Sunday, May 5, 2019

Hawaii Fly Fishing - Bonefish (O'io)

Despite annual meccas to Maui and flying through Honolulu as a layover to Christmas Island, I never put much thought into fly fishing the Hawaiian archipelago.  That changed about three years ago after a little research and a few conversations with other anglers whom have had the same epiphany.   Turns out Oahu, Molokai, Kauai and Maui all have respectable bonefish fisheries.


I try to take the family to Maui once a year, but there is no way to break away to Kihei let alone other islands to do some fly fishing without finding divorce papers upon my return.  That led me to figure  out a way to fly over before the family vacation started to get it out of my system - that way I won't have the itch when they arrive - at least that's how I sold it.

Plan Around Tides: First thing I did was check the tides, forget the weather, you have to plan too far out.  There was an early AM low tide, not too early, the sun will be up already, and high tide was to be in the early afternoon.  It wasn't a big tide, so wasn't going to push food and fish around much, but I'll take an AM low tide as the wind is lightest then.  Plus, the sun will be to the east, and the trades (when they come - and they will) are to your back, which really helps with seeing fish as well as casting.

Logistics: There ins't an outfitter to book through, so you're on your own to figure out flights, lodging, transportation and guides.  I suggest start planning early and communicate with your guide(s) (preferably via phone) so as to be crystal clear on pickup/drop offs from your hotel (which is possible) and what times they'd expect to be on/off the water so you can plan flights, dinner, etc.  With a clear understanding of when we'd likely be fishing, next I inquired about where we'd fish (approximately) and asked the guides for Hotel recommendations.  Then it was off to the United and Mokulele Airlines websites for flights.  Luckily inter island flights are frequent, cheap and easy (plus they're awesome because they fly low over the islands).  Here is a summary of my experiences, hope you enjoy.

An average size Oahu Bone
Oahu - The second oldest island in the chain, it has some of the most extensive and developed flats in the archipelago.  Most of the fishable flats are within a 15 mile radius of Diamond Head, and most (not all) require a boat for access - enter your friendly local guide.  The most known flats (no secret) are right smack dab in Honolulu.  Keehi Lagoon adjacent to the HNL airport has some excellent flats if you can reach them.  If you can deal with Boeing 777's taking off just a few hundred yards away every 4 minutes, the fishing is outstanding.  (Note: Keehi Lagoon was awesome, but next time I also want to try Kaneohe Bay if the winds cooperate)  The 3 flats in the lagoon very from silt and sand bottoms, to dead corral and finally live corral/coral heads around the fringes where you're likely to still see bones but unlikely to land them.  Depths are fairly uniform and invasive mangroves, while present, haven't yet overly encroached.  Numbers are surprisingly good - they don't school like the Bahamas, but they're all big and travel in singles and pairs, occasionally 3's.


These fish are surprisingly thick and long.  Their broad shoulders and green backs are a contrast to the thinner lighter-colored fish of Christmas Island some 1,200 miles south.  They also pull like no other, largely because their size is like no other.  I generally find that 150 yds of backing is fine for bones, but I agree with the guides in Hawaii, 200-250 yds (preferably 50 pound Hatch braid) is recommended, and for good reason - because you're likely to use it.

What I liked best about these flats was the ability to spot lots of nervous water and tailing fish from a good distance (200ft sometimes), not that it made these green logs any easier to catch.  I have to say, what you hear about how challenging Oahu bones are....every word is true.  And its not for lack of shots, there were plenty, but these fish are the spookiest I've ever encountered - is it pressure?   A presentation 10 feet away may be too close, that extra false cast, they saw it, and that dreaded coral crunch just spooked the fish you've been stalking from a hundred feet away.  Once you spook a fish, its a chain reaction, they in turn spook their pals and it looks like a half dozen torpedos shooting off in all directions to the edge of the abyss.  Then, finally, once you hook them, they explode knots and rake your line across coral because they know that if you put the brakes on them, they can easily pop straight 20.

If the condition cooperate, and your guide has a flats boat (not all do), you can pole, but if you're luck was like mine and the winds are 20-30 knots, you're going to be wading.  Thankfully it was a "tailing tide" - the tidal range was only a few inches low to high which kept it shallow all day and helped us continually spot fish despite 50% cloud cover and howling winds (thankfully to our back).  Ankle to mid-calf is the ideal depth as the tide is coming in, and the water is generally clear so its all sight fishing and chasing tail at this depth.  #2 or #4 medium dumbbell eye mantis in tan or brown to match the substrate - then let the fish think it found the fly.  Give a gentle strip set and have your drag set right, or alternatively, keep your drag light and palm your reel if you know what you're doing.  I would say "keep them on the flats", as the edge of the flats are lined with a fringe reef with sharp coral, but its an exercise in futility - you can't stop them if they're so inclined.  Be aware, these fish do spook without you knowing (the guide was right).  A bad presentation and these fish either go into lock jaw mode or high alert.  In high alert, they look like they're still feeding, but the second they see your fly move, they bolt.
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Trade Wind Map of the Hawaiian Archipelago


Molokai - There is no greater contrast between any two of these fisheries than that presented between Oahu and Molokai.  A 25 minute flight and you're a world away, going from from nearly 1 million people to 7,000, from noisy freeway traffic to a settlement without a single stop light, from tourist hustle and high rise resorts to a an island with nothing to do but enjoy the quiet and peaceful surroundings and its single, modest hotel.  This third oldest island of the chain, it has the most extensive fringe reef and adjacent flats in all of the archipelago which spans the majority of its southern coast (appox. 25-miles).  There is more lee towards the west, as the trades come out of the NE, but there is good habitat throughout.

This island is quintessential "Old Hawaii", and you're on island time out here.  I loved the laid back atmosphere and the fishing was fantastic!  Certain parts of the island are still unofficially "reserved" for indigenous Hawaiians, so word to the wise, mainlanders need to do some homework or go with a guide before casually strolling the shoreline without permission.

