Friday, December 13, 2013

Naugatuck River - Fall 2013: Observations & Thoughts

A two-handed rod can be a valuable asset in hard-to-wade pools

On Tackle...

Before this season started, I was unsure whether or not to use lighter gear due to the smaller size of the salmon. Especially in September and early October, I caught fish on a wider variety of rods than I've ever used in the past. On the lighter end, I landed salmon on an Echo 10'6" 4wt. switch rod. As long as the fish was far from me, the rod handled wonderfully. It definitely lacked backbone when I got the fish in close, however. I also used a Vision GT Four 9' 6wt. single handed rod. That was fine for some fish, but one salmon really kicked my butt on that setup. Though these fish can feel lethargic (especially come November), if you hook into enough of them, you will find some real tough guys mixed in. This is especially true when the water is warm. When the water temps are in the mid to upper 60s, you want to play these fish hard and fast. Sure, pretty much all of them can be handled on lighter tackle, but why stress them unnecessarily? After landing a few, I went back to using the same gear as always. As I've stated before, my main three rods are:

9' 7wt. Sage Graphite II - a nice medium-fast action IM6 rod
11' 6wt. Sage Z-Axis switch rod - my bread and butter rod
11'3" 7wt. Redington CPX switch rod - for heavier flies and fish

The water was very low most of the fall. Most of my takes were induced rather than on the pure swing (flies were stripped, drawn in slowly, hand twisted, etc.). As such, I found it much easier to use a single handed rod in most situations. The 9' 7wt. Sage was just right for what I needed to do. 

I think using a long leader really helped a great deal. An 8' or 9' leader is usually all that is required, but I used a 12' tapered (hand tied) leader for much of the early season. Maxima Chameleon was fine,  I didn't need to resort to using fluorocarbon. I fished a lot of size 10 flies this year and coupled them with 6 lb. test, which I felt was stealthy enough and still quite strong. As the season progressed, I shortened my leader, sometimes fishing a straight, 9' piece of 12 or 15 lb. test Maxima.

In the tackle department, the single best decision I made this year was to start carrying a net. When 8 lbs. was the average size of a CT salmon, tailing a fish was my preferred way of landing them. It can be difficult to tail a smaller salmon. Even if I felt comfortable with the "Vulcan Grilse Grip," I'm confident I can land a small fish faster with the net than with my hands. I settled on a Brodin Trout Bum net (San Juan model). The aluminum frame is nothing fancy, but it's very durable and will never warp. Though it's large for our average river trout, the net is just the right size for smaller salmon.

An Owner hook in the mouth, a Same Thing Murray tube fly safely
up the leader and a salmon in the net...everything's working just right

On the salmon themselves...

I have to say, I had some memorable scraps this season. Given the smaller size of the fish, I thought I might get bored relatively quickly, but that wasn't the case at all. Overall, they were a very acrobatic bunch. Not only that, but some were quite strong for their size. I chased more than a few around this season. I think a lot of the very early fish hadn't spawned and were still full of piss and vinegar. It wasn't unusual to hook into a bright silver salmon early in the season. 

I'd say my average fish was 4-5 lbs. I caught a couple really tiny salmon and a few larger ones, though I didn't land any of the big boys this season. I lost one that I'd estimate was 12 lbs., but nothing like the fish in the upper teens I've caught the past few years. I'm not complaining, though. I'd rather catch really spirited smaller fish than lethargic larger ones. 

I caught more well-conditioned fish than ever this season. Maybe it's because they're a year younger than they used to be and there's less time for them to get battered...I'm not sure. The toughest fish I landed were almost always in pristine condition. Sure, I caught some beat up ones too, but I caught a much higher percentage of good looking fish than I ever have. The crew at the Kensington hatchery deserves a big "thank you" for all the hard work they do to provide us with this unique fishery! 

No surprise, the Polar Bear Mickey Finn was my best fly this season

On flies...

In seasons past, I'd usually catch a fish or two on a size 10 wet fly. This season, I hooked 10 salmon on 10s. Though I could have lived without the dead low water, I really enjoyed fishing small flies and long leaders this season. I suppose that went hand in hand with the conditions, though. 

