Monday, November 23, 2009

Fish on Every Cast

"I must have got a fish on every cast!" A statement that almost every fisherman has used at one time or another to describe a good day of fishing. A fisherman's honesty can be dubious at best when it comes to the subject of fish size and numbers, but a statement suggesting that every cast resulted in fish, seriously? To quote my favorite line from Super Troopers, "I'll believe that when me shit turns purple and smells like rainbow sherbet."

Now let me tell you how I had my day where I nearly caught a fish on every cast. First off, this was on public waters not private so I wasn't fishing in a private puddle of water over-loaded with big-dumb fish (not that I am against big-dumb fish). I was fishing on a 400 acre lake during a strong chironomid (midge) hatch.

Midges have 3 stages of life-cycle that trout care about: larval, pupal, and adult stages. When they are hatching the emerging midges are in the pupal stage. In the pupal stage the midges suspend just off the mud bottom of the lake gathering air bubbles for their vertical ascent. They remain suspended for an appreciable amount of time, which is a behavior that trout key into because the trout can leisurely swim along the bottom slipping in midges by the thousands. (The photo to the right is a few midge pupa retrieved with the use of a throat pump from a trout's mouth.  Notice the silvery luminescence of the body due to trapped air bubbles.)  I have caught fish during an intense midge hatch that spewed black clouds of midge pupa from their mouth as they fought to be netted. Chironomids individually might be diminutive, but by en mass they present a good protein rich meal for the fish. Think about a kernel of popcorn; not much by when eaten by itself, but if you eat the entire jumbo bucket at the movies you will be full!

Midge pupa don't move very fast so presenting them with a fly can be challenging using traditional tactics. Tradition would suggest using a steady sinking line with a weighted fly and retrieving the fly horizontally with any number of retrieves. Just in the past few years fishing with a strike indicator has become popular in this situation (or at least in North America; the Brits apparently have been doing it for a while). The key setup includes a strike indicator with a weighted midge pupa pattern (or two) suspended at the depth of the water minus a few inches (to raise the fly off the bottom). The indicator is for all intents and purposes a bobber and any movement of it indicates an encounter of the piscatorial variety. (The photo to the up/left shows how fun indicator fishing can be when the fishing is good.)  The thing to fishing with an indicator is that a single cast and retrieve can take up to 5 minutes. It is slow fishing requiring spades of patience. However, when you are in the right place at the right time with the right rig then you can almost hook a fish on every cast. See where I am going with this?

So back to my little 400 acre lake. Once the midge hatch got going around 10am until the time it finished around 2:30pm I nearly hooked a fish on every cast. I certainly did not land a fish on every cast, but over this time interval I did almost get a bite on every cast. So maybe my fish-on-every-cast claim had to be qualified with a few other factors (time interval and slow cast rate). I am a fisherman after all and as we established earlier am not to be trusted on matters of the fish that rainbow sherbet I smell?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Why Do I Fish?

As an electrical engineer I tend to see the world in two views: analog and digital. Digital electronics consists of sequences of only two voltages: 0's and 1's. Similarly, I consider a digital lifestyle as very predictable, redundant, and somewhat tiresome. For example, set the alarm for the same time every day, go to work, sit in on a few meetings, try to do some real work, go home, make dinner, do dishes and a few chores, go to bed, and then rinse an repeat tomorrow. Predictable. Redundant. Boring. Digital.

Conversely, analog electronics operate on a continuous spectrum of voltages not just two discreet values. I consider an analog lifestyle in a word as freedom. Freedom to live life on my terms not on terms dictated by an employer, spouse, or anyone else. This is the void in my life that fishing fills. Realistically, I can't live a gypsy lifestyle and still collect a paycheck to support my family and fishing addiction. Fishing is a prime opportunity for me to exist in the analog world at least for a few moments throughout my digital life.

Furthermore, stillwater fly fishing adds an element of mystique and intrigue to my fishing. Moving water fishing is also exciting, but the fish tend to be in fairly obviously holding lies which can begin to make fishing a river redundant. The mystique of stillwater fishing a lies beneath a vast featureless plane of water. Are there fish? If so where? And most importantly, how could I touch and marvel over one of these mysterious creatures, even if for just a few precious moments?

The intrigue comes when success is attained and a fish, against all odds, is hooked. Whether from the slight inflection of an indicator, a tiny amount of pressure on the line, or a full out Randy-The-Macho-Man body slam, once the fish is hooked the world comes into a singular focus. The Fish. The fight. The scream of a reel. The first view, oh that first sight of The Fish, how a single fish can be burned into memory for a lifetime! Finally, the landing and the quarry is restrained in our dry world for a few seconds before returning back to the unknown depths.

In a digital world, time is an unstoppable force that dictates the pace life. In my analog world, the only time that matters is the time between bites.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


The creed of the fisherman suggests that he will go through an evolution as a fisherman.  At first he will just be happy catching any fish at all.  Then he will want to catch large numbers of fish.  When catching lots of fish gets boring he will want to catch big fish.  When his evolution is complete it will not be necessary to catch big fish, lots of fish, or even any fish at all if the experience is good enough.  For the evolved angler, just fishing with his favorite method is enough to satisfy his fishing needs with the results being a secondary perk. 

For example, there is a sect of fly fisherman who only want to catch steelhead on a swung dry fly.  Catching a steelhead is a tough venture given their relatively low numbers with respect to the amount of fresh water within which they reside.  Catching them on a fly rod is even tougher.  Catching one on a swung fly is even a little more difficult.   Then getting steel on a swung dry fly is the ultimate challenge short only of pulling a steelhead out of the water with your bare hands.  While I can appreciate the challenge, I just don’t see the point. 

To me, fishing is about the act of trying to catch fish with the emphasis on catching fish.  While the act of fishing can be extremely cathartic and relaxing it soon turns into outright boredom if I am not catching anything.  Freud might suggest that I am fixated on my catching-large-numbers-of-fish stage, but he can go screw his cocaine-snorting self.  I might just be an un-evolved primate who uses a long stick to fish, but I want to catch fish when I go fishing, damn it!  That’s the whole point! 

Of the numerous fly fishing styles there are three main styles: dry fly, streamer, and nymphing.  Dry fly fishing is the most traditional method and garners more fanatical fisherman than any of the fly fishing styles.  It is definitely a cool experience seeing a trout or steelhead take a fly off of the surface.  When a hatch is flush and the fish are taking them, fishing dry flies can undoubtedly be the most effective tactic.  Unfortunately, flush hatches are more of the exception than the rule.  Streamer fishing is based on the imitation of forage fish and other larger crustaceans.  Streamer fishing usually results in much smaller numbers of fish caught, but this is how some of really big fish are caught.   Nymphing is the method of imitating the subsurface foods that a fish would consume typically using a weighted fly or weight on the line.  In the past few decades the use of strike indicators (aka bobbers to the bait fishing folk) has become a deadly tool for bite detection.  It has been estimated by the experts that 90% of a trout’s diet consists of subsurface food items, so nymphing is naturally an effective technique because it puts the fly where the trout is feeding most often. 

Like anything else indicator nymphing takes a bit of refinement to experience success.  Just tying on an indicator and a couple flies won’t “auto magically” result in fish on the line.  For a given stretch of water the depth and speed of the water must be taking into consideration when determining where on the leader the indicator needs to be placed and how much weight must be added to get the fly (or flies) down.  If the water is moving swiftly then more weight must be added to get the fly down more quickly.  The converse is true for slower water.  Once set in the correct position, the strike indicator not only acts to detect strikes, but also serves as a way to fix the effective length of the leader.  Most fish find the currents near the bottom of the river ideal for conserving energy and intercepting food (kind of like putting your recliner right next to the fridge).  Getting the fly near the bottom is critical to success.  This simple concept is the singular most important concept to effective nymphing. 

The most important purpose of the strike indicator is to detect when a fish has taken your nymph.  The indicator will usually move upstream or cross-stream and dip downwards into the water when a fish has firmly taken one of your nymphs.  The problem is that fish (especially trout) have eaten enough bugs to determine fairly quickly that a your funny looking nymph with a long brown pointy tail is a shenanigan.  Before it hooks them, the fish can spit the fly out so fast that there will almost no disturbance on the indicator.  I hate to speculate on a figure like this, but for every strike that is detected by the indicator there is at least that many that go unnoticed.  After seeing enough drifts (thousands and thousands of them) of the indicator the fisherman can develop a heightened sense for bite detection.  Even though the indicators appears to be drifting naturally impeded by neither the bottom nor fish the fisherman will set the hook for no perceptible reason and there will be a fish on the end of the line.  Dumb luck perhaps, but it begins to happen with enough regularity that it converges to something other than luck.  The best I can describe it is with The Force.  When Luke Skywalker was on the Millennium Falcon with the blast shield over his eyes and the floating laser droid was firing shots at him how did he know when to block the lasers?  The Force. 

