Spring Creeks by Mike Lawson

Spring Creeks Cover

Fly fishing in Puget Sound for sea run cutthroat trout and coho salmon means the typical fly is a baitfish or crustacean pattern – think Clousers, Deceivers, and the like. And most of the casting is blind casting surface or sub surface patterns where presentation isn’t always essential.

As a saltwater fishery it doesn’t quite prepare a fly fisher for going to storied streams in the Rocky Mountains like the Madison or Henry’s Fork where the life cycle of insects dictate the type of fly to be used – and where presentation, particularly of dry flies, is essential for catching fish. Knowing terms such as Blue Winged Olives or Pale Morning Duns doesn’t help much when there’s lack of understanding of the fishery and how to fish it.

There are several steps in preparing for such a trip. First, it goes without saying practice of presentation casts with the appropriate tackle is needed. The next is to read up on the fishery and the flies and techniques needed. Finally, if schedules and finances allow, hire a guide.

In terms of the second step, one of the best books I’ve read is Spring Creeks by Mike Lawson (Stackpole Books, 2003). Mike is the founder and now general manager of Henry’s Fork Anglers and a founding member of the Henry’s Fork Foundation.

Spring Creeks begins with chapters on spring creeks and trout behavior. As an aside, for those who’ve forgotten or never knew, spring creeks form from underground sources; freestone streams arise from snowmelt or rain.

Spring creeks such as the Henry’s Fork or Silver Creek in Idaho are celebrated for their dry-fly fishing and the skills needed to catch their resident trout; it was a revelation to me that the more constant water of spring creeks results in low diversity but high density of insects – meaning the trout are finicky about what they eat. Freestone rivers on the other hand support a great diversity of insects.

The remaining chapters discuss matching/unmatching the hatch; mayflies, caddisflies; midges and craneflies; terrestrials; presentation; and strategy. But this book is neither a catalog of flies and their recipes or a book on entomology.

While not a book on entomology, there is a fascinating discussion of how mayflies emerge from nymphs to duns. After molting up to thirty times, the nymph’s internal digestive organs begin to shrink creating a cavity that fills with internally generated gases enabling the nymph to float to the surface. The same gases then splits the exoskeleton allowing the mayfly dun to emerge.

It’s a brief discussion, but one that reminds me of the complexity and wonder of all the life with which we share this planet.

Much of the rest of the chapter and those that follow are filled with recommendations for how to fish a particular insect mixed with anecdotes of past fishing successes – and failures.

The final chapters on presentation and strategy represent a lifetime of fly fishing experience and wisdom. Studying them will benefit any fly fisher on any trout stream.

Many books are read and then put on the shelf soon to be forgotten. Mike Lawson’s Spring Creeks is not one of them. I will use it before my next trip to the Henry’s Fork.

Highly Recommended.

Reds Rendezvous 2017

Yesterday we made the long drive over to Ellensburg for the eight annual rendezvous on the Yakima River held at the Canyon River Ranch and conducted by Reds Fly Shop. For those who’ve not been over there, both are collocated in the heart of the Yakima River Canyon – a Washington State scenic byway; it is a gem in the heart of north central Washington. Ridges and river carved cliffs with bighorn sheep often seen in the distance.

Canyon River Ranch

We left the clouds and rain of Gig Harbor to arrive almost three hours later for clouds and wind – the latter a not uncommon feature of the area. But the clouds lasted only a few hours; by early afternoon the sun was out; brilliant white cumulus clouds drifted by, and we had a warm (60s) afternoon.

As always, Reds brings in a number of well-known speakers and presenters. Unfortunately, there are too many things to attend. And when combined with the opportunity to test cast rods from a number of different rods, there is more than enough to do when not stopping to soak up the views the peaceful setting. Personally, the highlights for me are the seminars along the river.

This year the river was running very high and while the speakers weren’t able to wade out for demonstrations, their shore side instruction was still worthwhile.

Tom Larimer

We attended a Tom Larimer riverside seminar on trout spey. Tom is a very well known spey casting guide and instructor, and currently National Sales Manager for G. Loomis. Trout spey is becoming more widespread and Tom was quick to demonstrate how much one could do with a three-weight spey (equivalent to a five-weight single handed rod). It looked intriguing – but more money to spend…sigh.

Ben Paull

Ben Paull of Olympic Peninsula Skagit Tactics (OPST) demonstrated what the very short OPST Commando Skagit heads would allow with a single-handed rod when fishing on a tight river with no room for a back cast.

