Sage Z- Axis
I’d been wanting to test cast the new Sage ONE ever since hearing about it a few months ago, but due to high demand in the world of rod reviewers I had to wait my turn. Recently on a particular Wednesday I learned that it was my time. Two days later it showed up via my favorite brown parcel delivery van. That’s the kind of power and influence the Unaccomplished Angler has. Or it could just be that Bainbridge Island-based Sage manufacturing is only a short ferry ride from Seattle, and Seattle is only 25 miles from the testing facilities of the Unaccomplished Angler. Whatever the case may be, I wasn’t expecting the rod to arrive so quickly. After opening the box I took a few moments to stare at the pieces that I held in my hands. To clarify, the rod was not broken into pieces during shipping; all was as it should be. I just wanted to take it all in for a bit before piecing the rod together. The ONE is aesthetically easy on the eyes; understated, but with a certain cool factor. The blank is “black ice”with bronze-toned wraps. A walnut and bronze-colored, aluminum anodized up-locking reel seat. Chrome plated guides.
What? Another Review?
There are many reviews out there for this rod, with more likely being added daily. So how is another review beneficial to you, the reader? Many reviews will regurgitate the same information, and regardless of what the reviews say, all are subjective and may mean nothing to you. Casting any rod is the only way for the individual to know if it’s the right one for you. In this review I will draw comparisons between the ONE and my Z-Axis that I’ve had since the Z was first introduced. Since the ONE is replacing the Z-Axis the comparison makes sense in that regard. For me personally, it makes even more sense because I absolutely love my Z-Axis. It’s my go-to trout rod that I begrudgingly set aside only when conditions call for a 6 weight. For a 4 wt rod, the Z has a lot of backbone so I use it most of the time. If I were going to be replacing it, the ONE would be a natural rod to consider.
Anyone who has ever grabbed a rod knows that the old “wiggle test” really tells you nothing meaningful about the rod’s casting characteristics. It’s akin to kicking tires when you go to look at a new car. But it’s something most of us do, so once I assembled the ONE of course I gave it the old wiggle test. The rod I wiggled was a 486-4, meaning it’s a 4wt, 8’6″ 4 section rod. At 2-7/16 ounces it felt not-surprisingly light in the hand. My Z Axis 490-4 (9 foot, 4 piece), at 3-1/6 ounces, is a little heavier than the ONE but the difference could not be noticed from my perspective. The Z-Axis has a reversed half wells grip that I am very accustomed to, so obviously the ONE, with its full wells grip, felt different (not a bad thing). The full wells grip will make the rod more comfortable in large hands (not a problem for me). The side-by-side wiggle test did reveal that the ONE is stiffer than the Z-Axis–there is noticeably more flex down the shaft of the rod with the Z. But both are considered fast action rods.
Out on the Lawn
I’d read about the incredible tracking and accuracy of the ONE and was eager to get it out on the lawn. There’s been a lot of talk about Konnetic™ technology, whatever that is. And Sage uses the tagline, “Accuracy Redefined” to describe the ONE, which is said to have virtually no lateral or torsional movement. I was curious to see if I would notice, or better yet–if I could defy those claims. I decided I would grip the rod incorrectly with my thumb to the inside, and break my wrist (not literally, mind you) to see if I could thrown some line off course. Then I gripped the rod properly, with my thumb aligned down the spine of the rod, locked my wrist and employed proper technique. I noticed two things: First, casting poorly comes easily to me; secondly, the ONE does a very good job of maintaining a true course. In other words, I noticed that it does have very little lateral movement and the energy seems to flow in a straight line, as is intended. But if you use improper technique you will not get the casting results you want, even with the ONE.
While not an apples comparison due to the additional 6 inches of length with the Z-Axis, I was able to cast equal amounts of line with the ONE. The lawn casting session revealed that in my unaccomplished hands, the ONE felt very similar and yet different than the old Z-Axis. I definitely felt more flex down the blank with the Z, but that’s not to suggest that the ONE is anything resembling a broomstick. On the contrary, due to it’s slim profile you can definitely feel it load, and it does so quickly. But lawn casting isn’t the ultimate test for a fly rod–getting it out on the water, actually fishing it was what needed to happen next. For the record and much to my dismay, while lawn casting I did not hook up with a single Lawn Trout.
