Monday, November 30, 2009

More Estabrook Dam Nonsense

More Estabrook Dam Nonsense

We just are not that bright. Here in Milwaukee County our board of supervisors passed a budget for 2010 including a bonded allocation for 2.1 million dollars to repair the Estabrook Dam on the Milwaukee River. Bonded so that our children can pay for our stupidity.

They did not debate the issue, nor did they fully weigh the county’s own workgroup report. They just included it in a budget. Sneaky!

County Executive Walker vetoed the amendment, but was over-ridden. He wrote “The future of the Estabrook dam is a difficult policy decision that the County Board will have to address. This is a decision that should be made through an appropriate process of public hearings and committee discussion and not through an amendment adopted at a late-night budget meeting”

Good for him.

Of course, the county’s own workgroup estimated repairs as costing between 7.7 and 12 million. What the 2 million is being allocated for is a mystery. Band-aids? Discount Dam Repair Inc.?

It seems as though the County Board is either unwilling to actually weigh the issues and make an informed decision, or is running from the issue.

Hydroelectric study, $5000.00 to repair a stoplog structure, and now an allocation of money that is badly needed elsewhere in the county to address needed infrastructure maintenance. Workers are losing their jobs. Positions are being cut. Our parks are falling apart. We are constantly being told, “There is no money.”

Yet the County Board can waste badly needed dollars on only partial solutions. Dollars that if actually used, may be wasted if insufficient to address the DNR orders for repair and upgrade.

All so that we can keep our historic recreational dam, and the silty impoundment it creates.

We are just not that bright…

The Magic Bean Factor

In our journey as fly anglers, we progress through many stages. At one point or another, many of us fall for the magic bean factor. I define this as a search for a short-cut, usually in equipment, which will give us an advantage or substitute for a lack of skill. The magic bean factor is what often sells expensive high-end fly rods to novices. By purchasing that wonder-rod that costs more than a mortgage payment, we may be able to reach further, be more accurate, or become a better angler.

In some cases where necessary skill-sets and foundations have already been developed, buying that wonder-rod or reel may actually step up our performance. However, in many cases the money may be wasted. Thousands of golfers spend millions of dollars every year buying the very set of clubs that Tiger Woods is using, in hope that they can hit the ball farther or more accurately. In essence, they are attempting to buy a skill advantage.

Often it does not work. I see anglers all the time that have very excellent equipment, and cannot use it. I was and am still guilty of this myself. Some rods I fell out of love with, only to pick them up years later when my skills had matured, and then fell back in love with the rod. The equipment does not make the angler; the angler makes the equipment.

In simplified terms, it is the skill of the angler in conjunction with carefully chosen equipment for the situation that produces the best results. No short-cuts to the top.

When we get frustrated with something in our casting, we must ask the question “Is it me or the limitations of the rod/reel/line?” I would argue that in the majority of cases it is us. Equipment has come a long way in the past two decades. Although there are a few truly bad rods and lines out there, most manufacturers produce fine tackle. They could not stay in business in an increasingly competitive industry if they made junk. Chances are that any modern rod that we own today would cast circles around the rods that anglers such as Walt Johnson, Lee Wulff, Wes Drain, Earnest Schweibert, or Lefty Kreh used back in the day.

A good way to find out what your rod and line are capable of is to hand it to a good caster. Sometimes it is so humbling to watch as he or she tosses out a perfect cast. Harold Blaisdell wrote about his meeting with Wes Jordan in The Philosophical Fisherman. He was humbled to watch Wes pop out hundred foot casts with a small cane rod, while he reached a certain distance and then turned the loop into wild noodles. He discovered his limitations vs. the limitations of the equipment he was using.

This is not to say that one should not go out there and buy the best equipment he or she can afford. By all means, do so. However, if the equipment upgrade is intended to solve issues best worked out through time on the river or in practice, we have the magic-bean factor at work. The equipment will never make us better anglers, only we can do this.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Beat rotation fishing, Midwest style

Beat rotation fishing, Midwest style

Nearly everywhere in the world of Atlantic Salmon and Steelhead fly fishing a system of angler movement and ethics is used which allows multiple anglers to fish the same run, beat, or pool. Everyone gets the same fair chance.

The system is simple.

