Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Og factor

If you have not yet met my friend Og, a little introduction is in order. Og is a Neanderthal that I discovered is living in my basement. He is harmless, but not too bright. He takes an interest in my doings, so I sometimes take him to local parks and short fishing outings.

I have to be careful, because as dim as Og is, he more than makes up in strength and energy. He is apt to leap into the water and kill zombie salmon with his bare hands, or turn tackle into abstract sculpture by accident. He always is sorry afterwards.

Og has been pestering me to go fly-fishing for steelhead with a two-handed rod for several months now. I hesitate to do this for many reasons. Then, the other day, I found a cheap two-handed rod at a sporting goods store for $20.00. I figured “Why not?” I fitted it with a cheap spare reel and an old line, and invited Og to accompany me to the river.

He is quite excited as we walk down the path to the water. “Stop jumping up and down, Og, you’re making me dizzy!”

“Og fish! Og cast good! Og splay cast!”

“Actually it is ‘spey’… never mind. Stop swinging from that power line and come down here Og.”

“Og fish good!”

“Right, but first I need to teach you how to cast a two-handed rod. It is not about strength, Og, but involves a bit of finesse. O.K. Now take the rod like this, swing it around so, and then sort of pull and push with your arms, and cast it out. I am starting you out with a floating line for now.”

“Fromoting rine good! Where fish?”

“They are in the river, Og. Just make a short cast.”

Og tries for the next half-hour to make even a single cast. He manages to wrap the line around his head, hook me in the ear, and fall down several times.

“Og mad! Og kill”

Og manages to see a squirrel and chase it into the woods. When he returns a few moments later, he has fur all over his face and a tail sticking out of his mouth.

“Feel better Og?”

“Og frustrated. Splay cast hard. Shoulder hurt. Squirrel taste funny.”

“Maybe you should not eat raw squirrels that… oh never mind. Look, Og, your shoulder hurts because you are trying too hard. Lets start you off with this spinning rod instead.”

“Og spin good!”

Og manages to create a bird’s nest of line, and fall into the river.

“What Og do wrong?”

“Hmmm, I expect we might just try this cane pole and a bobber for now.”

“Og bobber good!”

Og manages a sort of flop cast that ends up in bouncing the bobber off of his head. In frustration, he eats the bobber.

“Og bobber crunchy!”

Yes, well….

To make a long story short, I was never able to teach Og to cast that day. We returned home instead, and Og returned to his corner in the basement.

I had tried a fly-rod, a spinning rod, and a cane pole, all to no avail. What type of rod and line would enable Og to make even a basic efficient cast, I wondered?

Then it hit me. Og was sort of human. Could it be possible that he was limited by his lack of skill? Was it possible that it was not about the rod, line, or style of fishing at all, but instead stem from Og’s lack of practice? After all, I remember hitting myself, hooking myself, and falling in the water too. Perhaps Og was human after all?

The Og factor… the human factor. The 99% slice of the mastery pie. It seems that this is always the last thing to be examined. Instead, we attempt to compensate for our lack of skill through adoption of ‘more efficient’ tackle and styles instead of realizing that as Og Shakespeare found, “The fault lies in ourselves, not in our squirrels.”

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Love and Beauty vs. The maniac and the narcissist

As part of an essay examining the sport of fly-fishing, I wrote the following…

“Trout live in beautiful places, as do other fish we fly anglers pursue. Nature is simplicity and a force. We try to capture the essence of nature and the natural world in art and music, the smells and sounds in poetry. Nature and its language and silence are part of each of us. It is where we came from. To practice a quiet sport among such beautiful and diverse surroundings as mountain streams, big freestone rivers, and northern forest brooks is a privilege and our worship at our temple. Nature’s spiritualism is a large part of fly-fishing. At the end of the day, we are as likely to lock into memory the moment the sun burned off the mists on the river at dawn, as the fish we caught. This attention to the aesthetic qualities of nature leads us to care about our treasured places, and to become concerned with the forces that threaten them. There are few true fly anglers that are not closet tree-huggers, if not outright members of conservation organizations. We care because we love, and we love because of beauty. We are connected to the natural world by the footprints we leave and the loops we make.”

This is how it should be, but instead there seems to be a growing number of anglers that
worship themselves instead of nature; the maniac or the narcissistic fly-fisherman.

I take the term maniac from the excellent introduction written by Thomas McGuane for his book The Longest Silence.

Here it is:

"The sport of angling used to be a genteel business, at least in the world of ideals, a world of ladies and gentlemen. These have been replaced by a new set of paradigms: the bum, the addict, and the maniac. I'm afraid that this says much about the times we live in. The fisherman now is one who defies society, who rips lips, who drains the pool, who takes no prisoners, who is not to be confused with the sissy with the creel and the bamboo rod. Granted, he releases that which he catches, but in some cases, he strips the quarry of its perilous soul before tossing it back in the water. What was once a trout-- cold, hard, spotted, and beautiful--becomes "number seven."

I am seeing an increasing amount of this these days.

What I was trying to say in that first quote was that by appreciating the inherent beauty in nature, we grow to love it. In loving, we begin to care, to respect, and to conserve.

We worship at the temple of nature. The maniac does not care or respect, therefore the maniac does not love. He instead copulates in nature for only his own benefit and then discards the corpse. The rivers are whored out until they are no longer capable of giving a thrill. Then the maniacs move on to a new river, bragging about the number of their conquests. The whored-out river is left hollow and forgotten: unloved and used up.
You can easily tell who these people are because they are often the loudest voices out there.

The maniac is not completely oblivious. He often cloaks himself in at least a touch of environmental concern, but really cares more about becoming a rock-star than working to support the rivers. Narcissism. Love turned inward to oneself instead of outward towards nature.

