Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Archive of What Worked

     Words are spoken beside rivers, questions asked, & in the following silence of leaf & twig, stone & sky, slant of light, the rushing water answers. In that observed moment, the mind engaged yet not busy, the ambiguous stream reveals something.

Perhaps it serves to perceive tradition as a stream. I prefer that to thinking of tradition as a museum of old things. O there is that. There are actual things that are iconic to the fly fishing tradition, objects to be admired for their beauty & utility, the thought & craftsmanship contributing to their making – & these beautiful tools, the fine rods & reels, brilliantly conceived flies & gear, do serve as visual, working proof of a tradition holding rich craft & aesthetic values. We love looking at these things. As one who has sipped an entire glass of whiskey while savoring & admiring a single well-tied salmon fly I am no exception. Many find a lifetime of pleasure collecting the trappings of our sport, & some collect while seldom or never wetting a line. Ours is a faceted passion. And though I take pleasure from all aspects & elements of the fly fishing tradition, I won’t lie, more than anything I love to hook fish & feel a tug, so it is the ideas & concepts behind those things in tradition, born of observation, experience & connection through time on the water, that interest me the most. Tradition is the archive of what worked. Something works enough times to be truly noteworthy, & it is kept. Tradition is a living river, its authentic elements fractal & expansive. We may take what we need from that nourishing stream, & what we take, we may duplicate, refine, or carry in a new direction.  

What makes us who we are as anglers? Does our connection to the natural world have anything to do with it? Are we influenced by where we live, or have lived? Are we ‘men of the country’, informed by energetic signals unique to our particular regions? Well, yes. More or less. I think so. Possibly more than we may know. Everything's connected. Anglers are adaptable & absorbent predators, come down the ages bearing a formidable arsenal. Knowledge of lake & stream. We learn what is valuable to keep & come to see how that both serves & defines us.      

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bringing A Kid To The Game

     In the year I was born, automobiles had been available to the general public for about forty years, and in many regions of the rural U.S. the roads were so bad that it was still easier to travel by horse. Television was just coming in, and you had to live near a big city with broadcasting towers to get any reception; and for those who did get reception, programs about pioneer outdoorsmen on horseback were among the most popular. Subsistence hunting and fishing were still fairly common in rural areas. The newly spreading urban landscape was populated with grandparents who’d arrived by wagon or clipper ship; and their children, the young parents of the baby-boom, were still more connected to an agrarian past than they were the Post-WWII oil-fueled boom culture accelerating through the Jet Age ‘50’s and into the Space Age ‘60’s.  Kids played outside. When we misbehaved, we were kept inside as a form of punishment. We roamed the parks and neighborhoods, the nearby woods, ponds and streams. Outdoors was considered the province of independence, and a very desirable place to be.  

Most boys where I grew up fished, (sadly, funny ideas about gender roles prevailed in those days, and girls, though not entirely left out, weren’t generally encouraged) even if only on Opening Day of fishing season. Everybody fished Opening Day, which was right up there with Christmas in popularity. But those were different times.

The population of the U.S. has almost tripled since the year I was born. Urban sprawl has taken much of the woodland we used to play in. Per capita, fewer of us fish, and those who do, increasingly, come to it at an age somewhat beyond grade school years. And that’s probably a good thing, because if fishing was as popular now as it was through the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, with our present population, our resources probably wouldn’t hold up to the pressure – frankly, I am not a zealous recruiter of new anglers. On the other hand, I love nothing better than to observe a kid learning and putting that knowledge together to achieve a pleasing result. As the father of four sons, and grandfather of a mixed bag of five grandkids, I am constantly involved in the process, and I’ve outlined a loose working method, of sorts.  

A prospective mentor might ask: What is the best age to start a kid fishing?

And I’ve found no firm answer to that question. It is a thing that needs to be intuited as you go along. Each case is different. Indeed, I think it best to not ‘start’ at all, but rather, phase into it – ‘acculturate’ the young prospect to it through immersion. Set the scene before engaging in any activity afield. I call this stage ‘The Pump, and it may be the most important stage, particularly if your prospect is very young. Of course, this process is far easier accomplished in rural families where there might be one or more adult anglers in a child’s life, and fishing junk decorating the living room walls – though more difficult in urban families where there is little angling extraneii or even conversation about angling. But that can be remedied, and the fix will do the instructor some good as well. Exercise your storytelling talents. Kids, no matter how jaded by media, still need and love stories and mythology. A good thing. As all that is worthwhile in tradition is passed down through stories and myth. And remember: its okay to stretch the truth with kids provided it serves our purpose. Supply your prospect with natural history books aimed at their age level, and make sure those books have a lot of cool illustrations of fish. And, along with the books, supply outrageous fish stories.  

