Tuesday, October 28, 2008
First the quote:
"When you visit strange waters, go alone.... Play the game out with the stream! Go to it completely handicapped by all your ignorance. Then all you learn will be your very own."
R. Sinclair Carr, 1936
Here is an experiment in the new tube series...
Sunday, October 26, 2008
Well, not quite so brightly as I wanted. Still have not caught a steelhead. Conditions are really quite poor, and water clarity downstream from the dam is disgusting. I threw on a big black Dave's bad hair day with blue flashabou, and a heavy sink tip and managed to be grabbed by this sweet little lake run brown @ 22 inches. A fish on a swung fly is enough for me. I was pleased to just get a grab. The back eddy I landed the fish in actually contained among other debris a crack or meth pipe. It was a little glass thing with a round end that was scorched. I would have taken a picture of it, but it got swept under a dead salmon carcass, and even I have my limits...
All in all, I fished with confidence all day, despite the poor conditions.There is no substitute for time on the river, even if you are communing with snaggers and crack pipes...
Seriously, addressing the "Salmon fishing" what the heck is up with the guy I saw with what looked to be a spinning rod with fly-line and split-shot? It was painful to watch as he flailed away, and staggered around in the river. He seemed to be stuck on the bottom most of the time. He would flop the setup out and then immediately be stuck, giving the "Wisconsin Heave" on the rod repeatedly to try to get it off the bottom. Then, when free at last he 'cast' again and got stuck again. Einstein defined insanity as "Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The comedy of errors that occurs on our tributary rivers each fall when the salmon run could be a subject for a movie. Titles anyone?
Saturday, October 25, 2008
I fished several of the best runs on the river on Friday afternoon under cloudy skies. Nada. I managed to snag a salmon just getting line out to make a cast and lose a pretty fly, so I put on a black Dave's bad hair day with blue flashabou. While micro-stripping it through good holding water for browns I managed this walleye and a smallmouth on the next cast. $2,000.00 worth of spey equipment, and I am swinging flies for Walleye?
Well, at least the fish could see my fly, which is amazing given the amount of silt coming from above the dam.
Most of the salmon are finally dying, which doesn't seem to detract from the numbers of goons with flyrods trying to catch them. Rain would certainly help at this point.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
That is all I have to say about the fishing conditions now. Muddy and low.
That is my new gonatid squid pattern with which I snagged a salmon carcass.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
I came up with this color combination and really like the results. Sometimes when I experiment, the results are less than satisfying, but these turned out O.K. I can't wait to fish them when the salmon snag-fest is over in the river.
Tube: plastic or whatever 1" long
Tag: silver tinsel
Butt: fluorescent green
Tail: Dyed pink golden pheasant wing fibers
Body: spun in dubbing loop purple and then blue SLF
Hackle: Magenta saddle followed by dyed pink golden pheasant
Wing: blue and pink angel hair like stuff woodlander gave me, followed by light blue arctic fox, topped by black arctic fox
Monday, October 20, 2008
This past weekend I attended the Tightlines flyshop 1st annual spey clave, held both in their shop and on the algae and muddy banks of the Fox river. I had the priveledge of meeting Simon Gawesworth, and having him sign my copy of his book Spey Casting. Simon is a true gentleman, humble, engaging, and humorous. I had the front seat 100 feet away downstream of him while he demonstrated spey casting. His loops actually sizzled! Chris Andersen of Sage gave an excellent demonstration of Skagit casting. It was nice to see Chris again, as I have not talked to him since we met on the Klickitat.
There were lots of rods to cast from Sage, Burkeimer, St. Croix, and Echo. Casting without any current in a muddy estuary really played havoc with me as I grabbed my western steelhead rod and couldn't seem to cast it. Dave P. could make the transition, but I had a harder time.
I saw Rick F. cast a country mile with a Burkeimer.
I also had an agenda. I wanted to try out my 514 grain Skagit short custom hacked line on other rods, and compare them to my old Flylogic 1308. The surprising thing was that I liked the old Dec Hogan Flylogic rod much better than the new Dec Hogan rods. They seemed to collapse; too much flex. I liked the Burkies, but the rod that just gelled perfectly for me was the Echo classic 13'6" 8wt. It was like George Burns meets Gracie Allen; symbiosis.