Things on Molokai haven't changed much in decades, unless you're talking about mangroves.  The archipelago was devoid of this invasive trees until the early 20th century.  In 1902, they were introduced by a rancher on Molokai to stabilize the island's coastal mudflats and prevent further shore erosion.  Ironically, the rancher was trying to mitigate a problem his cattle had created from over grazing, and the unintended consequences persist todays in the form of mangrove forests (some reaching as high as 80'- no joke) slowly metastasizing along the island's southern shore and migrating slowly out towards the ocean.  The mangroves reach anywhere from a few hundred feet out from shore to over half a mile out from shore.  Luckily the flats range between 1/4th and 3/4ths of a mile wide, so there is still plenty of unaltered bonefish habitat. Today, the mangroves have spread to almost all of the major islands.  Heads up - If you end up going with my guide, be prepared to allot some time for him to pull seedlings and use a hand saw to cut some of the smaller trees down as he attempts to stop their march towards the ocean and protect his island and livelihood.

A good Molokai Bone
The western flats are almost exclusively accessed by boat (there is only one shore access point), but there are numerous flats around Kaunakakai and extending to the east that can be reached by land (see my forewarning above).  In stark contrast to Oahu - these Molokai fish want to eat! I wouldn't go as far as to say you can line them or drop the fly on their head, but if they hear or see the fly hit the water, there is a good chance they'll have it by the time it settles to the bottom.  Unlike Oahu, there are substantially fewer numbers of bones, but like Oahu, they're big and they do tail as the majority of flats are uniform depth and of a coral or sand/mud bottom between mid-calf and mid-thigh in depth.  I'll straight-faced tell you I had a bonafide (no pun intended) shot at a +12-pounder who, uncharacteristically, wanted nothing to do with my a well-presented fly.  Another contrast to Oahu, don't expect to see fish all day long, there is about a 3-4 hour window starting at low ebb, through slack and lasting through half of the flood when you're most likely to see them.

I was pleased to find that these flats are expansive, both long and wide, and you can let fish burn off 400 or 500 feet of line without worry of them reaching the fringe reef.  That is unless you fish near the fringe reef, which we did a few times at low tide, and where I learned just how quickly these fish with throw their middle finger up at you on a coral  head.  Also near the fringe, as I utilized a coral head as a vantage point, we spotted a 70lb GT (Giant Trevally).  Had I a 12-weight in hand, it would have been an easy shot.  In my experience and in talking to the guides, these islands don't really have enough big GTs these days to warrant toting around a 12.  That said, if you're jonesing for a GT, take Fiji airlines out of HNL and head 1,200 mile south to CXI (Christmas Island)

Maui - I don't think I'm giving up any secret here, there isn't much to fish on Maui except for Kihei.  As the 2nd youngest island in the chain, Maui lacks a substantial fringe reef system to allow for extensive flats.  Unlike Oahu and Molokai, I wouldn't go out of my way to fish Maui, but if you're already there, Kihei is not a bad DIY get away.  A short 40 minute drive south from Kaanapali, this local's town has a decent adjacent fringe reef that fronts the town and extends a couple of miles to the south.  However, when the trades kick in after 10am or you get any cloud cover, it can be very tough.  The flats are generally waste to chest deep, making it extremely difficult to spot fish.  Blind casting is not just a last resort, but a go-to strategy, even for the one fly fishing guide on the island.  While I'm not at all a fan of blind casting, it does work for the patient angler with copious amounts of backup flies replacing the ones you lose every third cast.  The substrate is a very uneven coral w/ occasional coral heads and channels.  Be prepared to be up to you neck unexpectedly, and keep valuables protected in a water bag.  Waters will get murky when the wind picks up, and be prepared to have your heart stop when a turtle bumps into the back of your leg, but at the same time, be relieved it was just a turtle, he's in the shallows in part to avoid the 10 foot tiger 30 yards further out.

A nice Maui Bone
I can't speak to the numbers of bones here, you're hard pressed to see them and if you do, because you're in deep water, they're probably almost at your feet and seeing you at the same time.  The bones I've come across are also big here, and while there are multiple sections of deep flats, there is only one flat that I've found that has decent protected shallow water that stays clean enough to consistently sight fish, and even then, the sun needs to be up and the wind needs to be moderate.  You'll have to hunt around for it, its not big, but the last two times I fished it, I saw two big bones cruising, but didn't get shots.  Also be aware that when the trades kick up just before lunch, not only is the sight fishing in jeopardy, but the kiteboarder hatch occurs.  When it does, they'll shred the flats and you might as well pack it up.

Kauai - A good friend has recently fished this with a guide so this is largely his account.  Despite being the oldest island in the chain, Kauai doesn't have as much of a developed fringe reef or flats habitat as Molokai or Oahu but has more than Maui.  Numbers are fair, size is what you'd expect (big) and the flats are absolutely beautiful ranging from mid-calf to mid-thigh in depth.  Much like Maui, there is really only one central section along the NE shore of the island with a fringe reef and flats system.   Just north of Kaneohe Bay is one such spot, plus its accessible from shore.  Weather can be fickle on Kauai, especial the north end of the island so be aware that frequent rain, wind and cloud cover can really put a damper on things (if not make in un-fishable).  Due to limited flats and weather, Kauai also goes into the bucket of, I wouldn't go out of my way to fish it, but its definitely worth a day or two if you're already there.  Don't rule out hiring a guide, it could be worth it to dial you in on your first visit.

DIY Opportunities:  All of these venues have Do It Yourself options, but you'll first have to do your homework and a little hunting.  I had this book recommended to me and I turn would recommend it, do-it-yourself Bonefishing.  I covers a ton of locations and give very specific advice to both foot and kayak accessible locations for the DIY'er.  Also, if you don't have it, get Google Earth on your home computer in addition to the app for your mobile device.  It's like your treasure map and by far the best way to find flats.  Flats can be easily spotted from aerial images, just look for the fringe reef where waves are breaking far off shore, between these reefs and the shore are usually flats.  You'll also need to search for the best access point and then check it out in person, that's the only way to see if the flat is wadeable or has fish.  You may also check for special regulations or restrictions. Hawaii doesn't require a fishing license and has very laxed enforcement of regs, but there are some air bases and private access points to be aware of.  Additionally, Molokai locals have some of their own unique rules which I don't fully understand, but which I would research more if I were to DIY anywhere I wasn't sure about.

