Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Confidence Factor

The Confidence Factor:

It has been written somewhere that the only single thing we can control as anglers on the river is ourselves: our timing, our approach, reading the water, presentation, etc. We cannot control the weather, the water, the wind, or the natural cycles of nature. We must instead learn to work with nature and fish in harmony. Once one progresses to a point where his or her presentation is decent, and can use whatever technique one chooses to cast and present the fly at the proper speed and depth, then the next step, I would argue is to fish with confidence.

This may be the most difficult barrier to get past in many ways. Firstly, we are thinking creatures. When something goes right or wrong, we tend to want to look to something outside ourselves for an explanation, often where there is none. We speculate on fly color and construction, the weather, sun, moon, rain cycles, barometer, what we had for dinner last night, and what brand of beer our buddy likes. Thinking and analysis is a good thing; it leads to discovery and learning. However, at some point along the way, our speculation causes us to begin a process, or turn down a cognitive road that is a dead end.

For an object example, let us take fly choice. In the world of trout, the fly has a huge part to play in the overall game. Trout eating bugs want to eat certain bugs, and when dining at the all-you-can-eat BBQ shack, Mr. Brookie does not want a plate of spinach. In the world of Atlantic Salmon and Steelhead fishing, the fish do not feed, or rarely feed, and why they take our flies is a mystery, and the subject of hundreds of speculative books and articles.

So, what fly to choose? Lets see… Dark day-dark fly, bright day-bright fly, blue under a full moon, yellow under a quarter moon, orange during a bright day, and green when you drank too much scotch the night before and peed in your waders. Small fly, big fly, fly with movement, most popular fly, favorite fly, etc. As hard as it is to grasp, the fish are far less choosy as to what fly is on the end of our leader than we are. Popular patterns such as the green butt skunk in the PNW, or the egg-sucking leech in the Midwest work because they are good patterns, but also, and here is the catch, they account for more fish hooked than other patterns because they are tied onto our leaders and in the water more than other patterns. Is the blue charm the best salmon pattern of all time? It certainly racked up the most kills in the fly category on many rivers in Scotland. Or, was it because although it undoubtedly is a good fly, somebody made his fame with it, and then, everyone started using it? What about the red and white daredevil spoon? It may have fallen out of favor lately, but for a long time, if you wanted to fish for pike, you had better have a good selection of these lures in your tackle box. Anglers used them, and caught fish. Then the newest plastic thing came along and they used it and caught fish too. See?

The fly in your box will not catch a fish. The one on the end of your leader will. Both Dec Hogan and John Shewey performed an experiment in which they changed their fly pattern every time they hooked a steelhead until they had gone through their whole fly box. Result…. All the flies hooked fish. Hmmmm… Perhaps it was that they fished with confidence instead of fiddling and fussing. Perhaps because they had confidence in the fly they had in the water, accordingly they fished better and more thoroughly?

This concept seems so foreign to us that it rarely sinks in. In a seminar on steelhead fly-fishing I covered reading water, presentation, timing, etc. The questions at the end posed by those attending had to do with fly choice and rigging. Funny.

At a western spey clave, a local guide gave an excellent clinic on fishing the river, and pressed home confidence in the fly, covering water, angles, structure, etc. At the end an old guy stood up and asked…. Drum roll please… “What is the secret fly?”

If you had asked the anglers seated at the seminar along the river what fly they caught their most recent fish on, I bet good money that most of the flies would be unique. I have traded flies on this river with some great anglers. None of our fly boxes looked alike, and we all had success. Funny. Could it be confidence? Could it be that the only secret was to choose a fly based upon actual water conditions and just leave it on?

Once one gains confidence in the fly, one begins to pay attention to other critical factors like water speed, angle of cast, mending, water structure, etc. Bingo! Then the fly becomes magic. Now we turn down another blind alley. We have just had a great day on the river fishing a (insert fly name here), and we only have confidence in that fly. Thus the red and white daredevil, the green-butt skunk, and the egg-sucking leech are born into legend. We don’t like to hear these things, because we want to grasp a hold of a simple concept to boost our confidence, or provide an excuse for failure or our personal agenda/expectations unmet.

Thus, it is that the things we can actually control, our casting, presentation and confidence outweigh all of the other factors on the river. This includes all of the old wisdom out there such as steelhead will not take a fly with full sun on the water, don’t fish after a full moon, a falling barometer, a rising barometer, after your buddy belches twice, etc. All of these things (except the belching) have effect on our fishing, but nowhere near the effect we attribute to them. Seeking to understand, we speculate and look for reasons.

