Friday, June 26, 2009

The 'Kill

"Mom's going to kill you."
"You kill me."
"Try this shake. It just kills."
"She's got killer ..."

Kill. The word derives from the Middle English cullen, which means "to deprive of life, cause the death of or to slay." In Dutch, the language of the original settlers of much of New York, kill takes on an entirely different meaning. For the Dutch, a kill was a "a deep trench between high banks, as a stream or a river." The Dutch derivation appears as part of the name of any number of northeast watersheds (i.e. Kaaterskill, Beaverkill, etc.). Blend the languages and the definitions of these two words, and you'll imagine a place not unlike the Battenkill, or the 'Kill as it's known among the bipolar flyflingers who regularly ply its currents.

Scattered across the country are a number of rivers that are notorious for producing impossibly wary fish and inherently difficult fishing. We're talking streams of dubious reputation and trout that seem gifted with extrasensory perception, an uncanny ability to distinguish mayflies from feathered forgeries. Several names come to mind: the Delaware, the Henry's Fork, Silver Creek, Hat Creek, Depuy's. Each of these streams has been written about ad infinitum, and each is known in its own way for emasculating the feather-chuckers who dare walk its banks. I'm fortunate to have fished a few of these rivers, and for the most part their reputations are well deserved. They're tough nuts to crack, but with a decent cast and a little local knowledge you can usually put the wood to 'em.

Then there's the Battenkill.

To illustrate my meaning more precisely, allow me a moment to digress and tell you about one of my favorite bamboo rods; a beautifully flamed quadrate that I picked up a few years back. It's a seven footer for a four weight, although I could probably go one step up or down and the rod would likely perform well enough. I've paired this rod with a Peerless 1A. If you unfamiliar with Peerless reels then do a Google search. The name says it all, but I digress. Understand that I really cannot afford this expensive a piece of gear (I'm a teacher for Christ's sake). It is an object that represents quite a bit of sweat equity on my part, even though both rod and reel were purchased at a steep discount. It is my pride and joy. Yep. It's my pride and joy, and I tossed it in the bushes when my temper got the best of me after one particularly frustrating evening on the Battenkill. It was a gentle toss more than a fastball, and I immediately retrieved the rod, but the point is that the river made me loonier than an animated rabbit dressed in viking attire, singing Wagner's, Flight of the Valkyries.

The irony is that it's hard not to fall in love with such a stream. The Kill possesses a pastoral beauty that is both striking and increasingly rare. Fishing the river, one is reminded the paintings of Grandma Moses or one of Norman Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post covers. Of course, both artists lived near the Kill. Rockwell's home and studio is less than 100 yards from the bank. Aside from Manchester center and a few areas near the river's confluence with the Hudson, the Battenkill valley is the proverbial land that time forgot. It hasn't changed in sixty or seventy years. Add to this the fact that the water itself just looks fishy, and you've the makings for a fine day of casting.

And expect to cast quite a lot because while the river is beautiful, she is also a harsh mistress. She'll coax. She'll tease. She'll make you beg, but she won't often give up her treasure. Of all the rivers I've fished the Battenkill is singularly the most perplexing I've encountered, and I grew up fishing its more remote sections. I caught my first trout there thirty years ago, and I am still a regular. I can say without boasting that I'm familiar with most every run and pool in both New York and Vermont (as far down as Rexleigh anyway). I know the river. I know its hatches, and I still have my arse handed to me on a regular basis.

Some folks will tell you the 'Kill is tough as it is simply because the fish aren't there. I disagree. I have seen as many trout on the Battenkill as I have on any other stream in the northeast. Granted, most of these fish are 6" to 12" brookies. There are, however, any number of wild browns that eclipse 20" and trout in excess of 24" aren't impossible to find. Catching those fish is an entirely different matter. You can't imagine how frustrating it to witness an eight inch brook trout follow your BWO for six feet before turning away and rejecting the imitation. It may be even more frustrating than watching a genuine leviathan follow a streamer and turn away at the last moment. One, you reasonably expect. The other you do not.

