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Fishing on the Fly

by Alex Haseltine

Captain Chris Newsome of Bay Fly Fishing LLC is not your everyday charter captain. Catch the action above!  (Video by Mike Kucera)

As dawn broke over the tree line on Chapel Creek, I gingerly sipped my coffee and tried to shake away the last cobwebs of sleep and the previous evening’s diversions from my still-fuzzy brain.

I watched, somewhat amazed, as Capt. Chris Newsome drew on a seemingly endless supply of energy and bounced between his fishing boat and the family dock from which we would launch that morning. His enthusiasm was contagious. As the morning made its deliberate and, in my case seldom seen, transition from the hazy golden glow of the pre-dawn hours to the dazzling brilliance of a clear summer morning, the longing for bed and blanket gave way to excitement and anticipation. It was fishing time.

Capt. Newsome of Bay Fly Fishing LLC is not your everyday charter captain. For starters, his boat, an Andros Boatworks Permit 22, is a far cry from the hulking and smoky charter boats so often seen on the Bay. Nimble and quiet when in the shallows, and powered by the full force of a 140hp, 4-stroke Suzuki in open water, the boat is versatile and allows anglers a broad variety of environments in which to seek their prey.

While the types of fish caught on a Bay fly fishing trip are similar to those sought on larger charters, the individual attention and light tackle used sets his operation apart.

“In this style of fishing, the main fish we catch is the striped bass, which we call rockfish locally, but there is a variety of other fish we will catch in the summer time,” said Newsome. “Speckled trout are a very popular, sought after shallow water fish. We will catch those. We will catch what we call puppy drum and we’ll also catch bluefish, flounder and grey trout. We can even catch croaker on a fly, which a lot of people are surprised by. I took a count one time, and I had caught about 23 different species in the Chesapeake Bay on a fly rod, so you never know what you are going to bring into the boat.”

“It’s a challenging sport,” Captain Newsome says of fly-fishing. You can’t go out there on your first day and be good at it.”

Newsome is also a biologist who studied at Old Dominion University and did a stint with the Army Corps of Engineers before abandoning the life of a bureaucrat to pursue his passion on the open water.

“When I was working for the Army Corps of Engineers I was doing wetland permitting, and people hated you,” he said.

At 31, Newsome has been taking anglers on guided trips around the Bay for nearly a decade, and his experience is evident within minutes of hitting the day’s first stop.

A typical day fishing with Newsome begins with “peanut bunker,” small menhaden fish used as bait.

“Typically what we’ll do at the start of the day is I’ll go out and cast net some little peanut bunker, a little bait fish, and we’ll put those in the live well and we’ll use those for what I call my ‘fish finders,’ ” said New-some.

“I’ll toss them out into a likely spot where the fish will be holding and they’ll swim around. If the fish are in the area, they’ll come up and splash on the surface while chasing the bait. It’s a pretty exciting style of fishing because you actually see these fish busting on the bait right in front of the boat.”

The technique proved effective almost immediately. Court Van Clief, a regular customer of Newsome’s, cast into the freshly deposited school of bunker and landed a hefty rockfish within seconds.

Clockwise from left, Captain Chris Newsome helps Court Van Clief reel in a rockfish. A 20-inch speckled trout bares its fangs after being landed on a fly rod on the Piankatank. Unlike most fly lures, which imitate insects, Newsome hand ties lures to resemble bait fish. Here Newsome shows a small menhaden fish, and a lure tied to resemble it.

While I was sworn to secrecy, upon penalty of a sure and painful death, as to the exact location of the spots we visited that morning, I can say we spent a good deal of time fishing along dock pilings on the Piankatank. As Van Clief fought the first fish of the day, Newsome’s shouts of encouragement were coupled with warnings not to allow the angry striped bass to flee his untimely demise by wrapping the line around the pilings.

“A lot of times, they go under the dock, and that’s all she wrote,” said Van Clief as he hauled in the 22-inch rock. “He hit like a freight train.”

“It beats bottom fishing for croaker, doesn’t it?” responded Newsome with a chuckle.

After landing a couple more striped bass, we went to another spot on the river to try our luck with a fly rod. Van Clief, who learned fly fishing techniques from Newsome on land before trying it on the water, began whipping a hand-tied fly through the air, at times frighteningly close to nearby faces, before landing it gracefully into a group of “fish finders.”

After a couple tries, he got a hit, and started the nerve-wracking process of bringing in a hefty saltwater fish on a seemingly fragile spinner rod.

Experience, instruction, practice and patience paid off, and a few minutes later a brilliantly shining and menacingly fanged 20-inch speckled trout was safely on the boat.

“Woohoo! I have got to holler about that one,” said Van Clief, clearly relieved that his prize catch of the day did not escape. “That is such a cool feeling, landing a speckled on a fly rod.”

Fly fishing has become something of a specialty for Newsome, who ties his own lures and has published articles on several of his own designs in various publications in recent years. In addition to the more active style, the challenge of landing a large fish makes for a more exciting experience.

“I grew up on the water here and always enjoyed the light tackle side of fishing, and fly fishing is kind of a progression from that,” said Newsome. “It’s a challenging sport. You can’t go out there on your first day and be good at it. It’s a lot like golf. It takes practice to be Tiger Woods. Going out there and catching that striped bass on a fly rod is a very different accomplishment than going out there and catching one while you’re trolling heavy lures.”

Whatever type of fishing you enjoy, a day with Bay Fly Fishing is sure to be a different experience from more conventional charters.

“The fishing I do is specialized compared to a lot of what you see around here in the bay, where people troll and bottom fish. What I specialize in is shallow water fishing, where we are casting lures and using light tackle,” said Newsome.

“It’s a different experience. It’s usually small groups, with one to three people on the boat. We are fishing along the shoreline and you get to see a lot of the scenery. It is an up close and personal type of fishing,” he said.

With all the talk in the media of a recession and the state of the national economy, it seemed logical to ask Newsome if he had seen business decline over the past year.

On the contrary, Newsome said, noting that when money is tight people tend to seek their adventures closer to home. At around $300 for a five-hour charter, a day with Newsome will cost you a lot less than an equally long trip on a bigger boat.

“Weather is more important than the economy. If the fishing is good, business is good,” he said.

After landing eight good-sized rockfish and a beauty of a speckled trout, we set off in search of a puppy drum, in hopes of landing the elusive “shallow water grand slam,” the holy grail trio of light tackle fish. At this point, though, the June sun was high overhead and we were a little worn out from nearly six hours of successful fishing. Tired, a little sunburned, and content with enough fish to feed a basketball team, we decided to head in, leaving the grand slam for another day. It was a glorious day on the water, and I departed with a bag of rockfish filets and a sense of accomplishment, because, heck, two out of three ain’t bad.

posted 07.01.2009

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