Thursday, June 27, 2013

Building, Smoking, and Cooking in an Inground BBQ Pit

I turn 30 in just over a week.  I thought I might have some pre-30 anxiety, but so far, so good.  Of course, it helps that I am at a good spot in my life with work, hobbies, and love.  But I still wanted to do something special for the big day - something I have never done before.  So, after some contemplating, I decided a pig roast would be a perfect way to celebrate both my birthday and Mary May and I's engagement.  I have been to a number of pig roasts, but never done it myself and I wanted to do it the old fashioned way - in a pit, in the ground, filled with hot coals from a wood fire.

There are quite a few BBQ forums out there with info about cooking in a pit in the ground.  Some pits are pretty darn impressive.  Mine is pretty darn redneck.  I found a fairly flat area with no immediate overhanging trees or brush and measured out a 4' x 5' square.  I got out the pickaxe and shovel and went to work.  Over the course of five sessions, each roughly 40 minutes long, I learned the meaning of "back breaking work".  On the first day, I was riding on adrenaline.  On the second, I was questioning my decision to dig into hardened red clay soil.  After the third, I found muscles in my back I never knew I had - only because of how sore they were.  On the 4th day, a particularly hot, humid day, I started wondering just how long this was going to take.  But on the final day, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel, pushed through, and finished the pit.  At 3.5' deep, it was finally ready to cook in.

Digging an inground BBQ pit - not advisable if you have nosy neighbors!

I then did a little more research and found out a bit more about how to prep the pit, what woods to use, cooking times, temperatures, and other useful information.  Since we have a lot of Maple on our property and it goes particularly well with pork, I decided to cook with Maple.  I found as many that were dying as possible and went to work.  Although I borrowed a chainsaw from a friend, I never actually used it - instead opting for a combination of a hand saw, hatchet, and machete.  So, for the next 8-10 days I spent about an hour a day cutting trees and limbs for the BBQ.  My lower back, fresh off of digging the pit, was excited to get a rest.  My upper back, shoulders, and upper arms were less than thrilled with my decision to note use the mechanical saw.  I gained a thorough apprecation for old time lumberjacks and foresters - even wearing a flannel shirt one day in a tribute of sorts (of course, I sweated through it in about 3 minutes and tossed it to the side after that).  But thankfully, it didn't take too long to construct a nice pile of Maple logs as well as branches and smaller limbs to get the fire going.

The next step was to head to Home Depot.  There I picked up two, high temperature cinder blocks, two 5' x 4' pieces of plywood, a 10' role of 36" chicken wire, a piece of non-galvanized tin, and a role of burlap.  These were all integral pieces of the pig roast process as detailed by this awesome country cooking blog.

Although I am quite familiar with cooking over a fire and coals, I am not familiar with cooking in a giant hole in the ground.  So, before we drop the pig in the ground, sometime in the wee hours of the morning on July 5th, I wanted to do a test run.  I had picked up a couple of Boston butt roasts on a ridiculous sale a couple of months ago and we also had a few chicken legs that someone gave us - they were the perfect testers.

Cooking over a wood fire and hot coals is nothing new for the Haerer-Pratt household

So Sunday, I got up earlier than usual and went outside to start the fire.  Immediately I realized my first mistake - not covering the wood pile.  It had rained hard the night before and everything was wet.  After nearly an hour, I couldn't get the fire to stay lit.  My inner Eagle Scout was ashamed.  Ready to give up, I walked back inside and flopped down on the couch.  I was already half exhausted and sweating profusely.  But just before I was ready to waive the white flag, along came Mary May, who helped pick me back up and gameplan how to get the darn fire started.  No matter what crazy ideas I come up with, she always supports me and helps me get back on track when things don't go as planned - one of the many reasons I love her.

