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A Turtle Made Me Do It

by Capt. Jim Barr on 12/16/17

I'm a reasonably good swimmer but I never learned to swim "the right way", that is with the crawl or freestyle stroke using rotational breathing. I can do the breast stroke, the backstroke, and I can freestyle but I have to keep my head up, looking straight ahead. Unlike many friends, I learned how to swim in a lake, not in a swimming pool. As a teenager I would sometimes swim at night across sections of the lake we lived on, it would drive my mother crazy. Later, during college days I recall one pitch black summer night when a few of my buddies and I swam from shore to a nearby island where friends were tenting and sitting by the campfire. We didn't know about Navy Seals in those days but we could have perhaps passed as special ops frogmen. After we silently swam across the lake and through a muddy cove, we waded ashore, we covered ourselves in mud and lake weeds, then spread out, and snuck up on these guys- scaring the holy shit out of them. After lots of laughter and a few beers, we returned to the water and swam back to where our car was parked. As the lead swimmer and with my head out of the water I maintained the proper bearing so we arrived on target.
Swamp Thing

There's a reason I swim with my head above water, our lake was full of tree stumps, brush piles and big snapping turtles, but despite these hazards I was very comfortable in these surroundings. Swimming in a chlorinated pool (had it been an option) didn't do it for me. One reason was there were no largemouth bass in swimming pools, and I was an avid largemouth bass fisherman. One of my secrets for success in locating big largemouth bass is that I would don a dive mask, snorkel and fins and search for bass in the heavy cover of the brush piles, tree stumps, docks and muddy coves that were loaded with lily pads.
Largemouth in heavy cover

As a kid we always lived near water and my family would "maintain" a small fleet of leaky wooden boats complete with cantankerous small outboard engines that were always breaking down. I got pretty handy with a wrench and screwdriver just enough to keep them running most of the time, however a strong set of oars, a supply of shear pins, and a bailing can were oftentimes vital in returning home after a day or evening on the water. So, after scouting prime largemouth bass water as a "Navy Seal in training", I would return and catch those fish with my cheapo spinning rod and black plastic rubber worms and hula poppers. Summertime was dreamy for this country boy.
One of my first boats

My father was a businessman, an inventor of sorts, a family man for sure, and of course, a fisherman. He was a pattern maker in the Navy during WW2 and no doubt it was this experience that gave rise to him becoming one of the original MacGyver's, the products and processes he would come up with were amazing.  He also had a very keen wit and was a big practical joker.

So the following story stars Jim Sr., Jim Jr. (me) and one of my dad's best friends, Johnny Haren. We lived in upstate New York, Schuylerville to be exact. My dad was the operations manager at a paper company in town and Johnny Haren was one of his production supervisors. Johnny was dad's best friend, also a Navy alum, a short guy, kinda pudgy, a bit nervous, quick witted and very talkative, mostly about stupid shit as I recall, and best of all, Johnny was a good fisherman. Anyway, they were quite the pair and when they could find the time, fished together and exaggerated about most everything fishy.

We lived in the country, half way between Schuylerville and Saratoga Springs and behind the house were open fields full of woodchucks and arrowheads. Fish Creek (how appropo) bordered these fields. It was a muddy creek full of walleyed pike, pickerel, bass, carp and a variety of panfish... and huge snapping turtles. I was about 10 years old at the time and while fishing from my rowboat (by myself) in a sheltered and shallow mucky cove, I encountered a snapping turtle that must have been damn near two feet across. I had hooked a small bass and the turtle chased it to the boat. Upon returning to the house I told my father the story. After a minute or so, he asked me if I thought I could find that turtle again, and I told him I thought I could.

"Let's go get that turtle... get a rope from the garage and the big net". 
"Dad, there's no way that turtle will fit in the net, why don't we just leave it alone or maybe kill it, after all it's eating all the fish and probably the ducks too, besides it gives me the creeps!"
"Nope" he said, "we're going to catch it!" 
"Catch it!... Dad the thing is huge, it bites, it hisses, it's covered in moss and it stinks!"
"Don't argue with me, go get the big net and a rope in the garage and throw them in the station wagon, and don't tell your mother anything... got it?"
"Yes sir", I said.

