Marc writes and fishes the cold water streams of East Tennessee, North Carolina, and North Georgia. When not chasing trout, he can be found chasing his four children…and sometimes his wife. His writing can be found at http://theperfectdrift-marc.blogspot.com/
A question was asked of me today of which I thought I knew the answer, but upon further introspection, I suspect that perhaps I need to reset my footing. A friend asked me today why exactly it was that I fly fish and why it was that I do not keep the very thing that I spend so much time and effort to get in my net? I gave him what I suspect would be considered an answer gleaned from the liturgy of the angler, an answer that contained all the right keywords to at least insinuate that I knew what I was doing. I am writing a book about it for goodness sake, so my answer came forth without any forethought. Not because of any rehearsal, but because I have conversed enough, I have read enough, and perhaps on some levels I have written enough so that I have all the right words. But a wise man once said to me, “If your words and your actions do not match, no one will believe a word you say”.
I used all the key phrases that would get the approving nod from my contemporaries. Words like, challenge, nature, peace, wild places, clean water, skill, beauty, conservation. All of these, or at least some of these will appear in literally every published volume on the sport, which would justify, in effect, that what I was saying was correct. But just because you say the right things, you are not granted membership into those who “get it”. Many are the folk who have all the accouterments of the sport-the right gear, the right look, the proper technique yet they seem somewhat empty. I suppose it is the empty ones who do not last very long in the sport. As a matter of fact, I have a couple of friends who dove into the deep end, bought all the gear, but when there was nothing left to buy, they found that it wasn’t the sport they were interested in at all.
So what makes me a true angler? If I were to remove the nice gear and replace it with the worst possible equipment-would I still hold the passion? If I were to be dropped into a situation where the only place I had to cast a fly were to bluegill in an algae laden farm pond-would I still hold the passion? If I had never stepped out as a writer of fly fishing- would I still hold the passion. If all the key words and catch phrases were removed from my rather limited vocabulary- would I still hold the passion?
In all honesty, after much introspection, the answer would be yes. You see, as far as a great…or even good fly fisherman…I am at a loss. More times than not my cast is not pretty and if I am in the water for more than three hours it is a certainty that I will manage to create a mess of my leader that would be in league with the Rubik’s Cube in difficulty to repair. I am often quite clumsy as I wade, and the biggest fear I have in life is drowning. My flies are not pristine, and my selection looks more mutant than even an attractor pattern might imply. As a fly fisherman, I am just about as undone as you will find.
Therefore, without an abundance of skill and a limited perspective, I am faced with a burning question imposed upon me innocently enough by a curious companion. Why exactly do I fly fish? And to answer in as simple a way as I know how, the answer comes to me without having to dig very deep at all.
I cannot even try to imagine myself NOT being one.
This sport is as much a part of me as my next breath, much as a runner with his or her next stride. The great race horse Secretariat was said to have a heart larger than is common for a horse. Larger heart meant an incredible blood flow and an expanded capacity to do that which it was born to do. I can see myself in no less of a term.
If you fish with me, it is a near certainty that you will outfish me. I know this to be so because of the number of times it has actually occurred. For me the epic day is nothing more than blind luck. I can read the water well thanks in great part to Tom Rosenbauer. I can understand the methodology of fly selection, casting, and most other things that encompass a day in the water. But all the information in the world will not make you a great angler. There comes a time when skill must take over…and in that department I am most lacking.
Yet I continue to frail about, stumble, make messes, and admire those of whom I spend time on the water. I get so frustrated at times with myself that I curse under my breath at the bad luck or bad technique, yet the very next opportunity I have to fish, I will be there playing the role of jester in my own court again. Not because I am a glutton for punishment and self degradation. It is because I am a fly fisherman, and I cannot help but do that which I have found to be a very large part of me. Tangles and all.
There are few things that really rattle me. I have found myself in a standoff against a Yellowstone Black Bear, been bumped by a shark, went headfirst into a sweeper on a raging river. Part and parcel of the sport I suppose. All those things happened so fast that I really had no time to be afraid…I just reacted. While all of those events made for interesting adventures, panic filled memories, and a good story or two, nothing…and I do mean nothing, creeped me out more than an occurrence in The Great Smoky Mountains a couple of weeks ago.
I am standing on the bank, little more than the toes of my boots in the water, roll casting flies into a seam that had trout stacked up in an amazing feeding line. They moved very little and I could see the yawn of their mouths, food was plentiful and it appeared that they were not being very particular as to what they would eat which was good for me.
I rolled out a tandem rig. Neversink Caddis and below it I had on a Green Weenie. Without a doubt, these two flies are the top producers for me. Tons of trout, flies you trust, no one in sight…yep, I was in the zone. The cast rolled out much better than usual and landed upstream from the aquatic congregation, just far enough for the GW to sink down into the feeding land. It was a slow motion display in front of me as I watched the fly twirl in the current; the slightest of movement from a willing rainbow, the take…fish on.
