Tag Archives: fly fishing

June Haibun: The hex

The first time I fished the Hexagenia hatch, we left for the river when the day was already waning. And then, we were in no rush to get there. We went up and down the river to a couple different access points and then ended up at an acquaintance’s house on a bluff. He gave us a plastic cup with a lemonade cocktail in it and we set off along a narrow path down to the river.

It was a warm and sticky evening. Dusk was now falling and fog was already settling in the tall grasses on the banks. Stepping into the river, the water was cool and smooth. The day was lost in dark blue and gray now. We walked up to the base of a calm pool where we could hear, but not see, trout rising.

   the light fades to sound
mammoth flies struggle skyward
  my line lays gentle

-thanks to my friend Ed for those last two lines.

Hex hunting

June Haibun: Trout Dreams

I left the house as the world awoke, the sun coming up about as early as it ever comes up, birds singing the day awake, dew drenched grass, the very soil breathing deep sustaining breaths.

Three-quarters of an hour’s drive later, I was on roads that wound through gullied country, past small farm plots, rolling pastures, wooded hillsides. After going around a corner and past a house with a big dog laying in front of the garage, the road dropped suddenly down into the valley.

There were no other cars at the bridge and I got ready slowly, methodically. Vest on, rod together, line strung up– and then turned from the car and walked in measured steps toward the water.

Drive through the morning
   Arrive at lonely midday
Fill the void with peace

It didn’t take long to figure out that the fishing would be difficult. The water was low and the sun was bright and I had been here before. My stubbornness took over, though, and I walked a good long way downstream, stopping at riffles, their tail-outs, the flats, the head of the next quick part, watching the water, trying to read trout’s mind. But always I figured there would be a better spot around the next bend and I moved on.

When I finally stopped to fish I wasn’t successful until once when I was about to pull my fly up off the water and cast again a fish suddenly grabbed it and without any sound I played it in to my hand. I looked around after letting it go, somehow expecting there to have been an equally silent audience, but there was no one.

The sun burns my neck
   Spring-fed river chills my legs
My soul sleeps alone

Black River, Silver Trout

A week or so ago, Fisherman and I traveled to northern Wisconsin to make a go at the Steelhead on a famous Lake Superior tributary. It was my first time and — though I landed but one 8″ smolt — worth the trip if only for the majesty of the river and the opportunity to see the woods and water in the dressing of gray, cold November.

Northern Wisconsin November woods

We got to the river near dusk on Saturday and fished for a half-hour in the dying light, slinging our rigs into the dark river, stumbling over the unseen river bottom. After a beer at the car, we drove into Superior where we met Fisherman’s brother Black Belt and his roommate at the infamous Anchor Bar. We had burgers and beers and walkin’ SamH even came down and dined with us. After that we lingered too long at Duluth’s drinking establishments, which ended up cutting into our fishing time on Sunday.

Hiking to the river

This particular river flows mostly through state forest, which means lots of access, but few bridges. Instead, we hiked from gravel parking lots anywhere from a hundred yards to a mile to the river. When decked out in the multiple layers of clothes called for when standing for hours in a near-freezing river, hardly moving a muscle, those hikes got a little sweaty.

Plying the steelhead waters

Though Fisherman has spent a good number of days exploring this river over the past few years, he was still guiding us based as much on his map studies and lengthy conversations with other anglers at the fly shop where he works as he was on his own firsthand experience. Which meant those hikes to the river didn’t always lead us to very fishy water.

Birch trees in the November woods

Toward mid-afternoon — which is closer to the end of the day than the beginning this time of year — we ended up back at an access point we had scouted earlier in the day but had thought too crowded, with six or so cars parked there. Of course, we had also rejected other accesses because no cars meant everyone else must know something we didn’t know. When we returned to this access, there were half as many cars as there were earlier and we were running out of time, so we headed down to the river. Once in the water, we found the river I had imagined: ancient cedars arching over the water, which flowed over all manner of stones and bedrock.

Cedars on the steelhead river

We fished a few hours on that stretch of stream. Casting and casting again until it grew too dark to do so. As I revealed in the first paragraph, no massive fish were hooked, much less landed, there were no epic battles or runs so fast they were gone before you knew you had them. But the fishing was still good.

Sunset on the steelhead stream

As my body tired and grew sore from the repetitive casting, the cold, and the previous night’s poor decisions, I let go of any weight I had put on the idea of hooking an elusive steelhead, but continued to cast, angling only for the moment. I fished because that was what we were there to do.

The Magic Numbers

A hot month passes and it seems I spend the whole time working and coming home from work and working around the house. Getting it ready. Paying for previous procrastination. And then a particular Saturday comes and goes and dozens of people visit our new home and talk and laugh and eat and drink and when the last leave at 7:00 we collapse on the couch, the dog in a pile at our feet, and know that such rest is righteous.

