Monday, December 24, 2012

Variety - Flyfishing in Iowa!

Flyfishing….its not just for trout!

Folks get started in flyfishing for different reasons.  I first tried flyfishing in about 2000.  I lived in Illinois at the time, and flyfished ponds for Bluegills and Crappies, and a nice stream for Smallmouth Bass.  I didn’t fall in love with it, and soon put the fly rod away in favor of spinning gear.   I started taking flyfishing more seriously back in 2006, well after my family had moved back to Iowa.  It was the answer to a problem I was having of presenting a small lure to Bluegills and Crappies with a very slow retrieve.  With ultralite spinning gear, I could cast as small as 1/64 oz jigs, but the retrieve was still often faster than I wanted it to be.  Using a small bobber helped to fish slower and cast lighter lures, but often spooked fish when it hit the water.

I reasoned that with the fly rod, I could fish a small unweighted fly extremely slowly…exactly the presentation I was looking for.  I bought a new flyrod and fly reel, line, and leader.  I bought some flies that looked like something I thought the fish would eat. I put the equipment together, and decided I should practice casting it to teach myself how to deliver the fly to the fish.  And, of course, what better place to “practice” than at the water’s edge?

Casting fly line is a different concept than casting lures with spinning/casting gear.  But anyone can learn it if they have a desire and the patience to do so.  There is an ever-changing rhythm to it.  I was soon catching fish, and the experience was everything I’d hoped it would be.  Presenting the fly, getting a take, setting the hook, fighting and landing the fish were all very enjoyable with flyfishing gear.  While casting wasn’t as quickfire as using spinning/casting gear, it was actively engaging, and entirely FUN!

Discovering how much I flat-out ENJOYED flyfishing, I began to expand the fish species I would chase with this gear.  I found myself taking flyfishing gear along on a trip to Florida, and catching such exotic freshwater species as Peacock Bass, Oscars, Mayan Cichlids, and Tilapia. Total blast!

The good news is, you don’t have to leave Iowa to catch some awesome fish species on flyfishing gear!  You just have to do your homework.  You DO need to understand the fish you choose to pursue.  Where do they live?  What do they eat?  Once you’ve gotten these two questions answered, then you can move on to field testing and answering the third question.  What does it take to get one to strike?

For many, figuring all this out is a big part of the FUN of FISHING, so I don’t want to be that annoying person that tells you the ending of a new movie before you get a chance to see it.  I will, however, endeavor to open your eyes to flyfishing for some fish species you may not have considered.  How about using fly gear to pursue some of these species of fish that are found right here in central Iowa?

There’s the obvious species to pursue, like Largemouth Bass:



Smallmouth Bass:

Hybrid Sunfish:

Green Sunfish:

All of the previous are reasonably common species.  How about these less common fly-fishing targets?

Grass Carp (possibly the most challenging fish of all to fool...but well worth the effort):

Common Carp (you’ll get a new appreciation for carp when you’ve fooled, fought, and landed your first one on fly gear…strong fish, yes sir!):

Smallmouth Buffalo (these were a delightfully unexpected reward caught while targeting carp):

Bigmouth Buffalo (disclaimer…this one was foul-hooked in the nose.  I’m still trying to solve the puzzle to hook one of these plankton feeders in the mouth with a fly):

Shortnose Gar (the gist of targeting these is that it is more like HUNTING and then casting to visible fish…very fun!):

Channel Catfish:

A trio of “yellows”…Yellow Bullhead:

Yellow Perch:

Yellow Bass:

..and White Bass:

Wiper (Hybrid):

Redear Sunfish:

Freshwater Drum:

…and even Walleye!  I’ve caught a few Walleyes with flyfishing gear in Iowa (in both lakes and rivers), but didn’t photograph any of them.  I did photograph some I caught on flies in Canada, however, so I’ll substitute one here.  The point is…it can be done.:
I started off saying that flyfishing isn’t just for trout.  It IS a good tool for trout, of course!  The Iowa DNR does stock trout in Central Iowa as part of the Urban Trout Program, so you can add the traditional flyrod trout to the list of possibilities for central Iowa, like this Brook Trout (not normally stocked for the UTP, but did get stocked at Lake Petocka in the Fall of 2011):

