Thursday, March 31, 2011

We have a winner!

Thank you for all of your comments and participation.

The winner is D. Nash of the blog "My Leaky Waders." His submission of Heterodon platirhinos was the first 100% correct answer. The snake is indeed an Eastern Hognose (H. platirhinos).

Ty got us started on the right track, but there are three species of hognose snakes in the U.S. so I asked for a more specific answer.
Ivan was close with Southern Hognose (H. simus), but they're actually quite rare these days- especially in Mississippi.

The real giveaway for this snake was the unique morphology- the unmistakable upturned snout and short stout body of a hognose snake. The question then becomes which of the three U.S. species could it be? The Western Hognose (H. nasicus) is not found in Mississippi. The Eastern and Southern species are both found in Mississippi, but the Southern species is only found in the southeastern portion of the state. Southern Hognose Snakes have actually become quite a rare find. In the hints I gave, I let you know the snake came from central Mississippi. The only hognose snake found there is the Eastern Hognose. The head pattern is still quite typical of an Eastern Hognose. You can check out some photos by clicking here. You'll also notice that Eastern Hognose Snakes are commonly found in a melanistic black phase.

David, send me an e-mail at with your mailing address, and let me know which prize you would like to claim.

Thanks again to all who participated in my first ever blog contest.

What kind of snake is that? A snake ID contest

I hope everyone learned something from the last post about snakes. Unfortunately, the information in that piece won't likely help you here. However, if you use some of the links, you may be able to find your way to some useful online resources.

The purpose of this post is to illustrate something I mentioned previously about there always being an exception to the rules when it comes to identifying snakes. As is the case with many other wild animals, snakes don't always look like they're supposed to. Just like a piebald deer or an albino alligator, snakes with aberrant coloration or pattern are occasionally found in the wild.

What the heck is that? It sure don't look like no picture in the field guide.

While this little guy doesn't display any form of albinism, his pattern is wildly different from the norms for the species. When you rely entirely on pattern and coloration to identify snakes you may be left in the dark when something like this turns up. It was especially confusing for the museum biologist who tried to identify the snake for someone describing it to him over the phone. He finally decided he would just have to go see it for himself, because the description the caller gave him just didn't make sense. When he arrived on the scene he was delighted to see that the snake was just an unusual specimen, and the caller actually wasn't that bad at giving a description.

Here's the deal. The first person to submit the correct identification of this snake in a comment below, wins a prize. Please be as specific as possible with your guesses. A scientific name would be nice, but an accurate common name is perfectly acceptable.

I have a few extra copies of a very good snake guide to Florida which will be your prize if you have any interest in southeastern snakes. If you live somewhere else in the country, I may have a snake book for you too. If you're not so much interested in snakes (but have an insatiable desire to win or prove your snake ID prowess), I can probably come up with an alternative prize... but it may turn out to be a surprise. Don't worry, I won't mail you any live snakes. Remember, I'm not in the business of trying to promote snake fears.

I'll give a few hints...
  1. This snake was found in the wild, in central Mississippi, and it is a species native to that area.
  2. It is not a captive bred color morph, hybrid, or "designer" pet trade variety. In other words- it's not a fancy escaped pet. It was found in the wild as a product of mother nature.
  3. The snake's morphology will help you identify it. If you don't know what morphology means, look it up.
I think that's enough hints for now. If I don't get a winner in a few days, I'll give another one.

May the guessing begin!

Oh, by the way... Kelly, you're not allowed to play.

    Tuesday, March 29, 2011

    Springtime is Snake time

    As I promised the River Damsel and a few others...

    It's time for what may become my annual springtime post about snakes. I may do other posts about snakes from time to time, but spring is when snakes start emerging from their winter hibernacula... and scaring the bejesus out of outdoor enthusiasts. Whether you are a hunter, angler, hiker, mountain biker, bird watcher, camper... or just live in the South... you are bound to encounter a snake at some point when you venture out into the natural world.

    I'm here to try... and I know some of you won't care to listen... but that doesn't deter me... I'm still going to try to set your minds at ease a bit about snakes. If you choose not to read on, that's okay. Ignorance is bliss... but I also believe ignorance is the root of most fears.

    For those of you that I haven't offended... yet... and are brave enough to venture on, I welcome you to the wonderful world of snakes! We've got lots to discuss. If I offend you further on in this post, I apologize in advance. Before you try to tell me that I don't know what I'm talking about, I will also say this... I may just know more about this subject than you. I don't make this statement out of arrogance... only experience. Please read all of what I have written, and then comment below if you would like to discuss, argue, or just ask a question. I'll be happy to address any of your thoughts and inquiries.

    First of all, why should you listen to me regarding snakes?

