Sunday, January 24, 2016

On Salmon River F@#kdoggles and Moses Descending the Mountain

There is something about the experience of fishing New York's, Salmon River that lends itself to the expansion of the bug chucking vernacular. Maybe it's the easy wading. Maybe it's the unspoiled landscape. Maybe it's the native women: exotic, mysterious, toothy. Whatever the reason, nearly every time we're wading the river's currents we're faced with some new rub - something unlike anything we have ever before experienced. Sometimes this strangeness is born of mother nature, but more often it's the river's anglers who leave us scratching our heads like space monkeys staring down some strange, foreign fruit. Consider one of our latest additions to the lexicon: f@#kdoggle. F@#kdoggle was spawned on a day and in a moment when we couldn't quite make sense of the world - a moment in which some of our fellow bug chuckers forgot the lessons learned from their fathers, grandfathers, or in that short section of The Curtis Creek Manifesto devoted to etiquette and the fishing of a popular spot.

F@#kdoggle's genesis saw a late November morning break crisp and clear as five of us settled into one of our favorite runs. We arrived at the river around 4 a.m., made a pot of coffee that smelled like sex and tasted of malted turpentine, and as the sun peeked out over the trees we started our rotation: one man at the head, three working through the bucket, one man in the tailout. Cast, step, cast, step. From top to bottom, the whole process took us some 45 leisurely minutes to complete, and with five anglers swinging five different flies on five different tips, we were likely hitting every fishable inch of the water column. Our rotation allowed each of us a shot at the best sections of the run; two of us hooked steelhead on our first pass, and with our second hookup so began the F@#kdoggle.

One of the peculiarities of fishing the Salmon River is that regardless of where we might wet our line we're likely to have an audience. There are only 16 river miles from dam to lake, and some of that water is private and posted. Consequently, a great many anglers are packed into a relatively small space. Compounding the effect of limited space is an epidemic of steelhead fever, which is a potent affliction with the power to make men do things - despicable things - they would never do on an ordinary trout stream.

As that second fish took off on its first run, the alarm of line peeling from the reel had the effect of alerting a trio of passing anglers to the presence of fish in the water. Standing on the ridge overlooking the riffle, they huddled, they whispered, and they pointed. Plans were made. While three of our party contended with the chaos of landing, photographing, and releasing our second steelhead of the day, the three musketeers slipped into the empty spaces between us and began nymphing the seam. In typical Salmon River fashion, not one of the interlopers ever said "hello" or made introduction. No one asked to join our group or to share the water, and before we could finish that first pot of Death Wish Coffee, our rotation had ended.

There is no way of knowing if those three anglers were the advanced guard for a larger group or if some member of our party owed a karmic debt, but no sooner did our nymphing cousins set up in the middle of the run than four more anglers tiptoed into the tailout, waded clumsily across the river through the very water our bottom most man was fishing, and then set up on the far bank directly across from us. To be clear, in the space of ten or fifteen minutes, five anglers had ballooned to twelve. Twelve anglers were fishing a piece of water that could comfortably hold four, accommodated five so long as they were all were in synch, but became something of a circus if stretched beyond that limit. The result?

The early stages of a F@#kdoggle.

But numbers alone do not a F@#kdoggle make. F@#kdoggle requires a certain something - something even the most talented writer might find difficult to articulate. A carnival barker would say it's a spectacle, extravaganza, or a feast for the senses. Southern gentry might suggest it's a heckuva hullaballoo. A soldier returning from war would speak more plainly and call it a clusterf@#k.

And a clusterf@#k it was. Shortly after crossing and scattering any fish that may have been lying in the tailout, one of those bug chuckers on the opposite bank hooked - or rather snagged - a late season king salmon. The angler was fishing at the top of the run, immediately across the river from our coffee pot and top most man, when his tippet likely tickled the mudshark's dorsal (or the whitish stub that remained of its dorsal). Suffering the onset stages of steelhead fever (or perhaps having an epileptic fit), the fisherman immediately set the hook Bassmaster Classic style, and for fifteen minutes we were treated to Jo-Jo the Idiot Circus Boy running up and down the far bank as he chased a fish that had likely spawned a week prior and was just moments earlier looking for a quiet place to die. Eventually, one of our party spoke up.

"For f@#k's sake," he yelled. "You have a king, and it's snagged in what used to be a dorsal fin. That little chartreuse spot on its putrefying back ... yeah, that's your fly. Just break it off so the rest of us can get back to crossing lines with each other. F@#king halfstack."

Jo-Jo's response summed up the whole scene: "I want my fly back."

He wanted his fly back. Of course he did. For the sake of that 75 cent Estaz egg, he was willing to inconvenience everyone else in the run, and for the sake of a fish, he was willing to disregard anything his mama ever taught him about courtesy. He was willing to set up directly across from eight other anglers in what may be one of the narrowest runs on the river. He was willing to cross the river through water in which another bug chucker was swinging a fly. He was willing to forgo any semblance of grace, courtesy, or decorum. He was willing to do things he would never consider doing on other, more refined rivers. Why? Because this was the Salmon River, and for reasons known only to the river gods, there are no rules governing civility on the Salmon River.

