Sunday, August 31, 2008

Getting 'Schooled'

I am an experienced angler, and teach casting, tying and fly fishing.
In May of 2008 I fished with Joe Solakian for Smallmouth Bass. Joe has been fly fishing for over 20 years. He schooled me. For some reason I couldn't do anything right that day. I couldn't mend line to save my life. My casting was terrible and hurried. Maybe it was being in a new boat or something, but man was it painful to watch myself blow it time after time, and have Joe show me how it was done. He literally grabbed the rod at one point and tossed a perfect cast, Popped the popper once, and immediately hooked a fish. Damn. In the split second eternity of recognition and reflection, I knew how it felt. I had done it to others too. Joe can cast with one arm tied behind his back and thread a fly through a two-inch gap in twigs. I have seen him do it, and have done it myself...just not that day.
Then a funny thing happened. I was fishing a week or two later, again for Smallmouth, when everything he had been after me to correct just happened. Getting schooled helped. I had been doing things the same way for years and catching fish, now I could look at my fishing with Joe's advise in my ear and make the needed changes. This only happens when you fish with Masters such as Joe or Rob. If you are a beginner, fishing with other beginners will do nothing but develop and encourage bad habits. Fishing with masters can be frustrating and leave you feeling pathetic, but boy do you learn something.
I have spent a lot of time on the water being schooled by my immediate fishing friends, and I can't wait for the next time, so I can continue to improve my skills.
Thanks Joe!


These three guys are authentic rebels.

As I write this the streets of Milwaukee are filled with roaring Harleys driven by American 'Rebels' for their 105th anniversary of noise. You know, the guys and gals that buy the consumer culture of HOG biker in order to establish their identity and individuality by looking and acting like everyone else. Rebels, right.

Steelheaders are real rebels. We live on the fringe of society pursuing with passion a life that no one else can remotely relate to. ("Tell me again why you don't eat them fish..")
We dress like geeks, get dreamy at the mention of a river, spend our life-savings on rods, and don't give a fiddler's fart what anyone thinks of us. Going one's own way in the face of convention defines a rebel. Bugger off with convention!

On the other hand, many steelheaders are beginning to dress and talk alike, "Sweet stick dude." "You rolled bad-ass fish karma." We wear the same ballcaps with flies stuck to them, and wear polypropylene on Sundays. We try to fit in. "Have you seen that hat that Mike Kinney was wearing, Man I gotta get me one of those."

We had better watch it, or our rebel status might turn into sub-culture. If it does, at least we won't make as much noise as Harleys do. That is unless we partake in the burrito bar at Huntingtons.

Back against the wall

Spey rods and casting can really come in handy. Just take a look at Rob fishing this run on the Deschutes. If he wades out far enough to make a back cast with a single-hand rod, he would be floating past the camera. In this run the only cast we were able to utilize was the reverse snap-T. It was made for this. I have spent a lot of time with my back against the wall, so to speak. Finally I got good at it. The right equipment helps too. Here is where Skagit and Scandinavian heads shine. Rob got me into Scandinavian casting. I watched as he cast his Loomis and Vision Ace combo to the other side of the river, while I tried not to whack my 14' rod and windcutter into trees and bushes. A shorter rod helps too.
Dec Hogan says in his video "Style points don't count when your back is against the wall." He could not be more right. How ever you get it out there, is how you get it out there. The fish don't live on the bank.

Man that water looks fishy...

A sort of life...

Real steelhead bums lead romantic lives. Lives spent in pristine temples of river and wilderness hooking fish only a day from the sea, and then eating barbecued steaks around the campfire and sipping single-malt. Lives showing wealthy anglers how to catch fish, and getting tipped to boot. A life of being payed to play.
The romantic vision is only an illusion Dorothy. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Sure the wilderness settings are real, and these guys do catch a lot of fish, but reality intrudes with all sorts of draw-backs.
First of all, these guys just want to fish. In order to pay the bills even of a frugal and meager existence, they are forced to guide clients. Guiding is like being in a room full of the most beautiful women in the world, and being forbidden any contact whatsoever while trying to teach an uncooperative autistic child advanced symbolic logic.
ie; You rarely get to fish, and you have to watch the client that does flail away and blow opportunity after opportunity, which is as he will tell you, all your fault.
Dealing with this involves deep philosophical understanding, Zen, and booze. Mostly booze.
The photograph the guides have on their brochure is staged. If it wasn't you would be on the phone after you saw it, reporting a cross between a filthy mountain-man, and a dumpster diver in waders. My friend little Joe comes back from Alaska where he spends a third of the year guiding, sporting an enormous black beard half his size. (He looks good in it though.)
Instead of steaks, the real food often consists of canned alpo washed down with discounted and expired PBR tall-boys. Then it is off to sleep on a deflated air-mattress in a tent, or if lucky, in a pick-up camper. Get up the next morning with your perpetual hangover, drink coffee with an oily sheen on top that tastes like cat pee, put all your remaining earthly funds in your gas tank, and then pick up your client for the day; a rich millionaire who thinks he is gods gift to fly fishing, argues with you about everything, and can't cast past his boots. Miss lunch for the day, and instead discover a dubious squished twinky in your wading jacket. Eat it with relish. Dodge the creditors until you can get back to your small one room apartment above the town dive-bar filled with meth-heads, and find out your girlfriend has left you for good and taken your dog.
When the fish are not running the rivers you can tend bar or work at a flyshop for minimum wage.
I have been around enough steelhead camps to see all this for myself. Many of my angling chums are guides. There is a large contingent of ex-pat Wisconsinites guiding and fishing chrome in the Pacific Northwest.
Now it is not as bad as my tongue in cheek descriptions, but there is a reason that so many of the guides I know are now former guides. The life will wear you out. It is fun to live like this for a couple of weeks a year, but not for good.

I have had some memorable experiences on steelhead trips. The incredibly bad breakfast burritos at the Klickitat Traders definitely stand out. All the rattlesnakes and poison oak I have dodged. The epic food poisoning I got at the Rainbow tavern in Maupin on the Deschutes. Limping around on twisted knees from wading accidents. Entering a restaurant for that much needed meal of real food and seeing all the diners recoil in horror as you realize that sometime last week you ceased to be able to smell your B.O anymore. Visiting the toilet in the middle of the night when that blue plate special of enchiladas wants desperately to come out as a number 2, and finding that the retarded caretaker Lester has locked the door in fear of "Them highway Injins." Waking up at 5:00 in the morning when the temperature outside is 35 degrees and you have to leave the snug warmth of your sleeping bag, put on damp and smelly waders, and make it down to the run you wanted to fish, just to discover two guys from California had the same idea, and got up earlier. Camping next to a group of young drunken metal heads who party all night and don't get up until the evening bite is upon them. Discovering that in your sleep deprived mode and complete darkness of dawn, you accidentally used Preparation H instead of toothpaste, and what's worse, didn't notice until you saw the label afterwards.
Having all your underwear mysteriously stolen from your tent along with your luggage by desperate tweakers, and having to spend the rest of the trip in Wal-Mart clothing.

And catching fish... Lets not forget about the fish.
Ah...the things we do for love....


I am a book nut. Always have been. It comes from Mom and Dad. I grew up in a house filled with books and reading, so it became part of my identity. My small apartment is crowded with literally hundreds of books. They sit on shelves, are stacked on cocktail tables, and spill onto the floor in stacks. When I got seriously into the art of angling, I began to collect books on that subject as well. Above is a small sample of select books I own. Procuring them was easy. I was the book buyer at Laacke and Joys, so I could order books for myself as well as for the store. It was dangerous to my pocketbook.
Books are an inspiration. I love to curl up with a book while listening to classical music. When I sit down at the vise to create, sometimes I don't know what I want to tie. I open a book and find inspiration and ideas.
Books are my friends. As misanthropic as it may sound, I often find more wealth in books than in most people.

