Sunday, May 16, 2021

Oh Deer!


Oh Deer!


Last evening I was sitting hunkered down with a glass of wine in our Wisconsin winter where the wind chill and cold had the house creaking and popping. I was perusing a book on ancient art. Specifically I was looking at cave paintings. It is a signal sociological point that in our human evolution our first attempts at art and collective memory through expression inevitably have to do with hunting. So important was it in ritual and meaning, that across cultures and continents our early ancestors were consistent in their capture of hunting; it was rooted deeply in our early dark psyche.


In the scene before me, groups of ochre figures armed with bows and spears were surrounding several abstract beasties and closing in for the kill. The beasties could have been sheep-cows, deer-horses or even mastodon- pigs: (our early human friends were just getting started in art, so much like my early attempts with crayons, the horses were as likely to have six legs as four.)


Down in the lower corner of the cave wall there was a lone figure. He was facing the wrong way: the hunt was behind him. He also carried a spear that was obviously crooked. Instantly I recognized him as a distant relative of mine. I knew his genes had made it intact all these millennia to guide my hunting: for strange things do happen when Erik goes forth into the woods and fields with a gun.


It is not that I am a bad hunter, rather that circumstances seem to dictate that if I am hunting deer, all I see are squirrels, and vice versa. Take one early morning watching dawn slowly manifest while sitting in the woods at the top of a hill in the frost. It was just legal shooting time when a squirrel popped out of a hole in an oak tree. It paused to stare at me and flick its tail a few times, and then hopped into a branch of the dead tree I was sitting against. A minute later, the damn squirrel deliberately dropped an acorn on my head, and started laughing in squirrel language. Of course, I was hunting deer that day, so shooting the joker with a 7mm Mauser was quite out of the question.


That brings us to opening day of the 2020 deer season. It might be enough just to state for the record that it was indeed the year 2020. That should suffice. Corona virus, riots, protests, crazy politics, social distancing, etc.: a world turned upside down. I should have just stayed home… but that would have made no memories or stories like my little ochre stick-figure friend: facing the wrong way with a crooked spear.


‘Robin a’ Bobbin bent his bow…

He shot at a pigeon and killed a crow…

He shot at another and killed his own Mother…

Did Robin a Bobbin, who bent his bow…”




It was dawn with a hard frost: a perfect day to hunt deer. The sun was not up yet, and the darkness carried a chill lit by a near full moon. I had a beautiful sporterized Mauser from the Second World War mad by a master craftsman in Germany. It had been an idle member of my late father’s collection. He may never have shot it. I mounted a scope on it, hand crafted a leather sling for it, and sighted it in. It was as ready to hunt as I was. On my back was a canvas and leather pack containing knives and gutting kit, a thermos of hot tea, and my lunch.


It took me a full three hours by my watch to hunt the steep switchback path up the wooded hill. I took five steps, and stood listening and watching… then repeat and repeat. This is still-hunting, and the only way I would want to hunt game: putting in effort and being involved in the hunt. I would rather stay home than sit in a heated condo-blind and blast away at deer innocently trying to eat fallen corn in a field.


I got to the top of the hill at last. The whole topography here consisted of a maze of trails interspersed with apple trees and brambles. One can’t go slow enough. I hunted for an hour or so, until the sun and lack of sleep the night before combined to make me drowsy. I decided to take a wee nap and eat my lunch, thinking that in the middle of the day under clear blue skies and high sun, nothing would be moving.

I picked a tiny deer trail between the main paths through the scrub, leaned my rifle against a bush, laid down next to my pack, and pulled my hat over my eyes after taking off my glasses. I was blissfully warm and sleepy.


As I lay in a state of half-sleep, I heard a noise off to my left getting closer and moving fast. Out of one sleepy half opened eye I saw a coyote run past not fifteen feet away. That was interesting I thought… and a wee bit too close. I pulled down my hat again and continued my nap. After a few minutes, the brush around me started to make odd sounds. Dry leaves quivered and twitched, and squeaking was heard: the ground was alive with voles moving under the leaf litter. As long as I remained motionless, the voles frolicked all around me, and even under me. I finally fell asleep again…


Remember… I was lying on a tiny deer-crossing route…


I awoke slowly as the vole sounds seemed to change direction and stealthily creep foreword toward my head. What the hell? I blinked my eyes open and reached for my glasses. The second I moved something snorted, and hoofs stomped the ground now going away from me. It took a few seconds to sit up and untangle my glasses and hat, but it was obvious what had just happened. A small doe had crept through the brush on the little trail, and had paused curious or confused a few feet from where I lay. Since I was on my back and not moving, I was not a threat… until I did move.


Well… now I was awake! I thought perhaps if deer were going to almost step on me in the middle of the day, I might just actually want to get my shit in order and do some hunting. I ate my sandwich, had a cup of tea, and gathered my rifle and pack together.


When hunting a challenging piece of land like this, one never knows what may be around the next corner, and it is important to be completely silent and stealthy. The only sound I made was the absence of sound as I crept forward. I was in a narrow straight-away path bordered by the wooded hill on the right when from around a corner fifty yards away, a large dog like creature emerged, looked at me once, and turned around and disappeared back where it had come from. “What the hell?” I thought to myself as I heard its footsteps crunching through the woods. I slowly crept up to the corner, and now had that funny feeling of being watched. A face peeked out from behind a tree to my right. It had blue eyes and gray fur and looked like a husky. It had doubled back on itself and surprised me. I was lucky to see the wolf at all before it simply vanished silently.


In my part of Wisconsin, we have no wolf packs, so I was puzzled. Wolf it was for sure, for no coyotes around here get as big as an Alsatian, or have gray fur and blue eyes. This must have been a lone wolf. My hunt was getting stranger and stranger.


I decided to follow the path of the wolf to see if I could pick up any prints in the frosted woods. I took three steps toward the tree where the wolf had peeked out at me when behind me and to the right, a bedded deer exploded, stomping and crashing away. It had stayed put while the wolf passed it, but dumb humans wearing goofy hunting clothes was just too much. I looked down at my old woolen red and black check pants and realized that with my matching wool mackinaw and stormy kromer hat and gun I made a pretty good likeness of Elmer Fudd. I certainly felt like him that day. I might as well be in a zoo for all the wildlife that befuddled me.


Exiting the woods, I followed the path around the perimeter of the top of the hill. It led to a wide straightaway swooping first down and then up to a ridge in the distance; it was bordered by more scrub and small apple trees. The sun was now directly overhead as once again I let down my guard, and stood at the bottom of the path right out in the open like an idiot.


I squinted into the distance to the top of the opening in front of me. Something sort of materialized in my vision around a hundred yards away. It had antlers or sticks on top, and some sort of face, and was floating like a hallucination above some scrub. Stupidly I just stared at it confused. It had no body and no definite form. Briefly, it occurred to me that it looked like a head of a huge buck, or the top of an archery target.


I raised the rifle and looked through the scope. Yup! It was the head of a buck… or a strange illusion, for it still had not moved a hair and seemed to have no body. I have been fooled a thousand times by this kind of thing. I see a small lump of burl that looks exactly like a squirrel against a tree in the distance… and most of the time it turns out to be just a hunk of burl: the rest of the time it is a squirrel sitting motionless.


I dropped the rifle down a few feet and looked at it with naked eyes. It was then that it moved and ran off giving me no shot, its body materializing from behind the brush that hid it, its antlers held high, head back and proud. It was literally the largest buck I had ever seen. Now I really felt like Elmer Fudd. I had been fooled! In my defense, blasting away at something near a ridge top where I had no idea what lay beyond, and was uncertain of my target as well, would also have been foolhardy, but nonetheless I felt the fool.


