Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Moving up through Massachusetts

Slightly frustrated by the early season conditions and coinciding with a tear in my ultralight hammock body, we took a break from the fishing to hit Mohonk for a day of hiking. It was a beautiful day. The sunniest and warmest of all so far... a bit too warm even. But I didn't complain.

Mohonk is a beautiful place on the Shawangunk ridge - a world class climbing destination and a wonderful place to hike for a day or two.

The blueberries were in full bloom, and the smell of the flowers, coupled with the hot evergreen trees and their needles baking in the sun, was just sublime.

After grabbing the replacement Hammock body (shout out to Dutch for insanely speedy service) we headed up to Massachusetts to find some Brookies.

The first stream was a real winner as small streams go. Epically beautiful, steep, tumbling trout water. I hooked into a few fish but failed to land any of them. I'm not sure what happened but for whatever reason it just wasn't meant to be.

This place should have been a slam dunk but again, we were early. It was still cold and high, and for whatever reason, the fish just weren't really into it.

We fished a number of other streams around the Deerfield and Cold Rivers, without much success. A nibble here, a small brookie there. Where the heck were the fish? It made no sense. Years of successful spring fishing had us scratching our heads on this odd season.

At least the views didn't disappoint. It was an adventure. And the rain kept falling. We spent some time in a hotel, and this is becoming more of a reality as we attempt to cycle between car camping, backpacking, getting gear wet and dirty, and then trying to get it clean again. Such is life.

Sometimes we even felt like we were in Japan... the scenery surely fit, as did the weather! (It always rains when I travel there.)

The water was powerful but none of the streams were truly blown out. This only added to our general confusion. Why weren't the trout coming out into their feeding lanes? Odd.

My feet were cold a lot, which tells me that the water was colder than normal. Were the fish just holding down later than usual?

After fishing, we took some time to visit a piece of land my family has near Charlemont. It is beautiful woods up there, with a nice mix of spruce and evergreen. The black flies were out, but the cold mostly kept them at bay. What a treat to walk the property for a bit. It makes me proud to feel that my family can steward this land, which is in fact protecting a few forks of thin blue line that form the headwaters of a tributary to the Deerfield; essentially preventing the land from being logged regularly or developed. I hope the brookies flourish below... unfortunately the fishable part of stream is all on private land that I have never been able to access. Maybe one day.

The newts were everywhere, and we had to be careful not to step on any of them. 

The following day we paid a visit to a newly conserved piece of land that surrounds a truly fine trout stream. There is public access but its a steep walk down and we presumed it kept many fishermen out. We did see some boot prints from the previous days however, and this time, actually did not even get one single bite.

I was starting to really lose it, and I think Rob was even more frustrated than I was. How can a couple of skilled fishermen spend a day at a place like this without even a bite between the two of us? Just nuts.

We discussed the need to revisit some of these spots during prime season and warmer weather in the future - we just couldn't believe in the results from this particular day as an indicator of the stream. At least I HOPE that's not an indicator of the health (or lack thereof) of these local brookie streams this year. If so, "we" are in big trouble.

Irene did a real number on this area, and I hope that wild trout populations are recovering. They should be, at least by now. I can't blame our experiences on that... we researched a bit and found studies that totally verified population resurgences in other areas heavily damaged by Irene.

We decided to walk away skunked without getting all flustered about it or spending any more time re-fishing the best spots. It just wasn't meant to be on that particular day. The walk out was also beautiful - we followed a tributary back up to the main road, passing an aging barn soon after. This was the quintessential New England experience for me, and I was only sad to have not put any larger beautiful wild trout in my net to go along with it this time around.

Luckily, there's always next time. With that in mind, we said goodbye to MA and embarked on a back-roads route through southwestern VT towards the Adirondacks. And the rain continued to fall.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Exploring the Catskills Backcountry

Rob and I decided to take advantage of the rare good-weather window and a couple of above-80-degree days to hike into the backcountry, along the headwaters of a popular trout stream.

There are many such trout streams in the Catskills, most of which are almost entirely privately owned, stocked, mis-managed and generally off limits to the average angler relying on public access and public land. Its hard not to let these realities color the otherwise emotional and beautiful experience of driving or walking these rivers. Luckily the very upper headwaters of most of these rivers are on public land, and we are able to hike and explore them, even if we can't catch those legendary 18" brookies that used to swim these waters before we decimated the habitat with our "magic human touch."

Hiking in to an overnight in just such a place comes with certain unsettling moments, like when you discover relatively fresh bear scat sitting in the middle of the trail not 15 minutes into the journey. However, thanks to a nice tributary just down the trail, it was somewhat easy to forget about the bear scat for a little while. 

There are some hidden ponds and we crossed the outflow from them as well. There were very small brookies in all the tribs we crossed.

In fact all the water looked good. But it only held a few small fish that we were able to catch. I don't know what to blame on the low numbers I have found here often, given this beautiful area, but it surely has something to do with stocking patterns on private land downstream, and lack of protection for the native fish in their headwaters. How it could remain legal to keep even a single brookie in a struggling headwaters area like this is just mind-boggling. Especially after spending so much time in the Savage River state forest in Maryland. New York seriously needs to take a look at how that area is managed and think about what we could have here if we did things differently...

Regardless of these feelings and thoughts of concern running through my head, this area is extremely remote and hauntingly beautiful, and it made an impact on me as it always does.

There was plenty of Trillium, a flower I've come to associate with healthy trout forest areas, and spring time.

We got back pretty far into the area, looking for an old primitive campsite marked on the map... however, it was not so easy to find. Just as we finally located the farthest campsite - the one we had been looking so intently for - we came across this second, much fresher pile of bear scat. Clearly the bear was in this area, moving in the same direction we were moving. Time for a change of plans.

Turning around, we went back in the opposite direction of the bear's "scat-jectory," and camped at an earlier site, which was also not so easy to find. I was happy to set up my hammock away from what appeared to be the travel path of a decent sized bear. We opened some beers that we packed in and settled in for the evening.

The next morning marked what was the first actually rain-free day we'd had in the woods in weeks. What a relief and a joy. If only there was a little more of that going on...

The situation was pretty ideal, with perfectly acceptable air and water temps. But that didn't seem to bring us much in the ways of actively feeding fish... something both surprising and disappointing in this kind of water at this time of year.

That didn't stop me from having a fantastic day, but it sure made me think hard about what New York could be doing to improve this situation. And I thought of a lot of things that could be done. It is somewhat defeating to feel relatively certain that there will never be more protection for these areas and fish here, though I couldn't help but to hope anyway.

As we got higher up we finally got into some more fish, but they were all tiny, and I felt bad catching them at all, so I stopped fishing and walked behind Rob for a while.

This river could and should hold a large population of wild native brookies. Instead what we found (and what I've also found before,) appeared to be a ridiculously over-fished, possibly poached and unbalanced stream with only tiny fish and lots of evidence of abuse; including illegal campsites with fire rings, trash, worm containers, and a couple of old frying pans and rusty grill grates. That's right, not one, but TWO frying pans left behind. Well I say screw you, whoever you are.  I am by no means against killing fish once in a while in healthy watersheds, especially stocked fish. But eating wild, native fish this small in areas this important to a native fishery is just absolutely insane tom-foolery at best, and complete and inherent disregard for the environment and the ecosystem at worst. Needless to say I scattered a lot of rocks and we packed those pans out to the garbage - where they belong!

Given the situation with the fishing, as well as the growing population of black flies, we left the area a night early and hiked out to the car. I hiked these miles in and out of the area in my Simms Rip Rap wet wading shoes. Its a bummer they redesigned them with thicker soles this year, these older ones are probably the best wading shoe for what I do that I've ever found. 

I inadvertently caught a nice photo of all the black flies near the car, and was soon after eaten alive.

The drive out reminded me of what life was like here a century ago, and I'm happy that there has been little development in the area...  I hope it always remains this way.

Soon my outrage and disbelief related to the trout population faded and I was able to soak in the surroundings calmly once again. It was sad to leave the area on this note, but we had more places to be, and not enough time to be in them all. Such is life...

Thursday, May 25, 2017

We are Still the Rain... Neversink 2017

Before heading up to the Catskills, Rob and I stopped at my favorite local trout stream to land a few browns. Conditions were tough, with high and cold water, but we each got a few fish.

