Bimini: A Permit Paradise On The Brink
THE FLY FISHING AUTHORITY
BUGGIN’ OUT 9 Can’t Miss Hatches OREGON SALMONFLIES HOUSATONIC WHITE FLIES WYOMING HOPPERS SOUTHERN WILLOWFLIES NIGHTTIME DRAKES CATSKILL STONES … AND MORE
PLUS: The Kanektok’s Greatest King Week • Solo in the Glades •
Restoring Michigan Grayling • “Trash Fish” in Cuba • Fifteen Thousand Trout per Mile: Green River, Wyoming • Charles Brooks’ Stone • DIY Gar • Sierra Madre Brook Trout
MARCH/APRIL 2020 • VOLUME 43 / ISSUE 2
34 BUGGIN’ OUT
56 OVER THE BORDER
52 BIMINI’S LAST STAND
60 CATCHING ON THE KANEKTOK
These regional hatches offer great chances for large trout . . . and bass. Our contributors recount some of their greatest experiences matching them. —Karczynski, Thomas, Sturn, Sautner, Santella, Hamza, Ripple, Zoby, Keer
These tiny Bahamian islands, just 50 miles from Miami, provide great chances to take large bonefish and permit. But a resort development, including a proposed golf course, threatens to destroy key fish and wildlife habitat and the future of this under-the-radar flats fishery. —Pat Ford
Utah’s Green River holds scads of trout per mile. So why aren’t more people “jumping the border” and throwing flies during the shoulder seasons? —Dave Zoby
One man’s mission to swing up Alaskan kings during the best salmon run in recent years. The outcome? One hellishly sore arm . . . which is a good thing. —Dave Karczynski
Cover: Watching trout rise, especially when they are trying to catch damselflies, never gets old. Here, a solid rainbow tries to nail a damsel on south-central Idaho’s Silver Creek. Nick Price photo
MARCH/APRIL 2020 • VOLUME 43 / ISSUE 2
There are other species, of coure, but something in a trout rise never gets old. —Greg Thomas
6 OUT THERE
A pipe over the Truckee River offers a perfect vantage to view the trout’s world. —Jason Shields
8 FISH DOG
Chum Dog was a fan favorite at Alaska West, protecting guests from moose and bears while always keeping a lookout for the next wave of fish. —Dave Karczynski
10 FORCE FED
Putting flies in a fish’s mouth when water quality goes to hell. —Scott Sanchez
12 THE SIDE HUSTLE
These well-traveled fly fishing photogs also create innovative fly patterns. —Tom Keer
15 PERSONAL HISTORY: WATERWALKING ON OPENING DAY
The last thing this man wanted was a mistake . . . especially with kids in tow. —Thomas McDonough
Alkire’s Western Waters and Dietrich’s Tying Bugs. —Ryan Sparks
18 DIY: SOLO IN THE GLADES Going solo means you can leave whenever you choose and fish wherever you care to be. —John Kumiski
20 AN ESSENTIAL COOK KIT You don’t need much to create memorable meals on the water and in the field. —Ryan Sparks
22 CHARLES BROOKS AND THE THOMPSON STONE
How nymphing tactics spawned a most effective steelhead and trout fly. —Dana Sturn
A small box of streamers can pay off, even when fishing smaller streams and spring creeks. —Dave Hughes
Michigan’s efforts to restore grayling in several legendary streams. —Jon Osborn
30 DIY: MISCONCEPTIONS ’BOUT MOUTHBREATHERS
The truth about one of North America’s oldest and oddest fish. —Seth Fields
32 ADVENTURE: ’CUDAS & TRASH
Why wouldn’t you throw? —Rich Chiappone
There’s risk in revisiting waters that rest well in memory.—Frank Miniter DAVE KARCZYNSKI
ADVENTURES ARE HARD WHEN IT’S
DIFFICULT TO BREATHE.
More than 200,000 Americans are living with pulmonary fibrosis. Are you? ARE YOU CURRENTLY EXPERIENCING ANY OF THESE SYMPTOMS? • Shortness of breath • Dry, hacking cough • Feeling run-down
ARE YOU AT RISK?
• Current or past smoker • Age 60 or older • Family history of interstitial lung disease
TALK TO YOUR DOCTOR TODAY.
Pulmonary fibrosis is a progressive, debilitating lung disease that is hard to diagnose. Visit AboutPF.org or call 844.TalkPFF (844.825.5733) to learn more.
SIGNATURE by Greg Thomas
KEEP CABLE SERVICE ONLY TO watch NFL football and March Madness. The rest of the year I’d like to yank that cord out of the wall, wrap it around the necks of Charter Communications’ top brass, and release the noose only if they agreed to treat the public with even a hint of respect. I hunt a lot during fall, and value the wild game that sustains my family. So missing football wouldn’t be overwhelming. And college basketball’s one-and-done policy makes that sport less intriguing than it was in the 1980s and ’90s when teams were stacked with NBA-caliber juniors and seniors and those NCAA Tournament games made must-see TV. These days, I fish more during early spring than at any other time of the year, meaning March and April in the Northern Rockies. So, I guess I could pass on the Madness games, too, or just watch some of the action on the way back from the water. It’s still cold during spring, and the sun sets early. It’s not as though you have to fish until last light or you’ll have missed something. Spring hatches often start in late morning with ice in the guides and taper quickly around 5 or 6 p.m. . . . with ice in the guides. That leaves time for a burger and beers while sharing stories with brethren. For me, that element never loses appeal. The Northern Rockies’ main spring hatches are blue-winged olives, midges, March browns, and, where found, Skwala stoneflies. Having endured winter, the trout work these hatches hard, and the presence of even a few big mayflies or stones puts those fish on the hunt for their imitations. When the March browns come off, fish feed for an hour or two as frantically as they will all year. Do trout taste? If so, March browns must be haute cuisine because the fish eat as many as possible during the short window when those flies are available, sometimes leaping clean over a natural or artificial in their efforts to catch one. Skwala stones draw a similar reaction, even when you can’t find an actual insect on the water. I imagine the trout regard those stones the same way we might consider a meal when we’ve been backpacking
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in the high country for a week, living off freeze-dried food and jerky—after spending winter eating tiny midge larvae, the trout see a few size 8 stoneflies as a serious meal. Can’t blame them for that gluttony. Hatch-matching, at its core—no matter which season you do it—is the essence of our sport. It’s why fly rods were designed and fly lines developed. When casting a modern fly, with its mix of synthetic and natural materials, we acknowledge a couple thousand years of product development and the idea that something primal still exists within us. Even today, modern technology, with all its distractions, can’t capture our focus like a trout’s beak breaking the surface or match the satisfaction of fooling that fish with a mix of hair and feathers simply affixed to a hook. Early on it was about providing food; today it’s mostly about fun. You don’t even have to fish to be mesmerized with a trout’s rise. During summer I ride mountain bikes along the edges of a wilderness with my daughters and stop at a certain bridge to toss ants, hoppers, and moths onto the water. Below, in a stretch of river that is off-limits to fishing, large westslope cutthroat rise eagerly for those offerings. Changing patterns on the river’s surface, and the sudden appearance of trout, are no less hypnotic than the flicker of campfire flames. There are times—mostly when pinned to an office chair—when I don’t even think about catching trout, even through I can cast a line for them, any day of the year, within a five-minute drive of my house. I do, however, often dream of the Florida Keys or nearly deserted South Pacific islands lacking cell towers and Wi-Fi, and myriad colorful fish to fool with a fly. But, even on the coldest days in Montana, when wading into the water sounds as appealing as using someone else’s toothbrush, an impulse fires in my brain when water ripples away from a center ring. For a moment, like the twitch of an involuntary muscle, nothing seems more urgent than catching that fish. Sometimes I’ll keep driving. Other times I’ll hit the brakes, rig up, and wade in, with the irony that, even if I catch a fish, I’m just going to let it go.
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AMERICAN ANGLER® (ISSN 1055-6737) (USPS 451-070) is published bimonthly by MCC Magazines, LLC, 735 Broad St., Augusta, GA 30901. Editorial Offices: 643 Broad St., Augusta, GA 30901. For subscription inquiries, call 1-800-877-5305. American Angler,® American Angler & Fly Tyer,® Fly Tyer,® and Saltwater Fly Fishing® are registered marks of MCC Magazines, LLC. Warmwater Fly Fishing for Bass & Other Species™ is a trademark of MCC Magazines, LLC. Subscription rates are $21.95 for one year, $41.90 for two years. Canada and Mexico add $20.00 per year (US Funds only). Outside North America add $40.00 per year (US Funds only). Periodicals postage paid at Augusta, GA 30901, and at additional mailing offices. ©2020 MCC Magazines, LLC All rights reserved. Volume 43, Issue 2. PRINTED IN THE USA
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Extensive Free & Paid Technique Classes • Fly Tyer’s Row Micro-Brewery Beer Tastings • New: Bourbon & Bass Bugs Class Women’s and Children’s Classes Available 2 02 0 S P O N S O R S
OUT THERE LOCATION: Truckee River NOTE: Anglers are always trying to gain an advantage over their quarry. We use modern graphite rods, super sleek and superstrong tippets, and the latest in fly tying materials to create supereffective patterns. But thereâ€™s nothing quite like the advantage of higher ground and an elevated view. Where I fish, in California, the rivers often run clear, and in this case that clarity spawns large and extremely wary fish. This sewage pipe crosses the Truckee River and provides a great vantage. A few years ago this aging pipe was replaced, complete with a beautiful fish mural painted by artist Stephane Cellier, who said the project took him 11 days and posed a challenge due to the curve in the pipe. Here, angler Mikey Weir becomes part of that art while he gazes into the Truckeeâ€™s clear flows, hoping to spot a trout before it spots him. SPECS Camera: DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone Lens: 28 mm Film speed: 1/200 sec. Aperture: f/2.8 PHOTOGRAPHER: Jason Shields / Perfect Loop Productions
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MARCH/APRIL 2020 I 7
LIVING LARGE AT FISH CAMP
Rescued from a garbage bin, this lucky dog lived large in Alaska.
FISH DOG 8 I AMERICAN ANGLER
IT’S A GOOD LIFE, BEING A CAMP dog. Even better to be top dog at fish camp. And if you were on your best behavior in all your past lives, you might be reincarnated as the alpha canid at an Alaska salmon camp—as did a certain mutt named Chum. I first met Chum as he prowled beneath the tables of a gigantic mess tent at Deneki’s Alaska West camp on the Kanektok River, nose alert to the New York strip and king crab humped high on everyone’s plate, waiting for a piece of gristle to drop or a pincer to fall. He was small enough to creep under tables without detection, quiet enough to startle you in your tent when you turned around, and light enough to be carried every morning into his owner’s jet sled like a boat bag—his favorite place to be. Once on board, he clambered to the front deck, where, with a small dog’s obliviousness to size and station, he assumed the role of head scout. Nose to the wind as the jet shrieked upriver, Chum’s dominion extended beyond the boat to all that lay ahead, the deep pools and gravel bars and thousands of fish in various stages of kype and color, including those whose name he bore. Chum’s was a rags-to-riches story of the very first order. As a small pup not much bigger than a yam, he was rescued from a dumpster by Alaska West guide Ryan Gossett, who noticed something squirming inside a garbage bag during one of his weekly forays to the downriver town of Quinhagak. The camp nursed the pup back to health and Chum quickly established himself as a quiet, confident companion for camp guides, staff, and visitors alike. But camp dogs have duties beyond mere companionship. In these temporary settlements on the edge of the human world, they are also seers of sorts, privy to all those worlds invisible to the human eye: that griz a few yards deep in the brush as you fish out a side channel; the moose skulking beyond the tents during WWW.AMERICANANGLER.COM
what passes for night in the subarctic summer; the waves of fresh fish—including “jumpers”—coming in off the sea. Through human history, camp dogs were the earliest radar, and the fate of the humans they guarded was much improved by their presence. This made them mascots in the truest sense of the word. In its corrupt modern usage, the term is associated with bug-eyed buffoonery—the parrot falling over itself at a high school football game. In actuality, mascot comes from the Provençal word mascotte, meaning “lucky witch.” There is no doubt Chum was lucky, and I’d like to think his mojo rubbed off on the entire camp. Who can say how many 40-plus-inch kings his luck accounted for, how many sleeping lives were saved from bears and evil Northland spirits? Chum worked his spell on all who came into contact with him, his power manifesting in graffiti all across camp. His visage appears on the fish room whiteboard, on the wall of the latrine, in the photos of camps guests—honored in art just like his camp dog ancestors who were chiseled in stone or painted onto cave walls. And just like those first domesticated half-wolf creatures that came in from the woods at night to sleep beside the fire, camp dogs—like fly fishing itself—are both a reminder of the wild world and an affirmation that we exist apart from it. If Chum was aware of his limitations, he was also deeply uninterested in them, which ultimately led to his demise. Like the trapper who survives mountains and avalanches only to be undone by an escalator in his first department store, Chum, while on sabbatical in Oregon this fall, succumbed to something he didn’t see often in the bush: an automobile. You could say that Chum’s luck ran out. I’d prefer to say that his lucky spirit moved on to an even more charmed life, if there is such a thing after being top dog at a fish camp. —Dave Karczynski MARCH/APRIL 2020 I 9
FISHING DURING HIGH, FLUCTUATing water levels, when clarity is reduced and cool water temperatures prevail, requires thought and persistence. If you play it right, these conditions often play to an angler’s advantage. First on the high-water to-do list is to figure out where the trout are and put a fly in their mouth. In all fishing, you can’t catch unless the fly is in a fish’s proximity, and in high-water conditions, it needs to be closer. Not two feet away. Not a foot away. I’m talking inches. Spring 2019, on my home waters around Jackson, Wyoming, was a classic example. Ski season ended with a 120 percent snowpack left in the mountains, which was followed by a few more months of serious snow accumulation. That, of course, was followed by snowmelt. These conditions didn’t provide the easiest fishing, but by adapting, I had some good days, with the bonus of having very few anglers on the water to compete with. And when there was competition, I still found good-size fish in spots they had overlooked. When fishing in less-than-ideal conditions, I look for comfort water; places where fish don’t battle current; they feel protected; and food is funneled to them. They will eat if presented food, but they won’t work for it. Spring trout feed in a narrow window because water temps make them less active than they would be in late spring, early summer, and fall, and suitable habitat is limited and ever-changing. Finding spring fish water isn’t that much different from finding water the rest of the year. Drop-offs, inside corners, seams, undercut banks, and pools are solid fish habitat—but during late winter and spring, these locales may not be where you’ve seen them before. In a way, fishing high water is like discovering a new river. During spring, formerly dry ground maybe be very fishy, and formerly useless frog water may now be the honey hole. Banks are important spots too—trout can’t hang out in the middle of a raging river—banks and the structure they provide offer small areas of soft water, and that is where the trout stack up. And you might find the fish in surprisingly shallow water—tinted water clarity may provide fish all the confidence they need. Putting flies in a trout’s mouth during 10 I AMERICAN ANGLER
FORCE-FED Putting flies in a fish’s mouth when water quality goes to hell.
The author fishes a variety of setups during spring, but these three are his go-to choices—the Tungsten Clump Dubbing Leech (lower right), the Tungsten Jig Pheasant Tail (lower left), and some form of the San Juan Worm (but not rubber, please!) (top). WWW.AMERICANANGLER.COM
high- and clouded-water conditions is usually a subsurface deal. Regardless of fly style, “nymphing” the fly keeps it at an optimum level and speed. Remember, these fish won’t chase food. Indicator fishing, dry-dropper explorations (I’m a hopeless romantic), Euro nymph, and dead drift / jig tactics all work. High water dislodges a variety of food and is a chance for opportunistic feeding. I like to fish comfort food flies that emulate the common food sources found during spring. One of my favorites is a Tungsten Jig Pheasant Tail. It looks like everything. And although I’m not a big worm guy, the things work in high water, because they are commonly available as banks erode. The fish like them because they are a high-caloric option. I just can’t do the rubber worm. The last in my trio of high-water flies is my Clump Dubbing Leech tied as a tungsten jig. It looks like a lot of things, sinks well, and appears to be alive on a drift or twitch. Similar leech or Bugger patterns are good too. Leader and tippet arrangement is critical to spring fishing. Long tippets get
your fly deep and allow a more effective dead drift. A short, tapered leader with an added long tippet or a Euro nymph–type leader (limited sections and primarily tippet) are good options too. I prefer to fish heavy leaders during high water. Tinted
water and longer tippets allow this to be an effective method. When fishing spring water, getting the right drift at the right depth and the correct slot is critical. This may not happen on the first cast. There are two ways to get deeper without additional weight: longer tippet and longer cast. Move indicators when you need to change depth. If you think there are fish in a spot, cover the water until you, for sure, have presented the right drift. Fish-holding lies can be subtle. High flows are part of the late-winter and spring experience, but taking on the challenge can pay off. Last year I spent a morning and afternoon on the Green River after its flows doubled in 48 hours. I fished PTs, worms, and my leech in small bank pockets. I caught around 20 fish that day, including 21- and 24-inch-long browns. Soon after, I fished the South Fork Snake and added four feet of tippet to my usual rigging. It got my PT down, and I hopscotched my way to every slower bank and trough below cover and riffles. Ended up with a 30-some-fish day. —Scott Sanchez
Tied in Maine Fished Everywhere www.ssflies.com
MARCH/APRIL 2020 I 11
THE SIDE HUSTLE These well-traveled fly fishing photographers also tie innovative fly patterns.
