I think it’s sort of funny that a lot of people think I am rabidly opposed to nymphing. In reality, I have immense respect for the fly fishers who take steelhead on nymphs the way Bill McMillan described the technique in Dry Line Steelhead. Moreover, I spent an awful lot of time learning how to nymph for trout when I lived in Colorado. The thing I don’t like is fishing nymphs with a bobber–or indicator, as they like to call bobbers these days. I never saw a bobber back when I fished the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork regularly.
We moved to Colorado because I had had it with playing in bars and clubs. I wanted to be around rivers and trout and to work on the outdoor writing I had begun in the Keys. My partner still wanted to perform. Denver gave us both the opportunity to do what we wanted. I got a job teaching finger style guitar at the Denver Folklore Center and a private music school. My partner got into a group.
I had a great time in Colorado and became a better fly fisherman. My teaching schedule was up to me, and I more or less adopted the calendar of the University of Denver, which was across the street from our apartment. I taught about three months, then took a week or so off. I had a lot of students, sometimes as many as 60 a week during the winter.
I had a different fly rod now, a 6-weight Fenwick, one of those brown fiberglass ones with the odd white “wrappings” near the cork. I paired it with my first Pflueger reel, a 1494.
The Lo Prinzi was still my main guitar, although I also had an old Epiphone flat top with a narrow neck and a black Stratocaster. There were cheap nylon string guitars in my studios at the Folklore Center and the music school, and I actually played them more than my own guitars. I wrote a bunch of songs on them. At that time, the Denver Folklore Center was the best place to buy a vintage Martin or any fine fretted instrument in the Rocky Mountains,. I got to play a lot of sweet old guitars. I really really loved the 00 and 000 Martin “parlor” guitars.
The closest good trout river to Denver was the South Platte. However, it was very popular, had a sort of “scene” attached to it, and was associated with small flies. I don’t know why, but I have never liked fishing small patterns–even when I could still see to tie them on. And I’ve always loathed fishing “scenes”–you know, places where all the guys know each other from the fly shop, and there are a couple “characters” and a “guru” or two and a rigid pecking order. Yuck.
When I fished close to home, I headed for the St. Vrain, up north of Boulder near the town of Lyons. The St. Vrain has been made famous by John Geirach. We were most likely both on it at the same time at some point, but I don’t think I ever met him. I’m not very chatty on a river, and it seems from his books that he may be a bit taciturn himself. If we did run into each other, I imagine we both nodded and went our ways.
I guess you could say that the St. Vrain was my home river then, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. You see, my sister, Marchelle, lived in Aspen at the time. Although it was a couple hundred miles from University Avenue–not to mention, on the other side of the Continental Divide–I spent more time on the Roaring Fork and its even more celebrated tributary, the Fryingpan, than any of the Front Range rivers. The St. Vrain was fun and relaxing and intimate, but the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan were Blue Ribbon streams. They were a challenge. Geirach apparently spent a lot of time up there, too.
Even back then, the rivers near Aspen got crowded on summer weekends. That was especially true during their legendary Green Drake hatches. But with my flexible schedule I was able to fish during the week and at odd times of the year. My favorites were early September,when I tried to combine fishing with the early archery elk season, and, especially, in early spring.
You see, the massive Rocky Mountain run-off that fills the rivers with snow melt for weeks hasn’t usually begun in early April. The rivers are still low but have warmed up a bit from their winter doldrums. I am told today that this “secret season” is now widely known, but back then I never saw very many people out in early spring, even on the Fryingpan.
I have Ernest Schwiebert to thank for sparking my interest in nymphing. “The clever man with a nymph will score on water that’s clear enough for the fly whether the hatches have appeared or not,” he wrote in “Western May Flies: Early Hatches” in Matching the Hatch.
In addition, the most common insect in the air in spring at that elevation are pretty small. As I mentioned, I have never liked fishing small flies. I had also read enough by then to know that trout get about 90 percent of their food on the bottom. I wanted to learn how fish the bottom.
So I began nymphing. And let me tell you, my catch rate plummeted. I had always done okay on these rivers fishing impressionistic patterns, Adams and Elk-Hair Caddis, Hare’s Ears, Woolly Worms, Muddler Minnows.
I remember a sunny day on a meadow stretch of the Roaring Fork above Aspen. I caught trout all afternoon on a size 14 tan Elk-Hair Caddis. There was also a crisp autumn day fishing from the riverside trail in town. At one point, I drifted a Hornberg Special into the soft water in front of a large midstream rock. A trout took it right away, then spent more time in the air than the water for the next several minutes. After I released it, a gorgeous 15-inch rainbow, I stood up and stretched my shoulders. A strikingly pretty woman with a little girl was on the trail above me. The woman’s hair was whitish blonde, so bright it looked like the flame of a Coleman lantern on the other side of a lake at night. She smiled broadly and waved.