When I got to where the buck was standing, I found a bed hollowed out of thick brush and having only a single entrance. At the very top of the wigwam he hollowed out was a spot for him to stick out his head. From the high vantage point of the ridge top, he could survey his domain. Nearby were massive scrapes and rubs. He was the alpha male of the hill. I was the zeta male.


I had a few hours left to hunt, so with the vision of that disembodied head of the buck floating in my brain, I worked the rest of the hilltop.


As silent as one can be, there is a moment where like at a symphony concert during a beautiful quiet passage one suddenly feels a cough coming on. No matter how one tries to put it out of mind, hold one’s breath, or make goofy faces and contort one’s throat, it just gets worse. As I approached a bend in the path with exceptionally thick scrub and briars, and full of deer tracks coming and going to and fro, it got too much.

 “Kaloff!!!” I coughed forth.

The scrub to the left of me exploded as two does leapt to their feet and went sailing through the air. One went away from me, while the other one leapt nearly over my head. I just stood there wondering what the hell had just happened as they disappeared with crashing and crunching down the sides of the hill. I never even thought of raising my gun.


By this time, I figured my best strategy was probably to unload the rifle, and picking a likely spot to hold deer, simply throw the Mauser into the bushes. I might have an equal chance of hitting something. What I actually did was conclude the hunt a bit before closing time and make my way back down the hill.


I should have hunted my way down. Instead, I walked down, figuring that since I had carefully hunted my way up, and saw nothing, that the path and hillside would be busted for me, and hold no deer.


Halfway down the entire hillside above me just detonated with does. At least twenty deer had moved slowly off the top and resumed bedding down behind fallen trees on the side of the hill. I had made another cardinal error. All I saw were white flags bouncing through the woods.


As I got back to my car, there was a large doe leaning on the hood. She was looking at me with a sneer, and I swear to you, seemed to smoking a cigarette. She sauntered off stage left. I think she was trying to tell me something…


If I ever do manage to find a nice cave to do a little sketching in and leave a memory, it might just be a stick figure hunter bending over while a stylized deer with antlers sniffs at the hunter’s butt.


In a thousand years, culturally, it should have some significance!

Monday, March 15, 2021

Of Trout and Eggs


Of Trout and Eggs


Copyright 2021 Erik Helm


George was a peculiar fellow. I had known him for over fifteen years, and in all that time, I had never known him to keep a trout. He was a strict catch ‘em and let ‘em go oddity. He professed that he had an aversion to eating fish, but that aversion certainly did not extend to the actual fishing itself. Therefore, it was odd when I came upon him one early morning setting up his rod and gear at our favorite trout haunt, that he was carrying a creel. I greeted him, and not mentioning the wicker basket slung over his shoulder, asked if he wanted company. He nodded and we made small talk about the weather, our families, and the prospects for the morning fishing.


George mentioned that he was due back home by 2 p.m. sharp to perform some domestic chores or ‘honey-dos’. Although he never really spoke about it, I knew that he was rather hen-pecked by his wife. One time George even referred to her as “She who must be obeyed.”


It was decided that I would go upstream and fish the dry fly, while he would fish his way downstream with the wet fly. It was a desultory sort of day on the river; not much was hatching, and few trout showed themselves to the fly. After a few hours, and catching just three small browns, I gave up and decided to pick raspberries instead. I stowed the fishing gear in the car, and retrieved an empty coffee tin.


There were always good pickings along the river in July. After an hour, I had filled the tin with fresh berries, and was covered with stains and scratches from the brambles. I scrambled down the slope and spotted George downstream playing a fish. I decided to sit on a rock and just take in the scenery.


George was a very good fisherman, and his chosen method today of presenting a brace of wet flies down into the deeper pools behind the riffles was paying off. His rod seemed perpetually in action, bent to the strain of wild trout. He landed fish after fish and released them. The curious thing was that each fish was subjected to a small tape measure before being released, and that George, always a calm and almost reclusive person, seemed to be growing more and more agitated. Instead of gently releasing the trout, he began throwing the fish overhand while he talked to himself.


After watching him catch at least twenty more fish, I whistled to him and pointed to my watch. He nodded and came stomping up the river towards me. It was just before one o’clock, and that would allow us just enough time to grab an ice-cold coke at the Ma and Pa gas station and general store at the highway junction.


“Well?” I asked… “Let’s see what is in that creel of yours!”


George gave me a very effective sneer as an answer, and broke down his rod, placing it into its protective tube, and into the trunk of his Oldsmobile.

Ignoring the sneer, I opened the creel to discover nothing but some fresh wet grass at the bottom.

“Practicing for senility, George?”


He sighed. “Look, don’t give me any razzing, I am in enough trouble as it is.”


“What?” I exclaimed.


He turned to me and said: “Don’t tell anyone…”


“Marsha had poached trout at her tennis club last year, and she got a liking for them.”

 “She loves two trout with her eggs for breakfast from time to time, so… well, here I am.”


“Alright, that explains a bit, but then why did you release all the trout you caught?” “Are you trying to put her on a diet?”


“No… but… look… it is the silliest thing; the trout she was served at the club were pond raised and pellet fed, and they were all the same size… exactly eleven inches long.” “Marsha doesn’t mind me fishing once a week, but the single condition is that I bring home a brace of eleven inch trout each time.” “I caught every size fish today except eleven inches, so I am in a royal tub of hot water.” “Say, you didn’t happen to get any that size?”


I shook my head. “No, I just got a few dinks and this tin of raspberries.”


“Alright…” George said, “I guess I will have to think up some excuse or another.” “Maybe she will buy some yarn about my having broken my rod…”


“Yea, that could work, except that your rod is not broken…” “She surely would notice that!”


“I hadn’t thought of that… but I will have to come up with something nevertheless.”


I left him to ponder his story on the drive back to the highway. Arriving at the little ramshackle store, we both gassed up our cars, and went in to get a coke.


Old Mr. Jansky was behind the counter, looking like part of the debris surrounding him. The smell of frying onions greeted us even before his smile.


“Hi boys! How’s the fishin?” he asked rhetorically.


“Two cokes!” I answered.


He opened the big red and white cooler behind the counter and produced two bottles covered with ice. I paid. The way I figured it, George was already behind the eight ball, so this one was on me.


The shop door opened and a tiny bell tinkled. It was a young boy, perhaps twelve years old. He carried a long worm pole, a Folgers coffee tin strung to his belt, and a wicker creel. We made way for him at the counter, and took long swallows of ice-cold coke. The boy asked how much for a coke and hamburger. Old Jansky told him “That would be fifty cents.”


The boy rooted around in his dungarees and produced a quarter and three pennies. He had enough for either the burger or a coke but not both. I winked at George. The wink was intended to convey that we should make up the difference… the only kind thing to do. Instead, George asked the kid what was in the basket.


“I got two green trout!” He proclaimed proudly.


“Green trout?…” George asked out loud. “Never heard of no green trout.” “Can I see ‘em?”


The young man opened the basket, and lying on an old wet newspaper at the bottom were two very fat chubs. “See…? Green trout!”


Then George did an unexpected thing. He took out his tape measure and found that both of the chubs were exactly eleven inches.


“Don’t even think of it George!” I cried.


“Why not?” “The way I figure it, with the heads and tails cut off, stuffed with onion and basil, and baked in butter, Marsha may never know the difference!” “Worst case scenario, she chokes or gags on them and then stops nagging me to bring back fish every time I go out!”


