December 22, 2011


It wasn't until late in life that I discovered how easy it is to say "I don't know."
                    W. Somerset Maugham

I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn't know.
                          Mark Twain

        I hooked a nice fat one on my first cast. The articulated leech curled up and across through the water column as I began my retrieve and it didn't take long. My son stood upstream, hands deep in his heat-packet engorged muffler.
      "Yep, just like you've been telling me", he remarked. I brought the 14-inch trout to hand and slid the hook out of his lower jaw, watched him wriggle free back into the depths then dropped my rod and worked my hands deep into the warm sanctity of my muffler. I watched the water quickly freeze in the rod guides.
      "You're up", I said. "I'm done for awhile. In fact, I'll trade with you. Come on down here and give it a try". He took me up on my offer, and soon enough was in place, stripping line from his reel as he false-casted. 

    I stood by, waiting for my hands to regain a semblance of normality. The reality of fishing this time of year can be just this; a few casts, maybe up to seven, and then go for the muffler, or, fewer casts because a fish has been hooked, the ensuing battle, hopefully netting it, removing the hook and releasing it, all before your hands go so terribly away (that you can't get them back) before burying them in the marvelously regenerative warmth of the muffler. Then, once they've regained some feeling, quickly chip the ice out of the reachable guides then stick the rest of the rod in the water to open the upper guides again and go for the muffler. These sequences will be repeated ad nauseum throughout the day, which is really a small price to pay when I think about it, which I do.

  As I regain feeling in the tips of my thumbs and forefingers, Aaron picks up and casts again. As I watch, I'm suddenly aware of how much stuff I've come to take for granted, stuff that has become second nature, when I am fishing. And it all comes down to 'being in touch'. Being 'in touch' with the little   things, like the tiny adjustments made during each cast, feeling the rod reacting to your movements, correcting little imperfections in each forward or back cast, things like that. I have fished with great casters as well as those who seem to, despite their accumulative years holding a fly rod, have no clue as to what they're supposed to feel or do should something start to go south on them. It reminds me of Einstein's quote regarding insanity; doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. That has to be frustrating, but, who am I say. 

And I am aware, as I watch my son cast, that despite his infrequent fishing opportunities he has gotten 'in touch', developing into a more than proficient fly caster. His casts are quieter, I can see that he is feeling the rod, the line, understanding mechanically what goes into a successful delivery, and able to translate that into adjustments. The arc of his rod is shorter, his line is hanging in the air fully extended now as he starts forward with just enough energy to feel his rod pulling the line into a tight-looped arrow, stopping higher and gently dropping the tip while his line is uncurling at full extension, the fly just pulling the leader taut as it drops to the water's surface. I glow on the inside, happy for him because I know what a truly sweet sensation that is. Once experienced, the drive to recreate that exact feeling over and over again adds more pull to the already powerful magnetism. For me, it is the center, the bulls eye. It is one of The Reasons, and I quietly thank my son for unknowingly reminding me.

 The ability to cast a fly further can often be an advantage. And while it remains true that what you do with that fly no matter how far you cast will always be what makes or breaks your chances for success, there are times, lots of them, where the ability to successfully manipulate both can increase the odds even more. The ability to execute a long, well placed cast, coupled with effective line and fly management be it a dry or subsurface, can be the key to the fish of the day, or whole trip for that matter. But, knowing that and then doing it are two different animals, and I believe that for the more serious fishermen among us, it's what separates 'the men from the boys', no slight meant toward the female gender. Moving from being a 'flock shooting' spray caster to a marksman able to isolate specific locales or fish not only exhibits an advanced ability and knowledge level, but it opens the door for more exhilarative successes.

That's precisely what was going through my head when I decided to make a suggestion. "Aaron", I said, pointing, "put a cast across and just upstream from the rocks, into that corner there". In days gone by I wouldn't have brought it up knowing that he didn't have the tools to attempt it. I'd hooked several big fish out of that slot on earlier forays and now, seeing him in command of his cast, well, it was a no brainer.Besides all of that, I just had an idea that it would be a perfect time...

His first attempt fell a little short, probably due to the ice that had been building up in his guides, maybe a little to do with now having a specific location to shoot at. He fished it out anyway as would a patient, confident fisherman. The second cast was longer, perfect, landing his leech about six feet upstream from the rocks, where the current would pull his slowly sinking leech out of the subtle eddy and into the trough that edged the rocks as it moved downstream. I watched, waiting, wondering, as he began his retrieve.

When fishing with a leech pattern here, especially in the colder months where the water temperature will be a good five to seven degrees cooler than what is normal, the takes will sometimes be surprisingly subtle. Not what one would  expect from fish known for their ability to explode on flies of this nature. And so it was when Aaron felt weight and lifted his rod, and in a split second the knowledge that he'd hooked a fish changed from "fish on" into, "Oh man! Big fish!", but I knew that already because I could see how much water she moved every time she put her tail into it, and now she was taking line, having it all basically her way. It's one thing to make that cast, yet another to move that fly, but when those two work and you get a result, then the game changes again, and that means a whole new set of anxieties to deal with. 

A proficiency at making well-directed casts and coaxing the right type of movement from your fly will no doubt occasion the need to develop another tool. If you get better at hooking fish, then you're either going to get better at playing them or  tying up whatever it is they took and are wearing as a souvenir. It's a numbers game. More fish hooked means more time spent learning about what happens next. For the fisherman, it is the beauty of the fight. The sport of it all. To a trout, it is The Fear. It is the urgent need to escape. It is all there is. The escape. There is no book for us on this subject. There are no patterns to discern, no stock moves to look for. Every battle with a hooked fish is unique. 