    There are lots of folks out there in cyberspace who show off pictures of themselves holding venomous snakes and who attempt to tell you what type of snake is what (often incorrectly) in a blog post.

    Why am I any different from the rest?

    Well, I have a degree in biology. Whoopty frickin' doo! That's certainly not what makes me an expert.

    I have owned many "pet" snakes over the years. I still have a few. Again, that don't mean $#*%!

    I have worked at three zoos... as a reptile keeper at two of them, and as an educator at the other. Once again, that don't impress me, dawg.

    I have attended several herpetology conferences... and I even took notes... and once I even made a presentation on snakes. So what? Who cares?

    All of these things have contributed in some way to my knowledge of serpents, but they are only part of my experience. Learning about snakes is something to which I dedicated myself a long time ago. I have invested a lot of time into making myself a snake "expert."

    Why am I snake "expert"? Well, I have spent countless hours searching for snakes in the field, both paid and unpaid... mostly unpaid actually... I do it for the love of it. I have been chasing snakes for nearly twenty years. I've put in what I believe Tom Brown, Jr. would refer to as "dirt time." I have read more about snakes than anybody you know... unless you already know someone like me... and there's a good chance I've read more than they have. Not only have I read a lot about snakes, I own the books. I go to my own personal library frequently for reference. Here's a sampling from my herpetology library...

    This bookcase has two more shelves of herpetology books above... and that's just one bookcase. I just zoomed in close so you could actually read some titles if you enlarge the photo. How many people have a copy of Problem Snake Management sitting on their shelf? Just in case you're wondering, it's not a book for exterminators. It's just a bit more interesting than that.

    I've worked with venomous snakes (note: I didn't say "poisonous," but we'll get into that more later) in the field, in a lab at a university, and in a zoo setting... and I've never been bitten. I've never even had a close call. Maybe one day I'll have an accident, but I've never believed the old idea that every good snake man gets bitten at some point in their life. I've always thought that demonstrates lack of good judgment and/or foolishness. Just because some clown has been bitten by a venomous snake... that certainly doesn't make them an expert either. If you were accidentally bitten by a venomous snake, I'm not talking about you... but honest "accidents" of this sort are quite rare (more about that later too).

    Let's get to business... "snake business."

    Snakes are without a doubt one of the most maligned and misunderstood group of animals on Earth. They're also one of the most fascinating groups of animals on our little blue planet. If you don't have an irrational fear of snakes yourself, you probably know someone who does. I have met people who can't even look at a picture of a snake without losing control of their heart rate. For this reason, I've saved the snake photos for further down the page in this post. I've never, and I mean never, used a snake to scare someone, and I don't plan to start today... not even with a photograph. I'm here to try and help people overcome fears, not promote them.

    By the way, you won't ever see me walking around in the park with a snake around my neck trying to show everyone how macho I am. Those guys are clowns. Speaking of clowns... there's a group of guys down in Mississippi that go out and catch non-venomous (read "harmless") water snakes and make videos of it to show everybody how crazy (and of course, "brave") they are. They sell their videos and other paraphernalia online and at outdoors shows. Simply put, these big "tough guys," don't impress anyone that knows much about snakes. Kelly has done the exact same type of snake grabbin' these guys do, but she has better technique... seriously. I don't think Kelly will mind me saying it, whoopty frickin' doo!

    Girls can grab 'em too! Kelly "bravely" holds a harmless Midland Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon pleuralis). Yes, that's real blood, from a harmless snakebite.

    They would be far braver, and much more impressive, if they went out and grabbed feral house cats bare handed. Now that would be something truly crazy... and worth buying the DVD. Hey snake grabbin' fellas, y'all takin' notes?

