Sunday, May 23, 2010

DownStream Fly Fishing 2010

"Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do."

I had the opportunity to contemplate this quote, by the legendary college-basketball coach John Wooden, all day yesterday. It was written on the backs of the t-shirts everyone was wearing at the 4th annual DownStream fly fishing event.

DownStream fly fishing's Program Director, Ryan Miller, describes the program like this: "DownStream fly fishing was created as part of a movement to inspire people with Down Syndrome to try fly fishing. It is my hope that through fly fishing, people with Down Syndrome can improve coordination, fine tune motor skills, boost social skills and attain a sense of accomplishment while having fun. Additionally, my goal is to include family members in order to promote family activities in an outdoor environment." All these goals and more were met yesterday.

You can read more about the history of the program at Downstream's blog, and how Ryan's brother, Mark, helped inspire the program. They'll be posting pics and will tell you all about yesterday's event at the blog, so I'll just say a few, quick words, about the highlights of my day.

What a joy it was to watch kids with Down Syndrome "do what they can," with gusto! I've never given more high-fives or enjoyed landing a fish more than I did with the kids at this event. Also inspiring were the young volunteers who netted fish and co-fished, for lack of a more artful word, for and with the participants. And I was especially tickled to hear the young angler I was co-fishing with repeat this fly fisher's mantra to his mother: "One more cast."

The kids went from station to station, making art, tying flies, learning to cast, and fishing. Actually, there was one more station, manned by my friend, Adrian Psuty, and me. The bugs station. But midges and mayflies in an aquarium were no competition with the fishing station and pretty soon, we were all fishing. Which was a good thing, as Adrian is an exceptional casting teacher and has a real knack with kids.

Which brings me to my favorite recurring experience of the day. Time after time, I watched the kids track Ryan down with something exciting and urgent to say to him. No matter how busy he was coordinating the event, he stopped what he was doing and completely engaged the young person. The extent to which the kids truly enjoyed him, and he them, was obvious. And it was obvious that the day was, as Ryan told the volunteers first thing in the morning, all about the kids.

This morning, I've been reflecting on yesterday's event. Coincidentally, "The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing," a collection of essays written by Thomas McGuane, caught my eye on the bookshelf. I pulled it down a thumbed through it.

In his introduction, McGuane "suggests what fishing ought to be about: using the ceremony of our sport and passion to arouse greater reverberations within ourselves." I'm still reverberating from the 2010 DownStream fly fishing event.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Quinton Duval crossed over to another shore last week. He was a hell of a guy and a hell of a poet. Here's one of my favorite Quinton Duval poems, from Joe's Rain (Cedar House Books 2005).


It's a walleye, the guy on TV says.
Last time it was a catfish
that filled the boat with violet light.
They let that go.
But they keep the walleye for lunch.
I can foresee the filet knife nick
open the silver muscle
at the tail, and the clean slide
down to the gills.
Then the campfire on the bank,
smoke, grease muttering in the pan,
the applause the fish makes
in the black bottom of the skillet.
We have ourselves huddled over
open coals turning fish or meat,
talking, smoking, drinking
out of green bottles something
bottomless and pale. When you leave,
when you must fall into your night sleep
on a distant shoreline filled with camp smoke,
raise your arm, please. Let the others
know it's the same whatever shore
we land on in the end.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Ever since I started writing a screenplay about the grown son of a legendary steelhead fisherman, I’ve been able to convince myself that a daily trip to the river to swing a run or two is essential research. During this winter’s steelhead spawning run I found myself doing more research than writing, though, and I realized that I needed to pick up the pace—on the writing side of the equation.

Whether it was some Muse with a twisted sense of humor or a literal Freudian slip, I managed to tweak everything below my shinbone while tele-skiing on the last weekend in March. As a result, April was my most productive month of writing since Thanksgiving—when the first of the winter-run fish start swimming upstream toward Sacramento, and I start going down to the river to greet them.

Despite being sidelined, April still had its fair share of research-related activities. I reread my dog-eared copy of Dec Hogan’s A Passion for Steelhead (Wild Rivers Press) and, while conducting research at my local fly shop, I saw an announcement for a one-day, on-river, steelhead-fishing seminar taped to the cash register. Taught by Dec Hogan himself.

Dec Hogan qualifies as a legendary steelhead fisherman. Among his many innovations, he pioneered two-handed casting techniques during a fourteen-year career guiding Pacific Northwest rivers. The price of the seminar seemed more than reasonable when I thought about how important this research would be for writing my story. I could tune my ear for dialogue while hearing, first-hand, Hogan’s stories about the Pacific Northwest’s epic steelhead rivers.

As it turned out, Hogan is every bit as gracious and gregarious as the fictional character I’d created for my story. And a gifted teacher. There were two things, in particular, that he explained, and demonstrated, that improved my casting technique immediately—and significantly. The first, and most important, is slow down. The other is: things that start bad, end bad.

If you’ve read Hogan’s book you already know “slow down” is the most likely solution to any casting problem. This advice applies not only to casting but also to presenting the fly to the fish. While Hogan offers this advice again and again in his book, there’s nothing like a hands-on experience to truly get the message.

In my case, hands-on came in the form of a head wind. A head wind so strong that I thought it might undermine the value of the class. Instead, it made the day even more valuable for me. Hogan convinced me that I could use the headwind to help form my D-loop and load my spey rod. Which it did.

He also convinced me I could make a normal forward stroke. I didn’t have to add additional speed or muscle to the forward cast to account for the wind. Instead, the basic principles of the forward cast applied more than ever. Accelerate to a stop, activating the lower hand—like you would a double-haul—at just the right moment. The result was a tight loop that cut through the wind. I am a believer.

Hogan’s second adage—things that start bad, end bad—solved a problem I was having with my single-spey cast. My D-loop wasn’t forming well and I was muscling my forward cast. Hogan worked the problem backwards with me. He said the problem is usually in the step before what appears to be the problem.

In my case, the problem wasn’t with my secondary lift, or anything associated with forming the D-loop. The problem was in the previous step—I was initiating my cast too fast (see “slow down,” above). Hogan asked me to make my initial lift of the rod tip as slowly as possible, and to raise the rod tip a little bit higher and toward the riverbank. My “D-Loop problem” was solved.

If you get a chance to spend a day on a river with Dec Hogan, take it. It will be some of the best research you’ve ever conducted.