Stories

Driftless Expectations

Time
By Max Wilke | TMTB Contributor | Featured Image by John Westrich
May 23, 2018

 

I was in the the Driftless.

The area got that name due to the lack of glacier drift deposits over the landscape from the last ice age. The Driftless is full of wooded bluffs and spring-fed streams bubbling up from a limestone bedrock. It was early April, which usually means one of two options weather wise around here. It’s either raining and windy, or one of those bluebird days that lend spring an air of life.

If if was the latter, I’d hear the chirps of the first red-winged blackbirds as they came home to the Driftless.

Both weather scenarios would bring the first blue-winged olive hatches of the year. I suppose that’s what matters most.

After all, I wanted a picture of a trout with a dun stuck in its lip – in classic Instagram fashion – and it felt like a possibility.

Neither option showed up that day, since it registered as one of the colder Aprils on record in the Driftless. Snow, a thirty-some degree high, and strong, gusty winds equated to frozen fingers and feet that were starting to ache from standing in water that barely had reached 40 degrees.

The fishing was kind of lousy, though only in comparison to April days in years past. With so much cold lingering, the creeks hadn’t warmed up to their normal temperature levels for that time of year. The Blue Winged Olives hadn’t hatched yet, either.

driftless fly fishing stream

Photo by Max Wilke

I didn’t want to waste precious heat fumbling around with my fly box. After I pulled out a size 12 Pink Squirrel from its contents, I put the box away in the front pocket of my waders. I started casting to a slow, deep pool that still sported an ice shelf. The water was deep and still, and a sheer limestone outcropping on the far side of the pool rose into the overcast sky.

I’m a new fly angler. Like many, I suspect, I got started at the local pond. I threw whatever flies looked cool to me to bluegill, and I was lucky the pond was only a few blocks from my apartment at the time.

Once I had my feet wet, I decided it was time to chase trout. The Driftless was the ideal place to start, so I planned a spring trip around some of its creeks.

I was thoroughly skunked for the first five outings.  For the sixth trip, I ventured to a different stream, one slightly further into the hilly, Driftless. That’s where I caught my first trout – a thrilling experience unburdened by any knowledge that comes with time.

It was one of those warm, bright days in May, with everything looking and smelling green. A truly proper, peak of spring day. This particular stream was a bit more open than the previous one. It cut through a valley that ran North from a small town on the highway, bordered by dairy farms and pasture land.

I had hooked and lost a fish earlier, so I’m sure I shouted a bit too loudly when I finally put a plump nine-inch brown in the net.

driftless brown trout

Photo by Max Wilke

After hooking my first trout, the obsession began; or rather, it kicked into high gear. After all, I had gone fishing five times before, without so much as a bite before finally landing that modest trout.

Like any normal millennial, that passion spilled over into the internet and social media. I found a plethora of blogs, photos, websites, YouTube videos, and of course Instagram. Everywhere I looked, stories and photographs of beautiful trout and smiling anglers all alone in some remote corner of the world stared back at me.

That virtual reality informed my expectations about fishing – and raised the bar for what I expected in The Driftless. It was only a matter of time until I’d be out there catching 20-inch trout as if it were nothing.

Those pictures – and social media at large – was all I thought about when I saw that perfect pool on that chilly April day. I knew there had to be one of those Instagram-worthy fish swimming around in its depths.

And maybe there was.

I proceeded to haul out a handful of creek chubs and a brown trout measuring eight or so inches. I caught a couple more fish, all about the same size, and all on nymphs dredged along the bottom. Within a couple hours, my stiff fingers finally reached a point where I could no longer thread tippet through the eyes of my hooks, especially after tripping and catching myself with my hands in the snow.

It certainly wasn’t a day filled with grace. I only snapped one photo of a fish that day, and it was more out of a sense of duty rather than to capture the beauty of the moment.

There is a bit of irony to how much pressure I’ve put on myself to catch those big fish. Sure, some of it has been self-driven. I’ve always been a competitive person. I can’t help but dream of moments that would be worthy of a fly fishing magazine cover.

Clear, beautiful skies, sixty-five degrees in late April, and some snow capped mountains in the background fill the dream. In it I make a tricky, forty foot cast through complicated currents, drifting my dry to the mouth of a feeding trout. He sips it on the third drift and I come up tight on him.

We fight for a minute or so. I palm my reel until I can net him. It’s a brook trout, measuring 17 inches, with brilliant red spots and vibrant blue halos. I snap a quick photo.  The trout is only out of the water for a second, and then back he goes, to perpetuate the species.

brook trout driftless

Photo by Spencer Durrant.

I suppose social media has helped create a dissonance between the perception of catching fish and the actual catching of fish. We know that reality is not what we see in the digital world. Even so, we still allow it to permeate the possibilities of our own experience. It happens almost without our awareness, in a way that is both hard to control and to sequester.

When does the technology become so entwined in our lives that it becomes a mandatory part of the experience? When does the media experience become the foundation of the real experience?

When I returned home that evening I found that I had lost my beloved fly-box somewhere in that cold stream.  I took a photo of the empty pocket where my fly box normally sits. It never got posted to my Instagram account.

Two days later I returned to the stream bank and spent a couple of hours trudging through thick, tall, dead grass looking for my fly box.  I never did find it, but maybe not all fishing excursions need to conclude with a storybook ending.


Max is a new contributor to The Modern Trout Bum. He lives and fishes in Wisconsin. 

Public Lands

Is the Instagram Lifestyle Killing Fly Fishing?

Time
By Spencer Durrant | TMTB Managing Editor
April 11, 2018

 

The fishing community at large has a love-hate relationship with today’s Instagram lifestyle.

