Friday, July 1, 2011

Friday Angler Interview: Shawn Good

Shawn on his bass boat nailing LMB!
This week's interview is with Vermont Fish and Wildlife fisheries biologist Shawn Good. I met Shawn because of the work he was doing with muskellunge in the state. We talked many times on the phone before actually getting out on the water together. I have to say he has been a wealth of information and a real awesome guy to spend time fishing with. And it never hurts to fish with another Canadian (yes, I am a Canadian- Happy Canada Day by the way eh!). Shawn definitely fishes far more with conventional gear than with fly tackle, but I am slowly trying to convert him... We will see how that goes!
How did you get into fly fishing?

I first started fly fishing when I was a graduate student at Université Laval doing my Masters degree in Fisheries.  I studied sea-run Atlantic salmon in the Ste-Marguerite River in Quebec, which is in the Saguenay-Lac St. Jean Region of the province.  The University’s research field station was right on the banks of the river, on some land donated by ALCAN, a major aluminum mining and smelting company, who owned a corporate fly fishing retreat on the Ste-Marguerite.   I got friendly with one of the guides over the couple summers I spent at the research station, and he taught me how to fly fish.  My first fish ever on a fly rod was a 25-lb sea run Atlantic salmon.  Quite the introduction to fly fishing.

I know you haven’t spent much time tossing flies so what kind of fly fishing experiences have you had?

Shawn and Kevin Kelsey with 12 lb brownie!
Well, after grad school, I kind of got away from fly fishing for a while when I moved to Vermont to take the job I have now as a fisheries biologist.   After I was here a few years, a co-worker and  good friend (Kevin Kelsey, manager of the Grand Isle hatchery) invited me on a February steelhead trip out to the Salmon River in NY.  He fishes exclusively in the fly zones for big steelhead.  I was hooked after that first trip, and have made the trip with him pretty much every year since then.  My best so far was a 14-lb bright chrome steelie, fresh out of the lake.  Took me downriver quite a ways before finally landing her with Kevin’s help.  I also got a 12-lb brown on the fly on one of those trips!  Of course, I have to mention the beating you and I laid down on the bowfin last summer with the fly rods!  I’d love to do more fly fishing than I do now, that’s for sure.

Is there one experience that stands out from the others?

Well, in addition to Atlantic salmon on the Ste-Marguerite, I caught a lot of brook trout in those summers as well.  But these weren’t your typical Green Mountain brookies.  These were also sea-run fish.  A lot of anglers don’t realize this, but brook trout that live in rivers with access to the ocean behave like salmon.  They hatch, live in the river for 1 or 2 years, then go out to sea to take advantage of the abundant food resources.  And let me tell you, when they come back to the river after 1 or 2 years at sea, they’re running 7, 8, 9 pounds or bigger.  In the river, they inhabit the deepest, clearest pools, and lay on the bottom in giant schools.  The fly fishing guide I became friends with, André, would tie these very crude flies that didn’t look like anything – just a 1-inch piece of thick orange foam, which he wrapped on the shank of a size 10 or 12 hook.  That’s it.  The foam made the “bug” sit high on the surface, and the technique was to make a long quartering cast upstream to the head of the pool, then strip line as fast as you could while the current pushed the fly down river over the pool.  The fly would be darting, and throwing a wake if you stripped it right, as it swung across the pool, with 50 or 60 brook trout lurking on the bottom.  These brookies were as mean as they were big.  They wouldn’t sip that fly down from underneath.  They’d come out of the water 2 feet away from the fly, and come down on it from above.  It was the most amazing thing you’d ever see.  Not for the faint of heart.  My best this way was pushing 8-lbs.

Bass are obviously a passion for you. How does Vermont stack up to other states in terms of bass productivity?

Nice Champlain bucketmouth Shawn!
Vermont has some of the best fishing in the country.  There’s no doubt about that.  I’ve seen articles in fishing magazines like Bassmaster and In-Fisherman in recent years poll professional bass anglers and rank lakes around the country.  Lake Champlain, in every article, has ranked in the Top 5 for bass fishing destinations around the country.  We obviously don’t have the year-round growing season that some of the southern U.S. lakes and reservoirs have, and so Vermont waters can’t produce many bass in the 9, 10, 12 pound range like they do down south.  But for the sheer numbers of 3, 4 and 5 pound largemouth and smallmouth, there’s not a lot of places that can rival what we have.  I do a lot of bass surveys as part of my job, and Vermont Public Television’s Outdoor Journal came out with me last year to film a survey night for their show.  You can see the show online here: - just drag the scroll bar to the 18:32 mark for the bass segment.

