Thursday, October 18, 2012

Lessons in the Salt

H: October 18, 2012: I finally went on my half-day saltwater charter with Captain John McMurray. I'd won it in a silent auction at a Tag-A-Giant (TAG) reception earlier this summer. I have a soft spot for big fish conservation :). After rescheduling 3 times due to bad weather and a conflict with McMurray's other day job, time was running out for false albacore... I hoped the fourth time would be the charm.

Weather still looked iffy the night before but McMurray called and said it was do-able. He warned that it would be rolling out there. "Bring your boat legs," he said. I replied I was willing to give it a shot and that I was pretty good on boats. As soon as I said that, I thought I might live to regret it... By "good on boats" I meant I have good sea legs and I rarely get seasick.

I worked on a Great White shark research boat in South Africa for several months and we were on the water every day that the weather permitted. The waters off the coast of Gansbaai, South Africa are some of the most beautiful and treacherous anywhere, not just for having one of the densest populations of Carcharodon Carcharias in the world, but also for the unpredictability of its weather.

But fly fishing on rough seas is a tiny bit more challenging then recording data or taking photos of shark fins ;). Plus, I was a lot younger then. At least my fishing partner James was a veteran saltwater angler, so I had no worries about him. Asking Josée to come with me was never even an option. I still remember her turning a bit green last year out in Montauk (see Bring Out the Bikinis!).

We met at 6:30 a.m. at McMurray's house and got on the big boat, the 33' Contender—that was the only way we were gonna get out and stay out there safely. It was windy but more importantly the wind was from the SW. It eventually shifted W and started to change to NW just as we were heading back in. There were some huge swells when we first got out into open water from the channel. First lesson learned, the direction of the wind can matter more than its intensity.

The three of us huddled behind the boat's center console which I thought would offer adequate protection from the elements. Wrong! We got drenched by heavy spray on the way out. Despite having numerous layers on (4 on top!), once you're soaked, its hard to fight the chill. Foolishly, I was cold and wet the whole morning while my waterproof rain gear remained nice and dry at the bottom of my pack. Another lesson learned or rather a refresher.

The albies were out in good force and we had them all to ourselves since no one else was crazy brave enough to be out there. We saw 2 other boats, all morning, but we never had any close run-ins with them (a completely different experience from Montauk). Schools of false albacore were scattered all over and there was no need to be on top of anyone.

I had quite a few good shots at the albies, but ultimately, no luck. My line management skills were laughable as I stepped on my running line at the most inopportune times, created huge tangles which caught on my guides as I tried to shoot line. I've had this Rio Outbound Short intermediate line for months but this was the first time I was actually fishing with it. I should have stretched it to take out some of the coil memory. James brought along his stripping basket—a very smart idea on a rough and windy day. He had absolutely no line issues. Okay, I'm learning...

Veteran saltwater fly fisherman James Jindal with a nice false albacore
James and his albie.
James caught a very nice albie but he's used to catching more than just one ;). He had fished in the same area about a week before and had hooked 20+ and landed about 15 albies! Granted the waters were apparently glass calm that day. It was fun watching James fish. He's been doing it most of his life and it showed as he made some great casts and wasn't fazed by anything.

McMurray turned out to be a fine captain. He kept us out there way past the clock, trying to get us onto fish. His business is aptly named "One More Cast Charters." Several times as we were heading back in, we'd spot some birds. McMurray would turn the boat around and say, "All right, let's try one more cast..."

Despite the cold, the wind, and rough seas, it was great just being out there fishing and James and McMurray were good company. But I must confess, I was happy to get back on land, warm up with some hot soup, and take a nap under my down covers!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Flygirl Mission Accomplished!

Flygirl Hyun Kounne spey casting at Grand River Spey clave, Paris Ontario
Flygirl taking a rod for a spin at the Grand River Spey clave, Paris, Ontario.
H: October 10, 2012: Can't believe it's been well over a week since I returned from Paris and the Grand River Spey clave. I guess working 13-hour days plus the weekend distorts one's sense of time and place... Even Craig beat me to a post ;).

Well, I'm happy to report, flygirl mission accomplished! I found my "One"— it's the new 13-foot, 7/8 weight G. Loomis NRX two hander. Damn! Did it have to be one of the most expensive spey rods made in the USA? Why couldn't I have fallen for the Echo 3 which is a fine rod (and $600 less!)? So, is the NRX 1567/8-4 two hander twice the rod of its brethen?

Earlier this spring, I cast numerous singlehand rods before my first bonefish trip and concluded that the middle tier rods were the way to go. The price you pay for the top end models just didn't seem worth it to me. Sure, they're generally lighter, their components higher quality and possibly more durable. But you're also paying for fancy faux burl inlay in the reel seat or other such nonsense. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate a good looking rod as much as the next flygirl ;). But to me, a fly rod is first and foremost a tool, a means to an end—catching fish—and a good caster can pick up any decent stick and work some magic.

The key word is decent—there is a minimum threshold of acceptability (of castability). I cast one lower end stick (around $300) that had received good online reviews. But I would never use that rod even if it was given to me for free. It felt like casting a stiff, brittle, hollow tube. Ugh! It should at least be a pleasant experience (if not joyous :). So, middle tier rods are the smart way to go…

Then why in heaven's name am I about to spend $1,130 on a fishing pole? For some inexplicable reason, my first spey rod is an emotional purchase. Flygirl logic is thrown out the window! I think it's because the perfect combination of rod, line, and caster in the two-hand world is equivalent to all the planets in the universe aligning ;). It's an event to be celebrated!

I think it was just meant to be. It turned out that Mike Verhoef, one of the presenters at the clave, brought along the only NRX 7/8 doublehander in eastern Canada (or so he said :). I took a few casts and the rest is history. Seriously, it was love at first cast. Incredibly light and nimble, a lethal combination of power and finesse. It felt effortless to cast, perfectly lined with a 480 grain Scientific Anglers Extreme Scandi head and shooting line. I didn't want to let it out of my hands...

Afterwards, I rushed to find my pal, easterncaster, and tell him the good news—I had found MY perfect spey ROD! I was curious what he would think of it. He cast it the following day. His reaction was that it was one of the best rods he has ever cast. I guess it's not just my perfect rod.

Eastercaster Craig Buckbee spey casting on the Grand River, Paris Ontario
A perfectly curvaceous D-loop courtesy of the easterncaster on the River Grand.
As for the rest of the Grand River Spey Clave—It was fun! The weather was fine and the setting was gorgeous. Water levels were low which was great for taking rods out for a spin but not so great for the fishing. I cast about 7–8 different spey rods and easterncaster shot some video of me which has been tremendously useful (Thanks, Craig!). I've noticed a few things about my spey casting: 1) my forward cast has greatly improved but I still need to stop the rod higher; 2) I do a great statue of liberty imitation, particularly in my single spey and switch casts. There is no reason for me to raise the torch rod so high!; 3) My parents did an excellent job ingraining proper lady-like manners in me. I consistently extend the pinky finger on my top hand while holding the rod and line.

Flygirl Hyun Kounne spey casting on Grand River, Paris Ontario
Very lady-like form. Note the properly extended pinky ;).
I must confess I was a bit underwhelmed by the presentations. But then again, Al Buhr is a damn hard act to follow ;). Tim Rajeff was up to his usual hijinx but also gave a solid intro to spey fly lines presentation. Mike Verhoef demonstrated the logistics of coordinated spey casting from a drift boat. I met some very nice Canadian speyniacs and watched some terrific spey casters like Raynald Menard (mr. smooth), Mike Barrand (mr. scandi), Bill Drury...

Who needs a fly rod? Not Tim Rajeff. Tim casting a fly line with his bare hands. Nice loop!

Mike Barrand demonstrating the Scandi style of spey casting, Grand River spey clave
Mike Barrand demonstrating the
Scandinavian style of spey casting.
Besides finding the One (or rather the NRX), the highlights of the clave include geeking out with easterncaster and Tim Rajeff, discussing theoretical casting physics and fly line dynamics. Tim was on the lawn with another speyniac casting a 5-weight rod lined with a compact scandi line. I believe it was Craig who asked, "What would happen if we turned the fly line around and cast it?" This evoked all sorts of speculation and resulted in some unscientific experimentation. How would reversing the weight profile of the line affect its distance casting capability, loop formation, leader turnover? At what point would the cast fail and why? It was seriously good intellectual exercise and lots of fun! So then, if a fly line is cast by a robot at 5 mph in a vacuum and...

Another highlight was meeting Bill Drury and casting one of his prototype switch lines (31 grams) which paired perfectly with the Sage One 11'6", 7-weight switch rod. Very sweet! Craig was casting with Bill. He waved me over and introduced us. The only possible improvement in the overall experience would have been him wearing a kilt instead of the standard boring beige waders ;). I had joked with the easterncaster after borrowing his DVD, The Art of Spey Casting, that the best part was watching the 2 hunky Scotsmen spey cast in kilts. Now, I'm a bit mortified that Craig actually mentioned my appreciation of the Scottish kilt wearing tradition to Bill. Mr. Drury is a lovely man and I have a new found admiration for his lines. His supple switch line flew through the One's guides like silk and having the line's load indicator as a visual and tactile marker inside the rod's guides by the caster's hands is ingenious. I plan on purchasing a version for my 8-weight switch rod when they're available.

Sage One rods at Grand River spey clave
Get your Sage Ones here!
Craig and I fished the Grand river after the clave. He managed to interview a few small mouth bass. Unfortunately, the only excitement I had on the Grand was losing my Rio Scandi Short VersiTip line. My fly and sinking tip got snagged in some fast water. I made numerous attempts to free it without success, so I decided to break my fly off. I must have tied some exceptionally good knots because rather than losing my fly, I lost my entire line! The break off occurred on my shooting line. I guess there must have been a nick somewhere along its length. I watched disbelievingly as 60 feet of fly line disappeared into the Grand. It was in the middle of the river, hip to thigh high depth for me, and the current was fast. Somewhat in shock, I walked dejectedly back downstream towards the easterncaster.

Craig noticed I had broken down my switch rod and asked if I was done fishing. I told him about my line. He stopped fishing and walked back upstream with me to see if we could find it. I led him to the spot. He just walked right into the middle of the river and found my line. Actually he almost tripped over it :). Apparently it was snagged on a chunk of metal debris. I guess being 8 inches taller and 80 pounds heavier has it's advantages. Thank you, easterncaster, for rescuing my line!

The following day Craig and I stopped to fish the Niagara River on our way back. We had stopped there briefly on our drive up to Paris but had less than 2 hours to fish. This time, we had a good 5. We decided to fish our way down from Whirlpool park to Devil's Hole. The lower Niagara, in terms of volume, makes the Deschutes feel like a spring creek ;). It's seriously BIG water and absolutely breathtaking. It's a hike down and back up (they say 300 steps) but it's good exercise and helps keep the heavy beer drinking crowd away.

Whirlpool Park, Niagara River
View of the Whirlpool from up top, Niagara River, NY
I can't remember the last time I did so much scrambling? Perhaps when I was 12? I felt like a mountain goat! It was difficult fishing. You couldn't get into any sort of rhythm as there were so few spots to fish from and small stretches of good water. At most spots only a roll cast was possible and the strong currents and eddies went every which way, forwards, backwards, circular clockwise, counterclockwise. Only at Devil's hole could you actually wade a bit into the water. At Whirlpool,  take 1 wrong step forward and you're swimming in class 5+ rapids on the ride of your life! I managed to spook one dark shadowy chinook just off shore. It was literally about 1 foot away from the bank in skinny water. Craig spotted a few fish, one wearing bright red spawning colors. But neither of us had any luck.

Easterncaster Craig Buckbee at Devil's Hole, Niagara River
A contemplative eastercaster at Devil's Hole.
It was disppointing not catching anything but not surprising given it was a scouting trip. I don't think our lines were sinking fast enough. We really could have used a nice skagit outfit. We were both using floating lines with a T6 sink tip or fast sinking polyleader and we were both swinging flies. I was swinging a gorgeous bright blue and copper prom dress fly and the easterncaster, a white and tan baitfish pattern he had tied. Towards the end of the afternoon, I joked with Craig that if we really wanted to catch a salmon we needed to bring out the egg patterns and load up on split shot. Don't get me wrong, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. It just wasn't how we wanted to fish. I don't even know how to fish that way. I guess I'll learn in about a month's time when I go winter steelhead fishing up in Pulaski on the Salmon river.

After almost 5 straight hours of heavy duty hiking, scrambling, and improvisational fishing (on empty stomachs!) we called it a day and hiked the 300 steps back out of the beautiful Niagara gorge. I'll definitely be back...

Easterncaster Craig Buckbee walking up Devil's Hole, Niagara River
Devil's Hole, lower Niagara River, NY