fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)

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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.


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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how to be a hero (or, hey, leave those fish alone)

It’s clear that nature’s dewatering of California this year will leave the trout that can be found skittish and stressed. I suppose that only the most thoughtful fishermen will leave them well enough alone as the summer wears on, or perhaps cross to the dark side of warm water species.

Opening Day may mark the beginning of the few weeks during which decent trout fishing may be found not too far away, while fish mortality is at a minimum. After that, it’s unlikely you’ll find solitude at a high alpine stream, creek or lake. The same climate change pushing wildlife to higher altitudes will similarly affect their human hunters.

This summer and fall — when still-flowing rivers will only offer skinny water — will be seasons of small fly rods and even smaller flies. A few small wild trout fisheries I hold dear (and of which I also hold a delusion that only I know about them) won’t withstand much molestation, meaning I’ll also be somewhere else.

It’s been proposed that “heroic measures” will be needed to save California’s salmon runs. As the weather warms up and naturally flowing water is scarce, it’ll be just as heroic to leave alone those fish that have nowhere else to go.


on becoming one of those guys

Opening day of the general trout season in California is this Saturday.

But I won’t be on the water. I will instead sacrifice the first opportunity to be skunked on my favorite stream for the greater good. (Very Vulcan of me, right?)

The first two years after I picked up a fly rod — some seven years ago — I would start preparing for the new trout opener a few weeks after the closing of the previous season.

I do still care about the trout opener. It opens wading access on the west slope of the Sierra usually long before the passes to the eastside are cleared. Being on the water at the earliest legal minute had become tradition. Even back when I was throwing hardware, it wasn’t about filling the freezer; it was simply about being out there, working the rust out of skills unused during the winter. Four seasons ago I accepted the invite of a fellow forum contributor to join him opening day in chasing down backcountry trout. He would provide the four-wheel drive truck, I provided flies. It was a day filled with good friendship, great weather and beautiful country unseen by most. Unfortunately, any trout that may have been in the half dozen streams we visited remained unseen.

The biggest influence in my changed opening day perspective is also one of the bigger rewards that have come with fly fishing. Notwithstanding the excitement of a big Eagle Lake rainbow taking me into my backing, I’ve find an unquantifiable pleasure in helping bring others into the sport. My contributions to the club’s novice fly fishing class aren’t huge, but the enthusiasm imparted by the instructors, including myself visibly, sparks something in the students. The payoff often comes a few weeks or months later, when one of those students, all smiles, presents a photo of the fish caught because of something learned in class.

So, while I’m not retired, but I’ve become one of those guys for whom the trout opener only marks the point in time that most trout water is wide open to fishing. I’m lucky enough to have a place in the Sierra foothills available to me most any time, and I have grown content to head up the week after the opener, often to find welcome solitude on most rivers and streams. I have also taken to the challenge of finding the ‘smarter’ fish left behind after the crowds of opening day.

When I finally do make that first cast for trout this year, it’ll be later, but for good reason.


how to know you’ve taught a son well (and he’s thinking, “When I left you I was but the learner. Now I am the master.”)

We knew the weekend warriors were gone. We also knew they’d have hit hard a creek that’s always fun in terms of catching. Our plan was to find all the fish too smart for everyone else.

As we geared up that morning, the count favored Sean, and I trailed by a considerable margin but refused to bring up the excuse that I had relied on a dry fly for much of the previous day while he took the easy way out used nymphs.

We go to this creek when we want to catch something, enjoying our tax (and licensing) dollars at work. The rainbow trout stocked here are generally of the Eagle Lake strain, a hard fighting fish that often entertains with acrobatics. Fishing here stacks the deck if you’re measuring success by the number of fish caught. I’ll admit to also enjoying the look of astonishment on the faces of other fishermen, the ones not using flies, when in 15 minutes Sean or I pull out three fish to their one. So, please, shelve any debate about “missing the point,” this is a place of pure fun.

