Paired!

Paired Jewels: VR Design’s Trutta Perfetta and Sweetgrass Rods’ 8′ Pentagonal Bamboo Rod

When you have the perfect summer trout rod made to order, choosing the reel it is paired with is an important decision. I considered a classic Hardy St. George, for a vintage fly reel and it’s spring and pawl drag are ideal companions for bamboo. My Sweetgrass pent is classic, made of the finest Tonkin cane, but it is a modern rod in every sense, and that broadened my thinking.

My summer dry fly fishing is in essence very simply described: stalking large wild trout in gin clear water. The rivers are fished heavily, and the trout that grow to trophy size are among the most wary and well fed salmonids you will find in these United States. Catskill hatches are voluminous and varied, and the best of our wild browns and rainbows require stealth and delicacy. To me, these fish, and these rivers deserve the respect of classic tackle.

Despite my fondness for old Hardy reels, I find the venerable Orvis CFO reel to be a near perfect tool for delicate fishing. The Bogdan design included a palming rim to complement the traditional spring and pawl drag, and that is a valuable feature indeed. Sadly, the exquisite lightness of the CFO does not succeed in balancing longer bamboo rods. The old Hardy’s I like do that well, the St. George’s, Perfects and Bougles. Lacking the palming rim, they leave the angler with a choice between balance and the capability for reserve drag, to prevent being spooled.

Perusing the Classic Flyrod Forum recently I came upon an announcement from Vlad Rachenko of VR Design. Having built an international reputation for excellence in the design and manufacture of titanium fly reels, Rachenko has just premiered an aluminum version of his classically styled 3″ diameter trout reel, the Trutta Perfetta. The design was brilliant and simply beautiful, and I decided that the Trutta Perfetta would be the perfect pairing for my new pent.

I literally jumped out of my seat when I heard the knock at the door this afternoon, knowing it was the Fedex driver bearing my reel to the end of its 4,855 mile journey from Kharkiv, Ukraine to Hancock, New York.

The Trutta is indeed Perfetta; perfect for stalking the trout of our Catskill Rivers. With my choice of a brass reel foot and screws, this 3″ trout reel balances my 8′ two piece Sweetgrass rod “in the cork”, and the beauty and workmanship are equals to the elegant work of Mr. Brackett and Mr. Kustich. The advanced design spring and pawl drag feels silky smooth, and the palming rim allows that extra protection when a big fish decides to run. I cannot wait to hear this reel in full song!

Three months of winter remain. Three months before there is a reasonable expectation to find flies in the air and rising trout at the surface. Though conceived and paired for summer angling, this lovely outfit of fly tackle will not wait for July. It will find it’s target come spring, once the high waters recede and delicacy of presentation comes into it’s own.

Dreams of Springtime, dreams of Summer!

I was intrigued by the prospect of purchasing a unique fly reel from a talented reel maker in old Europe, a new experience for me. I dealt with Vlad personally via email and found his service to be excellent. He seems a very personable gentleman, and is clearly a wonderful craftsman and gifted designer.

Taking Stock of the Year

A Beautiful Afternoon Along The Delaware

Ah twenty twenty…too much has been said, and little of it good, but I shall not linger on the negative aspects: it was a grand year for fishing! Aren’t they all?

Winter was long, though a few flirtations brought springtime to mind, and my dry fly season started early. The twenty seventh of March found me prowling a favorite reach of the Delaware, happy for a touch of warmer air and fitful sunshine. Though I could scarcely believe it, I found a rising trout. Staring hard at the surface I made out a few dark gray wings struggling along a run of current, knotted up a size 20 olive and raised that wonderfully early foot long brown! It was good to feel his struggles against the rod and slip the fly from his jaw with a smile.

I pushed hard for spring that next week, wading the rivers, even rowing down the West Branch to bid welcome to the season, but the trout weren’t as ready as I. By the middle of April I was frantic for action, but the fifty degree water I had found early on had cooled. Winter teased again with two and a half inches of snow one morning, and spring raised her head with afternoon sunshine to melt it all away. The very next day I found springtime’s big three on the water and in the air: Blue Quills, Quill Gordons and Hendricksons!

It was nearly perfect that day: solitude, the cold, high water gripping my legs while the wind whipped away the warmth of a 61 degree afternoon; and all those mayflies. One trout began to rise, a lone warrior as anxious to greet the season as I. The Quill Gordon beckoned to him and, when the wind allowed the right bit of slack, my drift was true. Big fish screamed my winter addled brain, and then I heard the screaming from the reel itself, the brute fleeing full into my backing. It was a glorious fight! Nearly mine he was, net in hand with the rod fully bowed, until he jumped one last time…and won the day.