The first angler in the run casts until he or she has worked out enough line to cover the run. Then they take one to three steps downstream after each cast depending on the conditions. The anglers following wait until the person before them is comfortably down the run and then start in themselves. If someone catches a fish, they move to the back of the line to allow someone else a chance or move on to the next beat. This effectively forms a sort of conga-line in the run. It works for fly-fishing and gear as well as long as everyone progresses down the run. Everyone gets to have fun and cover the water. Under no circumstances should somebody enter the water in front of somebody else. That effectively torpedoes the whole concept and is called low-holing. If one is unsure what someone else is doing or where they can get in the run, they ask the angler in the water. Asking usually prevents incidents of misunderstanding.

Boy do I wish that this would catch on here in the Great Lakes, but alas, it never does except with a few enlightened souls.

Instead, here in the Midwest we seem to have a separate set of rules. Here anglers behave like the players in an old electric football game. They wander in aimless directions, one goes to the left, one to the right, one spins in circles, while the fourth one falls down.

Here are the rules as I see them practiced:

1. If you do get into a run, you are one lucky boy! Under no circumstances should you move. Cast from the same position in all directions. If you wait long enough, a fish might swim through the run and eat your fly or bait/lure.

2. If the approach you are using does not prove effective, under no circumstances change what you are doing. Keep it up and sooner or later you will either catch a steelhead or die, whichever comes first…

3. If someone is in a run, under no circumstances talk to them or look at them. Just proceed below them to their casting distance and low-hole them. They will get the point sooner or later that the entire river belongs to you.

4. If you are fishing with spawn, make absolutely certain to tell everyone how many fish you have caught.

5. If you see someone about to enter an otherwise empty piece of water, run down the bank and jump in the water before they get there. Remember the spoils belong to the bold and greedy.

6. If you are fishing from the bank with spinning gear, make sure that you cut off anybody wading from any good fish holding water.

7. If you are new to fishing with a two-hander and are having trouble casting, just stay in the run and practice your casting without moving. Since you have no chance, neither should anybody else.

8. If you are wading below a nice piece of holding water or a run and want to fish it, do not get out of the water to walk up to the run on the bank or a path. Instead, splash your way stumbling upstream through the heart of the run. This should stir the fish up and put them in a biting mood.

Or, as an alternative, how about adopting a simple rule…?

“Treat others as you yourself would wish to be treated.”

I saw a guy with a spey rod fishing a run the other day. I fished through two runs above him, then one run below him. He had not moved. Not one single step. I left for another part of the river in frustration. My friend Rick was arriving as I left and I told him about the anchoring angler. Rick fished through a couple runs himself and still the guy had not moved. He was there for three hours. Later I saw him walking out of the water. For a second I wondered if it was the same guy because earlier in the day he was a young dude in his 20s, while the octogenarian before me sported a long beard, a bent back, and was having trouble walking. Then I noticed his hat. Same guy. He had spent so much time in the run that he had grown old. (O.K., so I made that last part up.)

Here are some very well thought out rules of the river courtesy of Poppy at the Redshed flyshop. If we all practiced them, then we would all have a better experience on the river.
















Friday, November 27, 2009

Experiments with the floating line in the Midwest in fall/winter

Experiments with the floating line in the Midwest in fall/winter

This fall I have tried to commit as much as possible to swinging a floating line and classic flies on the Milwaukee River for steelhead. It was and is a very interesting learning experience for me. Discoveries were made every day. Some things I took more or less for granted began to be questioned, while other prejudices were erased. I fish a floating line in the PNW for summer-run steelhead quite a bit, but most always fished a sink-tip back here. I did fish with a floating line from time to time over the years on my home water, but always succumbed to a lacking in confidence before long.

Here is a summary of what I have learned thus far:


Fishing with the floating line and classic flies does work, but not in all conditions. Higher and dirtier water is the enemy of the dry line. Some runs with slower water can still be fished during higher water. Temperatures are important, but not as limiting as many people suggest. I hooked fish in 39-degree water. As the temperature decreases, so do the avid rising characteristics of the steelhead. Water temps above 38 degrees, and I am still in the game. As the water clears and drops the fish tend to become quite ‘grabby’. Fish that have been in the river for a while tend to be less aggressive risers to the fly. Often daylight is a killer when the water is clear and low. I did best when light was off the water.


The amount of fishing pressure definitely mattered when using a floating line. Our river is just too small to allow dozens of anglers to flog a run. If I got a chance to fish a run that had not been pressured then I seemed to have greater luck than if I got into a run after it had been frothed to death. That is not to say that I could not follow anyone through a run. If the person going through ahead of me fished like a heron and cast cleanly, then I had all the confidence in the world. However, If the person was using 20 feet of T-14 and couldn’t cast, was hung on the bottom all the time, had to wade through the run to free their fly, repeatedly made failed cast after cast, or chucked gear all over the run and was not delicate, then I think sink-tips would help to place a fly in front of a harassed and dour fish. Fellow anglers fished through pressured water with big flies with movement and light sink tips and still picked up fish while I did not.


