Sunday, December 30, 2012

Midge Hatches

Midges have supplied me with more fine fishing days than I can count; from tail-water fisheries to free-stone streams to reservoirs, lakes, ponds, and even sloughs. I have imitated them to fool trout, steelhead, whitefish, bass, crappie, bluegill, squaw fish, carp, and chubs.  They are imitated so easily and fish so well its hard not to like them.  A frustrating and somewhat limiting factor to tying and fishing their imitations is their size.  A #24 hook is overly dressed with just thread on it; add much else and the hook gap disappears, and the patterns effectiveness dies.  But the challenge of tying a pattern that small is unique.  Successfully tying and fishing these patterns is a joy.

Lakes midges are typically much larger in size so you feel like you're throwing a T-bone steak rather than an expensive appetizer that teases the taste buds rather than satisfying a grown man's hunger.  But when size isn't an issue often the numbers of naturals on the water can be.  Figuring out in which direction the cruising trout is headed and guessing where it wants to eat next is a challenge.  When a hundred or more trout are all feeding at once and a good percentage of them are within casting distance with 1000's of naturals on the water it becoming pure pandemonium!

Last spring we were on a tail-water fishery chasing steelhead.  The dam on this river marks the furthest most point the anadromous fish can ascend and they gather there in great numbers, on good years.  My brother Adam was home over spring break and with him came the heavy rains of April.  The rivers were blown out and heavy with sediments and the fishing opportunity looked bleak.  I decided our best bet was to fish for steelhead below the dam where some control of flows and sediment load was possible.  Adam hadn't fished for steelhead for almost 20 years and I wanted to get him a fish.

The water was relatively clear that morning but by lunch time it was pretty dark and the water level was rising; they had pulled the plug and were dumping water in preparation for run-off. Early that morningAdam hooked and landed a beautiful 25" buck on a bobber and jig set up.  It was only the second steelhead of his life so we were all pretty excited despite the slow fishing and quickly changing water conditions.

As the day wore on I watched bass, trout, and even steelhead rise and boil on the surface of the river.  Adult midges were everywhere but it was hard to tell if a hatch on was due to poor water clarity; it was hard to see anything in or on the water, especially empty shucks from recently hatched midges.  We tried some minnow patterns thinking the predatory bass and steelhead were possibly slashing at the smolt the kids were catching, but with no success.  Finally I decided to give a midge pattern a try below my bobber and jig.  The river was huge and the amount of weight needed to reach fishing depths was ridiculous.  I kept playing with my bobber stop adjusting it higher and higher trying to find bottom.  The roiling currents on the edge of the eddy kept my jig and flies suspended and I wasn't finding anything but a slight amount of frustration.

I finally had a good drift, the bobber slowing sunk out of sight in the turbid waters and I set the hook for the sake of it, not because I thought there was a fish on the other end of the line.  I was pleasantly surprised with a heavy pull and a good head shake.  I got Jakey over there, my nephew, and he battled the 26" buck into the shallows where we finally tailed it.  Hooked solid in the corner of its mouth was my red midge pattern.  Amazingly that fish, in 42,000 cfs of turbid water, picked out a #14 midge pattern and inhaled it.

Tyler and I headed down river exploring some other holes a little while later.  I kept that same set up on and picked up a few more trout, one an especially nice specimen of 19".  It was a great end to a nice day, catching fish on a midge pattern in a river so big and blown out you'd think only dynamite would bring any luck.

This video is short.   Its filmed on a local put and take lake in late fall.  The first fish Ty hooks and loses is actually hooked on a full sinking line and a #6 woolly bugger; probably olive.  It is usually the ticket on this little lake and we have exploited its success many times.  This particular day was a little windy and a small chop was on all but the lee side of the lake; the SW corner.  We weren't picking up many fish and things seemed to be "off".  We were fishing the eastern shore, our favorite haunt, when  I looked across and noticed the lake was like glass and there were fish rising in the far corner.  Incidentally the last hour before dark the whole lake was glass-like but the majority of the rises was concentrated in the same, shallow corner of the lake.

We trolled his fly to where the rings of rising trout was most concentrated.  We put aside the dredge gear, switched over to a floating line, dug deep in an abandoned fly box and found a few patterns we could alter with a pair of nippers to match the #10 midges hatching by the 1000's.  All the fish thereafter are caught on "midge patterns".  After Ty wore out and lost a few of our makeshift patterns I asked for a turn and hooked a trout on the dry and dropper on the same cast.  It was fun watching the tug-of-war as the trout fought each other as well as Ty's glass rod.   Unfortunately the 3 pound tippet was a little light and the fish hooked on the dropper escaped to be hooked another day.