The maniac is incapable of fishing alone. His friends and worshipers must accompany him at all times. Silence is his enemy. He must have his ego constantly stroked. He is relentlessly pushing the ‘F5’ key of life. The maniac lives for the moment. Neither the future nor the past exists to him. “Look at me!” he shouts.

The maniac is the opposite of the purist. In his world ‘easiest and most efficient’ often equate ‘best.’ Whatever technique gives him pleasure the fastest.

The maniac is always measuring his angling. He measures himself against others. The fish get measured and counted as well; how many, how far, and how long replace the aesthetic experience. After all, it has been said that a man without a soul cannot understand aesthetics and beauty. The maniac is nothing if not a soulless machine with a large mirror to peer into. Appreciation is limited to that mirror’s surface. There is no depth - a stark hedonistic two-dimensional world.

You will never find a maniac sitting beside a river, looking at birds, listening to the trickle of water speaking poetry. No, they are too busy running to get to the next spot. ‘The rolling stone gathers no moss’ they will tell you.

The maniac is a dead-end. He may burn out before or after the last fish is killed or suffocates in the stream. I hope for all our sakes it is the former. You will know of his passing by his rare silence.

Monday, December 28, 2009

How to dress for Steelhead and Atlantic Salmon fishing

The other day I was re-reading a history of my hometown when I came across a photo from the early 1900s. It showed a dozen or so men and boys fishing in Lake Michigan off of a pier. They were using long cane poles and bait. Each was dressed in a shirt and tie and a bowler hat. Not a sport shirt in the crowd. That set me thinking about the sport of fishing and dress in general.

Now I am known as something of an oddball. I am one of the last people of my age to actually study classic English dress, and often enter the river sporting one of a multitude of Irish hats, or British cloth caps. Flyfishing, like all other sports these days, has its own couture. Trout fishers have the Lee Wulff vest, the ubiquitous ball cap, the necessary or unnecessary do-dads and accessories attached to zingers, and the little net hanging from the back. Want to be a trout fisherman? Then one had better look like one.

At least this is better than the NASCAR/BASS circuit, where participants become walking advertisement space; billboards to commercialism.

After a long string of emails with a colleague concerning proper traditional dress for Salmon fishing in the UK, I began to think of the differences between the aristocratic and exclusive nature of Salmon fishing, and the rather proletarian nature of Steelhead fishing.

Atlantic Salmon are the nobility of fish. In general, one also needs to be a nobleman or at least wealthy to enjoy good Salmon fishing. Private associations, clubs, and districts own the rivers, with some less quality water being set aside as public. In Scotland, Salmon fishing was divided by class. The upper classes (nobility, peers, wealthy industrialists, etc.) leased the fishing from the crown, while the estuaries were reserved for the lower class tackmen that pulled nets behind boats. Water bailiffs made certain that Joe lunchbox never poached the river itself.

North American Steelhead in contrast is the poor-man’s Salmon.

Rivers are free and belonged to the public in many cases. Licenses are inexpensive, and everyone can participate in the sport. Sort of egalitarian fishing. (As long as there are fish left…)

The way we dress for the two sports and their complete contrast struck me as fodder for a little humor. So here is my tongue-in-cheek guide to dressing to fish for the respective species.

Atlantic Salmon:

Go to a high end sporting clothing retailer specializing in wing shooting.

Purchase a Barbour Bordor waxed cotton jacket for $399.00. Add a suit consisting of matching tweed breeks, vest and jacket. Partner that with several tattersall shirts. Should run between $899.00 to $1,200.00 Accessorize with leather-lined Wellingtons for $430.00, and a Harris Tweed cap for $50.00 Woolen knit or silk regimental tie will cost about $30.00.

You should look quite sporting while in the bothy, or seated at the dinner table sipping a fine merlot.


Go to garage. Locate old hooded sweatshirt you use when you work on the car. You know… the one with the hole in it caused when it got tangled in the torque-wrench; the one bearing a large oil-stain. Tear off the sleeves. Wear this over a piece of capiline so old that you can see through it. Add either a ball cap obtained from a Nebraska farmer, or a knit hat with holes. Spend $499.99 on sunglasses. Find abandoned gloves behind dumpster. Cut off fingers. This will cost nothing, and provide for a good conversation piece, as well as keeping your hands warm. Spend $479.00 on Simms jacket. Use sleeves torn off old sweatshirt as socks.

You should look quite sporting while passed out in your car, or seated at a picnic table eating a gas-station chili-dog.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Grounding and progression

Grounding and progression

“Why the ‘Classic Angler?’” I pondered the other evening. I began writing essays under the moniker “The Classical Angler,” or “The Classic Angler” when I was forced to come up with a domain name for my internet writing ventures. I considered the name for a few seconds, and then ended up committed to it. I still don’t know why I chose it. However, in these recent evening musings and daydreams, I think I put my fingers around it.

I guess to me this refers to the fine arts: Music, literature, architecture, visual art, etc. Its connotation is a little less direct, and here lies the majority of thought and substance: A dedication to fundamental principles and roots, an emersion in study and examination, technique and theory. It also refers to tradition, but that is another essay altogether.

Lost yet? I am.

Allow me to map out my train of thought. The map is drawn on an old used cocktail napkin, so forgive me for straying or getting lost.

Classical music is structurally the most advanced and involved form of music. Take the counterpoint of Bach, or the building development of a Beethoven symphony, one cannot but listen critically. It is also difficult to learn. Many of today’s most popular musicians have roots in classical music. It teaches technique. This is why my father practiced the piano incessantly, and why, when advising a talented young jazz bassist, Dad encouraged him to attend the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and study classical as well as Jazz. It was good advice as it turns out. Once the technique, theory, and structure are understood and mastered, one can branch out and create or interpret.

It was the same with my mother’s painting. She studied technique incessantly both at the old Layton School of Art, as well as on her own, often hauling home armloads of books on the great European masters every week. She learned to mix her own mediums and colors from scratch. People often wondered how she was able to paint and sketch in so many diverse styles and wander from somber to exuberant moods in landscapes. The answer was that she spent years building a foundation.

