Tag Archives: fly fishing

GLORIOUS MAYHEM

Our one mile turn-around

Last year we got into fish. Maybe a dozen six-to-ten-pound lake-run soupbones that had a mind to break our ankles before we even took a step trying to chasing them. Yea, we had a good day. My boys still talk about those rainbows. But this morning, crossing the bridge just up from the lake-mouth of the creek, any thoughts of pulling off a repeat performance vanished.

Low. And clear as a damn bell.

Yesterday’s report was that the creek was high and stained. The four days from opening day leading up to yesterday, even more so. And of course, the fish were throwing themselves like spotted silver-pink haymakers at anybody standing within spitting distance of the creek, let alone actually fishing. Today, on the other hand, my friend Jason and I were looking at bluebird skies and temps wandering toward the mid-fifties. And we were now a full week past the melting of our last typical late-March dump of snow. Thus, low. And clear as a damn bell.

It didn’t take long to figure out that whatever trout had bullied their way upstream in the days before had pretty much spent whatever mojo the creek had. We spotted maybe about a dozen fish as we hiked upstream plying runs and pools without even a sniff. Every last one was nose-down and parked as close to the fast, churning-white head of their lie as possible. Eventually, as the rising sun crawled down the southeast-facing shale walls and into the current, there was little to no place for any of us to hide, so the fish just kept their lips zipped and went about their shadow-like way, drifting away in direct response to every step we took, every roll cast we unrolled. We worked the full mile to the falls at the head of the gorge, turned and fished the mile back down.

Thankfully, we packed a few creekside beers. Add the warmest sun we’ve had in a long, cold time here in Upstate NY and a fat peanut butter & honey sandwich — and I was more than fine with letting today’s fishlessness slide in favor of re-living last year’s glorious mayhem, until I get out next.

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WHERE THE ROAD NARROWS

Sitka spruce - Juneau, AK

When we piled out into the dust and cool of the morning we were barely a quarter-mile from the end of the road. Unlike the sprawling blanket of spruce and meadows covering the glacially-crafted elevations we’d seen from the windows of the de Havilland Otter the evening before, we were now face-to-face with southeast Alaska. Wilderness. The end of the road. I stood for a fistful of seconds, surveying the dense growth just off the front bumper of our SUV and turned to identify the one person out of the other six I’d need to outrun if that dense growth produced a brown bear.

To get here, our caravan out of Auke Bay, just north of Juneau, followed the blacktop as it wound its way along the coast, guarded by spruce, boulders and dense fern undergrowth on both sides. Between the trees, glimpses of wide saltwater, sharp-shouldered islands, a small, postcard-like scatter of boats seining for silvers and kings. The further we drove the road narrowed. We reached a flagman who held us up to follow an escort truck through a few construction zones. I hung an elbow out my window and watched the rumbling busyness of heavy equipment and men in hard hats and boots busting up massive knots of bedrock to widen and improve passage. The road narrowed even more. A few miles further, as we pulled into the lot, the road curved left ahead of us and disappeared into the immense green.

Pulling on waders, passing bug-dope, stowing water bottles and bear spray in our packs, lining rods and tying on flies like bets placed on a stud hand you haven’t even looked at—the seven of us fell into hopeful, impatient, nervous chatter about pinks, dollies, chum, brown bear and the immensity of what we were about to witness.

But in this moment I felt decidedly, suddenly, disconcertingly under-prepared. Packing lists, advice, cross-country flights and drives north out-the-road listening to bluegrass only get you to the water. Steps along the heavy-canopied peat and spruce paths and into the blind, milky artery flowing from glacier to salt would be my own from this point. Intentions, intuition, instinct and mis-steps would be my own. The road had narrowed more than the blacktop we drove in on. My mind was down to a game trail in a wilderness of its own. I was used to feeling inconsequential – a residential hazard of my upstate New York roots where everyone is holding onto their own small, posted patch of heaven in the face of gluttonous taxes, commercial development and manicured Stepford-suburbia sprawl. Our wild, undeveloped places seem to get smaller with every punch thrown in their defense. But in the grand scheme of Southeast Alaska, of the Tongass and it’s millions of salmon and spruce acres—my inconsequence had more to do with realizing just how small my existence on this planet really is. I was reminded of how I felt on trips to Idaho and Oregon, northern Michigan and the Keys, Colorado and Montana. I closed my eyes and returned to the quiet wonder of my upstate New York childhood when I would escape and spend my days haunting the dense, still-undeveloped shorelines of my favorite fishing spots.

The more I let myself embrace the weight of my existence vs. the magnitude and beautiful unknown of this place and this moment, the bigger I felt. I grew with each whistle that echoed into the primeval growth or pierced the brilliantly dense fireweed for brown bears in day-bed drowse, and each step that found the river bottom, alive and ever-shifting. I began to understand that my steps here, or anywhere on this planet, are not, in fact, inconsequential. Under the vigilant sidelong eye of a host of bald eagles and stoic indifference of snow-covered mountains, I discovered the end of my own road. And the narrower it got, the wider my horizons became.


