Monday, July 16, 2018

Favorite Fishing Destinations Countdown: No. 4 - White River, Arkansas

Cranor's Guide Service
The Bull Shoals tailwater is about a 12-hour drive from my house, and there truly is no practical flying option for most travelers. (If you happen to own a small plane, you fly directly to Gaston's!) Despite the long drive, I've always visited the White River as often as have had the opportunity, and if such an opportunity were to arise, I'd happily hop in my car and make the trek as quickly as I could pack my bags and load appropriate gear!

The trout fishery below Bull Shoals Dam extends approximately 100 miles, and more than 1 million trout get stocked in these highly productive waters every year. Stocking efforts and excellent fishing continue 12 months a year, and the fishery is as diverse as it is large. It can be fished from the shore, from various kinds of boat, or by wading (dependent on water levels), and fly-fishing, lure fishing and bait fishing are all popular and productive on the White River. Rainbows far outnumber other species, but any given cast in this river could produce a rainbow, brown, brook or cutthroat trout (along with a few non-trout species, which become more plentiful as you move downriver).

Many anglers travel to the White primarily for fast action from stocked rainbows, with expectations of taking home a limit each day. Quite a few of those plan annual fishing vacations to riverside resorts like Gaston's White River Resort, going out in guide boats in the morning and spending the balance of each day simply enjoying the river. For some, it's the only fishing they do all year, but a trip they wouldn't miss for anything.

By far my favorite way to fish the White is from a boat with a jerkbait at the end of my line, casting to shoreline cover and over midriver gravel bars for hefty brown trout. Unlike the rainbows, browns in the White are river-bred, and a very restrictive limit makes it a virtual catch-and-release fishery. Average size is outstanding, and any given fish that hammers a jerkbait could turn out to be a genuine trophy.

Jerking for the big browns works best with at least a few generators running. Browns are pretty cautious by nature, but higher flows put them in ambush mode. On lower water, I like to wade the river with light spinning gear and small plugs like a Rebel Middle Wee-Crawfish or TD47 Tracdown Ghost Minnow. That approach produces mostly rainbows, with an occasional brown in the mix.

Because the river is so large, the rainbows spread out, and many don't get caught right away. Because stockings are spread through the year and fish grow quickly in the White's fertile waters, you don't catch all "cookie cutter" fish like you do in many stocked trout streams. Common rainbow catches range from about 10 to18 inches, and they vary substantially in fatness and coloration.

Of course, as good as the trout fishing is, the White River's appeals extend far beyond fishing action. It's a beautiful river bounded by high bluff banks and is thick in Ozarks culture and simply a great place to be. From fabulous shore lunches with good friends at Gaston's to riverside camping in Bull Shoals/White River State Park to days of catching jumbo browns with Donald Cranor and his team of trophy trout specialists, I've enjoyed so many extraordinary times at the White since my first visit, which was more than a dozen years ago.

Most of my experience on the White has been in the first 20 or so miles downstream of the dam, so I know I've only skimmed the surface of what this amazing river has to offer. You can trust that my intent is to continue White River exploration for many years!

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Upcountry Kayak and Wading Excursion

Asher and I had a big time exploring waters in the South Carolina's Upcountry not too long ago. We fished mostly from the kayaks, but also spent part of a day wading the Chattooga National Wild & Scenic River.

The kayak element was extra fun because it represented somewhat of a test run. It was the first time I had loaded up both Vapor 10 Anglers for an outing to nearby waters since I brought the second one home from Old Town. We hit three different lakes by kayak, meaning 13-year-old Asher and I loaded and unloaded both boats multiple times in a couple of days, and doing so was every bit as quick and simple as I had hoped. Of course, I knew both kayaks would suit my needs well on the water because the new one is the same model as the I already had -- just a different color.

We spent time in the kayaks fishing Tugaloo Lake, Lake Jocassee and Lake Oolenoy, all tucked in the mountains and beautiful, but each distinctive in character. All three yielded some fish to go along with great paddling opportunities. 

We began on Tugaloo, which straddles the South Carolina/Georgia border and is fed by the Chattooga River and by the Tallulah River at the extreme lower end of Tallulah Gorge. We launched on the South Carolina side and spent the morning hitting pockets off the Chattooga River arm. We didn't end up traveling far because we began catching bass and bluegills almost immediately and never had need to do much searching. That said, I want to return some time soon with a whole day available to paddle down Chattooga and all the way up the Tallulah arm to fish inside the gorge section.

Next we visited Lake Jocassee, which is arguably the most scenic lake in the Southern Appalachia. Located at the edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, Jocassee is crazily rugged, steep, clear and deep. Most tributaries enter the lake as waterfalls, and it's nothing to be sitting over 200 feet with the boat a cast's distance from the shore. 

Our Jocassee exploration was greatly aided by Jocassee Lake Tours. Owner Brooks Wade welcomed kayaks, Asher and me onto one of the company's pontoons and took us to a few select areas of the lake that he knew would be extra cool to explore, would lend themselves to great photo opportunities and might produce a few fish. Jocassee Lake Tours
doesn't do guided fishing trips, and ultra-clear lakes can be challenging in mid-summer, so he made no promises on the fishing part. That said, we managed to catch several bluegills while paddling in some seriously beautiful areas. 

The third kayaks stop, Lake Oolenoy, is in Table Rock State Park, and the park's namesake rocky-faced mountain provides a spectacular backdrop to many parts of the lake. Only electric motors are permitted on Lake Oolenoy, and the lake is a nice size for a day of kayak fishing. It's small enough to fish your way around in a modest day, but large enough that there is room to explore and for several anglers to fish it at the same times. The bass bite was good at Oolenoy. We didn't catch big fish, but we caught quite a few bass. Making a good thing even better, the bass were coming up and blasting Pop-Rs on the surface!

We capped off our summer Upcountry tour by wading the Chattooga in a few different areas and catching both redeye bass and trout. Little is more fun in my mind than wet wading a cool mountain stream on a hot day and throwing little lures like Rebel Crawfish on ultralight gear for a mixed catch, so doing just that made for a fine trip finale.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Favorite Fishing Destinations Countdown: No. 5 - Santee Cooper Lakes, South Carolina

Time I've spent on the Santee Cooper Lakes spreads across three decades, going back to college days, and I've enjoyed dozens of memorable days fishing these two big South Carolina lakes. Favorite days, were I to attempt to pick a dozen or so, undoubtedly would include days catching flatheads, largemouths, stripers, blue catfish, crappie and bluegills (at least). Opportunities are diverse at Santee Cooper, and it seems that every kind of fish that lives in these lakes is plentiful and grows big.

For folks from other places, the Santee Cooper Lakes are Lake Marion and Moultrie (locally called the Upper Lake and Lower Lake), which are connected by a canal and impound the Santee and Cooper rivers through some complex engineering. The two lakes are distinctive, and each has its own character, but because they are connected and operated together, they tend to be viewed as a single massive (170,000 acres) fishery.  The lakes are fertile and offer highly diverse forage and extensive habitat, resulting in world-class fisheries for multiple species.

Santee Cooper first gained fame as the original home of landlocked striped bass when anadromous fish got trapped during the lakes' construction in the 1940s and ended up surviving and making spawning runs up the rivers. Big catfish are probably the lakes' current largest claim to fame. Folks travel from all over the country to sample Santee Coopers's legendary catfish, and many guides stay busy year-round with catfish trips. Blues and flatheads draw the headlines, but Santee Cooper holds claim to the world record channel cat, and channels still provide a fun opportunity for fast action at certain times. Santee Cooper is also famous for its giant shellcrackers and bluegills, highlighted by a former world-record shellcracker that came from the canal that connects lakes. And then there are the bass and the crappie, which are the main reasons why many anglers travel to these waters year after year.

Fishing is the main attraction for me, and I could go on and on about Santee Cooper angling opportunities. My fondness for the lakes extends far beyond its fisheries, though. I appreciate the variety of settings, from vast swamps at the upper end of Marion and around both lakes to the flooded forest in Marion's main body to the wide open water of Lake Marion. With that comes diverse wildlife, including gators, ospreys, wading birds and much more.

