Saturday, September 13, 2008

Off to Xanadu

I am leaving for steelhead paradise. I will be here....

Much more will follow when I return. The car is being packed, the apartment a mess, and lists checked twice. Not happy about the gas prices and the recent hike due to Ike (the Ike hike?), but I must bite the bullet and realize that I am not getting any younger. Carpe diem friends.....

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


They are big.
They are scary.
They are intruders!

Ed ward invented these things while inspired by absinthe...or something. They have great motion in the water, are highly visible, and attract steelhead in winter and spring. They look like giant mutant squid/shrimp in the water. Given all the invasive species in the great lakes, I should call these 'invaders'. They are also a whole lot of fun to cast. The first time I tried to throw an intruder it was with a windcutter. It was way too much like work, and often didn't turn over at all. The problem of casting these things was solved with the modern Skagit line, and the compact Skagit line. I went out yesterday to test one of these combinations. I customized a Scientific Anglers Skagit line by cutting it back from 33' to around 27'. This reduced the weight of the line without a sinktip to @ 520 grains. The line started out at 600 grains. Add the sink tips and it weighed over 700 grains! 520 was more like it. It cast quite well. Not quite as nice as the new Airflo compact Skagit heads, but pretty close. The intruder just went along for the ride. The bass liked it, even if it didn't have a hook. They just munched on it's feathers.
I made the line for use on my Fly Logic 1308. A rod that I used to love for dry line, but since has become my rod of choice for heavy sink tip work. The line will also work on the Echo 1409.
I wrapped 10-15 wraps of .020 lead wire onto the front third of each of these, but will have to wait until winter or high water to see if they sink. I did get a little crazy with all the materials and color blending. They are around 3 inches long.
I can't wait to see if they work.

recipe: (for the pinkish ones)
2" plastic tube of your choice
10 to 15 wraps of .020 lead in forward portion of body
Silver oval tinsel for tag.
Dubbing ball in front of tag. Orange or reddish. I blended my dubbing.
6-10 strands pink, purple and gold flashabou in front of dubbing ball.
6-8 strands of orange and 6-8 red ostrich herl.
Two turns of teal or mallard flank dyed pink. Two turns of teal or mallard flank dyed orange.
Body consists of trilobal dubbing or your choice in pink. Webby grizzly hackle over and medium oval silver tinsel ribbing.
Front portion: 6 strands of pearl flashabou followed by 4-5 long grizzly dry fly hackles, followed by two turns of teal or mallard flank dyed pink and two turns of teal or mallard flank dyed red.
Collar is 6 strands of peacock sword. Head is peacock ice dubbing followed by red thread.
Optional are lead or real eyes or cone heads, which work better than the lead, but spoil the symmetry of the fly.

They are not delicate. Fish them while listening to Mahler, not Bach.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The child

Continuing themes I touched on in Opportunities misused and Legacies, I witnessed something yesterday that nags me.

I was at a friends apartment to listen to his new tube amplifier and do a little fishing. It was the last time before the big steelhead trip. He has a series of weedy ponds on the grounds of the apartment complex which are stocked with panfish and largemouth bass. They are really selective and spooky, and therefore challenging. It is easy fishing; casting from shore and trying to avoid weeds and brush on the backcast. His neighbors were having a cookout, and as we walked to our usual pond, we noticed they were the usual suspects. Harly guys and gals dressed in black 'Slayer' T-shirts. After awhile one of the children came over to investigate what my friend was doing. He was a little boy of perhaps eight or nine, with blonde hair. He was right off a cover of Field and Stream. Big eyes and curiosity. All that was missing was the father and the fishing rod. For an hour he ran back and forth with the endless energy of youth, watching my friend cast and asking questions. His parents sat at the cookout and drank beer. He was a persistent kid, coming back again and again to watch. My friend has more patience than me, and he explained what he was doing, and where the fish were. He showed him flies and explained casting. When he caught a fish, he showed it to the kid. The parents kept calling him, but watching fishing and exploring the pond was obviously more fun than watching adults drink beer. At one point he told my friend that "His daddy had taken him fishing once." One hopes, perhaps in futility, that his dad might have noticed something here. An opportunity to bond with his child and encourage his interest in fishing. I wonder if the kid went to bed that night dreaming of the pond.

