15 Meter Sailplane Nationals – Minden NV 1992

This Story was picked up and edited by the  “Sailplane Racing News” a limited circulation newsletter covering the US sailplane racing scene.  I wrote it after competing in one of my first national championships in Minden NVMinden is known to have some of the strongest soaring conditions in the states.  The sailplanes are all 15 meter wingspan (50 feet) composite German racers.  They have flaps, spoilers, water tanks,, a retractable wheel and a GPS enabled  flight computer.  While there is no engine noise, an audio signal from the computer gives constant advice on the optimum speed to fly and the vertical motion of the atomosphere .  There’s a fair amount of jargon in the story but here are some definitions that may help:

‘Lift’ is generally expressed in knots of vertical speed.  Conveniently,  1 knot equals roughly 100 feet per minute

‘Re-lit’ is to land and get another tow before the start of a race. Tows are to 2,000’ AGL

The ‘gate’ is an invisible vertical rectangle that goes up to 5,000’ AGL – pilots fly through it to start the task, and then fly through at the end of the task if they are so blessed. Speed is distance around the task over the time through the gate.  You only get distance points if you ‘landout’ somewhere other than the starting point.

The ‘POST’ is a Pilot Option Speed Task where each pilot can pick which turnpoints to fly around (in contrast to a normal speed task where everyone flies around the same set of turnpoints).  All tasks involve flying to landmarks and taking a pictures of them.  The photos are developed each night.  Now GPS data loggers are used and  the good ‘ol days of gates and photos are gone forever.

Water is used as ballast in strong soaring conditions. The water is carried in the wings and can be jettisoned if conditions weaken or just before landing.  Hauling 20 to 30 gallons of water around the airport and getting them into the wings is one of the joys of crewing.  Dumping the water during a low pass through the finish gate followed by a Chandelle is one of the great  joys of piloting.

“Cu”, pronounced ‘cue’ are cumulus clouds. They generally mark the tops of thermals unless the day is ‘blue’.

Charlie Spratt is the Contest Director – Charlie is an institution deserving a story all his own. Imagine a non-pilot calling tasks for  50 competitive pilot egos.  A single misstep will put 50 high tech aircraft and their pilots in the weeds (and roads and pastures and dry lakes).  

MINDEN FROM THE AIR

The following is an excerpt from the August/September 1992 issue of the Albatross “Pinions,” the newsletter of the Aero Club Albatross in New Jersey. Bill Watson is the writer, and this is some exciting reading from a guy who took on Minden for the first time at the 1992 15m Nationals.

The First Day on the High Seas of the Sierras

Without benefit of either practice day, the first day was filled with possibility. All the big boys were there including Jacobs, Striedieck, Mozer, Walters, Gimmey, Gatenbrink, and a lot of other Western names even though the field has only 46 pilots. Fair number of first timers to the Sierras here too.

The task was Minden, Hilton Ranch, Air Sailing, Silver Springs and return for 220 miles. The day was forecast to be rather weak for the Sierras, a slow start with only 2 hours of peak conditions. Lift would go only to 4-5 knots up to 11,000 MSL (6,500 AGL but below many peaks). Rick Walters said after the flight, “We don’t go cross country when it is that low.” He wasn’t kidding.

After talking to everyone in sight about how you fly out here, I felt well armed but knew that the lack of a practice day was going to hurt. After launch I began to get airsick. A few people re-lit.

Starts were generally low-speed affairs at the top of the gate followed by a glide into the crotch of the Pinenut Mountains to the east. The trick is to get to cloud base and get over this range which is 9,500′ at the peak but lower in the notches. The problem is that the 11,000′ lift is directly over the 9,500′ peak   In other words, you have to dive into the mountain and squeak over a notch.

Well, due to my stomach, I made a bad late start after everyone was gone and so I squeaked over alone. After crossing the range all you want to do is glide into the next moonscape valley but you realize that the lift is only over the mountains. After chewing on my balls for a while, I decided to spit them out, put them back where they belong and fly like a man, reminding myself that the mountains will not reach out and pull me down out of the sky.

