Don’t be cowed by gear fetishists and country squires. Take our clean and commonsense advice on tools, technique, and cagey quarry, and launch your superfly into the fray.
Lighten Up: It’s the cast, stupid.
By Ian Frazier
Fishville: Ten fly-friendly towns on the banks of waters frothing with trout.
By Nate Hoogeveen
A Trout’s Innermost Desires: It’s all about finding his comfort zone, baby.
By Nick Lyons
The Only Fly You Need: Chernobyl Ant of Double Bunny, ma’am?
By Florence Williams
What Burns My Ass: Judge not, dry-fly snob, lest ye suffer the ire of my rod.
By Angus Cameron
Your Best Angles: Top guides’ tips for stalking paranoid fish.
By Kent Black and Nate Hoogeveen
A Manifesto for Ignorance: Ah, cluelessness! Or, just do it yourself.
By David James Duncan
Buy Right, Buy Once: The right stuff for schlepping, wading, spying.
By Chris Keyes
My Hero: The greatest angler I ever saw was full of surprises.
By Jack Handey
|What’s bewitching, even hypnotic, about fly-fishing is the cast. That motion—the line unfurling out behind, and then shooting forward at the triggering flick of the wrist and forearm—has ancient overtones. People have been casting like that forever. They’ve thrown hempen nets, whirled and flung braided horsehair lines with stones for sinkers and ivory for hooks. Casting a fly line more closely resembles the cast we remember in our bones than catapulting a heavy piece of hardware with a spinning rod does. You can’t fly-fish if you can’t cast, but learning isn’t hard. A few hours of practice and a few days on the water are usually enough to remind your muscles of what they already know, and afterward the skill is yours for good. Then, each year when the trees leaf out and the days lengthen and the mayflies begin to hover, your arm and shoulder will itch to cast, to aspire to send a loop of fly line into the air above a river again and again.
Like the urge for religion, that simple longing to cast a fly line has become encrusted with bureaucracies. A person can get lost in fly-fishing’s specifications of rod lengths and line weights and drag ratios and tippet strengths and artificial flies—more flies, it seems, than in the insect kingdom. I don’t knock the bureaucracyof fly-fishing; with 17 or so fly rods of various kinds in my closet, I’m not really in the position to. But you can’t let the multiplicity of it all overwhelm you or occupy too much of your mind. For a long time, before I went on any trip that might put me in the vicinity of catchable fish, I used to swoonat the thought of going through my huge amount of stuff to pick out exactly what I needed, and generally ended up bringing nothing at all. Now I just take a basic four-piece pack rod, a reel, and a small assortment of flies that can work almost anywhere. In the last year, some of my best fishing was with my pack rod. The bureaucracy of fly-fishing is supposed to serve you, not the other way around; the point, in the end, is not the gear.
A hazard of any bureaucracyis the paranoia and secrecy it sometimes breeds. This can be especially true in the fly-fishing world. Many anglers deeply distrust each other, and on the subject of good places to fish will not say a word. Such stinginess drives me crazy. A little prudence I can understand, but at least give a person a hint, something to go on. Worst of all, in my opinion, is the angling writer who describes wonderful fishing he’s had, and then at the end of the article coyly declines to tell you where the hell it was! Why would I buy the magazine in the first place, just to hear about a great time this guy had? I want to know where! I think a good fishery can survive a lot of people knowing about it, and in the besieged modern outdoors, perhaps the more people who love it, the better chance it has.
There is plenty of good water out there still. Handsome fish—more than we really deserve—continue to exist and even thrive. Just a few days ago I took a walk in the densely populated New Jersey suburb where I now live, and I noticed a good-sized brook running through some backyards. I had to ask four passersby the brook’s name before I found one who knew it: the Third River. Scanning it from a bridge on a cross street, I observed a flattened orange traffic cone in a little waterfall, and a pair of white nylon warm-up trousers. But just downstream of the bridge, in a little pool beside a cement retaining wall, I saw, miraculously, fish! Three or four little ones and a nine-incher I took to be a trout were holding there in the current, scant yards away from the New Jersey traffic. If there are fish in the Third River, how many more might there be in likelier streams? So drop whatever you’re doing. Throw your rod and other gear in the car. Park by the lake, drive to the river. Check out the water. Cast.