The fishing was sub-par, but each of us landed a bluegill of around a pound, and I got a small largemouth. Fun day though, especially watching the inherent curiosity and interest a young boy has for all things fishing. So to the father. Take a hint and take your son fishing.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


Estate sales are a good place to find old tackle. Beyond just purchasing an old Pfluger reel, one acquires a piece of history; One persons history. There are stories in that old tackle. Where did that tooth mark in that antique creek chub lure come from? Where was that Mitchell reel used? What kind of trophy trout graced that old wicker creel?
Somebody's life and dreams are tied up in that tackle. Tales of weekend getaways to rivers and lakes where he escaped the factory. Memories and images invaluable to his children. Times where he was connected, even if for a fleeting time to the pulse of nature through rod and line. Connections which we feel in the rough surface of that old reel; connections to him. Did that rod sit by a campfire while he told his family and friends of the big one that got away? What dreams did he have? Were they fulfilled, or deferred? Did he sit by the fire, old and gray, fingering the old rod and reel and dreaming of the days of his youth? Was the owner a heck of an angler in his day? What could you learn from him... if you were willing and patient enough to listen? The bidding will soon start, but linger a while longer... There on the wall is a photo. Is that him? The owner of the tackle? He is dressed in canvas waders and a hunting hat with earmuffs. He is pushing a canoe into the water while a cocker spaniel stands on the shore with love in it's eyes. He is smiling. Look closer at the smile... He looks young, perhaps younger than he is. The smile is pure and carefree. An ageless smile full of the dreams of youth. Where are his children? Why did they not treasure the things he treasured most? Why is the old photo for sale? Doesn't anyone care?
You buy the rods, reels, and photo. Not because you need to, but out of some nostalgic sense of duty. The first time you use the equipment on the stream he will live again.through time, through his adventures and yours, through dreams, through connections.
A legacy.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Wild fish

Most of the time when I land and release a steelhead I forget to look and see if it is a wild fish or a pellet head. This time we actually got clear photos of a sweet little wild fish. Note the intact fin.


One of these days the crap I wade through will be my undoing. I am a good wader only because I retain my respect for the river and moving water, as well as knowing my limitations, and the water I am in. It really doesn't matter if you are a skilled wader on some rivers; they will get you anyway.
Basalt has several distinctive forms, one of which I refer to as "Volcanic glass". This stuff is so slippery that wading on it is like walking on bowling balls covered in crisco while you are wearing roller skates. Some rivers such as the Clearwater and Deschues are full of this stuff. Other hazards are porous basalt or granite boulders that have collected in riffles and rapids. Here the shallow clear water allows various algae to grow on their top. Even looking at these boulders wrong can see one upside-down in the river. Gibbs Eddy on the Clearwater is one run that contains boulders like this. For some reason when I first went out to Idaho, somebody had recommended the run as being "Easy to wade". I remember finding myself literally crawling over rocks bracing myself with one hand, and finally getting to a point that all movement seemed impossible and would result in a dunking.
Loose gravel and small basketball size rocks in fast riffles are hazardous as well. They tend to come loose or slide at inconvenient times. The only time I ever cartwheeled through a rapid, it was on a run like this. It was not a good experience. One second I was progressing to the other side, and the next I was viewing the river in a more intimate way. My fishing partner said "Watch out, that's how you can break a leg!", Good point, I will try not to tumble through rapids any more.
There is a secluded run on the Deschutes that we were directed to in 2004. It is a little hidden and hard to get to. The wading was brutal. My fishing partner allowed me to go first and pave the way of course. I was so naive. I thought he was allowing me to go first on all the new runs out of courtesy. Ha! He had ulterior motives. At one point a huge shelf of rock allowed one to walk on it's surface for twenty yards or so. Then, without warning, the shelf dropped off on all sides. The literal point of no return had been reached. I slipped off the side nearest to shore and was able to walk on tippi-toes to shore without getting wet. The water came up to the top of my waders. When exploring new water always move slow and fish with a partner if possible. That way he can secretly film you as you stagger about and fall in.
Sand bars can be fun too. One run on the Deschutes is accessible from shore only if you wade out on a hidden sand bar. You do this by lining yourself up with a tree on shore and a rock in the river. Then you move cautiously forward and pray. Rivers are full of moving water, and this tends to easily shift sand bars around. The last time I was out there the sand bar had mysteriously vanished, and I found myself once again walking on tippi-toes back to shore.

