Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Strange Case of Arthur Gribbs

The Strange Case of Arthur Gribbs
An original short story Copyright 2009 Erik Helm
Dedicated to William Olson who never stops inspiring me.

It was in the spring of 1965 as I wandered among the tables and booths of the Charterforth flea market near my home in Connecticut that it caught my eye. At a table filled with dusty items lorded over by a similarly dusty proprietor, I noticed a long fishing rod. As I approached, I held my breath as the object began to take clearer shape. Sure enough, An antique greenheart two-handed fly rod, and in excellent condition, despite the dust.

Nodding to the old man behind the table who was wearing an old jacket that was more patches than coat, I placed a hand on the rod and began to examine it. ‘That there’s a Gypsy crappie pole” said the old man. “Catch ya a load of crappies that pole will young lad.” I smiled at both the mistake in identifying the rod and the reference to me as a ‘young man’. Only a disheveled old coot like this would find me 50 years young. “May I lift it?” I asked while already moving it from its place leaning up against a wooden post. As the old man nodded, I took the rod in my hands in full for the first time. It was a smaller rod as they come, measuring around fourteen feet. It was colored a dark blue with some yellow decoration around the reel seat. I sighted along its length and wonders of wonders it was straight as the proverbial arrow. Then I gave it a tentative shake. As the rod flexed back and forth and the old man rambled on about some nonsense or another, a strange subtle tingling sensation seemed to envelop the rod and travel into my hands and forearms. The sensation was subtle, but puzzled me. Was this the ‘vibration’ action I have often read of that was used by Major Grant and others in their manufacture of greenheart rods? Certainly, the seller of the ‘Gypsy crappie pole’ could be of no assistance here. I turned the rod over again and again and began a detailed examination. The tip had been repaired rather expertly, and some small dark burnt coloring marked the junction. The only other mark was a simple inscription near the butt that read “Arthur Gribbs”.

Looking around to see if my wife was near or was still adding to her thimble collection, I hesitatingly inquired of the proprietor the price of the ‘crappie pole’ adding that “I already had one, but this one is in decent shape and would make a backup for those days when I needed to catch even more crappies.” The price was $20.00. A heck of a lot of money for 1965, and an obvious attempt at gouging me by the old man that ran the booth, but well worth the price for a rod like this. We agreed after haggling that $15 dollars would do, and I carried the rod carefully back to the station wagon, already cringing at the expected words from my wife, “Another fishing pole?” “Have you gone mad?”

As it turned out, she had found and purchased a set of pink and green salt and pepper shakers shaped like eagles which were made by someone who obviously had never seen an eagle, thus she could not reprimand me as she was equally guilty. As I drove home, I started thinking of the rod and of my yearly business and fishing trip to the Don River in Scotland. This trip, which I have taken for the past three years, was my vacation from the responsibilities of the breadwinner. I got away by myself for a week, checked up on some overseas operations of my firm, and got to enjoy myself without having to tow the family around to see the world largest ball of string or the fairy tale village in the middle of nowhere, America. The rod would be balanced by my old pre-war hardy salmon reel, a gift from the president of our Scottish branch and holder of fishing rights in perpetuity on the River Don.

That next weekend, As I took the family on a camping trip, I broke away for an hour to try the rod out on the lake. As I began to cast and get into the rhythm of the rod, the strange tingling sensation came back into my arms. The rod was rather heavy and cumbersome, but if I took it slow and easy and let the rod do the work, it became a delight to cast. That tingling sensation was quite strange though. Vibration indeed.

On July 23rd, I awoke in a quaint but comfortable Scottish hotel after a long but relaxing plane flight. After I visited the business and found everything in order, I called upon Allen, my partner, and the host of the fishing.

Salmon Fishing had been rather good he reported, as we drove his landrover through the beautiful Scottish countryside and down to the Don. “Small drab flies have been the order of the day, but the ratio of grilse to adult salmon has been better than average.”

We met the other anglers that would be fishing that day, and as I assembled my tackle, I renewed my acquaintance with Calum, the ageless old ghillie. Nobody knew how old Calum was, but he seemed to be a ghillie on the river as long as anyone could remember, as his father was before him. His white hair and youthful smile, as well as his wry wit and ready net was a welcome presence on the river.

The beat I was assigned to consisted of a series of rapids slowing into a deep pool. As I got into place at the head of the run, Calum grabbed my rod and reel and began to tie on a small gray and brown feather wing fly with what looked to be a throat hackle of blue jay. As he began to wind in the line, he hefted the rod, looked at it, and whistled. “That’s a devil of a nice wee rod you have there…I haven’t seen one like this in years.” “Sure is a pretty lass.” As he flexed the rod, his face took on a puzzled look, and when he handed the rod back to me I asked him what was the matter. He was looking at his left hand as he said “Years ago, when I was young and careless and after much proper malt was drunk, I did a somersault into the river on a dare and broke my hand.” “Since then, I have never had much feeling in it, but I swear that I just felt it tingle… Strange…”

Indeed, as I cast the rod and swung my fly, the almost electric sensation became stronger, as if the rod was singing. Half way down the run and forty minutes later all hell broke loose as a huge chrome snout appeared beside my fly, inhaled it, and began tail walking down the river making my old Hardy reel scream for mercy. The fish was approaching the tail-out of the pool. If she ‘went over’ I would be screwed, so I eased off on the pressure to try to steer her back upstream. Back she came to hold deep in the pocket. The rapids at the end of the pool were making an awful thundering noise, but as I concentrated on the fish, the thunder seemed to be coming from somewhere above. Calum arrived beside me out of breath and obviously excited. He pointed up to the now rather ominous storm clouds growing and darkening above us. “Looks like its gonna’ rain sheep and biscuits on us soon, we better land this lass and get back to the bothie.”

