Trip Preparations

I am a pretty unorganized person. Just ask my wife, buddies, co-workers, etc! There are two things, however, that I can get downright obsessive about:

1. Fly Box Organization

2. Planning Fishing Trips

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Labrador Box No. 2 – Only 3 months, 2 days until departure and open space.(Top row are #14 Parachute Adams, for size reference.)

I live for the level of optimism that is present from the instant the idea of a trip or day of fishing brings. From tying and organizing tens of dozens of flies, to spooling too many lines of various sink rates and cast-ability, and building the “perfect” leaders. Truth be told, maybe only a handful of those flies will ever get their moment to shine. The conditions may have you fishing a standard floating line and leader the whole time. Why the hell do we let ourselves get so bogged down in nailing down every single detail? We know from past experience that planning for every possible scenario never guarantees success.

I think as fly fishers we do it because the planning, the excitement we share in text messages and email strings about “what the fish were doing the month/week/day before we get there,” prolongs the enjoyment of our time on the water. A trip can be short, maybe cut down to just a few hours on the water. But planning makes the adventure last for weeks.

As I write this, I’m currently in a fly tying binge. Caught between blobs and woolley bugger variations on one side and tan and pink shrimp and crab imitations on the other. White marabou, jungle cock feathers, and various colors of fritz are tangled on one side of my desk. The other side is a pile of sandy pseudo hair, pink rubber legs, and small lead eyes. My dad and I each have fishing trips in the works. I am anxiously looking forward to returning to the Adirondacks in search of brook trout, colored up and aggressive, preparing for their spawning season. He is headed toward white sandy beaches, bonefish, snook, oppressive heat and humidity, and big starving mosquitoes. Well, the last few are what I’m telling myself knowing I won’t be going. I will be about 1,200 miles from the nearest bonefish, but that hasn’t stopped me from looking for easily wadeable flats or dreaming of scanning the choppy, glared sea surface in search of hungry shadows.

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Adirondack Brook Trout. No bonefish, no problem… for the time being.

The trips come and go. They are the shortest portion of the story, but they are the everlasting highlights. Memories of fish caught or missed, unforgettable scenery, and friendships formed with other anglers leave us rambling on for years, possibly forever, about the time spent doing what we are incurably passionate about. At least it gives us something to think about while we’re tying flies for the next opportunity.

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My dad with Johnny and one of many streamer eating rainbows from a great day in Montana.

Fish Karma

“Damn, this looks good,” I gushed about the smallish, roiling pocketwater in front of us.

Etienne agreed, “Yeah, it’s really good. That big rapid is full of big fish, but usually if people can hook them, they take them downstream and break off.”

It was easy to see how this would happen. Big fish have a knack for doing exactly what’s required of them to be a hassle, and ultimately, escape. We sat on the bank and observed the pool. Plenty of big caddis were struggling in the current before popping off the surface. Just enough to see exactly the fish I was looking for. “Oh dude, that was a good one.”

“Do your thing.”

I peeled line off the reel and dropped the slack to the ground as I set my feet on the river’s edge. Curved-Reach Cast to the right, I thought to myself as my No. 8 olive and yellow Stimulator sailed toward the target. Mend, mend, nothing. A good drift with no response. I tried a similar shot and got a splashy rise. A nice brookie that was 8 or 10 inches, but respectively a minnow in these rivers. Back he went. Two more drifts went through with no response before he came up and grabbed another natural.

Tough current,” I admitted and Etienne nodded with acknowledgement.

Yep, it is.

On the next cast, the fly drifted downstream freely, just on the other side of the main current, in front of the submerged boulder we knew the fish was sitting under. The river was deep and we knew it would take a real commitment for him to rise. The surface bulged and the white and black mouth of a rising brook trout engulfed the shaggy imitation.

Yep!” I shouted. The fish bulled down toward the bottom, from one side of the pool to the other. And then he did what we knew he would do. He took off downstream in the heavy current. “Here we go!” Etienne laughed with subdued excitement as he grabbed the net and trotted down the trail just behind the alders.

