Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Primitive Experience

"What in the name of Christ is a #$&@*% bowfin?"

So began my first conversation with Drew Price; a conversation we had when the snow was still falling, and schools of winter steelhead ran the currents and eddies of my dreams. We've corresponded many times since that first conversation, sending emails back and forth and sharing the occasional phone call. Each time we've connected, the subjects remained the same. I spoke of steelhead, brown trout, spey flies, and the Battenkill. Drew spoke of carp, pike, bowfin, and his love for Lake Champlain.

An interesting greeting awaited us lakeside

I must admit that I had often thought of making the short drive up north and fishing the big lake. That I didn't owes much to the incredible vastness of the water. It was - after all - once considered the sixth of the Great Lakes. And while Champlain may only be a fraction of the size of either Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, or Ontario, it is still an enormous body of water, and most intimidating when one is considering his or her first trip to its shores. Where to begin? It seems an impossibly difficult question.

I suppose it is fair to say that cartographic intimidation is the reason, more than anything else, that I decided to do something I've avoided throughout my entire 32 years as a bug chucker. I used the services of a guide - my new friend, Drew Price of Master Class Fly Fishing - to ensure I had a proper introduction to Champlain. Drew is a gentleman, an exceedingly competent fly fisher, and very enthusiastic about his home fishery.

Drew with one of the many gar we brought to hand
"So. What the $#^& is a bowfin?"

Until I was introduced to Drew, I had never heard of bowfin. Truth be told, I hadn't heard of quite a few fish until I began speaking with Drew. To my way of thinking - especially now that I've caught a few - a bowfin is twenty or thirty odd inches of prehistoric viciousness eking out a modest living in modern North American lakes. They're the last surviving member of a species of fish whose ancestors swam the waters of the Jurassic period. Also known as dogfish or mudfish, bowfin look a bit like snakehead, but unlike the fish found in so many Florida ponds and canals, they're not an invasive species. Bowfin are native to Champlain, and a vital part of the lake's ecosystem.

Hard to believe the teeth on these things. Multiple rows of pure evil
Perhaps more to the point, bowfin present a tremendous angling opportunity to the intrepid fly rodder. I have to say that fishing for them is like nothing I've ever done before. The process begins in a flat bottomed canoe, that drafts very little water. Having such a craft is almost essential, as the fish sometimes lie in inches of water, and almost always in the thickest weed beds.

I had never seen a canoe quite like Drew's boat. Well suited to cruising over weed beds, and very comfortable over a long day.
Once a fish is spotted, the angler must put the fly - quite literally - right on its nose, and this is the easy part. Not once in the course of the day did I have more than four feet of line past the rod tip, and the leader was simply an additional four feet of 20lb fluorocarbon. Oddly enough, the only fishing I've done that compares - at least in terms of form - is dapping for brook trout on small, mountain streams that were overgrown with brush, but believe me when I tell you that these fish aren't brook trout. The largest fish I hooked - I would estimate it as an honest 10 pounds - broke my 20lb fluorocarbon leader like it was 6X.  

When the wind kicked up we switched gears, and moved to a different bay that was both shielded from the gale and loaded with gar. When I say that the bay was loaded with fish, I mean that I could not believe how many gar we were able to mark. Conservatively, we spotted 200 needlefish sunning themselves right at the surface of the water. 

For the sake of perspective, the fly is about seven or eight inches long.
The gar is a beautiful fish in its own way. Its scales range from deep olives to bright silver and amber. Black spots the size of dimes run along the animal's entire length, and the dorsal, anal, and tail fin are each striped with alternating bands of black and orange. The most distinctive feature is, of course, the gar's beak. I would estimate that the snout accounts for about 20 percent of the overall length of the fish. It is filled with hundreds of small, sharp teeth. Consequently, bug chuckers must handle gar with care. Gloves will make life much simpler, although it is almost inevitable that gar anglers will bleed.

My best fish of the day was a 46" beast that probably came in just under ten pounds. It pounced on the fly like a jungle cat, and the take was vicious. This is far and away the most exciting aspect of gar fishing. Every time Drew spotted a likely player, he would maneuver the boat into position to allow me to place the fly just past the fish. As I stripped the fly past the target, it would turn and chase at speed. When gar take the fly, they shake their heads from side to side like alligators trying to rip flesh from their prey. This entangles the fibers of a fly in their jaws - flies which have a hook only for the sake of legality - and in turn allows an angler a reasonable chance at boating the fish.

I am one of those people who hasn't any idea how to pose for a camera.
All in all, fishing with Drew was a fantastic experience. He's as knowledgeable an angler as any I've ever met, and his zeal for fish and fishery are without peer. I'm convinced that I learned more in this one day than I would have given the entire summer on my own. Thank you Drew. Let's make sure to do it again.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Super Fly

Fly fishing has a tremendous capacity for bringing people together, people who might otherwise never cross paths. Politics, profession, appearance - all the yardsticks by which we usually make our assumptions and judgements - fade into the background like so much noise. When we meet a fellow bug chucker, all that matters is our shared passion for fly rodding. My closest friends are all bug chuckers, and I cannot imagine a world in which they wouldn't be bug chuckers. Yesterday, I was fortunate to make the acquaintance of yet another kindred spirit.

Pat Cohen has received much attention of late. He's a talented fly tyer, whose flies - especially his deer hair creations - belie the fact that he's only been lashing fur and feather to hooks since 2009. His bugs are tied with special attention given to the marriage of colors, and with materials that lend themselves to movement and attraction. I consider myself a competent tyer, but Pat's tying demonstrates a brand of creativity that my own flies lack. The finished products are pieces of functional art, as likely to be displayed on the wall as they are to be tied to a tippet.

What impressed me most about Pat, however, was not his tying or the contents of his fly boxes. Ultimately, it was the man's candor, humility, and appreciation for the water that brought a smile to my face. I enjoyed watching Pat fish water that I've kept to myself for years. At the end of the day, I was glad to have made the invitation, and was left looking forward to another meeting. That isn't to say that the day passed without a hitch because it did not.

Fishing has been a bit difficult over the past two weeks. The heat that has impacted much of the country has made its mark here; the river is very low, most of its better fish have sought refuge in the deepest channels, and they're generally outside the reach of an intrepid bug chucker. Consequently, I thought Pat and I should start the day fishing a section of the river, which I've avoided for the last several years. This piece of water has always been loaded with eager fish regardless of the season, but the wading can be treacherous. The river didn't take long to remind me just how treacherous it can be.

Anyone who knows me understands that while I am a great many things, graceful I am not. I can be counted upon - at least once per trip - to fall in the water, and generally make an ass of myself while doing it. I've gone swimming in the Battenkill (in February), taken a dip in the Salmon River (again, in February), tripped on the Delaware, and bobbed for apples on both the Yellowstone and the Madison. I destroy breathable waders and wading staffs. My lack of grace will rear its ugly head regardless of the company I keep, and it always seems to do so whenever I'd like to keep my pride intact. This trip was no exception.

Less than thirty minutes into the day, my brain decided to take a bathroom break, and left me stepping onto a rock that I knew would move underneath me. In my mind's eye, I saw everything happen before it actually occurred. I would step up on the piece of slate, which likely weighed two hundred pounds. My weight and prodigious girth would cause the slab to shift on the fulcrum upon which it rested, I would lose my balance, slide off of the side, and my leg would drag over the jagged surface. I knew this would happen before it did, but in a moment of epically poor judgement, I moved forward regardless. Everything transpired just as I knew it would. Pat may have chuckled a little as I dragged my bleeding appendage out from under the rock, but he was gracious enough not to give me too hard a time. When - several hours later - I walked through the front door of my home, my son asked if an alligator had grabbed my leg.

"Yes," I said. "But I was able to fight him off. Daddy doesn't play."

