Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Birth of a Fly Fisherman

    Fly fishing, at first glance can seem an intimidating venture.  The feeling is not appeased by the unfortunate faction of the sport’s self-proclaimed connoisseurs who characterize it with a false sense of complexity and pretentious divinity that serves only to turn away those with a true passion for the outdoors that is the prerequisite.  But in essence, fly fishing is nothing other, no more and no less, than the fervent pursuit of fish, a philosophy in life, and a timeless art.
    In life—indeed, in our daily lives—there are those who do things for the benefits they yield.  They call themselves as the common man does for the purpose of becoming the vanguard of the social fashion, rather than straying from the flock as an acceptable variance of individualistic embrace.  The former are often deterrents of those whose intrinsic values lead them in their direction.  As they relate to fly fishing, they do not whole-heartedly grasp the definition of the pursuit, but collect it as a hollow credential of sophistication, and therefore cannot be taken at face value.
    Those who fall into the latter category will be happy to learn that the sport of fly fishing can be as simple as desired.  What does it take to get started?  It takes a longing for nature’s companionship from which to learn the procedures of the mystical subsurface world.  It takes an appreciation of fish and the knowledge and discipline required to inveigle them onto a hook.  Finally, it takes the cornerstone belief that when the beauty of nature and her purity combines with the acquired understanding of the quarry, only then will the angler be touched by grace.  Combine these traits with a humble rod, reel, and selection of flies, and you have already succeeded.  Luckily for the angler, these materials are not hard to come by.
    Just as for conventional fishermen, fish are the envisioned end of he who casts a fly; though, the former would argue that he is at a disadvantage.  The fly fisherman aspires to catch fish under a weak premise tied to a hook, not knowing fully what inspires a fish to feed on a certain insect, but still managing to deceive it with a hand-crafted imitation, rather than a morsel dank with biological allure.  Many of the fly fisherman’s regular customers are experts in the art of deception and fickleness, and the catharsis of the catch varies directly with the indicatory and flawed nature of the fly lines, tippets, and flies that he implements.
    When such an attitude is practiced with religious fervor, a reflection develops in the fly fisherman’s outlook on life.  It is the underlying theme of his pursuits that instills a natural propensity for challenge, a humble appreciation for the quality of the experience, while still retaining a desire for success.  Even when the challenge becomes one of stone, there is no lucid understanding, and failure seems eminent, the longing for the prepackaged personification of pride that comes in a fish taken on the fly propels him forward.  Still, this longing is undermined by the numbing qualities of nature that callous the heart and soul against the pricking of failure.  In life and in fly fishing, the end goal becomes secondary, and the simple joy of doing prevails.
    Still, it cannot be ignored that what produces such an outdoor experience is the allure of finned creatures.  Necessity has long been the driving force behind innovation, and so it is with fly fishing.  Form follows function, no two situations are the same, and each angler’s own methods and experiences vary.  To show for it, thousands of fly patterns are available to today’s anglers.  From the sport’s beginning in ancient Greece, to today’s level of technological advancement, fly fishing has remained an art form.
    From such an attempt of eloquent praise of fly fishing, the misleading and unfortunate stereotype made by many that it is an endeavor for only the rich and sophisticated seems justifiable.  Though, in reality, its founding principles are not predetermined outside of the reach of those who wish to discover them.  Rather, those who seek the thrill and rejuvenation that the sport can provide in its purity are pre-gifted the common appreciations and insights.  Fly fishing’s intrinsic identity lies within the hearts and minds of its participants. 

