Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The International

The first signs of fall in the Athabascan woods.
As we set off through the Athabascan woods on way to the rocky reaches of the Grease River in search of the trophy Arctic grayling that swim there, we broke into a whistling verse of the River Kwai March.

Our guide from Blackmur's Athabasca Fishing Lodges, Louie Isadore, made one simple comment as we set foot out of the boat and began our mile-long trek into the northern Saskatchewan backcountry: "Hey Chris. Watch fer da bear."

Then it started raining. Awesome.

With my friend Kirk Deeter leading the way, and Louie bringing up the rear, we were an odd mix of characters wandering off through the wilds of the Land of the Living Skies to catch the sailfish of the north–two pudgy American fly fishers and one native Canadian (Louie's a member of the Black Lake First Nation) armed with Japanese Tenkara fly rods whistling a British military march.

It was an international effort, to be sure.

And, as the rain continued to fall, we pushed our way through head-high brush, following a soggy trail that promised some amazing fishing at its end. Louie's ominous warning about "da bear" was enough to keep us all chatting or whistling. For a few minutes there, we each recounted some of our more harrowing experiences with ursus americanus, but the stories proved too unnerving in the thick cover we were traversing. We went back to whistling.

The Grease River.
We arrived at the Grease River unscathed, and within minutes of stretching our Tenkara rods to their full length and pulling the level line tight to remove its memory, both Deeter and I were into fish that hit dry flies without a care in the world.

The Tenkara method might be the best way to chase unwary Arctic grayling. These fish live largely unmolested (and, frankly, under appreciated) in the Grease River and scores of other waterways throughout the Canadian north. Cousins to trout and salmon, these fish, armed with their stunning dorsal fin and an aggressive disposition common among the fishy critters up here, grayling don't hesitate when chasing a fly. They seize the opportunity with gusto more fitting a fish much bigger and much toothier.

Success on Tenkara.
With the Tenkara method, the angler can virtually eliminate the notion of drag altogether, and actually manipulate the dry fly on the surface of the river to suit his or her needs. I like to make a rather traditional dry fly cast upstream, but just as my fly might start to drag downstream, I can lift all the level line off the water and follow the fly downstream, giving myself another dozen feet of natural drift, and present my fly naturally to all the fish holding beneath it.

I've said this before: Tenkara is so simple that it looks like a handicap thrust willingly upon its devotees out purism, but, in truth, it's an ideal moving-water weapon, at least for the cast and presentation. Granted, it has some limitations when it comes to actually battling fish, but I've found that wise use of the supple rod can make the Tenkara every bit as effective as a traditional fly rod in most circumstances. The more you use it, the better you become–just as with anything else. The challenge, of course, is forcing yourself to use the rod, to have confidence in it.

Deeter with a Tenkara grayling.
We overcame that challenge without difficulty this day, as we pulled dozens of trophy Arctic grayling from the Grease River, our grins stretching from ear to ear as each stunning fish came to hand.

There, on the banks of Canadian river, two giggling Americans and their First Nation guide put a Japanese method to use catching grayling. On the walk out, the River Kwai March rang through the woods, a celebratory tune after a morning of some of the finest river fishing we could remember.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Herald of Doom

On the prowl.

The first thing you notice is just how mean they look.

Their sleek, streamlined bodies are made for the chase, and their mottled skin ensures them a distinct advantage from the very start, because it allows them to lie in wait for unsuspecting prey and remain virtually invisible while doing it. And with one push from that wide tail, they can work into a full sprint and be on their target's tail with little or no warning.

And then there are the teeth. Rows of them. Rows of jagged, broken glass that grip and hold. And tear and shred. When their mouths open, they become messengers of certain death. When they’re closed, they wear an evil grin that is the herald of doom, of terrible things to come. That twisted grin is the fish's guarantee that very bad things will happen. Soon.

Northern pike might be the perfect predator, and here on Lake Athabasca, where winters don’t really go away, they just take a few weeks off, these fish always seem to be eating, probably because they always have to. It takes toothy mouthfuls of hapless fish to fuel a killing machine, and to their credit, they don't seem to struggle to find the fuel.

