Saturday, March 16, 2013


There was a time when outdoor writers wrote about much more than the outdoors. Hunting was more than hunting; fishing was more than fishing, and the campfire was the hub about which the wheels of the world turned. For whatever reason, we've moved away from that. More often than not, today's outdoor writers are technical writers. Fly fishing publications - both books and periodicals - oftentimes read like DIY home repair guides; they're more about method than they are about meaning. We've too much data. We need stories. We need metaphor.

With that thought in mind, I found this sonnet while browsing poems with my students.  As I'm a father of two precocious little girls and one very rambunctious little boy I was taken by the poem's imagery and the ambiguity of the last two lines.

Thought some of you folks might appreciate "Fishing" as I do ... 


The two of them stood in the middle water,
The current slipping away, quick and cold,
The sun slow at his zenith, sweating gold,
Once, in some sullen summer of father and daughter.
Maybe he regretted he had brought her—
She'd rather have been elsewhere, her look told—
Perhaps a year ago, but now too old.
Still, she remembered lessons he had taught her:
To cast towards shadows, where the sunlight fails
And fishes shelter in the undergrowth.
And when the unseen strikes, how all else pales
Beside the bright-dark struggle, the rainbow wroth,
Life and death weighed in the shining scales,
The invisible line pulled taut that links them both.
      - A.E. Stallings


Tuesday, March 12, 2013


Let's get right to it ...

The four most under-appreciated sensations in fly fishing ... so sayeth The Rusty Spinner.

#4. The distinctive "Thunk, Thunk, Thunk" of a newbie's knuckles beating against the handle of his reel's backward spinning spool - while the steelhead he's inadvertently hooked does its best to run back to the mouth of the river.

A steelhead is a special animal: streamlined, strong, fast, ridiculously fast in fact, and almost wholly unpredictable. I've been led to believe that the only other fly rod quarry that comes close to eclipsing the steelhead's athleticism are albies and tarpon, but I haven't chased either so I'm left to wade my little freshwater corner of the world relatively certain that steelhead are the most dynamic fish that bug chuckers like myself are ever likely to chase.

 Photo: Benjamin Jose

And because few fish compare to the steelhead for its strength and tenacity, little can be done to prepare the uninitiated for his or her first hookup with a chromer. Mine came nearly 15 years ago on the Salmon River in New York. My friend and guide for the day, Shawn Brillon, had taken me to one of the spots on the river notorious for being a petting zoo. I was assured that the fish would be stacked one atop another like strippers on a banker's lap. If a newb (stealing the term from my video game playing students) was going to hook a fish anywhere in the river then that spot was as good a bet as any and a better bet than most.

Five or six hours after having first stepped into the water my arm was growing sore from the repetition of casting, and my mind was drifting off to warmer and more prolific fishing trips. Naturally, it was in that moment - a moment in which my cold addled brain had finally shuffled off its mortal coil and began to travel the astral plane - when the first steelhead I had ever hooked (and the largest I've hooked in the fifteen years since) decided to swallow my ridiculously gaudy fly. Everything happened so quickly that my synapses were overloaded and simply ceased to function. In that moment, I wasn't an angler; I was a spectator witnessing an angler's demise. I had as much hope of setting the hook, adjusting my drag, and fighting that fish as I did of being named Playmate of the Year. As a consequence, I was left with little more than broken images of a tail as wide as both my hands when splayed side by side, a short and frayed length of tippet, and three sore knuckles on my left hand.

Such is the case with most bug chuckers who opt to chase winter chrome. They read about steelhead for years before finally stepping into the river. They tie dozens of flies, and invest thousands of dollars in gear. They almost always go sleepless the night before that first trip (sometimes that insomnia follows them throughout their steelheading lifetimes), and when the day finally arrives they usually finish out with little more than tired eyes and raw knuckles.

#3. The penetrating stench of thousands of putrefying salmon carcasses.

How do I describe the aroma that descends on a king salmon river in the weeks after the annual spawning run has begun?  Hmmm ...


Imagine a piece of road kill; a piece of day-old road kill. Perhaps it's a raccoon or an o'possum. Perhaps the dearly departed is a porcupine or your neighbor's cat. Whatever your choice, put the image foremost in your mind. Now imagine you've discovered the animal as it stews and boils in the blistering August sun. The coon - or perhaps the cat - is bloated near bursting. Maggots crawl from all of its orifices - ALL of its orifices, and fat green-bodied flies swarm about its head.

Now consider that immediately prior to its death, the animal crawled out of a fetid bog. The fen and our festering friend both stink of mud and decay. There's a damp sourness that hangs in the air. You feel soiled, as if you're somehow infected by the bitterness.