He wasn’t particularly large by most standards, maybe ten inches, which is a pretty good size for a mountain bow. I pulled him away quickly from his friends so that they would miss the fact that one of their kindred had been attacked by a bug puppet and was losing. I had him maybe ten feet from where I stood, when out of the corner of my eye I saw something move from underneath a rock just to the right of where I stood. Most of the rock was under water so I quickly determined that it was perhaps a brown trout that I had spooked away from its lie. Then the line went crazy. The trout began to struggle in a way that just didn’t seem right…then all I felt was the weight of the fish.
Confused, I reeled in the line, my rod tip dipping with each turn as it pulled against the weight of the fish. Finally the head of the trout came into view. Its eyes were stark white; the color you would associate with a wild rainbow had grown ashen. And, just above its tail, holding for all its worth was a snake; the one common creature in God’s vast zoo that absolutely freaks me out.
The snake was maybe three feet in length with a dark cream colored body with deep rust colored bands which is the coloration of our local low country viper…the copperhead. This snake had sunk its teeth deep into this trout and would not let go. The trouble was…I couldn’t let go either…until I cut the leader, which I did with a swiftness that would have impressed Zorro as I pulled my knife from its sheath and with one pass cut through the mono. It should also be noted that I did not cut until I was absolutely certain that the distance of my hand from the snake was safe.
Having rescued what remained of my leader, I expected to see my Neversink moving across the water to some remote location for this vile serpent to devour its/my catch. However, in a manner reserved for only slapstick anglers such as myself, I saw that my lovely Neversink was floating inches from my right foot…and two feet beyond that lay the snake and the trout. Perhaps in a moment of mutual clarity, both the snake and I decided that being exposed on the riverbank was not the best of ideas. I left for higher ground and he took his lunch elsewhere.
Before swiftly extricating myself from the scene, I managed two photos. Sadly these pictures turned out much like those of a Bigfoot sighting or perhaps the Zapruder film. Shaky and dark. I will leave it to the folks at Fishwest to determine if the evidence captured in a digital format are worthy of print.
It wasn’t until a couple of days later as I relayed the story to a friend that I learned the truth about the snake. A copperhead it was not. The fish met its demise at the mouth of a Northern Water Snake, which was no more comforting than being shot with hollow points instead of buckshot. A snake is a snake and though I was twice his size and outweighed him by a multitude of pounds, he was the clear winner in this one.
It is never a comfortable feeling to be totally new at something while surrounded by those who already know the score. To be the only newbie is much like the dream where you wear your pajamas to school. It feels like every eye is on you and you have to act as if you are in complete control when inside you are just praying that you don’t look as foolish as you feel.
That would sum up my trip to the Bahamas in a nutshell. Almost everything I knew about fly fishing was put into question. I am a trout guy. I fish trout streams. And here I stood on a sand flat, in the middle of the Bahamas looking for bonefish.
Our hosts for the trip was Long Island Bonefishing Lodge, and they do something called DIY bonefishing. They load you up on a boat, take you out to the flats, hand you a radio to communicate and then they leave. It is then up to you. That didn’t seem like such a good idea for me…at first. To catch a bonefish, you first have to SEE a bonefish. If you have never done this before, let me try to explain. A bonefish is so shiny and clean that they are a mirror of the bottom which means that when you are looking for them, you might think you see sand when in truth you are looking at the fish. What you have to look for are shadows, tails, unusual movement. And all of this is going on while you try to move as quietly as possible while also dealing with a wind that at times pushes you around.
So there I stood on the flat. My nearest fishing buddy was maybe five hundred yards away. I looked out at the water and the shimmer from the relentless sun, staring into the flat wondering if I will ever see anything at all. The whole flat looked empty. This is the first battle you have to face in that the place itself is so foreign to a trout angler. No riffles, no plunge pools, no risers. Maddening!
Then I see something that looks different, just a flash of a shape. I think it is a fish but I cannot really tell because every time I try to lock in on it, the shape vanishes. Then I see a tail jut up out of the water and I see the fish. It isn’t an easy spot. You actually are looking for a part of a fish. Then I spot another…and another. Maybe five or six bones are feeding thirty feet from me at maybe ten o’clock. The wind is whipping across my left shoulder.
I feed out twelve good strips of line and make a cast. The aforementioned wind grabs my fly line and pushes it to my right, well out of the path of the fish. I strip in some line and try again; only this time I move my cast to compensate for the breeze. This time I get it close. Not spot on…but close.
Then as the fish move in my direction I begin stripping in line. Feeling the take I set the hook and feel pretty good about the fact that I didn’t trout set. Hook up. I feel the frantic shake and raise my rod. As soon as the rod is in the air, I look down at my reel. In seconds, I am already into the backing and the spool is generating some serious RPMs. Then…nothing.
I start to reel the line in thinking that I have lost the fish when it runs again. More backing races out the rod tip. I reel. It runs. I reel. It runs. Then finally, the fish tires and is close enough to grab. I pull the bone out of the water and it is maybe two feet long and solid muscle. This fish is built for speed.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I had drawn a crowd. Setting the fish free, I get high fives and hand shakes. I am now part of the club. The club of the adrenaline fueled sport of bonefishing with a fly rod. And I still have no idea what I am doing.
A mountain trout angler. Out of my place. Out of my element. Using a rod that is more than double the rod I usually use. And I am having a ball.
