Tuesday, August 30, 2016

For The Time Being

‘We live in all we seek. The hidden shows up in too-plain sight. It lives captive on the face of the obvious – the people, events, and things of the day – to which we as sophisticated children have long since become oblivious. What a hideout: Holiness lies spread and borne over the surface of time and stuff like color.’       
~Annie Dillard: For The Time Being

     Morning. Ariel goes out to the garden.

I’m in the cabin finishing breakfast and a strange cry erupts outside, a loud, desperate mewling, like a baby’s cry.

Ariel calls to me from the yard, and I go to her.

She’d gone to turn the water on at the outside faucet and there awoke a newborn fawn asleep in the grass. The startled fawn swiftly gained its legs and took flight across the yard, the velocity of its run carrying it headlong into the hogwire fence surrounding the garden.

I arrive to find Ariel holding the bawling fawn, its aquiline head stuck like an arrow point through the steel netting of fence.

Ariel grips the trembling baby while I pry open the wire mesh behind its ears, feeling its nervous heat.

Free, the spotted newborn runs toward the pine woods terrified and shaken though seemingly unharmed. We watch the trees transform its spots to sunbeams and then absorb its form. And it is gone.

 Is it true that deer are able to ascend to heaven while still in their physical bodies?

 Later, I’m still thinking about the fawn and events as I walk over to the river to fish. You just never know when a shadow might hit you like an alien invasion and send you hustling toward a trap, I tell myself. Best you can do is: lick a finger, point at the sky, feel the now.

I stand by the river over stones under broken clouds contemplating the home water. The breadth of its span. The generous curve of sky above the forested reach. Big water. The Mother Of Rivers once hosting every species of salmonid native to the American Pacific and West Slope. It inspires a humbling perspective. Things are what they are; and we carry history with us, it’s not really the past. Also, concrete has a definite lifespan – water is stronger than rock. And all rivers have a beginning, middle, and end, converging as one in the great tao ocean, secretly well.

Almost time to offer something.

In the distance, a black sail rides the water. I’ve been expecting it. The flow carries it close to my position and then the big Black Quill dun drifts on by. I watch it go down the run anticipating its death. And that does come, in the nervous water seventy feet below me where the run converges with the mainstem current streaming from a rock outcropping, the converging currents rendered to neutral velocity at the meeting place. I spot a lazy bulge among the ripples on the convergence and the mayfly disappears.

A riseform like that doesn’t give away the size of a trout. O a splashy one may give away a small, eager fish, but after a couple years of life they get fairly slick about their feeding habits. Might be a 14-inch fish. Could be a bigger one.

Watching the water, I pull a sack of Drum from my pocket and twist a smoke, light it, exhale. Another drake tilts by, its charcoal wings spread to a V, drying. And then a couple more. One gets intercepted before it makes it to the sweet zone, where I saw the first rise. A good sign. Trout are keyed to the big mayfly’s presence and are beginning to move up the run from their loafing hold way down on the convergence.

The hair-winged fraud is an old friend and a good match. It needs to be fished downstream on this spot. No other way here. I make a cast out and down and strip line from the reel like crazy, slaking it out through the guides to keep up with the swiftly drifting fly, knowing any hint of drag will mean a muffed presentation and probable refusal.

The fly reaches the arrowhead of neutral convergence water and I quit feeding line as it begins to make a natural sweep with the current, hunting across the apex toward the outer seam.  I lose sight of the fly in the glare.

There is a strong boil next to the seam where I hope the fly is. I strip to gather slack and the line comes tight and alive against a violent weight –  

Lovely as it may be, ours is a savage, extravagantly dangerous world. Deer know this. The instinct to flee is supremely necessary and deeply ingrained in most creatures attempting to survive here. ‘Fight or flight’ are prime survival imperatives, ‘flight’ being the more popular mode of the two. Of all species it is the naked ape that seems most inclined to the ‘fight’ option. There is no greater fighter than a pissed-off, purposeful naked ape – and how efficiently and with what shock & awe the fighting is done is a matter of pride. I’m here to fight. As hard as anyone armed with a stick weighing 2 ½ ounces, rigged with 6 pound test string, may fight.

At the other end of the line, the trout, has definitely chosen the ‘flight’ option (and funny we call this a ‘fight’, as if mute fish deliberately seek to challenge and beat us at this contrived game wherein we win no matter what and can only beat ourselves) and bolts downstream peeling line from my old high school days Pflueger Medalist with overwhelming speed –

I lower the rod and palm the rim attempting to slow it and the trout feels the slight change in pressure and responds by accelerating its run straining the rod into the butt and bringing a tortured whine not heard from the Medalist before and I dare not palm the rim now and risk busting the tippet –

The line backing spins off toward the bitter end and the trout suddenly stops – then reverses direction and speeds like a torpedo fired straight toward my position on the rocks and I try to gather the weightless string eschewing the reel in favor of hand-stripping as fast as I can go and the backing and about half the shooting line nests at my feet and the line abruptly comes tight against an immovable object.

Submerged in the deep pool between the converging currents are some cow sized boulders, I know. Seems the trout has made a wrap around one of these and the line is wedged…

Crap. Bummer. I don’t dare pull harder. I figure the trout has already torn free or broken the tippet. Why break or strip the coating off a fairly good line for nothing? But the line transmits a subtle throb…

The backing and most of the shooting line gathered onto the spool, I leave a couple pulls of slack on the water, tuck the rod under my arm, reach into my pants pocket for the makings, roll a smoke, light it, and wait with the line hanging slack. What else can I do?

The sun finishes its descent behind a far ridge. A sundown breeze freshens bringing the earthy joss of pine, rock, and trout. Above, in the deepening blue, hundreds of swallows dive and wheel, adeptly picking sedges from the swirling air currents.

I’m finishing the smoke, and the slack line lying on the water begins to straighten and rise –   

Sometimes you get lucky. Given its head and some time the trout has swum in the right direction, unwinding the line from around the rock – it comes up against the resistance of my rod, lights up, and attempts to bolt – but now lacks its initial mojo and I’m able to put the breaks on it before it reaches the faster mainstream current – this makes me happy and I’m relieved – things are going my way – this time.

There are big trout inhabiting the home water and I carry a long-handled guide net with a 24-inch opening. The trout, substantially longer than the net opening, gives me a hard time, bouncing out of the bag on the first pass, forcing me to bite my lip and swear. Finally I get a head shot, scoop, and it’s in.

It’s a buck redband, humped and deep bodied with an immense knobbed kype, the broad band running down each flank red as the final blood meridian of day. I slip the hook from its jaw, tail it from the net and hold it upright in the water until it kicks away. The river absorbs its light and it is gone.    

Walking up the bluff from the river I’m thinking about: deer, trout, fight, flight, velocity and convergence. Perhaps someday we’ll understand supersymmetry. We’ll know, without a doubt, the connectedness of everything. Maybe we’ll find the true creation icon hidden within human symbols and myth. I shake my head and wonder ~   

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: columbiatrout@sbcglobal.net 

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

Thursday, June 2, 2016

SHJ Modern Archive ~ Reader Patterns Book Draw

     Many thanks to all who contributed fly patterns to the Modern Archive over the last several months. Impressive flies, & a lot of fun seeing what others are tying & fishing. We threw the names of all contributors into the hat, swished them around, & pulled out Mark Hagopian & Allen McGee to win copies of Upper Columbia Flyfisher. Congrats Allen & Mark. May the rest of your season be lucky.

Enjoying having an archive for reader patterns, & heartbroken that everybody who contributed didn’t win something in the drawing, so we’ll keep the archive going as a regular feature in SHJ, & have more drawings from time to time, as prize jang-jang arises, all contributors old & new included in the hat.  

Soft~Hackle Journal is moving to print.

Fly Fishing & Tying Journal was the first magazine I ever subscribed to. For a young flyfisher in the early 1970’s it was an incredibly useful source of reliable information, particularly relevant to Northwest anglers. It was within the pages of FF&TJ that I met Roderick Haig-Brown, who inspired me to want to write someday. Knowing the caliber of the anglers who’ve inhabited its pages, I’m humbled to report that Soft~Hackle Journal will appear as a regular column in Fly Fishing & Tying Journal magazine starting in the Summer 2016 issue. I have some good things planned for the column. Hope you’ll check it out.       

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Upper Columbia Hairwing Dryflies

October Caddis ~ mixed black & tan moose hair wing

    Those who follow SHJ will know that I spew quite a bit concerning regionality & tying local as a process through which we, the tiers of flies, are informed by what the trout & our environment are cueing us to – the process possibly resulting in a recognizable regional style of fly pattern.

Green Drake ~ mixed pearl-gray, black & yellow kip wings
 I saw this process illustrated some years ago when I stopped in to visit Jack Mitchell’s Evening Hatch outfit at their new lodge, downriver from my beat. And at that same occasion Justin Hotchkiss of North River Charters stopped by the lodge, & for the first time all the local guides operating on the American Reach of the upper Columbia where assembled at one table. There were four of us. None of us were aware of what the other guys were fishing. Black Quill (UC ‘Drakes’) & Green Drake where hatching then, & we started talking about flies, so naturally fly boxes were presented & opened around the table. And to my surprise, & to everybody else’s surprise & amusement, it came to light that we’d all arrived at the same conclusion regarding what worked best fishing over the big mayflies – we were all using Wulff-style hairwings tied to resemble the local drakes. Justin Hotchkiss’s superbly tied renditions sporting mixed hair wings were stunningly realistic. The dictates of our trout & water, our needs, & a lot of trial & error, had brought us to the same place. It was clear: from the conflicted currents of the upper Columbia a distinct regional style had developed, ‘organically’, if you will. We dubbed Justin, native son, Master of the UC Hairwing Style.

Black Quill ~ black with shorter yellow kip wings
I’ve featured some UC hairwing wetflies in earlier posts, but scratch the paint of a canny wetfly angler &, chances are, an opportunistic dryfly practitioner will be revealed. Though not as finely turned as Justin Hotchkiss’s hairwing dries, the ones featured here serve as examples of what works well in the upper Columbia/West Slope river system. The style isn’t particularly innovative but, rather, based on more traditional designs like the Wulff hairwing dries & western downwing patterns like the old Sofa Pillow & Elk Wing Caddis. The most defining characteristic of the UC style is the mixed hair wings found on many local patterns, particularly those meant to fish for larger insects like drakes, stoneflies & October caddis.        

Of course, you might find such flies in use anywhere, & particularly on the big rivers of the West Slope. Form following function, their main function is to float well during extended drifts on fast & rough water. Yes, foam floats, but native UC redband, ever behind the times, seem to prefer hair to foam. Regional preference, if you will. No accounting for taste. Though I do suspect there are explainable factors involved, including, maybe, that natural materials recreate most living things better than plastic foam does. The working elements that apply to good wetfly design: light; motion; obfuscation, apply to effective dryfly design as well, in my own experience.

CDC & Elk Sedge ~ tan CDC & speckled elk wing
Though most UC hairwing dries are imitative of larger insects found in the drainage, hairwing designs imported from outside the region have adapted to meeting the smaller mayflies of the upper Columbia as well – notably, the Al Caucci-Bob Nastasi Comparadun style, developed to meet the mayfly hatches & selective trout of the upper Delaware (probably inspired by the Haystack patterns of Francis Betters, created to float well on the swift freestone water of the Ausable). A simple Haystack is my favorite for meeting #14-#18 mayflies. And, as most everywhere, the ever-present wee sedges are effectively matched with simple downwings of deer or elk.

Royal Wulff  ~ white kip wings

When I first met the American Reach of the Columbia in 1973, the Royal Wulff was a standard among the few local fly anglers, & for good reason, & it is still the best pattern I know for exploring the top of the water column. (If the situation calls for a bobber, the Royal Wulff is usually my choice for the purpose. A soft-hackle dangling under a RW  is a killing combination.) And I’ve no doubt the construction of the Royal Wulff provided the prototype for the more imitative UC ‘drake’ designs that followed.       

UC Royal Wulff  with tailing of moose mane & golden pheasant tippet