Thursday, April 28, 2011

One Percent for the West's Backcountry Streams

A backcountry brookie.
As a die-hard backcountry trout fanatic, and newly converted Tenkara angler, I wanted to personally thank Daniel Galhardo and Tenkara USA for donating it's "1% for the Planet" contributions to Trout Unlimited's Sportsmen's Conservation Project.

The SCP (full disclosure–I work for TU) is all about protecting intact habitat throughout the Rocky Mountain West, and much of its work includes keeping intact fish and wildlife habitat just like it is today for coming generations to enjoy. I'm the personal beneficiary of the work the SCP does here in Idaho and throughout the West to keep cold, clean mountain streams in pristine condition. This is no easy task–efforts are almost always afoot to develop backcountry habitat, be it for expanded off-road vehicle trails along trout water, proposed oil and natural gas leasing and drilling in roadless areas, or other industrial uses that would tarnish prime coldwater ecosystems and the opportunity to chase wild trout in wild places.

But what I appreciate most about the Tenkara USA donation to TU is the connection Daniel and his company have made between habitat, opportunity and economic development. He's living proof that keeping habitat intact and ensuring the chance to chase trout in quality country can, indeed, be beneficial from an economic standpoint.

And he's not alone. Just ask any thoughtful hunting outfitter, or backcountry fishing guide how important quality habitat is to their bottom line. The old adage is spot on: "The best fishing begins where the road ends."

Thank you, Daniel, for your generous contribution to our sporting heritage, and here's hoping more folks in your industry make similar commitments to the resource (or continue doing so). Protecting habitat and opportunity is the best way to ensure a future for the fly fishing craft, and for retailers, manufacturers or anyone who benefits, either directly or indirectly, from pristine backcountry habitat, it's the best way to ensure a solid economic future.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Tenkara Gains Notice in Angling Trade

Tenkara ... not just a passing fad.

While I'm only a recent tenkara convert, I'm happy to know that I'm on the cusp of the "next big thing." My friend Kirk Deeter, in the latest Angling Trade e-newsletter, noted that tenkara fly fishing would be among the trendiest pastimes in the coming year or so.

Tenkara fishing, especially on small water, as Deeter notes, might, indeed, be all the rage in the coming year, and I'd join him in recommending all serious fly fishing retailers to consider stocking the rods, lines and flies.

But I'd go one step further. I don't think tenkara is going to be just a passing fad. In my limited experience with the ancient Japanese craft, I've come to realize that it's not just a method used to catch trout, particularly in small water, but a very effective method that, in many instance, is more useful than traditional fly tackle.

The reason? In tight quarters, the tenkara braided line or level line can be lifted off the water, leaving on the fly in the surface film, which almost completely eliminates the small-stream angler's arch enemy–drag.

Now, the tenkara rod won't lay out 40 feet of line, and its sheer length can make some situations tough to navigate. But, on the whole, I've found precious few situations on small water where a tenkara rod wouldn't be just as effective–or more effective–than traditional gear.

The "next big thing?" Sure. A passing fancy? Not on my favorite trout stream.

Lower Laguna Madre ... In Pictures

While the wind made casting difficult, some folks took full advantage of the southeast breeze.
The sleek and speedy skipjack (lady fish).
The amazingly strong and acrobatic skipjack (lady fish). With a mouth of
sandpaper, and at least three good leaps, these fish are a blast on light
fly tackle.
What a skipjack sees as Skipper Ray goes in for the grab.
Efren Salazar, owner of SPI Kayak, casts for trout
in Lower Laguna Madre.
The toothy grin of a small speckled trout.
The author connects with the first redfish of the trip. Thanks Efren Salazar, for the photo!

The signature flats fish of South Padre Island, the mighty redfish.

What's a photo essay without this shot?
The Palms Resort Cafe redfish special. You catch 'em, they cook 'em.
Here we have deep fried redfish, broiled redfish and my favorite,
blackened redfish.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Call of the Salt

When your foot presses into firm, wet sand, it leaves a brief, but detailed imprint on the earth. And though, with the next wave that washes over the beach, that footprint is gone, there’s no shame in knowing you left your mark on this place, at this moment in time. And a fleeting moment it was.

If you’re lucky, that next wave of warm Gulf water will lap at your ankles, and in seconds, you’re part of two worlds. As the wave pulls back, you can feel the sea tugging the sand out from under your bare feet, seductively inviting you to take one step closer, one small step toward the water world where we can only visit, despite our best efforts to conquer it.

The ocean pulls at me. The sound of surf breaking over the sand and onto the beach is a siren call that I resist only because the draw of the mountains and the allure of cold, clear water running off the shoulders of the world keeps me grounded at altitude. But occasionally, I answer the call of the salt. I guiltily turn my back on the mountains and the rivers and the wild trout that swim there, and I venture to the sea to be romanced by water.