Perhaps the discipline of that foundation is the main road I am trying to find…

This can be applied to all of life, as well as fly-fishing: learning to walk before trying to run, or studying the elements of a discipline as Marcus Aurelius would.

If you have followed some of my writings, you would know that tend to over think things, and am often guilty of a lack of discipline that allows me, for example, to attempt to tie Atlantic Salmon married wing flies before I know how to place the thread on the hook. My path is not always an even one.

We all tend to want to receive five minutes of instruction or study in the underlying foundations and elements of a discipline, and then go forth and conquer the world. Impatience? Perhaps.

In the movie Shine, the young David Helfgott is taken to his first professional piano teacher by his father, who instructs him to teach young David how to play Rachmaninoffs notoriously brutal 3rd piano concerto; a piece so devilish that it is known as “The mountain.”

The teacher instead grounds the pupil in Mozart.

I made the same mistake. The first major writing I did was to produce a 300-page memoir. This ambitious project took a full year, but since I had not yet learned to properly use language, it is requiring laborious and tedious editing. Instead, I should have first concentrated on short works. Study, learn, and then build on the foundation and progress.

Some people fumble around in mediocrity for a while, and then, concluding that they are stuck there, return to the roots and begin to study and practice the essential basics. Most people though, refuse to return to the beginning to learn.

In fly-fishing, I can find no better example of this than casting.

Casting is the one thing we anglers can actually control. We can’t make the fish bite, control the water temperature, clarity, or height, or calm the wind, but we can be prepared for anything our fishing outing throws at us by practicing the elements of proper casting.

One of the most common things I see on streams, lakes, and rivers is frustration caused by an inability to make the proper cast needed. This could be a wind-defeating double haul across the river to deliver a popper under a tree limb, or it could be a delicate ten-foot cast in a crystal clear and tiny stream with overhanging branches and spooky trout.

Yet, as I teach private and group casting lessons, or observe anglers on the water, I see the same persons making the same mistakes and exhibiting frustration. It is the rare person that, after struggling for a while, goes back to basics and solves his or her issues.

Its funny, golfers will spend hours at the putting green and driving range in order to look less like a buffoon in front of their boss at the annual company outing, but the same person will make a trip to the Henry’s Fork without the ability to mend line or roll-cast.

I don’t know why this is, but it seems universal.

Where was I? Ah, here I am on the right edge of the cocktail napkin next to the gravy stain and just short of the place marked ‘X.’

I guess it is my personal philosophy that in order to understand things one has to dismantle them, isolate the essential structures, and ground oneself in the fundamental underlying elements of technique that together make up the discipline or activity.

If you will, a classical approach.

If I had to create a moniker a second time, I might go with “The philosophical fool.”

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

(Mis) adventures with fur and feathers

Top: Hmm...
Middle: Um...
Bottom: A wee bit better

When I began fly-fishing, it was inevitable that I try my hand at fly tying. It was not just the creative aspect that drove my decision, but the fact that I am notoriously cheap. Store-bought flies were expensive, and it seemed that I could save money by creating my own patterns. It also might have been some sort of karmic fate or curse. I am still kind of divided on this. At least being a fly-tier has given me an excuse to be enigmatic, as in “Don’t talk to Erik over there, he is kind of weird. You know…he ties his own fishing lures…”

Every journey begins with a single step. In my case, I tripped and fell into the river.

To begin with, I did not have a vise. I also had no proper materials. I used old yarn and cotton sewing thread and attached them to inappropriate odd hooks using my hands. I wanted them to look like the few flies pictured in my book The Big Book of Fishing, which must have been tied by the three-year-old daughter of the publisher. Mine were not even that good. For some reason, I failed to grasp the simple concept that the thread belonged under the materials. My first flies looked like something the cat choked up.

I fished with them anyway, but was puzzled when, after a dozen casts, all the materials fell off. It didn’t matter though, any fish retarded enough to give my tying abominations a second glance, would be just as likely to eat a bare hook. I added glue in an attempt to secure the materials better. I lacked head-cement, so I used five-minute epoxy. This solved the problem, however the flies now lacked any motion at all, being entirely stiff with glue.

Then one Christmas, I received a vise and toolset. Santa must have a sense of humor. Either that or he’s a sadist.

I began the process of acquiring some actual fly hooks and inexpensive materials. What I should have done at this point was visit a fly shop and buy a book. Instead, I went to a craft store and a shop that sells lure-making supplies. I bought colorful craft yarn, plastic pony beads, ostrich herl, a package of various feathers intended to decorate masks, some hackle, three thousand yards of black chenille on sale, peacock herl, brass wire, and a single spool of tying thread. To this I added several packages of Mustad hooks. I returned home with excitement, brewed up a pot of coffee, put on some Bach, and arranged all my various acquisitions and the vise on the dining room table.

The first step in this gloriously creative day was to place the hook in the vise. This was far more difficult then it looked. The vise was one of those Indian import jobs, based very loosely on a Thompson classic (or perhaps on a Medieval thumbscrew). It sported an adjustment handle in the rear and a screw knob that one turned in order to, in theory, hold a hook securely. All I really required of the vise was to hold the hook. It did even that poorly. After a few minutes of fiddling, adjusting, pricking myself with the hook, more fiddling, and a good amount of freeform cursing, the hook sat in the jaws of the vise. It stayed put as long as I didn’t touch it. As soon as I attempted to wrap it with thread, the hook popped out with a loud “SPRONG!” and flew across the room to be located later by the vacuum cleaner.

Then the cotter pin that held the adjusting lever broke.

Undaunted, I fixed it with a bit of old wire, realizing all the way that one gets what one pays for.

