Preceding the release of "Pulp Fly: Volume Three" coming soon in early December, the Powers That Be masterminded to produce audio of my contribution to the forthcoming collection. Now freely available for download on the Pulp Fly website. Hope you all enjoy! And many thanks to Michael Gracie and Bruce Smithhammerfor their organization, patient editing, and detailed work.
Runoff is in full swing here on Colorado’s Front Range. Like
an old woman, the mountains slowly lose their white until only wisps are left
straggling down. Winter’s tendrils grasping in cirques and north faces long
Sometimes…they never leave.
Snowpack now makes small streams whitewater roar and
reservoirs slowly fill back up again, after last year’s dismal low. The
pounding snows of May came through at the end, like any good play in a game -- winter’s
trump upon trump. Complete with cheering on my part. And any angler who did
not, should have their license revoked, that’s what I say.
The benefit of being a multi-species angler is evident at
this time of year: I can still find good
fishing. Water levels on the mudflats are higher and murkier than they have
been -- and the buoy line on the best of the beaches has been placed, holding
through the summer season to protect shoreline bird breeding habitat. But there
are carp – and white bass, crappie, and smallmouth bass – cruising and willing
(with enough convincing -- like fathers and borrowing the car when you're 16), to take a fly.
While tailwater anglers must deal with
each other and city-pond-fishers the homeless…reservoir carpers combat
pelicans, bloated prairie dogs, and protective large-homed old women yelling
out their windows should you get too close.
We waded far and deep, Jay, Ivan and I -- long rounds that
would leave us all dehydrated and seeing phantoms – like walking through woods
as night falls, with an active imagination. You
can see almost anything. But that comes with the territory, I guess: moving
water and blinding sun. Focusing on a single point while the world moves around
you, keeps you steady. That’s why driving if you get carsick works.
So now, you just have to focus on the task at hand – that large shadow
swiftly moving away – and catch up.
After an early spring morning (in both month and hour) of pike fishing with Ivan Orsic, Sean Hudson, Jay Zimmerman, and Russell Schnitzer, I was very pleased to be
able work on an essay/photo collaboration with Russ. You can find the piece, “Among the Dinosaurs,”
published in the "Waterlines" department in the current issue (July/August 2013) of AmericanAngler.
Living in two worlds makes you anxious, like multiple
personalities will put you on meds (or wine, I suppose, lots of wine).And when the daffodils have started blooming
in the plains off the Front Range, there is still a thick covering of snow in
my canyon, just below 8,000 ft. I see them as I walk to work through Boulder’s
University Hill, peeps of yellow and small purple crocus, bulbs of memory, year
The trout fishing I love won’t open for a few months yet, I
don’t go to tailwaters or large rivers that keep moving through the year, with
unrelenting currents of people and bugs. No, my trout are small. And still under
snow; just like the cabin. So come spring, I start itching for warmwater – for
carp and bass and the odd crappie or two.
On a day when Jay and I both had nasty headcolds but the sun
was shining and snow was melting in clods off the roof, puddling loudly in the
stainless steel dog food dish out the back door, we couldn’t stay in. Call it
cabin fever or shack nasties, or poor judgment from sinus pressure.
We head to lower ground. To spring, and warm(er) temps.
And halfway down the canyon the speech begins, like clockwork – the alarm set only on fishing
days -- when we cross under the railroad bridge and there is still snow. Jay
pounds the steering wheel, “We’re jumping the gun a bit….what the hell was I
thinking?” he chides. We’re going to have
to work hard for these fish. That’s always in The Speech somewhere, working hard – and that the conditions won’t be optimal. They never are. Like
they never are for hanging out a load to dry in the mountains. It always rains. I’ve come to expect it.
And I know it’s never easy, it can’t be, but I wonder if we
don’t like making it more so --- like young women and boyfriends….they like the drama. And just like
fishermen, they hash and re-hash it – waffle maker for Valentines Day 1998, or
the Blue Winged Olives on the Arkansas, Mothers Day, 2004. They boil down to
the same thing at a simmer.
I smile at the familiarity of it all, looking out my window
at the elk, muzzling away snow from the new green shoots of fieldgrass, leaving
the flats pocked like the moon.The Speech
means the season has started, and it’s been a long winter. Not in measurable
snow so much as measurable time, and words piled up like cordwood: reversal of
the decreasing pile out by the shed, with files and folders growing and being
named. Mine, with increasingly incoherent silliness. Imagine the delusions of
nearing the end of a long race.
It has been a long winter in a chore done. And chores feel
especially satisfying when you’ve had to get a little dirty in the process.
“The water’ll be cold,” Jay breaks in, predicting, “but
we’ll have a decent chance for crappie and yellow perch….they’re active early.”
