Impossible Failure; Ultimate Irony

Posted on July 24, 2011


One Long Night

Took a week off to go back to New Hampshire. I haven’t fished much in the last year, and I guess that kind of built up in me.  I spent the night before the trip sorting gear agonizing over what to bring. The river there is the slipperiest place on earth. It’s dark and deep, the dam opens at irregular intervals, and every footstep you have to wedge yourself against the current. The first time I ever went to fish it, they were  pulling a body out. So I was debating, take the wading boots or not? If I took them, it would mean I would have to check a bag. If not’ everything fit into a back pack.  I finally decided no boots, wished I had a tube for the new 7.5′ 3wt I just built, stuffed my pack, pulled the compression straps and went to bed.

When I got to airport parking, the shuttle bus driver literally grabbed my pack out of my hand and slung it onto the bus. I had a bad feeling about that, but how would he know I had a .5mm rod tip sticking out of the bag?  Things went well until we hit Philadelphia and I boarded the puddle-jumper to Manchester. One of those deals where you are on the plane, it’s not going anywhere, and  you know at some point you  and all of the Red Sox fans down for the series are not flying out of Philly on the Fourth of July weekend.

We “de-planed” and probably did other things that mangled the English language. Suddenly, not having checked bags seemed like brilliant forethought. I’ve been through this drill before.   A couple of years ago I got stuck in Dulles because of thunderstorms and rented a car to drive home. Seven hours, home by dawn, and nobody else left for four days. Sometimes you have to cut the Gordian knot. So I get off the plane, wait for the first guy to finish talking to the attendant and asked what the deal was. He said he was a preferred customer and his first chance was a 5:30AM flight to Laguardia.

“Hell,” I said, “we can drive to Manchester before that.” Then I said to the crowd, “I’m driving to Manchester, who’s in?” I’m no dummy, a couple of the power users were already renting cars on their smart phones. I merely “facilitated the process”  by getting them all in one car. It’s amazing how people will waffle in these situations. Dozens of people decide to spend the night and take there chances over this one sure thing. It’s like the ultimate job interview. I don’t know who these guys are, but by the time we’re on the shuttle bus, I know I would hire any one of them.

That was 12:30AM. One guy drove all night. He’s been in both Iraq and Afghanistan in Intelligence.  Whenever I meet a vet, I always ask them “Should we be there?”  Great conversation starter. We talked all night and were in Manchester by 6:30AM.  The other guy owns a professional baseball team out of Manchester. Like I said, movers and shakers.

My nephew Liam picked me up and we went off to register his car. Because it was New Hampshire and immanently (I had to look that up)  reasonable, I was able to get my fishing license in the same line. Next off we hit the local sporting goods store and I bought the cheapest wading boots they had. I planned on leaving them there when I flew back. Soon, I won’t be bringing anything on the plane but flies in my pockets.

Then I swung by the house kissed my mom, stole my dad’s best fly rod and headed to the Kancamagus Highway (until I looked that up I always pronounced int -maNgus)  in the White Mountains. Liam has discovered on his own that he loves fishing and has been traipsing around with a spinning rod catching various species. Since I knew he wasn’t a river fisher, and a hiker, I’d done a little research and found a pond with native brookies in it up in the hills. Actually, it was pretty fascinating research. I’d always researched rivers, by simply switching to ponds, I found whole new resources in the area. My sister warned me that he didn’t fly fish, and was a little intimidated, but I don’t care, I just wanted to be in the woods with a friend, I don’t care what they are fishing.

So, we hiked in to this little pond and I went to rig up my sweet little 3wt, which of course had it’s tip broken off.  Broken rod one, and I never even fished it. Um, Jon, couldn’t you have at least packed it tip down? Liam was interested in trying to fly fish so I rigged my dad’s rod for him, showed him how to cast, and used his first aid kit to repair my rod. While we were doing this a couple came up and pointed out some flowering pitcher plants, a carnivorous species.