As awful as the wading can be on the storied rivers of the Northwest, our Great Lakes rivers often have their own perils.
Many of our rivers are rain dominated, so the flows can vary wildly. During periodic flood events any structure in the river like a log jam or boulder spit can cause the water to hydraulically dredge and scour the river bottom. An easy wade one year may not be easy the next. We have undercut banks that can be deceptively deep. The rule of thumb is if you don't feel safe, don't do it. It is not worth a drowning.
One spring day around 2000 or so, I watched as another angler fished a gravel bar and fast riffle. As he got further into the run the depth increased putting more water pressure on his body until he began to slide on the gravel, wildly trying to regain his footing. He tumbled in a cartwheel, went under, and emerged at the tail of the run, soaked and cold, but otherwise unhurt. I waved to him and he waved back to signal that all was well. He then got out on the bank and began to remove his waders to pour out the water. That is when idiot #2 showed up. He walked right past the first guy drying off, and stood at the river's edge. Then he did something unbelievable. He took a single step into the river where it cuts under the roots of a tree. Splash!.... All I saw of him for a few seconds was his blaze orange hunting cap as it floated down the river. He emerged at the tail of the pool as well, and walked past the first wet guy a second time.
  1. If you see a guy who is wet, and just fell in, you might want to be a little careful.
  2. Never take a step into the river where you can't see the bottom.
  3. Having a lobotomy does not help.
Spring runoff can be hazardous too. For some insane reason, the park service or whoever cuts down trees in the area of the river,often leaves the resulting logs lay where they were cut. This guarantees that when you are fishing in a beautiful run, the water is high, and you are in some kind of Zen-zone as you swing the fly through the fishiest water, that you will suddenly be struck smack in the butt by a huge drifting log, causing you to cry out #$&*@?, and have to sit on the bank for awhile until you adrenaline level drops.

The most irresponsible thing I have ever seen are bait and spawn fishermen standing on a fragile ice shelf over a ten foot deep hole above a rapids. The water temp was about 35 degrees. If the ice broke, they were dead. Period. I went to a different part of the river as to not have to witness it if it happened.

Famous last words:
  • "Nah, I don't think it's that deep."
  • "I think the ice will hold..."
  • "Pass me another beer..."
Wading in rocky rivers is a skill one learns by simply being in the river. There is no other way to put it. Experience comes with time.
Now let's hope I don't fall in.... D'oh! Glug...

Monday, September 1, 2008

Miniver Cheevy

Sometimes I feel like an anachronism. Loving classical music, literature, fly fishing, nature, fine art, English country clothing and other finer things in life certainly sets me apart from the madding crowd. It also makes me eccentric.
I guess I am proud of this. Loving the aesthetic qualities of fly fishing, I am able to receive greater joy in its pursuit.
It is hard to love the finer things in life while society continuously dumbs itself down and craps out consumer culture like so much diarrhea. Rap is not music. If you want to hear music listen to Bach's Goldberg Variations. Britney Spears is not an artist, If you want to see an artist go watch Itzak Perlman. Thomas Kinkaid is not a painter, if you want to see a painter visit here.
So, I am an elitist snob, right? preferring Oscar Wilde to Rush Limbaugh means that I must come from New York, and attend an Ivy-League school...

Or, perhaps it is just simply that I have always strove to find the pinnacle of art in everything. There I find true beauty.

I have been called a snob for just being a fly fisherman. "You don't need that fancy-ass equipment to catch them fish, I can catch twice as much with a twenty-dollar spinning rod from K-Mart."
He is right, he can catch twice as many fish as I do, but I will always enjoy them more. By always thinking of the art, and the connection to nature and beauty, I cherish every fish and every day.

So, it is hard not to feel like Miniver Cheevy...