I began to move along but my stomach was upside down. For the second time ever, I lost it and filled my water bottle and cockpit with turkey and sprouts on pita. And like any good Sierra pilot, I was fully hydrated. Bleech! All spirit was lost as I traveled another 80 miles before landing out at Air Sailing. About 130 miles. Fortunately for my ego there were other land-outs. I heard that Eric Mozer won at 70 mph and change. I took a $150 aero-retrieve.

The Second Day

Now I’m ready for some honest-to-god Minden weather. A 250-mile task is called, I bought some Dramamine, the sky is filled with cu and there is only a little rain and snow.

We launch but the task falls back to a 3-hour POST due to blow-ups, rain and hail in various quadrants. The sky looks most promising to the unpopular north, requiring some circumnavigation of the Reno ARSA.

I go for Nervino which is northwest of Reno, the only turnpoint allowing passage west of the ARSA. Thunderstorm avoidance slows me down but I pick my way around the ARSA and end up near Silver Springs which is northeast of Reno in a loose gaggle of 3 to 6 gliders. The sky between us and the airport has completely blown up with heavy rain, hail and air-to-ground lightning — and I was afraid the Dramamine would make me sleepy.

We all pick up a last turnpoint and I get up to 12,000′ or so. I don’t know what to do so I make a rookie move. Seeing two gliders 2,000 feet below heading out on a final glide, I follow. My computer says I’ll make it, not accounting for rain. They don’t have a chance – am I disoriented? Maybe I’m reading the ground wrong. I plunge ahead about 2 miles behind them. Three lightning stokes hit the ground in front of us. Jesus!

Soon I am near-IFR but I can see these two fools on the deck. I check the map and see that three airports lie along our track. I start paying a lot of attention to landing spots. The radio is full of distressed chatter. I only hope those two guys know what they are doing.

The rain has its expected effect and I fall below slope. I shoot for Carson City airport but hit heavy downdrafts and end up on a private dirt strip where the windsock is doing 360s. Whew!! Alicia is the ninth trailer to pass me on the road.

The score sheet is a mess. Fourteen pilots get speed points and seven get zero for illegal turnpoints. Some declared legs on their landing cards that technically bust the ARSA (Striedieck, Sorenson, Jacobs, Gatenbrink) and others (Gimmey) went to turnpoints beyond the 90-mile limit. Charlie Spratt is right, we can be real idiots sometimes. The ARSA stuff and the 90-mile limit were clearly explained and easy to manage (I may not be able to fly fast but I can follow instructions). There are some very sour faces. It must have been a long night in the scoring room.

The winner, Al Leffler, goes 240 miles at 76mph.

The Third and Fourth Days —  My Practice Days

Day 3 – first attempt: Thunderstorms predicted early. We assemble, water and begin to stage when thunderstorms threaten the grid so we put them back in the box and go fishing. Where the hell is that infamous Minden weather?

DAY 3 – for real: The forecast suggests a lot of thunderstorm blowups but the northeast portion of the task area may be okay. A 195-mile O&R is declared to Derby. This is more like it, ragged cu dot the task area and it looks like some straightforward soaring. I finally get a practice day. It is hard to imagine a devalued 195-mile task but Doug Jacobs does it at 94 mph. Some day I’ll figure out how to do that.

DAY 4: A 5-turnpoint, 288-mile task is declared. Now I’m getting in the swing of things. I fly a bit with Ray Gimmey and get a sense of how much more aggressively the pros dolphin-fly these conditions. Problem is, when I get within 4,000 feet of the terrain, I’m nervous and slow. A lot of what you need to do involves flying close to the mountains and flying for hours with substantial amounts of terrain above you. It is beautiful and it is fun and it does keep you fully awake.

The Fifth Day — Let’s go for it!

“Good forecast and I’m ready. Gonna put the nose down, follow the lift, fear no evil and kick some butt. Of course, it is a single-place glider and the only butt available is my own.

