Saturday, December 9, 2017

A portrait in miniature: Driftless trout streams



We slow down as our footsteps take us into the woods and up the valley where the stream gets smaller and more intimate. Stepping quietly, our senses detect the little music; tinkles of bells, murmurs of woodwinds, swirls of flutes, brush strokes both bold and exact.

It focuses the eyes and concentrates the senses. We are one in harmony with the stream. We are part of it. We stepped into its realm one foot in the element of water, one foot on earth, our minds in the air above and eyes in wonder, searching… heightened senses… spot a wild orchid, a water spider, watch a tiny brook trout explore a riffle in circles unaware you are now a part of its world. We feel welcome, not an intruder. The gallery opens for us…


They are intimate because we enter the portrait. We are part of it for a fleeting moment…

 
The streams are introspective. Dancing lights of water sparkle like little flashing mirrors and highlights provide the lighting to make the portrait glow. We are reflective now among the tunnels of valleys hidden among hills. We pause to strive to understand… to interpret.

We even seem to breath in miniature in order not to disturb this quiet song.

This art exhibit was not promoted, and the portraits so hidden that the show does not begin until we stop to smell a flower, or turn the artwork on its side to reveal its colors: Brown trout… toasted Amish bread with honey and raspberries with halos of ripe blueberries. Brook trout so colored that they seem out of proportion to size. How can such a bright canvas be hidden here? They are tubes of paint rolling along the cobble-palette at the bottom to be uncovered for a mere moment in time, splashed across our memory in bright strokes like a Van Gogh.

Is it a portrait or a landscape? Only the artist knows, and we may think we know his or her intentions, only to be confronted around the next bend, as the gallery changes anew.

The streams are awash with color and shadow, their features thrusting forth proudly in personalities captured in a mere sitting. A moment in time ageless now as they move from birth to death, from spring to confluence, only to sit again for a new portrait the next time we step into their studio and smell the colors of the foliage and water on the artist’s brushes sweeping gently like trees across the canvas of nature.

They will be there next time we visit, differently intimate and small, but with such art to kiss the senses each moment, around every curve, every cheek, lip, and riffle.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Eclipse of the Wet Fly


 

Of all the aspects and methods of fly-fishing, none stood so dominant and disappeared so fast as the wet fly and its fishing techniques. Look back to the book ‘Trout’ by Ray Bergman, one of the seminal tomes of the sport, and we find it opening at the very front with 9 pages filled with wet flies. Within 40 years of its publication, the wet fly in all its style, colors, and glory was eclipsed and disappeared like the passenger pigeon as newer nymph and bobber techniques developed allowing easier catching. Wet flies were banished to the lochs of Ireland and Wales from which they were born. Except… for people like me that are so curious that they can’t leave well enough alone!

Wet Flies on Hardy reel with my wet fly box.

For those that think that fishing with a wet fly is no longer a good way to catch trout, or inelegant, au contraire! It worked in the past, and it works just as well today… if it could emerge from the shroud of history. Not that there is much opportunity, for a trip to a fly shop and a query regarding a stock of wets might raise some eyebrows as very few or none are available, and the kid behind the counter may not even know what they are.


This is a shame, since all the thought and skill put into their development deserves another look. What about those gaudy colors one might ask? Well, see.. the developers of such flies as Greenwell’s Glory, Claret and Grouse, Tup’s Indispensable, Butcher, etc. designed them to be fished wet. When wet that yellow silk with a dark hook underneath turns the perfect olive. The claret becomes a wonderful glowing deep brown, and the oranges a fiery sienna. Wet flies can represent anything in the water in a swimming stage. Swung downstream they are a hatching nymph, pulsed and twitched a swimming nymph, and fished upstream an emerger. They are as versatile as they are beautiful. Those names that call from the past such as the Professor or Governor were lovely too. The lighter flies could be dressed with floatant and fished dry. Indeed, this is how the dry fly developed. The wet fly was first. A partridge and green, a wet fly without a wing known as a North Country wet due to it’s origin in Yorkshire makes a deadly caddis emerger in faster water. ‘Soft-Hackles,’ the category of fly that includes unwinged flies often hackled with soft grouse or partridge feathers have seen a resurgence in some circles due to their being championed and written about by Sylvester Nemes, but still seem to be a long shot to be found in an American trout fly-box.