I tightened up on the line and began to gain on the fish. Each slow lift and reel was accompanied in rhythm by deep thunder from above. The rod began to get painful to hold onto. It seemed to shimmer with energy. Soon the salmon was ready for the net, and as Calum slipped it over the fish I almost imagined I could see sparks of electricity springing from the end of my rod. It began to rain steadily as Calum led me back to the bothie hut.

“Around 30 pounds I think” Calum smiled as I wiped the wet out of my hair with a towel and took off my Barbour jacket. “The best fish I have seen in a grand while.” “Ya best be recording it in the book” Calum said as he pointed to a large leather bound book placed in the center of the bothie table. I duly recorded my catch; the day, time, weight, sex, beat and fly that took the fish. As Calum waited for the other anglers to show up, he slowly and deliberately began to pour out two glasses of a single malt scotch whisky.

Fascinated by the book, I flipped back to near the beginning where the catches were recorded in flowing script with ink and quill pens and were now aged and stained. I was reading the section for 1902, and had come across an entry for a thirty-pound salmon on the same day and at roughly the same time I had just caught mine. What a coincidence! It was when I saw the name that my mouth literally dropped open. Arthur Gribbs, July 23rd 1902. RIP.

“Hey” I exclaimed as Calum approached with two drams of amber nectar, “Arthur Gribbs, that is the name on my rod, the one I got at the flea market…the one I just used to land my biggest salmon ever!”

Calum’s facial expression changed instantly, and he took on a dark and cautious look. He set down the whisky on the table and took up the butt of the rod, read the inscription, stood upright, turned, and stared me in the eyes for what seemed like eternity. It was if he were examining my soul.

“It’s a long story from long ago when I was a wee lad” he said as he returned with the bottle and topped up the glasses generously. “To the river, and the spirits of the unknown” he proclaimed as a toast as we sipped. The whisky was the finest I have ever tasted with the hint of peat and caramel blended with a whisper of heather, honey, and as I imagined it, the spray of salt and the wee hint of fish.

Rain thundered against the roof and sides of the hut. As Calum drained his glass and refilled it, his face lit from the side by the flickering of lightning.

“I was an apprentice ghillie that summer; my first year helping my father.” “I was green as a newborn but eager as ‘ell” he chuckled. “I was in charge of carrying the fish and the gentleman’s rods” he said, “not allowed yet to touch anything else.” “One evening we were fishing the very run you took your fish in.” “It used to be called the ‘auld medden’ pool back then but ever since has been known as the ‘dead pool.’”
“Mr. Gribbs was a ‘ell of a fisherman.” “He never tired of casting and was fun to be around.” “He actually made my job enjoyable.” “He was from England, but lived in the states.” “After two days with only catching a single grilse, he hooked a beauty in the heart of the run.” “The fish was one of the leapingist salmon I ever saw.” “It was so strong that he could not seem to gain any line, and the fish had done a better job with him than he got of the fish.” “After along about an hour it began to rain, but old Arthur, he just laughed as the water poured off his hat and into his eyes.” “He wanted this salmon.” “Well, as I said Mr. Gribbs was a fine fisherman, and he fought the fish well.” After some give and take he got the salmon to within a few feet of the river’s edge and went to tail her.” “He would not let us gaff her, nor net her, he wanted to do it alone.” “He did it too.” “In that wind and rain and thunder he tailed the fish, staggered ashore, and held it out in front of him while giving a primal roar of delight.” Calum took a long draught of the single malt and paused. “It was the last thing old Arthur Gribbs ever did, holding that salmon in triumph before him with that huge smile of his.” The next second, with a crack and a blinding flash, a bolt of lightning struck the tip of his upturned rod, and he was struck dead.”

I felt as if I was listening in slow motion as he went over to the book. “That is my father’s writing.” “Arthur could not have recorded his salmon on account of his lying dead on the grass.” “RIP, Rest In Peace…” Your salmon is the spitting image of his, all these years later.”

I took the rod in my hand, looking all the time at the repaired tip with its little burn mark.

“Here, Calum” I said, handing him the rod. “It remembered.” “The damn rod remembered all the time with its electric tingling.” “It is home now.’ “Let it stay here where it belongs.”

Calum smiled.
We raised a parting glass to the strange story of Mr. Arthur Gribbs.

The right tool for the job.

The proper tool.

A debate on the speypages site led me to think about the difference between the right tool for the job, and an alternative tool that may also work.

What the heck am I talking about?
Read on!