“A 4-hour POST is called and there is promise of action in the Whites. The White Mountains are about 100 miles to the south and represent the highest terrain in the task area with peaks over 14,000 feet. Charlie had obtained SSA permission to include three further-than-allowed-by-the-rules turnpoints so that the Whites could be flown on a POST day.

“Well, I bombed down towards the south with a lot of other people. Honest 10 knot-plus lift under cu but the cu is only in certain places. Follow the cu and take pictures is the plan. Everyone ends up over the same thermal over the same turnpoint and decisions have to be made about where to go.

“Even though the Whites are blue, I sight down a line of cu that perpendicularly intersect the Whites. But the line ends over the peak of the ridge. The map shows a turnpoint just on the other side of the ridge that seems to line up with the cu line. Select afterburners and go.

Cu line works perfectly and deposits me at 17,000 feet directly over the ridge line looking directly at the turnpoint just 10 miles further on in the valley. But it is blue from here to there. A careful calculation would show that climbing up to 17,500 (highest permitted altitude) followed by a max L/D glide in to the TP and back out would allow me to get back with more than enough altitude to clear the ridge.

“However, no careful calculation (or even some quick Kentucky windage) was done. Nooooo — we figure with all this sun, and all this lift, there has to be some lift out in the blue. I slow to 90 or so and bomb into the TP. Upon turning I realize that one, no lift was encountered and two, I’m not getting back over this ridge without some lift.

“I spend the better part of an hour bumping up against this ridge without success. I finally got out and got back but I know that the rest of the field has smoked the course. Doug Jacobs wins the best day of the contest with 100 mph over 400-plus miles.

“Was the decision to fly that cu line to the Whites a good idea? Several days later I talked to Bruno Gantenbrink who is the only other pilot to claim that particular turnpoint. He left the ridge top at 17,500′, slowed down to near best L/D, and flew straight in and out without a problem. He was in the top 10 for the day. Where’s that butt?

Day 6 — A Return to Weak Weather — I’ve Had Enough

“The weather is forecast to be decent but turns out very weak (for Minden). I slink out late and get very stuck behind Hawthorne Mountain. The moon is a very pretty place but landing there does not look like fun. When I hear on 123.5 mh that everyone is slow on the 330-mile task, I climb up out of my hole and final glide back – screw the task. I am not alone. Richard “Tigger” Hall, the eventual contest winner, wins the day at 77 mph but people are still finishing at 7:30 that evening. Alicia and I found some good margaritas.

Day 7 — The Worst of times, the Best of Times

I saw more weather on this flight than I’ve seen in any 5 flights combined. Conditions are forecast to be good but with some over development. A 3-hour POST is called to permit circumnavigation of the hot spots but, as we discover later, it is hard to circumnavigate the home airport.

The launch begins and it is immediately obvious that the sky is already blowing up. Pilots were reporting rain and hail before I even launched:

“Charlie, we have rain and medium-sized hail southeast of the airport.”

“…only light rain falling to the north.”

“Charlie, change that to light hail to the southeast with some sleet.”

” Okay, guys, I understand but I just want to talk to my advisors. Let’s keep the channel clear… l can see the weather.”   Charlie Spratt has taken on the aura of Contest CEO, reminding me of one of our best fictional “chief executives,  Captain Jean Luc Picard.  He delegates, he empowers, he compliments, he chews ass, he listens, he judges, he is calm, he is professional, and he is in total control. He has turned into absolutely the best CD around. The SSA needs to put him on the payroll. (He’s also looking pretty good since he lost weight — Alicia)

Anyway, I launch my 1200 pounds of lead sled into one-knot lift combined with rain. People are struggling and I’m at the bottom of the stack. Finally I start to get up after 40 minutes of scratching. The gate had been delayed twice to give everyone a fair start but now it opens and the fleet leaves. I’m not up to the top yet but leave anyway.

Once out of the Minden valley, conditions look great. I find three turnpoints surrounding two fat-looking cu and decide to run these turnpoints until I’m forced out. Glad I was able to keep the ballast because it is smokin’!   Starts at 8 knots, then 9, then 10. The clouds get bigger and then merge. Looks like they’ll blow up soon but the lift just keeps getting stronger.

On my third circuit around, I’m barely circling at all.   Now, cloudbase is at 17,500 which happens to be the contest’s ceiling. As I approach my seventh turnpoint the lift is off the scale, airspeed is approaching redline (what about true airspeed?) and I’m being sucked into the cloud.  I’m afraid to pull the spoilers (excessive control forces and vibration) and don’t want to go in the cloud so I just kind of keep going faster, flying as smoothly as possible. Suddenly, I can see a stream of hail come down from the edge of the cloud and turn back toward me. I’m being hit by hail from below  Yikes!

Finally I clear the cloud and bleed off the speed as I fly into a perfectly dead, clear sky. A final glide in would be easy but it looks a little dark over the airport. I glide over to the Pinenut Mountains that surround the Minden valley and see a giant mass of rain, hail and lightning completely blocking out the airport. While I can’t see any other pilots, I can hear the calls:

” Charlie, say your winds and conditions”

‘Winds 10 to 15 out of the north, no precipitation”

“Charlie, is it raining at the airport?”

“Negative, winds 10 to 15, gusting to 25 out of the northeast”

‘Uh, Charlie, say your conditions again”

“Winds 10 to 15 out of the northwest, no precipitation”

Well, it doesn’t seem possible to me either, it has to be raining at the airport! It becomes clear that people are going to penetrate this mess and finish this task. For reasons that escape me now, I feel the same way.

I spot some light between two rain shafts and decide to go for it. I have plenty of altitude and a lack of good sense. Air-to-ground lightning is striking all over but I press forward as I hear a regular stream of finishers – unbelievable!   Pretty soon I’ve got lightning in front, behind, and to both sides. Rain and sleet all over. I find myself fascinated by the visual differences between the big bolts and the smaller ones as they hit the ground, which is interesting because at the same time, I am scared to bloody death.

I pass between the two big rain shafts and spot the airport. After a high finish I line up behind two others in the pattern. It is turbulent as hell and the wind is constantly shifting. I turn high final and hit the spoilers. Seconds later, a big drop and I find myself 10 feet off the runway holding a 20-degree crab. A last second kick gives me a greaser but I’m rolling out of control. The wind has the plane and all I can do is keep the wings level. Charlie, having observed me experience the latest wind shift, is dancing out of my way while broadcasting another runway change. I roll out more or less where I’m supposed to but it certainly wasn’t my doing.

With lots of help, the glider is secured and i get in Fitch’s van. The effect of a lightning strike in the air can vary, but a strike while standing on a wet runway is pretty certain. There are 10 to 20 people running around at this point, bless their hearts, but I decide to spend as much time in an insulated vehicle as possible.

Then a heart-chilling radio message from Dick Mockler, ‘I can’t see ahead of me, I’m about 50 feet in the air and I don’t know where the airport is, I’m going to land out.’

This is not good when flying over moonscape. He must have picked the worst spot to penetrate the storm and he sounds like he is IFR. He then reports seeing a dry river bed and says he will land there. My mind raced as I tried to remember a dry river bed big enough to land in. I can’t and neither can anyone else. But Dick landed and it was a great relief to hear a circling tow pilot report talking to him. In fact he landed without incident and only required a 4WD vehicle to handle the mud.

Bruno won what turned out to be the last day of the contest, at 97 mph. One person who intelligently decided to land somewhere else that day said, ‘It sounded bad but everyone I talked to about penetrating that storm was smiling. I feel like I missed something.

The contest ends with me at the bottom, but again, enough with mere statistics. There are no accidents, no damage, no injuries. Minden is a super place to fly. The best way to describe everything about it is BIG. The weather, the task area, the mountains, the speeds, the scares, the retrieves -everything is BIG including the excitement. I can’t wait to go back.

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Fish with Charisma – Steelhead

I remember the exact moment I fell in love with anadromous salmonids, or more specifically Steelhead.

That morning a gray sunrise lit the snow on the shoulders of the 30 or so fly fisherman along NY’s Salmon River. All had arrived in the sub-freezing dark to get the best positions along the flyfishing-only, catch & release upper reach. The existence of this short stretch crowned a contrived fishery of 30lb Pacific salmon and 10lb Atlantic steelhead transplanted into Lake Ontario. The fish gorge themselves on the lake’s fish for a few years then yield to nature’s call by running back up the Salmon river to the place of their birth, a NY State fish hatchery, where they die. A few are milked for eggs to sustain the contrivance, but all die. Except for the Steelhead.

The salmon provide sport fisherman the chance to troll the lake for giant salmon and for a few months each year, they can go after them during their spawning run. It’s not quite fishing though because Pacific salmon don’t eat once they leave the ocean, or in this case, the lake. So fisherman snag them with weighted hooks or dangle various contraptions in front of them to incite a reflexive bite. This creates a human zoo of meat fisherman going for maximum weight to stuff in their coffin sized coolers. The irony is that the fish are not safe to eat due to PCBs and mercury. I’ve caught a few on a fly but never one ‘fresh’ from the lake. After a few days in the river they start ‘aging’ in form, color and fight. Sort of like snagging a fluttering log

However, none of the fly fisherman in the upper stretch are after salmon. Steelhead is the game. Steelhead is a type of rainbow trout that has had access to the Atlantic ocean and adapted to an anadromous lifestyle. In this case, a lifestyle perverted to take place in the lake. The thing about Steelhead, like their Atlantic salmon brothers, is that they are ferocious fighters. Legendary fighters pursued by legendary fisherman; Ted Williams comes to mind.

I’ve read about this fish over the years but now my fishing and flying buddy, Jim Paris, has been hooked. When Jim gets on the trail of a new challenge, he scopes out the options, figures out optimal approaches, and then hunts it down. When I’m lucky, he calls me and invites me to try it out which he did after several trips to the Salmon River. So here I am, standing in an early morning lake effect snow storm with 30 other nut cases dredging for Steehead.

Flyfishing is normally a delicate and pleasant approach to taking trout on streams. You spot a feeding fish, you successfully determine which species of bug it’s feeding on, cast a passable imitation in synch with his feeding rhythm, the fishes rises and slurps it down. That’s the best part. Then you bring him in, slip the barbless hook our of his lip, release and repeat. Having mastered some technique and applying it at the right hour of the day, you can take a trout on almost every cast.

Fishing for steelies on the Salmon in early winter is gross and unpleasant. Instead of a weightless mayfly imitation, we lob heavily weighted fluorescent salmon egg imitations at the invisible non-feeding fish. 20 feet out, let it bump along the bottom, lift, lob, and repent endlessly. Whoops, the rod guides have iced up so slap the water to knock off the ice and lob it again. While unlike Pacific salmon that are all going to die here, Atlantic salmon and steelheads can return to their lives in the sea so they are not dying as we try to catch them. Despite that, they don’t feed much during their spawn but they can be aggravated into biting. Unfortunately it typically takes hundreds of freezing lobs to get a bite.

Getting the bite is the peak of the trout fishing experience. ‘Fighting’ them is rarely an issue. So I’m thinking, “this must be like catching a 10lb rainbow which would be quite an experience…lob, lob, lob”.

Fact is, I never caught a steelie in my 2 or 3 trips with Jim. I thought for a moment I had hooked one when it took off downstream and broke off. But it was just a large salmon who decided to fight by going back downstream a pool or two at a time I couldn’t follow.

But a fisherman a couple of positions upstream fought and caught one. I watched him land it after a long 15 minutes fight. It was probably a 10lb fish and was obviously exhausted. But up close I could see that he had 3 or 4 hooks in his jaws and wounds from several others. He was still resisting with energy as this last hook was removed and the fisherman removed some of the old ones before returning him to the stream. This fish had apparently run the gauntlet from lake to final hatchery pool escaping the snaggers and breaking off several spin fisherman along the way. This last catch was in question until he was voluntarily released. Wow!

