Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What is it about steelhead?

What is it about steelhead?

A meandering musing on the rather enigmatic, esoteric, irrational, and all consuming sport we call fly fishing for steelhead.

Why do we fly fish for steelhead?
Is it just purely because they are there? Do we fish for the same reason a climber is drawn to a mountain?
What are the inherent aspects of steelhead fly fishing that seem to captivate so many of us?

The fish:
A good point of departure is the steelhead itself. Chrome bright or colored with whispers of fuchsia, the steelhead is built like an athlete, and contoured with a water dynamic shape. It migrates hundreds of miles in its life dance, and is as unpredictable as the wind. Along with the Atlantic salmon, the steelhead is the ultimate fresh water game fish, and when hooked on a fly, gives all of itself in an unselfish joy ride of fear and power. Our joy is in the pursuit of these fish, not in their consumption. Feeling a soul connection as the fish burns off backing faster than a forest fire leaping up a slope keeps us in awe.

The rivers:
Steelhead would be nothing but inanimate objects without rivers. Rivers are timeless. They whisper and roar. They have personalities as wide ranging as we do. They have structure. They move. They are beautiful. To feel the raw power of a river as it sucks and pushes at your legs is like feeling the life force of a steelhead. After all, the steelhead is part of the river, and without the steelhead, the river is diminished.

Valleys filled with pines, mists on the river, basalt canyons: they all call to us, each with their unique smells, colors, and even tastes. If the steelhead is our spiritual worship, the river is our temple.

Scarcity, difficulty, etc.:
Steelhead are hard to come by, especially today as runs of wild fish are depleted, and entire river systems are vacant of chrome beauty. The simple scarcity of the fish, and the fact that we most often cannot see them, leads to our swinging flies with hope and yes, even faith. We have to believe the fish are in the river, even if for days on end it seems that we are just going through the futile rhythms of cast and swing. Fly fishing for steelhead is not a game of numbers. If it was, it would lose all interest for many of us. Instead, it is a game of patience. With every hour on the water and every run fished without a grab, we celebrate a sort of self denial, even a type of masochism which makes the eventual grab of a fish that much sweeter. This leads non-believers to condemn us as ‘nuts.’ “A whole two week trip, and you only landed three fish?” Yes…. What a fantastic trip it was!

There is a Zen quality to all this self-denial. We build up a sort of fish karma as we concentrate on the swing, confident that at any second, a fish will grab… right about NOW. Then, since nothing happened, we step and cast and swing again, even more confidant that this time it really will happen. The anticipation and frustration builds and builds until some anglers end up back at camp skulking around with long faces. Like the phoenix, they are ready the next day with renewed confidence and smile.

Steelhead fly fishing should be difficult. This is what makes it the zenith of our sport. The thrill of the chase by nature is by far the most fun. The appreciation gained through time and dues paid is a truer appreciation. No short cuts here. A single fly, a fly rod and line, and you. Our weapons should show restraint and respect.

Bill McMillan wrote in his introduction to Dec Hogan’s book A passion for Steelhead: “…Furthermore, fly fishing (for steelhead) is supposed to be an anachronism – a tradition of antiquated tackle choices to otherwise test mental ingenuity.” He goes on to point out that the difficulty is inherent, and that modern efforts to make it much easier and ‘dumb it down’ are an anathema. “The sport would not have the same fascination if it came easily…” he wrote.

The finest book on steelhead fishing ever written was not even about steelhead, nor was it about fly fishing. It was Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea. Think about it: Self-denial, exhausting delirium, the grab, the joy of success, the heartbreak, and the whole existential quality of the life struggle.

Perhaps the most powerful reason we fly fish for steelhead is freedom. In our fishing, we are free for but a moment in time, the rest of our lives are fettered to money, chattel, fears, and dreams deferred. For that one brief slice of time when we are connected to a wild running steelhead, we can feel what it must be like to be truly free. Free as a steelhead. We may escape to freedom, but it is the fish that is really free, and we can take a bit of this back with us into our world when after the fight, we release them again to go on their life’s journey, as we go on ours.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Taming of the Mouth

The Taming of the Mouth
Original short story copyright 2009
Erik F. Helm

(I know nobody reads these, but perhaps they will someday be collected in a book that nobody will read.)


The lodge was quaint, cozy, and warm. In short, it was everything I hoped it to be for this weekend getaway to fish the Clark Fork near Missoula Montana. I usually eschew staying at fishing establishments due to their rather annoying habit of concentrating more on wine and seven course meals rather than quality fishing, but I had been assured by my angling friends that the hire of a guide from this lodge and the stay was well worth the time and money.

I arrived on Friday in time for cocktails and dinner, and after changing out of my rumpled travel cloths and giving myself a quick going over with a wet washcloth, I walked to the main lodge building armed with a powerful appetite. After meeting the host Mr. Everson, and his busy and lovely wife Grace, I was introduced to the guides, Paul and Stew, two young locals who would be accompanying us on our quest for trout. When I say us, I am referring to the other guests that weekend which I met in short order: Jim, a quiet businessman from nearby Butte, and Major Gallstone, a retired officer from Great Britain now living in Canada.