“Say, kid… what are planning on doing with those ‘Green trout’?”

The boy answered that he thought he might feed them to the cat.


George said he had a better idea… “How about I trade you a coke and a hamburger for those two fish?”


The boy nodded happily, and George paid Jansky the fifty cents, taking possession of the fish in turn and wrapping them in the newspaper. He winked at me as we finished our cokes.


“Good luck old boy!” I teased.


“Thanks bud… I might need it.” “I just hope she never notices the difference!”


We parted ways, and it was several weeks before I ran into him again.


I was fishing our local stream close to the springs at the top end, because the water was too warm at the bottom to hold trout. The day was 90 degrees in the shade. I had done pretty well on a Professor wet fly, and had killed three nice ten-inch trout for dinner. That was enough for me. Driving downstream, I observed a car parked along the bank of the lower part of the river. Nobody every fished there this late in the year, except worm dunkers after panfish and bass. Then I hit the breaks. It was George’s car, and below the little farm bridge, I saw his hat showing above the brush and grass. He was fishing. I parked the car, got out and walked to the bridge to watch. He was deep in the pool casting and swinging his wet flies. I yelled to him.


He looked up with a shocked and guilty expression, and stomped up the bank to meet me.


“Teaching worms to swim?” I quipped.


“No, you wise-ass, it might occur to you that I am actually fishing.”


“Yea, that is obvious, but why down here in the warm water?” “I caught some beauties upstream!” “There are no trout down here.”


“That is why I am here.”


“O.K… now I am puzzled,” I said.


George got out a cigarette and lit it.


“I didn’t know you smoked?”


“I don’t… but sometimes it helps calm my nerves.”


“And… your nerves need calming because…?”


“Remember the ‘Green trout’?”




“The whole scheme backfired badly.” “Marsha loved the chubs.” “She said that they were the best trout she had ever eaten!”


“Oops!” I responded.


“Oops is right… She wanted to know where I got them, and why they were better than the ones I had been bringing home up till then.” “I made the mistake of telling her they were ‘Green trout’.” ”She directed me on the spot that from now on, I was to bring her nothing but these new fish.”


“So that is why you are down here playing in the muddy water!”

“You know… you might do better using bait!”


“Oh go soak your head!” was his reply, as he walked back down to the bridge pool to try to catch his two identical eleven-inch minnows.


A couple of weeks later I was grocery shopping when I came across a special on smoked chub. An idea came to me, and I bought one. I put it in the oven on low heat for four hours and then let it hang from the rafters for another week until it was as hard as shoe-leather. I mounted it on a piece of driftwood, and using a marker, wrote this inscription: ‘World record Green Trout’ ‘Caught by George Marky’


I sent it to him in the mail almost three months ago, but I have not heard from him since.


I don’t think he was very amused…







Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Zion Creek


Copyright 2021 Erik Helm



Part One: Gateway to Zion


The river was born in the mountains and flowed from north to south down the valley it had created for eons. It was a trout river, best fished in spring, and the man now standing on the bank watching and listening to it had fished it all his life. Every year it was a ritual beginning in April and ending in June, when the water became too warm for trout, and they migrated up the tributaries like the West Branch, which dumped into the main river across from where he was now standing. This tributary was clean, clear, and cold throughout the year.


The West Branch, or Zion Creek (as it was commonly known), was private water owned by an exclusive club with a set limit to membership. How long the club had existed he didn’t know, but his Grandfather had talked of it often, describing with a wry smile his youthful attempts to poach it at night and his hide and seek game with the club bailiffs. Standing there today, he reflected that he had never had the opportunity to fish it.


All that would change today, as he had been invited by Charles, a business acquaintance he knew slightly and had done a good turn for, to fish it for the morning. Charles had been a member of the club for some time, and held the position of Sergeant at Arms, which translated to keeper of the books and history. Each club member was allowed only two guests per year, so this invite was very special.


He met his host at the stone bridge that spanned the main branch and led up Zion Creek to its headwaters. As they drove in Charles’s car, he rolled down the window to let the fresh smell of pines and spring water fill his senses. Charles made small talk on the way, but his guest’s attention was on the scenic beauty before him. Zion Creek was a picture postcard of a trout-stream. It meandered over gravel, accelerated in riffles, sounded forth with cascading plunge-pools, curved and curved back again upon itself, and twinkled with a thousand reflections of the early morning sun.


Charles parked the car in a gravel lot in front of a splendid rustic log-cabin lodge house; above the front porch hung an ancient weathered wooden sign reading ‘Zion Creek’. They set up their rods and fly-tackle and walked down a set of old wooden stairs that led from the lodge to the stream.


A few mayflies were flitting above the riffles as his host led the way on a streamside path further up the river. He noticed that every hundred yards or so there was a well-maintained hand-carved sign naming the pools and runs. After a short hike, Charles stopped and pointed to the water. “I am going to start you here, it is called ‘Isaac’s Bend’.” “Work your way upstream for the next mile or so, and I will meet you around noon.”

“The Hendricksons should get going around ten, and remember to pinch your barbs down.”

“Oh, and have fun!” he added with a wave. His host disappeared up the path through the conifers, rod tip appearing now and again to mark his passage.


The water named ‘Isaac’s Bend’ was a long gravel bar curving from left to right and had to be at least two hundred yards long. As he squinted through the youthful sunlight to see what insects were on the menu for the morning’s angling, a mayfly landed on his cheek. He caught it gently in cupped hand and peered at it inquisitively. It was a mottled dun, most likely a Hendrickson, but a size larger than he usually saw on the main branch. As he rooted through his fly-boxes to find the appropriate pattern, he heard a splash, and then another, and another. Trout were beginning to feed all around him. Locating the right fly, he dressed it, tied it on his leader, paused a moment to take it all in, and targeting a spreading ring in the water before him, sent his dainty offering forth to tempt a trout.


The fly had barely settled on the water when a hungry brook trout happily sucked it in, and shot downstream past his legs causing the line to fly off the reel with a pleasant protesting staccato. Landing it, he was dazzled by its colors. Bright white accents lined the fins, while sky blue spots punctuated with fiery red centers lit its sides like nature’s fireworks. The trout was fat and healthy, and ice cold to the touch. He released it gently into the clear mirror of water at his feet, and watched it gently settle to the bottom and slowly swim off.


Drying his fly, he looked out over the bend of river ahead and hummed a passage of Schubert’s ‘Trout’ quintet. The water was alive with mayflies dancing in the air and floating on the water, and trout were feeding everywhere in the current. He was in awe.


Time slowed for him as he progressed up the bend to the riffle at the top. He must have caught and released a dozen fish over a foot long, and equally as many smaller ones. Behind a large boulder in the fast water, he saw a swirl and a large nose poked out to eat a bug. He paused a moment to let the fish settle, and placed his fly against the rock. It hovered a moment in the eddy and then seductively twitched as the current caught it. For the trout behind the rock, it was too much. It smacked the fly with audible delight and when hooked, bored into the current.


Seated on the bank, he reflected that he had never seen such a strong fish. Only fifteen inches, it used its weight well, shooting into the air and clearing the boulder in a single leap, then reversing itself and using the current to its advantage, torpedoed its way across the river. He had all he could do to land the thing: reel backlashed, line tangled around his legs, and the leader on the edge of parting. They say brook trout can’t jump. Nobody told this one; he must have never have received the telegram.