On my way down the bank my rod doubled over, applying side pressure to coax him into the calmer water at our feet. The cagey char had wrapped himself around a big boulder and the line stopped. Etienne strode down the trail making sure I had a clear path and a net man ready. Suddenly, he realized I was no longer following him.

Well, that was fun!” he joked while stepping back to where I had stopped with the line still taught. I tried twice to free the line from the snag, still skeptical of why the line remained under tension. On the third or fourth attempt, I threw in a little extra effort and displayed my impressively small vertical leap. Coupled with a circular overhead sweep of the rod tip and line, everything dislodged over the top of the rock, and the fish continued downstream with violent headshakes. As we followed the somehow still connected fish down the main flow Etienne chuckled, “Oh, you are so lucky!”

The luck got even more laughable. After we got around the boulder garden and downstream of the fish, he was ready to give up and slid neatly into the net. Shaking his head, Etienne muttered, “Man, you’ve got some crazy fish karma.

Quartzite

Call it whatever you’d like. Luck, karma, or the result of fishing size 8 dry flies on 2X, I’ll take it. I sat on the bank and replaced  my absolutely shredded leader and took a moment to soak it all in. Everything that could have gone wrong did and somehow we were still fortunate enough to capture and release a stunning trout. The only thing left to do was to set off to find the next rising trout.

Labrador

“I’m not sure you should be reading that,” lamented my dad. He saw his old copy of Trout Bum by John Gierach at the top of my stack of text books as I was packing up to head back to Philadelphia after the holidays. “You’ll quit school and move out West.” Honestly, how did I not quit school and move out west?

In my days at Drexel, you were more likely to find me sucked into tales about one of Gierach’s fishing trips than one of my engineering text books. Shocker. The story that stuck with me most of all was the one about fishing dry flies for brook trout that were measured in pounds. In what kind of other galaxy was this even remotely possible? Labrador.

S2 Detail

Labrador was always kind of a magic word to me. Where the hell was this place? A long way away, but I knew, someday, I had to go there. More recently my uncle was visiting us from Maine for a family get together and asked my dad and I, “Would you like to go to Labrador?” Um, YES.

My uncle personally knew a guide who hosted trips and one of his destinations was in the magical land of mega brook trout. Over the course of a year and a half of hoarding vacation time and extra cash, the excitement began to build. Fifteen or so years ago, I had read about this place and now somehow it was our next destination.

I’m not going to lie, expectations were very high, but having never been somewhere like this, I didn’t have any idea what was realistic. Well, expectations were met and exceeded. I have never seen better fishing in my entire life. It was an adventure from the minute we said we were in. Skeptical Canadian Border Crossing Guards, driving 120 km/hr on sketchy dirt roads through Quebec, not speaking a lick of French, missing ferries across the Gulf of St. Lawrence, float plane delay days, and learning about birds and edible plants in the boreal forest all paled in comparison to the brook trout fishery.

We were spoiled with finely prepared French cuisine, escorted to the best sections of river in wooden square stern canoes propelled by 20 horse short shaft outboards, greeted anxiously by ravenous mosquitoes and black flies wherever we went, and welcomed back to camp by Zula the wonder dog. Caddisflies, mayflies, and stoneflies hatched steadily every day. If fish weren’t willing to look up, they would usually react with a well presented streamer. Most often though, it was the dry flies they wanted. Who was I to argue!

It’s been a dream of mine to go to Labrador for years and it’s still sinking in that we got to experience such an incredible place. Sharing the journey with my dad and uncle made it even more unforgettable. Watching kyped beaks break the surface for emerging caddis in margins of rapid rivers, followed behind by a vermiculated dorsal and broad red tail waving like a flag will forever be burned into my brain.

