Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Weekend in the Woods and Meat in the Freezer

Most of you know that a few times a year you get a non-fishing related post here at MPF.  This is one of those posts.  This past weekend marked the beginning of the deer hunting rifle season here in central NC.  I had passed on quite a few small bodied deer in archery season in hopes that a bigger deer would eventually come my way.  The problem was that I wasn't seeing big deer on our trail cam - literally only young 4 points and does.  I had seen a couple nicer deer out the car window over the course of the past 3 or 4 months, but I knew we were on the outskirts of their home ranges.  My hopes were that with the rut in full swing we would have a lot of activity in the woods.  Thankfully, I was right and we filled the freezer.

Nothing beats vension loin on the fire!

Mary May and I were up around 5:30 AM Saturday and in the woods shortly after.  Our land is only 10 acres and much if it isn't worth hunting.  But one side has a funnel area with a slight ridge on one end and there are days when the deer use it fairly heavily.  If you get really lucky, they may even pop up over the ridge and munch on acorns for a while on the massive oak flat behind the house.  I decided to set-up at one end of the funnel and get Mary May set-up at the other end - about 1/4 mile from me.  Then, we waited.

The buck that I was hoping I didn't regret passing on  in archery season - a chunky 4 pointer

Actually, the waiting was minimal.  Mary May texted me that she had spooked some deer on her way into the woods.  And not 30 minutes later, I heard a commotion behind me.  It was a solid buck chasing a doe all over the woods at full speed.  I had never seen anything quite like it as they zig-zagged through the hardwoods.  Finally they came down toward the funnel, but they didn't stop long enough to give me any sort of shot.  I texted Mary May to give her a heads up that they were headed her way.  Meanwhile, I looked to my right and another buck - this one a 4 pointer - is meandering in behind them.  I raised my rifle and put the deer in the scope, but decided to hold off.  About the time he dissappeared a small doe came in and ate acorns just upwind of me.  I was hoping a buck would come in behind her, but that didn't happen as she eventually wandered off too.  I decided to hit the doe bleat call and almost immediately I heard something come in hard from behind me.  It was a small spike buck.  He took his time working his way to the funnel and I didn't bother even raising my rifle.  As soon as he got out of range, I heard a - KABOOM! 

I knew it was Mary May and I started furiously texting her.  About  5 minutes later I got the response, "clean miss".  Bummer!  Apparently what happened was that the bucks I saw chasing the doe had finally gotten to her and were moving too fast to shoot.  But then, a 4 or 6 point buck came out from a flat to the east and was hot on their tail.  But hey, we all miss - it is part of hunting.  I was hoping the action would stay hot and she would get some redemption, in large part because I knew she would be beating herself up until she did.

After her shot, the small spike buck circled back to me and ate acorns for about 10 minutes before moving on.  Shortly after, I decided to try the bleat again.  After a few minutes I spotted movement in the bottom to my left.  It was a young buck, but he had a solid rack and decent weight.  I watched as he moved back and forth across the bottom - eating, scenting, and trying to figure out his next move.  For more than 10 minutes he was well within range, but never gave me a clean look.  Finally, he made his way up my side of the draw and walked through a break in the trees.  One shot through the lungs was all I needed.  I heard him go down about 20 yards away, but gave him about 20 minutes before climbing down to find him.  He was a gorgeous deer with a nice size body for here in central NC.  I reported the harvest, gutted him, and drug him to the house before taking him to the processor.

My 1st North Carolina whitetail of 2013

After I harvest an animal, I always get into a weird mood.  Part of me is happy because a lot of planning, time, and effort mixed with a little luck made the hunt a success.  But part of me is humbled, somber, and even torn.  Hunting is a tradition for me passed on to me by my grandfather.  Beyond that, we as mankind have hunted since the beginning of time and so I think it is a tradition that honors the heritage of us all.  But, it is still difficult to reflect on taking a life.  I know the deer will be used to its fullest and will put food on my plate - something that I believe connects me with the land.  This is one of the reasons I tend toward being a meat hunter rather than an antler chaser.  I don't understand the mentality of those who only want to shoot giant bucks.  Is it nice to shoot a big buck - yeah, it sure is, but that shouldn't be the driving force behind why you hunt.  OK, enough ranting...back to the story.

I got the deer to the processor, ran some errands, and was back at the house by lunch time.  I was torn between watching a full slate of college football while tipping back a few cold ones or returning to the woods.  But eventually I convinced myself to get back outside and sit until dark.  Mary May was also torn, but she finished her nursing school paper just in time and decided to head back out with me.  Around 2:30 PM we resumed our spots at each end of the funnel and began waiting.  This time the wait was long.  For me, it never ended - I didn't see a deer all afternoon/evening.  But around 5 PM I heard Mary May fire.  A few moments later I got a text - "I think I hit him, but I didn't see or hear him go down".  I told her to hang tight, get some visual landmarks of where she hit him and where she last saw him and that I would get to her as fast as I could - it would be dark in about 35 minutes.  I grabbed a headlamp on my way past the house and hurried through the woods with the drag rope.  We went to the spot where she shot at him - no blood.  We went to the spot where she saw him last - no blood.  We looked around the rest of the area for another 10 minutes - still no signs.  So we reset and walked through it all again.  This time I took a slightly different route and about 10 yards past where she had last seen him - I noticed a speck of blood on a log about half the size of a dime.  I still have no idea how I spotted it in the dark.  But then we found a little more blood and a little more and a little more.  Then we saw him.  We were ecstatic!  It turns out that she had made a nice shot - through the lungs - but his adrenaline carried him further than we expected.  She kneeled over him and said a silent prayer before we began the reporting, dragging, gutting, and cleaning process.

MM with her fine looking buck

The next night we celebrated with venison loin cooked over an open fire.  It was a great ending to a great weekend in the woods with the woman I love.  I hope everyone else found success on the water and in the woods this weekend as well.  Until next time, tight lines!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Challenging Fall Day Salvaged by Persistence...and the Fairy Wand

As I have mentioned on a few of my previous posts, fall fishing can be a grind.  Sunday was the ultimate grind.  Three of us arrived at the river with high hopes, but we soon came to realize, it was going to be really tough.  We were met with a combo of morning air temperatures hovering just above freezing, post frontal pressures, blue bird skies, extra clear water, and high, constant winds.  When conditions get like that I try to keep it simple and stick with tactics with which I am the most confident.  Being a native Pennsylvanian, this typically means rigging a spinning rod - or as some folks call it, a "Fairy Wand" - with a finesse plastic of some sort.  I find that most of the guys who use the "Fairy Wand" term are the same ones who struggle to get bites when the fishing is tough.  Other stereotypes include having seven teeth, tossing empty Busch Lite cans overboard, rooting for NC State, and spending thousands of dollars annually on hardware for throwing Carolina Rigs.  On Sunday, I broke out the Fairy Wand, and because of that I turned a rough day into a memorable one.

A fall shot I took on a recent guide trip

I met Brett (Mookie) and Joe (BowfinHunter) at a nearby river to chase some largemouths around 9:15 AM.  It was a stretch that historically has been good during the fall.  In fact, a few years ago a friend and I even had a 40 bass day capped with a couple 4 lbers on the week of Thanksgiving.  So needless to say, I was excited to see what was chewing.  We got our yaks rigged and headed for the water.  Brett was kind enough to let me borrow his Sea to Summit Sit-On-Top kayak cart, which made the portage to the river much easier than normal.  Dear Santa....

We decided to paddle up-river and then float back to the launch.  After about 30 minutes of paddling and shooting the bull, we were ready to start fishing.  Brett caught a small largemouth within the first few casts of the day and I thought for sure the bite was going to be hot.  I was wrong.  I was throwing a chatterbait, buzzbait, and Texas-rigged flipping bait with no luck.  Brett managed another on his spinnerbait and Joe one on a jig before I even had a bite.  I flipped my Big Bite Baits Fighting Frog into a laydown and began to jig it back to the boat.  As I began to reel it in for another cast, I felt weight on the line and set the hook.  The bait came flying out of the mouth of about a 12" bass that I could see in the clear water.  He had hit it while the bait was swimming back to the boat.  Not long after, the same thing happened again.  The fish were eating it more like a swimbait than a flipping bait.  So I tried to mix up my retrieve with more swimming and hopping, but that wasn't working either.  The bait which has been red hot for weeks, was suddenly ice cold.