Not surprisingly, the Mickey Finn came out on top this year. Strangely enough, all eight salmon I hooked on it took a size 6. When I fished it in other sizes, the salmon wanted nothing to do with it. Historically speaking, that has always been the most productive size for me. I don't know what it is about this fly they love so much.

I've come to the conclusion that, as long as the water isn't too colored, I only need one fly for dark days on the Naugatuck River. At least for me, the Same Thing Murray has been peerless under these conditions. It finished a very close second behind the Mickey Finn. However, if I had factored guide trips into my stats, the Same Thing Murray would have bested the Mickey Finn. It doesn't matter, I can't be without either one. Unlike the Mickey Finn, I had success with the Murray in wide range of sizes, from #2 all the way down to a small #10 (tied on a trout hook). 

Third place was the Snaelda, which beat out last season's top fly, H.M.'s Sunray Variant, as the top tube fly of the year. The German Snaelda (pictured below) was the most effective color scheme. I had success with two varieties of German Snaelda. One was relatively small (1/2" copper tube, 2" overall length) and was tied with bucktail. The other was larger (3/4" copper tube, 3" overall length) and was tied with arctic fox. If I had to choose one or the other, I prefer the smaller Snaelda tied with bucktail. The other Snaelda which worked well for me was all-black and tied, with bucktail, on a 1/2" copper tube. That fly worked particularly well on warm, sunny days when the fish were hunkered down in the fast water.

As I mentioned in prior reports, this is the first season in which I've had success with Buck Bugs. Until recently, I fished various bugs for years without even a sniff from a Connecticut salmon. Perhaps due to the low water, the salmon were more surface oriented than usual this year (more on that below). That's the only explanation I have for why Buck Bugs seemed to produce for me this year all of a sudden. A more likely explanation is that I fished the bugs in pools I knew were full of grabby fish. Perhaps it wouldn't have mattered which flies I used? Either way, I'm relieved that the "Broodstock Buck Bug Boycott" is now over! 

On overcast Naugatuck days, the Same Thing Murray is
my hands down favorite. Nothing else even comes close.

On fishing methods and techniques...

As I look back through my notes, the thing that stands out to me the most is that, out of the thirty-six salmon I hooked this year, not one of them was hooked while using a sinking line or sink tip. Not even one! I devoted time to fishing a sunk line once the water cooled off, but I can only recall moving one fish with that setup (it never came back for the fly). Even my last outing, with a 42ºF water temperature and a river falling from a good rain storm, salmon were still willing to rise for a fly! 

That's not to say my only action was on unweighted flies. It most certainly was not. I hooked seven salmon on copper tube flies, but they weren't fished on anything more than an intermediate polyleader. In fact, some of them were fished on a 100% mono leader (to get down quickly through the choppy water at the heads of pools). 

This got me thinking about something I read regarding catching Pacific northwest winter steelhead on or just under the surface. If I remember correctly, the author stated that, even in cold water, it could be done so long as the air temperature was warmer than the water temperature and the water temperature was actively rising. Near the end of November, a friend of mine caught a Naugatuck salmon on a dry fly in water I previously would have never thought capable of being productive with dries. I had taken my dries out of my pack a couple weeks prior to this trip. I saw him catch the fish and the wheels in my head started to spin. I switched back to a mono leader and caught a fish just under the surface very shortly thereafter. Maybe there is really something to the wintertime rising water temperature theory?

This leads me to my biggest regret of the season. Prior to the season opener, I resolved to fish the riffling hitch as much as possible this season. I even tied a bunch of hitch tubes of various sizes and color variations. For some reason, I just didn't give them much of a shot. I had one fish grab a waking dry fly. My hottest fish of the season boiled for that same waking dry fly. If nothing else, a skated dry proved to be a great "fish locator" for two very aggressive salmon (who were both later caught on wet flies). Would either have chased a hitched tube? I think they might have, and possibly others, too. It's going to have to wait until next season, but barring extreme high water conditions, I'm going to actually fish the hitch more.

Last season was the first time I fished Sunray type flies with a two handed strip. I stripped those tubes as fast as I possibly could and fish nailed them like crazy. If they didn't nail the tube, it at least gave up their locations and signaled that they were willing players. That didn't work too well this season. I did catch four salmon the H.M. Sunray Variant, but three of them were caught on the same day. I think that approach was too aggressive for them in the extreme low water conditions we had this year. Previously, the Sunray was my last resort. This season, I found the copper tube (mainly the Snaelda) and a slower presentation a much more useful last resort tactic, even in warm water.

