Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Snipe hunt: No joking matter

I've taken kids out on snipe hunts armed with gunny sacks and flashlights. My son still thinks that a snipe escaped through a hole in his Scout leader's gunny sack.
But snipe hunting with a shotgun is no joke. In fact, it's the most humbling shooting I've ever experienced.
On a trip to northern Montana last week, snow and rain limited our hunting trips to areas off paved roads, since any other roads had turned to greasy, gumbo mud. So we hit the same area three days in a row, originally for pheasant but on the third day strictly for snipe.
Wilson's snipe are a migratory bird that pass through areas on their way south each fall. The marshy areas they favor can be empty of snipe one day, but chock full the next. For the hunter, that means you have to be in the right place at the right time.
Which we were. As soon as we pulled into the parking lot, we spotted snipe on a small pothole. Snipe were continually flying in and out of wetlands. It was snipe heaven.
But lots of snipe only guarantees lots of snipe shooting. The small birds are notoriously hard to hit, with a zig-zag flight pattern that will drive you crazy. I went through probably a box and a half of shells and harvested only seven birds.
Not many people hunt snipe. My friend Pman is a big fan of them. Wyoming Wildlife magazine editor Chris Madson also chases snipe. On the table, they are a delicacy with dark, rich-flavored meat. But you need to shoot some first.
And that's no joking matter.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Flip the switch: High-country cutts on and off

It never ceases to amaze me how fishing can change drastically from one day to the next.
Take last week, for example. I hiked into a mountain lake that contains Bear River cutthroat trout. This lake gets hit hard by Nebraskans and other meat fishermen, so I wasn't expecting much. If I caught five or six fish, I would have been happy.
I packed in some neoprene waders for the cold water and waded out toward a dropoff where cutts have cruised in the past.

They were there again. My first four casts with an emerger produced four hits, of which I landed two cutts. The rest of the day was pretty steady action, especially after I switched to an ant pattern. I caught and released 24 trout and missed at least that many strikes. The cutts in this lake have an uncanny ability to sense when I'm gazing at the scenery or looking for my dog. They always choose that moment to strike.
I made plans to return two days later with a fresh supply of emergers and ants. Again, I packed in waders and waded out to the ledge. Again, my first three casts produced hits although I didn't land any of them.
Then it slowed down. I mean, really slowed down. After three hours of casting, using the same patterns as two days before, I quit with a grand total of five trout landed and released.
Both days were about the same temperature. The wind blew out of the east each day, about the same speed.
The one variable seemed to be cloud cover. My first, successful day, there was sunshine all day. But two days later, it was overcast with only a few breaks in the clouds.
Of course, there could have been some other factor that I'm not aware of that made Day 2 so much less productive than Day 1.
But any time you can spend a day in the mountains, catching even a few beautiful cutthroat trout, is a day worth living.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Alaskanator: I'll be back

I went to Alaska with my wife this summer on a cruise to celebrate our 25th anniversary. Saw a lot of nice water but didn't do any fishing. Just thought about it. Click here to see photos of our trip.
We took the Inside Passage and stopped in Juneau, Skagway and Victoria, B.C. All three places had fishing opportunities.
The best situation appeared to be in Juneau. I stopped in a fly shop staffed by a retired guy who ties flies for the store and fills in when the owners are off. On a Sunday afternoon, he wasn't busy so we shot the breeze for a while.
I asked if there were any good streams around Juneau that you could fish without a guide to show you around. He said just go down to the harbor and you can catch salmon from shore right now. That's what he had been doing.
He also said you could flyfish from shore for halibut at certain times, using a sinking line and weighted fly. Of course, the fly is about 10-12 inches long
Sure enough, as we walked around Juneau we could see salmon jumping in the harbor.
In Skagway, I saw a guy catch a nice king salmon out of a little pond in a town park.
I will return to Alaska, and next time I'll take my gear.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

