Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Get Your Head in the Game! Five Tips to Better Fly Tying

I have always been possessed with the question of what lies beyond the next mountain. An innate desire to explore burns from deep within, perhaps fulfilling the very existence of my soul. This feeling is part of being a McDonough, as it’s easily seen in the personalities of both my father and his father. I’m sure this same question played a large role in my ancestors making the move to America from Ireland generations ago.

"What lies beyond the next river-bend?"
Naturally, the desire to explore carries over into my fishing. A big part of being an avid fly fisherman is embracing the curiosity of what lies around the next river-bend. I love looking at a new piece of water and deciding on how to attack it with a fly rod. I’ve been skunked on new water time and time again, but what comes after the skunk has made me a better angler.

Processing everything on the way home- “Was I fishing the right flies? Was I fishing the right water? What changes will I make in my plan of attack for the next day?” Whether it’s after a thorough skunking, or several months prior to a trip, it’s the task of figuring out these questions that really gets my head in the game. In the end, “getting ‘er dialed,” as we say, is the best feeling of all. This satisfaction is the very root of why I fish and guide.

An exploratory float deep in the wilderness of British Columbia
I find that the prep-work for an upcoming trip is almost as fun as the trip itself. It’s a way to come into the trip with my head in the game and really attack a new fishery. This mentality is easily applied when I narrow things down and use flies as my starting point. You need flies to catch fish on a fly rod. I am very passionate about flies and all aspects of tying and creating them. It’s easy to do a bit of online research or go into a local fly shop and purchase flies for an upcoming trip. Not that I’m trying to discourage this approach, but I find that I get more into the game if I tie my own flies. I also enjoy tying new patterns, whether it’s mine or those created by other tiers.

While not in Alaska, chasing steelhead across much of the Pacific Northwest has kept me from doing a whole lot of flats fishing. A quick trip to Mexico with my wife a few years back was more a vacation-vacation than a fishing vacation. We spent a few days down south on the Yucatan and had fun figuring out the bonefishing. I had nothing more than an 8 wt. rod and a small box of loaner flies- like I said, it wasn’t really a fishing trip. All in all, we caught plenty of little bones, had a couple brief shots at permit, and developed a fascination with fishing the flats. I vowed we would return for a “fishing-fishing” vacation to a flats destination somewhere in the world, only this time we would do it right.

The next chapter...
Here I am, a few years later spending much of my free-time in the evenings power-tying for an upcoming saltwater trip. As the Alaska season quickly approaches, I should be tying flesh and sculpin patterns. Instead, my fly tying table is crowded with packs of E.P. fibers, Tiemco saltwater hooks, and artificial crab-eyes.

McDonough's Tarpon Toad
The decision to take the plunge and tie most of the flies I will use on the trip was a big deal, as I’ve never tied any saltwater flies. Although crossing over into this genre of fly-tying was inevitable, it has taken some time to get the hang of it. As usual, learning some patterns has been easier than learning others. Frustrating at first, figuring out the process has inspired me to write this blog with a few basic tips on becoming a better tier.

Got crabs?

McDonough's 5 Basic Tips to Better Fly Tying

1. Tie a lot- When you struggled after ditching the training wheels on your bike, what did your parents tell you? “Practice makes perfect.” I can’t stress this enough. You can’t reach the next level in your tying ability by only tying a few times a month. My life is as busy as that of anyone I know, and I still manage to tie several nights a week (Being young with no kids helps). Even if it’s a quick thirty minute session, tying several times a week will make you a much better tier.

2. Cross genres- Like my recent situation learning saltwater patterns, tying different flies and different styles of flies will go a long ways in making you a better tier. I know a lot of people, guides included, who only tie certain types of flies. If you’re most confident tying dries and nymphs, spend some time learning to tie streamers. If you’re a “meat-chucker” and you enjoy nothing more than tying big juicy streamers, take the time to practice tying small emergers. Learning hand-eye coordination while working with different sizes and styles of materials and hooks will really help you tie all your flies much better.

3. Step out of your comfort zone- This plays on tip #2. Crossing over into new genres and learning to tie different styles of flies is all a part of stepping out of your comfort zone. Challenge yourself with learning new patterns. Set a goal to get to a point where you can look at a fly, dissect the materials and techniques used, and tie it on your own. When you reach this goal, challenge yourself with new materials.  If you are uncomfortable spinning deer hair, spend a few weeks tying mice, bass bugs, or sculpins. Look for patterns that use a material you haven’t used much and go for it. When you get comfortable with one material, challenge yourself with something completely different.

4. Use quality materials- Do some research and buy quality materials. I’m all about supporting your local fly shop. Generally, these guys could use the business and most are all about helping you figure out what you need or don’t need. Fly shops are often staffed with at least one or two decent fly tiers who will offer good first hand advice on buying and using certain materials. Choosing this option versus ordering online also allows you to look over the materials prior to making your purchase. Not all feathers are created equal. Buying from your local shop provides you the ability to assess the different grades and sizes of materials and figure out what is best for you.

5. Buy quality tools- I have tied on the full gamut of setups, from the most basic jerry-rigged improvisations in Alaska to the top-of-the-line benches found at most shops. I’ve been stuck at remote river-camps in Alaska using a set of vise grips in place of a vise for several weeks at a time. It took me a long time to admit that buying quality tools would help me tie better flies. By quality tools, I don’t mean the industry fad or the latest and greatest. By no means could I ever justify spending $600 on a vise, or $50 on some fancy retractable bobbin. However, spending a little extra on quality tools will help you crank out better flies in the end.

Ceramic bobbins, although a bit more expensive, help prevent accidental thread-cutting on the sharp edge found at the tip of a cheaper bobbin. Buy good scissors! It’s impossible to overemphasize the importance of good scissors, and several types of good scissors. Buy a good set of hackle-pliers that actually hold the hackle. There are many different styles of hackle-pliers on the market today. What you choose should be based on personal preference, but one thing is for certain- they need to actually hold the hackle as the tier applies a fair amount of pressure. Go to your local shop and test out a few sets on their bench to find out which works best for you.

I plan on doing a lot more on this topic (tip #5) in the future, but the bottom line is- spend a little extra coin on tools. You don’t need the best that money can buy, but having quality tools will help you tie better flies and it will make your tying experience more enjoyable, which will ultimately lead to you tying more often.

I will get into more specific fly tying tips in future posts, but these five pointers have really helped me become a better tier. My father was a great teacher of basic fly tying back when I was a young boy. Although he continues to be a great mentor, figuring it out from there was up to me. I've learned to appreciate these five tips through my own journey that has molded me into the tier I am today.

Get your head in the game! October on the Klickitat

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Steelheader's candy and a review on Hareline's rhea...

I took a much needed break from the fly tying table last night to take part in what has become an annual ritual for my wife and I. Being surrounded by farm-country is one of the great joys that comes with residing in eastern Washington. Our waterfowling is top-notch, wine-tasting is always a ball, and this time of year- our asparagus is dirt cheap!

I didn't grow up in a farm family and my parents didn't do all that much canning. Mom cans a mean batch of salsa every summer, but that's pretty much it. My wife and I started pickling asparagus last year after visiting a nearby fruit-stand on our way back from wine-tasting. They had it listed for $1.50 a pound so we started filling a giant bag. The owner noticed us grabbing massive handfuls and casually walked over to let us know he'd give it to us for 75 cents a pound if we bought 20 lbs or more. We couldn't resist the price, so the McDonoughs went a bit overboard and bought 40 lbs.

McDonough's Spicy Asparagus
This year's batch wasn't quite that big. Getting ready for a season in Alaska and working multiple jobs has us pretty busy right now. Needless to say, we managed to set aside a couple hours to get 'er done and canned just under 20 lbs last night. 

Nothing is better than pickled asparagus on the river. Back in my younger days, our weekly supply of river food involved nothing more than a Costco bag of Hoody's salted peanuts and a flat of V8 cans. We were obsessed steelhead junkies focused on chasing chromers, and somehow there just wasn't enough time in the day to sit down and take a lunch-break back then. Chewing a can of Copenhagen snuff a day also helped with the hunger pains. We're still obsessed steelhead junkies, but we've thrown a jar of pickled asparagus into the mix when we get the rare day-off to fish on our own.

Steelheader's Candy
It's always a big hit with my guests as well, but I only break it out for special groups... otherwise I couldn't keep up with demand. I would compare my pickled asparagus to the "like" button on Facebook. It's a way of giving a thumbs-up to some of my favorite clients!

This morning I attempted to finish putting away all my guide gear from the winter's steelhead season. Like always, my A.D.D. got the best of me and I found myself looking through fly boxes and admiring old, retired flies from last season. The distraction prevented me from finishing the task at hand, but it inspired me to write a review.

Steelhead Candy
I'm just as obsessed with steelhead flies as I am with the act of steelheading. I tie a lot-several hours a day at least 4-5 days a week. Like many of you, I first learned of rhea after The Fly Shop in Redding publicized Paul Miller's steelhead selection. I always admired these bugs in the catalogs, though I still haven't seen one up close. I had done a bit of snooping around on the internet in an attempt to gain some knowledge on this new feather. The consensus became obvious: hard to find, very expensive, difficult to tie with, etc. Needless to say, I gave up on rhea.

Fast forward about five years. I was looking through the 2012 catalog from Hareline Dubbin after returning from Alaska last fall and was shocked to see rhea offered. A quick phone call and I was sold, though still a bit skeptical. How good could it be coming from a giant supplier of materials like Hareline?

A few days later my order showed up. As I opened the box, I was shaking with anticipation like a kid on Christmas. Over a feather, I know- pretty sad. At first glance, Hareline's rhea was a bit different than I thought it would be. 

I ordered several packs in a few different colors: black, purple, orange, and peacock. The dyes are great and the colors are stunning. Rhea seems to hold it's color very well with very little fading occurring over the course of our three month season, even after fishing several flies off and on for multiple days at a time. 

I would compare it to ostrich in terms of feather size. Strangely, the feathers are much softer than what I expected after reading reviews online several years ago. Many complained about having to split and soak the quills in order to be able to palmer it onto the tube or shank. This is not the case at all with Hareline's rhea. In fact, this stuff is soft enough to wrap the top third of the entire feather. The webby fibers average 3"-7" in length and are perfect for intruder-style flies. They're just stiff enough to hold a great profile and not collapse in heavy current, but supple at the tip of the fiber for awesome movement.

That first night I sat down for a long session at the tying table and cranked out several intruders using a few different methods to incorporate rhea into each fly. I wrapped and palmered the feather, spun individual fibers into a dubbing loop, and simply tied the fibers into place with thread wraps. After tying and fishing it all season long, I'll be the first to admit they all look the same in the water... but the latter method is the quickest, so that is what I prefer. If you're going to spin it in a loop, you'll need some good wax to keep the fibers in place much like spinning amherst. 

A very chewed-up intruder from this season...still fishable!
I consider rhea to be the perfect feather. Bulk it up in back with some fox or finnish coon and it's stiff enough to not collapse in the heaviest of current. The movement of each individual fiber is absolutely incredible. It's not bulky like maribou or bunny. I tie a few versions of rhea intruder, but they're all tied in two sizes. The smaller is about 3 1/2" long from shank-eye to the tips of the rear fibers. The larger is about 6" long from shank-eye to the tips of the rear fibers. They're both super-easy to throw with a standard Skagit setup and 12+ feet of T-14+. I tie them sparse because this provides the best movement and profile. You can bomb them a country mile if need-be, and most importantly- they stay down and dirty in the zone.

Rhea is also very durable, which means it makes great guide-bugs. After replacing trailer hooks a few times, I fished some of the same flies off and on all season long tying them onto  "dude-rods" several dozen times.

Thank you, rhea.
All in all, like most products from Hareline- I was super impressed with their rhea. If you are a skeptic like I was, I encourage you to buy a few feathers and mess around with it for yourself. When you're converted, make sure you leave some for me! Due to the cost and availability, I seriously doubt my rhea intruders will ever make it into an Idylwilde catalog, but I will continue to tie and fish the heck out of it for many many years to come!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Here we go!

Not quite sure how to start this whole blog deal! I know I'm a bit late to step up to the plate and start blogging. Truth is, I don't visit many blogs... maybe that's why it has taken me so long to start one. I really enjoy writing and hope to someday have a book published, maybe an instructional compilation, or even a story of my crazy life chasing fish. I'm finally following the sound advice of my friends and clients and taking a step in the right direction with creating this blog. If nothing else, it gives people a chance to stay in touch and read my current ramblings.

First off, a bit about me. I started guiding in Alaska eleven years ago on the Kenai Peninsula. I was a 16 year old punk with a dream to become the fishiest guide on the water! Needless to say, I worked my tail off and spent as much time around the best mentors I could have ever asked for. I saw a lot of big trout and got a shot guiding steelhead trips on the south peninsula, which quickly became my favorite fishery.

Togiak King= Happy Nate
Autumn days waking up at 3:30 am, chasing tide-fish coming in on the morning tide, it was fast-paced guiding fueled by caffeine and an obsession with putting people on fish. I was humbled many times over these two years, and finally lost my cocky "fishiest guide on the water" attitude!

My lovely wife
By my third season, I found myself out west guiding in the Wood-Tikchik system and Togiak National Wildlife Refuge for Bristol Bay Lodge, where I still work today. For the past five years, I've done much less guiding during the season than I would like, but I have no complaints. My job on our management team involves a lot more than making sure people catch fish, but I find myself guiding as much as I possibly can. I enjoy the fast-paced insanity and long hours of the summer season. Not to mention BBL has about the most intense fishing program available anywhere! It's a been great operation to be apart of from all aspects of the business.

I currently reside in Ellensburg, Washington where my wife, Janessa and I work for the lodge in our winter office and caretake on a nearby ranch. I have worked a bit here and there guiding and working for a few local fly-shops back in my college days, but I don't find myself on the Yakima much anymore. I currently work with a pretty motley crew as a gypsy steelhead guide here in Washington.

I enjoy the heck out of all types of hunting and often find my most intense moments on the water occur when I'm actually "hunting" fish. I think this is why I enjoy being a steelhead guide so much.

I enjoy the prep-work for guiding or fishing almost as much as I enjoy actually being on the water. I'm a bit of a gear-head and love figuring out the next-best system, so you'll probably find quite a few gear reviews on this blog in the future!

I love the tying aspect of fly fishing and I'm obsessed with flies. I tie a lot and create patterns for what I think is the best fly company out there, Idylwilde Flies.

I'm very blessed to be able to make a living in this industry. I look forward to documenting my crazy adventures as my obsession takes me to fisheries both far and near. I'll do my best to update trip reports, fishing reports, and photos several times a week. Thanks for reading!