Sunday, June 28, 2020

Jessa's trout

Jessa and I visited Verdigre Creek last weekend, and I ended up using only two flies: On Saturday, a conehead streamer—essentially a weighted muddler minnow but with Platte River Special influences, fished downstream in the style I have found most successful here—accounted for a brown trout (flip-phone photo below) and numerous rainbows. On Sunday, a traditional unweighted muddler minnow pulled double duty, alternately fished downstream as a streamer and upstream as a makeshift grasshopper imitation; less successful, this second technique, but a change of pace, and rewarded by a couple of spectacular takes by rainbows.

I'm writing today, though, about a fish that I didn't catch.

On one of our earliest trips to Verdigre, some five years ago, Jessa fished with me. Now, her childhood in Louisiana had conditioned her to view fishing as a relaxing social occasion; the slow, stealthy approach required for trout-hunting on a spring creek isn't really quite her cup of tea. Nevertheless, under my tutelage she drifted a Glo-bug (salmon-egg fly) under a bank of milfoil and connected with a good rainbow trout—which, in true rainbow fashion, thrashed its way off the book just before it was brought to hand. Jess took it hard, and thereafter left the fishing to Ellie and me.

But about two years ago, or maybe it was three, I prevailed upon Jessa to fish with me again. Once again, we fished as a duo, taking turns with the rod and the net, and once again she grumbled good-naturedly about the necessity of moving so slowly and keeping so quiet. (This from one of the quietest people you're like to meet.) I had caught a couple of fish and it was Jessa's turn with the rod when we spotted a couple of rainbows just downstream.

The setup was excellent, but presented a challenge. Whereas trout in this stream spend most of their time hiding under milfoil and watercress from anglers and predatory birds, these two were holding steady in the open, actively feeding in a small pool just below a bend in the creek. We could see them, which meant they would be able to see us, and the stealth that had put us in a position to fish to them would need to be maintained throughout the encounter.

I'll tell you true, I wanted a fish for Jessa quite badly, and our first offerings were not subtle. I had Jessa try another Glo-bug, and when that was refused after a couple of good drifts, a San Juan worm. Again, no takers. Surely a woolly bugger will produce, I thought—there are some leeches in the stream, and I figured that, even though Jessa's drifts had looked drag-free to me, trout will overlook a less-than-perfect presentation if some motion is to be expected from the prey item. However sound my reasoning, though, the trout appeared uninterested in the bugger.

So, time to re-assess. The good news was that we hadn't put the fish down: they still seemed relaxed, apparently unaware of, or at any rate unconcerned about, our presence. The bad news was that they had ignored several meaty offerings, substantial bits of protein (had they been real) that should have tempted a hungry trout. But then it occurred to me that we had watched them feeding, and that from our vantage point just upstream, we hadn't actually seen what they were eating, just the opening and closing of their mouths. The penny finally dropped, and I clipped off the bugger and tied on a small, very neutrally-coloured nymph.

Once again, Jessa's drift was good, and when the nymph was past the trout she lifted the line carefully and quietly from the water. (Trout-hunting may not be her preferred métier, but she's good at it.) On her second try, one of the rainbows opened its mouth and took the fly; Jess lifted her rod, and all hell broke loose. The set was perfect, and all the trout's aerobatics did not throw the hook. I don't remember if she put the fish on the reel or if she stripped the line in by hand, but I was ready with the net and Jessa had her Verdigre trout at last.

Monday, June 15, 2020

No vacancy

While looking through photos on my tablet, I found this one from a couple of years back that I never found a use for, but I still like the poignancy and Americana feel of it.

This is on US Highway 30 on the outskirts of Fremont, Nebraska, one of my regular fishing destinations. I don't know when the motel was built (my guess would be the early to mid-1950s) or when it went out of business, but I know a bit about its final days: the building was condemned in 2014, used for a training exercise by a local fire department, and finally burned to the ground, leaving only the sign to stand witness to its existence.

[Related article: the disappearing Vacancy/No Vacancy sign.]

Thursday, June 11, 2020

"None of Us Are Free"

Possibly the song for our times. Written by by Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, and Brenda Russell. This version by Solomon Burke with The Blind Boys of Alabama.


Sunday, June 7, 2020


Pictured: a golden shiner caught whilst fishing for sunfish at a small lake in one of the Omaha suburbs. I must have landed a dozen of the distinctive minnows that morning. (Oddly, even though Ellie was fishing alongside me using very similar flies, she caught plenty of bluegills but not a single shiner.)

The golden shiner is recognisable not only by the gold-coloured scales of larger specimens (smaller ones are silver) but by the distinctive downward curve of the lateral line.

The golden shiner is very similar in appearance to a European species, the rudd, and apparently closely related as well, as the two species can hybridise where they occur together. Golden shiners are native to eastern North America but have been widely introduced elsewhere because of their popularity as bait; they are also kept as ornamental fish in small ponds.

The Fish Book put out by the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission states that golden shiners, though bony, can be good eating. Ellie and I were doing C&R, so I'll take their word for it.

Since it's been a while, let's have some music. From the 1987 film Athens, GA: Inside/Out, "Golden" by Dreams So Real.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Fly-fishing for bullfrogs down at the billabong

Ellie and I were checking out some new fishing spots near Kearney when we found this billabong; a creek that previously flowed into a pond had been diverted, leaving the gravel bed empty save for this one pool.

The grassy banks of the former creek loomed high over the billabong, and our unstealthy approach sent several bluegills and one tiny largemouth bass darting for cover, their appetites suspended. But when a small bullfrog (there were no big ones here) made a move for an errant fly that landed atop a bed of algae, Ellie took note and replicated my cast. She almost immediately had a frog by the lip—the first of many, as it turned out.

"It's all very well using a nymph," I sniffed at Ellie as I removed an elk-hair caddis from the lip of another frog (not the one in this picture), "but a proper gentleman catches his bullfrogs on a dry fly." Ellie doubled over laughing, but managed (just) not to fall in.

Snobbish considerations aside, the frogs were equally willing to take nymphs and dries—but the nymphs, for whatever reason, had better holding power and landed more frogs. (That's a pro tip right there, lads; write it down.)

And while occasionally a frog would go for a fly in the water, dapping the flies atop the algae was far more productive than actually casting. (Another tip, mates.)

Too effective, as it happened, because soon all the frogs in the billabong had been educated, and we had to go find another pond and catch some bluegills like proper fly-fishers.

Later on—different day, different pond—Ellie caught a big bullfrog on a dry fly.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Sandhill cranes

Just returned to Greater Louisiana from Louisiana proper, Jessa and I spent a March day in the central Platte River Valley taking in one of the world's great wildlife spectacles, the sandhill crane migration.

The cranes' day starts early—too early for us, usually—as thousands upon thousands of cranes leave the Platte River for the surrounding cornfields.

Waste corn from those fields, combined with ancestral memory, is essentially why the cranes are here. It wasn't always corn, of course. Once upon a time, the central Platte Valley was a vast wetland, and the braided river that the first European settlers would later describe as "a mile wide and an inch deep" provided an abundance of natural foods to fuel the birds' migration to Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. (Not that those places had names at the time...) Nowadays, there's less protein available—though the cranes can still pick off the occasional frog or mouse—but corn provides a concentrated source of calories, and seems to work well enough; after all, the migrations go on unabated...

With so many heads down, there's always at least one crane keeping a watchful eye out for coyotes and other predators. The sentinels are wary, and maintain a healthy suspicion with regard to the motives of other bipeds. (Cranes are not hunted in Nebraska, but they are elsewhere.) Responsible photographers keep their distance and stick to their blinds (including the mobile ones we call cars).

The sentinels watch over their flockmates during other activities as well. A fair bit of preening occurs throughout the day, and once again there's always at least one bird on the lookout in each group.

The sentinels are easy to spot, and their alertness makes them naturally the most photogenic birds in the flock.

Migration is serious business, but with so many birds gathered together, some socialising is bound to happen, and that can be serious business as well. There are acquaintances to be made and bonds to be maintained on the long journey, and the extended stopover in Nebraska provides an important opportunity for the cranes to visit.

Vocal communication is a key component in maintaining flock cohesion. The bugling of the cranes is a sound that has to be experienced, and the cacophony is one of the things that draws us back year after year.

And with music, of course, comes dancing—sometimes as the culmination of other posturing, sometimes breaking out spontaneously. I don't think it's overly anthropomorphic to read exuberance, even joy, into the dancing of the cranes.

Beginning in the late afternoon, and accelerating close to sunset, the cranes make their way back to the river, where the sandbars offer roosting sites and the water itself affords protection from mammalian predators.

Here, the socialising continues as the early-retiring birds settle in and latecomers continue to arrive.

Eventually, we suppose, the river must go quiet as the cranes settle in for the night, but by then it's full dark and we have gone...

* * *

Bonus pictures:

All photos © Mark & Jessica Farrell-Churchill