Monday, September 18, 2017

Exploring a Different Type of "Blue Line"

The entrance to the trail is three minutes from my front door.

     Five years ago, my wife and I moved into our current home. She was pregnant with our son, who was born in January. Because she was not physically capable of doing everything she would have normally done, I did most of the unpacking and setup. Then, it was time to finish part of the basement for my home rehearsal/teaching studio. Then, a bunch of other stuff everyone does when they buy a house. Before we knew it, we became new parents and didn't sleep again for the next fourteen months. Four years later, my old life is starting to return, albeit in a somewhat diminished capacity.

     In light of how rushed the move (then the birth) was, we didn't do much exploring around our new neighborhood. I knew that our street is part of the Mattabesett Trail, but I never gave it much thought. Even after seeing hikers walk up and down the street all these years, it didn't really occur to me to investigate it. Surely they weren't there to look at suburban homes. Two parents working at either end of the clock was too taxing. At times, it seemed like all we could manage to do was to take care of our most immediate needs. 

     One morning last week, while junior was at grandma's house, my wife and I decided to take a walk around the neighborhood. We have done it plenty of times before but, for some reason, we had never noticed the little blue signs posted to trees just a short distance from our house. I stopped and walked over to the signs. I realized this was where all the hikers' destination. We didn't have time to investigate the trail that day, but I decided to do some research at home. Low and behold, the blue-blazed trail leads to the "Coginchaug cave." Our interest was piqued and we decided to check it out when the boy returned home the next morning. 

The beginning of the trail 

Follow the blue lines

Much like our backyard, there are a lot of big, fern-covered, rock piles. 

     The trail starts literally three minutes from our front door, making our lack of hiking it the past five years all the more pathetic! From the start of the trail, it is about 3/4 of a mile to the cave. The trail is very easily hiked, except when it climbs in elevation. It's hard for a reasonably fit adult, but there were some precarious places for our four year old companion.

This is not the cave. Take the left fork from here. 

I know less than nothing about geology, but I think this is quartz.
There is a ton of it here. 

The view from above

The trail headed down towards the cave was a little precarious for a four year old. 

First view of Coginchaug Cave

The view from inside the cave

     It took about 40 minutes to reach the cave, though it takes much less time without a small child in tow (I've made it there and back in about an hour). It's not really a "cave" as much as it is a huge rock overhang. If you had any illusions about a spelunking expedition, forget about it. The size of the rock is actually sort of impressive, even more so considering our proximity to it. The forest is beautiful, full of yellow birch, black birch, and beech trees, along with all sorts of ferns and mosses. 

     I haven't yet continued along the trail, but supposedly the next sight is the Pine Knob Overlook. I figure I'll wait until the leaves have fallen to check that out. Or maybe I won't wait. It's not like this place is far from home. All it's missing is a little stream, filled with native brook trout. Of course, if it had that, it wouldn't have taken me five years to find it. 

Coginchaug Cave

Monday, September 11, 2017

Connecticut Broodstock Atlantic Salmon Season: One Hand or Two?

Top: Sage z-Axis 11' 6wt switch rod
Bottom: Orvis Hydros 9'6" 6wt

     When I am guiding, particulairly in the early season, I'm often asked whether a single or double handed rod is appropriate. Before this four year stretch of low water, the answer was easy. Either are fine. It seems like 2017-2018 might be more like a typical year in terms of water levels. Despite having great success in low water,  I'm anxious about getting back to the way it used to be. I miss using the two handed rod in the early season, even if the fish are spread out over a much greater area. 

    During the past several years, I have focused on the lower Naugatuck River, which can be an excellent place to fish either a one to two handed rod throughout the season. I don't recommend a two handed rod for fishing the upper Naugatuck. The river is too narrow. However, single handed spey can come in handy up there. Like the lower Naugatuck, the Shetucket River can go either way. In general, it's wider than the lower Naugatuck, but with a more gentle current. The tips below mainly reflect my experience on the lower Naugatuck, but can be tweaked and applied to the other two salmon fishing areas in Connecticut. 

When to use a Single Handed Fly Rod

     The single handed fly rod is my tool of choice in the early season when the river is at a low-to-normal level. The lower Naugatuck doesn't have bank to bank current, so I think of fishing the runs as fishing a "river within a river." This can be more like small stream angling in that the run might only be 10-25 feet across. Long casts are usually not necessary. The only place where casting gets difficult is where the narrow band current follows the near bank. In this case, single handed spey casts or cack handed casting may be necessary due to the tree-lined banks.

