Monday, November 28, 2011

Western New York (Part II)

This is the second part of a November fishing trip to Great Lake tributaries in western New York. You can read part I here.

Small Water, Big Fish.

While fly fishing was the central theme of our trip, good food, laughs and relaxation were in no short supply throughout. At the close of each day, we hung out where Oak Orchard Creek poured into Lake Ontario. On a rock jetty flanking the mouth of the river, Tommy put in a solid effort in coaxing any fresh fish coming in from the lake. It was an awesome place to down a few beers while watching the sunset over a body of water so massive it was hard to comprehend.

A beautiful sky over the 14th largest lake in the world.

Each night back at headquarters a different member of the group was responsible for a home-cooked meal ranging from freshly caught tautog to Hungarian goulash. After dinner we sat around the table replenishing fly boxes with sucker spawn patterns that worked best that day. Losing several flies per outing was inevitable due to the craggy stream bottom, foul-hooking King salmon, and getting busted off by pissed steelhead. Brown liquor flowed liberally around the table as well, which seemed to mesh perfectly with the cool-weather fishing trip. 
The meal Tommy prepared was fresh tautog (blackfish) that he caught while spear fishing in Rhode Island. 

On the fishing front, we had our fill of Oak Orchard Creek after two long days and a third morning. The action was fantastic at times, but beating the same stretch of water into a froth with anglers on all sides grew old quick. We had thrown around the idea of scouting smaller tributaries of Lake Ontario, however it was a roll of the dice that they would be loaded with trout. A good rain and decent flow were usually in order for lots of fish to run up the smaller creeks. It had not rained a drop during our stay, but we learned that what came before our arrival was enough for some very large trout to wander in a nearby stream not wider than a one-way street. 

About mid-morning on our third day of fishing, we pulled over next to a bridge and got out to have a look. The fish gods were smiling down on us because there was a fly angler tight to one of the biggest brown trout I had ever seen in my life. We all scurried to the trucks to grab our gear knowing where we would be spending the remainder of our trip. It had been four years since I laid eyes on this creek and not much was happening that time around and we were all looking forward to plying new water with a crack at quality trout. 

Despite the small group of anglers killing it at the bridge, upstream was virtually empty, which was a welcomed change the mob scene of the previous two days. The water was much more clear and shallow here compared to the Oak, so sight-fishing played a big role on this leg of the trip when the sun was high enough to aid us. There were not nearly as many salmon present, but we found a healthy amount of paired up brown trout preparing to spawn.   

The good flow and water clarity allowed for excellent sight-fishing opportunities.

We began drifting egg patterns and hooking up with some very impressive specimen. It was mostly all brown trout for the next two days--only a couple of salmon were hooked and not one steelhead was seen. What lacked in variety was certainly made up in size. The average brown was larger than anything we encountered at Oak Orchard. The quality of trout was also much better too because there was so much less angling pressure. Their mouths had less hook marks and there weren't flies dangling from their fins. In the smaller stream with less anglers to avoid, netting fish was slightly easier here as well, though there were instances when big trout ran down rapids with an angler and net-man frantically chasing in tow. 

All of these huge fish also tested our gear. One of our two nets succumbed to the weight with a snapped handle. It must have been comical to watch us using it like a basket for the rest of the trip, but we made it work. Even more ridiculous was when the top half of my 8-weight fly rod snapped like a twig on the biggest trout I had ever hooked. My friends got a hardy laugh as I continued to fight and land the beast with the broken rod. To make matters worse, I had left my backup rod at the cabin (horrible decision). Tommy let me borrow his truck and I was pulled over on the side of the highway within 20 minutes. To make matters worse, my wallet was in Aaron's vehicle, but the state trooper seemed to believe my story because I was donning wet waders and there was a broken rod in the shotgun seat. That didn't keep him from slapping me with a hefty ticket, though it made for a good stream-side story when I finally returned.

My rod-breaking, speeding-ticket-causing brown trout.

Kurt with a King salmon in good condition.
Aaron with a beautiful hen that is dropping one of her eggs in this photo. 
There were a few double hookups, including this beautiful pair of kype-jawed males.
This 14-pound male brown was the heaviest of the trip and deserved a (nearly complete) group shot.
At times the small creek fishing felt like Disneyland for trout bums. It was hard to believe that there were fish so large in a waterway so small. Everyone in the crew got to experience the feeling of hooking and landing a monster brown. The small tributary scouting turned out to be the best decision made over the course of the trip and I'm sure it will play a role in fall planning for years to come. 

We left early on Sunday without casting a fly, even though it was the nicest day weather-wise of the trip. It was a long haul back to Connecticut, but we all were riding high on adrenaline. In the end, the excursion to western New York was truly a memorable one. Five buddies with nothing on the agenda but to fish, eat and drink--good times indeed!

