Wednesday, November 16, 2011

No Man's Land

What does your fly tying area look like? Is everything all neatly set up with labeled material drawers, all your tools and bobbins and what not resting in their form fitting slots on a foam or wooden caddy and all your spools of wire, thread and floss impaled on neat little posts on yet another caddy? Do you have one of those little Waste-trol bags underneath your vise to catch hair and feather clipping lest they should fall on your perfectly clean floor?

If so, I envy your self discipline and I probably already don’t like you….

My tying area is a no man’s land that occupies a corner of our basement. I have an old oak desk that I brought home when one of my previous employers was giving their old office furniture away so they could install newer, more trim and modern metal desks. My oak desk is roughly 60 inches wide by 36 inches deep and about 30 inches high. It has six huge drawers and weighs just slightly less than last year’s Honduran banana crop. Like Greenland, there are places on its surface that may have been mapped at one time, but probably have never been visited. During the majority of the year, the top of the desk is cluttered (more like piled, actually..) with materials in (but more often, out) of their original plastic bags. Plastic envelopes and boxes of hooks peek out from beneath ostrich plumes, clumps of hand-blended sulfur dubbing and from behind empty Diet Mountain Dew bottles. An ancient #2 Metz dun neck lies back towards the rear center of the table. It is half out of its plastic bag, which is clearly labeled “red/brown India necks” in black laundry marker. That must mean that when I need a size #12 brown dry fly hackle, I need to find the bag that is labeled “#2 Metz dun”. But I’m pretty sure I just saw it the other day and it has some stripped peacock sticks in it. Oh well, it’ll turn up eventually..

In addition to the oak desk, I also have two towers of those plastic stack drawers that normal people use to store extra pairs of shoes, their now unused cassette tapes of disco music or old framed photographs of family members or former significant others who have fallen out of favor and lost their place of honor on the shelves in the family room.

One tower sits to either side of my tying chair (it’s oak too and came with the table). Each tower is just slightly shorter than I am and has five big drawers, each of which would easily hold two shoeboxes and the entire recorded output of the Bee Gees and Donna Summer on cassette. They’re big drawers. I know this because when they are stacked one of top of each other, they make big towers. In these drawers are most of my furs, loose feathers and older, lower quality hackle necks. Some labeled and in bags. Some loose. And some in bags that are labeled incorrectly. My good hackle necks and saddles are in the top drawer of the tower to my right. They are the only part of my inventory of materials that has a label on the outside of the drawer. The label reads: “Good Necks”- Add Mothballs Every November”. But at present, I don’t know where the mothballs are. They might be under that piece of muskrat fur sitting behind the unopened 8 oz. commemorative Coca-Cola bottle that my wife picked up at the 1996 Republican Convention when she was there as a reporter. I swiped it from her extensive trove of curios and took it down to my tying area because I read somewhere that you can sharpen scissors by opening and closing the blades on the neck of a glass bottle. I tried it with the Coke bottle, but I couldn’t discern any difference in the sharpness of my scissors.
Maybe it would have worked if she’d have got a Democrat Coke bottle instead. I don’t know. At least, just for that brief snapshot in time, I knew where my scissors were.

Last year when I made an attempt to go through my loose feather drawer and re-bag and label everything, I found an old, rumpled bag of loose ginger hackle feathers I bought from Herter’s of Waseca, Minnesota in 1966 or so, just a year or two after I started tying. That was pretty exciting. I mean, do the math. The chicken(s) the feathers came from were present for the births of actor John Cusack and current British PM David Cameron as well as the passing from the scene of Admiral Nimitz and Walt Disney. They were alive for the release of the Bee Gee’s first album (not available on cassette) and for the dedication of the St. Louis Gateway Arch by Vice President Hubert Humphrey. There’s a lot of history in that bag of feathers. The feathers themselves, unfortunately, were useless for tying. That’s OK though. They were useless for tying when I bought them. This was characteristic of the general run of Herter’s product quality that last decade or so they were in business prior to going under in the early 70’s. So, I threw them out. I kept the plastic bag they came in though. Right now, it has a chuck of mole fur in it. Someday, when I find my laundry marker, I’ll put a proper label on the bag.

It goes on and on. I have spools of tinsel (real metal tinsel, not that Mylar stuff..) dating back to the 60’s. I’d use it, but you know how springy tinsel gets on the spool. I lost the rubber band retainers for the spools and the tinsel came all uncoiled and became tangled up with my collection of spools of Kevlar thread, copper wire and various tying flosses. I have it all together in a bag in one of the drawers in the left tower. I have the bag correctly labeled as well. In big black laundry marker. “Miscellaneous Spooled Materials” is what it says on the outside of the bag. Not too long ago though, I did find a set of old midge-size hackle pliers in that bag tangled up with some medium gold oval tinsel. I’d been looking for them for quite a while and was really surprised to find them there. I thought for sure they were in the 3rd drawer of the right tower next to the ringneck tails and the bag that is labeled “Rubber Hackle” but actually contains a fist full of dove feathers I plucked from a bird back in the mid-70’s with the intent of using them to make collars on soft hackle flies. I never got around to trying this, but I hope to some day. They’re supposed to make pretty good soft hackles.