Joe Rotter

Joe Rotter, co-owner of Reds, gave a brilliant presentation and demonstration on the upper meadow on improving one’s casting – emphasizing among many things the keys of keeping tip tension and improving one’s back cast. Joe made an interesting comment that he’s changed the way he teaches casting lately as his own casting has improved. Watching how his videos have changed over the years and how, for example, he’s changed the way he teaches the double haul, show how much deeper his understanding of fly casting has enabled him to help others improve their casting.

Joe made a comment to us a few years ago in a private conversation was that one of the things he’s hoped for the rendezvous is that it becomes more inclusive to include competitors of Reds who have attended. He said the more fly fishing is celebrated the better it is for everyone. Spending a sunny day on the Yakima it is easy to understand that sentiment.

We left with the same regret we always do. Driving back into the rain made it that much more difficult. We will likely be over the mountains and into the Canyon this year. But for sure, we already are looking forward to Reds Rendezvous IX in 2018.

Don’t Tread on the Redd

Fishond Don't Tredd on Me

Headhunters Fly Shop in Craig Montana has an excellent post today related to recognizing and protecting trout redds.

A redd is a spawning nest cleared in gravel by the female salmonid (salmon, steelhead, trout). The female forms several depressions in the gravel forming egg pockets into which she deposits her eggs – with the size of a redd dependent on the size of the fish making the nest. While they photograph well from above, they can be difficult for a wading angler to see. Caution and care are the watchwords during spawning seaon.

You can read the post here.

Fly Fishing The Greater Yellowstone: Lessons Learned

Firehole River Yellowstone National Park

Any experience, or set of experiences, in life will result in memories; hopefully more good than bad. But experience without an opportunity to learn from that experience means

Travel, and most life experiences for that matter, result in memories – hopefully more good than bad. In addition, if we pay attention to what we’ve seen and done, there are lessons to be learned.

Don’t Overlook the Obvious

I spent months working on the itinerary, planning and making reservations for our stays, deciding where to fish rivers; what flies we might need – with some to buy here and others to buy from local shops; which rods to bring (a 5 weight Scott Radian and 6 weight Sage Accel for me; two Reddingtons – a 5 weight and 6 weight for my wife); water temperatures; and last minute weather forecasts to figure out which clothes to bring.

The only thing I didn’t think about was waders.

I use Simms G4Z waders in Puget Sound. Unless it is very hot and midday, I’ve never found them to be too warm. Given those were the only waders I had, I wore them on our first morning on Rock Creek. It took very little time to realize I was overheating. At it hit me at that moment that I had never thought when packing them that they would be too hot for where we were going. I made it through the morning but decided I’d need to buy a lighter pair.

During our stay in Bozeman, I picked up a pair of Patagonia Rio Azul waders at the Orvis dealer, Fins and Feathers They worked great for the rest of the trip. Light and easy on/off, they were a life saver.

Next trip to Yellowstone – unless it’s winter, I’ll leave the Simms G4Zs at home and take the Rio Azuls.

Changing the Paradigm

I watched a fly fisherman while we were on the Henry’s Fork. He was upstream of us and stood in the middle of the river unmoving for what I guess was at least 45 minutes. He then shook his head and moved down and off the river. I got a chance to share a few words with him a bit later and saw that he had a dry fly on a bamboo rod.

During that same time he was standing in the river, my wife and I were swinging nymphs, getting hits and landing a nice Rainbow trout.

The Henry’s Fork has renown as a dry-fly fisherman’s dream. Most people go there with the hopes of catching a rising trout on a dry fly. We did. But when it was apparent there were no hatches underway we switched to nymphs and had a great time.

Perhaps that fly fisherman would rather stand in the river and catch nothing than switch flies and go with a nymph. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There are many people who think of fly fishing as only using dry flies. For me, dries, nymphs, and streamers are all ways of catching fish.

Of course then there’s the flip side.

While we were using nymphs for the entire trip, we basically stuck to a tight line swing. That worked well on the wide easy moving Henry’s Fork, but not on the pocket waters of the Madison and Ruby.

Over the years,I have disdained indicator-type nymphing as clunky casting and as too much like the cane pole and bobber fishing on the first fishing I did as a child in Missouri. But the guy who pulled the 20-inch brown out of the Ruby was using a round indicator as were all his friends.

Eventually I bought some indicators. Being rigid in one’s thinking doesn’t always bring in the fish.

It is What It is

I had first seen someone fly fishing in 1975. It was a cold snowy Sunday in October and I was heading out of Yellowstone on the west side road. In the area of 7 mile, I saw a lone fly fisherman casting in the light snow. That image has stuck with me ever since.

But, in all the years since, I had never gone fly fishing in Yellowstone. Until this year.

And as I recounted in the previous post, it was a bust.The Firehole and Gibbon rivers were already in late summer conditions – too warm for fishing. The Madison was running dirty in high winds.

It was a bit disconcerting. But then again I knew we had other rivers to fish and we were in Yellowstone National Park and I was fly fishing there.

No success is guaranteed. Fly fishing on Puget Sound reflects that. As I once heard it described by Jason Cotta from Orvis Bellevue, “the only thing consistent is the inconsistency.”

Already being back home I smile when I think about how I finally got to fly fish in Yellowstone. There was magic even in that. And it’s only a very long days drive from here.

New Perspectives

This is the first vacation, now more properly termed a trip, since I retired last year. So this was the first time I did not have to return home and dread thinking about returning to a corporate job. And so it’s been possible to savor all the experiences and live with a different sense of time than when one’s return to work with all its overburden of pressures and stress crush the life out of the experiences.

It made me appreciate that this next stage of life has even more rewards.

Ten Seconds for Survival

The Columbia Basin Fish & Wildlife News Bulletin reports that a new study adds to the increasing literature on the fish mortality caused by catch and release practices. The study adds recommendations to further ensure we as fly fishers are not contributing to delayed mortality of the fish we target. The key recommendation coming from this study is that no more than ten seconds of air exposure should elapse from capture to release. Even this may be too much for a significantly stressed fish.

Three factors to consider are exhaustion, water temperature, and air exposure.

As I had written earlier here, fly fishers need to use tackle that brings the fish in as quickly as possible to minimize exhaustion. The days should be gone when fly fishers exalt over using very light tackle that requires long fights to land fish. An interaction with a live wild animal, even with a short fight, should be the thrill.

Fly Fishers should also refrain from fishing when water temperatures exceed the normal for the target species. For trout, that means no fishing above 68 degrees – and lower for some species (read here).

And finally, air exposure leads to a cascading set of conditions that dramatically increase mortality for the fish: Rainbow trout in particular have the highest mortality when exposed to air after the struggle to be landed. The fish should be kept in the water – even for a photograph (see here).

We have a responsibility to the fish we love and that we seek to bring to net. Each fish must be thought of as a link in a chain, with that chain leading to the future of the fishery.

You can read article here.

“Learning from the Water” by Rene Harrop

Rene Harrop

January can be a challenge for many fly fishers across the northern latitudes.

Bitterly cold air, numbing water temperatures, shorter hours of daylight, and languid fish holding in deep pools mean few to no days on the water. With the exception of winter steelheaders, fly fishing for most in January is just not fun.

So many find ways to cope with time away from the water.

A relatively few, with time and means, fly to warmer climes and water to chase bonefish, permit, and tarpon. Others take a break from fishing and park themselves in front of big-screen televisions watching the NFL playoffs. The dedicated fly fishers spend hours at the tying bench, building and designing the flies they’ll use in the coming season.

In addition to some of the above, I use this time to read books related to fly-fishing. (I’ve only started fly tying and will need to work on that next).

In past years I’ve spent time primarily reading books on fly casting – after reflecting on weak aspects of my casting from the past year. A careful reading of Kreh, Wulff, and others gave me insights to practice casting to get ready for the days of February and March for the early hatches on the Yakima and the chum fry entering Puget Sound.

This year I decided to expand my focus to improving my skills as a fly fisher not solely as a fly caster. And that led me to Learning from the Water by Rene Harrop.

Anyone who’s ever heard of the Henry’s Fork (of the Snake River) undoubtedly has heard of Rene Harrop – a highly respected fly fisherman, fly tier, artist, conservationist and writer. He’s spent a lifetime (over 50 years) focused on this region’s fishery – a fishery of legend and difficult fishing challenges: fish that have experienced goodly fishing pressure and that shun all but expert presentation.

His book has many practical recommendations but it’s more than just that. It’s a philosophy of how to be part of the fisheries we fish, and how that connection opens our minds and souls to a respect for all forms of life.

That connection comes from observation and experience, and requires study, practice, and determination. Harrop readily acknowledges a relatively few will approach fly fishing with this determination and dedication, but for those few the rewards and joy are immeasurable.

The first five chapters have the most applicability to all fly fishers. From the introductory words to the deception needed in approaching a fish, to the fly boxes needed, to casting and the take – there are deep lessons here for those willing to pay attention.

He advocates the skills of the hunter in going after the large trout. Deception is key. A fly must be presented at the right time and in the right size or wary trout will pass on it. To this end, he carries up to 18 fly boxes in his vest during the peak season. (He does note that very few share that dedication to having that many flies available).

And not every fishery requires that many flies. Puget Sound saltwater can be fished most of the year with variations of Clouser Minnows and a few other seasonal flies. The Yakima and other local rivers can be fished with a small number of nymphs and streamers. We do not have the fishing pressure of a Henry’s Fork here.

But the same philosophy applies. Are we observing the water we fish? Do we understand the life cycles of the fish and what they feed on? If we do then we are pursuing the same path he advocates – even if we are able to get by with one small fly box in our vest or pack.

Chapters on casting and leader length follow. Presentation is a critical skill, if perhaps a bit less so on Puget Sound. Not many of us even on the Yakima would choose 14-foot leaders. But again it’s the principles that are key. Do we focus solely on the long cast, i.e., “cast to the backing”? Or do we think about the structure and how best to present our fly, even in the common blind casting we do?

One interesting thing he mentioned was that on Henry’s Fork he carries at least a 150 yards of backing for the big trout– and that’s with a 4-weight line he typically uses. Big fish and light tippet (6X) mean the fish have to run. Think about that next time you’re using 0x or 1X tippet on Puget Sound.

Chapters follow on the entire range of flies he uses during all the seasons of the year. And there is a chapter on the river guides, and how the profession of guiding has changed over the years. There is an element of wistfulness in his writing as he talks about the pioneers of guiding and the changes in places like West Yellowstone, Montana.

It’s a beautiful book, both in its writing and in its photographs. I recommend it for anyone looking for a path into the deeper aspects of fly fishing.

One thing. Rene is a Scott pro. I read a comment that someone saw Rene and his wife Bonnie last June near the Harriman State Park (Railroad Ranch) on the Henry’s Fork. He said they were both carrying Radian 5’s and Hatch Finatic 4 reels. As he noted, they can fish whatever rods they want.

Wading Fly Fisher Dies on Cowlitz River

Tragically, a man from Gig Harbor was killed Tuesday while fly fishing on the Cowlitz River near Toledo Washington. He apparently slipped in the current while wading. He was unconscious when rescued and CPR was started immediately. He was then transported to an Olympia hospital. Unfortunately, the man died about five hours later.

Drowning is the suspected cause of death but an autopsy will be performed to confirm.

All of my fishing is now in Puget Sound saltwater. So shallow wading is the norm. Particularly when targeting Sea Run Cutthroat Trout, going deeper means the fish will be closer to the beach than me.

But there are locations that have tidal currents that are as strong as some streams. A strong ebb current out of Burley Lagoon near Purdy looks like a river. Take one or two too many steps into the current and the water pressure is surprising – certainly enough to knock me down when the water was above my knees. I understood when it happened how risky that was.

It was a lesson I learned on the Yakima River.

I was deep wading in the upper Yakima above Cle Elum, I stepped into a sloped pool and started to go buoyant. There were several scary minutes until I could work my way on my tip toes to shallower water. Even with the gentle current that day I felt like I was not in control of the situation.

Fortunately for me, that changed my outlook and rules on wading – even if fly fishing magazines (and some catalogs ) have plenty of photographs showing someone up to his (always his) chest in wild water. That’s dumb and risky.

So my rule is to stay shallow. In practice I try to go in no deeper that my knees. At times, I will go in to mid thigh but only if I’m sure of the conditions and my footing, and I know why i’m doing it.That raises the related point that being in the water requires awareness at all times.

Another dumb thing I’ve seen is someone in waders not wearing a wading belt. And that includes some well-known fly rod maker representatives doing in-water demos. I think it sends a bad message. Wearing waders? Wear a snug wading belt.

Finally, I have a wading staff. I carry it at times and locations where the wading might be tricky. While I’ve never had to use it – it’s a comfort to know it’s there.

I don’t know the man who died. I may have seen him at the Gig Harbor Fly Shop but I’ll never know.

All I know is this is another tragic reminder of how precious life is. Rest in peace.

The news article can be found here.

Avoiding Fly Line Spaghetti

Among the biggest frustrations for fly fishers, common across all skill levels, is the coiled mass of fly line or running line that presents itself at the most inopportune time. Whether its the rising trout, jumping salmon, or tailing bonefish, the time comes for a critical shot and your cast dies in front of you due to a coil of fly line bunched at your feet, in your stripping basket, or against the stripping guide.

A number of suggestions have been made for how to avoid, or at least correct, line twist. You may have read about them in articles or heard them from fly shops or fishing guides. They include stretching the line before use, throwing tighter loops, and avoiding casts such as the Belgian cast that have changes in planes between backward and forward casts. You may have even been told to avoid fly lines from some manufacturers that are thought to be more prone to coiling.

Deneki Outdoors has a recent article that goes back to basics in terms of how to avoid fly line twist – and that involves how the line is first spooled onto the reel from the manufacturer’s plastic spool.

There are four tips to avoid line twist: always rig bottom to bottom; never rig top to bottom; never pass line around the outside of the spool; and, never remove fly line from the spool.

I’ve been guilty of number three – tying the line to the backing and putting the spool on the ground. Point taken. Next fly line goes around correctly.

You can read the article here.

Backing Color and Line Weights

Hatch Reel Spools

Have you ever had problems trying to identify what line size you have on a spool?

You may know the situation.

Over time you’ve collected fly lines you like in different weights and spooled them up. Then one day you open your drawer (or wherever you keep them), and while you may recognize the fly line – you can’t recall what line weight it is. This is particularly an issue where you have one reel serving up different weight lines and where you have many spools to fit the reel.

I have a solution that works for me.

Given I use a relatively small number of fly lines (Rio Outbound – both short and regular) and line weights for saltwater, I use different color backing for different weight lines.

For my 5-weight lines, I use 20-pound chartreuse.

For my 6-weight lines, I use 20-pound orange.

And for my 8-weight lines, I use white Hatch Premium 65-pound backing.

This is a simple system that tells me instantly with a quick glance what weight line I have on any reel. Even with different reel sizes it makes it easy.

I think it’s superior to either putting dots and dashes on line (no need to unwind the front end of a fly line) or the line information some fly-line manufacturers are starting to put on their lines (no need to pull out the magnifying glass to read the information).

Give it a try. It might work for you too.

Red’s Rendezvous VI

Simon with Method Switch Rod

Last Saturday, I attended Red’s Fly Shop Rendezvous VI. The Rendezvous is an annual event sponsored by Red’s at its fly shop and the Canyon River Ranch on the Yakima River. I’ve attended all but one of these events and every year it seems to get bigger and better.

The day was filled with riverside seminars, classroom presentations, beginner casting instruction, casting competition, vendor booths, and great food.

The highlight for me was attending seminars taught by Simon Gawesworth (RIO Spey line development guru and, author of several well-regarded books on Spey casting, and an internationally known instructor).

I attended his beginning Spey seminar. He provided an easy to way to understand the elements of the Spey cast. He called it A-B-C: A-starting position of the cast; B-forward movement of the rod and arm; and C-the rotation of the rod. A simple but eloquent way of understanding a casting stroke can be overwhelming when making the transition from single-hand to two-handed casting.

The other thing he pointed out is learning the line length/rod length ratio that works for an individual caster (e.g., 2.65, 3.0,). He said that ratio would then work with any length of rod. So if a caster learned on one length rod and switched to another rod, maintaining that same ratio would allow the caster to quickly become comfortable with the new rod. As for line length, it includes the shooting head and the leader or sink tip.

After a lunch of Crusted Line Caught Rockfish and Chip in the Canyon River Grill, I attended his Single Handed Spey Casting seminar. Simon pointed out at the outset that using a weigh-forward line for single-hand Spey can be done, but it’s not optimal as the weight is forward and away from the rod tip during the roll casts. He recommended the use of a double-taper line for someone interested in focusing on single-handed Spey. He was using a line for the seminar that will be available in August; beyond that he just smiled.

Also providing Spey Casting instruction was Charles St. Pierre of Northwest Speycasting who was available all day for on-the-water instruction. Charles is widely known and regarded in the Northwest as a Spey-casting instructor and having both him and Simon on the same river at the same time was a real treat.

Every year the International Federation of Fly Fishers are on hand to help with lawn-casting instruction and beginner’s classes. I had one give me a tip when I was casting the Winston Nexus 6 weight; good tip from him, but I wasn’t impressed with the rod.

A change this year was a woman-only beginner class taught by Molly Semenik (Tie the Knot Fly Fishing) from Livingston, Montana. The class had 18 students, including my wife Terri. I think a seminar like this was long-overdue as it provided women an easy introduction to fly fishing with no pressure from husbands or significant others.

Terri came away excited and after casting a few demo days bought a Sage SALT (6 weight) from Red’s. Good choice! Great rod.

We also stopped to talk with Joe Rotter, the Guide Service Manager at Red’s. Joe’s just a great guy that we’ve talked with before, and after we thanked him for another great rendezvous, he said it was becoming what they wanted it to be: a celebration of fly-fishing. He said they’ve had some of their competitors show up without any feelings of awkward or resentment and that was he wanted.

As I’ve noted in other posts, in a small industry like fly-fishing cooperation and friendly respectful competition will help the sport grow and is good for everyone.

It was a great rendezvous. I look forward to next year’s!