Monday, January 25, 2016

Trip Summary - Catch & Release at Montauk, January 2016

One of my goals for 2016 is to go fishing at least once every month. Coincidentally, Emily wants to go on at least one hike every month this year. I'm sure there will be at least a few two-birds-one-stone situations, but either way, it looks like the Voss family will be spending a lot of time outdoors this year. I kicked off my resolution this past weekend with my first fishing outing of 2016, with an overnight trip to Montauk for some catch & release trout fishing.

This trip fell into my lap. A few weeks ago, Emily had her college roommate, Alice, over for dinner along with her husband, also named Jake. We've been out fishing and camping with the Dunlaps before, so naturally it's all Jake and I talked about the whole night. Jake mentioned that he and some of his friends were heading down to Montauk the weekend of January 23rd, so naturally I invited myself to crash on the floor of their cabin Saturday night.

Fishing above the low-water bridge - Montauk Missouri

I prepped for this trip for the entire week leading up to it, tying a few dozen flies and restocking my tackle. Even with the shortened holiday week, the days seemed to crawl by leading up to Saturday. Like usual, I planned on waking up in the middle of the night early Saturday morning, to drive the two and a half hours to Montauk State Park in time for opening bell at 8 AM. There wasn't a ton I had to do Friday night, aside from setting the coffee maker delayed brew setting, so I would be able to actually get a decent night's sleep before the trip. Sunday however, on the return trip, would be a different story. I needed to be back in St. Louis by noon to babysit my tiny, two-month-old nephew, Owen. In order to make it back to the city in time, fishing for more than a couple hours Sunday morning would be out of the question. I would need to focus on Saturday and make the most of the eight hours I would have on the water then.

The drive down was fairly uneventful. Although the greater St. Louis region had a few inches of snow last week, the roads were clear. There was a stretch on the interstate east of St. James where three semi-trucks were on their sides in the median. I was drinking a thermos of coffee the entire time, which was a godsend. Once you get off the interstate, driving the 25 miles between St. James and Salem is always a challenge, especially in the dark hours before dawn. I didn't hit any deer, but by the time I arrived at the state park, my bladder was damn near close to bursting. Here's a tip for you anglers wishing to partake in the catch & release fun at Montauk this winter: although it won't say it anywhere on their website, or even on the building itself, the lodge at Montauk does not open until 8:00 in the winter months, which means if you arrive at the park earlier than that with a full bladder, you're going to need to find yourself a private spot in the woods behind the lodge for relief.

The heavy rains this winter caused a great deal of flooding throughout the entire Ozarks region, and Montauk was no exception. The entire park seemed to be covered in a fine layer of sand from the floods. With the snow in the area melting, and refreezing at night, all of the sand, especially in the woods near the water, turned into a slick icey surface. More than once I slipped while navigating the trails in the park, and once even completely wiped out. Normally, when a person falls, they obviously throw their hands out to brace themselves. Not so when you're carrying a fly rod. I shot my arms straight into the air when I felt myself going down, to spare my rod of any damage. I'd much rather break my hip than my fly rod, especially since I left my backup rod at home.

The Montauk Mill
The Montauk Mill

The flooding wasn't all bad though it seems. The large tree that had been blocking access across the dam for months was noticeably absent this trip. Granted, I'm not 100% sure it was the flood waters that moved the tree. It could very easily have been a backhoe instead. However, a great deal of the brush that was clogging some pathways and building up in the stream was gone also. One of the pedestrian footbridges closer to the spring mouth was knocked out of action in the flooding, and was closed off. Overall, it seems like Montauk made it through the floods okay, unlike Bennett Spring which lost its hatchery fish.
Montauk flood damage
A busted pedestrian bridge.

The park was gloriously empty. Winter catch & release is worth it for the solidarity alone, even with the cold temperatures. Mine was the only car in the parking lot near the low-water bridge. I geared up and decided to open the day above the dam. The temperature was cold, but not near-death freezing cold. I had on my running thermals, jeans, fleece shirt, a hoodie, and my thick Carhartt jacket. Funny thing, I've lost about 30 pounds since the last time I went fishing in September, so my waders are pretty loose now. All of my layers and winter coat fit into my waders without a problem. I shoved some Hot-Hands into my finger-less gloves and went to go fish.

I originally had a small, shiny jig with a bead head tied on. I figured with sun rising behind me, the flash on the jig would attract some attention from the trout. Naturally my instincts were completely wrong. The trout were only interested in big, furry bugs that day. As soon as I switched from the jig-head to a furry, olive, John Deere with marabou tail, I landed my first couple of trout. My new landing net with the rubber netting material worked great. My flies were no longer getting mercilessly tangled in my net whenever I landed a fish. The magnetic clip was new added convenience, and was worth the price I paid for the contraption.

Rainbow Trout Rainbow Trout

I spent the remainder of Saturday morning bouncing around to different areas of the park. I hiked upstream closer to the spring and tried nymph fishing the trout there. I spent a good amount of time in the area behind the lodge, slowly making my way downstream to the campground. The steep bluff across from where I was fishing was still snow covered, and several large icicle formations littered the cliff face. That stretch of the Current River remains one of my favorite places in the state. There are few spots in Missouri as beautiful as that stretch of the river in winter.

Montauk Panorama
Panorama of the Current River in Montauk State Park - 1/23/16

That morning, I also tried my hand at fishing some dry flies, but I am realizing that my casting skills are just not up to par for that task. It's amazing how differently the line behaves fishing with a jig and indicator, as opposed to the nearly weightless dry fly. I cannot seem to direct the fly line unless I have some weight on the tippet. I constantly find my leader in a hopeless tangle after a few casts. I'm going to need to practice a lot more if I ever hope to land a fish on a dry fly. That said, I did a great job this trip of not changing flies too often. I used a single leader the entire weekend, and only lost one fly - that parachute hackle Adams I tied earlier this week.

After a quick lunch back at the car, I drove out of the park to finally explore some of the waters on the Current River downstream of Montauk State Park. I'm not going to lie, I was a bit nervous driving on the road approaching Highway YY. There was still a healthy amount of snow and ice on the road, and at many parts, you are driving overlooking the river. One bad slip could send a car tumbling to the watery depths below. I also was not anticipating the road turning to gravel outside of the park. Nothing makes you feel quite as backwoods as a lack of firm asphalt. I parked near Inman Hollow and fished for brown trout near Tan Vat Hole. The water was crystal clear and flowing well. There were a couple of other anglers out there, but there was plenty of space for all. I fished a bank with a good amount of trees and bushes overhanging, and could see the trout moving in the water below. Although I didn't have any luck outside of the park, I cannot wait to get down there again and spend a whole day exploring the river. I've already got a date penciled into the books for late February to check out a larger stretch of the Blue Ribbon Area.

I returned to the park and was able to catch my final trout of the day on a bead head Pheasant Tail Nymph I had tied earlier in the week. There are few feelings as satisfying as landing a trout on a fly you tied yourself. I imagine that this feeling is intensified 100-fold for anglers who constructed their own rods. Some day, Jake. Some day.

Pheasant-Tail Nymph Rainbow Trout

I wrapped up fishing Saturday, and was happy to finally peel off my waders and layers of clothing. I played amateur photographer and captured some shots of the herd of deer roaming around our cabin. The group of guys I was staying with were a very fun bunch. We spent the evening grilling brats and steaks, making a bonfire, and playing an intense game of quarters. It was a fun, long day, and I was happy to finally crash on my camping cot on the floor of their cabin. For some of these guys, it was their first trip fly-fishing, so they were willing to sit through a brief (and sloppy) fly-tying demonstration I performed. My pal Jake even caught a trout on the Royal Wulff I had tied for him a few weeks back when he invited me on this trip. I guess that makes us even.

Sunday morning, I woke up, had some Pop-Tarts, and made it to the stream in time for opening bell. I only fished for about an hour, but in that time managed to get a couple of strikes, and even had a white flash of trout belly, but was unable to land the fish. Somehow, throughout the entire weekend of fishing, I failed to bump into my former co-workers from Express Scripts. Without cell phone service at the park, it's not the easiest to get in touch with someone down there. But the silver lining is that we are already planning our next outing, so it's just another excuse to go fishing soon.

Once again, winter catch & release fly-fishing at Montauk proved to be some of the best fishing I've ever done. Yes, the fish are moving a bit slower, but nothing comes close to having the entire trout park to yourself. It makes you wonder how you put up with the elbow-to-elbow fishing during the summer months. I was able to stretch my legs and not worry about tangling my line with anyone else's. It was a perfect mentally and physically exhausting trip just because of how much time I was able to spend on the water, being in a deep focus and dedicating my entire mind to fishing. By the end of the weekend, my calves and back were pretty sore from standing in a current all day (and sleeping on a military surplus cot). I made it back to St. Louis in time to babysit, and promptly fell asleep laying on the floor next to Owen.

Sleepy Jake, Not-Sleepy Owen
This picture was sadly not staged.
I also remembered to pack my camera, and took a lot of pictures on this trip. I set them up in the gallery below. It was a very fun trip, and I hope you enjoyed reading about it and browsing the photos.

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