Thursday, April 28, 2011

Wapanocca on the way home

"I want to look for snakes," she said as we were driving home from our fishing trip to the Spring River.

"We could stop at Wapanocca," I replied... and so we did.

This would be only our second visit to Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge- "a wildlife oasis in an agricultural sea." The first time was back in the fall of last year for the maiden voyage of the Emotion Glide Angler Kayak. We used the kayaks to fish the big lake on the refuge, but it was terribly windy and the water was very low. We never found any deep holes... and thus caught no fish. Even though we didn't have any fishing success, we did discover that Wapanocca N.W.R. contained some really nice cypress swamp and bottomland hardwood forest habitat.

Our second visit to Wapanocca turned out to be a bit different.

It seemed like it might be a great day for snakes to be out, but we didn't see very many, and only managed to catch this little guy.

Western Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis proximus)

We saw another Ribbon Snake moving across the road and a few water snakes as well. Even though we didn't actually catch any, I could see and positively identify several Broad-banded Water Snakes (Nerodia fasciata confluens)... but there was one that I couldn't positively ID before it disappeared back into the swamp. From the brief glimpse I got, I'm pretty sure it was a Mississippi Green Water Snake (N. cyclopion)... a species I've never caught before. It wouldn't be at all surprising if it was. They're not rare or endangered... somehow I've just never been in a place where they are common. A biologist from the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science told me that there are catfish farms where Green Water Snakes are "thick as thieves"... but I've never been snake catching on a catfish farm in the Mississippi delta. I can tell you that even though they should be found around Memphis, I've never seen one in nearly twenty years of snaking. I've seen and caught hundreds of other water snakes, but never a Mississippi Green.

Oh well, one day I'll get my hands on a Mississippi Green... one day.

So, unlike our fishing trip to Hickahala Creek that became a snaking surprise, this adventure took the opposite path. Thinking we would stop to play with the snakes, we ended up spending more time fishing.

Broad-banded Water Snake that appeared while we were fishing. Look closely.

We decided to walk a levy that bordered a really nice looking cypress swamp.

Once we got about half way down the length of the levy we discovered a deep hole near an outlet channel (used to manage water level) that was full of fish. We saw a Largemouth Bass that was maybe three pounds, lots of gar, and some monstrous Bowfin (Amia calva). One of them was well over 24" and probably approaching ten pounds. A Bowfin is a primitive fish species that quite literally swam with the dinosaurs. They are common in southern swamps, but somehow I've never caught one of them either. I really wanted to try and catch one on the fly rod... so back to the car I went.

Bowfin, a.k.a. "cypress trout," gulping air... not sipping mayflies.

I got Kelly's big 10' 8 wt, and we went to work. The bass that had been cruising through the pool disappeared as soon as my first cast hit the water. The Bowfin also pretty much disappeared. There was the one really big one that I sight-casted to repeatedly when it reappeared... but alas all I caught was a single gar. Kelly got a video of a gar following the Bunny Butt Slider, and then the fight after I finally hooked one.

After I caught a fish it was Kelly's turn. She caught a nice White Black Crappie (hybrid ?) which was a bit of a surprise on the white and red Bunny Butt Slider. I can count on one hand (really just three fingers) the number of Crappie I've caught on topwater flies or lures. This was Kelly's first crappie on the surface. It exploded on the slider just like a bass, and Kelly set the hook perfectly.

Crappie like the Bunny Butt too.

Kelly also got a look from a Bowfin... which is more than I can say. It came out from under the vegetation and studied the slider for a while, but probably decided it didn't smell like food. It was really cool to watch.

So, we didn't catch a Bowfin, but we tried... and now we know a good place to try, try again.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

We caught a few other fishes too

So, you already read about the first Smallies of 2011. Unfortunately, none of the bass we caught on our trip were big enough to qualify for our Bass Slam quest.

Since we were fishing the Spring River in Arkansas... Smallmouth Bass weren't the only thing on the menu. The Spring has a healthy diversity of fishes that I have affectionately written about before. Where else can you catch a Rainbow Trout, Smallmouth Bass, Largemouth Bass, and several species of panfish all from the same pool in a river? Don't answer that question... there may be a few places in more northern latitudes, but there certainly aren't many in my part of the country. The species diversity is the reason Kelly and I love the Spring so much.

Here's the rundown of what all we caught... to the best of our recollection...
  • 2 Shadow Bass
  • 1 Largemouth Bass
  • 3 Smallmouth Bass
  • 1 Bluegill
  • 2 Longear Sunfish
  • 1 Hornyhead Chub
  • 1 Largescale Stoneroller
  • 25-30 stocker Rainbows (lost exact count)

Of the Rainbows, I caught about eight while Kelly caught around twenty... but who's counting?

Cookie cutter Rainbow

The single Largemouth was caught using my new favorite topwater bass fly, the Bunny Butt Slider, designed and tied by Steven Milburn. Unfortunately, I missed a fish just before I hooked up with the Largemouth that I'm quite sure was a Smallie. It's rare to catch a Smallmouth on the surface at the Spring River, but it was a shallow pool in the early morning, and the conditions just suggested I give the Bunny Butt Slider a try. I didn't really expect to catch a Largemouth... but the Spring is full of surprises.

Foam and bunny strip make a really nice slider.

Mr. Milburn tied up this red and white version at my request. I think the pattern imitates a wounded surface minnow very well, and in my experience a red/white combo is usually well received by baitfish predators. The bass seem to like it, and I'm quite sure I missed a trout on it later in the day... not that I really expected to catch a trout with it.

Maybe even more surprising than almost catching a trout on a big bass slider was catching a Longear Sunfish on a large Clouser Minnow (also tied by Steven Milburn). I was trying to get something down deep in a pool that I thought might have a good Smallmouth in it... and instead I caught this little guy. Amazingly, he was fair hooked... even though there was no way he could have physically fit the whole hook in his mouth. He somehow bit the hook point just perfectly.

Small fish, big appetite

The Spring River never ceases to amaze... or entertain.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

First Smallies of 2011

I've been somewhat obsessed with Smallmouth Bass ever since I caught my first one as a teenager. I know in many places there are still "opening days" for trout fishing season, but I think fishing season really begins when I've caught my first Smallie of the year. I've still got a few more posts that may be generated from this weekend's trip, but as for the first Smallies of 2011... I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.


Nice fish.

Maybe a little nicer than the first one.



Outfished by a girl... always.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Best.... potato... chips... ever.

Tonight looks to be a long night.

The sirens cry out their warnings in the city of Memphis.

My hometown is situated squarely in the middle of what may be the new "tornado alley." For those of you who live in the central portion of the country... you understand. For those of you that never have lived in this part of the U.S., I offer the following video... so maybe you can get a true idea of what a tornado warning siren sounds like. This is the view from the carport of my house. There's not much to see except that lightning lights up the sky like the noonday sun at approximately 1:13. The video is really just for sound effect... you can let it play as you read on if you want to feel like you're right here in "tornado alley" with me.

Needless to say, it's hard to think about going to bed when a line up of tornado spawning storms are moving through the area, and the siren is sounding off from the top of the neighborhood middle school.

So, here I am unable to sleep, thinking about fishing... and blogging, and I figured now was as good a time as any to address the latest writing prompt from the Outdoor Blogger Network.

So, here's my new favorite snack that I hope to take along on many future outdoor adventures. I only recently discovered them, and they may be the best... potato... chips... ever.

Gratuitously placed fly rod and book to remind you what this blog is supposed to be about.

For a long time, I've held SunChips in pretty high esteem... and they still have their rightful place among the fishing trip snacks. It's just that I have a new favorite. These Kettle Brand Spicy Thai chips are real, fried, "old school" potato chips... not "multigrain snacks"... so I guess they might be in a slightly different category of junk food than SunChips.

SunChips are a slightly healthier choice with a few less calories, and a few less grams of fat. That's probably why I like the Spicy Thai chips better. They're dangerous.

In case you're a fan of Thai food, and you're wondering what these chips really taste like, I can tell you that they do have a hint of Thai flavor. You won't feel like you've just eaten Pad Thai in the form of a chip... but if you like Thai food, you would probably enjoy them.

Maybe one day I'll post something fly fishing focused again. In case you want to read something that is actual fly fishing content, you can check out an article I wrote for on fly rod length.

By the way, I almost ate the whole bag of those chips while I was writing this.

I think there may be one serving (1 oz.) left.

I don't suspect it will survive the night.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Slow fishing turns into superb snaking

I love spring... but probably not for the same reasons as most people.

As I mentioned in a previous post, springtime is snake time.

On Saturday, Kelly and I decided to take a short trip down the highway for a little warmwater fly fishing at a creek in north Mississippi. It turns out the fishing wasn't so hot. We saw fish, a few really nice ones actually, but only managed a handful of small Crappie and a single Bluegill between the two of us. (Official count: Kelly- 4, Jay- 1, but who's counting?)

