“When I’m fishing, I don’t long for my responsibilities”

Posted on August 15, 2011


That was the quote of the day from the ever- quotable Mr. Bob  Triggs.

SRC or Die

So, finally, I got to fishing with my buddy Bob Triggs. Bob is one of those people whom when you meet them, you just know you will be lifelong friends. We met at a Spey clinic and it did not take long to hit it off.  Of course, we soon found out we were both Yankees. Like many locale-specific identities, you can’t explain what being a Yankee is unless you is one. In general, though, New Englanders are pretty much “I don’t care what you do, unless it infringes on me.” The New Hampshire state motto is “Live free or die,” and it’s still on the license plates (and I have the bumper sticker, too, since they took my plate away).  They do not have housing covenants in my home town, and they never will. The concept that people who don’t even drive down your street could tell you what color to paint your door is as foreign to my DNA as chlorophyll.

For example, there was a time when the local nuclear power plant, a three-decade long boondoggle, put up big poles with sirens on them to satisfy the NRC  as  the main part of their non-existent evacuation plan. And where do we go when the sirens blow? Nobody knows. So, every time one went up, somebody would chainsaw it down that night, and nobody in town thought there was anything wrong with that. The modern version of “Don’t tread on me:” You bullshit us, and we call you on it. Just like that.

Bob and I get along, but for a guide, he’s a tough guy to get a hold of. I think it was before the fire since I’ve been trying to go fishing with him.

Hornberg Files, Chapter 17

One of the reasons I really wanted to fish with him is that he and I share a love of a pretty obscure fish, the sea-run cutthroat. They are not big fish, I once fished with a man who fishes for them three days a week and when he landed a 21″ fish he told me it was the largest he’d ever seen, estimating it at over 20 years old.  They are born in the high mountain tributaries and live their ocean-going lives in the intertidal zone, between the low and high tide markers, before returning in the fall to spawn in the rivers. Some people call them “harvest trout” because of this. In Washington, if you go to the beach and spend any time looking at the water, you will see them jump. In fact, as I was waiting on the dock for the ferry to go see Bob. I looked into the water and saw a school of them surface feeding.  I knew right then that it was going to be a good trip. I will never get over that there are trout at the beach.  And they are such beautiful little fish, all silver and  butter yellow. Like any trout, they really are dazzling to behold, and no photo will ever capture their essence.

They are also probably the only conservation success of the entire region. Twenty or so years ago, they were about fished out. Now they are protected. The last time I went to the beach I saw several 18″+ fish jumping. Given their slow lifecycle I can only hope that means that more and more fish are reaching this size. Unfortunately, once they are in the rivers, they are no longer protected, a logic that I can’t quite follow.

The fist time I went to the beach to fish for these, I picked a very respectable 14″ fish up on my first or third cast. Since then, I’ve walked a lot of shorelines and nada. It seemed I needed professional help. I met Bob on the peninsula and we went to Indian Island, which was actually not an island until the Army Corps of Engineers cut a slough through an area the Native Americans used to portage their canoes across. The Island houses the munitions dump for the Pacific fleet, so on the inside you have miles of razor wire and on the outside you have fish. If you are standing in Port Towsend and look across the water, you are looking at Indian and Marrowstone Islands. Although I’m not so sure that the eight foot creek  that separates them really constitutes Marrowstone being its own island, either.

At any rate, Bob looked at my flies and tied on one of Leyland Miyawaki’s infamous beach  poppers. One of the reasons I decided to hire  Bob is that as well as knowing the local terrain, species, and techniques, most guides are also professional casting instructors. Lately my casts have reached what he described as “the pinnacle of mediocrity.” Oh, how the insignificant have fallen. To make matters worse, in my quest for the perfect blank to build new rods on, I was test casting a Dan Craft 10′ 5 weight. Not only  does that extra foot magnify all of your errors by an order of magnitude, but it came with an oversize full wells grip, which I’d never used, was too big, and hurt my hand from the very first cast.

Full Wells vs. half Wells grip

One of the things that is so crucial in fly fishing is the presentation and delivery. Turns out Leyland had stood in that very same spot for twelve hours the day before and Bob had watched him fishing the Popper. So he made a cast and showed me how to retrieve it “Leyland style” and sure enough, bang! Fish on. And then he did it again. This was about 10:30 in the morning. We fished that cut for another five hours, and I was astonished at the amount of encyclopedic knowledge of structure, flows, tides, etc that Bob has. That is what makes a great guide – their attention to the smallest details and their ability to relate them to catching fish.

And, can he tell a story. We basically chatted while he recounted episode after episode, including the time he saw an arctic narwhal in that very cut. People from Fish and Game drove out from Seattle within 90 minutes and used the Coast Guard’s tracking programs to try to find it.  It was basically a five hour casting lesson. As a self-taught caster I used to just say things to myself like “quit making wind knots” and not think about what caused them and they would go away. I was pretty damn Zen. Now, I’m suddenly one of those asses who works too hard all week and when it comes time to fish, can’t relax enough to put one fly in front of the fish. Bob took out more casting knots in five hours than I’ve had in five years.  You know what? I’m glad I had such a bad performance in front of such a great coach. I learned a ton.

