Tag Archives: lake berryessa

Making Hell a Few Degrees Cooler

No parallel exists in fly fishing, and it’s another of the reasons I’m celebrating the differences between trout and bass and the lore and ritual of each.

Summer doldrums for trout fishing means a brief flurry of activity in the morning, and similar in the evening, with midday spent drinking or womanizing. With reservoir fishing for bass, it’s a bit of activity in the morning, lot’s of physical activity during midday, and a nap come evening.

Terraforming is part of my work for next year’s fishing. Building structure into an area that sees a lot of fish already, that will give them ambush points and cover to linger and become residents. Nothing beats knowing what you’re fishing over, and where the big fish sleep at night…

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I put in two walls after the morning grab, about 25 feet of rocks and timbers about30 inches tall. As I visit this area each time, I’ll add to the walls and add a few additional walls further along the shoreline.

This makes a known fishy area able to retain more fish, gives the bait and the predators more places to hide, allows me to cancel my gym membership (next time bring gloves), and makes the midday hours productive instead of walking around blind casting.

… and it makes me feel a whole lot better than sending a check to an angling organization hoping they don’t spend most of it on the chairman’s salary. Improving fish habitat yourself means I get better fishing next year, and I’m making amends for a lifetime of torment I’ve inflicted on my finned pals.

The idea isn’t mine, there’s evidence of a lot of terraforming going on by bass anglers. Rings of Christmas trees roped together and anchored with concrete, rock and brush piles on the banks, it’s plain that the boating fraternity (and tournament crowd) don’t mind getting their hands dirty for their fishing.

Me, I’m simply hoping the ring of Hell I’m headed for is a few degrees cooler than it might’ve been, nothing noble about it.

Big Water, Bigger Fish, and What I done this Summer

After several decades of piscatorial success, it’s difficult to realize the only certainty is you can catch some fish with regularity, some are the result of good fortune, luck, or happenstance, and the balance can be explained by throwing a Big Mac and hook in front of a lot of foot traffic.

… it’s likely to be stepped on quickly,  scorned by those that have eaten recently, yet eventually consumed by some unfortunate that is either too desperate or in too much of hurry to care much about the marks left by other’s soles …

That notion haunts my summer, as I recognize I’ve veered onto the path less traveled, and found myself  in the deep end treading water.

My first failing was realizing that trout have occupied a place of great prominence because of their surroundings and the stunning mountainous areas they can be found. As a foe, they are largely predictable –and are are weakened due to a steady influx of federally funded variations that are less wary, climatic conditions that are less conducive to their survival, and the crush of forces present in the wildland-urban interface.

My second failing was thinking that the skills I’d spent so many decades accumulating while fly fishing for trout – would serve me in good stead when fishing in less pristine environments … some of those hard won skills transferred nicely,  many did not.

The science is the same, the reasoning and deduction, the mechanics of casting, the understanding of flora and fauna and their lifecycles are unchanged, but the physics of tackle, water, and how the quarry makes use of terrain and cover all have to be rethought. Most importantly, how to overcome the adversity of large bodies of deep water and their ever-present wind. How to get flies within visual range of an ambush predator …versus throwing exacting imitations at fish that move from safety into the open to feed on the same set of insects at the same time each evening.

Pure Heresy for most trout fishermen, but for those of us that delight in suffering unimaginable tortures, big open water is an area fly fishing has never dallied with  – and with good reason. Our tackle and its physical limitations, our unspoken preferences, and the genteelness of our pastime are ill suited to this environment.

Fly Tackle and its limitations

The weaknesses of fly tackle are well known.  Long limber rods that are magnificent at preserving fine tippets and reducing shock, but cannot punch an 8 inch long, soaked rabbit streamer into  even the slightest breeze. Wet marabou or fur strips combined with lead wire and heavy beads, strung on a heavy gauge 2/0 or 3/0 hook, and even experienced casters begin to blanch in the face of a breeze …

Sink rate is abysmal with fly tackle. The large diameter fly lines sink at a different rate than the monofilament tippet and heavy fly, and with each element of backing, line, leader, tippet, and fly, strange shapes are introduced between rod tip and hook point that add slack. Hook sets have to be exaggerated to move all that sunken line into a straight line capable of pushing a large hook through lip gristle.

Large open water has its own weather system, and an airless morning is promise of a stiff breeze in the afternoon. Casting physics means even the heaviest leader cannot sustain the weight of the large streamers and bulky poppers, and all casts (except those downwind) collapse at the transition from fly line to leader. Big wind resistant poppers work against the caster – as the properties that ensure they float – also guarantees their instability in flight. Big and bulky, guaranteed to puddle leader and prey to every gust of wind – rarely landing much beyond the fly line tip.

Terrestrial anglers are forced to fish in the direction that blows the fly line away from the body, as neither rod nor leader can control the instability of  a large fly buffeted by a stiff breeze. After a few encounters between large hooks driven through larger arse cheeks,  self preservation overcomes one’s lust of fish flesh.