Then another fisherman hooked one as we all reeled in to clear the pool for the fight. Early on the fish rushed over to me and slapped at my waders. At that moment I caught a glimpse of an eye on this desperately fighting animal. I’ve caught hundreds of fish and I had never seen such fierceness and abandon in the dead eyes of a fish. As strange as it may sound, I teared up and was overcome with admiration for the thing. I never did hook one up but it was a moment I’ve never forgotten.

A Novice’s Smile at Andros

I’m primarily a trout and stream guy who has only dabbled in the salt.  But things have come together such that it was time to see what this flats fishing thing was about.  Like any well read angler I guess I already knew; sight fishing for skittish silvery missiles requires a patient guide, accurate casting and some of that fine looking technical clothing that one sees in the shops.

Following the path my old fishing partner Jim had modeled, I searched for a top lodge at a prime location with a reputation for successful trips.  From the very first steps on Bahamian coral it seemed that the basics were in place.

Since returning I’ve told people that  if  you showed up at this place with a pair of dress pants, a shirt and few Clousers tucked into a luggage pocket, they will have you out on the flats the next morning casting a well balanced 8wt  and a box of the  right sized Crazy Charlies.  My preparations were a bit better than that and compared favorably with the other 6 rods at the camp, a mixed crew of midwestern fishing buddies with a range fishing experience.

I had my favorite traveling buddy along but was fishing solo.  My wife found the accommodations exactly as I had described them and all was good with the world.

In the morning at the departure dock I happily discovered I was going out 1:1 with a decidedly non-crazy Charlie,  while everyone else was paired up with a buddy.  I looked forward to a  first day  on the flats without distraction, inhibition or potential for embarrassment.  The day looked perfect with light winds and only a few clouds providing relief from the sun.    I thought I spotted some tailing fish 5 minutes out from the dock but Charlie was headed somewhere that was 30-40 minutes distant.  My brain thoroughly enjoyed the soak in the turquoise.

The novice’s moment of dread must be the first casts.  I thought I could feel Charlie back there taking stock of what he had drawn,  but we quickly found the same frequencies as I sorted out the rig, the boat and the water.  This was starting to look and feel real good as we start searching for fish.

Andros is wall to wall flats in all directions.  I already realized that no other people would be seen until we returned.  Charlie tried 3 spots in quick succession until we started to see Bones.  They looked small and turned out to be willing.  After a few misses and trout sets, I got my first on and to the boat.  They are as  hot as I hoped and turn out to be slimy beyond belief.  Skunk off, we move on.

Stepping though the basics of flats fishing, we steadily find and catch smallish Bones with a few nice medium size fish thrown in.  I guess that I’m bubbling with first timer excitement as I call every  Barracuda,  Shark and dead sponge I can find.  Charlie calls out singles up in the Mangroves, schools moving up from the blue and flights of 2 or 3 as they turn towards the boat momentarily giving up their transparent stealth.  I miss most of them most of the time but quickly learn to stay after them.  “They are hungry today, they want your fly”, and they do!  Even spooked fish will turn if I get a fly back in the water near them.  They’re competing for it, they’re eating it, they’ll eat it twice if needed.

By mid-afternoon I realize that I’ve lost count and I’m smiling as brightly as the day.  We end the day firing at some slightly larger singles, covering a lot water downwind and down-sun.  Perfect setups that happy exhaustion compromises.  I’m knee wobbly and sun stupid but unwilling to call it quits until Charlie does.

Remaining on the same frequency, we motor back silently. Five minutes from the dock we run into the other boats.  I’m smiling and it seems that everyone else is too.

Now I’m a smiling guy when I’m a happy guy and am always amazed how smiles reflect back.  The summary for my day is, “I lost count” but soon realize it’s been a mixed bag for  the others.  When the lodge staff acknowledges my smile with, “it’s not always like that” I decide to tone it down slowly realizing that I probably had the best day of the group.   Going into a lightly sun stroked stupor, the smile remains as I pass out on my feet.  At the camp my wife is over the moon collecting both shells and people as only she can.  She accepts the stupid grin as mission accomplished, we eat and I’m asleep before 9:00.