…and, finally, the more commonly stocked Rainbow Trout:

This would take us out of central Iowa, but if you don’t mind traveling to NE Iowa, you can add Brown Trout to your list:

I have also caught Northern Pike on a fly, but not in Iowa…yet.  They are in the Iowa River, and I’ve caught some on spinning gear in the Des Moines River and Raccoon River, so catching them on flyfishing gear is certainly a possibility.  They may be in other nearby rivers as well, so do your homework if you want to pursue Northern Pike on flies in Iowa.

There remains a number of other Iowa fish species I’m still looking forward to fooling with the fly rod, ranging from the Creek Chub to Flathead Catfish to Longnose Gar and a variety of suckers.  Asian Carp (Bigheads and Silvers) have invaded the Des Moines River to below Red Rock Lake.  It is unfortunate.  I’d love to be able to catch some of those large fish on flies too (even though this is unlikely since they are plankton filter-feeders), thus making lemonade from such lemons.

It has been said that if a fish eats, it can be caught on a fly.  I'll leave it to you to determine the truth of that statement.  Iowa abounds with a variety of fish species that you can pursue with flyfishing gear.  What kinds of fish do YOU want to catch?

How to Catch Stocker Trout - 2012 Iowa Urban Trout Program

I don’t like spending precious fishing time driving to far-off destinations, so I tend to fish very close to home.  There are very nice streams in NE Iowa where anglers can fish for trout.  Unfortunately, many of those streams are a three-plus hour drive from Des Moines!

The Iowa DNR implemented the Urban Trout Program, and has been expanding this program, which is designed to bring trout fishing closer to anglers across Iowa.  The increase in sales of the Iowa Trout license funds the cost of this program.  Not only does the program introduce anglers to catching trout, it also sparks Iowa tourism by getting anglers interested in making the drive to experience the trout fishing in NE Iowa’s streams.  Since the Urban Trout Program is designed as a “put-and-take” and seasonal fishery, anglers are encouraged to keep their limit of up to five trout for a tasty meal.

It’s practically a year-round opportunity.  In certain lakes, at least some of the trout are actually able to survive even the hottest summers, like we just experienced in 2012.  With the Fall and Winter stockings, anglers are able to ice-fish for trout, provided there is safe ice on the lake.

I fished three different Iowa Urban Trout Program lakes in 2012: Banner Pits in Summerset State Park, Lake Petocka, and Ada Hayden Lake.

I made it out once in late January to ice-fish a nearby lake for trout.  It wasn’t a Stocking Day.  Fishing was tough!  Very few other anglers were finding/catching fish, so it wasn’t a case of fishing like/near the successful anglers.  I did manage to land a couple of trout, however.

In past years, I have ice-fished these trout on Stocking Day, and have often done extremely well.  In one freakish instance back in February of 2008, I landed 115 Rainbow Trout in 5.5 hours of ice-fishing.  Crazy! That day was so crazy, that for awhile two friends and I were all standing around and fishing out of one 8” diameter ice hole at the same time, and all catching fish.  We fished holes just a couple feet away from this particular whole, and wouldn’t catch anything.  Yes, we were laughing at ourselves while this ridiculous scenario was playing out, and enjoying every minute!  It was a similar experience in January of 2007, when I landed 88 Rainbow Trout through the ice in 5.25 hours of fishing.  On each of those days, I just shook a small Reef Runner Cicada about 18” below the ice.  The trout would come in and hammer the lure repeatedly…coming back again and again if they didn’t get hooked!

This year, open water arrived early in central Iowa.  I was fishing open water during the last week of February.  During the first week of March, I flyfished for trout at a central Iowa lake a couple of times during my lunch hour.  With the driving time to get to the lake and back, I was left with about 20 minutes to fish.  Using sinking fly patterns, I caught (and released) five Rainbow Trout each time.