Some broken gear, a speeding ticket and a boatload of memories were what we left western New York with.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Western New York (Part I)

Oakie Dokie

A salmonoid angler's wet dream takes place in western New York every fall.  Scores of huge salmon descend from the Great Lakes into small tributaries to complete the circle of life by spawning then dying. On the heels of these decaying salmon, countless brown trout and steelhead enter the rivers and streams to spawn and to feast on the bounty of freshly deposited salmon eggs. This annual event brings out hordes of anglers who capitalize on the incredible opportunity of catching trophy fish in confined places. That is fall Great Lake tributary fishing in a nutshell and it's something you should experience if you haven't yet. 

Tools of the trade: a wide array of 10 and 11-foot fly rods.

Anticipation was high leading up to the early November trip, especially on Tuesday nights when our group convened around fly vises to production tie sucker spawn patterns and place orders for plastic egg imitations called TroutBeads. It had been four years since I last made the six-hour run to western New York, but thankfully some of our crew had been every fall since. With their experience we had a pretty good idea of where we wanted to be and what we needed to do. Home base for our stay would be a cabin on the shores of Lake Ontario, just a stone's throw away from Oak Orchard Creek that is highly touted for its incredible run of big brown trout.

Only the essentials made the cut in Aaron's overfilled SUV.

In a SUV packed to the brim, Aaron, Kurt and I made the trek through the night aided by coffee and energy drinks. We arrived on Wednesday morning with an hour to relax before sunrise. Along the riverbank we met Derrick and Tommy, who drove up a night early and gave us a solid report of the previous day's action. First light revealed a river running with an ideal flow and clarity--medium high and slightly stained. The Oak's good reputation for both salmon and trout fishing draws big crowds, so a mid-week outing is much preferable to a weekend. In some stretches you can be literally a rod's length from your neighbor on either side. In an attempt to avoid that, we focused on some nice pools resembling water we look for back home and did a decent job of holding them down. As much as you prepare yourself for a crowded Great Lake tributary, the scene can still make you shake your head at times, but just remember that there are few other places in the Northeast where you can find fish that large in rivers so small.     

First light in western New York.

Bent rods and anglers lined shoulder to shoulder are common scenes on the Oak.
When it came to fishing style, we were definitely in the minority on Oak Orchard. Most anglers employed the "chuck-n-duck" method, straight-line nymphing with ample weight and no indicator. To their credit it seemed effective, but we stuck to tactics very similar to how we fish back home with strike indicators. Our basic set up included a long fluorocarbon leader tapered to about 8-pound test with a Thingamabobber indicator and sufficient split shot above an offering of either sucker spawn or TroutBeads. Both spawn and beads accounted for their fare share of trout throughout the trip, with some color patterns definitely standing out from others. 

Trout food: a King salmon egg (left) and its TroutBead imitation. 
For the most part we were using 10 and 11-foot "switch" fly rods, which can cast like a two-handed spey rod, yet are light enough to be used one-handed as well. These long rods made for effortless casts, helping keep our arms fresh during the marathon days. The backbone of the switch rod was another perk when it came to fighting large trout in tight quarters. A good net and competent friends to wield it were also very important factors on this trip. We all got our cracks at netting fish for each other and, for the most part, did rather well. I won't name names, but the biggest steelhead of the trip was lost to an unlucky net job and became the butt of endless jokes that week. But in the end, he made up for it and then some.

Tommy performing a "Snap C" cast with his switch rod. 

The two and a half days of fishing the Oak were great overall. The action came in bursts, mostly hot mornings and afternoons with a slow pick in between. The size of the trout landed were impressive, but it's all relative. If any of them were caught in a stream back home it would have been the biggest deal since sliced bread, yet on a Great Lake tributary a five-pound brown trout was hardly raising an eyebrow by the third morning. Many of the browns were sporting kyped jaws and spawning colors, which never got old, and several of the females were fat and laden with eggs. And while the Oak is mostly known for its huge brown trout, we also pricked a decent number of nice steelhead that are praised for their fighting skills and acrobatics.  

Derrick with a nice hen to start things off. 

This magnificent brown was Aaron's first hookup of the trip.

Not large, but a very pretty female brown.

Kurt cradles one of the many quality browns that swam in from Lake Ontario.
"Open wide"

Tommy was the preferred 'net man' of the trip, but everyone had their share of the task.

My best brown from the Oak.

The beautiful fall foliage was an added bonus to the solid fishing. 
Tommy with another nice Oak Oarchard brown.

This was the only Atlantic salmon of any size caught during the whole trip. 
Showing up to the river on day one with zero sleep led to borderline insanity.

Kurt hoisting up another kype-jawed male.

The most handsome steelhead I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.

So far western New York was treating a bunch of Connecticut boys pretty well, but by day three the crowds and stench of decaying salmon had taken their toll. A group pow-wow led to the decision to move on to greener pastures and we said goodbye to Oak Orchard for the final time of the trip. Little did we know that things were about to get a little more interesting with much larger fish in a stream about half the Oak's size.  

Coming soon...  Part II: Small Water, Big Fish