Monday, April 26, 2010


(Photo by Kennedy Tanaka)

Yesterday was Opening Day of the trout fishing season in the Sierra. It was also Closing Day of the alpine ski season at the resort where my wife and I spend many winter Sundays skiing with our niece and nephew. I guess it’s Transition Day for the four of us.

Closing Day came complete with a young man wearing nothing but a speedo swimsuit and a snowburned-strawberry on his pale-skinned hip; skiers in cartoon-character costumes that included my personal favorite, the Tasmanian Devil; a three-piece classic-rock band cranking out songs that triggered flashbacks to dances in my high school gym; and a parking lot full of tailgate barbeques.

As much fun as all of this is, my favorite part of Transition Day is checking out the creek below the meadow with the kids. Actually, we keep track of it all winter. We enjoy aerial vantages from the chairlift and mountain ridges, and ground-level inspections at the end of a ski day. In the dead of winter we watched a midge hatch above several brook trout that simply looked too cold to care. At least that’s how it looked to us.

The creek looked especially cold yesterday. When we’re fishing, we bring along a thermometer but I didn’t think to bring one along on Transition Day. We found out just how cold the water felt, though, by taking turns taking underwater snapshots with our point-and-shoot camera. This is an entirely new way for us to explore the creek. Stick your hand in the water, click the shutter, pull your nearly-numb hand out of the water, then view the image on the screen to see what’s going on in there.

This is the same creek we splash around in during summer backpacking trips. This is the creek where my nephew caught his first trout on a dry fly; where I woke early one brisk morning and spotted my niece already up and sitting on a stump beside our fly rods—patiently waiting for me to roll out of my warm sleeping bag. This creek is the place where the idea of what a watershed is took concrete, physical shape in their minds. “Uncle Shawn, is this the same water we skied on in the winter?” I couldn’t have been prouder.

These watershed moments with the kids are especially important to me. I want them to understand their watershed—this most essential part of where they live. By getting out and moving through the landscape with them, across the four seasons, I feel like we’re providing a vital element of their education. And fly fishing adds so much to this experience. Words like caddis and brookie are part of their vocabulary—along with alder, Pygmy Nuthatch, and black bear.

Fly fishing is not only a way to learn about the lives and habits of the various fish that inhabit the watershed’s ecosystem, it is also an effective way to learn about the bugs that share the land-and-waterscape. Engaging these creatures through the science of fly fishing is a way to get a hands-on understanding of the food chain. Eventually, creatures that start out in one’s mind as nothing more than fish food become exciting beings in their own right.

On Closing Day of the ski season, we gathered around a barbeque in the parking lot with the kids and three delightful friends. We grilled asparagus and prawns and sausages while telling stories and bad jokes. The kids enjoyed the fact that they’re collecting their own stories to tell—stories from their own experiences in the watershed. Stories about long hikes, tricky stream crossings, wild trout, and things that go bump in the night.

While talking with my friends I came to realize how much it matters to me that my niece and nephew can pitch a tent, catch a fish, start a fire—that they’re starting to understand the map and compass. There’s a fundamental confidence about themselves in relationship to the world that I can see in the way they move.

One of the things Trout Unlimited asks its members to do is take a kid fishing. I whole-heartedly agree. And I’ll offer this corollary: Take a kid outside. As John Muir put it: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world."

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Last week, I had the good fortune to meet Cameron Scott via the world wide web. Cameron is a fly fisher and a poet and he wrote to say there's more than a few of us fisher-poets out there. You can read some of Cameron's poems in the Tailgate section of The Fly Fish Journal. You'll also find poems by fisher-poets Greg Keeler and Jon Anderson. The Tailgate Section is worth a look. It's loaded with good photos and good writing.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Chinook Salmon spawn only once. Born in freshwater streams and rivers, they migrate to the sea to mature. Those who survive struggle back upstream to reproduce, then die.


Corpses line the riverbanks.
A mass grave cloaked in tule fog,
scavenged by one stiff-legged heron
and a noisy murder of crows.

Thrashing in the riffles
below the railroad bridge,
a red male, fasting since he left the sea,
swims his journey's final reach—
hump-backed, hook-jawed—
to gravel beds where he began.

Pilgrim, wanderer, prodigal son.
Spreading seed in childhood waters:
a deathbed offering to a god unknown.

("Odysseus" was first published in Rattlesnake Review, Issue #2.)

Saturday, April 3, 2010


(Photo: Jennifer Simpson)

Like so many good plans this one was hatched over Spanish reds and tapas. Most Tuesday nights, I talk poetry and fly fishing with my friend, and fellow fisher-poet, Danyen Powell. Jennifer tends the bar and introduces us to combinations of wine and food that fuel our imaginations. Before the night is over, someone comes up with a good idea.

The winter steelhead run was coming to a close and that night’s good idea was to get out and swing a few runs. I’d regaled Dan and Jennifer about the pleasures of swinging streamers for steelhead and the reward that comes from a well-presented fly. “The grab,” as people call it. And the smash and grab that it sometimes is.

I wanted Dan to have the best possible experience so I touched bases with my friend Adrian Psuty. He runs Anchor Point Fly Fishing and is the person responsible for teaching me how to swing for steelhead. Adrian and his wife, Teresa, are avid fly fishers and spey casters. Between the two of them they were able to make a decent spey caster out of me, too. It’s been months since I’ve hooked myself in an ear lobe.

My big question for Adrian was how to rig Dan’s rod. He recommended a Scandi head, a slow-sinking polyleader, and eighteen inches or so of tippet attached to a relatively-light fly. Dan would be two-handed casting with my switch rod so Adrian suggested the river-left run below the Sunrise footbridge to allow ample room for backcasting—while Dan got the hang of it—then jump in the truck and move downstream to a river-right run that’s always offered productive fishing for us. The slow-sinking polyleader would be perfect for the tailout on that run.

Dan swung by my house in the early morning dark and we were in the river at first light. I couldn’t have ordered up a better scenario: fog on the water, honking geese, and a flow that allowed Dan to really get the feel of a fly swung under tension. A conversion experience was in the making.

Dan immediately liked this style of fishing—for the same reasons I do. There’s a rhythm in the casting, mending, swinging, stripping in line, stepping downstream, and casting again. Swinging requires—and allows—a relaxed attentiveness that let’s the fly-fisher enjoy the smell of nervous water, the first rays of light angling through the water column, the blue heron on the gravel bar that holds his wings open wide to dry in that cool breeze that blows east to west every morning. When Dan looked upstream and gave me a thumbs-up I wished I’d remembered my camera.

We finished swinging our first run right about the time other fisherman were showing up so we hoofed it back to the truck and drove to a downstream access point. This is one of the delightful aspects of fishing our urban river. Driving across town in wet waders. And I always enjoy leap-frogging the drift boat that floated right on top of the run I was fishing upstream.

Backcasting on the next run was tricky so I coached Dan through the C spey so he could move his anchor point upstream, then forward cast right-handed over his left shoulder—cack-handed. He picked it up almost immediately and a learning theory took form in my mind. Dan logged hours in a martial arts dojo while he was growing up and there’s a way of learning a dojo teaches. Students watch their instructor demonstrate a movement and then they try to imitate it. Dan had been picking up the basics of the C spey and forming a D-loop during our first run—just by watching me out of the corner of his eye.

All of which led to Dan casting well, mending well, and swinging well as we approached the sweet spot of the run. Since I was fishing with a heavier sink tip and fly than he was, I fished the deeper, upper section of the run and warned Dan not to set the hook when a steelhead grabs. “You need to be patient,” I was jabbering, when a fish hit my fly, turned, and ran. Dan and I both hooted in surprise. Then I raised my rod too soon—proving the point I had just been making. My steelhead was gone.

Dan waded out into the run to swing the tailout. I climbed up on the riverbank to watch for the tell-tale white flash of a steelhead opening its mouth. Dan had already found his rhythm: Casting, mending, swinging, letting the fly dangle at the end of the swing, stripping in line, stepping downstream, and casting again. I couldn’t help but think about how cool it would be if Dan connected with a fish as his fly swung slow and sweet into the sweetest spot of the run.

“Hey, Shawn,” Dan said. “I have a fish on.” Dan landed that steelhead.

The next Tuesday night Jennifer listened to our story and introduced us to a new red just in from Spain and a duck-and-spinach tapa that was, perhaps, the best-tasting tapa I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. We were on the verge of another brilliant idea. “Wagner would love swinging for steelhead,” Dan said. “He likes being on the move.” The three of us fished for trout on the Little Truckee and the Truckee last summer and had one hell of a good time.

Time was running out on the winter steelhead run so I hauled out my pocket calendar while Dan consulted the electronic calendar on his iPhone. We found a couple of mornings that could work for us and Dan called Wagner from the bar. Another fine plan was hatched.