I finally got the thread on the hook. Champagne all around! Then the thread broke for the first of ten thousand times, and I sliced open my fingers on the hook. I noted on the grocery list on the refrigerator that I needed to restock band-aids. The yarn I was using for the body was by now kind of claret colored by blood. I added some peacock herl, wound in a saddle hackle and some tinsel, and ran out of room at the front of the fly. Lesson #1: Don’t crowd the head.

I began to attempt to use the tools that came with the vise. These consisted of a pokey thing, a strange curved springy thing, something with two prongs on it, and some sort of pliers. These tools were obviously designed and made by Pakistani orphans, who had as little idea as I did as to their intended use.

Everything that could go wrong did. Materials that seemed secured mysteriously unwound themselves after the fly was completed. My heads unraveled. I tied in feathers upside down and backwards. I forgot steps. I had a blast.

I persevered and continued tying. Out on the water, I showed off my small collection of flies to others, who politely nodded and smiled. The common consensus was that “Those flies will catch a fish,” which is the stock courteous reply when unable to think of anything positive to say.

One of the first materials I collected were several packages of marabou. These I tied in as a tail. I liked the effect, so I added more colors. The first Wooly Bugger I tied consisted of thirty Marabou blood quills, a whole lot of thread, and a plastic pony bead. It floated.

The only solution to this, as I reasoned it, was to add more materials. More marabou would make the fly heavier, and thus it would sink faster. Right. The resulting monstrosity was nearly impossible to cast. After two or three hours of fishing, the fly became saturated with enough water to allow it to sink. Once it was waterlogged, it weighed around a pound or so, and became impossible to use. Back to the drawing board.

At a local fly shop, I found a giant grab bag of deer, caribou, antelope, and elk hair clippings dyed in wild colors. This collection of floor-sweepings, end-pieces, and mangy fur set me back only eight bucks. Man was I pumped. I had begun to collect some fly-fishing magazines, and was fascinated with what one could do with spun deer hair. Talk about running before learning to walk…

I created, in order, a succession of mutations that could only be appreciated by a person on an acid trip, and a huge mess in my apartment. Wherever I went, deer hair of various colors fell off my clothing. Lacking the proper razor blades, I employed an old pair of dull scissors in trimming my creations to shape. The results looked like a near miss by a hedge-trimmer with the shakes. Several neighborhood bass actually ate the things, proving that bass are just not that bright. Adding to the difficulty of working with the hair was the fact that most of the pieces were in effect unusable, which was something that never occurred to me.

After a few months of tying some Polar Shrimp that looked like rejects from a pre-school craft fair, some Dahlberg Divers that sank backwards, and a set of Double Egg and Sperm flies made from non-colorfast materials that bled into a sort odd pinkish-white mess, I found a picture of a Thunder and Lightning in an English magazine. Aha!

By now the reader may realize that I lacked completely in the needed skills or the proper materials to even think of tying a full-dress salmon fly. Nevertheless, I forged blindly ahead. My motto seemed to be “Enthusiasm will make up for skill.”

All sorts of colorful feathers and furs were used to create this first salmon fly. It actually looked pretty cool, especially compared to the other crimes against nature that emerged from my vise. I proudly gave several of the flies away as Christmas gifts. My father placed his in an Irish hat, which was a bit too much of an honor. (To the fly, not the hat)

Then one day I ran into a strange character in a local flyshop. He had suitcases of flies he tied, all mounted expertly in small plastic boxes. He seemed to be an unlikely candidate for a fly tier. He spoke with a deep hillbilly accent, made wild claims and exaggerations, carried a bowie knife, and smelled like mothballs. I figured that if he could tie nice flies, I could too. Besides, I had one major advantage; my father and mother were not cousins.

Few flies remain from that early era. My wet flies floated, and my dry flies sank. Most were discarded or mercifully lost in trees.

Slowly, my flies began to improve. I broke the thread less often, bought a vise that actually held a hook, purchased quality materials, and began to practice technique.

So, where was I?

Oh right; the original goals of creating pretty flies and saving money. I guess I am mostly successful at the former, but failed miserably at the latter. I expect I am not alone in this. There should be a warning label on fly tying materials and tools.

A couple of other rather unexpected things happened too. The dining room table, and in fact, the entire dining area somehow slowly morphed into a tying area. I never intended this to happen, but one day I walked past the piled-up mess, took a sip of tea, and muttered, “Well, there it is then…”

The second and even more unexpected thing was that I found myself enjoying the creative process and beautiful finished results of tying flies almost as much as I did fishing.

It was a heck of a fun journey.

So, as I type this with an old Lady Caroline embedded in my sock, a piece of tinsel stubbornly caught in my hair, and surrounded by dozens of fly boxes, I can honestly say that it was worth it.

I just need to get a better vacuum cleaner.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Rejuvenation

A short story Copyright 2009, Erik F. Helm

As Richard listened to the speaker from the Fish and Wildlife Department address the room on the subject of PH levels in area streams, he slowly looked around at his fellow club members. Al had melted into his chair, his pipe intermittently disgorging a cloud of smoke. Henry’s head was slowly nodding forward as sleep took his eyes and brain. Cuthbert was picking at his fingernails as always, and Ed was attempting to show he was paying attention by hitting himself between the eyes repeatedly with the eraser on his pencil.

This brought to Richard’s mind the same problem that had been bugging him for the past six months. The fly-fishing club had become stale. Boredom plagued the members. Richard had attempted to encourage new subjects from speakers, had pushed a membership drive in order to infuse new blood, and tried to interest the members in outings to new places, all to no avail. The club seemed to be happy with the status quo, however sleepy it was. Ennui.

Thinking back on the last several meetings and outings, Richard sighed as he recalled Al’s fly-tying seminar. Al was a good tyer, Richard had to admit, but for some reason, Al limited his fishing to three patterns: a pheasant tail-nymph, an elk-hair caddis, and an Adams. He tied them all perfectly, but that is all he tied. Richard had wondered more than once if his constraint in fishing the three patterns had anything to do with the fact that those flies were the only patterns Al had ever learned to tie. He also seemed to recall that at the last tying seminar the club held only three months ago, Al had demonstrated the same three flies.

