Saturday, October 22, 2016

EZ Mouse

     Kind of a stretch for the Soft~Hackle Journal to offer a fly meant to simulate a mammal, I admit. Take my word for it I am suitably shame-faced while writing this. But I did see that film where the Mongolian guide skinned a lemming, stuffed the skin with foam packing peanuts, & sewed the whole thing onto a hook to create a damn realistic (& great-floating) lemming fly, then used it to catch a giant taimen. Six foot long trout. Inspiring stuff. And besides that, the little mouse fly is just too cute.  

But there’s nothing cute about trout large enough to want to eat a mouse, or the way they’ll eat it, & that’s probably the real reason I flaunt the mouse pattern here. I suspect the idea of fishing a mouse as bait appeals to my dark side – the side that lurks on the bank at night, casting blind, lasciviously skating a giant fly, anticipating a savage bulge that will trouble the water & rise like an infuriated Creature from the Black Lagoon suddenly busting from the inky stream to crush the hapless mousy meat. Nothin wrong with a little excitement in the dark. Sport.

Funny thing is: that kind of nocturnal behavior often occurs on water so technical, in daylight, there is only the wisp of a chance that same fish will even sniff your #22 Trico or BWO fished on a 20-foot leader.

We generally associate hair-mouse lures with bassing or night fishing for brown trout, though big rainbows like them too (results on a secret spring creek do attest). Bull trout love them. And I suspect the imitation might work well anywhere there are sizeable trout & active mice present, regardless what species the trout. Certainly a good pattern to have in the kit. Well worth a few casts over a favorite spring creek after an evening hatch has dwindled into darkness. You never know.    

Staying versatile (The Dude abides), I’m committed to fishing the mouse next season more often than I have in the past, so’ve been playing with deer hair designs looking for a quick one. At night (when the imitation is best fished) you probably don’t need anything more than a wad of hair, & some tie just a ball of clipped deer hair for the body, but I wanted something that would fairly satisfy my aesthetic opinion on a swimming mouse profile, while easy to tie without a lot of hair packing & trimming.

EZ Mouse

Hook: #4 light wire hook

Thread: strong

Tail: a single saddle hackle – gray, light ginger or white are good

Body: deer hair – tie in about mid-shank, arranging a thick collar around the hook shank, hair tips extending slightly beyond the hook bend – tie in more deer hair, then pack & trim to mousy head shape.

Ears: probably not necessary but, to satisfy my own sense of aesthetics, I added 2, made from orange art foam (I was out of pink)

Eyes: Also probably not necessary, & mine is tied without them ~

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

In the Summer of Dying Trees

watercolor & ink ~Doris Loiseau
     Twenty miles to the west, in the higher ranges beyond the river country, a furious elephant head of smoke storms against the summer sky. The prevailing westerly wafts smoke upriver. My eyes sting and water. A yellow jacket orbits my head while I rig a new tippet at the picnic table in the yard. There’s something apocalyptic about the yellow jackets. I’ve never seen so many, never seen them so aggressive. They are dense near water, and a neighbor’s cow was stung blind trying to drink through the layer of yellow jackets covering a water trough. Hotter weather and they produce more young – and winters lately haven’t been cold enough to kill them down. Same with the tree beetles flaring the pines from yellow to brown. The woods are as dry as gunpowder.
watercolor & ink ~Doris Loiseau

The government is selling the trees to eliminate the fire hazard, the policy creating a combustible wasteland of neck-deep logging slash and exposed soil baking in full sun. The ridges beyond the river bluffs have lost their sleeping mammal profiles, the scalped tree lines abruptly broken with the obtuse mechanical angles of fire roads and clear-cut logging jobs. I backhand the circling yellow jacket and it falls stunned into my coffee.  