The debate involved the use of a two-handed or ‘spey’ rod to fish for smallmouth bass. I made the point that although the two handed rod is a lot of fun to fish with, and capable of being used to catch smallmouth, it is not the best tool for the job. Instead, a single-handed rod is superior due to the extremely precise accuracy of the casts needed to fish a fly in the heavy structure smallmouth often live in. This involves threading a popper between two limbs of a tree 6” apart, casting sidearm to place a fly 6’ behind and beyond a overhanging branch next to shore, etc. Popper fishing also demands that the rod be in motion in order to give the correct action to the popper, and that repeated long accurate casts are made to a single cluster of targets. This ‘target shooting’ is not what two handed rods are designed to do. Single-handed rods are also capable of everything two-handed rods are capable of when swinging streamers through riffles and pools. Obviously water differs between the smallmouth rivers here in the Midwest and those of the Pacific North West, but the fish and their in-stream habitat demands do not.

But then, in the ‘everything spey, skagit, and switch rod’ world, angler are applying two handed rods to everything from small trout streams to casting for bonefish.

My point is not that the application of a two handed rod will not work for these situations, but that the two handed rod is not the BEST tool for these specific jobs. It certainly is for swinging flies for salmon and steelhead, which is what it was invented for.

Sometimes in order to be able to comprehend the hidden logic in an obscure debate, one needs to bring in analogies. (Analogy warning)

If I want to pound a nail into a board, and I have by my side a hammer, a piece of paper, a screwdriver, a rock, and a salami, which is the best tool for the job?
Obviously the hammer would be the rational approach, but what about the screwdriver and rock? Wouldn’t they work? The answer is that yes they would, but never as well as the hammer. The hammer would make quick accurate and clean work of pounding in the nail, while the screwdriver will take much longer and be much more difficult. The rock works, but also scrapes and gouges the board. The paper and salami are right out. Some people might argue that their head would work to pound in the nail, but I will stop short of comment here.

I am going out to take a walk. Should I bring my walking stick, or the spey rod...

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Good Sport!

Good Sport!

I was reading recently of a description of sport (hunting) in colonial Kenya during the British empire period of the 19th century, and began to reflect on all the nuances of the definition of sport, and why it’s practice has engaged man for centuries. For this article, I will limit sport to the pursuit of game in a natural setting.

For definition, the sporting tradition, especially the British version that we inherited from fly fishing has a number of inherent characteristics.

First is the pursuit of an animal, be it fish, foul, or beast in a natural setting. In this sense, 19th century sport may be viewed as a gentleman’s way of affirming man’s position of dominance over other animals; a theme of western tradition and Christianity. Sport as practiced by many could be looked at not incorrectly as a simple gratification of the ego of both the individual and the species.

Second is the restraint of that power or the limitation of its use. If man wanted, he could slaughter every beast of the land and river, and in many cases, we nearly did. The sporting gentleman employed tactics and equipment that gave him the upper hand, but also allowed for a fair chance of escape. Thus, the sporting gentleman used a bolt action rifle instead of a machine gun or poison. The angler used a rod and angle instead of a net. This restraint only went so far. The end of the game was blood. It was playing with your food, but only for so long as the thrill lasted. 19th century sports used as much restraint in the kill as they did in making frivolous wars. This restraint was and continues to be a subject of debate and differs radically in interpretation and scope. For example, in Britain it was and continues to be a sporting tradition to conduct driven shoots. Wealthy country gentlemen, esquires, and manor borne sports lined up on vast estates with double guns and gun caddies while the drivers walked along waving flags and clanging bells, driving the foul that had been fattening up all year relentlessly toward the waiting shotguns of the ‘hunters’. The resulting carnage was considered sport. For hundreds of years the British have considered the classic fox hunt as sporting. Here priceless horses are ridden in pursuit of a fox being chased by a pack of baying hounds. The fox either escapes, or is torn to pieces by the dogs, while the gentlemen and now gentlewomen retire to the clubhouse to partake of aged sherry and cognac. These are just two examples of why it is dangerous to over-romanticize our sporting heritage. One man’s sport may be another man’s slaughter. What was true then is still true now.

But, for every example of excess, there were those that conducted themselves with class and practiced their sports along an acceptable set of rules that defined restraint. Thus the chalk streams were dry fly waters and low be born the man that dredges the subsurface with a wet fly. A single hunter stalking his game was accorded a greater achievement then a driven shoot, especially if the weapon is small. The ‘fair chance’ and ‘minimalist’ approach became the ultimate in sport. We fly fishermen take this to an extreme by using a single hook covered in feathers and fur and pursue one fish at a time while stalking the stream. Many fly fishermen may view the bass tourney types using sonar, radar, ultrasound, lasers, gps devices, satellite dishes, and fish scent as aids to their catching as less than sporting.

Along with restraint goes respect. The person that does not respect the game he or she chases will not become a steward of the game, the river, or the environment. Respect is seen in the way many people dressed and conducted themselves when chasing fish or game. Respect is seen in the intricate and beautiful hand ties salmon flies that were cast out into the river as an offering of beauty and a prayer or hope for return in the form of a chrome bright salmon. Contrast that with the wholesale raping of spawning fish by ‘fishermen’ with glo-bugs and we begin to see that respect and restraint define the gentile sportsman.

Third is the culmination ceremony where the head is mounted or the meat is consumed. Here we modern responsible sportsmen may engage in catch and release; the releasing of the fish is the symbol of the ultimate restraint.