I also enjoy the atmosphere throughout Santee Cooper Country. These are fishing lakes first, and both are serviced by several true fish camps, where an angler can get a cabin or motel room, buy fresh bait and the tackle needed, hire a guide that goes out of the camp's docks, launch a boat and hang out in the restaurant to enjoy big servings of down-home cooking and hear plenty of fish stories.

I've spent many hours in the Black's Camp restaurant, enjoying catfish stew and a burger or a dinner buffet while gleaning wisdom from veteran guides.

Really, the biggest challenge about planning travel to Santee Cooper is figuring out when you would most like to go, which area you want to visit, and what species you want to target. Santee Cooper Country is a great resource to help with the planning. The website provides loads of great information, and if your plans allow you to travel through the town of Santee between 8:30 and 4:30, stop by their visitor center to look around and talk with someone in person.


Thursday, June 7, 2018

Jacksonville Jaunt

One more update is due before I get back to the favorite fishing destinations countdown because just a few days after returning from Maine, I pointed things in the opposite direction and blasted down to Jacksonville for a couple of fun days of inshore saltwater fishing with Chris Holleman and Nathan Johnson. It was a quick trip: Southbound on Thursday, and home late Saturday night. However, that was enough time to enjoy some fun action and get plenty of the photos that drive my travel plans.

I always have fun fishing the Jacksonville area with Chris and Nathan, and we always catch fish. Along with redfish and speckled trout (which are pretty much a given, any time), the species mix from the most recent trip included jack crevalle, flounder, sheepshead and kind of weakfish that's locally called a yellowmouth trout. We hit settings ranging from very urban stuff on the St. John's river in downtown to some pretty remote feeling marsh and fished quite a few different ways. Part of the plan also was to play with some not-yet-released Bomber Lures, which preformed exceptionally well!

My original plan had actually been to do some exploring on my own along the Georgia coast on the way home, possibly doing some pier or surf fishing at Jekyll Island, and to return home Sunday. Big storms brewed up Saturday afternoon, though, and they were forecast to continue until dark, so I decided to continue toward home and save that exploration for another trip.

Of course, Chris, Nathan and I have already started talking about "next time" for Jacksonville, and the working plan is to aim for the fall mullet run, when the fishing tends to be wide open for everything. I'm looking forward to that trip already!

Monday, June 4, 2018

Kayak's Partner

Two Old Town Vapor 10 Angler kayaks fit nicely atop my car and are easy to load, opening an huge number of waterways to fishing/photo outings.
Last fall I got I got a fishing kayak, an Old Town Vapor 10 Angler, and I've been delighted with everything about it. It's stable, comfortable and well set up for fishing, and I can easily load it atop my car. In fact, it's simple enough to tote that I'll toss it atop my Outback for trips to other areas, "just in case," even if I don't know of a specific kayak need on that trip. Owning one has left me longing for a second one, though, and I fixed that when I was in Maine a couple of weeks ago.

Several times since I got the first boat, I've pondered outings to mountain lakes, cypress-filled backwaters, tidal creeks or other waters, but ultimately have decided to stay home. A productive outing to me is one where I get a lot of good photos, so I just can't justify going fishing alone. Selfies and fish close-ups certainly provide some value, but that value is miniscule compared to what can be done with a couple of boats and with both anglers carrying a camera, and it would only frustrate me to hit a good fishing day in a beautiful spot and not be equipped to make the most of it photo-wise.

Cool view, behind the scenes, at Old Town Canoe!
Because I like my first Vapor so much, I couldn't think of anything I would like better than another boat of the same model, and since Old Town, Maine and the Old Town Canoe headquarters are only a few miles from where I would be fishing with Northridge Outfitters, it only made since to plan a visit and pick up the new boat while I was so close. I had explored the retail store at Old Town before. In fact, it was the first stop Asher and I made when we fished in the same area a couple of years ago. This time, though, I got to tour the facilities with Old Town brand manager David Hadden, and I cannot begin to convey how cool it was getting to see all those canoes and kayaks being formed and prepared for shipping. I was super impressed by all the processes used to ensure that every boat a customer buys is exactly what it should be in appearance and performance and that it will remain that way for many years.

