Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Maine: hiking, fishing, and feasting!

Recently my wife and I joined up with 9 other members of the Louisiana Hiking Club in a "Destination Hike" trip to Acadia National Park in Maine. LHC does about 3 of these a year, in addition to their local hikes. This one was actually our Fall hike, moved up from the usual September time frame so that a pair of students could join in.

The actual number of hiking days was 8, but it takes 3 days to drive there and back, so it was a 2-week journey. Our friend "Mooi" joined us for the grueling road trip, tempered by the fact that we were traveling across some very scenic country. We also added one extra day to our trip in order for me to take a guided fishing trip.

For Em and myself, it was our first time to this part of the country. Our introduction to Maine came with a surprise. At the welcome center, I saw a kiosk honoring famous residents of the state. One of those was a woman Olympic gold medalist. The instant I saw her face I thought to myself, "My god, that's Em!". Yes, she looked just like my wife about 10-15 years ago. Her maiden name is Benoit, my wife's grandmother was a Benoit. We may have to get ancestry.com involved, lol.



There are three aspects of our trip that left a lasting impression - the hiking, the food, and the fishing.

Hiking

We hiked 27 miles on this trip, but most of that was vertical. Mount Desert Island (pronounced "dessert") ranges from sea level to over 1,500 feet, but there are numerous mountains on the island over 1,000 feet that lie adjacent to coastal waters or near sea-level lakes. The trails range from easy (on the carriage roads) to strenous (hand crawling up or down large boulders). The toughest hikes were the most rewarding. The scenery is incredible and the range and beauty of plants amazing.


Em was our trail leader on nearly all the hikes. She scaled rocks like a mountain goat and was non-stop. We had to call for breaks because she wasn't, lol. Her other fault was getting us back a bit off from where we started.  In other words, about a half-mile or mile away from the parking lot.  At least for the first couple of hikes. It probably looked a bit strange for folks to see hikers walking along the side of a highway, lol. It earned her the nickname of "Fearless Leader" and the entire group the nickname of "Road Warriors".



Food

Our tough - and sometimes wayward - day hauls were well rewarded in the evening. Dinner time offered some of Maine's finest - fresh boiled lobsters, lobster rolls, clam or seafood chowder, scallops, clams. Most of our meals were enjoyed with locally produced Blueberry or Ginger Ale soda. Dessert was also highly anticipated - the specialty of every restaurant is blueberry pie ala mode or Whoopie Pies. Unless they offer popovers.




Okay, so let's delve more into the lobsters, whoppie pies and popovers. A common sight on Mount Desert are the "lobster pounds". These can be enclosed restaurants or outside food stands, named so because they serve boiled lobsters, where you choose your own and pay by the pound. The crustaceans are boiled with corn, and then served with either salad or cole slaw.  Now I'd eaten lobster before, but never this good! Dipping small pieces of the claws and tail into that dipping butter was a treat for the palate.  A lobster roll is somewhat like a lobster po-boy.   While they also have shrimp and crab, much of the seafood offerings are foreign to Louisianians - e.g., lobster, scallops, clams, haddock.  It's all good too, even if it could benefit from some Tony Chacheres seasoning.




Nick Curcione once observed about Louisianians and our food - "Eating here is a contact sport!".  In Maine, dessert is a contact sport!  In addition to blueberry pie, another favorite is the whoppie pie.  Whoppie pies have creamy interiors sandwiched by two cookie dough buns.  Listening to folks up there, you'd think it was the greatest thing ever made.  But I think it's diversionary... the real greatest treat of all time is popover.  A popover is a like a cream puff exterior but minus the creme... it's hollow interior and flaky outside. Served with butter or jam, it's positively addictive!  Unfortunately if you go to Mount Desert Island there's only 2 locations that now serve popovers - Jordan Pond House in ANP and the Common Good Kitchen in Southwest Harbor.  The latter benefits the homeless and besides making the better popovers, they offer great live music.


Fishing


We arrived in Bangor a day earlier than the rest of the group so that I could take a guided trip on the Penobscot River with Kevin McKay of Maine Fishing Adventures.  This connection goes back 20 years.  I was looking to transform my fly fishing "page" to a real website.  Kevin had setup a website called "Maine Fly Fishing" with the domain www.maineflyfish.com.  I basically got many ideas from his site for mine, thus "Louisiana Fly Fishing" and the domain www.laflyfish.com.