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FOR HALF A CENTURY, BARRY AND Cathy Beck have been fully immersed in all facets of the fly fishing industry. They’ve owned a fly shop, a catalog company, and conducted their own fly schools and casting clinics. They are guides and host dozens of worldwide destination fishing trips every year. Most anglers know them for their award-winning photography, countless articles and books, and their affiliations with industry-best companies such as Sage, Redington, RIO, Patagonia, L.L.Bean, and Frontiers Travel, but few are aware of their incredible flytying experience. Barry started tying flies when he was eight years old, and his first commercial client, the Weber Fly Company, signed him when he was a teenager. “I was paid $1.50 per dozen for a variety of colors of Woolly Worms,” he said. “Nowadays, you can’t buy one dry fly for that amount. I tied every day for nearly a decade, and when I was 17, I started tying for Dave WWW.AMERICANANGLER.COM
Kashner, who headed up the fly program for the legendary Leonard Rod Company. It’s unusual by today’s standard, but in the early 1970s, I made my living tying flies. “Those sales increased in 1973, when Leonard commissioned me to tie patterns from some of the most notable anglers in fly fishing history,” he said. “I tied most of Vince Marinaro’s fly patterns, all of Art Flick’s dry fly patterns, and most of Ernest Schwiebert’s nymphs for their catalog. Two of us tied all those flies, my friend— Poul Jorgensen, who is legendary and extremely well known for his full-dressed Atlantic salmon patterns, and me. But the company went out of business shortly after they were bought by Johnson Wax, and for a short while I tied flies for John Harder at Orvis. Rather than work for others, I decided to work for myself. I launched a mail-order fly company called Cahill House, and along the way I wrote a booklet titled Tying with Poly. It’s WWW.AMERICANANGLER.COM
MARCH/APRIL 2020 I 13
HEADWATERS SUPER BEETLE
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about how I introduced polypropylene as a new body and wing material to the industry. I have always loved to tie flies, and today we sell many specialty patterns through the store on our website, www. barryandcathybeck.com.” Cathy has been an Umpqua Fly Company contract tier for many years. Some of her best-known patterns include the Super Bugger, the Super Beetle, the SiliLegs, and the Fleeing Crab.Their hosted trips provide her with the inspiration for tying creative, solutions-oriented patterns. One such trip stands out. “Barry and I hosted a Frontiers bonefish and permit trip to Cancún,” she said.“Fortunately, the trip ended the day before Hurricane Mitch was scheduled to hit the island. There was room for fourteen passengers on the last plane to leave the island, but there was a problem. Including Barry and me, we were a group of sixteen.We sent the Frontiers customers out ahead of the storm and returned to our cottage to get ready. “We endured the hurricane, but the devastation to the island was significant,” Cathy said. “In the days that followed, we helped with post-hurricane cleanup, and at night we tied flies by candlelight. After much experimentation, we arrived at the Super Bugger. It’s been an industry go-to fly ever since. The freshwater version came a few weeks later, when we were able to return home. One of my favorite patterns, though, is the Super Beetle. I developed that fly to fool skittish brown trout in the challenging New Zealand conditions. I landed a tenpound brown on the South Island’s Hope River on the Super Beetle. That was a big fish taken under difficult conditions.” For the Becks, tying flies is fun, but it’s also a business. “I’d have to research how many flies we sell on an annual basis,” Barry said. “The interesting part, though, is that sales are across all of our flies. We don’t carry tens of thousands of patterns, just sixty-nine that are strong performers. Our number one pattern has to be the Super Bugger. In black, tan, and olive, it’s a terrific freshwater pattern across many different species of fish. When tied in tan and on a stainless
steel hook, it’s fantastic in the salt. Other top sellers are the Sili-Legs, the Super Beetle, and the Fleeing Crab. They’re all Cathy’s patterns, by the way. She’s very creative.” Umpqua ties the majority of the Becks’ patterns, and Solitude ties many too. But Pennsylvania’s Jim Smithers ties a good amount as well, and he’s been spinning bugs for the Becks for over 35 years. “Jim is an excellent tier,” Barry said. “His patterns are perfectly proportioned, consistent, and durable. He started tying for my father’s shop, and has made a career with us. He’s working on some new 2020 patterns right now. We’re super excited about the AP Nymph Selection. They’re tied from opossum fur we get from New Zealand and Australia. As people have different-colored hair, so do opossums. As a result, we have patterns in light, medium, and dark shades. They’re one of my personal go-to series because they are buggy, translucent, and catch fish. “If I had to pick some flies for a variety of fish, flies that I know will catch ’em up, I’d go with the following assortment,” Barry added. “The Sili-Legs for bonefish because it fools big, wary fish. The Fleeing Crab for permit because we’ve caught more permit on that pattern than any others. A Black Snake excels on giant tarpon, and I’ve always liked the Cockroach for snook. There are a lot of patterns for trout, but I look at flies that excel on local waters, when traveling domestically, and also when fishing internationally. I’m never without a Super Beetle, as it brings up a lot of big fish. A Bead-Head Hare’s Ear is a phenomenal nymph for subsurface work. And in high water, I’ll tie on a Super Bugger. It’s as good in clear, New Zealand waters as it is in murky rivers after a rain.” Whether guiding, hosting trips, running fly fishing schools, or working at consumer and trade shows, the Becks’ career is a life fully immersed in fly fishing. “Cathy and I love everything about the sport,” Barry said. “From the companies to the people to the environment and the wonderful species of fish, we couldn’t be more fulfilled. Making a living doing what we love isn’t easy, but it’s incredibly rewarding. We’re very blessed indeed.” — Tom Keer WWW.AMERICANANGLER.COM
WATERWALKING ON OPENING DAY DIDN’T FORREST GUMP SAY, “STUPID is as stupid does”? I just never figured it would apply to me when I took my son and daughter on their first opening day trout fishing trip. Since they were finally old enough to share my passion for fly fishing and the great outdoors, I wanted to create one of those special memories that lasts a lifetime. Like the ones I had of fishing with my dad: I vividly see the two of us out before dawn, watching the sun rise as we drove to the river. Our first couple of trout, pan-fried, with thick slabs of bacon, hash browns, and coffee with hickory sticks in it, made the best breakfast ever. I woke my kids up early that second Saturday in April, which is always opening day in my state. I surveyed a list to be sure I had everything: Licenses. Check. Trout stamps. Check. Rods, reels, flies, waders, lunch. Check. I have some history; I didn’t want to blow it again. I even thought about checking the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website for last-minute bulletins, but I’d fished opening day for so many years, I knew the regulations, the stocking schedule, and catch limits by heart. I did Google the weather, which called for temperatures in the low 50s with slightly overcast skies. “Dress warm,” I told the kids. We hit the road at 5 a.m. for the 90-minute drive. I used that time to tutor the kids. I told them that fishing is fun, but accidents could easily happen. Trout flies have hooks, with barbs. River bottoms are slippery, with sunken rocks and logs. “Safety first” would be our motto. “Pay close attention to me when we’re in the water,” I said. I explained how the stream probably would be high and murky because of spring runoff, so we would fish big, oliveWWW.AMERICANANGLER.COM
green, bead-head Woolly Buggers. “They imitate small baitfish. We’ll cast them across the stream, then retrieve them in quick, short jerks,” I said. We talked about trout, how and where they live and what they eat. “They’re really smart fish,” I explained. “They can see and smell better than us.” “Then why do they let us catch them?” my daughter asked. “Because they can’t resist a good meal,” I answered. “Can I have a sandwich now?” my son asked. “No,” I answered, sighing. I also gave the kids a primer about on-the-water etiquette. Be quiet as you can. Always give other fishermen their space. Most important, I wanted them to know that there was much more to fishing than just catching fish. It was a chance to experience nature, with all its wonderful sights and sounds. “Watch carefully when we’re walking in the forest,” I said. “You never know what you’ll see, like wild turkeys or deer or even a beaver.” “Are beavers dangerous?” my daughter asked. “They’re more afraid of us than we are of them,” I told her. “Are we there yet?” my son asked. “Not yet,” I answered, sighing. When we arrived, there wasn’t a car at the ranger station, where I usually park. It struck me odd at first, because opening day always drew large crowds. But, I reasoned, maybe we were early enough to have beaten the crunch. Wouldn’t that be fantastic? If we could get to the first couple of holes before anyone else, the kids would have a real shot at catching something. At the back of the SUV, we put on waders, assembled rods, and tied Woolly Buggers to tapered leaders. We walked down the grassy road to the first pool, and there wasn’t a soul around. My pulse quickened. I helped the kids make nice casts. Within minutes, my son’s rod tip bent, and he was into a nice rainbow. At home, we’d talked about catch-and-release. But I didn’t expect my son to let a fish go. Don’t you remember when you caught your
first trout? You weren’t going to release it, either. I was sure he’d want to take the fish home, show Mom, and cook it for dinner. He landed the fish, held it very gently in the net, then removed the streamer and let the fish swim away. I was so proud of him. Moments later, my daughter was battling a rainbow. I couldn’t believe our luck. We had two trout in the first couple of minutes. It was shaping up to be a great day. As we fished downstream, a man appeared on the far bank. He called to us, but we couldn’t understand him. He gestured angrily, and I shrugged him off. There are some strange people who fish, although I thought it odd he wasn’t carrying a rod. Nobody was going to ruin this day. In short time, we’d hooked and released five fish. The kids were enjoying themselves immensely, and I was feeling pretty proud of myself. I’d taught them how to fish successfully; how to release a trout, because it was too beautiful to catch just once; how to abide by the rules, have fun, and appreciate the outdoors. Or so I thought. My son wandered downstream to a spot he had his eyes on as I helped his sister with another cast. When I turned around, he was standing next to me with a puzzled look on his face. “Hey, Dad,” he said. “The sign on the tree down there says the season doesn’t open until next Saturday.” My knees went weak. Rushing to the evergreen, I read in horror that the state had postponed the opening of trout season. I frantically scanned the poster for reasons why. The only words that registered were renovations at the hatchery, delayed one week, and Opening Day, April 18. I looked at my kids, who wanted an explanation. There was nothing to say; I’d wanted to create a special memory, but this trip would forever be remembered as the time I taught my kids to poach. “You look as white as a ghost, Dad,” my daughter said. “Back to the car!” I shouted, my eyes darting about the forest to see if anyone was watching. That day, for the second time in history, a man walked on water— only I did it carrying three fly rods and two children. —Thomas McDonough MARCH/APRIL 2020 I 15
HEADWATERS WESTERN WATERS
by Tom Alkire; 196 pages; $24.95; Stackpole Books
In his new collection of essays, Western Waters, Tom Alkire relates his experience exploring the web of rivers sprawling across the Pacific Northwest and his techniques for fishing them. He peppers his writing with stories of big ones that got away and the few that came to hand. Yes, this is a book about fishing, but more broadly, it is a book about place. It winds its way from stream to stream and through the seasons. From October caddis to the ice-glazed banks of earliest spring, Alkire is “awestruck by the beauty and joy of western rivers.” In these pages you get a sense of the vastness of western rivers, both geographically and historically. More than half the essays are about the Columbia and its many tributaries. These essays focus on what dams, mismanagement, and hatcheries have done to wild stocks of steelhead and salmon as well as to the culture of fishing that surrounds them. The other portion of the book explores the streams of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, several Northern California rivers, as well as a brief venture into some well-known waters of the Rockies—Rock Creek, the Blackfoot, and the Clark Fork. Alkire pays as much attention to the subtleties of fishing as to the fishing itself, such as how it feels to stand shoulder to shoulder with other anglers below Willamette Falls, and the eerie feeling of sleeping on quaking ground next to the Deschutes as a train rolls past. Western Waters shows us that rivers exist within the scope of time, history, and memory. “Places, after all, are not just physical places but they are places in the mind, too,” Alkire concludes. —Ryan Sparks
by Kirk Dietrich; 218 pages; $39.95; Stackpole Books
Having grown up fishing farm ponds for bass, I have a fondness for flies that gurgle, pop, and spray to attract fish to the surface. Kirk Dietrich’s new book, Tying Bugs, covers everything a “bug” tier needs to know and is a text I wish I’d had when I was devising my own bass bugs. Dietrich defines bugs as hard-bodied flies that rely on their shape and buoyancy for action. (Think poppers, sliders, and divers.) The first three chapters detail Dietrich’s assembly line process and examine the intricacies of hook selection, body materials, dressings, weed guards, and specialty tools suited to create hard-bodied bugs. After an interesting section about the history of popping bugs, the book covers more than 15 patterns used to catch everything from redfish to stripers to largemouth bass. Dietrich covers the subtleties of different types of wood and foam and situations where one material is better suited than another. He discusses various techniques for finishing and coloring flies, including airbrushing, foiling, and coloring with markers. Every detail is covered from multiple approaches, recognizing there is more than one way to accomplish a desired result. The book concludes with a few pages about how to fish these flies. With today’s emphasis on plug-and-play heads, Dietrich stresses the importance of “keeping the American bugmaking tradition alive” and returning to the roots of popping-style bugs— those being a creative mind and diverse skill set. Tying Bugs is a definitive reference. —Ryan Sparks
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SOLO IN THE GLADES
DURING HIGH SCHOOL, I OFTEN fished alone, even playing hooky to spend time on the water. My friends, mostly musicians, didn’t fish. As a young man, I took many solo backpacking trips into the mountains of New England. My friends mostly didn’t hike, either. My mom would give me hell before every trip. “What if something happens to you up there?” she would ask. “Why don’t you go with someone else?” My answers were always the same: “I will be careful,” I would say, “but if I waited for other people to go with me, I would never go.” I’ve never lost that motto. And this past year, once again, I dragged my kayak to the water’s edge behind a national park ranger station in Everglades City. And, after loading it with my gear, food, and water, paddling began. Tiger Key, lying at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, and only six or seven
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miles away, was the destination. The plan was to stay three nights in what proved to be a no-see-um-infested paradise. I’d picked my launch time so I had the tide flowing in the same direction as my travel. The day was glorious, the paddling leisurely, with stops to fish likely-looking spots. None produced. In the Everglades, everything looks fishy, even when it’s not. You try places and look for clues, hoping to figure out a patterns. Finding patterns takes longer when you work solo, without a doubt. After three hours in the kayak, I reached my campsite without seeing or touching a fish. A pattern turned up the next morning though, close to the campsite, in the first obviously fishy-looking spot I came to that morning. On the incoming tide a shell bar created a rip. Everglades fish, like fish anywhere, use current breaks to ambush passing edibles that the current sweeps by. I cast a streamer and let it
swing, working it in the current. Bam. A snook. A small one, but a fish. Eureka! That rip, one I could walk to from my tent, held redfish, snook, and seatrout. Swinging streamers produced the best fishing of the trip, fishing that was duplicated on every rising tide. There were no monsters, or even 10-pounders, but I’m past the point in my angling where anything less than huge is disappointing. It’s the Everglades; the chance for hooking a monster snook or tarpon is always there, but it doesn’t have to happen for me to be happy. The discovery of fish, so close to my campsite and so far from anyone else, was sweet. I owned that spot. When you’re solo, you can’t share sweet discoveries with your friends. The only one you can talk to is yourself. Photographing your catch requires resourcefulness. The biggest disadvantage to going solo? No one assists you when you have a problem. Your
Going solo means you can leave whenever you choose and fish wherever you care to be.
EVERGLADES TRIPS WORK BEST
Although fishing alone can be risky, it brings rewards. In the Everglades, the author found great campsites and plenty of willing fish, including baby tarpon, snook, and redfish— and he had them to himself.
between Thanksgiving and Easter. You want to avoid the crowded times—the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, and during spring break. No matter when you fish the Glades, you’ll need a boat, either your own or a rental, available from these outlets, among others: https://iveyhouse.com/everglades-adventures/ canoe-kayak-rentals/ https://www.evergladesnationalpark boattoursgulfcoast.com/canoe.php http://evergladesadventuretours.net/ everglades-canoe-rentals/
approach to every day, every moment, must be this: don’t screw this up. Every situation requires realistic risk assessment, because every problem is bigger when there’s only one head and two hands to solve it. Take an extra paddle, an extra fishing rod. Take a good first aid kit and know how to use it. Don’t take unnecessary risks. When in the slightest doubt, wear your life jacket. Two days of my trip were spent exploring nooks and crannies in the vicinity of Tiger Key. I didn’t find any other sure spots, but I took some photos, watched some clouds, observed the cycles of moon and tide, and lived by them each day. I was thrilled to the sight of soaring ospreys, crashing dolphins, rolling tarpon. I cast at and stuck a couple of houndfish, the only sight fishing I found on this trip. I fished a single pattern that worked—an unweighted minnow imitation tied with
synthetics. A deep satisfaction derived from autonomy settled into my bones. The inevitable departure time rolled around. Proper planning had the tide flowing in the same direction as my travel. The day was overcast, windy. Rain threatened. My return route kept me in the lees as much as possible. However, there was no hiding from wind or waves crossing Chokoloskee Bay, and I arrived at the boat landing soaked from head to toe, and quietly loaded my gear. Although solo trips don’t help you learn to schmooze at parties, the confidence and self-reliance you develop on an excursion like this seeps into all the other parts of your life. The most important by-product may be that you learn to trust your judgment. Going solo is good for you. Going solo surely beats staying at home, looking at a telephone or computer screen. —John Kumiski
Preliminary trip-planning information is available from the National Park Service: https://www.nps.gov/ever/planyourvisit/ canoe-and-kayak-trails.htm. For navigation, you can go old school with a chart and compass, or new age with a GPS or telephone. The phone requires a solar charger. Even with the electronics, take a chart. A compass is recommended. You’ll need a fishing license: https:// gooutdoorsflorida.com. If you haven’t been to Florida, you may have concerns about reptiles. You’ll see some. They won’t bother you. Your automobile is an enormously greater risk to your safety than critters that live in the national park. Everglades gamefish eat small fish, shrimps, and crabs. Your fly selection should reflect that. Flies should range from size 4 to 1/0. Some need weed guards. Carrying some poppers is a good idea too. The equipment list I use when preparing and packing for any trip can be found at this link: http://www.spottedtail.com/ trip-equipment-list/.
