Friday, July 31, 2009

Zumbro Bottoms Camping

The boys left mom alone at home for a night and stayed out amongst the red pine near the bottom of the Zumbro River. The younglings were pretty excited about the whole deal, and it seems that the outing lived up to their expectations. Some time without worry is what it was. Highlights:

(1) JD voluntary wet-waded the Zumbro. He fell in right away and I thought that was it for him and wading, but he got up, inhaled a sharp breath and kept on looking around. Afterward, he was the one who steered us back down to the water on two more occasions. He was looking for frogs mostly.
(2) Some great interaction with Kingdom Animalia: tree frogs, spiders and some sweet snails that I'd not seen before. Big ones. As you'll see we were into taking photos of the nautili.
(3) Bedtime was outstanding. It was surely WWF style, but my expectations were adjusted accordingly. I layed down and let them duke it out in the tent. What the hell else should kids be doing in a tent before going to bed? They wore themselves out and then promptly calmed down. DM went to slept quite abruptly, and JD and I stayed up for a while talking about big-guy stuff.
(4) No cook stove for the first day - only used it for breakfast (pancakes). Cowboy coffee on the open fire was truly hearty.
(5) JD has camped at six state grounds; DM at three; JD in five major watersheds, DM in three.

I suppose I could say a lot more, given the positive vibe this provided. Photo journal might do it better justice though.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Under the Bridge Downtown

Is where I knicked a carp.

-adapted from Red Hot Chili Peppers

The Scouting Dilemma

I’d been given a solid tip recently, that the bigger carp in a certain system hang out in a given reach of that system. A few hours came free last night, so the possibility of following up came into my mind. A quandary came about though, because in the vicinity – at a location I’ve fished many times – I had spotted a thick pod of carp – swarms of fish in the 8-12 lb range and I’d seen one that looked really big. The big one might have even been a mirror. Trouble with that deal was that there was no way to sight fish (I’d been peering down from above, from an not-for-fishing location) and I’d have to dead drift through there and play the numbers game in hopes of landing a bigger fish. Seems like in years past I would have gone for that pod – chased the nearly-sure-thing and not cared about the size of the fish. I almost did that again. Who knows what would have happened, but odds are I would have landed a fair number of fish. I opted out though, and pushed myself to do some exploring.

The short story is that the place looks carpy, and I believe that earlier in the year a guy could have fished it pretty well. As it stands now, aphanizomenon makes for extremely poor visibility (maybe 8-12 inches) and the water is really low to boot. I found one group of fish huddled around some woody debris, but they were not feeding and despite some earnest heron creeping and decent presentation they were not to be had. I also found one group of filter feeding fish – open-close mouth habit just below the water surface. I stayed back maybe 35 feet and put on the lightest fly I had with me – swimming clouser. It looked good in the water and hung in the top 4 inches for maybe 5 seconds so I felt they might eat it… but no dice there either. Toward the end of the walk I came to a bridge – a busy bridge that I didn’t want to cross above… so I ducked below… turned the corner and stood face to face with a big white mouth – doing that same open-close, only this time in the middle of the water column. I froze, thinking the fish had seen me… maybe 4-6 feet away. Good fortune made an appearance though and I was able to slip back around the corner and collect myself without sending the carp off. Pulled the line in through the guides so only ~4 feet of leader/tippet hung out… dropped the LOD up and to the side a couple feet. The carp spotted the falling fly, and aggressively angled down toward it and engulfed the gilded morsel. Scale said 12-4 so I’ll say, minus the tare, that the fish weighed 11.5 lbs.