I found that classic flies do work, but that I had to fish larger irons such as 1.5 AJ hooks or 1/0 7999 Tiemcos than I do out west. I also found that flies with some flash such as a mylar body seem to have more fish-calling power. The interesting thing about fishing irons is that they actually achieve depth far faster if lightly dressed than do string leeches, intruders, etc. What they do lack is movement in slow water. For some reason our steelhead often hang out in unlikely places with little flow. Here flies with movement such as rabbit strip or marabou flies fished by most anglers here seemed to work better. In faster water the classic flies performed fine. I found that light wire hooks seemed to penetrate the fish’s jaw better than heavy wire hooks when fish took in slow water.

Our Steelhead vs. PNW steelhead:

Although our fish generally behave the same as steelhead in the PNW, they do not go through the trauma of moving from saltwater to freshwater. Because of this, they continue to actively feed in the river and key in on what Kevin Feenstra and Dave Pinczkowski call “Meat” or “Protein.” They often prefer baitfish or sculpin imitations, and there is definite merit to this theory. As stated before, our fish tend to hang out in downright strange and counter-intuitive places in the river compared to western fish. I was often rather baffled by this until I realized that micro-structure in the form of an imperceptible log or boulder on the bottom or a tiny change in current speed or direction seemed to provide them with comfort. Above all, in the low clear water conditions, the depth of water seemed to be key.

One interesting discovery, which was totally contrary to what I had believed before, was that lake-run brown trout could be caught on swung flies with the dry line. I always did best with browns when I used big flies near the bottom, but I did catch two browns on classic flies that were fished just beneath the surface. Strange…

The swing:

Swinging flies with a dry line and trying to gain depth and have my fly in the fishy zone was very challenging and a rewarding learning process. Timing mends and planning ahead were important. I found that the majority of my fish took on a greased-line presentation. Here the fly is presented as close to broadside as possible to present the full profile to the fish. The takes were different too. I rarely get a fish to boil on the surface when grabbing my fly if I am using a sink tip, but many of the fish I did get managed to erupt in the water.

There were some runs where fishing the floating line simply put me out of the game. In one run that I fished 10 times without a pull, I studied what was happening with the fly. A fast and narrow chute of water is bordered on both sides by back-eddies. Trees line the run overhead, and downed trees line the shore where one must cast. Screw up and you lose the fly. Cast too short and you are not even in the holding water. I had to cast between branches and place my fly into the shore back-eddy. The fly sank, but then the faster surface currents in the central chute badly bellied the line, and the fly went racing downstream. No matter how I tried, I could not manage to mend the line in order to allow the fly to sink and swing slowly enough. A put on a sink-tip and voila, I immediately caught a steelhead. So, some of our little ditches of runs are best fished without a floating line. In these same areas, one could use a spinning rod to even better effect.


I did consistently catch fish, but did not catch as many as other fishermen of the same skill level. Several days I got skunked completely. I had to limit myself to less water and steelhead that would freely rise to the fly. This can be a lonely path to walk when guys stroll past and without introduction, tell you that they caught 6 or seven fish to your one or none. However, every fish I did catch was a memory and discovery. Once I fished all day without result until at last light, I hit a nice fat arlee in a boulder strewn tailout. I landed the fish, smelled the fly, and walked off the river whistling a tune. I kind of prefer it that way sometimes.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Kaboom! fizzle... clunk...

Sorry for the recent lack of activity. My computer joined the waders, camera, watch, two rods, the car's starter and all the other crap that died this year. But, now I am up and running again. If any readers want to contribute topics to be explored, leave them in the comments section of this post.

Cheers, Erik Helm
With a faster computer and a slimmer wallet.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The most important thing to possess on the river

The most important thing to possess on the river

Fly rod? Reel? New shooting line? That new gadget?
Just simple curiosity.

Curiosity is a major driving force behind our journey as anglers. The angler that is not curious will stop prying under rocks and exploring. He or she is at a dead-end.
The curious angler, whatever his or her skill level, will continue to enjoy the little experiences of discovery and learning that make time on the water so absorbing and rewarding.