As we walked down to the creek, it was clear that we’d have it to ourselves. Sean headed upstream. We’d both be nymphing — I’ve not known stocked trout to look up much — and this section offered plenty of deeper runs and pools. It didn’t take long for either of us to hook up.

With the intensive fishing over Opening Day weekend, I expected the catching to be a bit slower. I wasn’t disappointed. With a bit of work and a change to a favorite red chironomid, I regularly elicited strikes, particularly with a slow lift at the end of a drift. Catching had slowed for Sean, so he headed downstream to a fast run.

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Sean's first big Opening Day trout.

Though a bit later I saw Sean’s rod go “bendo,” I knew the water he was fishing was fast and a fish of nearly any size would have an advantage in the current. I had no worries. Over the years during the too infrequent trips with me, Sean has become a better fly fisherman, enough to venture out on his own last year to find success on some streams in Yosemite’s high country. (There’s some fondness in my memory of a Reno telephone number showing up on my caller ID, only to find it was Sean resorting to a pay phone to call me with the news that he had landed his first wild brown on a fly.) After I saw him bend down with the net, I refocused on my fishing.

In the meantime, Sean had started upstream, and when I finally looked up, even at a distance I could see that the fish on his stringer wasn’t a cookie cutter stocker. With a grin to match, he held up a rainbow that measured an honest 18 inches. After the obligatory photo, he headed back downstream.

As often happens, I became lost in the fishing. Testing every edge and riffle, rewarded with strikes where expected and others that came as a total surprise. A bait fisherman took a seat on the opposite bank, asked about the fishing, then, after telling him it had slowed down, I landed three decent fish in less than ten casts.

Sean had returned while I was distracted. Suspiciously happy, he announced that he decided that first fish wasn’t big enough and hoisted up a 20-incher that had been added to the stringer.

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Sean with a fine mess o' trout.

If our little father-son competition was to be measured by inches, those last two fish would put Sean over the top.

However, we weren’t measuring in inches, and my count had long ago surpassed Sean’s. Nevertheless, this was probably Sean’s best Opening Day. Ever.

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a return to Eagle Lake: day two

Chalk it up to vanity or lack of maturity as a fly fisherman, but I felt the pressure on our second day to beat last year’s Eagle Lake record of 53 rainbows to the net.

We’d met our competition the guys in the other boat, a father who had gifted his son a guided trip for his birthday, and our guide reminded us that we’d fallen far short of our record the day before.

Things looked good. Scattered clouds, a bit of a breeze and the sun cresting the mountains.

Like nearly any water, the fishing on Eagle Lake can be changeable. That’s to be expected. Calm conditions will kill the bite. A weak breeze that morning put the burden on Don and I to make the most of every strike. We did, but it was a slow start. Atypically, the fish were smaller. It seems as if the big fish had moved off The Mesa during the night, to be replaced by youngsters. (Thankfully, the smallest fish of the day — an eight incher — was landed by Doug, our guide.)

Every time Don would hook a fish, I’d wait. I’ve learned to never recast if my partner just had a strike. More often than not, leaving flies in the water would lead to a double hook up. The proof’s in the video below, courtesy one of small cameras mounted on Don’s hat.

After noon, both guide boats were side by side. Our of the corner of our eyes, we’d all watch for the sudden jerk of a hookset and watch anxiously to see if a fish made it to the net. Don and I were one fish behind our competition.

It boiled down to making the hookset. And we did.

It wasn’t a day of huge fish. It also took some work — twitching the fly here and there, mending and casting to transitions — but the fish were passing by often enough to ensure regular hook ups. Our lead was extended, fish by fish.

In the end, we’d come within touching distance of our record, with 52 fish for the day.

By the end of that day, we were tired. Not tired of catching fish, but our hands and wrists and forearms ached. The sun had exacted its toll. I faced a long drive home. But all was good. It was a great time. It always is at Eagle.

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a return to Eagle Lake: the first day

It’s the kind of fishing that feels illegal, immoral and just plain wrong, but so good that you hope the semi-remote location will keep all but most motivated anglers from visiting.