Back to the quandary of scouting vs known waters. The former must be done. That’s my take going forward. I could have walked out of there last night without a fish and been okay. Maybe slightly nagged but overall okay. I’ve walked that reach now and I know what it is and I think I have at least a little grasp on its potential. I’ll file that info away and pull it out later. Stack it next to the subsequent file yet to be created. The file cabinet is called something like the quest for new and amazing fish. If I’d stuck with the known waters I may have added some more snapshots of moderately sized fish but the information would not have been gained and thus the quest would not have been furthered.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

James and the Giant Tomatoes

Here and There

That seems to be the approach as of late. Days, and even half days are hard to come by… a lot to do around here. Yesterday allowed a couple bits: half hour for carp and a few hours leading up to dark for trout. Here are some highlights:


The local carp are holding pretty steadily in a known reach of the river. I swung through that vicinity and did some sprint fishing: gear up in high speed and then sprint to the fish. I put the SJW on three fish – the first one was a great tailer – I proceeded to put him off by allowing him to see the fly move. The second two though both fell victim to that deadly little length of chenille. In both cases I was 20-30 feet away from the fish and the worm dropped maybe 1-2 feet from fish head… So I was able to watch the fish but not see the fly at all. They gave me some solid cues though that led to positive hookups. No great runs from these fish. Staying with the hurried theme, I brought the second one in pretty green and hot. I don’t do that too often and it was kind of a surprise to me to see that fish go nuts flopping around on the bank.

Well, is it becoming ho-hum to catch 6-9 lb fish on flies? Maybe. Not sure what it means, but I don’t get too excited anymore unless: (1) I can see a cool take, (2) the fish runs to beat hell, (3) the fish is really big, (4) the fish eats a dry fly. That might make me something, but I’m not sure what. It’s the truth though, at this point. Accordingly, the sweet detail here was watching the cues and reacting correctly. Both fish moved really well to that SJW and sucked it up. Mouths like angels singing.

Dessert: Trout

I fished the end of the day on a water that is considered a blue ribbon trout stream of the Midwest. It was hot, and the water is very low right now. Stretches that held fish a month or two ago no longer hold fish. I was very torn at the outset because I wanted to fish a terrestrial pattern with a dropper… but nymphing is always the go-to method. It’s deadly. So I did a little of both – conceding that I’d have to change rigs frequently. Started out slowly – picking up ~5 brookies of varying size, a white sucker and a number of creek chubs. I couldn’t “get into them” it seemed. Things eventually came together. Maybe best to just offer a few highlights:

(1) In an interesting twist, it turned out to be a solid multi-species day on trout water, with the 2 wt: brook trout, brown trout, white sucker, creek chub.
(2) Nice to catch some little brook trout – love the coloration of those fish. One ate a hopper pattern.
(3) I tried prospecting with various hoppers and EHC. Nothing really going on there. I caught a couple fish on hoppers and one brown on EHC in near-still water.
(4) One moderately large brown put himself on the reel and even ran a bit – pretty cool. Strong fish. I think maybe 14-15 inches.
(5) Turned over a few rocks and found them to be pretty barren. I saw one big stonefly nymph (they over-winter) but that was the only bug of any note.
(6) Because the frying pan had been defeated for the first bit (all fish either too large, too small or wrong specie) as darkness approached, I ran to a known honey-hole. It provided some deep water in this low water setting – fish were stacked up in there. In a stretch of ~20 minutes I dredged quite a few from the nadir in rapid succession. Interesting to note that I got zero hits until I added a second split shot to my rig – I’d been floating over fish heads, going unnoticed.
(7) Found almost nothing in the five fish stomachs I examined. No discernable bugs.
(8) Notable note #1: as I left the hole and walked upstream, I started seeing some dimples. I watched for a while. Some small, pale mayflies – maybe #18 – were flying upward and past me with some regularity. I had a white hopper on already, so I put that on some rise forms but got no takers. It was dark now so I was reluctant to change flies… but then I noted: everyone back home is already in bed, kind of snug-as-a-bug-in-a-rug. Then I asked myself: what in the hell else do I have to do right now? The answer was either nothing or something not as interesting as finding the right fly and putting it on those fish. The green LEDs of my headlamp came on then, and I tied to the 4x a length of 5x and to that tied a cream colored emerger, size 18. I put that on a fish that had just dimpled. It is worth mentioning at this point that the water was approx 6-10 inches deep. Being dark, I could see nothing of the fish. A second or two after the fly hit the water, I believe this is what happened (not 100% sure – one of those type of memories): a fish (presumably a trout) ate it and immediately charged forward, creating a large wake in that shallow water. Whoa! Man! That is what I thought. Connected just long enough to feel the weight of the fish and see the 2 wt bent over pretty well… And then the fish shattered the 5x tippet and took the emerger to keep. A strong fish and the makings of a good run – something you don’t encounter too often fishing trout in SE MN. My references may be skewed, given the relationship with carp I guess. Anyway – sweet connection there – one that I will remember and wonder about.
(9) Notable note #2: the evening was splendid. Very calm, and comfortably warm. Fireflies lifting off and lighting everywhere. Bats and swallows swooping low and close. The herd of cows ripping grass in the dark and occasionally walking to the river for water. Fish rising here and there. Crane flies (I think) buzzing and rattling just above the water in the over-hanging grass. Barred owl asking who cooks for you? Mayflies – silent and only noticeable when they flew close to my head. At one point a coon and her little one came in for a drink. No artificial lights in the viewscape. Geez, I thought over and over. Look where I am right now. I did that and I tried my best to appreciate it and the only way I could figure to do that was to linger there a while with a clear mind and then promise myself I’d return often and that one day I’d be back with my sons.