Holy shit, I thought to myself, I should have kept my mouth shut.

Dad drove the station wagon through the back yard, across the field to the dirt landing where the rowboat was tied up. "Let's go",he said, as he threw the net and rope into the boat and untied it from the tree , "you row!"
After ten minutes of rowing the boat and thinking to myself the whole time where this caper was going, we drifted into the cove where the turtle lived.

"Pole the boat with an oar to where you last saw that turtle", he directed me. In short order we saw some lily pads moving with the characteristic trail of bubbles coming from the bottom as the turtle was clawing its way through the muck trying to get away from us.
As I got closer to the lead bubbles my father rigged a noose with the rope and readied the net. "Get up on top of him and pin him to the bottom with the oar", he commanded.

This was about to get real serious, I was convinced my father really didn't appreciate how big this thing was! I was thoroughly confused, my heart raced, I gulped for air, WTF dad! (I thought). But he was all business, determined, kinda crazy. Is this gonna be a turtle soup venture?... no freakin' way I thought.

I pushed up on the turtle in about two feet of water, I attempted to pin it to the bottom but missed and hit it on the rear of it's massive shell. Up it came head first, mouth open and hissing. As the boat rocked Dad pushed the net over it's head and one of it's claws. It's jaws crunched into the aluminum net hoop, it's claw became instantly entangled, and now we were fast to this massive, strong, prehistoric and pissed off carnivorous predator.
"Here, you take the net, I'm gonna get a line on a rear claw", my father shouted. The thrashing turtle damn near pulled me out of the boat, while my father deftly lassoed a leg as if he were a cowboy roping a steer. We had him!... or he had us.

Now what? I thought.

Back to the landing I rowed, with turtle in tow as my father somehow managed to keep it from capsizing our fragile craft. "You take the rope, I'll take the head, and we'll load it into the wagon.
"Just do it!!"

The look on my mother's face was incredulous, if she had a gun~ dad would have been a gonner for sure as we proceeded to unload the turtle into the garage.
Dismissing my mother's protests, he ordered me to the shed to get a shovel and the push broom.
"Stop it, don't worry- we're not going to kill it", he said, "I'm gonna play a joke on Haren!"
Upon returning to the now stinking and muddy garage, I discovered that my father had the turtle tied spread-eagle fashion so that it could not move. With the shovel and push broom he cleared the moss, slime and leeches off the shell. "OK, now we're gonna leave this guy here till tomorrow when the shell should be dry", he said.
That night mom fixed dinner for just my brother and me, dad was on his own, which seemed cruel at the time but in retrospect, was probably appropriate. Things were a bit tense in the Barr household that night until my father was forced to share his plan with only my mother. She directed him to sleep in the breezeway that night, paying a slight penance for what she perceived as bordering on animal cruelty.

After returning from church the next morning my father told me to put on some old clothes and fetch a paint brush and a can of white refrigerator paint from his workshop.
"Just do it" he ordered, with a twisted smile. "I'm gonna fix Haren!"

The next day after the paint was sufficiently dry, we retraced the drive to the landing, whereupon I rowed the boat back to the cove with the turtle in tow. Dad cut the turtle free and away it swam into the murky deep.

About two weeks later, Dad invited Haren to go fishing with him in Fish Creek. He told Haren he knew of a cove that had some big largemouth bass in it. Haren was excited to try some new water. He was his typical self I was later told, yakkity yak, fidgety, a comment about everyone and everything at the shop...
Dad poled the rowboat deep into "Turtle Cove" as it became known in our family. He loved it when his plan came together, as it did that morning.

With his best friend in the bow, and the fish biting, on a warm summer Saturday morning, he poled the rowboat into the turtle's lair... alas the same moving lily pads with the trail of bubbles. There it was... Haren stared into the water in utter disbelief.

