Thursday, March 29, 2012

20 Questions: Andrew Bennett

Andrew Bennett
If at all possible, all friendships should start in an Irish pub. As luck would have it, that's where I first met Andrew Bennett, even if this particular Irish pub is in Denver, and serves something called pub chips (if you ask, the bartender will simply tell you they're Irish nachos).

Oh, they're good. But they go right to my thighs.

I met Andrew, along with a slew of other fly fishing industry folks and bloggers that my buddy Tom Sadler and I threw together during the International Sportsmen's Expo in January. Up until then, Andrew had been "on my list" of folks I wanted to meet. Now he's on the list of folks I want to fish with.

I mean, the dude owns and operates fishing lodges in Alaska, British Columbia and, ahem, the Bahamas. Can you go wrong when (and if) Andrew ever calls up and asks, "Hey man, you wanna go fishing?"

I've kept an eye on Andrew over the last few months, and I've learned a bit about him and his business, Deneki Outdoors. Like a lot of us in this business, Andrew has found a way to make a living doing what he loves. His first career in the software business was obviously a successful one, but you have to a admire a guy who'll drop everything and buy a fishing lodge. Or three.

I hope you enjoy getting to know Andrew as much as I did. On with the questions:

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Guest Post: Flathead Lake bull trout and cutthroats in peril

Editor's note: The following is a guest post by Chris Schustrom and Bruce Farling. The two Trout Unlimited officials in Montana are working to protect native west slope cutthroat trout and bull trout in the Flathead Lake watershed. This opinion piece is available for posting at The Outdoor Blogger Network

By Chris Schustrom and Bruce Farling

Westslope cutthroat trout
This spring native westslope cutthroat and bull trout will stage for their epic journeys from Flathead Lake to spawning streams in the Middle and North Forks Flathead River. Once quite common, their numbers are significantly diminished from the recent past because many cannot navigate the gauntlet of predacious non-native lake trout(and illegally introduced northern pike)that occupy the lake and river. Our neighbors, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, want to bolster the populations of native fish to once again provide a diverse sport fishery as well as revive an important part of tribal culture. With the support of anglers, the assistance of objective science and a review panel of biologists from state and federal agencies, as well as the university system, the tribes are working hard to strike a reasonable balance in the fishery at Flathead Lake. They deserve your support.

Flathead Lake once hosted one of Montana’s most popular and robust sport fisheries, featuring millions of kokanee salmon, cutthroats, yellow perch, bull trout and lake trout. Today, the salmon are gone and cutthroat and bull trout numbers have been reduced dramatically. Also gone are many fishermen. Perch and lake whitefish remain, but their availability fluctuates year to year, depending on water levels and predation. Well-meaning state managers who introduced Mysis shrimp into the Flathead system in the 1980s triggered the decline in the lake’s fishery and fishing opportunities. The shrimp provide an ample food source for young lake trout, improving their survival rates. Once these lake trout get larger they feed on other fish. In the nineties the exploding lake trout population consumed about 10 million kokanee in Flathead Lake, collapsing perhaps the most popular lake fishery in the state. Angling numbers then dropped by about 50 percent. When the kokanee disappeared, so did hundreds of bald eagles that gathered each fall to gorge on spawning salmon at McDonald Creek in Glacier National Park. Thousands of tourists then stopped coming to view the eagles. Tourism dollars dropped.

The large lake trout population – as well as illegally introduced northern pike — also preys on bull trout. The result has been an alarming loss of the native fish in the lake and the connected North and Middle Forks. Today, adult bull trout in Flathead Lake are estimated to be only about 3,000 fish. Localized spawning populations continue to disappear. It is now illegal to fish for them. Scientists estimate lake trout numbers, however,are around 1.8 million. They are tough to catch without a large boat and specialized gear. Lake trout migrating from Flathead Lake have also nearly eliminated bull trout from 10 of 13 lakes on the west side of Glacier Park. Further, they have severely reduced cutthroat numbers in the upper Flathead system, reducing their population to less than half of what they were before Mysis arrived. Because many of the easier-to-catch cutthroats in the upper Flathead River system migrate from the lake, angling opportunities – and the tourism dollars they generate — in the Middle and North Forks are threatened by lake trout.

