fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)

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the fishing that led to appreciating that good beer

I didn’t know it then, but that confidence mentioned in words written about a week ago would be tested on the first full day of Trout Season 2011, even if high water narrowed our possible venue down to two or three choices where we knew the fish should be willing to play. At least that’s what we thought.

Sean's Angels Creek Rainbow

Sean's hands make this nicely colored rainbow from Angels Creek seem smaller than it actually is. At least that's what he says...

There’s a balance that comes with fishing the week after Opening Day. The fact that most of the water known to hold trout was given a rude awakening on Opening Day is offset by wide-open access. So, although I’m not one to linger long after opening my eyes in the morning, this morning there was no frantic rush to get out the door.

The night before we had decided to head to “Hatchery Creek.” While well stocked with rainbows (and occasionally brook trout), it also can offer kokanee in the spring and a few elusive browns in the fall. We had been warned, however, about the aforementioned grumbling on Opening Day from anglers who couldn’t find the fish maintained that DFG had cut back on its stocking.

The easy accessibility of this creek — as well as the everyday responsibilities of life — quickly fades as we descend the banks of this creek. No matter the origin of these trout, soon they would occupy all our thoughts and become our obsession for most of the day.

The creek, actually more a short tailwater before it dumps into a lake, is high. Maybe higher than I’ve ever seen it, and it takes more than a moment or two to identify familiar landmarks. Sean and I wonder out loud if high flows during the winter had scoured the creek. Together we remember a productive pool that two years ago was shaded by a now absent tree. A few of the old channels seem to have disappeared; new channels slowly reveal themselves. It’s hard to tell, but even a few boulders seem to occupy new positions.

With more of a series of grunts than conversation, it’s agreed that I’ll head slightly downstream to a long, fast, shallow run that’s always been good to me. The current here is too fast for dry flies. Nymphs work well, but most of the fun starts on the swing. It’s the first place I threw out a wet fly, and the first place that a trout took that soft hackle wet fly, one I had tied with a sparse blue-thread body and partridge hackle. After a few casts, the fish reveal themselves. It’s a cookie-cutter rainbow, but a welcome sign that all’s once again good with the world, at least in this brief moment in my part of the world.

Sean wandered upstream to another run, where water tumbled over rocks into a deeper run that ends in front of a boulder. It’s one of those hot spots favored by trout and deep enough to require at least one heavier fly.

After half an hour or so and three trout to the net and about the same for Sean, I ventured upstream, peering into pools and undercuts where I’d usually be able to sight fish. Seeing no fish sign, I checked in with Sean and headed downstream again. Going farther downstream requires care. Trees hug the banks and blackberry bushes are so prolific that thorny, tippet snatching blackberry vines hang overhead. There’s no overhead casting here. Line management is limited to side-arm casts, lobbing or simply dropping flies and letting the current take them to the fishy spots.

There’s one very fishy spot that requires that last tactic. Water bubbles over a creek-wide riffle before dropping into a wide area marked by granite boulders big enough to disrupt the current and create a pocket, a holding lie, for trout, yet small enough to allow the nearby current to flow fast enough, delivering bugs to waiting fish.

I dropped my flies — a size 18 AP Nymph and a size 22 glass bead chironomid pattern — just below the riffle. One drift, a second, then a third.

I’ve found that occasionally a subtle pause, perhaps no more than a second, perhaps a bit longer, can suggest that there’s a larger fish is at the end of the line. This was one of those times. I set the hook. My line paused. It vibrated faintly in the current. Then it was out of the pocket, through the riffles and around an upstream boulder faster than I could follow. But I would never see the fish. The same could be said for my home-tied fly.

The rest of the day, Sean and I would explore the lower reaches of this creek, finding a pool where, he’d been told, trout can often be found. We did find fish there.

This creek widens and gains speed closer to its mouth, reminding me more of a freestone river in the Eastern Sierra. Nice brown trout water, except it’s not home to many browns. There was fishing along the way but no more catching.

I can’t say whether it was the exertion of hiking, the full day of fishing or just plain thirst, but the dinner and the beer that came with it that night tasted awfully good.


the slow lesson of fly fishing

Fly Fishing Trip Goals: Fish New Water(s), Fish for New Species/Strains of Trout,
Drink New Beer(s), Repeat. Note: Do so slowly, with great deliberation.