In the past, and still practiced in the British Isles is the technique of assembling the “Cast.” This is an arrangement of a number of flies attached to a leader at different spacing and different arrangement. A point fly and droppers and dapplers: the arrangement of such and sequence leading to many scotch-fueled arguments and squabbles after the fishing was done. However, we don’t have to place 3 flies on a leader to fish a wet….


In fact, the oldest technique to fly-fishing may be the wet-fly swing. Funny, but that was eclipsed too, banished to the world of spey flies and rods. I keep having to explain it to anglers on the stream. No, drag is good! Just cast it across and swing it down below you. Control speed and depth by leading or following the fly with the rod tip. Add mends and experiment with casting angles. How many today could identify the Leisenring Lift? This is the moment the swung fly becomes tight and begins to rise in the water column: a sure sign to the trout that this bug is alive and needs to be eaten! A single wet fly fished on the swing or actively can be deadly! Tied on a larger hook such as a size 8 heavy wet hook, they can represent even a baitfish. One can fish them just as we fish a modern streamer.


It isn’t only the flies and how they were fished that were eclipsed and then relegated to the ash bin, but also the amazing art of tying the wet fly. The blending of dubbings and colors takes up whole books, as does correct feathers for winging and the proper colors of floss. The techniques of hackling a wet and how to reverse and hump a wing, correct proportions, and dubbing blending are an important aspect of the art of fly-tying, yet few people would even know where to start.

The ironic thing is it is easy. Tying the flies is comparatively easy, and fishing them is simple as well.

 
You don’t need any special equipment either. I like fishing heavy and long old wet-fly rods with sloppy action because I think it is fun, but any rod will work. Add a small sink-tip or sinking poly-leader to your line if you wish.
British tubular steel wet fly rod with a nice brown trout caught swinging a wet fly.

 
It might open angler’s eyes to a whole ‘new’ way of approaching the rivers and streams, but first we have to overcome the prejudice of unpopularity. G.E.M. Skues and Kingsmill Moore rusting away in some attic…

 
It makes no sense. The wet fly is still viable… Possibly even more so today when generations of trout have never seen its like on the stream…

 

Perhaps it is time to get a little wet…

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Well Bought and Well Worn




One of Frosty's old fly boxes with 1920s Monatague rod and Hardy reel.

This year I went on my first deer hunt. I inherited from my Father a beautiful Steyr Mannlicher model ‘M’ bolt action with rich wood stock and fine bluing. He may never have shot it, and it certainly had never seen the field. I put on dad’s old hunting boots and took along a pair of wonderful Swarovski binoculars he used for bird watching for many years. After 3 hours of sitting in the cold on the last evening, the deer season ended without a shot being fired. I got up with numb legs and made my way down the hillside back to the cabin. Halfway there I had to step over a series of logs. Since I had limited feeling in my feet, my right boot caught on the obstruction and I took a header, putting a scratch in the rifle.

 


Back at the cabin after a dinner of wild game I showed the scratch in the rifle to my compatriots. “Good,” one of them exclaimed… “Now it is used and a real hunting rifle.”

 
I pondered on that a bit and then began a discussion on equipment and tackle for hunting and fishing. The theme that was developing was one of choosing one or two special pieces of gear, using them well, and caring for them.

