Sunday, March 30, 2014

Film Canisters and Cane Poles: a fly history

I was at a local farm pond fishing for bass and bluegill. I was probably 12 years old. It was summer, school was out, and I'd ridden my bike to meet a friend of mine. That friend, David Sorrells, still lives in that warm green Appalachian valley in North Carolina and is in his first season of tournament bass fishing as a 'pro' angler. I would undoubtedly be in his boat right now had I not gone on the life adventure of living several places around the country.  We fished a tournament or two together in the past, and it was a ton of fun.

David is responsible for many "starts" in my fishing - grafts that branched beyond what my dad and I already did. He introduced me to taking trout on plugs. I can still feel the emotion that the amazement caused in me when I saw him take a brown on a #11 original Rapala from a knee-deep riffle on a tiny stream. Until that moment I still thought a #2  Vibrax was too large.  He talked me into buying a #11 original off a shelf in Bethel Grocery that morning as we headed up river. It had rained early that morning, and the browns would be on the prowl.  I remember the first fish that nailed it. Turned out to be a smallmouth, my first ever of any real size, and in that moment two new passions were born - plug fishing and the pursuit of smallmouth bass.

That day on the farm pond David showed up with a fly rod. I'm not sure I'd ever seen one before, at least not up close. As a kid, I thought people sailed a fly around in the air to make it look like a real bug to the fish. That it was the "flying" and landing, like a house fly on the kitchen table, which was the reason for the gear and the swirling casts.  But that day I learned what it was really all about as I discovered casting weightless lures. Watching bluegill inhale bugs, both surface and subsurface, will hook anyone. And at 12 years old, it was magical. I have a memory from that day of a bluegill edging out of the grass to intersect a wet fly I was steering back to the bank. I saw him suck it in without getting all the way to it, like he'd reached out and taken it with an invisible straw.  In that moment my fishing was taken to an entirely new level - I suddenly knew more, and I thought about lure presentation differently from then on.

For days and probably weeks after I bugged my dad endlessly about getting a fly rod.  He was reluctant, because it would mean having to take me, and he would rather spend our fishing time together launching the boat in various lakes than untangling my fly line from anything and everything on waters he wasn't that interested in fishing anyway.  I don't know how much time passed, probably years even. I fly fished with David's gear occasionally. Then one day I saw a boy fly fishing with a cane pole. Just a line tied to the tip, the same length as the rod.  This isn't an unusual way to fly fish in the Southern Appalachians, at least traditionally (and its making a comeback of sorts nationwide as a "Japanese" style of flyfishing - the tenkara rod), but for some reason I hadn't encountered it yet. I also don't know why it hadn't already clicked in my brain all on its own - I never went anywhere without a film canister wrapped in fishing line with split shot and hooks inside, much to the delight of folks in parks and other places. I remember one lady at the Biltmore Estate watching me hoist
bluegills out from under a gazebo, using strips of white lichen from the the boards as bait, twitched subtly under the surface.  She was convinced she'd be seeing me on a fishing show in a few years.

When utilizing my canister I'd either toss hand lines rigged with whatever bait I found or I'd fashion a rod from a likely looking limb. "Always travel with fishing gear" has always been my motto.   Why I'd never thought to simply put a fly on the end of that line I don't know, but now the idea had spawned and my film canister would never be the same.  I made myself a cane pole fly rod from a piece of bamboo I cut from a roadside patch and drug home behind my bike. It wasn't long before one day I saw cane poles in a bait shop that had been modified to break down into two sections (I'm talking worm and bobber cane pole). A light bulb went off. I don't remember how I got that rod - probably dumped my piggy bank out and paid in nickels - but a two-piece cane pole came home soon after. I rummaged in the basement and found some fine, stiff wire. After drilling holes through the rod incrementally, I passed the wire through and fashioned eyelets, lashing them where I folded the wire over on the back of the cane.  The rod tip eyelet was the base of a safety pin I bummed off my mom. My dad gave me an ancient fly reel he dug out of the attic loaded with a cotton line.  I lashed it to the base of the rod. Suddenly I was in business - I had a castable fly rod. David kept me supplied with flies he'd made and taught me to make some myself.  I was inseparable from that rod. Heavy and stiff as it was it went with me everywhere. And it caught a ton of fish. A ton.  It fished lakes and creeks on family camping trips and outings. It fished the Little East Fork all week long at Camp Daniel Boone where I went as a Boy Scout each summer.

Then one day, with some birthday money in my pocket, I came across a rack of bright yellow Eagle Claw Featherlight fly rods in a hardware store in Hazelwood.  For $20 I bought a 7-foot thing of beauty. My first "real" fly rod. With the flex that it had I could work magic in a cast. I sprung for a Martin reel and an actual
fly line a little while later and became unstoppable. After using that piece of cane for so long I could truly make this rod work for me.
(And apparently these rods still have a following today.  I had to dig mine out of the closet after writing about it, just to feel the old thing again.  Might have to introduce it to some cutthroat this summer - it certainly hasn't seen the light of day in more than 15 years, and has never met a cutthroat.)

Right before college I pooled some money I'd gotten for high school graduation and outfitted myself with one of Redington's early rods - back when the guy still basically made them in his garage and hadn't sold the company yet.  I'd been trying out rods in the parking lot at Roger Lowe's fly shop for a long time.  That rod has followed me everywhere from that moment on, and I'm yet to replace it.  It has taken trout in every tributary on the North Carolina side of the Smoky Mountains and in nearly every stream within a 50 mile radius of Haywood County (and in the Appalachians, 50 miles is a lot - both in distance and in amount of water). Its taken trout in Colorado, Tennessee, Georgia, South Dakota, Washington, Montana, and probably other places I've forgotten about. It has taken largemouth from Mattamuskeet in coastal North Carolina to Texas. It has even targeted creek chubs in a suburban Ohio stream and taken steelhead (yup, it's just an 8-foot 5-weight) in Washington.  And of course a few smallmouth bass along the way.
People give me grief for targeting big trout with spinning gear, as if I were being unfaithful to my fly rod, or leaving my kids on somebody's doorstep.  I don't mind.  I am a fisherman, not just a fly fisherman, and there's no way they could know the richness that fishing of all sorts has brought to my life.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Before work

I'm a big proponent of doing whatever your passion is during whatever moments you can squeeze it into your day.  Its what makes you you.  Fishing is no different for me.  Some of my best fish have come on those summer mornings when its light enough to see by 4:30 and 4am finds me slipping through the brush streamside.  There's enough time, and its prime time, to work some water before you head off to work.  This past week produced such an opportunity, despite the fact that early summer light is not here yet, and I grabbed it.

During the years I lived in Washington, I caught several steelhead before work.  There might be time to fish only a hole or two, but you could choose the cream of the stream and make casts to fish that had been unmolested all night before the day began with whatever it would bring.  What better way to start the day.  I'd snicker as I thought of folks busting a gut in a gym while I was peering through morning mist after breaking a sweat to get to the place of my choice.  And then, if it was a lucky day, oh the battle that would ensue.

I did the same thing while I lived in Texas and would be conducting my research work on the coastal marshes.  Before the work day began, I'd slip out knee-deep on a salt flat, shuffle for stingrays and watch for gators, and do battle with steelhead-sized redfish on topwater baits.

Before that I did the same thing on the Tuckaseegee River before class at Western Carolina University.  Where there's a will there's a way.  I'd dress for school, put the waders on over top, and time my extraction from the water so that I could peel the waders, fire up the truck, and make it to my desk - just in time.  Best way I could possibly prepare for an exam....

This particular morning found me slipping down below one of the handful of dams on the Missouri that is more or less on my way to town.  I didn't have much time, so I wouldn't be traveling any amount of river, just focusing on the plunge pool under the dam.  The water was high from recent snow melt.  The entire pool was an explosion of current and not its usual swirling 3-acre eddy.  I casted jigs to foam lines and behind current breaks, looking for fish to be holding up.  Early on I connected with one that took me for a short run and popped off.  Later I hooked a real drag-screamer that wound up sawing me off on some metal debris below the dam before I ever saw what it was.

I found one area that was fairly dead, basically the eye of the storm.  I thought forage of all sorts must be piling up in there and started flipping plastic jigs in hopes of maybe tagging an early morning walleye.  I started catching small trout. Several 8 to 10 inch fish.  Action, but not what I'd hoped.  Maybe I was catching the "forage."  Time was just about up now and I was trying to talk myself into leaving. There was a slab of ice that was creeping down the dam and growing out over the water in a slight overhang.  Water from above was running over it and dropping into the foam underneath.  The "eye of the storm" I'd been casting to had migrated toward this spot, as a swirling plunge pool will do, and I started launching jigs into a nice seam and foam line that had started to form between the two.  A cast or two in a nice solid fish slammed the jig on the first rip I'd given it as it started to sink, and off we went.  A little while later I brought it to the bank, raised it to my camera I'd set up behind me during the fight, and then slipped it back into the roaring river.  Time to go work, and the day was already an accomplishment.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


I spent last Saturday with my son jumping from spot to spot as we drove along the Missouri downstream of Holter Dam.  My wife and daughter were having a "girls' day" in Bozeman, so what better to do than hit a stream.  Mostly I just wanted to see what the pulse of the river was as the rainbow spawn gets underway and to get my son on the edge of some water.  He's not the fisherman I was at five years old, or at least thought I was, but he's not opposed to it either.  He doesn't last as long at it as I wish he would, but I'm patient and not pushing it.  The adventure eventually gave way to him climbing rocks, digging holes, and building a spent shotgun shell collection - as I continued to pick apart eddies and experiment.

He didn't catch any on this outing, but he was still living on the high of his last trip out when the weather broke and temps stayed above freezing long enough for me to take his little fingers near water.  On that day I'd plunked him down above an eddy that slammed into the bank at his feet and the depth dropped away instantly - meaning that all of his cast, no matter how poorly executed, would be in productive water.  I rigged him up with a nightcrawler on a pencil lead bait rig and cut him loose.  We only caught two fish that particular afternoon, but it was a father-son double to behold.  I had hooked a beauty of a 19-inch rainbow that was performing acrobatics and raking my line all over a boulder when he announced he too had one on.  His, a 22-inch rainbow, had picked his worm up while he'd been watching my fish do its thing.  My fight quickly turned to a haul as I worked as quick as a could to get my fish out of his way and focus on him.  We'd already determined we were keeping fish for the next day's dinner, so I essentially tossed mine to a pocket in the rocks and turned to help him.  I expected mine would likely flop back in the water, but I didn't much care.  By the time I was of any use to my son, he nearly had the fish to the bank.  It cooperated with him uncannily.  His little Batman kiddie pole is no fish fighter, and neither is he.  But my only involvement in the whole fight, other than to keep my fish as far away from his as possible, was to step in the water behind the fish and tail it onto the bank.  He'd managed to do the rest.  He now laughed and laughed as he watched me wrestle two powerful fish at once on a steep, rocky bank.  His was a fish I couldn't allow to be lost though.  I knew he was already envisioning fillets on his plate.  No five-year-old needs to be catching a 22-inch rainbow.  I was in college before I caught a trout that size. 

But, here on this current trip, the thought of the possibility of another monster waiting for him in that river didn't spur him on.  Like most any time my son is with me, we kept a couple fish.  A pair of bright rainbows above the 17-inch mark taken 40 miles apart.  In between we landed some nice browns.  We'd walk along rocky banks on the outside of river bends and watch the drift boats go by working the slacker water on the opposite side where rainbows were likely staging on the bars for the spring spawn.  In the pockets and eddies among the jumbled rock we'd flip and pitch jigs as if we were standing in the bow of a bass boat tossing to docks.  I landed one brown after he chased me to the bank and then turned away, only to fall victim to a quick drop of the rod tip and a figure eight maneuver. My son liked working the jigs among the rocks - I think he imagined the jigs on a grand pirate adventure along a rocky coastline.  But the next stop resulted in him spending 45 minutes collecting every single egg he could find where someone had previously landed a fish or spilled some bait.  Those eggs are still in a little box, dried to a crisp in the laundry room.  Some of that pirate's buried treasure I suppose.  The stop after that became a cliff-climbing endeavor, and the stop after that he unearthed a centipede and a few spiders and as he dug into the river bank.  I landed the best brown of the day at that spot and we admired it together before I returned the trout to the water and he returned to the centipede. I'm glad he was there.  I'll miss these days, but I look forward to when he mans the oars on the water while outfishing me too.  Although its probably the little sister we both need to watch out for....

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Crossfire Rods and Zig Jigs

Montana had a record-breaking February in many areas - lots of snow, plenty of cold.  In my spring fever, as I shoveled drifts off my driveway more often than not and used four-wheel drive most days, I perused some jig fishing websites. There are very few articles and dedicated sites out there when it comes to jig fishing for trout, particularly in moving water.  There are a few.  Helena is fortunate enough to have Kit's Tackle in town, and they've been hard at it in my area much longer than I have.  Two generations of jiggers. I'm looking forward to making their acquaintance sometime, and test driving some of their creations.  I found an article by a man named Cal Kellogg who focuses his jigging efforts on tube jigs, a tactic I also recommend and found myself pioneering on larger trout streams in the late 1990s after taking incidental trout on Appalachian smallmouth water with tubes.  That's the thing about jigs - soft plastics, tubes, bucktails, silicone, maribou - they are versatile, and often applicable to situations far beyond the maker's initial intent.

One evening I came across a website of a guy in Arkansas on the White River. A place that lives in trout legend. I've known about it since I was a kid reading fishing magazines while waiting my turn in a Canton, North Carolina barber shop. One day I will fish it. I found the website because the guy produces jigs specifically for trout fishing. Not many people do. I'm talking about Richard Cross and his Zig Jigs.  After stumbling into his website and checking things out, I shot Mr. Cross an email. I could tell from his website that we spoke the same language. We corresponded via email for a few days discussing things.  In his jig fishing quest, he could never find that "perfect" rod to suit the style of fishing. So he designed one. He has a line of rods called Crossfire rods. The "line" consists of two models - a two piece and a one piece. Talk about a niche. He said he doesn't personally prefer the two piece, but there were enough traveling clients asking for one that he added it to the line up (I may become one of them).  So its really a rod company that (presently) produces only one specialized rod for exactly what I've been honing in my own fishing pursuits lately. I've been on a rod quest myself as I develop my own jig fishing niche, so I was pretty excited to find his. I ordered one, and several jigs to go with it. He emailed me later and said he'd stuffed a few more jigs in the box too for me to try out. He'd fished my stretch of the Missouri River for a few days a couple years earlier and was familiar with where they were headed.

Some snowy afternoon it made it to my doorstep as FedEx busted a drift and spun to stop in the driveway.  I happened to be home and popped the tube open right away.  Six and a half feet of ultra light American-made goodness slid out. Its kind of pretty - deep burgundy color with nice cork grips and quality hardware. Its a foot and half longer than nearly any ultralight rod you'll find in a store and with a lot more backbone.  The handle is also shorter than a lot of my other rods, so there's that much more blank length inherent above the reel seat. It is meant for casting lures as small as 1/32nd of an ounce on up to 5/16ths on 1 to 6lb line.  Perfect.  It has a very fast action - with the majority of the bend in the tip - plenty of flex for absorbing the shock of a sudden run but with all the backbone needed to stay in control.  And just as importantly, that fast tip loads quick in a cast for a zippy toss and brings a jig to life on the retrieve.

I had to wait an extra weekend to get to introduce it to some water as a weather system blew through.  Finally on the water, I quickly learned that it fires and works a jig quite well, maintaining the constant contact that is so necessary to ticking bottom and pinging sonar back to your fingers as you map the water in front of you.  I've never shaken a rod off a rack in a retail store quite like it. In some ways it seems too stiff.  In others it seems too light.  But in all ways just right for some of my favorite approaches to fishing a river.

The jigs are also nicely built and available in a wide array of colors and sizes.  Mostly they are a basic maribou jig, but the head is almost pill-shaped, tapered to the edges, and slightly offset.  It swims well, slicing current rather than plowing it, and flutters on the fall. Its design makes it ideal for a cross-current cast and a downstream swing, working the lure back against the current.  This is a retrieve I prefer when casting minnow imitating baits on large water, and the head is a similar design to those I choose to use in soft plastics.

Its not as inclined to rise toward the surface as quickly at the tail of the drift as a standard jig is. Maintaining depth for those final seconds of swinging a jig through a nice run can be crucial.  I ordered "safe" colors - sticking with dark greens, browns, blacks - things I knew would work for an initial test drive.  I caught fish on each jig I tried while also mixing in some time with other favorite jigs and plugs.  I should mention that the rod rockets a Rapala Countdown quite nicely, and the fast tip snaps the retrieve to life.

I was wade-fishing on the Missouri, and spent about seven hours working along two and half miles of bank, giving the rod a solid run. Trying to get decent photos of myself featuring the rod and jigs in action was the hardest part. I very typically fish a 1/16th-ounce jig, but I found myself tending more towards the 1/8th, and probably even more toward the 3/16ths in the Zig Jig.  The heavier jigs were better suited to being fished from the bank than the lighter ones,mostly in their ability to reach holding water further from the bank and drop into the strike zone quicker.  It had been a while since I last fished a maribou jig, and I had forgotten that they cast a lot like a badminton shuttlecock, compared with denser material, even when wet.  I think I would likely have spent more time fishing a 1/16th-ounce Zig Jig had I been floating instead of stationary, and the effect of the moving water reduced accordingly.

I definitely appreciate the zippy fast action of the rod while it maintains backbone all the way down.  I hit 20 inches enough times on its first day out to give it a pretty good run and plenty of drag peeling.  I do like the jigs, particularly the head shape.  They cut through the current nicely and flutter well.  I'm glad Mr. Cross stuffed in those extra jigs, because among them were the heavierjigs I find myself preferring. When I alternated to some of my regular baits, I still stayed lighter with them - so it was the Zig Jig itself - its castability and behavior in the water - that made me prefer the weight.  I liked it because it added a whole new weapon to the line up when it comes to getting deep fast in places most people won't cast to from shore.

Monday, March 17, 2014

An Introduction

I'm becoming a bit of a jig fisherman. Jigs have always been a mainstay in my arsenal from largemouth bass to saltwater, but lately jig fishing has taken more of a grip on me as I have been catching trophy trout with them almost everywhere I go across Montana - from famous to obscure water. Living in Montana, first in Billings and now in Helena, has been the first time since 2002 that I've been back in my river element. I grew up in the Southern Appalachians of North Carolina, immersed in streams of all sizes where trout and smallmouth bass were my bread and butter.  College was largely a means to fish, and Western Carolina University, 35 miles from home, provided an excellent launching pad.  Graduation took me to Texas for a bit more school.  I wound up in a graduate project on a coastal marsh where I spent all spare time on the salt flats chasing redfish, trout, flounder, and wild hogs.  A first job took me to Washington State where I learned the art of drifting for steelhead in small streams and focused on little else for six years (thanks Joe Gardner!).
But, I am completely in my element on a trout stream or smallmouth river, and its nice to be back in my sweet spot.  I've been living in Montana now going on three years and am drinking in all there is in the outdoors that appeals to me - from the elk woods to the badlands - and of course, fish.  My work, centered around gravel mines, takes me all over the state.  I see waters of all sorts, and I always travel with fishing gear. Anywhere there's a road there's a gravel mine, and those roads often lead to places - and waters - the tourist rarely sees. Sometimes it's in my travels for work, sometimes it's on a return trip or new adventure with my family, but I seek out waters that appeal to my insatiable desire to find big fish.  "Big" is of course relative to the water and the species.  I'll jump up and down over a 12-inch brookie in a Smoky Mountain stream same as I will over Pacific Northwest salmon.

If fisherman have a portfolio, my Montana section includes smallmouth from places like the Tongue and Yellowstone Rivers to Fort Peck Lake, northern pike from Fort Peck to the Milk and Marias Rivers, walleye from the Missouri to tiny central prairie streams, largemouth in eastern Montana irrigation systems, lake trout in the last Montana tailwater section of the Missouri before North Dakota, incidental catfish that picked up a jig where a big brown should have been, and, of course, trout.  Trout everywhere - from eastern waters that have never found their names in print associated with trout, to big famous tailwaters like the Bighorn and Missouri, to nearly muddy prairie streams, to the gorgeous blue ribbon streams across the mountain region of the west.  And in nearly all those waters, jigs have taken trout of awesome proportions.  In spring of 2013 alone jigs accounted for fish of 20 inches or better in at least five Montana streams.  2014, as cold and snowy as its been so far, has already seen more than a dozen in that size class, several of which were more appropriately measured in pounds than inches.  Fly gear has its place, and there are many times that there's nothing I'd rather do than fly fish. But jigs are awfully effective.  And any 'cracks' jigs leave in the water column, plugs fill in nicely.  Together they thoroughly fish all water below the surface, water you often could barely hope to skim with regular fly gear - and to me, if I have to convert my fly gear into heavy, bottom-seeking tackle, I'd rather trade it in for the spinning rod.  I won't force my fly rod to do what my spinning rod could do better, and I won't ask my spinning rod to do what my fly rod excels at.  I will save my discussion on "purism" in one form or another for another time... 

Lately I have been spending my time on the big waters of the Missouri with my nine-and-half-foot spinning rod in hand - a G. Loomis from their bronzeback series.  It's the rod I spent those years drifting for steelhead with, and it is well suited to taking large fish on a light line.  It also does a phenomenal job of presenting a light jig in big water, allowing line to be lifted above current and even mended as you would a fly line.  The presentation may look more like a live bait or nymph drift (dare I lump those two together), but its peppered with jerks and pops that bring the jig to life.  Its an intuition that connects you with the river bottom, swimming your jig through the world you can't see.  If you snag, you're in the right place.  If you get to the right place and don't snag, you're doing it right.

When Brandon Henson, a Pisgah High School classmate and very accomplished banjo player, dropped in on me last summer, I lamented to him that fiddle playing hadn't stuck with me all those years ago in North Carolina where I took lessons as a kid.  This lament came as we were catching cutthroats with dry flies on a picturesque southwest Montana stream. Rather, while I was catching and doing my darndest to get him to connect with more. He pointed out very eloquently that I was making my music right then. I kind of liked that. And it was true. I do make my equivalent of his music on flowing water rather than a set of strings.