Sunday, September 15, 2013

Longnose gar, a rope fly and a pink canoe

A great blue heron basks in a late summer afternoon sun.
Barry and I met at the ramp around 11 a.m. As usual, he was there five minutes early and I was there five minutes late. We had planned an 8 a.m. start, but a gloomy weather outlook caused us to delay the trip until the main threat of severe storms had passed.

Three hours later than planned and with showers still lingering in the area, we hopped into a faded red (maybe pink) Coleman canoe that had once been a wedding gift to Betsy and me, and shoved off from the well-used boat ramp and eased into brownish-green water that simmered with the ripple rings of lingering light rain. A low growl of thunder came in with a meaningful breeze from the north, causing us to instinctively pull paddles from the water and stare blankly into the sky. No lightning was noted, and after a brief pause, we continued to ease into a stretch of river well known as a summer-time “gar hole.” 

The longnose gar is an ancient species of fish; long and tubular and armored with diamond-shaped scales that protect it from everything except bowfishermen. Most prominent is the namesake business end, which offers a tiny head, a gigantic eye and several inches of a narrow, bony snout filled with razor-sharp teeth designed to grasp and hold prey. They’re slimy and prehistoric and oddly beautiful. Their olive-green backs give way to silver-and-gold flanks and a snowy white belly, both of which coalesce into an orange paddle-shaped tail covered in large blacker-than-black spots. Interestingly – and perhaps a characteristic that belies their cretaceous heritage – gar occasionally rise to the surface and gulp air. While they max out at around five-feet long and about 50 pounds, they are hearty, indomitable fish and close cousins to the massive and legendary alligator gar.

Within minutes of leaving the ramp, we heard the telltale bloops of toothy beaks lightly breaking through the murky film and Barry and I knew we wouldn’t have to travel far to find the fish. Indeed, even in low light and poor water clarity, we could make out dozens of gar slowly cruising around the canoe and throughout the deep hole in which we floated. We dropped anchor to maintain position and picked up our fly rods and began double-hauling into the productive water.

We threw rope flies – hookless home-tied minnow imitations that are primarily spun with unraveled strands of nylon rope. With a small amount of added flash, the flies take on an amazingly life-like presentation when stripped quickly and erratically through the water. I used a sink-tip line on my 7-wt rod in order to drop the weightless presentation just a foot or so underwater. Gar, when interested, will follow the fly and slash at it with a sideways strike of their gaping, tooth-infested snout. Some takes are subtle, but as they occur almost always in the angler’s eyesight, one can often “follow the fly” as it begins traveling at an odd angle and know that a fish has engulfed it. From a fisherman’s perspective, the preferred strike is more rare and infinitely more violent, as for seemingly no reason, the primitive fish will absolutely obliterate the fly – often on the surface – and use its paddle-shaped spotted tail to rocket away in a huge swirl and/or splash.

The rope fly is hookless; gar merely get their narrow teeth ensnarled in the strands of nylon. After landing them, the fun really begins as you need to carefully open the beak of the fish and meticulously cut away the nylon strands. If the fish cooperates, this is actually easier than it sounds. But, be forewarned: they are wildly unpredictable, and a seemingly subdued fish can – without warning – go angry cobia on you and thrash with incredible strength, often spraying you and your watercraft with prehistoric slime and disgusting green poop. It’s best to use a wet hand towel to provide grip on the slimy fish to semi-control it. 

Because you’re not using a hook, fishing for gar requires a little patience and considerable feel. The take is often obvious enough – your line jumps as the gar smacks the fly with its narrow snout – but then, you’ve got to allow for the fish to “chew” the fly for a few seconds. Typically, the gar does this as it swims away, which means you concede the line to slowly pull from your stripping hand until you feel enough time has passed to tighten your grip and connect to your quarry.

