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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
It didn’t take long after high winds brought an early end to our adventures on Crowley Lake to decide that it was the perfect afternoon to introduce Willy to the wonderfully willing brook trout in an upper section of Rock Creek, just below the lake.It was late when we arrived, but nearly magic hour on this wide spot. In a voice hushed for no other reason than wonderment at the beauty of where we were, I described what to expect. Every pool, tailout, rock and bend prompted a memory of a fish that rose to a fly in the seasons before. Colors grew more vivid as I described the 13-inch wild rainbow that surprised me and my 3 wt. rod during the spring a year ago. Willy headed downstream, I went up.
Fall in the eastern Sierras is a feast for the eyes; the low sun filters through the yellow and orange leaves of the quaking aspens, the evergreens seem to take on a darker hue, and through a bleak and gray winter may be nearing, for now the sky is a brilliant blue.
It’s that time of year when small brook trout flame with spawning colors. Willy, a striped bass fisherman of note who’s landed big fish of many species, broadly smiled while cradling one of these gems in his hand; reminded of how fun and beautiful these trout can be.
The numbers of fish we landed was lost in concentration as we targeted specific fish. I’d started with a dry/dropper combination, but soon opted for only a small humpy, for no other reason than the excitement of surface grabs. I’d end up climbing, literally, upstream, targeting small whirlpools tucked between the rocks. Nearly every one gave up a fish.
With the tops of the tree shadows reaching the far side of the creek, we both ventured upstream, where Willy pulled a few fish out of a plunge pool that offers a small, but textbook example of the effect of currents on the drift of a fly, with almost intimate takes from fish less than three feet away.
Thinking we’d already had too much fun, we found our way back to the road, from which Willy could get a good look at the lake. The plunge pool we’d been fishing was the outlet for the lake, and as if an illustration from any good fly fishing book, signs of rising fish dotted what was in essence the tailout for the lake. This was feeding activity that couldn’t be passed up by any fly fisherman.
The wind, accelerating down the canyon, made casting difficult, at least for me, but we both got flies out far enough and every decent presentation earned at least a strike, and a few rainbows were landed.
It has been a textbook day, and the trout did everything they were supposed to do. It’s the best way to learn.
As I figure it, I have a lot more learning to do.
When you mention stillwater nymphing to a group of fly fishermen, you can’t expect more than a quarter of the group to stick around. Certainly, it’s not for everyone. It just happens that a lake offered my
most productive fly fishing day ever entre into the sport.
After the drive over Tioga Pass last month, the plan was for Willy, Bill and me to spend that Wednesday with a guide, learning the specifics and generalities of Crowley Lake. Learn we did. Catching, not so much.
The high water this year had the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power monkeying around with the lake level, which, combined with warmer-than-usual fall weather, led to heavy weed growth. Not only were weeds growing up from the bottom, algae floated on top. We’d be parking the boat over a channel created by McGee Creek in search of a literal window through which we might present our flies.
Doug would be more than our guide that day. He would be teacher and cheerleader. Questions wafted through the air with the midges. Discussions centered around the fly(ies) of the day, casting, adjusting the depth of flies, and reading the fish finder to determine boat position.
Unlike most of my experiences on Crowley, conversations went on uninterrupted. The fish were there. Willy hooked a couple of decent rainbows early in the day, but strikes were few. Bill landed a nice brown later in the day, as did I. Violating the rule about moving away from fish, we did, wetting our lines at Green Banks, near Leighton Springs and Alligator Point, only to end up back at McGee.
That learning was put to the test Thursday, when Willy and I spent the day in his boat, searching for open channels and properly positioning the boat. Eight hook ups, with one beefy brown to the net and three rainbows lost — big fish that jumped and cleared the water by a body length or more — suggested we’d done well.
Day two entailed my learning how to launch a boat on a rather shallow ramp, and soon enough we would be on the way. Unlike the previous morning, a nice breeze rippled the water; perhaps the same breeze that pushed the top-water algae to the opposite side of the lake. It was one of those clear, crisp high Sierra mornings when the mountains seem that much closer.