I didn’t have a whole lot of experiences like those after I began to nymph in earnest. On days when I was stubborn and refused to do anything but nymph, I often didn’t catch a single fish. Eventually, I began to catch trout now and then. To be honest, though, I think those fish had more to do with luck, were gifts from the gods, as it were, than any skill I possessed at nymphing.
My problem was the same as everyone else’s that takes up nymphing: I couldn’t tell when a fish had the fly in its mouth. That’s why fly shops today sell bobbers (sorry, indicators) hand over fist.
The turning point for me came on the Fryingpan. It was early April, during my “spring break” trip. I was up near Seven Castles. I had just eaten a sandwich and then waded back out waist deep in a run full of red rock rubble. It was a beautifully clear day, and the water was even clearer than the sky. I could see straight down to the laces on my wading shoes.
I fished for an hour without anything happening at all. It was fun, though. I was completely absorbed in the rhythm of fishing. All I was aware of was the tip of my floating line. I hardly noticed the birds or the deer or otters or the red rock formations above me.
Then, suddenly, I glimpsed a flash of light near the bottom. Seconds later, I actually saw a fish rising up through the water column. I saw its white belly. hen it struck at something. The something, I realized moments later, was my fly. I raised the rod and stripped the slack. I hooked it.
It turned out to be a brown, about 13 inches.
I don’t know why, but I began to catch more trout on nymphs after that. I didn’t see very many other trout before the strike, but for some reason witnessing the way that fished attacked my fly unlocked something in my brain. It gave me, at least on an unconscious level, a better sense of how to fish nymphs. I never got great at, like some of the Colorado fly fishermen and women. But I got good enough to have a good time, especially on my “spring break” trips.
Salmonflies in Montana
One of my friends in Denver, a former student at the Folklore Center, bought a bar/restaurant in Livingston. He asked me if my partner and I would like to play there. As I mentioned, I had pretty much given up performing by then, but this sounded like a great way to finance a fishing trip to Montana. He gave us our choice of when to play, so I suggested late July. My idea was to hit the rivers after the peak of the salmonfly hatch. I had lived in the Rockies long enough by then to know that the big stoneflies pull the largest crowds of the year to the Yellowstone-area rivers.
I had a great time in Montana. I even had a good time performing. I caught fish in the Yellowstone and Gallatin. I saw Richard Brautigan in the bar we played at and Russell Chatham in the Murray Hotel bar. I bought a small book of reproductions of Chatham’s paintings at George Anderson’s fly shop. I made the obligatory pilgrimage to Dan Bailey’s. This was back when the local ladies still tied flies in the room next door. Dan Bailey’s was also where I saw my first Spruce flies. I caught a 17-inch brown on one from the park right in town.
I loved the Yellowstone and Gallatin but, I had the most fun on the Gardiner River. A small river by Montana standards, not much bigger than the upper Fryingpan, it rises in the park and drains into the Yellowstone at the town of Gardiner, near the Roosevelt Peace Arch. We camped at Mammoth for a few days before we had to be in Livingston, and the Gardiner was the closest river to our campsite. It was the first place I cast a fly in Montana.
I drove down to the river on our first night and parked at a turnout by the bridge There were only a couple cars there, and I figured I wouldn’t have trouble finding a place to fish. It was a pleasant evening, just beginning to cool down after a hot day on the Yellowstone plateau. The air along the river smelled of dust and warm rocks and running water. I got into my waders and followed the trail downstream.
I hadn’t gone 50 feet when something landed on my back, something pretty substantial. I jumped reflexively. I remember thinking “bat.” But when I swiped my free hand over my shoulder to shoo it away, I captured an insect. It was a salmonfly, Pteronarcys californica. I recognized it from the lovely paintings that Ernest Schwiebert had done to accompany an article on salmonflies that he had written for Fly Fisherman a few years before. Its dark, veined wings and red belly were unmistakeable.
Well, that’s weird, I thought. I had specifically chosen this week because I wanted to avoid the angler crush that the salmonflies brought out. I had been told that it made the Green Drake hatch on the Fryingpan look like the height of solitude.I found several more big stoneflies in the streamside willows.
Just then, another fly fisherman came up the path from downstream. He looked like he was in his early fifties. He had a deep tan and salt and pepper hair. We exchanged greetings, and he asked me how I was doing.
“I just got here.” I said. “I thought the salmonflies would be over by now.”
He nodded. “There was a lot of snow last winter and the river was high and cold longer than usual. They came off late. A lot of the guys that were here earlier missed out on them completely. The peak at this elevation was just last week. And, as you can see, there are still plenty around.”
“Gee,” I said. “Are the fish still hitting them? I didn’t even bring any salmonfly patterns.”
