Gene Chague | Berkshire Woods and Waters: An enjoyable, yet unproductive fly fishing trip to the Ausable River

Ron Wojcik and Steve Caparizzo pose with a 23-pound King Salmon that Wojcik hooked on a fly rod out of the Salmon River in Pulaski, N.Y.

Recently, fishing buddy Paul Knauth of Hinsdale and I took a three-day fall flyfishing trip to the Ausable River — near Lake Placid — in Wilmington, N.Y. We planned to fish the traditional fall trout flies, such as the Isonychia (slate-gray drake), Serratella ignita (blue-winged olive), etc. We rented a two-person cabin at the Wilderness Inn in Wilmington.

We both brought our old Orvis Battenkill bamboo rods. Mine was built in 1967. Interestingly, a fellow had parked his old Ford Mustang along the road near where we were fishing one evening. It also was built in 1967. He was as proud and careful with his car as I was with my rod. I only planned to fish with that rod for a couple of hours and then switch back to a modern Orvis graphite because I was afraid of damaging that 53-year-old beauty. I did have a scare when I took a spill while walking the banks. It was a soft landing on land, not in the river, and neither I, nor the rod, sustained any damages. Right after that I cased the rod and put it away for the rest of the trip.

Paul's rod was made in 1974. Although he brought it with him on the trip, he opted not to fish these waters with it. Instead, he fished the Farmington River in Connecticut after we returned and caught a nice trout on it there. There is something special in fishing with handmade split bamboo rods. They are like finely-tuned machines and usually come with histories of who made them, when they were made and sometimes the previous owners of them. They are direct links to the fly fishermen of yesteryear.

I'll tell you right off the bat, the fishing was lousy. Excuses? Pick one:

The river was quite low as they had a drought of their own there. It was the first time in my 40-plus years fishing there that one could literally wade across the river at any location (except the Flume, and High Falls Gorge... you don't want to go near them).

There were hardly any aquatic insects to be found. Over that three-day period, we could count on one hand the number of insects we saw flying around. The rocks along the river, which are usually covered with the shucks of the insects that crawled onto them to hatch out, were bare. Obviously, without insects hatching, no fish were rising.

Both of the local fly shops were closed due to COVID-19, so we couldn't seek their advice as to which flies we should use.

Silt. We were surprised at how much silt had settled into the traditionally productive stretches where we have had good luck in the past, especially along River Road in North Elba. (Silt has a negative effect in the areas where most aquatic insects hatch out). We asked a local long-time resident who lived near the river if there was some kind of development upstream which caused the silt and she said that it all began when Hurricane Irene devastated the area nine years ago. It tore up the banks and exposed the sand beneath them. Now, each time it storms, there is more exposed silt washed into the river.

Pesticide spraying. She also told us that they were spraying this year near the river to control the blackflies and mosquitoes. Could the pesticides also be killing the aquatic insects?

Equipment failure. Paul's brand-new Hardy graphite fly rod broke in his hands while he was assembling it so he couldn't fish with his best rod. One felt sole on my waders became unglued and fell off, restricting where I could fish. The Ausable River is very slippery and dangerous unless your boots have felt bottoms.

We are lousy fishermen who should go back to fishing school nah!

The sky. Apparently, the smoke from the fires out west reached our area in the upper atmosphere. The sky had a milky color most of the time and the sunrises and sunsets were of an eerie orange-red color. (I bet no one ever used that excuse before).

Never-the-less we had an enjoyable trip. You know the old saying, "A bad day of fishing is better than a good day at work." Paul prepared our delicious meals at home and froze them, so there was no need to eat out. We couldn't spend money if we wanted to as the fly shops were closed due to the virus. Once again, we were cheap dates. The whole 3-day trip cost around $200 per person which included our cabin, meals, and gas.

Most of the time, it felt like we were fishing over fishless waters, although we did manage to find a couple of fish here and there.

On the last day, we fished a beautiful pool which stretched 70 or 80 feet and was probably over five-feet deep in some spots. Around noon, a large trout started to feed. We couldn't see any flies on which it fed, but like clockwork it would porpoise or do a belly flop every 15 minutes or so. It was no more than 20 feet away from us. Paul fished for that trout, so I fished downstream from the pool.

After 2 hours, I fished my way back to the pool and found Paul still after that trout. He would time his casts every 15 minutes or so to try to catch that fish when it made its scheduled rise. (It only rose in a slot of about five-feet wide and 10-feet long). Sometimes, the fish would make a scary splash only inches from his fly and one would naturally think that the fish bit his fly, but it didn't.

Paul sat down on the bank and let me try for it. Right after my fly hit the water, BANG! A big splash near where the fly landed, and I thought I hooked him. Nope, it rose right next to the fly. Later on, I fished the river above the pool while Paul stayed there determined to catch that large trout. From upstream, I could see it tormenting Paul, every 15 minutes or so.

The day was getting late and when I returned to the pool, Paul had had enough, having tried for that fish nearly five hours. Before leaving, I gave it one last shot as the fish was due to rise again. Twenty, twenty-five, thirty minutes passed but the fish didn't rise.

"Last cast!" I shouted to Paul and made a halfway decent cast right about where that fish should rise. And then... Nothing! The fish quit rising. It was either full from eating something all day or tired from harassing us and wanted us to go home. The fish won! We left the river befuddled and scratching our heads wondering what the fish was eating. Oh well, it was fun fishing for it and kept our interest at a time when there was no other fish or mayfly activity.

A week or so after Paul and I returned home, he sent me an Ausable River Association website that he discovered (www.ausableriver.org/blog/form-function-fish). On it was information which confirmed our theory about the siltation problem and their multi-year efforts to rectify it.

Maybe we should have fished the Salmon River in Pulaski, N.Y. for King Salmon, like Ron Wojcik of Windsor did. Those big fish travel up the river in the fall from Lake Ontario to spawn. This year it is very difficult for the fish to travel upriver because of a drought there also. Ron feels that the big fish are getting worn out and he is not sure how they are ever going to be able to spawn in the shallow creeks.

Ron was able to land the pictured 23-pound King Salmon on a fly rod. You probably know the fellow to his right, WTEN weatherman Steve Caporizzo. Ron also caught one bigger than that, almost 25 pounds. His buddy, Bob Gale, caught one weighing 33 pounds, 14 ounces while fishing the lake on Trout One Charters (captained by Jim Carpenter of Adams). It may very well be the largest salmon caught up there this year.

Questions/comments: Berkwoodsandwaters@roadrunner.com. Phone: 413-637-1818.