    I think a list of the "Top Ten Things Outdoor Enthusiasts Should Know About Snakes" is in order.
    1. There are no "poisonous snakes"... but there certainly are venomous snakes. Poisonous refers to something you ingest... like a poisonous mushroom. Ever heard of anyone eating rattlesnake? Did they die from eating it? That's because rattlesnakes aren't poisonous, they're venomous. Venomous refers to the injection of venom through a bite or sting. Venom is primarily for prey control, and it's used for protection from predators secondarily. Snakes often tackle dangerous prey, but have no claws or talons to help safely capture and restrain them. Think a rat or a squirrel isn't dangerous? Try grabbing one bare handed sometime. Venomous snakes often quickly inject and release mammalian prey- only to track them down by scent trail after they have run off and died. Only then is it safe for a snake to swallow their mammalian prey head first. A snake who tries to eat a live rodent or rabbit without first controlling it through venom or constriction (in the case of non-venomous species) is likely to lose an eye or worse... a head. Venomous snakes have no desire to waste their venom on you... they'd much rather save it for that wascally wabbit. If you are bitten, don't make any attempts to suck out venom unless you have a Sawyer Extractor and know how to use it properly. The best equipment for dealing with a snake bite is a set of car keys and a cell phone. Get to a hospital as quickly as possible... call them and let them know you're on the way. Then you're in the doctors' hands... which is a can of worms in itself. I'll just say you would want to be in Arizona if you're ever envenomated.
    2. There is no foolproof method (or list of little rules) for identifying venomous vs. non-venomous snakes. Non-venomous species would love to have you believe they are venomous and often do a good job of convincing predators (and people who think they know more than they do) that they are indeed venomous. It's a survival mechanism... unfortunately, natural selection didn't plan for humans with hoes and shotguns. Unlike many other snake educators, I don't give out little sets of ID rules for venomous vs. non-venomous. There's always an exception to the rules... and all of it goes out the window when you leave American soil. One interesting thing to note here is that just because it "rattles" that doesn't mean it's a rattlesnake. Many snakes vibrate their tails when threatened to scare away potential predators... rattlesnakes have taken that behavior to the next level with special equipment for that purpose. Are non-venomous species actually trying to mimic rattlesnakes by vibrating their tails in the leaf litter? Hard to say... I've asked them, but they're not talking. Oh yeah... one other thing. Just because it has a forked tongue that doesn't mean it's venomous... that just means it's a snake. All snakes have forked tongues. I don't know how many times I've heard people who think they know a thing or two spout that stupid crap.
    3. Most snakes are harmless. Seriously, only 10-15% of snake species are venomous. The percentage might be slightly higher in Australia and Africa (20%), but it's safe to say around 80% of the time you encounter a snake- it's non-venomous. Don't go playing "Russian roulette" with snakes though... not smart. Very large constrictors (pythons and anacondas) may not be venomous, but can still be very dangerous. Just thought I'd mention that for anyone down in south Florida where pythons are taking up residence.
    4. Snakes are not out to attack people. They simply don't chase people down. They only defend themselves when they feel threatened- like any other wild animal. I know someone will argue with that, but the fact is only a very few species will even make maneuvers (other than a defensive strike) towards a person. If you want to argue about that, please... bring it on. You might be suffering from momentary memory lapse because you were so terrified from an encounter. I can assure you, the snake was more terrified. I don't blame you for thinking you were being chased, but listen to reason from someone who knows more than you. I have chased plenty of Racers (Coluber constrictor), but have never been truly chased by a Racer. They might make certain maneuvers, but they're not trying to chase you down and steal your first born. Got it?
    5. When people recount their encounters with snakes (sightings on the trail, in the yard, in the garage, etc.) to someone who may be able to help them identify what they saw, they usually get the details terribly wrong. The snake they imagine is often ten times as big, some color of green (very, very few snakes are actually green- especially in the U.S.), and far more menacing in behavior than any real snake has ever been. Fear causes people to exaggerate and distort things... see eyewitness reports from the scene of a crime.
    6. Snakes are vital parts of healthy ecosystems. Think snakes are hurting your hunting and fishing? Think again. Snakes typically pick off weak, injured, or otherwise unhealthy individuals. Snakes, like all other predators, are agents of natural selection that help make prey species stronger and prey populations healthier.
    7. Snakes control rodent populations- even in developed areas. Many species of snakes are known as "the farmer's friend" as a testament to their rodent eating nature. I personally believe all snakes are our friends... even if they're venomous. (See list item #6.) Regardless of what they eat or how they kill their prey, snakes have jobs to do in nature (around the farm and in suburbia too), and their "snake business" has little to do with us. Let them do their jobs... we'll have fewer rats and mice to deal with if you do.
    8. If you leave snakes alone, they'll leave you alone. (Review list item #4.) Don't try to kill snakes. Just simply leave them alone. To emphasize this point, most of the individuals who are bitten by venomous snakes are simply messin' with 'em... tryin' to kill 'em. The statistics show that it's usually adult males tryin' to be macho... messin' with 'em... tryin' to kill 'em. Adult males are often bitten on hands and arms. Women and young children (who are bitten far less than adult males) are typically bitten on the feet, ankles, or the lower leg. What does that tell you?
    9. Learn about the snakes in your area. When are they most active? What dangerous species live in your woods? Most areas of the U.S. only have a few (3 or 4) venomous species. Learn how to recognize them and keep a safe distance. I'm a big fan of going to books for information, but there is a ton of great information available online too. Try to find websites associated with universities or nature centers for reliable information. You can also e-mail me if you want some good reliable information.
    10. Zoos and nature centers are great places to learn about snakes. Visit your local zoo. Look for a display in the reptile house of native snake species. Books and online photos are great, but there is no substitute for seeing the real deal... live and in person... behind glass of course. Most zoos have really good exhibits that display the native venomous snakes of their respective areas. Rarely do you see many native non-venomous species displayed. Seeing various species in person lets you see natural variation among individuals and roughly how large they are... but beware the zoo Copperhead... they tend to be bigger in zoos than you will ever see in the wild... zoo snake keepers like to see how big they can grow them. They feed them like they're mouse eating Sumo wrestlers. It's a game... I think. I admit, I've played it before.
    I live in the South (the Southeast that is), which is probably the "snakiest" region of the country. It may be one of the "snakiest" places in the world. The Southwest comes pretty close. Either way, if you live in northern latitudes you have far less chance of ever encountering a snake... unless you live in Manitoba where Red-sided Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis) pour out of the ground by the thousands every spring... but that's another story.

