fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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a bit about the therapy of fly fishing (and why I’m told I need it)

Fly fishing changes one’s brain. According to research, 20 or more specific brain centers of the unconscious brain may be called into action at a single time during an average person’s day.

Separate centers deal with the basics – metabolism (heart, lungs, circulatory system), sensory input (touch, temperature, pressure, pain) – as well as perception, memory, learning, thought and language. The brainstem gets into the act by correlating past memories and events with the present situation to suggest a possible plan of action. Each center analyzes incoming information to make changes to address external influences.

It’s all designed to reach a desired outcome. If that desired outcome is achieved, something called the “hypothalamic satiety center” will receive signals of satisfaction. Unfortunately, in today’s busy world, that satisfaction can be very short in duration.

Lucy-FishingThis same research suggests that when fly fishing, less than 10 brain centers may be active. When one first takes up fly fishing, high expectations could bring a few more brain centers into action. However, over time, the combination of that anticipation as well as affirming memories of previous fly fishing successes, in theory, increases the duration of signals sent to the satiety center in the hypothalamus.

This could be why a few weeks ago my wife told me that I need (her emphasis) to go fishing. Maybe my brain centers have been too active.

There’s plenty of commentary about fly fishing as therapy. This gentle sport is integral to the well-known Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing and Casting for Recovery programs. It’s used in other, lesser-known therapy programs for drug addiction and depression.

Surely it’s a good form of self-therapy.

Water is a key part of this therapy. The sound of moving water is soothing. The sound as it tumbles over rocks, through vegetation or over a fall. Moving water lends freshness to the air, making it cool and moist. Animals lured to the water add to the chorus. Birdsong echoes off the water, the beat of insect wings hums in the background, frogs croak. If one’s lucky, a breeze will rustle the leaves and grasses.

This restful backdrop becomes part of the alertness, concentration and stealth required of fly fishing; a meditative state that directly increases the likelihood of hooking a fish. On the stream, waiting is necessary.

Fly fishing was mindfulness before it had a name.

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fishing is a system (and it has a connection to Dilbert)

At the recommendation of my brother, I picked up a copy of Scott Adams’ “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big” about a week ago. Yes, it’s an actual book with words printed on pages. Adams is the creator of the Dilbert cartoon.

Adams BookI’d usually dismiss this type of book. Too often advice or self-improvement books reflect on an author’s early years, that period of time when one can afford to fail, eat broke food and sleep on a friend’s sofa.

One of the precepts presented early in Adams’ book is the idea of adopting “systems” as opposed to focusing on goals. The argument is that “…goals are a reach-it-and-be-done situation, whereas a system is something you do on a regular basis… Systems have no deadlines, and on any given day you probably can’t tell if they’re moving you in the right direction.”

It’d be absurd to suggest I have a fly fishing ‘style.’ I do have a system. All fishermen do, whether dunking worms, chucking hardware or casting flies.

Whatever the form of fly fishing, it’s a system that counts on a systematic approach. Tenkara requires a specific simple fly fishing system – consisting of a rod, level line (nylon, monofilament or fluorocarbon) and a fly – while a classical fly fishing system adds a reel and a tapered fly line made of PVC, vinyl, polyurethane or other similar materials.

When it comes to getting on or in the water, every fly fisher has an approach, a system. Oh, we like to claim we can adapt to changing conditions – and we can – but that adaptation is part of a system, whether entrenched in the scientific study of entomology or simply successes or failures of past fishing excursions.

Reading “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big” got me to thinking about the evolution of my system.

In the early years of my fly fishing career, I focused on out-fishing everyone around me. My brother tends to try to quantify various aspects of life, and he observed after I took him on his first real fly fishing experience that even he, with limited skills and even less technique, was hooking about three fish to every one brought in by the bait and hardware anglers within view. Full disclosure: I took a little evil pleasure in catching and releasing enough fish to make the meat fishers almost livid, particularly when I slipped fat fish back into the water. I sort of still do.