The German Snaelda is tough to beat

The low water can be a pain in the neck. I enjoyed it at first, but it really overstayed its welcome. There's one particular pool I'm really not too fond of. It's very heavily fished, difficult to wade, hard to land fish alone, very slow in low water, has some very troublesome obstacles, etc. This spot really drives me nuts, but I do quite well there, so I continue to fish it. When the water is really low, the salmon seem to lie in a deep trough on the near side of the current. Swinging flies is almost impossible. The water moves too slowly. I tried dead drifting a dry fly, but it wasn't too effective.

The best technique I've found (at this pool) in low water is to use a long leader, small wet fly and a slow, steady draw. I cast the fly to the edge of the current and I retrieve one of two ways:

1. I put my line hand all the way up to the first guide and pull the line down, past my hip, very slowly while still keeping the line tight. Eventually, I can't strip any farther and have to start over again.

2. I cast and immediately place the rod under my arm. I strip with two hands, but extremely slowly. It's really similar to the approach above, but the fly never stops moving.

Both techniques proved themselves deadly in this particular pool. I'm not exaggerating when I say it was almost a spectacle on a couple of occasions. I'd show up to the pool and find either spin fishermen throwing medium sized lures or fly anglers throwing weighted buggers or larger streamer type flies. Keep in mind, it was still quite warm out. I'd rig up my 9' 7wt. with a 12' mono leader, tapered down to 6 lb. Maxima. My flies of choice were either an M1 Killer, Sugerman Shrimp or an Almost, all size 10 (sometimes even tied low water style). I think the salmon were put down by all those big lures zooming in front of their faces. I gave them something different...a small, often subtly dressed wet fly, fished high in the water column and just barely faster than the current. This lie is quite deep, but the salmon would come right up to the surface for these small flies. This method produced some vicious takes!

Little killers (top to bottom): M1 Killer, Red Butt Butterfly & Almost

Overall, I'm very pleased with how this season went. I had really good time, especially in September and early October. The weather was warm, the fish were often very aggressive and many fought quite hard, despite their reputation. I've said it a million times...get out there early in the season. I think a lot of people wait until most of the fish are in the river. You won't catch me doing that! Even if there are relatively few fish around, the ones that are there will still set up in the best lies. At that time of year, those lies are usually great taking lies. Maybe I'm cursing myself here, but I fished alone an awful lot in the beginning of the season. I'm not complaining. I prefer it that way! It just seems like most people go out a couple of times in November, maybe they hook something maybe they don't, but they miss the most exciting time of the year. Our season started in September this year, well earlier than I can ever recall it starting before. It was great! I hope that continues. Don't take my word for it though. Get out there early and see for yourself. Or don't...I'm more than willing to shoulder that burden!

I'm going to keep updating this blog throughout the winter, so keep checking back. I have a very special joint project in the works with Paul Beel at FrankenFly. I have to wrap it up, but the hardest part is already done. Look for it sometime in early 2014. Also, I wanted to have a giveaway for my 100th post...sort of a "thank you" for your support. #100 happened a couple weeks ago, but I still want to make it happen, albeit belated. I have some good gigs coming up, so there might be a brief lull here for a few weeks.  I'll be back at the vise soon though. As always, feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

Have a happy holiday season!


  1. I notice you use all bent eyes never straight but sometimes bent up and sometimes bent in can you fill me in before I tie these flies tonight?

    1. Hi Nick, you're correct, I don't use straight eyes on conventional flies. There's nothing wrong with using them, however. If you use a loop knot, a straight eye hook will work fine. I use a variation of the Turle knot, which nestles behind the eye of the hook (whether the eye points upwards or downwards). Plenty of people use loop knots for up and down eye hooks too.

      Some patterns I tie on up eyes, some on down eyes. Most of my wet flies are tied on up eye hooks. Flies like Buck Bugs and Butterflies I tie on down eye hooks. There are a couple of exceptions, but I don't think it matters all that much. I hope this helps some. If you have any other questions, feel free to ask. Good luck!


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