He savored the moment as he sat, feet in the cool water, gently drinking it all in. Zion Creek was something to be cherished in the ingrained memory he now captured; a canvas of sound and light, of movement and smell, of fish and eternity. He heard his name being called, and turning his eyes away from the final aquatic ballet before him saw that Charles was standing and smiling at him.


“Well,” Charles laughed, “You didn’t get far at all!” “A mile of river in front of you and four hours later you only made it to the top of ‘Isaac’s Bend’.” “How was the fishing?”


Sometimes a simple smile can paint a thousand paintings, or write a hundred poems. His smile was one out of time; back to his youth, a grin wide with honesty and delight at simply being alive. Four hours had passed in a moment in a special place. He felt renewed.


Zion Creek had its many rituals. They made their way back to the lodge for a glass of wine, and to fill out the guest book and fishing log.


The interior of the lodge was decorated with old photographs of the river and club members. Copper daguerreotypes mixed with faded black and white photos. The logbook was a ponderous affair. Bound in leather and a foot thick, it began in 1891 and was filled with flowing script. Quill pens slowly gave way to ball-points as he flipped through the pages recording the deeds and catches of anglers adorning the photos on the walls; members who were long pushing up daisies. It was a book out of time; a window into the past. He turned to the most recent page, and carefully entered his name, his fish, and the words “This is truly Zion.”


Charles seated him in front of the fireplace at one of the long tables, the wood now worn and stained with smoke, and rang a little bell. An older gentleman appeared as if by magic and shimmered over to the table. He held a bottle of red wine, two glasses and a tray with bowls of hot lentil soup with greens. Charles explained that this was all part of the ritual, codified over the years and simplified to an essence.


“It was old Isaac who set the menu many years ago,” Charles said while pouring the wine. “He was the gentleman that gave his name to the beat of river you just fished.” “By all report and reputation a modest and jolly man, roundly built and short, he was one of the oldest members.” “After the soup, we can look at the old photo albums.” “He is in there, of course.”


The soup was delicious, and the wine intoxicating but sweet. He wondered to himself if Isaac himself had chosen it. It was a rich Semitic deeply colored and pungent vintage, dark purple in color.


His host went up to a large bookcase and pulled down a few albums. They showed the construction of the lodge, the members standing around supervising sporting coats and ties, top hats and derbies perched jauntily on their heads. Page after page showcased happy anglers, and dates and notes were written on the photos themselves in white ink.


As he drank the wine and slowly drank in the history, he turned to a page that had a set of large panoramic photos of the stream taken from the lodge. The first was dated 1921 and entitled ‘West Branch.’ The second dated from 1938 and had the caption ‘Zion Creek.’ Studying them in detail, he noted that in the former photo, he could spot Isaac’s Bend, the Willow Pool, and two other landmarks. Indeed the creek today looked exactly the same as it had in 1921. The second later photo he could not recognize. It looked similar in shape and size, obviously taken from the same vantage point, but clearly a very different river. He noted to Charles his confusion, and his host replied that some stream work and improvements had been done in between the photo dates.


Now he was puzzled. He speculated out loud that the photos seemed backwards. The very river he fished today was identical to the older photo, while the newer one must have shown the original stream before the club did improvements.


“No…” Charles said with a wry smile, “That is the correct sequence.” “We have an hour before we need to get going, so you might like a little mystery untangled…”


Part Two: Prometheus and the finger of God


Charles poured another glass of wine and leaned forward, elbows resting on the old wood table, and began.


 “ The West Branch always had good fishing, and the members contributed dues that allowed the club to hire several ‘Water-Keepers’.” It was their job to stock the stream when it needed it, remove any bass or pike that swam in her, remove silt, and keep the banks clear.” “Sometime in the mid-1930s we hired a new keeper named Smith.” “He had a background as an engineer, and also was a keen fisherman.” “It was Smith that started the program of improvements to the stream starting at the confluence, and working year by year up the river.” “Some of the ideas were quite new, at least to us.” “He used logs to shore up the banks and prevent silt from accumulating, and with his helpers manually shifted rock in the river to aid flow, always being sensitive to the river itself.”


“The work started to pay off with fish numbers increasing, and insect life visibly rebounding, while the stream retained its essential character.” “Members of the club noticed the improvements in the fishing as well.”


“In 1937 the president of the club was a man named Franklin… I can’t recall his first name.” “He was from the city, and owned a large excavating company.” “He floated the idea of increasing the stream work to Smith, and then to the executive committee.” “His idea was that in one or two years we could reap the benefits of a re-structured river by industrial methods based on Smith’s new ideas.” “He sweetened the pie by offering, at his own expense, to provide not only the equipment, but the labor as well.” “The committee took a vote, the idea passed, and the planning started.”


“That was when the simple ideas of tweaking things along the river in a sort of symbiosis with its character began to expand.” “As ideas were put forward and discussed about each section and beat, more and more opinions and suggestions were explored.” In the ‘Willow Pool’ for example, instead of the S-curve that existed naturally, plans called for the river to be shifted from its bed and made straighter and deeper.” “Other pools and sections were less invasive, but some were more so.” “I think the idea kind of morphed into a sort of “Let’s create the ideal trout stream” project.” “Some members thought aloud that we already had the ideal trout stream.”


“The work was begun in the summer of 1937 and due to the efficiency of the heavy equipment, progressed rapidly… a bit too rapidly for some.” “Old Isaac was watching the work from a streamside bench with several others when he made a prophetic remark.” “He said: “You guys are trying create your own Zion!”” “Knowing Isaac, he probably had a tumbler of wine in one hand, and a cigar in the other.” “Isaac was always one for a quip delivered with a laugh and a plume of smoke.” “His little remark stuck, and in his honor, the club decided to rename itself.” “That is the origin of the name Zion Creek.” “Whether he intended it that way or not, Isaac’s quip proved later to have some prophetic foresight.”


“By 1938 the work was complete, and a new trail was constructed.” “Some of the now familiar stretches received new names such as ‘Gordon’s Pool’, or ‘Smith’s Riffle’, based on those members that had designed the work.” “That spring, some members remarked that they thought that the fishing was better, while others reflected that it wasn’t better, just different.” “Some pieces fished the wet-fly better, and others now were better dry-fly water.” “The new sign was carved for the lodge, and the West Branch officially changed to Zion Creek.”


“Old Isaac never lived to fish it that spring.” “He died of a heart attack.” Charles turned the pages of the photo album until he found what he was looking for.

“Here is a picture of the old man,” he said, turning the album around. Isaac was photographed sitting on the bank with his fly rod on his knees and winking at the cameraman. In his right hand were both a cigar, and a glass. His hair was bushy and wild, his beard large, and both were white as cotton.


“From the stories told and repeated through the years around the fireplace, Isaac was a fine angler, one of the first in the water when a gathering was held, but after catching a few trout, he would take down his rod and sit on the bank watching the other fishermen.” “He had a zest for the good life.”


“In the spring of 1940 a tropical storm moved up the coast, and collided with a nor’easter.” It rained for three days solid.” “The bridge was washed out, and no members could get anywhere close to the club waters for over a week.” “In all, something like eleven inches of rain fell over the mountains.” “When the floodwaters retreated and a group of us managed to man-handle a boat to the confluence and cross the bank, the debris was everywhere.” “It took another two weeks to remove enough of it to get to the lodge.” “The building was intact, but the sign dangled by one end, and all the placards naming the pools were washed away.”