The Art of Angling Journal is a favorite of mine. I wish it were still in publication. The earlier issues were the best. As they ran out of good material from their tying books, the publishers began to add a little too much filler. I still pour over these volumes quite often. They are beautifully done. Too bad Schmookler is such a nut. Shewey's book on spey flies is another favorite. I love the history and photography. Veverka's book is equally good, but seems mis-titled. He spends over half the book on Dee flies, which is fine by me. Schmookler's large volume of fly tying furs and feathers and patterns is a real treasure. I wish I owned the other volume. The star of my collection are signed copies of Ken Sawata's books. The book on tubes shows why he is possibly the finest tier out there today. It seems like he must be located between a museum, zoo, and aviary in order to tie with the exotic materials he uses. I have read Dec's book about twenty times now. Sometimes I think I can recite chapters in my sleep. A fine job, Dec.
I also own about two dozen books on fly fishing. Most all of them are literary or anecdotal in nature, not how-to books. Seth Norman, Nick Lyons, and John Gierach top the list. I like authors that can laugh at themselves. I own a copy of The Philosophical Fisherman by Harold Blaisdell. A heck of a gift that Dad or Mom found at a thrift sale at a retirement home. Another favorite is Six Months in Scotland by Sylvester Nemes. It is full of history and observation, and comes complete with a fly tied by the author. It is also autographed.
Good writing is tough to come across. That is why I enjoy John Gierach so much. He has a talent in the craft and use of the English language that I appreciate. One gift from a co-worker when I departed Laacke's was Fly Fishing through the Mid-Life Crisis by Howell Raines. Howell's position at the Times, and his background in literary endeavors and journalism created a fine writer. This thing was a total surprise to me. What a book.
For every good book out there there are ten bad ones. Any clod can write a book and get it published, even if he dropped out of school in the sixth grade, spent the following forty years fishing every day, and thinks that Scotch are people from Scotland. There are also pretend know-it-alls. One great example of this is Matt Supinski. He wrote Steelhead Dreams, a book about the pursuit of steelhead on the fly. Parts of the book are good, and parts are so bad they make any reader in the know wretch up his or her supper. The parts he gets right are fairly easy. Fish live in water, steelhead will eat a fly, etc. The parts where he errs are truly awful. He describes himself in a photo "The author performs a perfect Spey-Cast." He is casting upstream with a sloppy loop, and dropping his rod tip so far he can be described as Derek Brown would as "A nodding Donkey." Donkey is right, ass is more appropriate. Nice twenty foot cast Matt. He then went on to become the Orvis expert of all things 'Spey', which pretty much proves that Orvis has no clue beyond the trout streams where they were born.
Reputations are fragile things. Authors and book sales often live and die by them. In our little community of self-absorbed fly fishing goons, stretch the truth even a little bit and you will be called out.
There are a lot of books that should be written but never are. Self doubt, lack of time, lack of literary skill all torpedo the process. I think there is a book in each of us. Imagine if all the knowledge that is in Harry Lamire's head could have been placed on paper, or Walt Johnson, Syd Glasso, Ed Haas?

Go write something now. Or, just curl up with a good book and drift off to a river full of mists and wild fish...
I know I will.


I really appreciate good equipment. When I started fly fishing I was so poor that I built my own flyrod, as I was unable to afford a commercial model. (O.K., so it also might have been a craft project as well)
I bought a pair of nylon bootfoot waders from Cabelas, and used these for the first two years or so. I owned no polypropylene, it was too expensive. Instead, I utilized an old pair of cotton pajama bottoms and an old pair of sweat pants with worn-out elastic. I kept them up with rope. Once when fishing in cold water with ice still flowing, (I should not have been doing that) my less than adequate waders and insulation left my legs literally blue. My reel was from Cabelas too. I still have it. It was an early Okuma model. The line I bought came from LL Bean on close-out. It set me back eight dollars. With this outfit I taught myself to cast and fish. My first acquisition of good equipment was a Hardy Marquis Disc reel I picked up on Ebay for $100.00. I ate peanut butter and jelly for a month after that. I would argue that people like me who save up to acquire good equipment appreciate it more. When I was able to afford it, I obtained an Orvis 5 wt T3, and a matching 6 wt. I still love those rods. Then I went on a Sage craze. I now own around 15 fly rods. Some see no use at all, and others are favorites. Every one of them fills a niche or purpose.
Working at a flyshop allowed me to purchase goods at a discount, else I would not own all the fine rods and reels I do.
So, I appreciate and treasure the ability to own and fish with good stuff. Maybe that is why it irritates me to no end to see some rich guy buy a new $700 Sage as his first rod. Match that with a new Ross reel and Simms waders and boots, Simms underwear, Simms bandanna, Simms suppositories, a $200.00 felt hat, vest with a thousand pockets, three fly lines, and twelve flyboxes, and the poor bastard is out fifteen grand and has the privilege of standing in the middle of my steelhead run flailing around while he tries to figure out what all the gadgets in the pockets of the vest are really for. Don't get me wrong, I welcome new participants to the sport, but I just wish they had to put in their time before they deck themselves out like they are ready for an Orvis endorsed vacation destination.
I probably lost a lot of sales potential at my flyshop. I always believed in easing the customer into the sport. Sell him or her a decent rod and reel, a box of flies, a nipper and forceps, and provide them with a casting lesson. Then send them off to fish for bluegill on a pond somewhere. Several weeks later they would return to the shop with a gleam in their eye, and a story for my ears. "I caught over 30 fish!" "None of the guys with worms were catching anything, but I did just what you told me, and I did it, I did it, I am a fly fisherman!!" Now was the time for the wader and boot sale. I think that by being honest I actually gained customer loyalty rather than taking advantage of a customer by drooling over the fleecing I could give his or her wallet. I always told them "You don't want this to end up in your closet with the karate uniform and soloflex."
I wish every shop would take that approach.

You can tell a fly fisherman anywhere. They have special hats and shirts that help establish their view of their own identity. The shirts are usually nylon ones designed for fly fishing, or one of those annoying cotton print shirts with old flies and bamboo creels pictured everywhere. They are often walking billboards for their favorite tackle company. I am guilty here too. I own a dozen ballcaps given to me by various tackle manufacturers, but they are full of sweat and slightly chewed and rusty flies. When I teach flytying classes somebody inevitably shows up like they are going fishing; sporting a Sage ballcap, Simms flats shirt, and nylon zip-off pants. I don't get this until I realize that these poor guys spend all week dressing like corporate America tells them they must, and this is just their little way of daring to express themselves. I always fantasize about showing up for one of my casting clinics or tying classes dressed in a "Kiss my Bass" T-shirt, and a Coors hat. I really am that deviant.

Getting back to hard goods. I enjoy comparing tackle as much as the next guy, but I also enjoy using it. I can only tolerate so much gear talk before my mind wanders off to the river. The exception is in the middle of a Midwest winter. Here I will gladly drive through snowdrifts to meet in a coffee house and chat about flies, reels, and other junk. Some people however, seem to do mostly talking and little fishing. That is O.K. if you are elderly and have spent the last fifty years crawling around the Trinity wilderness fishing and kill rattlesnakes by biting their heads off, but more and more I see younger people that seem to enjoy the equipment talk as much as or more than the fishing. You know who these guys are. They own a closet of 35 spey rods and plan on purchasing twenty more. I refer to them as 'Gear Nazis'.

The fly fishing industry doesn't help. They are like a ten thousand pound vulture getting the scent of blood. Just as the post-movie boom was dieing off, and the boomers went back to their golf courses, the fly fishing industry expanded ten fold. Instead of five or six reputable rod companies, there were now hundreds pouring both awesome and pathetic products on the market. One needs a seeing eye dog just to navigate it all. I feel sorry for the people taking up the sport. That is why I never stocked anything in my shop that I had not personally approved. When Orvis apparently decided to hire the three stooges as rod designers, I dropped half their rod lineup. I was the first dealer in Wisconsin to stock the excellent and affordable Echo series of rods from Tim Rajeff. I saw it as my job to navigate through the sea of product bullshit and guide the customer to the other side.

So, now when I look down at my Hardy Bougle' and boxes full of fine flies, I can be proud of owning good equipment. I deserve it. Its what I do...

BTW, the photo at the top of this post is of my old flyshop at Laacke and Joys. Bill Schreiber built the business, and I carried it on. When I left, the owners turned it into a clearance room. Alas, a requiem for a fine flyshop. Laacke and Joys flyshop 1979-2007. Rest in peace old friend. I left a piece of myself with you.

A Lady

Meet Lady Caroline. She is named after Lady Caroline Elizabeth Gordon Lennox, Daughter of the Duke of Richmond Charles Gordon Lennox. The pattern most likely was devised by ghillie Geordie Shanks,and is first mentioned by Kelson.

Although the tendency today is to call anything cast with a two-handed rod a 'spey fly', the true spey flies were fairly drab and sparse.

The Lady Caroline is the most famous spey fly, most likely due to it's wonderful coloration and regal name.
I used to fish this fly a lot, until I started losing them on rocks. They are just too pretty to sacrifice to the rock gods.
This one is tied by hand blending olive and brown wool for the body. The ribbing is flat gold followed by small oval gold. The hackle is genuine imitation blue eared pheasant.

I have to replace the photo with a better one.

What a mess...