What is around the next corner? What if I bend down one wing on this fly? How can I get a clean drift into that back-eddy? How large or small a fly do I have to use? Will lake-run brown trout rise to a wet fly fished on a floating line? What is in this book?

Curiosity is what makes us open all the doors of life that hold the little gems of discovery.
It is why many of us took up fly-fishing in the first place. It is what drove us as children to explore creeks and ponds with a cane pole and bobber, and pry into gopher holes with a stick.
Let’s cross the river and fish from the other side…

Friday, November 6, 2009

Doing it the hard way

Doing it the hard way:
No short cuts except for the rich and famous.

In reflecting on the process we all go through as we become better anglers, I have come to the conclusion that the journey itself, with all of its successes, defeats, and frustrations makes the angler what he or she is. It is hard work. We all can think back and recall with shudders all of the myriad errors we made. We waded over fish, blew strikes, struck the wrong way, botched the landing, tied bad knots, chose the wrong fly or incorrect hook, tied dry flies that sank and wet flies that floated. We fell in the river, cast to the wrong water, misread the water, used improper or bad tackle, dunked our camera, broke a few rods, tumbled down a canyon, got buzzed by rattlesnakes, and even caught a few fish if we were paying so little attention that when the fish struck we were distracted enough not to botch it.

These memories are precious, and the process in which we realized we had goofed up and then learned and grew is the food that drives our journey. It should not be cut short.

Not all learning has to occur through mistakes. There are a plethora of good books and videos explaining the how-to’s.  Classes can be taken, lectures attended, or friends advise sought. In the end though, it is we alone with our own thoughts and with our own two feet that make the journey. Thinking and learning…

However, if you happen to be rich or famous, then it gets a lot easier.

If you happen to be rich, famous, or in some cases, just a good-looking young woman in the sport of fly-fishing, you can buy or be offered short cuts. We all know the rich angler who without the proper skill-set, buys himself a trip to the Dean River, and pays a guide to get him into the fish of a lifetime. The guide has to work hard at it too, since the guy can’t cast his top of the line rod and reel more than 30 feet. That guide is given gear by tackle companies for next to nothing, and gets his or her face on the cover of magazines that take advertising from the very lodges and outfitters they work for. Pictures on their blog abound with lobster dinners, piles of the most expensive tackle, and porn-shots of fish and locations most of us can only dream about. Some of these famous industry guides and tackle reps get free admittance to closed waters in storied locations because it helps to sell more bookings. The fish become a commodity.  The price of fame.

The rich man buys the fish.
The guide pimps it.
The tackle manufacturers collect the cash.

Meanwhile, most of us will never be flown to Atlantic Salmon rivers by film production companies. We won’t stay in expensive lodges, nor be guided directly to the fish. Instead, we will sleep at rest-stops, eat convenience-store chili-dogs, scrape another year out of leaky waders, and have to make all our memories the hard way through long hours on the water. I think it is better that way.

Not all guides, wealthy individuals or famous anglers do this. Fact is, it is the minority in search of fame or fortune that often stand out through self-promotion.

However, if you do happen to become a famous guide, please don’t put your logo on underwear and sell it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Some new and old flies.

Some new and old flies.

Here are some of the flies I have been using with the floating line in the Midwest when conditions allow.
Clockwise from top.

Lord Byron:
This fly originated due to the desire to create a fly that had flash and calling power without being too bright or gaudy. After I tied it I recalled a line from George Gordon - Lord Byron’s She walks in beauty
“And all that’s best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes…”

This has become a go-to fly in low clear water

Hook:    AJ size 3
Rear 2/3 of body is gold mylar ribbed with small oval gold tinsel. Gold tag at butt.
Front quarter is peacock SLF.
Hackle is dyed red gold pheasant, and the wing is black bear.

Orange Racer:
This fly originated in 2003. It headlined a TV segment I did on steelhead flies. I put it away for a few years, and would take it out once or twice to look at. Then this spring I actually fished it. It swam and tracked well in the water, and pulsed with life. Its extreme taper towards the front gave it its name. Credit must be given to John Shewey, as the fly was inspired by his golden greed.

Hook AJ 3/0
Rear half is fine oval gold tinsel wrapped tightly forward. Front half is hot orange angora wool and hot orange SLF blended and twisted into a dubbing loop.
Hackle is orange schlappen. Collar is of long dyed orange teal flank and orange dyed guinea fowl.
Wing is goose. Orange over crimson, reversed and tented.
Head is red.

Gold Demon: Traditional
Note: LOVE this fly.

Black Racer: A takeoff on the orange racer in black. Body is peacock slf and black angora this time.
Gadwall tied in as a loose throat completes the fly.

Unnamed black fly:
A fishable fly with the contours of a racer, but with less labor and materials. Good in low flows as well.

So far I have been lucky that none of these have gotten snagged in the back of a zombie salmon. If they ever do, I guess I will be going for a ride.

Also, please forgive the photography. I got a new camera (Waterproof this time) and am just learning its ins and outs. It also survives being dropped. Wish I could say that about myself!

Fishing, thinking, observing, and the sporting tradition.

Fishing, thinking, observing, and the sporting tradition.

In reviewing some of my fly-fishing writing, I find that much of it has been devoted to observation and thinking; analyzing what we do and our approach to this sport we so love.

I believe that thinking is part of what separates fly anglers from the madding crowds. The river consists of intricate puzzles to be solved, and by intent, we restrict ourselves to tackle which places restraint on our numbers. Observing, analyzing and reflection to me are the greatest part of fly-fishing. Experimenting with a new technique such as nymphing with an un-weighted nymph and no indicator can produce all sorts of discoveries (and frustrations). These discoveries and our ability to solve the puzzles create the foundation blocks of a good angler. The more varied the experiences we tack up, the more we have to weigh when sitting by the river and thinking over a puzzle. It gives us precedent.

Imagine a world in which an angler always fishes the same way in the same place and with the same technique. He or she enjoys some success, but has no other experience to measure or weigh it against. He or she would be incapable of solving puzzles on other waters simply because they have limited their experiences and therefore limited their critical thinking as well. I imagine that most of us would find it boring to do the same thing the same way all of the time, but yet so many of us do just that.

Thinking and problem solving allow a greater access to experiences as well. I would argue that the combination of restraint and thinking has always been countered by new technologies. Bead head flies, shooting heads, sinking lines, etc. are all great innovations, but also allow us to catch fish easier. That ease may in time start to decay our thinking skills as we allow the gear to solve the challenges we face.

A perfect example of this is the BASS circuit. Radar, sonar, water clarity readers which indicate which colors to use, crank-baits with LED lights and rattles… in essence everything humanly or technologically possible to give someone an advantage. Or take the center-pin angler with roe. The person really is taken out of the experience. Once one learns to select bobbers and arrange split-shot, there is just lobbing the rig into the river. It is the essence of simplicity and the antithesis of restraint. Little thinking is required at all any longer.

Our sport is supposed to be the opposite of that. Restraint in tackle and technique also means restraint in numbers. Although fly anglers may classify themselves as non-competitive, we increasingly adapt technologies and techniques to allow us to catch fish where we could not have caught them before. Is this wrong? No, not necessarily, but if we really are non-competitive, why show an increasing lack of restraint?

Fish catching is the measure of our success, and that is tied in with our ego whether we admit it or not. It is just a simple fact. When we begin to think of ourselves as ‘good anglers’, we often equate the maturation process with numbers of fish landed.

Putting away the technological advantages may allow us to get back to that essence of angling: the puzzle and how to solve it. We may have to use our brains instead of that new gadget that is being touted by the guy with the big fish on the magazine cover, but in that return to our essence, and the return of observing, thinking, and problem solving, we may become better anglers in the long run.

However, this is the age of instant gratification, and thinking out a problem and solving it on our own may be as much as an anachronism as a double-taper line. The Internet provided the vehicle through which the rivers could be whored out faster and new improvements in tackle brought to the market quicker. Most people who browse the web have about a thirty second attention span, and I think that may equate with the lack of patience that is required to solve a puzzle on the river with just oneself and a rod and a line. Thus, a lack of thinking results.

We all measure things by degrees. I am a dry-fly fisherman only, I use cane only, I nymph, but NEVER use an indicator, etc. There is no correct way nor any right or wrong in the way we approach the little problem of how to make Mr. Fish take or presentation, but when technology takes the place of thinking, it is a slippery slope to walk. Competition should occur with ourselves and the fish, not other anglers.

Thinking, observing, and the resulting learning are also very joyful processes. Yes, you did read that right, learning can be fun!

I have written that the essence of the sporting tradition lies with restraint. Now I would add that the resulting problem-solving and skills that have to be developed in order for us to bag our game make us the sportsmen and women that we are.

I think, therefore I fish.

Enjoy the whole journey. Miss nothing. Think, savor, and learn.