fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)

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another sign of addiction dedication to the fly fishing “hobby”

I took up fly fishing just long enough ago that I still can honestly say I didn’t know what I was getting into. I remember being quite content to cast flies without knowing their names or living counterpart, hooking and landing trout with an inexpensive L.L. Bean rod and a reel without a drag system. A year later, with some classroom training, on-the-water experience and a guided trip under my belt, it was clear that my single fly box, single rod and old sneakers for wet wading would only get me so far.

Fly Rod Anatomy

Fly Rod Anatomy 101

It would get more complicated that I ever imagined. I began to covet the nice casting action of the big brand name rods I was given to use by the guide. Every fishing trip revealed that I didn’t have that one or two or dozen other flies — in two or three sizes, of course — that would have elevated the fishing from good to great, or great to fantastic. My growing expectation that fly fishing raised the odds that I’d hook a larger fish dictated buying a net of perhaps overly optimistic dimensions. My selection of leaders and tippets naturally grew. A second fly box was needed to separate dry flies and nymphs; then a third to accommodate anything else. There was no question that I’d need a vest. Waders meant boots. I did cut some costs building my own $9.58 wading staff out of a dowel, a bike grip, bungee cord and a cane foot.

It took two or three years and more money that my wife knows but soon I had what I thought it took to be considered a well-equipped and modern fly fisherman. I became the owner of more than one rod in the same weight class. Brand names are big in fly fishing, much like other sports, and some folks will stick to a particular brand come hell or high water. Some loyalties extend to models, and it’s not uncommon to hear the lament of that one incredibly sweet — insert rod brand and model name here — that I will never be lucky enough to cast, much less own. I remember beginning to think that one of the reasons that fly fishermen tend to catch and release is that the price per pound of any fish kept would be a bit exorbitant.

I eventually decided to treat myself to a rod upgrade, with the goal of finding one that felt good to me, regardless of price or anyone’s recommendation. I spent more time test casting rods than one might test drive new cars. Thankfully, it was on sale. I picked up a decent reel to go with it.

It was shortly after I christened that new rod and reel that I gradually began to distinguish between what I ‘needed’ and what I wanted. Though well-known brands, neither the new rod nor the new reel were top of the line but they fit me, my abilities and my not-so-conventional casting technique. The reel did its job, holding line, and when required, the drag did a good job taming the occasional hot fish.

I don’t yet have a fly tying room and the corresponding closet in which to store an abundance of gear. The extent of my fly gear storage is a small section on the far side of the garage, with just enough shelf space for five or six rod cases and two wading staffs, waders and boots, and a place to hang my vest and rain jacket. I could probably squeeze in a few more rod cases but as a trout fisherman who hasn’t yet been corrupted by taken up the pursuit of steelhead, stripers or saltwater fish, maybe that’s all the space I need. Yet everything in that space does more than serve a purpose in my fly fishing; every rod, reel and piece of gear means something to me and can give rise to many good memories.

It’s that meaning that’s led to my first attempt to build a rod. That same meaning that comes with fooling fish with flies I’ve tied with my own hands. It’s always amazing and I never tire of it.

Last Saturday I joined our club’s rod building teacher, Wayne, and a dozen or so other students in the workshop of another club member. Lingering clouds in the sky and puddles of rainwater reminded me that trout season was over and that the next few months offered time for off-the-water fly fishing pursuits. A few long tables placed end to end led up to a podium. Catalogs from Anglers Workshop were strewn about, each containing a mind-boggling array of choices. Think of it this way, the most basic components to build a fly rod include a rod blank, a reel seat, a grip, guides and a top. Each of these could be selected from pages and pages of choices. That didn’t include options offered by club members who would fashion custom grips and reel seat inserts.

My choice of the weight (wt.) of my fly rod was arrived at during fishing with my son for the last time this season. We frequent a number of Western Sierra Nevada streams and creeks that, in addition to offering trout, include dense stands of overhanging trees, with braches low enough to snag the tip of my 9-foot 5 wt., often a big hindrance to netting fish. A shorter rod would do nicely in such situations. I decided to aim for something of 8 feet or less. Not yet being a rod fiend collector, I thought it would be nice to fill out my range of rods, so a 4 wt. would fit in and allow me to handle most of the trout I’d meet on these waters. Most importantly, it would be a rod that would get used.

The approximate color of the Pacific Bay Rainforest II rod blank and traditional chrome snake guides and stripping guide.

The approximate color of the Pacific Bay Rainforest II rod blank and traditional chrome snake guides and stripping guide.

With a decision as to the length and weight, other components needed to be selected. Not an easy decision for me. Some will argue that I’m occasionally hyper-focused on details, but I can step back to look at the big picture. In the case of this rod, it required taking into account the overall look. Yes, there was some consideration of a high-speed, low-drag look…titanium or black guides, matching grip and reel seat for that “stealth” look…but that passed rather quickly in favor of a traditional design.

Strube U-24 Nickel Silver Up-Locking Reel Seat w/Vermillion Insert

Come January I’ll begin work on my rod using a Pacific Bay Rainforest II Series 7’6” 4-piece 4 wt. blank (dark green), a Struble U24 Nickel Silver Reel Seat (up-locking, of course) with a Vermillion insert and chrome guides and top.

Non-Artist's Rendering of Possible Grip Configuration

Before that work begins, and to make this a truly unique custom rod, I’ll have to shape the grip, which will be comprised of 12 ½-inch cork rings in natural and “burl green” and two dark rubberized end rings to create a striped seven-inch grip, either in a full wells or reverse half wells design.

If all goes well, you’ll read about this rod’s construction and eventual deployment here.


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a Christmas gift that gives twice

Just when it seems I’ve got my fly fishing wants and desires whittled down to a select rod or five and the requisite reels, Kirk Werner, Mr. Unaccomplished Angler hisself, dangles a carrot by stepping up to auction on behalf of Casting 4 a Cure a pretty nifty package of fly fishing paraphernalia stuff.  Casting 4 A Cure brings together folks who love kids and fly fishing to raise funds for the International Rett Syndrome Foundation.

Included in the auction: Scandalous SticksCustom Fiberglass “Pygmy” Fly Rod (a 5-foot 6-inch 4 wt.), a Clear Creek aluminum rod tube and sock, a Redington Drift 3/4 Fly Reel (I have a few of their reels and like ‘em), a Fishpond Laurel Run Fly Box, the so-far complete series of Olive the Woolly Bugger books (signed by Kirk) and an Olive baseball cap, and the Tomorrow’s Fly Fishers DVD by Fanny Krieger. (Kirk offers a more detailed description of Rett Syndrome and the auction here.)

The eBay auction will run for another nine days and can be found here. Take a look and think about it. Rarely does a chance come along to feel good twice about buying me a Christmas present.


another perspective (…or just ask the person landing more fish than you)

…picking up where we left off last week

A new fly fisherman met the Zen Master after wading hundreds of yards. He was understandably pleased to learn at the great master’s feet.
      “Look at the fish swimming about,” said the Master, “They are really enjoying themselves.”
      “You are not a fish,” replied the fly fishing student. “You can’t truly know that they are enjoying themselves.”
      “You are not me,” replied the Master. “So how do you know that I do not know that the fish are enjoying themselves?”

The two men who taught me fly fishing basics were not Zen masters; but that first day they might just as well have been speaking in riddles. The mechanics of fly fishing aren’t incredibly complicated. If someone as ungraceful as myself can learn to decently cast fly, there’s hope for anyone interested in the sport. It’s the jargon, tactics and the eventual accumulation of the appropriate knowledge that require time, perhaps a lifetime to master, and much of that may only be learned through the act of fly fishing.

I learned the basics nearly five years ago through a class taught at the club of which I am now a member, only later realizing the value of those eight hours, which touched upon casting, gear, lines, leaders, tippets, entomology, flies, wading, venues and just about everything related to the sport. A club outing, specifically for the students, provided an opportunity to put classroom work into practice on the lower Stanislaus River. The “Stan” is one of the largest tributaries feeding into the San Joaquin River in California’s Central Valley, and offers a good, nearly year-round tailwater fishery, with topography common to moving water in the western Sierra foothills. It was on a smaller version of this type of water that I found myself trying in mid November to form an answer for the gentlemen who asked if I could tell him why Sean and I were catching fish while he and his buddy had yet to baptize their new nets.

It was in that moment that I learned something — call it “streamside enlightenment” — that could only be taught through the observation of another. I hope the bemusement I felt didn’t show on my face as it dawned on me that while I still identified myself as student of fly fishing, I’d been called upon to teach. I’ve done what I could to educate my older son in fly fishing, but that’s what a father does. The difference now was that someone, outside of family, thought that I might have wisdom to offer and that the countless trout I caught, some from spots already hit hard by other anglers, weren’t simply happy accidents.

I’ll admit that I had wondered about this gentlemen and his buddy. From my upstream position they came into view at the end of most of my drifts, and nearly every time they appeared motionless, pointing their rods at pools I knew contained fish.

My mind mulled over possible answers to the question that hung between us and, deciding that I had landed more than a fair share of fish, I secured my rod and waded toward shore and the gentleman. First, I needed to know that these two fishermen weren’t using fly rods inappropriately; after all, I have seen worm dunkers use long fly rods to extend their reach.

“Well, could you tell me what you’re using?” I asked. He held up a grasshopper imitation that would seem more at home as a model on a miniature science fiction movie set. To this was tied a Copper John wound with wire of an indescribably bright lime-green that in nature would only signal the poisonous nature of prey. Both files were at least three times too big, but these were the flies they were told to buy by the guys at a nearby big-box sporting goods store.

Silently, I selected from my fly box two size 18, beadhead Zebra Midges, flies that I tie with an extra tail of flash. The gentleman’s eyes had grown wide when I opened my fly box, then wider when I deposited the tiny flies into his waiting hand. He called to his buddy, “You should see all the flies in his box.” Then, staring at his hand, asked, “This is what you’re catching them on?”

The student frowned. At long last, the Zen Master asked, “Perhaps it would be better to begin with a simple question.”
      ZenFish“Please do.” implored the student.
      The Zen Master began again, “This is a much simpler puzzle. What is the sound of a trout laughing?”
      The student was perplexed to even think that a fish, even one enjoying itself, would laugh. Each of his answers was quickly dismissed. Finally, exasperated, the student exclaimed, “Master, I cannot solve even your simplest riddle. I am a complete idiot!”
      Then the student froze. Appreciation flashed across his face. He sat down, and said, “I am ready for my second lesson.”

I don’t remember my exact words, but my explanation touched upon the idea of trying to fool the trout, and to do so one should present what they think is food, not what we fisherman think might attract their attention. (It certainly wasn’t the time to discuss attractor flies versus imitative or realistic flies.) After much nodding of heads to acknowledge some understanding, the flies were tucked away and I asked the gentleman to join me downstream with his buddy, who all this time had stood still, rod perpendicular to the stream and just as stationary.

There’s an instinctive quality that seems to overcome fly fishermen after a few years of successful outings. One stops thinking, ‘cast, mend, watch the drift, mend again, slightly lift the rod tip at the end of the drift’ while watching for anything — any movement, however small — that triggers an almost instinctual jerk of the rod to set the hook. Sometimes referred to as muscle memory, it’s something most people don’t, or at least I didn’t, learn until everything is done properly and ends with a fish on and, hopefully, in the net.

I outlined how these two should cast and present flies, describing how a fly not moving with the current is a rather unnatural presentation, as evidenced by the lack of interest on the part of a number of trout in their vicinity. Since the huge gaudy grasshopper was, in essence, the indicator in their set up, I talked the one gentleman through the process of lobbing his flies upstream. It’s not the prettiest way to move flies, I explained, but it avoids leaving them in the overhanging tree branches common on this stream.

My on-stream lesson, abbreviated as it was, included a quick outline of setting the depth of nymphs, a reminder to watch the indicator fly for movement, and a quick account of what makes a decent hookset. It’s not that I didn’t expect either gentleman to hook a fish, but if figured they could easily enough learn how to land one after everything else came together.

I never did see either of these “students” attempt a hookset, much less land a fish. Hopefully, they will someday soon, and learn that the greatest lessons for a fly fisher are often taught without words, by the fish.


a matter of perspective (…or there always seem to be more fish in another spot)

The reality of fishing is that more often it’s about people, the adventure that comes with it and what we’re taught than about the fishing. Sure, without the fishing you probably wouldn’t have made the trip at all, and the timing and location naturally center on when you think the fishing will be best, but regardless of the amount of planning every fishing trip is shadowed by uncertainty.

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Funky Fall Photo

Last weekend fall was in full force and winter’s influence was yet to be felt, but in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and foothills the name of the season regularly has little to do with the weather. Weather is never limited by the season there, or anywhere else, as I’m sure all five of my readers can attest.

Anyway, it was just after the first snow showers of the season that my son and I were enjoying an ‘end of trout season’ fishing trip on moving waters in the foothills in and around Twain Harte. It was the uncertainty that comes with fall weather that kept us to the west slope of the Sierras. This same weather was enough to keep a good many of the less hardy fishermen away, but that didn’t mean we’d be alone. These rivers and streams are within an easy two-hour drive of a few Central Valley cities and less than four hours away from the San Francisco area.

Regardless of a great summer, spring and early fall of fishing, there’s always a sense of urgency to land that one last fish of the season. As a father who readily allows his inner child to emerge there’s always a friendly competition between me and Sean. There’s little doubt that he can beat his old man at arm wrestling but, at least so far, he hasn’t when it comes to catching trout.

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One of the last trout of the season.

Fall on a few of the small rivers feeding into one of the reservoirs offers the thrill of hunting wild browns on the spawn. The last few years I’ve been lucky enough to land one of these browns, including a well-developed 14-inch male with a nice kype. That day, of course, the camera was not-so-handily still at the cabin.

Friday found Sean and me warming up at the small canal where nymphing generally means hooking more wild browns than stocked rainbows. The afternoon was cool and comfortable and overgrown sections of the canal could pass for a small stream elsewhere in the foothills on either side of the Sierras. During the summer, families equipped with spinning rods and bait casting rigs in every bright color imaginable usually line the banks, but this day our company was mostly limited to dogs and their owners out for a walk. We rigged up our rods, picked up a few fish as we walked upstream and called it a day when the growling of our stomachs was louder than the babbling water.

In the usual fashion, it was easier to wake up early knowing that we’d be hunting for browns, so we were out the door before the vaguest light of sunrise. The darkness gave way to the grayness that lends everything a ghostly appearance. We pulled on waders by flashlight and soon ambled down to the creek. The downside and upside to this creek is the abundance of easily fooled hatchery rainbows which we’d have to sort through as we sought Salmo trutta coming up from the lake.

The fish would be hunkered down and absolutely not looking up until midday, dictating an AP Nymph and a red chironomid pupae for me, two of my ‘confidence flies.’ Sean was similarly equipped as he headed downstream. I waded upstream to a deeper run. The rainbows didn’t disappoint, though most seemed to short strike the flies.

Eventually Sean moved downstream, confident in the stability, flexibility and healing ability that come with youth. Many of the downstream pools, pockets and runs are ignored by others, dismissed as to overrun by blackberry bushes and overhanging trees or deemed too small to harbor many, if any, fish. That meant more for us. Sean found the fish, hooking a few, though landing them seemed to be another matter.

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Sean and a nice rainbow.

I eventually joined Sean and we spent the late morning and noontime hoping to get into a brown between catching rainbow trout. A few of the fish that we didn’t land acted and looked suspiciously like brown trout; these un-netted fish appeared better proportioned, more of a torpedo than a football, like fish that, living in the wild, had to work for their food, unlike the stocked rainbow that tended to put on more gut.

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Me and a nice rainbow out of the run in the background.

The next few hours we returned upstream to pools and deep runs where the cookie cutter rainbows stacked up but offered a challenge through the fact that shortly after midday they developed a severe case of lockjaw. We met this challenge by changing over to small green midges and scuds. We did well enough, though Sean was remained a bit displeased that I was out-catching him. Despite my son’s complaint that I landed more fish than he, a gentlemen fishing just downstream offered perspective.

This older gentleman and a younger guy, wearing waders that were too clean and waving barely used rods patiently waited for hookups that never came. Chipping away at that patience, every ten to fifteen minutes, were the fish hooked and landed by Sean and I. Apparently it became too much. The older of these two gentlemen quietly waded to within a rod’s length of me. Tentatively and allowing that it was okay to refuse to answer, he asked, “Could you tell me why you guys are catching all these fish and we got nothing?” With a baffled look that turned into a grin, I think Sean learned that even without keeping pace with dad, he does quite well.

As for how I answered the gentleman from downstream, that’s something for next week.

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