It was the warmest day of the year thus far (temps in the high 80s), but I wasn't really expecting to see many snakes out and about. Lately, the weather here has been erratic to say the least. Forty degree temperature swings in less than 24 hours have caused some serious storms, and I wasn't sure if the snakes would be convinced that spring has really sprung.

I was very wrong.

We walked several miles of trail adjacent to the creek, and when you cover a lot of ground in the South during spring you're bound to cross paths with a snake... or two... or more.

In total we found nine snakes, which is probably more than some people will see in an entire season spent in the great outdoors. Like I've said before, the South is a "snakey" place... and our outing Saturday illustrates my point quite well.

Saturday snake summary:
  • 3 Blackmask Racers (Coluber constrictor latrunculus)- some really big ones, the first one I caught chewed up my right thumb pretty good... which really just added insult to injury, because I cut my middle finger on my left hand really badly Friday afternoon while working around the house... oops. Note to self: take better care of your hands... they're pretty useful.
  • 2 Speckled Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis getula holbrooki)- a huge male, the biggest I've ever seen in the wild, looking for love from a female half his size who was headed down a hole in the ground. I extracted her from her subterranean refuge... easier said than done.
  • 2 Eastern Hognose Snakes (Heterodon platirhinos)- the ones we saw were melanistic, but normal... and not like this one. I haven't seen a live Hognose in the wild in quite some time, so this was a special treat. The Hognose Snakes I've seen recently have either been in captivity or dead on road (DOR).
  • 1 Western Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma)- sitting right on the trail and not the least bit afraid of us. As tempting as it was, I decided not to "take up serpents"... probably a good choice.
  • 1 Yellowbelly Water Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster flavigaster)- I mentioned to Kelly that I really wanted to find a water snake to complete the day... so... she dropped (read "lost") her fly box on the trail for me to go back and find it. She couldn't possibly know for sure that I would find my desired water snake... but if it wasn't for her providing me the opportunity to walk two miles unnecessarily, I wouldn't have seen it. Thanks, babe.

In photographs...

Blackmask Racer gathering chemosensory information.

Kelly shows off a pair of Speckled Kingsnakes.

Cottonmouth showing off how they got their name.

Contemplating "taking up serpents."

... and for the first time on The Naturalist's Angle, video for your "edutainment"...

My Youtube channel is "FlyFishingNaturalist", and there will be more to come. Hopefully, there will be a fishing video uploaded sometime soon.

Even though the fish weren't really biting, we still had a great time. Just remember, if the fishing is slow, snaking might just save the day.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Strength in the storm... and serendipity

The sounds of chainsaws fill the air in my east Memphis neighborhood.

Yesterday, Mother Nature put on quite a display of destructive force in my part of the city... and today is a day for clean up. 

Memphis is a city filled with many large trees. Many first time visitors to the city are taken aback by the urban forest found in our more established neighborhoods. In the wake of destruction we often hear news reporters refer to them as "hundred year old" trees, but realistically most of them are not that old. Most of the older ones in my neighborhood are closer to fifty... a few may be sixty. The houses in my area were built in the early to mid 1950s, and the trees were planted after the subdivisions were developed. There was no such thing as a "conservation subdivision" in the 1950s.

You may have seen some of the storm damage that occurred in the region on national news broadcasts, but they really haven't shown much from what I've seen. No tornado did this, at least not in my neighborhood, just straight line winds.

The following is just a sampling of the destruction, all within about a mile of my house.

Out of respect for the homeowners, I chose not to photograph some of the more tragic scenes of devastation. The house in the picture above is really minor damage compared to others. There are several houses, all in my neighborhood, that were mostly destroyed by massive oak trees that fell on them.

If it wasn't for the trees, Memphis wouldn't experience such destruction... but the trees are one of the more redeeming qualities of this city for a naturalist. If it weren't for the trees, this place would feel very sterile.

I have two huge Willow Oaks on my property. The trunk of the one in the front yard is approximately three feet in "diameter at breast height" (or DBH in forester lingo). The one in back is just a bit larger at approximately forty-five inches. They're both big enough to crush a house... my house. I feel very fortunate that they stood strong in the winds. I will be hugging a tree today... twice actually... but I don't really consider myself a "tree hugger."

In the midst of the destruction in my neighborhood, a serendipitous survivor emerges...

This mother American Robin (Turdus migratorius) and her nest (probably with eggs), precariously perched in a Pecan tree, somehow survived the storm. How this tiny clump of twigs, grasses, and trash managed to endure gale force winds... I will never know or understand.

You might call it a small miracle... I call it serendipity.