That is to say you don't expect these things unless, of course, you're a regular on the 'Kill.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


The rivers have been blown out for two weeks, two very long weeks. I have been jonesing to fling a fly in a way only other bugchuckers will understand. I have been distracted to the point of neglecting my job, home, wife and children. For lack of trout I have been less of a man.

Yesterday afternoon, I sat in my chair staring blankly at yet another episode of Yo Gabba Gabba, silently wondering how an enormous orange phallus has become so popular with children. My head slumped forward, and a puddle of drool formed beneath my chin. My daughter Madison asked her mother if daddy was dead. "No honey, your father isn't dead. He's lost his mind." The phone rang. It was Ben.

"Miiiiiiiiiike." Ben's usual greeting. He seems to think I've an over-abundance of vowels in my name.


"Mike. Will the wife let you come out and play? Let's go hit the lake."

"Uhhh. Uhhhh. Uhhhhh."

"Ballston Lake. My family's camp there. We'll launch the canoe, bring a couple of my spinning rods, and see if we can drum up a few largemouth. It should be perfect."

"Uhhh. Uhhhh. Uhhhhh. Uhhhhhh."

"Mike? You there?"

"OK, I'll go. But I'll take my fly rod."

An hour later the drool had dried, and I was paddling against the wind along the shores of a lake that is likely deeper than it is wide. The native people who inhabited the shores of Ballston Lake originally named it Shenantaha, which roughly translated means "deep water." The southern end of the three mile long lake (the section I was paddling) is estimated at 120 to 130 feet deep, although local lore holds that it is likely deeper.

The fishing is typical in that one can reasonably expect a mixed bag of bass and panfish. I'm told Ballston fishing can be exceptional when compared to other local lakes; Ben's best largemouth topped eight pounds and Adam apparently lost one that was much larger. Rumor has it that some enormous pike and lake trout inhabit the depths at the southern end of the lake, but we didn't see anything quite so grand. The best fish of the evening was a 15 inch largemouth that swirled on my mouse, and swallowed it in a boil. Truth be told though, the fish was of little consequence.

There was something about being in that canoe, at that moment, on that lake. I was reminded of my childhood; a childhood spent at my great-aunt's home on the shores of the Battenkill. The camps dotting the shoreline, the smell of moss wet from recent rains, the metronome of waves kissing the dock; it all seemed so very familiar. I was new to the lake, a foreigner on its shores, but I was comfortable. I was at ease. Strange as it may seem, I felt at home.

My jones is sated (for at least a day or two), but I am resolved to go back to the lake. Ben told me the predominant forage in Ballston is the mooneye shiner (alewife), and I've been devouring everything the internet offers about mooneye behavior. Master the forage and you master the fish, or so goes my often misguided and fallacious reasoning. By the weekend I'll have a box full of mooneye imitations, and I'll begin the process of weeding out the good from the bad.

Somewhere in the depths of Shenantaha is an eight pound bass that is desperate to make my acquaintance.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


It's been a week, precisely one week since I last wet a line. Dear God. I can't imagine methamphetamine withdrawal is any worse than the jones of a flyflinger who cannot fling his or her flies. Freaking rain! Sure, we needed it. The river was getting a little on the low side, and around here it's always better to have too much water rather than too little. Too often we've too little.

I sometimes fantasize about how truly extraordinary the river would be if it were a tailwater. Some men dream of embracing a lithe, 23 year-old Heather Locklear. Some men dream of embracing a lithe, 23 year-old Richie Sambora. I dream of bottom release dams, stable flows, and top-feeding trout fattened on a diet of consistent mayfly hatches. I dream of the Taylor, the Frying Pan, and the Madison below Hebgen. Give me the Madison River and a 23 year-old Selma Hayek waiting tables at the Grizzly Bar, and then we're really in my happy place.

Of course, bottom release dams wouldn't change the current condition of the river. It's already dammed, and the water is still too high too fish with any reasonable expectation of hooking anything other than one's own derriere. No river. Not today. I'm guessing she'll need at least a week to drop and clear (notice the river is characterized as a "she" ... why? ... she's fickle, unpredictable, and almost entirely beyond my feeble, juvenile understanding).