Steve Nelson was there, and I got to enjoy talking with him about western steelhead. Good luck on your upcoming trip Steve. Knock their socks off! Bet it was fun watching me wrap the line around my head while casting your Salmon King rod. I think the right line for the rod might be a twenty pound hunk of lead attached to running line...
The three of us from the Milwaukee contingent of spey bums got our picture taken with Simon. I am the ugly one next to Simon that looks like Grizzly Adams on a bender.
We three got to take a nip of single malt out of Simon's special river-JuJu flask. Let's hope it rubs off....
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
A philosophical look at fly fishing;
Awhile ago, while watching a spin fisherman walk far too quickly down a pretty stretch of my local smallmouth bass river, carelessly throwing 200 foot casts in every direction and hauling in the occasional fish by cartwheeling it back to him at lightning speed, I began a slow and long meditation on why I flyfish. Just what is it about flyfishing that seems to captivate my soul? Why have I given up all other kinds of sport fishing? I had a lot of ideas, most overlapping and difficult to categorize. Some were more feelings than ideas. I feared it would like trying to describe fine music with mere words. Perhaps poetry would be more appropriate, but I feared that I would produce something overly romantic and sentimental. In my thinking I had began to fuss and over-analyze the sport, when at dusk I made a beautiful cast, sending a pretty loop of line across the river and delivering a popper under the branches of a fallen willow, which in turn was engulfed by a beautiful and strong smallmouth bass. It was perfection. “Aha” I exclaimed aloud, “Thank you for reminding me.” Moments like this are epiphanies. Therefore, with all humility, I give you my take on flyfishing.
A good point of departure is to examine what the world envisions when it imagines flyfishing. If one reads any mainstream news or magazine article over the years regarding flyfishing they all have common themes. Flyfishing seems remote and mystic, practiced by older gentlemen wise to the way of fish and river. Gentlemen who we can imagine engrossed in a good book at the hearth-side and enjoying a pipe. They might be a bit misanthropic, preferring the company of a good dog and an eight inch brookie to that of common society. The fly angler often is depicted as a bit tweedy, like a college philosophy professor with addition of rod and creel.
Flyfishing is depicted as different and elevated beyond the other forms of sport fishing. Fly anglers are depicted as serious; serious and traditional.
The sporting Tradition:
So, letting the magazine images and portrayals guide us, let’s go back in time. Flyfishing came to America via Europe, specifically England. Flyfishing was a diversion and sport of the leisure class. Only they could afford the time and effort needed to catch a fish on horsehair lines and small feathered creations. The common working man would never have enough time for pleasantries. Common men fished with bait and nets, while the upper classes were the practitioners of flyfishing; thus we also see the origins of the snobbery effect. The sporting tradition in England demanded that the animal or fish supposedly be given a sporting chance. (Except driven shoots, which although considered sporting were the hunting equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.) Fly anglers dressed in the finest country clothing, took pride in the aesthetics of their equipment, and fished in beautiful places for beautiful fish. Not a lot changed in the American inheritance and adoption of flyfishing. The dryfly was still considered the only way, and although the chalk streams gave way to the Catskills, the trout still lived in beautiful places, and the persons chasing them with the fly rod were still the leisure classes. Anglers dressed in their Sunday best, and flyfishing was still considered an elevated way of sporting against the fishes. Modern flyfishers are not all upper class snobs. We come from diverse backgrounds. We no longer wear ties and collars, and have traded bamboo for graphite, but we are still bound together by a tradition of a fish caught in a sporting way. Given this background, let’s look at some of the inherent qualities and themes in this sporting tradition.
