Wednesday, November 26, 2014

THANKFUL FOR THE WEALTH OF VIRGINIA SPORTING OPPORTUNITIES

Strolling along a beach after a morning of casting to bait-busting seatrout, the sun warms my neck and I squint into the sun sans shades, trying hard to even out a harsh sunglasses tan.  It’s hardly 9 o’ clock, and even as the wind whips through my loose clothing, the temperature rivals that of a Virginia summer.  One thing is clear—Southwest Florida is a far shot from Virginia in almost every aspect.

    Over the past week, I have saved several such moments in my mind.  Still frames standing and casting to fish in backcountry mangroves from my kayak; pushing over oyster beds and through tight cuts of water miles from the big bordering city; jumping tarpon and unhappy alligators; slicing patterns in the sky, casting to fish amid calm blue water crowned with a fiery sunrise, fighting fog and darkness—all are cataloged with thankfulness for the experience.

    The past two months have provided me with even more treasured memories.  Memories of gurgling Catskills trout streams at dusk, leaping salmon of magnificent proportions, casting dry flies after dark to skinny-water brown trout in “Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon,” guiding a kayak through the Okefenokee Swamp dodging alligators and cypress trees, of lifelong friends made—all leave me humble and anxious to return.

    But here I am, on the front end of Virginia’s firearms deer season; in the middle of the trout’s fall feeding frenzy, when the brook trout dress up in their most colorful garments and flaunt them about the state’s most beautiful waterways, when an elderly New Yorker approaches me on a beach and inquires about the Rapidan—undoubtedly the most well-known stream in Shenandoah for President Hoover’s appreciation of it.

    “It is a wonderful stream,” I replied.  “But there are many more like it, if you’re willing to look.”

    And it was then that I began to daydream, of the miles of wild trout streams of the Blue Ridge and of my beloved brook trout, of the way the almost-gone leaves look on the trees and how the crisp chill in the air brings out the fragrances of the forest and the mountains, of the humanity and sense of closure that November cold brings to the Piedmont, when we go to the woods and the water bundled.


    With that, I found myself eager to revisit those cherished back-home memories, all the more appreciative of the varied sporting opportunities Virginia has to offer.

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Thursday, November 13, 2014

OUTDOORSMEN MAKE GOOD DRIVERS

It was about this time of year, a few fall seasons ago, while doing my best to exemplify proper driving technique on my way home from school with a certain woman harboring no reservations for calling me out, that I was graciously reminded through the storm of previously-kempt hair whipping in the wind from the open windows that trees, in fact, grow in people’s yards—not in the road—and that I should avert my gaze—stat.  

The logic I readily offered, that foliage is of primary concern while driving in the fall (Just ask Yankee magazine), as it’s fleeting while cars will drive the road the year-round and pavement remains the same dull gray in all seasons, was accepted and dismissed with the same look, which I’d rather not describe.  It was obviously lost on her, as the windows went up immediately.

    Over my many years of driving experience, I’ve come to understand one key principle.  Driving is equal parts vehicle operation and observation.  Outdoorsmen, I believe, know this best; and for us it is a vital concept.

    Whichever outdoor activity that’s on your mind, it pays to be observant; for scouting is central to success in any such endeavor, and a practice to be taken seriously.

    Enter, the 20th Century invention of motor vehicles, and driving.

    During no other daily activity does one cover as much ground as when driving.  Simply by driving to Charlottesville from my Fluvanna County home, I cover roughly 25 miles of good deer and squirrel habitat, and cross several streams that I believe to hold fish.  For the same reason that mail carriers often know the location and patterns of deer and other game along vehicle travel corridors, outdoorsmen who pay their dues being observant drivers may enjoy more success in the field, if not on the road.

    VDOT was obviously in on this strategy, as our roads typically traverse beautiful country, follow closely to rivers, and are bordered by fields that seem to be deer magnets.  Interpreting the clues that these sly, state-agency outdoorsmen embedded in the creation of roadways will help simplify the scouting process further.

    Often times, the more treacherous the road, the more valuable it is as a scouting route, as hilly country typically outshines flat in the eyes of outdoorspeople—holding more streams; bigger, tougher game; and more pleasurable hiking.

    Deer crossing signs are largely misidentified by the non-sporting public as warnings, though sportsmen know the truth.  In effect, these signs are state-imposed ratings of the quality of the peripheral habitat; and the more signs present, the more you should pay attention to your surroundings.  The frequency with which deer actually inhabit the road is far lower than that with which they inhabit the marginal land; but should one venture into the road mistakenly and collide with your vehicle, you will have tremendous insight into the physical characteristics of the local herd.

    A high-mountain road that follows the course of a stream is as blatant a sign as they come.  Often nicknamed “fire roads,” these paths were originally created as tools for emergency teams to quickly reach remote streams and assess their fishability with respect to water volume and clarity, simply by peering out the window.  Should a forest fire break out in the surrounding hills, emergency respondents were close by and ready for action, just as quickly as they could break down their rods.  These tools can and should be utilized by the fishing public, who need not interrupt their fishing efforts in the event of a forest fire.

