Sunday, December 14, 2014

Classic flies, art and obsession


I have been spending quite a bit of time at the vise this early winter playing around with new and old renditions of classic fly patterns, especially salmon and steelhead flies. I had intended to spend this time filling up missing slots in fly-boxes for trout and bass, but instead kept coming back to the creative and artful flies instead. Then the other day a friend asked a question regarding how long it took me to tie these patterns, and a discussion ensued regarding the ‘why?’ aspect to tying and using these little works of art vs. utilitarian flies, and I began to ponder this a bit.

To me there is a certain elegance to full-dress Salmon Flies, Scottish Spey flies, Dee Flies, classic steelhead and salmon hair wings and feather wings as well as Catskill Dry Flies. They just speak to me. There is an inspiration in tying and fishing these flies that adds so much to the sport for me that they have become an essential part of my approach to fly-fishing and even become ingrained in my identity. Offering the fish a piece of art that took time and patience to create, and that contains a little piece of my soul underlies at least to me the sporting concept. The fly helps to elevate the act of simply fishing to a more profound experience.

This started years ago before I became an accomplished tyer. I remember tying salmon flies out of inappropriate materials and bad hooks right off the bat when I first began fly-tying. I looked at magazines, and seeing photos of Thunder and Lightnings and Silver Doctors, Rusty Rats and Blue Charms, wanted to able to create these myself. It was like running before learning to walk, but I learned a lot in the process. In the passing years, I found that tying on a beautiful fly gave me more confidence even if that was all in my mind. I threw out most of those first flies after a time, because they looked like a cat spat them up.

I produced several segments of the history and tying techniques of these flies on television and began to amass a vast collection of books on the subject. In all, I became rather obsessed. Mixing that obsession and creativity and passion gave me an outlet that along with writing, I never knew was in me before. I guess I fell in love with tying beautiful and complicated flies.

So I wanted to take some time here to share this passion, and examine the world of tying and fishing these flies through my eyes.

In essence, the fishing fly is a creation of fur and feathers designed as a lure to catch fish. They represent things that fly and swim in nature. That clinical definition is just the dust jacket on a proverbial book so big it could consume a person for a lifetime, or in my case… did.
I view the fly as an essential ingredient in the Art of fly-fishing. Imagine standing in a beautiful piece of water and attaching to your leader a fly you invented, one made up of dozens of materials and hours of effort. Think of the anticipation of catching a fine fish on that fly for the first time… Then imagine the fly is instead, a San Juan worm for example and the romance is gone like someone dumped cold water on it.

Sometimes the very pinnacle of the art is not the glory shot of the fish, but the whole journey there including fly-tying and presenting proudly a beautiful thing.

Flies and fly-tying are part of the complete game or art of fly-fishing, as important to our imagery and actual pursuit as casting, beautiful rivers, fine reels and rods, antique equipment, and ephemera. I like to sometimes sit on the bank and take a wee rest while contemplating my rod and reel and fly. I often
then get inspired to place the kit somewhere in the foreground and take a stunning photo of the river. I have been known to place flies on a stump, artfully arranged and try to capture their presence with a camera in hand.

Little touches make all the difference. A finely tied spey-style Green-Butt Skunk, with properly tented wings and proportions; the red tail sitting at a jaunty angle and nearly meeting the humped wing of white goose shoulder, the long hackles stirred by a whisper of breeze. The tinsel tag and ribbing done flawlessly. Fishing with an upright winged Catskill classic during an March Brown hatch and being entranced at the way the little fly bounces and floats just right on the surface.

Someone asked me recently if I had to choose three flies to fish with for a given river, which ones would I choose? I thought about it for awhile, and said “I would choose not to go fishing if that were the case.” Perhaps that may seem a bit much, but the fly itself and how it speaks to me, what it represents, and its aesthetic qualities mean so much to me that to exclude this aspect from my
fishing would be like listening to a piano concerto of Rachmaninov done on a kazoo. Let’s just say that the fly has become for me an essential part of the approach to fly-fishing, and at this point in my life and fly-fishing career, the approach seems more important than almost anything else.

Classic flies are not always the ‘best’ flies, but what is ‘best’ is in the eye of the beholder. Yes, the purpose is to catch a fish, but then that can be accomplished with worms, spinners, crank-baits, or just a hook with some Christmas tinsel and troll-doll hair on it. I think that utility in the modern
materials and synthetics had added a ton to the tyer’s art, and the possibilities at the vise and in the water. In some cases the modern fly can and will outfish a classic. But what classic? Take an egg-sucking leech, a ubiquitous fly if there ever was one, and essentially a woolly bugger with an egg as a head, and effective as hell. Yet, if look hard enough in books we find a classic called the Beauly Snow-Fly, a more complicated and elegant dressing designed to do the same thing. Often these old flies are over-looked in importance and usefulness.

I once read an article where the author poised the question in his title, “Is the Catskill Dry-Fly dead?” The obvious answer is No. Indeed, the newer thorax ties perform better in certain waters, and give us a new and better profile of the bug to a fish’s eye. They are simply another choice for us as anglers. That does not mean that the history of everything from Thaddeus Norris, to Theodore Gordon through Marinaro and Flick can be tossed out the window. No sir!

Look at a photo of flies tyed by Syd Glasso, Dave McNeece, Warren Duncan, etc. Ponder what went through their mind as they created each one for a specific purpose. Those flies shine through history and are as bright and worthy today as the day they were conceived. Stare at an original Quill Gordon in the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Vermont, and wonder at the segmentation effect the
quill has, and wonder how Gordon managed to get the hackle to stand up perfectly given the poor feathers he had to work with compared to today. Look at an original mounting plate of American wet flies by Mary Orvis Marbury and behold the colors. I find this stuff fascinating. These flies speak to you. These are icons to our sport.

Fly-tying is an art. Yes, the repetition of tying can be defined as a craft, but the technique and inspiration are an art. After all, we don’t frame these pieces of fur and feather for nothing. Since the beginnings in the foggy mists of the history of this sport all flies have been handcrafted: tied by human hands with only a few essential tools. Man has not devised a machine sensitive and precise
enough to tie a fly. It takes soul. Machines have no souls. It takes the dedication of years of learning, experience, study, and experimentation with technique and materials to become a good fly-tier. Medieval journeyman and attic tiers with a bottle of sherry and an idea. Experimenters and dreamers. Setting wing proportions on a Hendrickson, the body and wing construction on full-dress salmon flies, dying and spinning your own wool dubbing, working with materials, mounting jungle-cock so that it does not twist, etc. all learned over countless hours and applied to perfection to produce a fly worthy of the fish we pursue. The time taken in finding just the right Plymouth Rock feathers to allow the perfect Rusty Rat to be formed. It weaves a thread of labor and love throughout the casts, rivers, and fish.

Buying utilitarian flies at a shop can be like eating fast food. Chances are the tier probably has no real clue as the intended use of the fly other than “Fishing.” Tying a finely crafted fly is like cooking a fine meal. First, the procurement of ingredients, then the assembly under carefully measured conditions, and finally the delight of tasting and enjoying the home-cooked meal. An epicurean delight vs. a fast food burger. Time spent laboring and learning, and the food tastes better for the labor involved, as the fly has more value to us for the sweat and time we took to learn to tie it properly. Not to denigrate store-bought flies, but they will never compare in inherent involvement and immersement in the little game of chase and catch with the fish than using a fly we tied ourselves.

This sacrifice of time and energy at the vise is part of the game too. So is offering the fish a beautiful fly. Not only have we paid our dues in time preparing for the fishing, but also we respect the fish we catch by presenting the best fly we can tie. This takes time. We all go through a process of learning in tying that has to consist of pure time at the vise: like practicing the piano. Repetition and perfection combine with inspiration and passion when we finally get that fly right after so many failed attempts.

