Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Off the beaten path

There is something about exploration that satisfies the soul of the angler. We spend a lot of time trying our best to come to an understanding of a familiar stretch of water, and often lack the simple fortitude to go off exploring an unknown piece of river or stream. Part of our unwillingness is due to habit, and part due to the uncertain reward at the end. What is over there in that field stretch: a 20-inch brown, or an angry bull? What is back there in the woods: a swamp, ticks, mosquitoes, brambles, or… all of the above and fish that have never seen a fly?

The other day I drove a ways to a spring creek, only to find the parking areas and pullouts each contained a vehicle. I rigged up anyway, and decided that instead of following another angler, I would go downstream into the woods and explore. A small deer path lead into the tangled undergrowth. As I progressed slowly, the ground turned to a morass and sucked at my boots. Wild rose bushes and black raspberries scratched my arms, and I scrambled over fallen trees and branches. I began to perspire. After only a couple of hundred yards, the woods became impassable. I crossed the stream and progressed at the edge of a farmer’s field. Much better. I should have thought of that before! I re-entered the woods where a rusted hulk of a tractor was slowly returning the earth, and spotted the stream. Riffles and microstructure were everywhere.

One thing kept crossing my mind: there were no footprints. The mud banks lush with skunk cabbage and the occasional trillium were untouched. Nobody had been here. Sitting on a rock to take it all in, it became apparent why. The stream was choked with fallen wood, and the bank side bushes and trees reached out to create a maze of hazards over the water. Perfect! I heard a rise as I strung up the little seven-foot rod. Looking ahead into a tiny rock-jumble and riffle, the trout were eating something with gusto. They were coming unglued and jumping out of the water for a few sparse hatches of March Browns and Blue-Winged Olive mayflies.

I tied on a big size 12 Catskill style March Brown and began to have a ball. These fish had never seen a fly. They would repeatedly hit and miss the fly until they became hooked. This little stream is fished to death. In any other section, a single mistake would put down the entire pool. I had found a piece of paradise.

The fishing was not that easy though. With the tangled mess overhead and around me, I had to take inventory before each stroke. Roll casting and little spey casts proved the ticket. The fish were not big, but they made up for it in spirit. All this and not another soul, and yours for the taking but for a little mud, sweat, and briars.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Pride of ownership

As fly fishermen (and women), we tend to somehow reach a stage where the aesthetics of equipment becomes important to us. There is something about releasing a well-earned fish, sitting on the bank and taking it all in while looking at our rig and thinking “What a damn fine sport this is!”

The rich history of fly reel makers is overflowing with little gems. Hardy, Pfluger, Young, Sharps, Abel, etc, etc. Commercial makers have wowed us with winches both big and small; complicated and simple as a spring and pawl. I was lucky enough to view the reel collection at the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Vermont a year ago, and just about lost it in a romantic and nostalgic overload while looking at Vom Hoffe, Bogdan, Walker, and early Orvis reels, including the original unfinished CFO prototype designed for Orvis by Stan Bogdan.

These works of mechanical and functional art have been disappearing as manufacturing cost rise, and the consumer tastes change to high tech reels. Some major manufacturers such as Hardy still offer high-end reels such as the new perfect that are still made in England, but the costs of making small batch productions have driven the price up enough that the major players are now competing with the cottage bench-made craftsmen.

Last year I received my first hand-made reel directly from the maker, and right at riverside. William Olson presented me with a long awaited bench-made S-curve salmon reel with gear and pawl drag. My hands shook as I opened the leather reel pouch and looked at a complete beauty. The machining marks were carefully hand polished out of existence, and every surface was lovingly rounded. The extra care he takes and his pride in producing a reel that the owner will cherish was evident in every curve and surface.

Then I turned the crank. This reel does not just click, it barks. The simplicity of the system of gear and pawl and the wide chamber for sound guarantee the owner that he or she will be heard when a fish pulls out line. I got to hear the reel (number 36) sing multiple times last fall when fishing with William, none more memorable though then the last evening of the trip before I had to pack up my gear I hit a nice wild hen steelhead with my full dress Argyle salmon fly and old #36 played out a wild little concerto to send me on my way home.

There is just something about a hand-made item that speaks to us. Human hands touched, designed, formed and finished the piece. It is personal in some way. That makes a difference to some of us.

So, here is a toast to all the craftsmen who, like William, place a bit of their souls in each and every creation.


Friday, April 20, 2012

A Battenkill idyll

It is a river of legends. Flowing from Vermont’s Green Mountains and into New York, it trickles and meanders through history and our fly-fishing souls. Its valley is gentle and serene, and its hatches of mayflies and caddis and tricky trout underlay much of what makes eastern American trout fishing what it is.

All this flowed and eddied through my brain as we Orvis fishing managers set out for an afternoon and evening of fishing this storied river on an unseasonably warm day in April 2012. The strange warm spring had seen the high runoff water blow through early this year, and the river was low and clear.

It is difficult to pin down the emotions and thoughts as we separated and rigged up our rods and lines, chose flies, and donned waders. I guess the closest I can come is that I felt a part of history. I thought of Art Flick, Theodore Gordon, and other Eastern greats.

Our party of five, (Dan, Shannon, George, Trent, and myself) were one group of a total of over 40 skilled and trout-obsessed fly-fishermen and women that would test their skills on the waters that day. It was my first time on the river, and my hands shook a bit as I pulled off line from the old Hardy Perfect reel and set up the little superfine 7 foot 4 weight rod. The ideal setup would include a longer rod and a nymphing rig or a streamer, but being the romantic I am, I thought, “When on a river so steeped in legend and tradition, why not follow the lead of the great anglers before me?” Thus, I tied on a size 12 Hendrickson dry fly, and greased the leader. Trent and I separated and walked downstream. We walked far farther than we intended to, mesmerized by the structure and flow of the river and their possibilities. When we entered the water bugs were sporadically hatching, and we soon determined them to be Hendrickson and caddis; perfect. The sun blasted down and warmed the bottom rocks as I struggled upstream against the flows, flicking my first concentrated casts here and there, hearing voices and music deep in my subconscious: Mahler and Marinaro.