Just because I’ve described this immense, confused tangle of stuff in my tying area, don’t get the idea that I am sloppy, messy or have no self-discipline. I know exactly where everything is. It’s all in the southwest corner of my basement, west of the treadmill and south of the staircase. So, there….:)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

American Originals

Like short hop passenger rail service, free television and the daily newspaper, the independently owned and operated fly shop is slowly disappearing as an American institution. Oh, there are still quite a few of them around, but make no mistake, they are fading away and each year there are fewer and fewer whose doors are open for business. While many of the reasons for this slow passing from the scene are matters of simple business sense, the disappearance of the independent fly shops also mirror changes in our culture and our values. There was a time when most fly anglers would have agreed that the slightly higher prices at an independent shop were a fair exchange for the individual attention to customer service, sense of camaraderie and the good feeling of being greeted by name when you came through the door offered by the independent shops. Nowadays, these virtues seem to be poor competition for the ease, variety and lower prices that can be ours online with the click of a mouse. It isn’t just fly fishing. In general, there seems to have been a culture-wide devaluation of the interpersonal aspects of retail commerce.
Ask the small independent grocer or hardware owner who is watching the hinges on his front door rust from lack of traffic because he can’t match Wal-Mart’s price on a box of Cheerios or the variety of Home Depot’s mind-boggling selection of nuts and bolts. So, we’ve changed. I think for the worse, but then again, what do I know? I’m moving into the lead edge of the age group that tends to see most of these sorts of changes are erosion of the ways of the world as we always knew it. At our age, none of us want to go to all the work of adapting to a brand new world. So, we tend to resent the change.

While there can be honest debate as to whether these changes reflect badly on who we are becoming as a people, I know one thing for certain: When the last independent fly shop closes, it will also signal the passing from the scene of a great, long term source of entertainment for me as a fly angler, spending time in the presence of the eccentrics, huge-hearted folks and hopelessly fish-addicted people who owned and operated these shops. My experiences with them have been one of the high points of my angling life.

I used to visit a shop in the heart of northcentral Pennsylvania’s mountains. I’d stop to buy a spool or two of tippet or a new zinger. I was always losing zingers along the creek. My total obsession with fishing; the water and the promise of the next pool, combined with my hearing loss would often result in me snagging my pliers or nippers on a tree branch or clump of brush and not hearing the snap when the cord, stretched to its limits, would break. So, I was almost always in the market for another zinger.

I’d enter the shop through the front door and approach the counter. I could plainly see the owner in the back building a rod or just sipping a cup of coffee and staring off into space. Sometimes, he’d come right out and wait on me. Other times, he’d acknowledge my presence with a wave and yell that he’d be right out. Sometimes, he would. Other times, he’d be back there fadiddling around for five minutes before he finally came out front to see what I needed. Still other times, he wouldn’t acknowledge me at all and I’d stand there for 10 or even 15 minutes and finally turn and go out the door. Or sometimes, I’d wait him out. One thing I never was though, was miffed or upset at his erratic behavior. Actually, I got a chuckle out it. He had come from a large urban area and set up his business along one of Pennsylvania’s best trout streams so he could always be next to the water and far from the beeping, grinding chattering sounds of the city. The making a living part of the equation was secondary. He had what he wanted. The only way it could be better would be if these damned customers stopped coming around to interrupt his day and his reverie. I understood. I’d probably be the same way.

I used to frequent a small shop in my home town in Northwest Pennsylvania. The guy who owned and ran it may have been cut out to be an engineer or a tax accountant or any of a hundred other occupations. The one thing he wasn’t cut out to do was to retail sales. He had the disposition of a tomcat with a singed tail and the patience of a child seeing the stack of wrapped presents at his birthday party for the first time. I’d come through the door and before it even closed behind me, he’d look at me like I was a newly discovered flat tire and say: “What do YOU want?”. I’d tell him I was just looking. He’d mumble under his breath and go back to cleaning the top of the glass case with the reels in it. No more than a minute later, he’d try again. “You figure it out yet?”, he’d demand Sometimes, I’d say “not quite yet” and he’d go back to his sulk. Other times, I’d bring a few odds and end to the counter and check out. He’d ring the stuff up and say, “That’ll be all of $12.46” in a disgusted voice like I’d wasted nine minutes of his time for next to nothing. Far from becoming offended or upset with him, I actually got a kick out of the whole thing. Here he was being totally himself and absolutely defying the cookie-cutter, fawning and solicitous persona common to retail sales people everywhere. I admired this. I enjoyed him so much I eventually bought a three hundred dollar Orvis fly rod from the rack in his shop. This was shortly before he went out of business under the weight of his less than fully welcoming personality. I don’t know what the matter with some people is and why they didn’t like him. I considered him a regional treasure.

Another establishment, a destination shop on a large stocked stream not far from where I grew up was owned and operated by one of the most contrary and opinionated people I think I’ve ever met. You’d come through the door and say, “nice day”. He’d tell you it looked like rain. Then you’d offer, “Well, if it rains, maybe there will be an olive hatch”. And he’d tell you that the olive hatch ended for the year last Wednesday. So much for that ray of hope…

And on and on it would go. Eventually, I got to the point where I would go in expressly for the purpose of torturing him for 20 minutes or so at a time just by being in his shop and daring to speak. Usually, I’d buy something. A box of split shot or a bottle of floatant. I figured the four or five dollars I’d put down to be a bargain for the entertainment I got in return. Unless you go to the matinee, you can’t go to the movies for five bucks and it isn’t anywhere near as much fun.

Not all the independent fly shop folks I’ve dealt with were crotchety, eccentric malcontents. Some were men with hearts the size of continents, men who without ever being “famous” fully met the only definition of greatness that really means anything. I worked for such a man in a fly shop in the mountains of Northwest Pennsylvania. At the time, the beginning of the internet retail boom and a changing demography in his customer base were making it hard to keep the business afloat. Yet, this man, who had been a helicopter gunship pilot in Vietnam made a point of employing a guy who had done five tours in Vietnam and who bore all the emotional scars of his experience. The guy was like a walking skinned knee; hypersensitive to the touch and sore and easy irritable all the time. He came and went as he pleased and for whatever reason he pleased. Sometimes, he would deal with a modestly difficult customer and then simply just take off and leave for the day, the experience having worn the insulation off his already frazzled nerves. He refused to run the cash register or help take inventory. Too much pressure. Yet the owner always paid him for the hours he was present and kept him on the payroll. He may have been the only person in the entire town who, by giving him a job, took the time to thank the guy for his service to his country and recognized the toll it had taken on him. The time I spent with this man was a gift. It made me aspire to be a better person.