This is the first of three pieces I’ve written since my trip to the 
Tongass National Forest this past July as part of Trout Unlimited’s Blogger Tour. As far as the other two, one is in the online magazine – Revive Fly Fishing and the other showed up on this blog a handful of posts ago. I’m working on getting back – even further north – so I have more to write about.

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INHALING GIANTNESS

My journal holds a breadcrumb collection from the path I just traveled. Loosely penned notes, dates, times, temps, names. Hopeful reminders that will eventually congeal as sentences and full-blown thoughts, filling pages, taking me back. Glaciers and timbered mountain wilderness in evening light from the cockpit of a de Havilland Otter. Dappled sun and hushed spruce-path steps, blazing trails in six-foot fireweed, whistling to the possibility of bears. Tight line after tight line after tight line of toothy, big-shouldered, colored-up pinks throwing haymakers in glacier-gray water. Bald eagles in moss-laden riverside branches, stealthy and silent but for the occasional sharp cry to their mate around the next bend. Falling tide exposing rivers within rivers and soggy, shell-sand-grass-stone acres of what looks like the landscape of another planet. Catching bright, frantically strong and eternally hungry dollies amongst the pinks and chum, brown bear and wolf tracks on the sand bar behind me next to my own. Late night picnic table conversations and laughs and schemes over beers and bourbon about music, kids, work, fish, stories, environment, politics, food, love, loss and travel, punctuated by the occasional silent stretch, each of us retreating into our own thought-filled minds. Heavy morning mist clinging to the rising mountains, filling the valley, filling my nose and lungs as I stand, eyes closed, inhaling giantness.

Before I flew west, I was a long way from Alaska.
Now I’m back east, and I’m a long way from home.

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THE BOYS OF NOT-YET SUMMER

The morning started at 5:30 with a couple sausage, egg and cheese breakfast wraps, coffee and an apple fritter on the ride to a permit-only lake. Grant had a couple backpacks with his camera gear. I had my 5 wt. and several boxes of warm-water flies…and a spinning rod in case I needed a “rain-maker.” It was early in the season—the bass might need some convincing. We paddled away from the dock by 6:10 with the sun, some noisy geese and a chill on the water.

Growing up in Upstate NY, I learned from a very young age that you stand a far smaller chance of getting skunked on the water if you fish for whatever’s swimming. Of all the fish I’ve chased and caught as a kid with my dad—salmon, browns, rainbows, lakers, pickerel, perch, panfish…even suckers—bass spoke to me in a language I dug. They hung out in places that I could get to as a 10-year-old with a 10-speed instead of a canoe. More often than not, they’d find my artificial offerings worthy of a good thrashing…epic battles between a kid in Chuck Taylors and fish with anger issues. My haul of largemouth on any given summer day was as good a definition of my standing on this planet then as it is now.

For the better part of the first hour, I peppered a couple hundred yards of undercut banks, overhanging bushes and submerged trees with a dark minnow pattern. No dice. I switched to a favorite crayfish pattern I learned how to tie from a friend and fishing guide in Northern Virginia, working shallow shelves, weed-bed edges and drop-offs. Still nothing. The wind had come up and was not in our favor, which made it tough to get the flies back into likely spots, let alone anywhere near a strike-zone. I rigged the spinning rod with a tube jig, apologized to Grant for the switch and made my first cast.

No worries, he said. Cant’ get pictures if we don’t catch any.

He pointed out a spot for me to cast to. His gut (and his camera lens) told him there’s a fish there. I obliged and promptly hooked up with a decent largemouth. Not only was Grant taking shots, he was calling them… nice. I landed a couple more as we made our way past a series of downed trees. The beaver had been busy.

It was around 10 when we paddled into a wide, deep draw at the northeast end of the lake. Protected from the wind, the weed-beds were still about 3” – 4” below the surface and a huge blow-down occupied the shallower water near the cattails. It was murky below 12” and there were small rises everywhere…bluegill after bugs. I picked up my fly rod and tied on a tan #8 soft-foam pencil popper. Big enough to get the bass to pay attention…and keep the panfish off the hook. I laid the first cast out into the middle of a weed bed, stripped it once over an open pocket and set the hook as a nice little largemouth crashed the surface. I spent the next hour sight-fishing for bass suspended in some of the wider, sun-lit pockets and enticing blind ambush-strikes from the thicker weeds and blow-down. The fish weren’t huge, but they were just as angry as always.

On our way back to the dock, we decided to check out the long shoreline on the north end. The wind settled down to a warm breeze, sun about at its height, and we drifted just steady enough to not need the paddles. I cast the popper back up ahead of us toward shore, teasing it around half-submerged branches. I hooked and lost a few, hooked and landed a few more, including a “kicker” from under a big, half-submerged log to end the morning. I felt like I was 10 again.

As the weather and water get warmer, I’ll be back out on the lake with both of my boys. You can bet, they’ll be after whatever’s swimming…looking for some epic battles of their own.

Photography: Grant Taylor
**This originally appeared in Bloodknot Magazine, August 2010.

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THREE DAYS & THIRTY NINE YEARS

This past Memorial Day weekend, I spent a few days camping in the Adirondacks with some new friends and fishing for native brook trout. Unfortunately, the weather forecast was not nearly as bright as our anticipation of catching a good-old-fashioned mess of of brookies on dry flies. Instead, we caught the brunt of three massive thunder and lightning storms that filled the fire-pit and kept us corralled under a very big and well-placed tarp. 3-plus inches would be a conservative estimate on total rainfall, which translated into 2-plus feet on the main river and trib stream we planned on fishing.

The third day, Alex (author of the blog 40 Rivers to Freedom), his son Cole and I elected to stay above the fray and explore a small spill-pool stream, which we followed from the river up into the fern, pine and boulder covered mountainside. As with any time spent in the giant solitude of the mountains, the mind tends to clear a bit. I let go of the responsibilities waiting for me at home and the ever-present weight of a schedule. I took in the heavy pine smell of the wet woods, the humidity of the (yet again) impending rain, the dull snap of branches between my wading boots and the peat, the repetitive mantra of the water on its downhill path. I got to thinking about fishing as a kid and realized that there’s only been a handful of times in my life that I’ve actually caught brook trout. Even fewer that I’ve headed to water with the intent to fish for them specifically.

My first introduction to a brookie was brokered by a small Mepps Black Fury spinner–a black blade with a couple yellow spots, a short brass-and-orange-bead body and a black/yellow tail with a single piece of red yarn extending from it. I was 8 and it was my birthday and not five minutes earlier I had unwrapped my first real tackle box and real rod and and about two-dozen lures–including the Black Fury. We were staying with friends in their cabin in Wanekena, a tiny Adirondack hamlet near Cranberry Lake. The Oswegatchie River flowed by the cabin, tea-colored and deep and slick with braids of current flexing and twisting around giant boulders and their forever weight.

I made my way out onto a low boulder anchored to the shore, locked my lure into the swivel tied at the end of the line, pinched the line behind my trigger finger, flipped open the bale on my reel and pitched the spinner into an eddy just across and upstream from me. I barely had time to close the bale before my line went tight against my first Adirondack titan. All 6 or 8 inches of it. That fish was breathtaking, even to an 8-year-old.

23 years later I went on an actual brook trout fishing trip to the Rapidan River in the Shenandoah National Park. A friend and I fished the river from a pull off on Quaker Run Rd. upstream to the Rapidan Camp (or Hoover Camp) property line. Miles of plunge pools no more than 10 – 12 feet across retreated up into the foothill elevation toward the camp. Small chutes pouring between boulders. Blow-downs zig-zagged the stream every 15 yards, guarding pristine pocket water. Fish attacked every dry fly, wet fly and nymph that we cast. Pint-sized predators in black, orange, red and even a little teal. Bright, but not smart. We celebrated streamside with some jerky and a couple luke-warm beers while I enjoyed a pipe-full of slow-burning Virginia cavendish.

***

Back on that Adirondack stream, by around one o’clock Alex, Cole and I had fished our way over a quarter-mile up the mountain. Cole was a trooper for being only 10 years old and seemed to have the magic touch with the fish throughout the weekend, which is exactly as it should be. I on the other hand, had many bites and fish on-and-off, but landed my only fish just ten minutes prior to another thunder and lightning storm trouncing our valley. Electing to take photos all weekend instead of fish, Alex had said that he was happy to just help Cole learn more about fly fishing and enjoy his time as much as possible–that with all the fish (and big fish) he’s had the good fortune of catching, he might (might being the operative word) even be at a place in his life where he doesn’t have to feel compelled to fish just because he can. I understand exactly what he’s saying. I’m getting to that point with my own kids. And while he elected not to fish, and I simply did not catch fish, I felt the same zen-like satisfaction simply being out in it.

But I must admit that the euphoria I felt when I caught that perfect 6″ gem from a 5′ x 3′ spill-pool way up on that mountain was a mix of relief and child-like happiness and amazement. On one hand I didn’t get skunked. On the other hand, I could not get over the fact that something so perfect and giant (when you consider the scale of water vs. fish) exists in such a place, completely of its own accord.

That fish was breathtaking. Especially to this 39 year old.

 

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Filed under Fatherhood and venison jerkey, On the water