“They’re still hitting the dries well,” he said. “I had a good night.” Then he reached into the front pocket of his vest and took out a fly box, an old worn Wheatley. He selected three big hair wings and handed them to me. “Here. I’m heading back for California tomorrow and won’t need them.”
“Are you sure?”
“Please. Have a good time.”
We talked for a few more minutes. From his generosity with information and lack of posturing , I was pretty sure that he had been fly fishing a long time. I wasn’t surprised when he told me that he had fished the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork. He spoke of steelhead, a fish that I had just begun to read about. I would have been willing to bet that he was an excellent fisherman.
The light was just beginning to change, to become watery and streaky, when I waded into the river. A bank side willow tangle a short distance upstream caught my eye. The water beneath it looked deeper than the adjacent run, sort of like a little cut bank. I tied on one of the big flies and doped it up.
I was pretty tensed up–it was my first time in Montana, after all–and I shanked my first couple casts. Fortunately, they fell short of the pocket. My next cast unfolded smoothly and the fly settled on the water nicely. It floated like a piece of balsa wood for a few feet. Then there was a boil beneath it it. I struck and felt the throb of a trout. It jumped a couple times. Even in the fading light, I could see that it was a brown, about 12 inches.
I caught another brown and a rainbow before the twilight began edging into darkness, and I began thinking about bears.
Those three fish were my first Montana trout. I caught them on salmonfly patterns, fished dry. With flies given to me by a very nice man. I remember him fondly more than 30 years later.
How perfect is that?
Century Drive Brookies
My friends Steve and Marilyn had stopped by my place briefly the afternoon before. They were both sun-burned and a little bleary from a long day outdoors in the mountains. Their infant son, Graham, was strapped in his car seat. Steve held up a plastic bag with about a half-dozen good-sized brook trout in it. It was autumn, and they were ablaze in their autumnal courting finery.
“Nice fish,” I said. “Where did you get them?”
“Come with me tomorrow and I’ll show you.”
I lived in Bend then. Although the upper Deschutes basin isn’t thought of particularly as brook trout water–it’s much better known for Davis and Crane Prairie rainbows, and the browns of the upper Deschutes, Wickuip and Paulina Lake–there are a number of good brook trout waters. For a while, East Lake had a tremendous stock of big Eastern brook trout, and several of the Cascade lakes support robust brookie populations.
I still had my Fenwick 6-weight then, along with an 8-weight for steelhead. I also still had my Lo Prinzi, my Epiphone and the Strat, as well as a beater bass, a banjo, a lap steel and cheap nylon string guitar. Continuing my pattern from Colorado, I played the classical guitar more than all the others combined.
I don’t think I ever played for money in Bend. Quite a few of the bars featured country music, but it was the slicked-up pap that passes for country music on the radio today. There was scant Hank Williams or Patsy Cline or Loretta Lynn or George Jones, not to mention any of the good contemporary stuff by Roseanne Cash, Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris. There was also quite a bit of that romanticized cowboy music with the tight harmonies that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
I taught at the music store and worked behind the counter a couple of days a week. That gave me enough money to fish and write. I was still writing songs, but I was spending more time writing about hunting and fishing. I began the very first piece I sold for money in Bend.
Every once in a while Steve and I played together. When we did, I lugged out the Lo Prinzi and he played his old Guild. It was a great old flat top, the kind from the early 70s with the deeply cut, sort of Florentine, body curve. Steve and I had played together since we tried to form a band in high school. Marilyn’s and my lockers were next to each other all through high school. We had all been friends for a very long time.
Steve picked me up the next morning, and we headed uphill, toward Mount Bachelor. If you’ve never been on that road, it has several nicknames–the Highway to the Sun, Century Drive. It’s called Century Drive because you can make a nearly perfect one hundred mile loop into the Cascade Mountains and back into Bend on it. It’s made largely of the abundant volcanic material in the mountains, and it’s sort of a dirty orange color. It provides access to a bunch of beautiful trout lakes.
I had figured we were headed to one of the lakes. I also suspected, since his van hadn’t had his canoe on it the day before, that Steve had caught the fish in an inlet or outlet creek. It was September, the season brook trout spawn. That was also clear from the appearance of the fish Steve had shown me. I assumed they were fish from a lake that had moved into a creek in preparation to spawning.
Normally, I wouldn’t have bothered spawning fish. But I had checked and the high country creeks were still open. There also wasn’t a native population of brook trout within at least 1,000 miles of Bend, so it wasn’t like I would be hassling a distressed wild stock or anything.
More importantly, Steve and I hadn’t fished together as much as we used to. He was beginning to show the symptoms of some health problems, the manifestations of things that had happened to him in Vietnam 20 years earlier. Steve and Marilyn’s beloved Irish Setter, Tomar, who used to hunt with Leo, had also died recently. I decided to fish and have a good time with my old friend.