Parting Notes: The quality of the guides and their programs varies dramatically from venue to venue and island to island.  They run the gamut, from top quality professionals to very expensive fishing pals that want to catch their own fish as you guide yourself.  I'm not going to post about that here, but message or email me if you have specific questions about guides, lodging, flight, DIY, etc.  Even if you're a DIY'er, I'd recommend hiring a guide - at least for the first day - for most of the islands.

I think these fisheries are one of a kind, but I don't think they're managed very well.  All the locals and guides I spoke to have nothing good to say about the state's governance in general, or the Department of Fish and Game's oversight of the in-shore fisheries specifically.  Keehi Lagoon is riddled with sunken ships and trash, its mangrove islands are becoming overrun by homeless squatters and Molokai is being slow taken over by Mangroves and the state's response sometimes feels like "crickets chirping".


Also, there is a deep fishing culture in Hawaii and it revolves around eating what you catch.  Add to this the fact that gill netting is still legal for the most part and you can see that bonefish really get hammered.  While the bonefishing is still good, from what I've read, it's only a mere shadow of its former glory due to all of the above.  There is an effort to designate the bonefish (O'io) as a game fish which would help protect it from gill netting.  I also understand gill netting in Keehi Lagoon was (recently?) prohibited, which is a big step in the right direction, but I'm not sure if its as impactful as it could be because of laxed enforcement.  In good part because fly fisherman have taken an interest in these sport fisheries and a small guiding industry has sprung up around that, I'm hopeful we'll see more similar protections put in place.  I actually believe that more public awareness of these flats would serve to add more protections and actually improve the fishery in time.  More C&R fly fisherman aren't going to hurt the population of fish, but getting rid of gill netting and sensibly managing the harvest of bonefish around flats could really help this fishery.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Tree River - Sea-run Arctic Char on the Fly

Touted as the most northern sport fishery in the world, the Tree River and its largest strain of sea-run Arctic Char on the planet has been on my fly fishing bucket list for sometime.  Located in the northern most reaches of Nunavut Territory in Canada, at nearly 68 degrees north, you're further north than Iceland.  At this latitude, summers are brief if they exist at all and the entire fishing season lasts only 8 weeks.  

The Lodge is operated by Plummer's Arctic Lodges and there is no logistically practical or financially viable way to reach this fishery but to go through them.  They operate a top notch operation and employ first class fishing guides, but as this is a satellite operation serviced from their main facility some 220 miles southwest on Great Bear Lake (see prior post), don't expect the Ritz.  Accommodations are comfortable and family style dinning is offered in a modest communal building, but lodging consists of wood floored canvas "tent cabins" heated by diesel stoves and rest facilities consist of outhouses.  Nunavut is roughly the same size as Alaska, however, has 1/20th the population.  All things considered, its pretty impressive the level of amenities offered in this no-man's land.
Originating from a chain of lakes 40 miles to the south, the river is absolutely violent generating several class III, IV and V rapids before terminating the in the Arctic Ocean.  The char are believed to live much of the year in the Arctic Ocean where forage is abundant before making a 6+ mile journey up the river to spawn, ultimately being stopped by a 25 ft high Class V waterfall dubbed "Third Falls".  

While most guests fish conventional tackle, we intentionally booked the lodge's 13th annual fly fishing week and as such, were paired with a very knowledgeable fly fishing guide.  Our week constituted the 7th of 8 weeks of angling on the river, and we leaned the 8th week is reserved exclusively for 2 groups of sportsmen, 6 anglers for the Tree River and 6 hunters seeking trophy Musk Oxen.  The lodge boasts 12 of 13 Boone and Crocket records.
While there is 6+ miles of river holding sea-run char, water holding char and fishable waters are two different things.  When we arrived at base camp on Great Bear Lake, the Tree River was blown out, chocolate milk and un-fishable.  We coordinated with the Lodge manager to be on standby and two days later were whisked off on a turbo otter as the river had cleared but remained swollen and engorged.  For this reason, and by my estimates, only 5-10% of the river was fishable by fly rod (pegged bead) and only 2% fishable via swinging steelhead flies on a spey.  We were fortunate to land a number of quality char with both techniques.
Once you hook up, you'll be hard pressed to keep these fish out of the current.  Once they make it into the current (and they will), tie up your running shoes.  This double took us a few hundred yards down river.   I was quite surprised to learn that bi-catch in the river includes lake trout which come down from the lakes in the head waters and can reach 30 pounds.  I found out fist hand how futile it was to try and land such a large fish in such a torrent after chasing one down a particularly turbid portion of the river about a quarter mile before I realized I was still several hundred feet into my backing.  For fear of loosing all of my gear including my fly line, I opted to break it off.
The fish hold in any section of soft water as they regain strength to continue their journey upstream.  Often times you can see their red bellies illuminate in the turquoise water but they're spooky, and I found a long rod to be a valuable asset.
This is the "Presidential Pool", named after former President George H. W. Bush who favored this rare piece of relatively soft water.
I liken these fish to large steelhead both in angling challenge and fight.
At first glance I thought this was a small bear track, but upon closer inspection, realized it was a large Arctic Wolf.  We came upon two packs and also saw grizzlies.  This far north, there are no salmon runs and forage is scarce.  Unlike Alaska where most animals encountered during the summer months are well fed due to bountiful salmon runs and game, these top predators are to be avoided whenever possible.  Guides will turn around if they see a bear on the trail, bears don't see us as a curiosity as they do in Alaska, they see you more like a potential food source they may need to survive the winter which is right around the corner.
Hope you enjoyed this post, shoot me an email if you have questions about booking a trip like this!

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Plummer's Arctic Lodge - Arctic Circle Fly Fishing

At 66.4 degrees latitude, just above the arctic circle, this furthest northern sport fishery in the Americas wasn't even on my radar.  Legendary amongst Canadians and serious conventional gear anglers around the world, you wouldn't think a fly fisherman would have any business this deep into the North West Territories, but you might be surprised.  
Red Fin Lake Trout

Plummer's Arctic Lodges have been operating an exceedingly remote lodge on Great Bear Lake (4th largest lake in N. America) since 1960.  In this Arctic no-man's land, summer last for only a brief few days and the entire fishing season is constrained to 8 weeks.  After that the lodge is abandoned for 48 weeks as weather changes very quick in this part of the world.  