Buddy Jim gets a text update at 4:00am, “lots of fish, smallish but willing.  Not as hard as imagined, they are aggressive and always moving.  Spooky but not shy.  Too much fun!”

The next day the guides and rods are reshuffled.  I’m happy to again be a single with a new guide.  We head out and stop 5 minutes later to work a couple of tailing fish.  No joy with the fish but it’s definitely more comfortable out with mixed clouds and sun.  However the wind has picked up significantly and will require more from this mediocre caster.

We make a quick turn before going very far and work a shallow bay.  Some adjustments are made to facilitate short, faster casts, or perhaps we just aren’t tuned in yet.  Many fewer  fish are seen this day, especially when the clouds turn the lights off.

The day before I had been amazed at how every single fish was hooked exactly the same way in the same corner of the Bones’ mouths.  On this day I snagged and blinded the first fish.  The second swallowed it.  The third was snagged under the chin and that took us through lunch.

We never moved from this single bay and I realized that the marks I kept seeing on the bottom were poling marks.  The fish were not only small but wholly and consistently so.  It was fun catching the 5 we did but it was a completely different experience.  Upon return I hinted strongly that I wanted Charlie again.

Charlie likes the remote frontier to the  south and west and there we went again.  The day fit perfectly in between day 1 and 2 in terms of cloud and wind.  My wife joined us requiring little adjustment to our shared frequencies.  A fine and perfect day developed but with fewer fish all around.  There were no giant Barracuda, Sharks, flying Needlefish or speeding turtles seen, but there were steady sightings of larger Bones, a few truly big Bones, and definitely more wary Bones.

The hunt was on.  My casting had improved a bit and we were tuned in even more tightly.  However spooked fish stayed spooked.  Large fish kept their distance and maintained it with purpose.  One fish chased it, stopped, turned 90 degrees and gave it the finger.  I regrouped, led him properly and presented again while receiving the other fin.  “They don’t like your flies today”.  Indeed.

However it was the best day of the 3.  Only two fish caught with maybe 5 other hookups.  Earlier I had tried to take a few pictures of fish for my iPhone log (there’s an app for that!) but discovered that Bonefish slime completely disables touch operations.  Today the wife took dozens of stills but hit the lottery having decided to video one of my casts that resulted in one of the two fish of the day.

Returning to the dock I was grinning almost as broadly as day 1.  It was a mixed performance that fit well with the rest of the boats.  My better calibrated smile was reflected knowingly by the staff.  The day 1 smile was that of a very lucky flats novice.

 

First Tarpon Experience Night Fishing in Biscayne Bay

I just got back from a wedding/family reunion trip to Miami that I had hopefully tagged a fishing side trip onto. However, I was going crazy with all the family stuff and desperately wanted to get out and fish. On a whim I called Captain Dave Hunt up on Sunday afternoon and after some schedule synching he said that the fish and the tides were such that a 3:30 am outing under Miami’s skyline would definitely yield some Tarpon. 1 hookup would be a bad night. See item 2) here Captain Dave Hunt’s pageIMG_1745

It turned out better than I could have imagined. Dave is an enthusiastic fly fishing guide with great respect for the fish and the fishery. He said that we would definitely catch fish and that no one else would be out there because of the early morning timing of the tides. He was right on both counts.

He picked me up 15 minutes late due to some overnight interstate construction and was a bit panicked about losing the 15 minutes. We got the boat launched and went out to a causeway we were going to work. While this is night fishing it’s not really all that dark. Road light, harbor lights and the brightly lit skyline make the place glitter. We were planning to work a shadow line of road lights along the causeway but when we got to the first section, all the lights on our side of the road were out! We ran over to another section and found the lights on and started casting a 10 wt with a shrimp fly at the shadow line. It was kind of like river fishing where you let it swing with the current under the causeway arches and strip it back. It took a while to get a first take. Since I was really focused on not screwing up with a ‘trout set’ instead of the required ‘strip set’, I did a bit too hard and broke the fly off on the first fish. The fish felt like a ton of bricks and left a crater of a swirl under the arch. I got a few more sticks but didn’t get hooked up. I guess Dave saw I was okay with the 10 wt and the sinking tip so he set up with his 12 wt. That was a good thing since we quickly hooked up with a 150lb monster (his estimate) that immediately ran under the causeway taking us on a Biscayne Bay sleigh ride. Now Dave clearly knows his stuff and can really handle the boat, but the hookup required him to move from the trolling motor on the bow to the console while I move from the rear deck to the front. The fish took us under the arch so fast that I had to lay down on the floor and Dave had to use his hands to guide us thru the arch without scrapping off the short casting decks along with our heads.

This was my first Tarpon and my first big game fish ever. Apparently it was not just any fish. Dave said it was the biggest one he had ever had hooked up from this particular boat. I have to take him at his word.

The fish was absolutely prehistoric. The fight went on for 30 or 40 or 50 minutes, I have no idea. He jumped, rolled, sucked air and slapped gill plates.

That beast of a fish turned me into a sweat soaked wet noodle before we parted ways. Thanks to Captain Dave Hunt for putting me on the fish and summarizing the experience:

“That tarpon was a monster hands down. Think about the thousands of times sharks have tried to eat her while you and I are watching TV having a beer. Now you know what it is to have a large wild animal attached to you! Leaving the bridge for deeper water-the jumps-running under the boat-gulping air and re-entering the fight down deep-working the current close to boat where you could not pull on her is the sign of a big—-wild—–experienced animal maybe 80 years old. A fishing pioneer might have hooked her 50 years ago. I consider it a privilege on your part to have the honor to do 10 rounds with that gladiator. You were whipped-she was whipped but you BOTH kept on fighting BOTH changing the angles to beat each other in the chess game, I witnessed the event one of the highlights of my fly fishing career. I think the knot pull was a blessing, and I call it a “draw”. You might meet her again one day.”

The only thing I could say after it was over was, “can we go find some smaller fish?” (We did)

Two Days on the South Mills River – Day 2 Tragedy

My Thomas & Thomas 4 weight was lost.  That rod has been with me for about 30 years.  It was the first fly rod I picked with a purpose; I found I like a slower action and I needed a 4 piece travel rod for Montana.

It did provide a reason to pull out the Tenkara I picked up at the last Winston Salem Fly Fishing Convention.  I had a 4 wt Sage with me but a reel with only a sinking tip line.  I also had an 8 wt which is 10X overkill for the South Mills.

It was a very pleasant afternoon.

Two Days on the South Mills River – Day 1

Several firsts took place on this trip to the North Carolina Mountains.

I drove (!!) from Durham to Brevard by way of Modern Nissan in Mooresville.  Easily my longest drive of the 21st century.

The new Rogue was muddied.

I ‘buddy fished’ with Owen.  This involves taking turns fishing ‘point’ as we moved up stream, trading off when a fish was caught.  I rigged with a dry, he with nymphs.

We set the date for this trip a month previous and Owen had said the upper South Mill River would be a good choice.  He likes to hike in and I like to be led, we suited up and hiked to the dimunitive but beautiful Big Falls.  It was an hour walk in and we intended to fish it out but we both knew that was impossible.

However, the fish were willing, mostly small with some nice 6 to 9 inchers and all stream bred gorgeous.  We grand slammed the species with hungry Rainbows, harder fighting Browns and a Brookie.  We were surprised at the Brook Trout but my sense is this stream has so many natural blockages in it that many sections of the stream may only be linked in the highest spring runoffs.  Perhaps the Brookies find enough room to grow big enough to survive Brown predation.  Who knows but all three species were there.

I realized midway through the day that I never had enough confidence in my fishing success to ‘buddy fish’ with anyone.  It was nice fishing with someone that had the necessary knowledge.