Shifting Gears and Perspectives

From Jo: One of the best parts of fly fishing is meeting thoughtful anglers on the water. I met Damon Matus at the Farmington. He and I decided to split some water. It was fun to compare notes. Fast forward, and we have kept in touch via Instagram. So, I’m very glad that he is willing to write for the blog and share his many perspectives.

Hello everyone, this is my first post here so I wanted to introduce myself as much as contribute something worthwhile and relevant.

I love driving a car with a manual transmission. Automatics are boring, but I’ll agree with anyone else who has spent some time managing a clutch that there are moments when you’re glad you can just put the car in drive and go. So it is, I believe with fishing as well. I think it’s safe to say, though, that we fish for enjoyment and we’re looking to get the most out of that experience in some way. I did some reflection on my own fishing experiences lately, and that will be the theme for this post.

Like driving a car, shifting gears in your fishing adds to the enjoyment of fishing in general

For years, I spent the period from May to October chasing striped bass from the Connecticut River to Cape Cod. I was fortunate to partake in some of the finest surf fishing on the east coast on the outer beaches of the Cape from Nauset to P’Town.

We covered miles of open beach either on foot or by 4 wheel drive, working the points and bars in search of big striped bass. I fished out of an SUV mostly, with multiple surf rods from eight to 10 feet on the bumper and roof rack and often a nine-weight fly rod on the roof in case the opportunity arose. We often found bass and blues feeding in the wash or pushing sand eels and peanut bunker up on the beach.

I met my friend John Hollenberg one night as we were the only two casters working a stretch of beach under Highland Light in Truro. We fished together occasionally but one of the most memorable moments occurred in the fall of 2002.

John and I met up on High Head one early September evening after he had encountered several weeks of great fishing. This was the norm at the time, and just about any night with a southwest wind from mid August to October would produce.

Waiting for the incoming tide and the sun to set, John fiddled with his gear at the back of his truck as a gentle surf broke on the outer bar just out of casting distance. He knew that once darkness came, there would be fish behind the bar and that live eels would be the ticket. Killing time, I headed for the water with a surface plug. I later found out John thought I was wasting my time, but he was even more surprised than I was when a bass of about 30 pounds exploded on my plug, coming clear out of the water in the process. I literally saw the fish from head to tail, but after a short run the belly swivel failed and I retrieved a plug with only a tail hook remaining.

I returned to my truck to get another plug as John made his way to the water with an eight-ft. rod and a pencil popper. One of the great things about the beach was you could use light tackle without having to worry about current and heavy structure. What happened next was a sight I’ll never forget as a huge bass inhaled his plug with a strike that blew up like a depth charge.

John quickly released the fish without even taking a measurement and I barely had time to snap a quick photo with a cheap, disposable camera in the fading light. I had seen enough striped bass to be able to estimate weight with respectable accuracy, usually guessing to within a few pounds. This fish was at least in the high 40s and may very well have cleared 50 pounds. Little did we know that we were living in the “good old days.”

John Hollenberg with a cow of unmeasured proportions, released at High Head, Truro, September 2002.

We had another few years of good fishing. I spent a year on the sand in another part of the world, and the last good fishing for us came in 2005. Just like that, it was over.

I took up fly fishing for trout and was humbled. After a few lean years, I started fishing in the Cape Cod Canal and was humbled. I had to shift gears, but it wasn’t easy and it took time on the water. It’s amazing what you can learn in 10 minutes on You Tube today, but back then, you read, talked to people if you were fortunate to have that resource, and then you worked it all out on the water.

I got back into fly fishing about this time last year and was amazed at the advancements in techniques and methods, particularly in Euro-nymphing.  Armed with an 11 ft. three-wt. Sage ESN, I set out to learn again. I dabbled in Czech nymphing years ago with a 10 ft. five-weight and a floating line and had some success, but was fascinated in how these techniques developed.

With some time on the water, many hours reading George Daniel’s book, Dynamic Nymphing, and some help from guys I met on the river like Andrew Lyons, I started putting fish in the net fairly consistently.

But, those days on the beach had a lasting impact on me. I always valued big fish, not numbers of fish. Some guys were happy catching schoolies or getting consistent action. That attitude crept its way into my trout fishing and I found myself spending hours on the river, catching some real quality fish and intrigued by pictures and stories of big trout. There was great fishing for big bass in the canal earlier than usual this year. I really didn’t care; I kept trout fishing.

I didn’t wet a line for striped bass until well into the month of June this year. My season started with a big fish in the mid-30s (I always measured bass in pounds, not inches) but action was slow enough that plans to fish with John included a trip to Euro-nymph the Farmington River as a back-up plan.

5X or 50lb test? It was time to switch gears and pursue striped bass again, but would I apply the lessons I learned on the trout stream?

As it turned out, the Farmington trip never happened. We had an historic year on the Cape Cod Canal. At times, it seemed as though every striped bass on the east coast was located between the Sandwich jetty and the Bourne Bridge. Crowds were insane. Sadly, a lot of bass were killed. It was not uncommon to see 20 to 30 pound fish floating by belly-up, many of them victim to inappropriate (too light) tackle and inexperienced or careless handling.