A quiet sport:
Above all, flyfishing is a quiet sport practiced in beautiful natural surroundings. It is a sport practiced alone, where one can hear the murmur of the brook and the wind whistling through the trees. Gone are the sounds of the city and civilization. Gone are the screaming children and barking dogs. Gone are the roaring engines and sirens; gone are the worries and stress. Fly anglers are apt to stop fishing at some point, and simply sit and watch an eagle or a sunset. Most flyfishing is done while wading, without boats. When boats are used, often they are canoes or drift boats and non-motorized or only equipped with a motor sufficient to get them out of trouble. Many fly anglers are so quiet that you would never see them if their reels didn’t click. They silently glide into the water and disappear into the mist. The rhythm of casting is slow and quiet too, as is the way the fly enters the water. Quietness is important to us as it allows us to think. Remember, music is the space between the notes.
Nature and beautiful places:
Trout live in beautiful places, as do other fish we fly anglers pursue. Nature is simplicity and a force. We try to capture essences of nature and the natural world in art and music, the smells and sounds in poetry. Nature and its language and silence are part of each of us. It is where we came from. To practice a quiet sport among such beautiful and diverse surroundings as mountain streams, big freestone rivers, and northern forest brooks is a privilege and our worship at our temple. Nature’s spiritualism is a large part of flyfishing. At the end of the day, we are as likely to lock into memory the moment the sun burned off the mists on the river at dawn, as the fish we caught. This attention to the aesthetic qualities of nature leads us to care about our treasured places, and to become concerned with the forces that threaten them. There are few true fly anglers that are not closet tree-huggers, if not outright members of conservation organizations. We care because we love, and we love because of beauty. We are connected to the natural world by the footprints we leave and the loops we make.
More than any other kind of sport fishing, fly fishing is connected and involved with the act of fishing. Fly anglers have to make delicate casts, read water, and manage line and mending. We strip in line by hand in order to prevent drag or give a streamer motion, we don’t just turn a crank. Because of the inherent difficulty of flyfishing, we have to think. We don’t have sonar or radar detectors to tell us exactly where the fish are, we have to explore with our feet and use our minds to defeat the fish, and bring its jeweled form to hand. To me, involvement is essential to the experience. Trolling bores me, as does watching a bobber. Having to present my fly to the fish, whether that is a dryfly, popper or swung salmon fly, involves me with life’s intricacies, struggles, and patterns. That involvement in turn combined with curiosity opens a door to the natural world, and as we study it, we don’t just become better anglers, we become more aware. In essence, we flyfishermen don’t drink beer while aimlessly chucking lures, but instead may savor a single-malt after having discovered and matched a particularly mysterious hatch, or making the perfect cast. We are involved, and appreciate the ability to make discoveries and learn. We want to be more involved in actually catching the fish. We want to say “I figured it out, made the cast, and caught the fish.” We actually want to be the main participant in the little mental and physical chase between ourselves and the fish, not let technology or someone else do it for us. I always get a kick out of people that “fish” by pulling plugs or charter fishing with deep running dodgers and flies. The customer here is not involved at all, merely being the last link on the chain between the fish and a whole lot of knowledge of the guide or captain. After all the guide has rowed the boat pulling the plugs at just the right speed and in just the right place to take a fish, and the captain has the years of knowledge and sonar to locate fish. They are really fishing, not their customers. The customer merely reels in the fish for the glory shot and fish fry.
Flyfishing at its essence is a simple sport; a single long rod, and single hook used in pursuit of our spiritual quarry. We carry a box of flies that can fit into a pocket, not a large tackle box that weighs forty pounds. Although our rods can be complicated in taper, construction and refined use, they at essence are simply the principle of the willow branch in action; always giving and bending but never letting go, thus letting the fish tire itself out. Our flies are colors of natural furs and feathers and their imitations wrapped on an artists blank canvas of a single hook. Rarely do we need complicated rigging or weight. We need no sonar devices. Just the fly, line, and rod.
I would make the argument that we who flyfish appreciate our quarry more than other sport fishers. It lies in the inherent difficulties and demands of the sport. Most of us pass through several phases of angling. First, we want to merely catch a fish. Then we want to catch the most fish. After that, we want to catch the biggest fish. Finally, we progress in our angling journey to a point where we are satisfied with being able to fish. We come to enjoy the settings we fish in. We are happy with a small fish. We are happy with many fish. We are just happy to fish. We appreciate the privilege of fishing itself. Numbers are not important any more. We no longer have anything to prove.
