Follow The Road To Water Issue 2

Follow the Road to Water: Issue 2

We just published Issue 2 of the Road to Water, an online magazine about all the elements of the sport that make it one you spend a lifetime in love with.

The magazine, which we launched last Fall, is one that I hope is about more than just the fish. As first-time contributor Matthew Gutchess puts it in his feature, the answer to the question, “What are we looking for on the water…” “more often than not, had nothing to do with a species or time of year.”

Gutchess goes on to explain that there are any number of elements pulling us back to the stream, beach, river, pond or lake and that the fish often form a relatively small part of the equation.

Even Roy Bilby, a man who has caught and released more than 30,000 bass, who we profiled in this issue’s first feature, is quick to admit that numbers “are certainly not the most important way” to gauge your growth as an angler.

Roy Bilby holds one of more than 30,000 bass he’s caught and released.

Chris Senyohl, Joe Higgins and John Kobald are all incredible artists who depict the fish we love in various forms (ranging from ink to sculpture) and we brought you their work in a feature about the angler as an artist. Certainly when looking at Higgins’ beautiful gyotaku prints, or Kobald’s stunning sculpture, we are reminded that we are in pursuit of much more than fish when we take to the water.

Striper fishermen are their own breed entirely, and sometimes, talking to one, you’ll feel like you need a translator or a dictionary. That’s why we included “A Striper Dictionary,” in this issue, too, to give those interested in joining the striper cult a crash course in the lingo, and for those already well versed, perhaps a laugh.

John Giovenco talks about the allure of steelhead in this issue.

In the past two years (in part thanks to the pandemic) I’ve fallen more in love with trout than I’d ever been before, which had us dreaming about the best trout trips in the country. We put together a list for you to consider, and that’s in this issue too.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a fisherman without a storm story. Storms are an integral part of our existence as anglers, and we pay them homage with a list of a few of our favorites.

Sharks and storms, we’ve got both of them in the spring issue.

We’ve got some of the most unforgettable seafood restaurants, for you foodies, and an interview with one of Upstate New York’s steelhead-obsessed anglers about what makes the species so endearing.

We’ve got pieces on catching your next giant redfish, from a man who has landed and released more gargantuan reds than most of us ever will, and a list of niche fisheries (like peacock bass, sea-run cutthroat trout and Boston carp) that… if you haven’t investigated, you might want to.

A guide who targets enormous redfish talks about what it takes.

There’s more in this issue, including a profile of a fly tying guru named Pat Cohen who makes some bugs you won’t believe, a list of the best fishing movies (and what makes them great), and an angler named Mark Kiburz who will design you a custom crankbait… no really.

Pat Cohen is an artist at the Vice, and he shows us some crazy creations in the spring issue.

One of our goals with the Road to Water was to pack every issue to the gills with stories, color and life, because the fishing life is a beautiful one that’s immeasurably improved when we share our stories and experiences with one another.

We’re beyond grateful for everyone who has helped bring this second issue to life, and we hope you love it.

Luck: A Seven-Species St. Patrick’s Day

Warmer-than-usual temperatures had trout more festive than usual.

We all believe that luck plays at least some role in our success on the water, but the degree to which we’ll admit to relying on this vaguely defined cosmic force in our day-to-day fishing lives can vary.

Here’s the undeniable part: Any fishing adventure, no matter how well researched or planned, is ultimately reliant on chance to a certain degree. Let’s face it, you’re hoping a wild creature in a body of water you’re either wading through or boating over mistakenly eats a man-made object that it takes for prey — nothing’s guaranteed. Never mind the fact that your taking to and returning from the water without incident — regardless of whether or not fish are caught — is luck in its own right. (In the past year I’ve misplaced a rod while trying to fish a lure off a branch, taken a dunk in the river, mid-winter, and had a serious motor-vehicle malfunction on a main highway at 70 m.p.h.) When framed with the right perspective, just getting to and from the fishing destination in one piece is… relatively lucky.

When I saw weather forecasters calling for highs in the (gasp!) 50s on St. Patrick’s Day (we dare not hope for much more until mid-May in these parts of Upstate New York), a day I happened to have off, it seemed like the ideal time to test luck’s influence on angling success. After all, despite a German last name (Bach), I’m the descendent of McCabes on one side and Gillorens (after Killorglin County) on the other, so Ireland’s history, lore and culture have always played an important part in my life.

An Irish-American story if ever there was one: The tale of James J. Braddock.

After about 4.5 hours on the water on St. Patty’s, my faith in luck’s existence, and the role it plays in the lives of fishermen, is as strong as ever.

Let’s start with the fact it was 50 damn degrees, mid-March, in Upstate New York. If that’s not luck, I don’t know what is. Sure, you’ll say we’re cooking the planet and the next generations will have to deal with global catastrophes that will threaten the life of anything that’s not a cockroach in 200 years, and you’re probably right but… it was 50 degrees! Consider that during this same week in 1993, a storm dumped 42.9 inches of snow on Syracuse while winds gusted to 40 m.p.h.