I recently realized that I had sacrificed my entire dining room to tying space, and the mess I have created in the past years may never be equaled or undone. My clothing is often festooned with stray bits of feather and fur. Just add some tinsel and I could masquerade as a Christmas Tree. I was talking to a wife of a customer of mine who has taken up fly tying, and she was commenting on the mess he makes when tying. I reflected out loud, “Every man needs to have a private place where he can be creative and make a mess. Besides, it could give him an excuse to buy you a new vacuum cleaner…”

It has been said that more words and books have been written on the sport of fly-fishing than any other sport (This author apologizes to be included in the guilty verbosity), and perhaps more books regarding flies and their tying and use have been written than any other subject within the sport of fly-fishing. After all, only so much can be written about casting, even if I believe it is an
art with endless possibilities, it is inherently three dimensional, and notoriously difficult to describe without resorting to props and analogies. Flies, on the other hand offer an immediate visual and aesthetic reward. The grace and sweeping curves of a speyfly, or the perfect set of wings and proportion on a married wing Salmon Fly can be appreciated by anyone. It is this universal appeal that leads the classic fly to become the visual symbol of our sport.

Anglers have collected books on flies and tying for ages. Copies are treasured and read and re-read from Art Flick to Kelson. Famous and classic flies have taken on a kind of ‘lore’ all by themselves. Authors such as Chris Mann have spent hundreds of hours researching and drawing salmon flies. Artists such as Jeff Kennedy spend hours just drawing and painting flies. These works adorn wine labels now. Collectors have saved and treasured old turn of the century catalogues from Hardy Brothers showing all the flies tied in their factory in England. A framed plate of flies by a Salmon Fly tyer can fetch thousands of dollars at auction. Students of the sport study the history of flies, the  history and biography of those that tied and or documented them. They fill their time off of the rivers and streams with the non-physical pursuit of fur and feathers. Some people I know spend all their time in tying flies, and no longer really fish at all. It can be that absorbing. We aficionados of the classic fly could almost be classified as suffering from a kind of mild asperger’s syndrome akin to train watching. I recently acquired a few treasured fly history books from a used book store. The proprietors thought I was nuts as I giggled and danced, holding the books to my chest and smiling benignly but foolishly.

( I have to take a break from that last run-on paragraph to peruse my own meager collections of books on flies and discover that I have far more than I thought, especially focused on Spey, Dee, and Salmon flies as well as ornithology, history, and a lot of dust, bookmarks with cryptic notes, and pieces of tying materials creeping out of their spines. I find them on the couch, the coffee tables, the book-shelves, lost among the bins of materials, and on top of the refrigerator for some reason. I note that nowhere is there a book on the wooly bugger. I guess one could write a book on the poor lowly wooly bugger, which would be interesting for the first few pages, and then begin to read like…well,
like a book on a wooly bugger. Kind of like a three-volume set on the history of the ping-pong ball. Charming, but if you checked it out of your local library you might want to check behind you for men in white coats carrying a straight-jacket and being followed slowly by a short yellow school bus.)

Back to that comment about the classic fly and symbolism, it strikes me that it is a testament to how important the fly is as a symbol of our sport. The image conjures a certain elevation of fishing from pure recreation to the lofty world of aesthetics. It is as if the very image adds some verisimilitude or weight of substance to an otherwise bland offering, as when an article on loch fishing in Ireland begins with a fine photo of a Jock Scott Salmon Fly followed by the author describing mooching techniques with bait. The beautiful fly is a badge of refinement, and something to catch the eye. It also can be a symbol without substance behind it. I can’t even to begin to think of all the outfitters,  shops, guide services, etc. that use a classic fly on their logo but never on the end of their line. (Knowledgeable angler to guide… “Wow, is that a Gray Fox Variant in your hat?” Fly-Fishing Guide…” Huh -- Whatsa?” Now why is that?

Perhaps it lies in the inherent difficulty in tying these flies, as well as the need for innovation to not just add to, but eclipse. Perhaps it is ignorance. Who knows? But when that guide wanted to place a fly in his hat to cement his identity as to what he believed a guide on said river should look like, he reached into the past and pulled out a gem that would be as much at home on the end of his line as in his hat.

There is a certain inherent pride in ownership and craft when a fish is brought to hand on a fly one tied oneself. It is kind of similar to the icing on the cake. I vaguely remember in the mists of my past that first feeling, and remember when flies that I was so proud of at the time (which to my eye today show a sort of embarrassingly sophomoric innocence like a copy of a Vermeer portrait done in crayon) were mounted with a photo of the fish and treasured on a wall somewhere.

The fly-fishing outfit I work at held a photo contest recently called “Slammin Salmon”. A tongue in cheek light-hearted contest based around the best angler picture of spawning Great Lakes King Salmon that often resemble rotting corpses. The only rule was that it had to caught on a fly. We had already juried the contestants when at the 11th hour, someone dropped off a last photo. Here was a
teenage boy holding up a bright salmon, and sporting a smile so proud with accomplishment that it would make any parent’s heart melt. He was awarded the 1st prize. When posing for a picture with his winnings, a fly-box stuffed with salmon and steelhead flies, he said, “What was the best of all was that I caught the salmon on a fly I tied myself!” There it is. He had handcrafted a dream from
various bits of marabou, chenille, bucktail and hope in his basement seated at a little table in the washroom. He won the prize, but the most exciting aspect of the whole experience to him was that he caught the fish on a fly that he himself tied.

There is one drawback to using finely crafted beautiful flies: losing them in bushes and trees. This happened to me this past October when I miss-judged a cast, and placed a nice Blue-Bear salmon fly into a tree on the Brule’ river while swinging classic flies for ghosts. I finished the run with a different fly, and wading up to meet my friend Joe, mentioned with chagrin the lost fly while pointing it out to him. “What a great place to lose a fly! he said” I looked at the bejeweled speck of blue and gold and black hanging off a low branch in the Nipponese hole on the Brule’ and smiled agreeing. He was right of course. Like an ornament meets a burnt offering I had left a colorful sacrifice to the beauty of fly-fishing in one of the finest pieces of water I have ever swung a fly in Wisconsin. It might hang there still, but nevertheless, I will always see it there in my memories like a monument to the river.

Thus, I raise my glass in a toast to art. “May your flies be as beautiful as the places you fish!” Ars Longa, Vitae Brevis!

Copyright 2014 Erik Helm

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Short Game

The Short Game

Casting a fly rod with grace at distance is one of the greatest joys of this little sport of angling with a fly. We all like to cast free and far. We like a wide-open dream of a river with few obstructions to hinder our casting. We like an open playing field where we won’t spend half the time slogging through brush and picking our flies out of trees. These places do exist, and are a joy to fish, but they seem to attract the vast majority of crowding we see on our waters. If we want to get away from the madding crowds, or discover what the other 90% misses, we may have to choose some less mythical and idyllic locations. These may be smaller waters or even those great waters once the grasses and bankside vegetation reaches over our heads. We may be forced to restrict our movements and casts while simultaneously widening our perception and opening our minds. What we find there may make all the little Lewis and Clark exploring worthwhile. Hidden gems of water where the fish have never seen a fly.

Enter the short game.

One of the most overlooked aspects of fly-fishing is playing the short game: short casts to tight quarters or complicated waters where only a short cast will allow the fly to remain in the window of opportunity long enough to attract attention and be eaten. Casts that allow us to enter the woods and sneak a fly under a bramble filled bank where the fish are eating fallen ants; casts in tight quarters that can reach out to 50 feet without a back cast; vertical casts that can place a fast sinking streamer into a back-eddy next to a current seam where you know the biggest fish in the river is busy making its living, and where a longer cast would have your line on the water caught in the current and drag the fly out of the zone before bullwinkle can eat it.