Unfortunately, I had yet to catch a fish, even though we saw the occasional rise. Bob tied on a series of flies after the Popper and showed me various presentations, although I think it’s widely believed that if the SRCs are there and biting, they will take what you present, how you present it. The lesson was great, learning the presentations was great, the stories were worth the trip alone, standing on the beach all day was worth anything, but it was time to catch a fish. So, we tied on a hornberg. I knew Bob would be up for this because he once wrote an essay “Opening Day” for the once much lauded, but now apparently defunct, Yale Anglers’ Journal.

Top to bottom: popper, grey ghost, hornber, Bob Triggs’s unimproved hornberg

I want to say it was the next cast, but it was  definitely in the next several when I caught my first fish, maybe it was 8″ but I was as excited as a 12-year old with his first base hit. Which of course I wouldn’t know anything about because I was 35 before I actually ever managed to hit a baseball that wasn’t sitting on a road cone.  Maybe Bob should coach baseball. I digress.

First SRC in a long time

Did I tell you they were beautiful? The little red mark at the bottom of the fish, directly in line with the eye and the corner of the mouth is where it gets the “cutthroat” moniker. Even the name is cool.  I’ve caught them in the mountains where the were completely silver without a single spot and only the slash to identify them. If you look closely, you can see the red on the gill plate and the blush of a  stripe down the side. That means this fish has got some rainbow in him too. That’s interesting. I catch a lot of those in the Cedar, but never imagined getting one in the salt for some reason. They are called “cuttbows.”

Again I want to say it was the next cast but it may have been several more and I caught another fish. At first Bob thought I had a shiner on as it was coming in so easy, but once he saw us he went all acrobatic and it took a  bit to land him. Wild fish are cool.

Yes, that is a hornberg

Sorry about the photo quality. I just wanted a photo with the hornberg the mouth for all the doubters out there. Photographing fish is really hard on them as handling them removes their slime layer, gets them agitated, etc. Per regulations, I don’t even think it’s legal to pull a steelhead out of the water, and I often just reach in with my forceps and unhook fish without even touching them.  You also have to manage your rod and  your camera. For this shot I put my rod in the water, for which reason the reel is still soaking in a bucket of fresh water at home.

Again, note the gill coloration.  I caught another, lost one that hit the fly as I was mending, and even picked up a sculpin as I was mishandling my line behind me. It happened quick, we couldn’t believe we’d been standing there chatting for 5 hours and decided to have lunch, an excellent turkey sandwich with organic everything on it. Bob allowed that I was “fishy” which he defined as being present enough to hook that one fish in 500 casts, and also that he really enjoyed my article on urban fishing. How it seemed like we had a lot of fun doing it, but that I packed a bunch of information into it, too. Maybe I really just hired him to stroke my ego. Yeah, like I need that. But we did talk about life and how we spend it, how I want to believe I can write things people will read, whether that is hubris or confidence, and how I’m headed to the Russian Far East, a place where he’s spent a significant amount of time.

While I was ostensibly there for the searuns, Bob has been catching pink salmon on trout flies since July 2. So,  after lunch we went over to Marrowstone for a cup of coffee and a shot at some salmon. I saw salmon jump. I saw salmon landed. I even saw a guy catch a dogfish. I heard a bunch of stories about beach fishing and beach rights in New England, something my mom got passed into law using case law dating back to King George (not Bush, the guy from England), and which sorely needs to happen here. I’m still astonished that people here think that they own the beach. Maybe it comes from the stability the sheltered sound affords that hide the fact that you can’t own something that is only temporarily there anyway. It definitely smacks of lack of Yankeeness.

We threw everything at them and no luck. My cast was degrading the more I thought about it, and when I finally suggested we tie on a hornberg, Bob destroyed it in the process, because that is what small, mean, men do when they are out fished. No, actually it’s because I can’t seem to buy a fly these days that lasts more than a dozen casts and in this case, not even one cast. however with just the hackle and the flash on it, it makes a pretty damn cool fly. I’m sure I will catch fish on it in the Tye or the Cedar. I’m calling it the “Bob Triggs unimproved hornberg.” We did try my grey ghost, clousers, and bunches of his flies, but by 7:30, it was time to kill it.

I could not believe it was 56F in mid-August. Fortunately in the entire day we were never more than knee deep, so the rather substantial leaks in my waders hadn’t become an issue because still had to hop on the Ducati, catch the ferry home, which all told was about 100 miles away. There was not even time for a beer amongst friends. But like so many paths once traveled, I know I’ll be back.

Posted in: Fly Fishing