Month: October 2010

Sturgeon on a dry fly

I need to apologize immediately. Clearly my headline is a shameful (classic) example of bait and switch, or more appropriately switch to bait.  Of course I didn’t fish for sturgeon using a dry fly, or even a fly rod for that matter. But I am a fly angler, and I did go sturgeon fishing a few years ago. In fact, I had a brush with angling greatness and even earned the temporary rank of Sturgeon General for a day. It involved a good amount of beginner’s luck, but I earned my stars.

Sturgeon. General.

My friend “Monty” was the orchestrator of the trip. Monty is a real sturgeon fisherman and for good reason. I don’t believe sturgeon fisherman so much love the sport of fishing as much as they love the physical challenge of hooking, landing and otherwise imposing their will over gigantic fish. They are, quite simply, prehistoric behemoths. So are the sturgeon. The mindset of a sturgeon fisherman is completely different than that of say, a gentleman dry fly angler pursuing lovely trout on an English chalk stream. Put on your camo baseball hat, wife beater and overalls, drop in a plug of Redman and you may begin to understand the world from the perspective of a sturgeon fisherman.

Our driving destination was Heller Bar, along the banks of the Snake River at the confluence with the Grande Ronde. The entrance to Hells Canyon is at the point where Washington, Oregon and Idaho all come within spitting distance of each other. It’s about a 6 hour drive in a car across the state of Washington from where I live. Add an RV and severe side winds to the equation and the drive takes a lot longer.

Once we arrived at Heller Bar we set up camp, explored the contents of our coolers, grilled some flesh and spent the night in the beauty of the gravel parking lot. There were four of us along for the trip, but I’m going to protect their innocence of the others and not mention them. Pretend they weren’t even there. We awoke early the next morning and Monty cooked a hearty breakfast high in the calories needed to sustain ourselves for a day of fighting big fish: Bacon, ham, sausage, eggs, hash browns and human growth hormone.  We were hopeful that we’d burn off the calories anyway. Just because the intended quarry is a fish weighing a couple hundred pounds or more does not guarantee that you’ll catch one weighing even a fraction of that amount. It is fishing after all – and there is never any guarantee of catching.

We met our guide, Gabe Cassell of Snake Dancer Excursions, at the boat ramp where we loaded up our gear and shoved off. The weather was brisk but the blue sky held the promise of a warm day. Captain Gabe throttled up the V-8 engine of “Redbeard”, pointed the bow of the 24 foot jet-powered craft into the current and launched us into Hells Canyon. Once in the canyon it becomes clear as to the origins of its name: Hells Canyon is North America’s deepest gorge, and if one were inclined to hike to the top of the 8000 foot canyon rim it would be like trying to climb out of the depths of hell.  The scenery alone is worth the trip and one needn’t be in pursuit of sturgeon to justify a trip into this beautiful country. We saw plenty of Bighorn sheep and deer.  Eagles, chukar and turkey are common sights as well. The Snake river is home to trout and smallmouth bass and at times of the year when one would expect to find steelhead, one will find just that.  But this was April, and we were in search of sturgeon.

Even with a particular destination in mind, Gabe didn’t want to pass up potentially good water so we stopped at a few likely spots on our way upriver. Sturgeon are bottom feeders, so a deep hole with a swirling current that gathers food is a likely place to find one of these fish. It should be noted that because of the dams along the Snake River, these fish are landlocked and therefore it’s all catch and release fishing.  Sturgeon grow slow in comparison to other fish, and it’s estimated that a six foot white sturgeon will be 25 years old. Fishing was immediately productive, and everyone on the boat caught a fish during the morning hours.  Monty was first to set the massive barbless hook on a sturgeon, and when he fastened his weight lifting belt around his waist I realized what it is that draws him to sturgeon fishing. He spends a lot of time in the gym and the results of that are arms bigger than my thighs, and a back and shoulders that are too wide to fit down most conventional hallways.  Suffice it to say he likes pitting himself against heavy objects, be it a barbell or a fish. I’ve hunted elk with him before, and he actually looks forward to packing out the meat.

Not surprisingly Monty was right at home on the south end of the fishing pole (sturgeon fishermen do not use the term “rod”), with a 6-1/2 foot sturgeon on the other end. My first fish was a modest 6 footer, which I believe Monty described as a “cute little fish”.  What the –?  The last time I caught a 6 foot fish (which was never), I would not have described it as cute, or little.  Monty’s expression seemed to say, “Jest you wait, cuzzin.”  The 6 footer was a good workout for someone my size (I’m a buck forty soaking wet with a pocketful of change), and after going back and forth with the fish for 15 minutes my arms and back definitely gave me some feedback to let me know they weren’t accustomed to this type of fishing.

As the day wore on and the sun warmed things to a comfortable 75 degrees, we arrived at what was apparently our destination. Gabe’s confident expression suggested that the particularly wide, particularly deep-looking pool with the telltale swirling current would be the perfect place to toss out a baited hook and prospect for something large. The bow of the boat was beached and a couple lines were cast from the stern. We waited as the bait settled into the depths of the swirling current. Somewhere around these parts lurked a trophy-sized fish known as “Old Rip Lip”. Gabe and his first mate were overheard mentioning that someone had recently hooked this particular old-timer near this locale.  I paid little mind as the end of one of the rods poles did a little dance.  Seeing this, Monty moved toward the quivering rod pole and gently lifted it from the rod pole holder, careful not to jerk the rod pole. Doing so would have spooked the fish on the other end, which at this point was just mouthing the bait that disguised the hook. Cradling the rod pole gentling in his hands, Monty bent his knees into a crouch, did some rapid breathing and then stood up abruptly as if he were squatting 500 lbs. He let out a primal yell as he lifted the rod pole skyward to set the hook with authority into the thick, tough lip of a fish.  Satisfied that his work was done, Monty looked at me and said, “You’re up.”  Apparently it was my turn in the rotation, so I assumed the position.

