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This year was one for my personal recordbooks. I had many things happen that I had planned on, such as the successful one year anniversary of my blog. I had things happen that I had hoped for, such as a succession of calm, flat days offshore that were ripe for chasing big pelagic fish. And then of course I had the things that I never dreamt of, such as my stunner of a lake trout experience. Grab your preferred adult beverage, and let's think back... waaaay back...

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Early in 2013, I had the chance to go try and find some redfish and/or speckled trout with a good buddy of mine. We didn’t expect much, knowing that cold waters would have the fish lethargic and deep water blind casting would be the name of the game. Boring, yes, but better than not trying at all. So we chunked fuzz in the deepwater pockets and drifted promising edges, but we might as well have stayed home it seemed. Then, on impulse, we scouted some new water over the figurative and literal hill, and hit red-gold. Boom, said the tailing redfish. ...continue reading "The Salt396 Guide to 2013"

There was a storm brewing... had been all day. Night before, we had stopped and spent the night in a motel rather than risk running through what we knew could be a twister-maker of a thunderstorm. You gotta know when to push your luck. Listened on the radio as a tornado was spotted dropping between towns, winding along, and then disappearing back in the clouds. No fuss, no muss - typical plains springtime. Weather cleared and we arrived safely the next morning.

Today was a different story. I watched from orbit as wave upon gnarly wave of thunderstorms marched northeastward, just missing us. I studied the radar, hoping it would ...continue reading "Carpy Weather"

2

It was too damn cold for anyone to be out here. Only crazy people went fishing on a day like this.

He was talking to himself on the drive to the water, one cold day in January with the wind blowing and the distinct possibility ice freezing in his guides. Sounds like the beginning of a story from Up North, or at least Out West… but no, this was Down South, deep in central Texas. Most people down here don’t venture very far from the central heating when it gets much below 40… when it does get that cold. But here it was, 28 degrees, and he was getting out of his vehicle at streamside, stringing up a 4wt. He had just come off a long hunting season of guiding hunters and doing a little hunting himself, and he was craving a pull on his line and some fish-slimed hands.

Most of the spots close by weren’t going to fish well, but there was a place he knew of where a couple springs welled up from the bottom of the riverbed, and fish would crowd into the warmer water those provided.

Taking a slow, deep breath, he blew a steady stream of ‘smoke’, watching it blast outwards and then dissipate in the almost non-existent breeze. It was one of those cold, quiet days where sound seems amplified… sharper, somehow.  He could hear the burble of water pushing past the concrete bridge pilings, and the sudden splashing and annoyed duck speech of mallards taking off. Listening for the quacking echo that never came. Who taught ducks to quack without echoing anyway…

Striding crunchily down the limestone graveled road, he noticed how drab everything seemed. One could see right through thickets that during the summer had been an impenetrable snarl of leaves – reminded him of the time he worked back through those thickets on a deer trail and had come upon a couple sunbathing nude. Whoops. He smiled in remembrance. Their faces had been a dramatic shade of red, whether from too much sun or too much fun he couldn’t say…

But now the branches were as naked as the sunbathers, the leaves a motley assortment of patchwork colors strewn across the ground in an ill-sewn quilt. As he neared the bridge, a great blue heron took fight with that awkward, noisy way they have that shatters the stillness. The bird glided to the next sandbar down and glowered back at the interloper disturbing the bird’s peaceful day.

Don’t worry old man, the fisherman thought. Soon enough you’ll have your river to yourself again. Cursory inspection of the cold, clear flow revealed not a flicker of fin, so the fisherman traipsed off the bridge and waded gently into the ankle deep water at the edge of the current. As he gradually meandered downstream, he had time to realize that his nose was really starting to complain about how cold it was outside and was demonstrating disapproval by creating more mucous than any one nose should ever need. Continued negotiations with the back of his wool glove ensued, and the fisherman wandered on.

The gloves reminded him of a time on a steelhead river where he had swung a fly across the current time after time after time, so many times, and then suddenly the brilliant flash of a take and the feel of lightning on the line… it had been cold then, too.