*First published in The Rural Virginian

Thursday, January 24, 2013

In Search of Winter Trout

    Virginia is irrigated by over 2,900 miles of trout streams, 2,300 miles of which are occupied by native brook trout, and the rest, as hosts of the Department’s diligent stocking programs, are finned by rainbow and brown trout.  The result is a variety of trout fishing opportunities, but, because the majority of these opportunities are restrained to the western portion of the state, trout fishermen of the piedmont often play a game involving hard work, research, and a go-out-and-find-it attitude in competing for the limited resource.  In such a game, every outing gets one a step closer to reward.
    This was my aim on a foggy January morning.  In an attempt to pacify my exploratory fishing itch, I packed up my cold-weather gear and open mind and headed to a local stream that holds trout in the winter, but that I hadn’t devoted time in attempting to understand.
    As much research as I could do provided me with knowledge of the designated stocking area, the surrounding land, and of trending fly patterns.  A fellow from a local fly shop informed me a week before that fish were being caught on typical midge patterns on a stream more than an hour to the north.  “Small, dark flies are the way to go,” he said, “A buddy of mine catches fish this time of year on size 32s.”
    Local knowledge is an invaluable resource.  Likewise, stashed in my daypack I carried two fly boxes—one filled with small, dark-colored dry flies, and the other, stocked with entomologically similar nymphs.
    Rounding out my pack was a camera case for documentation, food for a day, and extra clothing and leaders.  You never know when you might take an unforeseen dunk, and it all too often coincides with trying to free a snagged fly.
Photo by Matt Reilly
    A ten minute walk along the riverbottom reinforced a main point.  As with fishing as a whole, fishing stocked trout waters requires the elimination of unsuitable water.  Flat, shallow, slow, and muddy pools should be passed up.  Noteworthy locations should either be marked for later evaluation or evaluated on the spot by fishing it quickly and effectively.  No serious amount of time should be devoted to fishing a single pool if the water is foreign and the actual location of holding fish is not certain.
    Coming to the first promising run of the river, I tied on a fresh leader, followed by a favorite all-purpose black nymph.  With obedience to my education, I made a few casts upstream—first to the tail of the pool, then to the strength of the run as it winded around a root mass, and finally to the head under an undercut bank.  My casting yielded nothing in the way of fish, so I packed up, scaled the riverbank, and continued on.
    The next pool was a bridge pool, which hold a special promise to many anglers because they are often deeper than their surroundings and accented by rip-rap pilings, discarded tires and the like that serve as fish attractors.  They furthermore provide a constant source of food because of the many insects that call the precarious undersides of bridges home.  Nonetheless, this pool produced no fish.
    A few minutes of walking separated me from the next good-looking spot, during which I tested the water temperature to gain food for thought—42 degrees.  Rainbow, brook, and brown trout all spawn at temperatures in the low forties.  In comparison to a warm-water fish such as the smallmouth bass, which spawn as temperatures approach 60 degrees, trout will remain fairly active when Old Man Winter tightens his grip on others.
Black midges abound around these wintry
waterways.  CKs and Zebra Midges are both
relative fly patterns.  Photo by Matt Reilly
    The tail of the next pool, and the last that daylight allowed me time to fish, gurgled with an anticipatory excitement only the fisherman knows.  Gaunt, dormant dogwoods and redbuds reached out over the water from the rocky hollow, and whitewater polarized the pool with wild bounds into peripheral eddies like the whitetail’s tail does the woods.  I devoted special attention to this piece of water, but again with the same systematic approach.  Nothing.
    The sun was dipping low and a shadow was cast on the hollow as I began to pack my rod back into its tube.  I was leaving without fish, and with a feeling that I had done something wrong; though, when I reached for my rod tube, I discovered a small pod of black midges on the green fabric, hinting that my shortcomings were not conceptual.  Fish were not holding in the water I had fished, but that is to be expected on such an outing.  Success comes in knowing what was done wrong, and making corrections, and in gaining clues from the experience to be employed in future attempts.  Next time, I’ll know where to start.

*First published in The Rural Virginian   

Tying the Zebra Midge

    While a traditional Zebra Midge has no collar, its close, flamboyant, and just as accomplished cousin, the Disco Midge does--the pattern below is a hybrid.  The Zebra Midge's segmented body is an imitation of that of a black midge pupa,  a very simple and easy thing to feign.  Likewise, this fly is extremely simple.  The Disco Midge is tied with a collar, and is dressed as a prep amongst its earthy brethren.  Both are favorites of anglers in the winter months, and the word on the stream is that Brookies don't mind a little inbreeding between meal options.

*My material choices are by no means standard or official*

Photo by Matt Reilly

Hook:        #14-32 (yes, 32) Daiichi Scud
Head:        3/32" Gold Tungsten Bead
Thread:     6/0 Black
Rib:           Fine silver, brass, or copper wire
Collar:       Black dubbing


  1. Slide a gold bead onto the hook and to the eye.
  2. Start the thread behind the head, and snip off a 5" length of wire.
  3. Fold over a very short piece of wire at one end, and slip into the gap behind the head--this will help in reducing the bead's wiggle room on the hook shank.  Tie down with minimal wraps of thread.
  4. Since the thread is the only body material here, be minimal in wrapping.  Wrap tightly through the bend of the hook until it begins to straighten out, securing the wire along the way.
  5. With the wire at the end of the body, wrap the thread back to the base of the head, and follow with uniformly-spaced wraps of wire.  Tie off behind the head.
  6. Wax a short length of thread, and spin on a pinch of black dubbing.  Form into a tight collar with a few wraps.
  7. With the dubbing spent, whip finish behind the bead, apply head cement, and add to your fly box.

