Into Darkness: Setting Back the Clock

Early yesterday I went to my favorite beach for a morning session chasing sea run cutthroat trout. I like this beach on the ebb where I’ve had consistent success, but decided to give it a try on the flood.

The forecast was calling for rain later in the morning and cold (in the mid-forties) so I was dressed in my warm shelled insulator pants and my hooded Nano Puff jacket. With my rain coat and waders on, I knew I’d be warm.

What I wasn’t prepared for was how dark it was at the beach. Over the last months, even when leaving the house there were the first fingers of light in the eastern sky. But this is late October and that wasn’t to be. I got dressed in a light drizzle and had walked down along the sea wall to the entrance near the bridge before it was apparent that daylight, however gray, was starting to emerge.

I started working the beach as I typically did. It didn’t take long to relearn the obvious: wading on the flood is different. And that difference extends beyond the direction the tidal current is flowing.

A couple of times I found myself in waters that were deeper than I remembered on that beach, and I slowly worked my way back closer to the beach. Beach fishing is about moving, and wading along a beach there are the shallower points and the deeper holes around those points. Without paying attention, it’s too easy to wade out or deeper than is advisable as I found yesterday.

Fishing for sea run cutthroats is not about deep wading – the fish generally are closer to the beach and going no more than knee depth is sufficient. So I was able to stay in relatively shallow water and cast parallel to the beach, in imitation of the sculpin that inhabit the zone.

That technique worked in the past here, but not yesterday. For the record, I got skunked. No strikes or landed fish.

As I was fishing the wind came up and the rain started in earnest – more reminders that this is now the season for warmer insulation, rain coats, warm hats, and even gloves.

There was another reminder yesterday too. After I got home I checked the tides for next Sunday and noticed the time of sunset seemed odd. It took me a moment to realize that next Sunday is when we shift back to standard time. Sunset will be at 4:49 PM – giving Puget Sound less than 10 hours of sunlight.

Fishing for the next four to five months can be expected to be increasingly cold, wet, and – with morning or evening fishing – dark. On the other hand, fewer fly fishers venture out during the winter months so there should be plenty of solitude.

And there’s still hope for another month or so of sunny weather – however chilly.

Retooling the Rod Inventory: Considering the Orvis Helios 2 8-Weight

Orvis Helios 2 8 Weight

I’ve had a long affection and appreciation for Winston rods. For years I admired the reputation and mystique of the Winston brand. I’ve owned a 5 weight BIIIX for over three years that I used on the Cedar and Yakima rivers. I loved its beautiful green color, the build quality, the soft tip that allowed flies to gently fall on the rivers, and its general fishing ability.

When I started fishing in the saltwater fisheries of Puget Sound, anticipating the wind, I jumped on what was then the newly released faster BIII-SX in a 9’ 6” 6 weight. I liked casting the rod and found it a bit stiffer than the BIIIX but nonetheless a fine fishing rod.

A six-weight rod is more than enough rod for the sea run cutthroat trout and resident Coho salmon of Puget Sound. But I wanted to go after the migrating cousins (Coho/silvers and pinks) and that meant an 8-weight.

Given it was saltwater fishing my immediate and obvious conclusion was the BIII-SX in a 9-foot 8 weight. I got a chance to do more than a bit of lawn casting with it and…I really didn’t like it.

I tried casting it with a Rio Outbound Short (8-weight); a Rio Outbound (8 weight); and an Airflo 40+ (9 weight). It was an exasperating experience. I didn’t feel as I could get the road to load for me in a way I would have expected with an 8 weight. I tried varying my cast in stroke length, timing, and power application. Nothing I did made me feel like I was getting to the Winston sweet spot I could find with the 6-weight.

I was disappointed. It may have been the rod in that weight is too fast for my casting abilities. I’ve begun working on my double haul and sometimes get a rough approximation of one. So, I certainly think that my technique needs improvement. But still, I started to think I was too restricted in my thinking about rod brands.

Not really ever feeling love for Sage rods, which may be blasphemy for someone living in Washington, I decided to check out Orvis – after reading a lot of the buzz over the last year or so about the Helios 2.

I was first able to get my hands on a 9’ 6” 6 weight (saltwater with fighting butt). If nothing else, I figured I could get a feel for how the at least one rod in the series casts and fishes.

My first impression was that it was lighter that the BIII-SX in the same weight¬ – turns out it was half an ounce, and I was surprised I could feel the difference. While I was checking the 6 weight differences, I looked and found the Helios was over an ounce lighter in 8-weight (for the 9 foot rod).