In flyfishing, we have to stalk our prey. Whether a steelhead in a big roaring river, or a small bejeweled cutthroat in a mountain stream, our sport demands that we work for our quarry. That work and time spent on the river builds appreciation. I have walked off the water after catching a single memorable fish to eat blackberries or simply to soak in the moment. Some fishermen always have to catch fish. It becomes a game of numbers. When we turn a fish into a number, we have lost a piece of our soul. Perhaps anglers looking for numbers are lost in the river. After all, it was Thoreau who wrote "Many men go fishing all of their lives without the knowing that it is not fish they are after."
Flyfishing is a difficult sport. We have to learn to cast, to wade, and to read water. The limitations of our tackle connect us to the water like no other fishing. We have to think and learn; to evolve as fishermen. We take nothing for granted. The angling experience becomes more than just fishing. When we no longer have ‘bad’ days but merely ‘introspective’ days fishing, we have truly become appreciative of the river, the fish, and the angling experience.
In addition to the beauty of the places we pursue our fish, the tackle we use has its own aesthetic qualities. A fly is a beautiful thing. From a well-tied mayfly dry, to a full-dress Atlantic salmon pattern, our flies are tributes to the fish we catch. We spend hours at the bench tying our creations, just to send them on their way into the river with a hope that a connection will be made to a fish. We collect books on flies, and spend winter nights organizing them in boxes. They are small pieces of art. There is little to compare in a plastic lure or metal device. Bait is just bait. I doubt if other anglers spend as much time discussing and treasuring gear as we do our flies.
In addition to the fly, our casting is elegant; a sort of airborne ballet. A loop of flyline gently unrolling over the water to quietly place a fly on the water is something to appreciate in itself. When I practice in the park or the river, people often stop to watch for a bit. Would that happen if I were throwing a crank-bait? I doubt it. Watching a good flycaster can be like watching a gymnast and dancer all rolled into one.
Rods can be appreciated as art as well. A cane rod can be a treasure. With its specialized taper, hand wound guides and clear varnish, it lets us see the essence of a rod in its simplest but prettiest form. Even a well-made graphite rod can be a thing of beauty. Exotic wood inserts and reel seats can match with nickel-silver hardware to create a rod worthy of being photographed.
Many of our reels can be thought of as artistic creations too. Looking at a classic American s-curve handled trout reel with black sides such as a Bogdan or Vom Hoffe one cannot be unmoved. Then there are the old Hardy reels with their own legacies and traditions. Whole books have been dedicated to the art of fly tackle and flies, perhaps more than any other fishing sport.
All fine arts and crafts like these have to be used, and in the use of beautiful tackle in beautiful places, we achieve a sort of aesthetic beauty ourselves.
Quiet, peaceful and alone:
Flyfishing is a sport performed alone. Even if you fish with a friend, you are both doing your separate thing. There is no team, no winner, and no loser. There is no competition except with yourself and your skill. In the end the experience is yours, the memories earned, the fish won fair to hand. Flyfishing can be a meditation; a reflection. Alone we pass through time and the river, ever learning. The mistakes are ours to make alone, and the victories ours alone to celebrate. Quietly we stalk the fish, at peace with the world, and wondering what happened to the worries of yesterday.
A lifetime of learning:
One man’s life is not enough time to learn everything there is to know about flyfishing. Indeed, flyfishing can be thought of as a lifetime journey. It is a sport of reflection and thinking; an intellectual sport. As we progress as anglers, so do we progress as people, growing wise with analogies to life and fishing. If we are ever bored, we can simply change gears. We can learn to cast a two-handed rod, fish in the ocean for stripers, return to the joy of youth by fishing for bluegill, or simply put the rod away, and read a passage of Roderick Haig-Brown. There is so much to do and learn. We have become curious as flyfishers. We ask “Why?”, “What if I do this?”, or “What about that?”, then we spend time on the water answering our own questions.
