Saturday, February 20, 2016

A Search for Balance

Catch and release, catch and release, catch and release. Say it with me three times.

Catch and release, catch and release, catch and release. Feel better?

Catch and release is good. Catch and release is beneficial. Catch and release brings good Karma. A trout is too valuable to be only caught once. The more you say it, the truer it becomes.

Catch and release.

All of life is a search for balance, and they say you don't really figure life out until you're about 80 years old. Then you die of course. A fly fishing blog is hardly the place to find truth and Zen. Fly fishing of course, is a spiritual journey, even before you are aware of it. Fly fishing is by definition an expansion of awareness, mindfulness, a balm to the soul, a healing of the psyche. You only get good at fly fishing when you learn to use all of your senses, when you slow down, relax, become AWARE. When you finally let go of ego and self, stop listening to the internal voice and start listening to what the natural world is trying to tell you.

Last year I ate a brook trout. I caught it on a fly, cut it's throat, watched the life drain out, and then took it home, skinned it, fried it in butter and consumed the delicate orange flesh. It was delicious and good. It was communion. It was satisfaction, the completion of a task. It was finished business. It was the essence of a stream on a plate. To be trite, it was the circle of life.

I also ate a young steelhead last winter, as an act of rebellion. I caught it on a warmish day when the ice did not collect in my guides. It was a very fat fish, about twenty inches long, with a white belly, gleaming silver sides with just the hint of pink, and a blue gray back. I took it home and filleted it out, then cooked the fillets in olive oil. The flesh was a deep crimson in the pan, and absolutely delicious. It was a very satisfying meal.

We live in a world of polarization- politically, religiously, ideologically. It's ingrained in our culture- "Go Wildcats!" Be true to your school. My country, right or wrong becomes "my thinking, my way of life, right or wrong, but your thinking and way of life are definitely wrong." As individuals and families we gravitate toward moderation, but as societies we adhere to the worst forms of tribalism, wanton gluttony and avarice, and ultimately violence. This alone may explain fly fishing, the need for the individual to find balance in a world that demands zealotry.

For some reason abundance in the wild engenders bad behavior in humans, as if we as a species get filled with a primal lust unexplained by hunger or the desire for wealth. We lost our minds when we saw herds of bison stretching to the horizon, when passenger pigeons darkened the skies, when the cod on the Grand Banks swam so thick they slowed the progress of boats, and we systematically exploited them to the brink of extinction, or beyond.

There's an entertaining passage in the Bible in which the Israelites, recently freed from Egypt and wandering in a barren desert, began to complain that there was no meat. Some suggested that returning to slavery in Egypt would be preferable- at least they had food. According to the passage, God sent quails into the camp and the people went gathering them by the bushel basket. God killed a certain number of them for being greedy rather than taking what they needed to sustain themselves.

Regardless of your religious bent or lack thereof the lesson is instructive. At the very least the author had a keen insight into human behavior, and our baser tendencies when faced with natural abundance.

I'm not against catch and release, having practiced it for the most part for a number of years now. I'm not against keeping fish for a meal, having partaken on a number of occasions in the same period. Food is what originally brought us to the streams, and it is only in the last few decades that the notion of recreation has even entered the equation. Historically recreation was always a part of angling, but with the goal of a meal at the end of it, and not as the ultimate desired end.

Catch and release will increasingly be a tool of conservation, but it is just a tool and a rather blunt instrument at that. It is not a guarantee. Fish still die from being caught. An angler who catches and keeps two trout may do far less damage than an angler who releases thirty trout and kills five through bad handling, or fishing when the water is too warm.

This for me has been my journey thus far. A search for balance, some peace of mind, connection to the natural world, and every now and then, some fillets on my plate that I caught and cooked myself.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Assault on the Au Sable- FR on Gink and Gasoline

I did some reporting for Gink and Gasoline on the Grayling Fish Hatchery about to be reincarnated as a fish farm.

Here's a quote from just one comment on the article. "Here’s the real clincher, once the watershed is dead, the amount of money it takes to make a recovery is beyond what the taxpayers are willing to spend. While the politicians worry about “global warming” we have a worse water pollution problem ongoing right under their noses"

It's an important issue. Give it a read and support the cause if you are able.


Friday, February 5, 2016

Of Gods and Smallmouth

Tom scans the flats for fish

It was July 4th week that I took a couple days off plus the weekend to spend time with my good friend Tom Hazelton, who despite his traitorous departure for Minnesota last year, still comes back to spend a week fishing the Land of 60,000 Lakes, plus 14,000 miles of trout stream, give or take.

Now that one- 14,000 Miles O'Troutstream is a hard number to pin down. Depending on which MDNR link you click on you'll get stats of 12,000 to 16,000 Miles O'Troutstream, and the their latest website iteration declares 20,000 Miles O'Troutstream. Miles himself is quite confused, as are the O'Troutstream fishing public.
there's 14,000 to 20,000 miles of trout stream there- depending on who you believe

Whatever that number may be, I bummed around with Tom a lot when I should have been working at my construction business, but I really didn't care since the jobs were so disorganized, and the owners were there and in full Up North Party Mode. This involves a lot of alcohol and fireworks, and huge sums of cash. That week their rockets arced into the dark, starlit sky, bursting vermilion flashes high overhead. The concatenations echoed across the dancing waves, their crests limned by the bursting shells, while the celebrants danced and shrilled around their shoreline fires, a great drum circle circumscribing the inland waters.

We (Tom and I) tried to hit a hex hatch that didn't. I tried to take him to New Water with promises of Big Brook Trout. (Note to Self: don't ever ever EVER try and explore when you have a guest. I should have learned from my experience with Mike Sepelak.) We ended up bushwhacking into the worst swamp ever, in which we had to use our phones, a compass AND a GPS in order to find our way out. The brush was so thick we were walking a foot off of the ground, like witch doctors in the African bush.
a few bugs showed but the trout did not

And all the while Tom accepted this nonsense with his usual grace. and even took the blame for my poor decision. That's the kind of fishing buddy you need to cultivate- and stick with the check.

It was Tom's turn to disappoint on the weekend when I showed up at his carp fishing spot in the UP. We waded out while waiting for Dave the Paddleboard God to arrive. We waited like the faithful everywhere.  "And Ye shall behold Him coming across the Waters" was, I believe, the scripture and verse. and finally we did indeed behold His presence, parting the waters as he rode in on the Paddleboard of Thunder.
"parting the waters as he rode in on His Paddleboard of Thunder"

Tom's spot was a first class dud, save for his five pound smallmouth he caught, which refused to leave the area after Tom bumped it off its rock, only to have it hang around while Tom assiduously changed flies, tested his knot, his tippet, current speed, altimeter, gerentologist, and the wind direction before casting to this fish, which continued to hang around like some deranged poodle that can smell bacon. I began to doubt it's mental acuity, even more so when it ate like a poodle who knows he's being thrown bacon. Not bacon treats- real bacon. Trust me- your dog and that smallmouth can tell the difference. Stop buying that shit.

Other than the Giant Smallmouth that most guys would want on their wall, not much was happening, and so we called it early.  Dave the Paddleboard God loaded up his Paddleboard of Thunder, and we made our way Northwest to a Public Access on a Particularly Well Known Trout Stream. No it's not the Au Sable. And Maybe it's not that well-known.

We wadered up, we drank a beer, we photographed grouse on the trail. Then We got in the river, and Dave the Paddleboard God started thrashing around with some godawful streamer, stripping for all he was worth, when we all heard a sound that made us pause. It was a sound that carried over the racket of a Stacked Blonde being ripped across the surface.

It was the subtle sound of a tiny fly being sucked from the surface by a fish whose displacement is classified by the US Navy. Tie a trico on HawserX was the message loud and clear. If it doesn't involve a logging chain and a fly that isn't visible without the Hubble telescope, then go home. As we stood there and watched, we began to realize that there was not one, but several behemoth fish feeding in slow, arcing cadence.

Tom on the hunt
Whales in Cook Inlet disturb less water than these fish. And they were tough. We were in placid, gently flowing water, and the fish moved around a lot. You could wade almost to casting distance, only to have them move twenty feet further out. They fed with a droll laziness- snout, then all of their backs, then whale tail, followed by jumping schools of terrified herring.

But seriously, these fish were two feet long. All we had to do was make the perfect long cast, get the perfect drag-free drift. It was all but impossible

Dave the Paddleboard God washed out, washed downstream, never losing hope, never quite connecting. Tom, showing his good Minnesota roots, persevered and hooked up on the first two-footer. He actually fought it for quite a while, before breaking it off like a good Minnesotan. "Live, Cast and Let Live" is their state motto as spelled out on their flag. Dave, the quintessential Cheesehead and Paddleboard God, chased the fish around and got nowhere, like a good Scott Walker presidential campaign.

Me? I hooked a two-footer in shallow water, and on a dropper no less. Using its signature maneuver, the Moby Roll, it shook out my fly like a bad case of fleas.

A few casts and a couple hours later I hooked up on a good fish, which proceeded to take me all over the river and back before quietly coming to heel. It was a sixteen inch rainbow, but fat and heavy, and slightly deranged from too many years of good living. We took his picture, Tom and I, before slipping him silently back into the river, agreeing that this was our best moment on the water ever. Until the next one. Then we dipped my camera in the river.

my fish of the day

At this point Dave the Paddleboard God had to go, and so we went back to the cars and threw spears at the sky and shot arrows to ward off the Thunder Bird, bidding Him fair travel on His Way. We also ate His food, prepared by his gourmand mother. I hogged the pasta salad, but we all got extra pork chops. I think I understand smallmouth very well now.

classic Dave Karczynski

That night we let ourselves in to the Fisherman's Cabin Tom's friend had told him about down the road. We signed in to the guest log and left a few dollars in the coffee can in the freezer. Later we drank whiskey out of tin cups in tribute to Robert Traver, who was reputed to do the same in this locale, and we paused to listen to the rumble of distant thunder.