Trent quickly located a rising brown in an impossible lie under a tangle of brush and protruding twigs, and quixotically played with it for several hours. The fish was taking flies with spirit, spitting the water in splashy rises, but never venturing out of his cover. Trent would later hook and lose that fish. His perseverance was amazing.

Advancing upstream, I spotted a huge brown rising in mid-river. Although I did everything I could think of to get a presentation to him, casting a 7’ rod upstream 60 feet in fast current against a wind with a dry fly and my back against the wall proved next to impossible. I finally took to spey casting the tiny rod and finally put the fly directly in the right place for a drag-free drift. The fish just swam off. Welcome to the Battenkill.

Then a little fish made a sloppy splashing rise just upstream. After a botched cast or two, the fish ate my Adams (The Hendrickson was lost in a tree behind me). A wave of calm joy warmed my soul as I landed and cradled a wild brookie. I had done it; my first fish on the Battenkill.

As the afternoon progressed and waned toward a serene and calm evening, and the sun caressed the tops of the Green Mountains, the mayfly hatch went insane. Clouds of Hendricksons covered the water advancing up the long riffles. I have never seen so prolific a hatch. However, rises were nearly nonexistent. Trent patiently cast a dry to a brookie that George had seen rise. I made ten casts to it without a rise and moved upstream. Trent then caught that fish after more perseverance. Amazing.

Dusk was upon me when I stumbled through a deep piece of water at the bottom of a large riffle with calm water on the edges and a cobbled bottom mixed with fallen conifers. A fish rose, and I quickly hooked it: another small brook trout. As the fish wiggled off my hook before I could cradle it, another much more defined and energetic splash marked a rise under an overhanging tree limb in the soft edge of the river. I slowly made my way through the underwater minefield stepping on rocks and debris and waded through the waist deep water to put a sidearm reach cast upstream and to my left. The fly rode high on the water and bobbed tantalizingly as it rode down toward the spot that the fish rose. The resulting take left no doubt as to the hungry gourmet. A brown trout engulfed the fly and cut back under the rocks and logs I was bracing myself against and dove deep putting a nice bend in the rod and taking out line which made my Perfect reel sing its little heart out. It wasn’t big, but the little spirited fish made my whole day.

So, there are fish in the Battenkill. They take dries too. They just take a lot of heart and soul and patience to catch. It is not a numbers fishery, but each little gem of a fish should be savored.

I feel blessed. I fished the Battenkill the way ‘God’ intended it should be fished, and it rewarded me with a smile and memories. As the last sliver of sun sank behind the rounded peaks, I took a deep breath of the fragrant spring air and thought, “This moment is what life is all about.”

Thank you Battenkill.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012



No, not that kind.

The other day, when giving a seminar on dry fly fishing, I was taking questions, and attempting, poorly as it was, to describe a feeling I sometimes get when on the stream that comes deep from the river or my soul that whispers “There, put your fly there.”

I had to close my eyes and pause for a moment to see in my mind’s eye the symbiosis of water knowledge and feeling which leads the fly angler to that simple confidence of ‘just knowing.’

The spring creek bubbled, projected on the back of my closed eyes, and I saw not the water, but the spaces in-between. Not the obvious riffle, but the soft spot just past the protruding stick.

This little spring creek had beaten up on me so many times that I started doubting my own quixotic self-torture at fishing it at all. I would place my fly where I knew in my mind that there would be a fish, but my sense of feeling was seldom rewarded. Was it the creek? Was it me? What was I doing wrong?

What this one special day portended was a glorious proof-positive that indeed, where I thought there should be a brown trout lurking, there would be.

There were no hatches to speak of. The sky was cloudy, but no more than other days. Thinking back, I could not put my finger on what was different that day, but it was different, very different. As I made my up the pools and leapfrogged the riffles, I stubbornly used my little 7’ rod to place a caddis dry with precision in areas I had cast to a hundred times before with little or no success. Sometimes things actually do go right in fly-fishing. These days are the ones you hear about in stories and tales. Let me be the first to admit that for every tale of heroism and leaping trout, there are ten untold tales of defeat, frustration and humility, but not that day.

The first cast brought up a beautiful 10” brown who ate the caddis with sloppy abandon. The second cast went to the opposite side of the riffle against a root ball. A 12” brown sipped the fly in. For the rest of the afternoon the trout played out a concerto of affirmation, as everywhere I placed my fly, where previously there was an unanswered offering, now there were fish intoxicated with life and vitality. Like late-night diners at the last-chance cafĂ©’, they ate whatever was placed before them. Upside down caddis, easy over caddis, caddis with gravy, blue-light special caddis, caddis with meatballs: it just didn’t matter.

The next week, in the same conditions on the same creek, I met with mixed results. The fish were not as glad-happy and reckless, but I found them in the same places. My mistrusted instinct had proved right all along.

This was what I was trying to put into words that day at the seminar. Sometimes, we just have to trust. Trust that after all the hours reading water, and saying to ourselves, “There just has to be a fish in that corner pocket,” that there is. We just have to trust. We have to have faith in our instincts. If we pass the spot up, we will never know…

Every year I fish slower and slower, and it has nothing to do with age. It has to do with thinking, with sitting and observing, and then trusting. The creek still beats up on me from time to time, but as I catch its rhythms and place myself in harmony, with no pressure to catch a fish. It rewards me. All it took was a little faith.