The choicest towns for angling
The Town: Though B&Bs and cowboy kitsch encroach, Saratoga’s motto, “Where the trout leap on Main Street,” was formalized this spring.
The Waters: With 6,000 miles of trout streams in Carbon County alone, you’ll never run out. Drift the North Platte casting for browns and rainbows, wade the Encampment River in the Medicine Bow National Forest, or sneak up on wild golden and cutthroat trout in the Snowy Range’s alpine lakes and creeks.
The Outfitter: Hack’s Tackle and Outfitters, 307-326-9823
The Town: Authentic Bavarian? Fälschung!But don’t mind that—Helen puts you within 45 minutes of most of the trout in Georgia, and a goodly share of North Carolina’s.
The Waters: Chase browns and rainbows on the upper Chattahoochee, or follow the ‘Hoochee to its lower section just above Atlanta, which thanks to the Buford Dam has brown and rainbow hogs upwards of 12 pounds. Make across-border raids into North Carolina for the Nantahala and Hiwassee.
The Outfitter: Unicoi Outfitters, 706-878-3083
The Town: Fish the San Juan by day, hot-soak by night. Fish the Conejos by day, hot-soak by night. Fish the Piedra by day, hot-soak by night…
The Waters: The stretch of the San Juan that runs along Pagosa Street is stocked with 16-inch rainbows, a new feature this summer. Farther upstream, two branches of the river offer wilder rainbows and brook trout. To the north, the mountainous Weminuche Wilderness holds the choice Piedra River and countless streams.
The Outfitter: Matt Poma (guide), 970-731-6288; Ski and Bow Rack (flies), 970-264-2370
Coon Valley, Wisconsin
The Town: Weekdays, Coon Valley folks commute to jobs in La Crosse. Weekends, La Crosse anglers commute to Coon Valley.
The Waters: Hundreds of spring-fed streams wind along the bases of bluffs and through meadows in the hilly Coulee region. The waters, like Timber Coulee River and the West Fork of the Kickapoo River, vary from forest gushers to meandering grassland and support a mix of brown trout and native brookies.
The Outfitter: Spring Creek Angler, 608-452-3430
The Town: IGA supermarket? Check. Single-screen movie house? Check. Fish? Check plus.
The Waters: Landlocked salmon run from nearby Mooselookmeguntic Lake to a web of tributaries in summer, and salmon up to 22 inches long swim the Kennebago River as it tumbles from Maine’s western reaches. The Rapid River rushes through spruce and birch and holds record four- to five-pound brookies. Waters up on the Appalachian Trail to the south hold Sunapee trout—a rare cousin of the blueback trout found only in a few Maine ponds.
The Outfitter: Bonnie Holding (guide), 207-246-4102; The Fly Box (flies), 207-864-5615
Cooper Landing, Alaska
The Town: With Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to the east and Cook Inlet to the west, the village’s rugged backdrop is nearly as dramatic as the rainbows are ravenous.
The Waters: The Kenai and Russian Rivers are noted salmon runs but are fished for the hearty rainbow trout and Dolly Vardens that feed upon the salmon’s eggs. In September, prime season, bring line for five- to ten-pound catch. Ten miles from town, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge’s lakes and streams are choked with graylings.
The Outfitter: Nick Hallford (guide), 907-262-3979; Kenai Cache (flies and provisions), 907-595-1401
The Town: Local pharmacist Harry Murray opened his fly shop in 1962, and D.C.’s angling politicos have been coming ever since.
The Waters: Stony Creek, a spring branch stocked with rainbows, browns, and brookies, chortles behind Murray’s pharmacy-cum-fly-shop; he’s taken 20 fish in a half hour. Ten minutes away, the Shenandoah River offers diversion in smallmouth bass. The adjacent George Washington National Forest courses with brook trout streams, and Shenandoah National Park is thick with perhaps the nation’s densest population of mountain brook trout.
The Outfitter: Murray’s Fly Shop, 540-984-4212
Fall River Mills, California
The Town: Home of the world’s largest natural springs and your provisions. But fishing your way out of town is the real kick.
The Waters: California’s most fabled rainbow streams—the McCloud, Pit, and Sacramento Rivers, and Hat Creek—all flow within an hour’s drive. Pilot a flat-bottomed boat down the Fall River, famous for its 18-inch rainbows. Or wade the pools and runs of Hat Creek for trophy rainbows and browns.
The Outfitter: Art Teter (guide), 530-357-2825; Shasta Angler (flies), 530-336-6600
Hazelton, British Columbia
The Town: Gateway to the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush, gateway to steelhead today.
The Waters: As steelhead runs decline in the American Pacific states, the fishing only gets better here. All six species of Pacific salmon make spawning runs into the Coast Mountain tributaries each summer. Rainbow trout and Dolly Vardens are also common catches, and come September through November, steelhead make a grand finale.
The Outfitter: Wilfred Lee (guide), 250-842-5337; Oscar’s Source for Sports (flies), 250-847-2136
Twin Bridges, Montana
The Town: Not all of Montana has gone trendy. A no-crappucino affair, Twin Bridges is the local ranchers’ stop for hat repairs and leatherwork—yours for fuel, food, and flies.
The Waters: Big, and lots to choose from. Stalk rare native graylings and cutthroats in the Big Hole River to the west, wade the Ruby to the east, or cast into the world-class Beaverhead 30 miles southwest. Or fish right in town: “Last summer a ten-year-old kid—the little slimeball—pulled in a 24-inch brown from the highway bridge downtown,” marvels fly-shop owner Scott Barber.
The Outfitter: Four Rivers Fishing Company, 406-684-5651
A Trout’s Innermost Desires
They’d be a lot like ours, if we lived in a stream.
A FRIEND ONCE TOOK ME TO A GOOD PLACE to find gargantuan trout, but after two days of frenetic fishing I’d found none. The creek ran from springs in a broad meadow in southwestern Montana, picked up a thousand other upwellings, and then zigzagged through a field, making 50 U-turns, sometimes 20 feet across, sometimes a hundred, full of riffles and bends and big pools, the water always crystalline, the trout so shy I thought them paranoid, though (like most of us) they just didn’t want to lose their skins.
When the huge trout in Spring Creek were feeding on surface insects, I found them smack in the center of that magic spreading circle that fish make when they rise. After a while, I learned how to imitate the dish du jour: Sneak close without spooking the fish, choose a number 18 dry fly, and catch a gullible specimen or two. But when the trout weren’t rising, I had to find them somewhere in the inner architecture of the river, and in the beginning I felt as bewildered as I had been when I first tried to read the hieroglyphs of modern poetry.
The fish were rarely in open water; their predators could see them there and no trout wanted to be conspicuous to its enemies any more than we want to be conspicuous to the IRS. They took chances only when mayflies were hatching and they had an irresistible sweet tooth for a Pale Morning Dun.
By trial and many errors, I soon realized that there were some simple truths hidden in the pages of a river. A trout wants what we all want: comfort, protection, and an easy meal now and then. I began to look for fish in places where the current slackened and they didn’t have to work so hard to hold their positions, places where their principal predators—birds and me—couldn’t see them, places where the current was strong enough to bring food directly to their table. This meant behind rocks and other obstructions; beneath undercut banks; in or near the riffles, where the surface is ruffled and opaque; at the inside corners of those meanders; or in the shade of overhanging sagebrush or willows.
All of these places, at various times, held fish and I soon began to catch a few. But the best place in Spring Creek—or any other river—proved to be that narrow foam line skirting the far bank. The trout were just beyond it and had the comfort of reduced current, the protection of something above them, and a pretty parade of waiters bearing trays of aquatic insects, moths, ants, beetles, jassids, leaf rollers, grasshoppers, crippled minnows, a crayfish or hellgrammite, even a stray mouse.
When I figured that out, I made the bright resolution always to fish where there were trout. On a dozen rivers, that has made all the difference.
