Author: Kirk Werner (Page 2 of 44)

I am an unaccomplished angler and author/illustrator of a series of children's fly fishing books featuring Olive, the woolly bugger.

Ode to the JanSport D3 backpack

Disclaimer: this blog entry has nothing to do with fly fishing and will be long and boring if you came here for something related to fly fishing.

Let me state for the record that I am not a backpacker. Or at least I haven’t been for many decades. I do a bit of day hiking, but I haven’t done an overnight trip since I was a junior in high school. That final trip in 1980 was to Lake Serene in the central Cascades of Washington, with my elder brother, Hal (not his real name, sort of). It was during our spring break in April and it was a good bit early in the year for what we set out to do. In our eagerness to partake of a little backpacking we jumped the gun by at least a month, or more, to be overnighting at this elevation.

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An expensive day fishing

I recently had my best day on the Yakima river in 2 years, which also happened to be my first day on the Yakima river in 2 years. My long hiatus may be due to the fact that I just haven’t had the opportunity to fish the Yakima, or that I haven’t had the desire to fish the Yakima. Whatever the case may be, I got an email a couple weeks earlier from my buddy “Bob” asking if I’d like to join him for a day on the Yakima.

I fish with “Bob” about once a year, maybe less, depending on his tolerance for slow days on the water. He’s a good dude and an accomplished angler if you factor in that he’s been catching fish since he was a kid (which is long before I was born). But when we fish together he seems to fare as poorly as I do—sometimes worse—which can only be attributed to my bad luck as an angling person. Often the dark cloud that follows me around rains on others as well. So you can see why he doesn’t want to fish with me more often.

Anyway, I met up with “Bob” at a mutually convenient location and loaded my gear into his car, which was hitched to his chartreuse Aire raft, and we headed to Cle Elum. Once there we arranged for a shuttle at the Troutwater fly shop ($40, which we split) before heading to Pioneer Coffee shop for a cup of joe and a raspberry oat bar ($2.95). I skipped the coffee. We drove to our put-in at Bristol, a private launch that requires (on the honor system) $10 to launch. “Bob” tried to split the fee but I insisted on covering the entire $10. After all, he did drive and provide the boat. I had spent $32.95 and I hadn’t even put on my waders yet. It’s a good thing “Bob” wasn’t my guide because his tip would have been insultingly small this day.


It was a clear, cool morning with an upstream breeze. We set out toward our eventual take-out at the Green Bridge several miles downstream. Along the way we would attempt to fool one of the 11 dish in this stretch of the Yakima. The breeze turned to a wind, which was the leading edge of a system that would eventually bring cloud cover. We looked forward to the clouds, anticipating that it would bring the fish to the surface. We awaited the arrival of the clouds, which would take their damn sweet time arriving, and angled away over cold, clear and low water.

Eventually I landed my best Yakima fish in nearly 2 years: a 15” cutthroat that turned on my dropper and proceeded to become ass-hooked. Oh well, it made for a good initial fight on my 5 weight Winston Pure (which I had picked up last Spring and really enjoyed while in Montana and Idaho in July). It was my first Winston and I really liked the way it cast and presents dries. But I digress.

My best Yakima dish in 2 years!

My best Yakima fish in 2 years!

About the time that the wind peaked we decided it was a good time to stop for lunch. After consuming a light bite I took a spell on the oars. I hadn’t rowed a boat since selling my Streamtech a year and a half ago, and I had to admit that it felt good to be on the sticks again, despite that the wind meant having to row with the current much of the time and my torn rotator cuff argued with me the entire time.

That’s “Bob” in the front of his boat.

That’s “Bob” in the front of his boat.

The remainder of our float was fairly uneventful, and other than the fact that the wind saw to it that we enjoyed a couple of impressive wind tangles, there wasn’t much worth noting.  As the oarsman I may have put “Bob” on a small fish, but the Yakima tends to suck the life out of a person so I cannot accurately recall. We stopped to work a particular fishy looking run where “Bob” allegedly caught a decent rainbow. I was upstream not catching anything so I cannot confirm the honesty of his claim (I don’t have any reason to doubt him, but you know fishermen and their lofty exaggerations). Apparently pleased with himself, “Bob” resumed command of his watercraft and we continued downstream. Along the way I added 2 more rather unimpressive fish to my list.

I’d nothing else, the Yakima is a beautiful river.

The Yakima is, if nothing else, a rather beautiful river.

The end of an expensive day.

“Bob’s” boat at the end of the day.

The clouds finally arrived, and the wind died down, though too late to make any sort of difference in our favor. We reached our take out, geared down, and hit the road toward home. Once back at our rendezvous location, “Bob” and I bade farewell under the cloak darkness and went our separate ways. Upon arriving at home 45 minutes later I unpacked my gear. I placed my boots on the boot dryer, hung my waders from the handlebars of my upside-down-hanging-bike, stowed my other gear in the cabinet where I keep my other gear, and reached for my rod. It was nowhere to be found. I looked under the seat and in the back of my truck (where I know I hadn’t put it). I looked under the seat again. Then I mentally retraced my steps: I vividly recall removing the rod from the back of “Bob’s” car, and placing it on top of my truck bed cover as I loaded the other gear into the back seat of my truck. A sick feeling overcame me as I realized that on top of my truck bed cover is exactly where I had left my rod before driving off.

In a panic I sent Marck a text, asking him if he would take a look on his way to his office the next morning (he works close by and drives right past this spot). Jump ahead 12 hours and unfortunately Marck did not find the rod.

Whomever did find it got themselves a sweet rod. I hope they enjoy and catch many fish with it. The rod had pretty good mojo in the short time I’d possessed it.

But it was just a rod and I have several others. Just no other 5 weights, and no other Winston rods. And now I have a 5 weight reel and line with no rod to match.

Misery loves company so please share your most expensive day on the water (guide fees/tips don’t count).

The loneliest reel.

The loneliest reel.


The UA turns 10, and the Occasional Drivel®


The UA was spawned in September 2009, but please hold off on the drumroll. While a decade of unaccomplishments may sound like quite an accomplishment, I can’t really take credit for a full ten years because the past couple have entailed little more than paying the hosting fees to keep the lights on. Meanwhile the shelves have been pretty bare.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s move on to a bit of Weekly Drivel® Occasional Drivel®.

In mid-July (should that be hyphenated? Looks like it should be so I’m sticking with it) I made a jaunt to Montana’s Flathead Valley to fish with my buddy, Chuck the Cook, and my old pal, ol’ Lary Hutcheson. Chuck is fairly new to fly fishing, having taken it up in moderation since moving to Whitefish about 3 years ago. We hadn’t had a chance to wet a line together prior to this trip, and I was rather looking forward to seeing how his stick-waving abilities had progressed. I hadn’t fished with ol’ Lary in a few years, though I had bumped into her since then when I convinced her to buy my boat a year and a half ago. Since then she’d been insisting that I come to the Flathead Valley to see the boat. I figured the only way to get her off my back was to give in and finally accept an invitation. And so a date was set for a mid-week float in mid-July. Lary set aside the date on her busy summer guiding schedule and Chuck arranged to take a sick day off from his job as assistant daytime manager at Chuck E. Cheese. I told him to tell his boss he couldn’t come to work because his arm was in a cast (come on—that joke never runs out of funny and you know it).