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Eats & Drinks
Ryan Sparks’s Cook Kit Your big container should store a 12-inch nonstick pan, preferably with a folding handle (it will get beaten up—keep it cheap); a 3-quart saucepan with straining lid; a reversible cast-iron griddle; a cast-iron Dutch oven; a plastic cutting board; a 12-inch chef’s knife (with cardboard sheath); a paring knife (with cardboard sheath); kitchen shears; a wooden spatula; tongs; a spatula; a ladle; a large stirring spoon; plastic bowls; plastic plates; cups/ mugs; paper towels; sanitary wipes; aluminum foil. In addition, take a separate small plastic container for the following: a lighter, sporks, a small wooden spoon, a corkscrew/ bottle opener, hand sanitizer, two knives for eating, a can opener, a small whisk, dish soap, two mesh trash bags (one for trash, one for recycling—these are sold as laundry bags but make excellent washable trash bags). 20 I AMERICAN ANGLER
The Versatile Cook Kit IN THE WORDS OF THE AMERICAN POET AND NOVELIST Jim Harrison, “what you choose to eat directly reflects the quality of your days.” In other words, life is too short to eat bad or even mediocre food. This philosophy is especially true when you’re outdoors. Food should elevate our time on the water. Having a versatile cook kit allows me to prepare everything from simple to elegant meals, in the field and on the water. I’ve used it in duck blinds, on weeklong float trips, and in hunting camp. The most important consideration when putting together a cooking kit is to think about how you might use it. Do you want it applicable to a wide range of situations or a distinct purpose? Do you prefer straightforward, no-fuss menus that require minimal equipment, or will you be cooking elaborate meals for larger groups? In my kit, I’ve tried to strike a balance between the two. I can fry, braise, sauté, and even bake, but there are no single-use gadgets, and everything fits neatly into a small tub. No matter what you may cook, you’ll need a stove. I prefer stoves that travel easily, and still cook for a group. A perfect fit is a three-burner stove that affords a large flattopcooking surface on two burners, with a single burner for making sauces or boiling water for coffee. I also prefer stoves that run off refillable fuel sources. Using propane, I can adjust the size of the tank to what I’m doing. I take a regular 20-pound tank on long trips and a small, 1-pound tank for overnighters. The stove fits perfectly in a latching, wheeled Sterilite container, which protects it from the elements and makes it easy to carry. For pots, pans, cooking utensils, dishes, and silverware, you can buy a complete cook set or put something together piece by piece. The advantage of cook sets is that they nest together and don’t take up much space. I opted for individual pieces to get exactly what I wanted. I found almost everything I needed already lying around in my kitchen. While meal planning before trips, I can add or remove cookware depending on what I need. There is no point in taking things you won’t use. Storage always is a consideration with cook kits. I’ve gone through a lot of plastic storage containers and finally found one that holds up—an eight-gallon Rubbermaid Action Packer. It can take a beating, is lockable, rodent-proof, stackable, water resistant, and you can stand or sit on them. I’ve even used its lid as a cutting board in a pinch. —Ryan Sparks WWW.AMERICANANGLER.COM
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I’M SITTING IN MY LIVING ROOM, reading an archived Sports Illustrated story on my iPhone. The story, written in 1979 by Robert H. Boyle, features a former intelligence officer who sat on the bottom of the Madison River, breathing through a length of shower hose, watching insects and trout. That man was Charles Brooks. I never saw the story when it was originally published. I was in ninth grade, and my trout fishing was limited to one weekend each year when my father took me to Loon Lake in the British Columbia interior. We trolled flatfish and worms for pan-friers. On one of those trips I saw a fly fisher, and knew someday that’s what I would be. Ten years later, I was a high school teacher, suddenly able to afford my fly tackle. I lived in a little town in eastern BC, only a few hours’ drive from Calgary, Alberta, which I later discovered was the spiritual center of Western Canadian fly fishing. I was lucky to have relatives there, and would visit a few times each month. Soon I was spending every other Saturday hanging out at Country Pleasures, the iconic Calgary fly shop. A little shop with big character, “the Pleasures” featured paintings of tarpon and trout, many by the late Jack Cowin. A rack of Sage and Orvis rods sat just over there—mostly too expensive for my meager salary. And in the middle of the store, beneath well-stocked bins of hand-tied flies, was the bookcase. Here I discovered Gierach and Gingrich, Schwiebert and Swisher, and a fellow West Coaster named Roderick HaigBrown. Maclean was there, too, along with one of ang-lit’s newest heroes, a fellow named Duncan. Oh, and McGuane. One of the proprietors was Jim McLennan, and he turned out to be that Jim McLennan. Despite the misgivings of a co-owner—a crusty fellow convinced that only dry fly fishing was actual fishing—Jim introduced me to nymph fishing and the works of Charles Brooks. On McLennan’s recommendation, I bought Nymph Fishing for Larger Trout, and read it from cover to cover. The
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Charles Brooks and the Thompson Stone How nymphing tactics spawned a most effective steelhead and trout fly. shower hose story appeared on page 4. “In 1961,” Brooks wrote, “I felt I might learn more about nymphs, both real and artificial, if I went down under the water. I had a face mask; I rigged a tube from an old shower hose, hitched up my jeans, and went down for a look.” Brooks related how he noticed that a drifting artificial fly would “turn and roll over and over.” The real bugs didn’t. Brooks noted that “almost always, only the back of a natural nymph would be visible [to a feeding trout] as they drifted along a few inches above the bottom.” These careful observations led him to create the Brooks series of nymphs, stonefly patterns tied “in the round,” unflat-
tened, and without different back and belly colors.” No matter how much these flies tumbled and spun, they looked the same to a trout. Brooks claimed that flies worked better that way, and I believed him. I learned a lot by reading Nymph Fishing for Larger Trout. Within its pages I found Skues, Hewitt, Sawyer, and the Leisenring, and learned some great nymphing strategies. But the method that really grabbed me was the one that shares the author’s name: the Brooks Method, which promoted “Danger-Close” fly fishing in fast, heavy water. That method required putting the sneak on a trouty-looking spot, and high-sticking a full-sinking line with a short leader through the currents,
feeling for the take, and taking care not to lose your footing. Though I tried this method, I never really took to it. The gear wasn’t versatile enough. Where I fished in Southern Alberta, a day on the stream might require several tackle changes: deep nymphs in the morning; dry flies midday; an indicator nymph on a big, deep flat after lunch; and streamers in the evening. I already carried way too much stuff in my vest, and didn’t want to add another reel outfitted with a full sinking line. So I learned the high-stick, floating-line technique from McLennan and later realized it was much like the Brooks Method, minus the full-sink line. It took a long time, but eventually I discovered the black magic that allowed me to randomly lift the rod and pull big trout off the bottom. I’ve always been a rather hasty fly tier. Fly tying was a means to an end rather than anything I actually enjoyed. Those quaint visions of winter evenings spent sipping scotch in a tying parlor were always lost on me. But once I adopted Brooks’s tying strategy, I actually became interested, because my efforts were met with almost immediate success on the water. It turned out that Brooks was right—flies really did work better when tied in the round. One of the biggest brown trout of my life took my rough tie of a Brooks Stonefly Nymph in a rocky, wild piece of water along a grassy bank on the Bow River south of Calgary. The fly was moving along at a good pace, and the trout must have snapped it out of the drift beside the rock, because the line suddenly jumped upstream. Once the fish realized it was hooked, it eased into the current and headed downstream, with me splashing along behind it. I eventually netted it, and its tail stuck out so far beyond the frame that I realized I needed something bigger if this whole “nymph fishing for larger trout” thing became a habit. I don’t know if Charles Brooks ever fished steelhead, and at the time I was studying his methods I had no idea that Nymph Fishing for Larger Trout would
eventually take me to the banks of British Columbia’s Thompson River, to fish for a strain of wild steelhead that would come to define my fly fishing life. On the Thompson, it was tough not to notice the abundant golden stonefly shucks that adorned most every rock. I’m not sure of the genus of these bugs—my friend and noted aquatic entomologist Rick Hafele could give them one look and let me know—but it’s fine just to think of them as golden stones, and so I do. Coming to steelheading from a trout fishing background, I wondered if steelhead would take a golden stone imitation. The problem with Thompson steelhead is that they are—or sadly were, as the river is now closed to angling—notoriously difficult to catch on a fly. So fishing a pattern for a day or two or even three or more might not say anything about whether or not these fish would take it. It wasn’t until about seven years into my time on the Thompson that I had a four-fish morning, all caught in the same run, on my golden stone imitation. Finally, I was convinced that Thompson steelhead liked golden stonefly imitations a lot. That pattern? It was my Thompson Stone, which owed pretty much everything to the thinking of Brooks. The Thompson Stone didn’t start out tied in the round. In fact, the first versions were tied on the Partridge Bartleet Supreme Atlantic salmon hooks. When I dropped the original in the currents and watched it drift past, holding the leader to mimic the effects of a tight-line wet fly swing, it tended to fish either sideways or tipped upside down. It rarely fished as I imagined it would, upright and looking natural. At the time, I was experimenting with tube flies, and I wondered if a Thompson Stone tied on a tube might be a solution. Perhaps if I used a heavier hook, it might keep the fly oriented as I’d intended. So I tied it as a tube and had the same problems. I recalled something about tying in the round as a solution to this turn and tumble of a traditional tie, and so I simplified the pattern and tied it as Brooks might. In the currents, the fly now looked
the same from every angle, and I stopped worrying about how it was fishing and started actually fishing it. My presentation owed something to Brooks as well, fishing a sunken fly on a tight line, feeling for the take. Because the Thompson Stone was tied with wire, it wanted to sink, so I let it. Then when the line tightened, the fly would rise in the currents. Steelhead took the fly most often during the back half of the drift, as the fly rose and then drifted along, just under the surface. Years later, I learned that none other than the venerable Harry Lemire was fishing a nymph-style fly in a similar fashion as a solution to situations where steelhead were tough to seduce. The Thompson Stone is an impressionistic tie that looks a little bit like a stonefly and a little bit like a caddis pupa, and enough like each that steelhead seem to find it irresistible no matter where I find them. It’s one of my top steelhead producers, and one of only four steelhead flies you’ll regularly find on me. Nymph fishing for larger trout, whether 20-inchers on a blue ribbon stream, or 20-pounders on a steelhead river, has become the focus of my moving-water angling. And even on lakes, where I chase big rainbows in spring and fall, I’m adapting the skills Brooks taught, including the in-the-round tying method. This gives me confidence in my flies even during the occasional long, fishless day. Becoming a good nymph fisher is harder than it looks, but you’ll know you have it when you set for no apparent reason and are rewarded with the pulse of life on the line. It’s a long drift from the bottom of the Madison to just subsurface on BC’s greatest steelhead river, but Charles Brooks pushed me off and pointed the way. Seek him out. There’s much to discover while fishing a Brooks Stonefly on a tight line. —Dana Sturn Note: Want to read the original Charles Brooks SI story that set the author on his path? Type he’s got a very fishy look into your search engine.
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HATCHES by Dave Hughes
Streamer Situations A small box might do you. Streamers designed to fish a variety of depths include those that are unweighted (top row left to right: Muddler Minnow, Black Marabou Muddler, and Zoo Cougar), modestly weighted (center, left to right: Autumn Splendor, tungstenbeaded Black Woolly Bugger, and cone-headed Slump Buster), and heavily weighted (bottom, left to right: Lead-Eyed Woolly Bugger and Bob Clouserâ€™s Foxee Minnow).
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVE HUGHES
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’M NO STREAMER EXPERT, BUT I like to carry a small box of them and be ready to fish them when the situation is right, because they catch trout when other types of flies fail. Those trout are often larger than I might fool on drys and wets, and if you haven’t noticed yet—or perhaps have forgotten—it’s fun to catch big trout. My wife and I spent a recent day, at the end of an exploratory trip, fishing a favorite small Washington spring creek where the normal fare for trout varies from Trico spinners in size 22 up to BWOs in size 16. Any fly larger than that normally nets nothing but disdain. But no insects were in sight, either in the air or on the water. No trout rose. The glassy surface slipped along unbroken. Standard procedure on the stream, in the absence of hatches, calls for going to small scud and midge nymphs rigged with tiny yarn indicators. They might have worked, but my friendly wife vetoed them because she didn’t want to get involved in any complicated rigging only to have to undo it if something suddenly started hatching. So I nipped her leader back to its original 4X and tied on a brown, size 8 John Barr Slump Buster, a cone-headed and modestly weighted streamer tied simply by fixing a Zonker strip tail and winding it forward for the body.
Watercress had grown out from the edges of the spring creek, forming sheltering undercuts along its edges. We found a corner pocket where the current drove under some cress and turned, leaving an indention in the bank. It looked like a promising lie. The water just outboard from that indention shallowed up and, obviously, wouldn’t hold trout. The pocket was no more than two feet long, about as deep. Any cast with a chance to work would have to place the fly within inches of the watercress to be seen by any trout tucked back beneath it. Masako is an expert at fishing spring creeks, but her interest lags when no hatch is happening and trout aren’t taking dry flies. The few times she’d fished streamers was on big freestone rivers like the Big Hole, usually poking them at banks from a moving boat. She’d done well enough with them, but always pursued streamer fishing with more delicacy than aggression. Her short pokes at that spring creek pocket, no more than three rod lengths distant, began about five feet out from it, over the shallows, and worked the streamer toward it, but never got it nearer than a foot from the edge of the cress before she reeled up to quit. By then she’d pretty well hammered the water. I thought that any trout in the lie would have been driven out. So I took
her rod and said, “Let me show you the cast I’d have made first, because that’s the cast that has the best chance to startle a trout into striking.” I whacked the streamer a couple of lucky inches from the cress, at the upstream end of the two-foot pocket, let it sink a beat or two, coaxed it into life. It didn’t get far. You know the rest of the story. It was a rainbow, rather portly, only a little over 20 inches, not much heavier than four pounds. I handed the rod back to Masako. She began paying closer attention to reading the water for hidden pockets and fishing them more aggressively. Before we had to trot on from the stream toward home, she had taken a trout a bit bigger than mine, and on the same streamer. A small box of streamers should cover three situations. The first is a few streamers that are either unweighted, or weighted very lightly, to fish shallow water, the kind where you’d get hung up (Below) Small streams, with low gradients and patient meanders, provide some of the best places to fish streamers. Look for the outsides of bend pools, where currents have eroded some depth and have undercut the banks. (Below Left) Trout might be out in open water at any time, and you should show your streamer in that water before moving up onto it. But they’re more likely to be on the edges, and it’s important to hit the near one before you stretch your casts across to the far bank.
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at once if the fly plunged. Light streamers are surprisingly effective on small streams, to probe riffle corners, ledge water, edges, and small pools, the kind where a trout, even when it’s holding on the bottom, is close enough to the surface currents to rush up and take something swinging there. A second, and at least as important, use for unweighted streamers is to fish them on big water, with fast-sinking lines and short leaders, usually hitting banks from a boat. The sinking line gets to the bottom or near it. The light fly rides just a bit higher, avoids snagging, but tempts the biggest sorts of trophies you might catch in your trout-fishing year. Unweighted streamers in a strippeddown box might include the famous Muddler and the black Marabou Muddler in sizes 6 and 8, and yellow and white Zoo Cougars in sizes 2 and 4. The second situation calls for streamers that are weighted at least modestly, but not too heavily, for popping into pockets where you need some sudden sink. These are for fishing waters of modest depth on any size stream or river, where you’d like to get to the bottom or very near
it, and for pounding banks from a boat with a floating line, where your fly should penetrate the surface and get some depth quickly, but not sink so far and fast that you catch more submerged limbs and logs than trout. These might include the tungsten bead-headed Autumn Splendor and Black Woolly Bugger, and cone heads such as that successful Slump Buster. The third and last situation calls for “depth charge” streamers. They’re heavily weighted, for smacking into deep pockets and pools, for probing the depths of bigwater runs, for fast currents where it takes considerable weight to penetrate to any depth. You could convert any of the above dressings for the purpose by adding heavy cones or lead eyes and winding lots of extra weighting wire to the hook shank. For simplicity, it’s probably best to add a minimal selection of lead-eyed Woolly Buggers and Clousers, in sizes 6 and 8, to that minimal box. One of my favorites is Bob Clouser’s Foxee Minnow. I always admire anglers and guides who specialize in streamer fishing for trophy trout, tie them on size 2/0 and bigger hooks, store them in boxes the size
of briefcases. But such flies are limiting, appropriate only where very big trout hang out, and then only if you have the patience to reduce your chances at medium-sized trout in order to catch those few lunkers. But big trout, defined for my purposes as trout of good size for the water in which they swim, will take streamers of modest size as well, and so will trout of average size. If you want to catch more fish and still have an excellent chance at those occasional big ones, fill your box with streamers that are size 2 to 8, and even add a few that are downsized: 10s and 12s. When you fish waters that hold those exceptional big trout, you’ll probably be doing it from a boat, in which case, bigger streamers, and the bigger box in which they’re stored, will not present any portability problems. For most common stream situations, a small box of streamers that fits in a pocket will greatly expand your chances at trout. Dave Hughes, author of Wet Flies, lives in Portland, Oregon.
Where the current drives along cress or other vegetation beds, and leaves indentations here and there along the edges, you’ll find lots of good lies into which to pop your streamers.
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Discover the unsearchable Discover the forest
Find a trail near you a t DiscoverTheForest.org
CONSERVATION by Jon Osborn
Michigan Grayling Anglers may be casting for this once lamented species within a decade.