The lodge is fully self contained, there are no roads to it, ingress egress is limited to two options: 1) a charter flight (part of your package) out of Yellow Knife or 2) a multi-day ride on an ice-road truck in -40F the winter.  Equipped with 19 guides, a like number of boats and complimented by 2 private turbo otters with floats, the lodge is able to get you quickly to just about anywhere within a 220 mile radius.  Whether you want to fish for any of 8 sub species of lake trout, sea-run Arctic Char, Arctic Grayling, or Northern Pike, you're but a boat ride (or flight) away.

Plummer's Arctic Lodge - Main Lodge
The lodge is renown for IGFA world records.  Aside from booking this lodge, there is no other practical way to fish for these world record Lake Trout (78lb/7oz unofficial, 72lb/0oz official), Arctic Char (32lb/9oz official), or Arctic Grayling (5/15oz official).  For the past 13 years, the lodge has been dedicating a week (this year they dedicated two) to fly fishing and the unique gear/techniques/needs of fly fishermen.  If conditions are right, there are ample blind and sight casting opportunities for lakers prowling the shorelines and shallow reefs, but if mother nature decides to skip summer (as was this case this year), plan on mostly trolling large 6/0 flies behind T-20.


If you know where to look, wildlife is plentiful in this tunderous region which makes Alaska look like a metropolis.  Keep a camera handy and eyes peeled for herds of Caribou, Musk Oxen, Grizzly Bears, Moose and Arctic Wolves.  Also be aware that this is not Alaska where you rarely see wolves and where bears are fat dumb and happy with bellies full of salmon.  This is a no-man's land, animals aren't use to seeing people and there are no calorie-rich salmon runs, so the predators up here will not necessarily try and avoid you, they may even come close to check you out.  You may interpret this as a photo opportunity, but chances are they're sizing you up to see if they think they eat you.  Unlike Alaska, guides immediately turn back when they see a bear.
Arctic Wolf captured by my drone at the Coppermine River - part of a pack of 5 or 6
We did 3 fly outs, one to the Coppermine River, famous for feisty sea-run Arctic Char in addition to the Sulky River, known for large numbers of hungry Arctic Grayling.  We also did a fly out for 2.5 days to the remote Tree River which is just 2.5 miles off the Arctic Ocean (separate post to follow).  The Tree River is the real reason I came this far north...to swing flies to its salmon-sized sea-run Arctic Char, the largest of their kind on the planet.
Grayling Fin - Underwater their iridescence comes to life, take them out of the water and they're dull grey.
The Sulky River Fly out has some magnificent water falls and photo opportunities.  Be aware that lake trout also inhabit the river, so if you hook a grayling that takes you into your backing....now you'll know why.
Grayling on a fly-out to the Sulky River - dull grey when out of the water, see photo above for iridescence.
Turbo otters are fixtures at the lodge and on standby at all times.  Your fishing package likely will include a basic fly out, but there is an a-la-carte menu in the main lodge for additional custom tailored fly outs once you get there.  My best advice is starting on day 1, talk to other like-minded individuals that are also jonesing for an adventure.  If you can corral 3-5 people to join, you cut the cost per person down to a fraction.


Monday, July 23, 2018

Truckee River - The Underwater Experience

Now and again, I'll leave the rod at home and throw on some dive gear, making it a point to find out what's in our river.  I make it a point to explore each and every pool, the ripples and rapids, oh, and don't forget to check under the bubble line.  I find it very informative, it helps me understand how fish hold, where they lie, where they go when they flee, how they avoid heavy current while they feed, how the the rocks and structure create low pressure zones, etc.  It also reminds me that there are some huge fish in this river, and they're usually not rainbows!  This footage is much harder to get than it appears, this is a minute pulled from hours of raw footage. As always, some of the best footage didn't come out or my battery died so I never got the shot.  Wish some of it was clearer but these fish weren't cooperating with me.  More amazing than what I could get on film was how many fish I couldn't get on film.  In so many cases I could see a shadow turn tail and run before I could even get my camera started or before I could get close enough to even film the shadow.  They could see me well ahead of me seeing them in most cases.  The other thing to realize is, at least in the summer, these fish are never sitting in soft water, they're in current and usually heavy current, and while it may look effortless for the fish to hold in that current and feed, once you get in there with them, it takes everything you have to just hold your position, usually forward motion is out of the question, we're just not built like fish.  Enjoy!

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Christmas Island on the Fly

I don't have time anymore to post much, but I'll make time for Christmas Island.  This was my second trip and I can foresee a third sometime in the future.  Thanks to CXI you don't have to go half way around the world to find bones, trevally, tuna and more.  This trip we didn't get any really big GTs but did get some nice bones.  Most of us had big GT opportunities but the big GTs are hard to fool, and even harder to land from a flat.

Some highlights of our 2018 trip hosted by the Reno Fly Shop targeting bonefish and trevally.



I'll be heading to the Tree River for the world's largest Arctic Char in August, at a minimum I'll post about that trip.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Truckee River - September Update

Flows on the NV side have been steady at around 450 cfs and water temps are staying at 63-66 depending on the time of day so the river is really in great shape this year.  This is the time of year to be dead drifting crays, I like Tim's Dead Drift, it's got bead chain eyes which give is just enough weight - plus the Reno Fly Shop carries them. You don't want your flies to be too weighted, they need to blow around in the current naturally, put your weight (and lots of it) up higher on the leader - fish are hugging the bottom in fast water right now.
Mid Day on a Cray!

There are a lot of green sedges on river bottom right now, two were impaled by my dropper.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Truckee River - July Update

Well its official, the River is back in shape.  Flows are around 400, water temps in lower 60's and its clearing up nicely.  More big fish are around town than i thought, put 2 brutes in the net.  
AM Session - 25" and thick
I haven't fished the Big T in 6-months (crazy), after today's session, I'm wondering why.  Fish are right in the seams, where the water transitions from fast to slow.  Look for oxygenated pocket water during the hot months of summer.  Get some 17-lb high visibility mono and tippet rings to 3x w/ 2 AB shot and put the bobber away if your fishing pockets, find an 11ft rod and high stick it - that's the best way to get the drift in pockets and seams where the water speed constantly varies and is one speed at the top and another speed at the bottom.
PM Session - 27" and lean

Friday, May 12, 2017

Trophy Trout - What Conditions Grow Big Fish?