While nymphing is arguably more effective than dry fly fishing, proponents of dry fly fishing claim that watching a bobber all day is boring and is nowhere near as visually stimulating as watching a fish slip, slurp, or crush a fly off the surface.  Okay they may have a point here, but, at least to me, the thing about dry fly fishing is that it is relatively easy.  In most dry fly scenarios, the fish’s position is already known by the observant angler.  Surface feeding fish are usually easy to see because the fish itself is visible or the fish’s rise form is definitely visible.  When fishing a nymph suspended beneath an indicator more often than not the fish is not visible.  This leads to some very exciting moments when the indicator dips or jumps upstream (indicating a strike) and hook is set into a fish of unknown species and size.  First comes the head shakes from a hooked fish, which can give away the size of the fish (fast short shakes usually means a small fish and big slow heavy shakes mean it could be a bigger fish).  The difference in headshakes between a 10” trout and a 40” king salmon are considerable.  The former is almost cute and the latter will damn near remove your shoulder from the socket.   Next comes that first sight of the fish, sometimes this is just a deep flash in the water, but other times it is a fish breaking the surface with an acrobatic aerial display.  

One spring while nymphing one of my favorite steelhead rivers, I had such a vivid first sight of the fish that it is burned into my memory to this very day (multiple years later).  I had gotten up early and had a prime run all to myself to nymph to my heart’s desire.  After a few drifts my indicator stopped and dipped and I struck.  At first nothing happened so I figured that I had hooked the bottom, which is a very common occurrence if you are nymphing properly.  A second later I watched my indicator start to surge upstream in a sound that can only be described by an out of tune violin as my leader was slicing upriver through the flowing water.  The fight was on!  As I continued the fight I got my first look at this juggernaut.  My first sight was a pale yellow torpedo shaped flash in the deeper portion of the run.  At the time I would have sworn that the flash must have been 6 feet in length; it really wasn’t but I was temporarily delusional from the fight of an epic fish.    (The picture above is the said fish.  Not 6 feet by any means, but truly a memorable fish.)   

I have handful of experiences that been just as vivid as this one was while nymphing.  I guess that my point is that nymphing can be every bit as visually exciting as seeing a fish take a dry fly.  And not only that, but the odds are that I am probably going to catch more fish too.  Sometimes just seeing the indicator dip, setting the hook, and getting that breathless first sight of a good fish is enough to make my day.  Maybe I have evolved a little bit after all. 

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Persistence Yields Success

It was Thursday morning.   The previous three long days of hard fishing combined with a slight hangover due to copious quantities of whiskey and beer the night before left me in a mental and physical haze as I sat and pondered the situation. Due to the lack of rain in the Fraser River valley the past week of fishing had been slow.  The fish just weren’t up in the rivers in big numbers yet so you really had to work to get a hookup let alone a fair mouth hook.  With the water low and clear finding the fish wasn’t the problem; getting them to take a fly in the mouth was.  A 40” king salmon is about as easy to spot as a battleship on a farm pond, but for all of their size they were still unbelievably agile so presenting a fly to fish that has no interest in biting ANYTHING was lesson in futility.  Such was the case I was currently presented with.  The dozen or so fish in the runs in front of me were all closed mouthed and would avoid my presentation.

Looking to the left I see a nice pea-sized gravel bed that would make a nice spot for a little snooze to sleep off my hangover and recover some energy.  Looking to the right I see the river bend out of sight to waters unknown that if luck would have it contain biting fish. Resisting the urge to sleep I go right and down river.  I don’t need sleep right now anyway.  I can sleep when I get home, but I can’t catch monster king salmon at home!  I will have to wait (at the earliest) a whole year until the next BC trip.  Trudging downriver the pink salmon scatter as I enter and cross the river.  The pink salmon are so numerous right now (another sign the king run is late) that you can actually use a net to catch them, a feat which Phil actually achieved on Monday night.  A breeze blows the not-so-refreshing smell of rotting pink salmon carcasses in my face as I continue my trek all the while keeping an eye on the river for prospective holding water and of course battleships.  Eventually, I come to a perfect stretch of water containing a redd on the upper end and some holding water below that.  Sitting in that holding water is the battleship I have been looking for surrounded by a numerous smaller gunships, but I didn’t travel hundreds of miles and walk my tired ass down this river to just catch the smaller ones.  I want the big grumpy hook jawed mack-daddy!

