Monday, April 30, 2012

Gear I Love: Vedavoo Tightlines Shoulder Pack

Editor's Note: This is the first installment in a series of gear reviews focusing on quality fly fishing equipment made by small manufacturers that offer quality equipment at fair prices. No money changed hands--the manufacturers simply supplied each piece of equipment reviewed. Periodically, the manufacturer and Eat More Brook Trout will hold contests, and readers will have a chance to win gear of their own.

The Vedavoo Tightlines Shoulder Pack. Retail: $99.99
I first laid eyes on the new Vedavoo line of fly fishing gear at the International Fly Tackle Dealer show in New Orleans last summer--Scott Hunter, founder and owner of Vedavoo, did a yeoman's job of coaxing me to his display, where he spent the next 10 minutes or so showing me how the gear was different and, in his mind, how his hand-made (in America) gear was better than gear manufactured by larger companies.

Then he showed the me the price list.

"You're kidding," I said.


But I think what impressed me most was Scott's excitement for his product (he actually does most, if not all, of the sewing himself--he bought a machine, took a class and launched the company from his garage). As he demonstrated the unique features of the gear, including the product I'm focusing on today, the Tightlines Shoulder Pack, he literally gushed.

The pack in action
And, frankly, it was contagious. As I slipped the shoulder pack over my neck, I quickly came to share in Scott's enthusiasm. The shoulder pack kind of fills a void in the fly fishing world. It's not as bulky as a vest. It isn't intrusive like a traditional chest pack or fanny pack, and it's quite a bit more substantial than a lanyard. I've used the shoulder pack now about a half-dozen times--it's been to the Bahamas, the Henry's Fork and the flats of south Texas' Laguna Madre.

The verdict? I absolutely love it. It's got just enough in the way of storage that I was able to comfortably carry a big saltwater fly box, several spools of tippet, an extra saltwater fly line and a pair of heavy-duty pliers. And, in the coolest little pocket sewn into the shoulder of the pack, I was able to easily carry and access my little waterproof camera. One day on the flats I even carried an extra reel equipped with a sink-tip line. It's plenty roomy. Trust me.

But here's the kicker. When you're fly fishing the flats or big water like the Henry's Fork, you're often required to handle a lot of line. Not once did my casts get caught up on the shoulder pack--something I can't say for the traditional chest pack. Not once did I have to hike up my pants because my loaded-down fanny pack was dragging them down.

The pack on the dunes of South Padre
When I needed something from the pack, I simply slid it around to the front, pulled open the Velcro compartment (which attaches independently from the pack, meaning it's an optional addition to the pack and adds carrying capacity) and accessed my stuff. When I was done, I slid the pack around to my back, where it was completely out of the way. When I wasn't using it, I didn't even notice I was wearing it.

Here's the deal: If you've been looking for something that's highly functional and yet somewhat minimalist without compromising quality, the Vedavoo Tightlines Shoulder Pack might be just the ticket. I'm a fan. I think you will be, too.

At the list price of $99.99, it's a bargain. Knowing that's it's made here in America makes it even more appealing. It comes with my highest recommendation.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Cabin

It's gray and weathered. It's maybe a little tired, having faced the coastal breezes that sometimes rise up into massive conflagrations so substantial we give them names, just to remember who it was, exactly, that blew threw here and left this mess behind. But it's still there. So is the plank dock that reaches tentatively into the bay, like a toe in cold water.

Resting on a rock shoal that's washed daily by the warm Texas tides and the wakes of tugs pulling barges up and down the carved channel that is the Intercoastal Waterway, the cabin persists. Electricity comes at the generous whim of the generator, via the gas pump. It ain't cheap. But air conditioning in July isn't a luxury. It's a necessity. Rainwater collected from the roof plumbs the house. Some business can be handled in the john, but it's best to just piss in the sea.

