Friday, December 3, 2010

My rod is better than your rod…

I frequently come across discussions regarding fly rods and their performance vs. price. These discussions can get heated at times as rod choice has become for some anglers, a very personal choice. The discussions also frequently stray off track, and become arguments and rants for and against the fly tackle industry. Mainly the issue comes down to budget rods vs. high-end rods.

Let us break this down. A fly rod is a tool, period. It is a tool for a specific or a general purpose. Beyond functional design and build of a rod, which are the key properties, are aesthetics and marketing. Mainly marketing. When we judge a rod, we ourselves have a huge part to play. Brand loyalty, personal aesthetic preference, casting ability and style, and our fishing need play a large role in our judgment.

Let me concentrate on function for a moment.

I constantly hear people defend their budget $200 rod against the most expensive $700 plus dollar rods on the market without placing the comparison in proper perspective. I have cast surprisingly good rods and shockingly poor ones at both the lower end and upper end of the price scale. One man’s meat may be another’s poison, based on ability and need.

For example: The guy flipping glo-bugs to spawning salmon on our tributaries probably does not need a fast recovery super lightweight casting tool. For this individual’s need, a reasonably strong rod in the lowest price point will do just fine. The rod functions as a lever to fight fish to the bank and less as a casting tool. Take the saltwater angler who has to launch his large fly out 90 feet into the surf to a pod of bluefish and we have a different story.

In addition, what makes a crappy rod and a good rod is all in the mind or hands of the person doing the casting. At casting clinics I am often asked to cast a student’s rod to see “What is wrong with it.” Sometimes the answer is that the rod is poorly designed. More often, it is the line and rod in conjunction that are mismatched. Most often of all there is nothing wrong with the rod, which leads me to my little saying, “It is not the rod, it is the fool behind it.” Incidentally, this saying was originally aimed at myself for selling rods that I did not like due to my inability to adapt to, and take advantage of their special qualities.

Admittedly, there are some outstanding rods out there. The old Sage RPL, the Loomis GLX, the Orvis Superfine come to mind right away. All these rods have or had a unique taper and bend which just felt right for the angling job at hand. There are also some real turds of rods on the market. We all have probably all owned one or two of these before selling them off.

The key to this little discussion is that even a mediocre to badly designed rod will perform fine in certain conditions. To the angler who plies trout streams no more than twenty feet wide, a certain rod may be just fine for tossing grass hoppers to the bank. The same rod at over twenty feet, however, loses all accuracy. Hmmm… interesting. Some rods are meat-sticks designed to pound the western rivers from drift boats with heavy nymphs, split shot, and big dries acting as indicators. Place this rod on a spring creek and it is like throwing rocks into the still water. Here we have a specialty rod once again. The right tool for the right job...

So, in conclusion, when we weigh into the next inevitable beer fueled discussion of who’s rod is better and who’s rod is overpriced, lets all remember to place ourselves in proper relation to the rod as a casting and fishing tool for ourselves, our abilities, and our fishing needs.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


One of the interesting talking points of opponents of the removal of the Estabrook Dam, Grafton Dam, and Limekiln Dam on the Milwaukee River is that, after dam removal, large mudflats will be left behind. These large unsightly stretches of clay and silt will then become homes for weeds, thus spoiling their scenic view of the river.

This is a true statement, but only in the short run. In order to find out why, let us examine what a mudflat is, and how it is formed.

Rivers are great earthmovers and builders. Over vast amounts of time, they erode outside bends and deposit silt and particulates on inside bends. These initially form flats of sediment or rock. In the Midwest, these inside bends are mostly composed of silt, sand, dissolved clay and tiny wood debris. This inherent character of rivers is why they bend and meander in their channels, always eroding earth and depositing it in new places such as inside bends and estuary regions. One look at a map or trip to a river will prove this to be true. As time passes, these inside bends grow larger and larger, beginning as mud flats and ending up as land that people build homes upon. First grasses and hearty plants (weeds to some) grow upon the flats. Then small shrubs and trees take hold. Finally, the former flat becomes part of the shore structure and may be indistinguishable from the surrounding woods.

All these building, moving, and eroding processes are natural, so why the fuss over a natural riparian structure? Here we find the irony. Because, simply put, it is man’s interference with rivers by slowing the water flow with dams and creating impoundments, and channelizing the river with artificial bank structure that impedes the river from its earth moving, its ability to push the silt downstream, form new channels, and build new river banks. Thus, the actual composition of the bottom of the river changes from gravel, boulders, silt, mud, and sand, to primarily long flat bars of silt. When water levels are lowered, these become mudflats. Anyone who lives in a tidal basin on the ocean knows this process well, albeit in a natural way.

Flow rates and gradient also play a part. Faster flow moves the sediment, while slow deep areas of a river (like an impoundment) allow the sediment to fall to the bottom and collect.

So it is ironic in a sense that the very dams and resulting impoundments that they create are primarily responsible for the formation of these mudflats that seem to be the bane of dam proponents.

There is, obviously, one missing factor here, and that is time. We measure time in days, years, and generations. Nature measures time differently. Given a long enough time, all mudflats become banks and islands. Walking in a river will prove this. Where did that island come from? Was it always there? Chances are it started as a small gravel and silt deposit forming what is known as a ‘braid.’ Over time it continued to build as the river, flowing around it, deposited more and more silt, mud, gravel, and particulate at its downstream end. Then birds nested on it and brought undigested seeds. Nuts and seedpods washed down and took root as well. Then trees began to grow.

We can see, in a shortened time, how mudflats become land. The North Avenue Dam removal created an enormous set of flats on both upstream banks. The river, which was formerly slow, deep and very wide here, shrank to less than half its width. Where did the flats go…?

The answer is that you are walking on them. At present, the land reclaimed from the impoundment all the way up to Hubbard Park in Shorewood is a jumble of brush, shrubs, grasses, and small trees, but in another twenty years, if we don’t mess with it, that area will return to nature completely, and provide an aesthetic view. We can and have aided that process by securing the former flats with bank stabilization, and planting native plants.

So, dam removal opponents, in a nutshell, that is what mudflats are. They are natural, and in time, will morph and grow into something beautiful. They are your mudflats: created in this instance by the dams themselves.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Confidence Factor

The Confidence Factor:

It has been written somewhere that the only single thing we can control as anglers on the river is ourselves: our timing, our approach, reading the water, presentation, etc. We cannot control the weather, the water, the wind, or the natural cycles of nature. We must instead learn to work with nature and fish in harmony. Once one progresses to a point where his or her presentation is decent, and can use whatever technique one chooses to cast and present the fly at the proper speed and depth, then the next step, I would argue is to fish with confidence.

This may be the most difficult barrier to get past in many ways. Firstly, we are thinking creatures. When something goes right or wrong, we tend to want to look to something outside ourselves for an explanation, often where there is none. We speculate on fly color and construction, the weather, sun, moon, rain cycles, barometer, what we had for dinner last night, and what brand of beer our buddy likes. Thinking and analysis is a good thing; it leads to discovery and learning. However, at some point along the way, our speculation causes us to begin a process, or turn down a cognitive road that is a dead end.

For an object example, let us take fly choice. In the world of trout, the fly has a huge part to play in the overall game. Trout eating bugs want to eat certain bugs, and when dining at the all-you-can-eat BBQ shack, Mr. Brookie does not want a plate of spinach. In the world of Atlantic Salmon and Steelhead fishing, the fish do not feed, or rarely feed, and why they take our flies is a mystery, and the subject of hundreds of speculative books and articles.

So, what fly to choose? Lets see… Dark day-dark fly, bright day-bright fly, blue under a full moon, yellow under a quarter moon, orange during a bright day, and green when you drank too much scotch the night before and peed in your waders. Small fly, big fly, fly with movement, most popular fly, favorite fly, etc. As hard as it is to grasp, the fish are far less choosy as to what fly is on the end of our leader than we are. Popular patterns such as the green butt skunk in the PNW, or the egg-sucking leech in the Midwest work because they are good patterns, but also, and here is the catch, they account for more fish hooked than other patterns because they are tied onto our leaders and in the water more than other patterns. Is the blue charm the best salmon pattern of all time? It certainly racked up the most kills in the fly category on many rivers in Scotland. Or, was it because although it undoubtedly is a good fly, somebody made his fame with it, and then, everyone started using it? What about the red and white daredevil spoon? It may have fallen out of favor lately, but for a long time, if you wanted to fish for pike, you had better have a good selection of these lures in your tackle box. Anglers used them, and caught fish. Then the newest plastic thing came along and they used it and caught fish too. See?