The gloves remembered.

Rounding the bend the fisherman came upon the entrance to the small backwater that held the springs.  Approaching slowly and quietly, he stooped low to avoid spooking fish.

Keeping a scraggly young bush between him and the green-clear water, he got his first glimpse – a carp, swimming slow patrol circuits along the opposite edge of the backwater.

The fisherman kept still and watched, knowing from hard-won experience that to barge in after the first fish one sees is a great way to catch no fish.

A sunfish drifted up into view, dimpling the surface like it was June. Catfish prowled the depths near an old, broken down branch resting on the bottom amongst a carpet of dead leaves.

Sniffling a bit, he scrubbed at his nose again and flexed fingers going stiff with cold. Resting on his knees behind the young shrub, the fisherman dug in his pocket to retrieve the small fly box nestled there. He glanced up at the dreary sky, gauging ambient light, and eyed the carp that was still making slow circuits. Probably not enough light to cast a line shadow, but best be careful.  Clicking open the simple box revealed a small bedraggled group of flies; he hadn’t tied in a couple months, but he had faith that a fish catcher was in the lineup.

Watching the carp again, he considered his options. Needed to sink about a foot pulling an 8lb leader, get the fish’s attention but not too much, cold water, overcast day…

His bare fingertips rested lightly on a beadhead zugbug. Weight, glimmer, silhouette, movement… yes.

The gloves slipped off his hands quickly, and the zug went on the leader with a dab of saliva and deft twists made difficult by numb fingers.

Grey wool against the tan and white river cobble of the gravel bar. A cardinal’s call from across the river. Stinging cold nipping at nose and ears. Great to be alive.

Scrunching the gloves back on awkwardly, he flexed his hands again and readied himself. Deep breath, gout of steam. Making sure the fish couldn’t see him, he flicked the newly-knotted fly into the main current of the river where it ran a couple feet to his right. Water haul here, he thought to himself. The line and leader floated lightly, making a tiny v-wake behind the skating fly. Making sure he had a clear casting lane, the angler waited, stoic. Downstream, the heron waited. Brothers of purpose.

The carp circled, meandering, and paused to nose among some leaves.

Now. The flyline accelerated in a smooth curl, arcing up over the rodtip, straightening and dropping to deliver the fly with a tiny plop between the lethargic fish and the bank. Sinking, so slowly... but now the fish raises in the water column and spots the interesting speck dropping to the leaves in front of its face. The fisherman watches the fish, the fish watches the fly.

Intensity.

The angler watched the fly drift to a stop on a rusty orange leaf. A tiny twitch of the line, and the fly breathed and quivered. The fish didn’t move… then almost imperceptibly, it leaned forward. The fisherman subconsciously leaned as well, although he was unaware he did so.

A subtle gill flare was the only clue, but the arm raised quickly and confidently, and the thrill of a tight line thrummed in the angler’s veins. The fight was almost inconsequential, but satisfying. The carp proved to be 4 or 5 pounds when brought near and the angler didn’t hesitate to strip his gloves and wet his hands in the cold water so he could raise and admire the golden-scaled visitor from a far-off land.

Back in the water, the fish pulled away into the depths with slow, steady cadence. The fisherman stood, shaking water and slime from his numb fingers, and slipped the gloves back on. He looked downstream, through the skeletons of winter-weary trees, and decided that was good enough. With another deep breath and gout of steam, he turned, and began to crunch back to the bridge.

His need for a bite had been quieted, and besides, it was too damn cold for anyone to be out here anyway. Only crazy people went fishing on a day like this.

One of my favorite parts of fly fishing or fishing in general is that it's something anyone can do. As a certified casting instructor, I run into many people who balance precipitously on the fence, not knowing whether to try fly fishing or if they'll just be made to look the fool. To any novices in the audience, I have a bit of a secret - we were all there once. Paraphrasing one of my favorite quotes on the subject, we all fall in the river sometimes. We all catch trees on our backcast occasionally, and we all cuss ourselves from time to time, but the challenge makes the victory that much sweeter. Helping someone gain the skills necessary to be a successful fly fisher is one of life's greatest joys to me. So, when I convinced my sisters to go fishing with me, it was a great day!