ICHIGAN’S RICH trout-fishing legacy has been celebrated by writers such as Harrison, Hemingway, and Traver. And yet, it’s largely a manufactured fishery: the brook trout are true natives, but the browns hail from Germany and Scotland, the rainbows from the Pacific Northwest. Long before these fish arrived, rivers such as the Hersey, Au Sable, and Manistee were home to Thymallus tricolor, the Michigan grayling, and sportsmen were
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astounded by their numbers: Take this reference from F. A. Westerman in 1961. “One spring, the grayling were running up the Hersey,” he wrote. “We noted they had some difficulty passing an obstruction in the stream, so we placed a canoe crosswise at that point and caught over 700 one afternoon.” Like the bison that dotted the Great Plains, and passenger pigeons that blackened the Midwest skies, these so-called white trout seemed infinite. But abundance breeds gluttony; word got out, and anglers began catching grayling in staggerWWW.AMERICANANGLER.COM
Be Part of the Grayling Effort
ing numbers. Some were salted down and sold in nearby cities. For whatever reason, many were pitched on the banks to rot. Facing onslaught from anglers, logging practices, and unprotected by the rudimentary science of the time, grayling populations faltered. The late 1800s marked an era of sharp decline, with numbers dwindling steadily through the early 1900s. An Otter River angler caught the last documented Michigan grayling in 1936, sounding the death knell for the species. Or so everyone thought. Redemption may be on the horizon, thanks to a collaborative effort known as the Michigan Arctic Grayling Initiative (MAGI). Nicole Watson, a PhD candidate at Michigan State University, along with nearly 50 additional participants— including Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Trout Unlimited, and various Native American tribes—are trying to restore self-sustaining populations of arctic grayling in their historic range. “It’s a tall order, considering it isn’t the first attempt to restore grayling populations in Michigan,” Watson said. In fact, there have been three prior attempts to reintroduce grayling: fingerlings were released periodically between 1900 and 1941, and between 1958 and 1960. More recently, yearlings were stocked between 1987 and 1991. In all cases, rapid outmigration posed a major issue, likely because those fish were reared in hatcheries using deepwater wells rather than water from streams where the fish were eventually released. And yet, Watson remains optimistic. As part of her research at MSU, she hopes to understand early-life-stage imprinting to target waters using plasma thyroid hormone analysis and water choice trials. “Imprinting is what guides salmonids to their home waters and allows them to spawn in regions where they were hatched,” Watson said. “In previous salmonid studies, elevations in blood plasma WWW.AMERICANANGLER.COM
thyroid hormone levels corresponded to times when the fish were actively imprinting to the stream water. In the case of grayling, we think this may occur as early as the eyed-egg stage.” The hope is that young grayling will imprint to their home waters, develop stream residency, and return as adults to spawn. “Rapid outmigration after introduction, competition with other fish, and predation are likely reasons why grayling populations haven’t rebounded in prior attempts,” said Watson. In the past, fall fingerlings (age 0) and yearlings (age 1) were raised in hatcheries that sourced water from deep wells. That may have resulted in the fish imprinting on that specific water type. When introduced to a stream environment, the grayling may have rapidly outmigrated, searching hopelessly for familiar water. The state of Montana experienced similar outmigration issues with stocked grayling. To combat the problem, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks employed remote site incubators (RSIs). Roughly the size of a five-gallon bucket, the incubators incorporate an inflow and outflow system, along with an aerator and egg tray. Following Montana’s lead, Michigan will use RSIs, encouraging fish to imprint to specific water. After establishing proper habitats, a list of suitable streams will be nominated for reintroduction. A century ago, scientific “data” on the Michigan grayling consisted mainly of journals, newspaper articles, and speculation. Authorities on the era insisted stocked trout were responsible for the grayling’s extinction. Watson says that assessment may be partially true, but feels grayling were equally impacted by dramatic overfishing and habitat loss due to logging. Watson knows that trout may present challenges to grayling fry, so she’s taking a close look at how the two species compete with each other. While many fish are piscivorous, Watson’s research shows that
Scientific research and specialized equipment, such as RSIs and UV sterilizers, are vital to the grayling reintroduction effort. Watson’s biggest challenge has been funding the project, which is supported by the Wenger Foundation and Charles Wilson. For additional information or to donate, visit: www.migrayling.org. brown trout prey more heavily upon grayling than do brook trout. In addition, grayling and brook trout have lived compatibly in many streams—prime examples lie north of the Michigan border in Canada. However, the jury is still out: Watson wants to confirm these assumptions and determine, in fact, which fish community is best suited for grayling reintroduction. Rumors have circulated widely among the angling community about other, unconventional options, including the mining of grayling DNA from dusty, hundred-year-old taxidermy mounts. As intriguing as this cloning process sounds, Watson says it’s simply not feasible. “We can’t just Jurassic Park old grayling and expect to have a viable population. Genetic diversity is key,” she said, which is why brood stock have been derived from genetically diverse populations in Alaska’s Tanana River. Michigan maintains a rich trout fishery, but Watson feels it’s time to welcome this native species back home. When that will happen is anyone’s guess. Brood stock would take three to four years to mature and spawn. However, with any luck, anglers could be fishing grayling within a decade. Jon Osborn lives in West Michigan and contributes to a range of publications including Pointing Dog Journal, Retriever Journal, Garden and Gun, Sporting Classics, Upland Almanac, Backcountry Journal, and Trout Unlimited magazine. His latest book, Flyfisher’s Guide to Michigan, was published by Wilderness Adventures Press in 2018. MARCH/APRIL 2020 I 29
DIY by Seth Fields
Misconceptions ’Bout Mouthbreathers The truth about one of North America’s oldest and oddest fish.
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SQUINT AND QUESTION whether I’m in over my head. I wonder, Can I even land this thing? I dig deep into the cork and pull up, fumbling for the reel handle through the slime and blood. The blood is mine—a reminder of my hubris and the consequences of trying to land a big slimy fish too soon. But it’s tiring now, and most of my glove is intact. Minutes later, I lean over and grab its snout and hold it through a few hard headshakes that threaten to open up new wounds. I boat it and pick out the fibers from its snout. Nylon isn’t biodegradable, and this old girl deserves a clean break. Once I’m done, I look at it for the first time: the pearlescent armor, the spots stretched from end to end, and a tail and nose that hang well over the sides of my four-foot marker. I set it back in the water and watch its bright-orange tail fade from view. At this moment, I can’t help but wonder about the term trash fish and all the high-praised game fish out there that have given me less sport than this. I’m fishing on the edge of Chattanooga, WWW.AMERICANANGLER.COM
Tennessee, a postindustrial boomtown with a growing reputation as an outdoor adventure hub. And if you hadn’t guessed, I’m casting for gars. Decades before being dubbed “The Best Town Ever” by Outside magazine, a 1969 report by the EPA labeled Chattanooga as “the dirtiest city in America.” The report focused on air quality, but it’s not hard to imagine how bad the rivers were at a time when people supposedly drove with their headlights on during the day. That label rebooted the city’s DNA. Air-quality standards and policies changed, and soon the air—and the water—began to clear. So the city went from the dirtiest to one of the greenest, and the adventure junkies are piling in. Despite its growing reputation and new blood, Chattanooga has an outdoors scene dominated mostly by hang gliders, rock climbers, and white-water rafters. Fly fishing still isn’t on most people’s radars, but there is a budding fly culture in town. Conversations at the local fly shop usually revolve around muskie waters to the north, trout fishing in the Smokies, and floats on nearby tailwaters. All the WWW.AMERICANANGLER.COM
while, the city’s most visible and historic waterway, the Tennessee River, flows quietly by, unnoticed and largely untouched by the fly crowd. The Tennessee is not exactly known for its incredible fishing, but it does have a decent population of bass and catfish, as well as a small, seasonal spring push of freshwater stripers running upstream from nearby Nickajack Lake. Aside from the game fish, there are also freshwater drum, various carp and shad species . . . and gars. In fact, this river is absolutely jam-packed with longnose gars. The Tennessee is the largest tributary of the Ohio River. The Tennessee has nine top-end release dams, which were built to improve navigation, impede flooding, and create power and recreational areas for inhabitants of the Tennessee River Valley. This system, which breaks up the river into a few notable river sections and lakes, also impedes fish passage. The fish that thrive here do so between dams and in warm flows that often reach temperatures of 85 degrees F. The Chattanooga section is shallow and provides idyllic conditions for gars and other hearty non-game fish to thrive—the current world-record drum was caught here in 1972. Gars thrive because they have a highly vascularized swim bladder, which allows them to gulp air when oxygen levels are low. It also provides anglers like myself with a way to observe where gars are concentrated. They often stack up in large groups around springs, creek mouths, and structure, and can be seen gulping air throughout the day, which allows anglers to sight-fish for them. Most people regard gars as a nuisance species, but Dr. Jay Shelton, a fisheries biologist at the University of Georgia, says gars keep a waterway’s ecosystem in balance. “Gar is an important predator of species that have high reproductive capacity and the potential to over-populate a lake or river,” he said. “These would include sunfishes, but also common carp and shad. Studies have shown that gar do not pose any threat to larger game fish.” Keeping certain species such as bluegills in check is no easy task. The common bluegill reaches sexual maturity as early as two years old and can lay up to 60,000 eggs, while it can take female gars
up to six years to mature, and they lay only about 20,000 eggs. They have to eat a lot of bluegills to balance the equation. The only factor in the gars’ favor is that gars are long lived—up to 22 years. Despite the gar’s size, most anglers still give this fish the cold shoulder—it requires specialized tackle and care to catch and handle, and most people believe it is inedible, which is simply not true. “In my opinion,” Dr. Shelton said, “this is a serious misunderstanding. The Angler’s Guide to Tennessee (available online) states that ‘Gar are edible, but are not considered a food fish.’ I would disagree. I grew up in south Louisiana, where the Cajuns used to hunt for giant alligator gar with harpoons. Because of its firm texture, [the] gar is an ideal base for fish sausage and fish cakes.” While gar eggs are poisonous to humans, people who eat gar know that they are tasty and produce two long, odorless backstraps that are boneless and often compared to alligator meat or even chicken. It appears, for the most part, that people just don’t know much about gar. In Tennessee, as in most of the country, these primordial predators are usually met with contempt and lethal blows from locals. Bodies can often be seen floating downstream or discarded and rotting near public access points, with puncture wounds in their sides—a grim and undeserved ending for a seriously underappreciated fish. While there’s nothing wrong with people harvesting fish, the act of killing or wantonly wasting native fish is a tough pill to swallow. I try to educate people when I can, but it’s an uphill battle. Many people remain skeptical or indignant. But, I’ve had a few come up to me—after witnessing a long battle with a gar on the end of my line—and ask me to show them how to catch gars. I even toss the hopeful ones a rope fly or two. There is hope. Chattanooga is a city on the rise with a fish that has nowhere to go but up. Revolutions—even in fishing—have to start somewhere. Why not here, I wonder. Seth Fields is the digital content manager for American Angler and the editor of The Angling Report. Check out more of his work at flywaymedia.net. MARCH/APRIL 2020 I 31
ADVENTURE by Richard Chiappone
Cudas & Trash Why wouldn’t you throw in Cayo Largo?
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TANDING ON THE CASTING deck of the Dolphin flats skiff as our Cuban guide, Keinlert, poles us across seemingly endless ocean flats in search of permit, I start to see the shapes of fish, a huge mixed school—some flashing silvery white, others dark torpedoes—moving through the too-deep-to-wade water directly under the boat. “What am I seeing?” I ask Keinlert. “The white ones are yellow jacks, the black ones, bonefish,” he answers from high on the poling platform. “Some big snappers there too.” Oh, it’s just another school of hundreds of jacks and bonefish and snappers. Maybe thousands. That sort of thing happens here at Cayo Largo, Cuba. Every day. Keinlert poles on, unfazed. I gawk at the sheer numbers of fish surrounding the skiff. It goes on forever. Do I make a cast? I do not. We are looking for permit. This is the third trip here for my fishing partner Will Rice and me, and we’ve learned that, time and again, when we sight-cast to feeding permit, there is a good chance our Avalon permit fly will be ambushed by a fat five-pound bonefish, or a feisty jack or snapper feeding on the same shrimps the permit are. Now, with the light just right, I can see why that keeps happening. There are hundreds of times more secondary species than our main target. I realize it’s hard to get sympathy complaining that we keep catching hardfighting jacks and snappers—not to mention five-pound bonefish that take us into the backing, even on the heavy permit rods. Poor us. But we’ve come more than WWW.AMERICANANGLER.COM
4,000 miles, and spent two days en route to get here; six separate plane flights for me to get from Homer, Alaska, to this little island 40 miles off the southern coast of Cuba that is possibly the permit-fishing capital of the world. So, when I make a rare decent cast that actually lands somewhere close to a permit, and I see the targeted fish rush the fly and hear the guide yelp, “Strike!” and I remember not to trout-strike, and I stripstrike, and the line starts ripping through my hand on that first blistering run, I’ll admit that a grip-and-grin photo of me holding a gorgeous Cuban permit flashes into my mind in brilliant Kodachrome. And when the fish takes the line deep into the backing, what I do not want to hear is Keinlert groaning, “another bonefish,” the disappointment palpable in his voice. Yes, a five-pound bonefish is a real prize, a joy to catch and a blessing from the gods of fly fishing—unless it just wrecked your shot at a permit. Then it’s just “another bonefish.” Seriously, maybe only in Cayo Largo could bonefish and snappers and jacks be such a “problem.” The sheer number of permit shots is itself almost unimaginable. The meticulous records kept by Avalon Cuban Fishing Centers—in its role as partner with other Cuban companies working to preserve the inshore fishery— confirm the level of permit fishing available: anywhere from 50 to 70 permit are landed each year. Numerous grand slams, and super slams (a bonefish, tarpon, permit, and one of the area’s numerous snook). This week, there are three sports in camp: Will and me and our new friend Don Wong, an angler from New Jersey. With only the three of us fishing the nearly 500-square-mile preserve, stretching from the Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth) on the west to Cayo Largo on the east, Will manages one super grand slam; Don gets his first permit and a grand slam; I fail to catch a permit this trip, but get one of three “mini” slams (a bonefish, tarpon, and snook landed in one day). We lose count of how many bonefish, jacks, and snappers we’ve landed. Again, no disrespect is meant to the bonefish of Cayo Largo or of the world in general. In fact, the most satisfying and WWW.AMERICANANGLER.COM
memorable fish of the trip for me was neither the rampaging snook that tried to climb the mangrove trees around its snag-infested lair when it felt my hook nor the reckless tarpon that hit my EP Peanut Butter fly after its partner spat the thing out. My favorite fish of the week was an average five-pound bonefish: a single that I stalked on foot in knee-deep water, sight-cast to, and watched charge the fly. Although I’ve caught bones twice that size, that’s a fish to remember. After a week of having them nearly become a nuisance, it was good to be reminded why they are a world-class sport fish. My point is only that, even when you are not getting what you’re hunting for, it’s probably smart to learn to enjoy what you’re catching. And enjoy each little surprise. One of the hardest-fighting fish of the trip was a medium-sized horse-eye jack that struck while I was blind-casting in a channel for tarpon. That jack put a bend in the 12-weight rod that had me momentarily convinced I’d hooked one of the much larger tarpon. Of course, it didn’t jump. But, man, what a scrapper. Pound for pound—along with its cousin the jack crevalle, and the jacks’ Pacific kinfolk, the trevally—it must be one of the strongest fish in the sea. Even the smaller yellow jacks that attacked both our permit flies and tarpon patterns proved themselves to be incredibly powerful fighters. The same goes for several mutton snappers that hit flies intended for more celebrated species. (It was particularly painful to release the muttons. I’ve eaten them in other places, and they are a delicious food fish. But the entire marine park is a no-kill area, off-limits to the harvesting of fish in any fashion.) Thank God for that. On the last afternoon of the last day of our trip, the tide was too low to bring permit up onto the flats. So, Will and I finished the afternoon casting for tarpon in a deep channel. The scenery of the place alone would have been worth the money and time it took to get there. The channel was the intense cerulean blue the Caribbean is known for. Wading birds—white herons and egrets—worked the edges of the shallow flats, in the short
mangroves sprouting on both sides of the cut. Overhead, frigate birds and a lone osprey drifted across the cloudless sky. Nurse sharks, lemon sharks, and stingrays coasted by beneath the boat like strange underwater birds of some kind. I was in no hurry to get back to Alaska in March. For an hour or two, we took turns on the deck but failed to entice the school of tarpon that occasionally revealed itself to us. However, nearly every cast drew hits from the menagerie of other fish using the channel for their own purposes. Muttons, black jacks, yellow snappers, yellow jacks, all seemed to be competing for a crack at whatever we cast, and kept us entertained during this lull in the big game fishing. When Keinlert said, “Time to go home, my friends. Last cast,” Will was on deck. He launched a very long last cast halfway across the channel and started stripping. Something much bigger than the snappers and jacks struck. Again, given the deep bow in the heavy rod, the whirling reel, we momentarily thought he’d connected with one of the resident tarpon—which run to about 30 pounds—but again, it did not jump. This fish just took off, peeling line down to the backing. And it still kept going. “What the heck is it?” I asked Keinlert, assuming he could see it from his high vantage point on the platform. He shrugged, and guessed, “Big barracuda, maybe.” “I don’t have a wire leader,” Will said. Earlier, I had hooked a small snapper, and lost it, my tarpon shock tippet, and the fly to a barracuda that swallowed the snapper like a cocktail snack. Landing a barracuda without a wire tippet was a long shot, to say the least. Yet, a short while later, the big fish tired enough for Will to get it on the reel and pump it in. It was, indeed, a big, very toothy barracuda, the tarpon fly conveniently hooked in the outside of its lip, tippet unscathed. It was a colorful surprise ending for a great trip. And, yes, we would have liked to finish that day, that week, with one more permit. But, as the Stones said, “You can’t always get what you want.” It doesn’t mean you can’t have a hell of a lot of fun trying. MARCH/APRIL 2020 I 33
Bugginâ€™ Out Nine of the best hatches you could ever hit. KEVIN FEENSTRA
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KARCZYNSKI THOMAS STURN SAUTNER SANTELLA HAMZA ZOBY RIPPLE KEER
MARCH/APRIL 2020 I 35
Daylight Hexâ€™n Hexagenia, Western Michigan
By Dave Karczynski
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espite elephant-sized quantum computers that operate at deep space temps or not at all, the game of chess— where the most powerful piece is essentially an angry woman with a longbow—remains unsolved. Another: How will the cosmos end? Maybe by spinning off into nothing, maybe by a cosmic crunch—top physicists flip a coin. And this: when it comes to figuring out Western Michigan’s brown trout, the situation is dire—most people fish the Hex limbata only at night. My Hex epiphany—or heresy—came about on the banks of Wisconsin’s Tomorrow River when I was in my 20s. At the time, I was as unencumbered as I was unemployed—by which I mean I caught more inches of trout per week than I had dollars in my bank account, and bathed so infrequently I greased my leaders by running
year—twitching midday, B-52-bomber-style Hex spinners to the tune of at least one sharking attack per outing. Fishing Hex by daylight—is it a trap? A deviously concocted misdirection meant to wear out competitors and grant me an empty river as night falls in early July? Far from it. It’s just me shouting as loud as I can that there are endless strange discoveries yet to be made in the dark arts of fly fishing the Midwest, and so, so many ways to skin a trout. If you’re looking for a place to hone those skinning skills, get yourself to Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Michigan—the Holy Trinity of Hexdom—when the first real heat comes in mid-to-late June. While the most famous Hex rivers include Wisconsin’s Bois Brule and White, along with the Pere Marquette, Au Sable, and Manistee Rivers in Michigan, just about every north country Midwest
them back and forth across my forehead. My general modus at the time was to fish until 2 a.m., sleep until noon, and then gulp a can of warm soup or some Campbell’s gazpacho, depending on midday temps. After that I’d fish terrestrials or Cahills for a few hours before regrouping for the big bug main event. Until one afternoon. I can’t say whether it was due to a meteorological downburst or localized tornado, but somewhere around 4 p.m., a heap of Hex spinners hit the water. Since the Tomorrow is a river of slow flows, I was able to count the exact number of bugs—14—all of them twitching and batting their wings on the meniscus, like little crank-up bathtub toys. I was standing at a long, straight stretch of the river and had trained my eyes on the lead bug, curious to see how fish would respond to Hex spinners some six hours ahead of schedule. And though it took some time—about 150 yards of slow float—that first bug of the day got whacked. Hard. The next afternoon I was back on the water, ready to get experimental, to solve a mystery. I tied on an oversized Hex spinner, dropped it a few feet in front of me, and started to feed line into my drift, alternating between stack mends and careful twitches as my fly drifted past logjam after logjam. Then, out of nowhere, I was met with a sight I wouldn’t see again until a decade later while fishing dragonflies in Chile: a brown trout going three feet airborne after my bug. That fish missed my offering—of course—but I did catch a nice brookie a few casts later and, more important, discovered one of my favorite ways to fish the days of June and July every
trout stream has a resident population of big bugs. (Wisconsin’s Driftless is the exception.) That said, you won’t find Hex in the pebbled headwaters of these streams. In its nymphal form, the Hex is a burrowing mayfly and, furthermore, subsists on a diet of muck and silt—all the dark, stinky organic matter left over from decayed trees and vegetation. Therefore, you should focus on slower, warmer water—the kind trout anglers often describe as “marginal” and that produces the occasional pike or smallmouth in addition to trout. As said, Hex emergences occur at dusk, with spinners tending to fall best on humid nights when temperatures at nightfall are 70 degrees or higher at dark. Once the hatch gets under way, anglers can expect to encounter fish feeding on all three stages of the bug—emerger, dun, and spinner—at the same time. You should be prepared to cycle through a few patterns before you find one that works on the river you’re targeting. And while imitative patterns fit the bill in most situations, on new moon nights, be sure to pack along a Death Hex or two. These all-black patterns, which you’ll probably have to tie yourself, create a stark silhouette that trout key in on easily. Last but not least, when Hex fishing, you’ll want to pack along your big net—the one you use for steelhead. You don’t want to be undergunned on the brown trout of a lifetime. Dave Karczynski is the author of Smallmouth and From Lure to Fly. He lives in Ann Arbor and teaches at the University of Michigan. MARCH/APRIL 2020 I 37
ing on the creek an issue. But patient anglers who stake out a section in late afternoon and hold their position into and well past total darkness—which could begin at 10 p.m.—often see some solid snouts. That’s what I did one evening, while fishing an area above Picabo Bridge. As the sun dropped, a few of the big bugs came off, enough to draw a couple fish to the surface. I landed one during the emergence, and then right before dark I saw a mass of brown drake spinners dancing above the banks. Soon, some of those bugs were hitting the water, and the boils quickly followed. I landed a couple good browns before I pushed my float tube into the creek and drifted downstream, to a point where a friend would be waiting, I thought, in his Suburban. Near where I thought he might be, I saw an impressive rise and tied on a down-wing spinner. I’m not much of a tier, but I’d wound some dubbing to a hook, attached Hungarian partridge feathers as wings, and moose hair for a tail, and hoped to take a good fish on this fly. It would be good for only one or two casts before moisture would sink it—that is, it was a low-pro model lacking hackle. I waited for the fish to rise again and then cast my fly just a couple feet above the rings. Sure enough, that fish ate. It was a brown, at least 19 inches long, with a high back and incredible inky black and crimson spots. I hopped back in the tube, fully satisfied, and floated downstream. In the dark, with no moonlight, I couldn’t be sure where my friend might be. As I rounded one turn, a scream sounded down from a cottonwood tree—like a howler monkey that just got its ass pricked with a pin. I about spilled out of the float tube and nearly pissed my waders before I heard that laugh—the same I’d heard when that fish took a Mohair Leech. A light beam shot out of the limbs, and there, cackling wildly, was my friend. That’s what I like about brown drakes on Silver Creek. The fishing can be hit or miss, great at times and stone-cold dead at others. But the opportunity to take a big brown on any given cast, in one of the most beautiful valleys in the West, makes this hatch one of western fly fishing’s greatest events. Greg Thomas is this magazine’s editor in chief. Check out more of his work at www.anglerstonic.com.