This disaster is my flytying area. It used to be a dining area. Now I eat somewhere else. My priorities are a little warped. The reason it is a mess is that is the way I am. A mess. I also detest having to constantly find what I am looking for, so materials are either out, or in large ziplock bags. Tools are stored in drawers and also spill out all over the table. Clippings are everywhere. Maybe this is an over reaction to my father. He was always after me to clean up my stuff, and he himself kept his workbench meticulously neat and tidy. All his tools hung in their proper place on pegboards. With all that organization though, he crippled his ability to work on something. Each time a tool was used it was placed back into it's original packaging and put away. I like to have things handy, so my bobbins, hair stackers, and dubbing loop twister are always handy. Someday though, I really have to organize this better so it doesn't look like the craetive lab of a mad ornithologist.

(The statue is a really large David standing on a plaster column. I am obviously nuts.)

Seeing this mess, it becomes apparent why I am not married...

Summer run fly box

Here is my summer run box. As little Joe said when he saw it, "That is a lifetime supply." Hope not...
The box contains;
Muddler wakers, October caddis bombers, thunder and lightnings, Balmoral variant featherwings, my autumn twilight, black max, black doctors, blue charms, and a bunch of other junk. Three or four of the bombers were tied by LeRoy Hyatt. The rest are all tied by me. The largest fly is a size 2 and they go all the way down to size 10. Those summer fish can be real grabby, so small flies are usually the best. Besides, who wants to cast Christmas ornaments if you don't have to?
I am an obsessive tier, so when I get turned on to a pattern, I inevitably tie too many. Then, when I don't like the pattern, it gets dumped in an old pile of flies that I always intend to organize, but never get to. As far as what I think works in a summer fly, I like dark patterns with a contrasting color somewhere. Usually black is the dominant color.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Dumb products

These pliers are amazing. Over $100.00 for a pair of bloody pliers. The hook sharpener barely works, There is no thin round surface to aid with knots, and worst of all, you would think that a pair of unbelievably expensive fishing pliers might have the most useful thing we need on the river? A BOTTLE OPENER...
Maybe the $200.00 pliers have them :)

Soul man

Meet Dave.
Dave has been spey casting and fishing longer than you have been eating solid food.
He's the real deal. A heck of a nice guy with a passion for steelhead. When his name comes up in a conversation the whole room goes quiet. His casting is like watching poetry in motion, or listening to a well played cello suite of Bach. No kidding. Nobody in this area has been doing this kind of thing longer than him. He has fished most of the great steelhead rivers in North America, is on the cover of one of John Shewey's guidebooks, has been featured on the covers of magazines, photos in the old Art of Angling Journal, and spotted in the mists of the Sheboygan on a cold fall morning.
When I am out west on the great steelhead rivers, nobody knows me, but just mention Wisconsin and they say "Do you know Dave Pinczkowski?"

No man deserves that kind of tribute more.
Here is to you Davey....

Casting practice

One element beyond all others will hamper your ability to fly fish; The inability to place the fly wherever it is needed, both near and far.
I am a fairly accomplished caster, but it had come with an incredible amount of work, shoulder pain, frustration, and analysis. I just did not want to be the guy on the water that was embarrassed by my casting.
So, I practiced, and practiced.... and practiced some more. It was slow work. The first year I went out west I had a double spey and a mess of a snap-t. The second year I had a single (wretch!) , double, and snap-t. The next year was the year of the tailing or collision loop. My casting was much better, but my timing and power ratio was all FUBAR.
I thought my single handed casting was good until I saw Bob Nasby cast at our Jamboree. Right then and there I realized that I was just a big strong guy, and was using no finesse. So, I went out and practiced and fished, fished and practiced, and by 2007 finally reaped the fruits of my labor.
Self critique is essential for the autodidact. When one is learning by oneself, then the question 'why' should always be on your mind. "Why is this happening, and what will happen if I do this"?

I paid for all the practice by having to answer endless stupid questions from people on shore "Catching anything?", "Why do you need two rods?", "What 'cha fishin' for?",. People would just not believe that I was practicing my casting. When I told them that I was just practicing, they gave me a sly, knowing smile as if to say "Well, buddy, you ain't gonna catch nothin on that there flypole nohow!"
What I endured....
What always amazed me about fly fishermen is that the same guy that comes to a casting clinic flailing away like a drunk, will go out twice a week to hit the putting green and driving range. Perhaps he is afraid of being laughed off of the links? Maybe we should begin laughing at bad casters on the river so they get embarrassed enough to practice? I for one will always try to be helpful, as I am not so far removed from being that guy who couldn't cast.

Another way to become a good caster is to fish with a great caster. I fished with Rob Estlund for years, and how I managed to evade suicide or breaking my rod in frustration I will never know. Perhaps I am stoic... or just thick as a brick. Whatever the reasons, fishing with a master as he burns out 100 foot casts and delivers the fly to exactly where he wants it will make you desirous of either quitting or improving in a hurry.
So... get out there and practice. I will. I have a long way to go yet.


If I learned one thing from running a flyshop for several years and casting hundreds of lines and rods, it is that there is a true symbiosis when a rod is cast with the proper line.
I have seen so many students of my casting clinics come with rods that are mis-lined. They struggle until in desperation, I try their rod and discover the inherent problem; Wrong-line-itis.
Wrong-line-itis afflicts all fly fishermen at one time or another. It usually results from not seeking out the advise of someone in the know, and just buying a five weight line for a five weight rod. Each rod casts a window of grain weights. In that window, there is a sweet spot. Hit the sweet spot and you will know it. Most modern rods are so stiff and fast that over-lining them is necessary at most casting distances.
When it comes to two handed rods, things become infinitely complicated. For single handers the AFTMA has established a sort of guideline for what constitutes a five weight line. Not so with spey rods. After the spey explosion in the 1990s new manufacturers produced rods to cash in on the craze without any idea what they were doing. Some of these rods were really good, (St. Croix Imperial for example), but the rod line weights were often wildly off. I remember casting a Cortland spey rod for a customer to determine the line weight. The rod was rated at a 5/6, so I lined it with a 6/7/8 windcutter. It was like trying to cast a piece of thread with a telephone pole. What the heck? I asked the gentleman what other lines he had with him and he mentioned that he had a 9/10/11 windcutter and that Dave Pinczkowski had told him that it might be closer to the mark. "Lets try it" I said. Sure enough, the damn rod came alive and actually loaded with a line that was according to the rod manufacturer, twice as heavy as needed. Remarkable. No wonder the most common questions asked on spey forums are about what lines work on which rods.
Then there are styles of casting. Some rods set up with Scandinavian shooting heads for surf casting perform like a dead dog when using a water anchor. I have cast rods from manufacturer's reps that were lined improperly.
I always feel like I am at fault when this happens. "What the hell?" I exclaim along with worse expletives, trying forward speys over and over again and only able to obtain a loop the size of a Winnebago. Here is where a good casting friend can help you. Give the rod to him or her and let them hack with it for awhile. If the consensus is smelly, then pop that line on ebay, and try something else. The last thing you want to do is cast a mismatched rod and line all day. Talk about a royal pain in the....
I have spent quite a bit of time putzing with lines with Rob and Dave, and the experience has been absolutely invaluable to me. Accordingly, my rods cast as they should, and are a joy to use.

Romancing the dry line

I enjoy casting a dry flyline and fishing small featherwings or bombers more than any other spey swinging method. It is not that I dislike sinktip fishing, it is just that sometimes it gets to seem a lot like work or tossing lures. I do a lot of it because I have to. Casting and swinging a dry line is elegant. It is trusting that the fish is hot and eager and it will rise for your artful offering. It is traditional as well. I have spent the majority of my western trips swinging flies on the Columbia and Snake tributaries with a dry line. There is also something about a line unencumbered by weight which transfers every event and nuance that happens to your fly directly to your hand, mind, and soul. It has the added benefit of really minimizing the amount of flies you lose.
If I had to choose a single method of catching steelhead, it would be with a floating line and a bomber. On a run in a Snake river tributary I got slammed by a fish on a bomber. It wasted out line into the backing making my poor Marquis Salmon #2 scream for dear life. It roiled up the water like crazy as it ran. Rob, who was fishing behind me watched the whole thing. When I landed it, it turned out to be what we call a 'snit'. It was only 18 or 19 inches long! What the heck?! Rob looked at me as I held up the fish and said "I can't believe that little thing did all that". The little fish in it's exuberance to eat the bomber had been pumped up enough to fight like a twenty pounder. That is how fish often hit bombers; they not only eat them, they set out to annihilate them.
It takes a lot of confidence to fish with bombers. For a long time I really wanted to, but I also wanted to catch fish, and I thought that in most situations (correctly), that I had better odds with a wet. Then came a day on the same river when I was fishing a purple bedsprings spey on a size 2 hook, and watched as it actually waked through the water. Hmm.... So, A fish would have to move just as far for the spey fly as it would for the bomber. The bomber put up a better commotion and wake and was more visible, so why not? Of course, there are times of day and water conditions when fishing a surface waker is nothing but down-time, but sometimes it can work in situations that are surprising.