The radio pulls in a jazz program. The blare of a horn from the open cabin door assembles into John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. A riot of birdsong erupts from the woods beyond the yard, momentarily syncopating with Coltrane, Garrison and Tyner. I listen. The players push order to the edge of chaos, they explore that strange borderland, then agree to surrender instrumentation entirely. They chant – “...a love supreme… a love supreme…” – and the chant sounds ironic to me, both mournful and joyous at once. I watch the crippled wasp struggle against the coffee dregs.

Ariel gathers some things and puts them into her daypack. She’s going to walk down to the river with me. I’m fidgety and restless and ready to go. She knows I want to fish.

We cross the road, push through a meridian of tall grass, cross the railroad tracks, then pass through shadows under the pines, emerging into full light at the riverbank. We surprise an osprey ripping the guts out of a trout on the edge of a gravel bar. It lifts its wings and hurls itself into the sky, the trout intestine a dangling exclamation point. The sun is still heavy on the water. It’s a little too early to fish.

Ariel strays off poking along the shore, bending to pick up an odd bone from among the stones. She holds it up for me to see – “Pelvis?”

“Yup. Looks like a pelvis. Maybe an otter."

She absently performs a single provocative gyration of her hips while musing over the interesting construct, then places the bone back as she found it and meanders off down the bank looking for other secrets.

I move back toward the trees and find a spot in the shade, the end of day red sun almost touching the bristled ridge across the river. I sit, observing.

There’s the smell of smoke from the distant fire, but also the regular incense of pine pitch, hot stones, and cold water. The river smells like trout. Summer’s breaking swell accelerates with the momentum of climaxing events, human and not, yet the trout remain a fair constant, feeding with nearly perfect fidelity, at least for a short spell in the evening.

The sun passes behind the mountains, shadows reach to bridge the river, the sky turns injured pink and the undersides of mare’s tail clouds glow red. Then the river turns red and for a moment it is like a river of fire. As the sun sinks lower it cools to a river of blood.

Swift hunting spiders spring from their hiding places among the stones, assessing me as I pass from the trees to the river. They dash back to their crevices when my gaze falls on them. “Go ahead and hide, the sky is burning and the game is on,” I tell the spiders.
A banner of current unskeins from the tip of a rocky point. The seam formed at the confluence of the faster mainstream and the slower water under the point runs for about sixty feet before tailing over shallower water. Working down the length of the run quartering empty casts, I see a few sedges but not much else besides the yellow jackets hunting close over the water. It feels off. I quit casting, sit down on a stone, take a drink from the water bottle and sit watching the water. I watch for a long time.

Approaching twilight, a trout rises on the seam.

Hey, luck!…

The old grass rod delivers.

The trout, a good one, pounces the swinging fly hard enough to break the  tippet. 

The line hangs limp, weightless in the coursing vacuity. I moonwalk back from the river’s edge, the broken tippet flapping from the rod tip.

A strange gull lifts on the curly breeze, head tilted, alert for scraps, while I tie a new tippet to the leader. It looks like a gull I’ve seen down in Baja. I look over my shoulder at Ariel sitting cross-legged on a flat rock, a thin blonde Buddha, her sketchbook open across her lap, pencil poised above her knee, watching the gull. Ariel doesn’t miss much, which scares me sometimes yet comforts me too. She returns to her drawing and her hair falls from behind her ear the way I like.

The new piercing that nice trout was now sporting in its lip had been an experiment, I’d only tied two. I scan my box, pull the remaining one, tie it on, and hike upriver to check out a fresh seam.

My fly hunts down the eddy seam. The few rises are mostly beyond casting range. The water is black, hard. I cast to the stingy water while losing light.

Ariel finds me, her stuff put away in the pack. Reluctant to leave, I wind in, and then a trout rises, an easy cast from the bank. Ariel sees it too and without a word takes a resigned step aside.

Pulling line from the reel, I slink hunched into position for the cast.

The trout takes the fly on the first drift.

We raise a short ruckus along the bank, me and the trout.     

And the trout blows itself out with the effort.    