And we would be remiss if we forgot the Amish. Yes, the Amish. As it happens our friend has died in Amish country. The devout frequently ride this particular stretch of highway in their small black buggies, beards and bonnets blowing in the wind. Their horses - straining against the leather rigging - have made the trip from farmstead to farmstead so many times that the animals run on instinct. They hardly notice the trail of dung that marks their route. As it happens, our friend's slowly disintegrating body has come to rest upon an especially generous pile of Mennonite manure.

Such is the penetrating aroma of a salmon river during the height of the run. The stink lingers for weeks, but that stench ... that gloriously putrid stench ... is certainly a harbinger of better things to come. Steelhead.

As long as there's death on the wind we know there's steelhead on the way.

#2. The don't-so-much-as-breathe anticipation you feel when a carp considers your fly. 

You're seventeen years old. You and your girl are sitting on the bench seat of your father's brand new, 1990 Nissan hard body pickup. It's late, very late; on any other night you could expect an earful from the old man as soon as you walked through the door.

"You have any idea what time it is? ... not a word ... shut it. Not ... a ... word. Say good night to your mother. She's been worried sick. You and I will speak tomorrow. I would cancel any plans you might have, and there'd better not be so much as a scratch on that truck."

But tonight isn't just any night. Tonight is prom night. You've a pass from your mother and your father's reluctant blessing. Pop let you take his truck because he'd be damned if he was going to pay for a limo, and you've discovered that the truck works just fine. More than anything else, it is the truck that allows you this moment.

The festivities have been over for an hour or so. You, your bevy of friends, and their respective dates had been dancing vigorously and awkwardly for four hours. All the while your girl took your breath away. Never in your wildest pubescent imaginings had you seen such a beautiful creature. She was an angel on Earth, and she was there with you.

And then the two of you were alone in Dad's pickup; parked on some nameless, unpaved, backroad - music playing quietly on the radio. Your lips were close enough to share a breath, and her eyes - oh, the look in her eyes. Your hand slid slowly up her stockinged thigh, and she did not protest. Instead, she moved still closer ...

To this day you vividly remember your hand shaking. You remember the bead of sweat on your brow, and you remember thinking, "Is this really happening? Is this REALLY happening?"

Such is carp fishing. Every time a carp inspects a fly, the bug chucker connected to that fly holds his breath. He wonders if this will be the one. Will the fish eat? Usually, the answer is a resounding "No!" but every so often the answer is, "Yes!" Our hands shake, and maybe we even sweat a little. That's the joy of carp fishing. Nothing is certain, and every time is like the first time.

Yes, I just compared carp fishing to sex ... don't knock it until you've tried it (both carp fishing and sex).

#1. The gut wrenching agony we experience after losing what may have been the best fish of the year.

You can fast forward the video to about the 48 second mark, and then watch the hysterics ensue. My reaction kind of says it all.

That's the funny thing about disappointment though; it is disappointment - and perhaps an equal dose of hopeful anticipation - that keeps us coming back to the river. All of us know loss, but regardless of that loss we're always back on the water at the first opportunity. Losing fuels us. Losing shapes our memories. Losing drives us to pursue the ephemeral and chase the intangible. In many ways, losing may be the best part of the game.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Hatch is On!

Oregon resident Chris Santella must have quite the bucket list. He is the author of several enormously popular travel and adventure books: Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before You Die, Fifty Places to Dive Before You Die, Fifty Places to Hike Before You Die, and Fifty More Places to Fly Fish Before You Die amongst others. Santella's books span such an eclectic mix of topics and locations that I'm not sure anyone - regardless of time or resources - could possibly hope to visit even a small fraction of the places his titles feature. For my part, I'll likely only visit any of those places when I dream, and when I dream - I dream of golden dorado in Bolivia and rainbow trout in Kamchatka (both covered in Fifty Places). I will have lived a full life if I live to see either place. 

Santella's latest book is slated for release on April 2nd of this year. The Hatch Is On! has a very interesting premise insofar as it deviates slightly from Santella's previous work. This book is not necessarily about locations - although the places mentioned in the book feature prominently. Rather, The Hatch Is On! is about the one thing that - more than any other - makes fly fishing distinct and different from other forms of angling. The Hatch Is On! is about annual rites of nature that draw fish and fishermen alike: green drakes and salmonflies, golden stones and hendricksons, olives and sulphurs. The Hatch Is On! is all about the hatch. As it happens, one of the hatches detailed in Santella's book is one that I know well. 

Tricos usually begin to appear on the Battenkill (to say Battenkill River is redundant as kill means river) in mid July. By the time the morning spinner falls reach their peak, the fish have keyed in on the diminutive bugs, and the fishing can be simultaneously very rewarding and excruciatingly frustrating. There's something about watching an eight inch wild brook trout follow a fly for 10 or 12 feet before refusing the offering that can get into a bug chucker's blood. I'd be lying if I said I have the hatch figured; to the contrary, the hatch mystifies me as much now as it did when I first chased the bugs from riffle to riffle. I am fortunate, however, to know someone who does have his finger on the pulse of the Battenkill trico. As it happens, this man is a close friend, and I wasn't the least bit surprised when I was told that Santella had approached him about penning a chapter for the book.     