We were seated around the fire enjoying an aperitif as the hosts and guides left to attend to the dinner. The Major, speaking to Jim, or possibly three feet above him, was holding forth on his trip to Ireland for sea trout, and how he “Showed the peat diggers” how it should be done. “I caught all the large fish of the trip, and the damn locals could only manage a meager catch of a few sardines” he said through his thick mustache, his face tilted slightly but annoyingly upward. Jim and I only got a few words in edgewise as the conversation turned first to eastern Catskill trout, and then to Atlantic Salmon, both of which the Major was an undoubted expert on, according to his own pronouncements. In each instance, he derided the guides as “Dolts”, the locals as “Troglodytes or Knuckle draggers”, and held himself forth as the protagonist that always, despite adverse conditions, managed to catch the most and largest fish anyone had ever seen.

In general, I like the English. Their self-deprecating sense of humor, wry wit, and stiff upper lip has always endeared me. With the Major, however, my tolerance was being sorely tested. It was tested further, and indeed stretched to the breaking point at dinner when his constant bragging spoiled an otherwise excellent fillet mignon. He seemed not to be interested in anyone else’s stories, and when he did lower himself to ask us a question, he always interrupted us soon after, as if our answers bored him.

Now, I am not the best fly fisherman out there, but I am a professional angling writer, have seen my share of the country’s waters, and am honest enough to know that my skill level is quite good. The Major had no doubt read some of my articles, but had no interest in acknowledging me or even my writing.

After dinner, we adjourned to the common room for a nightcap. I managed to excuse myself from the Major’s company and ended up talking to Paul, the younger of the two guides. Asking him about himself and his family I began to peel away the layers of shyness that I perceived. Paul would be guiding the Major tomorrow, and was less than happy about it. “Last year I had to guide him too, and it was the single worst day of the year.” “ He treated me like shit, and everything that went wrong was my fault.” “He insisted that I follow behind him by fifty feet, and when he hooked a fish, he would simply steer it over to me to release.” “He was too good to touch it.” “He also would not listen to anything I said, which meant that instead of being his guide for the day, I was his lacky.” As Paul spoke, I began to get an idea. I took him aside and onto the porch of the lodge, and after a short while and the present of a bottle of single malt scotch, he was amenable to my plans. “Just as long as I don’t get in trouble” he said, “I need the job, you know.”
“Don’t worry about it, if anything goes astray, I will take all the blame.” I told Paul through a mischievous grin. “The Major will get his comeuppance, and if we pull it off smoothly, he will never suspect a thing.”

I took myself and my glass of neat whiskey back into the lodge, where the Major was now pontificating on the proper method of setting the hook on a trout. Walking up to him, I said “So Major, given that your line stays dry, your fly alights on the water perfectly, and the fish cannot help but hook themselves while you walk on top of the water, how would you like to place a wager on tomorrow’s fishing?” Taken a bit aback, his face slowly coloring, he answered “What do you have in mind young man?” I explained to him the rules of the contest: that each man measure the length in inches of each fish he catches and releases, adds them together, and that the individual with the greatest total measurement at the end of the day is declared the winner. “Splendid, I shall look forward to showing you the ropes then.” “Now for the wager, shall we say, mmm… a hundred pounds?” “Sorry Major, I said with mock regret, I am not a man of means.” “However, I do have an alternative idea.” “Shoot away!” invited the Major. “It is simply this, that the winner has the privilege of watching the loser fish on Sunday in a woman’s dress and sun hat.”
“What?” he roared. “Have you taken leave of your senses?” “I will have no such thing!”
“A pity, I proclaimed with a smile.” “I was looking forward to showing you how trout fishing is done properly in America.”

The Major stared at me with narrowed eyes through the silence of the challenge. The entire room had heard the proceedings and one could hear a pin drop. His ears had turned bright crimson when he answered “You’re on, and may the best man win!” Turning with a flourish, he left the lodge to make his way to his cabin. I thought it a good idea to turn in early as well, and as I left, caught the eye of Paul and slyly winked. He returned the gesture.

The morning broke bright and sunny, with puffy white cumulus clouds scattered across the sky. Breakfast was unusually silent, excepting the Major’s insistence that he be given proper marmalade for his toast and not the homemade blackberry jam that Grace was famous for. His bellicose orders regarding the jam just sealed my opinion of him, and I smiled at what was in store for him on the river.

The Clark Fork is full of riffles. It begins just west of the continental divide near Butte, and flows westward toward Missoula where it is joined by the Bitterroot and the Big Blackfoot. We would be fishing in sight of the Sapphire Mountains, so named because of the thickly forested pines and the way the evening light catches them, reflecting an especially verdant green.