Why does one watershed support only your average sized trout and the one a few miles over supports trophies? Why is that and what conditions need to exist to enable fish to grow big here but not there. I love fly fishing just to fish, even if I don't touch a thing, but I'd be outright lying if I told you i don't target large fish whenever I can. I don't purport to have all the answers but I have fished enough places and made enough observations to have some answers. Whether it be a high alpine lake in the Sierra's, the desert still waters of Northern Nevada or the arid wind swept steppes of Patagonia, one thing I've observed in most trophy trout fisheries I've encountered is relatively high alkalinity.
A Nevada rainbow obese from a strict scud diet. This picture was taken May 7th 2017, the picture below is the same fish on July 23rd 2016.  Theses are Tasmanian strain rainbow, originally a native Rainbow from Nevada, it was shipped to Tasmania in 1898 for fish farming.  After decades of  being bred in Australia it was brought back to Nevada.  Its one of my favorite strains of rainbow trout.
Same fish (matched by comparing spots on the lateral line, ventral fin and anal fin) 8.5 months earlier.  She put on an average of 3.8/oz per month through the leaner winter months, thats just under 3 pounds per year.

Without turning this into a chemistry dissertation, alkalinity is effectively a measure of a body of water's ability to neutralize acidic pollution. It is one of the best measures of the sensitivity of the stream or water body to acid inputs. A Ph of 7.0 is considered neutral, below that is acidic, above that is alkaline. Generally speaking, there is a direct correlation between alkalinity and water productivity. That relationship can be expressed in a formula, and I think it goes something like this: higher alkalinity = more microscopic photosynthetic items at the bottom of the food chain = more zooplankton = more trout forage (bait fish/insects) = more and larger trout.  Note, I'll steer clear of dissolved oxygen and water temperatures here, important factors for trout survival but not specific to trophy trout.
Scuds in an Alkaline Spring - scuds live about a year, gather like this about every other month to spawn and supposedly prefer low light conditions, although the later has not been my experience.
In Lake Tahoe, this formula may look something like this: low alkalinity = lower levels of phytoplankton = lower levels of zooplankton = smaller populations of forage fish, introduced mysis shrimp and invertebrates = fewer trout. Its not a knock, but Lake Tahoe is a big pristine granite catch basin and pretty unproductive relative to its water volume as are most high Sierra lakes. Notwithstanding introduced Lake Trout (Mackinaw) which are highly piscivorous - they are beneficiaries of being the apex predator at the top of the food chain.  Lake Trout in Tahoe may seam big but are they trophies? Our 37.6 pound state record is big relative to our other trout species in the state, but its by no means indicative of the true size potential of this fish. To find a true trophy, you'd have to join me (Aug 11-18th, 2018) on a trip to Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories Canada which provides a truly food-rich ecosystem allowing this species to reach its full size potential. The all tackle record of 72 pounds came from this lake, trophies are considered over 40 pounds.
Tui Chub, the prefer forage of Lahontan  Cutthroat Trout
By contrast, in Pyramid Lake the formula may look more like this: high alkalinity = higher levels of phytoplankton = higher levels of zooplankton = larger populations of Tui Chub = Plentiful and large LCT's. Fueled by a diet of Tui Chub, Pilot Peak strain Cutthroats fish can grow an impressive 4-6 inches and 4 pounds per year. Lastly, in Spring-fed Systems, you may see the relationship look like this: high alkalinity = high levels of phytoplankton & vascular elodea plants = high levels of amphipods (scuds) = plentiful and large trout. I've recorded trout putting on as much as 3.8 oz per month in alkaline spring waters, that equates to just under 3 pounds per year.  They almost exclusively eat scuds during the winter months and though they expand their menu to include aquatic insects and mice throughout the year, scuds can comprise 60% of their annual diet.
A Lahontan Cutthroat from Pyramid Lake Nevada.  After about 18" in length they become almost entirely piscivorous eating primarily Tui Chubs followed by juveniles of their own species. The clipped adipose fin give this fish away, its a Pilot Peak Strain. 
There is a point where alkalinity can be too high for trout, 6.5-8.5 is ideal for most trout, however, Pyramid lake has an unusually high Ph of 9.4.   This is lethal to all trout but the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout which has evolved in this unique terminal lake system. These inland terminal lakes have slowly receded over the millennia resulting in slowly increasing levels of dissolved solids including salinity and alkalinity. Alkalinity any higher that what it is now is even lethal for LCTs.  In addition to higher alkalinity, salinity can build in terminal lakes and affect trout too, just look to the east at another terminal lake, the Great Salt Lake.  The Bonneville Cutthroat Trout can no longer tolerate its salty waters. The high alkalinity in Pyramid Lake forms a natural barrier agains't other trout species for the lake fish in as much as it prevents intermingling of the Lahontan Cutthroat with Rainbow Trout which are present in the Truckee River. This barrier, however, isn't present in the river itself where trout spawn, hence authorities have been resistant to allowing LCT's past Marble Bluff damn where hybridization is possible in the Truckee River.
Argentinian (Patagonian) Rainbows grow to gargantuan proportions in a lake devoid of all forage fish due solely to its alkaline water and prolific scud populations. This particular strain is a McCloud River Rainbow (yes, transplanted from California to S. America in the 1990's).  This fish is large due to a nearby alkali terminal lake, they're only in the river briefly to spawn. 
Other Considerations for Trophy Trout (Other than Food):