The mend. A correction of the fly line as it is impacted by different currents in the stream. I am not the greatest at this, yet it is vital to obtaining the perfect drift…and the reason for my blog name. Underneath the surface of any given trout stream is a flurry of activity. Trout and other aquatic creatures move and dance with a current that is constant yet ever changing.
The need for the mend in your drift is to keep the fly line from presenting the fly in a way that does not look natural. For success in most cases, the drift is the single most important and often overlooked portion of a cast. Get it right and success is at hand, botch it and your fly either skitters across the surface like a water skier or jumps over every fish in the stream.
Each stream in any particular area has multiple hydrological issues that the fly line is moved, bellied, bowed, or in some cases, sank completely. It is the Zen of the angler to detect these things and move in accordance to what the water dictates. This is a part of our craft that never changes. We are always in hot pursuit of the perfect drift.
Life is much like this. As our life moves downstream, we are often impacted by currents that are not under our control. Frustration comes easily when we do not read the current of our days leading to an unsuccessful attempt or missing the mark. Often we dream of victory that seems to be right under the surface, but we go dancing unnaturally across the surface leaving these amazing life events behind.
I am often very opinionated, most likely a habitual offender of faithless living, and assuredly a man who allows his pride to block obvious blessing. All of these occur because I have lost the drift. I have not allowed myself to relax, see the flow, and make adjustments as needed. But thankfully I now recognize the correlation and have reached the point where the light bulb is flickering.
John Buchan is quoted as saying, “The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.” Much like the rest of our lives isn’t it? The big hurdle comes when we are faced with actually making life application out of our sport.
You may not agree…and I am fine with that, but I firmly believe that every area of our lives is intertwined to the point that one part will teach us something about another. That there actually are life lessons that can be learned in everything from a person we work with, watching a football game, or standing in a river waving a stick. It is all about how we choose to perceive small snippets of our lives.
So, in light of what I know to be my own shortcomings, and the desire to reach that unattainable thing we call perfection, I will try to learn from the river; that babbling cacophony of change and potential. I will seek to apply elsewhere that which I have gleaned from time spent watching a floating line being moved by a current that was moving before I was born, and which will be moving long after I have gone. Maybe, just maybe, I will have learned enough to get a few other things right. I can’t ask for much more than that.
The passage of time is a peculiar thing. It seems that if we are involved in something we don’t particularly like, the seconds pass thick and slow with now rhythm or pace, everything is laborious and clunky. Then there are days when we are so full of what we enjoy and what we love that it is as if time were racing away at warp speed. It was with this thought in mind that I found myself looking square into the last two days of the tour. I had completely abandoned any concept of time to the point that most days it could have been Tuesday or perhaps Sunday and it would have made no difference. Light and dark, awake and asleep…that pretty much summed up existence in Yellowstone, and by the time I had realized what was happening, I was looking into the face of the one thing I hadn’t taken into account. The trip was coming to an end.
After leaving Slough Creek, we drove across the amazing chaos that is Yellowstone and up into Montana. One thing that never ceased to amaze me about this National Park was the quick change of the geographic, geologic, and topographic nature of the landscape. Drive a few miles in one type of terrain, cross a hill, and it is as if someone has plucked you out of one place on the planet and deposited you in another location thousands of miles away. Surreal would be an easily overused word here in this majestic location.
So with the disorientation of time and the sensory overload of the terrain, Bruce Smithhammer and I drove west…our destination was to be the last stop on the trip. We would be spending the next two days in Big Sky Montana and fishing the Gallatin River. Basing my expectations of Big Sky upon what had transpired throughout the week was not wise. Every second of rustic living, every moment of wild and unpredictable environments, every old building and historic structure were in another world altogether upon our arrival in this small Montana locale. We were staying for two days in a two story penthouse of Big Sky Lodge, a place in which the President had stayed a few months earlier. I don’t know the exact square footage of our sky high lodging, but I feel very safe in guessing that we had at least three thousand square feet of living space to enjoy. But, just so we didn’t think we were completely removed from the wild, a big bear was wandering around the parking lot as we were unloading our things. It is moments like these that will enamor you with this part of the world.
After gawking at our dwelling for a while, I hit the rack and fell into the kind of sleep that can only come when the perfect bed meets unreal fatigue. It seemed that I had only closed my eyes and it was morning, and with the rise of the sun we headed out to fish the Gallatin.
The Gallatin is a meandering river, much smaller than I pictured it, but an excellent fishery…with one problem…the fish were nowhere to be found. Six anglers, all accomplished in their craft, were pretty well skunked. My only fish on this day was a complete accident. I was fishing a hopper up against the far bank without luck. I misjudged my distance; hit the bank, pulled it free, and bam…a ten inch rainbow smacked it as soon as it hit the water. My only fish.
Back to the lodge. We were all beyond tired. The week that was had begun to catch up with us. Gathered around the television that evening, we watched the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, laughed, and told stories until late into the night. We had started the week as strangers, just names, people who for the most part only knew of each other from what we had read. I looked around the room and was amazed at who I was with. Kirk Deeter, Chris Hunt, Bruce Smithhammer, Rebecca Garlock…Field and Stream, Trout Unlimited, The Drake, Outdoor Blogger Network. Wow. But the cool thing about it is that the accolades and accomplishments of these people were secondary to the fact that Steve Zakur and I were hanging out with friends.