So, we see, the act of angling need not be the initial activity. I almost ruined my first son starting him too early and keeping him out too long. I think it better to foster a curiosity for the outdoors and nature before tackling the mechanics of angling. It is an easy thing to play outdoors with your three year old. Pack a lunch or some snacks and go to the beach or lake or stream on a nature expedition. Kids are naturally militaristic and love an official mission, so prepare for the outing with a sense of gravity. Let your young compatriot know that we are going on a special mission – and appoint each trooper involved a particular job integral to the mission. And of course you’ll need some weapons. A good sized aquarium net or pool skimmer is the weapon of choice for these early missions. Kids are born naturalists and I’ve not met the child yet who doesn’t enjoy catching nymphs, crayfish, frogs and minnows with the net. Explain that fish eat the little critters, & they make good bait. Keep the trips afield short and fun, only stay as long as your protégé is energetic and interested – never pressure a kid to stay afield. While you make these trips, talk about angling. Let the child know that to be among the fraternity of anglers is a special thing. Plant seeds. But hold off, at least a few trips, before putting a rod into the kid’s hands. Let them anticipate that.

I was given my first fishing rod, one of my grandfather’s old bamboo flyrods, at the age of four, which I think might be a little too young for most kids these days. I had the advantage of living on a lake heavily populated with bluegill that were easy pickings from the family dock. I’d started hand-lining at three. I was a lake kid with a lot of fishing mentors living around me. So environmental factors do come into play. And keep in mind that some kids possess more natural adeptness than others. Generally, from my own experience teaching kids, somewhere between the ages of six and eight seems about the best time to start them, again, depending on the kid.

There is very little I remember from my fourth year, yet receiving my first rod was a right-of-passage I remember vividly. I see a lot of young kids receiving cheap “Snoopy” poles with push-button reels as their first rod – and you’ll often see the thing in the spidery corner of a garage or even tossed into a toybox with a bunch of other plastic ‘toys’ – and this gives me pause to look back and appreciate the wisdom of my grandfather, a halo of cigar smoke around his head, who presented me one of his old bamboo flyrods (which smelled like brook trout and was imbued with the mojo of a hundred streams and ponds) with much gravity, impressing upon me that it was not a toy. He showed me how to set it up, applying nose grease to the ferrules. He tied a short mono leader with a bait hook to the old silk line, clipped on a bobber, and we headed to the dock. On the way down he instructed me in the proper way to carry the rod, cautioning me to mind the delicate tip. At the water, he showed me how to cast, peeling some line from the reel then swinging it out there, the weight of the bobber and doughball-baited hook easily pulling the line through the guides for a cast that was more than sufficient. When I wasn’t fishing with it, that rod hung in the rack with my dad’s rods, and my folks made sure there was no lapse in the rod’s care. I fished with that old bamboo until I was nine, when it met its sad end broken twice over the knee of an irate Millbury cop who’d already busted me twice down at the pond, ditching school (and then he ran my bike over for good measure, throwing a massive but temporary wrench into my action).

To my mind, there is nothing better than an old (or new) flyrod as a kid’s first rod. The flyrod is actually more foolproof and much easier to use than the troublesome push-button rod decorated with cartoon characters. The flyrod will teach a kid the basics of rod handling, tosses and simple casts. My grandfather and I trolled with streamer flies a lot, a game that is easy and fun for kids, and an effective method on early season trout lakes, usually providing a lot of action, so a great way to start a kid out. But, in those early years, other than trolling flies, I used my flyrod to fish bait, mostly, and it was through presenting live baits that I learned the nuances of presentation. Rigged with a splitshot and a hook baited with a garden worm, grasshopper or caddis larva, a flyrod is the ultimate stream fishing tool. If your student is squeamish about pinning live critters on the hook, salmon eggs or cheese bait might be a viable alternative, though usually not as effective on wild trout. That said, if you know of a stream or pond where a kid can catch them on flies relatively easy, then fish the fly. But I suggest not playing the purist with kids. Again, keep it fun. Mix it up using both flies and bait, as you ascertain the situation justifies. And this will teach your protégé the valuable lesson that a fly is really no different than a bait. Take it slow, keep it fun, and you will find yourself at the game in the company of an enthusiastic fishing buddy. ~