    I don't have enough space here to show every species of snake, and there are already plenty of good online resources for that sort of thing. No need to reinvent the wheel, but I will show you the two most common species of venomous snakes in the Southeast: the Cottonmouth (or Water Moccasin) and the Copperhead. These two species are also the most likely to be encountered by most outdoor enthusiasts. I will also show one of the "mimics" of the Cottonmouth, the Yellowbelly Water Snake. There are several other "mimics," but this photo is the best I have that shows one displaying defensively in a way that makes it look dangerous.

    VENOMOUS: Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus)

    VENOMOUS: Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus)

    VENOMOUS: Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus)

    VENOMOUS: Copperhead (A. contortrix)

    VENOMOUS: Copperhead (A. contortrix)

    Yellowbelly Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster flavigaster)- often mistaken for the Cottonmouth

    Well, that's probably enough of that. Maybe you have learned something about snakes, and I hope I didn't offend too many of you. I'm just trying to share good solid factual information. The best resources for good information are books. If I could recommend one book to outdoor enthusiasts and sportsmen across the country, it would be this one:

    It's probably the best guide out there that is geared towards outdoor enthusiasts that covers the whole U.S. Actually, it's a one of a kind sort of book. Unlike most field guides that organize species taxonomically, this book shows the venomous snakes alongside the non-venomous snakes that are considered their mimics. It's a very unique perspective among snake books.

    If you live in my part of the country and want to learn more, this is your book:

    If you ever have any snake questions, please don't hesitate to ask. I love playing the ID game, but photos are essential. As I mentioned previously, the details often get a little fuzzy after an encounter. The photos don't even have to be that great. I actually got my first one of the season from my friend Jason a few days ago. He thought it might be a Copperhead, but was relieved when I let him know it was a Rat Snake. Here is the pic he took with his phone and sent to me for ID...

    I can't even see the head, but I can see enough to tell you what it is.

    Jason's photo was part of what inspired this post. That and the fact that I'm not only a fly fishing naturalist, but a snake wrangling one as well.

    One of the many snakes I've picked up on a failed fishing trip- a large female Diamondback Water Snake (N. rhombifer), another species often mistaken for a Cottonmouth.

    My name is Jay, and I have a snaking problem.

      Friday, March 25, 2011

      Introducing the "Bunny Butt Slider"

      I promised a report on one of the most effective flies we used for Largemouths among the lotus and lily pads. Hammond Lake, where Kelly caught her big "bucketmouth," is full of lily pads. Based on the fact that most of the pads had a split in the leaves, I would say that most of what we encountered were water lilies (Nymphaea sp.) and not American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea) which do not have split leaves. The reason I just happened to notice the split leaves... is because they are quite annoying while retrieving your fly because somehow your line always manages to find the split thus pulling your fly under the floating leaf, and either your line ends up tangled or your fly hook ends up embedded in the stem. I have fished several places, including Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee and Ross Barnett Reservoir in Mississippi, where the American Lotus is more prevalent and they don't seem to be quite as annoying.

      Either way, fly fishing for bass among the pads requires a certain amount of finesse coupled with a little brute strength. It requires heavy tippet and a weedless floating fly (with a strong hook) that you can gently drag across the surface of the pads while working it effectively through the gaps of open water. I've used all sorts of weedless poppers for fishing the pads- cork, foam, and even deer hair. I prefer slider style bodies because, as you might expect, they slide easier over the pads. Casting the fly on top of the pads and then gently sliding it into the water is a very good strategy. I would say it's the bass bug equivalent of a delicate presentation.

      Before we went on our trip to Florida, I was browsing Ebay for fly fishing stuff and found some really cool looking sliders that I thought would work well for fishing the pads. Meet the "Bunny Butt Slider"...

      "Bunny Butt Sliders" tied by Steven Milburn

      It turns out I was right. The design was perfect for fishing the pads, and the fish really liked them. Unfortunately, I didn't land either of the big bass that I hooked on them. Kelly also missed a few fish with the same fly and almost landed a pickerel with it. The problem certainly wasn't the flies. I did land a single 12" bass using one. We only had three in our arsenal from the start, so we switched flies a lot to try and conserve our limited resources. We just happened to land more fish on other stuff.

