How To Tell The Difference Between A Kiwi And An American…

As the wind howled and the snow flew the other night, I got to thinking about how before kids entered our lives, Kym and I would be preparing to head Down Under at this time of the year. Sitting up late at night, I would be tying flies that in a few days would be cast to summertime fish on the other side of the world. And that was what got me feeling all nostalgic and inspired to put together this little slideshow of past New Zealand adventures.

Of the many things I like about winter, one is the opportunity it gives to slow down and reflect on matters both critical and superfluous. Like, do real men fish in the snow or choose to keep their cojones warm by the fire? I thought about this the other day as I checked out an ad for a popular fly rod manufacturer. In the ad, a couple of guys, grim faced and manly, are floating a river in the grips of a blizzard. Icicles hanging from their various appendages, the underlying message is this: nothing gets in the way of a real man’s pursuit of fish, and real men fish with Brand X rods. Personally, as a guide I have seen way too much parking lot bravado on a cold snowy morning turn, after an hour on the river, into sniveling shivering pleas for mercy and the nurturing warmth of the great indoors to be too impressed with this sort of marketing.

But it does raise some interesting questions, both genetic and cultural. In my native New Zealand, your average fisherman would quietly back away, lock the door, make a mental note to be more discreet in their choice of friends, and toss another log on the fire if you showed up in the middle of a snow storm and suggested getting a line wet. This is in part because down there most rivers are closed to fishing over the winter months to allow the fish a modicum of peace and privacy as they wine, dine and procreate with each other. Thus, the likelihood of such an invitation is greatly reduced. Also, while we do get extremes of weather in New Zealand, for the most part things are a little more temperate than here in the mountains, so fishing in the rain is more of a reality that in snow and ice.

Here, it seems there are many fishermen who think nothing of braving the elements in search of a hook up or two. While I have guided plenty of times in snow, sleet and hail, I have at least been getting paid to do so, and usually question the sanity of the guy paying for the experience. Of course, venturing over to South Park for a trip to the Platte is often an exercise in rolling the dice with hypothermia no matter what the time of year. There is a case to be made for heading out in inclement weather if you have driven a thousand miles or so to get to the river, but surely for those of us that live in the mountains, there is no such pressure.

So what other predispositions set apart the North American fisherman from his southern counterpart? One is perhaps an over reliance on gear. One of the traits we Kiwis pride ourselves on is self reliance. Give us a piece of #8 fencing wire and a roll of duct tape, and we’ll build or fix anything. Give us a couple of flies, a spool of tippet, and a six weight, and we’re ready to go. Compare that to your average American fisherman, with a vest that weighs thirty five pounds, eight fly rods, fifteen reels, and of the twenty-six fly boxes in his possession, the one he ‘needs’ is back at home on the kitchen counter.

Another is the difference in need for a certain level of information to feel comfortable in their surroundings. This was perhaps first brought home to me after my first year of guiding here on the Arkansas, back then primarily as a whitewater guide. The comparison and innuendo between New Zealanders and sheep is well known. [ All I will say on the matter is this: don’t knock anything until you’ve tried it. ] Anyway, take a Kiwi on a river trip, and all you have to say to them is ” Put on a wetsuit, grab that lifejacket, pick up a paddle, and get in the van. We’re off.” There is a level of trust, for better or worse, that the person in charge knows what they are doing, and all will be revealed in good time. Say the same thing to an American, and you get the following response: “Which lifejacket? How many paddles did you say? Should I sit in the front of the van, or the back. Is there a bathroom in the van? How long is the ride? Can I bring a snack? Will there be a bathroom at the river? Should I go to the bathroom now? How many rocks are there in the river? Where’s your bathroom?”

So, as we move into winter, you probably won’t see me on the river too much, except for maybe on a blue bird day. I’ll probably be up at Monarch, or keeping the crown jewels safe and warm by the fire, dreaming of long summer days, clear water and big fish Down Under. But I do salute those hardy souls who choose to venture out on the river when all measures of common sense say to stay inside.


A Salute To 2009

As the days grow shorter and the nights grow colder, a fisherman’s mind turns from the river to contemplating a crackling hearth, family time and the anticipation of two feet of fresh powder at Monarch. To be sure, there is still some great fishing to be had before we usher in 2010, but fall is the season to reflect both on the immediate past, and also the great circle of time that rolls on, ultimately impervious to our tales ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’, if I may paraphrase the Great Bard.

For this fisherman, the past year has been a banner one on the Arkansas and surrounding waters. Many are the highlights. Easily topping the list was watching my elder daughter land her first river fish from the boat as we floated through town on her tenth birthday. Following close behind is getting snowed and hailed on as I managed to land my first fish on a particular high lake after three years of trying – I say this even though it was tail hooked. I am not a purist, I’ll take ’em any way I can get ’em. The there was the perfect day spent on Antero Reservoir in South Park, catching big fish with nary a breath of wind to ruffle the feathers all day. [How many times can you say that happens in South Park? ]. And so this video is largely a salute to the best of the year.