What about the un-carved block? The newbee angler that does everything wrong but catches fish anyway until he or she learns the proper way from those with collected speculative wisdom? I was that angler once. The first trip out to the PNW, I fished a beautiful river. I used classic spey flies such as the Lady Caroline, and classic hair-wings. I fished an intermediate tip. I fished runs backwards and caught fish in the wrong places. I simply had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but put my joy, passion, and confidence in the fly, and spent more time on the water than most anyone else. When the water went off-color, I went fishing. When it turned hot, I went fishing. It was only afterwards, after meeting guides and experienced anglers on the river that I learned that I could not catch fish unless I was using a deeply sunk fly on a sink-tip, the places I pulled fish out of were no good, and it was useless to fish during the middle of the day. Oh…

The next year, armed with my newly acquired wisdom of the sages, I fished a big marabou fly with a sink-tip and…. I caught fish too. Hmmmm…..

I expect that if one placed all the collected wisdom of anglers that have put in their time on the rivers, that every speculative theory could be de-bunked. That is, for every theory and the speculative evidence behind it, there would be another conflicting or countering theory. That is not to say that all fishing wisdom and theories are bunk. Quite the contrary, most are based upon sound experience. It is when they become dogma that they often lead us down a path that may be classified as a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Don’t fish after a boat goes through the water.” O.K., we don’t. What happens? Well, of course we don’t catch fish. If we do fish, then the sense of confidence in the water goes away… because a boat went through. In essence, we play the part in fulfilling the prophecy we proclaimed or believed in. Our actions led to the expected result. Like a science experiment in reverse. Proclaim the conclusion, and then work backwards with the hypothesis in mind the whole way.

Nevertheless, alas, we all grasp for straws when the going gets tough. Positive straws, negative straws, but straws the same. The fly, the sun, the bad luck of a circling raven. Perhaps because this gives us confidence also: confidence to find another reason for our success or failure outside ourselves. A reason to attribute and then find peace in. I often wonder if my friend Og, the fictional Neanderthal that lives in my basement might actually be the ideal angler. He can reason up to a certain point, and perhaps that is enough. Cast it there, swing it so, and have confidence. Perhaps everything else is, and should be a mystery to a certain extent?

Sometimes our overactive brains get in the way of our instincts and senses. We don’t fish the ‘Eagle Run’ anymore because, three years ago we fished it, and given our thought process at the time, it fished too slowly or was too shallow. This year, due to angling pressure and the fading light of evening, we find ourselves pulling over by this run by default. “Might as well fish it,” we think, rather than just go back to the tent. Then we realize that this run fishes wonderfully. “What was I thinking?” we ask ourselves as our renewed confidence results in a great grab and nice fish.

I am reminded of the old (perhaps Norman Rockwell) painting of a fly angler fussing with his leader and fly selection as the trout are jumping around him. His face is turned with jealousy and surprise to a small boy on a bike pedaling innocently past with an old stick as a rod, a piece of string as line, and safety pin for a hook along with a tin can of worms and a glorious stringer of fish. That may be something to reflect on. Not that experience and speculation are not good things, but sometimes getting back to the essence may be necessary. Once the essentials are down pat, just fish with confidence.

Perhaps that would be no fun though. It might cut down on late-night philosophizing around the camp-fire.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Fun With Named Runs

One curiosity of steelhead and Atlantic salmon rivers is the common practice of naming the runs or pools or water complexes. These names range from the deeply rooted in shadowed lore and history, down to the downright obscure, and even ironic. The runs are often named after a natural structural identifier such as Black Rock, The Slot, The Braids, Pine Trees, etc. Man made structures such as Powerlines, Tractor Yard, The Factory Run, etc. also enter into our river run lexicon. Some runs are named after people who popularized them as well.

One run on a western river is called locally “Gomer’s corner,” due to the fact that it always has one person standing in it, and the run itself rarely produced a fish. When a friend and I heard what the run was called, we looked at each other sheepishly and whispered, “Oh crap, that was us. Remember when we got up at 4:00 am to get into that run?” D’oh! This year, as I drove up and down the river, there was always someone in Gomer’s Corner. I fished a run downstream at last light, and there was an angler standing, seemingly not moving at all, at the top of the Corner. I fished my run through, and as I was making my way back to the car in the dusk, saw that there was still a single figure in Gomer’s Corner, who seemed not to have covered any water at all or moved downstream. I then got it stuck in my mind that instead of an angler, the figure was a scarecrow or dummy someone had fixed up. It made sense, as the angler/object/dummy never seemed to move, and always wore the same gear. Then as I was driving back past the run, I stopped, got out of my car, and stared at the object in the run. After about five minutes, the dummy moved and made a cast, and a quarter of a step downstream. Aha! Mystery solved. Now I know why it is called Gomer’s Corner.

Another run is named “Slickrock,” and has an evil reputation as a wading hell that is well deserved. Slick basalt ledges and shelves are mixed with bowling ball sized rocks that tend to move when to step on them. One step is fine, and the next a complete lulu. A couple of years ago, I lost purchase with both feet at once and did a face-plant in the water in this run. Now I use a wading staff. Duh.

