Spring Trout on the Fly

EO published

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My Tundra bounced up onto the old wood plank bridge. The dark planks rocked and popped beneath the weight. I was pushing the width limit. My hands, white-knuckled on the wheel, managed to avoid shredding a quarter panel against the steel rails while the Selway River boiled a bit off color below.

Upon a safe dismount, I started the climb to a trailhead where I would embark on a journey into trout country. I knew nothing of the destination but suspected either cutthroat or rainbow. After all, it was Idaho.

Rounding a bend in the old Forest Service road revealed a breathtaking meadow reach. The stream meandered its way to the Selway through a lush carpet of brilliant green grass and forbs. Native Trillium was blooming cotton candy pink in the company of a snoozing whitetail deer. A tantalizing plunge-pool appeared dark and fishy below a cascade of boulders and log jams. My foot mashed the brake pedal. I never saw the destination trailhead.

Large caddis were hatching as I donned my waders. Ogling them lustily lulled me into a giddy, unfounded anticipation.

Early spring fishing can be a straight up crap-shoot. Steady water temperature and relatively stable flow through the winter can offer equally stable action (albeit slow at times), but as days lengthen and air temperature increases, snow melt-swollen streams begin to change the game a bit. Nevertheless, I selected a classic high mountain pairing, a size 12 caddis dropping a size 16 pheasant tail nymph. And the dice rolled.

Trumbo - Wild Spring Trout (4)

Selecting the finest habitat set my confidence high, but the water temperature was glacial. I found the runs moving a bit too fast to present the fly well, even with a flawless dead-drift. I turned to the pocket waters and failed, then moved to the fringes where water velocity is slower with warmer temperature.

Young trout will often seek the fringes during spring high flows where holding water meets cover and food sources. With hopes high, I placed the caddis on the outside edge of a flow seam and just downstream of a boulder. At once the caddis vanished beneath the surface, the nymph taken by a young rainbow parr.

The parr life stage is physically characterized by a size range of approximately two to five inches and large “parr marks”, which are dark, oval-shaped marks along the lateral line. Parr marks serve as camouflage and are generally lost as the fish matures. In some cases, trout older than a year may retain lighter, yet obvious parr marks.

Modern fishing emphasizes the trophy fish, but the brilliance of a young wild trout returns the angler to a universal experience. A wild trout parr is a spectacle to behold, rich and vibrant with various mottling. The white anal fin tip, the fine black speckles among an olive dorsal, and the rosy pink lateral stripe of a rainbow express perfection as only a wild fish can. With a gentle pop of the barbless hook, I sent the parr on its way. Shuffling up to another hole, I was met with an encore performance, my three-weight rod dancing under the inconspicuous weight of the tiny gem.

Trumbo - Wild Spring Trout (3)

Mountain streams can run strong and cold in spring but can turn on in June if the flow is fishable. The best choice in spring and early summer may be desert water, and desert streams are not to be overlooked. These little blue lines flourish in May and June with aggressive trout and abundant food. Flows are typically fishable and many of these streams lend themselves to a number of fly-fishing techniques including traditional tenkara.

Desert streams provide prime opportunity to get creative. If you have been curious about a crack in the middle of nowhere spewing cold water through a sagebrush canyon, go for it. Seek pockets and plunge pools. Although the local game and fish office may not post anything about it, if it’s legal to fish, you may just find a new favorite stream. The Owyhee can be dynamite. What about its tributaries?

Desert lakes are ablaze in spring as well. For Lahontan cutthroat, I generally fish shorelines with scuds or buggers. If the fish are not up and cruising the shallows, they can be found deeper along shoreline boulders. A full-sinking fly line is about the only way to reach them, counting down to 20 feet or more before beginning a varied strip retrieve. Lahontans either hammer the fly or simply engulf it and just sit there, creating awkward tension. A sixth sense tells you when to set the hook. Heavy head shakes and deep runs are left to the drag.