The Old Town visit and pick-up took place on the final morning of my trip, and plans were to begin my 1,260-mile trek home when I left. However, I couldn't resist the opportunity to get the new boat wet and run both kayaks together, so Doug Teel and I went straight from Old Town to a spot along the Penobscot River that David Hadden had suggested and slid the boats in the river. We didn't fish long, but we did both catch fish, so the second Vapor had been rightly initiated before I got more than about 5 miles from where it had been built. After catching a few, we re-loaded the boats and secured them atop my car, where they road nicely all the way home.

I left for Florida a few days after returning from Maine and just got back from that trip, so I haven't gotten the two boats out together around here yet. You know it won't be long, though!
The first fish caught from my new Old Town Vapor 10 Angler, caught by Doug Teel of Northridge Outfitters, illustrates perfectly the kind of photo I'm excited to be able to get far more of now that I have two kayaks that I can take out together!

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Marvelous Maine

Continuing with fishing travel updates before returning to "favorite destinations" posts, I drove directly from the Pennsylvania Crappie Camp to Maine to spend a few delightful days with Doug Teel of Northridge Outfitters. I also got to visit the home of Old Town Canoe and even picked up a new boat while I was in Maine, but that's another story for my next post.

Doug operates a modern lodge in rural Penobscot County and outfits adventurers year-round. He guides hunters for everything from rabbits to bears to moose, but from mid-May through the end of summer, he turns his attention to fish. Smallmouth bass are the main attraction, but Doug also fishes good waters for pike and largemouths and occasionally, he'll hit beautiful backwoods ponds and flowages for native brook trout or lead other types of fishing excursions. This was my fourth time fishing with Doug, so I admittedly arrived with high expectations.

I wasn't disappointed!

Doug and I squeezed in big variety for only 3 1/2 days, spending one full day running ATV trails and backroads for colorful brookies and splitting the rest of the time fishing two vey different sorts of lakes and the Penobscot River. The river, which is where Doug spends the most time during the summer, was the one "must do" part of the trip, and as a spoiler alert, you'll learn more about it if you continue to follow my list of favorite fishing destinations. Smallmouth fishing is crazily good and highly predictable, with lots of topwater action.

One lake we fished was new to me and about two hours away. Doug promised it would be worth it and was right. Of course, I never doubted that as I've learned to trust his judgement. We spent the whole day catching and releasing chunky smallmouth bass from ultra-clear water and only saw one other boat on the lake while we were there.

I guess my favorite outing was a short, early-morning river stop on the final day. I had plans to be at Old Town at 9:00, so we hit the river from about 5:30 till 8:00 and caught oodles of smallmouths in that short time, mostly on topwater, without ever running anywhere. Doug dropped the trolling motor as soon as we launched, and we just started fishing. If we even got out of sight of the boat ramp, it wasn't by much!

Of course, we ate well. You're supposed to do that in Maine. And if anyone ever asks, I can say without hesitation, that if you have haddock chowder to dinner, lunch the next day is not too soon for all-you-can east fried haddock, and the leftover chowder makes an excellent dinner that evening!

Monday, May 28, 2018

Western Pennsylvania Slabfest

My most recent blog post, which regrettably wasn't especially recent, was part of my countdown of 10 favorite fishing destinations. In that post. I mentioned being excited to soon be headed toward the destination that was featured, Lake Pymatuning, for a media fishing event. I've since made that trip and done some other productive fishing, so I figured it might be good to briefly stray from the countdown posts for a few updates.

The short version of the Western Pennsylvania report is that the crappie bite is sizzling right now, and fish can be caught many different ways. I fished three days on two lakes (Pymatuning and Shenango) and spent time in four different boats, using various techniques, with the only real common denominator being fast action from quality crappie. I spent time spider rigging with "Crappie Dan" Dannenmueller, drifting with Dale Black and Kenny Smith and casting with Darl Black. All produced good numbers and size, an we caught black and white crappie plus a mix of other species, including bluegills, pumpkinseeds, yellow perch, bass, catfish and more.

Of course, such a report is anything but surprising from these waters (which is part of why Pymatuning landed so high on my favorites list). When the spring bite gets going, the action tends to be fast, with plenty of good fish in the mix. We stayed in cabins in Pymatuning State Park, which offers fabulous lakeside access for boating and bank-fishing alike and spent a pretty good portion of our waking hours out on the water catching fish!