The fly in your box will not catch a fish. The one on the end of your leader will. Both Dec Hogan and John Shewey performed an experiment in which they changed their fly pattern every time they hooked a steelhead until they had gone through their whole fly box. Result…. All the flies hooked fish. Hmmmm… Perhaps it was that they fished with confidence instead of fiddling and fussing. Perhaps because they had confidence in the fly they had in the water, accordingly they fished better and more thoroughly?

This concept seems so foreign to us that it rarely sinks in. In a seminar on steelhead fly-fishing I covered reading water, presentation, timing, etc. The questions at the end posed by those attending had to do with fly choice and rigging. Funny.

At a western spey clave, a local guide gave an excellent clinic on fishing the river, and pressed home confidence in the fly, covering water, angles, structure, etc. At the end an old guy stood up and asked…. Drum roll please… “What is the secret fly?”

If you had asked the anglers seated at the seminar along the river what fly they caught their most recent fish on, I bet good money that most of the flies would be unique. I have traded flies on this river with some great anglers. None of our fly boxes looked alike, and we all had success. Funny. Could it be confidence? Could it be that the only secret was to choose a fly based upon actual water conditions and just leave it on?

Once one gains confidence in the fly, one begins to pay attention to other critical factors like water speed, angle of cast, mending, water structure, etc. Bingo! Then the fly becomes magic. Now we turn down another blind alley. We have just had a great day on the river fishing a (insert fly name here), and we only have confidence in that fly. Thus the red and white daredevil, the green-butt skunk, and the egg-sucking leech are born into legend. We don’t like to hear these things, because we want to grasp a hold of a simple concept to boost our confidence, or provide an excuse for failure or our personal agenda/expectations unmet.

Thus, it is that the things we can actually control, our casting, presentation and confidence outweigh all of the other factors on the river. This includes all of the old wisdom out there such as steelhead will not take a fly with full sun on the water, don’t fish after a full moon, a falling barometer, a rising barometer, after your buddy belches twice, etc. All of these things (except the belching) have effect on our fishing, but nowhere near the effect we attribute to them. Seeking to understand, we speculate and look for reasons.

What about the un-carved block? The newbee angler that does everything wrong but catches fish anyway until he or she learns the proper way from those with collected speculative wisdom? I was that angler once. The first trip out to the PNW, I fished a beautiful river. I used classic spey flies such as the Lady Caroline, and classic hair-wings. I fished an intermediate tip. I fished runs backwards and caught fish in the wrong places. I simply had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but put my joy, passion, and confidence in the fly, and spent more time on the water than most anyone else. When the water went off-color, I went fishing. When it turned hot, I went fishing. It was only afterwards, after meeting guides and experienced anglers on the river that I learned that I could not catch fish unless I was using a deeply sunk fly on a sink-tip, the places I pulled fish out of were no good, and it was useless to fish during the middle of the day. Oh…

The next year, armed with my newly acquired wisdom of the sages, I fished a big marabou fly with a sink-tip and…. I caught fish too. Hmmmm…..

I expect that if one placed all the collected wisdom of anglers that have put in their time on the rivers, that every speculative theory could be de-bunked. That is, for every theory and the speculative evidence behind it, there would be another conflicting or countering theory. That is not to say that all fishing wisdom and theories are bunk. Quite the contrary, most are based upon sound experience. It is when they become dogma that they often lead us down a path that may be classified as a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Don’t fish after a boat goes through the water.” O.K., we don’t. What happens? Well, of course we don’t catch fish. If we do fish, then the sense of confidence in the water goes away… because a boat went through. In essence, we play the part in fulfilling the prophecy we proclaimed or believed in. Our actions led to the expected result. Like a science experiment in reverse. Proclaim the conclusion, and then work backwards with the hypothesis in mind the whole way.

Nevertheless, alas, we all grasp for straws when the going gets tough. Positive straws, negative straws, but straws the same. The fly, the sun, the bad luck of a circling raven. Perhaps because this gives us confidence also: confidence to find another reason for our success or failure outside ourselves. A reason to attribute and then find peace in. I often wonder if my friend Og, the fictional Neanderthal that lives in my basement might actually be the ideal angler. He can reason up to a certain point, and perhaps that is enough. Cast it there, swing it so, and have confidence. Perhaps everything else is, and should be a mystery to a certain extent?

Sometimes our overactive brains get in the way of our instincts and senses. We don’t fish the ‘Eagle Run’ anymore because, three years ago we fished it, and given our thought process at the time, it fished too slowly or was too shallow. This year, due to angling pressure and the fading light of evening, we find ourselves pulling over by this run by default. “Might as well fish it,” we think, rather than just go back to the tent. Then we realize that this run fishes wonderfully. “What was I thinking?” we ask ourselves as our renewed confidence results in a great grab and nice fish.

I am reminded of the old (perhaps Norman Rockwell) painting of a fly angler fussing with his leader and fly selection as the trout are jumping around him. His face is turned with jealousy and surprise to a small boy on a bike pedaling innocently past with an old stick as a rod, a piece of string as line, and safety pin for a hook along with a tin can of worms and a glorious stringer of fish. That may be something to reflect on. Not that experience and speculation are not good things, but sometimes getting back to the essence may be necessary. Once the essentials are down pat, just fish with confidence.

Perhaps that would be no fun though. It might cut down on late-night philosophizing around the camp-fire.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Fun With Named Runs

One curiosity of steelhead and Atlantic salmon rivers is the common practice of naming the runs or pools or water complexes. These names range from the deeply rooted in shadowed lore and history, down to the downright obscure, and even ironic. The runs are often named after a natural structural identifier such as Black Rock, The Slot, The Braids, Pine Trees, etc. Man made structures such as Powerlines, Tractor Yard, The Factory Run, etc. also enter into our river run lexicon. Some runs are named after people who popularized them as well.

One run on a western river is called locally “Gomer’s corner,” due to the fact that it always has one person standing in it, and the run itself rarely produced a fish. When a friend and I heard what the run was called, we looked at each other sheepishly and whispered, “Oh crap, that was us. Remember when we got up at 4:00 am to get into that run?” D’oh! This year, as I drove up and down the river, there was always someone in Gomer’s Corner. I fished a run downstream at last light, and there was an angler standing, seemingly not moving at all, at the top of the Corner. I fished my run through, and as I was making my way back to the car in the dusk, saw that there was still a single figure in Gomer’s Corner, who seemed not to have covered any water at all or moved downstream. I then got it stuck in my mind that instead of an angler, the figure was a scarecrow or dummy someone had fixed up. It made sense, as the angler/object/dummy never seemed to move, and always wore the same gear. Then as I was driving back past the run, I stopped, got out of my car, and stared at the object in the run. After about five minutes, the dummy moved and made a cast, and a quarter of a step downstream. Aha! Mystery solved. Now I know why it is called Gomer’s Corner.

Another run is named “Slickrock,” and has an evil reputation as a wading hell that is well deserved. Slick basalt ledges and shelves are mixed with bowling ball sized rocks that tend to move when to step on them. One step is fine, and the next a complete lulu. A couple of years ago, I lost purchase with both feet at once and did a face-plant in the water in this run. Now I use a wading staff. Duh.

Every river has a run named for an old car or truck abandoned by the river, and many rivers run through towns suffering from poverty, meth, and cultural decay, and have runs named “The Town Run.” Here one dodges garbage and tarps over ratty sofas, and old cars that serve as homes for people who have seen better times.

Some runs are named for Native American folklore. One gets a sense of timelessness on these runs, as if the boulders and structures have not changed in five-hundred years, and if one could be transported back in time, only the costume of the anglers and methods would change.

Back here in the Midwest, we have a sort of tongue-in-cheek convention for naming runs. Shopping Cart, Lower Crack-Pipe, The Low-Hole Run, Parking Lot, etc. The runs are really not as bad as they sound when they actually have water in them, but one never knows what one might encounter on the side of the river or even in it.
Sometimes we might want to pay especial attention though, when fishing a run called something like “Angry Old Man,” lest we accidentally trespass and meet the man himself.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Brief wisdom #1

It isn't the rod, its the fool behind it...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Misinformation continues to flow over the Estabrook Dam

Below is an excerpt from an article by Joe Lanane, Daily Reporter, and following that are some comments I have to get off my chest.

