fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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tying flies requires courage

There’s a mental fortitude required to sit down and whip out a couple dozen flies, knowing that too many won’t return to my fly box.

My attrition rate for dry flies is much lower than that of sub-surface flies. Dry flies have an affinity for shrubbery and tree branches but nymphing necessitates aggressiveness. As the adage goes, “If you’re not snagging bottom every once and a while, you’re not fishing deep enough.” Striking at any and all tics and twitches guarantees a strong hook-set in every stick and rock.

Depending on the stream or river, losing at least three flies a day can be expected. But this loss of sub-surface flies – and the hooking of more fish – is the only proof you’re getting nymphs deep enough.

There’s no proof that I’m saving much money tying my own flies. Materials aren’t too expensive, and except for thread and hooks, most of my materials were given to me from other fly tiers, either excess materials or those no longer used because they’ve moved on to something better. But recovery of the initial investment in a vise and the cost of hooks would require I fish more often.

It could be worse. Innumerable blogs and articles will tell you of the advantages to tying flies rather than buying them. Building durability into flies is cited as one big benefit, all it takes is more head cement (more dollars). One suggests using Kevlar thread (more dollars). Or better hooks (more dollars).

The biggest benefit to tying my own flies is the ability to create or duplicate any pattern, specifically those not available in the fly shops near home or on the road. It’s a good guess that all fly tiers have created their own variation of traditional patterns; one of mine is my “confidence” nymphs, a Red-Butt Zebra Midge. A simple pattern inspired by other, more complex, patterns more commonly used in lakes in British Columbia. But it’s often deadly on many streams on the east and west slopes of the central Sierra Nevada.

My flies won’t win a beauty contest, but it’s only the trout’s opinion that matters.

One creek where my flies fool trouts.


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don’t forget your basics (or, don’t trust that others remember theirs)

Like many who’ve taken up fly fishing, the most enjoyable moments often bubble up in sharing one’s love of the sport. That’s why each Opening Day I’ve donated time to helping others learn just enough to get into that fish that lights the fire of a lifelong hobby. It may not be the first fish one lands on a fly rod, but everyone has that fish, the one.

For better or worse, it’s fallen to me during the spring and fall novice fly fishing classes to sum up and illustrate the basics of hooking, playing and landing a fish. About ninety minutes of the day-long class is dedicated to casting at a nearby pond and during that time pairs of students are cycled through one station outlining the basics of using a Belgian cast with an unwieldy nymph rig and my station. With about twenty students, that gives me ten minutes or less with each pair. And that’s how it went this last weekend.

I take a certain pride in my brief involvement. Casting, presentation, fly selection and an understanding of fish behavior are necessary and area the main aspects of any lessons about fly fishing. But the game really begins when those skills are well executed and a fish hooked.

I’ve been fly fishing long enough now that those ten minutes aren’t enough, even with my narrow, trout-centric experience. It starts with an outline of the scenario: on a large stream or midsized river, algae-slickened rocks all around, and fish that’ll take a fly. If one is chasing trout on a day trip not too far from here, if the rocks aren’t slick with algae, they’re weathered into an unstable roundness or, on smaller waters, can be still sharp glacial erratics. We’ve all been there; you must play the fish where you stand.

Fly rod and line control come next, focusing on the instinctive thumb grip, teaching that the index finger (or finger of choice) isn’t only for casting, and demystifying stripping. Lacking willing quarry, one student becomes the “fish” while the other reacts and I offer feedback. This fighting the “fish” quickly reveals poor line control and other mistakes. After proper line control is understood, we take time to talk about stripping behind the index finger. A simple enough process to comprehend, but when the pressure is on it’s more difficult to execute that one might expect.

Last Saturday, when rods where being disassembled and put away, I was told that a single student hadn’t made it to my station. I recruited a “fish,” put some distance between us the rest of the group, and asked this last student if I could check their rod before beginning. I made a quick cast only to find myself wondering why this rod was casting like a piece of rebar. To my question the student answered that it was a 5 wt. rod. That’s what she had been told at the shop, so the reel was loaded with 5-wt. line.

The identification of a rod’s weight (size or size of line it will cast) and weight (mass) can be found on the rod, above the grip. This rod was inscribed “Length 9’ • 5 3/4 oz.  #9 Line.” Translated, this was a nine-foot rod weighing 5 3/4 ounces and designed to carry a 9-wt. line.*

That afternoon I ended up teaching a bit more than usual, and was reminded that it all starts with the basics.