When I spoke to Kevin about this trip he only vaguely remembered me talking to him back then, but that was okay.  I was impressed that he had continued to grow and improve his site, and that he had transformed his love of the sport into a part time guiding gig.  He offered trips for large brook trout, landlocked salmon, and smallmouth.  When I inquired about fishing the lower Penobscot, he responded, "Yes, we catch lots of smallies up to 20 inches or larger, and quite a few large chain pickerel as well.".    WOW!   Two of my favorite fly rod fish in one river?  Sign me up!

The lower Penobscot is a clear, wide but shallow river (10 feet deep or less) with several channels, bars, tributaries, and filled with big boulders and logs.  The entire width is ideal habitat for smallmouth, and there's just enough current to require some techical casting (e.g, reach-mend).   By the time we started, the rain had ended and we didn't get another drop the rest of the day.  But on the downside, a strong north wind shortly came up after launching and by noon, there were swells and whitecaps.  Fortunately, by then we'd hit most of the main river spots and were able to shift to the side channels.

I'd brought my Redington Predator 6-weight short stick with a Galvan loaded with 7-weight line.  Several of the flies we used were wind-resistant and because of the wind, I was having to work the Predator fairly hard to get a 50-foot cast (although I caught several fish within 20 feet of the boat).  Kevin suggested I use his Scott Meridian 7-weight.  The Meridian was awarded Best New Fly Rod of Show at ICAST/IFTD last July.  I'd cast it at the show and was very impressed.  But this was my first time to actually fish it.  All I can say is that if I get the $895 to buy one, I certainly will.   It was an absolute joy to fish this rod!

As for the flies.  Because of conditions - cold, windy - it wasn't conducive to poppers.  I really had hoped to get some bronzebacks on top, gives me reason to make a return trip, lol.  The two best patterns were a woolybugger and a woolybugger-like fly that Kevin's son tied that had sili-legs for a tail.  Both had a chartreuse tail.  That's important because many times you don't feel a smallie hit a fly, or by the time you feel it, the fish has done it's taste test and gone bye-bye.  So in the clear waters you watch the tail of your fly and if it disappears, you do a strip-strike.  Sounds easy, but with a cold blustery wind my poor lizard blood wasn't adapting too well.  So it took a few missed smallies to get into my groove.

By the end of the day I'd brought 31 smallmouth into the boat.  The largest was 18 1/2, but most were in the 14-15 inch range.  I'd also landed about 2 dozen chain pickeral.  Kevin said that was the most any client had ever caught, deeming me the "Pickeral King"  (It's a title I was more than happy to accept, lol).   Truth is, I've had lots of practice since moving to the Alexandria area.  Two other species landed were yellow perch and chubs - both the largest I'd ever caught.  Things seem to grow bigger in Maine - smallies, perch, chubs, brookies, moose, popovers and those saltwater crawfish they call lobsters!










I also did some fishing on my own on Mount Desert.  There are over a dozen lakes and small ponds, mostly stocked with brook and brown trout, landlocked salmon.  Other species include chain pickeral, bass, and sunfish.  There are several streams with wild brookies.  I love how they nail dry flies and small popping bugs with abandon.




Sunday, February 21, 2016

TOFGA 2016


This past week I attended the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Assocation annual convention at the Hilton Lakefront in Rockwall, Texas.  As Em and I continue to deepen our roles in the local food and farmer markets initiative, it's been a desire to expand our involvement beyond just support to actually being contributors.  That means converting part of our acreage to a small farm.  I was interesting in learning what other small organic and/or sustainable farmers were doing to succeed.  TOFGA Conference seemed like a great opportunity. 



The conference provided a few surprises. First of all, there was great diversity among the attendees. Most were under 40, making me feel like the old man in the group.  Almost half were women, and probably a third were minorities (Asian, Hispanic, African-American).

I also came into this conference thinking that, with 4-5 acres under consideration, our potential farm might be very small potatoes (or other veggies or fruits).  In one of the first sessions of the first day, a young urban farmer chronicled his success story leasing and planting on a whopping 1.5 acres!  I got a kick when he stated that his friend Tim (who later gave a presentation) had a large farm - almost 6 acres.  As you can surmise, organic farmers make the most out of every square yard.   Another shock came in one session when the presenter asked the audience, "How many of you are actively farming?".  Only about half raised their hands.  Apparently many attendees are looking to lease a few acres to start their operation.

I came away from TOFGA with a wealth of information.  I'm already looking forward to 2017.

