August 20, 2009

A Day on the A.R.

When I talk to people from Sac about fishing in California very few of them know that there's one of the best year-round fisheries in the state right in their backyards, and I mean literally, right in their backyards. I'm talking, of course, about the lower American River. I'm sure you've heard that there's great salmon and steelhead fishing in this river in the Fall and Winter, but did you know that this is one of the state's finest shad fisheries? How about stripers? Lots of people fish throughout the state for stripers: the greater Sacramento River, the wide-open San Joaquin Delta, or even several of the larger reservoirs in the state like New Hogan Reservoir, but some of the biggest striped bass caught in California come out of the river found deep in the heart of Sacramento county, amongst the hustle and bustle of city traffic and stoplights?... I had no idea either until about 5 years ago, and when I found out that you could fish for them on a fly, I had to try it out.

After several years of fly fishing for stripers I'm beginning to think that I've got the hang of it, but like any other new style of fishing, you need to learn from experience, and a few years of here-and-there trips isn't that much exposure. Just when I think I've got it down, a new fly comes around, or a new technique is introduced, or somebody shows me some new gear designed for striper fishing and it's back to square one. Although I may not be the best striper fisherman in the valley, I still catch fish, and that's all that matters.

Today I took a trip out to the AR before work with one of my fishing buddies, Dan. When I said the river was, "right in their backyards," I meant it. When a river is close enough to hit first thing in the morning, and still make it to work on time when you're done, I consider it right in my backyard. Not to mention, is there a better way to start a day of work than by hooking-into a couple of 10 lb stripers?... I guess if you're a guide it's a different story, but for us "other people" I think not... Well... maybe a 20 lb steelhead would top that one, but not much other than that.

We launched at Watt around daybreak which was about 15 minutes too late. As we pulled into the parking lot a couple of the (and I quote) "geezer patrol" guys had already beat us to the water and were motoring down to the honey hole. These guys clearly had done this before... maybe a few thousand times... I had to give it to them though, if I was 87 and retired, I would be doing the exact same thing, health permitting.

The striper fly fishing community here in the valley is pretty tight knit and they all seem to know each other. I've come to know a couple of the "regulars" who have given me some great tips and info on how and when to fish for the big girls, but I, by no means, am qualified to jump in a boat with these guys, even though I'm sure they'd let me. I think to be qualified you're required to have had over 100,000 hours on the water in a small rickety-ol' tin-bottom boat, a 1/0 barbed hook stuck in an appendage at some time, and a 20 plus lb. striper to hand... I have done none of the above... I'm still workin' out the kinks in my game, but I'll be there some day.

We decided to give the geezer patrol a bit a breathing room and motored across the river to the other side of the Watt Ave. riffle as they headed down below the foot bridge. It was a good move because Dan picked up a nice fish just below the riffle in the slack water on a chartreuse and white Clouser.

Not a hog, but still some good "first cast" mojo to get the morning started.

One of the best things about catching stripers is that they fight hard, and when I say hard I mean like a freight train. A hookup with a 2 lb striper feels like a hookup with a 10 lb steelhead.

A person new to striper fishing could easily be tricked into thinking they've just hooked a 30 pounder when the fish is really only about 9 pounds... I'm not saying that I've ever been tricked like that.... or screamed that I've hooked a "monster"... or nearly fallen out of the boat after hooking a smaller striper... I'm just saying that it's easy to think you've got a monster on when in fact it's only a 24 inch fish... So watch out for that...

Anyway... As we drifted down I was able to hook and land what was probably a state record fish, and boy was I glad to have brought the 8 wt. This fish was probably, pound for pound, the hardest fighter I've ever encountered. Thank god Dan was there for moral support. That's saying a lot for a 5 inch striper! I forgot to mention that the state record (if it existed) would have been the smallest striper ever caught on a fly that was bigger than it was... Sorry... no pics of that fish.

The down-time didn't last long though. We got just below the water treatment plant and I hooked and landed this nice fish on the same chartreuse and white Clouser.

Kind of interesting how this fish ended up with my fly in its mouth. I had just casted when Dan had suggested that we pull up the troller and move down the river. As I was reeling my line in this fish wrecked the fly about 30 feet from the boat. I didn't have the line corked, so when the fish took the fly it spooled out about 30 yards of line instantly. Luckily I had the drag on my reel set or this fish would've made a nice rat's nest out of my fly line.

This baby ran down the river a good 30-40 yards, turned and ran right back at the boat, under the boat, behind the motor, around the troller, it was basically using guerrilla tactics to try and disconnect the fly from my leader. It was close, but it turns out I'm actually smarter than the fish. I commended it though for a battle well fought.

A little bit later, along the same "rip rap" wall, Dan and I both hooked-up with a couple of BEEFY fish and lost them. The pull from the fish alone isn't a good indicator of the fish's size, it's the speed of the head shakes that really telegraphs the size of the fish without actually seeing it. Dan said he felt long hard head shakes which means BIG fish. The fight was short before that fish spit the hook. Dan's already got a couple double digit fish this season and he was thinking that this one may have been even bigger. A total bummer, but we'll have another chance tomorrow morning to try again.

As for the one I lost, it was a quick fight too but mine didn't spit the hook. It was a hard take, like if you hooked your fly to the doorknob on an open door and then somebody slammed the door as hard as they could. A hard take followed by several hard runs that pulled the line through my fingers faster than I could manage to untangle it at my feet. A knot formed in the running line and ran right up to the first guide and got stuck... not good... the fish pulled and pulled without taking any line and... snap.... We probably won't see that fish tomorrow, and if we do we'll recognize it by the huge neon green fly stuck in the corner of its mouth.

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