Then there were Henry’s outings. Usually around half a dozen of the club’s members would take part in a group fishing day on a local stream. This April it had been Muskrat Creek. It was always Muskrat Creek for trout, or Custer Park Pond for bass. The members would begin arriving late in the morning, put in a desultory few hours of fishing, and then retire to a local watering hole where Al would tell them about his three flies, or Peter would talk about the time he almost met Jack Hemmingway.

The outings had originally been intended as mentoring sessions for newer anglers. However, since there had been few new members in the last seven or eight years, the fishing days became more of a day to get away from the wife for a few hours. What few new members there had been mostly faded away within a few meetings, and never returned.

Therefore, as president, that was Richard’s dilemma: how to infuse new energy into the somnambulant angling club.

Last meeting he had booked a local guide who had a slide show on fishing for Atlantic striped bass from shore. One of the club members, Richard could not remember exactly which one, had followed up the presentation by asking the guide how the tactics he described might be applied on Custer Park Pond. Richard had cringed in embarrassment.

The speaker from the Fish and Wildlife Department had finished and departed, and the lights had been turned back up. Chuck, the club secretary and treasurer, was yawning and wiping sleep from his eyes as he began the formal part of the meeting: reading the minutes and taking care of new business, of which there usually was very little indeed.

She walked in carrying an old canvas rod bag in her left hand, her scent and legs preceding her.

The silence was so complete that Richard could hear Al’s pipe clatter to the floor.

“Hi!” she said with a sweet smile revealing a set of perfect teeth and full lips. “Is this the Peterborough Anglers Club?”

It was in the way she said it. There was no hint of shyness, just clarity and confidence. Her name was Ann, and she was spending her summer with an Aunt before returning to Boston to complete her master’s degree.

She was six feet of Boston Brahmin breeding and curves, topped off by long wavy red hair and green eyes. Her purple skirt flowed as she moved to find a chair and settle in. The green cable-knit sweater she wore complemented her perfectly.

Ann was looking to find some fly-fishing nearby, and had brought her grandfather’s seven-foot Payne bamboo rod with her for the summer. She told the club that she fished the Catskill region from time to time, but had not been on a stream for the past three months. Was there any chance of trout fishing nearby?

Richard sat in his car at the pullout of Muskrat Creek and watched with a wry smile as the club members fished. It was seven a.m., and fully two dozen members were in the creek by now, following Ann slowly through the riffles. Henry seemed to have lost his limp, and left his wading staff back in his car. Cuthbert had a new hat, and was wearing it at a jaunty angle. Chuck had broken out his Bogdan reel, something he said he would never do. Richard grinned as he heard Al explaining to a member how to tie a Quill-Gordon as they walked down to the stream.

Even Stash, the oldest member in his late seventies, had a spring in his step, and had finally managed to stop dropping his rod-tip as he cast.

Richard shook his head in laughter as he reflected on all his attempts to rejuvenate the club, only to have the answer walk right through the door in the form of a feminine fountain of youth.

The next three months sure would be fun, he thought aloud as he pulled on his better pair of waders.

How to write a Fly Fishing Article

How to write a Fly Fishing Article

By the Classic Angler (Who can’t get published, so he should know)

Ah, the rejection letter. I just love them.

“Dear Mr. Helm,

After reviewing your manuscripts, we feel that they do not fit with our needs at the present time. Good luck with future writing and please keep ‘Useless Angling Journal’ in mind. You should also consider suicide.”


Bob Flob, Executive Editor


So here in a nutshell is my tongue-in-cheek guide to successful writing for today’s sporting magazines…

Write with a formulaic style: Man vs. Beast, or I went to this exotic place and caught big fish, or this is how I nymphed ‘em up, etc. Make your writing as close to everyone else’s that it is hard to tell the difference.

Under no circumstances should you allow your creative side to take over. Wipe any sentimentality, romance, existentialism, aesthetics, or self-examination out of the article.

Make frequent references to specific products in your article. “I could really cast a mile on the Henry’s Fork using the Sagorviloomiston XTPS 9’ 6 wt. It was balanced perfectly by the Rosovison sylk-drag large arbor 3400 xsr.”

Mention area lodges, businesses, guides, outfitters, restaurants, shuttle-services, etc. by name in the article. This sells advertising.

Make heavy use of pictures. After all, given the choice between words and pictures, pictures win every time.

Keep your articles under 1,500 words. Anything over that and people fall asleep.

Fail to mention that in return for the publishing of the article, you were flown into the exotic location you wrote about and literally molly-coddled into a fish.

Include photos of flies that work. Make certain that they are all commercially available so that advertisers can sponsor the magazine.

Include a glory shot of a huge fish. It does not have to be the same river or body of water you are writing about. It doesn’t even have to be on the same continent.

Make frequent references to Hemmingway.

Remember that your target audience is people that move their lips when they read. The fact that higher educated and literate individuals tend to take up fly-fishing should not carry any weight.

Make use of fly-fishing clich├ęs in your writing: Tight loop, hopper-copper-dropper, pigasaurus, slab, etc.

Write everything in the first person singular. Use ‘I’ as every other word.

Make the guide that you are with the hero of the story. Portray him as some sort of angling godling blended with battle-scarred war veteran. His eyes should be ‘steely’, his arms ‘rope-like’ and his personality as rough as the river. He should never blink. He should know every fish in the river by name.

Either play down your own ability, becoming a buffoon next to the guide and other anglers, or exaggerate your prowess to expert status. There should be no middle ground.

Nature should always take a back-seat.


Here for your reading pleasure (or not) is the perfect article.