      Kelly landed her big bass on a more conventional cork bodied slider after she lost the last Bunny Butt slider she had. The "Bunny Butt" was getting lots of attention so Kelly picked the next closest thing in her box.

      The foam bodied "Bunny Butt" is a bit more subtle than your average cork or deer hair slider because it has a slim profile and no silicone legs. The bunny strip tail also has a very subtle action that elicits strikes when you're not stripping the fly. It's a simple design that works. Whether I tie them myself or not, I really like simple but effective fly designs.

      The "Bunny Butt" does a good job of approximating topwater "minnows" which is probably why it worked so well in Hammond Lake. The lake had several "minnow" species that hang out near the surface including Brook Silverside (Labidesthes sicculus) and Mosquitofish (Gambusia sp.).

      The fly tying genius behind the "Bunny Butt Slider" is a gentleman named Steven Milburn. He sells his flies and fly tying materials on Ebay under the name "sneektip79." He starts his auctions with low starting bids, ships his products quickly, and if you're lucky he may even send you a bonus with your order. Mr. Milburn's flies are well designed and well constructed, and I highly recommend them to my fellow bass fly fishers. They've definitely earned a slot in my bass fly box.

      Monday, March 21, 2011

      Outfished by a girl... again (3/18 or 1/6 Bass Slam mission accomplished)

      Kelly and I finally made it back. It was a long week of driving and fishing. We drove well over 1500 miles, fished in three states (Florida, Georgia, and Alabama), but only managed to catch a handful of fish in two states. Georgia was a total bust. The fishing report is best told in reverse order since the fishing conditions we encountered seemed to ignore that old "save the best for last" thing. Our best fishing was experienced very early in our adventure.

      So... first, I'll show our method for attaching kayaks to the roof of the new Subaru Outback adventure wagon... and then I'll get back to the fishing. We didn't spring for the Subaru factory accessory kayak rack (sorry, Subaru), but instead used four ratchet straps and two pieces of square 1" aluminum tubing (with some eye bolts attached) wrapped in foam pipe insulation. I'll probably improve on the foam wrapping before the next long trip.

      Adventure Wagon all packed and ready to go.

      For those that may be interested... the Outback averaged around 27 mpg with the kayaks strapped to the roof... not too shabby. Kelly has gotten close to 34 mpg on a "kayak-less" highway trip... which the Subaru dealership in Memphis is now advertising on their television commercials after she sent them a photo of the dashboard readout. The two kayaks are a Crow Wing 1080 Pro-Angler (the olive one) and an Emotion Glide Angler (mustard colored one in back).

      Before I left Memphis Friday, I went to Bass Pro to pick up some of that mystery bargain Cortland fly line that Owl Jones told us about. Well, it's still a bit of a mystery, as it was packaged specifically for the Spring Fishing Classic sale event. The 8 wt lines look like they could be some type of Cortland Precision since they are two-toned, but who knows?


      I picked up four lines total, one 5 wt, one 6 wt, and two 8 wt. If it really is as valuable as they advertised, I guess I got about $240 worth of fly line for about $40.

      Now, for the fishing report in reverse order...

      We stopped at two places in Alabama on the way back to Memphis. First we stopped and camped at DeSoto State Park (Thursday) in hopes of catching a Redeye Bass. Unfortunately, the west fork of the Little River in the park was too high, too swift, and mostly unwadable. We tried in vain to catch a fish from the few spots where we could cast from the overgrown banks. We didn't catch any fish, but I did capture these photos of calling male American Toads (Bufo americanus) back at the campground just after we roasted hot dogs and marshmallows over the campfire.

      The frogs and toads calling from the vernal pool in the campground were a nice treat for the nocturnal naturalist.

      The second place we stopped in Alabama on the final leg of our journey (Friday) was at one of our favorite fishin' holes, Cypress Creek near the town of Florence, but it was pretty slow fishing there too. The water was high and a little cloudy (for what is usually a crystal clear stream). Kelly caught one small Spotted Bass and a Rock Bass (Ambloplites rupestris) while I managed only one Rock Bass (see title of this post).

      So, as I already mentioned the fishing in Georgia was pretty much a total bust. (We did catch a few Bluegills and one small Largemouth at the state park lake where we camped.) To be specific, the Flint River at Sprewell Bluff State Park was blown out from heavy rain the day before we arrived... which meant we did not catch our Shoal Bass. We casted from shore to some likely looking spots, but we were pretty much wasting our time. We camped in the area for one day and waited for the river to go down and clear up... but it actually looked worse after the second day. Time to move on. There must have been a lot of rain further upstream. We never actually encountered any rainfall on our trip... only it's ugly aftermath.

