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And Backpacking Gear Review

October 20-23, 2017

Check out the fall colors on the Upper Kern

Check out the fall colors on the Upper Kern

I have backpacked the Forks of the Kern Trail to the awesome fly fishing of the upper Kern River over a dozen times since my very first backpacking trip 7 years ago in August of 2011.  I have been in the Spring a few times and in the Summer many times.  But, I had never been able to go in the Fall; until now.  The shocking thing for me and the group of 9 guys that joined me (ages 12 to mid-sixties) was the colors.  I was shocked to see all the yellow and orange in the trees…and not just aspens.  I had never seen anything in the trees but green in the many years of visiting the Forks.  So beautiful.

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The Upper Kern River crew:

  • Sean McElroy and my son Mark
  • Aaaron Eagleton and his dad (who’s story I featured in California Fly Fisher Magazine)
  • Steve Franco (Aaron’s uncle)
  • Me
  • Martin Loef and Steve Ray (backpacking and wilderness gurus)
  • Larry French (my cousin and life long friend of Martin)
  • Not Pictured: The world famous Warren Lew who took the picture

 The most fun for me was that my son Mark was part of the group.  I have not got to fish with him in a while.  He’s a stick, toning his skills a couple years in Bozeman.  He’s 22 now and I just don’t get as much father-son q-time as I’d like.  At 22 I didn’t hang with my dad too much either.  I regret that now.

As for the fishing this was one of those trips where the fishing matched Solunar theory perfectly.  The first day the fly fishing was good; the 2nd day was average; the 3rd day was not so good.

solunar-kern

These screenshots are from the app, “Fishing & Hunting Solunar Time Pro”.  I have mentioned this app in this blog before.  It’s a godsend.  The regular version is free.  The Pro version is worth every penny of its $2.99 cost.  I use it religiously….although solunar theory is not bullet proof, it does help.  It certainly helped on this trip matching up perfectly to the quality of fishing.  Get it in your apple or google app store.

Backpacking Gear Review

Before I get into the fishing report let me provide some guidance (from an old guy fly fisherman’s perspective) in terms of a backpacking gear review for my fellow fly fishers.  7 years ago when I started backpacking as a means to get to fly fishing I acquired gear in the exact same way many of us fly fisherman buy fly fishing gear when we start fly fishing.  When I started fly fishing 25 years ago I bought the cheapest stuff.  I bought a $60 Cabela’s rod with a $30 Cabela’s reel.  My waders were the cheapest neoprene Cabela’s waders.  As the years progressed, technology helped the fly fishing industry just like it has helped every industry. I started replacing my cheap fly fishing stuff with the latest and greatest stuff.  The best $100 I ever spent was on the Simms Waders that have the zipper.  If you are male over 40 you know what I mean…  Well, when I started backpacking I bought the cheapest stuff too.  And that means the heaviest stuff and the stuff most apt to break down quickly.  The difference, though, between backpacking and fly fishing is that the technology curve is on hockey stick growth in backpacking.  There is just only so much technology, especially electronic technology that you can throw at fly fishing gear.  But, in backpacking….the sky is the limit.  And I am a technology guy.  So I purchased 4 new backpacking gear items for this trip.  And now that it’s over I could kick myself for not doing it years ago.  Because this stuff was worth every penny.

Check out the colors on this monster Kern River Rainbow I fooled

Check out the colors on this monster Kern River Rainbow I fooled

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is a summary of the 4 items I purchased and used for the first time on this trip:

Osprey Aether AG 70 Backpack – The 7 years of hard use on my Gregory back pack and its eventual failure was the impetus of all these purchases.  I’d say I got my money out of that Gregory.  I bought it on SierraTradingPost.com for under $100.  The arm straps finally ripped to the point of giving out.  After doing the research I was pleased to see how technical the backpacks had become and how light they are.  From experience I knew I needed a 60-70 liter pack to handle the 1 to 5 night backpacking treks I typically do.  There was one pack and one company that really stands out at the leader in my research.  I convinced myself I deserved the top of the line so that is what I got: The Osprey Aether AG 70.  You can’t argue with “Winner of Outside Magazine’s Gear of the Year Award for 2017” … So light (5lbs 6oz); so comfortable.  I didn’t get the pain in my shoulders after an hour hiking like I always did with my old pack.  This pack balanced perfectly and has this special technology that keeps the pack away from your back so it ventilates.  It has tons of features and gets ridiculously good reviews on the internet.  But, for me, (and for you fly fishers) the best feature of this pack is the top lid that converts to a daypack.  Yes, you snap off the top of the pack and it’s a smaller backpack big enough for all your fishing stuff, food, water, a jacket and more.  I didn’t have to bring a separate lightweight fly fishing hip pack because of this feature.  The retail for this pack is $310 and it’s worth every penny.  I cannot tell you how pleased I am with this pack.

Big Agnes Flycreek HV 2 platinum Tent –  Ok, I don’t deserve this tent like I deserve the Osprey Aether AG 70 BackPack.  This tent is pretty much way too nice for me.  I’m officially backpacking spoiled now.  This tent is expensive at a retail price of $549.95.  And there is a reason for that.  Like my dad always said, “in life you typically get what you pay for.”  It’s huge for a backpacking tent: it’s a 2 man tent with a really high ceiling.  It’s super easy to set up.  But it’s number one feature and why I’m so pleased with it: The trail weight for this tent is 1lb 10oz.  I’m not kidding.  When I handed that tent to others…and I did it numerous times, it induces shock on how light it is.  And usually a shake of the head.  My cheapo tiny single tent I have used for 7 years weighs 4 times as much as this tent at 1/3rd of the size.  I cannot tell you how pleased I am to save almost 5 pounds with this tent.

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Katadyn BeFree Water Filtration System –  This little device is the best kept secret in the backpacking industry.  Buy the .5 liter version of this now at a retail price of $40 and you will thank me.  I have watched countless backpackers struggle with large bulky water filtration pumps over the years.  That is why I have been a Steripen fan for years.  I have owned two of them.  Their customer service is awesome and their device is awesome.  They even replaced the bulb in one of my older Steripens so I could get more years out of it.  I have used my steripens all over the world and will continue to.  But, for the Kern…and frankly many of the rivers in the US, the Katadyn Befree removes just as much bad stuff native to US waters like giardia.  But it also filters out everything but the water.  All the little pieces of plant material, dirt, etc. the SteriPen uses ultra-violent light to kill the bad stuff.  It’s a wand you wave in the water for 2 long minutes.  The Katadyn BeFree filters the water.  You just scoop up the river and start drinking.  No waving wands, no pumping, no hassle.  With the steripen I always carried around 1.5 liters of river that eventually got warm.  With the Katadyn BeFree you just scoop up cold water and start drinking.  That means you can literally throw away the water you don’t want.  It’s cleans really easy too. The Steripen weighs 5 ozs.  The Katadyn Befree packs down to tiny and it only weighs 2 oz.  There is a reason it won BackPacker Magazine’s 2017 Editor’s Choice Award.