Mike’s steely eyes and steady hands guided us through broken pelvis rapids in the upper stretch of the Big Silver River. Guiding on the river every day for the last ten years, Mike is part owner of Silver River Outfitters. There were rumors of steelhead and salmon so big that Zane Gray would have a heart attack. As we floated down the rapids in the morning mist, I imagined myself as Hemmingway’s Santiago from The Old Man and the Sea, hopelessly locked in a death struggle with the fish of a lifetime.

We were throwing a Bumpqua mouse pattern at the edges of seams with excellent luck. Catching all these big fish made me hungry, and I looked forward to the sirloin steak, lobster bisque, and fine merlot that would be served at the Silver River Overlook restaurant that evening.

Ken hooked into a monster in a rapids and as his Lamroson large arbor 348 sang, he made his way down river, his Primms boots anchoring him solidly to the gravel…..

Blah, Blah, Blah


The question that always strikes me is whether the demise of print magazines is due to a lack of interested readers, or if the dumbing down of the contents to attempt to appeal to a younger audience with a smaller attention-span is actually accelerating the disinterest.

Chicken and the egg?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Cadenza

The Cadenza
Fiction Copyright 2009 Erik F. Helm

I just had to get out. There is a point in our winters in the Minnesota north woods when serious dementia can take hold, despite our best efforts. Call it cabin fever, seasonal affective disorder, or winter blues; it is what drives Alaskans and others in desolate climates barking mad each and every year.

I was suffering from writers block, or more appropriately, composer’s block. Having completed a commission for a short piano concerto, all that was left was to write the cadenza. How one runs a metaphorical marathon of inspiration, only to come up short, unable to continue and within sight of the finish line, is beyond me to explain, but here I was.

I sat for days at the piano scribbling notes and crossing them out. I listened to recordings. I cooked, cleaned, wrote poetry, reorganized the sock drawer; all to no avail. If something didn’t happen soon, I was going to run up against the deadline, and the regional symphony would have no holiday showpiece. As I stared out the frosted window while sipping hot cocoa I knew I needed a change of pace.
I expect everyone has a special little place they go to get back in touch with the voice of their soul. For me, that place was a creek that ran though the woods not a mile from my cabin.

It was December 15th, so I had little expectations other than the possibility of a bit of open water in the riffles. I grabbed my knocking-around rod, an old South Bend cane with a bit of an actual southerly bend, donned my parka and snowshoes, and with a single box of tattered flies, set out for the stream. If nothing else, the fresh air and exercise would help to clear the cobwebs from my head.

The world was painted with a deep and soft background of white intersected by brown, black, and gray vertical lines. Dark and moody clouds loomed overhead. I took the path through the woods, and noticed that a hare and a skunk had preceded me. Chickadees and cardinals imparted motion to the sleepy landscape as I trudged forward. I still had no real idea what I was going to fish for on the frozen creek, escape, trout, inspiration, or perhaps just solace.

Arriving by the little riffle, I was delighted to find a twenty-foot pool of open water. I cleared the snow from my snowshoes, and began rigging the rod when the clouds parted and the sun shown forth in all its glory. Tying on a dark nymph with a slightly rusted hook, I crept slowly to the edge of the pool and peered in, letting my eyes become accustomed to the sun and the water.

Then I saw it. There was a flash of silver in the very center of the pool. There was a brook trout down there, moving from side to side and examining his upside-down world.

I tossed the fly to the top of the pool and slowed its travel to sink it. The fish immediately flashed on the nymph. At the very moment I struck and missed, strange sounds started to issue from the bushes and branches surrounding the stream. They began slowly, almost tentatively, and then grew steadily. I was at a complete loss. What was this?

Then it dawned on me. The forest was alive with the sounds of melting snow and the formation of icicles. It made sense now. The temperature according to my window thermometer at the cabin was 12 degrees Fahrenheit. The sun was heating the branches and melting the snow, which in turn, froze into icicles. Then the icicles began to crack. Snow fell from the uppermost branches of trees, and unloosed the ice, which tinkled onto the frozen surface of the stream. The limbs above began to groan in low notes.

“Groan, tick, tick, tinkle, swoosh, tinkle, ping, crack said the woods in ¾ time.

Suddenly I had it. Here it was: nature’s own music and rhythm. The perfection of snow and ice and winter sun playing on their own instruments a delicate ode to the end of the year. I quickly found the stub of a pencil and began recording on the back of my fishing notebook the chords and melodies that were playing before me. The little fish could wait.

I had found my cadenza.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Some tips from the tying bench

There are so many good books out there on tying that I am reluctant to add my mediocre voice and skills to the chorus, but most articles and books focus on patterns and materials and are light on advice.

I am not a great fly-tyer. Period. However, I do spend a bit of time at the vice, and over the years have learned much from my own mistakes. In do tie enough that friends often pick errant pieces of feathers and fur from my clothes. I now smile ruefully at the flies I tied in years past, and showed to colleagues. Some were good, some bad, and some downright ugly. Some very accomplished tyers looked at my flies and said, “Hmm… this fly should catch fish.” As time went on, I realized that this was a catch-all response to avoid tearing the fly apart and discouraging the tyer. As an obsessive perfectionist, I am rarely satisfied anymore with results, but do realize that to ere is human.

So, permit me to bore you with a few select generalized tips from the vice and bench. (Far from definitive…)

1. Know your skill level, and do not attempt to tie patterns that are far beyond your skills. Trying to tie full-dress salmon flies when you are struggling to get a pheasant-tail nymph down can lead to frustration.

2. Use a vise that you are comfortable with. No need to break the bank, just use what you have until your skills outgrow the vise.

3. Use good tools. Your wife’s old craft scissors just won’t (pardon the pun) cut it. Good tools make tying a joy. Bad tools just lead to more frustration.

4. At the beginning, practice with cheap hooks and second-grade materials. Practice technique. Don’t waste that floricon bustard until you know what you are doing.