Numbers offer an easy measurement of how much one wins. However – and there’s no pinpointing when it happened – somewhere along the line my idea of “winning” shifted to a competition between myself and the fish. A new system, if you will; one that wasn’t aimed at landing a fish. This one focused on an internal challenge: becoming a better fly fisher. Milestones – not a goals – marked by fooling a fish. Often a specific fish…that one that no one else could tempt.

Without a deadline, without a focus on an end goal, the greater reward is the experience and the milestones along the way. Here’s hoping that this season there will be more experiences and milestones.

What’s your system?


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National Parks Week and appreciating a high-country home

Centennial-Logo-W-Find-Your-Park-LogoOur days were measured by trout caught, bears seen and miles hiked; nights by stars and the embers of a campfire. During those summers we’d rarely see a familiar face, but the place seemed unchanging. We grew a lot during those short visits, climbing granite domes, hiking trails commonly rising 1,000 feet in less than five miles, floating in a river that only a few miles earlier was born of snowmelt.

I was reminded that Tuolumne Meadows was our vacation “home” last week when I posted a photo of my brother and me with a trophy high-country trout, back when our fishing was more about self-sufficiency and every fish ended up in a pan surrounded by bacon. Mornings my brother, sister and I would hike to Soda Springs to capture the naturally carbonated water – and bits of minerals I’m sure – our mother would gently blend with pancake mix to make some of the puffiest pancakes in the world.

Our visits to Tuolumne Meadows were more adventure than vacation. Stories of our exploits of those summers come up frequently: The poor decision to slide down the granite face of Lembert Dome as the sun set. The bear that followed us back to camp after a long day hike. My sister’s discovery that fish were living beings while ironically still fishing but refusing to eat our catch. On tougher hikes, mom’s constant encouragement to discover what might be around the next bend.

TM-Mark and meIt wouldn’t be out of place to say that Tuolumne Meadows, a less visited part of Yosemite National Park, helped form the person I am today. I’ve since returned to Tuolumne Meadows, one time fishing there with my sons, another time hiking up Lembert Dome with my brother and one son. Nature seems to ignore us humans; the changes over the last three decades are entirely ours.

I’ve been lucky enough to have visited Death Valley, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, Lassen, Redwood and Mt. St. Helen national parks. Many national monuments, recreation areas and historic sites as well: Alcatraz Island, John Muir National Historic Site, Point Reyes National Seashore, Muir Woods National Monument, Cabrillo National Monument, Fort Point National Historic Site and Golden Gate Recreation Area.

The national park system is America’s Best Idea. Next week is National Park Week. Every national park will offer free admission from April 16th through the 24th. If you can, get to one and #FindYourPark.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity”
― John Muir, Our National Parks


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steelhead weather, mountain trout, and a strong chance of no more opening days

It soon became clear that I had fooled myself.

My fly rod rested, unmoving; my head shook in disgust as discouragement took root.

Being a high-country angler at heart, solace is found in solitude. While this opening day morning was marked by lonely weather, with steel gray clouds and drizzling misery on all below, it was snowing above 5,000 feet. That prevented everyone who had hoped to cross Sonora Pass to fish the eastern Sierras – myself included – stuck to fishing limited waters on the west slope.

My early arrival allowed seclusion for only so long. And if trout had eyelids, I would have argued all but a few had shut their eyes to my flies. But it was nice. All sound was dampened by wet pine needles. Low-hanging clouds induced a preternatural calmness. Drops of rain filtered through the overhanging branches of dogwoods and cedars to finally gather together in larger drops before falling and pockmarking the stream with miniature geysers.

The crunch of tires on gravel sliced through the trees, tearing me from my musing. A first, second, then third vehicle pulled up. Camouflage-clad fishermen, with rods almost as long as the stream is wide, hauled out tackle boxes that could double as streamside seating, and each tipped their hat to me and lined up a few feet away. Hooks were buried into bright red salmon eggs and lines were cast.

I remained stationary. It’s not uncommon to see bait or hardware fisherman travel in packs, but this had caught me off guard. In this spot, however, I am usually alone with a rare visit by one other fisherman.

