Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Steelhead Habit


I'm recording this here to keep our shit together, in all likelihood just so I can find it later when I'm old and unable to find the bathroom. Things are already pretty jumbled.

They say your parents fuck you up, but I think it depends who they are. I took my kid Harris to the Salmon River last week. We stayed in a warm cabin for three nights, ate well, and fished a good river for a day and a half, hooking, losing and landing enough steelhead to make this a fine trip. We had a good time.

I think that's pretty good parenting. 

I've been going to the same river for 8 years now every November. Occasionally I've been in December, and there were a couple of trips in deep winter that were really stupid but good fun. Harris has been asking to come in recent years, so this was it.

The sheets in the cabin at Roger's place smell the same as they have each year. The dead King's smell the same too. Both really good smells. It's the kind of physical reaction that becomes more noticeable as we age, and makes you want to write things down. My Dad always said write it down. 

But I don't really know why these smells are worthy of a note. Maybe it's compensation for failing eyes.

It's a great joy to note that this fishing trip really got to us both in the way you hope things will but can't predict. I made this film of our time in the car and on the water, and wrote this note when we got back to Connecticut.

Tight lines,


The Steelhead Habit

Bill’s fish runs up and across, wrapping a submerged limb, then out and quickly downstream, into the backing to find a protruding tussock grass. Miraculously still attached, she uses the river’s breadth, pulling a big belly of fly line under the water, a long way from where this started - more backing out. He shouldn’t land this fish. But finally, not quite spent, into the shallows.

After all this improbability a botched net job provides an air of bad feeling all around, especially mine, the net man. Apologies are made and no hard feelings. It can happen. 

Steelhead fishing is a sensual affair. The fish are shiny prizes: pristine despite their bastard status in the Great Lakes tributaries. The Salmon River, its carbide scars and high-trafficked byways, is a quality fishing river. Riffles, pools, runs, twists and braids that split the main course into rivulets and island adventures. The woods are the real deal. The lake effect weather is too. Fishing hours are governed by competition for bank space, food, wool and dryness.

Image may contain: one or more people, people standing, tree, outdoor and nature Dead salmon lay here. The reason we and the steelhead are here. Hanging bent from log jams. Lying as the high water left them - once good looking fish. Sizable.

And their smell. The scent tells you you’re back. Like a place you grew up. Visiting grandparents. Stoking distant home fires. Wool blankets and thermostats. Absolute comfort. The smell of the laundry at the cabins hasn’t changed for eight years. The recognition is unambiguous. This is now officially a habit.

We’ve come a long way, driven five hours over the Hudson to one of the most depressed areas of New York State to fish for the ultimate pleasure. My son said it is the salmon graveyard.

Amish traps don’t bother with lights. Make sure you miss them on the drive to your early morning spot. Over three days the river is big, then falls by a half, then another quarter of itself (Winter will arrived in 12 hours and river levels need to be managed.) Mid morning on your second full day you hook a 10lb buck on the fly rod. More backing and into the pool way below. Strong, strong fish. That logjam should see him free, but after three passes to the net he’s done. On his first visit to the big river your son crouches and lifts the net, bringing the fish in as you should have. Neither of you will forget this journey away from home.

{Submitted only here for minimum audience and fuss}

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Responding to Spring

In almost every respect spring is as close to a blessing as I can expect. But I've noticed some challenges with it, probably more my own making, and wanted to try to understand them better by writing them down. They are not negative things. 

A lesser irritant, and as obvious as it gets, is noted principally for the benefit of friends in temperate climes whose seasons blend together. In New England, spring explodes from a status of absolute dormancy. Throughout winter, December through March, the woods appear lifeless gray, lawns a dry brown if not covered by feet of white. Everything shuts down and hides away (why we don’t, I don’t know. Evolution should correct for this eventually?) Then, in April, all life appears – and with it a mass of pollen and seeds coat the car, and everything else, in dense green dust. Spring is as much a deluge as winter snow. Eyes smart, throats scratch, and energy lags, such is the effect on the body. It’s a small price for what’s unfolding, of course. Color from monochrome; life affirming in real time, reliable and rightly celebrated every year as a good thing. But nothing here emerges so we can truly savor it. Spring here is sudden, and we need to respond.

Striped bass are moving from major rivers and from far south, and they’re here now in the local salt marsh. Flowering Forsythia and chirping osprey chime with this spread of fish, motivated by blooming grass shrimp and tight shoals of alewives. For the first time since autumn my clock sets to local tide cycles. Narrow windows have to be juggled with work, family obligations, and maturing laziness. To be present for the turn of high tide at my place is a quiet wonder that goes unnoticed by people driving past, and I want to be there. Inland a distance from Long Island Sound and connected by channels and bends, the marsh’s full water level is delayed and difficult to measure, with slack high tide hesitant the briefest of moments before tilting away. Such a large movement in the earth’s behavior, all happening so peacefully and without fuss, appeals to me greatly. [In fact, as I explain this to my son, I'm describing how the tide on the outer, Sound-ward side of the marsh turns a full two hours before the tide on the inside of the marsh, such that water is going out and coming in all at once in the same body of water within the space of a half mile. If you don't agree that this is wonderful, I fear you've read too far]. Full high tide and one half hour after it should happen at dusk to be just right at this place, but when this will actually happen involves guesswork that requires time and thought that are beyond me. What's certain is that the windows of opportunity grow too late, as they are tonight, and I’m left with the awkward knowledge that the fish are there to be caught, but not by me. 