We decided to try a 'fire in a box'.  I grabbed an extra phone book (because who uses those things these days), a medium sized cardboard box, and the lighter and again disappeared out the back door.  I threw a bunch of small branches and kindling into the pit, then turned by attention to the box, which I sat on the ground directly next to the pit.  I crumbled pages of the phone book in the bottom of the box, covered the pages with kindling, and applied the lighter.  It lit, quickly, and stayed lit.  Then the box begin to catch and it was time for the moment of truth.  I waited until about 1/3 of the box had been burnt and then pushed it over the edge of the pit.  Miraculously, the kindling in the pit lit, then the small branches, then some bigger branches.  I threw more and more small to medium sized wood on the fire and, with Mary May's help, we got that baby roaring.  Finally bigger logs began to dry out and light and over the course of the next two and a half hours, I burnt enough Maple (as well as some small Oak), to get about a foot or so of coals in the bottom of the pit.  By now, we were nearly 2 hours behind schedule, so I decided a foot of coals would be enough.

Most of the time, I supervised the fire and worked on drying wood while it burnt.  I also prepped the lid and some smoking logs by soaking them in water.  After the fire got lower I started prepping the meat.  We had three chicken legs and two Boston butt roasts.  I rubbed all three of the chicken legs with a healthy dose of poultry seasoning.   I then wrapped two of them in a paper bag that I dampened with water.   The other I covered in BBQ sauce and put in aluminum foil.  I put a rub on both pork roasts that consisted of brown sugar, cayenne pepper, chili powder, mustard powder, garlic powder, onion powder, ground black pepper, paprika, and a small amount of sea salt.  The larger roast I wrapped in foil and again covered in BBQ sauce.  The smaller roast I wrapped in a brown bag and dampened.  I then wrapped all but one of the meat packages in burlap that I had soaked in water for about an hour.  The wet burlap helps the packages not catch on fire and also helps the meat steam while cooking.

Rubbed, sauced, wrapped, and ready!

For the pig, the process will be a little bit different (including use of chicken wire and the sheet of tin), but for this batch, I used a sling to carefully drop a cinder block into the middle of the pit.  I then attached a wire and chain to a tin fire saucer that we had and placed the wrapped meat on it.  I lowered the saucer onto the cinder block and steaked the chain into the ground, so we could easily remove it when done.  I then tossed two soaked Maple logs into each side of the pit to provide plenty of smoke for flavor.  I then covered the pit with the two pieces of plywood, which I had also soaked in water.  I used the dirt I had extracted from the pit when I dug it to fill the gaps between the boards and around the edges, so that there was no smoke visibly escaping.  After that, we watched and waited.

I quickly realized that watching was boring.  You could literally see nothing, which I took as a good thing.  And after about 9 hours in the pit, we removed the dirt, slid off the lids, and used the chain to pull the meat out of the pit.  That flavor of Maple smoke filled the air and the BBQ smelled delicious.  We took it inside and unwrapped each piece of meat.  We were eager to see how it would turn out.  As you can probably guess, cooking in the ground is an inexact science.  It is easy to both under- and overcook meat.  Thankfully the chicken was cooked perfectly.  The pork was cooked through, but could have probably used a little more time for our liking, so we gave it another hour in the oven at 300 degrees.  That did the trick.

The meat in the foil cooked slightly more and the meat in the brown bags cooked a little less, but had much more of a smoky flavor to it.  Everything was delicious, but to my surprise, the chicken was actually my favorite.  However, I think with some of the lessons learned, the pig is going to be out of this world delicious!

A Boston Butt Roast that was mighty tasty!

What would I do differently?  Well for starters, I might actually add a little dirt back into the bottom of the pit.  It pains me to say it, but I think 3' is plenty deep enough for everything I will be cooking in it - including the small pig.  The other option is that I increase the amount of hot coals in the bottom to about 1.5' or more, which should be an easier task with dry wood.  That of course is something else on the agenda - covering the wood with a tarp about a week in advance of the cook date.  Other than that, I thought our test run was a success and we have had leftovers all week.

