Words and Images from Ed Felker

Fishing

Carpe Diem

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn my defense, I didn’t set out to target carp with my fly rod yesterday evening. The previous night I was out in the kayak around the same time with the dogs and there were bass jumping all over the place. So this time I left the dogs at home, grabbed a box of poppers, my 5-weight Hardy fly rod, a couple of iced beers and launched around 5:30.

The river was pretty low and slow, so I just cruised around, settling in behind boulders where the eddy kept me in place to fish. I caught my first smallmouth in the new Native Slayer, got a crappy photo of it and a few more small ones. Nothing special. Although I did see a very large smallmouth among some underwater logs around a bridge piling. But the river was getting squeezed between the pilings, quickening the current, and I could not figure out how to anchor myself safely to take a shot at him. Special fish know safe places to live.

So I moved on upstream, switched colors on my fly and caught my biggest smallie of the day on a white popper, but he was probably no more than ten inches. I was just releasing him when over near the bank I saw a massive carp jump all the way out of the water and splash down. I don’t know why they do this, maybe someone could comment if they know. They’re not feeding on surface bugs like trout. Someone once told me they do it to knock parasites off of their scales. I paddled over to investigate. The terrain underwater changed as I got closer to the edge, and not in the way I expected. The underwater grasses that are quite heavy in the rest of the river were not present along this edge. There were big boulders, deep holes, no grass, and the water was fairly still and much murkier.

But in the shadows I could see cruising carp. Big, cruising carp. I even saw one tail up, presumably feeding, in the shallows right along the bank.

I was ill equipped to fish for carp with a light 5-weight and poppers. But I had a lone, peach wooly bugger that was on the rod when I put it in the truck. So I took off the popper and tied on the bugger. I looked for movement, mostly just vague shadows but every now and then I could make out the outline of a monster, maybe thirty inches. I threw the wooly bugger upstream and let it dead drift like a nymph along the bottom in the nearly still water. There wasn’t a sound, anywhere. My kayak was dead still. I stared at the end of my fly line a foot below the surface of the dark water, watching for the slightest pull, easing up on the rod ever so slightly to keep contact with the bottom. I wanted one of those carp so bad.

On my third or fourth cast using this method I felt like I was really putting the best drifts out there I could. Although I had no idea if it’s the type of fly or presentation a carp might go for. Intensely focused, I felt like I could feel in my fingertips the vibration of the fly tumbling across the gravel below. I waited for the strike. Waaaaiiiit. I could feel the temperature drop as the sun dipped behind the mountains. Three degrees, maybe five. I felt in tune with everything from my kayak to the fly rod, the line, leader, tippet, knot, down to the eyelet, down the hook all the way to the point. All my focus was on the unseen point of that hook five feet below the black surface.

Boom! I saw the fly line surge forward at the same instant I felt the bump through the line and into my fingertips. I brought the rod up fast and hard behind my head, finger tight on the fly line to set that point deep.

To really feel — not guess, but feel — an extremely subtle take of a fly that you cannot see, and to do it in a place where you have seen very large fish known for subtle takes, and to know when you bring that rod up that you were right and there is life on the end of the line, is pretty damned exciting. But it became immediately apparent that I had not caught my first carp on a fly. What I had caught, it turns out, with the hook set of a pro bass fisherman on a Saturday morning TV show, was about a seven inch smallmouth.

Only the resistance of five or six feet of water kept me from launching that smallie many yards in the air behind me. I instantly felt horrible for the little guy, I literally had to have dislocated his jaw with that hook set. When I got him in the boat and removed the fly, I said I was sorry, that I got a little carried away. He said nothing, which I took as tacit acceptance of my apology. I slipped him back in the water and he shot back to the hole from which he was so violently removed.

I reeled in my fly line, opened my last beer and watched the sun set over the bow of my kayak. Every now and then I’d glance over at the shadowy depths I had just fished. I was not expecting the opportunity and had no business attempting it, but I had fun toying with them. I’ll be back, soon, armed with a 7-weight next time. I think this might just be the pool. One day I’m going to pull one of those big ugly bastards out of that murky water. One day.

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And Now a Word from our Sponsors…

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The Slayer

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt wasn’t a big problem, as problems go. But it needed to be addressed soon or a member of Team Orange was going to be unhappy. We had a kayak, and each of the dogs could ride in it and they both seemed to enjoy it. The problem was, I could only fit one dog at a time in the boat. We had a staff meeting over at Dispatches from the Potomac Headquarters, and after much deliberation, we were at an impasse. To borrow Roy Scheider’s famous line from Jaws, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

So I started researching kayaks that could accommodate my two primary goals: I wanted a stable sit-on-top kayak that was good and comfortable to fly fish from, and on occasions when instead of fishing I opt to just take the dogs out for a paddle, it would have to comfortably fit them both. At first I looked at boats with big, wide open floors such as the NuCanoe Frontier. And to be honest, if there was a dealer close to my location I would probably have pulled the trigger on it. It looks like a really nice boat. But at the time I had yet to even try to get Finn in the kayak, so we interrupted shopping and went for a test run. What I learned from this was that a 70-pound dog can, with relatively small movements, have a large effect on what the kayak is doing. Furthermore, he seemed to be comfortable in the well area of my Wilderness Systems Ride 135. I decided that it would be better to have the dogs sitting or lying in a confined area of the boat to minimize their ability to wreak havoc.

I count among my friends – both facebook and ‘real life’ – a lot of experienced anglers and kayakers. And when I told them what I was looking for and asked for advice, I realized I didn’t want a big open floor plan, but a boat with two good sized wells. The Native Watercraft Slayer 14.5 has that and much more. The seats are ridiculously comfortable, the entire boat is smartly set up for fishing, and everyone I know who has one speaks very highly of the brand. Some of the friends early on who helped point me toward the Slayer are Keith Hendrickson, who has kayaked with several dogs at a time before; Mark Lozier, a kayak fishing guide who knows the Native line inside and out; and Cory Routh, a guide who I met through Project Healing Waters years ago and who also has extensive knowledge of the Slayer and just about any other kayak out there.

After hearing everything these guys had to say about the boat, I decided that the Slayer 14.5 would be my next boat, and I would of course get the orange model.

Cory and the fine folks down at Wild River Outfitters in Virginia Beach secured the Mango 14.5 footer, rigged it with an anchor trolley for me and propped it up in a corner until I could get down there to pick it up. I was worried about the small factory rack on my new vehicle and how that would work with an almost fifteen foot boat. But Cory spent some time with me devising not just a way to get the Slayer home once, but a safe, stable, repeatable system I could feel comfortable with every time I needed to travel with it.

1While down in Virginia Beach picking up the boat, Mark offered to take me out fishing. After a week of clear forecasts, the weather got a little volatile the day I was there and a thunderstorm delayed our outing. But the skies cleared and we were able to launch for my maiden voyage. Here ahead of me is Mark, and beyond him is his friend Joe. Mark’s wife Kris was already off catching fish without us.

2My initial impression of the Slayer was that you really do feel the difference in your center of gravity with that raised seat. It has two positions, and I was using the lower one, but it took a few minutes to get used to it. I immediately noticed that it seemed to glide very smoothly and easily through the water. I also observed, possibly related, that the boat seemed to wander off left or right a little more easily than the Wilderness, but I am not convinced of this and even if it is the case that it doesn’t track as well, the difference is slight and probably just takes a bit of time to get accustomed to.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI found the raised Slayer seat very comfortable to cast a fly rod from, with an uncluttered deck that keeps fly line from getting tangled. But I didn’t get much time on the water as another storm was approaching. So she still hasn’t seen her first fish, but I had already fallen in love with the boat and we had a pleasant time out on the water for a bit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo the next day, with the Slayer strapped to the roof, I headed home. I immediately applied the Team Orange decal to the hull. Here Winnie inspects the application and thinks it’s a little crooked, but she’s a weirdo and trust me, it’s perfect.