      The second half of our fishing mission in Florida was to catch Suwannee Bass from the Suwannee River drainage. We apparently arrived just after a cold front moved through that put the fish off. We fished the afternoon we arrived (Monday) and the following morning (Tuesday) and between the two of us (actually just Kelly- again, see title of this post) only managed a couple of sunfish. I can't say exactly what this fish is. A field guide (and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) would tell you it's a Redbreast Sunfish (Lepomis auritus), but I have my suspicions that the taxonomy of these fish is not fully resolved. These fish don't look much like the Redbreasts we catch in Alabama or ones that I have caught in east Tennessee.

      It is a very cool looking sunfish whatever its true classification.

      So, now we're back to the beginning of our journey on Saturday evening. We had planned to camp at Lake Louisa State Park on the outskirts of Orlando, Florida. Little did we know, they lock the park gates at dark and you can't register for camping "after hours." We didn't make reservations so we didn't have the secret code for the automatic gate they give you if you plan to arrive late.

      We ended up staying at a really funky motel. The sign says "deluxe," but I found no evidence of this in the room where I had a hard time sleeping.

      They've got PHONES... that's DELUXE.

      Sunday, after we finally got into Lake Louisa State Park, we set up our tent, ate lunch, and then promptly got our kayaks in the water. Kelly quickly caught the first Florida Largemouth Bass on a woolly bugger.

      Shortly after Kelly caught that first fish, I got a follow from a Chain Pickerel (Esox niger) which I think is a big deal when fishing for toothy critters based on Clif's assessment of Musky Fishing. After about an hour or so of not catching much, we decided to wait until a little closer to sunset so that maybe we could catch a few on the surface. Before we got out of the water for the afternoon, Kelly snapped a pretty awesome photo of an Osprey.

      Osprey (Pandion haliaetus), Hammond Lake, LLSP, FL

      Our plan to get in on the sunset topwater bite didn't work out for me, but Kelly did okay... pretty well actually.

      Kelly's BIG Bass, Hammond Lake, LLSP, FL

      21.5"... estimated around 5.5 to 5.75 lbs... nice fake Crocs.

      Not only does this Florida Largemouth more than qualify for the Bass Slam, it was Kelly's biggest bass ever. I was very happy for her... and proud of her. I still am.

      The following morning, I lost two good fish. One I know was over five pounds (it doubled over my 9 wt during the brief five seconds while it was hooked) and another that was probably around three. I'll give another report soon on the best flies we found for fishing among the lotus pads.

      I managed only one (barely) qualifying 16" Florida Largemouth.

      Outfished by a girl... always.

      Friday, March 11, 2011

      Wish us luck... and good fishing

      Kelly and I are strapping the kayaks to the top of the new adventure wagon and driving to Florida this weekend because it's her spring break next week (she's a high school chemistry teacher). We have some deep south bass calling us to come catch them. We're attempting to cross a few species off our lists for the "Bass Slam." (If I just lost you, read this previous post.)

      The following are definitely on the agenda:
      • Florida Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides floridanus)
      • Suwannee Bass (M. notius)
      • Shoal Bass (M. cataractae)
      If the weather cooperates and we have time, we may try for:
      • Redeye Bass (M. coosae)
      • Alabama Bass (M. henshalli)
      There's also a chance we may stop at a favorite creek a little closer to home on our drive back to catch one of the three more familiar black basses:
      • Northern Largemouth Bass (M. s. salmoides)
      • Smallmouth Bass (M. dolomieu)
      • Spotted Bass (M. punctulatus)
      Kelly already has her Spotted Bass crossed off her list. I haven't caught any qualifiers yet.

      Before I get out of town, I'm hoping to pick up some of that mystery bargain Cortland fly line at Bass Pro that Owl pointed out in the Spring Fishing Classic sale circular. It's only on sale today... and only while supplies last! I'll let y'all know what it actually turns out to be.

      Wish us luck!

      Tuesday, March 8, 2011

      "Smoky Mountain Sallie"

      The idea had been in my head for... well... let's just say "a little while."

      Outdoor Blogger Network and Montana Fly Company teamed up for a fly designer competition in January 2011, and I decided maybe it was time to try and actually make my idea a reality.

      I separately contacted two of my fellow OBN bloggers who regularly fish for trout in southern Appalachia and asked them to test my fly design when I saw the contest announcement. They both agreed to assist with my little experiment.

      At the end of January, I mailed the flies to my two independent testers. Since both of them also fly fish for bass, I also sent them a couple of my Giant Woolly Buggers as a bribe bonus for agreeing to help.

      They both tested... and both had success... so I thought, "what the heck?... might as well give it a shot, right?"