Often on trips like this, when the people don’t know each other, the potential of a train wreck of interpersonal issues is always a potentiality. However, on this particular trip, we just hit it off…everything meshed. It was as if we had done this trip together for years. To say that lifelong friendships were formed would be a gross understatement.
The last day of the tour started with a trip to a local fly shop and an event that will forever define the attitude of Big Sky Country in my memory. After a night of libations and more than one David Allan Coe song being sung loud and out of key, I was parched. Just as you walk in the door of this particular fly shop, there is a soft drink machine. So I stopped there and started digging in my pocket for a buck to feed. I drop in my money, select my favorite citrus laden beverage…and out came a Pabst Blue Ribbon. It was then that the guy behind the counter told me that he could not remember the last time that machine had soft drinks in it. I looked at him and smiled, then I spotted some fly shop hats…one had a PBR style logo with the fly shops name on it. Sold. I still wear it with pride.
Another tough outing on the Gallatin as storms moved in from the west with a ferocity that put every fish in the river down for the day. So we spent the remainder of the morning just hanging out by the truck and talking. Perhaps that was the best way for things to end. In conversation with people who had become friends and may see years pass before their paths would cross again.
This trip and the amazing events that I experienced have forever changed me. It did not make me a better angler, but it did change the way that I go about the craft. The skillset remains, but in some ways the philosophy behind it has been forever altered by this great bunch of people.
Roughly five months have passed, and I am still in consistent contact with these folks. Sometimes it is business, and sometimes it is just to say hi. In the early part of the fall, Steve found himself in my neck of the woods and I took him to the South Holston. I told him where the trout would be, and what they were likely to be keyed on, then I stepped back, cast into water that has never yielded fish, and watched as he pulled multiple fish from the water. It made me happy to play guide for my friend, and in a way it was my gift to him. As we left that afternoon to once again go our separate ways, we said goodbye as if we would be together the following week…because we both knew that eventually we would meet again on a river somewhere.
Over the first part of the tour, all discussion of great fishing wound up turning to Slough Creek. So we left what was a very relaxing morning on Soda Butte and headed back into the Lamar Valley which meant that I would be rubbernecking for at least the next hour.
I rode with Bruce Smithhammer and what a pleasurable drive it was. His music selection guaranteed that the miles in between would be a treat. When you can be on a fishing trip with people you really haven’t known for more than a couple of days, and the conversation is structured around the amazing technique of Dwight Yoakam’s former guitarist Pete Anderson it is readily apparent that you are in good company.
We pulled onto a winding gravel road with rolling hills all around. From the topography, it was obvious that a river was out there just beyond view…and then we reached the parking lot and I saw what all my friends were so pumped about. This is an active body of water that just begs to be fished.
We all piled out of our vehicles and Chris began getting the lunch stuff out of his ride. As the wonderful spread was laid out for our pleasure, you could see each of us being drawn away from the conversation and the food. We all spent our lunch break taking a bite of food between hard gazes into the creek. Anglers are funny that way. We can be the most focused and in tune of people, but put us in front of fishy water and we instantly become restless. The mind of a fly angler is always reading the water. We are always determining in our minds where the lies are in the stream, where the holding spots might be. A bug can hover round the stream for fifteen seconds and we have already done our own identification which is then followed by a mental selection of fly and size. It is a sickness, but I have yet to meet an angler who feels the need for a twelve step program…about the flies at least.
And so, with full a full belly, we strung up the sticks and hit the trail.
Slough creek is recognized by its meadows. First, second, and third. It is also common knowledge that the further up you go on the creek, the better the fishing. This seemed so odd to me. If the fishing is better upstream, then why not bypass the other spots and move up to the areas beyond the parking lot? Oh how foolish I was. When we set out into the timber it was easy going, then slightly easy, then a bit of a haul. All the while, you are walking beside this amazing creek and staring at water that is just about as perfect as you will find anywhere. It was then that I learned that it was not the distance to third meadow that was the impediment, it was the water itself. Eventually, the water is going to win. The unending enticement becomes too great and most folks will succumb before they ever get to the super fish.
We traveled beyond the first and second meadow. I am looking at this water, and I am getting tired of walking. Then we reach the canyon. A high walled mass of pocket water that is beginning in conjunction with a more extreme hike. We stopped. I looked at Steve. We were both so fired up to fish that we elected to forgo the journey to the third meadow. This would be where we took our stand. So, Steve and I, along with Rebecca and Rich, stepped off the trail and into a massive boulder strewn run of pocket water that would make Gierach drool.
Below the pocket water where we began was a large open area. Looked pretty deep, and though I saw no risers, in my gut I just knew that there would be fish in there. The three of us headed down with Rebecca and Steve moving below me to where this open deep water tailed out into a tighter stream. I moved over to the hard riffles right at the head of this massive pool and began casting just far enough that the fly would engage the turbulent current and drift into the slow water. It was my thought that fish would stack up and be ripe for the picking.
Two or three casts into it, I set the hook on a small cuttie. No more than nine inches, it hit the nymph with authority and in short order I brought it to hand. I didn’t even lift the little guy out of the water, and he swam away in a rush to settle into just about the exact spot where he was holding when I arrived.
Downstream Rebecca was on to fish and landed one that put her in quite a quandary. She had caught a rainbow, which in most cases you would simply admire for a moment and then place back in the drink. However, we had been instructed by our hosts to kill any rainbows we caught which would assist in the full fledged dominance of the cutties. A little unsure as to how to dispatch the fish, she finally just elected to squeeze it until it died then gave it a proper burial into the river where it once called home.
As Rebecca was wrestling with the moral dilemma of the dead rainbow, I had switched to a neversink caddis and using basically the same methodology, I cast up into the rough water and let the fly fall naturally into the slick water. After negotiating the riffles, the fly slowed down with the current and I watched a large fish rise into the same aquatic path as my fly. The big boy hung around and as the fly crossed over it, the tell tale sign of a pending take began to take shape. Then, as if he remembered that he had left something burning on the stove, one splashy flick of the tail and he was gone. I cannot say exactly why he turned away. I had placed that fly in perfect position, it had drawn attention to itself, and then total refusal.
I tried a couple of more casts without any luck so I waded my way around to the area that Rebecca was fishing. Steve began moving his way round to the spot I just left.
Rebecca and I stood together working the water for a while when we heard screaming downstream.
In the Smokies where I live, someone yells bear and unless they have cubs with them, they honestly are not much of a threat. I have seen dogs that are bigger than the vast majority of bear I have encountered in the GSMNP (Great Smoky Mountains National Park), but this was not Tennessee and the bears out here will mess you up.
The very nanosecond that my ears sent a survival message to the brain, I turned and looked at Rebecca. Nice to know that I wasn’t the only one who was filled with adrenaline. It wasn’t really that we were scared other than the fact that we did not know where this bear was located. Then I spotted her, standing on her hind legs and scratching her back against a tree. Big.
It is funny how sometimes our thoughts become reality. Those short ideas that pass through your mind so quick that you barely identify it as a thought at all. I looked at this rotund black mass rubbing its back against the tree and thought to myself, “Glad that sucker is on the other side of the river.” It was at that exact moment when said bear stopped rubbing, looked across stream, and immediately trotted down into the water. While this was going on, Rebecca had yelled upstream to Steve that we had a bear. Steve was probably sixty yards away, and had managed to hook the large trout I had turned earlier.
Steve heard Rebecca, but sometimes there is a wide chasm between hearing and understanding what has been said…such was the case now. So Steve thinks that she is congratulating him on the deep bend in his rod and gets this big smile that protrudes from behind his cigar. She yells again. This time he hears, so instead of a long moment of admiration for the lovely cutbow he has just landed, he snaps a picture and comes to the rescue. See….Steve was the only one of us with bear spray. He was by default the first line of defense and was the last one in line to be mauled. And so, in a manner likened unto Mighty Mouse…here he came to save the day.
By the time our faithful friend and hero had made it over to us, so had the bear. With eyes focused on the lumbering beast, Steve took the forefront, bear spray close to the hip and ready to fire. Steve used to be a cop so I felt relatively confident as to his ability to strike quick aim with the spray. However I was a little uneasy about wind direction and could just see myself catching the downwind drift of this pepper concoction just before I was disemboweled by an angry member of the Yellowstone community.
The bear got as close as maybe ten yards or less. Could have been fifty yards, but when you are looking at a big beast that is on a collision course with you, distance looses all logistical relevance.
Then we began talking to the bear. “Hey bear!” which is actually angler speak for “Dear Lord please get this beast away from us in a hurry because we have at least one other river to fish and I don’t want to miss it.”
Eventually, the bear turned and headed into the woods. While still within our line of sight, it stopped, briefly looked back at us, and proceeded to do that which has always been said that bears do in the woods. The thought occurred to me then that this was just his way of letting us know just what he thought of us, our taunting, and Steve’s bear spray.
We didn’t catch anymore fish, but we sure had one great story to tell when we converged on the parking area.
It has been said more times than you could count that often the best part of a fishing trip is not the fishing. That statement was very true in this case. Oh, to be certain we were happy that Steve hooked a nice one, and we did admire his picture. But on this day, on Slough Creek in Yellowstone National Park, a darn nice trout was trumped by a big black bear. But man what a story we had to tell.
In July of 2012, I was selected to join Chris Hunt and Kirk Deeter of Trout Unlimited, Rebecca Garlock, Bruce Smithhammer, Steve Zakur, and several representatives of Simms, The National Park Service, and The Yellowstone Park Foundation in a tour of Yellowstone. We were directly involved in removal of the invasive lake trout from Yellowstone Lake, stream study on Soda Butte Creek, and stream recovery on Specimen Creek. This is the fourth of a six part series recounting my adventures. This was my first trip to Yellowstone.
Roughly twenty years ago, I watched a special on the Lamar Valley. Rivoted to the screen I saw this valley of high peaks and rolling hills and thought to myself, “I have got to see this face to face”.
Sometimes the culmination of dreams takes time.
Twenty years of watching specials, reading articles, surfing the net, wearing my wife out with comments, and daydreams too many to number, I finally found myself in the Lamar.
Our band of merry anglers, still giddy from the mornings adventure on Yellowstone Lake headed north and I felt a level of anticipation that almost matched the vast beauty of this place, this amazing place.
At every turn, every rise, every drop in the road, I kept looking for this storied location until finally the expanse of the Lamar Valley opened up before me.
Honestly, it was almost like driving into a John Wayne western. The rolling hills just begged to be flecked at their crests with bands of Native American warriors. I chuckle now when I think of this because out of the myriad of sights I would feast on from that point forward on the tour, I kept thinking that there should be a circle of teepees and dark haired natives riding along on white and brown horses. It just goes to show how much we are influenced by both our childhood and our addiction to media.
I am not going to be able to do justice to the beauty of this place with words. It is one of those places that you simply must see to fully grasp.
We pulled to the side of the road and off in the distance to our right was the Lamar River. As I looked it seemed so small, little more than a tiny creek. That perception couldn’t be farther from the truth. It was here that I learned the deceptiveness of distance. In the land in and around The Great Smoky Mountains National Park that I call home, the hills roll, are full of foliage, and the mountains are softer, being as old as they are I suppose that is to be expected. But here in the land that I call home, distance is just easier to judge. The point of reference is so close that feet, yards, and miles are pretty easy to judge.
So….after gearing up, we began walking down to the river. And we walked….and walked…and walked…and then when we were done walking, we walked some more. When I stopped long enough to look behind me, I was amazed. Our vehicles were barely visible. There again, it bears restating that you just can’t imagine how big Yellowstone is until you have been there. And if you have not been there…you really owe it to yourself to go.
The Lamar River is a truly beautiful place, and as we stepped into the water, Steve calmly waded in very close to a bison that was picking grass near the far bank. Between he and I was Rebecca. Farther downstream the rest of the party were barely visible as they sized up the water.
I stood for a long time and just gawked at the place. It was almost like a kid who has wanted a certain gift for Christmas, and once the prized package was in his hands, he is to shocked to open it and play.
With no obvious risers, I tied on a hopper dropper with a prince nymph and set to work. Each time I cast, I thought to myself, “I am here”. The effect of my presence in this place was not the feeling of going home, but it was close. Sometimes your heart will long to the point that the unknown dwells as close as the familiar, and I looked around me as the big clumsy hopper pitched along downstream, in absolute awe.
I realize that I was in a place where fly fishing was king and fish are bright, vibrant, and wild, but I honestly didn’t care if I caught anything or not. I was present, and sometimes just being aware of that is enough. This thought would prove on more than one cast to be prophetic because I was so immersed in the place that I missed multiple strikes as the hopper briefly vanished under the weight of a fish as it engaged the prince.
Upstream from me I see Rebecca raise her arm and that familiar flush of the water as a trout realizes that it has just made a critical mistake. Beyond her, a billow of cigar smoke drifts above Steve. We are new friends, but the peace and familiarity we share unifies us as if we had been together since birth.
Rebecca slips the trout back in the water, and begins again as if what happened had never taken place. She is in her zone, and, as she would later recount to me, she has never been skunked on this river.
Chris, Bruce, and Kirk had very little luck and had traveled back to the cars long before our group had it fill. In a park like Yellowstone, you can expect traffic jams from time to time, and these guys decided to break the monotony of waiting by creating a traffic jam of their own. They would wait until a car approached, then they would point and spy out into the vast expanse of the valley, of course nothing was there. Cars would stop, set up cameras, pull out binoculars, gazing out at nothing. Its the little things in life that bring the biggest laughs, and later that night we would spend a good portion of time chuckling about it. Honestly, if I were driving up and saw a bunch of people pointing out to the river, I would stop too.
In July of 2012, I was selected to join Chris Hunt and Kirk Deeter of Trout Unlimited, Rebecca Garlock, Bruce Smithhammer, Steve Zakur, and several representatives of Simms, The National Park Service, and The Yellowstone Park Foundation in a tour of Yellowstone. We were directly involved in removal of the invasive lake trout from Yellowstone Lake, stream study on Soda Butte Creek, and stream recovery on Specimen Creek. This is the second of a six part series recounting my adventures. This was my first trip to Yellowstone.
Okay, how many mornings have you awoke, and over breakfast said to yourself…”yep, today I think I am gonna kill a thousand trout. That is the goal. Not gonna eat em, not gonna sell em, just gonna kill em, cut em, and dump em in the deep water. Then maybe call it a day.”
Lets just settle on agreeing that lake trout aren’t baby seals. Soft fluffy white fur and big watery eyes will trump a cold slimy fish any day of the week, but still…the wholesale slaughter of a trout seems antithetical to the mantra that we catch and release types chant each time we head to the river. We will pass someone who is leaving with a stringer full of trout and we assess them as if they are pariah; an unclean blight on the angling world.
I speak somewhat in jest, but it is honestly a very strange feeling to know that your goal is a mix of trout and death. It just doesn’t roll off the tongue very easily…until you actually do it.
Here is the situation. At some point lake trout arrived in Yellowstone Lake. I say “at some point” because no one is really 100% certain when it happened. Yellowstone Lake is a Cutthroat lake, end of story. The population of this amazing body of water has changed dramatically in recent years, and it has become quite frightening on more than a fishing level. This issue literally effects every creature in the massive Yellowstone that has Cutts as a food source.
Try wrapping your mind around this statistic. In or around 1978, 70,000 Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout were recorded in Clear Creek. In 2008, the number had dwindled to less than 500. You read that right…500. Keep in mind that we are just talking about one creek, God only knows how many feed into Yellowstone Lake. You start running the numbers and it doesn’t take a lot of thought to determine that Yellowstone is in trouble.
Lake Trout live and spawn in Yellowstone Lake, they access no tributaries, they live in deep water, and they eat a bunch of Cutthroat which do access the tributaries to spawn. This leaves only one viable solution. You must get on Yellowstone Lake and kill a bunch of Lakers. Each female Lake Trout is capable of laying thousands of eggs, and with each passing season, these hungry invasives feast on the Cutts.
HOW IT IS DONE
We were blessed with the opportunity to travel out onto Yellowstone Lake and take part in the removal of the Lakers. After a coffee and a danish at the boat dock, we gathered round and Todd Koel gave us the rundown thus far.
When you can tally up 167,703 lake trout caught thus far in 2012, and your work is no where near done…you have got a huge task in front of you.
There are two primary methods that are being used in the eradication process. Gill netting and trap nets, and our merry band of anglers, bloggers, and industry folk embarked on what would become one whale of an adventure.
Gill netting is not pretty. It is a messy, smelly, methodical task that takes a strong constitution and a certain degree of speed to do the job well. So, imagine my surprise when we pulled up to the gill netting boat, and a young blonde coed climbed out and welcomed us aboard. I envisioned a crew of bearded and somewhat scruffy fishermen using foul language, smoking filterless cigarettes and drinking coffee from an old rusty percolator. This boat had two gentlemen who were very polite and soft spoken and a crew of nothing but girls.
With my personal stereotypes completely shattered we put our hands to work. Gill netting was the focus of this boat, and though it wasn’t Deadliest Catch it was pretty intense at first. The best way to describe gill netting would be to envision a massive underwater spiders web. These nets are dropped or “soaked” for several hours and basically the fish entrap themselves within the holes of the net, struggle, tangle, and die. Then comes the dirty work. The net is retrieved and it is the task of the deck hands to extricate the fish from the nets. I knew this was gonna be messy when the captain of the boat handed out blue rubber gloves. Sometimes this involved actually pushing the internal organs of the lakers from one part of their bodies to the other just so they would go through the holes in the nets. This procedure can also cause what the girls on the boat called “poppers”, I won’t go into details, but imagine a balloon that is squeezed just a tad to much. Only this balloon wasn’t full of air….
For ten hours a day, six days a week these co-eds place nets, pull up nets, removed dead fish and repeat, and they actually seemed to be having fun doing it.
So where are all the big lake trout? This particular process is used to remove the smaller fish. On the next post we will take a look at how the big boys meet their maker.
In July of 2012, I was selected to join Chris Hunt and Kirk Deeter of Trout Unlimited, Rebecca Garlock, Bruce Smithhammer, Steve Zakur, and several representatives of Simms, The National Park Service, and The Yellowstone Park Foundation in a tour of Yellowstone. We were directly involved in removal of the invasive lake trout from Yellowstone Lake, stream study on Soda Butte Creek, and stream recovery on Specimen Creek. This is the first of a six part series recounting my adventures. This was my first trip to Yellowstone.
There is always a slight risk involved in dreams. So often we paint pictures in our minds about these enchanted desires, thoughts that grow, doubling each time they wander across our mind. Then we are somehow placed in a situation in which we can actually see this dream come to pass and it feels empty, shallow, and unfulfilled.
Thankfully, this was not the case in my dream of Yellowstone.
My friend Steve Zakur didn’t touch down in Jackson until late in the afternoon/ early evening which gave me time to soak in the Tetons in their glory. When his plane landed and we shook hands, the dream which I carried for so long gained life. Go time had arrived.
Steve has visited the park several times. He knew what to expect. So that evening over drinks we made a plan that in retrospect was quite ambitious. We were going to start at the south entrance and head northeast before meandering our way around and back to the south entrance. I had no idea just what I was in for.
The next morning Steve and I took off from Jackson on a grand tour de force of the park. It was a complete mind blower. Crazy as it may sound, you literally cannot look in any direction without a photo op. This place is a photographers Valhalla.
We had not even entered Yellowstone yet, and all I kept saying was “wow”.
Steve, being a seasoned vet of the park, graciously played tour guide for me and just let me gawk at the shear majesty of the place. It just overwhelms everything about you. I had thought of this place for so long and had focused so much on getting ready for this trip that it just left me numb.