Fishing competitions

Rumor has it that this year's Muskegon spey clave will feature a casting competition.
Fishing in general and especially fly fishing is supposed to be a sport practiced alone or with a close friend. It is a pleasant diversion between you and the fish set in the glorious environs of river or lake. It is not supposed to be a competition to see who can catch the most fish or cast the farthest.
Just look at the BASS circuit. These guys look like NASCAR drivers and walking billboards. Are they having fun, or is it the millions of dollars in prizes they are after? Fishing should be its own reward. Nothing destroys something faster in today's society than attaching money or competition to it. I see that every time I attend a fly fishing show.
So, what does it really prove? Angler X can cast 149 feet in a swimming pool? Nonsense. Formal competition between fly fishermen is like two classical music fans getting into a fist fight over who is the better composer; Mozart or Bach. It is pointless and rather stupid.

Instead, lets have funny self-deprecating competitions.

  • The beer and beans wader race. Anglers consume huge quantities of beans and cheap beer the evening before and then in the morning put on waders and race for a line of porta-potties. Stinkyist waders win.
  • Best body piercing by a hook. Anglers compete in a swirling wind to see who can place a 1/0 Ackroyd into various parts of the body. Extra points if the fly cannot be removed without exposing the privates.
  • Artful wading accidents. Held on the Deschutes, Thompson, or Clearwater, this competition sees anglers try to successfully navigate through boulders and algae covered ledge rock. The winner is not the one who doesn't fall in, rather the person who attains the wettest state while falling with grace and gymnastic skill wins a wading staff made from an old broom.
  • Dumbest fly award. Here the anglers use an assortment of pine-needles, old scraps of cloth, and seagull feathers to create a fly that will certainly not catch anything.
  • Most name dropping in a single sentence. Anglers compete to see who can use noted steelhead and spey angler's names creatively in a sentence while making themselves out to be larger than life. Extra points if the judges run away screaming.
  • Greatest collection of tackle competition. Anglers compete to see who has the greatest collection of junk. Bonus points if the person attends spey events, but doesn't fish. Super bonus points if the winner is the same guy who wins the name dropping contest.
  • Worst name for a fly contest. Anglers compete to see who had named their fly after an old girlfriend, comic book super hero or professional wrestler. Most amount of groans wins.
I really have to compete in one of these clave competitions someday. I can dress up in a utilikilt and wear a red rubber nose.
I know, I know, I am a deviant.

A horror story set in Scotland

This past winter I wrote a short story set in Scotland. It is a bit dark, but here it is....

Dark Hamish
Copyright 2008
By Erik Helm

It was in the late summer of 1957 that my fiancee Ann and I traveled to Scotland as a sort of pre-marriage honeymoon. Ann was interested in the unique Scottish scenery and as an artist, was looking forward to painting and sketching landscapes. I was going to see the land of my distant ancestors, and to fish for salmon on the Deveron River. The whole trip was to be inexpensive, as we had booked the steamship tickets second class, and received the fishing rights from a wealthy friend of my father’s as an early wedding present. Salmon fishing in Scotland is a sport of the wealthy, and in order to keep it that way both river access and fishing is controlled by clubs and associations. One can’t just go down to the river and fish, but instead must buy memberships or purchase time on the water. I would never have afforded it on my own without being given the fishing as a gift.
I had prepared for the trip by tying dozens of traditional salmon flies. An avid fly tier, I owned the books by Kelson and Pryce-Tannatt, and was captivated by the colors and curves of their salmon flies.

Arriving anxiously after the long sea voyage, Ann and I checked in to our lodgings near the town of Huntly; a public house called the “Black Bottle”. A charming stone and wood two-story building dating from Tudor times, it consisted of a darkly lit but comfortable pub and separate small dining area on the first floor, and three bedrooms on the second.

The first thing we noticed when we entered the pub was the warmth of the fire, which both provided much of the illumination, and beckoned the chilled traveler to sit awhile and enjoy a pint of ale. It may still have been late summer, but the unpredictable damp Scottish weather could turn downright chilly. The barroom had long tables and benches that were heavy and made of oak. They were darkened with the smoke of the fire, spilled porter, and the sweat of the travelers and locals who found solace hunched over their pints.
The walls were of beam and stucco and seemed as old as the hills. The d├ęcor was sparse, consisting of mostly old faded pictures of local scenery, portraits of famous Scotsmen cut from books, and a few tantalizing photos of anglers dressed in tweeds and holding their proud catches. Several rusted pieces of armor dating from the period of the English Civil War hung behind the bar itself. One I recognized as an excellent example of a lobster-pot helmet.
The rear of the bar consisted of small casks of spirits, and various bottles. Centered over the bar was the namesake for the pub, a leather flask or bottle of prodigious size dating from the late medieval period.

On the whole I found the pub itself to be rustic and charming. As a graduate student in history, I preferred local color to any mass appeal hotel anyway, and the description given by my father’s friend in his recommendation of the Inn did it justice. Ann turned to me smiling, and indicated her approval.

The innkeeper and pub owner, a ruddy faced and portly man with a thick red beard, who introduced himself only as ‘Bob’, showed us up the creaking staircase to our room. He explained that the hostess ‘Mary’ was in town at market and would be back shortly to see to our needs.
In contrast to the dim and dark pub, the second floor was clean and well lit. Our room was small, (Ann, always the optimist, called it cozy), and featured a wood framed feather bed and a view encompassing the immediate countryside, and on the horizon, the Deveron. Ann was thrilled with the scenery, and couldn’t wait to set up her little portable easel and watercolors. It may have been only 4 p.m., but we were very tired from the long bumpy bus-ride to the Inn, and instead of sallying forth we just collapsed into the featherbed.

The next morning’s sun had barely began to burn off the moist fog when we were awakened by Mary bearing a large bowl of hot water and several snowy white towels that she set on the large dresser in our room. This apparently was the Scottish equivalent of the morning toilet. I turned to Ann, and she smiled back with a comical grin as if to say “when in Rome…”

We broke our fast in a little room adjoining the lower level pub. Ann and I were seated at a small table and served a traditional breakfast of thick porridge, black pudding and eggs, and scones with strong black tea. It was quite delicious especially since we were famished, and was filling enough to last a farmer the entire day.

We had set aside the first day to see the sights in the immediate area, which was broadly known as the ‘Strathbogie’. A river plane, it consisted of wide grassy fields surrounded by wooded hedges with tall regal hills rising in the distance. Everywhere the air was fresh, with a hint of dew and the smell of the river, still in the distance. Ann found a field of wildflowers at the base of a small hill surrounded by hedges and set up her painting materials. Promising to meet her in time to lunch on the cold beef and rolls which we had received as a pack-lunch, I strolled off in search of the river.

As I started to get closer to the Deveron, the terrain became more rock-strewn and sloped downward, covered everywhere with tiny flowers, tufts of grass, and lichens. The free flowing river was smaller than I imagined, but large enough that covering a salmon pool required a goodly cast.
I sat on the bank and listened to the water growl and murmur. I was simply overjoyed to be in Scotland at last.
Below me and down river some distance I observed several gentlemen standing on the bank at the edge of the water slowly swinging what appeared to be thin medieval lances back and forth. These would be the ‘spey’ rods I had read so much about. A smallish figure scurried between them, and I instinctively knew that he must be the ghillie. After slowly working their way downstream, they rounded a corner and were lost to view.

I wandered the riverbank for a while traveling in an upriver direction, alternately peering into the water, or watching birds.
Excited at the prospect of fishing a beat of river that must not be far from this idyllic area, I lost track of time, and had to hurry back to the waiting Ann and our picnic lunch. She was in no rush either as she had the beginnings of a beautiful watercolor, which if I may say in my biased opinion, paid perfect tribute to the Scottish countryside. Ann was becoming quite the artist.

After our repast I surprised her with a bottle of champagne I had concealed. We toasted the scenery, the gift of the beautiful day, and finally each other as we drank in both the wine and the equally intoxicating air. Getting a bit snoozy, we stretched out on a blanket we brought and took a pleasant nap under the Scottish sky.

