That’s a phrase used to describe small fish and is usually muttered in the same breath as, “There’s more to fishing than catching.” I employ the use of both quite often, and while there is some truth to each statement, it’s usually just an excuse. As pertaining to little fish, yes–any fish on the end of your line is better than nothing at all. To a point. Then after a while it just gets depressing. Well, maybe not depressing, but demoralizing. Anglers like me who have muttered those words countless times before are simply deprived in the large fish department.
If I want (and that’s the key word) to catch dinks, I’ll hit either the South or Middle Forks of the Snoqualmie. These are small fish waters, so one knows what one is getting into ahead of time. Using the universal “Fish Weight Formula” (girth x girth x length divided by 800), I’d wager that the average weight of these fish is .0675 lbs). That’s not to say that the rare 12 incher (or bigger) doesn’t lurk in these relatively small, relatively sterile waters, but the norm is to catch 4-8 inch fish, mostly coastal cutthroats with the occasional rainbow or Westslope cuttie, and in even more rare instances a brookie. I’ve always had more plentiful catching on the Middle Fork, as it’s a bigger river, and in my experiences the fish are a bit bigger overall than on the South Fork, which is not saying much. But in either river the fish tend toward smallishness because the rivers lack sufficient biomass for prolific insect populations, and they get scoured with heavy winter floods from multiple storms each year. The limited supply of food in these waters doesn’t allow for fish to gorge themselves into impressive proportions, but in spite of, or perhaps because of this, during the summer months these little fish are definitely game, and will attack large attractor patterns if you can place the fly near their noses. The bigger fish in the Forks are not easy to come by and are much harder to entice—they don’t get to be 12 inch hogs by being stupid. For example, two years ago I was fishing my favorite run on the Middle Fork, catching a few 6 inchers here and there, enjoying the gorgeous scenery and reminding myself that there’s more to fishing than catching big fish. Behind a rock in about 5 feet of gin clear water, I spied a monstrous fish in the 12 inch range. Water magnifies things, so I’m being honest and accounting for that when I say this fish was 12 inches (he looked much bigger). I tried everything possible to get him to engage me in a bit of gentlemanly sport, and ended up working myself into a frenzy trying to fool that fish with streamers and nymphs. But he would have none of it. My offerings didn’t spook him, rather he just looked sideways at them as if so say, “Pppffft–silly imitation made of synthetic threads and feathers…” After 45 minutes of attempting in vain to fool the fish, the reality of the situation became as clear as the water in which I was standing: There was but one fool, and it was not the fish.
This past summer my son, Schpanky (see previous post: “The Kid never listens”) and my brother Hal (could be his real name) joined me for an early evening on the Middle Fork. We rigged up and walked a short distance to my favorite run–the same run where I’d been shunned by the big fish two years earlier. Hal walked upstream to work the head of the run, careful not to get his Kindle™ wet as he fished (I’m kidding–Hal didn’t really have his Kindle with him. I just like to tease him because he’s a hardcore bookworm and gadget junkie). Schpanky took the next position in the middle of the run where the best water is, and being the good father I am, I took the leftovers at the bottom of the run. On my third cast I hooked into what would prove to be my best Middle Forker to date: A solid 12 inch coastal cutt that was more fun on my 4 wt than any fish had the right to be. One would be better off with a 2 or 3 weight rod on these waters, but using a 4 weight gives me the false sense of confidence that I am really stalking bigger fish, like the one that I had on the end of my line at this particular moment. He hit hard, and ran fast- actually taking line off my reel. With my highly developed brain and opposable thumb, I made it very clear to the trout who was at the top of the evolutionary ladder as I played him with skill and patience. As I imposed my angling will upon him, I also taunted him in a manner similar to scene in Monty Python and The Holy Grail where the French soldiers rained down insults upon King Arthur. When I brought him to hand there was something immediately familiar about the fish, and I hearkened back to that day two years ago: We were both older and wiser, and he was no bigger for reasons mentioned in the paragraph above, but it had to be the same fish. He was silvery and covered with spots, and had vibrant red slash marks under either side of his jaw. The resemblance was uncanny, and I determined that it was the same fish. Seeing this handsome trout again brought back memories, but on this day it was I who was Lord and Master.
And while you may be astonished to learn that once in a while even the Unaccomplished Angler is shown some respect by his quarry, I feel compelled to tell you the whole story: Schpanky had actually gotten his fly hung up on a snag in the river, and like any dutiful father I selflessly came to his rescue (afterall, I’d paid good money for that fly and was not about to have the boy lose it to the river). I handed him my rod, grabbed his, and waded out to free his line, grumbling the whole time about being interrupted from my quiet time on the water. When I freed the hook from the snag I laid out a short cast, mainly to straighten out the line, and walked slowly back to the bank. And that’s when the big fish took the fly. So, while yes, I had caught the fish, it’s not as if I was employing my keen angling skills–it was pure, dumb luck. No matter. I’d caught a nice fish, and nobody in the outside world needed to know the circumstances. The next day I called Marck to share the news. He lives right on the banks of the South Fork, and often goes out after dinner to entertain himself with his 3 weight. Certainly if anyone would appreciate my accomplishments it would be Marck. Upon hearing the news of my 12 inch trophy, his reply was, “I caught a 15 incher behind my house last night.”
Not to worry, as I’m sure my fish was more beautiful.
My son, Schpanky (his real nickname) is stubborn. Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler and I like to joke that he’s going to be either a trial attorney or a hostage negotiator, because he won’t back down from an argument. No matter what profession he chooses, I think it’s safe to say he’s going to become a better fisherman than his father. From the time he was probably 8 or 9, he showed the sort of patience needed for a lifelong pursuit of fish, and would happily spend hours at low tide with an old spinning rod, tossing a Dick Knight into the channel of the Tahuya River on Hood Canal. When the tide was high, he’d throw that same lure from our dock, hoping to catch a small perch or a bullhead. He seemed undeterred by a lack of success, and kept at it until his perseverance was rewarded. As he got older, the patience and fascination with fishing remained, so when he was 11 I learned him how to cast a fly rod in the back yard. He got the hang of it quickly, displaying a natural ability to stay relaxed and let the rod load under the weight of the line. If it had only come so easily to me…
In addition to his patient determination, Schpanky also has SLD (Selective Listening Disorder). At one point his mother and I actually thought he might have a physical condition that affected his ability to hear us. However, an inspection revealed no more wax buildup in his ears than would be expected, and we concluded that his hearing is fine. It’s his listening that isn’t always keen.
During the summer of his 12th year I figured it was high time to take him on a weekend fishing trip to the Yakima River. Up to this point in his young angling career he’d only waded with me on the Forks of the Snoqualmie, which are much smaller waters than the mighty Yak. He was excited to go, and as I briefed him on what it was like to fish the Yakima from a boat, he was all ears. When the day arrived, gear (rods, reels, flies, tippet, beer and Q-tips) was packed and expectations were high as we headed east over the mountains for two days of summer hopper action with Jimmy. Jimmy is not his real name, but Jimmy is my other best friend (coincidentally, Jimmy happens to own a Hyde drift boat). We camped at the Yakima River RV Park and planned three floats over two days. It would be a lot of fishing for a 12 year-old, but I knew Schpanky could handle it. I just hoped I could.
I recall the action being about average for the Yak, which means there were extended lulls in the action between catching small fish. Even though Schpanky was out-catching his father, he really wanted to hook into something bigger than 10 inches. That’s not to say all the fish were terribly small, as Jimmy landed a nice 13-incher and the Unaccomplished Angler landed what would have been his finest fish on that river: A 19 inch rainbow. Deftly playing it with uncharacteristic finesse, I managed to get the 19+ incher to the boat, where Schpanky manned the net. The fish had nearly inhaled the size 10 foam hopper, and though the barb was flattened, the hook was buried far back in its tongue, requiring a delicate procedure to remove the fly. This procedure lasted longer than was ideal, and with the hook finally out, we let the trout rest in the water, still confined in the net. I cautioned the kid not to allow the net to settle too low in the water lest the strong current should drag it under, and reached into my gear bag for my trusty camera. I turned back around just in time to see the majestic trout slip over the edge of the submerged net. All I could do was watch my trophy swim off into the depths. It was a solid 20-incher that would have been commemorated in pixels and celebrated for years to come had it not been for the kid who never listens. Schpanky instantly felt bad, taking blame for the lost fish. And like any good father, I grabbed him by the ears and told him that if it weren’t for the fact that his mother would never forgive me, I’da tossed him into the river to go retrieve my 21-inch trout. Clearly my parenting skills rival only my angling skills.
