Woods and Waters An outdoor blog by John McCoy

A new beginning…

Hi, Folks!

Just a quick note to announce the re-launch of the Gazette-Mail’s Woods & Waters Blog! Tune in regularly to catch my posts on hunting-, fishing- and nature-related stories here in West Virginia and beyond!

The blog is just one of the ways we folks here at the Gazette-Mail are planning to enhance your enjoyment of our outdoors coverage. Look for my tweets on Twitter, too, and don’t be surprised if you see some outdoors video pop up from time to time on the Gazette-Mail website!

All the best,

A man who loves to be ‘bugged’

In this week’s column, I reveal why the months of April and May are special to me:

Note to self: Hang in there. Bug season begins soon.
When I see the first green leaves appear on weeping willow trees, or see the cheery yellow blossoms of forsythia bushes, I know it’s almost “my” time of year.
Most people call it spring, but I call it bug season.
Deep in the turbulent waters of West Virginia’s trout streams, bugs of all sorts are getting ready to hatch. From mid-April through early June, mayflies and caddis flies and stoneflies make the almost-magical transformation from larvae to adults.
To do so, the larvae float or swim to the water’s surface, where they split their skins and crawl out as fully formed adults. As they float and struggle on the surface, they become sitting ducks for feeding trout.
For fly anglers, catching a full-blown hatch is like hitting the lottery. Catching trout is sometimes as easy as seeing a fish rise to a real fly, casting an artificial fly to that spot, and setting the hook when the imitation disappears.
The bugs go by a dizzying array of Latin scientific names: Epeorus pleuralis, Brachycentrus americanus, Maccafertium vicarium and the like. Only true wonks use the Latin names, though. Most anglers distinguish the species by the names of those artificials used to match the hatch. One can hardly blame them, as names like Quill Gordon, Grannom and March Brown are infinitely easier to pronounce and remember than all that Latin gobbledygook.
Many of the early-season mayfly hatches involve species best imitated with drab flies size 18 and smaller. Several broods of Blue-winged Olives become active in April, as do Blue Quills.
The first sizable mayfly to come along is the size 14 Quill Gordon, also a somber pattern. The famed Hendrickson comes next, followed by the Orange Sulfur, the March Brown, the Gray Fox, the Green Drake and the Leadwing Coachman.
Scattered in among the mayfly emergences are a variety of caddis fly and stonefly hatches. On most Mountain State waters, heavy caddis and stonefly hatches are relatively infrequent, although the little Yellow Sally stonefly sometimes is the exception that proves the rule.
I’ve been a fly fisherman for 35 years, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I’ve exploited a heavy caddis fly or stonefly hatch. I’ll say this, though – they certainly were memorable.
The best big-fish day I ever had came during a hatch of large green-bodied caddis flies on a boulder-strewn central West Virginia stream. I frankly didn’t know a hatch was on, but had on the end of my line a fly that matched the hatching pupae perfectly.
In about half an hour’s time over roughly 100 yards of water, I caught a 19-inch brown trout, a 13-incher, another 19-incher, and hooked and lost a mammoth brown my fishing partner estimated at 24 inches.
The most memorable hatch I ever encountered was one I couldn’t fish. I was vacationing in Yellowstone National Park with my wife, and I had taken her to look at the Yellowstone River’s famed LeHardy Rapids.
The National Park Service has declared the rapids a “study area” and doesn’t allow fishing. Cutthroat trout there are both abundant and large.
When my wife and I were there, a flush hatch of 2-inch long stoneflies known as “salmonflies” happened to be underway. Huge trout were rising everywhere, gobbling the flies as they struggled on the churning surface.
I had a blast catching the big insects, crushing their heads, tossing them into the river and watching 20- to 25-inch cutts rocket to the surface to scarf them up.
I was watching fish and not catching them, but seldom before or since has “bug season” been quite that much fun.


Homer Circle, R.I.P.