Glen Goebel, director of the Milwaukee River Preservation Association, said the Estabrook Dam was originally built as a flood deterrent. If the dam was permanently removed, he said, flood spillover could go as far as one mile out from the river’s banks — enough to potentially reach Glendale City Hall.

“It would do that worse nowadays than it would back then because it was mostly farmland back then,” Goebel said. “It was a flood-control project that we really still need in place.”


It still amazes me that this fundamental falsehood remains as an accepted truth to many of the Milwaukee County Supervisors, as propagandized by Supervisor Lipscomb, who is hardly partial on the issue, and has an inside seat and corresponding voice on the county board, or Mr. Goebel, president of a pro-dam lobby group, who's wild and scientifically baffling claims as to the positive and negative aspects of dams and removal have been a rather sad commentary on the ability of special interest groups to lobby regardless of the truth of the facts they espouse.

The Estabrook Dam was the final piece in a flood control project. It, by itself, offers little or no flood control at all, especially to the area of Glendale noted by Mr. Goebels, which is UPSTREAM from the dam. The flood control project consisted of driving a straight channel through a series of S-curves in Lincoln park in order to speed the river, and lessen ice buildup on the outside bends in the river, which in spring thaw, created ice-jams and caused localized flooding. The dam was designed as a water-height regulator to control the flow and height of the river upstream. How a dam is supposed to prevent flooding upstream of its location just baffles me. By slowing the water flow and backing up the river in a flood, the dam could conceivably aid in flood prevention downstream, however, that entire area is already a flood plain, and homes and businesses are built high on the river banks. In addition, the design of the Estabrook Dam negates even that possible flood control, as in a heavy rain event the entire dam is submerged, and the river runs over and around it.

What the dam, very ironically does, is increase the flooding potential in a sudden rain event in the impoundment area bordered by the dam itself and roughly Bender Rd. By backing up the river, the dam decreases the flow rate and throughput ability of the river in cubic feet per second, to evacuate the channel and move downstream. So it is sad that this falsehood, maintained by the Milwaukee River Preservation Association (read 'Dam preservation'), and Mr. Lipscomb, actually negatively affects the very home-owners that are being represented as advocating for dam preservation in part due to concerns about flooding.

And yet the Milwaukee County Board, which is literally approaching a financial meltdown, and losing the respect of county taxpayers, is on the brink of recommending and funding the repair of the Estabrook dam based in part, on false and unscientific information which has been publicly refuted by both engineers from The Wisconsin DNR, the Milwaukee Riverkeeper, the River Alliance, and other organizations and bodies that actually have some experience with rivers and dams.

Your tax dollars down the drain, fellow citizens.

At least the county board should consider and debate this important infrastructure issue with all of the FACTS before them, and not popularly accepted myths. Kudos to Supervisor Broderick, who, seemingly a lone voice of reason, has tried to steer the board's decision towards a more open public forum. Funny, but I seem to remember many letters written, facts laid out, and testimony given last year, which somehow got lost or misplaced in the minds of the County Supervisors or masked over by the endless fog of miss-information.

Claiming that the Estabrook Dam prevents flooding in Glendale is like a scene out of 'The Music Man.' It would be funny if it was not our own county board that was buying it, and all of us poor schlubs that will be paying for the decision with tax dollars and bonds that we can ill-afford.

At absolute least, please be honest about why the dam is to be saved. To keep the still-water impoundment upstream of the dam intact so that power-boating can occur and docks can be maintained. All at the expense of the river, water quality, fish, wildlife, and yes... your wallet.

The march of folly continues on...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Zen and the art of fishing the essence.

Zen and the art of fishing the essence.

Or, building good fish karma, and harmony on the water.

It has probably happened to all of us in our progression as anglers. We enter the river with something to prove, or an agenda to catch the most fish or the biggest fish, and we fail in our expectations. We fish hard and with a purpose, but the elusive goal eludes us. It is or was our goal, our purpose, and our agenda, not the river’s.

Then it happens one day; we finally stop trying so hard, and we wake up and look around us. We notice an eagle soaring above the river canyon, find an interesting piece of driftwood to stare at, sample blackberries on the side of the river, or drift off into a philosophical or nature-based zone of peace.

Then it happens. The hottest fish in the river hits our fly and tries to tail-walk back to the ocean. It happens because we were not trying. We were fishing with enjoyment, and with the proper attitude of respect and relaxation. In short, we had reached a sort of zen harmony with our surroundings. Instead of our own agenda, we followed the river’s. When it rained, we laughed and splashed, when it became hot and sunny, we took off our jacket and basked in the glory. When the water came up, we swung our fly with the same confidence. We didn’t fuss with patterns, we fished with trust that reward would be forthcoming, and the kiss of chrome would bless our offering, far out in the river. We were at peace.

These thoughts came to me after an exchange of emails with my friend William over another angler that I am acquainted with, that fished (at least physically) the same river I recently fished. While I went down to the river with happiness, feeling a great privilege to worship in my way in this spiritual river, and laughed at myself when I managed to break off a snake-guide and put it through my thumb, and marveled at the beauty of the river, this other angler seemed to be fishing a different river. His was a river of frustration. He hooked fish, but as he put it, they were all “duds.” He seemed to have an agenda as, or wished to be viewed as an “expert.” Funny. We seemed to be fishing a different river. One of the fish I hooked was the hottest fish I have ever seen. It jumped constantly at high speed, and peeled off line so fast that my reel shrieked like a banshee. I could not control this fish, and after expertly, and wildly relieving me of ¾ of my backing on a 4” perfect reel, the fish made a leap, spit the fly and was gone. I was not disappointed, but instead elated. I will never forget that wonderful experience. The other angler, who is fulfilling for us the role of an object lesson, would probably have been sore that it came unpinned. I also hit a couple of red-hot wild hens that smoked the reel, and even got the relatively rare glory photo.

Several years ago, in a discussion about big runaway fish, William told me that the ‘Devil Fish’ existed, but that you (me) would have to believe that it can happen and then not try to make it happen, and then it would indeed grace my fly offering by eating it, and provide that great sporting moment and aerial ballet. Funny, but that is exactly what happened last year. I just stopped worrying about everything in my approach, and just fished in harmony, and was rewarded. Build it and they will come? Trust in it, but empty your soul of desire? Buddhism on the river?

Then, as an object lesson, the fishing partner I was with pulled five fish from behind me on the last day, and my zen composure melted down. Guess what? Yup. I got skunked until the last moment of dark in a downpour. I tried too hard. My casting went to absolute pieces. I was frustrated with myself and nearly in tears. When I had passed through this stage to one of calm shivering and acceptance of my surroundings, I re-entered harmony, and hooked a nice fish.

So, it seems to actually matter what our frame of mind is on the water. Some anglers have positive fish karma. It may have to do with just fishing smoothly instead of fiddling, but it does seem that anglers such as Dec Hogan, Mike Kinney, and Bill McMillan also seem to personify an appreciation and love of nature and balance on the river. Certainly skill matters. How one presents one’s fly to the fish in complex and diverse situations matters more than anything, but haven’t we all known someone who could fish really well, cast a nice clean line, but was a neurotic, crabby, disagreeable personality on the river? One of the most notorious anglers of my knowledge has such bad karma that nobody will even buy a rod from him. He spends his time fiddling and complaining on the water and off, when he is not drunk, and rarely hooks anything. He is out of harmony with everything, and it shows.

These days when I fish, even if I struggle with casting a single spey with my back against the wall, up to my waist in water with a downstream wind, and trying hit 100’, I try to do so with a positive attitude, and finding the true essence of the experience: the moon through the pines, the mists lifting from the canyon, the sounds of moving water. There is more to fishing than fish. It is kind of like that cute girl you wanted to get to know. When you looked at her, she looked away. When you showed off, she walked away. It was only when you stopped trying and just became yourself, that she came up and sat beside you. When you stop trying, and appreciate the beauty of the river, it can happen.

Indeed, it will happen, but only once one calms down and cultivates quiet on the river. It will happen only when one abandons Internet chatter, and slips into the bushes. It will happen if one has no agenda, but calmly ebbs and flows with the natural currents. It will happen only if one sets out to love the river and her fish, not conquer her.

I can still see that fish tail-walking…

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Extra footage from The Lost World of Mr. Hardy

The folks at Trufflepig Films were kind enough to place some video and historic footage on the Vimeo page here :

Here is a sample. Enjoy!

Salmon fishing on the River Test - The Lost World of Mr Hardy extra from Trufflepig Films on Vimeo.

The Lost World of Mr Hardy (trailer) from Trufflepig Films on Vimeo.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Some thoughts from the riffle

This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.