Worse is that none of fly fishing’s quiver of tools can reliably determine depth, the kind and type of bottom substrate, nor cover enough water to prospect a large body of water with thoroughness. Fly anglers rely on a combination of bankside detritus and visual inference to surmise what they’re fishing over, and deep water isn’t always predictable given its opacity, the varied weed types, grasses, and sunken objects that may be present.

Not knowing what you’re fishing over also means you don’t know when to return there during periods of receding water. Disabled shopping carts and old Christmas trees are potential eyesores, but they provide surface area for weed growth and hiding places for minnows and other food, which draw in the big fish to linger.

Snobbery and the Proper Tool for the Proper Job

For large bodies of water the deck is already stacked in favor of the fish, so why handicap yourself by insisting on fly fishing purism? Big open water is perfect for fly anglers, but only after you know enough about the environment and your quarry to make the intersection of fish and fly tackle optimal.

Last year I spent the summer “drop shotting” the western side of Lake Berryessa, from the dam to the Pope Creek arm.  “Drop Shot” fishing is simply constructing a leader containing one large shot and one 4.5” plastic worm, and walking that bait back to you once flung into the lake.

Each time that large split shot touched bottom it told me how deep the water was at the spot. Since most of my time was spent on the points and contours, I quickly learned where the deep water was versus the shallow flats.

My visual inspection of bank and substrate entering the water was enough to clue as to whether the bottom might be sandy or rocky, but adding the drop shot data told me how deep it was and whether there were underwater timbers, weed beds, or rocky boulders and ledges.

What was down below I snagged – and often. When I recovered the tackle it would have weeds from weed beds, or simply break off when snagged on timber. Watching the line pay out while chanting, “one thousand, two thousand, three …” gave me an approximation of depth, and if I caught fish it taught me what was down there, and occasionally by inference, why.

Fly fishing is not part of a triathlon for good reason. All of the rigmarole associated with line management and wading means fly fishing is a slow process for scouting big water. Throwing weighted lures and big plastic top water baits isn’t affected as much by wind,  and an angler can cover a couple of miles of shoreline with an easy gait, where a fly caster has to constantly pause and strip out or reel in all those coils of line necessary to cast and retrieve.

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As a bonus to the data that different types of tackle provide, you’ll catch plenty of large fish, which is the hidden pot of gold of big lakes, they contain much bigger fish than small ponds or streams, and contain more of them as well. Where you catch them is as important as any other data element, given you’re looking to repeat that process with some consistency. Certain depths, or time of day, similar types of cover, anything that patterns where the big fish hold is essential to attempting to find them in other parts of the lake.

The outflow of Lake Berryessa is Putah Creek, which is the closest trout stream to San Francisco and the Bay Area. As such it has both New Zealand Mud Snails and is constantly pounded by an enormous contingent of fly fishing enthusiasts. None of which attempt the lake proper, and I’ve yet to see another fly fisherman plying the bank. I suspect it’s the big water as the source of their trepidation, given how many are wading only several hundred yards distant, yet none have ventured into the lake itself.

Bass aren’t like Trout, they’re moody, aggressive, and stubborn, sometimes all at once

We’ve all heard that Cutthroat’s are “stupid” and by comparison, Rainbow’s and Brown trout are finicky – yet all trout species share a great deal of similarities in their feeding behavior and survival instincts.

Bass species share some traits as well, but each species has unique traits that must be learned  to catch them consistently. In the comparison, we might think bass overly aggressive when contrasted with trout, but the real difference is their infuriating ability to be moody, finicky, sullen, and shy – sometimes all at the same time.

I’ve seen enough bass behavior to be humbled routinely, and have rethought everything I’ve heard about bass, given my experiences in the last couple of years.

Lake Berryessa contains three species of bass and two species of “mule”.  Spotted Bass, Largemouth Bass, and Smallmouth Bass  inhabit the lake, as well as two mule variants of Spotted Largemouth, and Spotted Smallmouth. Each mule resulting from the interbreeding of two of the three species.

Purebred bass can spawn again, but the mule bass cannot reproduce.

Bass decide not to eat and in the blink of an eye the entire lake appears barren. The infuriating part is they do this whenever you decide to go fishing, or when a storm front makes the barometer quiver, or when the Standard station up the highway runs out of Doctor Pepper. Understanding the psyche of this beast is likely to drive the rational angler to drink – and it’s a matter of enduring their fits of pique, versus truly understanding them.

Spotted Bass move around more than the other species, and can be present and absent within minutes. Smallmouth love rocky bottoms and rock outcroppings, and largemouth seem to be comfortable everywhere, except where you’re fishing.

