Late October on the Yakima River means magnificent colors that span brilliant yellows to vibrant reds and the bluest skies you can imagine. It also means fishing small flies with light tippet for potentially some of the biggest fish of the year. This can be the most technically challenging time on the Yakima, but the rewards can be great for the angler of skill and accomplishment. And still, I wanted go.
I watched the weather report, checked flows and decided that the last Friday in October would be a good day to hit the lower Yakima Canyon. Due to some heavy rain early in the week the river had spiked, but was on the drop. The weather called for clouds and mild winds and temps in the 50’s, with ample cloud cover (which should ensure a BWO hatch). With the prospects of rising fish it didn’t take much prodding to convince Marck to join me, and we dropped the Hornet into the clear, 58 degree waters at Mile Marker 20. It was just before noon and a chilly 45 degrees under high fog that blanketed the canyon. I was glad for the lightweight long johns I’d thrown on that morning; Mark would soon wish for more than the shorts he had on under his waders. No fish would be rising for at least an hour, if then, so we selected Lightning Bugs and WD40s to fish under indicators: small stuff in the #20 and #22 hook sizes. These are things I can barely manage to see with the naked eye, let alone thread tippet through the hook eyes.
As we geared up, I heard Marck proclaim, “Oh, gosh darnit!” Alarmed by this outburst of disturbing profanities, I glanced to see that in his hands was the empty tube for his 6 wt Sage VT2, the intended weapon for the day. Apparently he’d failed to place the rod back into the tube after using it last, and the rod itself sat somewhere in his garage. Luckily he had with him a backup rod, though it wasn’t perhaps the best choice for fishing nymphs with an indicator to potentially large fish. Since he had no other choice in the matter, his 7’6″ Sage ZXL 3 weight would have to do. It’s a splendid rod that is comfortably at home presenting dry flies to smallish fish. Chances were the fish would fit that bill, as large fish on the Yakima are the exception rather than the norm. But one never knows on the Yakima, especially in the fall when the big fish are eating ahead of the ensuing winter. I’ve fished Marck’s ZXL and it’s a sweet little stick. Mated with a Sage III Click reel, the whole thing is like a feather in the hand and makes my 4wt Sage Z-Axis feel rather like a battle axe (which is, of course, absurd and I resent the implication). It should be noted that the reel on Mark’s little rod has no drag mechanism. Part of the fun of playing modest-sized fish on a light rod is applying the brakes with the palm of one’s hand, old school.
We began our float, nymphing all the likely seams off the bank, and when those produced no bumps we’d fish tighter to the river’s edge, losing a few flies to the overhanging bushes in the process. Finally after an hour, while we were anchored up working some particularly fishy-looking water, Marck’s rod bent significantly (to the cork). “Got a fish on, finally?” I asked. “Nice fish,” was all he said (Marck isn’t real chatty when he’s focused). While it doesn’t take more than a small fish to bend the little 3 weight ZXL, this was no small fish and Marck’s reel sang the sweet tune that a click and pawl reel sings as line is peeled at warp speed. The wind was light to non-existent, but the unmistakable smell of burning flesh wafted toward me, and I realized Marck’s palm was getting the short end of the stick. The fish didn’t jump or display any sort of acrobatics common to rainbow trout, so I immediately concluded that he’d hooked into a big Rocky Mountain Bonefish (likely hooked it in the arse, too). However when the fish flashed nearby the vibrant colors of the rainbow did away with any notions of it being a whitefish. Then the fish pit its head down and parked itself on the bottom of the river as it showed Marck who was boss. “What size tippet do you have on?” I asked, hoping Marck would reply with something a bit stouter than he did: “6X,” he answered. Crap. The only thing going for him was that the light 3 weight rod had a very sensitive tip, so the web-like tippet would be protected as much as possible as the battle ensued. I wondered if Marck had even bothered to put backing on the spool…
As he continued to fight the fish and grind off the remaining flesh of his palm, I set myself to the task of preparing the net. Now, a good net isn’t going to require any preparation, but Marck’s net is not what I would consider a good one. It has a decent rubber basket, but the telescoping handle requires that two spring-loaded pins lock into place to secure the basket. The problem is that this particular aspect of the mechanism doesn’t work very well, and I fumbled with the pins, trying to depress them so the basket would slide into place and lock securely. One of the pins got stuck. I had neither the time nor the tool on hand to fix it. I hoped the other pin would suffice. It felt like eternity had passed before I finally got it partially assembled. Luckily the delay caused by my ineptness the stupid net didn’t pose a problem because Marck was no closer to landing the fish than he had been before the net fiasco began. Each time he would get the fish closer to the boat, it would roll and dive. The little clicker screamed as line was taken at will. And repeat. During the epic struggle my job was to stay out of the way, so I cowered in the front of the boat, staying as low as possible, with a rickety net clasped tightly in my hands, waiting to knock the fish loose from Marck’s hook . (Note to Mrs. Marck: please get him a decent net for Christmas)
Fortunately, this would not happen. After several minutes of waiting patiently for Marck to land the fish so I could step in and do the important part, I finally got the opportunity to dip the net under the fish and with impressive skill scooped the beast from the water. At an honest 20 inches , if not more, it was better than just a “nice fish”. It was the type of fish all anglers hope for but rarely if ever experience on the Skunkima Yakima. Just then the sun broke through the fog and shone rays down upon the glistening colors of the rainbow: a magnificent specimen that bore signs of some residual cutthroat DNA, as suggested by faint remnants of throat slashes. It was textbook fall fishing on this river: big fish on tiny flies fished at the end of tiny thread-like monofilament. What the textbooks don’t suggest is targeting these big fish of fall on such a light rod. However, after witnessing the event first hand, it would be hard to criticize Marck for anything other than remembering to inspect the hook on his fly after landing the big fish (later in the day he lost a fish because the hook had been straightened by the big hawg earlier). I don’t know how many times I’ve told him to check for these sorts of things…
After this fish of a ***lifetime, nothing else caught that day mattered much, though Marck did land a nice 15 inch fish. Yours truly managed a modest 10 inch rainbow on a dry fly during a brief BWO hatch that didn’t produce much action beyond that. If not for substandard angling skills I’d have landed a 12 incher later in the day, and I hooked into something that grabbed my soft hackle as it swung through a seam, gave a series of heavy head shakes and broke me off. One has to wonder if that fish might have been an inch bigger than Marck’s? Probably a steelhead. That’s the angle I’m taking.
***This was actually Mark’s second fish of a lifetime on the Yakima River this year. He caught a similar sized beast earlier in the year, on heavier tippet and his 6 weight. You can see the result HERE.
If you haven’t witnessed the debate between steelhead anglers, or at least heard of the disparity between those who nymph (with beads, no doubt!) and those who swing flies, then this is going to be either enlightening or a complete waste of your time. Suffice it to say that the debate amongst steelhead fly fishing people is akin to the age old rivalry between the gentleman dry fly angler presenting delicate size 20 Blue Winged Olives upon the surface of gin clear waters and…the others who may dead drift a San Juan Worm through turbid, high waters that should otherwise be left for another day.
To this end fly fishing can be an awful lot like politics, with the bi-partisan wrangling that goes hand-in-hand with that favorite American pastime. With the recent elections and the accompanying onslaught of dirty campaign ads still etched in our minds, the timing of this little nugget below is perfect. A tip of the hat to my friend Mumbles (not his real name) for putting this together. Bear in mind there is some profanity, used only for the sake of cinematic authenticity. Any colorful expletives are merely indicative of the emotions that run high in real-life debates on the matter of nymphing vs. the swing.
Enjoy, or not. If you want a refund on your 3:37, take it up with Mumbles.
There will be no regularly scheduled “Weekly Drivel” this week in honor of Rich Schaaff.
A lot of people I know think Facebook is a waste of time, though I openly admit that I enjoy it. It allows me to keep in touch with friends and family members, and is a great way to network with others involved in the world of fly fishing. More than half of the people who are my “friends” are folks I’ve not actually met in person: people who share a common passion for fly fishing. I enjoy seeing their fish porn, reading about their adventures and fishing vicariously through them. Let the naysayers think what they may of Facebook, my experience is that it makes the world a better place when it facilitates the introduction with people we might never otherwise have met. It may not be often that we strike up any sort of meaningful relationship with these people, but once in a while we are drawn to certain individuals and they do become our friends, even though we might not have had the chance to meet them face to face. Yet.
One such person is Rich Schaaff. I don’t remember exactly when we became Facebook friends: it seems as though I’d known him forever. Rich was a warm, engaging, generous guy with a great sense of humor and we bantered back and forth on many topics including a mutual love of the Allman Brothers Band. And, of course, fly fishing. Rich was a gifted photographer as well, and I always looked forward to seeing new work posted on his Facebook page. If you’ve not had the pleasure, check out his beautiful images at Eastfork Fly Photography.
A couple of months ago Rich emailed me to see if I would be interested in writing an article about him for Kype magazine. The folks at Kype were planning to feature some of Rich’s photography work and an accompanying article was needed. I was flattered, and thus began a series of phone conversations and back-and-forth emails as I gathered information. I already felt like I knew Rich, but after spending some time hearing his stories I definitely got to know him much better.
At this time I am not sure when the issue of Kype with Rich’s article will be available, but Rich will not get a chance to see the article in print as his life was cut short by a brief battle with cancer. Life is too precious to sit around and wait for ink to dry, and so I’m posting the unedited article here for everyone to read so that we may all gain a better appreciation for the man you may have been lucky enough to call “friend”.
It was just before dusk on his first trip to Montana in 1984 when Rich Schaaff found himself sprinting downstream along the banks of the Madison River. A widening grin spread across his face as he fought to keep his line tight with one hand while trying to prevent his waders from falling around his ankles with the other. Increasingly farther downstream a big rainbow continued to rip line from his reel.
The scene played out within view of Three Dollar Bridge, and Schaaff can still hear the echo of uncontrollable laughter from his fishing buddy as the trout attempted to make short work of the man on the other end of the line. That night as the two compadres reclined on the grass next to the river looking up at the stars he never knew previously existed, Schaaff acknowledged, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” When he returned to his home in Chicago Schaaff knew that there was something very special about the West. He knew that he would come back again some day.
A fly fisherman for most of his life, Rich grew up in Chicago and chased trout on small streams in Michigan and Wisconsin. He fondly recalls the day from his childhood when he caught his first fish on a fly: it was in ankle deep water on a small spring creek, and the brown trout wasn’t much bigger than the fly it had inhaled. “I went running down the bank with that poor little fish squeezed tightly in my hand, screaming to my brother,” Schaaff recalls. He still feels a twinge of guilt that the little brown “sacrificed its own life in order to bring me such fulfillment.” In addition to fishing closer to home Rich would often make the 11 hour, non-stop drive to the White River in Arkansas with his brother, who had previously worked there as a fly fishing guide. His brother knew the river well, and the two regularly fished for long weekends. Though the White was teeming with trout, Schaaff acknowledges that after the ’84 trip to Montana everything else paled by comparison. “It wasn’t the West that I longed for.” His trip to Montana had apparently ruined him.
While he grew up fishing, photography was a hobby that didn’t come along until Schaaff moved to New York City in 1994. To hear Rich tell it, “God only knows why I ever moved to NYC in the first place.” As he reflects back on that period of his life, however, it becomes obvious that his years spent living in Manhattan were good for something. Mesmerized by the lifestyle and architecture that surrounded him, Schaaff purchased a Nikon camera and spent his days off “schlepping around the streets of Manhattan shooting roll after roll of black and white film.” The dramatic urban settings provided endless opportunities to study composition and the play of light. He didn’t realize it at the time, but the Manhattan project was preparing Rich for what lie ahead, further to the West.
Schaaff refers to his time spent in NYC as “the lost years of fly fishing”. He regrets that probably one of the biggest mistakes while living in Manhattan was not taking advantage of the great Eastern fisheries. “I think I was too busy trying to absorb and balance all the craziness of that lifestyle,” he says. In 1999 he snapped back to his senses.
“Go West, young man.”
Such was the advice of an Indiana newspaper writer by the name of John Soule, who in 1851 wrote the words that would become a mantra for nineteenth century Americans pursuing their dreams of a new life in a new, unsettled territory. 148 years after those words were first published, Rich Schaaff answered that call to action and headed about as far West as he possible could, settling in the Pacific Northwest near Portland, Oregon. Rich admits that he’d grown weary of wading in a mass of humanity and left New York City “to avoid seeing people talking to themselves on the streets.” He still wades, but now he does so amongst rocks and water. He still sees people talking to themselves on occasion, but the difference is that now these people are usually harmless fly anglers, blurting out a few choice words when a fish throws their hook.
The slower pace of life on the West coast suited Schaaff perfectly and allowed him to fully immerse himself in two of his passions: fly fishing and photography. Exactly when the two hit head-on isn’t clear, but one thing is: “When they came together, I knew I was a goner.” He also knew he was a goner when he met “a wonderful Oregonian gal named Julie” who would become his better half.
There was plenty of fishing to be done out West, and those fishing trips soon included a camera as part of the requisite tackle. “I began spending more time taking photos than actually fishing,” Schaaff says without a hint of remorse. He began to see fly fishing differently through the camera’s lens, and a good fishing trip began to be measured not in the number of fish caught, but in how many quality shots he was able to capture. “Two good shots make the trip,” he adds.
The more Rich fished, the more photos he took as he immersed himself in his passions. Soon it became clear that his photography hobby deserved an identity, and thus was born East Fork Fly Photography. In order to share his work with friends and fishing buddies, Schaaff created a website and began uploading images from his memory cards. Upon viewing his work, it’s obvious that what Rich captures with his lens goes well beyond the average ‘fish porn’ shots. “I try to avoid the typical grip and grin,” he adds, “But I’ll go there if it’s my fish!”
During the winter months when he wasn’t standing knee deep in a steelhead river, Rich began experimenting with a light box – a portable device that provides even, diffused lighting for shooting small objects. He saw the amazing artistry in flies tied by his friend Rocky Maley and sought to capture the beauty of the flies by showcasing them with other items of fishing gear as props. His background in interior design helped when it came to staging the shots.
Due to his keen ability to capture the subtleties associated with all aspects of fly fishing, after a couple of years Schaaff’s work began to get noticed. Marshall Cutchin of Midcurrent.com invited Schaaff to be featured in the photography section of the popular fly fishing website. The talent already assembled on Midcurrent was impressive, and Schaaff was humbled by the invitation. Up to this point photography had been simply a personal endeavor.
With increased exposure came residual interest in Schaaff’s photography, and his work caught the attention of Korkers, the Portland, Oregon-based footwear manufacturer. The day after a brief phone call to see if Schaaff was interested in shooting some possible catalog work for their 2011 season (he was interested, by the way), a pair of wading boots showed up on his doorstep and Schaaff got busy with his camera. The folks at Korkers apparently liked what they saw in his proofs and hired him for the shoot. Since then Schaff has also done work for Slate Creek Fly Rod Company and Umpqua Feather Merchants. He’s come a long way since schlepping the streets of Manhattan on his days off, shooting rolls of black and white film.
As for the big rainbow on the Madison River near Three Dollar Bridge, it’s hard to get a straight answer from Rich as to how that scene finally played out. Without photographic proof we are simply left to wonder.
Rich Schaaff lives along the banks of the east fork of the Lewis River in Washington state where he spends the winter months fishing for the elusive steelhead. He’s also been known to chase redside Rainbow trout on the Deschutes River in Oregon, and on summer evenings he waits for the “blessed hex hatch” on an undisclosed small lake not far from his home. Rich can be reached through his website, www.eastforkfly.com.
Thank you, Rich, for the opportunity to get to know you and for your friendship. Rest in Peace.
One thing that has always amused me is the practice of selling magazines based on flashy, attractive cover photos. We’ve all fallen victim to this practice: the monster brown trout (that you’ll never catch) in a beautiful Montana river, or the acrobatic Tarpon against the backdrop of turquoise waters (that you’ll never see). All too often the best thing about the magazine is the cover, and that’s fine if that’s your cup of tea. Now I’m no magazine publisher, but if I were I would certainly probably never stoop to such low levels just to sell magazines, or attract readers.
The magazine industry is evolving or at least expanding to the world of the internet, and I’ve been reading some of the online fly fishing magazines that have grown in popularity recently. What separates the online magazines to their print cousins is that they’re free. Being free, one would think that everyone would read them, right? Well, just as print magazines must stand out amongst their competition on the magazine rack, online magazines must also offer something unique that convinces the reader that this issue is worth your time. Blood Knot is one of these relatively new online periodicals of the fly fishing world, and they just launched their Holiday issue which features a cover photo of April Vokey of Flygal Ventures. Savvy move on the part of the folks at Blood Knot, because just as covers sell print magazines, an enticing cover photo increases the likelihood of folks clicking on an online magazine. And let’s face it, April Vokey is cover material. But before you judge the folks at Blood Knot harshly for using a pretty girl just to “sell” their magazine, read the interview. You’ll see that there’s more to April than just a pretty face: there is a real, bonafied fly angler that takes her job seriously and does a good job at promoting her business. Kudos to April.
Let the record reflect, however, that the Unaccomplished Angler featured April Vokey well before the folks at Blood Knot. While it may have been simply an April Fools Day lark, Ms. Vokey did end up leaving a comment on my blog, so I consider that quite a journalistic accomplishment that makes me feel almost pretty cool. Almost.
So check out the latest edition of Blood Knot. There’s lots of great content, including gift ideas for the upcoming Holiday season, an entertaining article about an ill-fated encounter with John Gierach and much more. And of course a great cover shot.