On one hand, it’s great to have the ability to share photos and video with thousands of other anglers. Seeing the creativity in how others capture the raw beauty of nature only spurs more innovation in outdoors media. Like all good things, though, there’s a downside to the modern Instagram lifestyle.

I should probably get this out of the way right now — I love social media, and I really love Instagram. 99% of the users there work to make fly fishing a better sport and community, and to raise awareness for conservation issues.

After reading an article from Ryan Hudson, owner and operator of the Wyoming Fishing Company, in Sweetwater Now, I was unfortunately reminded of the other 1% of fly fishing-oriented social media enthusiasts.

instagram lifestyle photo one

Photo by Spencer Durrant

Hudson’s article retells the story of a fishing guide from Colorado – who’s also a “brand ambassador” for a few fishing companies – who went to fish in Wyoming, caught a spawning brown trout off its redd, held it in the net for 20 minutes waiting for an entire photo crew got upriver to snap some shots.

Oh, and the guy didn’t have a fishing license, and left the scene of that indiscretion to fish part of the Green River that’s closed in the fall every year.

Hudson’s point in retelling the story wasn’t to single out the guide in question – though the poaching scumbag deserves it – but to highlight a growing problem within fly fishing:

Too many anglers are blinded by the opportunity to increase their Instagram lifestyle cred that fishing ethics and common sense go right out the window. Likes and follows mean more than being a responsible steward of the country’s fisheries. Being seen as the angler who makes a living fly fishing feels more important than respecting the fragile, finite natural resources we have.

Now I’m not trying to tell people how to live or how to fish. One of my best friends — Hyrum, who goes by @utah_on_the_fly on Instagram — is a stellar photographer. His Instagram profile gets tons of traffic, deservedly so. Hyrum has definitely cultivated an Instagram lifestyle that shows his passion and love for fly fishing.

Hyrum cares far more about the fish, and the places in which we find them, then he does in getting the “perfect shot” to share on Instagram. He’s yelled at me before because I’ve kept a fish in the net, or out of the water, too long. Half of what I know about photographing fish I’ve learned from watching Hyrum.

Photo by Hyrum Weaver

Ryan Kelly (@greenriverflyfisher on Instagram) is the best fly fishing photographer I know personally. Just like Hyrum, he’s yelled at me for not handling fish right during photo shoots. Ryan is a semi-retired guide on Utah’s Green River. The trout, the river, and the scenery have provided him with an income for about half of his life. But he’s also created a unique Instagram lifestyle that’s drawn the attention of dozens of national publications.

So what’s the point of all this? Well, it’s simple: there’s a right and wrong way to balance your social media enthusiasm with the natural resources you use to generate that content.

What the guide from Colorado did is inexcusable. And I’m not saying that the way Ryan and Hyrum live their Instagram lifestyle is the only right way to do that.

Photo by Ryan Kelly

But every angler worth their salt can agree that sacrificing the potential health of one fish isn’t worth it for a picture that we’ll all forget about in a few weeks.

As much as it may hurt to hear it, I’d say that yes, the Instagram lifestyle is hurting fly fishing. It’s hurting the entire outdoors industry too, but fly fishing is where I make my living. That’s where I see it most, and that’s where I know I, and my fellow content creators in this space, can make a positive difference.


Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. He’s the Managing Editor of The Modern Trout Bum and Owner/CEO of Cutthroat Creative Media. Find him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.

Stories

Protect What’s Left

Time
By Spencer Durrant | TMTB Managing Editor
January 9, 2018

 

The world is quickly running out of wild places.

I’m about to step on a soapbox, and I’ll be here for a while. If you don’t want to read about conservation and the logic behind protecting what’s left of America’s wild places, well, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

It’s a sad day, I think, when the mantle of conservation falls solely on the shoulders of folks like me. I’m not particularly influential or intelligent, and the thick Western drawl which accents my speech automatically destroys any credibility I may have built through my writing.

But if sportsmen and women across America won’t stand up for our wild places, no one will.

Check your partisan B.S. at the door; the discussion of saving our wild places is more important than loyalty to a set of ideals that changes every four years based on the whims of folks so out-of-touch with society that they think a visit to Martha’s Vineyard counts as being in the great outdoors.

I stepped on my soapbox after a disturbing report from the local Fox affiliate here in Salt Lake City detailed the plans a private group has to build an entire city of islands on top of Utah Lake.

The rest of that thread is worth reading if you’re a Utah native, but the gist of it is this: when are we ever going to learn from historical mistakes? Whenever we try to alter the environment to suit our wants, it doesn’t work out – for the environment, or us.

Utah Lake is a vitally important part of Utah’s environment. It’s a sprawling 98,000-acre puddle that isn’t much to look at these days.

Back in the day, though, it housed cutthroat trout in excess of 40 pounds. Per research compiled by Richard A. Heckman, Charles W. Thompson, and David A. White, Utah Lake’s trout were well-known to early Spanish explorers. a vital food source for the Native American tribes in what is modern-day Utah Valley, and provided valuable sustenance to early Mormon pioneers in the mid-1800s. The cutthroat grew in excess of 40 pounds, and the water was crystal-clear. One report even reads that the Provo River (Utah Lake’s largest tributary) got so full of spawning cutthroat trout in the spring that you could walk across the river on the backs of the fish.

That’s all gone now because the pioneers harvested every last pound of trout from the lake. Once the trout were gone, carp were introduced to feed the booming Asian and Hispanic populations working on the railroads in the West, and the gold mines in California (information that’s all included in the above-linked research).

I don’t blame the pioneers. They didn’t know better.

We do. And if we let stuff like this happen on our watch, then we don’t deserve the wild places we have.

