|Casting flies for pike early on (and rockin' some serious hair)|
How did you get into fly fishing?
Well, I asked for a fly rod set up for graduation at college (the first time I graduated) back in December 1993. I had been a spin angler for a number of years and I wanted to try something different. I remember going out and trying to learn to cast. Total disaster. But I could tell that this was something I wanted to do. I got help from a buddy, Justin Rogers, later that winter so I could cast half way decently. I devoted a lot of time over the next few years to learning how to cast and catching fish.
What was the first fish you caught?
I remember it well... I was fishing with my brother Pete on the Saranac River in Plattsburgh in May 1994. I had started tying my own flies and I had this stonefly pattern I had come up with- a pretty cool pattern that I should tie more of actually. I was drifting it along the edge of the river when WHAM! I had a fish on. It ended up being a big male smallmouth. It was my first fish on a fly ever and on a fly I had tied. Once that happened, it was all over.
So it sounds like you started tying flies pretty quickly then...
Absolutely! Within a month of getting the fly rod I was totally obsessed. I had to learn how to tie flies. I went to the brand new Walmart in P-burgh (1993, first Walmart I ever went into) and they had this crappy little kit with a few tools and a bunch of materials. I got a book or two from the library and started to learn how to tie. I began to frequent the local fly shop- the Blue Goose or something like that. I got materials here and there. I ended up with a copy of the Orvis Fly Tying guide. That is the small book with the plastic binder so you can leave it open on your desk.
I remember having one hell of a hard time with dubbing. I think that took me the longest to figure out. I wish I had some of those first flies. They were so awful.....
What were you targeting those first years?
Well, at first I didn't have a car so I was stuck fishing for whatever I could get to close by. I got waders from Hook & Hackle Company pretty quickly but of course I didn't spring for real wading boots. I fished in old Vietnam style jungle boots for a few years. I fished trout, bass and panfish for a few years. In the fall of 1993 I decided to try for salmon on the Saranac and I lucked out. My first fish was HUGE. I can still remember that fish- a big hen. It was about 10 pounds and still chrome from coming out of the lake. A truly amazing catch considering that I didn't really know what I was doing. I lucked out.
Overall though, it was mostly trout, panfish and bass. I learned a lot, caught a lot of fish, and had a lot of fun.
When did the bigger fish come into the picture?
That didn't take too long. I got a Cortland 7/8 weight rod in 1995 and started tossing big streamers for bass and pike. I was using commercially made wire leaders then.... they work, but not that well for tossing flies. I ended up catching more than a few pike on that rod. That started the obsession.
Did you have a boat in those early days?
Nope. My first watercraft was a float tube. I used to spend a lot of time in that thing. Before I had a car I would carry it through downtown Plattsburgh to the lake and kick it around near the mouth of the Saranac. I caught pike down there frequently and a few bass.
I also remember getting scared to death by carp. I was out there float tubing. I was (and still am) nervous in a float tube. Those things are not for me! I hate them actually. Anyway, I was sitting there getting ready to fish and something big hits the tube. I flipped out, yelled and started kicking for my life. These worm drowners on the bank got a good laugh out of that. It was just one of the big carp out there bumping into me.
Things changed once you got a car though.....
Oh yea.... my first car! The Acadian! My grandmother gave me her old car- a Pontiac Acadian- the Canadian version of a Chevette. Fun little car. No power, had some issues, but it got me to the fish! I started fishing all over- went to the Ausable, fished all over the Saranac drainage, high mountain streams in the Adirondacks, all sorts of places on Lake Champlain. It was great. I was still limited to fishing most places by foot though.
I did take the float tube around. I will never forget when Justin and I decided we wanted to fish Butternut Pond for pike. Butternut is south of Plattsburgh near the town of Peru. It had a reputation for big fish but since it was the town of Peru's water supply it didn't have a dock or easy access. What you had to do was to park on the side of Route 9 then climb a fence, run across Interstate 87, climb another fence and you were on the water. Imagine doing that with a fly rod and a float tube. Classic right? It fished great though... lots of pike. I remember a big slab of a crappy too. It did have some big fish in it. Funny to think that New York state had tried to stock it with rainbows for 5 or 6 years in the 1970's.... they never took. Gee, I wonder why....
Any other good float tube stories?
Sure thing.... I used to fish the lake a fair amount and I would get some nice pike doing that. So much fun getting pike in the tube. I always hated having my feet dangling in the water though. They do let you get close and stealthy to your target species but I have to admit that I have this completely irrational fear of crocodiles. Yea, I know, there aren't any in Lake Champlain. That is why it is called an irrational fear. I was going to SUNY Plattsburgh again to get a degree in Environmental Science at that point too, specializing in limnology (the study of freshwater ecology). I definitely knew that there was nothing that could get me. I just hate not being able to see what is underneath me when I am in the water. I freaked myself out a lot.
