wait an extra day.  If you’re retired, or have some flexibility to pick and choose times you can take off work, you can often go out on the “best” days of the week, when temperature, water levels, and fishing pressure are optimized.  If you avoid a few “hot spots”, and discover some of the lesser-known streams, you can enjoy fishing in solitude, surrounded by natural beauty that’s tough to surpass anywhere.  Yes, even in NJ.

It’s also why NJ TU’s work is so critical.  Perhaps the resources here aren’t what they are in some other states.  But to us, they’re important.  And in the end, as locals, we can have fishing experiences that are in many ways better than what we can achieve elsewhere, even half way around the world. 

There’s no place like home.


October 24, 2010

Fishing Stinks

by Agust Gudmundsson
This caption goes with the photo above.

A crusty old joke has it that “Old fishermen never die; they just smell that way.” Whatever truth there may be in this, what’s known for certain is that success in the outdoors often involves a sense of smell that is both potent and powerful. Hunters, for instance, know this well and use “scent blocker” clothing or various olfactory attractants like doe lure, buck lure and, of course, the ever-popular skunk scent to disguise their presence or to lure prey. We anglers think we know something about scents too, if you follow the various arguments raging over the ethical use of scented baits and lures. Of greater immediate fascination to me is the ways smells can trigger our human memories, including recollections of good times spent in the field. Some smells make sense (or is that “scents”?) and some don’t, but that is the nature of how our minds work. We tie certain smells to certain memories and the bond is hard to break. Who’ll forget the aromas of grandma’s chocolate chip cookies, or Mom’s fresh-baked apple pie? I suspect everyone has their own catalog of smells and memories.

Here are a couple of smells that never fail to trigger my Way-Back Machine.

People usually think of roses as a romantic flower and associate them with romantic love, but my wife never really liked them, so roses never held any meaning to me until I first visited the Madison River Valley in Montana’s Big Sky country. On my first trip to Three Dollar Bridge, I walked downstream towards the horseshoe bend. The house overlooking the river that spoils the view was not there, but the flat field just downstream was. I had been having a slow day, seeing plenty of rising fish but not having much success catching them. I was busily ruminating about my situation when, as often happens in Montana, the weather abruptly went from partly sunny to dark green and ugly in a matter of minutes. When the first hail pelted me, I ducked under the nearest bush. It turned out to be a Multiflora Rose, thorns and all. I cowered under the bush with hailstones pounding all around me, some hitting the flowers and causing them to literally explode. The smell of roses was overwhelming as lightning cracked all around me and I contemplated a life unfinished. After an uncomfortable interval of this, the hail stopped but the gray overcast remained, and that’s when I noticed blue winged olives appearing everywhere. The fish noticed them too, and with trout noses breaking the surface all around, for the next couple of hours I had unbelievable fishing under bleak gray skies in a meadow stinking of roses.

Life isn’t always a bed of roses, though. I’m very fond of the smell of cow manure, too. As a boy I got to work summers on my uncle’s ranch in Iceland where sheep, horses and cows were a part of everyday life. My uncle always claimed the rich smells of the barn were the “smell of money,” but to me these smells only meant more work shoveling. This lasted until the year I turned 14 when my Uncle Kalli from Sweden came visiting. He took me fishing on a local Spring Creek, Minnivallalækur. In the mid 1970’s, Minnivallalækur was still a local secret, a place he had learned to fish as a boy and where it was only natural that he’d teach me to fish. Today, it has become world-famous and anglers pay thousands of dollars a week to fish it. Go online and you can find YouTube videos of folks from all around the world catching the big, wild browns that grow there. But in those days, my uncle leased some of the adjacent pasture to run calves he raised for beef. Along with calves, there were always plenty of curious young bulls with ripe, accompanying piles of bull manure. Kalli taught me to identify which piles had the best chance of finding worms under them. I soon learned that the grey, dried-out ones with bright green grass all around them were too old. The brown, shiny ones with flies still boring into them were too “fresh”. But the perfect ones were grey with just a hint of grass brightening around the edge. Each of these was sure to produce a couple of worms, which came in handy on those days when the flies we were using failed to produce supper! Turning up bullshit was an essential lesson in learning to fish that stream, and the smell of cow manure still stirs in me memories of boyhood days fishing with my uncle in Iceland.