Desert lake rainbows are cruising shallow weed beds at the edge of deep water, providing the appropriate mix of food and depth through the June time-frame. Dry flies are working now and traditional tenkara flies and methods can be effective as well. When the water is cold but a hatch is on, a dry fly with a dropper nymph is a fine option as midges dominate desert lakes, but matching the hatch can be crucial. When all else fails, sink a small streamer. Never will a 15-inch trout work the drag on a five-weight fly rod like a desert lake rainbow.

Trumbo - Wild Spring Trout (1)

Now, more than ever, you are itching to wet a fly. As a sunny day blooms, you need no excuse to shuck responsibility and undue stress for the symphonic chorus of the flush of courting songbirds, the mesmerizing roar of a stream or serenity of floating a lake as the water surface dimples from feeding trout. It’s time. Drop everything. Go fishing. And cherish the wild trout, big or small.

Tenkara Angling for Mountain Trout

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The sun sets early in the deep canyons of Kelly Creek in the Idaho wilderness; the opulent evening glow casting an amber hue upon considerable granite outcrops and emerald pools below. Rugged ridges and peaks reach skyward looming over the river, defying its brazen attempts to break free of their control. Diminutive yellow stoneflies flitter sparsely through the cooling evening air, seemingly slowed by the rich, evergreen scent of western cedar and grand fir.

Angling pressure was picking up late in the week and the fish were feeling it. I typically fish regular fly rod and reel, but my suspicions of stressed trout led me to reach for my tenkara rod. I wanted the ability to present a flawless drift in the hard-to-reach pockets overlooked by others. The rod I brought was a bit overkill at twelve feet with a heavy spine, but the reach was a must for dropping flies into midstream eddies and flow seams. Additionally, the rod was fresh off my dryer at home and I wanted to get a feel for its capabilities before heading to Alaska to try it on salmon.

Tenkara angling, in its purest form, is a Japanese traditional fly-fishing method developed on small, mountain trout streams, using a fix-length rod, a fixed-length line tied to the end, and a small wet-fly or “kebari” that is dead-drifted in the sweet spots. Basically, cane pole fly-fishing. Traditional tenkara carries great history and detail on methods and gear, which is available in other literature and worth the read. The two truly defining features of tenkara angling are its simplicity and ease.

Trumbo Tenkara Angling (8)

⇑⇑ The Essentials ⇑⇑

Fly-fishing is easily perceived as far too complex for newcomers and youngsters. The myriad fly rods and reels, line choices and fly patterns, not to mention their hefty price tags, are frequently beyond attainable on cash and time budgets. One can make a successful career on second hand and hand-built fly rods, but tenkara angling requires the bare minimum in gear, is deadly effective and can be learned at virtually any age.

My first rise of the evening came on a voluptuous, blonde elk hair caddis as it floated the seam where riffle met pool. A scrappy fourteen-inch cutthroat pounced with conviction, almost with vengeance, and put a sweet bend in the top third of my heavy tenkara rod. As the evening wore on and rises became few, I scoured the drainage in search of sunlit reaches. In the canyon streams, the bite tends to wane as the mountains force the river into the evening shadows. East-west oriented reaches carry daylight and fish activity a little longer into the evening.

               My final reach of the night was a boulder-strewn field of pocket-water with a few small runs that have produced well for me in the past. I switched to a behemoth of a foam bug called a “Chubby Chernobyl” to draw some attention. Sizing up a large eddy formed behind a car-sized boulder, melding into a soft run with deep, swift flanks, I could envision where the fish were lying. Gently dropping the Chubby along the flow seam between the eddy and the sweep around the river-right side of the boulder invoked an explosion of ferocity and a firm hookset deep into the jaw of a sixteen-inch cutthroat.

Playing the fish to net, my admiration of the profound lateral reddening painted against the thick gold, speckled body and the blaze orange under-jaw cuts lit a fire of anxiety in anticipation of the next catch. The fish returned softly from the net into the cold, clear water.

Trumbo Tenkara Angling (5)

A flip of the rod landed another cast in the same general vicinity, the size-8 Chubby immediately met with a repeat performance. It simply couldn’t get any better than this before dark. Completely at peace, I collapsed the rod and slogged for the rig.

I rig my tenkara rods with sections of old floating fly line cut to approximately the maximum length of the rod, and a fluorocarbon leader between two and four feet. I continue to use typical dry and wet fly patterns, a departure from true tenkara angling, and largely referred to as “fixed-line fly-fishing”.