Stew led me to a nice riffle and pool, but I told him that I would rather fish much closer to the Major, explaining that I wished to observe his legendary technique. We took up residence in a run just upstream of where he was standing in the water shouting to Paul to “Get a move on, and tie on that little size 18 caddis.” I pretended to fish while Paul tied on the fly and signaled to the Major that all was ready. His casting was everything even his braggadocio could claim. The line whistled overhead in perfect loops and sent his fly delicately into the riffle. Immediately his line was tight and his rod was bucking as he led a nice trout downstream to where Paul was waiting.

“A cutthroat” Paul shouted. “Sixteen inches fair.” “Seventeen roared the Major.” “Seventeen, damn it!”
Paul dried the fly off, and shouted to the Major “Hold on a second, I forgot to pinch the barb down.” He grabbed his forceps and made the tiny adjustment. “O.K.” he proclaimed.
Stew looked at me kind of funny as if to ask if there was something up my sleeve, and asked why, given the wager, I was not furiously fishing.

“Keep watching, you are going to be in for a treat’ I said.

The Major spotted a rising fish directly behind a series of boulders sheltered by overhanging grass. His cast was incredible. The fly curved through the air and swung around enough in a reach that the fish would never even see the leader. Once again, the rod bounced and line was tight as what was obviously a large brown trout gave a ballet-like leap. Then the rod simply sprang back and the line went limp. “Bloody Hell!” the Major shouted, “That was a good fish.” He soon found another riser high in the riffle and as before, made the perfect cast and presentation, hooked the fish, and quickly lost it. He glanced towards where Stew and I stood for a second, and then began to berate Paul. “What kind of fly did you give me… I can’t hook fish properly on this one, change it at once!” he said. “Yes sir” said Paul while clipping off the fly, opening his sheepskin wallet and tying another caddis to the end of the Major’s leader.

Major Gallstone then made another cast, hooked a nice jumping cutthroat, and promptly lost it. The word “Bugger” reverberated around the river.

“Let’s go Stew, I said.” “Get me into a fish.”
Ahead in the slow water behind a bend, Stew pointed to a fish rising close to the bank. I cast to him and he rose eagerly, inhaling the fly. “Six inches” Stew declared as he released the little cutthroat. I turned back to where the Major stood, face turning purple, and waved.

I think it is time patient reader, to let you in on my little joke. In addition to pinching down the barb, Paul was instructed to bend the point of the hook back as well.

You may well imagine what the rest of the day was like. I slowly but almost diffidently hooked, landed, and measured twenty-seven trout for a combined total inch count of 243. The Major never landed another fish. Paul took the brunt of the abuse, but I hoped that the knowledge of the secret itself, the awaiting bottle of single malt, and the anticipation of guiding the Major the next day clothed in a dress and looking like something out of a charity vaudeville act would be some slight compensation.

Major Gallstone looked rather dainty in Grace’s blue gardening dress with the little polka dots I decided, as I watched him fish on that most holy of Sundays. He never uttered a single word.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Footprint

The Footprint
Copyright 2009, Erik F. Helm

The Tomorrow River had been fickle that morning as I picked my way up the boulder strewn pocket water casting a dry fly and enjoying some of the most spectacular cloud formations the Wisconsin sky could conjure up. The brown trout were there somewhere, even if I could only intercept or tempt them sporadically. I was hoping for a definable hatch of mayflies or caddis, but the mixed batch of varied insects made for a challenging outing. I had managed a few small fish, and spooked an old boy around seventeen inches from beneath a root cluster.

Coming to the belated conclusion that flailing the water with a dry fly with no fish rising was an exercise in futility, I sat down on a large granite boulder at stream-side and unbuckled my canvas tackle bag. Unwrapping my bacon sandwich, I began to eat my lunch. Accompanying lunch was a paperback of Robert Frost’s poetry. The perfect compliment to the wild countryside and a fitting distraction from the uncooperative trout. I found “Hyla Brook’ most enjoyable. This, I realized once again, was why I fly fished. Something about the flowing water, drifting clouds, and the infinite green colors of the foliage erased things from my mind which had crept in like silent mosquitoes to suck and dine upon my thoughts. Here I could be truly free. Had I been an artist, I could have tried to capture that moment in time, but a river never sleeps, and to try to paint a little snapshot in time could never capture the way that everything felt alive with movement.

After an hour or so of daydreaming and contemplative dozing on my stream-side rock, I felt it was time to begin my foray for trout again. The next bend of the river offered new possibilities, as it was shaded by numerous cedars. I had picked my way to the top of the little bend, missing one fish and landing another six-inch brown the color of country butter and honey, when I saw him. He was at the top of the next pool casting into a shallow riffle. Crouched down by the water’s edge, his straw porkpie hat angled slightly on his head, he wore an old red and black check lumberjack shirt as he puffed a pipe and peered into the water. As I watched, he quickly fired a cast into the riffle, hooked, played, and released a nicely sized brown. A minute later he repeated the performance. This guy obviously knew what he was doing. As I was getting up to continue forward, he landed a third fish, this one larger than the other two put together. Watching him fish and wading upstream at the same time led to my stumbling on an unseen rock. Regaining my balance by staggering for footholds on the gravel and sand bottom, I was less then quiet. The water splashed about my boots and cascaded onto my face. Looking upriver through the droplets of water on my glasses, I noticed to my surprise that the man was gone. He had disappeared without a trace. If he had waded the river, or burst through the tight brush, I did not know, but he was gone sure enough.

