Tuesday, January 28, 2014

And sometimes we fish

While angling never carries the guarantee of catching, winter trout fishing is defined by scarcity. To get out on the river during this season one has to see the alignment of numerous factors coupled with a healthy suspension of disbelief.

Jonny texted me two Fridays ago. The weekend's weather was going to be milder than it had been in a long time which loosely meant I might be able to fish without ice in my beard or guides. Both our calendars were free at noon on Saturday so we made plans for the usual spot.

When you have a fishing buddy you seem to naturally gravitate to familiar water. Every pairing finds its own place. Ross and I fish the Farmington on a wide pool below pocket water that holds some good memories. Kit and I gravitate to the Housy. Sam and I wade wet in a fast run that holds willing smallmouth in July. Jonny and I meet on this one small stream several times a year. It's a place where the hope for a large trout in skinny water is not a hope cast carelessly.

Not the forecast
Jonny was on the water before I arrived and it was difficult not to race to the stream. There's a certain anxiousness when one is late to the water. It could be dismissed as anxiety about good water being fished in one's absence but the reality is more complex. It's a fear of missing the action or some special thing occurring and one being wrapped up in a mundane exercise or dwelling over a leader that needs rebuilding. I suppose it's also the relative scarcity of time on the water. Nothing must be wasted.

As I suited up a hesitant snow that had been falling for an hour got more serious. There was nothing forecast for the afternoon so this was a surprise of New England weather. Jonny was fishing a run that is alive with trout during a spring spinner fall but whose water was too thin and cold to hold in the winter. That said, it was water that one couldn't pass without a cast or two.

A gift from Dave
We fished further down looking for trout holding in deeper cut banks or by spring seeps. We saw no sign of life aside from two anglers coming upstream who spoke of wrestling a large brown and a rainbow to the net. It's certainly possible on this river and they had just come up from one of the places where those fish would be this time of year.

Jonny and I made a pass at a log jam near a bend and though it looked fishy as hell nothing came up to see our offering. The snow hadn't let up and we were both soggy and cold and decided that a bit of a walk would warm us up. We had passed by a deep hole on the way in. It's sure winter holding water but the barometer and thermometer seemed to be subduing the mojo. Worth a shot, regardless.

I took the tail with a deep slot under some brush and Jonny took the head with an eddy on both sides. The near eddy was deepest and it only took a few slow swings of a Wooley Bugger to get some interest. First a rainbow made a swirl. Then a brown. And then a fish on and off in an instant. And then Jonny lost his fly, leader and a couple of feet of fly line to a snag. Clearly a set-back, maybe even a sign. By the time we got back to the car the snow was waning and before waders were shed the sun was peeking from behind scudding gray clouds.

All in
When you haven't landed a fish in some time you are haunted by even the possibility of fish. Especially if you've seen them and been jilted. On Sunday I returned to that water with the intent of fishing the log jam and the eddy pool. I figured going big was best so Wooley Buggers and large Stones got a turn on the leader.

I worked the log jam from up on the riffle making hazardous casts into woody debris. Rachel Finn, an Adirondack fishing guide, once had me making casts into tricky spots by casting my fly against the feature and letting it slide down into the water. It was a technique that worked well, but without Rachel's drill sergeant urgency I don't seem to be able to make casts into piles of fly snatching branches. Sunday was no exception.

I cast to the slower water and swam the fly to the current seam nearest the tangle. I worked the water several times with all the colors of the rainbow. Purple was the only one to get a response -- a fat brown fully cleared the water chasing, and missing, the slowly stripped bugger. After that it seemed the game was up. I swear the damn things talk to each other down there.

I hiked back upstream to the eddy pool enjoying a cigar and the relative warmth of the day. After retrieving two flies I had put in the bushes the previous day, I waded in at the head and swung every bugger in the fly box through the deep, slow water. Nothing doing. As my toes went numb I tied on a large, yellow stonefly nymph and gave it a go under a bobber.

I gave it more casts that was probably reasonable and then gave it a few more. Hope dies hard. It got to the point that I wasn't really fishing the fly anymore so much as soaking it. I let it simmer in the frigid water waiting for a sign and the sign came with a solid twitch of the indicator. The flash of a brilliantly colored rainbow got my pulse going and a brief, sluggish battle had him to hand.