Waking in each other’s arms, we realized it was time to return to the inn if we were to make dinner. The brisk walk through the countryside refreshed us, and I for one was looking forward to supper.
After a short trip to our room for a wash up and a partial change of clothes, Mary once again seated us at a table in the small dining area. There was only one other couple having supper, and we exchanged pleasantries consisting mostly of nods and smiles, as the couple appeared to be Dutch, and spoke very little English.
For supper we were served thick soup of barley and vegetables topped with a thick slice of Angus beef and flowery potatoes. To wash down the meal, a large pot of black tea was provided. Ann and I were enchanted with the meal and the rustic atmosphere and we agreed that we could get used to this!
Feeling full but invigorated, we adjourned to the pub room to partake of the local potables.

The pub was slowly filling with the local characters, and Ann and I were having a ball people watching. Several farmers sat at a table over their pints, looking like a picture out of time, their short pipes slowly adding to the atmosphere of the room as they held an entire conversation made up of short grunts, and replies of “Aye….” Their tweed caps were pulled low over their eyes, and they gave off a sweet scent of the barnyard.
We tried the local porter and two of the various ales that were all delicious, tasting earthy and full-bodied. Bob then recommended that we try a “Wee Heavy”, which was an ale intoxicating in it’s full-bodied richness.

By now other patrons had arrived and were pulling on their pints while discussing the weather, muttering over dominoes, or discussing the abstractions of local sports.
A tall and distinguished looking local who seemed affluent judging from his bespoke jacket and breeks, stood very erect and proper at the bar itself conversing softly with Bob.
It dawned on me suddenly that the only female present in the pub, other than Mary the serving girl, was Ann. In America she would have been the center of attention, but here in Scotland, she attracted only a quaint smile and a polite tipping of a cap.

I was at the bar ordering us a nightcap of the local Scotch whisky when I noticed a lone figure seated in a dark corner. He was large and wild looking with a massive head of black curly hair that spilled out from under a dirty cap. He wore a coat of indeterminate color, which was buttoned crookedly, and was hunched over his pint of ale, slowly manipulating something in his hands. His eyes were fairly hidden by his thick and unruly eyebrows, but I could tell they were bloodshot.
When Bob came back with the two rather large glasses of amber nectar, I motioned with my head to the lone stranger, curious to know more. Bob furrowed his brows, motioned me closer and whispered “ Tha’ is Dark Hamish, Ya’l nae git much ot’ a ‘im!”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Bob motioned me over to the other end of the bar, and I followed. “Ee’s a wee daft begger, ee is. Ee’s Twa bubbles aff the centre.” I still looked puzzled and curious so Bob whispered to me “ Ee’s blootered most ‘a ‘da time, and as ‘ee tells it, ‘is Mudder is dead these wee years, and ‘is Fadder died in da war. ‘Ee lives in ‘is parents ‘ouse up on Nobbin hill, and done nae want for company udder den hisself!” Bob winked with a frown and went about his business.
It was hard to penetrate that brogue of his, but I certainly got the gist.

I was about to pick up the drinks and retire to our table when the tall gentleman smiled at me, and introduced himself as Alfred, an Englishman who several years before, charmed by the scenery, had retired to the Strathbogie area. He quickly told me a fuller story of the lone stranger.

It seems that Hamish was the once promising only child of proud parents. His Father was a colonel in the British army and was stationed in China and Burma during the war. He had died in the jungle in ‘44, his body never being recovered. His pension, in addition to other old moneys kept the wife well off. She was an elegant woman of extravagant tastes, and the large Edwardian home was decorated with exotic furnishings of the orient. People recalled that when the mother came to market she was always dressed in the best eastern silks, and bedecked with furs.
Hamish was a well liked but solitary figure that doted on his mother and cared for her during the long illness that finally claimed her. No one seemed to know exactly when she died, as there was no immediate family; both parents being only children as well.
It was after her death that Hamish began to slide to heavy drinking, and sank more and more into himself. He still resided at the old house, but both the home and Hamish now could be described as “a bit sodden and past it.”
Hamish kept himself in fish n’ chips and drink by selling the odd eastern curiosity sent home years ago by his father, and by tying flies for visiting salmon anglers.

Looking back at Hamish it seemed to all make sense. There he sat brooding and whispering to himself with red haunted eyes, lingering over his endless pint, and slowly tying salmon flies on what I now recognized as a thumb vise.
The locals obviously knew him and his habits, as there seemed to be a sort of circle of space around him that no one would invade. The only one I saw approach the table at all was Bob, silently bearing a fresh pint.
By this time, Ann was getting antsy with my absence, but as I returned and we sipped the Scotch, I told her of the story of Dark Hamish. She listened with wide eyes, completely absorbed with the sad tale.
After the scotch, we agreed that we were now quite tired, and that it was time to turn in as tomorrow would see the first day of my salmon fishing, and we would need to make an early start.

I must have been exhausted, because I never remember having gone to bed or even undressing, and the next thing I knew the dutiful Mary was awakening us. I arose with a foggy mind and a crimp in my back from some dubious position I must have sunk into in the feather bed, but Ann was well rested and teased me about my little snoring, which to my annoyance she laughingly described as a “choking songbird.”

I dressed in the clothing I had brought along for the purpose of the fly-fishing, corduroy pants, a tattersall shirt, and a Barbour oilskin jacket. Ann wore a beautiful long heather colored skirt and a white cable knit Irish sweater. As Americans, I hoped we would be dressed appropriately as this Scottish salmon fly-fishing was quite a tradition of noblemen and gentlemen, and the dress separated the classes as much as the money and titles did.

We arrived outside the Inn just in time to meet the van from the salmon association that would take us to the beat water I would fish. Seated in the van, Ann and I marveled at the beauty of the scenery as we traveled a rustic road paralleling the river.
We arrived at our destination a little before 9 a.m., and joined the group of anglers standing around a small hut at riverside. Ann set up her easel on the hill overlooking the river.
The anglers introduced themselves, and I was delighted to find that I was not the only rookie to Deveron salmon angling. Ian, a businessman from London who had to be in his late sixties had fished the river several times before, but Connor, a young Irishman in the shipping trade had only fished in his country. Both were dressed in traditional garb of tweed jackets, and both wore ties. I felt the under-dressed yank that I was.

We met our ghillie Angus, who would guide us through the days fishing. Angus was a serious looking lad, not more than a few years older than I was. We soon learned that he was the son of a famous ghillie who had served on the river since the early 1900’s.
My equipment was provided to me as arranged by my father’s friend, and consisted of a fourteen foot cane rod and matching Perfect Reel built by Hardy. I almost feared using such an expensive outfit for fear of breaking it, but Angus assured me that in all his fathers’ years, only one rod had ever been broken, and that happened when an angler had fallen off an embankment. I promised him, tongue in cheek, to try “not to fall on my arse.”

The two handed or ‘Spey’ flyrod was new to me, and Angus coached us on it’s use, warning: “ye nae pull ‘da line from ‘da water sir”. All three of us practiced swinging the long rod slowly around and behind us, and roll-casting it forward. Angus, coaching us constantly, let us know after a half-hour that we were ready enough. I didn’t feel proficient at all, but was amazed at the way I could cover water with the long flyrod.

Connor was to share the upper pool in our allotted beat with another angler we hadn’t met yet, while Angus took Ian and me to the lower pool.
The water I was to fish was a beautiful curving stretch of river with gravel bottom, and containing several underwater boulders which produced tell-tale boils at the surface to let us know they were there. We would mostly be fishing from the bank, but in some areas would wade into the river a few feet. The pool was over three hundred yards long, so dividing it in half, Angus instructed Ian to take the lower stretch, while I would start at the riffle marking the top of the run.

Angus looked at the flies I had tied for the trip, and ignoring the thunder and lightnings and blue charms, he chose a smallish size 6 march brown tied on a Limerick bend hook, and tied it to the leader himself. He instructed me to cast the fly out over the water and follow the swinging fly with the rod as it made it’s way across the water to dangle beneath me. Then I was to step downstream and repeat the process. He watched my first cast, which was a bit clumsy, nodded his approval, and strutted off to Ian with the last instructions to “shout” if I felt anything happen to the fly, however tiny that might be.

I methodically cast and stepped my way down the run, jealous of Ian’s infinitely superior and graceful casting form that I could observe at will due to being behind him in the water. Neither of us received any pulls from fish in the lower pool, so we gathered back at the fishing hut for a short lunch.
Connor had caught a small grisle (a young yearling salmon) but that was all we had to show for the mornings fishing.