Down here, the air is soft and warm in April. The breeze coming off the Gulf, pushed north from the Yucatan, doesn’t blow so much as it embraces. Like the water is stirs into waves and whitecaps, it finds its way into your soul and it, like a footprint in the sand, remains until something else comes along and washes it away.

The water here is bipolar. The violence of the surf is countered by the clarity and the stillness of the bay, and the vagabond angler can pick his poison. He can shuffle his feet in the sand and wander for miles in knee-deep water, watching for darting targets just under the surface, or he can face the waves and the wind and cast blindly into the breakers, knowing the next wall of white could slap him in the face and test his mettle.

Either choice is honorable, for eventually, the waves meet the bay, thanks to that ever-present breeze that pushes water through cuts and over sandbars. Through these cuts swim fish so strong, so hardy that connecting with one, even briefly, will turn a trout angler’s blood cold for a split second and make him question the sanity of standing in their world while trying to pluck them from it.

I answered the call of the salt, and while I’ll return to the mountains, my beloved cold, clean water, and my trout that swim there, it might be a while before that mark, left by a warm, salty breeze and the pull of a mighty fish on a tight line, is completely washed away.

The ocean calls to me. Now and then, it needs an answer.

Night Moves...

The clock on my phone reads 1 a.m. The alarm is chirping, and vibrating the nightstand next to the bed.

Get up. Get up. Fish are waiting.

I tap the phone with a lazy hand. Mercifully, it quiets, and I drift back to sleep and to the dream I can't for the life of me remember. Then a knock at the door. And another. Didn't I just get to bed?

"Let's go, Idaho!" a voice at the door shouts–the south Texas accent is a little thick this time of morning. Then the knock turns to a pound. "Early bird gets the worm, buddy!"

Damn... fishing should be a solo pastime. These friends of mine have an odd way of showing a guy around South Padre.

A small speckled trout falls for a shrimp pattern under the lights.
Twenty minutes later, we're standing on a dock on the bay side of South Padre Island. Bright lights shine down onto green water, and on the edge of the lights, in the shadows, I can hear all hell breaking loose as the saltwater's Darwinian environment is put through its paces yet again. Little fish have the least-envious spot on the food chain here at the coast. And the bigger fish that eat them aren't immune... everything's on the menu in the dark, night-time water of Lower Laguna Madre.

Above us, a condo rises into the night sky, and instead of silence that might be expected at almost 2 a.m. on a Thursday, there's music and laughter.

It's Holy Week, and it seems that all of Northern Mexico has funneled onto South Padre for a little pre-Easter party. These folks, I think, gave up their sanity for Lent. But then, I'm no different. I'm the nut standing on the soggy planks of a boat dock under a moonlit sky casting a shrimp pattern into the murk in search of speckled trout. I'm not partying or dancing to lively Latin funk. I'm fishing at 2 a.m. But I'm fishing in paradise.

Who's crazy?

Special thanks to Capt. Ronny Marett of Lone Star Charters, for sharing a secret with an Idaho fly fisherman. Want to fish South Padre? Give Ronny a call at (956) 346-2736.

We're not alone, either. Night fishing under the lights is common along the Gulf Coast–baitfish are attracted to the lights on the water, and the trout that eat them rest just below the schools, where they patiently pick off the least-wary of the tiny fish and shrimp. I've been told the best fishing is just at the edges of the circles of light that shine relentlessly over the water. There, the bigger trout swim, just outside the light's revealing orb. They lay in wait for their next meal to venture within striking distance.

And out in the black gloom, I can hear mullet jumping, and the occasional "blow up" at the surface, where a skipjack and it's sandpaper jaws have just made a meal of a small trout or a big mullet. It's a subtle reminder of how easy we've got it.

I mean, the chances of being eaten as we go about our lives are, um, miniscule.

A few casts into the early-morning adventure, and my line goes tight. A small trout–maybe a foot long–grabs the white shrimp pattern and puts up a spirited fight, complete with the signature head shake before I'm able to lift it out of the water and rest it on the dock. Almost before I'm able to reach out and grab the fish, a young man walks over with a pair of hemostats.

"You might need these," he says in heavily accented English. "They got teeth."

They do indeed, but I have my own pair of grabbers. I thank the kid, and start working the hook loose.

"Man," he says, "I've been here a friggin' hour, and I haven't caught a single fish. You guys walk up with your fly rods and already you're catchin' fish."

"Beginner's luck," I tell him. I offer the fish to him. He politely refuses, and I unceremoniously drop the trout over the edge of the dock and back into the salty water.

I slowly work the sleep out of my eyes as I cast my 5-weight tight to the edges of the circle of light. Moments later, a bigger "speck" nails my small white shrimp pattern, and it dives deep. I can feel it shake its head, desperately trying to spit the hook that's now firmly planted in its toothy jaws.

The toothy maw of a nice night-time speck on South Padre Island.
I lift it out of the water and plop it unceremoniously on the dock. The Mexican kid is back.

"Man, can you teach me?" he asks, as I struggle with my little point-and-shoot camera to get a photo in the night light. I carefully remove the fly from the jaws of the 16-inch fish. As I work the hook free, the trout spits up a mouthful of tiny baitfish, maybe an inch long each.

"Sure," I say. "But we need to change flies. They'll hit this one, but I think I have a better idea."

I comb through my fly box of saltwater flies–it's a limited selection of Clousers, shrimp patterns and spoon flies, and I choose a baitfish pattern with bead eyes and a mylar body that's just about the same size as the minnows the trout threw up moments before.

The dock works as the perfect casting platform, and the young kid from Matamoros is able to get the basics down, albeit awkwardly, in about 20 minutes. His first genuine fly cast lands just on the edge of the lighted water, and he begins to strip line.

The baitfish pattern zips through the green water, and just as it enters the orb of light, a beefy trout appears out of nowhere and grabs it.

"Whoa!" the kid exclaims at the suddenly at the visual display that fly fishing often offers the angler. He quickly drops the slack line, and the line goes limp. I coach him to strip line in rather than try to reel the fish in, and he picks up the line again. The fish is still there.

Seconds later, the kid is admiring his first fly-rod fish–a 14-inch speckled trout.

"Can I keep it?" he asks.

"It's yours," I say. "Keep it."

He looks back toward the other end of the dock, where others from his party are fishing with cut bait rested on the bottom. Then he looks back at me, his eyes alive with excitement.

"Can I do it again?"

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Fishy Wind Must Blow...

Capt. Skipper Ray, Master of the Wind.
I'll give this much to Capt. Skipper Ray. If he can handle a constant, blow-your-hat-off-your-head wind, and my hopelessly flawed, backcountry trout fly cast on the same day, this guy can handle anything.

I hear the Republicans are looking for a presidential candidate more folks can get behind. I hereby submit Skipper as a very real possibility. Patience, a good eye for redfish in a choppy, shallow bay, and he gave me a beer at the end of the day to salve my ego.

Wind 1, Chris 0.

Well, sort of. I did land a nice redfish, and I had my 20-pound bite tippet chewed to bits by a discourteous lady fish. So maybe it's more like a draw. Yeah. A draw.

Seriously, though, this place is lousy with redfish, and while I landed one, Skipper, who works out of Island Outfitters on South Padre Island, brought a couple to hand in truly tough conditions, especially if you're a guy whose longest cast is just long enough to reach the browns that linger mid-channel in the Henry's Fork. The wind on South Padre ... blows. Go figure.

Hooked up.
Where to Stay: The Palms Resort, (956) 761-2703 
Get a Guide: Island Outfitters, (956) 433-9935

But, I can honestly say that this day, despite the slow fishing (and I was relieved to hear that it was slow for everybody today, not just me) was well-spent. Gliding over the almost-clear water on the leeward side of South Padre Island was an experience I won't soon forget. Lower Laguna Madre thrives with life, from baitfish and mullet to the more interesting critters, like sheepshead, and lady fish (also known as skipjack). The fabled redfish that finally made its appearance about halfway into the day is probably the all-star around here, but others swear by the speckled trout that, at least today, were not to be found.

As with any new experience, a good angler can learn something from days like today. I've decided that I'm going to blow up my fly cast and start all over. My bad habits are simply too deeply seeded. I need a casting instructor. And maybe a psychologist. Throw in an old priest and a young priest, and I might have this thing beat by summer's end.

But I also learned a lot about the bay and its unique marine environment. Lower Laguna Madre is a "hyper-saline" bay that actually depends on the wind (albeit not this fierce blast the area is getting this week) to bring in new doses of saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico and turn the water over now and then.

"Without the wind," said Gary Tate, a longtime local fly fisherman who lives here on South Padre, "this bay would be stagnant. Lifeless."

OK, so the wind has its benefits. I guess.

I'm off to the bar to enjoy a drink with an umbrella in it. From the bar, I can see the beach, and feel the breeze. I'll let you know if any other benefits blow in from the Gulf.


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Red April

The ultimate flats boat.

From the kayak, floating in the green-tinged desert that is the Lower Laguna Madre, the skyscraping resort hotels of South Padre Island are but a distant landmark visible through the humid haze of the sticky, south Texas morning. Here, with a stiff breeze out of the south, and the shallow bay good and stirred up after days of relentless wind, you can only cast blindly, hoping your fly finds its mark.

An hour into my day, my Clouser did just that.