Mother Nature pulled out some of her finest colors for the evening, as brilliant shades of red and orange lit up the sky. A hawk soared overhead searching for a meal throughout the afternoon, a beaver lazily meandered down the stream, a pair of geese honked at me while I slowly waded toward their stretch of water, and red-headed woodpeckers, sparrows and ducks rounded out the menagerie of critters making cameos on the water.

The evening’s last light reflected on the water.

And three brown trout cooperated to make it just about as perfect a day on the water as you could ask for. Of course there were fish that hit and came off…. and of course, they were bigger than the ones landed… did you really need me to tell you that?

A few eager brown trout cooperated.

But less than a mile away a city bustled, citizens struggling in the midst of a pandemic, strapping on masks, washing their hands, hoping for stimulus checks — a weary world we all return to these days after any trip onto the water or into the woods. But just wading up a beautiful stretch of water, underneath a blanket of crimson clouds, it was hard to feel anything but lucky.

The moon’s reflection on the creek’s surface.

The Seven Split Seconds of Spring I’m Excited For

These are the moments we… or I, anyway, wait all winter For

You can smell a bunker blitz before you see it.

  1. Bunker Scent: If you are not a striper fisherman, this might not be a smell you’re familiar with. If you are a striper guy, there is one scent that is separated in your head from all others: The smell of bunker being shredded beneath the water’s surface. Now, if you’re not a surf fisherman or a saltwater fisherman, it might sound absurd initially to suggest that you can actually ‘smell,’ bunker (atlantic menhaden) being diced by stripers and bluefish in a blitz beneath the water’s surface. But here’s the thing: You can. When bass or bluefish are blitzing on thick schools of bunker and thousands of these fish are being torn to bits, there’s a certain odor in the air — because they are a very oily baitfish, that is immediately recognizable. Certain guides will tell you it smells like watermelon rind, but what the hell does that smell like? The truth is it is a distinct, memorable odor that — once you’ve detected, you’ll never forget… because it very likely signals a fantastic day of fishing ahead. And the first sign you might be in for a great day in the surf is that smell.
  2. Jacket-less Trout Fishing: Don’t get me wrong, I’ve grown to love winter trout fishing. And with Underarmour layers, a neoprene dry top, two pairs of socks and a wool cap, it’s not that uncomfortable… for the first half hour, anyway. But that first day in April when you can wade that same stream in a short-sleeve shirt and feel the sun and wind on your face without stopping to tuck your hands beneath your armpits for warmth… that’s going to be a damn good day.
  3. The First Brook Trout: Don’t get me wrong, I love brown trout. In fact, if you pressed me to decide between a 20-inch brown and a wild, native brook trout, I’d be hard-pressed to make a call one way or the other. But the cool thing about brook trout, for me anyway, is that they are rare and unexpected. So, when you’re having a great day on the water landing and releasing brown trout, and then you land a brookie… it’s like your team winning on your birthday… It would have been great anyway, but now…
  4. The first Striper on the Sand: I do not know why I love striped bass so much, to be completely honest. I could probably write you a short book on how being in the surf, with the NorthAtlantic crashing at your knees, whales breaching in the distance and birds diving on bait just out of casting distance for me feels like everything on the inside of you reaching a type of harmony with your surroundings… how it feels damn near perfect… but here’s the thing… it isn’t perfect… not quite anyway. When the bucktail stops and the rod bends… that’s pretty close. But when that first striped bass… that fish you’ve been dreaming, reading and writing about for months… is on the sand at your feet… that is perfect. It feels like… “Okay… the rest is gravy.”
  5. The first Better Brown: Stocked brown trout are incredible… They’re fun, you can catch a mess of them, and each one looks slightly different. Perhaps the coolest thing about them, though, is how they lull you into a relaxed state of catching and releasing 10-inch fish so that, when you do hook a 15-, 17-, or 21-inch brown… it is almost more shocking than it would have been were it not for the stockies caught prior. That first brown you send a photo of to friends and family, though, that’s a Spring moment to look forward to.
  6. New Water: Last year, despite not having fished there for almost a decade, I went back to surf fish the Jersey shore and sheerly by divine miracle, I’m convinced, I found and caught stripers. Technically, it wasn’t ‘new water,’ per se, since I’d caught stripers on the Jersey shore in my twenties, but it’d been a decade, so it felt brand new. While laid off during the height of the Coronavirus, I started exploring trout water around my native Upstate New York and found a few stretches of water that I’ve since fallen in love with. I don’t care how confident or experienced you are, there is always some trepidation when you’re exploring new water. Show me the angler who says: “I’m going to fish here for the first time and crush them,” and I’ll show you an inflated ego. Part of the beauty, mystery and excitement of being an angler is finding and exploring new water, and I’m looking forward to that as much as anything this Spring.
  7. The ___________ (Unexpected Miracle): We were striper fishing on Long Island a few years back and I looked up and saw humback whale breach about a quarter mile off the beach. It was June, and I was fishing by myself at the moment, so I immediately texted my friend who was back at the house to come down, and then I went and found the nearest person, who happened to be a toddler playing in the sand, and told him to look offshore for a minute. The kid saw the whale, and had the exact emotional reaction that I was trying to seem too cool to act out… there was a lot of pointing and yelling…. from both of us, actually. The breaching humback whale is one example of the type of miracle you never know if you’ll see on any given day on the water. It could be a bolt of lightening hitting the surface of a lake, it could be a double rainbow, a breaching humpback, a great blue heron, a rising moon so Orange that it looks like a basketball on the horizon… The fact that you don’t know what it will be, on any given trip, and that it could appear at any moment, in a myriad of forms, is what makes it so incredible every time it does.