New water: The eternal quest for fish

Ever since I was a kid, I have searched for new water in hopes that next lake or stream would become a secret honey hole.
This summer, I am exploring some high-country lakes and creeks. Some were lakes I've heard of or looked at on maps, wondering how the fishing was. Others were unnamed dots of blue on a topo map or small waters I've seen in the distance while hiking to more familiar destinations.
My first exploratory trip of the summer was to two small lakes downhill from the trail to a proven brook trout lake that I hit a couple times a year. A friend said they used to contain brookies 10 or 12 years ago, and I found they were still there. The fish were decent-sized, nothing special, but it was fun finding them there and in the lakes' outlet streams.
Yesterday, I did a lengthier search for a couple lakes that I heard were pumping out nice brook trout this year. The first one required a slide down a steep snowfield to reach. Once there, a storm blew in, raising water on the lake, and producing thunder, lightning, rain and graupel. After the storm passed, the lake turned glassy calm and trout were rising everywhere for tiny gnats. I finally caught a few on No. 16 Adams, but the action was far from hot and heavy.
I fished the outlet, caught a few more, and headed over the ridge looking for my next destination. The lake appeared below, and I could see trout were rising steadily. The Adams produced a couple larger fish right away before it got shredded. I switched to a Royal Wulff, which received less enthusiasm. I lit out again and fished the outlet creek to where it intersected the main trail in the area. Brookies were everywhere in the creek and it was fun to dap them out of the small riffles and pools.
Not every exploration for new water is successful for fishing. For instance, I told Sam about some no-name lakes that I used to fish for brookies years ago. Now, he found no fish there.
Even if you don't find fish, the hike is usually an adventure, especially when you go off-trail and bushwhack. Yesterday, I wasn't sure where I was going but the sense of exploration kept me going. There are a few more places I want to check out, but I'll save them for next year.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Damselflies: Where the action is

I was worried about the damselfly hatch this year. Usually, it's going gangbusters about when I finish teaching my summer classes in early June. But cold, wet weather this spring retarded the start of the hatch, and it's only been the last two weeks that I've been seeing adult damsels and their nymphs.

Over this Fourth of July weekend, the hatch, which more accurately should be called a crawl-out, was going strong around Laramie. I caught the biggest Bear River cutthroat of the year yesterday on a beadhead damselfly nymph in a small lake.

The reason I like the damsel crawl-out is that you get to fish relatively large flies (I usually tie them on size 10 nymph hooks), and the trout just slam them. There isn't much subtlety in their takes - it's like throwing buggers for browns in the fall. Hammer time.

As a bonus, damsel nymphs are easy and quick to tie. Basically, I wrap marabou around a hook, and it works.

When the water is clear, as it was at the lake I fished yesterday, you need to go light on the tippet. I used a 4X. So breakoffs are fairly common with the slashing strikes that damsels elicit.

A trick with fishing damsel nymphs is to find the retrieve that the fish are looking for - generally, slower, 6-inch strips work best for me. But there are times when a quicker strip or even dead drifting a damsel nymph under an indicator work better. You have to experiment to find out.

But once you do, hold on tight. You're in for some action.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Brook trout: Always fun

The brook trout gets a bad rap from a lot of anglers. They're too small, they overpopulate waters, they're non-native intruders, etc.

But I love them because they're usually easy to catch, there are lots of them, they are beautiful to look at, they fight hard for their size, they live in wonderful places, and they taste good.

I rarely keep trout to eat, preferring flaky, white-meated fish such as walleye and yellow perch. But a couple times a year, I get a hankerin' for some pan-sized brookies sizzling in a cast-iron skillet of bacon grease.

Last weekend, we hit a mountain lake that has already gone through ice-out. The lake contains rainbow, brown, cutthroat and brook trout. Sam was able to put together a trifecta of species, lacking only the cutt to make a quafecta. I had to settle for a few bows and brookies.

But the brookies were trophies for public water accessible by good road. I saw a few that were pushing 16 inches, and kept two that were over 12 inches. In this land of long winters and short growing seasons, those are respectable brook trout.