Shawn Brillon is a curmudgeon. It is ironic that for most of his adult life he has worked in industries that require him to associate with people because as a rule - Shawn is not a people person. I've known the man for nearly two decades, and some days I'm convinced he only tolerates me because I'll drive to the river and I've exceedingly good taste in beer. What Shawn lacks in people skills, however, he more than makes up for with an uncanny ability to commune with all things piscatorial. Every aspect of my game - tying, casting, reading water - has improved directly as a result of my having known Shawn. He is exceedingly talented, and when one finally surmounts the brusque exterior, he can be among the best of friends and teachers. More to the point, Shawn is a bona fide trico-whisperer.

Anything else I might write at this point would likely seem disingenuous. What I'd like to do instead of continuing to sing my friend's praises, is to leave you with a small excerpt from Shawn's contribution to The Hatch Is On! - including the recipe for one of his favorite trico patterns (both reproduced here with permission from Chris Santella). Again, Santella's latest offering will be available from and other retailers come April 2nd, but the book is available for pre-order even now. You'll find the details here ...

Shawn's "Get-It-Dun" Trico as appearing in The Hatch Is On! (photo: Shawn Brillon)
Hook: Orvis Big Eye dry fly, 22 to 24
Thread: Black 8/0
Tail: Cream hackle fibers or Cream Mayfly tails (aka Micro Fibetts)
Abdomen: (Male) stripped peacock eye or Black 8/0 thread ribbed with white 8/0 thread (Female)  bleached stripped peacock eye - use as is or tint quill with olive green marking pen, or 8/0 White thread.
Thorax: Black Dry fly dubbing sparsely dressed.
Wing: CDC wing post white, or white turkey flat.
Hackle: Grizzly dry fly tied sparsely. 

"The wild browns of the Battenkill are the kind of selective trout that can make a difficult hatch even more maddening to negotiate.  The river is slow moving, the upper half (where the best Trico emergences occur) has a silt bottom, making wading ill-advised; and the fish hug the banks.  Nor is there much structure.  “A spot where a tree branch hits the water passes for a riffle,” Shawn added.  “It might be the only break in the water for 200 yards.  Even the native brookies are skittish.  The Battenkill is the only river I have ever fished where brook trout will turn your fly patterns down after following them for 20 feet and not come back to take a second look.  You have to make a downstream presentation on the Battenkill, and you have to control your expectations; a good day is three or four fish.  The fish are tough, and you should feel happy if you find a few.

“In the early days, I ran through the gamut of questions as to why I couldn’t consistently hook up during prolific Trico hatches.  I examined my presentation techniques; they seemed correct.  I looked at my fly selection—it seemed spot on.  So I began a closer evaluation of the flies themselves.  I returned to the river and started collecting naturals and comparing them to all the commercial patterns I’d used.  I figured it was time to take what I had observed in the field and apply it to some of the patterns I had had some success with. I concluded they were over dressed, the tails too short, the bodies too fat and bulky, the wings too large.  Also, there was little consideration of the color difference between the males and females.  Not all tricos are jet black in color; the males (which hatch before dawn or late the night before) are black, but what came off the water in the early morning were olive to cream in color and a little larger than the males.  To complicate matters even more, the spinners were a mix of smaller black-bodied bugs and larger white-bodied bugs ...

... This particular day I sat down and watched this angler have his way with several of the nice fish that I had seen sipping spinners over the past several weeks.  Being a guy who goes to the river to relax and get away from the reality of life, I always respect the silence and don’t tend to talk to anyone who’s fishing.  But this time I just had to figure out what this angler was doing or what fly he was using that granted him such great success.   I purposely hung out until the angler started to walk in my direction. We introduced our selves, and he said he knew who I was, ‘The Orvis guy who worked in the retail store.’  To this day I cannot recall his name, though when I mentioned him to other Battenkill regulars, they called him ‘The Heron.’  As we chatted, I learned that we had lots in common:  We both fished bamboo rods, had CFO reels and knew the river in and out.  The difference was that on this day, he was catching fish.  Eventually, I just had to ask, ‘What are you using to hook so many nice fish?’  I about passed out when he passed his rod to me so I could examine a size 10, heavily chewed-up Royal Coachman dry. That’s right, a huge Royal Coachman.  As I laughed, he explained that he gave up trying to figure out the Trico hatch 20 years before and went back to the confidence fly of his youth."

- italicized text excerpted from The Hatch is On!, Chris Santella (2013)