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Frenzy

Laker

Quartzite Adams

Oananiche

Middle Top

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S2 SM

Camp Sunset

Lake Sunset

Cabin

Canoe

Skeeters

Friends

Trail 2

Float Plane

The Five Variables of Fly Casting

I previously wrote about the Five Essentials of Fly Casting. Over the last few years, I’ve spent countless hours working with our casting group in Warren, PA. In that time, we primarily practiced the Fundamentals of Casting, constructively critiqued one another, and worked on teaching casting to others. Learning and practicing the Five Essentials should be the first steps as a Fly Caster. Once you have a solid grasp on the fundamentals, you can begin to understand the next group of fly casting skills. Skills our fearless leader and Fly Fishers International Master Casting Instructor, Gary Kell refers to as Five Variables. While maintaining the Five Essentials, these Five Variables are practical changes we can make to our basic cast to create Fishing Casts. The Five Variables are:

  1. Loop Size
  2. Loop Speed
  3. Loop Plane
  4. Loop Trajectory
  5. Rod Mends

 

Loop Size

The Loop is the “U” shape created by our fly line outside of our rod tip. As we make a cast, the line forms two “legs,” the Rod Leg and the Fly Leg.Loop DefinitionsWe generally refer to the size of loop size as narrow (3 ft wide or less), medium (3 to 6 ft wide), and wide (6 to 8 ft wide or more), referring to the distance between the rod leg and fly leg.Loop SizeNarrow loops are the most efficient loops and are critical for casting in the wind, around obstacles, and casting for distance. As a fisherman however, medium and wide loops can be essential in the proper situations. When casting indicators and split shot or heavy sinking lines, gravity becomes the enemy of tight loops. The added weight can cause the fly leg to collapse and create infuriating tangles. I know well from past experience.

We can increase our loop size by increasing our casting arc for a particular length of line. This increase in casting arc creates the convex rod tip path (more circular) mentioned in the Five Essentials.

Beware, the shorter we can make our casting stroke for a length of line, the narrower our loops will be, to a point. If we use too short of a casting stroke for a length of line, we will end up with a tailing loop resulting in knots and tangles.


 

Loop Speed

We can vary our loop speed from slow, to moderate, to fast. Moderate would be considered a comfortable casting speed. Slower loops take less energy and can be helpful for more delicate presentations whereas, faster loops take more energy but can be helpful in windy conditions, to deliver a fly to a moving fish, or while your boat is moving quickly past your target.

An important thing to remember when varying loop speeds, the more force you apply to the rod, the more it bends the rod. Therefore, in order to maintain our loop shape, we have to make a few adjustments. If we cast faster loops, the more the rod bends, requiring a longer casting stroke and shorter pause. If we cast slower loops, the less the rod bends, requiring a shorter casting stroke and longer pause.

Varying Loop Speed
Slow Fast
Force Less Force More
Casting Arc Shorter Casting Arc Wider
Pause Longer Pause Shorter


 

Loop Plane

Our fundamental cast is typically made with a vertical loop plane. There are occasions where we need to  change the plane in which our rod travels and,  in turn, the plane our loops form. These casts are commonly referred to as a side-arm cast or a cross body cast. We can use these fishing casts when we encounter obstructions or when wind becomes a safety concern (for you or your pals). If we form our loops on the down-wind side of ourselves we can execute a safer cast. Safer, because the wind carries the loop and fly away from us instead of blowing them into us.

If you fail to execute a safe cast, here is a link for a video on how to safely remove a hook from skin. (It works. Yet again, I speak from past experience.)Varying Loop PlaneIn these situations, our Five Fundamentals remain important. We want our rod tip to follow a straight line path. However, we tip the entire casting arc on its side. When we do this, gravity can again become our nemesis and drag our loops down. A good idea when casting on a horizontal plane is to increase our loop speed to avoid having your fly ticking the grass or slashing the water surface.

 

 


 

Loop Trajectory

Generally speaking, we cast our loops with horizontal trajectory, straight back and straight forward. We can vary the trajectory of our loops depending on the fishing situation. It is important to note, we need to maintain loops that are 180º from one another. If we cast upward in the front, our backcast needs to be tilted downward. If we cast downward in the front, our backcast needs to be titled upward.

When we are casting for accuracy, we want to cast with a downward trajectory toward our target. This eliminates the chance the wind can blow our line and fly off target. If we have overhead branches behind us we need to cast downward underneath them, and as a result, our forward cast must have an upward trajectory.