Monday, August 9, 2010

I saw the future in his eyes

Last week Dan, Josh and yours truly at Orvis Milwaukee taught the last installment of Fly-Fishing 101 for the month of July.
This event is designed to get interested individuals involved in the sport through a free introductory program, and erase all the mystery and ‘elitist’ aura from the process.

In the class was a young African American boy of about ten. His name was Peter. He was as shy as they come, and was accompanied by his big-brother, a middle-aged gentleman who participates in the Big-Brother, Big Sister mentoring program. Peter loves to fish. Although silent and shy, when he was signed up for the course, he could not wait for the day to arrive. Remember that level of anticipation? Remember when you were ten? Remember when you dreamt of ponds, rivers, and trees to climb in the freedom of summer vacation?

He arrived in our store on the day of the event with wide eyes in a room filled with adult white males. During the casting portion, although he had small arms, and struggled, he never gave up. By the end of the class, he was laying out 20 feet of flyline. The smile on his face should grace the cover of a fly fishing magazine, and replace those ubiquitous grip-and-grin photos. When I gave all the students a chance to play a fish (me) on the rod, he did an unexpected thing: he brought the rod up and used side pressure to control me. How about that! In all the years of teaching fly-fishing, I had never had anyone show so much instinct.

I knelt down by his side and gave him a compliment. “You are a heck of a fine fisherman,” I said.
For a moment, our eyes locked. His were deep brown, and a window into his young soul. Mine were tired and old.

Then I saw it. I saw in this poor child’s eyes the future of our sport; the pure joy, the curiosity, the passion.

My eyes are not so old now.

Thank you Peter.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The world’s wettest book…


A wee bit complicated...

Gee... where to start?

Reading water. The novel.

Just kidding. No need to locate the reading glasses, unless they are polarized…

As I work with anglers of all skill levels, it seems that three on the water skills rise to the top in importance: Casting, Presentation, and reading water.

Of, these, reading water seems to be the most elusive. It seems that many anglers discover what kinds of water structure and flow hold fish by a method of hit and miss. This was my learning process as well, and a painful one full of lessons courtesy of the fish. The more time on the water spent pursuing a variety of fish with diverse tactics of presentation seems to lead to the greatest skill level and literacy in water.

The majority of fly-anglers are trout fishermen. Trout waters offer a variety of challenges, but in many cases, the river or stream requires no rosetta stone to help translate. Riffles are for the most part fairly simple things. Lunker structures are also obvious. Undercut banks may be slightly hidden, but an observant angler can spot them easily. Tailouts of pools or runs, which are great evening and morning feeding areas are also obvious. Deeper holding areas for nymphing are mostly self evident, and if one has a hatch, then there is no need to read water, other than gauging current speeds, directions, and variances that effect presentation.

The problems seem to occur when anglers are faced with a bewildering array of structures, water depth, current seams, spits or scallops, back eddies, bank formations, makeup of bottom, etc. Some seasoned trout anglers flounder in these situations.

So here is an interesting observation. Some of the most adept anglers at reading water that I have ever seen are those that not only fish upstream, but swing flies downstream, especially for smallmouth bass. It seems that the complete reversal of current and approach does something to open doors in the ability to pick apart the river, and optimize the presentation. Current seams and changes in stream flow and even tiny depth changes can hold fish where one would think illogical. The only way to discover this is with a fly in the water, and an intense curiosity.

Einstein famously defined insanity as doing the same thing the same way over and over and expecting a different result. Yet, for many anglers, this is the norm. Repetition is safe, but departing from this and experimentation can be challenging.

The other anchor dragging down angler’s ability to learn to read water is the constant necessity to ‘see fish.’ I run into this all the time. Seeing fish and then fishing to them is a good problem to have, but it does nothing for our ability to read the water. If we cannot see the fish, then we must ask ourselves, “Why and where would the fish be?” Two anglers were out the other day before our local river was flooded, and as I took a nature walk, I could not help myself from watching them for a few minutes. There seemed to be a lot of aimless casting going on. One guy was standing in a nice run and casting to nearly dry land. The other guy waded through a nice current seam below some boulders, and then started to fish in water that was flowing too fast for any self-respecting fish to want to hang out in. When I greeted them as they exited the water, they told me that “The water was too off-color, and they could not see any fish.”

The greatest assets an angler can possess are patience and curiosity. When you catch a fish, ask yourself why it was there. What is it about the bottom structure or current that changed? Was there overhead cover, rock, or wood nearby? Then when one has progressed to a point that without having to spot the fish, one can consistently catch them, start experimenting. This is where the real learning begins. Sometimes fish do the craziest things, and can be caught in places that are downright mystifying. In several situations, it took me several years to figure it out. Reading through old fishing logs, I had tiny epiphanies. Aha! Now it makes sense… until the next time, when the fish is somewhere else, and I have to start thinking all over again.

Monday, June 28, 2010

When the trout stream met the sky, and all became water

Everyone loves a good storm. Sitting back with a hot cup of tea and smelling the rain as it renews the land, or feeling the approach of a dark cloud in your bones, the unending rumble of thunder filling you with anticipation as the first tentative drops of rain begin to fall.

A really good Midwest thunderstorm can force even the most stalwart farmer to pull his cap down. Storms here reach biblical proportions at times. It is in the month of June that temperatures and humidity levels rise enough to prime the air with a stagnant and heavy load. Steamy air laden with moisture boils up from the gulf and meets the cool jet stream. The resulting storms go spinning off to the east like miniature hurricanes. The dark cumulonimbus anvil clouds expand and rise quickly high into the atmosphere, and the bottoms boil. The entire sky turns a sickly green color.

I knew when I left my home that it would be stormy, but one takes free time as it comes to one. Days off are not to be squandered. So, I raced the coming storm front to the driftless country of south-west Wisconsin and it’s spectacular spring creeks. Four hours later the tent was set up and secured, and I was playing the first little wild brown trout on my new seven foot four weight superfine. The sun began to be eclipsed by little puffy cloud-sentries, and the fishing started to improve. For the next three hours without a hatch, I had spectacular dry-fly fishing. All I needed was an elk-hair caddis in a size 14. Splat it down gently around a bend or far enough ahead and it died a gallant death a hundred times as it was ravaged by trout. I actually felt sorry for the poor fly as its hackle got torn off and its wing lay in tatters. I imagined it looking at me, begging “Enough, PLEASE! Enough already! Don’t throw me out there again. This is murder!”

The cloud sentries by now had spotted me and reported back to the gathering storm regiments. “Trout angler, due east,” they rumbled. As the sky grew ominously darker and rain drops began to fall intermittently, the fishing just got better and better. It is said that trout, and fish in general, feed heavily before a storm, and although I had experienced this before, it was never on a spring creek where it could be perceived so obviously. It was as if someone turned on a switch or rang a dinner bell. The problem was that the fish were so eager, that I had a hard time getting casts to where I wanted them, as the fly kept being eaten before it got there. As the air became thicker and thicker and breathing harder, the trout began to jump again and again. I had to do a double take. Were they trying to escape the creek by swimming in the air?

I was experiencing the best non-hatch dry-fly fishing I had ever seen. As the trout leapt, I giggled. “Off that blade of grass…. Fish on!” “Against that rip-rap… Fish on!” “Wheeeeee!”

It was then at that moment of trout epiphany that the first lightning began to flash. Now wandering around standing in water holding a seven-foot lightning rod and waving it overhead during a thunderstorm is not a good idea. I should have left and headed back to the car. Instead, I fished on, the trout now jumping on the end of my line into the falling rain.

Finally, I felt that I had pushed it far enough and wound in, put on my rain jacket and tromped off. The creek I was fishing runs against the bottom of a ridgeline of a coulee hill. That prevented me from actually viewing the storm as it approached. The first inkling that I got that this storm was a force of nature, an elemental power of water, thunder, and wind was when it came over the ridge. I was twenty feet from my car when a downdraft of wind twenty degrees cooler than the humid 90-degree air of the valley nearly knocked me to the ground. I was then assaulted by a horizontal rain. Each drop was like a projectile. It actually hurt. The sky became water, and I could no longer see at all. Then the lightning struck repeatedly and close. I threw my rod into some nearby bushes and squatted down in the classic duck and cover position, water streaming off my hood and hands like faucets. Water began to trickle and rise around my feet. I thought I glimpsed Noah in the distance sawing wood for his ark.

