Tuesday, June 23, 2015

King of the stream

Fish of the year (well, it's in the running at least) - and he won.  It's not that it was the biggest fish I've caught this year. Far from it. But this fish was uncannily large for the little stream it lives in. I fooled it twice, but was never in control, even for a second. I was out maneuvered from the start.

I can still see the flare of those orange slashes and the soft yellow glow of mature fish. It was the biggest cutthroat I've tangled with to date. It wasn't even a serious fishing trip - just a couple hours stolen during a family camping weekend.  After a day of hiking, the family was back at our campsite along a bold stream swollen with snow melt. It was clear, but powerful and full. Everyone seemed content to laze around, so I strung up a fly rod and started up the creek right out of the campground.

From the beginning our trip wasn't what we had intended, and as a result we were exploring somewhere new. The area we had planned to camp in was overrun. People everywhere. We ran our finger across the map, found the closest Forest Service, and decided to drive blindly up a new road. The adventure took us through old mining town long passed it's heyday. Once grand brick buildings lined nearly unused streets.  It took us up into a valley rimmed by ten thousand foot snowy peaks. People were still around, but finding a place to stuff our camper along the creek wasn't impossible. We'd settled in, made a grand supper, built a solid fire, and spent an evening under the stars listening the roar of the creek and the crack of the fire.
Not a bad salvage job.

The next day we crawled up an ever-narrowing road till we came to a spot high in the back of a valley where we could pull off and hit an old road grade for a hike. It was that hike we'd returned from with a couple hours to spare before supper time.

I started up the creek fishing a small dropper under a parachute. Fishing was tough with very little water to cast to since most of it shot by as if in a flume. I managed a few small cutthroat from a pocket here and there. One bank had an elongated run that was holding fairly still, and on the first float through an enormous cutthroat nosed the dry and moseyed back down. I brought the rod tip up anticipating heavy fight and was given an instantaneous break. A section of leader had come undone at the knot. Such an oddball thing, and so awfully untimely. I'd just hung a dry fly trailing a dropper in the jaw of a cutthroat pushing twenty inches in a small mountain stream.

I backed off the hole rather than walking through it and continued up the creek. I took the occasional small trout here and there, but overall was having a tough time drawing strikes in the swollen water.

 On the return hike to camp I stopped back by the skinny little run holding the big trout. I eased in and floated some flies through it a few times. On probably the sixth drift through, my dry abruptly sunk, and even before I raised in a hookset, I could see the same swirl of large trout moving back to where he'd come from to intercept my nymph.

This time he was on. He battled all over that little hole and then did the inevitable and shot into the raging current. He briefly held in it and then rocketed downstream. This fish was raw power, and in that current he was unstoppable. I was taken back instantly to my steelhead days where running downstream after a hooked fish was common. But here I had no room to run. Standing waves were slamming into tree trunks and the fish was deep under overhanging limbs and roots wads along an undercut bank. I knew the fight was done. I couldn't chase, and so rarely does a fish ever run back upstream in water like
this. But that's what I had to hope for. I wasn't swimming in that torrent.  I hung on longer than I expected too. I saw the fish a few more times. He ran upstream again once, but the surge forward was short lived. He surfaced and thrashed a couple times, and on his last airborne episode I could see daylight down his mouth and out through his flaring gills like a tail-walking largemouth bass.
Such a massive fish. Especially relative to the stream. No surprise when the line popped and he was gone. The hook of my tiny number 18 dropper had straightened.  I didn't think to hang on to the fly, but it occurred to me later that perhaps it should have been given an honorable discharge of some sort, like a permanent place in the visor of my truck where other worthy flies have gone to retire.

"I did well"  I consoled myself. I'd lost him once to the fluke unraveling of a leader. Then managed to hook him again later. Once he got below me, losing him to that current was to be expected. At least I got to watch him eat twice, and he showed me that big hooked jaw and orange slashes before bidding farewell and disappearing into the raging stream. I hope he finds his way back up to his quiet little feeding lane again....

I actually walked back by again the following day and wondered if he was in there. But I wasn't fishing this time, and he'd won anyway. I showed the spot to my wife as we walked along with the kids, and she just rolled her eyes. Another fish story to her, a brush with the king of stream to me.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Fish much?

To all my fishing buds throughout this great nation and to readers here at home, north of the border, and across the ocean - many of you will identify. And the rest of you, well, you know who you are...

I'm asked all the time - "How do you fish so much?" Usually the person asking has a sort of sulking demeanor with a hint of self pity about them as the words roll off their tongue. Maybe they don't even say it out loud, or in those exact words, but the message is conveyed loud and clear.

That's a puzzling question really. I didn't know that I did fish all that much. It doesn't feel like I do. I certainly don't go half as much as I want to. I can't imagine I've got rod in hand more than a typical fisherman who has their priorities in line.  I've got the usual constraints keeping me off the water - a family to raise, a day job, my wife's jam-packed calendar, hunting seasons, ice, etc.

I want to ask in return "why do you just WISH you fished this much?"
Do something about it.  Look for opportunity. Make it happen. Mark the full moons on the calendar. Make plans to leave early or to come home late. It doesn't have to be anything more than whatever is available. A bluegill caught by the fountain of a city park before starting the daily grind is time well spent.  Toss a trot line in the river and swing by to check it on the way home.