We fished up there a few more times in the following week or two but just trolled lures with my youngest kids.  We caught some nice fish, a lot of fish, and every time, in the same corner, there were a hundred trout rising if there was one.  I never did return with a fly rod and some actual midge patterns, though I threatened to.  I'd taken a few notes the night this video was filmed on color, size, etc., so I was ready to put an epic number of fish in the boat, but this fall was a busy one; a great friend died, elk season happened, the honey-doo list was calling and I just never made time for it.  I guess next fall, around the middle of October, you know where you can find me.....................bring a 3-weight rod with a long, light leader, a flashlight, and plan to stay till we can't see our flies on the water, even when fishing facing east.

A great day with my dad and the youngest 3 of my 6!  The trout really worked the midges this day but we caught our trout deep, on lures.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Spike Only, REALLY?

Last year's 2nd bull season was a blast, if you enjoy wilderness camping and no elk.  We did manage to eat 4 pounds of Tillamook Medium Cheddar Cheese and a 3 ft beef stick with other tasty morsels, but mostly we just enjoyed the country, the company, and eventually the constipation.  But my boys put 42 miles on their boots in 4 days of hunting and only saw 4 cows a mile and a half away.  I hunted a less remote unit the first season and killed a spike.  This caused minor upheavals and the desire to kill a branch bull was outweighed by the chances of killing an elk; I had seen many more elk than 4 in the few days I hunted.

Not too many years ago, before hound hunting was banned in Oregon, we had good populations of deer and elk.  With unregulated predator numbers the hunting has deteriorated to a bleak existence.  When we moved back to Oregon the kids were excited.  They have heard the stories of successful hunts, they have seen the pictures and all the antlers hanging in the shed, they have also spent enough time in the mountains to know that NE Oregon has what it takes to be a hunting mecca.   Having lived and hunted in Wyoming makes this fact even harder to accept; they have seen good hunting, they know it exists, they know what good country looks like and they understand habitat and carrying capacity.  NE Oregon has the country, the habitat, the space, we just don't have the herds we once did.

Corey is a JV football player and his last game is today, October 25th, the second day of the first bull season.   He didn't hunt yesterday because he has to be at school to play, so it was just Tyler and Dad.  We decided to hunt where I killed my bull last year.  The snow this year was close to 8 inches deep, it was fresh, new powder that silenced most of our stumbles on the steep hillside.  The air was crisp with a winter-like bite.  The clouds hung heavy on the mountain top with intermittent fog/clouds keeping our visibility down to a minimum; it reminded me of my first elk hunt that happened on these same ridges Tyler and I hunted yesterday.

That hunt took place 28 years ago, when I was 12, and my dad had been out scouting for me and had found a nice bunch of elk with a lone spike.  He had given up bull hunting by that time hunting cows every year.  He knew the chances of killing a late season cow was better than an early season bull and with 5 kids to feed and a big freezer to fill antlers became less important.  I could have drawn a tag with him, but I wanted a bull.

Dad didn't argue or even try to persuade me to hunt cows with him, all I got was an, 'are you sure?'  So, with limited time off, one horse, and me in school dad found a herd of elk on Mt. Emily for me to hunt.  We borrowed uncle Sig's 4x4 truck to make it through all the snow we had that year and dad and I left EARLY; it was a good thing too.  A tree had fallen in the night and Sig didn't have chains, an ax, or even a jack in the truck.  Dad used his bone saw to cut the tree through and then manhandled it out of the way, just far enough to the truck through; we were still on time.  To put this in perspective the tree required cutting from both sides to get all the way through.  I sat in the old, tan Chevy and roasted in my winter clothes while dad worked hard to make sure I was successful.  I remember on the trip dad hit a bump that jostled us so bad I bounced off the seat and hit my head on the crossbeam that vehicle manufacturers conveniently place right where your head would hit if something like that happened.  We got a good laugh out of it and I got a nice goose egg.