So, let us go back to that evening on the water when all this contemplation started. The other fisherman moved through the water fast because his equipment allowed him to. He threw his tube-jig three times as far as I could cast because he could. He walked through the best water while casting to empty shallow runs because he never needed to read water. In twenty minutes, he was gone, and I would take another hour to move two hundred yards. Because I moved slowly, thinking and observing, I did fairly well. When fish started to be scarce, I changed tactics and cast to a broad flat strewn with boulders. The popper made a “bloop,” and instantly disappeared in a toilet-flush as a 17 inch smallmouth bass took the fly and proceeded to jump five times in succession. I landed it, released it and reeled up to allow a moment of contemplation and to drink in the whole scene. This was what it was all about. A blue heron flew by overhead, and the sunset-sky turned a fuchsia color. Now I knew...this is why I flyfish.
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Western Steelhead part 4-the goodbye fish
On the evening of my last night on the water, I ran into my friend William. He was in the run I wanted to fish, and as I pulled up in my car, he motioned to me to come on in. He was halfway through the run, and I began the long and dangerous walk towards him over broken scree and loose shelf rock. I sat on the bank and we caught up on fishing stories, etc. He had been fishing another river, which is why I had not run into him for a few days. He had landed a 38 inch wild buck just a few minutes before, and as I watched, he hit a wild hen on a bomber. I got to hear his hand-made reel for the first time. Beautiful reel and beautiful sound. Watching William is like looking at poetry in motion. Everything is right; the cast is nearly flawless, the swing perfect, and his smile infectious.
I started fishing the run a little further down than I should, due to another angler in a run above who seems to think that the whole river is one run and that he has the right to all 600 yards of this water down from his riffle. Because the flyline to my traditional outfit was falling apart, I was using my shooting head outfit consisting of a vision ace and 14 foot ploy leader fired from a Loop greenline 13’ 2” cannon. My running line kept tangling again. I HATE airflo ridge running line. As I worked down the run, William skidaddled, leaving me fishing the run after the master. When I had progressed to the spot in which I had hooked and landed a nice fish last year I received a thump. Thump? What the? I was definitely hooked up with another soft take. The fish let me just reel him in, and I expected a quick landing. I got him in to the point where the leader was within the guide when he saw me and decided he didn’t like my scraggy looks. WIZZ! Went my huge Sage reel. Out to the middle of the run he went. Interesting. Then he porpoised. Oh oh. Was that a salmon I had hooked? No it was a steelhead the size of a salmon leisurely swimming and porpoising with my white wing black max in it’s jaw. At first I didn’t think this was my fish, so I raised my rod and tightened the line. Sure enough, the leader led right to this… this… thing. I knew I was in for it. The run is sheer rock and huge boulders. There would be no easy landing place. I would be lucky if I didn’t get injured or break my rod. To make a long story short the twenty minute battle saw me nearly submerge myself, scramble over rocks, scratch my reel and abandon my rod altogether as I fought the fish to hand using my own hands and just the poly leader. It was like a fight between two drunks. Neither of us could get the upper hand, and neither of us would listen to reason or give up. I finally landed a @36” wild buck. My poly leader was destroyed and looked like a slinky. I was done. I climbed the cliff, ate a handful of blackberries, and symbolically clipped off the fly.
As William later said, what a way to go out….
BTW, look at the last picture. That is my LEG in the picture, and I weigh in at @ 200 lbs. This fish was huge.
Monday, October 6, 2008
Western Steelhead ’08 part three- the hat trick
After catching that big fish, I decided to return to the scene of the crime later that evening. A drift boat was in the run when I got there and it was filled with dogs and parked under the sweet spot. As I started 100 yards above the boat, I counted seven anglers on the run on both sides of the river. I was the last, but had falling light in my favor, so I decided to work down through it despite the pressure. My casting was struggling because I had muscle fatigue from fighting the big fish, and so was unable to tell that I was overpowering the rod. Soon I had worked down nearly to the boat. The dogs had abandoned it in search for their owners, or else smelled me coming. The occupants of the boat were walking upstream and arrived at the boat. They greeted me and talked of the beautiful evening we had. We were exchanging small talk with me standing ten feet directly out from the boat when my cast was hammered on the dangle. I was literally in mid-sentence when the fish grabbed only 20 feet out into the water and hooked itself, water that they had just fished. The guys on the other side of the river hadn’t caught anything either. I must have saved up the good JuJu for this day. I soon landed the fish, a beautiful 35 inch hen, and the owner of the drift boat shot the glory photo. It turns out that he was none other than guide Levi Carson, who was born on the river. Thanks Levi! And…. Sorry about the hat trick…..
