With water temps finally starting to push 50 degrees after a seemingly endless, F*CK#*@#* TERRIBLE WINTER – spring has finally sprung in our beloved District.
With warm weather comes the instinctual urge to do funtivities outside. Joggers, bikers, and all those kept contained inside for way too long hatch in a glorious manifestation of life and passive fitness. It also means hell on the local traffic scene – but I digress.
For us in the District, spring means a few things...
Cherry blossoms and tourists…
Nats games (I’m an O’s fan but beer is beer) and times spent meandering around Cantina Marina….
We've been spared the Caps annual game 7 home loss (aka the Red Wedding) this year (thank god)…
And of course, fishing some…or a lot…or all the freaking time now that there is no need for a gajillion layers or routine trips down I-80 to chase the local population of brutish salmonoids.
How liberating is that?!
But if any of y’all read last year’s #WordHatches around this time of year, there’s a pretty distinct chance you saw a pattern of irrational and reckless behavior that resulted in some great catches and funny stories.
Well, I can’t make any promises (I like to think I’ve learned a thing or two), I’m just gonna say it comes with the territory—especially if the fishing is as spectacular as it was last spring. See, once spring finally rids itself from the demented clutches of winter – my fishing options not limited to one local stream and a handful of productive trout waters – I tend to lose my shit.
In short, I’m talking about the deterioration of all things resembling rationality and a normal, functional life...all for a shot at that one fish.
In other words, things are about to get awfully fishy around here (if it looks like I haven’t slept…I haven’t).
The next few months will be a total immersion into the fly life as I’m looking forward to fishing way too hard until this all starts slowing down….hopefully around next December.
But just in case you missed all the #WordHatches from last year, here is the typical spring rundown around these parts-
After a long winter pounding the trout water and occasionally Four Mile Run with a goddamn vengeance – the Nation’s River smiles on us all and finally warms up to 50 degrees. Giving everyone hope. Trout guys curse the oncoming flood of fair weather fishermen….and powerbait.
Everyone starts talking shad in late February despite the facts that global warming has decided to punish this region by extending winter well into March in recent years. Maybe one year we'll be graced with an early season...Until then Shad start showing up in early April and the line for a boat at Fletcher’s starts at 4am. All time before/after work is spent at Fletchers for three weeks straight as water temps everywhere start to get primo.
At this point I’ve stopped shaving. After another week, I’m seriously contemplating a No-Shave-Shad-Run for the entire two months period these mini-tarpon enter the river. Hell, I’ve even started to smell like a shad (hickory, not gizzard. Thank god).
But like an addict—come late-April, I’m done with shad…I need a stronger pull...and really want a spey rod….
By now the run is fully on. Fletcher’s becomes too crowded. The majority of folks are keeping all the shad they can despite the postings about river herring and shad being endangered. There are no rules. It’s gross.
To boot the banks are lined with dart chuckers (non-derogatory term, I enjoy spin fishing a lot) and the channel completely lined with row boats making it tough to get back to the boathouse at times without taking a dart to the jugular. That said, it’s an incredible time.
If you live in the District, you need to experience it at least once.
But it’s time to roll out—people are starting to give me funny looks.
The run will continue for another month or so.…until the Dogwoods blossom….
Late April-Late May
Striper run starts mid-late April with the bigger fish pushing through the system first. The stripers range from 8”-40”. The big ones are rare on fly gear –especially in places that are accessible from the shore. But I dream nonetheless.
I start planning my life around the Alexandria tide chart hitting up every tidal creek outflow and inlet I can at “good” times. Everything from dates to beers with friends and family affairs are all strained and meticulously calculated against the tides –all for a shot at that one fish.
3:30am wake up calls for outgoing tides on school nights becomes the norm as you make the transformation from human being to thing that goes bump in the night. Sleep deprivation is nothing but a thang. Coming back to the park to fish an hour before it closes seems like a good idea even when you've already fished there from 4am-7am that day and again from 6pm-8pm.
You start to lose yourself in the calmness of a DC sunrise…..only hours after losing yourself in the serenity of a cool, spring night…You start not to care about the little things. The cast, a natural extension of yourself at this point. The initial mend upon fly hitting the water, like breathing. The retrieve synchronized to the point that you don't even recognize yourself doing it anymore. It just does...and you make another cast.