For a second year, fishing buddy Don and I made the trek to Eagle Lake last weekend. Last year we had done so Father’s Day weekend, just as a huge caddis hatch was coming off. Arriving a week earlier this year, we saw only the beginning of the hatch. Regardless of our timing, it was certain that fishing would be good, the catching great, and, now it seems, that I’d pull an annual bonehead move.

For me the trip’s about 270 miles, really not too far, but the last 128 miles of a narrow two-lane state highway twists and turns through canyons. Whatever mapping application or GPS you use will indicate it’ll take roughly five hours driving time, but the nature of those last hundred miles will add just under an hour. The driving is so slow it’s common for folks to get a bit lost thinking they’ve passed the turnoff for Spalding when it’s still miles up the road.

Sierra Nevada Brewery Tastes

A little sample of Sierra Nevada Brewery's Ovila Dubbel and California Common. Both great.

Last year I drove straight through, which made for a tough haul. This year I heeded the adage of setting short, obtainable goals. Luckily enough, the Sierra Nevada brewery in Chico is about midway between home and the Eagle Lake, and without pushing it, I could arrive just in time for the tour at noon.

Whether or not you’re a fan of Sierra Nevada beers, the hour-long tour’s well worth a stop. Along the tour are offers to taste the toasted malted barley and wort, which tastes of Grape Nuts with a sweetness so strong it implies instant cavities, and a chance to rub and smell whole-cone hops. The history of the brewery is a large part of the tour, and it’s eco-friendliness is dumbfounding.

Good food and beer go hand in hand with fishing, there was no slouching on my part. The Sierra Nevada Brewery Restaurant has some great grub — steaks and burgers from the brewery’s spent-grain-fed 50 head of cattle — and flights of all beers on tap, many of which can’t be found elsewhere. Driving by myself, I asked for a couple of tastes: California Common and Ovila Dubbel. Both were tasty, and the California Common, a recipe created in last year’s beer camp with yeast native to the Golden State, seemed to have a little bit of that unique sourness found in San Francisco sourdough bread. (And personal kudos to Sierra Nevada as I wasn’t charged for the two small tastes.)

Eagle Lake is in the far northeastern corner of California, about 40 miles from the Nevada border and 90 miles from the Oregon border. The nearest town, Susanville, has been called “Prison Town, USA,” as about 40% of its 18,000 residents are housed at the High Desert State Prison and the California Correctional Facility, were actor Danny Trejo served time.

About 20 miles out of Chico, State Highway 32 winds through high desert and scrub to climb into a denser evergreen forest. The highway crosses Deer Creek numerous times and though the water was high, a few fly fishermen were wading in the slower sections. The town of Chester marks the beginning of the last, tortuously slow leg of the drive toward Spalding, which hugs the northeastern edge of Eagle Lake.

There’s not much cell phone coverage after leaving Chico, so it wasn’t until I pulled into Chester that a text message from Don popped up, letting me know he was in Susanville. I acknowledged his message with my location, to get a reply that he had just talked with our guide, Doug, who said the bite had been excellent. I trust Doug well enough that the thought didn’t even cross my mind that he might be setting us up for the big “you should’ve been here yesterday.”

Lunch was big, so dinner that night was a single grilled cheese sandwich and a beer, enjoyed in view of the lake, its water slowly darkening as the embers of a setting sun touched the tips of the surrounding mountains.

Never a Dull Moment

To be clear, I’m usually adequately prepared when it comes to fishing. But there’s something about the prospect of big Eagle Lake rainbows that seems to scramble my brain. Last year I lost track of my fishing license, something guides tend to require clients have in their possession.

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Don on the chilly morning ride to "The Mesa."

This year it was the same but different. As I hoisted my backpack to my shoulder, a pocket I had left that unzipped itself allowed my wallet to be flung to parts unknown. A quick scan of the ground revealed nothing. Thinking it might have fallen out back at camp I told Don and rushed off, thankful that I had arrived at the marina 20 minutes early. Not finding my wallet, I shoved any worries about it to the back of my mind. But confirming my choice in fishing buddies, Don was waiting in the boat with the first big catch of the day…my wallet. Finally I could enjoy a morning that hinted at good weather and gave rise to great expectations. The sky was peppered with white clouds that suggested changeable weather; good news if it brought a welcome breeze to the lake’s surface.