There are many more examples of this unique, but sadly disappearing species, the individual fly shop owner. The guy at a Pennsylvania shop who would let you take a new rod from his rack to try it for a few days before deciding to buy. The laconic, bearded Rebel in a North Carolina shop who invited me to sit and have a couple cups of coffee with him and just talk fishing on a slow day. We ended up talking for three hours. The central Pennsylvania fly shop partner who would visit with you for hours, now and then pausing to splatter a bit of tobacco juice in the wax-coated orange juice he always had handy. Guys that you knew from the first time you encountered them, held the same love and reverence for the water and the fish that you did.

If and when the last of the independent shops closes its doors in recognition of the inexorability of change, I’ll miss the service and I’ll miss the local touch and all the rest. But most of all, I’ll miss the people themselves. Their heart, their kindness and warmth and the delight of their eccentricity. All are American Originals and when they are gone, a piece of what I’ve grown to love about the sport will go with them.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Fishing With Jim

I’ve been thinking lately about Jim, one of my boyhood fishing buddies. He and his family lived in our neighborhood, in a brown, shingle-sided house a few hundred yards from our house, up one of the rutted dirt lanes that passed for roads in our neighborhood. As kids, we had an interesting relationship both off and on the water, to say the least.

Jim was a rail-thin and gangly kid with a buzz cut (I had one too in those days and I probably wouldn’t hesitate to get one now if it meant I could have hair again) that only emphasized the prominence of his sizeable ears. I used to tell him that from the neck up, he looked like a fuzzy cookie jar with a frown face and two huge handles (his ears). Usually when I told him this, he’d call me a runt and chase me until I climbed a tree to get away from him. We were ten year olds and this is what ten year olds do, or at least it is what they did back then.

Jim liked his dog, potted meat sandwiches and his 35 inch Louisville Slugger ball bat. It was the longest bat in the neighborhood by a couple inches and he could really swing it. To this day, I’ve never seen a kid in that age range hit a ball as far as Jim could when he connected. He named the bat “Thunder” and whenever he stepped to the plate, he would announce that he and Thunder had arrived and that the rest of us on the field should begin to weep and pray for mercy, for our doom was surely upon us. When we weren’t playing ball, he kept Thunder wrapped in an old sheet and lying on a pillow in his room. There it rested sort of like King Arthur’s sword, only waiting to be summoned forth at the hour of need once more.

Like me, Jim loved to fish. Back then, most of our fishing was done with spinning outfits and lures for largemouth bass. We were lucky to have great bass fishing less than a five minutes walk from either of our doors. A low-gradient warm water creek, the outlet of the local glacial pothole lake, ran along the back edge of our neighborhood and from there snaked its way another four miles south through hickory bottoms, swales and impenetrable stands of cattails to its junction with French Creek. The creek was for the most part our private kingdom, perhaps because the clouds of mosquitoes down there were so thick the stream often looked as if it were wreathed in pale smoke. Not many other people could put up with them. That was OK with Jim and I because we knew that mosquitoes weren’t the only thing the creek had in abundance. Its slow pools, weed beds and log jams were loaded with largemouth bass. It was worth a couple hundred mosquito bites to us to see one of the creek’s bass rush out from the shelter of a sunken log or patch of water lilies to stop our Flatfish or Rapala dead and then unzip the surface of the stream as it vaulted from the water in a head-shaking leap. At these magic moments, every mosquito within a mile could have been trying to hone in on our eardrums and we wouldn’t have known the difference. Neither of us ever got tired of seeing that first angry leap by the bass.

We plied the creek for it's bass, sometimes on our own and sometimes together. We would slog our way far downstream from our houses, just fishing and forgetting about time and the world. We’d compete. “I got three and lost two more”, I’d tell him in as I waved my arm in front of my face like a windshield wiper run amok to keep the insects momentarily at bay. “So what?", he’d fire back. “All yours were dinks. I got a 15 incher..” And so it would go. We were kids and we had a wonderland virtually right at our doorstep. We escaped to it every chance we could.

Jim was a somber boy, not given to a lot of exclamation or expression. Things that would cause me to bust out laughing until my sides hurt would often only bring the ghost of a smile to his face. In retrospect, I tend to think that things at home for him were often not all that good. Family problems, perhaps. So, there was a stoicism and even a bit of a sadness about him. But there was one set of circumstances that never failed to delight him and get him laughing so hard, he had to sit down to catch his breath. All it took was for me to fall on my can in the creek or slip and take a dunking or virtually just about anything that caused me pain, discomfort or distress. Truth be told, I faked falls and various personal mishaps a number of times just to get him to laugh. I’d pretend to trip over a log and go flat on my face and make an “ummmph” noise like it had knocked the wind out of me. He’d roar and laugh so hard his eyes would tear up.

From time to time, Jim would take a more active part in engineering minor disasters for me to experience and him to enjoy. He’d walk in front of me as we hiked our way through the woods along the creek and he’d hang on to the tree branches he was walking through, letting them go just in time for them to thwack me in the ear or throat. I didn’t like it, but I occasionally pulled the same stuff on him now and then. And, as I mentioned, these little episodes seemed to be one of the few things that made him laugh or seem happy. I never got hurt, so I didn’t really mind. And besides, we were young boys. It was uncool to whine or carry on, well, like a girl.

We used to take my Dad’s aluminum cartopper boat and row up the creek a half mile, almost to the lake and then drift and fish our way back down. Jim would always row; he insisted on it. And with good reason. I was small framed and while my legs were pretty powerful from all the wading I did through the muck and swamps along the creek, I didn’t have anywhere near the strength in my arms Jim did. He was skinny, but his arms were sinewy and powerful and there wasn’t an ounce of fat on him. He could cover the half mile in less than 20 minutes.

