fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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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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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.


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is one California too much, or how do you feel about buying multiple fishing licenses?

Though it’s a remote possibility that the proposal by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper to divide California into six states would make it over the many required hurdles — from gathering signatures of 807,615 registered voters to put the measure on the ballot to final congressional approval — it presents a conundrum for a native Californian.

This is a big state, one of diversity. Every once and a while that diversity bubbles to the surface; one example is the Jefferson state movement that is revisited every decade or so. Boards of supervisors in Modoc and Siskiyou counties, which are near the Oregon border, approved measures in support of the Jefferson state declaration. Tehama County, one county south of Modoc and Siskiyou, has placed a similar measure on the ballot.

California is one of the few places where five major climate types can be in close proximity. From my home, it’s a four-hour drive to the high Sierras, the Humboldt redwoods or the southern coastline. The same goes with fishing: steelhead to the north, Striped bass to the east, trout to the northeast and southeast, saltwater fish to the west.

Setting aside all the pros and cons about and difficulties of creating smaller California state, it raises the possibility, just to fish for trout in place I enjoy, that I’d have to buy three separate licenses. Saltwater fishing could require a fourth. This may be an accepted part of living in smaller states, but not something I look forward to.

One upside might be the possibility that the proposed state I would live in, “North California,” could regain its water rights. I’m sure we’d set a fair price for all that water needed down south.


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you’ll just have to trust me

“…Facebook is responsible for the death of thousands of fish a year due to people mishandling fish as they pose for victory shots.”
      — attributed to Brian O’Keefe, co-founder of Catch Magazine in “An Upstream Journey, Dispatch #5: Taking a Break in Bend” by Paul Moinester


It’s become accepted in an era of InstaFaceGooTumblr that without visual evidence you’re not to be believed.

…which explains the fact that a search of “fly fishing photography” yields over 20 million results. It appears customary for articles about “catch and release” in mainstream fly fishing media and other outlets to include how to take a grip and grin with minimal impact on the fish. Even a few detail how the solitary fisherman can take better photos.

My experience fishing alone has taught me that there is no easy way to take a decent photo. When I did, it was only to prove my fly fishing prowess luck.

NoPhotoNot anymore.

It could be argued that trout are the most beautiful freshwater game fish. Yes, their coloration goes beyond simple camouflage, it is sprinkled with a subtle and unmatched beauty for which words are inadequate.

I’d like to say it’s that beauty that leads fly fisherman so often post or carry photos of fish. But more often than not, these poses — “hero shots” — show a fish in a most unnatural environment: out of water, often in midair, and in a human’s hands.

Getting a good photo when fishing solo is something I haven’t mastered. There’s the bumbling for the camera once the fish is in the net. The instant the camera’s turned on the trout, at least the ones I land, decide to be as uncooperative as possible. Most of my first shots are unattractive photos of their backs. There might be a second attempt but by the third try, sympathy for the fish wins, and I let it slide out from the net.

That’s not to say I won’t take any fish photos whatsoever when fishing solo, but there’ll be no more arm’s length shots; maybe photos only of that remarkable fish, landed quickly and handled minimally, in the net in the water. With any luck, I’ll learn how to take underwater shots.

Next time I tell you I landed a few trout, you’ll just have to trust me.


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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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a different type of enrichment

In my newsfeed this morning was a refreshing article about a kind of cool plan for Native Americans to take ownership of a section of land in Northern California through which flows a wild trout stream. According to the Sacramento Bee:

A group of Maidu Indians has succeeded in its quest to be named the official owner of Humbug Valley, a 2,325-acre area in Plumas County that is the last remnant of their once vast homeland still in relatively pristine condition.

The Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council unanimously recommended that the Maidu Summit Consortium hold title “in perpetuity” to the grassy meadow laced by a wild trout stream seven miles southeast of Chester.
Sacramento Bee

Nice.

