Monday, October 30, 2006

New Lexus Parks Self on Slippery Slope

Lexus has decided that it's a good idea to take a 380-horsepower LS 460L, a car that goes 0-60 in 5.4 seconds, and add a feature to it that allows it to parallel park itself with minimal driver interaction. You just regulate the speed, hands off the steering wheel and eyes off the mirror. You barely have to pay attention.

Now I'm not against technology, I watch a very large and expensive TV. A lot. I am typing on a computer at this very minute. I listen to radio waves that come from outer space. But some technology is, to use a technical term, stupid. Comfort and convenience are fine, but I think it's a bad idea to take away those simple little skill tests that come up from time to time while driving a car in the real world. What's the ultimate goal here, to idiot-proof cars? How frightening is that?! It seems from my observations that it's already too easy to get and keep a driver's license. I see people almost daily, driving while reading the newspaper or, and this never ceases to amaze me, eating cereal from a bowl with a spoon. Do we really want to make someone like that feel like his car really IS paying attention?

If I've heard of a worse idea than this, I can't remember when.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Photo of the Week

Small? Indeed. (However, not even close to the smallest trout I've ever caught.) But the colors on this, my only brook trout so far, make it one of my very favorite. He came from the North Branch of the Potomac, about this time last year.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Nice Beaver!

Earlier this year I was standing in knee-high water at Gunpowder Falls State Park in Maryland, the light was fading fast and I had a long and brutal hike back to my car. I should have been underway by now, I thought, but decided that it was a good time to reconstruct a tangled leader, add some tippet, tie on a fly and get in a few more casts. The waning light was making things very difficult, however. If fly fishing has taught me one thing, it's that my up-close, low-light eyesight is deteriorating at an alarming pace.

So I'm about to give up on one knot or another, focusing intently at blurry little wisps of nothing in my hands when SMACK! Something hits the water with a huge splash, not more than two feet from me. Holy crap! Either someone just threw a dog at me, or that has to be the biggest trout in all of Maryland! And he was RIGHT NEXT TO ME! Well now I just HAD to get that tippet on and throw a fly out there. At this point I have almost enough light to tie my shoes, quite a bit less than the level required for threading 6X, and I see some movement through the long distance blur of my water-splashed reading glasses. I lift them up and see, about thirty feet downstream of me, a giant rodent of some sort crossing the stream. Looked like a freakishly large groundhog. No doubt he was spooking any monster brown trout lurking beneath the surface. I watched him, and started to get the dim sensation of almost understanding something, when the giant rodent dove underwater and SMACK! Slapped his big beaver tail on the surface of the water as he did. Dammit. My monster fish was a damn beaver.

I've seen plenty of evidence of beavers around. Those tell-tale conical stumps, just like in the cartoons, are all over the place. But I don't think I had ever seen a beaver in the wild before, and it took me an idiotically long time to piece it all together. When he got out of the water I saw that he was enormous! Labrador-sized. And I don't mind saying, it made me more than a little uncomfortable thinking that he had snuck right up on me in the water.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Big Sky Cutbow

Western Montana Outfitter and Guide Jay Dixon of Dixon Adventures recently let me know about a TV show he filmed on the Clark Fork and Bitterroot Rivers. The show, LL Bean's Guide to the Outdoors, aired on the VP Channel (formerly OLN) and featured Jay with long distance casting champ Tim Rajeff. They did some really cool stalking, very technical fishing and caught some great fish, including this beautiful cutthroat/rainbow hybrid on 5X and a size 18 fly. If you see the replay of this show on the schedule, be sure to check it out. But beware, I watched it once and immediately started booking my next trip to Montana.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Fall Fishin'

Saturday was a picture perfect day for fishing (or anything else outdoors). A beautiful fall day on a Maryland trout stream. My friend Matt and I were the first ones to the parking lot, first light. While I'm waiting for him to get all his gear ready, I walk over to the pool closest to the parking lot and caught a nice rainbow in my first minute of fishing. The next one came just a few casts later, and both were a lot of fun -- lots of jumping. Matt was ready and we walked to another very popular pool (thinking crowds would arrive soon, we might as well hit these pools while we're the only ones here). The fish picked up where they left off, and began throwing themselves at us. "Fish on!" "There he is!" "Got another!"