The trout however, were still rising in the riffle he had been fishing. A bug buzzed clumsily into my face, and as I grabbed it with an open hand, it was revealed to be a large spotted sedge or caddis. Fumbling around in my wallet for the appropriate fly, I found a fairly close imitation tied with a bucktail wing. Trout rose carelessly in the riffle often splashing water onto the bank in their enthusiasm. The first cast I made received a surface roll by a fish, but no take. The next cast received no interest at all, as did the following two dozen drifts of the fly. I began to change flies every other cast, and had worked through my entire arsenal of caddis imitations both dry and wet without a single positive result.

There is a time and a place for everything, and as frustration set in, I decided that I needed a mental break. I did not want to wade through the riffle and spook the fish, so I made my way to the bank and slipped through the cedars and ferns. The soil was black and rich, and sucked at my boots as I struggled along making my way up the river. Not twenty feet from where I came out of the river I spotted a footprint pointing into the woods. Wanting to follow what must have been the path taken by the other angler, I looked for more footprints. I consider myself a decent tracker, having spent the better part of twenty years as a bow-hunter, but try as I may, I could not locate his path. It was as if after making that single imprint, he vanished completely. Coming back to the footprint, I noticed a large caddis like the ones hatching that moment in the river. It was perched at the end of a blade of grass arcing over the footprint. When I grabbed at it, a funny thing happened: it never tried to fly off, and didn’t even flutter. Then I noticed the hook protruding from the bottom. This was an artificial fly. A fly tied so convincingly that it had fooled me. It had a slender cream body, antennas made from what looked like moose hair, and a tent wing which appeared after some examination to be a triangle of pounded deer skin which was waxed. Why it was here, perched above this single footprint, I could only speculate.

What I was certain of was that this fly was the one that fooled those trout in the nearby riffle. To prove my hypothesis, I tied it to my line and went back to the riffle. On the first cast I rose, hooked, and landed a fourteen-inch brown. The second cast produced a foot long fish, as did the third and fourth casts. In wonder, I hooked the fly to the keeper on the rod, and began to make my way upstream when a cautionary thought occurred to me. What if this fly was too perfect? What if that lone fisherman had placed it there for a reason? I imagined a scenario in which every cast I made with this fly would catch a fish, and realized that all the mystery and challenge would vanish forever. It could have been simply dropped by the other angler, offered up as a courtesy, or placed as a curse. I did not intend to find out. I made my way back to the footprint, hooked the fly into the blade of grass where I found it, and tearing off a sheet of paper from my little fishing log notebook, wrote the words “Thank you!” and placed it next to the footprint. The way I came to see it as I made my way back to the truck was that what happens on the water stays on the water. Whether skill, magic, or curse, that fly belonged along side that riffle, and I belonged at home where a lonely dog and warm fireplace awaited me.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Anachronism

The Anachronism
An original short story
Copyright 2009 Erik Helm

I discovered it again by accident while rooting around in the cellar through a pile of old fishing tackle and memories. Wrapped in its old oil cloth, the little wood rod and line had lay on a corner shelf for a good half of my lifetime. As I unwrapped it, the memories of youth came flooding back with startling vividness.

I was somewhere in my mid-twenties, the indestructible years, and was exploring a backwoods section of the Little Cherry River in central Pennsylvania. Backpacking my lunch and tackle, I had made my way through the thick dark deciduous forest lit by moving rays of sunlight cascading through the leafy canopy. I hoped to find the seclusion I needed and a few trout to round out the day. I was feeling organic as hell. I crossed the Cherry several times until I came to a series of plunge pools. The river here sang like a choral work as it tricked and poured. The trees leaned over high ahead and met over the river, creating a tunnel not unlike the nave of a medieval church. An ideal place to worship nature by fooling a bespeckled trout with an artificial fly. I rigged up my little seven-foot cane rod given to me by my grandfather, tied on a fly, and started to make my way up the series of pools. By the time I had arrived at the uppermost pool I had caught and released five tiny brook trout. They were so full of color they seemed more like blossoms in the stream. Purples, reds, and blues exploded like fireworks against background rich enough to make King Midas jealous. The river above the pools was a long riffle, and as I quietly read the water, I realized I was not alone.

Along the bank of the river near the head of the riffle sat a strange figure. He was old yet lithe. His long gray hair hung down from beneath a grass hat so crude it almost seemed that it was a part of the forest itself. His shirt was either gray or dirty white, and his pants looked like black pajamas. He had not noticed me, but simply sat staring at the water with nary a movement. I crouched down to watch, unaware at the time exactly why I was watching, or what I expected to see.