The food chain is different, and you need to own big and blustery

While bass have access to many of the insects that trout covet, and it’s likely they dine on bugs when small, once they get larger their tastes run to fish, frogs, other bass, sunfish, small dogs, and unwary children. Bugs simply don’t provide enough protein to keep a large bass fed.

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Fish like this don’t eat bugs, they eat 6 inch plugs fished noisily, with much commotion

With baitfish being the food staple, suddenly our traditional caddis, midge, mayfly, repertoire is largely useless as we’re pressed into learning threadfin shad behavior, bait balls, and where minnows sleep at night.

Structure and vegetation offer cover for small fish, but so does the muddy water churned off the sandy points by boat wakes, and the milky water resulting from the swells breaking when pushed by wind.

Big bass behave similarly to Stripers or similar ocean predator. They try to gather and bunch minnows against natural structure like bays and points, and then stuff themselves before the ball squeezes past them into open water.  Bait fleeing a big predator are visible as  minnows leap into the air, making the chase as visible as a rising trout.

The amount of surface commotion caused by baits is important. Big deer hair poppers get waterlogged, and chug through the water with less and less disturbance. Sinking flies are heavy as lead due to a combination of weighting, size, and waterlogged materials. Traditional bass flies leave a bit to be desired, as the size ranges they’re available in are too small. Custom ties are needed for big water, and closed cell foam, wine corks, or anything that keeps its noise level is preferred to the hair flies.

There’s little question that noisy flies that burble and pop are among the most consistent producers. The issue is their delivery and the understanding that large fish are often in shallow water based on the prey and their lifecycle.

A Summer of frustration and data gathering

Most of this summer has been spent learning all the details associated with successful bass fishermen, and watching them use conventional tackle designed for big water and bigger fish. The result has been a lot of frustration, a lot of perspiration, and great deal of fun.

Having spent a lot of my youth casting 3/8 ounce and 5/8 ounce plugs at the Golden Gate Angling & Casting Club (under the watchful eyes of Jon Ray), I’m finally getting to hone those accuracy skills  in anger – versus GGACC’s static plastic targets.

Certainly the scorched hillsides are less scenic than piney woods,  but they’re only a quarter tank distant, therefore cheaper, there’s a lot more of it, it’s less than an hour away, and I rarely see another angler, all things not found in the Pristine upper elevations.

Summation of a misspent summer:

Developing the tool suite to harvest environmental data is the first requirement of open water.

Knowing the foibles, weaknesses, and strong suites of  your quarry is the second requirement of open water.

Knowing where the fish are and why they’re there is the third rule of open water.

Insects are not a factor, learn minnow behavior and observe them in the quiet coves to learn their swimming motion, their feeding preferences, and where the hide (when you throw a pebble).

Don’t use a screwdriver to hammer nails. Adapt and incorporate fly fishing only in those areas where it’s able to perform optimally is the culmination of the all the above, and the desired end game for us aficionados.

The Toast of the Dawn Patrol

I heard more than a couple snickers from the “Dawn Patrol”,  those fellows brave enough to shatter the pre-dawn stillness with a couple hundred horses compliments of Mister Evinrude …

… of late they’ve shown a keen interest in the same “head and shoulders” bay-peninsula I’ve chosen for my latest bright idea. I call it the “fly-spin” rig, but rather than some all-in-one aberration I’ve merely opted to carry twice the gear.

OakShores

The above depicts the calm part of morning, where I offload both fly and spin from the vehicle, then take a brisk mile-and-a-half hike to the fishing area – lugging all my provisions and drinking water with me. As I opt for the shoreline route instead of tromping through the low scrub, known for both ticks and rattlers, I have to parade past all the buzz baiters, the jig n’ pig types, the crank-baiters, the top water fiends, all of which are unawares their comments can carry a quarter mile or more .

Fly Rawd, what’see gonna do with that?”

As my mentor has been showing me how to find, seduce, and land, large bass with regularity, I’ve opted to translate all the plug and lure knowledge into fly tactics.

Every time we’ve managed to lure large fish to the surface I’ve glanced over at the electronics to eyeball the depth. As we ease past the shoreline of those areas I can reach by foot, I’ve noted which points and bays contain the 13’ –16’ of water that seems to be the sweet spot for big fish and surface baits. Anything deeper doesn’t appear to draw fish from the bottom.

This is no different from my San Francisco Bay saltwater days. Despite fishing for shark or perch, I always carried a few Pencil Poppers in case the Stripers pushed a bait ball into my area.

Lake Berryessa is the same type of fishery.  Big balls of shad are pushed into coves and anything within eyeball range starts hopping out of the water chasing 4” fish.

As these occurrences are both regular and fast moving, you want to have a big baitfish imitation loaded on the fly rod,  as the fish herd the bait against the shoreline – within an easy cast by fly despite the omnipresent breeze.

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I’ve got a few 5” minnow imitations tied on rubber worm hooks, size 4/0. These hooks offer a nice “keel” effect that ensures the bait is presented uniformly and offers a jigging motion that accents all that marabou hung off the back.