Exploring another stream, we found some more trout, some wildflowers...

...and surprisingly, a few morels. You don't find these things in Westchester County, NY all that often. Exciting!

Ramps were also out in force, and of course we grabbed a few for later.

Off to the Neversink River zone with a forecast for... you guessed it... MORE RAIN, we were in high spirits. We had a day and a half of sun to enjoy before it would rain non-stop for 36 hours, and additionally, on-and-off for another couple of days. Oye. 

So we did the most logical thing we could and went for a nice Brookie tributary on the way. We met up with Adam R and fished our way up this beautiful stream, catching mostly smaller brookies.

This stream is about as picturesque as it gets, cascading down through a small gorge on the side of a mountain.

After getting a few brookies, we called it a day and made the remaining drive to the campsite quickly.

Given the late time after setting up camp and drinking a few beers, we fished the river along the campsite for the first evening and did quite well. Rob grabbed a 20 incher on the first cast in the first pool, and lost it at his feet. An exciting start to the weekend...

I headed down river to a spot I knew to hold larger fish and grabbed a decent 17-18 incher myself. 

Heading back to the site, it was time for dinner. We grilled some ramps, steaks, and other odds and ends and dug into some cold New England IPA.

The next morning after a hearty breakfast and as a full crew, we headed into the Gorge.

Spring flowers were in full bloom and it was hard to ignore them.

The river was running high but clear. While the increased amount of water created some additional challenges for wading, the early spring conditions had scoured the rocks of most of the silt and slime that had us slipping around so much last fall.

My first fish of the day was much smaller than the previous day, but one of the larger brookies I've caught here, almost 10 inches.

I always love fishing here because there is so much excellent holding water. Some days the river delivers insane hatches and sight fishing for big trout. Other days its tougher with less magic in the air. 

Even on the slightly tougher days, there are always plenty of places to take some time for a slow drift.  

Sometimes you have to slow down, let the fly sink, and then swing... and then BAM! There it is.

It was hard fishing most of the day, with lots of concentration required... and that's hard when you're taking so much time to soak in the surroundings.

When it got to the end of the day there was a bit of comedy as Rob crossed the river with a "paddle" of a wading stick.

The walk in and out of the Gorge can give a great perspective as to its size... which impresses me every single time.

Back at the campsite I dug into my new favorite beer, a sour Gose from Finback brewery in NYC.

That night we feasted well and prepared for the rain... which lasted a good 24 hours straight at least. The next day we said goodbye to our friends and headed out to a new campsite and up into the Catskills proper.

I wanted to take Rob to one of my favorite small streams in the area, and there happened to be a few campsites nearby. We set up camp and then headed out to the stream.
Walking down an old dirt road along the stream, we chose to drop down into this beautiful tumbling section, below. Not 5 minutes later, however, the thunder started and we knew exactly what to expect...

Rob was prepared with a beer and a strange method of drinking it while sheltered under his poncho. I was huddled under an old GoLite expedition umbrella against a natural ridge in the forest, beneath a small hemlock tree. Its funny but sometimes a good expedition umbrella does a better job than a rain jacket on a warm and humid day.

We waited out the storm as the thunder got louder, hovered over us, and then became quiet again. The rain continued to fall after the storm moved past, worrying me for  moment, but the worry wasn't necessary and the sun popped out again not long after.

Taking a moment to dry our stuff in the first legitimately warm afternoon in NY so far, we remarked at how quickly moods change in relation to sun and rain.

However, even if we were in better spirits with the appearance of the sun, the fish were still being picky and playing hard to catch.

This stream holds wild brookies and some browns, and we got a few of each even with the difficult fishing.

Stopping at the waterfall, we took some light-hearted photos, and then climbed above to the second set of falls.

Walking up the dirt road back towards the campsite, we remarked about the beauty of the area and the continued turbulence of the weather and fishing. Luckily, all the makings of an incredible yet simple hot meal were waiting for us in camp...

And we weathered another evening of cold and rain and went to sleep.

The next day we headed out to do some backpacking and to fish a few more thin blue lines on the map. More to come as wifi allows :)