Rocky Ford Frustrouting: then…and now?

Two weeks ago I went steelhead fishing to the Olympic Peninsula with the boy, Schpanky.  I talked in that two part series about how I desperately needed to get the boy on a fish because he had suffered many Frustrating Trout Outings (Frustroutings) with me over the years. I explained how he needed to catch something that would kick his arse and rekindle his faith in fly fishing with the old man. Well, we succeeded in that. Now steelhead fishing is behind us for a while, and we look forward to trout fishing. Or at least I do.

I may be going fishing for trouts this week, although with nearly all rivers out of shape on both sides of the mountains, my destination is yet to be determined.  The one remaining possibly is Rocky Ford Creek, the infamous Central Washington spring creek that is known for scuds, giant hatchery rainbows that have seen every fly pattern imaginable, scores of other angling folks and some of the finest natural scenery the eye has ever had the pleasure to behold a healthy supply of ticks.

I’ve been to Rocky Ford only once before. That was almost exactly 5 years ago and it will be remembered as perhaps the frontrunner of many great Frustroutings I’ve shared with the boy. Schpanky was in 6th grade at the time, I think. He’d only been fly fishing with me a couple times prior, but he liked to fish, showed impressive patience as an angler in general and was already fairly competent with a fly rod.  I had planned to take Schpanky to fish the Yakima River during his Spring Break, but weather was unfavorable that year so we took our camper a bit further east and introduced ourselves to Rocky Ford.

The first mistake we made was not stopping in Ephrata at the Desert Fly Angler to find out exactly what color scuds the fish were eating that day. I’ve since learned that yes, they can be that picky, and pity the fool who offers them a pink scud on a day when they fancy the olive variety: you may as well jump in the stream and try to grab the fish by their tails.  But don’t do that, because wading is not allowed in Rocky Ford Creek. Still, I recommend wearing hip boots, if not full-on waders.

So east we headed, the 12 year-old Schpanky and me, in our camper, destined for Grant County.  No stranger to this general part of the state, I’d duck hunted nearby on countless occasions so I had no trouble finding the place.  Like so many other destinations in the Central Basin, it’s out in the middle of nothing. We went out of our way to stop in Moses Lake for a visit to the Dairy Queen, which is owned by my wife’s sister and husband (not my wife’s husband, to be sure–but her sister’s husband).  I love visits at the Moses Lake Dairy Queen because it’s the one place I can get away with dining and dashing.

We pulled the F350 dually and Bigfoot Camper into the vast gravel parking area overlooking Rocky Ford and claimed our spot.  There were other rigs present, but we had plenty of elbow room and our own private fire pit. We both looked forward to a good campfire that night, sitting beneath the clear skies (it very seldom rains in Central Washington) and staring into the flames as we contemplated our origins and how hot we could get the soles of our boots before they actually started to burn. Men are, by nature, pyromaniacs, and that fascination with open flame had been passed down to my son. But before we could preoccupy ourselves with fire, we had fish to catch.

Armed with 5 and 6 weight rods, we hoofed through the cattails that line the banks of Rocky Ford, careful not to step in deep holes carved under the mud by muskrats (thus the recommendation for hip boots).  The day was overcast with, amazingly, no wind (a rare thing in Central Washington this time of year). It was very comfortable weather for fishing and it felt good to be there– father and son. A man’s outing. And a campfire that night.

The first thing we both noticed were the huge trout, cruising slowly within just a couple of the bank in shallow water as they slurped a multitude of tiny fresh water crustaceans from the weeds.  These were big fish- 25 inch hog rainbows and bigger. It was the kind of stuff that gets a Rocky Ford first-timer’s blood boiling instantly, and both the boy and I frantically tried to toss a scud in front of the noses of these fish, expecting an easy hookup.  The fish responded by simply moving out of the path of the fly and giving us a sideways glance as if to say, “Wrong color, dumbsh_t.” We were not discouraged. So we’d have to work it a little harder. No big deal—we had all afternoon and the entire next day to catch a few of these slabs.