[note: fish picture above was released - not same fish as pictured below, dead]

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Home again, home again, jiggedy-jig

First MN carp caught after Pacific NW Epic. Scaled: 15 lbs.
Ate SJW without hesitation. Hooked one bigger than this just prior: burned my index finger and broke off the carp carrot trailer.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Part I: The Place

Any good story is in large part dependent on its setting. Hoosiers wouldn’t work if it were set in New York City, No Country for Old Men would be garbage if it took place in London and The Thomas Crown Affair would be awkward if Brosnan and Russo had met at the Perkins in Grand Rapids, MN. We know that for sure. For this adventure we just completed then, a brief discussion of the place is appropriate as prelude to the meat of the story.

Thinking of the Columbia River now, here is what I remember, in no particular order: strong flow, steep sided gorge, red-brown slopes with long-ago cut gullies and larger ephemeral channels, clear water, open land, sage bushes, big dams. Thinking now that that is a pretty good recollection, given that my mind was 99% on carp for the entire trip, and thus my eyes were on water nearly every minute. I wasn’t journaling or taking soil samples. I did lift my head often enough to look around and soak in some imagery it seems. John Montana calls it high desert. What an interesting contrast to our own Ole Miss: heat, scrub, scrabble, snakes, clear water vs wide, forested floodplains, sloughs, oxbows, mosquitoes and houseboats.

JM and others have referred to the Columbia as the Mississippi of the Northwest. I thought about that a while and noted that it did look big like the Miss, but I knew it didn’t drain near as much land. In fact, the entire river drains 265,000 square miles; Miss is at 1,245,000 square miles. Roughly 5x difference there. Lengthwise: Columbia is 1,243 miles; Miss is 2,320 miles – roughly 2x. It gets more interesting when you consider typical discharges at various points in the watersheds:

Columbia River at the Dalles: right now around 300,000-400,000 cfs
DRAINAGE AREA.--237,000 mi2, approximately.

Here is a USGS site on the Miss that is roughly equivalent to that discharge – note that drainage area is almost 3x though:
Miss at Chester IL
200,000-300,000 cfs
Drainage area 708,600 square miles

Here is a little closer to home:
Miss at Clinton, IA
Contributing drainage area 85,600 square miles
~60,000 cfs
In comparison, Columbia at The Dalles is ~3x larger drainage, but 5-6x more flow.

Water yield is dependent on drainage area, climate, precip, runoff coefficient, evapotranspiration, etc. You kind of know this, but to see a different river up close and personal is very educational.

Anyway, this seems to fit with what the Columbia feels like when you stand in it or observe it: pretty big and strong. And a couple key notes: very wadeable, and many flats. That’s the draw here – what can drive two guys to fly across the country to premiere coldwater fishing and skip it in favor of carping: outstanding sight fishing in clear water to beautiful, strong fish. Plenty of them.