Trajectory of our loops is varied when we stop higher or lower on our casting stroke. For an upward trajectory, stop the rod higher in an ascending manner. To direct our cast downward, stop the rod lower in a descending path.

Varying Loop Trajectory


 

Rod Mends

The most important thing to remember with rod mends is that the fly line will follow the tip of the rod. Once we have stopped on our forward cast our fly line and fly are going to travel in the direction we’ve just sent it. After we stop, we can use the rod tip to influence what happens between our rod tip and the target.

When we are fishing artificial flies that imitate things that aren’t strong swimmers or are at the mercy of the current (insects, eggs, etc.), it is critical that our offering is free of drag and is floating along freely with the flow. Once the fly is on the water we can mend our flies to achieve a drag free drift. It is, however, much easier to manipulate fly line BEFORE things like current and surface tension start influencing our fly line. As mentioned above, we can manipulate the rod after we stop on our forward cast and our line is still in the air to perform what are referred to as aerial mends.

There are countless ways we can execute aerial mends, but probably the most common is the reach mend. As shown below, we move the rod from location 1 to location 2 in our basic casting stroke. Once we have stopped at location 2, we move the rod to location 3 as the line is traveling toward the target. By changing the angle between the rod tip and the target, we place controlled slack that will be a buffer between our fly and line under tension created from the current. Instead of having a direct connection to our fly and a line under tension, we have bought ourselves a few more seconds of drag free drift without risking pulling our fly under water with an on the water mend.

Rod Mends


 

The Five Variables are essential skills for those interested in using the fly cast as a tool to catch more fish. Once you have a strong foundation built upon the Five Essentials, practice these Five Variables. You’ll be surprised how much more enjoyable time on the water is when you can eliminate tangles and have the tools to catch those extra finicky fish.

 

Fishing Buddies

I can’t imagine having better fishing buddies. It’s funny the way it evolves, too. One day a guy you’ve fished with only a few times says, “I’ve got a guy we really should take along sometime.” A few years later, you don’t remember what it was like fishing without either of them.

When I got started fly fishing, it was almost always by myself. Now, it’s rare. Sharing those good or bad times on the river with close friends makes it a whole different experience. They get to razz you when you totally blow a cast or a drift. And it’s ok, because they have hooksets you are still rolling about from several seasons ago. One of my recent favorites was Kris recalling, “Dude, remember the fish last year that refused you 4 times and just moved a few feet down each time? That was so awesome.” Yeah, uh that was… great? Thanks a lot. Haha.

It feels jaded to say, but fish, spots, and beautiful, contrasting colors all seem to run together. Vivid memories of good days on the water with good friends never seem to fade.

The Five Essentials of Fly Casting

When making a successful fly cast, there are a ton of things that vary. With that in mind, we consider Five Essentials that remain true for all efficient casts regardless of a person’s casting style. The Five Essentials are considered fundamental basic building blocks for wide range of casts to meet the countless situations that come up while fly fishing. Put simply, we must:

  1. Eliminate Slack
  2. Accelerate Smoothly to a crisp stop
  3. Straight Line Path of the rod tip
  4. Casting Arc must vary with the amount of fly line
  5. Pause between back cast and forward cast

Eliminate Slack

Before we begin our cast, we need to be sure we have removed excess line outside the rod tip and have anchored the line. To anchor the line, we can use our rod hand by gripping the line against the cork or we can use the line hand (typically we use the thumb and forefinger on the hand not holding the rod).

If we start our casting stroke with a pile of line at our feet, we waste a portion of the casting arc removing slack. If there is no slack in the system, the fly will move as soon as the rod tip moves.

How do we remove slack? We can strip in excess line or roll cast our line into a better pick-up position. We want our rod tip pointing toward our fly line and fly.

Eliminate Slack

Accelerate Smoothly

This is how we apply power to the rod and use the mass of the fly line to load or bend the rod. The amount of force we apply varies depending on several conditions, but the HOW we apply force remains the constant. Once slack is removed, begin slow and smoothly accelerate to a crisp STOP at the end of the casting arc. For proper acceleration, remember:

Start Slow – Finish Fast

Straight Line Path

To sum this up in one sentence: the line will follow the path of the rod tip. With no slack in the system, we smoothly accelerate to a stop, and as we load the rod, it bends. The bend in the rod makes up for the circular rotation created when we move the rod from forward at and angle to overhead and slightly past vertical.

