Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Symbiosis and Grace: A tale of two fly rods.

2 DaVinci rods top. Bottom Para 15. Writer's log and pen while writing this mess.

Author’s note:

This is an essay based on reflections. Essentially, it is what might be considered a rod ‘Shoot-out’ in the modern slang, but nobody gets injured, and there is no violence. It is an examination of character and personality of inanimate objects with some allegory, analogies, and hints of anthropomorphism thrown in for clarification or explanation, or even accidental obfuscation. My approach to this and writing style is not common and may be considered enigmatic. I certainly hope so, for thought is not always linear, and writing should not always be either. The style might be read a bit like interrupted poetic prose spattered with philosophy and nonsense randomly but with intent and design not unlike a Jackson Pollack painting. Sometimes it might seem that I am searching for something without putting my fingers on it, only to have an epiphany a few paragraphs later, and detour yet again. Sometimes I wonder what people must think when they attempt to get through these little diversions of mine, but then I might deem it the highest compliment and praise if someone reads this and it spurs thought…. For thought is what I am after…after all….

These reflections were written at local parks while casting and taking notes and day-dreaming, a process I referred to once in an essay as ‘Water-Putting’. I would hike 4 miles, then go the quietest location I could find, set up the rods and begin taking endless notes and exploring ideas while casting. I hope you enjoy it!


The two fly rods explained

Both fly rods are 2 piece, 8 feet long, and take a 5 weight line. That is where the similarities end, for they are as different as air and water. Both rods were built and ‘interpreted’ by Joe Balestrieri, the cane whisperer and bamboo rod builder at Redwing Fly Rods, and a great friend. I acquired both rods this year, after having hand-built a leather rod tube to accommodate them, and purchasing a rare pre-war Hardy Perfect reel with an ‘agate-up’ line guard to balance the rods. I even made a leather reel case for the Hardy as well, long before either rod was a reality. Either a lot of thought and planning went into this, or a bit of insanity….. most likely both.

The rods are a DaVinci, and a Young Parabolic 15. Here are their histories.

The DaVinci, or the ‘Symbiosis’ of the title is a fusion of bamboo and graphite. Following the designs of Charles Ritz of the Vario-Power series of rod which married a bamboo tip to a fiberglass butt, Pezon & Michel of France built a rod with a cane butt section and a graphite tip in 1990 to 1991. The fact that little is known about this rod has little to do with performance, only with popularity, or a lack of it and a corresponding lack of understanding. It may have been a little too much of a diversion for the average angler, too much to chew on, and not understood at all, or the concept of fusion itself may have been seen as heretical. More on that later… Joe also leant me his personal DaVinci rod he built so that I could test cast and fish with it. It is a nine-foot for a six-weight line, and appears in the photo as the rod with the skeletal grip, another idea borrowed from the late Paul Young, the expansive idea-chaser and bamboo rod builder from Detroit Michigan. Balestrieri also used a modified Ritz grip on the rod in addition to the skeletal reel seat, blending the best of borrowed ideas and mixing them together to make a different flavor of rod. Sometimes the best tasting pasta dishes are assembled by scratch, and with only ingredients on-hand and in the mind, as I found out when Balestrieri cooked me a Sicilian bacon, white sauce and asparagus dish when I picked up the rod. He pulled that dish out and improvised. It was divine!

Since I mentioned Paul Young, the second rod is one I wanted Balestrieri to make for me. I wanted an all-around trout rod of around eight feet or so and for a five-weight line. What he came up with was a lightened Paul Young Para 15 taper. Instead of casting a six-weight line, as the original rods did, this one cast a true five beautifully. The name ‘Para 15’ comes from the ferrule being 15/64th in diameter. Para is short for ‘Parabolic’, which is fly-rod gibberish to attempt to explain a taper that bends mostly nearer the grip, and often has a stiffer tip. Parabolic rods thus are ‘regressive’ in taper, as they stand convention on its head by bending far down the blank. The most parabolic of the parabolics, rods like the Para 15 and the Princess, also by Paul Young, have a fluid slow action that flings the line out there without effort much like a slingshot.

Ernest Schwiebert, in his book Trout Tackle 2 told us that Young preferred his Para 15, and that perhaps it was Young’s favorite rod. Schwiebert himself commented that the Para 15 was “Perhaps the finest all-around trout rod in my collection.” That says a lot as Schwiebert owned countless bamboo rods from all the great makers, and fished them all over the world, and wrote about them as well in his stories and his histories of tackle and technique.

The rod Balestrieri built for me is similar to a lightened regressive taper Para 15 Young called the ‘Keller’. This rod is the ‘Grace’ in the title.

Before I break out the bottle of wine and begin waxing poetic, these two rods are perhaps the finest casting fly-rods I have ever had the privilege to hold or own, but for very different reasons; thus the point of the explorative reflections.


Getting to know you…


DaVinci, as in the great Leonardo, was the great historic artist he is considered both because of his divine talent and exquisite beauty of touch in capturing the human figure, as well as his diversity in designing and drafting war machines, civil engineering tools, castle and town layouts and defenses, etc. His explorations were incredible. His sketches are exquisite in their subtle strokes and detail, and almost casual in their greatness. They leave the average artist dumbfounded.

 The rod named after him may have had its name taken as a tribute to the fusion of the classical paintings and the drafting drawings. At least it would be nice to believe so. I use the term symbiosis to describe the rod as in two parts working together to achieve what each by themselves, could not achieve alone. For no two materials anchor the far bookends of opinion, puritanism, zeal and stubbornness in fly rod design and casting; bamboo of lore, and graphite of pure energy. One made of natural fibers bending in the wind, and one mastered by man and melded by alchemists out of carbon; Each material having supporters scoffing at each other. Bamboo fanatics will never admit that graphite is a viable material at all, and often call rods made of carbon fiber ‘Plastic’ just to raise a hackle or two. Graphite proponents call cane rods ‘Buggy-whips’ and dismiss cane as short-distance over-priced affectations. Cane nuts have started internet forums where they endlessly argue about nuances so obscure that to the layperson who wanders by and innocently trespasses on their lofty comfort and security with a perceived blasphemy of a question, they must seem like a bunch of model-railroad fanatics involved in a street fight to settle the issue of which gauge track is better.

