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.