Open-Water Winter Fishing: Freezing Joy

In Places like Upstate New York, you’ll hear no shortage of complaints about long, freezing winters… but there’s a solution.

If the idea of tucking your hands beneath your arms while breathing through your nose in the middle of an empty, softly flowing stream surrounded by snow-covered banks sounds invigorating and fascinating to you — please read on. (If it sounds like terrifying torture, you might want to stop here).

Even a tiny trout is cause for celebration in January

I was raised — and got my undergraduate degree — in a place that is consistently ranked (by Accuweather, anyway) as one of the five snowiest places in the United States.

When you typically see your first snowfall before halloween, have weeks where the predicted highs for any given day aren’t above 30 degrees, and you’re equally likely to have Mother’s Day flurries… you learn to… well, let’s not say enjoy, but perhaps, tolerate… winter weather?

And I’ve heard some people say… okay, a lot of people say… ‘I just don’t like winter.’ And hey, I’m with you. If you’ve got a condo in the Keys that you’re offering me for our six-month winter, I’m all ears.

But here’s the thing: While Upstate New York winter weather is less than ideal, for most of us, the hot air expended by people complaining about it, has not, as far as I can tell, melted a single snowbank (we’re working on destroying the ozone layer with our cars so as to extend Autumn into December, but we’re not quite there yet).

So what are you going to do? I’ve heard phrases like ‘hibernate,’ thrown around, and truthfully I can’t blame anyone who chooses this option. There are more entertaining options on television than we’ve ever had, the internet is a black hole of frivolous, endlessly entertaining content, and sleep never hurt anyone.

But I’ve discovered something about winter fishing: it has a strangely rewarding nature that is — as you might expect — the exact opposite of its summer counterpart.

On a beautiful May afternoon, a hike down a stream might very well be worth the time spent in of itself. You’re liable to see blue herons, beavers, otters, all manner of wildlife working in concert in and around the water.

A January fishing trip starts by blasting the heat, full-bore, for ten minutes before summoning the courage to kill the engine, wader up, grab hand-warmers and hike through the snow to the water’s edge.

There is no part of you that believes you’ll entice a trout during these outings. Mainly you are hoping that friends and family aren’t reading about your life in the past tense in the next day’s paper.

But that tiny part of your brain that stays fixated on fish, fishing trips and ways to catch fish on fishing trips is thinking: yeah this is borderline painful but wouldn’t it be cool if…

Without the ‘Wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if’ parts of our brains, we would not be fishermen, and we would not have stumbled, driven, ran, or casted into some of the most wonderful and terrible circumstances of our lives. But that’s another blog.

If you’ve got enough layers of wool, cotton, Underarmour, neoprene and polyester on… most of your body will stay — if not warm then, at least… so much warmer than your hands, that any discomfort won’t be noticed because… well, you’ll be wholly focused on trying to regain feeling and functionality in your hands.

So the trip will be equally divided into three — maybe four — parts: First will be casting at promising trout pools and catching nothing and then repeating to yourself: “Yeah, no *&!$, it’s January you moron.” The second part of the trip will be spent with your hands tucked under your arms shivering. The third part will be spent holding, licking or sucking the eyes of your rod which will continually freeze over with the moisture that your line is bringing back up through them.

If there’s a fourth part, it’s the shortest one. This is the part you spend fighting, landing and releasing an actual trout. This is the part that, once you’ve thawed enough, back in your vehicle, to regain functionality in your hands, you’ll text every fish friend you’ve got that… ‘You knew would happen because ___________ (something about the wind or barometer).’ This is the part that feels like a stolen moment of summer was wedged into winter’s window. This is the part that’ll warm you up in an an instant because an increased heart rate will pump much needed blood to your hands. This is the part that — when you’re holding a brown trout just above the water in an empty, snowy, winter-wonderland, will feel almost like a dream.

It’s the same part that keeps us coming to the water during the other three seasons, and I’m here to tell you — it’s better in the winter because you really didn’t think it’d happen — and proving a doubter wrong, even if it’s you, is a feeling of sweet success. It’s that same feeling of unlikely enchantment that you get in the summer and the fall, but because the likelihood is even more diminished when the mercury falls below freezing, the magic is all the more… magical.

Welcome to the Road to Water

This is Issue 1, the beginning, of an online fishing magazine about… anglers, and why we love this sport.

The Road to Water is an online quarterly fishing magazine with a simple premise at its core: That fishermen, people, human beings… are what make fishing, and the lifestyle that surrounds the sport, such a beautiful and intriguing one.

