Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Fly Weekend

If this were a typical winter, I would have been drilling through a couple feet of ice on Sebago Lake last weekend. Every February I look forward to the annual ice fishing derby on Maine's second biggest lake. Usually our crew from Connecticut heads up and stays with good friends and old neighbors of mine. It's always a great time with a nice blend of fish, food, drinks and laughs. This winter, however, there was never a real shot at Sebago freezing over. A few of her coves locked up enough ice for trucks to drive on them, but the big bay remains wide open with white caps.

The Sebago derby and the shenanigans that go along with it were canceled for obvious safety reasons. So instead of jigging for lake trout in 100 feet of water, I found myself fly fishing Connecticut streams all weekend. I mixed it up between a small stream and the larger, more familiar Farmington River. Trout cooperated at both locations, but what I gained in knowledge out-shined any catch. I've been fishing the upper Farmington River for nearly 20 years and I still learn something new every time I go. That's just one of the beauties of an ever-changing river and the art of fly fishing.

One of the results of new Farmington River regulations that took effect in January is an expanded Trout Management Area. My friend Todd and I set out to explore the recently added catch-and-release water on Saturday morning. We dropped one vehicle off at the newly established northern boundary and drove downstream to the former demarcation line and fished the 1.5 mile difference. I had seen most of this stretch before, but it had been a while and I had never hiked it all in one clip.

A portion of the Farmington River's newly expanded upper Trout Management area.

Expectations weren't all that high for catching trout, but that's not what this trip was about. If we wanted a better chance at success we would have focused downstream in the more popular winter pools. Instead this day was about familiarizing ourselves with a piece of water. We wanted to take photographs and mental notes of the TMA expansion, which will no doubt improve in trout quality and quantity with no-kill regulations.

Todd and I took our time during the trek upstream, stopping at fishy looking water for the occasional dipstick.  In the 1.5 mile span, six different areas gave us the urge to make some casts.  The river's flow was unusually low for this time of year, which was helpful for getting a good look at the best pools.  We found a nice mix of water types suitable for everything from dry fly fishing to various nymphing methods. As expected, there was an abundant food supply evident by the seine samples conducted in a shallow riffle.

It turned out to be a productive day. We felt confident in our presentations and that fish were in front of us at each stop, yet we couldn't buy a strike. Even without a trout coming to the net, it was a day well spent and will prove valuable down the road on future outings. Unfortunately, the trip ended on a sour note while crossing the river to get to my Jeep.  I unwisely chose a swift, chest-deep section to ford and lost my footing.  The current skipped me downstream a few yards before I could regain my composure with water pouring down my waders in the process. Thankfully it happened when and where it did because I was so close to my vehicle and dry clothes. However, I ruined my trusty Flip video camera in the fray and nearly lost my second iPhone to water damage.  The phone came back to life as I pulled up to a grocery store for a bag of rice to dry it out!  It wasn't my first or last dip in the Farmington River, but it was my first in February's icy waters, but it could have been worse. 

A single seine sample revealed a bounty of trout food from the stream bottom.
The abutments at the tail of Whittemore Pool mark the new upper boundary of the year-round "no kill" zone.

Take Two

Aaron and I had the day off of work on Monday and took advantage of another mild winter day along the Farmington River.  After the lack of action and my soaking on Saturday, it was a pleasant change of pace to spend a day in water I had more confidence finding hungry trout in.  The stretch of river just downstream of where I got skunked Saturday is well known for its excellent catch-and-release winter fishing.  The reports leading up to our outing had been particularly positive there, especially surface activity in the form of winter caddis in the morning and stoneflies throughout the day.  We brought our usual nymph set ups, but packed the dry fly rods just in case.  About an hour into hour trip I saw enough rises downstream to warrant getting them out of the vehicle.  The window was short lived and the gusty wind made things interesting, but I fooled a trout on the surface in the month of February, which I thought was pretty cool.  It was also the first time I brought my usual small stream 3-weight rod to the Farmington.  It's truly a great tool for dry fly fishing. 

Photo credit: Aaron Swanson
Photo credit: Aaron Swanson

Photo credit: Aaron Swanson
The trout were feeding below the surface as well, as Aaron and I found out at each spot we hit that day.  It was interesting to find fish holding in the heads of runs this time of year, but that's precisely where our best specimen came from on Monday.  It was far from lock and load, though we pieced together a good sampling from the river.  With the low and clear flows, a stealthy approach and scaled-down offerings on light tippets were key to success.  A small black stonefly nymph proved to be the "hot" fly of the day and prince nymphs and green caddis larvae also put fish in the net.  It was an awesome outing for me and I even managed to stay dry during this one. 

As I've said before and I'll say it again, it pains me not to be ice fishing in February.  However, when you can experience a great day on fly fishing like we did on Monday so close to home, it helps forget how much of a joke this winter has been.  The Farmington River continues to remind anglers all across the Northeast just how lucky we are and I feel like it's getting better every year. 

Photo credit: Aaron Swanson
Photo credit: Aaron Swanson
Photo credit: Aaron Swanson

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Change Up

With the lack of ice fishing opportunities across Connecticut, I found myself dusting off fly fishing gear this weekend.  There is a small watercourse not far from me that I've heard good things about, yet never had fished before.  The stream corridor was skinny, only a rod's length in many places.  A short fly rod was helpful to tuck casts into tight spaces.  I stuck with the method that's been working best for me on small streams as of late, dry-dropper.  Two beautiful wild brown trout fell for a tiny pheasant tail nymph hung below an elk hair stimulator on the inaugural trip.  The chunkier of the two took a swing and a miss at the dry fly indicator, only eat the nymph on the very next drift.  The dry fly abruptly sank under water and I set the hook sending the brown to the air. 