4I picked up a couple foam rubber welcome mats from Home Depot (thanks for the idea, Keith!), and cut them to fit the wells. Then I removed the bungees that criss cross over each well. As soon as I did, the dogs were in the boat wondering why we’re sitting here in the driveway when there’s water to be floated. How could I resist? I had not planned on a two dog/new kayak test run quite so soon, but no better time than the present, right?

5Well the test went as smoothly as it could have. Winnie would ride up front in the smaller but deeper well, and Finn could sprawl out in back in the much larger but shallower well. Winnie took to this like she’s been doing it her whole life. I really believe she loved it up there, just observing the woods and water of the canal as we pushed upstream.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFinn was a little bit more fidgety, but not enough to be problematic. I think part of his inability to settle right away is he wants so much to be in the water.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI pulled off to a gravel beach and they were in no hurry to get out. I think this is a very good sign that they enjoyed themselves and were able to relax.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOkay Finn, you are really moving that center of gravity quite a bit there, buddy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHey down in front, Winnie!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile we only went up and down the C&O Canal a little ways, the test was a huge success. Next stop will be the Potomac River proper. But I think Team Orange will do fine, and that we have lots of river fun in our future!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABe sure to click the links in this post for Mark or Cory if you’d like to kayak fish with a guide in the Virginia Beach area, and check out Wild River Outfitters if you’re in the market for a new boat. Meanwhile, if you see Team Orange out on the water, please paddle over and say hi!


The Bizarre and Exciting Snakehead Fish

snake1The Northern Snakehead Fish, subject of much discussion and debate among anglers and conservationists, seems here to stay. And while certainly invasive, the nightmare predicted by some who thought they would eat everything in the river doesn’t seem to be playing out. And in the middle section of the Potomac River, their numbers, size and fierce fight have attracted countless anglers. When my friend Kodi, who recently caught a 30-incher from his kayak, invited mutual friend and guide Harold Harsh of Spring Creek Outfitters and I to join him for some kayak largemouth bass and snakehead fishing, I had to go.

We went down the Maryland side to Mallows Bay and met at sunrise. At one point in the planning process I wondered if it would be easier for me to take the shorter drive down the Virginia side and just paddle across from Quantico. This picture shows what a stupid idea that was. The Potomac is wide where I live, maybe 800 yards or so. But down here, it’s got to be at least five miles across. I couldn’t understand how all the muddy water from the Upper Potomac from recent downpours wasn’t turning the Middle section just as brown. To quote the old Saturday Night Live skit about how the National Change Bank can make a profit just offering change for various denominations, “The answer? Volume.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is Harold, one of the best people you’ll ever meet. I met Harold many years ago when I first started fly fishing and booked a float with him on the North Branch of the Potomac. It’s worth noting that the farthest upstream and the farthest downstream I have fished the waters of the Potomac (over 200 miles between), I fished both with Harold.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe picture above looking out past the shipwreck across to Virginia is out in the main stem of the river. Mallows Bay looks more like this, with weeds and grasses providing lots of cover for bass and snakehead. It’s tidal here, so at low tide normally the fish that seek cover in the taller weeds you see here get forced back into a position where they are more exposed and, presumably, easier to catch. But the rain pushed the water levels up a bit. For whatever reason, the fishing was extremely tough.

My very first Snakehead encounter happened in a little cove. You see Harold’s kayak in the distance, he’s at the opening of the cove there. I was paddling quietly back there in maybe twelve inches of water, the bottom eleven of which was all grass or Hydrilla or whatever it is. I heard a noise to my left and saw large, black fins weaving and splashing between the tall weeds. Snakehead. I threw the popper tight against the weeds but could not entice him out. When I had exhausted that option, I decided to paddle over and just see if I could get a closer look. I drifted silently to the weeds, peering over the edge of my kayak, looking for movement. Then the water exploded next to me in a violent burst as the Snakehead bolted to safety. Not gonna lie here, it scared the shit out of me. But I immediately knew I just had to get one of those fish on my line!

snake3The fishing did not improve. Harold caught a decent largemouth and hooked a Snakehead but lost it. And I missed a few bass and that was it. So we left Mallows Bay and headed to a pond that Kodi knew about which held a lot of Snakehead. It was a little tricky too, as you had to cast out beyond the lily pads, which left you very little room to strip in a top water fly before you had to pick it up and recast. But I got lucky and fooled this little one right as my fly reached the lily pads. People asked me how the fight was. He was overmatched with my 7-weight Sage, and I had to basically horse him over the pads, if he went down in there I never could have gotten him out. Even a small one, though, is pretty intimidating. Slimy, more beautiful in color and more hideous in form than I expected. They look equal parts ancient, evil and angry.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI don’t keep fish, ever. But they want you to kill all the Snakeheads you catch, and 100% of the people I know who have tried it say it’s delicious, so I look forward to trying this soon.

snake4It was a tiring day of not catching many fish in the hot sun, but it is always a pleasure to be among good friends, and the challenge of catching fish who don’t want to be caught is a character builder. Sometimes the fish win. Regardless, if you’re only going to catch one fish all day, let it be something new and exciting!


Smallmouth Fun

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn the 4th of July I spent a few beautiful evening hours on my home stretch of the Potomac River, and had one of the most fun outings I’ve ever had here. Conditions were perfect for wading. The level was low but not too low, and the water was crystal clear. Later in the summer, the grass will take over and the water temperatures will approach bath level. The fishing can still be very good, but it’s less pleasant to be in the water when it gets that way. But for now, perfect. Although the clear water has a down side. You can see below just how well the fish can see me, the camera was completely submerged here. So I find for the most part, some longer casts have good results. There is one notable exception described later in the post.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve been really wanting to entice some smallmouth to poppers and other surface flies. I know lots of people who have great success on the top. But for me — and maybe it’s technique, location or both — I only catch sunfish when I try surface flies. Of all the smallmouth I’ve caught on the fly, I’d say less than 5 percent have come on the surface. If anyone has some advice on how to entice a smallie to the surface without having a sunfish feeding frenzy, please comment here.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo after several sunnies in a row I went back to my go-to fly, the peach wooly bugger from Dead Drift Flies. On my first cast I brought in this beauty, and that was just the beginning. The smallmouth bite was ON, and it was a blast. By the way, this 5-weight Hardy rod is new, and I can’t get over how much fun this rod is. It throws line like a dream, but feels like a 3-weight with a fish on. You feel every tail beat and head shake. Fun, fun, fun.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis was the first Potomac River outing this year where I had far more smallies than panfish. I always catch some tiny smallmouth, and quite a few were what I’d consider large fish for this stretch. But most were about this size, which you smallie hunters know, is plenty big to put up a nice fight!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe nicest fish of the day, though, was the last of the day. I had waded upstream from the house a ways, and then went across the river a quarter mile or so. It was so beautiful out there, far from either bank, cool water on my legs, the sun setting upstream and fish enthusiastically biting. But, shallow or not, I like to see my feet when I’m wading, and darkness comes quickly when it comes. So I reeled up, secured the fly and admired the setting sun one more time before wading back to shore.

Along the way, now close to the bank and walking parallel with it, I passed three or four holes I fished on my way out with not much luck. I thought I saw a shadow move in the current, but didn’t have a lot of faith in my eyes at dusk. I decided to toss a fly in. I totally half-assed it, though. I never stopped walking, and didn’t even take any fly line out. I just unhooked the wooly bugger from the guide where I secured it earlier, held the rod out to the side and let the fly drop in the water. The shadow immediately slammed the fly. I pinched the fly line to the cork and set the hook, but I think the fish had already done that for me. He jumped four times under the tip of my rod — I basically had only the leader and about a foot of fly line out past the guides. What a great punctuation to a fantastic evening of fishing!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere’s another shot of my shadow fish. It’s hard to compose these fish shots, but some of the ‘accidents’ end up growing on me. I like this one.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd that was it. Another 100 feet and an ice cold beer was waiting for me. Because I am an excellent planner.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you enjoy fly fishing for trout and you go all summer just waiting for cool weather to roll around again, you are missing some serious fun with your fly rod!