Tying the CK Nymph

    Fly patterns that are versatile, easy to fish, and relatively simple to tie are truly gems to have in the fly box.  The CK Nymph, tied by Charlottesville's Chuck Kraft, is one such, and has seen national success.  Tied in an array of colors and sizes, the "CK" is a staple for trout and panfish, in small waters and big, moving and still.

*These instructions are for a black pattern.  To change, simply match the body color with the thread.*


Hook:        # 8-14 2X long nymph
Thread:     6/0 Black
Tail:           Mallard flank feathers died wood  
Body:         Black yarn
Weight:      .015" lead wire
Hackle:      Grizzly hackle, trimmed

  1. Secure the hook in the vice, and place wraps of lead to cover the hook shank from opposite the barb to ~1/4 of the hook length from the eye.
  2. Start the thread in front of the lead wraps, and build up a thread dam in front of the wraps to prevent the weight from sliding.  Do the same on the tail end of the wraps, and fill the lead wraps with thread.
  3. Select a single wood duck flank feather, group the fiber tips, and secure with a few wraps a tail with a length equal to, or slightly longer than, the distance between the bend and the hook point.
  4. Tie in a short length of black yarn to form the underbody and take one wrap forward on the hook shank.  Tie off with the thread, creating a small bump of yarn.
  5. Tie in a piece of webby, grade 2 grizzly hackle by the quill, having stripped the fine (marabou) fibers from the stem.  
  6. Take hold, again, of the yarn, and make evenly-spaced wraps forward to the head, leaving a small gap between wraps to fit your hackle's stem as you wrap it forward.  Tie off the yarn just above the wraps of wire.
  7. Begin taking wraps of grizzly hackle forward, doing your best to land the stem in the gaps left in the yarn.  This, along with the bump on the hind end of the fly, will provide increased durability to the fly, keeping the hackle's stem buried and out of reach of teeth.
  8. Make single wraps in each slot left by your yarn wraps, and finish up the collar with two wraps and a few securing turns of thread.
  9. Build up a solid, tapered head of thread, whip finish, and cement (or not).
  10. To complete the pattern, trim the grizzly hackle short--stubbly, with a tapered length, leaving the fibers longest (but still short) at the collar.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Prevent Cabin Fever: A Sportsman's Reading List

Photo by Matt Reilly
      Yes, winter is upon us, and while there are certainly outdoor pursuits to be had in the winter, the action slows to a noticeable crawl until the first harbingers of spring arrives; and preventative measures must be taken before the onset of cabin fever.  Sitting at home, in front of a warm fireplace, nothing eases the symptoms of cabin fever like a good book.  What follows is by no means a complete list, nor are they in any particular order.  Instead I’ve included a rounded collection of titles that have served me well in the past and tied my soul over until spring.

#1 The Old Man and the Boy

      This book was recommended to me by a friend, a local fishing guide and magazine editor—it’s now one of my favorites.  Robert Ruark reverently tells the stories of his childhood in coastal North Carolina as the humble apprentice to his grandfather, the Old Man—a wise and seasoned man in both the outdoors and life.  The Old Man’s lessons on both subjects are retaught through beautifully-captured mornings in a duck blind, and hazy summer days on the sea, as Ruark skillfully reveals the character-building qualities of an outdoor lifestyle.

#2 No Shortage of Good Days

      John Gierach is the author of several books on the topic of fly fishing, including Trout Bum and Sex, Death, and Leaky Waders.  In his most recent book, No Shortage of Good Days, the nationally renowned fly fishing author continues a history of wit, insight, and self-depreciation that reveals the truth about nature and the “healthy passion and clinical pathology” that characterizes fly fishermen and their sport.

#3 The Deer Hunter’s Book
      This book I carry with me annually in my hunting pack to pass the long woodland waits.  Authors such as Ted Trueblood, Theodore Roosevelt, Jack O’ Connor, and William Faulkner offer essays and stories to explore the nature of deer hunting in all aspects.  From Jack O’ Connor’s “Portrait of the Mule Deer,” to Sigurd F. Olson’s “The Swamp Buck,” The Deer Hunter’s Book is a recurring delight both in the woods and by the fireplace.

#4 A Walk in the Woods
      Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods is a narrative insight into one of the last true American wildernesses—the Appalachian Trail.  From the trail’s head at Springer Mountain, to its end at Mount Katahdin, escape the dreary weather with this humorous journey that portrays the spirited nature of the trail and the unique personalities that choose to undertake it. 

#5 To Build a Fire and Other Stories

      This collection of short stories by American writer Jack London, author of such classics as White Fang and The Call of the Wild, is “the most comprehensive and wide-ranging collection” available.  Captivating tales of the north like “In a Far Country” and “To the Man on Trail” tell of brutal winters and wind-weathered characters to parallel the season.  Jack London is a treasure for the adventurous spirit.

#6 A River Runs Through It

      Norman Maclean tells his family’s story in the novella turned motion picture, A River Runs Through It.  Written in the autumn of his life, Maclean’s recollection speaks of a rich family history lost, and the spiritually rejuvenating essence of fly fishing that endures through life, love, and tragedy. 

#7 The Singing Wilderness

      For more than thirty years, Sigurd F. Olson worked as a wilderness guide in the Quetico-Superior region of the Great Lakes.  This book—one of six on the area—eloquently describes with intrinsic understanding the nuances of wilderness living and exploration, and of the overall experience that typifies the North Woods.

#8 A Treasury of Outdoor Life

      What is lost in today’s world of how-to and where-to outdoor magazine content is retained in A Treasury of Outdoor Life.  Countless Me-n-Joe-type stories and nostalgic essays by the premier voices of outdoor sports’ past are included in this valuable selection.  Published in 1975, this collection is a refreshing image of the outdoor world as it was as early as the turn of the century.

It has been my general experience that absorbing how-to and where-to reports when weathering a case of cabin fever can further your knowledge, but it mirrors walking in the cold rain with a cold.  The intellectually provocative qualities of the above titles offer a pleasant respite.  As the last of the hunting seasons peter out, feign a career in philosophy and take stock in outdoor literature—it’s great food for thought. 

*First published in The Rural Virginian

Saturday, January 12, 2013


      Before this year, I had never owned a pair of waders.

It’s not that I didn’t want a pair, but that I was warned that the money I would spend would quickly be rendered worthless by my growing feet.  This Christmas though, my parents found it in their hearts to help extend my fishing season by granting me a pair of chest waders and boots.  Naturally, the first thing I wanted to do was field test them.  So come New Year’s Day, braving 40-degree water temperatures and forecasts of rain and sleet, my brother and I packed up the fishing gear and headed for the river; but what was I to wear under them?  After some quick research, here’s what I found.


      Cold feet are not fun, period.  As a general rule, don’t wear cotton anything.  Under a pair of heavy wool socks and the neoprene booties attached to your waders, feet tend to sweat; and the natural, water-logging quality of fibrous cotton will do its best to make your feet feel damp and uncomfortable in such a situation, cutting your cold-weather outing surprisingly short.  To combat this, invest in a pair of synthetic, wicking socks to use as a liner.  Your heavy wool socks should cover these as insulation.

      Making sure your feet are well taken care of is essential, but over-dressing them can present certain hazards.  If several layers of socks prevent your wading boots from fitting, if they’re too snug or tight, you risk losing circulation in your feet, in which case they will get cold and possibly injured regardless.  If your boots are too tight with the aforementioned layers of socks, they are too small.


      Waders offer your legs less protection than they do to your feet.  Again, a moisture-wicking base layer is a key detail.  On top of this should go a mid-weight layer for insulation.  Consider sweatpants, fleece, or jeans depending on the temperature.


      The same rules should be followed when dressing your upper body as with dressing your feet and legs—moisture-removing base and multiple insulating layers depending on temperature.
I do recommend wearing a jacket—a wading jacket, rain coat, or anything with a water-resistant outer shell—to prevent your arms from getting wet.  The first time I fished in waders in cold water, I wore a fleece jacket as my outer layer.  As I ventured into deeper water, my elbows occasionally got wet when reaching for my fly line and net, quickly chilling them. 

      As an aside, provided your waders have a waist belt, tightening it and wearing a water-resistant shell will partially spare your feet, lower body, and upper body in the event of an icy dunk.


      My hands got wet too.  I brought gloves, but left them in the car—a bad mistake.  Cold hands, bare hands, can make a person miserable if it’s cold enough, and should be avoided.  Even if you don’t plan on getting your hands wet, cover them with a pair of gloves that don’t restrict your fishing capabilities.  Mine are a pair of fingerless fleece gloves from White River Fly Shop, and, in very cold weather, I wear a thinner pair from Under Armour under them.


      Your head is outlet of much of your body’s heat, and should be given special consideration when dressing.  In situations when the air and water both read in the mid-40s or higher, this may simply mean wearing your everyday felt or cotton hat.  Other days, when the air is colder and dry, a stocking hat will serve you well.  However, when the sky is, or may, spit precipitation, a hat with an outer layer of nylon, canvas, polyester, or a waxed or oiled material that will not become waterlogged is essential.  Take these things into consideration when choosing headwear.

