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…