Friday, July 29, 2011

Going Local ... Eat More Brook Trout

Good... and good for you.
Eat more brook trout. 

I know, I know… that might seem like an odd bit of advice to the average fly fisher, but bear with me.

I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Hank Shaw recently. Hank is the author of “Hunt, Gather, Cook,” a new book based on his blog, Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook. Hank's a “locovore,” meaning he’s like a lot of us who have decided the time is right to start thinking a bit more critically about our food sources, where they originate and how they’re grown.

Locally, for instance, it’s becoming more vogue to farm your own chickens for both the eggs and, after an egg-laying hen stops producing in a couple years, the meat. With a permit, chickens are allowed within the city limits in many communities, and classes are available to anyone interested in learning how to raise laying hens at home. In addition to allowing poultry, it’s also fashionable to visit the area’s many farmers markets to pick up locally grown greens, meats, cheeses and canned goods. With reasonable certainty, these products are far superior to store-bought goods, can be competitively priced, and they come with the assurance that they were farmed or grown locally.

The locovore movement is gaining steam, and not just from the poultry and market crowd. Many in the locovore community are returning to—or discovering for the very first time—hunting and fishing. As Shaw says in the introduction of his book, “We live in an edible world. It’s all around us if you look closely.”

Shaw’s book, "Hunt, Gather, Cook," is essentially an advice-laden cookbook on how to prepare all kinds of wild game and edible plants. It notes that the self-sufficiency that comes with finding and preparing your own meals might be what saves hunting and fishing, two pastimes that are currently on the decline. The challenge, though, is for these “new” sportsmen and women to find their niche, determine their skills and then go about getting the meat or their fish in a way that’s ethical and responsible.

Which brings us to brook trout.

Many of us here in the Rockies know just how tasty brook trout can be when fried lightly over a campfire, dusted with a little salt and pepper and served up hot. They can also be smoked into a finished product that rivals smoked salmon.

And, they’re not native to the area—they’re essentially noxious invaders of the fishy variety. Killing and eating brook trout is hardly a sin (I’ve been doing it for years, and my priest has yet to scold me for it).

But why stop at brookies? As many in the angling community know, invasive lake trout are literally eating away at the native Yellowstone cutthroat trout population in Yellowstone Lake. On the South Fork of the Snake River, non-native rainbow trout are hybridizing with native cutthroats and altering the genes of the fish that literally gave the South Fork its sterling reputation as a dry fly river.

One solution? Knock them over the head and take them home. There might not be a better source of clean, easy-to-acquire table fare than wild trout or char (brookies and lakers are in the latter category). Smoked, fried, poached, baked—it’s all good, and it’s good for you.

The next time you’re casting flies to willing brook trout in the small waters of eastern Idaho, see for yourself. Thump a couple over the head and enjoy a little streamside snack. Or take them home and share a healthy meal with the family.

You’ll be doing them—and our irreplaceable native trout—a big favor. 

Happy eating.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Inventing 'Lake Mode'

Travis DuBois of The Tailout kicks around a
hidden lake high above Centennial Valley.
I'm not much of a lake guy.

Don't misunderstand that statement. I like lakes as an idea. Fishing them, though, is problematic, mostly because the lakes I would relish fishing are well off the beaten track–I'm only willing to tote a float tube so far before I lose interest, and I'm only willing to go so deep before casting becomes akin to forced calisthenics.

But, like I said ... I like the idea of lakes.

After that wordy introduction, what I have to say next probably won't make much sense. But here goes anyway.

I got the chance to fish a sweet lake earlier this week, one that bristles with big, healthy rainbows that eat willingly and all through the water column. One that's hidden from view and requires a bit of a leg stretch to reach, but one that makes the jaunt worthwhile, even with a tube on my back.

It's the ideal alpine lake ... all natural (even if its fish aren't), and stunning to behold from a bluff above the water. Lined by healthy Montana firs and lodgepoles, this lake has that typical alpine lake drop-off. A guy could wade up to his junk about a dozen feet from the bank. After that ... he's swimming.

