Ross Vexsis

Today I saw my backing.

First, a quick vocabulary lesson for non anglers: “backing” is the term for the high strength “string” that is the first attached to the spool of one’s fly reel. Anywhere from 100 to 200 yards of this usually Dacron-based material is typically used, P3210460and to that backing is tied the actual fly line. Think of backing as insurance in the event that the angler hooks into a big solid fish that runs long and pulls hard. Fly line is usually 90 to 100 feet long, and a strong fish in a strong current can easily strip that amount of line from the reel. Once that length of line is gone, then what?  It’s an unthinkable scenario that would surely involve a broken leader and a lost fish, because when a fish makes a run often one’s only recourse is to give it more line.  When that line runs out, chances are something is going to break. And so backing is affixed to the reel to give the angler additional yardage to play a big fish.  On lighter setups for fish such as modest sized trout, the backing may not be necessary but it fills up the reel and helps to eliminate fly line “memory”, which can occur when the line is coiled too tightly and retains less-than-perfectly straight form when laid out on the water. Backing can  be used, in this case, simply take up space on the reel, and that’s typically the reason why I use backing on my trout reels. With my keen angling skills, I certainly don’t need even the full length of fly line to play the 8 inch trout I typically catch. But to witness one’s backing emerge from the reel because of a large, hot fish should be considered a good thing, and anglers long for the occasion to proclaim, “That fish took me into my backing!” Lesson complete.

Until recently I’d never had the good fortune of seeing enough line stripped from one of my trout reels to see the backing.  By “see”, I mean to have the entire fly line taken out to the point where the backing presents itself as the last bastion of safety. That all changed recently when I was fishing the Yakima River with Marck and Jimmy, out of the vessel known as The Hornet (sifting through the archives will reveal this as Marck’s Clackacraft 16 LP). We had just commenced a float that would take us from Mile Marker 20 to Squaw Creek (for the more PC inclined, this is Lmuma Creek).  It was a stellar day toward the end of the 3rd week of March: skies were blue, the large yellow orb in the sky shone brightly, and water temps were headed toward the mid 40’s.  The Skwala stoneflies had been showing themselves sporadically for a couple of weeks, and we anticipated a hatch later in the day.  We were, however, seasoned enough to know that subsurface fishing early in the day would be the name of the game, until a specified time when the Skwalas would start coming off. At 1:30 PM, according to reports from The Evening Hatch in Ellensburg, we should start to encounter Skwalas and fish feeding on the big bugs. The day held much promise, and I strung up my 4 weight Sage Z-Axis with a dry fly combination of a Skwala pattern with a small mayfly emerger as my dropper.  My 6 weight Sage XP was designated for streamer duty, and I selected a particularly delightful looking fly that resembled a small sculpin and affixed it to the end of my sink tip line.  Marck would be nymphing and Jimmy would try the dry fly thing right off the bat, but I wanted to fish down in the slower deep pools and invoke the strike of a large meat eating trout. It seemed like a good game plan to cover all our bases and determine which method of angling would work most effectively. I love fishing a streamer because it involves active participation on the part of the angler, unlike nymphing which is, well, never mind…how easily I relapse into bashing the way of the nymph (call  it a growing pain).

Fifteen minutes into our float I was stripping my streamer through a moderately fast/relatively slow current. Ahead of my fly I noted a large rock protruding above the water, but felt confident my fly would evade the rock, so there was no cause for alarm or evasive maneuvering.  Suddenly my line went tight, and held fast.  It appeared to be anchored on the rock, and as we drifted steadily onward, more and more distance was placed between the rock and reel.  Darn it. As would any angler, I pointed the tip of my rod directly at the source of the stuck fly, and increased the pressure of my index finger on the fly line.  When nothing happened and my finger began to overheat, I increased the drag on my reel.  Surely now the leader would snap, and the worst that would happen would be that I’d lose a $2.50 fly.  But when nothing broke, I applied more pressure to the line. Crap. Still no breakage – damn the heavy 2X tapered leader I’d selected, and why did my usually questionable knots have to hold now? Soon the yellow fly line played out and my backing appeared. I applied more pressure. Nothing. Shit. “Hey, uh– Marck?  I said with a waivering tone to my voice, “Can you pull over and drop anchor?” I was worried now, because 40 yards of backing had fled from my spool, and I didn’t want to risk smoking the drag on my reel trying to put the breaks on a drift boat carrying 3 guys in a steady current (although had that worked it would have been worthy of a product testimonial for Ross Reels, manufacturer of the Vexsis model I had mounted on my rod). Marck steered The Hornet toward the bank and dropped anchor.

The shoreline was steep and rocky, and footing was precarious as I made my way upstream toward the rock which held my fly.  I reeled in slack line as I proceeded, and that was when I realized just how much line had been removed from my reel. The highway was but a very short distance above me and as I picked my way along the rocks I hoped that a speeding vehicle wouldn’t crash through the guardrail, or toss some sort of refuse from an open window.  Standing on the shoreline adjacent to the rock, I carefully surveyed the situation: the rock was about 30 feet from the bank, occupying heavy water that was 3 feet deep and moving with some degree of force.  Large rocks lay strewn upon the bottom of the river, and they all bore a coating of slippery slime.  It was going to require some careful wading, and the last thing I wanted was to take a swim in the cold water – that would surely put a damper on the rest of the day. As I inched my way toward the rock, I noticed a peculiar stench in the air.  No, I was not smelling another skunk, but rather an odor that is similarly unpleasant. Decomposing flesh has an unmistakable odor which I recognized immediately, and with each carefully placed step toward the rock that stench grew thicker until I realized there was more to the rock than just basalt. The partially decayed carcass of a deer lay pinned against the rock, held fast by the strong current of the river. My fly was not stuck on the rock, per se, but rather it was buried under the hide of the rotting carcass that was stuck to the rock.  As I stood next to the rotting corpse, hip deep in a heavy current that was making every attempt to knock me off my feet, I pause for a moment to reflect on the situation. It was so ridiculous that I smiled and laughed at the fact that this sort of thing could only happen to me. In many ways it was a perfect moment.

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How the carcass got to be where it was isn’t such a hard thing to imagine.  The Yakima Canyon teems with wildlife, and undoubtedly the deer was headed to the river for a drink, crossing the highway as darkness fell.  A car rounding the bend very likely made high speed contact with the animal, which would have been wearing the old “deer in the headlights” expression right before the impact sent it cascading over the guardrail into the river.  From there the current would have swept the deceased critter downstream until it became hung up on the rock, where my fly found it.

Thankful for having flattened the barb on the hook, I quickly removed the fly from the hide of the dead deer and made my way back toward the shoreline. Marck was watching from nearby, and although he claims to have been standing at the ready to rescue me had I required assistance, no doubt he was greatly amused by the whole thing. I made it to the shoreline without incident, and once there I inspected the hook for damage. Other than the bend of the hook having become slightly less bent during my tug-of war with the rock carcass, all seemed to be in good order. I removed a bit of flesh that had become lodged in the hook during the ordeal, as I did not want to be accused of fishing illegally with bait. Then I used my pliers to put the bend back in the hook and we were on our way downstream once again.

Had the whole rock carcass incident not taken place, the day would have yielded very little to write about.  The weather was great and we all added a bit of color to the pasty skin of winter.

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Winds were light and made for an enjoyable day of casting.  Jimmy managed a beautiful 3 inch Chinook fry on the dry and Marck added an 8 inch rainbow to his catch record. The honor of being skunked was reserved for me, although I did have one nice trout take a shot at my dry fly late in the day. Surprisingly I missed the hook set.

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We saw no fish rising all day, but kept our hopes up that with each bend in the river our fotrunes would change.  At one point we anchored up in a particularly fishy section of water to enjoy the sun and some sandwiches. While we ate our lunch the fish seemed disinterested in doing the same, completely ignoring the Caddis and March Browns that were hatching all around us. It was quite an insect buffet, and why the fish never showed up for the feast remains a mystery.

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We saw a total of 4 adult Skwalas all day long, and on one occasion actually observed a fish rise and miss a shot at one of the big stoneflies, proving that fish don’t just miss the take synthetic imitations. Seeing this play out in real life drama caused me to feel a little better about my angling skills.

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Overall it was a stellar day spent fishing, although the catching left much to be desired, and we were dumfounded as to the lack of Skwalas hatching and fishing rising.  But that’s fishing, and the scars left by a lackluster day will soon heal themselves.  The scar left by a large rock on the hull of The Hornet, however, will not heal itself and some fiberglass repair is in order.  Sorry, Marck– it was Jimmy’s fault.

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