Willy and I had discussed strategy while slowly cruising through the marina with a probably misguided reliance upon my previous experience — five years worth — at Crowley. We’d end up agreeing to revisit the McGee Creek channel, but with my suggestion, which had no basis in any empirical evidence, that we’d push closer to shore and fish in about 10 feet of water.
A few boats and float tubers were already in the vicinity when we both began to carefully watch the depth finder for the edges of weeds and the telltale dip of the creek channel. We crossed it a few times and when we finally anchored, it had taken longer to get into position a few feet away from the channel (so we could cast to it) than it did to make the run from the marina to our destination. We were set to cast.
I felt a bit of a dorky tingle as I locked forceps to my bottom fly — I’d seen guides do this, but never myself — and lowered it over the gunwale to gauge the depth as which to set my indicator. I nervously cast out to where we hoped to intercept cruising fish; thinking that this was a test that would be graded by the fish we landed, or didn’t.As often happens on this lake, it wasn’t too long before Willy’s indicator went subsurface. Once the hook was set (and the fish obviously felt it), a big, beautiful rainbow cleared the water by a body length of at least 18 inches, if not 20, and threw the hook. Willy and I gawked at each other in disbelief. For me it wasn’t so much because Willy didn’t land the fish, but for the simple reason that this fish clearly demonstrated that we, on our own, had done something right.
Willy would hook (and lose) another big rainbow later than morning, and we’d both elicit strikes when raising our rods (and flies) to cast, with one fish hitting Willy’s fly just a few feet from the boat. There were a few other fish for me, including one huge brown…not long, but linebacker big, with shoulders and a head big enough to give me pause before reaching into the net.
It wasn’t the wide-open fishing, or even the hot and heavy fishing, that I’ve previously seen on Crowley. It’s not always a numbers game and the difference this time — a huge difference in fact — was that we did it on our own and that the fish seemed to agree that we did something right.
It seems that I don’t drive distracted.
About a month ago, Willy and I loaded up at his house and left just before 7:00 a.m. and headed east, skipping from one highway to another, toward Toms Place, Calif., the annual fall destination for the club’s Eastern Sierra outing. It’d be my fourth. Along the way we’d be travelling through the Sierra foothills and Yosemite*, stopping at the Crowley Lake Marina for a quagga mussel inspection of Willy’s Bay Ranger.
Over the last eight-plus years I’ve had multiple opportunities to drive Hwy 120, up along scrubland bordering Priest Grade to where the highway becomes Big Oak Flat Road and winds through the sparse foothill woodland surrounding Groveland and much of the roadway, then finally rising into heavier stands of conifers — more correctly a lower montane forest — before the Yosemite entrance station at about 5,000 feet. My past trips encompassed ambitious one-day, 225-mile fishing trips with stops to cast a line at four or five different creeks or rivers as well as motorcycling over Sonora and Tioga passes shortly after opening, when snowdrifts 10-plus feet high line the high-country portions of the road.
It’s a fantastic road trip, to be sure, but on this drive I found that the view was very different from the passenger’s seat of Willy’s Cadillac Escalade.
The road welcomed us with limited traffic, and only a few miles of road construction slowed our progress. Anyone who’s driven through Tracy, Manteca and Oakdale — perhaps headed to Two Mile Bar or Goodwin Dam on the Stanislaus River — know that there’s plenty of nothing to look at. It’s here that the road seems to drone on between orchards and field crops, time seems to slow and I’m thankful that the highway is now three lanes through Tracy, once a bottleneck no matter the time of day.
It’s outside of the appropriately named Oakdale that the oak woodland takes hold. The oak trees and an occasional gray pine break up the monotony of the now golden grasses. Then there’s the always subtle shock of the “girls, girls, girls” sign that appears out of nowhere, perched above a rundown hotel and shadowy outbuilding truly in the middle of nowhere, all of which is enclosed by a substantial not-so-ornamental iron fence. That sign is also a landmark signaling the last mile or so before the right turn toward Yosemite.
The history of the Sierra foothills comes to life driving through Big Oak Flat and Groveland in the form of vacant stone buildings adorned with iron shutters and doors that recognize the danger of fire during the hot summers. Jeffery, Yellow and Ponderosa fight for space between buildings. The road here barely allows the passing of two motorhomes, forcing life to slow to a crawl. Not necessarily a bad thing.