These two sides are so polarized around performance versus classicism, that when some eccentric artist or craftsman one day makes a rod of both materials combined it must cause silence, and then cries of anger and blasphemy. How dare you disgrace cane with graphite you heretic. Heresy! How dare you mess up my graphite power tool with the addition of that dumb wood butt-section? Now it weighs 1/32nd of an ounce more and I can’t cast. So erupted the Capulets and the Montagues, yet Romeo and Juliet lay still bound together in brash reality right there in front of us. And they loved…. They loved without prejudice. They loved completely, with all of themselves.

So the DaVinci may never be accepted. Its dichotomy is too extreme. It angers the purists, and adulterates the puritan. The Capulets and Montagues war and rage and argue and fight… The experts will tell you that any fly- rod like this will be a disaster….

Until you cast it. Then the true duet begins, like a love song from West-Side Story, Bernstein’s brilliant adaptation of Shakespeare’s play… Romeo and Juliet in the modern age. These materials compliment each other amazingly. The cane butt pulls the weight closer to the grip, causing the rod to feel lighter in hand and more responsive. The cane bends near the butt, causing the rod action to be very powerful but semi-parabolic in nature. The graphite tip on my rod is longer than the butt section, and creates a unique property of a lack of deflection. Therefore, the best of two materials come together. The graphite tip is also lighter, reducing the overall weight of the flyrod, and preventing what often happens in bamboo rods; the tips become too heavy, especially in weights over 5 or lengths over 8 feet.

It took no time at all to understand this rod. Step up to the plate and swing. She takes all you can give as long as you are smooth. It is not a close distance rod, instead it wants some gas. I first fished it on a small spring creek where I was hampered by brush, and the rod did not like it. I caught fish, but I continually had to make the rod do things it didn’t want to do. Under 20 feet it didn’t want to load right, but when moving to a larger body of water it ran free. This rod does not want to be confined. With a cigar grip, a unique burned cork butt, and bright red wraps, it stands out as the convertible sports car in a field of sedans.

Only once, did I really step on the gas and run it full out, and the entire fly line went out and the backing banged the reel. Yet… it didn’t sell. Nobody understands it. Sad. Blasphemy! Heretic! Or… symbiosis? Just ask Romeo and Juliet! On second thought, don’t do that, it kind of ended badly for them. Perhaps peanut butter and jelly might be a better analogy. Yet… of Shakespeare’s plays, what is the most popular? Yes. The dichotomy.

I taught a fly-casting class for a Trout Unlimited chapter this summer using the DaVinci rod, and although everyone seemed to think it was interesting, watching people look at the rod and wiggle it was not unlike the tale of the three blind men trying to describe an elephant. If I hadn’t owned it and cast it, I would be in the same boat. One guy asked, “Why did you bring that rod?” I thought… “Why not?”. Sometimes it seems to be my place on earth to be the odd one who makes us all question things by doing everything contrary to conventional wisdom, and making it work.


Unlike the DaVinci, the Para 15 is a difficult gal to figure out. She is the demure one seated alone on the settee at the dance. She is not the most desirable or flashy of the girls, she has an understated quiet grace, part Greek with a quiet smile and classic cupid lips, but if you want to take the time to know her, she is the keeper, and the one you want to spend the rest of the night dancing with. Just don’t step on her toes… she hates that. Grace is demanding of respect. She is complicated despite being straightforward. She seems quirky at first. If you cast her right with smooth movements, she rewards you with an elegant loop and bend like lips slowly curving into a beguiling smile.

Parabolic rods are like this. You may hate the rod one second because you are pushing it too hard, and then the next second, when you smooth out your stroke and come into agreement with the rod, it rewards you. There is no wiggle-room in this rod. Either you are going to play beautiful music together, or you are going to make one god-awful racket and end up on the floor frustrated and tangled up in your own underwear. The rod sets the tempo, not you. Unlike some graphite rods that you can push, mold, and change to your ways, this Para 15 will not budge. So… after getting over a few tailing-loops and some frustrated casting, I closed my eyes and cast. I was not leading the dance, the rod was, and I opened my eyes to an epiphany. I felt it first in my arm and hand as the bend of the rod came alive so very subtly, and then witnessed the loop as 50 feet of line gracefully uncoiled and the reel quacked out a few more inches in protest. I cast it again with the maker, and while talking to him and not paying attention to my casting stroke, he said, “That was a perfect cast!” I had taken myself out of it, at least my conscious mind, and let my soul or unconscious take control. Joe laughed, and I did too. This Para 15 wanted no part of my thoughts, it only wanted what it’s soul’s essence desired. Pure smooth strokes. Don’t think, just feel….

This quirkiness is why some people never like parabolic rods. If you have an inflexible casting stroke and cadence, and you perform a tango even when the dance is a waltz, the rod will not make the adaptation, and will punish you. This ability to get to know the personalities of unique rods fascinates me. The changes I have to make as a caster in order to make the rod perform allow me to become a better caster because I am listening, not doing the talking.

The Para 15 requires patience. The style of casting that just seemed to gel includes a bit of Charles Ritz in his High Speed-High Line approach along with a smooth long travel on the back cast starting low with the tip to the ground, then smoothly accelerating forward and stopping however gently before lowering the tip. A powerful stop to create a tight loop made the rod do strange things, and I had to let it be in charge again before I understood again that it demands smoothness. Any noise or abrupt movements will shock it and it will stop singing for you. It took some time before I got to really understand the Para 15 since the flaws in casting came not from the rod, but from me.

