Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Some thoughts and musings on soft or ‘slow’ fly rods





Author’s note: The LP referred to in this piece is the 33 rpm Long Play record. Audiophiles have re-discovered that although technology and innovation gave us easier, more durable, and more compact systems of recording sound, the LP remains unbeaten for its fidelity. I thought this made an apt and easy analogy to the soft rod.


I have been pondering on the subject of soft or slower-action fly rods lately.
This musing was accelerated when Orvis came out with their new Superfine Glass fly rod. A fine crisp smooth-casting rod for small streams, I show it and demonstrate it often to anglers. I guess I expected a sort of ‘Eureka’ reaction of revelation and epiphany. Instead, most people wore a sort of quizzical expression as they felt the action of the rod.
One angler was holding and wiggling the rod like an angry cat attached to a buggy whip. One guy almost hit the ground with the rod tip, and another guy whacked it back and forth like it was a broomstick, and he was attempting to harass a piƱata, or swat an angry wasp nest. I had to keep grabbing the rod from people’s hands and telling them “Whoa, slow it down…. Take it easy slugger, let the rod do the work.”

Clearly something was amiss here. The action of a fine soft fly rod was forgotten. Anglers were acting like they had never sampled something like this before, and were puzzled at the taste. These rods have been around for years though. Most fiberglass rods, many cane, and a majority of early graphite rods possessed a smooth and softer action. How come people were so completely lost and puzzled when holding a new and improved version of something that had been a staple of angling for a hundred years?
Then, doing what I am apt to do, I sat and thought deeply about it until the pieces started to come together.

First, what defines a slow or soft rod, vs. a fast rod?

 Ask ten people and one will get twenty dissimilar and conflicting ways of trying to describe the bending properties of a fly rod. I define Slow and Fast as properties of the recovery rate of a rod. Take a rod, and with a stiff hand, make it bend as in a cast. The quickness that the rod dampens and does not continue to wiggle back and forth in action and reaction, but stops is a gauge of rod speed. Relative flexibility is a measure of rod bend. Does it bend into the handle, bend only at the tip? Stiff rods bend at the tip, softer rods bend all the way into the butt. A soft rod may have a fast recovery rate, but be soft and full-flexing. A rod can also be stiff and slow at the same time. The discussion and physics of this, and resulting endless differences of opinion, and methods of description could take up whole libraries and the rest of the reader’s lives, so let’s for the sake of brevity let this very abbreviated description stand for us.

Soft rods load deeper into the blank than do stiff rods, and a caster has to slow down when casting them. The preverbal metronome has to be set a bit longer. As the bend in the rod is deeper, these rods tend to be very good at casting short to moderate distances, and they are easier on light tippet. They telegraph the pendulum and lever action and feeling of casting a fly rod right into the hand of the angler, as well as telling the caster when to push the rod foreword through this same easily discerned communication to the hand and arm. Soft rods are better at roll-casting as well. They are ideal fish playing tools. They do most of the work in casting and playing the fish. They also excel at throwing large flies. The rod is a spring, and the more flexible a spring is, the easier it is to make it work or load it. Less effort.
Stiffer rods are better long distance tools. They achieve a higher line speed and have better lifting power than do softer rods.

What does this mean?

It means that like a gun, no two rods are exactly alike, and like hunting, the situation and the game decides the tool or weapon. I would not hunt Lions with a .22 like I would not use a soft rod to try to try to cast to tarpon and get a solid hook set. Likewise, I would not use an elephant gun to hunt rabbits like I would not utilize a super-stiff cannon of a rod to ply an intimate stream.
There is a place for a soft rod as well as a stiff rod in the quiver of the fly angler..
Except…. Except that for the most part soft rods in the past twenty years have been relegated to the underground or the closet. With the notable exception of some limited rod offerings here and there, a tool has been taken away from the mainstream market.

Why?

Nobody wants a slow car, or a soft anything. In the time of faster is better, and more power equals ‘Good’, marketing seized the horse by the reigns and took us all in the direction they wanted. We were sold “Innovation and New is good, and what you have now is old and outmoded or outdated.” We were sold a fast car, a more powerful tool, an instant microwave oven, and our songs on digital devices, and most everyone never stopped to wonder why, or what may have been eclipsed? We just got on the innovation express and went rocketing into a better future. Much of that is O.K, and even progressive. I want options, but this train only went non-stop and one way.

O.K…..Companies have to sell new stuff. Thus marketing not only is targeted to new anglers taking up the sport, but also to current anglers that already have their equipment. As this sport market in fly-fishing is quite limited, and competition for the buying dollar is fierce, people have to be made to believe that their old rod will no longer perform right, and that this new and better rod will help them catch more fish. With each successive year, rods got lighter and faster, until some rods could only be properly cast by experts using a double-haul and holding 40 feet of line in the air. Somewhere in here, with the new lightness and faster action enabled by new resins and graphite, and the relentless message of marketing, something got lost..

In a world where everyone drives a formula one racing car to work, there has to be a place for a station wagon. Proving this is as easy as a perusal of fly fishing magazines, where anglers of years past seem to have cast rods considered laughingly heavy by today’s standards, and managed to cast all day without their arms falling off. They also seem to have landed huge fish on those soft rods. Maybe they were just blissfully ignorant or just lucky in those smiling black and white pictures, or perhaps they just went fishing with what equipment they had, and knew enough to make it work properly. They may have spent more time fishing then sitting on internet chat rooms and fly fishing forums trying to find the magic bean through an endless cycle of rods bought new and soon sold in a quest for some ideal more in tune with advertising and life-style than reality.

Where was I…?

Oh yea. So, the industry keeps people buying faster and stiffer rods each couple of years. The Fenwick HMG becomes too slow, and the Sage RPL becomes the rage. The older Orvis rods go in the closet in favor of the T3, and then the RPL is no good anymore and letters and numbers start replacing names more and more until anglers like myself become kind of confused and depressed, and on and on it goes. Rods are 10% lighter, 10% stronger, and 900% better. Even veteran anglers start to doubt their favorite rod and sip the marketing Kool-Aid wondering what they are missing.

As this is happening, there develops a sort of reactionary element of underground anglers that may be just stubborn, but also may be wise enough to understand the different fly rod actions and wish for some alternative to the race to the weightless rod that won’t bend at all. They lurk in internet forums and casting clubs, and gather wherever others are who are growing to treasure the old softer rods of graphite, glass, and cane, such as the Orvis Superfine. You have to look closely to find them though, as they don’t tend to be loud, and often blend in with the background.

To those of us that belong to this fraternity, what was old and discarded has now become new and desired again. Like the LP record, soft rods were eclipsed by ‘New’ and ‘Better’ technology, but in the eyes of connoisseurs remain the finest in feel. Now at auctions and rummage sales we can be spotted, wearing our best (or worst) fishing hat, rooting around in garages and dark corners for treasures, sharing guilty glances with those looking through stacks of old records looking for a rare LP recording of Reiner conducting Scheherazade, or at least a decent copy of Miles Davis.

Soft rods carry quite a few myths. Most say they are all slow. This is not true. Part of the problem came about in the years of crappy production cane and glass rods flooding the market. Most of these were indeed slow, and the angler might want to take a streamside nap after making the cast to allow his or her rod to stop wobbling and damping. Many say they are not distance tools, and they are both right and wrong. Where the needed distance is over 50 to 60 feet consistently, I would prefer a stiffer rod, but in seriously reality, most casts outside of the salt are less than 40 feet. A softer rod performs fine here.

There are those that state that a softer rod is inherently a less accurate rod than a stiff rod. Really? The two most accurate rods I own are a custom built cane and an Orvis superfine. Hmmmm.
Softer rods are also more sympathetic to the caster. They are easier to load and cast. Softer is really a relative term here, as a progressive taper rod will be softer than a tip-flexing rod, but faster than a full flex taper. However, I have had multiple students show up for private casting classes sporting the newest super fast and stiff rod, and were unable to cast it at all. Then I handed them a more progressive taper and softer rod and ‘Hey Presto!’, they could cast. That stiff rod now became a very expensive dust gatherer.

Getting back to the beginning again, after watching angler’s reaction to the excellent new Orvis Superfine Glass, something else became apparent to me: Anglers are not feeling the rod load. They are not letting the rod do the work and have to a certain extent lost the ‘feel’ of casting and the action of a fly rod. They are used to one thing, and that is whip the stiff broomstick forward and the line goes out. They have commented “I don’t like soft rods. I hate flexible rods, etc. etc”. A lot of time this can be fear of change and the unfamiliar rather than preference.

The challenge to a good fly caster is to pick up any rod and feel its signature power and timing and adapt the stroke to fit the rod, fast or slow, soft or stiff. A good caster can take a soft rod and make it purr like a racecar by using a smooth acceleration to a stop, avoiding jarring and sharp movements, and utilizing the off hand to haul the line and increase line speed without increasing rod load. Damping the recovery can be increased even further by how the hand grips the rod.

But even marketing runs out of room at some point, or they catch a whiff and scent of what is being discussed in the dark cellars of the underground. Today it is getting increasingly difficult to come up with a way to make rods stiffer and even lighter, and equally difficult to provide a reason for the angling consumer to purchase them. One can see this as rod manufacturers keep introducing rods of different goofy colors with strange reel seats, space-age looks, and wild graphics. In the car business the saying goes that you can tell when sales have stagnated because more and more balloons and ribbons and banners get put out. I think this is the same thing in fly-fishing. One way to capture a new (old) market is to go retro, and those rod companies are paying attention to the underground, and have started to offer a new line of rods that combine the lightness new technology offers, with the feel and bend that the older fly rods had.

My eyes got opened by an old Orvis All-rounder. My cannon of a six weight that I used for bass on smaller river can deliver a tight loop at 60 feet plus and hit a dime, but when used to fish in an area on my local river known as the ‘Braids,’ couldn’t load at the short and obstructed casting that was needed. I cast Joe’s All-Rounder and a light-bulb went on. After I obtained one of my own and fished with it for a couple of months, I found that I could adapt my casting to any needed distance with this rod, and it roll-cast and delivered big flies like no other rod I ever cast. I then broke out other softer rods and had the same experience. Curiosity can pay off if one closes one’s eyes to all the hype out there and just feels the rod load. Feel it bend: bend like a fly-rod again.

Now the generation of anglers that have never tasted this wine need to have the courage to question things, and pick up a rod like the Orvis Superfine Touch or Superfine Glass, and see what has been hidden behind the yellow curtain all these years.

Soft rods are coming back, and like the LP, the sound will be like nothing else since.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Home waters




We all know them, they may be big and brawling, small and intimate, sedately flowing, alive with riffles, quiet or noisy; they are our home waters. We have grown with them though the years like a constant companion. They shaped us. We know their moods, their personality, and their quirks. They have made us laugh and cry. They may not be the named streams of fame, or even have a name for that matter. In the words of wisdom of my friend Joe, “They are what they are…” Above all, they feel like an old comfortable pair of well-worn shoes or an old hunting dog, or even an old friend and lover.

 Like that old dog that always knows what you will do, or a favorite book re-read, you and the river move at the same symbiotic pace. It may not have always been like this though. During your early courting days you may have hurried her, stepped on her, transgressed on her feelings a hundred different ways, but you always come back, and the river is always there, looking the same, but yet a bit different, and she always forgives you and beckons to you.

For the past ten years I have been fishing a little trout stream an hours drive from home. It originates in the hills of the Kettle Morraine, Southeast Wisconsin’s unique spectacular glacially sculpted landscape. Although I often think that I know it, it always surprises me with new discoveries, and although I have little impact on the stream, it has had a great impact in shaping me; it has crafted my skill and is a piece of me.

It is a fickle and difficult little brook. I often mention it to other anglers with a touch of possessive hesitance. So many times they come back from fishing her and are disappointed to have only hooked one fish, or even none at all. In her many changes and moods the waters may deliver a spectacular fishing experience, and the next minute, send you packing while scratching your head in wonder. “Where did all the fish go?” It a brown trout river after all, and brown trout do have a rather spooky reputation, especially when harassed by a legion of middle-aged fools with long poles and strange concoctions of fur and feather.

The river is best fished with no expectations whatsoever, except to commune with her beauty for a moment in time. It may take a lifetime to get to know her.

I like it this way. The creek is ‘middlin’ kind of water: not the best, not something you would travel a hundred miles to experience, but your home. You know it, and it hides wild trout.

Every fly angler has a piece of water like this. Somewhere where we go to walk in our own footprints and live in our own thoughts. Adventure or non-adventure come together. No pressure, no storied names of runs, just some wild trout and the hope of a bright connection.

In such a comfortable relationship, sometimes you can answer the questions before they are asked, and sometimes you have to just walk away. The river will still be there tomorrow, and a new approach or a renewal may work wonders, like a change of pace. As we get to know the river, we develop patterns, both good and bad. We leave our preverbal towels laying around, and eat our eggs the same way every morning.

Still, there are discoveries to be made, and when you think you know it all and are content to start naming the trout, you watch a kid with a cheap spinning rod outfish you ten to one precisely because he doesn’t know what you know. Perhaps a fresh approach again, or a mind less clouded with dogma and familiarity might be order. Every work of art is an approach, both by the artist (the stream) and the viewer, reader or listener as interpreter. Listen to the same interpretation all the time, and we may miss the nuances and possibilities.

We never talk about this creek the same way we would other waters. Our tales might be vague and respectful and lacking in bravado and detail. “How did you do” might be answered by a slow scratching of the forehead, and a mystic “Oh, I got a few,…. Beautiful evening isn’t it?” True lovers don’t tell tales of the bedroom.

My home river is not the place I would go to prove a point, but instead to slowly fish an old favorite cane rod.

She can be moody. Like an old companion, I know the brook’s mood swings. That little pool that came alive one evening and danced like a string quartet of trout slurping hendricksons has never been the same. It seems that there are no trout in there. Your friend looks at you as you describe the ten fish you caught back to back last week, and rolls his or her eyes as if to call you a grand teller of fish-tails, but you know what lives there, even if since then, the pool fishes like someone dumped bleach in it. On a hot July day, don’t press her; let her lay peacefully napping until the coolness of evening breezes awake her slumbers, and instead of a rebuke, she may turn and gently kiss you on the cheek.

 
One late spring day my friend Joe and I set about to find the actual headwater spring that feeds the creek. We went slogging through the hillsides, getting marled and stuck in quicksand and bog, and scrambled over seemingly a thousand fallen trees with a million branches, all the time imagining a single big spring, and when after miles and hours, we were surrounded by a morass of spring seeps, realized that we were standing in the headwaters. Sometimes you have to just open your eyes by sitting down and staring off into space to realize that your search is over, and whatever it was you were looking for, you have found it by sitting on it by accident.

 
The stream begins to come into its own when several tiny spring seeps coming out of the giant hill you can see twenty miles off flow together to form a trickle no more than two feet wide. Here undercuts and root balls, fallen logs, and weeds hide trout that only a well disciplined stealthy approach and a bow and arrow cast can cover. Creep up to a bush at a crouch and peek over the grass. Plan the shot and the path to get there hiding yourself all the way. Move slowly and do everything right, and you might hook or spook a single fish. Might. This is like fishing at the beginning of time. It is an infant river here, and like the smell of a newborn baby, the water has a natural purity. It tastes like the ancient glacier, purified by flowing over eons of gravel and rock. It is refreshingly cold, and its trickling reflections of light are like the blinking eyes of something that has been underground in the womb of the earth and has just arrived surprised at the surface brightness.

 
I tend to disappear into this upper stretch, deaf, blind and hidden to the mundane world, or even other anglers. My friend Gordy, who guides the river once spotted my car on this upper confluence and went searching for me, shouting all the way, but never finding me. I was oblivious. To this day, he reminds me about this story, and swears I was hiding somewhere. Instead, I was doing my best heron imitation, mesmerized by a tiny flashing tail of a trout appearing now and again under a sunken log. I never heard him either.

 
There are times in May, as the migration of song-birds moves slowly though the area woods and streams, that I find myself distracted by the flitting of a redstart, the flash of a warbler, the song of the oriole, or the majestic stature of a indigo bunting. I neglect the fishing to spot woodpeckers and spy on green herons and bitterns. The creek has quite a few swampy areas, which attract wild turkeys that have a habit of holding their cover and then madly flushing when you are twenty feet away, scaring the skin off of you and interrupting the little counterpoint you were trying to achieve with a blue winged olive dry fly. The same pair of sandhill cranes nest in a marsh adjacent to the river each spring and raise voices as well as their young. I always say “Hi” to them, and although they fly away in alarm, they circle in a wide arc, and come back to the nest, their camouflaged heads with that tell-tail red spot peeking above the cattails.


A lot of discoveries have happened and memories have been made in and along the banks of this river: the first 14” wild brown I ever took with a size 20 Blue Winged Olive mayfly dry-fly with 6X and a fifty foot cast, learning how to fish a nymph dropper behind the dry for the first time, finding a secluded shallow portion of the river deep in the woods, and due to getting off the beaten path, having a ball with ten inch wild trout and a Catskill March Brown, and just sitting on the bank of the river in a sudden torrential downpour letting the water cascade off the hood of my jacket and the tips of my fingers as I meditated on life and nature and fishing.


I have met anglers on the stream that became life-long friends, I have fished it on an opening day in March that saw two foot deep snow on the banks and a 23 degree air temperature. I have fished in August when I have taken a midday nap sitting in the cool water to get out of the heat, and felt a little bit like a trout myself. I have fished it when the wind howled, when the mosquitoes were so bad, that I finally fled back to the car. I have knocked deer flies into the river that swarmed around my hat and tried to bite through, and watched as a trout came up out of nowhere and ate them, but not my flies. I have cast to a distant clump of overhanging grass, and only by accident spotted the biggest trout on the pool lying at my feet, ignoring my feeble attempts, and looking for his own supper. I have fished the midge emerger hatch and become profoundly frustrated.

Ah, the bloody midges. The primary food sources in the river are small size 30 olive midges. One can see them as a sort of moving fog over the riffles in spring and summer. They are maddening to imitate and fish. One year, as hatches intermingled in a favorite stretch of literally perfect dry-fly water, I caught numerous fish on small dry flies. In the ensuing years the trout have either disappeared, or become far more wary. The little rings of fish sipping emergers are there, but the fish seem to be phantoms. They won’t touch a dry, and shy from a nymph. They are looking for an emergent size 30 marzipan bon-bon with a crooked wing or something like that. Whatever they are eating, it sure must taste good to them. This year, if time permits, I am going to figure it out. I already have some size 22 sparse olive midge emergers ready. These are different from the ones that didn’t work the last time out or the month before, and also different from the ones that didn’t work last year. When I finally re-master this little pool, it will feel like an accomplishment.


It was here on this creek that, by necessity, I learned to place my fly with accuracy. The whole river is at its largest the width of a sidewalk, and is overgrown with roses, raspberries, nettles, dogwood, alders, buckthorn, and wildflowers. A glance rearward to ensure the path and gauge the distance limitations of the backcast are the beginnings of every cast, as is the necessity of reaching to place the fly in one path, and the leader in another. Long drifts are not necessary, and if the fly is to be eaten, it usually dies a few seconds after hitting the water. Usually, it goes ignored.


Of course, everything changes, even old marriages. The local Trout Unlimited chapter that has been responsible for the restoration of the river is going to undertake a massive de-brushing and cutting program on the river this year. I am kind of mixed on this.

On one hand, I think we should adapt ourselves to the stream more than make the stream try to adapt itself to our whims, but then again, that may just be a wishful philosophical fart since the hypocrisy lies in the fact that without the restoration that has happened, there would be no trout and the stream would be a muddy, silted mess, but one can still grumble that changes in the marriage are not to our liking.

Nature and moving water have a way of making man’s best efforts at control a temporary thing at best, and the alders will grow back and in a few years, the whole process will begin again. The cutting might be a good thing though, as the stream does get a bit choked in summer, but then that is mostly the canary grass, which reaches heights of eight feet and sways over the water. Nobody can control the grasses.

 I guess I just fear that the stream may end up resembling a meandering put-put golf course, complete with fiberglass statues of Isaac Walton with waving arms as obstacles, and a little marking card to record your casts. Perhaps ‘Par’ might rather refer to juvenile striped markings on trout, and not the stream course itself. But, then, we all fear change, and over-react. I am sure it will be fine, and if, for a time, it looks like a giant weed-whacker got drunk and went on a rampage, there are always the more secluded and wooded areas where the trout are smaller, but the footprints encountered are my own.


That’s the neat thing about knowing a little river on this intimate basis; one can always find open water. I might not be able to choose my access, but I can drive the couple of miles and poke about finding where people are, and slip in between them.


All these memories and experiences, good and bad, including falling in the water, breaking your rod, losing flies in the bushes, getting poison ivy, and spotting and catching the wild brookie living in a two-inch back eddy next to a rock make us the ‘Old-Farts’ of the river. I guess I wear that on my sleeve and am proud of it. Putting in one’s time has rewards, especially in the time needed to get to know a river with such intimacy that one can refer to it as ‘Home.’ Being an ‘Old Fart’ also has other advantages. Emerging from bushes like a phantom covered in mud, crawling through a culvert to get out of the river when lost in the dark, and sleeping in the cemetery do kind of give one a reputation for eccentric behavior, and as rumors lead to exaggerated tales of that crazy guy fishing dry flies he made from his own nose hair and such, people can tend to leave you alone until you want their company, which to an angler, can often be a good thing.

I have to leave it at that, especially after the nose hair comment, and go fish this stream in my mind for a spell. Outside it is 11 below zero.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Faith and the Dry Fly




Faith of a different kind, of course….

An allusion to acapella simplicity. The voice of only one instrument; a solo for fur, feather and trout.

One of the most joyful and contemplative angling I have done is fishing the dry fly consistently and purposely, in both an insect hatch and lack of hatch. Obviously, when an insect hatch occurs, one must try to “Match the hatch.” However, in a situation where no hatch is apparent, fishing a dry is often thought to be nothing but formalism, and perhaps an affectation. I beg to differ.


Far from dry-fly purity, this pursuit departs entirely from Halford and the British tradition of casting only to a rising fish. Instead, one is casting to the water, to the structure of a riffle, a clump of grass overhanging the bank, an underwater boulder, or an undercut. I would be thrown off the Avon or the Test for doing this. “Heresy!”

So why the dry fly? And… why fish it when diminished returns in numbers of trout caught may result?

Let’s spend a few moments on the stream together in our imagination…

Seeing a hatch of mayflies, caddis, or other insects and the resulting rise of feeding trout fills in one very large piece of the eternal puzzle of trout and water; ie: where the fish are and why. They are feeding, and have taken up stations on the pool or run with preference to pecking order, size of the trout, cover, ease of feeding, shyness, shadows, or several of dozens of other variables that anglers have spent thousands of pages debating, investigating, and describing. This problem alone solved, the angler can go on to the problem of how to present a fly to the fish. On low-gradient chalk streams, this is the preferred method. Spot the fish, work out the cast, present the fly, try not to put the fish down, etc. An angler by choice and by circumstance may spend hours just working one little spot. The fish are spooky in the gin-clear water and are hiding under weeds. Walking and casting are about the worst things one can do. Prospecting with the dry fly would be like casting a big bobber into a quiet pool.

 Not all spring creeks or small trout streams have this classic English structure, many have more in-stream habitat cover, undercut banks, improvements, and gradient; enough differences to allow us to play a little game with the dry fly called “I wonder where the fish are?” As long as a simple cast and presentation will not either catch the quarry or put down the pool, the game can be very enlightening.

 If we don’t know where the fish are in a pool, we must use our best guess. That alone requires thought, reflection, a sixth sense only acquired by countless hours doing just that: sitting and watching, smelling and listening, seeing things out of the corner of our vision that may not have been there at all, or may be the key to unlock the whole puzzle.

 In layman’s terms, this is called reading water, and is arguably the greatest skill a moving water angler can ever acquire. A literate water-reader seems to ‘know’ where the trout may be, and more often than not, seems to be right. A fish-whisperer or a water wizard… Perhaps. More likely a person who put in their time on the water fishing the edges dry.

The edges. Yes. The edges of the bank, the edges of current seams, and the edges of thought. Somewhere in those edges are the answers.

 So how does this happen? With a little act of faith.

 Put on a dry fly and keep it on no matter what happens. Change the pattern if necessary, but make certain it is a dry. Now go fishing…

 “Yea, but where do I start? There is no hatch!!??”

 Exactly. There are no cliff’s notes. No ready canned answer to the riddles of Yeat’s poetry. We have to start somewhere and interpret what we experience ourselves. Every bend and riffle will be a different poem, and we must reflect that. In other words, we must become a direct reverse reflection to and of the stream and structure and conditions, adapting and changing the view like one would see in viewing the stream through a twisting pocket mirror. Every angler will reflect the stream differently, and come up with a slightly different approach or answer. This is why no Cliff notes is a good thing. By coming up with our own vision, finding our own voice, solution, interpretation, the answers lie outside the over-established convention. Yeats will never be the same to any two readers, and neither will any reflection and adaptation of any two anglers be the same.

I like this. I like fishing this way. It is the most exquisite form of curiosity and surprise, and putting a fly in a place I think a fish will be without actually seeing the fish, and catching it on a dry has a great satisfaction to it.

 It is also the best way to learn to read the water. Why was the fish there if it was directly feeding? What changes in the depth, cover, surface structure, shadows, etc. gave that fish the perfect place to sit? Why wasn’t it hiding like the other fish? What about the water speed changes led the fish to pick the closer or further of two identical clumps of overhanging grass to hide under? Would that fish be back there tomorrow, or next week? How about when the water is colored up? How about in an actual hatch? When the water is warmer, cooler? Would it? Only one way to find out; have confidence and fish the edges with a dry. The discoveries are worth the efforts.

 This kind of fishing can also be restraining. It requires a sort of restraint and commitment, and a carefree soul. One has to get used to going fishing with no expectations. The fishing could be fast or slow, but sticking to the dry and prospecting the water while moving from pool to pool takes courage. This is not to denigrate those that choose to fish the nymph, or anglers who will do whatever it takes to fool a fish; those are other very apt learning paths and must be pursued as well. Indeed, it might be a neat description to state that the angler who will figure out how to take a single fish while using a dry, nymph or streamer is turning the combination again and again until the safe opens and the puzzle is solved, while the prospecting dry fly angler is looking for the key in different although equally methodical manner, like looking for fingerprints and foot impressions and a disturbed stone to find the key hidden under. These are just many methods of approach to the same vision. Catching a trout can be painted in expressionism, pointillism, realism, abstraction, or one of a thousand different means to the same end. That end is learning, and that happens when the fish is hooked, regardless the approach.

Dry fly fishing is a visual experience. One sees exactly what is happening or more often not happening. We can see a good presentation and a bad one. We can anticipate what may happen, and the sight of a fly dancing down the stream just asking to be taken is an exquisite torture of watching.

 Fishing this way is also simple. One spends less time futzing with indicators, droppers, multiple fly rigs, tangles etc., and spends more time with their fly on the water. Sometimes I will handicap myself on purpose by only taking as many flies as I can fit into a patch on my hat. Three patterns in two sizes or something like that. Elk hair, Goddard, or Henrysville Caddis, a Blue Winged Olive, a beetle or a hopper. Now I have no choice on how I am going to fish that day.

The first time I did this, I did it by accident: by forgetting my entire main fly box back at the car. I accepted my own self-imposed challenge, despite my friend’s insistence that he lend me flies, and I stubbornly fished a hopper pattern although no hoppers were out yet in July. What I discovered blew clouds of dust from my brain, and shattered 4X tippet all day.

Prospecting with the dry can be either fast or slow, entirely at one’s whim. How long one spends on one piece of water is up to the angler. Often using a delicate but faster approach, in effect ‘shotgunning’ the runs makes the best use of time and energy. In doing this one is looking for the exact opposite of the ‘classic’ dry fly presentation. Instead of slack line leaders, drag-free drifts, and complicated mending, the angler is looking to produce a rise when the quarry does not necessarily want to rise to the fly. Try dropping the fly with a ‘splat!’ Step up a size or two in pattern, or twitch the fly invitingly as it drifts back to you. Skitter the fly down and across, or cast the leader over a low hanging branch and let the fly be pulled up and over the branch to alight on the water again. All these are methods I have used to catch trout, often learning by accident, and then retaining the moment in the ‘ol rusty file cabinet brain.

 If it doesn’t work, move on. Leave the little push-button fish counter back at the car; this is not a game of numbers. Instead it is a mind game, and one beautiful way to spend a morning or evening discovering something new where the water speaks to you.


Tuesday, December 31, 2013

An ode to Small Streams







One of my small joys is fishing while getting away from it all. Crowded parking spots along well-known named trout streams repel me. There is a saying that most fishing occurs within a quarter mile of an access point. I far prefer to take the preverbal “Path Less Traveled” (with an apology to Robert Frost), and hoof it a bit to find seclusion. Who wants to fish in a crowd, or listen to a string quintet on a noisy street anyway?  Fortunately, here in Wisconsin there are nearly unlimited possibilities to lose oneself in a small trout stream and have that kind of intimacy and seclusion.


This often brings me to water that is seldom fished; small spring creeks, remote stretches, and even water with no name. There is a common perception that such waters only hold small trout. Although this is incorrect, if they did indeed hold only small fish, I would still fish them. However, in the small tributaries of tributaries I often ply, a footprint is a rare thing, and most of the time, I may know the intrepid angler that made it. Because the water is not walked through and sees much less pressure, often the fish are of a larger size than the bigger downstream waters. The fish are confined in a small frame. Their living room, dining room, kitchen, and bathroom are all right there. Often they may have never seen a fly, and may be a sucker for a little inspired creation of fur and feathers delicately suspended on the surface.


Cover is essential. A blade of grass, a depression caused by a small log, a branch, a slightly undercut bank, a shady spot under a tree with some increased depth; all must be explored with the fly. The possibilities are endless, as is the vast amount one will learn when slowing down and fishing small. These days I seem to seldom look at familiar waters the same way. I wonder instead of what I passed up and missed all these years when I thought that a stretch of water held no fish.


Small streams are intimate. We get to know them like a fine wine savored. We take them in small sips and taste, smell, hear, and understand their characters and nuances. It is not unlike examining a fine piece of artwork for hours. In the end, one truly knows the object or the stream on a personal level. This can be only done slowly. If one moves with the same speed using big steps that we would on bigger water the trout will disappear as if by magic.

Like painting on a small scale, one must avoid big sweeping brush strokes, but instead practice precise understated control. Less is more. The canvas may be small, but the subject immense. While the complex currents and power of a big river are like a Mahler symphony, small streams are like complexity within simplicity, like a Bach Fugue. Like intimate listening, one must close one’s eyes, become one with the stream, and achieve a symbiosis of sorts with the water and nature. If not, one may not hear the hidden notes spoken by the trout.


The biggest hindrance in small waters is in both the precision of the cast needed and the inevitable obstructions to casting. One must have a plan on each cast. Where the backcast goes, how the forward cast is to lay, the target, and the end-game plan if the fish is hooked all must be foremost in one’s mind. Although long rods do have their place in small stream fishing, a short rod will allow one to more easily avoid tangles while placing the fly in the proper place. There is a reason that the rod Hardy built for the Paris casting competitions was 7’. It became one in a series named the “C.C. De France”.

In addition to a short rod in the 6’ to 8’ range for a 3-5 wt line, the rods flexibility becomes critical. The trend in the past ten to fifteen years is for rod manufacturers to chase each other for the fastest and stiffest taper design. That is a big help if one is fishing the Yellowstone or Missouri, but when sneaking a 20 foot cast through red dogwoods to land under a clump of overhanging grass on the bank, we need the rod to bend. I was handicapped for years with the wrong rods, and only when I discovered full-flexing rods did I see the possibilities of intimate waters. The rod must be able to load with just the leader out: it must be able to perform a bow-and-arrow cast: to roll-cast: it must be able to perform at 40 feet as well. Above all, it must be accurate. Using a 9’ 5wt rod on a stream the width of a sidewalk is analogous to trying to hunt squirrels with a 12 gauge shotgun.

Casting becomes like a game of miniature golf: steeple cast over the canary grass, fire the cast forward with a left hand reach, roll and spey cast, sneak into position and use a bow-and-arrow cast to place a streamer above a tiny log jam. These skills can only be required as one finds them necessary. Each situation in stream is different. Every turn is a study or a puzzle requiring an elegant proof.

I like to approach these streams using a dry fly. In the small setting a size 14 caddis, or a # 18 Blue Wing Olive takes on a new presence in defiance of their size. A size 12 Erik’s Catskill looks like a two-pound medium rare tenderloin. I will nymph when required to, but scale down the size and weight. Nothing puts down and scatters a wary brown trout like a thingamabobber landing on the water with a ‘Plop!’

 Exploration is a joy: part of the reward is getting there. That means no GPS, no book or internet post telling you which rock to stand on, no well-worn footpaths. It means a scratched face, sinking into a rabbit-hole, and getting your boots muddy. Someone once said “A day that I come home without my boots muddy is a day wasted.” I like that. Perhaps add a flask of fine scotch for a sip, a nice place to sit and reflect and listen to and watch the water, a packet of crackers and a fine cheese, and my day is complete.


The small streams are there. There are everywhere. They are the space between the notes. One just needs to find them and listen. Oh, and bring your small stream trout rod too.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Leather Rod Tube Project

It all started when I received in the mail a new to me (used) Derek Brown Favorite 15’ 5 piece spey rod. It had an old tube with an ill-fitting cap, and a rod sock made from leopard-skin print cloth. After casting it for a few weeks and falling in love with the action, I decided to give it a more appropriate cloth case.

I sliced up an old Scottish tartan flannel shirt and went to town on an afternoon with needle and thread. Viewing the results one day when fussing with the errant tube and cap, I thought, “Hey, why not make a nice leather tube for the rod?” Thus began a long project of researching, drawing blueprints, and multiple trips to the leather craft store.

I wanted the tube to be unique. I didn’t just want to copy a design I found. I wanted to use real brass fittings. I also wanted to cut, stain, dye, tool, glue, sew, and polish each piece of leather by hand.

Easier said than done.

I am kind of famous or rather, infamous for undertaking rather daunting projects with rather more speed and enthusiasm than planning. I did not want this tube to be another one of those “Gee, it seemed a good idea at the time” minor disappointments.

I took my time. From the first cutting to completion took a month. I worked a few hours a day. Mistakes were made, and ‘learnings’ occurred. Measurements went askew, and were corrected.

Although this has been my largest and most ambitious undertaking in quite awhile, I am not new at leatherwork. Back in my early twenties, I built Medieval boots, armor, scabbards, and other pieces out of leather. It was only a few years back when I dusted off the old tools and once more took up the craft as a hobby. I have to say I am happy with the overall result. There are flaws if one looks closely, but in the larger scheme of things what emerged was a very antique and rich looking piece of kit. It fits in the overhead storage on a commercial jet, and when taking it through TSA security in Milwaukee, the agent asked for my business card.

I guess I should take that as a wee compliment!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The joy of the cane fly rod



This past fall I acquired my first fly rod built of split cane. A 6’6” two-piece for a 4wt line. The model is a Redwing ‘Precise’ hand built by master craftsman Joe Balestrieri. Mr. Balestrieri is a true gentleman of many years acquaintance, and has been hinting and whispering to me of the possibilities inherent in bamboo for years.

He has a rather unique philosophy, namely that to follow the old master’s taper designs is like trying to recreate the Mona Lisa, and instead, by designing his own tapers, he finds discoveries that prove that the best cane rod is yet to be built.

Let me digress for a moment…

Having been involved in the fly-fishing ‘Industry’ for quite awhile now, I have seen, wiggled, cast, and fiddled with literally hundreds of split-cane rods. It is a weekly occurrence to have a customer come into the shop with an old stained rod sock and pull out a cane rod for evaluation. Many want to fish a legacy, as it used to belong to Grandpa, or they found it at a rummage sale for a song and now want it matched to a reel and line. Of the rods I have handled, 99% are rather awful. The reason why is simple.

Back in the days before the fiberglass and graphite revolution swept over the fly-fishing world, all rods were made of cane; the vast majority being mass-production rods. Yes, they were hand-crafted to an extent, but not by masters, instead, the were planed, glued, baked, and wrapped by the assembly-line process. They were heavy and not finely tapered and tuned. The analogy I like to use is a simple one when explaining this to students and customers: “Saying that you have a bamboo fly-rod is like saying that you have a metal car. All rods were built of cane, as all cars were made of metal. The differences between a utilitarian Ford, and a Ferrari are the same when comparing a South Bend from a local hardware store to a finely crafted Payne or Garrison.”

This is why cane rods have a bad reputation in modern days to the occasional angler. The run-of-the-mill rod is clunky, poorly tapered, heavy, and collapses on the cast when any distance is desired. Graphite is lighter, crisper, and recovers faster. Holders of this opinion are to be forgiven because they never have had the pleasure of casting a cane rod that is a true work of art.


The possibilities of cane opened up to me one evening when I paid a visit to Joe and his workshop. Always the gentleman, I was soon comfortably seated with a glass of Sicilian wine in my hand, and examining a restoration project Joe was undertaking on a short spey rod owned by some obscure Viscount in Great Britain. Balestrieri then pulled out a big 9 ft. 8 wt rod, and handed it to me to flex. Now I can be rather stubborn, and set in my opinions, but am wise and quick enough to recognize when my self-imposed blinders have been lifted off and the light of day revealed. What I held in my hand was an epiphany. It was as light as most graphite rods, with a fine parabolic taper and quick recovery. Unlike production rods of any material, no two handcrafted cane rods are precisely alike. The finish varies just a little, and the grain and knurls in the wood seats add a unique touch.

I sat speechless as Joe stood forth on the infinite possibilities of taper design. Perhaps it was the wine, but I could almost hear and smell the flowing water just beyond the tip of the rod.

Flexing it was like a finely tuned musical instrument with its own unique character not unlike a fine violin, both with inherent musical (casting) personalities and aesthetic charms. It had a presence not unlike a fine work of art. I was blown away. I left that evening after sampling a StrathSpey Single-Malt Scotch, and was a changed man.

That was a few years back. Now I regret the time in-between when I could have played the small streams of Wisconsin for bejeweled trout with an instrument that turned mere fly-fishing into a concerto for wood, water, and speckled wild quarry worthy of Mozart.

The first initial cast of the Redwing ‘Precise’ knocked me out. It felt like graphite, but yet not. It had power to spare, a sweet action that somehow seemed designed just for my stroke, it was beautiful, and it was the most accurate fly rod I had ever cast. I fell in love.

The initial outing with the rod was at the end of trout season on my local creek, which was totally brush choked. I fished with hopper patterns and baptized the rod with a lone 9” wild brown. Playing the fish with the flexible action of the rod was like listening to a symphony in stereo rather than mono: the experience just became more intimate. The short rod made negotiating the small spring creek much easier too, and the fly landed with the precision intended by Balestrieri’s artful hands. The pairing of an old 1950s Hardy Perfect 3 1/8” reel and a DT line made the rod come alive. It balanced like a dream. It disappeared in my hand as my casts just landed like I ‘thought them’ into place.

Laying awake one night before my annual trip to Idaho to fish for steelhead, I had an idea. Why not drive the extra fifty miles or so and spend the first day of two on the Selway River fishing wild cutthroat trout? Why not take the new cane rod? Why not have the proper experiences of sporting-restraint fishing dries with a tiny cane rod on a big western river?

That is just what I did. Yes, the little rod was limiting in some ways. I could comfortably put out 40 feet of line, and reach out to 55 feet or so when necessary, but it necessitated the stalking of some water, a cautious approach, and more thinking than casting, which is another of Joe Balestrieri’s little opinions. He believes that super powerful rods have limited the joy of skill and the hunt that the older more sympathetic cane rods made necessary. The thought, reflection, and the studying of the stream became with the new plastic rods, an art all but forgotten.





So I raise a glass of fine claret in salute to Joe Balestrieri the artist and craftsman, the rod he built for me, the joy of fishing with it, the feeling of a delightful coming together or symbiosis of aesthetics, power, and restraint: a tool worthy of the fish we pursue in beautiful places, and a rod that elevates the fly-fishing experience from the near mundane to the moving feelings of high-art.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Double Taper Experiments: Part One - Trout


The Double Taper Experiments


 
Part One: The trout rod.


 
It all began with a reel; a Hardy Perfect 3 1/8” with agate line guard. Loaded on the reel was an old Scientific Anglers Double Taper 4 line. The reel was a gift from a friend, and so ‘perfect’ a perfect that it just had to be used. No sense in letting the ‘good china’ gather dust in the closet.

Of course, the first thing I did was remove the old dumb DT line and put on a new Weight Forward 4. I fished the line for a year, but was unhappy with its coiling memory problems, so early this year I thought, “Why not try out the Double Taper…”, and I put it back on the reel.

A little background here. When Weight Forward lines first appeared, they revolutionized casting. With most of the grain weight placed on the forward 30 feet of line, and the rest of the line acting as a running line, what we had was the first commercially available shooting head. Distance, (always the desire of anglers, after all if we can cast farther we can catch more fish… in theory) became far more effortless. I have articles written in the 1970s that proclaimed the death of the Double Taper. When I started fly-fishing, it was all done with a Weight Forward line. Old-timers used to come into shops I was working at and ask for DT lines. When we didn’t have them, they often cried that “A DT is all you need for trout fishing.” I never listened. Neither did most everyone else. After all a DT is just a DT, but a weight forward offers so many more possibilities.

Weight forward lines come in power tapers, quiet tapers, distance tapers, nymph tapers, longer belly tapers, fish-specific tapers, etc. etc. The DT just sits there on the shelf, in all its boring lack of complexity, lonely and unused, gathering dust.

Until someone with a insatiable curiosity and a tendency towards hair-shirts winds one on his reel one March day.

What has happened can be likened to opening a hidden window in a musty old cellar, and the sweeping of cobwebs from the brain. With the new light of day pouring in, objects and concepts dimly lit or obscured all these years become clear, and the world turns.

I guess I was surprised. I also felt a bit humble. After all, I was a doubter, and a quite verbal one at that. What I found in the DT line opened my eyes.

First, when paired to a full-flexing trout rod such as an Orvis Superfine, it was instantly more accurate; there was something about not casting running line that actually played in favor of accuracy.

Second, the weight in the line was elongated. This weight was within the guides the whole time, adding to the rod load. The rod was not just loading from the tip, but was flexing smoothly and continuously throughout the rod, making the rod design, or ‘action’ transmit or communicate directly to the casting arm what was happening in the load. Interesting.

I was afraid that the DT line would be a limiter in distance, and it was to some extent. However, I found that I could, with some adaptation of my casting stroke, throw 50 to 60 foot casts with ease. That is all anyone would need on small Wisconsin spring creeks. In fact, 50 feet in most places will see one fishing the next run around the bend. I expect that if I make it back to Belize some day, that for long-distance casting in tough situations A DT line might not be my first choice, but for a small trout stream, Eureka!

Another little epiphany occurred in changing fly sizes. The DT line simply turned over everything from size 20 Olive dries, to cone head size 4 streamers. All one had to do was futz with and adjust the leader a bit.

On our trout streams here in Wisconsin, the best friend an angler can have is a good roll cast. Nothing, and let me repeat this, nothing… roll and spey casts on a trout stream like a DT line. It was made for it. On tiny overgrown ten foot wide creeks with boulders and in-stream obstructions that would make a goofy-golf aficionado run screaming, the DT line worked magic. Enough weight was outside the tip of the rod that I could make roll casts to targets 12-15 feet away with accuracy. Later, when we fished a pool a friend named ‘Salmo Mofo’ for it’s recalcitrant browns, the DT line could reach the lie with a spey cast 50 feet away and with amazing accuracy.

At least for one angler with newly opened eyes, the Double Taper line is back. At least for trout fishing. You can teach an old dog a new trick. And.... those old-timers knew a thing or two...