  • Definitional Considerations - Only you can define a trophy - is it only a big fish? I caught 30" Lahontan Cutthroat under an indicator the other day after work within 100 feet of my truck out at Pyramid, another time I caught a 16" golden on a multi-week trip at ice-out in a stream at 12,000 feet. To me, the former was not a trophy, but the later was. Generally.  In my personal equation, I consider the relative size and number of large fish, while also factoring in the difficulty to cast to, fool and ultimately land the fish.  Back to relativity, a creek trophy is not comparable to a river trophy is not comparable to a lake trophy, etc.  Back to difficulty, a fish caught on an egg pattern in the Rio Barranocoso is not comparable to one fooled on a dry in the Little Truckee's 610 pool - a mouthbreather could do the first, the later requires a patient and skilled tactician.  There is no universal  definition of what makes a trophy in my book.
  • Water Body Considerations - As a rule of thumb, lakes typically have more forage and habitat and generally speaking, can accommodate larger numbers of larger fish. Don't get me wrong, rivers like the big Truckee can house resident trophies too (plus I prefer fishing them over lakes). But in the Little Truckee for example, the resident browns seldom exceed 20", however the migratory lake browns and Mackinaw coming out of Boca can exceed 30". Fish often grow quicker in lakes, so it goes without saying that rivers going into/out of lakes will often have larger fish (on average). I've spent a lot of time on the Naknek River in Alaska, touted as north America's premier rainbow trout fishery boasting some of the largest non-steelhead rainbows in North America.  These trout don't get that big by living in the river alone, true there's literally tons of roe and smolt to fatten the up on for 4 months of the year, but they also grow large because during the other 8 months of the year they have a massive lake to continue feeding in. Same goes for the Wood and Williamson Rivers in Oregon, were it not for Klamath and Agency Lakes, you won't see the monsters they're famous for. At the risk of belaboring the point, the Tree River in Nunavek Canada has a run of the world's largest Arctic Char eclipsing 30 pounds.  That trip is coming up next year, but the reason for the big char is the big body of water at the terminus of the river the fish are able to grow up in - that body of water being the Arctic Ocean.  The resident river char rarely exceed 4 pounds. Another water consideration, big fish need cover to get big. Deeper waters, structure, and riffles which camouflage their silhouette all provide cover - cover from predators, cover to ambush prey, and cover to avoid anglers. This cover promotes larger fish.  Lastly, lakes (and streams for that matter) with large littoral zones (shallow, weedy shorelines where photosynthesis can occur) can be prime trout growing habitat.  Craine prairie reservoir in Oregon is one massive littoral zone which is why it pumps out huge fish (off traditional aquatic insects no less).
  • Species Consideration - Golden Trout have evolved in high alpine lakes/streams which have limited aquatic/terrestrial invertebrate food sources and short growing seasons, so they've genetically evolved to thrive in these harsh conditions by developing smaller frames which require fewer calories to survive and procreate. That said, if you want to target trophy goldens, the same fundamentals apply. Find alkaline waters, particularly with scuds. In 1996 I hiked the John Muir Trail and completed several cross country loops (6-weeks, +300 miles, 72 lakes, 150 streams). I painstakingly documented all my catches.   Hands down, the largest "trophy" goldens were in just 3 of the most remote lakes, each lake having higher levels of alkalinity and a substantial scud population (a rarity in the high Sierras). Its no coincident that the 9.5 pound California state record golden came from one of these lakes. By contrast, Pilot Peak strain Lahontan Cutthroat Trout (Pyramid's original strain) have evolved to be piscivorous apex predators in terminal alkali lakes which boast huge numbers of Tui Chub. Pyramid Lake is believed to have approx. 500,000 Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, and there are estimated to be 100 Tui Chub per trout or 50,000,000 chub. Now that's protein. Fishing for Pilot Peak strain LCT's in Pyramid will yield much bigger fish than indigenous LCTs in Summit Lake (the home of a cousin strain of LCT) a much smaller isolated lake where the fish have evolved to primarily subsist off of scuds. They're also going to be bigger than indigenous LCT's in Independence Lake, a less alkaline lake with respectable but lower productivity situated in a high-altitude granite catch basin which freezes over in the winter. 
  • Growing Season - Water systems that freeze don't offer much forage in the winter, and while those that don't freeze often have insects which hatch out year around, and while your typical aquatic insects (midges, caddis, mayflies & stoneflies) do a good job of sustaining fish during the winter, they usually don't lead to substantial growth during these lean months. Having a large year round calorie source is key, and alkaline lakes which produce huge populations of forage fish and scuds allow fish to actually pack on weight every month of the year, with or without ice. I can't leave out this formula either: Tailwater's = year-round growing season. Tailwater fisheries (rivers regulated by dams) don't freeze in the winter and typically have stable year-round temperatures. For instance, water coming out of the Stampeded Reservoir in CA is usually 45 degrees in both the winter and summer, perfect for trout all year. Stable year-round flows and temperatures promotes a year-round growing season.  Such is the case with Colorado's Frying Pan River which produces monster trout year round.   
  • Invasive Species - You can have all the right conditions resulting in high levels of productivity but still not have a trophy fishery if the water system has been taken over by invasive species. Northern Pike at one time ruined the trout fishery at Davis Lake in California and Large Mouth Bass have really taken their toll on rainbow fishery at Craine Prairie Reservoir in Oregon. Not only do they feed on the same forage as trout, juvenile trout are on their menu. 
  • Competing Species - Particularly for high country alpine lakes, avoid brook trout. I know they're pretty but they're not very compatible with trophy fishing. They are capable of spawning even without a flowing tributary and are prolific breeders. They can quickly over populate a lake and outstrip its food sources.  The result is a lake with hundreds of brook trout with large heads and skinny, malnourished bodies. If you're targeting trophy brook trout, same principals above apply, find alkaline lakes with scuds.  They didn't really evolve in high altitude lakes so you may target lakes at more moderate altitudes, Kirman Lake in California has some trophies in it (on my list of places I still need to explore). 
  • Water Quality and Quantity - Rapid changes of water levels, particularly in tailwater fisheries, ravages populations of aquatic insects, forage fish and scuds which translates into less food to grow large trout. Additionally, as it the case with Pyramid Lake, the diversion of the Truckee River's fresh snow-melt waters to Fernley, NV (occurring at Derby Dam) has altered the chemistry of the lake. Being a terminal lake, water leaves Pyramid in one of two ways, through evaporation or percolation. The diversion of approximately 50% of the Truckee's incoming fresh water annually has resulted in the lake receding approx. 100 feet over the past century (average of 1 foot per year since 1905). Instead of being 450 feet deep, the lake is now only 350 deep, a 28% decline in linear depth, but in terms of volume, its likely more than a 40% decline in total water volume. Now then, dissolved solids can't leave the lake through either evaporation or percolation so these solids are now more concentrated in the lower volume of water resulting in changes to lake's chemistry. Over the past century, newly altered levels of alkalinity, salinity and other dissolved solid has occurred faster than evolution can keep up is likely preventing fish from reaching their full size potential because of reduced lifespan. If fish need to live 12 years to reach 40 or 60 pounds, but are only living 5 or 6 years, they won't reach their full trophy potential. I have no doubt this explains why a 24-pound Lahontan Cutthroat stocked in 2007 was caught in November 2012, and since then, in the past five years, despite becoming ever more popular and heavily fished, nobody has cracked 30 pounds. I'm not saying fish that size don't exist, a handful may, but I'm saying the fish are limiting out and reaching the mid to high twenties at year 5 or 6 years and then dying. The good news is that the massive inflow of water from the Truckee this year (2017) is raising the lake approx. 5 to 8 feet and should serve to dilute the water and hopefully help rebalance the chemistry a little. Further, several years of silt, nutrients and detritus from the drought years have been washed into the lake by flood-level waters and should result in higher levels of phytoplankton, larger schools of Tui Chub, and (fingers crossed) Lahontan Cutthroat Trout Eclipsing 30-pounds by 2020 (that is my prediction).  I'm being mindful that 2011 and 2012 saw no Pilot Peak strain fish stocked at Pyramid, so if they're dying when I think they are, 2016-2018 will have a lull of big fish, hence my 2020 prediction.
Ed Smiths 36", 24pound LCT caught in November 2012. The fish was stocked in 2007. 
  • Regulations - I debated throwing this in, but at the risk of stating the obvious, catch and release fisheries tend to promote larger specimens, but not always. Catch and release Blue Ribbon streams such as Rock Creek in Montana have 10,000 trout per mile (a common attribute of Blue Ribbon waters) but good luck finding something over 15". By contrast, the Truckee River has between 1,000 and 3,500 fish per mile and you can find nice healthy trophies throughout. Also, although the CA side of the Truckee is largely managed as a catch and release fishery and the NV side is managed as a put and take fishery, most anglers agree there are more trophy fish on the NV side, so food and/or water considerations can trump regulation. 
  • Spawning - There are two ways this can come into play, first, fish that spawn are occupied fattening up, producing eggs/milt, and spawning/fighting for a very big portion of the growing season.  While is normal and natural, its also something to be aware of.  Fish that are alternate year spawners (i.e. Pilot Peak strain LCTs) and triploids (sterile fish) have less demands on them caused by spawning and therefore more time to pack on the pounds.  Secondly, resident trout which inhabit waters with large populations of migratory spawning trout or salmon can grow larger as a result. Trout often times key into spawning cycles, for instance, rainbows will follow browns up in the fall to gorge on their roe, browns will do the same to rainbows.  Also, browns and Mackinaws will follow up Kokanee in October to eat their roe and even the fish itself (the Kokanee in/around Tahoe/Truckee are of the stunted high altitude variety, are are bite sized for mature trout).  These are unique times of the year where large lake dwelling fish occupy streams/rivers otherwise to small to sustain them year round.  In the Ushigak Narrows in Alaska, thousands of starving Arctic Char pile in on a 400-yard stretch of river between the two lakes to descend on Silver Salmon roe, in June the char emaciated, but after 2 months of gorging on protein-rich roe, they're bursting at the seems, more than doubling their pre-spawn mass.
  • Pressure - Another obvious one, but if you can drive right up to it, high chance trophies (if they're still there) are well educated with PhD's in fly avoidance. Get off the beaten back, hike in, sometimes you need to work hard to find that secret section of river, the one that's a mile from a turnout off on I-80, or that piece of water that may only see a handful of anglers in a given year. Exploration and finding new water is a huge part of the experience so get out there and find your trophy!  
In summary, food source is the single most important factor in finding large fish, and alkalinity is closely correlated to food productivity. Additionally, food and alkalinity is so important, I feel it can trump many if not all of the other considerations I've mentioned, so keep that in mind as well.