Spring continued as it had begun, a mixture of sun and cold and wind and calm warm afternoons, and through it all the mayflies. The mystery of the Catskill rivers was sustained, with some of the best hatches failing to reveal a single rise, while days with but a few sparse flies seemed destined to produce good catches. Early in the second week of May I awoke to find the snow flying once again, and the river temperatures continued their rise and fall.

Come June the weather was fair and the fishing sublime. Though I was prepared to worship at the alter of the Green Drake, I was cast out of Nature’s temple, the great hatch never revealed to me. It was the year of the sulfur though, and the great browns I would have stalked with my 100-Year Drake, fell repeatedly to a simple size 16 CDC and silk. The memories of June will haunt me for decades, bringing a smile with each recollection.

Bamboo, dry flies and June!

I have always harbored great desire for trophy specimens of the Delaware rainbow, and June would bring the two largest the river has ever offered to my hand. The memories are vivid: the long stalk in flat water, the cast perfectly formed and true, and the low sun glinting upon golden bamboo as the Hardy’s own orchestra announced the nature of my foe. When at last she turned, close in as I brought her to the net, I gasped at the pale emerald back and crimson band along her flank: a magnificent trout, five pounds, perhaps more. My notes reveal I lost four big fish that day, but that is not the memory I retain. My memory is of a grand Delaware rainbow that lit the fire in my heart!

Two weeks later I crept into another fair reach water, careful not to disturb the calm amid the morning mist. My vintage Granger rod stood against another magnificent rainbow, and my Bougle` brought the music, rising in the stillness in a crescendo of speed and power! I have sought the wild runners of the Delaware for many years, always hoping for one to defy the tales the old river guides have told: “they just don’t grow much past eighteen inches”. I know of two that did.

The Catskill Summer was a treasure as it always is for the stalking angler. The long hot spell was trying, but I worked hard to find my rewards. They came as earned, the glory of the challenge enough reward in itself. I got back to trico fishing, something not done for nigh on twenty years, and flustered with the madness of good browns wolfing size 28 flying ants.

Summer waned into a gloriously beautiful autumn. Some days that exceptional natural beauty was enough, and on some the shy trout added their own layer to such exquisite interludes. I caught up with an old friend and met a new one. Though the days offered more walking than fishing I found I could not tear myself away from the rivers, even when rising trout had become as ghosts from the past. Summer was gone though I refused to let it go from my heart. I resorted to swinging soft hackled flies, looking for life in the riffles, still needing desperately to be out along the rivers.

One warm afternoon in late October I swung my fly through the low water tail of a special pool. It was another day when Nature teased, with the sudden appearance of a few tiny mayflies drifting downstream unmolested. All at once I saw a ring, scrambled to extend my heavy leader and knot a tiny dry fly, my grip tensing on the handle of the old cane rod. The little rings subsided, until a soft bulge made me tense and pull line from my reel. A long, gentle cast, another bulge, and the delight of a heavy brown trout brought to hand!

Longed for to be sure, though not expected, the river’s gift of a final dry fly trophy brings gladness to my heart, and thanks for the season. Autumn’s last kiss, long remembered, always cherished.

A Glimpse of Sunlight

Quite simply, remembering and wishing for fishing is what we have in the winter months…

It has been a dour week at Crooked Eddy, freezing or close to it and gray. While trying to fill the crock pot with the makings of stew this morning the sun, that nearly forgotten glowing orb in the southeastern sky burned through a little hole in the gloom. Flipping the switch on the pot at last, I tripped into my boots and grabbed my down jacket, heading for the river.

The air felt more welcoming than the thirty degrees registering on my porch, and my aching bones relaxed a bit as they warmed. I walked briskly, anxious to reach the river road and bid hello to the East Branch Delaware.

The river is clear this morning, with the flow reduced enough that familiar rocks have returned, marked by little vees in the current. There’s no fishing there in winter, and my river walks are restricted to the road by private holdings, but it lifts my spirits simply to walk along and take stock of conditions. The Eagles of Point Mountain haven’t shown up this winter, though I am always hopeful that they will. I watch the pair from my porch on summer evenings, circling high above the ridgetop as the sun kisses the trees with its last direct glow. Some evenings they circle northwest toward the West Branch valley, some they remain here to the east or fly south toward the widening valley of the Delaware. I wish them good hunting as they glide.

