08 August, 2013
15 April, 2013
20 March, 2013
AS a kid growing up in Quebec, I fished for the following five species: bass, trout, walleye (or as the locals call it – dore), perch and northern pike. It wasn’t until many years later, during a trip to southern Florida, that I inadvertently landed my first barracuda: a solid 7 ½ -pounder that was so bait-obsessed it rammed the boat, twice, while I was reeling in to check my bait.
I couldn’t get a proper look at the fish due to its thrashing and ripping about, but the moment I brought it on deck the only thing that went through my mind was “pike”… this fish took bait like a pike, fought like a pike and pretty much looked a pike. From that moment on, I couldn’t help wondering if the two species were related…
Science tells us of an evolutionary phenomenon called convergence, where two or more species show similarities in body form, life history and behavior resulting from similar environmental pressures. But how is it that these two different fish species, living in entirely separate and exclusive environments, show so many biological and behavioural similarities? In fact, those similarities are so undeniable that many researchers suspect that somewhere in the ancient past, northern pike and barracuda must have been members of the same family.
The Esocidae family includes large freshwater predators found in cold-temperate North American and Eurasian inland waters, such as the familiar northern pike (Esox lucius) and muskellung (E. masquinongy). The various 18 to 20 types of barracuda (family Sphyraena), on the other hand, live in the warm, tropical waters of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans. They bear such a resemblance to pike and muskies that many historical texts refer to barracudas as pike-like fishes.
Given their different environments, the northern pike and barracuda share a list of similarities surprising in its size and scope. Both are solitary, stalking predators at the upper levels of the food chain, both mature at around two years of age, live to an average of 14 years, sport canine-like and conical teeth, hunt by sight, have nearly identical body shapes and share cannibalistic tendencies, even at a young age. Despite living in completely different waters, they prefer a strikingly similar habitat. They even stalk prey in the same fashion.
Fish evolved more than 400 million years ago, but didn’t thrive until the placoderms (prehistoric creatures covered in bony plates and resembled fish), and large sharks began to recede in dominance. ‘Modern’ bony fishes appeared about 395 million years ago; the earliest forms lived in freshwater, meaning that saltwater fish evolved from their freshwater counterparts, and that barracuda evolved from the northern pike template. This evolutionary path provides evidence of the powerful nature of convergence and the overwhelming influence it has on living organisms.
Fish did most of their evolving between five million and three-and-a-half million years ago, during the Silurian and Devonian periods. In the middle Silurian, the jawless fishes diversified, but it was not until the Devonian that a large variety of fishes really flourished and specialized in their respective aquatic niches.
About 80 million years ago, the North American continent gradually drifted toward the North Pole, one species that was more tolerant of colder conditions evolved, eventually becoming the northern pike. Esocidae evolved from the herring-salmon order of fishes during the mid-to-late Cretaceous period, but developed a much more predatory nature along the way. Pike jaws, in particular, developed to allow it to eat much larger food than the salmonids could handle. Barracuda followed a similar developmental pattern but became the pike’s warm water counterpart, explaining its much broader range, which now extends to nearly all the warm waters of the world.
Barracuda and northern pike each benefit from a physical trait provided by evolution: long, skinny jaws. When viewed head-on, elongated jaws appear to disappear, so they aren’t visible against the greater circumference of the body, giving the illusion that the predator is farther away than it really is. Being able to approach prey head-on is a highly successful tactic for stalking predators. Pre-strike behavior is also similar; both barracuda and pike are not so much dependent on their sense of smell (like sharks, for example) as their sight. They hunt based largely on visual stimuli. So they orient most quickly to moving fish, as opposed to prey that’s sitting still.