I flyfished for trout a few more times through March and April.  April 21st was my last brief trip to an Urban Trout Program Lake before the Spring heat arrived, and I did catch a trout that evening on flyfishing gear.

On October 19th, Banner Pits was the first lake in the area to get a Fall stocking of trout.  Using a couple different fly patterns, I caught 21 Rainbow Trout on Stocking Day.  (I’ll talk about fly patterns later.)

My next trip to Banner was not until 9 days later.  I caught a bass, a crappie and a bluegill, but no trout.  I did have one trout follow my fly, and another actually hit it, but shook free almost immediately.  After talking with several people, only one had caught a single trout that day.  One guy had located hundreds of trout in one area, and threw everything he could think of at them, but couldn’t get them to strike.  Hey, it happens!

The next lake to receive trout this Fall was Lake Petocka on November 1.  I flyfished it on Stocking Day for a couple hours.  I caught/released 5 trout and a bass, but fishing (catching) was extremely slow for everyone.

I continued to flyfish at Lake Petocka occasionally thru December 1.  I had some excellent days flyfishing there, catching 64 Rainbow Trout in 6 hours of fishing one day, and then catching 78 Rainbow Trout in 4 hours a couple days later.  Trips like those are outstanding…and not typical by any means. I had a few other days with shorter fishing trips, and fewer fish caught.  In that first week following the stocking, I had caught 10% of the 1,500 trout that had been stocked.  And within one month following the stocking, I had caught a total of an even 200 Rainbow Trout there, or 13.33% of the stocked fish.  Not too shabby for 9 fishing trips!

Ada Hayden Lake was stocked on Nov. 20, and it was an interesting experience.  I flyfished it on Stocking Day.  One DNR employee I talked to said he counted 95 anglers there at the time the fish were put in the lake.  It was crowded!  I caught and released 5 trout fairly quickly, but then the crowd got under my skin and I decided to call it a day (part of the reason was that I had already caught 22 trout at Lake Petocka earlier that same day, and I was worn out!).

A buddy and I flyfished Ada Hayden once more on the day after the Fall trout stocking.  It was extremely windy.  We thought the trout would be along the north shoreline where the wind was blowing in.  Casting into that wind was tough, and we didn’t see anyone catching any trout.  We walked 4/5 of the way around the lake before we finally found any trout.  It was apparently the mother lode!  We fished those pods of trout along with several other anglers.  In the next couple of hours, my buddy and I caught/released a total of 112 Rainbow Trout between the two of us!

What works for catching these “stocker trout” at the Urban Trout Program lakes?  Anglers using live bait or prepared baits can catch trout on live minnows, nightcrawlers, canned corn, marshmallows, salmon eggs, and artificial scented baits such as some Berkley products developed for trout.  Bottom fishing can work, but suspending the bait under a bobber keeps it up where more trout are likely to see it.  Anglers casting lures can catch trout by retrieving small jigs tipped with plastics, small in-line spinners such as Mepps or Panther Martins, and small Kastmaster spoons.

I have tried most of those lures and baits, and caught some trout on them.  Anglers tossing artificial subsurface fly patterns with fly rods usually out-catch the other fishing methods by a substantial margin.  I’ve personally switched to fly-fishing for these trout, and have seen my success rate soar during the open-water season.

Different days see some fly patterns working better than others.  The most consistent pattern is a Woolly Bugger, in about a size 8 or 10.  Those that have a beadhead for weight are more versatile, but some days unweighted ones are useful if the fish are in the shallows.  Total length of the fly at about 1.5” seems to be an effective size.  Feel free to experiment.  This fly pattern can be bought or tied in a wide variety of colors.  Darker colors seem to work best the majority of the time, but some days the fish want white.

 Another color scheme that worked really well for me this Fall is called a “Chili Pepper”, and is made with a lot of flashy copper-colored materials.