ALL BY NICK PRICE
hen I first arrived in Ketchum, Idaho, back in the 1990s, I’d fished a lot of western stillwaters and many freestone streams, but I’d never seen anything like south-central Idaho’s Silver Creek. When I looked at the creek’s narrow, flat, and uniform flows, I thought, It all looks the same. Where should a guy even cast? Fortunately, I lucked into friendships with several local guides, and they spent many afternoons aiming the rookie at productive spots, always with a directive: Don’t cast until you see a rise. One sunny and warm June evening, while we rested in the creek’s lush bankside grass, sipping beer and waiting for a brown drake appearance, I spotted a rise, right alongside a floating mat of vegetation. I leaped to my feet, made a good cast, and moments later, after a short fight, had a 20-some-incher in the net. I was all smiles, but one of the guides wasn’t impressed. He took a big pull off his Rainier, shook his head, scowled, then chuckled and said, “Jesus, Thomas. You’re the first person to ever fish a Mohair Leech during a brown drake hatch.” With a perplexed look on my face, and a single digit raised his way, I said, “What? You didn’t tell me which fly to throw.” Ah, brown drakes. Those large, size 8 and 10 mayflies can be found all around the Northern Rockies (and elsewhere in the country), but they are most noted on the Gem State’s Silver Creek and Henrys Fork. They can be present on Silver Creek in early June, although some years they may not arrive until deeper into the month. It’s all weather and water temperature dependent. Silver Creek’s drake activity draws anglers from around the country, all hoping to cast a dry fly over one of the stream’s legendary brown trout, meaning fish that weigh between 5 and 10 pounds and spend their daylight hours skulking under the banks, or in the deepest pools, crushing baitfish and crustaceans. These fish rarely eat drys, but do so during a brown drake emergence and spinner fall, which usually occur during low-light situations and into complete darkness. Because those drakes are large, and because they come off in staggering numbers, the largest browns—and rainbows, too—declare those bugs as worthy of their attention. At no other time are the creek’s largest trout so vulnerable to an angler. The potential to catch such large trout on drys makes crowd-
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Silver Creek, Idaho By Greg Thomas
Brown Drakes and the
Mohair Leech WWW.AMERICANANGLER.COM
MARCH/APRIL 2020 I 39
friend lost a fly box on the Crowsnest River. It slipped out of an open vest pocket. We never knew where or when. All we knew was it was gone. I searched down one side while Richard splashed across and searched down the other until his progress was halted where the river rushed up against a rock wall. He waved me off and pointed upstream, signaling I should meet him back where we’d started. “This sucks,” he said, wading out. “All my Stealth Caddises were in there.” His first trip to Alberta wasn’t off to the best start. Crap weather and reluctant rainbows made his few days on the Bow near Calgary underwhelming, so on the two-hour drive south this morning, I assured him that the Crowsnest would be different. But now I imagined the box—my gift of a clear Orvis full of perfect little hand ties—spinning in eddies and bumping off boulders, eventually tumbling over Lundbreck Falls a few kilometers downstream. There are some big trout below those falls. At dusk they start looking up for caddisflies that the size 16 Stealth Caddis matches perfectly in dark waters. Now he didn’t have any. And that’s where we were headed.
Smaller and wilder than the Bow, the Crowsnest flows east along Highway 3 in southwestern Alberta until it joins the Oldman River northeast of the village of Cowley. It’s a walkand-wade dream river that fishes best late June through early autumn. In July, I like to pitch my tent at Lundbreck Falls. Above the falls, the Crow is primarily a rainbow fishery, boasting 1,500 trout per mile; below, you’ll find browns too. Fifteen-inch fish are typical here, but don’t be surprised when a 22-incher stretches your net. For me, the Crowsnest is a welcome retreat, its caddis hatch a refuge from the lingering stuffiness of fly fishing. Sometimes I just want to spend a week wet-wading, knowing I’m gonna get ’em and sipping the beer I stashed in the shallows for the walk back. Each day I can do something different, or nothing at all. Because every night around 9 p.m., I can walk down to the river and catch big trout on little caddis patterns. It doesn’t matter if my casting’s a bit off, or if I don’t know the names of the bugs they’re biting. There doesn’t have to be anything technical about it. I don’t want to be the Friday fly shop hero telling everyone what they just missed. I just want to drink a beer and catch a few trout. There’s a midstream rock near the campsite, my twilight perch every trip. Sitting there at dusk, I can see them, big snouts emerging from the choppy water. Gently lay 5X just above them, and watch the little black speck bob along until someone eats it. As the light leaves, I cast blind and strip back once, twice, three times. The line often tightens before the third strip. There in the dark, my reel will chatter while I wedge my boots between slick rocks. This is tricky. Sometimes I’ll bruise a knee. Or fall in. I lost a hat once, which I found the next morning a few hundred feet downstream. But never a fly box. Near midnight I’ll walk back to camp, sipping one of those Big Rock Traditional Ales I stashed in the cool shallows. My neighbors are long asleep. I’ll sit at a picnic table in the perfect darkness and listen intently to nothing. Tonight, Richard’s first on the Crow, our headlamps illuminate rough caddis tied to replace lost ones. It’s Saturday and the campground is full. We hear the kids giggling from the trails below camp, and know that the trout won’t be looking up for a while. Later, with a handful of ragged wraps of elk hair and dubbing, we shuffle through the currents until we find a spot that fits our feet. We false-cast with eyes closed and heads bowed so the bills of our caps shield errant hooks. Those ugly little flies land up there in the chop, then float toward us until something big stops them. After a dozen of these moments, I’ll mention open pockets and unappreciated gifts. Richard will reply that good gifts are worth sharing. “Maybe someone will find it,” he’ll say, the day’s frustrations tempered by hot fishing on a warm summer night. We’ll never know if one of those kids playing below the campsite will find that box intact and learn to snug a clinch knot up against one of those perfectly tied little flies. And then, one night years later, seeking refuge from a bright and busy world, close her eyes and cast upriver into the darkness below Lundbreck Falls. Dana Sturn is AA’s Canada editor and the founder of speypages. com. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.
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Night Caddis Lundbreck Falls, Crowsnest River, Alberta By Dana Sturn
MARCH/APRIL 2020 I 41
Eastern Stones and the
Catskill Mountains, New York
By Stephen Sautner
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hey appear magically, like presents under a Christmas tree when you were seven years old. One morning in late May, you wade into the stream and—behold!— dozens of stonefly husks cling to every rock and boulder. Suddenly, each run, tailout, and slot beckons like an all-you-can-eat buffet. And you are freaking hungry. Here in the Northeast, stoneflies are not nearly so celebrated as the famous salmonfly and golden stonefly hatches on western rivers. Yet fast fishing awaits those anglers ready to adapt. Forget graceful 70-foot casts, lovely drag-free floats, and trout rising as a Bach sonata plays in the background. Time to knot on some 8-pound Maxima and splatter down big, hairy bugs with graceless hauls. This is fly fishing to Motörhead. Thankfully, stoneflies do not prompt Latinizing the way mayflies do. I lump all my springtime stones together as either golden, black, or brown and leave it at that. Someone who sidles up to you at a bar and mentions he is eagerly awaiting the emergence of Acroneuria lycorias should be avoided. On the other hand, if the guy on the next stool over tells you he just saw a crapload of goldens, immediately ply him with alcohol—and lots of it. Except for the tiny, early black stoneflies you sometimes see motorboating across creeks during winter thaws, most fishable eastern stonefly hatches are later spring occurrences. On my home waters in the Catskills in southern New York, which includes world-class rivers such as the upper Delaware, Beaverkill, and Neversink, I don’t expect to see them in any numbers until just before Memorial Day, with mid-June being about the peak. And bulk numbers are what you are looking for. When these bugs erupt, trout suddenly lock in on them, like crocodiles greeting the wildebeest migration. Everything from six-inch brookies on tiny mountain tributaries to 20-inch browns in the big Delaware have at it. But don’t look for traditional blanket hatches. Though you may see staggering numbers of nymphal husks and newly hatched adults crawling along the shore, eastern stoneflies rarely hit the water all at once. It’s mostly one here, one there. Come evening, you may see scatterings of egg-layers crash-landing in riffles, but that’s about as abundant as they get. An exception is on a dry, windy day right after a mass emergence. That’s when recently hatched adults can be blown off streamside vegetation by the hundreds before their wings fully dry, and the river boils with rising fish. But the combination of those perfect conditions happens about once every other leap year. If you stumble onto it, though, feel free to call or text me. Please. For flies, traditional Stimulators, Sofa Pillows, and their WWW.AMERICANANGLER.COM
ilk, in sizes 10 to as large as 6 certainly work, but my favorite is something I call the Hot Mess. I tie it on a size 8 2XL dry fly hook with a fuzzy body of either olive, cream, or yellow rabbit dubbing. Then I lock in a gob of stacked deer hair and pull it back to form a bullethead. The last step is crucial: I literally crumple the fly in my hand like a scrap of paper you’re about to toss in the garbage. This maneuver splays, folds, and kinks the hair wing, making it look like something that splattered on your windshield. Tied correctly, a Hot Mess doesn’t land in the water as much as it flops. And when it does, you twitch, water throws, a trout leaps. Speaking of twitches, my own rule is to cast once or maybe twice and let the fly dead-drift. If nothing takes, I cast again, but check the rod high. When the fly lands (flops), I give it action so it jumps and daps in the current just like a floundering stonefly. I can’t tell you how many times that final quiver provokes a vicious take. If I can position myself to skip the bug upstream
instead of down, so much the better. For some reason, trout prefer their stones moving against the current, not with it. Don’t play the waiting game and cast only when risers show. Fish the water. I like rocky riffles or swift, narrow slots against boulders. On smaller streams, tailouts between plunge pools— particularly if they gather a few bubble lines—are big medicine. And dammit man, cast. A lot. Put the fly here. Then over there. Twitch it in front of that boulder. Then next to another one. Use drag to your advantage. Think like a stonefly. Make that Hot Mess dance. You are looking for a trout that seems to have waited its whole life to crush that fly. When it does, set the hook and I dare you not to air guitar to The Ace of Spades with your five weight. Stephen Sautner’s latest book, A Cast in the Woods, is published by Lyons Press. Learn more at www.stephensautner.com. MARCH/APRIL 2020 I 43
regon may not rank as high as neighboring Idaho and Montana for bucket list dry fly fishing, but there are exceptions—March browns on the McKenzie, green drakes on the Metolius, Hexagenia on the Williamson . . . and, most notably, salmonflies on the lower Deschutes River. In fact, my first great day on “the D” came with the salmonflies. But for some years, I grew disenchanted with the hatch. It can be erratic—the fish are on them one day and completely indifferent the next. If you’ve driven the 100-mile-each-way day trip from Portland, anticipating big things, and only roll a few dinks, it’s hard not to be a bit bitter. Especially after months of dour winter steelheading, when you don’t really expect to catch a fish—with trout, I kind of do! The salmonfly emergence seems to bring out every man and woman in the Beaver State who’s ever uttered the word trout . . . and quite a few from Washington and California too. Staked out in a favorite spot not far below the Warm Springs put-in, I once counted 40 drift boats in a two-hour period. (I stopped counting after that.) All these boats for a roughly eight-mile drift—a third of which is open for angling on only one side of the river, and where all fishing 44 I AMERICAN ANGLER
(with the exception of disabled anglers) is wade-only. As I’ve grown older—and perhaps more patient—I’ve adjusted my expectations, learned to wait out the fish, and appreciated the salmonfly hatch as a chance to encounter the biggest redsides (a strain of rainbow endemic to the Columbia River basin) the Deschutes has to offer. I used to think these fish topped out at 20 inches, but I have learned that they can grow larger than that. My aging eyes also appreciate that I can actually tie the fly on without magnifiers and follow its drift. The Deschutes drains much of the northern half of Central Oregon, beginning southwest of the city of Bend and flowing north to its terminus with the Columbia. While salmonflies occur in the Middle Deschutes (above Lake Billy Chinook and the Pelton Dam), most angling efforts focus on the 100 miles below the dam—that is, the Lower Deschutes. Stoneflies are present throughout, and the emergence can begin down low in early May. “The lower Deschutes is primarily thought of as a steelhead fishery, but there’s some great trout fishing,” said Sam Sickles of Steelhead Outfitters in Hood River. “There’s not much pressure in the lower twenty miles for trout, and that makes the fish WWW.AMERICANANGLER.COM
Salmonflies on the Big D Deschutes River, Oregon By Chris Santella
happy and willing to eat drys.” As upstream waters warm toward the mid-50s, the hatch migrates south, generally reaching the Maupin area by midMay, and the Warm Springs region by Memorial Day. Once the salmonflies start dropping, fish will be on them—some days better than others—for several weeks. (Around Warm Springs, the fish seem to be looking up for at least a week or two after the last naturals have vanished.) I used to think that mid-mornings, when the first breezes kicked up, were best; but I’ve had some fine early afternoons and evenings as well. On good days, fish seem to eat for a while, rest, then eat again. While I have seen Deschutes rainbows hammer salmonflies (and their imitations) in riffles, on seam lines, and on featureless flats, many fish take up lies under or just downstream of alders and other streamside trees or bushes, sometimes in absurdly shallow water. Here, they’ll wait for bugs that have successfully shambled to shore and broken free from their shucks to be blown into the water. The Deschutes is a powerful river, and waist-deep wades (allowing you to cast back into shore) can be precarious. I prefer to get downstream from a fishy spot and sidearm a cast up and in. WWW.AMERICANANGLER.COM
While I’m not opposed to prospecting, I’ve done better watching and waiting for a fish that’s working. (There’s where the slightly extra patience helps.) The trout I’ve targeted—especially the larger specimens—seem very particular about the bugs they eat . . . and I mean the naturals. I’ve watched them come up and refuse several naturals, only to take my bug. Go figure. A fly that’s been slapped or even jerked into position (to negotiate those branches) doesn’t seem to put them off, as long as there’s a drag-free drift when it reaches the fish. What bug to use? Realistic foam imitations work well early in the hatch. If you begin seeing refusals, go to sparser pre-foam flies, such as Stimulators or Sofa Pillows. As the hatch winds down, it’s hard to beat a size 8 or 10 Chubby Chernobyl with a purple body. Look in any Deschutes regular’s fly box in May and early June, and that’s what you’ll find. Chris Santella is the author of 22 books, including the Fifty Places series from Abrams. A frequent contributor to the New York Times and Washington Post, he also plays guitar in a roots rock band, Catch & Release. MARCH/APRIL 2020 I 45
splat. It took two Kleenex tissues to wipe it off. First-timers seeing this bug might cry, “Holy drake!” or something like that. To experience a hatch with such giant bugs being slurped down by giant brook trout is nirvana. There are men whose life quest is to search for the Holy Grail. Not me. Mine is to search for the Holy Drake. In the month of July, in and around the Minipi River system, the hatch comes off. This giant drake is actually a special type of Hexagenia, a close relative to the legendary “Michigan mayfly” that comes off on that state’s Upper Peninsula. Both flies can exceed two inches long. The green drake hatch does not come off in a flurry. The giant bugs seem to disperse almost evenly with four to five feet between them. The places I have fished the hatch were big waters. It is similar to fishing stillwaters. You observe rises and calculate the position of the fish. If you cast to the rise, you are doing it wrong. You cast to the anticipated direction of the fish and just above where you expect to see it again, like a form of hunting. My best brook trout in Labrador, to date, is a seven-and-ahalf-pounder that put a permanent memory in a Rolf Baginski bamboo rod. It’s okay. The rod came with two tips. The trout was released, and the tip is a permanent reminder of the trophy. If you go to Labrador, don’t ask about the Hex hatch. They won’t know what you are talking about. Those big flies are green drakes to everyone there. The trout don’t care what they’re called. They are just glad they are there, and so am I. Jerry Hamza is an outdoor author published by Skyhorse Press and various outdoor publications. He is a fly fisherman and bamboo aficionado. His newest book, Fly Fishing and the Zen of Home Water, will be published in the spring of 2020.
