Coastal Wanderings

Lately, I've been getting a lot of questions about surf fishing.  I've posted a few photos from some recent trips and have run into a few toads in the process of learning how to fish the surf.  I have to admit though, I'm not an expert when it comes to this style of fishing, not even close.  Most of the time I'm out there fumbling through the process, learning as I go.  I get skunked a lot too!  

With that said, I have learned a few thing about fishing the tidal zone this year.   The gear matters quite a bit, as does your ability to read the water.  So...when you head out, learn from my mistakes!

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Rod, reel and line:

This one's pretty important in my opinion.  I started by taking out my regular 7wt rod, the one I use for Steelhead from time to time.  It worked alright, but it had some pretty major limitations.  

I currently use an 11'6" Redington Chromer (6wt) which gives me the few extra inches I need to make longer casts and get over any waves coming my way.  I've paired that with a Redington Rise reel which can take a beating in the surf.  With a quick rinse after being immersed in salt water, it's ready to head out for the next trip.  This is the exact same rod and reel I use for stripping flies on Pyramid lake too. 

The last element of the rig that's really important is line choice.  I've used a few different lines and sink tips with varying success.  The line that's brought be the best luck has been the Rio InTouch Outbound.  It's the line with the Striper on the box, so it's got to be good right?  This line shoots well, especially paired with the Chromer, getting you the extra distance you'll need for the surf.  Most importantly it gets down quick, even in saltwater or faster currents. 

Flies:

Surprisingly, I keep this one really simple.  My surf box is NOTHING like my trout boxes.  When I'm trying to come tight on a big perch or some striped bass, I stick with three patters.  For perch, anything orange.  I tie a lot of my own flies and I usually just use some lead eyes, buck tail, and marabou.  If it's orange, it will get the job done.  I'm sure there are a lot of great flies to use in the surf but this is a good starting point. 

I also use a good old-fashioned clouser or deceiver.  Basically, any solid bait fish pattern will work just fine. 

Typically, I'll run a two fly rig in order to cover the bass and perch at the same time but you can easily stick with one fly and be just fine. 

Clothing/Waders:

When I first started fly fishing in the surf, I wore my waders every time.  I've been using the Sonic Pro HD Waders by Redington.  These things are really great and I use them for still water and trout fishing year-round.  The one drawback to the waders, is that sand finds its way into your boots really quickly and you may have to empty them out from time to time.  If you have waders with integrated boots, those will work better. 

I've also had success with using a pair of simple board shorts.  If you're not afraid of getting a little wet, this allows you to take a few more "risks" in the waves without the fear of filling your waders with salt water.  Most Northern California beaches can be a little chilly to use this tactic though. 

My current approach has me using a wetsuit.  Yeah, that's right, a wetsuit.  I've been able to get substantially more aggressive in the surf with a wetsuit.  Instead of getting knee-deep and watching for waves with a nervous eye, the wetsuit allows me to get waist-deep (or deeper) and just jump over the waves when they come in.  If a bigger set rolls through, I can just duck dive and come out the other end unscathed.  It sounds a little silly but I've had some of my best days using a wetsuit!

The one drawback to using the wetsuit is that I don't have any storage for flies, my camera, or any other gear I might need.  This problem can be solved pretty easily with a dry bag that you leave on the beach.  I use the Tillak Dry Bag.  Not only does this bag fit just the right amount of gear, the company gives back to conservation organizations in some serious ways!

Reading Water:

This one took me awhile!  I'm sure you'll figure it out more quickly than I did.  Once you get the details down, your catch rate will go through the roof!

If I can, I start by getting a high vantage point to see as much of the beach as I can.  This gives me the opportunity to see any deeper sections or cuts in the beach that fish, or bait, might be holding in.  What you'll be looking for is a section where a wave crashes, then flattens out before hitting the shore.  The area where the wave flattens out is usually a pocket of deeper water.  Spend as much time as you can fishing the buckets and troughs.  That's where the fish will stack up on a high tide.  

You can also look for current seams taking sand from the beach out into the waves.  This typically means there's some bait (usually sand crabs) being pushed out to sea too.  When you find the bait, you'll find the fish!  