      Well, the package is in the mail... flying First Class... on its way to Rebecca Garlock... no turning back now.

      The story of this fly necessitates just a little bit of history about myself... and salamanders. I'll try not to bore you too much. Hopefully, you'll find some of it interesting.

      If you've followed The Naturalist's Angle for long, you may have gathered that I'm a big fan of amphibians and reptiles. You might even say I'm a bit of a herpetologist (that's a reptile and amphibian biologist). It never fails when I say "herpetology"... somebody in the room makes a joke about herpes. Well, the two words are both derived from the same Greek root word (herpein- meaning "to creep"), but a herpetologist doesn't study herpes. Sorry to disappoint.

      So... I've been chasing snakes, turtles, and frogs ever since I can remember. Salamanders were, for a long time, just the section of the field guide that I skipped over when looking up other amphibians and reptiles. My first serious exposure to salamanders didn't come until I made a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park during spring break of 1999. I was participating in a salamander survey being conducted by one of my biology professors, the late Dr. William H. N. Gutzke, on populations of the Junaluska Salamander (Eurycea junaluska). Up to that point, I had only seen three species of salamanders in the wild. All of that would change very quickly as I got a crash course in salamander biodiversity in the matter of just a few days of field work. For a young naturalist, it was a bit of a life changing experience.

      In case you didn't know, the southern Appalachians are the world's center for salamander biodiversity. The actual number of species varies depending on what source you consult, and new species are still being identified (many thanks to DNA analysis), but there are somewhere around 45-50 species in the region (30 in GSMNP alone). One of the more interesting facts about salamanders in southern Appalachia is that the biomass of salamanders may exceed that of all other vertebrates combined. That literally means the energy contained in living salamanders may be greater than that of all frogs, fish, birds, snakes, turtles, and mammals combined. Imagine how many tiny little salamanders it would take to equal the biomass of a deer or bear. It's a crazy concept.

      Well, knowing how prevalent salamanders are in southern Appalachia, and how important they are in the ecosystem (food chain), and knowing that many of them are highly aquatic, and knowing that trout live in the same streams as the salamanders... led me to believe a salamander fly might be really productive in the natural streams of the region. Although I lived in Knoxville, Tennessee (on the edge of southern Appalachia) for a little over two years from 2001 to 2004, I never attempted to tie up a salamander fly back then. I fly fished the Smokies for trout a number of times, but pretty much stuck to the tried and true classics... Adams dries and Tellico Nymphs... that I bought from the local fly shops. I wasn't much of a fly tyer back then... but that's when the idea really started bouncing around in my head.

      So, that's a lot of background information, but it brings us up to the present. I decided maybe I could tie up a salamander fly that would look a bit like some of the most aquatic of the southern Appalachian salamanders- the species of the genus Eurycea. The aforementioned Junaluska Salamander is just one of several species in the region that lives out a large portion of its life in the very same fast flowing waters that are also inhabited by trout. Other closely related species include the Blue Ridge Two-lined Salamander (E. wilderae) and the Southern Two-lined Salamander (E. cirrigera).

      Male E. cirrigera, Oak Mountain State Park, Alabama

      Female E. cirrigera with eggs, OMSP, Alabama

      The original "Smoky Mountain Sallie" prototypes designed to imitate the highly aquatic Eurycea salamanders are pretty simple. They have a ginger colored marabou tail, vinyl "d-rib" body, and black lead eyes. These are the actual flies I sent to my field testers...

      The two bloggers I asked to help me test my fly design were Mike of the blog Mike's Gone Fishin'... Again and Ty of the blog Finewater Fly Fishing. Both of these fine gentlemen seemed happy to help, and both turned out to be excellent field testers.

      The results of Ty's experimentation...

      In Ty's own words:
      "Went to the Smokies this weekend. The bad news is that I lost both of your salamander flies on rocks in very deep holes. The good news is that I caught a nice wild Little River rainbow on this fly before that. Middle Prong of the Little River to be exact. Actually landed one and lost two others. I think the narrow gape on that hook could have been a factor on the lost fish. You might be on to something with this fly. I know that's impossible to say after one trip, but the facts are I caught a wild trout on this fly in winter in 39 degree water, tough conditions for catching mountain trout."

      The results of Mike's experimentation...

      In Mike's own words:
      "I was fishing Wilson Creek near Morganton, NC.  Had luck in the fast water swinging my go-to olive woolly bugger, but not so much in the longer, flatter stretches where pods of rainbows, probably stockers, were cruising around in 3-4 ft of water.  It made sense to me that salamanders would be more common in such slower water, so I put a couple of shot about 8 inches above the fly, tied it on with a loop so it would move freely, and crawled it along in short, halting strips.  Happily, I picked up four fish in the slick."

      The slightly improved version of the fly I submitted to MFC for the designer contest:

      The hooks I used on the prototypes weren't exactly intended for fly tying... but on short notice they were the best I could find. I knew the small gap might be problematic (as Ty experienced). They were size 8 Carlisle hooks made by Pugh Tackle Company out of New Albany, Mississippi. I bought them at a local outdoor outfitter near Jackson, Mississippi that doesn't exactly specialize in fly fishing. The hook I used in the improved version was a... well... I don't know exactly. It appeared to be around a size 8. It was a hook I salvaged from an old Woolly Bugger that had seen better days. Unfortunately, I couldn't find the perfect hook for my design at my local Bass Pro. Although they do carry a few Montana Fly Company products, hooks are not one of them. I'm pretty sure a 6XL streamer hook in a size 8 would have worked well... an MFC 7030 would have been ideal.

      The "Smoky Mountain Sallie" may not be a winner, but it's certainly unique, and I certainly had fun working with my fellow OBN bloggers on this little experiment. A huge "Thank You" to Ty and Mike for playing along. I know it was a real chore for them to have to go fly fishing, but they were real troopers.

      (By the way guys, thanks for making this thing look like it might actually work.)

      If you're interested in keeping up with all things MFC, check out the Montana Fly Company Facebook page. Be sure to "like" them while you're there and you may be randomly drawn to win some MFC swag.

      Thursday, March 3, 2011

      Showing some love for BoogleBug

      I posted a review/recommendation of BoogleBug Bass & Bream bugs on If you fish for warmwater species, you need some in your arsenal. I'll let the Examiner article explain the reasons. There are links in the article that will take you to the BoogleBug website.

      BoogleBug is a Birmingham, Alabama based company so they're a little easier to find down south... but there are a few dealers out west... even in Colorado... just in case any fly fishers out there in Colorado need a few to test out some mysterious ponds they can see from their house... that may or may not have bass in them.

      I haven't bought any BoogleBugs for this season's bass and bream fishing yet, but I will soon... or Kelly will. They're a little pricey, but well worth it. As durable as they are you don't have to buy very many before you're set. It's a good idea to use heavy tippet with them because you really don't want to lose one in a tree. I prefer to use 4X (7 lb) or 3X (8.5 lb) tippet when I'm fishing them. If you can manage to keep them out of those pesky overhanding branches, they may last all season... like this one did...

      Just a little rust, but not enough to retire it yet.

      This just happens to be the same BoogleBug that Kelly used when she accidentally caught a bat back in July of last year. The photo of her catch won a contest on Cofisher's Windknots & Tangled Lines blog.

      Chiropteran captured... oops.

      Bill of the blog Fishing through Life landed his personal best Spotted Bass using a BoogleBug, so I know he can attest to how good they really are. If you haven't seen his report on that you should go check it out... right now... I'm pretty much finished here.

      BoogleBugs are awesome. Give 'em a try and you'll be hooked.

      Wednesday, March 2, 2011

      Delicious Damsels... like fish candy?

      Well, I hope the Smallies (and their cousins) think so.

      One of the Smallmouth Bass streams where Kelly and I fish has quite a healthy damselfly population, but I've never fished an actual damselfly nymph pattern there. I've used Woolly Buggers and probably a Hare's Ear Nymph or two, but I haven't really tried to imitate the natural forage any better than that.

      I decided to experiment with tying up a few damselfy nymphs. This is something I've never tried to tie before. I searched for a pattern that I liked online, but after looking at several dozen patterns or so... and not being satisfied, I settled on creating my own. I borrowed a little inspiration from each of the damsel patterns I saw out there... but mine is fairly original.

      These were tied on Daiichi #1750 size 6 streamer hooks. I used UTC blue dun 140 denier thread. The bead chain eyes are from a discarded ceiling fan pull. The body is dubbed from some homemade dubbing I chopped up from some silvery gray acrylic yarn. The wire rib is copper from some old electrical wiring... I don't remember the exact source. (I love making flies from salvaged junk and mom's old craft supplies.) The tail is a very modest amount of gray marabou and just a hint of midge flash. The collar is Hungarian Partridge soft hackle. The head (built up with thread around the eyes) is finished with Sally Hansen "Hard as Nails" for durability... as usual with my creations.

      I can hardly wait to drop one of these off the back of one of those big foam hoppers... and watch that simple foam and silicone goodness get dragged deep under water by a big fish that can't resist a delicious damsel. At least that's how I imagine it will go down... pun fully intended. Only time and warmer weather will tell.

      I know if I were a fish, I would give one a taste test.

      I probably wouldn't make it very long as a fish... I'd likely end up on a stringer pretty quickly. I'm a sucker for anything that comes in a shiny wrapper and looks like candy.