Hopefully this helps anyone out there thinking of doing an inground BBQ.  It was a lot of work, but a lot of fun and by now, most readers of this blog know that I love a good challenge.  Plus it is extremely gratifying, especially when you can share it with family and friends.  So, if you have a hankering for a pig pickin', feel free to swing by Hillsborough on July 5th.  If not, you will just have to wait and read about it here in a couple of weeks!  Tight lines!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Wild Chanterelle Mushrooms - Hunting, Cooking, and Recipes

I am going to diverge from the typical fishing blog to talk about some of my other hobbies today - mushroom hunting and cooking.  In my opinion, both tie directly to life strategies of trying to be as self sufficient and sustainable as possible (detailed in a previous blog).  Cooking is something I have loved since I was young - particularly after I got my first apartment when in college.  Now it is a great way for me to relax after work while experimenting with new flavors and ideas.  There is a certain challenge in making a good meal - the timing, temperature, prep, etc. that I absolutely love.  Mushroom hunting is a fairly new hobby for me and I consider myself a total novice.  Last year during hunting I season, I was seeing a ton of mushrooms on our property.  I had done some morel hunting over the years, but I wanted to learn more about southern mushrooms and hopefully find some that were edible.  It turns out, we have a very healthy population of chanterelle mushrooms in our back yard and they are loving this rainy spring.  The result has been some extremely delicious meals!

A few chanterelles fresh from the dirt

My first chanterelle hunt came about unexpectedly.  I was in the woods behind the house cutting up a downed maple tree for a BBQ we were doing (more on that later) and noticed some orange mushrooms about 15 yards away.  I went over to get a closer look and noticed that they looked a lot like the chanterelles that someone had posted a picutre of on the NC Mushroom Hunters Group the night before.  I went inside, grabbed my 'Field Guide to Southern Mushrooms', and flipped to Cantharellus cibarius.  They certainly looked legit, particularly because of the false gills.  But I wanted to be 100% sure as I tend to be overly paranoid about eating wilding mushrooms.  A Google search yielded two look-a-likes - the jack-o-lantern and false chanterelle.  The major difference is that both of those species have true gills.  I have also found that the jack-o-lanterns tend to have more of a sheen to the cap and the false chanterelles, at least right now, are much duller in color with distinctly tan outter caps.  Another good indicator is that chanterelles will not grow directly on wood (live or decaying), but the other two species will.

I went back outside and snapped a few photos.  I emailed one to an experienced mushroom hunting friend and loaded another to the NC Mushroom Hunters Group on Facebook.  Within minutes, it was confirmed that I had found a patch of golden chanterelles.  I went back inside, grabbed an onion sack, and started combing the woods.  The mixed hardwoods, mainly oak, that make up our back yard had pods of chanterelles scattered throughout - most at the top of small drainage paths on a gently sloping hillside.  I found both jack-o-lanterns and false chanterelles too, as well as many other types of mushrooms that I could not identify.  Within a half hour, I had a bag full of about three pounds of chanterelles and was chomping at the bit to come up with some recipes.

That night, I decided I would clean about a pound to saute over some chicken breasts for dinner.  I trimmed the stalks, washed them thoroughly, and heated a small amount of butter in a cast-iron skillet.  Combined with a little salt and pepper, they were absolutely delicious!

The next day I decided to do a cream of mushroom soup.  I knew Mary May had been craving it and we haven't had much in the way of rich foods since we started a diet about seven weeks ago.  I found a recipe over at the Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook Blog that sounded both simple and delicious.  That blog took it from "Escoffier: The Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery."  The recipe that I used (modified a bit from the original) is as follows:

Escoffier's Cream of Mushroom Soup
Serves:  4-6
Prep Time:  15 minutes
Cook Time:  30-45 minutes

- 6 cups chicken stock
- 2 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons flour