What is it about bass that gets you fired up?

Bass were the first real “gamefish” I learned to catch as a kid.  Aside from dunking little redworms for chubs in the creek that ran through the pasture, I grew up catching largemouth bass with my grandfather in ponds on the farm, and then graduated to larger lakes, including Lake Erie, for big smallmouth.  It’s just what I know the best.  What I like about bass is that they are so available to anglers of all skill levels – and yet they are aggressive, grow large, and fight hard.  They are the perfect species for kids to get a taste of what fishing for gamefish is like.  You can go as simple or as technical as you want or as your skill level allows when bass fishing.  Kids can catch them on a worm and bobber, drifting a live minnow, or casting a Mepps inline spinner – all of which are pretty easy things to do.  Or, as your skill grows, you can start throwing deep diving crankbaits, dragging a tube, drop-shotting, or flipping a pig-and-jig or a Texas-rigged worm.  What I like most about bass is they’re unpredictable.  To consistently catch the lunkers out there, you have to be well-rounded as an angler, and adaptable, because bass change where they are located within a body of water, and what they want to eat, on any given day.  Each day is a new challenge.  When you hit the water, you don’t know if the fish are holding shallow, or deep.  Are they in the thick vegetation, or lurking on the edge?  Are they orienting to sunken wood cover, or a firm, hard bottom?  Or are they out on some offshore structure?  Are they chasing schooling minnows?  Or ambushing bluegill in the weeds?  Or are they feeding on crayfish on the bottom? It’s a new puzzle that you have to unlock each and every day you go bass fishing, and to be consistently successful, you assess and learn the situation of the day, adapt as you go, and tailor your gear, lures, technique, and location to the fish.  Trout, on the other hand, are a little more predictable, I think.  I know one 6 or 7 pound brown trout that is under the very same 5-foot stretch of undercut bank in the little brook near my house, every time I go there.  She’s been there for at least 3 summers in a row now.  That, to me, can get old after a while.

Alright, big question- do you prefer largemouth or smallmouth and why?

Nice wedding ring!
My wedding ring has 3 custom engraved smallmouth nose to tail around it.  What do you think?!  Actually, it’s a hard decision.  I like the “hunt” that’s involved with largemouth.  I like going into the thick milfoil and chestnut beds, or flooded brush, flipping jigs into pockets and openings, waiting to feel, or “see” that thump when your line jumps and you set the hook with only 6 feet of line out – fish ON!  It’s more hand-to-hand combat than it is fishing.  But smallmouth on the other hand, fight so hard and leap so high.  I’d probably take a 3-lb smallie over a 5-lb largemouth, if push came to shove, but it’s just by a hair.  They are both so much fun to catch!

Have you had a chance to try out one of the new “Bass” fly rods on the market? Do any of the tournament trail anglers you know use one?

I only own one fly rod right now – my Orvis Clearwater 8-wt I bought for steelheading.  I haven’t had a chance to use any of the species-specific gear in the fly rod world.  Maybe some day!

You and I met because you took over the Esocid program in Vermont and I had some information for you about muskies in Vermont. Since that point a lot has happened with muskies. Where did things stand when you started?

When I was first assigned the task of Chairing a new state committee for muskellunge management, nothing had really occurred with this species since the mid 1980’s.  Not a lot was known about where muskie occurred in the state, or how many there were.  I conducted some netting surveys in the Missisquoi River above the Swanton Dam – the location of the last reproducing population of muskie in Vermont.   We also did some surveys in Otter Creek between Vergennes and Weybridge.  This was the site of some muskellunge fry stocking that was done in the early 1980’s.  We didn’t find any muskie in the Missisquoi River above the Swanton Dam, but anglers had reported catching a couple in the lower river at lake level, and some in Missisquoi Bay itself.  One of those fish was the current state record caught by Chris Beebe in 2005 – the same year I started on the muskie project.  That fish was 52.25-inchs and weighed 38.2 pounds!  Over the next couple years, I managed to collect tissue samples from a small number of muskie from the Missisquoi area (all below the dam) and a few from lower Otter Creek as well.  Genetic analysis of the samples indicated that the Missisquoi fish were a match to Chautauqua Lake (western NY) muskellunge, and the Otter Creek fish were a match to Pymatuning Reservoir (western PA) muskellunge.  This was no surprise – our Department got the muskie fry that were stocked into Otter Creek in the 80’s from the Pennsylvania Fish & Game Commission, and the New York Dept. Environmental Conservation has had a long running muskie stocking program on the NY side of Champlain.  They use muskie from their Chautauqua hatchery for that stocking program.  Clearly, some of those muskie leave the river and roam the lake, and some end up in the Inland Sea and Missisquoi areas of the lake.

