Black River Journal

Winter 2008/2009 - by Jim Holland

“Fly tying is the next best thing to fishing; it is the sort of licking of the lips that eases a thirsty man through the desert.” – Arthur Ransomme “Fly Tying in Winter”, Rod and Line 1929


Winter’s long hand stretches his cold shadow across our souls. The days are short; the light is pale and fleeting and it seems that our streamside companions have left for warmer climes chasing the sun. It is a time for stories…

A good friend and talented angler, Lee Brown asked me back in June how I fished a certain pool. I was surprised because Lee has fished around the world from across North America to Russia and Tierra del Fuego for its legendary sea run Browns. Still, I said the Light Cahills were hatching and that we might have some success with the emergers at dusk, so off we went. A number of other friends were fishing close by. Lee is left handed and I’m right handed so his question was to get the right drift in a way that he could fish from the inside or left bank. I made a suggestion about where to cast and soon Lee had made a number of excellent drifts and had landed a couple of nice Rainbows on a brand new seven and half foot four weight cane built for him by master cane builder, Dennis Menscer. I thought he had the hang of it and so I left him at the pool. A short time later, Lee appeared somewhat shaken, rod in hand. He had hooked a beautiful wild Brown Trout about seventeen inches long and was preparing to photograph the fish in his net prior to release. Just at the moment he clicked the camera he heard a loud crash and there not twenty feet from him was a somewhat dazed and confused Black Bear! Needless to say, Lee left the trout and the net at the water’s edge while making a hasty exit. The bear didn’t run just kind of sloughed about trying to wake up. He was sleeping in the tree above us all along and we had never noticed him. For the next thirty minutes, the bear was estimated around one hundred and twenty five pounds but shortly thereafter due to collaborative storytelling (we are fishermen after all) grew to gargantuan proportions.

Many people consider fly fishing to be a solitary sport. In fly tying, I have often found quite the opposite to be true. Fly tyers aren’t merely weaving a fly; they invariably explain not only why a fly works and its history but also their own experiences and why they’ve chosen to tie a particular pattern. It is not so much the pattern but the endorsement of the tyer that gives us the confidence to try it for ourselves.  This is why our Sunday fly tying is so enjoyable. I never know what is going to be next. Eric and George are once again hosting our Winter Fly Tying. Last year Eric carefully prepared a curriculum, students were schooled in the basic techniques, learning how to apply thread, become familiar with the tools and materials tying flies that best demonstrated the skills necessary to master the nymph, streamer or dry fly. Once they’ve mastered the basics it was hard to predict where they would go next whether it was learning some classic Hair-wing Atlantic Salmon flies with the aforementioned Lee Brown or exploring the use of synthetic materials with well known local master Andy Sutton of Long Valley . The unpredictability was refreshing and our students handled it with enthusiasm. I don’t think they wanted the classes to end but then again it was time to go fishing with some of the creations that they had crafted and hoarded over the previous months. 

As many of you will note, I have been following the story of dam removals on the Musconetcong River with interest. Brian Cowden recently gave a great presentation at our local Ken Lockwood Chapter of Trout Unlimited meeting on the removal of the Groendyke Dam in Hackettstown. The river is quickly in the process of restoring itself and a Bald Eagle is even using the site much to the chagrin of the local goose population! Many volunteers deserve a lot of credit for helping to plant and restore native flora to the site. Once again congratulations to the Musconetcong Watershed Association, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and Division of Fish and Wildlife and Trout Unlimited for their efforts but also to K. Hovnanian Homes who donated a large amount of stone needed to stabilize stream sediments. Another small dam in Hackettstown will be removed in all likelihood this winter. The ultimate goal is to see the Musky flowing freely to its junction with the Delaware and there is progress being made not only on the Musky but also on the South Branch as well. The dam on the old Camp Morris property has been notched and will be removed. The completion of this project will stabilize stream sediments above the dam and cool the water considerably downstream. Cowden and Rick Axt, President of the New Jersey State Council of TU have been working with the state agencies and the South Branch Watershed Association led by Executive Director Bill Kibler on this project and it is thought that this effort will substantially improve habitat for a variety of wildlife including our Native Brook Trout.

Although it may seem that there is little activity on the stream, it is often quite possible to see signs of spring in January. The Early Black Stonefly, Cappnia vernalis will begin hatching sporadically by mid month often joined by the Early Brown Stonefly  Strophopteryx fasciata. Look for daytime highs in the upper thirties to low forties and these insects will become active. Small black or brown stonefly patterns will effectively imitate the nymphs as they begin to crawl towards streamside rocks to hatch. I have often used a standard Copper John or Black Hare’s Ear or Pheasant Tail nymph size 16-18 in relatively shallow water to catch fish feeding on the first nymphs of the season. The adult stoneflies don’t all make it into the air without being washed into the current so it is possible to fish the dry. It is often a good idea to give some motion to these flies to make it appear that they are struggling in the surface film. The takes are not often subtle and a good way to shake off some of those winter blues. Another great winter pattern is the Starling Soft Hackle, a very simple but effective fly named for the use of starling wings for the soft hackle collar. Fish these in sizes 14-18 and swing them across and downstream for best results.

It is important to note that even in the absence of a dense hatch; there is always food in a trout stream. Midges are always present and are often preyed upon. Two important midge groups are the Chironomids and the Diptera. My best advice on midge fishing is to have an assortment of very small dries in a variety of colors. As for the subsurface imitation it can be a Disco Midge or any imitation tied with a little thread and flash; try a variety of colors, Olive, Red or Black in sizes 16-24 are probably the most popular. Add a small glass bead to simulate the air bubble many insects use to rise to the surface. 

Scuds are an aquatic shrimp common to all our streams. They prefer logs and branches to hide in. My two favorite colors are Grey and Tan at this time. Of our three local species, Rainbows are most active in winter and they love scuds! Last year when the water wasn’t too high, my best tandem rig consisted of a Beadhead Flashback Hare’s Ear nymph size 14 and a size 16 Grey or Tan Scud as the trailing fly. I simply tie in about twenty inches of fine tippet off of the bend in the hook of the Hare’s Ear. If I know Stoneflies are active, I’ll replace the natural Hare’s Ear with a black version or maybe even a Prince or Copper John. If the water is high and murky, it’s time to fish Glo Bugs. These flies imitate fish eggs and the pattern first gained notoriety among Steelhead fishermen. As many of you know, Steelhead is an anadromous form of Rainbow Trout but unlike salmon they will feed over the winter although they spawn in the spring. Try colors like pink or yellow also know as Oregon Cheese in sizes 12-16 or even smaller. The trout love them!

We would also like to welcome veteran angler, Lenny Ruggia to our staff. On behalf of Chally, Lenny, Dan, fellow cheese head Don, and my partners Eric and George we would like to wish a safe and happy holiday season to all of you and success in the New Year!

Fly of the Month: Starling Soft Hackle by Chally Bates

Thread: Black Uni thread 6/0 or 8/0

Collar: Starling feathers

Rib: None

Body: Black dubbing

Hook: Mustad 3906

Tail: None

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