I should take up ice fishing to smooth out the year and lessen the sudden spring, but for now nothing in winter can truly be called tempting. Spring, then, brings double the commitment as the need to hook striped bass verges on necessity, or at least this seems to be emphasized the more I fish alone. It's a very welcome and intoxicating arrangement that still surprises and excites me every year.  

Tight lines,


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Guest Post - "The Epic Midge Hatch"

This is guest post from my friend Steve Zakur. He writes a fair bit in the angling press, and a good thing too. This is from a piece he sent me today. I think it captures the simplicity and detail of our sport very well indeed.

The Epic Midge Hatch

By Stephen Zakur

Fished an epic midge hatch on the Farmington today. Water was frigid with all the snow melt. Not a trout moved.

There's nothing to lose. 


Monday, January 9, 2017

Chances are good

Adventure ain't what it used to be.

That first trip to the Salmon we played how many can we catch. We’d get lazy and stretch out in warm November sun after tangling with another nature-defying steelhead.

It wasn’t meant to happen again, but exceptional years became normal. Another year followed when the river was all ours and we lost count of monotonous ten pounders, each as pristine as the wildest salmon, and twice the fight.

These steelhead made us dream of going back; to thinking well of six hours straight
along 90 West; looking forward to staying at Roger’s place; rising before December dawns to all that inevitable weather.

Until they weren’t there.
Steelhead numbers have fallen away in recent years and now we’ve got cold feet. Adventure is taking a backseat because the catching isn’t the way it was. We’d have to fish all day for no takes, maybe only one chance for the hero shot the whole trip. Those odds aren’t good, so there’s no need to long for something we never thought attainable.

It’s easier this way.  

Going now would be “like real steelheading is meant to be”, and we’d still have everything else – pretend cabin comforts, friends distracted from work, the whiskey and music, and likely more rested river than ever before. We’d have to work for a fish, to hunt the river like we always wanted to before all those fish spoiled us.

Chances are good the rewards would be greater now than ever before.


PS. I wrote this to highlight what, to my mind at least, seems like an imbalance between what I've come to expect and what I actually always wanted. Multiple fish days are great, but I got to asking myself whether they have dented my sense of adventure, and the greater satisfaction of attaining something that is harder to come by. Mostly it's my own reminder to go and find out, to put in more time exploring the river for the chance of a fish that deserves our effort, rather than waiting to see what will happen.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Floating the Glorious 12th

Here are some pictures and minimal film with detailed instruction of how one goes about getting burnt by the sun. I made it because it was a really lovely time; paddling, wading and basking in warm waters. When it's January or March I will look again and feel the warmth. At least that is my thinking.

We didn't catch much - blues mostly, and we were tired by the time we found them and I couldn't be bothered. Anchoring in a busy shipping channel isn't an evolutionary stable strategy, and when you hook a 3 pound blue the return is quickly diminishing: some seconds of violent thrill for the high probability of hand lacerations. I was tired and didn't want to be bitten. I couldn't cast no more. We'd set out at 6.15am and returned to dock, sore arsed and dehydrated, the back of 3pm.

I'm not sure what happened in the intervening nine hours. We did sight cast to striped bass on the flats, but didn't catch any. It's a lot like carp fishing in that respect. Thankless, hard, and great.  We'd get bored, walk back to anchored boats, and talk. (Next time I must bring ample gin and tonic.)

The pictures of stripers in the film are from earlier in the season when they were much easier to catch. They are meant to dupe you into thinking they were heroically caught on this particulalr trip, but they were not.

We paddled over deeps and shallows, got out and tethered our boats, waded blue flats and watched horseshoe crabs hump. We ate beef sandwiches and remarked how great it was to be away from everything a mile or more off land. We were on the ocean for half a day and it was over quickly because getting into 12 feet of plastic and shoving yourself to sea is an adventure that is worth it every time, fish be damned. At one point I was standing next to my boat in three feet of water, changing flies. I decided to just lay down in the water and feel how great it was, because I could. You can't do that in Pulaski. 

I've also been drinking really good malt whisky and contemplating what makes a good blog. I recently heard myself say that the best blogs must be time limited. They should peak and die, having found good form that must rightfully fade or become something else. Or perhaps these things come in waves? Any road, forgive us this quiet time, as we forgive those who have quiet time around us. Perhaps dormancy is better than the prattle or padding required by those that have appearances to keep, sausages to massage, platforms to maintain, and bills to pay?

I couldn't possibly say.