In 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.
It 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.
While 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.
My 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.
I 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.
So 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.
I 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?
Well 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.
While 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!
Be 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!
After a brief test run a week ago to make sure Finn was open to the idea, we went out for his maiden point-to-point voyage Sunday afternoon. I’ve had Winnie in the kayak with me before, but she’s 50 lbs. and Finn is 70 and a lot taller when he sits up. But as long as he didn’t make any sudden moves, the whole arrangement proved pretty comfortable.
But, no question about it, the best possible position for him to be in is lying down. He got pretty comfortable, although I forgot to bring the plugs to put in the scupper holes. So between my fat ass and his, we were a little back heavy and he had to deal with some water back there. He doesn’t mind this, he loves to lie down in the water in fact. But next time I’ll bring those scupper plugs and keep the back seat a bit drier for him.
So we left the safe confines of the boat launch area on the C&O Canal at Brunswick, MD, and ventured out into the main stem of the Potomac. The first thing we see are geese. I wouldn’t say this was unexpected, I see thousands of geese on the Potomac. But I kind of forgot that Finn would be encountering new things on the water in addition to just the flowing river. He moaned about these geese, some of whom crossed right in front of the boat (I did not have the camera for that because, truthfully, I was preparing for a Finn-induced capsizing). But an easy, “staaaaayyyyyy,” and he kept calm.
Once we encountered a few obstacles, ran through a couple areas of riffles, and got a few miles under our belt, it was time to find a lazy stretch of river, hang my feet over the side and share a cold beer with my boy. I am so proud of him!
After the beer break, a storm started building behind us. We were in sight of the takeout ramp but still had some paddling to do. Finn doesn’t like thunderstorms one bit, so maybe he was keeping an eye on the storm here. But facing the back of the boat proved to be I think the most comfortable orientation for him, and he just rested his chin on the back there.
We beat the storm back to the ramp and of course Finn made fast friends. I’ve certainly never had a dog that makes friends so easily, but everybody loves this boy. And, as I noticed at the festival down in Richmond, people kind of just want to put their hand on him.
The gentleman on the left was talking to me about fishing and asked if I had fished my way downstream. I told him no, this being Finn’s first trip I didn’t want any extra distractions. We were watching his friend fish off the side of the ramp as he caught a little smallmouth. He brought it over to us while he was taking the hook out and Finn just FREAKED OUT! He wanted that fish! I was holding Finn’s collar and the fisherman walked back to the water’s edge and tossed the bass back in, about fifteen feet away. We continued talking for a few minutes and, with Finn in a sit, I didn’t think twice about letting go of his collar. The instant I did he took off at full speed into the river right to where the fish was thrown in! I called him back and he did his upright, front legs splashing, barely making forward progress swim back to the ramp. One of the men said, “He’s not a very good swimmer.”
No, no he isn’t. Although he’s pretty good at dog paddling. He just prefers the kind with a boat.
The 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.”
This 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.
The 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!
The 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.
It 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!
On 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.
I’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.
So 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.
This 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!
The 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!
The conditions were right. The day was hot, river was low and relatively clear but still cool, and I hadn’t spent quality time with my dogs, Team Orange, in too long. I knew they would enjoy romping in the river this evening, the first such outing this summer.
What I sometimes forget about dogs — maybe my dogs, probably all dogs — is their almost limitless capacity for joy. I’m not sure I have ever seen them happier than they were tonight, with bright eyes, wagging tails, curious exploration, barks of joy and irrepressible affection. Here Winnie has a blast digging up a stick. Simple pleasures.
As great as those Adult Swim moments are, though, this trip to the river was about the kids. They seem to love this water level, shallow enough to bound through it after a toy, but with spots deep enough to swim, too. Here Finn shakes off after returning the bumper.
Sandy got them this great bumper toy from Chuckit! that they just love. It’s easy to spot, floats high in the water and is soft in their mouth. Finn is much stronger (and taller, which helps) in shallower water where he can bound through it. Once they are swimming, they are both about equal. But Finn will stay and wait if Winnie hasn’t gotten one in a while, and let me throw it just for her to retrieve.
God I love this dog. This is one of my favorite things, the watching. Something either touched her foot or caught her eye and she stared at it like this for a minute or more, fascinated. What a lovable dork.
I’ve been keeping these wading boots down at the river, hanging up to dry in the shelter that sits on the bank. That way I can make the trek down there in hiking or work boots and have dry feet for the trip back up.
This morning I went down to get some fishing in and was startled (um, okay, it scared the crap out of me) when I reached for my boots and a wren flew out of one of them right into my face. Once my heart rate slowed to double digits, I knew what the situation was without even looking.
A few weeks ago, my friend Chris and I went to the river to set up game cameras, hoping to capture images of the beautiful wood ducks that have proven so skittish and difficult to photograph. On that same day Chris spotted where the owl had been hiding, so we decided to set up my camera trained at the owl. The camera Chris brought we would set up low on a tree in a little cove where I have spotted wood ducks before. It has a bracket that screws into a tree trunk, then the camera slips over the bracket and you’re ready to go.
Except we forgot one thing: To keep an eye on the river levels. An earlier rain was still having an impact downstream, and in no time the camera was underwater. Being airtight and buoyant, however, it simply lifted up off the bracket as the water got higher, and floated away.
We assumed it was lost forever. But tonight when I went to retrieve the bracket and scout another wood duck location I did some looking around. Low and behold, I spotted the camera in a debris pile less than fifty feet downstream of the tree on which it was mounted. Although it wasn’t above water for long before the water took it away, Chris and I were both anxious to see what was on the memory card! The camera, while it was on its little adventure, took 1,470 photos. Here are the highlights…
This is most likely a Great Blue Heron. I’ve seen them in this cove before, and while this neck is very white like that of an egret or something, some Great Blues have a mostly white neck. Regardless, pretty cool capture. But, cool as it is, I really wanted wood ducks.
And finally, the last creature to show up (not counting the spider on the cam in the first shot) is the one writing this story. I was as surprised as that rabbit to see this camera down there, and when the flash went off I knew it had continued working the entire time.
After clumsily flushing two pairs of wood ducks from the bank of the Potomac last night, I decided to return tonight and stealthily approach with my long lens and see if I could photograph them. I love wood ducks, but have never been able to get a decent shot, and have never even had a chance at a bad shot of a male. It was harder than I thought, and I thought it would be nearly impossible. The woods along the river at our place are pretty dense, even with no leaves on the trees, so I almost had to be standing on the bank out in the open before I had a clear shot. Focusing through all those little branches is not easy.
So I slowly and quietly edged closer, still too far away for a photo when the first two exploded out of the water with a shrill, sustained warning for the other pair about thirty yards upstream. Swing and a miss. Never even raised the camera to my eye. But the other pair did not heed the warning, so I had another chance. I painstakingly moved their way, picking muddy patches to step in when I could find them, rather than the flood debris of dried and brittle sticks. But I could only get so close before they, too, had enough of my games.
I found a good vantage point out of sight in case they returned and waited. Instead of the shrill call of the wood ducks, however, I heard overhead the distinct cackle of eagles. The pair flew directly over me but I couldn’t get the camera up in time. As they landed in a high branch nearby, I tried to focus on them through the infinite maze of twigs between us. I snapped a few photos I knew would be no good and was about to hike up the hill to the house, defeated, when the cackling picked up and I took another look through the lens. What happened next, well, let’s just say there will be the pitter patter of little eagle talons around the nest in about forty days.
While I wished I was closer, or at least had a clearer path through which to shoot, I didn’t dare take a step for fear of giving away my position. So I watched, and shot, with the utmost respect and awe, at a truly remarkable natural wonder. So here are fourteen crappy pictures of bald eagles making little bald eagles, and one crappy picture of a wood duck. Maybe the best day of poor photography I’ve ever had, and a first day of spring I’ll remember for a long time. I will be watching out for the juvenile eagles this summer, soaring above, learning to fish, finding their way. They’re always wonderful to see, but this year’s babies will be most special.
Anyone who sees the title of this blog would deduce that the Potomac River is a big part of my life. Last week I wrote this piece for the Huffington Post, about the Potomac River, the Clean Water Act, and the announcement of an important documentary series focusing on the health of our nation’s rivers. Below is an excerpt from that article:
The Nation’s River (working title), from producer/director Hunter Weeks and Washington, D.C.-based producer Joe Cantwell, along with presenting sponsor Trout Headwaters, Inc., will focus on this important watershed and the challenges the Potomac has faced – and still faces. The film will also set the stage for a series of river-based films. Weeks’ last film, Where the Yellowstone Goes, a poignant portrait of the longest undammed river in the continental United States and a film I admire a great deal, will be showing November 17th at the Alexandria Film Festival. After the film, Weeks will officially announce the new project and launch the series of river-based films exploring, in the words of Trout Headwaters, Inc.’s Mike Sprague, “how important healthy rivers are to the health of our nation.”
The film, slated to begin production next spring, may surprise some who view the past 40 years of the Clean Water Act as an absolute environmental success. The balance between growth and the protection of natural resources is delicate and never-ending, and the stewards of those resources fight an uphill battle. Weeks, in his signature artful, thoughtful and compelling way, is sure to shed some interesting light on the CWA in what he calls, “The Food, Inc. of water films.” (Food, Inc. is a 2008 documentary about the food industry. It is not a flattering portrayal.)
The screening and a lovely reception sponsored by Trout Headwaters, Inc. took place on the Cherry Blossom boat docked on the Potomac.
It was a beautiful and unique venue, and the movie was well attended by close to 150 people.
Producer Joe Cantwell announces the river-based documentary series.
“I’m excited for this story on the Potomac River,” Weeks said. “This river represents our nation in so many ways, from its rich historical perspective and pure individual beauty to the ways it has fought to be cleaner during a time of massive urban growth.”
UPDATE: Where the Yellowstone Goes was awarded crowd favorite at the festival! Congratulations to all involved with the film.