And I want to sleep all night and all the next day but there are better things for my soul if not my body so I doubtfully set the alarm for a little after 6 a.m. and go to bed early. The alarm is indeed unpleasant but somehow welcome. A return to going going going for the sake of rivers and the adventure possible on and in them.

It is drizzling and it is wonderful. Cool damp weather that makes me and many others ache for autumn which will come soon enough and which we will lament when it does. But now, after all these humid sun-baked weeks, it is ideal.

Still feeling indulgent, breakfast is McDonald’s — supersize the coffee, thanks — on the drive to the valley. Fisherman is hooking up the boat when I arrive and I pretend to help but mostly stand there drinking my coffee, wearing actual layers of clothes (layers!) and looking forward to whatever the day brings.

Quiet, now. My mood, the day. Respite from this relentless season. Just a cautious drive upriver towing the little boat behind the little car. Little traffic, low gray skies, the rain lets up though I couldn’t care either way for on this Sabbath I am more interested in what I am given than what I want.

Just a couple other vehicles at the little hidden landing. The water in the river down so low, it makes launching difficult because the river drops off just a foot or two out. But we could basically lift the craft off the trailer and into the water if we had to.

A fish jumps out in the channel.

We motor directly to the other side of the river where there’s a rocky point surrounded by sand where Rosie once snapped off a good one. We know smallmouth like rocks and these look like likely rocks.

They are. I’m still rigging up when Fisherman gets his first strike and his first fish. It puts a surprising bend in his rod. For a day with few expectations for the fishing, already boating one isn’t doing too bad. Who knows, maybe I’ll even get one.

I’m still rigging up — an important insight into Fisherman’s and my different styles: I’m slow, he’s not — when he gets another fish. Promising. But smallies are supposed to be good in the morning. It’ll probably shut down by the time I get this damn fly tied on.

We bounce from bank to bank upriver, heading for some rocky shorelines I know of from numerous non-angling canoe trips down this stretch, casting only when irresistible opportunity presents itself. A couple strikes, none hooked.

The river is shallow and shallower and I spend a good bit of time perched on the bow bench peering into the water, looking for the bottom to come up at us before the prop finds it. We are successful, but soon find ourselves with nowhere to go, barely-submerged gravel and sand in every direction. We explore further and get a bit higher upriver, then I hop out and drag the boat ten feet over and the channel continues and we’re soon motoring in water where we can’t see the bottom again.

And further up. Another shallow shoal and more careful navigation — I must appear as an unlikely figurehead at the prow of this vessel to any observer — and then we pass under the railroad bridge and forge upstream through a bottom of sand dunes, rolling up and down, but never nonnavigable.

Finally we are as far as we’ll go. We motor up to the top of a long stretch of limestone shoreline, the rock smoothed by ages of water flowing past and seeping over out of riparian springs. Somehow, I am tying on a fly again when something funny happens. I feel bad for finding it funny, but Fisherman strikes too hard on a fish and flings it out of the water and it smacks me hard in the back before I know what’s happening. I look back to figure out what just hit me, figure it out, and can’t help laughing very long and very hard.

Of course, you, reader, don’t have to laugh. (If you want to, but aren’t sure if you should, perhaps it will help to know that the fish went back to his watery world stunned and inconvenienced but perfectly healthy and with a story to tell on a scale not unlike of mine from another adventure on the St. Croix. Nature, for all her graces, can be a bitch to all her subjects.)

And now we come to the point where no further delay is available and I find myself again faced with writing about fishing without really wanting to write about the fishing. But it would be negligent and anti-climactic not to do so.

The fishing, you see, is fantastic.

And by fantastic, I mean that post-piscine pummeling we have steady action for the next six or more hours. Smallmouth bass, as the turn of the previous century writer J.A. Henshall is almost always cited when talking about their fight, truly are “inch for inch and pound for pound the gamest fish that swims.”

We don’t much employ the little motor for the subsequent hours. Instead we both stand in the boat and cast toward shore as we drift downstream. When the current turns the boat to a difficult angle, one of us works one oar or both to realign things. To really work a good stretch, one of us might sit at the oars and row a bit while the other fishes.

Other river disciples are infrequent. Later in the day, floatillas of canoes that had descended from Taylor’s Falls would start passing us, but for the early hours we have it to ourselves for the most part. Those canoes that do pass seemed to have camping gear in them and are Kevlar or Royalex, generally not beat-up Alumacrafts. Greetings are brief and friendly and quiet.

The fish keep hitting. My arm grows a little sore from their relentless pull. When hooked, the fish either first leap clear of the water or else plumb the depths. Whichever they do first, they do the other shortly after, and repeat. Even small fish put unprecedented effort into their struggle. I occasionally can’t help just giggling with joy at these small battles. Even Fisherman breaks a smile once or twice. And the fish always leave our hands with plenty of leftover vigor.