here are many factions in the fly fishing community. Each has its own prejudices and preferences. Some are more self-isolating than others; the Atlantic salmon people would be in a state of unease talking to a carp person. They may even harbor a misguided sense of superiority. But in all of fly fishing, there is one fish that unites. One fish that no one could have any sort of feelings about, other than good ones—the brook trout, Salvelinus fontinalis. (I have heard there are a weird few who don’t aspire to the King of American fishes, but why dawdle on deviant behavior?) Brook trout are a native char whose beautiful colors and bighearted aggressiveness, including a willingness to crush dry flies, is proof to me of a higher power. What could be better than a brook trout? I sometimes ask. I can tell you the answer: big brook trout, meaning something capable of eating a mammal. The greatest bastion of big brook trout is, by consensus and in the opinion of the late fly fishing god Lee Wulff, Labrador, Canada. Brook trout over three pounds are common there, and seven-to-eightpounders are a legitimate goal. Over that, a fish becomes legendary. There is a special reason why Labrador’s brook trout get so large—protein. They get it from eating mice and voles, but the bigger fish also find it available during the green drake hatch. That hatch is so incredible, I dream about it. In fact, I have spent many days and dollars to experience that monumental event. I feel as if it is on par with every great comet passing over, and to call the green drake emergence just another hatch would be like calling a dinosaur just another lizard. These bugs are big. The Labrador green drake hatch requires a fly tied in size 4 and sometimes even larger. One of those bugs once landed on my arm. I wanted to see it up close so I swatted it and it went
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Green Drakes in Brook Trout Nirvana Labrador, Canada By Jerry Hamza
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hen a sunburned guy—roughly my age, roughly of the same economic status—stumbles out of the August glare and into my local fly shop to purchase a whole drawer full of size 10 foam hoppers, I know something is up. He scoops up all the size 8 Panty Droppers and six dozen More or Less Hoppers, which makes the raid complete. His bill is over $300, and he doesn’t care. He’s in flip-flops. In one hand he holds a cone of melting frozen yogurt. He seems to have no compunction about dripping on the floor. He digs out his credit card and buys a hat on impulse. Then he’s gone, back out into the dusty Wyoming afternoon. The North Platte is at its summer flow—3,000 CFS, and a bit off-color as it flows through the town of Casper, the slow stretches choked with weeds. The big crowds that come in April to catch pre-spawn rainbows have gone elsewhere. Usually, I spend my summer days fishing small streams or hiking up out of the heat to cast to cutties in alpine lakes. But there is a reason to stay closer to town in mid-August. It’s hopper season. Right now, Natrona County is alive with hoppers—they’re everywhere. I see them in the roads or bouncing off the side of my car. Birds risk their lives snatching hoppers from the street. In every spiderweb, hoppers kick and struggle. They’re swarming the banks of the river, but they do their best to avoid the water. Some of these hoppers are tan; some are lime green. Some are speckled. With my ball cap, I net some from the willows. They
don’t mind if I pick them up and study them. I toss the meanest ones into the thick current and watch for a rise. They kick like mad for the closest bank, knowing what lurks below. Has it always been this way? I don’t recall the hopper phenomenon being a thing when I first arrived on the scene. Blake Jackson, owner of the Ugly Bug Fly Shop, says that a project to fence cattle off nine miles of riparian habitat on the upper river changed the entire food web. “Cattle used to be in the river—on the banks, in the water— and there was hardly any vegetation,” he said. “It was a muddy mess. Once the cattle were off the banks, the willows and shrubs began to flourish. Next, we began to see a greater increase in insects, both in numbers and variety. “Blue wings, caddis, Tricos, PMDs—we have big hatches now,” Jackson added. “Heck, I didn’t see a yellow sally the first five years I guided here. Now you see them all the time.” Jackson believes bank restoration is the key, and that hopper numbers have grown correspondingly. Now, with scorching summers and Wyoming winds, the annual hopper invasion is something you can count on. The fish count on them too. Suddenly, thousands of 18-to-20-inch fish—which spend the majority of their secretive lives with their bellies touching the riverbed—are looking up. Your chance at a fish over 20 inches on a dry fly is entirely possible here. Last summer, Bill and Mackenzie Mixer allowed me to tag along on one of their annual father-daughter hopper floats.
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They were hitting the river hard during the last few weeks of summer. Mackenzie, who lives in Denver, became a no-show at most of her social events and had been buying one-day fishing licenses for weeks. She had every intention of leaving town, but she stayed to ride out the hatch. And I didn’t blame her. So with a vague sense of when all this might end, Bill, Mackenzie, and I met at noon. There was no rush, no acrid coffee, no squeeze at the boat ramp. With hoppers, you need only the afternoons, and you want some wind, which is in ample supply. And it would be great, Bill and I agreed, if we could pay some kid 20 bucks or so to ride a mountain bike along the willows at roughly the same speed as our boat, a kid who could whack the bushes to encourage more hoppers into the water. But that sort of thing is frowned upon. Bill and Mackenzie fell into a fugue state where the days in sunlight begin to blur. They bought their Gatorade and sandwiches in the morning. They hit the river by noon and weren’t off until near dark. This process repeated itself until no one knew how many days they’ve been at it, or how many fish came to the hoppers, and how many terrible grabs they missed. By the time I joined them, they had given up on using droppers, but had fallen into the crude habit of using a double hopper rig where the goal is to splat your flies as violently as possible and as close to the bank as you dared. Bill bit one back leg off his Panty Dropper. He said it made it look more authentic. Bill preaches the religion wherein you cast as close to the
shore as possible and let your fly drift along the cutbanks. I disagreed with him on this, but who am I to question his methods? I saw fish take hoppers in the middle of the river all afternoon. But the real action was just under the grassy cutbanks. “Trespass if you have to,” he said. He was right, just this once. The brown trout appeared out of a weedy bay and smashed my fly, a size 10 Delecktable Munchkin, one of the few hopper patterns still available once the drawers at the fly shops are ravished. (By then, the guides were writing their river reports in all caps: HOPPER FISHING IS PEAKING Y’ALL.) But there was none of that panic in Bill’s boat. I even got a chance to row after boating a few fish. I tried to keep Mackenzie in the optimal spot, and Bill out of the zone, but once, while his daughter was tangled, he got his shot at 30 yards of virgin cutbank. He connected on the fish of the day—a 24-inch wild brown trout with bluish overtones. Who knew how long this “hopper chautauqua” would last? For the time being, Mackenzie was staying in Wyoming. You wouldn’t find her in Denver, at the hipster oyster and martini bar called Angelo’s; her job search stalled. She wasn’t returning her new boyfriend’s calls—he was 36, I learned, and kept a collection of succulents. She stayed in the bow of Bill’s boat, casting foam hoppers at the shore, as close as she dared, almost into the ranchers’ fields. Dave Zoby is a freelance writer who splits time between Wyoming and Alaska when he isn’t teaching English at Casper College.
North Platte, Wyoming By Dave Zoby
MARCH/APRIL 2020 I 49
Land Between the Lakes, Tennessee By Jen Ripple
Willow Flies T
he gray sky loomed overhead like a thick blanket of smoke. It was February, but it may as well have been November. In Chicago, the winter months blur together. Icy snowflakes the size of pinheads spit down on my windshield, and broken lawn chairs of every kind littered the side street, claiming coveted parking spots. White-knuckled, I pulled into the grocery store parking lot. I have got to get out of here, I thought for the 10th time that week. I opened Google Maps, saw a thick band of blue, and made a call to a man named Dana. A few months later, I packed my bags and moved seven hours due south of the Windy City, into a cabin in the woods.
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Dover, Tennessee, is a sleepy little town that lies at the base of the largest inland peninsula in the country. Bordered on the west by Kentucky Lake and the east by Lake Barkley, the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area is home to 300 miles of natural shoreline, 170,000 acres of beautiful public land, and a plethora of big bass water. Another few months slipped by before I found the time to put the boat in the water. The dog days of summer made it hotter than the chicken in Nashville, but you weren’t hearing me complain. My little white Wellcraft seemed to silently scream, I don’t have enough glitter! as my partner in crime and I passed a line of professional bass boats at the ramp, each with a fancy matching truck. What have I gotten myself into? I thought. Big water, professional bass anglers, and not a fly rod in sight. My kind of place. Water temperatures had passed the 80-degree mark, and I knew from past experience that it was an intermediate and sinking line type of day. The big boys would be holding on the ledges in deep water, making them difficult to target. I tied a yellow-andwhite Clouser to the end of my tippet. If I was going to catch bass, it would be on a Clouser. Everyone knows bass eat Clousers. My partner and I spent the next couple of hours unsuccessfully casting to fish we knew had to be there. After a cold one to change up the mojo, we took a boat ride to find new water. Approaching shore, we saw the water boiling with activity under an overhanging tree branch. Eager to catch anything at this point, I pulled out a smaller rod I’d rigged with floating line and thrown in the boat as a Hail Mary. I quickly peeled line off and made a cast. In my haste to get the fly into the activity, I chucked it smack-dab into the tree. I said a few words that would make my mother cringe, then tugged on my line to see if I could get the fly free. The tree exploded into a giant swarm of the largest mayflies I had ever seen. I stood there dumbfounded. Huge mayflies, on a bass lake, in the heat of the day? As we approached the tree to retrieve my fly, they swarmed the boat so thick it was hard to breathe. In response, big bass came from below, inhaling flies that landed on the surface, leaving carnage in their wake. Just like that, the fishing took off, with many big bass in the boat that day . . . and every similar hatch day since. The locals, whose ranks I have joined call these mayflies willow flies. Greenish brown in color, they are very similar to the green drake found on the famed trout waters of Pennsylvania. Small willows are easily one to two inches long, with the larger willows reaching upwards of three inches. The arrival of the willow fly hatch each year excites anglers and car washes alike, and wakes up this sleepy town. A walk into the local barbershop or Piggly Wiggly in early summer has the air abuzz with talk about the impending hatch. Don’t let the glitz and glitter of bass boats scare you away. The willow hatch is easy to fish. There are many places in the Land Between the Lakes to access the water with or without a boat, and it can be easily accessed with a kayak. Oh, and don’t forget your floating line. As I discovered, the big boys come up to play when the sun is high and the heat is on. Jen Ripple is the editor of DUN magazine, which focuses on women in fly fishing. She is on the board of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association. WWW.AMERICANANGLER.COM
ugust on northwestern Connecticut’s Housatonic River is intensely humid and hot. The summer sun that perfectly dries timothy and orchard grass, batched as square hay bales, scorches the trout stream so much that fishing is closed around feeder streams. Still, we fish the river, even under bright blue skies. Call me crazy, for I sweated like a baller running two-a-days. I concentrated on river smallies hanging inside velocity changes around the pocket-water boulder fields. Giant golden stoneflies crawled onto the rocks, and a bass grabbed nearly every yellow Stimulator I bounced off a rock. It was a fun way to kill time until the sulking browns and rainbows, which range between 15 and 22 inches, came out after nightfall. In the original Mohican, Housatonic means “beyond the mountain.” That’s where the sun was going—and when it was dark, the main event would kick off. Summer is Ephoron leukon season, a crazy nighttime hatch of white flies easily matched by a size 12 White Wulff. Sometimes the hatch starts as soon as the sun drops, around 8 p.m., while other times it begins as late as midnight. And when it begins, it is as bizarre as it gets. For starters, this fast-moving hatch runs contrary to the normal summer laziness. Males hatch up to two hours before the females, a factor that contributes to a highly interesting situation. Male nymphs crawl out of their shucks and quickly morph into duns. Theirs is not a gentleman’s float down the river complete with a quaint session of drying wings followed by a dainty flight into the willows. No, Ephoron leukon’s is a wham, bam, thank you, ma’am back alley deal. They get out of the water, turn to duns, and fly away. A short while later, they morph into spinners, and they wait until the ladies arrive. You see, by the time the females arrive, the males’ sexual appetites are ravenous. The fact that females mate in the dun stage means aggressive males pounce on them when they’re still on
the water. The mating is over quickly, but the males don’t swarm together, create a buzzing hum, and drop at the same time. No, they fall from the sky one by one. That means that just as bugs consistently exit the water, they consistently fall out of the night sky. The females bug out, flying far, far upriver. They’ll deposit their eggs, die, and drift downstream. It’s a melee of a hatch, with some trout rising rhythmically while others splash so vigorously that you’d swear they were eating caddis. One night, everyone must have been at a barbecue, for I was alone on the river. I didn’t need to fight a crowd for a prime slot, but I nevertheless shuffled to a midstream point in the long, silty pool with no trees to snag, and brightness coming from the stars and the moon. Earlier, during daylight, I’d scouted out a feeding lane where I figured some good trout to be. Now I tied on a big, high-floating white fly imitation and trailed a size 14 gray nymph off it. All that was left was to dead-drift that Wulff in the feeding lane and hook up. The only problem is that drag-free drifts are more challenging at night than you’d think. A human’s eyeball isn’t built for night vision, you see. Look at a target and you can’t focus. To maximize the minimal light, you’ve got to view the target from the corner of your eye. Relax, fish a short line, and mend even if you don’t think you need to. That’s just what I did when the pool came alive. Fish the white fly hatch at least once in your life. And after you’ve caught some fish, be sure to take a pause. There are so many moving parts to this wonderful event that you owe it to yourself to crouch down low in the water and shine your flashlight along the water’s surface toward the pines. You’ll bear witness to nature in its raw state, and it’ll be worth it. Tom Keer is an award-winning freelance writer, book author, and owner of a fish/hunt marketing company, The Keer Group. Visit him at www.thekeergroup.com or www.tomkeer.com.
Go East, for Summer’s Blizzard Hatch White Flies, Northwest Connecticut
By Tom Keer
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The author says Bimini provides the best shot in the world at large permit and great chances for giant bones. But how long might that opportunity last? BY PAT FORD
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Fifty miles east of Miami
lie the smallest of all the inhabited islands of the Bahamas. The horseshoe-shaped convergence of two land masses, called Bimini, contain a habitable area of only seven miles. Less than a mile from the Gulf Stream, its offshore waters have attracted Florida’s sportfishing boats and anglers for decades, and have inspired several Hemingway novels. The ocean side of North Bimini is famous for its 200-foot visibility and intoxicating dive sites, but the rest of the coastline consists of mangrove shorelines and extensive sand flats, which hold amazing numbers of bonefish, permit, barracuda, and sharks. Sea turtles and stingrays are plentiful while conchs and starfish litter the bottom. Bimini’s offshore fishing is well documented—even the most casual angler has likely heard of the Bimini twist. But very little has been said or written about its flats fishing, which is spectacular. Rarely will you see another flats skiff while fishing here, and bonefish can be found on almost every flat in and around Bimini. These fish are tide dependent, move constantly, and can be found in huge schools as well as singles and pairs. What impresses me most about Bimini’s bonefish is that they are big. A couple years ago, I was fishing with Fred “Eagle Eyes” Rolle and Harold Brewer, president of Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, when HB caught his best bone . . . 11 pounds . . . near a mangrove island just off Mosquito Point. There is no shortage of bonefish in Bimini. Every month of the year, anglers get shots at double-digit fish, and some look like they’re in the 15-pound range. There are only three flats guides in Bimini, now that legendary Capt. Ansil Saunders has retired, yet multiple IGFA-record bonefish have come from these waters. In addition, I believe that there are few places on earth that are better than Bimini for catching permit on the fly. Captain Fred and I have caught, probably, 30 permit together over the last decade, and twice we’ve caught three in a day. What makes Bimini’s waters different from everywhere else is that dozens of stingrays feed on the flats on high tides. The permit track down the rays and follow them, looking for whatever the rays stir up. My favorite fly is a Velcro Crab, sometimes known as the Dale Perez Crab, which I try to cast right on top of the ray. The permit are moving on, off, and around the ray constantly, but they always seem to keep one eye on the ray. My casts don’t always go where I want them to and I’ve had permit run a dozen feet away from the ray to nail my fly. But the standing rule is, put it as close to the back of the ray as you can. Bimini’s appeal goes beyond great flats fishing. The island’s culture has long been defined by its ecological innocence and absence of mass tourism. Bimini attracts visitors who love to fish or dive or just enjoy some tranquility on an island that’s just 700 feet wide, with a native population of only 2,000 people. Ecotourism has driven the small island’s economy for a century—long before the term ecotourism was coined. But there are serious problems in this paradise. In the early 2000s, a Malaysia-based investment group quietly bought several miles of land along North Sound, with plans to build a multifaceted resort. The site was past Bailey Town, and uninhabited, a completely undeveloped, mangrove-lined haven
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for bonefish and other marine life. In spite of an international outcry from conservationists (including Jean-Michel Cousteau) about the devastating effect the development would have on the local ecology, the construction began and the casino portion of the resort was completed in 2013. The development, Bimini Bay Resorts and Marina, would include a 400-room hotel, 400-plus holiday homes, a massive marina, and an 18-hole golf course. It was projected to bring 10,000 people a year to Bimini. To accommodate the resort, nearly 200 acres of red mangrove wetlands along North Sound were destroyed, and an estimated 220,000 cubic yards of fill was taken from the ocean floor and stacked on land, piled 20 feet high to resemble a giant sand dune. Shortly after construction began, the Bimini Bay Resorts ran out of money. The project was taken over by a different investor, Resorts World Genting, and rechristened Resorts World Bimini. Part of the plan was to bring tourists from Miami via a high-speed ferry that could transport over 200 passengers to Bimini in two hours, for a nominal fee. But there was a logistical challenge—how to get passengers off the ship. A 1,000-foot-long pier extending from Bimini’s west coast into the Atlantic Ocean was proposed, which would require massive dredging to accommodate the ship’s draft. Concerned conservationists estimated that the dredging and ship traffic would destroy 14 major coral reef dive sites, and continually turn up silt that would destroy the marine environment.
Big bonefish are part of Bimini’s appeal, but don’t overlook options for permit and baracuda.
Still, the casino (and the pier serving it) were completed, along with the marina in North Sound. Condos and homes are under construction on an ongoing basis. A great source of frustration for some Biminians is that the environs that have been impacted by resort development might have been protected had Marine Protected Area (MPA) legislation been implemented. MPAs are a tool used by local, national, and international authorities to protect marine ecosystems around the world. While MPA mandates vary from region to region, they generally place limitations on development, fishing practices and seasons / catch limits. In the early 2000s, community meetings were held on Bimini to discuss proposals for an MPA to protect the only mangrove nursery habitat on the western edge of Great Bahama Bank. Several years later, in 2008, the bureaucratic details were hashed out, and the North Bimini Marine Reserve was announced. However, the reserve was never formally implemented, and continues to be stalled. As a result, habitat protections—and protections for the more than 370 animal species that rely on that habitat—remain only hypothetical. According to a paper by Sarah P. Wise published in the journal Marine Policy (“Learning Through Experience: Non-implementation and the Challenges of Protected Area Conservation in The Bahamas”), implementation has thus far failed thanks to “intra-agency conflict, tourist development priorities, and economic uncertainty.” To further complicate matters, it is unclear whether the MPA designation—if ever formally implemented—would be enough to
prevent additional development by World Resorts Bimini. By some interpretations of the regulations, the land within the designated area (mostly tidal mangrove) falls outside of any limitations on development, as it is privately owned. As such, additional legislation may be necessary to protect the area. The World Resorts Bimini project seems to be a sensitive subject on the island. Requests for comment from several concerned parties went unanswered, and a representative from Bimini Big Game Club did not wish to go on the record. The fact that Bimini’s flats fishing has remained so good over the years seems nothing short of miraculous, given the island’s proximity to the US mainland. It’s the result, I would wager, of minimal pressure and the existence of miles of intact flats. Despite the resort’s development, much of the habitat is still productive; in fact, on my most recent trip, we found a school of 20-plus bones at the end of North Sound at Mosquito Point, in the middle of the construction/dredging area. The smallest fish were probably eight pounds. Though the original mangroves here were destroyed, some are starting to grow back. The flats of the North Sound have dodged a number of bullets so far. But more destruction of red mangroves could be a killing blow. Anyone who has fished Bimini’s magic flats needs to join in the effort to preserve this marine paradise. Pat Ford’s saltwater photography is seen in many magazines and books. He lives in Miami, Florida.
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Over The Border W
yoming’s North Platte River blows out of shape just as the brackets are being set for March Madness. What follows is a chaotic brew of brown sludge, fuzzy with Styrofoam bait tubs, pine duff, a few Nerf footballs, a wreckage of lawn chairs, and more water than anyone knows what to do with. Only fools and parvenus look forward to the flush. When the flush arrives, outfitters offer “flush specials” and post vague statements about the unique opportunities that arise in high water. I can’t tell if they are lying or being funny.
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ALL PHOTOGRAPHY BY TIM ROMANO
A shoulder-season streamer fest on Utah’s fabled Green River gets this author away from high water and Wyoming’s beatdown wind. By Dave Zoby
Utah’s Green River may provide challenging conditions during late winter and early spring, but you can be guaranteed of two things— you won’t see as many anglers on the water as you might during summer, and the trout will be there. Last year I passed on those specials and made a beeline for Utah. Dave Brown and I loaded up the boat, made up a cooler of snacks, and coaxed my two Labs, Rocket and Henderson, into the camper shell by salting thoroughly the bed of my truck with pork-flavored chewies. At Rock Springs, the wind howling and impaling trash to the heads of sagebrush, we made our turn south. In a few miles the land began to change from humdrum Wyoming black brush to complex red stone rimrock that brought Edward Abbey to mind. Already weighing heavily on our snack load, I mentioned to Dave that we had made an unforgivable error—we forgot to buy beer in Wyoming. The land was unapologetically eroded, carved out by eons of wind and water. We crossed the border and swerved toward Dutch John, population 145. I had been there before, 20 years ago with a skinny girlfriend who smoked 100s and listened to Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot almost continuously. And there’s another memory of 10 years ago, when I attended the annual cicada hatch on the Green. The hatch lasted about 45 minutes. I recall the experience of trying to cast a Chernobyl Ant to rising trout while scores of summer river floaters sculled by on inner tubes. I saw sunburns that I have never been able to forget. But this was different. It was still winter and the lodges ofWWW.AMERICANANGLER.COM
fered half-price rooms. This was March, remember. There was vague talk of blue-winged olives. We stopped at Trout Creek Fly Shop as the sun was setting into the juniper maze and rock outcroppings. I bought a case of watery micro beer that wouldn’t fit the bill. The variety pack offered weak IPAs, porters, and even a smoked stout—all of them with less alcohol than children’s cough syrup. Utah laws. Snow had been piled in the parking lot of the fly shop. It leaked in the sunshine. A parade of mule deer trickled from the hills. A few drift boats were parked indefinitely, snow on their covers. We organized a shuttle and were told we were the only ones floating that day, except for a pair of hard-core guides who were attempting a 17-mile hero’s mission, the A and B sections of the river. There were no restaurants available, no places to socialize. So we checked into our rooms and walked the dogs over the rotting snow of a cross-country ski trail. We launched the next morning at exactly 7 a.m. We locked my old dog, Rocket, in the camper and took the pup. Henderson had never been to sea, and I wondered how he’d do. The only people around were a few guys in white trucks who had something to do with the Flaming Gorge Dam. I took to the oars and pushed downstream, but not before looking up at the impressive structure that held billions of tons of water. There was a weird electric hum in the atmosphere. I briefly imagined Ed Abbey’s fictional Green Beret, George Hayduke, poking around the structure, testing its huge bolts and iron doors with mayhem in mind. Haydukery, they call it. The Green is likely the clearest river I will ever fish. Swimming pool quality in some places, you can anchor and watch trout cruising the weedbeds, picking off scuds and midges at their leisure. Browns and rainbows teem in the sandy bights and swirling eddies that carve the canyon. Population estimates, if you believe the press, claim that there are up to 15,000 trout MARCH/APRIL 2020 I 57
per mile. It’s hard to believe those numbers, but if you stare into the Green and begin to calculate all those moving shapes, you get the picture. We were floating the A section, from the dam to Little Hole, the area with those absurd fish numbers. We parked the boat in one of the first bays we came to. The river was up to 4,800 cubic feet per second, a pretty good clip for late winter. I tried nymphs for a while, drifting them past the noses of solid 16-inch browns and rainbows. Nothing moved them. I got bold and tried some size 20 wine midges, and zebra midges, the ones that came highly recommended at the fly shop. But I spent most of my time trying to thread the tippet through the eye, usually not a big deal. In the diffuse canyon light, I could not close the deal. Dave, a die-hard streamer fisherman, plunked his weighted line into the current and quickly came tight to a brown trout that dazzled us with its colors. Dave was using a sculpin pattern with big red eyes, called Sculpzilla. Another trout chased his fly on the next cast. Begrudgingly I admitted that the streamers would be the method du jour. But I didn’t have a sinking line, and my streamer box had been ravished, lost to time and neglect, so I had to go through the humiliating ritual of borrowing a reel and saying something cheerful about how the first thing I was going to do when we got back to Casper was order a new spool and a corresponding sinking line. (It was a bald-faced lie.) Dave offered me a fly called a Peanut Envy. Then he said, “Let’s go hunt some fish.” And that’s how it was, like hunting. We drifted downstream with the bow of the boat aimed at one bank or the other. Dave braced into the front and slapped his fly inches from the red rocks that framed the canyon. More often than not, fish chased his fly on the retrieve. Sometimes they threw back their pectoral fins and charged the fly. Other times, they skulked and faded back into the dark recesses of the canyon never to reappear. Every three casts or so resulted in a strike or a chase. Henderson was becoming increasingly interested in fish. He crowded me when my time came, and leaned dangerously over the gunnel to get a look at these things.
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Ryan Mosley, the Flaming Gorge project leader for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, says that the Green River browns are all wild, while the rainbows are mostly stocked. “Brown trout averaged fifteen and a half inches when we did a survey in 2012,” he said. “As you go downstream, into the B and C sections, the densities are lower, but the trout are substantially bigger . . . and there’s less pressure.” Dave and I caught mostly browns. They are absurdly buttery, speckled beings that showcase red polka dots and haloed markings. I photographed them madly but never quite captured their hues. No one else was around as we lunched on cold cuts in a patch of winterized cliff roses. I stood in the river beside the boat, water up to my thighs. There was snow here and there, but it was falling away, losing its battle with the sun. The fish came in streaks, four and five at a time, a brief lull, then more streamer action than either of us had ever seen. Along the way, Henderson jumped ship to pursue a yearling merganser. Dave roughly pulled the dog back aboard, just in time to get our affairs in order before the dreaded Mother-in-
You can fish from the bank or a boat during spring with good success, but if you’re pulling streamers, you can’t beat a boat’s versatility. Hit the banks with a variety of fishy imitations, and you might end up with a giant brown or ’bow in the net.
Law Rapids. We came out okay, but at no time was our future existence guaranteed. There were, regretfully, some terse arguments and accusations. I can say now that I never damaged Dave’s boat, but I gave him a scare when it looked as if we were going to rip its peritoneum over a particularly nasty white boulder. We missed it by inches and Dave quickly downed a weak craft beer to somewhat still his nerves. After the float, we stopped by the fly shop to talk hatches and fly selections. I still held hopes for some dry fly action. Johnny Spillane, former Olympic skier and owner of the Trout Creek juggernaut, told me that we were wise to hit the Green during the late winter shoulder season. “In winter the canyon and river are gorgeous,” he said. “You have some of the best fly fishing in the Lower 48, and there’s virtually no one here. I’ve never understood why so few anglers fish the Green during the shoulder season,” he added. “Even when the weather is awful, you can have prolific hatches of midges and blue wings—the river boils with rising fish.” The next day was supposed to be warm and overcast, the perfect combination for drys. I was hoping for the scenario Johnny described—a reckless topwater feeding frenzy. But when the fish, I learned, are chasing streamers, why would you want anything else? One of the guides who didn’t have a trip gave us some advice, sold us a few sure bets. Back at the lodge—the place was literally empty. I walked the dogs over the rapidly deteriorating ski trail while Dave worked on moose fajitas. The moose, served rare on fresh tortillas with a glob of avocado and a dollop of sour cream, was Dave’s most accomplished meal so far. But nothing could help that Utah beer. By the second day we knew what to expect, which rapids to avoid, and what flies to use. I stayed with the Peanut Envy. Dave tried a Goldie, a J.J. Special, a black Sex Dungeon, and various WWW.AMERICANANGLER.COM
festive cone heads that made my standard Woolly Buggers and Meat Whistles look like throwbacks to the 1990s. Dave showed me how to tie a nonslip mono loop so my streamers might swim more freely. Years under the spell of indicators and ninefoot leaders had taken their toll on my fishing intellect—I had become, willingly, a one-trick pony. Streamer fishing is a whole other world, and I wondered why I just didn’t give myself over to its allure. With the huge streamers that have come into usage these days, and my failing eyesight, shouldn’t I go on over to the winning team? A brown trout rocketed out from some of the streamside scarp and gulped down my fly as if to prove the point. And so it went. The crystal clear river, the call of the water ouzel, the flapping preflight of young mergansers, a pup learning the ropes, and near constant action. Sometimes we cast to individual fish and watched them come out of their feeding lanes to blast the streamer. Other times, we flipped our flies toward the depths of the river on a whim and were rewarded with the pulsing, dogged power of a wild fish. As we passed through one set of rapids, I made a lazy cast into the white water, just for the fun of it. I thought I finally snagged bottom, and would lose the only fly I had fished for two days. Goodbye four-dollar Peanut Envy. But instead of bottom, it was one of the few rainbows we hooked, a chunky fish (think tuna shaped) that leaped once and then dived. The line spun off my (I mean Dave’s) reel. We were in fast water and couldn’t slow down. I wanted to photograph its bright flanks, its pre-spawn splendor, and I fought it carefully. The fish swam to the back of the boat, and the sinking line got tangled in the anchor. I waddled to the stern and freed the line and thought the match was over. But, just as Dave dipped the net under the fish, the Peanut (Continued on page 70) MARCH/APRIL 2020 I 59
Catching on t
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he Kanektok Life on a salmon river in full swing. By Dave Karczynski
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alrus have a penis bone Native Alaskans call an oosik—lighter in hand than a moose foreleg, it makes an excellent salmon bonker. Black bear bile can heal your liver and melt your gallstones—and get you arrested if you’re caught in possession of any. If you are encircled by griz and need to cross homicidal CFS to safety, doff your waders, trap them with air, and float to the far bank—but kiss your boots goodbye. Mullets are the most efficient haircut known to man—only the word is pronounced moo-LAY. In an essential place, one learns essential things. This July afternoon I am indeed in such an essential place— western Alaska’s Kanektok River. More precisely, I’m up to my waist in a chum salmon pool fighting my fifth fish in as many casts, this one raging like it’s just snorted a full tub of bath salts. This particularly fresh specimen has me feeling less like an angler than a matador—my buddy’s warning to wear a cup on the Kanektok was not wrong—and after charging me twice, this salmon turns on a dime and takes off in the direction of the Bering Sea. My fishing mates, Hillari Denny and Doc Rideout, groan impatiently. Though we’ve been at it only an hour, we’ve already learned that one angler tethered to a fresh chum is danger, two is a cat’s cradle, and three is a broken-rodded bird’s nest. One mottled silver rocket at a time, please. “Must be foul hooked,” I shout, and right on cue, the fish breaches to flaunt a hook stuck squarely in its mouth. My guide chortles. Hillari and Doc shake their heads. I crank the knob on my drag and look for a similar mechanism on my arm. The signs this would be a special trip were there the moment we debarked the plane in Quinhagak, after having flown from Anchorage to Bethel. Our shuttle was the sweetest fish ride I’d ever seen, a refurbished school bus with lightning-bolt cracks across the windshield and a rear cab stripped to make a living room– sized platform for gear. Then there was gross ubiquity of fish in every stage of life and death—leaping and torquing to shake sea lice, shotgunning through the riffles ahead of our boats, dangling from the eaves of the Native Alaskans’ smokehouses, hanging in the mouths of raptors and gulls. And finally there was our digs. There’s just something about a tent camp that speaks to the seriousness of the piscatorial endeavor. Many of my best fishing days—char in the Andes, mahseer in India, muskies in Michigan—have started with me staring up at a pitched ceiling in the dark, grasping around for my headlamp, wondering where I am. Finally my chum is in the net, and there is much rejoicing. It’s a big chrome male with sea lice for days, which earns it a driftwood bonk and free ride to the smokehouse. In no time, Hillari is rearing back into a popper-eater that makes her reel
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Anchorage native Hillari Denny illustrates what a rod looks like at the doorstep of no return. Stripping streamers for chrome kings with a single-handed rod is the recipe for the best kind of disaster.
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sing like a stuck pig. I watch it thrash and tailwalk as I pick a gnarly bow tie out of my running line, unaware that my fly has slipped off its guide and is dangling in the water 10 feet away. Another big chum slams it like a cheater’s first move in tug-ofwar, and I barely free my fingers before the knot squeaks tight and the fish rips downstream. That’s another essential thing I’ve learned today: You can lose a finger on this river if you’re not careful.
he Kanektok is a seriously busy river, a conveyor belt of salmonid flesh some 80 miles long, beginning in the gunsmoke blue Ahklun Mountains and ending in Kuskokwim Bay at the Yupik town of Quinhagak, which in their language means “new river channel.” From June to September, its banks are as close to the center of the salmon universe as you can get without sprouting gills. Kings run mid-June to mid-July, chums mid-June to mid-August. Sockeyes appear in late June and do their thing until the end of the next month. Every other year, pink salmon patrol the river from mid-July to early August. Bringing up the rear of the salmon train, silvers run late July through mid-September. I’m here for the Kanektok kings, which have evolved an affinity for annihilating swung flies that is suppressed in other populations. You can swing and strip kings elsewhere, sure. I’ve had good days on the Togiak, just a few rivers to the south, and on Great Lakes fish in my home state of Michigan. But I’ve also been in situations where the fishing fell apart just prior to my arrival because either the run was weak and the fishery was shut down or a big rain muddied the river to kingdom come. But the king runs on the Kanektok are as dependable as they are abundant, and during peak time—right around the Fourth of July, you can swing up a face cord of Chinook a day. You’d be hard-pressed to find friendlier swing water. The Kanektok falls into the Goldilocks category—not too deep and not too shallow, not too big and not too small. Competent casters giving it their all can lay up an Intruder on the far bank more often than not, and the runs average four to seven feet deep. In short, if your fly is in the water, there are probably more than a few sets of eyes on it. That said, I am here a few weeks later, mine a gambler’s game where I’ll wager numbers of fish for specimens of frightening size: it is well known, at least here, that the last fish to come in from sea are the biggest. There are many challenges to western Alaska king fishing. The first is abiding by the cadence of the tides. On my swing water back in Michigan, the CFS has more fixity than the stars, but the Kanektok heaves and falls to the tune of 15 feet a day. This requires anglers to use their line hand to manage the speed of the swing as a morning progresses. As the tide comes in and
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the current slows, a pure swing turns to a steady left-hand strip, and before you know it, you’re bringing the fly back in long, slow pulls, like some grandmother working her triceps at the gym. Then there’s the importance of using your eyes. Down in the distance, between the old moose skeleton and the abandoned snow machine, you’ll see a pod of fish breach, at which point you must throw down your sandwich or coffee or camera and make sure your fly is swimming—but not too low. The tidal bottoms have a fair amount of sediment, and kings like to swim with their chins above the murk. Finally, if you are lucky enough to get bit, the king salmon hook set asks you to be a Buddha and beast at the same time, letting the fish leisurely eat the fly and turn downstream before you drive the hook home with a pneumatic intensity—what the guides call crossing the eyes. After which, best of luck. The Kanektok has its year-round residents as well, rainbows and grayling and Dollys that spend the summer in a living hell of salmon Frogger (like the 1980s computer game) but are rewarded with endless fatty eggs to feast on in return. Given all this fishing opportunity, Kanektok days are predictable only in their unpredictability. You might start the day swinging kings before the current stalls and you hop in the boat to work the pinch points with a single-handed rod. After lunch on the bank, a chum tows you up a side channel where big rainbows with junkyard dog DNA are sulking in a pool, flesh chunks the size of a Crunch bar in their maws. This gives you a rainbow jones, so you shoot upriver to mouse the afternoon, working logjams and flushing rainbows that chomp behind your mouse as though they’ve been playing too much Pac-Man. But then another boat whooshes by, a guide traces a wavelength in the air with his free hand—meaning the tide is going back out—so you gun it back downstream to where the river meets the sea and the horizon goes on forever. In short, one things leads to another. One of our how did we get here? excursions finds us 20 miles upstream of camp, egging a side channel plunge pool where the Dollys seethe like mosquito larvae in a storm puddle. After having a mostly quiet morning, Doc Rideout unleashes a one-man “char-mageddon” catching one cartwheeling Dolly after another. I ditch my rod and instead focus on capturing some midair pictures, and while I get a few decent images, I feel more keenly than usual the limitations of the camera. The modern angler lives in an era of the photograph—some of us swipe, scroll, and tap more fish pics in a day than we used to see in a year. But after watching this “char-pocalypse,” I’m convinced that what fishing needs is not more photographs, but more sounds, not an Instagram but a Piscaphone. To hear the sizzle of the drag, the stumbling of the angler on cobble, the collective sucking in of breath when a good fish jumps, and the guide sloshing forward to stab the net. To listen to the hoots, hollers, and high fives. To behold that moment when
(Top) At dinner, as on the water, salmon are on the menu. Sockeyes get the sautĂŠ pan and some sauce. Chums enjoy a long bath in the smokehouse. (Middle) An after-dinner Dolly Varden bolts for home. (Bottom) Upper-river grayling, Dollys, and rainbows are suckers for eggs and mice. Anglers respond more favorably to a nip of whiskey.
MARCH/APRIL 2020 I 67
the pool goes quiet and the angler goes quieter—that beautiful sound of an angler finally getting his or her fill. There’s a politeness some exceptional fish grant visiting fishing writers by appearing on the last and most “fateful” day of the trip, but mine comes just past midweek. It catches me totally off guard. Not only do I not see this fish coming—no porpoising or breaching gives its presence away—but it’s also questionable whether my fly was moving when it took. Like a smallmouth taking a popper, my best king rocketed out of the water just after my fly landed. And then it took off downstream. Way downstream. When an angler suffering acute salmonitis in the shoulders, bicepses, wrists, and obliques comes upon a chromed, well-fed king salmon fresh from the sea, it’s unclear which will emerge the victor. The first few minutes of the fight are a blur. And then, slowly, I start to gain ground. That’s when the anxiety sets in. I know I have a good fish on when I begin to fear losing it—and that fear shows. Followers of my future Piscaphone account will be able to easily distinguish between tiny fish and tremendous fish. Catching small fish, I laugh through an open smile. Catching giants, I curse through gritted teeth. After 10 more minutes—enough time for me to recite a fairly complete encyclopedia of profanity through clenched jaws—my guide motions that it is time. I do as I have been instructed all week, keeping the fish in waist-deep water—shallow water freaks them out—and lift its head just as the net harpoons forward. I stare at the fish in the net for a minute before we get out the tape measure. Forty inches. After flirting with that number all week, I have finally done it. After a few quick pics, it was time to say goodbye, and I find a quiet, shallow flat for the release. In those last moments before letting the fish go, a familiar melancholy settles in. I’ve never been able to quite explain the feeling, which happens only on the best fish, the ones that push you to tie new creatures at the vise, the ones that keep you alert at night and very distracted at work, the ones that pull you through more airports than is decent in a single day. They are the dream that held power over you all those months and years—that is, until you are holding that dream by the tail. And then it is as if a god has fallen out of the sky in the middle of the day, and you’re watching its wings flounder as it swims in the net. There’s a sense of vulnerability in this moment of having caught the dragon, an awareness that if this impossible dream is real and mortal, then you, who are far less impossible, are real and mortal too. Dusk is coming in purple and the river is streaming silver when my best king swims off. I am done for the day.
salmon cooked three ways, then stroll back down to the river for just a few more casts before bed, which turn into a few more hours of casting. There’s something different about this extra round of fishing, when the light genuflects and the moon rises above the alders. It feels quieter, more intimate, existing apart from the everyday business of fishing. Other spirits mill about. A resident of Quinhagak arrives on an ATV to meditatively cast a spoon. A few guides slip away to egg rainbows in the permadusk. Ted Leeson once wrote that modern angling was born when certain of our ancestors, after netting and trapping and cleaning fish all day, sneaked back to the water at night with a stick and string, because they just could not stay away. Life on the Kanektok corroborates this theory, and no time more so than on the last night, when even those guests who usually go to bed after dinner find themselves waddling out to the beach and taking up a position in the run. A few guides assemble a bonfire on the beach, giving the blue mercury of the river a golden glow. Bear stories begin to circulate. One of the guides walks around with an electric hair trimmer, giving away free mullets. There are two takers. At the edge of the fire, Chum the campdog rests with chin on his paws, ears trained toward the darkening trees and what might lie beyond. Among the guests, talk turns to naming our respective highlights of the week. Answers are predictable. “My forty-pound king.” “When that twenty-eight-inch rainbow crushed my mouse.” “The day I caught one hundred pounds of fish without moving my feet.” But when it’s time for one of the older Brits to answer, he shakes his head and smiles. “All of it,” he says. “I just like catching.” I just like catching. Catching. The intransitive act. No object. I’ve never heard the phrase, can’t tell if it’s poetry or a British commonplace, but its purity makes my head ring like a bell. Often we fly anglers fall prey to a “conoisseuership” at odds with the simplicity that fishing promises. We say things like, “I like bugging low-water smallmouths” or “I only fish the first few days of the Hex hatch.” I once saw a homemade bumper sticker that read, Tricos or GTFO. But a week on a western Alaska salmon river, when it’s in full swing, reminds even the most worldly angler what, deep down, fishing is all about. Before heading to my tent, I walk down to the water one last time. I pick up my 8-weight and take up position in the middle of a run between a pile of driftwood and some old grizzly tracks. I’m just here to catch, I tell the river—no objective, no expectation. I make one last cast after another, on this perfect summer night, under a perfect twilit sky, in what feels like the most essential place in the world.
Dave Karczynski is the author of Smallmouth and From Lure to Fly. He lives in Ann Arbor and teaches at the University of Michigan.
here’s a feeling, in the endless twilight of an Alaska summer night, of having wandered into some fashion of afterlife. You glut on king crab and strip steaks and
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Deneki’s Alaska West season on the Kanektok River runs from the third week of June till the end of August. On the season-long menu are all five species of Pacific salmon, plus rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, and grayling. The first step to fishing your brains out is to get yourself to Anchorage. From there, you’ll take two shorter charter flights, one from Anchorage to Bethel, the other from Bethel to Quinhagak. Note: because the charter flights are early, you’ll need to get to Anchorage one day ahead and overnight there. Once you’re in Quinhagak, 18-foot jetboats take you upriver to the tent camp. For outerwear, you’ll want to be fully prepared for the Kanektok weather, which even in summer usually means 55 degrees and cloudy with a good chance of rain. Take plenty of wool layers, a no-fail wader–rain jacket system, such as the Simms G4s, and an oversized dry bag, like the Yeti Panga 100. Additionally, comfortable slip-on camp shoes, like the Simms Riverbank Chukka Boots, make getting from the wader room to the mess hall comfortable in all fashion of weather. Breakfast and dinner are served buffet-style and are absolutely exquisite; shore lunches consist of sandwiches or, if you prefer, fresh fried fish. Alcohol is BYOB, with a strong message to be discreet about it. Bonus culinary perk: anglers can keep up to 50 pounds of salmon (excluding kings), either fresh or smoked on premises or some of each. The camp will freeze and vacuum-pack your catch for you prior to your departure. Rates are $6,595 USD per person for a sevennight, six-day expedition. Book here and read the AK West blog: www.deneki.com.
IN YOUR QUIVER
(Top) There’s only one sensible haircut at salmon camp, and it comes free of charge. Bonus points for anyone who sticks a 30-pounder on an Intruder tied from their own hair. Tents make the most legitimate fishing homes. (Middle) Next stop, the boat launch: your airport shuttle awaits. (Bottom) In every pod of chum salmon, there are 300 fish that ignore your fly—and 5 that are looking to shank you. There’s a single motto in this situation: Keep casting.
You’ll want to be packing at least three rodand-reel outfits. First and most important is a 9-weight two-handed rod for swinging kings. For this application, think Spey rods on the shorter side of the spectrum, since they tend to be better for hook-setting and leviathan fighting. My go-to stick was the 12-foot-6-inch Scott Radian in a 9-weight coupled with Rio’s InTouch Skagit Max GameChanger in its F/H/S3 rating. It was a joy to cast at medium-to-long distances, and I never felt outgunned with a good fish at the end of the line. When the tide comes in and you lose your swing, it’s time to hop in the boat, anchor above a pinch point, and cast to kings with a one-handed rod. Your 10-weight pike or muskie rod fits the bill, and this should be a beater rod, since the odds of a big king digging under the boat and snapping your stick in half are pretty much 50/50. Couple it with a 14-to-24foot sinking tip in the appropriate grain weight, and you’re good to go. Speaking of beater rods, you’ll want to throw your workhorse 8-weight into the mix as well, for the purpose of casting jig flies to chums on a floating line. On that note, I’ll also add that you should prepare for your week on the Kanektok like a boxer—by having a friend jam the rod’s fighting butt into your belly until you no longer feel the pain. It’s going to be that kind of a week. MARCH/APRIL 2020 I 69
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OVER THE BORDER (Continued from page 59) Envy came loose and the fish bolted away. Henderson pondered the blank space where the fish had been. No trip is perfect. The Green in early March is as close as I’ve come. Just to be out of the Wyoming wind was a pleasure. As luck would have it, I left my wading belt in the cliff roses where we lunched on the second day. Remarkably, Dave left his cooler full of beers, a near full jar of mayo, and enough cold cuts for two more days of floating. The water ouzels have it all now. Or maybe Hayduke came upon the spoils of our forgetfulness. He’s busy as ever now, George Washington Hayduke, fictional hero, war veteran, protector of wild rivers. He could use those beers right now, and whatever else. Dave Zoby is a freelance writer who splits his time between Wyoming and Alaska.
70 I AMERICAN ANGLER
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You don’t need to be Seldom Seen Smith to navigate this river, but you’d better have a good handle on the sticks, or a reasonable insurance plan. The rapids get wild in places. Best to brace in, stow your rod, pretend indifference to the crashing waves, and get through safely before trying to cast to trout. The regulations state that you must wear personal flotation devices while floating the Green. You must also have a throw rope in the boat. Live a clean life, and you’ll probably not need either of these items. Better yet, get in touch with Johnny Spillane at the Trout Creek Flies website, www.troutcreekflies.com, or call (435) 885-3355. A trip with one of his guides would be well worth the price. The resorts and fly shops are open year-round. Though most restaurants are on hiatus, you can do as Dave and I did and pack your own fixings. Red Canyon Lodge, (www.redcanyonlodge.com), a charming, pet-friendly, locally owned operation, offers quiet cabins tucked into the piñon pines just 10 miles from the put in. Trout Creek offers hotel-style rooms and cabins, and it’s right in the middle of the action. We chose Red Canyon because we had the dogs and needed space to let them run. Merely sitting on the porch and looking at the frozen lake was worth the trip to Utah. Out-of-state Utah fishing licenses are a bargain at $24 for three days of fishing (https://wildlife. utah.gov). Shuttles, though, are more expensive at Dutch John than, say, at the Big Horn, or other nearby famous fisheries. It was $45 to shuttle each day, from the put in to Little Hole. It’s substantially more if you want to float the lower section. Trout are not the only game in town. Biologist Ryan Mosley talked about huge whitefish that haunt the lower sections of the river. Someone will set a new state record on this stretch, he said. These whities willingly hit shiny nymphs. Johnny Spillane talked about his newfound love of fly fishing at Flaming Gorge Reservoir in the spring and summer for bass, lake trout, rainbows, and kokanee. Something to keep in mind if you like “different.” NOTE: Want good Utah beer? Check out Fisher Brewing Company (www.fisherbeer.com), which was originally opened in Salt Lake City in 1884. It was reopened in SLC as an employee-owned, community-focused craft brewery in 2017 with a modern and comfortable taproom. Last time we saddled up, the custom tap handles were made from cork fly rod handles, and much of the conversation revolved around local rivers and the fishing to be had there. Swing by, speak some fish, and pick up some brews for your trip to the Green. You won’t be disappointed. WWW.AMERICANANGLER.COM
WATERLINES (Continued from page 72) at the stream. I peered in and marveled at its deep, sweeping curves and its water, clear as the high-country air, lazily cutting its way across the high country. The creek was 15 feet wide and two to four feet deep, and there were so many brook trout I couldn’t count them. When they saw me, they raced upstream to hide under roots and cuts in the steep banks. There were more trout around each bend. Most were small, just 6-to-8-inchers, but a few were over 10 inches. Their backs were broad for little trout and they were rising to everything. I tied on my ugliest dry fly—storebought flies were a luxury I didn’t waste on broad-minded trout back then—and cast so only the leader rolled out soft onto the water. The fly landed lightly and was sucked up by the first trout that could get to it. I picked up the rod tip, and out came this gyrating little brook trout. Its colors were marbled, and its sides were sprinkled with red dots ringed by blue halos. Each fly in my box of self-tied monstrosities—no matter how ugly—caught trout. The larger trout took time to hunt. I crawled along the meadows and cast to them so no other trout could swallow the morsel first. Before long, I had 10 sensationally beautiful brook trout, the state limit, and took them to a fire. I would have this type of day four more times before the fleeting high-country summer was gone and I left Wyoming. Other trips over the next two decades took me to Wyoming and elsewhere, but there never was time to hit that stream again. Twenty-one years later, I got the chance . . . and wondered if I should take it. “You can’t go back,” said Bill Buckley, a friend, when I saw him in Bozeman a few days before my trip. I told him I had to, even if it meant heartbreak. I drove down through the middle of Wyoming, onto the high plains, then past Lander to Medicine Bow, home of the Virginian Hotel, and onward to Saratoga, a town the North Platte takes a turn through before going off north into the sage. The town of Encampment, just south of Saratoga, felt windswept and desolate, tucked up near the Snowies and right up against the Sierra Madre. I remembered watching a play there, written by locals and put on in a drafty town hall on a winter WWW.AMERICANANGLER.COM
night as part of a celebration of the town’s 150th anniversary. The town was founded as a meeting place for fur trappers. The night of the play the whole town seemed packed into that building, and the laughter was so hearty I thought the whitewashed wallboards might vibrate off. I stopped on the main street at midday and watched two mule deer bucks saunter between boardedup stores without a person in sight. The road rose into tan foothills that became beetle-killed pine forests. The sagecovered high-country desert fell away. The road wound on, and at the top was a small parking lot. Below, to the south and west, mountains drifted into Colorado. The parking lot had been expanded and a bathroom added. Locals unloaded dirt bikes. An off-road trail is there now. I pictured those loud things doing wheelies over my once sacred stream and almost turned around and left. I took a deep breath and stepped out of my rented SUV and felt the sun chasing away a chill on that July morning. The bright sun felt luxurious and the forest smelled of pine. On the hike in I had to step off the trail twice to avoid dirt bikes screaming by. But I kept on to where the off-road trail turned north and the mountain descended east. I saw the rivulet in the trees running through all the wildflower meadows. I followed the stream and found it still jumping with tiny brook trout. The sound of the motorbikes had faded away. Soon, through an opening in the trees, I saw the valley. I could see a shining ribbon of a stream winding quietly, outside of time. The same copses of fir trees were standing around the same bends. The water was still deep and as clear as the high-country air. In the top of each pool were brook trout in bunches, watching the water above, all waiting for the insects in the grass to misjudge a leap and fall into the stream. I tied my ugliest dry to the tippet and cast, and a trout rose. In a flash, a brookie was out of the water and in my hand like a memory in flesh. It was everything I remembered and nothing I didn’t.
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Frank Miniter is a New York Times best-selling author who lives near the famed trout streams of the Catskill Mountains. See more of his work at www.frankminiter.com. MARCH/APRIL 2020 I 71
WATERLINES by Frank Miniter
Never Go Back
So don’t go back. Not now. Not ever. Well, that’s what they say. There was this high-country Wyoming stream I knew when I was 24. I was a reporter at a small-town daily newspaper. My salty editor, Chuck Bowles, a man the bottle would kill in the old-fashioned way, said to me: “So you fly fish. Well, boy, if you like brookies, I’ll give you a spot. It’s a meadow stream straight from a Robert Frost poem. Well, if Frost knew about Wyoming. “There is no trail,” he warned. “So, park at the Continental Divide up in the Sierra Madre, south and above Encampment. Hike southeast over parks and through aspen stands and follow one of the rivulets down the mountainside to the North Fork of the Encampment. Now, get out of my sight.” I found the stream, but not until after I went the wrong way down the pinedarkened mountain, thanks to Bowles’s vague directions, and ended up at a great
brook trout lake. But it bothered me that I hadn’t found the stream. I knew my editor would ask about it. Back up the mountain I went, powered by my 24-year-old legs. Once on top, I followed a rivulet that was just two feet wide, a tiny stream jumping with puny brook trout—just as Chuck described—and then went down the mountain’s east side. The little brook fell through fields of wildflowers— white March marigold, red Indian paintbrush, yellow hoary balsamroot—until the valley opened in yellow light at the bottom. There was long grass moving lightly on soft summer wind. There were bunches of firs. Under the firs was moss so thick you wanted to lie on it and look up into the branches and listen to the water going by as you forgot that time is fleeting. In early afternoon I walked into the warm sunlight that bathed those 10,000-foot-high meadows and stopped (Continued on page 71)
HAT POND WHERE YOUR first bass sucked in a worm and tugged under the bobber just before you felt the stupendous weight of a fish on some flimsy kid’s pole. Or that freestone stream where your first trout rose to a fly with your dad watching and smiling . . . Well, those places are best left to memory. What you felt there, with your father or siblings, or good friends, is too special to tread on. If you do go back, you’ll find someone built a home blocking access to the water. You’ll see posted signs nailed to trees. You’ll discover the pond has silted in. Maybe you’ll just find it smaller, with less mystery and appeal than you recall. Or you’ll see your father or other loved ones now gone, and will be too melancholy to enjoy that sacred place. You may leave shattered. It would be like seeing your high school sweetheart and not recognizing her until she tells you her name.
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