In other words, my friend - you start fishing.
You swing until you can’t anymore- that point where either the fish or the elements decide your fate for you. Moments denied when you are betrayed by the tide and at other times by an oncoming monsoon. Some of the best tides are ruined by a flooded river. Moons wasted on angry, chocolate water. So you tie flies.
Big flies. Some with clouser eyes, others with the Clear Cure—in every “PROVEN” combo you can think of. Once your armory is restored - the river gets its act together and it’s game time again. You wonder if it will ever happen…And then it happens.
You feel the bump, strip set, and realize you hooked something that really, really didn’t like being stuck in the face. The rod loads and you can feel the power of this magnificent force as the line shoots through the guides. In the soft glow of the surrounding street lights you hear, not see, the fish break the surface. In your mind you know it’s a solid fish. Over 25”…whatever the hell it is.
You hope it’s that striper you’ve been chasing every week for the past month. The thought crosses your mind it’s a snakehead…but pshhh. You pray it’s not a big blue cat. And then, in that same soft light that prevented you from seeing said beast break the surface from 80yds away –your finally given that glorious gift of sight. The fish coming into view, broad silver stripes and burly shoulders busting through its prison bird suite lateral lines in full, furious glory…and things suddenly feel complete.
You can finally sleep.
But even when you eventually stick that nice fish or too mixed in with the schoolies, you tell no one. It may have taken you days, weeks, months, or even years to accomplish the rare fate of pulling a 30” striper out of the shallows. But the shad beard compels you to do weirder things.
A life of secrecy is hard to maintain on a blog with 3K+followers. But sometimes you gotta speak up….like when you almost get arrested for “entering the Potomac” (still sounds like some sort of sexual deviancy) at 2:30AM near a busy, National Airport…
Time to lay low for a while….the stripers are slowing down…
The next show is in town.
Snakeheads, largemouth, and smallmouth bass have long ago emerged from their winter slumber offering up fun for those not obsessed with shad or stripers.
For bass, this means moving from shelves in relatively deep water into the shallows to gorge themselves. The creeks become a playground for anyone with a clawdad, small clouser, or frog.
Those alien snakeheads? Not so much.
After rising from their muddy, wintry resting places—water temps in the mid-50s inspiring them to start shagging all over the place at Chain Bridge—these bastards won’t eat a single thing until their done with their biznazz. But in May that all starts to change with some fish finishing said biznazz and finally deciding to eat something –as the summer continues, it only gets better.
The Tidal Basin becomes a second home for these aliens. Urban whale watching and day dreaming become one and the same. It’s the fish that doesn't see you that eats the fly. Be seen and you’re done.
I chase them with abandon until the grass gets too thick to fish without a boat….and the target keeps moving.
If you’re up for it, challenge yourself. There is no better place to become an ALL-AROUND fly fisherman than the Potomac watershed and its surrounding area.
Sometimes you’ve got to experiment. Change things up. Put your left shoe on your right foot. Well, maybe not that extreme. But you catch my drift (above all else, stay fly). Without risk taking or experimentation – our great sport would be limited to its origins of dry flies and small streams (not a bad thing). But because we are a species that likes to push the envelope – innovation is inevitable. We will always continue to push the boundaries before us. Don't believe me? Just look around.
Already our sport has progressed from said stream to the salt and from those holy salt flats it has expanded to the blue water in the pursuit of an adrenaline rush so pure and profound that it alters the life paths of even the most determined individuals and puts our existence into sweet, sweet perspective. However, the books have already been written on how to catch most of the badass fish on the planet. Far away fisheries pioneered by the legendary rock star cowboys of previous generations. But where do we draw our inspiration to deviate from the doctrines previously set before us nowadays? Family? Friends? Fish? Boredom? In other words- where do we find the courage to pursue happiness on our own damn terms? Honestly, I don’t know. I just try to fish as often as my body and schedule will permit. I try to adapt as much as possible and figure out the game on my own. Sometimes it’s reinventing the wheel – other times it’s letting the wheel spin. But the confidence to branch off and do something “weird” is a rare trait these days. The desire to forge trails and bushwhack a dying desire - but innovation is inevitable. There will always be individuals weird enough to try something new.
