On my way to the Firehole a few days ago, I decided to pull over for a quick look at the Madison. It was about 9:00 a.m., and the morning sun felt warm. Pale Morning Dun mayflies were already hatching. Scattered rises peppered the river. That was all it took to alter my plan, and I quickly wadered up, rigged my rod, and tied on a Sparkle Dun.
I cruised up the bank, stopping when I found a couple steady risers. After working my way into casting position, both fish, in turn, took the fly without hesitation. I fought and landed two fine brown trout, while noting the lies of several more. The hatch was heavier now; more fish were rising. In the next fifteen minutes, I covered half a dozen fish and caught…nothing. Hmm. Something had changed. (I was comfortable enough with my presentation to rule it out as a factor).
I stopped to watch. There were plenty of PMD’s coming down. But the rises had changed in character, and they were of two distinct kinds. About half were quiet dimples, barely disturbing the surface. The other half were explosion rises. I’ve seen trout rise in just about every conceivable way, but to see two such disparate kinds occurring simultaneously was strange. I watched the duns floating on the surface; none were taken. This suggested that the food of choice might be nymphs in the film. I tied on a #16 floating nymph, and caught a few more trout. But something still didn’t feel right. Yes, I was catching some fish, yet many risers showed no interest at all, despite feeding regularly.
It finally dawned on me that the only fish I was catching were those rising quietly. The explosive risers I could not touch. Were they really nymphing, or were they feeding on something else? Could they be whitefish? I watched again. In one rise I spied a glimpse of yellow; in another, a spotted tail. Clearly, these were not whitefish. I studied the water surface. Mixed among the drifting Pale Morning Duns were a good number of empty caddis shucks, and I wondered if emerging caddis could explain the explosive riseforms. (Truth be told, these rises were somewhat unnerving, occurring as they did at close range and always unexpectedly.)
I tied on an Iris caddis and cast it over a violent rise. The fish took at once—a 12″ rainbow. I offered up the caddis to other fish rising in the same manner and caught enough to convince myself that caddis were indeed the answer. But would the caddis fool the quiet risers? After presenting it to a number of such fish and eliciting no response, I had my answer. The imitation failed to generate so much as a refusal.
Having rising fish in a single stretch of river split 50/50 over their choice of food is practically unheard of. I didn’t believe it in the beginning. Now, I only wish I could explain it.
The annual cycle of mayfly emergences is underway in Yellowstone Park. I found this freshly emerged female Pale Morning Dun resting along the Firehole River on Sunday afternoon. Though not especially abundant (at least where I was fishing), they nevertheless garnered the rapt attention of the trout.
A number of readers have inquired as to what fly rods I fish with. Here are some of my choices, with a few notes appended. My rod collection reflects the demands of the various kinds of fishing that I do. In any given instance, I let the fishing dictate my choice of rod. I’m wedded to no particular brand nor any particular type of action. Naturally, not everyone shares this philosophy, and that’s okay. But I dislike accepting tradeoffs, being forced to fish a rod for any reason other than that it’s ideal for the type of fishing I’m doing. So again, the choices I make reflect this sentiment.
Fenwick World Class 9′ 3-weight
This graphite rod was designed by Jim Green and Paul Brown in the mid-1980′s for situations typically found on rivers like the Henry’s Fork: big fish, smallish flies, light tippets, open water, casting distances of 10-50 feet. I know of no other rod that possesses the in-close communication that this model does. Though its action is at great variance with modern rods, as a casting tool, line manipulator, and tippet protector, it’s as efficient as it gets. This rod was orphaned by Fenwick shortly after its introduction, so there aren’t a lot of them around. They’re treasured by the folks that own them. (Though the rod is labeled a 3-weight, I’ve always considered it a 4-weight, and that’s what I fish on it.) I use this rod for the majority of my fishing, which is largely comprised of small dry fly and nymph fishing (that is, fishing nymphs to sighted or rising fish). No comparable rod is being made today.
Leonard Golden Shadow 9′ 6-weight
An early graphite model, built in the 1970′s. To this day the Golden Shadow remains one of the most powerful, efficient rods ever designed. Because it’s a 6-weight, I primarily use it for fishing large dry flies, like salmonflies and grasshoppers, especially when the wind is blowing. I’ll also put a 5-weight line on it for fishing lakes like Hebgen and Quake, and big rivers like the Henry’s Fork, where long casts with small dry flies are sometimes required. This is another rod that is hard to find today, but if you want to own a really well-designed rod, keep your eyes peeled. You might get lucky. The modern rod closest in design might be the Sage Circa 8’9″ 5-weight. Put a 6 on it and it won’t be far off.
Orvis Madison 7’6″ 6-weight
I started fly fishing in the late 1960′s, and consequently harbor a certain affection for bamboo. (But not at the expense of performance.) With respect to bamboo, Orvis is considered a production rod company. Because of that their rods are often looked at askance by today’s market. Which is nice, because as I’ve written before, the only thing the market does is determine price, not value. Orvis made some fine rods in bamboo, and this model can still be found quite easily, at prices well below that of modern rods. Due to its full-flexing nature, this rod nowadays would be considered a 5-weight, even a 4-weight by some folks. Yet the designer had it right—it actually is a 6-weight. A powerful, efficient one that contributes heartily to the cast. It manipulates line well, and protects fine tippets too. I generally use it on smaller, more confined water, but wouldn’t shy from taking it most anywhere on a very windy day. Nothing like a 6-weight to slice through the strong winds this area often faces.
Tim Anderson 8’6″ 4-weight
Tim Anderson is a bamboo rod builder from Lafayette, California. He is a meticulous and excellent craftsman, always experimenting with some aspect of rod building. This rod is designed to meet the needs of the Henry’s Fork and other waters with similar conditions, and is loosely based on GEM Skue’s “W.B.R.” rod taper. Though fairly long, it is hollow-built and therefore feels quite light in hand. Partly due to the bamboo and partly due to the taper, it possesses a great deal of self-weight momentum. That makes for very easy casting at any range between 10-60 feet. Like the other rods I’ve listed, it also manipulates line well and protects the finest of tippets. Tim is not selling his rods at this time, and I’m unaware of any similar rods being made.
Sage ZXL 9′ 5-weight
One of the best pure distance rods ever built. From 60-120 feet, it’s beyond compare. I do very little fishing that requires casts of those distances, but some of our lake fishing occasionally qualifies—Hebgen or Henry’s, for instance. Truth be told, I spend more time with this rod on the practice field than on the water, working on my distance casting skills. But whenever it is necessary to cast long or to generate the highest line speeds (fishing in big wind, for instance), it’s a fine choice. Sage stopped making the ZXL series last year, but they can still be found by poking around the fly shops.
Orvis HLS 9′ 8-weight, 2-piece
My choice for bonefishing and other light saltwater use. Built in the early 90′s, this is an extremely powerful 8-weight which does not ask too much physically of the caster, unlike most modern 8-weights. It’s better beyond 50 feet than in closer, but that’s quite alright for bonefishing. This rod doesn’t have a clear parallel today; most 8-weights being made are much stiffer and far more physically demanding to cast.
Fenwick Iron Feather 16′ 11-weight
For a brief period in the late 1980′s, Fenwick toyed with the idea of making two-handed rods. This is one of their prototypes. It’s long and it’s powerful, a great combination for spey fishing. But it’s real beauty is the line control offered by the 16′ length. (I’m at a loss to explain why American rodmakers today are afraid to build rods equally long, or longer, when the line control they offer is so clearly superior to shorter rods.) I use this rod for fall fishing on the Madison, swinging big soft hackles and streamers. Several rod companies make 15′ rods that fish similarly to this one, save for the ability to manipulate the line after the cast.
Every year I’m asked to teach the double haul (a technique used to increase line speed, primarily for gaining extra distance). These requests always make me uneasy. Not because I don’t want to help, but because without seeing someone cast first, I might end up doing them more harm than good. How’s that, you ask? Well, if the necessary fundamentals which a double haul would enhance are not already in place, not already ingrained as muscle memory, learning the technique generally proves counterproductive. Two things tend to happen, both of them bad.
One, the double haul becomes a band-aid, even a crutch. It serves to cover up undeveloped or flawed fundamentals. Its use becomes constant—irrespective of whether conditions actually require it. Adding hauls to faulty technique engenders a limited casting stroke, with attendant repercussions. When confronted, for instance, with conditions in which a double haul really is required, guess what? Its benefits are not available. They got used up masking away those flawed fundamentals. This isn’t an uncommon situation, and fishermen that find themselves in it are more or less stuck. They have no other tools in the bag, no place left to turn.
The other thing I see happen when someone learns to haul too soon is that all further casting development ceases. There’s no more learning, no more time spent practicing. Progress stops cold. There’s something about whomping out a few extra feet of line that seems to impair our judgment. We overestimate our abilities. We tell ourselves, hey—now I know how to cast! Which is really too bad, because no matter how good we actually are, we can be better still.
It needn’t be this way. My suggestion is to resist learning to double haul until your fundamentals are rock solid. (You’ll catch plenty of fish in the meantime.) Fight the urge to cast long, even when you’re on the practice field. Remember that adding hauls to faulty technique provides only a (very) few extra feet of distance anyway. Compared with the thirty or more feet that can be gained with good technique, it’s simply not worth it.
Employed best, a double haul is always additive to the casting experience. It allows us to present our fly and catch fish in situations that, sans its use, would be impossible otherwise. So it’s definitely worth learning. Just don’t learn it too soon.
The wild trout slaughter-machine is back. Operating under its usual guise of ”native species management”, its crosshairs this time are trained on Red Rock Creek, a small stream traversing Centennial Valley, just west of Henry’s Lake. What wild trout are destined for extermination this time? Ironically, the very same species that, a mere 20 miles away in Yellowstone National Park, is revered as a crown jewel. That’s right—the Yellowstone cutthroat.
As the managers of Red Rock see it, the cutthroat are causing a decline in the Arctic grayling population, that ostensibly “native” species of fish that also resides in the creek. So in order to save the grayling, the cutthroat must go. Never mind that it hasn’t been demonstrated that the cutthroat are the cause of the grayling’s woes. Never mind that the two species have been occupying the stream together for, well, a damn long time. It’s apparently obvious, too, that of the myriad other factors that affect population dynamics, none are important here, or they would have been subject to at least a modicum of scrutiny. Maybe I’m the one missing something, but before being handed a death sentence, I think the cutthroat deserved far more consideration than they were given. (My perspective on native species management can be read in Wild Trout Lose Again; I won’t further beat already dead trout here.)
And so the slaughter has begun. Currently, the dirty work is being performed by fishermen. The season is open, the spawning run is on, and the limit is 20 cutthroat per day. Come and get ‘em. (To give an idea of the quality of fish we’re talking about, one fellow I’m acquainted with killed his 20 fish the other day, took them home, and put ‘em on a scale. In aggregate, they weighed 62 pounds.) After the fishermen are done wreaking their particular brand of “management”, fish traps will be installed in the creek. Some of the trapped fish will be allowed to live temporarily in one of the ponds in the valley, after which they too will be killed. (I guess that’s the fish equivalent of death row).
Having worked previously in the field of fisheries biology, it’s hard for me to accept this kind of wholesale slaughter as modern fisheries management. I’m disappointed—no, actually ashamed—of my former profession. Understand that I am not against Arctic grayling. But attempting to save one species by destroying another reflects poorly on us as “stewards” of the environment. It ignores our true role in the world. It takes the hypocrisy that lies behind a decision like this and stuffs it away into the deepest, darkest place possible, never to be seen again.
Same fate the cutthroat have coming.
Note: Some folks might argue that the cutthroat in Red Rock Creek are actually cutthroat x rainbow hybrids, and use this fact to further justify the slaughter. To me, this is yet another example of the pedantry often associated with “native species management”. At what point does introgression turn a cutthroat into something other than a cutthroat? Go to the creek and see for yourself. Perhaps on a molecular level a portion of these fish are hybrids, but viewed in the practical light of day, they’re nothing if not Yellowstone cutthroat.
Nobody is so good a flycaster as to not have to practice their fundamentals. As in any sport, solid fundamentals provide the foundation upon which all else is built. I’ve said this before, but if you want to improve your fishing success, nothing will help nearly as much as improving your casting. If you’re curious about the state your own fundamentals, here’s a test you can take to check on them.
String up your rod with a line and leader similar to what you’d normally fish with, and tie on a small piece of yarn for a fly. Put a dinner-plate sized target on the ground, 20 feet away from where you stand. Keeping the rod in the vertical plane, cast at the target. Your goal is not merely to hit the target with the yarn, but to hit it by casting a narrow, driven loop, so that the fly turns over one foot above the target and then settles onto it. There is no allowance in this test for the presence, strength or direction of wind. If your fundamentals are truly solid, you’ll have no trouble hitting the target easily and repeatedly, in whatever conditions you find yourself in.
If you meet with success, congratulations. Your fundamentals are most likely in good order. If you encounter trouble, it’s time to take a closer look at your stroke. Here are a few common problems, and some possible solutions.
1. Your fly turns over high above the target. Remember to raise and lower your elbow (no pushing, pulling, or pivoting). The elbow must move up and down to ensure a downward angle to your cast. (That’s why I had you keep the rod in the vertical plane during the test, to disallow simply cocking the rod off to the side to bring the fly in low to the target.)
2. Your loop is wide and lazy (and your fly turns over high above the target). In all likelihood, your stroke is too long. Shorten it. (Almost every student I teach is surprised by the shortness of stroke required to cast 20 feet.) Here’s the rule to remember—Short line, short stroke. Longer line, longer stroke. You’ll know you have it right when your loops are tight and turn over with alacrity. Another cause of a wide and lazy loop is pivoting at the elbow (see #1).
3. Your leader and line tip fail to straighten (and the harder you try, the worse things get). Your stroke is too long—shorten it until your line and leader straighten completely.
4. Your leader turns over adequately, but you have trouble hitting the target. Make sure your rod, hand, and forearm are all moving in a single plane. This ensures that your line and leader travel in a single plane, increasing accuracy. If your rod and arm swing out to the side in an arcing motion, so too will your line, which makes judging where to aim very difficult.
Most fishermen think of good casters as those who can cast a country mile. And it’s true—no one bangs out 100 feet of line without knowing a thing or two about casting. But the reverse is equally true, and far more relevant to the everyday fishing that most of us enjoy. Casting 15-20 feet accurately with a tight, properly angled loop can’t be accomplished without good fundamentals. So take a few minutes to work on yours. I assure you that it will pay off.