Funny. Every. Time

Funny. Every. Time

Back home, July had been struggling to resemble one of Summer’s months, appearing more like March, April, May and June (which are horribly disappointing months in the PNW). I departed western Washington under cloudy, moist skies that persisted for much of the 9 hour drive, with intermittent, heavy downpours. A final, intense deluge ceased just before I arrived at Chuck’s driveway, where a cold beer and a plate of ribs welcomed me after my long drive. Chuck knows his way around a grill, and upon consuming no less than 8 pounds of pig flesh, we had a few more beers. After a few more, the time seemed right to teach Chuck how to tie an Albright knot so he could splice leader to tippet. Up this point I think he’d been fishing a single leader all season long, wondering why, by the end of summer, was so hard to tie a size 18 Royal Coachman to the end of his remaining 4 feet of leader. He looked in wonder at this magical thing called 5x that could be acquired in multiple yardages, all nicely wrapped around a thin spool. There was some fumbling with thick fingers and choice words, but I assured him that the knot would get easier with time. And if that failed, his young kids—with their small, delicate fingers—could certainly help him out in a pinch.

The plan was to meet up with ol’ Lary at her fly shop in Columbia Falls (Hilary’s Fly and Supply) at 8 the next morning and we did just that. Greetings were exchanged between old friends, introductions made between new, and we embarked on a long-ish drive up the Middle Fork of the Flathead River to our put-in. No rain fell that morning although there was a promise of it later in the day. As we rigged up our rods I noted to myself that it felt more like a mid-September’s morn, although truth be told the last time I fished with ol’ Lary on the MF Flathead it was September and it was a much warmer day than what we encountered on this trip. But enough about the weather, for now.

With the assurance that there would be mustard for our sandwiches, ol’ Lary loaded us into my old boat, which is her new boat, and we were off. Chuck took the hot seat in the bow and quickly revealed that he’d been doing some casting since moving to Montana. He handled his rod with deftness and looked like an experienced fisherman. If one didn’t know better they might think Chuck was a dirtbag fly fishing guide, what with a scraggly beard and long hair and Patagonia hat. But he’s no poser and didn’t suddenly transform himself when he moved to Montana. No, he’s looked like this since I’ve known him. I don’t recall exactly how long it’s been since he shaved or got a haircut, but he’s been farming hair far longer than the UA has had a blog. But I digress, back to fishing. We caught some fish throughout the day (all native Westslope Cutthroat trouts with the exception of one whitefish), enjoyed a beautiful float on a beautiful river, consumed sandwiches that included a magical yellow condiment, and only got rained on incessantly for the second half of the day. I think Chuck learned a lot, which was exactly why I wanted him to spend a day on the water with ol’ Lary. It was a fine day of fishing with a couple great people. I look forward to going back, assuming I get the invitation.

Lary tells Chuck exactly where to put his Royal Coachman

Lary tells Chuck exactly where to put his Royal Coachman.

With my old pal, Ol' Lary, in my old boat.

With my old pal, ol’ Lary, in my old boat.

A fine looking boat on a fine stretch of water.

A fine looking boat on a fine stretch of water.

On the MF Flathead with Charlie and Ol' Lary on a cool, rainy day in July.

Modeling our rain jackets on the MF Flathead in July.

A drizzly day on the MF Flathead

A drizzly day on the MF Flathead.

Departing the Flathead Valley I passed by fields of mustard seed, which are grown to produce a wonderful condiment.

Departing the Flathead Valley I passed by fields of mustard seed, which is known to produce a wonderful condiment.

The next morning I woke up in ol’ Lary’s driveway, wondered how I got there, and reluctantly took my leave of the Flathead Valley, driving south toward my next destination—a favorite Idaho Panhandle River—where I would meet up with Jimmy for 3 days of hiking and wading. It rained (again) on my drive south, and as I pulled into the campground it was coming down hard. I must admit it was dreary, and the only bright spot was that on this Thursday, not many campsites were occupied. The other good thing was that typically dusty drive was dust-free, and not surprisingly the fire danger was low. Also thanks to the weather I was able to procure the best site in the campground (one that we’ve never managed to get before). Fortunately the drizzle let up and I was able to set up camp in relative dryness. It wouldn’t rain again the rest of the trip, but the tail end of the low pressure system that had been parked over the region for days ensured cooler than normal temps the first two days. Fishing was slower than we’d have expected for this time of year due to cooler than normal river temps which translated into fewer hatches. Fishing was—at best—hit and miss, such that on the first day Jimmy caught one fish while I landed several; the next day just the opposite occurred. Overall it was not as productive as what we typically encounter on this river in mid-July but the weather cooperated and it was hard to complain about anything, other than the fact that we did see more angling types on the river on the second day than we have ever seen before.

The fire danger sign is just visible through the wipers.

The fire danger sign is visible through the wipers.

A sunny day on a favorite Idaho Panhandle River.

A sunny day on a favorite Idaho Panhandle River.

Best campsite in the world.

Best campsite in the world along the banks of an Idaho Panhandle river.

A light, vegetarian meal by the fire.

A light, vegetarian meal by the fire.

Jimmy with a bent rod.

Jimmy with a bent rod.

The result of Jimmy's bent rod.

The result of Jimmy’s bent rod.

An Idaho westslope cutthroat in its natural environment.

An Idaho westslope cutthroat in its natural environment.

Be careful out there, Trebek.

Be careful out there.

Well, thanks for the last ten years. I can’t promise that I’ll keep the shelves well-stocked, but I’ll continue to keep the lights on for at least a while longer.

Fly fishing on Kiritimati: Part 3–The people and the place part

In case you missed it, Part 2 can be found here. If you’d prefer not to read Part 2 please do not click the link.

“There’s more to fishing than catching fish.”

While perhaps an overused cliche, the above quote really is true and was particularly relevant on Kiritimati. We went there to fish, and were not disappointed in that aspect of the trip. But it was the people—our fishing companions and the locals we met—that made the trip special. I certainly came away with an appreciation for the people of this remote place in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

We met a few other foreigners on the island that were just passing through, but Kiritimati is not what anyone would consider a popular tourist destination. Two sailboats were anchored just off the beach at Sunset Horizon and we briefly met the crews from each boat. One boat was owned by The Great Danes, a couple from Denmark and two young crew members who had been at sea for 15 months. Kiritimati was their furthest point of travel before they would soon begin their return voyage. The other boat was under the command of Crazy Larry from Kansas City, whom we met briefly one day as we returned from fishing. Crazy Larry had a most impressive mustache that curled under his chin and muffled his voice and made it nearly impossible to determine whether or not he had a full set of teeth. He was quite the character, traveling with his two crew members: a very attractively-built, late 30-something woman from Italy with unshaven armpits, and her son boyfriend much younger male companion. I’d love to have had time to sit down with this crew and hear their full story because it would no doubt have been rather intriguing. Crazy Larry hadn’t been home to the States in nearly 20 years and this was his second trip sailing around the world. Yeah, his story would probably be the stuff movies are made of. Apparently he and his crew had been “stuck” on the island for 5 months, waiting for a necessary part for their boat that had taken 13-1/2 weeks to arrive. They were eager to get back out to sea, however some sort of hold-up with the immigration office had prevented them from departing the island. Apparently they did resolve the immigration issue and had left before we did. I wish I’d been able to capture a photo of Crazy Larry, but my hunch is that he wouldn’t have wanted any public exposure.

Our lodge companion, a young woman by the name of Waltzing Matilda, had departed her home in France after graduating from college. From there she set out to travel the world by herself, first going to Russia and from there to South Korea, the Philippines, Hawaii and then Kiritimati where she undoubtedly encountered a place very different from what she had expected. After a few days she realized that if one were not here to fish, there wasn’t much to do (she was not there to fish). Sharing our evening leisure time with Waltzing Matilda was a nice reprieve from talking about fishing with a bunch of crusty old farts. Matilda was a great sport as she accepted a gift of the Big Sexy shirt. Speaking of good sports, I promised Goose that this would be the last time I post a photo of the Big Sexy.

