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.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Tales from a Flyshop part two.

Tales from a flyshop part 2

X marks the Spot

Everyone likes an inside tip on where to go. After all, there are places to fish that are better than others. However, in our time-saving and time-starved technology shackled and over-busy world there seem to be more and more anglers that want to fish like it is an appointment in an electronic calendar. 7:00 am, Get coffee and bagel. 7:20 am catch steelhead, etc.

To this end, those of us in flyshops take an unending series of calls when anadromous fish enter our rivers. “Where do I go?” I usually try to give some vague but potentially strong advice like “Between this and that is a great stretch of water a mile long. 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. Once in awhile, somebody actually listens to this and I get to play the mystic hero-wizard who led the customer to a great day on the water, but nine times out of ten it is not enough. See, they want to know exactly where to stand, exactly where the fish will be, and exactly which one single fly will work. Reading water and the thousands of variables that make this sport more adventure than catching be damned, they just want to press a button, catch a fish, repeat. So I came up with an idea. I would find a rock in the water somewhere, paint a big red ‘X’ on the top, mark its GPS coordinates, and then give this map to those customers that wanted instant gratification. We could even place a bench on shore near the rock, and others could wait there turn to get to fish from ‘The Spot.’ For obvious reasons, this never made it to fruition, even if it would provide a barrel of laughs.


We are all guilty at one time or another of the minor sin of over-estimating the size and weight of fish we just caught. These errors can be separated into two categories: Excited but honest mistakes soon corrected with the aid of a simple tape-measure, and those obstinate and multiplying miss-measurements that just keep on getting bigger every time the yarn is told.

It amazes me how many times I under or over estimate a fish. Weight and length seem sometimes always bigger in the water and lesser in hand. This may be why the great Don Zahner said that if God intended us to measure our catch, he would have given the fish bigger scales! That comes to mind when listening to the tales of anglers gesticulating with histrionics to the great demi-gods of fish they have landed, fish so epic they are as likely to exist as Santa Claus or Hercules. Apparently in this land of epic tales fish fall into two size categories: small and BIG! Thus if an angler lands a nice brown trout on a tiny spring creek, the fish will always be over 14” if it is deemed enough of a fish to tell the buddies about down at the corner bar. If it is a bigger western river or the fish is to be caught on streamers, it will never be under 20 inches. Fish smaller than that are all a lot smaller. Indeed no ‘tweeners exist. In this world of purple skies and fishing gods, fish miraculously metamorphose from a dinky 10 inches to over twenty pounds in a split second. The ten inchers only exist to provide meals for those epic fish and a prelude to the moment the excited angler wipes his brow, gulps down his beer, and lets rip a whopper of a tale.

I know this because I have to be the listener like the buddies at the bar, except that I am entirely a captive audience and without needed lubrication of the spirit kind. Then when it comes time for that 50 lb steelhead caught from ‘Stocker Creek’ to appear as a photo, one must politely smile and nod at the 10 pound fish in the photo. Only once did I venture a glib remark or try to suggest a new portable tape measure. A bloke was telling of epic angling in a creek so full of fish that those of us in the know call it ‘Retard Creek.’ It gets a run of small lake-run steelhead or rainbows so out of proportion to its size that anyone can catch ten or even thirty a day. Pools no longer than fifty feet might hold fifty fish. The weight of the fish he seemed to have caught would make them all world records, beating out the great fish of British Columbia on the Thompson, Washington’s Skagit, or the B-run fish of Idaho’s Clearwater. I asked for his autograph after a bit, and told him he had caught all ten of the world record steelhead. He never batted an eyelid at my attempt to bring a little reality to Oz.

Big Box Misadventures

Why pay good money for quality equipment set up by experts at a fly shop when you can just go down to the Hunters and Anglers Mega-Warehouse and get the same stuff for half the price?

This is why:

A customer came into the shop with a reel, line and backing he had purchased from one of these Big Box Stores (after this referred to as BBS). He wanted me to check the backing. I looked at it and it seemed to fill the large arbor reel to the correct point, allowing the line to fill the reel and leaving a small gap between the line-guard of the reel. “Looks fine to me” I said, handing the reel back to the guy. “Can you make sure?” He pleaded. “I am going down to Florida salt-water fishing and I want to make sure it is O.K.” I humored him by stripping off the flyline and examining the backing. What the hell was this? Thick and sticky line lay in my hand. ‘What is this crap?” I asked.
He brought out a spool now empty from his pocket “Fly Line Backing” it read.

