Tuesday, December 31, 2013

An ode to Small Streams

One of my small joys is fishing while getting away from it all. Crowded parking spots along well-known named trout streams repel me. There is a saying that most fishing occurs within a quarter mile of an access point. I far prefer to take the preverbal “Path Less Traveled” (with an apology to Robert Frost), and hoof it a bit to find seclusion. Who wants to fish in a crowd, or listen to a string quintet on a noisy street anyway?  Fortunately, here in Wisconsin there are nearly unlimited possibilities to lose oneself in a small trout stream and have that kind of intimacy and seclusion.

This often brings me to water that is seldom fished; small spring creeks, remote stretches, and even water with no name. There is a common perception that such waters only hold small trout. Although this is incorrect, if they did indeed hold only small fish, I would still fish them. However, in the small tributaries of tributaries I often ply, a footprint is a rare thing, and most of the time, I may know the intrepid angler that made it. Because the water is not walked through and sees much less pressure, often the fish are of a larger size than the bigger downstream waters. The fish are confined in a small frame. Their living room, dining room, kitchen, and bathroom are all right there. Often they may have never seen a fly, and may be a sucker for a little inspired creation of fur and feathers delicately suspended on the surface.

Cover is essential. A blade of grass, a depression caused by a small log, a branch, a slightly undercut bank, a shady spot under a tree with some increased depth; all must be explored with the fly. The possibilities are endless, as is the vast amount one will learn when slowing down and fishing small. These days I seem to seldom look at familiar waters the same way. I wonder instead of what I passed up and missed all these years when I thought that a stretch of water held no fish.

Small streams are intimate. We get to know them like a fine wine savored. We take them in small sips and taste, smell, hear, and understand their characters and nuances. It is not unlike examining a fine piece of artwork for hours. In the end, one truly knows the object or the stream on a personal level. This can be only done slowly. If one moves with the same speed using big steps that we would on bigger water the trout will disappear as if by magic.

Like painting on a small scale, one must avoid big sweeping brush strokes, but instead practice precise understated control. Less is more. The canvas may be small, but the subject immense. While the complex currents and power of a big river are like a Mahler symphony, small streams are like complexity within simplicity, like a Bach Fugue. Like intimate listening, one must close one’s eyes, become one with the stream, and achieve a symbiosis of sorts with the water and nature. If not, one may not hear the hidden notes spoken by the trout.

The biggest hindrance in small waters is in both the precision of the cast needed and the inevitable obstructions to casting. One must have a plan on each cast. Where the backcast goes, how the forward cast is to lay, the target, and the end-game plan if the fish is hooked all must be foremost in one’s mind. Although long rods do have their place in small stream fishing, a short rod will allow one to more easily avoid tangles while placing the fly in the proper place. There is a reason that the rod Hardy built for the Paris casting competitions was 7’. It became one in a series named the “C.C. De France”.

In addition to a short rod in the 6’ to 8’ range for a 3-5 wt line, the rods flexibility becomes critical. The trend in the past ten to fifteen years is for rod manufacturers to chase each other for the fastest and stiffest taper design. That is a big help if one is fishing the Yellowstone or Missouri, but when sneaking a 20 foot cast through red dogwoods to land under a clump of overhanging grass on the bank, we need the rod to bend. I was handicapped for years with the wrong rods, and only when I discovered full-flexing rods did I see the possibilities of intimate waters. The rod must be able to load with just the leader out: it must be able to perform a bow-and-arrow cast: to roll-cast: it must be able to perform at 40 feet as well. Above all, it must be accurate. Using a 9’ 5wt rod on a stream the width of a sidewalk is analogous to trying to hunt squirrels with a 12 gauge shotgun.

Casting becomes like a game of miniature golf: steeple cast over the canary grass, fire the cast forward with a left hand reach, roll and spey cast, sneak into position and use a bow-and-arrow cast to place a streamer above a tiny log jam. These skills can only be required as one finds them necessary. Each situation in stream is different. Every turn is a study or a puzzle requiring an elegant proof.

I like to approach these streams using a dry fly. In the small setting a size 14 caddis, or a # 18 Blue Wing Olive takes on a new presence in defiance of their size. A size 12 Erik’s Catskill looks like a two-pound medium rare tenderloin. I will nymph when required to, but scale down the size and weight. Nothing puts down and scatters a wary brown trout like a thingamabobber landing on the water with a ‘Plop!’

 Exploration is a joy: part of the reward is getting there. That means no GPS, no book or internet post telling you which rock to stand on, no well-worn footpaths. It means a scratched face, sinking into a rabbit-hole, and getting your boots muddy. Someone once said “A day that I come home without my boots muddy is a day wasted.” I like that. Perhaps add a flask of fine scotch for a sip, a nice place to sit and reflect and listen to and watch the water, a packet of crackers and a fine cheese, and my day is complete.

The small streams are there. There are everywhere. They are the space between the notes. One just needs to find them and listen. Oh, and bring your small stream trout rod too.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Leather Rod Tube Project

It all started when I received in the mail a new to me (used) Derek Brown Favorite 15’ 5 piece spey rod. It had an old tube with an ill-fitting cap, and a rod sock made from leopard-skin print cloth. After casting it for a few weeks and falling in love with the action, I decided to give it a more appropriate cloth case.

I sliced up an old Scottish tartan flannel shirt and went to town on an afternoon with needle and thread. Viewing the results one day when fussing with the errant tube and cap, I thought, “Hey, why not make a nice leather tube for the rod?” Thus began a long project of researching, drawing blueprints, and multiple trips to the leather craft store.

I wanted the tube to be unique. I didn’t just want to copy a design I found. I wanted to use real brass fittings. I also wanted to cut, stain, dye, tool, glue, sew, and polish each piece of leather by hand.

Easier said than done.

I am kind of famous or rather, infamous for undertaking rather daunting projects with rather more speed and enthusiasm than planning. I did not want this tube to be another one of those “Gee, it seemed a good idea at the time” minor disappointments.

I took my time. From the first cutting to completion took a month. I worked a few hours a day. Mistakes were made, and ‘learnings’ occurred. Measurements went askew, and were corrected.

Although this has been my largest and most ambitious undertaking in quite awhile, I am not new at leatherwork. Back in my early twenties, I built Medieval boots, armor, scabbards, and other pieces out of leather. It was only a few years back when I dusted off the old tools and once more took up the craft as a hobby. I have to say I am happy with the overall result. There are flaws if one looks closely, but in the larger scheme of things what emerged was a very antique and rich looking piece of kit. It fits in the overhead storage on a commercial jet, and when taking it through TSA security in Milwaukee, the agent asked for my business card.

I guess I should take that as a wee compliment!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The joy of the cane fly rod

This past fall I acquired my first fly rod built of split cane. A 6’6” two-piece for a 4wt line. The model is a Redwing ‘Precise’ hand built by master craftsman Joe Balestrieri. Mr. Balestrieri is a true gentleman of many years acquaintance, and has been hinting and whispering to me of the possibilities inherent in bamboo for years.

He has a rather unique philosophy, namely that to follow the old master’s taper designs is like trying to recreate the Mona Lisa, and instead, by designing his own tapers, he finds discoveries that prove that the best cane rod is yet to be built.

Let me digress for a moment…

Having been involved in the fly-fishing ‘Industry’ for quite awhile now, I have seen, wiggled, cast, and fiddled with literally hundreds of split-cane rods. It is a weekly occurrence to have a customer come into the shop with an old stained rod sock and pull out a cane rod for evaluation. Many want to fish a legacy, as it used to belong to Grandpa, or they found it at a rummage sale for a song and now want it matched to a reel and line. Of the rods I have handled, 99% are rather awful. The reason why is simple.

Back in the days before the fiberglass and graphite revolution swept over the fly-fishing world, all rods were made of cane; the vast majority being mass-production rods. Yes, they were hand-crafted to an extent, but not by masters, instead, the were planed, glued, baked, and wrapped by the assembly-line process. They were heavy and not finely tapered and tuned. The analogy I like to use is a simple one when explaining this to students and customers: “Saying that you have a bamboo fly-rod is like saying that you have a metal car. All rods were built of cane, as all cars were made of metal. The differences between a utilitarian Ford, and a Ferrari are the same when comparing a South Bend from a local hardware store to a finely crafted Payne or Garrison.”

This is why cane rods have a bad reputation in modern days to the occasional angler. The run-of-the-mill rod is clunky, poorly tapered, heavy, and collapses on the cast when any distance is desired. Graphite is lighter, crisper, and recovers faster. Holders of this opinion are to be forgiven because they never have had the pleasure of casting a cane rod that is a true work of art.

The possibilities of cane opened up to me one evening when I paid a visit to Joe and his workshop. Always the gentleman, I was soon comfortably seated with a glass of Sicilian wine in my hand, and examining a restoration project Joe was undertaking on a short spey rod owned by some obscure Viscount in Great Britain. Balestrieri then pulled out a big 9 ft. 8 wt rod, and handed it to me to flex. Now I can be rather stubborn, and set in my opinions, but am wise and quick enough to recognize when my self-imposed blinders have been lifted off and the light of day revealed. What I held in my hand was an epiphany. It was as light as most graphite rods, with a fine parabolic taper and quick recovery. Unlike production rods of any material, no two handcrafted cane rods are precisely alike. The finish varies just a little, and the grain and knurls in the wood seats add a unique touch.

I sat speechless as Joe stood forth on the infinite possibilities of taper design. Perhaps it was the wine, but I could almost hear and smell the flowing water just beyond the tip of the rod.

Flexing it was like a finely tuned musical instrument with its own unique character not unlike a fine violin, both with inherent musical (casting) personalities and aesthetic charms. It had a presence not unlike a fine work of art. I was blown away. I left that evening after sampling a StrathSpey Single-Malt Scotch, and was a changed man.

That was a few years back. Now I regret the time in-between when I could have played the small streams of Wisconsin for bejeweled trout with an instrument that turned mere fly-fishing into a concerto for wood, water, and speckled wild quarry worthy of Mozart.

The first initial cast of the Redwing ‘Precise’ knocked me out. It felt like graphite, but yet not. It had power to spare, a sweet action that somehow seemed designed just for my stroke, it was beautiful, and it was the most accurate fly rod I had ever cast. I fell in love.

The initial outing with the rod was at the end of trout season on my local creek, which was totally brush choked. I fished with hopper patterns and baptized the rod with a lone 9” wild brown. Playing the fish with the flexible action of the rod was like listening to a symphony in stereo rather than mono: the experience just became more intimate. The short rod made negotiating the small spring creek much easier too, and the fly landed with the precision intended by Balestrieri’s artful hands. The pairing of an old 1950s Hardy Perfect 3 1/8” reel and a DT line made the rod come alive. It balanced like a dream. It disappeared in my hand as my casts just landed like I ‘thought them’ into place.

Laying awake one night before my annual trip to Idaho to fish for steelhead, I had an idea. Why not drive the extra fifty miles or so and spend the first day of two on the Selway River fishing wild cutthroat trout? Why not take the new cane rod? Why not have the proper experiences of sporting-restraint fishing dries with a tiny cane rod on a big western river?

That is just what I did. Yes, the little rod was limiting in some ways. I could comfortably put out 40 feet of line, and reach out to 55 feet or so when necessary, but it necessitated the stalking of some water, a cautious approach, and more thinking than casting, which is another of Joe Balestrieri’s little opinions. He believes that super powerful rods have limited the joy of skill and the hunt that the older more sympathetic cane rods made necessary. The thought, reflection, and the studying of the stream became with the new plastic rods, an art all but forgotten.

So I raise a glass of fine claret in salute to Joe Balestrieri the artist and craftsman, the rod he built for me, the joy of fishing with it, the feeling of a delightful coming together or symbiosis of aesthetics, power, and restraint: a tool worthy of the fish we pursue in beautiful places, and a rod that elevates the fly-fishing experience from the near mundane to the moving feelings of high-art.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Double Taper Experiments: Part One - Trout

The Double Taper Experiments

Part One: The trout rod.

It all began with a reel; a Hardy Perfect 3 1/8” with agate line guard. Loaded on the reel was an old Scientific Anglers Double Taper 4 line. The reel was a gift from a friend, and so ‘perfect’ a perfect that it just had to be used. No sense in letting the ‘good china’ gather dust in the closet.

Of course, the first thing I did was remove the old dumb DT line and put on a new Weight Forward 4. I fished the line for a year, but was unhappy with its coiling memory problems, so early this year I thought, “Why not try out the Double Taper…”, and I put it back on the reel.

A little background here. When Weight Forward lines first appeared, they revolutionized casting. With most of the grain weight placed on the forward 30 feet of line, and the rest of the line acting as a running line, what we had was the first commercially available shooting head. Distance, (always the desire of anglers, after all if we can cast farther we can catch more fish… in theory) became far more effortless. I have articles written in the 1970s that proclaimed the death of the Double Taper. When I started fly-fishing, it was all done with a Weight Forward line. Old-timers used to come into shops I was working at and ask for DT lines. When we didn’t have them, they often cried that “A DT is all you need for trout fishing.” I never listened. Neither did most everyone else. After all a DT is just a DT, but a weight forward offers so many more possibilities.

Weight forward lines come in power tapers, quiet tapers, distance tapers, nymph tapers, longer belly tapers, fish-specific tapers, etc. etc. The DT just sits there on the shelf, in all its boring lack of complexity, lonely and unused, gathering dust.

Until someone with a insatiable curiosity and a tendency towards hair-shirts winds one on his reel one March day.

What has happened can be likened to opening a hidden window in a musty old cellar, and the sweeping of cobwebs from the brain. With the new light of day pouring in, objects and concepts dimly lit or obscured all these years become clear, and the world turns.

I guess I was surprised. I also felt a bit humble. After all, I was a doubter, and a quite verbal one at that. What I found in the DT line opened my eyes.

First, when paired to a full-flexing trout rod such as an Orvis Superfine, it was instantly more accurate; there was something about not casting running line that actually played in favor of accuracy.

Second, the weight in the line was elongated. This weight was within the guides the whole time, adding to the rod load. The rod was not just loading from the tip, but was flexing smoothly and continuously throughout the rod, making the rod design, or ‘action’ transmit or communicate directly to the casting arm what was happening in the load. Interesting.

I was afraid that the DT line would be a limiter in distance, and it was to some extent. However, I found that I could, with some adaptation of my casting stroke, throw 50 to 60 foot casts with ease. That is all anyone would need on small Wisconsin spring creeks. In fact, 50 feet in most places will see one fishing the next run around the bend. I expect that if I make it back to Belize some day, that for long-distance casting in tough situations A DT line might not be my first choice, but for a small trout stream, Eureka!

Another little epiphany occurred in changing fly sizes. The DT line simply turned over everything from size 20 Olive dries, to cone head size 4 streamers. All one had to do was futz with and adjust the leader a bit.

On our trout streams here in Wisconsin, the best friend an angler can have is a good roll cast. Nothing, and let me repeat this, nothing… roll and spey casts on a trout stream like a DT line. It was made for it. On tiny overgrown ten foot wide creeks with boulders and in-stream obstructions that would make a goofy-golf aficionado run screaming, the DT line worked magic. Enough weight was outside the tip of the rod that I could make roll casts to targets 12-15 feet away with accuracy. Later, when we fished a pool a friend named ‘Salmo Mofo’ for it’s recalcitrant browns, the DT line could reach the lie with a spey cast 50 feet away and with amazing accuracy.

At least for one angler with newly opened eyes, the Double Taper line is back. At least for trout fishing. You can teach an old dog a new trick. And.... those old-timers knew a thing or two...