Monday, December 21, 2020

Winter Grabs


Come winter in the Great Lakes, the players are scarce and many of them don’t play fair. “Player” is a term steelhead swami and swing guru Jeff Liskay, aka Great Lakes Dude, uses to describe the minority of steelhead that are eager to chase down a swung fly. And players are the target of those anglers seduced by the allure of using a highly ineffective, yet adrenaline-rush-inducing method to hook the freshwater version of the migratory rainbow trout that swim up the Great Lakes tributaries in the fall and winter.

December means cold north winds and short days. They combine to drop the water temperatures into Walter Payton (#34) territory. Trout, like all fish, are cold blooded and cold water slows their metabolism to something less than a bear’s in hibernation. Shivering fish prefer to hang in slow, soft water where they expend as little energy as possible while waiting for warmer days. For reasons that maybe only a fish biologist can understand, there’s usually at least one fish in the pool that’s willing to hop off the couch and pursue a fly. This is the player.

Every once and awhile the winter player will act like a Red Bull-fueled teenager and crush the fly with enough aggression that they hook themselves and the angler is just a bystander happy to go along for the ride. More often, the player will test the angler with something less than an enthusiastic grab; in other words, they don’t play fair.

While we imagine fish inhaling flies, sometimes it seems that they are more interested in inspecting than eating. It is impossible to say exactly what a fish is doing during its inspection but sometimes it feel as if they’re plucking at the feather or fur hanging off the end of the fly. Often, the pluck occurs at the end of the swing, when the fly is dangling directly below the angler. A fish striking a fly from the rear doesn’t provide much of a hooking angle. Also, an angler may ease up at the end of the swing or even fall into a bit of a trance. A pluck at the end of the swing sends a jolt up the tight line and the angler is prone to respond by raising the rod tip. Unfortunately that just pulls the fly away from the reluctant suitor. After making that mistake recently, I quickly hung my head in shame, bent over in disgust and put my hands on my knees. The fish plucked again. I was double plucked. I over-reacted, again.

The “pluck and duck” occurs when the fish pulls at the fly briefly and then quickly ducks back to the couch. The fish may be enticed off the couch again by a slightly different swing angle or a smaller (or brighter or larger or duller) fly. But more than likely, the fish is on the couch for the duration.

If the “pluck and duck” gets the imagination racing, the “pull and drop” just gets the angler muttering and wondering why bother at all. The pull and drop is like a half-hearted handshake. The fish grabs the fly, makes the classic turn and the angler responds with a proper hook set, but there’s nothing there. No weight. No fish. Nothing. Was the pull real? Maybe the sink tip was simply dragging across the bottom? No, it was definitely a pull. But where did the fish go? Maybe the drag was too tight and the fish felt the tension of the line too soon? Maybe the hookset came too soon? Or maybe the fish just decided the feather and fur isn’t protein? All fishermen overthink the fish’s decision-making. Swing fishermen excel at over thinking.

And sometimes we think wrong. We think that the swing is slower than normal because the

sink tip is dragging along the bottom when what’s happening is a lethargic, yet hungry, fish has grabbed the fly without sending a tell-tale signal up the line. Instead of pulling the line, the fish is just a weight on the end of the line. An angler who thinks the sink tip is dragging might try to mend the line or gently raise the rod to get the tip higher in the water column. This manipulation of the line when a fish has the hook in its mouth usually results in the fish shaking its head. That head shake sends a signal up the line, into the rod and finally to the angler’s hand. When the signal arrives, it often results in the angler jerking the rod back. Sometimes the hook is set, but rarely well. The fish has the advantage over the surprised angler and the fight often ends quickly with a slack line and an angler thinking about how they will respond the next time they feel the “weight,” and wishing for an early spring, when the players are more likely to play fair.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Hypnotized by the Swing

The rhythms of swinging flies for steelhead can be hypnotic.

The soft, steady rumble of the water moving through the run, into the pool and out the tail provides the soothing background music. The repetition of the same, consistent cast permits muscle memory to take over and the mind to slow down. The eyes watch as the white floating line slowly -- even slower than normal as the water is low and clear -- swings downstream until it extends directly beneath the angler. Two steps downstream and the cast and swing are repeated.

The river is empty, except for the floating leaves that drift slowly downstream. The mind follows the leaves. Slow becomes slower. Even the V-shaped wake caused by an unseen steelhead chasing baitfish in the shallow water in the tail of the pool seems to be moving in slow motion.

Did that V turn left toward the fly nearly at the end of its swing? No, the fly is too far away to have caught the steelhead's attention. Wait, is that the line starting to straighten out? Why is that happening? Hold on, the line is peeling off the reel. The reel is spinning fast, but the angler is still moving slow. This is actually helpful as it delays the hook set, as is preferred. The fish has plenty of time to grab and turn downstream before the hook is set. Finally, the rod bends in the shape of "C". Line is still peeling off the reel, its scream echoing off the cliff wall to the angler's back.

Then silence. The rod is straight. The line is slack. The trance is broken. Did that really happen?

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Home Pool

Light rain fell from the thick, grey clouds pressing down on the tree tops. In other words, it was a perfect afternoon to swing flies for steelhead. I stood at the head of what I consider my home pool, even though my home is more than 10 miles to the south. I feel like it is home because it is where I fish most often. 

Over the last decade, I've gotten to know the pool very well. There are the deep slots near the head that hold fish as they prepare to continue
their southern migration. There is the small pile of boulders that provide shelter to fish and provide a place for a swung fly to get hung up. There is the slow, deep middle stretch that sometimes is full of fish and sometimes isn't. And there is the ever growing tail that was once a very reliable source of a fish or two but is now a mystery.

Rivers change every day, which is one of the reasons why I love them. Like life itself, they change in ways that we don't always understand.
The pool used to drain primarily to the near bank as it took a slight right hand turn. But after "100-year floods" became annual events thanks to upstream development and climate change, the river has straightened. Some water still jogs to the right, but much of it continues to hug the 80-foot cliff on the far bank until finally bending, with the cliff, to the right about 25 yards downstream. The far tailout used to be a narrow, shallow channel, but over time it has widened and is a bit deeper. The extra length of the tail has never produced a fish for me. Not sure why. And the part of the pool that used to be the old tail, rarely produces a fish anymore. Again, not sure why.

The mystery at the tail is matched by the near certainty at the front half of the pool. When conditions are right, I nearly always get at least one player to hit a swung fly before I even have to wade into the pool. And more often than not, I can expect multiple grabs. The pool is less than 20 yards wide, so a nearly effortless cast with an 11-foot rod can cover the water.

I've learned how to speed the fly along the shale that rarely holds fish and to swing slowly through the the deeper slots and through the boulders. I often need to relearn, as getting hung up on the bottom happens more often than it should.

This was my first time fishing the hole this fall. I'd visited a few weeks earlier during low water to see whether the sycamore tree that hangs over the hole had finally succumbed and fallen in. Thankfully, it hadn't. Although the split in its trunk had grown, bringing the tree's branches to about six feet from the water's surface. Over the years the branches had collected more than their share of spawn sacks and flies (including a few of my own). Today it was covered in fishing line, a sign that I wasn't the first one to fish the hole this fall. I stood in the slack water alongside the fast run that dropped into the pool. The boulders near the bank provided me with a vantage point to watch my fly swing over the shallow shale and into the deep slot directly downstream of me. I was trying out a new fly, tan and brown with copper flash. Its colors matched the bottom and I thought a natural-colored fly would work in the clear water. About 10 yards downstream, the fly hung up on the bottom and while I was able to pop it free, the point of the hook was bent by the rocky bottom and I decided to change my fly, as well as the hook.

I tied on a black and orange leech-like tube pattern developed by Jeff Liskay, a Great Lakes steelhead guru, and taught to me by Joe Beno, a younger guide on Lake Erie and steelhead alley. Over the last few years it has become my confidence fly, replacing the tried and true black and purple marabou fly that still gets a lot of use. On the second swing, my confidence in the fly was rewarded by a fierce grab followed by a long run that made my reel sing. The fish was near the tail of the pool before I got her under control and guided her back upstream. I tried to calm my breathing and prepared myself for the next round of the fight. I used the leverage of the long rod to bring the fish toward the net, but she had other ideas. She quickly reversed direction and leaped from the water before splashing down upstream of me. She exited the water one more time before I folded her into the net. She looked fresh from the lake, several miles to the north. No wear or tear on her body, yet. I removed the barbless hook and returned her to the river. The clouds got a little lower. The rain fell a little harder. Another beautiful day in paradise.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020



The half-moon bounced the sun’s light down to the river valley only to have the light bounce right back off the surface of the river. The moon hung by an invisible force directly overhead, surrounded by a crown of stars. The moon’s craters nearly shimmered and the leaves of the trees on the far bank were illuminated in the soft glow of ghosts. The barren ash trees – destroyed by an invasive beetle – played the role of skeletons guarding the river as we waited our chance to catch a different invasive species – Pacific Salmon.

What We Were Waiting For

No artificial lights marred nature’s display. We were miles from a road and much farther from anything resembling civilization. Frogs and crickets added a vocal track to the river’s acoustical riff as it hurried its way to the great lake called Michigan. Yesterday’s owl declined to join the chorus. And the cedars, pines and hardwoods stood silent.

Salmon splashing in the downstream riffle ended any doubt of whether fish would be moving through this stretch. We had arrived at this bank more than an hour before first light. More youthful, aggressive anglers were wading in the dark downstream run, occasionally hooking into a chinook headed east to the gravel beds. We didn’t know how early the other anglers had arrived. We beat their peers, or perhaps them, to the spot the day before. We had resigned ourselves the night before to the reality that we wouldn’t be the first ones on the river again today. We were all in our sixth or seventh decade, so we valued our sleep a bit more than being first and were prepared to pay the price. That price included waiting for light before risking crossing the high flowing river to access an upstream hole that promised to hold fish throughout the sunny day to follow.

We could cross in the dark, and had the water dropped a bit more overnight we might have risked it. But caution, or perhaps wisdom, comes with age. We waited.

We weren’t in a hurry. We planned to fish all day and had the water bottles, lunches and snacks to sustain us. Once the sun cleared the trees and pierced the river’s tannic-colored water the salmon’s migration for the day would halt and they would hunker into the deep hole patiently waiting for the sun to slide back behind the trees so they resume their journey and swim through the shallow, sandy riffle around the next bend. A fresh pod of salmon waiting out the sun in a hole could keep a pod of six anglers busy all day long.

At least that is what we were hoping would happen. It was a hope based on experience. But we also had experience fishing the hole when it appeared to be barren of salmon

We had reasons to be optimistic and patient. The far bank was quiet. No headlamps flashed through the dark forest. There was no way to access the far side of the river that didn’t entail a river crossing. And there was nowhere else to cross the river nearby. We knew this because we had checked out alternate crossing points before reluctantly agreeing that this section was our best bet. So we waited in the moonlight, listened to river and thought of friends and fish.

Monday, April 27, 2020

The Swing King -- No, Not Me

I stood thigh deep on the outside edge – the wrong side -- of a big bend in the river when two things happened at the same time: I caught a glimpse of a white hat bouncing behind a deadfall laying on the far bank – the right side – and a fish grabbed my white, olive and chartreuse tube fly as it swung out of the main current and into the slower water on the outside edge of the bend. I had enough time to think it would be nice to impress whoever was under that white hat with my fishing prowess before the fish popped off. This is what is known as foreshadowing.

The angler greeted me from across the river, speaking in a loud voice that carried over the wind and the river’s persistent percussion. He commented on how glad he was to be out swinging flies on such a beautiful day. I agreed. He asked if I minded if he swung through the hole behind me. I appreciated his politeness and assured him he was welcome to fish behind me. He patiently waited while I worked my way toward the deeper end of the run. I hadn’t fished this stretch of the river in several years and much had changed. The river used to be crossable just upstream of the bend, but a huge tree had fallen into the river. The tree’s giant root ball pushed the current more toward the center of the river and that added flow made it impossible to cross at its present height and it made the tail of the bend much deeper, as I was about to find out.

My new colleague slowly waded out to stand next to what was once the top of the tree that was now redirecting the flow. He only made a few swings before hooking into a fish. I didn’t mind at all because I was hooked into one, as well. I’d never had a doubleheader on the swing before and after we both landed our respective fish, we agreed that sometimes one fish makes for a great day. He again made a comment about how great it was to just be out on such a nice day. “I don’t know why I keep saying that,” he said.

He quickly hooked and landed another fish and I missed a grab. He cautioned me a few times that the wading would get treacherous on my side, and he made it clear that I was welcome to share the good side of the river, if I could cross.  As I kept swinging downstream the boulders got more treacherous and the river deeper. With few good options, I reversed field, walked upstream and then cut over to safety of the shore. I decided to hike upstream and look for a place to cross far above the bend. The river was high and moving fast, but one small section looked manageable – except I couldn’t really tell how deep it was against the other bank. Foolishly, I began to cross – ignoring that the current was too strong for me to effectively back up if it got too deep. I wished that I had my wading staff. I wished that I was 10 years younger.

Fortunately, I was able to navigate the crossing with water only filling my wader jacket pockets and not my waders. I climbed up the bank and walked back downstream and came in behind the angler with the white hat. He welcomed me to the good side of the river and after introducing himself, said he probably wasn’t tall enough to cross where I did. He offered me a chance to swing through the run, but I said I was in no hurry and I watched him cast his line across the river, landing the fly beyond where I had been wading just a few minutes earlier. He was using a 12.5 foot rod – similar to the one in my car. The lighter 11 foot rod in my hand suddenly felt inadequate.

He hooked another fish and spryly hopped out of the river and onto the bank to fight the fish – a sight that I would get accustomed to over the next few hours. I admired both his fluid movements and the song sung by his click and pawl fly reel as the fish peeled line off of it. He used the leverage provided by the long rod to land the fish quickly. I did the neighborly thing and took pictures of him with the fish.

At his insistence, I started fishing from the top of the run. And he would follow behind me. I’d get a grab or two, and he kept catching fish He was humble. He said that he’d never had a day like this one. 

We talked about the rivers we liked to fish, the impolite wind that was playing havoc with our casting and the poor etiquette of some anglers. We didn’t talk much. He was too busy landing fish. I watched and tried not to get jealous. I almost succeeded.

We talked flies and how color didn’t matter, but his brown was obviously working better than my olive. As his fish total topped double digits, we talked about how unusual it was for so many fish to be aggressively attacking flies in a single run. I decided to change flies and hooked a fish on a black and blue fly. The fish leaped from the water and came rushing upstream. The line went slack and the fish was gone. The swing king -- what else could I call him -- hooked more fish, including one that rocketed at least three feet out of the river. He kept hooking them after he lost his brown fly on a snag and shifted to black and chartreuse. Maybe I should have changed flies again. But I had swung through the same run several times and, as is often the case, I wanted to explore new water.

I’m sure a part of me was tired of being schooled, as well. But I will tell myself that I said my goodbyes and headed downstream because the swing king had earned the right to end his beautiful day on the river swinging through the magical run in peaceful, glorious solitude. I am sure he would have done the same for me.   

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Unexpected Delights

The grab came as a complete surprise. It followed a few hours of mild frustrations on an afternoon that began cloudy and damp on a different river. I started my social distancing routine by hiking into a remote stretch of the Grand River only to be disappointed by its chocolate hue. I walked the riverbank for a quarter mile upstream hoping that I'd see something promising in one of the side currents. I spooked a wild turkey while following the tracks of raccoons that had been feasting on freshwater clams pushed onto the bank by the recent heavy rains. I flipped a few casts into the current halfheartedly before deciding to hike back up the hill to my car and drive back west to the Chagrin, which looked a promising green color when I crossed over about 40 minutes earlier.

I worked up a decent sweat with the hike up the hill and tried to enjoy the songbirds touting spring. But I spent most of the trek lamenting my original decision to bypass the Chagrin and admonishing myself to pay more attention to the turbidity gauge on the Grand. An hour later I was wondering whether I should have just stayed home. On the Chagrin, I had fished a stretch of familiar water without even a pluck and my mood didn't improve even though the wind off the lake pushed all the clouds away revealing a bright, blue sky. The water flowed dark green thanks to the suspended clay particles from the saturated banks and feeder creeks. The Grand's chocolate color was caused by the same clay, just that much more of it. Only a few anglers were in sight, even though the stretch I fished was more suburban than secluded. Two majestic Canada geese worked the far bank for food. Woodpeckers worked on the dead ash trees on the bank behind me. It was turning into a delightful afternoon, but it was wasted on me.

I chose to walk farther upstream to fish a fast moving run that I had never fished before. I was on the inside part of the bend where the water was deeper and faster moving. The far side looked more promising, but at the same time I didn't see any tell-tale signs of spawning fish. I muttered to myself that I was alone on this stretch because the anglers were all upstream, with the fish.

These were just some of the thoughts bouncing through my head when I decided to resume my halfhearted fishing and flipped a bit of line out of the end of the rod and watched the line swing from the fast, shallow current into a deeper run of undetermined depth that looked both promising and perilous for wading. The grab disrupted any thoughts I had of moving back downstream to more familiar water. The aggressive grab was followed by a powerful dash downstream that started my reel screaming. The fish kept pulling line off the reel until I gathered myself somewhat, tightened the drag setting and started trying to guide the fish back upstream. Chasing after it downstream wasn't an option. I reclaimed half the line before the fish made another furious dash downstream and splashed at the surface, sending water spraying and causing me to focus harder on keeping the fish under control. Slowly I pumped the rod and cranked the reel until the fish could be swung into the rocky shallows.

The fish was as silver as a newly minted dime, but it wasn't fresh from the lake. She was fresh from the spawn. Her tail and fins were rough around the edges and her belly was scarred. These were the tell-tale signs that she had wrapped up her spawning run and now was making the journey back to the lake. There was no way to know how far she had journeyed south to spawn, but she was clearly very hungry by the time my olive, white and chartreuse fly adorned with a bit of crystal flash and olive rubber legs enticed her. These so-called dropback steelhead are active feeders -- unlike the fish that are actively spawning or those sulking through the winter. She had obviously restored most, if not all, all of the energy she had expended on her spawning run. Her power tested me and my gear.

The delights kept coming. Three more dropbacks emerged from the run, including one on the final swing, which followed a long-distance cast almost to the far bank. This fish put up as much of a fight as her two female and one male predecessors. The rod bent deep into the cork. The reel screamed again. The hook and knot held and I was able to once again swing the fish into the shallows. I quickly slid the barbless OPST hook from the corner of her jaw and admired her as she did a U-turn and returned to the fast current. I slid the hook onto the leg of one of the rods eye's and reeled up the rest of the line. I could have fished longer, but sometimes it is wise to end the day with a fish. Before heading back downstream, I took a moment to just enjoy the river. The rushing water nearly drowned out the highway two bends to the south and the whistle of the train rushing down the tracks several bends to the north. The sinking sun and the trees on the bluff behind me cast long shadows across the water. A cardinal sang from one of the trees. The afternoon that began gray and brown had transformed into blue, green and silver. What a delight.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

On Chrome & Corona

The fishing that I do is a selfish act – never more so than during a pandemic. 

I don’t fish for food, although I’m confident I could if it comes to that. The fish that I catch and release are essentially victims of torture. Regardless if you believe that fish can feel pain, there’s really no other word describe the practice of removing a living creature from its natural habitat by force.

I justify my selfishness by saying it brings me closer to God’s creation, which it does. I feel connected to something larger than myself when a fish chooses to inhale a fly that I tied and then presented. But a less selfish man might find a similar connection by taking a picture or simply sitting still and observing God’s handiwork. One of my heroes, Aldo Leopold, did just that – and he fished for food.

I also justify my selfishness by saying it brings me peace and improves my mental health. Thoreau was right when he said: “Many men go fishing their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” I’ve known for a long time that I’m not after fish, if only because my best friend, and wife for 34 years, will insist that I go fishing on those occasions when my trips to the river are so scarce that my inner Mr. Hyde emerges. The river restores me.

I used to quote another hero, former Michigan Supreme Court Justice turned writer, John Voelker, who (under the pen name Robert Traver) wrote the eloquent Testament of aFisherman and said he fished “not because it was terribly important, but because I suspect that so many of the other concerns of men are equally unimportant and not nearly so much fun.”

That conceit doesn’t hold up in the age of Covid-19. As I fish in these times others risk their lives keeping their colleagues, friends and total strangers alive. I’ve never felt as useless as I fish safely – either alone or at a distance from good friends who keep me from succumbing to the anxiety. So I turn to another hero, Yvon Chouinard, for wisdom, solace and justification. If more businesses were run like Yvon runs Patagonia then we probably wouldn’t be in this mess and our planet would be much healthier. In 2012, Yvon accepted the Inamori Ethics Prize from Case Western University and used it as a platform to articulate his determination to run a company that did no harm to the planet. He lashed out at the culture of consumerism fueled by companies inspired only by the desire to make more profits by selling more products. And he acknowledged his own hypocrisy embodied by his own passion for rock climbing and fly fishing. He conceded that the only way he wasn’t going to climb aboard a green-house gas emitting jet in a few days to fly off to a remote river in Russia and chase steelhead was if someone punched him in the face and knocked him out.

Justifying my selfishness by pointing to Yvon’s is pretty lame. It’s amazing the lengths an addicted steelheader will go to justify what he does – and what he doesn’t do. But as I prepare for my next river visit, I’m thinking a lot about a new set of heroes. And I need to figure out ways that I can help them through this crisis, so that someday very soon they too can find solace in their own selfish, restorative ways.