About half way up the stretch of creek towards the lake, there was a downed tree that fell across the full width of the stream. Eventually, somebody would come along in a boat with a chain saw and take it out. But until then, you had to duck low in the boat and grab the trunk of the tree to push the boat underneath and through to the other side. We didn’t mind doing this. The way we figured, like the clouds of mosquitoes, downed logs across the creek were another form of protection of our kingdom from discovery and exploration by outsiders. One thing would lead to another and eventually, they’d start catching our bass. Our paradise would be exposed and violated. We certainly didn’t want that.

One day, Jim rowed us up to the highway bridge that spanned the creek just downstream from the lake. This was our traditional starting place for these float fishing excursions. It was Jim’s turn to sit in the bow and get first crack at all the new water as we drifted along. I took the middle seat, using the oars to keep the nose of the boat pointed forward between casts. We drifted our way downstream, picking up a few bass here and there until we reached the downed log. Jim ducked and he and the bow passed under. I set my rod down and hunkered low in the boat in preparation of doing likewise. In the meantime, Jim made a cast over to the far bank. Just as I was about to pass through beneath the log, Jim yelled out; “Hey! I’m snagged over there. Grab the log and hold us steady so I can get my lure back, willya?” Make perfect sense to me. Bass lures cost around $1.50 each back then and I made about $6.00 a week on my paper route and most of that money went right in the bank to help pay for college someday. It was serious business when you were in jeopardy of losing a lure. So, I grabbed the log and hung on so Jim could free his snagged plug. But I no sooner grabbed the log than Jim lunged ahead, grabbed the oars and rowed the boat right out from under me. There I hung over the creek with both arms wrapped around the log and my good sneakers completely soaked. Jim held the boat in place for about 30 seconds, roaring in delight while I writhed and screamed at him to bring it back. The water beneath me was only about 30 inches deep and I was in no danger of drowning, but it was the principle of the thing. Finally, he took a couple pulls on the oars and put the boat back underneath me so I could let go of the tree trunk. I resolved right then and there that were would be no more faked pratfalls for his benefit, not if he was going to pull that kind of stuff on me. Additionally, I started making fun of his ears more than I had been lately. But I had to be careful not to take it too far. He was a lot bigger and stronger than I was. But I got him back, even if it was on the installment plan.

As I sit here now thinking and writing about these things that happened 40 or more years ago, it isn’t the tricks that Jim pulled on me that come to mind first. Oh, I remember each and every one, believe me. But what I remember most is Jim’s lean frame silhouetted against the backdrop of the hemlocks that anchored the mud banks of our creek. He’d be bringing his rod ahead in an overhead casting motion, trying to put his Rapala just a couple inches closer to the edge of the bassy-looking weed bed 50 feet down the near bank from where he stood. The lure would land right where he was aiming it (for once..) and he’d turn the handle once to flip the bail over. The Rapala would twitch in the water and a silver green bullet would engulf it. The bass would make one hard run and then try to kiss the sky, his head shaking and gills flaring. “Got him!”, Jim would exclaim. He would fight the bass as its runs and lunges slowly became weaker until it finally allowed itself to be landed. Jim would reach down and grab the bass by the head and hoist it from the water for me to see. “This one’s gotta go at least 16 inches”, he’d crow. Usually, he was about 3 inches long in his estimates, but that’s OK. I did the same thing when I caught one. It was all part of being a boy, blessed as we were with this wonderland and angling classroom all but at our doorstep. That’s what I remember, the wonder and magic of the thing. Our creek, our bass, our kingdom.

The years went by. We graduated from high school together. We drifted apart. I paid for the first semester of college with my paper route money and was off on my academic adventure. Jim went to work in a factory and soon after, his greetings from Uncle Sam arrived and he was drafted. It was early in the first term of the Nixon administration and the war in Vietnam, while slowly winding down, was still hot. Jim was lucky, he managed to stay stateside and spent a good deal of his Army hitch exploring the excellent bass fishing opportunities around Fort Hood in Texas.

Years later, when we were both well into our 30’s, one evening when I had just arrived home from work, the phone in my apartment rang. I picked it up and there was Jim. He told me he had heard of a secluded steamer pond along the rail line that ran between our boyhood hometown and Cambridge Springs, a town about 10 miles down the line. These ponds were fairly common when I was a boy. They were leftover remnants of the days when the trains would stop and fill up their boilers with water to run the steam-powered engines. He said he heard the pond was full of big bass that hardly anybody ever bothered fishing for. Did I want to go with him and check it out?

That decision took all of two seconds for me to make. Tell me about an under fished, new place to explore and I lose all ability to make rational choices. All I want to do is go there right now. I told him I’d meet him at his place in the morning. He said great, we’ll park by the big trestle pool on French Creek and carry his canoe down the tracks to the pond, which couldn’t be more than a half mile from where we parked. Piece of cake..

Well, it was more like a mile and a half on one of the hottest days of the summer. With my hands occupied carrying my end of the canoe, I was at the mercy of the mosquitoes and they were drilling me pretty much everywhere there was exposed flesh. So, I was snorting, swearing, waving my free arm and was generally miserable. Which Jim seemed to enjoy. At least that hadn’t changed.

Finally, we arrived. It was indeed a nice looking pond. Deep with downed timber on one end and a nice weed bed on the, opposite, more shallow end. Lots of good looking bass cover. I was pretty whipped from the long carry. I set the canoe down and stepped onto the big white gravel bed that is a ubiquitous feature of just about every rail line. I took one more step and the gravel went out from under me and I went bouncing 25 feet down the steep grade on my butt all the way to the edge of the pond where I came to rest with my nose in the mud and my feet flapping in the air. Back up on top with the canoe, Jim was howling with glee and holding his sides. Same old Jim… We launched the canoe, caught a few small bass and decided it was a dud. Sometimes, that’s the way it goes. But like every time I go fishing, it was magic. It always is.

I hope Jim’s doing well..

Thursday, October 6, 2011

If I Could Only Carry A Dozen Fly Patterns

Well, I suppose it is time to produce a “If I Could Only Carry One Dozen Fly Patterns For Trout, What would They Be?” list. To be truthful, just the thought of being limited to a dozen fly patterns gives me the willies and makes me feel under gunned. I seldom carry less than three dozen of any given pattern that I have confidence in and I have confidence in several hundred patterns. Which is why if you see me on the stream in my vest, you would assume I was on my way upstream to a picnic for 20 people and carrying all the food and beverages for the event. The small chest packs that are the current rage among fly anglers are not for me. They don’t hold enough flies. I had one once that was of a size that I figured was a good compromise between my need to carry all my flies and the practical upside of not having to lug all that excess weight around. It was big. When I was wearing it, I looked like Myron Floren with his accordion strapped on. And I had it so crammed with fly boxes that I was forced to sit down on the stream bank and really yank on the zippers to get any of the compartments open. So, other than for vacations where I would be doing a limited amount of fishing, I have set the pack aside and returned to wearing my vest which has more pockets than the average Super 8 motel has rooms. My shoulders sag, but at least I don’t feel naked and unprepared.

But now its time to get over it. After all, what is fear of the unknown but something to be squarely confronted and overcome? That’s not a rhetorical question, by the way.. I really don’t know. If something really scares me, I tend to go fishing so I don’t have to think about it.

But I think I can do this, even without drinking or taking a tranquilizer. I know I can. All I have to do is see it as an exercise in “what if”. I mean, I’m never really going to be limited to only carrying a dozen fly patterns, right? Right? Don’t answer that if you’re not going to tell me what I want to hear. Anyway, let’s take a step out in faith and explore this really, really scary idea…

If I could only carry one dozen different fly patterns for trout anywhere at any time, here is what they would be (in no real order of preference or importance):

1) Hare’s Ear Parachute in sizes #12-#18 - This simple combination of the Adams hackle mix with a hare’s ear body and poly or calf tail post has become my most reliable searching dry fly when the fish are mostly attuned to various caddis and smaller mayflies in the brown to gray color range. I’m never with less than 100 or so of them in my boxes

2) Whitlock Fox Squirrel Nymph in sizes #8-#16 – The Whitlock nymph, with or without a bead (I like copper best) is perhaps the most versatile nymph of them all. In larger sizes, it can pass for a stonefly nymph and the smaller ones are a pretty good generic imitation of a caddis larvae or even, once the fly gets ragged enough, a pupa. Its amber abdomen shows up well in moderately off-color water, making it a fine high water fly.

3) #18 Blue Quill with a body of brownish/gray poly or fur - While not precisely imitating either, this fly is close enough to be effective when fishing hatches of the early Baetis or Blue Wing Olive mayflies as well as for what is perhaps the most under appreciated hatch on Eastern waters, the Blue Quill or Paraleptophlebia mayflies of April and early May. There are better individual imitations of both insects, but remember I’m only allowed to carry a dozen patterns in total. This one does a good job of bridging the gap between these two very important hatches.

4) Pheasant Tail Nymph in sizes #12-#22 - My pheasant tail has the traditional abdomen of ringneck tail fibers ribbed with copper wire, but has a thorax of medium hare’s ear fur rather than the peacock herl called for in the original pattern. I tie these in a variety of ways. Some with beads (again, mostly copper), some with Krystal Flash wingcases and some (especially the smaller ones) on curved scud hooks like the Tiemco 2487. Like the Whitlock nymph above, the pheasant tail is a generic, buggy looking fly that is vary reliable for prospecting any piece of water that looks like a good place to try a nymph.

5) Grizzly Wulff in sizes #10-#18 - This yellow-bodied, high-riding dry fly with the upright deer hair wing and the brown/grizzly hackle combination has been a very effective fly for me both on small freestones back home in Pennsylvania and on the Driftless spring creeks of Wisconsin and Iowa. In a pinch, it can serve as a reasonably good sulfur imitation in size #16. And there is something about the yellow body that seems to pull trout to it that might let another fly float on by. But there’s a catch… I don’t think you can use just any yellow for the body, especially not that bright school bus yellow that is so ubiquitous in so many dubbing assortments. You want a yellow that looks a little beat up and dull and is one door down towards tan from bright yellow. The right stuff isn’t always easy to find. I’m lucky to have a several lifetime supply that I obtained when I bought a package of poorly dyed yellow zonker strips. Will I send you some? Maybe.. I might be willing to swap some of it for a new rod or an all expenses paid trip to one of the destinations on my Bucket List.

6) Copper John Nymph With Dark Green Wire Body on 1XL hooks in sizes #14-#18 - Not olive or chartreuse, dark green. No fancy epoxy wingcase either. Just pearl Krystal Flash gooped into place with a drop of acrylic nail polish. And no, I don’t know why it works so well. If I did, I’d be a trout and I just don’t think its worth that happening to me just to find out..

7) OK. You knew it was coming… All Black Wooly Bugger in sizes #6-#12 (3XL hook). While a lot of the old sayings used to convey fly fishing wisdom are just so much nonsense; in this case, the old saw that “there is no wrong way to fish a wooly bugger” is right on the money. Strip retrieve it, dead drift it, walk it past cover on a tight line while holding the rod tip high, swing it through the pocket water and let it rise as the line tightens. They all work reliably and catch fish. The combination of black saddle hackle and pulsing black marabou tail makes the Bugger look truly alive and irresistible to trout.

8) Deer Hair Delta Caddis in sizes #14-#18 – This fly is a hybrid of the simple downwing deerhair caddis and the hackle tip-winged Delta Wing Caddis that first became popular when it appeared in Eric Leiser and Larry Solomon’s groundbreaking 1970’s book, “The Caddis And The Angler”. My Delta Wing Caddis is simply a deerhair caddis with the wing material split into two equal portions and then anchored at a 45 degree angle on either side of the shank with figure 8 wraps. I then tie in a hackle feather just ahead of the base of the wings and proceed to dub the body the rest of the way to the eye. Then I wrap the hackle forward, tie it off, and finish the head and then clip the hackle flush on the bottom so the fly floats low in the water. This is an extremely versatile and effective fly that floats like a cork in broken water, but lays flat and flush on the slower moving surface of the pools. The best colors are a hare’s ear body with brown or cree hackle and a tan body with a dark ginger hackle. A very dark brown to almost black bodied version with a dark dun hackle is also good, especially during the annual Grannom hatches. I’m never without at least 100 of these either…

9) Generic Glop Of Fur Muskrat Nymph in sizes #10-#20 - This fly is exactly what it sounds like, simply a bunch of muskrat fur with the guard hairs left intact dubbed onto a standard length, 1XL or scud hook and sort of tapered from front to rear. Within reason, the sloppier the tie, the better the results. This is one of those flies that becomes more effective as it descends into ratty lookingness (a new word I just invented) from use. Weight them or not. Add a head of black fur or a collar of grizzly hen hackle. Or not.. Doesn’t matter. This is one of the most effective and consistent nymphs around.

10) Lead Wing Coachman Wet Fly in sizes #10-#18 - This is another of the generic fishy-looking flies that tend to make up the majority of what is in my fly boxes. In the larger sizes, this fly is an excellent attractor pattern just about anywhere and in the smaller sizes (#14 and below), it is as good a caddis pupa imitation as any fly specifically designed for that purpose. Deadly in #14-#16 when fished with a swing and lift during the Grannom hatch, but worth trying any time.

11) Partridge and Orange Soft Hackle in sizes #12-#18 – Tied with a thin body of orange thread or floss and a sparse collar of brown partridge on a standard wet fly hook, this is another fly that looks like both nothing and everything a fish might see in the water and be compelled to take. Maybe it imitates a drowned crane fly or maybe a caddis pupa or even a sunken mayfly dun or emerger. Or maybe the fish think it’s a Partridge and Orange Soft Hackle. That could be too.. I don’t know. I do know that it works. Like the Wooly Bugger, there really is no wrong way to fish this fly. Cast it up in the heads of the pools and let it drift back just under the surface and watch for the boil of the fish. Do a swing and lift drift through the places in the pool where the water finally begins to slow down. Or feed it in under a brush pile or along a grass hummock-lined bank and then bring it back with short twists of the wrist. It’s equally deadly whichever method you choose.

12) You thought I forgot, didn’t you…:) Big, Ugly, Deerhair Ant in Size #10 or at smallest, #12. This is the nuclear bomb of dry flies for trout from about mid-May until first autumn frost, and sometimes beyond in both chronological directions. So simple of a fly to tie that even a ten-thumbed tier like me can churn out 15 or 20 an hour, the two big humps of deerhair separated by a slim waist with a few hairs pulled off to each side to represent the legs has probably accounted for more nice wild trout for me than any other three flies combined. They don’t last long, maybe seven or eight fish before they are so ripped up they look like a tiny black pincushion. But until their compressed bulk fails to the point that they start casting like a maple spinner, they’ll still catch lots of fish. And it is so easy to make bunches more. Additionally, this is an extremely enjoyable and exciting fly to fish. It’s like throwing a bass bug. You watch it splat down and see the V-wake of the trout hurrying to intercept and engulf it. I never get tired of fishing the big ant. And so far, the fish don’t seem to have become tired of eating them. I’m never without at least 200 of these.

So, there you have it. My “Can’t Do Without Dozen”. That wasn’t nearly as hard on me emotionally as I feared it might be. I’ll close though by letting you in on a little secret. I originally intended to make this a 10 fly list, but I just couldn’t do it. Oh well, its progress, not perfection…:)

Dark Waters

I like researching and then fishing new wild trout streams. I enjoy the novelty of fishing a place for the first time with all the possibilities that come with the experience. I love to work my way up the stream’s course and see each new pool or trouty-looking stretch of holding water as it comes into view around the next bend. Usually, the first time I try someplace new, the experience is more consumptive than contemplative. More gulping than sipping and savoring. I work quickly, scurrying up the creek like I have an appointment in ten minutes at the next bridge and driven by a hunger to see and know what is coming next as I fish up through. I want to see it all or as much as I can in the time I have Next time I come, I will slow down and work the better water more thoroughly, slower and with more discipline. But this first time is for finding out everything I can and swallowing the place whole in one sitting. Its how I’ve always been and I don’t see it changing much if at all. I’m almost 60 and when I fish a place for the first time, I still move through it as if I were 30.

But there is one kind of stream that is an exception to my usual frenetic approach. I call these places “dark waters”. Virtually every trout region where I have hung my fishing hat for any length of time has these sorts of streams, from the North Carolina Blue Ridge to my native Pennsylvania to my adopted current home waters in Wisconsin and Iowa. Some areas have more of them and some have fewer, but there are a scattering of them almost everywhere you find wild trout.

When you pull up to the bridge at a dark water stream and see it for the first time, you whistle to yourself and murmur “oh, my my…”. Because you know that dark water means (or can mean) big fish. And the possibility of big fish is enough to slow down even a scampering stream rabbit like me. You can just tell by the look of the water. Even in normal flows that have not been tinted by recent rains, there is a cloaking murk to the water and more often than not, when you are knee deep in a dark water stream, you can’t see the laces of your wading shoes. (Well, unless you have red laces on your wading shoes, but that’s another essay.) The pools in dark water streams are slow, deep and often criss-crossed by sunken logs. Their bottoms are places of mystery and you just know that they hold trout as long as your arm. Or at the least, since you cannot see the bottom, you can convince yourself that it is so. That’s almost as good. So, I take my time on dark water streams. They hold too many mysteries and surrender too few clues for me to not take my time.

