Sunday, May 27, 2012

Gear I Love: Vedavoo chest pack

Editor's Note: This is the second 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.

Vedavoo chest pack
My recent interview with Daniel Galhardo, the founder of Tenkara USA and the guy who's become the most evangelical advocate of tenkara, likely in the world, got me thinking about the ancient craft and how, in just a couple short years, it's transformed the way approach fly fishing.

Tenkara is what some of the more pure fly fishers these days would call "minimalist," and I can appreciate that without some of the negative undertones that word seems to inspire in some of the more mainstream fly fishing circles. In my mind, the tenkara craft is a way to shrug off the sometimes oppressive belief that more gear is better. And, frankly, it has helped me evolve a bit from a hopeless gearhead to someone who is a bit more thoughtful before each fishing trip.

I've taken to asking myself, "What do you really need for this trip?" before I head out to the water. Increasingly, the list of vital gear is getting smaller, less obtrusive. Over the last couple of years, I've taken to smaller fly boxes, a little floatant, some tippet, a pair of nippers, a pair of hemostats, maybe a small camera ... and that's just about it.

As a result, I've gone from a full-on fishing vest to something quite a bit smaller. Thankfully, there's a relatively new manufacturer out there that seems to get that, in many cases, less is more. Vedavoo, an American company that hand-crafts its equipment, might be the most progressive outfit out there when it comes to catering to the fly fisher who, above all else, wants to fish. In recent weeks, I've taken to coupling a small, unobtrusive Vedavoo chest pack with my tenkara rod--they go together quite nicely, and, while I have room for everything I need, I don't feel as though I'm encumbered by a hip pack or bulging chest pack that, for me anyway, always seems to foil a cast at the least opportune moment.

Minimalist? You bet ;-)
You'll recall my review of the Vedavoo Tight Lines shoulder pack, and how I sung its praises for its portable nature and its ability to tote around quite a bit of stuff without getting in the way of my fishing. I put it to use on the flats of the Bahamas, the sand flats of South Padre Island and here at home on the carp flats of the Snake River.

The chest pack is the shoulder pack's spunky little brother. It won't hold the amount the gear the shoulder pack will, but then, it's not supposed to. The chest pack simply drapes over your neck, like a lanyard would, but it's able to conveniently cary a few more items than a standard lanyard would (and I love a good lanyard, truth be told).

The chest pack comes with three pockets--one on the the front, and two in the back. The zipper pack in the back is ideal for your car keys, your wallet--maybe even a small camera. A second, larger pocket on the back would be great for extra leaders and your "I might need this" fly box.

The front pocket is made from expandable material that could hold "I will need this" fly box and maybe a bottle of gink. The front also comes equipped with a toggled loop that can hold four spools of tippet.

Throw in the 10 different connection point for things like nippers and 'stats--adding a Zinger or two for these tools would be a great idea--and you've got yourself the ideal "minimalist" carrying case that, truth be told, doesn't have to be all that minimalist.

Another thing I appreciate about Vedavoo's equipment. It wears very nicely. The neck strap for the chest pack is adjustable for comfort and it drapes appropriately without getting in the way of a cast or getting hung up on a pesky branch. It's a great little pack, and at $49, it's very nicely priced.

If you're looking for a pack with a decent amount of carrying capacity, but something that doesn't feel awkward or get in the way of the reason you're on the water in the first place, consider the Vedavoo chest pack. It's ideal for the minimalist in all of us.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

20 Questions: Daniel Galhardo

Daniel Galhardo
Daniel Galhardo is a fly fishing pioneer, and while it may take the rest of the fly fishing world some time to come to grips with that notion, it is, nonetheless, true. In just a few short years, as the founder of Tenkara USA, he's managed to not only introduce tenkara fishing to North Americans beyond the fringe practitioners who for years played with the long rod as something of a novelty, but he's pushed tenkara on the masses so it's nearly become a mainstream endeavor.

You know when folks start debating the merits of the craft on message boards, across the blogosphere and even in the mainstream press, it has arrived and acquired enough legitimacy to warrant a discussion.

Full disclosure ... I love my tenkara rods. I value them as the very effective fly fishing tools they've proven to be in situations where they're appropriate, and I get a twisted kick out of trying to put them to use catching critters the Japanese long-rodders never imagined as they cast for small trout and char among the mountain streams of Honshu.

And I have Daniel to thank for that, for expanding my fly fishing horizons and giving me one more frontier to explore and get excited about.

I don't know Daniel terribly well, but I do know he's a full-immersion kind of guy. He spent months in Japan learning the tenkara craft before moving forward with a plan to introduce tenkara to the United States and beyond. He recognized right away the connection that exists between tenkara and the places it was created to fish, and made a point to donate one percent of his receipts to Trout Unlimited's Sportsmen's Conservation Project through the 1% for the Planet program. This arm of TU works to protect the backcountry from unwise and unnecessary development, and the backcountry is where those cold, clear mountain streams hold wild and native trout that tenkara was crafted to conquer.

Galhardo puts his money where his mouth is and understands that intact habitat translates quite literally in fly fishing opportunity. And that fly fishing opportunity represents economic opportunity for him each and every time a fly fisher picks up a tenkara rod and gives it a shot. His conservation ethic is as admirable as his business acumen.

I look forward to getting to know Daniel better in the future, and I got a headstart thanks to the questions below. I think you'll come to appreciate Daniel's passion for his business, and his passion for tenkara. On with the questions:

Monday, May 21, 2012

Wind and Sand

On the beach... 
Separately, they can be conquered. Together, they fill every crevice with grit. They turn the surf into busy brown froth. They renovate an otherwise bright blue sky into a menacing, hateful pulverizer intent on roughly smoothing a man's sharp edges.

And as welcoming as one feels on bare feet, wet and soft under the toes, and as softly as the other can massage and coax, together, they combine to whittle away at a fly fisherman's determination.

And so it was, after a day spent walking atop damp sand while spitting the salty grit pushed violently into our mouths back out into the surf, that we relented. We were defeated.

The sea is a finicky creature, revealing its treasures one day and hiding its secrets the next. Pushed by wind armed with sand, it can meet any angler's challenge with stubborn resistance. As we climbed a the dunes in the dry, sunny gale and opted for patience, the sea only stirred itself further into a morasse of impenetrable lather.

We rested, pressed against the dunes to wait out the wind and hope against hope that the Gulf's birds would brave the breeze and start combing the near-shore breakers for today's fishy meal. Find the birds, we knew, and we'd find the fish.

But on this day, the birds were infrequent and moving, thanks to the constant blow, in a very great hurry. They never slowed to gaze into the surf. They never dove. They went hungry.

As I said, we were defeated. And admitting that defeat, oddly, gave us a bit of peace. A bit of ... serenity.

The wind and the sand...
There, upon the gusty dunes, gazing out over the green Gulf, we knew this day would be fishless. But we also knew, as the sun moved behind us and the waves broke before us, that we would glean something from this otherwise barren day.

I spent a good hour gazing through polarized lenses at the sea, watching waves in an awful rush to break, one over the other until they crashed into beach. There, those waves delivered bales of sargassum and rolled smooth, tiny shells up onto the sand. From the dunes, well above the beach, I watched intently as the ocean belched itself onto the spit of land that separates it from Texas until I closed my eyes.

When I woke up some time later, the wind still whipped the sand into devilish swirls among the dunes. The Gulf was still a foamy mess. The birds were absent. The fish were nowhere to be seen.

But I was still on the beach. I'll take the beach. Any day.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

20 Questions: Matt Smythe

Matt Smythe
Matt Smythe's handle is "The Fishing Poet." If you've read any of his stuff, it doesn't take long to realize that the declaration is an apt description of the guy. He's a hell of a writer--underrated, in my opinion. I'm not the only one who thinks so, either--the creators of Pulp Fly have included Matt in the first volume of the e-book, and for those of us who've read it, we're very glad they did.

Matt is, kindly put, something of a dilettante. Take a look at his Facebook page, and you'll see what I mean. In one photo he's tight-lined to a nice trout, and in the next, he's drawing a traditional long bow. He's a hunter and an angler... but it didn't take long for me to notice that's he's, first and foremost, a husband and father.

Cover of GQ?
He's also devilishly good-looking--I couldn't find one picture that made him look the least bit silly, and for those of us with obvious flaws, that's just maddening (the only thing I can think of, though, is that he's almost always in front of a lens operated by Grant Taylor, who is one hell of a shooter). I'm fairly certain that, during his single years, Matt never once needed a wingman. Just sayin'.

But I admire the hell out of Matt. He's one of those guys who could be plugging away in the rat race, raking in a six-figure income among the skyscrapers. Instead, he's opted to slow things down ... to take work as it comes. More importantly, he's opted to share his talents with the rest of us. So, Matt, on behalf of all us greedy fly fishing consumers, thanks for eschewing Madison Avenue and choosing instead to slum with the rest of the gang.

We appreciate it.

On with the questions.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Work for it...

Mike Sepelak on the dunes of Padre Island National Seashore.
One trip up and over the dunes wasn't enough, apparently. Or at least that was the prevailing mood. Honestly, though, I think we were just stubborn. I think we believed, deep down, that if we didn't give it every ounce of effort, we were short-changing ourselves and, by extension, the adventure we'd embarked upon a few days earlier.

Fishing had been slow. Simple as that. I'm blaming the wind, but I blame the wind a lot. I suppose there was the outside chance that we simply didn't know what the hell we were doing, but ... yeah, I'm blaming the wind.

I know this. I can't blame the lack of effort. As we trudged along the eastern edge of the Laguna Madre looking for a stretch of clear water that might have just a bit of leeward cover, I knew we had officially dipped into the reserve supply of desperation. Over the last three days, we'd endured gale-force winds and brown tide. We'd wandered through strange grocery stores and up and down causeways looking for obscure turn-offs to fishy locales. We'd eaten salsa off of tortilla chips shaped like the state of Texas. And at least one of us endured a cramped aisle seat next to the crapper on the plane ride down.

And, making this supreme effort to find fish even more important, more seminal to this journey to the gusty, salty edge of Texas, was what lay ahead. We didn't know it, but we'd still need to muster the energy to take in the odd experience of enjoying a truly fine Italian meal prepared on the border with Mexico while a tenor sax player performed "Feelings."

That was before the crack-of-dawn drive back to the airport where, in a fit of sleepy grogginess, we stumbled upon an FM radio station that proudly (and loudly) proclaimed that we had tuned in just in time "for another non-stop block of continuous Christian country!"
What we do for fish...


As the coastal wind continued to beat the hell out of us, I looked at Mike and pointed to the horizon, where the shoreline jutted out into the bay. In my head, I thought there might be some calmer water on the other side of the point.

"What do you think?" I asked.

"Let's do it."

I think that's what I like most about Mike--the guy is up for anything. Like me, he was of the mind that we'd come this far to fish, and by God, we were going to fish. What's another mile trudging through the coastal mud and sand if there's even the smallest chance that something fishy is swimming in the warm, clear water of the Laguna on the other side of that point? What's another hour? Or two?

Our suspicions turned out to be correct--or at the very least, the wind settled down long enough for the two of us to do what we'd come to do. We came to sight-cast to fish on the flats, and with the subsiding breeze, the clear waters of the bay settled just a bit and we began to see things.

At first, we were seeing schools of small bait fish and larger mullet moving over the hard-sand bottom. Then I started seeing bigger fish. Target fish.

I shared the details with Mike, but he couldn't pick them up through the chop. I realized something very important that moment. A trip to the Bahamas the month before, while embarrassingly frustrating, had taught me one very necessary skill--the ability to spot fish on the flats. And not only could I spot them, but I could tell Mike what they were.

"Sheepshead," I said, staring intently at the moving pod of nice-sized flats-feeders. Occasionally a tail would break the surface, and I'd let out a little holler to Mike: "See that tail? Two o'clock, fifty feet."

He stared intently at the water.

"I got nuthin," he said.

I cast to the first pod, armed with the same Clouser that fooled my only redfish of the trip earlier that day. I bounced the fly along the bottom in front of the fish.


I changed to a shrimp pattern. Same deal. The sheepshead--notoriously picky--ignored it, too. Thankfully, wave after wave of these toothy fish were working their way into the wind not twenty feet from the bank.

Opportunity. Now to solve the puzzle.

I dug through my fly box and my fingers settled on a small crab pattern that I actually put in the box for the Bahamas trip. I quickly tied the fly to the end of my leader and eyed the water again. Through the busy surface of the bay, in water no more than a foot deep, I could see the tell-tale vertical black bars lining the side of an incoming sheepshead about 80 feet away.

I loaded the 8-weight Mystic Tremor and, in what I honestly believe to be the cast of my life, put the fly within inches of the target fish. Strip. Strip. Set.

Fish on.

We came, we conquered... 
Moments later, as Mike and I carefully handled the fish and loaded up memory cards with dozens of images, we noticed a bright flash off to the north. The sky, which moments before had been blue and generally clear, had turned dark and threatening in what seemed like precious minutes.

I looked into the water. More pods of sheepshead were coming in. Another flash of lightning cracked through the dark clouds. I think we both looked at our fly rods simultaneously, and our minds were made up. Time to go.

Reluctantly ... oh, so reluctantly... I followed Mike out of the water and across a muddy salt flat to the dunes.

Two miles later, after a sandy march through the guts of Padre Island National Seashore, it started to rain. And the wind, which had shown us a bit of mercy as the sheepshead pushed through, returned in full force. Lightning flashed against the dark sky, closer than ever.

... and lived to tell about it.
Minutes later, we crested a series of tall dunes and stared out over the wind-whipped surf of the Gulf of Mexico. I looked back over my shoulder and could see the Laguna off in the distance, shrouded by dark clouds. I knew the sheepshead were tailing in the shallow water not far from the bank. I also knew that if we had stayed, we'd have invited disaster.

We put our heads down and pushed south across more dunes until we hit a stretch of sand not far from the beach. There, in the distance, was the rental car and the promise of a little shelter from the elements.

We rode in silence back to the little beach town of South Padre Island, contemplating the afternoon and the extraordinary effort we made to find something we could cast for.

Was it worth it? For one fish?

Yeah. I think so.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

20 Questions: Bruce Smithhammer

Bruce Smithhammer is one of those guys we all want to be when we grow up. He's a fly fishing guide. He works in a fly shop. His fly cast is maddeningly flawless. He can row a drift boat, hit a sharpie on the wing over a good dog and skewer an elk in heavy timber with a bow.

And he lives within walking distance of a brewery.

He's like the real-life version of Hank Williams Jr.'s "Country Boy Can Survive," only with some civility, sophistication and clean underwear. Which isn't to say he doesn't slum now and then--he can tell a raunchy joke as well as anyone (sometime, over a beer, ask me about the Angry Seagull), and I've seen him drink PBR straight from the can in the Moose Bar in Dillon, Mont. Just venturing into the Moose means you're likely due at least one tetanus shot, and it's wise, on the way home, to choose the full-body radiation scan at the airport (and I'd recommend the cavity search, just to be safe). At the very least, you should go have a set of dental x-rays done. The Moose, shall we say ... persists.

And, thankfully, for those of us who care about the future of outdoor pursuits, so does Smithhammer. 

You've likely stumbled upon his stuff in the pages of The Drake, or online at Buster Wants to Fish. He also writes about upland game-bird hunting at Mouthful of Feathers. He's well-read and, as a result, a fine writer who is able to boil down the complex issues surrounding conservation into digestible chunks and present them to readers--no matter the venue--in a way that makes sense and inspires some action.

He doesn't just write about conservation, but, like any good outdoor writer these days, he's drawn to it because so many threats against our fishing and hunting heritage exist that ignoring those threats amounts to condoning them.

Get the book
Bruce's most recent work is actually a collaboration--he's one of the guys behind the recently published e-book, "Pulp Fly," a collection of quality writing from both new and established outdoor writers. The book, in my opinion, represents the future of outdoor writing, not only given the quality of the contributors, but the avenue in which it's delivered. Leave it guys like Smithhammer to channel the next era in outdoor writing into a book that's delivered directly to readers in digital form, where it can be quickly consumed at a price that's fair.

The book is a wonderful read--if you haven't picked it up, you're missing out. Not only will you get the chance to read Smithhammer's work--it's a great introduction to his writing if you haven't already made that acquaintance--but there's work in it from a host of quality authors that keep the experience fresh and lively. Trust me... it's that good.

Above all, Smithhammer's a great friend. If you got to know him, I'm betting you'd think so, too. Here's your chance. On with the questions:

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Sandblasted ...

Wind lover
Wind hater
As we strung up the rods beneath the shelter of the rental car's hatchback, I could feel the reluctance on Todd's part. It was palpable.

We left a perfectly good hotel room stocked with rum and beer and the balcony view of the pool for this? They even had a never-ending supply of bacon in the breakfast buffet.

Wind lover's rip cord
This, as it turned out, was wind. Well, wind might not be entirely accurate. Not exactly, anyway. At the end of the pavement several miles north of the little tourist town of South Padre Island, we geared up with our backs to a sandblaster. The wind, coming from the south and blowing full force due north, turned the beach into a kite-boarder's ant hill. While wet-suit wearing thrill-seekers happily assembled the equipment they'd need to glide along the violent, wind-whipped surf of the south Texas coast with the help of a modified parachute, we donned sunglasses and buffs and leaned into the 40-knot gale, trying like hell not to miss a guide as we punched loops of saltwater fly line through stainless wire hoops attached to our rods.

"Are you kidding me?" Todd hollered, as the wind pulled his 8-weight out of his hands and flipped it into the sand next to the car. I smiled. This is South Padre is April, I thought. I've never know it not to be a little gusty.

The canvas and the artist
OK. A lot gusty. A steady gusty. The kind of gusty that picks sand up from the beach and blows it across the road gusty ... just like a ground blizzard here in Idaho, where frigid winter winds blow yesterday's snow across the highway. And, if we can help it, we don't fish on days like that. But here ... we'd come so far. We'd endured so much. It had to happen. Had to.

A cloudless blue sky met the taupe sand with alarming, beautiful contrast, and the wind stirred the whole thing into a kind of fend-for-yourself frenzy. As we finished gearing up, we had to scream at each other to be heard over the wind and the crashing of the surf just a few hundred yards away  over a series of small dunes.

But we weren't headed for the surf. We were headed to the flats of lower Laguna Madre, a long walk over tall dunes to the west.

"Maybe it'll be calmer on the bay," I yelled, wishfully. Through the tint of polarized sunglasses, I could see Todd's eyes roll.

Right. And maybe I'll get all the sand out of my crack by next Tuesday. 

A constant blow...
We locked the car, pointed our fly rods west and started walking up and over the dunes. And while the wind never really quit, getting off the beach did help some. From atop the dunes, we could see the green water of the Laguna in the distance. And we could see the whitecaps busting over otherwise flat water. With sand underfoot, we walked.

And I don't know if it was the thought of standing and casting in warm, clear water, or just the idea of working out the kinks in the saltwater cast, but, at least for me, the walk over the dunes was pretty damn cool. Windblown sand is both the canvas and the artist, and while the footing was a bit unpredictable, the feet were treading some fascinating earth.

Mike's redfish
We eventually wandered down onto a crunchy salt flat--the Laguna Madre is the saltiest body of water in the country, save for the Great Salt Lake--and walked another mile or so to the bay. There before us was the shin-deep, almost-crystal-clear water of the bay, whitecaps and all.

Fishing wasn't great, and I fully attribute that to the wind and the fact that sight-fishing through whitewater is virtually impossible. I managed to blind-cast a yellow-over-red Clouser to a tough little redfish, and Mike hooked one, too, just about the same size. Todd fished, but didn't get lucky.

Mike also hooked some small-ish panfish-looking critter that we opted to identify later. As he said in the car on the way back to the hotel room: "Only I could come all the way to south Texas and catch a bluegill in the salt."

Wind be damned. We came. We fished. We endured, by God.

Now ... back to that rum ... and the view from the balcony.