October 28, 2010

Trick? Or treat.

It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see.
Henry David Thoreau

There were at least three types of caddis fluttering about. They danced and bounced across the surface, hovered close by, or crawled across the lenses of my sunglasses. I know there were at least three types, because this is the number of differently-sized, shaped, and colored caddis that simultaneously perched near the bottom guide on my fly rod. The largest was a dark mottling of grays and brown. The smallest was almost black, with long antennae. The mid-sized model was a mottled light gray, almost a peppery appearance. All three of them contented themselves, as long as I held still, with crawling around and around the shaft of my rod. I had a lot of time to closely examine them in between bouts of removing other, blurry ones from my glasses, but none of them were in a hurry and didn't seem the least bit nervous about my presence.

I should have taken a cue from this behavior, and later, rather than sooner, I did. I'd just finished working my way down one of my favorite fall runs, fishing my usual go-tos; all of my now increasingly wide-ranging types of swingable caddis imitations which according to my observations, experiences, and inclinations for this time of year have nearly always provided me with some great fishing. I repeat. Nearly.
So, you wonder, why the above picture of a diminutive, classically tied baetis, Steve?

Because about an hour later, as I stood pondering, by now quite frustrated, at the bottom of this particular favorite fall run of mine bemusedly perusing those three dissimilar caddis, I noticed, perched near the tip of my rod, a perfect, quite authentic number twenty-two baetis imago. I carefully lowered my rod, and brought the tip slowly, hand over hand, closer to me. And as I performed this as delicately as is possible(taking into account my current level of frustration), rings began to appear on the surface of the water just fifteen feet or so downstream from where I stood. Hm. And as I was about to start wondering what it was that these fish were rising to, and good Lord look at just how many fish are rising all of a sudden (because indeed it was just as if someone had flicked a switch), I bent forward a little, swatted away a cluster of fluttering caddis, and focused my aging, far-sighted eyes up and downstream along the bubble line I'd just worked.

And there they were. Baetis.

Thousands of them. A veritable carpet layering the surface, spinning this way and that in the convoluted hydraulic that carried them along. A river-wide flotilla of tiny mayflies silently, discreetly, sliding past me, some of them now getting airborne, escaping the grasp of the surface tension, while others were meeting unfortunate ends in the mouths of trout.

I looked at the sky and laughed. I really did. I stood there in the midst of all the rising fish and spinning, drifting baetis, tilted my head back, and laughed.

I'd been had. Big time. And I'd been had by none other than me. All the lessons that had supposedly found permanent purchase in my book of knowledge. The careful, patient methodry supposedly stitched together through practiced, careful adherence to the rules of observation. The understanding accumulated from years of trial, and error. All this ran through my head, as well as the creeping awareness that even as I was making all this supposed progress as a fisherman, I was also slowly, but steadily, blinding myself.
The large hat, while comfortable, will eventually slip down over the eyes.

I saw, as I waded into the top of that run, what I wanted to see. And then, having had my preliminary inclinations validated by the many visible caddis, got busy with what I took for granted to be the correct course of action. Little did it matter that prior to seeing the tiny baetis on the tip of my rod I had seen no surface activity. Little did it matter that if I would have been alert, I would have sensed that a change was in the air. I mention this, and deem it important enough to do so because of what else but prior experience. I've been there, experienced the 'calm before the storm', seen the river go from eerily quiet and empty to flush and vibrant.

There was still time. I lengthened my tippet, found the box with my tiny baetis, and with humbled, shaking hands set about the task of redemption, or more aptly, salvage.

But it was already almost too late. While the sheer numbers of baetis on the surface make for easy pickings by the trout, it adds a difficult dimension to fishing. Your artificial must very closely resemble the real deal, no matter what stage you are attempting to imitate. It must sit on or in the surface film and drift in just the right way. And even if you are successful in doing this, there is the one big unknown; will my fly be the one out of hundreds of bona fides that will be selected? I guess all I can say about that is yes, there is indeed this thing called luck. You can do everything right and your chances will improve, but yeah, a little luck definitely comes into play. I think, at this point in the hatch, that you can improve your chances by looking for rising fish that are separated from the others. Sometimes, however, these fish are in lies that can wreak havoc with a good drift. But, having said that, I have often found that these fish are worth it. They can be the biggest ones in a given area.

My attempt to salvage a modicum of success was short-lived. As prodigious and well-attended as the hatch was, it was all too brief. Even before the flotilla had wended its way downstream, the trout had decided enough was enough. My fly made several perfect, albeit fruitless passes down through various channels. At one point I counted six rings that appeared in close proximity as my drifting artificial was carried along. Like tiptoeing through a minefield. I applauded its successful journey, and reeled in my line. Today's lesson was a good one. One I'll not soon forget. And in that regard, I gave myself a treat, in that after all was said and done, I'd found a way to come away with a positive.

Be aware of your hat size.

October 25, 2010

On the need for change.

