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.


  1. Nothing ever changes until it changes forever.

    This is good juju.

  2. I wish I could have gone fishing with him.