Soup- 2 pounds fresh chanterlle mushrooms
- 1 sweet onion, minced
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 3 egg yolks
- 1/2 cup light cream
- 1 shot apple brandy
- 1/4 teaspoon tumeric
- 1 pinch of salt

Note that the original recipe calls for 1 pound of mushrooms rather than 2, shallots instead of the sweet onion, heavy cream instead of light, brandy instead of apple brandy, saffron instead of tumeric, and 3 tablespoons more butter.  I used light cream and less butter to make it healthier.  I used the sweet onion because the store was out of shallots.  I used tumeric because folks online said it was on OK substitute for saffron, which we did not have and very rarely use.  The apple brandy was already in the fridge and I suspected the sweetness would be nice in the soup (I was right).
  1. Make the veloute. Heat the stock to a bare simmer. In another pot, heat the butter until frothing and stir in the flour. Stirring all the while, let this cook for a few minutes over medium heat. Do not let it brown.
  2. Whisk the hot stock into the roux and let this simmer for 14-20 minutes, stirring often. You want it to slowly cook down by at least 1/3 and be silky looking.
  3. While the veloute is simmering, make the mushroom base. Mince the mushrooms and onions fine and sweat them in a saute pan over medium heat with a 1 tablespoon of butter and a touch of salt. Cook, stirring often, until the onion is translucent and the mushrooms give up their water.  Do not drain.
  4. Crumble the tumeric into the brandy and add it to the mushroom base. Turn the heat up to high and toss or stir to combine. Cook until the brandy is nearly gone.
  5. Buzz the mushroom base into a puree in a food processor.
  6. When the veloute is ready, add the mushroom puree and stir well to combine. Cook this at a bare simmer for 8-10 minutes.
  7. Beat together the egg yolks and cream, then ladle — a little at a time — some soup base into the egg-cream mixture. This is called a liaison, and you are tempering the eggs with the hot stock slowly, so they do not congeal. Once you have 3-4 ladles of soup into egg-cream mixture, pour it all back into the soup and simmer. DO NOT BOIL.
  8. Simmer for 2-4 minutes then remove from heat and serve.

I neglected to take a picture of my soup, but I promised it looked even better.  This one is taken from the 'Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook' blog via Holly A. Heyser.

This soup was extremely good and would have been even better with some bread to soak it up (stupid diet).  We did break the diet a little and paired it with a glass of white wine, which was a great compliment to the flavors of the soup.

This past weekend, Mary May and I took a break to search for some more chanterelles.  We found another one or two pounds and immediately I began recipe searching.  I stumbled upon one that sounded easy and delicious, so next on the menu was a chanterelle and fontina frittata.

I had never made a frittata before, but was eager to try.  The recipe, which I again made a few changes to, is as follows:

Chanterelle and Fontina Frittata
Serves:  4-6
Prep Time:  10-12 minutes
Cook Time:  15-20 minutes

Ingredients- 8 large eggs, beaten
- 1 tablespoon tarragon, chopped (fresh if possible)
- 1/8 cup olive oil
- 1.5 pounds of fresh chanterelle mushrooms
- Salt and pepper
- 2 ounces Gouda cheese

I used dried tarragon, which was underwhelming.  I strongly suggest using fresh to get the full effect.  I also cut the amount of olive oil in half, upped the amount of mushrooms by about a pound, and substituted Gouda for Fontina as was recommended online.

I also forgot to take a picture of the fresh frittata, but I did get a shot of the day old leftovers!
  1. Preheat the oven to 350°.  In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with the chopped tarragon. In a large, nonstick ovenproof skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil until shimmering. Add the chanterelle mushrooms, season with a pinch of salt and pepper and cook them over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are browned, about 8 minutes.
  2. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the skillet. Add the beaten eggs and cook until they begin to set at the edges, about 30 seconds. Using a spatula, lift the edge and tilt the pan, allowing the uncooked eggs to seep underneath. Cook until the bottom is set, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle the cheese on top and bake the frittata for about 8 minutes, until fluffy and set.
  3. Slide the frittata onto a platter, cut into wedges and serve.
The frittata made another delicious wild mushroom dinner - although it could have been an equally great breakfast.  The Gouda cheese was a nice, subtle compliment to the rest of the dish and the mushrooms really shined.  Next time I might add some cherry or grape tomatoes from the garden as well.  Hopefully we get a little more rain this week, so we can go on the hunt for more chanterelles again this weekend.