The difference between this fish and the cute little six footer I’d landed earlier became immediately apparent: this fish was much heavier and imposed its will upon me rather than vice versa. Once hooked, it ran effortlessly as if I wasn’t even there (and soon thereafter I would wish I wasn’t).  Everyone on board became immediately excited, and Gabe indicated that we had to get the boat off the beach to follow this fish if I was going to stand any chance of landing it. I took that as a distinct lack of faith in my ability to get the job done. As the boat lurched into reverse and off the beach I secured my footing and held the rod pole tightly. Following the fish allowed me to gain some line and I began to naively think that it was going to be fairly easy.  When I had gained a few yards of line, the fish simply ran downstream, reclaiming it all and then some.  It was still early in the game, but after 10 minutes my arms and shoulders began to tremble. This quickly gave way to a series of total body spasms. As I attempted to apply some resistance to the running fish my forearms screamed and every vein in my arms, neck and head swelled with pumping blood. I became distracted by the thought that if I were to brush up against a sharp object and spring a leak I would surely bleed out in scant seconds. Behind me I could hear laughter and the sound of cold beers being opened. I was not amused.


Intermission Seventh Inning Stretch

While I was writing this entry Mrs. UA burst into my office and glanced at the screen of my computer. Her words were: “Is that your blog?  Oh my God – too long. Nobody is going to read that!”  Nice to have her support. At any rate when I told her that I decided to have an intermission she suggested instead that I honor the World Series (currently taking place). Damnit, I hate it when she’s right (again). If you return with your peanuts and Cracker Jack, we’ll resume…


This game of give and take continued for what seemed like eternity. With each pump of the rod pole I hoped to slowly break the will of the big fish. It was using its size and the flow of the river to its full advantage, whereas all I had was my stubborn nature and hopefully the ability to lapse into a state of no-mindedness where  primitive survival instincts would shroud out conscious thought and allow me to overcome physical pain and mental fatigue.  Not so.  I was in pain and issued forth a series of involuntary whimpers. Honest concern for my well being caused Monty to rush to my side: the taunting ceased and turned instead to positive encouragement.  “You’re doing great…lift and breath, slowly lower the pole and reel in line…Get that tip up!  You’re doing great – BREATH!”  Apparently he had taken on the role of birth coach. The sun seemed much hotter now than it had earlier. “Shut up already and pour some damn water over my head!” I screamed. “This is all YOUR FAULT!!!”  This level of pain trumped that of childbirth, I am sure.

Finally the fish was within about 50 feet of the boat when it surfaced and showed itself.  “Damn, son – that’s a big fish!” I think were the words to describe my combatant.  The fish obviously got a good look at me and decided I wasn’t such a big deal. It rolled, turned and dived again, peeling line from the reel. I may have started weeping at this point, but it was hard to discern tears from sweat rolling down my face. After a total of about 45 minutes (or eternity) the fish decided to quit playing with me and allowed me to bring it alongside the boat.  Gabe quickly removed the hook from its mouth and declared, “Yep, it’s Old Rip Lip!”  A large circular hole in the lower lip, long-healed over from a previous injury, was the identifying mark that set this fish apart from others in the river. She was a solid 8 feet long, and the increase in girth over a fish the size of what we’d caught earlier in the day was remarkable: I couldn’t have wrapped my arms around her even if I’d wanted to. I’m no expert sturgeon weight estimator, but I was told she probably weighed close to 400 lbs.  All I know is she pushed me to a point where I’d never been before, and standing there in the boat after she swam off, my body shook from adrenalin and complete fatigue. One thing is for sure – I felt like I’d been to hell and back, and honestly I think I’d rather visit a chalk stream in England before going sturgeon fishing again.

It should be noted that time heals all wounds, and I went back to Hell’s Canyon a couple years later.  I tried, but didn’t catch a sturgeon the second time around. What we did catch were scores of 10 and 12 inch smallmouth bass, though. They were a little more my size.

The man behind the amazing Woolly Bugger…

Mr. Russell Blessing with one of his many Woolly Buggers

Imagine my recent surprise when I was quietly sitting at my desk, playing Farmville working on my next Weekly Drivel topic when a new email message popped into my in-box from a name I did not recognize: Fred Blessing.  The message subject was “Woolly Bugger”, so obviously I opened it with great curiosity. [Commence humbling experience now]

Fred Blessing began by saying that he had recently come across my kids’ books about Olive the Woolly Bugger. He then introduced himself as the son of the late Russell Blessing, creator of the woolly bugger fly. I was familiar with who Russ Blessing was, for obvious reasons (you don’t launch a series of books based on a woolly bugger without first doing a little research). I was also aware that unfortunately Russ had passed away in October 2009. While news of his death spread through the fly fishing news wires, Russ Blessing wasn’t what most would consider a household name. I was about to learn that his relative anonymity was no accident. Fred went on to tell me that his father was a very humble man and not in any way was he ever interested in claiming fame for the fly that had gained such notoriety in the fly fishing world:  “He would never tell anyone about it, and if they would mention it while coming across a fellow fisherman he would simply play it off and would never take claim to it being his fly.”  The mark of a truly humble man indeed.

Fred had written a heartfelt tribute to his father, hoping to have it published in Russ’s honor before he died. Sadly that didn’t happen and Russ passed away after a long battle with cancer.  According to Fred, his wife “graciously read my tribute to my father the night he passed away, so for that I’m grateful that he at least got to hear it. I would however like to share it with the world, letting fellow fly fishers know what kind of person my father really was.”  Fred then added, “I do think you will enjoy the tribute and I would appreciate anything you can do to help my tribute to go public.” Fred also sent me this photo of he and Russ and Russ’s best friend and fishing companion, Werner “Dutch” Fetter. It’s always nice to be able to put a face with a name in this day of often impersonal electronic correspondence.

