Thursday, March 25, 2010

The “Sport” of gravel raping

Well, here we are. Spring is in the air, the robins are singing, “Cheer up… cheer up…cheerily!” cardinals are calling their mating song, and ‘fly-fishers’ are on the gravel chasing spawning steelhead. In the past week, the water level has fallen and cleared enough to allow the use of those nifty polarized glasses to spot fish on the gravel. Guys with expensive cigars wade the shallows looking for bedding fish, hook them on nymphs and glo-bugs, and drag them away from their mates during the act of procreation. The poor fish flop around on the gravel until trapped in a net effectively damaging their protective slime layer, and then get to star in grip and grin ego photos.

Is this sporting? I guess the answer depends on what one considers fair chase. Would it be sporting to wait for a deer buck to mount a doe and then shoot it? That is effectively what is happening here.

To me, and this is my opinion, chasing steelhead, or any fish while they are attempting to build redds and spawn is the lowest form of ‘fishing’ shy of intentional snagging. Even the snagger is probably being honest in his or her game, however illegal it is. Gravel rapers on the other hand actually think they are fly-fishing. Sad.

After many years of swinging flies for steelhead, I can spot a gravel-raper just by looks.

Usually the most expensive vehicle in the parking area, Lexi, Range Rovers, and other obnoxiously large and irresponsible SUVs, will belong to them. Often they sport fly-fishing stickers, or even TU logos. The anglers rarely fish alone. They most often show up in twos and threes. It must have something to do with the glory photos, and the sense of camaraderie in pounding the gravel with your buddies ready to offer congratulations on your ‘catch.’ They wear all the latest gear, especially if it has a logo. They dress up to look like some image in their mind of how a fly-fisherman should look. They ask every person they come across, “Have you seen any fish?” They wander around the river in unpredictable directions, most often again, in groups.

Most of these guys are trout fishermen. That is sad in itself. Instead of learning the skill of reading water in a large river, they just do what everyone else is doing, and rely on sighted fish on gravel before they can make a single cast. I am a trout fisherman as well, but it just kills me to see people that I know from the small streams rely on these tactics for steelhead. Would they fish that way on a trout stream? Is that why the streams are closed for part of the year to protect spawning fish? If the streams and creeks were not closed, would these ‘anglers’ hook as many spawning trout off their gravel beds as they could?

It is getting to the point that an ingrained belief, culture, or even tradition surrounds the use of single-hand rods: nymphing, or glo-bugging over gravel. Swinging streamers seems to be relegated to spey rods now. This is sad too. The single-hand rod is an excellent tool for streamer fishing, if only this method would catch on here. If only these legions of anglers in the Midwest would depart for a day or two and not rely on sight-fishing, the sport that would be discovered by them would be enough to put them off the bedded fish forever.

Alas, this takes a leap of faith, and the ability to appreciate a single fish caught fairly after a full day of wading and casting, versus tallying numbers and measuring the skill of the angler by the sheer number of fish to hand, however crude the method. That leap of faith, and sense of fair chase seems to be beyond most anglers. Indeed, they often defend the practice, and I have been told by one fisherman that “He feels sorry for me, if I don’t get enjoyment out of sight fishing for steelhead.” Sight fishing and gravel raping are not necessarily bonded together. If a fisherman walking the banks and looking down into a pool spots a pod of fish holding in the water, and then swings flies or nymphs for them, that is different than fishing bedded fish. In our rivers, 99% of steelhead spotted are on the gravel.

The thing that really bothers me is that these gravel rapers think that, because they are using a fly rod, they are somehow elevated above the gear fishermen or center-pinners that are legitimately hooking their fish. This very deservedly gives fly-fishing a bad name. Being snobby about an abominable method of fishing is just sad. This is sad, and a disservice to all the other anglers, whatever the method or gear, who are actually fishing.


  1. This also describes the pillaging that occurs on the South Fork of the Clearwater every spring. Despicable.

  2. Right on Eric, I agree totally. I have even seen guys from big name fly shops (not mentioning any names, you know who you are) putting vidios on Utude and calling it steelhead fishing lessons. I find it irresponsible that these people, who should know better, would promote these kinds of methods as being acceptable behavior. In my veiw these fisherman feel the need to self promote and glorify their reputations in order to get more guide clients as well as promote their shop's buisiness. Which is unfortunite because it only serves to marginalize the integrity of their shop in my opinion.

  3. Oh God, the South Fork of the Clearwater. Yeah that is a travesty of the worst sort. I've been fishing a few times this past year with an older fellow whom in most ways I admire. But to him, steelhead = bobbers and egg flies. He's up there right now in fact, yankin' fish off the gravel. Right or wrong that tarnishes someones image in my mind.

    Caihlen: I was witness to your bro. blowing a gasket at someone over this very subject a couple years back. Pretty entertaining really...I'm sure you can imagine.

  4. The old South Fork... Ugh.

    I don't know which is worse, but expect the behavior attracts the same type of practitioner everywhere. I just wish they would stop the immense pretention that they are "fly-fishing". Ugh. Thomas, I agree on the guiding and shop thing too. This is why I will not guide except for an angler abasolutely dedicated to swinging flies. Imagine what kind of tip I would get when my sport hooks a single fish or gets skunked whilst all around him guys are pulling 'em up off the beds by the dozen?

  5. What Erik, you don't like the idea of prostituting your soul just to stoke somebodies ego?

  6. AJ, If you mean my brother the guide, yeah I heard about it. Not the first time, wasn't the last and will happen again I'm sure. It's flat wrong and the only recourse we have is our principles and I for one respect people who stand by their principles and act on them. My bro is very forthcoming about his respect for the resource and his principles.

  7. Gravel raking idiots! Great article, but most guides here in the Great Lakes will tell you they dont care about ripping fish off redds and actually encourage it! I know our fishery is filled with 99.9% pellet heads no better than tank trout, but why cant they respect the fish! I wish they would close spring fishing in the Great Lakes Tributaries for all fish from March - May!

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  9. I agree with everything you wrote, It is just sad you have to toss in some class warfare bullshit when making your point.

  10. Jon,
    Sorry if I came off that way. Just the opposite actually. However, reality is reality, and I see it every single year. Perhaps it would be better put as a fly-fishing poseur or something? I don't know. Definately something to do with a lifestyle identity, because they all seem to be cut from the same cloth.

  11. Where can I find these videos teaching steelhead fishing? I want to learn!

  12. Dont say that to the rednecks where I live who fish for bass. They would waterboard you with their dip spit!

  13. It sounds like you have a lot of built up hatred towards those with a lot of material goods and maybe you should reflect on that a bit.

    I agree that those who purposely cast to spawning fish are indeed doing great injustice to our environment, but that doesn't mean it is always rich people driving $100,000 cars and smoking cigars, nor do I think the two should necessarily be so strongly associated as in your article. I have seen poachers on my home rivers who were certainly not rich men, and I have seen rich and poorly dressed alike cast to the redds. How many spin fishermen who are average everday people, not rich rape the waters every day by taking fish in sections of river with creel allowances?

    Conversely some of the senior members of my TU chapter who spend lots of their peronal time and effort conserving and restoring our waterways are well-to-do individuals. These people might be true ambassadors to our sport but seeing them on the river you would probably snicker under your breath at them with your pent up hatred. I believe there are good and bad people in all walks of life and have seen more than enough example of such.

    I think we need to focus more on education rather than hatred and calling everbody scum. I believe a lot of these people may be beginners and not understand what they are doing, or at least not know the full extent of the damage done to the species. Very few people are actually evil enough to purposely hurt the environment, at least the type of people who fly fish or are in organizations such as TU. They probably only get out a few days a year and have no clue what they are doing.

    Some people criticize fly fishermen for being elitist, but in your words I sense you being elitist over not only regular anlgers and 99% of other fly fishermen, but those with money, those who wear brand name clothing, and god knows what else. I shudder to think about how you view your place in society overall. When someone spends that much time looking down on others and coming up with reasons to hate others it's not good for our mental health. I'd suggest taking a deep beath, enjoying life a bit instead of hating so much, and next time one of these hypocritical poser rich guys is casting to a redd maybe politely talk to him and briefly inform him of what he's doing - you might be pleasently surprised by the reaction.

    I realize I have no more right than you to judge others and shouldn't act as if I know you from one article, this is just my take on the situation after reading your words from someone with somewhat of a psycology background.

  14. Bob, First off, I want to thank you for stopping by and leaving a detailed comment, even if I feel that it is a bit off the deep end. I still appreciate feedback.

    I often wonder why, after spending countless hours writing short stories, essays, showcasing books, poetry, literature, photography, and then posting it to this blog to get relatively ignored, when I question something or state a sharp opinion, it immediately grabs attention. Perhaps this is what modern society wants these days. I really don’t know. It certainly speaks volumes about our collective state of mind.

    Obviously, I struck some sort of a nerve center here, and most of your reply makes me think that somehow I aimed for the hearts and minds of fellow anglers and instead, hit the proverbial wallet.

    Let me reply in kind.

    Actually, I have no hatred at all in a class or affluence direction. What I see on the river is reality. I own quite a bit of nice gear myself, and am “of independent means” as one would say. However, It is not wealth or class that spurned this post, but the sheer amount of ‘anglers’ in the same mold who habitually fish gravel when the water comes down enough to allow. I call it as I see it, and many seem to fit into the same mold. I certainly know the type from being in the industry for quite a few years.

    I agree with you that the intent of the article got lost in the rich man-poor man thing. Again, not my intent. There are poor people in torn hoodies snagging as well. Individuals fishing for food with tin cans and mono too. However, one should expect more or has been taught or stigmatized to expect more from people with fly angling gear, and who have a higher education level. Perhaps the lifestyle was purchased, but not the experience or the ethics. Why the ethical matter got overshadowed by perceived class warfare, I know not.

    TU is an excellent organization. I myself am a member. The post mentioning the TU stickers also mentioned other logos, etc. No intent to bash T.U. Once again though, reality is reality with the number of expensive SUVs in the lots with T.U. stickers driven by people who immediately head for the gravel. This should not reflect on TU, but on the individuals associating themselves as 'anglers' by placing a TU sticker on their vehicle.

    As to education of those on the water, I completely agree with you. An uphill battle, but always worth it. I have tried it with a soft approach, and 90% of the time, it is not received well, however diplomatically put. Again. Pent up hatred? I hope not. Sometimes it may be difficult to disassociate widespread poor ethics from the individuals practicing them. They really should know the difference between sport and rape. I take your point. Please read it as a rant against poor sporting ethics and not individuals. Lastly, no, I do not snicker at others in general. I did not call anyone scum, I shamed an all-to-common behavior, or tried to at least. Perhaps I missed the mark.

    All I can say to your last points, is that I practice what I preach. Period. I am no better than the next guy, but I will always hope I am judged by my actions alone. Read some of my other articles. I think you have miss-judged me. Remember, as I stated in the article, this is my opinion. As to my own perception of my place in society, don’t you think that was a bit low to strike back with an ad hominem attack? Perhaps one of my small callings is to be the one who tells the emperor that he has no clothes. I know that that will not make me popular, but then, that is not what I am after. This blog is in essence 98% about inspiration, with the odd bit of humor thrown in. In a way, I regret polluting it from time to time with posts like this one. Perhaps in the future I will limit myself to stating something like, “Please, steelhead anglers, have the confidence to stay off the gravel, and leave spawning fish alone….” leaving my tongue-in cheek humor out of it.
    However, in my experience, it would be ignored.


  15. Mr. Helm’s logic is flawed. He seems to disdain the following things: fly fishermen, sight fishing (in general), polarized sunglasses, cigars, wading, guys, expensive "branded" things, hooks, nymphs, nets, cameras, smiling in pictures, stickers, Trout Unlimited, fishing with friends, catching fish, enjoying catching fish, catching more than one fish in a day, gear of all types, dressing “like a fly fisherman”, talking to other fishermen, walking without purpose and single handed rods (But wouldn’t buying into the spey casting trend be too – I don’t know, “trendy”?)

    What makes Mr. Helm’s opinion even more humorous is that the River he is lamenting is the Milwaukee River -- all steelies are planted there each year. The "sacred gravel" he is looking to protect does not provide suitable redds. These steelies are not in any true definition "in the act of pro-creating". They will spawn no progeny. I could understand Mr. Helm’s stance if he were advocating for defending a pristine ecosystem, with reproducing fish, but the (non-native and unable to reproduce) steelhead streams of Lake Michigan are far from pristine. No amount of not-targeting or targeting these fish will preserve or “collapse” the fishery!

    I hope Mr. Helm takes his own advice and stands without waders, with his eyes closed, standing alone on the bank swinging his flies (heaven forbid to a fish he can see. That would be too "Isaak Walton".) Hopefully he won't catch a fish either. That would be a travesty! That's why they call it "fishing", not "catching", right?

    I’ll be sure not to smile, wave, or exude any sort of happiness if I happen to see Mr. Helm on the water. I wouldn’t want to ruin his day.

    (Oh, and by the way, I’ve asked Mr. Helm about fly fishing for trout and steelhead before, and his token response was: "I don’t fly fish for trout. I’m a bass fisherman.")

    For what it’s worth…

  16. Jesus. You see what I mean about throwing spaghetti on the wall? Christ. I give up. I really do. Hate. Ha. pfffffffffft....

  17. The only thing I can think say at the end here is that it seems sad to me that some people didn't get it, and instead, had to turn to the attack. Me thinks thou doth protest too much. Of course, I hate everyone and anything, never smile and only fish for bass. Jeez.
    Well, I am going to lock this thread to prevent further pollution, and concentrate on posting inspiration and humor.