Too many individuals fear failure or ridicule these days. For others it’s loneliness or a bruised ego. But what’s the difference between not catching anything doing the accepted technique and not catching anything on an unorthodox rig? There isn’t one. Except that I guess you fit in with the norm. Doubt will dwell in one’s mind regardless when they fail. So why not make the fresh attempt and try something new and go down swinging?
After only getting one snakehead in the mouth this past year on a fly out of the Tidal Basin throwing just about every fly you could imagine - I couldn’t help but get to thinking….
What was I doing wrong?
Was I doing anything wrong?
Was it me?
Was it the fish?
There were no books for me to reference. No words to follow from the badass rock star cowboys of our sport's distinguished past. There was nothing but blank pages and overzealous blog posts by those fortunate enough to “fool” one of these great fish. I think my heart just skipped a beat.
Long before I became a fly guide - I was an aspiring tournament bass fisherman. In my youthful wanderings, I learned how to flip, pitch, and skip baits under docks. I lost baits in trees, boats, ropes, docks, buoys, living rooms, and on one unfortunate occasion -a cormorant. But eventually, I learned how to read water. I perfected my retrieves and rod action. I avoided the birds and studied and read as much as I could to get inside the head of my quarry. Big fish became the expectation – not the exception. In the end, I realized that most predatory game fish are of an eerily similar like mindedness. Most live in the same places and eat the same variety of things. They rarely deviate from that previous doctrine set before them – their survival instinct too tough to breakdown. So what gives with snakeheads?
The answers are…. well…. still up for debate. With each catch we’re figuring these fish out but the limited catches on fly rods really leave a lot to be desired. In other words – the book on snakeheads is still in the process of being written. From my observations – they are a random beast that loves banded killifish, hates cinnamon, and favors those not looking for them. I’ve heard of one caught on shad flies at Chain Bridge. Another was caught on a nymph in the Tidal Basin. One individual with a good ole fashioned worm and bobber caught one at Fletcher’s Cove. Pretty much all were caught by accident. Hell, Jeremy Wade had to implore a local fisherman to spear one FOR HIM in Thailand. Now that really puts things in perspective.
When I think about the unique opportunity placed before us on our Nation’s River (whether or not you consider these invasives a blessing or curse) – I can’t help but flash to those first pioneering bone fishermen on the flats. How many times did they spook a fish with an errant cast? How many times were they given the fin before hitting pay slime? When did they realize these fish were leader shy? When did everything start to click for those rock star cowboys? The history of our sport is fascinating. However, it is the future that excites me the most. The possibility of pioneering an entirely new fishery can't help but get you excited.
I guess it’s time to write some pages in this snakehead book. Let’s get weird.
My life started to unravel a few weeks ago …
It all started with that damn shad run. I tied countless flashy pink flies. Kindergarten Specials and Brown Nosers. My apartment still looks like a pre-school arts and crafts classroom with no clean up time. I’m addicted to the vise. It won’t get any cleaner either as stripers, largemouth, and snakehead start picking up (sorry, Lorraine). But as we inch closer to summer – the Nats doomed by bandwagon fans, unrealistic expectations, and a revamped Braves team now playing the role of pissed off underdog – I can’t help but think about how quickly things can change. Damn those seasons.
In a few weeks, summer will be here. The simple beauty of 78 degree days replaced with those approaching 100. Intense humidity and wild, random weather will become the norm (see: Derecho). The water temps will soar above 80 degrees and all the great action we’re having now will be gone. Not completely gone. Fish will certainly still be caught. But the fish won't be residing in the shallows – refugees of the heat in search of cold water and oxygen. Stalking fish in darkness will become the name of the game. The epic mixed bag bite we’re having now will not return until fall. Then it’s winter and we’re back to Four Mile Run banishment and driving to the mountains for trout streams... It’s amazing how those seasons change. Amazing to think just three weeks ago there was snow on the ground. But for now the water temps are in the mid-60s and our great river has sprung back to life in a big way. I plan on taking advantage of this until it ends.
I'll always remember what my dad told me last year after graduating college. I was down at his place in Siesta Key, FL with a certain Brogan Jayne trout bum chasing tarpon. We had 6 glorious days to get it done. I remember coming off the water one day and giving him a hug, he could tell I was getting tired but instead of ushering me to bed uttered the five most beautiful words I've ever heard - "fish your ass off, son." In this context - there is only one spring. Take complete advantage of it.