As we approached the national park border the density of the forest was more imposing than my long held impression resulting from occasional glances from the driver’s seat. I’d seen these trees before, but details now stood out. A thick green canopy blocks any view of the sky and despite a distinct lack of branches from the ground to a few feet above the average man’s head, there were so many trees that the concentration of trunks cut the range of visibility to a couple hundred yards. As the miles slide by, the undergrowth grows lush.
More than just a stop to hit the restrooms, the Big Oak Flat entrance to Yosemite marks the start of a big change in vegetation and terrain. After another half hour and a left turn toward Tuolumne Meadows, Western Juniper, Red Fir and Lodgepole Pine dominate the view, indicators of the upper montane forest. Meadows of unreal green — in essence nature’s sponges for snowmelt — occasionally come in to view, edged by skunk cabbage and corn lily. In another hour, slabs of granite and collections of boulders begin to replace meadows.
Then, unexpectedly, the view opens up to vast expanses of what I’ve always known as granite and that, in all of my limited travels, seems to be the unique calling card of the Yosemite high country. A less brilliant white, I’d later learn that it’s actually a mix of granitoids and in many cases leans toward granodiorite, which is darker, almost moody and reflective of the changeable weather. It also marks the march into the subalpine forest as one nears 9,000 feet in elevation.
This day was clear and the only distraction was a fuel gauge needle too close to “E” for comfort. Since I tend to measure distance by time instead of mileage, I guessed that the gas station in Tuolumne Meadows would arrive at least a few comfortable miles before the needle was pegged. I grimaced a bit with each incline and hoped I was right.
My concerns were alleviated by the sight of the sapphire-blue waters of Tenaya Lake, probably one of the most photographed bodies of water within the borders of Yosemite National Park. The beauty of Tenaya belies the fact that it’s a barren, fishless lake. Thankfully, I knew it was less than 10 miles to the Tuolumne Meadows gas station, one of the few Chevron stations with a mini-store that offers rock climbing equipment for sale and rent. We’d done alright so far. It was 11:00 a.m., putting us on schedule to stop for lunch in Lee Vining.
This time the appearance of Tuolumne Meadows and its namesake river was a far cry from a visit in June with my brother and one son. The river was no longer near flood stage; the water had receded and the meadow was again grass. Lembert Dome loomed above us, sheer peaks watched from the southeast and the now fishable Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River teased us from alongside the road. Soon we reached Tioga Pass station and began a descent that would take us past Tioga and Ellery lakes, and into Lee Vining Canyon.
This 9-mile stretch of road harbors the majority of my childhood memories of family vacations. Scattered about are small meadows dotted with small stands of Lodgepole and other pines, and laced by small streams with small, willing wild brook and brown trout. Tioga Lake recalls a day of crazy fishing, when my sister, brother, dad and I stood on rocks a few feet above the lake casting spinners and watching the (stocked) rainbow trout chase our lures, only to strike at the last minute.
It all changes after Ellery Lake. Sheer rock is the predominate feature. Only small plants and hardy trees cling to crevices. Only on the canyon floor, the eventual destination of Lee Vining Creek after its exit from Ellery Lake, offers any great expanse of green. The Eastern Sierra high desert — a Pinyon pine-Juniper woodland — begins near the canyon floor, offering a stark contrast, beautiful in its own way, to the forest passed through to get there.
We had about 12 more miles to Lee Vining and sat down for lunch on the patio at Bodie Mike’s Barbeque just after noon. With the seasoning that comes with eating out-of-doors, we dug in, enjoying the view toward Mono Lake between bites. It was a quick drive to Crowley Lake Marina to surprise the marina attendant with a bone-dry boat. It took longer to affix the tag than conduct the inspection.
A few minutes later we tucked our stuff into the cabin to find ourselves with more time than expected on our hands. The afternoon sun was still well above the mountains to the west. We were there to fish, so took a short stroll to the nearby Rock Creek to cast a few flies.