If you don’t think we can make a difference, look at what we’ve accomplished within Yellowstone. The park’s native cutthroat trout still face a lot of opposition, but their future is bright. 

Gray wolves were recently removed from the endangered species list. A controversial decision, but one that shows their populations are stable enough that carefully-managed hunting will ensure the management and conservation of the species.

Here in Utah, Bonneville cutthroat were thought to be extinct until they were discovered in some tiny headwater streams in the late 70s. Now, Bonnies swim all over their native range – so much so, in fact, that the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and Trout Unlimited partnered to offer a cutthroat slam program for Utah’s four native cutthroat subspecies.

We can – and do – make a difference when we put our collective effort behind improving our wilderness. Angry, inflammatory rhetoric won’t get us anywhere Calm discussion and the willingness to compromise, work with the other side, and common sense will carry us through this ordeal.

Or, we can sit around and let developers act like monkeys in a banana factory, building cities on lakes left and right.

Yeah, that last bit was inflammatory rhetoric. I’ll admit when I’m wrong, but I hope it makes a point.

Stand up for what’s left. There’s not much of it, and if you want the America tradition of hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation to continue, you can’t count on others to do the heavy lifting in your stead.


Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. He’s also the managing editor of The Modern Trout Bum. His work has appeared in Field & Stream, Hatch Magazine, Sporting Classics Daily, TROUT Magazine, and other national publications. Find him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant. 

Stories

2017 In Review

Time
By Spencer Durrant | TMTB Managing Editor
January 3, 2018

 

2017 was a year of fly fishing I’ll never forget.

More than once, I had what would’ve been my new personal best trout on the line – if only I’d managed to land it. I made my first trip to Montana, met the late Tom Morgan and his lovely wife (now widow) Gerri Carlson, and bought a rod from arguably the greatest rod builder of all time.

I finally cracked the code to fishing a river in Idaho that, for the past few years, never yielded its trout for capture. My buddies Hyrum and Alex took me on my first trip to the top of the Wind River Mountains, and I got to fish in Oregon twice with Mysis Mike Kingsbury.

Some of the waters John Gierach has written about his entire career now have their names in my fishing journal. The St. Vrain, Big Thompson, and Cache le Poudre hosted my best friend Lander and I for long fall days of fly fishing Colorado’s Front Range.

A common theme through my favorite moments of 2017 is the fact that I shared them with others. Whether it was the three straight days of afternoon callibaetis hatches on Boulder Mountain, or winter midges on the Middle Provo, someone else was along for the ride.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. The people I’ve met through fly fishing – and consequently, the places I’ve seen because of those people – have all changed my life for the better in one way or the other.

I keep a pretty detailed fishing journal. It’s both a vain and scientific effort; vain in the sense that I make sure to note how many fish I catch, their size, and the species. It’s scientific because I note the flies I used, which ones worked, water conditions, weather, rigs, tippet, line, and rods used so the next time I fish that water I’m actually able to remember what I learned.

According to my fishing journal, I:

  • Caught 609 fish in 2017
  • Fished 148/365 days
  • Caught an average of 4.1 fish per day on the water
  • My biggest fish was a 26-inch, 7-pound cutthroat trout

Nothing about that is impressive, and I don’t share it to boast (there’s nothing to brag about). Rather, I hope you’ll consider a fishing journal for 2018. At the very least your musings will end up as invaluable communication from you to your posterity.

With that said, let’s look at what we all really came here to see – pictures of some big-ass fish.

 

My first fish of the year came on January 7th.  Alex Patterson and I fished size 24 and 26 parachute midge patterns (courtesy of brilliant fly tier and designer Ryan McCullough) to rising trout. There was three feet of snow on the ground.

 

My buddy Clark and I made it out a lot earlier this year, and one trip in particular was the best we’ve ever had on this particular piece of water.

 

Remember to look up once in a while. One of the best parts of any fly fishing trip is the gorgeous country we’re privileged to see.

 

My first trip on the water after moving into my new house was to the Green River – 4 hours away from where I live! The fishing was typically spectacular, though. I have to thank Ryan Kelly and his lovely wife Amber for putting me up in their home in Dutch John, and to Ryan for rowing me down the river so many times this year.

 

The bighorn sheep had to make an appearance that frosty day on the Green.

 

I finally got my first fish mounted! Troy Peterson, of True Life Taxidermy, completed the work on the fish and rocks. My buddy Chad and I built the base from a solid plank of walnut in Chad’s wood shop.

 

My good buddy Mysis Mike and I caught the annual run of big rainbow trout at Flaming Gorge Reservoir. We both caught 50 fish that day.

 

Thanks to Dan Parson – one of the best guides I’ve ever had the opportunity to fish with, and a man I’m honored to call my friend – I was able to fish this stretch of river that, until recently, I’d never set foot in.

 

2017 was a great water year for the Colorado River drainage. This picture shows the bypass tubes at the Flaming Gorge Dam operating at full capacity – raising the CFS of the Green River to a monstrous 8,600 for a few months.

 

This is one of the few photos I took in 2017 of which I’m proud.

 

My buddy Clark strikes again with another stellar catch! I’m glad Clark brings me along to be his net man on fishing trips. The guy can whisper to the water.

 

Clark’s tiger is good enough for another shot!

 

I met Tom for the first time in 2017, though we became friends in late 2015. He died about a month after this photo was taken, but his wife Gerri and I still talk occasionally, though our conversations center more around books than fly fishing these days. Tom and Gerri are two of the greatest, brilliant, giving people I’ve ever met. They changed fly fishing in many ways, and for that they have my thanks.

 

My buddy Blair snapped this shot of me with my first fish off the Madison River! This was right above Three Dollar Bridge. Montana didn’t disappoint on the first go-round.