     I like to target the inside and outside seams. Because the water flow is so weak in low water, the fly often has to be animated instead of simply swung through the run. A lot of strikes come when stripping the fly back along the inside seam. Because of this, dealing with running line and a shooting head can be a pain in the neck (more on that later). I have hooked salmon with my mono leader almost inside the tip of the guides. If nothing takes, just shake out some fly line and recast.

    Stripping a fly through slow water can be very effective. I prefer a smooth retrieve, be it fast or slow. I don't let the fly pause. Often times, I place my rod under my right arm and strip with two hands, even when fishing a fly slowly. I can feel as soon as the fish strikes. As opposed to waiting a moment to set the hook, like with a swung fly, I tend to tighten up right away when stripping with both hands. I find a more proactive approach gets a stronger hookset in very slow water. In any case, I find this type of fishing easier with a single handed fly rod.

     If I expect to fish dry flies, I will usually bring a single handed rod, though I fish them on the two hander now and then. I think I am more accurate with a single handed rod. When fishing dries, I mainly fish to known lies or spotted fish, so I want the fly to land exactly where I want it to land.

     My single handed rods of choice are an Orvis Hydros 9'6" 6wt and a Sage One 9' 7wt. If I had to pick one, it would be the latter. The heaviest I go is 8 wt., but it is rare I use it since I don't often fish large, heavy flies with a single handed fly rod.

A two handed set up for high, colored water...intermediate Scandi head,
7.0 ips Versileader, and a big tube fly

When to use a Two Handed Fly Rod

     When the water is right for swinging a fly, I'd much rather use a two handed rod than a single hander. A lot of anglers think it's for distance casting. It does cast further more easily, that's for sure, but it's not my main reason for using a two hander. The banks are lined with trees and can be steep. Backcast room can be limited to virtually non-existent. In this scenario, the two handed rod is definitely superior.

     In higher water, the current still isn't bank to bank. Again, I like to fish the inside and outside seams, but I have to reach further to do it. I also have to control a longer length of line. A longer rod makes it easier to do both. In very high water, there will be some fish lying close to the bank. Either a single or double hand rod will work, but I prefer the versatility of the double.

     Except in really high water, our rivers aren't really good places for traditional spey lines. We just don't need that much distance. Most of my fish are caught with modest length casts, not Hail Marys. As such, shooting heads are good choices. Either a Skagit or Scandi head will work, though I prefer the Scandi setup.

     Most of the time, I'm not throwing a heavy fly. The Scandi system delivers a fly with more delicacy. Also, the airborne anchor creates less disturbance on the surface of the water. One common mistake I see, most often with Skagit casters, is laying the line right over the run and ripping the anchor through water that might hold fish. With an airborne anchor (such as with the single spey or snake roll), the anchor will happen behind or alongside the angler, where fish aren't as likely to hold.

     As the season rolls on, it might be necessary to fish a fly deeper and slower. I used to use floating heads and polyleaders. Now, I find multiple density heads more effective, especially when it comes to slowing a fly down. Both Scientific Anglers and Rio make multi density heads. Guideline makes great heads, too, but they are hard to find in the US. A good selection of shooting heads would include a full floater, float/hover/intermediate (F/H/I), hover, intermediate, S3 (H/I/S3), and intermediate/S3/S5 (I/S3/S5). I don't use the I/S3/S4 much, as these rivers don't have heavy enough current to justify its use. I have it in case I need it, though. Of course, single handed sinking lines can be used on single handed rods, but I find it easier to extract the line from the water with a two handed rod than with a short single hander.

     I don't fish too long of a rod here in Connecticut. I don't often need extreme distance. My early season two hander of choice is a Sage Z-Axis 11' 6wt. I like to use a 325-350 grain Scandi head with this rod (floating). When I need a little more power, I use a different rod. This year, I'll be using a Sage TCX 11'9" 6wt. It prefers lines in the 374-425 grain range. This is the rod I use with sinking heads and when I need to cast a larger fly or throw a bit longer line. If I really need to cast far, I use a 12'6"-13' rod, but nothing longer than that.


High water salmon....lower Naugy @ 1000cfs
Time for a longer rod, this time a 13 footer

     Regardless of water levels, I always travel with both single and double handed rods. When the river is at that sort of "in between"level, I might use either, or even both, depending on the pool. Be prepared. It's better to have it and not use it, then to need it and not have it. A lot of anglers so desperately want to use the two handed rod that they neglect the effectiveness of the single hander in certain conditions. For me, the job is fun, regardless of the tools needed. 