Another idea to keep in mind when choosing fly patterns to use for these “stocker trout” is that they have been raised in a hatchery on pelleted food.  So, it stands to reason they will want to try to eat a fly that looks to be close to the color or size of a trout food pellet.  I tied up a pattern like those in the picture below, and some days have done well on them, either retrieved or suspended under and indicator (and indicator is a fly-fisherman’s version of a bobber).

At every lake I visited, each day the biggest challenge was to locate the fish.  Once located, they could usually be tempted to strike.  Wind and waves sometimes made it difficult to detect, but watching the surface of the water and looking for trout to give their location away by swirling or jumping at the surface of the lake is a good way to discover their location.  Another good rule of thumb is to fish the downwind shore of the lake.  This rule isn’t 100% accurate…but pretty close.  Some days the fish were out away from shore, other days they were cruising the shallows just a few feet from the shoreline.  Sometimes you can see pods of trout near the surface.  If these are within casting distance, you are in for some excellent action!  Try to pick off fish from the edges of the pod to avoid spooking them.  Other times, looser and smaller groups of fish can be seen cruising along the edge of the first dropoff near shore.  Cast ahead of their direction of travel and bring the fly/lure across in front of their path.  Trout are aggressive when they strike, there is no doubt when you have a fish on the line.

Fishing the Urban Trout Program is a great time!  Plus, fishing for trout extends the fishing season, since these fish stay active in colder water when most of our warmwater species are fishing much slower due to the colder seasons.  Get out there and have fun!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

2012 Fishing Summary – Year In Review

As of December 12, 2012…I’m calling it “a year” as far as fishing goes.  With the weather (ice on the lakes) and family commitments between now and the end of the calendar year, I don’t foresee me doing any more fishing in 2012.

And what a year this has been!!  The ice melted away quickly and the temperatures wasted little time in heating up.  The Lower 48 States experienced the hottest first half of the year on record…and darn close to the record for hottest year ever.  With the heat came very little rain, so lakes and river levels were extremely low, in fact many area rivers (such as the Skunk River in Ames) dried to the point of having no measurable flow, Saylorville Lake continues to drop several feet below normal pool (the USACE has to release a minimum amount of water from the lake, which this year happens to be more than is coming in!), and even Big Creek lake is at least 6’ low and dropping due to low flows coming into the lake and a leaking valve on an outlet pipe that isn’t getting fixed.

These conditions made for interesting and unusual fishing circumstances.  For me, fishing was better for much of the year.  I’ve keep a Fishing Log each year since the beginning of 2006.  I set a personal goal of catching 1,000 fish each year.  I had “record months” in March, April, August, October, and November!  In just my best two months (November & April), I totaled 981 fish!  Conversely, my worst 3 months (January, December and February) resulted from only 10 fishing trips total, and 116 fish caught total.  This is typical for winter-time in Iowa.  In December, lakes are often frozen over, but the ice isn’t thick enough to fish on.  In February/March, the ice usually is melting away and again is not safe to fish on.  In January the ice is usually safe, but it takes longer to set up for ice-fishing, so I usually don’t go during my lunch hour, and of course that time of year it is dark by the time I get off work.  That leaves weekends, and those often find me busy with family.  So, I consider any Winter fishing I’m able to do to be a bonus.

I will say I spent an inordinate amount of time chasing such difficult (with a fly rod) species as Grass Carp, Channel Catfish, Common Carp, and Buffalo.  These aren’t high-number species.  I didn’t land any Grass Carp this year, but I had about a half-dozen hooked, which was much better than last year.

I added 5 species to my “Fly Rod Life List”, bringing my total Fly Rod Species list to 28.  The new species this year were Yellow Bass, Yellow Bullhead, Redear Sunfish, Smallmouth Buffalo, and Freshwater Drum.  Too bad Crayfish isn’t a real fish…I caught one of those on a fly this year, too!  J

Here’s some of the “raw numbers”.