The small pools I knew were upstream were, despite the drought, rendered temporary inaccessible. Getting to those pools required clambering over a rocky outcropping, and the rainfall during the night – downpours woke me more than once – raised the stream just high enough to make it too dangerous for one who’s not so young anymore. Downstream was a canyon that wasn’t much safer for the same reason.

Snow dictated I head downslope, where there were few options.

Though opening day may nowadays be more routine than tradition, I was on a mission to shake off the rust of winter, to prove that I could still cast and was still fast enough to set a hook (and correspondingly adjust my hook set, whether it was my dry fly or nymph that fooled the fish). And so it was that I was committed to spending the day attempting to reassure myself that given the opportunity during the coming summer and fall, I wouldn’t look like an idiot swinging a stick on a river, creek, stream or lake.

There are a number of waters along Hwys 108 and 120. It would have been preferable to head away from the opening day crowds, likely as far as Goodwin Dam, where its 4-mile stretch of tailwater forms the Lower Stanislaus River. But that would require a steelhead report card that I didn’t think I’d need this year. I wasn’t driving something that could go off road, eliminating a large percentage of other waters. Other possibilities were still closed off by season gates.

There are never-ending debates about the differences between hatchery and wild trout, but wanting fish to fool meant wading into a put-and-take fishery.

By the time I arrived, sunlight was peeking through parting clouds. This is one of those west slope year-round creeks around which is created an oasis of vegetation despite the surrounding dry hills, on which this year the grass is already gold. It’s frequented by meat fishermen who I always hope paid their license fees just as I did.

Opening Day Trout, 2015

Opening Day Trout, 2015

Until the heat of summer, most folks fish the south side of this creek. Waders allow me to access the north side, dropping my flies into seams on the edges of pools and riffles. Fish were there and, hatchery-born or not, seemed to have an appetite for something that looked a bit natural. My catch rate vs. everyone – while not always the case, but often repeated – was about three to one. I have to admit a look of bemusement might cross my face now and again when other anglers scramble to try to duplicate my style or squint at my size 16 and 16 flies, which they likely can’t see from where they are.

More important to me than the numbers was the ratio of fish hooked and those landed. Better than most opening days, I hooked fish on about eighty percent of the takes I saw and of those landed most. A fellow across the way lamented that he didn’t bring his fly rod, but spin casting was the best way to keep his son engaged. That brought back memories in me and a gratefulness that I tried over the years to acquaint my kids with a sport that can bring a lifetime of good times.

This was the first opening day for me in quite a few years. Previous years I spent opening day weekend helping to teach aspiring fly fishers.

My thoughts now have shifted to thinking it would have been better to teach this year’s opening day weekend and instead of waiting for a single day each year, get off my duff and avail myself of the growing number of year-round moving trout waters in the Sierras, both on the west and east slopes.

Lesson learned.


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exploring before it’s all over

As if it hasn’t been a figuratively dry trout season for me, a long trip last weekend over three passes, along rivers and over two reservoirs showed that things are literally drying up…

This was my last and only second trip to the Sierras during the general trout season. It was happenstance that kept me off the water and only sheer determination — and a desperate desire for a break from every-day life — that crammed a 400-plus mile drive and not enough fishing into a single day.

Firsthand reports dashed any hope of great fishing. Small streams were trickles, meaning wild fish were off limits. State-stocked waters that normally received a few buckets of fish before the end of the season didn’t.

Another view of the sunrise from Sonora Pass.

Another view of the sunrise from Sonora Pass.

Optimism being the most overused tool in a fly fisherman’s arsenal, I still hit the road over Sonora Pass before sunup. If there were few fish to be had, at least a sunrise at 9,000 feet doesn’t disappoint. This late in the year, a sunrise seems to last longer.

Looking a bit southwest from Sonora Pass.

Looking a bit southwest from Sonora Pass.

There was unexpected company on the West Walker River, a couple planning to soak bait. They went their way, I went mine. I’d have pocket water all to myself, whitefish on the mind, and the sound of reveille arising (a bit too late in the morning this time?) from the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center.

My "office" for the morning. (West Walker River)

My “office” for the morning. (West Walker River)

Just like that “confidence fly” most fly fishermen keep tucked away, there are pieces of water one comes to expect to hold fish. My expectation held true this morning. It didn’t take long before a fish was fooled with my favorite red-butt zebra midge pattern. While not large, white tips on smooth fins suggested it was a more educated trout. Even if was a hatchery fish, it had spent enough time in the wild to learn a few things while it’s pectoral and caudal fins healed. There would be no whitefish this year and nothing big, but all of the trout I found were feisty.

This isn’t the time of year that these trout rise to dry flies, but the water level requires stealth, a dry-dropper setup, light casts to small seams and short drifts. It’s hard to disagree that this type of rig might be a reflection of my middle-of-the-road nature, mixing the oft-look’d-down-upon tactic of nymphing with the loftier technique of dry fly fishing. Deep down I hoped for a rise to the dry fly, but ice crunching underfoot suggested it was not to be.

My plans called for crossing Monitor Pass on the way to the East Carson River, then over Ebbetts Pass, and finally completing a twisting and oblong course over the man-made New Melones Lake. Unfamiliar with the route and wary of unpredictable delays, I was on the road again before noon.

Many times I’ve enjoyed driving — whether a car or motorcycle — over Tioga and Sonora passes many times, during the spring, summer and fall. Any threat of snow brings about closures, but during this trip Tioga and Sonora pass, as well as Ebbetts and Monitor pass had reopened after brief snow closures earlier in the week.

Looking west from near Monitor Pass.

Looking west from near Monitor Pass.

The landscape and vegetation of each pass is unique, with stark changes as one gains elevation. Over Monitor Pass, Highway 89 twists between and over numerous peaks, alternating between barren high desert to east and the fir and pine forests on the western slopes. Once over the summit, the road quickly descends to meet Highway 4, then crosses the East Carson River.

This was first visit to the East Carson River. The wild trout section was low and slow, and out of the shadows of the high canyon walls. Sunlight reflected off nearly every eddy, riffle and pool, and, as might be expected, the fishing was great but the catching not. It was suggested after the fact that I should have fished upstream, where a summer of stocking might mean a few stupid willing fish would remain. I chalked this visit up to exploration. Since it wasn’t too far away, I drove to Markleeville. I had to drive through town a second time; I blinked and missed it the first time through.

Colors along Highway 89, just south of the East Carson River.

Colors along Highway 89, just south of the East Carson River.

The route over Ebbetts Pass is more adventurous than the comparatively high-speed Highway 108 over Sonora Pass and Highway 120, which winds through Yosemite and over Tioga Pass.

Driving over Ebbetts Pass is not for the faint of heart. Sandwiched between a full-width, two-lane state highway is a section reminiscent of the descriptions our parents and grandparents might offer of roads built only wide enough that two Model Ts could squeeze by each other. This middle section, from Lake Alpine to Silver Creek, is a barely two-lane road. There is no center line or fog lines. Shoulders are a rarity. Steep curvy portions, precipitous drop-offs and vistas of pristine landscapes are plentiful. If the narrowness of this road isn’t enough to reduce one’s speed, the beauty was. Lack of planning meant I couldn’t linger. Plans are already afoot to return with a greater abundance of time.

Ebbetts Pass tarn.

Ebbetts Pass tarn.

The rest of my drive was in relatively civilized areas. I’d pick up apple cider outside of Arnold, then wine and special spices in Murphys. I crossed New Melones Lake, which looked more a river at flood stage (it was formed by the damming of the Stanislaus River). Back in Twain Harte early, I cleaned up and planned to attend to a few items on the to-do list, figuring I’d walk to the local Ace store for a halogen bulb and any other necessary item. During the walk I began an exploration of a different variety. More on that next time my fingers are willing to dance on the keyboard…

Leavitt Falls, late in the fall.

Leavitt Falls, late in the fall.

All of the photos, and some more:


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no fishing, but a good catch

Summer’s gone and dribbles of rain have wet the ground a few times. It’s been an almost fish-less year for me. That may change with an end-of-the-season trip after the first of November, but in the meantime I’ll remain a bit cranky.

That’s not to say I haven’t been busy with tangential fishing endeavors. By the end of this month the move of two fly fishing club websites to new online platforms should be finished, and my involvement will taper off from full-time developer/designer to part-time consultant. I’ve also busied myself with experiments in online learning, recreational shooting and a personal goal of walking 5 miles daily. It’s become difficult to remember how fishing could fit into my schedule.

Last weekend it was creepy neighborly curiosity that had Karen and me traipsing through a home across the street and a houses up. The residents weren’t people with whom we had wanted to acquaint ourselves. The house was now vacant and an estate sale planned for Saturday.

In the world of estate and garage sales, every minute counts; but we had things to do and arrived about an hour late. There weren’t too many items of interest, though a nice rolling tool cabinet and couple decent pieces of furniture were tagged as sold.

I’m not a picker by any stretch of the imagination and generally won’t dig through a pile of junk hoping for a gem. But walking through the garage my attention was drawn to a few rods tucked into a corner.

It was the usual collection of rods bought on the spur of the moment: a mix of spinning and bait casting rods and nothing remarkable. The same could be said of the reels, with one exception tucked behind the others. A fly reel attached to a medium saltwater spinning rod.

Two years ago I purchased an unbranded bamboo rod at the club auction for minimal money and since had been looking for a reel that might match the rod’s patina and pedigree. At first glance, this reel would fit the bill. I offered $5, mumbling that it was the reel I was interested in, but that I’d do them a favor by taking the rod off their hands as well. The deal was sealed and money changed hands.

The Catch

The Catch

The rod cleaned up well enough to keep for the occasional misstep outside of fly fishing. The reel was in decent shape and only required wiping some dust and cobwebs away, which revealed it was a Pflueger Medalist 1495, a solid reel that I suspected might work well enough on the so-far-unused bamboo rod. But it was set up for left-hand retrieve, and I don’t do left-hand retrieve.

The Internets quickly offered up enough knowledge to indicate that I could set it up for right-hand retrieve. With a few tools and decent instructions the reel was soon in pieces. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but I admired its construction and relatively simple design — a more elegant reel from a more civilized age.

After a simple inversion of the drag plate was all it should take, but the right-hand retrieve side of the drag plate was missing a bezel that would allow the drag bearing, which fits inside the drag plate, to nestle into the drag plate. Test fitting revealed that would prevent the spool from seating properly. I scratched my head for a bit then sent off a few emails to guys who know better than I.

Apparently I had found a left-hand retrieve only Medalist 1495, likely manufactured in the late 1950s or 1960s before Pflueger changed the drag plate to allow folks to reel with the “wrong hand,” apparently a “quite collectible” version of the Medalist.

You’ll find me looking for another $5 reel for that no-name bamboo rod.


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higher and higher (or, personal accomplishment, part two)

The second day of my Memorial Day trip was undecided until I rolled out of bed that morning. A lot of the time, my angling is a solo affair. There was initial hope that Sean might join me — hitting the high country together is nearly an annual affair — but as happens with kids, they get jobs, take on other responsibilities and interests, and simply can’t always get away. Funny how that works: just as a parent gains a bit more freedom, children tend to lose theirs.

Lyell Fork bridges.

Lyell Fork bridges.

A lack of soreness from the previous day’s hiking encouraged the consideration of another adventure, this time one that would harken back to the adventures of the younger me. During the family vacations in Tuolumne Meadows, we’d often hear about the trail along the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River, but a trail I can’t recall ever hiking.

Lingering was nice that morning, but the trail head was about two and a half hours away. I’m pretty practiced at whipping together a lunch and getting the gear ready. The previous day had shown that my Orvis day pack would serve me well, and with only one rod, the other rod pocket kept a water bottle handy. I was on the road about 7:00 a.m. That’s late for me, but today wasn’t to be rushed.

Having traveled the route so many times, it could be said that I’m able to make the drive to Tuolumne Meadows with my eyes closed. But that would be a waste. Though I know what’s around that next corner, each visit offers a new revelation. The Sierra Nevada was called the Range of Light by John Muir for a reason; every view changes, depending upon the season and time of day.

The canyon where I stopped and turned around.

The canyon where I stopped and turned around.

Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of the camping season, but campsites in Tuolumne Meadows are usually still covered in snow or flooded by snowmelt. There was still traffic, mostly comprised of rock climbers itching for that first touch of that unique Sierra Nevada granite, and sprinkled with the usual sightseers passing through on their way to the valley.

I pulled into the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center just before ten. A line of hopeful backpackers wound around the building, but parking was easy to find. Pack secured and confirming I had the proper map, I hit the trail a few minutes later.

The trail was both familiar and unknown. Many high Sierra trails must look the same at the onset. About a mile along, landmarks revealed this was new ground. There were the rusted steel signs pointing to various destinations, the two bridges that lead to the opposite side of the Lyell Fork, and the river itself, meandering through meadows and twisting through and over the batholith that forms the core of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

This is the type of country that refreshes the soul.

Another view, looking down river.

Another view, looking down river.

After a mile, I was alone on the trail. The hike was easier than expected. I was inclined to chalk that up to hard-won improvements in my physical fitness — particularly with a trailhead elevation of 8,600 feet — but later determined that the elevation gain was less than 500 feet. Roughly two miles in I left the trail to follow the course of the river. It wasn’t easy. Down trees, boulders and the Lyell’s long elbows required numerous detours.

Further upstream.

Further upstream.

About four miles along I came to a narrow canyon. Continuing up river would require a long detour. But I had started a bit late, and daylight can be precious when in the wild.

I rigged up the 3 wt. rod and began that slow walk downstream, presenting my fly to suspect water. The river was high, limiting where a cast could be made without immediate drag.

This is the type of country and the type of fish where stealth pays off. I spooked fish with every step. Where possible, I’d cast four or five feet from the bank, with only a few rises to show for it.

The course of many high Sierra rivers is dictated by huge granite outcroppings, creating pools. In midsummer these pools attract swimmers, but this early in the season it was still too cold for such nonsense. I found one such monolith that directed the Lyell Fork almost ninety degrees from its course, creating a deep pool that offered a feeding lane and overhead protection. Up against the granite was slack water, from which decent sized brook trout would intermittently rocket to the surface.

I tend to avoid putting myself in position to hook a fish without an easy way to bring them to the net. A fishless morning, however, changed my outlook. Moving away from the water and giving the fish a wide berth, I quietly and slowly crept to the top of the outcropping. Carefully peeking over the edge, I could see about half a dozen trout about fifteen feet below. Counting on the height to conceal any false casts, I laid a stimulator in the seam that would funnel insects to the trout. A fish rose, inspected my fly, and dismissed it. That was the pattern on subsequent casts.

Offering a break for both myself and the fish, I sat down to tie on an Elk Hair Caddis. That’s all it took. A nice-sized brook trout nailed it and went wild. It jumped like a rainbow and shook its head like a salmon. My excitement began to change to panic with the realization that there was about twenty feet of line between me and the fish and that I had to lead it thirty feet to my right if there was any hope of getting it to the net. It was a thrilling fight for all of about forty seconds, and I did get a good look at what could’ve been about twelve inches of healthy Salvelinus fontinalis before a not-so-long distance release.

Marmot!?

Marmot!?

The tug of that fish — and the fact that I once again was able to fool a wild fish (an accomplishment that continues to amaze me) — made the day seem brighter. I wandered downstream a bit, trying to sneak up on fish in the meadows, and after a few hits but nothing solid, I sat down in the world’s best dining room for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I met more people on the hike out, followed a marmot for a few hundred yards and lingered here and there. It was another day of personal accomplishment. No knee brace was required and my breathing wasn’t labored like it was last year.

Now, I hope to get back when the water’s lower and the fish hungrier.