This is the season where the fish are in my wheelhouse- big streamers for largemouth, stripers, and snakehead. I’m making the most of this spring. Fishing as often and as furiously as I can. Last week, I averaged 5 hours of sleep and close to 4 hours of fishing a day. That’s almost a 1:1 sleeping to fishing ratio. Wow. But you know what? I'm fine. Exhaustion is a state of mind.
I wrote a previous Word Hatch about not being normal. The article (found here) focused on my affinity for fishing at weird times of day, making more fruitless casts on a frigid outgoing tide in darkness than I probably should have, almost giving up, and ultimately on the last cast – hooking into one of the better striped bass I’ve ever caught in the District (20”). My hands numb, work quickly approaching, and doggone tired –the article hinted at something much deeper than simply a love for ripping lips and sacrificing beers and sleep to play in the outdoors. That was in the winter….. Now that spring decided to show up, none of that has changed. In fact – it may have gotten worse…
I haven’t shaved since the shad run….
I almost chopped off the tip of my left index finger trying to slice a bagel….
I stepped on a nail while trying to pick off stripers at the Tidal Basin….
The tug is the drug…
I am a slave to tide…
I’m pretty sure I smell sometimes…
I’m so glad spring has sprung.
So what can I tell you about springtime in DC? Push your limits. The good times will eventually end.
She's trying to eat the reel.
Two weeks ago it was snowing, our Nation’s River filled with shivering shad and eager anglers – individuals like me who held onto the slightest glimpse of hope that spring would finally come in mid-April. Now it’s 90 degrees. I guess we should be careful what we fish for. I mean wish for. For weeks, Washington was mired in the misanthrope that is an extended winter. But like the Cherry Blossoms and Nationals Park, so too has the Potomac River sprung back to life.
To me (and every other living thing on this planet) – spring is that clichéd “renewal of life”. The magical time of year when the sun warms the earth, baseball starts its marathon-long season, sundresses and shorts become the norm again, oh and shad, bass, snakeheads, and stripers return to our local waters. In short - hope for good weather, sunny days, and good fishing abound within everyone (well, maybe just the weather and sunshine). For the next couple months, our water temps will remain below 80 or so degrees. Game fish of all shapes and varieties will go through their life cycle of pre-spawn gorging, spawning lockjaw, and post-spawn exhaustion. It will undoubtedly be the best fishing of the year for everything that swims everywhere… But call me crazy - I will miss winter.
I will miss winter a lot actually. More than I probably should. But there is a special serenity to be found on a quiet, crisp morning in an otherwise empty forest dotted with fresh snowfall. A simple beauty in relishing the breath in front of your face, knowing you’re the only person on the water that day, and realizing you should’ve worn 7 layers instead of 6. It’s the way a hot cup of coffee warms your entire body when everything else is frozen around you. It’s your favorite winter hat, the sunburns from a sunny, 20 degree day, and knowing with every cast you make – you’re telling Jack Frost to suck it. But most of all – I will miss the fish and the incredible rush that comes from sticking a fat trout in a seemingly empty pool. The satisfaction of knowing you’re doing what you love despite the elements. But not everything about this past winter was perfect- RGIII's knee being at the top of my list.
But there were many trips were I froze my ass off and came back with nothing to show. Mornings were my rod guides and hands froze. I lost two nets and half of a G Loomis rod on one trip. Almost lost my life on another. But if I've learned anything from winter, it’s that even though the forest is barren – life still exists in the stream.
So before the trees bud and the shad run reaches its fever pitch (look for cast netting poachers near Chain Bridge) – let’s raise our glasses to winter. Thank you for every minute of your miserable biting winds, freakish fronts, short days, and regulation to trout streams and Four Mile Run. You've versed me well in patience and perseverance. Lessons that will pay off come summer doldrums. But now that spring has sprung, who cares about any of that?
Time to party with some fish.
Stay fly.o edit.
Remick Smothers is a native son of the District of Columbia and the founder of FlyTimesDC. A self taught fly fisherman and fly tier, Rem graduated from Rhodes College with a double major in fly fishing and English in 2012. He has been celebrating the fly life ever since. Just remember, if it's dark out, there's a shark out. Above all else, stay fly. #flytimesdc