If we don’t accelerate smoothly and we apply the improper amount of force, the rod will bend either too little and create a convex path or the rod will bend too much and create a convex path. The convex path of the rod tip creates a wide loop, which is generally inefficient (though it has its proper applications). The concave path of the rod tip creates what is called a tailing loop, where the fly leg dips below the rod leg, and creates wind knots (aka bad casting knots).

With the proper acceleration, we create narrow loops that are 4′ wide or less with parallel rod and fly legs.

Straight Line Path

 

Casting Arc

 If we begin the cast with our forearm, we call that translation. As we continue to accelerate, we rotate with the wrist. Translation and Rotation are what make up our Casting Arc.

Flat First – Rotate Late

The important thing to remember about the casting arc is that it should match the amount of line we have outside the rod tip.

Short Cast = Short Line = Smaller Casting Arc, Long Cast = Long Line = More Casting Arc.

Casting Arc

Pause

At the end of our Casting Arc, we finish accelerating with a crisp STOP. This stop is what forms our loop. At this point, we need to pause to let our loop unfold. The duration of the pause will vary with the length of the line. A trick to pausing for the correct amount of time is to think of your cast in 180 degrees. Just before the line straightens on your forward cast, you can begin your back cast. Unless you are shooting large amounts of line (we’ll talk about that more in the future) the pause will be the same on back as it is in the front.

If we pause too long, our line will end up in the water behind us or on the ground. If we don’t pause long enough, we hear a whipping sound. If you are dead set on idolizing Hank Patterson, use a short pause and “Snap It!”

Short Cast = Short Line = Short Pause   |    Long Cast = Long Line = Long Pause.

Practice and master the basics. They are the building blocks for all of the casts you can make with a fly rod. If you are having any issues with your cast, be sure to start with the 5 Essentials to begin to correct your cast.

Soak It In

 

A few years ago I made a trip out to Arkansas with a buddy and we saw a grand total of 4 hours of meager generation and nothing else but minimum flows for four days. With almost no discussion, we knew what it meant. Four days of fishing until 2 am, getting some quick sleep and a shower, and back on the water by 6 am. I feel like, two years later, I’m ready to admit that was hard haha. Would I do it again tomorrow? Just say go.

trophy
White Cr— River

We knew we only had a few days and wanted to see as much as humanly possible. We fished with Alex Lafkas during the day and put some good numbers of fish in the boat. With skimpy flows we just weren’t finding the size that system is known for. Pat told me that night that the tone was set when, after Alex netted the first 18″ fish, he asked me if I wanted to get a pic. My answer should have been a little more tactful than, “mmm… No, let’s keep fishing.”

I personally learned a ton fishing and hanging out with Alex and seeing a new river. He was very helpful pointing us to spots to check out on our own and had us into fish even when he wasn’t around. No one can MAKE the fish eat, but we did our damnedest to try! We ended up getting a handful of good ones we wouldn’t have if we’d mailed in. Sometimes, you gotta just get after it.

ARBT
Grind it out.

 

I’m pretty lucky to fish with some die hard anglers: buddies, guides, and some assorted weirdos. They make me a better angler and a better person. They make me push the limits for “comfortable” and find out what is really possible. Surround yourself with people who are thoughtful and better anglers than yourself. People who ask you to explain why you’re doing things the way you are and expect a damn good answer.

You have to have goals in mind. It really is important to push yourself. Just don’t forget to take time to sit back, crack a beer, and appreciate the moments ingrained in trying to find fish. There is certainly a dichotomy to all this. Sometimes you have to get out there and bust it and sometimes you have to accept the bite is off or the bugs aren’t hatching. Fish hard anyway, but take time to grab some food, share some stories, and joke around with your buddies.  Ask some questions and treat ‘bad’ fishing as an opportunity to learn something and test some theories. Get out there and live it. Soak it in.

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