We spread out along the bank, Schpanky taking up casting position on a point of mud that afforded maximum clearance behind him. At Rocky Ford, clearance for backcasts is not to be taken lightly, as a wall of cattails can will sneak up on you while you lose yourself in your casting. Lest you remain vigilant, that wall of cattails will grab your fly and not let go. I seem to recall telling the boy to shorten his casting stroke, stopping high so as not to offer any more flies to the cattails than absolutely necessary. Apparently it was necessary to sacrifice plenty of flies to the cattails before the abbreviated casting stroke became committed to memory, and frustration began to set in–mostly on the part of the parental angler whose responsibility it was to wage battle with the cattails, untangle and cut away the leader and tie on a new fly every few minutes.

An unlucky, stupid fishing hat.

As the afternoon wore on and the big cruisers continued to swim slowly under our noses and refuse our offerings, we tried a variety of different techniques: Casting farther out and stripping woolly buggers, tossing and twitching small dry flies…nothing seemed to work.  We saw trout rising, just not to anything we offered them. We covered some ground, moving up and down the creek in hopes of improving our luck. To his credit, Schpanky was a patient angler and seemed to be enjoying himself even though not a single fish touched his fly all day.

I did land a small trout of about 13 inches on a mayfly emerger, but a 14 inch trout in these waters was almost worse than a skunk, and the fact that I caught a fish and the boy did not served as a bit of salt in the wound as far as he was concerned. But it got worse. At one point another fly fisherman set up on the same bank about 50 yards from us.  On his first cast he hooked up with a very nice fish which Schpanky and I both watched him land. On his next couple of casts he hooked nothing, but over the course of the next hour he must have landed no fewer than 10 fish. Big fish. Looking to his father for sage words, Schpanky asked what this other guy was doing differently than us, to which I may have responded, “Probably using bait.” Anything but fly fishing is of course illegal on Rocky Ford, but I had no better answer than to lash out critically. “I bet I could beat him up,” I added.

As evening approached and the boy’s blood sugar plummeted, we decided to call it quits for the time being and grab some dinner. After refueling and rekindling our outlook fishing and life in general, we decided to ply the waters for one last hour before dark.  Not surprisingly, the evening hatch yielded nothing and it started to rain hard as we retreated to the camper. We could live with a slow day of catching, but we’d looked forward with great anticipation to our campfire. That was not to be as the rain increased and pelted the roof of the camper.  Still, we managed to enjoy the evening by each drinking several beers before hitting the sack. We needed a good night’s sleep because tomorrow there were fish to catch.

When we awoke early the next morning the first thing I noticed was the sound of the all-too-familiar Central Washington wind, which had replaced the Central Washington rain that had fallen most of the night.  After breakfast we geared up and headed back to the creek. The air temperature was no longer quite so comfortable and the wind made casting considerably more difficult. None of this would have mattered had the boy been catching fish, but that was not the case for the first two hours of the day. At one point I glanced toward his location only to find him seated on a rock, his fly rod laying the ground next to him and a blank expression on his face.  He had hit a wall. Stuck a fork in himself. He was done. The logical thing to do would have been to send him back to the camper for some juice and cookies while I continued to fish, but frankly I was kinda done myself.  As I reeled in my line one final time, a 30 inch trout cruised by within 3 feet of where I stood and gestured with it’s pectoral fin as if to say, “So long, sucker…” As it slowly swam off I could swear I hear the muffled sound of underwater laughter.

I haven’t been back to Rocky Ford since.

I may be going back, and in fact may be there by the time you read this.  But I’m not taking the boy.  After his successful steelhead outing on the Hoh River two weeks ago, I’m not sure he’s ready for Rocky Ford just yet.  I’ll give him a few months to savor the memories of his last fishing trip before I take him on a yet another Frustrouting.