While eating our roast beef and drinking a charming Bordeaux I asked what fly Ian had been using. He kind of smiled and pulled over his rod to reveal a fly like nothing I have ever seen before. It was beautiful in its simplicity and yet rich with color. Its butt was of red wool preceded by a body spun of some natural rich brown fur. The hackle was tan and gray, but it was the wing that intrigued me. It shimmered with translucent colors that changed according to how the light hit them. It was without a doubt the most singularly unique fly that I had ever seen.
“What is it called?” I asked.
“It has no name that I know of,” said Ian.
“Where did it come from, I have never set eyes on anything like it?”
“A local lad ties them.” He replied. “ A sort of strange dark chap. Apparently this is the fly to fish on the Deveron, and the sneaky bastard charged me five pounds for this one fly!”
“No!” I exclaimed.
“Oh aye, he has his own methods for the body and the wing, and try as they might, the ghillies can’t duplicate it. It killed over forty salmon last year alone, often when nary another angler caught more than a chill!” “It’s the only fly I ever fish on this river.”
“But five pounds, for a single fly?”
“Oh aye, and he ties only a few per week, so he always has someone begging for one!”
Suddenly it dawned on me who had tied the fly.
“Is his name perchance Hamish?” I asked.
“Aye, that’s the bugger all right.” Ian scowled.
“The drunken fool would only sell me one of the bloody things, so I threatened the ghillie to tie a good knot, or else!” he remarked.

After our lunch we switched pools, and Ian and I walked to the upper run which was faster and more turbulent than the lower pool. This time I fished farther down, and Ian started at the top of the run.
On my very first cast a boil erupted where the fly was and Angus came running over with instructions to “do nothing, and don’t move!”
He quickly changed the fly to a smaller blue charm and instructed me to back up a few steps and cast again.
Despite two more changes of flies and a dozen casts, the salmon never appeared again, and I resumed my meditative casting and stepping. I couldn’t help feeling that this was my only chance for a salmon come and gone, and my heart sank at the thought.

Suddenly a shout came from upstream, followed by a loud rasping of a Hardy reel in distress. Ian had hooked a salmon!
I reeled in my line and ran after Angus to see the action from up close. The chrome colored salmon was jumping down the length of the pool, launching itself higher each time, and collapsing back into the water with a disturbance that sent bankside birds flying for cover.

Ian’s rod was bent with strain, but his face held an expression of pure joy. It seemed that he had suddenly become younger than his years, as if the salmon was his fountain of youth. Angus stood by with a large net, and whispered encouragement. To my disbelief, the line suddenly went slack, and Ian had a sick look on his face. “Bloody Hell!” he swore, “I lost her!”
“Aye,” said Angus, “and she took the fly too.”
Ian, who had turned red in the face, reeled up the line to disclose a leader devoid of fly.
“Well, I’m done” he said. “I only have confidence in that damn fly the daft bugger ties, and I don’t have another.”
Ian left the pool and walked back in the direction of the hut with shoulders bowed, leaving the water to me.

Despite doing all that Angus instructed, I never did catch a salmon that first day, but had a pleasant time nonetheless. I had read that salmon fishing can kind of be like that, and many an angler much more skilled than I was had gotten the ‘royal skunk’ for days on end before landing their first salmon. Ian had been lucky, or had it been the fly?
I began to wonder.

Angus and I walked back to the fishing hut, and met up with Ann who was being entertained by Irish stories that Connor was telling with flair. She showed me her completed painting, and I was surprised to see myself in the landscape, rod in hand. If nothing else I would always have the painting to remind me of the Deveron.

It was getting late as the van came along to take us back to the Inn. Ian would be riding with us as well, but would be dropped off a bit earlier than us as he was staying at the top hotel in the district.
Having regained his composure after losing his salmon, Ian surprised us by his knowledge of the countryside, and pointed out places of historical interest as he narrated the trip back with a running commentary. Not far from town, he pointed out a small church that had seen better years, and then lifted his finger to the hill beyond the church and remarked that there on the hill was the house where the “chap who ties the flies” lives.
Ann and I strained to see, but with the falling dusk could only make out a largish gray edifice near the pinnacle of the hill surrounded by trees and ill-kept scrub.

After dropping Ian off we arrived back at the ‘Black Bottle’ just in time to be seated in the dining area and enjoy a thick baked salmon fillet and salad for dinner. Neither Ann nor I felt tired, so we adjourned once more to the pub area. I had forgotten that today was a Friday, but it dawned upon me as I saw the pub already busy with a crowd of locals. Bob welcomed us, and after inquiring after the day’s fishing, treated us to two large amber concoctions he called ‘Highland Liquor’, which tasted like scotch and honey with a hint of lemon and fennel. Both of us felt the heat from the liquor go straight to our heads, and we sat back in our seats in a dreamy state. The warmth in the pub was welcome, for now the locals coming in were dripping with rain, and each time the door opened a misty fog rolled in. The famous Scottish weather had showed it’s fickle face at last.
After enjoying our way through the liquor and tasting two of the local scotches, both Ann and I were feeling a bit tipsy and were glowing inside. I went to the bar to order a couple of pints when I spotted Dark Hamish seated in his usual corner.
It must have been the whisky that gave me courage, but when I saw that he was immersed in tying one of his flies, I couldn’t help myself from going over to get a closer look.
Standing over Hamish I tried to peer closer through my goggle-eyes at what he was doing. As I looked I noticed a strong odor about him. It was not just the smell of someone who does not bathe, but something worse, like the smell of decay.
He obviously had a sixth sense dedicated to anyone getting too close and invading his private space, because he suddenly looked up and glowered at me while crossing his arms against his stomach to hide the work in progress. “Piss off!” he growled emphatically, his red eyes turned up to me with a fierce and malevolent glare.

Flushed with embarrassment and anger, I made my way back to our table.
I quickly explained to Ann what had transpired, as she had only witnessed the exchange from a distance. For some protective reason, she was angrier than I was about the whole thing. I had just wanted a peek at how the infamous and striking flies he tied were constructed. I certainly never meant to start an incident.
A long-time friend of Ann’s back home once warned me about my fiancee, stating that she was “passionate and impulsive.” Until that moment I didn’t recognize the full extent of the warning.
“I have an idea!” Ann sort of purred. “Let’s borrow the bicycles that the pub keeps for the tourists, and go up to his house.”
“Your mad!” I said.
“No, really, it’s only a mile or so, it would be easy.”
“Why in the world...”
“Because you know you want to.” “Besides, I know you well enough to be sure that you would do almost anything to get a look at that fly, you obsessive nut!”
“Not obsessive…. Just well, interested. Right?”
“Besides, it would be a blast to see how this guy lives; and… no one tells my future hubby to “piss off”.”

I realized at this point that I must be fairly drunk, as I still did not fully understand Ann’s idea, but with foggy eyes I made my way to the bar, gesturing for Bob and asked him for the loan of the two bicycles.
“ Y’er nae goun oot thar?, its rainin' auld wives and pipe staples.” Bob cried with concern. “Yeel catch a death, ‘sides y’er a bit blootered yeself.”
Despite Bob’s concerns, Ann and I donned our weatherproofs, grabbed the bikes from the former stable behind the pub, and warmed with liquor and giggling, tottered off unsteadily into the rain.
I was having a hard time keeping the bike on the road, as the old WWII vintage Huffy seemed to have a mind of it’s own.
I followed Ann as best I could with the rain fogging up my glasses, and kept begging her to slow down, to which she just shot back teasing giggles.
As we wobbled down the country road, I kept wondering about what the end game to this silliness would entail, and how we would be able to see anything anyway. By now cold and wet, I was beginning to regret going along with Ann’s craziness when she gave a little cry and pointed directly to our right where I could barely make out the silhouette of the old church.
“Let’s stash the bikes here, and sneak up to the house,” she said with a mischievous smile, her face dripping with rain. Sobered somewhat by the chill and wet, I lead the way past the church and up to the old house using its single dimly lit window as my guide.
The old house was large and squarely shaped, with two stories topped by a widow’s walk with collapsing iron railings. It possessed a forgotten charm tainted by neglect and decay. I kept tripping over unseen debris hidden in the long clumps of weeds inhabiting the yard, but slowly led Anne to the window that was barely illuminated from within.
It was full of dust, and so dirty that we could hardly see in. I could barely make out a crowded and messy table on which sat a single kerosene lamp that cast dark shadows about the room.
“Let’s try the door and see if it’s locked.” I said.
Ann looked less enthusiastic now than she did when starting out.
“Maybe we should just go back.” She whispered.
“Not on your life.” I replied. “You started this goofy idea, and now that we are out here and he is back inside the pub, we at least can have a little look-see.”
I made my way up to the porch, and slowly ascended the stairs, picking my way between the gaps and holes that had opened in the rotting wood, and avoiding the broken furniture which lay strewn about. While Ann waited below, I tried the door only to find it locked. Jumping down to the lawn, I towed Ann by the arm to the side and rear of the house looking for any other entrance or window to see into. In the rear of the old house stood a large shed, leaning slightly with the same general state of decay as the house. Ann thought she spotted another light in a rear window, and I told her to go check it out while I looked into the crooked shed.