It’s not casting, presentation or fly selection; it’s a deliberate and slower pace that offers the best chance of success in fly fishing.

This isn’t a new or unfamiliar idea. My first appreciation of a slower approach was the pace at which I entered any water, familiar or unfamiliar. Slowing down to take the time to make a few observations. To watch the sun rise. To look for that one rising trout. To take time to fish that small seam a few feet out from the bank.

[singlepic id=1088 w=275 h=368 float=center]The decision to try my hand at tying flies required a slow, methodical approach as I learned techniques and how materials responded to the tying process. I’m not a production tyer, and probably think more what I’m doing when tying than I should. That’s okay; a lot of that thinking is about the fish I expect or hope to fool with that fly; or memories of already having done so.

Rod building again necessitates slowing down. Wrapping thread seems simple, and it is. Wrapping thread well isn’t. Five-minute epoxy is the fastest part of the process. Laying down multiple coats is not.

More experienced fly fisherman might wonder why it took so long for me to come to this conclusion. In my defense, there were trout to fool and success was measured by body count.

Two weeks ago, while setting aside the desire to get on higher-elevation trout water as soon as legally possible, it dawned on me that the fish would still be there even if my arrival was delayed a day or two. Like dominoes falling, decisions were then made to purposely plan a slower pace.

It’s a huge thing to slow down in today’s world. To take a slow, long look at that wild trout. And, when the sunlight’s too dim to fish, to slowly relish the day’s adventures, seasoned with good food and, if you’re lucky, a good beer.

It’s all worth savoring.

To be certain, we lugged along a few new brews to the cabin during our Opening Day trip, but didn’t pass up the opportunity to try something from the tap during dinner at The Rock.

Told by the waitress that customers had complained that New Belgium’s Ranger IPA was too hoppy, Sean naturally went ahead and ordered it. Apparently those customers have sensitive palates. I’m not a huge fan of too much hoppiness on the back end, but even I found the Ranger rather mild. So did Sean.

Though not an extreme beer snob, I favor trying local suds, and opted to try Snowshoe’s Grizzly Brown Ale. (And, honestly, I felt an obligation to try the Grizzly as research. The Snowshoe brewery is an hour away from the cabin and will be on the itinerary during my brother’s visit next month.) I’ve grown increasingly fond of a well-done brown ale. The Grizzly didn’t disappoint, and it seemed that Sean might have wished he’d chosen it. It’s certainly dark in color, but semi creamy and not heavy as might be expected. A nice toasty maltiness gives way to a light hop finish.

Certainly a great way to finish a day of fly fishing.


fishing for words turns five after fourteen years in the making

fishing for words (ffw) was born on April 19, 2006. However and without knowing it, my blogging started fourteen years prior to that.

During the mid ‘90s — the beginning of the end for most grunge bands — I joined the few civilians who could make sense of this thing called HTML to launch a website with the unoriginal title “My Little Corner of the Internet.” It was a kooky little site for which every new entry required incorporating text into hand-coded HTML.

The trend at the time was to post a relatively static website about one’s self, and looking back one can see that the early “posts” — stories about trips or family events — popped up once or twice a year from August 1997 through July 2003. There seemed to be more to write about starting in 2004. I don’t know if was the fact that the kids were growing up and it didn’t take a trunk full of diapers, bottles, food and a stroller to travel more than five miles, or the fact that my new wife actually encouraged me to enjoy some adventures on my own.

My writing was largely directed at family and a few friends. Though a student once thanked me for my page on Aloha shirts (apparently it aided him in writing a term paper), I suffered no delusion that anyone would take an interest in what I wrote if they didn’t know me personally.

The Future of Outdoor Blogging

Perhaps the future will bring a new immediacy to outdoor blogging. (That’s not’s my son with a wild rainbow on Stream X.)

Things changed in 2006 with this stuff called CMS and easy-to-use blogging platforms — both of which coincided with my first experience brandishing a fly rod over a Sierra Nevada stream. It was all in place: a website/blog that could easily be fed and a hobby that could provide material.

Now, 139,512 words and 458 posts later, I still resist defining my blog. It remains a place for family and friends…with a loose definition of “friend.” Over the years, nearly everyone in my immediately family has made an appearance in my blog — whether they liked it or not. Friends run the gamut: fly fishing club members, fellow bloggers I’ve surprised by actually showing up on their doorstep met face to face; folks who thanked me for suggestions on where their kids might have a good first fishing experience; even a few buddies met online with whom I eventually shared a fishing trip or two. Every reader is a potential friend, just like the older gentleman and younger guy wearing waders that were too clean and waving barely used rods.