Watchers In The Mist

I’ve a friend in my former haunts who has achieved one of my old dreams; he owns a reach of the Falling Spring. He hopes to restore it to its former glory over time, though he’s now content to walk the banks with his children, showing them the darting forms of the shy wild trout. There was a time that was my favorite reach of the gentle limestone spring. Bright gravel and watercress harbored the mayflies: sulfurs, olives and the tiny tricorythodes. I loved to stalk the undercuts in summer, casting a LeTort Cricket or LeTort Hopper tight to the edge! When everything was right, big trout would nudge their noses out from under the grass and chose my fly for supper.

My largest Falling Spring trout taken on a trico came to hand one sunny morning along that same lovely stretch of bright water, one of the wild rainbows that nearly disappeared in that shallow, sunlit, gravelly glide. Delicate tackle was required, a dull gray two or three weight line, it’s long leader tipped with 7X nylon. The game required judging the perfect compromise in distance, ranging each cast so nothing but tippet and fly would land near those long shadows painting the gravel, while ensuring the fly could still be tracked.

On a perfect morning the trout would spread out across the glide, and with luck, two or three could be taken. Starting with the nearest bow on the outside and working upstream and closer to the bank, turning each toward midstream the very instant it was hooked; it was easier with a ten inch trout, much less so with those stretching to sixteen inches or more. Such fish wanted back beneath the undercut banks, and had to be finessed on 7X tippet and a size 24 hook. If they were packed too tightly, or the largest were the outside risers, it was a one fish game.

Shimmer: a grand limestone rainbow lurks in a run of bright gravel, a sheltering weed bed inches away.

I wish my friend luck and success with his dream for that lovely reach of stream. Oh the joy and wonder he might reap upon re-building that undercut bank! Given their old sanctuary, the eighteen inch browns and rainbows would return in time. With the cooperation of neighbors, the entire stream could be narrowed, allowing the pinched current to carve new holding lies. Cattle widened much of the stream long ago you see, leaving shallow water and no shelter for the trout there.

A lot of that work occurred during the years of Falling Spring Greenway, and things looked brighter. The Greenway donated land to the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, who thanked them by ignoring the stream and failing to protect it from poaching. Small water can be so easily damaged by a handful of selfish souls.

My friend’s reach is protected by the neighbors, a cluster of homeowners who appreciate the bright little spring creek. There are eyes ever watching for it is a beautiful centerpiece for their circle of country homes. Perhaps one day I might return, my three weight cane rod swishing tricos to dimpling rainbows on a summer morning! Dreaming…

Dwindling Possibilities

Another week of watching the forecasts and checking river temperatures, as the cold season teases me; offering glimpses of hope, then whisking them away. Before the weekend, yesterday looked to be a fishing day, though it wasn’t, and this week’s other promises are likewise retreating with the forecast’s highs. Ah for a bit of sunshine and temperatures far enough above freezing to enjoy a couple of hours on the river! I don’t need a fish to attend, though I’d welcome the diversion.

Driving east yesterday I saw ice in the flow of the Beaverkill and the Willowemoc, the snow still ruling the landscape, mountains and plains. Roscoe looked sleepy and quiet. I was headed to Dette Flies, deciding I’d rather get out for a drive than wait for the Postal Service to send my bag of tying materials round and round the northeast for another week. Livingston Manor is roughly thirty miles east of Hancock, but my parcels have travelled from the shop to New Jersey, the last one had multiple stops there, then Rochester or Syracuse and sometimes both, before making the turn toward Hancock. Modern “efficiency” I guess. I did enjoy the ride through the snowy Catskills.

Time to concentrate on a new challenge before me: choosing a favorite fly pattern to submit to the Catskill Fly Tyers Guild. There’s a call for members’ favorite patterns, and I have many, but picking just one requires thought. In twenty-eight seasons of fishing in the Catskills one of the chief facts I’ve learned is how variable the fly hatches are for me from one year to the next. Some years are caddis years, when a species or two will hatch in grand abundance, then nearly vanish the next season. Mayflies are the same. I can recall a number of seasons when I found very few instances of Blue Quills on the water, and barely any of a trout taking them; yet there are seasons when they came by the millions, and their imitations took the largest trout of the season, or nearly so. Change is the great constant in Nature. Truth be told, I acknowledge the flies hatch every year, simply not when and where I happen to be fishing. I thought that would change as I fish most days throughout the prime season now, but it hasn’t.