      In the end, be prepared.  The Boy Scout motto says it well.  Never rule out the possibility of a wintry dunk—always pack extra clothes.  Apply common knowledge and sense while dressing for a winter wading trip, and you should be plenty warm enough to be comfortable, warm, and thoroughly enjoy your adventure afield.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Free Fly Tying Clinics To Start Today

      Whether you're a beginner, or a tier with many years and patterns under your belt, the free fly tying clinics that are being offered at The Albemarle Angler starting this Saturday, January 5, and running through the months of January and February, should provide good instruction.  Check out The Albemarle Angler's Facebook page to register and for more info:

Thursday, January 3, 2013

A New Year's Resolution

      Every year, after the Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations have died out, and I hang my empty Virginia Wildlife calendar on the wall, I find time to reflect upon what my year has entailed.  Only in doing this can a schedule be made for the coming year.
      To look back on 2012, I see many squirrel hunting trips, several months spent on the river, a week or two catching the spawning cycles on the local ponds, plenty of kayak fishing, and not enough deer hunting.  I remember trips to big waters that often ended fruitlessly, few trout fishing excursions, and not much variety.
      Sportsmen live a seasonal life, more so than the average person.  Spring speaks of spawning fish, summer offers lazy river days, fall beckons us to the woods, and winter is a time of reflection, preparation, and variation.  We count fish as we drift away on late, balmy summer nights, but as the leaves change, so does our mindset.  The nights grow longer and the air becomes crisper, while game and thoughts of backwoods living fill our minds.  It’s often hard to think ahead when we find ourselves in flux with the changing seasons.
      What’s more, within these seasons are small windows of opportunity.  Woodcock migrate south and hold in the bottomlands for only a short while, smallmouth are on beds in the early spring, weather is ideal for float trips at the same time, panfish spawn in the farm ponds later, trout stock up for the colder months in the early fall, squirrels are feeding on beech nuts in late September, and the deer rut in October.  A window missed makes for a sad story and a dull experience.
      The calendar aids with planning ahead and taking advantage of opportunities, and it is for this reason that I spend the first few days of the year with one in front of me, a pen in hand, and a nostalgic feeling that lingers in the morning of the new year.  I recall reverently all the great experiences I have had in previous years, checking the dates of photos or journal entries to collect accurate dates, and marking their occurrences with perfect accuracy.  Worthy of note is the week that the redbreast sunfish spawn in a local farm pond.  With my kayak and fly rod, I collected hundreds of stocky specimens, returning many, but keeping some for a celebratory fish fry.
      Next I think of my ambitions for the year.  My politically correct “New Year’s resolution” includes spending a week in the awakening woods as the gaunt dogwoods and fiery redbuds emerge amongst a sea of green; exploring Virginia’s backcountry carrying a tent in aimless search of shed antlers and spiritual rejuvenation; catching Appalachian brook trout on the surface in the few small wilderness ponds at dusk; capturing a mother bear and her cub on film in their lush green surroundings; spending the night on a riparian sandbar during duck season, fueled by the reaping of a day’s hunt; and dressing flies in a newly-constructed workshop in anticipation for the next year’s fishing.  Such aspirations are given the needed research and forethought at a time when snow and frozen rain seem to hinder the flow of time, and obligations are almost non-existent.
      The last elements that mark the calendar are preparation reminders.  A week in the wilderness requires camping gear and food; remote trout fishing involves good maps and ideal water conditions; wildlife photography demands research, scouting, and time; duck hunting calls for clean guns and a clean boat; and fly tying is made possible by available materials.  Lists must be made and money set aside.  Dates are decided upon and partners secured.  I take no chances on being unprepared for adventure.
      Adventure is never out of reach, but forethought is the developer of a latent experience.  This year, I will not pass up the opportunities I’ve missed in the past or pass by the adventures I have meant to have.  Upon all, I wish a happy and prolific new year, full of countless memorable adventures afield.    

*First published in The Rural Virginian

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

First Trip

      What better way to start out the new year than with a fishing trip? Deer season creates a confusing, anti-climactic feeling as it comes to a close a few days after the celebration of a new beginning; but fishing is eternal, and offers rejuvenation--that is if you can stand the cold. The trip was fruitless in terms of fish. 40-degree waters kept the Smallies deep and lethargic. But the main goal was to test a new pair of Simms Blackfoot chest waders and Korkers wading boots. Details to come.