Hope you enjoyed my medley of opinion and fact, feel free to leave a comment.



Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Turks and Caicos - Tight Lines Mon

A great fishing story from a very dear friend, Jay Schroeder, hope you enjoy.

“Virgil, what is the name of the fish eating predator bird?” The 67-year-old entrepreneurial cabbie could have said “Mu’ad Dib” and I’d have half believed him but it was simply a fish hawk. The nice man, or mon, had delivered me to an inlet lake where bonefish prowled for crab at high tide. I’m staying at some all-inclusive resort at Turks and Caicos. It’s free for me and enjoyable despite being canned like a cruise ship.

I came to this muddy mangrove lined lake with my 14-year-old a couple days ago and found only one bonefish which we spooked. I shared a beer with him too and I’d do it again as it’s a ritual of manhood. He needs to learn rituals are important, telling him so pales to showing him. I taught him about flycasting in the wind and lessons about stalking prey. We had a great time. Sadly I only caught one little pompano and to post that pic is the equivalent of showing a photo to your buddies of the 4 a.m. gal you intoxicatingly kissed.

I returned today with vigor but had the same result. I was hoping to see tailing fish along the shore but did not. I don’t go fishing with guys who look for the other kind of tail. I have enough problems in life without giving or inviting too much trouble.

Virgil dropped me at a deep channel spot. I exited his cab and made my way through some polluted shoreline. I’m sure the flotsam and jetsam all have stories, not all of them bad despite the defiling of nature.

The water was a bit muddy. Enough to obscure skittish fish from seeing me but not enough to hide my fly. I tried some blind casting for an hour. At first I pridefully cast normally until I hooked my back but I go barbless so it came out easy. After that I used a cross-sided cast and the usual slow strip twitch. An odd colorful jellyfish surfaced near me and my first split second instinct was to swat it but I backed up and let it be while it pulsated away harmlessly.