5. Have a plan when you sit down at the vice.

6. Try to tie four or more of the same pattern at one sitting. Try to make each one a carbon copy of the others. This builds consistency and proportion.

7. When tying a fly, work for correct technique at each step. If you are having trouble mounting wings, then practice the wing until you get it right. Don’t just tie six flies with bad wings. This teaches nothing.

8. Learn about thread tension and length of thread. This is an overlooked and critical aspect.

9. Learn about materials: how to work with feathers, wrap hackle, fold collars, mount the feather without a bulge, etc.

10. Study proportion in your flies. Divide the hook into halves, thirds, and quarters as necessary. Start the fly in the proper place and finish it without crowding the head.

11. Learn to tie in materials with a minimum of thread wraps. Using thirty wraps where four are needed leads to unsightly bulges.

12. If you make a mistake, undo it, and start again. Since the canvas of a hook is so small, mistakes tend to domino on each other and end up as a mess at the front of the fly.

13. Tie with a picture of a perfect completed fly in front of, or near you. Refer to the picture often.

14. Use the correct hook for the fly. Learn about different hooks and hook terminology.

15. Learn to dub properly with different materials.

16. Instead of using pre-made body wraps, make them yourself. Spin a dubbing loop of flashy seal substitute. It is amazing what one can do with a dubbing loop and blended materials.

17. Challenge yourself by tying flies just a bit harder. This is how you get better. Don’t go too far though. (See #1)

18. Take a tying class. However, first make certain that the instructor is not just a good tyer, but also a good teacher. Otherwise, the class is just a tying demo.

19. Fish with your flies. See how they move in the water. See how they float or sink, test the durability. If they fall apart quickly or unravel, something is wrong.

20. Once you have some competence, be creative. All the flies in existence started this way. Let inspiration be your wings.

21. Tie a bit every week. Long dry periods tend to decay skills.

If I had to pick one thing to tell new tiers, it would be to develop solid technique with materials and thread. Solid technique builds a foundation. Once that foundation is built, one can look at a fly in a book and instantly duplicate it.

Above all, have fun. Catching a fish with a fly you tied yourself adds a new dimension to the sport.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Traditional Skunk

Meet The Skunk.

The prevailing theory is that this fly originated on the North Umpqua, but the exact original tier is a matter of debate. Wes Drain is mentioned. It is one of the original flies used for steelhead in the Pacific North West.
This fly, once very popular, has fallen out of vogue and was eclipsed by the Green Butt Skunk.

I tied this one according to a number of different sources. The fly is usually tied with a black chenille body, but the original may have used peacock herl.
So, I started with a dyed golden pheasant tail. The body is peacock herl and black ostrich herl spun together with fine silver oval tinsel. The wing is polar bear.

I was priveleged enough this fall to see and touch some actual 3/0 to 5/0 skunks purchased directly from Joe Howell's flyshop on the North Umpqua.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Defining fly-fishing and drawing lines.

Defining fly-fishing and drawing lines.

We all draw lines. It is an inevitable part of how we go about forming our identities; our concepts of ourselves and our place in relation to others and our surroundings. This is true of our fly-fishing as it everything else in life. Where we draw these lines often changes with time and maturity. Taste also plays a part, as do aesthetics. What we consider sporting definitely applies.

If we go back in time to the essence of fly-fishing, what do we find?

First off, we may look at the word ‘fly.’ Fly-fishing originated, as far as we can tell, by imitating hatching insects in a body of water. In Macedonia as well as England, and other areas in-between, the sketchy historical records agree on this one point; mayflies, wasps, aquatic moths, caddis or sedges.

Presenting an artificial fly, or even a live fly on a hook in order to fool wary fish took special equipment. Until the 18th century, there were few records of winches or reels. Rods were commonly switches cut from bushes and trees such as yew. Dame Julia made hers a composite. The line had to be delicate in order not to spook the fish. Silk and horsehair were used, as well as other materials. It is doubtful if the flies actually floated. More likely from historical documents, the flies were ‘dappled’ into the water where the fish were rising or eating bugs.

Thus, if we take matters to their absolute essence, fly-fishing is a way of delivering an artificial fly imitating some sort of hatching insect to the fish.

This leaves much of what we call fly-fishing today outside that first boundary-line.

If we stop here, most fishing for bass, steelhead, Atlantic salmon, warm water and saltwater fish is not really fly-fishing.

Interesting, but rather pointless, unless we now add technology to the equation, and the resulting changes in technique that result.

Let’s fast forward to the present.

Today we have flies that look like crank baits, lines that sink to 30 feet, bead-head nymphs, and every other possible advantage to allow us to pursue species in places and ways never before possible. Technology has expanded our horizons, as well as opening up fly-fishing to the masses.

Somewhere in all this freedom and hybridization of fly-fishing, we draw our identity lines or fences. We will or will not cross these lines. Some anglers draw no lines at all, and anything goes. Spinning reel and mono on a flyrod? Bring it on! Fifteen weight shark rods? Lets Go!

Other anglers draw a line in the sand sooner or later, as to what they will or will not do. Much of this is species specific. One may only use dry flies for trout, but see nothing wrong with using foam poppers for bass. Some of us may only use un-weighted nymphs and no indicator, while others have no issue with attaching split-shot, running multiple nymphs deep where allowed, and using a balloon bobber. Some fly-tiers will not use artificial materials outside of tinsel, while others of us consider anything fair game as a material. Some anglers use only gear and pawl reels, while others use only large-arbor disc-drag models. Some casters only use long-belly or DT lines, while others praise the ease of shooting heads and attached mono. Some anglers refer to insects with their Latin names, in effect becoming amateur taxonomists. Others know them as “those little cream bugs.”

Most of us fall somewhere in between, comfortable to just catch a fish.

The drawing of lines and distinctions as to how we pursue game, (for that is really what we are doing, despite catch and release) can also become platforms of refinement.