Flowering pitcher plant

The maw

The wind was a bitch and we were in a silted up cove, so we picked up the gear and walked around until we found solid bottom where we could wade out and cast off the littoral shelf (the area where a body of water goes from shallow to deep, fish hang just off of this). Once there, I was able to catch fish on nearly every cast the wind would allow me.  I was tossing my last hornberg, and fish would hit them dry or wet. I love wild alpine fish, so starved for attention.
I gave Liam the hornberg and he started hooking fish, too. You would’ve thought his first one was a steelhead. And you know, in a way a wild brookie is a rare and beautiful as a steelhead, size not withstanding.  He kept saying, “It’s so beautiful!” He turned to me and said “I’m a fly fisher.”

Liam’s first trout

Then a couple of bubbas came up and started talking to us. Now why the hell would you hike into the woods, walk off trail on a 50-acre lake, pretend to be a fisherman, and then stand directly in the only place that person can backcast? If you didn’t know what a bubba was, that is pretty much the definition. For some reason while I was talking to them the misquitoes bit the crap out of my hands, even my palms. That has never happened before, even in Alaska.

After that, we went down to the Winnepesaukee river by it’s headwaters where it is joined by the Swift.  Enough 4″ fish, time for Liam to fish a river. Now the fishing is really good in these parts. I won’t lie, they are regularly stocked, but I do catch a fair amount of holdovers and natives.  I just knew we would put him onto some fish. I’ve caught fish on every river I’ve been on in NH. And, although I feel that rivers may be like Led Zeppelin albums – the one you are on is always your favorite – I do believe this was the fishiest section of water I’ve ever seen. Pools and riffles, pools and riffles. Boulders and basketball sized rocks. Small enough to cover the whole thing. I gave him a muddler, showed him how to work a pool and then worked my butt off to find fish.

Muddler, the fast water fly, it’s head cavitates the water and draws trout

I covered every inch of  a mile of water, I used a dozen flies, but was poignantly aware that I had lost my last hornberg on the mountain, shredded by those little fish. We worked ’til dusk, including taking in a beaver pond that fed the stream,  and then headed off.  It was Friday evening. By  now I’d been up since Wednesday morning, and I still had cribbage and Scotch to do with my dad.

Going to the Mountain

The next day, I ran errands with my sister and we stopped by the local furniture store, Grevior’s . Mr. Grevior and his sons have the fly fishing in town dialed and my sister introduced me a few years ago.  Now, every time I hit town, it’s like having my own personal guide. He tells me what is hatching, what’s stocked, etc. It turns out that because of the cold spring, the hex hatch, or, more correctly hexagenia limbata mayfly, has been late and I’ve arrived just in time for it.

Hex flies

Okay, I’ve never fished one of these fabled hatches.  In Western Washington, we simply don’t have them. The trout don’t gorge on these hatches when insects dapple the water like raindrops. Hence, I don’t dry fly fish hardly at all. But ever since Mr Grevior told me about the hex hatch five years ago, I’ve been carrying around a bottle of white mayflies, just waiting for the day. He told me all of the fish were below the big dam in town, that the state had just put the brood stock Atlantic salmon in there, and if I fished for trout I would be guaranteed a salmon – my first, by the way after many fruitless outings.  Now this was something I knew I could do, catch big fish in the Pemijawasset on stupidly large flies. I ran out of there without even asking what flies to use. Besides the muddler, hornberg, and hex, what is there? There is hubris, Jon, hubris.

Impossible Failure

The next day, I drove to the river, donned my new wading boots and headed out. I’ve owned a lot of wading boots. Mostly because Corkers, for all of their promise, really, really suck and self destruct almost immediately getting me more warrantee pairs than would stock a fairly good-sized fly shop. So, I was not expecting that these $30 boots would be any better. Well, hello, these are the best damn boots I’ve ever owned! It was like I was velcroed to the river. I was wading out to the tops of my waders with ease. And I needed to. I covered the water from the dam to the bridge. I fished the pools, I fished the deep runs, I fished next the shore. I fished the pocket water in the rapids. I walked all of the way across the river and thought I was going to have to hike out, cross the bridge and walk back to my car the water was so fast, but I made it back. I did not, however, catch fish. Well one 8″ whitefish, which I released in shame. I was, as they say, much chagrinned. However, I noted that nobody else was catching fish, including one poor soul who was nymphing off of one spot the entire three hours I was there.  When I can’t catch fish on wets, or even dries, I feel like “if only I switched to nymphs…” So, it always makes me feel better to see a nympher strike out. If they aren’t taking nymphs, they aren’t there or they aren’t biting.  At least that’s what I tell myself.

Nail knot

Somewhere along the way I’d broken my leader and since it was nail-knotted to the line, quickly hand-tied a bunch of tippet together. This, of course led to a lot of wind knots, but I’m just not into tying nail knots in chest deep water. I want to fish.

As I said, wading cross-river was a bit tense. At one point I stepped into a hole next to a boulder that was 4′ deep. “Yup,” I thought, “plenty deep enough for trout.” And then I leaned forward against the current, promptly filling my waders with water.  Refreshing. By the time I got back to the car, I was some glad to have dry clothes to put on. I dropped my shoes behind the trunk, and then promptly filled them with water from my chest pocket when I bent over to unlace my boots.  It might suck to be me sometimes, but I bet I’m entertaining to follow around.

Whitefish King

I headed off to my parents’ anniversary party. After it was all over, my erstwhile nephew Alex showed up with a bottle of Bushmills Black. At 3AM the bottle and everybody had evaporated and I was left up all night. I did not make the morning hatch. Nevertheless, I hit the river. Tied on a muddler and decided to fish below the bridge, in the whitewater. Ryan told me once that in high pressure, fish will often move to the heavy water, and that has always been sound advice, especially on this river. Finally, a big flash under the water. It looked like a golden dinner plate under the water. Because of the hand-tied leader I was on 2x and really horsed that fish in. Still, in the heavy water I put it on the reel thinking “this is it, I got my salmon.” I even had my camera along. I was more than disappointed to reel in a 17″ whitefish. I don’t know why. They are related to trout, they live in trout water, they take trout flies, they fight like trout, but they are considered trash fish. I’ve even found that if you fish through them, the trout are behind them. So I stood right there and caught fifteen of them, six on successive casts. I was thinking, “It’s a damn shame Liam is not here, this would be great training for him.”

Whitefish, sort of, best I can find

I fished down to where the Winnepesaukee joins the Pemi and makes the Merrimac. I once caught a 20″ ‘bow there on a hornberg the size of my thumbnail. Once, for a week I fished to a 29″ trout that hung by this rock I just couldn’t put a cast on. I’m sure that would’ve been a state record, and a guy can always dream. It was a long slog up river to the car.

Hornbergs on My Mind

The next day, I was supposed to fish with Liam, but he had to work, so  I went to Portsmouth to see Richard and Pete. We hung out, shot pool, and then I went up to the Kittery Trading Post with Renee and bought every hornberg they had.

Hornberg, fish it every where else, savior of many a day fishing

I drove to the beach to help shoot the big show with my dad. I got there right at 7 and they were half set up. He said “Where have you been?”

I said, “You said, ‘Be here at 7.'”

“That’s tomorrow,” says he.

“Good, then I’m early,” and we went to work. I do love that show.

Rockets’ red glare

After we went over to Pete’s where his new girlfriend Jane decided to show us how Irish she was. Another long night was had by all. No fishing, but we did the second Rye show and Back to Franklin by midnight, with a pocket full of hornbergs, and a few grey ghosts for luck.

Night Fishing in the Rain I

So, I still haven’t caught a trout of size, and not in a river. Last winter my sister Beth and I had taken pictures at an old mill on the Winnapasukee that had a distinct spring creek feel to it. I was just sure that if I could fish that section I would finally get my fish on. I had been so focused on fishing where I was told to so that I could put Liam on to fish that I hadn’t done any exploring. Well for me it’s more fun to catch fish somewhere nobody thought of than it is to catch them where you know the are. So I drove up there at dusk with my mom, and it was a good thing too, because I couldn’t see to tie the fly on and she had to do it for me. I went down to the stream and fished the hell out of that hex imitation, but it started raining and I never saw a rise. I switched to a muddler, ran it through the fast deep water under the bridge, nearly swimming in the deep waters, and returned defeated to the car, soaked in the dark.

Broken Rod 2, Still Good Day Fishing

When at first you don’t succeed, I often find it’s because  you didn’t follow the original plan closely enough. Armed with hornbergs, I returned to the water under the dam. I had a plan. I would fish that water once with the hornbergs, and if I failed to raise a fish, come back nymphing with big stones.

Stonefly nymph

It was a sad day when you have to contemplate nymphing, but I was determined to figure it out. I’d left my rod rigged and parked into the bushes to keep the car off the road. When I went to pull it out, the tip snapped off. My story is that I was fishing tungsten headed spring creek  specials the day before and must’ve nicked the rod. I love that rod. My dad bought it for $99 rod, line, and reel and to this day it’s the only rod I’ve ever used that can cast the line to the backing, and has a sweet tip sensitive enough for dry flies. Every large fish I ever landed has been on that rod. Broken rod two, no damn fish.

I went home, grabbed a spare, and came back. I had some company on the other side of the river. Finally, I hooked a fish. Man, did that fish pull, I put it on the reel again, because people keep telling me I should, and pulled in a 17″ ‘bow. I held him up to show  my friend and continued on. I saw him catch a fish and he held up a 4″ bass.  I grabbed a 14″ brookie and another big ‘bow out of there. I’m not a glutton. Three nice fish, all on hornbergs. The last was on a big slick in a tail out right in front of a rock, just where it should be, and it took the fly right out of the air. I’d seen him rise and cast to him, so I wasn’t surprised. This was a good sign because a hornberg on the surface is a big white dry fly, just like a hex, and I figured the hatch was on.

I pulled out of the river, hiked to my car, drove around the river to the other side and walked down to my new friend.  “How are you doing?” “Just that bass,” he replied.

“Yeah, I spent three years standing on this rock looking at 28″ salmon follow my grey ghosts before I quit and decided to fish for trout.”

Grey ghost, supposedly as good a a hornberg for brookies and salmon

“Looked like an 18″ fish you held up.”

“If you say, so. Here,” I held out a hornberg, “tie it on, fish it deep.” There was a real sparkle in his eye when he thanked me. There’s just something sad about a man catching bass when there are trout around, and even though I was going to be late for dinner, I just had to help that guy out.

“You know,” he said,” there were fish rising to your back cast when you were in that pool. Couldn’t get your attention.” I couldn’t help but laugh at that, I’ve seen salmon in that pool that I could touch with my spey rod they were so close, and tonight I walked right over them.

Night Fishing in the Rain 2

I went to Beth’s house and helped her launch her blog, but then I begged for another hour of fishing. Tonight, I was sure, I would hit the hatch. Well I drove to the river, ran to the trail, and started covering the water like a mad man. There were no rises, so I kept the hornberg on. No sense fishing a dry fly if the real thing is not on the water, as far as I’m concerned. It started raining again, but hard. There were puddles on the river. It was dark and the dam must’ve had a release, it was a foot deeper than earlier in the day. I fished the big pool fast, and in the same place I caught my last fish earlier I either caught him again or another, on a 70′ cast in the dark. I saw him come out of the water and take it in the air again. I was up to my nipples and had too much slack in the line to hold him. So I laughed, spooled it up and when back home. By now my full sink line had started to come apart and it was like one of those strings covered with emery that people use for camp saws to garrote tree limbs.  It has sawed a pretty good slice in my finger from stripping line and without fish, it made it easy to quit.

Failing Intuition

The next day was clear and hot, it turns out that the state record trout did come from this river, above the dam. This was ideal, my dad  and I could put in with his little aluminum skiff, and Liam could kayak it. The night was hot and still. Perfect for a hatch. I was sure of mythical events, but we plied that water with hexs, buggers, nymphs, even a spoon. We fished it up to the next dam, and it was the flattest, deadest water I’ve ever seen. My intuition had been off all week. The cut in my finger was so deep, I now have a scar from it.

Ultimate Irony

The last day there, I got up late again and went down to the river. There were three guys already on the water. In the West, when you are on a river you cast and take three steps, cast and take three steps. In a surprisingly short time, you cover a lot of water. These three guys were all just standing there, thrashing the water.  I didn’t want to fish between them, even though they were standing above and below the best water on the river, so I walked up to the downstream guy and asked him if I could work in below him. Turns out they were three brothers. They’d outfitted him with rubber waders and boots, a broken leader and stuck him on a rock. Oh, yeah, I’d almost forgot how scary this river was without magic Velcro boots. So I fished below him, picked up a couple of nice fish. Each time making sure he saw them and keeping an eye on his brothers. By now I knew where the fish were, so I was able to work fast, but time was running out for me.

I walked up to my new friend. Found out he was from Boston, his brother was a fanatic fisherman, etc. He allowed that he had caught nothing and they only small bass.  Ah. I don’t have much sympathy for people who camp on money water, especially when they aren’t catching fish. I can almost see it if the bite is on, but when it’s not, move on and give somebody else a chance. You might learn something. I checked over his gear, tied on a new leader for him and gave him some advice about the pool below him where the fish had risen to my backcasts. He actually had a really sweet Kmart (!) dry line on that I could cast for miles, but that’s not much use if the fish are deep. Since not one of the three brothers had moved, I asked if I could make “a half dozen” casts above him, and he agreed.

Sure enough on my sixth cast I hooked a monster rainbow. I really, really thought I had my salmon. I put him on the reel and hooted loud enough that my friend and his brothers could see it. It wasn’t a salmon, but it was a nice 18″ ‘bow. I decided that was worth another six casts  and on my very last cast, as so often happens on this river, I hooked another fish. I brought that to hand, too and released it casually thinking I had landed a 15″ brown. It wasn’t until I saw the “V” shaped tail that I realized I might’ve caught my first salmon after all. I assumed that all the salmon there were bigger than that, but maybe they are breeding there, maybe they are cross-breeding with trout, and maybe there are smaller ones, I’ll never know.

Brown trout; square tail

I walked back to my friend and handed him a muddler with a wire-wrapped shank, hoping to get him down below the surface. I told him how to fish the section I’d been in a wished him luck.  While I think he was just as happy standing in the sun on his rock, I really wanted him to outfish his brothers. He was really excited and offered to pay me for the flies. I told him having fun is payment  enough.

Landlocked salmon, forked tail

On the way through the woods I started thinking about that V tail, the fact that I hadn’t seen one hex fly all week, and that that guy was probably fishing a nymphing line and what an ass I was for not giving him a conehead fly. Some friend. I went home, mailed the rod off to be fixed,  a drew a map of the river for Liam, but I told him to buy his own flies. I’m taking those hornbergs home.

P.S. Who Are You and Where are You From?

Who is visiting me from the Ukraine?
Who is visiting me from the Ukraine?

WordPress gives me these awesome reports and I can see how people find me, where they live, how they found the blog, what pages they visited. I see people from Europe, Asia, South America, and I always wonder who they are. I would love to get comments from  you! Kind of like a WordPress stamp album.

Posted in: Fly Fishing