Before I wrap this up, I mentioned finding my first chanterelles randomly, while cutting wood for a BBQ.  Well, Sunday I took my in-ground BBQ pit for a test drive.  The result - deliciousness!  That story will be posted later this week.  Until then, tight lines!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

How to Catch Big Bass in High, Muddy Water

For the majority of my fishing life, I shied away from the combination of high and muddy water.  I could handle one or the other, but the two together were intimidating.  As I have gotten older and have gained more responsibilities, my fishing trips are becoming less common.  So, I can't let non-ideal conditions stop me from having a good day on the water.  This spring has been particularly wet and the rain much needed.  It has been a perfect chance to further hone my skills in bodies of water flowing over their banks in water that is often the color of chocolate milk.  Not only have I caught fish, but I have had some of my best days ever - and here is how.

I have found the most helpful fact in fishing high water is that bass don't like to sit in the current, yet current brings them a smorgasbord of food choices.  So the key is to find areas of slack water that are being affected by the current.  In lakes, this means you can use the main river channel to your advantage, as well as hideaways such as creeks arms, coves, and tributaries.  In rivers, it means you need to be selective about your targets and really dissect the river to find the best areas out of the current where fish will hold.  The other general trend is that fish will move shallower to feed on crayfish, baitfish, and other life as they emerge.  I break down lakes and rivers in the following ways.

A 4 lber I caught last spring when the water was 2.5 feet above normal level

When lakes get muddy, I immediately pull out my map and locate the main river channel that flows through a lake.  I try and find a number of areas close to that channel where fish can either sit just outside the current and feed on passing baitfish or sit way out of the current, often in shallow cover, because baitfish will also move out of the current.  In those types of locations, food is being constantly brought to the fish and they use very little energy to consume it. 

An example of the first kind of spot might be a steep rock bank that forms a point.  Bass will sit in crags in the rocks as well as on the down lake side of the point and ambush baitfish.  If the water is falling or stable, they may then move out of those pockets and suspend near the vertical rock.  As a kayak fisherman, this pattern can be tough because a) boat control can be difficult and b) you might have to run to a few spots before you find one that is producing good numbers of fish.

That is why I tend to target shallower water when it is high and muddy.  I like to find areas that I know have a lot of cover under normal conditions - logs, stumps, bushes, weeds, pads, etc.  I then go within casting distance of the new bank, which might be anywhere from 1-5 feet higher than normal.  I cast to every shallow target I can find, trying to change angles often and find different types of cover to pitch to, even if the water is only a few inches deep.  If I am not getting bit, I back out a few feet and start casting to targets that I can barely see, most of which are situated along the original shoreline.  Sometimes fish don't want to move, so they hunker down in their original cover.  When water rises, that original shoreline becomes a drop-off, which is perfect for ambushing prey.  If I am still not getting bit, I will back out a little more and make long casts covering multiple zones with a search bait.  When you eventually find the the zone the fish are concentrated in, work it thoroughly with different baits and from different angles.

Like any day on the lake, tackling high water is much like putting together a puzzle.  But when you find a few pieces that fit, the rest can fall into place quickly.  On a recent guide trip with Froggy Waters Outdoors, I took a client out to a local lake known for its weed beds.  We started fishing in an area filled with weeds and lily pads with the water 3-4 feet higher than normal and highly stained.  We had some blow-ups on frogs in the pads and caught a couple, but the bite was hit and miss.  We moved a little to an area with less vegetation and more shoreline cover.  We began throwing buzzbaits and black plastics around bushes and stumps in inches of water.  It didn't look as pretty as the lily pad fields, but it out-produced the pads roughly 7:1.