“The creek was still there, of course, and the fish too.” “After all, they had survived there before man ever cast a line on the water, and had seen worse flooding.” “It was something else entirely that amazed us all, and led us to place a bronze plaque in Isaac’s honor on the old oak tree overlooking his bend… for his bend was back… and not only that, but every single major change we made to the river was simple washed away.” “The flood had turned back time on us, before our eyes flowed the old West Branch, exact in every detail.”


“Nature, or God, or time, if you will, had erased our arrogance.” “Thinking about it later, we reflected that the river had formed the valley itself, and it had a million years to do so.” “Every bend and nuance had been part of creation and the power of nature, our puny and misguided human attempts at making it what we thought it should be only lasted a year or so.” “The river had a reason, a design, a purpose to it that we never perceived.” “In trying to improve upon a divine or natural perfection, we had built our temple of Zion, only to watch it come tumbling down before the finger of God.”


“The membership decided to keep the name ‘Zion’, but to restore all the names of the beats or pools to their original names.”


“That reminds me… After Isaac passed, the club voted not to open his seat up to a new member.” “Members are here for life, and the club always had totaled fifty.” “Now it consists of 49.”


“ Now you know,” Charles finished with a grin.


“Yes, now I know…” “It reminds me of the parable of Prometheus in its varying versions…” “Man attempts to play God…”


He raised his glass in a toast. “Here is to Isaac!”


The last of the sweet wine was delicious. It was a bounty of nature, and not an attempt to turn nature into a bounty, and a fitting last sip in a little parable in a valley called ‘Zion Creek’…








Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The problem with modern trout flies… or 30 pieces of ‘flair’.


Two mayflies?


After having presented a talk on fly fishing for spring-creek trout to a gathering of anglers, one of the sports purloined me afterwards to show me his fly-box. Upon opening it, fireworks seemed to explode. Lined up neatly like a collection of miniature happy-meal toys were a phalanx of kaleidoscopic colors and shapes. Rubber legs and foam sticking out in all directions dominated the creations, and many were topped with wigs of poly-yarn. There was not a single subtle natural-looking pattern to be found.


“This is my dry-fly box,” he proclaimed, “What do you think?”


I remarked that I thought they needed more ‘cow-bell’.


If these were trout flies, they seemed to be sporting clown-suits topped by a sombrero.


What happened to the sparsely dressed flies that actually resembled the insects that trout saw on a daily basis and ate: the flies of Gordon and Flick et al? Why all these gaudy over-dressed cartoon-like hallucinations?


Well, they are popular after all… and popularity owes nothing to lasting legacy, function or form. Popularity is just that: popular because popularity begets popularity. Monkey see and monkey do, if you will. After all Milli-Vanilli was popular once, and… well… who?


For the last century of American dry-fly development, anglers and fly-tiers concentrated on matching the prevalent bugs on the water with sparsely dressed flies. These patterns relied on just a few materials to allow the fly to ride on the surface of the water, often balanced on tail and hackle: what the English referred to as ‘Well-cocked’. Fly-dressers knew through experimentation that a sparse fly floated longer and allowed the trout to see the profile and color properly. They trapped air better, and the materials were less apt to soak up water as quickly as over-dressed patterns. We seem to have forgotten that recently.


Many of today’s most popular trout patterns look like a contest was held; the winner to be the tier who crammed the most crap on the hook, and a bonus prize awarded if the resulting creation looked like something Timothy Leary might have seen after licking a few too many, ahem, postage stamps back in Haight-Ashbury.


Let’s start with the rubber legs. No pattern worthy of good standing in a bin at a fly-shop can do without them. Shrug them aside and be relegated to the also-rans in the discount bin. The problem is not only that actual trout-stream insects don’t have rubber legs, but also that rubber legs tend to sink the fly. Therefore…


Foam… lots of foam. This is both ‘cool’, and helps counteract the diving effect of the rubber legs. If one sheet of foam is good, then multiple sheets are better, especially in wild colors. Top the foam with a biggish plume of poly-yarn for visibility just in case legally blind friends might miss your new creation on the water, and you have a nice big top-heavy blob that flips on its side after landing, and resembles trout insects as much as a McDonald’s hamburger.


Adding 30 pieces of flair helps too. Why fish a lowly blue-winged olive consisting of a tail, a dubbed body, three turns of hackle and a split duck wing, when you can fish one with krystal flash and doll eyes. So much cooler that! Value enters the picture as well. If our bland olive mayfly and the new krystal flash extravaganza tied in reverse on a jig hook and sporting rubber-legs are both two-bucks… well, one is just getting so much more for their money! Chotchkie’s was right: flair sells! Despite the fact that any trout worthy of their name run from the restaurant screaming rather than eat the damn food… er… flair.


I remember my father explaining to me once upon a time a’ browsing the lure section of a sporting goods store, that “Most lures are made to lure fishermen, not fish”. I think the ‘lure’ of form over function he was explaining might prove apt today. A good question might be asked: “How many Willy Wonka flies does a trout have to eat to grow to a foot long?” The answer being zero, for trout don’t eat Willy Wonka flies.


“They eat mine!” a true believer and rubber leg cult member proclaims. Yes… but those fish might wish to apply for Darwin awards, and get removed from the gene pool before they pass on bad habits. Seriously though, as a trout guide I see anglers every week on the water throwing this month’s popular millennial IPA fly and catching a few fish. However, their success is masking their lack of success: they don’t know the fish they are missing by not using sparse and realistic patterns that match the food in the stream. Yes, these new flies sometimes have a tendency to lure Bullwinkle out of his cave to investigate what the hell that thing is and take a swipe at it, but then extrapolating a success to equate a box filled with only Chernobyl mutations is a bit of a stretch.


Why this trend came to be in fly-fishing is a matter for endless philosophical discussion, but it happened rather quickly. It took roughly ten years for ‘Match the hatch’ to be replaced with ‘Attractors’. Funny it never happened in a sport like duck hunting. To this day wielders of the shotty-gun in the cold wastes of the duck blind still place decoys out in the water that look like ducks to a duck. I have never observed anyone inflating a parti-colored beach ball and setting it a sail on the pond in hopes that a duck or three might be tempted to gather and socialize with it.


If a duck did come down to the beach ball, I would shoot it to remove it from the gene-pool, which might be the best solution for many of today’s over-dressed gaudy monstrosities masquerading as trout flies.



Saturday, September 12, 2020

Blue-collar rods and guns


Stevens 311 from the 1970s reborn


Copyright 2020 Erik Helm


A concept of value…


At a gun show last year I lingered at a table where a vendor had on display and for sale a large collection of vintage hunting rifles and shotguns, and also a nice selection of old split bamboo fly rods. As I fingered the rods and a shotgun or two, mentally putting a monetary value to each item often much below the asking price, I found myself in a familiar quandary; what is value? Is it only measured in currency… or do sentiment, historic place, or even cultural and social importance give something value?


As I unscrewed an old aluminum rod tube and found a well used, and slightly bent three- piece Montague fly-rod with decayed varnish, I could hear an echo of the inevitable response as to value given by those experts and collectors who make it their business to let down the finder or inheritor with the words: ‘Barrel rod,’ ‘Wall-hanger,’ or ‘Only sentimental value.’


At face value, those clinically sober collectors are right. These outdoor tools carry very little monetary value since they were manufactured in the thousands. However, when it comes to a place in history or even sentiment these rods and guns mark a place on the American timeline that is much larger than just nostalgia; they accompanied multiple generations of Americans on their hunting and fishing adventures. They got used, scratched, dropped, bent, unbent, repaired with string, rusted, modified, covered with blood, fell out of boats and trucks, and made the American outdoor experience from roughly the 1920s through the 1980s what it was because they were durable and affordable. I call that value.