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.
Albert Einstein

There is, happily, no happy ending. It goes on and on. Seldom, if ever, is a point of stasis attained, or even sought. Pleasure is pure but fleeting; weaned from passing moments, promontories. The real, lasting joy is found in the reward of the constant movement; not letting, or allowing, one's proverbial boots to get 'stuck in the mud'. There is but one thing that will never change, and that is the need, the necessity, for change, and the ability to do so. It is my passionate belief that here is found the truest and simplest, but most powerful form of gratification.

When applied to tying flies for trout, this philosophy trumps all others. I suspect that it probably works well in life, too and I promise to try it some time in the future, maybe after I am no longer able to tie flies with which to fish for trout. And that's the trouble with getting too philosophically inclined. I'm liable to overstep my short-sighted bounds, somebody's eventually going to take notice, and call me on it.

Oh well.

I'm not really sure that 'progress' is a good word to attach to the expanse of time I've spent tying. In some ways, I've 'progressed' very little in the past several years, and in others, I feel quite the opposite. But generally, as I take an overall unbiased look at the body of work I've amassed at the vise so far, I come away feeling pretty good about it. And that has a lot to do with not being afraid to experiment a little, now and then. Sure, I could've spent some of those hours perfecting some of the hundreds, nay thousands of various techniques that I may or may not ever employ, but I find that the growing body of tying know-how I've accumulated to this point not only serves me well for my current needs, but is a solid foundation making it much less time-consuming should I, when I decide to add some new wrinkle to my repertoire, or tool box.

I think back to those years I spent at the shop. I know I've mentioned this in earlier posts so bear with me while I boast one more time, but The Blue Dun Fly Shop had, without a doubt, the most quintessential collection of fly-tying materials. We were unsurpassed as far as selection and quality were concerned. Fly-tiers came, e-mailed, and called from all over hell to purchase you-name-it-we've got-it and if we don't we'll get it for you ASAP. All three of us at the shop had a passion for tying, and our individual interests covered everything from saltwater to fresh, be it moving or still, tropical or subarctic. We figured that between us, we had close to seventy-five years worth of fishing/tying experience. We loved playing with it all; the new stuff that would constantly arrive and the old standards, exploring all of the possible applications, combinations and tendencies so we'd be better able to showcase them should a customer have questions. It was a time of exponential growth as far as my tying skills were concerned. I was in heaven. Imagine, being paid to do that! And, I learned how to do things then that have served me quite well ever since.

But, it's what I've learned since then that has allowed me to really grow both as a fly tier and fisherman. It's got nothing to do with tying or fishing. It has everything to do with what I've learned about myself.

I'd like to think that we are all as passionate about those things in our lives that drive us, that we all have things in our lives that drive us. I'd like to think that part of the magic in whatever it is that drives us lies in its never-ending ability to fascinate, to pull us in, closer, and in that spirit our exploration becomes the drug of choice. The journey we take in this direction sharpens the senses, hones our tools, and presents us with new sets of opportunities to add experience, thus more tools to our boxes. And, as some of us have learned, they serve us well for far more than what we originally thought.

This curiosity, this unceasing pull to understand, is at the core of my growth. It is the engine that drives me. It is the reason I tie flies. It is the reason I have such an undying passion for fishing with flies. And, most importantly, I discover over and over, in its power to continually pull me in different directions, an irresistible, yet delightful force. I welcome it with open arms, believing not for a second that I will ever attain such a place as to know that I am closer than before, and that's okay. I'm okay with that, and the reason I am is that I firmly believe, now more than ever, that the strongest magic truly is revealed in the journey, and not in the attainment.

And so I will go. Change is good. There will always be a space in my box for the classics. But they are someone else's epiphany. I will continue to seek my own. There will be setbacks. How can there not be? After all is said and done, the trout have the final say.

They make all the rules.

October 19, 2010

On being blessed

When you rise in the morning, give thanks for the light, for your life, for your strength. Give thanks for your food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason to give thanks, the fault lies in yourself.

As I stood there, fumbling with the two ziplock bags I employ to keep my camera dry should I slip and take an unwarranted swim, a nice trout stuck his nose out of the water about ten feet downstream from the furthest rock to the right, in the seam formed by the current deflecting off the shallow shelf these rocks are a part of. It was a very deliberate rise, and I had the distinct feeling this fish would come to the surface again.

I didn't bat an eye, determined to get a picture of the rising fog before the sun burned it away, deciding that down the road, this picture would be the best way to preserve the memory, although I had no idea as what this particular memory would hold as yet. So I lined it up, held the camera still, pushed the button, and by god it worked. One shot. That would have to do. There was some pressing business to take care of.

I stood there for not very long before he rose again, and with a lazy swirl turned back upstream, blending in perfectly with his habitat. My next thought, as it always is when trout are coming to the surface, was to eyeball the water in hopes of seeing, and hopefully identifying whatever it was that had attracted and was holding the trout's attention. And since I was standing right in the middle of the same ribbon of current he was working in, all I had to do was look down.

And, I saw nothing. No bugs of any type that I could see. Not even a midge. But, there he went again. And then again. No hurry. Nothing to get excited about, but my hands started to shake a little. I wondered what it was he was so unhurriedly continuing to eat out of the surface film, and, much more importantly, how much longer I had. The fact that he'd been at his current station feeding in this manner for this long already was not lost on me.

