Category Archives: Winter Fly Fishing

Fly Fishing Carlsbad – Agua Hedionda Lagoon

The Pacific Halibut – evolved both its eyes on one side so it can lay flat on the bottom, disguised, so it can attack prey that swim above it.

I have written about fly fishing in places all over the world so it’s long past time I write about the fly fishing in my own backyard: Carlsbad, CA

Southern California, including Carlsbad, has a long history of saltwater fly fishing.  In the Surf, legendary Fly Fishermen like Al Quatrrocchi, Nick Curcione, Kirk Deeter, Dr. Milton Love, Jim Solomon, Glenn Ueda, Bernard YinLee Baermann, Jeff Solis, and others have written, presented, and taught us how to fish the Socal Surf…especially for the elusive corbina.  In terms of Off-shore John Loo for off shore fly fishing and Conway Bowman always come to mind when fly fishing for Mako’s off the san diego coast.

This article is about fishing Carlsbad’s Agua Hedionda Lagoon from a float tube (or fishing kayak).  It’s funny that I have lived in Carlsbad for 22 years; within a mile of Aqua Hedionda lagoon and I had never fished it until just recently.  Mainly because I’m a trout guy and just don’t have a lot of expertise in the salt water.  Trust me. As I write this I have only fished Hedionda 5 times so I am no expert.  But, because I have had success, I want to share it in case you are interested in C&R fly fishing it.

Firstly, let me elaborate my 2 main inspirations and motivations:

  1. If you are a Socal then you have driven by this lagoon many times and stared at it. It’s just south of the Tamarack exit on the 5 in Carlsbad.  It’s the lagoon with the water skiers on the east side of the 5.  You may have stared at that water and said to yourself, “I wonder if that fishes?”  You may have seen kayak fishermen in there and said, like I did for years, “How in the world did they get in there and I wonder if they are catching fish?”
  2. Recently, Mel Ochs and Kai Schumann did a SDFF club presentation on how to fish the bays of San Diego in a float tube or kayak. It was outstanding.  I learned so much from that presentation.  Let me be honest: I serve as the programs chair for the San Diego Fly Fishers club.  It is my job to ink the speakers for the club presentations and I have signed up some famous ones, both worldwide and from the list above.  So when I roped them into doing this presentation I was a bit selfish in my needs.

The Spotted Bay Bass – affectionately known as “Spotty”

< Side Note: let me put in a plug for joining the San Diego Fly Fishers Club.  It’s only $40 / year and along with all the other benefits, there are 2 presentations by zoom per month during the pandemic; in person once we are finally past it.  If you want to go fly fish the bays with the group of folks from the club, at a minimum, they go every Wednesday and would love to have you and show you the ropes of fly fishing the bays.  >

About Hedionda: The Science and History

Three major highways cross Hedionda: Highway 101 (aka PCH) along the coastline, the train tracks and Interstate 5. These 3 bridges divide the Hedionda into 3 sections:

  • outer bay – just east of the coast highway; closest to the ocean. This section holds the oyster, abalone and white sea bass farms along with carlsbad’s hydro electric power plant and the largest desalination plant in N America.
  • middle bay – separated by the train bridge and highway 5. This section holds the YMCA aquatic park
  • inner bay – east of interstate 5. This section holds California Watersports and numerous homes and condos with docks on the North side and the infamous Carlsbad Strawberry fields on it’s south site.

Hedionda extends 1.7 miles inland and is up to a half mile at its widest point.  All three sections are 8-10 feet deep at their deepest part of the high tide….except for the channel that flows the tide to and from the ocean.  That channel runs the entire length from the ocean to the head of the bay where Hedionda creek feeds it.  The channel is over 30 feet in depth in and around the 3 bridges.  This depth information is important in relation to the fishing.  There is more on tides below in the fishing section of this article.