How are things shaping up now?

Things are going pretty well.  My surveys lead to the conclusion that there aren’t any “native” muskellunge left in Vermont, or if there are, they are in such low numbers that there isn’t a viable population to utilize for a restoration program.  This basically left the door open for us to consider other genetic strains of muskellunge to use in a Champlain stocking program.  Knowing that the Chautauqua muskie being stocked by NYDEC into the Champlain basin were growing, thriving, and spreading into Lake Champlain, including areas on the Vermont side (the record Beebe muskie was a Chautauqua-strain fish), we decided that stocking Chautauqua strain muskie ourselves could lead to the development of a muskellunge population on this side of the lake, without adding (genetically) something that wasn’t already here.  So , in 2008, we made arrangements with NYDEC to get surplus muskie fingerlings from their Chautauqua Hatchery to conduct our own stocking.  NY graciously provides these fish to us at no cost.  That’s the upside.  The downside is that the numbers of available muskie can change year to year, based on how successful NY’s egg take is in the spring from their broodstock lakes, and how the survival is in the hatchery from egg hatch through to the summer fingerling stage.  In 2008, we were given 250 six-inch muskellunge fingerlings, which we stocked in the lower Missisquoi River.  In 2009, we received 10,000 fingerlings, which were stocked in the lower river, and multiple locations in Missisquoi Bay.  Last year, NY had some unexpected losses in the hatchery, and no fish were available at all.  Things look good for this year, but I won’t know the real numbers until August or so.

What does the future of muskellunge look like in Vermont?

We’re definitely on the right track.  We’re focusing our efforts on Lake Champlain, of course, since that’s the only water in the state that had a native population of muskie.  My goal is to restore a self-sustaining population of muskellunge in Lake Champlain that will provide recreational angling opportunities.  There are thousands of anglers in Vermont that have never had the opportunity to experience the thrill of catching a muskie – one of the true apex predators of Vermont.  I hope some day anglers will be able to target muskie in Lake Champlain, and have the real possibility of catching one.
Vermont Public Televisions’ Outdoor Journal show spent some time out in the field with me doing some muskie surveys and filming the stocking activities in 2008.  You can see their show online here:

Lake Champlain is an incredibly productive body of water. How is it to work in such an amazing office environment?

It’s pretty amazing.  I work on lakes, ponds, rivers and streams throughout Vermont, but there’s always something special about being on Champlain.  It’s a huge lake with such a diversity of fish species and habitat.  The sheer abundance and biomass of fish in Lake Champlain is mind-boggling.  I don’t think anyone, including me, can really comprehend how productive the lake is, and how many fish really are swimming around out there.  For the last three springs, I’ve been conducting netting surveys right after ice-out, when the lake temp. is still in the high 30’s to low 40’s, for northern pike.  I set the nets near marshes where they spawn, but the nets don’t just catch pike – it catches all fish species of all sizes, that are swimming in the area.  It’s an eye-opener, to haul in one of those nets after just 24-hours being in the water, and seeing over 3,000 fish in that one net.  Actually, people who are interested in this netting program can see a video from Vermont Public Television’s Outdoor Journal show here:  Once the video starts, you can drag the scroll bar to the 15:26 mark.

