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.