It’s not the beautiful Winston green, but a refined midnight blue; . The reel seat is attractive with a skeleton frame surrounding what is advertised as woven graphite; it’s good looking! (I did see the rod tube, and well…to each his own).

Enough about aesthetics. How did it cast?

Well and this was almost not a surprise given the praise heaped on it by most of the reviews I’ve read, it was a great casting rod. Light in hand and light in swing. I found it easy to shoot line; at the same time it was easy to accurately cast with only several feet of line and leader beyond the rod tip.

Comparing rods, even when switching back and forth between my BIII-SX and the Helios 2, is always subjective based on perception as much as observation of casts. But I’m prepared to say that I liked casting the Helios 2 much more than the BIII-SX. I had the sense my casts were straighter and more confident than with the BIII-SX.

Of course, not all rods in a series are the same. Often one-rod weight and length will be terrific; then moving up or down to another weight and it’s difficult to believe they are from the same series – as I noted with the BIII-SX above.

But I’ve found the rod I want to look at for my 8-weight. If it casts anywhere near as well as the 9’ 6” 6-weight, the crew from Vermont will be getting my business.

And now what to do about the 6-weight?

Money not growing on trees or being the latest lottery winner, it’s difficult to conceive of having two premium rods of the same weight and length. And even a justification of having a backup when a rod needs repair (as I had with a broken tip on the BIII-SX this summer) is a bit of a stretch.

So I’ll keep the BIII-SX for now and get the Helios 2 in 8-weight. After that, something may be going on sale on eBay. And more important, I need to get some additional casting coaching and instruction.

October – Reflecting on the Change of Seasons and Journey’s End

Harvest Time

Everyone has their favorite season and month. For me, it’s autumn and October.

It may have started while I was growing up where autumn, and particularly October, was the break between two unpleasant seasons. Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, summers were what were “90 and 90” – 90 degrees Fahrenheit and 90 percent relative humidity. Winters were cold with the periodic St. Louis specialty of ice storms. Autumn was a time for transition from one extreme to the other.

October, in particular, was a month of warm days and cool nights. It was a season of many things: jackets for early mornings and late afternoons and evenings; a time for football; a time for family drives out into the country to see the baled hay and harvested fields; and a time for the cool nights that lead to the leaves changing from a palette of greens to brilliant reds and yellows.

But there is more to October than Halloween and the promise of Thanksgiving within a month.

October and autumn are a time for adults. After the long days of summer, hours of daylight begin to dramatically reduce. Patterns of sunlight and shadow appear that at first are unfamiliar after the long bright days of summer, but then there is the comfortable recollection of having seen them before. Many breezes may still be warm, but then there are the days that bring the chilling whisper that alerts our senses that winter will soon arrive.

October as the month of harvest also marks for those of us on the Northwest coast the transition in the salmon runs. The Lake Washington sockeye salmon run is long past The Chinook salmon and pink salmon (the latter in odd numbered years) runs have come and gone. The Coho salmon (silver salmon) have begun to wind down – at least the non-resident salmon.

The chum salmon have begun to arrive and the start of the winter steelhead run is now measured in weeks. But in the main, the life history of this generation of salmon is about to come to an end as they complete their life mission and plant the seeds of a future generation.

Fishing in Puget Sound to me is more than about recreation. It is to share the waters of a life cycle that goes back thousands of years. It is to be able to wade in the tidal waters that bring the salmon to their natal rivers; to observe the other species (seals and eagles) that feed on the salmon for their own food; and to reflect on the native people who lived here and based their lives on the salmon.

Early morning wading in Puget Sound in October is also a time of transition in clothing. The summer wading attire of ball caps, light pants and shirt sleeves gives way to warm hats, a Nano Puff jacket, insulated pants, and often gloves. It is yet another reminder that winter is coming.

And the coming of winter, along with the end of the salmon runs, is a reminder that another cycle of our lives is coming to an end. It is the time to take stock and measure what we have we have done with the last year – our own harvest – how have we lived and how we have affected those in our lives. And it’s a reminder, however unpleasant, that each autumn brings each of us closer to our own final migration. It is a time to take pleasure in the season and a time to remember what is, and what should be, important.

The New Site Launch

I have decided the title of my old blog, Swinging the Fly, does not represent what this blog is really about. It’s more than just fly fishing, but fly fishing is at its core. The thing that was missing was the context of of where I live and where I fish. Living near, very near now, Puget Sound – my fishing is driven by tidal currents.

And for that reason, I felt the site name had to reflect the importance and role of tidal waters. Hence my site’s new name:  Tight LInes and Tidal Waters.


One Backing to Rule Them All II

My last post was an introduction to the topic of fly-line backing. Read here.

The primary issue discussed was that backing has to provide both sufficient quantity and strength for the type of fishing to be done. This becomes critical when one fishes in an area where there are choices of fishing (e.g., both trout in freshwater and sea run trout and salmon in saltwater) or when one wants to travel to a tropical destination.

There’s now a type of backing that provides the answer to all the above issues. That is Hatch Premium Braided Backing – made by Hatch Reels.

Hatch backing is as supple as Dacron. But where Dacron is made up of three to four strands, Hatch has eight micro strands. This bolsters strength while cutting down on its profile.

To get specific, 20-pound Dacron has a diameter of .018 inches (.46 mm). Hatch backing has a diameter of .014 inches (.36mm). Impressive. But consider that it’s also smaller than either 30-pound Dacron [.024 inches (.61 mm) or 50-pound Gel Spun [.016 inches (.40 mm)].

That translates into more backing on the reel. As an example, a Hatch Finatic 7 reel with a large arbor spool used with an 8-weight line holds 210 yards of 20-pound backing; with the Hatch Premium backing that spools could hold 325 yards.

But then there’s the other advantage of Hatch and that’s its strength, rated at 68 pounds!

So one backing solution is available that is thinner than gel spun, soft as Dacron, and stronger than anything else (except wire).

I think for line weights 6 and above it’s a no brainer.

Any downsides?

Yes, the first is that it’s expensive. 100 yards of 20 pound Dacron costs approximately $9.00. One hundred meters of Hatch backing is about $29.

That may seem like a lot of money for backing. But consider… think about having all of your $80 fly line out beyond the rod and relying on your three-year old 20-pound backing.

The second is that you can have any color backing you want as long as it’s white.
That may not mean much, but I like colored backing – particularly orange. Still I’ll sacrifice the color to get high-strength backing on my reels.

I’m putting it on all my six-weight and above reels.

One Backing to Rule Them All I

If there is one component of a fly-fishing rig that is given little more than passing thought, it is the fly line backing. Fly fishers obsess over reels and rods; analyze the performance of fly lines and leaders, but backing – never. Buy a new reel, and the backing is often thrown in for free.

It’s helpful to remember what backing does. Fly-line backing has at least four functions. The first is that it raises the level of the fly line to near the top of the spool. By some accounts, that improves casting. And it also improves the retrieve, allowing more line to be taken up for each rotation of the reel (recall your high-school geometry).

The second purpose is that it adds weight to the fly reel, helping to improve the balance (or sense of balance) that a fly fisher feels when holding and casting the rod. Properly balanced, the rod and reel will feel neither tip-heavy nor reel-heavy.

A somewhat arcane purpose is that it actually helps with heat buildup. As that reel is spinning it’s generating heat through the friction of the drag or the line being taken in. The friction can be enough to damage the coating of a fly line.

Finally, the backing provides additional line for fighting a larger fish. Most fly lines are approximately 100 feet in length. A big fish can easily strip that amount of line when it runs. Without backing, the tippet will be quickly broken as the drag setting of the reel becomes irrelevant and all the fish’s fighting will be absorbed by the tippet.

Given all that it does, one would assume that people would give careful consideration to the backing on their reels.

Unfortunately, that is not true. Trout and bass fisherman often use whatever 20-pound test Dacron backing that is put on their reel at time of purchase Larger species mean use of 30 pound (or more) backing. And with larger species, more capacity is required, resulting in gel-spun backing being substituted for Dacron.

And yet gel-spun has its problems. One, it’s not as supple as Dacron, and it will readily slice unprotected fingers or hands. And it’s more brittle than Dacron, which can lead to failures in backing to fly line knots.

Fortunately, there’s a new backing material now available that can be a single backing solution for all the issues and requirements discussed above. More on that in my next post.

National Geographic Article on Warming Streams

Climate change is claimed by some to be pseudo-science, as if belief in magic, cynicism, and ignorance represent sound scientific thinking; yes, I’m talking about religious conservatives; paid flacks of the fossil fuel industries; and corporations planning revenue streams based on climate change.  They represent a toxic mix that stifles any serious debate about the seriousness of the climate crisis and the steps necessary to minimize the inevitable changes underway.  The public is left confused, in spite of the increasing evidence of radical weather (think Hurricane Sandy and the floods in Colorado) and the ongoing drought in the Midwest.

Now National Geographic has written an excellent, if disturbing, article on the impacts of climate change on fishing streams across the country.  Many of us may be dead or decrepit before many of the worst impacts are felt – or maybe not. But our children and grandchildren will live in a world unknown to most of us.  And our hopes and dreams about passing on our love of fishing (whether fly or gear) may be dashed.  To quote only item from the article, a scientist at the National Wildlife Federation said, “The science is telling us that in the lifespan of a child born today, 50 percent of the habitat suitable for cold-water species of fish will no longer be suitable for them.”

The article can be found here.

Floating Fly Line Comparison: Ambush versus Outbound Short

I’m always looking for ways to reduce the amount of gear I have to take beach fishing.  I moved from a vest to a sling pack several years ago; take only a few flies in a small case; and carry only one or two sizes of tippet material (typically 1X and 2X).  So I’ve been intrigued by the idea of using only one fly line along with poly leaders to cover most of the fishing situations encountered on the beach.

My favorite and primary fly line for beach fishing with my six-weight Winston  is an Airflo 40+ Floating/Intermediate line. Its 35-foot transparent slow intermediate head settles nicely beneath the water surface. And it nicely loads my 9’ 6” rod and allows me to easily cast out to 50 feet with no hauling.

Still, there are times when I’d like to cast surface flies (e.g., popper) with a floating line. I’d carried a spare spool loaded with floating line for those low-tide low-water situations in which a surface fly excels.

Consistent with my goal of reducing what I carry, I’ve been considering the use of floating lines with poly leaders as a one-spool solution for my fishing needs. Given that poly leaders come in a number of densities (from floating to fast sinking), I thought that might be all I’d need.

Yesterday I went to my local beach on a falling tide (and no wind) and brought along two six-weight fly lines: a Royal Wulff Ambush and a Rio Outbound (OB) Short Floating.  The Ambush has a 235 grain weight 18 foot head; the OB Short has a 265 grain weight 30 foot head.  I also carried an Airflo Slow Intermediate 10-foot poly leader.

First up was the Ambush. I used the poly leader along with a five foot length of 1X tippet (the fly was a tube fly with a size 4 hook).

The Ambush roll cast very nicely. It provide a nice D-loop and gave a nice crisp cast.

It did also work in overhead casting. With one or two false casts, I was able to shoot line with no problem.

But there was something about it that wasn’t clicking with me. It may be that the line itself is very large and it felt clunky. And I found that if I did a poor cast the line would collapse.

I switched over to the OB Short, including the poly leader / tippet combination described above. Roll casting was near that of the Ambush, but I think the Ambush was slightly better.

Overhead casting was no comparison. The OB Short was a much easier casting line for me. If I made a bad cast, the line still performed and didn’t collapse. I also had the sense the line moved through the rod guides a good deal smoother than the Ambush. I easily was able to get out to 40-50 feet with no effort. In that regard it felt a lot like casting my Airflo 40+ line.

So have I found a one-line solution for the majority of my beach fishing with my 6-weight rod?  I’d have to say not yet.

I know if I was dealing with a high tide condition with no room for a back cast I’d want to use the Ambush.

For most of my beach fishing where there’s some wind and surface chop (and I know I’ll not be doing any surface flies), I’ll stick with my Airflo 40+.

But on days where I might want to go either surface or sinking, I think the OB Short is a great solution when combined with poly leaders from either Airflo or Rio.

Could I get to the point where the OB Short would replace the Airflo? I’m not ready to say that. I’d need to cast the OB Short more to say that. And it might take a beach shootout in conditions that favor the use of the Airflo.

Stay tuned.

Whither Independently Owned Fly Shops?

There have been a number of announcements through 2013 related to consolidation in fly shop ownership. At first glance, the announcements may be interesting to customers of the different businesses. But I think they say something about the future of retail fly-fishing shops.

Grizzly Hackle, a very successful brick and mortar and online fly shop from Missoula Montana announced its purchase of Kiene’s Fly Shop of Sacramento California on January 1st, 2013.  This was followed by its purchase of Bob Marriott’s fly shop in Fullerton California in early May.

The latter announcement was followed that same month by the announcement of the May 17th merger of Grizzly Hackle Holdings (which owns the three fly shops) and the very prominent Fishwest Incorporated, an e-commerce fly-fishing retailer, which also owns one shop in Utah.

The businesses above are all quality companies. At one time or another, I’ve bought from all of them. They are all reputable and are staffed by people who care about customers and the sport of fly fishing.

Each of them will carry, more or less, the same brands from the top suppliers in the business (e.g., Scientific Anglers, Simms, Sage, Winston, and Patagonia – to name only a very few).

And so far, five to eight months on, each of the fly shops still market under their own name, maintaining both a brick and mortar storefront along with a web presence. It will be interesting to watch whether their business models change over the next year or two,.

Perhaps more thought provoking is an attempt to understand the whys of the mergers and speculate what it says about the future for many of the fly shops that remain.

I think there are three reasons. The first is related to aging of owners. The other two are related to economic factors and economies of scale.

The sales of both Kiene’s and Bob Marriott’s, both of which have been in business for well over 30 years, were driven at least in part by the owners’ stated desires to move into semi-retirement and give up the day-to-day hassles and pressures of running a business.

Whether there was store staff with the desire, or more importantly – ability to raise capital, to buy the stores is unknown. It’s certainly true that capital availability has been a challenge for the last five years since the economic meltdown in 2008.

The industry is very small. As I related in a previous post (see here), the total annual sales in fly fishing gear is $750 million, less than some brands of candy. A related post (see here) shared the results of an AnglersSurvey study that showed the majority of sales were flies, followed by tippet and fly line.

Now think about how easy it would be to raise capital to buy a fly shop when your primary revenue stream will be based on a two to three dollar fly ­- and in a market that is not demonstrating rapid growth. Selling an $800 fly rod is certainly more lucrative, but the question is how long that rod has to sit in a store’s inventory before the sale is made; otherwise there is the cost of maintaining inventory.

Unless interested parties can self capitalize or the shop in question is demonstrably a moneymaking success in its local market that overcomes banks’ fears of business loans, I fear we will see many fly shops going out of business as the original owners retire.

A related challenge is dealing with the manufacturers.  A small fly shop is at the mercy of the companies and the sales reps that represent them. There are requirements for required volumes to be carried; promotional placements; and terms of sale that a small shop has to exist under.

And from the perspective of the manufacturers they have legitimate concerns about tying their brands to small fly shops that are struggling or only able to carry the minimum required inventory. It’s becoming much easier for them to put at least some of their inventory in a big box store (witness Winston and Sage rods in Cabelas).

Now consider the merger discussed above. It puts all three fly shops, together with Fishwest’s e-commerce site on firmer financial footing with a stronger multi-channel sale network – particularly with Bob Marriott’s, Grizzly Hackle, and Kiene’s all having both brick and mortar and e-commerce sites.

I suspect (but can’t verify) it puts the new company in a position to better negotiate terms of sales, volumes, and promotional support. And it gives a manufacturer the multiple-channels to get the hot new product out to its customers. They understand the critical importance of brand loyalty. It’s a win-win for both the retailer and supplier.

If you’ve gone into a fly shop to get a new just announced Sage rod (as an example) and you’re told they have no idea when they can get one in – how many times does that have to happen before you stop going in looking for the new products?

Fundamentally I think it is these economies of scale that will drive the transition away over time from the small locally owned fly shop to the horizontally integrated companies described above. Only they may have the  ability to compete with the big box stores in the manufacturer’s competition for market share.

The passing of many of the fine fly shops that operated over the years has been and will be a sad thing to observe.  But there can be hope in the new model discussed here.

It may be a transition away from local ownership but done right local color and knowledge will be retained.  It’s the smart business move and it will be good for fly fishers.


I’ve Gone Net

I had never used a net while wading in either rivers or saltwater. I thought nets were cumbersome and difficult to keep out of the way – particularly with a sling pack, which I use.

However, after my last trip to the saltwater, I’ve decided I need to use a net, difficult or not.

Yesterday, I hooked and caught my first sea run cutthroat trout. It was a beautiful fish that was about 11 inches long – by anyone’s standard, a very nice size for this species.

I was understandably excited and wanted a picture.  As I was fishing alone, I had to be the photographer  with one hand at the same time I was trying to control the fish with the other (rod hand)

I had considered backing up to the beach, but I thought the distance (about 30 feet) would have meant keeping the fish too long on the hook.

So I kept the fish struggling on the hook while I got my camera out of my pocket. I then got the fish up and set him in my stripping basket – violating the rule that a catch and release fish should not be lifted from the water. I thought I could do it quickly, but I was thinking more of my picture than the fish.

I got the photo, removed the hook and held the fish in the current of water to get him moving. I thought I held it long enough so he’d swim away – it seemed as if it was ready. But when I released it, it drifted slowly away with the current. Thinking back, I should have given it more time to let the water move over its gills until it began  swim out on its own. I knew it before and I know it now. I don’t know why I forgot it in the moment I needed it.

As I watched it drift away, I felt really bad about that fish.

Hopefully it survived. But I don’t know.

Perhaps the only thing I can do now in addition to carrying a net is to relearn the lesson that our actions have consequences and as such we need to understand the consequences before we act. And protecting the fishery is more important than a photo.

So I will carry a net and focus on the fish I catch – quickly returning them to their environment whether a picture is taken or not.

I owe it to that fish.