Every river has a run named for an old car or truck abandoned by the river, and many rivers run through towns suffering from poverty, meth, and cultural decay, and have runs named “The Town Run.” Here one dodges garbage and tarps over ratty sofas, and old cars that serve as homes for people who have seen better times.

Some runs are named for Native American folklore. One gets a sense of timelessness on these runs, as if the boulders and structures have not changed in five-hundred years, and if one could be transported back in time, only the costume of the anglers and methods would change.

Back here in the Midwest, we have a sort of tongue-in-cheek convention for naming runs. Shopping Cart, Lower Crack-Pipe, The Low-Hole Run, Parking Lot, etc. The runs are really not as bad as they sound when they actually have water in them, but one never knows what one might encounter on the side of the river or even in it.
Sometimes we might want to pay especial attention though, when fishing a run called something like “Angry Old Man,” lest we accidentally trespass and meet the man himself.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Brief wisdom #1

It isn't the rod, its the fool behind it...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Misinformation continues to flow over the Estabrook Dam

Below is an excerpt from an article by Joe Lanane, Daily Reporter, and following that are some comments I have to get off my chest.

Glen Goebel, director of the Milwaukee River Preservation Association, said the Estabrook Dam was originally built as a flood deterrent. If the dam was permanently removed, he said, flood spillover could go as far as one mile out from the river’s banks — enough to potentially reach Glendale City Hall.

“It would do that worse nowadays than it would back then because it was mostly farmland back then,” Goebel said. “It was a flood-control project that we really still need in place.”


It still amazes me that this fundamental falsehood remains as an accepted truth to many of the Milwaukee County Supervisors, as propagandized by Supervisor Lipscomb, who is hardly partial on the issue, and has an inside seat and corresponding voice on the county board, or Mr. Goebel, president of a pro-dam lobby group, who's wild and scientifically baffling claims as to the positive and negative aspects of dams and removal have been a rather sad commentary on the ability of special interest groups to lobby regardless of the truth of the facts they espouse.

The Estabrook Dam was the final piece in a flood control project. It, by itself, offers little or no flood control at all, especially to the area of Glendale noted by Mr. Goebels, which is UPSTREAM from the dam. The flood control project consisted of driving a straight channel through a series of S-curves in Lincoln park in order to speed the river, and lessen ice buildup on the outside bends in the river, which in spring thaw, created ice-jams and caused localized flooding. The dam was designed as a water-height regulator to control the flow and height of the river upstream. How a dam is supposed to prevent flooding upstream of its location just baffles me. By slowing the water flow and backing up the river in a flood, the dam could conceivably aid in flood prevention downstream, however, that entire area is already a flood plain, and homes and businesses are built high on the river banks. In addition, the design of the Estabrook Dam negates even that possible flood control, as in a heavy rain event the entire dam is submerged, and the river runs over and around it.

What the dam, very ironically does, is increase the flooding potential in a sudden rain event in the impoundment area bordered by the dam itself and roughly Bender Rd. By backing up the river, the dam decreases the flow rate and throughput ability of the river in cubic feet per second, to evacuate the channel and move downstream. So it is sad that this falsehood, maintained by the Milwaukee River Preservation Association (read 'Dam preservation'), and Mr. Lipscomb, actually negatively affects the very home-owners that are being represented as advocating for dam preservation in part due to concerns about flooding.

And yet the Milwaukee County Board, which is literally approaching a financial meltdown, and losing the respect of county taxpayers, is on the brink of recommending and funding the repair of the Estabrook dam based in part, on false and unscientific information which has been publicly refuted by both engineers from The Wisconsin DNR, the Milwaukee Riverkeeper, the River Alliance, and other organizations and bodies that actually have some experience with rivers and dams.

Your tax dollars down the drain, fellow citizens.

At least the county board should consider and debate this important infrastructure issue with all of the FACTS before them, and not popularly accepted myths. Kudos to Supervisor Broderick, who, seemingly a lone voice of reason, has tried to steer the board's decision towards a more open public forum. Funny, but I seem to remember many letters written, facts laid out, and testimony given last year, which somehow got lost or misplaced in the minds of the County Supervisors or masked over by the endless fog of miss-information.

Claiming that the Estabrook Dam prevents flooding in Glendale is like a scene out of 'The Music Man.' It would be funny if it was not our own county board that was buying it, and all of us poor schlubs that will be paying for the decision with tax dollars and bonds that we can ill-afford.

At absolute least, please be honest about why the dam is to be saved. To keep the still-water impoundment upstream of the dam intact so that power-boating can occur and docks can be maintained. All at the expense of the river, water quality, fish, wildlife, and yes... your wallet.

The march of folly continues on...