This 5 lber was caught by a client fishing a crankbait along the edge of an eddy

The word river immediately evokes the thought of current.  So how do you catch fish in a body of water that is seemingly all current, has only a couple inches of visibility, and is flowing significantly faster than normal?  Simple, you find eddies and current breaks.

A few years ago I was fishing a tournament with Bill Kohls in mid-April.  Typically by then, bass fishing in North Carolina is pre-spawn and the bite is fantastic.  But that week the temperature dropped into the 30's with highs in the mid-40's.  It also rained for two days straight, making the rivers muddy and a few feet higher than normal.  We launched on a river we had never fished before and were targeting shallow wood and weeds with nothing to show for it.  Then we found a big eddy and barely moved the rest of the day.  The eddy was loaded with fish.  They weren't all active at once, but over the course of the day we would catch a few, then let if rest, then catch a few, and repeat.  We nearly won that tournament and might have won it were it not for a fish that bent the hook straight on a lure.

Eddies are a river fishermens best friend when the water gets high.  Not only does it give fish a place to get out of the current, but it brings a never ending supply of food right to their nose.  Eddies may occur behind rocks, trees, root wads, islands, weed patches, or other pieces of cover.  One of my favorite things to do is find the biggest shoal and rapid on a particular stretch of river.  The eddy of this rapid is typically quite large also, so fish will stack up in it.  I try to make long casts right down the current seam and also mix a few into the calmer portion of the eddy.  Then move to the next shoal-rapid-eddy combo and repeat.  In prime eddies, you can often catch bass after bass without even moving your boat.  In fact, on a recent guide trip on a local river, a client hooked up with bass on six consecutive casts.

I find that the trend of bass moving shallow during high water is more prevelant for lakes.  However, in rivers, areas that are typically out of the water will be underwater during high flows and will hold fish.  Again, the key is to find new current breaks to focus on, no matter how shallow or deep.

On lakes I like to rig roughly 5 baits depending on the time of the year.  No matter what time of the year, I will rig a jig, tube, or creature bait in black to pitch into shallow cover.  I like to use a 1/4 oz to 3/8 oz tungsten sinker pegged above the bait, which is rigged on a 4/0 or 5/0 Gamakatsu EWG worm hook.  I pitch it as tight to cover as possible and let it fall.  Sometimes, it takes two or three lift-fall sequences before you get bit.  Other days, they eat the bait on the fall.  If that doesn't work, I will pitch past my targets and slowly work the bait toward them.

I typically also tie on a crankbait and spinnerbait in white, white & chartreuse, chartreuse, or black.  Although I fish silent cranks much of the year, I will throw rattling baits in dirty water (in addition to the silent cranks).  I like to use square bill cranks like the Lucky Craft SKT MR or flat sided balsa cranks like my new favorite, the CP Baits Series 2 crank.  The key with crankbaits is deflections.  You want that crank to hit off of anything and everything to elicit a reaction stirke from a nearby bass.

This 5 lb 10 oz chunk devoured a CP Baits Series 2 crank fished parallel to an current seam

My go-to spinnerbait is the Premier League Lures River Series in 3/8 oz or 1/2 oz.  At times, especially in cold water, I tweak the blade combinations for maximum vibration and go with a tortoise or Indiana blade.  You might also have to work your spinnerbait very erratically - killing it, yo-yoing it, bouncing it off logs, rocks, and the bottom, and changing speeds multiple times per cast.

My other two baits rotate depending on conditions.  Early in the spring, I might rig a lipless crankbait such as the Lucky Craft LV series or a jerkbait like the LC Pointer 78 SP.  As spring progresses and summer approaches I will throw more topwaters, swimbaits, weightless stick baits, shakey heads, and even Alabama rigs depending on water depth.

In rivers, I fish the same baits nearly all year long if the water is high and muddy.  I almost always rig a flat sided crankbait and a spinnerbait.  These are perfect for shoals, rocky areas, wood cover, weed lines, and seams.  I also like to throw a 5" weightless stick bait and a crayfish immitator like a jig, tube, hula grub, or plastic craw.  I may also dropshot a soft plastic helgrammite or 4.5" Roboworm.  These baits are great along current seams and in the middle of eddies.  If the fish are particularly aggressive, I will throw a topwater such as a Lobina Rico Popper, S.O.B. buzzbait, or Lucky Craft Gunfish.  The term topwater explosion barely describes the way river bass gorging on shad crush a topwater.  Again, with all of these baits, I like to use black, white, chartreuse, or combinations of the three. 

Always remember when fishing a river, or any area with current, to retrieve your bait with the current.  It is not natural for baitfish to swim against the current, so focus on neutral or downstream angles of retrieve and you will get a lot more bites.

And with all of the baits above, make sure you sharpen your hooks regularly.  When bass start gorging on baitfish, they often just slam the smaller fish, often knocking them out of the water.  This stuns or wounds the bait and makes gulping them a lot easier.  You will find that you will catch fish hooked in the top of the head, side, and other random places when they get aggressive in high water.  Along the same lines, always keep an eye out for shad being pushed to the surface, surface blow-ups, and other signs of feeding fish.  Indicators like that are another big help in putting together a pattern.

Also remember that high water can fluctuate from day to day, especially in rivers.  One local river dropped over a foot in one night this past week.  After a successful guide trip, I went back the next day to do some fun fishing and the eddies we had fished the day before were nearly gone.  I knew the fish were still around and feeding, but they were not in the same areas.  Eventually, I found new areas, established a new pattern, and had an even better day on the water with my best 5 fish measuring 103.75" and weighing 27.2 lbs.

This 6 lb 3 oz bass was the highlight of an incredible day of bass fishing on a high, stained river

That should sum it up.  You know what areas to look for, how to break down those areas, what baits to throw, and how to work them.  Now go out and practice and don't be intimidated by the less than ideal conditions.  Every body of water will fish slightly differently, but with some effort you can break down the pattern.  Tight lines!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The 2013 Carolina River Fishing Rodeo - Recap

If you love to river fish and trade stories, tips, and tricks with some of the best in the business, then a river fishing "rodeo" is the place for you.  The tradition started years ago on some of the state river fishing forums in Georgia and Alabama, then migrated to  Now there are all sorts of river rodeos across the southeast and mid-atlantic.  A rodeo typically consists of 4 days of fishing, camping, and camaraderie.  A lot of guys might make it for just a day, others a couple of days, and some guys will be there for the whole shebang.  This past weekend was the Carolina River Fishing Rodeo and as usual it was a lot of fun.  I got to see a lot of old friends and meet a few new ones as well.  Here is my recap.

Much of the gang getting ready to launch on day 2

I headed down toward Charlotte on Friday afternoon.  My goal was to set up camp and then meet-up with good friend Eric Boyd for an afternoon trip with the fly rods.  The 3 hour drive to the campground, Cirlce J Music Park, actually went pretty fast.  I even managed to drive past Bass Pro Shops without blinking an eye.  I pulled into camp to find Tread and Carolina Mike.  After introducing myself to Mike and catching up with Tread, I set-up my tent and got my gear unpacked.  After stringing a fly rod and packing a backpack, Tread and I were on our way to meet Eric for a quick trip. 

We were at the parking area within about 10 minutes and began trekking down a partially overgrown trail.  A quarter-mile later, we were dropping into the river.  It was a treat for me.  The shoals, chutes, and rapids were a nice change-up from most of the lazy rivers in central NC.  I began throwing a tube fly that Levi Blazer tied for me, but had no luck.  In the meantime, the other two hooked up with solid smallies.  Eric caught his on what I will call a "swimming woolly bugger" and Tread on a Yamamoto hula grab.

Tread working a solid smallie

Eric with a nice smallie on the fly

I then switched to a clouser minnow and after another 30 minutes, landed a short smallie.  It wasn't much, but it was a start.  Shortly after, I changed flies again - this time to a part hellgrammite, part leech, part crayfish streamer.  On my first cast, I hooked my second smallie in what would be a sign of things to come.

We caught a lot of 12"-13" smallmouths like this one

I began fishing the fly fairly slowly - allowing it sink completely before I began my retrieve and then using the current to bump it down river as I made sharp, well spaced strips of the line.  The pattern was working and the smallies were loving it.  No giants were landed and the biggest smallie I hooked, roughly 15", threw the hook on a jump, but I managed a dozen solid smallies with a few in the 13"-14" range.  On the fly and on a totally new river - that was a blast!

One of my better smallies on the fly for the day - around 14"

We headed back to camp where a few others had rolled in for the night.  We sat around the campfire telling fish stories and talking about life until we couldn't keep our eyes open any longer.  We also got loaded up on plastics by Carolina Mike - a huge thanks to him for that!  The next morning we were hoping to be on the water fairly early, but as these things often go, we got delayed.  I needed to be on the road by mid-afternoon, so instead of doing the 6 mile float with the rest of the group, I decided I would paddle up-river and float back to the launch.  The plan sounded great in theory and a couple of the locals agreed that the fishing should be good.  But the river had other plans.  The flow nearly doubled overnight as they began letting water out of upstream dams.  And as if the upstream paddle against 2000 CFS wasn't enough, the wind was blowing directly in my face. 

That was one of the longest mile long paddles I have ever made, rivaled only by a day Bill and I had on the James River back in the spring of 2011.  After what seemed like an eternity, I made it to a great looking spot, parked my yak on a sand bar, and started casting.  Within minutes I hooked a chunky bream, then another, then a smallmouth - all on the hellgra-cray-leech.  I put down that rod and picked up my 9 weight, TFO BVK rod with Allen Alpha III reel.  I had tied a steel leader on it earlier in the morning and began tossing a 6" foam head minnow in hopes of enticing a musky.  But after many casts, I had no fish.  I switched back to the hellgra-cray-leech and caught another smallie, a largemouth, and 4 nice size crappie.  In fact, the crappie were just as big or bigger than the bass.

A chunky river crappie over 13"

I was even seeing some activity on the surface, but I couldn't get any takers on my surface offerings.  I switched to a 2.5" clouser minnow in hopes of enticing a few more crappie or smallmouth.  About ten casts later I was stripping the fly in and BAM.  It got trucked not more than 5 feet in front of me.  I knew by the size, shape, and color of the fish that it was a musky.  But the fight was over as quickly as it had begun.  The line snapped/cut almost instantly after the hook set.  Of course the fish would take a small fly on the lightest rod I had with me - a 5/6 weight - instead of the heavy rod with a big fly attached to a steel leader.  That is fishing, I suppose.  I was bummed out that I didn't land the fish, but even the short tussle was enough to get my heart pumping.

I got back in the yak and worked my way down-river, but would land only a small largemouth and a bream the rest of the day.  The current and wind were making boat positioning tough while trying to cast, so I was ready to call it a day by early afternoon.  I paddled out the rest of the float, packed up everything, and headed for home.  On the ride home, I couldn't help but think about the one that got away.  I also reminisced about how much I miss smallie fishing, particularly all the amazing days I spent with my dad and so many other good friends wade fishing for smallies in the Susquehanna River growing up.

It was a great weekend with some great folks.  I wish I got to fish with them all more often.  But it is also nice to come home to a loving woman and a couple of good dogs.  Hopefully I can get out on the water again this week and chase that adrenaline rush at the end of a line.  Tight lines!