Waltzing Matilda and Goose.

Waltzing Matilda and Goose.

Our lodge was in the heart of Ronton (London), which is the main settlement on the island and home to somewhere around less than 2000 people. We spent our days fishing and didn’t have much time to take in the town until our last evening. After returning early from fishing, we decided to take a bag of candy and walk around the streets near the lodge, meeting the locals and passing out sweets to the kids.  We took our French traveling friend with us lest the children be put off by a bunch of old American fishermen walking around handing out candy from a van. Mathilda’s charm obviously worked because the candy didn’t last long.

A likely looking group of candy recipients approaches.

A likely looking group of candy recipients approaches.

Matilda makes friends as she passes out candy.

Matilda makes friends as she passes out candy.

The locals were friendly and politely accepted candy with warm smiles. None of the children were greedy and freely shared their bounty with others.

This little guy was a bit shy, but his father politely thanks Matilda for the candy.

This little guy was a bit shy, but his father politely thanked Matilda for the candy.

Jimmy hands out candy to a truckload of happy kids.

Jimmy hands out sweets to a truckload of happy kids.

After the candy was gone we decided to walk down the street to one of the local bars and see what the evening night life on Kiritimati was like. Passing through town we got a very small glimpse of life on the island. The people were friendly and quick to greet us with smiles and waves. The town was bustling in the relative comfort of the evening.







 works at the security gate at the entrance to Sunset Horizon Lodge.

Nantara works the security gate at the entrance to Sunset Horizon Lodge.




One of the bars bore a large sign that said, “Anglers”, making it a clear choice for our group. However the joint was closed so we headed to another nearby establishment that was open for business. The barkeep at the Lady Wheel Bar was undoubtedly glad to sell us a round of Budweiser from the slightly-below-room-temperature refrigerator. As we choked down enjoyed our beer, our hostess from the lodge, Lisa, joined us, though not to drink, mind you, as she was 7 months pregnant. Lisa had seen us enter the bar and was concerned we would get sidetracked and not make it back to the lodge in time for dinner. It was her job to herd us back in time for a very special celebration that the staff had prepared for us on our last night. We would not be late for the festivities.

Visiting the one local bar that was open.

The beer was almost cold at the Lady Wheel Bar, where we were joined by our hostess, Lisa.

Our friendly barkeep and Goose.

Our friendly barkeep, Ririi, and Goose.

Marck and Cap'n Jesse celebrate the last day of having to drink room temperature Budweiser

Marck and Cap’n Jesse celebrate the last day of having to drink room temperature Budweiser.

Back at Sunset Horizon Lodge, it was time for our big feast and celebration (luau) to begin. The staff had prepared a grand feast that included a spit-roasted pig and more side dishes than I can recall. The pig was perfectly cooked and absolutely delicious. I think even the boys from the Lone Star state, Gus and Woodrow, agreed that it was worthy of Texas BBQ standards.

Roasted to perfection.

Roasted to perfection.

As we feasted we were entertained by three very talented youngsters who performed a traditional dance. It was quite a treat.

DSC_0304 DSC_0306 DSC_0301

It was a fantastic last evening and a really nice show of hospitality by the staff at the lodge.

Waltzing Matilda and Lisa.

Waltzing Matilda and Lisa.

Texas Gus and Goose.

Texas Gus and Goose.

Our gracious server,

Reaitati, one of our gracious servers at Sunset Horizon Fishing Lodge.

The lodge manager, and Goose.

The Sunset Horizon Fishing Lodge manager, Aretima, and Goose.

Marck and Billy Joe don't appear to be happy about leaving int he morning.

Marck and Billy Joe don’t appear to be happy about leaving in the morning.

Jimmy, Cap'n Jesse, Billy Joe, Texas Gus and Woodrow, Joe, Goose, UA, Marck, Waltzing Matilda and Kuri (one of our guides during the week).

Jimmy, Cap’n Jesse, Billy Joe, Texas Gus and Woodrow, Joe, Goose, UA, Marck, Waltzing Matilda and Kuri (one of our guides).

And that’s a wrap on our visit to Kiritimati. The next morning we would rise at 4:30am for an early morning truck ride to the airport and 7:30 flight back to Honolulu. Next year I hope to go back and spend more time outside of the lodge, seeing more of the local flavor.

Here are a few more random shots from around Ronton and other nearby villages.


Upon return to the marina we were greeted most days by a crowd of enthusiastic children.

Upon return to the marina we were greeted most days by a crowd of enthusiastic children.

A truckload of children on their way to school.

A truckload of children on their way to school.

Children playing in schoolyard one morning.

Children playing in one of the schoolyards.

One of several schools near Ronton.

St. Francis High School.


A cemetery outside of the town of Ronton.

A cemetery outside of the town of Ronton.



I discovered this blog while doing a search for local information about Kiritimati. It’s quite well done so if you have interest in reading some firsthand insight into the island I recommend having a look-see: A Snapshot of Life on Kiritimati (Christmas Island)


Fly fishing on Kiritimati: Part 2–The fishing part

In case you missed it, Part 1 can be found here. If you’d prefer not to read Part 1 please do not click the link.

After dinner on our first night, fishing partners were chosen, guide assignments were determined and sandwich orders were taken. This vital information was marked on the whiteboard (Command Central) each evening. Anticipation of the next day’s activities hung as heavily in the air as the humidity.

Joe goes over the next day's plans with Bita as Jesse looks on and wonders where he can get another Budweiser.

Command Central: Joe goes over the next day’s plans with Bita as Cap’m Jesse looks on, wondering where he can get another Budweiser.

We rigged our 8 weight rods (for Bonefish and most everything else) and Joe passed out the heavyweight rods he had brought for those in need. 11 and 12 weight rods would be used for Giant Trevally (GT for those who are too busy to spell it out). I won’t mention that Joe inadvertently rigged me up a Winston Air Salt 7 weight instead of an 11 weight. It would be another couple days before this became apparent, and fortunately I hadn’t really needed a GT rod to that point anyway. In his defense, Joe did set the rod up with a 12 weight reel and line so I had that going for me. Meanwhile the Bonefish rod he would be carrying around was an 11 weight Winston Air Salt paired to a 7 weight reel and line. As our host on the trip (meaning he was akin to a camp counselor for a bunch of homeschooled kids who’d never been to camp before), Joe also provided us with several flies we would need: Christmas Island Specials for Bones and most other things, and a handful of bigger baitfish patterns for GT Giant Trevally. Joe then sat down to tie up a few more GT flies (apparently the good ones, which he would keep for himself). Most of us had picked up a few flies on our own so we were well stocked in the fly department. I expected to lose most if not all of them to the coral reefs. Fortunately I lost only one fly all week and never had either my leader of fly line severed by coral.

Joe ties up a few good GT flies for himself.

Joe ties up a few good GT flies for himself.

I won’t go into detail about every flat fished or every fish caught because I can remember neither. A few fish do stand out, however. Most notably my first Bonefish. The learning curve required some getting used to, and the most challenging aspect of fishing the flats was training the eyes to spot Bonefish, which are perhaps better suited to virtually disappear into their environment as any fish I’ve encountered. When the wind wasn’t blowing too hard and there were no clouds, it was difficult to spot them. When the wind blew harder and there was cloud cover, it became damn near impossible to see them. Fortunately, or otherwise, we seemed to have plenty of sunshine, clouds, and varying amounts of wind. The first Bonefish came after great difficulty and was the only one I caught the first day. What I lacked in skill, the fish made up for with its diminutive size.

My first bonefish. What I lacked in skill, it made up for in size.

My first Bonefish: hard to see in the photo, harder to see in the water.

As the days progressed, so increased the ability to spot Bonefish (at least a little bit). As the ability to see them improved, so did the hook setting skills, and subsequently the size of the fish. I was continually blown away by our guides’ abilities to pick out fish that—in my eyes—did not exist.

By midweek things got a little better and the fish a little bigger.

By midweek things got a little better and the fish a little bigger.

Most of the Bones we encountered were either solitary or in very small groups. Occasionally we encountered greater numbers as they fed on the incoming tide, their quantities making them easier to spot. Despite that, they never became easy to catch and in several instances they were downright spooky and wanted nothing we threw their way.

Not a trophy specimen, but not everyone deserves a trophy and I was happy with this fish.

Not a trophy specimen, but not everyone deserves a trophy and I was thrilled with this fish.

One thing I quickly learned is that Bonefish, no matter their size, pull with a sense of great urgency unrivaled certainly by trout or even steelhead. My first Bonefish of decent size took me quickly into my backing. I don’t remember the last time I saw my backing and I was relieved that my knots held. What a thrill to have line ripped from the reel a breakneck speed as you ponder what size fish was on the other end of the line. Nearly every time the fish was smaller than I would have thought. Amazing fish, those Bones.

There’s more to fishing the flats than just catching Bonefish, and I wanted to experience as many species as possible. From the get-go we spotted a few other interesting characters and would continue to do so throughout the week. Most notable were the Milkfish, which get beginners all excited because we think they’re Bonefish until we learn otherwise (think bait and switch). Milkfish are easy to spot as their topsides are very dark and they swim in large schools.”Milks” rapidly became a familiar term issued forth by our guides as they sensed our misguided enthusiasm at the sight of these Bonefish imposters. It didn’t take long before we stopped casting to them.

Different species of Triggerfish were occasionally spotted in the shallows, their tails breaching the surface as they fed nose-down on the bottom. Despite being easy to spot, Triggers are very spooky and I must have cast to a half dozen fish before admitting to myself I wasn’t likely to get one. I was, however, very fortunate—and quite likely very lucky—to have caught two. These I considered real trophies because I’d made up my mind months earlier that I wanted nothing more than to catch a buck-toothed eater of crabs while on the island. The first was a smallish Yellow Margin Triggerfish (aka Pineapple Triggerfish). When fleeing from prey, Triggers hide under large rocks (chunks of coral). They also do this when hooked by an angling person, and if not for Max (our guide that day) I’d have never landed the Pineapple Trigger. Going the extra mile for me, Max knelt down in knee deep water and lifted the huge chunk of coral so that the Trigger could be extracted.

Yellow Margin Triggerfish, aka Pineapple Triggerfish.

Yellow Margin Triggerfish: Such a purty mouth, but keep your fingers clear of  its dental work.

The other specimen was an even more smallish Reef Triggerfish (though not all that small for the species that typically only grows to a length of 11.89 inches). Also known as the Humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa, the Reef  Trigger is the state fish of Hawaii.



We also encountered quite a few Puffer fish, which are rather odd and very common inhabitants of of the flats. They’re also undoubtedly the ones who get teased by the other fish as these portly individuals don’t put up much of a fight and grunt like small pigs when reeled in. I didn’t target any more Puffers after catching my first one, but nonetheless it was another species to check off the weird/cool list. Bluefin Trevally, a smaller cousin to the mythical GT Giant Trevally were an occasional thrill to catch. We saw several, caught a few, and they are—like Bonefish—very strong fish for their size. They’re easier to spot than Bones due to their brilliant blue accents, and also unlike Bones, which slowly cruise the flats, Bluefins are predators that boldly enter the flats to chase down anything they can eat. I was standing in shin-deep water doing who-knows-what as my fly dangled in the shallows behind me. Suddenly my line went tight as a 14 inch Bluefin tried to make off with my fly. This fish was bold and aggressive, if not a tad careless and naive. They’re such cool fish.

It's readily apparent where Bluefin Trevally get their name.

It's readily apparent where Bluefin Trevally get their name.

It’s readily apparent where Bluefin Trevally get their name.

One more particular moment bears mention. No, not when Marck knocked his new prescription sunglasses off his head into the water and our guide had to dive in retrieve them, nor when he mistakenly drank the frozen bottles of tap water in the cooler (he never got sick). No, the noteworthy event occurred on our last day of fishing as we were headed back toward the marina earlier than usual. It had been a tough weather day, with some rain and a lot of cloud cover. We’d caught some fish but it had been challenging, so the idea of getting back to the lodge early didn’t disappoint us. It had also been a very windy day, the water was much rougher than we’d seen all week. As we rounded the point off the marina, suddenly the boat came to a stop in about 4 feet of water. As waves crashed against the side of the boat, Max—our guide that day—hopped out. The marina was only a couple of hundred yards away. The tide was coming in. What the hell was he thinking? Trust your guide Blind allegiance to your guide is the way it works, so Marck and I dutifully followed. We were soon blind casting and hooking up regularly. The Bonefish were stirring up clouds of sand as they foraged for supper, and we caught them in the middle of a feeding frenzy. For a good while it was some of the best fishing we’d had all week with some of the nicest sized Bones we’d yet to catch.

Max puts on a casting demonstration as Marck wonders when he'll get his rod back.

Max puts on a casting demonstration as Marck wonders if he’ll get his rod back before the water is up to his neck.

Meanwhile the water grew deeper by the minute. This wasn’t so much of a problem for Marck, since he’s about a foot taller than me. By now the water was up to my chest and my waterproof backpack acted as a kind of flotation device: handy if I’d needed to stay afloat, but troublesome each time a wave hit me. Max saw me bobbing in the waves, struggling to keep my footing, and signaled for me to come over to where he was.  “Stand on this rock,” he instructed. I did as he ordered and was glad for the elevated perch, which bought me 20 more minutes of fishing before we called it quits for the day, and for the week. Fishing ended on a high note, and with a good laugh.

Marck and Max struggle in the deepening water as I taunt them from my rock.

Marck and Max struggle in the deepening water as I taunt them from my rock. (Photo by Goose)

A trip like this is filled with simply too much to write about, and even if I could capture all the moments in words, nobody would take the time to read it all. Anyway, a picture paints a thousand words, so I’ll leave you with a few more fishing-related shots from trip.

Big Eye Yellow Snapper that did not take me into my backing.

Big Eye Yellow Snapper that did not take me into my backing.

Jimmy and our guide, Kai, on the first day.

Jimmy and our guide, Kai, on the first day, with a hard-earned first Bonefish.

Marck with a last day Bone.

Marck with a last day Bone.

Goose with a dandy Bone for a man his age.

Goose with a dandy Bone for a man his age. (Photo by Goose’s guide)

Each morning we boarded one of two outriggers for the morning commute.

Each morning we boarded one of two outriggers for the morning commute.

That's a boat out there.

That’s one of our boats out there.

Guides Max and Matt and our stalwart captain as we move between flats.

Guides Max and Matt and our stalwart skipper as we move between flats.

A school of Manta Rays in the breakfast line.

A school of Manta Rays in the breakfast line.

Guide Matt, walking a fine line between flats.

Guide Matt, walking a fine line between flats.

Goose and Mark with guide Max, wading in a sea of Gatorade Glacier Freeze.

Goose and Mark with guide Max, wading in a sea of Gatorade Glacier Freeze.

Gilligan's Island.

Gilligan’s Island?

Goose prepares and to cast to his next Bonefish as his guide, TJ waits, patiently.

Goose fumbles with twisted line as our guide, TJ, waits patiently.

Max coaches Marck on the finer points of coaxing a Bonefish to the fly.

Max coaches Marck on the finer points of coaxing a Bonefish to the fly.

After listening to Max, Marck comes tight a a Bonefish.

After listening to Max, Marck comes tight a a Bonefish.

Guide Matt and Jimmy walk a vast, deserted flats in search of Bonefish that proved to be invisible.

Guide Matt and Jimmy walk a vast, seemingly deserted flat in search of Bonefish that proved to be invisible.

Jimmy with a Bluefin. (photo by Goose)

Jimmy with a Bluefin Trevally. (Photo by Goose)

Goose with a Bluefin Trevally. (photo by Jimmy)

Goose with a Bluefin Trevally. (Photo by Jimmy using Goose’s phone)

Some of the outlying areas we fished were home to vast numbers of birds. Blue Faced Boobies nesting in a tree.

Some of the outlying areas we fished were home to vast numbers of birds. Seen here are 5 Blue Faced Boobies nesting in a tree.

A large Booby sits on its egg, rather unimpressed with us as we pass by.

A large Booby sits on her egg, rather unimpressed with us as we pass by.

One day we took a long truck ride to what is known as the "backcountry".

One day we took a long truck ride to what is known as the “backcountry”.

It was a long day in the backcountry and the drive home seemed to take even longer.

It was a long day in the backcountry and the drive home seemed to take even longer.

I rained a little bit on our last day, but it was a warm rain.

I rained a little bit on our last day, but it was a warm rain.


It was a fantastic trip with a great group of guys. I can’t wait to go back again next year, when I’ll be a seasoned Kiritimati flats veteran and will only cast once or twice to Milkfish before realizing, on my own, that they are not Bonefish.

If you’re still awake, here is a handy link to Part 3.


Fly fishing on Kiritimati: Part 1–The getting there part

Kiritimati lies about 140 miles north of the equator, 1300 miles south of Honolulu.

Kiritimati lies about 140 miles north of the equator, 1300 miles south of Honolulu.

Just to clear things up, Kiritimati (a respelling of the English word, Christmas) is pronounced ‘Kirismas’ in the Kiribati language. 

Having never been on a destination fishing trip, a recent visit to Kiritimati aka Christmas Island (or CXI if you’re just too busy to spell it out) was a big deal, and it exceeded expectations. I define ‘destination fishing trip’ as a distant location to which one must travel a great distance by air to go fishing. Full disclosure: I once flew from Seattle to Boise (and from there drove a few hours to Victor, ID, to fish) but it was only an hour-long flight so it doesn’t qualify.

The trip to CXI Kiritimati was hosted by my buddy, Joe Willauer (a hobby fishing guide in Montana whom I met many years ago when he was just a boy and a dirtbag real fly fishing guide). The trip package was through Flywater Travel and was very well done. Pre-trip communication was quite thorough and included what we should expect—and not expect—on the island, which really isn’t an island but rather a raised coral atoll (and in fact the world’s largest one at that). Our guides on the island atoll were through Christmas Island Outfitters, and were excellent. We stayed at Sunset Horizon Fishing Lodge, and from what I was told by Joe (who had been to Kiritimati several times previously), it was an upgrade from previous locations he had stayed, in particular with regards to the dining arrangements.

From Seattle we flew to Honolulu on Memorial Day and overnighted at the lavish Waikiki Sand Villa Hotel, a building that may well have been one of the first high-rise hotels in Honolulu following Hawaii’s statehood in 1959. It clearly caters to foreign tourists and despite that we couldn’t read any of the signage in the lobby, it provided us with all that we required for our one night stay on Oahu. It was the perfect transitional housing before spending the next 7 days on Kiritimati.

Our spacious lanai at the Waikiki Sand Villa Hotel with view of the neighboring hotel's pool.

Our spacious lanai at the Waikiki Sand Villa Hotel with view of the neighboring hotel’s pool.

Jimmy places a last minute order on Amazon from the comfort of our room at the Waikiki Sand Villa Hotel.

Jimmy places a last minute order on Amazon from the comfort of our room at the Waikiki Sand Villa Hotel.

We undoubtedly missed out on some fun activities because we could not read the signs.

We undoubtedly missed out on some fun activities because of the language barrier.

I'm not sure what this was but it frightened me.

I’m not sure what this was but I was afraid to try it twice.

That evening we met up with the rest of our group for supper. Joe was accompanied by his dad, Billy Joe, and his buddy Cap’n Jesse (a real, live fishing guide who lives on Oahu). These three had been to Kiritimati several times and were all chill, like, “Yeah, CXI, no big deal.” Also in attendance were a couple of fellas from the Lone Star state, Gus and Woodrow, whom Joe had known for years as they drive cattle travel to Montana each year to fish. We enjoyed fine island fare at Uncle’s Fish Market & Grill and shared conversation with friends new and old. On Tuesday morning we boarded a Fiji Airways flight from Honolulu to Cassidy International Airport on Kiritimati. This leg of the trip was aboard a Boeing 737-700 (not a single engine prop plane) and the flight crew was fantastic (airlines in the states could learn a little something about hospitality from the Fijian crew). The 3 hour flight went by quickly despite that we left Oahu on Tuesday and landed on Kiritimati on Wednesday (time travel is hard to wrap my head around). I’m not sure when we crossed over the International Date Line but I was completely alert and glad to have had a window seat when Kiritimati first came into view. The anticipation had been great, and seeing the island from the air added to the excitement.

Kiritimati, first look.

Flying over the lagoons of Kiritimati.

We would be staying right...there.

We would be staying right…there.

Joe had prepared us for the worst part of the trip, which would be the customs “holding pen” at the airport on Kiritimati. In years past, foreigners would have to spend a few unpleasant hours in what sounded like a non-air conditioned chicken coop as they waited for their outbound flight at the end of their trip. Much to our surprise and delight, a new airport facility had been constructed in the past year, opening in February 2019. There was nothing shoddy about the modern facilities at Cassidy International airport, and while it would be several days before we had to concern ourselves with outgoing customs detainment, there would be nothing to dread.

Cassidy International airport on Kiritimati.

Cassidy International airport on Kiritimati.

There is one incoming flight from and one outgoing flight to Honolulu each week, so Tuesdays Wednesdays are kind of a big deal on the island. We were greeted at the airport by Bita Kairaio, owner and head guide at Christmas Island Outfitters. We then loaded into our Uber X transport truck for a 20 minute drive to the lodge. Kiritmati is part of the nation of Kiribati which is said to be one of the 12 most remote countries in the world and is described as sub-third world (whatever that means). Along the drive (on the wrong side of the road, mind you) it was immediately clear that the people here don’t have much. Streets were intermittently lined with elevated water tanks and shipping containers as we passed schools and churches and a couple of small, simple stores on our way through the town of Ronton (London). Houses varied from 3-sided huts with roofs made of woven coconut palm leaves to tidy concrete block homes with metal roofs, and everything in between. Children frolicked and adults of all ages milled about, all appearing to have good posture (not a single one of them had their faces buried in a smart phones because, well, there aren’t too many smart phones on the island). Motorcycles and a variety of cars and trucks, in a wide variety of physical condition, zipped about town. Light duty Isuzu diesel trucks were predominant while Toyota Hilux diesel trucks were also common (wish we could get those in the states).

All loaded up and ready for the drive to the lodge. No seatbelts required.

All loaded up and ready for the drive to the lodge. No padded seats available and seatbelts not required.Shipping containers and a water tank: common roadside attractions.Shipping containers and water tanks: common roadside attractions.

We arrived at Sunset Horizon Fishing Lodge, a modest but attractive facility on the beach in the heart of the town. Three concrete block buildings, two units per building, provided very simple but clean rooms that each included two twin beds and an adjoining bathroom (a sink, shower and toilet). We were glad to have a new AC unit which kept hour room as cold as we wanted it at night. A large, covered patio served as our central gathering place and dining room. The beach was just a few steps from there.

Fish camp for the week.

Sunset Horizon Fishing Lodge: Fish camp for the week.

While it was no Ho Hum Motel, our room was clean and perfectly adequate.

While it was no Ho Hum Motel, our room was clean and perfectly adequate.

Sunset Horizon Fishing Lodge is aptly named.

Sunset Horizon Fishing Lodge is aptly named.

A commercial troller and processor moored off the beach.

A commercial fishing ship and processor anchored off the shore of Ronton, Kiritimati.

Meals were served to us by a very friendly and accommodating staff. Our hostess, Lisa, is a local employee of Flywater Travel and was on hand each evening to make sure we had everything we needed. Beer choices consisted of Heinekin and Budweiser, served slightly below room temperature. Fortunately I am as far from a beer snob as a person can possibly get, so I had no issues with the selection of swill beer. That said, it was rather nice to have purchased some liquor at the duty-free store in the Honolulu airport. The rum went quickly (note to self: bring more next time). The food was better than anticipated, with fish, chicken, and lamb being frequent visitors to our dinner plates. Breakfast was quite good as well, with usually eggs and a breakfast meat, and there was plenty of it. I never left the table hungry. Lunch was—as we were told to expect—rather minimalist. The PB&J sandwiches were robust and filled a void, but we supplemented with protein bars, dried fruit, and jerky. On the third day I opted for the fish sandwich and was glad I did because it was delicious. A tuna type spread with sweet onions. Two thumbs up.

This gives you a very brief glimpse into what it took to get to Kiritimati, and what we encountered upon arrival. Next up, the fishing part (because that’s why we were there, right?).

Part 2 here


The Firehole and Kiritimati: World’s apart and yet not so much

The Firehole Rangers recently returned from a trip to Kiritimati (aka Christmas Island, or CXI in modern day acronym-speak). Since this trip replaced our annual pilgrimage to the Firehole this year, the temptation to compare the two destinations was impossible to resist. One would think that traveling to the a remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to chase bonefish (and other odd , tropical species) would be as far from chasing trout in Yellowstone National Park as two destinations could possibly be. Ironically, it wasn’t that much different, and after this entry I’m sure you’ll agree that the similarities are mind boggling.

I want to preface that any reference to Seattle is for general purposes only. None of the Rangers actually live in Seattle. Near, perhaps, but definitely not IN Seattle.

  • From Seattle, it is 738 miles to West Yellowstone, our base camp when fishing the Firehole River. From Seattle, it is 3789 miles to Kiritimati. Each distance contains the numerals 7, 3, and 8.
  • It takes us 12 hours by car to get to West Yellowstone and we cross the Continental Divide. It took us 9 hours by air to reach Kiritimati and we crossed the International Dateline.
  • When we visit West Yellowstone, we encounter a lot of foreign tourists (tourons). When we visited Kiritimati, we were foreign tourists (hopefully not tourons).

And now for a photographic exposé that reveals just how much the two places have in common:

Top: A photo from above the Firehole River. Bottom: A photo from high above Kiritimati

Top: A photo from above the Firehole River. Bottom: A photo from high above Kiritimati.

Top: Storm clouds in the distance on the Firehole. Bottom: Storm clouds in the distance on Kiritimati.

Top: Storm clouds in the distance on the Firehole. Bottom: Storm clouds in the distance on Kiritimati.

Top: The streets of West Yellowstone, USA, in early June. Bottom: The streets of London, Kiritimati, in early June.

Top: The streets of West Yellowstone, USA, in early June. Bottom: The streets of London, Kiritimati, in early June.

Top: Jimmy and Goose enjoying a break between catching fish on the Firehole. Bottom: Goose and Jimmy enjoying a break between catching fish on Kiritimati.

Top: Jimmy and Goose enjoying a break between catching fish on the Firehole. Bottom: Goose and Jimmy enjoying a break between catching fish on Kiritimati.

Top: Marck long-arming a fish on the Firehole. Bottom: Marck long-arming a bonefish on Kiritimati

Top: Marck long-arming a fish on the Firehole. Bottom: Marck long-arming a bonefish on Kiritimati.

Top: The UA fishing alone on the Firehole River. Bottom: The UA fishing alone on Kiritimati.

Top: The UA not catching fish on the Firehole River. Bottom: The UA not catching fish on Kiritimati.

Top: Jimmy tight to a fish on the Firehole. Bottom: Jimmy tight to a fish on Kiritimati.

Top: Jimmy tight to a fish on the Firehole. Bottom: Jimmy tight to a fish on Kiritimati.

Top: Goose with a nice Firehole brown. Bottom: Goose with a nice Kiritimati bone.

Top: Goose with a nice Firehole brown. Bottom: Goose with a nice Kiritimati bone.

Top: Walking near Fountain Flat to fish the Firehole. Bottom: Walking the flats to fish on Kiritimati.

Top: Walking near Fountain Flat to fish the Firehole. Bottom: Walking the flats to fish on Kiritimati.

Top: We encounter herds of native wildlife (American Bison) on our way to fish the Firehole. Bottom: We encountered schools of native wildlife (Manta Rays) on our way to fish on Kiritimati.

Top: We encounter herds of native wildlife (American Bison) on our way to fish the Firehole. Bottom: We encountered schools of native wildlife (Manta Rays) on our way to fish on Kiritimati.

Top: The Big Sexy along the the Firehole River. Bottom: The Big Sexy on Kiritimati.

Top: The Big Sexy along the the Firehole River. Bottom: The Big Sexy on Kiritimati.

Top: A cat in West Yellowstone. Bottom: A dog on Kiritimati.

Top: A cat in the office of the Ho Hum in West Yellowstone. Bottom: A dog in the street of London, Kiritimati.

Top: The sun rises in West Yellowstone. Bottom: The sun sets on Kiritimati.

Top: The sun rises in West Yellowstone. Bottom: The sun sets on Kiritimati.

I hope you enjoyed the comparison—no doubt you were as surprised as we were at how much the two vastly different locales have in common. Stay tuned for more coverage of our trip to Kiritimati.

Firehole Rangers without the Firehole

If you haven’t paid the UA a visit since last November, I can’t say that you missed much since that was the last time I posted anything. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, or something like that.

Anyway, this is normally the time of year that I’d be gearing up for the annual pilgrimage of the Firehole Rangers to our namesake river in Yellowstone National Park. It’s been that way for years, with very little change to the itinerary. Creatures of habit we are, and we like it that way.

Well, that all changes this year–we’re not going. Not all of us, anyway (I think Morris is going, not sure about Nash). But Marck, Goose, Jimmy and me aren’t.

And that can be blamed on last year’s trip (which I didn’t write about).

The Firehole Rangers 2018

The Firehole Rangers 2018

On our way to the Firehole last year, Morris, Marck, Jimmy and me stopped in and fished the Beaverhead with the guys from 4 Rivers Fishing Company in Twin Bridges. The next day was a down day with nothing to do but make our way toward West Yellowstone. We uncharacteristically took our time, stopping to wander around Virginia City (a place we had driven through but never stopped to see due to frantic driving schedules). It’s worth a stop to see how folks in this once-thriving gold town lived.

These boots were made for walking? More like Cruel Shoes.

These boots were made for walking? More like Cruel Shoes.

We then continued on to West Yellowstone and the Ho Hum, where Nash and Goose joined us after having made the Big Drive in one day. The next day we fished the Firehole, and while fishing was better than it had been the past few years, it was nothing to write home about (so I didn’t). A beauty day it was, though. A day fit for sun bathing (sorry for the following photo).

The Big Sexy of the Firehole.

The Big Sexy of the Firehole.

Shed hunting

Shed hunting along the banks of the Firehole.

The next day we fished my favorite river, the Madison. Then we drove once again to Twin Bridges and the following day fished the Big Hole with the guys from 4 Rivers Fishing Company.


The river was huge with runoff and we were all split up fishing different sections of the river, each boat trying to scratch out an existence. Jimmy and I were in my buddy Joe Willauer’s craft and after getting eaten alive by mosquitos at the Notch Bottom launch, we proceeded to get into some good fishing. I don’t remember the details but fishing was very solid despite really high, brown water. Fish were caught, most of them browns and many of them good sized fish.

A rare accomplishment

A rare accomplishment

Fish the cottonwoods

Fish the cottonwoods

At one point during the float Joe started droning on and on about his trip to Christmas Island from which he had just returned. He’d been a couple of times before and had had a good enough time that he continued to go back. He kept talking about Bonefish, Giant Trevally, buck-toothed fish that eat crabs, yadda, yadda, yadda. It was kinda hard to wrap our heads around that type of fishing while we drifted through flooded cottonwoods, nymphing for big browns in high water. But Joe just wouldn’t shut up about this Christmas Island place.

Joe catches and nets his own fish

Joe catches and nets his own fish while yammering on and on about Kiritimati

As it turns out, ‘Christmas Island’ shouldn’t really be called Christmas Island, because it’s not the real Christmas Island (you know, the place in the Indian Ocean with the Great Crab Migration). The “Christmas Island” where Joe goes is actually Kiritimati, pronounced ‘Kirisimas’ by the locals and then bastardized by foreign anglers who refer to it as ‘Christmas Island’. But I digress. By the end of the Big Hole float, Joe had nearly talked us into joining him next (this) year.

Long story short, in the months that followed we signed up to join Joe and some others for a trip to Kiritimati. It was a long winter (though not as long as for those of the Night’s Watch) during which the trip seemed an abstract thing. But before long the trip loomed near, and now it is upon us.  On Memorial Day we’ll fly to Honolulu, spend the night, and the next day board a Fiji Airways flight, 3 hours south to Christmas Island Kiritimati.  For the next 6 days we will chase Bonefish and hope to get a shot at a Giant Trevally and maybe some of those buck-toothed fish that eat crabs.  It’s going to be very interesting, and a far cry from the Ho Hum and the Firehole.

After I return, I promise to share the trip here on the blog—Maybe not right away—but eventually. After all, I wouldn’t want to post content on a regular basis.


Being Prepared in the woods

Think about it first.

Think about it first.

I’m not alarmist but I would say that under certain circumstances I may have a tendency to be somewhat cautious. Especially when it comes to matters involving personal safety. Even as a kid and young adult I was never one to throw caution to the wind. Suffice it to say I missed Nike’s memo urging us to “just do it” and I’m certainly not going to start doing it now (takes way too long to heal). I definitely give the matter of “potential” threats to my well-being some serious consideration and one such potential threat facing some or even many of us when we participate in our favorite outdoor activities is aggressive wildlife. Be it bears, mountain lions, a cow moose with a calf or—even less likely—the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog, the threats are potential.

This blog entry isn’t a call for everyone to arm themselves with a gun, knife and/or bear spray when venturing outside into the woods. Nor is this intended to start a debate about one form being more effective than another, or whether we should even carry any form of defensive device: there is plenty of debate to be found elsewhere on that matter. The point of today’s blog is to offer some potentially helpful information if you’ve already thought about it and made the decision to carry one or more forms of the aforementioned defensive items.

It says so right there: Be Prepared.

It says so right there: Be Prepared.

In addition to not being an alarmist, I am also far from being a fanatic survivalist. If anything, perhaps I have a slight tendency to (sometimes) go a little bit overboard on matters of preparedness (though not excessively). I can’t help myself: I was am an Eagle Scout (1976), and the Scout’s Motto has always stuck with me: Be Prepared. My time in the Scouts introduced me to a love of camping, hiking, backpacking and generally being out in the woods. It’s what appeals to me about fly fishing, and my favorite places to wet a line are in the backcountry, or at least as far from human activity as can be managed at the time.

Last Spring I began exploring a local area that has a network of trails used for hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking. Considered part of the Cascade foothills, nearly 400 acres of this area is owned by King County Parks and butts up to vast expanses of private timber land, and not much else. A local river runs through this remote area, and for some time I’d wanted to find a means of accessing the river there. A fair bit of Internet sleuthing uncovered a route to a section of the river, and upon my first visit one thing became obvious: while it’s no secret honey hole, neither is it frequented by humans. Only a 6 mile drive to the trailhead from my home, to get to this particular spot on the river requires a two-ish mile hike or bike (or a combination of the two) on trails that grow increasingly less traveled the farther one goes. Once at the river, it feels very remote. Very lonely. Kinda perfect. I hoped the catching might be good due to a lack of angling pressure (thus far that hasn’t proven to be the case, unfortunately).

We're just visiting their world.

Trailhead sign reminds us that we’re just visiting their world.

Despite the relative closeness to human inhabitation this area is prime wildlife country. Deer are plentiful and where there are deer there are other critters that eat deer. Bears don’t typically hunt deer, though they will feed on a carcass, but cougars (mountain lions) are a different story: they’re predators of the deer-hunting kind. It’s not too common, but neither is it altogether unusual to see a bear shit in the woods. It’s even less likely that you’ll see a mountain lion. In fact most people never see one in their lifetime, which is not to say these same people haven’t been seen by mountain lions. They are there, and not always deep in the woods. It’s roughly estimated that Washington state has a population of 2,100 mountain lions. Approximately 46% of the land area in the state is considered to be cougar habitat. The Cascade foothills is undeniably cougar country. My home and many of the areas I enjoy recreating are within this region, but I’ve never seen a mountain lion in the wild.

In May of this year two people from Seattle were riding their bikes on gravel forest roads near North Bend, WA (about 25 miles from my home). Tragedy struck when the cyclists were attacked by a mountain lion. One of the bikers was killed; the other escaped with injuries and was able to call 911. Even if you’re not from the state of Washington you likely heard about the incident as there was no shortage of news coverage. Do a quick search for Washington mountain lion attack and you’ll discover myriad news stories about the incident. Here is one article that discusses the attack and raises some interesting speculation as to why it may have occurred. The devastating incident was big news because it was the first fatal cougar attack in Washington in more than 90 years. According to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) there have been only 20 recorded cases of mountain lion/human contact where injuries of any kind were sustained. The odds are highly in your favor that you will never encounter a mountain lion, let alone one that acts aggressively toward you. The chances of being killed by a mountain lion are so slim that it’s not something most people ever considered a remote possibility. Until last May.

The May 18 attack shocked a lot of people who typically venture into the woods to recreate. It struck fear into many who hike and bike in the general vicinity of the incident. It got a lot of people thinking about their safety, and outdoor forums were abuzz with discussions of the attack in particular, and mountain lion threats in general. On a mountain biking forum which is focused on one particular area that I’ve ridden several times in recent months, talk of the attack had people describing non-aggressive encounters and sightings that they’d had on trails. I was surprised at how many people had actually seen cougars here. The attack definitely got me pondering the potential threats that lurk in the outdoor areas where I enjoy playing. Just this past September Jimmy and I were riding our bikes up an access road toward an area of trails we’ve many times ridden since. As we pedaled up the road a log truck approached and came to a stop. The driver jumped down from the cab and informed us that the logging crew had seen a “300 pound cat” observing them just up the road where they were cutting (and where we would be riding past). While mountain lions don’t get that big, I don’t doubt that it was a big cat. We never saw the lion, but it served as a reminder that they are there.

I’ve carried bear spray in Yellowstone, British Columbia and remote Idaho, but never gave it much thought elsewhere closer to home. Following the fatality last Spring I began carrying a canister of bear spray with me when I ventured out to the remote section of the local river (which is only about 12 miles by way of the crow from where the May 2018 attack occurred).

One bear.

One bear.

On one occasion in June of this year I was standing near the bank of the river when a bear emerged from the brush 80 yards below me and proceeded to cross the river. Another bear followed fairly close behind. The first was fairly small, likely a yearling cub. The second bear was much larger, and wearing a radio collar. Probably the mother. Why was she wearing a collar? Had she caused previous problems? What sort of problems? Yes, my mind went there pretty quickly.

Two bear.

Two bear.

Clutching my trusty 3 weight in one hand, with the other I slowly removed the bear spray from the holster on my hip and removed the safety tab. I watched and waited as the bears nonchalantly made their way across the river and up the steep hillside before vanishing into the woods (in the same direction I would be going on my return trip). Fortunately their poor eyesight failed them and the wind was in my favor so they never detected me. Chances are they would have been in a greater hurry to leave had they been aware of my presence.

See ya, bear.

See ya, bear.

When we in the western states think of dangerous bears, most often grizzlies come to mind. We don’t have grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) here in western WA, and the black bears (Ursus americanus) are not typically known to be aggressive toward humans (Homo sapiens). However, though very rare, there have been documented cases of black bear attacks in Washington, some fairly recent. As I climbed the steep trail back to where I’d stashed my bike, I made plenty of noise so as to avoid a surprise encounter on the trail with the two bruins. As I rode the trail out, my Timber Bell jingled all the way. Was I worried? Not terribly so. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a tad relieved when I arrived back at the trailhead without having seen a single critter.

Except for when they’re raiding neighborhood garbage cans at night, or backyard bird feeders, black bears tend to avoid humans. Most wild animals do, but that doesn’t mean we should be complacent when we’re in their world. And the line between our world and theirs is being blurred as suburban sprawl pushes further into their territory. More and more people recreate outdoors as well, and as we continue to encroach (even temporarily) on their habitat, wildlife begin to get more comfortable in the presence of human activity. Ten years ago I caught a brief glimpse a black bear that had been hanging around our home for several days, no doubt foraging on late summer berries. The next day I got a good look at the bear, and it got a good look at me. Apparently the bear didn’t like what it saw because it quickly turned on its heels and darted into the woods. I never saw it again, though neighbors did report seeing what was likely the same bear. It was a healthy adult, appeared to be rather well fed. That year I picked blackberries elsewhere.

Backyard bear.

Backyard bear, 2008.

Back to the more recent day on the local river: it felt reassuring to have the bear spray with me and I was glad I didn’t have to use it. And I’m particularly glad I didn’t encounter the bears while riding the trail, with my bear spray strapped to the handlebars. This got me to thinking that there had to be a better means of carrying a canister of spray while riding my bike.

Bike, check. Fishing gear, check. Bear spray, check.

Bike, check. Fishing gear, check. Bear spray (though not ideally located), check.

Turning to the Internet I soon learned that carrying bear spray on a bike requires some careful consideration. One could strap it to the handlebars, as I had done, or keep it in a frame-mounted bag, or use a “Bear Cozy” in the water bottle cage. But what if you were to fall or get knocked off your bike? In this instance the bear spray becomes inaccessible, and bear spray isn’t much use if you can’t get to it in a couple of seconds. The rapid deployment rule means that carrying it in your backpack isn’t a viable option, either. Having it on your person is the only way that truly makes sense, with this important caveat:  if the spray is strapped to your hip, you risk injuring yourself on the canister in the event of a fall. Considering these points, I delved further into the great Internet Abyss before arriving at what I found is perhaps the most effective, safest means of carrying bear spray: a chest pack.

Hill People Gear Kit Bag

Hill People Gear Kit Bag, FHF Gear Bear Spray Holster, and 10.2 ounces of Counter Assault.

I first learned of Hill People Gear while perusing discussions on a mountain bike forum. Among other things, the company makes a series of what they refer to as “Kit Bags”. These chest packs come in a variety of sizes and configurations that are designed specifically with carrying a handgun in mind. The people behind Hill People Gear are avid outdoors folk and it’s no coincidence that their kit bags are perfectly suited to mountain biking applications. The bags seemed to make a lot of sense, so I ordered up their V2 Original Kit Bag SAR (Search and Rescue) Version. What I like about the pack is that it has loops, or more technically correct, PALS (Pouch Attachment Ladder System), on the bottom of the bag—seemingly a perfect place to attach a canister of bear spray. The bag also has diagonal PALS webbing down the front, to which Search and Rescue personnel would typically attach a radio. A survival knife with the proper MOLLE (Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment) strap can also be attached here. I could have attached the bear spray holster to the front of the pack but I wanted to keep the profile as slim as possible.

Next I had to find the right bear spray holster to use with the Hill People Gear pack, so once again down the rabbit hole of the Internet I went. FHF Gear makes exactly what I was looking for: an Expandable Bear Spray Holster. It’s perfect because it is MOLLE-equipped and will accommodate a variety of different sized canisters of spray (I carry a 10.2 ounce can of Counter Assault). Mrs. UA was quick to point out that the blaze orange holster clashes with the bright red of the kit bag, but that’s just something I’ll have to live with. Besides, there’s another motto worthy of consideration: Be safe, be seen.

When loaded, the kit bag is comfortable, though admittedly not as comfortable as, say, not wearing it at all. Worn while riding my bike, it doesn’t impede pedaling and most of the time I hardly notice that it’s there. The harness is breathable and it’s easy to put on and remove. Proper adjustment of the straps is important (and easy) so that the bag doesn’t ride too low or flap loosely against your chest. There are three spacious pockets capable of holding a wallet, phone, snack bars, a knife, multi-tool, whatever. The main (rear) pocket is padded and intended specifically for carrying a handgun. If that interests you, the Hill People Gear website lists which handguns will fit in each of their packs. While it’s a great setup for biking, the kit bag also makes for a nearly perfect chest pack when walking and wading a river. In addition to the other items mentioned, a couple of fly boxes fit nicely and are easily accessed without having to dig into a backpack or sling pack. After all, when there’s a hatch coming off you want to deploy the right fly quickly.

So there you have it. Be prepared when you venture into the woods. Whether you’re hiking, biking or fishing it’s also a good idea to do so with someone else although admittedly many of us enjoy solo excursions from time to time. Make sure that whatever you are carrying for defensive protection is done so in a safe manner that is efficiently accessed should you ever need it. The odds of a dangerous wildlife encounter may be astronomically low, but statistics mean nothing when it happens to you.

Have fun out there, and be smart. Just do it. Be prepared.

Disclaimer: I did not receive any of the products from Hill People Gear or FHF Gear or Counter Assault for the purposes of a gear review. Purchasing these items was my own decision and full retail was paid. I was just another internet order; these companies don’t even know who I am or that I am writing this blog.


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