Short casts, short or long casts in tight situations. They both offer reward. They offer a way of approach to new and familiar waters both big and small that offer a world of perception which grows bigger and wider as it grows smaller... a widening of the senses and possibilities.... proverbial stones stepped over now have to be scrutinized before we pass, for they may hold a doorway unseen to the soul of the fish and the river...
Once one’s mind is opened to all the possibilities of the short game you may never look at water the same way again, and music will become the space between the notes. You may find yourself amazed at all the waters and possibilities that you passed by, intent on riffles, undercut banks, deep pools, and other obvious structures of fish habitat, and missing the little things just at your peripheral vision.
These small things require a slow and planned approach with a cast of the proper distance to allow the fisher not to be seen, and allow the fly to hit the target with precision and with the proper presentation desired. This can often occur at 6 to 15 feet.
Several weeks ago I fished a new stream my old friend Bob told me of. I had caught a few browns in the first few pools and was about to step around a sharp and narrow corner to see what lay ahead when I glanced at the little tail-out I was about to place a precarious foot into. There on the far side of the river half hidden under overhanging grasses was a cleft of rocks with a space of no more than a foot long between them. The rocks were softball sized. The water was swift at my feet, so if I wanted to hit that little pocket and find out what lives there I needed to creep up on it. If I cast from where I was standing, the fly would most likely both hit the grasses and immediately drag due to the fast water accelerating as the river shallowed in the terminus of the pool. I snuck into position diagonal to the little pocket and flicked a quick sidearm steeple cast that placed the hopper I was fishing at the cleft with a splat! The cast was no more than ten feet. A brown trout came flying out of the cleft, made a wild grab for the hopper, and missing, went back down his hole, changed his mind again and changing direction and rocketing downstream into the fast water, engulfed the hopper. With only the leader out of the rod tip by now, the fight was short but sweet. The fish ate the hopper at my feet.
Sitting down on the bank with one foot in the cold water, I reflected on this situation and the hundreds of others like it that make up the micro-world of rivers and streams. There was no other way to catch that fish. I had simply done what was necessary to get a fly to what I saw as possible holding water, and what was necessary was an accurate cast of under a dozen feet.
On another small spring creek in the same area, I was making my way through a wooded portion full of deadfalls and flood damage, when I almost stepped on a tiny possibility created by a downed tree. The little creek poured under the log and white foam bubbled against the wood. The creek was shallow, but the hole created by the plunging water was the perfect living room for somebody. I had no room to cast due to branches, and the little hole was right at my feet anyway. Even if I had the room to place a nice cast into the little hole, I would not have control of my fly unless I used the shortest cast possible. With the leader out and nothing more, I splatted a size 12 catskill March Brown/Hendrickson conglomeration on the surface of the tiny pool and steered it with the rod tip held high until it came within a few inches of the downed limb. Out of nowhere a nice 13” brown trout appeared as if by magic and ate the fly. He was darkly colored from his months or years of dwelling in the darkness under the log and making his living picking off bugs that drifted down the stream and against his dining room. It was as if the little pool were a mirror and the wood branches and log the frame of a picture-perfect scenario of small stream angling. It was all possible because I had begun to think in smaller terms, and in the proverbial book of reading water, had realized that some of the best content was found in the marginalia.

Worlds of possibility like this exist everywhere, we just have to learn to slow down and think in order to see them. My good angling friend Joe calls it “Hunting.” ‘Stalking’ might be the better word, but it all came to me on my home waters whilst fishing the tiny headwaters. This creek of ice water seeming still melting off the glaciers that formed the geology of the region is so small as to at first appear laughably unfishable.
It was by watching Joe break down the water and then returning on my own and simply walking up the banks of the tiny rivulet pausing every few yards to sniff out the structure that may hold a trout that I learned this game for the first time. Epiphanies are memorable, and I still recall that moment when I realized that if the cover and depth offered any probability of holding a fish, then there was probably one there. If it didn’t come out and eat, I could stick my rod tip into the little cut, slot, etc., and see what lives there scurry out. I had to creep up on the crystal-clear water by hiding behind saplings and brush, spot the target area, see what the water was doing, and plan an approach. Bow-and-arrow casts offered the only solution to the tangles of brush, and the need for pin-point accuracy in the sometimes foot wide channels in the watercress, or dinner-plate sized depressions next to an undercut or log. My rod would span the entire creek here.
This discovery changed my perspective and outlook on all rivers. I wanted to discover what I was passing by, and what I was missing. I began to slow down. Before I placed a cast into the top riffle, I looked at the whole pool and read every piece of current and structure looking for the hidden within the unseen.
Then, when I found myself on a sizable freestone river fishing for smallmouth bass, I began to break down the water very differently then I had before. I love to cast, and the habitual cannon of a 6 wt rod I used to fire big casts across the river and present flies to the bank got left in the car in preference of a lighter full-flexing rod that could both cast at distance, but more importantly, cast a large fly with accuracy with ten feet of line out. I still fired casts to the fells, cuts, and rock gardens on the banks, but I also began to approach some structures from a shorter distance using less line and controlling the fly much better. At a spot that I had fished from a raft two weeks before due to higher water, I waded and put the short cast and line control theories to a test.

When fishing from the raft, my casts to the downed log and short dark pool directly under the log were ineffective. My fly kept being pulled away by the current no matter what I did. By getting right on top of the spot and using a short cast, my big sculpin/crayfish fly was able to dance right under the wood where a nice 16” smallmouth ate it with gusto. A week later I returned to the stretch of water and watched two fly anglers stand within ten feet of the structure and cast to the shallow riffles in the middle of the river where they were having a ball landing small riffle bass. They never saw the marginalia. It was like looking at a before and after picture of myself. As I sat on a boulder and tied on a fly I reflected on all that I missed these years of angling, and thought how humbling but joyful the process of discovery and learning can truly be.
On a different piece of water on this same river islands of limestone and others of earth and rock covered by woods cause the water to form braids. Three separate channels form and reform, only to deviate again, split into more braids, and finally reform into the main river. I had fished the smallest of these braids only once or twice before, and was unimpressed. Now I made my way down into this cover rich and over-hanging branch choked portion and approached it like I was fishing a spring creek. What I had not seen before became immediately obvious. There was structure everywhere. I simply could not fish it before due to having a rod that would not bend with a short cast, and not having realized that such micro-structure could hold big bass. In the next two hours I had the time of my life steering crawfish patterns next to logs and undercuts, kneeling and flopping my fly over downed trees and hearing the splash of a fish eating my fly without ever seeing it. I used single-hand spey casts to keep my line out of trees, splatted the fly with no more than the leader out when necessary, bow and arrow casting, roll-casting, steeple-casting, and doing anything possible to get my fly in the right place and slow it properly. I made casts up. Throw it between the two branches while pulling down on a third branch to allow a field of fire and pop the fly forward. I caught fish. I caught some very memorable fish. They came out from cover and any deeper and slower part of a pool and clobbered the fly just like a trout would. My rod bent dangerously to the cork as I tried to keep these sluggers out from the salvation of tangles that they so desperately wanted to go back into.