As a result, my favorite fly pattern depends upon the variability of the season at hand. Last year the sulfurs were the big ticket for me, bringing my best days and many of them, but there have been years when they seemed more like ghosts along the rivers of my heart. In truth, my favorite fly might well be a particular design, a style of tie rather than a single pattern imitating one species.

As I tie flies through the winter, I wonder which flies will emerge in abundance during my travels, when spring comes again. There are patterns in storage boxes from the past two seasons that have spent all that time there, as I found no reason to even put them in my vest. Saved for another time; perhaps next year.

The 100-Year Drake tied in my current, more or less, standard version.
A fly from a dozen years ago with a blended color CDC wing and biot body, hackled in Marinaro’s thorax style with yellow dyed grizzly. This one combined elements of my early 100-Year dun with the CDC winged flies I have loved for thirty years. Big browns liked it!

The other difficulty in such a choice is the fact that I experiment continuously, changing proven patterns to keep them fresh, or to expand upon an idea that’s been buzzing around in my head. The 100-Year Dun has certainly become a favorite fly of mine, but it has a long and evolving history since it first took shape in my vise.

I had studied the original Theodore Gordon flies in the Catskill Museum more than once, and the canted wing with a single clump of wood duck flank made a lasting impression: the picture that lingered in my memory is the same one that I saw countless times on the water. Gordon’s style was a century old, and had been quickly evolved to an upright divided wing style by a cadre of hallowed Catskill fly tiers, but his original spark of imitation still rang true.

I began my canted wing experiments with the Green Drake, our premier eastern mayfly hatch, and the one that offered the greatest excitement. I have always believed that the larger the fly the more critical the imitation, so I combined Gordon’s single clump canted wing with Vincent Marinaro’s thorax style some fifteen years ago. With my firm belief in color matching, I chose dyed mallard flank for the wing, but it absorbed too much water and lost its shape regardless of the floatant I employed, so I eventually returned to the Catskill tradition and wood duck.

An early 100-Year Dun, the original design circa 2005

The early imitations were successful, both with biot and dubbed bodies, and hackle variations from the original dyed grizzly to barred ginger and cree, but as always I continued to experiment. Perhaps a decade ago, I came across a book that made me aware of another Catskill angler and fly tyer with a similar idea. “The Legendary Neversink” included an article by the late Phil Chase entitled “The 100 Year Fly” in which Chase offered his thinking on Gordon’s legacy and a parachute hackled dry fly with a canted single clump wing. That fly used a post in addition to the wing to wrap the hackle in the horizontal parachute style. The book got me thinking about a parachute hackle, but I liked the way my thorax hackled flies sat in the surface film.

I decided to wrap my hackle around the reinforced base of the wing, canted to the rear. I moved the wing forward, somewhat ahead of the traditional position for a Catskill tie, and well forward of the mid-shank position for the thorax tie. The fly rode the surface just as I’d hoped, and the canted parachute hackle was easier to tie and more durable. I still experiment with the fly body, though turkey biots have become the standard material for the abdomen. The original synthetic tail fibers have been replaced by dark pardo Coq-de-Leon hackle fibers which offer a more natural appearance.

Barred hackles have always been paramount for this pattern. I have settled upon one of Charlie Collins’ Golden Grizzly dyed capes as my standard in the last few years. I like the way the light passes through these feathers, and the trout have proven they agree with with my choice. I carry a box full of Green Drake imitations during their season but the most difficult fish always seem to come to the 100-Year Dun.

A Bright, Deceptive Morning

Afternoon along the Falling Spring Branch… when it was wonderful!

The sky is a lovely clear blue this morning, the air sparkling with early sunlight; but it deceives! The Weather Channel tells me it is eleven degrees, with the wind chill at zero – sparkling indeed! How I ache to take my river walk this morning and enjoy that sunshine, but I know the wind chill would wipe away all but its visual effects. It is cold enough here in the house!

Last evening I joined the open fly tying Zoom meeting for the Catskill Fly Tyers Guild, a new event, giving us a chance to talk flies and fishing while we are cold and quarantined. One gentleman hailed from my old haunts in Central Pennsylvania, and I found myself eager for news. I still remember the gift of winter fishing about the limestone springs.

It all seems so long ago now, the best of it that is; bright winter mornings along the Falling Spring, with frost on the grass and fog above the bright water! Over the last decade I fished her she nearly brought me to tears each time I remembered.

Any sunny winter morning offered the opportunity for a fly caught trout, and a good one at that. A Shenk Sculpin or Minnow, flipped into all the pockets, root balls and undercuts brought many jolting strikes in those years. My usual foil was a seven foot One Ounce Orvis rod, a battered CFO reel and four weight line. I had learned from the Master how to present the big fly low to the water with perfect accuracy, and drop it gently into the flow. Casting upstream, and twitching the fly downstream along the bottom, “sculpinating” Ed called it: the tactic produced in all seasons.

I found the short rod better with a good trout on the line, able to respond quickly in tight quarters to keep the trout from burying its head in cover, changing my direction and angle of pull, and forcing my quarry to do the same. The extreme lightness of that little rod belied its power; it could cast those streamers effortlessly forty feet or more when needed, and came alive when the hook was set!

There was a narrow run where the current dug deeper along the base of an old stone wall that held the road grade. A huge, overhanging willow brought some challenge to the casting! I remember one chilly morning when two fine rainbows and a big brown came to hand in that tiny reach of water, each deceived by Ed’s White Minnow! An hour’s fishing like that made for a great morning before it was time to open the fly shop.

If I close my eyes, I can feel my heart beating as I twitched a fly along the edge of a sunken weed bed on Falling Spring or the hallowed LeTort, ever watchful, as a big trout might dart out and inhale the fly in the blink of an eye! Line control is paramount in that game, as the strike must be quick and sure. If those wild trout came once, they would not come again.

Even in the bowels of winter, there was a chance for the dry fly. On Mondays my shop was closed, and I could angle the warmest hours of midday. By ten or eleven o’clock a hatch of midges or tiny olives might appear, and a trout discreetly rise. The rising mist helped hide the subtle rings sometimes, and they dissipated rapidly in the weedy channels. A stalking game, the leader built longer and lighter, for a size 20 olive or a smaller midge.

Nirvana along the snowy meadows: The Winter Hatch!

There was no gift quite so welcome as a colorful, spotted trout, taken on a dry fly from the crystalline rivulet of bright water winding through the snow covered meadows. The last such gift I welcomed came on Big Spring, seven years ago.

My friend Andy and I ghosted along the barren meadow with an eye toward the gravelly pockets between aquatic weed beds, for there were olives drifting on the quiet surface. Taking my turn, I cast my little dun with a vintage Granger bamboo, the fly alighting above a tempting shadow on the bottom. The wild rainbow rose gently, and the arch of varnished cane met his strength with it’s own, as I felt the strange new burning sensation in my throat. A twenty inch rainbow on a dry fly is an unexpected treasure on a winter spring creek, and the beauty of that gift gave me the strength to fight for life, when that burning was given a name in the nick of time: angina.

I recall lying in the hospital, an urban stream visible from my window after surgery, drawing upon the wonder and beauty of that moment and the passions it invoked, determined to survive, to walk bright waters again. I have been blessed to have done so, to continue as another anniversary of that day passes.

The Evolution of A Fly Tier

My own Beaverkill Hendrickson is tied for the high, rough water of early spring on its namesake river. The tailing and hackling are a bit more substantial than a classic Catskill style tie. I choose a dun cree hackle with a barring of natural dun and rusty ginger over a pale dun tone that reflects light to give an impression of movement. The dubbing blend is my own creation, color matched to the large, ruddy duns I have plucked from the surface on cold, windy April days.
My version of the Cross Special, tied more toward the classic Catskill school as Rube Cross defined, and Roy Steenrod, the Dettes and Darbees continued to wide acclaim. The tail is longer and more sparse, as is the natural dun hackle, the wing still tall, commanding, as the wings of the hallowed mayflies they represent.

I began as many tiers do, with a basic book and a Thompson vise. I assembled a small selection of materials and crudely tied some basic nymphs. I caught trout on them, despite their looks. That was the catalyst, that initial success, and led to a class at a local fly shop: Joe Bruce’s The Fishermans Edge. Joe was a well know angler and fly tier in the Baltimore area, and his shop embraced the customers with his friendly, open personality. Joe wouldn’t force his advice on anyone, but would answer any questions with a smile. He was the first gentleman I met who truly loved to share the joy of fishing.

With some proper instruction I acquired some hackle and ventured into the mystique of the dry fly. The initial efforts were crude as well, not terrible, but proportions can be a challenge until one’s fingers learn to repeat the measurement and handling of materials. I tied a lot of them and they too caught trout for me.

As I tied I read, and was exposed to some of the many variable theories of imitation. It became clear that observation was vital. Color made a very strong, early impression the day I encountered my first sulfur hatch on Gunpowder Falls. It was a sunny mid afternoon surprise in a close little pool of bright gravel, half shaded by overhanging trees and the steep river bank itself. The little yellow mayflies were beautiful, and the wild browns and brookies rose greedily to them. I fished my size 16 Light Cahill to no avail, a pattern recommended for such a hatch in several of the books I had read.

I tried a different fly and nothing changed, so I plucked a little dun from the surface, turned it upside down and held it next to my dampened Cahill. They were similar, but the sulfur was a brighter, true yellow as opposed to the Cahill’s rich cream color. Obviously the trout took notice as they avoided my Cahill routinely.

A search of my meager fly collection returned a single yellow bodied fly, a simple deer hair caddis sans hackle. The doctrine of imitation had been written so clearly: first match the size, the shape and lastly the color; but the Cahill didn’t work. The caddis did. Heresy! The shape was all wrong for a mayfly, but those wild trout on that day wanted the yellow color more than the mayfly profile. From that day forward I put my trust in observation on the stream and a strong sense of color.

I began to pick up bugs on a regular basis, to study their construction and coloration closely, and I began to blend my dubbing to match the colors I saw on the stream. I have continued that routine and the blending for thirty years.

I began to take advantage of every opportunity to learn from accomplished tiers. My early interest in the Catskill dry flies was enlightened by a session with the late Larry Duckwall at On The Fly, the little fly shop on the Gunpowder Falls. I was fortunate to attend one of the first Fly Tier’s Symposiums in western Pennsylvania and take classes with A.K. Best and the late Gary LaFontiane. I met the late Ed Shenk and Joe Humphreys at Allenberry on the Yellow Breeches Creek and began to absorb their knowledge. Ed’s lifetime of experience with the difficult trout of the LeTort hooked me securely, and I trod that path with his guidance.

Though I learned and tied patterns designed by all of these men, from early on I experimented, falling back on my own observations and my own designs. That choice expanded my fascination with fly fishing tenfold.

At On The Fly I found CDC feathers when they were new to American fly tying, and designed my first truly original fly. Big Gunpowder Falls was my primary classroom, and in those years there were heavy hatches of midges and microcaddis throughout the late autumn and winter. The trout were wild, very selective and difficult to deceive. That first fly was conceived as an imitation for both the midges and the microcaddis, using the lessons of movement learned from Shenk, and light reflections learned from LaFontaine.

I twisted single strands of black and silver Krystal Flash in a dubbing loop for an abdomen, wrapped a turn of black ostritch herl for a thorax, and winged my size 20 and 22 creations with white CDC. The fly was an immediate and lasting success for me, fueling the passion that defines my life and my angling today, three decades removed from those days on Gunpowder Falls.

During my time owning and operating a fly shop, I enjoyed teaching fly tying and sharing the lessons I so fortunately learned from those great fly tiers. I aspired to continue that when the Catskill Fly Tyers Guild needed help for their Catskill Kids On The Fly program. I was pleased to join a very talented tyer, Nicole March, for last February’s Fly Fest, Kids On The Fly event before the Covid-19 outbreak disrupted the program. I look forward to the day that we are all safe from this plague and may continue sharing the wonder of fly tying. Please check out Nicole’s wonderful tying on her website: http://www.thequiltedtyer.com, and consider joining the Catskill Fly Tyers Guild.

No Fishing

Memories of Warmer Times

It has been three weeks since I last waded a river, three weeks since my soul has been soothed, my spirit replenished. It seems that winter has become serious about reigning in that spirit, to the contrary of any prior uplifting forecasts.

It is beautiful in the mountains this morning, with snow clustered heavily upon the arms of the forest. I cannot be certain how much fell until after sunrise, when I’ll don boots and take it to task with the shovel, though half a foot at least has transformed our landscape.

The next two days tempt me, as they are the only days in a coming week promised to rise above freezing. The West Branch has the warmest flow, though still in the thirties, but wading is a precarious thing right now. Though I cannot guess their reasoning, NYC has increased the dam release substantially since the dawn of the New Year. Below Hale Eddy, where the border waters are open for fishing, the river flows at more than 900 cfs, not excessive for summer fishing, but enough to increase the dangers of wading in January. A slip, a dunking that’s invigorating in July, can be deadly now.

Temptation tests my judgement.

Clearing the driveway will have to suffice for my exercise today. A pair of older books have been added to my library, with hope for another, so I can continue to fish the rivers of the Golden Age. Polishing bamboo rods is always an option, though the rods fished often this past season have already been cared for. What I wouldn’t give for the opportunity to visit a fly shop, to talk fishing with like-minded souls for a time!

Evening approaches, the last rays of the sun light the ridgetops, and I sit and scan the surface. The simple beauty of the mountains and bright water delights. The mist rises in the cooling air and I wonder aloud: will the hatch come? Soft moments. The anticipation rises as the sun sets. So many evenings, yet never enough!

The New Year Begins

Emerging Caddis, Shad Fly 1/1/21

I began the New Year as I finished the old, by tying a few flies to while away another winter day. I had been thinking about an old technique and lit upon the spark of a new idea.

Over the years I have tied a variety of caddis flies with Antron yarn spun in a dubbing loop, and they have always taken fish for me. I have also tied more CDC dry flies than I can count over thirty years. These, even the ugliest of them from my first experiments, have always been proven fish catchers. I am not sure why it took me all these years to combine the two.

Thanks to the kindness of a stranger, I have a box full of sparkle yarns in a myriad of colors and types. Another fly tier had hunted down a large selection of knitting yarns based upon the writings of the late, great Gary LaFontaine, and he was generous to share them with me. Some of these were the original yarns Gary had used to imitate the gas bubbles of emerging caddis he discovered during his groundbreaking research. Thanks to LaFontaine’s writing, Antron yarn has become a staple for fly tiers for thirty years, and countless trout have found themselves temporarily swimming in landing nets.

Most fly tiers are familiar with the spooled yarn available in fly shops, and various other trilobal materials packaged in hanks, but the original knitting yarns are not nearly as common these days. All of these materials are effective, but the original yarns are softer, with finer filaments, and are worth the effort required to possess them. I decided to tie a new emerging caddis, using the softer yarns for increased movement, matched by the wonderful movement of CDC feathers in the wing.

One of the most prolific caddisflies on the Delaware system is the Shad Fly or Apple Caddis, so that was to be my first pattern. Some of these caddis display a uniquely mixed body coloration, so I have prepared a custom caramel apple dubbing blend to match this ubiquitous little bug. That blend would be complimented by the appropriate yarn, Jeweltones yarn in the Kiwi color, a four strand twisted yarn. Adding a pale tan CDC puff for the wing and a few wood duck flank fibers for legs completed my ingredient list.

The yarn is simply prepared by separating the four stands at the end of a piece of yarn and fraying each of them with a dubbing needle. One frayed strand is used for the trailing shuck, and two or three for the thorax. The abdomen is loosely dubbed with my blended dubbing up to mid shank, then a small dubbing loop is formed and the short fibers of yarn (about 1/4 inch) are placed in the loop, spread out a bit for sparseness, spun, and wrapped forward to form the thorax. The beard style wood duck hackle and the CDC wing complete the fly. It’s best to use your dubbing needle to loosen the free ends of the yarn fibers after wrapping the thorax. Movement in the current is the key!

I tie my Shad Flies in sizes 16 and 18, and though I won’t get the chance to test this little guy until May, I just know the trout are going to like it. I have taken a lot of truly memorable trout fishing that hatch.

One day, one new fly. Well, actually two, as I tied a Grannom variation as well. I bet the trout back in my old Pennsylvania stomping grounds would really go for that one. The Little Juniata River has a tremendous Grannom hatch just after the middle of April; I think its the best hatch on that stream. I fondly recall a thirty-five fish day when I finally reeled up and walked away around five in the evening, with plenty of nice browns still actively rising!

Should you want to try that pattern, the yarn you need is Jeweltones Emerald, and the abdomen is a blend of black squirrel, chopped up yarn and a little black muskrat. A dark natural dun Trout Hunter CDC puff is my choice for the wing.

Emerging Caddis, Grannom

If anyone tries it for the Little J, I’d love to hear about it. As much as I miss that water, there’s just no way to pry me out of the Catskills come April.

The Little Juniata in early season…

Charade

The sun glares through my elevated window, and amid shards of clouds there is blue sky visible. It looks too inviting, the warmth of that glorious light, and I nearly run out to the river, breathless for the chance to cast a line and find a trout. I stop myself short of that headlong rush, as I know it is all a charade.

The wind blows the tiny, icy snowflakes nearly horizontal as I embark upon my morning river walk. Ah yes, the light is warm, but the moving air is well below freezing! Just a walk today, no rod, no reel.

The East Branch has cleared, its flow still strong enough to repel the icy hands of winter. I’ve pulled the collar of my old down vest up tight around my throat to keep that wind away from my arthritic neck. That vest’s age is apparent with one look, it’s tag revealing the fill as goose down. When I was younger down vest or down jacket meant goose down, but no more. Today every company with some nylon and a zipper advertises down jackets, but you don’t want to read their tags. It is a different time. Nothing means what it says these days, except the old things, the things we keep.

Perhaps that is why I have such an affinity for old fishing tackle. One can read all manner of claims for synthetic this, and computer machined that, but I know that an old cane dry fly rod is just that; a wand intended and skillfully made to cast a dry fly gently and accurately to a rising trout. A handmade Hardy reel is a piece of craftsmanship that a proper English gentleman made carefully with hand tools, adjusting the fit of spool to frame precisely. That reel will wind smoothly as fast as the angler’s hand can turn it, and sing beautifully when the shoe is on the other foot, the trout streaking away, away from the bend of the rod.

A new rod from 1967 and a handmade Hardy from the 1950’s

How many of you recall the days when people routinely spoke the truth, when you got what you paid for as a matter of course, expected it, and weren’t disappointed.

I guess that may have something to do with why I prefer to fish older tackle. I get what I expect, though the price may be dear, but there is much more to it than that. I like to wonder during the quiet moments, just where my rod and reel have been before. Might they have laid on this same river bank decades ago, while another angler gazed at the placid surface with hope for a rise?

I confess to a fondness for times past, times we didn’t have terms like combat fishing, for there was no need to describe such behavior. One could enjoy solitude, and if others were encountered, they were lady and gentleman anglers, quietly enjoying the beauty of bright water and wild trout, with a pleasant greeting if one passed their way. No one crowded into an occupied pool, content to move on or sit quietly on the bank until the angler they encountered there fished through.

In some way the vintage rods and reels I fish are time machines, for when I am alone on bright water they can transport me to a quieter and gentler time. Would that their magic could affect us all alike, and foster kindness and blissful enjoyment on each river for everyone, each day.

Almost Fishing

I had my waders and boots on, and enough insulation underneath to stay reasonably comfortable. Two pairs of wool socks should be sufficient to keep my toes from solidifying, or at least I hoped so, but I didn’t get to find out.

When the river came into view at close range I was dismayed to find it still muddied from the holiday storm runoff. Flood waters have receded, at least on the West Branch, and with the flow approaching 700 cfs I expected it to be clear. Disappointed, I drove down to the access anyway. I figured I’d take the walk down and give it a shot in any case, get the benefit of the exercise from the foot travel, if only to confirm the cold, muddy water I knew I’d find. Arriving to find a pair of cars parked in the snowy lot took that chance away as well. I wanted to get on the river pretty badly, but not enough to risk a face to face encounter on the trail; not during the heavy surge of Covid infections our sparsely populated little county is experiencing.

Sure enough, when driving back to town I saw two guys in the river, standing just where I had planned to fish. Well, I was almost fishing…

Sub-freezing weather returns tonight, and another winter storm is supposed to be heading here for year’s end, so any chance to wet a line will have to wait for 2021. Lets all hope it is a much safer and more friendly year. I did get some frigid sunshine yesterday morning, enough to get me out for my river walk and some of that fresh winter air. Best to be thankful for the small gifts we receive.

My motivation for fly tying sort of comes and goes. One hundred eighty-three and one half dozen flies I have tied this year have me more than ready for next season, and likely the season after that. I could begin sorting through fly boxes, but there’s an awful lot of winter ahead. I might need that little task one day to stave off the shack nasties, cabin fever, or whatever you might call that madness that creeps into the brain too far removed from mayflies and rising trout.

I do have a couple of books on order, though it might be weeks before I see them. Postal service has become chuck-and-chance-it. There is Schwiebert! I finally acquired his two volume opus “Trout” last spring. I’ve read a little, but saved most of it for winter, as this is my reading season. How I would love to have the chance to walk along the stream with him once again! I am thankful that I can, in some way at least, through his words and my sparks of memory!

The late, great Ernest Schwiebert casts a line on Big Spring

I have fished all over the world thanks to Ernie’s remarkable writing! Trout in Chile and Argentina and throughout the American West have risen to our flies, and the great salmon of Norway have stripped our reels bare as they muscled their way back to the seas! Best of all I can return at a moment’s notice to any of these beats, the finest fly fishing in all the world lies at my fingertips, right there on the shelf. Yes, I think I’ll go there now…