I drove over the bridge that spans the Potomac River near our house this afternoon and thought the skies might just be perfect for a sunset. I had been wanting to paddle upstream and find a spot to photograph a great sunset from the middle of the river, and tonight was looking promising.
I picked up a sub for dinner and a couple beers and packed my camera gear in a dry bag. I opted to keep things simple, leaving dogs and fly rods at home. I thought I’d have my hands full trying to set up a camera tripod while anchoring a kayak and trying not to slip and lose everything. So I set out upstream, first heading up the C&O Canal from the ramp. It felt great to be out on such a beautiful evening after about a week of humid, generally unpleasant weather. That shape ahead of me to the right is a raft containing being propelled by my friend William Heresniak of Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing.
William and his clients had a long, fun day on the river and got into some fish too. It was cool running into William here on my home water.
Then in the span of about forty minutes, every cloud in the sky vanished. I was not going to get that awesome sunset after all. So I decided to get some exercise, paddling upstream much farther than I ever had before. My new Werner paddle had a lot to do with that! It felt good to make so much upstream progress, and I found a great place to anchor in the middle of the river and chill out for a while. This is a beautiful place, but there just wasn’t anything happening in the sky. In fact, all the action was in the water. Remember the brilliant “I’m not gonna bring a fly rod because I’ll be busy taking pictures” thing? Well not only was I not busy taking pictures, fish were jumping all around me. There was a Great Blue Heron on the next rock outcropping over from me and at one point he looked over to me and said, “Can you believe this shit?”
Here’s a nice view of my Native Watercraft Slayer 14.5, she was a joy to paddle tonight. I packed light, just the cooler, camera stuff, anchor and that’s it.
I love the iPhone pano! Click on this image to get a better view, I think it really gives a sense of what it feels like to have this river all to myself. I will definitely be back for evening paddles again, and next time you can bet I will have a rod with me!
I’m not often the last one at the boat ramp, but it’s kind of cool.
Well, over the last month or so I’ve had times when I really wish I had my camera. Or when I had my camera with a wide angle lens and wished I had a zoom. Or when I had a zoom and wished I had a polarizing filter. I’ve had times when I brought a fly rod and wished I had brought a camera, and tonight when I could have done without the camera but damn did I wish I had a fly rod. I’ve had days when I got somewhere and really wish I had brought my dogs. Shit happens. But if it keeps happening, I may have to travel with a full camera bag, both dogs and a 5-weight at all times!
The entire Dispatches from the Potomac staff took the three-day weekend off to celebrate this cherished American holiday by enjoying time surrounded by friends, nature and, of course, dogs. Here’s a quick photo tour of the weekend…
I’ll admit it, I’ve been pretty slack about getting these dogs out on hikes. They forgive me, but could not hide their excitement early Friday morning when they realized we were going somewhere fun. Seeing these mugs in my rear view mirror makes my heart smile.
We did an easy five or six miles on the C&O Canal Towpath, from Knoxville, MD to Harpers Ferry, WV and back. This is about a mile downstream of Harpers Ferry on the Potomac River.
(Scene Missing: Insert a blurry montage of grilling meat, lighting fireworks, viewing fireworks and perhaps enjoying a beer or two from Friday night to Sunday morning.)
The alarm was set early on Sunday, as my friend Chris and I were ready to catch some Smallmouth from kayaks before dawn. I brought my Nikon, but light conditions were challenging. Some neat fog was rising off the water for quite a while when we started, but I struggled capturing enough light to really show it. Anyway, a few turned out well, this is Chris with the great state of Virginia behind him.
Chris just got this Wilderness Systems Ride 115X, this float was the maiden voyage! This kayak seems just perfectly suited for river fishing, and Chris said it’s super comfortable too. He added a nice new Werner paddle to complete the package!
As a photographic outing, not much was going well. I had recorded a dozen or so blurry Great Blue Heron images on the memory card, and the bright sun was ruining all the river shots. But when I came across this scene I took a lot of photos, hoping I was able to capture even a fraction of the subtle shades and colors I was enjoying. This is my favorite of those shots, and a clear candidate for my Photos of the Year post at the end of 2014.
The fishing was slow. I hooked a nice smallie early, we both saw it jump and it looked like it was gonna be fun, but he spit the hook out in mid-air, and that was the last big fish I saw. This was the only fish I got in the boat, and he damn near escaped before I could take a picture.
I’ve been meaning to take this detour up Catoctin Creek off the Potomac, so we explored it a bit. The water is much colder back here, but we saw very little evidence of active fish.
After a little break, and some sad looks from Team Orange, I decided to head back out Sunday afternoon to go for a spin. My new Dead Drift Flies sticker looks great on my Native Watercraft Slayer 14.5!
Finn watching our six, and looking great in his Ruffwear Float Coat.
I had a wonderful weekend and got lots of exercise in perfect weather. I hope you all had a great and safe holiday! It’s back to reality. For now.
Meet Josh Williams. Back in 2004, as an infantry automatic rifleman with the Army, Josh was deployed to Iraq and returned home safely after 13 months. Then he was stationed in Ft. Hood, TX, a squad leader in 1-12 CAV, 1st Cavalry Division. One morning in April, 2006, a car pulled out in front of his motorcycle and changed everything. Josh lost his right arm in the accident.
While recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, during what Josh admits was a dark time, he was introduced to fly fishing through a fairly new program called Project Healing Waters. PHW founder Ed Nicholson, a former Navy Captain and Vietnam veteran, was recovering from surgery at Walter Reed a year earlier. He found himself surrounded by young, athletic men and women back from tours cut short by devastating, life-alterning injuries and disabilities, and he knew he could help. Like Josh, Ed is a passionate outdoorsman. He knew from his own experience that time spent outdoors connecting with nature can have the very real power to heal. And on the fishless, manicured lawn at Walter Reed, Project Healing Waters was born. As Josh learned to cast a fly rod on that grass, he knew that the door to the activities he loved so much was not closed. So with the help of a strong and loving family and his girlfriend, Lisa, Josh used his love of the outdoors to find his way — to fight his way — out of the darkness.
Married since 2008, Josh and Lisa have been blessed with two beautiful children. Josh is studying mechanical engineering, is active in his church, continues his involvement with Project Healing Waters and stays busy with his growing fly tying and outfitter business, Dead Drift Flies. Oh did I mention he juggles all this while working full time as a designer for an engineering firm? So I was honored and excited when he took some free time he does not have, to come up to fish with me for a couple days.
Day One was an evening float on my home stretch of the Potomac. Josh, for whom the concept of not being able to do something is utterly disdainful, took to a pedal style kayak which gives him the freedom to fish bodies of water previously unaccessable on his own. The folks at Appomattox River Company recently set him up with this Hobie Pro Angler 12, and he is already very comfortable on it. And when you see him walking around on it like he’s on a bass boat, it’s important to remember how much your arms aid in your balance, particularly on something unstable.
I’ve spent some time trout fishing with Josh, he is a very good trout fisherman. On small water, the expert deployment of the roll cast gets his line across the stream and his fly to land gently. But watching him fish from greater distances, while standing in a kayak, using his foot to move the rudder and his teeth to strip in a bass, was a thing of beauty.
But while Josh was showing off, I was fishing too. As you can see, I had to get a good forty feet of fly line out there to fool this several-week-old smallmouth.
I actually did catch a decent fish that day. Much to my surprise, a largemouth slammed this “6th Man” fly tied by William Heresniak of Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing (more on William in a minute). I’ve fished that stretch of water countless times and never caught a largemouth there before. I will be happy to catch this fellow again any time, he made a big jump and put up two good fights — one in the water and another at my feet loose in the boat.
We caught a few more, but the fishing was pretty slow. No matter, though, we enjoyed catching up, floating in absolutely perfect weather with the backdrop of a beautiful setting sun. It is fun to watch Josh catch fish, though. He is genuinely grateful, and treats all his catches with care and respect. Here’s a little smallie that came up for a popper in the fading light.
Day Two had us in William Heresniak’s driftboat about thirty river miles downstream on the same Potomac River, wielding bigger rods, throwing bigger flies and hopefully catching bigger fish. William has given generously of his time and expertise to Project Healing Waters since the program’s inception, and invited Josh to come up to fish with him. I’m thrilled to have been asked to come along. This post makes me realize how many great friendships have formed from that great organization.
We were blessed yet again with great weather all day. This stretch of river, which I had never floated before, contained stretches with beautiful outcroppings of rock and vegetation everywhere. When the fishing started, right away I knew the one-armed fishing clinic Josh gave the day before was now an Advanced Placement course. Imagine casting huge, weighted flies, one-handed, from a boat, in a stiff breeze. I’m no expert, of course, but I have to use my left hand on the line to haul the line, pulling it through the eyelets on the backcast and forward cast to generate the speed necessary to try and keep the hooked, weighted barbell from smacking me in the skull on its way by. If my left hand slips off the line, all is lost for that cast. Line puddles in front of me and I start from scratch. Josh has developed almost a spey cast style to generate that speed required, and he gets that fly moving. He was hitting little pockets and pools probably sixty feet from the boat with a 6-weight rod he had never fished before. Meanwhile, I was not unhappy with casts ten feet shorter with my favorite Sage 7-weight. There is no shame in getting outfished by Josh Williams.
I would say William looks pretty relaxed here, confident that Josh will be able to land the monster smallmouth he has on the line.
Well, so the bigger fish thing wasn’t happening for us right away, but we stuck with it, switching from Clawdads to poppers trying to get some surface fish.
Wildlife abounds in this stretch, which, incredibly, is only about five miles away from Tysons Corner, VA, one of the most densely populated and annoying places on the entire eastern seaboard. Hard to imagine. Great Blue Herons were particularly prolific. Any moment you looked up you would see one flying over, we probably saw a hundred herons. We also ducks, a swan, black vultures, an egret and a couple bald eagles.
Josh hooked into what he described at the time as “the biggest bass I’ve ever caught.” It turns out it was a bass/catfish hybrid, which explains the size. Also the hybrid ratio was about 100% on the catfish side and something less than that on the bass side. But big fish are fun, no matter how ugly they are. And that big smile on Josh’s face came back about ten minutes later with yet another nice catfish. I caught a big one soon after that but, what with it being ugly and all, I decided to voluntarily let it leave my hook before it reached the boat. Three catfish in about a half hour on fly rods is, I would say, pretty unusual.
Big flies don’t always mean big fish. Bluegill and sunfish are so aggressive they go after flies with hooks that barely fit in their mouths. This beautiful little fish went for one of William’s famous Clawdads.
And speaking of William’s fly tying, he tied up a couple of these poppers for me the night before our float, using a cork body and deer hair from a deer I shot this past season. The fly is beautiful, and it was a real treat to catch fish with it. While I don’t tie my own flies, I plan on preserving more deer hide this season for my friends that do.
William worked very hard for us all day long. That man loves to fish, and to have happy people on his boat. Here’s a fun fact about William: He can free a fly no matter where you have snagged it. For a while, Josh and I had fun wedging Clawdads in between boulders, getting them to spin around tree branches 25 feet up and putting Bassmaster caliber hook sets into sunken logs just to see if we could stump him. Nope. He can get that fly back.
In the end, we made the most of pretty slow conditions, caught a good number of fish, missed a bunch of opportunities on some others, laughed from dawn till dusk and got pretty sunburned. And almost no one lost their wallet. Pretty good day.
To connect with Josh, visit Dead Drift Flies online here. Be sure to sign up for his blog, you’ll be glad you did.
You’ll also want to bookmark William’s site, Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing, and book a trip or purchase some of the great flies he ties.
To learn more about Project Healing Waters, to make a donation or find out how you can volunteer, visit their site here.
The Potomac River was well above flood stage just a couple weeks ago. And while she’s still a bit swollen, and her waters still murky, Spring doesn’t give you too many beautiful Saturdays with float-friendly water levels. So when you get one, you take it.
The river was shrouded in mist early. I tried to get some photos quickly before it burned off. Here my friend Chris goes hunting for smallmouth.
Anna casts to the bank on the Maryland side.
And before we were a half mile from the put-in, the day was bright and clear. Thanks Anna for this photo. That is actually my house over my right shoulder.
You may have noticed from that last photo that I have kind of a lot going on. I’m trying out a GoPro for the first time, mounted on the bow. Then I have my Wirehaired Vizsla, Winnie, in the boat. And I decided that wasn’t challenging enough so I brought my fly rod along.
I loved this row of canoes on a little island I floated past. I should have anchored here and taken my time trying to capture the scene. With the water in sun and the canoes in deep shade, it was just too complicated a photo to snap quickly as I went by.
My other dog, Finn, stayed home today because he just gets too excited when he sees a fish. Turns out he wouldn’t have had many opportunities to get overly excited today, but I did catch a couple sunfish. As you can see, Winnie is appropriately unimpressed with my fishing prowess.
If you feel like you need to get out and stretch your legs a bit, then odds are the dog in your boat does too. Be mindful of canine passengers if they get fidgety in the boat. Here Winnie gets out for a break.
Thanks Chris for this photo of me taking Winnie’s picture.
This Float Coat from Ruffwear Performance Dog Gear is beautifully designed and constructed. Winnie is not a strong swimmer, but she likes the water. This vest fits really well, whether she’s running around on shore or lying down in the kayak.
It doesn’t restrict her movement while swimming, either, and seems to give her a confidence boost when venturing into deeper water for a swim.
Even if your dog is a strong swimmer, please consider using a PFD for your companion if you take him along in the canoe or kayak. The handle makes bringing aboard a wayward dog a much easier task, and if things do go wrong on the water (and they eventually will), the high visibility of a coat like this one from Ruffwear can make it a lot easier to spot a dog in the water in any light conditions.
But, apart from not catching many fish, nothing went wrong today. It was a stunningly beautiful Saturday to get out on the water with a few friends and take some pictures.
And as we headed toward our take-out ramp, to bookmark our trip that began with a layer of fog on the river, hundreds of trees on the bank decided to give up their seeds all at once, filling the air and blanketing the water. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, like snow flurries on a beautiful Spring day.
I went to the Harpers Ferry Fly Fest today and was excited to find such a neat event so close to home! The festival, held at the Harpers Ferry Adventure Center, runs through tomorrow. So if you’re in the area, stop by and check out the vendors, casting instruction, seminars, fly tying demos, a fly fishing competition and more! Here are some of my photos from the day…
As involved as I’ve been in fly fishing it’s hard to believe that until today I have never crossed paths with fly fishing and tying icon Bob Clouser! It was a pleasure to meet him, and his seminar on casting weighted flies should come in handy in a couple weeks when I’m throwing Clouser Minnows at stripers and redfish.
There were two nice tents of vendors. Stop by and learn more about Project Healing Waters, talk to my friend William at Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing about a float trip, buy some flies or other gear or just chat with the guides who know more about fly fishing in this area than anyone!
Always nice to see Murray from Hunting Creek Outfitters. Murray set me up with my very first fly rod and gear back when I first started!
In my defense, I didn’t set out to target carp with my fly rod yesterday evening. The previous night I was out in the kayak around the same time with the dogs and there were bass jumping all over the place. So this time I left the dogs at home, grabbed a box of poppers, my 5-weight Hardy fly rod, a couple of iced beers and launched around 5:30.
The river was pretty low and slow, so I just cruised around, settling in behind boulders where the eddy kept me in place to fish. I caught my first smallmouth in the new Native Slayer, got a crappy photo of it and a few more small ones. Nothing special. Although I did see a very large smallmouth among some underwater logs around a bridge piling. But the river was getting squeezed between the pilings, quickening the current, and I could not figure out how to anchor myself safely to take a shot at him. Special fish know safe places to live.
So I moved on upstream, switched colors on my fly and caught my biggest smallie of the day on a white popper, but he was probably no more than ten inches. I was just releasing him when over near the bank I saw a massive carp jump all the way out of the water and splash down. I don’t know why they do this, maybe someone could comment if they know. They’re not feeding on surface bugs like trout. Someone once told me they do it to knock parasites off of their scales. I paddled over to investigate. The terrain underwater changed as I got closer to the edge, and not in the way I expected. The underwater grasses that are quite heavy in the rest of the river were not present along this edge. There were big boulders, deep holes, no grass, and the water was fairly still and much murkier.
But in the shadows I could see cruising carp. Big, cruising carp. I even saw one tail up, presumably feeding, in the shallows right along the bank.
I was ill equipped to fish for carp with a light 5-weight and poppers. But I had a lone, peach wooly bugger that was on the rod when I put it in the truck. So I took off the popper and tied on the bugger. I looked for movement, mostly just vague shadows but every now and then I could make out the outline of a monster, maybe thirty inches. I threw the wooly bugger upstream and let it dead drift like a nymph along the bottom in the nearly still water. There wasn’t a sound, anywhere. My kayak was dead still. I stared at the end of my fly line a foot below the surface of the dark water, watching for the slightest pull, easing up on the rod ever so slightly to keep contact with the bottom. I wanted one of those carp so bad.