Gar are inconsistent fighters. Their resistance runs from crappie-like submission to tarpon-like explosiveness. Some may opt for a couple of lethargic head shakes and a disappointing surrender, while others will thrash on the surface in a wild white-water display and dump yards of line from the reel. Very occasionally, gar will go aerial, completely clearing the water in an angry attempt to rid itself of the fly. This, of course, is awesome to see, unless it’s a big one and you’re sitting a few feet away in a very tippy canoe.

On this rainy morning, surrounded by surface-cruising longnose gar and armed with the right flies and the right idea, Barry and I actually had to work hard to get the fish to play with us. While strikes were common, hook-ups were not. We stuck with it, especially after seeing more than a few gar in the four-foot-plus range and packing a good 10 to 15 pounds of heft.

I was the first to completely fool a fish, as a smaller-than-desired longnose tangled itself in my fly. After a modest fight, Barry guided the canoe to the shore line, where I was able to hop out of the canoe and perform the quick surgery on the nylon strands wrapped around the snout of the fish. Thankfully, the gar cooperated, and the whole process took only a few moments and a no-worse-for-the-wear predator was admired and released back to the water.

Fish No. 2 took a while to bring to hand, but when we did, it was accompanied by fish No. 3, as Barry and I beached the canoe to land a double-header of longnose gar. Barry’s fish was the larger of the two, and by the time we released it, we had become experts in how to land and safely release the toothy critters.

The skies began to lighten and the post-front wind began to blow, and positioning the canoe became a lot more difficult. Conversely, the emerging sunlight allowed for sight-fishing, and we began to target bigger gar, which continued to slowly cruise the hole in which we were anchored. This became much more of a hunt for big fish, as we saved casts for only larger fish. Frustratingly, while we continued to elicit follows and strikes, we just couldn’t get one to hold on to the fly.

Longnose meet needlenose.

As the day’s weather improved, our fishing hole became crowded, as bait fishermen began appearing on the banks and kayaks and canoes slid by us. Our time on the water was limited by prior commitments, so the end of our fishing day was near. On one of my final retrieves, just a few feet from the canoe, my fly line hopped as an unseen gar smacked the rope fly. I gently allowed the line to pull away from me, and methodically, gradually applied pressure. When I did, the fish pulled tight and provided us the most thrilling moment of the day. Maybe 15 feet from the bow of the boat, a huge longnose gar rose from the water like a marlin; its moss-colored back glimmered in the sun and its snout thrashed back and forth, seemingly in slow motion, before it violently crashed back into the surface of the water and sent spray onto the port side of the pink canoe and into my lap. The biggest gar we had seen then bolted downstream, pulling coils of fly-line from my feet and instantly engaging the reel’s drag.

My fly-rod bent with the pressure of the big fish and Barry maneuvered the canoe to allow me to properly pressure the gar. But, the expert boat-handling was for naught, as my fly line rubber-banded back to me, signaling the fly had pulled and our trophy catch had escaped. Intense silence immediately followed.

I sat for a few seconds, then chuckled to myself as I stripped in my fly line which floated flaccid in s-shaped loops on the brown water. Barry offered a sincere, "ah well." I checked my fly, straightened out the fibers and felt a sharp pain as I pulled the line from the water and began double-hauling into the depths of a good gar hole on my favorite river. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

An Evening Redness on the Stones

The viscous summer air smothered me as I slid the kayak into the river. On the opposite bank, a banded water snake dropped from a low hackberry branch and disappeared beneath the water only to emerge several yards downstream   Its head popped up next to a deadfall that doubled as a perch for a black-capped night heron, which watched all unfold with its wary right eye.

The weather prediction for today was alarmingly accurate – oppressive humidity, high heat and a frightening ragweed pollen alert. The tops of thunderheads began peeking over the canopy of sycamores while sunscreen melted into my eyes and sweat flowed from every pore. Welcome to the dog days of summer.

My right elbow has been cursed with tendonitis for the past two months, and with each forward stroke of my paddle, I felt the familiar nagging pain from a subtle injury that just refuses to heal. I paddled slowly upstream, amidst a cacophony of heat bugs that drenched the air with the pulsating white noise of their summer call. A few yards in front of me, one of the giant insects attempted to fly from tree to tree but clumsily bonked into a thick branch and fell backwards into the water. It fluttered helplessly on the brown surface of the river and tried in vain to flip itself upright, its wings softly gurgling in the surface film.

A small bluegill made the first attempt at the bug, nipping at a wing and making a “bloop” report as it tried to eat a meal decidedly bigger than itself. As the molasses current dragged the desperate insect downstream, it disappeared in a cruel swirl, swallowed from below by a much bigger fish.

I may want to try a cicada pattern, I mentally noted. [It’s these types of crack observational skills that have made me the great fly fisherman I claim to be.]

As I paddled upstream, the river turned scummy with a thick film of greenish-yellow algae peppered with floating twigs and leaves and empty plastic Sun Drop bottles, yet the water below was amazingly alive and full of shad. Oceans of baitfish patrolled bank-to-bank, with most fish being in the two-inch size range. They held in their enormous schools, and shimmered in the random clearings within the muck.

Amongst the bait, squadrons of small bass launched violent attacks, as they slashed, swirled and splashed on helpless fish, often sending their prey skyward to avoid being sucked into the gaping white mouths of the predators below. It was a bad day to be shad. 

And, I knew it then and there. I was not going to catch crap today. Matching the hatch was not a problem. My fly and tackle boxes offered plenty of perfect shad imitations. The issue was trying to get a bass to pick out my offering from a sea of easy meals.

Bass fed seemingly all around my boat. They exploded on the schools from below, scattering shad from the water and into the sides of my kayak. But, I could not get the bass to pick out my fly or lure. After watching dozens of my fruitless casts, a bored blue heron left its nearby perch and squawked in laughter as it flew above.

As the sun slid slowly behind the trees on this inferno of an afternoon, a slight breeze brought forth some relief from the heat. Yet, the air carried something sinister. From a distant register below the flapping of sycamore leaves and the incessant buzz of cicadas, came the eerie wail of a song being played from an ice cream truck which weaved through streets of a ghostly subdivision beyond the bluffs above. The siren’s song attracted some initial nostalgia, as thoughts of push-ups, rocket pops and sprinting home to beg Mom for a quarter flashed through my mind. But, amid the oppressive humidity and the stink of something dead nearby and the now-constant need to adjust my boat to accommodate the wind, the truck’s repetitive rendering of “Fare Thee Well” morphed into the soundtrack of a horror movie. As sweat stung my eyes and my fishing frustration grew, I found myself mindlessly humming along with the syrupy sweet song. An unseen murder of crows cawed in the far distance. A bellied-up catfish lay pinned against a pile of lichen-covered rocks and discarded blue nightcrawler containers at the river’s edge. A horsefly crawled on the rim of my open can of beer. At any moment, I expected Pennywise the Clown to slowly emerge from the mossy green water around me and snarl, “They all float down here, Danny.”

To salvage the now fading day, I gave my aching casting elbow a break and put down the fly rod in favor of a spinning combo and a big ol’ plastic worm. I was just going to ignore the shad massacre occurring around me and pinpoint the fishiest-looking deadfalls and stumps and do some old school bass fishing. The decision proved to be a good one. After a nice cast to the enormous root base of a fallen elm, I let the worm settle for a brief second, then gently shook the rod tip. A dull thump followed, and my line moved slightly to the right. Reeling up slack, I sharply set the hook into a keeper-sized largemouth, which thrashed its head wildly in an algae-covered froth before making the horribly unwise decision to swim to open water where I was able to gain control of the fight.

After a brief tussle, the bass relented boatside. I lipped the fish, took a quick photo, and slid it back into the river.  

And, the ice cream truck’s song stopped.

I picked up a couple of more structure-oriented bass, and even found subtle redemption when one of the open-water predators ambushed the worm as I lifted it from the water at the end of a retrieve. After a few “last casts,” I secured my rods and tackle and paddled home through the clouds of mosquitoes and midges, and enveloped in the purple-orange glow of a late August twilight.