Picture for me, if you will, for a second, the following situation: You’re on a beach (or a lake, or a riverbank, take your pick) and you’re catching fish after fish, and they’re your favorite species. Every cast results in a hit, a tremendous fight, and a landed fish.

But it’s just you, you’re completely alone in this scenario. There aren’t any family members or friends to send pictures to, no one to swap stories with around a campfire, and not even a social media platform to post proof on. How meaningful would those fish ultimately be?

If, after some consideration, you admitted that even the best days of fishing would be forgettable if they weren’t captured in images to show friends, video to share with family, and stories to trade around a campfire, then you’ll easily understand why The Road to Water is about anglers, it’s not about fish or new tackle or new tactics.

We have bucket lists of beaches and streams we’d like to visit (and we’ll list those in these pages), we have favorite lures, and we’ll even mention those a time or two, but we are most grateful for the people we get to share this sport with. It’s the stories from other anglers, it’s the advice, the congratulatory pats on the back, the comment on a social media post, the shared dreams, trips and memories that make any fishing life a valuable one.

We hope you love this first issue, and become part of our story, whether it’s by sharing with us your personal road to the water in future issues, or just by reading, and following along on Facebook and Instagram. You can find this issue in the Apple Bookstore, too.

My name is Rick Bach, and thanks to the incredible people at Outdoor Life I had the chance, at 24, to fish 36 of the lower 48 while living out of a Jeep Wrangler. It was the people who made that trip an incredible one that changed my life, and many of those stories are in these pages.

At 27 I began a graduate program where I met fellow fishermen James Spica and Gian Lombardo, two incredible anglers who helped bring this magazine to life. Mary Nolan, a meticulous editor with the courage to jump aboard a headboat out of Gloucester in her first semester at graduate school to chase cod and haddock, was more supportive of the dream than anyone else I’d meet along the way.

During two trips fishing to raise money for melanoma research, I talked with anglers from South Carolina to Florida to Oklahoma about what kind of magazine they’d like to read, and so many of you — from the incredible people at BassOnline in Florida, to anglers who were guiding on the side like Brian Roberts in South Carolina, and everyone in between, went out of their way to tell me what they’d like to see in the next fishing magazine.

So many of you took the time for a phone call, to return an e-mail, to send pictures, stories and ideas that helped bring this first issue to life, and I’m eternally grateful.

My hope, and my belief, is that we can all grow in our love of this beautiful sport by learning from, and being inspired by, one another. Welcome to The Road to Water.

From Surf to Stream in New York: Two Memorable Fall Fish

It’s the circumstances surrounding a catch, not the fish themselves, that often dictate what a fish means to us and why.

Two fish made this past weekend one of the most memorable of my fishing life. It’s the context, I’d argue, in which a fish is caught that gives it its value to us as anglers.

The first was, by almost any other measure, a relatively insignificant catch: It was a bluefish, about 18 inches long, that I unhooked and released back into the Ocean Beach surf.

But on any given day, there’s absolutely nothing I’d rather be doing than fishing the surf, and living in Upstate New York, I get a chance to target stripers and bluefish a half a dozen times per year if I’m lucky.

Luckily, a friend and former college roommate, Curt Dircks, and I have kept an annual tradition alive that has us fishing the surf in Ocean Beach, New York (on Fire Island) at least once in the Spring and once in the Fall, and often times a handful of times throughout the year.

We had a trip set for this past weekend, but anglers know better than most that life rarely goes according to plan.

Dircks, a new father, was also in the midst of starting a new job, and still trying his best to keep a tradition alive. Work held him up, but he told me to head out to Fire Island (accessible by ferry only) and start fishing while he made his way out from New York City.

After waking up at five a.m. in Utica, New York, and driving the five hours, I couldn’t argue with getting a head start.

Fishing the surf is the most fascinating and engaging type of fishing I’ve ever had the good fortune to try. If you’re a restless soul that likes to keep moving and searching, it can be especially endearing. Because conditions are always changing in the surf (the tide is either dropping or rising, winds are switching, fronts are coming and going) there’s always the possibility that feeding fish will show up in front of you at any given moment. When you consider that these feeding fish, off the coast of Long Island, anyway, are striped bass that can reach 80 pounds, or bluefish that can travel in schools so vicious that they’ll turn bunker pods into oily shreds in a matter of minutes, it’s an exciting proposition.

On Friday afternoon we were looking at light winds out of the south and west, but the strength was predicted to increase substantially into Saturday morning. Forecasters were throwing around words like ‘gale’ when talking about Saturday’s weather. Winds out of the South and West usually give me hope, because they’re brining warm, dry air, which should lift the barometer, and make fish more likely to feed. Typically an east wind, brining moisture and colder air, will have fish moving off the beach, and less likely to feed (“When the wind’s from the east, fish bite the least…”)

By the time I’d made it over to the island, suited up in waders and a dry top, and onto the beach, the light south winds were picking up. It’s also worth considering that while a prevailing wind might be good in the sense that it’ll make nearby schools of fish more likely to feed, casting with it is a different story. From Fire Island, a 27-mile-long barrier island south of Bay Shore, New York, casting into a south wind can be challenging, to say the least. I switched from a 1/2-ounce bucktail to a 4-inch, 3-ounce diamond jig in hopes of punching through the wind. A diamond jig is a relatively simple lure, that can imitate a variety of baitfish, and particularly a large sand eel, like the ones I was seeing dart through the waves crashing at my feet. After about an hour of hurling the jig into the wind, moving down to stretches where drop-offs are nearer to shore, and thinking “this was easier ten years ago,” I was retrieving a cast when I got a vicious hit.