Hedionda is fed by Agua Hedionda creek to the southeast and Lake Calavera Creek to the Northeast.  Numerous spring creeks feed those two creeks.  But, in reality Carlsbad is a a natural desert so a majority of the water feeding Hedionda is simply lawn sprinkler runoff from well into Oceanside and Vista.  There is a significant amount of fresh water that enters the lagoon at the head of the bay making that “back-bay” brackish for those that want to chase mullet with a fly rod.  When it does rain that creek is a raging dangerous river.

The most amusing part of Agua Hedionda is the name itself: It means “Stinky Water” in Spanish.  The reason is most likely because before a small boat harbor was constructed in middle bay somewhere between 1940 and the 50s, the lagoon was not dredged; it was truly a lagoon. Between the decay of vegetation, the mud and the methane escaping it probably was pretty stinky before dredging provided a constant flush of tidal flow.

From the InterWeb: “The main difference between Bay and Lagoon is that the Bay is a body of water connected to an ocean or lake, formed by an indentation of the shoreline and Lagoon is a shallow body of water separated from larger body of water by a barrier.”

By way of this definition then Agua Hedionda is a bay; not a lagoon.  In fact, it has significant tidal flow just like san diego or mission bay.  There is plenty of great information from the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation here.

The history of Hedionda is pretty sketchy but, in the early half of the 20th century Carlsbad was a mostly an agricultural area….boasting the only place you could get the rare and hard to get exotic fruit: the avocado.  At that time the bay was not used for anything short of the quickest transportation from the farms to the beach: by row boat.  There is some interesting information about the area’s history that the Carlsbad Historical Society turned me onto here.  But, not much on Hedionda itself.

most people who love eating halibut, and have never seen one, probably picture it this way: upside down

How to fish it

The Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation says there are 70 species of fish that populate it.  Being that said only a small portion of those fish are predators: the type of fish you would be catching with a fly rod.  And in my limited experience the spotted bay bass dominates that group.  But, I’m a pretty friendly fly fisherman so I did talk to a number of gear guys both on the shore and in kayaks.  And they all gladly provided a tremendous amount of knowledge to me.  In fact, more than once I’d catch a fish, hold it up to a shore fisherman and say, “what the hell is this?”

There are pelagic fish that wonder into Hedionda with the tide.  Of those the most common are white sea bass, rays and halibut.  But sharks and even corbina are caught there too…along with all the usual suspects you see in the surf.  It’s worth nothing that any ocean fishing in a float tube is not for the faint of heart for many reasons.  And being that said I did fish Hedionda in a tube in January of 2021 the day after the beach in front of it was closed down because of a 15 foot great white patrolling the surf.

The author, devilishly handsome, paddling out just after sunrise

Harvesting – I have caught a couple legal halibut and let them go.  It’s partly because of ~30 years of catch and release fly fishing and partly fear of eating from a bay fed by fertilizers and the cancer causing weed killer, round-up.  If I ever do catch a legal white sea bass I’ll have a tough decision to make.  The white sea bass farm is in outer bay and there are escapees.

It’s all about the tides – just like any surf or bay fishing in the san diego area your best success is going to be during an incoming and/or slack tide.  In fact, the only time you will be able to fish close to the train bridge or Highway 5 bridge is during a slack tide.  Not that it was unsafe, but the very first time I fished Hedionda, this trout fisherman was inches from getting pulled from middle bay under the 5 and out into inner bay.  I wasn’t paying attention staring at my fish finder as the tide grabbed me.  The current during that incoming tide was so strong it was like any large river I have fished before.  It took everything I had to paddle my fins away from getting sucked in.  I was huffing and puffing more than I have even done on lake Crowley in the wind.  Again, I was never in danger.  But, if pulled through to the other side I would have had to wait hours for the slack tide to even consider swimming back through again.  and it’s not like I could have gotten out of the water on the other side and carried my tube back.

Along with the tide, there are a number of things that negatively or positively affect your fishing success.  Here are a few:

  • fish finder – My aha moment was from the gang of bay fly fishers from the San Diego Fly Fishers Club. They all use portable fish finders.  There are some super inexpensive ones from the company “Lucky”. You can find them on amazon.com from $40 and up.  After a ton of research, I ended up with the Garmin STRIKER™ Cast GPS.  Its list price is $179.  It’s an amazing little device that deserves its own gear review on this site.  you tether and drag it behind your float tube.  I chose 15 feet (of old floating fly line instead of the cord they included).  since you paddle backwards in a float tube it looks for fish right in the zone you are stripping through (as opposed to directly underneath you like all other fish finders).  I’ll typically cast ~40 feet, let it sink, and strip back.  The device uses your smart phone with the garmin striker app as its UI.  It clearly shows depth and structure and the fish in the water column they are swimming in.  it even counts the number of fish in the schools.  I found myself not blind casting until I saw fish on the finder.  but, in one of my fly fishing sessions, after running out of my allotted spousal time, I quickly paddled right across the bay where the fish finder showed a ghost town.  For the purpose of straightening out my line and tightly winding it back up I hooked up and landed a nice halibut.  It made me late.  Oh well’ she’ll live.  After 31 years of marriage, she knows the “one last cast” thing.  So, there is the lesson learned. you will not be able to see the halibut on the fish finder because they sit flat and still on the bottom, typically waiting for prey to swim by.

    notice my garmin striker cast fish finder in the background

  • time of year – I have only fished in winter and done pretty darn well. But, in talking to the experienced gear guys they have all said it gets pretty nuts in spring and summer so I am looking forward to that.  They also told me the big halibut come in Hedionda to spawn in spring.  Every year I read about 40+ pound halibut being taken in Hedionda by the gear guys.  That sure would be fun on a 6 weight.
  • the moon phases and solunar theory – it’s the hunters and saltwater fisherman that believe in solunar theory. Read about my research and findings on Solunar theory here.   Again I have limited experience fly fishing Hedionda but I did fish on a really good solunar day and “killed”.  Plus I saw a ton of fish on my fish finder.  I also fished on a really bad solunar day and didn’t do so well…and saw very little fish on my fish finder.  Draw conclusions as you may.
  • red tide – whether you believe in climate change or not, the red tides are getting worse and worse each year here in San Diego. I had a bad outing and didn’t see a thing on my fish finder only to find out later there was a little red tide going on.  FYI, there was a huge fish kill in Hedionda last year (summer of 2020) because of a red tide.  Many of the gear guys I talked to were really worried that it ruined the fishing in Hedionda. It has not.

A gear guy on the shore told me this was a white sea bass. But, another fly fisherman in the club told me this is a Corvina (not corbina)

Gear

I use a fast action 6 WT with a sinking line.  In my first outing I used a Rio outbound short line and didn’t do so well.  That outbound line is an intermediate sink line.  Although it was before my Garmin Fish finder I just felt like I wasn’t getting it down to where the fish were.  It’s like my line wasn’t cutting through the current.  So, the next time out I switched to the exact rig I use in Lake Crowley: a heavy sink fully integrated 450 GR integrated heavy sink line. That is a line that really gets down quickly.

For a leader I just use 4-5 feet of straight 12lb flouro.  Flies: I tie my version of a clouser.  I use synthetics, including EP fibers instead of buck tail.  I always tie white on the bottom to imitate the naturals. And I tie in a red patch of flashabou to imitate an injured gill plate.  I tie the top  in chartreuse, blue and grey in sizes 2 and 4.  And they all worked.  I fish two flies: a size 2 in front trailed by 18 inches of more flouro and a size 4.   i really think color does not matter.  but, just like in trout fishing the trailing fly gets most of the hookups.

Here’s an example of a couple beat up size 4 clousers i tied.  beat up from getting chewed by spotties and halibut.  the clouser rides hook up so white is on the bottom.  look closely at the red patch that imitates an injured gill plate.

Epilogue:

This may go without saying, but there is nothing peaceful and serene about fly fishing Hedionda.  This not like fly fishing the Gallatin canyon in montana.  The freeway noise is constant.  And depending on which way the wind is blowing the freeway noise can be downright loud.  In fact i had a trucker honk at me while i battled a halibut right off the 5.  I raised my fist to him in glory.

I know what you are saying, “Where do I park?  Where do I Launch? Where did you catch all your fish in Hedionda?  I did write that part and created detailed maps.  And then I removed it from this article.  Why?  Well, in respect to the handful of gear guys that helped me.  But, honestly, although it’s rare, I recently got a hate mail from a selfish fly fisher that wants his fly fishing location to be his and his alone.  So, consequently, doesn’t want me publishing this type of info on the public interweb.  I am a strong believer in conservation by awareness.  Granted, for every one “hate mail” I get a hundred emails thanking me for info.  Fly fisherman are typically such unselfish, trustable and “giving back” type of people.  But, there are exceptions; people are people.

I’d be happy to share that map, parking and fishing location info with you.  Send me an email from here.  And donate $5 to the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation here while you are at it.

 

Fly Fishing Kauai for Bluefin Trevally from Shore

November 27 to December 4th, 2020

When a fly fisher thinks about fishing Kauai it is typically about the rare and the elusive Kauai rainbows.   I have written about hunting the fabled rainbow trout of Kauai many times.  Hundreds, if not thousands of people have reached out to me over the years for guidance on how to find and fish the rainbows of Kauai.  The “thing” about Kauai’s rainbows is that it’s an all-day thing requiring a big drive, a big hike, and lots of bushwhacking through plants and over lava that will take your blood.  it is very physical.  The rainbows live deep in the jungles of Kokee State park where the rain flows cool down streams and rivers from altitude on the rainiest place on earth.  That also means you are using a machete just to get to the water and frequently to cut a path for your fly line.

This article is about DIY saltwater fly fishing from the Kauai shoreline for the Bluefin Trevally.  I wrote about my success after 20 years of misery last year: https://fly-fishing-blog.timhuckaby.com/fly-fishing-guidance-for-hawaii/.  Well, with the island pretty darn empty and a lot more time on the water I learned a lot more on my latest trip.   There are so many ways to fly fish the saltwater of Kauai.  In this article I will be focusing on just one of the ways: hunting the predator gamefish from shore.

This was a last-minute trip Kelly and I pulled off on points.  We snuck it in between the closing of the Hawaiian Islands in the basically 3 week period that the islands were open in 2020 because of COVID-19.  We own a timeshare in Poipu at the Marriott Waiohai.  20+ years ago I was totally against buying it, but talked into it, unwillingly, by my wife, Kelly.  I was totally wrong.  It was the smartest thing we have ever done.  We go every September, travelling on points, after the kids go back to school and the island is less crowded.  But Covid-19 cancelled this year’s September trip.  With kelly going stir crazy at the house and a government regulated testing program in place we snuck in a weeklong trip…. And we were lucky.  With “no one” on the island it was easy to be covid safe.  The islands locked down again just a few days after we left.

how’d ya’ like to pull the fly out of the face of this beast?

The good news was that the island of Kauai was pretty empty of tourists because of the rigorous requirements of passing governmental covid testing and the short notice of the openings and closing of the islands.  I am confident I will never ever again experience the beaches of that island so empty.  I always worry about my back-cast hitting a curious tourist walking up behind me; not on this trip.  The bad news is the Hawaiian economy, almost solely dependent on tourism, is decimated.  So many businesses and restaurants closed.  The people of Kauai are suffering….or will be when governmental aid runs out.  The business owners are definitely suffering.  Even the Hyatt itself in Poipu has closed indefinitely.  That is a huge, wildly popular resort that is even frequented by the rich and famous.  Such difficult times.

I had to pause the double hauling to just stare at this for a while.

The Fishing

Ok, let’s get to the fishing.  I did well.  I caught around a dozen bluefin trevally over 4 2-4 hour fly fishing sessions.  So it’s not like it was steelhead fishing slow in terms of lack of action.  But, it wasn’t like it was crazy nuts getting struck on every cast trout fishing.  Typically what happens when we visit Kauai is that we pick a new adventure every day.  The “battle” between kelly and I is that we are on one of the, if not the nicest beaches on the island in Poipu, so leaving that beach just feet from our condo is hard for her; understandably so.  Since I can’t sit still I will typically snorkel or fly fish or find something else to keep me busy.  Or she’ll just put a rum drink in my hand to keep me from being fidgety.  rum does work to slow me down.

The Bluefin Trevally – quite a special fish

The Bluefin Trevally

The bluefin trevally was the fish I was hunting.  2 Septembers ago I caught a few special ones. After figuring out how to fish them and that changed me forever.  I now dream about fishing for bluefin trevally.  They are an amazing gamefish predator to battle on a fly rod; very special.  They fight like hell.  I have mentioned a few times on this site the monster bluefin trevally I lost many years ago at Mahaulepu that will haunt me forever.  Also, one of my favorite stories from a few years back is fishing bait on conventional gear with my son, Mark. I bought a cheap $20 trout rod for him at the Walmart on the island.  We were on top of the cliff at secret beach in Mahaulepu.  He hooked and landed a large marbled hawkfish (called a piliko’a in Hawaii).  The hawkfish looks poisonous it has so many spines.  And you cant grab them because of those spines.  We had trouble releasing it with forceps, so I told him to give it a breather in the water and we’d try again after it breathed a bit.  While the fish struggled on the top of the water column, clearly tired, a 3 foot long Blue Trevally came from nowhere like lightning and swallowed it.  It took off like a gun shot and started peeling 6 pound mono test from that cheap trout rod….for about 2 seconds when that cheap reel couldn’t keep up and the line just snapped.  We both looked at each other in shock.  I simply said, “that was the blue trevally.”  He said, “Oh my God…”

One of the Bluefins I caught on this trip was special and has a story.  More on that in a bit. I did catch a handful of predator reef fish in the mix.  It was not crazy every cast getting struck upper Kern River or Clark Fork River crazy like us trout fishermen sometimes experience.  I did have to work for the fish I caught.  Frequently I had to work an area for 30+ casts before getting a strike.

blah blah

To be successful fly fishing the bluefin trevallys (and other similar predators shore-fishing in Kauai) there is a prescription for success.  I am not claiming to be an expert, yet, by any stretch.  But, every hour on the water; every year gets me closer:

  • You have to be able to double haul a cast more than 50 feet, frequently into the wind. So, this is the type of fly fishing that is just not for beginners.
  • You have to be able to do that double haul while standing on lava or rocks or sand getting pounded by waves. I never do anything too crazy that it’s unsafe, but it is annoying when you get pounded.
  • You aim for the back of the wave; not in front of it. if you have snorkeled you have seen fish follow the waves, not get pounded in the chop by them.  It’s easier to keep a tight line in the back of the waves too.
  • You have to be willing to lose flies. Anything can happen with that wind and surf that will allow your fly to sink and catch the reef.
  • I use a Temple Fork Outfitters (TFO) TiCr2 9’0″ 4pc. 300-400GB Lefty Kreh 10 weight with a Rio Outbound short tropical line. TFO has replaced the TiCr2 with the Bluewater SG.  With that super fast retrieve I’m fishing the top of the water column so there is no need for casting heaving sinking lines.
  • You have to strip as fast as possible. Because of that fast retrieve the take to landing ratio is really good.  You rarely miss a fish when you are stripping so fast.  Well, except for those damn foot long needle fish that nip at the tails of your flies all the way in.
  • You’re aiming for deeper water that has structure close. Some of my success is simply hunting where they hang out while snorkling.  Then going back at where they are with a rod.  On this trip I was very surprised to run into a school of 20 or so of them in 20 feet of water with a sandy bottom at poipu beach, though.
  • Flies? Well, who knows.  My success came on a number of different flies, including bonefish flies (which makes very little sense).  For that reason alone it seems that presentation, placement and stripping speed are a lot more important than the fly itself.  But, what I was most excited about was catching them on an Avalon Permit fly that my buddy and co-inventor of the fly, William from Cuba and now working at RO Drift boats in Bozeman tied for me.

one of the obstacles to avoid when fly fishing Kauai: the endangered hawaiin monk seal

Catch and Release

In Hawaii the bluefin trevally is called the Omilu.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bluefin_trevally.  The Hawaiians not only eat them but consider them a delicacy.  If I was offshore in a boat railing tuna I wouldn’t have a problem keeping a fish.  But, as a tourist, I just don’t feel comfortable harvesting fish from shore.  There are a lot of local Hawaiians that fish from the shore (netting, spear fishing and bait fishing) every day for simple sustenance.  I just don’t feel good about being their competition, so I let everything I catch go unharmed.  And yea, I sure do get some strange looks and even some comments when people see me let fish go after catching them.

Other fish i caught on this trip included the marbled hawkfish – piliko’a and a big ol wrasse or parrotfish that I had trouble releasing so I didn’t take a picture trying to release it without killing it.

Another not so endangered species to avoid tripping over: the green sea turtle.

My favorite Takeaway Story of the Trip

There are some things we do every time we visit Kauai.  One of them is what we call “the north shore” – Kee beach at the very northern part of the island where the road ends at the Kalalua trailhead.  Officially it’s called Hāʻena State Park and you have to reserve in advance and pay a fee because it is so popular.  I like that.  I assume those fees are going to the conservation of that magical place.  It’s a huge trek from Poipu where our condo is on the southern part of the island in Poipu.  It’s an all-day thing.  It’s 51 miles and frequently takes longer than an hour and a half to get to.  You can see from this map.  The interesting thing truly unique about Kauai is that the road doesn’t go entirely around the island; not even close.  A full third of the island is completely undeveloped jungle.  I like that a lot.  Anyways, my point is it is a very popular place and normally I have to walk for over a mile to get space to cast.  Not on this day, though.  No one there.  So, I got to hunt.

A completely empty Mahaulepu. i’m pretty sure i will never see that again in my lifetime

I saw the flash, but it was a good 60 feet away. The wind backed down just long enough for me to double haul my TFO 10 wt TiCR2 into the zone. Whack! At first, I thought I caught the reef…until the reef started peeling line away. That rod is a single hand rod designed by the Lefty Kreh, but it is a beast with two handles and the fighting butt of a spey rod. The fly was an Avalon Permit fly tied by the William of Cuba, one of the designers who currently works at Ro in Bozeman. That fish gave me everything I had in the fight.  Picture little ol me with two hands on the rod and line peeling away.  I was using a 20 lb flouro leader and actually worried about it at points in the battle.  Those Bluefins fight so hard.  Well, after what seemingly took forever and was probably just a few minutes I had it tired out and on a shelf with water so I could release it.  I wanted to do it as quickly as possible so as not to harm the fish.  A couple Hawaiians watched in shock as I let it go.  I put it on my Instagram here.

That’s Kelly on Kee beach with the sun shining and completely empty – shocking

Epilogue

I still have not caught a bonefish on Kauai.  I thought I did two Septembers ago, but one of you readers pointed out that the fish I caught was a related species, but not an actual bonefish. On this trip I did not see a single bonefish so I never got a chance to try.  Of course, the way I fished for Trevallys is totally contrary to the way you’d fish for bonefish; hunting in shallow water from the beach with pinpoint accurate casts and slow retrieves.

school of small bluefin trevally