Another thing that's  worked well for me is just flat out covering water, especially if you're on a bigger beach.  In my experience, the fish usually pile up in more concentrated areas and will hit a fly properly swung/stripped through their zone in the first few casts.  So...if you haven't been hit, move on to the next likely holding water.  

Like I said, I'm no expert when it comes to surf fishing.  The few things I've learned have been through lots and lots of trial and error.  You've got to be patient and persistent and the best way to get into some good fish is to put in time on the water!  If you're just getting started, Lost Coast Outfitters is a great local shop to pick up the right rod, reel, lines, and flies.  George and the boys down at LCO will get you on the right track for some fun in the surf!

Return To Abundance

As an avid outdoorsman, I'm deeply committed to conserving the remaining natural resources we have.  Whether you're an avid angler, hunter, or just enjoy hiking, camping, and breathing fresh air, I'm sure you can relate. It's an amazing experience to walk through the hills and run into wild turkey or spend time in a river and find a big push of fresh steelhead moving up river.  Those experiences take effort, though.  We need to be intentional about protecting and restoring those wild habitats that support the experiences we love. 

I want to invite you to join me this year in learning more about the conservation of the public (and private) lands.  Throughout the year, I'm going to share more conservation focused content on the blog in addition to the stories you're used to.  It's my hope that writing about conservation will help me (and possibly you) better understand the issues we face as a nation.  

With that said, California Trout has come out with a new video highlighting the work they're doing to restore the historic runs of salmon and steelhead to the beautiful Eel River watershed running through California's north coast. 

Over the years, the Eel has suffered setbacks.  From pot farms and increased water demand to estuary degradation and dams, the Eel's prime habitat has taken its licks.  However, the fish continue to come back.  They're amazingly resilient, yet we need to ensure the habitat they rely on for spawning and rearing is kept intact.  Check out Cal Trouts new video Return to Abundance below. 

If you want to learn more about the work Cal Trout is doing to protect salmon and steelhead in the Eel River watershed, come join us at Lost Coast Outfitters (555 Montgomery Steet, San Francisco) next Thursday (2/9) at 6:00.  We'll have some beverages and you might even walk away with a new spey rod from Redington!  We're giving away a 12' 6" 6wt Chromer.  

Come celebrate the fish that frustrate us most!

For more videos and information about Cal Trout's Eel River project, check out their website!

Snow Bows

With one of the biggest storms in recent memory pounding the whole of Northern California, most of our rivers were running high and dirty.  That's not a good situation to be in when you have an itch only a trout can scratch.  After a some back and forth, Aaron and I decided to head east, over the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada to find fish willing to chase a fly. 

After a long icy drive, we parked stream-side and piled layers of flannel, nano-puff, and cotton under our waders to keep us warm in the single-digit morning temperatures. The night before we had connected with a few locals (Jim Stimson and Sam Vasily) who we were going to join us over the next two days.  Neither Aaron or I had met these guys but we'd both been following their fishing exploits through Instagram for awhile.  It was clear to us that they were both fishy guys and had pinned some serious fish, but you never know what you're getting into when you decide to spend a day on the river with someone you've never met.  Were they going to be down to earth? Arrogant? Easy to talk to? Who knew, only time would tell. 

Just as we clipped our waders in and finished tightening our knots, Jim rolled up in is truck.  He hopped out of the cab with an easy smile and the energy of someone half his age.  After pleasantries, we trudged through the knee deep snow on our way to likely holding water.  Before we made it to the river, it was clear Jim was going to be a great guy to spend a day hunting big fish with.  He was personable, funny, and had a deep knowledge of fly fishing and photography, two of my passions.  The three of us fished through the day and landed a number of good bows.  Nothing to write home about but solid fish to ease the discomfort of numb toes.  

We called it a day with cold beverages under and even colder sunset in one of the most stunning places I've fished.  A perfect closure to a day well spent.

That night was early though.  The effort of grinding it out in the snow along with the long drive had sapped every last bit of energy Aaron and I had.  

We woke up early to catch the Sunday morning sunrise and a text from Sam was already lighting up my phone. "What time are you guys planning on heading down to the river?"  Really Sam?  It's negative 15 degrees out there and you're chomping at the bit to clear ice from your guides already? Truth be told, Aaron and I weren't much less enthusiastic.  With a few sunrise photos under our belt, we met Sam at the river and were headed down the same snowy road towards some solid fish tucked under a blanket of snow. 