 The best way to begin to understand this is, of course, to hook more fish. Gain an overall understanding of how to react when they do what it is they do, and they will often do it better than we expect, no matter how much experience we have. In short, for this reason alone you can never catch too many fish, although I must admit that some of us, and I include myself in this group, place not as much emphasis on landing a fish as we do on the take. A well-made cast, an effective fly management, and The Take. Those are my favorites. 

    I can, however, certainly understand the need to land the fish. It's the ultimate validation. To hold the object of your desire, your labors, in your own two numb hands. To maybe get a picture or two; standing there, big grin on your face, irrefutable proof of your accomplishment right there in your swollen, frozen hands for everybody to see. I can totally understand it. I guess the main reason I'm not more inclined in that direction is that I most often fish alone. It's hard to hold a big fish and a camera at the same time, and it's probably also why many folks just roll their eyes if I have a big fish story to share. Fine, Steve, but where's the proof? That's okay, I understand their reluctance to believe. I've heard that some fishermen, especially fly fishermen, have a tendency to uh, exaggerate a little. 

There's another, more important reason to land a fish, though. It trumps all the others, and I was overjoyed to have that very reason to snap a photo of Aaron and the biggest trout he's landed so far in his time being a fly fisherman. 

When a father teaches his son, I believe there is a twofold mission undertaken. The first is the obvious one. We want them to enjoy that which we enjoy, which will promote future engagements together doing what it is we have both come to enjoy. But here's where our mission becomes a bit subversive, and more than a little heroic. 

It is our way of determining our fate. Of increasing the odds of a successful life. Through all the years of frustrations and disappointments, of missed opportunities and broken dreams, here is our chance at a little redemption. The chance to make a connection, albeit probably only in our own minds, with something that will bind us together for eternity. 


I plead guilty to both counts your honor, and in lieu of begging the courts forgiveness I ask only that you put yourself in my place.

No pictures, please.

November 30, 2011

Thanksgiving Last Cast.

   To give thanks in solitude is enough. Thanksgiving has wings and goes where it must go. Your prayer knows much more about it than you do.
                   Victor Hugo                     

         For a few moments after arriving, I just sit, feeling the wind gently buffeting the car. It animates the grassy clumps between me and the edge of the hill in the receding darkness of this late November morning. In the distance, across the channel where runs the creek, a lone red-tailed hawk slides slowly, easily through the back-eddy of turbulence under the cliff's edge. 

     I was up early this morning, earlier than usual. Partly because I couldn't sleep, partly because I couldn't wait to get going, but mostly for what I'm experiencing right now. There were no vehicles at any of the parking areas as I drove in. True enough that it is still early. I am not so naive as to think I might spend the entire day here without company. There may be a few who manage to break away for a short time from the ritual of their Thanksgiving Day, although in years past I have fished the whole day alone. That is what I wish for today. 

   It is true enough according to a lot of people, those being relatives and even close friends (of which I have blessedly few), that probably I shouldn't be here at all on this day, although for some of those in this group I would offer that their sentiment is a product of a certain amount of envy. It's often easier to use the energy of jealousy to infuse more vigor into the argument for adherence to customary behaviors rather than to simply admit that they too would rather be somewhere else doing something else. As for most of the rest, I'm relatively sure that for them there is no other way to observe this day, this whole 'holiday' season other than to stay the course no matter how rugged and exhausting that course may be. If that's that's the way it's always been done, well then that's the way it will always be done, damnit, no matter what!  That sounds awfully narrow-minded, I know, and it definitely omits all of those who genuinely appreciate the timeless traditions of family, food, gifting and togetherness, but, that's how I have come to perceive it. I for one can think of several better ways with which to test my patience. So, for me, there is no finer way to give thanks for all of those wonderful people in my life than to be somewhere else, somewhere alone, with only my rods accompanying me, on this day. And secretly, knowing full well that this particular eccentricity of mine will surely continue to develop as I grow older, I pray others will recognize that and finally just 'let it be', although at this juncture I admit to having my doubts about that.

    By the time I don several layers of clothing, my waders, boots, rig up two rods and set off, it is well past six. The chill, steady breeze in my face dictates a walk across the bridge to the other side. I don't hurry, reveling quietly in my solitude. The surface of the creek is here and there ruffled by the short tantrums of occasional gusts as well as the itinerant ring. A group of resident Mallards leisurely feeding in the shallows are indignant at my approach and noisily take flight as I turn into the cattails to my first destination, gingerly testing the ground as I go. The painful memory of a bottomless muskrat hole in the vicinity is the reason for my caution. 

Some thirty feet behind my current position stands a Chinese elm, the only tree on the banks of nearly the entire length of the upper creek. How it came to be here, how it came about that it is the only Chinese elm and the only tree for miles, I do not know. In the fork of the elm there is an old, but regularly inhabited raven's nest, abandoned now, but along about the middle of March a pair of the biggest, blackest birds I have ever seen will take up occupancy again to raise sometimes two, but more often just one youngster. They'll hang around this area until late fall, but where they go once their job ends I have no idea. Even though I know they're gone now until spring, I miss them. The hours I've spent in the past here, one eye on my fishing and the other observing them, have been some of the best times I've spent anywhere. I enjoy ravens and crows. I come away from my many hours of coexisting with them here with a profound sense of respect. Even with my limited level of knowledge of these creatures, their intelligence, and more to the point their individual personalities make them desirable, if mostly very distant companions, although I like to think that there exists between me and these two ravens a more than intrinsic affinity. But that's for me think, to enjoy. Who knows what they really think, but I have seen them take flight and stay away from their nest when other fishermen approach and fish where I am standing, while my presence seems to be at least tolerated.  I miss their presence today.