 
Back home, I met with the son of Frosty Stevens, a fly-fisherman back in the day on the northern Wisconsin streams such as the Wolf and the Peshtigo. He and his wife made the 3 hour journey from home to make the gift to me of Frosty’s tackle including framed trout prints, his vest, and his beautiful hand-made wooden trout net among other things. It was a very special moment. They wanted the memories to continue with someone who could truly appreciate it. I was and am grateful and humbled. In the course of discussions, we discovered that his old fishing partner was Carl Blomberg. Carl’s son was Ron Blomberg, who married my mother’s cousin. We said at the same time ‘Six degrees of separation.” A connection had been made.
Frosty's wooden net. Hand made by Harry Baumann

 
As I examined the gear, I noticed one thing right away. The gear was well worn and cared for. The flies were used and little bits of tippet were still tied to several. They were arranged meticulously in old metal boxes, and most were hand-tied locally. The rods had dirty grips and sets to them. The leader wallets were worn at the edges. Frosty owned tackle that was among the best one could buy back in the day. It told a story of a man who was passionate about his sport, and the small collection of tackle was well maintained and well used. He chose his gear carefully, and from examining the knots and whatnot, I realized that here was a man who knew what he was doing, and did it very well indeed.

 
This is why I love old fly-fishing gear. It has a legacy. It seeps of history and encounters on the river and stream, and its owner’s personality and soul are part of it now.

 
Later that day I was looking at used tackle sites online, and I noticed something. So much gear had been purchased and was now for sale that was very lightly used and practically new. That led to some reflection on a bygone era in America and the modern world.

 
My grandmother owned a Singer sewing machine. A treadle model of all metal, it was used for years and years converting the older boys pants into skirts for the girls, sewing dresses, and endlessly patching and fixing things. For all I know, it most likely is still being used. It was probably an expensive model, and for a family raising ten children on one income in rural central Wisconsin, it was an investment. They had bought the best they could afford, used it well, and cherished it. They oiled it, tightened the belt, and polished it. It gave back in functionality by clothing the whole family during the Great Depression. Parallel this to fly-fishing gear and look at Frosty’s equipment and we see the same themes. Well chosen equipment, cared for and used. The purpose of the tool was more important than the quantity owned. Collectors would be laughed at.

 
If the limitation of owning a few pieces of fine tackle instead of 20 rods ever occurred to people like Frosty, it would be a foreign concept. One used what one had. Skill in the outdoors and reading and learning made up for limitations. If one had a hard time casting, he or she didn’t just sell the rod and buy a new one hoping that skill could be purchased, instead they went fishing and learned to use the gear they had.

 
Trout I caught this fall on Frosty Steven's old H&I Tonka Prince, his CFO reel and his line.
Contrast that with today. In our consumer-driven world things are commodities; their souls stripped by mass production, they no longer mean the same thing to us. They no longer carry the years and the memories in their dents and scratches, their worn pawls and gears. People buy and sell things in a never ending quest for the magic bean, buying into the concept that new equals better. Can’t shoot straight? Better buy a newer gun! On and on it goes.

 
Maybe it is time to take a trip back in the philosophy of commodity. There seems to be an emerging movement of downsizing and the craft movement is giving us special hand-made things that are beautiful and have character like Frosty’s wooden net. They used to call any of us that showed up on the stream with battered and well-worn gear “Old Timers.” I think that should rather refer to the philosophy of use rather than our physical age. “Buy the best you can afford, and choose it well. Educate yourself on and in the sport. Take care of and cherish the gear, and hand it down to the next generation with scratches and memories.”

 
My dad’s hunting boots which he never used are now muddy and need to be cleaned. I think I will leave the mud on, but polish them a bit and treat them with wax. A day one comes home without muddy boots is a day wasted.


We all have to pass through some day. I would like to go in style, with my boots worn, my vest patched, my reel scarred, and the cork on my rods well worn with memories of a life well lived.

 

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Wisdom of Grasshopper Bridge


 



Sometimes not catching fish can spur observations that lead us deeper into understanding the world of trout and nature itself. That was the case one late summer day full of allergies, sneezing, and sunshine when a friend and I stopped at a tiny spring creek where a bridge runs over it.

 

When we got out of the car on that hot day, we immediately noticed that we were scattering grasshoppers. They were everywhere. An inch long and green, they bounced off our legs as we walked to the bridge to observe the water. Sure enough, trout were rising below the bridge, presumably feasting on the hoppers.