While ffw doesn’t subscribe to any specific definition, it’s definitely been about sharing a personal story. It’s about stepping out of my little universe to share encouragement, a laugh, an experience, a tip or a trick. And every once and a while I’m pleasantly surprised to learn that my words do encourage or earn a chuckle.

Some folks might lament about how much things have changed in five years. I’d say that it’s only our methods of our interaction that have changed; the folks behind it remain much the same. Take a look at the Outdoor Blogger Network, for example — a group of good folks coming together over common interests. They’ve got to be good folks; they let me and my little blog join in the fun. And fun it’s been, sharing my misadventures and adding a couple of new readers every year.

As for the fly fishing, the places I fish usually are not covered in the slick pages of magazines. These are places that can be reached with relatively modest means and without a 4×4. (I did learn last year that a 4×4 would be helpful on the roads to and from Yellow Creek.)

My hero shots find heroism in fooling small wild and skittish brook trout with a fly tied with my own hands. (This summer, hero shots may include a fly rod built with those same hands.) And though the “body count” isn’t so important to me anymore, it’s still about duping that first dozen fish and the story that comes with it.

I’m hoping that there will be many more fish to write about.

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part five of building a rod: glossing over things

I’m a bit betwixt and between things until next Thursday, and because the forecast shows raining beginning that day, there’s an outside chance there’ll be some fishing. That’ll be then.

For now, this morning, I’ll be consulting with the club’s guru of rod construction on a one of two finishing touches for the 4 wt that’s sitting pretty on the dining room table.

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Epoxy covering the tip top wrap.

My goal last week was to lay down epoxy on the guide feet and butt wrap, and did so with modest success. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as warm as it should have been for this first pass at epoxying. Though opinions vary, I’m convinced that a temperature of 70°F or better is necessary for the best results. That day it was about 68°F.

Then there’s the need for speed. I was a bit too careful, apparently, beginning to coat the tip top guide wrap and working down the rod. My thought was to start with the smaller guides and quickly work toward the stripping guide before the pool of epoxy became unworkable. The epoxy was still workable when I reached the stripping guide but a new batch was required before coating the thread wraps above the grip. Then it was a matter of rotating the rod pieces to allow the epoxy to flow, hopefully creating an even coating 360 degrees around the wraps. A couple of hours later, it looked pretty good.

However, after a few days of drying the gloss of the hardened epoxy revealed flaws inflicted by my inexperience a temperature that was a bit too low. It was time for 600-grit sandpaper.

Like it often is with fly fishing, taking the time to step back, look things over and make adjustments can pay off; and so it is with rod building. I sanded portions of the epoxy on five guides and spend time smoothing out the epoxy covering the long wrap above the grip. Later, the temperature climbed above seventy. Epoxy was mixed and cooperated, flowing readily with only a few bubbles, which were easily dispatched by blowing on them through a straw. The sections were again regularly rotated until the epoxy set. The results were well worth it.

After this morning, the butt section should be ready for a last coat of epoxy, and then it’s be off to a club member for a custom inscription that will, without reservation, tell those who look close enough that it’s the result of my work.

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Epoxy covering the tip top wrap. Look closely and you'll see the bubbles that have since been sanded out.


part four of building a rod: wrapping up a few things

Last week I mentioned patience as one virtue required of rod building. This week patience has been required in spades.

Wrapping fly rod guides reminds me of trying to thread a size 22 fly with 8x tippet. You hope to be lucky and get it right the first time. In my limited experience, when it comes to wrapping guides, hope and luck aren’t enough. Preparation and practice pay dividends; and I got most of my practice in with one guide that required wrapping, unwrapping and rewrapping at least six times.

The goal is to wrap thread up against itself, then up onto the foot of a guide until the guide is sufficiently held in place. Securing the guide in place requires aligning each wrap of the thread, sometimes burnishing it into place with a toothpick, skewer or other often improvised tool.

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Beginning the wrapping process with the thread locked in place.