It lasted fifteen minutes. In fifteen minutes more than an inch and a half of rain fell. As I got back to the car and drove off to see if Mr. Tent had survived, I saw the creek I had just fished. Where it turned back into the wooded ridge and increased in gradient, it was a muddy torrent pushing rocks and boulders before it. Further down the road the storm dropped the first of its five tornadoes.

I guess the thing that struck me was that I was not disappointed. Two and a half days of trout fishing had turned into three hours, but experiencing that storm, and being made to feel helpless in the face of nature was an experience in itself to be treasured…. Once. Next time I will just pull into some rural bar, order a tap beer from Stash or Erma, and say “Ya, how’s about them Packers?”

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Getting started in 'spey' casting

Learning to cast a ‘spey’ or two-handed rod
Copyright 2010 Erik F. Helm

Note: This article is designed to be a simple introduction to spey casting, and how to best get involved in it. More in-depth resources can be found at the end of the article.

One of the most common questions I am asked on the river, and one that is commonly seen on internet forums is “How do I learn to cast a two handed or ‘spey’ rod?”

Fishing with two-handed rods has exploded in popularity recently. New rods and lines have made it easier than ever to pick up spey casting, but the plethora of tackle available has also led to confusion among new spey casters regarding rod length, style, types of lines, etc., and can lead to a very frustrating learning experience. The entire language of ‘spey’ can be confusing as well.

Spey casting is essentially a form of aerialized roll cast with a change of direction. It utilizes a loop of line (often referred to as a ‘D’ loop) that is anchored in the water at the tip of the fly line or leader, thus providing enough resistance to allow the rod to load as it would in the overhead cast. It is mostly used in swinging flies in the water, which is accomplished by casting across the river and letting the fly drag back across to dangle below you. Drag in this case is good, as is a tight line to control the fly.

Before I cover the learning process, let us briefly examine the different two-handed or ‘spey’ casting styles and their equipment.



Traditional spey casting made its way to America and Canada via the British Isles, originating on the river Spey in Scotland. Typically using rods longer than 13 feet and up to 18 feet long, traditional spey casting is a method designed to defeat a lack of back casting room, and allow an angler to cover the river with a swung fly much easier than conventional tackle would allow. The rods are often, but not always, full or progressive in their flex. The lines used are usually quite long, with weight-forward tapers running from 65 to 90 feet. More traditional double-taper lines are also utilized. Due to the nature of using longer lines on long rods with slow to medium actions, the traditional method uses more body rock and pivoting motion, as well as exact timing. The caster often uses a short pause after the formation of the ‘D’ loop in order to allow the rod to load properly. Traditional casting is the most graceful form of casting with a two handed rod, and is often the most difficult to perfect. Traditional casting makes total use of both hands, the lower pulling back to the body, while the upper hand steers the cast by extension. Traditional casts include the single-spey for an upstream wind, and the double-spey for a downstream wind. Traditional casting is used mostly to deliver small to medium steelhead and salmon flies to distances over 65 feet. The lines are commonly of the floating variety or have a sinking tip. Some anglers cast full sinking lines using this method as well.

Scandinavian style:

Often abbreviated as ‘Scandi’ and popularized by Goran Anderson, the Scandinavian style often makes use of stiffer rods than the traditional method. Many are shorter as well, although when casting great distances, rods up to 15 feet long are utilized. The lines used are in essence shooting-heads. Usually running from 30 to 50 feet long, these heads are tapered and attached to a running line of PVC or monofilament. A long leader of 14 feet or longer is utilized to anchor the cast in the water. A very strong use of the lower hand is emphasized in order to load the rod, as is a lower hand position on the rod. The upper hand extends very little, and the arms are kept closer to the body than the traditional style. The cast requires a minimum of effort compared to the traditional style, and some find it less fatiguing. For those of you coming from a single-handed casting background, learning the lower hand power stroke may be difficult. Casts that work best are the single-spey and snake-roll, both being casts that use a touch and go anchor. Other casts can be used as well. Scandinavian casting is used in full floating applications, as well as using sink tips, and even density-compensated full-sinking lines.

Modern Spey casting:

Making the most of the recent innovations in rods and lines, the modern style generally uses a shorter 50 to 65 foot head length in the weight-forward line. The rods are usually of medium length and generally run from around 12 feet to 14 feet long. The rod action is typically between traditional and Scandinavian: not too fast, not too slow. Popularized in the Pacific North West of the United States by anglers such as Jim Vincent, Simon Gawesworth, and Dec Hogan, the modern style is probably the easiest to learn. Less body-rock and pivoting is needed, and the casts are less apt to be sabotaged by improper timing. The arms are used in unison to power the rod, with the power stroke being delivered mostly with the lower hand. The progressive rod and heavy line does most of the work. Modern casting covers the full gambit from a full floating line to using heavy sinking tips.

Skagit Casting:

The most recent style of casting is the Skagit style. Born by necessity on the Skagit River in Washington State, the Skagit style uses very short and heavy heads attached to a running line much like the Scandinavian style does. The difference is that the Skagit head is less tapered and heavier, being designed primarily for, but not always limited to fishing with a sink tip attached to the head. Rods for Skagit casting come in all lengths from 12 to 15 feet, but the rods purposely designed for this style have actions that are slower than in Scandinavian casting. The casting stroke-length is shorter as well. Most Skagit casting is performed with a sustained anchor cast such as the double-spey, the Perry poke or Armenian cast, or the snap-T. Deep sink tip work and large flies work well with the Skagit style.

Cast groups, anchor, water direction, and wind.

In the prior examination of casting styles, I mentioned some casting strokes and anchor groups. Let us briefly take a look at when and why to utilize them.

Wind is the prevailing factor in determining which spey cast to utilize. When your fly is on the water and off to one side of your body, a wind blowing into you will often result in landing the fly in your ear or somewhere else, resulting in an impromptu body piercing. Thus, the casts are divided roughly into upstream and downstream wind casts. In general terms, the single-spey, snap-T, and Armenian or Perry poke cast are used when the wind is blowing upstream toward the caster. The anchor and D-loop occur on the down-wind side of the body, so hooking oneself is less likely. Consequently, the double-spey and snake-roll are used when the wind is blowing downstream. The forward-spey is the one cast that does not change direction, and is effectively an aerial roll-cast. The forward-spey is less a fishing cast and is usually used to reposition the line downstream prior to beginning a spey cast.

Water direction plays a huge part too. The right-handed caster would use the double-spey and snake roll when the river is flowing from their left, and the other casts when the river is flowing from their right.

These casts can also be divided into two groups by how the anchor is achieved. The single-spey and snake-roll are ‘touch and go’ casts. The line is aerialized during the cast, and the anchor is only a kiss of the end of the line or the leader on the water. The line itself loads the rod. They are ideal for floating lines. The second group of casts can be referred to as ‘sustained anchor’ casts. The double-spey, snap-T, and Perry poke or Armenian casts all use the sustained or locked line tension of pulling against the line on the water to load the rod. While the touch and go casts use little or no pause depending on the length of line used, the sustained anchor casts use a slight pause between the set of the anchor and the D-loop stroke.

All these casts can be performed with either hand uppermost on the rod, depending on the circumstances. Some casters prefer changing hands when appropriate, while others use the strong arm uppermost at all times, a practice that is commonly referred to as ‘cack-handed.’

Now that you have a basic sense of the casts, anchor groups, and styles of casting with a two-handed rod, we can look at the learning path to allow you to realize the joy of casting and fishing with them.

How to learn:

First things first. Before you go out and spend your next mortgage payment on a spey rod, line, and reel, think about the different styles of casting and ask yourself some questions. Will you be using the rod primarily for sink tip work, or will you use a floating line too? What types of rivers you will fish is important too. Using longer rods of 14 or 15 feet on small rivers with trees overhanging the banks can be frustrating and lead to a broken rod, and trying cast a 90 foot taper traditional line is probably not the best choice for these circumstances. Your fly has a higher chance of ending up in the overhanging trees above/behind you and the line will likely not fully load the rod at these distances. Likewise, trying to use short rods and lines on vast rivers may also lead to frustration. In general, the longer the rod, the farther one can cast, especially when wading deep. There are a lot of considerations here.

Once you have a rough idea of what style you want to learn, get some professional instruction. I didn’t, and it took years to correct flaws that could have never have occurred in the first place if I had instruction. The lessons do not need to be weeks long and cost an arm and a leg. Many instructors are available at gatherings of spey casters known as ‘claves.’ One can get formal and informal instruction as well as trying out different rods and lines. The events are usually free, the more formal instruction may not be.

