Sunday, February 24, 2013

Time to Panic

I'm sweating, just a little. My fellow Michiganders who don't fish don't get it. They think it is still hard-core, hard-assed mid-winter. They are wrong- dead wrong. Spring is here, has sprung, and needs to be mopped up a bit. This is it. Next weekend is March. Winter's back is broken, and all the snow, all the wind, and all the cold are just the last gasps, the last spasms, the last dying breaths of this Great Dragon Winter. Snow all you want Smaug, but when the sun pops out your heart bleeds white blood back into the earth.

If you fish a lot, if you're a steelheader, if the snow and ice doesn't scare you then you know what I mean. The urge to spawn is building in the steelhead. Every 34 degree day, every bit of sunshine, every up-tick in stream flow only makes that urge more maddening. Some fish have been in the rivers all winter, but fresh ones are pushing up almost every day now.

In March it gets serious. The days are longer, the storms are fierce, and the great mythological battle between the cold northern dragon and the hot southern one heats up. In like a lion, out like a pussy cat with a hairball. Once April rolls around it is full on steelhead time, with tons of bright fish moving up the rivers. If you don't spend every spare hour on the river you are crazy.

After that it's over. February will have seemed to be a luxury; March a first love, April more ardent, more urgent. Then it is May, with it's fly hatches,spring peepers, mosquitoes and that first touch of humidity after an early spring storm, by which I mean thunder storm. Then it's June, at which point summer is over. Hex me this and Hex me that.

July is an afterthought, August a mirage, and life only gets serious again, just a little, in September. Call this an ode to frivolity, but let the frolicking begin.

If I've lost you on this then you don't fish enough. I have no time now. Neither do you, but you don't know it.

Let it begin.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Gravity- That Insane Pull that is the Tug and Not the Drug

Gravity at work on a gray day. Thomas Menas photo


We tumbled down the banks, Tom and I. We tumbled down because we had to. It's gravity, pure and simple, and this most elemental of laws is what had brought us here- gravity, downward flow, the lowest common denominator; finding our center, being grounded.

Winter is enough to drive you insane, but doubly so in this modern era of Global Something. There's nothing to rely on- no cold, no snow, no -30 mornings, nothing anymore except gravity. It pulls me and Tom down hill even as it pulls the water downstream. Gravity is what pulls steelhead upstream- we hope. Fishing can probably be measured by the same forces as flight. Lift vs. gravity, thrust vs. drag. Lift is my attitude when approaching a river vs. the ever downward flow of the river, and the odds that I may not catch fish; thrust is the tail of a steelhead vs. my drag.

So Tom and I tumbled inexorably down hill like the waters themselves, propelled onward by unreasonable optimism, and checked by the drag of no fish to be found, hitting our heads against the stonewall reality of midwinter blah and such. Gray skies, an east wind, and nothing to show for our efforts.

We regrouped a bit later, discussed what was wrong. The kids on the hill opposite us hailed us repeatedly. I answered them in a mocking voice, and they either didn't pick up on my sarcasm or chose to ignore it. They called out over and over again, their voices echoing off the valley walls, while one dutiful adult supervised the dragging of sleds, and presumably the wiping of noses, gravity again to blame on both counts.

Gravity is our friend and nemesis. It keeps the rivers flowing and the steelhead pointed upstream. It keeps me headed to the rivers and fights me when I try to leave. Perhaps it's the reason I hate to leave a river- it's just too much damn work. Every river has an escape velocity. Fly fishing has an escape velocity, an unknown number, incalculable. Fly tying is a black hole, measured only by the X-rays escaping its event horizon. Fly casting is ruled by physics and quantum theory. Carp fishing is measured in nanometers. Night time browns are measured in cricket chirps, coyote howls and "Hexes". Dead Rodents is also an acceptable answer.

Tom and I banged our heads against the cosmic constant; we fought gravity and the current and lost, while the fish, with their snouts pointed bravely into the current, ignored us. So we fought gravity, and deep snow, thick swamp, spring seeps and steep banks; we found our escape velocity of that moment, freed ourselves from the river, the rain, and the ever-growing gray of a storm in February. We re-grouped, discussed our options, discussed our futures in this brave world of fly fishing- we fought gravity, that ever downward force, the beckoning mediocrity that says "get a real job, be responsible; dreams are just that".

my buddy Tom, fighting gravity


There is no pull greater than the reality of our lives. We get one shot at this. If you're not out there experiencing this planet you are just another satellite circling the globe, passively exchanging information, until gravity disrupts your orbit. At least you'll go out in a blaze of glory, and if you're lucky you'll make a pock-mark in the Saharan sands. Me, I'm circling this globe, searching for my center, hoping for escape velocity. Fly fishing is the center of my world, my black hole. I hope I never escape.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Gear Review- Redington SubZero Waders

Alex Cerveniak photo


The winter fishing season is upon us, which for me means chasing steelhead. I have been making my standard breathable waders work up until now by piling on the layers and wearing an old cut-off pair of neoprene booties inside my wader booties. While this keeps my feet warm, they are always cramped up and I feel like the Michelin Man. Winter steelheading is one of my absolute favorite pursuits, part of what makes the winters here more bearable, so imagine my response when Kara Armano in association with Redington asked if I would like to test Redington’s new SubZero waders for them.

I’m a practical guy, and for me to spend money on a product it has to be a substantial improvement over what I already own. I guess I should throw in the disclaimer now that Redington provided these waders gratis for me to test and review. What I can say, is that they are a substantial improvement to my former winter fishing outfit, and definitely worth the money. If you are a dedicated winter fisherman, or want to be but don’t like being cold, these waders are worth serious consideration.

A weekend in mid-January was the perfect opportunity to test these waders and see how I liked them. The forecast for Saturday was 35 degrees with snow and rain. The forecast for Sunday was 14 degrees with high winds and snow. I would be testing two different situations- a moderate day more akin to early spring fishing, and a cold winter day with brutal Northern Michigan conditions.

With warm (35 degree) weather on tap for Saturday my test for these waders was this- could I wear a light thermal layer and street clothes and be comfortable?

The answer was a resounding yes. I wore light wool socks, one layer of long underwear and blue jeans and a fleece. I wore a raincoat later in the day when it began to rain, and to help block the wind. At its very worst my feet were cool but not cold after hours spent standing hip-deep in frigid water, and I was never uncomfortable. I became uncomfortable walking the banks and walking out- I became way too warm.

With markedly colder temperatures on tap for Sunday my question was “Can I stay comfortable and fish for any length of time at all?”

The answer again was yes. I fished for 4 hours. Because of the harsh conditions (14 degrees, high winds, heavy snow) I dressed more appropriately. I wore the same base layer as Saturday with fleece pants over that, and a performance shirt and wool sweater on top, with a fleece hat and wool fingerless gloves. I wore a heavy wool coat over the top of all that. 14 degrees is 14 degrees. I wore a single pair of heavy wool socks.
I kicked the Sunday test off right by leaving my wet waders and boots in my car overnight. My boots were frozen so solid I had to bring them inside, kick on my furnace and let them thaw a little so I could put them on.

The result again was cool but not cold feet. What surprised me was that as the day wore on, my feet got warmer and warmer. My fishing this day involved less walking and so I never became uncomfortably hot, but I was never cold or remotely uncomfortable. I have never fished at that temperature without getting cold, and I typically won’t fish when it is below 20 degrees out. 25 is better. At one point I was wading (stupidly) well past my waist and well past what would be considered safe. I never felt the water, but the thought of what a swim in this kind of cold would do made me turn back.

It’s not just that the SubZeros kept me warm. They are very comfortable to wear and are cut on the roomy side to accommodate a heavy coat. I wore my wool jacket on the outside and was able to very comfortably stow my 35 mm DSLR camera down the front of them.

Alex Cerveniak photo


Some nice features include internal and external storage pockets, and a roomy and very cleverly  designed hand warmer pocket with a unique closure that allows easy access while retaining heat. The SubZeros are a hybrid design, meaning that the legs are 3mm and the feet are 5mm neoprene, while the upper is breathable material. This results in a comfortable wader. The seams are heavily taped, the crotch gusseted, and key areas such as the knees have a special coating for abrasion and puncture resistance. A surprising design feature is that the neoprene extends well past the waist line in the back, but the crotch is breathable material (remember the two hottest areas of the human body from survival class?). Again, the result is a balance of comfort and warmth.

This review is a touch premature- I have worn them a total of 2 times, but for my purposes I had only 2 questions- Are they comfortable, and will they keep me warm. The answer to both is yes. I may update this later on the question of durability and features, but I do know this- the SubZeros are going to be my go-to waders for the rest of the winter and I will be fishing more because I know I can fish colder temperatures comfortably. This is going to be one short winter.

SubZero waders retail for $299.95. Be sure and check them out at www.redington.com and get ready for some good winter fishing.