Friday, November 18, 2011

An Atypical Fall

Continuing with my fall catch-up my next trip after Fortress Lake involved escorting a group of fly fishers back to my current stillwater paradise, the lakes of southwest Manitoba.  A region blessed with incredibly productive lakes, large browns, rainbow and tigers nestled within un-crowded rural landscape.  A land of six or 7 weight rods and minimum 2x tippet!  All in all, my kind of place!

Few things beat a spectacular sunset

I was fortunate to arrive the evening prior to everyone arriving to get things set up for the week.  Unload and sort out the food, check out to make sure the accommodations were in order and get my presentation materials organized for the seminars that are a feature of these hosted trips.  Bob and I were able to get things done efficiently so we were able to pre fish one of our featured lakes to see what we might expect.

As I readied my boat and gear it still felt like summer, warm and muggy.  The lake was still in bloom and the unseasonably water temperatures showed no sign of the fall fishing we were hoping to run into.  We tested out our usual favorites but fishing proved tough.  In the mid-afternoon backswimmers began to stir.  These larger cousins of the water boatman began to take flight while others returned to the lake crashing into the surface like tiny pebbles.  It took a while for the trout to clue in and respond. As soon as I saw the first aggressive swirl of a trout chasing a backswimmer I grabbed my Outbound Hover complete with a washing line set-up.  I had been hoping this might happen and had prepared my second rod in anticipation.

Backwimmers were on the move

The washing line is an English presentation technique. It is an excellent method for imitating water boatman and backswimmers.  A buoyant fly is placed on the point.  Between the buoyant point fly a traditional, non-buoyant pattern hangs from a dropper.  The buoyant fly helps keep the other fly within the depth zone you are targeting or when working near the bottom away from weeds and debris.  I wanted to target the top 3-4 feet.  So in my case one of my favorite boatman or backswimmer patterns featured in my latest book, Steve Jenning’s Ultimate Boatman on point coupled with a smaller boatman pattern and my hover line proved perfect.  Or so I thought.

For those who don’t have my latest book, StillwaterSelections here is the Ultimate Boatman recipe:

Hook:    Mustad S82-3906 #12
Thread: 8/0 Olive
Body:     5/8ths Foam Body Slim, White or Tan
Legs:      SuperStretch Floss or Stillwater Solutions Midge Stretch Floss, Olive

Tying Note:  Use permanent markers to provide the necessary markings on the foam body.  Coat your finished artwork with thinned C-Flex Cement or Soft-Tex.

Fish were swirling all around me.  A few chased the backswimmers across the surface pushing large wakes.  Their behavior reminded me of a dog snapping at your ankles.  Despite my best efforts to plop the fly in the ring of the rise I couldn’t hook up.  After a few minutes of frenzied fish activity it went quiet so I made a long cast, let the fly sink for roughly ten seconds and then began a slow erratic hand twist retrieve.  About halfway back to the boat the line simply went tight and then a whole lot of head shaking began.  After a number of runs a few cartwheels I had a beautiful fat pound rainbow resting in my hands.  It was shaping up to be another memorable week in the Parklands.

Ultimate Boatman 1 Trout 0 (Courtesy of B. Vanderwater)

Our group arrived, had dinner and after I provided an introductory session settled in for the night.  The following morning was just ugly.  Strong winds from the northeast and driving rain.  We lasted until roughly 2pm before cooler heads prevailed.  Fishing was tough and of the people who accompanied me that day we only managed a couple of small rainbows.

The next day was a typical post cold front day.  Bright clear skies, a temperature drop of about 10C and strong winds once again.  With all the change and transition following the passage of a cold front fish had shut down.  It proved a good day for sightseeing around the lake, showing different techniques for slow conditions such as hanging flies static beneath indicators, slow retrieves, working deeper areas, and targeting areas foraging fish might be found.  Beaver lodges, weed beds, sunken islands and drop offs.  It was not a banner day for fish catching by any stretch.
And then there are tiger trout.  These fish are a ‘bucket list’ experience for many who attend my hosted trips.  A brown/brown trout hybrid these fish are unique, aggressive and in the Parklands reach appreciable sizes.  Twin Lake, located just north of Roblin is a catch and release fishery that is consistently reliable.  For me it is a lake that fishes better as the day progress.  This trip proved no exception.  We were welcomed once again by a familiar companion, wind.  Some of the strongest I have seen on this small and typically well protected lake.  

As was the case earlier in the week the washing line technique proved a valuable technique.  Backswimmers began to move in the mid-afternoon.  Although the breeze was still an issue the aggressive swirls and splashes began to increase in numbers and frequency.  

I couldn’t resist any longer! Tigers are a blast on top.  Often you can drag them up using a large #8 or #6 popper or dry fly such as a Chernobyl Ant stripped and twitched across the surface.  In keeping with my washing line theme I grabbed my 6-weight rod rigged with a Rio Grand and rigged up a ChernobylAnt on point coupled with the Ultimate Boatman on a 6-inch dropper.  Within a few seconds I had my first rise and promptly missed it.  Chalking it up to excitement I recast and began twitching and twisting the fly back.  A second fish rolled, again on the boatman, I waited longer than the perquisite, “God save the Queen” count just to be sure. I missed the fish again.  This happened seven times in a row!  I brought my fly in close to see how it was working.  Everything seemed fine.

Tiger trout smash surface flies with almost reckless abandon at times

I swapped the flies around going for more of a hopper dropper approach.  The tigers didn’t seem to like this arrangement nearly as much as I think the boatman dangled a bit too deep, back to my original arrangement. Casting out, again my theory proved fact as I soon had a rise but once again no hook up.  This was getting humorous! At least that’s the way I remember it! The Ultimate Boatman rides in the surface film just like the natural backswimmers it was called to imitate.  I felt that the dropper set-up might be injecting just enough slack so the fish spat the fly just as I was coming tight. 

I stripped the flies in and re-rigged tying the Chernobyl directly off the bend of the boatman so it trailed some 2-3 feet behind.  Within seconds of placing the flies near a recent rise a rolled on the boatman. This time I did not miss.  For the rest of the afternoon I hooked fish consistently.  It proved an interesting lesson that I stowed away for future reference the next time I run into a similar situation.

Beautiful Parklands brown (Courtesy of B.Stokes)

While the trip was the gangbuster event it typically is Twin and its typically cooperative tigers iced the cake.  Getting them on top was an added bonus.  The week proved itself to be one of perseverance and patience.  Driving home the lesson that you have to play the hand you are dealt and make the best of the conditions before you.  Heck, it beats working doesn’t it?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sight Fishing Stillwaters

It has been ages since I last provided a post.  This past fall has been one of my busiest.  My travels have taken me to Manitoba twice, B.C. twice and Utah for stillwater seminars and filming.  I have been home steady for the better part of two weeks now and I am only now starting to feel a sense of being in control and caught up

Breathtaking scenery awaits you at Fortress Lake
Rather than cram all of the experiences, tales and lessons in one entry I thought it best to walk through each adventure at an entry per week pace.  So let’s go back-up to early September and Fortress Lake.
The purpose of this trip was two-fold.  I had a small group to start that was part of a hosted trip I had put together with Dave and Amelia from Fortress Lake Retreat that was part of two auction donations we put together in support of Trout Unlimited Canada’s coldwater conservation efforts.  For the second part of my trip I was joined by eight students as I provided one of my stillwater schools.  The weather was spectacular and conditions couldn’t have been better.

Located in Hamber Provincial Park, Fortress Lake is located along the B.C./Alberta border, its eastern end a mere stone’s throw from the Alberta border.  Running in an east west direction, Fortress Lake is approximately seven miles long and up to one mile wide.  It is a mono-culture fishery full of trophy Lake Nipigon coaster strain brook trout first introduced in the early 1930’s.  Fortress Lake Retreat is an Orvis Endorsed Expedition lodge and was the recipient of the 2011 Expedition of the Year.  For all of its remoteness, the facilities and food are first class.

The flight into Fortress Lake is spectacular
Visitors have the choice of visiting Fortress Lake Retreat by float plane, an approximate five hour hike or three hour mountain bike trek.  For those interested in the hike or bike option Dave and Amelia pick you up at the east end of the lake and ferry you down the lake to the retreat.  The floatplane, of course, drops you off right at the lodge.  For me I lean towards the floatplane option as the scenic flight alone is worth the price of admission.

At this time of the year Brook trout were beginning to congregate in large numbers at the mouth of Chisel Creek and in the Wood River which flows out the west end of Fortress.  The Wood River is closed to fishing at this time of the year but the approaches are still fishable.  Chisel Creek is minutes away from the camp and during calm evenings we would venture down there and sight fish to cruising brookies using #10 Elk Hair Caddis or Stimulators.  At times mouse patterns also produce providing for some explosive surface action.  Watching a large brookie leisurely rise to the fly is breathtaking.  Not all of the brook trout were pushovers.  Often they completely ignored everything tossed at them or worse followed it with apparent interest only to turn away at the last second.  Combined with the short walk and sheer numbers of fish it was tough to leave the mouth of Chisel and shoreline areas around the camp to pursue fish elsewhere.  The compelling scenery and a chance to explore provided a powerful lure you shouldn’t pass up.

No matter where you are on Fortess always keep an eye out for pods of brook trout

We had a number of sticky hot, flat calm days that were perfect for sight fishing.  It something to see one or more large brook trout meandering leisurely prowling the woody debris or worse passing directly under your boat without an apparent care in the world.  Cruising the edges of the lake, we often came across pods of brook trout, sometimes 10 to 15 fish or more, darker males above difficult to see silver females below.  We always crossed open water slowly, always on watch for a wayward pod.

Watching a large brook trout chase down your fly is an exhilarating experience

As Dave from Fortress Lake Retreat told us, “Wood is good!” In and around sunken or trees that suspended out into the water brook trout were often around.  After spotting a likely looking haunt we cut the motor well back rowing towards our target, rod at the ready.  Often, you would see one or more brook trout suspended against a tree looking more like bass than brook trout.  We learned to take our time, study our quarry and get into the right position to make the cast.  If possible, getting behind the fish provided the best chance for success.  Your first cast provided the best opportunity for a hook up.

Ken on 'point' keeps a watchful eye for cruising brook trout

My line of choice was a Rio Deep 4 line that sinks at about 4-inches per second.  The crystal clear water gave the impression that the fish was only a few feet down but experience soon taught everyone that the fish were much deeper.  It was important to get the fly down quickly and with the 4-6 inch strips we used most often the line kept the fly level during the retrieve.  We also took fish using CamoLux clear intermediates and Nymph Lines and long leaders.  My Balanced Leeches worked well in and around the sunken debris.  These flies ride point up and tended not to get hung up should a tight cast be necessary.

Aggressive fish bolted from cover and pound large streamers without hesitation.  The pace at which they rushed the fly was unbelievable.  As the week progressed we found smaller #6-#8 dubbed leeches and Woolly Buggers worked better.

A palm full of healthy Fortress Lake brook trout

I recall one morning at Washout Creek.  Ken, one of Dave’s guides, and I had spotted a pod of fish milling around the outflow of a small creek attracted by the cool stream of oxygenated water.  Ken began working to these fish as they drifted in and out of view.  After a few minutes something made me look out to the main body of the lake.  Silhouetted against the turquoise blue background was a lone large brook trout, seemingly suspended in space.  Doing my best to remain calm I lead the fish with my small black/blue leech.  My fly plopped a good 15-20 ahead of the fish and I recall saying to Ken, “I think I led him far too much, hopefully he will see the fly.”  I began to strip the fly back aggressively, in part because I figured I would have to place the fly a little closer to him.  I was wrong.  As the fly passed in front the brookie spotted it and pounced, covering the distance between itself and the fly in the blink of an eye.  The memory is still as vivid now as it was then.

Will it take the fly or turn away at the last second?

The sight fishing opportunities at Fortress are amongst the best I have ever experienced.  In 2012 I will co-host a specific sight fishing school with Dave Jensen from August 27-31.  We will teach you how to approach fish, casting techniques, dry fly and streamer tactics, equipment and fly selection and much more.  To get a measure of what to expect check out the sight fishing video segment Dave has put together on his website.  Check out this video clip I took with my Pentax Optio camera.

I will also be holding a chironomid school from June 18-22, 2012.  Fortress Lake has an unbelievable chironomid hatch at this time.  At times you think you are sitting in a blizzard.  The surface is littered with shucks and there are thousands of chironomids flying around.  Brook trout of all sizes including some monsters take full advantage of this bounty gobbling huge numbers of large (#10-#12) chironomid pupa.  At this time Fortress Lake offers the opportunity to take fish using strike indicators, floating lines and long leaders and a number of different sinking line techniques.  Rarely do you find a location that offers the opportunity to target fish with such a variety of chironomid techniques.

Students will have the choice of hiking/biking in or by float plane.  Please keep an eye out on my website Calendar or the Fortress Lake Retreat website for additional details.

For additional images from my Fortress experience please check out the album on my Facebook page.