Dad related the story at our dinner table that night... I remember his words and his expressions as if it were yesterday. He said he had never once seen his friend absolutely speechless, without so much as a peep... white knuckles gripping his fishing rod as he nervously peered into the water and shook to his core.

Tips To Help You Become a Better Fly Fisher

by Capt. Jim Barr on 10/08/15

Hook Set- Many fly anglers new to the salt environment utilize the same fish striking (hook set) they do when striking a trout taking a dry fly. This is an overhead, high rod tip motion with the butt of the rod somewhere between the angler's waist and shoulder. If you use this technique when striking a saltwater fish (Stripers, Bluefish, Bonito and False Albacore to name a few), you're going to miss a lot of fish. The proper technique in saltwater is to keep your rod tip low to the water during your retrieve, and even putting the tip under the water's surface is perfectly acceptable. The retrieve has the fly line loosely pinched between the the forefinger or middle finger (or both) of the rod-hand and the fly rod grip as the angler strips in line with the line-hand in a fashion that best imitates the swimming motion of the bait you are imitating. As the line is stripped over the fore-fingers of the rod hand the angler applies more pressure to the pinch point so that if the fish strikes the fly as the angler drops the line to pick it up again for the next strip- the line will stay tight helping to hook the fish. As the angler repeatedly strips line imitating the swimming motion of the bait, when the fish strikes the fly, the angler is in a position to "strip-strike" the fish keeping the rod tip low. The strip-strike has the angler pulling the line with force with the line-hand as he releases pressure at what was the pinch point on the rod-hand. The fly line will go tight immediately, and the rod will begin bouncing under the pressure and head-shaking action of the fish. Typically the hook is set in the fish's jaw, however it's perfectly acceptable to strip-strike the fish again with a good degree of force to "seat" the hook. The angler then raises the rod to play the fish.

Rod Positioning While Playing a Fish- After the angler has set the hook and is now playing the fish, care must be taken to land the fish. I see many anglers who engage in hand-to-hand combat, "fighting" the fish as if it's a 200 lb beast. It's unnecessary, and I typically coach new anglers engaged in this life and death struggle, to Relax. Yes, keep pressure on the fish, don't allow a slack line and when the fish wants to run, let it. If the fly reel drag is set properly it will do the work of applying pressure and slowing the fish's run. Typically there is no need (except for the macho photo shot) to rear-back and bend the fly rod in half as you play the fish. The drag and the spring action of the fly rod will do the lion's share of the work. When the fish slows and you can turn it, do so, but keep a tight line and if the fish makes a run back to the boat as Bonito and Albies typically do, reel like a mad person to maintain a tight line/contact with the fish. If the fish pulls to the right, apply pressure to the left, and vice-versa- this will tire the fish more quickly. It's also OK to the turn the fish from side to side to tire it. Remember, for toothy fish, each time you reverse direction the leader is being pulled across the fish's teeth. In the case of Bluefish particularly, a steel leader should prevent being cut off.
Never put your line hand on the rod blank above the fly rod grip to apply additional leverage. A fly rod is meant to flex deep into the handle and putting pressure on the fish with your hand positioned on the blank above the grip may very well cause the rod to break. Additionally, try not to bring the butt of the rod above your waist while fighting a heavy fish. A high rod position exerts significant pressure (bend) on the tip section of the fly rod which may result in breakage.

Go Barefoot in the Boat- If the weather/water is warm, going barefoot in the boat helps the angler to avoid stepping on their fly line. Footwear of any kind provides enough insulation to prevent you from being able to feel that you are stepping on your line. Many a cast has been ruined and a fish lost by a pinched line on deck.  Bare feet can also present a slipping hazard on a wet deck, so you be the judge. Alternatively use a stripping basket to hold your fly line. Also, remember to stretch your fly line, preferably before you board the boat, and if that's not possible or you forget, strip the fly line off the reel into the wake of the boat as you relocate. Water pressure applied to the fly line will stretch the line and remove any twists and coils. If you do not cast in a relatively straight plane, but have a circular or "oval" rod rotation, this will add twists to your line causing it to kink.