The door to the shed was loose, and an old sock that was tied to two nails served as the upper hinge. Entering the small single room, I could just barely make out a table and chair, several large boxes or crates, and various clothes or such hanging about. The air was filled with a stink of dried animal skins and mothballs. Excited that I might have found where Hamish tied his flies, I got out a box of matches and struck one to produce a little light. By the dim flickering flame, I saw that the table indeed did have a vise clamped to it, and moving forward to investigate, my feet scattered some empty beer bottles lying on the floor. Several moths and smaller flying bugs careened and circled in front of me obviously attracted to the light from the match.
In the vise was one of his flies in progress, and strewn about the table were several pieces of an old moth-eaten fox stole that he must be using for the fur body of the fly. That was probably the source of the bugs. The match by now had burned down to my finger, and I lit another as I peered closer to the fly. Long threads of many colors hung off of the half completed wing, and trailed across the table to a large piece of cloth partially emerging from a sizable wooden crate in the corner of the room. I looked closer at the threads and cloth and realized that here was Hamish’s secret. He seemed to be using the colorful loose threads, which looked to be of silk, to combine or ‘marry’ together and form the exquisite shimmering wings on the fly. How clever!
I leaned over next to the table and pulled at the silk cloth itself, causing the loose lid of the crate to slide off and clatter to the floor on its side.
Bending forward with the match, I was met with a sudden increase in the stench of decay. There in the crate was the source of the wing material; a silk robe or dress of extravagant beauty, and obviously of oriental origin. I moved my hand over the silk, dislodging the robe a bit in the process. Between the layers of silk lay a large object of some mass and vague twisted shape. I moved the match closer to reveal what appeared to be a brown oblong shape with a dark hole off to one side and covered with a parched sort of dried leather and hair that….
I stood up with shock, hitting my head on something and putting out the match. As I turned for the door in the darkness the full recognition of what lay in the crate hit me with the force of a macabre sledgehammer, causing involuntary shivers to run down my spine.
It was his mother. His mother…It could be no one else, dead and desiccated with mummified skin whose partial head and face I had briefly but horribly stared into.

Stumbling from the hut I ran into Ann coming towards me and opening her mouth to say something. Not losing a step, I grabbed her, clamping my hand around her mouth and surrounding her in my arms, half carrying and dragging her toward the bicycles.

Somehow we made it back to the Inn, although the only thing I remembered afterwards is Ann’s pleading questions as to my state of mind, and passing a hunched dark figure on the road that must have been Hamish, on his way back home to his tortured existence and God only knows what other secret horrors he had hidden away.

That night while tossing in my half-sleep, I couldn’t stop dwelling on the horror in the little shed. I thought of Dark Hamish, sitting with his bloodshot eyes next to his mother’s body in the old crate, surrounded by the stench of decay, and weaving her old silk robe and fox stole into his sick creations. It made my skin crawl to think of the gentlemen proudly using those flies, utterly unaware of their horrible genesis.

In the morning I was ill with fever and beaded with sweat. Unable and unwilling to face salmon fishing or anything else for that matter, I stayed in bed, forgoing my fishing rights for the day, and being nursed by Ann with broth made especially by Mary, which she guaranteed would soon “set me right.”

Ann and I have been married twelve years to the month now, but I never have told her what I saw in the shed, and she has finally stopped asking. For several years afterwards I had problems going into antique shops, and still dislike dark enclosed spaces.
Now and then I awake in the night in a sweat, recalling with startling clarity that horrible partial face, and the bugs crawling out of it’s eye sockets.

Of flies and art

I enjoy the aesthetics of fly fishing. A tight loop and elegant cast are like ballet to me, but perhaps the aspect I most enjoy about swinging flies for steelhead are the beautiful flies that we use. Catching a fish on an ugly fly is an insult to the fish. That does not mean that all the flies we use must be traditional and made from exotic feathers from the British Empire. It just means that a fly should be something to look at in itself; ie. a little piece of art.
When I started tying flies, I immediately tried to create the wonderful 19th century patterns I saw in books. Lacking in proper materials and skill, the flies caught fish, but were not something to be proud of. Then after a few months, I met a strange redneck in the flyshop. He considered himself a great tyer, and indeed some of his flies were quite good for what they were. It was just that it seemed so incongruous that this guy who seemed like an extra in the movie Deliverance would be a fly tier. I said to myself "Erik, if that guy can do it, so can you." With that statement of intent, I began a long journey of fly tying which has seen my entire dining area turned into a miasma of colorful dead animal parts, vises, storage containers, and deer-hair shavings.
I am a good tier, but this little region of Wisconsin has quite a few better tiers. Royce Dam called on me in the flyshop once every couple of weeks to show me his latest Atlantic salmon fly creations. Like anything Royce does, they were works of art, but usually sported rather ubiquitous names such as "Leatherneck." Bob Blumreich ties some of the most exquisite traditional spey and dee patterns in the country, and Brandon Luft quickly became one of the finest tiers around. So, I will never be the best tier, but have come to accept that. I did produce two very excellent episodes of Outdoor Wisconsin on traditional salmon and steelhead flies. It was fun, but I was so nervous that my hands shook throughout the filming.
The problem with being a tier is that one has to accept that it is art for art's sake. I probably have over a thousand steelhead flies in boxes. If I were to fish 24 hours a day for the rest of my life, I could never use them all, so some are given as presents, donated to clubs, etc. Mostly I tie them and then look at them. They end up stuck in a fishing hat like everything else.
The process of becoming a decent tier involved one simple rule; accept nothing other than the best you can do in each and every step. This involved undoing things and re-doing them again and again, but I learned from it.

I have become a true believer that the fly is the least critical component in swinging for steelhead. As John Hazel says, "They will take your car keys if they are willing." The most important factors are confidence and the right style of fly for the conditions. Confidence is essential if you are to fish a run thoroughly. You just have to believe. The right style of fly will see the angler not fishing a light wire size 8 low-water pattern in winter flows and cloudy water. Here we should choose big. So the water determines most everything in the fly choice.
I too tie and fish big ugly stuff for winter and spring flows. The bigger the tube and the more materials one crams onto it often makes a difference, even if the result looks like some mutant Christmas ornament.

So my advice to fly tiers is this: just have fun! Catching a fish on a fly you tied is a signal event in the progression of a fly fisherman. Just don't let your creations be ordinary.

Art is in my blood, literally. My mother was an amazing painter and celebrated Wisconsin artist. (
I never developed the drawing and painting talent that was hers from birth, so I have to express myself and find creative outlets elsewhere. Tying flies helps a lot. So does writing.
Unfortunately, for the most part artful flies are rarely appreciated properly outside the fly fishing community. On several occasions I brought a few flies to family gatherings to show what I was doing, and received inane comments such as "How is that going to make you money?", Do you eat all the fish you catch?", or "My cousin Zeke fishes too, you should talk to him, he mixes a potent stink-bait". I no longer even tell people I fly fish. It is so much easier that way.