The parallels continue in the way pike and barracuda propel themselves. Ram feeding is the process in which a predatory fish uses a high-velocity lunge to overtake and engulf prey. Florida gar, redfin needlefish, northern pike and barracuda species are all ram-feeders that use their bodies in the same way, where the predator assumes an S-shaped posture prior to acceleration. This instinctive attack sequence is very distinctive in the fish world and only a handful of species have adopted it as their preferred strike pattern (sometimes, being a well-armed predator that is able to ambush prey with lightning speed can come at a cost: there are several documented cases of pike choking to death after attempting to swallow fish as large as, or, on occasion larger than, themselves - zero documented cases for barracuda).
Both pike and barracuda are sprinters, with torpedo-shaped bodies and fins placed well back on the body to maximize thrust. Their muscles are suited for rapid bursts of activity (contrast this with the muscle type that appears in many tuna species, making them ‘marathon’ fish, able to cross entire oceans in record time), they also have more deeply forked and proportionately larger tails than slower species. The shape of these fish also suggests that they well suited to stalking prey in very shallow water. Pike are regularly found in weed beds, barracuda in mangrove beds. As is often the case with evolutionary convergence, behavioural similarities go hand-in-hand with physical similarities.
Significant barracuda populations appear near coastlines because the waters there are generally rich in nutrients. Northern pike share this preference for waters near land for the same reason. “Two species that act differently can live in the same area, can co-exist and not out-compete each other,” says fish breeder Gregg Sakowicz, who studies fish behavior at Rutgers University Marine Field Station. On the other hand, he says, offering a hint as to why barracuda and northern pike evolved far away from each other, “if your brothers and sisters all like the same foods, you will compete at the dinner table more than if you all liked different foods. By spreading out into different habitats, similar species increase their chances of obtaining food – and surviving.”
“Nature’s evolutionary strategies are devised with a great deal more common sense than the ideas of man,” points out Bill Little, a writer for Esox Ecosse, a Scottish publication dedicated to pike angling. When it comes to barracuda and pike, he suggests, there is still a great deal of work to be done by evolutionary biologists, who are just beginning to refine their theories of evolutionary convergence. After all, species are normally defined as populations that are reproductively isolated from other populations; evolutionary convergence counters that intuitive reasoning.
Prehistory has provided a partial answer: one template from which both fish evolved. Time has added another piece of the puzzle, with both species preferring similar, albeit exclusive, types of environments. Even though it doesn’t seem to make sense, the barracuda and northern pike clearly demonstrate that living in dissimilar environments can - and often does – lead to species that should be very different actually looking and behaving the same way.
I drove right over a rod tube recently. It contained my new fly rod.
I’ll spare you the gory and embarrassing details. This happened 90 minutes from my home, where I was preparing to start an afternoon of fly fishing, but no worries, spare rod in the trunk. I verified the trunk: no spare - for the first time ever. Cursing took place.
What to do?
I decided to walk around and just observe the water (something I don’t do nearly enough of). After a few minutes of observing, I ran into an angler who had just wrapped up his day and was exiting the site. I told him about my brand new, and newly-wrecked rod. He was staying on site an additional hour and graciously offered to lend me his rod during that time. I accepted without hesitation.
He had a vest on and I assumed, quite wrongly, that he was going to lend me a fly fishing rig. We walked to his vehicle and he took out a spin casting rig (what the - ?), along with a tackle box loaded with spoons, impressive looking Rapala-type fish and dozens of colourful rubber lures, “bass magnets” according to my new friend.
I hadn’t handled a spin casting rig in 18 years, but my options were limited, so, what the heck, off to the water…
I tied on a spoon and cast… instant bass: a rebellious 2 pounder. I moved around the area and had similar success with floating Rapalas (beautifully crafted items, by the way). I stayed away from the bass magnet rubber lures because I was doing just fine with the non-magnetic variety. My hour was up. I brought the gear back, said thanks, got in my vehicle and drove home.
Some things that went through my mind during the drive: (1) check to be 100% certain that there’s a spare fly rod in there, (2) I loved my hour of spin casting and (3) I’d definitely do it again - at least once a year. There are several good reasons why.