*For those who don’t fly fish, this mismatch of line and rod is akin to dropping a small four-cylinder engine into the chassis of a Peterbilt semi.


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on being a more imaginative fly fisher

There’s a fear that can creep over me in the company of other fly fishermen. Those who know me personally are likely to agree there’s a touch of restraint in my personality. Blending into a crowd is specialty learned during middle school; let’s spin it as a well-honed survival skill. Thankfully, in the years since, I have been able to put myself out there with the backing of friends and colleagues, though I still haven’t totally abandoned my introversion.

It was a recent podcast that made me realize that perhaps that fear coincides with the niggling thought that I may be a lazy fly fisher.

But I will hike to the fish. There was no hesitation last summer to march three miles into high-altitude lakes for brook trout no longer than the spread of my hand. I also tie flies. I built a fly rod. And it’s no problem getting up early to spend the day driving the 240-mile loop that takes me over Tioga Pass and Sonora Pass, alongside high-elevation streams and lakes as well as high-desert rivers.

I still feel a bit unworthy among my fly fishing peers. When others are describing the physical skill it took to lay a dry fly in front of a big trout 40 feet away, across four different currents and through 30 mile-per-hour crosswinds, I have no response. Oh, I’m catching fish to be sure. Just with less effort. It’s called nymphing; often under an indicator or dry fly.

It’s not that I’m apprehensive of trying different techniques. I’ll swing small wet flies, cast dries as far as I can — maybe 20 feet accurately — and chuck streamers when an opportunity presents itself.

Thinking about it, after being hammered by messages in blogs, podcasts and online forums that nymphing is inelegant (it is), too productive to be considered a real challenge and more akin to lure fishing than fly fishing, it occurs to me that nymphing, in fact, requires a bit more creativity than other tactics.

Why?

Nymphing often requires visualizing where your fly is and what its doing; rarely can you see it like a dry fly. It takes some thinking to set the depth at which that bead-head fly might be presented to fish hugging the stream bottom.

Observational skills are much more important. With dry flies you can rely on visual cues. When swinging flies, the take is abrupt and obvious. Nymphing, however, requires keen observation of subtle clues: the movement of the rod tip, the twitch of a strike indicator, even a suspicious flash of color. It takes skill to discern a take from your fly bumping simply into a rock or snag or hanging up on weeds.

What I’m trying to imply is that there’s another level of mental dexterity involved in nymphing and not required of other tactics. All tactics benefit from some knowledge of fish habits, hydrology and entomology and basic situational awareness.

Nymphing, however, requires imagination.

Guess that’s why it works so well for a day dreamer like me.


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away from the water the gloves come off

Fly fishermen tend to be nice folks. More than once I’ve been offered advice or invited to fish an incredibly productive spot alongside another fisherman. Complete strangers have offered to give me “the fly of the day.”

But it seems that the gloves come off away from the water.

Last Tuesday was my club’s annual auction. This is an event I look forward to, even if I’m not in the market for anything extravagant. There’s always a huge selection of member-tied flies, old reels and rods, and books to peruse.

It’s an opportunity for a great deal. And if an item is bid up, at least the money goes toward substantial donations made by the club every year to worthwhile conservation organizations. Everyone ends up happy. Or so I thought.

I wasn’t in the market for too much gear this year, but placed bids on about a dozen items. Among them were a few sets of a half dozen flies, a member-crafted wood cribbage board, a couple of books and an old reel. I revisited each item at least four times, revising my bid as necessary. My expectation was that about half would be lost to last-minute bids.

One last glance at a few times suggested that I just might win a few goodies. It’s unclear if it was the fact that five minutes passed after the official closing time before an announcement was made or an indication of “sniping” was more rampant than I expected, but thoughts of losing more than a few games of cribbage to my wife quickly faded when I was handed one set of flies.

I was relieved that I didn’t overspend. But a little disappointed.

I should have known better. It seems that all fly fishermen are always looking for a deal, but are willing to open their wallets when getting gear also supports conservation. That’s a good thing.


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a tacky fly box, almost what I need

So this week my news feed coughed up an item about a Kickstarter campaign to fund the development of newfangled Tacky Fly Boxes.

Reading the Tacky Fly Boxes vision statement it seemed to me that it’s not fly retention that’s my problem; it’s retention of the entire box. The entire box should be coated in tacky stuff.

About seven years ago I stumbled upon a stretch of river that wasn’t more than 30 minutes away from the cabin by road, but in the early trout season offered an opportunity to fish in solitude. It’s an area deep within a canyon where dogwood and pines filter the sunlight. Only occasionally is the shade is broken by shafts of light, lending an emerald-green cast to the air. The river is lined by boulders much of its length here, and stepping from rock to rock is necessary.

The excitement that comes with discovering new water was amplified by the willing rainbows. It was the kind of catching that’s so good you purposely slow down to savor each cast, hookset and fish itself. But this was my early days of fly fishing. I hadn’t yet acquired any habits or routines.

A sampling of our likely weapons of choice.

At $1 or more each, they add up.

The plan that day was to fish one river in the morning and another in the afternoon. When I arrived at the second river I reached into my vest pocket, unzipped and now empty. No fly box. It’d be a lie to say there was no panic. To those who say fly fishing really isn’t that expensive, try losing an almost full fly box. Buying a few flies at a time doesn’t seem like much; add them up and it can be tidy sum.

After only a short internal debate I headed back to the first river. It should have been a futile search. More than likely, the fly box was about five miles downstream by now.

Retracing my steps, on the last boulder, nestled in moss, was my fly box.

I’ve adopted on-the-water rituals since then. I have lost a net to some trees while hiking through thick bush. One rod’s been broken. That fly box, however, was the one lost item that made me question taking up this hobby.

I didn’t give up. It’s all been downhill ever since.


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tie once, pay twice

I’m not the best fly tier. Most of my creations might be ranked as mediocre. I can tie decent flies — some have fooled some pretty crafty wild trout, though hunger might factor into this more than I care to admit. Most importantly, tying my own flies allows me to stock up on patterns I can’t buy in a fly shop. I’m a casual tier, not the crazy old guy who will tie two dozen hopper patterns in a single sitting. With the last kid still at home, I don’t yet have a fly tying room, so I’m relegated to an old TV tray in the corner of the den.

I have read a few fly-tying instruction books, some are pretty good, but aren’t as thorough as they could be. For instance, when I start to tie a fly it goes something like this: select a hook, usually a smaller one about size 20, then drop the hook. If I’m lucky, I find it immediately rather than two days later embedded in my bare foot. I’m thinking my fly tying room will have white tile flooring and a custom desk with magnetic strips inlaid near the edges.

This last weekend I went through the ritual of tying a few dozen flies of the coming trout season in the Sierra Nevadas. I had procrastinated more than ever this year and it was the prodding of the fly fishing club’s auction chairman for donations that finally got me to spend a day at the vise. This auction is held every year and is our single biggest fundraiser. The money raised goes to organizations such as CalTrout, Project Healing Waters, Putah Creek Trout and United Anglers of Casa Grande High School, as well as a club-sponsored scholarship.

The fact that some of these flies would be on public display — with an expectation that other folks might buy them with real money — has always been a good motivator. In the end, I deemed about every other fly worthy of such an honor.

The other, not-so-pretty-flies, ended up in the fly box. I am sure they’ll still fool the fish.

But I can help thinking that I’ll have to buy back the better-looking flies at the auction…


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a week of fishing, part one: wherein I learn to slow down, enjoy Hot Creek and have fun with small dry flies

This year’s annual club trip to the Eastern Sierras — organized by yours truly — came a tad bit later this year, but its planning nearly nine months ago couldn’t anticipate the snowfall that wouldn’t arrive last winter. From afar I watched the guide reports and river flows, but all of that was forgotten two Sundays ago, once an amazingly fat brook trout slammed the first dry fly cast into a suspect pool.

This is a good time of year to be in the Eastern Sierras. Fewer people, perhaps only the hardier (and those without kids), remain to fish, hike and camp. Being a bit more mature, our group rents a couple of rustic cabins, though we do cook dinner ourselves (clam linguine one night). The days are often cloudless and, at an elevation of 7,000 feet, this expanse of high desert warms up fast. Temperatures swing the other direction just as fast, dropping to the mid-to-low 30s in the evening. Startlingly brilliant stars illuminate the clear nights.

Once over Sonora Pass, my first stop was on the Little Walker River. This small water is often overshadowed by its bigger brethren, the East Walker and West Walker rivers, which offer bigger and more fish. A year after discovering the charm of the Little Walker, and during my first turn as “fishmaster” for this trip, I fished this creek with the club’s outings chairman. We had a wonderful time finding wild brook, brown and rainbow trout exactly where they should be. Jim has since passed away, but the Little Walker reminds me of his broad smile.

Little Walker Brook Trout

It surprised me to see a brookie so big in the Little Walker.

It was with Jim that I first explored Hot Creek, one of the waters that would be frequented during the week. Since I’d have six full days to fish, and in light of Hot Creek’s popularity, the plan was to fish it during midweek. It was a sound philosophy; avoiding as many other fly fishermen as possible and hoping that reduced fishing pressure over a day or two would improve my chances.

Hot Creek Morning

Hot Creek Morning.

Hot Creek has been the marlin to my Santiago. It’s a spring creek with a high fish population, estimated to be 8,000 to 10,000 trout per mile. But these are highly educated trout that have probably seen every fly in the catalog. Throw in clear, low water and weeds that limit opportunities to small lanes and the chance of a drag-free drift, and this fly fishing heaven can become hellish, particularly late in the year. Most descriptions of Hot Creek include words that tend to scare me: “technical,” “attentive mends,” “drag-free drifts,” “multiple hatches.” That first visit with Jim five years ago didn’t dispel any of my trepidation, despite my landing two decent fish.

Although I was on the road Tuesday morning later than intended, I descended into the canyon well before the sun was fully on the water. A single fly fisherman had arrived before me. Reminding myself that there was no need to rush, I slowly and softly walked upstream, taking time to stop and watch the water. In the absence of light, the water was dark and unyielding.

Trusting to my experience that fish would be in a familiar spot, I finally stopped to cast a size 16 dark brown-bodied caddis trailing a smaller dropper (maybe size 22, or 24); a red-butt zebra midge type of fly made up during a fit of madness inspiration at the fly-tying vise. This was truly blind casting. There was a lane big enough to allow for a decent drift of about two feet. I kept my false casts short and out of view of the trout I hoped were there, and used a single-haul cast to finally lay the flies on target. The caddis dipped on my third cast and a good-looking 11 inches of brown trout went airborne. I don’t know if it’s the lack of depth in the creek, but I don’t think I’ve seen brown trout as acrobatic as those in Hot Creek.

Hot Creek Brown

Hot Creek Brown. Love that pectoral fin!

With the first fish to the net, my pulse finally began to slow and my body relaxed. My casting settled down. Two more fish made it to my net during the next hour, one a dark-hued rainbow of about 14 inches. There are bigger fish in Hot Creek, but any decent fish hooked, played through the mass of weeds, and landed, is still a pretty big deal in my book.

Soon the first few caddisflies and mayflies appeared in the air as sunlight began to warm the water. The sunlight also revealed pods of fish, some hovering between weeds, others just on the edge.

Hot Creek Rainbow

Yes it was dark, but this wild fish also has a dark cast to it.

I downsized my caddis fly to a size 22, hoping that it might get a look or two. It did, but only in passing. I would land a total of six fish that morning and walk out of the canyon feeling pretty good about it. But it was a conversation — with a friendly guy who toughs out his year splitting time between fly fishing the Eastern Sierra and running a scuba shop in Cabo San Lucas — that had me pondering a return in the evening.

But that’s another story for another time.


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time well spent on new water, part two (or, why it’s best to go sooner, not later)

[singlepic id=1227 w=300 h=400 float=right]

Looking up Beaver Creek.

As alluded to in my last Friday post, the excellent fishing just over a week ago was often centered on a certain little red humpy. Accompanying the good fishing was good weather. I couldn’t have asked for any better; it was in the mid 80°s those four days. The following week the average daily highs climbed above 100°.

When it comes to fishing unfamiliar waters, I’m a big fan of hedging my bets. While specific locations and tactics will be obfuscated in conversations with just-met fly fisherman, and stops at local shops often require filtering out hyperbole, it’s usually fellow fly fishing club members that will usually — with a caveat that certain tidbits never be shared — give the most accurate information.

That’s what led me to Calaveras Big Trees State Park to check out Beaver Creek and the North Fork of the Stanislaus River.

I’ll get the North Fork of the Stan out of the way first. I fished it later in the day and did land a few fish. It’s not my favorite type of river. It’s certainly scenic, shadowed by groves of ponderosa and sugar pines, incense cedars, white firs, mountain dogwood and, of course, giant sequoia redwoods. It looks to offer a great opportunity for rafting and I probably should reserve final judgment until there’s a chance to visit when the water is lower. But it’ not the easiest stretch of water to fish as it tumbles through truck-size boulders that mean edging a few yards downstream might entail a half-mile hike just to get around those boulders.

[singlepic id=1228 w=300 h=225 float=right]

Missed hatch on Beaver Creek.

Beaver Creek, however, was a reminder of why I enjoy fly fishing smaller waters; they require a more personal involvement with nature. Though it took bushwhacking to move upstream, Beaver Creek offers the intimate style of water I favor, and that certainly made any difficult terrain less of a burden. My hope was to find the wild fish I had been told about, but if they were there, they weren’t as aggressive as the stocked rainbows. I was pleasantly surprised, however, by a wild brown that nailed the humpy only seconds after it landed near a likely seam.

I fished a few other less remarkable sections of the Stanislaus, revisited Herring Creek, and wet a line in some of the ol’ regular spots. It was a good few days. And when the humpy didn’t work, one of my “confidence” flies, a stimulator of nearly any color, did.

I’m glad I went exploring when I did; it’s likely that within a month some of these creeks will be a bit too skinny.

[singlepic id=1229 w=600 h=450 float=right]

When it doubt, Stimulator!


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trying to keep it simple (or, call me cheap)

A time comes in every fly fisherman’s career when it becomes clear that he (or she) has too much gear.

An outsider will recognize this long before the fly fisherman, but it seems that at some point, the vast majority of fly fisherman will eventually talk about simplifying. This may mean using a lanyard instead of a vest, carrying a single fly box instead of three, or taking up tenkara, which itself requires the purchase of more gear.

There’s an irony to the oft-told story of the boy who started fishing with cane rod, then grew into the fly fisherman who owns a small-brook rod, a small-river rod, a medium-river rod, a large-river rod, single- and double-handed salmon/steelhead rods, a stillwater rod and maybe a saltwater rod. And a few spare rods just in case. Each rod, of course, needs a matching reel. While there is legitimate need for a range of rods, this same fly fisherman will fondly recall the remarkable enjoyment, and simplicity, of chasing bluegill, bass, trout or some other fish with that cane rod of their childhood.

It’s been posited that a fly fisherman moves through four stages in how he approaches the sport, and the same might be true of gear:

  1. The first stage entails learning to cast with a rod that was passed down as a gift or was simply inexpensive enough to warrant an attempt at fly fishing. The first fish caught on this rod will likely be remembered forever. A fly box — probably a small, free one from the fly shop — and forceps fit into any available pocket. A broken branch serves as a wading staff.
  2. Stage two entails replacement of that first rod and reel with counterparts that are shiny and new, both of which are more of a personal choice, and not a choice necessarily predicated on budget. Then there’s the vest; two, three or five more fly boxes and the flies to fill them; a decent mesh net; a wading staff; and maybe waders and felt-sole wading boots.
  3. It all peaks in the third stage. A preference for a specific brand means new rods, new reels (with back ups for both) and new lines for every type of water fished or species chased. The vest may be replaced with a chest or sling pack. A rubber net is a must have, as is a lightweight, high-strength composite alloy collapsible wading staff. New rubber-soled wading boots include carbide cleats. A multitude of flies are purchased or tied, and if tied, enough materials to last three lifetimes must be bought.
  4. The stage of simplification. It’s not so much about catching fish anymore, it’s the act — the gear is secondary. Maybe an attempt to recapture the pure joy of that first fly rod-caught fish, or perhaps avoiding hauling so much stuff around the river. Perhaps the rod is one built at home…not perfect but nice looking enough, and mated to a reel chosen for no other reason than it’s a favorite. The single fly box may not be filled, but it has every fly that’ll be needed.

If the level of a fly fisherman is measured by his gear, I’m still an amateur. Coming into the hobby later in life hasn’t afforded me the years that many spend accumulating equipment.

I did, however, purchase a new net at the club auction this week, for many reasons. Sure, it’s lighter than my current net and more “appropriately sized” for the trout I land. Crafted by a club member who’s also a skilled woodworker (so, made in America), it’s one of a limited set with the club logo (in enamel and metal) worked into the handle, and my winning bid will go into the pool of money the club donates to many conservation organizations.

Fly fishing is not stuff, it’s what you do. (And it really shouldn’t matter what you use to do it.)

Net Detail

Close up of the enamel badge...