I hate eggs

I have a few pet peeves regarding fly fishing for steelhead, and one of the tops has to be egg or glowbug fishing. It is bad enough that the standard Midwest approach to steelhead involves raping gravel for spawning fish, but the lack of any skill involved with drifting glowbugs nymph style through foot-deep water while sight fishing drives me nuts. Fly fishing is a grand sporting tradition brought over from England. Like many other sports of gentlemen, it is designed to be pleasing and difficult. It is not about the number of fish caught, but instead the angling experience. Sitting on the bank after a hard day of fishing with a newly met friend and sharing a sip of single-malt is as important to us as catching a fish. Egg fishing is the antithesis of this. It requires no skill, nor does the fisherman need to actually know how to cast or even to read water since they are essentially standing on top of the fish and flinging splitshot and yarn.
The other part of my detestation comes from running a flyshop and having to answer the inane question "What color of eggs are them fish bitin' on today?" at least twenty times a day. I really tried my best to explain the technique of swinging flies to fish in runs and not relying on sight fishing, but to little avail. I stocked the shop with a wide variety of patterns such as traditional hairwings, but very little sold other than eggs or egg-sucking leeches. Blech!
One of the contentions that I challenged anglers with on a daily basis was the fact that there are few real steelhead rivers where shallow flows and boxed up fish make egg fishing like this possible. If one just continues to drift glowbugs, one will never learn anything, never learn to read water, never feel the true take of a fish versus lining it. The glowbug angler will be consigned to ply the gravel beds of the little Menomonee river or fish at one of the falls with all the other goons. Try to fish the Deschutes like this and you will be lost! Alas, it will never change. Every year at the flyshop I talked to fishermen that seemed to really be into steelhead and flyfishing, only to see them on the river flinging 15 foot casts and flailing the water. Globugs will do that to you. When I saw them, I would usually slink off into the bushes to avoid them following me.
The other problem with glowbug anglers is that they rarely move at all. Spotting spawning fish, they will cast away in the same 20 feet of water for hours. They necessitate that anglers that are fishing runs and moving downstream after every cast have to get out of the water and walk around them.
I had a conversation with Raineys flies in 2006. They wanted to know what patterns would appeal to Midwest steelhead anglers. I didn't want to sound cynical, but there it is. I told them eggs and egg sucking leeches out sell any other fly twenty to one. As fly purveyors try to compete for falling business, they are bringing out new patterns for steelhead every year. Many of these are flies that are sure to catch fish, but have an annoying trait; they contain eggs!
Egg-sucking leeches are joined by egg-sucking skulpin, and even some stoneflies sport eggs. I guess that is one way to get anglers to buy flies other than plain egg patterns, but it just seems like prostitution to me. I can't wait until I see the first egg-sucking speyfly. When that happens, expect to find me living in a small unibomber-style cabin on the side of the river and muttering to myself...

Friday, August 29, 2008

Throwing into the backing

Something seems to have gone right here. I can find numerous mistakes in form (hurried, overpowered, too much upper hand) but the cast sure boomed out. I am at the beginning of the video.

Echo classic 14' spey rod
Hardy Mach 2 9wt line
@119' cast (from me to the fly)

Video courtesy of Rick Freska and Mike Papenfuss
(Note; something went FUBAR with the video here. Blogsnot compressed it until I might as well be throwing liverwurst.)

The journey

On Memorial day 2003, my mother died. My world became a whirlwind as I took off from work for a month to grieve and dissolve her household as well as managing Dad, planning the funeral and burial, and managing the estate. By July I had lost nearly 20 pounds. I needed a break in a big way. I began to plan a steelhead flyfishing trip to the pacific northwest. The Deschutes was the probable destination. I had plenty of great advise from Little Joe, Brandon, Dave and others. It would be my first long trip and the first time I had ever driven across the country. I began to be scared, and canceled the trip several times, only to come back to the idea and it's need as an escape from grief and duty for a short while.
Meanwhile, I bought a speyrod secondhand from Brandon Luft. A 14' St. Croix Imperial. I added a windcutter 9/10/11 and a Hardy Bougle' and spent a couple hours a week between work and duties teaching myself to speycast. By the time I was ready to leave for the trip, I would have a decent but highly erratic double-spey, and a really clumsy snap-T. That was all. Looking back, I was either really brave, confident, or stupid.; probably the latter.
Finally in talking to Rob Estlund I decided on the Klickitat. It was about the size of the Milwaukee, had decent flow, and according to Little Joe had fished well a couple of years earlier. I thought this would be perfect to cut my western river teeth. Not too big, not too small.

On October 1st, I packed my car with 20 times what I would need for an expedition around the world and drove off into the dawn, west or bust. The scenery was impressive in Wisconsin as usual, and the bluffs of the Mississippi were spectacular, but after the first hundred miles in Minnesota I discovered why they were called the 'great plains'. They were great, as in they lasted forever, and boy oh boy, were they ever plain. When I got to rapid city that night I could hardly walk straight. The badlands were so interesting, but in my dizzy-from-driving state, I almost missed them. The following morning I drove over the wastelands of eastern Wyoming. I was not prepared for the endless climbing hills and lack of any foliage. It felt like another planet. When I got into Montana and passed Bozeman, I began to get into the mountains. I had never seen mountains before and was like a new child getting his first taste of lemonade on a warm day. It was exhilarating. Crossing the continental divide, I descended as fast as I climbed to the Clark's fork plain leading to Missoula. Missoula was simply the most wonderful city I had ever seen. Surrounded by mountains and rivers, and full of interesting stores and people, I wanted to stay forever. Alas, the obsession was calling. The next morning I began to descend the Lolo pass. Somewhere in the Columbia river, steelhead destined for the Klickitat were moving east in their life's journey to spawn and die, while I, after having a death in the family, was journeying west to meet them. Somewhere on the river we would meet, and change our lives forever.

I recorded my thoughts on a mini-cassette recorder during the trip, and as I went west my voice filled with wonder and became both more excited and quieter as if transfixed with awe.

The entire area surrounding the Lochsa river and highway 12 I still consider to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. When I first beheld it that fall of 2003, I braked my car to the side of the road, got out, knelt to the ground, and kissed it. Then I sat for 15 minutes just reflecting. Reflecting and thinking is something easy to do on the Lochsa. There is nothing but you and wilderness...and a single road for a hundred miles. I took some photos, promised myself I would fish here some day, and drove off. I had a long day of driving before me.
At the end of the Lochsa, the Clearwater began, A river wide and intimidating, and destined to be part of my future angling. As I drove further past the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and past Lewiston I looked at the landscape around me as if I were on the moon. Endless brown hills upon hills, upon hills. All colliding and tumbling. Rising on either side of my car the hills hid even more brown hills that would stretch to the Columbia. It began to get really hot. Here was the true high desert. Somehow, I had missed this on my maps. The land should have been marked "Here there are really strange mounds and hills which never seem to end. Do Not Panic!" Finally at 4:30 pm, after been blown away by the massive serenity of the Columbia and Snake rivers, I turned into Washington at drove to the Klickitat.

In our minds we have visions and imaginings of what we think things looked like. The Klickitat looked nothing like I thought it would. Slightly green with 'glacial milk', it was full of rocks and small rapids. The valley the river created was spectacularly beautiful, especially when contrasted with the deserts east of Mount Adams. Along the banks grew pines and scrub oaks as well as blackberries and poison oak. LOTS of poison oak. The tops of the surrounding canyon rims looked like mountains from the river. I went to the little Chevron station in a town that looked to dominated by meth and poverty, bought my license, found the campground I had researched, and set up my tent just in time for dark. Little did I know that I was camping just 100 feet away from other Wisconsin and former Wisconsin residents guiding in Alaska, and on their annual steelhead camp.

I got up at the normal steelhead hour of 5 am, and started exploring places to fish. The first area I tried was directly downstream from a class 3 rapids. I nearly got swept away and tore a hole in my waders. The next run was a long beach that looked safer from my perspective. For the first three days, I caught nothing at all. Each day began the same; coffee and granola bars at 5 am, and on the river before first light. My casting started out really strong each day, then slowly deteriorated with muscle strain, inexperience, and afternoon winds until I would become frustrated. At the end of the third day I bought a bottle of wine and retired to my tent to exorcise demons.

The following morning I hooked my first western steelhead... on the the dreaded dangle. It ran downstream 50 feet, jumped in a shower of silver, and was gone. There were fish in the river!

Driving downstream I spotted another likely looking run which later would know was called the "Honey Hole." I fished it after two really nice guys from Seattle, but hooked nothing. Driving back I spotted what is called the "Vinyard run." It looked awesome, but daunting. The next morning I tried three times to find a route across the fast riffle at the top,only to be turned back by the water. On the forth time I found a route which I would then use for the coming years. Safely across the water, I began working the run, noticing what looked to be a black bear wandering in the distance along the shore. After 15 casts or so, I got that strange feeling one gets when you think someone is behind you. I turned and nearly crapped my pants. The black 'bear' was no less than 20 feet behind me and standing on the bank. Of course, it turned out to be a small black cow, but gave me enough of a start to nearly fill my pants.

Back to the fishing, I continued to work down the run, and was surprised when one of my stupendously awful casts was grabbed by a 35" male. The resulting picture of my thumb and wading boot and half the fish's back did not exactly do justice to the feeling of spiritual accomplishment I bathed in at that moment. I had done it. I had driven across the country alone, waded a new river alone, and caught a wild steelhead alone with a fly I tied myself. It felt like the greatest accomplishment of my life.
I caught five or six other fish in the remaining several days before Rob Estlund met me on the river. We only had one full day to fish together before I had to leave, but there would be plenty enough days in the future. To the side is a picture of Rob with a Klickitat fish. He sure is one fishy bastard.
When I returned to Milwaukee people looked at me like I had risen from the dead. Apparently, I looked several years younger and was much calmer . I had a faraway look in my eyes and an ever present smile.
In this journey for steelhead I had not only found fish, I had found myself.