Friday, December 5, 2014

Trigger Flies For Pre-Spawn Rainbows

     Yes, I mean these as trout flies. Sure, they may look like salmon or steelhead flies, & I wouldn’t hesitate to fish them thus, but they are new recruits into my line-up of attractor wets for swinging on winter pre-spawn rainbows. I suspect I might be a born anarchist. Boundaries have sometimes been ambiguous I admit. And I hate trends. I like to work from tried & true core principles, so I am a fairly disciplined anarchist. I respect tradition & endeavor to tweak it lovingly. I figure that’s what it’s for. Are these over the top? O probably. But they were fun to tie & I like looking at them. I’m hoping the trout will too. They are small lures, really, smaller than, say, the doll-eyed, articulated streamers currently trending in trout fishing (when wet they have less mass than a small ¼ ounce spinner or spoon), so fill a niche during those times when trout might be triggered by something fanciful but not too large. These are tied on TMC 200R #4 & #6 hooks, but a fancy approach can be reduced to a #10, smaller than that the fancy flies start to look clunky with too much bulk at the head & the materials (appendages) not draping properly.

For fishing.



Flyfish NE Washington withSteven Bird http://ucflyfishing.blogspot.com        

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Squirrel & Brahma Muddler

     As a nearly universal food item of stream trout, & larger trout, I can think of no more important form than the freshwater sculpin, or muddler. Don Gapen tied the original Muddler Minnow in 1937, to simulate the sculpin big Ontario brook trout were feeding on. Gapen’s muddler patterns were entirely innovative, tied with a heavy squirrel tail topping extended well beyond the hook bend, & a turkey quill over-wing nearly as long. It looked like something the cat dropped on the porch & was not the neat, trimmed, bullet-headed rendition popularized by Dan Bailey, the version common in catalogs today, short winged & nearly or altogether devoid of the trailing squirrel tail. Bailey wanted to give the fly more floatation so that it would fish as a grasshopper, the story goes. Gapen did not pack or trim the deer hair head, which no doubt aided in sinking the fly. The original Muddler Minnow, in form, more closely resembles the creations of Kelly Galloup than it does the neat, sparse, Dan Bailey version.

A few of the things I think contribute to the effectiveness of Don Gapen’s original Muddler Minnow:

It is not overly large, generally tied in #4 & smaller. Using traditional wetfly standards of proportion, more or less, a #4 3xlong hook produces a one & three quarter/two inch long fly, the size of many species of freshwater sculpin at maturity. That & smaller are the sizes most often eaten by foraging trout. O sure. You’ll catch a big brown on that four inch long doll-eyed bunny version, put in the time, or you live in Big Trout Paradise. But in the places most of us fish, most of the time, a less invasive muddler will catch everything, while still possessing enough ju-ju to entice the big boys – & is a lot more pleasant to cast.       

The simple gold tinsel body of Gapen’s design is genius, the designer understood that, in this case, the sum of the components, altogether, comprise the actual ‘body’ of the muddler. The tinsel wound hook shank adds flash, & also becomes the lower flank lateral coloration, which is often pale gold through shades of yellow/bronze in natural sculpin – & less bulk to buoy the fly, helping it sink & stay down.

Excellent material choices & coloration withstanding, probably the most effective feature of the Muddler Minnow is its profile. The squirrel tail hairwing of the original provides action & mass, as well as the barred pattern displayed on naturals. The broad pinto pattern on the turkey quill overwing (which used to puzzle me, for want of something to better match the sculpin of my home water), perfectly matches the girdled patterns found on many sculpin species, & probably the one Gapen meant it to fish for. But the prime element is the flared deer hair head, which, when wet, serves to give the Muddler Minnow the characteristic sculpin profile, which I believe, is the key to the success of the muddler-style patterns.

I love tying, looking at, & fishing muddlers. The style is effective in a number of variations, & in colorations ranging from realistic to fanciful. I would elect Don Gapen’s Muddler Minnow as one of the most out-of-the-box, influential fly patterns of all time. Though the Squirrel & Brahma Muddler featured here is a departure from the original, it remains true to the original design values. I’ve had very good results with this one – UC redband, steelhead & smallmouth bass too.

Squirrel & Brahma Muddler

Hook: #4-#6 3xlong or up-eye salmon/steelhead style (I like TMC 200R as well)

Thread: Tan UNI 8/0

Tail: Two coq de leon hackle tips

Body: Copper tinsel with a short thorax of dubbed squirrel – then add a turn of dubbing after the toppings are tied in, which is essential to flare the hackle collar for the muddler profile

Topping: Olive bucktail topped with squirrel tail, a bit shorter than the bucktail – then two coq de leon hackle tips tied in as a cheek, one on both sides of the wing             
     
Head: One brown pheasant rump hackle, then four brahma hen hackles, then a nose of dubbing taken from the base of a squirrel tail, dubbed in a loop of the tying thread ~ & finish.