Gear | Eastern Streams
The Rod: Winston five-piece LT, three-weight ($615; 800-237-8763). The diminutive LT (which stands for “light trout”) lets you finesse every problem of the region’s tight waterways: rhododendrons, wary brookies, and elbow-to-elbow anglers. Its shrimpy six-foot, nine-inch length is ideal for flicking casts under shrubbery. Better yet, it’s stealthy: Winston’s hallmark soft action gives even uptight fishermen a shot at a smooth presentation, and when the LT is stashed in its 18-inch case it travels to your favorite hole undetected.
The Reel: Ross Colorado-0 ($115; 970-249-1212). A stout, machined-aluminum reel with a simple, nonadjustable drag—fine for eight-inch trout.
The Line: Scientific Anglers XPS Double Taper ($55; 800-525-6290). The only line befitting the LT, this floating double taper unfolds in a delicate loop that won’t cause a stir.
How to Eat a Fish
First, think how much you want it in your belly.
I HOLD FEW MORAL reservations about eating a trout. Not so many years ago, after a long and happy relationship with the spinning reel, I finally buckled to cultural pressure and decided I could no longer avoid the gentleman’s romance of fly-fishing. I had owned the gear for a decade but never used it, daunted, I suppose, by the higher art of flies and knots but also unattracted by the attendant sensibilities of the fly fisherman, which seemed devoted to a certain preciousness, or pretension of enlightenment and virtue.
I come to the river rod in hand, neither saint nor renegade. Catching trout on a fly is indeed a lovely game for me. But eating one or two for dinner is something else again, something more vital, more important. So little remains of the wild, and what isn’t there we ate, all of us—vegetarians don’t escape this indictment. In the developed world, our food is an abstraction, as is the death that created it, the drama of blood that so connects us, with vivid intimacy, to the chain of life. I wish I could tell you that once you take the responsibility to kill to eat, you stop killing for the fuck of it, you stop killing out of greed or pleasure or anger, but there is that possibility. Perhaps one day we’ll eat ourselves right off this planet. Probably we will. And on that day I would eat the last fish on earth, without guilt or too much sentimentality. Somebody, something, has to.
In the meantime I will continue to fish the streams above my one-room cabin in New Mexico, and I teach my 12-year-old daughter to fish them too. Last summer I took her to a lake in the high country, where to my amazement she caught her first rainbow on her first cast and then proceeded to earn my undying respect by fishing three hours more, in unstudied concentration, without a hit, without a complaint. I had wanted her to learn that to be there in the mountains, on the clear icy water, should be enough, and it was.
Of the four rainbows I caught, I kept one, and together with hers we had our next day’s breakfast. In the morning I showed her how to pan-fry the perfect trout, slicing open the fish from throat to anal vent, removing the guts and gills, cleaning and washing the cavity of blood and tissue, then dusting the fish with flour. When she asked me why I didn’t cut off their heads, I told her the heads were too beautiful to remove unless the fish was too big for the pan, and it seemed undignified to mutilate the fish unnecessarily. I bridged the rocks of our campfire with an iron skillet, added a quarter-inch of olive oil, threw in chopped garlic until the garlic was golden, and then removed it. Salt, pepper, garlic, olive oil—that’s it, if you want to preserve the exquisite delicacy of the rainbow’s taste. When the oil was hot enough to sizzle, I placed the fish in the skillet and fried them until each side was crisp and browned.
Sitting in the lakeside grass, alone in the world, we ate off tin plates, licking our fingers, and gazed up at the snow-mottled peaks of the Sangre de Cristos. “Did you like it?” I asked my fish-strong daughter.
“Want to hear some platitudes?”
So listen, kid: Never keep more fish than you can eat at one meal, never eat more than you want, never want more than you need, never need more than is reasonable, never be too reasonable about what you love, never love anything so much you love it to death, never destroy what can’t be replaced, never think everything can be replaced.
“Do you have any Woolly Buggers?” she asked, and was the first to pick up a rod.
Gear | Western Rivers
The Rod: Sage four-piece XP, five-weight ($540; 800-533-3004). A lightweight, fast-action rod with enough power to throw giant western stoneflies without all that double-hauling. Even a light backcast generates enough line speed to cast spinners into a Ketchum headwind, and the trimmings—a nickel silver reel seat, imbuya wood insert, and gold-colored guide wraps—will make even bamboo-rod owners drool.
The Reel: Sage 3200 ($295; 800-533-3004). The 3.1-ounce 3200 balances well with the bantam-weight XP, yet houses a click drag strong enough to stop runaway lunkers cold.
The Line: Scientific Anglers Distance Taper ($55; 800-525-6290). Designed for long casts, it cuts through strong headwinds with authority and lays down gently.
What Burns My Ass
Screw the Purists. It’s just fishing.
I’VE BEEN HERE 91 YEARS, fishing for 82 of them and fly-fishing for 67, and I still don’t fully understand the fishing Purist. Maybe it’s as simple as age, but Purists really burn my ass. You can always tell when you’ve come across one. On the surface, his manners will be impeccable, but his low opinion of you will show through every feature and word. He will be fishing a dry fly, in a tiny size. Sometimes such Purists fish nymphs (naturally a tiny nymph paired with an upstream cast and a dead drift), but they do so staying as close in method to dry-fly fishing as they can. Once—just once—I managed to corner a Purist on Michigan’s Au Sable River while I was fishing a number 14 nymph. Our Purist had mistaken me for a fellow dry-fly man; he’d noticed that I was fishing upstream and drifting my fly down-current on a loose line, as he was. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were fishing wet,” he said, enunciating “wet” as if he were using a four-letter word for human waste instead of a three-letter word of Anglish. Having tangled with his ilk before, I took on the role of elder ichthyologist. “Yes,” I admitted, “I sometimes fish right where the fish are, below the surface, where, as I’m sure you know, trout do about 80 percent of their feeding.” Then I added my kicker: “When the fishing becomes too easy, I give up the dry fly.”
Our Purist was shaken. He asked me, shamelessly, just which fly was my single dry fly—when I fished dry, that is. “Oh,” I answered, “it really doesn’t matter, but I fish a Light Cahill as much as any. I usually carry only a single pattern, whatever my choice for the day.”
A single pattern? Trust me, it’s enough to rattle even the purest of the Pure.
Your Best Angles
The moves fish come to love
Thinking Like a Coon
Harry Murray, owner of Murray's Fly Shop in Edinburg, Virginia, reckons that raccoons take more brook trout from the dainty Shenandoah streams than anglers do. Why? Because they're sneaky. “My son Jeff taught a fella to sneak,” says Murray, “and he took 25 or 30 fish his first day.” It might feel goofy, but crawling around the banks on your knees, hiding behind trees, and using the river's steep gradients to remain concealed can ensure a stocked creel.
On the gin-clear flows of Tennessee's Chattahoochee, Unicoi Outfitters owner Jimmy Harris rarely makes a single backcast in the tighter sections. Harris recommends high-sticking. Slink up to within 15 feet downstream of your prey and use a roll cast to flip a nymph in front of the trout. Then hold your rod straight up in the air so that only your leader touches the water as the nymph drifts through the hole. Repeat as many times as the fish will allow.
Swinging the Fly
To hook a steelhead with a wet fly, provoke his ire, advises
Wilfred Lee, a guide with more than 40 years of experience around Hazelton, British Columbia.Cast 30 degrees downstream, then strip line and mend it out, letting the fly drop. When it passes through prime holding water, let the line tighten so that the fly swings hook eye forward in front of the fish as if it's fleeing—a movement that causes nearby steelhead to strike with reckless furor.
To make long casts even into strong headwinds, start by laying out 30 to 40 feet of line. As you begin your backcast, grab hold of the line with your opposite hand, leaving at least ten feet of excess hanging off the reel. As the rod tip reaches 12 o'clock, pull down and up quickly on the line to increase line speed in your backcast. Then, as you start your forward cast, pull down and let go as the line shoots out. With practice you should be able to hit 60 to 75 feet.
Perfect fly presentation is often ruined by drag—the current's unnatural tug on your fly as it drifts downstream—a problem the snake cast eliminates. To execute: Just as the line straightens out before you on a forward cast, wiggle the rod tip several times so that the line lies down in a series of S-curves on the water. Your fly will drift drag-free to your rising target while the current is busy taking the slack out of your line.
A Manifesto for Ignorance
The argument for doing it all by your fallible lonesome
MY RESERVATIONS about the average fly-fishing guide are a lot like my reservations about the average spiritual guru. Both can be highly entertaining. Both can be idiots. Both charge for their services in either case. At its best, fly-fishing is a satisfying duet, played by a body of flesh upon a body of water. A fish makes it an even more satisfying trio. The average guide renders duet and trio inaudible. The average guide mediates so relentlessly between you and your fishing that it feels as if you and the river are divorcing and splitting up the property. The average guide plants an ego-flag on every fish, as if he’s a mountaineer, the fish is the summit, and your stupidity is Mount Everest.
Your guide, like your lawyer, can offer hundreds of scary reasons why you need him: You don’t know the river and he does; you’ll get skunked and he won’t; you’ll drown if he doesn’t float you, starve if he doesn’t feed you, get poison-oaked, snakebit, bum-fupped, and vulched if he doesn’t protect you. These are remote possibilities. Far less remote is the possibility that at day’s end you’ll hand your guide 300 bucks, shake his hand, and bite your tongue as you fight the urge to say, “Thanks that the insects you said wouldn’t bite did, while the fish you said would, didn’t. And thanks, 28 times in a row, for identifying that upcoming stretch as a ‘sexy hole.’ Thanks, too, for saying, ‘Don’t worry. The grub and brewskies are on me.’ I’ve never lived for 16 hours on Busy Bucko crackers and Moose Drizzle stout before.”
I qualify all of this with the modifier “average.” There are, of course, good guides out there. There are scholars and artists of the river, men and women whose lives I respect, whose intelligence I envy, whose humor causes loss of bladder control, and whose company I cherish. But I still reject the basic service. Guides accept payment to help clients circumvent their own ignorance. But ignorance is one of the most crucial pieces of equipment any fly fisher will ever own. Ignorance is a fertile but unplanted interior field. Solitary fly-fishing isolates us in this field and leaves us no choice but to cultivate it. A guide is like a farmer who, for a price, drives his tractor over and plants your field for you. He may know what’s growing. But you sure as hell won’t.
I ask you to consider the osprey, the heron, the kingfisher. These fly-fishing prodigies pass on the primordial art by feeding their young vomited-up trout, which naturally makes the young yearn for nonvomited-up trout, which in turn makes the young bolt upright in the nest and say: Eureka! I don’t have to squat in this shithole eating puked-up fish all day! Look at my wings, my beak, my talons! I’ve got everything Mom and Dad have got! What the hell have I been thinking? I can go fishing myself!
Anglers! Look at your guides on their days off, unguidedly catching fish after fish! Look at your legs, your arms, your rod! Feel the heft and synaptic whir of your big cerebrum! You’ve got everything they’ve got! What the hell have you been thinking?Go fishing yourself! Dare to be the bumbling hero of your own fish story! Read like a fiend; practice like a fool. Find the best possible river on the best possible map, explore it, cast into it. If you fall in, get out. If you hook yourself, unhook yourself. Make a half-drowned, half-thrashed rat of yourself. It doesn’t matter! And at the end of the day… Pay yourself! Charge an arm and a leg. Leave yourself huge tips. Remarkably painless, isn’t it?
Gear | Northwest Steelheading
The Rod: Scott four-piece ARC, seven-weight ($560; 800-728-7208). While most companies will sell you a short, fast-action saltwater rod for landing steelhead, Scott designed the ARC series specifically to handle the tricky currents that hide these stubborn brutes. At ten feet long, it gives you pinpoint line control, and its medium-fast action casts both floating and heavy sink-tip lines with ease.
The Reel: Bauer M3 ($365; 831-484-0536). The M3’s smooth cork disc drag applies consistent pressure on a running fish to prevent your tippet from snapping. Once he stops his run and turns, the large-diameter arbor can pick up line at a sprint.
The Line: Cortland 444 Steelhead Quick Descent ($46; 800-847-6787). You’ll need Cortland’s 24-foot sinking tip to transport your Green Butt Skunk into deep holding water lightning-fast.