Carefully, I press the yellow and black striped fly from the corner of its jaw, and we admire the 18-inch cutthroat laid out like a newborn in the rubber net bag. It’s a boy. Big head on him, deep bronze down the flanks, and oddly shaped, fingerprint-sized black spots, the deepest black, the blackness of black dwarfs, extinguished hearts of exhausted stars constellated on the tail and rear half of its body. The orange slits under the lower jaw glow like firebrands. Gripping the trout by the tail, I hold it upright until a surge of firm energy passes into its body. I let go, the trout kicks away, the dark water absorbs its light and it is gone.

A cool breeze gusts from the river and enfolds us, clean, bending the stems of tall grass, yellow tops fat with seed. We sit together on the river stones and watch the stars appear. 

“It’s good. The fishing is good isn’t it.” Inwardly amused, matter of fact, Ariel means it as an affirmation not a question. She is linked in congress with the moons and tides of this world and her observations can usually be trusted.

The night is exquisite and the stars are very close. A saffron glow illuminates the sky behind the mountain where the full moon will rise soon. I contemplate the dark river where I see no desolation and all appears secretly well.

Everything passes. Nothing lasts.

“Yes. It is good,” I allow, finally. Early stars course down the arc of sky, the river whispers and clucks. I hear myself emit a sigh. I purse my lips and nod, hoping she is right, hoping it is so.

Steven Bird 2016

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Thread Ant

  Been fishing ant imitations a lot more this year than I have in the past, & that’s working out pretty well. Considering ants are present & available anywhere you go in trout country, spring through fall, & the fact that trout love to eat them, it doesn’t serve to overlook the wee ant as an important trout stream insect – probably, day-in, day-out, ants are the most important terrestrial to imitate.

The large #6-#8 carpenter ants that fall on my home water spring & early summer are an essential hatch in the Northwest, & I tie hackled imitations to fish for them. Yet, smaller species are falling on the stream from spring into autumn, & I’ve lately come to prefer these #14-#18 models tied hackle-less, which, I think, offers a better ant profile.

Ants struggle & sink, becoming available to trout throughout the water column. For me, the imitations work best fished wet, dead-drifted in or under the surface film.  Here’s a design that’s been working well.

Thread Ant

Hook: #14-#18 dryfly hook

Thread: black; or combinations of brown & orange UNI or other monochord

Body: thread, wound to suggest the ant shape – coat with head cement (I use Hard-As-Nails for these)

Legs: tying thread (no stiffening agent)

Wing (optional): brownish-gray CDC

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Art of Jan & Jeff Cottrell

Ink & Wash ~ Jan Cottrell

     The dog days of August are full upon us in the Northwest. Hatches that spurred great trouting this spring & early summer have boiled down to a faint spritz in late evening, serving to bring up only a few trout, & those, smaller fish.

Green Butt Spey ~ Jeff Cottrell
 I miss Jan & Jeff from the Evening Hatch, who’ve pulled the plug until September, moving their operation to more productive territory over in steelhead country. On days off from guiding, Jeff & I fish. Or, sometimes, they come over with a bottle of wine or two, & Jan with her sketchbook. We sit around the picnic table in the yard, Doris & Jan sipping wine & working on their drawings or watercolors while Jeff & I chainsmoke & shoot the shit.

Ink & Wash ~ Jan Cottrell
If I was in the life game for monetary gain, I’d of gone into real estate or politics. But Henry James said: “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, & I know of no substitute for the beauty & force of its process.” Birds of a feather do tend to hang together, & one of the most satisfying rewards inherent to the artist’s life is the companionship we often find in fellow artists, as these tend to possess developed observational skills that serve to make them interesting & fun company (for the most part). (Unless you really love living dangerously, I’d suggest avoidance of depressed, ear-snipping painters & shotgun-wielding writers.)

Orange Heron Spey ~ Jeff Cottrell 

Regarding ‘things’, Deepak Chopra acknowledges: “If it’s not absolutely beautiful, or absolutely useful, you don’t need it… it is an anchor.”