It was about this time that the wind started blowing.  Usually, the wind on this river tends to alternate between a few minutes of blowing and a few minutes of calm.  That is not always fun, but it is certainly doable.  On Sunday, it was a constant 7-8 MPH blow with gusts of 10-15 MPH - even approaching 20 MPH on a few occassions.  Trying to fish plastics around trees was nearly impossible.  On top of that, the buzzbait bite was totally shut down, nothing was touching chatterbaits or crankbaits, and the Fighting Frog remained ice cold.  So I picked up my 7' Carolina Custom Rods spinning rod that I use mainly for Texas-rigged worms and shakeyheads.  I rigged a 1/8 oz bullet weight above a 4/0 EWG worm hook and threaded a 6.5" Yamamoto Kut Tail worm in green pumpkin-red flake onto the hook.  The line, which I use on all my finesse gear, was 8-lb P-Line 100% fluorocarbon.  The Kut Tail worm is one of my favorites in the fall.  It has more action than a straight tail worm, but is much more subtle than a ribbontail.  I didn't put it down the rest of the day.

Granted, the bite was still tough, but I managed a 12-incher fairly quickly then flipped my worm to the base of a big tree and WHAM.  The fish took off and was pulling drag.  I thought for sure it was going to be a 3-4 lber, but the bass measured only 15.5" - although it did have quite the gut.  I worked for the next hour with only 4 bites.  Two were very subtle and I didn't get a good hook set in the wind, so they spit the hook.  The third was another 12" fish.  But the 4th had me smiling.  I pulled up to a big log jam and grabbed hold of part of it with one arm.  I then flipped the worm between two logs and as it fell, I felt that thump I had been waiting for.  I set the hook and saw a nice fish dart sideways from under the log.  I pushed off of the branch I had been holding and began to try to paddle backward to get the fish into open water.  Somehow, that plan actually worked and I scooped the fish up in the net.  He measured 19.25" on the Hawg Trough and was probably a little over 4 lbs.

This 19.25" fall bass had me smiling

Then came the deflating part of my day.  I went probably an hour or more without even a nibble.  And to add to that, my fishing partners were way down river from me.  I contemplated giving up and just paddling down to meet them, but I kept grinding.  Finally, I caught up with Joe who had been exploring a small, feeder creek.  Brett had decided to call it a day because he had other obligations at home.  Joe and I decided to fish down a stretch near the launch that I had never fished before.  I tossed my worm toward a downed tree and immediately felt a bite, which turned out to be a 14-incher.  At the next laydown, another bite, then another, then another.  On 5 trees in a row I hooked-up - with fish ranging from 14"-18.25" and one that broke my line on a log.  Things were finally looking up and even the wind was laying down a bit.  So we paddled to the far bank to give it a try.  I caught a 12" bass almost immediately.  A few casts later, I set the hook into what at first felt like a mess of sticks.  Then I saw the flash and realized that it was a fish - wrapped in a mess of sticks.  Thankfully, the fish worked himself free of the debris and made a few drag peeling runs alongside the boat.  Finally, I netted him and was all smiles again.  The fish went 20.5" and had a monster gut.  He was between 5.5 and 6 lbs.  We snapped a few photos and let him go.

This 5.5-6 lb beast made my day

At this point, I contemplated paddling back up river and doing it all again in hopes that the bite was picking up, but I was tired, wind burnt, and knew there was a gorgeous girl and two furry dogs waiting for me on the couch at home.  We fished for about another half hour before calling it a day.  I caught one more during that last part of the day - coincidentally casting to a spot under some brush where Joe had cast a minute prior - gotta love that Kut Tail.

We portaged back up to our SUVs, loaded up, and hit the road.  It certainly wasn't my best day ever, but it turned out to be a solid day.  It was all about doing what I was confident in and staying optimistic, which resulted in yet another big, last minute fish this fall.  A big thanks to Joe and Brett - it was great seeing you both and getting to fish with you.  I wish the fish, and conditions, would have cooperated a bit more, but I definitely had fun.

Until next time, tight lines!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Grinding it Out for Big Fall River Bass

Fall is in full swing here in central North Carolina.  Within the past week, the leaves have almost all turned to yellows, oranges, and reds and they litter our driveway and back woods.  To me, this means the time of the year where I don't sleep much.  More often than not, I am up before sunrise and headed out to chase largemouths or whitetails.  Then it is back to work and wedding planning before doing it all over again.  Granted, I don't spend nearly as much time in a tree or my kayak as I wish I did, but I am not alone in that feeling I'm sure.  Last weekend was actually a bit of a relief for me.  I slept until 8, packed up the car, and headed to a stretch of river I hadn't fished in 3 years.  My fingers were crossed that the fall river bite would not dissapoint...and it didn't.

I took this picture on a guide trip.  Fall sure is beautiful in central NC!

I was anxious and excited as I arrived at the launch and started prepping the gear.  Shortly after I pulled in, my fishing partner showed up.  Jerry is a software engineer at Duke and is slowly becoming addicted to bass fishing.  It was his first time every kayak fishing and river fishing - which had us both pretty pumped. 

After we got the kayaks ready, we had to carry them down a steep, rocky hill, then drag them through the mud, until finally reaching the launch area.  The "launch" was an area of cut bank that was less brushy than the surrounding shoreline.  Between the loose mud and quick drop, it was tricky staying dry, but we made it.  Then came the 2 mile paddle up-river against the current and the wind.  But by 10:30 AM we were at our starting spot.

On my second cast, a 13 inch bass nailed my chatterbait.  I was hoping that would be a sign of things to come. Then I caught another on the chatterbait and Jerry caught one on a black, ribbontail worm.  I followed with one on a Deep Creek Lures MT Worm - a flurry that assured us the fall bite had arrived.  But the fall bite can be grind, and we soon found that out. 

The scenery switched from shoals and chutes to slow water and wood cover.  I started flipping a Big Bite Baits Fighting Frog.  First I caught a 1 lber, then a 2, then a 3, then I lost what looked to be a 4+ lb fish.  I told Jerry he may want to switch to the Fighting Frog as well.  Shortly after he had his first bite - a giant that managed to use some wood cover to pop the hook.  Three casts later and he was hooked up again - this time with a solid 4 lber that he landed and we snapped some pics of before releasing the brute.

Jerry with his biggest for the day

We caught a few more solid bass between then and 12:30 PM, including another 4 lber, then it slowed down.  Way down.  It was the epitome of the fall grind.  Suddenly I was making 7 or 8 pitches to fantastic looking laydowns without even a nibble.  Great looking areas weren't producing anything.  We fished hard and the bites we got were savored.  I caught a few on the MT worm, a few on the Fighting Frog, and a few on a buzzbait.  Finally, I nailed a solid 18" fish on my favorite SOB Lures buzzer and it started to pick up.  Jerry proceeded to land a couple buzzbait fish - his first ever on a buzzer. I had a solid fish break me off after wrapping around a log, then I paddled back across the river to fish an area of vines that caught my eye.

On my first flip with the Fighting Frog, I felt a bite and set the hook.  It was a solid 2 lb bass. I released him and flipped to the next set of vines.  This time I felt a bite on the fall and set the hook.  I could feel the line tangled around something yet the fish still managed to pull drag.  I immediately knew it was big.  I paddled over to the vines and could barely see the fish, tangled in a mess of vines and sticks under the water.  As he thrashed, I could feel my line rubbing against the sticks.  I prayed the 15-lb fluorocarbon would hold.  Frantically, I worked to free the line from the mess.  Finally, the fish came free and I was able to get her in the net.  She was a solid 6+ lb fish and made my day. 

The big fish for the day at 6 lbs

The rest of the day was decent as we both caught some solid bass.  Jerry also caught a couple bream and a crappie and I had a pickerel come loose at the boat.  Eventually we started fishing a side channel that I had never fished before.  The wind was whipping and I started throwing a buzzbait.  I made a long cast to the bank and began reeling.  I looked down river to see where the wind was blowing me and then suddenly heard something blast the surface.  It sounded like someone had dropped a bowling ball into the water.  I turned to see my buzzbait flying sideways through the air.  Somehow the fish missed both the buzzbait hook and the trailer hook.  I have no idea what type of fish it was, but it was a giant.  I tried to throw a plastic back in its direction, but the fish was gone.  That is one of those fish I will never forget.

The rest of the float was fairly uneventful, other than Jerry losing a healthy 3+ lb bass on the Rapala Scatter Rap.  That capped a string of bad luck for us on the day, as we lost quite a few fish that were in the 3-5 lb range.  But, sometimes that happens - especially flipping thick wood cover from a kayak.  We summed it up as a bad, good day.  We caught about 35 fish, had 5 over 4 lbs and a 6 lb kicker, but we lost some fish that would have turned it into an outstanding day.  I was impressed with Jerry who ended his first ever kayak fishing trip with his first ever river bass and first ever buzzbait bass.  I suspect he and I will be out on the river again in the near future - looking for some redemption.

