Category Archives: San Diego Fly Fishers

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.

Upper Kern River End of Season 2021 Fly Fishing Report

BlackRock Trail Head -> Jordan Hot Springs -> Painters Camp

11/12/21 to 11/15/21

Mark Huckaby with just another huge Kern River Rainbow. Notice the fall colors in the background

Intro Summary

My 26 year old son Mark (the fly fishing guide from Bozeman, MT) and I caught and released over 150 Kern River Rainbows in 2 days.  It was ridiculously good fishing for the wild and native Kern River Rainbow.  I mostly fished dry/dropper with a Huck Hopper on top and Huck perdigons dropped below.  The backpacking hike in and out was not easy; in fact, it was a real challenge.

The Hike

I was “jonesing” to get a backpacking fly fishing trip in before the fishing season closed on 11/15.  With most of the forests that encompass the Upper Kern River closed, it was a real challenge to figure out how to get to the Upper Kern River.  I did hike all the way back from the forks to the Johnsondale bridge in the summer with my buddy Marty Jansen…and that was awful.  The Rincon trail is a motorcycle trail which makes it awful.  Well, sure enough Marty talked me into hiking to the Upper Kern River with 45 pounds on my back…. From the east side… the 395 side.  This time from the Blackrock Trailhead.  We were joined by fellow SDFF member and buddy Bruce Bechard and my 26 year old son, Mark, who is a fly fishing guide at my two favorite lodges in Montana: The Clark Fork Outpost and the Stillwater River Outpost.

From Left to Right: Mark Huckaby, Bruce Bechard and Marty Jansen….all smiling still because it’s the beginning of the hike down.

For over 20 years I have had a dream to access the Upper Kern River from the Eastern Side of the Sierras.  The problem is that access is just brutal.  For the first decade I hike it, I always thought backpacking the Forks of the Kern Trail was difficult.  I know now it is not.  The Blackrock Trail is difficult. I never knew how spoiled I was by the Forks of the Kern Trail until I tried accessing the Kern River miles above the Forks.  From the Forks trail I had never made it all the way up river to painters camp.  it’s a challenge just to make it to the first up river bridge crossing from the Forks, which I have fished to many times.

Well, the Blackrock Trail goes to Painters Camp on the Upper Kern River.  It’s only 8.8 miles… which doesn’t sound that bad at all.  But, it starts at 9,000 feet of elevation and you lose 3,800 feet doing it.  We did the entire 8.8 miles with 3800 feet in one hike.  Never again.  Not that the hike in was easy.  It’s steep and I had 45 pounds on my back.  but, it was sheer agony on the hike out: 6.5 hours of misery.  The altitude and steepness was one thing.  But, doing it in November meant many parts of the trail were iced over or snow covered.  Bruce went down 3 times…and it was so slippery he had trouble getting back up.

From the Blackrock Trailhead you hike to Casa Vieja Meadow.  From there you hike steeply downhill to  Jordan hot springs in a canyon that follows 9 mile creek.  And from Jordan Hot Springs it’s a brutal downhill single track, through canyons and miles of fire damage that make it look like the moon down to the river.  In hindsight we should have broken the trip out into 2 days.

Was that hike worth it?…

The fishing

I’m not a counter, but my son Mark is.  That is what guides do for their clients.  That is how I know Mark and I caught and released over 150 Kern River Rainbows in two days. The fishing…my god… It was stupid good fishing.  Most of the time, I fished a large Huck Hopper on top and trailed them with Huck Perdigons.  And yes, I did catch most of the fish on the Huck Perdigons.   I’d guess 75% of the fish i caught were on the Huck Midge Perdigon, size 16.  But, it was November and I did catch a number of fish on size 4 Huck Hoppers.  Where else in the western hemisphere can you consistently catch fish in mid-November on huge hoppers?  During the witching hour as the sun went down i fished size 18 BWOs right in front of camp.  And did well.  At that time of year, other than the midge, the Blue Winged Olive Mayfly would be the only hatch on the Upper Kern.  There were plenty of double hook-ups on this trip and Bruce even caught 2 at once!

And yes, we did pack waders and wading boots into our backpacks…worth every ounce at this time of year.  Understand 150 means fish landed.  The Kern River Rainbow is wild and native.  I have written this many times: The Kern River Rainbow fights like hell and they just don’t give up.  I cannot tell you how many fish I hooked, but failed to land….which is normal for that river.