We lunch at “The Spot,” a favorite secret campsite of mine. It is positioned just below a stretch of picture perfect smallie water, with 12-16″ diameter chunks of granite lining the banks and disappearing into the water. A beaver does not appreciate our presence but a missed strike on a very good-sized fish keeps us in the area. The fish, on the other hand, appears to have left for less dangerous waters.

Lunch is leftover sandwiches, cold beer, some grapes and some bars. The campsite is its usual wonderful. Fisherman has never been before and already I see in his eyes appreciation and ambition. Much like my own every time I visit. We must bring a party here for some extended solitude and camping.

I am tired when we return to the water. Relentless casting, a warming day, the short night of sleep all add up. Rowing proves to be a nice change of pace and a good excuse to sit down. I reel in more than once, thinking to just take it easy from here on out. It’s almost as much to watch Fisherman work the water as it is to do so myself.

Or so I think. But every time I watch him fight another fish to the boat I am re-inspired and I take my position again and resume my own angling. And with enough success to convince me it was the right thing to do. These mid-afternoon fish are as aggressive as they were in the morning, both in taking our offerings and protesting their disingenuity.

Ultimately we find ourselves back at the rocky point across from the landing where we had first started casting some hours ago. We fish structure just down from it and more fish are had. Then we cross the river and cast to rocks there. Only one small one is brought in and we identify a last outcropping and agree to fish down to there and then pack it in.

No more fish come to us but we leave the river surprised by our success and more than satisfied, not sure if we have discovered some special stretch of river, some irresistible flies, perfect weather conditions, or if we were just lucky.

Wrapping this up, I wonder if it has any potential as an enjoyable read. Is a compelling story not one with a protagonist toward which the reader feels some sympathy? And then that protagonist facing some challenge or another? For here we find nothing more than a lucky guy having a great day of fishing. But so, a great memory, its value as a story remains to be seen…

How sweet the sound

B and Rainier

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need is here.
And we pray, not for new earth or heaven,
but to be quiet in heart, and in eye, clear.
What we need is here.

~ Wendell Berry

Congratulations again to B (Sleepy) and Rainier, who got married Saturday. It was a beautiful day of hymns and vows, laughter and food, friends and family. Even without such a happy event, it would have been a wonderful day to hang out at the park overlooking a lake and green hills, the temperature hovering at or under 80, and so much summer sun. That we got to be there celebrating with the lovely couple and their great friends was truly a blessing.

As the day wound on, the sore throat I had had all week disappeared. I felt fine, it was just that I was having a harder and harder time making sound come out of my mouth when I spoke. The social nature of the day encouraged me to ignore the warnings and keep chatting. Yelling out encouragement and other exclamations during a game of croquet and having the ubiquitous “so, how do you know the couple?” conversations.

We went back to the hotel where the couple and many of their friends were staying after things wound up at the park and we spent a couple hours in someone’s room, playing random games and laughing and talking. Yes, more talking, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

By the time we finally hit the road, I really could no longer talk. My voice was gone. I had lost it. The drive back across the Twin Cities was very quiet, I had to turn the radio down if I wanted Rosie to hear my whispers.

I had been toying with the idea of fishing the Trico hatch early the next morning and, though in ways it felt entirely foolish, I thought that if I was unable to speak, a few hours where there was no one to talk to might be just the thing. So I set my alarm for 5:15 the next morning and went to bed.

Those early mornings are generally unpleasant, but having done it a few times now, I know that the rewards are worth it and the only thing you can do is keep moving forward. This was the first time I had done such a thing since we got Lola last fall, so that was a fun addition to the routine. While she ate breakfast, I made coffee.

Early to the eastIt was just after 5:30 when I left the house, amazed at how light it already was. I sped east on I-94, enjoying the light traffic and the sun rising over the land ahead.

Listening to the public radio program “American Routes” is a pleasant tradition on those early morning treks, as the fine show is relegated to the 5 – 7 a.m. slot around here. But this day, after hearing just a little bit of a segment about the Neville Brothers, including a beautiful rendition of “Amazing Grace,” the radio went silent. I checked other stations, which were coming in fine, but nothing was airing on MPR. I decided that the silence might be a sign of some sort, or at least a coincidence worth considering in light of my own vocal troubles, so I kept the radio tuned into the nothingness.

Every five or 10 minutes, the show would restart and play a short bit, and then cut back out. It kept it up for the full half-hour it took me to get to the river.

There wasn’t anything happening when I walked down to the water. I wondered if the unseasonably cool (and beautiful) weather might have put off the hatch or something. So I stood on the bank above a hole that I had once come on boiling with fish devouring the tiny dawn mayflies (“A numbers game,” July 9, 2007) and just watched things.