The Corregated Angler

Do you ever have those days when you go fishing and it seems as though nothing you do makes any difference in the outcome—that no amount of effort put forth is going to change the fact that on this particular day you are simply not going to catch a fish? Days like this can make you feel so ineffective that you may as well be nothing more than a cardboard standup: a single dimensional likeness of yourself that lacks any ability to do more than just be present. I recently had such a trip that made me feel like this. Truth be told I felt like dead weight being carted around all day.

It all started on a recent journey to chase some steelhead on the South Fork of the Clearwater River in Idaho. You may recall that a couple of months earlier I fished the main stem of the Clearwater with a group of old college buddies. On that day, we used spinning gear and either synthetic or real eggs or some combination of the two. That felt fairly dynamic to me as I branched out beyond the fly fishing barriers I had erected over time. But this most recent trip was a fly fishing trip, and on this trip I felt like anything but a dynamic angler.

How I got there is a curious and somewhat hazy recollection. Normally I would drive south and east across the state of Washington, entering into Idaho just before the town of Lewiston, then proceeding up the Clearwater from there. However, such was not quite the case this time. I really have no vivid memory of the drive itself, other than being crammed face down onto the dashboard of a pickup truck under the cloak of darkness in the wee hours of the morning, emerging only when we had arrived at our destination.

When it was light enough to make out the faces of my compadres, I didn’t recognize a single one of them. They consisted of a couple ladies and one guy, none of whom I’d met before in person though I had shared some correspondence via the internet with the two female anglers: Rebecca, of the Outdooress blog and Co-Dictator of the Outdoor Blogger Network; and Emily, of the River Damsel blog. I didn’t then and still don’t know who the dude was.  All I know is that he had a video camera in front of his face for a good part of the day and I was never able to get a good enough look at him to even tell you what he looked like. It didn’t really matter who my fishing companions were. I was “Just Happy to be Here,” or so I was told.

We fished the South Fork of the Clearwater near Grangeville for a few hours, but it was running a bit high which made fly presentation somewhat challenging. I felt particularly inept on this day. Rebecca, who is known for her affinity for all things whitefish, did not disappoint in that regard. I must have said something to piss her off because she literally grabbed that little Rocky Mountain Bonefish and rubbed it in my face.  There wasn’t anything I could do about it – I felt rather helpless, and for the remainder of the day I smelled like whitefish (which may smell worse than a skunk). After this demoralizing escapade we cut our losses and sought out some skinnier water on the Little Salmon.  This diminutive river was more my size, and although I still couldn’t muster a cast to save my life, before too long Rebecca hooked up with a respectable steelhead. When she set the hook it was as if I became a second class citizen. I was literally cast aside and knocked to the ground where I lay amongst the cold, wet rocks on the river bank. From there I managed to witness her land what turned out to be a decent fish. A little dark, and it wasn’t as big as the steelhead I like to catch, but at least it was a steelhead. Not bad for a girl, I suppose.

At the end of the day I felt bent, bruised, tattered and a little soggy.  I hadn’t managed to catch a fish, and quite frankly I felt like I’d done little more than be dragged around by my fishing companions like some sort of inanimate object. But I was “Just Happy to be Here” so I didn’t worry too much about my feelings of inadequacy or lack of dynamic presence. Back at the truck I was once again tossed onto the dash like a piece of cardboard for the ride home (at least the defroster dried me out and warmed me up). I must have nodded off because the drive home was a blur, and when I awoke the next morning it was as if I’d spent a fitful night dreaming strange dreams. I felt not unlike Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz (or at least a cardboard version of her): I’d been on a very strange journey, or in this case, a very strange fishing trip.



Not quite ready for the AARP

Well, that didn’t last long. Retirement, that is.

During 2 weeks of liberating freedom that included a steelhead trip to Idaho’s Clearwater River with a group of college buddies, I had a chance to clear my head and do a bit of soul searching. What I found was that I need this blog (more than this blog needs me). Before the inception of the Unaccomplished Angler I used to just go fishing, and in doing so have some laughs, maybe take a few snapshots, etc. But after I went public with my blog every trip became something to enjoy just a bit more (for me anyway). I began looking for a story when a story didn’t seem obvious, and therein lie the essence of fishing: it became about much more than catching fish (overused cliche). Yeah, my fishing buddies began looking over their backs, worried that their every move was being closely monitored (true). But luckily for them it is nearly always my own unaccomplished angling antics that keeps them safe from public ridicule. This realization, or re-awakening, may have been a key factor in my decision to unretire. Some people suggested that perhaps it was just a clever ploy, and that maybe I was just trying to shake off the doldrums of a long winter with some sort of shameless publicity stunt.

Another factor in my decision to renounce my retirement might be blamed on the Association for the Advancement of Retired People. Just this week Mrs. UA received a snail mail membership solicitation with her card included. Hell hath no fury like the premature recipient of a membership offer from the AARP, and I have never seen a piece of mail get torn up and tossed into the recycle bin so fast. I thought folks didn’t start getting harassed by the AARP until they were 50? She’s got another year before they’re supposed to come a-callin’ and I’m even younger, so the AARP can bite me. Besides, my IRA isn’t worth squat any more.

There was also a modest outpouring of well wishes and even a couple pathetic requests for me not to cash in my chips just yet. I feel bad for those people, but who am I to judge? (Surely, I jest—your support is not taken lightly). I want to personally thank Sipping Emergers for the public vote of confidence. An email from a stalker “Greg” in Belgrade, Montana also gave me cause to reconsider my retirement. Greg recently discovered the UA and alleges to have actually spent a couple of days reading it (winters are long in Montana). Greg had some nice things to say about my Weekly Drivel, and we have some things in common (including best friends with drift boats). He even invited me and my band of hooligans to hook up with his group sometime.  Thanks for the generous offer and good words, Greg, and congrats on having the “Greg Sucks Hole” named in your honor. Maybe we’ll meet up in Yellowstone this year.

Then there was the weighty matter of a bounty having been placed on my head–well, sort of. Over at the Outdoor Blogger Network, “missing posters” were distributed and there was a $50 Cabela’s Gift Card issued for the person who guessed where I was and what I was up to.

One bounty hunter in particular posted a rather engaging bit of speculation as to my whereabouts and what-upness.  Jump on over to The Naturalist’s Angle and take a look around (Jay, thanks for taking the time to poke around on my Olive the woolly bugger website).

Another seeking fortune was Pat Konoske. With a  penchant for Photoshoppery he likened me to the Terminator, as evidenced over at his Fishing For Words site.

Then there was the matter of the fine gentleman Jason, keeper of the Fontinalis Rising blog, who went so far as to suggest that I am tucked away in a remote valley writing Judy Blume-esque novels for adolescents. If that accusation isn’t enough to make a man crawl out of his cave to defend his honor, I don’t know what is.

Next we have a very forthright man named Fred man who admitted publicly that my absence was “good riddance” and that he actually needs $50 to justify his blogging over at Mystic Waters Alaska Fly Fishing. Cajones, sir. You must be an Alaskan fishing guide. 

Actually nobody guessed correctly, which is not to say that anyone was right or wrong—it was a random drawing. And the winner was Jay, over at The Naturalist’s Angle. Kinda pitiful that I was only worth fifty bucks, but whatcha gonna do? If you have an issue with the drawing, please take it up with Rebecca over at the Outdoor Blogger Network (she loves hearing from irate readers of this blog).

To Josh Mills over at Chucking Line and Chasing Tail, thanks  for your inspiration. Some day I want to be as tall as you.

The George Foreman Grill

There’s a chance that my decision to come out of retirement was also influenced by the dream of having a small kitchen appliance named in my honor. George Foreman came out of a retirement after 20 years and surprised everyone by becoming, at age 45, the oldest boxer in history to win a championship belt. After that he got a grill named after him. I’m thinking “The Werner Burner” has a nice ring to it (thanks to Elizabeth Walker for the idea).

And lastly, my return to the ring may be due to the fact that, like Sly Stallone’s character in Rocky Balboa said, “I still got some junk in the basement.” (For clarification, that is not the same thing as junk in the trunk).

So it’s back to the grind for the Unaccomplished Angler.  I may have a lot of quit in me–just not quite enough. Yet.

Stay tuned, and thanks for the support, I think.

P.S.- Mr. Eastwood, since I’m not done, I expect the same from you. Give us that one last great Dirty Harry fly fishing movie before you retire. Please.

New Year’s Survival Tip: Wipe the slate clean

Ah, January first. This is the one time of year we can flush away regrets of the past and begin anew. As 2010 becomes a thing of the past and we look ahead to a New Year, many of us resolve to make changes for the betterment of our lives. I don’t usually write down actual New Year’s Resolutions because the formality of doing so just leads to measurable disappointment when I fail to make good on those promises to myself. That, and I hate lists (much to the dismay of Mrs UA). Instead, I may just think of things I can do to improve the quality of my being, and if I don’t make good on those things it’s no big deal because it was just a passing thought. Having said that, I think one thing we can all do is be better prepared for emergencies.

Anyone who spends any amount of time in the outdoors knows how critical a basic survival kit can be, and an essential part of any angler’s survival kit is, of course, Toilet Paper.  Outdoor adventurers understand that when nature calls there’s nothing that can be done to ward off the need to lighten one’s load. And while it may be perhaps an inconvenience, laying cable in the woods is not the end of the world, though it may seem so should one run short on TP while engaged in the act. Therefore it’s always sound practice to ration the supply. However, one need not despair should they find themselves running low.

This critical information won’t be found in any Boy Scout handbook, nor will it help if you find yourself up Shit Creek without a paddle, but thanks to an old family tip passed along to me by my grandfather there’s no need to panic when you find yourself with nothing left butt a single piece of TP. That’s right: a single square can save the day if you simply follow these easy step-by-step instructions:

Step #1

1. Square One: your last piece of TP.

Step #2

2. Fold the square in half.

Step #3

3. Fold once more in half. Be careful to note the center corner of the folded edges.

Step #4

4. Having carefully noted the center of the folded edges, tear off a very small piece of the TP. Do not tear off too much!

Step #5

5. Unfold the TP. Set aside the small piece you just tore off. Do not discard the small piece.

Step #6

6. Select the hand with the best dexterity. Insert middle finger gently through the hole in TP. Use only the middle finger.

Step #7

7. Insert finger. Wipe.

Step #8

8. Carefully slide TP upwards (use your other hand for good measure), pinching the TP tightly to middle finger so it cleans as it is lifted. Take your time – be very thorough. Properly disgard of the TP according to backcountry rules for personal waste.

Step #9

9. Use the little piece you tore off earlier (and hopefully saved) to clean under the fingernail on the middle finger. Again, discard of properly.

Step #10

10. Resume fishing.

Happy New Year!

Blue sky, sake, and a good winch

If you’re like me, you don’t have a winch on your truck and you naturally assume that most of the folks who do, don’t use them (or know how to use them, for that matter).  It looks cool to have a stout front bumper with a winch mounted on it, attached to the front of a truck that’s all jacked up on Mountain Dew with multiple shocks, chrome differential covers and monster off-road tires: you know, the trucks that have a set of rubber testicles dangling from the tow hitch. These trucks are always spotlessly clean and likely never see any off-road use. There was a time when I was 18 that this might have appealed to me, but when I was that age I couldn’t have afforded the truck, let alone the thousands of dollars wasted on decorative custom add-ons. Actually, no — that sort of truck would never have appealed to me.  A winch?  Really? AAA is cheaper, or better yet – don’t get stuck.

Late last spring I went fishing on the Skykomish River with my friends Derek Young of Emerging Rivers Guide Services and Leland Miyawaki, fly fishing manager at Bellevue Orvis. Our intended target species was steelhead, though I for one would have been happy with anything that happened to hit a swung fly (a bull trout, or dolly varden or native char would have tickled me pink). The day started with a forgettable breakfast in Gold Bar before we arrived at our launch site at the Big Eddy.  As is always the case, there’s much excitement and anticipation to get on the water, and it was my first time to be a passenger in Derek’s new Green Drake raft by StreamTech Boats, so the eagerness level was running high, like the river.  The only thing that prevented us from quickly getting on the water was a truck.

A stuck truck, that is, at the bottom of the ramp. With its drift boat trailer completely submerged and it’s rear wheels sinking deeper into the wet sand with every attempt to get unstuck. It was not a good predicament for the owner and his buddy. Luckily, we arrived on the scene before the truck became buried up to its rear axle. Enter the cool winch on the front of Derek’s truck.  Now, in all fairness to Derek, his truck isn’t a showy piece of ridiculosity as described above.  In fact, Derek’s rig is simply a functional vehicle that serves his purposes well and is understated, if anything.  It just happens to have a hefty ARB bumper up front to hold a winch, which he actually knows how to use.  Without the winch, the stuck truck may have remained so for a good long while, which would have put a real damper on the fishing for the guys who belonged to the truck. We could have still gotten the Green Drake in the water and been on our way, but Derek’s winch made short work of the extraction and everyone got to fish that day. I doubt those two guys caught any fish, but after getting them unstuck karma was on our side, or so we assumed.

And thus ended the excitement for the day, so if you’re hoping to read about more hair-raising adventures and epic battles with hot summer steelhead, you may as well close your browser window right now. There weren’t even any harrowing encounters with savage white water. Not that I remember, anyway, because the Green Drake effortlessly carried us downstream in comfort and safety. No fish were encountered as we plied miles of fishy looking water with our Spey rods.

Fat Train by Leland Miyawaki

This was only Derek’s second time with a two-handed rod, so sitting back and watching him was not nearly as enjoyable as sitting back and watching Leland masterfully sling his favorite Fat Train pattern, which is a sparsely dressed fly that most closely resembles a bare hook with some hackle and seems to be anything but fat. In fact the Fat Train looks like something tied by someone who couldn’t afford the rest of the materials to tie a proper fly, but less is often more. Derek’s status as a neophyte Spey caster made me feel good about not being the most unaccomplished caster for once, but Derek is a quick study and by the end of the day I was clearly once again at the bottom of the Spey casting food chain.

After enduring a miserable, cold, wet Spring that seemed would never end, this day found us enjoying blue sky and plenty of sunshine.  Being philosophical in our approach to fishing, there was much to enjoy even though the catching left a bit to be desired. Being able to enjoy a fishless day is a skill that doesn’t come easily to everyone, but skill only comes after much practice.  I’m well practiced in the art of not catching fish and so highly skilled in finding ways to enjoy a day spent not catching fish. Good weather and good food are a couple ways to ensure that maximum enjoyment is achieved, and to that end we were not disappointed.

Sunning ourselves on the rocks while enjoying a traditional Japanese lunch provided by Leland was fitting reward for simply being outside on such a glorious day. Lunch included, among other things, what Leland described as “peasant sushi” which are essentially sushi without fish. Leland says it best:

“I come from a Japanese farmer family that could never afford the expensive raw fish “city sushi.” So we had vegetable “makisushi” and “agesushi.” (maki are like the futomaki you see at sushi bars, agesushi is the rice stuffed into tofu boiled in soy).”

Apparently Orvis needs to give Leland a raise so he can afford fish, or perhaps he simply felt neither Derek nor I were deserving of the city sushi. Either way, it was delicious and much better a drastic improvement from what I typically eat for lunch on the water (sparsely dressed sandwiches, stale chips, cheap beer).  In keeping with the Japanese lunch theme, Leland provided sake (酒) as a beverage.  I’d never before had sake, and found the rice beverage to be quite enjoyable and rather easy to drink. I cannot say that the sake helped with my casting any, but it helped me not care so much about my casting. I think that may be some form of Zen-like enlightenment, although I’m not sure.  Maybe not.

By the end of the most enjoyable day I found myself grateful for the company of good friends to not catch fish with, and also contemplating the need for a Green Drake and a winch for the front of the Fish Taco. And more sake.