It can be a contemplative place. Grabbing a chair on the porch at sunset can tune you into the sounds of singing coyotes and bleating cattle wandering the expanse of the King Ranch off in the distance. The little deck on the opposite side is for watching the sun rise over the Gulf of Mexico and the Laguna Madre. It's where you can sit with a hot cup of coffee and point and giggle at the guides as they frantically race to the flats, their up-before-dawn clients facing anxiously into the wind tunnel. And the flats, by the way, are right out the back door.

It's a place to sip a beer and maybe smoke a decent cigar--the constant breeze that massages the  body also works to blow the acrid smoke out over the water. From the dock, it's a place to tune up the double-haul and cast for specks, to test your mettle against that breeze that doesn't quit.

It's a place to party amid the aromatic cloud of smoke wafting from the Weber kettle, and the sound of cheap gin cracking ice as its poured into a cup before it's diluted with tonic and lime. It's a place for laughs and foul jokes. It's a place for "pull my finger," and fake fart noises. It's a place to celebrate success. To buckle down and utter, "we'll get 'em tomorrow."

The one-room, clapboard cabin is a sacred escape. It's a place where keeping the faith means telling only those who are trustworthy that it exists at all, and telling even fewer exactly where it sits. Lined with bunks it can handle a dozen souls for a night or for a summer. Or for a nap.

It's a retreat. A destination for a tired psyche. Yeah, it's just a cabin. But it's home for as long as you make it so.

Or for as long as you need it to be.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

20 Questions: Brandon Robinson

Brandon Robinson
Brandon Robinson is one of those guys you feel perfectly comfortable with, almost from the moment you shake his hand for the first time. He's engaging, funny and, thanks to his Southern upbringing and the good stuff Texas has managed to rub off on him over the years, he's a gentleman. In a scruffy, rough-around-the-edges sort of way.

I had the privilege earlier this month to spend a couple days on a shoal island in the middle of the Laguna Madre with Brandon and few other folks. The idea was to chase redfish and speckled trout and generally chill under the coastal Texas sun while enjoying a group of new friends, throwing down some adult beverages and generally dropping off the face of the earth for a time.

All the missions were accomplished--some more completely than others. But Brandon rolled with some late changes, served up some outstanding food and made a host of new friends feel like old friends over the course of just two days.

The highest praise? I'd fish with Brandon any time. And I hope I get the chance--the dude is a full-on fly fishing addict, and his heart's in the right place. He's the kind of fly fisherman the world needs so that one day, there'll be more fly fishermen.

Thanks for the hospitality, Brandon... There's a guest room in Idaho with your name on it, my friend. On with the questions:

Monday, April 23, 2012

Beat the Drum

Gator bait.

That's what I figured would become of me the first time I planted by butt in a flat-water kayak. This was a few years back, and I was on the marsh near Grand Isle, La., where gators tend to be prolific and where a large man in a slow kayak amounts to lazily retrieved popper meant to entice a 10-footer to dinner.

I was reassured at the time that I was perfectly safe, and I'm sure I was, but fears are fears for a reason--sometimes alligators make meals out of people. It's rare, but I have that kind of luck.

Kayaks courtesy of Diablo Paddle Sports
Everything turned out all right, and I immediately became of fan of kayaks for flat-water fishing--they traverse skinny water with ease, they're easier than you might think to get in and out of, and, in a pinch, you can even cast a fly rod from them.

That's why, when we pulled up to the cabin we were inhabiting on upper Laguna Madre last week and noticed a flotilla of ocean-ready kayaks on the bank, I was more than excited. These particular boats, manufactured by Austin, Texas-based Diablo Paddle Sports, are likely the most advanced flat-water kayaks on the market. In addition to coming ready to fish, these models were outfitted with an elevated seat that Diablo's Thomas Flemons refers to as the "Larry chair." I can only assume that it's meant to hold the hindquarters of a the average couch potato or maybe your run-of-the-mill cable guy, and, frankly, that put me at ease.

And, once I pushed off from the bank into the murky water of the bay, I was more than thrilled with the kayak's feel. I never once felt apprehensive on the boat (well, I take that back... I was a little nervous when I stood up in the kayak for the first time), and it took me well over a mile to a series of little salty lakes that gave a handful of redfish anglers access into the King Ranch backcountry right along the windward coast of south Texas.

The reds weren't home, but I was plenty satisfied with the means of transportation. Turns out, the boat would more than assist with the first catch of the trip.

Black drum
First red of the trip
Austin Orr, an up-and-coming fish bum from (you guessed it) Austin, found a pod of tailing black drum on a flat a short paddle away from the cabin. Mike Sepelak and I eagerly hopped into the Diablo boats and skittered across the Intercoastal Waterway to the flat, where, sure enough, dozens of big black drum were milling about in the dark water. Occasionally, a big tail would break the surface.

Once we found a good spot with a generally firm bottom, it was easy to tie the kayaks off to an anchor pole, drive the pole into the sand and then wander about the flat on foot, pursuing the drum that were surprisingly finicky. Austin saved the day with some fly pattern suggestions--he gave me a small black bucktail fly that the first drum I presented it to inhaled. Austin also caught the trip's first red fish, a cruiser milling in and out of the black drum that had stirred up the flat.

I managed to bring  a few of these interesting fish to hand--a first for me. As I told Austin later that day, "It's always a good day when you can add another fish to the list of conquests."

Speaking of conquests ... it is officially "spritzer season." We bid adieu to a cheap bottle of Gilbey's gin over the course of a couple of days. Black drum and spritzers ... I'll take that combination any day.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Hello, Texas

"Hello Texas. Sure is good to see you again. Hello Texas. Sure is good to see me a friend."

-Jimmy Buffett

Everything's better on a tortilla. Proven fact. But first, you have get to the tortilla.

Mike Sepelak, left, Mike Gavit, center, and Todd Carter
enjoy the ride to the cabin on Upper Laguna Madre.
As we finally pulled into the Marker 37 parking lot across the causeway from Corpus Christi, Texas,  we were greeted by Mike Gavit and Jen Kugler. We had a 45-minute boat ride ahead of us--a harried run down the Laguna Madre to a rustic cabin situated on an island in the middle of the bay. And we had 50 minutes of daylight left.

"Nice to meet you," Mike said. "Let's start throwin' shit. We're runnin' out of daylight."

Throw shit we did. Minutes later, with all of our belongings tucked into the bow of the boat, we were motoring across green water, the sun racing us down the bay. Sitting in the front of Mike's boat, face into the wind, I quietly reveled in the fact that it was saltwater we skipped across, and that it was a pelican resting on a channel marker, not an Idaho magpie. And the wind in my face was ... warm. 

Hello, Texas. Sure is good to see you again.

As the sun tickled the mesquite trees on the King Ranch a bit later, we motored slowly toward a dock. There waiting for us was Brandon Robinson. He reached out and grabbed the bowline. 

Mike Sepelak and Brandon Robinson
"Welcome to Texas," he said. "Good to have you down here."

The smell of a barbecue grill warming beneath the eves of a rustic cabin mingled with the tangy, salty aroma of the Laguna Madre. The late-evening light shone right into the clapboard structure, and I could tell we were in for a couple of days of Bohemian luxury. A line of Diablo Paddle Sports kayaks rested along the bank, half in the green water, half out. Fly rods rested on nails, strung up and ready for speckled trout and redfish. 

"Good to be here, man. Good to be here."

Moments later, tortilla in hand, I wandered up to the grill and slapped a grilled sausage atop a bed of cheese and salsa. The sun dipped below the King Ranch, and all was right with the world.

Hello, Texas. It sure is good to see me a friend.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Back to Texas

Welcome to Colorful Colorado.

That phrase has marked the highway signs posted at every major entry point to the Centennial State for as long as I can remember. I was raised in Colorado. It's home, even now that I live in Idaho (and that's likely because Idaho today is a lot like Colorado was when I was a kid).

And, in the early summer of 1980, as the old red Buick, built more like a World War II gunship than a car, left Colorado and entered the lonely and desolate panhandle of Oklahoma on our way south, I watched that iconic welcome sign fade into the sage-pocked distance. The house was sold. Our belongings were packed into a North American Van Lines big rig. My old man had taken a new job with a drilling company. We were moving.

The fringes of Hell? 
As that sign disappeared from view, I remember thinking, in my 11-year-old brain, "Chris, you're headed straight to Hell." Not long after that, we arrived on the fringes of the underworld.

The sign read, "Welcome to Texas."

As a kid growing up in Colorado, Texas represented everything wrong with the world. People talked funny. When they came to Colorado, they hooted and hollered on the ski slopes, and filled up campgrounds in the summer. And, according to my parents and grandparents, Texas drivers were the worst.

"Hey asshole! See that little lever to the left of the steering wheel? That's your turn signal. We use those here in Colorado. Go back to Texas!"

My Mom had a bit of a potty mouth.

And then there's the Dallas Cowboys. In the hearts of Bronco fans everywhere, the perfect autumn Sunday ends with the Oakland Raiders and the Cowboys losing horribly and the beloved Donkeys chalking up a win, preferably against either the Raiders or Cowboys. The Oilers? At the time, they were generally irrelevant (as was proved a couple decades later when they up and moved to Nashville--where they're still generally irrelevant).

My Dad was pretty excited about the move. It was more money, and a genuinely solid opportunity to boost his career. That didn't soothe my 11-year-old feelings, however. All my life, I'd been brought up to believe that Texas was a miserable place full of miserable people where kids were attacked every day by cottonmouths and copperheads and pushed around by toothless dudes missing teeth and at least one buckle from their denim overalls.

I was headed into the belly of the beast. And I was none too happy about it.

And, frankly, that first summer was brutal. It was hot. It was muggy. But we eventually discovered the lake, and with my Dad's fancy new salary, we bought a boat, and my brothers and I learned to waterski. We fished around the docks and the piers, catching everything from bass and bream to catfish and crappie. I discovered the Beetle-Spin lure (black and yellow worked best), and got to be pretty damn good at skipping it up under the docks with a spinning rod and a closed-face, thumb-release Zebco 33. We floated the Sabine River in an old aluminum canoe and chased squirrels with pellet guns in the woods of the Big Thicket.

It wasn't so bad. It was actually a pretty good place to be a kid.

The people were nice, too. Even if they did worship the damned Cowboys.
Here I come...

And then I discovered the beach. One trip south and west, across the Hill Country and on down to the barrier islands along the Gulf of Mexico was enough to convince me that the folks in Colorado had it all wrong. The Texas coast, with warm water and waves washing up on fine sand beaches, was heaven for a kid. Heaven.

The pull of the mountains was too strong, though, and I left Texas shortly after I finished high school. Lured by cold, clear water and rising trout, my life since Texas has been one trout stream after another. But now and then, the salt beckons. No, I guess that's not entirely right.

Texas beckons. The Gulf Coast in particular.

Maybe it's the warm, soft, salt-tinged air pushed lightly by a near-constant breeze. Maybe it's the sound of surf rolling in from the distant Caribbean. It could be the caress of ankle-deep water or the almost-tropical sun on my skin.

There's no logic to it, really. No reasonable explanation. But opportunities arise now and then--perhaps I subconsciously manifest them. And I seize them.

The Texas coast? April? Sure ... I can do that.

Yeah. I can do that.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Guest Post: Sportsmen Head to DC to Save Bristol Bay

Photo by B. O'Keefe
From the fine folks at Save Bristol Bay ...

Starting Monday, April 16, more than 30 sportsmen from around the country are traveling to the nation’s capitol to let their elected officials and the president know that protecting Bristol Bay is a top priority for hunters and anglers.

This is an important week to show the folks who have the power to protect Bristol Bay that sportsmen are in this fight. We’ve got folks from Alaska, Maontana, Michigan, Colorado, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Texas, Wisconsin, Washington, North Carolina, California, Missouri, New York, and Virginia representing this great country and the millions of people who want Bristol Bay to be protected and left just like it is today–pristine and productive.

A recent report by the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation shows that there are 34 million hunters and anglers in the U.S., and we’re a powerful constituency. Every year, we pump $76 billion into the economy in pursuit of our passion, through our spending on gear, licenses, gas, lodging, meals and more. All of that spending and activity directly supports 1.6 million jobs in this country.

We are also an influential group because 80 percent of sportsmen are likely voters – much higher than the national average. And, we also contribute the most money of any group toward government wildlife conservation programs. So, hopefully if we care about an issue and show our support, the decision makers will listen to what we have to say.

In just a few weeks, the EPA will be releasing a draft of its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment. This huge scientific assessment will likely guide future decisions about large-scale mining and other industrial development in the Bristol Bay region. If they find that disposal of waste from the mine would adversely harm the surrounding clean waters or natural resources, the EPA can deny or place restrictions on a required dredge and fill permit. If warranted, we hope the Obama Administration would take that step to protect Bristol Bay.

You can support the fight for one of planet Earth’s finest and most productive fishing and hunting destinations by taking action today. Fill out this simple form that will send a letter to the President and your members of Congress asking them to protect Bristol Bay. Let’s carry our sportsmen into D.C. with a lot of momentum.

Friday, April 13, 2012

20 Questions: Tosh Brown

Tosh Brown
You may not know Tosh Brown. Not exactly, anyway. But I bet you've seen his work. Maybe you were perusing some catalog, or reading some slick rag, and came across a photo you just couldn't help but really ponder

If you fly fish or bird hunt, and the magazine in your hands had something to do with either, there's a pretty good chance you were gazing wonderingly at a photo snapped by one of the most gifted outdoor photographers today. Brown's work spans the gamut of the sporting world--it's appeared in magazines we all love, like The Drake. It's appeared on box covers, websites, calendars ... the dude has a portfolio that most photogs only dream of having.

And, as gifted as he is with a camera, he's also a not-too-shabby writer. He blogs occasionally at Mouthful of Feathers, alongside some of the bird-hunting genre's more prolific sribes, like Bruce Smithhammer and Tom Reed.

As you'll read below, Tosh is a modern-day adventurer--a traveler who's none-too-happy to plant his feet in one place very long. He's been around. Here's hoping he gets around for years to come.

No... you may not know Tosh Brown. Yet. On with the questions:

Monday, April 9, 2012

Shenandoah Perfection

Brook trout Heaven
The hint of spring leaves yet to sprout on the oaks and hickories of Appalachia might be one of the most uplifting illusions to the eye. A close look at a single tree branch reveals almost no real evidence that winter is giving up the ghost. But taken in as a landscape, with thousands upon thousands of branches hanging nude over the cold, clear water of a Shenandoah trout stream, it's clear that spring is finally springing.

Thank God for that.

And thank God for the brookies that seem to know a new season is almost upon them. While it might not be the proverbial "season of plenty," the rare native char of the Eastern Seaboard do seem to perk up a bit when the weather warms, and when a dry fly is put within reach.

As we wandered up and over a steep ridge within the confines of Shenandoah National Park one late March day, the only real evidence of spring--outside of the sweat-inducing hike in the warm and, dare I say, muggy conditions of the day--was the purple-pink blooms on the redbuds and the bright-white flowers on the limber dogwoods that lined the trail. The slices of color served to emphasize the almost-green hue of the woods that served, if nothing else, to lift spirits. Winter would soon be a thing of the past. New life was springing from the mountains.

Redbuds... proof of spring
Spring was confirmed when we got the water and dipped our toes into the run. The water was cold and clear, shaded sparsely by the bare branches above. A brook trout nosed the surface after a small mayfly. Seconds later, another rise. In days, I knew, those branches would hold tender leaves, and within a couple weeks, they'd shelter the creek altogether, when the weather would really get warm, and the determined, yet fragile brook trout that finned in the creek would need the shade the most.

For now, though, the brookies seemed plenty happy. Within just a few casts of the 12-foot Tenkara rod, I'd managed to miss a couple of eager strikes and connect with one tiny char whose eyes were clearly larger than it's stomach. Even the size 16 Adams proved to be more than a mouthful. Within fifteen minutes, three brookies had come to hand--nothing big, of course, but if you're after big fish in the Shenandoah backcountry, you're likely in for a long day.

I adore brook trout, both for their sheer beauty and for what I consider to be one of the more impressive wills to survive in the face of some pretty serious threats. And that's especially true of the brookies that live where they're supposed live--in the heart of Appalachia, where intact habitat is at a premium and where cold, clear water comes and goes at the whim of the weather.

I might get to chase these fish in their native waters once or twice a year. And while the fish are diminutive, they burn with life. With the supple Tenkara as the weapon of choice on small, backcountry water, they get to show off a disposition a fish twice the size would do well to emulate. Brookies are fighters. Brookies are survivors.

Brookies are damn near perfect. And, where they belong, their presence is priceless. I consider casting to brookies where brookies are supposed to swim an event, a full-on occasion.

I can't count the times I've been asked about my preoccupation with brook trout, and how I can be so completely consumed with catching something so small, so insignificant.

My answer is simple: Suspend the obvious, where a yardstick might measure the importance of a catch and ask, instead, how convincing a fish so small to hit a fly can mean something so big.

For me, it's easy. For others, it's a stretch, and I get that. We all have our favorites. For some, it's big-shouldered brown trout fought to hand through fast water. Others love the frustration that accompanies chasing steelhead, because success in that endeavor means so much.

All that's right with the world
Brookies, where they belong, are all about what's right with the world. They prove that, with clean water running over the bedrock beneath the green canopy of an Appalachian forest, things can be just as they're supposed to be.

That's about as close to perfect as it gets, don't you think?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

20 Questions: Ben Smith

Ben Smith is a creek freak. I know, because it takes one to know one.

He crawls around the Arizona backcountry chasing wild trout, and he shares his tales with the rest of the world through his blog, Arizona Wanderings. And Ben's tales are wonderful--he's a great storyteller.

But what I like most about Ben is his desire to share the crafts of writing and fly fishing with others who endeavor to do the same thing. He's the creator of The Backcountry Journal, a site that features the work of a number of writers who focus on the outdoors, (I'm proud to be included, and Ben, I do intend to write another story in the near future--bear with me) and the adventures they enjoy while fishing and hunting. If you haven't checked out the site, you're missing something pretty special.

I'm also impressed with Ben's "day job." He's a junior high teacher--I have a junior-high-aged daughter, and I can only imagine the drama he deals with on a daily basis. I'm sure his fishing and hunting are more than just enjoyable--I'd venture to say they're therapeutic.

I'm a frequent reader of Ben's good work, and if you haven't taken the time to get to know him through his blog, hopefully what you'll read below will serve as a proper introduction. And hopefully, you'll keep coming back to Arizona Wanderings and The Backcountry Journal, where Ben's great work turns up frequently.

On with the questions...

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Catching the shad run...

Potomac River hickory shad
It's one of those fishing experiences that feels, at first, obligatory. Like a trip to the dentist ... that clean-teeth feeling is wonderful, and while the experience isn't usually that awful, it's not something you really look forward to.

That about sums up the appeal of the prospect of shad fishing on the Potomac River for me. I'd seen the pictures of the red Fletcher's row boats lined up--each within casting range of another--along the current seem just off the dock. I'd seen the photos of all the lines in the water. Of all those people.

I wanted to catch a shad--and I was in Washington for work--but I wasn't too excited about becoming part of this mass of humanity on the Nation's River to do it. But, in order to check the shad off my list, off to the dentist I went.

And, after a fashion, I got my teeth cleaned.

Shad are remarkable fish. The hickory shad and, in lesser numbers, the American shad, are anadromous herring, related to such prized game fish as tarpon. John McPhee wrote about American shad, which are bigger than hickories and a protected fish species in the United States, in his book "Founding Fish." For years, I've heard from D.C.-based colleagues of the spring shad run up the Potomac, and the few weeks each spring they devote to this storied gamefish.

Victim of a shad dart
I think, perhaps, my interest in shad is also what initially turned me off to the idea of chasing them. They run up the Potomac River, right through Washington, past monuments and under bridges. They run in such numbers, anglers say, that, when they're "on," it's an every-cast proposition. But, I'm a confirmed creek-freak... a backcountry fly fisher who truly doesn't like much company when I fish. Fishing "in town" isn't my thing, every-cast proposition or not.

Nevertheless, the idea of thousands of fish running up the Potomac interests me. Through town, the river supplements the unique scenery of the nation's capital--it runs under Memorial Bridge, not too far from the Lincoln Memorial, and under Key Bridge, right past Georgetown.

It separates my favorite place in Washington--Roosevelt Island--from Arlington, Va.

JT Griffin of The Bonefish Flat, joins the author for a
double hook-up on the Potomac
But, beyond the pretty pictures, my perspective of the Potomac through Washington wasn't exactly flattering. One day earlier this winter, as I stood on the banks of Roosevelt Island admiring the flotsam that had managed to wash ashore, I came the realization that this river, while perhaps in a better state than it was thirty or forty years ago (we can likely thank clean water legislation for that) isn't treated too kindly by the folks along its course.

It's not a complete disaster. In its upper reaches in West Virginia, the Potomac is a terrific smallmouth bass river. Higher up, some of its tributaries still hold native brook trout. But the closer it gets to its terminus in Chesapeake Bay, the more tainted the river's waters become. It's marred by chemical pollutants, excessive nutrient pollution that spawns viral algae blooms and the pollution that simply runs into it from paved surfaces, like highways and parking lots. And that's not counting the overlows from municipal sewage treatment plants.

Chris Anderson of Trout Unlimited with fat hickory
Finally, non-native and carniverous fish now call the river home, throwing another wrench in the engine working to clean this irreplaceable resource up. Snakeheads, anyone?

So, when the chance to finally add shad to my list (oh, come on ... who doesn't have a list?) of fly rod conquests, I took it. I climbed into a Fletcher's row boat with two D.C.-based friends and hit the river ... with everybody else.

It took a bit of time, and some tackle adjustments, but I finally caught my first shad, an average hickory that might have stretched the tape to 14 inches. Might have.

And when one came to hand, they started to come in bunches. Between three of us, we caught probably three dozen fish in a few hours' time on the river. And with each fish boated, my opinion of the experience--and of the river itself--softened just a bit.

First, the life on the river, with military helicopters cruising its course, and jets from DCA roaring to altitude overhead, is pretty impressive. Cormorants, presumably on the water for the same reason I was, camped in the greening trees along the river's bank. Ospreys cruised the river, and occasionally lifted fish from the water. We saw a bald eagle.

The double
Second, shad are worthy game fish. They gave us all we wanted on 6-weight rods equipped with sink-tip lines and armed with flies the locals call "shad darts." They were fun. Really fun.

Finally, I was reminded that fishing with people--at least people you like--is an experience in and of itself. Conversation fills the gaps between fish. And having a passion for fly fishing helps with that conversation. Three of us spent a great afternoon on the Nation's River, a resource that needs our help if our kids are to be fortunate enough to enjoy the same experience years from now.

My teeth are clean. And I'm looking forward to the next visit to the dentist.

Want to fish the universe?

I'm proud to be part of a great new project with MidCurrent and Trout Unlimited. We're taking to space to explore the interplanetary fly fishing opportunities on Kepler-22b, one of the recently discovered planets that might be habitable for humans ... and, with surface water temperatures under 70 degrees, trout.

We're soliciting ideas and comments over at you have any advice for our travel team, please let us know. As we boldly plan to fish where no man has fished before, we'll need all the help we can get.

And, if you'd like to leave earth behind for the chance to fish the universe, here's where you sign up.