The fly catchers and swallows were partying and my ears were filled with birdsong, my eyes with their swoops over the water and into the limestone cliff on the other side. That cliff kept the rising sun off the water and my spot on the bank the entire time I was there and I shoved my hands in my pockets against the chill of the morning and wished I had worn a long-sleeved shirt.

A quiet placeOccasionally I would look downriver and up into the air where the Tricos should have been doing their dance before descending to the water again and the first few times I didn’t see anything and then I did: the cloud of spinning and swirling bugs maybe 40 feet up against the backdrop of the bluffs downstream. This would happen.

I held my position on the bank, not bothering to fish. To do so would have been no small disrespect to just how good the imminent fishing could be and to the independent joys of the beautiful morning with the singing birds, the ascending sun, the lush mid-summer foliage. I let my mind wander, digesting the wedding the day before, the pre-wedding events the previous nights, and to all the things I only find time and energy to ponder streamside.

Then, a fish rose out in front of me. And a Trico flew by, heading upstream. And more fish rose and more bugs flew by and I figured it was probably time to start fishing, at least an hour after getting to the river.

So I fished and I caught a few good-sized trout on some very small flies. And, after a flurry of activity (literally, the small white-winged bugs were so thick flying past me at some points that it seemed like a snow flurry), it quieted and I fished a little longer and then reeled in and then decided to try one more pattern and I was glad I did because I caught another nice fish and then, tiring, left the river. I was back home by 11 a.m., exhausted and not well, but at peace and happy.

Streamside flowers

On the Stream Again

I found myself standing in the middle of a very cold river again today. I put my fly rod together, strung it up, tied on a buggy little nymph, put some weight and a strike indicator on and flung the whole deceiving contraption out into the current. Then, I intently watched the bright indicator flow downriver about 20 feet, then flung it back upstream to cover the water again.

This ritual had been preceded by the familiar gathering of gear, the drive on I-94, stopping for a cup of coffee, then a leisurely investigative drive up and down the quiet valley of the river I wanted to fish, scouting different accesses, seeing old sights. It was near 50 degrees, most of the landscape covered in snow that shone bright in the sunshine. Water ran over the road where the steep bluffs dropped down next to it.

I didn’t have more than a couple hours to fish, and no great ambitions to cover a lot of water or catch a bunch, so I crept downstream from where I parked my car on the side of the road. Not preferable, I would have rather fished upstream, but so it goes. After walking down past some nice looking water, even seeing a couple fish-shaped shadows in the deeper pools, I stopped and began fishing up.

It’s amazing how the rhythms of fishing come back, even after a six-month hiatus. Everything went pretty smoothly. I occasionally caught the streamside vegetation, or tangled up the complex rig of fly, weight and indicator, but that’s all part of the game. And the wader repair I made the night before luckily held up. If it hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long with 45 degree water seeping down my leg.

Nothing much happened at first, the indicator paused a couple times but there was nothing there when I struck. Maybe it had been a fish. Maybe not. I was fishing the tailout of a shallow riffle with a rock up ahead on the right side creating an eddy. I tried to focus on the seam between that water and the rippling faster water, thinking a hungry trout would like to hang out in the slow water but feast on the bugs being carried by in the fast. But the strategy remained unproductive through several casts.

Having chosen a pretty short stretch of water, I decided to try another fly rather than move on right away. I tied on a Copper John and sent it sailing up into the seam again. Very shortly, the indicator jerked definitively and I set the hook to find the line come alive.

It was a very small trout that spit the hook before I got him to hand. That was okay, I wasn’t sure it would have been worth reaching into the icy water for such a fish. How quickly the angler becomes picky, eh?

My next decent cast into the seam produced another sharp jerk on the indicator and this time I set the hook to find some weight on the other end.

Oh, did that feel good. As the fish zipped around the river before me, I stole a glance at my fly rod where I held it above my head, reveling in the elegant curve of it against the sunny spring sky.

The fish was not eager to come to me and I was reacquainted with the ache in my arm of wearing it down a little. I exerted sideways pressure on it as much as possible and after a couple runs where I almost had to give it some line, I brought it to my feet where I plucked it from the water. It was a beautiful, densely-spotted 12″ brown.

The barbless hook (regulation for the early season in Wisconsin) which had made the battle all the more tense also meant that it took only a moment to remove the fly from the fish’s upper lip. I admired it one more moment and slipped it back into the water, where it paused briefly and then shot away.

Pleased that my first outing of the season was not going to be a skunk, I could have quit fishing then. I still had plenty of time, so I kept at it, but I did no more catching. I got a couple more on, but was foiled by my own rusty reflexes and the barbless hooks.

When the time came, I clipped the fly off and broke down my rod, then hiked back up to the road and back to the car. I stripped off my waders and everything else and packed it up. As I drove back down the valley and toward home, I couldn’t help feeling lucky to have experienced the peace of the stream again, and to be bringing some of it home with me.