Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Primitive Experience

"What in the name of Christ is a #$&@*% bowfin?"

So began my first conversation with Drew Price; a conversation we had when the snow was still falling, and schools of winter steelhead ran the currents and eddies of my dreams. We've corresponded many times since that first conversation, sending emails back and forth and sharing the occasional phone call. Each time we've connected, the subjects remained the same. I spoke of steelhead, brown trout, spey flies, and the Battenkill. Drew spoke of carp, pike, bowfin, and his love for Lake Champlain.

An interesting greeting awaited us lakeside

I must admit that I had often thought of making the short drive up north and fishing the big lake. That I didn't owes much to the incredible vastness of the water. It was - after all - once considered the sixth of the Great Lakes. And while Champlain may only be a fraction of the size of either Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, or Ontario, it is still an enormous body of water, and most intimidating when one is considering his or her first trip to its shores. Where to begin? It seems an impossibly difficult question.

I suppose it is fair to say that cartographic intimidation is the reason, more than anything else, that I decided to do something I've avoided throughout my entire 32 years as a bug chucker. I used the services of a guide - my new friend, Drew Price of Master Class Fly Fishing - to ensure I had a proper introduction to Champlain. Drew is a gentleman, an exceedingly competent fly fisher, and very enthusiastic about his home fishery.

Drew with one of the many gar we brought to hand
"So. What the $#^& is a bowfin?"

Until I was introduced to Drew, I had never heard of bowfin. Truth be told, I hadn't heard of quite a few fish until I began speaking with Drew. To my way of thinking - especially now that I've caught a few - a bowfin is twenty or thirty odd inches of prehistoric viciousness eking out a modest living in modern North American lakes. They're the last surviving member of a species of fish whose ancestors swam the waters of the Jurassic period. Also known as dogfish or mudfish, bowfin look a bit like snakehead, but unlike the fish found in so many Florida ponds and canals, they're not an invasive species. Bowfin are native to Champlain, and a vital part of the lake's ecosystem.

Hard to believe the teeth on these things. Multiple rows of pure evil
Perhaps more to the point, bowfin present a tremendous angling opportunity to the intrepid fly rodder. I have to say that fishing for them is like nothing I've ever done before. The process begins in a flat bottomed canoe, that drafts very little water. Having such a craft is almost essential, as the fish sometimes lie in inches of water, and almost always in the thickest weed beds.

I had never seen a canoe quite like Drew's boat. Well suited to cruising over weed beds, and very comfortable over a long day.
Once a fish is spotted, the angler must put the fly - quite literally - right on its nose, and this is the easy part. Not once in the course of the day did I have more than four feet of line past the rod tip, and the leader was simply an additional four feet of 20lb fluorocarbon. Oddly enough, the only fishing I've done that compares - at least in terms of form - is dapping for brook trout on small, mountain streams that were overgrown with brush, but believe me when I tell you that these fish aren't brook trout. The largest fish I hooked - I would estimate it as an honest 10 pounds - broke my 20lb fluorocarbon leader like it was 6X.  

When the wind kicked up we switched gears, and moved to a different bay that was both shielded from the gale and loaded with gar. When I say that the bay was loaded with fish, I mean that I could not believe how many gar we were able to mark. Conservatively, we spotted 200 needlefish sunning themselves right at the surface of the water. 

For the sake of perspective, the fly is about seven or eight inches long.
The gar is a beautiful fish in its own way. Its scales range from deep olives to bright silver and amber. Black spots the size of dimes run along the animal's entire length, and the dorsal, anal, and tail fin are each striped with alternating bands of black and orange. The most distinctive feature is, of course, the gar's beak. I would estimate that the snout accounts for about 20 percent of the overall length of the fish. It is filled with hundreds of small, sharp teeth. Consequently, bug chuckers must handle gar with care. Gloves will make life much simpler, although it is almost inevitable that gar anglers will bleed.

My best fish of the day was a 46" beast that probably came in just under ten pounds. It pounced on the fly like a jungle cat, and the take was vicious. This is far and away the most exciting aspect of gar fishing. Every time Drew spotted a likely player, he would maneuver the boat into position to allow me to place the fly just past the fish. As I stripped the fly past the target, it would turn and chase at speed. When gar take the fly, they shake their heads from side to side like alligators trying to rip flesh from their prey. This entangles the fibers of a fly in their jaws - flies which have a hook only for the sake of legality - and in turn allows an angler a reasonable chance at boating the fish.

I am one of those people who hasn't any idea how to pose for a camera.
All in all, fishing with Drew was a fantastic experience. He's as knowledgeable an angler as any I've ever met, and his zeal for fish and fishery are without peer. I'm convinced that I learned more in this one day than I would have given the entire summer on my own. Thank you Drew. Let's make sure to do it again.


Pat Cohen (smalliestalker) said...

awesome man....I need to get up there...

Brian J. said...

Those fish look awesome to pursue with the fly

Sanders said...

Really cool...looks like some pretty fun stuff on the fly!

flypredator said...

I would love to have you out there again... as much as that bowfin haunts you, it haunts me too... I want to see you land one that size. My best guess is around 12 lbs... Anyone else interested in getting out there in the next month or so (some of the best fishing) email me at