When I went to cast again, the line parted and the jig went sailing. I felt the fluorocarbon leader and noticed, albeit too late, that it was frayed. This could only mean one thing: bluefish.

I tied another diamond jig on and kept casting and connected with my first fish at about 5 p.m. It had been 12 hours Since I’d dragged myself out of bed, it had been close to six hours in my Jeep, navigating metro area traffic for my least favorite hour of driving, and finally, I was fighting a fish in the surf.

It was not a 20-pound striper, as it turned out, but if you love the surf, and get to fish it as seldom as I do, then when you are bringing in any fish after months without setting foot on a beach, it’s a surreal and incredible feeling. Bluefish are especially promising, in my humble opinion, because where there’s one, there’s typically a ton, so hooking up with a blue in the surf often means you’re in for a day of fighting and releasing them. That would not end up being the case for us, but landing that first bluefish, it certainly seemed possible. Once you’ve landed the first fish, once the “skunk is off,” then everything else about a trip is gravy on top.

It’s a good thing that bluefish cooperated, too, because for the next seven hours, despite switching to a variety of different bucktail colors and working more than a half-mile of shoreline, I couldn’t find another fish in the surf. It’s worth noting here that one of the elements that, for me, makes surf fishing so incredible is that even when the target species isn’t cooperating, you’re still liable to see things like… oh, I don’t know, humpback whales breaching off the beach, which, when you think about it, is something people up and down the coast are paying good money for on whale watches. To see a whale breach from shore never ceases to amaze me.

After waking at sunrise and spending four hours in the surf without a fish, it was decision time. Weather forecasters were calling for heavy rain and potential storms on Sunday. I would not suggest carrying a 10-foot rod, a backpack with a change of clothes and other necessities and twenty pounds of surf gear through the pouring rain unless you absolutely have to. For five minutes at a time, over the course of Saturday morning, I agonized over the decision whether or not to take my surf bluefish and beat the weather off the island, or stay and fish through it. I checked the forecast for Upstate New York, and it looked much more promising, so I decided turn Sunday into a trout-targeting day.

The Fire Island ferry.

I caught and early afternoon ferry and returned to Upstate New York, and the next day hit Nine-mile creek in Onondaga County.

When I arrived at 1 p.m., I took my trout set-up off the top of my Jeep, where I keep it in a Thule rack designed for skis, to find that the handle was actually missing off of the reel. Somehow, no doubt owing to the fact that my Jeep shakes considerably at certain speeds (which I’m looking into), the handle to my trout reel had actually come loose. If that seems impossible, as it certainly did to me as I stood there in awe looking at the set-up like a kid looking a Christmas tree devoid of presents on December 25th, all I can offer is that I have no other explanation for a runaway reel handle.

I was about to cut my losses and head home when I remembered that a Bass Pro Shops was only 20 minutes away in Auburn, New York. I made the 20-minute drive, and the sales associates in the fishing department, God bless ’em, gave me the reel handle I needed. That truly was an act of kindness that made an enormous difference in my weekend.

The first trout of the afternoon was nothing to write home about….

I fished nearly a mile of stream, landing only one small brown trout. I tried to keep reminding myself that, amidst a global pandemic, with runaway reel parts, just to be fishing at all was great fortune.

Then, about 45 minutes after last light, I cast into a promising pool about a half mile from where I’d parked and started fishing.

I could not turn, stop, or control the fish that took the Phoebe Wobbler with the 5’6″ rod. It darted back toward a sunken branch, and then under a cut bank. Despite turning up the drag and bending the rod in half, I simply could not change this fish’s direction. For five minutes that felt like forty, this fish tore downstream, into brush, and beneath undercut banks. For several moments during the fight, I wondered what the hell I would do if I lost this fish — how I’d ever stop thinking about it. You’re wondering to yourself: “Do I horse him in, for fear of a longer fight giving him the advantage, or just let him run and keep the pressure on?”

By some miracle that I doubt I’ll ever understand, with 10-pound-test braided line on a 5’6″ ultralight rod, I brought the trout to shore.

This 21-inch brown took some care to land on ultra-light gear after dark. I’m going to need a bigger net…

It measured 21 inches and change, and had the Phoebe so embedded in its jaw that one of the treble hooks broke off as I tried to work it free.

After staring in utter awe at the best brown trout I’ve ever caught in my life, I tried to revive him in the current. It took two or three minutes that seemed to last forever, but finally he gave a shake of his tale and darted back into the current.