Dark water streams do not flow so much as they glide and slink along past the high clay banks and submerged root balls of fallen trees that frame the deep pools. There is no glitter of sunlight off the dancing water in the chutes and riffles. The sun neither penetrates nor reveals the mystery of dark water. Dark water streams are often brooding and sullen and I sometimes feel as if the stream itself does not want me around. On occasion, they can even seem downright unfriendly. If they are big enough, I may be unsure as to whether I can cross them, even in the places where it seems safe. I may find firm footing on rocks or gravel all the way across or I may sink to my waist in silt and sand. When I am on dark water, there is a feeling that I may meet up with something that is more than I can handle. That in the next pool upstream, my nymph will be stopped in mid-drift by a fish that will wreck my tackle and leave me sitting on the bank weak-kneed and mumbling to myself. The potential of what may lie beneath dark water waiting produces a strange but highly addictive mix of anticipation and apprehension in me.

Dark water is made for the nymph angler. Sure, from time to time, there will be enough insects flitting along the clearer edges of the flow to produce some surface feeding, but the real show is down there in the heart of the mystery on the bottoms of the deep, opaque pools and runs, in the places we cannot see. You throw your nymph out into the current tongue at the head of the pool and it is swept down into the depths. Then, suddenly it stops dead and so does your heart. You bring the rod tip up to set the hook. Sometimes you find yourself fast to a chunk of sodden hardwood or debris. Scratch one nymph.. But other times, the line will begin to move and through the murky flow, you’ll see the amber flash of a good brown. The rod will begin to buck in your hand and line will zip off the reel with the first run of the fish. You’re on your own now. You’ve violated the mystery and it is not pleased with you. Your fish may wrap you around a log and break off and be gone. Or you may luck out and eventually land him. If you do, there is a good chance that he will be one of the best fish of your season. That’s the reward that’s always out there on the edge of the possible for the angler with the courage and willingness to challenge dark water.

In my fly fishing travels, I’ve been fortunate to always have a good variety of wild trout streams to choose from when it comes time to load up the wagon and have at them. I love them all, but there is a special place in my angling pantheon for my dark water favorites. The Willow, Billings and Knapp Creeks in southwest Wisconsin and the lower Mecan in Wisconsin’s Central Sands Region. The Oswayo, Allegheny Portage and Pine (Warren) Creeks back home in Pennsylvania. The Middle Branch of the Escanaba and the Carp River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Iowa’s Bloody Run and French Creek. These are just a few of many. For fish numbers, sparkling water dancing over beds of multi colored gravel, carefree dry fly fishing with a searching pattern and a chance to work on my tan or take in the first warm afternoon of the new Spring, give me any of the hundreds of my regular favorite clear water creeks. But for a chance at big fish, an opportunity to solve the mystery and just a bit of a feeling of living dangerously, give me dark water every time.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Mud Hook

“Stick out your mud hook!”. This was my Dad’s standard invitation to shake hands. It was just one of the hundreds of unique and colorful sayings I heard him use time and again. He had a way of speaking that was both humorous and disarming, a style that spoke equally of his easy way with people and the keen wit and intelligence that lay behind his hazel eyes.

People who spend much time with me soon learn how deeply my own personality, style, values and sense of humor were shaped by this gentle and steadfast man who overcame a childhood filled with deprivation and heartbreak to live a life where he brought humor and a soft, warm light to virtually every place he went and everyone he met. I’ve never met anyone quite like him. I don’t think I ever will. His model and example has been the sustaining gift that has seen me through the roughest patches of my own life. I idolized him and know in the same way that I know that the sky is above me and ground below, that he was best Father a guy could ever have. He is never far from my mind and I talk about him a lot. The hilarious stories he told. The simple, durable truths he taught me about decency, kindness and honesty.

So, when my fishing buddy Dan and I lit out a couple of weeks back for our annual seven day blitz of the spring creeks of Southwest Wisconsin, as we traveled from stream to stream, I was, as usual, talking about my Dad. Retelling his stories from the factory job he spent his life at and all the colorful characters he met there and the things they would say. Stories of boyhood times with his own volatile and unpredictable Dad spent chasing coon hounds barking tree along the high blue banks of Erie County’s Elk Creek. About “sticking out your mud hook” to shake hands. And on and on. My Dad had a thousand stories and several hundred sayings. Dan has excellent taste and discernment in humor. This means he enjoys the stories. Which is good, because for a lot of them, I’m pretty sure I’m on the fourth or fifth repetition with him.

Dan is an innovative and gifted fly tier. He may modestly demur when you tell him so, but it’s true nonetheless. Like my Dad, he has a level and balanced view of his personal talents and gifts that makes them all the more impressive to see in action. This too is good. I’d have a hard time fishing all week with a horn blowing rooster with an ego the size of Spain. That isn’t me and it certainly isn’t Dan.

Dan designed a new fly and brought a few with him for the trip. Part dragonfly nymph, part Girdle Bug, part whimsy and part bedrock-solid empirical observation of what appeals to a trout. With his new fly, he proceeded to hammer the wild browns virtually one after the other on several of the streams we fished. This piqued my curiosity and after Dan had made a few design and color changes in the new fly, he tied a few by the light of our motel room lamp and dropped them into my hand to try. So it was that I too began to hammer the Wisconsin wild browns on his new creation. We fished it every way we could think of. We cast it to risers, crawled it along the rocky edges of the deep slow pools and spot fished it in the fast water in the heads of the runs. It worked everywhere.
Boom! Boom! Boom! We had a real winner on our hands.

But the fly needed a name. I mean, some flies don’t really deserve to have a name, but they do anyway. Take the Montreal wet fly or Muddler Minnow for example. They’re both fundamentally useless flies (I understand there may be some dissension regarding the Muddler, but surely we can agree on the worthlessness of the Montreal), but somebody took the time to give them a name. Surely a fly of the amazing fish catching potency of Dan’s new creation deserved a name of its own. And so he gave it a name. He called it the Mud Hook after my Dad’s handshake saying. I was delighted. My Dad was not a fly fisher with all the Holy Writ and ostentation that tends to surround the sport. He was a regular old crappie-jigging, bucket-filling, fillet-‘em-and-put-them-in-Ziplocs kind of guy. Even so, now we can add “Linguistic Inspiration of the Deadly, Trout-Magnet Mud Hook” to his list of titles. I think it would have tickled him to learn that an item from a sport that he never took part in is named after one of his witticisms. And I'll wager that right now that he is smiling as he drops yet another crappie into the bucket.

