Friday, February 17, 2017

Smallmouths & Rainbows on Maramec Spring

Inevitably, fishing always slows down during the winter months. Not only do most Missouri parks close during the week, and fishing is limited to catch & release, but my own enthusiasm seems to be sapped by the idea of standing out in single digit temperatures until I can't feel my fingers. Usually, I'll hunker down at home, tie flies in my office, and try not gain so much weight that my waders don't fit. (Unsurprisingly, my total miles jogged also seems to drop in the winter, again leading to tighter waders.)

This year, I was able to mitigate the winter fishing drought somewhat. Through the Missouri Conservation Department's Winter Fishing Program, I was able to sneak out of the office during my lunch hour a few times to go fishing at a nearby lake that was stocked by the MDC with Rainbow Trout. Even though I was able to squeeze in a handful of trips throughout the winter months, I never did catch a trout. In fact, I only saw one other angler catch anything the entire time I was out there. The trout seemed stunned to be transported to an urban lake, and honestly, I had no idea how to fish for them in a small, still, mossy pond. I guess it's the thought that counts with the Winter Fishing Program.

The MDC, stocking an urban lake
In late January, Emily and I were staying the night at her sister's place in Cuba, MO. I was able to sneak out early on a Sunday morning to squeeze in some fishing at Maramec Spring, but it didn't go exactly as planned. The temperature was a bit colder than when I went there in December, so the fish seemed a lot less active. To make matters worse, as soon as I arrived at the park, the weather took a fairly nasty turn, and I found myself in the middle of a sleet storm. I had no idea if the sleet was going to stick to the roads, and the idea of being trapped out in Cuba or St. James didn't sound very fun to me. I had to head back to my in-law's after about an hour, pick up my wife, and head home.

One week later though, I was back at Maramec Spring and ready to give it another go. I was fishing with my buddy, David, with whom I used to work with at Express Scripts a while back. He's a Colorado expatriate living in the St. Louis Metro East and he shares my love of fly fishing. Like me, he also does not get out on the stream as often as he would like. He had never been to Maramec Spring before, and I think he was surprised not only how close it was to St. Louis, but how much closer it was than Montauk. I very well might have ruined that Montauk drive for him.

David fly-fishing at Maramec Spring

Once again, the weather was quite cold. It was early February and even though the sun was out, the air was frigid. Thankfully, it wasn't quite as cold as the week before, and I didn't need to wear full gloves. I did still wear surgical gloves, just to keep my hands dry. I was dressed in about four to five layers, and felt snug as a bug and ready to fish. We pulled into the park about a half hour before the opening bell rang. Still, it didn't stop one guy there who was already casting before the starting bell rang. I didn't know if he was ignorant of the rules or just choosing to break them, but I have not seen that behavior yet my entire time fly-fishing. He, of course, was using an ultra-light rod.

I was determined to catch something on the Tenkara Rod my wife got me for Christmas, so that's what I strung up with a size #18 Parachute Adams fly. I could see some water rings appearing on the surface, but perhaps not as many as back in December. I started the day upstream of the pond, and worked up to the elbow bend there and eventually up to the footbridge. Nothing. No bites. No strikes. Just a great many number of stern looks from uninterested and annoyed Rainbow Trout. This went on for a while longer, and eventually I had a wind know in my Tenkara line. To hell with it. I switched to my four-piece.I was 0-3 with the Tenkara Rod. To be continued.

I played around for a while longer with dry flies, but as the morning went on, activity on the surface became more and more rare. It might have had something to do with the temperature, as it was steadily rising as noon approached. The fish seemed to prefer deeper waters. After a while, I gave up on dry flies and I settled on a John Deere jig. After a short while of fishing the John Deere with my four-piece rod and an indicator, I finally had a fish on the hook, but it wasn't a Rainbow.

Smallmouth Bass

I honestly had no idea that what I had on the line wasn't a Rainbow Trout until I had it in my net, but the green color and spiky dorsal fins were a dead giveaway. It was my first Smallmouth Bass. I had no idea Smallmouths were even in Maramec Spring, nor did I know they would take a John Deere jig just as hard as a trout would. I was excited about getting my first fish of the day and netting a new species, but I still had that tingly feeling of fear in the back of my neck that I was going to get skunked, at least by the trout.

The Rainbows did not see to be very interested in my John Deere as I steadily started working my way downstream. I did however catch a second Smallmouth Bass (bonus!), but still no trout. It was about 11 in the morning, and the temperature had been rising the entire time. Between my several unnecessary layers of clothing and my full bladder, I was ready for a break. David and I are lunch on the tailgate of his truck and talked strategy. I did break my slow-streak with Rainbows before lunch, catching my first one that day on a White Floss Jig (what else is new). I suggested David try the same thing, and gave him one from my box to try.

The trout I did catch that morning before lunch put up quite a fight. There were three or four fantastic leaps as I pulled him in. The only problem was that I was fishing on a stone ledge that was two to three feet above the water line. I knew if I tried to pull him out of the water, the weight of the fish might very well break the leader. It resulted in me awkwardly getting on my belly in my waders and reaching as far down as I could to net him in the water, while simultaneously keeping the tension on my rod and not splitting my pants. It wasn't my most graceful moment, but I got the fish.

Eventually, I hit my sweet spot, and caught five or six more Rainbows that afternoon. I fished from several of the small peninsulas towards the back half of the park, getting Rainbows both drifting nymphs from the point of the peninsula, but also casting directly into the slower water behind it. The water was fantastic and clear, and I could often  directly see the trout take the fly, and get a good hook set.

This wasn't the case every time, obviously. More than once I would land a strike and set the hook, only to have the hook slip after a few moments of fighting. One rambunctious Rainbow took my fly when I had probably 30-35 feet of line out already, and he shot off in the opposite direction of me. I couldn't strip the line fast enough from my reel, and between the distance and tension, he did break my leader at the blood knot, so I had to tie on some more tippet. On one missed hook set, I jerked back my rod far too hard, and found myself tangled in the tree behind me all the way up to my fly line, again causing me to have to tie on more tippet.

My magnum opus came towards the end of the day when I set David up on one of these peninsulas and told him exactly where to cast to catch a Rainbow in the cross drift. He was fishing there for maybe 30 seconds when I spotted a Rainbow cruising through the "pond" behind the peninsula. I dropped my White Floss Jig about five feet in front of his face, and watched with glee as he slurped up my fly immediately. I pulled him in and netted him without a problem. David was close enough by to snap a picture, and I made the whole thing look a lot easier than it usually is. Odds are, I couldn't catch a fish that quickly again if I tried (and I will try).

Around 2 o'clock, we began to pack it in. David had to get home to his family in Illinois, and I was meeting Emily at her parents to watch the Super Bowl. No, I didn't bring a change of clothes, so I was watching Lady Gaga at halftime in my fish clothes. All in all, it was a very solid Sunday and took the edge off of work that entire week. All that is missing is a plan for my next fishing outing. I'll start researching.

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