Vicious wounds aside, the trip really was quite a lot of fun. Pat and I tied into any number of smallish bass and a few willing carp, which we were able to spot before casting to them. So much of the appeal of carp fishing is the visual nature of the endeavor. To my way of thinking, watching a 10, 15, or 20 pound fish suck in your Woolly Bugger or San Juan Worm is at least as gratifying as watching a hungry bass explode out of the lily pads for a popper or a thick bodied brown trout suck down an emerger. For twenty minutes or so we cast to a cruising mirror carp, whose few scales were all the size of half dollars. The fish chased - yes, carp will chase a fly - Pat's maggot imitation, but a hook-up just wasn't meant to be.

In reflecting on the day and writing this report, I realize that I'm at a point in my life where I do not need to catch the biggest fish in the river. Not anymore. As a matter of fact, I do not necessarily need to catch any fish to genuinely enjoy a fishing trip (although that mirror carp would have been nice). Naturally, it adds to the experience when I do hook up, but it strikes me that fly fishing is about so much more than the fish. Fly fishing is - at least in part - about having the opportunity to spend time with old friends, maybe make a few new friends in the process, and to do what we can to help them all enjoy the water as we do.

 Glad to have met you, Pat. 

Friday, July 22, 2011


Round about three o'clock this morning, I was stuffing my daughter's bed sheets into the washing machine. Just minutes earlier, Tinkerbell and her fellow quilted fairies had been soaked with Emma's bile and vomit. As I loaded the basin, a small chunk of what I must assume was semi-digested Chicken McNugget was propelled from those sheets onto the lens of my glasses. I stood there horrified, helplessly watching the little dollop of gelatinous faux-poultry slide down the length of the lens leaving an opaque snail-trail in its wake. In that moment, I was blessed with a clarity of vision I had previously thought reserved to prophets and philosophers, and I realized a fundamental truth.

More on that in a moment.

I wasn't supposed to play nurse maid today. I was supposed to catch my first bowfin. I was supposed to present flies to 20 pound carp; powerful fish that have a fondness for crayfish and hexagenia nymphs. I was supposed to spend a day on the water; water that is to me both completely foreign and incredibly exciting. Water that has always been close enough to touch, but otherwise just outside my grasp. Virgin water waiting to be deflowered by my rod and my flies.

But toddlers and paternal obligation are no respecters of the quiet sport. Sometimes daddy has to take care of business, even when that business is a regurgitated Happy Meal (I'm suddenly reminded that Happy Meals used to come with cookies ... not anymore ... what a freaking rip off ... damned clown). So today will not be the day. Today will not be the day I finally meet Drew Price of Master Class Angling. Today will not be the day I broaden the limits of my piscatorial experience, and catch a fish whose ancestors swam Paleozoic waters.

Instead, I'll let my baby girl curl up on my lap, and nestle her head into my chest. I'll wipe away the tears when they come, and for sure they'll come - Emma's our crier. I'll push her sandy blonde hair away from her face, kiss her cheek, and tell her she'll feel better soon. I'll do the same for my wife, who seems to experience for herself the discomfort of her children when they're ill. Today, I'll set aside my fly rods, and do all the things that a husband and a father is supposed to do ... which brings us back to a fundamental truth and that piece of plasti-form chicken creeping down the lens of my glasses.

As much joy as I take from fly fishing, as much as the sport fills my thoughts and infuses my dreams, there are other things that matter more. Fishing isn't a priority, not when it comes right down to it. As much as I want to be on the water, I would rather be here, washing the stench of yesterday's fast food from my hands.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Come Out and Play

I fish as much as I possibly can, and when I'm not fishing then I am thinking about fishing. My wife would tell you that I'm obsessed, and while she generally throws that word around just a bit too much, in this case she is correct. I am obsessed, and more often than not my obsession can only be satisfied by the corresponding compulsion to cast a fly. Fly rodding is the one thing - the ONE thing aside from family - about which I am truly passionate. Everything else stands in fly fishing's shadow.

Given my obsession - or passion depending on one's point of view - I consider it a blessing that I've been able to surround myself with people who love fly fishing almost as much as I do. I've friends that will arrange months of vacation and work schedules around a steelhead trip, or drop everything - including anniversaries, child care, and work deadlines - to make for the river when the year's first hendricksons begin to show. These men (and yes ... they're all men ... much to my chagrin) understand that when the river offers up her bounty - as she so rarely does - it is simply rude not to accept the gift.

This is what both perplexes and vexes me about my brothers-in-arms. The fellas with whom I most often fish are dedicated trout hounds. They love cold water. They love mountains and free flowing rivers. They love rainbows porpoising over a strong hatch of emerging duns, and scum feeding browns nosing up through the remnants of last night's spinner fall. They love big fish - strong fish - doggedly pulling drag from their reels, or running like thoroughbreds to the next pool. They're invested in trout and - to a lesser degree - steelhead and salmon.

Sadly, their love of cold water fish and spring fed fisheries does not necessarily translate to an interest in other species. My closest friends and fishing partners largely ignore warmwater fishing. The reasons for their disdain vary from a lack of knowledge of local lakes and slow moving ditches, to the contempt bred of familiarity. Most of the boys spent their childhoods chasing bass, bream, pike and walleye. For these fellas, trout fishing is still fresh and new; it is the undiscovered country.

But my history is a little different. I fished warmwater as much as the rest of them, but I spent additional time - years in fact - traipsing along the shores of the Battenkill with my father. Consequently, my fly fishing knows no allegiance. I'll wet my line in a mud puddle if that's the only option, and this time of year - when the water warms to dangerous temperatures for cold water fish - the best option for both fish and fisherman is to change tactics and fisheries.

Please don't misunderstand my intent. Neither do I write to ridicule anyone for the choices they make nor to argue in favor of pursuing one species instead of another. This has been done ad nauseam, and the arguments are tedious. Instead, I write today to appeal to my friends to reconsider. Please fellas. Please come out and play.

Join me downstream. Join me past the mountains and the spring fed portions of the river. Join me past redbands rising to olives, and speckles smacking hoppers. Join me where the river turns her back on brown trout, and instead casts a smile on brozebacks, buckets, and golden bones. These fish have merit, even if they haven't proper breeding.

Do it for me boys. I get lonely out there without someone to mock my poorly tied flies, my amateurish casting, or my elephantine wading.  I need someone to spot carp cruising on the flats, and to hold the fish for a photo. Come on ... hook a  brother up. Isn't fishing warmwater - be it for bass, carp, pike, fallfish or whatever - a better option than languishing on your couch. Give it a shot. Just one carp, and I'll bet you're hooked deeper than the fish.

I'll even buy the beer.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Non-Report Report

Things have been slow around here, and there hasn't been much to report. July has only seen one or two fishing trips, and those trips have been lackluster at best. My time at the vise hasn't really been spent at the vise, but rather cleaning and straightening the swath of tornado-like destruction that surrounds my vise. I've drafts of some 30 or 40 posts languishing in the blog's editor, but I haven't had the motivation or the inspiration to finish any of them. I'll get around to it eventually. I suppose I've been behaving like someone on vacation because I am - after all - on vacation.

So here are a few photographs (I've been playing around with Photoshop's black and white) to fill the void until I get around to something of more substance ...

Ben makes a fine subject for a photo as long as he doesn't know someone is taking his picture.
I once saw Joe Humphreys give a presentation in which he suggested that bug chuckers forget to "look up" when they're on the water. Well, sometimes they forget to look down.
And when they do look up ...

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Mud Running

Did a little mud running this afternoon. It's been nearly a year since I last wet wade, and by God it felt good to be free of Gortex. There were a slew of carp working the flats, and four came to hand before the school spooked. The afternoon was especially gratifying given the thunder storm currently raging outside my window. It's good I got wet when I did.