Big Agnes Helinox Ridgeline FL135 Trekking Poles – The lord didn’t give me much, but, he did give me the “goat gene”.  I’m agile.  I always have been. It’s just in my genetics.  I always assumed trekking poles were for the non-agile that needed stability.  I met a young backpacker in a prior trip to the Kern, Kyle Focht, that set me straight on how trekking poles are more than that.  More than agility and stability, trekking poles also help you to power up hill.  I tried my wife’s trekking poles on a trip in august and was shocked how much they helped.  I knew then I had to get my own.  These FL 135s are my very first trekking poles, so they are good ones, but not the top of the line.  They are made from aluminum, yet less than a pound in weight.  Btw, they also serve very well as a wading staff.

When all was said and done with my new purchases, I had saved close to 10 pounds in load weight.  Like I said before.  I wish I had done this years ago.

The devishly handsome author using his trekking poles as a wading staff crossing the Little Kern River.

The devilishly handsome author using his trekking poles as a wading staff crossing the Little Kern River.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fishing Report

Friday, October 20 – We got an early start on the hike in.  We made it to camp late morning and set up tents, made wood, etc.  In the haste to set up all the beginners with dry dropper rigs and at the same time do a satellite text message to tell my wife had made it, I forgot to zip the pocket with my phone in my shirt.  When I bent over the river to put the food and booze in to keep it cold my phone popped out and sank 18” to the riverbed.  I cussed a storm because that would be the 6th or 7th iphone I have lost to a river or lake.  I was in no haste to pull it back out so I secured the food first and then fished it from the bottom.  It has happened to me so many times before; even twice in the Kern; that I knew it was toast.  At least at the time I thought it was…

We got camp set up and were fishing by lunch time.  I did well.  I swear I would have caught 20+ fish in 6 hours that day if I wasn’t guiding and tying lost flies back on the rigs of the 4 beginners we had on the trip.  In reality though, my most fun of the trip was guiding and doing exactly that.  I’d rather pull flies out of trees and guide a beginner to a fish than catch a fish myself any time.  In any event I caught a dozen quality fish in the 2-3 hours I fished.  I did get a few takes on my size 4 huck hopper.  But, I failed to hook any of them.  Most of my takes were on a large black stonefly nymph imitation.  That is a staple fly of the upper kern.

Check out the size 10 stonefly hanging out of this unlucky rainbow’s face

Check out the size 10 stonefly hanging out of this unlucky rainbow’s face

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, October 21st – what I remember most from this day was me hooking another fish and hearing mark from a distance say, “Damnit”.  That’s not like him to be frustrated.  He was mostly hanging with his buddy Sean, guiding him because he was a beginner, for the first day and a half.  btw, Sean caught two fish on this trip.  that is pretty good for a beginner.  Anyways I’m guessing the guiding had to weigh on the frustration a little.  So, that was my opening to help him out…and spend some q-time with him.  We spent the next couple hours together and I didn’t fish at all.  I simply did the “guide thing” and made a number of suggestions and changes to his flies and approach.  Thank God for me those suggestions worked for Mark.  Mark started catching fish and was the big winner that day.  He caught 3 quality fish with me while I was with him.  And for the rest of the trip he did well.  I learned at the end of the day when we all got back together at camp that some of the other guys did not do well.  I had that dwindling solunar performance in the back of my mind and feared what the next day would bring…or wouldn’t bring.

Sunday, October 22nd – We hiked for an hour up river, over the mountain, before we started fishing.  It’s something I have always wanted to do, but never had people with me that were willing to do it…and to go with it the brutal 5 mile hike back to camp after a long day of fishing.  Frankly it’s hard for me to do this because you pass miles and miles of awesome water in the process.  They say….well, I say, “the farther up river you go the better the fishing gets.”  And it makes sense since the fish up river just don’t see the artificial flies like the ones near the confluence.  Unfortunately my fear of the solunar prediction was realized; it was slow…  I think I fished and hour without a take.  And I was getting good drifts.  That is pretty rare for me on the Upper Kern no matter what the conditions.  I wanted to say I couldn’t understand what changed in terms of hatches, but I did have that solunar theory thing in the back of my mind.  I usually can figure out what the fish are eating if you give me a couple hours, but there were few bugs in the air and nothing rising and nothing being spooked and nothing worked for me.  I went hours without a single take.

I caught up to mark and that is when I saw it and laughed; an impressed laugh.  He was standing on a huge rock, close to 10 feet above the water level.  He was in front of a long deep bend in the river.  He had a gap in the trees behind him big enough for a back cast.  So, he was making 50 foot single hauls to the opposite side of the river with a dry/dropper rig.  I wish I was close enough to video it.  It was impressive.  Plus I could see him long distance mending so I can’t imagine the drift was easy.  He sure has become a great cast.  I was still 100 yards away when he hooked up on a big fish.  He battled it for longer than what I would deem normal and brought it to hand and showed me from distance after I screamed, “Woo!” from 100 yards away.  It looked huge.  I guessed over 20”. When I got to him he said, “17”.

 

Mark Huckaby doing the 50 foot single haul to the opposite side of the river with his buddy Sean fishing the head

Mark Huckaby doing the 50 foot single haul to the opposite side of the river with his buddy Sean fishing the head

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I still hadn’t landed a fish that day, though.  And slowly I found out no one but Mark had either.  So, slowly but surely everyone started their long treks back to camp except for me.  I found myself at Kern Flats (which I believe is over 6 miles from our camp) in front of the famous bend which is always good for at least one fish…and nothing.  It was getting late in the day and I knew I had at least a 1.5 hour hike back to the site, skunked.  That is when I said myself, “if I am going to get skunked I’m going down with size 18 dries.”  As I walked back I found Mark and Sean in “their hole” and told them to check in with me on their walk back so I wouldn’t worry. Half of the way back to camp was one of my favorite runs I walked by earlier in the day without fishing it.  It took me a while to get there.  Mark and Sean caught me as I tied on some 5x to the end of my leader, then a light colored size 18 mayfly imitation that was similar to a random handful of naturals I had seen during the day.  They moved on, hiking back to camp.  I moved into position to cast, which meant rock hopping my way closer to the middle of the river so I could get a cast.  I stared out in front of me at the run hoping to see rises where I had seen them so many times in years past….nothing.  From my rock I had to make a simple 30 foot cast straight up stream.  First cast…whack!  6” incher.  Nice.  I fished for 10 minutes and got struck on almost every cast.  I had landed 4 to 12” before mangling my leader because of my quickly tied poor knot when I tied on the tippet.  So, I cut it off and said to myself, “if I can catch my fifth on what is essentially a 6 foot 0x leader, I’ll call it a total success and head back to camp. I had to nip the leader at an angle just to thread the size 18 hook.  Success; 10” er.  I would have loved to stay and whack 20 trout after that full day of being skunked, but walking back that far to camp alone in the dark in that part of the sierras is not smart.  So, I took off happy.  And then it occurred to me.  We had not caught a single fish in front of camp yet.  And we had all fished it hard for 3 days. That that is one of the most prolific spots on the river.  I said to myself, when I get back to camp I’ll throw 5 casts to see if I can break the skunk there.  It was a long 45 minute brisk hike back up and over the mountain.  As I approached the camp all the guys already had whiskeys and were trading the day’s stories.  I looked at Mark with a smile and held 5 fingers up.  He said, “We heard you shout.  We knew you are on.”  I explained to the guys what happened and said, I have to try it here.  So I wandered 50 feet down to the river.  First cast, whack!  I shouted “Woo!” and some of the guys ran over.   After landing the fish I handed the rod to my cousin Larry French and said, “take over”  I headed for a backpacking chair with whiskey and he got a strike too with Warren guiding him.

Mark Huckaby with one of his big Kern River Rainbows

Mark Huckaby with one of his big Kern River Rainbows

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Epilogue

Through a matter of circumstances, I hiked out alone.  I like to do that at the Forks.  I like to push myself.  I made it from camp to the crossing of the little Kern in good time.  My goal was to hike the 2 miles and 1100 feet up and out of the canyon in under an hour.  With my new trekking poles I was pretty confident.  1:04 – that is pretty good for an old guy.

It was a great trip and fun was had by all.  The real bummer for me is November 15 and the winter looms.  That ends the fishing season for most of California until Spring.  It’s back into the man cave to tie hundreds of flies for the hundreds lost this season for me.

There were quality fish hooked, landed and there were frustrations with trees and slow times.  I honestly believe we learn from our entire experience on the river: from the most advance fly fishers like me to total beginners we are always getting better whether we are catching fish or not.

I believe a totally fun trip was had by all.  I’d love to make that an annual trip with that group.

The view of the flat water on approach to “Huckaby Camp”

The view of the flat water on approach to “Huckaby Camp”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My iPhone: You are not going to believe this.  On that first day we put my iphone in a plastic bag with the silicon desiccant packs from backpacking food and let it sit in the sun for 3 days.  It worked.  I didn’t even try to turn it on during the trip.  When I got to my truck after the hike out I plugged it in and it came right up.  When I finally got to signal an hour later in Kernville all the txts and emails flooded in.

Cascade River, Marblemount, WA

November 10th, 2016

Huck holding his first Coho

Huck holding his first Coho

The reality is that most of my experience is fly fishing for trout; just a lowly fly fisherman that mostly gets to fly fish for trout; catching them and releasing them.  And that is the point in this post: because of my business travel I get to do some “exotic” fly fishing every once and a while.  But, when I wander outside of trout I’m a beginner.  And for me, and I realize this doesn’t apply to all fly fisherman, I just love being the beginner again.  I love being the beginner yet having the wisdom of “figuring it out”.  In this mode, the successes are so much more joyful; the failures are insignificant.  And that is where this story starts…

My buddy Joe is a big time strategic exec at Microsoft.  I lean on him (and others at msft) to explain the technical strategy to me and I have done that for years.  But, Joe is not a “Dork”.  Joe is not a “Geek”.  I hate those terms to start with because in the board room the word Geek is still a negative.   My point: Joe is a guide level fisherman.  He’s a God of steelhead.  He “owns” the pacific northwest in terms of fly fishing.  So, when I get to fish with Joe I cherish the moments and what I learn from him.

Joe and I planned to “play hooky” and fish a Thursday while I was up in Redmond at Microsoft months in advance.  I sent Joe an email: “Hey, I’m going to be in town and am going to fish on Thursday, November 10th.  What do I throw and where?”  He said, “You are fishing with me.”  Totally pleased… and now excited.   But to make a long story short, Joe has young twins.  He’s 15 years my junior.  His life is crazy.  He was just back from a business trip and he mixed up the dates.  At 530am I got the txt from him with the sobering reality I was on my own.

Fine.  Easy.  It’s not about catching anyways, right?  I don’t mind getting skunked as long as I get a good hike in the wilderness, right?  Then joe’s txts of guidance started coming, fast and furious.  He gave me a detailed plan.  As I headed north from Redmond in my rental car on the 5, I was re-excited.  Because Joe gave me enough of the “where and what” to instill my confidence of success.  His guidance was: head for the Cascade River near Marblemount and fish the stretch from where it enters the Skagit up to the hatchery.  That was enough info for me to use the interweb to figure out how to get there.  The next piece of guidance was invaluable: “you are fishing for dollies.” (Dolly Vardon; it’s a char.  It’s big and mean and it fights like hell).  “You may see some coho.  Cast at them and around them.  You may be able to catch them and the dollies are hanging around the cohos to eat them and their eggs.”

Check out that big ass articulated streamer i tied in this Coho's face

Check out that big ass articulated streamer i tied in this Coho’s face

Fishing for spawning salmon has always been a challenge for me and frankly for everyone.  They travel hundreds of miles from the ocean to a two-inch radius of where they were born (still unexplained by science) to spawn and die.  They don’t eat on the way and don’t eat period.  Their job is to spawn and die.  As fisherman (not just fly guys) we try to piss them off to make a primal response by fishing for them.

It took me 20 minutes to figure out where to park because of all the private property.  When I finally did figure it out if was staring at a bait fisherman across the river…well, a conventional guy…hammering a pool under the bridge.  I have to admit I was bummed at the time.  I really thought I could have the river to myself.  But, on the other hand I said to myself, “if he conventional guys are fishing, maybe I am in luck”.   And the river was crystal clear and wadable.  That pleased me intensely.  So, I geared up.  And when I was ready to fish the conventional guy was gone.  That was great!  These guys tend to sit in the hole all day cast after cast.  That is not me.  That is not fly fishing.  We cast and move.  So I moved towards the river where he was fishing on the opposite side of the river.

See those dark shadows right off the bank?  those are Cohos

See those dark shadows right off the bank? those are Cohos

And that is the point in the story where my stereotype of a gear guy changes.  He was on top of the bridge looking where the coho salmon where staging so he could figure out where to cast to them.  I didn’t notice him until I got down to the river.  He saw me and immediately engaged.  The first words out of my mouth. “I’m sorry.  I thought you moved on.  It’s your hole I’ll move down river.”  His answer, “absolutely not.  Cast at these ones” as he pointed down from the bridge into the river.   Nicest guy in the world.  So, I did.  But they were deep and I couldn’t get a drift down to them.  I gave that 10 minutes and crossed the river over the bridge to talk to him.

He was a wealth of knowledge.  But, I was streamer fishing.  He was fishing conventional with a typical bobber and eggs set up.  I told him I was going to move down river and he said he’d join me in a bit.  Great.

Because I could see the cohos I picked a fly that I tied a couple of.  They took me 20 minute each to tie: a 3 inch, purple, nasty, articulated, 3 red beads in between fly solely designed to piss off salmon and steelhead.  Good choice by me.  It worked all day.

One of the few pictures i successfully took by myself.  these big fish are hard to hold with one had.

One of the few pictures i successfully took by myself. these big fish are hard to hold with one hand.

So, here is where the fun started; just about 20 minutes after starting to fish.  I bushwhacked down river past him to some flat skinny water. On the hike I could see a handful of cohos “in love”.  Staging themselves, fighting, moving.  I entered the water as quietly I could below them and worked my way up to where I could make the 40 foot cast.  I could see the salmon.  I was hunting.  I was not fishing blind.  That is a really fun way to fish.  My first casts were awful.  My 10 foot 8 wt helios 2 is still at Orvis getting fixed.  I was fishing an 8 wt sage fli.  It’s an older medium action rod given to me by a buddy.  If you can cast you know that medium action rods and heavy sink lines are hard to cast.  When you add a 3” weighted streamer you realize you are not as good at casting as you think you are.  Well, it was really clear that I need to put it on their nose; the perfect cast.  At the same time, I was spooking them and when I wasn’t they still were moving around.  So, there was a little luck still involved.  Me talking to myself, “good cast…moving in…right there…he’s eating…SET!  And I was on.  And it was a big fish.  But, these poor salmon are “cashing in the chips”.  As I was to learn during the day, most of them just don’t have a lot of fight left in them.  But, they are huge…up to 20 pounds… so it’s still a fight.  Well, it was my first fish of many that day and I fought him way too long.  And I was calling my new friend up stream because I was convinced he would want to keep this one.  Once landed…and I really didn’t land him… my net needed to be 3 times the size.  But, I did have my landing hand so I could grab the fish by the tail and still be able to hold on.  He ran down and showed me why that fish wasn’t fresh enough to keep; I really wanted to give it to him.  It looked great on top, but you could see the degradation on the bottom of this coho.  But, he did take a couple pictures of me with it.  Taking pictures of 10-20 pound fish all by myself was very challenging all day long.

And that is how it went all day long.  There were points where I was hooking a salmon on every cast (they are really hard to keep on to land them).  I probably hooked ~25 cohos.  I never saw the gear guys staring at the bobber catching anything.  They were fishing the deep pools.  I was fishing the cohos staged in shallow water.  I had action all day long.  I landed around a dozen coho salmon and nailed a huge dolly varden right at the end.  And yes, I let them all go.

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After working my way all the way down the river it followed the salmon to where the hatchery is.  I fished up the inlet to the hatchery and it got silly.  Thousands of salmon…just sitting there waiting for the hatchery door to open so they could do their thing.  It was silly because I was hooking up on every cast.  The problem was I was foul hooking some of them.  And that was a big turn off.  except for one foul hooked fresh salmon I got in the tail.  It ran 200 feet with my reel screaming.  It took me forever to land that fish.  But, once I learned what happened I was bummed so I stopped fishing there.  That is when I met another gear guy.  And older guy from the area with a cane.  Great guy; old man of the river.  We seemed to talk forever.  He gave me a ton of info.  Then told me he’d take to me his favorite hole on the river.  So, we walked by the hatchery and I got in his truck and we went.  I had about 30 minutes to fish because I had to make an event in Bellevue so he sat up on a 10 foot cliff in his favorite hole and I hiked down river.  But, I couldn’t find any fly fishable water.  It was all deep holes and fallen trees with a cliff above and no room to cast in back.  Clearly this was a gear guys place. So, I hiked back to my new friend and stared at the water around him.  I said, “I wonder if that soft stuff up stream hold fish.”  He wasn’t confident.  And it was a tricky wade.  There were fallen trees everywhere.  I had to walk through very deep silty water through the trees to get there.  I’m sure that intimidated most folks.  Anyways once I punched out there were a bunch of cohos to target so I told myself, “one more fish and I’ll call it a day and head south.”

So, I casted and swung, two steps, casted and swung, two steps.  I was putting them in the zone, but the salmon were darting around everywhere and it was just deep enough that I was only seeing their shadows.  I was getting toward the end of the run; it ended in a huge tree that fell perpendicular to the river.  Since I was targeting the salmon I totally forgot about the Dolly Varden.  And that is when I saw it race like a lightning, strike me and almost pull the rod out of my hand.  I set and it jumped 2 feet in the air!  At first I thought it was a steelhead.  But I could tell by the fight it was a big dolly varden.  It seemed to take me forever to land that thing.  It kept headed for the log and I kept pulling him hard away from it.  I finally landed it; curled in a ball it barely fit my net.  I quickly released it and it swam away fast and pissed off.  My friend yelled in congrats and I screamed, “Dolly!”.

I really wanted a good shot of this big Dolly Varden, but it was really hard by myself in 2 feet of water

I really wanted a good shot of this big Dolly Varden, but it was really hard by myself in 2 feet of water

As I navigated back through the trees to the shore, I silently thanked the lord and my fly fishing buddy ken.  I waved goodbye, hiked through the wilderness out to the road, un-wadered and broke down my rod at the rental car with a smile on my face and headed back south.

 

The Blue River

(a few miles North of Silverthorne, CO)

August 11-14, 2016

The Fish of a lifetime – 32” Rainbow

The Fish of a lifetime – 32” Rainbow

 

On Friday, August 12th, 2016 I caught and released the fish of a lifetime.  It was a 32” rainbow out of the Blue River.  I basically hit the fly fishing equivalent to a hole in one.  I have lost a handful of “fish of a lifetime” over the years.  That 8 foot tarpon I caught near Sarasota was a bucket-lister.  But, I caught him on conventional gear.  That monster brown I caught in New Zealand was a “fish of a lifetime”.  But, he was only 28”-30”.  In terms of a fly rod, even my first steelhead caught on the Hoh River on the Olympic Peninsula was smaller than this monster rainbow.  I lost that monster rooster fish in Costa Rica.  I lost the giant blue trevally at Mahaulepu on Kauai.  I lost that big rainbow on the wind river in WY.  I have lost many big corvina in our local surf; in fact, I still haven’t landed a big one.  I could go on.  This time the lord (and my fly fishing buddy Ken Bendix who passed from cancer a few years back) looked down on me, smiled, and decided it was time.  I’ll tell the story of how I caught that monster after some background.

Just another huge trout I landed on the Blue

Just another huge trout I landed on the Blue

 

What is it about this river?!  I made my annual trek out to the Blue River thanks to a value added friendship I have made over the years with master rod-maker, Tom Young.  Tom is a great guy, talented rod maker, good friend significantly younger than me.  But, really the best thing about Tom is how dramatically he “married up”.  Not only is his wife Serena awesome, but her parents own a large house right on a private section of the Blue River.  And it’s on two of those stretches that just have huge trout.  I thought there was no way I could top last year’s success on the Blue.  Well, I did.  Honestly I stopped counting the trout I caught and released over 20” inches.  They say it’s homeowners that feed the fish.  They say it’s the abundance of big mysis shrimp that the tout gorge on.  They say it’s the warmer water that spills over the top of the dam causing abundant bug hatches.  They say the wild natives feast on the smaller stocked trout in town.  Clearly it is because it’s private and does not see a lot of pressure.  All I know is I always seem to catch big fish here.

That’s me roll casting the sweet stretch right in front of the house

That’s me roll casting the sweet stretch right in front of the house

 

This trip was also special because my other buddy Jeff Winkler broke free to fish with us Saturday.  Jeff, Tom and I have been fishing Colorado together, once a year for years.  When I was a greenhorn fly fisherman Jeff went out of his way to teach me a lot about how to fly fish.  I wish I got to see these guys more often.  I know it was a huge sacrifice for “Wink-daddy” to drive the 2+ hour out to fish with us.  It was his anniversary weekend.  He had just moved and was still in the process of unpacking.  He’s driving his eldest off to college in just a few short days.  But, he just did it.  That is the type of guy he is.  He drove all the way out; fished all day with us; and drove all the way back. Wink-daddy also brought his brother in law, “Oly”; great guy and fireman just about ready to retire.  I only learned after he was gone that he was a first responder at Columbine.  Which I’m guessing he doesn’t talk about a lot.  What he saw must have been horrific.

Lastly it was special because my eldest, Camille, came up from Denver for a sleepover.  It was so fun to see her.  Friday night she tried to hang with me and Tommy in beers and cocktails.  Big mistake.

That is Camille, bored watching me and Tommy fish in front of the house, but, with a beer.

That is Camille, bored watching me and Tommy fish in front of the house, but, with a beer.

 

Another reason this trip was special is Serena came up with the kids on Saturday afternoon.  Those who know me well, can assume I had a blast with Kennedy, 6 and Dillon, 2. “Uncle Tim” is a mom’s worst nightmare when it gets close to bedtime.

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Trout-zilla

The “thing” about fly fisherman

There’s a thing about fly fisherman.  Well, in general terms, because there are exceptions.  We give each other flies.  We help each other with intel and how to fish a river.  We are courteous and friendly to each other and often give up our spots to beginners.  We help when there is a need to.  So, I was especially proud of this incident.  Tommy and I were fishing downstream, which we typically don’t do because it’s so good upstream.  But, I pretty much begged him to cover some water we had not yet.  And what always seems to be the case I did my 5 casts and impatiently moved on while Tommy meticulously picked apart a run by drifting each inch.  So, I got ahead of him 100 yards or so and was approached by one of the homeowners.  Even though we were legal in the private water Tommy and I weren’t wearing the badge that the homeowners provide to indicate we were legal.  I don’t know why Tommy didn’t have them, but he didn’t.  Anyways a homeowner came out to the river’s edge and I knew exactly what he wanted to talk about because I was in private water.  So, I stopped fishing to go talk to him to tell him I was with the “Reitan Group at 777”.  I came out of the river smiling and before I could get a word out he said, “You are with the Reitan group at 777, right?”  I laughed and said yes.  And we shook hands and started talking fishing.  I love to talk fly fishing.  And just from talking it was clear Jerry Middel is a very good fly fisherman and pretty much “owned” his river.  And his house… my god…. Awesome with a deck right on the edge of the river.  Jerry said he doesn’t even need to put his toes in the river anymore he knows the river so well.  He can just fish from the bank.  But, up front on our conversation was one of my proud moments in fly fishing…. Well, guiding first timer fly fishing kids is pretty fun and rewarding, but this is for sure up there.  Jerry said something like, “Wait, aren’t you Tim Huckaby?  The guy that netted that big fish up in the hole for me and took a picture of me with it?”  I laughed because I didn’t recognize him, but vividly remembered the incident and said, smiling, “Well, you had your hands full with that monster.  Yea, I’m Tim Huckaby”.  Then Jerry scoured his phone for the picture that I took of him years earlier.

Check out Tommy's perfect loop

Check out Tommy’s perfect loop

A few years back It went down like this:  As is typical I got ahead of Tommy again fishing up stream and when I turned the corner I saw a guy battling…and I could tell it was huge.  Of course I was doing my patented “Woo!” as I watched Jerry battle.  When Jerry tired the fish I asked him if I could help him by netting it.  I did…and it was no small feat because the fish was still hot and it was huge.  The guides in Montana taught me how to net the fish with a stab into the water so I got him on the first try…. thank God.  Talk about pressure…  I told him, “I have to take a picture of you with that fish.  I’ll email it to you”. and I did.  And Jerry remembered years later.  Awesome. karma does come back.  Especially fly fishing karma.

"I can't believe these dummies fooled me."

“I can’t believe these dummies fooled me.”

The Story of the Fish of a Lifetime

About a mile up stream in a totally private section of the river is a hole.  It’s at the end of the private section Tom is allowed to fish on.  It’s a bend in the stream that has been carved deep by springtime runoff.  It’s one of the few places in the river where a big fish could thrive year round.  We have done well there in the past.  That is where Jerry Caught his monster.  That is where we have lost a lot of big fish over the years.  This is where Wink-daddy snapped off a monster on 3x on Saturday.

And it was one of those “last cast” things.  I believe Tommy and I had each caught a big trout in there and the hole went down as is usual.  We’d been there 15 minutes or so and it got slow.

Teamwork – That is Tommy helping me land another monster

Teamwork – That is Tommy helping me land another monster

I was marveling at an absolutely huge fish I could see right in the head of the pool.  But, I seemingly bonked a bunch of flies off his head without success. I even tried to take some underwater pictures of him. There was a reason he was big and he wasn’t about to get fooled by a dumb-ass like me who could see him.  Well I walked to the tail out fully preparing to leave and walk back downriver to where we started.  But, Tommy was still fishing the pool.  So, I unstrung my rod, pulled out some line and threw it straight up stream into the tail-out in fairly shallow water.  My Huck-hopper went down, I set, and said to myself, “Damnit.  I’m hung on a rock.  I’m going to lose my rig and it was stupid of me to even cast right before we leave.”  Then the rock started moving…slowly.  At first, I thought to myself, “Cool, big fish” because it was moving slowly into the pool.  and I had a lot of pressure on him (actually only after I landed it, did I found out it was a “her”).  I believe I said to Tommy, “I’m on.”  Who probably thought to himself, “damnit, I’m fishing the good part of the pool and Huckaby hooks a fish there in the crappy part.”  It continued moving slowly towards deeper water.  And then the fish realized it was hooked and got pissed.  It jumped.  And we got to see it for the first time.  I screamed, “Oh my God!!!”  Tommy screamed back, “Get your act together! Calm down!”.  Because seeing it jump we could see how big the fish was.  When this trout landed in the water…I will never forget the sound.  It was like a 12-year-old doing a cannonball into a swimming pool.  I bowed the rod like you are supposed to and then tightened.  She was still on.  And then it dawned on me: It’s on my 4 weight that Tommy built me and it’s on 5x, and I have 5 knots from my Huck Hopper down to the size 20 zebra midge I tied that was in the fish’s face.  All fly fisherman know that is a 3-way bad combo for landing a big fish.  Then it jumped again and I panicked again.  and Tommy yelled at me again to get my sh@#t together.  That is when it ran downriver.  And I chased after it.  Even though I was running, line was peeling out of my reel way into the backing.  My reel was screaming. Tommy came running after me.  I was going as quickly as possible but, I was huffing and puffing thinking to myself, “I can’t go on.”  I’m in decent cardio shape, but I was dying.  It’s a rocky river too so it’s not like it’s easy to run in waders and wading boots over slippery rocks.  I looked over my shoulder and tommy went down, in the rapids.  There he was rolling down the river but he popped up quickly, totally soaked and continue the chase.

It seemed like forever…maybe 20 minutes; maybe longer, but ½ mile down the river Tommy attempted to net the fish for the first time – it was so huge it didn’t fit and its head hung a good foot out the net.  It was huge and it was tired.  Tom did manage to bend the fish into the net.  We had to work quickly if we were to release it unharmed.  That is why I didn’t even bother to hold the fish “trophy style” and take a bunch of pictures.  I had the fish by the tail.  I didn’t want to drop it.  It was sucking pretty badly.  We got a couple pictures and got it quickly back in the water.  It took me a good 5 minutes of holding in the current before it swam off all pissed off.  If you look closely in the picture, there is a good foot of tail hidden by my hand.  Its tail was like a fan 8” tall.

This is all my fly fishing buddie's favorite: Look at my face. I’m shocked at the size of the monster

This is all my fly fishing buddies’ favorite: Look at my face. I’m shocked at the size of the monster

Not only was this the largest trout I have ever caught.  It is the largest trout I have ever seen.  That statement in itself should be impressive since I have fly fished so many times, for so long, in so many places, with so many professionals.  I have seen pictures of fish like that; many caught by my fly fishing guide buddies in Montana.  But, I have never seen a fish like that in person.  Tommy even checked the Colorado state record it was so huge. I was not close; 41”.

There’s 3 important factors to landing that monster:

  1. I was fighting that fish on a really nice custom rod built by Tom Young. I was out-gunned with that 4 wt, but because it was a was such a nice rod I still could battle it.  Email Tommy and beg him to build you a rod.  You’ll thank me; worth every penny.
  2. You don’t need a nice reel unless you need to fight a big fish. Because of that nice rod I splurged and bought a Galvin Torque T4 from the Platte River Fly shop.   You just can’t palm a fish that runs 100 yards at 20 knots.  Especially while chasing it.  you need the reel to help fight the fish.
  3. You need a wingman who knows how to net a big fish. Thank God I was with Tommy.  I owe him.  A fish that big on 5x cannot be netted alone without losing it or dragging it on shore.

Just 360 more days before I get to go back and fish the Blue…

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The Deschutes River in Bend, OR

August 6th, 2016

When Kelly (my wife) said, “I want to visit my cousin Cindi in Bend.” I immediately said, “Done!”  and she said, “What? Is there a river or something there?”  I did two short morning sessions on the Deschutes River “in town” and did well.  Mostly dry fly fishing with the infamous size 12 bullet head skwalla.  And now I have checked off Red Band Rainbows off my bucket list.

The High Desert Redband Rainbow

The High Desert Redband Rainbow

 

Ted and Cindi built their dream house for retirement on a piece of land in the hills above Bend they purchased 20 years ago.  After staring at their address on the satellite images I could see the Deschutes was just ¾ of a mile away from their house.  What I could not figure out from a computer was how to get through the private property and how big the canyon was that I needed to hike into.  Oregon, like Colorado, is one of those states with tons of private property on the rivers and very little public river access.

But, I could see a trail from the satellite images that at the very least made it legal to get to the canyon.  It is called the Archie Briggs trail.  And you can catch that trail just yards from Ted and Cindi’s house.  Unfortunately, I did not realize that and even though I knew where the trail was, I discovered another marked public access trail right at the end of their street that seemed more direct and seemed to cut right through private property.  Big Mistake because it did not.  I should have stayed with my original plan.  Unfortunately, that was a 2-hour mistake on a day where I only had 3 hours for a fly fishing adventure.  When I finally did get to the canyon I was staring down a 500-foot cliff and scratching my head on how to get down.  So, discouraged, I continued walking up river on the Deschutes river trail on the top of the canyon hoping to find access.  And I finally did; right where I should have started….uggh.

The Deschutes River

The Deschutes River

But it was still quite a bushwhack without a formal trail to lose the 500 feet down into the canyon to the river.  And I was all alone.  When I got all the way down it was pretty intimidating.  Very deep pools with little or no casting or wading access.  The river seemed to have just enough water to make it impossible to cross too.  At least I was smart enough this time not to try to cross alone.  Well, I made a few casts in the area with no action so I bushwhacked my way a couple hundred feet up the river.  And that is when I started catching redbands.  I hooked 5; landed 2 of them in just a 20 minute stretch.  That is when my time allotment for the day was done.  My walk back to the house was only 30 minutes, all up hill.  Actually, I didn’t even make it back to the house.  Kelly, Cindi and her husband ted picked me up on the way for our day’s hiking adventure at Smith Rock State Park which is, ironically on the Crooked river.  I didn’t get the opportunity to fish there because I was with the 3 of them hiking, but, I sure wanted to.

Monkey Rock at Smith Rock State Park

Monkey Rock at Smith Rock State Park

 

The next morning my long time fly fishing buddy, “Big Will Garratt” met me on the trail on the way to the river.  Big Will just moved to Bend and he had not fished the Deschutes yet.  I gladly showed him the access point I had found.  We fished for an hour mostly together working our way about ½ mile up the river.  And we were both doing well fishing on top with our size 12 bullethead skwallas.  The Deschutes in the canyon is pretty rugged and accessing the river frequently requires backtracking up the cliffs to get around the overgrown trees and brush in the river.  In the process of doing just that I scared the hell out of a deer that was resting under the trees.  Actually he scared me more than I scared him.

Bill Will slaying Redbands on the Deschutes

Bill Will slaying Redbands on the Deschutes

 

But, alas my short time was up.  Interestingly enough I had cell signal down there and Kelly called.  She said, “I think I see you guys.  We are on the Deschutes trail and I can see a fly fisherman way down below and a half mile up.”  “Is that you?”, she said.  It was Big Will she saw.  She was ready to go on the next adventure of the day: brew pub hopping.  But, our dilemma was a 20-minute rock climb and bush whack back up to the entry point of the canyon.  I told Big Will we might as well get as much altitude we can before working our way back down stream to where we entered the canyon.  So we did.  Within 10 minutes we saw a number of deer trails.  And we made the decision to try to save 30 minutes by hiking straight up the canyon on the deer trails.  Crazy…because at points we were climbing with our hands.  When we did pop out up top it was only a 200 yard walk to where Ted, Cindy and Kelly were waiting for us on the trail.

Little Lakes Valley, John Muir Wilderness, Eastern Sierras

July 8-12, 2016

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Just a mile into the hike you get a good idea of the beauty you are hiking into

I backpacked to the Little Lakes Valley from the Mosquito Flats Trail-head for the first time.   In fact, my backpacking experience was limited to the upper Kern before I went with my buddy from SDFF, Warren Lew.  Warren is a recently retired doctor who is a total stud and north of me in years.  Warren taught me a ton about backpacking the high country of the John Muir Wilderness.  And specifically he taught me how to “do” the little lakes valley from the Mosquito Flats Trailhead.  He also taught me how to dry fly in Stillwater.  I was a newbie before this trip never really having success and always resorting to the streamer.  I cannot wait to get back to this place.  And I fear that won’t be until next spring because winter comes fast here.

Your heart stops when you see a big golden like this one rise

Your heart stops when you see a big golden like this one ris

The fishing is ridiculously good.  The fish are generally smaller than the kern because of the huge healthy population of brook trout, but the quantity you catch is 4x.   I promise that any fly fisherman would catch more than 10 a day regardless of skill.  My wife could catch 10 a day there.  if Warren and I really wanted to I bet we could have caught more than 50 a day.  And yes, the brookies actually are delicious (they are a char; not a trout).

I bet I caught and released more than 125 fish (rainbows, brooks, and a golden) over 8 lakes and a miles of streams that connect them.  And 99% were on a dry fly.

Yes those are rises in one of the Gem Lakes right next to our camp.  but look closely.  You can see two brook trout that have jumped completely out of the water to grab the midges

Yes those are rises in one of the Gem Lakes right next to our camp. but look closely. You can see two brook trout that have jumped completely out of the water to grab the midges

There are so many positives about doing this, and I will detail the highlights below, but, there are some negatives.

The drawbacks are:

  • Altitude – it’s over 11k feet.  lots of heavy breathing. Every hike seems harder.  Everything is more extreme.  Hiking over Morgan pass was a challenge. We spent 5 days above 11K feet and I grossly underestimated how much colder it is up there.  we also got caught in a night time wind storm where it had to be blowing over 60MPH….which means not a lot of sleep.
  • You have to camp 100 feet away from the water – this is a stupid rule I still cannot understand the reasons for.
  • Bear Canisters are required – another stupid rule; what bear hangs out above the tree line? and frankly what’s wrong with just hanging your food?
  • The permitting process requires a visit to the ranger station in bishop; I don’t understand why it can’t all be done on the internet.
That’s me on Treasure Lake Number 2.  We caught a lot of big brookies here

That’s me on Treasure Lake Number 2. We caught a lot of big brookies here

The positives are numerous:

  • When you camp next to a glacier, you have snow to pour your Bourbon over.
  • Beauty – the sheer beauty of the mountains, much of which was above the tree line.
  • Fly fishing – ridiculously fun and easy.
  • So many trails and so many lakes within a 4-mile diameter.
  • I proved Mike Hilygus’ theory once again that a bullet head Skwalla in sizes 10 and 12 works everywhere.
  • You can make the big cast – talk about a great place to practice your double haul. Since there are no trees in many of these lakes (or they are sparse) you can do the 50 foot cast.  I was throwing my custom made 4 wt by Tom Young built on TFO BVK blanks.  And when I stood on big rocks I could swear I was getting close to casting the entire length of the fly line (100 feet).  of course setting at that distance is a different story.
“I can’t believe Huckaby fooled me.  I’m so bummed.”

“I can’t believe Huckaby fooled me. I’m so bummed.”

There were a number of firsts on this trip:

  • Most number of nights backpacking: My record before this trip was 3. On this trip we did 4 nights in the wilderness.  And I still had food leftover.  Yea, I lost weight on this trip.
  • My first “real” golden trout – I have caught plenty of goldens in my time and they are a blast because they hit so hard and it’s always dries. But, I have never caught a golden over 6”.  On this trip I caught a 14” golden.  A female; but, I earned it.  I was working a pod of big goldens and hooked 5 and lost all of them before landing them.  I must have spent an hour at it before I finally got one.
Check out the big golden with my fly hanging out of his face.

Check out the big golden with my fly hanging out of his face.

  • A double dry – I have caught two fish at a time just a couple times before. Once in Crowley on two streamers in a float tube.  Once in the Contoocook River in New Hampshire a few weeks back on a dry/dropper.  But, this trumps them all.  I was throwing two dries just to figure out what size I needed to get the big brookies to rise.  The first fly was a size 12 bullethead skwalla.  I trailed that with a size 14 spruce moth.  I had to make the big cast (see above) so the set was on a big splash; I didn’t see what actually happened.  But, when I made the set I yelled to Warren: “Big Fish!”.  It was a battle on my 4wt (5x), but as I got the fish close I saw it wasn’t one fish; it was too big 13” brookies.
Treasure Lakes 1 and 2

Treasure Lakes 1 and 2

 

Contoocook River, Henniker, New Hampshire

June 18, 2016

The Contoocook River, Henniker, New Hampshire

The Contoocook River, Henniker, New Hampshire

I planned a business trip to Boston months in advance and that meant getting Kelly free flights on points because she had never been to Boston.  It also meant ending the business trip in a long weekend in New Hampshire at our friends, Pat and Sabine Hynd’s house who live in Derry, New Hampshire.

And I knew full well, there was outstanding fly fishing in New Hampshire.  I just had two obstacles:

  1. Kelly, who is never happy about me stranding her all day while I fly fish
  2. The research I needed to do to figure out the closest river to Pat’s house that held trout

I never did overcome the first obstacle.  But, I did overcome the 2nd one by doing something really smart: I went to the New Hampshire Trout Unlimited Website where the officer’s email addresses were listed.  Fly fisherman are almost always helpful to outsiders so I wrote a simple email to the president, Ron Sowa.  Well, almost immediately Ron Emailed me back suggesting I fish the Contoocook River in Henniker, New Hampshire.  Ron and I went back and forth in email a few times where he provided great info for me before I realized he was a guide!  And he was so generous with free info.  At that point I felt badly.  So badly I said to myself “Screw it; I’m going to hire him for a full day and if she’s pissed so be it.”  Then I chickened out because of the sheer agony I’d have to endure, and thought about a half day guided with Ron.  At that point, to my extreme pleasure, Pat showed interest in joining me for some fly fishing.  Pat had never fly fished before and like many of my friends in the software world I was really looking forward to us fly fishing together, guided.

Pat Hynds, Master Angler

Pat Hynds, Master Angler

Then the wives got wind of it and totally put the kibosh on the idea.  But, the wives were willing to give us a morning.  So, it was going to be me and Pat leaving early, driving 45 minutes, gearing up, my teaching and guiding & fishing for 1.5 hours, and drive 45 minutes back in time for lunch and a big hike with the wives.  I have a goal of fly fishing in every state in America and New Hampshire was on the list so I was still very excited to check it off the list.

Well, I owe Ron big-time and I will repay him if he ever gets to the sierras in California….  Or I’ll just figure out how to get to New Hampshire again and hire him to guide me and Pat.

Big Rainbow from the Contoocook

Big Rainbow from the Contoocook

We fished the Contoocook river.   At first it was a bit of a challenge because we went upriver on the college side when we got to Henniker and it was froggy, big and deep.  I said, “hmmm”…  Then we went back over the bridge and downriver.  Immediately, there was a huge dirt parking lot with a dam looking structure, but I could see pocket water in the distance. But, there was a big swamp in the way.  I said, “hmmmm…”  I’m a bushwhacker, but, Pat was a first timer; I didn’t want to drag Pat through that mess.  So, we continued another ½ mile down the road to the next pullout and I almost fainted from what I saw: Pocket water, riffles, multiple runs, tail-outs.  This had it all in a 200-yard stretch.   But, no one was there so I said to myself, “Hmmm”.  It just seemed too perfect.  “Why were no other fly fisherman here?  It’s a Friday.  If this place were good then there must be something wrong.”

Another big trout from the Contoocook River

Another big trout from the Contoocook River

We’ll I geared us up and we wadered up there on the side of the road.  We wandered into the water.  It was a coffee stained clear that in the shade provided zero visibility; even with my Smith Chromopop polarized lensed glasses.  But it was not a slippery river like I’m used to in the East.  So, it wasn’t difficult to wade at all; you just had to go slow because you couldn’t see.  I did my lecture to Pat on where trout hang out and rest / feed and pointed out a few places.  And as we did I noticed a number of different bugs in including large Caddis and Yellow Sallies.   I said to myself, “hmmmm”…  We staged ourselves 20 feet below two large boulders where I knew Pat could make an easy beginners cast.  Then I started on a casting lesson for Pat.  On my second “10-2” thing teaching Pat to cast, I caught a small brook trout not even trying.  I said to myself, “hmmmm”…  Then I saw a large fish rise on the other side of the river and I said to myself, “hmmmm”…  I said to Pat, “Hang on one second I want to catch that rising fish.”  And I did.  and I said to myself, “hmmmm”…

More Underwater Fish porn from the Contoocook

More Underwater Fish porn from the Contoocook – this time a big Brookie

And it was just one of those days; a day that you remember forever.  But, a day I haven’t had in a while.  In fact, I believe the last time I had a day like that was on Lake Crowley close almost 20 years ago.  And I only fished for an hour and a half on the Contoocook River.  I think if I had all day I would have caught and released more than 50 trout.

Highlights:

  • I had a Grand slam with multiple brooks, rainbows, browns, & smallmouth
  • Most of my fish we caught on dries.
  • I caught 2 brookies at the same time (one the dry and one on the dropper)
  • And this was a first in my fly fishing career: I hooked a fish…well he caught himself… that jumped out of the water from between my legs to get my dry…through my legs and up a foot out of the water like shamu while I was releasing a fish from the dropper he was hooked on!
This is one of Pat's Brookie's that he fooled

This is one of Pat’s Brookie’s that he fooled.  See that big ‘ol nymph hanging out of his face after Pat’s perfect set?

And we only got 1.5 hours to fish!  45 mins up and back.  In that 1.5 hours I caught ~20 and I was “guiding” a beginner!  I have never ever left a river when the fishing was so good.  Even Pat caught fish!  As a first timer!  To his credit I have never had a beginner wait like you are supposed to when loading the rod.  He was the quickest study I have ever guided.  He figured out how to fight fish without me even helping.

The fish I caught went 6” to 14”.  I’m sure there were larger fish in that river.  I caught one fat rainbow jumper that was worth taking a picture of under water.  And many of the fish I caught had to be wild because I got a lot of jumps.  And every fly fisherman knows how fun Brookies are…

A Contoocook rainbow too big for me to take a picture of while trying to land him.

A Contoocook rainbow too big for me to take a picture of while trying to land him.

How we fished

I put Pat on an indicator (New Zealand wool style indicator) dropped by a large, size 12 bead headed black midge.  Dropped from that was a bead headed birds nest I tied.

And here’s where it’s really interesting: I did dry/dropper.  My dry was a size 12 bullet head skwalla (Montana fly company’s version).  I don’t even think they have skwallas (a huge stone fly) in New Hampshire.  But, it killed.  Just like my buddy in montana, Mike Hillygus, said it would.  Mike swears bullet head skwallas work all over the world because of the size and profile.  And I most certainly proved that in Poland last week.  And I proved it in New Hampshire yesterday.  This weekend I’m going to prove it on the Upper Kern river in the sierras where I am really curious to see if it will work.

So, if you want to fly fish in New Hampshire I strongly suggest you hire Ron Sowa from Reel New Hampshire Fishing Guide Service to guide you.  That would help repay my debt to him.  He’s headquartered in Manchester, NH 603.493.3857.

Reel New Hampshire Fishing guide service

Stillwater River, Montana – May 3-7, 2016

The Stillwater Water

The Stillwater Water

I had been dying to fish the Stillwater River for one simple reason: the guides don’t typically go there.  And consequently, it’s a lightly fished river:

  • it’s just about equidistant between Bozeman and Billings; about 2 hours from each. So the guides don’t go there.
  • it’s a freestone, so it’s subject to getting blown out, high and low water conditions. So, when it fishes well; it fishes really well
  • it is a river full of rapids which also scares away all the guides except for the ones that are the best on the oars. People drown on this river.

I had this trip inked for almost 9 months.  And it was a chance to fish again with my buddy Mike Hillygus who owns the Stillwater Outpost and is quite the guide, outfitter, and fly fisherman himself.  And the really best part of it was that my 20-year-old son Mark was going to join me.

Mark and Me

Mark and Me

I flew to Bozeman and Mike picked me up.  We arrived at Stillwater Outpost with plenty of daylight to fish.   But, I wanted to check out the lodge first because I was told it was the perfect place for the annual “get locked” trip that I plan, organize and run for 12-14 of my buddies each year.  and it is…  a converted barn with a bar to do the gourmet meals and cocktails.  Plenty of decks with views.  Even a driving range.  And the best news is that it will do at least 14 in beds and has plenty of bathrooms to go with it.  Eve my wife Kelly would love this place.

The “barn” at Stillwater Lodge

The “barn” at Stillwater Lodge

 

Now back to fishing….  I was just going to wade in and fish for an hour, but Mike would have nothing of that.  He insisted on a short float with him on the oars from about a mile up river to the lodge.  I caught two really nice fish (a rainbow and a brown) on dries right in front of the lodge!

The next day we did a big float on the Stillwater downstream.  It was hot; that meant the snow was melting.  and it was obvious the river was rising.  Mike and I caught fish, but the river was getting close to blowing out; it was losing clarity and the dead didymo floating down the river was causing issues.

How can you not love a place that has a brown trout propane tank?

How can you not love a place that has a brown trout propane tank?

That night Mark blew in from Bozeman just in time for another gourmet meal and cocktails…well he had a beer or 4; I had cocktails.  Mike’s buddy Andy, one of the very few guides that does the Stillwater stopped by for a beer or two also; Great guy.  And what I was to learn the next day: great guide.  Andy and Mike drove up river the next morning to check a really hairy stretch to see if it had enough water for the drift boat to get through.  Remember the water was rising and the chance to fish the upper stretch is a somewhat rare and exciting thing.  And they decided we could do it with two boats: Mike’s drift boat with me and Mark in Andy’s raft.  I have never fished crazy water like that before in a drift boat.  I cannot imagine rowing in that water; I’d crash for sure.  Mike is very good on the oars.  I caught fish on dries, but after I switched from dries to a streamer I killed.  I caught a lot of fish.  Mark stayed with dry-dropper and did pretty well too.  It was a great day and we fished in shorts and t-shirts because it was hot.

Mark with Andy at the Oars

Mark with Andy at the Oars

On our last day Mike insisted we make the 2-hour drive to the bighorn.  I was excited because that is where I guided my buddy Mike O’Laughlin; the one and only time I manned the oars for an entire float; did not fish and he did really well.

Mark is first to prove out Mike’s Theory: Look closely for that big skwalla in that brown’s face.

Mark is first to prove out Mike’s Theory: Look closely for that big skwalla in that brown’s face.

 

When matching the hatch does not Matter

Montana Fl;y Company Bullet Head Skwalla

Montana Fl;y Company Bullet Head Skwalla

The coolest part for me and Mark was that we were going to be a subject of a test and a theory Mike had.   Mike has a goto bug; it imitates a Skwalla, which is a huge mayfly.  We all have flies we are confident in; we all have a go-to fly when things are slow. Mike’s theory was that a size 12, bullet nosed skwalla fly would do well on the Bighorn even though they don’t get Skwalla hatches at the Bighorn.  A traditional fly fisherman or a most guides would scoff at the notion.  But that particular pattern from Montana Fly company has the nice thin profile of many large mayflies, but at the same time can be mistaken and a number of small terrestrials like hoppers.  It sits really low in the water so the trout can see them well from below, yet it’s big enough and has a nice yellow foam post so you can see it well from distance in its drift.  And if you know the Bighorn, you know you have to make the cast at least 20 feet, sometimes 40 away from the boat because the drift boats spook the fish in that crystal clear water.

Another big brown on the bullet head skwalla for Mark.

Another big brown on the bullet head skwalla for Mark.

 

Well Mike was right.  And the best part (for a dad) was that I missed 3 takes on top. 0 for 3 while Mark landed two.

Question: What’s better than catching big browns on the dry?

Answer: Catching big browns on the dry that freak out when hooked and do 4-5 shamu-like jumps before you can wrestle them to the net.

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Brown-zilla, on the dry (size 12 bullet head skwalla), on my 3wt which was a battle, 4 huge shamu-like jumps.

The “big trip” is going to be at the Stillwater Outpost next June of 2017.  But, those of you who know me, know I can’t wait a full year and will figure out how to visit Mike there again before winter.  I strongly you suggest you visit Mike at the Stillwater Outpost too.