Wisdom of the Guides

Wisdom of the Guides

The path toward competence in fly fishing – or any craft requiring knowledge and skills, is helped along by mentors, individuals acknowledged for their mastery of the subject and their ability to teach others.

In fly fishing, these individuals are primarily guides and casting instructors.

Joe Rotter, one of the partners at Red’s Fly Shop in Ellensburg, has talked in his podcasts about how one book became a reference work for his learning the craft of guiding: Wisdom of the Guides: Rocky Mountain Trout Guides Talk Fly Fishing.

The book was written by Paul Arnold, who interviewed ten of the top fly fishing guides in the Rocky Mountain area when the book was written (1998). A few of them have passed on since the book was published; others remain active in the industry if not actively guiding.

For me, getting to read the insights of people such as Mike Larson and Craig Matthews made the book a must-read.

The interviews all follow the same structure: a bit of background; casting tips; fly selection; playing and releasing fish; getting the most from a guided trip; and common mistakes and how to correct them.

I found the interview enlightening for a number of reasons.

First, the interviews were done at an interesting time in the growth of fly fishing.

Only six years after A River Runs Through It, interest in fly fishing was growing rapidly. But it was still a simpler time, with most communications done via telephone; no over-commercialization; and no social media. Fisheries research wasn’t as far along as it is today; a number of the guides spoke of catch and keep fishing (something almost unthinkable today).

Only one of the guides was a woman, Jennifer Olsson; she had some interesting things to say about the role of women in fly fishing back then. Sadly, 20 years later, while there is more women-specific gear and there are many more women guides, many of the problems she speaks of still exist, as I’ve noted in a few of my posts.

While some of the information and practices may be dated, much of the words of the guides are timeless.

The importance of short accurate casting was emphasized by every guide. Most emphasized the importance of longer leaders. All spoke of the importance of knowing where the fish are and how to approach, catch, and release them. All provided meaningful insights on fly selection. And almost all were emphatic about wanting clients who asked a lot of questions and were there to have fun; guide stories about obnoxious demanding clients are legion.

And in some of the points made, the guides were visionary.

One of the guides (Paul Roos) spoke about the day when fly fishing for carp would become part of the sport. That has become reality with various local fly shops holding carp tournaments. Others spoke of the growing importance of catch-and-release fishing; one even spoke of limiting the day’s catch to allow fish recovery time.

And Mike Lawson had maybe the most timeless recommendation: take 10-15 minutes out of every hour to just sit, watch – and enjoy where you are.

Highly recommended.

Storage Organization for Fly Tying

This year I was determined to get back to tying my own flies for Puget Sound fishing – for both searun cutthroat trout and Coho salmon.

In particular, I wanted to expand beyond variations of Clouser minnows. And that meant buying more tying materials, including feathers and hairs from various animals; synthetics; more threads and eyes; and flash.

It became clear early on that using a single drawer of my file cabinet wasn’t going to work.

File Cabinet

I had an Oasis Lazy Susan caddy for my threads, bobbins, and scissors so I was covered there.

Oasis Caddy

But it was organizing the various naturals and synthetics that was going to be a problem. It’s critical when one doesn’t have a dedicated tying room or area to have organized storage; having things scattered on tables or the floor won’t work – particularly when one has dogs that are intrigued by smells of animal fur or hair.

In my case, half of my corner desk is for my computer and home office functions; the other half is my tying area demarcated by my Hareline Mega Tying Mat.

I recalled seeing various plastic drawers at Office Depot and a visit there led me to the six-drawer cabinet I purchased.

Plastic Drawers

The six drawers allowed me to get things organized with a drawer for hooks and eyes; one for flash material, one for synthetic body material; one for various animal hairs, one just to store the bucktails; and one drawer for miscellaneous odds and ends.

I was set.

And the organization seems to work for the first few flies I’ve tied. I’m guessing if I got motivated to try tying steelhead flies I could use the existing storage I have.

But it’s clear if I was tying for trout in the Yakima River or the streams of the Rockies, fly tying could include dry flies, nymphs, and streamers, and I’m not sure I have enough storage for that. And that doesn’t include the time needed to tie the various insect imitations on much smaller hooks.

So I think I’ll just tie flies for local waters and buy flies as needed for everywhere else.

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 temperature 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.