I juxtapose this with those beautiful hand made masterpieces in firearms and fly-rods that are avidly collected. The Garrison’s, Payne’s, or Gillum’s of fly rods… the Purdey or Holland and Holland double guns that are taken out from under their glass sarcophagus once a year to cast a fly or fire a shot, and then carefully polished and returned to their conservatory. They hold monetary value for sure as well as place in that they represent the very pinnacle of perfection of the hand-craftsman’s art, but they never went trough a briar patch or saw the bottom of a wet canoe…


 American sporting traditions were more raw than, for sake of comparison, British hunting and fishing. Americans got muddy, scratched, and wet. They hunted through swamps full of bugs and fished big brawling rivers. They were self-reliant. The folks who used these blue-collar guns and rods never saw a groomed trout-stream or shot from the butts on a driven hunt where the poorer townspeople banged the pots and pans to move the birds for their ‘betters’. Their chosen tools had to survive those swamps and wild forests.


Back in the day… from Town to Country.


In the American heartland state of Wisconsin, specifically the city of Milwaukee where I spent my childhood, there were factories everywhere. Entire neighborhoods grew up around them. Streetcar and later bus routes were laid down with the necessity of conveying workers back and forth. Small businesses emerged crouched in the great shadows cast by the factories, and one could discover in each factory neighborhood, perhaps sandwiched between a tavern and a newsstand or tobacco shop, a full-service sporting goods store. The nearest to our neighborhood was M&M Sporting Goods, which lay on a side street in the wake of the massive AMC auto plant on Capitol drive. My father took me there several times beginning when I was so young that I had to raise myself on toes and knuckles to peer at the displays at eye level. They had everything for the sportsman… as long as it didn’t insult a working man’s pocketbook. The less expensive fiberglass and cane fly rods were in a barrel. The guns were stacked behind the counter, and any common item such as ammunition, worms, pocketknives, etc. were placed at waist height on display tables in the center and near the door for convenience.


Come around Thursdays or Fridays a few minutes after the shift-end whistle sounded at the factory, the place filled with eager faces dreaming of the outdoors and a weekend getaway with the boys. The workers surged forth like they were released from a prison to get their rods and guns and supplies. Their tools of choice had common names: Stevens, Savage, Marlin, Harrington and Richardson, Ivers Johnson, and lower end Winchesters or Remingtons. On the fishing side were cane and glass rods by Garcia, Shakespeare, Union Hardware, Montague, Horrocks and Ibbotson, and rods made by companies like these for the trade market, (often with the retailer’s name on them.) These guns and rods were made and assembled in factories by mirror images of the workers who now bought them for the field and stream. They smoked the same cigars, and drank the same beer.


A couple of hours later when the dust settled, and the throngs of hunters and fishermen were well on their way to the woods and waters, the proprietors of the sporting goods store would begin the cleanup process. I expect over 80% of business was transacted in those several hours near the weekend. The rest of the week was just preparation.


In the malaise of the 1980s when the factories shuttered and rusted, the nearby sporting goods stores shared the same fate. Packards and Buicks no longer carried their cargo of outdoor enthusiasts northward for the weekend. My father pointed the vacant stores out like so many ghosts as we drove through Milwaukee’s industrial corridors. Empty storefronts staring blankly now with their signs and names fading: Viking, Flintrop, Spheeris, Casanova, Burghardt, and M&M. Pieces of America, and our sporting history where dreams were gently simmered and made.


Rural America was more durable in that respect, for the same sporting goods stores greeted us as we drove the family wagon up north in search of adventure and rest throughout the 1970s and 80s. They had been there for generations, and many are still there today, in the same spot, run by the founder’s grandkids, and selling the same goods to the sons and grandsons of their very first customers. Rural Americans still shared their hunting and fishing traditions with their sons and daughters, and still do today.


 Mom was born in a small town in central Wisconsin with a population of less than two thousand. When we visited, Dad and I and the men and boys sometimes found ourselves rather in the way when a flurry of bread baking and cleaning was undertaken. We did what generations of temporarily outcast members of the male sex did: we went to the local hardware-general-sporting goods store. A role often fulfilled by a single establishment in any small town in rural America. One thing was similar to the working class stores in the city: the goods that were sold had to offer both a high value for dollar spent, but also good functionality and above all durability.


A workingman or farmer only had enough disposable income to afford or justify a few well-chosen tools for the outdoors. These had to perform multiple duties…


Ever wonder why many of the old bamboo fly rods are a wee bit crooked? They didn’t start off that way. It may have happened through poor care and storage, but often it happened doing dual duty. Old Elmer, the farmer who also worked at the grain store part time had one fishing rod. It had a little stamped tin reel with a button that controlled the drag selection. The button had two settings: on and off. The rod could be used to cast a fly or chuck a worm or minnow, or with the reel drag turned off, it could be used to troll in a rowboat or canoe. It wasn’t a trout rod, it was a ‘Fishing pole.’ The bend in it might have come when old Elmer was trolling a chub and hooked a Musky that featured in a tale that grew taller each time it was told over a beer at the local tavern. The rod caught panfish that helped feed the family, cast plugs to bass, and placed a McGinty fly deep into a dark hole on the tannic river where the big trout lived.


When Elmer got back to his battered pickup, he placed the rod in the back next to the shotgun that always resided there. That gun was most likely a rusty pump or a side-by-side double. They defined the term “Twenty dollar gun.” They had a couple of features in common…


Any gun sold to a working class stiff or a farmer had better work, and work well and as hard as he did. It better hit what it is aimed at. If it didn’t, the new owners would be likely to show up back in the store where they purchased it wearing a frown and a dangerous look in the eye. Ornament and fancy hand-work had to take a back seat to durability as well. The duty list of the average blue-collar American shotgun might include in a given season: hunting grouse and duck, warning off the neighbor’s dog, shooting coyotes and foxes raiding the hens, eliminating feral cats, providing meat for the table, training the young’un in gun safety and responsibility, accompanying a farmer on his tractor, or even providing self-defense for his family.


For many Americans, the thanksgiving turkey did not come from the supermarket, it came from the woods, and that fish fry originated in a warm Saturday spent on a lake in a rowboat. Game was earned, not bought.


The theme of useful frugality is woven into this history because it was necessary. It also became part of our native culture and psyche.


My parents generation and all the uncles, grandparents and family relations and acquaintances had not come through America’s Great Depression unscathed or unmarked. The fear that someday everything you worked hard for might disappear, and that every household possession from the sewing machine to the shotgun and fishing rod had better be taken care of and valued was very real. Families rarely owned anything that did not see regular use, even the good china for Sunday dinner.


This frugality became a matter of pride: a sort of workingman’s ethos. Dignity was found in dirty fingernails and sweat. The memories of the Depression infected or affected the sons and daughters of Hoover and Roosevelt. Nothing was thrown away, and tin band-aid containers in the bathroom medicine cabinet or the kitchen contained rusty nuts and bolts, buttons, bread twist-ties, and collections of safety pins squirreled away, and only found when their grandsons and daughters dissolved their homesteads. They also found these old rifles, shotguns, and fishing rods, even after the tradition died; they had no clue of their family value, or how to use them anymore.


This is why, even if our farmer or factory man had a windfall miracle and could purchase the finest guns and rods available, or even knew there were higher-end choices than the local store offered, they still would shy away. For one thing, it would offend their sensibilities. It also might cause Grandma to break said high-end firearm or fly-rod over Grandpa’s head. The main reason would be that they would not wish to put on airs or get snubbed by the boys hanging out at the cracker barrel. “Who does he think he is?” Keeping up appearances is as necessary in the field as it is in the parlor.