After a few minutes, the air over the riffle suddenly came to life with the delicate flights of a few small rusty mayflies. Immediately a splashy rise shown at the surface of the water as a trout dined on nature’s morsel. This seemed to be the signal for the man to slowly move into action. He disappeared into the brush and emerged carrying a sheath knife and a newly cut thin branch of some slender tree. Sitting cross-legged on the forest floor, he used the knife to strip the bark from the branch. With the bark removed, he waved and bent the switch backwards and forwards, nodded to himself, and set it beside the stream.

He now went to the base of a small pine tree, and began digging with his knife until he had uncovered a small root branch of the conifer. This he cut and with subtle effort pulled all its ten feet out of the black loam. Seated again, he separated the root into multiple strands with the knife, and holding the fibers between his toes, began to braid them together. In no time at all a twenty-foot long pile of supple line lay at his feet.

The lone figure now stood up slowly and fastened the line to the tip of his slender little branch rod. I was paralyzed with fascination as he walked up to the river like he was a tree swaying, and cupped a hand in the air to capture a mayfly. Out from his pocket he took a single small hook. He set the mayfly on the top of his shoulder where it obediently stayed. Removing his hat, he plucked several strands of his long gray hair and placed them between his lips. Delicately, he tied one strand of hair to the end of his root line, while the other served to attach the little mayfly carefully to the hook.

He crouched on the bank with extreme patience and deliberate movements, slowly bringing the little wand up to hover over his head while the hook and its mayfly cargo were held in his left hand. He reminded me of a heron the way he stood still or moved with such deliberation that one was not absolutely certain if he was moving at all.

A short charged silence followed before, in the middle of the riffle, a trout made a little ring as it sipped in a mayfly. ‘Swish-shush’ went the rod, sending the line arcing beautifully over the water to place the mayfly with utmost accuracy and delicacy directly upon the now still spot where the ring was still expanding. Suddenly the water exploded in tiny droplets, and the slender wand began to dip and dance in the man’s ropy arms.

He smiled then; a slowly spreading smile that began at the corners of his mouth and grew to encompass first his entire face, and then spread through the whole forest. Crouched in my little perch behind a red dogwood bush, I felt his smile as if I could touch it.

I watched while in the next ten minutes he took five more brook trout, lay them reverently on the bank, fashioned a crude creel or basket from birch bark lined with fresh grass, and placed the trout in a row in the basket. Stooping to drink from the river his lips muttered unheard words I could only take as a thankful offering. Then he did something odd. He kissed his little rod and tossed it into the riffle, turned, and walked into the forest, vanishing into the dark foliage as if he had never existed at all. The rod and line came slowly bouncing down the stream to rest at my feet.

So… this is how I came to have this switch rod wrapped in an old cloth among the chattel of the past in my cellar. I had saved it because without its physical presence I never would have trusted my memories of that day. Who or what he was I never will know, but to me he will always be a being out of place in time. He was both native to the forest and yet not native to the time and day. It seems to me he slipped between time. One thing is certain though, He was the finest angler I have ever seen.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The death of the quiet sport?

The death of the quiet sport

As I sit here listening to the excellent recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by Andras Schiff, I am reading online about the revolution that is sweeping fly fishing for steelhead: the gangsta revolution.

This new irreverent movement has been growing for the past ten years or so, and portrays the sport of steelheading as an X-game adrenaline sport. I have nothing in general against the evolution in equipment, but what bothers me deeply is the tone of the rhetoric. Instead of writing “The mists had barely risen to kiss the tops of the pines as I slowly passed through time and the river”, we have “Yo, Mothafucka, shread that line, bro. Rock n’ roll! Kick Ass dude! Roasted!”

Now I know that times change, and that classical English and our spoken and written language will change with time, but is this what we have come to? Magazine covers with guys in gangsta poses holding fish like they were snow boarding? Fly fishing film tours that are indistinguishable from a Warren Miller video complete with rap music? What happened out there while I was asleep dreaming of the streams? What happened to respect? What happened to appreciation of nature and poetry? Where is the beautiful ballet of unfolding loops? Is it all banished to the wastelands where groups of outcast ‘traditionalists’ sit by a fire like bums, waxing on how it used to be in the ‘good old days’? Has flyfishing become a game of numbers at last? Has it finally become an unrestrained testosterone driven manhood contest? Why can’t these new young guns innovate without trashing everything and everybody that has gone before them?

“Yo, Erik… Dude, get with the times homeboy!”

Really? Why so loud my friend? Why so loud?

Why does the revolution have to be proclaimed from the gutters and alleyways by trustafarians raised in rich suburbs who now have the luxury of being a rebel and keeping it real?

What ever happened to quiet and restraint? To appreciation? To just sit on the bank and love nature? To cast and fish in your mind? To dream. To be a romantic.

Or, has the romance been sanitized out of the sport? Has technology interposed itself and replaced our ability to think, analyze, appreciate, and romanticize? Have we collectively lost the ability of silent thought? Perhaps there are more of us out there than I think. Perhaps it is our silence and appreciation that is being only for a short time eclipsed by the yowling mating call of the wild irreverent rebels. Perhaps they will quiet down in time when they are not chasing steelhead like they were a nightclub bimbo conquest with equipment that is a highbred between bait casting and fly fishing.

