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All hail the Meat Stick (but don’t tell anyone).

I am not a snob, but I am stubborn. When I go trout fishing I tend to like throwing dry flies, not because I’m some sort of snooty highbrow angler of considerable cultural refinement, but rather because of my German heritage. And it’s that Kraut stubbornness that finds me staring obvious fact straight in the face and refusing to comply. It’s a commonly known fact that fish take 99.999% of their meals under the surface. The other .001% of the time they will take a surface fly – not out of hunger, but to mess with the heads of anglers like me (seeing a fish take a swipe at my fly gives me a false sense of confidence in myself as a fisherman). It makes obvious sense to put one’s fly where fish do the majority of their shopping, and armed with this knowledge  most any angler will either adapt, or face a skunking. That’s where my stubborn nature comes into play: I know I could catch more fish if I would change my ways, but I derive great pleasure in seeing a fish rise and take the fly. Though not out of snobbery, but because chances are I will miss the hook set, fail to keep a tight line, or violate some other Cardinal Rule for fighting a fish. At least with dry fly fishing I get to see the fish before I lose it. And I believe the fish enjoy the sport of it as well.

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A moderately nasty case of the tangles. It can and does get much worse than this.

Due to the fact that I’m a very visual person, I’ve never much enjoyed fishing nymph rigs under a strike indicator. When one signs over their life to fly fishing, one of the first things they seek is to throw beautiful tight loops. Sexy loops, if you will. When chucking nymph rigs, it involves intentionally sloppy, open loop upstream casts. Instead of gentle fluidity, nymphing mandates that one aggressively throw stack mends into the line. And then you sit back and watch the indicator as it bobs downstream, all the while trying to detect a subtle change in the indicator’s “action” (a blatant oxymoron if there ever was one). This has always held the same appeal for me as watching paint dry or being a roadside flagger on a deserted highway. Nymphing is called “dead-drifting” or a reason, and frankly I prefer to feel somewhat alive when I fish. Because of that I have always held the position that no matter how effective others say nymph fishing is, there’s more to fishing than catching fish. I don’t mind stripping a streamer from time to time, particularly if it’s an olive woolly bugger, because at least one is engaged in the action of actually working the fly. But there’s something about a dead-drifting nymph dangling under a strike indicator that reminds me too much of childhood excursions spent passively sitting in a boat on a lake with an actual bobber, waiting impatiently for a trout to take the worm hanging deep below the surface. Out of sight.  Another part of the equation is that casting an indicator and two flies joined together by a length of tippet is a good recipe for a nasty case of the tangles. And I have enough trouble as it is with a single fly. At any rate, I want to make it very clear that I’m no snob. I’m merely quagmired in a status of quo – unwilling to adapt to fishing a method that catches fish. Besides, if I started catching a lot of fish, I’d have nothing to write about.

Now, nymphing for steelhead is something I’d never done before prior to a recent trip. I’ve begrudgingly fished nymphs for trout several times, but the only steelheading I’d done (admittedly not much) involved swinging streamers. And so on this trip with my college buddy, Large Albacore (not his real nickname), we were doing just that: Swinging streamers with our Spey rods on a river in north central Washington. Weeks leading up to the trip were spent salivating over widespread reports of record steelhead numbers (something like 475,000 fish) returning over the many dams on the Columbia River. These fish were headed into the many tributary rivers along the way, and unfortunately I misinterpreted this as meaning that catching would be pretty good. It’s not often that I anticipate plentiful catching when I go after fish, but this time was an exception.

Admittedly most of these returning fish were of hatchery origins, but for those of us who are unfortunate enough to call western Washington home (where the dismal numbers of steelhead returning to our Puget Sound rivers are a troubling reality) these bloated figures were more than a good enough reason to travel across the mountains to visit the welcoming anglers from the dry side of our state. A river ripe with prospective steelhead attracts angling folks in a similar way that opossums attracts vehicle tires, and while I felt a little guilty to be part of the problem, I quickly got over it. With so many fish in this river, surely none of the locals would mind if I came over and caught a few of their surplus hatchery brats. As a gift to these parched folks I brought with me some much-needed rain, arriving with my Spey rod, an assortment of colorful streamers and a tent that would prove to leak horribly. I was ready to get it on.

But back to the point about nymphing, or more specifically, fishing “dirty” as Large Albacore refers to it. It’s bad enough to be fishing with a nymph setup, but unthinkably shameful when using a plastic bead egg as a dropper “fly”. PA280780So maligned is nymphing for steelhead that a recent thread on the very popular Washington Fly Fishing online forum saw 24 pages of heated discussion about nymphing. You see, Albacore is a man of some refinement: He enjoys a fine cigar, a good glass of wine, a quality beer, and an appropriately aged single malt. As far as the single malt goes, he enjoys it as both a beverage and as a wader deodorant (a story for another time perhaps). I, on the other hand, never evolved past the cheap cigars and union-made swill we enjoyed in college (some 25 years earlier). We do share a common viewpoint of nymphing, however, and agree that swinging streamers with a Spey rod is the preferred method of steelhead angling.