Does this stretch look like dry fly paradise or what?! just upstream from camp i caught a 19″ KRR just about 200 feet upstream from Mark

The reason?  Well, I have my speculations that I will share with you:

  1. These fish have not seen an artificial fly in a year and a half and most won’t for over 2 years. The fire closures just have made it really hard for “normal humans” to get into the upper kern to fish.
  2. I have now fly fished 4 end of season (11/15) closings on the Upper Kern River. And I have killed every time.  I believe the trout just know that winter is coming and the food supply is about to grind to a halt so they go nuts feeding in anticipation of a long miserable winter.
  3. The River is always low in November. It’s crossable and there just are not many places the fish can hide from a good cast with a good drift.
  4. I think it’s also interesting to note that this part of the river is in a steep canyon which makes the days at this time of year super short. We didn’t see the sun until after 8am and lost it around 2:30 pm.  Fishing NOT in direct sunlight could help.
  5. A winter spawn? There are rainbows that spawn in the winter…like the Steelhead.  But, Kern River Rainbows are Spring Spawners.  Some of the fish we were catching looked like spawning males because of the colors.  They were dark and colorful not like the chromers we catch in the summer and fall.  Lately I challenge myself to see how quickly I can hook a trout, get it to hand and release it.  I wish I would have taken more pictures.  I also noticed what I thought were spawning behaviors.  I caught one decent sized fish and a huge fish followed it in.  that is normal, of course.  But, what wasn’t normal was this 2 footer was nuzzling next to my hooked fish side to side like a male trout lines up next to a female on a redd. I watched this behavior 3 times before I released my fish.

Notice a few things in the video above.  Firstly, the colors of the rainbow i have hooked.  then look closely at the huge 2 foot+ rainbow following it.  normally i wouldn’t have played that fish so long in front of me.  But, i was fascinated by the behavior as if they were in spawning mode.

My favorite stories from the trip:

  • On the first day Mark and I fished up river from where we camped. Bruce and Marty fished downriver to Marty’s favorite runs at Kern Flats.  Well, within a couple miles of fishing Mark and I wandered into the series of Waterfalls we had heard about.  We had already done really well.  Hiking above the first waterfall was pretty easy on the eastern side.  I watched and took pictures as Mark nailed some nice fish “between the falls”.  But, for the life of me I cannot figure out how fish got into that pool.  It’s well documented that waterfalls are natural barriers that prevent fish from moving up and down river.  And somehow they figure out how to do it. But, it was after 2:30PM and the sun was already behind the canyon walls.  I stared at that huge waterfall trying to figure out how to get around it for the next days’ adventure.  We decided we’d scale it from the west side because there was a huge bolder scree on the east side that looked impenetrable – big mistake.
  • Well, Marty joined Mark and I on the next day. The plan was to hike all the way to the falls and scale it, and start fishing from above.  It took an hour to scale that mountain and it was quite physical and relatively dangerous in spots.  After fishing, we took the trail on the way back to camp.  The trail goes way away from the river and up and over the mountain, but it was easier than the way we climbed in.  But, in between, my God the fishing was good.  Mark and I approached a run that was shaded by trees on both sides.  Like normal I said, “Do you want the head or the tail?”  He took the head.  Within seconds he was battling a big fish.  That big fish is the first picture in this article.  Well, I moved into the river below him where I could cast straight up stream into the run.  I caught a couple quickly.  Mark moved on up river on the assumption that big fish put the pool down.  I told you I’m not a counter but, this run was so prolific I counted…because I caught a fish on almost every cast.  At 14 landed and 2 LDR’d I laughed, left and caught up with Mark.

Fly Fishing the Upper Kern River is not for the faint of heart. There was no river trail in most of the areas we fished.

Sidebar from Mark Huckaby 

“On the way down the mountain I knew nymphing was going to be our best option not only because the time of the season.  But also because the introduction of the perdigon to the fly fishing industry has everyone confident in fishing the winter months (at least that is the case in Montana). Because my dad refuses to nymph and always starts with a dry fly.  When we got to camp he started fishing dry and alas, fish were rising. The next few days we were lucky enough to experience some of the best dry fly fishing I’ve ever experienced in November. The type of fishing where your hands start hurting because you’re catching so many fish. If you’re like me and like to switch it up. I recommend tossing a streamer in the big pools we found. A green, brown, or yellow wooly bugger seemed to do the trick and it was awesome to get chased by the native Kern River rainbows. It seemed like every time you casted into those pools a bunch of little fish would swim right up to check it out. The waterfall created many big deep pools for me to attack; perfect for streamers. To get the big fish, cast up into the white water, let your bugger sink very close to the bottom and strip back quickly.”

Here’s Mark changing out streamers beneath a small waterfall

Summary

Would I do this again?  Was it worth that awful hike out?  absolutely yes.  I’d do almost anything for that type of success in fly fishing for wild natives. But, next time I’ll break up that hike out into two days with an overnight at Jordon hot springs.  And even then that hike from Jordon Hot Springs to the trailhead is pretty gruesome.  Also 3 nights with only 2 fishing days for that amount of hike is too short.  It should be at least a 4 nighter.  Adding that night hiking out makes it a 5 nighter.

Here’s Mark battling just above “Marty’s Hole”. i swear i watched Marty yank 10+ fish out of that hole.

Special thanks to “Steve Ojai”, aka Steve Schalla, aka owner of www.flyfishingthesierra.com for the help on how to pull this backpacking trip off.  Steve was so kind to provide much of the guidance we needed.  Steve has fished this part of the river many times.  We used Steve’s map of the area religiously on this trip.  After the trip I talked to Steve in email.  He speculated the spawning behaviors and colors may have been confused trout as a result of the sudden drop in river temperature.

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