On a side note, the conference was held adjacent to The Harbor Rockwall, with several restaurants in the complex.  Several of us were looking for lunch at a reasonable price and we found it at Dodie's Cajun Diner.  I usually avoid Cajun food outside of south Louisiana, but this establishment was founded by a family from New Orleans.  And the proof is in the taste!  Their grilled shrimp monica and seafood gumbo was as good as home.



Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Wyoming in a different way

This September marked my 20th trip to the "Golden Ring", an area described by Gordon Eastman as encompassing 300 miles in any direction of West Yellowstone, Montana.  This area holds hundreds of rivers of all sizes, and the best fly angling for coldwater trout in North America.

But this trip was different. Fly fishing was not the prime directive; hiking was instead.  My wife, former president of the Louisiana Hiking Club, had organized a group camping trip to the Tetons.  We joined 22 other LHC members over the span of 12 days, for various hikes and other activities.

I was feeling okay about this trip until I went to see the movie "A Walk in the Woods".  What a terrific film!  Robert Redford and Nick Nolte had me laughing throughout.  Leave it to Redford to make movies that inspire us to do outdoor-type things.  First fly fishing, now hiking.  I was ready to backpack the AT, but first came Tetons. We'd see how that went.  

As for fishing... since I had agreed to serve as a hike leader, I knew my time on the water would be rare. Still, as the schedule came to fruition, it appeared that I'd have at least 3 days at the tail end of our trip to be on the water, with a half-day squeezed in on the first half.

My half-day turned out pretty decent, with a few 8-10 inch cuts taken on hoppers and stimulators.

As luck would have it, great weather the first week turned into nasty cold the second week. A big cold front also dumped 6 inches of rain on us, turning all the local streams to milk.  It also affected our hikes... we ended up doing a couple days of sightseeing instead  (not bad, actually, because I never get tired of visiting all the attractions in Yellowstone).

The cold weather also gave our club chefs a chance to cook up a chicken and andouille gumbo, and talk about good!  For several days after, we had a big black bear coming around the group campsite trying to find our where that delicious smell came from!  When folks ask if I lost any weight from hiking 30+ miles this trip, my response is "not much".  Let's just say we ate very well this trip thanks to John Garrett, our Camp Commander in charge of cooking.  Plus my insatiable apetite for buffalo burgers - morning, noon, and night!

On the third to last day of our trip, I did some fishing on Flat Creek, a couple small channels off the Snake River, and on the Hoback.  Overcast, cold and sleeting at times, I was very disappointed I'd missed out on the hopper run.  Small parachute BWOs did bring a few fish up, and I lost one really nice cutt on Flat Creek because I let the cold get to my head and wasn't paying attention.

On the second to last day, I hooked up with John and his BFF, Scout.  John had done so much on this trip and really wanted to get away and do some fly fishing.  He admitted to me that he needed help with a bunch of things, including casting.  Also, Scout had been tethered to her leash for the duration of her time in the Park, and John was hoping his canine companion could get some exercise.

We picked a spot on the Snake.  I gave him a few lessons and instructed him on setup and rigging for dry fly fishing. For most of the morning, I'd be guiding John rather than fishing myself.  By afternoon, he'd picked up enough where the confidence juices were flowing!  Especially after John landed finespotted 7 cutts on dry fly, with more than twice that many coming up to smack it.  I finally got my line wet for an hour, with a predictable spot turning up a bunch of rises with 8 brought to the bank.

We then had lunch in Alpine at Yankee Doodle Restaurant (another buffalo burger for me - lol).  Afterwards we fished the Greys River, one of my favorite streams in Wyoming.  It was a tough afternoon, but I think by now high pressure had settled in and that always makes things difficult.  We each had several rises, and I did manage to land 3 small cutts (7-8 inches).

The final day ended with the big fish I'd been hoping for.  A nice 17-inch Snake River Finespotted Cutthroat trout came from under a log and snapped my Royal Trude.  What a way to end a great trip!

As with any trip to this part of the country, the animal sightings and encounters complete the trip. Here's the final tally by myself:
- 4 bears, including one grizzly  (most bears I've seen on any trip!)
- 6 moose... or is that meese?
- dozens of buffalos
- a couple dozen elk  (they seemed to be short numbers this trip)
- 4 red foxes
- 1 bald eagle
- loads of  deer, ground squirrels, gray jays, chipmunks
- hundreds... and I mean hundreds, of antelope. They must be immigrant lopes.

I took over 500 photos, and still haven't checked them all yet.  In the meantime, here's a few that will give readers a feeling for the Golden Ring.