Can you tell a couple of interesting experiences you have had on Champlain while working?
Shawn with a fly caught Ontario steelie

I’ve had so many, it’s hard to know where to start.  A few years ago while out shocking lake trout on spawning reefs for eggs for our hatchery, the northern lights were out in full force.  They was really cool to be out there on that cold, clear night, seeing those.  I also get to see a lot of fish that few other people, like muskie!  Last year, during some bass surveys in July, we collected over 200 American eels!  These are really cool fish that are making a big comeback in Lake Champlain, due to the stocking efforts the Province of Quebec is doing in the Richelieu River.  Eels have such an amazing life history.  They are the opposite of sea-run salmon.  While salmon are born in freshwater, and return to the ocean to grow and mature, eels are born in the ocean, and migrate to freshwater to mature.  The eels that are in Champlain are young “yellow” eels.  They live and grow in Champlain, feeding until they are ready to become adults and spawn.  Once ready to spawn, they migrate out of Champlain via the Richelieu River, traveling about 80 miles to the St. Lawrence River.  They then migrate 800 miles down the St. Lawrence to the Atlantic Ocean.  From there, they must travel to the Sargasso Sea east of the Bahamas, almost 1,500 miles away.  Every eel in every water in North America must migrate to that one location in the Sargasso Sea to spawn.  Once eel eggs hatch, the larval eels then take a year or more migrating back to freshwater lakes from Florida to Canada, including up the St. Lawrence River and into the Great Lakes, and Lake Champlain, where they feed and grow for 4 to 7 years, before heading back to the Sargasso to spawn themselves.

What was the inspiration for the new Vermont Master Angler Program?

A spectacular Northern from Champlain in 2009
I’ve had it in the back of my mind for a number of years that we needed a new angler recognition and incentive program that would generate some excitement in anglers, and get people out fishing more.  My goals were to develop a program that recognized trophy fish catches, encouraged anglers and families to fish more often, promoted learning and development, and profiled alternative fish species and angling opportunities.  You’re obviously outside the “norm”, but a lot of anglers really get stuck in a rut with respect to what they fish for.  There may be one or two fish species that they fish for, and that’s it.  Some people consider themselves “trout fishermen”, or “bass fishermen”, and they pretty much stick to that.  What I wanted out of this program was something that would demonstrate what amazing opportunities we have throughout Vermont to catch not just the traditional sport or gamefish, but a whole host of “non-traditional” fish species – things like carp, gar, bowfin, fallfish, the list goes on and on.  Together with Jud Kratzer, another Dept. fisheries biologist, we developed a list of 33 species of fish that are abundant in Vermont waters and grow to trophy size.  In order for someone to catch a fish species on that list that they’re not familiar with, they have to learn about the type of habitat that species is found in, where they live, what they feed on, and how to catch them.  That’s where the whole learning and development part comes in.  Developing new skills sets and challenging yourself as an angler to learn something new keeps the interest and excitement levels up – gives you something new to try and shoot for.  And if you’re successful, you get recognition in the form of a Trophy Fish certificate from the Department.  To push anglers outside their comfort zone, we created the Master Angler lapel pin.  Anglers who catch 5 different species of trophy size in the same year get a really nice pin.  I think it’s a great program, and seems to be really catching on.

How successful has the program been?

It’s been really great.  Last year, we had 200 trophy fish entries from 91 anglers, and the program only ran from mid-June through December.  8 of the 91 anglers (2 of them were kids) got the Master Angler lapel pin.  This year, at the midway point of the year, we’re already at 188 entries from 86 individual anglers, and 8 of them have achieved Master Angler recognition with 5 or more species caught this year.  What’s great is that this year we’re seeing different names, so new people are participating.

Are there any plans in the works to expand the program in any manner?

Not right now.  We want to let it run a few years and see how things go.   

Back to some fishing… What haven’t you caught on a fly that you would like to?

One of my goals is to one day catch a 20-lb plus northern pike on the fly.  And a tarpon.  I want to catch a tarpon – catching it on a fly rod would be a bonus! 

Any big trips planned for this summer?
The first musky entered in the Master Angler program! Gorgeous fish!

I was very close to booking a fly-in pike trip to northern Ontario in the Hudson Bay region for early June but it fell through.  40-inch pike up there are considered the small ones!  Maybe another year, if I can pull it off.  This summer, I just plan on fishing close to home, and chasing some Master Angler fish to qualify for my 2011 pin.  I’ve got two species so far, both species that I didn’t enter last year - a rock bass and a muskie!  First muskie entered into the program, by the way!

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