The very first cast brought me right back to my youth. I started spin casting, fly fishing came much later, and there’s no question that the rod arm develops muscle memory. Casting that relatively heavy spoon brought back those memories in a very physical way. Beyond that, handling a different implement, even for just an hour, gives you both an appreciation and a better understanding of what you are accomplishing with a fly rod.
I walked away from this experience realizing that I didn’t focus enough on that subtle wrist snap that’s required of a fly cast if you’re to get your fly to really sail. That wrist snap is something that comes instinctively when you’re propelling a half-ounce spoon or Rapala lure. This particular facet of casting knowledge comes to you instantly – and acutely – because the wrist snap used in a spin cast is not only far from subtle, but essential (it also it doesn’t have the inherent consequences of an overdone snap when using a fly rod).
Finally, this one hour exercise renewed my appreciation for the skills required in fly fishing: casting (proficiently), minding the line, tracking the fly, minding drift, limiting slack and so on. This is not a dig at spin casting, which has its own unique subtleties to be appreciated. The experience did, however, make me realize that fly fishing is more demanding of the angler because it’s a more participatory and connective type of fishing.
Spin gear, it will widen your horizons - and perhaps even bring back memories of why you fell in love with fly fishing to begin with.
21 January, 2013
I fished North-East Florida over the holiday season and noticed a growing group of rebels that’s taking salt water fly fishing and turning it on its head. They’re easily spotted, fishing right alongside spin casters, sporting chest or hip-packs, wading knee-level and fishing light and sometimes ultra-light fly lines. Judging from the number of 5 and 6-weight rods around, this is clearly a new trend.
I ran into three small groups, one of which consisted of four Ohio natives, headed by Charlie, a “kind of former trout bum who still likes trout - but this has more oomph than trout fishing, if you know what I mean.”
No, Charlie, I don’t - please explain.
“One, the variety of fish you can hook is exponential compared with what you can expect back home (in fresh water) and pound for pound, these (salt water) fish have far more torque than anything in fresh water.” After a bit more discussion, I realized that perception is indeed everything: considering that a one-and-a-half pound jack or boxfish can be a prize on a 5 or 6-weight rig…
The rods generally range from 5 to 7-weight, I even spotted one person wielding a #4 fly rig that sported an Abel Creek fly reel (for those not familiar with the model, it’s a trout reel – and yes, it has a click drag). This person was targeting small jacks – specifically. And what if you hook into a 10lb snook? I asked. “We’re not here for large snook, or large anything. I fish the lightest saltwater leaders available, so anything over the 6 or 7lb range will result in a break-off, which is fine. We’re conscientious, we’re careful, and take care not to exhaust fish.”
Charlie: Naysayers always point out that fishing a #6 rig on a beach is nothing but a nuisance, well, it’s certainly a bit more of a challenge, not relying on a 9-weight rod for wind-busting strength, but let’s be honest: if you’ve developed a solid cast, it can be done – and with relative ease. Cast low, cast tight (loops) and directly into the wind and you’re good. Also, there are products out there that address some of these difficulties. What we look for are quick-loading lines with short, fat heads – once again, we’re using ultra-light gear – but we aren’t chasing trout – so subtlety isn’t high on our list of requirements.
Also, we aren’t making 80-foot casts, remember that the fish are generally right here, at our feet – that said, we still have to turn over chunky flies (merkin crabs, medium sized clousers, weighted shrimp), which is another reason short, slightly heavier heads are the order of the day [RIO’s new QuickShooter bonefish line is a case in point. It has a short, easy-casting head that is designed to load rods at close range and is suited for anglers wading the flats or for novice saltwater anglers - RM].
There’s no shortage of techniques or leader formulas, either, “the general recipe is to give our leaders ‘the chop’ – removing the last 18” to 24” right off the bat. We have to turn over some pretty large flies, relative to our gear, and most surf fish aren’t leader shy, so the formula works out. I repeat: this isn’t trout fishing – or even bonefishing, for that matter.” Still, some of the hard core members in the group are using full, 9-footers that taper down to 8 and even 6lbs. These are clearly the more proficient casters in the group.