This rod will perform up close and at distance, so it is more versatile than the DaVinci, and it might be hard to scratch together an argument against it as the finest all-around trout rod ever. I still struggle at distance with the rod though, but only in park-casting distances, because despite all the tales of 90 foot casts, for most situations a 60 foot cast is quite far, and a more realistic average distance on big water might be 50 feet, and the Para 15 is dead on at 40 and 50 feet, repeatedly hitting the same leaf at distance while simulating dry-fly accuracy. However, like most of us, one man’s meat is another’s poison, and after trying an overly heavy old double taper line on the rod, I put on a weight-forward 5 weight line and the rod sang an aria of its own. That is another important aspect to fly-rods. There is no such thing as the right line out of the box. I have rods rated for a seven that I cast with a six, and rods rated for a 4 that I cast with a five. Another caster might like the exact opposite. Balestrieri and I fooled around with one of his finest rod creations several times in succession with different lines often getting wildly different results before he grabbed a silk line that was actually a bit heavy, and after my prediction that it would only make it more confusing, the line flew out and hit the junipers at the edge of his property. We just looked at each other and smiled.

We have to give the rods different foods, if you will, and see how they react. A casting stroke more powerful might mean a lighter line or not. I tested or ‘fed’ my rods a variety of lines, many no longer in production.

Like my analogy to the dark brunette Greek and Italian classic like Cecilia Bartoli the opera mezzo-soprano, the Para 15 has a quiet and subtle beauty. It has a cork reel seat, not a deep polished wood. This is in keeping with the rods of Paul Young who was known to be a bit of a nut on saving weight and often sacrificing aesthetics in favor of performance. So this rod has no fancy ball gown, only an Italian green silk wrap. It is simple like an Italian feast of grapes, bread and wine taken in a Sicilian field in the hills and true to the roots and character of the maker Balestrieri.

The differences in these two rods always lead my mind to stray to music again. If these two rods were performing artists, how would they differ? Why, with as much character difference as they do in casting. Vladimir Horowitz the fiery Russian pianist would love to pound the keyboard of the DaVinci, while he would probably break the Para 15. Alfred Cortot, the poetic interpreter of Chopin and Debussy would love the complicated and quiet intricate rhythms of the Para 15, while he might find the DaVinci to be too brutal to make music.

I was doing research the other day for this article and became fascinated with bamboo collectors use of the term ‘Experimental’. The term was used to describe the DaVinci, as well as Paul Young’s rare but vaunted Princess, a regressive 7 foot for a 4 weight line of which very few were built. Critics seemed to imply that a taper that was not popular or of which few were made constituted an ‘Experiment’ in a connoted derogatory sense. Apparently, experiments that sold were acts of genius in contrast. Certainly the Princess and the DaVinci ideas were not failures due to their lack of casting brilliance, but perhaps the deviations of these rods might make us read the ‘Experimental’ critique as better defined as “I don’t get it….” That led me to include the CD cover for Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, songs so beautiful and full of life yet profane, as a part of the montage photo heading this piece of experimental prose and fly-rod reflection. I thought it fitting, and I wanted to thumb my nose at convention, especially by those that collect rods and argue about them, but when it comes down to it, have no clue where the rod’s soul lies.

The soul comment leads me back to the more mundane word ‘Character’, and why I wrote this piece in the first place. I have cast some poor rods in my time, but more often than not, a decent rod with thought behind the taper and intent and purpose behind the design that at first might not speak to me will often reveal itself when I am not trying or thinking. That is why I built the Romeo and Juliet analogy and “Getting to know you…”.  One has to spend some time with a fly-rod in order to find out what makes it tick…. Far more than is given in any magazine “Rod shoot-out” I have ever read.


Conclusion ad nauseam…


So the Para 15 is the finest rod I have ever cast…. Or is it the Da Vinci? Both? Neither? Or is the point of ever trying to assign a score to a delicate object like a fine cane rod like trying to rank the finest painters and musical artists in a list….? An impossible task, and one that is perpetrated every day. Instead, art history teaches us that comparison and contrast is an exercise in itself. Not pointless, but leading to thought and more respect and a deeper appreciation of the intent of the object itself.

On the other hand, we could just go out and catch a bunch of fish. I like to think it can be more than just that…. It can be art if we let it be. Casting and rods can be like the fine instruments and music they were intended as. Just add a glass of fine claret, turn down the music, pick up a fly-rod and close your eyes.




Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Teaching Fly Casting

Here is a video taken live of me teaching and explaining the basic fly-casting stroke. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Happy Fathers Day to all Dads!

Fishing with Dad

Fishing with Dad: Photo from @ 1975 or so

Most anglers and fly fishermen in particular have had the tradition of this great sport handed down to them by their fathers. My friend Rob’s father tells a neat story about fly fishing in Michigan when Rob who was all of eight or nine years old was perched on a rock casting, and Sylvester Nemes came past and remarked that the kids casting skill was better than his fathers.

Many of us cherish those memories of our fathers, from the first time we were shown how to bait a hook and cast, to the time we finally caught a fish bigger than Dad’s was, and the look not of envy but of pride on his face.

My memories are just as fond, but in a more ironic way.

My father loved to dream about fishing, but rarely fished. He taught me how to bait a hook with a worm, set the bobber and catch panfish. He taught me to clean the fish. He also taught me that he was not to be bothered for the morning bite. I fished alone in the mornings, as Dad would never get out of bed. Dad and I only really fished on vacations. These were supposed to be the time when mom could get away from her soul crushing job, and immerse herself in nature and paint and sketch while staying with friends ‘up north’. For Dad, these vacations took on a safari like expedition status.

The vacation planning would begin with my mother securing time off of work. After the dates were set, Dad would begin assembling the baggage train near the doorway of our house. Like everything else involving Dad, this took time; in this case weeks, with long speculation and daydreaming while smoking his pipe, and was over-meticulously planned. He gathered: hunting boots, hiking boots, casual shoes, two fishing rod cases containing a dozen of his hand built rods, two tackle boxes, a large box of fishing reels, two safari jackets, several hats including a pith helmet, several large fishing nets, four duffel bags of clothing, etc. Enough gear for an expedition to the Congo. My mother took some watercolor supplies and a change of clothes. I had one fishing rod and a small duffel bag.