We fly-anglers often think of ourselves as more refined that the guys in the BASS tourney.


Perhaps it has to do with the inherent limitations in our tackle. No sonar detectors or depth-finders for us. Limited casting distance. No corporate logos. No motors or noise. No tourney $$.

But what about the persons who limit themselves to casting with a cane rod and a silk line using dry flies only? Do the limitations he constrains himself with make him a better angler per se? Alternatively, is it the skill that it takes in order to consistently catch fish this way that elevates the approach? Good questions.

Let’s take this analysis out of fly-fishing for the moment in order to make it clearer and remove it from our own feelings on the subject.

Deer hunting. Let us imagine a set of hypothetical hunters pursuing deer. The hunters are all skilled, and each kills a deer. Each is a humane hunter, and is skilled enough in technique to make a clean kill.

The first hunter fells his prey with a wooden bow that he made himself, a bow-string that he made from the sinew of a deer he shot, an arrow he hand fashioned, and an arrowhead he made of bone.

The second hunter uses a commercially made wooden longbow, and commercial wooden arrows.

The third hunter uses a fiberglass bow and aluminum arrows.

The fourth hunter uses a compound bow with optical sights and a stabilizer.

Which is the best way? The easiest? The most effective? The most refined? Which method takes the most skill?

Now lets add in the method they got to the woods. One used his own two feet, one a horse, one an ATV, and the last was driven in by the guide he hired.
Where does fishing with glo-bugs or indicator nymphing fit in this hierarchy? Does it matter?

Does the end justify the means, in that fishing is just catching fish, or is there some sort of journey of maturation in technique?

When it comes down to it, this is just a brain exercise to make us think.

I don’t know. I still get crap for not owning a cane rod.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The whole Experience

The whole Experience

At the beginning, it was just fishing. Just us with Dad and Grandpa, a world of anticipation, a bucket of worms, new smells, faded overalls, sunburn, and a connection to a panfish through careful and patient watching of the bobber.

That is still how most people think of fishing when they ask me what I do.

I usually kind of beg off, because to explain even the basics of this passion involves complicated analogies and comparisons.

How did our fishing evolve to this? Why?

Because we love. Because many of us strive to always explore even more difficult techniques, more beautiful locations, fussier fish, perfect casting, take tying to an art, and generally surround the core of fishing for a fish with a picture frame of structure that enhances its beauty. Like an elegant dress on a beautiful woman, a sublime aria, wine in a crystal glass, our fly fishing gains in brilliance with the lore we surround it with.

The remote plunge-pools of a trout stream under overhanging boughs of pine trees forming a virtual nave of a cathedral.

The sound of moving water as the whispered voice of God or nature.

The electric jolt of a steelhead eating a waking fly.

The colors on a fall brook trout like an impressionist painting.

The music we hum when it all comes together.

The favorite cane rod.

Dad’s old fishing hat.

Our faithful old dog.

Drinking directly out of the stream.

Fishing with equipment that puts us at a disadvantage.

The wild berries we eat along the river, which always manage to taste better than anything we had ever eaten before.

The wildflowers.

The thoughts of those that have gone before and those that will come after.

That perfect cast with the loop unfurling like an aerial ballet.


The whole experience is the most important part, and it means something different to each of us. If we were to strip it naked and just fish to catch a fish, it would lose its appeal and luster like a fading and withering flower.

It is more than just fishing. It is more than the fish.

Think about it.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Golden Demon

Another very fetching pattern

The Golden Demon was a British Empire pattern discovered by Zane Gray in New Zealand, and popularized by him through steelhead fishing in the 1930s.
The original version has no dubbing, but I added a turn or two of seal.
I also reinforced the bronze mallard wing by using an underwing of blackbear.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Classical Angler Slideshow

Looking back on the journey in fly fishing, tying, art, nature, and passion for the sport. Presenting the Classical Angler photo montage. Enjoy!
(Note: Updated Dec.4 2009 with more thematic flow.)

Irish Shrimp

Introducing the Irish Mourne Shrimp.
I found this fly along with others in a copy of Fly Fishing and Fly Tying (UK) from Sept/Oct of 2000.
The flies are designed to pull fish from slow flows with hackles that pulse. Hmm... sounds like something that can work on some of our slow-water reaches, and provide a possible alternative to leeches for those of us that are into classic flies. The oval tinsel body provides plenty of flash, while the schlappen segments and gold pheasant tail should provide movement.

I actually fished this fly on the Kooskooskie for a day, and it did pulse quite well, and had great presence in the water. I also fished it on my local river two years ago, but got it caught in a tree, and decided that was enough of that!
But this year, with dedication to the floating line, and trying to solve the problems associated with soft water and low flows with classic flies, I pulled it back out and fished it.

They are rather easy to tie.

Morne Gold Shrimp:

Tail: Several full feathers from golden pheasant in various colors
Rear body: Med. Gold oval tinsel to half point followed with four or five turns of orange schlappen.
Front Body: Med. Gold oval tinsel to front followed with four or five turns of black schlappen.
Wings: Jungle cock turned upright.
Head: Red
Hook: Should be heavy enough to actually sink the fly.

This series of Irish shrimp flies may actually be the grandfather of our General Practitioner pattern.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Cutthroat Stalker's 2009 slideshow

A must see from Scott (Cutthroat Stalker)
Very well done photo montage. A tribute to nature, trout, and our sport done with respect, tact, and artistry.
It is everything missing these days from the mainstream fly fishing press.

See Here:

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Wonderful spey casting video on the Dee River

As traditional as you can get. It does not get any closer to its origins.

Mike Donald on the Dee

Asian Carp knocking on the Door to Lake Michigan

Stopping Asian carp might be like trying to undo the opening of Pandora's box.
If or when they establish themselves in the Great Lakes, say goodbye. Possibly the largest ecological disaster in United States history. You just have to love man's unending fooling around with mother nature.

Good article and background information here: