Friday, 29 May 2015

Cutthroat Dealings - USA 2015

The month of May is traditionally the 'high water' period in Montana and over the past day and a half of fishing my rod has been bent over double not from fish but from casting out heavy nymphs and streamers in slow, wide arcs. All to no avail though, and when I'm not catching fish the last thing I want to be doing is wading in menacingly fast water wearing out my arm by flinging lead and tungsten bombs. It just isn't that fun. I've been told that things should start to settle down in two weeks time and that's when the cutthroat trout will start rising with some intent. I'm looking forward to that time when I can bury the heavy nymphs somewhere in the deepest and darkest recesses of my fly box. 

I returned to a lovely looking creek today. It's some way west of Missoula and even though I blanked on it two days ago (the two hours I fished before an epic storm erupted over my head) I could tell it's a trout river with potential. It was flowing fast then but unlike Rock Creek it was clear and inviting, and I promised to return. In fact 'creek' is a bit of a misnomer in these parts - what they call a creek here I would consider a large trout river back in Europe.

I arrived at 11.40 a.m. and for the first hour fruitlessly lobbed a heavy stonefly nymph into the water. The guys in the fly shops here swear by them so I persisted. I began to despair and longingly fantasized of the trout in Wales that were probably that very second gorging themselves on Ephemera danica if it wasn't already too late in the evening over there. 

I had to snap out of my reverie and focus on the next piece of water that came into view and I recall thinking something along the lines of "there's no way there cannot be a trout in that pool". The river was momentarily split in half by an island and this pool channeled half the river. With only half the water the flow was more gentle and a change of water colour gave away a drop-off which always seems to harbour fish. I decided a change of tactics was in order and changed the stonefly nymph for a team of smaller nymphs - a #14 Prince Nymph on the point and a #16 Tungsten 'Reckoner' Nymph on the dropper. I took another look at the drop-off before casting and decided there just had to be a trout in there somewhere. And so it was, within a few casts my white plastic air bubble of a thingimabobber (all the fly shops here swear by them even if I was a little reluctant to use one at first) checked under the water's surface and I lifted the rod into the welcome throb of an agitated fish. The fish leaped out of the water at least three times while leading me some way down the river's bank before it succumbed to the pressure and came within clutching distance. It had taken the Reckoner fly. One thing is for certain, it wasn't a rainbow. It was quite possibly a cutthroat but even then it had the beginnings of a pink lateral line and only just the faintest etchings of orange war paint on its jaw lines. I'm thinking this was a hybrid, otherwise known as a 'cutbow'. Whatever it was, I didn't particularly mind. I was happy to finally catch my first trout in Montana after some pretty tough fishing!

The next trout came from the same pool the very next cast and this one was unmistakably a cutthroat. Westslope Cutthroat are the state fish of Montana. It too had taken the Reckoner and I knew I was on to a winning fly pattern. Compared to the first fish, which I suspect had the blood of the rainbow running strongly through it, this cutthroat came to hand rather meekly.

In the very next pool I saw something incredible - a rise! The first rise of this North American trip with a few hours under my belt already. I crept in to position and the video below shows the result. I was a little too eager on the strike and I hope you will pardon the whispered expletive...

There were at least four fish in that small run rising to olive mayflies. At least some of the mayflies seemed to be what they call the Green Drake here, fat and juicy looking, whilst the majority seemed to be a much sleeker and smaller species of mayfly. I missed two more takes before I finally caught a cutthroat from the top of the pool. This cutthroat was full of colour - orange, yellow, pink and a caramel brown - but it had scarred face, probably the result of a previous tussle with a spinner or lure. The effect was the appearance of a permanent lopsided grin and it had me thinking of Harvey Two-Face from the Batman series.

I think the secret of my success on this occasion was finding a quieter side channel where, free from the main current, the trout found it easier to hold and feed. In a quiet moment it occurred to me that catching a Westslope Cutthroat on this trip was the sixth new species of salmonid I have caught in the same number of weeks. I have been incredibly lucky! The fishing I feel is only going to get better from here.   

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Slow Start in Montana - USA 2015

My first taste of Montana fly fishing didn't quite go as planned. I headed out to Rock Creek, about 30 miles from Missoula, after a guy in a local fly shop suggested it was the place to go because it would not be as high or dirty as some of the other rivers in the area, including the famous Bitteroot. He also suggested it could be waded. I was a little surprised then when I first spotted the river to see what in my books is a high and discoloured river! Perhaps they have a different scale of things here in Montana or look at it first and foremost from a drift boat perspective. An angler visiting from Seattle with his wife took one look at the river and called it a 'widow maker' so it wasn't just me being a little timid.

I gave it my best shot and where I could gain a foothold in the river fished heavy nymphs through the seams, but ultimately to no avail. I wished that I had a streamer or two in my fly box and when I returned to Missoula I rectified that by stopping in at another fly shop. I was glad for having my raincoat with me because it rained hard for about an hour at midday, doing nothing positive for the water level. Cold, wet, fishless and hungry I eventually decided to pack it in and return to Missoula for a hot meal.

On the drive back down the valley the sun emerged and bathed the National Forest in sunlight. I saw two salmonflies fluttering across the road so I parked and cast a salmonfly pattern into the water and had a cautious nibble from a small fish but nothing else. There were a couple of salmonflies on the water but nothing appeared to trouble them. I guess it might take a few more days yet for the fish to become active.

Nevertheless it was great to simply be out in American mountain nature and to be in Montana with a fly rod in hand after a lifetime of dreaming about it.

Can you spot the little critter? What is it?

Even though I failed to catch or see a trout I was left in no doubt that I was in a place of trout.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Yakima River, Washington State - USA 2015

My plan was to drive east from Seattle to Montana and make it to Spokane on the very eastern boundary of the state by the end of the day. But barely 2 hours out of the city and through the first mountain pass I arrived at the little town of Cle Elum where my rental car came skidding to a halt. What caught my attention and caused me to stop was a fly shop on the main street called Trout Water, and after popping in and buying a few flies I found myself buying a one day state fishing licence for $11 and some change. Shortly afterwards I found myself knee deep in the Yakima River, just off the noisy Interstate-90 which I had been driving along minutes before. I had a couple of hours to see if I could catch my first Washington trout.

I fished up a long pool with no success, initially trying a Stimulator dry fly and then the same fly with a beadhead nymph below it. Near the head of the pool I noticed a small movement near my feet and looked down to see a collection of what looked to be either stonefly or salmonfly nymphs crawling slowly about the rocks. On to my tippet went a newly purchased #8 stonefly nymph and within a few casts my indicator bobbed under the water and a strange looking fish leaped out of the water. A whitefish! It was nice to start my American sojourn with a new species on the fly.

From the same pool I later caught a plump little rainbow trout on the same fly. I searched long and hard for any telltale sign it was to be my first cutthroat, but as hard as I looked for throat markings I couldn't discern any. I will have to wait a little longer to meet up with a cutthroat.

With that little itch scratched I could finally continue on my way to Montana!

I've spent the past five weeks in cities. Big, boisterous cities including Auckland, Tokyo, Seoul and Vancouver. As I head east behind the wheel of a rental car, master of my own destiny, encountering mountains and trout along the way, I can feel my soul being replenished by the embrace of nature.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Light Bulb Moments

Having spent two months in New Zealand this year doing some pretty gruelling and intense fishing the lessons came thick and fast. Every day spent with a fly rod in hand seemed to offer up a lesson or two of varying significance. I thought I'd share two which despite at first seeming so simple and obvious made the most telling improvement to my fishing success. I kicked myself for not having figured out on my own the second lesson in particular. It's almost embarrassing.

1. White rocks

Spotting fish in the South Island is essential. If you're no good at spotting fish then your chances of catching a memorable fish and enjoying yourself decline. Spotting a fish, casting to it and catching it is the ultimate fly fishing experience in my books. Simply put, seeing more fish means you catch more. And here's the lesson: for some curious reason brown trout love to hold in a feeding station with their snout just over or behind a white or pale rock. I reckon it may have something to do with illuminating the sub aquatic food items making their way down river to the trout, making them easier to see or contrast against the pale background. This little lesson was passed on to me by my fishing guide, Chris Dore. Since then it became my approach when scanning a new piece of water to first look for any white rocks scattered about and to study them hard. If you can use your peripheral vision to scan a Cadbury's Dairy Milk Tray for the white chocolate pieces as well as I can then you should find this easy. Try it and you will be surprised how often you will make out the shape of a trout in its vicinity!

This fish was spotted holding above a single white rock

2. Not shooting the line on the final cast

Now I have been casting a fly line for many years and this one never ever occurred to me. I would always let go of the line with my non-casting hand on the final forward thrust of my cast, shooting the line forward. I knew no other way to do it and I thought that was the whole point actually! Against a stiff downstream wind this can often be disastrous with the result being the tippet and fly ending in a mess of line somewhere near the end of the heavier fly line. It also makes the job of estimating casting distances that much harder, often ending up with a 'lined' and spooked fish or, the opposite and equally game-ending clanger of casting too short and dropping the fly on the fish's head. Blog reader and fishing companion Nick Moody provided this obvious lesson: gauge the casting distance with the penultimate false cast and do not release the line in your non-casting hand on the final cast. Instead, hold the line without letting go and the effect is to punch out the fly into the wind exactly where you want it. It is something so simple and having put it to use since, I can tell you it is very effective. Truth be told, I feel a little silly not having worked this one out by myself over the years.

Nick Moody casting to a fish

You may already know these two lessons. Perhaps you were smart enough to figure out one or both for yourself. If not, I hope you too might have the same 'light bulb' reaction if you put these lessons to the test.

I enjoy fishing by myself but every now and again it pays to fish with someone new - the results can often be illuminating.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

South Korea

I had read that the DMZ separating North and South Korea is the most heavily militarised strip of real estate in the world, but even then I was unprepared for the sheer scale of that military presence. I had asked Mr Lee, my fishing guide, if we could fish as close to the DMZ as possible and we got about 15 to 20km away as the crow flies before Mr Lee did a u-turn in the road and said it wouldn't be a good idea to go any further. By this stage we had passed several South Korean army convoys, and soldiers posted at the roadside. The soldiers watched us suspiciously, their hands never far from the triggers of their automatic rifles, and seemed primed to deploy mobile barriers and spiked chains across the road at any second. Every few hundred metres more soldiers were dug in under the shade of camouflaged tarpaulin in machine gun nests, their menacing looking weapons pointed at the road. We also passed several roadside anti-tank blocks, rigged to explode and prevent the mobility of tanks in the event of a land invasion. At one point Mr Lee and I were standing in the river fishing a likely looking run when artillery was fired not too far away, each shot a thunder clap which punctuated the still air. I looked quizzically at Mr Lee wondering if the North Koreans had invaded and, sensing my alarm, he reassured me it was "just testing". I later saw the huge muzzles of the guns protruding from dug in positions near the road, and unsurprisingly they all pointed north. Jet fighters occupied the skies at one stage, tearing this way and that in a display of aerial strength. For all the travelling I have done, I have never before been in a country prepared for a war and it was a curious thing. It was even more curious and a little thrilling to rig up my fly rod and catch trout among all of the military commotion. Mr Lee however seemed totally nonplussed by this every day reality of Korean life near the border.

Naturally I didn't feel too comfortable whipping out my camera to photograph gun-toting soldiers or military hardware, but I snapped a quick photo of anti-tank blocks as we drove past

I came to South Korea to catch cherry salmon, the same beautiful species of fish I had caught in mountain streams of Japan, but I left with something even better - cherry salmon and lenok, the world's oldest trout species. Lenok, otherwise known as Manchurian trout, are found only in Korea, Mongolia and some remote parts of China and eastern Russia. Lenok have a distinctive overbite, akin to grayling, but are otherwise most like brown trout in appearance. Some of the lenok I caught had deep crimson tails and anal fins and matching crimson bands on their flanks, making them unique from any other trout I have seen. Best of all, I discovered that lenok rise to dry flies very willingly making them a pleasure to catch on the fly.

The Seowha River, near the DMZ, under grey skies

On the morning of our first day together, having driven 3 hours from Seoul, Mr Lee took me to the Seowha River. In terms of setting the scene, the Seowha River is near the famed "Punchbowl" battlefield of the Korean War and the fourth infiltration tunnel discovered by the South in 1990. Compared with typical Korean valleys which are narrow and forested, the Seowha valley is mostly wide and there is a town and farmland on the river's banks. The water was numbingly cold and Mr Lee explained that lenok prefer colder water temperatures to cherry salmon, which do not share the same rivers as lenok and are found in separate Pacific-draining catchments over the mountains. Within a matter of minutes a lenok came confidently to my dry fly, followed a few minutes later by a larger lenok of 15.5 inches. This was a good sized Korean lenok - it got Mr Lee excited - where 20 inches is considered a trophy. We moved around the Seowha River quite a bit, searching for fish, and the impression I got was that the lenok were shoaling. Where one lenok was found, others were bound to follow. The numbers of lenok were not high from this river, and I caught seven by lunch time (but was pleased nonetheless). Their number was however dwarfed by a plague of Dark Chub. Dark Chub, with a Korean name I just cannnot recall but which sounds something like 'tiger nanny', are a striking looking fish which grow no bigger than about five or six inches. They attacked any dry fly within range with a voracious appetite and were often too small to do anything but drown the fly. Once the novelty of catching one or two of them had worn off I came to view these little fish as a curse, at times needing my dry fly to be shaken about in Frog's Fanny after every cast.

A Dark Chub

At one point on the banks of the Seowha we set a small alarm bell ringing by stepping through a fine trip wire of fishing line. This led to some surprised looks from three South Korean soldiers in a well camouflaged machine gun nest on the banks of the river, and Mr Lee and I wondered if we had disturbed their sleep. When we broke for lunch Mr Lee took me to a restaurant in the nearby town where we enjoyed a traditional meal of grilled mackerel and sides.

Mr Lee tucking in to some grilled mackerel

That afternoon we crossed over the mountains by following a dramatic mountain pass to pursue cherry salmon. It was much warmer on the other side of the mountains and more humid and in the heat midges seemed to thrive and buzzed about our faces. There was also no military presence to be seen. Mr Lee took me to Galcheon creek, a small clear moutain creek and it wasn't long before I caught my first Korean cherry salmon. We had spotted a school of cherry salmon resting on the bottom of a deep pool and my fish came up from the depths with some gusto to attack a dry fly. The heat eventually got to us and we took an early break for dinner, visiting a local restaurant on the banks of the river where we ate bibimbap, a signature Korean dish of rice, mixed vegetables, chili paste and a raw egg which is all mixed together while the egg cooks itself. After dinner we drove upstream and in the coolness of the evening when the sky had turned pink I caught several more cherry salmon on a dry fly. Cherry salmon, with their markings similar to the parr marks found on juvenile brown and rainbow trout, are beautiful fish, perhaps the prettiest of any trout I have caught.

Galcheon Creek

As night fell we crossed back over the mountains to the lenok side of the drainage and checked in to a traditional Korean log cabin in a forest park. I drank a beer with Mr Lee while we discussed our respective fishing trips around the world and then sleep came pretty quickly with dreams of catching a trophy size lenok the next day.

At 6am Mr Lee had a breakfast of toast, eggs and hot ham prepared and soon thereafter we were in his car on the way to the Naerin River. Mr Lee had shown me photos of several trophy fish from this river and my excitement was palpable. The Naerin is a fairly large river and in the early morning haze whilst the sun was just peeking over the mountain tops I had caught ten lenok before an hour was up. None were trophy size but all rose confidently to the dry. It was an absolute pleasure being out on this river, flanked by steep, forested mountains and purple blooming azaleas. When I grew up my mom always had azaleas growing in the garden and it was nice to see them growing wild next to the river.

A large hatch of pale mayflies lifted from the water at about 10am when Mr Lee and I were fishing the fast pocket water and glides between two substantial pools, the kind of water with plenty of good looking slack water in front or behind rocks with some enticingly deep holes. The mayflies fluttered about our heads before the wind carried them downstream where they were picked off by birds. Lenok rose to them with gleeful abandon and, provided the imitation could float free of drag for a second or two among the swirling currents, it would pretty much fool a lenok every cast.  So enthusiastic were the fish that in one surreal moment two lenok leaped clear out of the water at precisely the same time for my fly and head butted each other! The victor still managed to take my fly and I only just managed to keep the line taut and land it while laughing heartily with Mr Lee.

Lunch time came all too soon and by then I had caught something like thirty lenok. Mr Lee took me for a traditional lunch of pan fried tofu and mixed sides (the tofu is fried at your own table) and I had just as much fun over the two days sampling the local cuisine as I did catching fish. It does take some getting used to sitting on the floor to eat at a low table, as it doesn't take very long for the joints to start aching!  

Not much left over of our tofu lunch

Catching fish for fun, eating fish for lunch

In the afternoon we fished a much smaller and more intimate stream called the Gyebangcheon Creek where I picked off several more lenok. From a bridge we spotted several trophy size lenok in a single pool but it's perhaps no coincidence that the pool, flanked by cliffs on either side, offered no place from which to cast a fly. We stared longingly at the fish as they moved about the pool, tempting us with all the confidence in the world. By the end of the day I had caught something like forty-five lenok, all taken on the dry fly. It was a highly enjoyable day of fishing and I realised, a little sadly, that it brought to a close the Asian leg of my fly fishing travels. I've had great fun catching new trout species, exploring distinctly foreign lands and cultures, sampling great tasting local cuisine and making new friends.

Gyebangcheon Creek

Prey turned predator turned prey - the scarred lenok

If you're ever in Korea and need a fishing guide, get in touch with Mr Lee, or pop in to his dedicated fly fishing store in Seoul for a coffee and chat (it's a bit of a trek from the city centre but handily placed on the #8 subway line) Trutta Fly Fishing Store. Mr Lee's email address is in the contact information at the foot of his website. For the time being I take a little break from fly fishing and then I move on to the USA. I'm looking forward to seeing what places like Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado are like.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Land of the Rising Sun - Part 2

Often the best way to achieve a quick introduction and instant success at a new fishing destination is to hire the service of a guide. As I've grown more proficient at river fly fishing I'm now more inclined to skip the guide and fend for myself. Trout eat the same food and share the same habits pretty much the world over after all. But Japan (and my next stop South Korea) are a little different by virtue of the fact that without being able to speak the local language finding information, directions, purchasing a license and reading road signs is very difficult. It's much easier to throw your lot in with a local guide and have all the minutiae taken out of your hands. With this in mind I searched the net some weeks in advance of my arrival in Japan for a suitable guide. The search didn't take very long at all as there are not many who advertise in English. I found one, and booked him, and our initial exchanges were very pleasant. I was able to relax in the knowledge that I'd have a guide put me on to the Yamame and Iwana I wanted to catch.


The guide in question is Maki Caenis. I've thought long and hard about whether to mention his name, because truth be told, he was unprofessional, impolite and he let me down at the eleventh hour by cancelling my booking. In fact the week before he had already threatened to cancel my booking by sending me an email headed "urgent response required". The email explained that he had another client desperate to fish with him on the same day as my booking and unless I replied urgently to confirm my booking he would "have no choice" but to cancel mine. Fortunately I happened to check my email account that day but couldn't avoid the strong whiff that something just wasn't right with the guide from thereon in. I'd prefer to write about positive things but this guy was rude and his eventual cancellation two days before our diary date was most inconvenient to me, meaning I had to look around for another guide at short notice and change my travel schedule. The silver lining however is that the replacement guide I found was excellent and I'm more than happy to endorse him - Motohiro Ebisudani (Ebi). In short, Ebi has a good command of English, has fished for trout and other species on the fly all over the world and his friendly style put me at complete ease. Even better, Ebi's fee (communicated to me very clearly and upfront as an all inclusive charge) came in at just a little over half of what Maki Caenis wanted to charge (or more appropriately my best estimate of what Maki Caenis wanted to charge). I'll leave it to you to decide if you wish to hire Maki Caenis if you're ever fortunate enough to visit Japan...

Fishing up the little tributary

My first Yamame

Ebi's guiding business is based out of Tokyo so I had to make my way back there which was as simple as jumping on a one-change Shinkansen (bullet train) on Japan's highly efficient rail network. I explained to Ebi that I wanted to target Yamame and Iwana and he said no problem. He seemed more concerned that his suggested collection time of 05h30 outside my hotel would be too early for me. Being a national holiday in Japan he wanted to avoid the traffic out of the city and I replied that it's never too early to start the day for a fishing trip! We hit the road for 90 minutes north west of Tokyo where we reached the base of the imposing Tanzawa mountains. There we started to ascend what is probably the most impressive and vertigo-inducing mountain pass I have driven in my life. In many places the road is a single lane and cyclists tearing down the hill in the opposite direction kept us on our toes. Out on the river a little later I actually felt a slight bit of motion sickness from the winding road - it's highly unusual for me to get motion sickness from a car so it gives you an idea of the state of the road!    

Driving down the other side of the pass to the valley basin I caught glimpses of a little powder blue tributary through the trees which we followed until we met the main river. Ebi commented "lots of fishermen" as we pulled up and I noticed a handful of fly fishermen rigging up in the car park. What followed was incredible, yet highly enjoyable because it was so different to anything I have experienced before. There were probably about 30 fly fishermen sharing something in the region of one to two kilometres of river. Ebi shrugged his shoulders and simply muttered "Tokyo style fishing". Anywhere else in the world the chances of fisticuffs erupting with this many roving fishermen sharing such a limited space would be high, but typical Japanese politeness prevailed. At one stage I glanced downstream and saw four fly fishermen fishing the four pools immediately downstream of me like the river was a conveyor belt at one of the country's leading car manufacturers. Usually this type of fishing would be a big turn off for me but I enjoyed the complete uniqueness of the situation (for me at least), the single-minded purpose on display and the sense of camaraderie between anglers. It also helped that the fish didn't seem to mind and I immediately started to catch them.

Voicing my disapproval at the ugliest little stocked rainbow I have ever caught. If you have native species like Yamame and Iwana why stock rainbow trout? 

Getting bigger but still ugly

Now this is a nice rainbow trout!

To avoid the crowds and "get my eye in" Ebi took me to the confluence of the tributary we had seen from the road, seemingly ignored by the other anglers. I had instant success in the tributary, convincing what appeared to be a Yamame to take a para RAB, but lost the fish in the fight. In the very next pool my fly stuck and I brought an Iwana to the net for my first fish of the day. An Iwana is a species of char and shares strong similarities with Arctic char and brook trout. Shortly afterwards I brought a 9 inch Yamame to hand, a near trophy, and convinced myself from its near perfect fins and tail that it was a wild fish. The river here is stocked - it has to be to feed the needs of the high number of fishermen - and I did catch many other Yamame and rainbow trout which were clearly the product of hatchery ponds.

It was a fantastic morning of fishing, followed by a curry lunch and salad at the lodge and a further hour's fishing in the afternoon before we set off to beat the rush hour traffic in Tokyo. I lost count of the fish I caught but it was somewhere between 25 and 30 (I'd guess 60% were Yamame, 30% were Iwana and 10% were rainbows). The rainbows were generally ugly little creatures but my best fish of the day was a fat little rainbow in perfect condition with no signs of a hatchery upbringing on its mouth, fins and tail.

The fishing lodge, called 'Tanzawa Home'

Tokyo in the far distance

There are bears here. One fisherman even walked with a bell rigged to his leg to make his presence known to any otherwise unsuspecting bear

I really enjoyed this day of fishing! Thanks Ebi.

[Credit to Ebi for the majority of photos in this post]