Here are a couple good summaries of the Columbia River basin:

Part II: The Fish

There is no freshwater fish like the carp. I consider myself moderately qualified to make that statement. Not perfectly qualified, but moderately so, and confident enough to take the scope of the fishing I’ve done and make a bit of an extrapolation: there is no fish in inland waters that is like the carp. I have love and respect for any and all fishes. I tackle smallies. I’m thrilled by the idea of catching northern pike on flies. Panfish on poppers. Trout are my beautiful brothers and sisters. They aren’t carp though. I sure want them to act like carp. In recent years I’ve been begging BWCA fish to step up and fight like a carp but it ain’t gonna happen. Not ever. When carp are handing me my ass, I often find myself making a mental note: do more trout fishing – it’s a lot easier. "Gamefish" take a backseat to the ridiculous tenacity of The Gray Ghost. Likewise, the other fish that are commonly grouped into the “roughfish” family are a step down: no quillback, buffalo or sucker could ever dream of staging a run like a carp. Thinking back on Buffalo Days 2007, those brutes were near-impossible to land, but it was due to simple mass – not athletic ability, endurance or attitude. This power then, is the identifying feature of the carp, as far as I can tell. It’s the lead on quite a list of attributes though:

(1) Power and endurance: through your line and most of your backing can an average carp go if he has the room.
(2) Size: they get big. Sometimes really big.
(3) Feeding mechanics: they have a “feeding cone” or cone of sight that must be intersected by your fly. It is rare that any carp will do you a favor and chase your offering.
(4) Spookiness: the carp is a discerning creature. If your fly splashes, or sinks too fast, or if you push too much water toward the fish… you look for the next target.
(5) Method of ingestion: there is no strike. It’s an eat. Usually nothing violent or sudden (some exceptions), and very rarely anything that you feel.

Add up all those tiddy-biddies and you have quite a fish. Definition of unique in the world of freshwater fishing is what that list sums to, I’d say. And that segue ways to:

Part III: The Method

Nobody on this trip was asking the carp for a damn thing. No favors requested. There was no waiting for fish to come by, no requesting that a fish catch a scent and swing through for a taste. No reaction to a noisy or flashy lure was sought. No drifts over or though a good hole were cast out with a letter attached: please eat. No fuggin favors. It was a hunt, plain and simple. The areas selected were known hangouts. Stalking methods were employed. Decisions were required: does one cast now at a higher degree of difficulty, or sneak closer and risk spooking the fish? What flies to use – splashiness vs sink rate? Once those items are cleared up, the next set of more difficult questions comes to light: where does one lay the flies – right on head, or out a bit? Which of those fish is most likely to eat this fly? Did that fish move to the fly? Did he eat? And the kicker: sometimes you are working your way through those questions while looking at nothing more than a stream of bubbles emanating from a silt plume. Hehe.

Very clearly, the fish win this numbers game. More missed fish than caught fish (particularly by some of us - to be exact by two of the three of us). In fact, more missed fish than we know: many eat and spit while we sit and stare in wonder. In this method, half-guesses are common, and full-out-guesses are required now and then. Set the hook. Pick up that rod. Raise it and feel that glorious resistance and the thrubbing of a connected fish. Revel for just one moment in the coming-together-of-it-all though because now the details of the method have passed and you’ve looped back to Part II: The Fish. You’ve got a fuggin carp hooked and your line is peeling away from you so fast it’s burning your index finger. Palm the reel and engage. Duel this brute of a fish to your hand, take a picture by which you can remember his brilliance and then let him go.

So that's why a couple guys spent some money to fly to the trout-fishing Mecca of the US to fish carp. The fact that a good friend is home-based in PDX and stacked with beyond-guide skills made it all the better. The rest can be told by way of pictures.

Consider the fact that three trigger-happy dudes were walking flats four four days straight (12 hours each day) armed with cameras... It follows that there are a lot of images. The only feasible means by which I can post a few of them here is to create general categories and then just load them in no particular order. The logical proceeding seems to be:


With that, here are the BENT RODS:







May add some captions later. Fugging blogging is a lot of work. Skipped lunch to complete this... geez.

Thanks John Montana for hosting another great trip. It's always a pleasure.