You can see that I forgot to Photoshop the dirty bead from this photo.

You can see that I forgot to Photoshop the dirty bead from this photo.

I’ve been told that it is not an uncommon practice for an angler to catch a steelhead on a dirty nymph rig, only to remove the unsightly tackle from the fish’s mouth before snapping a photo.  At least I’ve heard of this taking place.

Over the course of 2 1/2 days we fished hard: Up at 5:15, on the water from sun-up until mid-day, with a quick break for a bite to eat and a cold beverage of one’s choosing. During this brief fishing reprieve I would also take the opportunity to soak up as much water from inside my tent as possible (praise be to the Sham-Wow I’d packed in my duffel bag). Then we were back at it until it was time for the evening meal and fireside chat to talk about how swinging streamers was a preferred method of fishing for steelhead. We also grumbled about how crowded the river was and bemoaned the slow fishing. Steelhead fishermen know that steelhead are the fish of 1000 casts, but it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Not on this trip.

As it turns out, according to intelligence provided to us by a state fisheries employee logging catch rates on this river, only about 25% of the returning fish had entered this particular section of the river. The other 75% were stacked-up in the closed lower section of the river, waiting, I assumed, for me to return home before heading upstream en masse. Because of this, the hookups were few and far between, and the number of fish landed even fewer. Given the number of anglers who had descended upon this river on this particular weekend (the nerve of them to do so anyway), we felt lucky just to find a spot to fish. When we were fortunate to find a roadside pullout not occupied by another vehicle, we skidded to a halt and rejoiced at our good fortune­. Every run we approached gave us new hope, even if it had just been pounded by other fishermen moments before our arrival. And each time we would start out by swinging flies with our Spey rods, working every run twice through. When that yielded no interest from fish, out would come the “Meat Pole” (Albacore’s Sage XP 896 rigged with a Thingamabobber looped above a stonefly nymph residing above a bead egg with trailing hook).  It resembled the hardware that a Icehouse-guzzling gear fisherman might be chucking from his lawn chair on the bank of the river (by the way, there’s nothing wrong with Icehouse or gear fishing). The only difference was that we were presenting our offering with a fly rod, and we weren’t sitting in a lawn chair (and the cheap beer was back at camp in my cooler).

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Albacore brandishing the Meat Stick.

Upon hearing the first declaration that it was time to “get dirty” I  balked. I was here to swing – not fish with a bobber. Being the visual angler than I am, I just couldn’t see fishing a nymph rig so I politely declined and went about swinging. At least by fishing in this manner I got ample opportunity to work on my Spey casting, which is always in need of more practice. As I threw unsightly casts that emanated from disfigured D-loops, I glanced over my shoulder and saw Albacore with a bend in the Meat Pole. I reeled in my line and dashed upstream to watch him land the fish. Albacore has never been one to speak in a manner that is anything other than direct and honest, and so he was blunt in his admission that it pissed him off to have to fish this way, because he’d never had to resort to this manner of angling on this river before. He was equally honest in stating that he would be even more pissed off if he didn’t catch a fish. With size 15 wading boots, Albacore is not a guy that you want stomping around in a foul mood.  Catching this first fish insured the safety of everyone back at camp that evening, and I breathed a long sigh of relief.

After pulling that first fish out of the same run we’d just covered diligently with our Spey rods, Albacore handed me the Meat Pole and told me to have a go at it. I looked over my shoulder to make sure nobody was watching, and within a few minutes proceeded to catch my first steelhead of the trip. And so began a pattern that persisted for the remainder of the trip: Work a run twice with our Spey rods before grabbing the Meat Pole, going dirty, and catching a fish. Did we catch a fish nymphing each run?  No–but it was the only method that produced hookups, and our Spey rods gently wept in silence from the riverbank.

Gettin' dirty.

Gettin' dirty.

Prior to this trip I had only caught one steelhead before, so simply catching another was a thrill for me. Would I rather have caught the fish on my Spey rod? Absolutely.  However, employing this dirty method of fishing I felt very fortunate to have hooked 2 fish and landed one. I would have landed two, but someone’s left-handed reflexes proved too slow for even a hatchery slug, and the fish, lying at my feet in 2 inches of water, got away before someone (who shall remain anonymous) could tail it. The established trend is that everyone I fish with out-catches me, so it should come as no surprise that Large Albacore faired better. Besides, he’s a much better fisherman than I am. Collectively, the total number of fish caught swinging with the Spey rods: 0.  Total fish caught fishing dirty: 4, or maybe 5. What I came to accept on this trip is that nymphing catches fish, even though swinging flies is still the preferred method of preserving our dignity: Swing first; fish dirty as a last resort to save face completely. And if both methods result in a skunk, fall back on the comfort of knowing that there’s more to fishing than catching fish.

By the way, I recently picked up a used Sage XP 8 weight. Now what am I going to do with that?

While I’ve got your attention, I wanted to publicly express gratitude to Bob White for some recent kind words posted in his weekly “Thursday Morning Art Review” newsletter.  Bob is a very accomplished fine artist whose work is well known in the fly fishing world. His beautiful paintings accompany the writing of John Gierach (an accomplished angler and author) in each issue of Fly Rod & Reel. Among other beautiful offerings, they have a line of “Small Fry” cards that are really nice. I picked up a couple sets this year which prompted me to actually grab a pen and write notes to people. Please take a moment to visit Bob’s website:  Whitefish Studios. Thanks for the support, Bob and Lisa!

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18 thoughts on “All hail the Meat Stick (but don’t tell anyone).”

  1. Jon De Jong says:

    Have you ever heard of the phrase, “coming out of the closet?” Some secrets are better off kept secret. After sharing this shocking bit of news, you will now find out who your true friends are. Great post! You got a belly laugh or two or three out of me.

    1. admin says:

      Jon, thanks for chiming in. It’s good to see you spending a little quality time with the computer instead of out catching fish. Hey, you oughta plan a trip with me and Large Albacore- I think you two might have quite a bit in common ; )

  2. Rebecca says:

    Has anyone ever told you that you are a stubborn fisherman?
    I haven’t spent time fly fishing for steelies, so obviously I’m oblivious to the acceptable practices and unwritten rules, but I’m not opposed to using a nymph during my fishing routine. In fact, and I hope we can still be friends after this admission, I would say I nymph far more than I loft a dry.
    My guess is you were tainted by the practice out the gate. You started with dries and streamers and introduced nymphs later. Whereas I was started in the fly fishing gig on nymphs with the promise that if I good decent enough I would be show the shining star of dries.
    At least you left stubborn and spey on the bank and tried something that would produce the feel of a steelie at the end of your line~
    Oh…and I guess, just call me dirty~

    1. admin says:

      Rebecca, one thing you’ll not find me doing anytime soon is calling you dirty. Just because you dangle nymphs doesn’t put you in that category. Now, if you have baggies of plastic beads on your tying table, then I may have to question your hygeine ; )

  3. Rebecca says:

    good gawd, where’s the edit on comments….should read, “promise that if I got decent enough I would be shown the shining star”

  4. Patrick says:

    I, too, am a stubborn fisherman of Germanic ancestry. That stubbornness, however, manifests itself most in a desire to never walk away from a river, stream or lake when the fish think they’ve gotten one over on me. I’ve even been known to double the dirtiness while at the same time tainting the purity of a dry fly by adding a small, barely discernable bead-head nymph dropper.

    While many may describe small fly fishing streams as “sun dappled,” perhaps it’s the shadows that provide shelter from prying eyes when nymphing.

    Though I now worry your words will have me overcome with the urge to shower after nymphing, thanks for the chuckles.

    1. admin says:

      Pat: We all anticipate the hours when the sun is finally off the water and the fish feel safe to begin rising. But I like your analogy that the shadows provide shelter from shame…excellent.

  5. Nerveracker says:

    Kirk
    While still relatively new to fly fishing, I learned early to employ EVERY tactic to increase my odds on catching/landing fish. The only thing stubborn about my fishing is, I don’t want to leave the river or even the fishing hole until I’m 100% satisfied that there are no or no more fish to catch in said area. This could mean several hours in the same spot. Again, I’ll employ every tactic known to me. However, the beads are not in my tackle pack. I will drift egg patterns with a nymph dropper or vice versa in a heartbeat. In fact, I’m buying my vise today and am going to start tying the lowly glowly ( http://oregonflyfishingblog.com/fly-tying-videos-oregon-steelhead-patterns/ ) Coming from a long line of fishermen, ( My dad and his 4 brothers, both of my grandfathers, great-grandfathers and who knows else) some trout fishermen, most bass fishermen, I love nothing more than seeing a fish rise to feed on the surface (be it floating plug or dry fly). But, I learned early in life that when the fish ain’t biting on the surface, tactics must be changed in order to increase one’s chances to catch/land a fish. Therefore, personally, I have absolutely NO shame to admit freely that I’ll fish “dirty” (as you say) and I’ll do it in a New York minute! I’m gonna tell on myself here. Last weekend, I even stuck the spinning rod in the car “just in case”. You just never know when you have to pull out the corkies and slinkies (it did stay in the car). I’m not above using the aforementioned method if the flies ain’t working.
    That hatchery buck I caught last Saturday was yummy, tasty! Just ask my kids! But I had a great time catching him.
    Ok, I’m going on a rant here… but I feel this needs to be said. Everybody rambles on about hatchery fish. I’m torn on this subject. Simply because, those fish that return have endured much the same life a wild/native born fish has (with the exception of the first year) That fish has survived gill nets, seals, sea-lions, sharks, tuna, salmon and other large predatory fish, man, birds, and other sea life. And a very worthy opponent (at least in my eyes). The one I caught, was @ 25 minutes worth of a fight, and he was only 28-30″ (8-10lbs) He did it up right, he made 4 decent runs, jumped 6-8 times, and doubled my 10′ 7wt rod in half. A very worthy opponent indeed. I understand that the hatchery fish compete with native fish in the river systems for food. But, here we’re talking about anadromous fish. As far as winter fish go, they’re in the rivers for 2-3 months tops, and they don’t normally feed once they enter fresh water. So, river competition is kind of a moot argument. I feel, at least with the steelhead programs, that the impact that they play on wild fish are much less than their potamodromous (plain old non ocean going rainbow trout) cousins. Would I love to see every river managed as wild fishery… HELL YEAH, you bet I do. But until the commercial fisheries are banned from using gill-nets and are regulated even further, poor logging practices changed, unneeded sediment filling up the rivers due to road construction and other construction, fishways built in every dam (would like to see most dams pulled down), and human intervention eliminated and allow nature to resume on her own course, our populations of wild fish are in serious trouble. Granted a lot has been done to eradicate the native populations of steelhead in the rivers, with dams, poor logging practices etc. But there has been a rapid decline in the numbers of returning steelhead mostly due to commercial fishing, over harvest, and poor management practices.
    I know I’ve rambled on and on, and am probably preaching to the choir here, but I’ll just say this. I tip my hat to the hatchery steelhead that are fortunate enough to make it back year after year. They are worthy of some respect. Plus they’re REALLY tasty!

    Dave

    1. admin says:

      Dave, I’m the one that’s supposed to be long-winded and rambling- you trying to put me out of a job? 😉 I agree that there are many things not being done that must be done if we ever hope our wild anadromous fish runs recover. Hatchery fish provide fish for harvesting/sport, but at the expense of wild fish. When they breed with native fish the gene pool suffers. I don’t feel they should be in the same rivers as native fish, but too late for that. I just hope it’s not too late for our native fish, but I will admit that I don’t have a lot of faith that the right things will be done because it would require an elected official willing to risk political suicide, and most politicians aren’t willing to go there. Maybe what we need to do is just release a bunch of genetically high quality browns into rivers where steelhead are already gone or nearly so. In short order we’ll have populations of searrun brown similar to Chile, and we’ll forget what a steelhead ever was. Of course, I’m kidding. Sort of.

  6. Nerveracker says:

    hmmm
    After re-reading my comment there, allow me to clarify. Our population of wild steelhead are in trouble. The hatchery fish help mitigate some of that. But hatchery fish aren’t the answer. Man-made fish introduced into an ecosystem is NEVER the answer. What I am trying to say is.. If things don’t change all we may end up with is the hatchery steelhead, that’s the sad reality.
    I’m selectively in favor of some of the hatchery programs. They have their place. But their place is not where the hatchery fish must compete with wild fish for food or space in a river system. Their place is in put-and-take areas, ponds, and areas relatively confined, so those fish aren’t allowed to co-mingle with native fish, and where the catch rate is 80% and up.
    I hope that clears up what I was trying to say

    Dave

  7. BobWhite says:

    Heck, anyone can catch fish on dries when they’re rising. I love to prospect with a meat-stick. It’s sort of like magic when it all works out.

    1. admin says:

      Black magic…;)

  8. BobWhite says:

    … and thanks for the kind words at the bottom of the story.

    1. admin says:

      My pleasure…not sure that the words of the Unaccomplished Angler carry much weight, but the words are true!

  9. Roger says:

    When I relent from throwing dries due to lack of success, Erik Berens’ Mom (who stays with dries – usually with success) reminds me that if you’re going to fish like a worm guy, you might as well just tie on a WORM!!!

    1. admin says:

      Thanks for chiming in here, Roger. Don’t tell his mom, but I’ve see Erik shamelessly throw dirty patterns on several occasions ; )

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