At least one rod and reel commercial fisherman was able to fill his quota by motoring around the East End of the canal, plucking dead bass out of the water. This was a true blitz of historic proportions and it lasted a long time. It was no secret, but I kept my photos off of my Instagram account until recently for two reasons; I didn’t want to contribute to the madness, and I didn’t have many pictures. You see, that’s the thing about a blitz; things happen so quickly and the pace of fishing is such that it’s hard to take the time to snap a photo or even to enjoy your fish.

Remembering the old days on the beach and how quickly it all ended, I realized that I needed to make the most of this experience. I fished multiple tides, in excess of 12 hours, always thinking that I would be missing out on it somewhere. What I learned was that making the most of the experience didn’t necessarily mean fishing as much as possible.

I caught incredible numbers of 28 to 32 pound fish, but wanted to break 40, a mark I hadn’t surpassed in a long time. That never happened for me this year. Not for lack of trying or time on the water, but I figured I wasn’t in the right place at the right time.  It wasn’t until after the blitz that I cleared my head enough to reflect on why.

It’s tough to get photos during a blitz. The pressure is on to get back in the game quickly.

Back to my driving example for a moment. One of the greatest differences between a stick and an automatic is you don’t really consider what the car is doing when you drive an automatic; you just press the pedal and it goes. At times this year, my fishing was the equivalent. I went fishing and caught fish. I didn’t think too much about where or how, I just replicated what worked. That makes sense to a degree. Why ruin a good thing, right? Don’t leave fish to find fish they say.

Unless you’re targeting specific fish. I realized in hindsight that if I really wanted a big fish, I could have adjusted my tactics to help put me in a better place at a better time. Here’s a few examples:

  • The biggest fish were commonly taken at a certain time under a certain set of conditions. I knew this very well, but instead of focusing my effort on these periods and evaluating them further, I fished through them and also fished during non-peak periods at a frenzied pace. In short, I exhausted myself physically and mentally. After one trip in early September, I sustained an overuse injury in both arms that left my hands numb and unable to make a fist for several days. This is what happens when you horse 25 to 30 pound fish in against a moon tide current for 12 hours straight. I had over 60 fish that night and the following morning, but it took me a week and a half to recover!
  • You can fish a stretch of water from multiple positions and angles, but some are better than others. In the canal, many of the fish are moving by you, so there’s something to be said about parking yourself and waiting for the fish to show. But even there, like any river or similar water with current, there are places that will hold fish and those are the areas to park yourself if possible. Some of them are obvious at certain stages of the tide. When crowds are an issue, this might mean sacrificing some other portions of your plan in order to put yourself in the right place at the right time. For example,  I couldn’t fish the end of the tide at night in spot A and still be in position to fish the turn at first light in spot B, simply because someone else would be in spot B by the time I got there.
  • Don’t get sentimental or too comfortable. Move and fish new water. It’s easy to go back to water that has worked for you in the past without considering why it worked or when it worked.
39 pound striper caught and released in September, 2016. I very deliberately positioned myself at a time and location that I thought would produce a bigger fish. In this case, what I learned was even more valuable than what I caught.

I find myself making the same mistakes when I fly fish for trout. I fish the same run because it’s always been good for a fish or two. Some times we just need to put a fish in the net, and that’s okay, but one of the most valuable lessons I learned over the years in fishing is this: The greater success lies not in what you caught, but what you learned.

This point highlights the importance of keeping the right perspective when we head out on the water. The fish pictured at left was one that created an experience for me that I truly enjoyed. I caught six fish that night, not 60.

However, I deliberately positioned myself in a spot that was holding fish consistently and at a certain stage of the tide. I knew right away when I hooked up on this fish and felt the head shaking runs that my plan was validated.

So shifting gears again, I returned to the Farmington River recently, and, this time, I brought John along to learn how to Euro-nymph. We started off simple, sticking to confidence patterns in spots I knew would at least hold a few fish. Like I said earlier, sometimes you just have to put something in the net.

We did catch a few and John quickly got the hang of things, putting himself on the board.  I found myself falling into the old pattern though and it was time to consider the lessons of the past in order to apply them in the present, instead of just fishing the same way.  I was fortunate to bump into Andrew Lyons, whose words of wisdom turned the light bulb back on.

The next day, we shifted gears. Well-rested and armed with a good plan, we had a successful outing with several nice trout, including a few wild fish netted and new lessons learned. It’s great to be back out on the trout stream, partaking in a well-managed and high-quality fishery. I don’t know what the future holds for the striped bass fishery, but the lesson I take with me is the importance of getting the most enjoyment out of your time on the water without taking it all for granted. This is the secret to enjoying the “good old days” in the present.

For me, the reward of catching wild trout can be as great as catching cow striped bass. It’s all about the perspective.
John with a healthy Farmington River brown.

7 thoughts on “Shifting Gears and Perspectives

  1. Wow, one hell of a post! Something I would see in a sporting magazine! Thanks for sharing and you are spot on in enjoying your time on the water cause things are always changing. As Jack Gartside once said “Be a mover and not a groover”.

  2. Nice post Damon. Thanks for the shout out and glad my advice worked out. Maybe next year you can take me out for some of those stripers.

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