    When traveling and scouting such roads, mainstream driving instruction that advocates for keeping your gaze fixed 20-30 seconds ahead on the route of travel is a common pet peeve of mine.  This practice rarely provides insight into the local outdoor opportunities, and serves no other effective purpose, save for avoiding accidents.

    I find my 1:2 rule much more suitable.  In a three-second loop, focus your attention on the road ahead for one second, adjusting course and speed, and locating potential hazards.  Use the following two seconds to assess your surroundings, whether a field, woodlot, or stream.  Then repeat.  As a ratio, should you need more time for vehicular operation, the rule allows you to simply double that time and devote it to observation.  For example:  If you should need four seconds to effectively operate your vehicle, designate eight to scouting.  This ensures adequate safety and maximum information gathering.


    Good driving is a skill that comes naturally to most outdoorspeople, but that often gains criticism from the non-sporting public.  For more successful days afield, keep your eyes open and focused on your surroundings, drive a car with good safety ratings, and have your local ambulance service on speed dial.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Sunday, October 26, 2014

TYING DECEIVERS LAST NIGHT

Thinking forward to the few weeks I will be spending fishing the salt in November, I decided to take a break from writing tonight and tie some flies.
Photo by Matt Reilly
    After cementing some pencil popper bodies, red and white Lefty's Deceivers were on the agenda.  The first was a little skimpy, but that's all it took to get into the swing of saltwater tying again.  More fly pictures to come!



Saturday, October 25, 2014

PAPARAZZI

His presence is announced by the ring of a rise, and everyone's attention turns to the rushing water.  It's October in the southern Appalachians, and as he writhes downstream and into the awaiting hands of his most devoted fan, donning the brilliant oranges, greens, reds, and blues of the spawning season's fashion, I stand ready, like paparazzi, to attempt to preserve my reverence for his form in a photograph.
Photo by Matt Reilly
    The shutter snaps, his gills pulsating in the cold mountain water, and he leaves the spotlight with a splash--gone until the next event.

    Today I spent photographing for an upcoming article for Eastern Fly Fishing on a well-known mountain stream in Virginia.  From behind a camera, it's overwhelming--the beauty of nature in fall, in all its colors and moods.  In fall, the blaze of color and pigments kept hidden in the crevices of the stream in the gaunt form of the magnificent brook trout explode from the water and color the Earth.  And it is then that I rejoice in knowing that wild, natural beauty persists, and am grateful for my involvement in it.
 

Friday, October 24, 2014

PICKEREL LOVE FALL TOO

After spending the morning working finishing up one article on late winter bass fishing  for JAKES Country Magazine and the afternoon beginning another article for Virginia Wildlife on the topic of pickerel fishing, I decided to make a quick trip out to a local farm pond to stage some photos for the first article and fish for an hour or so in the beautiful, cool weather that has been the norm as of late in Central Virginia.

    On my second cast, guess who came to visit!  Mr. Chainsides in all his ferocious splendor came tearing out of a weedline after my swimbait.  Talk about relevant!  

Photo by Matt Reilly
    A few more casts resulted in a big crappie of about 14 inches.  Pickerel and crappie are some of my favorite springtime pursuits; but they are just as plentiful and predictable in the fall.  Hope everyone is getting out there and capitalizing on this wonderful weather and good fishing.

    Remember, pickerel love fall too!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

HOW TO TIE THE GOLDEN RETRIEVER

Developed by Jim Finn on Virginia's Mossy Creek, the Golden Retriever is a fly that has seen success the world over for trout, smallmouth, steelhead, salmon, and a host of saltwater species.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    A typical streamer, the Retriever can be swung, stripped, and some prefer to fish it under an indicator.  It's easy to tie too, and requires many basic skills that make it a great first fly to tie.

    In my own testing of this fly, I have found it deadly on stocked and holdover trout.  In fact, this fly, apart from woolley buggers and the kreelex, is often the first and only fly I tie on when fishing for meat, or simply bullying stocked trout for the fun of it.

    The keys to this fly are the red underbody and the pulsating estaz or cactus chenille.  Make sure you lay a solid base of red threat on the wire core, wrap the eztaz creating even gaps wide enough to let the underbody show through, and palmer the chenille while wrapping to ensure all of the material angles backwards and none is trapped by your forward wraps.  All materials can be purchased at Mossy Creek Fly Fishing, or via their online store.  Tie a few up in peach (below), purple, root beer, and green, and have at it!