After a false alarm that turned out to be a wind-aided snag on a weed bed, I was certain the elements had worked against me this day. A breeze that didn't seem too bad an hour earlier was kicking whitecaps over the side of my kayak, soaking both my shorts and my spirit. Redfish? In this soupy mess?

A minute later, I heard myself mutter, "Now that's a fish," as I responded to a hard take with a quick strip-strike. The "snag" pulled back, much to my relief, and I found myself going to the mat with a burly five-pound red that somehow found the red-and-yellow Clouser amidst the muck and the gunk of the wind-shaken bay. I watched as pale, yellow fly line retreated from my reel as the big fish fled into the murk, determined to put the 8-weight rod and the angler weilding it to the test.

A five-pound redfish falls for the oldest trick in the book.
A Clouser. Thanks, Bob...
My fishing partner for the day, Efren Salazar, let out an audible sigh of relief–it wouldn't do to have the visiting fly fisherman from Idaho come all the way to South Padre and the northern-most reaches of the tropics only to have the wind blow away any chance of getting into fish. And, as of that moment, I was into fish.

Combine the sheer power of the redfish with a straight and steady 20-mile-per-hour wind and the confines of the kayak, and I was making up for a slow morning of tough angling.

Before the brawny red could retreat north to Port Mansfield, I put the hammer down on the drag and, in a few more minutes, I was able to bring the beautiful creature to hand and dislodge the Clouser from the corner of its mouth. A quick photo later, and the fish was back in the salt and likely sulking at having fallen victim to a salwater fly tied at a small bench in land-locked Idaho's trout country.

Speckled trout. Clouser. Enough said.
And speaking of trout, they have them here, too. Just not the brand those of us who live in the Frozen North chase day in and day out. These fish aren't related in the least to the coldwater denizens of the Rockies. Speckled trout are actually a drum, and they're related to the bigger, huskier redfish. They're abundant in the salty Laguna Madre, and not too long after the first red of the day, I managed to convince a small trout to take a Clouser.

Without the heft of a redfish behind it, the trout came to hand quickly. Nevertheless, I was thrilled–it was my first fly rod speckled trout (one more to cross off the list), and I spent quite a bit of time admiring the fish that got it's name for obvious reasons. With it's heavily spotted tail and its silver sides, it does, indeed, resemble a lake-swimming salmonid. But it's big mouth is a dead give-away–it may bear the name, but this trout angler knows better.

Where to Stay: The Palms Resort, (800) 466-1316
Where to Get Your Kayak: SPI Kayak,  (956) 525-0100
Efren Salazar, owner of SPI Kayak. 
We spent half a day cruising the flats of the bay in search of fish, and Efren managed to get on the board with a much larger speckled trout. He also had a couple of dramatic takes on a top-water offering, but both times he came up empty.

Given the wind and the foggy water, I marked the day down as a success, knowing that tomorrow is but a day away, and more of south Texas' finest saltwater denizens await. Now, maybe for a walk on the beach, or a cold beer to fend off the warm breeze.

And maybe something fishy for dinner...

Monday, April 18, 2011

Changes in Latitudes...

Sometimes, the cure to the cold and wet Idaho spring is a trip south. Way south. I need an attitude adjustment, and I'm stealing shamelessly from the Caribbean Troubadour himself. It's time to put my toes in the ocean and stretch some fly line. If I don't, there's a chance this winter will last forever.

Over the next couple of days I'll be sending frequent dispatches from the flats of Lower Laguna Madre, and from the beach on South Padre Island, where I've arranged for a little fly fishing, thanks to a number of folks in the area who are helping me make it all happen.

First, I'll be staying at The Palms Resort, right on the beach. Today, as a cold rain falls in Idaho, I can envision standing in the surf, casting for speckled trout (or hell... just standing in the surf will do just fine, thank you) and taking in a day when the thermometer reads something north of 80. I can hear old Mr. Buffett in my head, God bless him, telling me that things'll get better with warmer weather, a bottle of rum and a little introspection. While the latter two can be done as the snow falls in April, the former requires a little effort. South Texas, here I come.

Then, thanks to the great folks at SPI Kayak, I'll be cruising the flats of Lower Laguna Madre and watching for those famous tails–this is redfish country, and I'm going to wander the backcountry in search of hungry drum and a tight fly line.

Then, to top it all off,  I've been given a guide to show me the ropes and to help me correct all the little mistakes I'm sure I'll have made on the kayak. This is real flats fishing from a boat, with an expert guide (Capt. Eddy Curry) showing me the ropes. To say I'm excited is an understatement.

Up yours, winter. I'm taking matters into my own hands.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Tenkara: Testing the Henry's Fork

When a big fish comes calling on the tenkara angler, the long rod's line sings as it's pulled tight and ripped violently from the water. The supple stretch of carbon fiber doubles over, and the hollow sections of the Japanese creation groan in protest.

But it doesn't surrender.

The angler, on the other hand, has to improvise. Unable to play a large trout by tightening the drag or giving line to a fish that's found the current, he must move, regardless of where he stands.

On the lower Henry's Fork, the river's bottom is covered with greased bowling balls. Wading, even up to the knees is treacherous. The deeper he ventures into the seductive current of the storied river, the slicker those rocks become. Armed with a 12-foot tenkara rod, 10 feet of level line and another 18 inches or so tippet, it's easy to be pulled into that siren song that is the Henry's Fork.

Tenkara, a craft designed by anglers in the Japanese Alps centuries ago, is made for chasing trout in small water. The long, limber rod is perfect for pinpoint fly placement among the quarreling currents. With the ability to limit or eliminate drag altogether, it becomes easy to see why the commercial anglers of Honshu were able to pull a hundred fish a day from the mountain streams of their native land and make a living selling their catch to nearby villages.

Today, the craft has become a pastime for many, an obsession for others. Here in the United States, tenkara is just planting its roots and beginning to grow. In a few years, I'm confident it will begin to blossom and backcountry anglers will migrate to it, both for its simplicity and its effectiveness. That these rods can break down into a length of graphite about two feet long only adds to the attraction.

But the Henry's Fork is not small water. At least not in the traditional sense.

And its fish are not naive wild trout that charge anything that looks like food. They're savvy. Educated. Deliberate.

In short, it's not traditional tenkara water. But, for a burgeoning tenkara angler, the river represents an opportunity to test the limits, to see just how much a tenkara rod can take. To raise the stakes. To pioneer.

It was in that spirit that I found myself in over my knees recently, a 12-foot tenkara rod in my hands, dropping a Girdle Bug under an indicator over a run I've fished every spring for a dozen years or so. The familiarity of the river was offset by the still-foreign rod in my hands, and the idea that, if I were to hook a significant fish–a very real possibility on this river–I might have to go swimming to bring it to hand.

Thank God for neoprene.

I'd been fishing for a couple of hours, and I'd managed to bring to hand a couple of footlong rainbows and one nice rainbow-cutthroat hyrid that might have measured 13 inches on an optimistic yard stick. Until I had waded just beyond my usual comfort zone in the deceptively clever current of the Henry's Fork in search of big fish, I had been casting through a long and productive winter caddis hatch on the river–the dry fly was the ticket, and the tenkara rod was performing beautifully.

But gluttony got the best of me. I knew, to turn a big brown on this river, I had to go deep with a big, black bug. The river's big trout don't come to hand easily, even with conventional fly gear. Getting a beefy brown to take a fly cast by a tenkara rod only 15 feet or so from the outstretched arm of the angler certainly increases the difficulty. Landing such a fish is an another story altogether.

So, when the indicator dipped suddenly, and the 10-foot stretch of line straightened and moaned as it pulled tight and shed the river, I was more uneasy than I was excited. Knowing that my footing was sketchy at best, and watching the lithe rod fold over under the pressure of the big trout, I knew that things were just starting to get interesting.

Much like the dog that finally catches its tail, I found myself in that classic, "Now what?" situation.

Thankfully, what little angler's instinct I possess kicked in. I extended my arm, giving the rod a couple more feet to work with. Line tight, and the rod growling in protest, I picked my way closer to the bank, stumbling briefly as my wading boots skidded over slime-coated rocks. I regained my footing, the line still tight. Unable to reach the current, the fish porpoised for the first time, and I saw that I had, indeed, managed to hook a substantial brown from the deep run. It wasn't huge, but as it violently tried to spit the size 10 Girdle Bug, it was big enough.

I stumbled, and went down on one knee, a blast of April river water spilled over the back of my chest waders and caused a moment of panic. I regained my composure, and a few minutes later, I had the fish in an eddy.

Finally. Substance on the tenkara.

I snapped a couple of hurried photos of the big trout–maybe 16 inches and winter healthy–and quickly turned it loose. I stood up in the chilly, early spring air and eyed the long walk back to the truck, a journey that included a steep scramble over a snowbank and a good walk through the river's shallows to avoid private land. I could feel the river water soaking my shirt and working its way south.

I looked back at the run, knowing another big brown lay in wait. I walked back into the current.

One more cast.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Best Day Ever?

By Liza Hunt
EMBT Guest Blogger

A few weeks ago I got to take my children to the hatchery in Rifle and it was better than ever. The best part of any hatchery visit, for me, is feeding the fish. We scoured the car ashtray, under the seats and dug to the bottom of my purse looking for quarters to pour into the reimagined gumball machine for food to drop into the tanks of fingerlings and cathables - being careful to save enough for my favorite...the big fat monsters at the end.

Two problems; 1. We could only find one quarter. 2. There wasn't any food in the machine. Fish Hatchery FAIL! I was about to put my heartbroken children back in the car when "Sarah" walked out of the office and onto the catwalk.

"Hi!" she said, obviously waiving to us, as we were the only people visiting the hatchery on that day.

My kids can spot a mark a mile away. They knew, as sure as my Sweet Baboo can read a pretty trout stream, that they had a lunker on the end of their line.

Cameron made the first move. He flashed the dimple he keeps buried in his right cheek, cocking his head to the left and letting the sun glint right off it into Sarah's eyes. "'Scuse me...there isn't any fish food in the machine." The first blow hit Sarah hard. She didn't fall off the catwalk, but she did sway back a forth a bit.

Delaney, sensing weakness, moved in. "Cameron. Don't bother this nice lady. She's very busy taking care of all the little fish. Look how cute they are. I wonder if they're hungry?"

Sarah was holding onto the rail to keep herself from falling into the tank. But my children wouldn't let up. They just kept at her - blow after blow of cuteness were hurled at the helpless Sarah who had no idea what she was going to face when she walked out of the hatchery office that morning.

"My Daddy works for Trout Unlimited."

"We love to catch and release."

"When I grow up I hope I can work at a fish hatchery just like you."

Sarah was done for. "Would you like to feed the fish?" she asked, as she was reaching for the 5 gallon bucket filled with food. (Sorry Sarah - you never had a chance.)

She handed over the entire bucket, approximately $6,264 worth of fish pellets, and turned them loose.

Six hours later I got to load them into the car and drive them home. They very carefully went to every single tank, making sure each size fish got a little/lot of food. They pointed out the one's with "owies." They experiemented with feeding them handfuls versus one pellet at a time. They even lay on their stomach's and tried to hand feed the fish - but would scream and jump up every time one almost got to them.

I took pictures and looked at every fish they pointed out and wondered... Is it possible that I may have had a Top 10 Best Day Ever, at the Rifle Falls Fish Hatchery? I'm pretty sure I did.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Coveting thy Lid ... Part Deaux

I'm not a tie guy. I might wear a tie twice a year, and it's the first thing that comes off the minute the funeral's over. When I hear people talk about how the tie makes the man, I just roll my eyes.

Because I know the truth.

The hat makes the man. My buddy Tom Sadler is living proof. Earlier today, you'll recall that I hijacked a photo of Tom wearing a new Stormy Kormer waxed cotton cap, and I admitted to coveting the cap, and vowing to show some skin, smooch an alpaca, eat a dog biscuit... whatever it took for Stormy Kormer to send me a cap.

And, as much as I like the cap that Tom was modeling, I really liked the Stormy Kormer original wool cap–this is the perfect top to any outdoorsman's dome, particularly here in eastern Idaho, where winter, it seems, will last until the first day of summer.

World-famous porn star Tom Sadler models a
Stormy Kormer original wool cap in a rare
"clothes on" photograph. Lucky stiff. 

Well... turns out my friend Tom actually owns a Stormy Kormer original wool cap, in addition to the waxed cotton model (I know... I didn't realize he was a millionaire, either). You believe that? I'm green with envy (although, if you're listening, Stormy Kormer, I prefer the olive wool, not the green–just throwing that out there). Who knew I'd start working my way through the Seven Deadly Sins when I woke up this morning?

The good news is that Tom's starting a little campaign to get Stormy Kormer's attention. Like any good friend, he understands that ties are cheesy Father's Day gifts.

Hats make the man.

As an aside to my new friends at Stormy Kormer, if more than one hat happens to find its way to sprawling home offices of Eat More Brook Trout, we'll have a little give-away essay contest to determine who gets that second lid–we'll coordinate it with the support staff over Dispatches from Middle River. Just sayin'... everybody needs a hat that sweet.

Coveting thy Lid...

OK... I'm coveting.

My good buddy Tom Sadler over at Dispatches from the Middle River posted a photo of himself wearing a totally rad lid hand-stitched by the folks at Stormy Kromer Mercantile (say that three times fast, boys and girls). And I must get my hands on one.

Thing is... being a quality product, these hats are, um, a little pricey, especially for a guy who already has more hats than there are heads to wear them in Tom's hometown in western Virginia. Paying for a hat, in my house, would be just the push my wife needs to go ahead and call that attorney she's been threatening to get ahold of.

For my birthday, Liza bought me a portable hat rack that I could hang on the fly tying room door–it holds six hats. These are the hats I'm legally allowed to have "at the ready," meaning that she wouldn't be too mortified if, for some reason, company came calling and saw these sweat-stained dependable caps resting neatly in place and available should I need one on a moment's notice.