Stick out your mud hook Dad. I miss you..

About Bucket Lists

A while back, I was talking with some angling friends about places we’d like to visit and fish before the day came when failing eyesight, frozen joints, gum disease and the general decrepitude of getting old overtook us and closed the window of angling opportunity forever. Our own personal fishing bucket lists, so to speak.

Over the course of all the fantasizing, the names of a lot of places ended up on the table of the discussion. The pile was high enough to be worth at least $100,000 in air fares or a similar amount in gasoline, tires, coffee and Visine in the event the place in question was reachable by automobile. Most of the destinations were famous, exotic and far away. The trout rivers of the west slope of the Andes in Argentina and Chile. Pitching 12 inch streamers to monster brackish-water Northerns in the estuaries along the coast of Norway. Enveloped in clouds of black flies while swimming big deerhair mice over seven pound wild brook trout on the Little Minipi or Big Rivers in the wilds of Labrador. Flying into Great Bear Lake right at ice out for a shallow water fly fishing shot at lake trout old enough to have been born during the 2nd term of the Reagan administration. And so forth and so on. Lifelong dreams deferred by the realities of our lives, budgetary constraints and our responsibilities at home. Brought momentarily to life and piled on the table of wishes before us.

While I contributed a few of my own dreams of exotic or far away angling destinations to the pile, I’d be less then fully truthful if I didn’t admit that my real angling “bucket list” is a lot more modest than the general run of what was on the table. I’m not sure why this is the case, but it is. It may be that the more I think about these once-in-a-lifetime trips, the more anxious I become about the way the years are rushing by, while at the same time knowing I’ll never get to most of the places I want to go, let alone all of them. That’s possible. I’ve had a lifelong habit of avoiding anxiety when I could find a way to do so.

But I also think that a part of the reason that my bucket list is fairly modest is that destinations have never been what fishing was about for me. I can have a near out of body experience in angling ecstasy simply by figuring out which submerged brush pile in the 70 acre glacial pothole lake I grew up on in northwest Pennsylvania holds the biggest or most crappie. Or by arriving in the aftermath of a brief, hard shower on a Pennsylvania trout stream I’ve fished 500 times and finding that the rain has the fish up, moving and feeding aggressively. I’ve probably caught most of them at least once over the previous 499 trips, but it is all new and exciting to me anyway. I get short of breath. My pupils dilate. My knees quiver. I’m here at a magic time and the fact that I know the stream so well that I can count virtually every rock in it in my sleep doesn’t detract from the experience at all. I’m flying way too high on the heady brew of anticipation and discovery, that is, if anything, amplified by the fact that I already “know” this water. Well guess what.. I didn’t know everything. There is always more. This is fishing to me. The learning of the water and the solution of the riddle of the fish. The magic times when everything is right that more than make up for the hundreds of times I have stood in the same spot when virtually nothing was right and I had to work hard for every fish. The times when old friends (I consider all my streams to be my friends) briefly show me new faces, extending the definition of the possible and as a result, heightens the magic.

Maybe I’m just easily amused or I choose not to dare to dream dreams that I know will never come true. Or maybe my inherent frugality causes me to limit the scope of my dreams as a matter of practicality. I don’t know and it doesn’t really matter. We all have our reasons why we see fishing as we do and we all differ in how much various things about the sport matter to us.

So, I’m a cheap date, I guess. I can be just as happy and feel just as fulfilled by a week of bouncing around on my favorite Wisconsin Spring Creeks as I would probably be by spending a week on the Bighorn or Deschutes. Does this mean I would turn down an opportunity for a week of fishing Chile or Kamchatka? Well, you could ask me to go and I’d think about it. I’m also flexible and firmly believe that philosophies are meant to be discarded when they no longer make sense…:)

In any event, I do have an angling “bucket list”. It just isn’t a very big, ambitious or fancy bucket. More two gallon molded plastic than five gallon triple galvanized steel.

Here it is:

Before I abandon this mortal coil, I’d like to:

1) Do some trout fishing in Southeast Minnesota. It is the third area (along with southwest Wisconsin and northeast Iowa) that combine to comprise the trout-rich Driftless Region and the only one I have not fished.

2) Spend a week (or a month) canoe camping and fishing for smallmouth bass in Whiteshell Provincial Park in southern Manitoba.

3) Fish the small streams of New Hampshire’s White Mountains for three species of wild trout.

4) Spend a week exploring Idaho’s Lochsa River for wild cutthroats.

5) Fish the trout streams of the Black Hills in South Dakota.

6) Fly fish the shallows of Lake Champlain for post-spawn Northern Pike.

7) Return to the fish over the small wild rainbows in the rushing streams of the Pisgah National Forest in Western North Carolina. This is where I first experienced southern Appalachian trout fishing and one of the first places I courted my wife. It holds a lot of memories and magic for me.

8) Float the New River in Virginia and West Virginia for smallmouth on the fly.

9) Go over to Lake LeBoeuf with my brother. We’d launch his little boat and fill a bucket with crappie while we talk about music, rabbit dogs and the greatest man either of us has ever known, our Dad. There are better crappie lakes with bigger fish, I’m sure. But none of them are home. Being on Lake LeBoeuf is like going back to the very roots of why I fish and a tip of the hat to the man who gave me my first fishing rod and with it, the lifelong gift of my love for the water and the fish.

There… That’s not so unreasonable, is it? Let’s leave it this way: If the timing for our trip to Kamchatka conflicts with my schedule to achieve any of the items on my bucket list, I’d probably be willing to re-schedule…