Friday, June 03, 2011

Operation Alphabet

Carping Quality Score = 150 – [% cloud cover] – [(% above long-term mean flow)/2] – [turbidity NTU value] – [ABS((wind speed) – 6)]

Assumptions: time of year is typical and water temperature is generally acceptable. 6 MPH wind is considered optimal.

Example 1: 50% cloudy, 20% higher than normal flow, turbidity of 10 NTU, winds of 15 MPH: 71 carping quality score. This is a day that can be dealt with pretty easily: partial sun, bothersome wind and slightly high flows… but manageable.

Example 2: full cloud cover, normal flows, turbidity of 10 NTU, perfect wind at 6 MPH. 40 carping quality score. Everything is good and normal, except cloud cover, which is weighted the heaviest, so the score is low.

Example 3: full sun, 10% high flows, turbidity of 20 NTU, 10 MPH wind. 116 carping quality score. Flows up just a bit, turbidity up slightly and some wind, but with full sun, the most important thing, the score is high.

So this gets to why this particular outing is dubbed Operation Alphabet. In pre-travel banter, we lost track of what plan we were discussing: Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, Plan WTF. All over the board. John Montana, the top carp on the fly guy out there, had once again extended his gracious invite to MN folks to come out and ply the Columbia River for giant carp. He was suffering from slight worry, because (1) we’d be fishing under a flood warning, (2) we’d be fishing in wind advisories. See equation above. Carping quality score bottoming out. But I knew that in the back of his mind he was quietly confident. Like my grandpa used to say: if there’s anybody who can do ‘er, it’s you. That’s how we felt and I think that’s how he felt. We were resigned to the fact that we had tickets in hand and we were ready for adventure. And whatever conditions we encountered would be faced by the three of us (WFF was 33% of our personnel). Interesting commentary there: whereas in the past, a guy might have been really concerned about catching a lot of fish or big fish: guide-like situation: you’d better put us on success… Now, it’s moved toward let’s walk around and see what the hell we can find out. Do it as a unit and reap the rewards or suffer defeat together (see 2010 Lake Michigan post). And the MN boys were quietly confident too. There are always edges. There is always slow water. It just moves with the flows. So off we flew in a big shitty shiney airplane crowded and hot and annoying. Plagued by guilt for leaving families to fend for themselves for a few days. Mixed with excitement. Looking down on the mountains and the barrens passing below us. Finally landing on the bank of the Columbia River carrying only rods, flies and maybe a shirt and socks.

General synopsis:
The conditions were very bad to extremely bad. Various phrases like “we’re fucked” and “damn it” and “if only we had better light” etc. were strewn about constantly. The river was way up – well past long-term (maybe a century) median values. It was also turbid to the point of maybe 6 inches of clarity on the main river. For most of the time, the wind was a major hindrance; on one day is was at near-debacle levels. The sun was marginal: one day was great, but the other three were pretty cloudy. This stacked deck was beaten by (1) making the right decision to abandon the traditionally good water, (2) fish water adjacent to but not right on the main river, (3) go extremely slow: fish like a heron, (4) look upstream for better conditions, (5) abandon the idea of casting to fish, and go with the rod-length daps and flips. The poor conditions affect the fishes’ defense too: they provide camoflauge for the fisherman. We got close to hundreds of fish; it was just a matter of seeing them in time to present the fly before they became aware of the hulking figure peering in at them. We fished ponds. We fished flooded meadows. We walked train tracks and rip rap and looked so hard into the water that our eyes became sore. When it was all said and done we hadn’t decimated things like we have in the past: no 50 fish days pivoting on unbelievable flats fishing. Rather, we scavenged what was to become a remarkable (given conditions) pace of catching fish with some regularity and even some bursts here and there. I think was something like this: 19, 14, 8, 18 for a total of approx 60 carp to hand. Many more hooked. Many broken off. All this while wandering in the bottom of an eons-old gorge, looking at cliff walls and flooded forests. Better explained via pictures, so I’ll cut that off there. The only other general notes are pertaining to how each of the three of us managed this situation and reacted to it – my perception of that anyway: (1) John Montana was unselfish, calm and collected throughout – giving us the shots, rejoicing in our hookups and overall showing the quality of a guy that is confident and knows what the hell is going on; (2) WFF was a kid in the candy store, barely restraining (if at all) his wonder and excitement found in sight fishing for the greatest freshwater gamefish to be found – he was smiling near 100% of the time and that was a good thing; (3) I was in the middle of those two scenarios: entirely pleased with the situation, and even welcoming the relative difficulty; in awe of the surroundings, and completely fascinated watching carp eat flies. I’ll work my ass off for the visual record of a carp moving to a fly or better yet a carp opening its mouth in plain sight to say yes to an offering made by a fisherman.

There are a few specific instances worth noting in some detail:

(0) My first hook set of the trip went like this: so eagerly, so much did I want a carp... I presented the fly with some underlying tension and anticipation... watched the eat... set the hook really hard... and: found some weight on the end of the rig. More weight than a guy gets fishing "gamefish" which is what I've been enduring for the past months. I set that damn thing so hard and so excitedly, and hit that weight with such force that I was stunned and the rod started to fumble out of my hands toward the water. The whole thing. It was excited force meets immovable object and it was a feeling I'd been aching after for months. I splashed and bobbled and fumbled... laughed out loud while regaining composure and proceeded to admire the bow of the rod.

(1) There were limited opportunities for long distance stalking of tailing carp. These were like finding a nice EPA in a cooler of Coors Lite. They came about on the day we were working a big river stretch – still showing turbidity and high water, but fishable in some settings. This setting was a gravel bar. We couldn’t spread out. We walked as a trio, straining to look ahead for any dark shape or nervous water. We spotted tails breaking the water. This was very exciting. First shot went to WFF. He stalked maybe 70-100 yard, got too close to the carp (!) but put the fly on it anyway, undetected, and stuck the fish. I’ll leave the raw emotional detail to him as I wouldn’t do it justice. I can however say that the next stalk went to me. Nice big tail breaking the water. I crept on that fish successfully. It was tailing madly in shallow water. This put on my nerves in high gear because this was the only heavy-tailing fish I’d seen (would see no more). First cast went unnoticed. Second cast was deliberately put beyond the fish, fly dragged into position and dropped a bit up and to the side… Watching a movie now… the fish surged forward to eat that LOD. I recall setting the hook and moving low and to the left, angling the rod down toward the water. Not sure why. The fish erupted and put a crater in the water. I remember it looked liked a giant funnel hole. A big and deep bass note was sounded. The fish proceeded to run, and in maybe 1-2 seconds break my 16 lb leader. I attribute the loss to either/both a knicked/frayed leader (I knew it was the case, but my assessment prior to this fish was that it was not detrimental) or me locking down too hard on the fish. Whatever the case, the fish was stalked and hooked. That’s 80% of the deal. That’s the memory. Okay by me. I’ll keep telling myself that.
(2) I did manage to hook what I believe is the largest fish I’ve ever hooked. I was fishing in a weed-choked bay, to a couple other fish. WFF halted me though, and directed me to the left. At that position I saw a ridiculous fishing sidling toward me: blue-gray, big and round basketball head with a giant white trumpet mouth. Almost scared me. Best part though was that it was clearly looking to eat. This was confirmed when I picked up and dropped the fly in front of it, suspended in a little open water pocket among the vegetation. Instantly eaten was that fly. We saw it all. I got so excited I started jumping up and down and yelling, figuring this fish was locked up. It wasn’t to be though. The fish buried itself in the veg, and the trailing fly was caught in all the crap and I believe I lost tension on the lead fly… hook came out. Fish gone. Shocked me for sure but it’s manageable.
(3) John Montana gifted to me my favorite fish of the trip. This was later in the trip – day 3 I think – on the main river. Again, fishing to “small” 10-11 lbers, I was about to dap when he said “Don’t cast. Look left.” Another swagger-laden balloon of a fish was coming toward us. Just dripping with the message: I’ll eat if you make it possible. Flip cast beyond, drag to front and side… instant take. This fish was locked up, played and landed. A 14 lb mirror that was nearly fully scaled.
(4) Two of the days found us fishing in flooded shrub/forest and meadow. Absolutely tension-filled and highly interesting. Stalking through willows. Fighting fish in the brush. Looking at your buddies and seeing them staring at fish with no water visible to you. JM called me over to help him with a fish that had run through a willow copse. He had 25 feet of fly line extending from the willows to a log pile. I grabbed the line and worked it free while he wove his rod through the willow tangle. The carp was landed. I walked a flooded two-track road and caught three carp in 15 minutes, all of which were traveling in one of the track bellies as if it were their own infrastructure. And I guess it was more theirs than mine at that point. The water came up and the carp followed it. Always edges.

Technical notes: the only flies we used were SJW, Legion of Doom, soft hackle nymphs and hairballs (from WFF). They all caught fish. We changed up flies according to wind and thickness of veg. You needed to punch flies down through all the crap to get to the fish in some cases. High winds allowed for heavier flies, because splash factor was pretty much eliminated. Average size fish was 12 lbs. In fact, 75% of the fish caught were 11-12 lbers. With a few in the 13-15 range, and a few in the 8-9 lb range. Most fish succumbed to the LOD. Biggest fish went to JM at 15 lbs.

Only other thing that pictures won’t say is thanks: to JM for another chapter in what is becoming a remarkable book of carping, to WFF for expending the time and effort to join us and for reminding us that we should get more excited about this stuff, and to our respective families for understanding and even supporting ridiculous adventures like this one.

One more thing: some text from McGuane, with this single modification: the word "snapper" has been replaced with the word "carp." Notably, the passage remains 100% plausible/accurate/etc. He is fishing with Guy de la Valdene. This is a nice salutation; a nice tribute and thank you to Cyprinus carpio.

Guy stopped the fly and let it sink to the bottom. The carp paused behind it at a slight forward tilt and then, in what is to the flats fisherman a thrilling gesture, he tipped over onto his head and tailed, the great, actually wondrous, fork in the air, precisely marking the position of Guy's fly. I looked toward the stern. Guy was poised, line still slack, rod tip down. He gave the fish three full seconds and I watched him lift the rod, feeling foredoomed that the line would glide back slack. But the rod bowed in a clean gesture toward the fly line, which was inscribed from rod tip to still-tailing fish. Abruptly, the fish was again level in the water, surging away in a globe of wake it pushed before itself. A thin sheet of water stood behind the leader as it sheared the surface.

He nailed it. Carp.

Photos: John Montana's camera:

From my camera:


Blogger Royce Gracie said...

Great report. Cool area. Cool mirror. Wish I could Have been there.

11:50 PM  
Blogger John Montana said...

Good stuff as always j.

Next up, door county 2.0

12:41 AM  
Blogger Mark Clements said...

I love this stuff...awesome adventure from real guys who have families and regular jobs...Inspiring.


8:32 AM  
Blogger Wendy Berrell said...

Good to hear from you guys.

Need some review and comment on that carping quality score formula.

11:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well done J. What a great lookin group of river banditos. We'll have to figure out how to work a foursome next year....

12:54 PM  
Blogger Brian J. said...

Nice-- way to push through the tough conditions, it appears it payed off!

2:35 PM  
Anonymous Blackdog said...

Awesome report! I see carp regularly when I fish my local lake, but don't know much about catching them on a fly. I gotta learn about this!

11:18 AM  
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