Stories from the water.

Reviews.

Essays.

Tips.

ABOUT BUMPY WATER

A compilation of observations, stories, tips, and literature. Most topics include a fish, a fly, a forest, or at least an open air setting, but that sometimes seems too limiting. So, you may find the odd rant on another topic.

I hope you enjoy.

read it here.

STORIES FROM THE WATER

“Enough time has now passed. The details are dissolving as this dream distances itself from reality. I can’t bring them back, those singular moments within morphs of back-lit clouds, the fresh beech forest smells, the cicada hum, and the somehow significant sound of southern rivers.  Travel to special places always goes down this way. It’s gone as soon as you are.”

-

How I Pulled off the Do-it-Yourself New Zealand Fly Fishing Trip of Dreams

 

read it here.

 

THE BLOG

16
Jul

Movie Review: Only the River Knows

This Fly Fishing Movie is So Close…

Several months back I wrote up a sarcasm-laced review of several of the overdone and cliche-drenched films I had noticed creeping into the 2014 Fly Fishing Film Tour. I say this almost apologetically now. I’ll quickly explain before getting to the review.

Yes, it got some laughs (an indication that there was some truth to it), but based on the reaction of a few of the filmmakers to that post, I felt maybe I was too harsh. I sympathize with their position. There isn’t currently much money in producing film tour shorts, so it’s mostly a labor of love. For those who worked extremely hard to produce their films and who seem to have taken umbrage with my snarky critique, I get it. I understand the criticism stings and I feel bad for offending a few of my brothers, sisters, and friends in fly fishing.

While I understand the push back to my criticism and feel bad, I stand by those opinions.

Why?

I want to inspire better fly fishing films. I want really good authentic stories, framed by stellar footage and all the well-produced details that make great film. There’s a reason Warren Miller and his ilk, including most fly fishing film festival shorts, will always be a niche. The narrative structure is so simple it gets boring as soon as the killer epic footage and pounding beat repeats itself, even once.

We need good story tellers making great films about life, framed and inspired by fly fishing. In short, we need more of A River Runs Through It. There are some great filmmakers doing some great things. We just need it all to come together. And this brings me to this film, Only the River Knows, and its filmmakers: Peter Christensen, Rolf Nylinder, Smatis EskjaerKokkaffe Media and crew. These guys may just have what it takes.

Just after my aforementioned sarcastic review I was contacted by Peter. He boldly and graciously asked if I would review Only the River Knows and impressively asked me not to hold anything back. So here it is.

Disclosure: I was already aware of this film and I had seen the short that had been screened at the IF4, I believe in 2013. My thoughts on that short version were that it was missing vital story elements, but that the footage was really interesting. Now I know more about what the film makers had mind.

Review: Only the River Knows

Not Rated, 123 minutes (screener version), available for purchase at www.onlytheriverknows.com

(Spoiler alert: this review does reveal significant plot points.)

Only the River Knows is the story, by my estimation partially true but more fictional, of modern day fly fishing bums and filmmakers Rolf and Peter. The two Scandinavian trout bums begin the story by recording, documentary style, their seemingly real struggle to catch the difficult and large browns of New Zealand’s wild South Island.

As Rolf struggles to catch a single trout and Peter records the failures, the pair stumbles upon one of New Zealand’s famous wilderness huts. Inside they discover the journal of one Lars Lenth. Credits indicate that Lars is an actual person, but whether or not the journal thing actually happened, I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter as far as the the film plot is concerned. Some of the early scenes are a little raw and a bit much, but Rolf’s genuine reactions to situations and one-liners are absolutely priceless. You cannot help but like this guy. He’s driven to fish and honest in his portrayal.

Now, on to Lars. By his lucid account, Lars seems to be both an extraordinarily observant documentarian and a talented angler. His journal, which is narrated over some beautiful footage, is well penned and the voice-overs of his exploits on these same New Zealand waters some 25 years earlier are exceptionally well executed. The flash back sequences of Lars’ days gone by are at once well-shot, scored well, and edited well.

The first half of the film with its juxtaposition of Lars’ dreamy memory scenes with the hand-held documentary-style modern day footage of Rolf and Peter, marks the high point of the film. Really and honestly, this was nearly the high point of any fly fishing inspired film I’ve seen, Redford’s included. Having visited New Zealand, it was authentic and inspiring.

Neither Odysseus, nor Beowulf show themselves, but the South Island fishing footage could rightfully be described as “epic.” The authenticity is there and you start to actually believe this whole saga. I was pulled into the story like I rarely have been in a “fly fishing” film. My feeling at about the half-way point was that this was a truly interesting and well-conceived film. I couldn’t wait to see where it was going.

The journal seems to inspire Rolf and he is successful in catching an incredible South Island trout as he follows in Lars’ footsteps. Rolf’s honest excitement is palpable and fun to watch. Once again, you just like this guy.

After returning home the plan seems to be to mail off the journal to Lars with a video message of appreciation. This, in itself would have made a solid, albeit short, film, but the story continues for some reason.

Rolf sets out to return the journal and instead decides to hand deliver and meet the legendary Lars. This is where a bunch of weirdness happens. I won’t go into the details except to say the plot becomes contrived, even silly, and the acting starts to break down. Only a couple of fishing scenes at the end are again mildly entertaining and authentic, but only to an angler, not to someone watching this as a narrative film. My guess is that the filmmakers felt compelled to extend the film out to standard feature length and dropped in additional footage they had from other adventures.

This was a mistake.

The early footage of New Zealand exploits feels like an authentic travelogue recognizable and relatable for every trout angler who has ever felt a little out of their element on new and challenging water. Their sometimes goofy, catchingly exuberant, realistic disappointment and honest portrayal here feels entirely authentic (I believe this is in fact just the real filming of the guys’ adventure.) You rarely see this kind of authenticity in the fly fishing portions of a narrative film (For example: see The River Why for an excessively inauthentic portrayal of the sport). These guys can fish, they talk fishing the right way, and they show the actual fishing in actual locations with actual fish. Add to this that Peter and crew are obviously talented filmmakers and you get a truly great half of a film.

The second half is a flop for every reason that bad movies are usually flops. The plot isn’t believable and the acting isn’t good.

So, overall, I have to say that Only the River Knows is an incredible effort. I’m sure these guys had a tiny budget and called in a lot of favors, which makes it all the more remarkable. I recommend that anyone interested in fly fishing and especially fly fishing filmmaking see it. Go to their site and buy it, please.

This film could have been so good, and the good parts are very good and worth seeing. But, as it stands, it’s mostly a cautionary tale in what not to do in order to avoid ruining a good thing.

A Couple of Words of Advice

My advice for Peter, Rolf, and crew, and whomever else is out there making fly fishing narrative film, is probably not wanted and should be taken for what it is. But, I would say that, first, keep it up, please. Just do it with a strong script and a laser focus on authenticity throughout. In addition, a small suggestion, but if future films are to be in English and distributed to a North American audience I would also suggest working with a native English speaker to quickly iron out the dialogue.

Stronger story editing could have saved this project from the absurd direction it takes and given us a really good fly fishing film. It was almost the best I’ve seen.

Trailer: Only the River Knows

30
May

Sublime Frustration, Fly Fishing New Zealand

Fly Fishing New Zealand is, Well…

The sand fly bites have healed. The snappy-voweled Kiwi accent is difficult to recall. Bags are empty and stored in the garage. And, I’ve already recounted all the excited travel stories I can tactfully tell at work and with friends. Interest in the oral tradition is waning these days. New Zealand’s fog shrouded mornings, bright afternoons, and gape-mouthed brown trout are sadly dissipating into cloudy shadows of once-tangible moments.

So, it’s time to get it written, before I forget anything more, the record of the most frustrating and sublime fly fishing trip of my life. How can it be both? The meanings of the two terms seem entirely negatory, distant at the very most. They are. But this adventure was just that, an alchemical collision of disparate scenes and emotions that yielded pure gold. And that is the magic of special places and waters and creatures pursued with rod and fly.

Light on the Remarkables Range, South Island, New Zealand

 

Fish the South Island? Ok

Early February 2014, my friend, business partner and fellow guide, Bryan Eldredge, floated the idea of a fly fishing trip to the South Island of New Zealand. Besides having a habit of being awesome, Bryan is the kind of guy who gets exceptionally stoked about fishing. He seemed extra caffeinated when he suggested this trip. Fly fishing New Zealand’s South Island is not just any trip. This is written in permanent Sharpie on every trout bum’s bucket list.  For Bryan and I, deep down brown trout bums, it was scrolled in bold right at the top, with a double-spaced line below it.

Through earlier fortuitous turns of life, Bryan’s family had become well-acquainted with Stefan, Meike and family, of Palmerston, South Island, New Zealand. Without going into the details of the acquaintance, I’ll simply leave it that they are also habitually awesome and Bryan had been extended a standing invitation to visit. I would be the lucky tag along.

Bryan is a professor. His work/life situation is perfect for summer fly fishing trips, which makes me jealous. However, the rest of the year he is extremely busy so the logistics would require substantial effort.

Bryan had schemed with his usual energy and he had it figured out. His upcoming spring break, an understanding wife, along with some serendipitous fiscal luck and artfully arranged off days, combined to create just enough window to sneak off to New Zealand for about 10 days.

The timing was even less ideal for me. This sort of trip usually requires at least months of planning, not 20 days. I had just returned from a family trip to the Caribbean and had looming projects at work. My vacation days would be shot and my co-worker’s patience tested. Of course I was going.

So, once I secured an “OK”  from work and generous assistance from my travel agent/wife (Thank you a million times Em!), I had 3 hectic weeks to plan. I would soon put a line through the “South Island” on my bucket list.

 

Information Firewalls and Thrown Bones

If you’ve got a YouTube video on fly fishing New Zealand, I’ve seen it. If you’ve written a blog post on do-it-yourself fly fishing on the South Island, I’ve read it. The problem is that these sources are shrouded in a secret haze of ambiguity like I’ve never seen, like an information firewall. Come on, isn’t there one D-bag hot spotter down there willing to give up all the South Island fly fishing secrets? If there is, neither I nor Google can find them.

Luckily, at about the time I was gathering intel, I happened to write a smart-A blog post on fly fishing films. One of the responses I got to that bit of tongue-in-cheekedness came from Peter Christensen, a Danish film maker known for Only the River Knows, one of the most ambitious and interesting independent feature films to come out of the F3T and IF4 genre (review to come). Peter and fishing/film making buddy, Rolf Nylinder, of Kokkafee Media and FrontsideFly had spent days and months in New Zealand filming and fishing for their film. So, I volleyed back a hopeful request for suggestions on where to fish. Peter was incredibly gracious. Even though I’m sure he didn’t give me all his NZ wisdom nuggets, he gave a few priceless map markers for which I am sincerely grateful. These are incredible rivers I can’t forget. Thanks Peter.

Additionally, our fellow Orvis Endorsed Guide, Dave Jensen, of flyfishalberta.com, also silver-plattered some helpful pointers. Dave and his wife, Amelia, great people by reputation, seem to live their dream to the fullest. They operate a lodge and guide service in Canada most of the year, and spend the Canadian winter on the South Island.

Dave shared a tidbit of wisdom I couldn’t forget. Paraphrasing, it went something like this: Until you see it, you won’t believe how few fish are actually in these rivers. Ok, that sounds, well, not great. But, he also followed that up with the reassurance that trout are trout, they need to eat, and you’ll know what to do when you find one. He also suggested some (surprisingly mundane) flies and provided a great deal of travel info that was valuable for first timers like us (take new boots or clean every speck off of your old boots). Thanks, Dave.

My New Orvis Wading Boots

Otherwise, our knowledge of where we might fish was mostly limited to what we could piece together from blogs, general info sites, videos, pics and anecdotes. That would give us a good start, right? We quickly learned that we were not in Kansas anymore, or the Rockies, or Utah, or anywhere familiar. This place is different.

 

On Land in the Land

Bryan, and his nephew Stephen, an even later addition to our ad-lib crew and a good dude, had arrived ahead of me, earlier in the afternoon. They had been to a fly shop, local eateries, fished a glacial-murked river fruitlessly, and had checked in to our musty little hotel. I felt behind. They had even mostly figured out how to drive on the left side of the road.

The little hotel wasn’t much in terms of accommodations, but it had plugs for device charging and beds; enough for 3 jet-lagged trucker-hat-topped ruffians. We tried to plan the next day’s fishing. Sleep overcame.

Light was beaming through the hotel window. We had awoken late. It was odd for 3 super-pumped first-timers in trout paradise, but nobody really cared. Seventeen hours of travel will do that.

We took the time to visit a bake shop for breakfast, and then a neighborhood grocery store for essentials. We know ourselves well enough to know we needed food and diet caffeine. We also appreciate the whole experience of things.  But, we were also in NEW ZEALAND. There were giant brown trout within reach. We could not maintain tourist mode for long.

Stephen, Bryan, and Jake in Gore, NZ "Brown Trout Capital of the World"

 

The Impossibility Called Choosing a River

Even just minutes outside of Christchurch, the pastoral scenery, uniquely plumed birds, eucalyptic smells, and the innumerability of Kiwi sheep already had me entranced. Only the sight of water would pull me out of this Peter Jackson shoot and into the real world.

South Island New Zealand Countryside

We furiously dissected digital maps and drove. So many rivers. The roadside landscapes revealed even more waters, smooth-surfaced sloughs and thin ribbon streams snaking through shrub-lined fields, nameless and fishy. We had incredible options, but this was a stress-filled decision. We were likely to get it wrong.

Around an hour in we crossed another river. I had heard its name, in a trout photo caption I thought, so we turned off the highway and traced the tree-sheltered meanders upstream.

We found a bridge, parked, and walked 100 meters of stream bank. It was small, clear, and cool, with an overhanging canopy. It remains as beautiful a stream as I think I’ve ever seen, but we weren’t feeling it. Difficult as it was not to leap into waders, we drove off. This may have been a mistake. Who knows? I need to go back someday to check.

That drive was an experience unto itself, urgency and anxiety overcome by utter beauty. A picture is framed by each car window and it is breathtaking. Each angle of the compass shows a verdant field with giant hedges, rounded Shire-ific hills, sheep, stone fenced yards, country homes, more sheep, enormous cloud shrouded mountains, sheep, and so many streams and rivers, so so many. Which should we fish? Daylight was not long.

Clouds, Mountains, and Fly Fishing Rivers in New Zealand

 

Fishing on the Fly

Deep into the Canterbury highlands we crossed another smallish stream. It was out in the middle of incredible nowhere. I almost pulled the e-brake. We had to stop. We had to fish. This was our river. I don’t even remember its name (not that I would share). Really though, it’s name didn’t matter. There were tens of other streams like it; a diamond clear ribbon of water pushing east over rain-tumbled gravel. Perfect.

I got to the water first (a bad habit). Parallel to the parking area was a long slow run about 3-4 feet in depth. It looked perfect. I zipped out some line and blind cast to the several likely spots at the tail of the run before I came to my senses. This water was so clear, I could have easily seen any fish large enough to care about down there, and they weren’t there. All I was going to do was potentially scare one. I stopped casting and started watching.

Bryan and Stephen materialized by my side (I had been staring hard). We cautiously moved upstream, watching. Shockingly, a fish moved. It was as if the New Zealand Travel Board had hand-placed it there, right in that first run by the road.

The thick buck brown trout was nearer to our side of the stream at the head of the run, just behind some current-changing rocks, jarringly tangible. He was more gray than gold, typical for New Zealand streams with air-clear water and grey stone bottoms. Trying to maintain sanity, we watched him methodically eating nymphs and showing an occasional flash off his deep sides. Unexpectedly, another larger brown also materialized in the jumbled currents, just upstream of the first. This second fish was also swaying, eating a nymph here and there. It was game time.

Bryan took the first crack with a large dry fly, a PMX I believe. His cast landed just over the first fish, out in the current. The trout spotted the bug, angled a pectoral fin, and slowly lifted in the current. In no hurry, he turned downstream after the fly. His side flashed sunlight, no 12-incher. I was almost giddy-dancing as the wide flat snout approached the fly, then, nothing. The fish simply stopped and settled back into its feeding lane. The refusal – heartbreaking.

Bryan continued to carefully present the dry, and even added a nymph dropper. There was a half-hearted follow or two and then nothing for a dozen casts or more. A big old reality bomb built up pressure and eventually exploded. Even though we could still see him down there, the fish was spooked.

This wasn’t a huge trout. By New Zealand standards it was ‘wee’ (later confirmed by Stefan in an offhanded, bubble-bursting observation), but it was our first sighted fish and our first taste of rejection. It bites when they don’t.

Bryan shrugged and gave me the go ahead for a Hail Mary. I had on a different dry fly, a largish Klinkhammer with a pale green thorax. “Maybe that fly would make a difference,” I thought or said; can’t remember. Anyway, as expected, the fish ignored 3 or 4 drifts. “Spooked,” I mumbled, justifying our first New Zealand failure. The second fish was now gone too. Game over.

I put a last compulsory cast into the current on the far side of the fish. Suddenly, as if it had never suspected anything at all, he was rising and getting closer and closer and painfully . . .  slowly . . . closer until . . . mouth. My reflexes worked, not too fast, not too slow. The line snapped tight. The hook held. I couldn’t have suppressed the annoyingly toothy grin if I had wanted. I didn’t want. My first South Island brown trout and the first of the trip was hooked.

First New Zealand Brown Trout

Soon I was holding a solid 19 or 20-inch New Zealand brown trout. We see a lot of browns this size here in Utah. One of our favorite rivers has mostly fish this size. But that trout had a look and a shape that rather factually stated, “I am a bad-arse brown from New Zealand.”

First Brown Trout in New Zealand

We worked our way up about a mile and a half of stream walking, stalking, and doing a little blind casting (American anglers just can’t resist the urge). We saw 3 more fish over that distance. Two spooked and Bryan had a miss on a big slow-take brown. That was our last chance of the day. If you are used to fishing trout-packed tailwaters in the States and wonder, yes, this is really what New Zealand fishing is like.

 

Authenticity

As usual, we had spent more time on the river than we should have and hadn’t made it as far down the road as we thought. So, we got to our hosts’ house way too late to appease my sense of social propriety, especially in a place where everything seems to shut down by 5 PM. We felt bad. Everyone was in bed except for Stefan, who is the local police chief. He was working from home, waiting for us and listening to radio dispatches.

Luckily, Stefan is a fish-head much like us, so he seemed to at least understand. We chatted for a half-hour or so and retired for the night. We awoke and met the family the next morning. It’s incredible how authentically accommodating they were to 3 disheveled American anglers. I think it is partly the accommodating nature of Kiwis in general and partly that these are specifically gracious people. Thank you Meike for the intro to Milo, and to Stef for the cod wings. I’m a sucker for chocolate flavored warm bevies and smoked fish, not at the same time.

Fish n ChupsDaylight showed off the town of Palmerston. It’s a quaint hamlet reminiscent of the 60s in America, only with an accent. It is bucolic and friendly, nestled in sparsely wooded coastal hills. The train and main coastal highway run through town. There’s a pub or two, the obligatory fish-n-chips joint, and a collection of little shops and businesses all in a row, like Kiwi Mayberry. The stores seem the type that are operated by local families who have always owned them. There’s even still a little bookstore. I know; I gasped too.

Over breki (breakfast) Stefan pointed us towards a few of his favorite nearby waters, the term “nearby” used loosely. The South Island is much larger than you can ever understand by map. I have read that there’s a Northern Hemisphere bias to most projection world maps that makes Southern Hemisphere land masses appear much smaller relatively. I believe it. Meike explained it well as we planned our day: “This is not just an island, it is a land.”

 

New Zealand, but Different

With a sleepy late start again, a long drive, and a few confusing turns, we got to the river some time after noon. From the map alone you could tell  that this river was different from most Kiwi streams. It calmly meanders across an agricultural plain, with oxbows, sparse clumpy willows along the banks and an occasional larger stream-bank tree. The water was stained a slight red-brown.

We geared up to the tune of cicada buzz and hurried to the bridge for a look. To our surprise, there were occasional mayflies popping and a couple of rising fish. Bryan brush battled into casting position through some willows and promptly stuck a feisty 14-incher. Nicely done.

I started up the left stream bank with hope dialed up to “high.” This stream is not unlike some waters at home. The grassy banks form undercuts, sweeping curves leave back eddies on the inside bends, and smooth runs compress into subtle current seams. Because the water was a bit dark and the layout was familiar I started blind casting to banks and seams (the “silly American” is strong in me). Nothing.

I worked upstream casting away and luckily, a gulp betrayed a rising fish before it spotted me. The fish was patrolling the edge of some swirling foam in a bank-side eddy, near an overhanging willow. I shifted into stealth mode and panthered up the bank to a casting position. The fish was visible, cruising slowly and almost randomly within eddy swirls. He was facing me at first. “Not good,” I muttered. I believed New Zealand fish to have 20x falcon vision and I was sure it would spook if I moved. So I waited.

Brown Trout Selfie in New ZealandLuck intervened and the fish eventually pivoted back upstream and positioned itself on the upstream edge of the seam, looking away. This was my chance for an undetected cast and drift. Target acquired…ready… fire. The solid fish slurped my fly with un-Zealandish abandon. This was a different sort of fish from the first. He was bright yellow, sleek, big-finned, and aggressive. I snapped a quick selfie and sent him home. Suddenly, the hopes for this place were hyperactive.

Up the bank a little more, and under another willow was a moving dorsal fin. I theorized that fish were positioned at the stream bank bushes on purpose. What better place to wait for clumsy cicadas from heaven. Unfortunately, as I prepped for a presentation to the big dorsal, the wind was advancing a serious challenge. I missed bad. I’m blaming wind and a 16-foot leader. I couldn’t get the fly where it needed to be. I missed again, and again, and finally I wind-hauled at the end of the forward cast to straighten the leader and slapped it all down hard. Fin and fish disappeared into the rusty deep.

Bryan and Stephen eventually appeared and we began a slow careful walk and stalk. Each of us would occasionally cast to likely spots (silliness again). We watched every willow, bush, grass clump, overhang, eddy and seam for fish, but the wind was now more than a problem. It was the victor. We saw no more fish. Bryan resorted to a streamer and had one solid strike from what looked like a great fish but elements wrested away the remainder of the day. There are no guarantees here.

 

Lamb, of Course

We took the next day off. Stefan’s mother, who had visited Bryan’s family and become acquainted, kindly invited us over for an early afternoon dinner. Real home-cooked food on a foreign fishing trip. Yes, I’ll do that.

Dinner was exceptionally tasty lamb, potatoes, home-gourmet side dishes I can’t pronounce and 2 desserts. They showered us with gifts, including greenstones (significant and not cheap). Thank you, thank you, thank you.

In addition to the generously tasty meal, the conversation, and the gifts, the view from their deck, overlooking Dunedin, was incredible. Dunedin is the South Island’s second largest city. This doesn’t make it particularly crowded or metropolitan, it only means that Dunedin has a few people around to testify of its incredible charm. It is a great example of a refined culture dealing with a wild landscape and place and coming out as something entirely unique. The city buildings say Europe, while the breaking grey ocean and the beaches of the area reminds you that Antarctica is not really all that far.

Dunedin, South Island, New Zealand

This whole experience was a real slice of authentic Kiwi life. Stef’s father is Maori and his mother is European, excited, kind, and in every sense of the oft uttered Kiwi term, awesome. We learned in conversation that you’re either a Vegemite or Marmite person. This was a Marmite house. Since I had tried Vegemite, I had to try Marmite for comparison’s sake. I am neither a Vegemite nor a Marmite person.

 

There Are No Dangerous Animals Here and Other Unbelievable Things You Hear in New Zealand

We borrowed camping gear and relocated to an area about 4 hours east up in the Southern Alps for a few days. As was becoming modus operandi in this immense land, we took a little too long getting there. Looking back, stopping for ice cream, stopping for wi-fi, stopping for pictures, and stopping for Coke Zero at a reasonable price (a real challenging find), didn’t help timing.

We abandoned our camping plan at some point after dark figuring we’d just quickly find a hotel. Take a note: This cannot be done past 8 PM in New Zealand, period. Don’t try it. Luckily, we found an all-night McD’s with wi-fi and set up our mobile base of operations. Mostly, and in reality, we all just kinda scrambled around on the internet trying to find a campsite. Bingo, and oh yeah, Lord of the Rings just happened to have been filmed here.

Camping in New ZealandWe arrived at the campground late into the night and eventually located an open spot. The potential reason it was still unoccupied: a couple of snarling, glowing-eyed, murderous night creatures in the bushes. I had myself convinced for most of the night that the black rodent monsters outside the tent were the menacing ROUS of Princess Bride fame. (later Stefan laughed at me and identified the creatures – New Zealand Possums).

It was foggy when we awoke, which blurred the view. That was a bummer, but this was to be a good day.

 

Clouds from Both Sides and Other People

Our research had pointed to a particular river in the area. Although the information was cryptic, it lead us to believe this could be someplace special. The drive alone confirmed the assumption.

Driving up into the clouds

We ascended along a sharp ridge as clouds thickened around us. The gravel road was narrow and steep. We soon became entirely enveloped in dense mountain fog.  Sheep would appear, like specters, here and there in the mist staring bewildered as we rolled by. It was eerie and awesome and odd.

With no warning, a speeding truck materialized from the mists, barreling down the middle of the road. It swerved to what felt entirely like the wrong side of the road, so did we. At the last minute Bryan somehow corrected course and we passed without accident. Heart attacks and head injury averted, we pushed on until we finally popped through the cloud ceiling and onto a spectacular sun touched mountain-top landscape.

This was another world entirely. The fog, below us now, stretched for miles like a sprawling white sea lapping in gaseous slo-mo against the hillsides. Sharp tall peaks with intermittent snow proudly perforated the white expanse in almost every direction. You can see this photographed, but until you’re there in the middle of the enormity, it defies an accurate description.

Sea of Clouds, New Zealand

The road eventually crested a high ridge and began to drop, back down and through fog, switching back and forth descending the grassy slopes. We broke below the fog and rolled down into a wide mountain valley. The yellow-tan grassland is cut by the winding path of one of the most beautiful trout rivers you can imagine.

Light through the clouds

We drove upstream and found an appealing two-track river access road then, horror. There was another group of anglers standing right in the middle of our siren river. We briefly participated in an awkward staring match we knew we couldn’t win and then put the pedal down on a deliberately fast 3-point turnaround. For good measure we shot back a small cloud of gravel and dust. We motored up another 5 or 6 kilometers with urgency and apprehension. Would there be more anglers? Is this the austral Provo River?

 

Made

We found the surprise people to be just an unlucky aberration and identified a likely stretch of empty water. The put in was just below a gorge where the road left the river. It would afford us a lot of river distance and interesting water.

At first inspection we immediately sensed that this river would be fun. The water just looked fun, short swift rapids, long smooth runs, boulders, drop offs, deep cuts, pockets, grassy undercut banks, and snow-chilled clear clear water.

As usual, the must-fish jitters had us blind casting inexcusably. We beat up the first couple of runs with no luck except for one lucky refusal from a nice fish that was one-and-done.

Hundreds of meters in I finally snapped to my senses. Sanity restored, I climbed the far bank and started slowly moving upstream watching the water, the New Zealand way.  Not long into my careful inspection of the water something showed. Something I can’t recall exactly, maybe a shape, shadow, tail flip, or just that subtle change in hue that says salmo trutta. Some life was down there in the shady meter-deep depression behind a rock, something that had secured my attention. I pulled hands over the sides of my sunglasses to shade out every last bit of distraction. But, the water was rippled and dark in that spot. I couldn’t conjure it again.

I motioned to Bryan. He was still blind casting through a nice piece of water downstream. He started up toward me. When he got within earshot I explained what I thought I’d seen (hoping it was real) and pointed him towards the spot. He worked his way up through the cool knee-deep water to a workable casting position.

Bryan’s false casts unrolled as smooth as I’ve ever seen. The distance looked perfect, then he shot some line. The fly landed 15 feet left. I looked at him puzzled, and uttered a long “uhhhh” as I searched for words. Blank stare met with blank stare. Bryan sensed that something wasn’t right and asked if it was close.

“Um, not that rock,” was all I could come up with.

“Oh, you mean that one over there?”

“Yeah, that one.” We mutually acknowledged our misunderstanding with a single nod and he was locked on target.

I hoped this miscue hadn’t scared the something that was or wasn’t there.

Bryan gathered for another shot at the irregularity in the river. His cast was dead on. The dry-dropper rig landed a perfect 6 or 7 feet upstream of the depression in the river bottom. He began to strip slack. The paired flies rode the currents perfectly and, right at the meridian of riverine mystery, the dry fly stalled, then sank.

“That’s it!”

Bryan brought the line tight with a sharp lift of the rod tip and the deep bend in his Orvis 5wt began to pulse. It was a fish. Instincts took over. He exaggerated the rod angle, sending an increase of energy down a taut line, over each tenuous leader ligation, and into the trout. The fish begrudgingly lifted off the bottom sending a pulse of yellow-gold light our way; it was a big brown. My first guess was 20+ inches and deep so I sloppily fired up the camera to catch the fight on film. It looked like a decent fish through the lens but the throbbing runs and corresponding bends in graphite reported the truth – it was a brute.

I jumped down the bank to net the fish, camera still rolling. The closer the fish got, the bigger it seemed, then it was in the net and still growing. What a trout!

Bryan's Big New Zealand Brown Trout

Bryan had stuck his new nymph, the Hellion, right in the snout of twenty-six inches or so of powerful New Zealand brown. This fish had it all, shoulders, belly, thick red-margined adipose, alligator jaws and attitude; one of the finest examples of a brown trout that I have ever seen. Yet it was even more than that. This magnificent fish was the sublime reward for the years of staring past the surface into the deep dark spots behind all those rocks.

 

Light, Land, and Their Source

True to New Zealand form, a few other opportunities eluded us as big fish were missed, and the wind blew and blew. Bryan’s was to be the only significant fish of the day.  However, our drive down the hill turned into something almost as impressive as that giant brown.

To begin, the bumpy trip was eventful. We helped some locals get their VW van out of the mud and ran into some tight spots ourselves as we forded the stream and squeezed around rock falls. Road hazards in the rear view, we crested a pass and began a steep descent into another bank of thick mists below.

Descending Into the New Zealand Fog

Even without the fish, difficult as this is to imagine, there’s something about New Zealand. I live in a beautiful place, a pretty great state. I see mountains of similar elevations to those in New Zealand almost daily, but it’s not the same, or even that similar. The New Zealand landscape is new, in geological time frames anyway. The forests and green valleys are old. And then, there are the mists, old and new at once. The way the low clouds move over the land transforms your entire sense of this immense place into one beautiful mystery, a mystery you are happy to leave unsolved.

Light on the Land, New Zealand

As evidence, the emergence from the bottom of the fog pulled back the curtain on one of our most impressive vistas yet. Sunlight split the clouds with rays of alternating intensity. The beams shot through vapors and  illuminated fields, hills and the watery twists of the river we intended to fish the next day. The simultaneous simplicity and enormity of the light-touched scene concluded God.

 

Uncatchables

We were refreshed and ready the next morning and our arrival on the water was uncharacteristically early. Morning fog still greyed the hillsides but the whole sky was an evenly lit mist. Surprisingly, this turned out to be very good light for seeing fish, no hard shadows nor glare and enough illumination to see deep.

We walked through a sheep field— which is redundant in New Zealand—and came upon the river. It cut through grassy pastures leaving a 5 or 6 foot raised bank. Peaking over the edge, we immediately spotted a stout brown. What the…? No trekking? No long stalks? No strategy necessary? Nope, you just walk up to this river and there’s a fish, we thought…

The brown trout spooked before we could practically blink, long before we could cast. We spotted another fish just upstream, feeding over the clean gravel bottom. Someone breathed. It spooked. This repeated itself several times more. We split in search of less cautious quarry. I walked up and around some trees and came back to the water’s edge very slowly. With only a hat and 2 eyes above the bank’s edge I spotted 2 feeders about 40 or 50 feet down from me. They were almost obscured by overhanging trees and, by all indications, had not spotted me. My distance and angle made me think this could be my chance. I cast about 25 feet or so and started feeding out line for a stealth-mode downstream presentation. Before the fly got anywhere close, of course, both spooked. Seriously?

I located a bit of choppy moving water with big rocks and spotted a fish holding deep under the inconsistent surface. I was behind him, the water was broken; for sure I could approach and catch this one on a nymph. Nope. Spooked.

We were seeing fish, but what did that matter? We were going to scare every single one. Deep frustration settled in and pushed down on the scene like the morning fog. This place is a giant Ferris wheel of angling emotions. The highs are incredible but it always seems that you end your ride at the bottom.

Yet, there were fish here, quite a few of them in fact. That small hope fueled at least a little more persistence.

I could hear the distant sound of a rapid and figured if there was a place on the river to get close to a fish, it would be there. It wasn’t far and it was a gorgeous looking spot. A fast current tumbled down hard over cobbles and took a left turn into a big pool. The heavy current split the pool in half with a nice seam on each side. On my side of the river (right) was also a nice soft spot and a slight eddy that curled back upstream at the far right edge. Near the tailout of the deeper part of the pool I could see 2 decent fish. Each was moving they way fish move when eating nymphs. Miraculously, they didn’t seem to be scared…yet.

I readied my dry dropper rig, a klinkhammer and tungsten beaded SOS nymph for a dropper. My first cast drew a fish over for a look but no take. “Ok, good sign.” Yes, my head-voices were practically audible. Or maybe I was talking to myself. Frustration will do that. My second cast landed right where I thought it should. Both fish spooked.

“Are you serious? How? How the…?” I almost screamed it.

Here was finally a river with a reasonable number of fish, but they were completely uncatchable.

 

S.O.S.

I stopped fishing to regroup. I needed something to save me. I scanned the rest of the big pool. There was one more fish, very visible, at the edge of the eddie and current on the far right. The bottom under him was a light-colored sand and fine gravel. It seemed to magnify the fish. I could see his every move, which meant he could see mine. Even though I was a good 30 or more feet from him and directly behind, I assumed I was screwed. But, this fish was fortuitously positioned just right of the main current and just left of the area where the eddy started to pull water back upstream. It was a great feeding lie, the best in the pool and it was a nice spot for a presentation and drift.

Bryan and Stephen showed up just in time for what I of course assumed would be a front row seat to witness the continuation of my sad-clown comedy of errors. I carefully placed a cast timidly out toward the fish. It landed left in the fast current and zipped back downstream, ignored. My next cast was better, just left of the fish. He turned toward my nymph and glided over for a look. I saw his mouth open. New Zealand water is that clear. It looked like he ate, so I set.

Yes! There he was, and the fly held. He was immediately heavier and stronger than I expected. I didn’t know if I could stop him at first as he powered out into the fast water. I was able to keep him out of a drowned bush and he made a few more strong runs upstream but I soon had him over the shallow gravel and in the net.

What an impressive fish. Just over 22 inches, stout, strong and, as Stephen put it, he looked “prehistoric.” It was an impressive fish, but more than that, I was just happy to feel for a moment like a fly fisher again.

Prehistoric Brown Trout, New Zealand

Stephen stepped up to the run and caught another fish from the faster current. A solid 15-incher. Bryan headed up to fish more fast water. We thought we were onto something, fast deep runs. Turns out even this formula wasn’t easy.

Brown Trout in New Zealand

One bend upstream I came upon a pair of very long browns gliding about and occasionally rising. I wanted to catch one of these fish badly so I deliberately took my time. I spent 10 minutes or so inching into position, watching and waiting for the right time. Finally, one of the long browns slid to the left and began to rise. I laid out as smooth and as careful a cast as I could contrive from almost 50 feet downstream. At first I was just ignored, then a cast or two later they spooked. The pattern had resumed. Thank goodness for anomalies. They often save the day.

 

Trout Acting Like Trout

Our afternoon began by trying to find a quick bite on our way to another spot.  Nope, not to happen. It was only 2 or so in the afternoon but apparently lunch places close early too. Kiwis like their schedules. Hopefully, their fish would like something.

We headed for the lower river. It was slower and wider and there were innumerable trout by South Island standards (meaning we saw 5 or 6 from the bridge). We dug deep into our remaining food items, slapped together some sloppy PB&Js, and headed for some sweet looking water.

Pool in the River, New Zealand

Bryan and Stephen started working a beautiful deep greenish pool just up from the bridge. The current came in from the left and pushed up against a decent sized cliff. The pool formed by this collision of fluid and immovable solid was probably 10 feet deep, enough to shelter an entire school of fish in my mind. Bryan rigged nymphs and was soon connected to an energetic and sizeable brown that went airborne and tarpon-shook the fly. Our bad luck was intact.

As I watched Bryan and Stephen work the pool a riser showed itself within range on a flat below the pool. I got a downstream drifted Klinkhammer into his view and hooked up with a stout little 13-incher. It seemed a little too easy, especially considering our morning on this same river.

I began to stroll upstream and noticed an interesting feature that I assumed would hold fish. The current stream flowed down a steadily curving channel on the right side of the gravel stream bed. The left side had once hosted another watery braid, but this one was now without current, filled with still water. A sparse raft of yellow leaves mingled on the still water side. The break between still and moving waters was a perfect place for lazy feeding browns and as I observed the scene I saw a fish rise right where one should.

I cast my little olive Klinkhammer and got a short strike. Right at the last minute something hadn’t been right. This seemed odd fish behavior in New Zealand, especially considering it was a small fly, size 16 and reasonably close to the little gray-green mayflies that we had seen hovering at the bridge. I continued to work this fish and about 4 or 5 casts later it succumbed to temptation. This fish had fight but wasn’t huge, maybe about 17 inches or so. It was thick and sleek at the same time, sparsely spotted with a dull yellow hue.

Beautiful Brown and Ripples, New Zealand

This is where it got interesting. This same seam continued to produce brown trout, one more on a dry and then a couple more on an SOS dropper. No walking miles, no stalking, just cast and catch. Additionally, they were all nice browns between about 15 and 19 inches. At home I would have snapped pics. Here, no way. Bryan and Stephen had gone upstream and were now out of sight. I wasn’t going anywhere. This was the most fish, by far, I’d seen in any one spot all week.

I worked the remainder of the left seam with a dry dropper and then covered the medium deep water on the left side of the main current. This produced 2 more solid fish. I’d stumbled into a honey hole.

I noted a couple of rising fish on the far seam across the river. The water was slow against the far bank the width of about 2 meters until it met with the main current, forming perfect seam for feeders. It was fishable with a reach cast across and down. Pretty soon I was hooked up again. This one was strong. I was able to eventually finesse him across the current and into the net – an absolutely beautiful 21-inch female.

Then the real fishing got started. More fish started to rise, but these were oddly picky. I eventually pulled the dropper off and went straight dry. I fooled another eventually but most of the sporadically rising fish clearly wanted something else. There really weren’t many naturals on the water but every so often you’d see a mayfly sailboat by. These particular mayflies weren’t exactly like anything I knew, a little like PMDs, except in a light gray. I dug around in my tailwaters boxes (lucky I’d thrown these in) and found one of my go-to flies for picky eaters, an extended body bug I call the Better Baetis.

Armed with a new weapon I started to work the risers on the far side. The Better Baetis was a good match and I went into a pure happy zone for an hour or so. Altogether I think I landed somewhere around a dozen or so from this one section of river. I had walked a total of a quarter mile, far less than the usual 7 or 8 miles, and had caught fish. These were great fish too, not New Zealand Nessies, but not bad. 2 or 3 of these beautiful browns broke 20 inches and most were between 15 and 18 – another made day.

Recapping on the way back to the truck, Bryan and Stephen had each caught several fish too. It was a great day on a great river, not the typical sight-fishing stream, but it’s always nice to shake it up. Here in the States we call this kind of experience “actually catching fish.” It’s refreshing. Kiwis should try it sometime.

 

True New Zealand

We awoke to usual fog and relished another crazy-interesting drive through the scenic South Island hills. This area looked every bit like the Shire from Lord of the Rings, even featuring a crop circle of happiness (below). This river would be a river that Peter Christensen, mentioned earlier, had recommended. Peter did not steer us astray.

Happy Fields in New Zealand

This was another small-medium sized stream, but had a character all its own. The water flows shallow and smooth over dark bedrock in most areas and then tumbles into deeper areas with clean light gravel. The contrast is fascinating. When fish are over the gravel they are neon-easy to spot. When they are in areas of dark bedrock you just don’t see them unless they rise. This is assuming there are any fish at all in the particular kilometer of stream you find yourself watching.

Yes, this river was another that would required long walks. We didn’t spot our first fish until we were nearly a mile from the access. We promptly spooked that one, all 3 of us pitching an arsenal of dries and nymphs; nothing. We didn’t see another trout for another 1/2 mile or so, but this was a giant darkly hued brown cruising haphazardly around a slow pool. We spooked this one too.

Marching on.

 

One

We had split up and were walking both sides of the river to maximize our limited fish viewing opportunities (every missed fish might mean another mile). To my utter surprise and delight, just one pool up from the last sighted trout, a fish slowly broke the surface.  I skidded to a stop like there was a “stop” sign and a dark-spectacled cop waiting for mistakes. I focused intently on where I had seen the rise. A half minute or so later a huge snout appeared like a slo-mo Kraken in a 3D epic. This huge self-assured sipper was on my side of the river, straight upstream and just off the bank. He rose a few more times. The easy steady feeding pattern helped me keep it all together; it was go time for the fish of the trip, the one.

I breathed deep and pragmatically surveyed the lie and my surroundings in order to strategize an approach. It was going to be pretty straightforward, 25 feet or so directly up the bank. I am a right-hander and was kneeling on the right bank about 3 feet up off the water with another 7 or 8 feet of bank above and behind. I would need to be careful with my backcast and would need to reach a bit to the left on the presentation to be sure the line would land off the grass and brush. Then of course, as usual, I would need to be careful not to get too close and would have to land the fly softly and on target with 16 feet of leader, but otherwise, you know, no big deal.

I carefully butt-slid down the steep bank to stay low and then knee-shimmied into a decent position. Grass stains will come out of waders eventually, maybe. I didn’t care. I could see the fish clearly. His snout – dorsal – tail rises gave me a sense of this scale, a deep-sided, darkly-hued brown at least 25 inches long, maybe 30.

I carefully worked a small pile of fly line off the reel and laid it loosely in the grass. I reached for the leader, keeping the rod angle low, and followed the smooth monofilament down to the fly, the same pale green Klinkammer that had worked perfectly on the first fish of the trip. Releasing the fly from my hand, I began a nice smooth backcast and promptly dumped fly and leader into the grass and thistles behind me.

Mild expletive on the air, I shamefully crawled up the bank to free the fly and then ever so gracefully slid again down the bank to where I’d left the rod and line in a pile. Of course Bryan was getting this all on film. Great.

The fish was still visible, but hadn’t risen for a while. I wasn’t sure if he had seen me go up the bank, but he was still there and I was going to make this next presentation better. I got the line and leader and fly and rod all in order again and carefully started another cast, shortening the stroke a bit to keep the line high on the back cast. Then I focused on my target and set down a careful forward cast – missed right. With a frustrated slow breath to refocus, I started another cast. This one landed perfectly on the seam about 3 feet up from the feeding brown. Yes!

The short drift seemed to take forever, but as it came into the trout’s view it triggered a response. The fish rose slowly. He opened his ample mouth and waited, sucking in water, air, and finally fly. I counted, “1, 2, ok, set it!”

The rod bent deep into the taper, the line and leader tightened against the weight. The brown lifted to the surface where it pulsed and splashed with a deep hollow glub, and then, there was the fly. It was in the air and not in the fish. The rod, line, leader and hopes of an epic New Zealand brown trout all went limp.

I could not believe it. I dropped the rod, fell straight over backwards into the grassy hillside to pout. The sky was deep blue, so was my heart. I sat up, spiked my hat, and threw a little stream-side toddler tantrum. Frustrated with my luck, I laid back in the grass and stared at that empty blue clear sky. That was it. That was my fish.

 

One More

After several moments of misery I looked up at Bryan and Stephen. They gave me a palms-up hand gesture and look that seemed to simultaneously say: “1. What happened? 2. Oh well. 3. It will be ok.” Thanks guys, but it’s not quite ok. That fish was a beast.

I sat up, grabbed my hat off the ground and looked down where I knew the fish wouldn’t be.

He rose.

No lie, no hallucinating, no fisherman’s recollection, he rose again. Within less than a few minutes of being stung, hard enough to turn him sideways and bring him to the surface, he rose and ate. How the..? Who cares? The game was back on.

I crawled forward carefully to retrieve my mess of fly, line, leader, and rod from the grass. The fly was stuck in a thistle. The line was tangled. Why wouldn’t it be? There was absolutely no way to foresee this resurrection of rising fish, so I’d tossed it. But it happened. It was happening. The universe was handing me a very hungry and heavy brown trout who was graciously unaware of the danger of artificial flies tied to mono and linked by a line to a rod and biped.

After significant untangling I finally got things back in order and got back into position. My mind cleared and focus returned sharper than before. I’m sure my tongue was sticking out of the side of my mouth. Like my dad, my tongue just does that when I concentrate – baseball, tests, tying flies, backing up trailers, etc. There are plenty of embarrassing pictures of the both of us in the tongue-zone.

Even with tongue-out focus, the next cast just sucked. It was just bad, meters to the left. There had been a bit of wind but I think it was mostly the utter shock that I still had a huge brown rising so close to me and after he had “tasted iron,” as one of my favorite old clients would put it.

I put another cast just above the big brown. It drifted right into his waiting jaws. I think I was more rattled than I was ready to admit. My hook set was too fast. The fly popped right out and sailed past me into the bushes. With a swipe of his ample tail the beast moved upstream a couple meters. He settled in just upstream of a good size rock. Spooked.

Missing a fish like this, a second time, just leaves you numb. No hat throwing, no deep sighs, no whining necessary. He was just gone this time.

But…

 

Still There?

I could still see the fish hunkered down there in his new lie. He was not feeding anymore, but still within reach. He had eaten once after a miss. Maybe I could force feed him a nymph? Just maybe?

It was worth a shot since I’d probably have to walk another mile before I got another chance anyway. So, I clipped off the Klinkhammer and tied on a good size PMX with a trusty SOS nymph about 2 feet behind. I wasn’t even really considering catching this fish now. I just wanted that nymph to get as close as possible to his beak to see what might happen. I  stood up because I sort of didn’t care, also it would make the casting easier.

I dropped the new flies just upstream from the fish’s new lie. Maybe, just maybe, he would open up and let the nymph in if I could ensure no effort would be required. That was a complete misunderstanding of the powerful primal urge this fish seemed to have to eat. That’s right, as the 2-fly rig came close the jaws opened up. The beast was again zeroing in on the dry fly… and… and… gulp.

It wasn’t even a surprise when the hook didn’t hold this time; just a big fat disappointment. I couldn’t even floss him and foul hook him with the nymph. This was clearly THE UNCATCHABLE.

Insert the baseball adage we’re all thinking here and it was over. I was out. I threw my hands up and wished the big brown the best, a long and happy life of eating everything in sight with no consequences. Long live the beast. It was the fish of the trip.

 

Frustration and Commiseration

It was another long walk, through thick riparian grasses and brush. I was spent. Tired from the day, the sun, and tired from this infernal knee deep mattress of weeds and thistles. These were evil foot grabbing plants, sent straight from Hell to torment my every step. Maybe I was actually just a little more exhausted and angry about the missed fish than I cared to acknowledge. Whatever, I’m going with Devil-weeds. We kept trudging.

Eventually, Bryan spotted a rise, coincidentally just upstream from where he was blind fishing a run (old habits can pay off). It was another large fish, more yellow than the last and at least in the mid-20-inch range. Bryan put a long cast over the spot where we’d last seen the fish and got him to come up for a half-hearted refusal. A couple casts later the big yellow brown turned, followed, and sucked down the dry.

Bryan hooked it cleanly and the fish bolted downstream at an angle toward the far bank. It looked like an incredible fish and moved like one, but at the end of the run the line just went limp. The hook had mysteriously come free. We deservedly commiserated for several minutes. Missing fish, losing fish, is worse here than anywhere I’ve ever fished.

 

Payoff

It’s generally true in fly fishing and life that if you stick it out, you’ll eventually figure it out, or just get lucky.

As we continued our upstream trudge up the left stream bank, a generously giant brown came flying out of the water not more than 30 or so feet away. It stopped us all in our tracks. Did that just happen?

There was absolutely no subtlety about this fish. He exploded through the surface film and seemed to hang in midair, 2 or 3 feet above the river surface, flaunting his dark spotted sides in great detail before absolutely cannonballing with a deep kerplunk. We assumed he was chasing something. Or was he being chased?

The place was ideal. A ridge of bedrock ran parallel to the current. The hard black rock was a foot or so underwater but the right edge dropped abruptly into a thigh-deep gravel channel where we’d seen the fish.  Stephen was on it.

We couldn’t see the fish so we approached with caution. The first several casts didn’t turn up anything. Stephen took a careful step upstream and a few more casts went by without a fish. The “guide” in both Bryan and myself is rather annoyingly always there. We went into problem solving mode and suggested a cast just a little beyond the splash spot. The fly landed, drifted a few feet and then, like a whale coming up for air, a shadow appeared.

The dark form slowly rose and assumed all its details until the spotted olive-gold snout was all but touching the fly. Nobody breathed. Then, with a hiss of escaping hope, the fish seemed to lose interest. Hope and the fish sank as it let the fly pass, a clear refusal. A gap of several feet widened between fish and drifting fly. Then, with a puzzling resurgence of interest, the fish curved its body gracefully to catch current and with slow tail sweep followed the drifting fly downstream. The process seemed to take forever, suspense building the whole time as the gap closed. A bulge in the surface tension formed and then broke to reveal a wide flat snout just behind the big terrestrial. Jaws opened bright white in the sun. The fly and a bunch of water and air tumbled down into the abyss. Stephen handled it perfectly, counting to 3 and allowing the fish to turn before setting. Zzzzzzip. The hook held.

The big yellow brown energetically tried to dive under the rocks along the shelf. It looked like he might saw off on the r0ck. With two guides now shouting instructions Stephen was able to work the fish back into the gravelly channel. Another fish suddenly appeared from the rocks. The second fish chased the hooked fish for several meters, back and forth. Imagine this for a second: a 2-foot+ brown, being chased by another brown at least his size. Surreal.

Stephen was able to get the hooked fish near the surface and the chasing brown spotted us and darted downstream. It passed in full view over a shallow gravel bottom, not small.

We aren’t sure which of these 2 fish was the one we saw initially, but Stephen’s fish was fantastic.  It sported an enormous head, big spots, long toothy jaws, a full 27+ inches of vibrantly spotted brown trout. (Just to be clear: TWENTY-SEVEN inches!) It was the longest fish of the trip. Watching this incredible rise, follow and take was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had on the water. And the hook held. This is the entirety of the fine line between despair and delight. Out spirits were renewed.

Stephens Large New Zealand Brown Trout

Bonus Time

Pretty much every day in New Zealand is made before you even fish. You’re in New Zealand. That fact alone makes every minute nearly as surreal as a Dali canvas, but far more beautiful. This day was now made. But, we weren’t going to let opportunities escape so we kept marching upstream and watching, knowing well that we were now on bonus time.

Eventually another fish appeared. This one rose in the dead middle of the river. The water here was smooth and steady. My turn again, even though I had probably in fairness used two days worth of my turns on the one single fish I had so entirely screwed up.

New Zealand Fly Fishing, brown troutBryan directed me into position. The fish sipped a few times. It was moving several feet side to side in the slow current following the almost imperceptible seams and micro currents. It was difficult to know where it would rise next. I made 5 or 6 casts until the fish and fly finally wound up in the same line at the same time. The rise was quick and the hook set held. The fish lept twice with exceptional vigor. It was a stout female brown about 22 inches long. Bonus.

Another similarly sized fish showed itself in this same long slow run. Bryan got into the river. Stephen and I watched it feed back and forth in the current. Looked like a sure thing. But, before Bryan got a cast over it, we spotted another fish, near the left side of the river. It was huge. We nearly forced Bryan to stop casting to the first fish, at least if,  “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Forget that fish. This one is huge.” means that to you. Neither fish ever ate and both eventually disappeared. Lesson learned – fish to the feeder.

Last Ditch Effort

We got back late, again, thoroughly exhausted. The next morning was another lazy one. We chatted, told stories and worked out a plan to get me back to Christchurch. Bryan and Stephen would be there a few more days, but this was my last day to fish. I wanted to go somewhere awesome, but I also needed to get to Christchurch that night for a 5 AM flight the next morning. My only option was a shuttle that picked up in Palmerston in the early afternoon. So our options were limited to near town.

Like most towns in New Zealand, there’s a river right in Palmerston. However, in its current incarnation, actually calling it a river is a stretch, a big stretch. It could have once been a river before large-scale agriculture diverted most of its water.  It is probably occasionally still a river after days and days of rain. It may even be a river at other points along its course. But, the “river” at this point in time was a ditch, my last ditch.

There was probably a flow of only about 15 CFS. Even at that, the water was spread thin over a wide stream bed. In most places it was only 6 to 12 inches deep. It was a beautiful setting in places (it’s difficult to escape beauty in New Zealand) but there just wasn’t much water to speak of.

Tiny Stream in New Zealand

 

Even practically dry, all of our sources assured us that there are ‘really big’ fish in this water and we had a couple hours at most before my bus, so we fished. We walked downstream far enough to allow us to see what we had to work with as we fished back upstream. We saw some sheep, again redundant in New Zealand. We saw fascinating shore birds picking through the shallow water and river rocks. Some ducks launched off of a flat stretch of skinny water. But fish? Here? I had my doubts.

To be fair, there were several stretches of essentially still water that were deep enough to hold fish, but approaching wary browns in these situations proved to be just too hard. We saw one 15-incher spook and slowly move up under a fallen tree and we busted 2 big fish in perfectly flat water. One left a wake across the dead water and buried itself in the weeds. An uneventful end, especially for such a magnificent trip, but also fitting. New Zealand doesn’t give away its treasures easily.

Before I knew it, certainly before I wanted, I was on a bus to Christchurch chatting with an elderly Kiwi farmer and then in the air bound for Australia and eventually L.A. and then home. Dreams of giant browns in a magical land started the minute I closed my eyes on the plane. They haven’t stopped.

It's Like a Dream, New Zealand's Remarkables Range

Why We Fly

Enough time has now passed. Details are dissolving as the dreams distance themselves from reality. I can’t bring them all back, those singular moments within morphs of back-lit clouds, the fresh beech forest smells, the cicada hum, and the full significance of clear southern rivers.  Travel to special places always goes down this way. The blissful entirety of the richly detailed scene is gone as soon as you are.

Yet there’s a sense of the place that you cannot forget. It’s fixed somewhere within the brain, or deeper, beneath the conscious, guarded fondly at the edge of recall and being. It includes all the frustration and joyful tight-lined triumphs. It’s the misted essence of enchanted hills, rain-clean rivers, courtesies and bold brown trout.  To come away changed, transmuted and imbued with this sense, this is the reason you go fishing in special places.

01
Apr

It’s Time to Come Clean – Yes, I’m a Cage Fighter

You may have noticed I’ve gone silent for a while since my last controversial post on the epicosity void apparent in today’s fly fishing filmmaking. Well, there’s a reason, and I’m ready to make this all public now.

CapoeiraSo, here it is. The reason for my internet silence is that my time in recent weeks has been ferociously dedicated to my burgeoning Capoeira (aka Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) career. I must say, it is going well, incredibly well. So well, in fact, that it’s getting difficult to keep this secret life covert. So, let’s discuss this in the open, as well as the ramifications this will have on my fly fishing life, life in general, and universal physics.

First, Capoeira is a fusion of fighting arts, dance, philosophy, white stretchy pants, and unusually bad-A hair (the most difficult aspect for me to master). I was a surprising natural. Turns out a spare tire (tractor trailer size) is good for helping you maintain a solid center of gravity.

My cage name, “Punhos de Ferro,” was a natural fit, mostly because of it’s highly descriptive nature, but also because I came up with it to intimidate my competition. I only later learned that not all Capoeira fighters are actually Brazilian. In fact, most don’t understand Portuguese at all. Also, turns out iron is not even close to the hardest metal, so yeah, this didn’t really work. Nevertheless, I continued my quest for glory and honor and a sense of centeredness, mostly glory.

Chuck Norris golf

The lead-up to my first fight was a tough time for me. I had a lot of difficult questions. Was I ready? Was he just too much of a man? Could any moustache really be that spectacular? This last answer was a “yes” for sure. But really, was this a good idea? I mean, this is a guy that has been known to change the gravitational nature of the planet, take hostages for fun, and hit golf balls like a boss such that they travel through trees instead of around them. Could I defeat such a formidable foe? I mean this guy is legendary. 

No worries. My intense training had prepared me well. Here’s the recap.

The press lead up, especially the social media, memes, and Reddit posts basically built it up as the fight of the epoch. Jake “Punhos de Ferro” Ricks vs. Chuck “no nickname necessary” Norris, aka “The Tussle of Muscles” could not have been more epic.  The storyline alone was enough for a really good Redbox movie. He’s over the hill, but was once one of the universe’s great fighters. I was a young upstart with entomology skills and the know-how to wield a whip finisher for good. As you can see, there was no way this was not going to be epic.

He started by taking some air hostage, then he did a push up and the world moved a few feet, next he swam through land to get to my side of the ring, he made sure Mars was devoid of life, then he glared a grizzly bear into submission. This scared me, but luckily also initiated an involuntary fight-or-flight reaction.

I round house kicked him in the chin. He crumbled like a bag of crushed Lays potato chips. Also, weird, but there was stage makeup all over my foot. I was beginning to believe that this guy was all Hollywood smoke and mirrors, until he hit the ground. It registered a 11.2 on the Richter scale. That, my friends, is when I knew…

I am destined for the cage.

So, my 16 fly rods and piles of other gear are now up for sale. Make me an offer, but a word of caution, don’t make me angry. These fists are made of iron.

Happy birthday Mom!

02
Mar

Fly Fishing Film Tour 2014, Epic?

Top 16 phrases you should immediately edit out of your epic fly fishing film.

f3t

I just got home from attending this year’s Fly Fishing Film Tour in Salt Lake City. It was a solid event with films, prizes, a raucous vibe, and best of all, it’s for a good cause.

For me it’s fun to see the films. These are adventures I will probably never experience so it stokes the coals under the dream of eternal fish bummery.  It’s even better to see all my good friends from the local fly fishing world. Reminds me of how many great people fly fish and how this pastime creates a camaraderie unlike anything else I know. You all are radical.

Now, to the movies. Overall, I’m impressed at how this little genre of film has progressed. I think back to Frank Smethurst’s film, Running Down the Man. It kinda rocked my world. Thumping music, adrenaline, sprinting down Mexican beaches trying to get in front of a scary big fish, the real struggle to catch a Rooster from the beach, what’s not to like about that? This masterpiece, and a few other solid films from that time, are the legacy pieces in a genre that has lead to what we witnessed tonight, the 2014 F3T.

So let’s talk about this year’s film tour. As I said, I enjoy it, but like every other F3T or IF4 I’ve seen, frankly, it left me wanting more. Today’s crop of fly fishing film makers has done a great job of getting to incredible locales, catching really great footage, securing cool music, and even the editing is getting really good. But, and this is a major objection, I find a gaping void in the writing and overall story telling. With a few exceptions, this year’s Alaska – La Frontera Norte amongst them, I’m getting really annoyed by the droning voice-overs spewing forth a runoff-sized river of faux-philosophy, hyperbole, and cliche.

So, to all you future fly fishing filmmakers, go read some Thoreau. Don’t repeat it. And, here’s a helpful list of tired phrases and terms you should definitely leave out of your future fly fishing masterpieces.

  1. It’s a way of life. Seriously? This phrase is as tired as a Green River boat-ramp brown that has just been caught for the 6th time that day.
  2. Inevitably… Knock it off. It’s evitable. Just don’t go to the fifth least traveled region on earth without a plan.
  3. Fly fishing is a religion. Shut up. If you’re slinging 2-hooked hairy streamers with 8 weights, shotgunning PBRs, and bathing irregularly, this is just disrespectful, even to Scientology.
  4. It’s all about the thrill of the chase. Yawn.
  5. It was epic.  Oh yeah? Did Odysseus show up and defeat a Cyclops?
  6. This place is special. No duh, it’s earth, the best damn planet in the whole world.
  7. Yeah baby!!! I hate you.
  8. Dude (pronounced Du-hu-hu-hood), nice fish. Did you once star in a film about a most excellent adventure? If not, don’t say this.
  9. Unnecessary voice over recap of events as you show said events. Unless you get Morgan Freeman or James Earl Jones to narrate, this is superfluous. We all saw it happen.
  10. It was chaos. This is inevitably uttered when a tire goes epically flat. Please study the meaning of chaos. This is a flat tire. You will get it fixed by the nearest podunk tire shop and be on the river in a couple hours. Not chaos.
  11. Back to back cliches (only to be outdone by the cliche sandwich). This is something of an impressive conversational feat, but not one you want all over your masterwork’s soundtrack.
  12. Piano music over “plight of the species” story. Don’t get me wrong, I care about species X, but just give me the info and don’t make me cry, that’s just not cool when I’m here with my fishing buds.
  13. It’s not just a passion, it’s an obsession.  This is just awful. I want to slap you hard with a Taimen tail.
  14. There’s no other place on earth like this. Yes, and we hate you for not having a job and going there and saying this.
  15. And then it just went…insert “pop,” “snap,” “whack” or any other onomatopoeic word… We know. We all saw and groaned in unison.
  16. We assumed there were going to be fish there but… What if this phrase were finished off with “…but there weren’t?” Your movie would suck. We’re all pretty sure you found some fish.

Well, this about all I can come up with until I see another one of these. Maybe you can point out more in the comments.

Remember, just because you can scrape up the funds to go to the Nether-Arctic, turn on a GoPro, and use Adobe Premier doesn’t make your film great. Put some real thought into the writing, the story telling, and seriously put those editing skills to good use on your voice overs. We will all appreciate it.

It will be epic.

13
Feb

Of Olympics, Rainbows, Tchaicovsky, and a Feeling Like Chocolate Kittens

Normally I write hopefully insightful or helpful stuff about fly fishing and such, but, if you’re anything like me, you have been essentially glued to the TV during the Olympics.

I started thinking about this and, I admit, I was a little troubled. Last night I caught myself gritting my teeth during the women’s downhill, having been wallowing unproductively on the couch for hours, and I started thinking; this Olympic fascination of mine is a strange phenomenon. I mean when else do I care about short-track speed skating, luge, ice dancing, biathalon or, yes, that media darling of a “sport,” curling? Yet, for about 2 weeks every 4 years I care. I really care.

Over the last oh hour or so I’ve done some deep thinking, soul searching, and consulted my Facebook newsfeed and then watched some Vine and fly fishing videos on YouTube (easily distracted). I think I may have come up with some answers and excuses for my strange Olympic-time enthusiasm.

My highly-scientific (aka. purely speculative and anecdotal) take on my fanatical Olympic fascination is this: the key motivators for it, patriotism, curiosity, and a desire for international goodwill, are actually highly positive influences. These are much different influencers from the usual snarky sarcasm, heroic fish porn, and social network potty humor that generally fuel my day to day. When the Winter Olympics are on I find I don’t even care about hilarious memes, unless of course, they are Olympic memes and not mean spirited (check out the picture I included, whaaaat?). Holy crap, did I just say I don’t like mean memes?

Yes, unlike almost every other media, Olympic telecasts actually seem to have a positive influence on my world outlook. It’s a strange feeling, almost like a nice RedBull buzz but with red,white, and blue butterflies and Tchaikovsky ice skating music. And this feeling could not be more unexpected or weirdly awesome, sort of like chocolate kittens waving cute little sparkly paws in the air like they just don’t care.

People all over the place are loving the 2014 Sochi Games, and not just hoteliers trying to get ideas for new and exciting trends in interior design and engineering. I hear people around my office almost giggle-talking about the Mormon girl Beyonce-dancing as she’s mentally getting ready for the luge and I saw that the other USA luge girl took third. This is a lot of excitement for a third place these days, I mean think of this in terms of the Windows Phone. Yes, third place, and people are happy crying. In fact, I seriously get the feeling that I’m not the only one who hopes Bob Costas’ pink eye actually gets better so we can hear more of his melifluously-toned Olympic commentary (usually I would hope for a really gnarly and grotesque pink-eye flair up, you know, for memes).

For once in our cynical lives, Olympic spirit is an energy we can all feel, all warm and fuzzyrific. I think it’s because the Olympics are about all that is great – sportsmanship, triumph of will, physical and mental excellence, healthy competition, national pride, peace, and tight body suits. Skiiers hug their fellow competitors, snowboarders knuckle knock each other for landing that sick 1440 double-corked triple-wedgied Japan-grab trick (pretty sure I made this up), and the hockey games don’t even have fights. Anyone else emotional here?

All of this awesomnasity (borrowed word) makes the Olympics an incredible, even life-changing, event that simply demands our attention. So, don’t text, send Instas or Tweet at me tonight, I’ll be enjoying the warm double rainbow winds of international sporting love that are taking a unicorn courier from the Olympics, to an NBC satellite, and then shooting right out of my TV and straight to my heart.

Orignally published here: http://www.bullfrogspas.com/hot-tub-blog/olympics-rainbows-redbull-kittens/

01
Feb

What Lies Beneath

I just got back from an incredible family vacation, a cruise to the Bahamas. The cruise itself was good, the beach time – much needed, the snorkeling – fun, the food – yeah not so much, but the family time was great. We escaped the Norovirus and had a very enjoyable trip.

Cruising itself for me is fine, not really my cup, but the destinations are awesome. It’s not a Bahamas fly fishing trip but the sunwashed beaches, turquoise water, and a gentle breeze are a face-slap of summer when at home there’s a Polar Vortex. Who wouldn’t rather be in the Caribbean?

And, there are fish there too.

So, even though it wasn’t a trip to a desination Caribbean fly fishing lodge, of course my fly rod made the trip. Like I mentioned, this was a family trip. I knew time for fishing would be short and finding good fly fishing on a cruise is tough to do. Any time you’re in the Bahamas you think of bonefish, but cruise ships don’t just pull up and drop you off at the edge of the flats. I tried to map out any possible bonefishing near the cruise ports. It just wasn’t going to happen.

Luckily, bonefish aren’t the only fish in the ocean. So I decided to pack the rod anyway to give it a shot.

On Google Earth I found some rocks at the end of one of the cruise port beaches. Rocks and coral and such usually have some fish of some type so that was my chance. When we got to port I played a precious “me time” card (thanks Em) and started walking at a quick pace since I probably only had a couple of hours at most. I walked, past the lounge chairs, the cabanas, the bars, the noise, and the coconut suntan lotion smell. Walked past the snorkeling areas the catamarans, and even past the last few solitude-seeking sunbathers at the far end of the beach until I arrived at my pre-selected rocky point.

Bahamas skip jackI quickly rigged up a chartreuse Clouser minnow, the default go-to all-around saltwater fly. With the anticipation and lack of time to fish I was almost shaking as I yanked the knots tight. I started with a quick half cast intended just to give me time to strip more line off the reel, but as the fly settled, line started shooting off into the ocean. Nice. I grabbed for the quickly disappearing line and my quick strip set held tight. Within a minute or two I had a nice little bar jack in hand. What a beautiful fish, silver, streamlined, a bit like a mini albacore. Photos simply don’t do justice to the two vibrant turquoise  stripes that length-wise flank the top of each silvery side. Awesome.

Another bar jack followed the fly on the next cast but didn’t take. I expected more action on each subsequent cast. Not to happen; it went quiet, except for the rhythmic heaving waters filling the tide pools with each surge, the fringes of each push of the Atlantic splashing off the rocks with surprising energy.

The lack of action was disturbing, like I’d caught the very tail end of something, but there’s an energy in new experiences and I kept casting. This view is awesome.

Quiet blind casting out into an ocean is a singular experience. The enormity of the waters is immediately and overtakingly apparent. Your proudest 50, 70, or even 80 foot casts cover so little of the expanse. Yet oceans are teeming with life, it’s everywhere, and that gives you hope. Although, I’d occasionally glimpse a fish in a wave, or spot the glint off a fish’s side, I couldn’t really see or know what was down there, what lay beneath the heaving seafoam. It’s an exercise in faith and hope. This is a fly fishing moment every angler should experience.

There’s a specific joy in sight fishing on the flats, in intercepting a cruising predator with a well placed cast, in casting dries to rising trout or pitching a nymph into a fish filled pool but it’s predicated upon a certainty of the existence of quarry within range. Blind casting is a different experience, more prayer than procedure, with a real fear of futility. It’s more fortune than execution and casting your lines with faith in water and hoping for a gift and merciful reward. Blind casting into what may just be a void brings humility to the whole affair.

As you cast repeatedly for long enough, your anticipative focus and the pointed feel of each hopeful strip of line wains, your perception of the details in the surroundings snap back, and your remaining senses return. You begin again to feel the touch of the warm sun alternating with cool splashes of salt water on your feet. You hear the subtle persistant tropical breeze and occasional seabird and you begin to see this scene for what it is, present. It’s enormous and microscopic at once and it’s all happening right now and right here. Tiny crabs shuttled around in the tidepools and millions of sand particles ebbed and flowed with each wave. It would be easy to slip away and just watch this all happen, but I had another cast to make.

After a half hour or so of this delightful contemplation and observation between double hauls I heaved a long cast over some visible rocks. I counted the fly down for a bit, stripped once, and was met with an electric jolt and violent tug. “Trout don’t do that,” I thought.

Whatever this thing was, it was pissed off and strong, not fast like a bonefish, but strong. This unseen force at the end of my line fought differently than the little bar jacks, who tried to quickly speed to the deep but just weren’t big enough to succeed. This thing dove for the jagged rocks; he was going home.

I staved off one run toward the rocks and then another. Dang, I have to get him away from there. With an angled pull and several quick jumping steps down the shoreline I successfully moved the fish into an area with a bottom of clean white sand. Ok, I got him now. Yeah, he wasn’t having any of that.

His next move was a surprise. He made a decision, changed course, and bolted right at the rocks on the shoreline where I had been standing. Even with huge fast 6-foot strips of line to keep up you can’t do much with a run like that. He was soon buried in a hole in the rocks and wasn’t coming out. “How tough is this leader?” I questioned as I worked to find an angle that might free him. I was sure it all would fray and snap. Then with a sprint back to my original casting location and a straight up lift I got lucky and he popped back out of the hole and was surging back out to sea.

I ran back down the shoreline toward the clean sand and before long, with the help of a wave surge, moved him into a small pool in the rocks near my feet. What a cool fish, all toothy, and spotted, and spiny-backed. I had no idea what he was.

That’s the best kind of fish to catch when you’re blind casting into an ocean off the rocks in the Bahamas.

grouper in the Bahamas

 

17
Jan

The Best Bird Dog for the West

I live at the base of a chukar hill. The little striped devils laugh at me from across the park just across the street. In the summer they come down from the dry rocky slopes to drink from the sprinklers and cackle-laugh away as they strut around on the lawn. In the winter you can see them perched up on top of the rocks, a couple of the bigger birds on lookout duty. I love chukar hunting, for many of the same reasons I love fly fishing. It’s challenging and rewarding and the dog work on chukars is remarkable to watch.

I’ve been around bird dogs most of my life and I had one if not two dogs, several of them English Setters for about 20 years or so. But I’ve spent the last 4 years or so without a hunting dog.  I’m thinking it’s about time again. For me anyway. Em may disagree. We’ll see how that discussion plays out.

So, with this backdrop, I’ve spent some time recently thinking about getting another bird dog. This leads to the question: Which breed is the best bird dog is best for western upland bird hunting?  Which dog works best on chukars, pheasants, Gambel’s quail, valley quail, ruffed grouse, blue grouse, sage grouse, and huns in wide open spaces, mountains, forests and marshes?  This is a lot to ask, but it’s the reality of Western bird hunting. Oh, and I have to like them. What is the best hunting dog breed for all these requirements?

I’m openly biased on the matter, I like pointing dogs, dogs with personality, and dogs with a lot of drive and this is just my opinion on these breeds. Having guided pheasant and chukar hunts for over a decade at probably one of the best clubs in the West, I’ve hunted with and been around all of these breeds and many more. So, maybe my opinion can help you make the decision on which breed of bird dog is best for you as well, but take it with a grain salt. Here’s my short list.

Drahthaar

Drahthaar

img sorce: drahthaars.us

The Low Down: The Drahthaar is classified as one of the versatile breeds. These bird dogs point, retrieve, swim, and even track. Amongst these breeds the Drahthaar is kaiser. This is the actual German, certified, version of what has become known as the German Wirehaired Pointer. Drahthaar breeding is controlled and monitored closely to ensure that the standards of the bloodline are maintained.

Pros: Drahts are incredible dogs. I’ve witnessed this firsthand. They swim well and have tough thick coats that can handle essentially any weather. They are strong dogs and since their breed standards are so strict, you can be sure you’re getting a quality bloodline almost every time. They are strong retrievers, good pointers, and they work at a reasonable range.

Cons: As they are known as something of a super breed, some Draht enthusiasts may debate some of these cons but I’m basing this on what I’ve seen and experienced with these dogs. Drahts, in general have good noses, but not great. They are big dogs, especially the males, so they take a good deal of space and eat more food. Drahts are likeable but not generally full of personality. The most troubling thing I think is their tendency to be quite protective and dominant. I’ve seen Drahthaars nip at other dogs and people just a bit too often to feel comfortable around them.

German Shorthair

German Shorthaired PointerThe Low Down: The German Shorthaired Pointer, or GSP as they are often called, is possibly the most common and widely distributed breed of bird dog in the world today. There are certainly a lot of them here in the West. These are prototypical pointers with a strong retrieving instinct.

Pros: German Shorthaired Pointers are great pointers with above average noses and they look awesome. They work hard and generally have a strong bird drive. Their coats are short and tight and require very little maintenance. GSPs are also great retrievers and decent swimmers if you show them how.

Cons: People who love their shorthairs may disagree, but a lot of GSPs just seem aloof to me, not really people dogs. They think it’s fine if you’re around but don’t have that personality that makes you think they really love you. Also, if you’re careful, you can find great breeders but, because they are so popular, there is more poor breeding of GSPs out there. You have to be careful.

English Pointer

English Pointer

img source: huntthenorth.com

The Low Down: The perennial champion at most field trials, the English Pointer is a bird finding machine. These dogs are all about speed, style, and outdoing every other dog out there. There has been more time, money, and effort that has gone into the breeding of the English Pointer than probably any other bird dog.

Pros: I think that the English Pointer, in general, has the best nose out there. I’ve seen them pick up the scent of a single bird on a dry day at impressive distances. English Pointers have incredible motors and a ton of bird drive. They live for it and are willing to practically run through brick walls to find birds. They are fast and have impressive stamina. Their short coat is nice in that it requires very little brushing.

Cons: English Pointers can be just plain knuckleheads. Their drive can outpace their brain. Their range is often too big for most walking gun hunters and reigning them in can be a tough task. They aren’t usually great natural retrievers. Also, English Pointers, like Shorthairs, aren’t really people dogs. They can be reasonably friendly but aren’t usually your best buddy. Lastly, English Pointers have a really short coat that makes them susceptible to getting cold, that’s a problem in the West. Oh, and they usually won’t swim much.

English Setter

English Setter

img source: skydancekennels.com

The Low Down: The English Setter was once quite large, slow, and aloof as they sauntered about the grouse forests of the Eastern states with an aire of nobility cultured seemingly from the motherland. What a long way they have come. Although there are still bloodlines that are big, slow, and hairy out there, smaller faster English Setters have transformed this dog into one of the best field trial and gun hunting breeds on the planet. They are gaining in popularity but there are still far fewer setters than either English Pointers or German Shorthairs.

Pros: Second maybe only to English Pointers, the English Setter has a great nose. The modern trial-bred lines of English Setters have a ton of drive, birdiness, and great stamina. English Setters are great people and family dogs. They aim to please and genuinely like to hang out with you. They are medium to small hunting dogs, which makes caring for them a bit easier and less expensive. They are decent retrievers and can be good swimmers if you teach them. The best thing, they do all of this with style. No other breed moves as fluidly,  points with such staunch beauty, and looks as cool and confident in doing it.

Cons: English Setters, at least the trial lines, can be a bit rangy. You have to work to keep them close, especially if you’re working jumpy birds. Their longer coat of hair can be a serious hassle to keep free of burrs and briars, but it does help them stay a bit warmer than say English Pointers. Since they like people so much, English Setters can be a bit needy. They will be your best buddy, whether you like that or not.

The Decision?

So, without further ado, which breed will I be going with? Well, this was never a fair fight. It was rigged by my bias from the beginning because I simply love the last breed on my list, English Setters. I just connect with them. Many dog people will understand. You can’t always say why you love a breed but you know you do. I’ve seen incredible dogs from all of these categories and many other breeds as well (I almost included the Brittany Spaniel and Pointing Labrador Retriever).

But, I love English Setters. So, now that this is out there, Em and I need to have a discussion and I’ll report how that goes. Feel free to share your opinions on this in the comments. I’d love to see if you can sway me because I am not looking forward to picking burrs from English Setters long hair for the next 10 -15 years.

04
Jan

Featured Fly: Higa’s S.O.S. Nymph

The best nymph in the history of fly fishing flies, ever.

Higa's S.O.S. NymphOk, so that title may be a little hyperbolic, but I do really love the Higa’s S.O.S. I must disclose here that Spencer Higa, creator of the S.O.S. and Head Guide at Falcon’s Ledge lodge in Utah, is one of my best friends and a long-time fishing buddy. We grew up in guiding together and for several years around a decade ago we spent essentially all of our free time fishing together. That, however, was before Spencer came up with the S.O.S. and back then we just had to make do with mere mortal flies.

Rainbow on Higa's SOS Fly

Photo courtesy flyfishingfrenzy.com

Contrary to the assumed nautical reference, the S.O.S. stands for “save our skins” to the guides that have been using this little gem as our go-to nymph for several years now. It’s primarily an incredible little baetis imitator that excels on tailwaters and spring creeks. It works for several other small mayflies as well, and with its bright red wing case, it also works as a versatile attractor nymph. The S.O.S. is achieving great fame around the fly fishing world. It was picked up by Orvis and is available in their catalog and online. It has also been written up by Lance Egan at Fly Fisherman and shown in several tying tutorials. (I’ll include one below.)

Rainbow Trout on Higa's S.O.S. Nymph

Photo courtesy flyfishingfrenzy.com

I fish the S.O.S. as a dropper a lot but it also works well in European nymphing rigs and in standard nymph set ups under an indicator. When fished in tandem with other nymphs don’t be surprised to find most of the fish caught on the S.O.S. It’s just that good.

Brown Trout on Higa's SOS Nymph FlyThe primary color of the S.O.S. is black. Baetis nymphs turn dark as they prepare to hatch. I think this explains some of the S.O.S. magic. It can also be tied in olive, brown, and tan and I’ve had success on certain days with each of these colors.

It is usually tied with a silver or nickel tungsten bead but can also be tied with a black tungsten bead or with standard weight beads in these colors. My favorite sizes are 18 and 20, although I’ve fished it in every size from 24 to 10. The large sizes (10 and 12) are great in Czech/Polish rigs and work like magic on lakes under an indicator.

 

Recipe for Higa’s S.O.S. Fly

Hook: Orvis 1639 #16-20 or TMC 2487

Thread: Danville 6/0 Black

Bead: 25mm Silver or Nickel Tungsten

Rib: Silver Wire, Size Small

Shell: Red Floss

Abdomen: Black Rabbit Dubbing or Other Black Nymph Dubbing

Legs: Black Krystal Flash

Tail: Melanistic Pheasant Tail (or dyed black)

 

S.O.S. Nymph Video Tutorial by Grant Bench

 

31
Dec

When it Works

It’s the end of 2013 and just I wanted chime in, giving my take on the state of the sport. So, here I go. Let me first preface this with my belief that there is far too much fluff written about fly fishing and far too much hype as well. At the same time, it’s a pursuit worthy of all the passion we can throw at it. And I love it.

Fly fishing represents many things at various times and locations to a multitude of really different people. Its challenging sporting methodology and physical form display an intrinsic artistry. Yet, it cannot be separated from its brutal primal aim – the capture of fish, which until the very recent catch-and-release concept, was always followed by omnivorous consumption. And there is blood.

Speaking of the sporting pursuit as a whole, the scenes we’ve grown up with are idyllic. The words reach for wisdom. The images are washed over water-colored depictions of bucolic settings where tweedly gentlemen anglers pursue their lovely well-mannered quarry with quiet respect, rigorous rules, and grace, perhaps with a cast timed to a metronome. This is the old angler, dressed in proper drab. He casts conservatively dressed dry flies upstream, and only to rising trout. 

Contrast this old image of fly fishing with more recent trends: ultra-radical Go-Pro wearing adrenaline junkies, buff-faced bright-clad dudes and chicks mysteriously hiding behind fish, post-punk-soundtracked Milleresque shorts at the IF8T film tour, Soviet helicopter adventure travel, #fishporn, nuclear-colored synthetic bugs, social media show offs and blogs.

Ok, this is a blog. Thanks for reading.

Just as all fly fishers have to reconcile beauty and blood, so too must we modern anglers balance tradition and trends. Are there excesses at each end? Yep.

For me, fly fishing isn’t church. It’s not so much a spiritual experience. It’s chasing fish. Which, conversely, is also not likely anything like snowboarding a half pipe or base jumping or wing suit flying at 200 mph through a natural arch.

The thing is, I like most of it, the progression and the tradition in fly fishing. I like the look and feel of split cane bamboo and retro-cool fiberglass rods. I guiltily like beast-hog grip ‘n’ grins. I like serene water colors of scenic sentimentality. I like loud thumping bass timed to 100-ft. double hauls, with electric guitars, strip sets and big jumps. Orvis and Simms. Tiny trout and tarpon. The quiet and the thrill of a reel heating run. These are all things that make this pursuit special and rewarding.

It’s paradoxical on the surface. But, for those of us that are fly fishing fanatics and disciples and junkies and zealots and bums, we completely understand the variable appeal of this pastime and sport.  Fly fishing draws you in quickly, takes forever to master, resides deeply, and is really a much more simple concept than words allow. We kinda just need our fix, that electric pulse of the tug, traveling up the line to the rod to us. That simple feeling alone is the reward for travel, persistence, perception, and long nights at the vice (and vise). But, there is so much more.

Fly fishing today is a combo meal full of flavor. It’s tech and tradition happily married.

When it all works, when it comes together in the right amounts for you, when your mind is right, fly fishing can indeed excite, simplify, enliven senses, settle, and even subtly enrich the soul.

23
Dec

Some Days

Since my first encounter with the little tail-spotted ancestors of Bonneville cutthroats in my home waters, my interest in the native trout populations of the Great Basin has been intense. And, of all the cutthroats, the Lahontans of Pyramid Lake have always been at the top of my “to-catch” list. These beasts are the granddaddies of all cutthroats; large, toothy, piscivorous, residing in a huge, deep, semi-salty lake out in the barren high desert on a Paiute reservation.

Uh, radical.

You fish nerds know what I’m talkin’ ’bout.

A little more background: The original strain of monster Lahontan cutthroat trout (documented to 41 lbs, reports of 60 lbs.) in this lake were almost lost. In fact, they were lost for years, having gone extinct in the lake when a diversion dam built in 1905 blocked spawning runs and pulled water from the Truckee River for irrigation. The result of the dam and poor water management practices was an 80 foot drop in the lake’s water level and no more Lahontan cutthroats to be found in Pyramid Lake by 1939. In the 1970s the Paiute tribe created a hatchery with cutthroats from other nearby drainages and brought cutthroats back to the lake. These were technically Lahontan cutthroats but were not the same strain as the ancient fish. They grew to 8 and 10 pounds, with an occasional fish getting a bit larger. Pretty cool, but…

The miracle.

One of the nation’s leading trout biologists, Dr. Robert Behnke, happened upon some cutthroats in a tiny stream on Pilot Mountain on the Utah/Nevada border. Geographically, they should have been Bonneville cutthroats, but they weren’t. These fish had actually been brought there, yes, from Pyramid Lake, and had been struggling to survive in the tiny desert water since the early 1900s. These fish were genetically tested and matched preserved specimens of Pyramid Lake fish. These are the “lost strain.”

In 2006 they were reintroduced to Pyramid Lake. Reports, even one from the New York Times, suggest that the fish are surviving and growing well. The presence of a prolific prey base, relative isolation, and massive size of this water make it a factory for oversized cutthroats. And now many of them, the original Pyramid Lake strain of giant Lahontan cutthroats are getting up to 20+ lbs.

Fish geeks everywhere, join with me in fish-geeking out for a moment.

Pyramid Lake Lahontan Cutthroat Trout

img source: moldychum.com/storage/pyramid%20lake.JPG

So, as mentioned, Pyramid Lake  has long occupied a spot on the list of waters to definitely fish someday, and well, that someday was here, just a few weeks ago. I had read all about the fishing styles at Pyramid, seen the hero shots of dudes hefting big red-sided Lahontan cutthroats,  talked to area guides and anglers about flies and techniques, read up on the unique ecology and  natural history of this high-desert trout oasis, and driven more than 8 hours. It was time.

I was in town for Thanksgiving and now it was Black Friday. I will not go shopping on this day, ever (again), and there’s not much to do in Reno if you’re not into crappy buffets or playing crappy odds at crappy casinos with crappy carpet. So, a day of fishing was all but required.

With the appropriate permissions acquired, I bolted the sis-in-law’s house early, picked up my yellow Paiute tribal permit and sped out through the desert. It’s pretty darn close to Reno, but when you see it you immediately feel like you’re visiting prehistory. Big white triangle islands in an expansive mass of blue-grey water, all of it out in a barren desert, crazy.

The beaches at Pyramid are well marked, and my research had sent me to one that was known, but not overrun. I bounced down the short dirt two-track and onto the coarse grey sand, stopping just 50 yards from the water. That’s nice. No time wasted in walking.

Every time you arrive at a new fishing spot there’s a sense of excitement, but, when it’s a water with giant ancient almost extinct cutthroats, it’s big old burly butterflies. So rigging my 2 rods took longer than it should. I kept looking out across the steely flat water and whiffing on knots.

I had researched it and felt confident in my techniques. I was going to wade out to a drop off, sling some long casts with a 2-fly rig, let ‘em sink to the sandy bottom and strip them in with varying retrieves until I figured out the speed these fish preferred today. If that didn’t work, I would switch to the old stand-by lake technique, big chironomids hanging under an indicator. That could not fail.

I waded out into the lake, taking the streamer rod first, and to my delight, the wading was easy on the hard grey sand and the drop-off was obvious. Knee-deep water plummeted down into blackness that looked at least 15 feet deep. Perfect.

I, pulled a bunch of line off the reel and zipped a cast as far as I could heave it. The line sank, I counted it down patiently until I knew it was on the bottom and I started a rhythmic retrieve. Somehow, I half expected a fish on this first cast. It was the excitement of years of waiting to be here, on a perfect November day, at a time when the fish were supposed to be there. There’s my leader. Nothing.

No big deal of course, these things, especially big old lake fish, take time. So I kept casting, counting the line down, stripping. There’s the leader again. Back cast.

After a half hour or so I started looking around during the count downs. There were three other anglers on my beach. Two of them, in classic Pyramid style, had ladders perched at the edge of the drop. They were slinging streamers, counting them down, and retrieving with a quick steady retrieve, hand over hand, tarpon style. I started to mimic their retrieve, and then, it happened.

A fish. A big fish, not on my line, but visible.

He showed his intentions clearly, back and dorsal fin barely breaking the steely surface with a wake that showed his size, speed, and direction. He was chasing minnows and moving my way. “He’s mine.”

The ripples were right at the outside edge of range, but I was going to get it to him. I yanked the rest of my line out of the water and quickly angled the cast over in his direction. Not a perfect cast, but close enough, “right?” Wrong.

Again, I yanked in the last 30 feet of line and pushed out another long cast, this time moving it 15 feet in front of where I’d seen his head. “Yeah, that’s about where he should be.” Strip, strip, pause. Strip, strip, strip-strip-strip-strip, strip, pause, strip-strip-strip. Nothing.

One more cast, this one more furiously rushed, another 15 feet in the direction the fish was moving, and…

Nothing.

The calm of the lake’s surface was telling. That fish was gone. Off to who knows where, that mysterious place where big fish hang out and wait their turn to frustrate you.

I kept casting, in the direction of the fish, then eventually to the right, and the left, and up the edge of the drop off, and straight away, then a little right, and a little left, everywhere a fish might be.

Nothing.

It had been a good 3 hours and no taps, wiggles, nibbles, nudges, bites, bumps, or sniffs.

I was fishing the indicator and chironomids now, hanging them at about 10 and 13 feet; then 11 and 14, 12 and 15, 13 and 16, 6 and 9, 4 and 7.

Nothing.

After fishing chironomids unsuccessfully for a while you start to look around. Pyramid Lake is a truly unique trout water. It rests in a wide desert valley between barren rocky ridges. There was snow on the tops of the mountains to the West, it even looked like there were a few straggly trees up there, a rarity in this part of the world.

The day was warm for late November, probably over 50 degrees, but the water was cold enough that I had to take a break eventually. Good timing for a late lunch and a quick drive up the highway to scout other water. Nothing to lose at this point, except for fly-in-water time. But where was that getting me?

The highway along the lake shore is great; 2 lanes, well paved, making it easy to get to almost anywhere on the west shoreline. I of course wondered if the fishing was better over on the east shore. There were a few cars glinting in the distance over there, but it was too far to see anything really and it would take too long to get there.

I pulled over at a high shoreline lookout above a popular beach and watched a couple dozen anglers covering big chunks of water with flies, plastics and plugs. Some were on ladders,  some wading out to their waists, some trolling the outside edge of the mob in boats

Nothing.

“Just one fish,” yes, one average Pyramid Lake cutthroat trout would make my day. I didn’t know a better spot, and at least I had a good drop-off, and I had seen an actual fish, so I sped back to my beach and pulled down onto the sand, this time even closer to the water’s edge. My flies had been out of the water for too long.

I started slinging streamers again methodically. I stripped fast, then slow, then in a 3 strip pattern, then 5, then 6, and 10, and 8, and 4 all with varying lengths of pull and pause times between strips.

Nothing.

Until…

It appeared. A big trout. A really big trout. Red sides and all. He came cruising in slowly from the left. Then with a sudden burst almost unbelievable from a fish that size he bolted right for me, slashed at something unseen while turning in toward me and the shallows, then paused, and continued his slow left to right cruise pattern. I already had my line in position and dropped my flies right where they needed to be. They sank, not fast enough for my liking but surely into this beast’s view. One short quick strip, then another, then another, and another, and…

Nothing.

The fish had slipped off the edge of the drop and into the deep. 10 more casts in his direction turned up, you guessed it, nothing.

It was clear. This was one of those days. Some days are like this. We all know it, though most of us never admit it to our fishin’ buddies, or anyone else for that matter. Some days it’s not our day.

I kept casting, switched flies 15 times, switched rods. By 3 in the afternoon the lake was packed. My beach now had more than a dozen and a half anglers up and down it. Most were fly fishers, casting, counting, stripping, all with varying techniques. You would think someone along the line, tens of sharp objects being yanked through the water, would hook up with a big cuttie.

Nothing.

For the last few hours I fished next to a couple of guys that were locals. I knew this by their conversations about work and friends and former fishing trips. People always underestimate how sound travels over water. They talked about me, about how it just wasn’t happening for anyone, and about how long they would stick it out. I was determined to fish longer than them, but they were staunch. Finally, as the sun dipped behind the mountains in the west, the air temps plummeted and they quickly lost interest and left. I stayed, shivering, casting, shivering some more, counting down, shivering, stripping, shivering, casting.

Nothing.

It was one of those days.

I was utterly frustrated. I finally reeled in, walked up the beach to the car, packed up my gear, and felt something odd on a day like this. I was immediately completely at peace. There wasn’t a fish on film, but, this was an amazing place, with a history and hope, an incredible lake, with at least 2 enormous cutthroats, in an ancient desert setting you simply have to see to comprehend.

I’ll be back – some day.