One fishy rod
Fortunately within a week I had an opportunity to test the rod on the water and off to the Yakima River I went, with the ONE cradled safely within the rod tube for my Z-Axis (the demo rod didn’t come with a tube). I will say that while no rod will make you a better caster, the ONE may make you a better angler. At least this ONE might because I caught a nice rainbow within 5 minutes of the put-in. Believe me, that doesn’t happen very often (if ever) on the Yakima. I landed half a dozen fish on this day: enough to discover that quick hook sets are a snap due to the tip flex of the ONE. And when the fish put their noses down in some heavy current, the rod flexed enough that I enjoyed playing the fish. The tip is quite sensitive such that the 5X tippet was well protected. Casting my weight forward line with a large single dry fly or a large single dry fly with a dropper was a easy. One thing I’ve always really liked about my Z-Axis is the rod’s ability to pick up a lot of line off the water and get it moving in the air quickly. The ONE did not disappoint in this regard. The wind blows often on the Yakima and thankfully it wasn’t much of an issue on this particular day. Still, it blew for a while and the ONE punched through the gusts in fine form. The rod put my fly where I wanted it to go and did so very efficiently. By the end of the day I felt that while perhaps not quite an extension of my arm (as Sage says), the ONE felt like an old friend: very similar to my Z-Axis, but different. A bit more nimble perhaps? Casts that really were right on track? I don’t want to say too much for fear of pissing off my Z-Axis, which has been very good to me and I need to continue being good to me for years to come. It was bad enough that I left the Z at home and borrowed it’s rod tube for this day on the water with the ONE. If I say anything else flattering about the ONE, I’m likely to regret it.
With a retail price of $715, the rod as tested is going to cause many to roll their eyes and make snide remarks. Others will openly admit they wish they could afford it and will hold out for the time when they either win the lottery or the ONE can be found on the used market. And then there will be those who will buy the rod without blinking an eye. Me? I’m not parting with my Z-Axis any time soon, but after my kids are both done with college in a few years I may have some disposable income once again. Then I’ll go shopping for a ONE.
If you’d like one of two free Sage ONE hats, quickly head over to my Unaccomplished Angler Facebook page and leave a comment where indicated.
The internet has been all abuzz with the announcement of Sage’s new stick, “The ONE”.
I first heard about it on Midcurrent and Angling Trade, which is not surprising because I often find out breaking news at these two sites. Then I saw a lengthy discussion about it on Washington Fly Fishing. It was also discussed in a LinkedIn group, and elsewhere. Surprisingly it even popped up in the webstats for this blog: to date, 30 people used the search phrase, “Sage One Rod” and ended up landing at The Unaccomplished Angler. I found that to be rather interesting since I hadn’t posted any mention of it here. I’m sure that whomever landed on the UA, expecting to find some inside scoop on The ONE, was disappointed. And so the reason for this post is simply to address that matter: if anyone else lands here after searching for “Sage One Rod”, I’d like to be able to provide them with something of value. Of course, I can’t do that because I know nothing about The ONE other than what I’ve read elsewhere, so consider this a redirect. Here is the Press Release.
I will say that since The ONE will replace the love of my life, the Z-Axis, it must be a REALLY great rod. I absolutely adore my Z-Axis rods, and that’s a pretty bold statement since I never use the term “adore” (because it’s not very manly). I have a Z-Axis 4 weight which is my go-to rod in every possible situation. I love casting that thing. When the wind is howling and I’m chucking big junk to big fish, then I employ my 6 weight Z-Axis. I also have a 7136 Spey rod which needs no introduction as it is a ridiculously popular two-hander. I’m a terrible hack when it comes to Spey casting, but the Z-Axis 7136 makes me be all that I can possibly be, barring any talent and ability. According to the press release from Sage, The ONE will only be available in single-handed models: “The ONE rod will be available at Sage authorized retail locations in August / September 2011 with a selection of 22 single hand models. ONE rods range from 3-10-weights and will be priced from $715 to $740.” Makes one wonder what will become of the Z-Axis Spey rod models- will they remain as such? Your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps we should ask the Oracle, for she is a wise old sage. *NOTE: within minutes of this entry hitting the feeds, The Oracle chimed in with insight: The Z-Axis line of two-handed rods will indeed remain for the time being.
So, what of The ONE? Well, it’s built using modern Konnetic technology: it’s light and strong. It’s said to be an extension of your casting arm, and deadly accurate. It’s ominously cool with it’s black blank. It has a name that is a bold declaration of it’s impending status. If you believe what Sage tells you, it will be the real deal. When first hearing of the name of this new rod, one cannot help but reflect upon the Matrix movies, in which the main character, Neo, was also known as The One. He was a pretty incredible dude with amazing abilities that made him the last hope for saving reality from virtual domination. If The ONE can give me even close to the powers of The One, then I’m definitely going to want to test this rod out some day.
Morpheus: I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.
Last year I participated in a multi-boat flotilla as part of a Children’s Hospital benefit auction orchestrated by
my friend Sir Lancelot (yes, the Sir Lancelot who provided a guest post not too long ago). Last year I was just along for the ride, and to clean the grill after lunch. This year I was along to provide all-day labor by rowing one of the boats. Last year the Yakima River was running unseasonably low and water conditions were excellent. This year that was not the case. The plan had originally been to float the river down around Ellensburg. Marck was unable to participate this year and while it would have been nice to have him along for his good-natured companionship, what we we really needed was his boat. However, as the date approached and the Yakima River became swollen with runoff, there was a change of plans: we’d be floating an upper section of the river where hard boats are not recommended. Rafts were the order of the day so the Hornet sat idle while 3 inflatable craft were launched for the trip.
Bear in mind that names have been changed to
protect the innocent avoid slander lawsuits. To run down the list of those in attendance, in one raft were Lancelot and two of his friends, FFred & NNick. The raft being rowed by yours truly provided downstream transportation for The Rev & The Father. The third boat was rowed by CJ Emerson (who guides for The Evening Hatch) and his two guests, Ben & Jerry. It was appropriate that Ben & Jerry be in CJ’s raft as Ben had purchased the trip at the auction and so thus deserved a real guide. Except for Lancelot’s boat, the experience level was mostly non-existent. Ben & Jerry’s fresh-out-of-the-box Cabela’s breathable waders may have still had the tags on them and the Z-Axis rod that Ben also received in the auction had not previously seen active duty. In my boat, The Rev & The Father were wearing neoprene waders they had just gotten, paired with over-sized, used tennis shoes they’d just purchased in lieu of wading boots. They were each employing a brand new Redington Crosswater rod and reel. Nobody teased The Rev for wearing pink shoes, except for Lancelot.
For first time fly anglers, it was an almost unthinkably cruel joke to tie on a Thingamabobber, a tandem nymph rig and a couple pieces of split shot and expect them to enjoy the casting experience, especially from a seated position (the rafts are not set up for fly fishing like, say, a StreamTech Boat).
Chucking awkward hardware from a seated position was, however, the order of the day. In defense of my anglers, they managed to avoid too many bird’s nests and lost no more flies than I would have had I had a line in the water. My only complaint is that I had to sit on a cooler lid instead of a proper rowing seat (as offered in a StreamTech boat). I’d really appreciate it, Lancelot, if you would acquire a couple of these boats before next year’s trip.
I’m not sure how beginner’s Ben & Jerry fared throughout the day, although occasionally I did hear the distance sound of CJ’s voice patiently
yelling offering encouragement.
The day was very pleasant with mostly clear skies and warm temperatures. Certainly sunscreen and shirt sleeves weather (The Rev & The Father soon came to realize the error of their ways in selecting neoprene waders). The river was running high and deep green, but there was decent visibility. However, the fish were blind for the most part with the exception of one 8 inch rainbow that The Father hooked and played momentarily before executing a Long Distance Release. Even with the split shot, it was difficult to get the flies down to where there may have been fish holding in the heavy water. Granted, had the person rowing my raft been an actual guide, the anglers on board may have landed a whitefish and a slightly bigger rainbow, as had CJ’s boat. But you get what you pay for, and The Rev & The Father paid nothing for their trip. Even with the most collective experience aboard, Lancelot’s boat finished that day with the unmistakable odor of skunk. That says a lot about the man on the oars.
As lousy of an oarsman and angler as Lancelot may be, he does know his way around food and grilled up a delicious meal of King salmon. Not much to complain about there. The monotony of the day was broken up by two river hazards that forced us to take evasive maneuvers. The first was a sweeper lying across the channel in a woody stretch of tricky water. Not to worry, as roping the boats around the obstacle was no problem.
The second obstacle consisted of a very large cottonwood tree that had recently laid itself down across the entire river. Getting around this blockage required a 40 yard portage, made easy by the simple fact that we had plenty of manpower to carry each boat. A single boat with 3 people would have had their work cut out for them.
The real excitement of the day came within the last couple of hours of the trip. My boat was first through a particular stretch of water that had a brushy bank and ample structure for any fish that might have chosen to lie there (none did, by the way). From his perch in the front of the boat, The Rev sent out a respectable 20 yard cast into the waiting branches of a tree 10 yards away. The hook on the size 8 Pat’s Stone grabbed hold firmly as the boat continued downstream. I would have attempted to row against the current to retrieve the fly, but
I wasn’t man enough the high flows would have nothing to do with it. As the distance between ourselves and the snagged fly increased, so did the uneasiness on the part of The Rev. I calmly counseled him to point the rod directly at the fly, pinch down on the fly line with his finger, and hold on. “The leader is going to snap,” I said. “It may ricochet back so turn your face away from it,” I added (as I ducked). As the tension in the line increased and the 2X tippet strained under the load, The Rev allowed the fly line to slide between the cork and his forefinger. I detected the smell of burning flesh, and the resulting sensation was more than The Rev could tolerate. At the exact same time he yelled, “Owch!!!” he let go of the rod. The tension of the stretched line served to slingshot the rod from his hand and Across the Water (the Crosswater aptly named by Redington) where it landed 10 feet upstream of the raft. There was no need for panic as the rod was still tethered to the tree and rescue was on the way—Lancelot’s raft was just approaching the tree and saw the line snagged. I waved to indicate we could use a little help, and pulled the boat over to a gravel bar a short ways downstream to wait. And watch. Because I was busy on the oars there were no photos to document the drama. However, I have provided this detailed illustration to illustrate the situation:
It appeared, from our distance of 80+ yards, that Lancelot’s boat was able to free the snagged fly from the branch. Then they tossed the fly into the water for us to reel in. At that point Lancelot acknowledged the great distance between us and them, and realized we were not holding the other end of the line. They scrambled to retrieve the fly again, which luckily became snagged a second time on a branch in the water. They succeeded in retrieving the fly a second time and pulled in several yards of fly line and eventually the rod and reel. I’m not sure if they were into the backing by the time they had the entire setup in hand, but The Rev was lucky to get the rod back.
Even though the catching was slow to non-existent, it could have been a lot worse. It could have been raining. The food could have been bad. The guests could have had a horrible time. And had there not been another boat behind us, the river would have claimed a brand new rod, reel and line. That wouldn’t have been a good way for The Rev to begin his fly fishing career.
The text message from Derek Young indicated that the upper Yakima was fishing well, and suggested that perhaps we should pay a visit. “Fishing well.” I’ve heard that before. Derek guides for a living so he’s on the river a lot. He fishes it with great frequency so the recollection of a slow day can easily be lost amidst the hustle and bustle of productive fishing days. I fish it much less often – certainly not often enough for the rare, exceptional days to shroud out the other kinds of days. In other words, I get my arse handed to me by the Yakima more often than not. And so I hesitated to commit to Derek’s invitation. As much as I enjoy fishing with him, to be honest I was starting to have steelhead on the brain this time of year. When I reminded myself that a day of steelheading would be a guaranteed skunking, I opted to float the Yakima instead.
Yet another weather system was parked over Western Washington, causing moderate to heavy precipitation to fall from the skies all the way over Snoqualmie pass and even a few miles to the East of the summit. I hoped that the gloomy weather wouldn’t translate into a dark cloud of despair. As I crested the summit I passed a semi bearing the name WERNER, and thought to myself, “Could this be a good omen? Could this be MY day?” I put the silly notion out of my head and proceeded East.
The sky lightened and the rain tapered off just before I pulled into the town of Cle Elum where I met Derek at 11:00 AM. We dropped the Green Drake into the low, clear waters and floated perhaps 5 minutes before pulling over to work both sides of an island. Rocks were teeming with small green caddis larvae, so a size 16 olive Caddis (standard Elk Hair variety) was selected for initial duty. Good choice. Armed with my 4 wt. Sage Z-Axis (yes, I will shamelessly throw the brand out there in hopes that Sage will see it and choose to sponsor my blog), the fish played nicely from the get-go. I landed a small handful of 10 inch rainbows in the first half hour before pinching myself to see if I was dreaming. Except for when I visit the Firehole River in Yellowstone each year, it’s never this easy for me. I didn’t question my good fortune, however, and continued drifting the olive-colored magic through trouty looking water. At one point I was hooked up and playing a fish as another jumped within 6 feet of the action. I’ll admit that as the frenzy continued I could be heard carrying on a conversation with myself that went something like this: “With angling skills to make all others envious, you sir, are a fish-catching machine!” It doesn’t take much for me to become dilusional. For those of you who regularly catch many and impressive fish, this may not sound like anything extraordinary. Fish a mile in my wading boots and you’ll come to appreciate my glee in the moment.
We continued downstream under partly cloudy skies and mild temperatures. Clouds threatened rain, but none fell and for a short time I felt overdressed in my waders and long-sleeved shirt. When a hatch of Blue Winged Olives came off for a bit, there was no point in switching patterns because the olive caddis was still drawing numerous strikes. The action did taper off after a while though, proving that nothing good lasts forever. When the fish seemed less willing (though not entirely unwilling, mind you) to take surface offerings, we fished below. Derek grabbed his nymph rod and ran his bobber through fishy slots. I wanted to avoid nymphing, per se, so I decided to try something a little different. Reaching into my fly box, I grabbed a pattern that I usually only fish when in Yellowstone each Spring: a small soft hackle bead head nymph by the name of the Chubby Cousin.
When we fish the Firehole, we forego dead drifting double nymph rigs and bobbers, and instead cast downstream at a quarter angle and swing the small bugs through the current. Strikes usually come when the fly begins to settle into the seam where the faster water meets the slower holding water. It’s like swinging streamers for steelhead only on a miniature scale. I enjoy this type of nymph fishing but had never employed the tactics on the Yakima. Why not? Well, to be honest I just never seem to think of it at the time. This time I thought of it and I’m glad I did. There was plenty of good swinging water and the fish took a liking to the Chubby Cousin. With it’s swept-back hackles and rubber legs, there’s plenty of movement in the water. A few 10 inch rainbows were fond enough of the soft hackle to commit with solid takes at mid swing. Many more came unbuttoned during the course of regretting that they’d fallen for the Chubby. It was rare to not get at least a bump for every couple swings of the fly.
Rain began to fall intermittently in the late afternoon, but it dampened neither our spirits nor the enthusiastic appetite of the fish. Switching to an October Caddis proved to be a reasonably wise decision, but it wasn’t as effective as had been the olive Caddis, so I tied on another of those. The only downside to fishing the small dry was that it invoked many a strike from tiny troutlets. For a while the number of greedy little gamers grew aggravating but eventually the fry left me alone and I was able to hook and land a beautifully colored 12 inch rainbow. At that point I offered to row so Derek could fish as we drifted. I enjoy time on the oars, and to be honest I had wanted to try my hand at the helm of the Green Drake since fishing out of it earlier in the year.
The Green Drake is a 13 foot Maravia raft custom outfitted for fly fishing by Stream Tech Boats out of Boise. It’s nice to fish out of and as I found, a pleasure to row. I’ve rowed a drift boat many times but I’d never been on the oars of a raft before. I instantly liked the high perch of the rower’s seat which offers even a wee feller such as myself a commanding view of the river ahead. I was easily able to see approaching rocks before bouncing off of them, as opposed to banging and scraping as I’ve done in The Hornet a hard boat is prone to do. The hard inflatable floor is nice for standing on as one leans into the casting brace, and that same floor creates very little drag, making the boat very responsive and easy to hold against the current. For the first time I started to think that if I were to one day acquire a boat of my own I would have to give such a raft some serious consideration. I could see one of these boats providing a great deal of enjoyment and opportunity to spend quality time together on the water for Mrs. UA and myself. If it weren’t for those damn college tuition payments that we’ve only just begun to make…
While I rowed and Derek fished we marveled at what a tremendous day it had been in all regards. As the sun grew low in the sky it provided for some dramatic scenery, casting a glow upon the trees and causing them to stand out vibrantly against an ominous looking sky. Fall was definitely here: salmon were spawning in their redds and the trout were eating like there was no tomorrow. It was one of those days where if the water looked like it should hold a fish, it nearly always held a fish. It’s so rare that I have a day like this that for a fleeting moment I almost forgot the multiple sub-par days I’d had on the Yakima during the preceding months. I’m not one to openly declare that the Fish Gods owe me anything, but every itchy dog has his day and I was long overdue to be scratched. It’s not just the scratching catching that made the day great, but the opportunities that presented themselves: There were several fish landed, many more hooked and released prematurely, and countless strikes. It was those strikes that made the day particularly rewarding because it showed just how many fish were in the system and eager to take a swipe at the fly. The largest fish caught were no more than 12 inchers, but I was a happy angler. In fact, so good was my mood that I even let Derek pose for a photo with my nicest fish of the day.
We were just minutes from the termination point of our float and about to pack it in save for a particularly fishy piece of water that begged for one more cast. “I’m gonna run my little Chubby through that sweet spot one last time,” I announced. Derek looked at me and very matter-of-factly said, “Fly fishing is the one activity where you can say that and not get in trouble.” I had a couple tugs but didn’t set the hook fast enough. It didn’t matter – my day was compleat.
As we neared our take-out, the unmistakable odor of skunk filled the air. We laughed at the irony of that. It was too late for a skunking. Way too late. But it did remind me that had I not gone fishing with Derek I would have probably gone steelheading.
With bellies swollen from our recent burger encounter in Ennis, we rolled into West Yellowstone under the cloak of darkness for a reunion with an old familiar friend, the Ho Hum Motel. Oh, and Erique too. He had flown to Bozeman to conduct a bit of business earlier in the week, and his rental car was parked out front – he had arrived 6 hours earlier and was eagerly awaiting our arrival. I’ve known Erique for years, and exactly what he does for a job is still shrouded in mystery. It involves prosthetic devices and he has at least one client who makes, among other things, clown shoes (I wouldn’t joke about a thing like that). Jimmy and I moved our gear into room #8 while Marck and Stan settled into the Big Room (#7) with Erique. Turns out the arrangement worked nicely because Erique can saw logs with the best of them (although I’m sure Stan’s reign as “Goosemaster” is in no danger of ending anytime soon). The Ho Hum had undergone some upgrades since the previous year, and the new bathroom tile in both rooms was a welcome upgrade. With the addition of new carpet in The Big Room, the accommodations bordered on lavish (our room still had the same red carpet and slightly-curious-though-not-necessarily-unpleasant smell leftover from 1958). But this isn’t a motel review, and the Ho Hum is always perfectly suited to our needs. We spend just enough time in our rooms to get a little shut-eye each night, nothing more. The day the Ho Hum gets all fancy on us is the day we search for a new dive, and I don’t think we’ll have to ever worry about that.
Normally we’re up at the crack of dawn and enter the park by 6:30 AM. However, we’d arrived too late the night before to purchase our National Park fishing permits so we slept in the next morning. We ate breakfast out of habit more than hunger (again, reference the burgers consumed for dinner the previous evening), and when the doors at Aarick’s Fly Shop opened at 7 AM we were first in line to purchase our permits and a handful of Secret Weapon flies. Erique fancied himself a sweet Dora The Explorer rod, but showed impressive restraint by leaving the shop with only a handful of flies (this was the second time in 6 months that I’ve had to convince a fishing buddy to not give in to impulse buying). We were layered up for the worst weather possible, which is always a likely scenario as West Yellowstone sits at an elevation of 6667 feet. The skies threatened rain/snow as we drove through the gates to the Park, received our information packet and proceeded quickly into Wyoming. The information packet is essentially the same every year, but that doesn’t keep me from reading it front to back. I always heed the warnings about bison and make a mental note not to become a statistic. I figure as long as I’m quicker than at least one of my fishing buddies, I’ll be OK. I was shocked to learn this year that the Park was founded not in 1872 as I had always thought, but rather much more recently in 1972. Always the voice of reason, Marck quickly pointed out that it was simply a typographical error. He should know, afterall–he’s been fishing the Firehole since the Park first opened.
Because of our later-than-normal start we were fortunate not to get stuck in rush hour traffic as we drove the 20 or so miles to our favorite spot on the Firehole River. Apparently the herd of bison that usually take their sweet time sauntering down the middle of the road had already completed their morning commute, so we made excellent time. We dropped Erique’s car off at Fountain Flats, where we would finish out the day, and everyone piled into Mrs. Jimmy’s Suburban for the last leg of our drive. As we arrived at Midway Geyser Basin (elevation 7251 feet) we noted that the parking lot was nearly empty. Usually the place is filled with tourists and other fishermen, and it’s not unusual for there to be a waiting line at the restroom. Save for 4 or 5 other vehicles, we were the only ones there. Perhaps the colder/wetter than normal spring weather had discouraged all but the most desperate hardiest of folks. The rain increased in volume and the outdoor temperature was a balmy 35 degrees as we strung up our rods, posed for a quick team photo, and mounted our assault on the ignorant trout of the Firehole. The river was running at ideal flows – almost 200 CFS lower than the previous year, and even then it fished pretty well. Anyone who knows the Firehole knows that it gives up trout willingly, and that’s exactly what draws us there each year. Sometimes an angler just wants some easy catching- good for the self esteem. Opening day of fishing in the Park was underway.
Another result of our later-than-normal start to the day was that more anglers were already stretched out along the water where we usually start fishing. While there weren’t many cars in the parking lot, apparently every one of them belonged to fishermen and there must have been 6 or 7 other fishing folks plying the waters of the Firehole. Our posse of 5 pressed onward a bit farther. The good thing about the brisk walk is that it warms the body. The bad thing about the brisk walk is that it gets the previous night’s supper moving. The dampness ensured that it felt much colder than it actually was and any bare skin not protected by a layer of fleece and Gore-tex felt the chill. I hate fishing with gloves, but I hate fishing with cold hands even more so out came the Pro Angler Glacier Gloves.
In typical Firehole fashion, the first cast yielded a first fish, followed by several more casts and several more fish. These fish hadn’t been harassed in probably 9-10 months, and they were as gullible as they come (though they do wise up quickly). In the first 20 minutes I managed to hook up with 10 or so fish (but who’s counting, right?). All were rainbows save for one brown, and most were in the 8-11 inch range. Scrappy fighters, too – thrashing, jumping and head-shaking right up to the point of release and sometimes before then. Because of the geyser activity along many stretches of the river, the water temperature was almost 60 degrees. This speeds up the metabolism of the fish and gets them feeding actively and fighting like champs.
A cookie-cutter Firehole fish on a 4 wt can be a lot of fun, and if you’re fishing a 3 wt trout stick like Marck’s brand new Sage ZXL 376-4, every fish is a dandy. I made the mistake of trying out the ZXL and instantly fell in love with it. It was smooth and soft casting without being a noodle, and paired with a Sage Click III reel the outfit weighed exactly nothing. By comparison my Sage Z-Axis 490-4 felt like a club, and I never thought I’d say that. To be very clear, my Z-Axis is anything but a club and it’s my favorite rod to fish with. Still, just sayin’ – the ZXL was like holding a feather. Damn you, Marck. The next time I ask to try out your new rod, deny me the privilege. You’ll be doing me a favor. (Note to Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler: I have not ordered another new rod. Yet)
While we’re on the subject of gear, I am inclined to mention my Sage Typhoon Waist Pack again. Prior to this day I’d only used it once, and then it only sat in the bottom of Joe Willauer’s boat, getting rained on and fending off standing water. Well, on this day I finally got to strap it on for 8 hours. It was comfortable to the point where I forgot it was even there, except obviously for when I needed something from inside one of its many compartments and pockets. The bag is a great design and very comfortable. Cinching it tight around my waist also provided the lower back support that a middle aged guy like me appreciates during a long day of wading. The cargo straps on the bottom of the bag are nice for when you want to roll up and stow a wading jacket or another bulky article of clothing. I didn’t do that on this day, as the weather dictated that every article of clothing was readily employed- it got neither warm nor dry enough to remove any layers. Two cold thumbs up for the Typhoon pack.
Back to the fishing. The five of us were spread out along the river as another group of 4 anglers passed behind us, hiking in search of some unoccupied water. I overheard one of them mutter something along the lines of, “I’ve never seen it this crowded on opening day before.” I was thinking the same thing myself. Just then another trout tightened my line.
Lest one should think that catching a Firehole fish on every cast is the rule rather than the exception, it doesn’t happen quite so easily all the time. Yes, catching can be almost silly, particularly on the first day, but even then the angler is not immune to the occasional lull in the action. At around 1pm, just when the guys at Blue Ribbon Flies said it would happen, a small hatch of PMDs started popping. However, the fish didn’t really turn on, and in a half hour I only managed one fish on an emerger pattern before switching back to a subsurface game. Same for Jimmy. The others had moved on and decided not to waste their time with this sorry excuse for a hatch. As we worked our way downstream I hit a big void in the catching game. To make matters worse, Jimmy kept himself rather busy with hookups. I grew weary of witnessing his good fortune so I decided to pout retrace my steps and work the last stretch of water a second time. I was sure I’d missed a few fish on the last run, and my tattered fly was replaced with a brand new one in hopes of enticing a few holdouts.
As I walked upstream I noticed a lone bison walking slowly toward me about 50 yards away. I didn’t want to force the huge bull to back down out of intimidation so I decided this would be a good place to jump back in the river, wade to mid-channel, and give him a wide berth (for his own peace of mind). Then the wind kicked up suddenly, which is always a sign of another high country squall moving in. The temperature dropped noticeably and the rain turned to snow. Where I was fishing the river is flanked by stands of timber on both sides, which kept me mostly protected from the gale force winds that I would later learn were blowing my compadres off the river just a ½ mile downstream. In my state of heightened focus and determination to dig myself out of the trout deficit into which I’d fallen, I’d completely lost sight of the others. I turned my back to the driving snow and dug in. The big bull decided to wait out the storm and had bedded down in the trees a ways upstream. Every few minutes I glanced over my shoulder to make sure he was still afraid of me.
The storm lasted about a half hour before the wind suddenly – and almost strangely – just stopped. It grew very quiet as remnants of the snowstorm drifted down softly at this point. It was then that I heard the unmistakable sound of rising fish. I saw nothing and figured they must be sipping emergers, again. Then the snow stopped completely, the temperature warmed up, and I began to see adult baetis drifting like tiny sailboats in the current, drying their wings as they went. They didn’t stand a chance against the hungry trout. A glance at my watch indicated it was just past 3pm. I was about to wage battle, so off came the gloves both literally and figuratively. For the next two and a half hours I forgot about the bison and feverishly tossed a #18 parachute PMD to rising trout. While I wouldn’t call it an “epic” hatch, it was significant and the fish were eager to take my fly as long as the drift was drag free (which it was not always). I was completely self-absorbed in the good times and lost all track of the time. Call it a serious case of P.M.D. A.D.D. When my arm finally got tired I checked my watch again: 5:30pm – time flies when you’re having a freakin’ blast. The others were probably worried sick about me ready to head to the car by now so I decided I’d better reel up and beat a fast track downstream.
As I rounded the downstream bend in the river I saw a couple of anglers, but no sign of those familiar to me. I was puzzled by their absence – surely they’d encountered at least a residual hint of the hatch I’d been selfishly wallowing in, and I figured I’d see them tossing dries in the riffles. When I finally caught up with them after another 1/4 mile I learned that the snow storm had been much more ferocious where they’d been fishing, and the hatch was something only I’d encountered. I did my best not to gloat because truth be told, I still caught fewer fish overall than anyone else. I’ve determined that it’s my lot in life to bring up the rear when it comes to catch quotas. So be it – I proudly and ocurageously embrace my privileged role as the least accomplished of anglers.
By the time we got back to the car it was 6:30. Day One on the Firehole had drawn to a close, and it had been another good one. We celebrated by enjoying West Yellowstone’s best pizza at Wild West Pizzeria. A few pitchers of beer went down easily as we listened to a great live band (Tessie Lou and The Shotgun Stars) while watching UFC 114 on Pay-Per-View (cage fighting and Bluegrass – a match made in Heaven West Yellowstone). The food was delicious and there’s something about a young lady with a Copenhagen can in her back pocket that made the Bluegrass sound all the more authentic. All fights on the UFC card, including the title bout between Rashad Evans and Rampage Jackson, were rather lackluster, but nobody forced us to watch and it was free. So were a couple pitchers of beer (an oversight on the part of our waitress). We tipped well and headed back to The Ho Hum by 11 pm. Call us old and boring, but we had another date with the Firehole River in the morning, so we opted not to paint the town, just as we opted not to paint the town two nights earlier in Twin Bridges. And like Twin Bridges, West Yellowstone also has a statue of a painted trout in the heart of town. At first I thought it must just be a random Montana thing, but I poked around on the internet and found out that these “Fish Out of Water” sculptures were done as part of a fund raising project. During the summer of 2009, 12 of these painted trouts were sold at a live auction and raised over $60,000 for area charities and the Madison County Economic Development Council.
I want one.