“Dutch” Fetter, Fred Blessing, Russ Blessing, 2006

I read Fred’s tribute to his father and I was instantly touched.  I decided immediately that I could blog about it, and reach out to other bloggers and ask that they also blog about it, but let’s be honest:  How many people actually read all the fly fishing blogs out there?  Not to detract from the many excellent blogs, but the Unaccomplished Angler has a limited readership. While I value the 6 of you to regularly read my blog and wouldn’t trade you for all the blog groupies in the world, I felt that Fred’s tribute to his father deserved a more traditional place of honor. So I fired off an email to Joe Healy, a contact I had recently established at Fly Rod & Reel, and explained my correspondence with Fred.  Joe was very receptive and it was decided that I would write a brief intro to Fred Blessing’s tribute and it would be featured on the website for Fly Rod & Reel. Furthermore Joe agreed to let me conduct a short Q&A interview with Fred to talk about his father and the creation of the woolly bugger.

My role in all this was really nothing more than that of intermediary, but it was a real honor. Usually I like to eliminate the middle man, but in this case I’m glad to have had the opportunity to facilitate a union between a man wishing to honor his father, and the publishing editor of a national fly fishing magazine. And as that middle man I would like to offer a heartfelt thanks to Fred Blessing for reaching out to me with your story and for sharing so many nice memories of your father. Thank you to Joe Healy for your willingness to honor Russ’s legacy with some widespread coverage. And thank you to Russ Blessing for the woolly bugger: the value of your creation reaches far beyond my little series of books, but without the woolly bugger, there would be no Olive.

To read the Q&A with Fred Blessing and his tribute to his father on the website of Fly Rod & Reel, please click HERE.  EDIT: Since Fly Rod & Reel went out of business in 2017, the link to the article about Russ Blessing is no longer functional. In an attempt to preserve the content, I have copied and pasted it here:


Q: Your father, Russ Blessing, is credited with having invented the Woolly Bugger. How and when did he arrive at this invention?

A: When he created the fly in 1967, he wasn’t an avid fly tier like he was in his later years. He actually created it for smallmouth bass. He wanted to create something similar to the Dobsonfly larvae. He later added a marabou tail, which created the Woolly Bugger.

Q: How different was the first Woolly Bugger than what we typically see today?

A: There are so many different patterns and colors today, but to me the original Woolly Bugger had olive chenille body, black hackle and marabou tail. Dad always believed that the more movement in the water from the hackle and tail the better. His Buggers always looked that way.

Q: Woolly Bugger is a curious name. Can you tell us how Russ came to call it that?

A: (Grin) My sister Julie named it when she was 7. She saw the fly and said, “ It looks like a Woolly Bugger.”

Q: The Woolly Bugger has become very widely known, well beyond the boundaries of North America. How was your father able to so effectively promote the pattern?

A: In August 1967, Dad was fishing the Little Lehigh. Barry Beck was fishing downstream and wasn’t having any luck, like everyone else that day. Dad landed a nice trout, then another. Barry approached him out of curiosity and Dad gave him a Woolly Bugger to try. Barry started catching trout. They later became friends and Barry did an article on the fly in 1984. It became well known after that. Dad never wanted to promote the fly; he just wanted to catch fish. He was very humble about his creation.

Q: The Woolly Bugger is known to be very effective on a wide variety of gamefish. What species did your father most often fish for?

A: Early on he fished a lot for smallmouth bass; he just loved to fish. Even in his younger years, he would fish with bait. Once he got more involved with fly fishing and tying flies, he then really started getting into fishing for trout.

Q: Where was his favorite fishing destination?

A: He had a few favorite spots. One was only a few miles from his home, Manada Creek outside of Harrisburg, PA. He would even fish there in the winter if weather permitted, on the regulated sections. His favorite had to be spending time in upstate PA fishing with his friend Dutch. Sorry, I wont give that location away (grin). Dad pretty much stayed local.

Q: The legacy of the Woolly Bugger will likely last as long as there are fish to be caught. What would your late father most like to be remembered for?

A: First, that he was a dedicated family man, a man of strong faith, someone who was generous, honest…I could go on and on. That’s why we all miss him so much. He never wanted recognition for inventing the Woolly Bugger—he was just happy he created something that could give a fly fisherman an opportunity to catch some fish. Second, that he was a pretty darn good fly fisherman. 


A few days after all this transpired a package arrived in the mail from Fred Blessing. What a great surprise to receive a collection of Woolly Buggers tied by his late father. While I am sure Russ would prefer that I fish these, I’m not going to risk losing them. These are keepsakes.

Woolly Buggers tied by Russ Blessing

Walk tall and carry a short stick.

Rod Review: Pygmy Glass by Scandalous Sticks

Upon inception of the Unaccomplished Angler I proclaimed many things that the blog would NOT be, and one of those promises was that there would be no gear reviews: I’d leave that to the big kids. I’ve largely held true to that promise, though I have broken down a couple of times. Wrought with guilt, I apologized for my errant ways. Well, I’m officially not apologizing this time because raving about this product is nothing to feel shameful about.

Scandalous Sticks is a custom rod company with a killer logo, if I do say so myself. Owner Stephen Vance builds a wide variety of custom rods, all of them unique (as one would expect from a custom built rod). One rod, however, stands above the rest in that regard: The Pygmy Glass 5’6″ 4 weight. It’s stated that the Pygmy “has more personality than some people” so I was eager to spend a little time in the back yard getting to know this little rod. My back yard has an expanse of grass but it does not have a river running through it so I was only able to lawn cast the Pygmy. Unfortunately this rod is not mine to keep (I’m donating it to an auction for Casting 4 A Cure) so I didn’t want to take it out to a body of water and risk catching a fish with it. When the rod arrived I was a little short on time needed to spend with it. However I couldn’t resist temptation so I strung up the Pygmy for 5 minutes of wiggling and fondling. I was officially intrigued, and the next day I gave the Pygmy my undivided attention.

I’ll be honest, I don’t really know much about fiberglass rods, other than the fact that my first fly rod was glass. My memory of that rod supports my (perhaps partially false) perception that fiberglass rods are noodle-like devices that require a very slow, reptilian casting stroke. Well, the Pygmy is not your father’s glass rod. Now before I continue I want to address what I know you’re thinking: “Holy tuna can – that’s a short rod!” I thought the same thing the first time I heard about the Pygmy, and I doubted whether or not such a short rod could store enough energy to be worthy of laying out a respectable supply of line. After all, doesn’t a real fly rod need to be much longer? Well, apparently size doesn’t matter – at least with regard to the Pygmy. The long and short of it is that little five and a half foot rod is more than up to the task of casting plenty of line.

To be perfectly accurate, the rod I tested is 5’7″ due to a fighting butt that adds an inch. That fighting butt may be more than just eye candy as fish in the range of 30 inches have been landed on the Pygmy, according to the Scandalous Sticks website. A fish that size is going to require a reel with a decent drag – you probably don’t want to palm a hog brown that’s hell-bent on making short work of the person on the other end of the line. For casting practice I tested the Pygmy using two different reels: My own Ross Evolution 1.5 and a Redington Drift 3/4 (also donated for the auction by the good folks at Redington).  The Ross is a perfect match for my 9 foot 4 weight rods but felt a little big for the Pygmy. At 3.7 ounces the Redington was a nice fit.  The balance point was about 3 inches behind the leading edge of the cork grip, so perhaps a bit further back than what textbook guidelines suggest. However, with such a short rod a reel would need to be nearly weightless in order to balance where a typical longer rod does.  This didn’t bother me one bit: the entire outfit is so light in the hands that the matter of a balance point was the furthest thing from my mind. As for aesthetics, the titanium Redington looks real sweet when attached to the nickel silver up-locking reel seat.

As for casting this little rod, I was surprised at how easily it laid out 35-40 feet of line (an accomplished caster could have done so farther). It should be noted that all of my fly rods are late generation graphite rods: fast action stuff. To that end I was leery that the Pygmy would be ill-suited to my casting stroke. I was more than pleasantly surprised at how quickly the rod loads and recovers and I can honestly say that I didn’t have to alter my casting stroke much at all to throw tight loops accurately. To put a label on it, because fly anglers like to do so, I would suggest that the Pygmy is on the faster side of medium.  Perhaps even medium-fast. Whatever the case, being on the short end of the stick was a good place to be. Being fiberglass, the rod does flex and the tip feels sensitive. I can see that presenting a dry fly with finesse would be easy and playing large fish would certainly be a thrill with this little beauty. But one must remember that while the rod is unusually small and may feel delicate, it IS a 4 wt rod and up to tasks greater than the size of the rod might suggest. As Mr. Vance says, the Pygmy is a glass rod with a graphite background.

The 2-piece blank of mysterious origins is a honey mustard yellow, with brown and black thread wraps holding stainless steel chrome guides firmly in place. The wood used for the reel seat is blonde Israeli olive wood and the grip is high grade Portuguese cork.  The whole package is very classy to look at; the construction flawless. Each Pygmy is signed by Steve Vance and assigned a production number: this particular rod is numbered 0021.

Advantages of the Pygmy over a longer rod are many, given that it can still stand toe to toe with longer sticks in practical fishing situations:

  • Stringing up the rod is a snap because even someone as vertically-challenged as myself can thread the line through the tip guide without having to stand on a milk crate or lay the rod horizontal.
  • The Pygmy is very manageable when walking through doorways (or down a brush-lined trail).
  • When the wind blows, and it nearly always does when fly fishing, the short rod would be much less negatively affected than “normal” length rods.
  • The Pygmy wouldn’t take up much room in a boat or float tube.

The above-mentioned points suggest that this might be a perfect rod for kids for the very fact that it’s so totally not cumbersome. When you propose the purchase to your CFO, remember to tell them that this is for your child: that seems to gain purchase approval much more easily than if one making a selfish acquisition. The CFO need not know that once you get the Pygmy in your hands the last thing you’ll want to do is give it to your kid!

Since there are only 5 more Pygmy blanks available, one would be prudent to contact Scandalous Sticks and place their order today (they sell for $400). There may be only 4 left after I ask Mrs. UA if I can have one for myself.

Stay tuned for more information about the Casting 4 A Cure auction that will feature this Pygmy, the Redington Drift reel and Rio Mainstream WF-4F flyline, and a host of other great stuff!  See the Auction HERE

Outdoor Blogger Network

I’ve been fortunate over the past year to have “met” (in an internet sort of way) many great folks. One who stands out is Rebecca Garlock, the Outdooress herself. She’s a blog/web techno guru-ess and without her generous help and support, the  Unaccomplished Angler may have crashed and burned by now. Rebecca has worked under the hood, tightening nuts and bolts to keep the UA limping down the road instead of becoming an abandoned, rusted-out relic of yesteryear. A while back Rebecca told me of an idea that she and her friend Joe Wolf (author of the Flowing Waters blog) had discussed while fishing together this past summer. I half listened to Rebecca’s techno rambling but what I did manage to digest sounded interesting: something about a site for bloggers in the outdoor world, maybe some gear reviews, blah-blah-blah. I had no reason to doubt her good intentions, and it’s not that I wasn’t interested; but I hear a lot of people talk about a lot of great ideas and nearly all the time the talk is just that: talk. Jump ahead a couple of months and I found myself agreeing to design a logo for the brainchildren behind the Outdoor Blogger Network (OBN).

The OBN was launched officially on Monday, October 18th, and by day’s end there was a buzz that could be felt throughout the outdoor blogging world. By the second day there were already 79 blogs registered, filling categories that include Fishing (general), Fly Fishing, Bass, Salt Water, Kayak Fishing; Hunting (general), Archery, Big Game, Waterfowl and Upland Birds; Outdoor (general), Outdoor Humor, Outdoor Destinations; Hiking/Climbing/Backpacking, Camping, Bushcraft; Outdoor Photography; Boating/Watercraft; Conservation/Ecology; Outdoor Podcast/Videolog Blogs; Outdoor Business/News; and Outdoor Author Blogs.

I’d say that’s a pretty darn impressive assembly of members, what with being open for business for less than 48 hours!

So for those of you who blog on topics that fit within the wide range of outdoor interests listed above, get thee over to the Outdoor Blogger Network and submit your musings for inclusion in the site directory.  It is my understanding that the nature of one’s blog must be the out-of-doors, but that one may still blog from the comfort of the indoors. At any rate the OBN looks to be a great resource for lending credibility to those of us who keep outdoor blogs, with plenty of opportunities to expand our horizons. If you’re not prone to blogging yourself, but you enjoy reading blogs, then check out the OBN’s offerings: it’s shaping up to be the ultimate blog roll.

Thanks to Rebecca and Joe for your vision and gumption to turn talk into walk.

Fishing hopeless waters

It was another of those “I’m going fishing without any hopes whatsoever of catching a fish” days. I do that quite a bit.

I live in the once-sleepy little town of Duvall, Washington, and a river runs through it. The Snoqualmie River, that is – a lazy, meandering, silt-laden slough of water with barely any visible current. Twenty or so miles upstream the river spills over Snoqualmie Falls, making its way north past the Tokul Creek fish hatchery and through the town of Fall City. There actually is some current in these upper stretches of the river, and it can hold some steelhead: mostly tight-lipped, dour hatchery brats that afford the angler a false sense of hope.  Below Fall City the river snakes its way toward the town of Carnation, losing gradient along the way. The farther north the river flows the less the river actually resembles something that might hold a steelhead or two. Past Carnation and all the way to Duvall and beyond, the Snoqualmie becomes more of a frog water ditch. There are stretches of the river where I actually think the current flows backwards (it’s that slow). It’s like this until it joins the Skykomish to form the Snohomish a few miles farther North. I shouldn’t be too hard on the lazy Sloqualmie, as it does give up the occasional Squawfish (at least two in my experiences).

The Lazy Snoqualmie looking north.

The Lazy Snoqualmie River looking south.

When the need to fish becomes overwhelming and I don’t have time for a proper day of angling, I’ll drive the 8 short miles toward Carnation where there are a couple runs that have enough current to swing a fly. It’s been reported that a steelhead has been caught in this area but it’s more mythical than anything else. However, I can be there in 15 minutes and if I time it right I can have the water to myself, which is how I prefer it.  There’s a good reason I can nearly always have one of these runs to myself: accomplished anglers go where the chances of catching fish are actually somewhat favorable. So now that I’ve wasted your precious time telling you about the sub-standard steelhead fishery that I call my home waters, let’s get right to the matter of actually fishing.

The weather was cloudy and the meteorologists had predicted rain. Looking skyward that morning it didn’t take much convincing for me to grab the Goretex jacket, and I even threw on a pair of lightweight long johns under my waders. I was actually hoping for rain. Jimmy showed up at my house around 9 AM (there’s no reason to be in a hurry when you’re just headed out for some casting practice on a river that rarely gives up fish of any kind). Fifteen minutes later we were parked near the river and gearing up.  I grabbed my Sage Z-Axis 7136 Spey rod and the spool containing my floating summer line, a 480 grain Airflo Compact Scandi. The river was low and clear, so I figured I’d swing a small fly just below the surface. No point in dredging for fish rocks with a sink tip.  Jimmy grabbed his 5 weight rod – he has not yet succombed to the evil temptress that is the two-handed rod. This is probably best since has 4 daughters and two of them are into horses. Equine endeavors leave little time and even less money for something like the dark side of fly fishing. In fact, so innocent was Jimmy that he’d never seen anyone cast a Spey rod before, and he simply wanted to come along and see how it’s done. I cautioned him that I was not the person to observe if he wanted to see how it’s done, but given no other options my casting would have to suffice. Sorry for that, Jimmy.

We set up along the first run and began plying the water.  Jimmy quickly noted the benefits of Spey casting: “It sure looks a hell of a lot more efficient at getting the line out farther.”  True that, but I cringed at his words.  I did not in any way want to be responsible for the financial downfall of another angler, and the beginning of the end comes when the angler acknowledges first hand the benefits of Spey casting. Jimmy, if you’re reading this, then please read THIS. Let my cautionary essay against Spey casting serve you well. Walk away while you can and say these words: If you don’t Spey, don’t start. Repeat.

It took us less than an hour to fish through to the bottom of the run and being par for the course we didn’t have so much as a bump. We did, however, bump into another Spey casting man who said he’d been up around Fall City earlier in the morning. He noted that there had been someone in every run.  This wasn’t surprising for a couple of reasons: First, every steelhead fly angler in the region had been chomping at the bit to catch a fall fish. The weather had recently been warm and dry, and few fish were moving throughout the rivers. That doesn’t ease the need to fish, however, so on this first cloudy day that promised rain, every steelhead angler was out hoping to put another notch in their catch card. Secondly, up around Fall City is where the best water for not catching a steelhead can be found.

That was enough to convince me that we wouldn’t be driving to Fall City, so we headed downstream a short ways to my other favorite spot that doesn’t produce fish.  As we hiked in a half mile or so we both commented on how warm it was – almost freakishly warm, and the sun was actually trying to burn through the clouds. So much for the weather forecast and the need for Goretex. Before we started casting I cautioned Jimmy that about all we could hope to catch here would be steelhead parr. It’s not that I go out to target these toddlers intentionally, but they often hit a fly being swung for their adult kin or for sea run cutthroat.  There’s only a short section of the river that presents decent swinging water, below which is a large, annoying eddy followed by vast expanses of frog water. I took up residence at the head of the run and fired off my first cast. Midway through the swing, sure enough I was once again a child-molester.  The 5 inch fish really had no business hitting the Large Albacore Special (black and blue marabou streamer), but those little fish have piss and vinegar coursing through their cold blooded veins and they attack anything resembling food. It’s this same overachieving spirit that will one day ensure they survive a journey to the ocean and back. Even if they are just hatchery brats, one has to admire their spunk.

After removing the fly from the parr’s face, I cast again, gave a mend and let the fly swing across the current. Suddenly there was a solid hit at the end of my line that I knew came not from a troutlet. In fine steelhead angling fashion I laid the tip of my rod toward shore to let the fish set the hook itself, then held on.  The head shaking and thrashing that ensued told me this was no Squawfish, and then the fish turned toward mid-river it took line from the reel in a quick burst. However, I knew it wasn’t a real big fish.  Sea run cutthroat (SRC) came to mind, though this wasn’t typical SRC water – too much current and too little structure. Small steelhead was more likely, since I was targeting steelhead after all. Whatever it was, it fought good for its size.

I played the fish to shore and was not expecting what I saw. It had the typical coloring of a rainbow; not of a steelhead fresh out of the salt. The adipose fin was in tact so that indicated it was no hatchery fish, not to mention that it was simply too small to be a West coast steelhead (maybe a Great Lakes fish? Sorry Midwest anglers, I just couldn’t resist). I determined that it was a 15″ resident rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), which is the same species of fish that would have been called a steelhead had it simply left the river for the ocean. Now some of you may be rolling your eyes and thinking, “Hey Unaccomplished Angler – catching a rainbow trout is no big deal, and a 15 inch fish isn’t that impressive. And besides, weren’t you suppose to be fishing for steelhead?  What an unaccomplishment, you hack!”

There’s no need for name calling, so let’s address those inquiries.  Resident rainbow trout in this river are not only not common, in fact they’re quite uncommon. I’ve heard that they are around, though fairly rare and I’ve never met anyone personally who has ever caught one.  Regardless of size, it’s relative rareness made it a very interesting and unexpected catch. And it’s been a long time since I caught a trout over 15 inches in the state of Washington, so I was impressed. And given that there are fewer resident rainbows than steelhead in this river, I’d go so far as to say that this was an angling accomplishment.  I just wish I could have played that fish on a 4wt rod instead of m 7 wt Spey, because no matter how game the fish was, it was terribly outgunned.  As for being a hack, I’ll not contest that accusation.

The other thing I wish iss that my camera hadn’t been set on macro focus mode. You see, I had just snapped the photo of the steelhead parr from a distance of about 10 inches. When the camera is shut off, it doesn’t default back to the standard focus mode, so when Jimmy snapped the photos of my rare, resident rainbow the results were less than stellar. While I’d like to hold Jimmy at fault, I have to accept the blame for not knowing my camera.  The photos were as unexpected as the fish itself, although I wasn’t the least big disappointed with the fish.

As for the rain that was hoped for and predicted? It showed up two days later and fell with such ferocity that it blew the river out.

Teenage loathing and the smell of fall.

Early October. Last year at about the same time I fished a section of the Yakima that I’d never fished before, above the town of Cle Elum.  It’s a much different river up there compared to the more familiar waters downstream where I usually fish. The river was low and very wadable, and reports were that salmon were in the system laying eggs. The trout were following the salmon. And the fishermen were following the trout – at least Marck and I were.  It was a beautiful afternoon until the wind started blowing so hard that casting became nearly impossible.  As if the wind wasn’t bad enough it was very late in the day and I was facing a horrible skunk. It did not look good, and in fact vultures were even circling overhead (you can just make them out in the photo below).  Desperately I worked my way downstream, trying everything in the fly box before finally managing to scratch out a 10 inch rainbow on an October Caddis. Just as the last light was fading, I glanced up to see Marck walking toward me with a shit-eating grin on his face. As I was plying 1/4 mile of water for one small fish Marck had stayed in one spot for 2 hours, using the same tattered fly, without moving an inch. When you’re catching fish on every other cast, why would you move? I made a note to myself never to fish with Marck again.

So yes, last year was a rough day on this stretch of the Yakima for the Unaccomplished Angler. But this was a new year and it was with rekindled faith that I decided to go back and redeem myself. In addition to Marck, whom I had long since forgiven for being a better angler than myself, Jimmy and my son Schpanky also joined in the fun.  Except for the lack of wind, which was quite welcome, conditions were very similar to a year earlier: a beautiful warm, fall day with pesky mosquitoes gnawing at us as we geared up and hiked a mile or so to our starting point.

Schpanky's photo of the three best friends than anyone could have.

The river was low and clear, flanked by brilliantly-colored  foliage and the smell of fall. Or rather, the smell of hundreds of rotting salmon. Not all were dead yet, but most had completed their journey and lay peacefully still in the shallows, giving nutrients back to the stream that had given them birth. It’s not sad to witness all these dead fish, rather it’s a joyous triumph to see that they had completed their life cycles and made the journey home.  Still, it tugs at the heart strings when one sees two lovers lying next to one another in a last, dying embrace.

Fishing was quite good right off the bat, at least for one of us. Jimmy immediately waded into a run that continued to give up modest sized fish with nearly every cast.  What he failed to do was move on after catching a whole bunch of them so that someone else might have a turn at it. Had he glanced at the riverbank he would have seen a man-child looking on with yearning in his eyes, drool hanging from his lower lip and a twitch in his casting hand; waiting patiently, hoping for a chance to catch just one fish from the productive run. It was not to be.

Jimmy bogarts a good run.

The boy, Marck and I moved on downstream to less productive waters. Egg-laying October Caddis bounced along the water’s surface, but no fish were rising. It was still early in the afternoon with few shadows on the water so we opted instead to swing soft hackles and Chubby Cousins, largely to no avail.  We worked a couple runs that gave up tiny troutlets, but fish of any notable size were very scarce — scarce, but not completely absent. At one point I did manage to land a strong fighting 12″ fish that gave my 4wt a good run for it’s money. Schpanky gleefully ran to my side to snap a photo of the fish, his face beaming with admiration for his old man.

The water temperature had measured 62 degrees upon our arrival. That’s not too warm, but it was warmer than we’d have preferred.  When the cooler weather of fall hits and lowers the water temps into the 50’s, the fish start thinking ahead to winter and begin gorging themselves.  The fish hadn’t yet adopted this line of anticipatory thinking, and catching remained slow. I tried my best to make this day all about the boy. After a severe skunking earlier in the summer, he needed a good day of catching more than I did. It’s been a long time since the Yakima yielded a bountiful day, or even a single decent fish for Schpanky, so on this day I gave him first shot when we approached new water, hoping he’d hook up with a good fish.  I almost felt bad when, after he had worked through a nice piece of fishy looking water, I came in behind him and picked his pocket hooked into a solid fish. Much to his delight I lost that fish but immediately thereafter landed another nice 12 inch fish. I could see the look of despair spreading across his face, but he remained a good sport and showed his adoration for his old man by holding up a single finger. It was gratifying to know that I was still #1 in his book.  I think it was his index finger, though now that I ruminate over it I may have been mistaken. Oh well, blame it on aging eyes.

Schpanky works some troutless water.

We kept fishing and I continued to be the positive-thinking role model that every teenager loathes, especially when they’re not catching fish. Comments about how good his casting looked were apparently unheard.  Repeated reminders that “It’s called fishing, son – not catching!” were met with contemptuous sideways glares. The increased silence grew deafening. As the afternoon wore on I continued with my attempts to lift the lad’s spirits by reminding him that even Marck wasn’t catching any fish (which I took great pleasure in, by the way). Schpanky’s body language indicated that he was defeated and no longer interested in trying to salvage any chances of catching a fish over 3 inches. Concerned that perhaps his mood was being affected by low blood-sugar, I offered him a shot from the whiskey flask snack bar and a hug. He gladly accepted the former. We moved on. He had to keep fishing because we were still a ways from our termination point, but his heart wasn’t in it. Apparently he had hit the wall.

A constant companion throughout the day was the stench of rotting salmon. Redds were flagged throughout the river so we were careful to give them a wide berth, but the carcasses were harder to avoid.  At one point a particularly nice looking specimen was encountered and, in trying to keep the mood light, I suggested to Schpanky that he hold it up for a hero shot.  He passed. Probably a good thing because his mother would not have been amused to see her little boy holding a moldy salmon in his bare hands.

We fished on.  We swung flies through fishy looking slots and when the shadows were fully upon the river we switched to dries. Nothing seemed to work– not even a small woolly bugger stripped behind a rock the size of a Smart Car could produce a bump. At one point I looked upriver and saw a large fish jump a half dozen times within 30 feet of Schpanky’s location. I was momentarily sure that he had hooked an elusive Yakima unicorn steelhead and his mood would be salvaged!  It turned out to be a Coho with a bug up it’s butt, putting on one last display of gumption before it expired like the scores of its brethren. Unfortunately it was not in any way attached to the boys line.

We called the time of death at around 6:30PM and hiked back to the truck. As we broke down our rods and stripped off our waders, we once again fed the mosquitoes and marveled at what a beautiful day it had been on the water. While the catching had been much less than what we had anticipated, it was a great day of fishing.  For me it was a rewarding afternoon spent with my son, forging an already solid bond on the river. I’m not sure that he felt the same way, but someday when he’s a grown man he’ll look back on days like this day and fondly recall not the quantity of the fish caught, but the quality of the time spent fishing with his old man. I hope that then I’m still #1 in his book.

Stream Tech raft for sale: 13′ Green Drake

This could be a gear review, because I’ve had the pleasure of fishing out of one of these boats before and they’re sweet. I also had a chance to row one recently and that made me like them even more. Well, as it turns out the owner of the company, Link Jackson, is letting his personal demo boat and trailer go to make room for a new model destined soon for his garage. Ah, hell, rather me regurgitating, here’s what he has to say:

“Today is the day…..I must make room for the new Salmonfly prototype in the garage while I am testing it. My personal Green Drake boat with 1 summer season of use goes up for sale today. The basic package (same as new package) including a brand new frame is going for $5,000 and my cargo trailer will go for $1500. P…hoto above. The boat is in great shape and the trailer is in good to great shape (I recently installed aluminum plating on all surfaces that road gravel hits to avoid having to touch up paint). First offer buys it.”

That’s right– throw him an offer! I really, really wish I was in a position to buy this boat. If I was, I’d have already called, texted, emailed, Facebooked and sent a carrier pigeon to reserve it. And I’d already be on my way to Boise to pick it up. Here’s a photo of the actual boat. Some lucky guy or gal is going to be tickled to get this thing.

You might ask, “Hey, Unaccomplished Angler – why are listing this on your blog?  What’s in it for you?”  Actually, a case of Bud.  So if you buy the raft, tell Link I sent ya.  Then take me fishing in your new boat. I’ll buy you a beer.

Stream Tech Boats
2930 W. Taft Street
Boise, ID 83703
(208) 869-7384

The (Reversed) Spiderman.

When I was a kid I liked comic book superheros, and my favorite was always Spiderman. I could easily identify with his alter ego – an unpopular, skinny kid by the name of Peter Parker. But once he donned the crime fighting tights I marveled at Spiderman’s ability to shoot his webbing between buildings and catch bad guys, very much in the same way that a skilled fly angler can fire a tight cast between overhanging branches and catch hiding fish. I’ve always wanted to be able to do both. Hey, a guy can dream can’t he?

Sea run cutthroat (SRC), or coastal cutthroat trout, are common to these parts (Western Warshington). When I was a comic book-reading kid I trolled for them along the beaches of Hood Canal, and later in life I’ve fished for them in the lazy stretches of the Snoqualmie River. I’ve known all along that SRC like the slow moving “frog water” and lie near structure so that they can ambush prey. I’ve also known for many years that there is a special fly tied just for these fish:  the Reversed Spider. But knowing these things, and even possessing the fly with alleged super powers hasn’t brought me any good luck. The few times that I’ve gone after them have resulted favorably for the fish and left me feeling more like an unpopular skinny kid than a superhero. Recently, however, my SRC fortunes improved a little bit.

Brian Paige, who is a real life fishing superhero, recently invited me to join him for a steelhead float on the Wenatchee River.  Unfortunately rains had caused the Wenatchee to rise and it was decided that we’d save ourselves the gas money and fish closer to home on the Skykomish River. As for what finned quarry we would be pursuing, Brian said, “Bring a 4 wt, an 8 wt and your Spey rod.”  Apparently we’d be chasing SRC, Coho salmon, and steelhead.  The prospects of that trifecta sounded rather enticing to me, so I grabbed my Sage Z-Axis 4 wt and Spey, and my Sage XP 8wt. I am admittedly a Sage whore Poster Boy, as I also have a few other Sage rods besides the ones employed for duty on this day.

I met Brian at the Sultan launch and we were joined by none other than the mysterious man who goes by the moniker, “Flybill”. There were enough rods in Brian’s boat to outfit a fly shop as we headed downriver under cloudy skies that threatened drizzle. There was even a spinning rod with the cork still in shrink wrap. I’m still not sure what that rod was doing there – all I know is that it didn’t belong to either Brian or myself.  It had rained most of the night before and unfortunately the Skykomish was slightly on the rise.  As we all know, fishing a river that’s rising isn’t what one would prefer to do, but to date I’ve not tapped into the superpowers needed to alter nature’s course.  The weather forecast had indicated that the day would be clearing so we weren’t expecting much if any rain and hopefully the rising river wouldn’t become unfishable.

We immediately began casting toward the slow water for cutts.  Brian guides for a living and fishes when he’s not guiding, so he’s on the river a lot.  In between time on the water he works at All About The Fly, so fly fishing pretty much consumes his life. Brian starts fishing for sea run cutts in July, and had caught over 100 fish this past summer, even with a 5 week hiatus to do some guiding in Alaska. Bottom line: he knows how to fish for these SRC. Since I don’t, I was all ears when he described the tactics needed to trick these trout.

I watched as he demonstrated a technique developed by none other than the Reverend Mike Kinney , a northwest fly fishing legend who just so happened to create the Reversed Spider.  With the rod tip close to the water, a quick flip of the wrist lifts and drops of the rod tip, followed immediately by a strip of the line. This gives the Reversed Spider the undulating action that drives these fish crazy and lures them into its web of deceit, and it didn’t take long for the fish to start hitting the fly tied to the ends of Brian’s line.  It’s a fast-paced, visual type of fishing with rapid casts, frantic stripping and split second hook sets as these silver-sided fish rocket from their hiding places to hit the flies. It took me a while to get the proper technique dialed in, but finally I had a fish on!  I was about to declare myself a bonafied Web Slinger, but when I finally landed a fish it wasn’t the species we sought: instead of a cutthroat, I had done a stellar job of fooling an 8 inch steelhead parr. Brian seemed hold my antics in contempt as if I was some sort of child molester, but I assured him I wasn’t trying to catch baby steelhead. Once again I felt like a skinny, unpopular kid.

Eventually I did manage to land a SRC, and my lifetime of being skunked at this game was over.  The fish wasn’t impressive in size, but nobody had landed anything over 10 inches so I was holding my own in size if not numbers.  Over the course of the day the rain that wasn’t supposed to fall, fell – sometimes hard, though it didn’t last long.  I caught another couple small cutties, but it wasn’t enough to make me feel like Spiderman. We covered a lot of fishy looking water, and whenever Brian cast to a spot, he nearly always hooked a fish. At one point while I sat and watched, Brian went 5 fish for 7 casts. I had chances on what would have been the nicest 3 fish of the day – fish of about 12 inches, but I couldn’t seal the deal and ended up striking out. If I’d just landed one of those fish I could have worn the red and blue tights of the friendly neighborhood Web Head. It was probably best for all on board that I didn’t.

We saw a few Coho jumping throughout the day, but we never rigged up our rods for these tight-lipped fish that were in the river not to feed but to breed. And then die. I’ve never actually fished for silvers in the rivers, but I’ve heard that catching them on a fly is not impossible, just difficult.  We decided not to waste our time to instead keep fishing for SRC, and occasionally pulled the boat over to the shore when good swinging water offered a chance to do a little Spey casting for unicorns steelhead. Not surprisingly, none of these anadromous rainbow trout were caught although Flybill had a good bump. Or so he said.  I’ll take his word for it. I have no reason to doubt Flybill. Afterall, he’s a fisherman and fishermen never stretch the truth.

By the end of the day the rain that wasn’t supposed to fall finally stopped for good.  I didn’t count the number of SRC landed, although Brian was into double digits and Flybill was well ahead of me. The fatigue in my casting arm confirmed that the total number of rapid fire casts I made was near 1000, which is the number of casts it usually takes to catch a steelhead. In that regard I’d done pretty well, as I’d caught at least a half dozen steelhead parr during the course of the day. Oh well, Peter Parker suffered many hardships before earning his Spiderman tights.