Now we turn from the acrid smell of cows to the sweet smell of mint. Many years ago I spent a long frustrating afternoon on Slough Creek in Wyoming. I was fishing in the slow meanders below the campground. I had parked at the last access area near an oxbow pond, where the river turns away from the road and heads to the Lamar. That day, I worked my way slowly upstream for an hour or so without seeing even a sign of a fish or a bug. The banks however, were lined with wild mint (Mentha arvensis arvensis) and as I made my way upstream, my every step crushed more. At one point, I sat down in the lush greenery to observe the river and got the smell into my shorts. After that, I did not even notice it, but neither were there any signs of fish. Finally, as I came within sight of the upstream parking lot, I saw my first rise-form: a single, small dimple mid-stream in a big, flat pool that had a rather fast moving S-shaped riffle feeding it. Wary, I crawled along the shore to get into position, figuring that this would be a single shot at the only rising fish in the valley. While working into a position to cast to the pool, several more rises occurred scattered around the pool. Thoughts of a huge pod of small cutthroat trout entered my head. As I settled in I saw that there were only two or three trout causing all the rises, but they were HUGE. They cruised around the pool rising occasionally to feed on the surface but I could not see any flies and began fishing to them with no clue what they were eating. For the next hour and a half, I must have gone through 40 different fly patterns, everything from yellow mayflies to grasshoppers and midges in a dozen different colors and shapes. By this time, I had scattered six or seven fly boxes from my chest pack in the mint, which was rapidly becoming a flattened crop circle above the bank. When nothing worked and it appeared I would be skunked, I gathered my boxes and walked away from the still happily-rising trout shaking my head. About 100 yards upstream I stopped beneath a bank-side tree to get a respite in the shade. I placed my hand on the tree trunk and scanned upstream and down, debating if I should just wade through the deep water or head up to the thinner, faster water upstream. It was then that I noticed the ants crawling over my hand and up my arm. Following them up the trunk with my eyes, I watched three or four ants fall out of the tree into the water and wash downstream, undisturbed. Still visible in the surface film, they floated a hundred yards downstream then around two slight meanders, where their fates were sealed. Naturally, my ant box was locked in the car, so I crashed across the stream to the opposite bank and ran a mile or so back to the car to retrieve it. Ant box in hand, I drove back to the upper parking lot, crashed across the creek again, and worked my way back to the flattened crop circle of mint. The first fish I saw took an ant on my first cast but the others stopped rising for several minutes. Eventually, a second trout resumed his cruising and sipping. I waited until he rose regularly, then cast to where I thought his path would bring him. He took the same fly, a size-18 black ant. Both exhilarating cuttbows measured out at just over 20 inches. For the next six months, the mint leaves in my chest pack and fly boxes reminded me of Slough Creek every time I opened them, and to this very day, all it takes is a roll of peppermint-flavored Lifesavers to put me on that water again.”

September 07, 2010

Blood as Sport

by Agust Gudmundsson

Fishing is a blood sport, and our actions as anglers are nothing short of primeval and basic and quite frankly as brutal as anything else in nature.  As such the act of fishing is a basic survival skill, and the killing of our prey is intrinsic to the very act of fishing. The practicing of the skills needed for survival are as basic as boys throwing rocks at trees and men shooting guns at targets. As such catch and release fishing is an enjoyable and relatively low impact activity. As anglers we must all face the fact that our actions have life and death consequences.

Sometimes we face the truth early, sometimes late but we must all come to grips with it eventually. My own experience came at the ripe old age of 9, when I carried home a largemouth bass alive on a stringer the mile or so from the lake to the house. My dad admired the fish and instructed me that it was improper to allow the fish to suffocate like that. He showed me how to kill the fish quickly and cleanly, and then showed me how to remove the entrails and prepare the meat. Over dinner that night he made it quite clear that the responsibility for a clean kill and proper handling of the prey belonged to me the angler and not my mother. He also suggested that my providing food for the table was appreciated, and he encouraged me to keep it up. I fished quite a bit over the ensuing years and while the purpose was food, pure and simple. I enjoyed it, and providing food for the table was appreciated especially when my dad was on strike or money was short. I learned to be an effective and efficient predator, by spending countless hours understanding the prey, their habitat and life cycles and everything about them and by fishing often. Soon I began to catch more fish than we “needed” so I released lots of fish, because killing more than was needed was just wrong.

Now as an adult I seldom keep any fish, but I enjoy the sport of fishing because of the basic and primal joy of being part of the food chain provides. After all these years I still exult in nature and all her wonder. I travel to Montana to witness “The Salmon Fly Hatch” or the Beaverkill when the Green Drakes Hatch and the local park when the Dorathea spinners descend on the Musconetcong. The passion to fish and understand still burns, as does the moral demand to not waste life.  So I release almost all my fish, but I also make a point of killing fish a few times a year to remind me that the “game” is serious and real.

During my life I have born witness to declines in trout populations here in NJ, by and large most of the devastation has been by bulldozers and pollution not over harvest by anglers. In fact I have dedicated a large portion of my adult life to protecting trout and their habitat, because I know how important their presence is in the natural order of things. So when I catch wild stream born native brook trout here in NJ, I treat them with care and respect and release them quickly and carefully.

But when I catch brookies in Rocky Mountain National Park, where they are a threat to the restoration of native greenback cutthroat, I kill them quickly and enjoy the pink flesh cooked in a cast iron skillet, in a little butter or better still bacon fat over a small campfire. It feels good and right and does not upset my moral compass one iota.