Days Fished:  166 (not a record)
Fishing Trips: 211 (I consider it a separate “trip” if I visit multiple bodies of water in the same day, or fish during my lunch hour, then again in the evening (for example).)…(not a record)
Hours Fished: 336 (not a record)
Average Fishing Day Duration: 2 Hours
Average Fishing Trip Duration: 1.6 Hours
Fish Caught: 3,112 (NEW RECORD! This beat my previous record of 2,626 by a substantial margin…486!)
Species: 21
Fly Rod Species: 18
Fly Rod Trips: 190 (NEW RECORD!  This is 90% of my overall fishing trips, @92% of my open-water fishing trips)
Fly Rod Fish Caught: 2,846 (NEW RECORD!)  This works out to an average of 15 Fish per trip (using a fly rod), or 9.4 fish/ hour, or 6.4 minutes between fish.  Statistics geek!  J

Each year it is interesting to see how many fish of each species I catch, and how those ratios change from year to year.  Bluegills and Crappies are what I fish for most, so those will probably always be my top 2 species.  Lets review the top 11 species from this year:

Species                                                            No. Caught
Bluegill                                                            1,341 (New Record!)
Crappie (White and Black)                             776
Rainbow Trout                                                318 (New Record!)
Largemouth Bass                                            236
Sunfish (Green and Hybrid)                           165
White Bass                                                      144
Smallmouth Bass                                            51 (New Record!)
Common Carp                                                 24 (New Record!)
Channel Catfish                                              13
Wiper (Hybrid)                                               12
Yellow Bass                                                    11 (New Record!)

Although the numbers were extremely few, I did set new Records for Redear Sunfish (3) and Smallmouth Buffalo (2).

I definitely caught some nice fish, with approximately 34 fish over 20” long.  I tied my biggest Fly Rod Largemouth Bass with a 19-incher.  I landed 10 Channel Catfish between 21”-27” (nearly all of these were on flyfishing gear/flies), and 23 Carp over 20”.  Longest fish of the year was a 31.5” Common Carp.  "Best Fish" might be the 14.5" White Crappie I caught on a fly rod during my lunch hour.  It qualified for an Iowa Master Angler Award.

I had two 100-fish days, and 1 days with 6 species caught.  I fished with 13 different folks this year.  I fished 30 different waters, 8 of which were completely new to me.

There you have it.  The numbers have been crunched!  I’m looking forward to seeing what 2013 has in store for fishing.  Best of luck to you! J

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Lunchtime Flyfishing Report, 12-4-2012

50 degrees when I left the office for lunch...and 58 when I got back! Ahhh, December in Iowa! 
Now, keep in mind all the local ponds were 100% ice-covered for about 5 days about a week-and-a-half ago. Then the ice melted off again...but the water is THAT cold!

I went flyfishing, of course. Despite the warm air temps, those fish are getting extremely sluggish. I missed quite a few soft strikes. The first first fish that decided to let me hook it was a crappie. It came in like a wooden plank. The other fish fought better, but that first one was a good indication of the fish's activity level right now.

I ended up catching 3 Crappies and 4 Bluegills. The biggest crappie was this 12.5-incher:

All on a microjig under an indicator.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Flyfishing in central Iowa!!!

It isn't often we get to flyfish in December, here in central Iowa!  I flyfished a nearby lake from Noon to 4:30pm on Saturday, December 1.  Action was very slow.

The ones that did strike were still very aggressive about it and fought well.  I managed to land 12 Rainbow Trout.  A guy using spinning gear stopped to talk for a bit... Said he'd caught 6. I didn't see any of those get caught, however.  He was interested in my flyfishing, and said he'd bought a fly rod, but was sort of intimidated by it.  He thought he might bring out the next day and give it a try.

I tried a lot of different flies, but kept coming back to the one that really worked... The "Chili Pepper".

Here's some pics:

This next one was bizarre, in that it was a really dark color, lots of purple.  Was this just a melanistic Rainbow Trout, or spawning colors, or....?  Ever seen one like this?