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would send him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam's neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing:
He missed the medieval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

Edwin A. Robinson

Opportunities misused

On numerous occasions when I am fly fishing and am close to a public area, people will stop to watch. I guess I don't mind. Its not like I want to make a spectacle of myself, but I gave up skulking away muttering into the bushes years ago. Now, I just smile and nod.
People say the darnedest things. Questions vary from the typical (Whatch ya fishin fer mister?) to the inane (Are there fish in this river?).
I smile and nod...
One time a guy stopped on the bank and told me that I was "Doing it all wrong". "You have to wave the rod back and forth over your head like this" he demonstrated. "I know" he said, "My friend fly fishes". I was casting a spey rod and performing a double spey at the time.
Smile and nod...

One scene I have encountered numerous times is touching but sad. A family will come down to the water's edge to watch me cast. Mom sits on a rock as Dad and son look on. "What's he doing Daddy?" the child asks. "He is fly fishing son" the father responds. "Do you fly fish Daddy?" the son asks, looking up to his father with wide worshiping eyes. "No, son" he replies slowly with a faraway look. "I always wanted to, but I guess I never did." "Your Grandpa fly fished. I still have his old rod" "Really, where did he go Daddy?" "Oh, he used to catch brook trout up north." "He would drive up in the old Ford early in the morning and be back after dark." "Your Grandma used to like it when he went fishing, she always said it made him easier to live with."
"Will you take me fly fishing someday Daddy."
"Maybe, son...Maybe.."

"I always wanted to". Those words are a sad testament to our over-busy lives. The over-scheduled children and soccer parent lifestyle doesn't allow quiet unstructured time away. A whole generation of children are missing out on fishing with Dad and Grandpa. Legions of children are spending their time becoming the 'Pod generation'.
Grandpa found the time to go fishing, even if it was never as much as he wanted. My Grandpa raised ten kids in a small house while running a hardware store. He worked all day six days a week, and after dinner, would help people install or use the equipment or supplies he had sold them. He still found time to visit the Black River to catch musky and pike. He taught my uncles to fish, and I have black and white pictures of the proud boys holding up their first big pike. They are wearing old ragged clothes, and a smile as big as the fish they hooked.
Most of the boys grew up to appreciate the outdoors, and became hunters and fishermen.

My dad taught me to fish when I was around eight years old. I baited my own hooks, dug my own worms, and caught panfish. He never really fished much, but hand-built spinning rods that were works of art, and collected lots of tackle. I used to love to listen to him talk about fishing. He would talk for hours while smoking his pipe, as I imagined great adventures. I stopped fishing after age fifteen, and instead pursued all the life-lessons and mistakes awaiting every young adult. What my Dad had planted would germinate again in my thirties, when I returned to rediscover what made me happy as a child.

Fly fishing can be intimidating, but there is no other way to get started but to pick-up Grandpa's old rod and catch a bluegill. Can't you feel the memories in that old rod? The cork that he wore down with his tireless hands. The little repair he lovingly patched with glue and varnish. The odd fish-scale stuck to the wrappings. Oh, the stories and memories it could tell... but not from the closet.

The Wisconsin DNR runs a program where they stock area park ponds with hundreds of rainbow trout in early spring. The stocking is supposed to allow young anglers a shot at catching fish, and adults are forbidden to fish until later in the season. This year, due to allergies to neoprene and eczema on my feet, I stayed away from the trout streams and fished these ponds for the first time. I saw very few children. All the kids and families that I did see were African-American. The parks are not in what you would call the ghetto, instead border on the most affluent neighborhoods in the county, so I started to think about this. These families fished together, and the fathers taught their sons how to bait a hook and have patience while watching a bobber, while all the rich kids were engaging in structured activities and team sports. Not to take away from that, but I believe there is a place for the solitary exploration of youth. Times to be spent wading barefoot in a creek catching tadpoles and crawdads. Times to learn what your dad learned from his dad.
It seems that most middle-class white people don't fish unless they can get into a boat and roar around making noise.