One time I remember fishing close to a boat ramp in the tube. This guy started to launch his Sea-doo. There is a no wake zone from boat ramps to about 300 yards into the lake. This no brain guns his wavemaker right off the bat, going from zero to up on plane in a matter of 2 seconds. I got hit with that wave. Hit hard too. It almost flipped me over. If you have ever been in a float tube you know that you are kind of strapped in to it. If I went over I would have drowned. Reason #2 for hating tubes. Reason# 1,293,784 for hating personal water craft (worthless things, absolutely worthless in my book).
I remember going to fish in Wilmington, NY with Justin again in that tube. I tried to walk out in some mud to fish an impoundment on the Ausable. Ever tried to walk in a float tube with fins on while carrying a rod? Doesn't work well. I ended up face down in the mud. Reason #3 that I hate float tubes now.
What ever happened to that tube?
Well, funny story that.... I decided to get out fishing one day in Plattsburgh. This was in 1998. I went to the lake, and after fishing that I drove up to the Saranac to hit some smallies. Great day fishing the smallies if I remember correctly. As I walked back to my 'vette, I saw this huge blue thing in the back of it. I thought to myself "I didn't have anything blue back there..."
Oh yes Drew, you did.... the outer nylon of the float tube was brown and tan but the inner bladders were blue. I left my float tube sitting in the back of a hatchback car on a hot, sunny day. The air expanded and it ripped through the outer nylon of the tube. That thing was the size of a Homer Simpson dream doughnut by the time I found it. I got a good laugh. I held onto that float tube cover for many years though, thinking I would fix it. I finally threw it out a few years ago. Good riddance.
Salmon fishing was a huge part of your second stint at college, wasn't it?
|Saranac salmon... a pretty typical fish...|
Oh yeah... the glory years of salmon fishing on the Saranac. The sea lamprey control program had gone through an introductory period and its effectiveness was proving itself. Everyone was dumping tons of salmon into the lake and its tributaries as well. Landlocked salmon were everywhere.
I was able to head down to the river after class in the fall and chase gorgeous fish. It was unreal. I taught myself how to make sink tips out of pieces of shooting head and I would use those to get my flies down to where the salmon were hanging out. I got the system down well. There were a lot of returning fish that were really interested in hitting my flies too! Just amazing fishing.
I had this really simple fly I called the Salmon Slayer. All it amounted to was a piece of rabbit strip lashed on to a salmon hook with chenille for the body. I tied it in white and yellow. It was a killer! Especially the white one. Between that fly, Mickey Finns and (especially) Marabou Black Ghosts, I found what I needed to get the spawning run fish to take. It was unreal.
What about winter fishing the Saranac?
I figured out that there were salmon and browns in the river after the spawn. They would stay there all winter to feed. Folks call these fish black salmon. They aren't the nice, pretty fish you see in the spawn. These are fish that are dark and want to eat. They do take nymphs but in early and mid winter I liked to use streamers. Really sparse streamers at that.
I would rig up my rod with a sink tip and some fluorocarbon (I got into that stuff quickly thanks to H&H) and swing streamers. I would nail some gorgeous fish from some of the pools I knew well, in particular the pool at the head of Webb Island. That pool is totally different now though. Used to be a nice pocket right at the head of it that would hold big browns and salmon. When Kurt Budliger and I fished it this past winter it wasn't what it once was.
Warm spells during the winter were awesome. A little bit of warming (upper 30's to low 40's) would get the fish going. I remember stripping back streamers through Allen Street Pool and getting gorgeous salmon mid winter. Nymphing produced a lot too. The one fish I never caught was a steelhead though. They just didn't show up for me. I did get one in the spring time near the mouth of the river, but never upstream where lots of guys told me they would get them. I know they are there. In 2000 someone got a 13 lb steelie down near the Broad Street bridge. One hell of a steelhead for Champlain.
You keep talking about Hook and Hackle Company... did you work for them or something?
As a matter of fact, I did. I worked for them in the spring of 1998 just after I graduated from SUNY Plattsburgh with a degree in Environmental Science. It was an awesome experience. I worked with all sorts of materials and got to see a lot of different equipment. The owners were awesome to me and I got some great deals on goodies. I loved that place. It has since sold to some equally great folks who moved it down to Pennsylvania.
More of my fishing past coming at some later point (when I forget to get my act in gear again...)