Thursday, February 16, 2012

Catch' em on the Swing!


   At a dinner the other night, my uncle pulled me into his study to show off a recently purchased collection of antique flies tied by some obscure Catskill tier. Naturally, I could not help but ask where he keeps his collection of nymphs and wet flies. My uncle is an exclusive dry fly fisherman in the mold of Frederic Michael Halford and the Southern England chalk stream school. My request set him off on his usual tirade on the beauty of fishing only to rising trout and his sardonic appeasement to my youth and choice to throw sunk flies.

   Adam Franceschini, guide, friend, and author of this blog, emailed mid-week about doing another Farmington run on the upcoming Saturday. Several weekends earlier, he and I had fished two spots in the TMA (Trout Management Area) of the Farmington with moderate success. Considering that the water temperature was low and that it was January, we were very happy to have hooked more than five fish each. Itching to fish, I agreed to fish with Adam again that Saturday. Unfortunately, I clearly forgot my obligation to make and host a dinner for my girlfriend’s siblings Friday night… in Brooklyn. Friday afternoon I get an email from Adam: “Hey buddy, just set up my raft and the Housy [sic] looks real good. We could do a half day float if you are interested.” After some discussion, we decided to talk at 7:00 am the next morning to finalize the plan.

  The 5:00 am alarm Saturday morning was painful. I had been up too late with the dinner party. It was snowing. I only hoped that there was no accumulation at the Housatonic. I got Adam’s 7:00 am call in route: “Conditions look good. The flow dropped further that night falling below 1,000 CFS. What kind of sandwich do you want for lunch?”

  Two and a half hours later, Adam and I were launching the bright blue raft from his normal put-in. Adam had brought two rods, a 10-ft 5-wt with his Abel reel and new Rio indicator line and a shorter 6-wt with a special leader designed to dead drift sculpin-head streamers. I had brought my 11-ft 7-wt switch rod for throwing tandem streamers and my 11-ft 5-wt Hardy Marksman with the Torrey Collins signature indicator leader. After a short downstream row, Adam set me up on a nice eddy just as the sun peaked out from above a large cloud bank. Other than being exhausted, the day was off to a pleasant start.

       Winter fishing, especially on non-tailwaters, is tricky. Weather conditions are adverse. Rivers are often high, cold, and murky. The trout are lethargic and reluctant to eat. This being the Housatonic, wind is also a major factor. However, February 11th was gorgeous. There was little to no accumulation, the water was low and crystal clear, the air temperature was comfortably above freezing, and there was no wind. Apparently, we had made a good decision. We only hoped the fish would be as accommodating.
They were. Unfortunately, I was a mess. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep, the exhaustion after an abnormally strenuous week of work or the buzz from the A. Fuente cigar clenched between my teeth, but I could not hook a fish to save my life. This was not because there were fish, my drift was off, or my fly selection was bad. I was just late, very late, on the hundreds, if not thousands, of takes. Granted the takes were subtle, even the best angler would miss a few. I, however, could not even come close. I think Adam, despite his assurances otherwise, was ready to make me walk the plank.

    Fortunately, amateur hour is just that. After an hour of tangled lines and missed strikes, I managed to hook a nice trout with the help of Adam yelling “SET!” at the correct moment. Several minutes later, we netted a nice fat rainbow. Not surprisingly, Adam set us up in the sweet spot. Just minutes from the put-in, I was hooking trout on size 16 droppers with 6x tippet in February. Despite hooking at least 13 more fish, we only managed to land 3 more nice rainbows in the eddy. The fish were fighting hard and shaking free more times than not.

     Fishing off of a boat, whether with a guide, a friend, or, in this case, the combination of both, is very different from wade fishing. There are the obvious advantages of access to areas that are impossible to access wading or from bank and the ability to cover a much greater body of water than one can on foot. However, the often overlooked and most important distinction (at least in my opinion), is the aspect of teamwork needed to successfully fish from a boat. Drift management is not the sole task of the angler; it is a balance from both the angler and the guide/oarsman. As such an excellent angler is nothing without a strong oarsman and a superb oarsman cannot insure that an angler will catch fish. Luckily, Adam is a great oarsman and despite my mediocre skills, we continued to catch fish as we circled up and down the eddy.

      After several more hours and lunch on the banks of the Elms, we decided to move further downstream and try our luck on streamers. Apparently, our luck was running out. We justified our dwindling success by blaming the afternoon Housatonic wind, the loss of the sun behind more clouds, the falling temperature, etc. It was OK; we had successfully hooked up on well over ten fish and landed four larger ‘bows in February. It was at Garbage Hole that we saw our first angler of the day. “How’s the fishing? Not great, you? We hooked around 14 and landed 4….” He did not say liars, but it was clear that is what he was thinking.

    A little further downstream, Adam dropped the anchor in another deep and promising spot. At this point conversation was taking precedence over fishing. The day was waning and we were not far from Cellar Hole, the take-out. Lazily, I let my nymph rig swing behind the boat into the shallows. SLAM! A nice ‘bow took the emerging pink San Juan worm. The day ended several minutes later. We had managed to land one last fish, a beautiful Rainbow hen. All in, we had managed to hook 15 fish (by our best estimates) and landed 5.

     Back to my uncle. Last Saturday is my rebuttal to him and to all exclusive dry fly fishermen. If one only presents to the rise, one misses opportunities, like this one, to bunk the myths around winter fishing away from a tailwater. To quote from the bible of the dry fly exclusivist: Dry-Fly Fishing in Theory and Practice, by Frederic Michael Halford.

There is far too much presumption of superior scientific knowledge and skill on the part of the modern school of dry-fly fishermen, and I should be the last to wish to write a line tending to encourage this erroneous assumption of superiority, or to depreciate in any way the patience and perseverance, coupled with the intuitive perception of the habits of the fish, requisite for a really first-rate performer with the wet fly. The late Francis Francis said that “the judicious and perfect application of dry, wet, and mid-water fly-fishing stamps the finished fly-fisher with the hallmark of efficiency.” This sentiment is to my mind pre-eminently characteristic of its author, and worthy of adoption by his admirers in later times.

Anyone up for fishing the Housy this weekend?



  1. Nice catch! Hope I'll be able to catch salmons like that. Thanks for sharing this post.

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