Pride of Ownership


Yes, durability is one reason that these pieces of American sporting history can be enjoyed today handed down through the family or found as bargains at second-hand stores, but the stronger reason is that they were cherished.


Back at the gun show, I fondled an old Sears single-shot 12 gauge. Talk about no frills. This thing had a black painted finish to the receiver, a simple barrel, and a stock made from some awful wood. The barrel was polished like a mirror. Despite being 70 or 80 years old, it had no rust anywhere. It also had several repairs carefully done. Not by a gunsmith mind you, but by the owner or owners who repaired a split forearm with wooden pegs and glue so that you almost couldn’t see the repair, and who had also fashioned a new butt-plate out of leather. This gun was loved and cared for. Along with a fishing rod, it may have supplied food for the table when it might otherwise be unaffordable or unavailable. The labor of the factory worker built these, and they came back to serve the laborer and farmer. Born of sweat-equity, their usefulness outlived their users because they were so very important to subsistence, recreation, and dreams.




Marks of honor


Some of the shotguns that I caressed that day at the gun show were full of scratches, dents, spots of rust, and dings. Those were the marks of memories made in the outdoors, memories etched forever in the tool that got well used. The fly-rods had cork handles full of dirt with the finger and hand imprints of the owner who dared to dream of hunting and fishing before somewhere in the 1980s Dads got too busy or just forgot to pass on to their sons the traditions so dear to generations of men and boys.


So now, several generations removed, the grandchildren, digging in the attic or basement, find Grandpa’s old rusty Stevens 311 shotgun, or his crooked Montague fly-rod, and seeking it’s value, are told it is nearly worthless.


A beg to disagree. They are testament to a place in time in America that defined our thrift, our sense of adventure, our manufacturing ingenuity, and our freedom.


They contain memories more precious than gold.










Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Matching the hatch on the River Styx

Is Matching the hatch dead?

Coffee and Internet forums often lead to pondering, and so, this morning I pondered a response to one reader who mused, “Does anyone still fish a Blue-Wing Olive and match the hatch? Like, why would you want to do that? So lame…”

It was a bit of a jaw-dropper and a slap… like drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

In the history and lore of the sport of fly-fishing for trout, nothing is woven through the fabric defining the shape of this wonderful pastime more than the insects and their imitations of fur, feather and dainty hook used to fool the fish.

From the early records in Macedonia, to the written descriptions of flies in the Middle Ages by Benedictine Prioress Berners, through Schweibert, Flick, the color plates in Bergman, and on to Swisher and Richards, an integral part of the game was figuring out what the trout wanted to eat and when, what the bugs looked like, and tying and fishing imitations of those specific bugs. It was and should remain as big a part of the trip to the stream as the rod, reel, and line.

It also was a part of the sport that dripped of art and refinement. Matching the hatch took time and observation and brought us closer to nature. Those that expanded the myopic view of bugs to the greater world of seasons, weather, and the natural world found patterns, reflections and ties to Solunar tables, and cycles of blooming wildflowers. When the trout-lilies first opened their white bonnet of delicate petals, it was time to look for the black caddis hatch, and the arrival of red-wing blackbirds might point to early stoneflies.

Peering under rocks to find both mayfly larvae, and possibly the deeper meanings of life is recorded in the writings and musings of great authors whose tongues dripped the honey on bound pages that we have savored for a century or more.

So, what happened out there on the river in recent years while I, and many others were watching the clouds and listening to the water-music?

I have a 1998 Orvis catalog in front of me with battered pages. In the fly section are all the names we have become familiar with: March Brown, Hendrickson, Blue-wing Olive, Pale Morning Dun, Pheasant-Tail Nymph, Sulpher, Stimulator, etc. Even the ‘New’ flies for that year bearing the names of their creators had the type of insect they represented in their nomenclature.

Fast-forward to a catalog from 2020, and we see oddly names flies with gaudy colors that look like an acid-trip at the vise. These new ‘Attractor’ flies are now all the rage. They are the cool new IPA of the moment. They bear names conjured up after a few too many IPAs as well: Dirty Hippy, Hippy Stomper, Fat Bastard, Cow Dung, Shag Nasty…

How can the lowly Blue-Wing Olive compete with this? It has no pink rubber legs, no cool name, and no tactical jig hook. It isn’t even made of foam. Dude, only ‘Boomers’ would use that! So, at the fly-shop poor little Blue-Wing Oliver is an orphan again, sitting in the bin with the other foundlings and cast-offs: a whole orphanage of forgotten flies. Dickens would be proud. We can almost hear them singing for a bit of water-time… or gruel. Unloved, these classic flies imitating the insects of our trout streams have been eclipsed by the new hipsters on the block.

“But what about innovation?” I can hear the question already… One angler once told me that “Today we have better flies.” I replied that, instead, we have ‘New’ flies, but that something was missing as well: the art and beauty of simplicity.

As time passes, what we all took for granted as iconic of an era, of a genre, of part of us and our identities becomes overshadowed and eclipsed by something ‘New’. Innovation is a good thing. If not for innovation, we would be fishing with solid wood rods, canvas and rubber waders, horsehair lines, and using only wet-flies. However, when icons of a sport such as the classic flies of trout-streams that match the hatching insect are nearly entirely replaced by modern attractor flies, something is missing. A huge hole in the soul of the sport has opened.

Several weeks ago, I fished my home waters here in the Driftless area of Wisconsin. I was on a section of a river I know intimately. I was faced with failure, and it was a glorious experience. “What?” the reader might ask; “How is failure glorious?”

The answer is that I learned something, and nothing feeds and incites learning like getting your proverbial butt handed to you.

Fish were rising and taking on the surface everywhere. It was windy, and I couldn’t see any insects. Whatever the bugs were, they were small. I guessed and tied on a midge. I even had several midges land on my hand, so I felt affirmed. Every trout in the riffle and pool either ignored my fly, or gave an ‘Interested but not having any’ refusal look. I stubbornly kept on casting and trying, and having no luck, moved on the next bend above. No dice here either, so I switched the fly to a smaller midge with a lower profile and more pronounced black body. After a half an hour, and nothing to show, a single fat brown trout ate the midge, ran toward his bank-side abode, and the hook popped out. Fish: 34…. Angler: 0

See, but now I had the fly that worked… even if it were only once. Thus, I kept up appearances and doggedly soldiered on, failing all the way up the river, and never touching another fish.

Time to do a little snooping.

I spent several minutes looking about the rocks on shore for a clue. Up to this point, I had been as hapless as Inspector Clouseau. I finally turned over a large piece of bark to find the bottom crawling with tiny black stoneflies. I had never encountered this specific insect before on the stream I was fishing. Then I sat on the bank and pondered the situation. It was sunny and windy. The early black stoneflies I was seeing were not laying eggs, they were mating on the bank, so they were not fluttering and diving on the surface of the water. Instead, they were at the crawling stage. The fish were picking them off in the surface film as they made their way to the side of the river. No wonder I couldn’t see anything.

My midge had a black body of the correct shape and size, but it had a white wing. The stoneflies were solidly cloaked in gray and black. The trout wanted caviar, and I was offering them Oreo cookies.

I dug in my copious fly boxes and found some flies I had tied years before to imitate the even smaller black stoneflies of winter often observed crawling on the snow. One of them was a bit large, tied on a size 20 hook. I tied it on, and on the first cast and presentation, the biggest boy in the pool confidently rose and ate my fly. The rest of the day will be one of memories and dream images.