Opportunities to fish high mountain wild trout near Walla Walla are fewer as many of our headwater streams are closed to fishing to protect spawning and rearing salmon and steelhead (which I support completely), but the Tucannon and South Fork Walla Walla Rivers are fishable. Some friends visited from Virginia this past summer with their seven-year-old son, William, a fishing prodigy. William had his heart set on visiting the local streams, so these are the creeks we visited.

Having never touched a fly rod, I handed William a Rhodo series rod from Tenkara USA. It’s a very small, delicate action rod built for tight mountain streams and small, native trout. With the briefest of instruction, he took to it like a seasoned pro. Pointing to a log pushing the current from shore and forming a deep pocket with an eddy on the downstream side, I advised William to drop the fly behind the log at the point where water broke around it. On the third attempt, a small rainbow rocketed from below the log in a burst of zeal that caused it to whiff the fly completely. But it didn’t miss the second time.

Trumbo Tenkara Angling (4)

We fished the area for a while, enticing a half dozen little guys to take a fly before moving on to repeat the performance elsewhere. William masterfully cast a tiny Adams to feisty six-inch rainbows, and the incidental Chinook salmon fry. His first western fishing trip and he quickly and excitedly checked the box on these two native fishes, caught on the fly, nonetheless.

I began fly-fishing at age 12 and rarely pick up any other rod. I have enough gear to keep a fly shop in business. Yet, the first time I fished with a tenkara rod, I found its simplicity and minimalism utterly liberating. Young or old, novice or pro, you can realize the art and effectiveness of fly-fishing while channeling a centuries old tradition, and for a fraction of the cost relative to regular rods and reels. And the possibilities range far beyond trout and freshwater. For additional tips, techniques and stories on gear and fishing of all species, check out Tenkara Angler on the web. You’ll be hooked.

Fishing the Lakes that were Not Meant to Be

Published in the Waitsburg Times, June 11, 2020

Fishing desert lakes April through June is tough to beat. Flipping around on a float tube, the warm spring sun across my back, and wild trout smacking small streamers like mini freight trains is what I have come to love about desert lakes. Well, that, and the rugged, burgundy and chocolate-colored basalt rims punctuated by milky-emerald big sagebrush, random white plumes of yarrow and brilliant canary tufts of balsamroot blooms.

Having had quite enough of COVID-19 self-isolation, I decided to take a little road trip to Quail Lake in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge near Othello. Quail Lake is open year-round to catch-and-release fly-fishing for trout. And while I love a good desert lake, my preference is mountain streams, which weren’t yet open to fishing, locally. A desert lake would have to suffice.

Having never been to Quail Lake, or the seep lake area of Potholes, for that matter, the landscape was intriguing. Former ice-age floods gouged the prominent coulees and dozens of holes in the landscape, creating the scared and pock-marked surface similar to what you might expect to encounter on the moon. From atop the bluffs, the landscape appears flat, brushy, and baked brown with the already spent stems and drooping seed heads of invasive cheat grass. A few dark rims appeared in the distance, but the depth of the topography was not revealed before approaching the small, sunken lakes. Thus, Potholes is an appropriate moniker for the reservoir and surrounding area.

The lakes were formed by the Columbia Basin Project (Project), located in east-central Washington in the counties of Adams, Douglas, Franklin, Stevens, Okanogan, Grant, Lincoln, and Walla Walla. The primary feature of the Project is Grand Coulee Dam. Construction began on Grand Coulee in 1934 with an irrigation pumping concept of drawing water from the Columbia River, sending it down to Pasco, east of the Columbia River, as a means to reinvigorate the arid landscape for agriculture and homesteading. Presently, the Project irrigates approximately 671,000 acres, or 65 percent of the 1,029,000 acres originally authorized by Congress.

Quail Lake in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge

Construction of the pumping plant, irrigation canal system and dams were completed in 1951. North Dam and Dry Falls Dam (formerly South Dam) were built to equalize the irrigation discharge and form the grand coulee, which is now 27-mile-long Banks Lake. There is over 300 miles of main canals, about 2,000 miles of lateral canals and 3,500 miles of drains and wasteways on the Project, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

Among the drains and wasteways, Potholes Reservoir was developed to capture irrigation water for reuse in the southern portion of the Project. It’s the seepage from Portholes Reservoir and surrounding irrigation features which inundated the seep lakes.

Parking at Herman Lake and the Quail Lake trailhead, I was instantly mesmerized by the hoards of common carp thrashing the shoreline in search of food as spring rains and irrigation flows had flooded the cattails and low grassland swales. Overlooking the lake, these large fish were literally everywhere, boiling, jumping and beaching themselves in the cattails and newly flooded grasses. Landing a carp on the fly rod is an incredible experience, and I nearly caved to the temptation. Exercising self-control, I grabbed my backpack and fly rod and trudged off through the sagebrush in search of Quail Lake.

The hike was short and easy, but the map showed roads that didn’t exists, so I wound around through the wildlife refuge taking in the interesting bits of flora and fauna, like the myriad darkling beetles roaming gopher mounds, presumably in search of dung. Eventually deciding to cut straight to the lake, I was disappointed yet unsurprised to find the shoreline heavily populated with cattails and tule, so much that there was no potential to reach fish from shore. Experience told me this would be the case, yet I stubbornly ignored my own intelligence and made the hike a second time, returning with my float tube and waders.

A darkling beetle posturing for defense

Also as expected, the lake surface dimpled with rising trout feeding heavily on hatching midges. Had I not known better, I would have assumed it was beginning to rain. The overcast sky provided perfect conditions for a midge hatch, and between light puffs of wind, the trout were taking full advantage.

Flipping out from shore, I tied up a small streamer, which is my standard choice for desert lakes. Midges dominate arid water food sources, come in a staggering diversity of sizes and colors from millimeters to centimeters long, and make utter fanatics of the trout that feed on them. By this, I mean trout of all species that key in on midges know their profile down to antennae length and scrutinize imitations to the minutia of detail. I so rarely match a midge hatch that I strip streamers almost exclusively on desert lakes.

Gliding along, taking in the scenery, the morning slid seamlessly into early afternoon. Amid the rustle of red-winged blackbirds in the cattails, and acknowledging the distant cackle of a rooster pheasant or territorial “kerrr” of a male valley quail, I noted the occasional tap on my streamer, too timid to produce a hookset. Quite uncharacteristic of the rocketing rainbows I have encountered in other desert lakes. Deciding to make a switch, I went for a dry fly; a tiny black midge to mimic something I was seeing on the surface. I tied an extra long leader with very fine tippet to extend the nearly invisible fly as far from the main fly line as possible. And, as expected, something was amiss. No takers.

My final effort involved a midge nymph, again trying to mimic what I was seeing on the water’s surface. Using a small orange float as a strike indicator and depth selector, I had no more than made my first cast when the wind erupted from an intermittent gust to a sustained 15 miles per hour. If you have ever lounged on a swimming pool float and been blown across at break-neck speed (which is apparently about 15 miles per hour), you will understand why I vacated the nearest shoreline open enough to clamber out on, and called it a trip.

Climbing the canyon wall on my way to the top, I mused over the setting and the puddle lakes visible from my vantage. An unlikely dry landscape transformed into a vast desert oasis of wetlands and waters. An unintended consequence (and benefit) of an irrigation project developed nearly a century ago.

An overview of Quail Lake and Herman Lake in the distance

Navigating for the truck, I pondered the uniqueness of the seep lake ecosystem and the flush of wildlife that now inhabit the once crisply dry area of central Washington, as well as the beauty of old-growth sagebrush and the contrasting pop of the blood-orange colored lichens covering their arm-sized trunks.

Approaching Herman Lake, it dawned on me that now was a great opportunity to try my hand at a carp on the fly. But a few teenage boys were sufficiently harassing them such that I simply wandered by, casting a sidelong glance at their peculiar techniques. I thought it comical the gear these boys were using and their uneducated attempts at catching the beastly, bronze, invasive bulls of freshwater.

Suddenly, the notion struck home that I was doing nothing more than peering into my own past, seeing a striking resemblance of myself, back when I was an ignorant, harmless boy who wanted nothing more than to fish away his weekends. Well, at least before I had any clue of the foolery we adults rope ourselves into. Bills. Chores. Steady income. And for what? I suppose a home with acreage for the garden and wildlife is an acceptable example.

Closing the tailgate, the threesome strolled by, boisterously recounting their efforts to dupe the surprisingly intelligent carp. One boy said he wished they would have been able to catch a few more, while another said he was thrilled to have caught one at all. It was his first fish ever. An unlikely first fish from an unlikely lake that was never meant to be more than an ephemeral puddle, if that. Living vicariously, reveling in his success and exhilaration, I shifted my Tundra into “drive” and departed for home.

No Shortage of Good Days

“Any day catching wild trout on the fly is a good day”

I said to my buddy Derek as we traversed a bedrock cascade on one of our favorite mountain trout streams. It had been a couple years since I visited my Virginia home town, so we capitalized on my impromptu June arrival to carry on a tradition of fishing this particular stream.

Adjusting my Tenkara USA Rhodo to 9-feet, 9-inches, I set my sights on a pocket where the stream dropped over solid granite. The water was incredibly low for June, resembling the trickle of early fall. The pools were mirror-flat and crystal clear forcing us to endure a painful crawl across cobble streambed to approach without spooking fish.

Clinging to an algae-stained granite slab angling into the stream and forcing the flow to the far bank, my knees made relieving purchase on a soft jade mat of moss, cool and moist with river water. A gentle cast landed a small, blonde elk hair caddis with an olive body at the head of the cascade feeding the deep, emerald pool.

Derek Blyer fishes an Appalachian stream cascade for native brook trout

The caddis bobbed through the narrow cut between granite slabs, dappled by sunlight fighting its way through an eastern hemlock canopy. As the caddis rounded a large hunk of sandstone, an explosion led to my first fish of the morning. With the rod stuck high, I guided the 8-inch fish to shore and photographed its varied hues. The rosy speckles with the sapphire halo, the worm-like striations across its back and the fiery glow of its belly tugged at my soul.

I cut my fly-fishing teeth on Appalachian brook trout over 25 years ago and still find them challenging in tight cover and low flow. And they still hold high rank as one of the most beautiful specimens of the salmonid family, in my humble and biased opinion.

The wild Appalachian brook trout – a true spectacle to behold

In the west, some of the best days fishing wild trout have come from Idaho where big flies entice ravenous cutthroat in steep river canyons. On evening in particular, the sun kissed the mountaintop on its descent, casting a rich glow across the river and illuminating a dense mayfly hatch. Perched atop large riverside boulders, my buddy Chas and I were casting Chubby Chernobyl dry flies the size of a hummingbird to fish that were thrashing the water as though they had never eaten before.

A sweat-soaked straw hat shaded my face as I stripped and launched each cast in the evening heat. Hotter yet were the 16- to 18-inch cutthroat holding in eddies and along flow seams, erupting on the fluffy white flies like a champagne bottle blowing its cork. Evenings like this spent stalking these luxuriant bars of finning Idaho gold remain forever engraved in in our memory of good days.             

Another Idaho trip, I rigged up my tenkara rod with a Chubby and drifted it down a riffle into the head of a massive pool. The riffle filtered into a run before the flow encountered a house-sized boulder and turning 90-degrees. Dead-drifting the fly perfectly along flow seams fooled big fish where they had been educated by a generous number of anglers previously.

Chas Kyger fishing a glorious Rocky Mountain stream

You know when you get that “any moment” feeling when the drift is just right? At that moment, the brilliant, buttery glow of a cutthroat would rise from beneath and roll on the fly, hooking perfectly in the corner of the jaw. The throb of a heavy cutthroat against a tenkara rod in fast water feels nothing short of a spiritual experience.

Mountain streams tend to wash away the burdens of the day and fortify the soul. Songbirds, deer, chipmunk and squirrel, the roar of the stream and humidity of the transpiring forest canopy engulf our worries. We find ourselves lost in our natural habitat, having escaped reality, if only for a brief time. Mountain time is timeless yet tangible. Cleansing. A reset for bruised souls amid hardship like a pandemic and social unrest.

Wild trout and mountain streams are everyone’s resource in which to seek joy and solace, July being a prime month. Be it the Minam, Lostine, Wallowa, or somewhere further flung in Montana, California or Appalachia, John Gierach could not have said it better. There is no shortage of good days on wild trout water. We could all use a few more good days.

Alaska Coho on the Fly

There is no better retreat from the dog days of summer in the Lower 48 than a stint in Alaska chasing coho salmon (“silvers”). August is prime time for the coho run in southeast Alaska, and for a DIY fly-fisherman, the term “epic” can be realized in the literal sense.

The tail of the month on Prince of Wales lends itself to streams swollen with pink and coho salmon, the fall coho run peaking in September. Fish are battling their way to the spawning grounds, eager to take on all comers with the audacity to stand in the way. Trolling open saltwater is a fine method to put fish in the box, but nothing replaces the experience of stripping streamers for big fish in small water.

Eyeballing a large wake entering a backwater pocket about 100 feet across the creek, a hard role-cast sent a punk bunny leach with dumbbell eyes slamming into the edge of the pocket. A quick, hard strip triggered the aggression of one hulking buck coho, the wake erupting from the shallows in hot pursuit.

A beast of a buck coho that smashed the pink bunny streamer and took me for a ride

I could feel my body’s stress response. Pupils dilated. Arms tensed in anticipation of the strike. An enormous white gape opened on the leading edge of an olive-backed torpedo, engulfing the fly and making a hard turn back into the run. Panic-stricken, I strip-set the hook and held on for the ride.

My eight-weight switch rod reluctantly gave line, the drag screaming as the buck made haste for the ocean and into my backing. Just as quickly, he turned back upriver in full charge, leaving me scrambling to regain line and keep the pressure on. His sleek profile sliced the water like a hot knife as he navigated boulders and riffles.

Three encore runs put a knot in my gut with every turn, each moment of slack line dragging the fluorocarbon tippet across jagged boulders. His aerial acrobatics enacted a spectacular show as he leapt, attempting to throw the fly. Even a black bear browsing the breakfast menu was amused by the show.

At long last, I banked the fish, feeling remorseful in securing the fine specimen and robbing him of passing such fit genetics. He lay among emerald ferns beneath a stone-cold granite wall, alongside a chrome hen I had the pleasure to land moments earlier. Marveling over the spectacle, his well-defined kype, deep rose coloration fading into dark olive along the dorsal with black pepper flecks, holographic operculum, and perfectly symmetrical physical features inspired awe. Laying my switch rod against him for scale, I snapped a few quick photos to forever immortalize the life of what may be the greatest coho salmon I will ever have the privilege to land on the fly.

This was but one of many incredible moments afforded me by the bounty of Alaska over the years, and certainly one of the most memorable. August is getting late for chinook salmon (“kings”), but other species like sockeye and chum can be found in a few creeks. Neither offer the table fare of the coho or chinook, yet both are worthy of every minute of pursuit in fight and splendor.

In eight days of dawn to dusk casting, I fished that single pink bunny streamer pattern, enticing everything that swam, including a small sea-run cutthroat. On subsequent trips, I fished a standard floating fly line and a six-weight switch rod, and even a tenkara rod with equivalent success.

Prince of Wales offers myriad other opportunities to view wildlife, sink pots for Dungeness crab and bottom-fish for halibut and rockfish, all of which met the grill and steam pot each evening. We stood over the searing aromas, enjoying a beverage and recalling our new and everlasting memories. Sticking to the minimalist trend, applying the basic seasonings salt, pepper, garlic, lemon, parsley and butter offers universal succulence for fin fish and shellfish alike.

Good friend Dean Holecek pulls a crab pot in Prince of wales

Given the brutalities of 2020, now is a great time to push back from the stressors of everyday life and hop a quick flight (with an open middle seat!) to southern Alaska. Grab your fly rod and a handful of streamers, don your facemask, and experience the soul rejuvenation that only the last frontier can provide, among salmon.