 

My buddy Hyrum is one of the best fishermen I know. He caught almost 100 fish in one day on this trip. I wouldn’t believe it either if I hadn’t been along for the ride, counting each fish as it came to the net.

 

 

This was the fish of 2017! A 26-inch, 7-pound cutthroat pulled from some heavy spring runoff. The trout and I fought for a half-hour as it drug me downriver to a lake, where I finally got it in my hands.

 

Mysis Mike and I found ourselves a lake with an incredible callibaetis hatch and plenty of hungry splake trout.

 

2017 was an interesting year for politics, and i had the opportunity to sit down with Spencer Cox, the Lieutenant Governor of Utah, to discuss pubic lands, river access, and the heritage of sportsmen across the country. Lt. Governor Cox was refreshingly honest, and I didn’t feel like I’d spent an hour of my day talking to a politician. Cox is a level-headed, intelligent, down-to-earth leader, and if he continues to serve in Utah’s leadership I’m confident the future of outdoor recreation in the Beehive State is in good hands.

 

Montana, take two! With my great friend Blair. What a day of fishing that was with soft-hackle flies and 2-weight rods.

 

I watched Hyrum catch 98 fish in one day on this trip. He had to stop and catch his breath before catching another dozen trout before the sun went down.

 

If you’ve never seen the gorgeous art from Tim Johnson, do yourself a favor and browse his work. He’s the genius behind the Timmy Grips, and designed quite a few pieces of fishing apparel for Orvis. For whatever reason Tim thinks I’m good company, and we had a blast in 2017.

 

Alex and his wife are two of the greatest people I’ve ever met, and I had the pleasure of accompanying Alex and Hyrum on this trip deep into the Wind River Mountains.

 

 

 

The Wind River Mountains are incredible. And Hyrum took his sunglasses off and looked at the camera for the first in 2017 during this photo.

 

Mike is one of my favorite fly fishing models. He just knows how to strike a pose.

 

Ryan Kelly is the most talented photographer I’ve ever worked with. He worked his magic in this photo by managing to make me not look like an idiot while I tried to hold two slippery fish for the camera.

 

I got to introduce my buddy Cory to fly fishing this year. He took to it rather well – and quickly, too.

 

You’re not seeing things – that’s really a cutthroat with a hopper in its mouth with SNOW ON THE GROUND. How cool is that? I went up my local stream right after the first snowstorm of 2017. I usually fish a dry-dropper-dropper rig year-round, and it just so happened the rod I had rigged up that day was a big ol’ Chernobyl ant. Apparently the fish didn’t care that it was too cold and late in the year for hoppers – I caught three fish on that fly in an hour.

 

Tim Johnson making the first of many casts during a two-day trip to Pyramid Lake.

 

Tim caught the best fish of the trip, too.

 

My last fish of 2017 was this little rainbow trout from Lees Ferry. A pretty solid way to end what was a spectacular year on the water.


Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. He’s also the managing editor of The Modern Trout Bum. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant. 

 

 

Stories

An Old Friend

Time
By Spencer Durrant | TMTB Managing Editor
October 11, 2017

A good fly rod is just as valuable — if not more so — than a good fishing buddy.

Fishing buddies come and go, much in the same way that early-season blue-winged olive hatches give way to pale morning duns and caddis with the change of seasons.

A good fly rod sticks around for as long as you’re willing and able to fish. Unlike a fishing buddy, a fly rod is along for every single adventure. It’s there for all the big fish — and the bigger ones that got away. Thankfully a fly rod can’t speak up around the campfire or at the bar when you take creative liberties in recounting just how large the fish was that you didn’t land.

Fly rods are, in no small way, a testament to an angler’s life on the water. They’re like an old friend who knows your secrets, the one to whom you turn for advice, and to whom you could never lie.

winston boron iiix in snow

Is it a stretch to anthropomorphize a fly rod? Maybe. But as a self-proclaimed gear-junkie and antique rod aficionado, I’d be lying if I said I never felt some sort of friend-like connection to a fly rod.

I have a Winston Boron IIIx that, until recently, was my go-to rod for nearly every day on the water. Its soft action and relaxed casting stroke match the laid-back style of fly fishing that permeates the Rocky Mountains.

That Boron IIIx was my first “nice” rod, so I doubt I’ll ever lose my fondness for it. Your first nice fly rod is a lot like your first fun car — it’s not entirely practical, and a cheaper option would work just as well, but dammit if it ain’t fun to own one.

My first fun car was a Camaro. $8,000 and a slew of repairs later I sold the car to some punk in high school who’d just received his license. As I watched him pull out of my driveway in the cherry-red Camaro still sporting a rainbow trout decal on the hatchback window, a vindictive part of me hoped the engine with 208,000 miles would give out on the kid before he had too much fun with it.

My Winston Boron IIIx hasn’t been back to Twin Bridges yet, save for the few trips I’ve made up there to fish the Ruby or the Beaverhead. It’s still plugging along, casting as well as it did the day I bought it.

winston boron iiix on log

After I sold my Camaro I settled into an SUV and tried to not feel like a mommy blogger while driving around Utah (a state known for its huge families, disturbing affinity for minivans, and outrageous amount of mommy bloggers per capita). I’ve never forgotten the thrill of driving that Camaro, and I doubt I ever will.

More than once, though, I’ve taken my Winston for granted. A few years ago I had the opportunity to start reviewing fly fishing gear on a consistent basis, and for a while I fished more review-model rods than ones I’d purchased myself. From Orvis to Hardy and every maker in between, I fell headfirst down the rabbit hole. Without a girlfriend, wife, kids, or other costly relationship to stop me, I bought new fly rods with reckless abandon.

A Tom Morgan Rodsmiths 8’6″ 5wt, Winston IM6 8’3wt, Winston pre-IM6 8’6″4wt, Winston Nexus 9’7wt, Orvis Helios 2 8’6″5wt, Fenwick Fenglass 6’3wt, Winston WT TMF 8’4wt, and some miscellaneous bamboo and graphite rods later, I hadn’t really fished my Boron IIIx for a while.

So earlier this year, after finishing reviews on new rods from Hardy, I picked up my old friend and set out for the Green River.

I cut my teeth on the stretch of river below Flaming Gorge Reservoir. Not long after I bought my Boron IIIx I took it to the Green for an outing that’d really break the rod in.

winston boron iiix header

Two and a half days of fishing yielded exactly one rainbow trout. No other bites, missed fish, or trout taking my fly and tippet with them upstream. Just one bite, and one fish.

Of course my buddy Mike stood 30 or 40 feet away and put fish after fish in the net, but that’s just how Mike is.

This most recent trip to the Green, though, stands out not because I caught a lot of fish, or a particularly large one at that. Rather, as I walked the well-worn trail from Little Hole up to Coney Island, I sight-fished to rising trout. I felt the rod come alive in my hands, and after the dozenth fish in two hours I sat down for a bite to eat and some water.

I glanced at the Winston, gleaming in the sunlight, and cracked a grin.

That day felt like fishing with my oldest and dearest friend. And in a way, that’s entirely what happened.


Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. His work has appeared in Field & Stream, Hatch Magazine, Sporting Classics Daily, TROUT Magazine, and various other national publications. Find him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant. 

fly fishing art cutthroat trout
Stories

The Art Within Fly Fishing

Time
By Spencer Durrant | TMTB Managing Editor | Featured Image Courtesy Bob White
July 31, 2017 

Cold water lapped at my feet while I waited for my buddy Ryan to walk back to the boat.

The frenzy of other boats launching, guides asking clients to watch rod tips, and the general chatter of a boat ramp on a Saturday morning filled the air.

I tuned most of it out, though, instead staring at the canyon walls I’ve seen at least a hundred times before.

green river canyon fly fishing art

No matter how many times I float the Green River below Flaming Gorge, the beauty of that canyon catches me off guard. There’s always a new detail I see, some facet of the environment that I never quite noticed before.

It’s those tiny details that highlight the art within fly fishing. Often, you’ll hear fly fishing referred to as an art, but that’s not quite accurate. The act of fly fishing is artistic only in its role as a silent, contemplative way to appreciate the natural beauty of God’s creations. It’s like touring the Louvre – you’re constantly surrounded by art, enamored with it, uplifted in some cases. But you’ll never hold a brush to canvas and create something worthy of hanging in that gallery.

fly fishing art gierachImage courtesy Bob White.

Noticing – and perhaps just as importantly, communicating – the art that surrounds fly fishermen is largely responsible for the fly fishing writing, photography, and painting seen today. Every writer, photographer, and artist conveys, in their own way, how the natural art within fly fishing affects their life.

Few people do that job as well as Bob White.

An Artist’s Take On Art

About a week ago, I had the chance to talk with Bob for the better part of an hour. Like a lot of folks, I became acquainted with his art from the illustrations accompanying John Gierach’s columns in Fly Rod and Reel Magazine. (For those who haven’t heard, John and Bob’s columns/illustrations are being revived thanks to the effort of the good folks at TROUT Magazine.) Since then, I’ve come to appreciate Bob’s art not just for its beauty, but also for the constant reminder it is of the lifestyle.

“People keep things around that remind them of what they love,” Bob said when I asked why he thinks art is still relevant today.

leaping trout fly fishing artImage courtesy Bob White

Even in this era where fly fishing’s popularity has exploded and its highbrow image yanked down to earth (or as close as it’s likely to ever get), anglers still want paintings when they could just as easily print and frame a photo at Wal-Mart. The fact that fly fishing art’s quality has increased exponentially with the growth of the sport speaks to the impressive nature of modern angling artists.

“I could name 50 different fly fishing artists right now,” Bob said. “Back when I started, I could list maybe five. The quality is up, and you have people really pushing the boundaries and exploring what we can do in this sphere. That wasn’t typically done back when I started.”

Pushing the boundaries wasn’t typically done 30 years ago because all the fly fishing magazines were illustrated by painters and artists just like Bob.

fly fishing art rainbow troutImage courtesy Bob White

“We didn’t run with photos (in magazines) back then,” Bob said. “They were too grainy.”

These days I can and do take magazine-quality photos with my phone.

Photography has made leaps ahead, but painting isn’t that far behind. I’d argue, in fact, that paintings are more impactful because so few people create them at a high level. Painting is a much more direct integration with our pursuit to understand the natural world in which we live. Much in the same way that the best guides are also the best fishermen, the best artists are the ones who know how to accurately communicate their view of the world through the subtle strokes of a brush.

“Every artist has something they want to communicate, and I try and do that with my paintings,” Bob said. “Specifically, I love reflected light. I don’t think you can find a piece I’ve done in the last ten years and not see reflected light in it.”

Bob’s favorite painting that shows his love for reflected light. He calls it “Evening Soft.” Image courtesy Bob White

Is there a deeper meaning to the reflected light Bob loves so much? Probably. But it’ll be different for everyone who sees it.

In the end, the reason we love fly fishing art boils back down to the same simple reason Bob first mentioned.

“At shows, banquets, things of that nature,” Bob said, “I get asked to donate paintings more than anything else.”

When I asked why that is, Bob replied without thinking, “Because it’s a constant reminder of what we love and why we love it.”