I really don’t have much of an opinion on Native American gaming, but more than once, almost in the middle of nowhere, I’ve passed huge Native American casinos on my way to a trout stream. (I do hope that the parking garages are designed to capture any runoff tainted by the drippings from the Buicks, Cadillacs, Lincolns and Crown Vics.)

While I wouldn’t lump myself in with tree huggers, I am also aware of the fact that modern remediation isn’t always as successful as might be hoped. What’s encouraging is a plan to use indigenous understanding and traditional techniques to restore this land.

The Maidu will work with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop a comprehensive land management plan that includes restoration of forest and meadow habitat as well as Yellow Creek, a state-designated wild trout stream. Earlier this year, the two groups were partners in a project designed to restore wet meadows in Humbug Valley.

Charlton H. Bonham, agency director, was part of that project and has publicly endorsed Maidu ownership of the valley. Humbug Valley presents a historic opportunity to demonstrate how traditional ecological knowledge can complement the modern scientific approach brought by state agencies, he said.

I fished Yellow Creek in solitude a couple of years ago and consider it one of my best experiences on a wild trout stream. It’s an intimate creek marked by undercut banks, with numerous twists and turns that reward stealth.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.


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no longer just fair-weather fishing

I’d never thought of myself as a fair-weather fisherman until last month. The truth is that the timing of my fishing trips — most of which take place within a few hours drive of our cabin in the Sierra foothills — is more often dictated by the level of water and the appetites of the trout in it. There are plenty of sources for information that will give you an idea of what might be expected when you get where you’re going, but usually doesn’t match up with the reality of being there.

Last month I had left the cabin on an outing that began like any other early-morning trip over Sonora Pass. I left before sunrise, the roads were vacant and it was about 40 degrees F. The general idea was to visit previously unvisited areas of a nearby watershed, with no specific plan in mind.

The elevation of the cabin is about 3,600 feet, where autumn is generally makes its presence known in a pleasant manner. Leaves are beginning to change and there’s a nip in the air. Short sleeves are still comfortable most of the now shorter daylight hours.

The temperature fell as I began to climb toward the pass, and blotches of yellows and reds more frequently peeked out from behind the evergreens. By the time I arrived at Kennedy Meadows (elevation 6,700 feet), it was about half an hour past sunrise, but in the shadows of this piñon-juniper forest, it was 27 degrees. In 10 more miles I climbed another 3,000 feet, emerged from the tree line, and the temperature would rise about 25 degrees.

I have a fondness for the high country — because its beauty is one of stark contrasts, in some ways harsh but fragile in others, with dwarfed pines scrapping out an existence against a background of granite — and this dramatic variation in temperatures is one of the most observable influences on that beauty. The simple expansion of water as it becomes ice slowly breaks down granite. The melting of that ice, and snow, as well as a general weathering of the landscape, breaks that granite into pieces that, through weather and the activities of insects and animals, can be mixed with decomposed plant matter to create a thin and rocky soil. It’s truly amazing that such infertile soil supports numerous conifers of all shapes and sizes.

The descent on the east side of the mountains leads down to the high desert, where desolation of this shrubland is interrupted by strings of trees, usually aspens in the canyons and pines elsewhere, following the course of the rivers and streams of the Walker watershed. The sun gathers strength here, but this morning its power would be contested by a layer of cold air that had established a foothold during the night.

River-Side Ice

River-side ice at 26 degrees that morning.

There’s always that time, between emerging from the artificial environmental cocoon of a vehicle and before the cold really starts to bite, that the air temperature never seems that cold. When I pulled alongside likely looking water, it was 26 degrees. I had given serious consideration to the idea it would be chilly, but now worried I hadn’t considered it seriously enough.

So with the thought that I had come too far and retreat wasn’t an option, I began the layering that I hoped would suffice. This was comprised of fleece pants under the waders, a wind-proof wading jacket over a fleece sweatshirt that was on top of my long sleeve shirt, and a well-worn, wide-brim canvas hat. Later I’d realize that my fingerless fishing gloves would have been a welcome addition.