But with a tube...

Mike Sepelak of Mike's Gone Fishing nets
a nice rainbow.
I own a float tube, and have for a dozen years or so. I traded an old, crazing bamboo rod for it when I moved to Idaho in 1999 (I'm ashamed to admit the rod brand–it's likely that I got hosed down pretty good in that transaction). I've probably used the tube once each year since, and that might be a bit of a generous estimate. Like I said, I'm not much of a lake guy.

But I loaded my tube on the back of my pickup late last week for a little gathering of bloggers in Montana, thinking, if nothing else, one of the guys might like to take it out for a little ... yawn ... lake fishing. I'd be back at the lodge enjoying a delicious gin and tonic (it is spritzer season, after all) and maybe swapping a joke or two ("No, it's just ice cream") while some poor sap kicked his way through clouds of mosquitoes in search of that one big fish.

I'd wait for the creeks. Moving water. Spunky trout. Action.

A river otter takes to the lake.
But after I got a look at the creeks, I figured I better get into "lake mode." More accurately, I figured I better invent "lake mode," because the action on the creeks was not to be. We're "enjoying" record water levels in this corner of the world this year thanks to all that snow we got last winter, and it might be the middle of August before the streams come back into shape and are deemed fishable.

The lake, it seemed, was about all I could hope for in terms of seeing a trout attached to the end of my tippet.

And hope springs eternal ... or so they say.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Home of the Grayling

The rare Montana version of the Arctic grayling.
I've often said brook trout have an unparalleled life force, a desire for survival that might not be matched, at least in the trout realm. I still hold that to be true, but I've acquired a new respect for what is likely the rarest of the coldwater fishes here in the contiguous United States.

Arctic grayling still persist in the extreme headwaters of the Missouri River drainage–the only Lower 48 basin where the grayling is native. That they can still be occasionally caught in the Big Hole River or in the lakes and creeks of Montana's Centennial Valley is nothing short of a miracle. Considering the West's record with water and how it's channeled, tunneled, diverted, fouled by livestock and sprayed over crops, it's easier to imagine a Montana without grayling than the one we have today, where this amazing fish hangs on by a thread.

Delicate? No. Imperiled? Yes.
Some call them fragile ... delicate. I disagree. Granted, they're not the most adaptable fish, but their evolution explains their desire for the coldest, cleanest water and the need to swim alongside the salmonid cousins with which they developed. In waters that have been degraded in one fashion or another, or where non-native trout have been introduced, the grayling is in real trouble. But in waters that are in good shape, and where they can share the pools and riffles with native west slope cutthroat trout, grayling are doing quite well.

The last, best ... home of the grayling.
Earlier this week, I got the chance to chase grayling–an opportunity almost as rare as the fish themselves. I got to stand in the cold, clear water of a southern Montana stream and cast to a fish that managed to find a place to swim once the glaciers from the last ice age retreated north. Here, in the Last, Best Place, I managed to catch a handful of the last native grayling in the Lower 48.

Contrary to their slim and feminine exterior, grayling are solid fish. Their thick, silvery skin feels like a coat of chain mail, and they fight well when hooked. What's more, they struggle and yearn for freedom when they finally come to hand. They twitch and writhe and squirm like no other, desperate to be back in the depths of a green pool, where they'll look up again for a meal that, hopefully, won't bite back.

They may not possess the multiplication skills that earned brookies such a bad rap, but grayling do have an admirable desire to swim free in western waters where they evolved as the last of their kind.

Appreciate the grayling for it's life force. It's admirable and strong. Remember, too, that these rarest of the rare are in real trouble in their native range. If you have the chance to visit the Missouri River headwaters tucked into the remote corners of southwest Montana, fish lightly and with a purpose. Give the grayling its due, and be sure to release them alive and well in the cold, clean water from which they came.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Red Light District

Call it a guilty pleasure... a slip into fly fishing debauchery. I fell off the wagon.

My name is Chris, and I fished a stocked trout pond Monday night (I threw up a little bit in my mouth as typed that). It's been two days since I last fished a stocked trout pond.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

But it was a sweet trout pond.

Situated within an hour of downtown Denver on a private stretch of land owned by a dude ranch, this carefully managed farm pond contains rainbows and browns that boggle the mind. The guide for the day also noted that the Donaldson River strain of steelhead had been stocked in the lake.

"They're the ones that jump five or six times when you hook them," he said.

A cold springs keeps the pond tolerable for trout, although I would argue not ideal. That said, the first big rainbow I hooked in the pond looked perfectly healthy to me. Even so, I felt a little guilty when we found out the water was 70 degrees.

But that didn't stop me from making a few more casts. It was, after all, a contrived fishing destination. Artificial. Unnatural.

Did I mention how hard that first 25-inch trout pulled when it hit the olive Woolly Bugger?

But the farm pond came with all the fixins. Tall, lush foothill grass. The occasional garter snake crawled over my sandaled feet. Cows. Cow poop. And, I saw the first firefly I've ever seen west of the Mississippi. It was, as artificial, unnatural fly fishing destinations go, pretty damn cool.

But I'll take the backcountry. I'll take the wild fish, born in the gravel beneath my feet and reared in water so cold, so clear and so perfect that they must become the heart of the creek itself or die trying.

I don't begrudge the contrived fishery, but I do begrudge the fly fisher who makes his or her first cast in water like that. It makes it tough to explain why wild fish in wild water matter, and why a farm pond, with all its good intentions, is a fishy diversion, a visit to fly fishing's Red Light District. In all its outward perfection its straight-line banks, its graded boat lauch, its massive fish–it's far from perfect.

I enjoyed my dalliance, my infidelity. But I need to make amends.

I'll take the backcountry.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Almost Heaven...

Sunset on the South Branch of the Potomac.

I've always said fly fishing is a lot about the wallpaper. Sometimes, you just have to stop and look around to really appreciate the places the craft will take you.

As sun set over the South Branch of the Potomac on a sultry night in West Virginia recently, I did just that. I reeled up my line, stuck my little black woolly bugger in the hook keeper and took it all in.

With the waning light, I could make out the occasional firefly as it danced among the forest undergrowth, and the trees were alive with the constant buzz of locusts going about their nightly duties. The sun, well below the rise to the west now, gave off an ethereal light, a reminder of the day just past, and especially of the last hour casting flies to spunky sunfish, rock bass and some very respectable smallies.

A South Branch rock bass.
The river's warm water danced around my shins and I stood quietly in its midst, trying to determine if there was one more cast left in the day, or if I'd already remained too long. No matter. There wasn't a bad decision to be made, just the consequences of arriving back at the car in near darkness, or getting there in total darkness.

I remained a few more minutes, but I didn't cast–the river's denizens had given me more than enough this night. I just ... lingered, enjoying the feeling of the heavy, warm air, and the sound of water running off the spine of Appalachia on its way to the Chesapeake. There's history here, and I loved the thought of one of our nation's founding fathers standing in this river, perhaps contemplating a box of flies in the failing light, trying to determine what might work for that last cast of the day.

Eventually, I started my walk back to the car. I'm always amazed at how far I walk when I fish, really without realizing it. I stepped over white-tail deer tracks in the riverside gravel and watched as swallows and bats dove from the last light of the last hour of the day in search of the insects that teemed along this storied river. The fireflies, more numerous now, guided me back to the little trail out of the woods and to the car, where I felt, more than anything, a sense of regret. But the sun must set. The day must end.

The fishing must cease, because without an ending here, there's not a beginning somewhere else.

We'll meet again, the South Branch and I. And I can't wait.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Fleeting Summer of the Rockies

A cow moose enjoying Idaho's brief summer.
We drove past high water last week, scarcely glancing at it. No sense lamenting the lost month of June.

McLovin coaxing brookies from cold water.
High water has pushed us into the backcountry, where water runs clear, even if it runs fast and with a purpose known only to the gods. There, in that cold, clear water swim trout. These simple creatures relish the chill of freshly charged springwater mixed into a lush cocktail with the loam of the forest floor carried downhill by the icy freedom of melting snow.