Until next time, tight lines!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Duke-UNC Charity Tournament Fall 2013 - The 3-Peat

Last week I was able to get out for a few hours on a local river to wet a line for the first time in a couple of weeks.  The water was cold, the fish were pale, and the bite wasn't easy.  But over the course of the morning I was able to grind out 16 bass...and I mean grind.  The nice thing was that they were almost all in the 3 to 3.5 lb range with the biggest going about 4 lbs.  There was no real pattern and it was a sure sign that the fall, junk bite had arrived.  By "junk bite", I mean you have to throw half the junk in your tacklebox to come up with a limit of fish. 

Fall is here in central NC  (photo by Krishan S.)

I kept that in the back of my mind as I started to prepare for yesterday's Duke-UNC Charity Tournament that UNC held on University Lake - a public lake on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro border.  I knew the cold morning temps would surely have the fish looking for areas to stay warm, but honestly, I wasn't 100% sure where that would be - shallow, deep, or scattered.  I had only fished the lake twice before and only in the spring.  I marked a number of places on a map that I thought would produce and was confident in being able to fill a limit.  But, limits can be a tricky thing when the morning temps hover around freezing.

Pre-tournament, I prepped some of the new guys to the Duke Fishing Club and put together tackle boxs, plastics, and rods for the guys who didn't have gear on campus.  Of course, I prepped my own gear as well, opting to start with a buzzbait, squarebill crankbait, jerkbait, and plastic worm.  When tourney day came, it was up early and out the door around 5:30 AM.  The air temperature was much nicer than previous days, reading 46 on the Escape's thermometer.  It had been 26 degrees at 7 AM the morning before as snot ran down my face while in the treestand.

Everyone gearing up to hit the water

There were more teams than normal for both schools - 11 for UNC and 6 for Duke.  My partner for the day was Dean, a freshman biomedical engineering major.  It was his first ever tourament and his previous bass fishing experience was minimal.  I was trying my best to give him tips while not overloading him with fishing, because I can get pretty single minded when on the water.  The limit was set at 3 fish over 12".  I would have preferred the 5-fish limit that the tourney typically uses, but I knew it would give more boats a chance of pulling a limit, which in an event like this is a good thing.

Who would pull off the winning, 3 fish limit?

Everyone finally got settled and we launched around 8:15 AM.  We motored across the lake to a point on the inside of a channel bend with some stumps on it.  I began throwing a buzzer and jerkbait while Dean threw a popper - nothing.  Next we moved down a clay bank fishing wood cover and cranking rock - nothing.  Then we went to the back third of a creek arm and flipped and cranked shallow - nothing.  It was about 9:45 AM and for the first time all day, the wind was picking up.  We decided to move back toward the main lake.  On the way, we saw a bass blow up shad in the middle of the lake.  That was kind of the key to our day in a way.  I realized that most of the bass were still in the deep channels due to the cold snap.  Since no-one had fish finders, fishing deep or on drops was nearly impossible, but it eliminated a lot of water.  We would just have to fish areas that if those deep fish started to scatter, would be prime transition spots close to the channels and with bait around.

The launch

I decided it was time to go do the most stereotypical thing to do in the fall - crank a wind blown rip-rap bank.  I set up Dean with a lipless crank and I began fishing a medium diver.  There were a couple other boats around the rip-rap, but we found a spot that was out of their way and started fishing.  I noticed further down the bank was a portion of rip-rap that was recently re-done.  I told Dean those types of spots are either great, because new rocks fall into the water creating new spots for bait to hide, or terrible, because the construction caused so much disturbance that the bait and fish need a while to acclimate to it.  Thankfully, it was the former.  My second cast to the new rip-rap section produced a 16" bass that got the skunk out of the boat.  Things were looking up.

We then made a move into the outter third of creek arm, characterized by a funnel area and large pocket.  We fished around the pocket, targeting rock cover and off-shore wood in 5-8 feet of water with crankbaits.  As we got to the deeper side of the pocket, I began flipping plastics into wood cover.  I dropped my bait between a log and a big pine limb, let it sink, popped it off the bottom, and I felt the "tick" as it fell back down.  "Fish", I exclaimed.  After a short fight, we landed the 15-incher and were excited to have 2 in the (makeshift) livewell - a rubbermade container with an aerator hanging off the side.

Minutes later I flipped to another shallow tree and immediately a fish picked up the bait and took off with it.  I caught up to him on the reel, but didn't get a great hookset because the line was partially under a limb.  The fish charged toward the boat and looked like a solid 3-4 pound bass.  As I reached down for the net, he changed direction and a slight bit of slack formed in the line.  The hook popped and the fish was gone.  It took every bit of energy to hold in the profanity that sat on the edge of my lips.  I mentioned to Dean about how important execution is when tournament fishing.  Losing fish, not re-tying your line, tying bad knots, etc. can easily lose you a tournament if you don't pay attention to detail and execute.  I was kicking myself, but I re-focused and we went back to fishing. 

We eventually circled back around the pocket to the rip-rap wall.  I began cranking parallel to the wall and - BAM.  A bass inhaled my squarebill as it deflected off a rock.  The crankbait was eaten frontward, with only the back treble sticking out of his mouth.  Because he ate the bait funny and had a hook that nicked a gill, I was worried our little livewell might stress him too much.  Thankfully, on the next cast, I landed another bass.  The fish was probably half a pound smaller than the previous fish, but I knew the previous fish would have a better chance of living if we released him instead.  So we took a loss on total weight and ketp the smaller bass, but were super excited to to have a limit right at noon.

Never underestimate rip-rap or docks in the fall

The rest of the day was hit and miss.  We caught a few short bass on plastic worms and finally hit a solid 2 lber on a wind blown point.  The problem was that when we went to cull, we couldn't tell which was smallest.  With the blue walls of the cooler and four fish in it, it was nearly impossible to see the size of each fish, which were all in the 14"-15" range.  On top of that, they kept trying to jump out.  We decided to just take all 4 back to the weigh-in and sort it out there.
As they day came to an end we fished a couple deep banks with no success.  Then I noticed something.  Because all of the boats typically available for rent were being used by the tournament, the docks were calm, quiet, and empty.  On a typical day, they were full of kids splashing, people making noise, and general boat loading/unloading chaos.  As we motored toward the docks I told Dean that it would be a brilliant end to the day or a total flop.  We began fishing down the first row of docks with no luck.  But I noticed one particular spot that looked good - right on a sun-shade border with some overhanging structure.  My first cast was hurried as the wind blew us by the spot and missed the mark by a couple of feet.  After we fished to the shore I flipped the trolling motor into reverse and went back to the spot.  As I cast, I turned to Dean and said, "If there is going to be a fish on this dock, it ought to be right here."  The cast skipped perfectly into the spot I wanted it to go.  I felt an ever so slight tick on the line and started to reel up the slack.  Then I saw the line running sideways, reeled down, set the hook, and listened to the drag start to peel.  The fish ran under two floating docks before I turned him back toward open water with my favorite rod - the Carolina Custom Rods "Finesse Special".  He made multiple charges as he got closer to the boat and ripped drag each time.  Finally, Dean scooped him into the net and I let out a huge sigh of relief.  I looked at my watch - it was 2:48 PM and the tournament ended at 3 PM.  The fish was a beast and we knew that it would probably secure the tournament victory.  It reminded me a little of this moment that had us literally jumping up and down on the couch a couple years ago.

We fished the rest of the dock structure with no luck and called it a day.  As other boats rolled in, I kept the news of our catch quiet until the last minute and even then, only the Duke teams knew what was in the cooler.  We had heard that a few of the UNC teams had solid limits, so we weren't sure what to expect.  But I felt good, knowing that is was a tough day out on the lake and crossed my fingers. 

Dean and I with our winning limit

We were the second team to weigh-in and as I lifted the brute from the cooler, everyone started buzzing.  Our three fish limit (which actually included a fish smaller than one we let go simply because it was more lively) weighed in around 10 lbs 4 oz on Santosh's massive carp scale.  The kicker fish went 7+ lbs and 22.5".  We were feeling awfully good.

UNC Team #1 weighing in

Impressively, the other Duke teams all caught at least 2 fish with two of those teams limiting out.  I am not 100% sure of weights, I believe the team of Santosh and Krishan took third place.  I was really excited to see the young guys do so well, particularly because I know there were a few lost fish that would have made a big difference for the good guys.