Monday, September 4, 2017

Connecticut Broodstock Atlantic Salmon Season: Favorite Flies, Month by Month

A Green Machine, fished wet, accounted for three salmon in 30 minutes this October day.

     Following on the heels of last week's post, this week's post is about my favorite fly for each month  of the fall, plus a bonus winter and spring fly. I like tying almost as much as fishing, so it is difficult for me to narrow it down to one fly for each month, but I will do my best. Since fly selection is dependent on conditions, try not to think of these as the best flies to use as much as they're flies to always have on hand.

German Snaelda tied on a brass tube

September: My fly of choice is an unusual one for an unusual month. I have only experienced broodstock salmon fishing in one September (2013), but it was a great month. As expected, the water was low and relatively warm. As such, any angler would expect small flies to work well under those conditions. They did, but a surprising revelation was that a small German Snaelda, tied on a heavy brass tube, worked like a charm when the salmon wouldn't rise for the usual stuff. Since the fish were holding in the fastest water, a heavy tube fly got through the chop quickly and I hooked several salmon on the Snaelda that September. Actually, I got my clocked cleaned by one that took off like a banshee and cartwheeled all over the pool. It was one of three fish hooked on the tube fly that afternoon. Though I would always try a small wet fly first, I wouldn't be without the German Snaelda in very early season fishing.

Buck Bugs in various color schemes

October: It's a tough call, but I have to choose a Buck Bug, which is the most versatile fly of them all. Tied with a body of spun deer hair, a Buck Bug can be fished like a traditional wet fly, fished with the riffling hitch, or greased and fished as a dry fly. My favorite is the Green Machine with a white tail.  If you tie your own flies, make sure you don't pack the deer hair too tightly. 

Mickey Finn var. with fluorescent red bucktail

November: Now it's time for the king of all broodstock salmon flies, the Mickey Finn. Really, there is no bad time to fish a Mickey Finn. I could have made it fly of choice from September through December, but that wouldn't be much fun. I have had success on Mickey Finns from size 2 down to size 14. My favorite sizes are 6 and 4, particularly the latter for fishing in November. I like to tie it with a couple minor variations. I use a flat braid for the body. I find it holds up better than flat tinsel because it shreds rather than breaks. Sometimes I use regular red bucktail and red Krystal Flash, other times I use fluorescent red bucktail without Krystal Flash. I am particularly fond of the fluorescent red variation. It's almost a magenta color. When in doubt, use a Mickey Finn.

The Gold Body Willie Gunn is a great big fish fly

December: Early December is a great time to target big salmon. Without a doubt, my favorite fly for these big brutes is the Willie Gunn, tied with a gold body. In late November and early December, large fish might still be holding near the heavy current. Tied on a copper tube, this fly gets down fast. A sinking tip or line helps keep the fly down. It is an aggressive presentation, but it often times effective. One of the largest broodstock salmon I've ever landed took a gold Willie Gunn, one of three fish on that fly that December day. It is a very easy fly to tie and a good one for those learning to tie tube flies. 

The Grape tube fly, tied with lots of flash

Winter (January-March): This time of year is all sunk line work with a slow, mobile, aluminum tube fly. What is more mobile than marabou? The lethargic winter fish usually follow a fly from behind and nip at its rear end. Because of this, I like to use an exceptionally long piece of junction tube with the hook extending beyond the back end of the marabou. It helps to hook the "nippers". Other color combinations work well, but I have caught most of my salmon with the Grape. Any big, fluffy fly should work, but keep that hook way back.

The Sugerman Shrimp, my all-time favorite salmon fly

Spring: Now it's time for my all-time favorite salmon fly, the Sugerman Shrimp. Honestly, I've had plenty of luck with it in all months. I like a big size 2 or 4 Sugerman when the water is cold, but the air is warm, fished on a floating line. The largest broodstock salmon I've ever hooked took a big Sugerman Shrimp variation. Like the Grape, it's mobile, but the fish will nail it with more authority in the spring, so there is no need for a hook set way in the back. In the spring, the salmon are hungry and a big Sugerman Shrimp looks like a yummy meal. It is definitely one not to be without. 

Brilliant colors, both fish and fly


     Hopefully this gives you some non-Mickey Finn options, even though the Mickey Finn is as good as any and better than most. Most eastern fly fishers are intimately familiar with this iconic bucktail pattern. The rest of the flies might not be as familiar, especially those tied on tubes. There's no reason to be scared off. All these flies, and many more, can be found in my ebook "Flies for Connecticut Atlantic Salmon: How to Tie and Fish Them," available for both Apple iOS devices and in universal PDF form. Get tying, fall is almost here!