The trout on this river come to the surface and feed occasionally just like any other trout on any other river. And that's about where any similarity between the trout feeding on the surface of this river and those in other rivers ends. Whereas groups of trout in other rivers will congregate in areas where hatches are occurring and whereas those trout will feed on or in the surface for sometimes extended periods, that is seldom the case here. If you see one riseform, call it a hatch. Call it the morning, or afternoon, or evening rise, because that's probably about as good as it going to get. And if you are so blessed as to witness the same fish rise more than twice in the same half hour period, well then you're seeing something special. Better find out what's being eaten in a hurry because time is of the essence. Every subsequent rise could be the last one you'll see here for some time.

So when I saw this trout come to the surface again, I couldn't help but think I am truly blessed.

Okay. I'm blessed. But being so blessed still didn't provide any visual of a single living entity on or in the water's surface that might give me a clue as to what this trout was dining on. It began to get to me. I ran through a quick list of go-tos, ending up where I began, with no idea. So, as is often my standard mode of operation here on this river when faced with a lack of evidence, I pulled out my box, extracting from it my solution.

A soft hackle. Big surprise, right?

Okay. No surprise there. Experience is a good teacher. Having been in this situation before though not necessarily with figuring out what a steadily feeding trout is eating but having been through enough frustrating sequences where I swore I knew only to put the fish down straight away or have him run silent run deep because I put something over him that he found utterly disgusting. I've had success in these situations by simply swinging a very lightly weighted soft hackle over the fish's lie. I'll go bigger or smaller dependent upon what I think the fish is eating. Most of the time it works, which is also very unlike any trout in any other river I've ever fished. Those fish want the real deal, or something that very closely resembles it. I think the reason it works here is that we are, for so much of the year, blessed with caddis. There's very rarely a day that goes by where there aren't caddis flying around. That will be reinforced in my mind later when I return to the bank and brush the now leafless branches of the bushes along the water's edge.

As confident as I am in my soft hackle, I know I'll have one, maybe two swings through. More than likely just one, so it has to be spot on. The nice thing about this situation is that I have a really good idea of his location, thanks to the regularity of the rings. The only thing problem I might have is with the direction of the flow as it passes the edge of the shallow shelf. A quick downstream mend at the right time should negate any deviance in the path of the swing as it arcs over his position. Sounds easy. I smile. Sounds easy.

The cast has to be made almost perpendicular to the flow. From where I stand, the current comes from my right shoulder to sweep across in front of me to the left as it passes until contacting the shelf some thirty below, where some of the energy is captured in an eddy directly below the shelf. The rest is reflected off the shelf bending the main current back in to the main flow. It is right at this point where the seam between the two areas, the eddy, and the current, is most viable, and lucky for you I can't draw a diagram, so nod your head like you understand perfectly.

It's a short roll cast. I throw a little line out behind the cast and wait for the line to start to bend. I throw a quick downstream mend when I see the line closest to me start to bulge upstream and then the faster water toward the middle of the river arcs my fly line. There is nothing to do for the next second or so but wait, and watch, and shortly there is a flash, and a swirl. I lift my rod. There is a jolt, and with it weight.

Yes. I am blessed. Blessed to have this river. Blessed by its inhabitants. Blessed by the time here I have spent. Blessed with the simplistic sense of what I need from this life. I am so truly blessed.

And God bless my soft hackle.

October 14, 2010

The great charm of fly-fishing is that we are always learning; no matter how long we have been at it, we are constantly making some fresh discovery, picking up some new wrinkle. If we become conceited through great success, some day the trout will take us down a peg. ~Theodore Gordon-1907~

What a morning. The sound of the fast chute above me is muffled by the dense fog silently sliding upstream. The water is steel-gray, opaque, appearing impenetrable. My hands are thrust into the warmer pocket squeezing the heat packets I'd stuffed there before setting out, and I'm glad I did. The humidity, working in tandem with a slight westerly breeze in the pre-dawn produces a chill that goes straight to my bones.

I look upstream. The thick, drifting mists completely conceal the rocky point some fifty feet away. Photo opportunity, so I release my grip on the heat packs and dig for the camera. Here's to hoping it works. Apparently, I have a union camera, and have not yet come to understand when it will take pictures or perform not at all. The green light flickers on. Good deal.

I take my pictures, first upstream, then down, giving you the reader/viewer an idea as to the fishing environment here this morning. I'll need to snap a couple of shots after the sun's up, too. It's light, filtering through the now slowly dissipating mists, will heighten the etherealness I like to see in photos of mornings like this.

I work the upper, faster slot of this run with a bead head softhackle as well as I can, trading off the rod from hand to hand so I can at all times keep one of them gripped around those heat packs. Roll cast, mend this way and that, watch the violent swing across and through the standing waves until I must use both hands to strip line quickly or risk getting hung up on the rocks just beneath the surface in the back eddy below me. I've taken some good fish in those, but I've also lost a lot of soft hackles.

About twenty yards or so downstream the incline flattens, and the flow begins to slow slightly. The standing waves formed by the huge boulders beneath are gone, leaving only the aforementioned cauldron of hydraulics, intersecting, weaving, overlapping, you name it. A good roll cast here will land my soft hackle on the far side of all this mayhem and pull my line quickly downstream. I try to throw a little more line out after it as it travels, so after three or four swings I have covered everything from where I am to forty, sometimes fifty feet downstream. I'll usually make two, sometimes three swings through at each distance knowing that I'm never going to get a similar swing on successive casts. I know it sounds crazy, fishing this fast, unruly water in this fashion, but over the years I've discovered time and time again that there are some dandy places amidst all this hydraulic activity for some very large trout to hold, and they wouldn't be there if they had to work at it very hard. Trout are opportunists, both in feeding and lying in wait. They will work only as hard as is sheer necessity to find food or shelter, and will, when possible, seek a spot that satisfies both requirements. That is why I am here, swinging weighted soft hackles through this seemingly uninhabitable slot.

And that is why, as my gold-tungsten bead head soft hackle, tied on a Dai Riki number zero-sixty swings across the front side of a submerged boulder some forty feet down and across from my position causing an upwelling in the flow, I am instantaneously treated to the visual of a flash and swirl as I feel the rod jolt in my cold, red hands. And, as is sometimes the case, especially here in this fast water, the trout that surged upward from his lie to attack my fly has surged downstream rather than up. And keeps going, and going. I've set a pretty stiff drag on the reel. Fishing this way through here has taught me to use as strong a tippet as possible. Given the fact that the flow here is what it is, I can get away with stronger, which means thicker, tippet, and as the big, strong buck continues his run, I can take that five pound tippet for granted.

I write a lot about how strong I believe these fish are, and that claim is again substantiated by this fish. After running downstream, he goes airborne, and after a spectacular mid-air cartwheel, turns and charges back in the direction he'd fled. I can't keep up with him, can't keep him on the reel, so I strip like a madman trying to regain some tension in the line, fearing that he'll throw the hook. And at the instant I finally feel the fish, he turns again and races back in his original direction. And so it goes for awhile. His alternating runs down or upstream shorten, his bursts, more and more short-lived, until finally I have him at my feet. It is at this point where I see how tenuously hooked he was. As I cradle his belly, the soft hackle simply drops out of the skin on his upper jaw. A couple of quick thrashes lets me know he's recovered enough to set free. And before he swims off, hugging the rocks and looking for home, he stays between my feet, suspended, for me. Such an awesome, beautiful animal. Then, he is gone.

A bit further downstream, the incline flattens again, further slowing the flow. The bottom here is a carpet of similarly-sized rocks, and it shows on the somewhat placid-looking surface. Just off the bank below me lies a formation of igneous rocks It is off this tiny jutting that I see a violent rise.

I misstep often as I try to keep an eye out for whatever it may have been that caused this fish to rise in such a fashion. Trying to watch the water for bugs and the rocks I am walking over and around, while sighting in on what I can use visually to mark the position of that rise makes for a somewhat risky traverse over the moss-covered terrain. I have to smile as I make my way. I must look hilarious to anyone who might see me. I'd laugh if I was watching. I'm not running, but I'm sure as hell stumbling and bumbling. And mumbling. Another splashy rise. Still there. What the hell is he/she eating? I stumble and bumble closer.

It is at about the time I arrive at where I figure my best angle will be when an idea as what to throw at this fish comes to the surface. The next rise is a swirl, but it moves a lot of water. There is a deflection of the current off of the rocks I mentioned earlier which forms a perfect little seam off of which this fish suspends, waiting for whatever in the hell it is he's eating. I have one of those Spruce Moths left in my box. After a quick examination of the circumstances; add to that the fact that I just plain wanted to see what the Moth would look like as it drifted past those rocks, and seeing another ferocious rise, I set the plan in motion. Damn hands. I'm starting to lose the power of digital dexterity. The cold is winning. I can't feel any pressure when I pinch my thumb and index finger together. Not good. But I've been in this situation many times before and have developed a kind of alternate method whereby I utilize only the types of movements necessary with whatever fingers that will, can still cooperate. I wait again, Spruce Moth at the ready, for another rise.

A couple of minutes flow past. Nothing. Then a couple more. I began to wonder if this event was just a hallucination, some sort of delayed flashback from all those rock-and-roll years I thought I'd survived. Did the mushrooms cause this? And, it seemed a short-lived revisit at that. I let go of my Moth, false cast, get the distance, maybe twenty feet, dialed in, and fire away. The Spruce Moth settles, riding high, right into the top of that deflection. There is this sudden sensation of suspension, timelessness. The Moth is drifting, almost in slow motion, right into what I know is the strike zone. The sun is breaking through the fog and I want to get some photos. My winter pal, the blue heron, flies overhead. Thank the gods, I can feel my fingers again... then all hell breaks loose.

I'm going to struggle a bit to find the right words here to effectively describe what takes place in the next few seconds, but I'll give it my best shot.

I've never, in all the years I've fished with dry flies, wherever I've fished them, experienced a take like that except for those bygone days when I used to travel to the Bogachiel River up on the Olympic Peninsula to skate packed deer and elk hair patterns for Steelhead. If any of you have experience with that sort of madness, then you know of what I speak.

But this is the Spokane River. This is the short, basically unknown, taken-for-granted blue squiggle on the map that runs right through our fair city from a lake in Idaho to the Columbia River and eventually to the ocean. It's where I fish. And through all my years of fishing, of falling in love with its trout, I have never had a trout take a dry so aggressively as this one. Anywhere.

I am watching my Moth. It is halfway through the deflection. Very shortly I will have to pick it up and reset. I start to reach forward on my fly line to haul it a bit as I pick up. There is a sudden loud turbulence from the river side in the proximity of my Moth and then a loud, huge splash. Water droplets are thrown skyward into the dim sunlight. A huge tail is ever so briefly frozen amid the shards, then gone. So is my Moth, but I know this without seeing because of the jolt I felt. In shock, I lift my rod, and then am further stunned as the trout cartwheels into the air, the Spruce Moth impaled through his lower jaw. Again and again he goes ballistic, each re-emergence some twenty feet further from me, until there are only a few wraps of fly line left on my reel. Another reel-screaming run. My Water- works sings 'I'm into your backing now', and still he runs away, downstream.

The Lampson Waterworks reel I am using has room for approximately one hundred and twenty-five yards of twenty-pound backing. I wound it with much less than this, never once thinking I'd use even half of the hundred or so yards I settled on. It left more room for fly line. And it's easier to respool on the large arbor of my Lampson without having to eyeball too carefully. But you don't want to be so careless as have all your line in one stack on either side of your spool.If you are and it falls over on itself, well then you've got a serious problem should you ever hook into a fish with an attitude. I once lost a fly line to a rough-and-ready brown trout on the Missouri for that reason. But this fish? Oh man, he beats that one all to hell.

I have, on my fly rod, marked one-inch increments starting at sixteen and extending out to thirty inches. I started doing this when I still had my first Sage, which is now in the hands of my son. And although I've also done this to my present Sage, my favorite, I seldom use it, for several reasons, not the least of which is an overriding fear of jinxing myself. But once in a while there arises an occasion when all that superstition must be set aside. This is one of those times.

It is not often that I live in fear for such an extended amount of time. This fish is testing the limits of all my gear and knots, not to mention the five-pound tippet and the hook on which my Spruce Moth is constructed. I don't know how long I have been battling this fish, and indeed its more like I'm often just holding on, waiting for him to tire of his runs and muscularly spastic twists and turns. But gradually, foot by hard-earned foot, I begin to gain the upper hand, and in an ever-decreasing arc of back and forths upriver and then down, I finally catch sight of him. I am stunned again. For the first time in many years, I wish I'd brought my net. It's amazing how the sight of such a fish will suddenly make everything from that point on seem so much more difficult. How all of a sudden I'm all thumbs. And, I know I can't hurry this project along. I worry that if ever there is a time a fish will be lost, it is in these final moments of the struggle. The size and strength of this fish dictate a patient, steady demeanor, but I shake like a leaf anyway.

He is perfect. A wild, purebred Spokane River Rainbow. A broad-shouldered buck with white-tipped fins and huge, square tail. I will never forget its sudden appearance as he attacked my fly. I lay my rod down in the water next to him. He lies still, as if in anticipation, as I slide the rod forward, matching his nose with the end of the rod, and when I count the number of marks until I reach the end of his tail, I then realize how badly I'm shaking. He's twenty-six inches in length. This is the biggest, fattest, strongest trout I've ever landed here. By far. I know this to be true because there have only ever been two prior occasions on this river whereupon I've wanted to measure the fish. I tuck my rod underneath my arm and tail the buck, pointing him upstream into the flow. He holds there, in my hand for awhile, recovering, before I feel him move. Time is suspended again. We wait, together, for his departure. Then, I gently propel him forward as he now tries to free himself, releasing him from my grasp, but never from my heart.

October 11, 2010

Cutthroat Fishing on the North Fork

To what purpose is it to be artificially happy on the surface?
Anne Parillaud

Interesting phrase. I was looking for a noteworthy quote that might somewhat abstractly provide a suitable aesthetic with which to segue into this post.
Then I ran across this one. It's got all the right words and contains enough alliterative value to provide those who are willing with a little food for thought. It also happens to quite accurately capture the essence of my Saturday journey to the North Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River.

And yes, for a few hours last Saturday, I was indeed 'artificially' happy. Now if the reader(s) feel that further explanation be forthcoming, well then I apologize because maybe, then, this isn't the post for you to read. I'm thinking that possibly some of the fly fishermen who are still bothering to read these will understand, and if they don't then I'm probably a much sicker puppy than I care to admit (connecting invisible dots), although as the plot here thickens it should become crystal clear...

... maybe you're all way ahead of me... as usual.

After I take the Kingston exit off of I-90 and head north-north east up the river road for what seems forever and believe me it does seem like that because this is Cutthroat country and aren't cutthroat always up and ready to eat, so why am I driving and driving further up into the valley I'm right next to the damned river, have been next to it for miles already so why don't I just stop anywhere, tie on an Adams and have at it?

Well, the reason I am driving and driving is pretty simple, and I'm just about to explain why, so get ready. Cutthroat up here this time of year (rhyme) sleep late. Seriously late. Unlike me. I never sleep late. In fact, I'm such a creature of habit; framed in that age-old (Moss) custom of by-God flying out of the bed and onto the road real damned early, one hand on the wheel, the other gripping a steaming hot steel container of dangerously strong black coffee the whole way knowing full well that even though I'm going to be there at 0-dark thirty wide-eyed and waiting, the sleepyhead cutts will still be hunkered down, waiting for a much more 'civil' hour before taking, in one lengthy session, their breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Knowing that I'm way too (heavy) early doesn't keep me, as I drive, from eyeballing the river every chance I get (which is often), for rings, seeing's how the road except for a turn here or there shadows the river as far up as one can drive, which makes, especially in the dimmer hours of morning or evening for a sometimes anxious moment or two when God's various creatures of the forest decide it's time for a drink and I'm busy looking for cuttie noses at 50 miles per hour. Makes me glad I'm driving my father's Sub Urban.

Rings. Pardon me for a moment or two here while I expound on the subject of rings. I promise to try to keep it short, maybe even sweet, but that's not for me to say, or is it? But the rings, as applied to that remarkable occurrence on the water's surface when trout feed on or just underneath it, has probably, more than any other phenomenon, been the magnet, the eloquence, the clarity, the very reason I exist. Or exist for. There is not a single body of water, be it a lake, river, ocean, pond, swamp, or even puddle, that I shall ever pass whereby I will not gaze upon its surface, even though I know better, looking for those rings. There is something indescribably intimate in their quality, their paradigm of renewal, that is rekindled within me when I search, when I see them. When there are rings, all is right and good. They are the quintessence of the balance between harmony and hope, the past and the present. I know that sounds a bit theatric, but I'm just being honest. I have these memories from way back, when I was very young; being in the boat with my dad as we tooled slowly deeper into Distillary Bay at Priest Lake. He'd suddenly stand up, pointing excitedly. "There! 2 jumps!", he'd exclaim, throwing the old Chris Craft into neutral so he could see which way the fish were moving. And I remember how he'd stay, well into the evening, cold cigar clenched between his teeth, casting to the rings as cutthroat fed their way up and down the shoreline. Those are good, good memories.

But there were no rings in sight as I made my way up the river. Just the deep, dark green and autumnal yellows reflecting off the calm, even-flowing surface. It was a cool, humid morning, with the clouds dipping lower as I traveled. By the time I arrived at my descent point, I was in them.

On the way upstream I compile a list of spots where I plan to stop and fish as I work my way back down later today. Why I still do that, after all the times I've come here and done that and not even come close to fishing half of them before running out of daylight, I don't know. But I do it anyway, and the list is always chock full of great runs and fishy slots and I invariably swear that today it will be different, that somehow the hands of time will finally stand still long enough for me to accomplish just that.

I never learn. I don't even come close. But, beyond putting blinders on me I don't see how that's ever going to change. Besides, I come here often enough. I know those places are out there even if you put me in the trunk and drug me, or drug me and then put me in the trunk. Doesn't matter. I'll still make a list, and I'll keep you on the water with me until we have to braille our way back to the car. The clock's always running. I don't have that much left on mine, what's left is screaming by faster and faster with each passing thought, and come to think of it I'd better get on with this before I forget what it is I'm writing about.

I rigged up, threw a banana and some dried apricots into a ziplock, finished the last of my coffee, and set off down the trail. I intended to hike it to the bottom of the run and fish my way back up. But, as per usual, halfway down to my projected starting point I spotted a set of rings and that was that for 'the plan'. Damned rings.

Plans, like rules, beg to be broken. Fly fishing, for me, has been one great big lesson in breaking rules. I've gotten awfully good at it. And even if they don't always break, I can usually put a pretty decent bend in them. Having a 'plan' is like that, too. Don't get me wrong, real-life plans are a necessity most times. And there are any number of folks I've known over the years who derive a serious amount of satisfaction from 'having stuck to the plan', no matter what the results, sometimes disastrous. I don't seem to have much luck with seeing them to completion. That's because I have a genuine fear of the possible consequences. Even though I've taken the time to construct a certain set of scheduled parameters, there accompanies this 'plan' a wariness, a fear of exclusion, a creeping worry that I'm missing something. Should I really keep it this way? Is it okay to have no room for adjustment? The thought occurs to me that maybe if I had more success, or derived at least a modicum of satisfaction from sticking to The Plan, then maybe I'd be more prone to sticking with it. But then it becomes kind of a 'chicken or the egg' type thing. What came first? My abhorrence of plans, or my lack of confidence in them? So, even though I can make plans with the best of them, at this point in my life, especially when it comes to fishing, sticking to 'the plan' actually means to not always stick to 'the plan'. It in fact becomes an almost frenetic need to stray from it.

I'm so happy we got that all sorted out. It may be awhile before I understand just why I felt the need to do that, but anyway now I can get back to the story.

I'm standing waist deep in the clear, cold, slowly moving current, watching, waiting for another set of rings to appear in front of the granite slabs that lie helter-skelter against the bank some 60 feet or so across the river from my position. Tied onto my 6x tippet and currently residing in the palm of my left hand is a classically tied #22 upwinged Mahogany dun. It's the same pattern I use for blue-winged olives, pale morning duns, and most all of the mayfly patterns, no matter what size, that you could possibly think of. For slow moving water where you know the fish are going to take a real good look at it before they pull the trigger, it's one of the few dry patterns I consistently have confidence in.

Nothing. Going on five minutes now. Up above the river stream a never-ending line of pick-up trucks, heading up into the foothills, chainsaw blades sharpened, looking to load up on fuel for the coming winter. They're close enough that I can see the faces of the drivers, who, from this distance, seem so intent, staring straight ahead, that I am not noticed as I stand here. A sudden urge to wave at them surges through me, causing me to smile immediately at my foolish impulse. I wave anyway. No one turns to notice, and nobody waves back.

I'm hearing a voice. It's that little voice I hear when The Plan is about to change. It's telling me to reconsider my choice of flies. It's telling me to go with one of the big dries I tied last night, and it seemed to make a damned good bit of sense. The Spruce Moth.

They don't happen every year. Only once every six or seven, some say eleven, years or so. They're cyclical. I'm not totally sure why. I hear this, or read that, but no one seems to have it pinned. Along with this idea comes the need to actually see one of these large, clumsy moths fluttering about. A quick survey of the area reveals nothing of the sort, in fact, I'm not seeing any flying insects short of an itinerant midge here and there.

The voice in my head says go ahead. Do it anyway. I listen, and obey.

I cut back my leader, double-terl the #12 Spruce Moth onto my tippet, and pull line from the reel. I begin false-casting downstream from where once upon a time I saw those rings. Distance gauged, I cast, watching my tight loop extending, reaching out in the direction of those granite slabs. The newly conceived #12 Spruce Moth obediently followed the leader out to full extension and settled softly on the water maybe a foot from the middle of the granite slabs, and began to drift...

... and then I see the Spruce Moth disappear in a serious set of rings emanating from a large cutthroat as he emerges from the water, mouth open, to eat my Spruce Moth! I lift my ten-foot Sage. Tight. Sixty feet of line, taut, and straight from the surface of the water running slowly past those granite slabs to my rod tip, some sixty feet away. Perfect. GREAT PLAN.

Hm... no rings. Big fish! Amazing. Then, that familiar old song plays in my head; maybe that was a fluke. The dumb one again. Fish on the first cast so now I'm done... All those things run like a broken record through my mind now as the big old male does his best to free himself from whatever it is that this Spruce Moth is holding him with. To no avail. Several minutes later I release him back to his realm, check my moth for damage, and make another plan.

I decide to work my way downstream. The cast is a pretty consistent sixty feet to the opposite bank, where there is a deep trough running nearly the entire length of this run. I cast, get as much drift as is possible with that much unmanageable line on the water, and then pick it up, striving to retrieve as little as possible. Loading the rod off the water provides great torque as the resistance to the line increases. The more line that is left on its surface, the faster the line speed. I get maybe thirty feet further downstream and have just landed my moth a foot or so off the bank when it gets crushed. No subtlety in the strike whatsoever. I must've put it right in front of him, because he hammered it. Another nice, slightly smaller, buck.


I never got to work the upper half of this run. It took over an hour to finish out the final fifty-odd yards, because I hit a fish about every twenty feet all the rest of the way, during which time my artificial began to take on a decidedly haggard, worn-out appearance. No wonder.

During this time, I saw few fish come to the surface, but I did observe several Spruce Moths beginning to flutter downward out of the taller evergreens, playing roulette with the water, and the fish.

I'd read a fishing report the day before, extolling the virtues of having a plethora of small flies in order to be adequately prepared for a day's fishing this time of year. The information was important and was gathered from sources who'd probably been here recently, but most likely later in the day. Right now, in these low-cloud hours before noon, the air temperature was not yet a catalyst for any hatch activity, other than the miraculous midges whose metabolics are a genuine wonder. They'll pop out of the water in the most extreme cold. They were present this morning, but not, as far as I could discern, a factor. Give them a few weeks. They'll be the only show in town.

I made the quick hike back upstream to the Sub Urban and drove down to my next spot. Sticking, so far, to the plan. This particular slot was away from the road, so a little overland trek was necessary. Before setting out I replaced my battered hero with a fresh, new recruit. It was warming up. The clouds were slowly burning off. I walked quickly, sensing a change in the conditions. By the time I stood above the two fast-moving riffles that emptied into a long, swirling pool, there were several different models of winged insects hovering over the surface. I decided to observe for a few minutes.

Still nothing. No rings. I made my way down the rocky incline to the water, and was momentarily startled when I spied a large, darkly-mottled moth bouncing several times on the surface, skittering wildly about above me, before diving straight onto the top of my head. I made a grab for it as it took flight again, and got lucky. October Caddis. How fortuitous.

In my usual pre-fishing tying ritual, I'd spent the hours before bed tying several Spruce Moths. I also played a hunch, and tied two new versions of an October Caddis. Another 'gotta have it my box this time of year' fly. I have a decent pattern in my box, but was never really satisfied with the body color. I'm the type of fisherman to leave a possible winner in the box if I'm not confident with everything about a pattern I'd employ in a given situation. Last night I'd rectified the body color problem, so the hand capture of the airborne Caddis had made me a little giddy. I couldn't wait to dig mine out and get it going. But, first things first. I had to figure out where to best attack this section of water.

I made a quick decision to cross the river upstream of the highest riffle. There was a flat, shallow shelf some eighty feet above me. The water was only thigh deep and slow. Soon I was on the inside of the long, slight bend of the swirly pool, observing the hydraulics of the lower riffle as it entered the pool producing a textbook bubble, or 'buffet' line.

It was an easy cast, made from a pretty steep incline in knee-deep water upstream some thirty feet to the middle of the lower riffle. The Caddis plopped down in the buffet line about ten feet above the beginning of the pool, and I immediately saw the dark shape come up out of the green deepness. Sometimes the ability to have such a visual occurring during the take is a disadvantage. It can get you so jacked up that you react before you normally would; kind of 'jump' the take, I call it. I didn't have to worry about that this time. That fish was not going to be denied. He was onto that fly and back down out of sight before I could pull it out of his mouth. I took three more from that same spot in similar fashion before turning my attention downstream to the tail end of the swirly pool. The lower end was a spider's web of small submerged logs, some jutting above the surface, some just below. I found that I could get a decent drift by 'using the force', which basically called for letting the current dictate where the fly was going to float. If I trusted the current and stayed off the line, it drifted freely, and usually without obstruction. Those were the productive casts, too. I think it was because the fish had more time to get a visual to decide how to attack it, but I'm supposing. I tried a few different casting angles, and took a nice female right at the bottom of the pool as the water speeds up again over another rocky change in elevation. By now the sun was bright, and the light filtering through the tress around me made for some interesting effects on the water. By that I mean I thought I began to see things, fish namely, lurking in the shadows, and so deemed it time to move on.

There were lots of small mayflies struggling into the air as I moved into position at my next pre-determined area. A nice long swift. Deep. Lots of granite and igneous slabs canted this way and that on the bottom, making for a hydraulic stew of convolutions. My Caddis settled on the surface and rode only about ten feet down through the uplifts and holes before it was eaten. Strong fish, aided by the fast-moving water, taking lots of line in his first frantic downstream run, then hunkering down to bulldog in the safety of the underwater eddies.

It was about halfway down through the next line of soft riffles that the switch was flipped. I'd been lulled by the consistency of success with my Caddis. I'd gone to sleep at the wheel, letting the adrenaline blind me to what was beginning to happen on the water. Namely, the fish were finally dialing up another target. The tiny mayflies. The sixth or seventh empty drift began to arouse some concern. Now, when I land as many fish as I did during the morning hours of this expedition, it might make it easier for one to say,"Hey. You had it all your way back there, so it's no biggie if you pack it in and head home".

By the time I reached the approximate halfway mark on my 'list', it was close to 4. The sun was directly downstream now, and sinking fast. That's the thing about fishing in the fall. When the sun reaches a certain angle in the sky, gravity seems to kick in and pull at it, and it dives with speed to the horizon. I looked again at my watch. Jeezus. By now I'd been through 2 Mahoganies and a small parachute Adams. All had worked, although now I was seeing a more variation in the size of fish I brought to hand. The little guys were busy competing for a mouthful, and they more and more frequently out dueled the larger, less territorial ones for the prize, which was quite often my fly. No matter. I was still having a ball.

It's close to 6 now. The sun is burning itself into the hill to the west. There is a breeze freshening out of the north. I can feel the temperature dropping with each passing minute.

I have had to forego many of the places on the list in order to be here, on the flats, by sundown. I don't feel bad. The flats are less than a mile from the I-90 onramp. It's where I love to finish the day here on the North Fork.

The river is wide and slow here, spilling off a series of slightly inclined rocky shelves to run in stately fashion down the next several hundred yards. The fish stack up here in the fall months, the benefactors of all the insects that have hatched, lived out their amazingly short existences, and come back to the water to die. They all end up here, and although there are insects literally covering the surface, it is some of the most difficult fishing encountered anywhere on this river at any time. The name of the game is know the menu. Not only that, you have to know which menu item is preferred by the most fish. And when it will change, because it always does. It's possible to take the itinerant fish here and there with an off pattern, but the real success comes in nailing the crowd favorite. Nail it a few times in a row and you're a legend. Good luck with that.

And as the sun finally drops totally behind the hill, I reel it up, and call it pretty damned good. What a day it's been. Nothing like a little humbling at day's end to send me back home with a proper perspective on the whole thing. I needed that.

I'll be back. Soon.