Realizing that I will only get a couple shots (at best) at a fish this size, I carefully and quietly wade to within short casting distance.  Just in case my presence has been detected I patiently take my time and discreetly check my knots and adjust my setup for the water depth.  No alarms have gone off, so I strip off a bit of line, and cast.  Drift.  Cast, drift.  Cast, drift.  Cast, drift, my line stops so I pull back on the rod with the intent to break his neck.  As my rod bends, I feel the heavy repetitive pull that can only be a king shaking his head trying to free the hook.  FISH ON!!!  Now is a good time to mention that hooked kings usually fight in one of two methods: One, “I am getting the hell out of here!”, and Two,” I don’t care that I am hooked I am staying right HERE!”  The former are almost impossible to land, while the latter give you at least chance to land them.  Fortunately, my fish falls into the latter category and after bouncing around the hole a bit settles into a pulling match right around his hole.  We fight for about 5 minutes, me retrieving line whenever I can and him taking it whenever he wants to.  Slowly he tires and I am able to nose him between a couple of slick rocks for a few precarious moments while I grab his massive tail preventing him from bolting again.  I enjoy our connection for a few precious seconds before I grant his freedom along with my best wishes for the successful procreation of his progeny.  As he will die in a few short days or weeks regardless, the best I can hope for is his reproduction and that of his offspring.  I still have fishing to look forward in the next couple years, don’t I? (The picture above shows a battleship class Chinook.)

I take a couple minutes to catch my breath and enjoy the moment before I resume my dutiful fishing.  Had I not put forth the effort to walk down here, I would not have found this fish let alone hooked and landed him.  While I may not have been as weary had I taken a nap, I definitely would not have been as spiritually refreshed as I was now.  This fish was mine and mine alone for a few seconds and there was not another fisherman around to know the better. [Maybe now I can understand why my two year old son always wants to do things by himself.  There is a greater sense of accomplishment when you and you alone take on a challenge and conquer it. ]  The more I fish, the more I realize that the most important skill a fisherman can possess is persistence.  Persistence will cause a fisherman to make extra casts when the day is almost over, cause him to wade out in current that might be too swift when there is a nice run on the other side, or cause him walk a half mile down river instead of taking a nap.  Persistence is what makes a good fishing day a GREAT fishing day and more importantly what turns a tough day of fishing into a rewarding day.

Persistence does not necessarily guarantee success, but it is much harder to be successful without it.  I have had all too many long walks down stream that produced no fish.  But on almost every jaunt I learn something be it a new piece of water, which rocks not to step on, or some exceptionally awesome way to spook a fish.  If the jaunt fails my fallback excuse is at least I am getting some exercise.  I have also found that persistence has an equally important impact in other phases of life.  For example, I don't know how many thousands of balls I had to hit this season in BP and off of a batting tee to get the hitch out of my swing, but eventually the persistence paid off and I started raking the ball.  Anyhow, I digress.

Satisfied, I began the long haul back up river to see if I could spread my good karma with the rest of the guys.   Habitually, I kept an eye on the river as I progressed and what did I find not 100 yards above the previous hole but another good sized king.  It definitely was not another battleship class fish, but a fish worthy of trying to hook nonetheless.  I channeled my inner great blue heron and approached him as stealthily as I could muster given my big clumsy feet and slime covered rocks.  This time I was able to get even closer to the fish without spooking him than I was the last one.  Through the gin clear water I could see every flick of his fins as he comfortably held in the seam behind a beefy boulder.  As my egg pattern drifted by his nose a third time I saw his snout twitch just the tiniest bit and out of instinct I struck.  FISH ON!!!

I did eventually find my way back up river to meet back up with the boys. Things were looking a bit stagnant as they had been fishing the same spots as when I left them.  As the day wore on the focus of the day began to gradually shift (as it always inevitably did) from fishing to taking generous nips of whiskey.  At this point I was happy to have found my own fresh(er) fish so I was mostly content to challenge the whiskey level while the others kept fishing the honey hole.  I couldn't help myself though, my eyes kept going to the water watching for deep submarines and could help notice a few fish pushing up through the riffle and resting above.

So there I sat pondering my situation.   Should I continue to investigate my friendship with Jack Daniels (potentially crushing a few pieces of pepperoni along the way) or do I get off my ass, cross the river and tease a few of these resting fish?  I can drink later tonight, but I can't catch kings from my stool at the pub!  The first fish was an "I'm getting the hell out of here" fish and exploded upstream before breaking off.  Two minutes later a 2nd fish surged under my rod.  Somewhere between the 3rd and 4th fish I looked across the river and saw 4 blank stares from my fishing crew that said, "you persistent son of a bitch!" I took it as a compliment.