Anglers have been taking fish from the lake since Memorial Day, but as is the case with Eagle Lake, the trout population can make for stupid, silly catching much of the time. It’s a simple matter of being there on the bite with the right flies at the right depths in the right location. Doug has his favorite spots and our first stop was cryptically referred to as “The Mesa.” After positioning and anchoring the boat based on the wind, currents and structure, casts were made and indicators watched.

No matter one’s thoughts on stillwater nymphing, it demands decent casting as well as the mental stamina to discern the exact moment at which to set the hook. Casting two nymphs, split shot and an indicator isn’t elegant, but requires a certain skill to prevent incidental ear piercing.

Those who decry indicators often imply they make fly fishing too easy. But throw out 40 feet of fly line and put 10 feet of leader below an indicator, and it’s not that easy. One has to maintain constant vigilance, watching for the subtle difference between a “drive by” and an actual strike. A strike doesn’t always bury the indicator under water and often isn’t convenient. One learns to pause and pay close attention in those short moments after a twitch or line mends. It can be tough. I’ve heard of one experience fly fisher who went oh-for-eleven on solid strikes during the early morning bite.

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Don and his first-day big Eagle Lake Rainbow.

Don’s the kind of fishing buddy who will quietly sneak up on his partner when it comes to the “body count.” He’s also a great team player. We both bring experience to the lake, and guide Doug was impressed that Don and I as a team achieved an estimated successful hookset percentage north of 95% on Sunday. For our two days on the lake that figure was likely north of 90%.

As I’ve implied, great fishing can be anticipated on Eagle Lake. One guide is fond of saying that double hookups can be expected and triples are common. Even new fly fishers can often look back upon a day of 20-plus fish to the net. Many are in the 14- to 18-inch range; some edge above 18 inches. Given enough good hooksets, a few closer to 20 inches will make it to the boat. The larger fish will bulldog towards the bottom, while smaller fish will fool you with vicious head shakes and long runs, sometimes into the backing. If you’re lucky enough, as Don and I were, you’ll land a few native fish that are beautiful enough to compare favorably with Alaska’s famed leopard-spotted rainbows.

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My biggest Eagle Lake Rainbow – over 22 inches.

There are the Big Fish. During the morning of our first day, Don and I brought a couple in the 22-inch neighborhood to the net. It’s a different challenge to bring these big dogs in; they’re strong and tend to seek the darkness under the boat. Some will even clear the water after that first sting of the hook, as if to intimidate the funny-looking hairy beast on the other end of the line.

The fishing started off strong that first morning with the kind of rapid-fire hookups that give rise to concerns that the bite will taper into nothingness by noon. But this was Eagle Lake, and with some patience and dialing in the aforementioned flies, depth and location, one can expect steady action. Sometimes slower, sometimes not.

Forty-two fish made it to the boat that day. Eleven short of our record last year; but things looked promising for day two. Little did I know how tough it might be.

See the photo gallery here.

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post 460: IN WHICH we realize that technology provides proof today that “you should have been here yesterday”

A few years ago it was with a smirk and wink that the guide would tell you, knowing that you certainly weren’t there yesterday. In silent acknowledgement, you’d smirk back.

Impossibly white wisps of clouds break up that bluebird sky. The lake’s in great shape, the temperature just right and the surface rippling ever so slightly.

You’ve been fishing in this particular spot for just short of an hour, with only a few “drive bys” rewarding your efforts. This is the third spot this morning. Fishing’s been tough. And now it takes an honest effort to not set the hook with every dip of the indicator. A fear has set in that the moment you look away the next dip will end up being a missed fish.