Ink & Wash ~ Jan Cottrell

The fruit of Jan & Jeff’s labor meets both criteria for things worth keeping.

Harlequin Spey ~ Jeff Cottrell

Jan left me some of her exquisite watercolor & ink drawings. Jeff gave me some of the Spey designs he ties for steelhead. In these things we see that art truly does reflect life, but also the refinement of its crafters, & their intimate connection to life.

Ink & Wash ~ Jan Cottrell

Jeff Cottrell’s fly designs are available from Rainy’s Flies. Anyone interested in original, print, or commission work from Jan Cottrell, might reach her through contacting me at: 

Deep Purple Spey ~ Jeff Cottrell

Monday, July 18, 2016

Seeking A Good Trouting Line ~ SHJ Casts the Cortland 444 Classic

     On the home water we’re calling 2016 ‘TheYear of the Mayflies’. Jack wanted to take us fishing. So I had the pleasure of sampling the river with a couple buddies, Evening Hatch guides, Jack Mitchell & Jeff Cottrell. Jack rowed while Jeff & I hunted the water with Black Quill dryflies.

Most of our casts were to rises within a 15 to 50 foot range, maybe the occasional cast to 60 feet.  We like a lot of the same things & we talk while fishing. Jeff & I were commenting about how we didn’t like the way the radical weight forward lines we were using presented dry & soft-hackle flies, & complaining about double-taper lines disappearing from the market, & how crazy techno-talk line marketing & labeling has become. Jeff said he was waiting for some lines Cortland wanted him to try out, & said he’d give me one to try when they arrived.
Jeff 'Jefe' Cottrell with UC Redband

I used to own a Cortland Leon Chandler, 6wt, ‘S’ glass rod. It was light as a feather, a beautiful translucent tobacco color, with a graceful semi-parabolic action appropriate to the pace of observant trouting – best 6wt I’ve ever casted – & trading it off when graphite was coming in, thinking I needed to ‘move up’, was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done.

Cortland Line Company, of Cortland, New York, has been around for a long time. The company revolutionized fly lines, setting the stage for modern lines when it introduced the first coated fly line, the Cortland 333. Though they were first, to the company’s credit, Cortland has never succumbed to the confusing over-specialized hype marketing tactics many of their competitors now practice. And though the quality & durability is as good as any make of line I’ve abused, the Cortland lines remain among the most moderately priced.   

The lines arrived & Jeff brought me a weight-forward, 6weight, floating, 444. To a shopper seeking a trouting line, the writing on the box is completely understandable. Reading down from the top, here’s what’s written on the front of the box: World Famous Fly Line – Extremely supple, glass smooth finish and outstanding durability. Welded loop. – Cortland 444 Classic – Modern Trout – WF6F – Moss/30 YDS./27 M. All you need to know, within reason.             

I wound the line onto my reel. The ‘Moss’ is a pleasant, understated, light olive color. As the label promises, the line is supple & glass smooth. I took it fishing.

Casting, I found the Cortland 444 stays supple in cold water, while easy to hand. Its slick surface allows it to shoot through the guides without sound, & be picked up from the water with minimum commotion. The line floated high throughout a three-hour session. Being a line meant for trout fishing, working the distances commonly worked on most trout streams, the forward taper is designed with presentation foremost in mind. It is not the radical apple-on-a-string front taper that gives a bit more distance yet plops on the water in a heap at the working end of a cast. The taper is conservative, with a fairly long front taper ensuring a delicate presentation, while the fairly (comparatively) long rear belly serves to load the rod for good roll casts & various tosses. It mends well. At shorter distances, say, up to 40 feet, those distances most commonly fished on small to medium sized trout streams, the 444 feels & performs a lot like a double-taper, & with little effort. It is a forgiving taper. With a little more effort I was able to haul a 60 foot cast, no problem. Though the back of the box claims ‘tight loops’ (tight loops are considered cool lately, & all line manufacturers are claiming them), I found that the 444 forms a more open loop than the more radical weight-forward lines being offered for fast-action rods. But I consider that a positive attribute, ensuring less fouling when casting multiple fly rigs, or jig (beadhead) & bobber set-ups.            