    My experiences have taught me that spring creeks are the 'best game in town' during the winter. My home water, the Spokane River, is still fishable, the flows remain low, but consistent success in the face of the falling water temperatures dictate major changes in method. Namely, a healthy ability to be patient with and attract fish who aren't about to go but a very short distance out of their way for much of anything no matter how delectable my offering(s) may have been a month ago. Winter on the Spokane forces me to deal with a system I for aesthetic reasons abhor, thus haven't really mastered and therefore am not as comfortable employing. It invariably entails some sort of nymph imitation or two, or sometimes even three, usually very small, rigged under a bobber; uh-oh, I mean indicator. I have, on occasion in the past, brought fish to hand with streamers, but only often enough to give me a short-term reason not to face the reality of re-rigging, made all the more difficult by numb fingers. I have nymphed a little during the winter, but, and there's no getting around it, I really should be more adept with it. I say that to myself all the time, but usually escape having to deal with actually going there because either an Olive hatch comes off and I can go to my little dries or I'll try out a new sculpin imitation, or the river will rise sharply and go off-color to boot.
   Then, I can opt out completely and drive west to my spring creek winter fishing playground, Rocky Ford. 

    My long rod, a five-weight, is rigged with scuds, two of them, about a foot apart. I set up my other rod, a six-weight, with a short, heavier leader ending with a black articulated marabou leech. I have had days here at this time of year, dark, gray, windy ones, where I cast nothing else but the leech, because quite simply, it worked all day. I certainly don't have any preconceived notions about the possibility of that happening today, but what the hell, I always start with it anyway. My first cast lands the leech across the creek right above a rocky outcropping that bends the current. I let the unweighted pattern sink for a time as it travels slowly down along the rocks before beginning my retrieve. And then, not more than three slow hand twists into it, I'm in business, reminded again of  the best fix for cold hands; the adrenalin pump of a bent rod from a solid take. 

 And so it goes as the day unwinds. I alternate between scud and leech. It doesn't really seem to matter. The resident trout population are by and large obviously appreciative of my investigative research and subsequent offerings, and even though my prayer about spending the day without other fishermen has been answered, I catch myself more than once thinking, "gee, it's a shame no one's here to see this", only to a split second later regret having had that thought at all. 

I get to end Thanksgiving day my way, with the fish of the day on the last cast. 

Last casts are an ambiguity. First of all, it's a bit like the tree falling in the forest. If no one hears it, does it really make a noise? So, if no one sees the cast, was it really the last? And, how many 'last casts' are allowable?  I stay an hour or so longer than is my usual, making that 'last cast' over and over again successfully, disdaining the walk back in lieu of the possibility of yet another hook-up and my theme then turns into 'I'll just fish my way back down to the bridge' which in turn morphs into 'one cast here before I start back up the hill...'

And I do. My 'last cast' is from a position right at the bottom of the hill where the trail back to the parking lot starts. I never fish from this spot. Fishing from here, on, say an average weekend day reminds me of sitting near the door of a coffee shop. Your attention is constantly diverted from the conversation or your laptop or your book because of the endless traffic in and out the door but then again why do people who are 'trying' to talk or read or do anything other than watch the parade decide to sit there other than seeing every other seat occupied. Indeed, that is exactly what I've observed in the folks I see fishing at this location. By the time I get here my mind is already on the drive back and I'm usually head down eyeballing which rocks to step over on the way back up the hill all the while aware of and avoiding any errant backcasts from those who attempt to cast. Ending the day with a fly in your ear is a real possibility. 
But today, it's just me, and my last cast nicely drops the two scuds upstream about three feet from the bank. I let them sit, allowing the current to belly my line which drags the scuds slowly along through the detritus but as I see a bulge in the surface over there my line is slowly working back upstream. I lift my rod, feel the weight, and then all hell breaks loose...

November 15, 2011


You must stick to your conviction, but be ready to abandon your assumptions.
                 Denis Waitley

I wouldn't describe myself as lacking in confidence, but I would just say that the ghosts you chase you never catch.
               John Malkovich

    "It absolutely terrifies me that someday my decline will begin and I will no longer be able to improve." 

     That's a sentiment conveyed in my son's latest post (From what do you flee) from his blog (130 Miles). 
           It more than caught my attention.  

      I don't for even a second pretend to know the minds of others, how they think, what causes them to formulate thoughts and experiences into their specific system, their platforms of belief and actions, any of that. But as I read his post, I was struck by a couple of things; being made aware (again) of the symmetry of our thought processes, and secondly, the connectivity he'd found with that particular statement and some of the other arenas of his life; a very full, almost hectic (as it seems to me) at times, life, although he would take issue with that. I guess it's like everything else in that it's all relative. One man's mayhem is another man's cozy fit (I suggest also that in saying that I exhibit amnesia-like symptoms as far as my former life is concerned, but that's another story for another day).

      On occasion, something I read or hear will cause me almost reflexively to stop, literally in my tracks. It is a brightest beam piercing darkness, exposing detail that was always a part of the whole but still a mystery. It is the phrase that bridges the gap between idea and realization, the missing variable in a perplexing equation. 

     My life, the focus of my life, has gotten very narrow. I readily admit that, though not in the form of a confession. It's more of a concession. I grant myself the reality that I have given up much of what I had previously known or done in or with my life. That goes not only for activities but also, and probably more importantly, my need for interactivity with others. I did that willingly, almost eagerly, now that I bother to really examine it. I guess the way I've come to live really has to do with a couple of things; the fact that I'm getting older, and the idea of real quality.
 I have no control over the former, even though I hear every day that 'you're only as old as you feel' (Okay Pollyanna, you can let yourself out), but I do have direct control over the quality of my life, and for one part, superficial relationships with people that I can't be around for more than a few minutes certainly doesn't qualify as quality. In their defense, they are not to blame. I am. I admit that, having willingly cultivated a definite aversion to social niceties and interactions. I have gotten to the point where I can count my quality relationships on one hand and not use five fingers. I treasure my relationships with these people. As the years continue to grind past, they have ingrained themselves into the essence of my life, and I know they will always be there. 
    How I got here is for yet another story. Let's just say for now that the absence of alcohol in my life has really sharpened my vision, and therefore my outlook, and that made it extremely easy in subsequent years to simply vaporize.

  It's all about what's really important to each of us. There's no way that I can substantiate the reasons each of us have for doing whatever it is we do. I can only take a stab at why I am the way I am, and my son unwittingly helped me immeasurably by writing what he wrote. I'm pretty damned comfortable with who and what I've turned out to be, but he sure helped me clarify the reasons why.

 Like I said, it's all about what's really important to each of us. A line from a song written by Paul Simon comes back to me...

      "... when I think of all the crap I learned in high school..."

   ... and so I began to wonder how much of that which I spent years learning really applies to life. To my life. What's it worth in terms of holding onto? How much of it is so insinuated into our lives that we aren't even conscious of it? Yes, it can be said that everything we 'learn' is somehow incorporated into our ever-evolving personality, but when it was time for me to actually sort things out and in the process identify myself, I had some searching to do, and found a lot of crap I had to throw out. Maybe we all reach a point where we do what I did, I don't know, but what I saw when my head finally cleared enough for me to see who I was, well that was really sobering. Don't get me wrong; there were those times and people I will always hold close, and I wouldn't trade them for anything. But for much of it, well, let's just chalk it up to a general lack of confidence accompanied by an overwhelming need for constant approval, and say good riddance.

 Thankfully, at about the same time I discovered how lost I was, I re-discovered fishing. Fishing with flies.

       Funny, that a single ever-expanding set of concentric rings could point the way to the rest my life. Could define the rest of my life. Captured? No. Released? Most definitely yes. 

When I look back, I realize I was given a second chance. A fresh start. It was, I think, a gift I was finally ready to appreciate. One that, as is said, would keep on giving, for a lifetime. One of quality. And all of my energy, my focus, my needs, wants and desires have been directed into developing the craft surrounding my fishing ever since.

Aaron, in his post, says;

"I suppose the point of this rambling is that no matter what the event or subject matter or activity, some of us are born to question ourselves."

 Another pearl. He is wise beyond his years. Some years ago, a woman, a massage therapist who was also very wise, said of Aaron that he "has an old soul", which reflected her respect for him. I'll never forget that, either.
 He's right on the mark with his observation, and I could not help but apply it to just about every facet of my past. From activities to personal relationships, always wondering, no, worrying, if it was good enough to the point that I was literally paralyzed whereupon I did, and therefore accomplished, nothing. I was so paralyzed. I had no dream, no big pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, to follow. I was day-to-day, minute-by-minute, searching for nothing more than another way to postpone the inevitability of growing up. Look those up in the dictionary and there's a picture of a young Steve smiling his empty, lost smile for all to see. Years later, I ask myself; where was the quality in an existence like that which of course is a rhetorical one because there was none.

      Now, finally, I know what quality is. True enough that it is up to each of us to discover and nurture that sense of appreciation for whatever we do with each parcel of time in our lives, and it is a gift beyond measure to be confident in one's approach to and participation in those things. That, to me, is quality. It pays dividends, too, for if we enjoy what we do, we do it well. We gain confidence. And if we do it well, we do it often. And if we do it often, we continue to improve, and it's all a concentric, ever-expanding set of rings, feeding itself, and you, for as long as you wish. 

          Thank you, Aaron, for helping me see more clearly. 

November 2, 2011

Regatta (ya gotta) Get Small

Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.
   Mark Twain

     Hundreds of thousands of them. Sizes twenty and twenty-two, and every fish, no, let me say every fish, is up and dining at their leisure. 

From my vantage point about a third of the way through this particular section to downstream past where the current has begun to slow, a distance of approximately two hundred feet, the surface teems with activity. It is about here where I stand, at a little past one on a cloudy, chilly afternoon that the olives begin appearing, their transformation from nymph to imago kicked into gear. As my eye travels further down the run, the numbers of newly hatched mayflies multiplies geometrically. It's no wonder that I see so many rings, so many noses. The number of blue-winged olives and the rings that itinerant individuals disappear into is simply amazing. For the next two and a half hours the trout will feed heavily. 

   It has long been my belief that a certain, almost palpable energy level evidences itself when trout are setting into the feed. Now, watching the tiny members of the flotilla aligning themselves in perfect randomness across the width of this run, I can feel the electricity. The urgent need to get my imitation into the mix is underlined by the fact that I know I have only a small window, for time is the enemy, because soon familiarity will breed contempt for any and all imitations I might utilize that do not fit the bill to a 'T'. In other words, the longer the hatch, the more perfect the match needs to be. And after a couple of days, or, on a daily level a couple of hours, these trout know exactly what they're looking for. Both in appearance and behavior. Add to that the fact that the surface is dotted with such numbers of imagos that the fish, always eager for the easy meal, will not often, if ever, move more than a foot out of their feeding lanes to eat. They don't have to. So I have to keep that in mind, too. Not only will they refuse my imitation on the grounds of insufficient debauchery, location, location, location, to overwork a phrase a little more, is also paramount.

My dexterity is slipping. I've been at it for a little more than two hours, and even with my wader pockets stuffed with heat packs the cold has sapped more and more of my ability to perform the necessary operations quickly, deftly. It becomes a conscious, arduous effort to complete the simplest tasks, making it imperative to get it right, be it the choice of flies or the knot, the first time. While I labor, a blue heron stands on a rock a hundred yards downstream from me staring into the river at his feet, quite oblivious to my struggle. I am envious of his comfort level, not to mention his approach. My rod goes back under my arm as I again bury my hands in among the packets, cursing my DNA as time just keeps ticking away...

I'm rather proud of my parachute upwing. It's not an easy tie. I figured out that I could use 4x mono as a post for the wings and the hackle, which adds rigidity to the structure of the feather components while preserving the overall look of the fly specifically as far as what the fish sees. And it lands right side up. Every time. It's now at the end of a nice 'S' cast and settling slowly toward the water. When it lands, I am pleased to see that I can't tell the difference between it and the hundreds of real ones close by. And apparently it looks good enough to the fat rainbow who barely disturbs the surface as he rises to eat it. I hesitate for a split second after feeling the jolt, then raise my rod, and involuntarily gasp as he flies skyward, one, two, three times before streaking away across and downstream. I know it's not the case, but I go ahead and wonder if half of the energy a fish uses in his attempt to flee is a result of the chagrin at being fooled. I realize that by saying that I've given all of you a view of the way I would react. I'm not a real good subject for practical jokes.

I back the hook out of the fish's upper jaw and release the trout, thanking him for his infinite appreciation. After pulling my fly through the water to clean the slime off, I cut it off, park it in my foam patch, dig out the box, and pluck another one from it's perch. Experience is a good teacher. I know better than to think I can fool another fish with that one. It's in good shape, but it'll be a while before it's put to use again. Probably not today. C'mon hands...

October 6, 2011

What Never Changes Never Stays the Same

If there were only one truth, you couldn't paint a hundred canvases on the same theme.
                             Pablo Picasso

Nature is commonplace. Imitation is more interesting.
                             Gertrude Stein

       It's a swimming caddis; my newest rendition. This must put me somewhere between seventy-five and a hundred different concepts since I decided to get serious about this particular part of the journey.

          And this one works. By 'works', I mean it's proven itself to me enough times in enough different situations to be worthwhile of a spot in my box. I don't consider one, two, or even three successful outings enough proof to rationalize spending a lot of time tying more. When a new concept is introduced into the rotation, each day is a brand new ball game. If the fly proves to be consistently functional (catches fish) over a period of time (said period of time may vary according to, for example, season, time of day, or section of the river), then, and only then will I begin to consider it part of my arsenal. Like I've said in earlier posts, I've got a boatload of 'one-hit wonders', flies that really looked good in the vise which later, after several frustrating hours of application, turned out to be duds, although I must, at the risk of jinxing myself, say (in my defense) that that is happening much less frequently lately. And, I think that the reason I'm relegating fewer and fewer flies to the 'glass of shame' has a lot to do with what I'm finally seeing as the most important details. Often the simplest factor can be overlooked; sometimes it's easy (for me) to get so caught up in all the minutiae of a particular specie that I blind myself to the most obvious, most practical ones.  

      Triggers. Stuff incorporated into any fly, be it the way it's tied and, probably most importantly, the way it's fished that activates a trout's urge to eat. A long time ago I listened to a gentleman I genuinely respect as a caster tell me that ninety per cent of catching a fish with a fly is how you fish it. I took that as gospel then, even before I had much experience under my belt, remembered that lesson in the most frustrating of times, and am today more than convinced that he spoke the truest truth. In fact, I am sure that as the fisherman becomes more and more adroit with his fishing 'skills', the smaller and more utilitarian becomes his fly box, although I know there're many fly fishermen out there who, if they read that, would no doubt take umbrage with my statement. They've got way too much money invested in all those flies to do anything but.

       My interest in marrying the overall effectiveness of a soft hackle to the surface capability of a simple elk-hair caddis has taken me on a pretty neat journey. Having as my home water a river that is such a caddis factory made the choice of flies, and therefore journey, a rather easy one. Good choice of natural, but sometimes a frustrating journey; the beauty of it all being found somewhere between the fist-pumping highs of success and the sobering lows of utter, frequent failure.

   My river, as stated, is a cornucopia of caddis, both in number and variety of type. All year long. And, when the temperature and humidity are right, all day every day. Yes, there are other flies that will work, like the olives, the PMDs, the tiny psuedos and midges, all in their time. There are hoppers ,ants, and beetles in the late summer as well as crane flies. Salmonflies are resurgent here, too, making a viable nymph pattern for that big bug a must in the early summer. I have a good sculpin pattern again (another journey), a badly-in-need of work minnow, and a workable crawdad streamer. But in my mind, all of those pale in comparison to the real mainstay for the amazing trout of the Spokane River. 

    As the years passed and the experiences added up, it became a worthwhile endeavor to attempt to create patterns and fishing methodry that would cater to the trout's strength. That is, to conceive of and learn to tie and fish patterns imitating caddis of every phase of their life cycle, as they seemed to me to offer these trout the best, most constant food supply. It was a great way to incorporate my favorite style of fishing the river. Little could I have known then how much this task would improve my fishing skills. 

      Confession. I more or less stumbled into swinging flies, most notably the soft hackle, early on. It wasn't a style or a pattern I deliberately set out to learn, or to utilize here. God knows at that time I had little or no formal training other than what I could, in my uneducated state, glean from my own first few forays. It's always easier to learn when you have a bit of a platform to stand on. I had to build one before I could progress, and it was a shaky one at that.

   But one chilly afternoon on my river many years ago led me to a (here it comes) serendipitous, but timely discovery and I've been enamored with the swing ever since. If the truth needs to be known (and I suppose it does, somehow) my first success with the soft hackle came when I cast to a rising fish to let it drift as naturally downstream as I could cause it to; when I realized it was outside of the fish's feeding lane, I knew enough to let it continue downstream out of the harm's way before retrieving it to cast again. As my line bellied in the current and the small olive soft hackle began its rising swing across the riffle, lo and behold a nice, fat trout separated himself from the anonymity of his lie, darted up out of the depths and ate it. 

    In enlightening you to that piece of the puzzle, I need to  add that my roots lie in fishing dry. My father and his two fishing buddies were loyal, almost exclusively dry fly fishermen, and so logically, because that's where all the pertinent information came from to me, that's what I was. I do recall, however, one day finding a box of flies in my dad's duffel that contained several variations on the old wooly worm theme. They were big, heavy, light olive chenille affairs palmered with a short grizzly hackle and a stubby red marabou tail. I asked him one day as we tooled through Distillary Bay looking for rings what those flies were for, and he said, "Maybe some day I'll take you up north. You'll see."  

 Well, some years later I 'saw'. We went 'up north', dad, his buddies and I. And on the last full day of our stay, a rainy, windy one, he stood for a long time looking out the cabin window watching the rain blowing horizontally across Hatheume Lake. After a long silence, he turned to me and said, "Steve, wanna go fish?" 
Reflexively, I nodded. 
"Good. Better bring your raincoat. Let's go see if we can catch a fish." 

 That was my introduction to fishing wet flies. A size six triple-x long wooly worm on a sinking line towed by a twelve foot boat powered by a five-horsepower Johnson into a twenty knot wind that was pure water it was raining so hard. Yes, my dad really was a fisherman!  I'll never forget him, squinting into the gale, a soaking wet half-burned cigar clenched in his teeth, one hand on the motor and one holding his rod. As we approached the upwind shoreline, I turned in my seat to see which way he was going to angle the boat for the turn back downwind. It couldn't have been more than a couple of seconds after the nose of the boat had started to come around that I watched his rod jerk violently. "Get on your reel!", he shouted. Being a rookie, it took a few seconds for it to sink in that I needed to be busy getting my line out of the way of whatever it was he'd hooked. And it was downright scary the way whatever it was battled, running directly away then diagonally, first this way then that at terrific speed then going as deep as it could with spastic head shaking the whole way. And then, it came out of the water, tumbling head over tail and I swallowed hard when I saw just how big these fish really were. The struggle went on seemingly forever until finally I was told to grab the net and be ready. 

Twenty-seven inches. Over ten pounds. Sleek and muscular, with that faraway look in his eye. With a size six triple x long wooly worm firmly stuck in his upper right jaw.

And then, about a half hour later, it happened to me. Good lord it happened to me! 

The fish hit my wooly worm just as we straightened out of a turn at the other end of the lake. I'd been, for awhile, so acutely alert that I had the whole body shakes ever since dad had hooked his fish, but in the past couple of minutes, I'd lapsed back into more of my 'spectator' mode again. The jolt of my rod nearly being ripped out of my hands brought me back in a hurry. I'd never felt such instantaneous raw power. The fierce shaking and contortions were spaced between careening leaps and lightning quick runs directly away and then, most horrifyingly, right back at the boat. It was impossible to keep up with, and I was surprised that he didn't shake free what with all the slack line in the bottom of the boat. The battle seemed to go on for hours until finally he turned on his side and slid up next to to the boat and I could see how deeply embedded the hook was in the top of his mouth; what I couldn't possibly see (yet) was how deeply embedded the hook had set in the rest of my life.

Both fish had attacked the fly as it changed direction and began to rise in the water column. I didn't ever forget that. And as I began to assemble sets of experiences with fish into my very primitive tool box, the lesson I learned on Hatheume Lake that day stayed with me. 

I was then more and more drawn to the idea of fishing flies beneath the surface. For me, there was a certain fascination involved with causing a fish to chase and eat a submerged fly. As my ability to cast and tie improved, I spent more and more time, much of it early on quite frustrating, fishing subsurface patterns. Indeed, the vast majority of knowledge I've acquired was through trial and error, a fact that now, when I look back on those years, brings me large measure of pride. I did it myself, but I won't call it the hard way. I like to call it the best way.

 Squinting into a rising sun one fine September morning a few years back, I stood knee deep in my river at the bottom end of one of my favorite sections. I'd named it A Hundred Yards early on. It's not really that long, but I liked the name and it stuck in my head. This piece of water has a pretty consistent current broken only infrequently here and there by hydraulics thrown upward as the river flows over structure, and there's a trough that runs almost the entire length of it paralleling the shore about twenty feet out. At certain times of the day, usually less than an hour after sunrise and then again an hour or so after sunset, noses begin to appear on the surface up and down this section. Rings on the water's surface, caddis in the air. Hm... nice combination. 

 On this fine September morning I opened my green Propp's Rod and Fly Shop fly box, waited for my eyes to adjust, and pulled out a small(#16) elk hair caddis that I'd tied with some gray elk over a cream-colored body palmered with a light brown hackle. It was primitive, as were all my flies back then, but it fit the bill, and my hands were shaky as I double-terled it to my tippet. I was in easy casting range of several regularly occurring rings. 

The temptation was overwhelming at this stage of my experiences to immediately get busy; put the caddis on the water above the bottom-most fish. It's not the right way to go about things,  but that's precisely what I did, not taking the time to notice the nuances in the current, not taking time to actually study the situation at all. Rookie mistake. My cast was decent, but as soon as my primitive little caddis settled it was pulled wildly sideways. I either said a silent prayer or cursed as I hurriedly stripped in line. A couple of quick false casts and I sent it out again. This time was better, good enough for the lowermost ring maker. He hardly broke the surface in taking it, and must have decided that he didn't want to disturb the others as they fed because he ran to the middle of the river and stayed out there for much of the fight. I brought him to hand, pulled the hook from his jaw, held him briefly underwater to make sure he was ready to be freed, and thanked him for his existence when he wriggled free and disappeared into the clear green. I examined my caddis. Hardly a dent. Good deal. Feeling pretty good, I pulled line off the reel while watching the water for my next target, who showed me his nose almost immediately. I stripped more line off the reel, electing to lengthen my cast rather than risk spooking him by trying to wade closer. 

It was a good cast, about thirty-five or forty feet, with even a touch of dexterity thrown in this time. I pinned the line to my rod as my caddis flew past the landing zone causing the leader to recoil a bit which allowed a few more seconds of relatively free drift. All was well in my world until I realized that I couldn't see my caddis anymore. It had floated only long enough for me to see where it landed, and was now, even as I stood there searching, wending its way back downstream underwater. This time I did curse, and began stripping back line. I got halfway through the first strip when the line pulled back, followed by a fish flying out of the water precisely where I had been aiming to drift my caddis, with said caddis firmly embedded in his jaw. Stunned, I raised my rod with way too much gusto, perfectly countering his upstream surge wherein we, to his relief and with my caddis, parted ways.

 An hour or so later, I had reached the top of A hundred Yards, at the same time pleased and thoughtful. I had done fairly well as I worked my way up despite the angst of losing another (my next to last) caddis near the top of the run to a larger fish when my attentive skills deserted me. I simply spaced out on a blue heron across the river from me. As I watched the large bird awkwardly attempt a landing in a cottonwood, I felt a good tug on my rod and struck back with the adrenaline of one who has just been shocked. Another souvenir for a disgruntled fan. I was debating whether or not I should go with my last caddis or call it a good morning and head back to a bowl of oatmeal and the rest of my day when what should appear but a healthy set of rings! Not more than twenty feet downstream! I'd just worked my way up through there! The oatmeal, and the rest of my day could wait. I dug out the caddis.

I'm not sure how many times I drifted my caddis over that trout, but at about a dozen good ones my fly began to take on water. Soon I was getting maybe a foot of visible fly before it totally immersed itself. My last drift was one of resignation. I let it ride even though I couldn't see it, wondering what I could try next. Meanwhile, my line went taut and the fly, which had obviously been slowly sinking as it tumbled downstream, pulled out of its free fall and rose toward the surface...

It's when from down to up happens. The fact that it's a dry fly that's not on top has less to do with it than the fact that my caddis, my dry pattern went from down to up. That's what turned that fish on. That's why I went home that fine September day with a huge grin on my face. In the years to come, I'd understand and successfully implement that what I learned there that day. And I came to find out that it wasn't uncommon knowledge, that fishing a dry caddis pattern that way is very acceptable technique. Another lesson learned the right way; from experience.

Tools are cool. The more the better. The beauty of the art of mastering them, though, lies in one's ability to continually synthesize these tools for whatever needs may arise. These tools are your clay. Your craft. How you shape them, make them work for you, defines your level of knowledge. Their application shapes your journey. They are your badge, your status quo. What you gain from them is immeasurable. Acquire and master. Adapt. Grow.

September 21, 2011

Night Shift (They Only Come Out at Night)

                      There is no such thing as darkness; only a failure to see. 
                                                        Malcolm Muggeridge

       I am watching what must be the twentieth spasmodic drift of my third variation on a tiny blue-winged olive theme down through a series of contorted hydraulics. If I'm really lucky, I'll get maybe four seconds of relatively drag free drift, if being the pivotal word. Several ribbons of conflicting current, all deflected in different directions at different speeds, run through this slot side by side. Yes, they do eventually all end up downstream somewhere in basically the same place, and that's just about the only place where any sense of congruity exists. But, that's not the real problem. The real challenge here is the abundance of willows at my back. Not a great spot for a back cast, therefore not a great spot for a classic delivery, therefore not even a very good spot, except for that trout, whose subtle rises in the riffle caught my eye. The only thing I've got going for me, and I've talked about it before, is having a few utilitarian casts up my sleeve. They're not real pretty, but surely the only ticket, especially here. I can't get any closer, which would put some space between me and the bank. The rising flows have made wading any deeper here a fantasy. It would be a stern test for even an expert, athletic, younger wader. So, no deeper. I fish waist deep from as close as I can get and still be upstream. There are easier places to cast and drift a dry fly over more willing fish, and I will, before I'm done here, question my sanity, but then what fun would that be. All the challenges aside, I'd really like, with all this adversity, to fool this fish! 
      Halfway through and smack dab in the middle of this particularly nasty set of dissimilarly behaving ribbons about thirty feet below me lies a better than decent rainbow. Leisurely, at his own unhurried pace, he rises to the surface, barely disturbing it, to terminate the journey of hatching naturals. I know he's better than decent because his technique is flawless. He's obviously had some time to perfect it. In this roiling mass of confusing currents, the trout, hidden by both his choice of lies and perfect coloration, rises and adeptly sucks in his targeted prey. I secretly revel in my practiced, albeit aging eye for spotting him, while at the same time cursing him for knowing exactly what he wants and only that. Fortunately, despite my efforts, he maintains his position and his (somewhat) selective feeding, which is probably a testament to my inability (so far) to get anything close to him, fly or line. But it won't, it can't continue much longer. It never does. If I don't figure something out soon, he'll hunker back down into anonymity to wait, as do most of the trout in my river, for darkness.

      But then, so do I. This preoccupation, while captivating, is in all reality simply a time-killer. I hold my next candidate, a classic up-winged artificial close to examine my tie, but I  wait for the light to fade. The temperature to drop. I wait with the trout for the darkness. And the caddis.

      It's the middle of September. We're losing close to four minutes of sunlight every day now. The shadows have already crawled halfway up the cliffs across the river, and I reflexively look to my left wrist to check my watch but then remember I lost it in the river last week. I figure it's probably past six now, and there's maybe a half hour until the sun dips behind the trees at my back. It always amazes me at this time of year how light it stays long after the sun has gone. Maybe it's like that at the end of every day, but it seems to be more protracted now, in these hazy, late summer days, as though summer is refusing to admit the inevitability of fall. I cannot appreciate this time of year too much now, although I feel, as I wait, like a child lying in bed counting the minutes until Santa arrives. Every evening, after darkness comes on and the caddis appear, it's Christmas.

The transformation is unbelievable as the evening  progresses. This summer there have been days and days of one of the most prolific blue-winged olive hatches I have ever witnessed. The surface was literally alive with them, but only a few smaller trout rose to eat. Not believing my eyes, I'd dutifully dig through my rather extensive collection of olives thinking that surely such a tasty, timely morsel as this could not be refused. But that mindset soon changed into one of near panic. After quite a few days of utter frustration, including a last very long afternoon, it all culminated in a memorable evening whereupon I witnessed The Transformation, had The Epiphany, and was delivered into heaven. Literally. God Bless the Caddis.

I was chatting online with my son this morning and he posed a couple of interesting questions after he'd heard my latest 'after dark' account; this in conjunction with his perusal and appreciation of a picture of the latest version of my never-ending search for the perfect soft hackle. It's a real piece of work, if I do say so myself. Got all the bells and whistles I'd innovated and used one at a time on previous editions. This one's got 'em all, as you can see at the top of the page. Anyway, I put it on my Google Plus page early yesterday right after tying it, and followed that up later with a short comment as to how well it worked last night. And it did work. Really well. But, I digest...
   After he listened to me tell (again) of The Transformation and the numbers of fish as well as the numbers and varieties of caddis that I saw, and having a prior knowledge of the sparsely attended blue-winged olive hatch, he typed;
    1)  Does what the fish are eating have anything to do with the number available, or is that an arbitrary thing?
      2)  Are they really selective when there are so many varieties of the same bug available?

       That's why he's a damn doctor. He's thinking. All of the time. And asking questions I have trouble answering. Truth is, I don't know. I suppose the only way to get a handle on any of that would be to pump esophagus after damned esophagus, in the light of a damned headlamp. I don't know why it is that (this year, anyway) most trout are foregoing the BWO appetizers and concentrating on the caddis, or more to the point, the many varieties of caddis, but they are. They sure as hell are. In that regard, maybe Aaron's onto something; maybe it is a numbers game.

    I'm way behind the curve when it comes to understanding why they'll eat this and not that even when this and that are on the table at different times of the day. I'm having trouble understanding why it is that ten million BWOs can float past and not draw a single customer, and why two hours later the river is filled with splashing trout chasing caddis all over hell. I don't think it's because the BWOs suddenly taste bad BUT, to be honest here, and I am; I have never, in all my years of fishing this river, seen so many caddis both in numbers and varieties. It's simply incredible to watch The Transformation as darkness intensifies. At any given time if you breathe with your mouth open you have the opportunity to inhale 3 different kinds of caddis. I know. I've got first-hand experience. Why, if you don't mind, they'll crawl right up your nose! You become THE A. P.(anchor point)!

I've attempted to document this nightly occurrence more than a few times. I pull out my trusty water-proof (thanks again, Aaron) camera and fire away, hoping to capture the event digitally. But when I get home and download the pictures to my Mac, it always looks like it's either snowing or I got caught in a meteor shower except for that dark blurry spot which was a caddis (or several) that landed on the lense. Not to mention that I'm waist deep in some pretty fast water standing on really slippery rocks praying that I can still find my way touchy-feely back to terra firma without going for a swim and I probably just jinxed myself by mentioning that, but oh well.

  It's not true that they only come out at night, though. That was a witty (?) way of describing The Transformation, which I capitalize because to me it assumes biblical proportion every time I am witness to it. There are fish that can be tempted by various flies during most hours of each day. Problem is finding them. After my first Transformation, I began to question my need to be on the river for so many hours during the summer months when I could pop on down for just a few hours each evening, and come back home with a sore arm! And up to this juncture it's been near to impossible to get anyone to accompany me, which would go a long way toward thereby validating it. That's okay. Call me a liar. Call me crazy. Call me crazy and shake your head. Call me if you want but I'll be back later. I've gone back down to get ready for the next Transformation.