A sly glance is the only indication that you’re ignoring a growling stomach, trying to outwait your companion, hoping that the moment he bites into his sandwich indicators will go down. You also overlook other bodily needs. You gather strength with the self admonition that a line not in the water isn’t fishing.

Then the guide says it. “You should have been here yesterday.”

This time you know he means it, and you curse the intertubes.

…in the coming days I’ll be on Eagle Lake — shown in the above only days-old video — hoping that those words are never even considered being spoken.

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why the California trout you might catch will be different, though not to your naked eye

Chances are that in the sordid noble history of nearly all fly fishermen, trout were caught, cleaned and eaten. It’s just as likely that these fish were born in a hatchery, raised in concrete runways and trucked to that river, stream, or lake from which they were plucked.

Writing without the encumbrances of real journalism, I can can step out on a limb and offer definitive word that nearly all of the stocked rainbow trout in California soon could be triploids. Yup, them fish that should be asterisk’d in any claim of a record.

Hatchery Upwelling Jars

Hatchery Upwelling Jars

Shifting to triploids by 2014 is the goal, according to California Department of Fish & Game’s Dr. William T. Cox*, Program Manager: Fish Production and Distribution, thanks in part to the 2006 lawsuit filed by the Pacific Rivers Council and the Center for Biological Diversity claiming that CA DFG’s fish stocking did not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act. The nut of the lawsuit was the impact of stocked trout upon anadromous fish populations and other native aquatic species.

While the resulting hatchery environmental impact reports called for the protection of steelhead in anadromous waters below rim dams, CA DFG will expand rainbow triploid production to approximately 90% of the state’s stocking program. The few exceptions will include Eagle Lake, an understandably unnamed southern Sierra source of Kamloops Junction Rainbow broodstock, and hatchery broodstock that will be placed in certain waters when three to four years old.

Triploids aren’t new to California. They were first brought in from out-of-state suppliers, such as Sumner, Wash.-based Troutlodge, then reared in CA DFG hatcheries. The department later developed its own program, with a single apparatus and borrowing methodology from other states that have had success with trout triploidy. This single apparatus was trucked up and down the state, following the spawning of the different rainbow strains.

That will change near the end of this month when additional triploidy pressure shocking machines should arrive from Europe, allowing for the placement of two machines at the Mt. Shasta Hatchery and single machines at the San Joaquin Hatchery and Hot Creek Hatchery. (You can get a good, easy-to-understand outline of triploids and their production at Get Hooked.)

There Be No Monsters Here (and Good News for Natives?)

It seems you can set aside concerns that genetically engineered monster rainbows will be dumped into California waters. These triploid trout will be still be stocked when ½ to ¾ of a pound. (Trivia: The size of trout stocked by CA DFG rose to a target of ½ pound when the general daily limit on trout was reduced to five, from 10 fish. Before that, stocked trout often were smaller.)

Although mandated by 2005’s Assembly Bill 7 — now California Fish and Game Code §13007 — and not directly related to the PRC/CBD lawsuit, Dr. Cox expressed hope that up to 25% of CA DFG’s stocked fish will be heritage species (in terms of numbers) by 2012-13. State hatcheries currently raise Eagle Lake Rainbow (Oncorhynchus mykiss aquilarum), Lahonton Cutthroat (Oncorhynchus clarki henshawi), California (or Volcano Creek) Golden Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita) and Steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss).

A fifth heritage trout species should be in production by January 2012. Spelled out in the California Fish & Game Commission’s Current Issues Fall 2010 document are plans to upgrade the infrastructure at the Kern River Hatchery for the production of the native Kern River Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss gilberti). Dr. Cox said that Kern River rainbow broodstock should be collected this fall. Long-term plans include the possibility of rearing Lahontan cutthroat trout for the Lake Tahoe basin restoration.

Regardless of one’s opinion of stocked trout, it’s fair to say that those with boots on the ground in California’s hatcheries honestly aim to better the angling experience. Here’s to hoping.

* Yes, he’s a fisherman who spent much of last month fly fishing in Wyoming and Montana.