And for fly fishers, there's nothing better than a predator with an attitude to match its mouth. 

The grin.
Sometimes, they'll scream from the depths and erupt from the water like an ICBM headed for Moscow.  Other times, they'll simply give chase, toying with the fly and attacking just as the fly is about to leave the water for the next cast. Nothing frustrates a pike like a meal that gets away. I suspect that very few ever do.

They're inherently curious, another advantageous nugget for the fly angler. The more gawdy the fly, the more interest it seems to attract. The brighter the color, the more aggressive the strikes. 

The teeth.
And when the fly fisher is fortunate enough to connect with a big northern (or a small northern, for that matter), that aggression, that attitude ... well, it translates into a special kind of panic. When a big pike realizes the red, yellow and purple critter that looked so appetizing (or aggravating) a moment before has bitten back, the will survive trumps the will to eat. 

I've heard from more than one angler that pike are poor fighters. Tell that to my aching forearm. 

Granted, they're not going to scream off yards and yards of fly line on blistering runs. They're more apt to dive deep, tangle themselves up in the weeds and simply refuse to come to hand. Simply put, they pull. Hard. Don't believe the gear angler armed with a saltwater rod and a spool of 50-pound mono–these fish fight for their lives.

Two of the new Clergy Series of flies that Athabasca's
pike have had their way with.
Pike, I would argue, should be on every fly fisher's life list. They bring all the favors to the party–sharp teeth (and plenty of them), a surly attitude and willingness to chase a fly, whether it's skittered across the surface or dredged through the weeds.

Pike chase flies. Thank God for that.

Monday, August 29, 2011


Motoring across Lake Athabasca.
All wild water has personality.

Anyone who's ever fished the wild can attest to that, whether they've floated through a roadless stretch of river canyon or put a boat on a northwoods lake only accessible with the help of an able pilot and a plane with floats instead of wheels.

Yesterday, as our guide Louie Isadore manned the tiller on our little skiff as we motored west across Lake Athabasca, my fishing partner Kirk Deeter and I got to see, first-hand, the big lake's cantankerous side. A wind out of the west pushed big rollers across the lake, and Louie, with years at the rudder, calmly bounced us across the lake en route to water that promised big pike and great fishing.

The waves hit the beach at remote Fon du Lac, Saskatchewan.
We pushed through massive waves, faces in the wind and "jiggly parts" feeling every thundering bump as the craft crashed up one wave and down the next. Louie kept going, determined to get us to our destination. 

But the wind and the water conspired against us. We figured we were headed full-throttle into a 30 mph wind before Louie wisely turned us back after another five-star shore lunch. Instead of hitting the water out on the big lake, we settled for the productive little hidden coves and bays where Athabasca's toothy pike live and wait in ambush for unsuspecting prey.

And as we motored back into the cove where Blackmur's Abathasca Lodge is situated, the lake calmed down and was downright serene. It's as if it put us exactly where it wanted us.

And that was all right with us.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Day Was ...

The sun is down behind the birches and the black spruces, and the lake is quiet and calm. Grayling are dimpling the outlet of the Otherside River within a long double-haul of the dock, and Reba McIntire is on the radio. I'm not fishing. I'm sated. I have a bit of a sunburn, and I can feel the siren song of warm flanel sheets. I'm not long for this world.

The day was ...

How do describe a day like today?

I shared a boat with a good friend, stumbled on a new fly pattern (and gave it a raucous name, to be shared at another time, to be sure). I caught a trophy pike. And a trophy grayling. I enjoyed a shore lunch. I took a hike.

I skimmed along the surface of Lake Athabasca without once thinking I had an e-mail to answer or a phone call to return (although, truth be told, I likely have both). I enjoyed "a" glass of good Irish whiskey and just finished a steak dinner.

Wait ... let me check. Yep. The grayling are still rising to mayflies just off the dock.

The day was ... perfect.


Cliff Blakmur's 1962 de Havilland Otter ... the Cadillac of the North.

My fishing partner, Kirk Deeter,
checks in with the family at
Prince Albert.
We're here.

After a night in beautiful Saskatoon (and I'm serious about that), we hopped on the Trans-West milk run, stopping off in little north-country outposts like Prince Albert and La Ronge before touching down in tiny Stony Rapids, which rests on the bank of the Fon du Lac River between Black Lake and Lake Athabasca.

From "Stony," we hopped on Cliff Blackmur's 1962 de Havilland Otter and motored west over some stunning northwoods scenery to the Otherside River Lodge, where we'll base our fly fishing operations for the next week.

Today, pike are on the menu, but I can't help but feel like a robin in freshly watered grass–last night, where the Otherside River dumps into Lake Athabasca, Arctic grayling were dimpling the surface of the water, chasing after a gray drake hatch. These massive mayflies simply didn't stand a chance against the hungry fish, and at what appeared to be a size 12, there were easy targets.

I can't wait.

Stay tuned. More to come from Blackmur's Athabasca Lodge in the days ahead.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Slipping Away

Spritzer season.

As I write this, I can feel the stress slipping away. I’m in the company of a good friend, and I’ve been advised by my very best friend on this planet to go and find my smile again. I’m airborne, somewhere over Wyoming en route to Saskatoon, where tomorrow, I’ll be a short charter flight away from Lake Athabasca far to the north, where the pike swim.

The irony is that I didn’t realize my smile was missing, but then, I’m the worst judge of that sort of thing. I’ve started a new job within the same outfit, and it presents new challenges—nothing I can’t handle, but … new.  I desperately want to succeed, but changing gears from on-the-ground action to high-flying strategy isn’t coming as easily for me as I would like. Right now, I’m grinding the stick against the flywheel, hoping it slides into place really soon.

This will be one of “those” trips—it has the potential to be epic (but all trips have at least some of that). It’s purely for fun, although I intend to write about my experiences and share with the world that raw wonder of catching northern pike on a fly. That’s a no-brainer. I don’t go anywhere and come back without a story to tell. But, given the company, and the setting, I’m sure I’ll find my smile. The challenge is keeping it, and taking it home with me to share with my family and my friends.

I’ve been told there are folks asking, “ What’s wrong with Chris?”  That’s, uh, not good. Not good at all.

And when it becomes a topic of conversation when I’m not around … well, that’s just unfortunate, and, truth be told, that’s pretty telling. What exactly is wrong with me? What is the problem? Am I just stressed out? Or is this problem deeper, more base, more at the foundation of my being? 

This is heavy shit.

But I’ve started my “vacation” just right. I’m on my second double G&T (it’s still spritzer season, after all), and my buddy and I have already worked through the latest filthy jokes that we compile and share for moments like these. I’ve given my phone to an adorable little girl sitting in the seat in front of me, and she’s playing Angry Birds like there’s no tomorrow. I found my smile. Now… can I keep it?

Time will tell … the fish of the north await. Maybe they can paste the smile on permanently.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Next Up ... Saskatchewan

If I'm lucky, I'll be posing with this monster later this week!
Situated in far northwest Saskatchewan near the border with the Northwest Territories, Lake Athabasca is a northern pike destination that's becoming all the rage for fly fishers. I'm fortunate enough to get to visit this amazing place this week and next, and I'll do my best, assuming my arms aren't too tired, to keep EMBT readers posted.

For more information, be sure to visit Blackmur's Athabasca Fishing Lodges, who's hosting us for the next week. You'll see that a week's worth of fishing at one of the best pike, grayling, walleye and lake trout destinations on the planet is actually pretty darn reasonable.

Oh, and did I mention ... I'll be chasing BIG grayling with a Tenkara rod. Jealous yet?

Stay tuned... more to come.

Into the Marsh

The backcountry transport.
As the sun rose over Bayou LaFourche on a steamy Tuesday morning just outside of Cocodrie, La., Capt. Blaine Townsend and I readied a couple of fly rods and prepped his flats skiff for a day in the south country's marshy wilderness.