The elk were right where dad had bedded them the night before, except the spike had wandered off.  When we spotted the elk in the draw we made a mad dash down hill so I had a clear shot through the trees.  I remember dad slipped and fell, sliding down the steep hill on his back side looking completely in control.  He jumped up, rifle ready and in good shape, waiting for me to catch up and make the shot.  I remember giggling from excitement!  It was funny to watch my dad eat it, but I remember thinking how cool it was that he was so natural in that setting.  The fall would have flustered most men and the recovery would have been awkward and difficult in the deep snow with a pack frame on, but not for dad, it was like it was an everyday occurrence, a mild interruption to an otherwise normal day..........I wanted to be just like him, I've always wanted to be just like him!  Because of the time he spent with me I'd have so say I have come pretty close.  Today I was him and Tyler was me, but this time there was a spike in the herd. 

Tyler and I dropped off the top, made our way through an alder thicket, and side-hilled around toward the thickets to our south.  We were half way there, I had stopped and was having a good conversation about life with Ty, when he spotted a bull below us; he saw the antlers move as the bull turned its head. We glassed the area good but never did see another elk.  The bull, just 60 yards away, finally trotted back from where he came.  We hustled along finding a small clearing torn up with elk sign; we'd bumped a good sized herd.  We moved slowly through the trees glassing as we went and finally heard the calves talking ahead and a little above us.  We circled above them but found our path would take us through an old burn where we'd be in the open, so we dropped back down and continued along our original path.  

Ty spotted them first, 10 or so elk, feeding in the trees above us; despite the swirling wind they never smelled us.  We stood still and I glassed the heads looking for spikes.  All we saw were branch bulls and cows.  A 6-point finally noticed us and stood statue still watching us for 5 minutes, completely in the open and less than 75 yards away.  It would have been an easy shot and Ty whispered he wished we were in a unit branch bulls were legal, but we weren't and had to be content just watching.  Soon we had 3 branch bulls in front of us with a "spike".  He was definitely a yearling, but he had a crown of 3 tines on his left and a forked antler on his right so all we could do was watch.  It took close to 10 minutes for the elk to finally get nervous and move off behind us, where we all came from.  I found a spike just as they were leaving but it was through thick cover and Ty didn't have a shot.  

We tracked them down and I spotted 2 of the branch bulls in thick, new-growth trees at the top end of the draw.  I soon found other elk and finally found the spike.  Ty and I belly crawled through the snow to a good shooting position. Ty was freezing as the sweat had dried, the wind was blowing, and he was layered for hiking, not sitting in the snow watching elk.  The bull finally was clear of the cows and Ty put a well placed bullet into its chest; his follow up shot was a little too far back, but sealed the deal.  The bull walked out of sight and we waited....................there wasn't a sound from him going down in the snow, but cows ran up out of the thicket of small trees he'd entered and looked back, nervously. I told Ty he had his bull; elk don't act like that unless something is wrong.  

I left Tyler to watch and make sure a wounded bull didn't slip away while we looked for  him.  I could smell him before I saw him, he hadn't gone far.  We quickly called everyone on the cell phone (its amazing how easy it is to communicate with the world with today's technology) and took some pictures.  The pack out wasn't bad, two trips each, and we were home before dark.  

Two days later we jumped those elk again, this time with Corey.  We tracked them across another mile of county and I finally found a spike in thick trees.  Corey and I crawled through deeper snow to a vantage point above the thickly treed draw the elk had stopped in.  He had to snake a bullet through a huge Doug fir halfway to the elk as well as the opening in the trees immediately around the bull.  The bullet was deflected and his follow up shot was just a click; he had ejected the spent shell but failed to move the bolt far enough to grab the next one.  There was no blood and we followed the elk to edge of private property a mile from where he shot.  We jumped a HUGE 6x6 in the trees on our way back to Ty but never caught up with the spike again.  We enjoyed a hot fire, some food, and the scenery before climbing out of that hole to where the truck waited.  We went bass fishing on the Snake River the next day instead of hunting elk again; it was Corey's choice.  It was an incredible day of fishing with lots of smiles and pictures.   Our freezers were pretty much full and Abbie still had a deer tag to fill, we had two elk already in the freezer and the Swedes were coming for the 2nd bull season; we had time to fish.   

I often think of that day with my dad 28 years ago, specifically when I look at the outline of the mountain or talk of elk hunting.  The fact that I didn't get a bull that day, that someone below us, without a tag, shot 4 bulls out of a big group we were watching at 250 yards is inconsequential to me now.  The most vivid memory I have is of my dad sliding down the hill in the deep snow and the excitement I felt to be with him, sharing the experience and being allowed to love what he loved and to make memories, ones that would one day be stories I could tell those that would listen, of a wonderful day that shaped me as a hunter and more importantly as a father.