As always, it was a great experience to learn a new piece of water.  Having a little success with cooperative stream-born trout certainly added confidence and enhanced the trip.  I look forward to exploring more of this little gem of a stream soon.  If I can't be ice fishing in February, at least there are some quality "plan B's" to fall back on.  The following day a friend and I fly fished a bigger waterway and found larger trout to go along with it.  Stay tuned for a Farmington River report later in the week - for now it's back to the grind after a long weekend well spent.   

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Coffin Meet Nail

There is a good chance that Saturday's ice fishing trip will be our last in Connecticut until next season.  The conditions at spot number one were much weaker and inconsistent than anticipated and it turned us around 100 yards from our vehicles.  There were three inches of poor quality grey ice, which was only going to worsen as we neared the sun-baked northern end of the lake.  While walking back with our heads hung low, we warned a gentleman who was venturing out alone.  He wore no ice picks and carried no spud bar, but kept going anyway.

Our day instantly changed from a serious outing to a more communal gathering on a tiny, albeit safe, body of water.  Two friends were already set up as we walked on the backup plan much later than we're used to.  The couple-acre pond looked well-covered with their 12 tip-ups already, but somehow we managed to fit in 18 more.  Another three friends showed up soon afterwards and packed in 18 additional traps.  It was a comical minefield of baits and we joked how any fish in there had a better chance of getting snagged than eating.  We kept our expectations low and turned the outing into an Irish Wake of sorts for the dying ice season.  The group drank, ate and laughed well, all the while keeping busy tending flags set off by small to mid-sized northern pike and chain pickerel. 

Saturday's circus-like atmosphere was a fitting end to Connecticut's dismal year of ice fishing, but I am not putting the gear away just yet.  I'm looking forward to a trip to Maine in early March and I can't rule out an Adirondacks run, which I've been putting off for way too long.  It's mid-February, so there's still a chance that Mother Nature can get her act together for a late-innings cold snap, however unlikely  The long term forecast features more of the same mild weather and ice-killing rain.  Thankfully anglers in Connecticut and across the region have plenty of fishing-related options to keep us busy this time of year.  Block Island codfish, Farmington River brown trout, or western New York steelhead all sound like enticing opportunities right about now!

This ice anchor shows off a core sample of the weak ice remaining. 
Matt's biggest bait, a dead fallfish, was taken for a ride by a pike that hung him up on a log.

The camaraderie of ice fishing was on full display Saturday. 

Aaron scored the best fish of the day with this healthy northern pike

These three guys checked the ice with an axe before jigging up a pile of crappie next to the open water.

Our mild winter in a nut shell. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Lost Winter

It may be hard for someone who does not ice fish to comprehend just how frustrating this winter has been for those of us who were chomping at the bit waiting for it. There are not many fishing seasons that get virtually skipped over certain years because of weather, but hardwater is one of them and it's happening again this winter. I am thankful for things that I can blindly count on throughout the year, such as striped bass chasing river herring or trout rising to may flies, but targeting northern pike and walleye through the ice in Connecticut is not one of them.

October's mega snow storm had me excited for another impressive showing by Mother Nature this winter and perhaps an early start to our ice season. Instead the last few months have been a constant tug of war between warm and cold, with one never outright beating the other. Our local ice fishing options have been severely limited since. Many of my favorite bodies of water were good to go for a few days or right on the cusp before rain and warm temps rendered them shady at best.   

This ice was FUBAR.

So things have been rather depressing lately for hardcore ice anglers. There are a handful of shallow lakes in high elevations that I can burn $30 worth of gas driving to, and I have done just that a half dozen times already, but most of our bigger lakes don't stand a chance now. The days are growing longer and the sun is getting stronger. The deep freeze this weekend will help, but next week brings more mild temperatures and rain. That's the hand we've been dealt.    

But it is not only the ice anglers who are missing out. How about all the small businesses that are sitting on bait and hardwater inventory? Expect some ice fishing sales coming soon. For me the breaking point was the 60-degree day on February 1. To add insult to injury, just two days later a chubby rodent in Pennsylvania claimed there will be six more weeks of winter. I'm not buying what you're selling, Phil!

This ice was better.

And this was safer than it looks...

It's not just Connecticut anglers experiencing this winter hiatus; it's the same story all over New England. Our neighbors in Rhode Island haven't had a decent patch of safe ice all season. The anglers to our north have fared a little better in regards to ice opportunities, but it's no picnic up there either. The annual ice fishing derby that I fish on Maine's Sebago Lake every February was canceled and there are currently white caps where there should be two feet of ice.

Like anything else, it's what you make of it. If the ice doesn't come to you, you have to go it. Plenty of dyed-in-the-wool ice fishermen are heading north and west to find quality frozen waters. Lots of my fishing buddies have been hoofing it to the Berkshires or Adirondacks. I have a trip to Maine in the works for the first weekend of March to fish the annual Statewide Derby with old friends. There is a $100,000 bounty on the 54-year-old state record lake trout, but it will take an old togue of nearly 32-pounds to best it! 

Nevertheless, a short season of plan B ice outings is still beats not getting on the ice at all. I turned down some prime winter fly fishing for trout last weekend to catch a handful of eight-inch smelt through the ice. But, hey, I I was ice fishing, and pretty soon it will be another nine months before I can do that again; maybe. 

Photo credit: Aaron Swanson

Photo credit: Aaron Swanson