I walk the entire “head and shoulders” shoreline carrying both rods. I can prospect much quicker with the spinning rod and a big Heddon Super Spook, and deploy the fly rod when the bait shows. The beauty of it is that the big 5” plug will cause the shad to go airborne when it nears the school, allowing you to find the bait regularly – then position yourself with the fly rod if they get close.

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I managed a few fish on my initial outing, most were caught prospecting, and I managed a few grabs when one school made shore nearby … it was brief, intense, and made me want more.

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I have some modifications that will assist the flies to perform better in the wind, and I’ll need to fashion a custom leader that will be about 3 feet long, with about two additional feet of 20lb tippet.

Fishing of this kind with all the breezes that crop up, the large flies and big hooks, means you need a set of pliers to remove anything that imbeds itself due to bad luck.

That’s a long walk back if you’re bleeding out due to the unforeseen flight characteristics of a multi-ought black nickel projectile.

Lulled into Complacency by Fly Fishing’s Genteel Side

celoxNext time my pal gives me a “wave off” and tells me, “don’t grab it,” I’ll back away rather than be my normal, helpful, fishing -buddy self.

Us fly fishermen have the luxury (unless they live in Norway or Scotland) of assuming there’s only one hook in production and the fish has ate most of that …

Bass anglers have nine points in production and an overly large, aggressive fish may have ate one – but the remaining eight are about to insert themselves into  helpful human fingers (and palm) like Buttah …

“Chemically sharpened” is no longer an asset when they’re doing a “through and through” on your index finger, or based on a fish flop, suddenly under a fingernail like a bamboo sliver.

… leaving one helpful SOB wishing he was less so, now that he’s attached to something about five pounds that insists on violently flopping around the deck … towing all those precious fly tying fingers with it  …

Naturally the only way to extricate yourself involves pliers and you  donating whatever flesh is necessary. Then again, it’s massive man card points when you grit your teeth, yank the SOB out of your flesh then reach for the rod as the bite is still on …

Water cooler chest thump.  Goddamn Priceless.

BertoleroBerry

I think this was the offending largemouth that I danced with earlier, in the grip of Leroy Bertolero, former B.A.S.S Champion. Leroy has been teaching me some of the intricacies of smallmouth, largemouth, and spotted bass, and his having won numerous BASS tournaments in California,  I am attempting to soak up his knowledge like a sponge.

I learned “Nine Fingers of Blinding Pain” Kung Fu this trip. Never to be repeated in this lifetime.

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He taught me a bit on spinner baits on the Delta, now it was top water plugs and poppers at Berryessa. With a day of complete overcast and some gusty winds, I learned that inclement conditions can be a boon – drawing some of the larger fish out of the depths and into our laps.

… and yes, that is a finely crafted sub-one hundred dollar spinning rod at my feet …Bass Pro’s understand the best tackle is fit and finished with duct tape – and will not buy anything costing more than about $60 bucks, reel included.

My kind of folks.

Next step is to translate the lure selection and retrieve into flies, as the two are linked based on conditions. Windy days yield fish feeding in the lake’s “surf” off shoreline points, and overcast prolongs the top water bite indefinitely, which is music to any fly fisherman’s ears …

… but that’s assuming they don’t bury a 3/0 Clouser in their arse, without the pliers necessary to remove such a monstrosity.

See you in the Celox aisle …

How Misery surely Loves company

With the exception of male models in carefully creased fishing vests hawking angling gear in magazines, I’ve been reluctant to piss on fellow members of the angling brotherhood. Ditto for television and radio personalities, as I’ve assumed them to be reasonably honest versus an avaricious SOB, whose focus is to promote their guide service. Most sins of exaggeration or inaccuracy chalked up to the notion that  angling media are akin to weather people; they mean well, but rarely get the forecast correct.

That’s a nicety I’ll no longer observe.

After six or seven weeks scrimmaging with Lake Berryessa in hopes the “top water bite” would materialize, I’m convinced we won’t have one this year – compliments of the California drought.

This being in sharp contrast to the pundits on the Bob Simm’s radio hour, which insists that anything with fins is climbing the bank begging to be hooked – on dry land even.

Personal observation and discussions with fellow fishermen suggests no one can figure out where the fish are – and that extends to the Kokanee Salmon and anything else plying the waters of that drainage.

Us fly fishermen, ever mindful of Science, have always insisted on the plausible explanation and Latin-tinged theorem, rather than relying on the more mystical,  “… use the Big Red Sumbitch – Let God Sort Them Out” approach popular with bass fishermen everywhere.

While much is known about river dynamics and flowing water, lakes have always proven a bit of enigma for fly fisherman. We look for the same things we see on rivers; bugs, differing currents, weather, and cover, but we’re ill at ease given that lake fishing exposes the soft underbelly of fly fishing – how poorly our tackle sinks and how deep water is our absolute undoing.

2015 Drought

I took the above picture of Berryessa’s banks in June of last year, just before the blast furnace of summer hit the area.

The Grass Belt is the historic fill level of the lake. If the lake is full, that water will rise to that region, about 10-30 feet from the tree line. The Brush Belt is the area exposed during the 2014 drought year. It has had seeds drift into that area from both wind and receding waters, and the growth has been buttressed by what little moisture fell during the 2014 Winter and Spring of 2015. The Just Exposed Belt is the area that has receded during the meager 2015 Spring, and will dry further as the 2015 Summer bakes the area.

By the end of Summer 2015, the loss of water had exposed nearly 200 feet of bank on the steeper canyon areas – which translated into half a mile or more of shallows exposed in the wider portions of the lake.

This Spring we had one superb storm that lifted the lake level at least 30 feet from its 2015 low point. On the shallow ends of the lake those flats exposed were reclaimed by the waters, leaving shore anglers the ability to cast only to the recently reclaimed area, now thinly covered with water.

Clue 1: Those ain’t weeds, those are Stems

In the bays formed by the undulating shoreline, the sudden glut of water had covered the exposed soil in wooden debris and  terrestrial plant stems. No leaves or greenery suggesting they were of recent vintage, rather they were sodden and waterlogged, with enough woody material to lift them to the surface, where the wavelets formed by the boat traffic piled them in heaps at water’s edge.

Looking at the above picture, and remembering the sequence of events – suggested this was the remnants of the Brush Belt. Once lush and green during Spring, now dried and dead from Summer, and forced underwater by the rising lake.

The idle currents near the shore break the stems into pieces, and they have enough pithy material to float ashore. These stems represent the only cover remaining underwater, leaving a featureless dirt embankment with no cover for hiding or ambush.

Clue 2: Where’s the forage?

Any self respecting minnow knows immersion in water teeming with hungry and voracious predators, requires both cover  and shade, things that you can hide among or behind, anything that allows the minnow school to pursue insects and forage suitable for their survival

These schools of bait were visible all of last year. Weed beds and plant growth would die once the water receded and exposed them to the harsh daytime temps, but the schools of forage fish would recede with the water – as the weeds blanketed the lake floor.

Add thirty feet of water delivered over a single week of runoff, and you have many hundreds of feet of dead soil now covered with water, but lack weeds, shade, or cover of any kind.

No cover means no bait, and that means no fish other than the occasional cruising bass.

Clue 3: Where are the beds?

Bass spawn in shallow water, leaving scarred whitish areas that the female sweeps clean with her tail. Often she stays on the bed, which is part of the allure of the Spring top water bite … big fish, shallow water, and the desire to kill anything approaching the nest.

Bass anglers have always taken advantage of this phenomenon with great glee, as there’s nothing more exciting then the visual element associated with casting at visible fish. The notion of “cradle robbing” apparently is suspended for the duration of the festivities …

This year I have seen only a single bed – covered by a solitary fish. It was in a back bay whose bottom had lots of algae and cover, suggesting bass also look for cover and shade to offer protection from predators.

The clean dirt areas are devoid of life. No beds visible, almost no foliage or weed growth, and few fish prowling for food.

deadZone

The above photo shows a “dead zone” bank. All dirt, no foliage of any kind as it was dried and desiccated by 2015’s summer sun. Note the pithy debris at water’s edge – mostly dried stems and dried thistle clumps (also shown in the water).

This lack of foliage means the dust in the soil leeches into the water as soon as boat wakes bathe the area. This thick band of dirty water provides the only cover for many hundreds of feet, and I always keep a weather eye out for signs of baitfish. So far, nothing.

Conclusion: Boat fishermen are better off

With no cover available to harbor baitfish, and with the water depth denying us that area of the lake that still has cover, my dismal conclusion is that the fish, their beds, and the minnow forage, are all too far from shore for bank fishermen to take part.

Six trips, in as many weeks, has yielded no fish activity of any kind.

I’ve not seen a boat angler catch a fish either – as many are fishing in close to the bank – consistent with a traditional wet year. I’m thinking that deeper water still retaining weeds and cover are where the fish are and the typical mobile bass angler is motoring  past them enroute to joining me in the Dead Zone.

Like Misery I surely loves the company, but I wish they would heed my “wave off.”

50 Shades of Tepid Reflexes

With fishermen as superstitious as sailors and baseball players, I recognize my poor showing this year is manifesting itself as a burgeoning streak of good Karma. While never sure whether it’ll take the form of hundreds of fish caught, a single hundred pound fish, or simply finding a Ben Franklin crumpled next to the curb, the only absolute is my knowledge it’s coming …

PurpleBerryEssa

That’s because all of the hiking along the lake, all of the careful monitoring of wildflowers, bass and spawning beds, the sneaking over hummocks hoping for top water action befitting fly gear, have been pipe dreams.

Four trips up to the lake were too cold, too blustery, or too off color to even see fish activity in the shallows, so I kept thinking next week, or the week following. Now it’s the week following that – and I’ve returned fishless yet again, but things are starting to stir – a few spawning bass are visible, a few scoured spots suggesting mating activity, and a few more warms days offer a chance to cash in on that Karmic debt.

I’m learning as much about lake ecology as I’ve learned about streams so there is a silver lining. Drought really muck things up for years, both due to their arid nature – and what it does to terraform exposed bank that challenges fishing once the lakes refill.

All that weed growth evaporates as the lake lowers and each bed is extincted once it reaches the surface. Foot and animal traffic powders the newly exposed rubble and dead weed bloom, and fine dust replaces the aggregate washed clean while submerged. When the lake refills the bank is akin to Mars, completely dead and featureless. Weeds take months to sprout and all that windblown dust that spread itself last year leaches out into the water with the slightest surface activity.

That’s a fancy way of saying, fish early before boat traffic.

All the forage fish that used weeds for cover are absent, likely using what remaining beds that remain submerged despite last summer’s relentless baking. As the lake has come up nearly 25-30 feet, that’s a lot of dead zone that’s absent forage and therefore fish.

Which makes fly fishing, with it’s inability to sink quickly, a real disadvantage.

Fortunately Mother Nature drives bass to spawn in the shallows, so despite obvious problems from drought and rapid refill, once the fish move inshore with a vengeance, there’s plenty of sport for all manner of tackle.

But that appears to be next week … or the week after …

I did get a welcome respite from blustery and fishless bank wandering to fish the California Delta via bass boat. It’s the first time I’ve fished in the matrix of canals and waterways that feed San Francisco Bay via the Sacramento River, and as all of them were still swollen with runoff and tides – it was cold and off color.

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… some of that murk can be seen under this gleaming , carbon spewing Steed of Angling Awesomeness. While wandering lakes is invigorating  to both life and limb, I figured I’d earned the carbon credits to have my arse skipping above the waves without feeling like I’d squandered all them decayed Pterodactyls …

With a stiff North wind for competition I learned the mysteries of flinging 5/8 ounce Spinner baits to an elusive audience. Elusive, due to my hook skidded off of lips, tongues, gill plates, and anything else in the path of lure inhalation, leaving me cursing and untangling gear from the knot of tules that should have been massive hungry bass …

bertolero6pounder

.., like the beast pictured above. This is my gracious host, Leroy Bertolero, showing me how to use a sharp hook as it was intended.

With each fish giving me the Finger, and as I tuned tackle and checked hooks for sharpness, I was still content. That reservoir of Karma that I’d built with all those fishless miles of lake, I knew was growing ever deeper.

DeltaStriper

I did manage to land one of my tormentors. Apparently Striped Bass lack the armor of their freshwater cousins,  and the hook found purchase. It is one of the beauties of fishing the Delta’s brackish water, as both fresh and saltwater fish inhabit the same environment.

As I’d proven useless as an angler – by “unbuttoning” all my earlier fish, it was timely that the 250HP carbon guzzling beast refused to lift itself into plane on the way back. Needing BALLAST in the bow, my host looked about for any Useless Weight and by mutual agreement I perched on the nose on the way home.

BowBallast

An interesting perspective to be sure, but it was still thrilling to be so mobile when you’re used to pedestrian speeds. Then again, given my inability to stick anything solidly, it was an exercise in my finding new ways to swear – while “long lining” everything I touched.

We shake off the preseason stiffness

The nature of scouting is like pre-season exhibition games, you’re working out all the kinks from what should become a well oiled machine.

Of late we’ve received a generous amount of moisture – keeping most of us fishermen indoors and pining away, while Mother Nature rights all her drought wrongs. I manage a scout trip each week waiting to see spawning bass in the shallows, but they’re a bit like Punxsutawney Phil, and not budging from deep safety.

Like an exhibition game, I watered the left sock from the dog bit waders I’d forgot about last season. Some strolling innocent failed to leash his aggressive canine, and I got a “through and through” on my left Achilles.  I remember standing there watching him yell ineffectually at the animal, as it attempted more damage – then his stunned look when I butt-stroked his darling quadruped, who disappeared up the trail yelping in a pained frenzy.

The waders were replaced easy enough, but the next trip had a shortened lunch due to the stash of last season’s  “fart bars” being  stale and the sack of dried peach slices being gangrenous . The beauty of Spartan rations is there’s nothing to melt, nothing completely unpalatable or rancid, but if it fails to look prettier once washed in the lake, it’s likely not worth the risk.

Lake water improved the stale protein bars, but I buried the peaches – figuring to do the watershed (and those living in it) a favor.

This weekend we forgot a rod, which always has a silver lining for the forgetful SOB that grabbed the wrong one. I’m winding up my best imitation of Robert DeNiro, “No, you can’t borrow my extra rod” speech from the Deer Hunter, knowing that loaned tackle guarantees the forgetful SOB will be catching everything  while my tackle remains untouched and I protrude lower lip …

…likewise for the dog – as now that he was done crapping on everything, he realized the human that had denied him his customary “shotgun” seat, meant he’d be splitting my beef jerky with two humans, and now the both of us were pouting.

FrankSmallmouth

It’s the only fish of the day – and Life has imitated art,  meaning one of the above is a smallmouth … The other is an dog owning ingrate that denied his loyal pooch precious dried beef-like substance …

… now I have to live down the gleeful pronouncement that I was blanked, and I’d had a can of “whoop-azz” unleashed on me.

Which is fair.

All that chalky blown dust that covered the banks last year is now underwater. One or two bass boat wakes later, the lake water is brown as fresh runoff.  Which means the fish can’t see flies nor lures after 10:00AM, so you get your fishing in early.

Dances With SODDEN TENNIS Balls

I keep telling myself that learning a lake in mid drought is akin to building sand castles in the surf; just about the time you mark the downed timber and rock piles – some unseasonable storm erases all traces of beaches and islands, and you’re left poring over photos to see what topography remains within casting distance.

Then again, us fishermen have always kept wisdom and logic at arm’s length, enlisting its aid only when it suits us. Standing in a downpour in icy water doesn’t suggest we’ve engaged our frontal lobe with much sincerity, given our reliance on superstition and the occasional hunch to tell us when fishing is especially good …

… and as my partner in crime was four legged and in need of exercise, meant that the unseasonable temperatures be damned, and 109 was just as fishy as 92, and unless I emptied the pooch in someone else’s backyard, I’d find his IED’s in my grass.

ABoyAndHisDog

In September and October we covered about 55 miles of shoreline – 25 miles of unique shore and the balance retracing our steps back to the vehicle. We found four different colors of tennis balls, three sizes of Frisbee, eight full bottles of beer, six colors of discarded brassieres, sinkers, weights, plugs, and lures, 3 pound iron balls, trolling planes, flashers, dive weights, broken rods, boat parts, folding lawn chairs, shopping carts, and unveiled numerous angling misdeeds … all the while avoiding snakes, quicksand, bog mud, and over zealous Bureau of Reclamation rangers – intent on shackling my pal on the end of a tether.

dawn_oakshore

The trick was to get clear of the pavement before dawn, allowing us unfettered access to all those miles of newly exposed lakebed. Soupy ground and ample mud coupled with the distance to open water kept the casual vacationers close to the car, with the rangers alternating the application of bandages or lectures, depending upon the infraction.

While short-lived, the early bite often produced some nice fish – as it was too early for the boating crowd and the noise and wake action that followed.

BigSpot

The low water conditions exposed a great deal of clandestine terraforming on the part of the bass boat crowd. Long chains of Christmas trees anchored with cinder blocks and rope had been dropped in many of the coves around the Oak Shores area of the lake. Stacked rocks and piles of tree limbs had been sewn into strategic areas only reachable via boat. My assumption was the numerous tournaments hosted by the lake were the root cause of all this carefully constructed structure. Once sank and marked on a GPS, it would make for a nice advantage over visiting anglers less industrious.

Bug activity was minimal and provided only food for the resident Threadfin Shad. While I’ve identified the Hexagenia Limbata on the east side of the lake, and due to its size is likely to be forage for prowling bass, the more accessible west shore shows no traces of the big mayflies, nor was there any surface activity other than leaping carp in either morning or evenings.

smallmouth.oakshores

Only a solitary white caddis fly appeared on the east side, and while it daubed its way across the weed beds ovipositing, only small shad attempted an intercept.

whitecaddis

The lack of winged insect life confirmed that Lake Berryessa is primarily a baitfish style fishery, where anything resembling the silvery threadfin shad is fair game. Outside of midge swarms, I encountered none of the traditional winged lake fare. No damselflies, mayflies, or dragonflies, only the solitary olive bodied white caddis (shown above) that was available in fair numbers, but without any fish keying on them to make their imitation viable .

4" Threadfin Shad washes ashore

Above is a sample threadfin shad that had floated ashore. This sample was about 4” long, and looked like it had been mouthed by something larger. Most of the shad I find are between 2” –4” long, and account for the morning feed – as large bass chase schools of shad into and out of coves and weed beds. It may also explain why the 1/4 and 3/8 ounce silver Kastmaster was the most numerous lure decorating all the exposed tree stumps.

KastMaster is the most numerous found lure

Of late the fishing has died completely. The weather grows a bit cooler and the change in season is likely causing everything to shift around again. I’ve taken to “prospecting” weed beds and drop offs with a big top water plug. It allows me to move briskly along the shoreline while occasionally drumming up large fish.

… more importantly, it leaves one hand free to fling muddy tennis balls down field, keeping the pooch amused between meals of unidentifiable decaying things.

Drought exposed bank is not a nice linear hike.  At distance the bank looks like an unbroken line, but when rounding the edge of an island, immense bays can be hidden that must be circumvented to proceed further down the shoreline. By the same token the return hike is often “as the Crow flies” – which is considerably shorter than the morning walk outbound.

As we got our first light dusting of rain yesterday, I’m keeping the fingers crossed that this Winter might erase much of my earlier work cataloging shoreline and the physical features of the lake. More importantly, if El Nino delivers on its promise, I may have a few other spots to fish next season.

The fire ravaged area at the dam gives pause to my optimism given even dry years result in the slopes above the highway slipping down onto the pavement below. Without vegetation to hold back all that loose rock I may need to find another locale that can be accessed should Winter spill water abundantly.

Putah is on the wragg, and I wander in Bathwater

Took a pre-dawn run up to Berryessa again this week, just to fiddle with a few things and survey the damage from the Wragg Fire.  This area is fairly important to the San Francisco Bay area, as it contains Putah Creek , the closest trout stream to the hordes of anglers living in the City.

I don’t fish it much as the Lake has my full attention, and the mile or two of creek open to the public is overrun with anglers even on weekdays. As it is home to New Zealand Mud Snails, I cut a wide berth just to avoid inadvertently tracking the little pests into the pristine unclean of my local watershed.

Putah_Creek_Wragg2

The Wragg Fire burnt everything west of Putah Creek and Lake Berryessa proper. Those of you familiar with the area probably remember the Butts Fire (2014) burnt everything east of the creek, so the entire watershed has now been mown clean.

The picture above shows the creek just below the Canyon Creek Resort stretch. All the visible slopes have been burnt over, and the foliage is turning color as the trees die from the fire that swept through their understory enroute to the crest.

Dense timber typically burns quite a bit hotter and vaporizes both grass and trees, some of that can be seen down near the creek as well as the ridges above – like the dark patch on the ridgeline to the right, above.

Winter rains coupled with little remaining vegetation can push a significant amount of sediment into the creek, as there’s nothing to hold it in place on the slopes above. With both sides burnt over, and the rumor of a drought breaking El Nino effect possible this winter, the creek may be in for a slug of sediment.

Warm as Bathwater

Lake Berryessa proper is as warm as bath water. This being the tail end of August and the temperatures running fairly constant 90’s, any bite on the lake is short lived, but the lure picking has made up for the lack of fish, and each trip yields a pocket full of treasures.

lure_eating_log

This is typical of what I’m stumbling across. Hip boots give me an edge over the beer drinking bank crowd, as their eyes start to defocus after 10AM, and us sober types can edge them out with our ninja-like dumpster diving skills.

It’s akin to swiping golf balls off the golf course, instinctively you’re tensing up waiting to hear some fellow claim, “I just lost that, it’s mine!”

Despite the warm water and sputtering bite, pre-dawn is always worth a few fish. I am still fishing 20-30 foot deep, as the fish are preferring the colder temperatures that come with depth rather than panting in tepid near the surface.

berryessa_largemouth

I have been working on an amalgamation of fishing types to score consistently, something I’ll reveal once I get a few patterns refined better than they are now. Note the low light of the above picture, as most of the fish are coming between 6AM – 8AM, and when the light is on the water, the bite dies promptly.

I did manage to find a model forage fish for me to duplicate. A bit worse for wear, but it looks like a Shad (Threadfin?) of some type. Most the surface activity tends to be on the Northern side of points extending into the lake, and to stand and watch will reveal schools of bait and bass taking advantage of their density.

Berryessa_Shad

Once full daylight is on the water and the party barges and ski boats launch, the waves from their wakes will raise plumes of mud in the water off these selfsame points of land. The bait head for the discolored water as the predators can no longer see them distinctly. It’s akin to fighter planes using clouds for cover.

While streams and their ecology seem easier to catalog, I find the same skills in observation and the frequency of visitation are just as useful teasing the lifecycles of larger water. Come Spring, when the bite lasts all morning, it’ll be important to note those cloudy plumes hold the forage fish, and pulling a marabou streamer out of the dirty water and into view … should yield big benefits.

… and if it doesn’t, we’ll continue to add to our lure collection …

It might have been that “red sea” reference

At some point a fellow simply has to wonder if he’s offended God.

Last week’s pitiful post on hot temperatures, oppressive drought, gasping fish uninterested in eating, and my attempt to remain positive in the face of overwhelming adversity, framed by my resolve to return this weekend to repeat my earlier adventure.

image

Now I have a new problem.

Roads closed, only 5% containment, and the fish thumbing their collective nose at me again …

I figure a plague of locusts are next, but that might not be all bad ..