Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Excerpt from a Winter Steelheader’s Journal

H: My last fishing adventure of 2020 was a solo winter Great Lakes steelhead trip around Christmas time. To allow for any last minute surprises in weather and flows, I had reservations at 3 hotels in 3 different locations in 2 different states. It wasn’t till 2 pm the day before, right before cancellation penalties would kick in, that I decided I was driving 7+ hours to Ohio.

It would be my first ever fishing trip to that state. Flows looked ideal for wading and the weather forecast was decent, at least for the next several days—highs in the mid 30s with some chance of precipitation but nothing cataclysmic. It turned out to be quite a trip. I honestly lost track of the number of steelhead I hooked and landed over 3 days. As a spey angler who swings flies, one doesn’t get to say that very often. 

Beautiful chrome Great Lakes steelhead
I lost track of the number of beautiful fish I hooked and landed.

Steelhead scales, DNA. One of several that got away.
Collected some steelhead DNA samples :). One of several that got away.

It’s difficult explaining to non-fishing friends and family members why I do this. In what universe is wading in icy cold water and freezing your tail off on the slim chance you might encounter a fish, enjoyable? I think only the brotherhood and sisterhood of fellow winter steelhead anglers can truly relate. Yes, it's painful at times. But the connection you feel with the river, the satisfaction of meeting the challenges thrown at you by Ma nature, solitude (if you're lucky), interspersed with bursts of joy when you cross paths with these beautiful fish, makes you forget the rest. 

Here’s an excerpt from my fly fishing journal. Perhaps it sheds a little light on this addiction of mine. 

December 20, 2020

I'm back in my hotel room after another 7 hour day on the water. I see winter steelheading as a marathon rather than a sprint. I've been getting to the river around 9:30-10am and hiking out just as the light begins to fade. With air temps in the high 20s/low 30s and water temps hovering in the mid to high 30s, there's no need to rush out there. Being the first to go through a run is great but the spots I've been fishing havn't been at all crowded. On day 1, I ran into one other wade angler and I waved to two guys floating by in their Watermasters. I could get used to this. So long Salmon River low holers! :)

A pretty pool on a Great Lakes tributary.
A lovely and productive pool I had all to myself one morning.

A pretty colored up steelhead, my first fish of the trip.
My first fish of the trip, a pretty colored up steelhead.

I wish I had a thermometer, not for Covid testing, but for angling research. Even after a long hot shower and a hot meal, I still had major chills. I wondered: how much does a winter steelhead angler's body temp drop after wading in 36 degree water for 7 hours? I put on my down jacket, wrapped the comforter around me, and spent the next few hours tying flies. 

I've never lost so many flies in my life! Good call, throwing the vise and some materials into my bag last minute. I'm accustomed to losing 1-2 flies a day. But these unknown murky waters filled with sharp ledges, jagged rocks, and hidden debris had claimed more than a dozen of my favorite flies over the past two days.

Before hitting the sack, I checked the forecast and the latest flows. It called for precipitation throughout the night and for some odd reason, the flow gauge wasn't updated. It still showed the same data from this morning. Guess I'll have to see how things look in the morning....

December 21, 2020

A steady rain overnight had caused the river to come up. The USGS gauge still wasn't working but my guess was that it had risen at least a few hundred cfs. It was bitterly cold and with a storm headed this way, today would probably be my last day of fishing.

After 2 hours of swinging flies crotch deep in 36 degree water, I felt like a human popsicle. Sounds fun, right? Lol. If I was a guy, I’d say I was close to freezing my nuts off. With 1 grab to show for iced up guides and uncontrollable shivering, a brisk hike to warm up was definitely in order. I could hike 15 minutes back to the car and sit inside with the heat blasting on high or I could look for another good spot to swing. Hmmm.... Two other anglers had joined me at the pool, stepping in at the head. I wished them luck as I hiked upstream past them in search of more swing water.

15 minutes later, I arrived at a nice pool. The flow and depth looked good. Towards the tailout, surface hydraulics revealed the presence of numerous submerged boulders, perfect steelhead holding water. Unfortunately, the bank on my side of the river was eroded and dropped off abruptly to deep water. My only option to reach those boulders was to cast from the bank. I actually relished the idea of staying out of the water for as long as possible. 