Flyfish NE Washington with Steven Bird: http://ucflyfishing.blogspot.com

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Green/Blue Spider

     Those of us who like to swing flies are fortunate that pre-spawn salmonids, even if not actively feeding, develop the propensity to attack fancifully sexy fly designs – so our tradition of creative salmon & steelhead flies. And as it is with salmon & steelhead, so it is with landlocked trout, though that is an angle many of us don’t often consider.

There was a time when highly detailed quill winged attractor patterns served a trout fly tradition as rich as the anadromous side of things, & those flies worked well on pre-spawn trout – & that is the baby in the proverbial bathwater, I think, the fact that those flies worked very well at certain times of the year. Yet the development of attractor flies for trout fishing has been mainly truncated since the late 1950’s, as the imitative wave rolled in to sweep away the old wetfly patterns of Ray Bergman & those who came before us. Sadly, in the process, it even became tacitly understood (in some circles) that the imitative approach was somehow morally superior to other methods, & that served to diminish an artful branch of our sport, & a useful, fun approach as well, as any steelheader can tell you.

There is a lot of room for good lures in our trout fly boxes, as the purpose for them still exists.  

Fortunately, creative anglers are always showing us a new direction to take the classic concepts. Hairwing attractors are finding popularity among those who like to fish flies that do not resemble jigs, & we are seeing designs from both East & West that are simply exquisite. Along with hairwings, the wingless ‘spider’ designs popular for sea-run cutthroat & skinny water steelhead are showing good potential as trout lures. Anywhere trout will strike a tiny spoon or spinner, they will find a swung & stripped fancy spider irresistible. (The fancy ‘low water spider’ style of the PNW & Great Lakes should not be confused with the smaller, extremely simple ‘north country spider’ designs originated in Britain, another effective soft-hackle style that we’ll eventually get to.) The elegant, wingless LW spiders afford us infinite room for creative design, & these patterns fill the bill when a larger streamer is just too much.             

Green/Blue Spider

Hook: #10 TMC 200R

Thread: black UNI 8/0

Body: green tinsel-blue tinsel-peacock herl

Hackle: golden plover


Flyfish NE Washington with Steven Bird: http://ucflyfishing.blogspot.com

Friday, November 28, 2014

Dark Cahill ~ Morphogenesis of the Western Hairwing Wetfly

     Some writers seem fond of theorizing that the popularity of hairwing designs in the West came about as the result of the unique demands of “big, brawling Western freestones”, holding “big trout”, & the need to imitate “big Western insects”. Sounds good, at first, yet just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. It is true that a clump of hair exhibits more action & will take more abuse than a paired quill wing, & that is a thing that was known before flyfishing arrived in the West. But, if hair has more action than quill, then wouldn’t it follow that hair is not a necessity of swift freestones, & in fact might even be a better choice than quill for quieter water as well? And isn’t it true that there are big freestones in the East & upper Midwest, & baitfish & large insects as well? Nope. Not buying the ‘big brawling freestone’ theory.

As one who has lived quite a few years in a remote region of the PNW, beyond the power lines for a time, I’m fairly convinced the hairwings came about out of necessity & convenience. Sure, there are wood ducks in the West, but they are elusive & seldom around when you need one, & the West is a big place. However, the country abounds with cow tails, buck tails, pine squirrel tails, ground squirrel tails, skunk tails & the tails of hairy critters of all types. In 1900 there were no cars & few roads in the West & even fewer places to buy exotic feathers shipped from London & New York. Sure, rich sports from the East visited the Far West, but the pioneer Western flyfisher had to make most of his own gear, & I’m fairly certain there were few who could afford to spend money on fancy quills &, instead, worked from the lush indigenous palette regarding toppings – fur was near to hand, easy to tie with & most importantly, effective, & the hair wing eventually became a distinguishing feature of the Western style.          

The 1973 edition of the old Veniard’s Fly Dresser’s Guide (already more historical than current at the time of the 1973 revision) lists twenty hairwing wetflies as trout flies, & out of that number about half might be considered steelhead flies, though at the time of original publication most trouting in America was done using #6 wetflies, so there probably wasn’t much distinction in the old days, the attractor-style patterns used for both sea-run & landlocked trout in the Far West. Most of the patterns listed are hairwing conversions of old favorite quill-winged wets, & most are of the fancy attractor type; yet there are a few drab patterns representing flies originally meant to fish for specific insects, & among these the Cahill, & the recipe given in Veniard’s not in the least resembling the original tied by Don Cahill of Port Jervis, New York, in 1887, to simulate the Pale Morning Dun & Pale Evening Dun mayflies of the Catskill region. Yet the pattern given in Veniard’s exactly matches a variant I found in a Colorado fly shop in 1973 – which I think is interesting, as Veniard does suggest that hairwing trout flies are mainly indigenous to the American West, & I now suspect that all the hairwing patterns given in the Fly Dresser’s Guide are actually patterns that were in general usage for trout fishing in the West in the early through mid-1900’s, as that appears to be the case.