There, in these off-the-beaten path haunts, a pair of anglers can find a day's fishing away from the crowds and the boats and the roar of runoff that seems as though it will never really end.

It's odd to bemoan water, especially in a place where water is the answer to so many prayers. But, from the Be Careful What You Wish For Department, we now have spring. And it's July. In a scant month, the high country will begin to freeze again, and the aspens will begin to brighten and turn. The mountains will once again begin to prepare for the snow they're just now getting rid of.

The woods will reawaken with hunters moving about quietly in camo and blaze orange. The grouse will become a bit more wary, and the mule deer will move about only in the alpenglow. The peaks will get a dusting or two and then, if we're lucky, Indian summer.

But I'm not counting on it. I'm enjoying what little summer we have to enjoy this year after The Longest Winter Ever. I'm going to milk from this summer every ounce of backcountry brook trout I can carry home to the smoker, knowing this bounty is special and the window is small and closing.

Fish fear McLovin.
And brookies are like gifts from a grandmother--they're dependable, always fun and exactly what you needed at that particular time. They're beautiful, functional and they show up right where you expect them to. Thank God for these little fish, these little saviors of summer. They don't belong here, yet they're perfectly at home anyway.

The days are already getting shorter, and the days on the water have been painfully few. But blue skies beckon. Warm breezes caress. Trout rise. For now, anway.

Summer in the Rockies ... when it finally gets here, it's almost over.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

High Water? High Country...

I've nurtured an odd theory over the years that virtually always pays off, especially in years like this one, when high water threatens not just to extend into summer, but to claim summer itself.

Fly fishing during runoff is often futile, especially on big water, one of the final destinations of the earth-stained snowmelt that mere hours earlier was frozen white against a rocky slope. But get above it–or at least some of it–and the fishing gets notably better. As I said, it's a mere theory. I can't prove it, but I'm gathering anecdotal evidence.

A couple of weeks ago, on the longest day of the year, I found myself high in Colorado's San Juan Mountains, near the headwaters of the Dolores River. A string of beaver ponds and a swift, but clear mountain stream stretched out before me, marking not the beginning, but a beginning, of the storied western river. Here, in this little meadow, I knew I was high enough to get above the worst of summer's runoff and timely enough to stretch a tenkara rod over likely pools and possibly yank a few brook trout from the depths.

It was my first western brook trout effort of the year (I did manage to turn a few fish on the Rapidan in early March, but brookies in the Rockies have to wait months longer before they see a fly cast by the likes of me), and I was itching for the tug of a feisty char at the end of a supple level line. I yearned to see the tenkara rod double over into the tell-tale horseshoe, bending, but not breaking, under the weight of an Eastern brook trout reared in Western water with an attitude to match the Rockies.

And, runoff be damned, I did.

Very respectable brookies fell victim to an Adams cast lightly over dark beaver ponds. In the deep holes of the creek, where it moved between still ponds, bigger fish rose to the fly and they, too, came to hand after putting a deep bend in the 12-foot rod borne of the Land of the Rising Sun but put to work on exotic char deep inside cutthroat country.

Say what you will about brookies and their diminutive size. Say what you will about their attempt to take over Western water from native trout. There's no arguing the fire that burns in their bellies, the life force that, with a little willingness on the part of a wandering angler, can prove contagious.

On the longest day of the year, I'm pleased to say I spent the twilight hours chasing brookies in high water, gazing across high country.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Praise Unsolicited

Sometimes, little surprises come from unsuspecting sources. Such a surprise arrived today, via Mike Sepalak of Mike's Gone Fishing ... Again. Mike somehow got his hands on a copy of my book, "Shin Deep: A Fly Fisher's Love for Living Water," and he took the time to crack the cover.

To say I am extremely flattered by the review is an understatement. To say that I am truly looking forward to fishing and hanging out with Mike in a couple weeks when he and three other fishing bloggers meet us in Montana's Centennial Valley for a tour of TU's work in the area is dead-on accurate.

Mike, thanks for the great little review. Hearing your perspective on my writing–especially since I've become a big fan of yours in recent months–is very valuable and very much appreciated.

It's official. I now can't wait to meet you and the other bloggers when we gather in Montana in a couple weeks.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Backcountry: Leave it Like it is

Casting to native trout at timberline.

I learned to fish in the creeks and beaver ponds of Colorado’s high country, pulling nuggets of wisdom from willing grandfathers who believed time spent with their grandchildren should be time spent outdoors.

These two men introduced me and my brothers to the wonders hidden high in Colorado’s mountains. Together, they wandered with us through the Rockies in search of wild trout in wild places. They stood over our shoulders and watched us cast. They coached us through our failures and they celebrated our success. They taught us to take a breath now and then and look around. They taught us to appreciate the places wild trout called home.

They are special places, indeed.

Last week, I went home again. I journeyed across Colorado and revisited some of the old haunts my grandfathers shared with me and my brothers. I cast a fly to the progeny of the trout I first caught as a child, marveling at how similar things were three decades ago, when my grandfathers still lived.

But, then, the backcountry doesn’t change much, so long as it’s left to its own devices.

The product of being left alone for thousands of years.
Sure, things change over time. A fire might blow through, or a tree might fall across the trail. But on the whole, if it functioned 30 years ago, it functions today. That is, if we haven’t gone and messed it up.

As a kid, I remember bouncing up a gnarly dirt road along the shoulder of the Continental Divide high in Colorado’s south-central Rockies. My grandfather’s old Ford Bronco slowly climbed over jagged rocks, hugging the mountainside all the way to a secluded trailhead. There, we’d park the rig—I remember my grandfather walking slowly around the truck, demanding silence as he paused by each tire. Listening for that tell-tale hiss and hearing none, we’d load a couple of backpacks and hit the trail.

And, while the ride up the mountain was truly exhilarating, the adventure really began when we started walking the trail into the wild. A couple miles or so of steep climbing at altitude would put us in a lonely meadow bisected by a quiet, meandering stream. Not many knew of the creek that flowed from a timberline spring and swelled with cold, pure snowmelt. Most continued to follow the trail, content with a different destination in mind.

But not us. This was our destination.

There, beneath the 14,000-foot mountains of the Collegiate Peaks, we’d slowly make our way to the water and the wary trout that swam there.

This was the first place I remember catching a cutthroat trout. My grandfather called them “natives,” a tip of the hat to the fish that belonged in these out-of-the-way waters. Even then, three decades ago, he knew there was something special about these trout and the place they called home.

Last week, I traveled that same road, crawling my way up the rocky biway until snow slowed my assault. From there, I got out and started walking. And I walked. Wearing a pair of wading sandals, I climbed over snowbanks and followed the road as best I could until I got the to the trailhead.

And then, my feet blocks of ice, I walked some more.

Getting there is half of the experience.
Finally, I broke through the trees and there, spread out before me, was that very meadow. In my mind’s eye, I could picture my grandfather crouched along the creek casting his old bamboo fly rod to rising cutthroat trout in this wilderness where snow hung on through summer, where elk grazed among the short grass and where the sky is so impossibly blue. This was his reward for the journey up the mountain, for the walk through the woods.

And the cutts were there, too. No imagination necessary. I spent the afternoon casting to these remarkable fish that have managed to hang on through brutal winters, and survive in skinny water … for centuries. Here, in a place that takes a little effort to reach, lay a treasure for all willing to make the investment and then make the cast.

Sure, the backcountry changes. But, if we leave it like it is, it also stays the same. And I’m grateful for that—one day, if I’m lucky, I might get to take my grandchildren to this quiet little meadow. I might get to stand over their shoulders and help them cast to wild fish in a wild place.

And I might get to tell them to stop casting for a minute and look around at the wonders the backcountry shares with those willing to visit it on its terms.

“Take it in,” I’ll say. “This is the way things are supposed to be.”