Duke freshmen Colin and Joey with their limit

The UNC teams then weighed in and had some very nice fish including the second place bag of 7 lbs 4 oz.  But it wasn't enough to stop the Duke 3-peat.  After a few handshakes and some chit-chat we snapped a group photo and hit the road.  It was another great day on the water with a great group of folks and for a good cause.  As the tournament winners, we got to pick the charity where 100% of the money gets donated.  It will go to the Schoolhouse of Wonder, a Durham non-profit that does outdoor programs and education for area youth all year long.

The UNC team that took 2nd place

A big thanks to both club presidents for their hard work, organization, and coordination as well as my partner Dean and all of the other guys who came out to fish.  It was great seeing so many Duke participants and I hope the club can continue to keep growing.  Current officers Krishan and Brian have done a great job! 

More pictures of the event can be seen here:  Duke Fishing Club Event Photos.

The Duke team - 3-peat champs!

Hopefully I can squeeze in a few more bass trips before winter sets in - then it is crappie season!  Until next time, tight lines!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Austin Kayak - Kayak Fishing Gear Guide

Recently I was contacted by some folks from Austin Kayak (ACK) about doing a guest blog here at Man Powered Fishing. I usually don't do guest blogs, although I get a suprising number of requests, but one of the topics they mentioned seemed like a great fit. I have blogged many times that I am a minimalist on the water. I don't want to have a fish finder, battery, extra rod holders, or milk crates on most of my trips. I like to keep it simple and some of the places I go, they would get beat up and broken quickly. However, kayak customization is becoming incredibly popular and for good reason.  As the sport grows, more and more people are doing cool new things that require more or different gear.

ACK has been at it a long time and they run a fantastic business that offers all sorts of great deals on products made for everyone from beginners to hardcore kayak fishers. Below is a 'Kayak Fishing Gear Guide', which they put together for the blog.  Some of this stuff, I do take with me on every trip, such as the essentials, a paddle, a camera, a first aid/emergency kit, a dry bag, a whistle, and other odds and ends.  Take a look and see what you may want to add to your yak or gear before your next trip on the water. 

                                 Image credit to Joel Cowen and ACK

I'll have a fall fishing blog just around the corner, but for now, it is time to finish out the work week and knock out a plan for the first Duke-UNC Fall Charity Tournament this Sunday.  Hopefully one of the Duke teams can make it a Duke three-peat!  Tight lines!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Honored to be Nominated for the Kayak Anglers Choice Awards 2013

For the second year in a row, I am honored and humbled to be nominated for blog of the year in the Kayak Anglers Choice Awards 2013 held by  A few years ago, when I started this blog, I was in the midst of graduate school and was constantly surrounded by numbers, equations, computer codes, and textbooks.  Man Powered Fishing became my escape to share my stories and experiences out on the water or, occasionally, in the woods or kitchen.  I hope my passion for the sport shows through in everything I write.  For me, there is nothing I enjoy more than comments, emails, and questions I get after I blog about a trip, recipe, or review because I know I had a positive impact on someone or the sport. 

I encourage you to go and check out all of the nominees in all of the categories BY CLICKING THIS LINK. A lot of my good friends in fishing are nominated, including many in the 'Blog of the Year' category. Vote for who you feel deserves to win and hopefully it is me! They are doing a weekly elimination format this year, so you can vote once each week. 

Oh and the fall is red hot!  More on that coming soon.  Tight lines!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Baptized by Bass - Two Days & 314 Largemouths

Why do you guide?  That is a question I get from a lot of my fishing buddies and folks within the kayak fishing industry.  The answer is somewhat lenghty because there are numerous reasons.  One is that I love to teach.  Another is that I love the challenge.  And I really like introducing folks to the sport and sharing my passion.  This year nearly every trip I have had has been folks with little to no kayak fishing experience - kids, teachers, doctors, military personnel, and others.  We have had some great days along the way, particularly pseudo-guide trips the past two weekends.  Not only did they encompass the type of trip that I love, but they ended in a straight up baptism by bass.

Trip number one took place two Sundays ago on the Deep River with some folks who proudly serve our country.  They were really excited and I wanted them to walk away smiling from ear to ear.  The Deep is an insanely long river and one that Bill and I had a very good day on earlier this summer.  We decided to try a spot we suspected would fish well...and it did.

Chris with a healthy Deep River largemouth

The day started throwing buzzbaits and poppers around wood cover.  Black buzzers seemed to be the preferred bait and were getting hit regularly.  The fish weren't huge, but we were having fun watching them blow up on our baits.  Unfortunately, the topwater bite shut-off fairly early, but fish were still gorging on cranks and texas-rigged plastics.  We also managed to nab a few on spinnerbaits, swimbaits, jigs, and other offerings.  Our red, white, and blue kayaks were looking Patriotic as we meandered down the river - casting to every piece of cover we could see.

The red, "white", and blue Malibu Stealths

By mid-afternoon we were hammering the fish and broke the 100 bass plateau.  The average size for the day was right around 2.5 lbs, with a pile of fish over 3 lbs.  Our biggest two or three topped out right around 4 lbs, but that big river bass escaped us. 

Chris with his biggest of the day

We ended the day with 146 bass - an absurd number by any measure, but we had to work for them.  Chris said it was the most fun day of fishing he had ever had, and that made me extremely happy.  The most productive bait for the day was a 4" Big Bite Baits Fighting Frog, Texas-rigged on a 4/0 EWG hook and with a 1/4 oz tungsten weight, unpegged.  Many fish were hitting it on the fall, while others when it was popped or swam.  The bait has become my go-to flipping bait this summer and early fall and they may be worth a look in bodies of water with lots of sunfish.  It has outfished my previous favorite, the Deep Creek Lures Super Razor Beetle as well as the Missile Baits D-Bomb, the Berkeley Pit Boss and Devils Spear, and Zoom Speed Craw, among others.  All are fine baits, but for some reason the Fighting Frog has really shined.

Bill and I doubled up

Trip number two took place with a friend of Bill's who is still learning about freshwater fishing and had never kayak fished before.  He also hadn't done a lot of river fishing.  But he was the perfect learner - asking great questions and soaking up info like a sponge.  He was so tired of hearing our stories of chasing river beasts that he couldn't take it any longer and bought a new fishing kayak, the Moken Feel Free, last week.  We wanted to break it in right, so we again decided to hit the Deep.

We were on the water before it was light out in hopes of coaxing a giant from the depths.  After doing some dragging and portaging, we began fishing.  Unfortunately the bite started extremely slow.  Fish were hit and miss and finally I got onto a little pattern with a black buzzbait.  I had a big fish blast it, but miss the hook and followed that with two solid 3 lb fish.  After missing another, I put a trailer hook on the bait - something I should have done in the first place.  A short time later I made a long cast parallel to a bank with some submerged wood along it.  About midway back to the boat, the water errupted.  A big fish came flying skyward then torpedoed for deep water.  I leaned into him with my 7'6" Carolina Custom Rod and eventually landed the brute, which boasted a hefty gut and weighed in right at 5 lbs. 

The biggest bass we have landed from the Deep so far at 5 lbs

The bite remained a typical fall, junk fishing bite until about 11 AM.  Then, as if someone had flipped a switch, the bite exploded.  Swimbaits, swimjigs, and flipping baits were getting demolished. Fish from 12"-17" were the norm as we worked each piece of wood or rock ledge thoroughly.  Then we came to a "holy grail" type of area.  It was non-stop action for all three of us on just about any bait we threw at them.  Of course, the big fish were a little more picky, but we caught some chunky fish up to 4 lbs.

Derek with a fat river bass caught on a swim jig

At one point, I decided to head over toward a little side channel.  On my first cast with the Fighting Frog, I lost a fish.  On my second cast, I felt a solid bite and set the hook hard.  The 2.5 lber was fighting like a fish twice his size and when he turned I noticed another, bigger fish with him.  I grabbed my spinning rod and flipped my plastic worm out in their direction.  Before I could close the bail, line was screaming off the reel.  Thankfully, the two fish diverged and I fought one in each arm as they ripped around the river.  After a fierce fight, I subdued them both and hopped out for a quick photo.

Double the pleasure - double the fun!

By the end of the day, we were worn out, as we had to do a lot of paddling, dragging, rock hopping, and portaging.  But it was totally worth it.  Derek was visibly exhausted, but all smiles after his best day of bass fishing ever.  We ended with 168 largemouths - not too shabby.  In three trips to the Deep this year, we have landed a total of 466 bass - yikes!

The next day I got an email from Derek detailing a conversation he had with a fishing buddy of his about our day.  The buddy was impressed with how many fish we caught, but repeatedly said, "that sure does sound like a lot of work."  I thought about it for a while and realized, that is exactly what I want to convey.  Most of the spots I love to fish are off the beaten path.  None of them have boat ramps.  They all require dragging, portaging, bush whacking, and wading.  They are the type of spots that most people simply don't want to go.  That is why I love them.  They still have a wild aspect to them.  It makes each trip into an adventure and that is how memories are made.  Catching fish is just icing on the cake.

So I encourage you to pull up a map, get off the beaten path, and put in that extra effort.  You may be rewarded with the best day of fishing you have ever had!  Tight lines!

Monday, September 23, 2013

A Great Time at the TAKA Inaugural Tournament

This past weekend I had the pleasure of competing in the first ever Triad Area Kayak Anglers (TAKA) fishing tournamentTAKA is run by a handful of guys from the Triad area who are super passionate and dedicated to the sport as well as just flat out good guys.  They haven't been around long, but I know they were working super hard to make the event a success and they did just that.  They teamed up with Heroes on the Water (HOW), a charity that gets vets out on the water and, per their website, helps wounded warriors relax, rehabilitate, and reintegrate through kayak fishing and the outdoors.  The format was unique and there were two parts to it.  The first was a random team format where anglers were placed on teams of 3 with teammates drawn from a hat.  The second component was an individual, one fish, big fish format.  All in all, 41 talented anglers came out to visit, compete, and share a few laughs.  Although I caught plenty of fish, the big bite escaped me.  Here is a recap of a very fun, yet challenging experience.


Randleman Lake is only about an hour from my house, yet I rarely fish it.  In fact, looking back at my fishing logs, all of my fishing trips have been on rivers since the Duke-UNC Charity Tournament during the first week of April.  But, this would make my third trip to Randleman over the past 3 years.  The other two were full of highs and lows.  During both, I launched at the "bass boat" launch instead of the electric only/kayak area at Southwest Park, which was the launch for the TAKA tourney.  I have 2-3 productive areas within a couple miles of the bass boat launch that I tend to cycle through and fish thoroughly.  Those spots helped me win the NCKFA Battle for the Boro Fly Division in 2012 and put me in the top 8 of the general division the year before - although I had a fish that would have won, break my heart by spitting the hook next to the boat.  However, those areas were way too far to paddle to from the Southwest Park launch, so they were not going to work.  As always, I brought up Google Maps and started doing some virtual scouting.  The north side of the lake was littered with wood.  It had a defined channel, some flats, sparse grass, and some rocky outcrops.  It looked like a kayak fishermen's paradise.

The TAKA Tourney Crew - Photo by Philip Ruckart of KayakFishingNC

I knew from recent reports that most folks would stay fairly close to the launch and throw plastics and squarebills around wood cover.  And as with any one-fish event, I knew it would take a bit of luck.  My plan was to make a long paddle - in the 4-4.5 mile range - up into the lower section of the Deep River, where it feeds into the lake.  On the map, it looks insanely good.  But I had one reservation.  In all of the fishing reports I had read about the upper half of Randleman, no-one ever mentioned fishing up that far.  Part of me was hoping it was due to laziness because of the long paddle, but I noticed a string of buoys on the map and that worried me that maybe it was off limits.

I prepped my gear the night before and tied on a medium running balsa crank from CP Baits, a Lucky Craft squarebill, a Deep Creek Lures Super Razor Beetle on a flipping set-up, and a weightless worm.  I also made sure my buzzbaits were ready to go, because I had a suspicion they would factor into my plans before it was said and done (spoiler - they didn't).  I loaded up all of the gear and put the boats on the roof.  The next morning I was up around 5 AM and on the road.  The drive was easy, particularly after a stop for some caffeine and a blueberry fritter.  There was already quite a line of folks when I showed up around 6:30 AM - including a handful of locals in jon boats and yaks.  Bill Kohls pulled in shortly after me and we got everything unloaded, mingled amongst our fellow competitors, and got registered by the TAKA guys.  I had joked with Bill and good friend Eric Boyd how cool and crazy it would be if we were all drawn on the same team.  After doing some quick math, let's just say that the odds were not with us.  My name was drawn first...well sort of.  The name drawn was Drew Harrison, who was on an initial sign-up sheet, but didn't actually make it to the event.  It was discerned that I was indeed "Drew Harrison" and so I was on Team 6.  My teammates were Jim Jenkins of Yakin' Around and Roger Marvin.  I had met Jim at the Carolina River Fishing Rodeo in May/June and Roger was from Greensboro and had fished the lake a few times before.  I knew it was a solid team, so my fingers were crossed that we would get the bites we needed to be competitive.  Our game plan was to simply keep in touch via text message throughout the day and let each other know if we found a successful pattern or caught a giant.

Standing in line to register with Bill and Eric - Photo by Nomku Thao

We got situated and at 8 AM we had a shotgun start.  As with any shotgun start, there were guys paddling (and pedaling) like crazy, weaving in and out of the way, colliding, and leaving wakes.  I managed to make my way toward the front of the pack with Bill and Eric not far behind.  Soon I had nothing but open water in front of me as the Stealth was cutting the wind like a machine.  The lake looked just as good in person as it did on the satellite imagery and I had to resist the urge to stop and fish.  After paddling into the start of the river arm, I had about 3 miles to go to reach the area I wanted to fish.  But since I was nervous about the buoys, I decided to stop and ask a jon boat fisherman about them.  My heart sunk as he confirmed my fears - the area was off limits.  I paddled over to a rock bluff and started cranking while I collected my thoughts.  I was kicking myself for not bringing my depth finder since I figured I wouldn't need it in the river.  Now, it would have been invaluable for finding deep drops and structure.  Bill and Eric were also going to make the run with me, so I talked with them.  Since the area we were in was packed with yaks and jon boats, we decided to fish our way back out to the main lake and toward the bass boat area below the highway 62 bridge.  Although that was also a big risk, because there was a 100+ boat tournament going on, on that end of the lake as well.

As I meandered back to the main lake, I caught a couple short fish on a weightless worm that I didn't even bother to measure.  After a few more small bites, I knew it was time for a change and in particular, that I needed to get out into the wind and use it to my advantage because there were pods of bait everywhere.  The problem was that I also had to stay fairly shallow because I wasn't able to efficiently find key deep spots without electronics.  Bill and I began paddling toward the highway 62 bridge, stopping just before it to hit some good looking areas.  There I caught a 12" bass on the CP crank, a 13.75" bass on a worm, an 11" bass on a buzzbait, and a 12.5" fish again on a worm.  It was looking like a typical Fall bite - known to many as trash fishing.  Trash fishing is when there is no real pattern and is particularly prevelant on those cool fall days sandwiched between storm fronts.  The nearly full moon wasn't helping our cause either.  It would mean that I would have to throw a lot of casts with a lot of baits at a lot of different types of cover, but that I would almost certainly grind out some fish.

My first fish worth measuring on the day


The rip-rap around the bridge was already being fished by bass boats, so we continued on to a creek arm Bill knew about.  We paddled toward the back and found a couple of beaver dams, an old cement structure, and tons of wood cover.  The bite started slow in the creek arm, but we caught a few short fish.  Then, just as we were starting to worry that we were fishing too shallow, Bill hooked up with a lanky 18" bass on a creature bait and I followed up with a 15.5" bass caught on a worm.  Then the wind picked up and the bite picked up quickly for me.  I landed a 16" bass on a flipping bait, a 16.5" fish on a crank, another 16-incher flipping, a 15" fish on a squarebill, and plenty of fish in the 12"-15" range on a variety of baits.  About that time I got a text from Jim.  The bite was slow for he and Roger, but they both caught a few fish.  I think our team total was around 38.5" at that point and I knew it would take over 55" to win, but it was only around 11 AM, so we had plenty of time to upgrade.  I passed along that my best fish had come on chartreuse and white cranks and flipping and went back to work.

My first solid bite

Bill and I fished deep for about thirty minutes while we let the area rest before another pass.  I managed a couple short fish around rip-rap, but they wouldn't help.  A second pass through the area wasn't particularly helpful for me either as I only managed a couple more short fish on crankbaits.  Bill, had a little more luck...kind of.  He nailed another 18" bass on a spinnerbait cast to an isolated stick-up.  It was a solid second fish, one I wish I would have hooked up with, but it didn't upgrade his length from his earlier 18-incher.

