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.

Etiquette and Fly Fishing Maniacs

Fly fishing. at least in the United States, has evolved in both perception and practice from many decades past when it was considered by most a small sport of rich elitist white males wearing tweed and fishing with custom bamboo fly rods and creels. While the reality was more complex, it was a time of limited numbers of fly fishers when class decorum as well as the norms of society produced an etiquette for stream-side behavior.

Now, the gear has gotten significantly better at lower costs – though many high-end graphite rods are approaching the costs of custom bamboo rods; fly fishers are now both men and women of all races and classes; and most storied fisheries can be crowded at many times of the year.

And unfortunately, behavior on streams has begun to reflect the coarseness of modern society.

Mike Lawson, founder of Henry’s Fork Anglers, recently posted an article on boorish behavior on the river – specifically the Henry’s Fork. Mike commented that last year was the first time he heard music blaring from drift boats as they floated past him when he was fishing. He posted a question on his Facebook page as to how people felt about it; the self-selected respondents were against it about five to one.

At the same time, some of the respondents said it wasn’t a big deal and he should just deal with it. Others agreed and also pointed out all the other bad behavior they witness on some streams: people leaving trash on the river; fly fishers stomping through when another fisher is stalking a trout; boats carelessly pushing through an area where others are wading.

Now I’ve not witnessed any bad behavior on the Henry’s Fork. I’ve gone there in autumn when the crowds have left and I have a favorite spot below the main area of the Ranch.

But I’ve seen where this can lead on a lake on the Olympic peninsula. I had friends whose family owned a waterfront cabin on Lake Sutherland. It was a beautiful location and at times of the year was quite peaceful where one could sit outside and listen to the birds.

But the summer was another story. Other homes surrounding the lake held people with personal water craft. During those summer days, the roar of the water craft started soon after sunrise – sometimes before, and lasted well into dark. They too were just enjoying their time on the water, at the expense of everyone else who might just wanted to have spent a quiet day outside reading a book. It got to the point that going there in the summer was something to be avoided.

Thoreau, in Walden, raised the essential issue: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Fly fishers in the main go to rivers, streams and coasts for much the same reason. Bringing in the coarseness and noise of the self-absorbed consumer culture – even by a minority – destroys that chance for finding the essential facts of life for everyone else.

You can read Mike’s post here.

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.