We put the unfortunate incident behind us, for the most part, and resumed our downstream journey. The sun dipped behind the canyon walls and the Hour of the Caddis would soon be upon us. If there’s ever any consistency to the inconsistent nature of the Yakima River, it’s the evening Caddis action, and everyone in the boat was instructed to tie on an Elk Hair Caddis in anticipation of this great occurrence. We pounded the grass-lined banks hoping to rise a hungry fish, but the fish didn’t appreciate our offerings with the enthusiasm we’d hoped for. Jimmy and I each picked up a very modest fish or two, but with each trout that refused his fly, Schpanky grew very quiet and sullen in the back of the boat. I could sense his frustration and offered encouragement: “Quit pouting and keep at it, boy–fish that Caddis tight to the bank.” I also reminded him, “There’s more to fishing than catching”. This worldly advice was met with deafening silence, and I assumed that he simply hadn’t heard me.
A short while later the quiet of the evening was shattered by the youthful and jubilant proclamation from the back of the boat, “I got one!” Indeed he had, and Schpanky’s 5 weight bent under the pressure of a feisty fish that was using the river’s current to its full advantage. It was a nice fish–a beautifully colored rainbow that had to go a solid 14 inches. Handling the net, I took great care to keep the fish from getting free (if it did I would never hear the end of it) and reached to remove the fly from the fish’s mouth. And that’s when I saw it: The size 18 mosquito dangling from the trout’s lower lip. I looked at my son and furrowed my brow. He smiled back at me as if to say, “Neener, neener, nee-ner!”
Schpanky hoisted the fish for a quick photo before releasing it back into the river. He was absolutely thrilled, but like any seasoned angler he resisted the temptation to gloat and kept his emotions in check, while I danced a celebratory jig.
After congratulating him for having caught such a nice fish, I immediately chastised him for having broken protocol: “We told you to use a Caddis–what were you thinking?”
With very calm rationale he replied, “Well, I wasn’t catching any fish with the Caddis, and I saw mosquito’s flying around, so I tied one on.”
Like I said, the kid never listens.
PS- If you’ve got a kid, get them out fishing. And check out FishyKid, too.
Google (or perhaps Bing, as I’ve heard it’s pretty decent) “bananas and fishing” and you’ll find countless explanations supporting the assertion that bananas and fishing don’t mix. While I’m superstitious to a degree (with regard to hats), I don’t necessarily buy into this particular load of discriminatory bunk. I like bananas and eat one nearly every day. The potassium is supposed to be good for preventing muscle cramps, and if you’ve ever suffered a muscle cramp, you know how intensely uncomfortable they can be. When the cramp hits, you drop everything you’re doing and give full and involuntary attention to the pain. Aside from the obvious discomfort, the second worst thing about cramps is that they occur at any time they want–most often when you least expect, or want it. Like, when rowing a drift boat. That’s just a hypothetical scenario, though, as I don’t suffer from cramps because I eat bananas.
So I came to the recent conclusion that bananas, as a particular foodstuff, have nothing to do with bad fishing (unless you don’t eat them and develop a cramp while fishing). I assert that the issue is not the bananas themselves, rather the color: Yellow. Yellow is bad. And yellow is the color of The Hornet.
The Hornet is Marck’s yellow and black Clackacraft 16LP. I’ve known Marck for years, but when he acquired The Hornet a couple years ago, he was immediately promoted to the position of “best friend”. The Hornet quickly attained an exhalted status as well, as Mrs. Marck was forced to park her expensive German SUV in the driveway to make room in the garage for the boat. This makes perfect sense to me, and I’d do the same thing if I had a drift boat and Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler had an expensive German SUV.
I’m trying to remember the first time I fished out of The Hornet. It was on the Yakima River, I know that for certain. I’m pretty sure I got skunked. But there’s more to fishing than catching, and I do recall feeling fortunate to have the opportunity to be a passenger in Marck’s new boat. Since then, I’ve fished out of The Hornet countless times. I’d be exaggerating for the sake of literary grandeur if I said I got skunked every time I set foot in The Hornet, but I’d be lying if I said I caught fish every time. What I can say with all honesty is that the last several trips on the Yakima have all been aboard Marck’s boat, and the last several trips have been frustrating, humbling excursions with skunkings and more small fish than before I was stung by The Hornet. I’m beginning to think I’m allergic.
Oddly, Marck seems to be less ill-affected by the color of his boat than I am. I’ve never fished with him when he’s been skunked, and I’m reasonably certain that he’s never actually been skunked. Now, one might point to the seemingly obvious explanation: Marck is a fishy dude (whereas I am not) . Okay, I’ll buy that. But I think there’s more to it. When I’m on the oars, Marck is catching fish. When he’s on the oars, I’m not catching fish. See where I’m going with this? Perhaps the Unaccomplished Angler is simply a superior oarsman. Yeah, riiight. At least I’ve never suffered a cramp when rowing.
Lest one should think that I resent The Hornet, let me go on record as saying that this is not the case. She’s actually quite a beauty to behold and a pleasure to row. Clackacraft boats “Fear No Rocks”, which is a good thing, because I do. Luckily The Hornet is responsive and easy to maneuver, and when I’m on the sticks, most rocks are avoided. With her bold combination of colors, we regularly get comments from other anglers–most of them questioning Marck’s NFL allegiance (we live in Seahawk country, and we’re still seething over the loss to the Steelers in Superbowl XL: Roethlisberger did not cross the goal line and the ruling on the field should have been upheld). So rest assured, the color of the boat is merely an unfortunate coincidence in that regard. Pittsburgh fan or not, she’s a stunning vessel, and I’ve yet to see another one like it. Maybe there’s a good reason for that.
I’m submitting a request to change the name of the boat to The Banana. Fear No Cramps.
Last year after fishing the Firehole for two days, Marck and I decided to hit the Madison below Quake Lake. Having never before fished this locale, I was excited about the prospects of seeing someplace new. Also, being weary from not catching many of the relatively small fish in the Firehole, I was eager swap the 4 weight for the 6. We knew what we were getting into: High water, little-to-no visibility; streamers fished under indicators, tight to the bank. While I’ve never really enjoyed fishing under a bobber, I was giddy with anticipation to see the heralded waters of Montana’s great Madison River. We arrived at Three Dollar Bridge around 9 AM under mostly clear skies and a steady, but tolerable, breeze. It was beautiful, I’ll grant you that. The mountains rose immediately to the east and the broad valley spread to the west: The kind of scenery you’d expect to see in a Western, as opposed to The Bridges of Madison County (sorry, I’m sure that’s an overused reference). There were only a couple of other rigs in the parking lot, which, given the fact that it was Memorial Day Monday, both surprised and pleased us. As we geared up, we engaged in pleasant conversation with four folks from Bozeman who were planning to fish the opposite bank. The other group was already fishing a short distance upriver of the bridge on the near bank, so we set off upstream in search of some unoccupied water. We didn’t have to go far, and were quickly dangling strange, rubber-legged variations of the woolly bugger into water that resembled glacial runoff.
As one would come to expect when fishing with Marck, he quickly got into fish. Luckily for him, I was always within earshot when he hooked a fish, and dutifully joined him for a quick photo of his catch before returning to my own stretch of dirty water where I proceeded to enjoy the scenery while not catching fish. Well, that’s not entirely true. I did manage to land a fairly large rainbow that had obviously been turning away after balking at my offering. Yes, I’d foul hooked it— which made for a much less satisfying fight. When I reached for the fish, I realized that the foul hooking was only part of the explanation for the lackluster struggle: The bow had large wounds on either side of it’s dorsal fin, likely from the talons of the Osprey that called these waters home. The wounds had allowed for the onset of a fungal infection of some sort, and the fish was faded and lethargic. I felt bad for the old trout, aware that he wasn’t going to make it to see the clear waters of summer. I pondered the idea of putting him out of his misery, and while perhaps the moral thing to do, it would have been technically illegal so I returned him to the water to let nature run its course. Too bad, too, because he was a solid 18 inch fish and given perfect health would have provided future anglers a run for their money…like the fish Marck was catching. Back to that. It seemed that every 12 minutes the wind would carry the familiar sound of pure, unadulterated laughter toward me, and I would again set my rod down, grab my camera and dash to the altogether too familiar scene. It became apparent that the Madison held scores of beautiful, strong, healthy fish, and they were all eager to grab whatever Marck drifted in front of their noses. I felt privileged to be witness to such angling mastery, and happily snapped photo after photo, my memory card filling with images of Marck holding a plethora of dandy trout: Browns and rainbows varying in size from 12- 20 inches. This continued until it was unanimously decided that we’d return to the rig and grab some lunch. Also, the day was heating up and we both wanted to shed some layers. Afterall, we’d been working hard all morning: Marck fighting fish; me running wind sprints. After some beef jerky, power bars and Bud Lite we opted to fish downstream of the bridge. By now the parking lot was empty. Obviously the other anglers had grown weary of not catching fish, and cutting their losses, left the river to me and Marck. Properly nourished and rehydrated, we set off into the warmth of the afternoon, leaving fleece behind. I also left behind my lucky fishing hat, opting instead for a baseball cap. Why I did this I do not know, but it would reveal itself to have been a bad idea. Not that the hat had brought me any great amount of luck earlier in the day, but I had caught a fish (albeit a foul-hooked, fungus-riddled one). It was better than a skunking, and afterall–fishing is about more than just catching.
I’ll spare the details of the afternoon, but suffice it to say I could cut and paste what I’ve already written (without the part about me catching a fish), and that’s how the afternoon played out. I didn’t land a fish for the next 2 hours. Didn’t lose a fish, either. I simply didn’t have as much as a bump. As the afternoon wore on we decided to fish above the bridge on the opposite bank. I stopped briefly to exchange the baseball cap for my lucky fishing hat–it couldn’t hurt. It couldn’t get any worse, and besides–my lucky fishing hat makes me look taller. Immediately above the bridge, Marck pointed to a well worn spot where the earth had been trampled free of vegetation by the millions of anglers who’d been here before. As he prepared to make a short cast, I advised him against it. “Don’t waste your tim—” but my advice was cut short by the bending of his rod. On the other end was a 12 inch brown, picked from behind a rock not 8 feet off the bank. I tried to make myself feel better by commenting on the very modest size of the fish, but it was pointless. I’d have been thrilled to have caught that fish. A short while later I did manage to catch my second fish of the day–this time a 7 inch brown trophy. YES! I had my mojo back! That would be the end of the catching for me on this day, though I seem to recall Marck being fairly preoccupied with a tight line until we called it a day and headed down the road to eat dinner in Ennis. Along the drive I marveled at the beauty of the area and all the photos on my camera’s memory card: Marck with a brown, Marck with a rainbow, yadda yadda yadda.
One might ask, “Hey, Unaccomplished Angler–if it’s so demoralizing to fish with this Marck character, why do you continually subject yourself to such punishment?” Easy: He owns a drift boat.
Perhaps you’re one of the chosen few. We all know the type: Those who catch fish when the fish don’t seem to be playing nicely; the ones who cannot seem to keep fish from interrupting their quiet time on the water. I have a buddy like that. Let’s call him Marck (not his real name). Marck is a fishy son of a…gun.
I’ll admit that fishing with Marck can be similar to the morbid curiosity that occurs when we seeing something deeply troublesome–you know you should turn away and never look back, yet you can’t help yourself. And so it is with fishing with Marck: I know he’s going to catch fish when I can’t seem to get a look. My little angling confidence I have takes a beating, yet I continually fish with him, far and near. Maybe I hope to gain the satisfaction of catching a fish that he didn’t. Or maybe I can learn something by observing the Master. I think the reality of it all is that I’m just a glutton for punishment.
Every year on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend we meet at Marck’s house at 4:30 AM and drive to Yellowstone to fish the Firehole River (the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend marks the Park opener). We do this trip on the cheap, sparing all expenses by staying at the Ho-Hum Motel in West Yellowstone. I doubt, in this day and age when innocent terms from the past have evolved into modern slang with entirely different meanings, that anybody in their right mind would bestow that name upon a motel. But this place has been around for a good long while, named during an era when “ho-hum” meant “boring and dull; mundane” (so get your minds out of the gutter). The proprietor is a unique old gal with a penchant for cats–lots of them, that apparently use the carpet in her home/office to soak up their urine. Low room rates bode well for us because we’re on the water early until late, only enjoying the comforts (exaggerated term) of a hotel bed for a few hours at night. At the Ho-Hum you get what you pay for, which is perfect for us because nice lodging would only be wasted on us (same with good beer).
Anyway, back to Marck. He’s been making this trip since just after the park was founded in 1872, and he knows how to get it done on the Firehole. No matter what the fishing reports and fly recommendations at Blue Ribbon Flies or Arrick’s say, Marck uses the same fly every year, without diversion. It’s largely a subsurface game this time of year, and we fish nymphs dead-drifted without indicators. There is a chance for the very occasional blue wing olive hatch, but it doesn’t present itself every year, and sometimes even when a hatch does come off, the fish, for whatever reason, never turn on. So, to this end Marck’s go-to fly is a certain nymph pattern available at only one shop in town, and apparently Marck is the only person who knows how to effectively fish it.
Beyond knowing how to read the water he also seems capable of reading their minds, knows exactly where the fish are, and wades aggressively to get to them. I’ve tried following him a few times, but his inseam is about 12 inches longer than mine, so do the math and you’ll discover how water depths affect us differently. Fishing the Firehole on opening morning will yield fish to even the most unaccomplished angler and I’d be telling the honest truth if I said I’ve caught 25-30 fish on the first day. Well, Marck easily doubles that catch rate. Whenever I look over my shoulder to see if there’s a rogue bull Bison pawing the ground, eyeing me up for a bit of sport, I’ll see Marck with a bend in his rod, or having just released another rainbow or brown, or replacing his ravaged fly; shredded and dull-hooked from excessive action.
Fishing last year was not quite up to previous years’ standards, and just so you don’t think I’m making excuses, we encountered other anglers who proclaimed as much: Experienced fishermen who wore the long faces of despair, having caught single digit numbers of fish after all day on the Firehole. However, in addition to easily catching 30 fish on the
opening day last year (remember, this number was way down from years past) Marck also managed an act of mythical proportions by catching a brown on the lower section of the Biscuit Basin area that he taped at 20+ inches. I’ve never touched a fish on the Firehole over 13 inches (most seem to range between 10 and 12 inches) and if I thought Marck was exaggerating the size of the fish I’da called him out right then and there. But you see, Marck’s not a braggart, either. He’s actually a pretty quiet-spoken guy, reserving comments for stellar fish such as, “It was a nice fish.” So, while one never hears of fish like that being caught on that river, and I myself never saw the fish, I believe him. Mostly. Now, is he capable of having possibly miscalculated the size of that fish? Anything’s possible when you’re fishing at an elevation of 8000 feet. And who knows for certain what sort of havoc the sulfuric gasses emitted from the thermals can wreak on one’s mental capacities. But if I accused him of that, he’d just say I was spewing sour grapes.
And he’d be right.