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Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, novelist, outdoors columnist, and sports writer from Utah. Find him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.

young boy fishing
Stories

Schooled

Time
By Dan Parson | TMTB Staff Writer 
July 24, 2017

I am a father.

People who knew me as a young man would likely be surprised by this fact as. I didn’t always have “good judgment,” and the idea I might be in charge of another person’s upbringing seemed like a great way to generate a serial killer. Or worse, a bait fisherman. Despite my best efforts, my son Colt has turned into a well-adjusted 19-year-old man ready to make his way in the world. It’s a pleasant surprise given the genetic deficits and lack luster parenting style he got. dan fishing with colt

From the time Colt was a baby I hauled the poor kid with me on every outing.  It never occurred to me not to float the river or roam the backcountry just because I would need to pack bottles and diapers.

I killed an elk once, high on a ridge about two miles from the truck. I had Colt strapped to my back in one of those baby carrier things. Sorting out how to get the animal and the baby home safe is a story for another day. Another time he fell fast asleep wrapped tight to my chest in my rain coat. A wicked thunderstorm forced me to anchor under an overhanging cliff 25 miles from anywhere. The hail pounded my back, wind screamed, and lightning crashed all around us. I knew he was awake when he started to giggle and a little hand emerged to grab my hat. I could tell scores more stories, but you get the idea.colt fishing

As he grew he never knew a life that didn’t involve sunrises, sudden storms, sleeping on the ground, and eating stuff city kids would think unfit for alley cats. Fly rods, guns, bird dogs, mud, blood, and sage-scented air were his earliest friends. He’s still a quintessential millennial, though, enjoying all the currency of that generation – social networking, video games, instant access to music and film. The timeless stuff is there too, though – grades, trucks, and girls. But when asked if he loves fishing as much as his old man he typically says, “I don’t know. We have just always done it. It’s who we are.”

That makes me feel pretty damn good.

His mom and I split up when he was 11 and she moved away.

We decided she would have him during the summers and most holidays, while I had him during the school year. Our time to fish at that point got  limited. We went when we could, but between school, winter storms, my guiding schedule, extracurricular activities, and hunting season (I love to hunt, but he is obsessed.) we probably fished together only a dozen times a year from ages 11 – 19. Days on the water with my boy are precious and likely to become more so as he heads off to college this fall.

He’s a rather competitive lad and always wants to “out fish” me. He’s come close a few times, but at the end of the day we always felt like we had, more or less, about the same level of success. Now, I’m no fish counter – that’s a trait most of us thankfully out grow at some point. But who wasn’t a little that way when they were 18 or 19 years old? Come on – be honest.

dan and colt fishing again

One day this past January Colt and I were on the water.

Colt slept the whole drive up, waking only when we slid, bounced and rattled down the rough, snow packed 2-track that led to the put in. It had stormed hard, really hard, the day before which meant we were breaking trail to the put in.  After a series of unfortunate events, including getting stuck four times in less than ½ a mile, a flat on the boat trailer, and a lot of digging, pushing, swearing and general mayhem we finally launched. It was 11 instead of 8, which sucked, but as we finally got the boat headed down river a few midges came out and we saw some isolated rises. The river was just waking up. We decided 8 would have been to early anyway, strung rods and got to work. Colt was in the bow and I was rowing. He hadn’t slung line since October so he was rusty, but it didn’t take long for him to make reasonable presentations. Right away he tagged a whitefish, then another, and another. We reasoned we would need to sort through these to find some trout, and that was the case. Colt stuck a small rainbow that jumped and threw the hook, then landed a fat 19-incher on the next cast. At that point he said his hands were frozen and I needed to fish. Colt is pretty good on the sticks and I was confident I’d find a few fish myself. colt fishing river

More than an hour and a mile of river later and I had not had a take. I tried everything. Same flies, same presentation, nothing. I switched it up and threw streamers. Nothing. I sized down and up and changed weight and leader length. Nothing. Finally, providence showed a touch of mercy and I fooled a skinny whitefish to take a nymph. At least I got the damn rod bent. That meant it was Colt’s turn again. Five minutes later he was into a rainbow, then more whitefish, then another good ‘bow, then a football shaped brown. He was having a blast. His mojo was hot. He could do nothing wrong.

What the hell!?!?

We swapped again. I used his same rod – and nothing.

I was like a high school boy trying to get the attention of girls by making farting noises. Ignored, even loathed. I held my tongue in different positions, I prayed to the river goddess and made wild promises to live a more altruistic life, I swore to never touch another banana as long as I lived. Finally, a fish bounced the bobber and I managed to tag him. It was a cutthroat, blind in one eye and snagged on the side of his face. Shit. I gave up and took the rowers seat so my “fish whisperer” son could have the bow. He stuck 5 more fish, landing 3 of them, in short order. Colt giggled like a little kid when we hit the pull out. He has no idea how close he came to getting thumped in the back of the head by my #2 cone head slump buster.

colt fishing again in a river

Actually, and every father reading this will understand, I could not have been more deeply, profoundly, happy.

On the 90-minute drive home we talked the whole way. Fishing, college plans, girls, next hunting season, video games. We never even turned on the radio.

Dan Parson is a fly fishing guide, school teacher, and adviser to the phenomenally talented Green River High School Speech and Debate Team. Contact him through Solitary Angler or look for his boat on the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge. 

Stories

Time

First Float of the Season

By Dan Parson

It was dark and cold when we met.

Lee and Shane stood in their waders, clouds of breath fogging their glasses, bundled up in layers hoping to keep the frigid temperature from seeping in. Even beneath the bulk we looked as though the holidays had been too kind in the calorie department.

The three of us are good buddies who hadn’t fished together for more than 2 months. We were pretty pumped to get after it, despite the certainty the day would hold a lot of icy guides, frozen appendages, and possibly a few embarrassing moments falling on your ass.

