Monday, November 13, 2017

The Wisdom of Grasshopper Bridge


 



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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Friday, November 10, 2017

An Ode to Old Fly Reels


 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 




Thursday, November 9, 2017

Scales…. Of difficulty



 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Just don’t get it mounted…..

 

 

Monday, November 6, 2017

Depression and Blue-Winged Olives


Depression and Blue-Winged Olives

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Coming Home


 

 

 

Connections….

They define us, they bind us to our inter-relationships, they flow and ebb, break and reconnect our concepts of identity. They are everywhere, but only if we look for them.

 Thus it was a connection I sought on Wisconsin’s Bois Brule’ river. Although the desired connection was a bright one with a wild steelhead, one sometimes seemingly as elusive as a unicorn, there would be another connection that, when the dust had settled, became more important.

 Our journeys as anglers are never straight paths. We seem to stray or explore different approaches and desired outcomes in our progress on the water. Thank god for that, for as one old friend reminded me, “Exploring paths in the journey along life’s road allows us to take side-steps and wind and turn throughout the one-way trip, thus adding miles and miles to what otherwise might be a straight, quick journey to the inevitable end.”

 As I get older, I am slowing down, and the explorations and approach, the history and lore seem as important, or sometimes even more interesting than the fishing itself.

So I drove up to the river with a wagon full of cane rods and hand-tied flies inspired by antique Scottish patterns fished on the Dee and the Don. The main rod was going to be a restored and newly cut and spliced Sharps of Aberdeen two-hander. It started out as a sweet rod several years ago, but after getting the ferules stuck together rather permanently, it got chopped and spliced to @ 10 ½ feet. Finding a line for it was a nightmare, as I sorted through my huge box of spey lines, for it started out moderately soft, but as I taped it up, realized that now it resembled a Frankenstein monster, cobbled together and chopped and sort of stiff moving, much like Boris Karloff’s flat-topped rendition. I drove to the local muddy canoe landing on the Kickapoo river and fitted it up with a 4 ½” wide-drum Hardy Perfect reel from 1917. To make a long story short, it was like casting a broom stick. I finally put on an old 10/11 weight salmon line and was able to make it work…. Sort of.

 Stubbornness runs in our family, and I got a double dose of it. That is the only explanation why the rod didn’t get left at home. “I can make it work,” I justified to myself weakly and often to reinforce the error.

 The weather was remarkably warm and beautiful when I arrived ahead of our party and settled in for lunch and coffee, dreaming of the river while I sipped and waited for Barry, who would accompany my foolishness.

 Steelhead are often a beat down. Not necessarily physically, but mentally. Bright cheery and eager faces entering the water at first light can often leave it after a fishless day not speaking to anyone, full-of self-doubt, self-loathing, and completely lacking in the confidence that was over-flowing in the morning. Everything gets the blame; Tackle, the sun, the water clarity, leaves in the water, the choice of flies, and our selection of aftershave. The truth is that confidence is the most important part of the game, and it is all mental and as fragile as a newborn despite our best intentions and egos. I have fished for steelhead all over North America for years and years on storied rivers. One would think I was used to this, but when Barry picked my pocket by landing his first Brule’ steelhead behind me in the second run we fished, I started to experience the downward spiral into self-questioning, misery and defeatism that we call steelheading. His fish was a stunner. Wild as the weather on Lake Superior and chrome. Translucent fins too. All that was missing were sea-lice. Here was the McCloud strain from California’s tributary to the Sacramento River, and extinct there. Transplanted along with rainbows and stocked in the tributaries to Lake Superior, they were all wild fish now, a rarity in the world of anadromous fish. Thus the happy congratulations and high-five we give each other often decays as we want a fish too…. And the mental beat down begins in proportion to the beauty and rarity of the fish.

 I stuck with the Frankenstein rod, making it work through stubborn will and body strength until in the morning of the second day, we screwed up, and took the wrong path for the morning fishing. This led to poor water and crowds and a path which we stubbornly followed with hope that things would improve and we would find better water and less anglers (who seemed to appear out of nowhere as soon as we set our feet in the water). The path started to give out as we continued downstream, and we had to crawl and climb through the beaver-falls and clay banks, rods snagging on pines stub branches, our clothing covered with brambles.

 We spent five hours hiking through the forest tangle, fishing here and there and swinging flies for a few casts until the water petered out, only to find ourselves back at the next parking area downstream where the other two anglers in our crew had put in. We walked back to the car soaked in sweat, dehydrated and pissed off, and when the rest of the gang met up with us for lunch in the parking lot, found that they had success, and Lem had hooked and landed his first Brule’ fish literally on his first morning on the river ever. The mental beatdown was now riding on my shoulder like a chattering monkey. “You suck,” it kept blathering endlessly.