"I take this stuff pretty seriously," Townsend said to me as he inserted my fly rod into a tube along the inside wall of the shallow-draft boat. With his face coated in thick, white zinc-oxide sunscreen, Townsend was virtually unreadable, so I didn't realize how gravely sober he was about his next comment until later in the day, when he proved he was a man of his word.

"This shit excites me," he said. "This is what I live for."

We motored out of the boat slip with the sun still low in the sky, but I could tell then and there that this day would be a sticky one. As we cruised down the bayou to a cut that runs under Highway 56 and then out into the massive expanse of Lake Boudreaux, even the breeze against my skin as Blaine powered the boat up to cruising speed brought little relief.

Heat's one thing. Humidity ... humidity is a bitch.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Signs of Life

So... you probably know, if you follow the blog or follow the Facebook/Google+/Twitter "outlets" of Eat More Brook Trout, I've been in New Orleans for a little work and a little play.

Fly fishing for redfish on the marsh southwest of New Orleans was pretty special, and for that I'd like to thank the folks at Houma Area Convention and Visitors Bureau for hooking me up with Capt. Blaine Townsend, a class-act redfish guide out of Cocodrie, La., where he and his wife Connie run Sportsman's Paradise, a great little fishing retreat and restaurant (you haven't eaten until you've tried Connie's softshell crab–it'll make you want slap yo' mama!)

After the fishing, I headed into New Orleans for the annual International Fly Tackle Dealer Show, where I got to see some great new gear, meet up with old friends and work with folks in the industry to help spread the word for needed conservation efforts all across the country where trout water is looking more and more like an endangered species these days.
Some of the coolest gear I happened upon is produced by a relatively new equipment designer, Vedavoo. This start-up company makes equipment that is cutting edge when it comes to comfort and functionality–they're on my list of things to get my hands on when I get back home and can save a little scratch. Give the website a visit–you'll like what you see.

Yesterday, I met back up with my son, Cameron, who spent a few days with his grandparents over in Baton Rouge while I did the fishing/conventioning in the Big Easy. Last night, we all hit the French Quarter for a little dinner, and we started at Pat O'Briens on Bourbon Street. Although the intention was to enter the establishment through the St. Peters Street door, kids aren't allowed in the bar, so Cameron and I had to walk half a block to Bourbon and go in through the Bourbon Street courtyard entrance.
As you can see by the photo above, I'm not sure that taking The Chief down Bourbon was any less traumatic that walking him a dozen feet through the bar to the courtyard, but we had a little fun with it.  Headed back to Idaho for a quick respite and to catch up on e-mails. And to get the smell of Bourbon Street off my shoes.

Then, I'm off to ... Saskatchewan. Stay tuned.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Eye Contact

Capt. Blaine Townsend motors across the south Louisiana marsh near
Cocodrie, La., in search of redfish. 

A famous line in the Neil Simon play "Biloxi Blues" seemed appropriate as I stood in the bow of Capt. Blaine Townend's flats boat as he poled the craft across the marsh and in search of south Louisiana's fabled redfish. I may mess it up (with apologies to Mr. Simon), but it goes something like this:

"It's hot. Africa hot. Tarzan couldn't take this kind of hot."

Just standing in the boat and making sporadic casts to the occasional cruising redfish had me covered in a film of sweat that had managed to push its way through the coating of sunscreen I'd slathered all over my face, arms and legs earlier that morning. I could feel drops of perspiration forming and then sliding down my body beneath my clothes.

"Jesus, it's hot," I said to Blaine, as I lifted my hat from my head and wiped my brow with it. The sun was beating down through the Gulf Coast haze and doing its best to beat me down. The humid heat, coupled with missing the first really good shot at a redfish I'd had all morning, had me a little frustrated.

Eye contact.
"Fish," Blaine said, ignoring my complaint. "Two o'clock. Comin' atcha."

Two o'clock. I looked intently at the marsh, crudely estimating two digits to the right of the bow of the little craft. Nothing.

"Further out. See that wake. See that water he's pushing?"