Now that you have fooled around with a dozen rods and a myriad of lines, had some formal instruction, and wrapped the line around every conceivable object including yourself and your poor dog, it is time to start kicking the tires at purchasing a rod. Get as many qualified opinions as possible, and utilize online forums such as the Be careful. Frame your questions properly, and beware that just like belly buttons, everyone has an opinion. What works for them may not work for you. When you have some sort of idea what you want, visit a qualified flyshop where you can speak to someone who knows what he or she is talking about when it comes to two-handed rods. Keep in mind that the rod and line must perfectly compliment each other. Bad line and rod combinations ruin spey casting. Don’t break the bank at first, but buy a quality rod with a warranty. The longer the rod, the more chance it has of getting caught in car doors, or tangled in trees. A warranty can pay for a rod many times over.

Along with your first rod purchase, I recommend a DVD or two. Spey casting is dynamic, and the motions are not easily described in print. A video can make things much easier. Later, when you are analyzing your casting and correcting flaws, a book can aid in the learning process.

The Art of Practice

First, put that pretty fly away. Use a piece of yarn as the fly and tie it to your leader. You don’t need any accidental body-piercing at this stage.

Now that you have narrowed down your options to a rod, line, and casting style suitable for your waters and intended purpose, stick with it. Fooling around with different styles at this point can lead to disaster. Practice one cast at a time. Start with the easier casts such as the forward-spey, and the double-spey. Work on these casts until you can make the head of the line and the leader turn over cleanly. Use a floating line when beginning. Floating lines give you a better feel for your stroke. Start with just the head of the line out of the guides. Worry about distance and shooting line later. Just as in golf, we cannot start learning properly by trying to drive 300 yards. Cast in near slow motion. That way you can correct errors as they develop. Take notes. Keep a casting log recording errors, fixes, thoughts, and inspirations. This will prove an invaluable tool. At some point, you will need to determine if you want to switch hands or cast cack-handed. Some people are nearly ambidextrous, while others (like me) can’t get the hang of casting with the ‘other’ or weak hand on top. If the two-handed rod is too much at the beginning, practice with a soft single-handed rod. Spey casting is not limited to the long rod. Some people feel that adding the use of both hands, at the same time as attempting to learn a whole new legion of strange casts, is difficult to overcome. Don’t be afraid of the single-hander, the casts are the same.

As you advance and become competent with the various casts, begin to vary the depth of water in which you are casting. Cast both short and long distances. Have a plan to your practice, be methodical, don’t just go out there and flail around.
Above all, try not to get frustrated. Even the best casters in the world had to start just where you are now.

Common errors:

This list is far from definitive, instead it will point out the most commonly seen errors by beginners that lead to frustration as the line lands in a spaghetti-like pile around your head.

· Over emphasis on the upper hand. You will have to learn to use the lower hand to help load and power the rod.

· Hacking or chopping wood. Arms hurt yet? If they do it may be a sign that you are not stopping the rod high enough and positively on the forward cast. This leads to hacking or chopping, and downward pointing floppy loops of line.

· Too much line-stick on the anchor. The cast should be able to pull the line out of the water. If you hear a splash and slurpy sound on your forward cast, and the line goes nowhere, too much line is anchoring the cast. Set your anchor closer, and make a more positive D-loop stroke.

· Casting too fast. This is the cardinal sin. If there is one thing that you should keep repeating, it is “Slow Down!” Spey casting is a graceful waltz, not a break-dance.

· Using too much effort. Spey casting should be easy. When you are casting correctly, it should be a joy. Let the rod and the line do most of the work.

No matter how accomplished a caster you become, casting practice will enhance your enjoyment of time spent fishing by removing the process of working out kinks to your off time. Standing in a run full of steelhead or Atlantic salmon, while futzing with your casting, can lead anyone to snap their rod in two in frustration.

Some recommendations:

I have opinions too. One of these is that one of the best ways to learn spey or two-handed casting is with a medium length rod, and a short-head spey line. This would be the modern method covered earlier. A moderate action rod of 13 to 14 feet, and a line with a 50-55 foot head is a perfect learning tool. If the rod is too stiff, feedback is affected. You can always buy that super fast action cannon later… once you have learned to cast.

Using lines with heads shorter than 50 feet while initially learning may result in developing a casting style that does not allow one to easily move to casting longer lines.

If it all sounds too confusing, remember that we just covered a lot of information, and that every journey begins with a single step. That initial step could open up a whole new world of fly-fishing enjoyment.

Some select resources:

Spey Casting by Simon Gawesworth (book)
Modern Spey casting by Rio Products (DVD)
From Spey to Z (DVD)
The art of Speycasting (DVD) Informational site and online forums
Two-Handed Fly Casting: Spey Casting Techniques by Al Buhr (book)

Erik Helm is a fly-fisherman and writer based in Wisconsin. He has chased steelhead with the two-handed rod extensively in the Pacific North West as well as the Great Lakes region. Erik teaches fly casting to individuals and groups, as well as keeping a literary fly fishing blog. His work can be found at

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Summertime, and the livin is easy…

Fish are jumpin, and the cotton is high…

Recent sunny and muggy days have drawn me to the childlike romance and innocence of fishing ponds for sunfish and largemouth bass. Warm water opportunities abound in the Midwest. Ponds and small lakes are literally everywhere. This little pond was packed with eager fish chasing dragonflies. They literally jumped out of the water after the bugs. My little popper didn’t quite look like a dragonfly, in fact, one would have to have Timothy Leary eyes to see a size 12 chartreuse popper as anything remotely resembling a dragonfly, but the cooperative fish were abiding by the philosophy “If it is on the surface and moving, it must be food.”

There is an inherent joy to ponds. No pressure or pretensions, plenty of room to cast, and spontaneous laughter when tiny bass come unglued in attempts to eat your popper. I recognized the laugh. It came from the ten-year-old boy within me.

Shallow ponds like these are simply made for the fly-rod. No other form of fishing can deliver food with the little ‘splat’ that drives pond-dwelling fish nuts. The best technique is simply to ‘ring the dinner bell.’

A good reminder that fly-fishing is supposed to be fun. Who cares if I couldn’t remember the Latin name for dragonflies as my shoes squished in the swampy ground and my shirt, pants and hands smelled like fish.

That frosted mug of root beer at an A&W afterwards tasted pretty good too.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Fitting the fly rod to the angler

A frequent scenario I encounter is the mismatching of a fly-rod to an anglers casting ability or style. It is common enough that thought I would take a few minutes and flail away with the old keyboard on the subject.

At a casting class awhile back, an angler showed up with a super-fast action tournament casting fly-rod. He had difficulty loading the rod, and his sense of timing was all over the place. The rod was just too stiff for him at the present stage of his casting learning. I had him cast a more moderate flexing rod, and the difference was immediately apparent. He could feel the rod load, and therefore his timing improved greatly. What is the lesson here?

A common aphorism states, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.” Translated, this means that what works for one person may not work for another. This is why purchasing a rod based on an article in a magazine or a review can be dangerous. It also offers a partial explanation as to why so many rods are dumped on the used market every day.

We are all different, and our casting strokes are too. Some people have soft progressive strokes and like to feel the rod load into the mid or even the butt section. Some people like to cast a stiff cannon of a rod.

However, If an angler cannot load the rod with 30 feet of line out, and does not know how to double-haul, the super-stiff rod may be more of a hindrance to casting than an aid. Likewise, a soft rod used for distance casting can work, but requires a steady and experienced hand.

I have written about this type of situation before. What is best for person ‘A’ in a given situation, may not be best for person ‘B’ in the same situation.

Often anglers question their rods. “Is this rod any good?” they ask themselves. The answer once again, is that in the hands of an experienced caster, most rods on the market today can be made to shine. It all has to do with the person doing the casting, which brings us back full-circle to fitting the tool to the job and the user.

That takes some skill, and a bit of experience. Quite a few questions should be posed and honestly answered. What, where, how, etc. Few people would buy an automobile they are unfamiliar with without a test drive. Anglers should test-cast rods before purchasing. The line being cast can also make a difference. I have heard it stated that if one has to over-line his or her rod (six weight line for a fast action five-weight rod), then he or she does not know how to cast.


We are all different. Rod and line combinations that work for an expert caster, may not work for you.

The key in the rod selection process is that when you are on the river or lake, it is just you, your casting stroke, and the rod and line. The guy who sold it to you, or the magazine review you read will not be there with you. Get all the best advice you can, and visit a quality fly-shop and take a rod or two out for a test spin. If the person doing the selling tells you all about how you should buy his or her favorite rod, use caution. A good salesperson should always place themselves in your shoes, and ask leading questions before they sell you something. This way, that new rod of yours will see some river time, and not sit in the closet gathering dust.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Haiku Steelhead

My friend Ken Campbell has revived his blog 'Haiku Steelhead'.
Ken is an artist in his appreciation for those things sublime and beautiful, and is one of a small brotherhood of those of us that attempt to find a deeper meaning in our fly-fishing adventures. Please check it out here.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The wonderful aerial ballet of frustration: The single spey cast.

It reminds me of a Chinese gymnast with a long red scarf dancing through the air painting fleeting pictures and creating beautiful forms like a Picasso sparkler drawing on a long exposure film. It is at once the most perfect of all casts, with the power of a double-haul and the grace of a ballet dancer. Performed perfectly, it is grace.

But, dear reader, the single spey is a fickle friend. Forgive me for the analogy, but is like some girls I dated in my college days: so beautiful and interesting that you kept coming back, even if she messed up your head to no end.

The single spey is a delicate flower as well. That perfect loop is only attainable through precise timing and cast structure. Do it wrong, and it lets you know right away.

This is why I am drawn to the art of the single-spey like a moth to a flame; no matter how many times it burns me, I always come back for more.

The funny thing is that the single-spey is the one cast that goes off for me over the winter, or when not practicing. The double-spey, poke, snap-T, snake-roll, reverse casts, etc. all fly out, but the single-spey lets me know when I am not paying it enough attention.

The single-spey even haunts my dreams at night.

One of the major problems I have with this cast is over-analysis and too many sources for input. After watching a video or reading an article, I will change something and get a positive result, which then goes awry the next day. Then I watch a different video, and make another change…
The result this early spring was like a bunch of unrelated spare parts welded together to form something that didn’t work, and looked ugly.

So, learning from my past mistakes, I started from scratch, and concentrated on basics again. Slow lift angling to the casting direction, an ever-so-slight dip created by the underhand, a rising flat sweep and turn, pause, and stop.

I then realized that I had been making basic errors for the last seven years at least.
My anchor landed piled due to an up and down dip thanks to one video. My upper-hand was over-dominant. I had to begin the use of the underhand at the beginning of the cast, and maintain it throughout in order to form a large enough D-loop. I also lacked, and still lack body twist, and I over-compensate for that. I stop too low, and fire my casts too low. Etc.

Funny thing is, with a shorter head and sustained-anchor casts, these problems correct themselves, and faults are not as easily noticed, but add a mid-belly or DT line, and watch out! Now all the errors get multiplied to create frustrating and seemingly unsolvable problems.

So, to make a long story short, I will be down by the river when the winds are not blowing at 30 mph, and trying to re-discover beauty in the simplest but most difficult cast of them all.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


From time to time I run into people who tell me all about how they out-fished a buddy, or how they caught more fish than ‘fill in the blank’.

I guess competition is inherent in human nature. After all, it tends to be how we measure ourselves, and our abilities and success. However, ideally, competition should not enter into the little games we play on lakes and streams with our cherished quarry.

Competition should be something that occurs naturally within our own heads. It should have to do with bettering ourselves, learning, casting more precise, or presenting better. It should be an internal challenge to read the water better, choose the proper fly, or adapt to conditions. It never should be something that occurs between yourself and other anglers. That is a perversion of the spirit of angling with a fly.

This is a difficult path to walk. All it takes for us to get side-tracked is to observe another angler catching fish behind us, or figuring out a difficult hatch or fish in a particularly nasty lie, and then we want to catch more and bigger fish than they did.

I have some wisdom to share here. No matter how good you are, how many fish you catch, how far or how accurate you cast, there will always be someone better, usually just around the next bend.

So, the only way not to drive yourself crazy and end up in a straight-jacket mumbling incoherently about the impending cucumber revolution, is to limit the competition to yourself.

Satisfaction should be measured in baby steps, not great strides. Finally raising that big brown that lives under the alders in the bridge pool with a half-reverse slack line reach cast should matter far more than actually hooking it. This kind of personal growth should be celebrated.

With each step we take as anglers on our personal journey and path, we should grow in wisdom as well as skill.

If fly-fishing becomes a true competitive sport, at least we may want to avoid the NASCAR crossover look…

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Orvis Milwaukee

Orvis Milwaukee

Those of you who are local and have enjoyed reading some of my rather enigmatic wandering prose and thoughts will be able to visit me at the Milwaukee Orvis store at the Bayshore Mall. I will be the fishing manager, and responsible for outreach and everything outdoors or fly-fishing related. That includes classes, seminars, etc. Perhaps a reading of a short story...

The store opens May 15th. Come say ‘Hi.’

Being employed full-time and running a business on the side will no doubt leave me with less time for blogging and writing, but I hope that quality instead of quantity will suffice for the future. Meanwhile, I have submitted an entry to the Robert Traver fly-fishing writing award from Fly Rod and Reel magazine. Wish me luck! I hope “Hop on Pop” is not already entered…

Monday, April 26, 2010

April showers and trout

Here are some nice photos of a Wisconsin trout stream visited recently. Nothing was hatching, and the pocket water made for technical fishing, but Joe and I managed to have a blast anyway, and some fish were caught. Buttery and feisty browns mostly. Just having the privelege to fish beatutiful water such as this and see the wildflowers blooming makes for a perfect spring day.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Save wild fish and get gear

Stop over at Save our Wild Salmon to enter a photo contest and win a pair of Snake River Mountain Khakis pants, and support river conservation in this most endangered of our precious salmon and steelhead rivers.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Poppies forever Grow over their lost Dreams

Painting by Otto Dix, German Expressionist.

Life’s dreams do not always die when we do…

Copyright 2010 Erik F. Helm

The fire had died to a pensive glow and the three bottles of scotch were at half-mast that cold spring evening in Larry’s cabin on the West Fork. The fishing had been poor, and the conditions so brutal, that the five of us hearty anglers sought refuge earlier than we had liked. The Blue winged olive hatch had not come off, but the hatch of self-pity was in full force.

There is something about the company of men around a fire that brings out personal details, admissions, and tales that never before had seen the light of day. For some reason, like kids at a summer camp, we had strayed to telling strange tales and yarns. Bob had just admitted that he believed his house was haunted, and explained in detailed histrionics the spectral visions in the attic, and strange unexplainable sounds coming from under the old covered well in the cellar. This led to a rather long pause, as my turn came, and I considered whether to relate the strange events surrounding a small estate appraisal of a few pieces of vintage tackle I had performed out of kindness in the late 1960s in England.

Pouring more scotch into my old tin cup, Allen egged me on. “You gotta have somesing to tell dats wierd,” he slurred slightly.

“O.K., sit back and listen then,” I started, “It’s a long tale, but worth hearing. If I wasn’t there, I never would have believed it myself.”

I took off my hat, moved closer to the fire, took a powerful pull of scotch, and began.

“How I came to be fishing England’s chalk streams is unimportant. Suffice it to say that it was on an invitation from an angling club based upon the stipulation that I write a feature travel and fishing article about my adventures for my column in Field and Stream. It is because of what I am about to tell you that I never actually got around to writing the article, and because of this, was never invited back.”

“It was 1967 or ’68 when I flew over to Britain. In America, it was the summer of love. In Britain, it was the summer of fog and labor strikes. The angling club was charming and comfortable, the members and hosts relatively friendly, and the fishing very technical. I made mistakes, botched hook-sets, and spooked more fish than I am comfortable telling. I certainly gained a new respect for a stealthy approach on spring creeks. Some of the better fly-fishermen crouched or even crawled along the side of the river, hiding themselves in reeds and grasses.”

“It was along on the third or fourth day that I took a break to catch up on correspondence, and to that end, visited a local P.O. to mail off postcards and letters. I was completely unaware of the fact that, having come directly from the stream, I was still wearing a hat festooned with flies. That was an observation not missed by a middle-aged man with a well-worn coat, the squinty eyes of someone who has spent his entire adult life working in an ill-lit factory, and a pleasant crooked smile. He introduced himself, although the name now escapes me, and asked me if I was fly-fishing. As the line slowly wound forward towards the only service window, we engaged in a nice banter. After I had told him my profession, he took off his hat and scratching his curly coal-black hair, wondered aloud if I had any expertise in antique fishing tackle. In those days I got asked that question more than my name. It seemed that everywhere I went, somebody or other had some old bent and worthless rods and rusty lures in a closet somewhere, and were convinced that they were ‘worth a fortune.’ Some actually were, but most were the run of the mill general or hardware store types. The reason he asked, he explained, was that he was helping out an old widow that lived down an adjacent lane dissolve some of her household goods, and she had several ‘fishing-poles in wooden tubes’, and other stuff I may want to look at before it went to a local auction, and the widow to a room in a pension.”