I truly don't fish much, at least not by my definition of "much." Perhaps more than the regular license holder, but certainly not nearly as much I'd like, or nearly as much as I could handle, or even as much as in my more care-free past. Some people think I live on the water. My wife is likely among them, although I suspect she's blotted the pre-kid days from her memory.  Fishing is like food - just grab a snack when you're hungry.  You gotta eat.  And eating always seems to happen.  Fishing can 'just happen' too.  People can't make it a week without a favorite TV show... yet complain from the couch that they don't get to fish often.

I've lived in lots of places across the country.  Fishing opportunities were different in every spot - but I capitalized on what there was to offer.  That much hasn't ever changed.  Those orchestrated opportunistic and somewhat random opportunities include trout and smallmouth in North Carolina, largemouth, white bass, and redfish in Texas, steelhead and salmon in Washington, trout and pike in Montana - plus a multitude of visited spots and vacations in between where fishing wasn't the purpose of the trip but got squeezed in - bass and snook in Florida, flounder in South Carolina, carp in flooded timber, trout at summer camp, bluegill anywhere, bowfin in coastal swamps, creek chubs in urban streams, brookies in Colorado, pickerel in a Piedmont creek, rainbows in South Dakota, white bass and buffalo in the Great Lakes, browns in Michigan, trout and bass in Georgia, browns in Wyoming, crappie in Pennsylvania... and so on.  I'm NOT talking about planned events penciled onto calendars that you look forward to for weeks on end.  Those trips exist too.  I'm talking solely  about the trips inserted into regular life.  Spontaneousness.  Or at least semi-spontaneousness. 

I do catch some pretty awesome fish.  The screensaver on my computer gets longer all the time. But the thing about it is, half of those fish were caught on opportunistic trips.  Planning may be involved, but I'm catching fish on hour-long deviations here and there.  Of course I find them on actual day-long or multiday fishing adventures, but all those "extra" stolen opportunities add up.  Give me six or eight quick trips during a prime month on prime water to one day-long trip anytime. One of those quick trips will line up with ideal conditions, and casts made will always be to the best spots. Trips once a month or a handful of times a year don't amount to much. Rarely do they fully overlap ideal conditions - clarity, weather, moon, hatches, etc. Don't tell me you've never checked in at the local bait or fly shop to jump start your 'trip of the year' and heard "Should have been here last week."  And if you're not keeping your finger on the pulse of what's going on with the waters you fish, then likely you'll spend a chunk of your once-in-a-blue-moon fishing trip figuring things out.  Not to mention you'll just be plain rusty.  Any skill takes practice.  Any workout requires reps for results. They say even a blind hog finds an acorn on occasion - but if that hog checks the same tree on a frequent basis he's going to find more than one.  He might even discover that little divet at the bottom of the hill where acorns seem to collect.

What am I saying? I'm saying Always travel with fishing gear. If fishing isn't your thing (which I have no idea why you'd be reading this if that's the case), then pack along the equipment needed to do whatever IS your "thing."  Hiking boots. A camera. Your bike. Heaven forbid a game boy.  If I were a golfer, I'd be driving balls off scenic overlooks. Perhaps your 'equipment' is simply a book. Readers seem to have this licked - they always produce a book out of nowhere and read it in any spare moment - in the bank drive-through line, waiting for kids, during lunch, on the can - you name it. They don't whine about not having time, they just plow through book after book as life goes on.

If you want to fish, pack your stuff. Always. View daily life as an opportunity yet to be discovered like the readers do. Pull over at bridge crossings. Don't have your gear? Shame on you. At least spend five minutes putting your polarized glasses (or squinty eyes) to work. You might see something useful for next time - actual observed water levels to compare to USGS flow graphs, crawdads on the bottom, a bunch of insect shucks, a weedline, rising trout, a hatch, a deep hole, a spray of fleeing baitfish, structure, a bass suck in a frog. There's just no telling.
You do have your gear, but no time? Cast anyway! Even if its just twice. See if you get a follow or a looker. What was it? Did you just learn something?
So many times I've done this in a fishery where I wasn't sure what it supported, or in a place where I wondered if maybe I was too far below a dam in a tailwater for trout to be there. Five minutes of ripping a plug or swinging a fly and I see a rainbow swipe and miss. Maybe a brown followed or I hooked a 6-inch smallmouth.  Time to head back to the truck and get on down the road, but I'm armed with info for a later trip. They're there!....

If you've got time at all, jet down a side road and look for an access point for future. Mentally map out some floats or hikes.  Better yet, scribble on a map, take gps points. Build a catalog of spots you can hit. Some you can hit more often than others. Some you simply need to pull off at routinely, like you do at your favorite gas station or coffee shop. 10 minutes under a bridge isn't going to kill anybody's schedule. Neither will 45 minutes most of the time. 
Ignore the weather, and by that I mean go no matter what. You can take those 10 minutes under a bridge in the freezing cold, or getting poured on, or getting pelted by mosquitoes. 

Fair weather fishing equates to barely ever fishing.

Its absolutely fine if none of this appeals to you. No sense in doing something you don't enjoy. But at the same time, don't whine about how you never get to go. Just enjoy when you do, or when you choose to. I've been called crazy a thousand times for what I'll endure and what I'll finagle to carve out some fishing time. But if that's not your style, then you can hardly complain that I fish more than you. The truth is, I do the same thing you do. I look around and see folks who appear to live on the water and have all the luck - sponsors, world travel, writing gigs, guiding connections, TV shows, blogs with actual reader traffic. 
And then I whine. Just like you.