Saturday, December 26, 2015

An Early Christmas Gift

It had been several weeks since I had picked up a rod, so when my friend Camron came into town and suggested we try for some steelhead, I happily agreed. At 7 am, I received a text letting me know I would be fishing alone this morning; Camron's wife had gotten sick and he decided losing points wasn't a good idea. So I headed to my favorite Boise River steelhead spot and began fishing. I had to work at 10 am, so 2 hours in the cold rain would be just the right amount.
I tied on a green leech and trailed an egg pattern behind it. I worked the water thoroughly in one spot where I have hooked a few fish in the past. The rain began to turn to snow as I waded over to my most productive cut bank. I have taken numerous steelhead in this location, but as the morning faded with no hook ups in this spot either, I decided to try a different technique.    
I have taken many steelhead under a strike indicator in Idaho and Alaska, so I figured I'd give that a try for my last half hour on the water. I put on a different egg pattern and bobbered up! I walked upstream to a good looking run and started fishing. 
My first couple casts indicated I was set at a good depth. I watched the indicator as it gently drifted through the run, bumping the bottom occasionally. I put a little more effort into my next cast, sending my flies into the overhanging tree strategically planted next to the river to eat flies and lures. The worst thing you can do when your flies decide to perch in the trees is to yank them out immediately. The best thing to do is wait, and often times they will fall out on their own, or a gentle pull will free your hook back into the water. I waited a few moments and my egg pattern swung back over the branch and fell into the water. Yes! The indicator drifted downstream and took a dive. I set the hook and the fish took off with the strength of a bonefish. Woooo! This was obviously a steelhead. 
The fish battled for his life as he flung himself out of the water. Up and down the river he went with the strength of a fresh chrome fish, quite uncharacteristic of the usual Boise River type. Again he cartwheeled across the surface of the water, desperately trying to shake the hook. This fish was feisty! After another several minutes and a couple more jumps, he was ready for apprehension. Netting a large fish is difficult enough, let alone when you're by yourself and you have a small trout net. Regardless, patience paid off, and after dancing with the fish for a couple minutes in the shallows, I landed him.
I could barely keep the fish still enough for a photo as he squirmed and tried to kick back into the depths of the river. After a couple quick photos, I knelt beside the fish and thought of what I should do. I normally keep Boise River steelhead, but this one showed so much life and I had no means of processing him before work.

Another strong pulse of energy through the fish's body told me he deserved another day in the river. Maybe myself or someone else will be able to catch him again. I let go of his tail and he surged back into the dark cold waters of the Boise River.
I fished my way back downstream with my remaining 10 minutes on the water. I closely watched my indicator with a fresh sense of optimism. There had to be more steelhead left in this run, I could bump into one at any moment... Just then, my indicator went under and my reflexes couldn't have been faster. I immediately felt tension, telling me my hook had connected with something solid. I waited for the usual slow steelhead shake. I received no such feeling and my hopes faded quickly. I continued to pull back on my rod, and the object I had hooked slowly came toward me until it broke the surface. 

How a hook can find it's way into a tiny tunnel on a rock is beyond me. Some would take this as a sign that their luck is about to increase and a steelhead is waiting for them on the next cast. Others might take it as a sign to stop fishing. Since I had to be at work in 25 minutes, I was forced to adhere to the latter.
I reeled my line in and walked back to my truck. I believe any quick trip before work that results in a landed steelhead is a gift, and with Christmas just a couple days away, I considered that steelhead to be an early Christmas gift.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Too Much of a Good Thing

When it comes to hunting waterfowl, wind is your least that's what I always thought.
My good friend, Jim Bottorff, invited me to hunt with him on a small piece of private land with a flooded field. You'd have to be nuts to refuse an offer like this. Flooded fields to mallards are like lily pads to bass; you can't keep them out. So of course I took him up on his offer and at 6 am we were driving in the dark to the field.

 We readied our gear and set the decoys.
From our spot in the blind, the wind was blowing at a steady 10 MPH, directly at our faces. This is not ideal but fairly easy to remedy on a small body of water. We set the decoys in a U shape at 40 yards away. This way the ducks would approach over our heads and choose to land between us and the decoys. Jim informed me the importance of keeping a large hole for the ducks to land in breezier conditions.
With everything set in place we sat back and enjoyed the beautiful sunrise.
The first ducks to come in were a pair of wigeons. They descended exactly the way we wanted them to. 
"Let's take em!" Jim shouted and we rose to accomplish our task.
Both birds fell and Bear, Jim's chocolate lab, charged out of the blind to retrieve them.
"Good girl, Bear!" Jim praised, as Bear brought the ducks into the blind and into Jim's hand.  
We intently watched the skies for more birds. Occasionally we'd see a group approach and veer off without giving us a second look. I started to express some concern as the morning progressed and several groups gave us the "cold wing". It seemed the wind may be affecting them in a negative way. Jim kept up his optimism however, and before long, another small group circled and a drake mallard descended into the decoys. Jim rose and shot, giving Bear another bird to carry back to the blind. 
We waited a while longer before any more birds showed interest in our location. There just didn't appear to be many birds in the area. Jim and Bear scanned the skies intently.
The hunting slowly began to pick up as the morning progressed, but so did the wind. Another gullible greenhead hit the water and immediately was blown back towards us, giving Bear a short retrieve. 
One by one we began to add greenheads to our stringer.