Homer Circle, 1915-2012

The outdoor world lost a true giant last week when Homer Circle passed away.

“Uncle Homer,” as he was known, was best known as the fishing editor for Sports Afield magazine — a post he held from 1968 through 2002. He authored a slew of books on bass fishing, hosted three outdoor TV shows and starred in Glenn Lau’s iconic bass-fishing films “Bigmouth” and “Bigmouth Forever.”

Despite his fame, Uncle Homer was as nice a fellow as anyone could imagine. I got a chance to chat with him once, at the 1988 Outdoor Writers Association of America conference in Marco Island, Fla.

I had won a fly casting-for-distance event on Breakout Day that year, and was told to show up at 3M/Scientific Anglers’ hospitality suite that evening to pick up my prize. After I was announced as the winner, Uncle Homer walked up to me and introduced himself.

My jaw almost hit the floor. There I was, shaking the hand of the famous Homer Circle while he congratulated me and praised my fly casting prowess.

“You know who you remind me of?” he asked. “Ted Williams — the way you cast and the way you carry yourself remind me of him.”

I could not possibly have felt more honored. Williams was an idol of mine, both for his ability to hit a baseball and for his ability to catch fish.

“You know, Ted and I used to fish a lot together,” Homer said. “I remember once when we were out in a boat, fishing off the [Florida] Keys. We were paying too much attention to the fishing and not enough attention to where we were. We looked up and saw a storm building and figured we’d better get back to the dock.

“Problem was, we couldn’t see land from where we were. Ted stood up on one of the seats and, with his height and his amazing eyesight, was just able to see the tip of a smokestack on one of the Keys. We made it back in just before the storm hit.”

We chatted for several minutes before he got called away to talk to someone else. I still remember sitting there, dumbstruck that someone of Homer Circle’s reputation and caliber had taken the time to sit and share fishing stories with me.

When Uncle Homer died last Friday, he had graced the lives of others for 97 years. He will be missed.


Back from an extended leave…

Howdy, folks. It’s been quite a while since my last post. For the past nine days I’ve been on vacation. Usually while on vacation I check e-mail, monitor comments and update the blog. Not this time. I needed a complete break from everything, and I took it. Now I’m rested and raring to go. Let’s have fun!

A season’s greeting

I sure hope everyone had a joyous Christmas and a happy holiday season.

It’s nice to be back after a couple of days away. Funny thing about blogging — once you get into the rhythm of posting every day, taking a day or two off feels kind of funny.

So here we are, with the year winding down. And what a year it has been! This year, you kind folks visited the Woods & Waters blog more than 300,000 times. That’s more visits than in the first three years of the blog combined.

The number of comments grew sharply, too. That’s also a credit to you readers. It’s clear that you care passionately about outdoors-related subjects, and you’re willing to share your passion with others. I like it when readers comment; it helps us all to learn. As brilliant (cough, cough) as I try to make my posts, you improve them when you bring different points of view to them in your comments.

Thanks again for helping to make Woods & Waters a well-read blog.

Thank you!!!

Wow. Exciting things are happening at Woods & Waters Online!

This past weekend, our hit counter passed the quarter million mark for the year. A few days before that, our hit counter passed the half-million mark since I started the blog in 2008.

Readership has built slowly but steadily. From just 5,000 hits the first year, we accelerated to 60,000 in 2009, to 193,000 in 2010,  and to 253,000 (and counting) so far this year.

So take a bow, folks! You, the loyal readers, have made it happen. Your readership inspires me to work on the blog each day — to scour the Internet for items that might be of interest, and to check in several times a day to moderate comments. Thank you for making the work worthwhile.

Returned from the wilds

As you might have been able to tell from the previous post, I’ve been in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle for a few days. My family and I cut our vacation a little short because of a medical emergency, but things have settled down a bit and I’m ready to reenter the blogosphere.