Slowly getting bigger!

It was about 1 PM and we decided it was time to start making the run back toward the ramp, which was a few miles away.  I decided to paddle out to some blow downs I noticed on the way in while Bill stayed behind to crank some other areas.  I went through a few trees without a nibble before coming to the deepest tree.  It isn't rocket science that often the deepest trees have the most and biggest fish.  Sure enough, I flipped my bait into the tree and BAM - I knew I had a good fish.  I muscled him out of the jungle of sticks with my Carolina Custom Rods Finesse Special and got him in the net.  The fish had a huge gut, but wasn't extremely long.  He measured right at 17.5" on the board and was a nice upgrade for me.  On the next cast to the same tree I caught another bass, which fought like a freight train, but only measured 16".  Right about then I was wishing it was a 5 fish limit - or at least 3.  I wanted that 20" fish bad and I was working hard to get it.

Big fish of the day for me...nice pot belly

I was paddling as hard as I could between pieces of cover, only slowing down enough to make a cast or two at each.  I caught a couple more short fish before coming to a cove that looked good and also a little eery as an afternoon storm rolled in on the horizon.  I flipped my bait toward the base of a tree and on the second lift of my rod I felt it snag in some brush.  I began applying pressure with my rod and the brush pulled close to the surface, but the bait did not dislodge.  As I shook my rod, the bait would flap in and out of the water.  Suddenly, a bass erupted on the bait and looked to be at least 4 lbs.  But it only swiped at it and the fish never got hooked.  I lost another bite that felt solid flipping a downed log nearby and caught one short fish that would close out my day.

One of many fish this size that was netted on tourney day

Reports back at the ramp were mixed.  Most folks found the bites hard to come by and reported measuring fish in the 10"-16" range.  I thought for sure there would be a few caught over 20", but the weather and heavy traffic denied anyone from breaking the 20" plateau.  Big fish for the day went to Vinny Ferreri of Charlotte with a 19.5" bass.  I believe 2nd and 3rd place tied with 19.25" between Cha Xoing and PC Hawj.  My 17.5" bass tied with a couple other anglers for 9th place.

My team ended up with 40.25".  I am not sure what place we were in, but somewhere in the middle of the pack.  The first place team had 54.5" and consisted of Joey Benevenia, Cha Xoing, and Cory Dreyer.  2nd place went to Joey Sullivan, Luke Breakfield, and Bill Kohls who combined for 51.75".  3rd place had 48.5" and consisted of Scott Inge, Joe Angelcyk, and Yang Her.

Then the TAKA guys raffled off all sorts of goodies from sponsors like Get:Outdoors, YakAttack, and others.  We also got to chow down on some tasty burgers and hot dogs grilled up by the ladies of TAKA.  Mike Yang won a guide trip I donated on behalf of Froggy Waters Outdoors.  I think Mike and I are going to chase some smallies either this fall or next spring, but the trip is still in the planning stages.  And I won a set of YakAttack Gear Trax, which I have been eyeing for a while.

Mike Yang and I after he was drawn for the FWO trip - Photo by Philip Ruckart of KayakFishingNC

The best part of the day was that $460 had been raised for HOW from the event.  On top of that, there was a $500 donation made by Green Ford, so the NC HOW chapter walked away with nearly $1000.  That is simply awesome!

The YakAttack raffle winners - Photo by Philip Ruckart of KayakFishingNC

Reflecting back on my day, I guess I shouldn't be too bummed out.  I knew I would need a little luck and it just never came.  But I caught around 20-25 fish on water I had never seen before in tough conditions, so I that is a minor victory.  I also ended up with a three fish limit of  50.5" and a five fish limit of 82.75", which I think would have been pretty competitive if the format were different.  I do wish I would have pre-fished.  That way, I would have known the Deep River portion of the lake was off limits and could have focused my efforts and planning elsewhere.  In fact, there was one specific pattern that I think would have been very productive for bigger bites, but I wasn't prepared to fish it and didn't have the gear and electronics necessary to do so.  I also would have taken more of a run and gun approach.  Over the course of the day, I was able to hone in on very specific types of cover where I was consistently getting bites.  This helped to eliminate a lot of water that looked decent, but it took too long to figure that out and only impacted the last couple hours of my day. 

I was also really happy with how well the MK Stealth 12 did.  It was as fast or faster than all of the other boats at the shotgun start - including some of the pedal crafts.  And I was extremely impressed with my new, white model, crankin' stick from Carolina Custom Rods.  Paired with a Revo STX, it is insanely light and sensitive.

The white CCR cranker looking super good...and it fishes even better!

A huge congrats to the winners, who did an awesome job on a tough day.  Also, major props to the TAKA crew who put on a fantastic event.  I think everyone came away thoroughly impressed, had a lot of fun, and will be back to do it again next year.  Until next time, tight lines!

Monday, September 9, 2013

YakAngler Kayak Angler's Choice Awards 2013

OK, kayak fishing enthusiasts.  It is that time of the year again - the YakAngler Kayak Angler's Choice Awards.  Go over to their site and nominate your favorites from the past year.  Follow this link to go directly to the voting page.

The top nominees will then be whittled down between October and November and winners announced live on Kayak Fishing Radio.  Tight lines!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Dear Wyoming...I Miss you Already

Mary May and I hadn't had a real vacation in over a year.  And although the fishing here in central North Carolina has been awesome this summer, I was ready to get away.  Work has been incredibly busy and Mary May just finished one of her toughest semesters of grad school.  We decided to take a week to explore Wyoming and visit with family there, then swing to Michigan for a good friend's wedding before returning home.  It was such a fun trip that I am not even sure how to blog it all, so here goes nothing.


Day 1 - Tricky Travel: We left RDU on Friday after work.  Our itinerary was to fly from RDU to Houston, Houston to Denver, and Denver to Gillette.  We got to Houston right on time, but just before we boarded for Denver, a huge storm cell crushed the airport and delayed us nearly two hours.  That led to us getting to Denver 2 hours after we were scheduled to land and missing our flight to Gillette.  We went to the United Customer Service desk and noticed a flight to Casper that we would just be able to make.  We found out that Casper was only about 2 hours from Gillette, so we re-booked for Casper, changed our rental car location, and let my sister know that we wouldn't be in until super late.  Running on caffeine and adrenaline, we meandered through the Wyoming plains dodging deer, coyotes, foxes, antelope, and other critters along the way.  We got to my sister's place in Gillette around 1:30 AM, which of course felt like 3:30 AM to us because of the time change.  To make matters worse, two nights before the trip Mary May was on-call at work and she/we barely got any sleep.  Then the night before our trip we were up late packing and up extra early to work and run errands.  Needless to say we crashed quick and hard.

My nephew Caden in one of the many costumes my nephews have

Day 2 - Family & Fellowship: We slept in until about 8:30 AM, although sleep from 6 AM onward was intermittent as we listened to my nephews doing laps around the upstairs.  After a quick breakfast we headed to pick up our checked bag from the airport, get groceries and supplies, and head for the hills.  My sister, brother-in-law, two nephews, and their dogs came with us as we made the hour plus drive to the Bighorn Mountains just outside of Buffalo.  Mary May's aunt and uncle have a cabin there that they were nice enough to let us use for the week.  Her uncle's family has very old roots planted in the area as sheep herders and ranchers.  It is a beautiful, rustic cabin set on the middle fork of Clear Creek surrounded by federal land.

Note the upper left hand corner...possibly my favorite thing about the cabin!
We got to the cabin in the mid-afternoon and started prepping our fishing gear.  The boys wanted fish for dinner, so we got them set-up at a small pond nearby to try and catch a few trout.  My sister and brother-in-law stayed with them, while Mary May and I met up with her aunt to visit with some other folks who had cabins on the same road.  We returned from our neighborhood visit just before dinner to find that the boys were fishless.  Thankfully, we had enough steaks, hot dogs, and sides to go around.  Dinner was followed by smores, a couple bottles of wine, and more than a couple cold beers - which put us to sleep quickly.

I hadn't had an Alaskan Amber since I lived in Oregon...DELICIOUS!

The nephews are ready to crash

Day 3 - Middle Fork Clear Creek & Prime Rib:  We all awoke a little groggy the next morning.  Even my nephews weren't as energetic as normal.  After they did some exploring - highlighted by a ball that was lost in the creek, they all decided to head back to Gillette.  Mary May and I went back to sleep.  We finally got moving again in the early afternoon and snuck down to the creek to catch some wild trout.  I know creek fishing isn't terribly glorious to most people, but I love it.  It is what I grew up doing and even if the fish don't get that big, the challenge of casting and presentation in tight quarters is what draws me to it.  We picked off about a dozen wild rainbows as we worked our way to the pond. 

My first Wyoming trout of 2013

Mary May's first trout of the trip

When we got there, fish were rising to mosquitos and emergers.  Mary May got on the board first with a 12"-13" trout that sucked down her mosquito pattern.  I missed a few fish before finally catching a 12" fish of my own.  We both continued to land fish, while missing twice as many, on dry flies that included an assortment of mosquito, blue winged olive, black ant, and Adams patterns.  I then caught a couple on an emerger and a tandem of nymphs before we called it a day. 

My 12-incher from Middle Fork Pond

Fly fishing in that particular pond isn't rocket science.  The fish are a mix of stockies and 2-3 year hold overs, but it is a good warm-up for a couple of easterners who hadn't cast a fly at a trout in roughly two years.

Lovely lady with a lovely trout - the big fish of the afternoon

We went down to Buffalo that night and had dinner with Betty (Mary May's aunt) at a place called 'The Winchester'.  Something kept bringing my eyes/stomach back to the prime rib.  I hadn't had a prime rib in years, so I ordered it and Mary May did too.  Maybe it was because of the long layoff, but my gosh was that a good prime rib.  Topped with a little horseradish sauce, I ate the whole thing and left the restaurant with a smile.

When we got back to the cabin, we took out the maps and started searching for our destination for day 4.  We wanted to do a hike into the wilderness area and do some fishing.  After some debate, we settled on Sherd Lake.  Sherd was only about a 2.5 mile trip from the Circle Park Trailhead, so we figured it would be a good warm-up hike to let our lungs adjust to the lower oxygen levels - given that the difference in elevation between Sherd and our home here in NC is roughly 8200 feet or over 1.5 miles higher.  But given our recent weight lost (we have now both lost 30 lbs since May), we were feeling good.

The moon sneaking through the pines

Day 4 - Sherd Lake:  We again slept in a little, had a late breakfast of steak, guacamole, and salsa, and headed for the trail.  We filled out our Cloudpeak Wilderness permits and started the climb to the lake.  As we began to ascend the first ridge, I could immediately feel my lungs working extra hard to find oxygen.  Mary May echoed my feelings.  It is a weird feeling, typically accompanied by slight light headedness.  But our legs didn't let us down and we drank plenty of water as we continued the trek.  The hike had some ups and downs as it wound through the Bighorns, but overall it wasn't bad.  We did the hike in about an hour with only fishing rods and day packs.  We finished the final uphill and were met by the beautiful lake at roughly 8800 feet.  I was shocked to see lily pads floating on the far bank with a shallow, weedy flat, flanking the pads.  The rest of the lake was surrounded by boulders, downed trees, and standing timber - mainly pines.  It was around noon by then and we were eager to wet a line.

Lilypads in alpine Wyoming...I didn't see that coming!

These lakes always take a while to figure out.  They all fish a little differently and they are deep, super clear, and typically have little room for backcasts, which makes putting the puzzle together a little trickier.  I rigged a hopper on my rod and a bumble bee on Mary May's.  Those of you who remember our last trip to WY may remember how much luck she had on that bumble bee pattern, so we had to try it first.  I began making long casts toward some high grass along the shore, but after about ten minutes I had no takers and fish were occasionally rising in the vicinity.  I decided to switch to a black ant pattern.  Immediately, I hooked and lost a short trout on the ant and had a couple other small fish come up and stare or swipe at it without hooking up.

Sherd Lake - nestled in the Bighorns

Then the winds picked up, as they seem to always do in the higher elevations of the Bighorns.  I took a short break to tie on a prince nymph dropper below my ant and Mary May decided to catch up on email while the wind gusted over 20 MPH.  We didn't get service at the cabin, nor in the Bighorns, so it is actually kind of nice to catch up on email when the wind starts to really blow. 

No sooner did I re-tie, then I looked down the bank to see what appeared to be the outline of a trout moving toward me.  The wind was blowing directly at me, but I was able to flick my flies in his direction.  He slowly came about a foot off the bottom and very casually sucked down the nymph.  I set the hook and it was game on!  The fish never went airborne, but he fought like crazy before I finally landed him.  In person, he looked like a cuttbow, but the picture looks more like a true cutthroat.  Either way, at 15" he was a great start to the day.  We debated whether we would keep him for dinner or not, given that it was only the beginning of the day.  My initial reaction was that we would let him go, but that philosophy has backfired on us a few times.  So we ended up putting him on the stringer for later that night.

A perfect size cutthroat to keep for dinner...and a glimpse of the never en vogue hiking socks

Mary May got on the board next.  I tied a peacock nymph dropper below her bumble bee and on the first cast she hooked up with a gorgeous cutthroat - her first ever.  It was shaping up to be a potentially incredible day.

Mary May with a gorgeous cutt

We made our way around the lake and caught a couple small cutts and cuttbows and missed a few more.  We eventually circled around toward the lily pads.  That is when our run of bad luck began.  The casting was super tight on that side and the wind picked back up, which led to both of us hanging some flies in trees.  When we were getting them out to the fish, it seemed we were either missing fishing, losing fishing, or having them break the line.  Frustrated, I tried a few different flies, including a frog pattern through the pads) without much luck.  I knew I had to take a break, re-fuel, and refocus.  Like with any type of fishing, when things start to go poorly, it is time to get back in the right place mentally and go back to the techniques you have confidence in.  So I tied the ant-prince nymph combo on my rod and a dragon fly-mayfly nymph duo on Mary May's rod. 

We slowly crept down the bank when I noticed a big fish lying along the shore.  Unfortunately, we weren't far away from him, so he easily saw us and started swimming in the opposite direction.  Shortly after, he dissappeared into a shadow near some lily pads about 30-40 feet away.  I waited a few moments to cast, then softly laid a long cast right on the deep edge of the shadow.  Suddenly the fish exploded out of the pads and nailed the ant.  Is there anything better than watching trout suck down dry flies?  We both let out a scream of excitement as the fish tore across the weed flat.  He jumped, juked, and twisted, but we wrangled him onto the shore.  It was a 17.5" brute of a cutthroat - my biggest ever.  We added him to our makeshift stringer and continued fishing.

My new PB cutthroat!

We decided to hang out in the same area we had just caught the big cutt and watch for cruisers over the shallow weed bed.  This time, Mary May took the reigns.  It wasn't long before we saw a nice cutt suck down a lady bug, then an ant as he moved toward the shoreline.  She laid a perfect cast about 15 feet in front of him and it looked like he was on track to suck her fly down as well.  Then he started to veer off of his track before he even saw the fly.  She stripped the fly hard once, which got his attention.  A second hard strip and he rocketed the remaining distance and crushed the fly.  He was another fighter and she did a great job keeping him out of the weeds.  It was another gorgeous fish - measuring about 16". 

Mary May applying the ninja grip to a hefty cutt!

We stayed in the same spot and caught another 3 fish in the 14"-15" range and lost another about the same size.  We started to make our way around the lake further and landed a few more cutthroats in the 11"-13" range - mainly on the dragonfly-mayfly nymph set-up.  On one particular fish, Mary May had spotted him cruising and eating bugs, but couldn't quite get him to eat.  She called me over and played guide as she directed me to his location.  Sure enough, he sucked down my fly and would have been a nice addition to the stringer, but two fish were all we really needed for just the two of us.

A gorgeous leopard frog MM spotted on the bank

By about 4 PM we were ready to start hiking back out.  I gutted the fish along the shoreline, finding an assortment of bugs in their stomachs.  For the day, we had landed probably 20-25 trout and lost/missed just as many.  We made quick work of the hike back to the car and were at the cabin just in time for dinner.  We baked the trout with garlic, lemon, and butter - it was phenomenal.  We ate then surveyed the maps in front of the fire - trying to decide on our adventure for the next day.  We hit the pillows hard with grand thoughts of Angeline in our dreams.

A perfect dinner at camp!

Day 5 - Angeline Brown Bear Lake Trigger Lake:  Our original plan on Day 5 was to ascend to Lake Angeline - a gorgeous alpine lake at just under 11,000 feet of elevation.  The hike was about 12 miles round trip and almost entirely uphill for the first leg, including a first mile where the trail was basically paved with loose chunk rock and boulders.  We woke up early, but both of us were still exhausted from our massive sleep deficit.  On top of that, we were both congested because of the dust and other particles in the air at the cabin.  We decided to sleep a little longer and opt for Plan B.  Plan B was Brown Bear Lake - one of a series of lakes situated in a glacial moraine.  It was recommended to us, but we were told it was a little tricky because of the trail...or lack thereof. 

It is always a good feeling to walk past a wilderness boundary sign

Coincidentally, we used the same trailhead as the day before and started our jaunt into the Cloudpeak Wilderness.  On the USGS quad map, we had seen a trail 183 that looked like it would cut about 2.5-3 miles off of the hike, but for the life of us, we just couldn't find it.  So we opted to hike to Sherd then take a looping trail through the South Fork Ponds before crossing Duck Creek and climbing the final ridges up to Trigger Lake.

Time to fling!

It was a gorgeous hike, littered with all sorts of animal tracks, wild berries, massive boulder fields, and snow capped peaks.  The scenery from the ridge just before the lake is simply breathtaking with a nearly 360 degree view.  We got to Trigger Lake around 2:30 PM and took a little break.  We realized that Brown Bear was another mile further, uphill, and with no trail.  We bushwhacked for about ten minutes before deciding to turn around and fish Trigger as the going was tough and the trail back to the car was fairly long. 

One of the many boulder fields...the picture does it no justice.

The fish at Trigger were particularly spooky and we quickly realized that we would need to go into stealth mode to catch them.  I tried a few flies before finally settling in on a dragonfly with a peacock nymph dropper.  That seemed to do the trick as I was landing rainbows in the 10"-12" range on both flies.  We decided to leave around 4 PM, which was a bummer, but our time there was productive after we figured out how to catch them.

My first trigger lake rainbow

We were *hoping* to find trail 183 on the way back, knowing that it would cut about 2 hours off of our return hike.  As we approached the area we thought the new trail started, we ran into to a cow moose only 15 yards away.  We kept our distance initially, fearing she may have a baby with her.  But I think she was solo and we eventually walked past her.

Bride of Bullwinkle

Thankfully, we did find trail 183 and it wound through a beautiful pine grove and along the main fork of Clear Creek.  The creek looked like something from a post card - sandwiched between meadows and snow capped peaks.  Were it not for our lack of time, I would have fished it thoroughly.  At one point, we had to cross the creek.  There was no bridge and because the water was higher than normal, it took us a while to find a place to cross without getting wet.  I was able to lunge from rock to rock and make it to the other bank.  Mary May was also agile enough to avoid getting wet - although she had a close call that we got a laugh out of. 

Another Trigger Lake bow

The trail followed the creek for about half a mile further then rose into a small meadow that was clearly being used for cattle grazing.  As the trail met the meadow it disappeared.  You could no longer discern hiking trail from cow path from deer path.  We followed what looked to be the main trail, while keeping a close eye on the map.  Suddenly, we realized we were on some sort of animal trail and were faced with a decision of whether to go up and over a rocky ridge to where we knew another, well marked trail was or to stay along the river.  We didn't have a compass, so it was a no-brainer to stay along the river.  Rivers are great landmarks for hikers and outdoorsmen because they will always lead you to civilization and are easy to follow.  So we moved back toward the river and meandered another half mile through the woods until we came to a barb wire fence.  We recognized the fence, as we had to pass through a gate in it on the hike in the morning.  The debate in my mind then became whether we would follow the fence up the hill to the other trail, which didn't look to be more than a mile, or cross and keep going straight(ish).  Then Mary May exclaimed, "what is that" and pointed down the hill to a small yellow sign.  I told her I would check it out and as I got closer as I exclaimed in repsonse, "Oh, thank God!".  It was a sign that marked a gate in the fence.  The gate was marked for trail 183 and the trail was clearly worn and easy to follow.  We had only been about 50 yards from the trail the whole time, but both of us had been a little nervous.  We let out a big sigh of relief and finished the next mile of the hike back to the car.  I am pretty sure they are trying to phase out trail 183, because from the top side (near the trailhead) you can't see where it starts unless you know it is there.

The one foot on shore-one on a rock cast

Since we didn't keep any fish we went back to Buffalo for dinner that night.  We were hoping to eat and grab a beer at the Clear Creek Brewing Co., but they weren't open.  After looking at our options online we decided to back for the good stuff.  We again ate at Winchesters and Mary May again had the prime rib.  I switched it up and went for a Surf & Turf special.  And we again left stuffed and smiling.

Mary May and I at one of the South Fork Ponds

Day 6 - Tie Hack Reservoir:
It was our last full day in the Bighorns and we wanted to do something fun, but not too far off the beaten path.  So, we met Betty around noon at Tie Hack Reservoir, which wasn't more than 10-12 minutes from the cabin.  It is a fairly big body of water, so I figured if we didn't see active fish in the main lake, we would hike to one end or the other and fish the creeks that run in and out.  The hike to the far end was further, but pretty easy.  The hike to the dam and tail race was super short, but very steep.  Since there was nothing happening at all at the main lake and we heard report after report of skunks, we headed for the tail race.

The dam at Tie Hack

Now this wasn't your typical big water, monster trout tail race.  This was a small tail race that feeds the south branch of Clear Creek.  I quickly caught two short rainbows and a solid 12-incher on a BWO.  But the water was turbulent and deep, so I switched to a streamer.  That resulted in a couple follows, but no fish.  So we started to work our way down the creek and were picking off trout in each pool.  In one pool, I caught about a dozen trout and had probably another 10 strikes.  I even caught a healthy 13" fish from the creek, which was a nice surprise.

My biggest trout from our afternoon on South Clear Creek

Since Betty had to be out of there by 4 PM, we returned to the tail race and I began nymphing.  That produced a bunch more fish in the 10"-13" range as well as a couple really short bows.  It wasn't quite wilderness fishing, but it was still super fun.

MM looking like an ant on the dam

We trudged back up the steep incline to the car and walked across the dam, something you can't do anymore in most of the east.  There was still no action on the lake, although a couple of yuppies did almost hook us with their backcasts.  Suddenly I remembered why I like wilderness fishing so much more than dealing with crowds, which in Wyoming (or on Penns Creek in central PA where I grew up) means yuppies.

We took it easy the rest of the day and started to pack and clean the cabin.  We had one last fire as we listened to the old country station on the radio.  Then we slipped off to sleep.

The fire queen

Day 7-9 - Goodbyes, Weddings, and the Return of the King:
On Day 7 we finished packing, cleaned up a bit, and headed to Gillette to spend the day with my sister and nephews.  We played in the dirt, shot dart guns, played some baseball, and got out just about every toy in the house.  It was a lot of fun, although admittedly tiring.  My sister made a delicious dinner as we scoped out antelope through the binoculars and Caden, my nephew, showed me everything he wanted from the Cabelas catalog.  The rest of the evening and next day was spent visiting before we headed to the airport.

This time, things went smoothly and we got to Detroit right on time.  We were at our hotel in Ann Arbor a little before midnight, so we decided to crash.  The next morning we explored the downtown area - having brunch and a beer at the Jolly Pumpkin.  Then it was wedding time.  Our good friends Levi and Alina were getting hitched.  You have probably seen Levi's name on this site before.  He is a crazy good fly fisherman, fly tyer, and all around outdoorsman.  He ties a lot of the crazy bass patterns you see pop up in my blogs.  Anyway, the wedding was gorgeous, the reception was a blast, and we couldn't be happier for them.  They are now galavanting around Yellowstone on their honeymoon, hoping to not become bear food.

Fancied up for Levi and Alina's wedding in Ann Arbor

The next morning it was back to the Detroit. Thankfully we were early because the Hertz people put us on the wrong shuttle to the terminal.  But the rest of the trip was smooth.  In fact, we got home a little early.  After a Sheetz stop, we headed toward Greensboro where Bill was kind enough to meet us with Huck, our Shih Tzu.  He was a little out of sorts at first since it was only the second time he had been away from us and the first time he had been away without his big "brother" Brewer (our other dog).  But that night he plopped down in his usual spot at the foot of the bed, re-assuming his role of king of the room.

It was a simply awesome trip and we did not want it to end - particularly coming back to a pile of work and emails that Monday.  The rugged nature of the west is simply beautiful and the wilds often breathtaking.  A huge thanks to Deidre and her family, Aunt Betty, Levi & Alina, and Bill & Misty.  We have some incredible friends all over the country and I think this trip kind of epitomized how blessed Mary May and I are in our lives.  I think we are particularly lucky to have found each other.

I am super glad to know that I can still catch smart, wild trout and that I am not yet a yuppie, although I worry I may become one some day.  Until next time, tight lines!

Seeya next time, Wyoming!