Starting the wrap is one of the few times that being all thumbs can be of benefit. The idea is to lay down a wrap and while holding the thread in place with a thumb, bring the tag end to the inside of the wrap and, continuing to hold the thread in place with that thumb, use that thumb to gently roll the rod blank so that subsequent wraps lock the tag end in place. Three or four wraps later the tag end can be cut and the wrapping begins in earnest.

Until one gets to the foot of the guide.

Wrapping up the guide foot is easily understood. As threads wrap against each other, they should begin to climb the foot of the guide. Execution is another thing all together. The thread didn’t always act as expected, and too often the first wrap popped off the guide foot with a telltale ping. Thus, I grew proficient at reversing the wrapping process with a few reverse turns of the thread spool.

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Starting to wrap up the guide foot; easier said than done consistently.

Locking the thread into place was another challenge in trusting in my proficiency and the behavior of my materials…a bit like tying flies. I was instructed to secure a loop of thread, preferably a different color, underneath the wrapping thread.

Once the wrapping thread reaches its endpoint — where the guide angled away from the rod blank — it would be cut (again using a thumb to hold the wrapped thread in place) and the tag end inserted in the loop. Pulling the loop would bring the tag end under the wrapping thread to secure it.

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The loop of thread that will pull the tag end through secured with a wrap. Time to trust in the force...

Then, cutting the tag end cut short enough would ensure that it wouldn’t be pulled out from under the wraps. This is also the point at which practice makes perfect. Pulling the looped thread too slowly would allow the tag end to slip next to the guide foot, where a gap between the thread and the rod blank would prevent the tag end from locking into place. I did that a few times before realizing that cutting the tag end as short as possible and throwing caution to the wind and a quick yank would lock the thread into place.

With a bit of luck I’ll finish up wrapping the rod tonight. I finished all but one of the guides last night, and tonight will be devoted to that last guide and wraps on the butt section. I’ll also have to decide whether to throw on a few decorative wraps of metallic thread, but I don’t think the fish will notice one way or the other.

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A finished guide. Pretty nice. (The color of the thread will become darker after epoxy is applied.)

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part three of building a rod: getting our butts in place

I just gently set down the butt end of my new rod, with grip and reel seat in place, for the umpteenth time this week, and I still haven’t grasped the notion that some day I’ll use it to land on trout on some unknown river or stream.

I’ll chalk it up to never having built a rod before (though I do tie some of my own flies), and the fact that the upper sections of the rod blank are still a bit naked.

Construction is a bigger part of fly fishing than most people realize. Building rods and tying flies are the most cost-effective approaches, if your calculations include materials, tools and your time, but I don’t know too fly fishermen who are great mathematicians. Most of them, however, would say that given the choice, they’d rather catch a small wild trout on a fly and rod put together with their own two hands.

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Getting ahead of ourselves.

That’s what had me, on a foggy morning last week, arrive early at a workshop just across the Carquinez Strait for free doughnuts, to kill a bit of time and, somewhere along the line, install the grip and reel seat on the butt section of what would become my latest fly rod. It was cold day; the air was still, the fog heavy, dense and unmoving — a day when it makes sense to build something for the days ahead.

Slider, who owns the workshop, opened the door and Phil, enlisted to assist the students, pulled a rod case and other paraphernalia from the back of his truck and joined me in the still chilly shop. Soon coffee was brewing and small doughnuts were consumed, one after another. We talked about new grip designs, rod blanks and the fog before other students and mentors crowded into the shop. (It’s hard to believe by the number of students that the sport needs a celebrity cheerleader.)

It wasn’t long before tables were covered with the bits and pieces required to build a fly rod. Like men tend to do, I caught myself comparing my grip with those of others; some of more intricate designs, others made wood or composites. It’s true that there’s a certain level of art ascribed to fly rods, so while my grip might not have a spit-shine gloss or woven pattern, it’s my first; made by me with a bit of assistance.

Reel seats and inserts were as varied as the students, with hardware colors varying from nickel and titanium to blued nickel and black aluminum. It was the same with the guides and winding checks.

Being a somewhat self-centered crowd, it was a sight to see a room full of fly fishermen stop talking about their latest escapade to devote attention to the class leader and club master rod builder, Wayne. Quiet but intense might describe Wayne’s approach to instruction, as he walked us through — with the necessary visual aids — dry assembly of the grip and reel seat, reaming the grip, again testing everything with a dry fitting, adjusting the diameter of the blank with tape to properly fit the reel seat, application of epoxy and the final assembly.