A pair of pelagic raptors shrieked to one another above me. One swooped down and missed its quarry, shaking itself free of water as it flew up to hover for another pass. It’s mate struck home and procured a small fish but instead of gulping it the bird headed to a little island where shrieks erupted. Baby birds. I wandered over to the island and got about 30 feet from the nest but the parents were very upset. I love birds. I never kill anything I’m not going to eat and I have a respect for nature. I think about my mom when I’m outdoors and she was fond of teaching me that we are not apart from nature but a part of it. As much as I wanted to see the baby fish hawks I backed away through the muddy mangroves.

Fishing, especially flyfishing, is an art. I’m very good compared to most but I know lots better. My great friend Alan reintroduced me to it 20 years ago and I’ve been around the world with him stalking tarpon, bonefish, permit, trevally, trout, steelhead, salmon, and shad. He owes me his life and in a way I owe him mine. He was a Purdue QB in 44 and a tailgunner over the Pacific in 45. He is the finest fisherman I know and that’s saying a lot. He ends his invites with “tight lines.” Tight lines means something deeper and deeper as I get older. Be squared away with your gear. Know your terrain. Know your prey. Respect your prey. Be observant of your surroundings. Make your best casts but fish a bad cast if that’s all you got. Rod tip down and tight line for when the strike comes your opportunity fails you if you’re not ready. Everything one needs to know about life is in the phrase “tight lines” if one extrapolates properly. Tight lines to me means being in tune with God at times also.

I walk along the shoreline and see a feeding crane. I almost stumble over a banana spider. The dappled sunlight hits a little creek just right and I see the face of God. I wonder how the great scorer will judge me when it’s time. As the great philosopher Rutger Hauer said, "I’ve done questionable things." I’ve also shown the kindnesses and tender mercies that exemplify the glue that holds humanity together.

I remember forgetting my fly box as a 13-year-old on a trout stream in New England. I amused myself by catching insects and using spider web to attach them to a loop in my monofilament tippet and getting brookies to rise and feed. A nice older man came along and gave me a couple streamers. I haven’t forgotten the kindness that allowed a young boy to catch some fish and feel proud of himself despite the mistake of not being squared away.

I walked a lot of flats today and casted to plenty of shadows. No fish. I went to the appointed place and cleaned my boots, socks and stored my gear just as Virgil arrived on time. I will try some sandy flats on the south shore of Turks and Caicos Saturday. In my mind it’s sunny and I can see the bonefish. The casts are accurate, the fly presentation good, and my line is tight and ready. Whatever happens I can handle it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Fly Fishing the Amazon - Xeriuni River, Brazil

When I got the call from Rob Anderson of Bucket List Fly Fishing that a spot had opened last minute for a trip to the Amazon in search of the gnarliest Cichlids known to man, I told him what any fly fishing zealot would - "let me check with my wife".  Rob has been going down to the Amazon after Peacock Bass for 15 years now, he ties some of the most proven patterns for these red-eyed devils and knows the ropes, so I had to call in all my favors to get a hall pass.  Part of the arrangement was that I was to bring my drone (DJI Inspire 1) some 5,700 miles down to document the adventure:

This is my second fly fishing trip to S. America in about a year, but the arid wind-swept southern reaches of the Patagonian steppe couldn't be anymore contrasting to the intensely hot and humid Amazonian jungles of central Brazil.  Wow, what an eye opener, I thought 95 degrees and 95% relative humidity at Christmas Island was hot - that place has wind and ain't got nothin on the rainforest.  Acclimation to the new and completely foreign environment aside, this fishery is absolutely amazing, it's one we all know we have to hit sometime, and now that I've done it, I know I'll have to do it again (safe to say, my wife doesn't read this).  By the end of the first day it was apparent that everything in this ecosystem is actively trying to kill and eat something else.....we were a part of that food chain....somewhere in the middle.

Reno > LA > Miami > Manaus > Xeriuni River > Base Camp
6 rooms and a galley, all w/ AC got it done!
From there we took custom-built aluminum river boats w/ poling platforms and casting decks to all ends of the river system, side creeks and back lagoons.  Each boat was outfitted with a guide from the local village who's lived their whole life on the river.
An 8 or 9wt is all you need out there, unless of course you run across an Arapaima...it's only the largest scaled freshwater fish in the world, looks like a big Tarpon but has a primitive lung and can breath air in stagnant low-oxygen lagoons.  You'll see (or more likely hear them) breach to "GULP" for air, when you do, an 8 won't work, keep a 12 handy.  Whereas I was fortunate enough to get a couple of shots at this shy, rare and elusive fish, I couldn't coax a grab.
Big Nasties from Warpath Flies for the prospect of seeing Arapaima, big buck-tail flies for the bass, it's pretty simple.

I've never been to any destination where I had to cast as much, as long and as accurately as I did here.  This fish are sitting on the brush, I'm mean right on the structure, cast too short and you'll miss them, too long and you're in the trees.   Its unreal, you could conceivably make a 1,000 casts in a day, almost all will be double hauls so prepare yourself mentally and physically and never let the guide see your best cast upfront, otherwise he'll keep you 60 feet off the bank and let you ruin your arm.  I think this is why on the 6th day, God made Rio Tropical Outbound Short, and rested on the 7th.
Hand protection is a must, as is a Boga Grip.  Everything has a mouth like a paper shredder.
You better expect rain...Admittedly, being from Reno, I had know idea what real rain was.
Three species of Bass:
Plus Payara, Arawana, Jacunda, Wolf Fish, Black Piranha, Bicuda and more...
Piranha are murder on your flies...
There will be times when your guide says don't swim here.  You'll learn that means Black Piranha, other times he'll say don't fish here, that means too many dolphin (they get your fish), other times he'll say don't swim or fish here...Caiman.  Our guide proceeded to pull up his pants, his thigh was largely missing....he'd fallen asleep in a hammock, 20 feet from the shore, apparently near a female's nest.
Don't worry about backing, it's not about that, it's an all out do-or-die tug-of-war when you hook these guys, you have about 30 seconds of furious jumps, tugs and desperate dives around brush, if you win that battle and get him out in the middle, you often win the war.
Drop me a line if you are thinking about going, I'm happy to share what I know about travel, gear and arrangement, I'm also happy to put you in contact with Rob.
Hope you enjoyed!