Gar-mageddon at the Ditch Pickle Classic

Ditch Pickle Opener

Ken Capsey with one of the skinny, slimy monsters that saved his team in the Ditch Pickle Classic on Vermont’s Lake Champlain.

photo by Drew Price

For a while I didn’t think that I was going to be able to fish in the Ditch Pickle Classic. I kept hitting up buddies to fish it with me, but everyone seemed to be out for that weekend or didn’t want to fish it. A last-minute cancellation left pike-nut Ken Capsey without a partner, too, so we joined forces to hit up Lake Champlain’s first and only fly-fishing bass tournament.

The Ditch Pickle Classic was started by Chris Lynch, Brian Price (no relation), Ken Capsey, and Brendan Hare, who routinely fly-fish Lake Champlain’s Missisquoi Bay and wanted an alternative angling competition for fly fishermen. Champlain, if you didn’t know it already, is considered one of the finest bass fisheries in the country. There are tons of huge and willing smallmouths and largemouths on the prowl, and these guys wanted to get fly anglers more excited about the opportunities in their own backyard. The inaugural event in 2010 kicked off with about 15 anglers and a really rainy day, but 2011 was definitely a much larger event. Thirty-five anglers on 16 teams hit the water in the morning, in everything from canoes to john boats to a genuine flats boat.

Ditch Pickle 1

Ken Capsey at the wheel of his john boat, which is tricked out for fly fishing and a far cry from Drew’s canoe.

photo by Drew Price

The weather for Saturday looked pretty promising—light winds and sunny—but not ideal. Ken had given me a heads-up on a spot to fish the night before, and I landed some great bass, including a 20+-inch fish. With that kind of action, I thought we were going to do really well. I was up at 4:30 getting last minute details together and Ken was up doing the same. We wanted to get to the check-in as quickly as possible so we could get to our launch site and head out onto the bay to some spots Ken had in mind. After checking in and trash-talking with friends, we headed out to our launch site. We could not start fishing until 7 a.m., but we could definitely get into position to do that before then!

Tough Morning
We headed off to some big patches of emergent growth that Ken knew really well. He had on a popper of his own design, and I was using a new topwater pattern I had tied using Fly Lipps. The fly looked great and definitely made some serious commotion. I had had good luck with it a week earlier. We worked around the weed beds for a while with no action to speak of. We saw one splash in the middle of the reeds, but that was all. Time for a new spot.

Ditch Pickle 2

Working the weeds with topwater flies produced very little in the morning.

photo by Drew Price

Being primarily a canoe guy, it was really cool to have to put my hat on backwards and fly across the lake with 40 horses propelling the boat. The casting platform Ken had put on his modified V-hull john boat was excellent, too. The new spot was much more promising. Right off the bat, Ken had a fish on! It dug into the weeds, wrapped around them, and was gone. I had a similar experience a few minutes later. Fishing heavy cover works, but you have to expect to lose fish from time to time because of the weeds.

I decided to switch to a yellow Fly Lipp concoction. That did the trick! My second cast put us on the board with a 12-inch fish worth 1 point. Not much, but we were in the game. I was punching more casts deep into the weeds and getting takes. The problem was that such long casts make it next to impossible to get a hook set in the weeds. The next problem was that, as I got the fly next to the boat, something with teeth slammed it and neatly clipped the fly off. So much for the yellow fly I liked so much. I started using a piece of 50-pound fluorocarbon as a bite tippet after that.

Ditch Pickle 3

After hours of casting, Drew finally landed a 12-inch bass that got the team on the board.

photo by Drew Price

We switched gears to chase smallies near some of the rocky cliffs on a different part of the bay. Tossing Clouser minnows with a Hydros 8-weight was a nice change of pace but didn’t produce any results. We worked and worked it. Back and forth between topwater and subsurface, working different cover types, trying anything we could think of to get into some fish. It just wasn’t happening, except for a 7-inch largemouth that Ken got, not even big enough to make it on the board. We ran into Brian Price and his team mate, and they were having similar issues. The bluebird skies were great to be out in, but it made for some truly sucky weather for bass fishing.

Exotic Solutions
Around noon, we regrouped with some lunch. We were frustrated, and we only had three hours left before the competition was over. We lamented that we could not fish the evening, which is typically the most productive time of day. After a quick strategy session, we decided to head back to the spot where I had got my fish earlier.

I saw something long dart off in front of us, and then I started seeing a lot of commotion in the backwaters of this area. We started in there with the trolling motor, but the weeds were just too much for it. Ken busted out a paddle and we headed into some shallower water. Then we started seeing them—longnose gar, big ones and lots of them. I knew that there were some gar up this way and with an “exotic species” category in the competition we thought, why not? I have caught plenty of gar and knew just what to do too. It didn’t take long before I had a willing fish smash one of my flies. I was careful not to set the hook. If you do, then you don’t get the fish—the flies are designed to catch in their teeth. (The flies do have a small hook built into them to be legal, however.) After landing that fish, a small one at 32 inches, Ken was all about it.

Ditch Pickle 4

A 44-inch gar took top prize in the Exotic Species category.

photo by Ken Capsey

Looking around and seeing all the gar that were around us, we both decided that we were done with bass for the day. There were huge numbers of these fish, and there were some real monsters out there, too. I was paddling and spotting for Ken, and fairly quickly he got into his first gar ever. A nice fish and Ken was hooked (even if the gar weren’t). We didn’t need no stinkin’ bass; we had Garmageddon!

I was up on the casting platform next. I spotted a hot fish working through the weeds. It was definitely on the prowl. I got my chartreuse-and-white fly in front of it and stripped it. The fish grabbed it, and I let the line go limp. Then all hell broke loose. I was very glad I had switched to a leader of 20-pound test and a 50-pound shock tippet. The thing dug into the weeds, jumped, rolled and generally went nuts. This was going to be interesting to have in the boat. . . .

Landing gar is a fairly simple affair, but it does require a piece of equipment not needed for most fish—gloves. Once the fish get quieted down and next to the boat I reach down and grab them by the beak. It is basically two long skinny pieces of bone with lots and lots of needle-sharp teeth in it. If you grab it without gloves you will end up getting cut up. I know because it happened to me earlier this year. I landed a large gar without gloves, and it ripped into my hand, leaving four teeth in me. The teeth slowly worked their way out over the next six weeks. Yeah, a fish that leaves a lasting impression indeed!

We got the brute into the boat okay. It was a big one, at 44 inches, but not the biggest I have caught. As soon as it was in the boat, things started getting crazy. It slashed its way out of my hands, tearing up a couple of fingers and my palm in the process. As it flopped on the floor, it smashed into Ken’s ankle and tore him up, too. I grabbed it again only to have it flip out of my hands and into the bottom of the boat near the engine. We got some pictures really fast after that and got the fish back into the water. Fortunately, gar can be out of the water for quite some time. Like the bowfin, another primitive denizen of Champlain, gar are adapted for low oxygen environments and can breathe surface air. That also helps getting the fly out of the fish’s mouth, too. When the fly is tangled up in the teeth, it can take a while to get it all sorted out.

Ditch Pickle 5

Tangling with gar is not for the squeamish: their needle-sharp teeth can tear up your hands or, as in Ken’s case, your ankles.

photo by Drew Price

I took another round and got one quickly, then put Ken back onto another fish. That one squirmed its way out of his hands while I was taking a picture. Gar are extremely slimy, and the slime that protects them is one of the most foul-smelling things known to man. It is absolutely horrid, especially if it sits in the sun for long. Guess what? We were in the sun. But we had to get to the check in. I suspect that both of us would have been more than happy to have stayed on all those fish.

The final tally took place at the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge headquarters, where we were greeted by fellow anglers and staff from the Fish and Wildlife Service and members of the Friends of the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge. As the results were being tabulated and the pictures sorted out, we enjoyed a great barbeque. We learned that were not the only ones who had a tough day. Most guys were talking about the tough conditions.

The big winner of the day was Brian Lang, who got the top score, the Big Pickle pool ($10 each to see who would get the biggest bass), and was part of the winning team “the Lucky Bassturds,” along with teammate Shreve Soule. He went home with a whole lot of schwag and pocketed over $300 for the Big Pickle. The first three spots in each category got some goodies, too. I managed to win the Exotic Species category with my big gar. I will definitely be hitting the DPC again next year. The organizers are expecting a 100% return of anglers from this year and are hoping for more to show up. The event has a good head of steam and it should get bigger and better from here!

Drew Price is a guide who lives in northern Vermont. He specializes in trout, pike, and other species, including bowfin and fall fish.

 

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