Fluorocarbon or Monofilament Leaders- I have a couple of simple rules on this subject.
1. First, I don't spend stupid money on monofilament and fluorocarbon tippet material. For fluorocarbon I buy "Vanish" manufactured by Berkley. For monofilament I buy "Berkley Trilene Big Game" in Clear,

I buy spools of this quality line in different tests. For Fluorcarbon, typically 17 and 20 lb. for $13 (250 yards), and for Big Game, typically spools in 10, 12, 15, 20, 25, 30 and 40 lb. test ($12 for 1/4 lb spools ). I tie my own tapered leaders thus the reason for buying multiple spools of different test. Ultraviolet rays combined with the effects of saltwater degrade these lines, so annually I throw out the leftover spools and buy fresh material.

 2. When it comes to what lines to use. My simple rule is if I am using a floating fly line with a floating fly pattern because I want the fly to be on the surface or just below the surface, my leader and tippet system is made entirely of monofilament (nylon) line. On the other hand, if I am fishing deeper waters, particularly around cover such as heavy seaweed, ledge and boulders, the first four feet of my leader is 40lb monofilament, but the balance of the leader system is Fluorocarbon material. Fluorocarbon is nearly invisible under water and it is made of a heavier density copolymer... so it sinks. It's valued for its refractive index which is similar to that of water, making it less visible to fish. Mono floats/Fluro sinks- easy to remember.

Keep Boat Noise to a Minimum- Some years ago I was snorkeling in the Virgin Islands. I was submerged maybe ten feet swimming about the coral reefs checking out the sights. From several hundred yards away I could clearly hear the high pitched noise of the propeller of an approaching boat. As the powerboat throttled down the pitch changed but it was still remarkably loud. I then heard a series of bangs, thumps and then the beat of music. I surfaced and a hundred yards from me was a powerboat playing Reggae music and the skipper was making those banging noises as he deployed a couple of swim ladders.
   On my boat I constantly remind my charter guests to try and keep noise to an absolute minimum. Don't let the hatches slam shut, don't throw their bags around or make noise putting down rods, no music, or excessively loud talking or "yee heeing". I know I must sound like a curmudgeon, but noise and vibration on a boat scares fish, particularly in skinny water environments. The fish and I don't want to hear the radio play-by-play of a Bruin's playoff hockey game on Ninigret Pond while fishing the worm hatch. True stories.

Fresh Water Bath for Flies- If you fish with fly patterns that are not tied on good quality stainless steel hooks, bring on-board a large plastic container (with a screw-on lid) of freshwater and when you change patterns drop the salty fly into the freshwater bath- and leave it there until the end of the trip. Those flies will last much longer if all salt deposits are washed off. You can also use the freshwater bath to dip your sun and street glasses in when they get doused with salt water.

Casting to the Unfavored Side

by Capt. Jim Barr on 09/10/15

Remember, when you are fishing from a boat, whether you are casting from the bow or from the stern or somewhere in between, in order to catch more fish, you are going to need to expand your casting skills so that you can present the fly to your "unfavored" side.  

(See Diagram at the foot of the blog entries to better understand the explanation) For the right arm caster you are probably good at casting to positions to the left ranging from 11 o'clock through 9 to the 5 o'clock position because your forward and backcasts are traveling over your right shoulder and the line and fly are not threatening injury to anyone else on the boat (barring heavy wind). If you attempt to cast to any of the clock points from 12 to 3 to 6 with your casts going over your right shoulder as noted above, your line and fly are going to cross the boat and endanger the captain or other occupants of the boat and/or hang up on the center console, rod rack or antenna. Conversely if you are a lefty on the bow- you're good to go from about the 1 o'clock position to 3 to 5 o'clock positions, as the line is crossing over your left shoulder and out of harm's way. However when you want to cast to the 12 to 9 to 5 o'clock positions- you run into the same problem, the fly line is traveling over the boat and others on-board are ducking and putting on their flak vests and safety glasses!