In a forty-eight hour span I’d managed to land a bluefish from the Long Island surf and a brown trout from an upstate stream. I’d had a surf rod bent on one of nature’s most violent feeding machines while whales breached on the horizon, and had somehow brought a trout more than half the length of my arm to shore in the complete dark on an ultralight rod. I felt, and not for the first time, like perhaps the luckiest guy in the world at that moment.

Fall colors were on full display in Camillus, New York.

I wondered if any other sport could give us that sense as often as fishing seems to for me.

Three Semesters At Trout School

This past year, as March was turning to April, and our nation was rushing en masse to clear the shelves of grocery stores of soap and toilet paper, I decided to get back into trout fishing. 

9MileTrout
My first trout in April were… not huge.

In all honesty, that might be a bit of an overstatement. I was never a trout fanatic, at any point in my life, and it was less of a decision to “get back into” anything and more of a desire to get out… side. With stores shut down, including my current employer, it seemed like a good time to remember why, as children, we were always counting down the hours until school was out, and the days until summer finally started. Even if our childhoods were different in many respects, I’d guess that some of your best memories, between the ages of 5 and 15, were made somewhere where there was water, mud, grass, perhaps a couple of critters (did anyone else hunt salamanders and crayfish?) and where a blanket of sunshine surrendered to a ceiling of stars. 

With work life on hiatus for the foreseeable future, and striped bass still too far south to road trip to, I began an online search for wadeable streams with stockies. 

I’m lucky to live in Upstate New York, a state where there’s no shortage of trophy trout water. It turns out, The New York State D.E.C. tells you exactly which trout go where. The D.E.C. site lets you know which bodies of water are stocked with which subspecies of trout. I had two goals in mind when I began searching for creeks to fish: I wanted numbers (I didn’t have a ton of confidence in my rusty trout-stalking skills) and I wanted a shot at brook trout.

Virginia Brook Trout
A Rapidan River brook trout caught in Virginia.

Whether it’s their brilliant coloring, the fact that they’re the New York State fish, or that I’d only caught one in my life prior to this year (a gorgeous, albeit tiny wild brook trout in the Virginia mountains, with a Tenkara rod), brook trout, or at least the idea of them, have always fascinated me. 

I found Ninemile creek,  a stream that met all of my criteria: It was generously stocked in April, it was stocked with brook trout, and it supported populations of wild brook trout, too.

Fishing the stream this past year has been a beautiful education into the world of trout fishing that has kept me coming back on almost every day off that weather permits. 

At first, there were the stocked trout, between 5 and 10 inches, that I was, honestly, thrilled to catch (remember the alternatives involved sitting around watching Covid numbers rise on the news). I quickly traded my 6’6″ spinning rod for an ultralight St. Croix paired with a Johnny Morris Carbonlite reel and even the smaller trout became more fun to fight. 

Blog2Then, I caught my first stocked brookie. I was elated that it was something different than the brown trout I’d grown used to. As the summer went on, I caught a few browns to 10 or 11 inches, but kept coming back in hopes of more brook trout.

In July and August I learned, first-hand, how the summer heat makes shallow-stream trout fishing … challenging, to say the least. I slogged through two skunkings and tried my luck in other parts of Ninemile and at West Canada Creek and Oriskany Creek.

But something about Ninemile kept calling me back. In September, I splurged on a new 7.5-foot, 5-weight fly rod and a handful of streamers to see if I could land a brook trout on the fly. I’m still trying.

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The colors on my first New York State wild brook trout seemed stunning.

About mid-September, I was fishing a small pool on the stream when, after throwing my lure behind a Golden-Retriever-sized boulder, I saw a streak of submerged orange flash from behind the rock and dart after my Phoebe. I kept throwing in the current break, and caught what I believe to be my first New York wild brook trout. The fish was a beautiful shade of dark orange, with red spots, with blue halos, up and down its flank. The color of the fish was astounding, and it sent me home researching everything about brook trout: spawning colors, range, diet… you name it. 

I honestly couldn’t imagine topping a wild brook trout (except maybe on the fly), but I kept returning to the creek anyway.

Browntroutnet
A fifteen-inch brown filled up the net.

A fifteen-inch brown trout in mid-September, a fish about twice the size of my usual catch, had me on cloud nine for about a week. The fish wasn’t enormous, by any measure, but it was one of the largest trout I’d ever caught without any kind of help. I’ve been lucky to have fished all over the country, but in many of the places, enormously helpful guides who volunteered their time and local knowledge told me what to throw and where to cast. Trout from Colorado and Montana certainly mean the world to me, since I had an opportunity that very few 24-year-olds get, but there’s something about a 15-inch trout that you caught without a soul in site that’s especially memorable. 

What I have loved about returning to the stream most, however, is that I’m never 100 percent sure what to expect. Over the course of the spring and summer I’ve seen cardinals, blue herons, beavers, deer and even one very lost-looking carp. I’ve seen the stream gushing after downpours and stagnant and shallow in the summer heat. 

Even though I might have hoped for them, I certainly was not expecting the brook trout, or the wild brook trout, on any given trip.