Trophy Day on the New River

When David Coffman was putting together our trip to southwest Virginia, including finding guide recommendations for a day of fishing on the New River, one name topped the list: Shawn Hash from Tangent Outfitters. The trip, a six-day odyssey through a beautiful and rugged portion of my beloved home state I had never set foot in before, brought us on the final day to Pembroke, VA where we met up with Shawn.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was a beautiful day, but windy. I brought my 7-weight fly rod, which is a nice smallmouth rod in the wind, but I was not in the mood to fight it all day. We were there to relax and catch fish, and when the gusts are into the 35-40mph range, you leave the fly rod in the tube and grab a spinning rod. No apologies there, I love fly fishing but it was not the day for it.

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I love a brown trout. My favorite fish ever was a medium sized Yellowstone Cutthroat. Brookies, rainbows, salmon, steelhead, stripers, shad, they’re all special, really. But I have a particular affection for the Smallmouth Bass. I learned to fly fish clumsily throwing wooly buggers to smallies in my home waters of the Potomac and the last couple miles of the Shenandoah before the two rivers meet as one. I’ve fished from banks, waded for them and caught them from a kayak. On one kayak trip not far from where we now live, I caught my personal best smallmouth, about a 17.5 incher that towed me around for a while before I got it in.

Well that personal best was bested by a beefy 18-incher within 40 yards of the ramp where we put in. A good day already. But it gets better. I have never seen so many consistently big, hard-fighting smallmouth. One after the other we were pulling in fish measuring 16 to 18 inches. Then I hooked into a particularly heavy one, and the moment Shawn netted it, he said, “citation!”

I have never caught an official citation, or trophy fish of any species. A smallmouth has to be 20 inches in length to qualify, and this one is about 20.5″. It weighed in at 4.75 lbs. To get a citation of one of my very favorite species of fish is extremely special to me. But amazingly, probably seven of the biggest ten smallmouth I have ever caught, were caught on this day out of the New River.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut remarkable things were happening for the guy in the back of the boat, too! David, editor of the VDGIF Outdoor Report and a lifelong outdoorsman, declared this the best day of fishing of his life! He was reeling in a “mediocre” smallmouth, maybe 12-13″, it was up on the surface close to the boat. I was watching it when what I presumed for an instant was a shark of some sort crashed up through the surface of the water after the smallie.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWell of course it wasn’t a shark, it was a muskie! It had knocked the smallmouth free and was now on the line.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith the exception of the big salmon up in New York, this is the biggest freshwater fish I have ever seen with my own eyes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAShawn told David just what to do, let him have some line, and carefully David got this monster back toward the boat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut the fish was pretty angry about the whole thing, and had plenty of means and desire to fight back.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFinally he got into a position where Shawn could net him.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJust watching this I could feel the weight of this fish in the net!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn absolutely giddy David (left), holds his catch with proud guide Shawn. Congratulations, David, on a beautiful muskie!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThat night we celebrated with a great dinner at the nearby Palisades Restaurant, cigars and a few drinks. What a special day on the river, and I couldn’t be happier for David. I got my very special citation smallie, and he has a fish of a lifetime he will never forget. Wow.

That night we stayed in one of the riverfront cabins run by Tangent. This is the view from the porch. I didn’t think to get photos of the inside but I can’t recommend the cabins highly enough. Modern, comfortable, meticulously clean. Just a fantastic experience all around. I will absolutely return to the New River to have some fun with Tangent Outfitters!

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