Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Zion Creek

 


Copyright 2021 Erik Helm

 

 


Part One: Gateway to Zion

 

The river was born in the mountains and flowed from north to south down the valley it had created for eons. It was a trout river, best fished in spring, and the man now standing on the bank watching and listening to it had fished it all his life. Every year it was a ritual beginning in April and ending in June, when the water became too warm for trout, and they migrated up the tributaries like the West Branch, which dumped into the main river across from where he was now standing. This tributary was clean, clear, and cold throughout the year.

 

The West Branch, or Zion Creek (as it was commonly known), was private water owned by an exclusive club with a set limit to membership. How long the club had existed he didn’t know, but his Grandfather had talked of it often, describing with a wry smile his youthful attempts to poach it at night and his hide and seek game with the club bailiffs. Standing there today, he reflected that he had never had the opportunity to fish it.

 

All that would change today, as he had been invited by Charles, a business acquaintance he knew slightly and had done a good turn for, to fish it for the morning. Charles had been a member of the club for some time, and held the position of Sergeant at Arms, which translated to keeper of the books and history. Each club member was allowed only two guests per year, so this invite was very special.

 

He met his host at the stone bridge that spanned the main branch and led up Zion Creek to its headwaters. As they drove in Charles’s car, he rolled down the window to let the fresh smell of pines and spring water fill his senses. Charles made small talk on the way, but his guest’s attention was on the scenic beauty before him. Zion Creek was a picture postcard of a trout-stream. It meandered over gravel, accelerated in riffles, sounded forth with cascading plunge-pools, curved and curved back again upon itself, and twinkled with a thousand reflections of the early morning sun.

 

Charles parked the car in a gravel lot in front of a splendid rustic log-cabin lodge house; above the front porch hung an ancient weathered wooden sign reading ‘Zion Creek’. They set up their rods and fly-tackle and walked down a set of old wooden stairs that led from the lodge to the stream.

 

A few mayflies were flitting above the riffles as his host led the way on a streamside path further up the river. He noticed that every hundred yards or so there was a well-maintained hand-carved sign naming the pools and runs. After a short hike, Charles stopped and pointed to the water. “I am going to start you here, it is called ‘Isaac’s Bend’.” “Work your way upstream for the next mile or so, and I will meet you around noon.”

“The Hendricksons should get going around ten, and remember to pinch your barbs down.”

“Oh, and have fun!” he added with a wave. His host disappeared up the path through the conifers, rod tip appearing now and again to mark his passage.

 

The water named ‘Isaac’s Bend’ was a long gravel bar curving from left to right and had to be at least two hundred yards long. As he squinted through the youthful sunlight to see what insects were on the menu for the morning’s angling, a mayfly landed on his cheek. He caught it gently in cupped hand and peered at it inquisitively. It was a mottled dun, most likely a Hendrickson, but a size larger than he usually saw on the main branch. As he rooted through his fly-boxes to find the appropriate pattern, he heard a splash, and then another, and another. Trout were beginning to feed all around him. Locating the right fly, he dressed it, tied it on his leader, paused a moment to take it all in, and targeting a spreading ring in the water before him, sent his dainty offering forth to tempt a trout.

 

The fly had barely settled on the water when a hungry brook trout happily sucked it in, and shot downstream past his legs causing the line to fly off the reel with a pleasant protesting staccato. Landing it, he was dazzled by its colors. Bright white accents lined the fins, while sky blue spots punctuated with fiery red centers lit its sides like nature’s fireworks. The trout was fat and healthy, and ice cold to the touch. He released it gently into the clear mirror of water at his feet, and watched it gently settle to the bottom and slowly swim off.

 

Drying his fly, he looked out over the bend of river ahead and hummed a passage of Schubert’s ‘Trout’ quintet. The water was alive with mayflies dancing in the air and floating on the water, and trout were feeding everywhere in the current. He was in awe.

 

Time slowed for him as he progressed up the bend to the riffle at the top. He must have caught and released a dozen fish over a foot long, and equally as many smaller ones. Behind a large boulder in the fast water, he saw a swirl and a large nose poked out to eat a bug. He paused a moment to let the fish settle, and placed his fly against the rock. It hovered a moment in the eddy and then seductively twitched as the current caught it. For the trout behind the rock, it was too much. It smacked the fly with audible delight and when hooked, bored into the current.

 

Seated on the bank, he reflected that he had never seen such a strong fish. Only fifteen inches, it used its weight well, shooting into the air and clearing the boulder in a single leap, then reversing itself and using the current to its advantage, torpedoed its way across the river. He had all he could do to land the thing: reel backlashed, line tangled around his legs, and the leader on the edge of parting. They say brook trout can’t jump. Nobody told this one; he must have never have received the telegram.

 

He savored the moment as he sat, feet in the cool water, gently drinking it all in. Zion Creek was something to be cherished in the ingrained memory he now captured; a canvas of sound and light, of movement and smell, of fish and eternity. He heard his name being called, and turning his eyes away from the final aquatic ballet before him saw that Charles was standing and smiling at him.

 

“Well,” Charles laughed, “You didn’t get far at all!” “A mile of river in front of you and four hours later you only made it to the top of ‘Isaac’s Bend’.” “How was the fishing?”

 

Sometimes a simple smile can paint a thousand paintings, or write a hundred poems. His smile was one out of time; back to his youth, a grin wide with honesty and delight at simply being alive. Four hours had passed in a moment in a special place. He felt renewed.

 

Zion Creek had its many rituals. They made their way back to the lodge for a glass of wine, and to fill out the guest book and fishing log.

 

The interior of the lodge was decorated with old photographs of the river and club members. Copper daguerreotypes mixed with faded black and white photos. The logbook was a ponderous affair. Bound in leather and a foot thick, it began in 1891 and was filled with flowing script. Quill pens slowly gave way to ball-points as he flipped through the pages recording the deeds and catches of anglers adorning the photos on the walls; members who were long pushing up daisies. It was a book out of time; a window into the past. He turned to the most recent page, and carefully entered his name, his fish, and the words “This is truly Zion.”

 

Charles seated him in front of the fireplace at one of the long tables, the wood now worn and stained with smoke, and rang a little bell. An older gentleman appeared as if by magic and shimmered over to the table. He held a bottle of red wine, two glasses and a tray with bowls of hot lentil soup with greens. Charles explained that this was all part of the ritual, codified over the years and simplified to an essence.

 

“It was old Isaac who set the menu many years ago,” Charles said while pouring the wine. “He was the gentleman that gave his name to the beat of river you just fished.” “By all report and reputation a modest and jolly man, roundly built and short, he was one of the oldest members.” “After the soup, we can look at the old photo albums.” “He is in there, of course.”

 

The soup was delicious, and the wine intoxicating but sweet. He wondered to himself if Isaac himself had chosen it. It was a rich Semitic deeply colored and pungent vintage, dark purple in color.

 

His host went up to a large bookcase and pulled down a few albums. They showed the construction of the lodge, the members standing around supervising sporting coats and ties, top hats and derbies perched jauntily on their heads. Page after page showcased happy anglers, and dates and notes were written on the photos themselves in white ink.

 

As he drank the wine and slowly drank in the history, he turned to a page that had a set of large panoramic photos of the stream taken from the lodge. The first was dated 1921 and entitled ‘West Branch.’ The second dated from 1938 and had the caption ‘Zion Creek.’ Studying them in detail, he noted that in the former photo, he could spot Isaac’s Bend, the Willow Pool, and two other landmarks. Indeed the creek today looked exactly the same as it had in 1921. The second later photo he could not recognize. It looked similar in shape and size, obviously taken from the same vantage point, but clearly a very different river. He noted to Charles his confusion, and his host replied that some stream work and improvements had been done in between the photo dates.

 

Now he was puzzled. He speculated out loud that the photos seemed backwards. The very river he fished today was identical to the older photo, while the newer one must have shown the original stream before the club did improvements.

 

“No…” Charles said with a wry smile, “That is the correct sequence.” “We have an hour before we need to get going, so you might like a little mystery untangled…”

 

Part Two: Prometheus and the finger of God

 

Charles poured another glass of wine and leaned forward, elbows resting on the old wood table, and began.

 

 “ The West Branch always had good fishing, and the members contributed dues that allowed the club to hire several ‘Water-Keepers’.” It was their job to stock the stream when it needed it, remove any bass or pike that swam in her, remove silt, and keep the banks clear.” “Sometime in the mid-1930s we hired a new keeper named Smith.” “He had a background as an engineer, and also was a keen fisherman.” “It was Smith that started the program of improvements to the stream starting at the confluence, and working year by year up the river.” “Some of the ideas were quite new, at least to us.” “He used logs to shore up the banks and prevent silt from accumulating, and with his helpers manually shifted rock in the river to aid flow, always being sensitive to the river itself.”

 

“The work started to pay off with fish numbers increasing, and insect life visibly rebounding, while the stream retained its essential character.” “Members of the club noticed the improvements in the fishing as well.”

 

“In 1937 the president of the club was a man named Franklin… I can’t recall his first name.” “He was from the city, and owned a large excavating company.” “He floated the idea of increasing the stream work to Smith, and then to the executive committee.” “His idea was that in one or two years we could reap the benefits of a re-structured river by industrial methods based on Smith’s new ideas.” “He sweetened the pie by offering, at his own expense, to provide not only the equipment, but the labor as well.” “The committee took a vote, the idea passed, and the planning started.”

 

“That was when the simple ideas of tweaking things along the river in a sort of symbiosis with its character began to expand.” “As ideas were put forward and discussed about each section and beat, more and more opinions and suggestions were explored.” In the ‘Willow Pool’ for example, instead of the S-curve that existed naturally, plans called for the river to be shifted from its bed and made straighter and deeper.” “Other pools and sections were less invasive, but some were more so.” “I think the idea kind of morphed into a sort of “Let’s create the ideal trout stream” project.” “Some members thought aloud that we already had the ideal trout stream.”

 

“The work was begun in the summer of 1937 and due to the efficiency of the heavy equipment, progressed rapidly… a bit too rapidly for some.” “Old Isaac was watching the work from a streamside bench with several others when he made a prophetic remark.” “He said: “You guys are trying create your own Zion!”” “Knowing Isaac, he probably had a tumbler of wine in one hand, and a cigar in the other.” “Isaac was always one for a quip delivered with a laugh and a plume of smoke.” “His little remark stuck, and in his honor, the club decided to rename itself.” “That is the origin of the name Zion Creek.” “Whether he intended it that way or not, Isaac’s quip proved later to have some prophetic foresight.”

 

“By 1938 the work was complete, and a new trail was constructed.” “Some of the now familiar stretches received new names such as ‘Gordon’s Pool’, or ‘Smith’s Riffle’, based on those members that had designed the work.” “That spring, some members remarked that they thought that the fishing was better, while others reflected that it wasn’t better, just different.” “Some pieces fished the wet-fly better, and others now were better dry-fly water.” “The new sign was carved for the lodge, and the West Branch officially changed to Zion Creek.”

 

“Old Isaac never lived to fish it that spring.” “He died of a heart attack.” Charles turned the pages of the photo album until he found what he was looking for.

“Here is a picture of the old man,” he said, turning the album around. Isaac was photographed sitting on the bank with his fly rod on his knees and winking at the cameraman. In his right hand were both a cigar, and a glass. His hair was bushy and wild, his beard large, and both were white as cotton.

 

“From the stories told and repeated through the years around the fireplace, Isaac was a fine angler, one of the first in the water when a gathering was held, but after catching a few trout, he would take down his rod and sit on the bank watching the other fishermen.” “He had a zest for the good life.”

 

“In the spring of 1940 a tropical storm moved up the coast, and collided with a nor’easter.” It rained for three days solid.” “The bridge was washed out, and no members could get anywhere close to the club waters for over a week.” “In all, something like eleven inches of rain fell over the mountains.” “When the floodwaters retreated and a group of us managed to man-handle a boat to the confluence and cross the bank, the debris was everywhere.” “It took another two weeks to remove enough of it to get to the lodge.” “The building was intact, but the sign dangled by one end, and all the placards naming the pools were washed away.”

 

“The creek was still there, of course, and the fish too.” “After all, they had survived there before man ever cast a line on the water, and had seen worse flooding.” “It was something else entirely that amazed us all, and led us to place a bronze plaque in Isaac’s honor on the old oak tree overlooking his bend… for his bend was back… and not only that, but every single major change we made to the river was simple washed away.” “The flood had turned back time on us, before our eyes flowed the old West Branch, exact in every detail.”

 

“Nature, or God, or time, if you will, had erased our arrogance.” “Thinking about it later, we reflected that the river had formed the valley itself, and it had a million years to do so.” “Every bend and nuance had been part of creation and the power of nature, our puny and misguided human attempts at making it what we thought it should be only lasted a year or so.” “The river had a reason, a design, a purpose to it that we never perceived.” “In trying to improve upon a divine or natural perfection, we had built our temple of Zion, only to watch it come tumbling down before the finger of God.”

 

“The membership decided to keep the name ‘Zion’, but to restore all the names of the beats or pools to their original names.”

 

“That reminds me… After Isaac passed, the club voted not to open his seat up to a new member.” “Members are here for life, and the club always had totaled fifty.” “Now it consists of 49.”

 

“ Now you know,” Charles finished with a grin.

 

“Yes, now I know…” “It reminds me of the parable of Prometheus in its varying versions…” “Man attempts to play God…”

 

He raised his glass in a toast. “Here is to Isaac!”

 

The last of the sweet wine was delicious. It was a bounty of nature, and not an attempt to turn nature into a bounty, and a fitting last sip in a little parable in a valley called ‘Zion Creek’…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The problem with modern trout flies… or 30 pieces of ‘flair’.

 

Two mayflies?


 

After having presented a talk on fly fishing for spring-creek trout to a gathering of anglers, one of the sports purloined me afterwards to show me his fly-box. Upon opening it, fireworks seemed to explode. Lined up neatly like a collection of miniature happy-meal toys were a phalanx of kaleidoscopic colors and shapes. Rubber legs and foam sticking out in all directions dominated the creations, and many were topped with wigs of poly-yarn. There was not a single subtle natural-looking pattern to be found.

 

“This is my dry-fly box,” he proclaimed, “What do you think?”

 

I remarked that I thought they needed more ‘cow-bell’.

 

If these were trout flies, they seemed to be sporting clown-suits topped by a sombrero.

 

What happened to the sparsely dressed flies that actually resembled the insects that trout saw on a daily basis and ate: the flies of Gordon and Flick et al? Why all these gaudy over-dressed cartoon-like hallucinations?

 

Well, they are popular after all… and popularity owes nothing to lasting legacy, function or form. Popularity is just that: popular because popularity begets popularity. Monkey see and monkey do, if you will. After all Milli-Vanilli was popular once, and… well… who?

 

For the last century of American dry-fly development, anglers and fly-tiers concentrated on matching the prevalent bugs on the water with sparsely dressed flies. These patterns relied on just a few materials to allow the fly to ride on the surface of the water, often balanced on tail and hackle: what the English referred to as ‘Well-cocked’. Fly-dressers knew through experimentation that a sparse fly floated longer and allowed the trout to see the profile and color properly. They trapped air better, and the materials were less apt to soak up water as quickly as over-dressed patterns. We seem to have forgotten that recently.

 

Many of today’s most popular trout patterns look like a contest was held; the winner to be the tier who crammed the most crap on the hook, and a bonus prize awarded if the resulting creation looked like something Timothy Leary might have seen after licking a few too many, ahem, postage stamps back in Haight-Ashbury.

 

Let’s start with the rubber legs. No pattern worthy of good standing in a bin at a fly-shop can do without them. Shrug them aside and be relegated to the also-rans in the discount bin. The problem is not only that actual trout-stream insects don’t have rubber legs, but also that rubber legs tend to sink the fly. Therefore…

 

Foam… lots of foam. This is both ‘cool’, and helps counteract the diving effect of the rubber legs. If one sheet of foam is good, then multiple sheets are better, especially in wild colors. Top the foam with a biggish plume of poly-yarn for visibility just in case legally blind friends might miss your new creation on the water, and you have a nice big top-heavy blob that flips on its side after landing, and resembles trout insects as much as a McDonald’s hamburger.

 

Adding 30 pieces of flair helps too. Why fish a lowly blue-winged olive consisting of a tail, a dubbed body, three turns of hackle and a split duck wing, when you can fish one with krystal flash and doll eyes. So much cooler that! Value enters the picture as well. If our bland olive mayfly and the new krystal flash extravaganza tied in reverse on a jig hook and sporting rubber-legs are both two-bucks… well, one is just getting so much more for their money! Chotchkie’s was right: flair sells! Despite the fact that any trout worthy of their name run from the restaurant screaming rather than eat the damn food… er… flair.

 

I remember my father explaining to me once upon a time a’ browsing the lure section of a sporting goods store, that “Most lures are made to lure fishermen, not fish”. I think the ‘lure’ of form over function he was explaining might prove apt today. A good question might be asked: “How many Willy Wonka flies does a trout have to eat to grow to a foot long?” The answer being zero, for trout don’t eat Willy Wonka flies.

 

“They eat mine!” a true believer and rubber leg cult member proclaims. Yes… but those fish might wish to apply for Darwin awards, and get removed from the gene pool before they pass on bad habits. Seriously though, as a trout guide I see anglers every week on the water throwing this month’s popular millennial IPA fly and catching a few fish. However, their success is masking their lack of success: they don’t know the fish they are missing by not using sparse and realistic patterns that match the food in the stream. Yes, these new flies sometimes have a tendency to lure Bullwinkle out of his cave to investigate what the hell that thing is and take a swipe at it, but then extrapolating a success to equate a box filled with only Chernobyl mutations is a bit of a stretch.

 

Why this trend came to be in fly-fishing is a matter for endless philosophical discussion, but it happened rather quickly. It took roughly ten years for ‘Match the hatch’ to be replaced with ‘Attractors’. Funny it never happened in a sport like duck hunting. To this day wielders of the shotty-gun in the cold wastes of the duck blind still place decoys out in the water that look like ducks to a duck. I have never observed anyone inflating a parti-colored beach ball and setting it a sail on the pond in hopes that a duck or three might be tempted to gather and socialize with it.

 

If a duck did come down to the beach ball, I would shoot it to remove it from the gene-pool, which might be the best solution for many of today’s over-dressed gaudy monstrosities masquerading as trout flies.