And in late September I caught what I’d describe as the most surprising fish of my entire life.

On the trip prior, I’d talked briefly with a fisherman who told me he’d seen a trout with “spots the size of silver dollars” in one of the pools. He claimed the fish was pushing 25 inches or better. Part of me wanted to revel in that kind of hope, but if you fish enough, there’s a part of you that takes any story you hear with a grain of salt, too.

Half an hour after sunset, with barely any light hanging in the sky on the first day of fall, I made my umpteenth last cast into a pool in a new section of the stream I’d discovered two weeks prior, after wading even further down, under a bridge, and closer to where Ninemile flows into Otisco Lake. 

I hooked a fish that turned downstream and wouldn’t stop. At one point the trout held in the current, and I stood there, the ultralight rod bent in half, and wondered if I’d snagged one of the carp I’d spotted on a previous expedition. 

20inchbrown
My first 20-inch brown trout is a fish that I’ll never forget.

Muttering silent prayers and easing the fish toward shore, I finally landed a 20-1/2″ brown trout. It was the largest freshwater fish I’d ever landed without a guide. It was a fish that I never would have expected to be in that stream at all before I’d caught it. It was a complete surprise, and I was absolutely shocked at its size, and that nothing between the tiny hooks on the Phoebe Wobbler and 10-pound-test braid on the small spinning reel had given way when the fish surged downstream. 

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The trout lies next to a 5’6″ ultralight rod, for comparison’s sake.

How, in a stream that had been all but dry in the middle of summer, in a stream I’d waded in for months, was I holding a fish that I could not even get two hands around? 

The feeling of sudden and simultaneous learning and disbelief was surreal, and, in my opinion, it’s the  exact one that keeps us coming back to whichever body of we keep returning to. 

The Ancillary Elements

Blog2
A Ninemile-Creek brook trout.

Earlier this Spring, amidst the Covid-19 crisis, I began trout fishing more than I had in the past. I did some research and it turns out New York State lets you know exactly which species of trout it stocks (and how many) in each body of water in a given county.

As you’ll note from that chart, Ninemile Creek in Onondaga County not only gets more brown trout than surrounding waters, but brook trout are stocked there as well. The sheer number of trout gave me more hope than I might have had otherwise, and I gave it a shot.

I was pleasantly surprised (alright, downright elated), with the cooperative fish, though none were what a true trout aficionado would call ‘enormous.’ The largest brown I landed was probably between nine and eleven inches, and most were between five and seven. The brook trout that I was able to catch was one highlight, but another was the blue heron that I seemed to see on every trip.

The gigantic bird would be upstream, patiently watching the water while taking sideways glances at me as I waded closer. If we wound up fishing too close to one another, he’d take off, but I’d see his shadow on the water as he flew overhead an hour or two later. Some research revealed that while these birds can have wingspans of up to six feet, they rarely weigh more than six pounds. While their diet consists mainly of, you guessed it, fish, they’ve been known to target and eat small mammals, too.

On nights when I was the only human fishing Ninemile (as far as I could tell), it was a calming reminder of how ingrained in our souls the sport is to see another creature plying the same water, for the same fish, albeit for a different reason.

JerseySurf1
Pulling a phone from inside of waders to capture a breaching humpback is harder than it seems. 

When May and June roll around, I can’t help but think of striped bass. Being in the surf targeting stripers is something I love more than I can articulate. The feeling of being in the breaking waves, hurling a bucktail into the Atlantic, has always felt, to me, like standing on the edge of a cliff with an infinitely fascinating world stretching out in front of and beneath you. The fact that that universe’s contents are hidden from us 99 percent of the time somehow seems to make it even more intriguing.

In rare instances, we get glimpses, and a few weeks ago I saw something from the New Jersey surf that I’ve only seen a handful of times in my life from shore: I saw a humpback whale breaching. To see one of the largest mammals on the planet hurling itself into the air less than a mile from where you’re standing in knee-deep water is utterly awe-inspiring. You’ll see fishing boats gathering around the whale as it rises, feeds, and submerges. Then, suddenly, a 60-ton creature is airborne in the center of a small fleet of fishing vessels.

JerseySurf2Luckily, I was able to land a few small stripers, but I reminded myself that all over the East Coast there are people on whale watches, paying good money for something that I just witnessed for free.

When talking with friends and family after the trip, about how “freaking cool it was,” to see a blue heron fishing not ten feet from me, or a humpback whale breaching less than a half mile from the beach, I’d stop myself mid-sentence and think, you sound like a kid rambling on…

And inevitably that maybe that inner kid, the one fascinated by blue herons and humpbacks… is what we’re looking for on the water as much as anything else.

First Fish of 2020: Last-light, tiny Stocked Trout

9MileTroutThis fish might not look like much, and by all accounts, it isn’t. It’s a small brown trout that the state stocked in Nine Mile Creek, about an hour from where I live in Upstate New York. I did some research before heading out, and it turns out the state tells you how many fish they stock, and where, if you’re interested. As you can tell, Nine Mile gets more trout than most places, so I decided to give it a try.

I’ve never been much of a trout fisherman, truth be told, although there’s some tremendous trout water right around where I grew up. Our early April outings were usually, as kids, a desperate attempt to escape the mind-numbing cabin fever that had set in by the time trout season finally opened (sound familiar, my housebound brethren)? We were happy to be outside doing anything that wasn’t snow-related. In Upstate New York, April 1 isn’t necessarily the end of winter, per se. I can remember a few years when we didn’t have at least one April snowstorm, but there aren’t many. So, although in other parts of the country the month might be a 30-day segue into summer, around here it feels more like a month where you wait, and hold your breath for winter’s last punch.

I don’t have anything against trout, mind you. It’s just that, by the time we could realistically target them, I was so focused on getting ready to take a shot at striped bass on Cape Cod vacations, or chase largemouth bass from a pond prowler in local ponds, that they were kind of an afterthought for me.

NutsytroutI have friends, and cousins (like Chris Crittelli, pictured to the left) who are much better trout fishermen than I’ll ever be.

That’s not to say that I’m dismissing the species altogether. If anything, the behavior of larger, wild trout seemed so intimidating to me that I never thought I could realistically dial in the fishery with much success (and I certainly haven’t yet). I’ve read (almost) every book and story that John Gierach has ever written, and there are a slew of similarly intelligent, talented fishermen who have waxed poetic about trout. I have had the chance to fish with a few anglers, like Matt Wettish, who are masters at catching gigantic browns in Connecticut.

But on Nine Mile Creek this past week I discovered something about trout fishing that I’d forgotten. On a pond or lake, you’re probably moving around looking for structure that’s likely to hold bass. Cast under a dock, or a weedline enough times without success, and it stands to reason there aren’t a ton of fish holding there (or feeding ones, anyway). On a trout stream, like in the surf, the water is always moving, so it’s possible, at any given moment, your quarry might just come to you. And to stand in a body of water that is changing around you by the minute, presenting new opportunity where none existed only a few casts ago, is kind of an exciting thing.

Now, yes — those larger trout will likely be holding, like bass, in deeper pools, and around structure. But if you’re a novice enough trout fisherman to be excited with a small stockie like the one pictured above, then every new hour presents, at the very least, possibility.

I realized two things while holding the small (alright, tiny) trout for a photo before releasing it: 1. I have a lot to learn about targeting and catching a species that my home state is famous for and that 2. If the circumstances are right, and you were going stir crazy enough between reading about mortality rates (my heart goes out if you or a loved one are fighting this #@$%ing disease), washing your hands, and putting on a hazmat suite to get orange juice, then even one, very small stocked trout can make you feel as jubilant as a kid again on an April afternoon.

And if there’s one reason that we’ve kept at this sport well into adulthood, it’s because the feeling, that feeling, hasn’t changed all that much since those first few fish, even if — especially now — almost everything else has.

Social Distancing, Roads and Rivers

Moose

“There are people in my life who sometimes worry about me when I go off into the fields and streams, not realizing that the country is a calm, gracious, forgiving place and that the real dangers are found in the civilization you have to pass through to get there.” – John Gierach

When you turn on the television, there’s incessant updates: A news line runs along the bottom of local channels updating you on death counts, hotlines for people who suspect that they’re infected, and warnings about not leaving your home for anything but necessities.

The government is scrambling, taking unprecedented measures, in an attempt to help the millions of recently unemployed Americans looking for answers. Restaurants are closing, or offering takeout only, and in places like the Post Office, there are shoe-shaped stickers on the floor showing customers how far apart they should stand.

You’d feel ridiculous wearing a face mask and gloves to get orange juice, soda, peanut butter and bread, except for the fact that everyone else is, too.

And whenever you start thinking that these are stressful times, and you can’t wait until they’re over, you just think: “Thank God the people I love are okay…”

And if there were ever a time when a stream, river, pond or beach offered a welcome escape from the stress of everyday life to a greater degree than it does during this Coronavirus epidemic, I haven’t lived through it.

The photo above is from the Moose River between Otter Lake, and Thendara, New York, taken a week ago, today.

The trout weren’t cooperating (or, more likely, since I’ve never fished the Moose before this year, I was working the wrong stretch), but I can remember few times in my life when it felt better to just cast into moving water.

Perhaps it’s because the post office, grocery store, supermarket, and highways are either empty or sparsely populated with terrified neighbors, and it’s a disconcerting reminder of our global predicament.

But an empty trout stream looks exactly as it’s supposed to: It’s the one thing that still feels normal, right now.

I want you to know that if you’re behind a glass barricade so that we can get our groceries, if you’re working in an ambulance, at a police office, a post office or a restaurant so we can maintain some semblance of normality in our own lives, I’m grateful for you and saying a prayer for you.

And if you’re on the water, whether it’s after trout, those first migratory stripers that will be showing up in New Jersey, pike, pickerel or panfish,  I hope that you have more luck than I did this past week, and I hope you’re reminded that being a fisherman is a gift, a truth that is perhaps more evident now than it ever has been in the past.