Charlie: There are definitely a few trade-offs, the fishing is unquestionably less focused since we’re after smaller saltwater fare, and, as with all types of fishing, we learn to expect the unexpected: my father-in-law landed a 26lb hammerhead – using a 7-weight, and was able to accomplish this in “well under 10 minutes” - granted that it takes some fishing experience to accomplish that. The shark was released in very good condition.
Barracuda in the 1 to 6lb range populate nearly every stretch of water, so poppers are a pretty consistent treat. The system requires a super-short leader, normally trimmed down to 66” or 60” and finished off with 4” to 6” of bite guard, you’d be surprised at the distance a mid-sized popper can be cast using that leader formula.
Backing capacity seems like the only undetermined component so far. Some equip their mid-size reels with plenty of it, in the event of an unexpected bonefish or permit strike. Many others use very little of it (as little as 80 yards in some cases). “Risky? Without question. Some days, break-offs can be the rule rather than the exception in this game.”
Rods themselves are a non-issue. They’re widely available and up to the task. St. Croix, Sage, Orvis and several other manufacturers make ultra-stiff, fast action saltwater fly rods, the lightest of which usually come in at #6.
On the growing numbers, “… a few short years ago, we consisted of a very select group of people. We’d get plenty of odd looks, and still do, but attitudes are definitely changing.”
A Bass Pro Shops salesperson supported this, telling me that sales of light saltwater fly rods and fly lines have shot through the roof in the last 12 to 18 months. He also offered, “many of these people are either totally new to salt water fly fishing, or just unable – or unwilling – to spend the dollars required to chase billfish, or other saltwater species of the more glorious variety”.
24 October, 2012
At the end of each season, I lay out my seven fly boxes (five freshwater, two salt) and get to work discarding, reorganizing and getting a sense of which patterns in the inventory need refreshing – or replacing altogether. About three seasons ago, muddlers, for reasons I still can’t figure out, were dismal performers (of course it couldn’t be my performance as an angler, ergo, it had to be the fly), so I intentionally let my muddler supply dwindle for the following two seasons. Bad move, because I learned that quite a few anglers were doing well with those flies. So I upped the muddler count last year – to a very modest six flies.
My flybox collection used to total ten. Then eight. Now seven, and I suspect it’ll hover near that mark for a few years at least. This got me thinking: how low can you go? The mathematical answer to that is simple: one - fly. We’ve all read or heard about that select group of enigmatic fly fishers being able to ‘make due with one pattern [hares ear, usually] for the entire season’. Quite possibly, but in my mind this amounts to nothing more than a philosophical exercise. Anyone going to those extremes is limiting themselves, literally.
There’s no question that those fortunate jet-setters who fish the entire planet need a vast assortment of bugs. Most of us, however, normally fish a handful of relatively local spots. So, how low can you go? The answer (ahem) is 4 boxes. Medium sized.
Streamers, dry flies and nymphs get one box each. Wet flies and terrestrials have to share the real estate 60/40.
I’m pleased to report that North-American waters can be covered with ten dry and ten wet fly patterns. This scientific fact is supported by the numerous “top-10” articles on these flies - and the good news is that there’s much overlap in the fly selection contained in these articles. The important thing is to have three sizes of each pattern: small/medium/large. On to streamers…
I’m tempted to say, ‘Black wooly bugger. Let’s move on to nymphs,’ but that would be a touch too simplistic, so add a few olive patterns. Small, medium, large, with and without weight. With a slight advantage given to the weighted patterns. If you target bass, weighted Clousers in brown/white and magenta/white should get some shelf space. If, and only if, you’ve experienced success with mickey finns and other dace patterns, then a few of those wouldn’t hurt. On to nymphs…
Hares ear, prince nymph, pheasant tail, scuds in dark, medium and light colours. Same as streamers: weighted and unweighted, three sizes, slightly favouring the weighted models.