My drift boat was ready and they followed me to the put in an hour’s drive away. I never listen to the radio on the way out. I tend to obsess over approaches and patterns, talking to myself the whole way up, which is funny since it all goes out the window once the reality of the day unfolds.

We’d left too early and we all knew it. Winter fishing is best in the middle of the day, but for several years we made it a point of pride that to be the first boat of the new year on the river. I guess we worried some ambitious soul would beat us to the launch. It’s not important, but games like these lead to adventures, so I like them.

Floating a river in the Rockies, in January, is usually a dangerous proposition. The weather changes fast, vehicles can fail to start, and phone service is sketchy. I told the guys if we got stranded somewhere and had to survive until spring they could eat me – just let me get a few trout first.

Anyway, we had all the needed survival stuff on board and it’s a bathtub float with no rapids. The dangers exist but not prominently enough to stop us. Besides, I had a new 6 weight streamer rod from under the tree and it was begging to be baptized.

The sun was up about 40 minutes when I took the oars.

Lee and Shane always argue they should row first, but it’s my boat. Letting another guy row your boat is a little like letting another guy dance with your wife. It’s all cool and innocent, but at the same time you find yourself keeping a close eye on things.

One little trick to winter fly casting is to not strip much line through the guides and cause them to ice up. We fed out just enough to hit the fishy spots and keep the rigs a reasonable distance from the boat.

We played with depth and weight settings a little bit, and soon enough rods bent under the weight of trout. Shane landed a fat 16 inch ‘bow in a long deep trough and Lee hooked and lost a fish he thought felt pretty heavy. Little #20 flies pull free easy as they don’t hold a lot of meat, so you do have to baby them. Shane kissed his fish and released it (another tradition – your lips must actually touch the first trout of the season. Period).

Anyway, I rowed back up river and made the same run. Lee scored on a chunky cutthroat (which received the required loving kiss) and Shane grabbed another solid ‘bow. We repeated the drift half a dozen times, weeding through some whitefish but scoring a few good trout in the process.

As Lee said in his eloquent style, “Hey your rods bent and its freakin’ January. Don’t whine about whities.”

We eventually swapped out rowers and I got a chance to sling the new 6 weight. I chose a #4 flashy streamer I had spun up the day before, and worked it with quick short strips and long pauses. Trout won’t move very far for food this time of year, but a big easy meal right in their face, at a time when big easy meals are scarce, is sometimes productive. I love streamer fishing, but it requires extra patience in the winter. Every 4 or 5 you have to clean the guides, and my hands were quickly numb. I was thinking of switching to nymphs when I strip set on something heavy. After a solid fight, a thick butter belly brown came to net, breaking in that 6 properly.

It was my turn to kiss a trout.

That’s how it went the rest of the day. We caught a bunch of trout and white fish in the deep slow stretches, a few were over 20 inches, and everyone had plenty of action to feel like the cold was worth it.  We had a couple doubles and I even caught a small lake trout that slammed that flashy streamer thing right at boat side.

When we got cold we would stop and warm up with coffee or a few minutes by the portable propane heater Lee had brought along. We bantered around the way guys do when they are having fun, hardly saw a soul, and ate elk jerky, sardines and left over Christmas cookies for lunch. No one had to resort to cannibalism, and as best we knew we were the first boat on the river again. Honestly, I just don’t get why more people don’t fly fish in the winter. They must really love TV.

We got home a bit after dark. Music always sounds better on the radio after you have had a good day on the water and I sang loud and off key the entire way home, which is probably why Shane and Lee rode together in Lees truck. My wife had ordered pizza and it was still hot, so I warmed up with that and told her semi-embellished stories of our adventures, then sat down at the vice. Time to tie more of those flashy streamers and midge larvae.

Dan Parson is a fly fishing guide, school teacher, and adviser to the phenomenally talented Green River High School Speech and Debate Team. Contact him through Solitary Angler or look for his boat on the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge. 

man walking on madison river
Stories

New Water

Time

“It’s higher than Monday,” Matt said from his place behind the oars. “I can’t believe how many bugs are out today. On Monday we still had snow.”

I grinned. “They’re hatching just for me, right?”

Matt chuckled and pushed off the bank, his four-year-old son pointing at the bugs in the air and shouting – correctly – “Dad, look, it’s caddis!”

A four-year-old correctly identifying the caddis among the menagerie of mayflies and stoneflies hovering just above the surface of the Madison River impressed the hell outta me. Matt gestured to the bank where I saw a fish rising, so I turned and cast against a strong headwind to the wary trout.

spencer on the madison river

I’d never fished the Madison River before, and on this trip we were floating below Ennis Lake. The upper section was blown out but the lower Madison was still fishable, even if, as Matt said, the water was higher than earlier in the week.

The sun hung at our backs and the wind blew bugs in the cracks between our faces and sunglasses. My buddy Blair stood in the back of the boat as we worked the flat, choppy riffles the Madison is famous for.

It’s easy to let a new river intimidate you.

Lord knows I felt out of my comfort zone the first time I fished the Frying Pan River but after enough time on the water you realize that every river is essentially the same. Tailwaters vary only in how selective the trout are due to insane pressure, and in rare cases like the Pan, bugs specific just to that water.

Now, the Madison certainly could intimidate upon first glance, especially for anyone who hasn’t fished a river larger than the A-Section of the Green below Flaming Gorge Reservoir. Below Ennis Lake the Madison is a seemingly endless riffle, the high water accentuating the pockets along the bank. Figuring out where the fish might be, though, is the trick. How do you pick a bit of river to fish when it all looks so good?

I’d spent most of the day doing just that – casting to each piece of enticing water in the hopes I’d lure a good trout to my dry fly. Blair and I had fished all day. This drift in Matt’s boat was the last leg of a day full of the most incredible caddis hatch I’ve ever seen in my life.

blair on the madison river

And all day the fish had resolutely ignored the bugs on top of the water in favor of nymphs and emergers. Blair managed a few on soft hackles and I was happy for the three 5-inch rainbows I’d caught earlier. They saved my day from being a skunk.

We both caught fish on the float, though they were as unremarkable as far as fish go.

That evening in Bozeman, Blair and I pored over maps and tried to guess which blue lines would be blue the next morning. Montana isn’t immune from this year’s spring runoff, and apparently Blair and I made our trip a week too late.

The next morning we hunted down the few leads we had, but everything was too muddy to fish. In a last-ditch effort, Blair made a call to Kelly Galloup’s shop on the Upper Madison River. The longer Blair stayed on the phone, the wider his smile grew.

I had the car going south before he hung up.

The Upper Madison, from Three Dollar Bridge up to Quake Lake, was high – but clear. Blessedly, impressively clear. As if adding a cherry on top of this, the storm clouds to the south rolled in closer and it started to rain.

madison river

We finished the day with more than enough fish to make us both smile, and as Blair headed home to Idaho Falls and I drove back to Bozeman, I couldn’t help but watch the Madison and think of its unspoken potential.

New water entices anglers for many reasons, but the most common has to be the unknown. Sure, you know if a river has brown or cutthroat trout, and you probably have an idea of the bugs in the water. But each turn hides a new opportunity, each hookset connects to a potential trophy, and the untapped potential of the next hole reminds you why new water so often lures you out of your comfort zone.

Spencer is a fly fishing writer, novelist, outdoors columnist, and sports writer from Utah. He’s the managing editor of The Modern Trout Bum and a regular contributor to national and local fly fishing publications. Find him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant

 

whitefish from green river
Stories

In Praise of Whitefish

Time

“Rocky Mountain Bone Fish”, “Ghost Trout”, “Smokies”. They shit in your boat, slime up your hands, smell funky and destroy good flies. Yet I must admit I love whitefish. Judge me all you want but honestly… down deep… you like ‘em pretty well too. They bend the rod and can save the day. Quit pretending you don’t like the humble whitefish; at some level you really do.

I wasn’t always this way. As a young fly fisherman some of the older guys I hung around taught me “the squeeze”, a despicable practice that turned a perfectly good sportfish into floating bird food. The rationale was that whities compete with trout for food, thereby limiting trout population and growth; thus, they deserved to die.

whitefish in boat

Never mind the law and never mind the two critters evolved right next to one another and occupy separate feeding zones in the river.

When I started guiding my tune quickly changed, and not just because whitefish can provide action on a slow day. I have come to see whitefish as a legitimate sportfish, worthy of pursuit in and of themselves. The state of Wyoming agrees with me. In 2012 they changed the limit on whitefish from 25 to 6. I guess they decided they are a resource worth protecting. I am glad they did.

So here are few thoughts on why we need to change the paradigm and narrative around whitefish.

1. Whitefish are an abundant native species.

At least on clean cold waters, whitefish are one of the most widely distributed salmonids of western North America. Here in Wyoming the rainbows and browns were introduced, something we tend to forget. Whities are supposed to be here, right next to the cutthroats. Additionally, they are less tolerant of pollution and warm temperatures than most trout. Basically, if there are whitefish in the system it’s a good indicator of healthy water conditions.

2. They are beautiful.

They may not be brook trout beautiful, but damn few things are. This is not me putting lip stick on a pig here. Really look at the next one you catch. They have all sorts of subtle purple and blue hues radiating out from under that bright silver coat of scales. I suspect the small subterminal mouth is the turn off to some. However, that mouth on closer inspection is not sucker like at all, as no rubbery lips exist. Whites have a distinct maxillary bone on the side of the mouth, similar to many gamefish. Do we look down on the celebrated bonefish of the tropical flats because it has a similar mouth?

whitefish mouth

3. They are tasty.

I have had them baked, fried, and smoked. They are flat out good to eat. They are no bonier than trout, possessing basically the same line of Y bones, and have a white flesh that many people find more palatable than the heavier “fishy” flavors of trout and salmon. Fillet some up, cut out the Y bones (YouTube as some excellent clips on how), and shave off the reddish meat you see on the skin side of the fillet. Deep fry and enjoy.

4. They are challenging to catch.

If you don’t believe this statement, try targeting a pod of them sometime. Sure, at times they are easy, but so are trout (thank God!). Trust me, whitefish can be selective. Additionally, when I’m hooking whitefish on a regular basis I know I have patterns on the trout will likely eat too.

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5. They are important forage.

Whitefish are an important part of the diet for larger trout as well as eagles, otters, bears, and other critters. As such they serve an important role in the health of a river. We ought to respect that.

6. They’re not trash.

Given the state of the world, can we really afford to think of any fish as trash? Carp have become an obsession for many of us, and rightly so. I have a buddy back in Minnesota who loves to chase dogfish on the fly. I don’t know what the future holds, but as Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan eloquently said “the times they are a changin’.” As human populations continues to increase and rivers become more crowded, perhaps we ought to celebrate the whitefish as the legit game fish they have always been. I am aware of a few whitefish fly fishing tournaments out there, and that’s a good start. But I would advocate whities be factored in the score at events like the World Fly Fishing Championship and the Jackson One Fly. Think of the street cred that would generate for this species.

Dan Parson is a fly fishing guide, school teacher, and adviser to the phenomenally talented Green River High School Speech and Debate Team. Contact him through Solitary Angler or look for his boat on the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge.