Freelance Wing-shooting, out of state style
By Chris Zimmerman
Four days of hunting. Four limits of wild rooster pheasants. It’s not an easy feat by any stretch of the imagination, but my pals and I from Michigan had a few things going for us when we made the big drive to North Dakota.
We weren’t on a game farm or a pheasant ranch. The roosters we ultimately stuffed in our game vests weren’t pen raised of freshly liberated as is the case with elite hunting clubs. No guides picked us up from the airport or told us where to stand while in the field. We hunted just the way we liked…one man, one, or two dogs, and a long walk on the Great Plains.
The satisfaction of planning the trip, finding a place to stay and do-it-yourself hunting made the whole pheasant hunting experience incredibly rewarding.
Our hunt didn’t just fall into place. With a little bit of planning, shoe leather and grit, our hunt unfolded with the same unpredictability as a good movie, a competitive college football game or the first date with your future spouse.
My first out-of-state bird hunt was back in 1992. Over the years I learned a lot about how to pull off a great hunting experience without breaking the bank. Even though I can now afford to stay at an expensive lodge with leased land, the satisfaction of planning my trip adds to the joy of the hunt. Here are a few tips that may help an inexperienced wingshot put together an out-of-state hunt.
-Talk to a state upland biologist about hunting opportunities. They’re usually quite forthright when it comes to finding good places to hunt. Conservation officers’ phone numbers are usually published on line or in the hunting guides. They’re usually very helpful when it comes to finding birds and promising habitat.
-As opposed to paying the landowner to hunt, bring edible goodies from your home state. Michigan is famous for its wine, cherries, maple syrup, fudge and Vernor’s ginger ale. Trading those morsels for hunting privileges cultivates a mutually beneficial relationship. By showing up at the landowner’s doorstep bearing gifts, you stand a much better chance of securing access. Make sure the person who answers the door sees the goodies in your arms. They quickly will get the understanding that you’ve come bearing gifts.
-Keep an eye on the weather. In 2019, heavy rainfall delayed the corn harvest by several weeks throughout the Midwest. It’s no fun - and not productive hunting - when there’s field after field of standing corn. Plan a date after the pheasant opener, but before the start of firearm deer season.
-Book a place to stay. I like the mom-n-pop style motels or B&Bs in small towns where dogs are allowed in the rooms. More often than not, the motel owner has a sense of where the birds are and may be able to point you in the right direction. Those smaller motels may even have bird cleaning facilities and a freezer to keep your game.
-Know the rules about access to land and shooting hours. Some states allow hunters to probe the ditches on either side of the road. Other states – like Michigan – require permission from the landowner(s). North Dakota allows hunting on property that isn’t posted, while Iowa allows hunting in the ditches even if the bordering land is posted. Shooting hours vary from state to state. Iowa’s hours are from 8am to 430pm which makes things easy. No need to figure out when sunrise or sunset occurs as the case with North Dakota’s rules.
-When going out to eat, be sure to make nice with the wait staff at the local diner. Leave a nice tip and mention that you’ll be in town for a few days. Gradually float the idea that you’re bird hunting and need all the help you can get when it comes to finding a place to hunt. The waiter, waitress, or bartender can give you an idea of the landowners who are in the bar or diner. Picking up the tab for a $6 plate of eggs, or $3 beer goes a long way in finding a place to hunt. Don’t be surprised if the landowner has hundreds, or even thousands of acres to hunt. Farms that size are normal in the heartland.
-Buy a plat book or download the app that shows who the landowners are. It’ll pay dividends in finding out who owns the juiciest land to hunt. Pull up Google maps and check out the little nooks and crannies of cover not visible from the road. Those overlooked areas can be dynamite when searching for birds that haven’t been harassed by other hunters.
-Send thank you notes to the landowners after the hunt. Christmas cards are a nice gesture too. Those extra touches endear you to the landowner and make it easier to gain access the next time you call or knock on their door.
Once you’ve lined up ground to hunt, the fun begins. Where to park, how to handle your dog, stealth, working into the wind, not slamming doors, blockers, strategy and shooting tips is a whole other matter best saved for a future installment, but suffice it to say it all matters.
Henry’s Fork Trout Fishing
by Chris Zimmerman
Eastern Idaho – After many years of hearing about the tremendous fly fishing on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, I finally got the chance to try my luck. On an early morning in mid-August, I parked the vehicle near a rustic campground, and ambled past peaceful tents and fifth wheels. The thin, clear mountain air had a hint of coffee and bacon, flapjacks and biscuits. Round the campers I went, following a footpath that was just a few yards away from the magnificent Henry’s Fork.
Wide and slick – the river slid past me as smoothly as peanut butter smeared on a piece of warm toast. Little trout splashed recklessly at the river’s surface – dining on insects of unknown variety.
Keeping one eye on the river and the other eye on the footpath, I startled a woman in her bathrobe and her son, who were bent at the waist a few yards off the path.
“Everything ok?” I asked.
“Yes,” the woman said with great enthusiasm, “we’re picking huckleberries.” She proudly held up an ice cream pail an inch or two deep with blue treasure. Her excitement made me smile. The berries would go great with their morning flapjacks or evening cornbread back at the campground. It’s the little things in life like berry picking and trout fishing that make me happy – and apparently her, too.
Amidst the tree roots, the greenery on the forest floor, pine cones and gravel underfoot, I noticed the edible splendor of her affection: huckleberries. They twinkled blue on the edge of the footpath. Sweet and flavorful, they reminded me of rustic life in the northern climes at home, seven states away.
Proceeding on my way and a couple hundred yards later, I finally found a rising trout worth pursuing. Halfway across the river, Mr. Trout didn’t splash the way the little ones did, but rather, it dimpled the surface with a surgeon’s precision. And it wouldn’t just pluck one insect off the surface, but three or four in a trip to its floating breakfast bar overhead.
Wearing wading shoes and a pair of shorts, I slid into the river. ‘Twas as cold as a mountain stream, alright, but it wasn’t unbearable. Before I knew it, I was up to my knees, then my thighs. Patches of river grass swayed in the mellow current like hosiery on a clothesline. It didn’t take much imagination to picture “my” trout using the grass for cover, then rising to the surface for a quick meal.
I tied an old favorite to the end of my twelve foot, tapered leader: a Griffith’s gnat. Although I’ve caught plenty of trout on that fly, I must admit that it really doesn’t imitate any certain insect. In August, when most of the season’s mayflies have been hatched, matched, and dispatched, the only game in town is a tiny fly with generic appeal. Griffith’s fit that bill – or at least they do way back in Michigan.
As luck would have it, the trout I had been stalking had moved. I greased my gnat with fly floatant and tried to keep up with the ghostly image of the trout. It was 30 yards upstream, then 20 feet closer to shore. My theory about it using one clump of grass for cover had been dismissed. This big boy was roaming now – plucking breakfast off the surface like a careless vagrant.
The sun had cleared the Targhee mountain range to the east and the air temperature was quickly rising. I could feel it on the back of my neck. That subtle increase must have triggered the insect activity into overdrive. Tiny, black and white mayflies were floating past me in great numbers. Little trout and some bigger ones were zeroed in on them.
That’s the beautiful part about trout fishing. Time stands still in those instances – with the current gurgling around my legs, the fly-line making sweet music as it rushes through the air, and my mind concentrating on delivering a fly to a crafty adversary.
I wish I could tell you that I landed that big trout but that wouldn’t be true. Oh, I had my chance alright, but I missed the take when it finally arrived. As the case w most sizable trout back home, they seldom give me a second chance to fool them.
Just as quickly as the hatch unfurled, it came to a graceful end. Little trout splashed in the shallows while a kingfisher winged past, chattering as he went. I left the river disappointed in myself, but not with the experience. Even though I only fished a tiny section of the river, the Henry’s Fork delivered a sizable trout, plenty of bugs, and a picture perfect setting.
I’m not really sure what kind of trout I was dueling with. The Henry’s Fork has cutthroat, brown, rainbow, and brook trout.
The Henry’s Fork is named after a fur trader, Colonel Andrew Henry who explored the Snake River plateau in 1810. The river starts as an outlet for Henry’s Lake and meanders for 113 miles through ranchland, high-desert floodplain, and timber-covered canyons. I could have fished hoppers in the ranch land, nymphs in the floodplain and streamers in the canyons, if I could get to it.
Next time I go, I’m going to hire a guide, float the river, and take in all that the river, the area, the experience has to offer.
Chris Zimmerman is a freelance outdoor writer, author, and insurance agent in Shepherd, Michigan. Give him a call at 989.828.4441
The 2020 walleye season was one for the books. Not because of the fishing, but rather because of the seriously abbreviated season. Due to a worrying display of gross governmental overreach, the Michigan boating and fishing season, which usually kicks off at the beginning of April, was banned. Boating (with a motor?!?) and fishing with friends, or clients was prohibited, based on......guesswork and hysteria, and nothing more!
Forget about the huge economic impact to Michigan, and most other states where similar restrictions were mandated. Forget about the livelihoods of everyone that relies on outdoor sports and tourism to support their families. Forget about the fact that there is probably no better way to "social distance" than to be in a small boat, in the middle of a large body of ice cold water.
Thousands upon thousands of people spent over a month anxiously awaiting some common sense and the reopening of the fisheries.
Thankfully sportsmen and women didn't stand for the restrictions and based on their push back, the waterways were reopened in time to salvage some of the season.
The walleye fishing scene on the Detroit river is as impressive as it is traditional. At the peak of the walleye "run", any stretch of river can see hundreds of boats at any time of day or night. This is an often mile wide river that runs almost 20 miles between Lake St Clair and Lake Erie. At the peak of the season, the river is jammed full of boats.
My first trip down the river this year was with my friend Lonnie Allen aboard his nicely appointed walleye boat. Lonnie, like many of the fishermen that I know, is a hard core walleye fisherman and has just the right set-up to effectively target Michigan walleye.
Having the "right" rig is important to walleye success. The Detroit river is big water. The currents are very powerful. It's open enough that wind can be a big factor, and traffic is significant at time, traffic not just from other fishing boats but also from large pleasure yachts, sail boats of all shapes and sizes, including nightly regattas for many classes of sailing vessels. 1,000' freighters, coast guard, local police, sheriff’s and border patrol boats, large and small also frequent the same areas that hold millions of walleyes.
A deep"V" boat of 17-20', with a reliable motor in the 50-200 HP range, a good bow mounted electric trolling motor and a quality graph is the basic set-up. Each of those basic components is key to success. The bow mounted trolling is an absolute necessity to match boat speed to current speed when on a "drift" through one of the many stretches of holding water that most locals frequent. The deep "V" hull is important for the often choppy waters. The reliable motor is a god send when you notice, at the last minute, that a giant freighter is bearing down on your position. They sneak up on you silently pushing a 10 ' tall bow wake. If I had a dollar for every time that I've seen surprised walleye boats, large and small, scrambling to avoid being keel-hauled by a mountainous, silent hulk of a freighter, I could buy a shiny new walleye boat!
The majority of the fishing is done by jigging 1oz painted jigs with various rubber baits, utilizing stinger hooks trailing from the main jig hook. Minnows are added sometime. Many people also still slow troll plugs on hand lines too. It's a more old school tactic and more often than not it'll be old-timers who practice this method, but it's highly effective! When I started fishing the river 40 years ago, it was by far the most common method. Electric trolling motors and graphs were pretty rare on the river back then. It's still common to see smallish boats with specialized spring loaded "reels" mounted to the gunnels, dragging heavy weights, trailing plugs. Some of the most coveted and collectible gear are home made wooden reel "boxes" using old hand crank, spring loaded Victrolla mechanisms to hold the trolling line. Don't know what a Victrolla is or how it works? Look it up, but it's basically the first "record player". They were spring loaded and wound with a hand crank and people "Jerry-rigged" them to do any number of duties once they became "useless antiques", about 90 years ago. Other local specialties also include "whipping" and "Chugging" for walleyes.. both effective, interesting and unique ways to catch "Eyes". An entire article could be written for each, so I'll save a description for another day. I stick with vertical Jigging nowadays.
Because Detroit river walleyes tend to hold in water depths from 20 to 40', it's important to use the right gear to up your odds of success. My rig is as follows and is the right way to be successful, give or take a few very minor variations based on personal preferences.
Assuming your trolling motor can match the current speed, allowing you to maintain a vertical jigging presentation, a good stiff spinning rod of 6-6.5' in length, preferably a one piece rod made of sensitive graphite, is a good start. To that, affix a very good spinning reel with smooth drag and an instant anti-reverse bearing so that there's no hint of backlash at the hook set. This is very important! A similar set-up with a baitcaster, or level-wind reel can also work. Using no-stretch Spider-wire or Fire-line is also vitally important. Zero stretch and sensitivity will boat many more fish. The small details matter...a lot! Many people tie their 1oz jigs directly to the spider wire, but to minimize line twist, and to add a bit of fineness, a use a 3-4' leader of low stretch fluorocarbon mono and a very tiny, very good swivel between the spider-wire and mono. I stick with 6-8lb for the mono, and 10-12lb for the spider wire. I like bright yellow for the spider wire, because watching the line for "hits" is important. Walleye often slam the jig on the drop and you won’t feel anything, but you will see your line suddenly jump, or go slack when it should be tight. Keeping your line tight on the up-stroke and on the drop while jigging is very important because of this. Hi-vis line helps you to stay focused. More hook sets will result.
Choosing the right plastic bait for your jig, and the color of your jig is a daily consideration and walleyes tend to prefer certain colors from day to day. Plastics can be any number of minnow or worm shapes and effective jig colors can range from bright chartreuse to olive, black or even metal flake blue or purple. Jig head size, shape and hook quality varies. Make sure the hook gap, sharpness and strength is sufficient for walleyes that can range from 2-12 lbs and you'll be safe. I find 1oz jigs to be the only weight necessary. 1 oz. helps even out any slight variations between current speed and your ability to control your boat to match current speed. ¾ oz. jigs require much more precision in boat control, which can be very tricky considering highly variable wind conditions coupled with current speeds. I’ve never found a need to go lighter than 1 oz…..so I don’t. Trailer hooks are another matter. Generally speaking the store bought variety are no good and most locals make their own stingers. I make mine with high quality, sharp size 8 trebles. The stingers are 2.5" overall, use tough 10lb mono and most importantly can be taken on and off the main jig hook multiple times. This is accomplished by building your stingers with a slip-knot system, as an alternative to the store bought rigs that have a rubber compound covered loop, designed to impale on the hook of the main jig. That type wears out and fails quickly. The homemade variant can be used over and over again. (Check out BackcountryLife Magazine at YouTube to see a "how to" for making stingers). The homemade rigs a more stealthy too, and it’s easy to customize them for length and hook size. I make a few with super fine wire to use when we’re in notoriously Muskie infested areas. A few spots hold walleyes and groups of LARGE muskies and we often boat a muskie or two as bycatch. Muskies in the 40-50” range are fun to catch on walleye gear!
With the small details accounted for, and the right platform, Walleyes should be available through May and into June. With senseless restrictions lifted, the Detroit river walleye rodeo is in full swing. Get after them while you can. Try the gear and tactics listed above and you should have fast action. Good fishing!