This experience is special because of how challenging it was, and because of the spectacular failure, regrouping and study, the eventual clue, having the right fly tied in hand, and the final joy of success.

Or, I could have tied on a purple size 12 upside down bath salt special with spotted yellow reggae legs and just remained clueless. Heck, I might have even caught a fish or three! Trout can sometimes be that dumb. After all, they have no hands to investigate anything, just eyes and a mouth, and the new flies are better! Sometimes they actually are…

Until they aren’t.

I was guiding a client a couple of years ago, and he wanted to use his own flies. Despite my advice, he tied on a red foam thing with blue rubber legs. He proceeded to catch three tiny brook trout. These poor skinny little fish would have hit anything. Finally, I clipped off his fly, and told him to trust me, even if he didn’t believe me about the micro caddis flies that hatched early that morning and were crawling on the bank side vegetation. Suffice it to say that he was a happy angler at the end of the day.

Sometimes nature herself can be cool too in a subtle way without the gaudy pink rubber legs or goofy names. There are things that are happening all around us that we cannot perceive if we are not listening or curious, and are instead using the fly and the fish as props in a stunt. The bugs and the fish may be more important than we are on the river.

In the end, those of us that are snickered at for being ‘Old-School’, actually have an advantage. If we have an open mind, and admit that the new attractor flies have a place in our box along-side those somber and boring bits of fur and feather, we can adapt to everything. That is innovation without the eclipse. Then, when the trout are drunk enough to hit on that foam blonde at the bar that their friends tell them not to, we can be prepared!

Instead of the angler I recently encountered who only uses one fly for trout all year. He calls it the ‘Dead Lawyer’.

Which leads me to speculate out loud…

When we grow old and tired and gray, and pass from this world; when we pay the ferryman Charon to take us to the other side of the River Styx, will we be the last generation to grace those hallowed and fateful waters with a simple Blue-Wing Olive?





Monday, March 2, 2020

De-cluttering Fly-fishing and the Tenkara factor

I was poking about in a fly shop the other day when I overheard an interesting and thought-provoking conversation. An angler had arrived for the weekend and was going to hit the local spring creeks for trout. He mentioned that he was going to fly-fish that Friday afternoon and evening, but that for the rest of the weekend, he was going to fish Tenkara style, because as he put it, it was “So much more fun and simpler than traditional fly fishing.”

For those that are not familiar with Tenkara, it is a Japanese style of fishing using a fixed line and a telescoping rod averaging around 10-14 feet in length without a reel of any kind. First developed for Japan’s mountainous and high-gradient streams, it jumped the Pacific and has been adopted in America with an often-evangelical fervor.

My line of questioning (to myself) was why would Tenkara seem so much more essential than fly-fishing? After all, fly-fishing has always prided itself on its inherent simplicity and connection to nature and water. Just a rod, reel, line, leader and a fly… Was it really simply the reel that set the two-styles apart… or was there more to it? An angler with a fly-rod can do anything a Tenkara angler can do, but isn’t limited to casting range by the fixed line. The two systems have more in common than not, just being two similar means to deliver a hook tied with fur and feather to a fool a fish. So why the preference?

The angler answered the question himself shortly as he purchased a bunch of depleted uranium ‘jig fly’ nymphs, and a package of plastic bobbers for his afternoon and evening of ‘Traditional fly-fishing’.

Well, there it was. The answer was right in front of me.

By rigging that heavy fly and a bulky ‘bobber’ strike-indicator on his leader, he had inadvertently destroyed the rhythm and grace of casting a fly rod. Instead of the beautiful loops of line arcing out over the water like a ballet to delicately present a fly, he had turned his fly- fishing outfit into a ‘flop and lob’ rig; effective to be sure, but not graceful. Was that simplicity and grace, that Zen essence of purity missing from his fly-fishing driving his enjoyment and preference of Tenkara? I think it might.

For many hundreds of years, fly-fishing was concerned with casting an un-weighted or lightly weighted fly on the end of a delicate leader. Weight consisted of a few wraps of copper wire or later lead wire on a nymph. That was all the angler needed to get down to the level of the trout. The late Lee Wulff may have put it best when he quipped, “Trout deserve the sanctuary of deep water.”

Time and innovation marches on, and the desire to make the fly-rod do what bait-casters and spinning rods would allow led to changes which would revolutionize the sport. No longer would high-gradient bottom-dwelling trout be safe from the fly-angler. Enter heavily weighted nymphs and the increasingly large, wind-resistant ‘bobbers’ necessary to suspend them at depth. This changed casting as well. High-stick nymphing and the ‘flop and lob’ cast were seen more and more on the streams of the world. Many anglers today know no other way to cast or deliver a fly. They are wedded to the heavily weighted bead-head nymph and the bobber.

So why is this bad? Well, no other form defines fly-fishing more than the art of casting. It is simple, and beautiful to watch and perform. By placing that much weight on the end of the line, and using ‘bobber’ style indicators, the entire dynamic is thrown off. The problem occurs with an interruption of the smooth flow of the unfurling fly-line by hinges and shock-points caused by the clutter attached to the leader. We are making our fly-rod do things that it never was intended to do: thus the lack of grace and the chucking, chunking and lobbing. We cluttered it up. We tried to turn a ballet into a break-dance and ended up with a tangled tango. Then a new thing comes along offering exactly what we had before we adulterated the dance, and we waltz with the Tenkara rod…. back to that ‘Zen’ essence that we miss through our own clutter. How ironic…

Now I don’t have anything against Tenkara. I think it is a fun and simple way to fish. However, I think it may be time to re-examine and de-clutter our fly-fishing if Tenkara is now offering us something which we already had before we goofed it up.

Which leads us to the new fad sweeping the world, the Japanese-inspired ‘Minimalist’ movement of de-cluttering and its popular guru Marie Kondo.

‘Minimalism’ is the concept of removing all the things distracting and non-essential in our lives and possessions to effectively create a modern version of the simplicity of a Japanese room. (Think tatami mat, futon, and a simple table.) Taken to extremes, as everything is these days, it often sees the eager acolyte throwing away all their books and mementos, and leaves them in an empty room seated on an austere wooden Scandinavian design chair in their underwear staring at a blank wall… but I digress. Camus would be proud.

Minimalizing or de-cluttering our fly-fishing might mean questioning things: “Do I really need everything I carry with me?” “Is all this junk attached to my leader really necessary?” “Do I actually use the dozens of gadgets stuffed into every nook and cranny in my pack or vest?” or even “Is this actually fly-fishing?”

Or is it all about the numbers of fish caught…?

Of course, I am not recommending that fly-anglers go down to the river and make their own fly-rod from a willow branch and weave their line from horse-hair, that might be way too Marie Kondo. However, the more junk-in-the-trunk we eliminate and the more clutter we remove from our line and leader, the more we might get back to the simplicity and grace, the beauty and finesse that led us to take up fly-fishing in the first place. It doesn’t mean we need to give up nymphing… ( I already hear the grumbling). Instead it might just mean toning it down a bit… replacing that bobber with a piece of yarn, using lightly weighted flies, and learning or re-learning to cast.

That might be a very good thing in the long run… especially if it cuts down on those impromptu emergency room trips where your buddy hits himself in the back of the head with his three-fly depleted uranium jig-fly setup and the bobber hangs down off his ear… Sure cuts into the fishing time.

Tenkara anyone? ;)