North Dakota has never really made it onto the 'list of places I'd like to go'. The fish that are here I can catch elsewhere, and there are no steelhead or giant trevally.That I know of.
The first thing I did after I got the call offering me the job was to start researching the local fishing opportunities. Turns out there are lots of choices, as long as you want to catch walleye, yellow perch and northern pike. I'm told that 40" is the magic trophy mark to break, and I'm chasing it. The funny thing is that the locals refer to pike in pounds, which doesn't help me a bit. A little internet searching reveals that a 40" pike might weigh 20 pounds. That's a lot of meanness on a fly rod. They ought to hit a popper like a freight train. A bit of a drive gets me a shot at smallmouth on fly, and a longer drive gets me within range of big pike, rainbows, browns, lake trout and even salmon. You can bet I'll pick a pretty weekend and make that trek.
So what am I doing up here? Well, you aren't the first one to ask that. In fact, since I've gotten here, mostly everyone seems to want to know. They're a clannish sort, prone to be suspicious of outsiders. That's fine with me; these are my people, and I know how to talk to them. Hard working farmers, country folk, and the kind you want on your team. So I'll tell you what I tell them - I'm up here keeping an eye on the whooping crane migration. Yep. The outfit that I'm working with has a few of the birds tagged with GPS trackers, and every couple days I download the updated data and display it on a map to see where the cranes have stopped along the way. The short story is we use this information to send in a ground crew - that'd be me, plus a partner - to go check out the rest stop areas and see the types of habitat that the birds are using on their way north. Pretty cool eh?
Also cool is the journey the birds take - they winter down on the Aransas Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast and then fly on up to the Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada. I left at the same time as the first whoopers started their journey and barely beat the first birds to North Dakota. They can cover some territory when the conditions are right.
Below are some pictures I took on the trip up. They're in chronological order through the plains states.
Welcome to North Dakota. Let the adventure roll on.
The last afternoon of the Louisiana trip faded quickly into evening. We had been off the fish for an hour or so, searching new water and scouting different areas to add to Jeremy's bag of tricks. Rounding a shell point on an island thickly populated with white pelicans, we fired up the engine and started putting our way towards deeper water, and home.
We nosed into a broad channel created by two islands close together. Cruising forward, we noticed big pushes and wakes from fish reacting to the engine sound. Some of the fish looked huge.
Shutting down the engine, Jeremy hopped up on the poling platform and heaved us forward. I stood on the bow, battered but freshly sharpened fly in one hand, 7-weight in the other. The low angle of the sun coupled with the off-colored water meant that our chances of seeing anything were pretty low.
Suddenly, a fish spooked out beside the boat. The huge wake it made while stampeding down the waterway ahead of us literally made my chin drop. There it went, the fish I had dreamt of catching in Louisiana. She gon' now, boy.
It was all happening quickly now; more fish blew out beside the boat as I grew frustrated, trying to watch every bit of water all at once. A redfish rolled to the surface, giving me a glimpse of a big orange flank; obviously spooked, the red went right, then back left. I flopped a cast where I thought the fish might go, trying to intercept it. Somehow, she did just what I wanted, and as the red barreled past my hastily stripped fly, I saw a gill flare. Left hand goes back, rod hand lifts - fish on!
Running hard, the redfish unwound line from my reel at an impressive rate, not stopping 'til it was about 20 yards deep into backing. Fighting a dogged battle, the fish made several more short runs. I enjoyed the fight, but I really wanted to put my hands on this fish. This was the one.
At boatside, I lifted her head from the water and admired her huge maw before carefully lifting her into the boat for pictures and a measurement.
She taped at 43", not the biggest fish in the marsh but definitely on the upper end. A big thanks to Capt. Jeremy Chavez for his hard work and dedication. The following are all pictures taken by him of fish caught that day.
And drumroll (drum! ha) - here she is.
A trip I will never forget. I've been looking forward to the next time since I left. Fair warning - that place will spoil you.
The next morning we were out the door fairly early, granola bars washed down with water and gatorade. There was no need to be out before the sun had risen high enough to warm the water and provide light for spotting cruising marsh pumpkins.
Layered against the windchill, we headed back to the general spot that we had left the previous evening. We figured it might be holding fish waiting for the sun.
After the cold of the boatride it was great to stand on the bow again, soaking up some sun and enjoying the excellent visibility. The area that we had fished the evening before was barren of fish except for one lone straggler that we blew out. Rounding a point, we headed up a shallow shoreline after crossing a deeper gut. Jeremy heard the characteristic sound of redfish crashing bait and poled us down the shoreline towards the commotion. We didn't get far before we started running into fish.
With the first major cold front of the year leaving Fall hanging in the air, it's time.
Time to go fishing.
Get out there and take advantage of the bait migration, the cooler temps, the clear water, the low numbers of fishermen on football Sunday afternoons. Do yourself a favor - grab a fly rod and get out there.
As good things must, our trip was drawing to an end. We were reluctantly headed back down the road towards Denver, determined to stop a few times to fish along the way. I was looking forward to getting some dry fly action in, which you might think is a little funny after catching several great streamer browns. I just love a topwater bite over any other. I think it might have to do with tempting a fish to enter my world, the world above water, if just for a little bit, if only with the tip of his nose.
I was planning on throwing a hopper all day.
We put the pavement behind us, already rehashing stories of the fish we had caught in the previous days.
A couple hours later the truck was rumbling down gravel, then bouncing through potholes, and then resting in the shade of a riverside tree grove.
We wadered up as Brian filled me in on stories of fishing the water in years past. Rigging quickly as we talked, we smelled the river-smell and listened to the gentle chuckle of the riffle only a few yards away. Determined to get the dry fly eat that I was hankering for ...continue reading "Fishing our way home"
After my morning success, the guys decided to get serious about looking for large brown trout in the winding creek behind the house. Brian and I, along with our host, wadered up and set off to do a little bushwhacking.
Our host had explored a lot of the available territory, so he was able to point us in the direction of a few likely big fish haunts. In the warm, liquid light of a fall Colorado afternoon, we explored, fished, and enjoyed life.
We didn't see any hatches come off during the couple days we were there. The sand-silt bottom made for fairly murky visibility, so streamers were the name of the game. Brian had a fly box full of meaty goodness tied up by Fly Geek's Matt Bennett, while I stuck with the battle-proven black Smullett that had coaxed many strikes already.
The next morning dawned cool and quiet, with the excitement from the nocturnal fish wrangling still lingering. I was just as ready to throw on waders as the previous morning, but Brian wanted to spend some time chatting with his buddy over coffee so they hung back at the house. I headed for a section of the creek that I had looked over but hadn't given a proper chance to produce the big fish it looked capable of holding.
I felt confident in what I had learned about this new water, and I figured that I would be able to do a little headhunting for the bigger browns I knew had to be hanging in tight to the tangled cover. I had figured out that the browns were behaving a lot like snook, demanding a pinpoint accurate cast tight in next to cover to elicit a strike.
The creek bank was solidly lined on each side with willows, with only a few moose trails creating open paths. These trails had been enhanced in some areas with chainsaw and elbow grease, but the places I wanted to go were pretty darn thick. The close-quarters nature of the vegetation made casting a real headache, but I relished the challenge, the antithesis of throwing bomb casts over open water like I was used to.
It was extremely technical, close quarters fishing. Steeple casts and bow-and-arrow casts were my primary tools I moved from spot to spot. I made it to a shallow sandy riffle area that dropped off quickly, with an undercut bank on the far side. There just had to be a fish in there, but in order to land a fly on target I had to cast through a foot wide slot in the willows behind me and lay in on the backcast, making accuracy a real challenge. Not only that, but getting the rod to load with only the leader and a couple feet of flyline out the tip was quite the challenge.
My first cast fell a little short of the tiny gap in the willow branches that I was aiming for, but the second dropped right in. I actually couldn't believe that I had managed it, to be honest with you. I let the black streamer sink down into the tannin-murk for a one count, and immediately began the retrieve. Well, I tried to begin the retrieve, but immediately came tight onto a branch. A branch that moved... not a branch!
A thrumming headshake and a quick turn downstream had my heart racing as I grudgingly gave line to the unseen fish. It immediately headed for the nearest tangle, but I had an 8lb (3x) fluoro leader on. I was able to apply some serious pressure to put the brakes on, and used the long lever of the fly rod to turn the fish. A few tense moments more, and a beautiful buck was in hand, my largest fish for the trip.
I had a huge grin plastered across my face as I positioned the tired fish for a couple quick photos and then watched him slip from my hands back into the slow current. Mission accomplished... but let's do that again!
Working downstream through another set of moose trails, I hit the creek again. I spotted a tempting brushpile downstream a bit and headed that way. My second step found me suddenly wading through knee-deep muck. Trying to be stealthy, I squelched my way into position. Using the creek as a casting lane this time, I laid out a cast parallel to the waterlogged limbs and began to retrieve.
This time, the thump! of the take reverberated with unquestionable fishiness. Then, quicker than I could think, the fish darted for the safety of the branches. Aww... crap.
To the bottom left of the picture you can see the flyline and amnesia mono to which my leader is looped. The situation seemed grim, but I could feel the fish down there, thrashing. My leader held, so I was left with a choice; Break the fish off and let it perhaps die of starvation while tied to the brush pile, or go in after it. I sighed and started removing layers, down to t-shirt and waders.
Working my hand down the mono, freeing as I went, I ended up nearly to my shoulder in the frigid water. I had a great view of my wavering reflection, since my face practically rested on the surface film. I was almost as busy making sure I didn't dip water into my waders as I was with untangling the fish, cussing quietly the whole time.
Eventually, I was able to drag the fish back up and out of the bottom of the pile, and a nice hen rose into the light.
I snapped a picture and eased the trout back in the water. Since I was already wet, cold, and in the middle of the stream, I figured I might as well use the good casting lane to hit a couple points down the way that I couldn't get at while on the bank.
Two casts later, a thump!
To my amazement, I was hooked up again. I was surprised all the commotion hadn't turned off the pool.
Soon, another pretty fish was in hand, red bespeckled sides gleaming in the gathering morning brightness.
After she swam off, it was time to head back to breakfast. We had a day of fishing to discuss, and I was sure that the guys had cooked up a great plan along with the scrambled eggs and taters.
After a delicious evening meal constructed around the fresh trout caught earlier in the day, we relaxed with a couple fingers of slow-burning scotch. Full bellies and the warmth of the living room dimmed our desire for heading back out in the evening chill, but tales of massive eruptions under mouse flies had us strapping into waders once again.
Quietly easing down to the beaver dam where I had gotten a bump the day before, Brian and I spread out and started casting. I was chunking the same black streamer that had worked for me the evening before, while Brian was determined to experience a mousing strike. The water was cloudy, so I doubted that he would be successful, but I could definitely appreciate the goal.
The night was dead calm, and the coyotes sang from a nearby ridge as the Milky Way sprawled across the bejeweled velvet of the night sky. Long minutes of nothing ensued. The quiet shushing sounds of casting mingled with the rustling of small rodents going about their night-business. Casting at the far bank was a tricky endeavor; a wall of willow limbs waited for a fly cast just too far. Casting down the grassy near bank was much easier. I heard the plop of Brian's mouse fly down the bank a ways to my right as he too fished the grassy shore. Suddenly, a surface commotion, followed quickly by the terse call - "Fish!" I hurriedly reeled in and moved down the bank to his position to see if I could assist.
A couple pictures later, the fish was once again a top predator lurking in the inky blackness. High fives all around - time to hit the sack and see what the morrow would bring.
By the time the family was fed and settled in for the evening, it was getting on towards full dark. As many of you know, fishing while on vacation with much-less-serious-about-fishing family or friends can be something of a battle of patience. Trying to balance the needs of everyone is tricky, but after years of dealing with my fishing addiction, my family is fairly used to my need to wet a line.
Fast forward to arrival, lakeside. Rod limbered, the lake-cooled breeze whispers around me as I walk down from the parking lot to the lake ...continue reading "Lucky Strike"
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"