Then we were set free but not left entirely to our own, with a 2-to-1 ratio of students to mentors.

The process isn’t one of great difficulty. The biggest requirements are patience and thought. Pictures best tell the story.

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The surprising small amount of hardware that would be used on our fly rods.

All considered, a fly rod requires very little hardware. It’s the work building the blank, grip and reel seat that require time. Once we confirmed all the parts were delivered as promised, the next hour or so was devoted to dry fitting, taping the butt section to create a suitable diameter where the reel seat would go into place, and reaming the center of the grip.

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Master rod builder Wayne demonstrating how to measure and mark of the butt section that will be covered in epoxy before installation of the reel seat and grip.

Much like carpentry, the key was to measure twice and cut (or ream, tape and apply epoxy) once. One important aspect of this measurement is to determine how far up the rod butt one will slather epoxy, since, because of the taper, the grip will be pushed down towards the bottom of the blank – passing the upper section where epoxy would make for a pretty ugly rod – before reaching the proper position.

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Taping the grip to protect it from epoxy – which will get on your hands – and the butt section to build up a proper diameter for the reel seat and insert.

It’s amazing, but if you were to disassemble a well-known brand of fly rod, you’d find a similar method and material used to properly seat the reel seat. What’s not pictured here is the copious amount of epoxy pushed into the gaps between the tape and directly securing the reel seat to the rod blank.

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Reaming the inner diameter of grips to properly fit the rod.

With the variety of sizes in rod blanks, there’s no way to ensure a perfect fit between everything, requiring a bit of work and continuous testing of the fit. The hole drilled out in the cork grip, or rings in my case, is often about .25”, but since the rod blank is tapered, the best fit requires tapering his hole. Cork is easily reamed, but the dozen times I stopped to check the fit mandated slow and methodical work.

With the grip, reel seat and the reel seat cap in place, a little pressure brings it all together while the 10-minute epoxy dries.

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The completed butt assembly of what will become a 7’6” 4-piece 4 wt. fly rod built by my hands.

With time to spare, we stuffed glue into the tip top guide and seated it on the top section. Some builders use a heat-sensitive glue, but Wayne’s done just as well with five-minute epoxy. There was more epoxy stuffed into those little tip top guides than I thought possible, before we slid it on the top of the rod blank. (I should note that during this process a good supply of solvent was used to ensure that epoxy didn’t end up where it wasn’t wanted.)

With our butts in place, we will move on to wrapping guides this week.

Though not fishing, this is one winter that I’ll have my hands a fly rod nearly every week. Stay tuned, more to come.

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part two of building a rod: taking shape

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The result of last week's work.

Given that the building of my new rod will begin in earnest shortly after calendars are flipped to 2011, I booked some time with club master rod builder and instructor Wayne to shape the grip glued together just about a week before. So, two days after Christmas, on a drizzly Monday morning, the grip began to take shape.

A bit of ingenious forethought meant that the raw cork rings were mounted on a mandrel that could set into a small lathe, fitting into the chuck on one end and a nipple on the other. The first step, before even considering the shape, was to even out the surface. This was quick and easy to do with a rasp, followed by some pretty large grit sandpaper.

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Beginning the rough shaping.

Then the work began. The first tasks were to slightly round off the edges of the butt end and taper the top.

Shaping began next. Again, Wayne had a homemade tool for this; a piece of wood shaped in the negative image of the desired profile — half wells in this case — and coated with sandpaper. This form included a cutout by which to align the butt edge, ensuring proper application of the form.

After some time and a bit of pressure, the cork became recognizable as a fly rod grip. It took just about as long to fine tune the profile, but sooner than expected we had a serviceable grip. Then the sanding began.

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Roughly the shape we wanted.

Differences between the density of the natural cork rings and the burl cork rings (a composite of colored chunks of cork) required selective sanding to even out the surface and smooth the transition between the rings. With the grip still spinning on the lathe, the final fishing began with 150 grip sandpaper and progressed to 200, 400 and finally 500 grit paper.

After a cleaning, liberal application of cork sealant brought out the colors.

When as was done, though not appearing exactly as I had pictured in my mind, I think it turned out pretty nice.

I’m already thinking ahead to a new grip design for the next rod I hope to build. But first, I have to finish this one.

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The end result and truly unique part of the rod to be.