*These instructions are for a peach pattern.  To change, simply match the marabou color with the cactus chenille.*

Materials:

Hook:        #10 3X Streamer Hook
Thread:     Red Flat Waxed Nylon
Head:        5/32" Gold Bead
Lead:        .025" Lead Wire
Body:        Gold or Peach Estaz
Tail:          Peach Marabou

Instructions:


  1. Crimp down hook barb and slip on bead.
  2. Wrap wire about 16 turns and lodge into the bead head to lock in place.
  3. Attach thread behind wire and build a dam of thread level with the wire wraps, and tapering towards the bend.  This will allow you to create an even underbody after tying in the tail.
  4. Tie in a clump of marabou about 1 1/4 the length of the hook, and cut off tag end at end of the wire wraps.
  5. Tie in a strand of Estaz at the hook bend.  Always pay attention to the direction of the fibers, and tie on so that they slant back.
  6. Form a smooth, even under-body by wrapping thread towards the bead.  Remember that the thread alone is your under-body, and should be built carefully.
  7. Wrap the Estaz forward in 5-6 evenly spaced turns, and tie off behind the head.
  8. Form a red collar behind the bead with a few extra turns of the thread, whip finish, and add head cement if desired.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

BONUS FISH ON THE CONNECTICUT RIVER

Photo by Matt Reilly
I sat in a quaint breakfast café sipping my sixth cup of coffee while the elderly waitress eyed me from inside the kitchen doorway as if I was a homeless man threatening to drink dry the kitchen’s supply of coffee facilitated by free refills and local hospitality.  The previous night’s temperature dropped well below freezing, leaving me feeling rather lethargic despite appropriate gear.  Coffee was bringing me back to life.

    This brought to mind the couple I met the night before when stepping out of the upper Connecticut River.  The wife, an endearing retired schoolteacher named Dixie, titled me insane for pitching my tent and actually intending to sleep in it while the frost fell overnight.  I could make no strong case for my sanity apart from declaring that I “just want to prove that I can.”  The like-minded husband, Dave, identified with me and offered to take me fishing the next day, nevertheless.

    I departed the café at half-past eight, and raced along winding, gravel roads littered with signs of direction for snowmobilers and ATV-ers.  The four-season destination of Pittsburg, New Hampshire, the smokestack of the Granite State north of the 45th parallel that marks the northern border of Vermont with Quebec, is a magnet for these tourists, who swap vehicles with the seasons.

    When at last I found my destination, Dave’s figure emerged from the ground floor of their red camp, having just finished breakfast, ready for the day’s adventures.

    I gathered my fishing gear and made two peanut butter sandwiches from the groceries in my car’s cooler, and we made off for the river.

    The Connecticut River is unique in that it is four different rivers in its regularly-fished length, and all are tailwaters.  Flowing out of Fourth Connecticut Lake, the upper river runs south on its course to Long Island Sound, beaded by Third, Second, and First Connecticut Lakes, and Lake Francis.

    We began the day fishing for about an hour above Lake Francis without luck before heading to the “Trophy Section” below “First Lake.”  In a few hours there, Dave tied into a large rainbow trout, and I landed several smaller, including one landlocked salmon parr.

Photo by Matt Reilly
Photo by Matt Reilly
    When morning turned into afternoon, we continued north in search of fish until reaching a spot below “Second Lake” where Dave was proud to have caught and released a 19-inch salmon the week before.

    The water was comparatively smaller, and fit the definition of “pocket water” better than did our last destination, as an abundance of relatively-shallow pools stair-stepped down the moderate grade of the mountain hollow.  Most pools held several brook trout and a few small salmon; and I was at home nymphing to the fish of my Appalachian youth, though far from home.

    Whenever I travel to a place where brook trout are present, I make a point of inquiring on what a “trophy” brook trout is locally.  Everywhere the answer is relative to a number of circumstances.  

    However, there are a few generally-accepted benchmarks.  At home, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, the answer is 12 inches, as it is most places and, as I found, on the Connecticut.  In Labrador, the number is a factor of pounds.

    Density introduces another factor.  Whereas in Virginia, where one might catch a 12-inch Brookie every couple of outings, the same feat is readily achieved several times in one day on the Connecticut, if not in the same pool.

    It was upon this discovery that my expectations for the fishery were shattered.  After landing my seventh Brookie from one particularly-productive pool, I made another cast to a far current seam with my weighted nymph.  As the fly tumbled past a small boulder, the line hesitated, and my rod swept upward, bowed against the pressure, bringing with it the explosive form of a leaping salmon the length of my arm.

Photo by Matt Reilly
Photo by Matt Reilly
    As it struggled to find safety from the pressure of my arced Tycoon Tackle fly rod in the head of the pool, I, having lost my net to some Catskill underbrush some weeks before, stumbled into the center of the current, guarding the magnificent fish’s downstream exit with sidesteps and sideways pressure from the rod.

    The fish made two more silver leaps as I chased him about the pool, until a fourth and final leap brought my leader down hard on the boulder beside which the fish had emerged, loosing my fly from its jaws sans photograph.

    Dave caught up with me, and I relayed my story.  He smiled sympathetically, and we returned to camp for dinner of BLTs and home-friend potatoes.


Photo by Matt Reilly
    As I fell asleep that night, slightly warmer, under the stars, my eyes didn’t blink.  “These woods hide giants,” I repeatedly thought, inhaling the evergreen-tinted mountain air.  Just like that, I was once again haunted.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian