Hook and land bronzebacks on the fly with these Wild West lessons
I live in one of the most trout-rich states. Idaho is chock-full of blue-ribbon waters, and fly anglers descend upon them every spring. I like to target trout as much as the next guy, but I can only dodge drift boats and outrun wading anglers for so long. That’s why I love smallmouths.
Because so many cold-water trout-fishing opportunities exist in the West, smallmouths are one of the most undervalued fly-rod gamefish here. This is ironic. If you look at the drainages of the largest Rocky Mountain trout rivers, the lower half is almost always prime bronzeback habitat, replete with a pebble rock and silt streambed, moderate water temperatures, and a big food supply.
For the past few years, I’ve had some of the finest smallmouth sight-fishing trips on water that’s barely 30 minutes from my front door, and I’ve learned some valuable lessons. With so many anglers tossing spinnerbaits, crankbaits, jerkbaits, and live bait, I’ve had to figure out ways to make flies stand out. To help you catch more smallies on the fly wherever you live, here are three concepts to remember.
Keep it Simple
I love fishing new flies, especially those loaded with modern materials designed to produce extremely lifelike action. I often reach for those patterns first, thinking they’ll be something the bass haven’t seen yet. Inevitably, after a hundred casts with maybe a few chases and a strike or two, I throw in the towel and reach for a Clouser Minnow.
In my experience, bass in moving water couldn’t care less about a fake minnow that moves exactly like a real minnow. Silhouette and motion trump realism and natural color patterns. That’s why a Clouser is my No. 1 fly. It’s inexpensive, simple to tie, and easy to see when sight-fishing in crystal-clear water. Want to simplify things further? Don’t get carried away with too many color combinations. Yellow over chartreuse kills it for me in a wide range of conditions.
Slow Your Roll
Many of the people I take smallmouth fishing for the first time strip flies at Daytona 500 speeds and get frustrated when a bass follows but never commits. If you think about it, bass see all sorts of fast-moving spinners and lipped crankbaits. Hard baits can appear unnatural, and fish can eventually become conditioned to refuse them. When you make a similarly speedy retrieve with a fly, expect the same reaction from the fish.
Train yourself to slow your strip speed. If it helps, use less weight on your flies to decrease the sink rate. My smallmouth buddies and I see so many fish strike on the drop that we’ve learned to occasionally stop moving the fly during a retrieve, especially if there’s a fish following close behind. Just let the fly (slowly) sink. Bass can hit before the fly meets the streambed, or when it’s motionless on the gravel for a moment or two. Make the fly behave like scared prey that knows death is imminent, and more bronzebacks will commit.
Catch the Early Bug
What many anglers don’t realize is a lot of slow, warm, shallow smallmouth rivers host the same sought-after hatches that get trout anglers jacked up in the wee hours of the morning. Even early in the season, you can encounter many of the same caddis and mayflies in the smallmouth stretches, particularly Hendricksons. As the spring sun heats the water, do yourself a favor and don’t sleep in. Grab a coffee, enjoy the fact that you’re the only trailer on the boat ramp, and spend the next few hours headhunting bass dimpling the surface. Even the slightest rings can be produced by heavy fish, and there’s no greater challenge than landing a 3- or 4-pounder on light tippet and a size 16 dry fly. I’ve caught some amazingly large bass targeting unbelievably small rise forms. If you’re not getting risers to eat, try working a small popper around the sippers, pausing often. You can also try swinging a Clouser through them.
Written by Ben Romans for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Essential advice from one of Field & Stream’s greatest writers
For three and a half decades, H.G. “Tap” Tapply dolled out hard-earned wisdom on all things outdoors in his monthly column, Tap’s Tips. Here, we have compiled 40 of his best fishing tips from the ’60s and ’70s. Tapply specialized in quick, clever solutions to common problems—many of which are sure to solve your modern-day woes. —The Editors
A plastic worm that has been torn or cut in half can be stuck together very easily. Heat the two ends over a lighter till they melt, then hold them together while the plastic hardens. The “weld” will be as strong as the original worm.
You can brighten tarnished spoon and spinner blades, or paint a glittery body on a streamer fly hook, with an “ultra-iridescent” sparkling fingernail polish. It can be found in copper and silver colors in a small bottle with a brush applicator, and costs only two bits.
When you find line-grooves in a rod guide, usually at the tip top, you can buff them away with thin strips of emery cloth. But this leaves a rough surface, so always finish the job by polishing the inside of the guides with crocus cloth (jeweler’s rouge).
When you return home after a day of fishing, make it a habit to leave your box of lures or book of flies open overnight so the contents can dry out. Moisture trapped in an airtight container will soon rust hooks and tarnish metal lures.
When you run your boat ashore after a day’s fishing, stop the motor by disconnecting the fuel line and letting the motor idle till the carburetor runs dry. This will eliminate the chance that fuel may leak out when you put the kicker in the car trunk.
A frozen fish should be thawed slowly. Either put it in the refrigerator 24 hours before cooking it or place it in cold water. If the fish is thawed too fast, the outside flesh may deteriorate while the inside is still frozen too hard to cook through.
To provide a contrasty background for tying flies, paint the tying table soft white or another light shade, or use self-adhering, shelf-lining material in a solid color (light green is ideal). It’s easier on the eyes when tying very small flies.
As a rule of thumb, fish should not be kept in the refrigerator longer than two days before being cooked, for they lose their flavor rapidly. If it is necessary to keep the fish any longer than two days, it is better to quick-freeze them instead.
Two tips for keeping rod ferrules from sticking: One, don’t lubricate them, because oil or nose grease collects dust and dirt. Keep both ferrules dry and clean. Two, take the rod apart as soon as you quit fishing so the metal can’t oxidize and lock.
Small leaks and briar-pricks in boots or waders can be plugged temporarily by melting the end of a plastic worm and smearing the hot goo over the hole. The plastic hardens in a few seconds and sticks well. (Suggested by Mark Knight, Kansas City, Mo.)
Of the many ways to prevent the mesh of a landing net from becoming entangled in brush, twigs, and barbed wire fences, this is the simplest: Slip a heavy rubber band over the handle of the net and tuck the tip-end of the net bag under it.
An old (but not broken) ski pole makes an excellent staff for wading heavy water. Remove the basket at the bottom of the pole and attach a cord to the thong at the top so you can let go of it when you have waded into position to fish.
Some trolling lures revolve one way, some the other. If you know the direction in which your favorite lures spin, you can change from a clockwise to a counterclockwise lure to prevent, or reduce, line-twist. Even so, it is wise to use a trolling keel.
L. F. Manning of Norwood, Pa., tells me he doesn’t use a bait bucket for carrying minnows. He puts them in a sealed, pint-sized Mason jar about two-thirds full of water; says a dozen minnows stay frisky all day if he changes the water every few hours.
When fishing high, cold water in the early spring with spinning gear, try casting diagonally upstream and retrieving just fast enough to keep the lure from hanging on bottom. This often takes sluggish trout that refuse to budge for anything else.
A noisy approach can spoil a good fishing spot, so kill the motor and drift in quietly, then ease the anchor down slowly. When you start fishing, talk all you want, but try to avoid banging or scraping against the boat, for those noises fish can “hear”.
Ever knocked over your minnow pail and spilled your day’s supply of ice-fishing bait? It’s less likely to happen if you put a good-sized rock in the bottom; then if you accidentally kick the bucket, the rock may prevent it from tipping over.
You can keep a little cooler when fishing under a hot summer sun if you line the inside of your hat with aluminum foil, which acts as a heat reflector. It also helps if you wet your hair occasionally; it has a cooling effect as it evaporates.
October is the time when bass start to move out into their winter quarters. The larger ones, especially, seek out the deeper holes. One way to locate them is to scratch bottom in from 10 to 20 feet of water with a plastic worm fished very slowly.
You can often tell what type of mayfly has been hatching recently on a trout stream by looking for spider webs in the bushes and especially under bridges. A few flies always get tangled in webs, and you can match them if they hatch again.
Game or fish from the home freezer often doesn’t taste as good as you expected. One reason, it may have been kept too long. Another, more common, reason: It wasn’t quick-frozen. Many home freezers don’t run cold enough to quick-freeze food.
Recently I warned against putting mothballs in plastic fly boxes because they discolor and soften the plastic. But Col. J. R. Grey of Sacramento, Calif., tells me only those made with paradichlorobenzene do this; repellents with naphthalene do no damage.
Fly tyers prize the barred and black-tipped side feathers from drake wood ducks, so if you shoot a male woodie this fall be sure to save these feathers and give them to someone who ties flies. He’ll be so grateful he’ll probably force some flies on you.
Rod ferrules that fit too tightly can be loosened a little by polishing them with petroleum jelly. Swab it on the ferrules and put them together and pull them apart several times, then wipe them clean. The two parts will slide together much easier.
The sketch shows how Douglas Heathcock of Wellington, Ala., hooks a plastic worm to make it twist when retrieved. He reports that the spiraling action brings bass up from deep water and out of the weed beds even when the worm is fished on the surface.
You can usually keep your spinning and bait-casting reels in working order with a tiny screwdriver and a small crochet hook, one for making repairs, the other for picking out line tangles. Carry one of each in both boxes of lures and you’ll be ready for trouble.
Look for trout at the tail end of big pools at dusk. They drop down into the apron of slick, shallow water as evening approaches to feed on nymphs and hatching flies and are quite easy to take if you can get a fly over them without drag.
A barometer can really tell you if you can expect good fishing. Whether it is high (over 29.90 inches sea level pressure) or low isn’t nearly so important, however, as whether it is rising or falling. Fish bite best when the barometer is rising.
When ice-fishing for species that travel in schools, like perch and walleyes, cut your holes close together instead of scattering them. A light cluster of baits will hold the attention of a school of fish much longer than will a single bait.
Fly-tying feathers that have become matted and misshapen in storage can be restored by steaming them, just as flies can. Put a handful in a flour sifter, hold it over the steaming spout of a tea kettle, and shake it as if you were popping corn.
If your boat pounds when running into a chop, why put up with it? Bring the bow down by moving weight forward, or adjust the tilt of the motor to lift the stern a bit. You can also soften the pounding by reducing speed and taking waves at an angle.
It’s easier and safer to haul a big fish through the ice if you use a gaff. You can make one from a large (4/0 to 6/0) de-barbed hook screwed through the eye to a foot-long stick. Bind the hook shank firmly to the shaft with a strong line.
The sketch shows what I consider the best way to “sew” on a minnow for trolling. Push the snelled hook down through the lower lip, then down through the top of the head, then in and out the side. Tightening the snell curves a minnow and it flops over.
Trout often shy away from a fly or bait if there is a sinker near it, so always use the smallest sinker possible (none at all is even better) and clamp it to the leader at least a foot above the hook. Cast farther upstream, to give the hook time to sink.
Another good habit: when you stop fishing to rest or eat lunch, put your hat or cap on the ground and set the butt of your fly rod in it. This keeps sand and dirt out of the reel. Always lean the rod against something; never lay it down.
It’s easier to row a boat at night if you can “feel” the angle of the oar blade. This can be done by making the grip slightly oval-shaped instead of round, with the oval at right angles to the oar blade. (Suggested by Carl F. Hoberg of Mendon, Mass.)
Next time you cast artificials from an anchored boat, try this stunt: First lob out a live bait with a bobber and then retrieve the lure close to the bobber. Fish that follow the lure in without striking will see the bait and perhaps grab it.
If you use carbon tetrachloride to clean reels or to dissolve paraffin for making dry-fly floatant, use extreme caution. According to the National Safety Council, it is not only harmful if inhaled, but also if just the fumes are absorbed through the skin.
You’ll never lose the screw-on cap for a metal rod case if you attach it with a short length of heavy monofilament. Bore 1/16-inch holes in the center of the cap and near the top of the case; use small buttons inside the cap and case to hold the mono.
A quick and easy way to add or replace rubber legs on a hard-bodied popper is to thread doubled monofilament into a large needle and force it through the body, leaving a loop. Double the legs through this, pull through, clip, seal with a waterproof cement.
Written by H.G. Tapply for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.
If you’re hanging up your waders at the end of fall and stowing your fly tackle, you’re missing out on some of your greatest opportunities for trophy trout. What’s more, fishing pressure is down—or nonexistent—on popular stretches of water, and the trout have had a moment to relax from the onslaught of drift-boat traffic and anglers flinging hooks in their face.
The first thing I like to do when I’m plotting a winter outing is to check the local forecast. I prefer days where there’s an increase from the normal daily highs of that time of year, as the fish become more active for longer windows of time, which translates to more hookups. I’m also looking for a low-pressure system of low-hanging clouds and, ideally, little to no wind and maybe even some precipitation. These are perfect conditions for midges to hatch and cluster. And these are the best flies and tactics to use during a winter midge hatch.
Sipper Midge – Size 18-20
Early in the hatch, or on days when the wind doesn’t allow for midge clusters to form as readily, the fish can get particular to singles, and that’s when the Sipper Midge shines. The fly accurately imitates the hatching midge profile and the black post is easy to see when the fly drifts into a glare.
LaFontaine’s Buzzball – Size 14-18
After the bugs get hatching a bit, and you start to see clusters, that’s when I switch to the Buzzball. Originally designed to emulate the rust shucks of the Missouri’s midges, the heavily hackled pattern floats well to support a dropper. The fly is easy to see and catches fish on rivers across the country.
Tung Teaser – Size 18-22
If the wind is just strong enough to keep most of the singles off the water, preventing clusters to form, go with the Buzzball and then tie a 6- to 18-inch piece of 6x fluorocarbon to a size 18-22 Tung Teaser. Regardless of what type of midge activity you’re seeing, here you’ve got all of your bases covered—adult and larvae/pupae. It’s also a great rig to use if you’re sight fishing to a large trout in easily spookable lie.
Pat’s Rubber Legs – Size 4-8 and Frenchie – Size 16-20
Sometimes the dry-fly fishing just isn’t in the cards in the winter. If that’s the case, there are two flies that haven’t let me down no matter which part of the country I’m fishing: Pat’s Rubber Legs and a Frenchie. For low, clear winter flows, scale back to a 7 ½-foot, 4-to 5x fluorocarbon leader to your lead fly (Pat’s Rubber Legs), then attach a 10-inch, 5x dropper tippet to the bend of the Pat’s Rubber Legs and tie on the Frenchie. The Frenchie is a great attractor pattern that cuts through the water column quickly and represents a variety of aquatic food—and it simply catches trout.
Complex Twist Bugger – Size 2-6
If your M.O. is go big or go home, tie on a Complex Twist Bugger. Pick the color and size you feel most confident in (for me that’s a size 4 in black), and use a sink tip like Rio’s VersiLeader if conditions allow for it. Throw in some mends and work the fly low and slow. Focus on the buckets and relatively deeper runs that have a moderate to slow current. If you’re not getting any action, play with your retrieve speed.
Written by John Fedorka for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cooling temps and rising stream levels mean one thing—trout and landlocked salmon are on the run
The Yellow Conehead Woolly Bugger whistles by my ear and plunks in the river on the far side of a white plume. At the end of the swing, it glides into the slack water around my feet. A crimson blur flashes toward it—a brook trout trying to chase an intruder from the eddy. But then the trout sees me and vanishes into the clear flows of Maine’s Kennebec River.
Another 15 minutes of casting and turtle-hunching in the wind. Should I switch flies? I wonder, stripping in the conehead. Suddenly, a salmon is in the air, skittering across the rapids. My line snaps through the guides. I connect the dots—bingo!
Ten minutes later, a 20-inch landlocked salmon comes to net, glittering and strong. I know the fish resulted from my fly ending up in its path almost incidentally, but the early-morning salmon gives me a charge nonetheless. Luck and patience are big parts of fishing the fall migration, no doubt.
During this time of year, cooling temperatures and rising water levels activate the largest brook trout, landlocked salmon, and brown trout, drawing them upstream to procreate. Since food is not the point of the journey, bright streamers, like a yellow conehead, make a good choice for brookies or salmon. Other top patterns on the Kennebec include the Montreal Whore, the White Marabou, and the Mickey Finn Marabou. A similar streamer formula holds true for brown trout, though they prefer colors and imitations of creatures found in nature, such as leeches, sculpins, and juvenile trout. In each case, weight matters. You want your streamer to get down there, walk into the bar, and pick a fight.
Hours later and a mile downstream, my friend Jim and I loll on a sunny ledge eating sandwiches. The shoreline glows with yellows and oranges, rendering the river violet blue in contrast. As pleasant as it is, Jim likes this spot for other reasons—among them the cartwheeling, 5-pound salmon he landed while teetering on the ledge a few years ago.
But he hasn’t forgotten about the ones that got away, either. “I wouldn’t have minded landing that big brookie I had on last year,” Jim says. “She took my conehead into her little cave and wouldn’t come out.”
Jim isn’t the only one who has lost out. Several years ago, two pools upriver, our friend Shawn tussled with a big brookie for more than 20 minutes before it snapped the tippet on a headshake. A year before that, Jim’s English buddy Charles was grinning as he played his first ever American salmon, albeit a small one, until a huge brook trout floated up and snatched it away. Landing fish can be just as hard as hooking them at this time of year, but that’s part of the appeal.
After story hour, Jim grabs his vest and rod and heads downriver. “I’ll be back so we can hike out in the light,” he says over his shoulder, “and avoid getting stomped by a moose.”
I creak to my feet and start roll casting a pair of No. 14 and 18 beadheads out along a foam line, still mulling stories of big fish landed and lost.
Over the years I’ve learned that the smallest nymphs often account for the biggest fish, especially as autumn wears on. Beadhead Princes or Hare’s Ears, weighted stoneflies and, in particular, No. 16 to 18 Pheasant Tails dead-drifted in the right place seem to offer fall spawners a quick bite without their needing to stop or chase. Sometimes on the East Outlet, I use an indicator, a yellow conehead, and a No. 18 Pheasant Tail on a 5X dropper—an odd concoction, sure. But fall is like that. Dan Legere of Maine Guide Fly Shop, a top regional outfitter, has floated the East Outlet some 1,500 times, and I’ve heard him say, “In the fall, it may take 10 different flies to catch 10 different fish.” After all, fall spawners don’t know what they want; food is a peripheral concern.
Since autumn salmon and trout stay on the move, anglers must do the same to find them. The fish end up in resting places and favor side cover, such as fallen trees and ledges. They also tend to move at low light, and this is surely the case on the river now, with the black boulders casting shadows over the flow. Roll casting along the ledge, I glance upstream and watch as Jim, 200 yards ahead, plays a fish. My yellow indicator, meanwhile, bobs through the current like an abandoned life raft.
I hike 50 yards upriver and butt-slide down to a toe-scrunching ledge overlooking a run. I balance myself and start drifting my nymph rig. Just as I lift the rod to cast again, a fish is there. It bores into the deep water beneath the ledge, pulling in slow, heavy tugs. I extend my rod to get the fish into the open river, but that’s not happening. I raise the rod tip high. But just as suddenly as the fish was on, it’s off, and the weight releases into nothing. In a sense, I follow suit, deflating, and stare at the tippet floating in front of me. With the angling season in its twilight, I won’t have many more chances at a brook trout like that. Jim and I will soon hike out for the last time until spring. The fish, meanwhile, will continue upriver, another one lost for next year’s story hour.
GEAR TIP: Autumn Arsenal
The modified Conehead Woolly Bugger is a surefire pattern for spawning fall trout, thanks to its weighted tungsten cone, chenille body, and marabou tail. You can tie up a Bugger sans hackle or clip the hackle off a standard Woolly Bugger in a pinch. So unencumbered, the fly zigs and zags near the bottom in provocative motions. Stick with olive, red, white, and yellow, in sizes 4 through 8. With a floating line, cast upstream and slightly across. Retrieve so the fly moves a little faster than the current and taps the rocks along the bottom. You can also fish a conehead with a strike indicator, twitching it as it floats. —W.R.
This story ran in the September 2017 issue with the headline “Fall in Line.”
Written by Will Ryan for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.
The saints watched from the crook of a massive, gnarled, and knotted tree: Saint Ursula clutched a sword, and beneath her a warrior held her scepter. Ursula, legend holds, was a British princess martyred in Germany in the 4th century, along with as many as 11,000 of her holy companions. Now two-foot-tall statues of the saints, nestled in an ancient tree at the end of a jungled foot trail, gaze over a wild Puerto Rican river. Rivers of wax from prayer candles flowed like lava down the trunk. A small platter held a smudge of old incense ashes.
“I’m not going to lie,” said my son, Jack, as he threaded the tip of his fly rod through the vines dripping beneath Ursula’s robes. “This is a little freaky.”
But there was nothing to fear. For centuries, the Puerto Rican faithful have placed wooden figurines of saints—santos—in their homes as altars for prayer and offering, a tradition born of rural people who had limited access to churches. We passed under the santos —Jack, myself, my buddy Nate Matthews, and Craig Lilyestrom, retired director of Puerto Rico’s Marine Resources Division—and waded into the clear waters of the Espírito Santo River, four anglers a long way from home, with fly rods and lightweight spinning gear and only the faintest idea of what we were doing.
A slight shiver ran down my spine, and I looked over my shoulder to catch a last glimpse of the santos, barely visible in the trees. I wished I had packed a candle in my sling pack. Perhaps I should have hooked a dry fly into the bark below Saint Ursula’s robe, a token of respect and hope. Given the nature of our quest—to find and catch some of the strangest and least-known fish in America—I’d take all the supernatural help I could get.
A Plan Comes Together
I first heard of Puerto Rico’s funky fish species on a research trip a decade ago, and I’ve kept a folder of science papers on the subject ever since. Scores of short, steep tropical rivers fall from the high peaks of the Cordillera Central and the El Yunque rainforest to coastal lagoons ringed with mangroves and sand flats. Within a few hours’ hike there are mountain canyons and rich estuaries, and a host of native Caribbean fishes that never see a headline. There’s the gem-like sriracha goby that sports suction cups on its fins so it can scale waterfalls in the rainforest. Foot-long freshwater shrimp. The bigmouth sleeper, a fanged fish shaped like a flat torpedo to help it burrow in the river bottom and hang on during the frequent flash floods of the river canyons. These fish crush baitfish as aggressively as a northern pike, but other than a few locals fishing for the table, no one targets bigmouth sleeper.
And then there’s the mountain mullet. This was my Holy Grail—a catadromous, trout-like mullet that lives in the clear rivers that tumble from the mountains. Google “mountain mullet fishing,” and the Internet gives you nearly nothing. There’s a blog post from some dude living in a treehouse on the west coast of Costa Rica. A sparse Reddit thread. An 1872 magazine story from Jamaica. Locals call the fish dajao, and catch it on tiny pieces of avocado. But recreational fishing is nil. Many Puerto Ricans don’t even know this fish exists, much less whether they will take a dry fly.
A few months before my trip, at a pint night for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, serendipity struck. I ran into Augustin Engman, a post-doc fisheries biologist whose passion was studying the island’s native fish, and told him about my Puerto Rico obsession, which was going nowhere. “It’s crazy,” Engman said. “You wouldn’t believe what’s down there.”
Three drinks into the conversation, I asked Engman: Could a couple of guys pull off a Puerto Rican road trip, part-guided and part-DIY, something that wouldn’t break the bank, but would feature a few of Puerto Rico’s glamour fish—tarpon and peacock bass, maybe—but roughing it for natives the rest of the time?
Engman lit up with a grin. “I don’t think anybody’s done that,” he said. “Ever.”
That was all I needed to hear.
A Mountain Mullet Milestone
From San Juan, we coursed east and south—the soaring, vernal bulk of the Luquillo Mountains off our right shoulder. Those high ridges see nearly 15 feet of rainfall each year, all of which thunders more than 3,500 feet to the sea in less than six miles. Clouds were snagged in the mountaintops, and Lilyestrom frowned. “These rivers can spike to 50 times normal flows in a matter of minutes,” he said. “If you see the water color up, or leaves and sticks in the main flow, get the hell out.”
Our first target was the Sabana River, with headwaters high in the El Yunque National Forest. The big creek falls through tangled greenery, the Cordillera Central high and dark in the background, but getting to the water in the lowlands is a trick. One of the charms of Puerto Rican stream fishing is accessing the stream: We parked at the end of the highway bridge, and macheted through 10-foot-tall brush to the water’s edge. Jack was the first to hack his way clear, and he immediately scattered a school of fish from a cobbled flat running clear.
“Silver, and sort of torpedo-shaped?” Lilyestrom asked, pulling thorns from his forearm.
“Yes, sir,” Jack replied. “And a spot near the tail.”
“Mountain mullet,” Lilyestrom said. “Just has to be.”
Stoked at our possible good luck, we divvied up the braided channels and each took off in a separate direction. I had no idea what fly to fish, what kind of retrieve to make, or what sort of water to look for to catch a fish that hardly anyone seems to know anything about. Vehicle traffic buzzed downstream, and an occasional car horn blared. But otherwise, I was immersed in an otherworld of clear, running water, gravel bars, and river banks clad in a thousand shades of green. Squint, and I might imagine LeTort Spring Run in Pennsylvania or a spring creek in the Rockies.
Starting with a tiny Clouser Minnow, I fan-cast to every pool, riffle, and ledge drop within reach. Silver shapes fled. I switched to a fly that would land with a subtler splat, a little tuft of flash with tiny dumbbell eyes, and slowed down to pick the river apart for where a trout might lie. With close to nothing to go on, nothing is what I caught for nearly an hour.
Then, suddenly, Jack hollered from upstream. “Dad! Dad! Get up here!”
I churned through the current and jogged across a gravel bar, part of me not wanting to miss what Jack might have discovered, and another part hoping he hadn’t found himself in some kind of off-the-beaten-path trouble—bayed up by iguanas, perhaps, or with his foot trapped in a truck quarter panel rusting in the river. Instead, he was high-sticking his line for a drag-free drift along an undercut edge of the island. “Dad, it’s crazy!” he hollered, as I rounded the bend.
He was talking a mile a minute. He’d learned his lesson from the skittish fish downstream. Casting from his knees, he’d crawled a Crazy Charlie tarpon fly through a slow ledge and pool when the first fish hit. Now he’d already landed two mountain mullet and had another half-dozen follows.
“I was so zoned in, I felt like I was 50 miles from the nearest human,” he said. “I saw this run and thought: If this were Montana it would be sick with rainbows and browns. The first fish took the fly on sort of a super-duper slow swing, so I let the next cast sink to the bottom and WHAM! These fish fight like crazy!”
“Mountain mullet?” I asked.
“If think so,” he replied. “Get above me and catch one, then you tell me.”
Our gravel bar ruckus, however, had put down every fish in the stretch. We moved up the river, fishing the Sabana as if we were targeting brook trout water back home, crawling up to boulders in the middle of a mountain creek, hopscotching holes to take turns fishing, watching each other’s every cast. Every lane looked fishy, every lie, every piece of promising water that gave up nothing was analyzed. When you have no information, all information is valuable.
Jack switched to a double dry-fly rig, his go-to for cutthroat trout as a summer guide in Montana. I tied on a lightweight bead-chain Crazy Charlie, and pinched a bright-orange foam strike indicator to the leader. We were like giddy 10-year-olds that our parents had turned loose on a creek for the first time—except we carried three grand in fishing gear. Moving upstream, I stalked a broad gravel bar where the river took a hard right-hand turn, with two tongues of current cutting through shallow riffles to spill into a dark-tea pool. A retrieve through the far tongue turned up nothing, but on the second cast, I let the current carry the leader into the trough first, trailing the fly, so it would straighten and slingshot the Crazy Charlie deep under the bank.
The fish darted from the bottom of the pool in a silver flash, and the rod jumped.
Jack’s fish were hand-size. Not this one. The fish bent the 4-weight rod to the cork. It ran straight upstream, and when it surged over the ledge drop into the riffled shallows above, and I gave it all the line it wanted as it rooster-tailed through four-inch-deep water.
By the time I brought the fish in hand, my own whoops had alerted the team. There was the tail-spot that Jack saw earlier, a charcoal smudge. A blunt head with an omnivore’s mouth, ready to scarf down anything from a snail to a floating beetle. And the entire, elliptical, foot-long beast was armored in diamond scales with a bronzed opalescence.
We all gathered on the gravel bar to gawk. “There’s probably been less than 10 people in all of Puerto Rico that have ever caught a mountain mullet on a fly,” Lilyestrom said. “And I’m looking at two of them.”
Juiced, we talked about the exultant feeling of catching a fish—even a small fish—in an atmosphere of discovery and even doubt. We’ve all caught good fish in pretty crazy places. Matthews slings live eels for brute stripers out of a kayak in New York harbor. Jack guides for bull trout in remote Montana. But we were so worried that this wouldn’t happen, and that the stories of these fish were little more than myth. And even if they weren’t, how could we know if a mountain mullet would eat an artificial fly?
We took a few quick photos, and I released the fish into a slot of clear water in the gravel par, its scales a prismatic argyle that shimmered with all the colors of this little corner of unknown Puerto Rico—wet rocks, green banks, and blue sky.
“I’ve got to admit it,” Matthews said, “the whole trip felt like we were casting for unicorns. If you told folks back home that you could just park at a bridge, hack your way down to the creek, and basically go trout fishing in Puerto Rico, they’d never believe you.”
Of course, we weren’t winners everywhere. The next day on the Mamayes River, we roped down a steep bank beside a parking area chockablock with food trucks and locals who eyed us warily. A thunderstorm raged in blinding sheets as I sheltered under a rootball waiting for Jack and Matthews to beat it back downstream before the river rose. On another afternoon we hiked far up another headwater stream to a rumored stretch of river, but other than the four-inch snook Jack caught to bump up our species list, it was a bust.
But there for a long blissful morning on the Sabana, we had picked the lock on mountain mullet, and while it was hard to say whether we were lucky or good, one thing was certain: We were grateful.
Silver Kings of the Night
Not that we were chasing spirits and myths alone. Puerto Rico is known for tarpon fishing, and we definitely had glamour shots with big fish on our road-trip wish list. Two days earlier, I’d stood on the bow deck of a flats skiff fishing under a disco ball; my fly line unfurled through a kaleidoscope of color. There was yellow from highway bridge lights, green from the boat’s bow beacon, and reds and whites from the nighttime glow of the San Juan skyline.
Captain Angel Munendez stood in the dark behind me, his voice slipping over my shoulder. “Strip the fly like you are writing a new rhythm,” he said. “Like you invent something new each time you touch the line, yes?”
It was a beautiful way to think of this tactile connection to the fly, a relationship between the animate and inanimate, and it seemed fitting in the surreal urban wilds of San Juan. Five massive lagoons wind through the city, interconnected with mangrove-lined creeks and canals. At sunset, we would cruise the seawalls of upscale neighborhoods where couples at dinner were silhouetted in their dining rooms a few dozen yards from our casts. We’d duck into side channels where frogs called in the night and music spilled out of waterfront bars. Then we’d round a corner of mangrove canal, and the city skyline rose all around. We had our butts handed to us in that saltwater maze.
At sunrise we’d paddle sea kayaks from the landing at Tarpon’s Nest, a boutique hotel that caters to tarpon freaks, into Laguna La Torrecilla with the sound of surf on the far side of the mangroves and white egrets crowding the near shoreline. Huge schools of tarpon would surround us, and fish rolled in every direction, breeching in great toilet-flushes of exploding water 10 feet from the boats. None would eat. As trade winds rose from the east, conditions worsened. Zeroed out in five hours of hard fishing, we headed back to Tarpon’s Nest to lick our wounds.
All of which was in my mind as I sent my 300th cast into the disco ball of Laguna San Jose. “It’s like roulette,” Munendez said. “You cannot know if five-pound tarpon or 200-pound tarpon is there, but be ready for all.”
When the tarpon hit, I can’t say if I were inventing something new or simply stripping the fly blindly. But the silver fish leapt immediately in the dark, and I dropped the rod tip to feed slack to the line, and the fish leapt again—this time lit up in the rainbow lights of San Juan.
I felt relief and redemption, two emotions I would come to know well. It would be two more days later that I would genuflect to Saint Ursula, dipping low under her candle-scented altar above the Espírito Santo River. But in the spangled light of urban San Juan, with the fly line running through the rod guides toward the tarpon in the night, this fish already felt like a blessing.
Bigmouth Sleepers in an Urban Jungle
Early the next morning we drove south through Luquillo, past the famed surfing beach with the blue Atlantic stitched with breakers from offshore reefs, to the Fajardo River. We had local intel that the Fajardo was prime hunting grounds for guabina, which means “slippery,” the local term for bigmouth sleeper. A monster might be two feet long, but even the smaller fish have a reputation for MMA-style ferocity that transcends their weight class.
Puerto Rico’s natural beauty notwithstanding, you can’t discount the reality of its contemporary challenges. Graffiti sprawled across abandoned building. Along roads and highways, mind-boggling mounds of trash littered vacant lots, creek crossings, and waterways. An estimated 18,000 tires are disposed of in Puerto Rico every day. There simply is no denying an epic trash problem.
And there are even uglier issues surrounding Puerto Rico’s fisheries. Mountain mullet, bigmouth sleeper, and lots of other tropical fish need intact seashore, coastal lagoon, and upland rivers, all of which are under stress in Puerto Rico. Yet fisheries management in the territory is 100 years behind the rest of the country. There are practically zero regulations about fishing licenses or limits. In 2004, when the territory was thinking about passing legislation to require fishing licenses, Lilyestrom literally received death threats. Puerto Rico is much more involved in helping commercial fisherman pillage these resources than supporting what could be a top-shelf recreational destination. A 2011 NOAA report estimated that marine resources on the island could easily bring in more than $70 million a year, nearly 10 times what commercial fishing does.
So, Christmas Island, it ain’t. Which helps explain the machetes.
Near a Highway 3 bridge overpass, we parked in front of ramshackle abandoned buildings with mangy dogs eyeballing us from the shadows. Jaywalking the highway, we skirted a chain-link fence, stepping around rotting papayas and giant ant mounds. Just past the bridge I dropped down into a tangle of heavy brush, jumbled vines of morning glory, garbage bags, and dirty clothes. The jungle was thick as a kelp forest. I buried my head into my arms and battered through as my buddies waited on the bridge for a scouting report. I felt my way along the concrete bridge abutment, then dropped down into the grotto-like darkness under the bridge.
“I’m at the water,” I yelled. “Turn left at the purple panties, then just machete your way down!”
Beyond the bridge, past old car quarter-panels rusting in the muck, the Fajardo River flowed along gorgeous banks lined with white-barked sycamores. I struck upstream, and 50 feet from the highway the greenery closed in. Within a few steps I lost Jack in the sawgrass and Matthews in the gloom of the bridge.
I cast to the tail-outs of swift runs and dredged ultralight crankbaits through the deep pools, figuring that the fish that had eluded us so far—bigmouth sleeper—would hunker down in the slower water. I worked pool after pool of nothing. Unsure of my next move, I turned into a side channel and flipped a small crayfish floater-diver plug a few feet downstream, free-spooling the lure under a spiderweb the size of a garbage can and along a dark slash of cut bank. The fish slashed out from under the bank like the head of a state fair whack-a-mole, snatched the crayfish from the surface and turned back towards its cave.
Once I wrestled it into the open, I couldn’t believe the fish was barely 8 inches long. It lunged against the ultralight rod with a cottonmouth’s fury. Stick 10 fish in a blender and you’d end up with this Frankenstein smoothie of a predator—a trout-like tail with turquoise fin rays, spots like a walleye, and a toothy mouth that made me recoil.
I released the fish with stout forceps, and 10 steps away another sleeper crushed the crayfish. I had to run downstream to keep the 4-pound test from snapping. The sleeper wrapped line around a rock then swam to an underwater log. It held fast in the creek, a 14-inch fanged flag in a storm. I set the rod down and went in waist-deep, trying not to think about the old diapers snagged on the bank.
The crayfish came free with a twist. The sleeper had vanished. As I crawled back out of the water, I heard a shout. “You guys need to see this!” Matthews hollered. Once again, I took off running.
My buddy was on his knees in another side channel, wrenching a hook out of a 3-pound bigmouth sleeper. He’d slow-crawled his own crayfish plug up the bank edge and it was smashed by this brute of a bigmouth, which had Matthews’s fingers bleeding as he tried to remove the hook.
“Snakehead anglers back home would lose their minds over this!” he said. “Just crazy.”
He released the sleeper, and it streaked away. I half-expected it to twist like a rattler and chomp Nate’s hand on the way home. Bigmouth sleepers might not win any beauty contests, but they are native fish that need clear mountain water, unpolluted estuaries, and access to the sea. Unlovely they may be, but they are a symbol that all is not lost on Puerto Rico.
With our search image dialed in, I left Matthews to his bleeding fingers. Now I knew where guabina lived. And I hadn’t caught nearly enough of them.
We slept in late the next morning, the Atlantic surf rolling just a hundred yards from a hostel we’d booked on the beach at Luquillo. In five days, we’d fished four rivers, the San Juan lagoons, and spent one sunset surf-casting rolling breakers. My body clock was broken, the pieces cobbled together with Red Bull and Starbucks Double Shots. We had a half-day left to fish, and felt like we needed a gimme—a guilty pleasure, like a big piece of store-bought cake.
Which is how we wound up hunting peacock bass in golf course ponds that were about as natural as a Hostess HoHo. After all our cerebral, high-minded exploratory adventures, we whacked stocked fish in a high-dollar resort while duffers shot us daggers from the greens.
Gaudy and exotic, peacocks here are a non-native creature that is everything a tarpon is not and all that a mountain mullet might stand against. And we caught whoppers. My largest fish pushed maybe eight pounds. I remember double-handing the glowing beast, gawking for photos with something that looked like I’d snagged it out of a nuclear power plant silo. Over the photographer’s shoulder rose the green-clad mountains of the Cordillera Central, those fragments of the Puerto Rican wild where the mountain mullet and bigmouth sleeper still thrive.
I felt a little guilty. After nearly a week boating, kayaking, wading, and crawling across the northeast corner of Puerto Rico, I had been convinced that this island holds world-class fishing for native fish in unforgettable places.
As I released the peacock back into its artificial home, I made a promise to return and make amends. I’ll bring a candle next time, and light it at Saint Ursula’s feet. On my map I’d marked a stretch of the Espírito Santos that seemed utterly lost to time. It would be a good place to beg the santos for a bit of fishing forgiveness.
Written by T. Edward Nickens for Field & Stream and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.