 

I quickly geared up and went downstream to work my way up to the bridge. I tied on a hopper and placed a cast among the fish. It went ignored. Puzzled, I began to vary the presentation: splatting the fly, dead drifting it, twitching it… all to no avail. My friend, watching from the bridge above, quickly caught a grasshopper in his cupped hands, and dropped it over the side of the bridge. GULP! A trout came shooting off the bottom as the natural insect hit the water and ate it with enthusiasm. I cast again. No dice. I changed flies. No luck. My friend dropped another hopper into the water. SMACK! A foot long brown feasted on the dainty morsel. I couldn’t get a grab. What was going on?

 

Then a car came slowly over the road and a local farmer drove over the bridge. The hoppers sunning themselves on the road scattered in a chaotic panic, many of them flying into the car, careening off the abutment, and falling in the water. The feeding frenzy that followed was a sight to see. I threw my hopper into the melee, but it got ignored again. This was a puzzle that needed some thought! I climbed back out of the water and joined my friend on his perch on the bridge. There we dropped more hoppers in the water, which were eaten like Oliver Twist going at his gruel. Interesting….

 

We went over to the other side of the bridge. The water was quiet on the upstream side. I cast a hopper into the pool and immediately hooked a nice brown trout. The puzzle was beginning to come together. The hoppers that fell off the bridge on either side were washed to the downstream side where they were quickly examined and eaten. The fish living on that side were so use to hoppers that they had become highly discriminating; counting the legs and measuring the size while examining the color of the bugs in a millisecond before eating them. The fish on the upstream side were not so discriminating, and could be fooled with an artificial fly. We experimented with our little hypothesis a few more times, and sure enough, the upstream fish were game, while the downstream fish were college-educated.

 

Getting back into the car and driving to a different section of river, we discussed and debated what we had learned. Perhaps it was not just the trout and the hoppers that provided us with lessons, maybe it was taking the time to observe and think on the stream while getting skunked that was the lesson in itself.

 

These years later, reflecting on the lessons of Grasshopper Bridge, I don’t remember the fish that well, instead, I remember the joy of learning. Those memories spur me these days to take more time out to observe and enjoy everything about this sport of fly-fishing. A sport that occurs among the wonders of nature, which if we make the effort to appreciate them, can often be much bigger than the fish.

Friday, November 10, 2017

An Ode to Old Fly Reels


 

 

Old Hardy Perfects and Orvis reels.
There is something about old reels that captivates me. Perhaps it is a sense of history; fishing them in honor of a time when things were hand-made by people who were passionate about their work and craft. Something that is hard to come by today outside the cottage craft movement. Skilled makers with years of experience toiled over these winches so that we could enjoy our time on the river with the best product they could produce. The craftsmen even placed a stamp in many cases on the inner surfaces identifying the maker.

 

To me this adds a sense of being involved in history. Where did these reels come from? Who owned them before me? Where did they get fished? How many stories could they tell if they could only talk?

 

There is a certain aesthetic in my mind’s eye as to what a fly-reel should look like: a classic look if you will. Early Hardy reels from England, older Orvis CFOs, even the ubiquitous Pfluger Medalist carries a certain ‘rightness’ to it.

 

Somewhere along the line the design of fly reels underwent a shift led by the look of technology, and today many reels look as if they were a part that fell off of a rocket ship, or a hubcap from a Ford Fairlane. The ‘newness’ factor became the primary selling point, as well as the drag setting that allowed the user to tighten down the check mechanism to the point where the reel broke off fish. Anodized finishes now come in red, blue, pink, and every color out there so that we can match our clothing with the reel.

 

For me, being a player in the endless timeline from the beginnings of fly-fishing and bringing a continuance to these old reels compliments the fishing itself like a fine wine brings a meal together. There is a story behind the wine, and the reels as well.

 

The CFO in the picture was owned by Lloyd ‘Frosty’ Stevens who fished Wisconsin’s Oconto, Wolf, and Peshtigo rivers back in the day. Frosty was from Waukesha, WI. The 3 5/8 Hardy Perfect is a pre-WW2 model owned by famous angler Andre’ Puyons who owned the Creative Sports fly shop in Walnut Creek California. The 3 3/8 Perfect is a unique reel as it was a special order having the agate line guard up, and was attached to the top of the rod instead of the bottom. Fascinating! The monster in the picture is a 1917 check 4 ½ inch Perfect used to balance large bamboo two-handed salmon rods. It came full circle from one owner to another back to my friend and then to me. The old Orvis Madison was made by Pfluger as an Orvis version of the Medalist reel. It also belonged to Frosty Stevens.

 

The care that went into these reels by their owners speaks to the pride they had in owning such equipment, for back in the day if you had a Pfluger reel, you were someone who was discerning. If you owned a Hardy reel, you owned the best there was.

 

They were the best, and I would argue they still are. Any reel that has all metal parts and can survive 70-100 years of use speaks volumes to the timeless designs and the craftsmen who meticulously made them.

 

A simple comparison that can be used is to fine rifles. Modern black plastic stocked bolt actions with stainless actions are more weather proof and durable than old rifles, but there is an undeniable aesthetic to rich wood and fine bluing, hand fitting and checkering.

 

Some may call these old reels and sporting ephemera ‘collectables.’ I say use them. Museums are located behind locked doors. Let them breath and get wet and full of fishy smells. Let the old ratchets sing again.

 




Thursday, November 9, 2017

Scales…. Of difficulty



 

“If God had intended us to weigh trout, he would have given them bigger scales."  Don Zahner

 

I had a conversation with another trout angler the other day, when he asked me “What is the biggest trout you have ever caught?” I am a little too sly and old to be drawn into this ego trap, so I answered “10 inches.” He looked at me strange, and walked away to refresh his barley pop.

 

Of course I was being facetious, but as I thought later about memorable fish this year, it seemed that many of the bigger fish were left out of the trip down memory road, and instead I seemed to value fish I had worked for with a special presentation, an amazing cast, or….? Foremost may be a ten inch brown that took a grass hopper cast with little back-cast room at fifty feet and requiring the fly to ride down a 6” slot and kiss the left side of a boulder to put it under a clump of grass. When the little brown ate the fly, my friend exclaimed” Wow! You earned that fish!”

 

How do we measure success? Or should we? Is it measured in size, quantity, or happiness? Can that happiness come from a small fish caught a certain way? The questions and the philosophy filled my head as I hiked the coulee hills near my home and finally emerged accompanied by a cheap merlot, (it was a good Monday) and some jazz later in the evening.

 

See, the comeback to that anglers question should have been “What is the most beers you have drank?” and then “Now, what is the best beer you have ever had?” Provokes thought doesn’t it?

 

Satisfaction does not always equal large or many, and neither skill. A sip of a vintage wine may be more memorable than the college party when you drank all that punch, strapped a bra to your head and ran naked into the dean’s swimming pool… or maybe not…. Bad example.

 

Degrees of difficulty may be like a fine wine that makes the dinner come together. You figured it out. You delivered the perfect cast. You beat the wind, tied the perfect fly, figured out the hatch, etc. You solved the little problems on the stream.

 

Size does not necessarily equate skill as one angler figured out after he returned from a big western tail-water full of pictures and stories of 20” browns and rainbows, only to get skunked in a spring creek ten minutes from my home. This is why some of the most popular destinations in fly-fishing involve a simple equation: Where can one take a person who can’t cast or read water, and get them into a big fish? (or even a fish at all!)

 

Aha… are the lights going on yet? How many pictures of enormous rotting Midwest salmon do we have to look at before we realize size is relative? They don’t count you say? Well… they did for the guy who caught them…. Which is fine too. We all have to start somewhere.

 

However, there inevitably comes a point when we perform a miracle on the stream, and are rewarded with what we consider the booby prize: a small fish.

 

I think it is the effort and the skill that are their own reward. Satisfaction and difficulty are inherently related.

 

So don’t get down in the dumps when some fumble klutz bounces a wooly bugger off the back of their head and somehow hooks the biggest trout you have ever seen. That 6” trout you took with an unweighted nymph fished upstream without a strike indicator has it beat.

 

Just don’t get it mounted…..

 

 

Monday, November 6, 2017

Depression and Blue-Winged Olives


Depression and Blue-Winged Olives

"In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer." Albert Camus

 

 

They have a name for it now…. Seasonal Affective Disorder or S.A.D.

Caused by a lack of light and cold temperatures, it infected me one dark October morning as the trout season was coming to a close. The day before was sunny and seasonal, and the colors of fall were in full glory; the trees on the hills painting the sky with a rich palette of vibrant reds, yellows, greens, and oranges. This day I awoke to fog, rain, cold, and a monochrome melancholy. Everything was gray, especially my mood, as I pulled back the covers and slept in. I had vowed to fish out every day of the season as it waned, but sometimes psychology gets in the way. I finally pulled myself together and got out of bed to face the day, shivering as I fumbled with the coffee maker. Cold gray weather makes me want to cover myself in sweaters and enter into an introspective gloom of reflection. I putzed and delayed the fishing while curled into a ball eating soup and reading Joyce since I had misplaced my Camus. Thus went the morning and early afternoon.

 

After warming up enough to begin to crawl out of my moodiness and staring outside at the dripping wet cold that was trying to get at me through the window, I knew I had to get active. Before the opportunity left me, I grabbed my fly rod and bag and hopped into the car for the five-minute drive to the trout stream. That’s right… five minutes. This depression was so foul it prevented a journey I could complete on a tricycle. The fishing and the creek were right there, all I had to do was stop listening to dark Russian music long enough to hear the murmur and trickle of moving water.

 

The drizzle was penetrating my gear and soaking my hat even as I suited up at the stream. I considered going home and going back to bed, or driving to the local stop and rob for a large bottle of wine to drown my mood even further. I decided my whine deserved no wine until the trout were caught and my feet were tired from stumbling over rocks. Hard work and exercise would chase the blues away! Sometimes we can trick ourselves with delusions, and sometimes reality can penetrate our souls like the fog that surrounded me. But what was that? The trout were rising! They were eating something off the surface of the water; something so invisible in the near opaque mists and drizzle that I knew instinctively what was going on. I remembered the old adage: The worse the weather, the better the olive hatch. The Blue-winged olive is a small mayfly that matches the gloom in shades of olives and dun gray blues. Its idea of a good time to hatch usually is accompanied by clouds, snowflakes and the London weather of Dickens I was in now. It probably is camouflage to prevent the little winged creatures from being eaten in mass by birds, for even a sharp sighted swallow couldn’t see through this mess.

 

The Blue-winged olive is so picky about the weather, that a single ray of sunshine can shut down a hatch, and a lone dark cloud passing over can trigger an emergence. The lower the barometer, the happier they are. I wondered if Blue-winged olives read Camus or listened to Pink Floyd naked in a dark room. Those thoughts still stuck halfway in the morning’s depression ended as I tied on a little CDC winged pattern in a size 18 and went to work. This creek is small, and has few large fish. A foot long brown trout is a treasure here. Well… they were lined up in channels and ate my imitation with gusto. I tried to make progress up the stream, but I got slowed down by catching fish! Good problems to have. I landed a beauty of a brown wearing his fall-colored wardrobe as bright as the day before had been, and a smile came over my face. Nature is funny sometimes, and perhaps the best place to look for a cure for anything is close to the source of the cause. The very weather that shrouded my happiness in wet-blankets provided the medicine in the form of a tiny mayfly bonbon. Even though thunder began to rumble over the Coulee hills, signaling a retreat from the stream, it seemed to me it was brighter… perhaps inside me rather than outside.

 

Blue winged olives must possess nature’s degree in psychiatry, for they can sure chase their own colors right out of the soul of a fly-angler.