Some terrestrials, to keep those wet flies company. I know many anglers who do away with terrestrials altogether, but that’s just wrong. There are times when hoppers and ants – black and red - do what other flies can’t. If beetles populate your fishing locales, add beetles in the appropriate colours. Ants in two sizes (small/medium), hoppers in small/medium/large.
There, your four boxes are filled to about 80% capacity. Feel free send me an email outlining how that remaining 20% should be used. And if you’re partial to muddlers, do let me know what the big secret is to getting those flies to work – properly. I still don’t have very much faith in them.
16 October, 2012
The great 19th century painter and naturalist, John James Audubon, knew the difference between striving for something and getting an image just right. Audubon routinely worked from dead specimens but understood the importance of capturing the subtle details of life in his paintings. Take some time leafing through Ocean Fishes, and you’ll immediately realize that Prosek invested much time and effort to nail down those very details.
Prosek painted his subjects as they emerged from the sea and rendered them with an objectivity that he has developed from years of participating in art, science – and the emotional experience of angling. The paintings - 35 watercolors of the most pursued saltwater fish - are at once scrupulously accurate and manage to transcend the anatomical details that define the fish. In this regard, Prosek gives us a privileged place on the deck, a view ordinarily glimpsed only by fishermen, and brings us closer to seeing the fish than any of his contemporaries: he literally ‘captures the moment’. Prosek states, “… as anyone who has spent time on the water knows: a fish is a dynamic, colourful, always-changing organism, lit by some internal light that that rapidly flickers out as the fish expires.”
The Ocean Fishes project began when Prosek was a Yale University undergraduate and it announced his scope and ambition both as an artist and a natural historian. Prosek is also an experimentalist: phosphorescent effects were often called for when rendering fish scales, so he developed a way of working ground mica into the paint to help achieve them. The final result is a volume of faithfully reproduced images (along with accompanying scale indicators since all the fish, from a 14” porgy to a 12’8” blue marlin, were painted life-sized), that is both a reference guide as well as an art book that can find a home in any fishing library or on a coffee table. If you’re searching for gift possibilities for the upcoming holiday season, Ocean Fishes is a no-brainer.
Published by Rizzoli, New York
12 October, 2012
Water shoes – or “surf-mocs” - as they’re sometimes called, have always had two weaknesses: near zero durability, especially if you’re in the +180lb range, and near zero lateral support… well, what did you expect for $9.99?
Newer models with corresponding updated features (and pricing) offer some improvements but still fall way short of offering decent foot support.
TEVA has produced what I think is the first in a new generation of water shoe, the TEVA Churn ($90). It features a heavily contoured foot-bed/inner shoe for real, sneaker-like support, wrap around stiff mesh, broad/dual-compound sticky sole and porting like a fly reel.
Straight out of the box, you’ll note an oddity: there’s an integrated, soft heel-pad on the outside of the shoe, this is so you can kick in the rear portion of the shoe and convert the Churns to slipper mode – which now sport a nice, soft heel. Smart.
On land, these shoes bounce like Air Jordans. They inspire enough confidence to break out a quick game of hoops (note: don’t – as this would most likely go a ways in wrecking the sticky rubber properties, which TEVA dubs “Spider rubber”).
After a thorough dunking, the Spider rubber won’t let you down, even on fairly smooth surfaces the level of grip is superior to most other existing products. Drainage is instant, due to the large amount of stiff mesh used in the shoe’s construction. The mesh at the front of the foot is capped with a tough, rubberized strip, so no worries about bumping into abrasive things.
Another factor that plagues lesser-quality water shoes is dry time - it’s clear that TEVA engineers gave some thought to the materials that went into the Churn. Kick up your feet (or kick off the Churns) in a stiff breeze and they’re dry in minutes.
The Churns also feature a quick-lace system, elasticized ankle collar and an overall build that will keep your feet from dancing in the shoe, because in the water, or on a wet skiff, they shouldn’t.
Hands down the most innovative, built-to-last water shoe currently available. Competing manufacturers will be copying the TEVA Churn in three… two… one…