That was Dad. Everything was overdone, over planned, analyzed to death, and had to be perfect.
He hand built spinning rods that were pieces of artwork, with gun stock French walnut inserts, elaborately wrapped guides, and guide spacing that was based upon complex mathematical models only known to him. He owned the best reels that money could buy, and a large collection of lures and sundry equipment. Despite this, he very seldom fished. When we did fish together, after I was about nine or so, the fishing sessions were inevitably memorable…but in the wrong way.

I couldn’t wait to go fishing the first morning of the vacation, but had to wait for Dad, as the fishing rods were locked in the car. On the pond was a boathouse with a pier from which we would fish. We stood on the little pier and cast spinners to the trout. I caught my first rainbow trout that day. Before that occurred though, there were the requisite disasters that seemed to follow us wherever we went. On an errant cast, I hooked Dad in the leg, the treble hooks embedding deep in his pants. It’s amazing that worse didn’t occur with the two of us crowded onto the tiny end of the pier. In order to get the hooks out he had to take off his pants. We stood on the end of the platform while I tried to free the hooks from his trousers, which were now around his ankles. I used needle-nose pliers and finally got the hooks free but left a sizable hole in the pants. By this time, both of us were entangled in the fishing line, and I dropped his pliers into the water. I was never to hear the end of this. The proximity of sharp objects, Dad’s anxieties, and a small boy crowded onto a pier had reached critical mass. At times like this, I was at the mercy of his entire wrath, as Mom wasn’t there to try to interfere and thus get criticized for always “Defending the boy.” On a positive note, I learned a lot of new words that day.

Several days later I went along on a shopping expedition with Mom and her friend and Dad was left alone to fish. When we returned, he proudly showed off a stringer of five beautiful rainbow trout. One of them was the biggest I had ever seen up to that point. It was almost hard to believe. Dad seemed such a fumble-klutz at fishing that it was an entirely new feeling to see him as a hero.

My father loved to fish. At least he loved to dream about fishing and collect tackle. He rarely actually went fishing. He read books on spin fishing, and purchased or hand built the best equipment with God only knows what money. Somehow though, in his meticulous study, he missed some of the simple fundamentals. When fishing with a spinning reel one opens the bail (control arm) thus freeing the line for a cast. In order to prevent the line from free spooling at this point and creating a tangled mess, one places a finger on the line and traps it against the rod or reel. Dad overlooked this. On a later vacation to Wisconsin’s Door County, we were fishing together and Dad repeatedly made casts that went nowhere and created a bird nest of line. At these times I was employed to help by holding either the rod or the line while he cursed and blamed, constantly stating “ I am going crazy” and sweating profusely. The tangles kept getting worse until they covered the reel, rod, and us. Monofilament was everywhere. Everyone took turns trying to help him, but it was to no avail. My Uncle Jerry, a Benedictine priest, and our driver on this trip even had his patience tried. He went swimming to escape the mayhem. Mom tried to help too, but finally went off alone to paint. The rod ended up getting broken, probably on purpose. I can still feel the tension in the air, and smell the frustration and terror sweat as it fell from Dad's brow.
It’s funny. I loved to fish too, but after these vacations, I never fished from age 15 until I was in my mid-30s. I often wonder if the traumatic imprints had something to do with that.

Dad’s hand built rods may have been works of art, but they hardly ever received use, even given our proximity to Lake Michigan. Dad’s fears and anxieties all but prevented him from ever venturing out on his own. Instead he amassed tackle and sat day dreaming about it until vacation time came along. He collected hundreds of back-copies of Outdoor Life and Field and Stream, but hated to leave the house for fear of getting his shoes muddy, getting wet, or getting eaten by mosquitoes. My mom and I thought he should have magazines entitled “Indoor Life” instead. When he did venture outside into nature, he dressed like someone attempting a parody of an English explorer from the 19th century. He would don special boots, safari jackets, and a pith helmet.

So, here’s to you Dad, in a loving but tongue in cheek way. Happy Fathers Day. Wish you were still here with me, disasters and all. I will wear your Irish hats in tribute, but will try not to tangle the line around myself and fall in.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

A nice tribute Thank you!

I first became aware of the writing of Erik Helm through Speypages.  

He “penned” what has become one of my all time favorite posts.  My favorite because of the writing style and the content, both of which are entertaining, hilarious, and true.  Superb, as we truck drivers say. It should be required reading for anyone stuck in the quagmire of information about fly fishing and Spey casting/ fishing in particular.  This is not proper “blogging” technique but I copied and pasted the post below because, like I said, its required reading…

I dunno… Perhaps I have been in the two-hand or ‘spey’ casting thing too long or perhaps long enough to know that a line closely approximate to correct should be able to be cast fine by any given rod. This pseudo-science and new thirst for the magic bean through calculations, measurements, Euclidian geometry, etc. Has me puzzled at best. More and more I believe that this little corner of the sport is being over-complicated by people giving advice based on little experience, dogma relating to strong personal preferences, and for a disregard for the joy of just going out there and casting. We used to get by with windcutters just fine, then better lines came along. Good. Then came the pseudo-science of running-lines and matching heads which at first was fine, but has now evolved. or devolved into such a miasma of obfuscation that it is a wonder that people are even not more confused. Long ago I simplified my approach and fishing gear, and it paid off. I spend less or no time fussing and futzing, and just cast and swing. Perhaps there is a lesson here in simplification, time put in on the great rivers, learning by having your a$$ handed to you, and a bit less attention paid to marketing hype and the new ‘magic bean’ rod, line, vortex technique, etc.
Then, somewhere in the mix of learning and time, things simplify themselves, and we may pay less attention to the noise, and more time just enjoying the cast and swing, regardless of the line, rod, matching hip pack, running line para-physics, etc.  – Erik Helm