I can see the possible genesis: The original Don Cahill pattern, with its characteristic wing & tail of lemon wood duck, became very popular in the East, so popular that a version with dark tan body, the Dark Cahill, soon joined the original tied with a light cream body, & then there were more offspring, including variants with gray or pink bodies. Pioneer flyfishers carried these patterns west, fished them, & morphed them to the Western hairwing style.  

The Dark Cahill with its universally buggy coloration is one of those nondescript patterns that mimics a broad spectrum of insects, add a wing of squirrel tail & it serves to simulate both emergent & drowned mayflies, a stillborn or drowned stonefly, or an egg-laying sedge, or maybe a terrestrial. This  pattern, with its natural coloration, may have filled an important niche in the West during an era dominated by fanciful attractor patterns, & worked well enough to remain in general usage in the Rocky Mountain region into the early 1970’s, an era when the old wetflies were increasingly replaced with evolving, species-specific type nymphs & dryflies. The ones I purchased in Colorado worked well on the small mountain streams west of Denver, where I spent one year. And also turned the trick on an incredible stream that we crossed in the wasteland of Wyoming traveling from Colorado to Washington, & then again on the Clearwater in Idaho during that same trip. Later, the Dark Cahill hairwing proved useful during upper Columbia spotted sedge hatches.

Veniard gives the instructions thus:

Cahill
Tail. Brown hackle fibres.
Body. Grey fur.
Hackle. Brown *cock.
Wings. Barred brown squirrel tail.

*Most of the old wetfly patterns called for cock hackle, & it should be noted that the cock hackle of the old days was not the stiff, spiky dryfly hackle that we see today from birds bred for the purpose. The cock hackle of the old days was more similar to the bred hen necks available today. Winged wetflies were meant for fishing freestone streams, & the cock hackle was thought to be superior to softer hen. Theoretically, it would maintain its flare in faster water. But the problem I have with barnyard cock is that it often has a soft webby center which causes the hackle to hinge at the base, laying back over the fly while otherwise maintaining its stiffness. To my mind not as good as a soft hackle undulating & flared over a short thorax of dubbing. I’ve found the Whiting Hebert Miner hen to be a better choice for hackling winged wets.  

The example featured here is tied as Veniard describes it – with hackle installed in-the-round, same as the ones I found in 1973 Denver. A #12 is as small as I generally go. The previous posts in this hairwing series have featured some of the larger patterns I tie & fish for trout, so now I’ll post some of the smaller ones. I found some old Mustad 3906B wetfly hooks that I bought back in 1973, which is what the Dark Cahill is tied on.

Flyfish NE Washington with Steven Bird: http://ucflyfishing.blogspot.com         

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Low Water Spider

     I’ve been posting a series of hairwing patterns lately & will continue, as I’m planning to post some smaller versions, but while I’m in the groove featuring mostly larger hairwing attractor patterns, I thought to put up a wingless type most often seen on streams holding sea-run fish, yet, like the hairwing wetfly, mostly overlooked as a trout lure. But spiders can be good when swung on pre-spawn trout that are not in the mood for anything fat yet inclined to bite something fancifully sexy – the same as their sea-run kin. I love tying low water spiders. They are like soft-hackle nymphs on hallucinogens. The possible creative variations are limitless. The pattern featured here is the basic formula. Typically, I use two contrasting hackles for the collars. I usually tie these in #6-#8 for fishing smaller coastal streams & upper Columbia trout, but the concept can be scaled down to as small as #12 (reasonably) to meet smaller streams holding smaller fish. Freestone brookies & cutthroat love these in the smaller sizes.

Low Water Spider

Hook: #6-#10 TMC 200R

Thread: Orange UNI 8/0

Tail: Golden pheasant tippet

Body: Orange Pearsall’s tying silk underbody & butt, copper tinsel, peacock herl twisted with the orange silk

Hackle: Orange guinea hen / gadwall ~ & finish with jungle cock nail cheeks. 


Flyfish NE Washington with Steven Bird http://ucflyfishing.blogspot.com