I looked again, this time further out, and then I saw the fish. The subtle 'V' the fish made as it glided through foot-deep water was impressive ... and intimidating. Heading our way, this was what the guides down here call a legitimate "shot." The heat faded and I focused intently on the unpredictable wake the fish was creating as it prowled the marsh for its next meal. With any luck at all, I thought, the next meal would be a pressed mylar spoon fly tied by the guy at the back of the boat.

"Let him come," Blaine said calmly from his perch on the poling platform. "Wait until you can put it right on him." And, as a subtle afterthought, he said, "And you have to put it right on him."

The fish kept coming, and I loaded the bulky eight-weight the best I could and made one false cast. I laid out a solid delivery about 40 feet from the boat and put the fly on the nose of the waking fish.

The marsh exploded.

"You got him," Blaine said. "Keep it tight."

Back to the marsh.
I did my best strip-strike, but this time I let the fish have a bit of line, and it took it without much effort. The red realized it was hooked and zipped out over the marsh, peeling line from my blurry reel and putting a deep, satisfying bend in my stout fly rod. I tightened the drag a bit and watched as the fish, hopelessly snagged in the corner of its mouth, continued its blitz into the murky water of the swamp. The rod pumped down with every stroke of the creature's wide tail, and the reel began to groan in protest as I put the hammer down another notch or two.

It was then, with my first redfish of the trip firmly attached to the fly a good hundred feet from where I stood, that I realized I was smiling. Not just any grin, but that goofy, I'm-going-to-Disneyland grin a kid gets when something really cool is about to happen.

Minutes later as Blaine gripped the spent redfish by the mouth and brought it aboard, something very cool did happen. Eight pounds of marsh fury rested in my hands, and minutes later, as I turned the creature back to the wild I made sure to make eye contact. I bested that fish on this day, and I beamed with pride.

But the day wasn't over. Not even close.

Stay tuned for more from Sportsman's Paradise in Cocodrie, La. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Red State

A sultry August sunrise over the bayou near Cocodrie, La.

The v-shaped wake coming at us was a bit daunting. As murky water pushed my way, I could only imagine the size of the creature stirring up the marsh. It looked like a submarine preparing to break the surface, only it never did. It just pushed water ahead of it in a fashion that can only be described as ... deliberate. This fish was on a mission.

Then reality hit me. I was fishing, not just admiring the scenery. I could feel my heart racing in my chest, and the sticky humidity of the Deep South stole the breath from my lungs. I froze.

"Make that cast," Capt. Blaine Townsend said from the poling platform. "Put it right in front of him."

Coming to, I managed to load the 8-weight rod and put the gold-and-blue spoon fly about five feet ahead of the waking redfish.

Capt. Blaine Townsend
"Too far in front of him," Blaine said calmly, obviously coming to grips with the short-cast trout specialist standing in the bow of his flats boat. "You need to put it on his nose. He's hunting. If you put it there, he'll take it."

I lifted the line from the dark water and somehow managed to put the fly right on top of the cruising fish. All hell broke loose.

"You got him," Blaine said calmly, reliving a scene that likely runs over and over again on and endless loop in his mind, and sure enough, I did. The light tightened, and whistled through the guides of the stout fly rod. I channeled what little saltwater acumen I could summon, and performed my best strip-strike, setting the hook. I pulled back against the big fish. Hard.

In that split second, I experienced the sheer power of a south Louisiana redfish, and the attitude these fish display when they come to realize the meal they just snagged from the dark, brackish water of the marsh is really a cruel ruse. My fly line stretched straight, and when the 20-pound tippet snapped and the line boomeranged back toward the boat, I knew I'd fouled up the best shot of the morning.

As a fly fisherman, I'm used to making mistakes. It comes with the territory. But, nine times out of ten, the mistakes are mine and mine alone, not to be shared with the world, not to be put on display. At that moment, standing atop the casting platform, flaccid fly line stretched out across the bronze water of the swamp, I felt like a puppy awaiting a good scolding. After all, I'd just peed on the white carpet. Or maybe I'd just chewed a new pair shoes. I knew I was in trouble.