On my third or fourth cast using this method I felt like I was really putting the best drifts out there I could. Although I had no idea if it’s the type of fly or presentation a carp might go for. Intensely focused, I felt like I could feel in my fingertips the vibration of the fly tumbling across the gravel below. I waited for the strike. Waaaaiiiit. I could feel the temperature drop as the sun dipped behind the mountains. Three degrees, maybe five. I felt in tune with everything from my kayak to the fly rod, the line, leader, tippet, knot, down to the eyelet, down the hook all the way to the point. All my focus was on the unseen point of that hook five feet below the black surface.
Boom! I saw the fly line surge forward at the same instant I felt the bump through the line and into my fingertips. I brought the rod up fast and hard behind my head, finger tight on the fly line to set that point deep.
To really feel — not guess, but feel — an extremely subtle take of a fly that you cannot see, and to do it in a place where you have seen very large fish known for subtle takes, and to know when you bring that rod up that you were right and there is life on the end of the line, is pretty damned exciting. But it became immediately apparent that I had not caught my first carp on a fly. What I had caught, it turns out, with the hook set of a pro bass fisherman on a Saturday morning TV show, was about a seven inch smallmouth.
Only the resistance of five or six feet of water kept me from launching that smallie many yards in the air behind me. I instantly felt horrible for the little guy, I literally had to have dislocated his jaw with that hook set. When I got him in the boat and removed the fly, I said I was sorry, that I got a little carried away. He said nothing, which I took as tacit acceptance of my apology. I slipped him back in the water and he shot back to the hole from which he was so violently removed.
I reeled in my fly line, opened my last beer and watched the sun set over the bow of my kayak. Every now and then I’d glance over at the shadowy depths I had just fished. I was not expecting the opportunity and had no business attempting it, but I had fun toying with them. I’ll be back, soon, armed with a 7-weight next time. I think this might just be the pool. One day I’m going to pull one of those big ugly bastards out of that murky water. One day.
On the 4th of July I spent a few beautiful evening hours on my home stretch of the Potomac River, and had one of the most fun outings I’ve ever had here. Conditions were perfect for wading. The level was low but not too low, and the water was crystal clear. Later in the summer, the grass will take over and the water temperatures will approach bath level. The fishing can still be very good, but it’s less pleasant to be in the water when it gets that way. But for now, perfect. Although the clear water has a down side. You can see below just how well the fish can see me, the camera was completely submerged here. So I find for the most part, some longer casts have good results. There is one notable exception described later in the post.
I’ve been really wanting to entice some smallmouth to poppers and other surface flies. I know lots of people who have great success on the top. But for me — and maybe it’s technique, location or both — I only catch sunfish when I try surface flies. Of all the smallmouth I’ve caught on the fly, I’d say less than 5 percent have come on the surface. If anyone has some advice on how to entice a smallie to the surface without having a sunfish feeding frenzy, please comment here.
So after several sunnies in a row I went back to my go-to fly, the peach wooly bugger from Dead Drift Flies. On my first cast I brought in this beauty, and that was just the beginning. The smallmouth bite was ON, and it was a blast. By the way, this 5-weight Hardy rod is new, and I can’t get over how much fun this rod is. It throws line like a dream, but feels like a 3-weight with a fish on. You feel every tail beat and head shake. Fun, fun, fun.
This was the first Potomac River outing this year where I had far more smallies than panfish. I always catch some tiny smallmouth, and quite a few were what I’d consider large fish for this stretch. But most were about this size, which you smallie hunters know, is plenty big to put up a nice fight!
The nicest fish of the day, though, was the last of the day. I had waded upstream from the house a ways, and then went across the river a quarter mile or so. It was so beautiful out there, far from either bank, cool water on my legs, the sun setting upstream and fish enthusiastically biting. But, shallow or not, I like to see my feet when I’m wading, and darkness comes quickly when it comes. So I reeled up, secured the fly and admired the setting sun one more time before wading back to shore.
Along the way, now close to the bank and walking parallel with it, I passed three or four holes I fished on my way out with not much luck. I thought I saw a shadow move in the current, but didn’t have a lot of faith in my eyes at dusk. I decided to toss a fly in. I totally half-assed it, though. I never stopped walking, and didn’t even take any fly line out. I just unhooked the wooly bugger from the guide where I secured it earlier, held the rod out to the side and let the fly drop in the water. The shadow immediately slammed the fly. I pinched the fly line to the cork and set the hook, but I think the fish had already done that for me. He jumped four times under the tip of my rod — I basically had only the leader and about a foot of fly line out past the guides. What a great punctuation to a fantastic evening of fishing!