I suppose I could wet a line in one of the river's several tributaries, or in a tributary to one of the tributaries. No, I don't see that happening either. By June the brush is just too thick on the tribs, and my fat arse doesn't feel up to fighting that particular fight. Nope. The tribs are out. Besides, fishing a trib at the height of the river's season is like eating a matzo ball when you want a steak. There's a time and a place for boiled balls of unleavened dough, but not when you're thinking T-bone.

It's times like these when I find myself wishing I better knew that downstate tailwater everybody fishes. It's supposedly home to the best trout fishing on the east coast. I don't necessarily believe that, but I sure am glad so many other folks do. Regardless, it would be nice to take the drive down and see if there are any drakes left. Do you know, I've never fished a real, honest-to-goodness green drake hatch? The problem is that I'm a teacher and the drakes typically correspond with my busiest time of year. So it goes. Poo-tee-weet. I digress.

The river is out. I refuse to wrestle with the river's tribs. Going downstate is out of the question as I have to be at work by 7:30 tomorrow morning. I'm married, and so too is Salma Hayek. What to do? What to do? It's been a week and I need my fix. Hmmm ...

Eureka! That's it. Holy freaking brainstorm Batman!

One word will say it all I think.


Tune in tomorrow for a report.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Maid in the Living Room, a Cook in the Kitchen ...

In the darkest corners of the darkest places there is whispered an old, politically-incorrect adage about marriage. Such colorful anecdotes have passed out of vogue; we're told that men belittle both women and themselves when using such devisive language. Here goes. "Men want a maid in the living room, a cook in the kitchen, and a whore in the bedroom." In our age of metrosexual, emotionally tempered, gender-neutral and enlightened speech, such aphorisms are ignorant and insulting. Besides ...

Do men really want a maid in the living room?

You betcha' we do, but who doesn't? I know my wife does. As a graduate of a local women's college (don't make the mistake of calling it a girl's school), my wife would undoubtedly go on to say that our maid deserves to be paid on a scale commensurate with men of similar skill and experience. I would reply by suggesting we pay said maid more than her male counterpart if she chooses to sport one of those undoubtedly drafty French maid outfits while scrubbing the baseboards or vacuuming the living room. Marriage is all about compromise.

How about a cook in the kitchen?

Yep. Here too, it would be nice, wouldn't it? If my wife were to derive a particular joy from cooking a New York strip or a well marbled rib eye, then I certainly would not deny her. And again, if she chose to wear one of those frilly French maid outfits then I might happily consider an adjustment to her compensation. Of course, we need to bear in mind that my wife cooks about as well as she changes out head gaskets on '71 Cougar convertibles. It just doesn't happen (it's a joke honey ... love you lamb chop ... I'm going to starve now).

A whore in the bedroom?

I'm already going to be in the doghouse after the cooking comment. A whore in the bedroom? There is just no way I'm going there. I haven't that kind of courage. My wife is pure as the driven snow; my three children were all immaculately conceived. As I am simultaneously blinded by my wife's beauty and incapable of remembering those women who came before her (if in fact there were any), I do not feel qualified to offer an opinion. Instead ...

Let's talk about river bound whores or whorefish as my partners and I call them. I love, desperately and truly love, whorefish. Surely, you've a taste for whorefish as well? What's a whorefish? Come on. I refuse to believe that in a sport largely dominated by a catch-and-release ethic you haven't had a whorefish. Whorefish have been known, in the biblical sense, by other anglers. Many anglers. Many times over.

The Madison River in Montana is filled with whores. This is especially true of the short section in between Quake and Hebgen lakes. So many fish. So many fishermen. Cross the river at the campground below Beaver Creek, fish downstream to the head of Quake, and nearly every rainbow you catch will have scars up and down either side of their jaws. Many will be missing a mandible on one side. Scarred as they are, they are some of the most powerful fish you've ever had tethered to your rod. They're fast and they are easy. They make men feel like men.

My local trench also has its share of harlots. One of my favorite runs, a flat of 100 yards or so, has been dubbed "The Brothel" because it houses any number of these fish. Caught time and again, year after year, the brothel's piscatorial prostitutes never fail to disappoint. They arrive in time for the hendricksons, and they've vanished when the sulphurs appear. I spend each winter dreaming of the coming spring, fantasizing about the whores I've had and those I'll have again. I've caught one particular brothel fish, every year for three successive years. I've the pictures and streaming video to prove it.

And that's what catch-and-release is all about. Isn't it? As flyflingers we're in the business of deflowering our rivers' virgins. We put our marks on them, and then we put them back. We catch for our own sake. We release for the sake of both fish and other fishermen.

Untouched fish are special. This much is true, but ...

I love whorefish too.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Of Shame and Nubby Fins

Several of my previous posts have referred to a river (THE river in fact), and I think I've gone out of my way to give the impression that it is indeed a special place. Much of what makes it special is its propensity for growing large, wild trout. It's a wonderfully complex river, and a fine place for a flyflinger to wet a line. The anglers who wade its runs are blessed with consistent hatches and difficult holding lies, which is precisely why it is such a shame when the stocking trucks arrive on its banks.

Starting about two weeks ago, stocked fish with amputated pectoral fins and stunted tails, starting showing in all the usual places. I caught a slew of them. They're pale, misshapen, and far too eager to chase one's flies. I resented each one as it is difficult for me to find any satisfaction in their capture. The annual stocking of the river drives the river's regulars, including myself, farther back into woods and away from bridges and cookie-cutter fish.

The river is a perfectly viable and self-sustaining fishery. Sadly, bureaucrats seem to think that if tax dollars are available to spend on hundreds of hatchery brood and a metric ton of trout chow, then those dollars positively must be spent. Health of the river or quality of the fishery be damned. Wasteful spending be damned. This is how it has always been done. This is how it will always be done.

Folks like me, who've spent most of their lives on the river, are left confounded. What should we do? On the surface, the right thing is to bring attention the river. Make folks aware of the river's potential. Do what you can to assist folks in experiencing the river as you have. More to the point, demonstrate to taxpayers and tax collectors alike that the dollars spent on raising and stocking hatchery fish are monies better spent elsewhere. The river produces plenty of fish on its own and it does so gratis, free of any expense in treasure or labor.

With attention, however, comes other and perhaps more significant problems. I've alluded to these problems in previous posts, and I won't rehash them here. Suffice to say the truth is that few people respect the river as we do, and they've absolutely no regard for wild fish. This is the sad and inevitable consequence of a society that increasingly prefers artificial landscapes to the natural world, and by extension rubber trout to the real thing.

To illustrate my meaning, I point to the roughly 120 students with whom I daily interact. Of that number only a handful recognize a picture of a pickerel, a brown trout or bass. Only one (God bless you Jeremiah) could tell the difference between a whitetail and a mule deer. All of them (Jeremiah included) instantly recognize the Halo or World of Warcraft series of video games. One particular student actually admitted to devoting 50 or 60 hours a week to video games.

So what do we do? How do we respond when a student, a friend, a neighbor, a son or daughter spend so much time wasting so much time?

I'm not sure, but I think we start by turning off the televisions in our own homes. We shut down the computers and leave them shut down. We take advantage of every available moment and spend that time outdoors. We take our spouses with us. We take our children, both sons and daughters, with us. We take the neighbors' children with us. And we do not start with fly fishing.

We start with picnics, bike rides and hikes. We start by catching crayfish in the stream or picking pussy willows by the pond. We start by being role models, and demonstrating our love of the outdoors. We teach young people that the opportunities afforded to us by nature far outweigh the fleeting satisfaction furnished by the digital world. We teach our kids that the quiet pride one takes in catching a few wary, wild fish, far outweighs the bragging rights one assumes as he or she gloats over a bucket full of stockers.

We remember our Emerson. "The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship."

Friday, June 5, 2009

Writer's Block

I find myself wondering how they do it. Writers, I mean. From where do they draw their inspiration? How do they choose the right words once they're blessed with an idea? I've been staring at my laptop for twenty or thirty minutes, and I am at an impasse. Tabula rasa. Completely blank. It's almost embarrassing. In my professional life I'm a teacher of composition, rhetoric and literature. What would my students say? I'm guessing I'd hear them mutter something along the lines of "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." I hate to say it, but in this instance at least, maybe there's some truth to that expression. Regardless, we're left with the question. How do writers do it?

Take, for example, Stephen King. Debate about the literary merit of his work aside, here is a man who has written somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty novels; this number excludes his many short stories, essays, screen plays and compilations. Granted, his most prolific period coincided with his heaviest cocaine use, but one cannot help but be impressed by an artist with the imagination to pen fifty full-length works of fiction. Consider just a sampling of his subject matter: werewolf clowns, a miracle and a mouse on death row, inter dimensional gun-fighting, alien induced premature aging, the hand of God going nuclear. Damn. The man does four-hundred pages about a curio shop owned and operated by Beelzebub, and here I am struggling to scratch out a few paragraphs about fly fishing. Stephen King I am not.

I suppose I could write about a moment I had on the river just the other day; one of those rarefied moments when an angler looks away from the water and allows himself to take it all in. I was nymphing, and apparently doing a poor job of it as the fish seemed unimpressed. In every way the day was unremarkable, which is why I'm left wondering about the wisdom of writing about such a day. I pulled the cap off my head, swatted at the battalion of mosquitoes and gnats circling my face, looked a few hundred yards downstream, and noticed a tree. Yep. A tree. Big deal, right?

Consider how many trees you see on any given day. Like me, you take them for granted (Arbor Day be damned). When is the last time you were fishing, hiking or even on a walk around the block and heard someone exclaim, "Damn, that's some maple!" In general, people pay no mind to trees (just ask the Lorax). It's the water, which as anglers most concerns us. Fly flingers only bother with trees when they reach out and snag our flies or when we need to pee near the highway.

This tree, however, was genuinely special. Understand that I've spent a lifetime in the woods. I've traveled all over the country, and with the exception of the redwoods or sequoias, the sycamore off in the distance was the most massive example of arboreal ginormousness I had ever seen. Even at 300 yards distance, there was no doubt that it towered over everything around it, and may have been as much as 130 feet tall. I was captivated and compelled to get up close and personal.

The brush surrounding the sycamore was so dense that that it took me over thirty minutes to claw my way to its base. It doesn't help that I am morbidly obese, desperately out of shape, and should probably be writing for Fat Guy Fly Fishing. At any rate, as impressive as was the tree's height, its girth was unbelievable (my wife says the same thing about me, no double entendre intended). It was easily eight feet across. I found myself cursing the cramped quarters, and my inability to take a photograph that adequately demonstrated scale.

As ridiculous as it must sound I have to admit to spending thirty or forty minutes with that tree. By no means am I a tree-hugger. I don't wear Birkenstocks. I use deodorant everyday (at least nearly everyday), and my waistline is a testament to my lack of appreciation for salad. I cannot say why I was so perfectly content simply to be there. I was sitting on the roots of a plant that probably started its life sometime around the American Revolution, and I was positively at ease. There was no need to rush back to river to catch that first fish of the day; no need to do anything but stay right where I was. At that moment, the fish just didn't matter.

When the time came to leave, I contemplated crawling my way back through the brush or pushing forward and trying to make the river. I decided forward had to be easier than going back, and I made the riverbank in only a few minutes (I probably should have stuck to the river on my way down ... duh). Long story short or rather not as long as it could be, I took off my nymphs, rigged up with one of my favorite streamers, made two casts, and caught a strikingly beautiful brown in the shadow of that grand, old tree. I snapped a few pictures, released it, and called it a day. I had been fishing for about five or six hours. I caught precisely one fish.

It was enough.