We propose to end that tradition. Like Moses descending the mountain, we carry with us the law - rules to live by for the Salmon River's fisherman: bug chuckers, pinners, and gear heads alike. Consider them. Please, consider them. It's not about you; it's not about us. It's not about one group of fishermen or another. It's about the health of a river that has been hurting and the hope our children might enjoy it as we have.

Ten Commandments of the Salmon River

  1. I am the river, Salmon River; thou shalt consider me before all things. 
  2. Thou shalt leave neither refuse, nor excrement, nor entrails, nor mono, nor any sign of man strewn on my shores.
  3. Thou shalt not floss, nor line, nor snag; for snaggers are as thieves, and they shall be made to crawl on their bellies. 
  4. Honor the steelhead and her brood; she is of water and there must remain so to bring joy to the joyless. 
  5. Thou shalt not kill any steelhead but to soothe thine family's hunger. 
  6. Thou shalt not Boga for Boga is of the serpent of the abyss - the destroyer of piscine souls.
  7. Thou shalt show courtesy in all that you do as grace begets beauty, and beauty begets peace.
  8. Thou shalt rotate thine water with both friend and strangers on the path; for rotation is of the spirit, and spirit is of the river.
  9. Thou shalt not covet your neighbor's riffle, but will instead offer him your own. 
  10. Thou shalt carry these words with you, and sew them as seed; for in the planting thou shalt be blessed. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Eternally Wild

I go to a dark place when I watch this video and juxtapose the film with what I see on New York's, Salmon River.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

On the Salmon River, Common Sense, and Watching a Friend Die

You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to. - Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving

I first wet a line in New York's, Salmon River nearly twenty years ago. Shawn Brillon - a dear friend who now works for Montana Fly Company and calls home Columbia Falls, Montana - introduced me to the water, the region, and some of the people who once frequented its banks. Our first trip was one I'll never forget but not because I caught my first steelhead. I did not catch a steelhead on that trip or even on my next trip. In fact, I did not catch my first steelhead for several years after Shawn first dragged me to the river; I was a most reluctant passenger. Instead, that first trip left an indelible impression because the whole experience was so unlike anything I had ever encountered.

Until the day Shawn first took me to the salmon-centric towns of Altmar and Pulaski, my fly fishing had been relegated to the days between April 1st and September 30th, which at the time marked the length of New York's regular trout season. In those days, I chased trout and smallmouth bass. Occasionally, I'd wet a line for panfish or carp. I fished when the weather made for a comfortable day of fishing; winter run steelhead were completely off my radar. 

Winter fishing seemed an aberration. Why would any bug chucker, who by my juvenile understanding was most concerned with dry flies and rising trout, willingly consent to fish in the middle of a lake-effect snow storm?  What was a Korker? How in God's name was I supposed to cast half an ounce of lead on a 10', single-handed rod? At the time, spey rods were as foreign to me as camel racing and switch rods had yet to be born. What the hell was Estaz, and why would any self respecting, out-sized trout eat something I might otherwise hang on my Christmas tree?    

I remember being wholly miserable for most of that first trip. I was nauseated from the three hour drive to the river (Shawn drives far too slowly and indulges in the brake pedal far too much for my tender constitution to bear). Several hours with my lower extremities submerged in the near frozen, gelatinous currents left me in what must have been the early stages of hypothermia; no doubt a consequence of my own ignorance, inadequate clothing, and the brutal November storm that drove freezing rain into our faces on a near horizontal axis. At any point, I would have happily packed up, gone home, and never returned to what I thought may have been the final, frozen circle of Dante's, Inferno. And then Shawn hooked a fish.

Nearly twenty years have passed and I can still see ten pounds of platinum silhouetted against the blue-black slate lining the Salmon River's banks. The hen somersaulted from the water and cartwheeled twice before slamming back home with such force a passerby might reasonably have thought a pony had fallen from the sky and plunged into the pool. Nearly twenty years, and I can still see the fish and the smile on my friend's face.

Much has changed from then to now. Like many Salmon River anglers, I quickly graduated from running line and slinkies to floating line and indicators. Eventually, the bobbers (let's call them what they are) disappeared and my single-handed sticks were replaced with switch rods. In recent years, I've laid aside nymphs and eggs entirely. Now, I swing flies - some big, some small, all of them beautiful in their way - along the seams in which the river's steelhead reside.

Unfortunately, as my fishing has evolved the fishery itself seems to have devolved along a contrary arc. The past two seasons have been especially discouraging. By all accounts, salmon and steelhead returns have been somewhat diminished from their height in 2011 and 2012. Evidence for reduced numbers of returning fish is largely anecdotal, but far more disturbing than the possibility of a reduced return (which may happen for any number of reasons, be perfectly innocuous, and part of a normal cycle) is a confirmed steelhead die-off, which is in its second year and shows no signs of abating. Fisheries biologists claim the explosion in steelhead mortality is the result of a thiamine deficiency, which is in turn caused by a staple in the steelhead's diet: the alewife.