It was a beautiful day and we had a great time. The sky was that achingly deep blue it gets in the high country in early autumn. South Sister, the immense 10,000 foot volcanic peak, loomed over us to the north. It and the other Cascade peaks wore a fresh coat of snow. It softened that dry barrren look the eastern slopes of the Cascades take on in late summer.
The creek shimmered like a mirror under the sun as it meandered through a swampy mountain meadow. The sedges we hiked through to reach it, rendered a brilliant autumn gold by the first frosts, were waist high.
The place Steve had found was an opening in the vegetation along the bank. It was a flat muddy clearing, maybe an otter landing. Only one of us could fish at a time, so we took turns. It wasn’t the shooting-fish-in- a-barrel type of situation that I had feared, because you had to lay your cast into one of the deeper pockets along the edge of the sedges or the fish wouldn’t bite. But there were a lot them. And they weren’t picky. We both fished Tied-Down Caddis, a wet fly that is very popular in Central Oregon, or at least it was back then. It didn’t matter if the body was yellow or green or orange.
We probably caught about 30 fish. They all looked like the ones Steve had showed me the day before. The biggest were probably 13 inches, the smallest about eight. I kept two for my supper. Steve said they didn’t need any more. I dusted mine in flour that was seasoned with salt and pepper. I cooked it in butter. That’s called “meuniere” style in France. It means “miller’s wife.” I ate the trout with boiled red potatoes and steamed broccoli. I drank a few glasses of crisp white wine with it. The wine tasted exactly like that beautiful fall day looked.
I’m not sure, but I think that’s the last time Steve and I fished together. His health is better now, but he was in bad shape for a long time. He and Marilyn live back in Michigan now. Their son, Graham, who was a baby when Steve and I fished that Cascade creek, is working on his masters at the University of Michigan. Before that, he taught in South Korea. Steve has a Taylor guitar now.
My wife, Eliana, and I will visit them next week. I met her through Marilyn and Steve after they left Bend and moved to Seattle. Eliana was their neighbor and became a good friend.
I want to eat some bluegills while I’m back there. I mentioned this to my saltwater cutthroat buddy, Jeffrey Delia, and yesterday he gave me a bunch of very nicely-tied panfish flies. He’s a guitar player, too, remember. He is one of the few people I know who actually did find an old Martin in a junk shop. He’s had it so long, he’s re-fretted it a couple times.
Just a little while ago, Dick Wentworth called and said he had some bluegill flies for me, too. I don’t think he’s ever played guitar, but he’s the finest artists with feathers I’ll ever know. Everything he does with his hands–crafting arrows or boats or gorgeous Spey flies and bluegill poppers–is done with incredible grace and rhythm. He’s also an attentive observer of the natural world, a born naturalist.
A few months ago, another old friend from Michigan, Jimi, mailed me some tapes my partner and I made 30 years ago. When I lived in Denver Jimi used to stop by after his annual backpacking/fly fishing trip into the Wind River Range. He’s the chef in a busy restaurant now and has 80 acres of hardwood and swamp to look after. He hasn’t fished in years. Last year, he sent me his old Granger bamboo fly rod. I am putting on new guides and re-wrapping it and will fish for cutthroat with it in the Calawah and Bogachiel this fall. Each summer when we’re in Michigan, Jimi makes gumbo the soup of the day when we visit his restaurant. Jimi learned to cook in New Orleans, and his gumbo is the real thing. I eat it with the fresh olive rolls the restaurant is famous for. I could eat his gumbo and olive rolls for lunch every day of my life.
I didn’t listen to the tapes for a while. I was sort of afraid that they would be embarrassing. And some of it, frankly, was dated and even a little silly. But I still really liked a few of the originals. That surprised me. Since then, I’ve been dragging out the Lo Prinzi more than I have in a long time. As usual, though, I’m playing my nylon stringed guitar even more. Eliana bought it for me at a garage sale about 10 years ago. She was riding her bike when she found it. She walked home holding the guitar in one hand and steering the bike with the other.
It seems to me that the interplay between fly rods and guitars in my life, and the lives of a number of my friends, is something like the course of a river. As it works its way downhill, a river or creek constantly shifts its energy load from one side to the other. This creates the lovely pattern of deep side/shallow side transfers that we anglers know so well. Similarly, just as a river or creek heads up on specific seeps and springs in its headwaters, perhaps the attention we direct to fly rods and guitars originates in the same place in our unconscious and releases the same type of energy.
As for why so many of us have fallen so deeply under the thrall of fly rods and guitars in particular, as I said earlier, I don’t really have an answer. I have found something that gets close, though. Interestingly, it isn’t even about fly rods or guitars. It’s a definition of metaphor in Jim Harrison’s superb novel, Sundog:
” . . . metaphor was a way to measure things of similar resonance and volume but vastly different shape.”
I think that gets as close to what I have been searching for as I need to get.