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.

1 comment:

  1. The biggest thing with "the plan" is the ability to modify it intelligently as better steps and paths to your TRUE GOAL make themselves apparent. Only the omnipotent can foresee every step along the path to a certain goal, and it is also acceptable to get part way and realize the whole GOAL needs to be revised. We should learn from our experience on the path...

    I like the tone in the beginning - it is very different, actually sounds like something a character (a Steve-like character, but not exactly Steve) would say, in mental narration of the story.