My most recent trip to the river drove home the implications of such a die off. After a full day on the water, I had only one tug. As my fly (a diminutive #6 purple heron) swung across the lip of a tailout, it was intercepted by a large steelhead intent on making a fool of me. In one instant I was into my backing, and in the next moment the fish was gone. Of course, one pull - on a swung fly over the course of an icy January day - is all any bug chucker can reasonably hope for. Most days, I would have left the river feeling quite content and satisfied with myself.

Instead, I spent the drive home thinking about the three dead or dying steelhead I saw drift past me as I worked my fly through the run. Eight hours. One hookup. Three dying fish, and two of them were hens. Plump, egg-heavy hens. What makes this especially unfortunate is that I've seen this death dance repeat itself on nearly every trip I've taken to the river over the past year. Lately, a day wading the Salmon River leaves me feeling like I'm watching a friend battle cancer, like I'm watching a friend die. The Salmon River has become a killing field.

So what's a bug chucker to do? I suppose it would be easy to turn a blind eye or to give ourselves over to despondency, but neither ignorance nor despair get us anywhere. Instead, I suggest we begin by using some common sense, but first let's be clear about something. The Salmon River that we all know and love, is an artificial fishery.

As its name implies, the Pacific salmon is indigenous to the left coast, not the Great Lakes. Kings were originally stocked and today exist in Great Lakes tributaries only so they might combat the invasive alewives that are at the heart of the steelhead's trouble. To be clear, the Salmon River's steelhead enter the river in the fall to feed on the eggs of the fish whose purpose is to feed on the fish that is killing steelhead. If this were a Star Trek episode, this would be the point when someone mentions a tear in the space-time continuum.

And this is where common sense comes into play. If we want the fishery, complete with all its artificiality, faults, and ironies, to survive and to flourish, then we need to help it along as best we can. Fewer fish means those remaining stocks are all the more precious, which means we need to become kinder, gentler anglers. I suggest we all agree to the following:
  1. Let 'em go. There is no good reason to keep a steelhead when the future of the steelhead fishery is uncertain. Yes, it's legal. Yes, you can. You can also grind up a Budweiser bottle, mix it with hamburger, and feed the fatal mixture to your dog. But why would you (either drink Budweiser or feed a bottle to your dog)? It's a heartless thing to do. It's a douche move. Don't be a heartless douche. You love your dog, and you love your steelhead.
  2. Keep 'em in the water. If you want to take a photo then make it a quick photo. If you need to weigh a steelhead because you think it might be a personal best, put the damn Boga grip on your net, weigh the fish in the net, and then - once you've revived and released the fish - subtract the weight of the net. I assume you're capable of simple math, and steelhead weren't made to be hung in the air from their bottom lip any more than you were. If you know a guide, please forward this to him.
  3. Stop snagging 'em. Here, I am speaking foremost to my fellow bugchuckers, especially those who frequent the lower fly zone in Altmar. Some of you guys need to cut it out. You know you're lining fish. You know you're lifting them. You ... know ... it, and you know who you are. If a steelhead won't move to your fly or bait, then chances are good it hasn't the energy to survive a prolonged battle at the end of your line (perhaps as the result of a thymine deficiency). This may seem awfully preachy of me, perhaps even a little hypocritical given I've only been swinging flies for a few years, but for God's sake, challenge yourself. Fish in such a way as to give the fish an advantage. Be beyond reproach. All this leaves aside the fact that the LFZ has some beautiful swinging water if only people would rotate through the runs and fish them that way.
  4. Preach on brother. Preach on. When you encounter someone riverside who's doing the wrong thing, encourage them to do the right thing. Model the correct behaviors, and if encouragement doesn't do the trick, then be abrasive. Call them out on their nonsense. I can guarantee they're more afraid of conflict than you are; they won't dare mess with someone who has the moral high ground. The same ego that pushes them to snag a fish is also their Achilles heel. They're not afraid of you, but they're terrified of being mocked by their friends and fellow bug chuckers. They're piscatorial pussies. Embarrass them. Shame them.  

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

On Looking Back and New Beginnings

I cannot believe over a year has passed since I last logged into The Rusty Spinner. I've felt the absence - acutely and genuinely. Like so many bug chuckers, I enjoy an opportunity to talk fly fishing when I can't be on the water, and for several years this blog had been the vehicle by which I could have those conversations. I've missed it, even if it's true that most of the time I spent here was likely spent talking to myself.

Regardless, I hope that today's post will mark something of a new beginning for The Rusty Spinner. I've blown the dust off the laptop, and I am feeling ready to go. The experience is akin to the anticipation we all likely feel in the moments before a fishing trip; and we all know how powerful that feeling can be.

Here's to hoping the river gods will see fit to bless me with some inspiration. Until my muse arrives, I hope you'll be satisfied with some amateurish and poorly edited fish porn.