The near monoculture of lake trout in Flathead Lake threatens the future of sportfishing in the upper Flathead basin. The tribes, however, are addressing this challenge head-on. They are evaluating tools, including maintaining fishing tourneys coupled with limited and scientifically based netting, that can reduce the lake trout population to a reasonable number. This could reduce predation and benefit native bull and cutthroat trout, as well as other sportfish such as perch and lake whitefish. It would also still maintain a lake trout fishery for the minority of anglers who can afford powerboats and the specialized gear it takes to pursue them. Despite the fears of the small cadre of commercial charter operators who fish for lake trout, it would be impossible to eliminate their favored fish from Flathead Lake.

Without new approaches at Flathead Lake, bull trout and cutthroat trout will eventually be reduced to a tiny fraction of their historical numbers, or even extirpated. Without new approaches, angling opportunities and the economic benefits they generate, will continue to dwindle. Without trying, and instead turning the lake and river over to lake trout, we will be judged harshly by future Montanans who will never feel the tug of a large cutthroat on their line at Flathead Lake.

Bruce Farling is the executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited. Chris Schustrom is the president of the Flathead Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

20 Questions: Andy Wayment, author, 'Heaven on Earth'

Andy Wayment
Andy Wayment and I have tromped the same ground for quite a while now, although we've only recently gotten to know one another. You might know of Andy from his blog, "Upland Equations," which focuses largely on upland bird hunting, but is seasoned with a bit of fly fishing now and then, as well as some pretty impressive historical information on how our Founding Fathers fished and hunted around the birth of a nation. 

Andy's and my own journeys here in Idaho have managed to cross paths a few times. When I was working in the newspaper business in Pocatello, Andy was in college at Idaho State University. Together--yet separately--we ventured into the southeast Idaho hinterlands uncovering the secrets of the little trout streams that meander through the mountains. 

Andy went on to law school at the University of Idaho, and lived in Moscow for a time, before ending up here, where we both now live, in Idaho Falls. Last fall, Andy sent me a note, asking if I'd be OK with him reviewing my book, "Shin Deep: A Fly Fisher's Love for Living Water." Of course the answer was yes--us starving writers will take all the publicity we can get.

We met for lunch at the local Mexican joint here in Idaho Falls (Andy has an unhealthy--borderline inappropriate--relationship with Mexican food, as you'll read about in a bit). I gave Andy a copy of the book, and he devoured it in a matter of days. Not long after that, he published one of the most flattering reviews I received on the book.

During our lunch meeting, Andy mentioned that he was finishing a book, as well. A few months later, he gave me a signed copy of "Heaven on Earth: Stories of Fly Fishing, Fun & Faith." I promised to write a review once I read the book.

I figured the best way to do that was to first, do my best to introduce Andy to the sporting world the best I could--not that he isn't already well-known. Consider the 20 Questions below that introduction. 

Now, here's what I think of the book:

"Heaven on Earth" isn't just a fishing book. It's a book that weaves the relationship Andy has with God into his outdoor endeavors, along with the way he interacts with this wife, his kids and his family. It's a thoughtful piece of prose, and, as such, it got me thinking. A lot.

And he approaches fly fishing much the same way I do--he values the journey, almost as much as he treasures the destination. On this, I found myself reading along, cracking a smile here and there as the story of venturing up a hidden creek near his rented home near Moscow brought back the images of wandering along new water, never sure what, if anything, would hit the flies I cast. 

Living here in Idaho Falls, I've grown accustomed to the dominant religious denomination--the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints--and the folks who follow this unique brand of Christianity faithfully. And let me say this, unrelated to Andy or the book: Mormons are wonderful people. They make the very best neighbors. They give and give and give... they are generous, thoughtful and, contrary to popular opinion, quite non-judgmental. It's a joy to live in a community like this one (we "gentiles" call it "in the bubble"), where we know, on the whole, we're safe, we're secure and we're among people who genuinely care about each other. Having lived elsewhere, I can say that locating our family here was one of the best decisions we've ever made.

But (there had to be a "but," right?), there's always a bit of mystery surrounding the Church, and that mystery, naturally, leads to misinformation. I've found, though, that if you take the time to get to know people based not on their faith, but on their character, a lot of that mystery can be dispelled. Such as it is with Andy. Reading "Heaven on Earth," at least for me, gave great insight into a faithful man who honestly believes in the scriptures he references and applies them daily to his life. I respect that greatly, and that's coming from a guy who's not very "churchy."