Against this backdrop has been the Arkansas itself, confirming its status as one of the West’s finest dry fly rivers. Things got off to a great start this spring, where a closer to average snowpack meant there was no nervous desk jockey at the Bureau of Reclamation messing with the water levels. The resulting steady flows and water temperatures meant a great caddis hatch, unlike last year, when wild fluctuations prevented the bugs from hatching consistently.

After runoff, the summertime dry fly action was excellent. Hoppers, caddis, pale morning duns and stoneflies were all prolific, and the fish made pigs of themselves as they should. The yellow sallies and pmds in particular seem to get more and more numerous as the years roll by. Mayflies such as pmds and blue winged olives are the canaries in the coal mine as far as water quality is concerned, so this bodes well for the future of the fishery.

But of all the seasons, fall is my favorite. Fall is the time of the year when we come face to face with our own mortality, and realize that time is inexorably advancing. Much like the days of youth, spring and summer have slipped by at an unbelievable pace. It seems only yesterday buds were blooming, birds were chirping and the grass was greening. Fall completes the cycle, and reminds us that despite our over inflated sense of self importance, we are really still a part of the great cycle of life, death and rebirth.

Far from being depressing, this I find comforting. Fall is a yearly reminder of life’s ephemeral nature, a reminder to not take any time for granted. With the onset of the cooler weather, and the knowledge that cold and snow are on their way, comes gratitude for a warm safe house and a well stocked larder to see it through- not to mention the prospect of those vintage powder days at Monarch where you collect a covering of snow riding the lift to the top of the run and the trees materialize from the mist as you drop in and ride the clouds back to the bottom.

A few days ago, I was fishing a beautiful stream far up in the La Garita Wilderness area. Already, with the sun arcing lower in the sky, ice had formed along the northern banks of the stream in places. Here and there the odd aspen was clinging to the remnants of its foliage and the fish were feeding hard, sensing the limited time available to them to fatten up before winter’s enforced slumber. Two emotions were foremost – a certain melancholy, and also a sense of privilege at being witness to it all.

And so, as another year hastens to its close, there are many reasons to be thankful for the change of season. Just as without pain in life we have no measure for joy, so too does the cold winter give extra reason to value the balmy days of spring and summer. A special thanks to all those who have expressed words of support, encouragement and appreciation for these reports. I for one am looking forward to many more.


Spank Me, Bite Me, Tease Me, Pinch Me.

Living in this town, sometimes I find I have to pinch myself to make sure it’s really me, and real life and not a dream. Such a time occurred the other day, when I floated through town late one picture perfect fall afternoon. I pinched myself for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because it was literally another beautiful day in paradise, and secondly, because it is worth reminding myself that I live in a place where I can decide at two in the afternoon to go for a float, call a couple of friends, and half an hour later be floating the river with a fly rod in one hand and a beer in the cozy.

Right now is the time when the brown trout in the river have their minds on their own bit of pinching, biting, teasing and possibly spanking. I am speaking of course of the fall spawn, when a healthy brown’s mind turns to the procreation of the species. The females will seek out places in the river ideal for preparing a spawning bed, or redd. Usually they choose places where the river is one to three feet deep, with a slow, steady current and a gravelly bottom. The female will sweep the stones of the redd clean of algae and silt to provide a suitable surface for her eggs to adhere. Once she has laid her eggs, the males, who have been jockeying for position at the downstream edge of the redd like cowboys lining up at a one room whore house , will release their milt over the eggs, hopefully creating a new generation to carry the torch.

Once you know what to look for, a redd is easily identifiable. The clean rock bottom will often stand out from the surrounding riverbed vividly, whiter patches distinct from their surroundings. This time of the year I like to make sure I am not casting anywhere near a redd, to ensure that any fish I catch are not actively involved in the love game. After all, how would you feel if someone kept throwing things at you while you were between the sheets so to speak? Hardly sporting.

For this float, we chose to throw single dries, with small caddis and humpies being the best producers. From tha boat, casting to the shallower edges and away from the redds ensured the fish we caught had their mind on feeding, not romance. The wind made things a little tricky at times, but most times you got a good drift in the slow, shallow edges, there was some kind of action. Getting a fish to take is one thing, hooking him is sometimes another, as witnessed in the video. But I have always maintained that if you were to hook them all, it would get pretty boring pretty quick. And let’s face it, who among us is averse to a good spanking every now and then, right?

Right now, the flows are low and clear, and will probably remain so throughout the winter. I would expect the fishing to stay strong throughout October, and even into November provided the weather stays mild. So my advice is to get out there,enjoy the fall colors and the last vestiges of summer before winter lock us in its grip. But once again, I have to pinch myself, for then its away with the fly rod and hello to Monarch and the snowboard.


The Good, The Bad, and The Dry Fly

While to the outsider it may appear that one fisherman is indistinct from the next, within the fly fishing community there are cliques and cadres, cells and societies. The lines that separate them may seem somewhat blurred and trivial to the uninitiated, yet they are there nonetheless. I am talking of the differences, ideological and physiological, between dry fly, nymph and streamer fishermen, as discussed in detail in a previous article.

Last week I had the opportunity to observe up close a clash of the Titans, as Jim, the dry fly aficionado and all round good guy, came to town with his fishing buddy Phil, nymph fisherman extraordinaire, and representative practician of the dark side of fly fishing. Now the trash talking between these two has been going on for years, and goes something like this. The scene is the office, Monday morning:

Phil: How many fish did you catch this weekend on your dry fly Jim?

Jim: Peasant, when will you ever learn? Fishing isn’t about numbers. It’s about asthetics, that fleeting moment of beauty as the fish leaves its watery realm, crossing the divide that separates mankind from his piscatorial brethren and snaffles a size 10 pmx.

Phil: Not many, huh?

Personally, I’ll throw whatever I need to in order to catch a fish, except for maybe an egg pattern. OK, I’ve thrown a few of those before too. But if I had a preference, it would be a dry fly. Watching the fish leave it’s watery lair, rising to the surface to take the fly adds to the experience, and makes for some memorable takes and misses. Many a time in New Zealand my heart has been in my mouth watching a big brown rise slowly to the surface, push it’s snout out of the water and nudge the fly gently with its nose, open it’s mouth around it and then refusing to take, sliding silently and effortlessly back to the depths. It’s difficult to get that kind of adrenaline rush when the action is taking place unseen below the surface.

But what to do if the fish aren’t taking dries? Some dry fly fishermen will continue to fish with a dry only, not deigning to go sub surface. In this they are paying homage to the origins of fly fishing, when before our knowledge of entomology grew, coupled with a lack of polarized sunglasses, the the only time trout were observed was when they ate off the surface. Nowadays, we know that close to eighty percent of a fishes’ diet consists of eating nymphs below the surface. Consequently, most of us will now add a nymph to our dry fly rig and fish with a dry and dropper. “Ah hah,” says the nympher, “you’re nymphing now.” “Yeah right, ” says the dry fly guy, “It’s only nymphing if you have an indicator and weight.” “No way man, you’re nymphing.” And so the argument begins, which I take as a good sign because if this is all we fisherman have to occupy our minds with, then life must be pretty damn good.

And I take my hat off to Phil. Coming all the way down here from Sodom and Gemorrah, thrown before a hostile crowd of dry fly types, he steadfastly refused to fish a nymph, even though way more fish would have been caught. When in Rome, do some Roman, as the saying goes. And of course, he would no doubt put on a real clinic for Jim and I were we to go to one of his favorite haunts and show us the dark arts – definitely welcome on my boat anytime.

As the days cool and shorten, the window of opportunity to fish will naturally diminish, and the fish will take more and more of their sustenance from below the surface. That said, all is not lost for we dry fly folks can still expect some great days of casting to rising fish throughout October. This should happen both on cooler, cloudy days when the blue wings will hopefully be hatching, and warmer days when the caddis and hoppers will still be active.


Of Luddites, schadenfreude and big fish…

A while back I wrote about the reasons why fishing with sheilas was generally more fun than fishing with blokes. One of the reasons was that with blokes, conversation rarely rises above and beyond football, beer, and which Baywatch babe has the biggest assets. Of course, I hadn’t figured on fishing with Bill and Scott. Now, maybe in part it’s because Bill is from Canada, where people tend to be a little more widely read. And besides, being all tucked away down there, only about one village in a hundred has a TV set, so discussing Baywatch is something most Canadians can only dream about.

Scott, on the other hand, is a bit of an enigma. All American boy, product of the public school system, and so one would expect, raised in the firm belief in the power of log cabins, Mom’s apple pie, and secure in the  knowledge that if it didn’t happen within the borders of the continental US then it probably isn’t worth knowing about. And yet here we were, floating down the river, catching a bunch of big fish on a windy day, and discussing instances of schadenfreude in fly fishing, and the struggle of the Luddites in 19th century England and it’s analogies to today’s dry fly fishermen in the face of the advancing hordes of technologically advanced nymphomaniacs.

Fishing conditions out there are kind of tricky right now, what with the low, clear water making the fish a bit nervous, but it is by no means doom and gloom. A light touch on the oars, and a fisherman who can cast delicately well away from the boat, will be rewarded. The fish seem to be hanging out in the faster riffles, in water about a foot or two deep, rather than in the shallows along the edges. The cooler, cloudy afternoon brought with it a pretty good blue winged olive hatch, although the fish were only keying in on the dries sporadically.

What impressed us most about this day was not the quantity of fish we landed, because numbers-wise it was good but not spectacular. What really impressed was the size of the fish we caught. Pretty much each one landed would have been  fish of the day on a normal day. Maybe the big boys are preparing to sow their oats, packing on the pounds before they are called upon to do their annual Mandingo impression. Although a decent number of fish took dries, in particular hoppers and pmx’s, the good old bead head pheasant tail worked the best.

I love fall fishing, and I would expect the action to stay strong through the end of October at least. So don’t believe the naysayers and ne’er-do-wells who say the river is too low, and the fish too spooky. There’s still plenty of good fishing left in the river yet, so get in touch if you’d like to get out there and see for yourself.