Sam was fishy, real fishy.  The second the temperature warmed up and the bugs started moving, he was tight to his first fish of the day.  With only a few hours to fish before heading to work for the day, we made our way through the most worthwhile holes.  Sure enough, Sam was bent deep into the butt of his rod and running down stream. 

Before Aaron and I could make our way through the snow, he'd come un-buttoned but was quickly back into another fish.  Once to net, it measured right at 22 inches.  

Soon after releasing that fish, we could see Jim working up river.  The four of us fished util the early afternoon before calling it a day.  Two days filled with fish, new friendships, laughs, and lots of learning from the local boys had Aaron an I riding high. 

As per usual, we were up early Monday morning for our trip back home.  Always reluctant to re-join the hustle and bustle of city life, we drug our feet up highway 395 and stopped for a little more fishing before aligning our bumpers with the throngs of families coming off the mountains.  The long trip back to San Francisco gave us plenty of time to reflect on the weekend and plan for our next foray into the wild. 

No Going Back

To be a good angler, you've got to be a bit of a scientist.  You're always making observations.  River conditions, weather patterns, bug life, and fish behavior all play into your ability to catch fish.  Science also goes a long way to protect the resources we've damaged through the altering of natural processes like river flooding.  The miles and miles of canals built to help irrigate California's Central Valley have systematically reduced salmon habitat and the landscapes that salmon fry once used for packing on weight before heading to the Pacific Ocean. 

California Trout has invested in some really interesting science and is coming up with unique solutions to complex ecological problems.  The Nigiri Project they're working on is turning salmon fry into flood plain fatties!  Check out their latest video, No Going Back, to find out more about the science behind fattening up salmon fry before they head to the delta (hopefully avoiding striped bass) and eventually under the Golden Gate Bridge. 

Enjoy!

Yellowstone Cutts

Stretching nearly 3,500 square miles, Yellowstone is the 8th largest National Park in the United States.  Largely known for its diverse wildlife and geothermal activity, it also has strong fisheries.  From the Yellowstone and Lamar to the Gibbon and Soda Butte, there are countless miles of pristine river to fish.  With two years exploring Southwestern Montana under our belts, Courtney and I decide it was time to stray from the endless riffles of the Madison River and head east to Yellowstone.  

The size of the park didn't make it easy to narrow down the options so we stopped in at Blue Ribbon Flies in West Yellowstone for some insider knowledge before weaving through the tree lined roads of the park.  Traffic jams are just about as common in Yellowstone as they are in San Francisco, but they're caused by bears and bison rather that texting hipsters on their way to the Mission.

Although the wildlife in the surrounding meadows was awe inspiring, we were on a mission for one thing and one thing only.  We were after the fabled Yellowstone Cutthroat trout.  With it's main diet being insects, even as adults, they tend to come easy to the fly.  We settled the car into its dusty resting place for the day and set out over the ridge in search of the river.  After working up a bit of a sweat, we found ourselves resting on the river's grassy banks as it snaked it's way through a massive meadow who's only residents weighed in at about 1,400 lbs.  

Without even stringing up our lines, we were watching fish actively move up and down the banks taking insects off the surface without a care in the world.  My only thought was, "This is going to be easy."  I took out the camera, it was stunning in every direction.  Courtney got started casting.  As his fly drifted overhead, the trout just kept making their rounds up stream, then back down,  running laps in search of their next meal.  He had a few trout inspect his offering, but they thumbed their noses at his fly.  Usually, cutthroat are overly surface oriented and eager to take a dry fly.  We pressed on and only had intermittent luck as we worked our way through the meadow, hugging the high banks looking for active fish. 

We spent the good part of the day throwing dry flies.  The gaudier the fly, the more it seemed to work.  It was almost counter intuitive.  With grizzly tracks authoritatively etched in the sand bars, we knew that leaving before dusk was a requirement.  We'd need just a sliver of light incase we needed to aim our bear spray on the way out of the meadow.  The sun was beginning to lower in the sky and the trout were making circles in the surface of river with greater frequency.  We couldn't quite leave yet, it was just about to get good! 