“I’m a soft one for old tackle, and so, even though I had a busy schedule, I agreed to the short rail ride to the little town of Sassoon the following evening after fishing. As the train car clattered its way down the line, I looked at a map, which showed Sassoon as not more than a junction. When I dismounted, it was already getting dark, and shadows played off the dark stained brick of the small square. The man I had met the day before was dutifully sitting on the lone bench, smoking a foul-smelling cigarette. He smiled at me, and leading the way, began walking down a narrow and damp lane. After several twists and turns and nodding wordlessly to a group of urchins sailing paper boats in the stagnant water running down the center channel of the cobblestones, we arrived at a leaning stone portal with a decayed wooden sign hanging by thin wire with the words ‘Graves Lane.’ The irony was not lost on me.”

“‘Here we are,” he said, pointing to a small stone house through the portal. The name fit the place I thought. At one time there had been a garden. How long ago that may have been was anybody’s guess. What grew there now was an assortment of brown feral weeds. It may have once been a victory garden, but now it certainly looked defeated. The house itself was tiny and not much to look at, save for two window boxes bearing bright red poppies. Mr. Whatshisname begged off, and left me with the words that Mrs. Higgins was expecting me.”

“As I walked through the neglected yard toward the house, A shadow passed before the dimly lit and dust filled windows; that shadow proved to be Mrs. Higgins herself, who opened the door carefully, and stood in the failing evening light like a frightened candle afraid of the wind. She was slight and bent and wore a gray frock and dress that once may have been a floral print. The brightest things about her were her pure white hair, which she wore long, and her bright blue left eye. The right eye was filmed over white with cataract.”

“She may have been as ageless as the trees, but when she spoke, her voice was immediately one of kindness and compassion. It was also as clear as a bell. ‘Of all days of days…’ she murmured, ‘Welcome and thank you Mr. Allen. Come in out of the dark and have a cuppa.’ She stood aside as I entered a tidy sitting room and attached kitchen. A cheaply framed and yellowed sacred heart of Jesus hung above the fireplace, which admitted a slight but pitiful glow of a single coal. Mrs. Higgins seated me on a wooden chair seemingly designed to torture backs, and went to fetch the tray of tea. As I glanced around the room, a sense of pity filled me. It must be the same anywhere. Poor widowed women living in isolation with some meager pension, alive only in the past and with nothing to look forward to but death, surrounded by memories in the form of old photos of their husbands, children, and friends in better times. The furnishings were sparse, well-used, and obviously repaired and cared for carefully. The wing-back that Mrs. Higgins carefully lowered herself into with apologies to me for the lesser chair due to her back, had doilies covering up the frayed upholstery on the armrests.”

“After we had exchanged small talk and finished our tea, she retrieved several wooden rod cases and a cardboard box from the kitchen. ‘Here it is,’ she said. ‘These belonged to my late husband William.’ As I unwrapped the cases that she had obviously treasured and kept dear, she retrieved an old photo from the mantelpiece and handed it to me. Staring out of the cracked glass was a handsome young man in uniform. His hat was cocked slightly, and his smile was beguiling and hopeful.”

“The rods consisted of a bait caster made from solid wood, a 7-foot cane trout rod, and a three-piece salmon rod from an Aberdeen maker. All three were in immaculate condition. As I nodded in approval and complimented her on the care of fine tackle, she told me the story of her husband.”

“‘He enlisted in the Great War in 1915, only three years after we were married. William was a smart man, even if his education was limited. He trained first with a standard infantry regiment. They only had fake wooden rifles to practice with then, he told me; the real ones were needed at the front. This picture was taken just before he shipped out. He had to wait to have the picture taken due to not even having a uniform. After a few months of drill, he was transferred to a fusiliers regiment. He was so proud!’”

“‘He loved to fish for trout and salmon. It was expensive even then, but he had an uncle that had some rights on a river in Scotland, and he shared his fishing with William. I still remember baking a salmon for him that he caught and had shipped back to me on ice. Only time I have ever had it. He was proud of his fishing equipment. He had saved for it for two years while working in a warehouse on the docks.’”

“As she continued, I opened the box, revealing three metal containers of flies, and half a dozen large minnow lures. The flies were mostly rusted and the feathers eaten away, but the lures were in passable condition. Under the boxes of flies were two reels: a bait caster made of brass, and a tiny trout reel. Both were serviceable.”

“I explained to her that this collection could fetch the maximum number of pounds in a London auction, and not some provincial town, and wrote down both what I thought the range of prices might be, and the names of three creditable auction brokers. She thanked me repeatedly, and reaching for her purse, fumbled with some pound notes. ‘Please, I protested, no charge… I insist! It is privilege enough to just get to see such fine tackle so well preserved.’”

“It was then that it dawned on me that there were three rods and only two reels. ‘What happened to the salmon reel?’ I inquired cautiously. She paused a moment, and again lowered herself into the chair. ‘That reel is the one piece of his fishing things I will never sell. You see, it was my wedding present to William. It is also very special, for, well… sentimental and other reasons. I have it in my dresser, If you are willing to stay a bit longer,’ she said looking at her watch, ‘you may come to understand.’”

“She went into her bedroom and returned with a cracked leather case. She laid it down on the small center table between us. Along with the case, she brought a bottle of wine and two glasses. ‘Currant wine’ she explained. ‘I always have a glass at this time every month.’ She carefully measured out the homemade wine, and sat back.

“‘William loved that reel’ she said, raising her glass in a toast. ‘He hoped to get leave and fish it once again with his uncle.’ She carefully unbuckled the leather strap and took out the reel, setting it on a piece of velvet in the middle of the table. I knew right away it was a Perfect Reel made by Hardy Brothers. It had an ivory handle, and a hand-leaded finish.”

“‘William was sent with his regiment to France in the spring of 1916. I still have a dozen letters from him. I knew him well enough that, even if he didn’t write it directly due to censors, I knew something big was ahead. He was excited and nervous. In mid-summer I got a letter and a visit from an officer. I knew what it meant. The papers were filled with ‘Our gallant day’ and the ‘Big Push” that had spelled the beginning of the end for the Jerries. But I knew better. Women were crying and wailing. My neighbor lost her son and her husband at the same time. On July 1st, William and 57, 000 others of our best and loved went over the top of the trenches at the Somme, and fell before the Jerry lines. Their feet got tangled in barbed wire that the artillery was supposed to cut, and they got mired down in mud. The Jerries were anything but dead. Our generals were sipping champagne back at their French villas. They thought it was all going marvelously.’”

“‘It is just about time,’ she said, leaning forward toward the reel and looking again at her watch. ‘It does it on every first of the month at 9:27 PM. William must have laid a-dying the whole day in front of the German wire. They found him the next day. He had crawled forward towards their lines, dragging his satchel of grenades behind him. Machine gun got him they told me.’ At that very moment, the handle of the reel began to turn on its own, emitting a 'tat-a-tat-a-tat' sound from its check mechanism that exactly matched the sound of a maxim machine-gun. ‘1912 model,’ I mumbled, the hair on my neck standing up and shivers running down my spine. ‘Yes,’ she answered, ‘the year we were married.’

“I understand,’ I reassured her as I left the small house in Graves Lane.

“What ever happened to the reel?” Larry asked with rapt attention.

“I never found out, nor did I inquire. In some ways, I am glad for that. You would have had to be there to hear that eerie machine-gun noise that the reel admitted all by itself. I guess William did not want to let his dreams die so easily. Perhaps this was his way of protesting to future generations the bitter futility of war.”

“To a whole generation that were butchered and damned." Eric Bogle, from the song ‘No man's land’

Author’s note: This story was inspired by a discussion I read on the classic rod forum regarding the early Hardy perfects and some speculation as to what became of their original owners due to the reels being in remarkable shape for their age. I took a walk, mused a bit, and came up with this. The reader may recognize the names of Sassoon and Graves, which I borrowed on purpose. These refer to Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, two English poets and authors who became outspoken critics of the war, and the way it was being conducted with disregard to the wholesale waste and sacrifice of human life.