The bank was also densely lined with tall shrubs and several trees. There was one small area with enough clearance to form a D loop so I single speyed with my skagit head and sink tip, incrementally lengthening my line till my fly eventually reached and swung over those boulders. I was in the zone. My casting felt effortless. Each cast was made at the right angle, my fly was swinging at the perfect speed, and I was thoroughly covering the water at a good depth. I could sense everything coming together.

My flygirl instincts proved spot on. My line went tight as a beautiful steelhead resting amidst those boulders took my fly. Normally, I make a mental note about where best to land a fish. But I clearly had a case of brain freeze. I hadn't even given it a thought! I scanned the bank downstream and spotted a small patch of dirt and grass along the river's edge about 200 ft. away. As I fought my fish, I made my way towards it. Luckily, it was only a 5 ft. drop from the bank so with rod in hand and fish in tow, I slid down onto it.

The water there didn't look that deep, but with just a foot of visibility, I couldn't be 100% sure. I learned that on day 1. I had taken a couple of steps into the river from the bank (it didn't look that deep) and had gone from ankle to waist deep water, losing my balance, and almost taking a dunk. Well, winter steelhead fishing is a leap of faith. I took a step in and my foot found the mucky bottom just over knee deep. I tailed her, removed the fly, and after a quick, not so great pic, I sent her on her way. 

A memorable steelhead from my trip, caught single speying from the bank with 13 foot Loomis NRX spey rod.
A not so great photo of a memorable fish from my last day of fishing.

Reinvigorated, I thought I'd make one more pass. I scrambled back onto the bank and walked to my original starting point. As I start casting, the 2 anglers I'd seen at the first pool were making their way towards me. They scrambled down to the patch of dirt where I had landed my fish and proceeded to nymph. I swung my fly once more through those boulders but this time with no luck.

Hoping the pool I had fished earlier was now vacant (of anglers, not fish ;), I hiked back downstream. It was deserted. Before I made it even a third of the way through, I was once again chilled to the bone and shivering something fierce. I stepped out and performed my winter steelhead dance routine—stomping feet, clapping hands, speedwalking back and forth along the river's edge, and jogging in place while helicoptering my arms in circular motions. It's quite a spectacle! Lol

I stepped back into the river, picking up where I left off. Before I reached the tailout I felt a good grab and another beautiful fish was on my line. This time I was prepared and had set my phone to shoot video in case I was fortunate to have another close encounter. I recorded her beauty and her release. There was at least an hour of daylight left but I was done. I honestly don't think I could have lasted much longer. 

When I got back to my car to de-wader*, I found both legs of my heavyweight fleece pants not just damp but wet, all the way up to mid thigh. The previous day's hike along the river bank through wild rose bushes must have done a number on my old waders. Well, that explained things. 

December 22, 2020

I woke up and briefly toyed with the idea of fishing a couple of hours before driving back. But I was content, happy, and spent. The looming prospect of the 7+ hour drive back home didn't seem all that bad.

And it wasn't :).

*De-wader: the joyous act of stripping off your waders and taking off your fishing boots after a long day hiking and fishing.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Mr. Bank Sipper*

H: It was a perfect overcast afternoon on the Delaware when I first saw him across the river. I slowly and quietly moved closer. Not sure how long I admired him from a far before I made my move. 15? 20 minutes? Didn't want to appear too eager or turn him off with any angry salad** so I carefully timed and executed my casts, checking the fly after each drift. The time spent watching him paid dividends as I knew exactly what he wanted and where he wanted it. 3 drifts later, he was mine. :)

Wish we had a photo together Mr. Bank Sipper but your handsome mug will do. Hope we meet again!

West Branch of the Delaware bank sipper

*bank sippernoun: smart, wary, and exceedingly picky surface eater; resides within inches of a river bank. requires stealth, patience, and precision to catch. Often referred to as a S.O.B. (acronym for son of a bitch ;). 

**angry saladcolloquialism, noun: the annoying, ubiquitous clumps of algae found in the waters of the West Branch; first heard used by my friend Mike Mc.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

50/50 on the Water

H: Last year, Orvis released their second 50/50 on the water video and yours truly was in it. It came about completely by chance. I'd met Jackie Kutzer from Orvis a couple of times in passing on the Delaware and I ran into her again at a Dette Flies open house. We talked, about fishing of course, in particular about swinging flies for steelhead and atlantic salmon. A week later, I heard from my friend Kelly that Orvis was planning to shoot another 50/50 on the water video and that Jackie has asked if I'd like to participate. Kelly was going to be involved as well. They would be videotaping about 20 or so female anglers to capture their thoughts and personal experiences related to women and fly fishing.

Everyone who knows me well, knows I'm a private person that shies away from the spotlight. I'd rather be behind the scenes (like writing a blog) and behind the camera, than in front of it. When I guided at a Project Healing Waters event on the Salmon River, they had photographers walking around taking pictures all day. But I was so focused on guiding, I barely noticed them except to stop for a quick group grip and grin every now and then. 

But this was different. This would be 200% completely out of my comfort zone. The camera would be focused exclusively on me. My initial reaction was hell no! But as I gave it some thought, I came around. It's almost always good to get out of your comfort zone. What's the worse that could happen? I freeze up and can't think of anything to say. I'm so nervous my casting falls apart. And, they don't include me in the video. I can live with that! :)

Joel, the videographer, got in touch and we set a date to meet in my hood. He turned out to be a young kid, a super nice kid. I started to relax, at least until we started rolling. I'm afraid the rest is all a blur as I rambled on and on. As soon as the interview was over, I was ready to bolt down to the river.

Joel knew that I spey cast and wanted to shoot video of me casting my spey rod. So I took my 13-foot 7-weight down to the water. It felt good to be doing something besides staring into a camera although I could still see it out of the corner of eye. Afterwards, he suggested we walk the tracks. "Just act normal," he said. I laughed as he crouched down low in front of me and crab walked backwards with camera in hand to get a good angle. This isn't normal.... Before I knew it, it was over. Pheww

Of course I told no one about the video shoot. I just buried it like a bad memory. Lol. It wasn't that bad.

Five months later at the Fly Fishing Show, I stopped by the Dette booth to say hello. Kelly was there and the first thing she said was that she had seen a preliminary cut of the Orvis video. Turned out, I was in it. I made a face, dreading what footage of me might be in it. Kelly assured me it was all good. A month later, Joel sent a link to the final video along with an Orvis model release form. 

Here it is. I'm proud to have been a part of it.

I've read and listened to numerous opinions regarding the 50/50 on the Water campaign: It's a marketing gimmick, just a way for Orvis to make more money. Why do women need a campaign? If they want to fish, they should just fish! What obstacles? No one helped me when I was starting out....

My response to the anglers who say, "What obstacles? If you want to fish, just fish!" is: unless you've walked in someone else's shoes, you'll never know what it's like, so try to refrain from dismissing their perspectives so quickly. My experience learning to fly fish has been very positive but I've heard stories from many friends who had very different experiences. Everyone is different. Everyone's experience is unique. Try to respect that.

This comment was posted on the video's YouTube page:

Sorry but no. We don’t need more people, men or women, fishing out there and taxing our natural resources. One of the appeals of this sport is the ability to lose yourself in the wilderness and enjoy the solitude. The greed of the fly fishing industry has turned this sport upside down. The ratio of fishermen to fish has exploded in the last 35 years, leading to some ugly situations river side. This gave birth to the well known book by Rhea Topping- Rod Rage. People, especially newcomers to the sport haven’t the faintest idea of what stream etiquette is all about. I’ve heard of fist fights on the Feather River, I believe it was and I am sure it’s happened elsewhere. So no, we don’t need more pressure on our streams and lakes.

I get where they're coming from. Since I started fishing the Delaware almost 7 years ago, the number of anglers (and boats) on the river has increased exponentially. Does it bother me at times, yes. But you can usually find a quiet spot if you're willing to hike away from the main access points or fish less traveled sections of the river. Sure new anglers might be unaware of stream etiquette but everyone has to start somewhere. As for taxing our natural resources, we need to look further into the future. If this sport doesn't grow and attract the next generation, what happens to Bristol Bay? How about we try to get more people advocating for catch and release in their local fisheries? How about better education programs to teach new anglers river etiquette and proper fish handling?

Regardless of the motives behind the 50/50 on the Water initiative, as far as I can see, the end results are all mainly positive. For the future of this sport we all love and to protect the things we value, getting the next generation hooked on fly fishing is imperative. I'd rather live with more crowded rivers than have them polluted by chemicals from fracking or mining, damaged irrevocably. It's a no brainer to me. But that's just 1 flygirl's opinion.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Scenes from the Delaware, June 2020

H: The big D. She's never boring. Even when I'm not actively fishing, there’s always so much to see and entertain. Behind the scenes on the Delaware. A few pics and videos from the past month. My first time uploading video so bear with me re: any quality issues.

Up close and personal with newly hatched dragonflies. 😎

Close up of a newly hatched dragonfly

Deer crossing at home pool.

Found the motherlode of caddis fly casings.

Struck the caddis fly casing motherlode

I have almost as much fun observing the mayflies as I do fishing.

A March Brown takes a stroll on the NRX. The first big bug of the season besides the golden stones.

Green drakes are the fairest of them all. đŸ˜

Green drakes on the Delaware

One evening at home pool, I was just too distracted to fish. Toads were getting frisky. Males were singing their hearts out. They were swimming and splashing all around me and there was toad spawn everywhere!

Toad and toad spawn

Toad spawn at home pool.

The views never get old (East, West, Main). 

East Branch of the Delaware

Evening on the West Branch of the Delaware before the fog rolled in.

Main stem of the Delaware

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Here we go, again

H: So, it only took a Pandemic and a few months of self-isolation to get me writing again. I have to say, it feels good. My recent case of the Salar blues had me thinking about a short Atlantic salmon trip I took with a good friend 2 years ago. After almost 4 years of silence, is there anyone still out there reading this? Regardless, here we go, again....

I fish too hard. A few close friends have told me that. Never when Im trout fishing. I typically have 70 days a year on the water for that. While trout fishing, Im a woman of leisure. When dry fly fishing for trout on my home water, the Upper Delaware, I might spend a whole afternoon on the river barely making a single cast, and thats ok. 

But the 14 or so days a year I go Atlantic salmon fishing or steelhead fishing, its true. I fish too hard. I switch on like a machine, change gears, and transform into an anadromous fishing fanatic on a quest. LOL. Can you blame me? Its my pilgramage, my hajj. By machine, Im referring to the no holds barrred commitment needed to make the thousand casts sometimes required to catch these fish on the swing. I will cast and cast and cast till my stripping fingers are cut and raw. 

But there's nothing mechanical about swinging flies for atlantics or steelhead with a spey rod. Its an art as well as a science. Its like music but youre trying to feel and learn the rhythm of a river, a place in time. Anyone who has spey cast knows, when you find that rhythm, everything feels connected. You, your flyrod, line, and fly are one with the water, the air, the whole freaking universe. Seriously! Its like a flawless performance of Beethovens 9th with the Spey rod, my instrument of choice. (No, Im not on anything while writing this ;).

2 years ago, I took my friend Kat up to the GaspĂ©sie for some salmon fishing. She was scheduled to tie at the ASFI (Atlantic Salmon Fly International) in New Brunswick so we decided to fit a few days fishing in beforehand. Timing wise it was a little too early for the Bonaventure and Petite CascapĂ©dia. The water was still very cold and few fish were in the rivers. But a few days fishing is better than none. I was scheduled to drive out West the day after I returned from the ASFI with Kat so this was my only shot. 

Kat has fly fished for atlantics in Scotland, Ireland, Norway, and Iceland but this was her first trip to the GaspĂ©sie. She and I go waaayyy back. I met her 10 years ago at the Julianas Anglers Fly Fishing School and we became good friends shortly afterwards. She was one of the instructors at the School and I was a newbie. Back then, the School and the Club was very active. I recall there were 20+ women at the School the year I attended. They broke us up into groups based on experience level: the brookies, rainbows, and browns. I was a brookie, the greenest of the green. 

Kat is one of the nicest, toughest, and most independent-minded women I know. Shes a talented tyer (she ties in hand) and an accomplished angler, a true Renaissance woman. Wed traveled together for fishing before but it was always with a group. The first time was a 4-day camping trip on the Deschutes where we both caught our first West coast steelhead. The second was to the Bahamas for bonefishing but that was about 6 years ago. Passions get muted and priorities change. While I had become a somewhat hard core Spey angler, Kat had been traveling to fly tying shows abroad, squeezing in some fishing when she could.

She told me about the last time she fished for salmon. It was in Ireland. She stayed at a beautiful historical castle which served 3 gourmet meals a days and had a small salmon stream running through its property. She would fish a couple of hours on the stream during the day, but so far, shed had no luck. Dont get me wrong. Im not opposed to sleeping in castles or savoring gourmet meals. But ever since I learned to fly fish, the fishing has always come first.

The ZEC catch books, not that theyre 100 percent accurate, showed 1 fish caught on the Bonaventure since the season opened and 1 on the Petite CascapĂ©dia caught a couple of days before we arrived. I had entered us into the draw for the Grande but we were not so fortunate. With only 4 days to fish and conditions being far from ideal, I knew it would take luck, hard fishing, most likely both, to catch a salmon. To increase our chances and for Kat to see as much of the rivers as possible, we hired guides for 2 days. 

J-P Tessier searching for salmo salar on the Bonaventure

Our first day on the Bonnie was with J-P. It was cold and wet with heavy mist covering sections of the river. Great steelhead weather but not ideal conditions for trying to spot salmon from a canoe. Kat was far from optimistic about the fishing. She said to me in her best brogue, “The Irish have a saying. When the mist comes over the mountain, the salmon ne’er do bite.” In other words, you might as well head to the PubI had two grabs that day but no hookups. I think the water was still too cold to get these fish to do much more than mouth a fly.

Kat swinging flies in mist at Run-a-pit on the Bonaventure

Our second day was spent on the Petite. I’d never fished the Petite before but Kat won Sector B in the draw so we decided to take it. We spent most of the day at 1 pool. Kat was struggling with her casting but Frankie, our guide, gave her some good tips. He even let her borrow his Rage line for the rest of the trip. Once again, I had a salmon grab my fly. This time, in my excitement, I committed the dreaded trout set and it over before it even began.

Hyun casting on the Petite Cascapedia

Our third day is one I won’t soon forget, but not because of the fishing. We were renting a small chalet next to one of the Open Water access pools on the Bonnie. Kat had some work to do that morning so I walked over to the pool and made a couple of passes. It’s a popular and productive pool so it wasn’t long before I was joined by several anglers. Kat showed up just before noon. She was followed by a group of 5 anglers. One of them was a fellow classic salmon tyer headed to the ASFI, Sasha, a friend of Kat’s. Accompanying him were 3 Canadian anglers and guide, Marc LeBlanc.

I started tying flies right before my first salmon trip to GaspĂ© 5 years ago. Some of the first flies I ever attempted to tie were hairwing patterns created by Monsieur LeBlanc including the picasse. Here was the man himself—soft spoken, with twinkling blue eyes, sporting a gloriously flamboyant handlebar moustache. 

Marc LeBlanc with a box full of salmon candy

I had wanted to head upriver to sector C in the afternoon, to the place where I had those grabs but Kat looked very happy and in her element. We took over the access picnic table. Bottles of Irish whiskey and Scotch emerged from fishing packs and coolers. Canadian beer flowed freely. Kat even drove back to the chalet to get cheese, salumi, and more libations. We spent the afternoon talking, laughing, drinking, eating, and NOT fishing.

Kat and the boys at Malin

Monsieur LeBlanc was very charming and gracious, as well as a consummate flirt, LOL. He opened up his fly boxes, metal candy tins outfitted with foam, to show us his flies. Inside were beautiful and colorful candy for the salmon. He shared stories of how some of his creations came to be and gave both Kat and I our pick of flies. There were some fancier salmon flies in his boxes but my eyes were drawn to the Royal Picasse—a special tie of a very simple but brilliantly effective fishing fly. Kat chose the Out to Lunch (pictured below), a great high water fly. 

Marc LeBlanc and his Out to Lunch fly

Marc also shared memories about the early days of Quebec salmon fishing, of fishing with Lee and Joan Wulff. It wasn’t till the afternoon light turned gold and the air cooled that we finally got around to fishing. With 10+ anglers at the pool, we would each probably get 1 full pass depending on the pace of the anglers. 

As the magic hour approached, the salmon began to stir, and a couple of fish announced their presence at the tail of the pool. When magic hour arrives, a lucky angler in the right position (in this case, the pool’s tail) has a great chance of hooking a salmon. The lucky angler turned out to be Kat’s friend, Sasha. Granted he took his time going through the run, taking baby steps down to the tail. But no one really minded. We were all happy to see a salmon brought to net. I think it was the third salmon caught on the Bonnie since the season had opened.

Magic hour on the Bonaventure River

Of course that day would be Kat’s fondest memory from our trip and she has told me a few times,You fish too hard. I too enjoyed that day on the Bonnie, hanging out with the guys and meeting Monsieur LeBlanc. It’s never been only about the fishing. I enjoy every facet of being on a river including the comaraderie of fellow anglers. But if I had to choose between hooking and fighting a big beautiful fresh hen.... Hmmmm.