Sporting should not be compared with food gathering. Gathering meat through the use of nets, baiting, driving, etc. is a necessary part of our ability to feed ourselves. No one should look down their nose at meat gatherers as not sporting, as well as in reciprocity those engaged in gathering meat should not refer to their activities as sporting.

What is sporting is a debate subject to all forms of extremism and debate. Taken to its absurd conclusion we have the character of General Zaroff in Richard Connel’s The Most Dangerous Game, who having become bored with his hunting big game with smaller and smaller weapons, as to increase the sporting chance, finally is driven in his fanaticism to begin hunting human beings.

Some fly anglers only use cane rods and silk lines, and may look askance at people that fish with graphite rods. Some anglers restrain their kill, but will sometimes take a fish for dinner. Others that practice strict catch and release may consider this barbaric or irresponsible. The bow hunter may see his restraint and the difficulty of mastery of his chosen weapon, as well as the limited range of approach and stalking skills thus mandated, as inherently superior to those hunting with high power rifles. This kind of debate and search for identity is normal, but one must always remember what it is that we are doing out there. Chasing things. Chasing them as we have for thousands of years, just with a more enlightened approach, a greater sense of respect, and the proper restraint.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

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.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Angling, Art, Thinking

"Angling has taught me about art, as art has led to interesting theories and experiments in angling. Thinking and fishing go well together somehow"

John Atherton 1932

Photo of the Prairie River Wisconsin by Erik Helm

Friday, June 19, 2009

Picking up fly fishing and the $nob factor

Fly fishing can be daunting, confusing, and downright unapproachable for many of those who want to take up this wonderful sport. The gear alone is pricey, and the terminology is a mix of antiquated measurements, technical terms and names not found in any language. The often confusing and conflicting advise newcomers receive does not help.
If one is a doctor or a lawyer or otherwise endowed with a large disposable income, one could attend an Orvis fly fishing school at some destination resort, but what do other 99% do? Where are they to go for advise?

In talking to non-fly fishers about some angling subject or another, I often discover that they have a fly rod in the closet somewhere that has never been cast. Some present from their wife or grandfather or other caring soul, it has sat there for years gathering dust instead of making memories.

I feel for these people, and have made it a mini mission of mine to encourage people to enjoy the great outdoors through fly fishing.

One of the largest hurdles to get over for a beginning fly angler is the sheer cost of the equipment.
I was in need of a new fly line for a specific rod, so I opened up the Cabelas catalog where I discovered to my shock that the price of a fly line is now roughly the equivalent of an average mortgage payment. Here is where fly fishing gets the 'snob' reputation. There are quite good rods and reels and other gear out there that do not cost an arm and a leg, but they are often buried under pages of $700 flyrods, $600 waders, and $500 reels.
I had customers come to my flyshop specifically because they felt they had been sold down the road and had their wallet fleeced by other fly shops. I had manufacturers reps that denigrated cheap equipment, and at all times exhorted me to push the most expensive rods and reels. I have no problem appreciating and using the best in life, but for the beginner, perhaps a wee bit of restraint is in order.
Sometimes the most expensive equipment is marketed to the angler that wants to improve his or her fishing but buys into the 'Magic Bean" concept that a better gadget will help them along the way, and solve their problems for them. The easy fix has accounted for millions of dollars in sales. I once had a customer that couldn't cast past his shoelaces buy a $700 dollar fly rod so that he could cast farther. The cost for a casting lesson with me would have set him back about $50.

So, to come back to the topic at hand, how does one take up fly fishing?

  1. Visit a fly shop and talk to a professional. If the professional steers you toward the $750 pair of ivory forceps find another fly shop. Buy a book on fly fishing. There are many good ones out there. Take it home and read it. Then read it again. Talk to any friend you have that fly fishes. He or she will give you loads of advise. Some of it will be good and some will be bad. Refer back to the book to be able to tell the difference.
  2. Think about what type of fishing you are going to be doing most and be honest with yourself. You are best off fishing for panfish, stocked trout, or some other easier quarry at first. Under no circumstances pick a famous trout stream for a first destination. That will be just setting yourself up for a fall.
  3. Based upon where and what you want to fish for, determine the correct tackle (weight of rod and line, etc.) Begin exploring fly shops and talking to the people who work there. You will encounter snobs, fanatics, and people who will either not speak to you or will talk your head off. If you want to get rid of them, ask them where the "Worm poles" are.
  4. When you are certain of the right rod and line weight, select a good entry level rod that has a solid warranty. long sticks of graphite tend to break after all. Buy a reel that balances the rod and does not break the bank, and the correct fly line. The line is quite important here. You don't have to buy the most expensive one, but listen to the advise you get. You may need to buy a 6 wt line for your 5 wt rod. See? I told you it was confusing...
  5. Once you have the rod, reel, line, several leaders, a spool of tippet material, and a flybox loaded with a couple of dozen general purpose flies such as attractor dries, wooly buggers, and small poppers, it is time to learn how to cast. But what about the waders and creel and vest, and and, and...? Forget about it until later. Learn to cast. Buy a video on casting, get a simple lesson, and practice on the lawn for a half an hour every day. Write down what you learn. Tell the neighbors to stop asking you what you are fishing for. Use a piece of yarn tied to the end of your leader at first so as to avoid body piercings in strange locations.
  6. Find a gazateer or other good map, put on a floppy hat, pack a sandwich and a water bottle, don the mosquito repellent, grab your gear and start exploring!
Cost of rod, reel, line, fly box, flies, leaders, etc. @$325.00 - $450.00
Ability to get out of the house and off the couch, share the outdoor experience with friends, explore nature, and catch your first fish... priceless.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tribute to Caihlen

My fellow two handed rod aficionado Ken Campbell wrote this original thought on his blog Haiku Steelhead (link on my blog)

"Each cast, each drift fished out nicely over good water takes on a spiritual aspect. Each one like a well worn rosary bead, a petition to the universe that asks for inclusion and each one another step into the refuge and peace of tradition and respect."

