Thursday, September 20, 2012

Kickin' it old school...

I arrived at home late wednesday night last week. After putting some things away (dropping my bags inside the front door) I crawled into bed, exhausted. As I lay there I thought about how tired I was and naturally my mind pondered a reason behind the exhaustion. My thought process started with the recent events and quickly worked its way backward. Tossing and turning the night before in the bed of an Anchorage hotel listening to the sounds of the city. Staying up until two in the morning after pounding 86 beers between four of us in an end of the season celebration for the last crew out. Several days of breakdown and hauling thousands of pounds of camp equipment into storage for the winter. Four months of 16+ hour days back and forth between behind the scenes "keep the train on its tracks" mentality and the calm, cool, collected game-face around happy hour and dinner with new guests each night. As I lay there wondering, I realized for the first time that I had made it through another season. After that, it didn't take long to fall asleep.

The next morning I got a call from a good friend of mine, outfitter, and generous supplier of trips that help me pay my bills. I had at least four full days of working around the house to get caught up on everything, and Jeff wanted me to head down to a nearby steelhead river for a pre-season scouting mission. The timing couldn't have been worse, but maybe that made the timing better... so I opted to ditch the chores and hit the river.

We fished dark to dark both days. That is- headlamp to headlamp holding a rod. When it gets over 90 degrees in the afternoons on the dry-side steelhead rivers, you quickly learn the magic almost always happens in places and situations where the fireball in the sky isn't shining on the water. This seems to especially apply to the swing game.

The first day we set out to demo some new rods and had some good knocks here and there. I think all and all we probably hit 3-4 fish on the swing between the two of us with one nice hatchery hen making it all the way to the net. She came in about 7 feet of jogging-paced chop right off a shade line made by overhanging willows. We know she came up for the fly, because she ate it in the first ten feet of swing. I was about 60 feet above Jeff and heard the take she hit so hard, and within about a second was cartwheeling out of the water! Pretty awesome to see a hatchery fish act that way!

Sometimes Hatch-brats eat the swing too...
Morning of the next day was back to the old stomping grounds and scouting the go-to float for most of the fly guides on this river. We farted around with some nymphing and hit some fish on the move feeling out the changes in the river brought by high water. We had a few grabs swinging but it was a bit slow.

We pulled off early after breaking an oar and making it through a near catastrophic encounter with a sweeper (that story in a later post). After gaining our composure and trailering the boat at the get-out, we set out to track down Jeff's client for the next two days. Sure enough, we found him swinging a nearby run. After shaking hands and catching up, Keefer was jacked with steelhead fever. He had been into the fish for the last hour or so and had just landed a nice 12 lb wild buck. We shared the excitement and headed back to the truck with the happy angler to grab our rods.

Slamming into a sweeper= no hat crew
We reminisced over a couple beers and the "witching hour" approached as we rigged up our rods. Like most fishing conversations of this fashion, the subject quickly turned to the question of which fly to use. Jeff and I went back and forth between theories based on years of experience and the previous results of the weekend's scouting run. Keefer's response was three words- "Green Butt Skunk." Jeff and I smiled and Keefer didn't miss a beat. "Tied it myself, just got into tying this summer."

As a fly fanatic, I thought about if for a minute and my mind made it full-circle to the excuse that it had to be a color thing. I selected a black/chartreuse fly out of the box with a much better profile than any traditional wet fly. A few minutes later we all headed down the trail. I was second through the run. Jeff led with an intermediate sink tip and behind me trailed our good friend Steve. Keefer hung back sitting on the gravel bar enjoying the rest of his beer and watching us cast. The fish were rolling up through the run as the sun set behind the towering canyon walls.

Five minutes into our session Jeff hooked up in front of me. A headshake 70 feet off the rod-tip and the line came shooting back towards him followed by a few choice words. Jeff finished out the remaining 50 yards of the run and headed back up the bank.

I continued to fish hard as dusk quickly approached. I focused my attention on a soft seam on the other side of the river. I was in the zone. Cast after cast my fly swung through the slot. I heard a shout above me and turned to see Steve hooked up on a nice fish. Pick-pocketed- I couldn't believe it. Always a bittersweet feeling, I was happy for him and bummed when he lost the fish.

I continued swinging down the seam towards the bottom of the run. It was getting to the point of "feeling" each cast, as there wasn't enough light left to see where the load point was on the line. Sure enough, Keefer began "yeehawing" above Steve. Pick-pocketed again. Full darkness was upon us when I headed towards the beach. The group was buzzing with excitement on the walk back to the trucks. We had hooked three fish in the last half hour alone, with Keefer going 1 for 4 over the two hours prior. Come to find out- all seven of those fish were hooked on the Green Butt Skunk.

There's a lesson that goes with this story. There are a lot of crazed fly guys out there, myself being one of them. I sit at the vise for hours several nights a week creating something I thought of while standing in line at the post office the day before. What makes the perfect steelhead fly? Profile, movement, weight, color, flash... all these factors. There are some insanely good flies on the market nowadays. Hot-tipped rubber-legs, holographic  flash, UV polar chenille, sparkle brushes... the list goes on an on when it comes to materials found in some of today's top producing steelhead patterns.

The lesson is a simple as this: Don't forget about the go-to traditional patterns that started this whole craze. This doesn't just apply to summer and fall fisheries. Low and clear conditions on our coastal winter rivers often warrant giving these patterns a try as well.

When it comes to judging a fly's "sex appeal", I'm as guilty as anyone. I've got a box full of traditional steelhead flies I seldom fish because to me, nowadays it needs to be jazzed up a bit to catch fish. If you're looking for a place to invest some dough on a few traditionals to test this theory, look no further than your local Idylwilde dealer. Idylwilde takes many of the basic, more traditional patterns and ties them on high-quality hooks using better materials to make a sexier, more durable traditional steelhead wet fly. Getcha' some, and don't get caught second guessing the Green Butt Skunk!

Idyl's Green Butt Skunk

Monday, September 17, 2012

All good things come to an end...

The 2012 season flew by faster than any I've experienced in Alaska. It may have been the bazar weather patterns, late King run, or just overall good fishing and a great crew that made it come and go quickly. All in all, the season was a huge success as we celebrated the 40th anniversary of operations at Bristol Bay Lodge.

My favorite image from 2012. A Brock Dixon photo. 
Our Artist in Residency program is in its second year at Bristol Bay Lodge. Spawned by the creative minds of Steve Laurent and Bob White, this program consists of four very special weeks at the lodge. In addition to our hardcore angling program and insane fishing, guests get to experience some pretty cool stuff during any one of these weeks.

Agulowak shorelunch, arguably the favorite each week...

Beginning in July, Nashville Songwriter's Week kicked of the AIR program for 2012. Watching five talented writers perform in the raw with nothing more than their guitars is one most incredible experiences I've ever had. I love music, and to watch these guys write songs together was simply amazing.

Liquid sunshine

Songwriter's Week was followed by Writer's Week with John Gierach. I had never read much of John's work, although I always enjoyed his columns in Fly Rod and Reel. It was a real pleasure getting to know him at the lodge, where he shared a few minutes of his latest work each night before dinner. Come to find out, John is an avid steelhead fisherman and I look forward to bumping into him on the river soon.

Artemis with Wok bow
Next was Painter's Week with Gyotaku Printmaker Scott Wells. Scott was a guide favorite, because he's been a river guide for a long time and fit right in with the crew. Each night he would ink up a grayling or char and provide a step by step look into the process he uses to create his fish prints.

Kaiser the camp-dog
The Artist in Residence series finished up with Photographer's Week and Tim Romano. Tim has shot for multiple publications and is a main contributor to the Fly Fish Journal. We had a lot fun with Tim and it was great to see a photographer with such an aggressive drive for capturing images. He even spent several hours bobbing around the lake in a dry-suit, which was cool. Too bad he couldn't find Steve's missing lens-cap under the dock, worth a hefty reward of 10 snickers bars and a $20 bill. We're really looking forward to seeing some of his finished work and I'll post some images on here as soon as I can.

The trio
Beyond the Artist in Residency Program, the summer carried on like normal. A wet July brought a late but solid King run to our three King Salmon rivers and anglers were very pleased at the number of Kings hooked daily. High water this spring meant a lot of Kings holed up in sloughs, providing some pretty amazing opportunities to get into a pile of fish on the fly.

Summer stone
The rain finally quit for a bit and allowed the rivers to drop to normal levels by the end of July. The Dolly run was epic as ever with many upper 20" fish hooked daily at Birch. We had some of the best dry fly fishing we've seen in the last three years on the Wok and Pak. We had some really awesome hatches of bigger bugs like drakes and stoneflies and it was really great to have the fish key in on this food source. It's pretty amazing to catch fish on a 6" chunk of flesh in the morning and a size 18 Sulpher in the afternoon!

An evening spey session...
Silver season came early this year and was very good especially early on. The fish were big, bright, and covered in sea-lice. A happy angler (and guide) even got a hold of one on the Wok, a river with no silver run to speak of. We finished the season with egg-drop fishing and the storm of the century. For four days it gusted to 70 mph but we were saved with an epic Silver Salmon fishery on the upper Togiak and egg-drop fishing for 100+ fish a day on the Wok and Pak. When those fish get hungry for eggs it takes serious talent to not keep them off your line!

The crew this year was by far one of the best I've worked with in the 10 years I've been with BBL. These are some of the hardest working guides in the industry, and we run them ragged 16 hours a day, 7 days a week for nearly 4 months. We take a lot of pride in how hard we work up there and our ability to finish the season strong, and these guys did it in a big way braving pounding rain and horrendous winds to get people on the fish. I can't say thank you enough, great job boys.

One of the rare times we captured them actually sitting down...
The images seen in the post were taken by Brock Dixon, a full-time guide on the White River in Arkansas. Brock worked his tail off for us this summer and managed to capture some pretty stunning images over the course of the season. If anyone is looking for a fishy guide down south he's your man, and he's got some pretty awesome fly patterns for those 30"+ browns.

Brock accompanied by Toad the rainbow