Category Archives: Fly Fishing Guidance

2-nighter on the JDB trail: May 1-3, 2022

Although i still haven’t mastered my fancy GoPro, this release gives you an idea of how dirty the water was

Forks of the Kern Update: It’s Open!

I cannot tell you how many emails I have answered asking about when the Forks will open again.  As of Today, 5/13/22. IT’S OPEN!

Just got word from a buddy who said, “Western Divide, he said Lloyd Meadows and the Forks will be open as of today.  He said they’re “in the process” of clearing it all out, and “there may be escorts”, but it will be open for sure for my trip on Sunday.  I even got my Wilderness permit approved.” 

Beware: There are a couple of barriers to your fishing fun when the Forks finally does open after its 2 year hiatus.  Firstly, in high flow of the main river, the little kern river crossing (which is part of the Forks trail) can be treacherous.  Secondly, the Upper Kern is just difficult to fish in flows over 500CFS.  It has everything to do with the willows, trees and other bushes that line the river.  It’s just hard to find spots in the river to wade in safely when “it’s up.”.  

2-nighter on the JDB trail: May 1-3, 2022

Flow:

  • Sunday: 545 CFS
  • Monday: 560 CFS
  • Tuesday: 585 CFS

Solunar

  • Sunday: 92%
  • Monday: 77%
  • Tuesday: 52%
That is a Huck Midge Perdigon, Size 14 hanging out of this KRR’s face. In conditions like this you have to go big and get down quickly.

Conditions:

A muddy, rising, raging torrent of death topped off with 30 MPH gusts of wind.  I was a week too late; the runoff has started.  I caught it perfectly in 2020 and 2021.  The Upper Kern will be pretty much unfishable to anyone but experts as it rises to over 1000 CFS through mid June. 

Notice that brown raging torent of death beyond my tent in the background. normally this is one of the best plunge pools and runs on this stretch of the river. it’s a great campsite because of the location and view of the river.

Report:

On a full day of fishing on Monday, I got ~10 to hand losing about twice that many.  So, considering the bad conditions and still getting around 30 takes one might think I’d be stoked.  But, I expected to get 40 to hand and lose another 40 like the prior 2 years.  Still totally fun.  How can getting takes on a size 4 huck hopper in April not be fun? 

Casting for Recovery:

I drove straight from guiding the Casting for Recovery Event near Yosemite to the Johnsondale Bridge.  I cannot tell you what a pleasure and honor it was to help in that event.  14 ladies who stared down death in the gun barrel of cancer to get out in the outdoors for 3 days of learning about fly fishing.  I was teamed up with an extraordinary woman.  I’ll call her “B” because her story of breast cancer survival is personal.  It was personal for me because my wife is a breast cancer survivor.  “B” is a  young beautiful lady originally from Toronto and now living in Temecula with her husband from Northern Ireland.   I have been to Northern Ireland a few times; I have a first cousin there.  So we had a lot to talk about.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get to fish a river teaming with trout.  We were put on a pond that had not been stocked.  To make it even more challenging trees lined this pond so a traditional overhand cast was impossible.  Not to worry it wasn’t about catching.  It never is about catching…is it?  The night before the event, I tied a bunch of Squirmy Worms in the hotel room I had in Reedley, CA.  The squirmy and the mop fly are now illegal in competition fly fishing events….for a reason….and I tie them with glow in the dark materials… it’s totally cheating…I don’t even sell them on this site anymore for that reason.  I only use them when teaching beginners.  So, yea, perfect for an event with beginners like casting for recovery.   So, I started by teaching a roll cast.  But, we talked through what an overhand cast would be…the 10-2 thing..  teaching the casts in that reverse order was a first for me.  but, in the long term probably a good strategy I may use again.  if you can roll cast you can fly fish anywhere.  Especially on the Upper Kern where it’s tough to find room for an overhand cast.  “B” picked it up pretty quickly.  She clearly has an athletic set of genes in her.  Well, sure enough…within 15 minutes a huge largemouth took that squirmy super close to the shore in 1.5 feet of water .  Unfortunately her teacher (me) didn’t focus on how to set to deeply because I never dreamed we’d get a take.  It was an enormous bass and I was clearly more excited about it than “B”. 😊  we only got a fish for 2-3 hours.  I could have done that all day with her and had the time of my life.  So fun.

“B” is headed to Scotland this summer…and yes, she’ll fly fish with her husband.  I’d really love to get those two on the annual couples trip to the forks this fall.  And I told her as much.  The casting for recovery event was just a great time.  All the guides and support staff are simply awesome people….as you’d imagine.  I can’t wait to be honored to do it again.

Yep, that’s a mountain lion and pretty fresh. I stepped over it entering the river at the end of the JDB trail intersection with the canyon trail to the Rincon Trail. the print was right at the river’s edge and he’s up on his toes taking a drink.

Upper Kern Backpacking and Fishing Details:

I had a long 3 hour drive south and east into the sierras from the Casting for Recovery event to the Johnsondale bridge.  While driving I checked the flow and my heart just sunk.  The river was rising.  I knew exactly what that meant: I was too late. 

I got to the parking lot at the JDB around 3:45PM and took off with 42 pounds on my back from the at 4pm.  I knew I had a couple hour hike and that I should get to camp well before the sun went down at 6:30.  I did not see a single sole from the minute I got on the trail until I hiked out and reached the parking lot on Tuesday at 10:15 AM.  Nice.  But, it was hard not to stare at that rising river as I hiked in.  It had a brown tint to it too.  It was already blown out.

If you are a backpacker, you know the hassle and stress of getting your campsite set up while racing the sun.  So, I didn’t get a cast in that first day.  I didn’t have time to string a rod.  And that was fine.  I knew I’d have a full day tomorrow.  I just love the occasional backpacking alone thing.  It so good for clearing the mind and letting go of the stress of every day life.

Anyone who has caught a Native Wild Kern River Rainbow can relate to this. although the picture isn’t in focus notice the two splash circles. This fish did a double 360 spin in the air while i laughed in amusement. I probably didn’t land him.

Also, as I my habit I was asleep pretty early.  Between the long day, the hike, jack daniels, a fire and bbqing a steak I hiked in I was pretty toast.  I retreated to my tent to listen to fly fishing podcasts and was soon asleep.  And that means I was up and out of the tent at 5:45am.  Guess what I did first.  I stared at the river.  in that low light of the morning when the sun is rising i said to myself, “It’s big; but, It doesn’t look that bad.”  So I strung a rod.  Although I hadn’t seen any I had heard the salmonfly hatch was still on.  I had tied a dozen for the trip so I quickly tied one on and got in position for a 6am cast.  It made a simple 40 foot cast straight up river on the seam. The light was so poor it was hard to see that huge salmonfly coming back at me.  But sure enough I saw what looked like a take and I set hard.  I was on.  I laughed as I released it because I have not caught many fish that early in the day.  Then I made the mistake of saying to myself, “this is going to be a good day.”  because it was exactly then when it hit me: The first cast fish jinx… I cannot tell you how many times that has happened to me. 

Well, I know that upper couple miles of the JDB stretch like the back of my hand so I fished all day where I knew fish held. But, when I wasn’t getting consistent rises I faced the reality of nymphing by way of the Huck Hopper/Dropper. The prior two years of me fishing the JDB stretch in April before the Forks opened I absolutely killed on dries.  Not this year.  I was just a week too late.  The river huge, dirty and blow out.  The flow was tough to get the flies down in the deeper water.  And I knew I had to get them down because the water clarity was only about a foot.  That was why I wasn’t getting rises.  The fish just couldn’t see through the dirty water.  But there are two plunge pools up river from the trail end where I did pretty well on Huck Midge Perdigons in less than 3 feet of water.  Then that wind came in.  I guessed 30mph gusts because I was actually blown off a rock I was standing on in the river.  At points it was really hard to get a drift but I kept fighting through it.  What else was I going to do?  I’m not much of a sit and wait guy.

Normally i miss the nature shots like this one. Springtime can be pretty spectacular in the Kern River Canyon

Out of the ten or so to hand only one was a larger Kern River Rainbow (KRR).  All the others were in the less than 10” class.  Most of which I guessed to be 2 year fish.  But, the reality of the conditions and the river still rising made me decide I’d hike out early the next morning instead of battling all day again.

So, I hiked out early in the morning after breaking camp and was on the road in Huck-Truck by 1030AM back home.  My next adventure will be at the forks.  Most likely end of June / early July.  Hope to see you there.

Trinity River – Jan 18-23

Jack Duncan with a Monster Steelhead.  I sure hope i can do this when i’m 84…

When Jack Duncan, my buddy from the San Diego Fly Fishers Club, emailed me that he wanted to chase steelhead on the Trinity river in Northern California I replied with a simple “In!”  I had fished the Trinity about a decade ago for a single day…and that day the Steelhead Trout lived up to its moniker: “the fish of 5000 casts”.  I did not get a single take.  Since that time, I have been lucky enough to fish steelhead a number of times during my stints up at Microsoft in Redmond, WA where I did do better; mostly on the Olympic Peninsula.  But, I had been itching to get back to California steelheading on the Trinity for a long time.  Gary Strawn and Paul Woolery from SDFF completed the foursome.

In Steelheading terms we did well.  For the two guided days we had, we boated 13 fish.  The average steelhead day is hoping for one grab; let alone getting a fish to hand.

You know it’s a special fish when the guide takes a picture of it.

The Steelhead

The Steelhead is just a giant rainbow trout.  What makes it different from a regular rainbow trout is 2 things:

  1. it’s anadromous nature: After maturing, the steelhead travels the river downstream hundreds of miles to the ocean, feeding heavily for a year to 3 years before entering back into the river it was born in… frequently spawning within a 2 inch radius of where it was originally hatched! There still is no science to explain how the steelhead does it; only conjecture.  The Trinity River Steelhead travel just short of 100 miles up the river to their original spawning grounds.  God only knows how far out to sea they go.  But, the Steelhead in the Columbia River system can travel over 800 miles to the Idaho rivers there were born in.  800 miles to spawn in a 2” radius of where they were hatched.  Had we not screwed up the environment around a hundred years ago by installing dams (with the incredibly efficient production of hydroelectric power), the steelhead (like the salmon) would still be travelling over 1000 miles to Montana and beyond.
  2. The steelhead gets abnormally huge. Like 3 feet long and over 10 pounds huge.  They get abnormally big eating shrimp and fish in the ocean.  A wild steelhead that size is difficult to land.  They frequently do spectacular jumps combined with runs of over 100 yards in either direction.

The steelhead is a fish of lore that has ruined marriages and destroyed finances.  I’m not kidding.  Once you catch a big wild steelhead it changes your life.

Sporting this season’s latest in fly fishing fashion wear, this is Gary Strawn with a chromer.

The Outfitters

I have been lucky enough to use a number of fly fishing guides in my 30+ years of fly fishing.  I feel like that is a well spent investment because I have learned so much from guides….and continue to.  I have only had one bad guiding experience in that 30+ years. That was the last time I was at the Trinity over a decade ago.  “The Fly Shop” in Redding gave us a really hungover, cigarette smoking guide that spent more time throwing up on the river bank, combined with long stints in porta potties than he did fishing with us.  You don’t judge an outfitter by one guide. So, of course, our first stop after landing in Redding, CA was “The Fly Shop.  “The Fly Shop” is the largest fly fishing internet retailer in the world for a reason.  Like Costco, you just can’t get out of there without dropping a hundred….which we all did.

On Jack’s advice we used Confluence Outfitters for the guides on this trip.  Jack had used them before.  Jack and I fished together both days and Paul and Gary fished together both days.  But we alternated the guides (and the river sections):

Luke is a young guide with 2 masters degrees that fished us on the Upper Trinity River.  And Peter is a long time guide, very well known who fished us on the lower Trinity River.  Both guides were excellent and 13 fish to net is a testament to that.  I strongly recommend you contact them if you want to check the California steelhead thing off your bucket list.

The Trinity River is a small river in steelhead terms. And crystal clear

Using a guide on the Trinity is almost a must.  Not just to learn techniques.  But, because of the drift boat.  Accessing good steelhead holding water is easy with a drift boat.  It is quite difficult without one at the Trinity River.  So much of the Trinity river is overgrown, on private property, or too deep to wade.

You are either trying to catch a steelhead on their way to spawn or on their way out to the ocean.  In both cases because they are on a mission; they are not eating much.   You are basically trying to piss them off enough with an artificial to instigate a genetic reaction.  There are small (12” to 20”) resident steelhead that are too juvenile to head out to the ocean.  They call them, “half pounders”.  They do eat and we did catch a few.

Now this is a tropy shot. Guide Peter Santely holding a big wild steelhead that Paul Woolery fooled.

The Fly Fishing Techniques for Steelhead

  1. Staring at the Bobber – 10 to 1 the most effective way to fish for steelhead is under the indicator. Yep, arrogant dry fly dumb asses like me just have to get over the bobber thing. And I did get over it pretty quickly.  There is definitely skill involved in casting and getting a good drift on flies that can get 12 feet or even more below the bobber.   I examined the way Peter Santley rigged my 10 foot 8 weight Orvis Helios II with an indicator set up and it was quite elaborate.  They use a balsa wood indicator that is shaped like a football so that it points down to where your flies are.  that helps in mending to get a good drift.  That indicator sits between tiny little rubber “bobber stoppers” on a 6 foot section of 20 pound mono.  Those bobber stoppers allow for easy adjustment of the indicator to water depth.  It allows the guide to adjust the bobber to the depth of the holding water where the steelhead lie resting between runs up or down stream.  Below the section of 20 LB is a tippet ring.  Tied on the tippet ring is 10 or 12 pound flouro with a small weight attached then the first fly.  Below that is 6 lb flouro to the bottom fly.  For this trip the typical top fly was a rubber legs or large yellow stone fly nymph.  And the bottom fly was a size 14 copper john.

Jack and Gary throwing dries just downstream from the Lewiston “old bridge”.

  1. Swinging – Traditional steelheaders fish streamers. And most of the time on sinking lines or sinking tips.  It’s called swinging because you cast 45 degrees downstream and hang on as the fly swings across the river getting tight.  You pause at the end because when you have success it’s because the steelhead has chased it across the river and when it slows down and stops that is when you typically get the strike.  And those strikes are violent because the steelhead takes the fly in shallow water downstream from you and heads like a rocket back to it’s holding water.  Typical swinging flies for steelhead look nothing like anything in nature.  They are colorful, long and skinny.  On the pros recommendations, I used “Hobo Speys” and “Burnt Chickens” on this trip (unsuccessfully I might add).  You can use traditional single handed fly rods; typically with a sinking head or a versileader.  But, typically you use a spey rod in swinging for steelhead.  I spent a good amount of quality time in lessons with SDFF’s John Wiley who taught me how to cast a spey rod proficiently.  But, alas, my spey rod is still a virgin.  Although I have to tell you I am hooked on the spey rod thing.  Using a Double Spey cast over either shoulder I was casting 80-100 feet effortlessly…which allows you to cover a lot of water.  There is no back cast in a spey cast so you really can do it anywhere.

In any other scenario this would be a special fish. In the world of steelheading this is called a Half-Pounder.

  1. Dries – As crazy unlikely as it seems you can fish dries for steelhead. You can even skate them with a Spey Rod.  It’s quite the long shot.  I have only caught one steelhead in my lifetime on a dry and it was because of a guide, the world famous Jim Kerr of the OP on the Bogashiel river.  It was 25 years ago and I have been obsessed by it ever since.  Gary, Paul and Jack gave it their all for sure… and had as much success with dries as I did swinging.  While I was swinging the spey rod those guys were fishing “like men”: big dries.

Steelheading is often associated with bitter cold weather. and we certainly did experience that.

The Lodging

One of the pleasant surprises on this trip is the place Paul inked us to stay: The Old Lewiston Inn.  It’s a set of buildings right on the Trinity River.  It is set in the Historical part of the area from the gold rush days with most of the buildings originally built in the middle of the 19th century.  It has an awesome view of the river and of the “Old bridge”.    “Jess and Dave” are the proprietors, the most friendly people in the world.  This is the type of place where I kept saying, “My wife would just love this place.”  I will definitely coming back and staying there.

The only…and I mean only… negative was that we were looking forward to eating (and consuming large amounts of whiskey) at the fairly famous Lewiston Hotel Restaurant which is just steps from The Old Lewiston Inn.  But, darnit, the owners decided to go on a vacation the week we were there.  So, it was closed. That made going to dinner a little bit of an ordeal because we had to drive the 25 minutes to Weaverville and back for the first 3 nights.  The hot tip for eating is at the Weaverville Golf Course, “The best Prime Rib north of the Bowling Alley in Bishop is at the Golf Course Restaurant in Weaverville”, said Jack.

On the last night Jess and Dave offered to set up a BBQ for us so we could “cook at home” and we gladly took them up on it.  That’s the type of people they are.

FYI: Upstream of the old bridge fishing is closed during spawning season so we were not able to fish right in front of the hotel.  But we fished just downstream a few hundred feet from the hotel; just behind the old bridge where it was legal.  It’s great water there too for about ½ mile.  We saw steelhead; we just couldn’t fool them.

Unfortunately, we did run into poachers on this trip sightseeing up stream of the bridge.  It was a shame.

 

Our view from the rooms at the Old Lewiston Hotel

My Favorite Moment

Well, my favorite story of this trip was definitely how Jack landed a huge steelhead after losing one right at the net just an hour earlier…after fishing hard the day prior without landing any.

Why do we remember the fish we lost more than the fish we catch?  For me, my 2nd favorite moment was a big wild steelhead I snapped off and lost.  It went down like this: I had only caught a ½ pounder on the first day and it was slow.  We approached a rapid and Luke (the guide) said something like, “stick it in that soft water on the left at the edge under the bushes”.  It was only a ten foot long drift in fairly fast water so kind of a tough cast with a ten foot dropper under the indicator.  But, sure enough I got it in there and my line tightened, I set, and the big fish flashed.  I set again.  It jumped.  it was huge.  Well, I was in the back of the boat (Jack in Front) and now I was dragging the fish through the rapids behind me and it was taking a ton of line.  In the rapids Luke couldn’t slow the boat (God only knows he was trying) and anchoring was out of the question we were going so fast.  I was well into the backing when I saw a rock in the middle of the river on my right (facing backwards).  I manage to pull the fish out and around that rock back into the current.  But, my reel was still screaming as the fish was really not into taking a ride down the rapids.

It’s hard to look at the this beautiful fish with the author being so handsome

To make it worse, out of the corner of my eye on the right I could see another rock coming fast and it was bigger and taller.  The reel was screaming and two things occurred to me quickly: 1. I could spool this fish and 2. Maybe I could flip the line over the rock.  But we were now around 150 feet downstream from that steelhead and going fast through the rapid.  There was no way to flip the line.  So I pulled hard again and snap!  I broke him off.  A 10 pound fish on 6 pound flouro.  I smiled because the battle was fun.  I was not bummed because luck is a huge part of steelheading and I just happened to hook a good one in a bad place. I said, “I lost him.”  Luke looked back at me and I could see the heartbreak in his face because he couldn’t help with chasing that fish with the boat.

‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

A wild steelhead like this will change your life and make you obsessed.

Summary

There are tons of different types of fly fishing in thousands of waters that are just great for beginners.  Steelheading is not for beginners.  You really need to be a skilled fly fisher to get a shot.  The guides both told us that over and over.  And when you do get a shot at the “fish of 5,000 casts”, those shots are long shots because the steelhead is hard to hook and even harder to land.  I have heard it a thousand times, “Why would you fish all day long to only get one chance of hooking a fish on a barbless hook…only to let it go?”  Add to that, most of the times you are setting on a fish that is downstream from you making your odds even worse.   Add to that if you are lucky enough to land them it’s typically hundreds of feet, if not yards up or down stream from where you hooked them with herculean head shaking jumps that frequently shake a barbless hook.  that means either chasing them on foot or in a boat.  Who would do that?  I would.  We would.  I can’t wait to do it again.

Palapas Ventana – Fly Fishing from Pangas near La Paz

October 4-9, 2021

Hey that’s me with a huge jack crevalle! Mike in the background cerebrating.

Who knew you could have so much fun with a 10 wt TFO fly rod?! That is the line I used when I did the “Old-guy Instagram” thing from the Palapas Ventana resort in Ventana, Baja, Mexico.

On October 4-9, 2021 the SDFF club assaulted the Palapas Ventana Resort near La Paz with more salt water flies, flouro, and fly rods than God.  This is an annual trip that the club has been doing for a few years lead by fearless leader, John Ashley.  For years these guys have been telling me, “If there is anyone who would enjoy this trip, it’s you, Huckaby.”  They were right.  I had a ton of success; some real bucket listers.  But, I paid my dues in mistakes for sure.  I learned a lot on this trip.  I can’t wait to get back there next October with the club.  I’m actually trying to figure out how to get there in the late Spring it was so fun.

Steven with a big ass rooster

The Fishing

I’m an old trout guy with very little ocean experience (fly or conventional).  This was my first time doing the fly fishing thing from a Panga.  In the myriad of guidance and preparation communications before we left my takeaways was: “It’s two people in a panga; one in back and one in front.  What a learning experience it was for me!  And man did I make mistakes for the first couple days before I got it dialed in.

Fearless Leader John Ashely with a nice dorado

What the captain (by all means not a guide) does is make bait with impressive throws of a bait net; sometimes in total darkness.  I was wearing polarized lenses and many times I could not see the bait balls the captain was throwing that net at in broad daylight….without wearing glasses….so impressive.  So, typically you start early as the sun comes up.  Then, with the live bait in the bait tank you zoom out to where the game fish are (dorado, roosters, jack trevalles, and even trevally….along with 25+ other species).  Cerralvo Island is a fairly short run across the sea of cortez and that is where most of the boats go.  The captain starts winging the live bait into the water with a cut out Clorox bottle.  The gamefish come up to the surface and go crazy in a fish feed.  You throw your fly into the chaos hoping to fool one of them.  When you catch them, you have the option to let them go, bring them back to the restaurant to compliment the night’s gourmet meal, give it to the captain to enjoy with his family, or have the Palapas Ventana resort vacuum seal, freeze and pack your fish to take home.

So many species to catch with the fly rod. That’s Jim Castelluzzo, the SDFF club president with a pompano

Let me try to define a panga.  A panga is a skiff; a modest-sized, open, outboard-powered, fishing boat common throughout much of the developed world.  The panga is not one of those super nice boats they use in the Bahamas where the fly fisher in front and in back have plenty of room on a casting platform to ensure a long cast.   The bow (front) of the panga has plenty of room for a fly caster and relatively nothing up there to grab a fly line.  But, it’s not a casting platform; it’s the bow of the boat.  The stern (back) is a challenge….at least it was for me.  If you cast from the deck in the back, you must heave a heavy weighted saltwater fly over the boat’s sides or the engine or the captain.  I’m a pretty good cast and I even hit the captain once.  Guess what?  “Oww!” is the same word in Spanish as it is in English.  Ultimately, I ended up just climbing on top of the rails in the back of the boat to get some height and balanced myself there; sometimes actually standing in the bait tank with the live sardinas.  That allowed me to double haul from a height advantage….or seeming advantage…more on that later.  And when the seas got rough, I had to lean against the engine itself.  So, when the captain turned the boat my ass turned with it.  It’s a miracle I didn’t fall into the water.  But, I am pretty agile for an old guy.   Being perched high meant I could double haul a cast 60-80 feet….which I learned after a couple days of struggling is not really an advantage.  Also, every panga seems to be different.  Some are newer and slightly modern.  Some have years of stories behind them with some impressive “Magiver-ing” of a bait tank.

Notice mike battling behind me. Double Hookups were common on this trip

As mentioned, I was told before the trip is “The captain throws live bait in the water and that makes the fish come up and go crazy.  Then it’s a simple 20 foot cast into the madness.”  That is kind of true.  Just like in trout fishing where there are great guides, good guides, and average guides.  The same thing goes for the captains here: some are awesome, some are not.  None speak fluent English.  Each captain and boat is different and fishes differently in terms of where…and sometimes even how.  Mike Hillygus (Montana Lodge owner where we do the annual SDFF trip, and friend of the SDFF club) and I fished 4 days with 4 separate captains and boats.  I love that Tim from the Palapas Ventana resort each night at the restaurant does a blind draw on which captain you get each day.  One day Mike and I stayed within a mile of the resort near the shore all day.  one day we did 10-1 more moving around than fishing; moving from fishing buoy to buoy.  There are a number of fishing buoys that have been strategically placed throughout the area that hold fish.  two days we ran over to Acervo Island and pretty much fished in the same location all day.  Mike and I traded getting the bow each day.  Mike out-fished me every day.  And it wasn’t until well through the 3rd day that I figured out why.

You don’t have to fly fish; a few of the group fished conventionally and did well…including a couple marlin.  This is Mike Rundlett with this big rooster.  but, look closely at the captain’s hat – making a bold prediction of the braves making the world series in early october is uncanny…

The School of Hard Knocks

I really don’t know why it took me two days to figure this thing out.  It may be so obvious to you Saltwater guys and gals with this type of experience. But, it was not to me.  I wasn’t without success.  In fact, I had a lot of success.  my mission was to catch a big rooster on a fly.  I ended up catching a lot of big roosters on the fly.  One of the roosters I landed was too big for me to hold to take a trophy shot with it.  I had the captain hold it for me.  But, now that I know (and now you know), I will be so much more successful on next year’s trip.  So, hopefully my malfunctions will serve as guidance for the trout anglers that want to do this type of fly fishing:

  1. The Double hauling 60-80 feet I was doing over and over is just a wasted workout and burn of calories. When I finally did look over at what mike was doing; he was not doing what I was doing. And having a lot more success. I was basically “hero casting” blind and he was targeting and being efficient about it.  I got the guidance from John and Kai before we left, “a simple 20 foot cast is all you need.”  For some reason I did not think that through.  While I was literally huffing and puffing double hauling casts over and over 60+ feet into the abyss, Mike was waiting for the right moment to cast a 30 footer right into the fish he was targeting.  Duh…  I was dragging the fly through the bait and feeding predators too late.  This was a sobering blow for me when we got back to the resort and in the bar I heard all the success my buddies were having…who simply could not cast (or chose not to cast) over 30 feet.
  2. The fly really does matter – How many times in trout fishing do we say something like, “the fly really doesn’t matter. Your placement and the drift matter a lot more.”  Well, in this type of fly fishing the fly really does matter.   Even the color matters.  The size really matters too.  But, what matters the most is that the fly rides correctly in the water imitating a baitfish as best as possible.  If you half-ass drunken fly tying in your man cave and your fly spins you don’t get takes.  My first two days I was fishing big heavy clousers with big beaded eyes.  Not only are they are they a tough cast but, the jigging thing those eyes produced were not producing as many strikes as mike.  Mike was fishing smaller deceivers (and similars) unweighted flies and killing.  He was in the right part of the water column; I was not.
  3. Knots Matter – This is the most painful lesson for me. I have been trout fishing so long.  I tie 5 different knots 95% of the time and 95% of the time in 3x and 5x. I can tie them all blind folded.  I haven’t failed a knot in years.  Well, I had no idea how differently 5x knots up than it does with 30lb flouro.  I had no idea that you have to wear gloves and yank those knots as tightly as your strength can handle… no idea.  I had no idea that you have to inspect your saltwater knots closely because the heavy flouro doesn’t just slip into place and knot-up like the light stuff does.  I learned that the hard way.  I lost a big dorado on a rapala knot that simply failed because it was not pulled tight enough.  I didn’t even look at the knot after tying it.  but, you can sure as hell tell a knot has failed when looking at the flouro after losing the fish.  and miraculously I also lost a big rooster on a perfection loop knot I tied for the flouro leader.    That is a first.  Some huge rooster swam away with my entire leader hanging out of his face… simply because I didn’t pull the knot tight enough.  Uggghhh…  30+ years of fly fishing and I am failing knots. I suck.  Don’t worry about me; a number of margaritas later that night at the bar fixed everything.
  4. Needlefish – I knew about these slimy creatures going in. if you see a needlefish following your fly you simply stop stripping and they will stop the chase.  But, if you are hero casting beyond what you can see you inevitably catch them.  And you can’t really do a damn thing about it.  and the poor captain has to figure out how to release them without getting bit by razor sharp fangs.  I’m a conservation guy and feel slightly guilty about when mike and I giggled watching one of our guides twisting the neck of the needle fish killing them so he could safely remove the fly.

Tom and Doug Rundlett with another fly fishing double. notice the PInchi Patos in the background

  1. Pelicans – “pinchi patos” I laughed out loud when our captain yelled that as I caught my first pelican. I speak decent Spanish and that loosely translates to “f-ing duck”.  Pelicano is a beautiful word in Spanish.  The captains don’t use that word.  they call them “pinchi patos”.  Btw, there is competition and hilarious chatter on the radio between the captains.  At one point, laughing, I said in Spanish, smiling, to our captain, “you do realize I understand what you guys are saying, right?.” He laughed …because there was a comment about one of my buddies in a different boat not having enough manhood to fight the fish he hooked.  I’d write what he said in Spanish here, but common decorum precludes me from doing it here (god, I hope someone gets that animal house reference.)  But, my god the pelicans.  On the day that our captain stayed on shore within a mile of the resort the pelicans followed us the entire time.  It was fairly frustrating.  Those birds have become accustomed to the captains throwing bait in the water and intercepting that bait.  which means they have unnaturally flourished in population because of it.  at points I had to pinpoint cast a 2 foot window through the gauntlet (50 or more) of pelicans with no way to strip the fly back without the pelicans taking it.  if you see a pelican take your fly you learn quickly to stop stripping.  They spit your fly out if you wait; which is excruciating if the fish are going nuts.  But, if you strip too quickly after that you risk them grabbing it again.  and then there is the good chance of simply leg hooking them as you strip your fly back; many times with a fish chasing.  On that day I caught ~15 pelicans.  Let’s just say the captains don’t really dig pulling a barbed fly out of a pelican’s mouth or leg.  Pinchi patos.

The Palapas Ventana Resort

I am no stranger to fly fishing lodges; I have been lucky.  Let me just start by saying the Palapas Ventana resort is a fraction of the cost of the high-end lodges in Alaska, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.  Remember that I was joined by a Montana Lodge owner, Mike Hillygus from the Stillwater River Outpost Lodge and the Clark Fork Outpost Lodge.  Mike was surprised at what a deal it was. It’s Mexico.

For the SDFF club trip we had two people in each Palapa; Mike was my roommate.  These are not really palapas at the resort; they are so much better. A traditional palapa is an open sided cheap building with the thatched roof.  These palapas are stand alone buildings with a large bedroom and separate large bathroom…. With air conditioning; key for this part of the world.

Right?!

“They have a bar.”  That is the line I usually start with when describing this place.  I love bars and I’m not shy about it.  they also have a complimentary restaurant that goes with the bar.  But, this isnt’ just any Mexican restaurant.  Each night we were served a gourmet quality meal.  One night we had a Japanese themed sushi and sashimi set of dishes that riveled anything I have had in the states…. Or in the Japan for that matter.  You don’t go back skinnier on this trip; the food is that good.

Within steps of the bar is an Endless Pool where you can stare at the ocean.  Imagine fishing for 8 hours and battling big fish on your 10 weight to come back, grab a beer, walk into the pool and just stare at the ocean while saying things like, “this is the good life”.

I love this picture that Mike Rundett took.  That’s Tom Rundlett on my left and Stan on my right….. after a long day of battling big fish.”

They focus on service – Tim and his partner have trained his seemingly enormous staff well.  From the groundskeepers to the servers to the bartenders to the financial manager.  They are friendly and attentive.  On the first night he introduces his generals to the entire group.  It’s a classy move.  When you leave you end up hugging these people they are so awesome.

I should mention that Palapas Ventana is not soley a fly fishing lodge.  In fact, Ventana is more famous for it’s wind surfing and scuba diving.  Both those are options at the resort.  Also the resort provides snorkling equipment for free while you are there.  It’s a tropical fish and coral paradise in front of the lodge.  It just so happens that if you are tropical fish you have to always be on the lookout for that patrolling roosterfish.  Yea, it’s conceivable to DIY the roosters right from the shore like you see on those fly fishing shows.

Every night Tim from Palapas Ventana arranged some type of fun event for us. This was from “hot dog train” night.  Just imagine this train blowing through the tiny town of Ventana with everyone aboard holding a beer hooting and hollering.

Getting there: I believe the cross border exchange (CBX) is the best kept travel secret in the united states.  It consistently shocks me that even San Diegans still don’t know about it.  in their description it is “A faster, more comfortable, one-of-a-kind way to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, exclusively for passengers of the Tijuana International Airport.”  Basically, you drive to the border in otay mesa, park in a huge parking lot. show a passport and plane tickets in a completely uncrowded modern building.  then walk across the border on a 200 meter air conditioned covered bridge that drops you right into the Tijuana Airport.  It’s $35 and worth every penny.  They even have a bag drop.  You don’t even need to check in with the airline at the airport. This allows you to fly from TIJ on a number of Mexican airlines for a fraction of the cost of flying from San Diego.  My round trip flight to La Paz was around $100…not kidding.  In La Paz the drivers from the resort are waiting for you with a sign to make the hour drive to the resort.  Simple and painless.

It wasn’t like it was not fun watching Mike Hillygus catching all those fish…

Summary

I know my way around a trout stream…that is for sure.  You learn a bit when you do it for 35 years.  What the many experts in the SDFF club have taught me…and continue to teach me, is the fly fishing saltwater game.  Let me tell you it’s compelling. I watch all the fly fishing shows on TV and it is frequently mentioned that catching a large roosterfish on the fly is in the top ten of fly-fishing bucket listers.  I caught a bunch of big Roosters and from what I wrote above you can tell I barely knew what the hell I was doing.  In the bar after that first day of fishing I told my fly fishing compadres, “I had no idea how fast those dorado swim.”  When you hook up with a Dorado you watch the entire thing… they are so colorful and beautiful.  It’s almost surreal how quickly it happens when they take your fly.

Complimenting this awesome fly fishing is simply an awesome resort at Palapas Ventana.  It’s run so well with awesome food and service.  They make you feel like family when you are there.  Did I tell you they have a bar?  I am definitely going back to Palapas Ventana.

I think this is Aaron. I do know that is a big rooster with a fly hanging out of it’s face