 I kept with the monster rod throughout the rest of the day, but the physical exhaustion and muscle fatigue and doubt combined to make me take it apart and put it away before nearly passing out. Both Barry and I skipped the big party on the river we were invited to, and silently ate dinner after visiting three restaurants just to find a single available table. Back at the motel we knew we had to come up with a plan to beat the crowds. It seemed that half of Wisconsin and Minnesota showed up that evening for the weekend fishing. We had to have a plan. Well, the plan just sort of developed all by itself. By going to bed early, we awoke early and refreshed, and opening the motel door to the cool air of false dawn light, found that the parking lot was still full of cars. Everyone had slept in.

 We hoofed it into waders, choked down a doughnut and coffee or tea, and drove like the devil for the stretch of river I chose for the morning fishing. There were only two cars in the lot ahead of us, so we geared up by aid of headlamp and chanced it.

 Here is where the connection begins. I reached for a single-hand bamboo rod, and took it out of its case. A restored Clifford Constable 9’ six-weight restored by my friend Joe Balestrieri, and matched by a Hardy Perfect reel of 3 5/8 inches; a special reel, but more on that later. I tied on the new fly that, get this, I had not fished yet, lacking in confidence.

 Sometimes things come together in just the right way to make the connection. I noticed right away that I was fishing better as the light began to increase and the water chilled my legs. My swing was in zen mode, the little corrections to fly speed just happening as I didn’t struggle to fight the gear. Before the light was fully on the water, my fly was intercepted with authority. I had hooked my second Brule’ steelhead, the one last year having coming unpinned due to user (or loser) error.

 The bonus was some drama. The steelhead moved back and forth in the run, with me not trying to place too much pressure on it and screw it up. Then as Barry watched, it exited the pool and the reel began to sing and screech and protest the sweet music of an old Hardy. The run ended with a sharp left-turn of 90 degrees and a rapids which as I followed, my fish took my line into the tree branches at the bend, to be saved by Barry, alert as always.

 By now I was convinced I was not gong to land the fish. There was another 100 yards of rapids to go, but all of a sudden, the reel stopped screaming, and the fish buried itself in a soft pocket of water in the middle of the maelstrom. I spotted a small sand bar under water to the side, and a landing plan was put together. Maximum strain was placed on the rod turned upside down to equalize tension and strain on the bamboo, and the fish was landed. A sweet buck with a small bit of rose flank for color. The beat down had ended. I was staggering around in relief and joy when it hit me. The reel was owned previously by the late Andre’ Puyons, angling legend, former president of Trout Unlimited, prolific teacher and tyer with ever-present pipe and Irish hat and co-owner of Creative Sports, a fly-shop in Walnut Creek, Northern California. Walnut Creek is just west of San Francisco, gateway to the Sacramento and its now land-locked tributary the McCloud River. My reel most likely fished the McCloud back in the day in the hands of Andre’ Puyons.

The fish I landed was a ghost, an anachronism not out of time but out of place and now in last refuge from extinction. We all got tangled up and met in a connection on Wisconsin’s Brule’ river. I could almost smell the pipe smoke. The reel had come home. Old Andre’ was looking down and cracking a wry smile from somewhere beyond the pines and the mists of the river. I felt it. God, I dig this sport.



They say you can never come home again. I disagree. The time and place might be a little different, the circumstances connected with crooked lines of geography and chance, but if one closes one’s eyes, we can see it, it is all around us. We are always home through the connections that entangle us.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Dream....

 It is official. I have resigned my position at Orvis, and will be moving to the driftless area of South West Wisconsin, a unique geological area full of spring creek trout streams. I will be starting a fly-fishing school featuring 2-day schools, Trout master classes, Casting instruction for all levels, and a guiding service. I am both excited and a bit scared... Muhammed Ali, one of my heros once said that if your dreams don't scare you, they are not big enough.... Dream big, and have confidence! To all my friends,... When I get settled, I will have a glass of claret waiting for you, some jazz from my collection, classical too, and some unique historic rods to cast at my new driftless fly-fishing home and Erik Helm's Classical Angler fly-fishing schools and guide service. Come visit me. I will wax poetic. Many have begged me to teach and guide, but due to my job, I could not be independent. Now the sky is the limit, and I hope some of my 3,000 plus former students show up for what could be described as Erik Helm's Opus. (nod to Mr. Holland (film)).
Here I will be. Soldiers Grove, WI. Cheers, and wish me luck! 414-331-9102 Erik.helm1@gmail.com
Erik Helm


Lots more to come including new essays, articles, a book, and the sky is the limit.... Help me out by spreading the word, and love to everyone!