This sums up perfectly what I love about the two handed rod.
I tip a wee dram to you my friend!

A plethora of flies

I have been feeling guilty that I am not tying classic flies as much as fishing lately, but then in rooting through the piles of gear I found this box that I haven't opened in awhile. Holy flies! I guess I will start having to use these. This is just one of three boxes like it, and doesn't include the full fishing fly boxes and piles of scattered flies all over the classic angler's little refuge and study. Jeez.

A picture is worth a thousand words

A picture is worth a thousand words, and certainly more than a few foul ones...

During the public debate over the Estabrook Dam, one pro-dam supporter got in the face of a friend of mine, and repeatedly screamed "You can't float a boat in that part of the river! (downstream from the Estabrook Dam)" while turning red in the face. He also stated this 'fact' at the March public meeting, and if I am not mistaken, was the one person who had to cautioned when I got up to speak.

Well... here is a toast to that water that nobody can canoe or kayak in. Picture taken in Early June 2009, downstream from Capitol Drive in the Milwaukee River. Flow rates about typical, @ 300-400 cfs.
They sure look like boats to me. Recreational kayaks to be specific.

Warm water wanderings

I would make the argument that the fly rod is the ultimate panfish and bass angling tool.

Presenting small artificial food objects and making them twitch and move seductively to cooperative fish is one of the joys of fly fishing that so many people pass up. On a trip to an area pond recently, the bobber and worm anglers were skunked and went home, while my friend Eric and I cleaned up. What was the difference?

  1. Fish like to eat things that look like food they see every day. Small buggy poppers are more representative of the common foods in a pond than nightcrawlers.
  2. Bobbers make a HUGE splash on the water, literally scaring away the fish for several minutes after the cast, while a fly rod can deliver a 'fly' with a satisfying and attractive splat.
  3. Fishing with worms, the angler is hoping that a fish swims by the worm, sees it wiggling or smells it, and eats it. The fly angler attracts the fish to the fly.
  4. Many fish are looking up for their food. Largemouth bass are notorious for this, and suckers for well presented poppers.
  5. With a fly rod one can make five or ten casts in a minute and cover a huge amount of water.
I learned a few things about presentation this last week. Instead of casting out my small poppers across the water, I began to cast them at the water like one would splat a beetle against cover on a trout stream. This made all the difference. I was able to hit the water with the small popper, make it splat, pause for a few seconds, pop it, pause..., pop it again, and then make another cast to new water. The bass liked any gap in the weeds, and often were tight to shore and cover. Instead of 75 foot casts, we were making 15 to 20 foot casts. Interesting...It was like target shooting. Once we figured it out, it was almost unfair as the fish became unglued in their exuberance to eat our poppers.

This leads me to another thought on fly fishing. More than any other angling technique, it is a thinking man's sport.
The discovery and questioning/exploring/learning process is as fun as catching fish. A trip is often ended with the words "Well, we figured it out!" I saw this in Lake Michigan recently where I took my friend Eric to fish for small rainbows holding in a heavy outflow. The local fishermen were trying to throw slip bobber rigs, crank baits, and worms to the fish holding in water that has the characteristics of a river. Some of the bait they were using was the size of the fish being pursued. We analyzed the situation and used small streamers swung in the current to successfully catch the fish. The locals were not very friendly.
All we had done differently was to actually analyze the situation at hand. It made all the difference!

Anybody can do this. Just get a cheap flyrod combo, a bunch of poppers and small streamers, and go exploring.
Let the learning begin.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Random Observations #1

Some thoughts to share as I fly fish my way across Wisconsin pursuing panfish, largemouth, smallmouth, and trout...

Crash it, smash it, thrash it, kill it and grill it.

A small pond was discovered several weeks ago that holds huge panfish... or at least it did. One week elapsed between visits, and the pond had changed for the worse. The bait and bucket crowd had nearly fished it out. Nothing wrong with a fish or two for the grill, but when you destroy the source of your food or your recreation, then it is gone. People carrying stringers of multiple fish wandered the banks. The next week there was trash all over the banks. Snack bags, and beer cans mixed with tangles of mono destined to become entangled in my feet or that of water fowl. Very sad indictment of the "I got mine" mentality. Instead of leaving nothing behind but footprints and taking only memories, the goons that fished the pond had wasted the resource and left the detritus of their wasted lives behind. Good example for the next generation folks.

Beer cans.
It is a running joke with me and those that accompany my wanderings that every fishing access site in Wisconsin has a unique property: that of blue and white or blue and silver beer cans. The color seems important for some reason. It is always a Bud Light, Milwaukee's Best Ice, Natural Dry Ice Light or something similar. Once I started noticing this phenomenon, it became a game to spot the blue and white cans every time we peer over a bridge at new water.

The path less traveled.
Little Joe calls it "snooping". The act of peering and exploring new water, thinking and analyzing versus always doing the same thing and fishing the same stretch of water. Like most people, I am a creature of habit, and have missed stretches of rivers because I always go back to the same place. Part of this is a desire to figure out a body of water, but part is lazyness as well. Going off the beaten track and always having a plan 'B' or even 'C' can lead to great discoveries. I found this to be true on the Coulee area streams this spring when fishing a beautiful spring creek, I found cars at all the pullouts. I parked my car on the side of a road and hiked in to a wooded section of the creek and had it to myself for the rest of the day. No humans were spotted nor heard for the next five hours, but the brown trout sure liked my X-caddis.
Robert Frost had it right. Take the path less traveled.

Dumb questions.
The ubiquitous question asked of me: "Does that fly stuff work here", or "Do you catch anything on that flyrod? "I didn't know you could flyfish in a lake." "What kind of bait are you using?"
I need to come up with a frequently asked questions and answer card. People just seem to stick to a mistaken stereotype that fly fishing is for trout living in streams only, and that for everything else, powerbait is in order.

Never try to recreate the miracle of a first discovery.
Remember the time you found that little secluded plunge pool section of a trout stream after hiking through poison ivy and mosquitos and getting stuck in quicksand, and how the native brookies were so beautiful and cooperative with your angling efforts?
Do NOT try to repeat epic memories. The next time you try to find that spot, you will either become lost, fall in, break your rod, or find the stream devoid of all life.
It goes with other of fly fishing's little unwritten rules and maxims:

The farther you drive to get to your fly fishing destination, the better the chances of poor weather conditions, heavy rain, or tornadoes.

The second you change flies to temp a rising trout, the trout will stop rising.

The moment you look away to swat a mosquito, clear your line, or whatever, your fly will be taken, and you will miss the grab.

If you bring a camera, you will only catch little fish, but if you forget the camera, the biggest fish in the river will eat your fly.... except if you forget the camera on purpose, then you will catch nothing at all.

If you feverishly tie up flies for an expected hatch, the hatch will not occur until you have left the stream in frustration.

The huge super finicky and selective brown trout nicknamed "Bullwinkle" that lives under the bridge and hides in that inaccessible spot overhung with alders that you have been trying to catch for two years will be taken by a ten year old kid using a Sponge Bob rod and worms.

When you get to that section of stream filled with big fish that winds through private property, the lonely old guy who lives there will come out and begin telling you all about his book The world compendium of cabbage cooking and turnip farming in great detail. As soon as he finally goes away, the fish will stop rising.

The new flies that you bought from the bargain bin at the Fishin Depot will turn out to be tied with self dissolving surplus Chinese shoelace material and the eyes will all be cemented shut.

When you finally catch the elusive Hex hatch, the batteries in your headlamp will die.

When you do hook a beautiful fish that makes your reel scream, somebody will inevitably appear out of nowhere, watch you land it, and then wade in the spot you were fishing and begin casting.

The fish you hook properly and manage to land will be a hatchery drone, while the one that got away will be a wild fish.

That new river you have always wanted to fish will experience one of the following when you first step foot in it with a fly rod:
  1. The DNR just shocked it the day before.
  2. Last week the rotonone factory upstream exploded and the stream was declared dead.
  3. You meet up with some smart aleck who tells you "Ya should a been ahere last week."
  4. The local fishing club has an outing that day on the very stretch of river you are in.
  5. The local population of mosquitoes and deer flys are having a convention, and you forgot your bug spray.
  6. You are gearing up and you realize that your reel is missing, or that your three year old son has seen fit to playfully remove all your flies from your wheatly and fill it with legos.
  7. PETA has organized a "save the sea kittens" picnic and intervention on the public water you intended to fish.
  8. The state fish and game department hatchery truck was there the day before and dumped ten thousand stocker pellet heads in the river, and the entire cast of the movie Deliverance has showed up with all three of their teeth.

Monday, June 8, 2009

My Favorite essay

I am bringing this 2008 post back because I like it so much and I think it fell beneath the radar. It just sums up what I love about this wonderful sport.

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.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Using the good China

Years ago I remember an inspirational speaker on NPR talking with great humor about her mother and her habit of saving the "good stuff" for later or guests. She kept a beautiful set of china well polished and cherished in a separate cupboard which was rarely if ever used, and reserved for very special occasions and important guests. After her mother died, the speaker was dissolving her mothers possessions and came upon the "Good China" in perfect condition and began to pack it away. "Wait a minute" she thought, life is too short...USE the good China.


What a motto to live by. Yes, life is too short. Eat the melon when it is ripe, pick the daisy, suck the marrow out of life. Use the good China.

I am an orphan, and have lost both parents in recent years, and in dissolving first the family home, then Mom's possessions, and then finally Dad's possessions I came across that saving mentality again and again. Both parents were of the depression generation, so they saved everything. I mean EVERYTHING. This is a generational trait but got out of hand. Some of the most treasured objects were rarely if ever used. They were too good to be used. So they never got the joy of actually using the good China.

Recently when going through my reels I came across a 31/2 " Hardy Bougle' MK IV. I had put it away years ago because I did not want to get it nicked or scratched. There it sat with no line on it, much like Dad's rifles that were never shot and hand built rods that were never fished. I pulled out a little backing and listened to the pleasant click as the reel happily sang a tune. Then I had an epiphany. I have boxes full of precious spey and dee flies that I dare not fish. Why? Why not? What am I saving them for? Why not use the good China? Why save all the treasured possessions so that when I am old and gray and full of sleep I can look back on memories that were missed, but treasure an unscratched reel or a fly that never was tested or swam?


Use the good China. Tempus Fugit. Ars Longa Vitae Brevis!

Spool up that Bougle' laddie... the river is a callin!

Water Quality on the Milwaukee River

Milwaukee River water quality.

This spring I have been amazed at the increasing quality of the water on the Milwaukee River. Last night while trying out longer bellied spey lines at Hubbard Park, I observed an amazing mixed hatch of mayflies and caddis. Tan caddis lightly sprinkled with black caddis, blue winged olives, warm water cahills, midges, sulphers, and possibly gray drakes. This is a tremendous sign that water quality is good. The non-spawning immature smallmouth bass in the riffles that were home to the hatches were gorging on food.

I had an introduction to water monitoring for the Milwaukee Riverkeeper by my friend Rick F. We took PH levels, dissolved oxygen, and temperature and turbidity. In addition to that, we pried up streamside rocks to find out what kind of larvae were living under them. All this in the Hubbard to Capitol drive stretch which emerged from suffocation when the North Avenue bridge came down. Before the dam was removal, the only bugs in the area were mosquitoes, and the water stank.

Water clarity in the Milwaukee was excellent all year until recently when rains coincided with farmers plowing their fields. The north branch of the Milwaukee is running rather muddy, and downstream the silt is being carried in the water.

Recently a beaver has been spotted in the clean water around Good Hope road. (pictures here from the Milwaukee RiverKeeper). This stretch runs clean until the MMSD outflow pipe on the northeast bank of Green Tree road adds fecal matter and stink. Then downstream on Green Tree Rd. the water backs up from the small waterfalls at Kletzch Park, and is slow and unhealthy.

Beavers are a sign of healthy water and habitat. The Milwaukee River has come a long way since the days of its reputation as the big stinky. The removal of the Estabrook dam is the next step in aiding the river in repairing itself from the best intentions of mankind. That and preventing MMSD from arbitrarily dumping sewage in the river every time Milwaukee receives more than two inches of rain. If we are going to call ourselves “The Water City” we better clean up our act first.

A colleague of mine was teasing me about the beaver, theorizing that perhaps it had been recruited by the Estabrook Dam preservation faction to perform repairs and stabilize the structure with its beaver-dam engineering skills. ;)

Living closer to our food.

Closer to your food

Some recent experiences have led me to a string of thought regarding modern man, the ease of living, detachment from nature and essence.

In trips around to local parks, state forest lakes, and etc. I have noticed a decline in the ability for people of all ages to fish properly. I am not talking about flyfishing, but simply the ability to bait a hook, choose a bobber, cast into water deep enough to hold panfish, and have the patience and attention span to catch a fish. I have observed Dads teaching youngsters where the Dad was as clueless as the child. Funny. Anglo Saxon European immigrants to America have become detached from the sources of food so badly that they often don’t know what brussel sprouts look like in a garden. Food comes in a plastic package. Meat comes from the burger joint. Who is fishing? African Americans, Latinos, Laotians, etc. Because of more recent immigration, relative poverty and traditions and cultural values not yet washed away by our plastic cancer society, they live closer to their food.

Therefore, our own affluence and fast paced society has led to a decline in hunting, fishing, outdoor sports, and home economics. People no longer know how to sew, to cook, to can, to preserve food, to prepare wild game. My cousin Meggie has recently really become involved in organic gardening. Her vast garden is planted with veggies and herbs. She has started planting pre-Columbian beans and other vegetables that have not been genetically modified to taste like rubber bands. She says the difference between store-bought vegetables and those fresh out of her garden is like night and day. Although I don’t have a garden, I do haunt farmers markets every summer and fall, and eat as much raw whole food as I can, as well as stewing the veggies into pasta sauces and freezing them.

I actually have friends that don’t know how to cook anything. They eat at fast food joints when not subsiding on sandwiches or grilling out.

So traditions are dying. So what? Progress is good, right?
Well, the collapse of financial system, peak oil, global warming, etc. should show us that perhaps we should live closer to our food. The average piece of produce in the supermarket now travels over 1,500 miles to its destination. The largest portion of its price is dedicated to fuel cost for transportation. Imagine how much less greenhouse gasses would be emitted if we lived closer to our food. Only a generation back, both my mother and father had family gardens. Dad’s family built a smokehouse, and his grandfather homesteaded in British Columbia. Mom’s family of ten children were fed out of the garden. Homemade horseradish and sauerkraut were made. Apple cider was produced, home made cheese, home made rootbeer, and home made wine too.

Of course, our fisheries can’t support a constant kill-it-and-grill-it mentality, but we need to teach our children how to catch a panfish, clean it, get your hands dirty, and eat it for supper.

Fishing is part of the joy of nature, and an excellent way to begin to respect the resources we have. Tomorrow’s stewards of the environment may be sitting at the gaming console and eating fried chemicals.

When we forget where our food comes from, we lose a piece of our humanity.

That doesn't mean we all have to become mini-Thoreaus, nor vegans that won't eat anything that casts a shadow. We tend as a society to always take things too far in our personal search for identity. A small step toward buying from local farmers, eating a gamefish we caught, or a fresh tomato from the garden will begin to erode our throw-away society, and allow the future generations to carry on a tradition of appreciating natural things.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Some more hairwing flies

Based on the British Governor and Coachman patterns, this version of the Improved Governor was used on the Eel river as far back as 1910. It sports a bronze mallard wing with I have reinforced by an underwing of black bear.

Black Prince: An old pattern tied with hand dyed wool. This pattern is believed to have originated on the Umpqua around the turn of the century.

Unnamed original. A brighter fly to catch the eye of steelhead. The orange glows through the swept back black hackle and wings and the yellow butt acts as a spotlight. Good searching pattern.

My attempt at creating a traditional looking fly that can tempt steelhead in our colder water spring environment and be large enough without the use of flash or synthetic materials led to this Ackroyd with reduced dressing and using polar bear for the wing.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Fumbles with trout

One of the inevitable questions I am asked when people find out that I fly fish is “Oh, you are a trout fisherman, right?”


I spend most of my time chasing steelhead and smallmouth, and I castigate myself every year that I never spend enough time on quality trout streams.
So, for the past several weeks I have been on a whirlwind tour of Wisconsin’s coulee region and its fabulous treasures of trout streams. The numerous hills absorb water and disgorge it as cold water springs. Almost every valley contains a trout stream. It is fondly known as the Montana of the Midwest. There are so many little rivers and brooks that it is difficult to know where to start. This region took a big hit in June of 2008 when the whole area flooded. Roads were washed away, and lunker structures ended caught in trees. Stream improvements were washed away or left high and dry. But, as with all nature, time heals all. In this case the rivers have bounced back with the help of many dedicated volunteers who rebuild stream stabilization structures by hand.

The fishing was tough. Sunny days and low clear water make for spooky fish. Hatches were sporadic and mixed enough that the trout were not consistently keying on any one insect. I fished beetles and caddis mostly. A size 14 X-caddis ended up being the most consistent producer. I nymphed when I had to; a necessary evil during the day when Mr. Trout won’t look up.

I landed some nice browns and brookies, nothing of great size, but beautiful little bejeweled fish wearing a whole palette of colors. Much of my small success was due to going off the beaten path and fishing waters less pressured and smaller than most people are comfortable fishing. Helping this process immensely was Bob Blumreich, who took time out to give me a small smattering of his immense knowledge base of the streams and techniques for small water fishing.

There is something of the primeval wild in the hills. Fishing alone and exploring in the silence surrounded by lush spring foliage and catching wild colorful fish was a reward on its own. If there is a temple of fly fishing, then I have been there and lit a candle to those who have gone before me. As always, the learning process was fun and rewarding all on its own. We spend so much time trying to figure out the whys of trout thinking that sometimes I believe it borders on anthropomorphism. Us sophisticated descendants of monkeys with brains that allow us to conquer nature and destroy ourselves pitting our active neurons against a little creature with a brain the size of a pea, and often coming up on the short side. Perhaps this is what makes trout fishing special. If we were able to simply go down to the river and clobber the fish, it would take on all the excitement of meat gathering, and lose its mysteries, and thus, its appeal.

One must be happy just being able to fish and experience the coulee streams, even if the reward is a lost fish and a missed opportunity. Restraint is a good thing.

As usual, yours truly is followed by minute disasters. A lens popped out of my glasses deep in the woods on a secluded stream, and in order to get back to the car, I repaired it with 4X tippet material. I lost numerous fish when after a nice accurate cast, one of the dozen deer flies that were circling my head would inevitably land on my hand or face just as a trout rose and ate my fly. There seemed to be two kinds of flies, deer flies and ear flies; the latter preferred the canal of my ears as habitat. I stepped in holes and twisted both ankles, hooked every species of flora on my back cast, and communed with cows and cow pies.

I met few angles on the streams, as I prefer to fish alone and not in the immediate vicinity of others. Fly fishing is not a team sport, and it always amazes me how many people only fish with a buddy that is in the same pool as they are. I did run in to one mature husband and wife on one of the popular rivers, but they were less than friendly for some reason. No reason for that, life is too short my friends.

As a trout fisherman, I have a long way to go, but it is amazing how instincts can kick in on a stream, and how one can adapt if one uses the thinking cap and always questions their approach. Critical thinking skills apply here as well. Part of me is happy to come from a smallmouth background prior to trout fishing. It seems easier to make the transition then the other way around. Much of this fishing can be described as my friend Joe S. puts it as “Bass bugging for trout.” Hitting shoreline structures with splatty quick presentations vs. the eastern catskill methods of long drag free drifts.

Small streams, small rods, small flies, but it is the small things in life that often get overlooked, and are under appreciated. Holding a foot long brook trout in hand as carefully as a newborn infant, I marveled at the scale of minute beauty in this world. Beauty and happiness are where one finds them. I find them in moving water. As the famous line from Casablanca goes, “I think this is the beginning of a great friendship.” Ah…the coulees!