The Cortland 444 Modern Trout was designed to be an all-around trout line for meeting the size trout streams that most of us fish most of the time – & I am impressed at how well it fills the bill for that purpose. Though, so far, I’ve only fished it on a graphite rod, I suspect the 444 might be a good choice for lining glass & bamboo. Because of its great roll-casting abilities, I also suspect that this configuration might be a good choice for lining light switch rods of trouting weights, particularly glass versions like the Echo #3 two-hander, the head configuration resembling a sort of mini-version of a long-belly Spey. I’ll be trying it. Meantime, I think anybody seeking to cut through the bullshit choosing an all-around, floating trout line, will be more than satisfied with the Cortland 444 Classic.


Monday, July 11, 2016


Got a few on the hook. The stair-step of happy campers in the accompanying photo are initiates. They’ve learned to tie a blood knot; handle & cast spinning gear; they have handled fly tackle, which they used to troll flies at the pond; they are learning how to tie flies; & they learned how to cut & prepare trout for the frying pan.

Tomorrow we will cast the fly rods, on the lawn.

They are excited & looking forward to having those trout aligned on the net handle as their camp supper. They are ready for ‘blooding’ – a right-of-passage, of sorts. I have explained some conservation & the concept of catch & release, & the initiates understand. They are gentle souls. But they wanted to clean & cook a few also, & I agreed to let them kill a few trout for the table. That is blooding.

At base, ours is still a blood sport, evolved from the necessary food-gathering habits of our ancestors. Keeping that in mind, I think, helps the angler to stay sharp. Eating one now & then will keep you fishy.

The initiates are fishy now. They have engaged full-circle in the ancient rite. I’ve no doubt that all three will always fish. They love it. And if they ever have to catch a fish, by necessity, they will know how to do so.          

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Western Yellow Drake Mayfly

Yellow Occi ~ Steven Bird
It’s good to be a Northern man enjoying a normal trout country June of mixed sun & cloud with temperatures hovering in the seventies. The kind of weather that brings up good mayfly hatches. Can’t remember seeing March browns as thick as they are this season. It’s been about fifteen years since an upstream smelter quit dumping toxic waste into my home water, & mayflies, & mayfly species, are on the increase. And a new one this year, when, suddenly, Siphlonurus occidentalis (Gray Drake or Yellow Drake) put in a surprise appearance, hatching in strong numbers, early to late evening. A happy occurrence, turns out.

Depending on location, adults may be gray or yellow. The elegant UC dun is buttery-yellow all over, with long, light gray wings. The bodies are long & slender; fairly replicated dressed on a #12 TMC 200R, or other 3x-long hook. To avoid confusion with the more widespread Eastern yellow drake (Ephemera varia), & the gray mode of the same species, I’ve dubbed the local model ‘yellow occi’.  

Though not as widespread as its East/Midwest cousin, the western yellow drake does produce major, long-duration hatches on certain Columbia tributaries, as well, apparently, as the Columbia/American Reach mainstem. Like the eastern model, yellow occi is long on the water, spindly & easily tumbled – & for that reason, as well as the ease a wetfly affords in fishing near-dark until dark when these mayflies are most prevalent, I’ve found the wet version fairly handy.

Yellow Occi

Hook: #12 TMC 200R

Thread: yellow UNI 8/0

Tails: barred lemon wood duck

Body: blend 3 equal parts Wapsi Superfine sulfur yellow; creamy-yellow poly yarn; bright yellow poly yarn – dubbed on a loop of the tying thread

Wing: pearl-gray calf tail  

Hackle: yellow hen