First up was my middle sister, home from college and eager to get out of the house for a bit. We invited a couple other people to join us and received incredulous looks. Nonbelievers. I just looked at my sister and shrugged. Hey, more for us.

I told the story of the past couple days and she was looking forward to getting to see some of these fish up close and personal. It didn't take long. She had brought a spinning rod as backup but I encouraged her to try out the fly rod - in the close confines of the river a roll cast was all that was needed and she quickly figured it out. Was it the most beautiful thing in the world? No, but it was what I call a fishing cast. As long as the bug gets in front of the fish and the fish eats it, it doesn't really matter to me how it gets there. And she got it there. After a couple missed rises from lack of experience in knowing what to look for I could see that she was getting serious. I spotted a small pod of perhaps 5 or 6 carp hanging in the shade near the bank, and we snuck in within range.The fish were moving in and out of the small patches of light filtering through the canopy and all I could pick out were golden glimmers of scale and orange tails. I gently coached her on where she needed to put the fly to get a good drift and she did a great job. A solid head rolling rise and she came tight to her first carp on the fly! There was a moment of chaos as she and the fish tried to figure out what was going on and how to best deal with this new situation, but soon the fish was to hand. She was all smiles as we watched it swim away.

My sister's first fly-caught carp.

 

Heading further on, I saw the tell-tale wake of a carp making headway against the current. We quickly and quietly made our way closer, locked on target like bird dogs on a covey.

 

 

 

 

 

Target acquired.

Closer and closer we got, and once in range she made a couple great casts but the carp was head down and oblivious to anything else. Scanning the water while she focused on the first fish, I saw another pod working just upstream and directed our attention to them. Two casts later she was fast to another river carp, trying to turn it's head with side pressure. The fish wrapped around an underwater obstruction and popped the tippet sending the suddenly fly-less leader flying back directly in my face. Nothing like a little excitement to spice up the day eh?

She went on to land 4 carp to my 5 and we had a great time before it started getting hot and it was time to go. One of the most important things to know about taking a new person along fishing or any other activity is when to call it quits. If you leave the water with them wanting more then you are likely to have a fishing buddy in the future!

 

Next up was my youngest sister. After hearing the fish adventures of the day she was dying to get out on the water so after supper we headed down. After I showed her how to thread a mulberry onto a small circle hook and then gently flip it to the fish, she was quick to hook up on her first sight-cast golden bone.

Sweet carpy success

The next morning found me back on the road to Texas, to Corpus Christi via Dallas.

And on to the next spot.

3

Classic river bend with huge logjam.

My eyes strained behind my polarized lenses, trying to identify exactly which one of the cruising shadows was the one I was looking for. I could've sworn I had seen… there! A shadow that was slightly darker and more cigar-shaped than the others rose to the surface and sipped a mulberry delicately. Hidden from the sun behind my Buff, my lips curled back in a determined smile. This just got interesting.

Hello Mr. Grasser. I would like to make your acquaintance.

A biiiiig grasser, cruising. (Ctenopharyngodon idella)

 

Over the years I have caught a great many species of fish, first on conventional tackle and then, as I progressed in my evolution as a fisherman, on fly tackle. As many species as I have put on the life-list though there has been one that had eluded me to this point – the grass carp. I had cast to many and seen some true monsters of the kind but had never even had one mouth a fly.

The real Mckoi.

 

So when I thought I saw one as I studied the deeper pool I had crept up to, it was a surge of excitement and I immediately picked up a berry and tossed it into the general area where the slightly-different-than-a-carp shadow had been. And another. Common carp appeared quickly, swirling on top of the water and for a moment it appeared like a koi pond frenzy without the rainbow of colors.

 

 

 

 

On a hunch, I tossed a berry behind the main frenzy, and that's when my heart started pitter-pattering at the sight of the confident rise from a grass carp. That's a catchable fish, I said to myself. I checked connector knots over and ran my fingers down my tippet looking for any nicks that could ruin my day. All set and ready for launch. The fish was difficult to get to; he was in a slot sheltered from the current by a submerged tree. Most of the branches had been ripped from the trunk, but there was still a pesky branch with twigs sticking out of the water between the fish and I. Using a curve cast (a technique more at home on a trout stream, but useful in many situations), I threw a big upstream bend in my line to allow for a natural drift. Berries by nature find it difficult to swim, so imparting any motion at all to the fly would let the fish know something was up. I leaned forward slightly, watching line, fly and the spot where the fish had been. Again, the dark shadow rose up. Again, it deliberately moved to the berry. The white interior of the fishes mouth showed as it started the gill flare that would mean sweet success for me.

And then, it totally, utterly, absolutely refused and turned away.

Dear reader I am not ashamed to say that I stood there in shock for a moment. I felt a little betrayed, even. I have received refusals from a variety of fish (and uh, female humans), but never one like this. I retrieved the fly, inspecting it carefully. Ah, I thought. This fly has caught several common carp, perhaps it doesn't float high enough in the water column. Fresh fly selected (debating the berry-ness of each one to find the most realistic) and carefully tied on, I made another cast. The fish rose again, drifting backwards in the current studying the fly, and then sank from sight. At this point I maaay have started to mumble questionable things about the fish's mother. This wasn't friggin' blue ribbon trout stream fishing, ya know. Just eat the damn thing.

I rested the spot for ten minutes and then tried again, changing my angle of attack to high upstream so I could more effectively get around the raking twigs eager to snag my line and ruin my drift. I made my cast, dropping the berry from high up with a loud plop that I hoped would trigger the fish to eat without staring at the fly too much. Immediately two commons rose, but ahead of them came the grass carp. The competition was too much for the persnickety fish and he inhaled the fly and turned away.

I hit him with a strip and that fish went NUTS. I am not kidding you when I say he backflipped up out of the water, landed perfectly in the middle of the raking twigs that I had so carefully avoided, and thrashed like he was having an epileptic fit. This was too much for my poor tippet and the 8lb test parted, leaving me staring incredulously, again. Only ripples remained to tell the tale.

 

That... was... AWESOME!

 

I say this; Salud to you Mr. Grasser, wherever you are. I hope my fly causes you no undue harm and that the girl grass carp dig it. We shall meet again someday soon to match wits once again...

 

Until then, stay classy.

 

Goldeneye

2

Sunrise over the croplands.

Day Two. The sun is high, the birds gently sing, and the cicadas buzz. It was pretty much Day One. It was glorious. And I was back for more.

I seeee you...

I started moving along the rivercourse, searching for signs of active carp. In places they were moving through water so shallow that I could see their v-wake from over a hundred yards downstream.

I never get tired of the game - first, find the fish. Then, somehow, get close to the fish. Then, even less likely, fool the fish into thinking that the fly is actually worth eating. Don't miss the hookset, don't break it off, don't straighten the hook... And then, maybe, you'll have the opportunity to hold a living, gasping, wriggling representative from another world. A link to the element that we have explored the least of them all. I love this game. The previous day had ended when I had come upon a large logjam piled up in a hole that the river had carved deeply when the water raged. Carp became more and more numerous as I had moved along and I had ended up landing 8 or 9 and losing many more. You know those days when you know, you KNOW you're going to get into the fish well? Yeah. I love those days too.
Mmmuck.
Once, I heard a protracted commotion upstream out of sight. Coming around the corner I saw a carp that had miscalculated and had himself highcentered on lip of sandy muck. I chuckled to myself as the fish gave a great heave and finally slipped off the bar.
Later I arrived at that spot and studied the lattice of slide trails going across the shallow spine of the river. You could see the network of carp tracks heading from river right to river left; the banks had shin deep water hugging them whilst the middle of the river was leaning towards dry. The only way across was a gutsy charge across the skinny.
Carp being carp, they just wriggled through it.
And on to the next spot.
Sweet Release

Ah. The walk upstream. Treading softly past old bridge pilings and debris from flood years well within recent memory. Locals can remember a time when the roaring torrent crested just below the bridge I am now standing 40 feet underneath.These are reminders of the raw power that hides in the quiet burbling water tumbling downstream. Now though the slow, clear flow is confined to the deepest channels and holes.

Past the debris and well above the bridge I pause for a moment to remove my shoes. The soft rich silt layer of the riverbed oozes up between my toes in a delightful way, and the solid sandy layer just underneath provides traction. I like being barefoot in the water; for me, it's a more fulfilling connection to the environment that I am moving through. The heavy layer of organic sludge is what lends so much fertility to this watershed, and why the carp are so prevalent here.

I saw lots of fish in water this deep.

No sooner did I have my shoes off and safely stashed in a hollow log on the shore than I turned around to see a cruising pair of carp sweep down the current and turn off into a shadowy spot under a mulberry tree. Ah yes. Let the games begin.

Stepping into the sunlight I made my way across the softly squishing riverbed and angled to a point slightly behind and downstream of my quarry. I had learned the basics of how to stalk wary fish in low, clear water here on this very river, and it had served me well on everything from freshwater trout to bonefish. Now here I was back in the river, and I was immensely satisfied to apply all that I had learned since then. It was like showing an old teacher that you had taken their lessons to heart and gone on to make something of yourself. Staying low and wearing drab clothing, I was as stealthy as I could be. Once in position, I flicked a cast under the overhanging branches and let my 'berry' fall with a satisfying plop.

The pair of fish practically tripped over each other moving to the source of the sound; two rubbery mouths emerged from the water, groping for what they thought to be a delicious berry. A long second happened, me intent on the fish, the fish intent on the fly. One carp shouldered aside the other and found success, slurping the berry down. An instant later, a strip strike set home with a watery explosion as the stuck fish streaked upstream. A game of ring-around-the tree ensued where I found myself run-sloshing through the water trying to keep the fish from breaking me off on a submerged stump. Clamping down on the reel as the fish bee-lined from there to a logjam, I executed a maneuver known to my friends and I as 'stop 'em or pop 'em'. This is where you're trying to handle a large fish heading for cover or maybe you hook into something a little too large to handle on the gear you have in hand. In this situation, locking up the reel with your hand or by jamming it into your thigh in order to either turn the fish or break it off might be the only thing keeping you from losing an expensive flyline and maybe all of your backing too. I locked down and angled my rod hard to the left; the carp slewed sideways in a powerslide, never stopping his tail as he continued to angle into the tangled mess of branches. Time slowed down. Then, with an almost audible creak, the hook bent and popped out, reducing my electric connection to a disappointing slack.

I took a deep breath as my world expanded again, away from the tunnel vision I get when locked onto a piscine target. I could again hear the birdsong floating through the trees, and notice that the wind had picked up a bit. Stripping in, I confirmed that it was indeed a hook failure. Mental note - use stronger hooks.

And on to the next spot.

My star model posing for the camera

 

As I stood at the back of my vehicle rigging up my 6 weight, I had time to reflect on how lucky I was to get to go fishing that day. The sun was hot on my back, and I slid my buff up into position. It was near noon; carp fishermen need not get up with the dawn. Sightfishing requires high sun, and carp seem to be active throughout the day.

I looked up as a rusty, paint-peeling Dodge rattled by. Ah, small town America. I waved to the driver and the happy border collie in the bed as they passed. Stepping off the asphalt onto the steep, hardpacked trail to the river, I couldn't help but smile. I had sneaked a peek off the bridge and knew there were several golden-tan shadows clustered in the nearest deep pool. It was a moment's deliberation over the fly box  - you know, where your hand hovers and waits for your eyes and brain and gut to have the conversation to determine which fly will be first out. It was a short moment this time because there were really only two choices of fly. Mulberry that sinks slowly or mulberry that floats.

Tying on the 'dry' - hunk of black foam on hook, rounded with curved scissors into a berryish shape on a size 6 hook - I stepped out of the dappled shade of the trees and into the heat of the sandbar. The river, strangled by drought, flowed slowly by, clear in the shallow spots and a grey-green in the few remaining holes. The carp were not hard to see; from my vantage I could see 5 or 6 and I stood quietly a moment and looked for a good spot to begin my approach. Seeing a spot relatively clear of the scrubby collection of plants that springs up on sandbars, I eased over. Stripping out what I judged to be enough line, maybe 50 feet, I flicked a short cast onto the water just downstream from me and waited for the biggest carp of the bunch to separate from the group.

 

A chunk.

After a moment I saw my chance - I dropped the fly with a plop! a foot ahead of the fish. I tell ya, if those fish had ears all of them would've been perked up at that sound. My target fish moved immediately forward and without hesitation slurped down my faux berry. What a great moment - satisfaction for a fly well-tied and a good presentation, as well as the pure joy of a firm hookset shortly followed by the taut, live-wire feeling of being connected to a strong fish. I admit to grinning from ear to ear as I worked the fish against the current and turned his head to tire him out. I held him for a moment, quickly lifting for a photo and then releasing the fish back into the pool.

And on to the next spot.

 

 

Ah, the summers of youth. Long hot days, freedom to roam after my chores were through, and miles of river to explore. It might come as little surprise that as much of my time as possible was spent with a line in the water - back then it was spinning gear with nightcrawlers caught on rainy nights out in the backyard. Catfish were my target, and I got pretty good at finding them. Then we went through a period of little rain... the river got low and clear, and finding catfish was difficult. Carp on the other hand were easy to find; cavorting in the deeper pools, nosing like pigs through the silty bottom of the shallows.

Being the opportunist, I learned to hunt carp. I learned that they are a wary creature, and any approach had to be made with care. A weightless presentation was best - casting a hunk of worm on a smallish hook well in front of the fish and trying to get a natural drift. Good times. Soon thereafter I had summer work and then went away to college and didn't get to fish the river any more. But you never forget your first home river... and this past week I found myself standing on her banks again, but this time with fly rod in hand. Driving to my parents' place I had crossed over a couple bridges further downstream, and  found myself grinning like a fool when I saw how low and clear the river was.

Ohhh yeah baby. It's carp time.

First things first - what're they eating? I have my standard carp catcher patterns - my rojo bug, and a couple others - but it was mulberry season on the river. Mulberries? you might ask... what does That have to do with the price of tea in China. Well my friend, I wasn't kidding when I said carp rooted 'like pigs'. They're omnivorous and like to munch anything from veggies to protein depending on what's available. However they can also be frustratingly picky - if they're eating cottonwood fluff, you gotta come up with a convincing fluff fly.

Mulberry Overhang

If they're eating mulberries, throwing much else in front of them will elicit few eats. You get the idea. Mulberry trees like to grow along river-courses here in Kansas - hanging over the water, they provide both a shady spot for the fish to hang and at the right time of year literally drip a steady supply of floating berries into the water. Bingo. Berry pattern. Challenge accepted.

Finely tuned mulberry imitation.

 

 

 

 

A bit of black poofy yarn, palmered and picked out made an admirable-ish berry profile. The real thing is a deep purple color but I made-do with black. Dark colored hooks in size 6 rounded out the pattern - I cranked out half a dozen and got ready to hit the water.

 

 

 

 

 

One of the things that I enjoy most about fishing familiar water is that you get the added benefit of all the memories that the place holds for you. It's like reminiscing with an old friend - warm and reassuring because you know that even if you don't find them today, the fish Are there and you Have found them before. Humans are creatures of habit and I am no different - being there in my old haunt was a trip down memory lane and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Things have changed - a new bridge, some riprap that didn't used to be there - but the river is still the same. It doesn't know how to be anything but what it is, and it doesn't try.

Cruising Carp under Mulberry
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