As long as I kept moving, I avoided the long shadows that persisted as the sun hung low along its autumnal path. The water was 58 degrees, at the low end at which trout will be active, so I didn’t linger too long in one spot and moved frequently to cover as much water as possible.

This was an entirely new experience. My breath hung in the air, lingering as puffs of white. Skim ice crunched underfoot. My guides iced up within fifteen minutes. It was cold. So cold that I almost — almost — hoped that wouldn’t have to plunge my hand into the water to unhook a fish.

I would leave this first spot about an hour later, skunked but feeling that for that brief time, more than ever, that I couldn’t escape being part of nature.


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the 2013 Eastern Sierra Expeditionary Force, part one

Ask anyone who attended my club’s Eastern Sierra trip about the fish that made it to the net, and he’s likely to tell you it was about 18 inches. And that will be the truth.

For some of our group that was the length of one rainbow trout. For others, that total of 18 inches was the cumulative length of six brook trout. That’s just how it can play out in the Eastern Sierras.

The nice thing about an annual trip is that there always seems be to a landmark at which everyday life melts away and the focus shifts and sharpens to living in the present.

Morning above the West Walker River.

Morning above the West Walker River.

In this case, it occurs once the descent from Sonora Pass begins and the high desert stretches out in front of me. The route of choice this year was Hwy 108, as Hwy 120 (Tioga Road) was closed through mid September due to the Rim Fire. The usual commute traffic was there. Twice I would weave between cows meandering on the asphalt.

There are two maxims that apply to my fly fishing: (1) Get the skunk of as quickly as possible and (2) shaving serves no purpose. To address the first adage, I stopped at the West Walker River earlier than most fly fisherman would even take their first sip of coffee. Early enough to enjoy the stirring experience of hearing reveille echoing from the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center before my first cast.

Most people head for “the bend,” knowing that pods of planted trout can be found and, occasionally, a bigger fish might be found under a cut bank. But upstream, pocket water is a bigger draw for me.

West Walker Wild Rainbow

West Walker Wild Rainbow

Pocket water slows me down considerably, and it’s a good thing. Besides the obvious, avoiding a fall and at least a sprain if not a broken bone or two, the pocket water in the Sierras tends to be favored by the better-looking wild fish, and they need to be stalked. With a slow and low approach, I found plenty of wild rainbows willing to play.

When the sun was high in the sky and hiding my profile consigned me to shade and leg cramps, it was time to head down Hwy 395 to Tom’s Place Resort, , which if you’ve ever been, is a bit more basic than the name implies. But the price is right. The rest of our group, totaling 12, would filter in throughout the afternoon.

After that, the real fishing would begin, to be followed by free flowing homemade beer, good food and plenty of lies.


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don’t know what to expect this trip

It’s been a bad year for water in California. The April opener was one of the best in years thanks to low water levels.

Next week we’ll see for ourselves what Eastern Sierra rivers and lakes look like four months later.

One guide recently referred to Bridgeport Reservoir as a “pond.” Bridgeport is so low that its outflow into the East Walker River has been tainted by algae — algae that usually floats closer to the surface of the reservoir — and now the river is regularly off color and weedier than usual. Lake Sabrina in the Bishop area is so low that the front (manmade) lake no longer exists. The level of Crowley Lake is better than might be expected, but low enough to concentrate fish in the deepest areas.

The route taken by myself and guys from the club will be dictated by the Rim Fire. Hwy 120 remains closed. An expectation that the fire might not be fully contained until Sept. 20 doesn’t lend any clarity as to when it might open.

That’s not a big issue for me. I usually head over Sonora Pass via Hwy 108, with stops at the West Walker River, Little Walker River or Molybdenite Creek.

Thankfully, there will be water to fish when we settle in at Tom’s Place Resort (which certainly isn’t the resort you might think it is). The Upper Owens is supposed to be in good shape. The Middle Owens is flowing at an unseasonably high level. I may head to the high country, visiting alpine lakes and streams where I hope the fish are already preparing for a long winter.

However it works out, there will be lies told over beer and good grub.