I'm sure the rainbow was not alone in the depths but it seemed like the right time to be moving on. Something had happened that seemed wholly unjustified given the season and to try for more would be gluttony. I'm back inside staring at a thermometer. It only makes brief forays into double digits each day before retreating south. Though anchor ice crowds the river bottom I'm hopeful a brief thaw is not far off. There's a log jam that surely holds trout and I believe that I'm due if only I can get a few more casts past its grasping limbs.

Soak the fly. It pays off.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

One year on

A man once stood before GOD his heart breaking from the pain and injustice in the world. "Dear GOD," he cried out, "look at all the suffering and anguish and distress in YOUR world. Why don't you send help?" GOD responded, "I did send help. I sent you."
- A Jewish Folk Tale

It's been a year since I wrote the gun essays. In essay number five, I proposed some ideas about how we might develop a safer society when it comes to firearms. My thinking on this, like most things, has evolved over time but not radically so. Today, a brief review of my proposals, how my point of view has evolved and what progress we've made
  1. Remove laws that prevent government agencies from researching and advocating for effective ways to prevent gun deaths: I still believe this is one of the most important things we can do as a society -- figure out science-based ways to prevent gun violence. Well, Congress has been unable to do whatever it's supposed to do but the President has basically said "stuff it" to the children in Congress and instructed the CDC to get on with the job of research. Kudos to the President. Raspberries to 535 elected officials.
  2. Appoint and approve a head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and change the laws that restrict the BATF from creating effective regulations: Done! Kudos to the Senate.
  3. Increase enforcement of existing laws: I have no idea how we're doing on this one. I suppose we'll have to wait for some statistics on last year's arrests. Stay tuned.
  4. Create a National Firearms Permit that would be required for the purchase and ownership of firearms.: This one hasn't happened either though I'm encouraged by some change to firearms laws at the state levels. Illinois finally has a permit system. Washington D.C.'s ban has been ruled unconstitutional. But the the ability to standardize our laws and standards for firearms ownership remains elusive. This one is a work in progress.
  5. Eliminate private sales of firearms.: Another work in progress though I give the US Congress a big, fat "F" on this one. Universal background checks are universally supported by voters but not by elected officials. You know that big money is a problem when politicians don't listen to citizens. At the state level, some states are moving to better regulate the sale of firearms. 
  6. Criminalize the negligent storage of firearms.: Another work in progress. I'd like to hear about some prosecutions in these cases. Especially where children are injured or killed because some idiot adult doesn't have the sense to lock up their weapon. This should be a serious crime. In some places it's not.
  7. Require the registration of all firearms.: This is one that mystifies me. So many of the "bad guys with guns" bought those guns legally before they were a "bad guy" but the "good guys" had no reliable way of knowing whether they owned a gun or not. Stupid.
  8. Stop selling military grade weapon systems to individuals: Another work in progress. Some states have moved in the right direction here. It's controversial to be sure.
I think progress is being made but the journey toward a safer society will be a long one. 

Part of the problem is all the vitriol in the discussion about the subject. And I believe that one of the things driving all that, and progress on practically every other subject, is money. Regulating firearms (or destroying the Second Amendment, as some would say) is not the biggest threat to freedom in the U.S. Heck, it doesn't even make my top ten list. The Citizen's United ruling is the single biggest threat to our democracy and no number of guns will blunt its influence. If there's one thing we need, it's a Constitutional amendment that says that dollars and companies are not citizens. Until we have that, government will not represent the will of the electorate.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Book Review: Selectivity by Matt Supinski

Fishing books are an antidote to winter doldrums. The water beckons but daylight is fleeting, ice guards the banks and fish sulk. I'll still get out there if I can manage but I eventually succumb to the call of the fire, a deep glass of spirits and the company of family and friends. And a good book.

A few weeks ago, I  received a package in the mail containing Matt Supinski's new book, Selectivity. This tome focuses on advice for angling to fussy trout, steelhead and Atlantics. It's a coffee-table-book sized book and is visually stunning. It also has a heft and a feel that book junkies will appreciate.

Most "how-to" books are prescriptive and, frankly, I find them of marginal value. Angling is highly situational and it's hard to take specific advice - fish this fly, go to this spot, wait for this condition - and make it yield a tug on the line. More valuable is the nugget of general wisdom that you can mull and test and the add to your repertoire if it seems to fit. This is the strength of Selectivity. While there is some prescriptive advice, the sweet spot of Matt's book are the observations and the anecdotes that accompany the techniques.

The book starts off with twenty pages that cover angling history and the language Supinski uses to describe the phases of selectivity: Aggressive/Active, Selective/Reflective, and Passive Dormant. The book then shifts into the first of three sections covering trout, steelhead and Atlantic Salmon:

The trout section comprises half of the book and will likely be the greatest benefit for most anglers. The section starts with a detailed discussion of each of the trout species and some behavioral commentary. I didn't expect this section to be valuable but Matt has a very conversational style and he talks about his experience angling for each species. The discussion about lake-run rainbow and brown trout in the Great Lakes make me appreciate the resource even more than I previously did. I've added a trip to Michigan to the bucket list.

Building on Vince Marinaro's work, Matt discusses how trout see surface prey and what the implications are for anglers. Then he gets into the techniques for tempting these trout. It's everything from the obvious (stealth) to the subtle (decoding masking hatches). He also addresses subsurface presentations and, for those keying in on trophy trout, fishing meaty streamers and dries to Active/Aggressive trout both during the day and at night. As a bonus the section also includes details about fishing sixteen hatches that Matt considers foundational knowledge for trout anglers. The section ends with color plates of dozens of flies (recipes for all in the back of the book) with details and anecdotes about several. My favorite is the Big Spring Mouse. It is big and not a mouse.

I spent some time on the Steelhead section as that's where I've recently found some frustration. Matt is known for his expertise in this area and this section, while not as long as the trout section, seems the best organized and most direct. There's almost too much information to gather in a first reading and I've got to go back through it slowly before my next trip. Steelhead fishing is one of those things that rewards time on the water. Matt reinforces this belief talking about the importance of getting to know the river, slowing down the pace of angling and being thorough in each run.

The last thirty pages of the book deal with Atlantic salmon. I didn't spend too much time on this section as it's not something that really interests me. That said, there are pictures of some absolute beasts. Maybe there's something to it after all....

Overall, I like this book and recommend it with two slight reservations. The early chapters don't seem well organized; I had a bit of trouble getting the pace of things. But once Matt hits his stride things begin to click. Also, my copy had two pages with production errors - a slight blurring of the text - which is disappointing in a book that is produced to such high quality. [UPDATE: The publisher checked copies on their end and it seems mine is an isolated example] But these faults don't detract from the overall value of this tome; well worth the price of admission.

If you're in western Connecticut, you can meet Matt at Housatonic River Outfitters on Wednesday, January 22nd at 6 p.m. He'll be there for a book signing and presentation. They'll also be local beer and wine to taste. I'll be there around 6:30 p.m. I hope to see you there.

Selectivity: The Theory & Method of Fly Fishing for Fussy Trout, Salmon, & Steelhead, Matt Supinski, $39.95 or about $36 at online retailers.

Full Disclosure: Stackpole Books sent me the book free of charge for review.

A Passive/Dormant rainbow that I  tempted yesterday with a large yellow stonefly nymph.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Quick Sips: Random stuff from the past week or so

During the workday I'll dump things that are sent my way onto Facebook or Twitter. In case you missed these:

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Dead Water

Dead river running.
There's a stream by the house that is one of three local gems that provides good angling year-round. It's a protected wild trout stream that used to have lots of brook trout in it. Over the past decade, they've been displaced by lots of browns. I suppose there are worse things. On a Monday afternoon last July all the fish for hundreds of yards downstream of a storm drain outlet just up and died. No one knows why.

The state came down and confirmed that there were no fish in the water. Upstream of the outlet they found many trout up to fourteen inches in length. Water sample testing failed to determine what exactly went into the water. The likely culprits are some pesticide or herbicide used to maintain town and state property served by that storm drain system though I wouldn't rule out some private individual pouring something into a catch basin.

These sorts of events get precious little publicity. It's a small stream. Resources are dear and greater priorities loom. And it's only trout for god's sake. Who really gives a shit about trout? Folks move on quickly.

Clean water is taken for granted. We turn the faucet and expect that what comes out will be healthy for us to consume. I don't think too many people make a connection between what they're seeing come from the faucet and it's source. To trace water back to it's ultimate source, all you have to do is stand outside on a rainy day. In order for that water to make it's way to the faucet it will go on an amazing journey, a journey that may include a storm drain, a small creek or even that marsh down the street that a developer wants to fill in for housing.

Thirteen tanks, forty feet from the water.
Required inspections to make sure
sufficient controls are in place:
Actual sufficient controls in place: Zero
People with poisoned water:  300,000
Now that's Freedom!
Eighty-six percent of people in the U.S. get their water from public water supplies. About a third of that supply comes from groundwater via public wells. The other two thirds is from surface water - rivers and impoundments on rivers.* And those rivers get their water from smaller rivers and smaller streams and so on until it's just water falling from the sky. And some of that water washes by facilities like those owned by Freedom Industries.

With the debate about fracking, there's been a whole lot of focus on the quality of water in wells lately but those impacts are generally localized and invisible on a national level. To some I suppose the fracking hubbub sounds like a bunch of shrill, whining brats. Some would say that America's freedom is at stake and if energy independence comes at the price of some bad water and dead streams, so be it. It worked for the mining industry, why not the drilling industry?

But those shrill voices seem to resonate a whole lot more when events are not localized and dozens of inconvenienced people becomes thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. Clean water becomes a whole lot more important because it is a whole lot more important.

It's very popular in certain political circles to say that the EPA isn't needed, that smaller government is the answer for everything. I agree that we're spending more than we take in and I'd like my tax situation to be different. But there are places that I'm not willing to compromise; Clean Water is one of those places.

Events like the one in Charleston, West Virginia are not accidents. They are the logical conclusion of a series of events put in place by us. We elect folks to office and demand that they do certain things, like create a climate where doing business is easy. Further, we demand that we not be constrained by onerous regulations. We demand freedom and liberty and all the other things that make for amusing Facebook memes and witty political repartee. And we get exactly what we ask for. We deserve better.

We need to continue to strengthen the regulation and enforcement of laws that pertain to clean water on the local, state and federal levels. And we each need to take personal responsibility for doing so. It is easy to blame such conditions on politicians and political bodies. But at the end of the day it is the personal responsibility of each of us to make our voices heard in the discussion.

If you haven't written your local, state and federal political leaders on this topic, you should. And you shouldn't let them get away with savaging agencies like the EPA to score political points. It's the EPA which is solely charged with keeping water clean. If you kill the EPA, you turn the responsibility for clean water over to companies like Freedom Industries. And then it'll be no mystery who's poisoning the water and killing the fish. It'll be the person in the mirror.

Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2005; By Joan F. Kenny, Nancy L. Barber, Susan S. Hutson, Kristin S. Linsey, John K. Lovelace, and Molly A. Maupin

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Muse

While it sounds like a horrible delusion, said in the dark hours after a solid skunk, for many fishing is about more than the catching. None of us would be out if there wasn't a chance of putting something in the net. But if that was the only reason, we'd have given it up long ago. Half of us are worse than average and even for those to the right of the mean, the standard deviation is low. It's the outliers, the top two percent, that are getting the quantity and quality fish that the rest of us desire.

So why are we out there? I know folks who enjoy the social aspect of sport though there are likely as many who appreciate the anti-social dimensions. Others come for the buzz; nicotine, caffeine, and all the varieties of ethanol that smooth the rough edges of life's dreariness. But in the quiet moments I bet many find the muse. On a flat chasing bones or in one of those beautiful, quiet places where trout lurk the magnificence provides an opportunity for her to whisper in one's ear. It's the poetry of the moment, in the scatter of light and the micro and macro details that comprise the landscape, that can make the trip alone worthwhile.

There are, however, fishy places the muse shuns. Lake Ontario steelhead streams generally run through landscapes seized early by the Industrial Revolution. As the Revolution matured and sought warmer climes it discarded these places leaving them lonely and barren. The masses that once served her machinations now inhabit tired towns that seem to defy their own efforts to raise themselves up. Agriculture is about all that's left which, ironically, is where they started.

These places, despite the abandonment of industry, are crowded. There's no solitude to be found on the region’s streams and the detritus of generations past is littered with the trash of the previous day's frustrated angling masses. Beer cans, coffee cups, and yards and yards of fluorescent mono assault the eye. The only beauty and peace to be found is when lake effect snows blow in. Like a city street during an overnight snow, the masses flee indoors and the landscape is temporarily cleansed.

Lacking other things, steelhead fishing in this region is about the rawest version of angling that we have. One doesn't give a crap about the scenery and it's too cold to be social. All that is left is the tug; the catching is everything. I don't care how it comes, swung fly, chuck and duck, on the dangle, as long as it comes.

A couple of weeks ago, I partnered up with a friend, Matt, for my latest outing in Pulaski. It was a one of those trips where you had almost as many hours in the car as you did on the river. The weather gods provided the full monty; frigid temperatures and a dumping snow greeted me as I drove through Syracuse. By the time I got to Pulaski the partially plowed highway had an inch of of snow on it and the side roads closer to three inches. I was grateful for the new snow tires. The flows on the river were a bit higher than I had previously fished by I managed to get into familiar spots. Sadly, the fish didn't do their part in our dance. That afternoon, I managed two takes but they were lackluster. I was slow on the set and the fish were quickly off.

The next day Matt joined me. I was going to get on the water early but more snow overnight and an early conference call kept me at the cabin. We fished a spot that was recommended. We nymphed and egged. We put on Skagit heads and swung all manner of fly to temp the steel. Despite hiking and fishing over a mile of river these locales resisted our efforts. We saw several fish hooked and one caught, though the angler readily admitted it was foul hooked. That was the extent of the catching.

One tries to find some rationale for such days. A weather system was moving in so perhaps that was our undoing. The flows were higher but steady. Prognosticators like to talk about how rising or falling or stable flows can both prompt and suppress successful angling. Regardless it didn't happen and I added hundreds of casts to my attempts to reconnect with a chrome beast; attempts were all I had accumulated.

In the morning the forecast that previously foretold snow in inches was now estimating the measure in feet. Light snow was already falling from Pulaski all the way to the Connecticut shoreline. The reservoir was dumping water and the river was bank full. I did roll through Altmar just to take a peek at conditions. While a handful of troubled souls were fishing from the bank it seemed that those who retained their sanity stayed home. And so I turned homeward.

A skunking on the steelhead stream stings more than one gained elsewhere. The catching is all you have and denied that you're left with empty hours staring at slate gray waters. I still feel the wounds as if they were gained yesterday. Eventually they will scar over joining the blemishes from past trips. I will plot again for a trip north even though the season is waning. I suppose it's a desire to make all this effort worth something. To be able to hoist a beast from the water, to bear its weight despite the scars, and to chant to the muses one's verse of battle and triumph.

Matt suffering the skunking with dignity.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Where things lead


Which leaves me doing this....

I need to make those wraps tighter. The trout will notice.

Which also leaves me pining for water in a liquid state.


Thursday, January 2, 2014

Out of Control

With an abundance of hubris, we humans tend to believe we can control the uncontrollable. When it comes to flowing water our manifest destiny knows no bounds. We channelize, dam and riprapize, bending waterways to our will. But it doesn't always work out the way we'd like.

Some folks I now in the mountains of Colorado have a renewed appreciation for the deference Mother Nature has when you run a road up along one of her streams. Sure, things seem fine for a while but then she throws a rainstorm to beat all rainstorms your way and you're left wishing for a nice pony to ride down the trail where the road used to be.

I've been waiting for a small brook near the house to start eating into the abandoned roadbed along it's banks. A bend pool has been moving east along the bank for the past few years eating into the rip rap guarding the road's edges. Those sharp boulders have been strewn downstream and have created some nice habitat.

In a large storm this past spring that bend pool got stuffed with dozens of mangled tree corpses. During normal water levels the flow strains through the knotted boughs. We haven't had much rain lately so I haven't seen the river testing this new arrangement, until the other day.

I seems our little river decided that instead of battling the stone rampart of the road, it'd take the easy way out and head west into it's flood plain. I expect we'll have a new channel before long and even more fallen trees to add to the habitat.

Score one for hubris.

Brook breaks new ground from Sipping Emergers on Vimeo.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Year

Many thanks to all who stopped by during the past year to read what I've written about the sport of fly fishing and various other nonsense. I'm not sure what 2014 has in store but here's to hoping it keeps getting better for us all!