As fun as it was to get a duck every half hour, we wanted to see more birds working our decoys. The wind had picked up even more and was easily blowing 15 MPH, with gusts over 20. Our small, flooded field looked like the ocean with 3 foot rollers. Not exactly enticing to birds looking to feed and loft out of the wind. 

"I think we better move the decoys out further. Maybe another 15 yards. When the wind is blowing like this, it's always best to give them plenty of room to land. They don't like being cramped." Jim said with certainty.
"Ok I'll go move them. Get ready, because as soon as I step out of the blind, the birds will start pouring in!" I said, referring to the dozens of times that has happened to me.
No birds approached as I was moving the decoys, but as soon as I got back into the blind, a pair came in and met their fate. Bear made a couple of wonderful retrieves.

The next hour produced several more birds. It seemed that moving the decoys had paid off. Birds were giving us a little better look.  


It was nearly noon now and we had 9 birds on our stringer. We were talking about calling it a day when a single mallard snuck in and tried to land. We both rose and shot, bringing down a hen. We decided that was a great place to end our hunt.
We packed up our gear and the decoys, and laid the birds out for some photos. It had been a fun hunt, but not a terribly easy one. The wind had been too strong, changing our flooded field from an inviting duck oasis to a hostile desert. By moving the decoys further out and opening up the "pocket" we made the ducks feel a little better about landing. I always thought wind was a good thing, but on this day, it was too much. In super windy conditions, remember to open things up a bit and you'll likely see more success. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Mixed Bag

My first duck hunt of 2015 occurred much later than I would have preferred. I knew I had missed the bulk of the early season action but I just had to go. The hunt was a successful one, but it reminded me of two important lessons I've learned since I started hunting waterfowl.
1.) Timing is critical
2.) Be persistent
If I've learned anything about hunting waterfowl over the years, it's knowing WHEN to go. My hunting buddy and I started hunting waterfowl in college. We had no mentors and no clue what we were doing, but we had time and the desire to figure things out. Slowly over our 5 years of college, we became more and more successful until we were consistently bagging birds. We learned the pattern of the birds in Southern Idaho throughout the season. Here is a simple breakdown:
  • The first 2 weeks of the season are generally good for local bird action
  • Early November until close to Thanksgiving is what I call the "mid-season lull"- most of the locals are gone and the Northern migrators have yet to reach our area
  • The Northern birds show up near Thanksgiving and hunting is fantastic until close to January, when many of the birds become quite educated
Weather also plays an important role:
  • A sunny day before or after a storm is generally a good time to go
  • If it's snowing, it's almost always good- birds have to feed all day in conditions like this
  • Wind is generally your friend- it moves the decoys and tells you how the birds will approach
*Of course none of this is absolute and scouting is always the best way to ensure success. 
Which brings us to our hunt. We had no time for scouting, so I was relying on past experience. The weather was favorable; cold, windy, and a storm had recently moved into our area. This told me our chances of a good hunt were higher than if the weather had been "stale" and no wind was present. I met my good buddy, Jordan at 4:15 am, and we set off in the light rain to my favorite early season pond.
It apparently had been raining a bit harder and longer at the duck pond because the parking lot was soup!
We set up on the pond and waited for legal shooting light. Our anticipation was high as we thought of the potential success we might have.
Legal shooting light came and a few groups birds were flying. Near 8:30 am, a single green winged teal coasted into the decoys and met it's fate as Jordan rose and took his shot. Jordan waded through the muddy water and retrieved the single.

The morning slowly crept by as we watched the skies empty themselves of birds. So far we hadn't seen a single mallard, only a few buffleheads and teal.  
As we sat in the bulrushes, waiting for the action to heat up, the truth slowly began to creep up on me; it was the mid season lull! I had missed the early season action and all the local mallards had been either shot or forced to migrate out of the area. 10 am approached and we only had the single teal to hand.
"What do say, Jordan? I just don't think its going to happen today. We haven't seen a single mallard."
"Let's give it another half hour."
"Ok, I'm fine with that."
Shortly after we spoke, a single duck approached low and fast over the water until it glided into the pocket in the decoys. Jordan and I both rose as the drake redhead ascended and attempted to make it's escape. BOOM! Jordan's shotgun went off and the redhead lay dead on the water.
"Well, I guess it's a good thing we didn't start picking up the decoys." I chuckled, as we both left our hideouts to check out the beautiful specimen.
A little while later, a decent sized group of green winged teal bombed the decoys. Like bottle rockets in a swirling wind, they split up and rocketed off in about 5 different directions. The birds gave us only a second to pick a target and make our shot. I'm not sure how I managed to do it, but just before one coasted over my head and disappeared behind the bulrushes, I pulled the trigger and dropped a drake. As excited as I was to have gotten a bird, I was slightly dreading the retrieval of that bird. Behind us lay a large forest of thick, swampy bulrushes.    
Jordan and I both trudged through the tall, thick, impenetrable forest of bulrushes in search of a bird the size of an iPhone 6. After nearly 10 minutes, the little guy magically appeared, nested on top of the matted bulrushes.
We returned to our seats, satisfied with the action the last 30 minutes had provided for us. We sat a while longer and stared at empty skies.
"Shall we give it another 30 minutes?" I asked Jordan.
"Sure. It's a good thing we hunted that last half hour. We've got 3 birds now."
Close to 11 am, a nice drake American wigeon descended into the decoys, providing us with another bird to carry home. 