The only thing he forgot to say, and I’ll say if for him, was BAM!  Because Erik appears on every front to be a gentleman, which isn’t true about everybody on the internet, and he most likely does not say such things.
Eric Helm casting lon belly line popped
Erik Helm casting a true Long belly line.  Photo Courtesy of Erik Helm
I ran across the above photograph of Erik casting a really long line and had to have it for this site.  It could easily be titled “Effortless casting”.   When I see someone casting a very long line with ease I know that they have put in their time and know what they are talking about.  I’d studied his posts on Speypages, surfed around and landed on his blog too, and read a few posts of his on social media, but he keeps a pretty low profile, so you have to hunt around a bit to discover the genius behind the man. I was willing to do a little bit of digging after seeing the photo above.  Yes, he is a FRSCA certified two handed casting instructor.  What does that mean?  In short, to me, it means he can make the above cast left handed too.  He knows what he’s talking about.  So I explored The Classic Angler to find out more.
His writing is excellent.  He gives writers like John Gierach,  and McMannus, a serious run for their money and, speaking entirely from a hunt and peck point of view, his name is easier to spell.  His oeuvre proves intelligent, insightful,  funny, real, and true.  In fact its so true that in this day and age it might occasionally be overlooked because people on the internet sometimes think they need to know stuff that they absolutely do not want to know!  Google search:   Which sink tip should I buy? Answer?  Blah, Blah centric balance 55% to 45% ratio, blah, blah  RHW to FHW ratio of 60% to 40%.  Huh?  You lost me at the first Blah!  So if your suffering from internet paralysis by analysis you will feel much better if you read anything by Erik Helm at The Classic Angler such as….
~Look for water between 2 and 6 feet deep moving at a walking pace, and have confidence in your fly. Put it in the water and fish.” If somebody had told me this 20 years ago, it might have saved me a lot of trouble and fussing. ~ Erik Helm, Tales from a Fly Shop-Part Two.

~He showed me the fly he had caught the fish on, and I was amazed and appalled all in the same glance. Here was some grievous sin against all those aforementioned great authors and fishermen whose writings and detailed studies of trout-stream entomology and fly-tying had haunted my slumbers these past weeks and months. It seemed to be tied on some old bait or worm hook. For a body it used an old brown rag, and the wing and hackle were twisted out of some giant brown chicken feather. ~

Thank you!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Onomatopoeia and the Active Dry fly

Onomatopoeia and the Active Dry fly
An active Caddis took this Brown from a very small creek in Wisconsin's Driftless area.

I was setting down this essay and coming up with words to describe active presentations such as “Skitter, Pop, Twitch, Flutter, Dapple,” etc., when I remembered from my poetic days a concept word which always amused me, that of Onomatopoeia: Words whose sounds suggest their meaning. Surely a Twitch suggested a well… twitchy short sudden movement, and a Pop... well… and arguments can be made for all of those words, and their effect on the fish which can often result in poetry of a different kind when the fly is moving seductively.

I had read all the books, you see, back in my neophyte days of pursuing trout. Books that explained repeatedly the necessity of a drag-free drift. Books written in the best British and Catskill tradition, they correctly referred to a natural presentation of a newly emergent dun or spent spinner of a mayfly. Drag was an evil to be avoided on any costs!

So I was doing my darndest on the local brook an hour’s drive from home to channel those authors and fishermen of the chalk streams and the fabled New York free-stoners by careful manipulation of the line, mending, and patient control of the speed of the fly. I was fishing an elk hair caddis dry that day, placing it up against an undercut bank and watching as it tantalizingly bounced back to me looking proud and erect in the current. I was catching nothing. The trout were having none of it. When the sixth cast dropped the leader over a twig overhanging the stream, I decided to allow the leader and fly to just come back naturally, instead of attempting to free the leader and possibly entangle the fly in the twig. As the leader came back over the twig, the little caddis fly was dragged up into the air and over the stick. It never made it all the way over. A small brown trout jumped out of the water and missing the caddis, ate part of the stick by mistake, causing the fly to be knocked back toward me. Standing there rather dumbfounded, my fly now trailing behind me and gently skittering or skating back and forth in the tail of the pool, I felt a tell-tale tug, and hooked another brown without even trying. All my efforts had been in vain, while my errors had resulted in two fish taking the fly (or trying to.)

Still the lights did not go on in my head. Over the next year, I fished a wonderful Blue-Wing Olive hatch during a thunderstorm when my fly only got eaten while I was pulling it out for the back-cast. Here I was a little quicker on the uptake, and realized that the fish were eating emergers and that my fly was being drug under effectively imitating the hatching activity. Another time I was fishing a size 24 midge pattern through a hatch, unsuccessfully but doggedly, and once again, after the dead-drifting produced nothing but frustration, picked up the line quickly from the water to produce the load for a little spey cast, causing the midge to come waking across the surface of the water like a water skier. A nice 14” brown fell all over himself in a stupor of reckless passion to eat the midge. I never set the hook, being too shocked to gather my senses.

Over the next several months, back hose years ago, the light bulb slowly but finally came on as I observed more and more erratic insect behavior, and it became my habit to sit and simply watch bugs on the water. Yes, most mayflies behaved like they were described in the books and articles, mostly motionless. Others popped and dove into the water laying eggs, and even danced an exotic and erratic ballet for no apparent reason. Caddis and stoneflies often behaved like bugs; they ran around seemingly at random, fell down, crashed into things, dived in and out of the water, and behaved altogether like the players in one of those awful 1960s electric football games. Remember those? This was the game where after endless time spent setting up the play, the switch was turned on and we adolescent would-be coaches found to our horror that 1/3 of the players ran the wrong way, one third crushed into a little blob and did little else, and the remaining third rotated in circles and fell down.
This is exactly the random behavior I began to consistently notice during insect emergence on the stream, and a behavior I began to copy with incredible results by fishing the fly actively and making it behave like a bug. Drag? Yes, drag could be good now, especially if it mimicked the actual bug on the water…

How to behave like a bug: A primer

No, don’t start buzzing abound looking for a mate and wondering where those wings on your back came from, this is a different kind of behavior. Lets discover a simple set of presentations and approaches that may add a curve-ball to your standard repertoire of pitches on the river.

The Downstream approach:

 After working a piece of water with a conventional upstream presentation, try moving to the head of the run or pool by moving around it, being careful not to be spotted by the fish, and try a skitter, skate or a dapple. A dapple simply uses the leader dangling out of the tip of the rod over the stream to dangle the fly on the water, allowing it to skate on the surface. If this does not produce, strip out a bit of line and, holding the rod-tip high, allow the fly to skate back and forth on the water using subtle rod-tip manipulation to achieve this effect. You can continue to let out line a bit at a time and cover the whole pool. In addition, try pulling the fly suddenly toward you, causing the bug to quickly pop under water and skitter upstream slightly. Raise and lower the rod-tip and cause the fly to hop about on the surface to really cause the trout to lose their minds. Try daisy chaining the presentations together: twitch, hop, skitter, skitter, skate, hop, pop, drift, skitter….

Upstream too:

All these tactics can also be used with a little practice on an upstream cast. Raising the rod tip slowly can cause the fly to rip across the water back toward you and skate on the surface. A sharp abrupt mini-roll cast can cause a skate and hop back effect, and all the while, you can impart small twitches to the rod tip, causing the same action in the fly. A short and abrupt roll-cast can also place the fly back into the window where the trout are now excited by the active fly and drop it on the water where they will want to take it.

Down and across:

Using a wet-fly swing albeit with a dry, simply cast the fly across and down from 90 degrees across to 45 degrees down stream and allow the fly to skate and wake on the surface. You can add twitches as well to this presentation in which drag is now a good thing!
Add a dropper!
Adding a nymph emerger as a short dropper off the back of your dry causes two things to happen during active-fly presentations: The second sinking fly can anchor the dry and make hopping and popping more effective, and it adds a tantalizing second presentation, that of an emergent insect just under the surface bobbing up and down and back and forth.
Active presentations can also be called waking the trout up. Dour fish that will not rise freely, or have seen everything but the kitchen sink thrown at them may need their meal moving a bit to awake the appetite, and in addition, you will be more exactly mimicking the actual behavior of the bugs on the water, which is what presentation is all about! Just make sure to hold on to your rod. Takes on active drys can be powerful!

Notes on flies and casting:

The active presentation works best at relatively short distances of around 30 feet down to just the length of your rod. Often no cast is necessary at all. More line on the water equals less control of the fly action by the angler. At very short ranges just the last foot of tippet should be on the water. The best flies to use when presenting actively are very buoyant. The addition of hollow hair such as deer or elk, CDC feathers, and even small additions of foam can aid the fly in staying up and doing what you intend, instead of one of those toy football players mentioned before. Stiff hackles are a big plus too. One of the most effective patterns I fish actively was once very popular, but has fallen out favor: the bivisible. This fly uses two contrasting colors of hackle to cover the entire fly in barbules. The rear hackle or the abdomen may use shorter hackle than the front. This fly skitters like no other, and can produce some very large fish that rise with abandon to that strange thing on the surface they just can’t resist.
Expect a big ‘Bang!’ and a nice’ Gulp’ to reward your active efforts, and if the reader didn’t catch that, those are Onomatopoeia too! Gulp, Smash, Swallow…. Words that sound like their meaning!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Two or three weeks in crafts

This is what I have been doing this past two or three weeks. Building a leather rod tube for bamboo rods of 8' to 9' of 2-piece design, and a reel case out of leather. Enjoy the pictures! and more to come...:)
Andre Puyans'
 3 5/8th Hardy Perfect reel with a new case.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Matching the Hatch… sort of...

Matching the hatch… sort of. With apologies to Ernest Schwiebert

Bergman Plate of Dry Flies from 'Trout' and antique British rod with Hardy Bougle'.
Author’s note:
The following piece is a tongue in cheek approach to our human foibles and fly-fishing. Ernest Schwiebert wrote the bible on trout stream entomology and fly patterns, Matching the Hatch, and Nymphs, which contain great illustrations by the author, tales about fishing the bugs in storied places, and as scientific a study of Mayflies, Stoneflies, Caddis, etc. that ever has been undertaken in our sport. However, I have meet anglers on my journeys that were literalists, and like biblical literalists, often took things to a less than rational end. As many bugs as there are in nature, do we need every one in our fly box?

I had spent the last days of melting snow seated surrounded by books on the couch, and engrossing myself in the historic writings of the sages of fly-fishing upon aquatic insects, hatches, and flies to imitate them. Halford poked out from under a pillow. Skues resided lower down on the floor, where his nymphs plied the depths above the weeds of empty coffee mugs. Perched on the table were Flick and Gordon. Schwiebert rested neatly next to an ionic column candleholder higher than the rest. Swisher and Richards propped up each end of a stack of dirty dishes. Strewn over the lot were the efforts of the past weeks: nymphs and dry flies of all variety of styles, sizes and materials. This trout opener would not find me unprepared for any possibility.

Several weeks later all the lore and knowledge gleaned from those books stored in my cluttered brain, and my stream bag full to the breaking with the carefully crafted bits of entomological fur and feathers further to tempt the trout, I found myself on the banks of my favorite local stream. I sat and watched as several small brown trout ate some bugs in the riffles above me. I caught one of the tiny insects in hand, and muttered importantly to myself with a new air of wisdom, “Paraleptophlebia size 16 mahogany dun.”

I sorted through my boxes, now carefully labeled and arranged, and located one of the new exquisitely tied upright winged duns I had recently completed. I attached it to my tippet and crouching low, approached within casting range of the riffle and let out a long loop of line with an aerial mend, the fly dropping onto the water above the hungry fish and tantalizingly bouncing down to the waiting trout while riding high on the current. The first fish rose to look at the fly, and then calmly turned up its nose at the offending entrée, and ate a real bug. The next half-hour saw me change my fly down to a size 18, and then to a comparadun version, and then to an emerger, all without interesting a single fish. I caught another natural fly, and compared it to my imitations. If the famous Schwiebert himself had drawn and tied these flies, they could not have been a more exact simulacrum, down to the gray wings, precisely colored and ribbed body, and three tails. I could barely tell the difference until the real one flew off in a hurry to join its brothers and sisters and left me muttering imprecations.

I proceeded up the stream and around the next bend to see if the fish here would be a little more accommodating, but met with the same fate. One trout about a foot long swam over after eating one of the dainty mayflies and casually looked at me from underwater as if to say, “Give it up mister, we aren’t having any.”

Then I heard a splash and chuckle. A man was standing in the next pool and playing a fish. He was dressed in an old Elmer Fudd hat and wore a dilapidated mackinaw jacket. He was using an old sawed off hockey stick as a wading staff. As I watched, he released a nice trout and immediately hooked another one.

“Nice fish,” I called out. “What fly are you using?”
“Usin a brown one mister,” he replied. “Them trout are eating little brown bugs, so I use one of them brown flies to catch ‘em.”

He showed me the fly he had caught the fish on, and I was amazed and appalled all in the same glance. Here was some grievous sin against all those aforementioned great authors and fishermen whose writings and detailed studies of trout-stream entomology and fly-tying had haunted my slumbers these past weeks and months. It seemed to be tied on some old bait or worm hook. For a body it used an old brown rag, and the wing and hackle were twisted out of some giant brown chicken feather. It looked like something my neighbor’s dog spewed up on my doormat a few years ago after eating a dead pigeon and having a go at a heap of coffee grounds in the garbage can for an aperitif. The proportions were so far off, and the hook so much bigger than it should have been, that it seemed a parody to call it a fly. Then the old Elmer Fudd clone whisked his bent fly rod forward and the fly landed and disappeared in the swirl of another hungry trout. I went back to the car where I kept an emergency bottle of bourbon, and attempted save what I could of my own sanity.

Matching our little concoctions of fur and feather known as ‘flies’ to what the trout are feeding on is a great and important part of the game of fly-fishing. An elementary knowledge is necessary at least if one is to have any chance of fooling a wily fish with a morsel of food that instead has a sharp surprise hidden in plain view. When Mr. Trout wants a certain bug, he wants that bug only… or the theory goes… If he orders a grilled tuna sandwich with basil, feta cheese and dill mustard, and he instead receives a hamburger, nine times out of ten he will dismiss the offending sandwich in preference for his original order. In the remaining instance, he will eat the tablecloth, the hamburger and the waiter. There are times he may be so finicky that he will refuse every morsel of food not to his liking. Wrong size, wrong color, and wrong species… or right everything, but take it back to the kitchen anyway just to be irritating. This gourmet and selective feeding tendency has led to the study of fly-fishing entomology. Dozens of excellent books have been written on the subject, and if the reader ever has a case of intense curiosity or a need to cure insomnia, I suggest reading a few. One will learn in detail all the Latin names of the insects, their preferred dwelling places, their size, their life cycle with pictures and drawings of each of these, their color, their behavior, time of hatching (season – month – etc.) preferred time of emergence, sexual habits ( Hendricksons prefer blondes), and everything else one can read with interest and then forget or get helplessly muddled when on the water.

This entomological knowledge leads to a greater and more intimate understanding of the relationship between trout and their food, or just to more fish for the enlightened angler. At least in theory, because if we dare take the full-monty of fly patterns necessary to match the hatch on any stream in a given season, our poor brother of the angle would spend all his time seated on a rock by the stream sorting and indexing his flies and never wet his line. This is also known to the wise men of the English chalk streams as ‘Sporting Restraint.’

Our angling friend sees the fish feeding on the surface wildly and consistently one late August morning and, according to his acquired knowledge, (not his eyes) he postulates that the fish are feeding on tiny Tricos or Tricorythodes for those partial to the Roman vernacular. However, if we take this to its illogical conclusion by following these guides to the letter, we would need to identify if the bugs are Tricorythodes peridius, T. stygiatus. T. texanus, T. albilineatus, T. allectus, T. atratus, T. explicatus, T. fallax, T. fictus, T. minutus or possibly even… could it be… Tricorythodes absurdium?

In the long run it really doesn’t matter because any size 22 to 24 blackish sparse spinner pattern would mimic most all of these, and most importantly, as we remind ourselves after noting we are due for a visit to the ophthalmologist soon, we can’t see the tiny bloody things anyway.

I once knew a fine gentleman who tied up a couple of dozen of each of these flies in the nymph, dun and spinner stage. He waded into the water with his thousand flies and sinking into the muck on the bottom of the stream, was never heard from again. We miss him, but his hat, stuck on the bottom of the stream now marks a fine pool of trout.

Knowing the taxonomy of the bugs in general is certainly helpful, but when taken to extremes can become annoying, like the gathering in the back of the hall where the old fishing club holds its meetings, and when on any given evening after a meeting and a pint or three of beer may be heard more bad Latin then a prep school symposium on the translations of Caesar.
If you find yourself inserting ‘Ephemerella Subvaria’ into every other sentence as an affectation in order to seem wise while using a bad fake British accent, then you may become the guy at your company holiday party standing in the corner alone next to the potted plant and holding an empty glass.

We inherently want to know the reasons things happen. That oh-so-human character that leads us to study natural phenomenon and attempt to explain it. It is the character of curiosity that makes us human, brilliant, and flawed all at the same time. For always are we convinced that our new theory is the correct one. We propound that the sun revolves around the earth, various mythical beings created us and rule over our lives, that bad smells cause common diseases, and the best cure for that is by bleeding, personality and character is easily read by feeling the shape of the skull, bodily humors, etc. Certainly that is enough to make us shyly wince at our latest attempted explanation of why a trout likes Elmer’s fly and not ours. Wanting to know, however, has lead us to Gordon and Marinaro… to the great Catskill flies, and to the thorax variations. Wanting to know led anglers like Gary LaFontaine to don scuba equipment and discover that caddis emit gas bubbles that glimmer as the bug ascends, and many other discoveries and innovations that make our little sins committed on the stream so much more successful.

But… however scientific or grand our discoveries that lead to better bits of fur and feather, there is still the mind of the trout to contend with. To get to know the trout, we must get to think like him, and once in awhile after a particularly long day in our waders, even to smell like him too.
Perhaps feeding trout are like people ordering pizza. From across the room we know that they are eating pizza, but what kind? Is it a dun-variant pepperoni, or a spent-wing spinach and pineapple deep dish? There are so many crust and topping variations that the mind boggles at the possibilities. We can only make educated guesses by observation. Don’t take that to extremes either, or you might be like the guy who tasted some Blue Wing Olive mayflies to see why the trout liked them so much. I hear they went nicely with a light chardonnay.

Why trout refuse one fly and eat another that is better to their liking for some unseen reason might be explained by a guy watching the local football match on T.V. while drinking beers and eating a bowl of chips. He keeps subconsciously reaching for the chips and crunching them into his mouth again and again with about as much thought as capable in a trout brain the size of a pea, but when he accidentally reaches a bit too far and gets into the bowl of milk duds his wife placed there before Christmas, he hastily rejects the offending round ball out of instinct, and belching loudly, reaches for another beer instead.

Perhaps sometimes it might be O.K. not to know.
Sometimes the best thing to do might be to put our fly in the water…

Four anglers go fishing on a trout stream. One is a Catholic priest, one a philosopher, one a physicist, and the other the village idiot.
The priest walks on the water and asks the lord to choose him the right fly. He has absolute faith in the resulting choice.
The philosopher sits down on the bank and begins to contemplate the epistemology of bug knowledge.
The physicist starts examining and measuring the speed of the current, the roundness of the rocks, and the specific gravity of the water.
The village idiot puts on a fly and casts it into the water. In ten minutes he has limited out, and is back at his hovel cleaning the fish and stoking the fire to cook his dinner.

A silly little parable until we realize the poignant fact. The village idiot was the only one to actually place his fly in the water! As I tell beginning anglers, Pick a fly appropriate to the fish and conditions, tie it onto your leader, have confidence, and put it into the water. Those thousand flies in your boxes can never catch a fish, only the one in the water can.

That is not to say that an intimate knowledge of trout stream hatches and life cycles is not important, it is just that it is only one element of the game. Presentation and reading water being equally important among others. Your fly may be a perfect imitation of the bugs on the menu at the Cordon Bleu trout stream, but we also have to get them to the trout. I don’t know any epicurians of my acquaintance that show up to dine at the Ritz, and just read the menu.

Speaking of menus…
One thing stands out among the fly boxes of some of the best trout anglers I have ever had the pleasure to wet a line with. They use general patterns and a few more specific ones. General patterns match a number of insects of the same species… like the Adams, Gray Fox Variant or Hare’s Ear. One fly can manage a hatch of a size to either side of the imitation, and when this doesn’t work, then out come the specialty flies. When the trout are feeding and finicky, then we have to get fussy too.
Bob Blumreich, one of Wisconsin’s trout sages says (my paraphrase) “Flies should be suggestive of the real bug, but not exact. Exact imitations often don’t work as well as something that is the right color and the right size, but suggests the bug to a trout brain.”

Look at Al Troth’s superb pattern, the Elk Hair Caddis. Does it look like a caddis? Not unless we have a severe eye disorder or drank way too much scotch, but it does SUGGEST the size and shape of the bug with its tailless and tent-winged profile.

There are instances where one needs to carry a file cabinet of flies to be prepared. Still-water fisheries and spring creek trout are notoriously fussy, and often have a buffet of tasty morsels available to them. When this happens it might also help to have a psychiatrist as a fishing partner. The fish can be on emergers first and then switch to the duns, and then ignore both for something you can’t see. Meanwhile the largest spinner fall you have ever seen is occurring and the trout don’t care.

Since the preponderance of water I fish for trout are spring creeks, I tend to carry a lot of flies with me. I used to use a vest, but got tired of constantly having to rummage in the pockets, and decided to utilize a stream bag instead. Then I reorganized all my flies by species and purchased several more boxes to store them in. As a result, I was both more organized and disorganized at the same time. Instead of rummaging around in pockets for boxes, I now rooted around in my shoulder bag for them, usually dropping a few on the ground from time to time. The bag was heavy too, causing my shoulder to hurt and slump, so I moved the strap to the other shoulder, causing that one to slump equally as bad.

Back on the stream, you fumble with your flybox while extracting a pattern and dump the whole shebang into the river, following it downstream with loud splashing and many cries of dismay, while every one of the artificial flies gets ingested by a trout smacking its lips for more. Your buddy asks from downstream which box you dropped. “Caddis box,” you answer, and then watch with horror and fascination as he ties on a caddis and collects all your flies one by one by hooking the very fish that just chowed down on your chum smorgasbord, and after carefully removing your flies from their lips, hands them back to you with a wink. This is called in better-educated circles “Matching the Catch.”

Maybe old Elmer knew something after all…
Maybe sometimes less can be more…

Funny, but if you contrast the approach of great authors and anglers such as Art Flick and Ernest Schwiebert, one may view the two great schools of thought, those of general suggestive flies, and of perfect imitations. Thankfully, this sport is big enough to allow for both. If the minor studies in entomology cause both clarification and obfuscation at the same time, we may remind ourselves that making things far more complicated than necessary for most people in the spirit and intent of explanation is one of the great aspects of this little hobby of ours. For some of us, knowing the Latin name of the bug, its sex, and exact size and color might add something to the game we play with the trout, and others of us might not care at all, preferring to fish a little olive bug when that is what the fish are eating.

So next time you run across someone sitting on the bank deep into study of a copy of the epic seven volume tome “Naturalis Insectora Stupendium,” and searching through his ten drawer chest fly box, you might want to have a few brown rag flies handy to give him. You may be doing him a favor.