I looked at Blaine with my best "let me have it" expression. And to his credit, he just shrugged. No stern words. No disparaging glance. I knew then and there that all was well on this day. I'd fish. Maybe I'd catch a few. And maybe not. The man poling me around the marsh would put me on fish and let me do what I do best–learn from the mistakes I'd undoubtedly make.

And I'd make a few more, to be sure. But I'd feel that power again, that brute determination. I'd look a redfish in the eye this day and earn a taste of respect. These fish certainly earned mine.

Stay tuned. More to come from the Sportsman's Paradise. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Back to the Bayou

As I write this from the 5280 Bar inside the spacious B Terminal at Denver International, one cocktail down, I'm now a scant 12 hours from the bayou. Capt. Blaine Townsend from Sportsmen's Paradise in Chauvin, La., has a room reserved for my late-night arrival, and I'm to be up at the crack (5 a.m. Louisiana time, which is 4 a.m. Idaho time) and ready to get on the water to chase redfish and trout.

I'm so ready... I can already feel that sultry bayou breath on my skin, and the hear the sounds of the marsh amplified by still, murky water. I can feel the pull of a big red on a fly, and I can almost feel those bronze scales.

Stay tuned...

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Ether

A dead soldier stands sentry over the wilderness.

I've never really come to grips with the real estate I can somehow manage to cover while I fish, especially in the backcountry where I can't just hop on the road when I'm done and walk back to the car in a matter of a few minutes.

Out here, everything's relative. Time. Distance. Weather.

The ether.
It's as if I enter a time warp. Minutes become hours. A day dies a quick, painless death when I'm armed with a fly rod. A stream's meanders can stretch for miles before I snap back to reality and realize that I'm a long ways from where I started.

But that's the backcountry for you. It's seductive and magnetic. One more bend. One more riffle.

One more cast. Always one more cast.

It'll sneak upon you.
So when I returned to a more conscious state on my most recent sojourn into the wild and came to grips with the fact that I had no idea how far I'd walked, and that the trail I'd ventured away from hours ago was somewhere "over there," it was too late.

Sunny Rocky Mountain skies had turned dark, and the way out was going to be a slog through a thunderstorm. I could just feel it. The thunder that had occasionally penetrated the ether of my fishing to let me know that something was happening, but that it was happening somewhere else, was now tapping me forcefully on the shoulder to tell me that it was happening here, now. And it had been joined by lightning, with scant seconds between the two.

But, yes, I made one more cast.

And as I watched a fat wilderness west slope cutthroat rise and take a gawdy Chernobyl without a second thought, I was glad I did. As the big fish gushed into the current and fought hard against my 4-weight, I was thrilled that this battle would mark the end of my day in the wild.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Spritzer Season

Tenkara, a nice little cuttie... and the photographer has the G&T.
It was a simple request.

"Oh! I got one. Hold my gin."

My wife thrust her glass full of gin and tonic in my face with one hand while playing a small Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat trout that fell for her Royal Wulff with the other. Reason No. 235 why tenakara fishing on small streams is pretty damn effective. With no need to strip line or handle a reel, Liza was able to sip a G&T while casting to rising trout.

It is Spritzer Season, after all.

We'd escaped a Sunday afternoon in town and headed for the hills along the storied South Fork of the Snake. Thankfully, the river, still mostly blown out thanks record water in the region, wasn't our destination. We were set on wandering up a small stream or two in search of cutties. After striking out once, we stumbled upon a little tributary to the Snake that, while not perfectly clear, was perfectly fishable. And the tenkara rod was an obvious choice for two reasons: One, it's all my wife will fish now, largely thanks to its simplicity and its effectiveness. Two, we had a kid and two dogs with us. Things were complicated enough.
Family swim.

And, as things go when you fish with kids and dogs, the whole family quickly tired of catching eight-inch cutties and chose to take a dip instead. Those little tenkara rods telescoped quickly into the back of the car, and within minutes, dogs, kids and the wife were enjoying a swimming hole that flowed slowly over a warm springs inlet.

Heaven. With a spritzer.

The Blogger Tour Boyz

The TU/OBN Blogger Tour. Good times... good times.