The stuff was the same cord that I use to sew leather when making rod-tubes. It is commercially called ‘Simulated Sinew.’ It is strong as heck but heavily waxed for tight purchase on the leather. This BBS actually sold, marketed, and used it for backing, quickly filling up the customer’s spool with a grand thirty feet. The first fish he caught in the salt would have stripped his line and carried it to the horizon…. Especially since the knot used to attach the backing to the fly line was a common granny knot, and the backing was not secured to the reel in any way. I rigged up his reel properly, charged him nothing, but made him promise that he would never go back there to save a few bucks.

Erik’s old equipment broker and free appraisal services

Mention fly-fishing to any twenty people at random, and ten of them will have some ‘fly rods’ and stuff that belonged to their uncle Zachary or Grandpa now ‘somewhere’ and worth a lot of money.
All of these people end up in my flyshop sooner or later I swear.
The most common are the guys with crooked and bent old production dime-store cane rods that the hopeful antique owner intends to allow him to put in the new swimming pool and deck on his house. They never actually ask me to appraise the rods, but just want me to “Look at them.” Now I love all antique tackle, but I also am running a business selling new tackle… or trying to. Convinced that the treasure discovered in the attic is the Mona Lisa of fly rods, they are usually disappointed when I tell them to hang it on the wall.

Many rod outfits brought in are in curious states. I have had fly rods with spinning reels on them loaded with fly-line, 8 wt rods with 5 wt lines and vice-versa, rods with old rubber and bakelite handles that melted to my hands when I picked them up, rods with repairs obviously conducted under the influence of alcohol and inappropriate tools, entire rods assembled from incongruous rod sections belonging to separate rods, rods that when assembled, fell apart in my hands, elderly widows with their dead husband’s entire collection of tackle, and my favorite of all: Automatic Reels.
What were we thinking when these were made?

Most of these are in a sad state of rust and dust when they are brought in to have new line placed on them. Always trying to be accommodating, I have literally had several of these explode on me while stringing on new line, and have had to pick bits of broken springs out of my beard and hair.
That reminds me of a guy who came into one of the shops on Christmas Eve at 4:30 pm. We closed at 5, and he wanted to use his coupon, which would expire that day. He produced an old cardboard box with a rusty reel full of dead spiders and spider eggs, and wanted new line. What the hell was he thinking? It was Christmas Eve for Santa’s sake, and we wanted to go home already. “What is the weight of the rod?” He didn’t know and hadn’t brought it along. I sold him a six-weight line and loaded it onto the reel afterwards thoroughly washing my hands of dirt and dead spider parts. Merry Christmas!

Odd Rodkins!

One couple came in to show me their new rods a custom rod builder had made for them. I had taught them a beginning fly-fishing class, and they wanted equipment. Instead of purchasing entry-level gear from me, they “Knew Someone” who built custom rods, and would have him build them each a rod. ‘Custom’ was fitting in an ironic sense. They unwrapped the rods for me to see, and I was overwhelmed by the powerful smell of varnish. Lovely wood reel seat spacers accompanied a plastic bait casting handle and multi-colored wrappings worthy of a toddler with a new box of crayons. The rods themselves were 6 feet long and seemed to be spinning rod blanks. Here was a true ‘Custom’ rod indeed. One third spinning rod, one third bait caster, and one third fly rod, and entirely covered from tip to butt in varnish.

I need a few flies…

This is a curious phenomenon…. Customers often come in and tell me they are planning a trip to a dream destination and river in Montana, Wyoming, The Bahamas, etc. They need a few flies for the trip. I make suggestions after asking the necessary questions, and they come to the counter with… 4 flies.
No, not a dozen of 4 patterns, but 4 flies…. For their trip… for their trip to that great dream destination… filled with epic fish… for a week…. In the wilderness…
4 flies.
4 bloody flies.
One fly to get dropped in the river, one to get lost before they get there, one to stick in the tree behind them, and the last one… the magic fly… to break off on their first fish.
Despite my attempts at good-natured advice as to the proper equipped angler, they often leave the shop with only those 4 flies.

Broken rods!

The true bane of existence for anyone working in a fly-shop are broken rods. I like to say there are two kinds of anglers; those who have broken a rod or two, and those that soon will. It is just a fact of life with brittle long skinny sticks like this. I rather think I could amend saying to more fully represent reality… “There are two kinds of anglers; those that having broken their rod, will gladly pay a small warranty fee and get a new rod in return, and the kind that blame me for breaking their rod.

Well, not always me specifically… often it is the manufacturer that gets blamed as well. So how did I get to be the blame fall-guy? I was there to receive the anger and frustration of the customer…therefore my fault. It always mystifies me how people seem to destroy their rods. I have broken a few, and with only one exception, it was my fault. I fell on two of them, one while tumbling on wet clay and the other when loose rocks slid out from under me. Never did I blame the person who sold me the rod. These guys crack me up. Most of the breakage happens when neophyte fly-fishermen foul hook salmon that are making their spawning run up great lakes tributaries. Big fish hooked in the fins, long brittle rods, and anglers that don’t understand how to let the fish run and wear itself out results in lines waiting at the door at opening times with sad or angry looks and a rod tube in hand.
I asked one guy whose rod had broken on landing a king salmon what tippet and leader combination he was using. “Huh?” he answered. It turns out he was tying straight 20 lb. Mono on his line as a leader. No wonder his rod broke.

I get guys coming in with 5 wt rods shattered on salmon. What were they thinking? The poor fish hooked in the ass and jumping down the river followed by a tangle of line and the tip section of a five-weight fly rod was heard by one piscatorial-eared passerby to exclaim “I was just trying to have sex!”
and on it goes…

Fishing Reports

Want an accurate fishing report? Good luck. See us at fly-shops have to be part fiction writer and part social-psychiatrist to put together a report.
Here are several examples and translations:
Fishing: Great
Someone caught a fish yesterday, there are fish in the river, the river is not completely blown out, that rumor about the escaped alligator is only partly true, the truck filled with gasoline crashed and exploded downstream from the last hundred yards of river, so there are still fish to be had, The river has not completely dried up, although it is 100 degrees out, fish can still be had at dawn and dusk, etc.
Fishing: Good
That fire you read about wasn’t near the river, it WAS the river. Don’t go. Stay home. Be very afraid.
See, these are for profit operations, and they profit from you going fishing and visiting their shops. They are not going to tell you that you have a better chance of taking a trophy trout from the river Styx with a dry fly in the pitch darkness while being rowed to Hades by the devil himself, then catching a fish in their river! If they say the fishing is just So-so, you might want to consider a game of ping-pong instead.
Then come all the inherent problems with rating the fishing. What is “Good” after all? To one angry angler complaining about our fishing reports “Good” was not good enough. He caught two wild brown trout @ 10 - 11 inches each on a dry-fly from a local creek. See, I would consider that “Good” fishing… apparently he didn’t. He wanted to catch numbers. That numbers problem is why tributary fishing reports for salmon and steelhead are often very relative. “Good” refers to when an angler has a near 100% chance to catch dozens of fish. “Great” refers to when while gearing up at the car, a errant salmon trying to jump the water falls accidentally lands in you car, upsets a grocery sack of spices onto itself, guts itself, and then flips onto the hot manifold and begins baking nicely.
“Just O.K.” is when you have a decent chance of landing a fish if you actually have some skills. That way when somebody who can only cast 10 feet and is more than half-drunk enters the river, they won’t come in your shop afterwards bearing firearms and complaining about your misleading reports.
Its all about setting and managing expectations, and the setting of those expectations is often beyond one’s control.

Beginners and experts

I maintain that there are only two kinds of fly fishers: Beginners and experts. Beginners have never caught a fish. Experts have caught at least one fish. Give me the beginners every time.
Think that is a Tongue In Cheek observation….
Meet the cast of the “Experts Club,” all experts in their own minds…
One guy didn’t know a Blue wing olive was a mayfly. He thought it was a midge. He was ‘guiding’ several other anglers at the time.
Another guy didn’t know the difference between a salmon and a steelhead, although by his own accounts, he had “Caught thousands of ‘em.”
One gentleman seemed to correlate 5X tippet and leader with 5 lb and 5 wt. He thought you could only use 5 lb. Test tippet with a 5X leader because his rod was a five weight.
Another guy complained that his new rod he bought from us ‘sucked’. He said that it didn’t cast right. He told us he used the same line on his other rod and it worked fine. This rod was a 9 wt.. His other rod? A 4 wt. “Nobody told me,” he complained. He told us that he had been fly-fishing for over 20 years.
One old codger thought that the WF designation on a fly line stood for “Wrinkle-Free” He was planning on ironing his fly line to get the kinks out.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Fishing vs. Catching

To the casual angler these concepts might be the same, so why an essay on fishing vs. catching? Because they are different. Fishing can be equated to a symphonic journey. There is the opening theme, explorations of the theme and digressions, building on the theme and tension and the final release of that tension at the end which leaves one feeling exhausted and fulfilled and refreshed all at the same time. Catching is just the final act. We miss the whole process, the whole experience. Only part of the music is heard.

But isn’t catching the ultimate aim? Isn’t that what the game is about? To answer that we might want to think about why we are standing in a river with a long pole in our hand fiddling with bait made of fur and feathers and not fishing with a net.

The act of fishing is a hope in itself. If the journey is long and obstacles are overcome and anticipation mixes with temporary defeats, oh how much joyous when we bring the fish to hand.

The little problems of fly-fishing constitute so much of that journey. How do we get a fly to that fish tucked under the tag alders? How can we make that cast across conflicting currents? Is this the right fly? Would an emerger be a better choice? Why didn’t that fish eat my fly? What kind of bird is that? These intensely absorbing little problems are the meat that makes the sip of wine at the end taste so much better. Enjoy the whole meal, not just the desert if you will.

What if we were fated like Theodore Castwell to catch a fish on every cast? We would be in hell much like old Ted.

Predictability is the enemy of variety, and variety is the spice of our angling. NOT knowing what is around that next bend of the river is as important as knowing what fly the fish are taking. The inability to predict results and the dilemmas that arise make us think and reason, speculate and form theories, which change every time the river bends again.

We are involved in the hope for a bright connection, not just connected without connection like Mr. Castwell. If the fishing is good, we need to judge how much is ‘Enough.’ If we don’t, we may become drunk with reward and no longer taste the wine.

I hooked my largest fish of the year on a bamboo fly rod resurrected from the dead by an expert restorer. It is a unique rod to say the least. It may be one of a kind and the maker was an eccentric genius. I fought the fish and got a jump out of it… enough to tell that it was a chrome female steelhead with just a hint of rose around the cheek. Then the fish got off. I smiled and walked off the run, leaving it to my two partners. I had sipped this exquisite wine and tasted enough. Another time I hooked and landed a beautiful fish in Idaho, and spent the rest of the time on the run eating wild blackberries at riverside.

Was I slowing down, or just sucking the marrow out of life without as the quote goes “Choking on the bone…?” Perhaps both, for they are related.

The anglers I enjoy fishing with the most appreciate time on the water without qualifications. A few fish may equate a great day, as does seeing an eagle, making a memorable cast and hooking an especially difficult trout of only 10 inches, enjoying a good apple and sandwich on the bank, or simply being happy for someone else to express joy at catching a fish.

The word ‘Memorable’ stands out to me here, for when I close my eyes and begin to drift off to sleep, I never see the fish, only the beautiful scenery and the water. Those memories are what we are out there for, not just numbers of fish.

But then there IS the catching element, and without it the journey would rather lack a conclusion, however scenic and memorable that journey is. If we got skunked all the time, we would be in a different little corner of hell than Mr. Castwell, but just as bothered. Getting skunked can also be a good thing, for it wets the appetite. We will get them ‘Next time!’ When that next time comes the wine tastes just a little bit sweeter.

So I will be fishing tomorrow. Catching? That remains to be seen… but I will savor the day nonetheless.