We caught them on a variety of flies - big wooly buggers, smaller beadhead nymphs and midge patterns. The brook trout hit hard and fought all the way to the net.

I kept a couple for dinner and was amazed at their salmon-orange meat.

Brook trout are the trout of my youth, and I always was fascinated by them.

I still am.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Skin up and ski

The Snowy Range Highway opened over Memorial Day weekend, and a lot of backcountry enthusiasts were there to shred some spring snow. Jan, the soul skier from Montana, made the trip down from Big Sky Country. We joined up with Marty, the Ph.D. of Ski, to make some turns on the south flank of Medicine Bow Peak.

The snowpack is pretty impressive this spring. We got to the mountain fairly late in the morning, though, and snow conditions were getting a little soggy. Still, wet snow is better than no snow.

We skinned up at the Lake Marie trailhead. The biggest challenge was getting out of the parking lot because the snowbanks are 7-8 feet high and nobody had packed in any steps yet.

Jan and I were on telemark gear while Marty employed his alpine touring setup. Despite the cloudy conditions that threatened thunderstorms, we all worked up a sweat climbing the 1,100 vertical feet.

We climbed up to the ridge above School Rock and made two runs in the snowfields up there before skiing all the way down to the parking lot for a celebratory toast of Stella Artois.

Two days later, we did the same route but this time in rain at the parking lot, graupel higher up, and finally heavy, wet snowflakes that resulted in surprisingly nice conditions for our descent. I'm not sure that it was powder, but it was definitely more skiable than slush. Even though we were soaked after a couple runs, the day still called for a Stella Artois.

Jan and I even snuck in a day of flyfishing at a couple of lakes between ski days. All in all, a great holiday weekend spent with good friends and good beverages.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

First flyfishing trip of the year

After a long, hard winter which finally ended Sunday, I made it through some slippery roads to an area lake Monday and broke out the fly rod. I was rewarded with a small rainbow on my first cast and a small cutthroat on the second.

The day went like that with fish striking a beadhead prince nymph regularly in shallow water where it was probably warmer. The sizes improved, too. I managed a nice Snake River cutt in the 18-inch range, and a half dozen other cutts in the 15-inch range. A few rainbows were decent - probably around 13 inches but fat.

It felt great to catch some trout on the 6-weight. The only trout I'd caught this year had been a few while ice-fishing for perch and ling. And I only went on the ice three times this winter.

Once the fish had shredded the prince and I broke off the replacement, I decided to hit a stream and try to complete the trifecta with a brown trout. I tied on a bugger and slung it into the wind for a while. As I worked upstream into a narrow channel, I cast into a shady back eddy and Mr. Brown took the invitation to play. The next cast into the same eddy, a smaller brown took the bugger.

Trifecta completed, I headed back to the car happy with my first day of flyfishing. It bodes well for the rest of the season.

Tight lines.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Keeping Wyoming Safe from Ling

As a card-carrying member of Trout Unlimited, I believe it's my duty to help protect coldwater fisheries from dangerous intruders.

So I headed to Flaming Gorge Reservoir in southwest Wyoming to kill some ling. Ling, if you haven't heard, were illegally introduced sometime to the huge lake that spans from the Cowboy State into northern Utah.

To retaliate for that intrusion, the Game and Fish Department has declared open season on the ling - no limit year-round. It's a sportsman's obligation to keep every ling caught to try to protect the Gorge's trout, kokanee and smallmouth bass population.

Ling, also known as lingcod and burbot, are caught at night at the Gorge using fluorescent jigs baited with sucker meat flavored with anise.

It was wonderful standing on the ice in the dark, listening to coyotes sing, the ice crack and groan as it shifted in the evening temperature drop, and watching the stars in the black night sky.

And we caught some ling, along with one rainbow and one lake trout.

I hear ling are delicious eating. One local recipe is to boil pieces of ling fillet in Seven-Up.

I'll let you know how that works in a future posting.