November 15, 2012

The fly.

The fly, we reason, is what makes things happen, and so using a different one should make things happen differently.
                   Ted Leeson, Patterns of Behavior, Inventing Montana

Always look at what you have left. Never look at what you have lost. 
Robert Schuller

        It's almost noon on a humid, chilly Friday. The weather this morning had been patient with me until about a half hour ago, but that has run its course. Rain falls from the dense grayness of the early November sky, contrasted against the forest green of the trees across the river, while I work methodically, carefully down. The rain's not such a big deal if I'm further down the river. But now, I work against time, having chosen the Cemetery Run. It's enticing to me, with its curious blend of seams and fierce riffle. The problem is, I'm just downstream from the mouth of Latah (Hangman, if you're a native) Creek, which, when the rains come, is notorious for quickly going off-color and shortly after that spewing it's effluvial flush into the river, effectively buttoning fish lips and putting them down, way down, often for days. 
     The lure of this stretch of water lies in the frequent 'pushes'. The fierce flow of the main riffle periodically sends pulses of hydraulic upwellings downstream and across into the softer water on the inside (my side) of the slight bend that entails the hundred and few odd yards of this particular stretch. I find them interesting because I've hooked a lot of fish when first I got lucky and then after putting some thought into it began to time my casts so that my swinging fly would be caught up in the front edge of the advancing push. On several occasions I've had solid strikes when it's near the end of its swing and gets swept up in the vertically rolling current. My thinking, upon observation after experiencing a few violent takes is that a couple of things may be at work here. The first theory is that the vertically oriented twisting of the current alters the path of my fly line or leader, causing a sudden change in the path of my fly, which is almost always a soft hackle or a two fly rig. The second explanantion is easier to understand in that I treat the edges of the 'push' as I would a classic seam, which is really what they are, except that they're temporary. When the push spends itself, the seam simply goes away. After seriously working these anomalies over the past few weeks both here and at different locations on the river, I'll try, when I see a 'push' coming, to put my fly at the front or slightly ahead of it. The trout seem to know that 'push' will carry food and are waiting at the deep edge of the softer water on cue to snap at anything that gets collected and resembles a meal. The takes are usually quite solid, meaning that either there may have been some effort put into chasing down the target rather than having it come by at a more or less constant speed. Or, it's a take that is similar to the 'snatch and grab' technique employed in the seam off of a faster flow. This is all merely conjecture on my part and should not be taken seriously, unless, of course, you've maybe experienced a similar phenomenon. Having said that, a lot of fly fishermen are often hesitant to subscribe to anything other than their own time-tested, although maybe not as consistently successful routines, although they'd be quick to enroll should they step out of their box and discover otherwise.
      I watch the latest surge slowly spend itself in the soft water directly downstream and start my retrieve slowly with one long, slow pull. The belly in my fly line, which now more closely resembles a lazy 's' as the push disintegrates unevenly, instantly begins, at great speed, to straighten, then quickly transfers itself in the form of a solid pull to my rod. "I'll be damned! Wonder which one he ate", I query no one in particular (I admit to talking to myself more and more as I age), tighten on him, raise my rod and am amazed for a second or two at the fact that he ate when at that point I'm amazed that it's a larger rainbow than I thought who quickly realizes he's hooked and with a single effective seizure-like shake breaks me off. I stand silently, hands down for a few moments amazed at what just transpired, then strip back line to see what kind of damage the fish did to my two fly rig. Upon inspection I discover that he'd escaped with my bottom fly; in this case a #18 classic TDR soft hackle.

   Depending on the circumstances, losing a fly to a fish can be no big deal or, if it's the result of something I did poorly or not at all, it is cause for immediate and severe self recrimination. But, even though I may have in all likelihood screwed up, the fish still ate my fly and that's something to feel good about. Of course, if it was the fish of the day and I've nothing to show for it but empty tippet, you can bet I'll be muttering.

      There are events in our lives that are 'light bulb' moments. I've had so many of these in my life as a fisherman/tier that it gets hard to keep track of them all. Then add to that the fact that I fish the Spokane and you've got THE light bulb moment times ten. That one all by itself still ranks right up there in the top half of the top ten. It opened my eyes. But, and more importantly, I feel that because I chose the Spokane, I finally began to fully comprehend what it takes to be a competent and self-sustaining fly tier. Understanding that began very quickly to translate itself into making me a better fisherman. Not only because I got more proficient at the vise; that in turn affected my need to improve my skills with the rod. Even perfect flies won't catch fish if they're not worked properly, or in the correct situations.
       The absolute thrill of hooking fish on flies I've conceptualized, created, and perfected are without exception  the most satisfying moments of my life. Nothing, save for the birth of my sons will even come close. And, as mentioned in previous posts, it adds a healthy dose of adrenalin to every take.

        There are a lot of ways to learn to tie flies, some good,  some not so good, and then there was my way. Almost from the outset I was, for all intents and purposes, on my own. I had zero credible input. Other than my fishing, my father, my mind's eye and the elementary primer included in the kit were all I had as standards of measure.  But, I knew the one big thing going in; it was not going to happen overnight. It was a foregone conclusion that time was the bank. To be a fly tier was to understand that perseverance over time was a sound investment.
       My dad wasn't a tier, but he'd seen a lot of flies. His was the gospel of Dan Bailey in the form of first a fly catalogue that would arrive every December, and then, periodically through the next few months, boxes of flies ordered through the mail. I will always remember his 'ruck sack', the army-olive ruck sack that served as his repository. It was stuffed with so many boxes of Dan Bailey flies that I had to wonder why he had so many! Hundreds of them! Most all of them were dries save for a couple of small boxes of woolly worms way down at the bottom, which told me that they were not in use very often. That bag went with him everywhere every time he went fishing! Dad embodied the characteristics of those fly fishers who are bought and sold by eye candy. In his mind, a beautiful fly equated to success on the water, and the more he had, why the better the chances were. I really don't know how many he ever really used. His boxes were tediously sorted, kept updated and absolutely chock full, terribly revealing about the man that owned them. I'd spend hours going through each box, closely examining each fly, asking questions like, where do you use this one?, or, when do you use this one, etc? And I don't ever remember him tiring of my constant, somewhat repetitious inquiries. Talking fishing and flies, even if it was with a son who had yet to really understand the depth and magnitude of his involvement, was always worth the time. 

      I look back on those first years of tying knowing that it probably would have been beneficial to have actually had some real, one-on-one instruction though in reality it would be years before I received any viable input, not having the confidence in even my embryonic abilities to feel comfortable asking for guidance. It was fun, a bit satisfying and at the same time frustrating, knowing what I wanted to see but not having the ability level to bring it to fruition. But, looking back now, I guess I don't have any regrets. It's a work in progress, but I've become adept at visualizing what I want to create and along the way have invented and perfected many of my own methods while developing into a pretty decent tier without any real mentoring, and that ends up feeling very satisfying. 
      The years progressed as I became more and more interested in the Spokane River. My flies and methods for fishing them were continually evolving. I was, for a lot of years not aware of that many people who fished the Spokane as much or as often as I did. Actually, it never even occurred to me to find out. I was tying flies and fishing, completely, blissfully immersed in my own little world at the vise and on the water. Of course, some days were better than others, that will always be a reality. But, somewhere along the line it began  to dawn on me, probably after a few successive days of utter frustration, that maybe the bad days were, in the long run, probably more important than I'd ever thought. So instead of basically going through the motions for a few hours or until the frustration got too unmanageable whereupon I'd throw in the towel, I decided to stay engaged, and I began see that bad days, especially a string of them, while being a great leveling device, were also plateaus from which I could more impartially examine and evaluate my schemes, whether it might mean fly, fishing method, time of day, and so on.  Fly fishermen are sometimes quick to let the ego get over-inflated with a little success and just as quick to doubt their whole program during the slack times. I was/am no different in that regard. The thing that separated me from most others was the fact that I had only myself to fall back on when I'd ring up zeroes, and no one to boast to when I kicked ass. Fishing alone makes it easier to get shut out and not have it be such a big deal, although it can be just as frustrating when it's been a fish-filled day. I wasn't very far into my years of fishing when I discovered this. Who's going to believe you? Luckily I didn't have anyone to tell, either way, so it was easier to develop a 'convenient amnesia' through the shut outs, a quiet pride through the successes and continue on, always aware of the constant probability in balance between the good days and the bad. 

        My testing ground for my flies, being the same water that I've fished for all these years now, continues to thrill, frustrate, and confuse me. But, like a faithful companion, it scolds as often as it cradles me, admonishing me in subtle ways to always keep my head clear. It is my staunchest supporter or severest critic, most always willing to forgive as long as I respect what it preaches; keep sight of what is essential and jettison that which is merely superfluous. When I forget, disavow or allow too much of my ego to show, the river sternly takes me to task. 

      In an early post I described the first flies I tied.  Pheasant tail nymphs and wooly buggers were the most commonplace, gradually giving way to attempts at dry flies. At this point I was beginning to frequent sporting goods stores and then actual specialty shops where I could examine the flies that were for sale. I began to buy a few flies, mostly very simple patterns, so I could take them home and attempt to tie them. This practice proved to be worthwhile. With one of these copies, a yellow-bodied #16 soft hackle I tasted my first success on the Spokane. It was a watershed experience. I was seriously, totally hooked for life at the instant of that take. Standing knee deep in a swirling back eddy wearing my father's leaky neoprene waders under a pair of plain hiking boots, I knew then that this was just the beginning of a lifelong adventure.

        I tie flies for and fish the Spokane River. Now almost exclusively. All of my energies relating to the tying bench reflect this obsession with the fish there. Not to say that the flies I create wouldn't work elsewhere. The simple truth of it is that they do. I've had tremendous success with my classic soft hackle as well as with various dries, especially those relating to the caddis family, at venues like the Henry's Fork, the Beaverhead and the Missouri, in B.C. on the Elk and also up on the higher reaches of the North Fork of the Couer d'Alene and the St. Joe, to mention just a few. I have the utmost confidence in being able to 'match the hatch', no matter what mayfly or terrestrial may be predominant at the time. And I'm not afraid to get down and dirty with streamer patterns like my newest wool-headed sculpin. 
         But the fly that keeps me enchanted year after year after year is the soft hackle. That fly, and the methods by which it can be fished have, year in and year out, provided me with more hours of joy and satisfaction than all the others put together. Of course, in saying that I could mention the opposite side of that coin which brings into focus all the hours of frustrating consternation when they let me down. But that wouldn't be correct, because they rarely do. It is I that lets me down. I'll attempt to explain.

      In the past oh, let's say ten years, I've developed a variety, a significant number, of soft hackles just for the Spokane. I say 'just', because it's in reality been quite awhile since I've fished anywhere else, other than my winter fishing on a slow-moving spring creek west of town which bears little or no resemblance to the Spokane for which I've also developed several productive patterns which include, of all things, a soft hackle. But save for a blue-winged olive pattern that I'll use elsewhere, those flies are pretty location specific, the nature of spring creeks being what it is.

      I've got three distinctly different types of soft hackle in my box, and six if you count the swimming caddis patterns. The three 'real' softee patterns are all similarly colored and constructed, the difference being in the amount of weight I'll use. Most of the time I'll use a few wraps of lead (substitute) on the shank, and to be more specific, I'll use more or fewer wraps depending on the water speed and how deep I want the fly to be when it starts its arcing swing back across. I've come to understand the importance of working different depths. 
     This year I got pretty taken with the challenges presented in swinging flies through faster water. Takes in the fiercest flows are nothing short of electrifying, and I found that by using a tungsten bead along with a few wraps of lead I increase the odds that my soft hackle is going to arouse some interest as it swings through. It's always amazing to me when I hook up in fiercely flowing chutes. I wonder how a fish could not only be in there but also have the wherewithal to attack possible prey. But, in saying that I admit to looking at those fast chutes through very human eyes. I can't possibly see the bottom with its holding lies and compressions that undoubtedly provide good cover while being an excellent platform from which to obtain food. But what I have begun to understand are the surface characteristics I should look for which will give me the best chance for success. There are fish, more often than not of decent size, in those places so it's a matter of understanding where, and how best to get the fly through it. The beauty of fishing this way lies in the fact that the fish will usually attack without reservation. They know they've only got one shot before it's past them, thus the solid, often crushing takes. And, more often than not you'll see the take. Even with a tungsten bead and wraps of lead, that fly is coming across, depending on the speed of the flow, at or very near the surface. It's quite a visual to experience. Adrenalin management is paramount, otherwise you'll be tying on another fly. 

      The two flies pictured above are my current favorites for my two fly setup. The top fly is the caddis. It's a derivation of a standard Troth-style dry, and came to be because of the success of tugging on the line and pulling the dry one under at the end of a drift. All I did was omit the hackle on the body, add a copper rib, and  either some partridge or dyed brown hen neck, sparingly, after I tied in the wing. I've got similarly flies with several different colored wings depending on what I see actually on the water at the time, but the olive-winged version seems to be the most consistent. 
      The soft hackle (trailer) is small, lightly weighted, and is often eaten when fished by itself right before BWOs are seen on the surface. It's basically just another caddis imitation, but I also think it imitates an emerging olive nymph being swept in the current. It's hard to be sure, especially because I see such a good number of caddis on the water pretty constantly during the cooler mornings and also in the late afternoon to past sunset.

       As always, even though these particular flies have found a home in my box, they're still a work in progress. Everything I fish the Spokane with is in a constant state of change. It would be terrible to wake up one morning and not wonder what I might do differently, or better. For me, that's the name of the game.