Now I know what you're thinking. These are probably freshly stocked, idiot rainbows who have never seen a predator until we showed up. Well I'll have you know that these particular trout had been stocked four full days before we arrived, plenty of time to become wise and crafty. So, clearly, it was only through our superior angling skills that we were so successful. Well, okay, maybe they were idiots. But it was still great fun, the anticipated crowds never really materialized, and almost all the rainbows (there was one brown mixed in) were in the 13" range. Many were in a jumping mood, which is always a treat. The one pictured below (caught by Matt) was the largest and last of the day. We actually stopped counting, but over two dozen fish were caught between us (although there is some argument as to whether it counts to catch the same fish more than once, something we suspect had occurred at least a time or two).

One other note. I always wanted to catch trout on a dry fly, a nymph and a streamer all in the same day, and that goal was realized on Saturday.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Photo of the Week

Early morning on the Shenandoah. Breakfast time for smallmouth. Man, I love it here.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Lessons Learned, Immediately Forgotten

The first trout I ever caught, shown here alongside his home water, was caught despite the fact that my rod was too heavy, my flybox was too light and I had almost no idea what I was doing. Tangle, snag, tangle. Knot, tangle, snag. I just could not, with the foliage around me, get my fly even half way out into this very small creek. Leaning against the angled tree you see here, frustrated, I dropped an ant straight down at the roots and fed some slack out. The fly drifted downstream, less than a foot from the bank. I held the rod parallel with the tree on the right side and peaked around the left side just in time to see the strike.

At the time, I almost felt like it was cheating. I mean, I hadn't even casted! I could barely even SEE where the fly was! And it worked immediately. Gee. Hide behind a tree, hide your rod behind a tree, drift a fly along the bank -- once, and catch your first trout. Uh, you'd think I tried that technique several hundred times again since then, right? Wrong. I stand in the water and watch the pretty casts, I wade clumsily and then crouch down the slightest bit as if that equates to being sneaky. I make all kinds of mistakes, I sometimes get it right and have success. But sometimes, even often, I forget to take the time to examine what about that last scenario helped me catch that fish, and apply it in the future.

When I read Tom Chandler from Trout Underground's really great article, The Stealth Fly Fisher: Catching Fish Through Deceit & Trickery, I realized how little attention I have paid to this major part of fly fishing. This weekend I am going to try to remember a few of these lessons and try to be a sneakier, better angler. Thanks Tom.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Barbaro, Bravest Thing on Two Legs

I've been following Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro's progress since, at the Preakness, not more than fifty feet from where I stood cheering him on, he shattered his right rear leg. A lot of well meaning people at New Bolton’s equine medical center are trying every day to keep him alive and get him healthy enough to one day just be a horse again. They are using extraordinary means, both medical and financial, to do so.

I am, first and foremost, a Triple Crown fan when it comes to horse racing. Every year I want a winner, I want someone to break through and win the Derby, Preakness and Belmont. But every year, I am secretly pleased when those who have won it before do not have to let anyone else in the club. Horses like Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978) are larger than life, and get larger each year a special horse tries and fails to catch them.

But I certainly wish no horse ill, and Barbaro's injury impacted me greatly. Perhaps it was my proximity to it, but I think also it was that there really was something special about Barbaro. He certainly could have won the Crown, and the way his career ended left an intriguing bit of mystery. Maybe he really did have what it takes. But Affirmed remains the last, and the clubhouse door is sealed for another year.

Barbaro, to me, is a living, breathing national treasure. Until very recently I felt like he must be preserved at all cost, if at all possible. Equine medicine is literally advancing around Barbaro's team, and techniques developed and used to save his life will likely help countless horses in the future. But as I read report after report about how 'courageous' he is, and how his strong spirit is carrying him through adversity, doubt creeps in and I wonder what option Barbaro has. What he is doing is enduring procedures without dying. Does that amount to courage? His left rear hoof was REMOVED after the onset of laminitis, a life threatening condition caused by keeping weight off his opposite, injured leg. Yet he 'fights on.' He even walks when led, and eats when fed. I don't know if that's heart or spirit or instinct. But I'm getting a little worried that there's some anthropomorphising going on over at New Bolton.

I really, really wanted Barbaro to survive. I still do. He is a national treasure and I'm pulling hard for him. And it could already be too late to do what would have been best for him. (My wife has been telling me this for months, by the way.) Maybe Barbaro is strong-willed and courageous, who knows? But doctors need courage too. And with all the technology, money and expertise surrounding Barbaro, I hope that if the time comes, there is enough courage in the room to say what needs to be said, and do what needs to be done.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Photo of the Week

This slippery bastard fell for my fly, but said Absolutely Not to the camera.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Salmon River Hatchery

If you visit the Salmon River, I highly recommend that you take a break from fishing long enough to have a field trip to the hatchery at Altmar. At the right time of year you can see hundreds and hundreds of salmon. Many were born at this very site, released into the river which flows into Lake Ontario. There they spent three years eating and lifting weights, preparing for their return through this awesome fishery and back to the hatchery. A fascinating process, really, and you can read about it here.

Salmon River Day Three: The Steelhead

A friend of mine, Ed, who had spent the weekend grouse and woodcock hunting nearby joined me for a day of fishing Monday. Pictured is the beautiful spot we chose, and again we're on the river at dawn. The nice thing about this spot is that it is almost exclusively accessible from one side of the river. You can cross the river and there's a path on the other side, but it's hard to fish this spot from there. So it's scenic, you're just watching the river and the woods on the far side.

And on this day, the river in front of us looked like a salmon parade route. Fish after fish after fish, leaping and splashing their way up stream. Huge, grey, heavy Kings. Dark red, acrobatic Cohos. Some jumping along the far bank, some so close you get wet from the splash. Even a few in the shallow water behind us. A truly memorable spectacle. As I'm watching the salmonid fireworks, I look over and notice Ed's still tying a fly on, messing with weights, etc., and I've already been fishing for ten minutes. Just as I'm about to give him grief about that, he drops his line in the water to strip out some fly line, and sure enough he gets a fish. One cast. Truthfully, I don't think this fish knew he was hooked, he just muscled his way upstream, slow and steady. Fly line. Backing. The fish eventually broke off, but I was psyched Ed got to feel the strength of a big fish so early.

But the fishing slowed down and people started to clear out, leaving a really nice stretch of river to just a handful of anglers. I moved downstream to the end of the big, quiet pool we spent the morning, and started fishing some riffles. Standard stuff, a pair of salmon visible in the current. Smaller, lighter female, larger, darker male. Throw the fly upstream and drift it to them. No takers? let it drift out, you never know when a brown or steelhead might be hanging behind the salmon, waiting for a meal of eggs.

Sometimes when a salmon takes your fly, you think it's a snag. They're so heavy and can be quite still, you just tug until you feel it move, then the game is on. But when I drifted this fly past those salmon and hooked something behind them, it was instantly, most certainly, NOT a salmon. This was a steelhead, and a beauty. Ed and I both got several good looks at her as she, lightning fast, shot towards me into shallow water, then back across the river, always in different angles but always at the same velocity: Full. Every glimpse I got filled me with the feeling that I was truly privileged to be connected to such a cool and beautiful fish. I really, REALLY, wanted this one, and said so.

But it was not to be. I was ill equipped to land it. I didn't have the skill, and we didn't have a net. My heart was still racing as I reeled in the empty line, and when I pulled some fly line back out to re-rig it, I realized I had made a critical mistake that I will never make again. The drag was still set very high from a previous salmon fight. Slow and steady, you can use a good amount of drag in that situation. But the steelhead was super fast and athletic, and I needed to give her more line faster. Too much pressure, and the tippet broke. All of the sudden, those seminars at the fly fishing shows with names like "Playing and Landing Big Fish" are sounding pretty good to me. This was not a trophy fish, maybe 24", maybe a bit more. Maybe eight pounds, maybe ten. But it would have been my favorite by far, and I vow to be better prepared next time I encounter a fish that special.

Next time, I'll have better skills. And a net.

Salmon River Day Two: The Kings

When the Lake Ontario salmon come up through the Salmon River, the first couple miles are through the Douglaston Salmon Run, a privately-owned, fee-fishing area. I decided to try this on Saturday morning, maybe get lucky with a fresh run of salmon. Fewer people spread out over a greater distance than the previous day, so I was able to find a place by myself. If you've never stood in a swift, black river on a crisp, autumn morning waiting for the sun to come up, I recommend it.

I hooked a very strong fish on about my third cast but lost him quickly. A half dozen more passed me, heading upstream in short bursts of wild energy, throwing themselves up and forward towards one of two final destinations: a spawning bed or a smoke house. But by the time it was fully light out the fishing was slow and stayed that way so I headed back to the previous day's spot, where I finally hooked and landed a decent King Salmon. That's me, for some reason, seemingly playing air guitar with my catch. It's hard to land these fish when you're by yourself, I got this one sort of beached in a shallow area and a nearby angler helped me out and then snapped the picture for me.

It was rewarding, after spending ten minutes or so fighting a fish, to get to hold it. And finally getting a photo of a fish was a relief, so I broke for lunch.

Going in to the afternoon I was relaxed. If I didn't catch another fish I had already enjoyed myself thoroughly, fought several fish, landed two and photographed one. Anything more would be icing on the cake. Well the icing came fast and furious, as I found a great spot and started hooking big salmon left and right. And people around me were hooking up too, huge fish jumping and splashing everywhere, the sound like kids cannonballing into a pool one after the other. One fish I hooked not more than ten feet from where I was standing, he bolted across the river and took 90 feet of flyline and half my backing with him. Then he charged straight back to me. The immediate and unexpected slack in the line, coupled with my furious reeling to regain it, resulted in the backing getting tangled around the tip of my rod. This would instantly result in a shattered rod once the fish took up the slack, and that event was going to happen very quickly. So I put the reel-end of the rod down in the water behind me and quickly tried to free the rod tip before my hand became part of the equation and really ruined the rest of the weekend. Success! I got control of my equipment and the fish, and landed him in a nearby shallow cove with the help of a kid who had been watching the whole fiasco with interest and/or amusement.

My arms still burning from that one I flipped my fly into the water to rearrange some equipment and gather myself, and hooked up again. This one headed upstream and I waded upstream after it, chatting some nice guys along the way. Then the fish turns around and as I pass the same guys again it really dawns on me: these fish just have a plan, and I'm not part of it. That afternoon marked the first time my arms ever got really, really tired from fishing. My best half day of salmon fishing yet, could it get any better?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Salmon River Day One: The Coho

Saturday morning, it's chilly but comfortable and I arrive at the river a half hour before dawn. Just me and every other angler within a 400 mile radius. But I found a spot I liked in a catch and release, fly fishing only area. I should note that, although I am by no means an expert (this being my second salmon outing), this isn't the same as trout fishing. It would be nice to have the river all to myself of course, but this type of fishing is not really about relaxing in solitude. It is, to me, about heart pounding fun. It is to trout fishing what a roller coaster is to a drive in the country. And I picked the busiest weekend of the year to go on this ride.

It wasn't light for long before I hooked my first fish. Still a little dark out, I was unsure about chasing this fish through the water when she chose to head downstream. So I waited, hoped she would decide to come back and eventually I was rewarded. A female Coho Salmon. Small. In fact, it was the smallest salmon I saw all weekend. By a wide margin. But that's alright, the Cohos run smaller than the Kings and, after all, I had only been fishing for twenty minutes. There would be more, certainly. Right? In the half dark with cold hands, holding perhaps the smallest fish in a five mile radius, and tangled in my flyline as I always seem to be during the fish release process, I did not bother to take a photo.

The rest of the morning and the afternoon saw more fish hooked, but no more landed. The fights were a blast, though, and I definitely learn a little bit more with each battle. Plus, watching other anglers is a great way to see first hand what works and what doesn't work when it comes to landing Really Large Fish. And sometimes - often, in fact - a big fish heads downstream in big water, and you're simply not going to see him again, no matter who you are or what you do. It's a matter of physics.

So the first day is in the books. I didn't drown. I landed a fish and fought a half dozen more. The weather was beautiful, the beer was cold, my back ached. The lights go out but the river does not sleep. There be monsters in there, and I'll try again tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Bad News for Birds

I don't know what's more impressive, the shotgun or the shooter. I do know this: breaking in to this guy's house is ill advised.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Salmon River Countdown

In four days I will head north to the Salmon River in New York to try and catch salmon, steelhead, big brown trout or any combination of those three. I've already started packing: 8-weight rod and reel, waders, studded boots, lucky hat, beer, cigars, advil, camera. A year ago I went for the first time and had some success, thanks to my friend Steve who brought me there and showed me how to catch - and land - fish that were larger than any fish I had ever seen, let alone hooked.

I caught only salmon last year. The serious anglers up there all want steelhead, and many of them don't like hooking into salmon because it takes a long time to land one and that's time that could be spent fishing for steelhead. Me? I think it will be quite a long time before I get tired of hooking a 25- or 30-pound Chinook and watching - and, more importantly, hearing - ninety feet of fly line leave my reel in a matter of seconds. That's fun. Something that surprised me about my previous trip there was how much fun it was to just watch other anglers catch and land fish. Something about seeing an 8-weight fly rod bent over in an upside down 'U,' accompanied by the sound of a screaming reel, whether it belongs to you or the guy next to you.

Less than two years ago I was bitten, badly, by the fly fishing bug. Sometimes I fish for smallmouth in the Shenandoah or Potomac Rivers. Sometimes for trout in small Maryland streams. And sometimes I take my 3-weight across the street to my neighbor's farm pond and fish for sunfish. The rods, the flies, the method, the gear are all different. But that moment when a fish has fallen for my clumsy antics and taken my fly, that tug of life at the end of the line, man, that just does NOT get old. When the life that's tugging the line, though, is the size of a medium sized dog, it goes off the Fun Meter.