Western Steelhead ’08 part two- Moby Dick
So, after being skunked for several days, I began to explore water lower down the river. On Sunday I rose late and drove into town for breakfast. My body hurt all over and I had a craving for real food, not granola bars. Driving back, I got onto a new run at 10:30 am. This is a run that fishes best from the other side, but I was unwilling to try to find the right place to wade across while fishing alone. Miracle of miracles, the run which must have been full of anglers at first light, was completely open. I started high and worked down. A downstream wind allowed me to cast a snake-roll over 110 feet consistently. Presently I got to a point where the water deepened a slight bit and slowed. It began to feel real fishy. Just then, I received a slight pluck at my fly. The sort of pluck that big fish sometimes give. I backed up a step, and made several casts. Nothing. Stepping down, a few casts later I had another subtle pluck. Now I was really feeling spooky. All alone in a big run, and getting just toyed with. It was like the scene in Jaws when Quint has his shark bait-casting rod and line out, and the director foreshadows what is about to happen by making the reel click once…then twice….then click a few times more….slowly.
Time slowed down for me. Something big was about to happen. Then the wind shifted upstream. Shit. I ducked out of a nice double spey and swung the fly with confidence, expectation and fear all rolled into one. Pluck…. I dropped line, and felt the weight of a fish. I then raised my rod tip to the inside and gently set the hook. The fish took out a bit of line and backing with a steadiness that was unsettling. It never went for a run, but just submarined wherever it wanted to. It dawned on me that I might have hooked a monster. “Call me Ishmael” I whispered. The fish came in fairly easily, and I was able to just reel it in until it got about 30 feet away and saw me. That’s when I knew I was in trouble. Once again, without any heroics or posturing, the fish simply pulled out all my line and slowly ran me into my backing. I got nearer to shore and followed. Once again the fish swam forward, and as it did so, a woman’s voice came from behind me, “You are so lucky, what a nice fish. It looks like around 27 inches” I kind of wondered if she and I were talking about the same fish here, because as it splashed and ran, I got my first glimpse of it. “I need a bigger rod,” I thought. The woman wanted to know if she and her friend could fish behind me. I agreed politely, back bent to the strain. For 45 minutes the fish dogged me. I didn’t want to break it off, and had to constantly remind myself to concentrate, placing just enough stress on the line and steering (or attempting to steer) the fish where I wanted him, or at least preventing him from running where I didn’t want him to go. For 45 minutes he lead me downstream 300 yards. My arms cramped. I began using the butt of the rod against my hip as a lever. I became dehydrated. Still, the fish wouldn’t come in enough for me to raise his head or turn him. “Have patience Erik” I told myself. “You have all the time in the world.”
Finally, I was able to turn the fish. By now, both the steelhead and I were staggering like punch-drunk fighters. I was blown away at the size of the hatchery buck. I picked it up to show the women far upstream the size, but they were busy falling into the river. This fish was simply huge. Measured against my rod, it came to 37 to 38 inches, but it’s girth was the amazing part. It must have been dining on steroid fish because I could hardly get my hand around it’s tail to lift him. He was the size of a king salmon. I had done it. Alone. Around 20 pounds of power. On a size 4 sparsely tied Autumn Twilight.
Totally destroyed and elated, I went back to camp, drank 32 ounces of Gatorade and had a mirror pond. If for no other memory, this fish made the trip.
What a fish!
Part one: feast and famine
I arrived at the Kooskooskee river in the early afternoon of a hot day. Wanting to be in the water, I set up my tent quickly, had my inevitable encounter with the crazy camp host, and ran into two regulars I know. They said the fishing was slow. It was too hot, we needed rain to get the fish moving, we needed a cloudy day, the stars were not aligned right, etc. etc. I took it all with a grain of salt. Anglers who catch fish never have excuses, but those who don’t always seem to engage in endless speculation. One thing was clear; No one would catch a steelhead by sitting in camp. I headed downstream into a fast riffle run, figuring that in the heat and lowered water the fish would be hiding in broken well-oxygenated water. I was surprised to have the run to myself. Eight casts in my size 4 thunder and lightning was hammered by a fish. I failed to drop line on the fish and lost it immediately. Right… I reminded myself about where I was, and entered into the steelhead Zen zone. There were fish in the run, so no more mistakes. My casting was all screwed up due to the fast water and deeper wading. This was a real western river, not the ankle-deep Milwaukee. Three casts later I received a pull. I worked down the run without any more action. River two, Erik zero. Nobody was waiting to get on the run, so I went up to the top and started again. In the same spot the other fish hit, I received another sharp pull, then nothing for the rest of the run. O.K., I had located the bucket situated in a fast riffle and obviously holding steelhead. I waded out a little further the final pass through the run as to present the fly more slowly and more broadside to the fish. When the fly reached the sweet-spot; WHAM! Fish on! The steelhead ran the downstream the length of the pool causing my reel to scream for mercy. Instant backing! After two more runs and a few jumps, the fish came in and I was the proud father of a 27 inch wild buck. Cool, this was going to be easy! Everyone back at camp moaning, the river free of anglers, and hot wild fish to swing flies to; paradise or steelhead Valhalla was mine.
I should have known better. My fishing goes in strange JuJu cycles. Usually if I wade in and catch a fish right away, I might as well go home, for that usually is the only fish for the day. In the back of my mind a little voice said “Now you are in for it Erik”. Sure enough, my initial success was to foreshadow a royal skunking. The rest of that day and for three days afterward I would search for fish with futility, fishing runs both up and down the river which usually produce. Nothing, not even a pull. I saw no fish rolling or jumping. By the weekend, I was beginning to doubt my own skill, second-guessing everything I was doing, and fishing without confidence. Other anglers were pounding fish that weekend, but not me. Finally, it dawned on me that I was fishing locations that were not holding steelhead. I caught trout and whitefish, so my fly was swimming well, but I just was not making the connection as to where the fish were in the river. The steelhead arrive in pods or groups. Get into them in a set of runs where they are holding and one can have a multiple fish day. I had just wasted time fishing runs that had produced last year at this time. Now I knew I had to change tactics.
Greeting my exploring new sections and runs was the weather. Clouds piled above the river canyon and winds picked up to over 30 miles per hour. A wind front literally blew me over. I tried to cast through the upstream wind, but when I held up my rod, all 55 feet of the head of the line went dancing in the wind upstream of me at a 90-degree angle. I went back to camp to make certain my tent was intact. Arriving at camp, I was greeted by dead calm conditions. O.K., so back to fishing. I waded out to the new run I had just been blown off of, a wade that included navigating a fast back channel to get out to an island in order to fish a boulder strewn rapids filled with broken ledge-rock. Five casts in, the wind came back with a vengeance. I was reminded of the Jethro Tull song Cold wind to Valhalla. I sat down on the island defeated, pulled the hood of my wading jacket over my head, and meditated. Boy, I sure was paying for that first fish. The river was laughing at me. I could literally hear it. I was going to have to work for these fish; work hard. This river canyon literally breathes. In the morning, cold air pours down into the valley forming a downstream wind. About noon it reverses itself and forms an upstream wind. One picks his runs accordingly, or ducks out of the way of the fly.
I tried to get on the several runs that I know that were the lowest down river, but without avail. People were literally camped on them. Several guys I know were living in their cars parked on the runs. That kind of stuff is fairly cheesy in my mind. One guy in a camper was stringing up a rod in the parking area to the run I got my only steelhead in. I greeted him, and he said that he had gotten two fish out of that run at first light. He was now stringing up a custom 16 foot rod and was going to “play” on the run. His buddy was fishing it now. Way to hog a run, friend. Rotate the pool between two guys so nobody else can get on it. Nice.
I went back to one of the best runs on the river and to my surprise, there was nobody on it. I scrambled down avoiding rattlesnakes and poison oak. The light was still off the water; a deep slow run ideal for waking flies. I started casting a bomber. Ten casts into the run, some guy yells down to me from the cliff above “Hey, are you going to fish the whole run”? He asked if he could cut in downstream a ways because he was old and short and couldn’t wade the top. I let him go ahead. Good deeds build good karma, but it still irritated me that I finally got on this piece of water, just to get asked for a low-holing. If this was how it was going to be on this run, fine. There were other pieces of water on this river. As I finished the part of the water that was out of sunlight, a drift boat crowded me pulling plugs within casting distance. The drift boat was in turn low-holed by a jet boat. I got the point. O.K. Lewis and Clark, time to explore new runs further downstream…..
Saturday, October 4, 2008
I have passed the Lochsa River (meaning fast water in Nez Pierce) in Idaho several times and have been profoundly affected by its sublime beauty. To me, it is the most beautiful river in the world. It runs from just below Lolo pass down to Lowell, and is bordered by highway 12. It is popular in spring with rafters with a death wish, as it is full of huge boulders, and runs high and fast from snow runoff until fall. The height of the mountains often means that the river valley is covered in mist. Bears, Mountain Lions, Elk, and Moose can be seen. Much of the water is quite fast and shallow as well as being nearly gin-clear, but every mile or so, there is a deep pool or series of pools after rapids.
This year I brought my 5-wt. rod along, bought an Idaho license, and spent the first day of my trip casting and climbing for wild west-slope cutthroat trout. I spent the first night at Lee Creek campground on the Montana side of Lolo pass, and after my day of fishing spent the second night on the lower Lochsa at Wilderness Gateway campground. Both of these sites are located in near pristine wilderness, especially Wilderness gateway, in which I was able to camp within 100 feet of the river.
I started fishing fairly high up on the Lochsa, and planned to just drive downstream and fish along the way. I kind of like having no definite plans, just a peaceful and easy state of mind, which is easy to achieve in this primeval river valley.
The first pool I picked had a green tint to it. The green told me it was deep and slow enough to hold algae, and therefore caddis flies could find forage and cling to the rocks. Much of the river is too fast for anything to live in it. The first problem on the Lochsa is how to get down to the river. The canyon walls and river are full of boulders and scree, and are often sheer, dropping at impossible angles to the river below. I scrambled down slowly, wishing that I had a set of crampons and some rope. When I finally did get down and set foot in the river, I found that even the places that look knee deep were often in reality chest deep or worse. The wading was as bad as anything I have experienced. Loose round cobble covers the bottom, broken by huge slippery boulders ranging from the size of a car on up to thirty feet across. I took it slow.
The cutts were there all right. They were rising to what looked like size twenty PMDs, possibly tricos. I ate a few by accident, but never caught one to make certain. The resident caddis flies of the river run about a size 18 or 20. I had entire boxes of flies, but of course, no small caddis or tricos. Instead, I had stimulators and hoppers, which is what the books and other fishermen told me to bring. Cutthroat are supposed to be dumb, and one could throw anything out there that was buggy and get a bunch; kind of like western brook trout. I found them dumb, but not stupid. With a hatch on, I had to come close to the right pattern, even if it was ten sizes too big, or not quite the right color. White Wulffs worked, as did X-caddis. The best producing fly was a parachute PMD, size 18, which I soon lost to a fish. When I did land a fish, it was about 12 inches long and beautiful. Spotted on the side concentrating at the back and rear, rose cheeked, and with that tell-tale red slash that gives it its name. This first cutthroat I ever caught was the wild ancestor of the fish that Lewis and Clark encountered in the fall of 1805. I felt like I was holding a connection to the past, a window in time. No cell-phones, no noise at all, only the voices of the river as it whispered and roared in its race to form the middle fork of the Clearwater.
I caught about a dozen fish ranging in size from 6 inches to a foot long. Because I forgot my trout net, bringing them to hand was often difficult. These fish are so squirmy that they often get off when you try to touch them to remove the hook as if to say “Hey, I am a wild fish, no touching with human hands!” I agreed, and let them go. After all, they had survived in the river since the last ice age. I was just happy to have been given a short glimpse at the timeless beauty of evolution and life, and hold in my hand for a short instant, a real gem.