Rock Creek isn’t too big, but usually heavily stocked and fished just as much. Willy and I split up. I would find a few rising fish willing to strike my offerings, but the kicker was Willy’s first fish — his first post retirement trout. A not-too-shabby brown trout of about 14 inches.
We spent a bit more time casting to rising fish, next to the opposite shore, of course. A few took our offerings, fewer were landed, but it was good to spend a few hours getting the “skunk” off before dinner.
Looking back, it was a good start to what would be a trip that was great for reasons I didn’t expect.
*Not through Yosemite Valley, however. The road to the valley dead ends near the Happy Isles Visitor Center. Hwy 120 passes the valley and heads through the high country and Tuolumne Meadows, then over Tioga Pass.
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.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.
I just finished counting the days until Opening Day in this neck of the woods, and realized that April will mark the fifth anniversary of my quick
descent assimilation into the fly fishing community. The years have flown by as this hobby uniformly crept into the fabric my existence, without any warning of how rewarding and frustrating it could be, and how much richer it would make my life.
While I’ll likely forever argue with those who say fly fishing is about being on the water, in beautiful places, striving for the prefect cast (Would you really be there if the fish weren’t?), I was reminded last weekend that it can be similarly gratifying to pass along the joy of the sport.
When club casting instructor Willy called me and asked if I could fill in as an assistant at the Fly Fishing Show, I felt some relief that my father was on the other line, lending legitimacy to delaying my answer. Perhaps it’s a lack of confidence or a high level of self-criticism, but despite assisting with the club’s novice fly fishing seminar for these five years and acquitting myself well enough on the water to present flies in a manner suitable enough to fool fish, I’ve never thought of myself capable of offering worthwhile advice on casting. But I’d been kept onboard as the “hooking and landing” instructor for nine consecutive seminars over those five years. Besides, when a Federation of Fly Fishers-Certified Casting Instructor calls you, it suggests a level of faith.
The weather leading up to Sunday was cold and wet. The next system was predicted to lay a thin layer of snow on the local hills, but it moved quickly; the skies and sun would shine upon us all day.I’d never been to the Fly Fishing Show for no other reason than lack of planning. Aisles were crowded with the requisite rod and reels in shiny colors that offered no additional functionality except to attract the eyes of anglers. One long row was inhabited by fly tiers doing what they do best. In between these booths, and others displaying gear, where thousands of flies for sale and lodges all touting trips of a lifetime.
Greeting me at the Federation booth were a few familiar faces, giving lessons in fly tying, offering casting lessons and talking up the Trout in the Classroom program. The job was simple. Meet and greet folks and offer free casting instruction. During the afternoon, Willy, Gary (who teaches the novice seminar with Willy) and I would do just that with a number of people. After all, free is a very good price.
I’ll admit to some trepidation at offering advice after a
checkered short five-year career in fly fishing. Sticking to the basics seemed good enough, particularly for folks who’d never casted a fly rod. The results were surprising. The nearly adult boy who wanted to fly fish with his dad was soon able to cast well enough to place the yarn fly close to, if not in, the target ring. The girlfriend of the guy who wisely understood his attempts to teach her to cast might make him single again, learned that making a backcast as if she were picking up the phone* allowed for nice loops and a great presentation.
We kept offering and giving lessons. My confidence rose. While Gary instructed a wife, I worked with the husband to successfully relearn the casting of a smaller 5 wt trout rod after years of chasing Dorado with a 9 wt. We swapped stories and techniques all the while.
The kids were the best. My day ended spending time with a girl who was probably all of 11 years old, who wanted to learn to cast so that she and her dad could take advantage of an offer from an aunt in Montana to get them out on some of the local rivers. This little girl’s focus, willingness to learn and lack of bad habits allowed for fast learning, only delayed by a break now and then to rest. By the end of our time together, she was casting to a target with deadly accuracy.
At the end of the day, it was clear that I did something to help these folks learn fly casting or improve their casting. Perhaps it was as simple as standing outside on a sunny day and offering small words of encouragement. Perhaps there’s more to it than that. Regardless of what it was that I had to offer, the thank yous, appreciation and smiles after each lesson were genuine. Despite being a volunteer, I was paid well.
*Think of picking up the receiver of a wall-mounted phone and stopping at your ear.