Shortly after, a "booner" of a drake gadwall met it's fate to Jordan's deadly accurate shotgun. 

The action was not fast and furious, but our pile of birds was building.
Across the pond, a group of birds approached low and fast. They appeared to be teal, but as we rose to shoot, it became apparent they were ring-necked ducks. BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!!!! Three birds lay on the water, and the bird dogs(us), went to retrieve them. 

We sat and waited until 12 pm before deciding to pack it up. We grabbed the decoys and took our stuff over to the pond bank. As we sat and watched the pond before our march back to the truck, Jordan and I discussed how important it had been for us to BE PERSISTENT. It's easy to give up and believe it's just not going to happen, but sometimes, the birds just aren't flying until later in the morning. If we had packed up at 10 am, we would only have a single teal to show for all our effort. When hunting over water, I've found that the action can be anywhere between first light and 2 pm. One hunt in particular, it was all I could do to sit and wait until 11 am. Sometime near 11am, a group of 100 corn-stuffed mallards descended into the decoys, starting an hour of mallard madness in which 2 of us finished with 12 greenheads.
Despite no scouting and a hunt at the "wrong" time of the season, we were successful because we were PERSISTENT. Our stringer was certainly not a pile of greenheads, but we finished with 8 ducks that will eat just fine!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Teton River


Day 3 of our Eastern Idaho trip began just outside of Rexburg. Today we would float the Teton River. I followed Camron to where we would drop off his car for the shuttle. Camron hopped in my truck and we headed upstream to the put in. On the way, we drove past this historical sign. 
I was very excited to float through the aftermath of such a devastating catastrophe and see the power of water. 
The road began to deteriorate fast as we left the pavement and began to near the edge of the old reservoir. We came around the corner and our route took us down the old boat ramp.
We reached the bottom of the old reservoir and began to set up the raft. By now, Camron and I had developed an efficient system for inflating the boat; as efficient as possible, considering we had to do it all by hand. The electric pump was nearly useless, so we took turns pumping with the dual action hand pump, 50 pumps at a time. The pump began to heat up so much that we had to take a couple breaks, letting it cool so the internal parts didn't melt. 40 minutes later we were ready for our adventure down the Teton River. Camron had never floated this before either so it would be a first for both of us. 

Camron jumped on the oars first and I began fishing with double streamers. I quickly tied into a feisty cutthroat. 

We rounded the corner and discovered our first obstacle; a formidable rapid. I am fairly experienced at navigating whitewater, but the river was very low and 'bony'. We pulled the boat over to scout out the rapid. There were too many exposed large rocks in the tongue, so we choose to walk the boat along the edge on river right. We had to push the boat over a few shallow spots, but we were soon back to fishing. 

The river continued on through the deep canyon. The water was gorgeous and almost every cast produced at least one follow on the streamers.

Camron pounded the rocky banks and steep cliffs with his streamers and managed to tie into a hefty Teton cutty.

We had already boated a half dozen fish and had only gone half a mile. The Teton river was giving me a smile that was painful to shake as we floated in isolation through gorgeous water. Camron's next fish was another 'cookie cutter' 15 incher. 

We floated through the location of the old dam and spillway. It was eerie to see the waters destruction and man's feeble attempts to contain it.  

In front of the spillway was a very deep run. Camron bombed a cast upstream, threw a mend in the line and brought his streamers through the deep, dark water. BOOM! Camron set the hook and was into a very large Teton Cutthroat. 

We continued down the river and proceeded to hammer the cutthroat.


The Teton slowly began to morph from a deep canyon to a wooded meandering stream, similar to the Boise River through the town of Boise.

The fishing slowed a little bit as the day neared its end and we approached the takeout. I was on the oars with Camron in the gunners seat when the ambush happened. Camron shot his cast toward a beaver lodge. He made a couple strips and the water exploded!
"OH! Hawg Johnson!" Camron yelled as the large fish thrashed on the surface before making a good run. "Dude, it's a big brown."
"OHHH nice! There's browns in here?" I asked as I tried to control the boat.
"Yeah a few. There's more down here in the lower river."
We slipped a net under the hefty brown.   

Camron hoisted the fish for a hero shot and set her loose in the cold, productive waters of the Teton River.


"How close are we to the take out?" I asked.
"It's right there." Camron pointed to the small steep gravel slot amongst the tall grass.
"Oh perfect! And what a fish to finish on!"
We pulled the boat out of the river and hopped in Camron's car for the shuttle. When we returned, the sun was setting, painting a gorgeous picture that summed up the day and really, the whole trip. Eastern Idaho had treated us well and a return trip can not come soon enough!