As Courtney typically does, he fastened a streamer to the end of his line and began working back down stream, lacing his casts between rising trout.  Before long, he had the fish of the day on the end of his line.  I still wasn't convinced and kept floating my foam near the banks.  "On!", he was tight to another fish and my surprise was turning to interest.  After three fish to the net with his streamer, it was time for me to change tactics.  It was time to channel my inner Kelly Galloup!

The golden hour was spent working our way through the meadow in the company of massive Bison as we splashed Wooly Buggers up against structure, through runs, and against the high banks.  The cutthroat weren't shy.  When they wanted the streamer, they hammered it hard and made their presence known.  It was my first time having a truly successful streamer session and I was changed.  Forever. 

After we each landed a good number of fish we decided to start our haul back to the trailhead.  It had been a long day filled with great fishing for one of the more beautiful salmonids I'd seen.  As we sweat our way back up the ridge we were chased out of the park by what felt like 10,000 mosquitos.  A good reminder that we were only visitors in a place built for the wild. 

Saving the Bull Trout

It wasn't long ago that California had its own native population of Salvelinus confluentus.  In fact, the last documented Bull Trout sighting was on the McCloud River in the late 1970's.  As you could predict, irrigation needs, habitat degradation, and damns led to the fish's demise here in California.  Fortunately, Bull Trout still have the habitat they demand once you're willing to travel North.  

This summer, while in Montana the lure of Bull Trout coaxed my college buddy and I down a fifty mile long dirt road in search of the elusive River Wolf. When you're in a truly wild place with massive rivers, threatened species, and a deep smell of pine, you know you're doing something right.  With three days in front of us and and zero experience with Bull Trout, it's no surprise that I kept telling myself, its all about the experience.  However, deep inside my inner angler, I knew this trip was about more than taking in the wilds of North Western Montana.  It was about hooking and landing fish.  Big fish.  Big, wild, elusive fish.  

When the sound of tent zippers and boiling water rose with the sun, there wasn't much hesitation to jump in the car and explore the fist section of river for the day.  Bull Trout typically thrive in interconnected river systems which allow them to travel from large rivers up through tributaries until they end up spawning in higher mountain rivers with intensely cold water and complex river habitat.  While the smaller fish can eat like other trout, once they get to 14 or 15 inches, they feed predominantly on other fish species.  With that understanding, streamers were attached to our tippet.  Non-slip mono loops pulled tight allowed for maximum movement in the fast moving water.

Courtney, Marty, and I stood on the riverside cobbles, talking about past fishing trips with high hopes for the day.  Marty, a local kid from the area had joined us for the day and was eager to show us one of his favorite river systems. As we stepped into the frigid water and began stripping line from our reels, I tried to temper my enthusiasm.  Only a few minutes into casting, I had a fish following my fly and before I knew it, 20+ inches of Bull Trout was somersaulting through the air.  As my fly floated past me in slow potion, I turned my head up stream, mouth agape, only to hear laughs from the peanut gallery as they watched on.  

We moved up stream throwing dry flies and streamers, undecided on what species we were truly after.  A few Westslope Cutties came to hand and the three of us put down the dry flies and committed to the hunt.  Streamers swung behind rocks, darted out from white water, and eventually got crushed by the fish we'd traveled so far to meet.  Each of us had a good number of chances that day.  Some fish came unbuttoned in the fast water, while others found solace in bottom of our nets.  Each fish we brought to hand was welcomed by smiles and high fives.  When you release a fish like that into the depths of a Wild and Scenic River, you can't help but find a rock to reflect on.  It's an emotional experience to encounter wild fish of this size in their native habitat.  Each fish we landed was an exciting experience for all three of us. 

Although Marty had to head back home at the end of the day, he wasn't sent off without a few great fish to tell stories about.  Courtney and I still had two days ahead of us and we were confident that we'd find more fish to awe us. When my head hit the pillow that night I couldn't help but wonder what it would have been like to land one of these fish in my home state, on the McCloud.  