Rocky Mountain Trout Adventure
By Chris Zimmerman
EUREKA, Montana – I could hardly believe my eyes when I parked the rental car and stood on the gravelly brow of the Tobacco River in northwest Montana. Before me, the Tobacco twisted and poured its way hurriedly past fallen firs and balsams, rocks and boulders. Pockets of dark water in the twists and turns and in the shadowy pools of wood surely held trout of various flavors. Why could I hardly believe my eyes? Because this part of Montana had been a bucket-list style vacation for me since I was old enough to buy a fishing license.
Without any other plans for the day – and a mountain of responsibilities on hold back in Michigan – a day on the river presented a mix of adventure and release. The allure in trout fishing for this middle-aged angler is the escape from reality it presents.
Trout fishing isn’t about feeding the family – as is the case with perch and walleye – but rather a relaxing, gentlemanly, sport of finesse and strategy.
And oh, the Montana scenery. To say it is spectacular would be an understatement. Just when I wanted to pull over and take a photo of an old barn in a green valley, whitetail deer in a hayfield, or a ribbon of fog against a mountain vista, another picture-perfect setting was just around the corner. When draped in those rugged, forested mountains I couldn’t help but feel the joy of independence, unbridled freedom, of fulfilled teenage dreams.
Because of its gravelly swiftness, the Tobacco River in Montana reminded me of Michigan’s Jordan River near Boyne City or the Sturgeon River near Wolverine. I could have waded upstream – further up the mountainside – and probed the pockets of cover with a bushy Wulff pattern or hopper. Instead, I tied on a #14 pheasant tail nymph and set out, downstream, into the wilderness.
Even though the river wasn’t all that deep, the wading was somewhat treacherous. Rocks and stones of a thousand colors were polished smooth from the glacial waters. Not a blade of sea grass grew in the eddies; no mucky easement in the shallows. I picked up a rock or two and checked its underside for signs of insect life. Nothing. It didn’t take long for me to realize the wisdom of what the pros in the fly shops had told me: “The rivers around here are cold and clear. Not much insect life to feed the trout.”
Time for me to tone down my expectations. There’d be no 20-inch cutthroats sipping mayfly after mayfly off the water’s surface. No 15-inch brook trout or rainbows in my immediate future, either.
But that didn’t mean that I couldn’t have a good time. It wasn’t long before I was making my way downstream, popping the dark water with a favorite nymph. The place was all mine. No cabins, kayaks, canoes or commotion; just the hypnotic whoosh of the fly rod and fly line in perfect synchronicity.
The fishing was as good as it gets. Within the first hour I caught the Montana hat-trick: brook, rainbow and cutthroat trout. They weren’t very big, but that was okay. When matched with a 4-weight fly rod and 7x tippet, a ten-inch trout in swift current feels twice as large. All three species of trout looked like they were dressed in their Sunday best.
By the end of hour two I had landed six or eight other trout, and lost the biggest fish of the day when I tried to set the hook. Not sure how big it was, but judging by the commotion it made when compared to the others I had landed, I’d have to guess it was pushing 16 inches.
The river, the setting, the quiet solitude seemed to swallow me whole. I was lost in all that Montana and Montana trout fishing has to offer. As much as I wanted to spend the rest of summer on that section of the Tobacco, I knew I had to get back.
Instead of making the long haul upstream, I consulted my phone for a map of the area. To my surprise, the river crossed a secondary road not too far in front of me. It seemed like the perfect escape hatch to my wading-upstream dilemma until I heard what sounded like a cough. This wasn’t any ordinary cough. Wasn’t human. Sounded large, like a big hairy mammal. It was just about then, that I remembered I was in grizzly country. Ignoring the safety advisories about making noise and traveling in groups, I never thought that I’d encounter a grizzly bear while trout fishing. And then I looked around. The stately conifers had given way to brush and bushes that were laden with fruit that I’m certain tasted like lollipops or popsicles to a hungry bear.
What the heck, I thought to myself. This would be a grand way to depart the world – eaten by a bear.
Just the night before, I had taken a video of a big grizzly from the car window. Now I was on foot and the only thing that stood between me and certain death was an aerosol can of pepper.
Quietly, I unzipped the bottom right pocket of my fly vest, pulled out my bear spray and removed the safety trigger. At that point, I thought about all the noise I could have made to let the grizzly know exactly where I was. I tried to whistle Yankee Doodle Dandy but my lips were so dry, I couldn’t make a sound.
Boldly, I cleared my throat and hummed Home on the Range, with an extra emphasis on where the deer and the antelope play.
Downstream I went to the bridge, splashing like a herd of elephants. Climbing over rocks in assorted sizes, I scaled the bridge’s embankment to the safety of the road. At last, safety.
Once there, I looked back to where I came. The hillsides had given way to a fenced, green valley that was mowed short. Off in the distance, a red barn with a sloping, metal roof stood in the shadows of a wind-powered water pump. It wasn’t a bear at all that I heard cough, but rather, a white-faced steer.
Chris Zimmerman is the author of six Michigan-based novels and an independent insurance agent in Shepherd Michigan.
Cold weather didn't delay the Spring steelhead fishery for the 2020 season, but the Coronavirus did. Most recreational fishing and all commercial fishing (guiding) was shut down through the peak of the steelhead run, throughout the Great Lakes region, and presumably throughout the rest of the world. I was fortunate to plan a few trips just prior to the Government mandated, forced shut down...OF THE WHOLE WORLD!!!
I usually try to time my trips to be on the rivers before the peak of the season, to avoid crowds. This year that ended up being early March. Even though the weather turned out to be colder than normal. A warm-up and some melt off from a week prior to my trip, was enough to bring fresh fish into the river systems.
Over the course of two long weekends and fishing in three different river systems, the Pere Marquette, the Big Manistee and the White river, all Lake Michigan tributaries, I managed to connect with fish on every outing.
For much of the fishing that I did, I was with good friend Sean McDonald, who I've know for 30 years. We both spent many years in the Fly-fishing business on these rivers. Sean still does and was anticipating being booked solid for March, April and part of May, so we were doing a bit of "pre-season" scouting for his upcoming guide schedule. Little did he know at that point that he'd be cooling his heels, and staring at a complete loss of his season and livelyhood for spring 2020. ( to book a trip with Sean, for Steelhead, trout and salmon, fly-fishing in the rivers, or salmon fishing in Lake Michigan in the summer, contact him at Centurycircle.com).
As it turned our fishing was pretty good. We floated the Pere Marquette and also ran Sean's jet boat up the Big Manistee river, primarily swinging flies with Spey and switch rods, fishing dark lairs, old haunts and holding water that has changed little in the last 20 years. Each new stop was like seeing an old friend. A new log or two and maybe a slightly narrower, or wider or deeper patch of spawning gravel revealed themselves just like wrinkles and gray hairs reveal themselves when old friends meet after too long apart.
With mostly beautiful, albeit cold weather, we had good success. We boated and released a number of nice fresh fish and a few holdovers that had wintered in the river. Resident trout rounded out the action. We ate good food, smoked cigars and toasted the steelhead often. IPhones and GoPros were busy gathering footage for posterity. Fresh, virus free air was gulped by the ton.
I almost feel guilty, knowing that so many people lost their opportunity to share this experience, this tradition and harbinger of spring. For me this is one of the most important things that I do in early spring. It's a bit like the movie, "Groundhog's day", in that I've been doing it this time of year, every year, for over 35 years. Trout fishing, Walleyes, morel hunting and turkey hunting will, like the last 35 years, round out springtime priorities. Summer will have a revised list, before a new list for fall, and so on, to start all over next spring.
So glad to not have missed it. I truly feel for all those that did. Mark your calendar for spring 2021. There'll be flowing water, fish and flyrods. there will be traditions to uphold! See you on the water.
By Chris Zimmerman
East Central, North Dakota. ‘Twas a sight seldom seen in Michigan. As we drifted over a small rise in the landscape, a pair of pheasants drifted out of the vast prairie and into a cattail slough the size of a soccer field. Our truck slammed on the brakes as we watched the spectacle unfold. The rooster and the hen were joined by two more, then three, then eight or ten. They all piled into the slough for an early morning respite.
Seemed like an odd situation. After all, the sun was already up. Any self-respecting pheasant should have been flying out of the marsh and into the surrounding fields for a bite to eat.
When I asked my pal Casey how we were going to hunt it, his foot came off the truck brake and said “Let’s let them settle down. I’ve got a better spot to try.”
It seemed like a crazy idea. After all, we had just seen a whole flock of pheasants pile into the slough. The four members of our group could have easily put together a game plan to roust the birds from their lair.
On the flip side, it was a mighty intriguing possibility: if we were driving away from all those pheasants, the next spot must have been even more spectacular.
And as it turns out, it was.
A half mile later, we were at the foot of another slough that was surrounded by cut beans. Off went the dogs: a lab, a Brittany and three English setters. It wasn’t hard to tell where all those dogs were in the tattered copse of cover: the cattails bobbed and lost their stuffing with every coursing canine. Up went a hen in a whir of wings, then another, and another. One of the setters galloped out of the cattails and raced after one of the fleeting hens. I’m not sure if the dog was thinking that the hen would magically fall out of the sky, but in no time at all, he was fifty yards across the cut beans – ears pinned back in a fit of joy.
“Gus!” Casey cried. His setter wheeled, and came breathlessly back to the slough as if he had just taken a shift in a hockey game.
The four of us split into two groups of two. Separating us was a small, shallow pond maybe fifty yards across.
Round the pond we went. On the way, we saw a young rooster drift into the far end of the cattails. “That’s a dumb one,” Casey said. After all, four hunters and five dogs would meet on the far side of the pond – exactly where the rooster had landed.
As we neared the rendezvous spot several minutes later, a whole covey of pheasants erupted. Hens and roosters filled the sky. My partners’ guns were ablaze. Birds were falling out of the sky but I didn’t have time to marvel at the spectacle. A rooster sailed near Casey, but didn’t get past. At the sound of a gunshot, it collapsed in a plume of feathers.
“Nice shot,” I yelled, but my attention turned to a rooster trying to slip out the backdoor.
Wham! My 12-gauge barked and the rooster folded in midair, splashing to the water’s surface twenty yards away. Shorty – my little Brittany – saw what had taken place, and made a nice retrieve.
When the dust had settled a few minutes later, the four of us had six roosters in the bag. A couple fencerows and a slough later we were two cock birds short of our three-per-person limit.
Back at slough number one, we quickly killed our eleventh and twelfth rooster and it wasn’t even eleven o’clock in the morning.
Our crew from Michigan and Texas didn’t limit every day, but we should have. Some of us carried our shooting woes across state lines.
North Dakota is a barren, rugged territory. Where there aren’t cattle grazing in somewhat rocky, pitted pastures, the countryside is littered with potholes and sloughs of various sizes. Some of the sloughs are the size of lakes and attract hundreds or thousands of migrating waterfowl. It’s the kind of setting that inspires artists to paint windswept peninsulas and ducks on the wing.
The area we were hunting used to have plenty of acreage enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, but most of that is gone now. When compared to Michigan’s clean landscape, North Dakota has tons of cover. The sloughs, the brushy fencerows, and train tracks’ right of ways must be thirty yards wide. They stretch into the horizon – begging to be explored by either a group of guys or just one. The adventure, the uncertainties, the dog work involved with hunting wild birds in a rugged setting add up to an experience seldom seen in Michigan. Sure, it’s a long drive but the memories of all those pheasants will stick with me for a long time to come.
North Dakota’s pheasant season runs through the 6th of January, 2019. For more information about pheasant hunting in North Dakota, visit ND.Gov.
Chris Zimmerman is the author of six Michigan-based novels. He is an independent insurance agent in Shepherd, Michigan.
Westward Ho! Trout fishing mecca in Yellowstone National Park
By Chris Zimmerman
Talk about hectic start to a relaxing holiday in Yellowstone National Park: Catch a plane to Bozeman, rent a room, and in the morning, a motorhome. Drive the motorhome real fast and buy some gas on the outskirts of the park. Check into a campground inside Yellowstone, have some dinner and head down a hill to a grassy meadow split in two by the beautiful Madison River.
Soak in the setting. All those Rocky Mountains interspersed with lodgepole pines. The thin, mountain air smells like sage and sulfur from the park’s ubiquitous hot springs. I feel the river current tugging at my waders and listen to the swish of fly-line as it’s deployed from the reel. Scores of caddis dart an inch off the water’s surface and I notice the splashy, reckless rises of smaller trout in flat water.
I tie on a caddis of my own and cast real hard. The wind plays tricks on my presentation and the river’s considerable size and pace swallows my fly. It skates across the surface, sending the smaller trout scurrying for the hills as if they were chased by Nez Pierce warriors.
And then it hit me: trout don’t care about the lengths to which I had traveled. They aren’t impressed with the mountains nearby or the fact they live in trout fishing mecca. All they wanted was to get a bite to eat while the eating was good.
I took a step back, and reassessed the situation. Time to regroup and collect myself in a dreamy, trout fisherman’s setting. Relax. Have fun. Outwit the witting.
Thirty yards downriver, I spotted another trout rise which looked considerably larger than the dinks I had just scared.
Steadily, I moved downstream, and calculated the situation. “My” target was feeding in the seam between fast and slow water. If my cast was too long, the fly would light in fast water, then get pulled into the slower by the floating fly line. If my cast was too short, it’d languish in the slower water and out of the fish’s wheelhouse. Grace and precision are two prized qualities when slinging trout flies. Patience and cautiousness don’t hurt, either.
I had no place to be, no schedule to keep. That hectic travel schedule was behind me now. It was just me and the fish, still plucking dinner from an overhead buffet line.
A group of vehicles had stopped on the blacktop nearby, its inhabitants watching a cow elk suckle her calf that had scurried out of cover on the opposite side of the river. ‘Twas pretty as a picture – with sun cloaking the mountaintops in tangerine orange, while in the valley: the elk, and me – bumbling over the rocks and stones towards a fish of uncertain length.
Gradually, I moved into easy casting distance, played the wind, and presented the fly better than if I had waded into the river and placed it there myself. My little caddis bobbed merrily in the current, over the fish’s last eruption.
My second offer was rejected just the same.
The third and fourth entrée were ignored too.
Patience, I reminded myself. There’s no greater challenge than catching a nice trout on a dry fly.
I don’t know if the trout beneath the water’s surface struck my fly out of sympathy or if it was tired of seeing it float overhead. Whatever the case, my caddis disappeared in an impressive gulp.
Quickly, I set the hook. The fish jumped, then peeled line off the reel. Back and forth we danced until my little 4-weight rod won the battle. It was a trout all right, a rainbow about sixteen inches long.
I pulled the hook from its chops and turned it loose. A flick of the tail later, and my trout drifted off into the rocks, the stones, and the gurgling river that seemed to stretch for miles and miles.
The Madison is one of many rivers in Yellowstone Park that draw the attention of fishermen from all over the country. One evening – while on the front porch of Roosevelt Lodge in the northeast part of the park– I chatted with an angler from Washington State who came to Yellowstone to fish with his buddy who lives in Tennessee. They fished the Lamar River where they caught “over 30 cutthroat trout, all on dry flies. The biggest cut was almost 20 inches.”
Inside the park there are so many rivers that it seems there aren’t enough hours in a week to sample each one. Almost all the rivers were swift, rocky and wide open. I saw multiple cars parked at access sites, but it appeared as if everyone fished within a hundred yards of their vehicle. The Lamar is 40 miles long and is enclosed completely within the park borders.
On my last morning in Yellowstone, I parked my vehicle a half mile from the nearest access to the Lamar River. Using a compass, I grabbed my bear repellent spray and headed into a rolling, sage-covered meadow to where I knew the river flowed. Once I arrived, I caught more than a few nice cutthroats in a leisurely downstream pluck-and-cast approach amongst the rocks and boulders. It was fun.
I would have fished longer, but as I rounded a curve in the river, I spotted a cow bison maybe fifty yards away. Looked like she had found a gentle easement into the river, and I assume, she was getting a drink.
Knowing that bison travel in herds, I decided to sneak up the bank to have a look around. That crafty technique is one that I’ve employed successfully during turkey season.
Good thing I did. Standing thirty yards away was a 2,000-pound bull bison like the ones seen on nickels minted decades ago. I don’t know if it saw me, but it was big and bad and most importantly, blocking my path to the motorhome.
Doubling back to the river, I realized that trout fishing in Yellowstone offers a lot more to offer than just trout fishing.
Chris Zimmerman is the author of six Michigan-based novels and an independent insurance agent in Shepherd Michigan.
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Perfect things - Knives
By Brandon Vaughan
There's something about a good knife that is so satisfying. Most guys my age received their first knife as a boy, usually from their dad or grandfather. We would never venture out of the house without at least a pocket knife in tow. That included school, church or even baseball practice. There were so many vital chores that required a knife. Carving a whistle from a willow branch, whittling a makeshift bow and arrow, amputating the foot and tendons from the dead bird that the neighbor’s cat killed, so you could scare girls by tugging on the tendons to make the foot open and close. Maybe skinning the squirrel that your aunt Ruth ran over with her old Chrysler. We almost never engaged in knife fights. Most disputes were settled with a game of mumbly peg, and almost no one ever lost a toe......if a teacher needed a box to be opened, or a switch to be fashioned for corporal punishment, she'd call on one of the boys in the class. "Johnny, take your knife and go fashion a switch for me so I can beat you and Jimmy for all of your shenanigans".....When your parents found out they wouldn't sue the school district, they'd apologize to the teacher, bake her banana bread and then give you the switch when you got home....Dad would say, "well, you've learned your lesson. Good thing you had your pocket knife to fashion a switch for me"......ah the good old days.
I can't imagine kids doing any of those things nowadays...at least, not without being sent off to a "re-education" camp, ball and chain in tow, for a stint of hard labor, but it’s how we rolled in the old days. Almost none of us ever went to jail.....very often.
I still love knives and I'm always searching for the perfect one. Perfect is defined by what you're using the knife for. A small, light folding knife is perfect in the spring when the chance of finding morels or wild asparagus is likely, and it'll serve double duty for dressing game birds or trout. A great fillet knife speaks for itself. Kitchen knives are a subject unto themselves and I'll leave that for another day but suffice it to say, that's a whole different obsession if, like me you're a wannabe chef.
Hunting knives are the most interesting and their designs are the most impactful in their practical use and effectiveness. The job they perform is substantial and as such, any defects in form or function will be quickly apparent. A poor design can mean 30-40 minutes of labor to dress a deer where a proper knife can perform the task effortlessly in less than 10, user skill being equal.
In my opinion the perfect knife for deer hunting has the following traits. It should be 9" long overall. It shouldn't have a large tang or guard. Just something relatively streamlined but effective. The blade should be 4.5" long, between 3/4-7/8" wide from back to edge. It should be about 1/8" thick. The handle should clean easily and plastic is fine as long as it provides a good grip when wet. It should have a slight drop point. I like stainless but an argument can be made for carbon because it can throw a spark from a fire steel when you need to get a fire lit quickly. (I'll carry two knives when packing into the backcountry. One will be a bigger camp knife made of carbon steel for this reason). Finally the edge has to be razor sharp and for me it has to have a "Sandvik" grind, which means that the edge tapers from about the center of the blade, in a constant angle, right to the edge. Blades don't get any sharper, easier to re-sharpen or long lasting. There's a reason for every feature as listed. The length is necessary to reach deep enough into the pelvic region when dressing a deer, as is true for reaching into the chest cavity to sever the top of the heart/lung/trachea. The width is just right, and not too wide like most knives, to allow for the circular cut inside the perimeter of the pelvis region. A wider blade doesn't make the turning motion well. The thickness is sturdy enough to cut through the sternum of a deer with a firm lifting motion. The razor edge allows for all the fine work to be executed in surgical fashion and with little effort making for a neat operation and clean meat. Just about all of these features are common with a Scandinavian style "Puuko" knife, though there are many variants and sizes.
I own many knives, many of which are Puuko style, but there's one that I cherish above all the rest. It has all the features mentioned, and I've never found its exact equal or twin. I bought it in a small town hardware store when I was 15 or 16 for $7.00, and its like, can still be had for not much more today, though the exact features might differ slightly. It is a puuko style knife made by Mora of Sweden who is famous for very good, cheap knives with fantastic edges. Back when I found my original, Moras were most often found on commercial fishing vessels and were uncommon in my neck of the woods. They are becoming more common now, but for decades they were very hard to find. Thankfully the internet changed that and demand in the US has brought them back to our shores once again.
My "hardware store" knife came with a cheap plastic sheath that rattled in the woods so I quickly replaced it with a home made sheath from a piece of found leather. 38 years later I still have the knife and sheath, the latter a virtual record of every deer I've taken with bow and arrow. To date there are 58 notches in the edge of that old sheath, each signifying a deer taken with an arrow and dressed with that puuko knife. It's always in the backpack that houses my archery gear. It seldom gets used for gun hunting, as that is a different backpack, and it has its own, very similar puuko knife, and in any event I've never kept track of game taken with a rifle, so there wouldn't be any reason for notches in the sheath anyway.
I'm not one to loose things often but even so, the fact that I still have this knife is due to a slightly OCD habit of guarding it like it's made of solid gold. It doesn't travel by plane because there's always the chance of lost luggage. I don't ever loan it to anyone because I don't want some Neanderthal to misuse it..even if said Neanderthal is my best friend. I'd rather dress their deer myself, a habit that more than one friend has caught on to, and I've heard "I left my knife back at camp" more often than I care to mention, but I don't care, I don't want to chance a nick in the edge of my baby. As I've taken care of it so lovingly, it's typical that I can dress two or three deer before it needs a light wipe on a leather strop to regain shaving sharpness. I literally want to be buried with it when I go to the happy hunting grounds. The memories associated with this knife are priceless. I have many other beautiful knives that'll be passed on as heirlooms in the event that anyone wants any of my junk, (my 6 year old daughter, my only heir, hasn’t shown an affinity for knives yet….thankfully), but this $7 knife will stay with me in the great beyond.
I recently found another puuko knife. It was pricy but it's an almost perfectly scaled up version of my old timer. It's made of carbon steel and is about 30% bigger in most dimensions. Like the smaller version, it is razor sharp, but with a through tang and a blade that is almost 1/4" thick, it's a beast that can literally chop down small trees. It's the perfect "big" knife for bigger game. It'll be perfect for moose, Cape buffalo or the like. It came right from Helsinki (without a sheath or cushioned packaging...!?!, in a box big enough to hold a couple of cats. The box was without any packing and there were stab marks everywhere from the knife sliding around inside, all the way across the Atlantic. Amazingly the knife was unscathed). The brand name of the knife escapes me but there were about 23 letters, random dots, backwards letters and it was unpronounceable Finnish anyway.
I've got some other cheap puukos, and some fancy ones too, and many many other knives as a result of my obsession with perfect things and perfect tools. Life is too short to use tools that offer no aesthetic value or utility. Life is also too short to ever stop looking. As with so many other things the hunt is half the fun. (The black handled Puuko, with the old homemade sheath, in the center of the photo, is the author's perfect knife).
By Brandon Vaughan
Trendy rounds for targets and hunting
By Brandon Vaughan
Anyone who's read any hunting or shooting magazine in the last couple of years has read volumes about the 6.5 Creedmoor rifle round.
Why all the hype? Well, it's a great round, suitable for long range target shooting AND hunting. With long range hunting being all the rage nowadays, it was inevitable that someone would jump on the opportunity to develop and sell the "next big thing" in shooting and that is why there's so much hype.
Putting aside the ethical question of whether or not anyone should be taking long range shots on game, the fact of the matter is that hunters are shooting, and making long range shots. High quality guns, optics and ammunition, along with readily available technology and training are breeding a veritable army of extremely capable long range marksmen.
Which gets us back to the 6.5 Creedmoor round. It's a great round. The 6.5mm bullet is one of the most efficient projectiles available, the round works in compact, rigid, short action rifles, the cartridge holds enough powder to provide good useable velocities and NOW factory loaded ammo can be found everywhere, though it took a while for the latter to come true. But let me be clear, I AM NOT here to sing the praises of the 6.5 Creedmoor. Everyone and their brother has been doing that for the last year. (desevedly so). I am here to point out that one big reason behind the success of the Creedmoor, (and the pending demise of a few really good rifle rounds), is...wait for it,....HYPE, or more pointedly, marketing.
Don't get me wrong, thank god for all the people out there that tinker and develop ever better rounds, Thank god for the companies that bring these offerings to market. Don't stop what you're doing (Hornady...the driving force behind the Creedmoor's success). Just don't let the great rounds that already exist go extinct.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the 6.5 rifle bullet is a new phenomenon considering that it has, up until recently gotten little attention, at least in the more generic American hunting and fishing magazines. Serious shooting publications have always kept in touch with rounds using 6.5 bullets on some level. Many great 6.5mm rounds are used in Europe to great effect. The American gun trade has produced a number of great 6.5mm based rounds as well, even if known by other names (.264 Winchester. .260 Rem or of late 26 Nosler). There are many great rounds based on the 6.5 bullet, which has an almost mythical combination of sectional density and ballistic Coefficient, combined with useable bullet weights, pushed at velocities to offer flat trajectories, resistance to wind drift, energy and knockdown power out past 1,000 yds in many cases. From the remarkable little 6.5 Grendel, 6.5 x 47 Lapua or 6.5x55 Swede to the .264 Winchester Mag., there are many many choices. Some of the larger 6.5 rounds are notorious barrels burners and some on the small end, like the Grendel have limitations for larger game. Hence the Creedmoor's development and success, but there is one round nestled right in the middle of the 6.5 family that in my humble opinion is the best 6.5 round.
The .260 Remington predates the Creedmoor by almost 10 years. While very similar to the Creedmoor in most measures, it can generally be loaded to higher velocities/energy, pushing 120-140 grain bullets, while still being easy on barrels. Most .260s are built on light, handy rifles. The 260 may be the best mountain rifle choice ever, being very similar ballisticaly to the storied .270 Win., but in a lighter, more compact package and with better long range accuracy potential. (See the grey Rem 700, custom built mountian rifle, in .260 Rem., pictured above). Other advantages include the fact that it's parent case is the .308 Winchester/7.62x51Nato. For reloaders this means that there is a huge amount of brass available to reload in that any .243, win., 7mm-08, 308 Win., .260 Rem., or even 338 Fed brass can be resized and re-used. There are also undoubtedly many more rifles in existence chambered in .260 Rem. The military has favored the .260 as a sniper round for special forces for many years (though the .308 is still the predominent round, along with it's .30 cal cousin the 300 Win Mag.) Both the 260 and 308 work well in either bolt guns or AR-10 platforms too, and to be fair, the Creedmore does too..
The only advantage that the Creedmoor has at present is the recent proliferation of available factory loads, but this too is a somewhat artificial advantage brought about by marketing agendas. The .260 is suffering in that factory loads are becoming harder and harder to find. The only reason for this is marketing . The .260 uses the same bullet as the Creedmore. All the ammo manufacturers that make Creedmore rounds, also make 260 Rem rounds, yet the new optomized long range bullets available in factory loaded Creedmore rounds aren't available in the 260, even though both cartridges are available from the same manufacturers. Is the Creedmore outselling the 260?, probably. Should it be? Probably not.
Gun nuts will alway have "pet" rounds, and they will always opine on why those rounds are best. It's one of the great things about shooting. I've always held off becoming too impassioned about one round or another, not wanting to sound too curmudeon like, but I guess the time has come to sound off and join the ranks of opinionated veterans. Shooters should decide for themselves, but if you're in the market for a light weight, light recoiling rifle, capable of downing anything from coyotes to moose, WITH incredible long range accuracy potential, take a hard look at the .260 Rem. It's hard to beat as an all round hunting gun.
The Hex hatch is not for the faint of heart!
By Brandon Vaughan
For over 35 years I've observed a tradition on par with the opener of deer season, Thanksgiving or Christmas. Mid June is when the fabled hex-hatch begins on Michigan trout streams and when fly fishing buddies connect for what usually amounts to a social event as much as a serious fishing pursuit. Most other hatches or milestones in fly-fishing tend to be more solitary, or at least less of an event. The hex hatch draws crowds to the Northbound highways, riverine communities and the trout streams on which they survive. It's the one event in the summer when as a fly-fisherman, you'll be likely to run into old acquaintances, friends and possibly relatives that you'll only see once a year. Anyone from Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New York or other "up North" states can identify with our unique "Deer camp" scene. The Hex Hatch draws many parallels. Whether in a stream-side campsite, an old family cabin or one of the many lodges that cater to fly-fisherman, tales are told, cigars are smoked, libations are sipped, meat is BBQ'd and real hard-core fishing is performed.
Why all the excitement? Aside from the social aspect, which is cause enough, there are opportunities for huge brown trout on dry flies. There are also opportunities for danger and excitement and who doesn't like that? There are bragging rights at stake. Bragging about huge fish, potential for bizarre and unique experiences that only Hex fisherman can claim and understand, and for having "been there, done that".
The Hexagenia Limbata mayfly, which I've written about before, is a huge mayfly with a 3" wingspan, that emerges as a dun, and returns as a spinner in blizzard like swarms, in the middle of the night. Big brown trout, that are otherwise difficult to locate, and are often sticktly nocturnal cannibalistic denizens of deep inaccessible lies, come to the surface and act like trout, feeding heartily in steady rhythms, allowing for a dry fly presentation. 6-7 pounders are not uncommon on larger rivers and the biggest, cagiest fish available in any river, will show themselves.
The mystery in Hex fishing isn't just a chance at a big fish on a dry fly, It's the whole experience. Fishing in the dark without any light, in the most gnarly river, full of structure, flowing through the deepest, darkest cedar swamp can be intimidating to say the least. Things to expect that most Hex-fishermen can relate to include, having a beaver glide unseen to within 3-4 feet, in the still balmy silence, then slap it's tail close enough to get your face wet and ring your ears. Substitute an angry beaver with a whole family of river otters trying to intimidate you to give-up your fishing hole. Step into a hat floating hole while feeling your way down-stream, heading to the sound of a big fish "gulping" Hexes from the surface. (this can sound like softballs falling into the water....and can cause a fly-fisherman to throw caution to the wind). You haven't lived until you've flushed a whole flock of roosted turkeys from just overhead...in the silent black of night. Then there are bears, wolves and coyotes, or maybe elk, or a cougar or just just a surprised deer blowing a warning call from a couple of yards behind your left ear. How often have you caught a bat while false casting....more than once? I have....more than once. Many hex fishermen can tell tales of "bat release" procedures. It's not fun and the telling usually includes an involuntary shiver.
Many Hex fishermen return year after year to familiar haunts where monster trout are known to reside, but there's a limitless number of logjams and structure and looking for new spots is half the fun. Most anglers "post-up" in a spot before the sun goes down, after having spent an entire day fishing for smaller, less spooky trout, with flies to imitate the other daytime hatches that coincide with the hex hatch. Sulphers, yellow stone-flies, tan caddis, terrestrials and maybe blue-winged olives if there's a bit of rain, can all happen from mid-June to mid July, when the hexes are hatching. With all the activity, sleep is a lower priority.
Posting-up in a spot where, in theory, two or three of maybe four likely feeding lanes, adjacent to deep holding water, can be reached with a cast, without having to move too much, is a good plan. Picking a place where a successful exit, or relocation is possible, is a good idea too. Checking before dark, to ensure that a back cast, or roll cast is possible is wise too. Having a good flashlight to find your way home is smart but don't use it near the water unless you want to put the fish down. Headlamps are stylish and smart. A small red or green light for tying a tippet or fly, with your back to the fish, is a good choice. It won't ruin your all-important night vision and is less likely to spook fish.
With burly fish on the agenda finesse tackle should left at camp. A stout 6weight rod is the minimum in my opinion. A short-ish 8 foot leader ending in 10-12 lb test is ok. Tie your hex flies on heavy wire hooks so your first "lunker" won't straighten the hook. Use lots of hackle, moose-hair for the tail, and spun or bundled deer hair, or even foam for the body, and you'll have no problem floating the heavy wire hook.. Dab some fly float paste on, preferably on all your hex flies, back at camp before you venture out, and you should be well prepared to horse big fish out of log jams that they'll undoubtedly head for upon feeling the sting of your hook-set. Fly color isn't always so important...because it's pitch black out, but size and shape are. It's rare, but sometimes the best opportunities are right at the start of the hatch and only emergers will fool a wary fish. Other times it'll take a perfect, splayed-wing spinner. It pays to have some variety. If you tie your own, you might as well have some that are color-correct because once in a while the hatch will kick off early and in the North woods, at the end of June, there's still a bit of daylight at 10:00pm. Many times nothing will happen until 2:00 am. You've got to put in your time. I tie some of my Hex patterns in solid white with glow-in the dark poly wings for the inkiest nights, so I have at least a slim chance of seeing my fly, though one should really be prepared to use their ears to identify a "gulper's" location and when it takes your fly. A moon-lit night is a godsend in that you might be able to see a bit of reflection on the water to aid navigation.
At least half of our trout fishing is done from a drift-boat as opposed to wade fishing. Rowing a drift boat through a black cedar swamp river has all of the challenges of wading times 10. You'd better know your river well if you're to row it at night. Crashing a boat into rocks or logjams will put the fish down for good, and for a long distance. Where as rocks, logs and shallow riffles can be seen and prepared for, from a long way off, in the day light, in a brisk current, in the dark, they come at you fast with very little room for error. I've fished all over and Michigan drift boat oarsmen are the best in the biz due in large part to our habit of "night-rowing" fast twisty rivers...in my humble opinion, and as an offending member of that motley crew.
There are no guarantees with the hex hatch. It wouldn't be fun if there were. Some nights a chill can shut it right down. Some nights the heat and humidity is so severe, and the mosquitoes are so bad that you'll want to flee. Often the fishing is only good for the first 10-15 minutes, before the hatch gets too heavy. I've seen it where there were so many flies on the water that you couldn't see any water....in a huge flat stretch of water 50 yards wide and 150 yards long... Bugs on top of bugs, 3 or 4 deep. No exaggeration! Two or three big gulps and a big fish will stuff it's stomach so full that it's done eating for the night. I've seen fish, mouth agape, swim with head and shoulders out of the water, engulfing fist sized wads of flies before submerging, never to be seen again. I've written before how some communities near rivers have to use snowplows to clears roads of hex flies. This really happens!! If you've ever attended the "Fish-fly" festival in Anchor Bay Michigan, or been on the AuSable river just above Mio, Michigan around the first of July, you know what I'm talking about.
Most long-time Hex fisherman will pull a few tricks out of their hats when the fishing gets tricky. The really big fish got big by being cautious AND by eating big meals. sometimes, when the hatch is at a steady rate but the really big fish are tough to hook, a mouse pattern, or a huge streamer is the best bet. the hatch will always stir activity and big fish will always get active whether or not they'll take your hex imitation. Often, swinging a big 6" long streamer under log jams will be just what the Dr. ordered. Strikes are viscous and tension is immediate. Adrenaline tends to gush through your veins too! Take into account everything mentioned above but know that it's all worth it. For those in the know, it's the "can't miss it" hatch of the year.
If you're not from an area that hosts the hex hatch, make it a point to add it to your fly-fishing bucket list. Bragging rights will be yours and you might catch the biggest trout of your life.
By Brandon Vaughan – Abridged and excerpted from his forthcoming book.
The first three bonefish that I ever caught on a fly were violently cut in half in bloody, blindingly fast attacks by large hungry barracudas. I was wading a white sandy flat in 20” of transparent water, and each attack was within a rods length of my bare legs as I was preparing to land the bonefish, after fighting long powerful runs, for which bones are so noted. Each attack was so fast and brutal that it’s impossible to describe. The barracudas would hover 40 or 50 yards away, zeroed in on the struggling bonefish and just when the fight was near its end, they would accelerate to warp speed, cut the bonefish in half and be 40 or 50 yards past me, all in a fraction of a second. Only a cloud of blood in the water, and a neatly severed bonefish head, still hooked to my fly, were left. And so began my Bonefishing career.
Good friend, Dave Plautz and I were wading in calf deep turquoise water in the middle of a large Caribbean flat that stretched for miles. Schools of bonefish were visible in every direction. Huge barracudas and a variety of black tipped, white tipped and grey reef sharks shadowed each school, and our every move. We were in a true wilderness setting. This was not the typical saltwater fly-fishing resort environment that every hardcore fly-fisherman dreams of and plans for. We were in a remote corner of Belize and despite the fact that we were really roughing it and were without any modern electronics, or safety equipment in a homemade “flats” boat, that we had spent hours in the previous night, adrift in the middle of the Caribbean with only a tiller steer 40 HP Chinese outboard that died and wouldn’t re-start.... in the dark…..we were in heaven. The motor eventually started after we spent a couple of hours under the most star studded sky, and above the sea floor, covered in little glow in the dark critters to rival the sky, all while riding gentle Caribbean currents on a beautiful balmy night. You couldn’t ask for a better scenario if you had to be aimlessly adrift in the ocean. Never mind that these were truly shark infested waters and that our next stop would’ve probably been Africa…many months…or years later, had the motor not recovered it’s composure.
That first trip to Belize, some 20 years ago, hooked me for life. At the time I was already a life-long, hard core fly-fisherman with many years fishing around the Great Lakes, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana and Alaska. Belize was a new untried challenge, an exotic fantasy land that had been on my wish list since I was a high school kid. Needless to say, when a friend, that I had met while guiding in Alaska, called and said that he knew of a new “lodge” in the Turneff area of Belize and that he could get a great deal on an all-inclusive week’s stay, I jumped at the chance. All we had to do was get ourselves to Belize City on the mainland. Tickets from Detroit, through Miami and on to Belize City were booked faster than you can say “fish on”.
That first trip was so full of new experiences, adventure, a fair amount of danger and close calls that it’s etched in my mind forever. Thankfully, I lived to tell the tale and can recall it in fine detail. The trip to the “lodge” is a whole story unto itself. Suffice it to say, the “lodge” turned out to be a shack on stilts on a desert island with 50 miles of ocean between us and the safety of civilization. Aside from bottled water that we, through sheer luck, decided to bring from the mainland, the only water was rainwater caught in one large plastic tank, open to the elements. Showers were brackish, and infrequent but we swam every day and got used to being slightly dirty. Luckily we also had the forethought to bring a good supply of Belikin beer, one of the best “leftovers” from British colonial rule in Belize, formally British Honduras. There might not be any better drink than a bottle of Belikin enjoyed on a tropical bonefish flat. (Though I’ve made the same comment about Avery Brewery’s Reverend Ale, drank on the banks of the Big Thompson river just outside of Estes Park Colorado, and about Bell’s Two Hearted Ale on the banks of the Two Hearted River in Michigan’s upper peninsula, so maybe it's just a beer/fly-fishing.... thing).
Having run a large fly shop for a number of years and having outfitted hundreds of Bone-fisherman who went before me, prior to my first Belize trip, I was fortunate to have a pretty good idea of what to bring and what to expect,. I did, however, learn a lot of valuable lessons on that first trip, not the least of which may have been to do your research. Our “lodge” was really an attempt by a native Belikin (what people from Belize call themselves), to get in on the then burgeoning bone-fishing scene. We were far distant from the more famous Turneff area lodges. We were in a seemingly lawless, trackless, true tropical wilderness, repleate with sharks, crocodiles, drug-runners and what I'm sure were pirates.
“Lodge” owner Fabian was a great guide and he, with the help of his wife, brother and a niece, provided us with the best experience that they could produce, with clean beds, lots of fresh seafood, tropical fruit, eggs and chicken (the little island, which I could throw a rock across at any point, was full of chickens), but this was not a lodge. Gilligan’s island looked posh in comparison, but it was white sand, blue water and palm trees and once we figured out how to communicate, (they spoke Creole, a mix of Spanish, French, hardly intelligible English and a hodgepodge of African languages), we got on swimmingly. More gracious hosts couldn’t be found anywhere.
They called it Golden Bonefish Lodge, so named due to the somewhat frequent appearance, in the midst of large, mirror colored schools of bonefish, of one or two bright orange, goldfish-colored bonefish. We saw a half dozen of these odd colored bones in our week on the flats. I’ve told many other fly-fisherman of this anomaly over the years and I’m certain that not one of them believed me. Just recently a network TV fly-fishing show documented the oddity, so I can now mention it again without fearing skepticism. In subsequent trips to the Northern part of Turneff, and the Ambergris region of Belize, I’ve never seen this strange coloration. I assume it’s a form of albinism.
We caught hundreds of bonefish, a few permit and tarpon, a myriad of reef fish and many delicious snappers, and rock lobsters, the latter caught by hand, snorkeling the gin clear water around the reefs during mid-day breaks from casting.
In addition to flats clothing suitable to keep the sun a bay, lots of sunscreen, polarized glasses, flats booties (to guard against sharp coral and sting rays) and toiletries, my gear included a 10’ fast action, 4 pc 7 weight G Loomis rod, (also my favorite Steelhead rod), a 4 pc 12 weight Orvis Saltwater rod, and a 4 pc 7’ spinning rod. The 7 weight was fast enough to handle an 8 weight line in a pinch. Most bonefish and permit fishing was with a WF 7 intermediate tropical line but I carried a spare spool with an 8WF Intermediate line for the really windy days or when I wanted to punch large crab patterns out to cruising permit. My large Tibor tarpon reel included a spare spool too. The primary rig a WF12 Intermediate sink tarpon taper, for the flats and the spare spool loaded with T-400 Teeny sink tip for fishing the deep water between Mangrove thickets. Most Tarpon were found in deeper water in the mangrove “backcountry” as opposed to the flats, unlike the tarpon fishing found North of the Ambergris area, where the tarpon also tend to be bigger.
Permit can be picky, preferring crab and realistic shrimp patterns, Bonefish seem to be far less picky and bite about anything. Those used to selective trout will be pleasantly surprised at how readily bonefish will take a fly. While not picky, they can be spooked if your false cast is over their heads, or if your cast slaps the fly down hard on top of their heads. When casting, leading the school a good distance and letting your fly sink before the fish converge on the spot is good practice. Don’t be afraid to get ahead of a moving school by 20 yards. Bonefish move fast and have great eyesight and will be on top of your fly before you know it. Once it a while they’ll veer off in a new direction before they get to your cast, but as long as you don’t spook them you can pick up and re-place your cast. My rule of thumb on fly color is to somewhat match the bottom or water color. White, pink, tan, brown, blue, yellow and olive can all produce. Crazy Charlie style flies can be tied in a hundred different color and material combinations and may be the only pattern you really need. Small shrimp, crab and minnow patterns and epoxy flies a great too. Fairly large crab patterns for Permit are the ticket. Traditional tarpon flies in a variety of colors should be packed too. Stu Apte tarpon flies, Deceivers, Seaducers and Clauser style or rabbit strip flies are great. Make sure you have blue/white, red/yellow, pink, and brown/grizzly color combos. Bonefish patterns in size 8 or 6 and permit flies up to size 4 are the ticket, 1/0 and 2/0 SS tarpon flies should be employed. Make sure all your hooks are razor sharp! Tie (or buy) your bonefish flies the traditional way with bead chain or lead eyes for water over 18” deep but tie a selection weightless for skinny water. On a falling tide, bones will rush up into water as shallow as 6” deep to gorge on tidbits being flushed out of the mangroves. With tails and dorsal fins sticking up like so many little chrome-colored sails, this mini regatta is one of the most fun scenarios to fish, but hammering a traditional fly with bead chain eyes can make enough of a commotion that it’s possible to blow an entire school right out. It’s a neat sight to see when it happens, but it’ll end your attempts to hook those fish. A dozen bonefish, when spooked in shallow water can vacate an area so fast that it looks like a bomb was dropped in their midst. Spray erupts into a mist and a literal hole in the water momentarily forms as the school explodes, and you can actually see the hole fill back in with water in the aftermath. Game over but maybe worth the spectacle.
January, February, March and April are ideal months to go, and is when my thoughts are constantly turning to white sand, blue water and palm trees. May, and especially June may be the best time if you’re targeting tarpon but it can also be brutally hot, AND buggy. The worst mosquitos I’ve ever seen (including the close second, Alaska tundra in July), were in Belize in June. I was staying at a facility without mosquito nets on the beds and it was unpleasant though, thankfully I had prepared with a prescription of anti-malaria medication and only suffered some annoyance. I’ve also been to Belize in January, February and March without ever seeing a bug.
Do your research, check your tackle, tie some flies and book a flight. There’s nothing better in February than texting pics of yourself on a white sand beach, to your friends freezing their butts off, back “up-North”. And there’s no better way to shake off cabin fever than to the sound of a screaming fly reel, while a bonefish rips off 300 ft’ of line in a flash. Most destinations in Belize are pretty upscale and nice enough to satisfy “non-adventurers”. Sight-seeing, diving, photography, fine-dining and world class fishing are the norm. Being lost at sea is not!
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