In the center of the park there is a road that basically is a loop. That was to be the focus of our day as we worked around toward our final destination which was Flagg Ranch (more about them later), and our rendezvous with the other folks that would be on tour with us for the week.
But of course, Steve and I being anglers, there came a point in which we could wait no longer and fishing became the focus. Saying fishing became the focus in Yellowstone is almost a misnomer. There are so many places to ply the angle as they say that you literally are overwhelmed in trying to find a spot. We settled on the Gibbon which is a smaller river that joins the Firehole to become the Madison.
It was a warm afternoon, the water was perfect for wet wading, and the little browns that call this particular body of water home were willing to at least give Steve and me a taste of just how good it could be. We ended the afternoon with three small browns each. Nothing worthy of the grip and grin that is almost a mandatory validation of success (to which I strongly disagree), but we felt the drug that is the tug, and that was quite enough to settle the spirit.
We finally made our way back to Headwaters Lodge at Flagg Ranch and met those who were to be our companions for the rest of the week. (More on that next time.)
In my right pocket on most days, I am carrying a knife. It isn’t a particularly lethal blade even though its carbon steel can be honed enough to shave the hairs from your arm clean as a babies bottom. The craftsmanship is what you would expect from a mass produced circa 1975 hardware store pocket knife, a brown plastic handle that is slightly off center on one side, the name stamped crooked. Imperfections abound on this treasure and I would venture to say that if you were to find it along the side of the road you would submit it to a junk drawer if you bothered to pick it up at all. But this knife holds a great deal of significance to me.
This knife was the first thing I ever purchased with money that I had earned. I was ten years old and was going door to door asking for people to vote for a man that was running for school superintendent in my home county. For my half days work I think I was paid ten dollars, and part of that cash payday was used at Smith Hardware to buy myself a Barlow Pocket Knife. My Grandfather carried a Barlow and so I assumed that it must be the best knife to have on hand. It was many years before I realized the truth.
I still carry this blade because it means something to me. It holds significance in that it represents a milestone, a rite of passage, and at the same time it gives me a direct link to the childhood that has long since disappeared into thin and sometimes clouded memory. Now, I also see the potential future of this knife as I am preparing myself to hand it over someday to my son. In some respects, he will not carry it with the same significance as I. The memories he will have surrounding this blade will be of me and not how it came into my possession or what it represents. Then, many years from now it may go to my Grandson; the memory will be diluted further and perhaps he will place it in some easily forgotten drawer or box, but that is for him to decide.
In much the same way and same circumstances is the esteem in which we regard our Fly Fishing Gear. Each rod or reel has some sort of memory, some sort of story. An old worn out hat may reek of sweat and be faded and frayed, but held within the very fabric of the brim may be epic tales of angling adventure that have engrained themselves for a lifetime. Or perhaps it was handed down from the person who introduced you to the sport. The day that it passed from their hand to yours was a rite of passage that may be told to others, but never really shared with others.
Some of us have been blessed with the luxury of high dollar gear. Hundreds upon hundreds of dollars laid down for the very best, while others may have old, clunky equipment bought at yard sales or at a big box retail store. To argue the comparisons in craftsmanship would be pointless and to debate the merits of them would be a waste of breath. Within each high dollar rod with a historic company pedigree can be found a story, yet within a rod that might be valued equally as a tomato stick or such is at least an equal story.
From this train of thought we can perhaps conclude that the fishing isn’t about the equipment and its limitless accessories. It isn’t about brand names or price tags. Fly fishing is about memories and experiences. Fly fishing is about the moment, that one shining nugget that is as burned in your mind as a trip to the hardware store just to slap down your money for a knife. There is a life in our equipment that is dormant until we put it to use, and in the using is familiarity, memory, history. You just can’t buy those type things.
The smaller knife blade on my Barlow has a permanent glob of model car glue along the bottom of the edge side. I can look at that and remember, I had a Richard Petty model car that I was building and had used the blade to remove some excess glue that had seeped through the point where the Petty blue rear fender and trunk lid met. There again, that means absolutely nothing to anyone else but me. Same situation occurs with imperfections in our equipment. I may look at the deep gash in the cork handle of your fly rod and not give it another thought, yet you may look at the same gash and remember how you were on a trip with some friends. You may see a clear mental picture of how you slid down a grassy embankment and caught the handle on a piece of barbed wire…and think of the fish you caught that day.
I have a very old bamboo rod. If the hunches are correct, it was build sometime in the mid 1930’s which makes it as old as or older than my Dad. This rod has survived, and perhaps at times thrived through some of the greatest moments in human history, and also through personal worries and concerns. I sometimes wonder if any of the previous rod owners are still alive, where they were, where they fished. When I obtained the rod, it was found in the trunk of an abandoned 1950’s era Ford sedan that had spent several years rusting away behind this elderly couple’s barn. Trust me, when I fish this rod- the weight of its history (or potential history) is very present in my mind.
The relationship we have with our gear, no matter the price or the name is internal, and it should never be expected that anyone else should ever understand its significance. All that really matters is that we have something in the present which harkens us back to a time of which we will never return, and to a future that rests in the dimpled surface of a river where fish are rising and new memories await.