More here soon…

A rant about argumentative anglers

This week’s column is a bit of a rant. So sue me…

Rodney King said it best: “Can’t we all just get along?”
“We,” in this case, refers to people who fish. We enjoy a common pastime, but we spend far too much time criticizing each other.
Spend five minutes examining the posts on just about any Internet fishing forum, and chances are you’ll come across at least one flame war.
A common example: Fellow catches a nice trout on a spinner, photographs his catch and posts a photo online. Within minutes – sometimes within seconds – someone puts up a post that reads, “What?!! You used a treble hook? Don’t you know that treble hooks can cause fish mortality? Have you no decency, man? No care for the resource?!!”
And that’s an example of a tame response. The flames really get intense if someone (horrors!) uses live bait or (cardiac arrest!) keeps a bass or a trout for the dinner table.
For crying out loud, people, it’s only a pastime.
Fishing is supposed to be recreation – a way for us to leave the workaday world behind. When I grab a rod and head for the water, my goals are simple: To spend some time away from cameras and computers and telephones, to get some fresh air and maybe to catch a fish or two.
I fish with the tackle best suited to the task. For trout, that usually means a fly rod – but I’d happily grab a spinning rod and sling PowerBait if I thought that would work better. When I fish for bass, it’s almost always with spinning or bait casting gear. My preferred bait for channel catfish is chicken liver.
Crappies go bonkers for live minnows. By the way, so do trout and bass. Yes, you read right; the man who owns 14 fly rods deliberately uses minnows to catch trout or bass when the spirit moves him to do so.
If this horrifies anyone, let me offer some timeless advice from Sgt. Hulka, the drill sergeant in “Stripes”:
Lighten up, Francis.
Life’s too darned short to get bent out of shape because someone caught a fish using a method that offends your delicate sensibilities.
There was a time when stuffy British fly fishermen lived by a strict code of conduct, and looked steeply down their noses at anyone who didn’t comply with it. Trout were to be caught only on dry flies, and specifically only when those dry flies were cast upstream to visibly rising fish.
The high priest of this cult was a stuffy chap named Frederic Halford. One day, he found out that a young upstart named George Edward MacKenzie Skues had fished England’s River Itchen with a sunken nymph.
Halford confronted Skues at the local angler’s club. “Young man!” Halford exclaimed. “One simply cannot fish the Itchen with the methods you describe!”
“But I’ve done it,” Skues replied.
I’m with Skues. If a fishing method is legal, and if the person who uses the method obeys any regulations that govern the body of water being fished, far be it from us to criticize.
We anglers face ongoing challenges from those who would pollute the waters we fish, or those who seek to close off prime destinations by putting up no-trespassing signs. Only through unity can we ensure our fishing future. Yet here we sit, Balkanizing ourselves over such trivial matters as barbed versus barbless hooks.
Can’t we all just get along?

Feathers-in-hair fad irks fly tiers

Grizzly saddle hackle hair extensions

On the way home from work yesterday afternoon, I dropped by the local fly fishing shop to shoot the bull with the owner.

While there, I noticed a large bare spot on the wall where a display of dry fly saddle hackles used to be. “Oh, no,” I said. “What happened? Did some featherheads raid the store?”

He grinned. “Yep. Two beauty-shop owners came in and completely cleaned me out.”

Oh boy. The “featherhead” fad has come to ol’ Wild and Wunnerful. For those of you not familiar with it, check out the accompanying photo. Women are paying big bucks to have long, skinny feathers from the backs of chickens — saddle hackles — woven into their hair.

The fad has just about dried up the supply of dry-fly grade saddles countrywide. The demand is insane. Yesterday, on eBay, a purple-dyed grizzly saddle sold for $328. Before the craze, it would have sold for about $50.

It’s easy to see why beauty-shop owners are scouring every fly shop in the country in search of these feathers. A good-quality saddle contains 200 to 300 feathers, and the shops get $10 a feather to weave them into womens’ hair. The profit margin is insane.

Fly tiers, of course, are indignant. They’ve seen an abundant supply of top-quality dry fly hackle disappear practically overnight. Some fly shop owners now refuse to sell to anyone who isn’t a bona fide fly tier. 

Like many fads, this too will pass. My hope is that chicken farmers will dramatically ramp up production to meet the current demand, only to have the phenomenon fizzle. Should that happen, there would be a glut of top-quality saddles on the market and prices would plunge.

If that happens — no, when that happens — I’ll be waiting, credit card in hand, to buy some nice, cheap dry-fly saddles.

Waxing nostalgic over sporting-goods stores

This week’s column takes a trip down memory lane:

The other day, while cruising the fishing-tackle aisles of a big-box store, I found myself yearning for simpler times.

We old guys do that. Once we pass the big five-oh, the world that once seemed to pass in slow motion now whizzes by at express-train speed. Modern sporting-goods departments (there aren’t many true sporting-goods stores anymore) offer dazzling arrays of fishing tackle hermetically sealed in blister packs and festooned with computer bar codes. There’s convenience in having such variety, but there’s confusion too. When I started going into sporting-goods stores, at age 9 or 10 or so, the choices weren’t nearly as varied.

Hooks were made by Pflueger or Eagle Claw. The Pflueger hooks came in little round tins. The ones I bought contained a modest assortment of hook shapes and sizes, all meant to hold live bait. The Eagle Claw hooks I remember came pre-snelled on heavy monofilament leaders, strung on long, slender cards and wrapped in plastic.

I mostly remember the lures.

Dardevle spoons were as eye-catching then as they are today, especially the red ones with broad white stripes and green ones with yellow frog spots. I always wanted to fish with one of those magic-looking lures, but frankly couldn’t afford one until after I got out of college. By then, other lures were more in vogue. I eventually bought a couple of Dardevles, probably for nostalgia’s sake, but to this day I’ve never taken a fish on one.

Across the aisle from the Dardevles were the spinners. No tackle box of that era was complete without a couple of Abu-Garcia Reflex spinners, with their distinctive corrugated blades; Rooster Tails, with a brightly colored hackle feathers wrapped around their treble hooks; some Mepps, with their distinctive brass blades and squirrel-tail adornments; and a few plain silver or gold Hildebrandt Colorado blades with looped clasps that trout flies could be attached to.

Sporting goods stores of that era also carried a modest assortment of Helin Flatfish lures. Flatfish were inexpensive enough even for me to afford, and I spent hours agonizing over which ones to buy. I invariably chose small silver ones, mainly because they so closely imitated the minnows that inhabited the creek behind my house. I caught a lot of bass with them.

Close to the Flatfish display, stacked neatly in boxes on a shelf tantalizingly out of reach, sat the Holy Grail of artificial lures – plugs. No one called them crankbaits back then, and only a handful of purists called them lures. If they weren’t spinners or spoons, then by golly they were plugs.

They were colorful and multi-hooked and big enough, at least in a kid’s eyes, to land a whale. Their names, and even their manufacturers’ names, spring readily to mind despite the intervening years:

Topwater Hula Poppers and Jitterbugs, both made by the Arbogast Co.; deep-diving Hellbenders made by Whopper Stopper; shiny MirrOlures made by the L&S Bait Co.; and the granddaddy of them all (translation: the one I most lusted for), the jointed, perch-patterned Pikie Minnow made by the Creek Chub Bait Co.

I never could afford to buy very much, and yet the proprietors of those long-ago stores were invariably tolerant and friendly. Perhaps they knew that if they showed a financially challenged kid some encouragement, the kid might one day become a steady customer.

They were right, but they were wrong. Sporting-goods stores of that era tended to open and close within a few years, and by the time I was able to buy, the stores of my youth had closed.

It’s a pity. Those stores were infinitely more intimate than today’s big boxes, and would be infinitely more fun to shop.