If you are the angler in the stern, the right handed caster is safe in casting to the 1 to 3 to maybe the 5 o'clock positions, and the lefty is good for 7 to 9 to 11 for the most part. The diagram below helps explain the scenario of right and left handed casters whose skills are limited and who can only cast effectively to their favored side. In each diagram the black lines represent the rod and forward cast direction and the lighter colored (faint) broken lines represent the rod and line in the backcast. Remember,  the fly line ALWAYS follows the path of the tip of the rod.  

You have to extrapolate a bit to visualize the path of the fly rod and line in overhead casts (or slightly canted overhead casts)  where the rod and line crosses near the caster's favored shoulder, to the light colored water areas. The light colored water (all non-red pie shaped water) represents the water these "One Dimensional Casters" are unable to reach without bringing the fly line over the boat into what I call the "danger zone".   

There are two fundamental casts you need to learn, and 45 minutes with a certified fly casting instructor (or a good video tape and casting book) can help to get you on the road to catching more fish and hooking less ears by converting you from a One Dimensional Caster to a Multi- Dimensional Caster. These are the "Off Shoulder" and "Backhand" casts (these are hot linked to You Tube videos illustrating these casting techniques). The Off Shoulder video is very short but it effectively illustrates this cast that when combined with a double-haul, creates additional line speed enabling the caster to increase their distance.

For good measure if you can also learn to roll cast to your unfavored side using the Single Handed Off-Shoulder Roll Cast- wow, you've nearly achieved fly casting nirvana!

Five Common Casting Problems

by Capt. Jim Barr on 09/10/15

1.      Why isn't the line straightening in front?

  • You may have forgotten to start every cast with the line fully extended on the water or ground, straight in front of you with no slack.
  • You may be pulling the rod too far back during your back cast. This will cast the line down toward the ground or water behind you and, consequently higher up on the next forward cast. To fix this, attempt to bring your rod to an abrupt stop nearly vertical (near your ear) during the back cast. Your next forward cast will have a much better chance of straightening out.
  • You may be pausing too long before you start your forward cast, which allows your back cast to fall near the ground or water. This sends your forward cast up high, and makes it fall in a heap. Open your stance and watch your back cast to understand the timing for bringing the rod forward. 
  • You may be accelerating to a stop with too much force, causing the line to bounce back after it has fully extended in the air.
  • You may be starting your forward cast with too much speed, which sends the line up high in the air, and then into another heap. Remember to start slowly, then smoothly accelerate to the hard stop. Pretend you are flicking paint off a brush on your forward and backwards stops. 

2.      You hear a noise like a snapping bullwhip during your forward cast.

This happens when you start your forward cast too soon, before the line in your back cast has had time to fully straighten. To correct this, pause a bit longer between the back cast and forward cast.


3.      The line keeps hitting you or the rod.

This usually happens because there is a crosswind blowing the line into you or the rod on either the forward or back cast. To fix this, rotate your body so the rod is on the downwind side of your body (off shoulder cast). Also, be sure to cast with the rod tilted slightly off to the side, away from vertical.


4.      You hear a "whooshing" noise during the back cast.

You are probably beginning the back cast with too much speed. Start slowly. Remember the rod goes fast only at the end of the cast, not at the beginning. You may also be moving the rod through a very wide arc. Keep the casting arc narrow by stopping your back cast just barely beyond vertical. The more line you have aerialized the wider your casting arc needs to be in order to maintain line speed and to prevent the line from dropping. 


5.      Your casting hand is getting tired.

You are working too hard. Take a break. Massage your casting hand with your line hand. This may be a good time to start living dangerously- try casting with your other hand.  

Make Sinking Fly Lines your Best Friend

by Capt. Jim Barr on 09/10/15

Many anglers don't like to fish with sinking lines, whether they are the full-sink variety (fading quickly in popularity), or the sinking-head variety (in a wide variety of sink rates). This is too bad because in most instances when we are fishing in salt water, the faster sinking lines are going to get the fly in front of more fish than your intermediate (slow sinking) line. Of course there are exceptions to this, such as when fishing the worm hatch when all the action is on the surface or when fish are feeding very high in the water column, or when you are fishing very shallow water and using a sinking line is going to have you hanging up frequently on structure or weed. Much of the time when we are fishing in saltwater we are not sight casting, rather we are prospecting for fish that we know or we suspect are in our waters. If you spend the lion's share of your time casting floating and intermediate sinking lines (1.5 inches/second), you become very comfortable with the pickup process, and the timing delays in your forward and backcasts that you need to employ to get the line to roll out properly in preparation for the next or actual cast.

When your guide suggests you switch to a rod with a sinking line, you immediately say to yourself..."aw crap!", and in short order your casting gets clunky and you remember how much you hate sinking lines. I think as saltwater anglers we gravitate toward the floating and intermediate sinking lines because they are easier to cast, and when we want to catch our fish on or near the surface. We want to see the water blow up on the take, or the big swirl as we turn the fish. The fact of the matter is, not unlike the iceberg theory where 80% of the iceberg is below the water line and never seen, ocean fishing for any of our local (New England) species is largely a sub-surface game. So, my recommendation is if you want to catch more fish, particularly from a boat- make the sinking line your friend. Practice casting it!

Picking up the Sinking Line

Picking up your floating and also your intermediate line in preparation for your next cast is generally a piece of cake. If you can roll cast first, then pick up the line using a single haul, the process of delivering your next cast becomes much easier. If you haul on the pickup to get the line moving more quickly, on your backstroke you can also slip line to quickly get more line airborne, then drift a bit at the end of your backcast before you come forward and shoot line (what the hell is this guy talking about!), then you're in fat city.

However, when we cast with any of the sinking lines, a few things have to change to get it right. For the sake of discussion let's start with the scenario where our line in already in the water at some depth and we are stripping in line getting ready to pick up for our next cast. If we are using one of the heavier grain sinking lines, considerable line may be at a deep and steep angle in the water column. You can be Charles Atlas yet still be unable to pick up the entire line that's beyond the tip of your fly rod in preparation for your backcast. So, the pickup for the backcast needs to be done in stages in order to get all or most of the fly line on top of the water's surface so you are positioned to execute the backcast. How we do this is pretty straight forward.

Employ the Roll Cast Pickup

Recall the Roll Cast you use when casting in fresh water when you have no room to backcast due to some type of natural obstruction behind you such as a river bank, bush, tree etc. If we slowly haul with our line hand as we raise the rod to a high position (so the reel is level with our ear), then execute the roll cast, this gets the line moving towards the surface. We may have to execute another roll cast if the line is still deep, perhaps even a third time. Each time we execute this maneuver we continue to reposition our sinking line closer to the waters surface. The last roll cast should have the line on top of the water's surface. As soon as the line lays out, you start your back cast with a Water Haul which is "fly cast speak" for simply allowing the surface tension of the water acting on the fly line that provides resistance against being picked up by the fly rod. As you initiate the backcast the rod loads (bends) beautifully, the water then finally gives up it's grip on the fly line and you are into your backcast. Slip a little line in that backcast (allowing the weight of the line to pull extra line through your line hand), then pinch it, drift the rod backwards slightly, then start your forward cast using another haul- then let'er fly. Whew!!

As you read this you're probably now thoroughly convinced you hate fly casting, particularly with a sinking line. I realize this may be difficult to visualize, but thirty minutes with a qualified fly casting instructor will enable you to use this casting technique, that can also be employed when casting your floating and intermediate lines. The roll cast used to reposition the fly line has many applications that can be utilized in virtually all your fly fishing presentations.

One and Multi-Dimensional Caster Diagram
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