Andy and his daughter Nessy fishing Moose Creek in Idaho.
As it turns out, Andy, the devout Mormon, and I, the on-again-off-again Episcopalian, both see God when we fish in the places our fishing takes us. We're not all that different, honestly. 

But Andy's religion is but a part of the book. Even if you don't bother to question your own faith or delve into a few pages of the Bible as you read "Heaven on Earth" (and I challenge you to do that), you'll find the stories of fishing contained within Andy's book to be wonderfully well-written and very conversational. It's an easy read ... simple, straightforward language mixed with humor, love and insight. I truly enjoyed it--just ask the guy who sat next to me on the flight home from the Bahamas recently. After about the third time I laughed out loud, he leaned over and said, "What is it you're reading?" 

I showed him the book, and let him read a couple chapters (Andy, I think I got you a customer!). He loved it, and regretfully handed it back to me.

I think you'll enjoy it, too. And I think you'll enjoy getting to know Andy Wayment. On with the questions:

Conch Dreams

When I was younger, I used to dream about sex. Seems like my dreams lately are all about food.

It could be that I'm trying to lose some weight, and that my brain is stubbornly refusing to let go of the fatty, fried foods that got me in this predicament. Last night, I had the recurring Conch Dream.

I was fortunate enough to get to the Bahamas for the first time earlier this month, and while the fishing was tough thanks to challenging weather and an interesting saltwater cast, the food was ... amazing.

Darlene, the cook at Long Island Bonefishing Lodge, had us all salivating at the end of the day, thanks largely to her conch fritters. If you've never had one of these nuggets of fried ecstasy, I beg you ... don't judge. Not until you let one of these delectable mouthfuls of joy cross your lips. Then, and only then, will you understand what it's like to wake up in the middle of the Conch Dream and realize that you're not really sitting on the deck overlooking the flats of Long Island while the warm, evening breeze massages your skin, and that you're not really eating a heaping plate of conch fritters, and that you're not really washing it down with an ice-cold Kalik beer.

This is what rude awakenings are all about.

The conch is the critter that lives inside those beautiful sea shells--you know, the ones that, if you hold them to your ear, you can hear the surf? They're plentiful in the Bahamas, and each night, Darlene would dice up the delicate shellfish, mix it in a seasoned batter with onions, garlic, peppers (and a little bit of love, right, Darlene?), and fry 'em up.

Nothing takes the sting out of getting skunked on the flats like a never-ending serving of conch fritters. Nothing.

I miss you, Darlene... And I miss your fritters, too.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

20 Questions: Emily Blankenship, aka, The River Damsel

Emily Blankenship, aka, the
River Damsel
Odd as it sounds, the first time I met Emily Blankenship, aka, "The River Damsel," I was sitting in  a McDonald's restaurant just outside of Boise, Idaho, waiting for her and Rebecca Garlock (aka, the Outdooress) to join me and lead me to the infamous "River X" for a day on the water.

Now, for clarity, the only reason I guard the real name of the river is because Emily seems quite insistant on keeping this well-known tailwater in southwestern Oregon (have I said too much?) a secret--she tells me Rebecca likes to keep it on the DL. So, we'll leave it at that... for now.

Anyway, Rebecca and Emily arrived fashionably late (to their credit, I did get a text letting me know), and we sat around Mickey D's for a bit before hitting the road and heading across the state line to the Land of the Uber-secret River. We get to the river, and Rebecca walks up to me and says, "So, you're gonna laugh at this, but Emily thought you were way older than you really are."

Emily on the "River X."
Huh? I guess the old avatar I was using put a little too much emphasis on my snow-white goatee, and not enough on my youthful, vibrant man-child face ... I've since changed the avatar, and just last week, I shaved the goat. I'm hardly recognizable now, ladies.

To my delight, we spent a very nice day last fall on the river, and Emily was wonderful fishing company, meticulously manicured nails and all. Most folks know her through her River Damsel blog and the tales she shares of her fishing adventures. Hopefully, you'll get to know her even better after reading just a bit further. On with the questions:

Saturday, March 17, 2012


The trip slips away... no bones about it.
Unfortunately, humility doesn't come in small doses. You can't take a prescribed amount, or get "just enough" of it.

It comes, instead, in waves. It washes over you, permeates you. It seeks out your weaknesses and puts them on display for the world to see. It giggles and sniggers. It points and whispers.

It humbles.

And today, I am humbled.

I spent a week on Long Island in the Bahamas, and I didn't catch a bonefish. And, damn it, I tried. Hard. And I've spent the better part of a week trying to figure out how it happened, how a guy who's been fly fishing for the better part of 20 years could wander among the mangrove flats in the tropics and not, even by sheer chance, catch a bonefish.

I've worked through an odd series of emotions over the last few days. First came frustration. Then anger. Then disbelief. Then, on the last day of the trip, resolve. Finally, when I stepped off the last flat without a single bonefish captured in megapixels on my camera, acceptance. It wasn't meant to be.

Sure, there were factors that played into my poor showing. It was my first time bonefishing, and we had some challenging weather that included wind and rain. And wind. I also ventured to a lodge where the whole idea is to basically "do it yourself." I figured, with the group of guys I was fishing with--experienced bonefishers all--I'd get the instruction I needed, and while I certainly didn't expect to catch fish hand over fist, I did think that I was good hands.

And, truthfully, I was. I had lots of great advice. One of the lodge's guides even walked and waded the flats with me one day, and I saw fish. I put flies in front of a few of them. I even watched as fish followed my fly nearly to my feet before I spooked them. The only solace I can take away from this latest adventure is that, even for the experts who were fishing with me, fishing was slow. Conditions were never really perfect and, on the day the fishing turned on, it turned on like a light switch. Sadly, it turned off again just as quickly.

I had a lot of close encounters on the last day on Long Island. Two, in particular, still wake me up at night.

The first was infuriating. I spotted a fish, made a pretty decent cast and I had the fish following the fly about 20 feet out. The line pulled tight, I did my best strip-set and snared a 10-inch barracuda that managed to slip in front of the bonefish and steel the crab fly. I watched as the bonefish zipped off into the flat, never to be seen again. To add insult to injury, the 'cuda drew blood on my thumb just before I released it.

The second near catch breaks my heart. Rod Hamilton, a bonefishing guru, took me under his wing that last day, and to his credit, he found the fish. He put me in position for a number of good opportunities, and together we watched as fish after fish followed my fly but refused to eat. And, for clarity, I'm quite certain that much of the problem had to do with my limited saltwater cast, a skill I intend to work on. After watching my loop fall apart in the wind countless times, I was forced to admit that I was simply under-equipped.

But as the sun slid into the sea on that last day, Rod spotted a pod of bones moving at us about 40 yards out. I managed to keep my cast together long enough to put the fly in front of the nervous water as the fish approached.

Strip. Strip. Line tight. I set the hook and came tight ... against the bottom. I think Rod was as dismayed as I was.

As I stepped off the flats that last day, I gave one final glare to the skinny water that beat me down over the course of the week. I plopped into the bench seat in the bow of the skiff and brooded all the way back to the lodge. I was ... embarrassed.

That's when the acceptance set in. As I said, it just wasn't meant to be.

This time.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A sacrifice to the flats...

Editor's note: This was written on Friday, March 9. With Internet restored, more installments from the Bahamas will come. 
At least someone is catching a few fish...

The rum hit the water with a light splash, even as my eyes searched the heavens for a little help. In the distance, Jupiter glowed in the night-time sky, with Venus singing backup. I figured it was time for some cosmic assistance. To the gods, to the sea and to the stars, I offered up a nearly full tumbler of good, aged Bacardi Añejo rum. With ice.

Whatever it takes to catch my first bonefish.

Today started slow but evolved into an epic day on the flats, at least according to the guys who caught fish. For me, as I finally saw bonefish amidst the ebbs and flows of the windy flats, today was cursed. I watched as bonefish followed my fly almost to my feet, only to refuse it.

It’s time for divine intervention. It’s my last day in the tropics … if I don’t catch “da bo-en feesh” now, there’s not telling when I’ll get the chance again.

Help me Obee Wan Kenobee. You’re my only hope. Cue the endless loop.

It shouldn’t be this difficult, but the wind, the rain and … well, the wind have wreaked havoc on the southern Bahamas this week. Steady blows have been punctuated by more impressive gusts, forcing us into the hinterlands of Long Island in search of fish.

And we’ve found fish. Snapper. Barracuda. Baby tarpon. Ladyfish. Today, I caught a jack crevalle in a pothole way out on the flats. I even snagged a needlefish through the dorsal and got bit as a parting “thank you” shortly before I released it.

Not cool.