Before you go and categorize me as an ‘old stogie’, I must tell you that I have many friends in this new young gun revolution, but to a person, they are respectful of the sport and others.

The fly fishing industry is cozying up to these gangstas too. Pop culture sells fly rods and reels, Pop culture leads more people to embrace the sport as their way to become ‘cool’. But, I ask, at what cost? As the shread movement becomes more widespread and respected in the industry, will those persons who always dreamed of taking up fly fishing be scared away?

Fly fishing used to be a sport that was seen as a gentleman’s sport. A sport elevated over the common not only by the knowledge of its practitioners, but also by its lore, its art, its innate uniqueness and difference from ‘regular fishing’. It had romance, taste, and refinement, and it attracted the sort of anglers that appreciated these qualities. Today, it is becoming a spoiled rich white kid punk sport. What a shame.

Tone it down. That is my advice. As you go dumbing it down, please tone it down, or there will be nothing left to appreciate at all…
Sometimes I feel so alone. Thank God for Bach.

Romance? Appreciation?

Look no further than here. This is what is missing.
From William Butler Yeats (Thanks Shane.)

The Song Of Wandering Aengus
By William Butler Yeats

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands.
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Rights and Responsibilities

It is happening now.

Steelhead and salmon are disappearing from rivers all along the West Coast. Some rivers are now effectively lost altogether. The storied rivers of northern California that sustained some of the greatest runs of fish in the continent are now shadows of shadows of their former selves. The Skagit and Sauk are down to the last fish. Only twenty years ago they held amazing numbers of fish. The Salmon river in Idaho that took its name from the great fish that swam six hundred miles from the sea is empty.

It is happening now.

Mankind’s legacy of development and destruction is coming to fruition. Rivers dammed, habitat destroyed, forests logged, mine tailings dumped, soil eroded, we are all witnessing the end game.

Us sportsmen have by default become the last standing protectors of wild fish. Ironic in a sense. The very people who shoot game and catch fish have become the protectors of the resource.

With the right to chase game obtained by purchasing a license comes some inherent responsibilities. The main responsibility is to become involved in the stewardship of rivers, fish, and habitat. This often does not involve much more than joining a conservation organization, writing a letter or two, or even speaking at a public meeting. Alas, it seems that this is too much to ask for many anglers. Someone else will do it… right?

One of my favorite rivers to chase steelhead has a crowding problem. If one didn’t know better, it would seem that more anglers then ever before are fishing for steelhead. Instead, it is the few remaining rivers left that offer fishable numbers of steelhead that are concentrating anglers. The rest is just a memory. See that cover shot of the happy guy holding the monster steelhead in that 20 year old book? Chances are the fish are long gone from that river. Twenty years. A blink of an eye in time. Gone. The genetics developed by natural selection over thousands of years destroyed and never to return.

Conservation is a daunting battle, and we are always outnumbered and out financed by development interests, but now and then we manage to win a few contests. On rivers all over the country, dams have come down allowing silt buildups to dissipate and fish to migrate freely, habitat is being set aside for preservation, and riparian areas are being restored.

In all forms of government there is power in numbers. People in numbers can defeat any corporate, development, or state interest, but only if we act. Apathy will get you nothing… literally.

Given the drastically declining numbers of salmon and steelhead from California all the way to Alaska, this may be the final inning. We either need to step up to the bat, or retire forever. The slogan “Think globally, act locally” should be our motto. We may not all be able to fight environmental battles in Alaska, Russia, Botswana, or even Washington state, but our efforts through local conservation organizations can reach farther than we often think.

It is happening now.

So, you have a right to fish? Now you have a responsibility too. Will we answer the call?
Only time will tell.

It is happening now.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. Or is it?

Courtesy of the tackle industry. I don't know whether to run away screaming...or just laugh.

Monday, July 6, 2009

‘Expertising’ and critical thinking skills

Everyone who has caught a fish on a flyrod is an expert. That is what one would think when visiting online fly-fishing forums. A topic often begins when somebody new to the sport or someone pushing into a new angle of the sport asks a question such as “What line should I use with this new rod?”, or ”Which running line would work best for me?”

The forum then fills with all kind of answers, both good, bad, and ugly. Some ‘experts’ often fail to place themselves in the shoes of the questioner or ask probing questions before bestowing their ‘sage’ advice.
The forums become a sort of ‘catch 22.” On one hand, somewhere in all the answers is probably some sound advice, but on the other hand, how is one to tell the difference?

Critical thinking skills can help here.

First, if you place a question on a forum, in order not to receive inaccurate or superfluous information one must frame the question properly. Give the question structure and do not leave it open-ended. Instead of asking “What X thing should go with my Y thing?”, tell a little about yourself, where you are coming from, and why the question is being asked in the first place. Give some history as to what spurred the question. Detail the tackle you are using and where the applied solution is to take place: which river, lake, etc.

Then comes the fun part, picking your way through the answers. Ask yourself these questions:

One: Who is answering the question and why? Do they have a hidden agenda? Do they represent a tackle company? Are they a guide or on a ‘key employee’ program and get the gear they recommend for free?

Two: How much precedent does the person have? If you ask for opinions on running lines and someone tells you “I use ‘X’ and it works for me.”, has the person used any other line? In other words, gage the depth of knowledge and the width of knowledge of the person answering the question.

Three: Does the person ask follow-up questions in order to clarify the question? Most solid answers and sound advice comes with follow-up questions.

This will help to sort through all the answers from the ‘experts.’ It surprising how much both good and bad information is out there. When I ran a fly shop, it was common for somebody to come to me with some sort of prejudice due to asking a ‘buddy’ or consulting a forum. Sometimes it was too late to dissuade the customer from an inappropriate decision.

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing…

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Legacy Rod

I just purchased a new used two-handed rod. The sage 9140-4 graphite IIIe ‘greenie’ is a classic. Some may question my sanity at getting yet another toy, as well as purchasing an older rod when more modern and ‘better’ rods are available. This rod was previously owned by Brandon Luft, an excellent steelhead fisherman. I know it has good karma since I purchased my first spey rod from Brandon years ago, and used it on my first trip to the pacific north west to fish the Klickitat. So, this is the second rod of his that I now own. I kind of like owning a legacy, as well as not purchasing new stuff and adding even more junk to the planet. This rod is the one most described by veterans as the rod that they once owned, sold in search of the magic bean, and later wish they had never sold.

It is a slower rod, and requires a precise and smooth stroke to avoid pretzels in the line. This is why I bought it. I have been practicing my spey casting rather obsessively on the river lately using a longer belly line (65 ft. head) than I am used to. I am trying to develop my single spey along the lines of an underhanded stroke but with more follow-through on the forward cast. While practicing, I have to go through the crazy but inevitable questioning as to what I am fishing for, and whether I am catching anything. Nobody believes I am just practicing. When I show them the fly with the bend and point broken off, they look at me like they are ready to reach for their cell phone and call for the straight jacket and rubber room for me. They often grab their children and tow them away, as if I was some eccentric to be avoided. “Look Jane, there is that crazy guy with the Irish hat in the river again waving that long pole back and forth.” “Should we call the police?” ‘Nah, he is probably just some harmless burnout from the corporate world.” Some people point at me as if they were observing wildlife. “Look Billy, the river habitat restoration is having an effect.” “It has attracted a native hippie fly fisherman.’ “They are rare these days and quite endangered.” “They are often attracted to bagpipes and the sound of running water.”

I practice for a number of reasons. For one, it is joyful. I love putting out long casts with a tight loop. When it is going out effortlessly, it becomes like ballet. Another reason I practice is that I can’t stand casting like crap. When my casting is off, it infuriates me. The inability to cast to exactly where one must place the fly is the one single greatest reason that people struggle. I am not just talking about long casts, but also short and accurate casting as well. Watching someone fish with a fly rod who cannot cast well is like listening to a violin concerto played badly on an out of tune instrument. It is unpleasant and ugly. Thus, I practice, and practice, and practice… and still struggle some times.

A longer limber rod and long dry line is my preferred method of fishing for steelhead, and since I seem to care about tradition, it is also my reaction to the slide of two-handed fly-fishing into the realms of bait casting with its giant ‘lure’ flies and shorter and heavier ‘fly’ lines. Casting a long line just becomes more joyful with the pretty loops unfurling versus the ‘flop and lob’ of the Skagit style. It is also infinitely more difficult. There is more to go wrong with every foot added to the belly of the line.

Casting should be effortless. When I set foot on a steelhead river, the last thing I want to be thinking about and fussing over is my casting. Gear is the same way. Be at one with your rod and line, so that when you are actually fishing, you can enjoy the experience instead of futzing with your equipment or stroke. I watch guys fiddle with their equipment far too much while fishing. Fiddle and futz during practice, not when the fish are cooperative.

For the handfull of readers that are still bored enough to be reading this at this point, here are some casting notes from the legacy rod: Single spey.

Smooth stroke is essential.
Body motion must be increased with the longer line. Body rock must occur. On the beginning of the cast, weight must be primarily on the forward foot, then transferred to the rear foot with the D-loop, then on the forward foot again with the forward stroke.

Bottom hand is essential. The Dec Hogan style crescent lift aids in feeling the lower hand early in the stroke. Bottom hand plays the key in the D-loop formation as well as the forward stroke. I played with the traditional style of extending the upper hand and arm at the end of the forward stroke, and it helped, but I don’t like the wear and tear on my arm, so lower hand power it is. The rod should do most of the work. I found that when my casts were really good, that I was putting very little effort into it. I could feel the rod load during the lift and progressively load all the way through the formation of the D-loop.

The body rock back during the D-loop formation is also very helpful at allowing a longer forward stroke to occur. It also aids in allowing a higher angle of delivery.

Line turnover is a problem. The Mach 2 plus 8 wt line I am using weighs 570 grains, but has a really long noodle-like front section of seemingly level line. After playing with the line for the past month, changing to a much lighter leader, and changing my casting stroke, I am going to begin to chop the front of the line carefully in one-foot increments. This is common on long tapered lines. The turnover now has squiggles in it that I am at a loss to control. The turnover problem occurs at both short and long distances, and with a forward spey, snake roll, double spey, single spey, Perry poke, circle spey, etc. Some of it is my stroke, but now I am certain that some of it is the line as well. Otherwise, I like this line. Turnover is essential. A hundred foot cast that does not turn over completely could be better handled by an 80 foot cast that does turn over.

I learned from watching my D-loop form that I commonly had a downward trajectory, and this caused the line to pile into the water a bit and increase line stick. I still do this from time to time, but in general the trajectory of the D-loop is now much better.

This rod is easy to over power. If I put some muscle in it and place too much emphasis on my right arm, then I get a secondary power robbing downward hinge in the outward-bound loop. I am notorious for this. I need to back off the power, slow down, and let the rod and line do the work.

Getting this rod matched up with line and stroke may be a lot of work, but the glory is in the end game, when and if it travels with me a to a mist filled steelhead river at dawn, and deep in the canyon and cradled in my arms, watches me with vibrating anticipation as I tie on a size 3 dunt and offer it to the steelhead gods with a hope and a prayer.

Is there a soul in this rod? Or, is it just anthropomorphism? Only time will tell.

Update: August 23rd 2009. The rod has soul...

Friday, July 3, 2009

A Thank You

I want to take time out to thank the readers of this blog. I had no real path or intent in mind when it began, other than a focus on the classic side of fly-fishing. I have learned a lot through the efforts of writing these often obscure thoughts on an already obscure sport. The greatest two outcomes for myself were the gaining of an outlet for creative thought, and the gathering together of like-minded anglers. I hope my writings have kept you entertained, and spurred some critical thought. Inspiration can come from anywhere or from nowhere. It happens at 4 in the morning, and sometimes not for weeks at a time. Being the cynic that I am, I can get frustrated when these creative efforts and others like them are bypassed by anglers who instead weigh in on forums in biblical numbers as to which line looks better, which rod feels better when hit over the head, or whether flourocarbon is good to floss your teeth with. But, as I realize, this blog is obscure, and perhaps a test of deeper thought.

I have tried to make this site different from the ubiquitous blogs and pages on the web where the main content is a silly diary of fishing activities (as in “I went there and caught some fish and had fun…), or sites that wander off topic so often it may take a compass to find the content one wishes to read. The opinions expressed here are often rhetorical in nature. I certainly am no expert, nor do I have all the answers, but there comes a time in life when one feels the urge to give back something to the community of fellowship that has given us so much. To those people such as Bill S., Rob E., Joe S., William O., Dave P., Dave D. and the others too numerous to mention that I have learned from, thank you.

I tend to search for beauty in life, and beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. To me, life is too short not to sit by the side of the Lochsa River and read a poem by Robert Service, share a poignant quote with my readers, present a pretty fly to a pretty fish, enjoy the smell and feel of a rain shower, and frequently laugh at myself and mankind in the face of nature, joy, fear, and spiritualism.

Fly fishing has become a sort of spiritualism for me. It is easy to find aspects of essence and connection in the casting of a line in a special place. There are true Zen-like moments in fly-fishing. Zen, or Chan, is a meditative process of discovery of both the inner and outer world. Most people never even listen to their inner voice. They are too deafened by the modern complications of life. There is a single place where that inner self and realization meets ones view of him or herself and the outside world. To find this is a lifetime journey. Silence or the stillness of nature can help this.

I try to make my writing different than anything else out there. Like my favorite short story authors such as W. Sommerset Maugham, I deplore the ordinary. Thus sometimes my stories have aspects of the bizarre, or end differently than “and they all lived happily ever after.” Getting older is not a lot of fun. Wisdom is the only compensation. I learned this years ago, and have listened carefully to those who have gone before us. Being a student of history, I know that the collected body of human knowledge and wisdom assembled from failures, successes, and experiences in the past can teach us so much about our possible futures. These experiences and collected wisdom must be shared, even if it is ignored.

Fly-fishing is about so much more than catching fish. I have endeavored here to attempt to define and bring to light these sometimes hidden aspects. The next time you break into a smile on the stream, river, or lake, sit down and really think about why you are smiling. You may find it an enlightening process. Do the same when you are frustrated, afraid, or angry. Take a page out of Marcus Aurielius and examine each thing in its essence, then watch it all flow into one when you open your eyes. This is the river to me. “Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”

A man is dead when he stops learning. I intend to never stop learning and discovering. I hope I can continue to share the joy and creativity I receive from that learning and critical thought. I promise to brace it with humor ;)

Thank You for reading.