The warnings continue down highway 93 -- the game plan – for
you see, we’re always on a mission. And there are always old army hand signals
involved, too. I’m getting better at understanding them – and if not what they
mean, then what I should do as a result.
“There might be some bass in close, too…they move in before
staging to spawn.”
I nod. Prepared.
Perhaps I should be taking notes.
A calm surface often belies interior movement – but just
like a human, it’s findable when you know where to look, when you know the
ticks and troughs. That’s one of the addictions to stillwater, you just never know; and that’s the fly
fisher’s eternal cry, isn’t it, one last
cast, because you have to see how it all turns out – a hard thing, usually,
to know the last page without The Brothers Grimm’s convenient The Ends. We depend upon stories, long after they don’t get read to us
at bedtime anymore.
But that’s why we keep going. To get to the page where it’s
She looks much the same after seven months, the gestation of
a black bear. Although it feels like I’m visiting a sick friend, and am unsure
whether she’ll remember me or not. Whether she’ll babble on about Phillip (who
I apparently know) or peas in tea. Or how cilantro tastes like soap and that
there’s an alien in the knotty pine.
Jay sticks a fist in the water as soon as we reach the bank,
cool, but not too cold. Code for possibilities. And so we split up,
scouting the perimeter, making long casts out deep with heavy flies. Banjo runs
back and forth between us, like a calf released from Malachi’s proverbial
stall. Pure joy.
And sometimes, even when conditions aren’t optimal: even
when you’ve jumped the gun a bit, or even when the wind is hauling ass like it’s
nine and a t-ball coach is yelling “hustle,” (and you do, because you want to
round the bases to get to that generic-Coke filled cooler). Things still work
out okay. Better than, really, because you weren’t expecting it.
Just as I wasn’t expecting the largemouths that latched on
and fought hard, even still pale from lack of sun. Just like me. But that will
change; I’ll redden and peel and they’ll darken and stripe.
And so it turns out, the pond, she’s very healthy indeed. Sane
-- and remembers us well.
On the walk out, a lone meadowlark sits on a barbed wire
fence; separated from its flock of winter, calling for the season to begin.
Many things seem like great ideas at the time, yet most are only figments of a hopeful
imagination or intoxicated faculties. Few actually take off with the vengeance
of sprinters after the start gun. Few actually work or have legs to stand on.
And although they are there if you look hard and long enough, success stories
are few and far between. We cheer them on, those long shots. And I’ve always
been partial to the underdog.
So had I been around
in the late 1800s, I would have cheered on the carp. Facing pressured fisheries
and depletion of native stocks, the U.S. Fish Commission (just as English monks
had done in the 1300s) made the decision to import what they thought to be the
most economical food source for their country’s growing population, the best
return on investment: the carp. Having proved their worth over centuries in
Asia and Europe, it seemed the most logical move to make.
However, what was not
foreseen was the success of that idea; or rather, success of the carp and
failure of the idea. Based upon the well kept carp ponds of Europe and the
model of the thousands of acres of ponds maintained by the Schwarzenberg
princes of Austria, the newly arrived carp in the United States were placed in
a series of New England ponds -- and although still harvested, were found to be
far less tasty than the selectively bred carp of the old world.
Within the twenty
years following, carp had been distributed throughout the states and were
already being viewed as a nuisance and invasive species. Their population
burgeoned just as wild game fish’s decreased in unfortunate synchrony. For in
truth, it was the turn of the century’s increased manufacturing and mining at
fault. Yet much like other erroneous assumptions of the past, people noticed
the concurrence and concluded that the pollution of rivers and fall of game
fish must have something to do with carp. They were thriving. Obviously,
there must be a correlation.
determined, adapting and changing with their environment, carp were revered by
the ancients for their persistence and stoicism. In manicured ponds, for luck;
or in abandoned gravel mine mud pits, forgotten -- they keep on. And they
always will. They will always do their thing. They’re survivors. And
they’re smart; too smart, it was once thought, to be catchable. But then in mid-20th
century Britain, carp began gaining popularity as a game fish. Quarried with
breadcrumbs and bait, they were prized and respected as a worthy opponent. Yet
it would be almost fifty years before they achieved that same status as a game
fish in the United States. And strangely enough, it would come by the fly.
In late 1990s
Colorado, with damsel nymph and crayfish imitations, fly fishermen such as
Barry Reynolds and Jay Zimmerman, designed flies, wrote blogs, authored books,
and brought fly fishing for carp into its own -- proving that carp can indeed
be caught on the fly and validating those who do. It wasn’t easy though – it
still isn’t -- stereotypes of carp as bottom dwellers and rough fish abound,
and they were thought unworthy of being chased with a fly rod.