So, take that fly rod out of the closet. Take a kid fishing. Pass on the love of gentle and quiet sports.
Then you won't have to say "no space of regret can make amends for one life's opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!" (from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens)

(The hat in the photo was my father's. I wear it in memory of him)

Getting Skunked

It happens to us all sooner or later; the dreaded 'skunk' or 'black dog'.
I have been skunked more times than I care to remember. Sometimes whole trips went fishless.
You get on the water with confidence and excitement, and as the day wears on without anything to show for it, you begin to get reflective and think "What the heck?". This is actually a good process to go through. Sometimes we are such creatures of habit that a little kick in the pants can be beneficial. We fish the same runs the same way over and over, because what worked before has just got to work now, right? Perhaps not. In that self examination we might start casting and working the water more slowly. We might start thinking again instead of acting on reflex. We may notice something we missed. I have fished a local stretch of water for years pursuing smallmouth, and usually do quite well. One day earlier this year I started only catching little 10" fish. After an hour of this, I stopped near the tail of the run where I always have cast to the East bank, and turned around with my popper to cast to the rocky flats of the west bank. On the first cast my popper was savaged by a 17" bass. If I had kept doing what I always did, I never would have discovered where the big boys were that day.
Thinking, reflecting, studying, and experimenting can all a result of sub-par fishing results, but sometimes things can get psychological. This is the true skunk in all it's glory. You may have been in an optimistic mood, fishing along and whistling a pleasant tune, when slowly the skunk takes over your mind, and things go dark. It can sneak up on you. You begin to cuss, swear, and change flies every cast. You are not thinking with logic now, just desperation. The best thing to do here is to sit down on the bank, close your eyes, and go to a happy place for a few minutes. If you don't, then your whole day may be in danger.
The worst part of Mr. Skunk is that he likes to wait until you are fishing with a partner and then attach himself to your back. Your buddy hits fish after fish, and finally feeling sorry for you, trades pools or runs with you, telling you "That pool is loaded with fish". He or she shows you what fly is hot, and then you go to it. You do the exact same thing he did, but can't buy a fish if your life depended on it. At this point a good fishing partner will just walk away and leave you to your misery. Misery may love company, but not an audience. Take heart friend, I have been there.
One time early in my flyfishing days, I was using Dahlberg divers to ply the river for bass. Three days before I had landed a 19" fish and two 15 inchers, as well as the smaller guys. That day I touched nothing all evening, until as I was literally on the bank walking out of the river at the take-out, a little bass hit my fly as I was tying my boot lace, jumped in the air, and spit the diver onto the bank at my feet as if to say "Just go home already you idiot".
Thinking back on that day, the whole experience was my fault. I did the same thing I always did, didn't adapt to conditions, and then let Mr. Skunk get into my head.

Mr. Skunk has something to teach us all... if we can survive the experience with our sanity intact...

Anglers have come up with all kinds of remedies for the dreaded skunk. They pour whiskey on the water, swing dead chickens over their head, promise not to bathe or shave until they catch a fish, use the lucky fly kept in their hat, and even make up prayers to the river gods. One popular method of banishing the skunk is to hold a true camp wilding. Copious amounts of booze is consumed, stories told, lies embellished, arguments started, and bonds established around the campfire while setting fire to all the marshmallows, falling on your tent, and wearing your underwear on your head. For some reason this often works. The next day you are no good shape to do anything, can't cast, and are all twitchy, but somehow can't keep the fish off your flies.

Getting skunked is one of the greatest impediments to new anglers picking up fly fishing. Going a whole day with only two or three fish to show for it takes a lot of patience, endurance, or insanity. Most likely the latter. I don't think the average fisherman has that patience. Many seem to want to walk down to the river, make one or two casts, and catch the trophy of a lifetime.
Putting in time on the water is what defines an avid angler. Getting skunked is a necessary part of that experience.

The Dechutes river in Oregon is my nemesis. It is supposed to be a fairly easy river to catch fish in, but in over twenty days on the river I have only landed one steelhead. I fished good runs, read the water, but always had bad luck. I always seemed to hook fish by accident within a foot or three of the bank on the dangle, feel a tug or two, and then be left with a feeling of profound loss. My fishing partner used to say "Well, where do you want to get skunked today"?

One thing above all will guarantee that Mr. Skunk makes an appearance. Over-confidence or overt braggadocio. Walking down to the river stating "We are going to pound them today" is likely to put every fish in the river in a sulk.