As a conservationist, I recognize the importance of species like this.  Species that demand perfection (and protection) from us.  Any alteration of the environment they call home and they can be gone, just like the Bull Trout of the McCloud.  Gone forever.  So...if you decide to try your luck with Bulls, walk gently, check your regulations, and keep these guys wet.   

Pit Stop

With months of conversations and planning behind us, it was time for Aaron and I to take off to Montana in search of the kind of fishing we all dream of.  San Francisco isn't exactly around the corner from Montana so we knew we had some quality time in the car together.  Time for sunflower seeds, fishing podcasts, and general musing of what was to come.

After nine hours of driving, Aaron and I finally stepped out of the car. We stretched and turned our attention to the setting sun.  With just over an hour until complete darkness, we didn't debate whether to set up camp or lace up our rods. Within minutes, we had unpacked the puzzle pieces of my car: cooler, rods, sleeping bags and tying materials spilling out of the tailgate as we frantically pulled out our waders and fishing packs.

And so began 10 epic days of fly fishing. As we stepped onto the banks of a river that was brand new to both of us, rising fish dotted the surface of the river in every direction. They were stacked up in the tail outs, next to boulders pushing current, and lined up in the riffles.  Aaron and I looked at each other with utter disbelief, we’d never seen so many fish actively rising in one place.  We found a stretch of river that wasn't being claimed by other fishermen and started throwing small dries ­in hopes of fooling a few fish before the impending darkness made it impossible to see a size 18. Aaron stood high on a rock and shot casts far into the slow moving water of the tail out. Within a few minutes and after changing flies a few times, he was hooked up to a nice brown, fish on!  I wasn't having the same success, so I moved up river to a complex braid of currents moving across the surface of the river.  Trout were poking their noses into the cool evening air in rapid succession and I was convinced I could make my fly drift down the river mimicking the naturals.  The trout weren't impressed.  I waded upstream and found myself standing on a mid­-river rock. From the new vantage point I could see about two dozen fish feeding in the far seam, game on.  A quick fly change and I was ready to make my attack.  It took less than a handful of casts before I had a 19" brown testing my 6x as he thrashed on the surface, dove to the deepest part of the run and shook his head with authority. The fatty slid into the bottom of my net and the weight had been lifted from my shoulders. With the sun almost completely set, we landed a few more fish before begrudgingly heading to the campsite to set up those tents.

The next day, we wolfed down coffee and oatmeal before heading down the trail from our campsite straight to the river. I usually prefer to get as far from the campsite as possible to fish, but the run behind our tent was too tempting to admire from afar.  Starting at the back of the tail out, we worked our way upstream, casting dries and swinging nymphs under the overhanging sage bushes. Before we knew it, we both hooked fish in the 16­-18" range and had huge smiles on our faces. Our morning session was already a success and we hadn't left the confines of our campsite. After landing some really nice fish and snapping some photos, we decided to move up river to find new water.

Driving upstream, we found a little riffle that dumped into a big pool.  From our roadside vantage point high above the river, we could see fish rising to emerging insects in the riffles and creating rings in the pool below it.  We scurried down the cliff and found ourselves at the top of the pool. For hours we stood there trading fish after fish up to 21".  It wasn't even dinner time and we'd each landed nearly 20 feisty brown trout.  Our arms fatigued by the constant pulling of big fish, we stopped and game planned for the evening session.  Normal, right?  Three sessions a day makes sense to me!  The evening session was more of the same.  Big fish rising to small dry flies and we topped it off with a few streamer fish to make things interesting.

Over the course of the next two days, we fished 12-­15 hours a day with short breaks for Clif Bars, chips, and ice cold beverages.  Our priority clearly had nothing to do with health or hydration.  We fished from sun up to sun down and caught fish using every technique in our repertoire: nymphs, dries, bobbers, streamers, dry­-dropper rigs, ­ and Aaron even had a hit on a mouse pattern that night. The only downside to our road trip pitstop was the crowds; Aaron and I both prefer finding those out­ of ­the way places that hold native, wild fish.  With that said, this little high desert trout factory was just what we needed to get the trip started on the right foot.  The average fish size (close to 18"), number of insect hatches, and the tug of healthy fish had us warmed up for our trip north to Montana!

5 Tips for Small Stream Success

Small streams were my jam for a long time.  In middle school I'd fly fish in the streams of the Bay Area, finding pockets of trout where nobody expected them to be.  In college, I ran around the Sierra foothills with my friends catching countless small trout on little tributaries.  Then I started backpacking in the high Sierra.  That's where my problem with small streams got out of control.  Catching Golden Trout and native Lahontan Cutthroat will keep you away from the big rivers and huge fish that live in them.  Small streams are the picture of beauty in the trout world.  Although I've started going after bigger and pickier trout in my old age, there's something childlike and fun hopping from bank to bank looking for native trout in small streams.  I've had a lot of practice on small streams and great mentors in my time on the water, below are five tips for making a day on a small stream a successful one. 

1. Rod Selection:  This one took me awhile.  When I started, I just used the rod I had, which was way too long and built more for bass than 5 inch trout.  At this point in my fly fishing life, I have four or five small stream rods.  All of them are shorter than 7 feet and all of them are 2wt or 3wt.  Small streams call for short, accurate casts.  Most of the time, you'll be fighting with stream-side brush and overhanging trees in order to get those casts off.  So, having a short rod helps a lot in these situations.  These days, I'm also really enjoying glass rods for small streams because they load better when casting short distances and can be a blast to fight even small fish on.  So...keep the rod short, in the 2-3wt range, and possibly glass!

2.  Fly Selection:  Flies can change from region to region and between the seasons.  Most of the time, however, small stream fly selection isn't a precise science.  In my experience, the trout aren't too picky on the small streams, they'll eat just about anything as long as they're not spooked (more on that later).  When I'm fishing small streams I like to take a small, simple box of bushy dry flies (small hoppers, stimulators, adams, or humpys).  Those flies usually do the trick.  When your bouncing from hole to hole, you might come across some deeper sections of creek and that's usually where the biggest trout in the creek will live.  If you're into being a dry fly enthusiast, go for it.  Leave the big ones alone.  If you'd like to land that Hog Johnson in your local small stream, have a dropper hanging off your dry when you get to those deeper pools.  My go-to choices for small stream droppers are small, trim, and heavy.  Size 18 Copper Johns, Tungsten Ju-Ju Baetis, and zebra midges will all do the trick.  The key is getting the fly as deep as possible in the shortest amount of time without sinking your dry fly. 

3.  Approach:  Here's where you can really up your game when it comes to landing more (and larger) fish on small stream.  Be a ninja.  You've got to be quiet, make as little noise as possible, stay out of the water when possible, and keep a low profile.  Small stream fish are usually living in water that's no deeper than your waist.  With that, they're in danger of predation from raccoons, birds, and other local wildlife.  The best way they stay alive, is to hide at the first sign that something's off.  Your size 11 wader boots fumbling along the bank while waving a stick around in the air is not a natural look at all.  It's a sure fire way to put the fish down and spook the hole.  Practice stealth!

4. Tag Team:  If I ever head to a new small stream or trek into the high Sierra, I usually go with a buddy.  Fishing solo is always a good time but I prefer to fish with one other person.  Groups of three, four, and five anglers going to the river together doesn't make a lot of sense to me, especially on small streams.  When I'm on a small stream with a buddy, we try and tag team our approach.  We do this in a few different ways.  We either trade sections of river, one guy fishes while the other spots likely holding places (or takes pictures).  The other option is to trade fish.  I get one, then you get one.  Before I started taking this approach back in college, I'd end up fishing way too fast, "jumping" my buddy to get to the untouched water.  We'd essentially race our way up the river, leaving all the good water in our wake.  Slow down, watch your friend fish, take advice when they're watching you fish, and have a good time.  This slower approach to the river coupled with the learning that happens when you're with a friend will make your experience that much better. 

5.  Be Gentle:  As we all know by now, we need to protect the limited resources we have.  Be gentle with the small stream ecosystems in your area and the fish that call them home!  Small streams can be full of fish but they're a lot more delicate than the 15 inch brown you might have landed last weekend.  So be careful with these trout, you've got to use barbless hooks, take super quick photos (if you take any at all), use silicone nets, and wet your hands when handling these little guys.  These small stream ecosystems can be put off balance with warm water, high sediment loads, or increased fishing pressure.  If you find a good small stream, keep it a secret!