Yet carp aren’t easy
themselves, claiming some of the highest places for game fish IQ, and as
otophysans they have intense auditory sensitivity due to the design of their
inner ear. They will hear you coming and they will remember your fly. While
trout are hailed as picky, carp are many times worse. And that is a vast
Things must go just
right: the cast, the presentation, the hook set. Rarely will you blindly catch
a carp on the fly: it’s precision sight casting with a five or six weight, and
you must be deadly accurate with primarily short casts, keeping the line off
the water and the carp’s back when they’re in close, feeding in low water. Also
easily spooked, you’ll quickly be familiarized with the stomach sinking wake
when you set one off, when they take off for deeper water. They might come
back, but then again they might not.
Your best bet is
to move on.
You also must judge
the direction and speed of the carp, casting ahead and stripping in until the
fly is in the carp’s line of vision (you have to make it easy for them), and
then twitching to get their attention – sometimes they will turn and
pounce like a skeleton of a barn cat on a mouse. In early autumn when the water
levels are low and cooler from longer nights, the carp will feed more
aggressively on what they can get. Like cold winter nights when darkness and
snow are falling, your options are limited, and it’s past hours for the
delivery place down the street: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich scavenged
from the pantry will do just fine. Yet most times they don’t pounce. Satiated
and fed, and far too cunning to play with a toy. The success rate of carping is
very low most days.
And carp have a
knack for getting into your head, making even the most seasoned and
accomplished angler feel inept. Only the most self-deprecating even attempt.
But when the weight of a take finally comes, you realize that in those three
straight hours you cast to carp (and logs and rocks when you’re extremely
dehydrated, which is often), you could have caught many more trout (perhaps
into the double digits): brookies and browns eager to take dries in midsummer.
Yet you’d take this one carp any day. And when your old fishing friends say you
have lost your mind, they are most likely right. Fly fishing for carp often has
that effect on people – making them walk softly and carry a big rod. And like
any other addictive stimulant, you’re always left wanting more. One cup of
coffee is never really enough, is it.
Yet trumping all, as
my carping partner tells me, the most important thing you can have (or develop)
for fly fishing for carp is short term memory: the willingness and strength to
try again. I suppose that goes for life, too. Looking back and fretting over
mistakes and blown opportunities isn’t going to get you ahead unless you have a
time machine. But even then, we humans are widely known for repeating our
mistakes. So you have to cast again and again, and in the process clear your
mind of self-doubt. And a true fly fisherman will always have at least one
last cast left in them if asked.
The day he told me
it was hot, even at 7:30 a.m. rigging beneath shade at the truck. And the
reservoir low in summer’s heat, gaining us five or more feet of shoreline
enabling stealthier movement, wallowing through mud instead of rocks that give
way to noise underfoot. And the familiar golden hump of a common carp rose and
fell, aggressively feeding in close. “You’re up…” I heard from behind, and so I
unhooked my fly and wetted it down quickly. Feeding carp change their minds
faster than a rabbit in a garden (or your stereotypical woman), nibbling here
and there, and often the window of opportunity is nothing more than cracked. So
without much planning but sure of my aim and placement, I made a cast out to
the left trying not to spook it; and holding my rod high, stripped in the fly
letting it drop right in front. The carp turned, my line tightened, and it ran.
Muddy water splashed up and wakes of nearby feeders spooked. I grinned and
started getting line on the reel. It ran again -- and farther this time, too.
Until my line stopped.
Now, carp will take
you into your backing, but I’ve never been taken to the very end of the line.
Confused, I looked down to see my line tangled in the reel. I tugged and pulled
with all I had. So did the carp, in fact. But with another burst he was gone.
My fly and tippet, too.
I looked down and
breathed slowly, knowing that was possibly the only carp I’d get that day. But
I remembered the advice of my fishing partner: short term memory. I knew
I couldn’t dwell on the one that got away. There were other carp in this
reservoir, and they are hungry too. So I repaired my leader, tied on a new fly,
and moved down the mudflats.
There are times in
fly fishing, and life too for that matter, when things are just right -- like goldilocks’
chair. You settle in deep down, and it feels good. Made just for you, even.
Your size, your place. Yet in both those moments are few and far between,
because the winds will start blowing, you’ll stick your foot in your mouth, or
maybe your timing will just be all off. Your head won’t be in the game. But
when those moments do come (and surely they will) when everything lines up,
you’ll feel like a million. You’ll smile even, while knowing it won’t last. And
that’s why we keep on casting -- for the hope of those times when things will
go just right; for the belief that sometimes, the long shot does win.