A word about casting and gear. In an essay regarding slower or softer fly rods, I touched on the subject of what they allow one to accomplish on the water. Many rods used for fly-fishing these days are made to be fished on big western rivers where big casts are necessary every day. Unfortunately these super-stiff rods are also intended to be used for the very type of situations I have been describing. That is like using a drill-press to hammer a nail; not the best tool for the job if you will. In order to play the short game, the rod needs to bend with ten feet of line out. That doesn’t mean it still can’t cast far, although if distance is the intent, then a soft rod might not be the best for everyone. All my rods for use on small streams and brushy closed in situations where the short game is a necessity are full-flexing. I place a line on them of the appropriate weight to allow me to cast in close as well. That might take some experimentation, and even over-lining a rod might be in order.
We are all taught to cast on a straight plane, stopping the rod high on the back cast and stopping again on the forward cast to allow the line to loop horizontally and fire straight forward. For the short game, we have to throw that book out the window. The structure of the water and confined area determine the cast we must make, and we need to think on this a bit before simply firing out a cast that gets tangled in overhead branches. Roll-casts and spey type casts shine here due to their use of line on the water to form a loading loop on the backcast and not get caught up. Steeple casts are necessary to hit a dime at your feet, and flicks and flops take the place of double-hauls. The artistry is not in the beauty of the cast, but in the utility of getting your fly where it needs to be and keeping it there long enough to be eaten.
Leaders may have to be adjusted as well. I go shorter in order to allow control and ability to bow-and-arrow cast with just a foot of fly-line outside the tip. Save the long leaders for wide-open spaces.
One inherent problem in the short game is landing of the fish. This poor creature just ate what it took for a giant meatball sandwich with extra cheese, and has just felt the pull of the hook and the panic. We have to have a plan. Approach the water. Find the mini-holding lie. Plan the cast. Then plan what you are going to do if you actually hook something. Do you have sufficient room to move? Can you play and coax that fish out from beneath an undercut without getting your rod and line helplessly tangled in the brush. Can you jump or run to another position quickly to allow angles to be applied? Is there a safe place open enough to cradle the fish and unhook it? Before disaster strikes, have a landing plan.

The short game is both sight-fishing and not sight-fishing. It is as different from fishing to rising trout in a wide gravel riffle as one can get. You are not looking for a fish, You are seeing what possibilities exist in the form of cute little situations, and then just flicking your fly in and seeing what happens. The sight-fishing part is in being able to discern the infinite possibilities the short game offers, and take advantage of them through ‘seeing’ the space between the notes. Close your eyes and pause. Take slow breaths of clean air. Listen to the sounds of the water and the creatures that live abound it. Hear the wind in the trees and a hoot of an owl, the chatter of a kingfisher, and then open your eyes again to a new world.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Trout are like a box of chocolates…

Trout are like a box of chocolates… you never know what you are going to get
Or…Dry fly fishing and the mysteries of probability.


 If this sport were entirely predictable, we wouldn’t enjoy it so much. The very unpredictability, and resulting challenges and on the water problem solving is what makes fly-fishing a thinking sport, and none more than fishing the dry-fly on a trout stream. Predicting bug hatches and a trout’s reaction or lack of reaction to them is an inexact science at best. Yes, we can hypothesize what SHOULD happen during a set period of time given the temperature of the water, cloud cover, the angles of the sun, water clarity, etc., but in reality, what should happen becomes more what  could not happen. Like predicting the weather. There might be a tornado forming in that storm, or not. The squall line might drift off and miss us entirely, or we might be caught under the bridge as hail falls dangerously around us. We just don’t know. Life and fishing are not an exact science. Laws are not always universal. Theories may or may not play out before our eyes.

We all know that Blue Wing Olive mayflies tend to like to hatch in overcast conditions. Cloud cover and a drizzle might be a good indicator of a likely BWO emergence, but then again, it might not. I have fished BWO hatches in a cloudless sky with the sun directly overhead. Puzzling through this, I surmised that the bugs wanted to hatch earlier in the day when the sky was cloudy, but the water temperature had taken a plunge with a chilly cold front that passed by in the night. The sun warmed the water by a few degrees, and the bugs that were ready to hatch made a brief appearance. The trout wouldn’t take a caddis anymore, but became briefly obsessed with sipping gray-green bonbons.

Notice I used the word ‘Surmised’; for the truth is that I could be correct in my assumptions, or completely off base. Attempting to correlate the weather, stream entomology, and the behavioral psychology of a creature with a brain the size of a pea can leave you standing in the middle of the creek scratching your head with your waders around your ankles. The red-winged blackbird sitting on the branch above your head and squawking might be warning us of a nearby nest, or if we listen closely enough, might be saying “Hey you old fool with the goofy hat and long pole, don’t think about it too hard, shit just happens!”

Then we sit down on the bank and busy ourselves with searches through fly-boxes, looking for the answers to life, and quietly day-dreaming.

We think of that time on a spring-creek when the day was overcast and no bugs of notice were on the water and we had a ball catching and releasing thirty or more wild browns, finally losing count as our tattered caddis, now bereft of hackle and half the wing gets sucked under by yet another fish as we were standing on the bank swatting mosquitos, and our fly (now in name only) was dangling off the tip of our rod innocently and right at our feet. We recall we read extensively of the wise Marinaro and Flick that trout responded to hatches on the water, and that they were fussy and spooky creatures. We laugh and congratulate ourselves on our fishing prowess. We know what we are doing. We have it all figured out. The gods of fly-fishing are smiling on us.

Not so fast. He who chuckles and swells with pride and smiles should be prepared for the fickle nature of trout and bugs.

 The next piece of water on the same creek is a couple hundred yards upstream, but in the time it took you to walk there and eat a sandwich washed down with this morning’s stale and cold coffee, something karmic happened. You can’t see it. Wizened old anglers might just sense it. The sun peeked out just a tiny fraction from behind a cloud… just for a few seconds. Just enough to…
In the new water you work upstream with a fresh caddis fly, popping it under branches, hanging it over a blade of grass over the stream, twitching it over little buckets and current seams, silently amazed at your casting and presentation prowess. What happened to the fish? Did someone drop poison in the river? Is this section fishless? Then you spot a riseform in a tiny riffle. The caddis goes ignored three times through. Then another rise. You put the caddis over this fish and it stops rising altogether. The caddis just worked like a charm for the past four hours, how could this be happening? You can’t see anything hatching, so you surmise the trout must be eating small stuff. That catskill BWO in a size 20 stuck in your hat might work. Sure enough, you finally catch a small 8-inch fish on the BWO, right as the sun peeks out again. This makes no sense you exclaim while shaking your head in wonder and frustration. As you sit on a log midstream and try to figure out what to do next, a pod of big browns swims lazily by. You swear that the biggest one just winked at you.

It is at this moment of soul-searching in our attempts at a symbiosis of fly, nature, water and fish that madness can take hold. We all have been there. In times past we raged and swore. We told wives and fishing partners that we had a lousy fishing trip. We let it get to us. Somewhere in the progression from wanting to catch all the fish in the river and prove a point to ourselves that should never have needed to be proved, to a quiet and calm appreciative angler we learned to laugh at it all; to laugh at ourselves.

 Remember the guy we used to fish with ten years back? The guy who seemed possessed of an inner-fire to catch fish? The guy who always had an agenda? Who had no sense of proportion or humor? He doesn’t fly-fish for trout anymore.

We get up off the log, give a big hearty laugh, and walk the bank of the stream with our fly hooked to the keeper.

Don’t you just love it? What a sport!

Perhaps sometimes having no plan, other just to have fun and wet a line, may be a better approach than having an agenda set in stone. Sometimes we might have to just let go. I always try to ask an angler after they tell me a story of success or woe, “Well, did you have fun?” A goofy day fishing and learning the hard way the immensity of natural probability and Murphy’s law still beats a day at the office.

Given the fickle nature of trout and bugs, I like to be prepared. In my old waxed cotton stream bag nests seven or eight fly boxes jammed with imitations of every conceivable winged thing. They are all meticulously organized in rows like toy soldiers waiting for the call to arms. Crane fly hatch? Check. I got that covered. Caddis? Yes sir! I have Goddards, Henryvills, CDC, comparaduns, Elk hair, X-caddis etc. etc. Boxes of midges and blue-winged olives, march browns, hendricksons, etc. etc. etc.
Am I the over-prepared angler sinking into the creek bottom from the weight of all those tiny hooks? Do I look like the dungeons and dragons adventurer with an absurd collection of gear weighing me down? Remember this all fits neatly into a small stream bag.

 It always amazes me how anglers can approach a multiple day trip by going to a fly-shop and requesting “Three or four flies that are good now.” Three or four? I lose more than that in a day just to bushes, trees, and carelessly tied knots. What would happen if a major hatch occurs and you have only two flies matching the bug on the water? The answer is that you are screwed. Better hope that you don’t get bitten off by a big boy! Time now to go to a heavier tippet that may save your fly, but also brazenly advertise your presence to the fish. Let’s see, $600 in plane fare, $300 for the motel, $450 for the rental car….. and six dollars on flies.

Back to the chocolates…

I finished a recent trip to the driftless area of southwest Wisconsin by half-heatedly fishing my way more or less in the direction of home. I had to leave by four P.M. in order to get back in time for life. The day was bright and sunny without a cloud in the sky. After driving around for an hour looking for a half-remembered piece of water, becoming lost, and having my car attacked by a stray dog, I found myself on a stretch of a creek I had never fished before. Another angler had just left the pull-out. Looking at my watch I realized that this would be my last fishing of the trip. I put on a caddis fly and hoped for the best. I call this prospecting for trout. Exploring and snooping being as important as the fishing. Poking and sniffing at the chocolates to try to guess if I would get a mint crème or a cocoanut filling. Looking at the water from a crouch behind the tall grass I noticed the lack of insects other than the ever-present deer-flies and gnats. No trout were rising.

One of my eccentric faults is to fish the dry over the wet under any condition if possible. Yes, it is my own choice, and not an affectation. I just love the visual senses involved, and the challenge. Under that bright sky with no bugs on the water I had a ball finding the one or two (or none) fish in each pool or run that would rise. Caught or just raised and missed, it didn’t matter. Getting back to the car in time for the three-hour drive back, I watched as a car slowed up and stopped. It was the other angler wanting to know how I did. When I told him he was filled with wonder. He had used a nymph with an indicator and had caught a few fish too, but he was amazed that I had used a dry in those conditions. The only reason I caught fish on a dry was because I was using a dry. You never know what you are going to get when you reach into that box of chocolates.

Be prepared though for anything to happen, and just have fun. Be dogmatic or pragmatic. Fish the same fly stubbornly or switch flies until something works. Spend more time watching the river than fishing, or shotgun the water placing your fly in probable spots and moving on. It is all good. Just remember that you are not in charge here. The trout are…
And anything can happen…

Monday, June 2, 2014

Erik goes to the Canne film Festival

This short film made the Canne Film Festival in France. Thanks to the Peck School of the Arts and John Henson of the Milwaukee Bucks! I am the goofy guy! "No Alligators in Wisconsin".

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Some thoughts and musings on soft or ‘slow’ fly rods

Author’s note: The LP referred to in this piece is the 33 rpm Long Play record. Audiophiles have re-discovered that although technology and innovation gave us easier, more durable, and more compact systems of recording sound, the LP remains unbeaten for its fidelity. I thought this made an apt and easy analogy to the soft rod.

I have been pondering on the subject of soft or slower-action fly rods lately.
This musing was accelerated when Orvis came out with their new Superfine Glass fly rod. A fine crisp smooth-casting rod for small streams, I show it and demonstrate it often to anglers. I guess I expected a sort of ‘Eureka’ reaction of revelation and epiphany. Instead, most people wore a sort of quizzical expression as they felt the action of the rod.
One angler was holding and wiggling the rod like an angry cat attached to a buggy whip. One guy almost hit the ground with the rod tip, and another guy whacked it back and forth like it was a broomstick, and he was attempting to harass a piñata, or swat an angry wasp nest. I had to keep grabbing the rod from people’s hands and telling them “Whoa, slow it down…. Take it easy slugger, let the rod do the work.”

Clearly something was amiss here. The action of a fine soft fly rod was forgotten. Anglers were acting like they had never sampled something like this before, and were puzzled at the taste. These rods have been around for years though. Most fiberglass rods, many cane, and a majority of early graphite rods possessed a smooth and softer action. How come people were so completely lost and puzzled when holding a new and improved version of something that had been a staple of angling for a hundred years?
Then, doing what I am apt to do, I sat and thought deeply about it until the pieces started to come together.

First, what defines a slow or soft rod, vs. a fast rod?

 Ask ten people and one will get twenty dissimilar and conflicting ways of trying to describe the bending properties of a fly rod. I define Slow and Fast as properties of the recovery rate of a rod. Take a rod, and with a stiff hand, make it bend as in a cast. The quickness that the rod dampens and does not continue to wiggle back and forth in action and reaction, but stops is a gauge of rod speed. Relative flexibility is a measure of rod bend. Does it bend into the handle, bend only at the tip? Stiff rods bend at the tip, softer rods bend all the way into the butt. A soft rod may have a fast recovery rate, but be soft and full-flexing. A rod can also be stiff and slow at the same time. The discussion and physics of this, and resulting endless differences of opinion, and methods of description could take up whole libraries and the rest of the reader’s lives, so let’s for the sake of brevity let this very abbreviated description stand for us.

Soft rods load deeper into the blank than do stiff rods, and a caster has to slow down when casting them. The preverbal metronome has to be set a bit longer. As the bend in the rod is deeper, these rods tend to be very good at casting short to moderate distances, and they are easier on light tippet. They telegraph the pendulum and lever action and feeling of casting a fly rod right into the hand of the angler, as well as telling the caster when to push the rod foreword through this same easily discerned communication to the hand and arm. Soft rods are better at roll-casting as well. They are ideal fish playing tools. They do most of the work in casting and playing the fish. They also excel at throwing large flies. The rod is a spring, and the more flexible a spring is, the easier it is to make it work or load it. Less effort.
Stiffer rods are better long distance tools. They achieve a higher line speed and have better lifting power than do softer rods.

What does this mean?

It means that like a gun, no two rods are exactly alike, and like hunting, the situation and the game decides the tool or weapon. I would not hunt Lions with a .22 like I would not use a soft rod to try to try to cast to tarpon and get a solid hook set. Likewise, I would not use an elephant gun to hunt rabbits like I would not utilize a super-stiff cannon of a rod to ply an intimate stream.
There is a place for a soft rod as well as a stiff rod in the quiver of the fly angler..
Except…. Except that for the most part soft rods in the past twenty years have been relegated to the underground or the closet. With the notable exception of some limited rod offerings here and there, a tool has been taken away from the mainstream market.


Nobody wants a slow car, or a soft anything. In the time of faster is better, and more power equals ‘Good’, marketing seized the horse by the reigns and took us all in the direction they wanted. We were sold “Innovation and New is good, and what you have now is old and outmoded or outdated.” We were sold a fast car, a more powerful tool, an instant microwave oven, and our songs on digital devices, and most everyone never stopped to wonder why, or what may have been eclipsed? We just got on the innovation express and went rocketing into a better future. Much of that is O.K, and even progressive. I want options, but this train only went non-stop and one way.

O.K…..Companies have to sell new stuff. Thus marketing not only is targeted to new anglers taking up the sport, but also to current anglers that already have their equipment. As this sport market in fly-fishing is quite limited, and competition for the buying dollar is fierce, people have to be made to believe that their old rod will no longer perform right, and that this new and better rod will help them catch more fish. With each successive year, rods got lighter and faster, until some rods could only be properly cast by experts using a double-haul and holding 40 feet of line in the air. Somewhere in here, with the new lightness and faster action enabled by new resins and graphite, and the relentless message of marketing, something got lost..

In a world where everyone drives a formula one racing car to work, there has to be a place for a station wagon. Proving this is as easy as a perusal of fly fishing magazines, where anglers of years past seem to have cast rods considered laughingly heavy by today’s standards, and managed to cast all day without their arms falling off. They also seem to have landed huge fish on those soft rods. Maybe they were just blissfully ignorant or just lucky in those smiling black and white pictures, or perhaps they just went fishing with what equipment they had, and knew enough to make it work properly. They may have spent more time fishing then sitting on internet chat rooms and fly fishing forums trying to find the magic bean through an endless cycle of rods bought new and soon sold in a quest for some ideal more in tune with advertising and life-style than reality.

Where was I…?

Oh yea. So, the industry keeps people buying faster and stiffer rods each couple of years. The Fenwick HMG becomes too slow, and the Sage RPL becomes the rage. The older Orvis rods go in the closet in favor of the T3, and then the RPL is no good anymore and letters and numbers start replacing names more and more until anglers like myself become kind of confused and depressed, and on and on it goes. Rods are 10% lighter, 10% stronger, and 900% better. Even veteran anglers start to doubt their favorite rod and sip the marketing Kool-Aid wondering what they are missing.

As this is happening, there develops a sort of reactionary element of underground anglers that may be just stubborn, but also may be wise enough to understand the different fly rod actions and wish for some alternative to the race to the weightless rod that won’t bend at all. They lurk in internet forums and casting clubs, and gather wherever others are who are growing to treasure the old softer rods of graphite, glass, and cane, such as the Orvis Superfine. You have to look closely to find them though, as they don’t tend to be loud, and often blend in with the background.

To those of us that belong to this fraternity, what was old and discarded has now become new and desired again. Like the LP record, soft rods were eclipsed by ‘New’ and ‘Better’ technology, but in the eyes of connoisseurs remain the finest in feel. Now at auctions and rummage sales we can be spotted, wearing our best (or worst) fishing hat, rooting around in garages and dark corners for treasures, sharing guilty glances with those looking through stacks of old records looking for a rare LP recording of Reiner conducting Scheherazade, or at least a decent copy of Miles Davis.

Soft rods carry quite a few myths. Most say they are all slow. This is not true. Part of the problem came about in the years of crappy production cane and glass rods flooding the market. Most of these were indeed slow, and the angler might want to take a streamside nap after making the cast to allow his or her rod to stop wobbling and damping. Many say they are not distance tools, and they are both right and wrong. Where the needed distance is over 50 to 60 feet consistently, I would prefer a stiffer rod, but in seriously reality, most casts outside of the salt are less than 40 feet. A softer rod performs fine here.

There are those that state that a softer rod is inherently a less accurate rod than a stiff rod. Really? The two most accurate rods I own are a custom built cane and an Orvis superfine. Hmmmm.
Softer rods are also more sympathetic to the caster. They are easier to load and cast. Softer is really a relative term here, as a progressive taper rod will be softer than a tip-flexing rod, but faster than a full flex taper. However, I have had multiple students show up for private casting classes sporting the newest super fast and stiff rod, and were unable to cast it at all. Then I handed them a more progressive taper and softer rod and ‘Hey Presto!’, they could cast. That stiff rod now became a very expensive dust gatherer.

Getting back to the beginning again, after watching angler’s reaction to the excellent new Orvis Superfine Glass, something else became apparent to me: Anglers are not feeling the rod load. They are not letting the rod do the work and have to a certain extent lost the ‘feel’ of casting and the action of a fly rod. They are used to one thing, and that is whip the stiff broomstick forward and the line goes out. They have commented “I don’t like soft rods. I hate flexible rods, etc. etc”. A lot of time this can be fear of change and the unfamiliar rather than preference.

The challenge to a good fly caster is to pick up any rod and feel its signature power and timing and adapt the stroke to fit the rod, fast or slow, soft or stiff. A good caster can take a soft rod and make it purr like a racecar by using a smooth acceleration to a stop, avoiding jarring and sharp movements, and utilizing the off hand to haul the line and increase line speed without increasing rod load. Damping the recovery can be increased even further by how the hand grips the rod.

But even marketing runs out of room at some point, or they catch a whiff and scent of what is being discussed in the dark cellars of the underground. Today it is getting increasingly difficult to come up with a way to make rods stiffer and even lighter, and equally difficult to provide a reason for the angling consumer to purchase them. One can see this as rod manufacturers keep introducing rods of different goofy colors with strange reel seats, space-age looks, and wild graphics. In the car business the saying goes that you can tell when sales have stagnated because more and more balloons and ribbons and banners get put out. I think this is the same thing in fly-fishing. One way to capture a new (old) market is to go retro, and those rod companies are paying attention to the underground, and have started to offer a new line of rods that combine the lightness new technology offers, with the feel and bend that the older fly rods had.

My eyes got opened by an old Orvis All-rounder. My cannon of a six weight that I used for bass on smaller river can deliver a tight loop at 60 feet plus and hit a dime, but when used to fish in an area on my local river known as the ‘Braids,’ couldn’t load at the short and obstructed casting that was needed. I cast Joe’s All-Rounder and a light-bulb went on. After I obtained one of my own and fished with it for a couple of months, I found that I could adapt my casting to any needed distance with this rod, and it roll-cast and delivered big flies like no other rod I ever cast. I then broke out other softer rods and had the same experience. Curiosity can pay off if one closes one’s eyes to all the hype out there and just feels the rod load. Feel it bend: bend like a fly-rod again.

Now the generation of anglers that have never tasted this wine need to have the courage to question things, and pick up a rod like the Orvis Superfine Touch or Superfine Glass, and see what has been hidden behind the yellow curtain all these years.

Soft rods are coming back, and like the LP, the sound will be like nothing else since.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Home waters

We all know them, they may be big and brawling, small and intimate, sedately flowing, alive with riffles, quiet or noisy; they are our home waters. We have grown with them though the years like a constant companion. They shaped us. We know their moods, their personality, and their quirks. They have made us laugh and cry. They may not be the named streams of fame, or even have a name for that matter. In the words of wisdom of my friend Joe, “They are what they are…” Above all, they feel like an old comfortable pair of well-worn shoes or an old hunting dog, or even an old friend and lover.

 Like that old dog that always knows what you will do, or a favorite book re-read, you and the river move at the same symbiotic pace. It may not have always been like this though. During your early courting days you may have hurried her, stepped on her, transgressed on her feelings a hundred different ways, but you always come back, and the river is always there, looking the same, but yet a bit different, and she always forgives you and beckons to you.

For the past ten years I have been fishing a little trout stream an hours drive from home. It originates in the hills of the Kettle Morraine, Southeast Wisconsin’s unique spectacular glacially sculpted landscape. Although I often think that I know it, it always surprises me with new discoveries, and although I have little impact on the stream, it has had a great impact in shaping me; it has crafted my skill and is a piece of me.

It is a fickle and difficult little brook. I often mention it to other anglers with a touch of possessive hesitance. So many times they come back from fishing her and are disappointed to have only hooked one fish, or even none at all. In her many changes and moods the waters may deliver a spectacular fishing experience, and the next minute, send you packing while scratching your head in wonder. “Where did all the fish go?” It a brown trout river after all, and brown trout do have a rather spooky reputation, especially when harassed by a legion of middle-aged fools with long poles and strange concoctions of fur and feather.

The river is best fished with no expectations whatsoever, except to commune with her beauty for a moment in time. It may take a lifetime to get to know her.

I like it this way. The creek is ‘middlin’ kind of water: not the best, not something you would travel a hundred miles to experience, but your home. You know it, and it hides wild trout.

Every fly angler has a piece of water like this. Somewhere where we go to walk in our own footprints and live in our own thoughts. Adventure or non-adventure come together. No pressure, no storied names of runs, just some wild trout and the hope of a bright connection.

In such a comfortable relationship, sometimes you can answer the questions before they are asked, and sometimes you have to just walk away. The river will still be there tomorrow, and a new approach or a renewal may work wonders, like a change of pace. As we get to know the river, we develop patterns, both good and bad. We leave our preverbal towels laying around, and eat our eggs the same way every morning.

Still, there are discoveries to be made, and when you think you know it all and are content to start naming the trout, you watch a kid with a cheap spinning rod outfish you ten to one precisely because he doesn’t know what you know. Perhaps a fresh approach again, or a mind less clouded with dogma and familiarity might be order. Every work of art is an approach, both by the artist (the stream) and the viewer, reader or listener as interpreter. Listen to the same interpretation all the time, and we may miss the nuances and possibilities.

We never talk about this creek the same way we would other waters. Our tales might be vague and respectful and lacking in bravado and detail. “How did you do” might be answered by a slow scratching of the forehead, and a mystic “Oh, I got a few,…. Beautiful evening isn’t it?” True lovers don’t tell tales of the bedroom.

My home river is not the place I would go to prove a point, but instead to slowly fish an old favorite cane rod.

She can be moody. Like an old companion, I know the brook’s mood swings. That little pool that came alive one evening and danced like a string quartet of trout slurping hendricksons has never been the same. It seems that there are no trout in there. Your friend looks at you as you describe the ten fish you caught back to back last week, and rolls his or her eyes as if to call you a grand teller of fish-tails, but you know what lives there, even if since then, the pool fishes like someone dumped bleach in it. On a hot July day, don’t press her; let her lay peacefully napping until the coolness of evening breezes awake her slumbers, and instead of a rebuke, she may turn and gently kiss you on the cheek.

One late spring day my friend Joe and I set about to find the actual headwater spring that feeds the creek. We went slogging through the hillsides, getting marled and stuck in quicksand and bog, and scrambled over seemingly a thousand fallen trees with a million branches, all the time imagining a single big spring, and when after miles and hours, we were surrounded by a morass of spring seeps, realized that we were standing in the headwaters. Sometimes you have to just open your eyes by sitting down and staring off into space to realize that your search is over, and whatever it was you were looking for, you have found it by sitting on it by accident.

The stream begins to come into its own when several tiny spring seeps coming out of the giant hill you can see twenty miles off flow together to form a trickle no more than two feet wide. Here undercuts and root balls, fallen logs, and weeds hide trout that only a well disciplined stealthy approach and a bow and arrow cast can cover. Creep up to a bush at a crouch and peek over the grass. Plan the shot and the path to get there hiding yourself all the way. Move slowly and do everything right, and you might hook or spook a single fish. Might. This is like fishing at the beginning of time. It is an infant river here, and like the smell of a newborn baby, the water has a natural purity. It tastes like the ancient glacier, purified by flowing over eons of gravel and rock. It is refreshingly cold, and its trickling reflections of light are like the blinking eyes of something that has been underground in the womb of the earth and has just arrived surprised at the surface brightness.

I tend to disappear into this upper stretch, deaf, blind and hidden to the mundane world, or even other anglers. My friend Gordy, who guides the river once spotted my car on this upper confluence and went searching for me, shouting all the way, but never finding me. I was oblivious. To this day, he reminds me about this story, and swears I was hiding somewhere. Instead, I was doing my best heron imitation, mesmerized by a tiny flashing tail of a trout appearing now and again under a sunken log. I never heard him either.

There are times in May, as the migration of song-birds moves slowly though the area woods and streams, that I find myself distracted by the flitting of a redstart, the flash of a warbler, the song of the oriole, or the majestic stature of a indigo bunting. I neglect the fishing to spot woodpeckers and spy on green herons and bitterns. The creek has quite a few swampy areas, which attract wild turkeys that have a habit of holding their cover and then madly flushing when you are twenty feet away, scaring the skin off of you and interrupting the little counterpoint you were trying to achieve with a blue winged olive dry fly. The same pair of sandhill cranes nest in a marsh adjacent to the river each spring and raise voices as well as their young. I always say “Hi” to them, and although they fly away in alarm, they circle in a wide arc, and come back to the nest, their camouflaged heads with that tell-tail red spot peeking above the cattails.

A lot of discoveries have happened and memories have been made in and along the banks of this river: the first 14” wild brown I ever took with a size 20 Blue Winged Olive mayfly dry-fly with 6X and a fifty foot cast, learning how to fish a nymph dropper behind the dry for the first time, finding a secluded shallow portion of the river deep in the woods, and due to getting off the beaten path, having a ball with ten inch wild trout and a Catskill March Brown, and just sitting on the bank of the river in a sudden torrential downpour letting the water cascade off the hood of my jacket and the tips of my fingers as I meditated on life and nature and fishing.

I have met anglers on the stream that became life-long friends, I have fished it on an opening day in March that saw two foot deep snow on the banks and a 23 degree air temperature. I have fished in August when I have taken a midday nap sitting in the cool water to get out of the heat, and felt a little bit like a trout myself. I have fished it when the wind howled, when the mosquitoes were so bad, that I finally fled back to the car. I have knocked deer flies into the river that swarmed around my hat and tried to bite through, and watched as a trout came up out of nowhere and ate them, but not my flies. I have cast to a distant clump of overhanging grass, and only by accident spotted the biggest trout on the pool lying at my feet, ignoring my feeble attempts, and looking for his own supper. I have fished the midge emerger hatch and become profoundly frustrated.

Ah, the bloody midges. The primary food sources in the river are small size 30 olive midges. One can see them as a sort of moving fog over the riffles in spring and summer. They are maddening to imitate and fish. One year, as hatches intermingled in a favorite stretch of literally perfect dry-fly water, I caught numerous fish on small dry flies. In the ensuing years the trout have either disappeared, or become far more wary. The little rings of fish sipping emergers are there, but the fish seem to be phantoms. They won’t touch a dry, and shy from a nymph. They are looking for an emergent size 30 marzipan bon-bon with a crooked wing or something like that. Whatever they are eating, it sure must taste good to them. This year, if time permits, I am going to figure it out. I already have some size 22 sparse olive midge emergers ready. These are different from the ones that didn’t work the last time out or the month before, and also different from the ones that didn’t work last year. When I finally re-master this little pool, it will feel like an accomplishment.

It was here on this creek that, by necessity, I learned to place my fly with accuracy. The whole river is at its largest the width of a sidewalk, and is overgrown with roses, raspberries, nettles, dogwood, alders, buckthorn, and wildflowers. A glance rearward to ensure the path and gauge the distance limitations of the backcast are the beginnings of every cast, as is the necessity of reaching to place the fly in one path, and the leader in another. Long drifts are not necessary, and if the fly is to be eaten, it usually dies a few seconds after hitting the water. Usually, it goes ignored.

Of course, everything changes, even old marriages. The local Trout Unlimited chapter that has been responsible for the restoration of the river is going to undertake a massive de-brushing and cutting program on the river this year. I am kind of mixed on this.

On one hand, I think we should adapt ourselves to the stream more than make the stream try to adapt itself to our whims, but then again, that may just be a wishful philosophical fart since the hypocrisy lies in the fact that without the restoration that has happened, there would be no trout and the stream would be a muddy, silted mess, but one can still grumble that changes in the marriage are not to our liking.

Nature and moving water have a way of making man’s best efforts at control a temporary thing at best, and the alders will grow back and in a few years, the whole process will begin again. The cutting might be a good thing though, as the stream does get a bit choked in summer, but then that is mostly the canary grass, which reaches heights of eight feet and sways over the water. Nobody can control the grasses.

 I guess I just fear that the stream may end up resembling a meandering put-put golf course, complete with fiberglass statues of Isaac Walton with waving arms as obstacles, and a little marking card to record your casts. Perhaps ‘Par’ might rather refer to juvenile striped markings on trout, and not the stream course itself. But, then, we all fear change, and over-react. I am sure it will be fine, and if, for a time, it looks like a giant weed-whacker got drunk and went on a rampage, there are always the more secluded and wooded areas where the trout are smaller, but the footprints encountered are my own.

That’s the neat thing about knowing a little river on this intimate basis; one can always find open water. I might not be able to choose my access, but I can drive the couple of miles and poke about finding where people are, and slip in between them.

All these memories and experiences, good and bad, including falling in the water, breaking your rod, losing flies in the bushes, getting poison ivy, and spotting and catching the wild brookie living in a two-inch back eddy next to a rock make us the ‘Old-Farts’ of the river. I guess I wear that on my sleeve and am proud of it. Putting in one’s time has rewards, especially in the time needed to get to know a river with such intimacy that one can refer to it as ‘Home.’ Being an ‘Old Fart’ also has other advantages. Emerging from bushes like a phantom covered in mud, crawling through a culvert to get out of the river when lost in the dark, and sleeping in the cemetery do kind of give one a reputation for eccentric behavior, and as rumors lead to exaggerated tales of that crazy guy fishing dry flies he made from his own nose hair and such, people can tend to leave you alone until you want their company, which to an angler, can often be a good thing.

I have to leave it at that, especially after the nose hair comment, and go fish this stream in my mind for a spell. Outside it is 11 below zero.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Faith and the Dry Fly

Faith of a different kind, of course….

An allusion to acapella simplicity. The voice of only one instrument; a solo for fur, feather and trout.

One of the most joyful and contemplative angling I have done is fishing the dry fly consistently and purposely, in both an insect hatch and lack of hatch. Obviously, when an insect hatch occurs, one must try to “Match the hatch.” However, in a situation where no hatch is apparent, fishing a dry is often thought to be nothing but formalism, and perhaps an affectation. I beg to differ.

Far from dry-fly purity, this pursuit departs entirely from Halford and the British tradition of casting only to a rising fish. Instead, one is casting to the water, to the structure of a riffle, a clump of grass overhanging the bank, an underwater boulder, or an undercut. I would be thrown off the Avon or the Test for doing this. “Heresy!”

So why the dry fly? And… why fish it when diminished returns in numbers of trout caught may result?

Let’s spend a few moments on the stream together in our imagination…

Seeing a hatch of mayflies, caddis, or other insects and the resulting rise of feeding trout fills in one very large piece of the eternal puzzle of trout and water; ie: where the fish are and why. They are feeding, and have taken up stations on the pool or run with preference to pecking order, size of the trout, cover, ease of feeding, shyness, shadows, or several of dozens of other variables that anglers have spent thousands of pages debating, investigating, and describing. This problem alone solved, the angler can go on to the problem of how to present a fly to the fish. On low-gradient chalk streams, this is the preferred method. Spot the fish, work out the cast, present the fly, try not to put the fish down, etc. An angler by choice and by circumstance may spend hours just working one little spot. The fish are spooky in the gin-clear water and are hiding under weeds. Walking and casting are about the worst things one can do. Prospecting with the dry fly would be like casting a big bobber into a quiet pool.

 Not all spring creeks or small trout streams have this classic English structure, many have more in-stream habitat cover, undercut banks, improvements, and gradient; enough differences to allow us to play a little game with the dry fly called “I wonder where the fish are?” As long as a simple cast and presentation will not either catch the quarry or put down the pool, the game can be very enlightening.

 If we don’t know where the fish are in a pool, we must use our best guess. That alone requires thought, reflection, a sixth sense only acquired by countless hours doing just that: sitting and watching, smelling and listening, seeing things out of the corner of our vision that may not have been there at all, or may be the key to unlock the whole puzzle.

 In layman’s terms, this is called reading water, and is arguably the greatest skill a moving water angler can ever acquire. A literate water-reader seems to ‘know’ where the trout may be, and more often than not, seems to be right. A fish-whisperer or a water wizard… Perhaps. More likely a person who put in their time on the water fishing the edges dry.

The edges. Yes. The edges of the bank, the edges of current seams, and the edges of thought. Somewhere in those edges are the answers.

 So how does this happen? With a little act of faith.

 Put on a dry fly and keep it on no matter what happens. Change the pattern if necessary, but make certain it is a dry. Now go fishing…

 “Yea, but where do I start? There is no hatch!!??”

 Exactly. There are no cliff’s notes. No ready canned answer to the riddles of Yeat’s poetry. We have to start somewhere and interpret what we experience ourselves. Every bend and riffle will be a different poem, and we must reflect that. In other words, we must become a direct reverse reflection to and of the stream and structure and conditions, adapting and changing the view like one would see in viewing the stream through a twisting pocket mirror. Every angler will reflect the stream differently, and come up with a slightly different approach or answer. This is why no Cliff notes is a good thing. By coming up with our own vision, finding our own voice, solution, interpretation, the answers lie outside the over-established convention. Yeats will never be the same to any two readers, and neither will any reflection and adaptation of any two anglers be the same.

I like this. I like fishing this way. It is the most exquisite form of curiosity and surprise, and putting a fly in a place I think a fish will be without actually seeing the fish, and catching it on a dry has a great satisfaction to it.

 It is also the best way to learn to read the water. Why was the fish there if it was directly feeding? What changes in the depth, cover, surface structure, shadows, etc. gave that fish the perfect place to sit? Why wasn’t it hiding like the other fish? What about the water speed changes led the fish to pick the closer or further of two identical clumps of overhanging grass to hide under? Would that fish be back there tomorrow, or next week? How about when the water is colored up? How about in an actual hatch? When the water is warmer, cooler? Would it? Only one way to find out; have confidence and fish the edges with a dry. The discoveries are worth the efforts.

 This kind of fishing can also be restraining. It requires a sort of restraint and commitment, and a carefree soul. One has to get used to going fishing with no expectations. The fishing could be fast or slow, but sticking to the dry and prospecting the water while moving from pool to pool takes courage. This is not to denigrate those that choose to fish the nymph, or anglers who will do whatever it takes to fool a fish; those are other very apt learning paths and must be pursued as well. Indeed, it might be a neat description to state that the angler who will figure out how to take a single fish while using a dry, nymph or streamer is turning the combination again and again until the safe opens and the puzzle is solved, while the prospecting dry fly angler is looking for the key in different although equally methodical manner, like looking for fingerprints and foot impressions and a disturbed stone to find the key hidden under. These are just many methods of approach to the same vision. Catching a trout can be painted in expressionism, pointillism, realism, abstraction, or one of a thousand different means to the same end. That end is learning, and that happens when the fish is hooked, regardless the approach.

Dry fly fishing is a visual experience. One sees exactly what is happening or more often not happening. We can see a good presentation and a bad one. We can anticipate what may happen, and the sight of a fly dancing down the stream just asking to be taken is an exquisite torture of watching.

 Fishing this way is also simple. One spends less time futzing with indicators, droppers, multiple fly rigs, tangles etc., and spends more time with their fly on the water. Sometimes I will handicap myself on purpose by only taking as many flies as I can fit into a patch on my hat. Three patterns in two sizes or something like that. Elk hair, Goddard, or Henrysville Caddis, a Blue Winged Olive, a beetle or a hopper. Now I have no choice on how I am going to fish that day.

The first time I did this, I did it by accident: by forgetting my entire main fly box back at the car. I accepted my own self-imposed challenge, despite my friend’s insistence that he lend me flies, and I stubbornly fished a hopper pattern although no hoppers were out yet in July. What I discovered blew clouds of dust from my brain, and shattered 4X tippet all day.

Prospecting with the dry can be either fast or slow, entirely at one’s whim. How long one spends on one piece of water is up to the angler. Often using a delicate but faster approach, in effect ‘shotgunning’ the runs makes the best use of time and energy. In doing this one is looking for the exact opposite of the ‘classic’ dry fly presentation. Instead of slack line leaders, drag-free drifts, and complicated mending, the angler is looking to produce a rise when the quarry does not necessarily want to rise to the fly. Try dropping the fly with a ‘splat!’ Step up a size or two in pattern, or twitch the fly invitingly as it drifts back to you. Skitter the fly down and across, or cast the leader over a low hanging branch and let the fly be pulled up and over the branch to alight on the water again. All these are methods I have used to catch trout, often learning by accident, and then retaining the moment in the ‘ol rusty file cabinet brain.

 If it doesn’t work, move on. Leave the little push-button fish counter back at the car; this is not a game of numbers. Instead it is a mind game, and one beautiful way to spend a morning or evening discovering something new where the water speaks to you.