Monday, September 26, 2016

Hitting the Home Water: Montauk, July 2016

I don't know where August went exactly, but I just looked at my National Parks calendar, and apparently it's mid-to-late September already. Last week officially saw the first day of fall, but you wouldn't know that from the string of 90+ degree days we seem to keep having. I'm over summer. I am ready for pumpkin flavored beer and to make a big crockpot full of pineapple chili. August was one of those not so rare months that was a blink-and-you-miss-it moment in time. I didn't fish at all, and I don't even think I tied any flies. However, I did sneak in a quick day trip to Montauk State Park on the last day of July, and it was very fruitful.

As far as planing for a fishing trip goes, this one was pretty simple. I'd wake up in the middle of the night, drive to Montauk, and fish until I got tired or caught my limit. Simple. It was a sunny Saturday with big fluffy clouds lazily rolling in front of the sun every so often. I can't seem to remember what Emily was up to that Saturday. It seemed like it was our one free Saturday that entire summer. I was more than happy to spend such a gorgeous day hitting up my Missouri home water at Montauk State Park.

It's been a busy year, and I haven't gotten as much time on the stream as I wished. When I do find a chance to fish, typically I have been exploring new waters, or fishing catch & release. This has led to a perilous situation in which the number of frozen trout in my freezer is getting dangerously low. For this previous trip to Montauk State Park, I needed to catch some nice fat rainbows and actually keep them. I was there for meat.

I could not have picked a better day to go fly-fishing. Not only was the weather impeccable, with large clouds providing shade in an otherwise perfect blue sky, but the park itself was surprisingly uncrowded for a mid-summer Saturday morning. Sure, there were a good number of other anglers out there, but they all seemed to be families with children, and they stuck in tight groups. There were plenty of spots on the dam and low water bridge, and areas that required additional wading were practically empty.

Montauk State Park, July 2016

Anyone who reads my fishing stories regularly knows that I've been going to Montauk more and more lately. It's clear that Montauk has become my favorite among the Missouri trout parks. Despite there not being a trout stream within 100 miles of my house, I've still come to see Montauk as my home water. I've become more familiar with the water, and have gotten better at recognizing the spots and holes that will keep fish. My trip in July was no exception.

Now, please bare with me, as the details of that day have faded a bit in my memory, as I have been less than punctual in updating this blog, but I want to say I started off the day upstream of the dam. Luckily, my Google Photos do a much better job of keeping track of the fish I caught than my memory does, and photo evidence confirms that, yes, I caught my first fish that day on a White Floss Jig above the dam.

The fishing was steady all day. I caught a couple of keepers above the dam, and cleaned them and took them back to throw them in the cooler in my car before moving on. I like to get my trout off of the stringer as soon as possible for two reasons. First, it just seems more humane to put the fish out of its misery as soon as possible, and not drag a half drowned trout across the parking lot or through the woods all day. Second, a little bit of madness seems to creep in if I hang out with a stringer fish too long. I begin talking to him and treating him similar to how Han treats Chewbacca. While I do appreciate the company on the stream, it does make the cleaning that much more difficult when I get attached emotionally to a half dead fish.

With friends like these . . .
I soon moved downstream, and waded from the low-water bridge to the trail behind the lodge. Along the way, I tried honing my water reading skill, and had a fair bit of luck. The area downstream of the low water bridge has substantial tree cover on both banks, and after about 100 yards, makes a 90-degree turn and runs along a steep bank providing even more cover. The water flows slowly and silently, and it's one of my favorite places on this planet.

Before the 90-degree turn, there was a thicket of brush sticking from the bank. The water swirled around the brush, creating a pocket that seemed pretty deep despite being so close to the far bank. It looked like an example from a textbook of where a trout would hide. There was plenty of cover from aerial predators, and the way the water current curved around the brush was bringing plenty of bugs for the fish to snack on, including my fly.

I was still sticking with my White Floss Jig and using an indicator, and had the depth set around 36 inches. The main challenge was getting the fly deep enough in the water column as it got sucked into the pocket, but also keeping it from getting hopelessly tangled in the brush. It wasn't a completely flawless operation, and if I remember correctly, I did have to untangle a pretty gnarly leader knot standing on the bank, but I was able to pull out a few trout from that hole, but none large enough to keep.

But what kind of fishing story would it be if I just moved on? No, I stuck with it. My gut told me there was going to be a lunker in that hole, and I wasn't going to let the little Rainbows chewing up my flies scare me off. Sure enough, after a short time of drifting my fly along the brush pile, I eventually had the cast I was going for, and was able to sink the jig below the brush without getting tangled. The trout hit the fly like a bull. I raised my rod to set the hook, and saw that lovely flash of white trout belly as he began to fight me.

The fight didn't last very long. I was sure to keep my rod high and at a 45-degree angle to increase the amount of pull that I had on him. I would relieve tension as he darted away, but then add pressure as he approached the surface. He gave a fantastic leap, but as soon as he was above the surface, I was able to pull him in easier and get him in the net. It was, by the book, the most picturesque catch I've ever experienced.

From the 90-degree corner, I continued moving downstream into the more rocky area of the river. I was able to catch some more trout there, but nothing worth keeping. At that point, I had already harvested three trout, and a fourth would end my day of fishing, per regulations. I did catch a fish I later identified as a Bleeding Shiner. Although small, his colors were quite vibrant. It's a shame these don't grow larger than a few inches. They're an incredibly beautiful fish.

The Bleeding Shiner

After a lunch sitting on the back hatch of the Prius, I headed back upstream of the dam. I was getting somewhat tired after such a long day of fishing, and was ready to catch my fourth keeper of the day and pack it up. Standing on the dam itself, the water clear enough for me to see the bottom of the river, approximately 7-8 feet deep. This was advantageous as I could see my jig dragging on the floor of the stream, and I could see the trout going after my fly on the bottom.

That's how I caught the fish above. It was very satisfying to see him go after my fly on the bottom, and even more satisfying to pull him up and into my net. After netting and cleaning that chubby Rainbow, I was ready to hit the road back to Saint Louis. But first, I had to make a quick stop back at Montauk Lodge for some fuel for the drive back.

The next day, I took my harvested trout and prepared them using a recipe from a John Gierach story. It turns out, even though my fishing skills certainly appear to be improving, my skills as a chef leave much to be desired. As of now, I am terrible at filleting fish. It's such a shame that so much of the meat goes to waste as a try to debone the fish. It's something I need to practice on a great deal in the future.

In the end, however, I was able to put together a solid meal for Emily and me. I pulled some kale out of the garden and sauteed it, and it paired very well with the trout nuggets and Schlafly Summer Lager. 

The only problem now is that I'm in the same spot I was before this trip - my freezer is empty of trout once again. Luckily, I have to take several days off of work before the new year, otherwise I lose the hours. In mid-October I have a three-day camping trip planned for Montauk, and I intend to come home from it with as many fish as the rules allow.

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