Hats "at the ready."
The rest of my hats? Relegated to a big blue bin that sits quietly on a shelf in storage, away from the limelight. A sad retirement. Hat Purgatory. My eyes are welling up as I write this.

Now, don't go blaming Liza for this sad, sad turn of events. This is my fault. There was a time when, in blissful denial, I allowed my hats to roam free, to wander. They ended up all over the house, randomly exploring every room, from the upstairs bathroom to the basement laundry room. They rested happily on any old doorknob, over the corner of any door. On top of the fridge. Above the mantle.
Hat Purgatory

I allowed this hat anarchy to occur, and therefore, I am dealing with the equal and opposite reaction. My hats are now in a stuffy halfway house, save for a few that are occasionally allowed outside due to good behavior.

And I love hats. And I have a crush on the Stormy Kromer hat that is adorning Sadler's noggin in this stolen photograph:

International sex symbol Tom Sadler, who wears his
Stormy Kromer hat to bed ... and nothing else. 

But, truth be told, I have an even bigger crush on the Stormy Kromer original wool cap (in olive, please)–mostly because it doesn't seem like winter will ever end around here (see the photo out of the windshield yesterday on my drive home from a meeting in Ashton). But, it's also very handsome, and, well, I want one. In size 7 3/8.

If this doesn't scream, "Give that man a
Stormy Kromer original wool cap in olive in,
say, a size 7 3/8!" I don't know what does.

But, because I can't afford an attorney, I can't pay for it. So... to the fine folks at Stormy Kromer, I'm willing to go to great (or modest, your call), lengths to get my hands on this piece of equipment. Tell you what, you give me a list of criteria and we'll negotiate. So long as it doesn't involved full-frontal nudity (and that's totally negotiable) or tongue kissing a llama, I'll consider it.

Please, kind stitchers and crafters at Stormy Kromer ... send me a hat.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Gear review: Benjamin Trail 1100 pellet rifle

I've always been a pellet gun guy. Growing up in the deep woods of East Texas, my brothers and I were pulled into the country by squirrels and cottontails, and in the chill of a Big Thicket winter, spending a day wandering through the quiet forest with my Crosman 760 Powermaster cradled in my arms was about as close to heaven as we could get.

The Benjamin Trail 1100 NP–a potent weapon for small game.
So, when the Outdoor Blogger Network offered up the chance to review Benjamin's new Trail 1100 NP air rifle, I entered the contest and crossed my fingers. Luckily, I won. Unfortunately, the Idaho deep freeze has taken a good eight weeks to thaw out–I only just got the chance to put this weapon through its paces.

And, for clarity, folks, it is a weapon. This isn't your grandfather's Red Rider. Not even close.

The Trail 1100 NP is a .22 caliber, high-quality rifle. The fact that .22-caliber pellets are propelled by the gun's nitrogen piston is immaterial. At reasonable distances, this rifle is every bit as potent as a traditional .22. Using alloy pellets the unique "nitropiston" can propel a .22-caliber pellet up to 1,500 feet per second. Judging from my experience shooting the gun on a target range, that's deadly to a ground squirrel or a marmot at 50 yards. And, with the rifle's 3-9x40mm Center Point scope, the weapon is dead-on accurate if you take the time to sight it in.

The first thing I noticed about the gun was its heft. I own a 30.06 synthetic-stocked hunting rifle, and the high-quality hardwood-stocked Benjamin, at 8.8 pounds, outweighs it. Thankfully, it comes ready for a shoulder sling–it would be difficult to tote this rifle around the field without being able to sling it over your shoulder, especially if you're hunting in challenging terrain.

The second thing I noticed was the craftsmanship. The hardwood stock is very handsome, and the thumbhole grip really feels nice when this rifle is at the shoulder. The break-barrel cocking system takes some getting used to, especially for a guy who's used to the pump of the old Crosman 760, or the more modern Daisy models that are patterned after that old classic. But, once you load the weapon a couple of times, you'll come to appreciate the power that the single action can provide, and the relative ease of loading a pellet and being ready for the next shot. In all, it just takes a few seconds.

What's more, with the nitropiston technology, you can load the rifle and keep it cocked and ready without worrying about losing too much air pressure and having to pump the gun again. This weapon holds its load for a long time–a luxury for air rifle hunters who spend a lot of time glassing trees for squirrels or waiting for the next rockchuck to make a curious appearance.

There's simply no questioning the quality of this product, and its retail price–right around $300–is more than reasonable. I'm anxious to spend some more time in the field with this gun, and I hope to report back on some squirrel hunting adventures in the near future–the kids are getting antsy to be outside, and this rifle will offer a good excuse to spend some time together as a family.

One note of caution–we all take care to follow all the rules and regulations that accompany gun use in the field. If you're interested in purchasing this rifle for a youngster, make sure there's an adult close by. As I said, this weapon is potent and powerful, and in inexperienced hands, that can prove dangerous. Use caution, stay close to the kids and enjoy this fine piece of hunting equipment.

I plan to.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Tenkara: Sweetness on the Bitterroot

Confidence is one thing to a fly fisher. Curiosity is something else altogether.

A blustery late March day found me eyeing a tailout on the Bitterroot River, just above the Highway 93 bridge south of Darby, Montana. It was eye-catching water–a long, deep run just below a swift rapid, where a gravel bar on the near side of the river pushed the water up against the far bank.

As the river calmed a bit below the fast water, I could see the occasional flash through the green water of a bottom-feeding fish as it plucked skwala nymphs washed downstream through the rapid. The big stonefly nymphs are virtually a sure thing on the Bitterroot in early spring. Later, they'll hatch into the fabled skwala adult stonefly that brings the river's trout to the top for a pre-runoff feast. But on this day, even with air temperatures in the 50s, I hadn't seen any of the adult bugs on the water.

Normally, I'd string up a 9-foot 5-weight to chase the Bitterroot's big browns and rainbows, but this day was a little different. I'd been dying to get out on the water after what's turned into the longest winter in memory, and I've been aching to put my tenkara rod to the test on water that might really push the long, supple Japanese creation to its limits. The river beckoned.

A Bitterroot whitefish–the tenkara's first victim.
Designed centuries ago by fishermen who chased the trout and char swimming in the mountain streams of the Japanese Alps, the tenkara method of fly fishing is perhaps the simplest approach to targeting trout ever created. The long rod–usually somewhere between 11 and 13 feet–comes equipped with a braided line that stretches about 10 feet long. To that, the angler can attach a stretch of tippet and a traditional dry fly or a nymph. There is no reel. What you see is what you get. There are special tenkara flies, as well, but in a situation like this, when the right fly is an obvious choice, the decision is easy. Go with what you know.

There was a time when I would have struggled with the idea of going to the water with my tenkara rod–at one point, it was a forced decision. Now, the idea of stretching my tenkara horizons a bit, and just seeing if I can make the long rod to work on "big water" is something of a personal challenge. I tied on an olive double-beaded skwala nymph beneath a foam-bodied skwala adult (you know, just in case), and walked to the water, ready to test my tenkara chops.

Eventually, I think, the time will come when I don't consider myself fishing with a handicap when I chase trout with a tenkara rod. In fact, I suspect I will soon warm to the idea that fishing tenkara is actually something of an advantage. On this day, in a matter of half a dozen casts, I pulled my first Bitterroot River victim from the water. Granted, it was a foot-long native mountain whitefish, but the tenkara rod gave the modest salmonid a bit more backbone than would a "traditional" fly rod. A few casts later, I was into a nice trout that turned out to be a rainbow-cutthroat hybrid. And few casts after that, a 15-inch brown slurped in the skwala nymph that drifted perfectly under the dry, which served as the perfect indicator.

A Bitterroot hybrid ... Victim No. 2.
And, as the fish got progressively bigger, the battle got progressively more entertaining. Would the fish eventually become just too big for long, flexible rod to handle, I wondered. The big brown folded the tenkara rod into a perfect "u," and, as I approached a deep pool directly below an enticing riffle, I became a bit worried that might be getting myself into something I wouldn't be able to get out of, tenkara rod intact.

As I drifted the heavy nymph down the riffle and into the bowels of the deep, green pool, I waited, almost with a pang of regret, for the indicator to dip. In just seconds, it did. I was into a big fish. Really big.

The 10-foot stretch of level line sang as I set the hook, and the long tenkara rod doubled over and pumped up and down as the big fish realized it had been duped. I could feel every fiber in the rod stretching and groaning under the pressure of the fight. I held on to the rod and realized quickly that, if I was going to have a chance to land the trout–which I had yet to lay eyes on–I would have to use my feet. I only had so much line to give. I backed to the bank, trying not to put too much pressure on the rod, but at the same time, allowing the flexible tool to do what it is designed to do.

Bitterroot brown trout.
As the fish began to retreat downstream, I had no choice but to follow it. In just a few strides, the big fish was out of the deep water and moving into a stretch of faster water and approaching a stretch of rapids. At this point, I'd only seen the flash of a slab-sided trout through the green-tinged water–just enough to know it was big. I had no idea how big.

And I still don't. As the behemoth lunged into the fast water, it spit the fly and was gone.

Emotionally spent from the stress of the battle, and feeling fortunate that I escaped the fight with my tenkara rod whole, I sat down on a streamside rock.

Had I just found the limit of this ancient craft? Or had I simply lost another big trout?

I may never know, but I do know those few moments attached to a significant trout, by a line and a rod only, were moments I won't soon forget.

Is my curiosity sated? Hell no.