Today, though, should have been the day. Today, I saw bonefish. I saw “nervous water.” I saw fish follow my fly for 20 feet before veering off and disappearing into the green water forever. I saw tails, for Christ’s sake. I caught nothing.

So tonight, after yet another stellar meal prepared here at the Long Island Bonefishing Lodge, I quietly slipped out onto the deck with my cocktail, stared into the dark sky and offered a little prayer.

“Please,” I said aloud. “Let me catch just one.”

I slowly drizzled the high-brow rum over the lip of the tumbler and into the dark water of the sea. If there’s a higher power that controls these things, I’ve offered up a tipsy enticement. Good rum.

And all I ask for is good weather and calm water.

And a bonefish. Please.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

You win, Mother Nature...

Fishing the flats... even if the bonefish don't cooperate.
OK... I give up. The good news is that I actually saw a bonefish today, but I hardly feel any better about the situation--I had about as much of a chance of catching the critter as I did of hooking a an elephant.

As it has all week, the wind has simply wreaked havoc with those of us trying to ply the flats of Dead Man's Cay for bones this week.

As our host put it today, "You have treat February and March like hurricane season." The wind has been tremendous--yesterday, I stood atop a bluff and literally leaned over the edge and was suspended by the constant 35 mph breeze.

A 'cuda in the surf. 
I managed to catch a small barracuda in the surf yesterday, and today, I caught a mangrove snapper and a baby tarpon that, while diminutive, managed to cartwheel all across the green water before I brought it to hand.

Baby tarpon
More to come... Internet, as you may suspect, has been a bit spotty this week. Our host had a problem with his with SIMM card--the group at the lodge has been forced to sit outside the office of the local phone company in order to connect to wireless. Here I sit with a handful of other bloggers and reporters, trying to convey our adventure the under the contraints of crappy weather and technological challenges.

Stay tuned... tales of the adventure are days away.

I hope.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Luck be a lady...

Backcountry ladyfish.
It would be disingenuous to say that I'm in the Bahamas, but the weather sucks. Even if that's the truth.

Three days of 30-knot winds and a couple of days of slate-gray skies will put a damper on any fishing trip--in fact, had we not traveled 3,000 miles to get here, the chances of us actually going fishing in this weather are pretty minimal.

But we're here. We're committed.

And this morning, despite a chalky soup out on the flat in front of the lodge, and more wind, we feel  a bit more optimistic. Today, there's sun.

Thankfully, our hosts here on Dead Man's Cay know the innards of this island like we know the faces of our children. Yesterday, in sideways rain and wind you had to lean into to fight it off, we ventured into the backcountry and managed to shake loose the skunk. I brought a ladyfish and three baby tarpon to hand.

Today... the beach and hopefully the chance to cast to big, toothy critters like barracudas and lemon sharks.

Eventually the wind will slow down and we'll hit the flats again. Until then, we're adapting. Stay tuned.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

20 Questions: Jason Tucker

Jason Tucker and I share a passion for brook trout. Both of us have managed to maintain fairly successful blogs thanks to fontinalis salvelinus, and we're both hopelessly addicted to crawling up tiny backcountry trickles, hoping against hope that brookies are there waiting for us.

You likely know Jason through his blog, Fontinalis Rising. It was one of the first blogs I visited when I truly embraced this medium, and it was largely because of the name.

But now, I find myself a frequent visitor simply to take in what Jason has crafted. His prose is easy to read, spurs the mind and speaks of the things all creek freaks hold dear, brook trout being center to all of it.

But I got to know Jason best through the answers to the following questions. When I went to trim the responses to 20 (plus the famous bonus question), I really struggled. When I first read them, I could tell that, unlike others, Jason put genuine thought into his answers. There's a temptation, I think, to err on the side of humor when presented a questionnaire like this one. When Kirk Werner at the Unaccomplished Angler turned the tables on me, and I was forced to answer the questions that I'd crafted with the help of the back page of Vanity Fair, I realized the challenge that accompanies this little endeavor.

The questions spur a series of moral dilemmas... do I answer that one truthfully, or do I fall back on a joke? Or maybe a touch of both? It's honestly a lot harder than it looks.

I can say, this, though. Jason bares his soul in the answers below, and I respect him greatly for it. He's living proof that, despite our foibles, we are inherently good people. Flawed, imperfect ... but good.

Jason, I can't thank you enough for the honesty. It's my pleasure to introduce the you not many people know. On with the questions: