The Grim Reaper As Your Guide

Over fifty years ago a friend who was stationed in Montana while serving in the Air Force invited us out to go back-packing and trout fishing in the Rocky Mountains. Ron introduced me to fly fishing on that trip and Montana has been a preferred destination ever since. During the 1980’s he worked for US Fish and Wildlife and I went out once or twice a summer to camp and fish with him. We fished most of the storied waters in SW Montana but I became particularly infatuated with the Boulder River and Rock Creek.

Calling Rock a “creek” is an obvious misnomer. Its current discharge is four times that of the lower Kinni; when you look at it for the first time the word that pops into your brain is “river.” When I fish out west I prefer tent camping but this year for a couple of reasons we rented a cabin right on the river a few miles above its confluence with the Clark Fork of the Snake. As much as I like roughing it, I am moved to admit that the cabin experience was pretty comfortable. Breakfast and dinners indoors, lunch and happy hour on the front porch, a comfortable bed for a refreshing night’s rest, good friends to fish with and quick access to miles of one of Montana’s premier trout streams totaled up to a fine week’s experience.

Fishing, as we like to say, is always good. Catching, on the other hand, is frequently a different experience. Only two or three fish were caught in the first couple of days. I saw one trout rise on Sunday and another rise on Monday and not another the rest of the week. John at Rock Creek Mercantile said fishing has been tough this season due to a late spring and higher than normal water for late July. He recommended fishing nymphs in the morning and dry flies as late as you can in the evenings. We followed his advice. But we also fished afternoons. We fished nymphs, dries, streamers and wet flies, all without success.

On Wednesday morning, July 26, we drove downstream to fish some braided water that we hoped would be promising. After gearing up we spread out on the near bank keeping ourselves within sight of each other. After spending an hour or so fruitlessly fishing various dries upstream I reached one of our fishing partners who reported having the same success as I did. There were a couple of braids coming into this stretch from the opposite bank and it was abundantly clear that the water was too deep and fast to cross at that point. I cut through the underbrush to get above him thinking I might find safer water to attempt a crossing. So I was upstream and around a bend from him when I found a spot between a couple of riffles that looked wadeable. I started across and at about the half-way point realized that a) the water was deeper than it looked and b) the gradient was a whole lot steeper than I figured. On local streams I’ve waded knee deep, thigh deep and waist deep for decades, never having a problem with gradient, only that unseen rock that trips me up and causes me to curse. We have gradient; Rock Creek has Gradient.

Half way across in thigh deep water is an impossible place to turn around. When you’re in that deep you have no choice but to move forward. So I tried to keep going, trying to do my Tai Chi step by planting the downstream foot, shifting my weight to it and then pulling the upstream foot forward while angling downstream to mitigate the force of the water. Finally the rocks underneath my downstream foot gave way, I attempted an awkward pirouette and I went down, waders filling with water and my feet pointing downstream. I actually laughed, thinking to myself, “So this is what getting dunked is like? Huh.” I had visions of steering myself into calmer waters so I could crawl out. 

Then I saw the log jam. In milliseconds I thought about the time my dog, Rickie, swam across this same river and got swept into a log jam, went under it and popped up on the other side. In the same milliseconds I thought about hanging on to that first log, a futile attempt since my waders were full and the force of the water was too powerful. I hit that log, went under it, surfaced ever so briefly, and then went under another pile of brush and logs before coming up for air. There was no time to be afraid. My eyes were open the whole time; I could see bubbles and parts of the log jam. I also swallowed some water. In those milliseconds under water I was thinking about how the hell I was going to avoid drowning. I wound up standing on a rock or a log, chest deep and wedged between a couple of logs, gasping for air. After several minutes I freed myself from the logs and after pulling myself upright on one of them, and with the help of the other angler, I was able to crawl across the log jam to the bank.

I lost my rod and reel, my hat and glasses, a couple of boxes of flies, some accessories and my wedding ring, a family heirloom since it was my grandfather’s and had my grandmother’s initials, A S, engraved inside. I don’t remember what we ate for supper that night, I was still tasting river water. John at Rock Creek Mercantile told us that in the prior couple of weeks three people had drowned: one on the Blackfoot, one on the Clark Fork, one on Rock Creek and his body was found several miles downstream. They say that only the good die young.

I’m old. I’m still alive.

Here is a link to an article on safe wading from the Orvis Learning Center.

Michael Alwin


Angler’s Conceits, Part II


There are two species of Ephemerella mayflies in these parts, one of which is kind of a big deal on the lower Kinni. Or at least it was until the City released all that sand into the river. Anyway, because of its rather light color, people got into the habit of referring to it as the Light Hendrickson. Traditionally the Light Hendrickson was an angler’s term for E. Invaria but there were at least two other species that were lumped together under that angler’s term. It wasn’t until about 2005 when Clarke Garry, Ph.D, correctly identified it as E. Excrucians that we knew what it was. Now you’d think that anglers would welcome that news, but you’d be wrong. At least one of my customers was visibly upset by the news and shouted, “No! It’s the Light Hendrickson!” He got over it but it’s a clear illustration of another angler’s conceit. Is hanging on to an inaccurate term really more important than a positive ID from a scientist? 

I used to go to the Fly Shop when Bob and Jean owned it to find out what was hatching on the Kinni. Bob always said the same thing, “Blue Wing Olives.” I was always kind of disappointed by that because I kept expecting to find something else to fish over. However, Bob was right because so many Baetis species are bivoltine means that they’re almost always available to the trout. But they are not all olive. The vast majority of the samples I’ve collected have been tan. Don’t believe it? Get yourself a little insect net and try it yourself. Baetis could be olive, but they’re more likely to be tan, brown or even grey. It’s hard to break a habit. And the one I hear most often is, “Are the Olives hatching?” 

OK, one more and then I’ll stop. For decades people who tie imitations of the Trico spinner have tied them with three, widely separated tails. Back in the ‘70’s I watched Tom Andersen tie some of these flies for Bob and he artfully positioned his dubbing needle underneath the tail filaments, spread them apart and held them for a second or two until they stayed in that position. Look at the selection in any fly shop and you’ll see many examples of this style. Gary Borger once opined that a trout’s IQ was 6. Six. Do you really believe a trout would reject your Trico imitation if it only had two tails? With that robust thorax and spent wings why would the fish focus on the tails? They probably don’t, and to bolster my opinion there’s this; Perry Palin is one of the better tiers around here and he’s been tying a very effective Trico pattern for years using a few grizzly barbs for the tail. They’re not long, they’re not spread and they’re definitely more than three. And it works fine.

Angler’s Conceits, part I

One of the definitions of conceit is a fanciful idea. Now let’s substitute flawed and apply it to our beloved preoccupation of fly fishing for trout. Has this ever happened to you?

Two anglers approach a pool on one of their favorite trout streams. They met in the parking lot and agreed that one angler would fish the upper half of the pool and the other angler would fish the lower half. Before entering the water they quietly observe the scene before them. While there are one or two desultory rises there are no Cedar Waxwings or Rough Wing Swallows feeding over the stream. They wade into casting position and begin to cast. After a while one angler catches a trout. The second angler, speaking just loud enough for the first angler to hear him says, “What did it take?” The first angler replies, “CDC Sulphur Emerger.” The second angler switches flies and resumes casting, fruitlessly it turns out, while the first angler catches another trout and then another and another. Finally, desperately, the second angler hollers, “What are they taking?”

Do we assume, because half a dozen trout grabbed that emerger, that all the trout are seeking an emerger? Really? An electrofishing project has indicated that there might be 100 fish in that pool. There might be three invertebrates emerging at the same time; sulphurs, Baetis, caddis or midges. Maybe the second angler is fishing over trout that have a preference for down wings? Or, maybe the second angler’s tippet is too short? To ascribe group thought to a pool of a hundred trout is what we can call a conceit, a fanciful or false idea.

Here’s another. Most of us old guys grew up practicing our blood knots under bright lights at the kitchen table. For you young people, a blood knot was the historical knot for joining tippet materials. Then about thirty years ago somebody published an article in a fly-fishing magazine about an easier knot for joining tippets. It was called the surgeon’s knot. It wasn’t long before everybody forgot about the blood knot because the new knot was so much easier to execute. A few years into my tenure at Bob Mitchell’s Fly Shop I had a conversation with a hand surgeon who was getting started in our sport and wanted to learn how to tie tippet onto leader. So I sez to the guy, I sez, “You’ll like this one; it’s called the surgeon’s knot.” After demonstrating the knot to him he said, “Huh. I’ve never seen that.”

I’ve had a few surgeries since that fateful day. And after observing several different surgeons I realized that the reason the aforementioned hand surgeon had never seen that knot was because that’s not what they’re taught in med school. What they learn to use in med school is a half hitch. I’m pretty confident that no surgeon has ever closed a wound with a “surgeon’s knot.” So what the heck is it? Practically speaking, it’s a multiple overhand knot, either a double overhand or a triple overhand. If the knot you’ve been using is a “surgeon’s knot,” call it a double overhand and you’ll at least be accurate.



Now that you’ve got your rods inspected, your reels cleaned, and your lines cleaned and dressed, it’s time to move on to your terminal equipment, your flies and leaders. Compared to rods, reels and lines, this stuff is a pleasant evening’s work at your tying bench or kitchen table. Let’s take a look at your leaders first.

There are two kinds of leaders, those you used and those you didn’t. Your examination of the leaders you didn’t use consists of stretching sections of the leader in an attempt to straighten it. Because leaders are made of nylon, they can easily develop memory. A leader that’s been on the reel too long or coiled in its package too long will retain its coiled shape. If it doesn’t straighten out it can’t be fished. Throw it out. If it straightens easily put it back on the reel or coil it loosely and slip it back into its package.

Next, your examination of leaders you used has one extra step, checking for nicks and cuts. After straightening the leaders run your thumb and index finger (if you’ve got one) down its length. If you feel a nick, cut, abrasion or knot examine the area closely. This is where a magnifier comes in handy. If you find any of these weaknesses, you have two choices: cut the leader and retie it or throw it away.

On to your flies. Just like leaders, there are flies your fished and flies you didn’t. The only ones you need to be concerned with are the ones you fished, identified by their straggly appearance. Let’s start with the nymphs and wet flies. Isolate the used flies by tossing them in a shoe box or bowl. Take a close look at each one. Are the hooks rusty? Are the points broken or dulled beyond repair? Wastebasket. Are the thread heads coming apart? If you tie, put a few turns of 8/0 thread on the, trim the tags and lacquer the heads. You don’t tie? Wastebasket. Put the remaining flies back in their fly box, promise yourself you’ll reorganize the box, then make a list of what you need to replace.

You can repeat the same process with your dry flies and then there’s one extra step. Dry flies get more mangled than nymphs; the hackle gets smashed and the wing gets crushed. Take the salvageable flies to the kitchen. Start some water in the tea kettle and then go get your hemostat or needle nose pliers. Once the steam is rolling, pick up each fly individually and hold it in the column of steam for just a second. The steam will return the hackle and wing to their original shape and make the fly look like new. You’ll be amazed. Drop these flies in the shoe box or bowl until they’re dry. Put these flies back in their fly box – promise to reorganize the box and make a list of replacements. Now pour yourself a cup of tea and pat yourself on the back, Put your feet up.



By Mike Alwin

Candor moves me to admit that I don’t always follow the advice offered in these brief paragraphs. Most years I follow my own advice but some times I forget. And after reading these suggestions you might decide that it isn’t necessary to pay attention to these rather obscure details. However, if you follow the advice I offer you will be rewarded; your expensive equipment will last longer and perform better.

Some years ago Dick Schwartz offered this advice to a young person new to the sport of fly fishing. Dick said, “Spend your money on the rod and the line because they’re the things that do the work.” True that, and that’s why we want to take good care of them.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a $70 Cortland rod or a $700 Sage rod, we put them through unimaginable stresses. We bang them against brush and trees and rocks. Sometimes we step on them, We reef on them whether on a big fish or a hook up in the weeds. We bang bead head nymphs and heavy shot against them. And we strip dirty lines through their guides while casting. Now that the season is over, go to your quiet spot, assemble your rod, put the tip on the floor and flex the rod with a gentle but firm downward grip on the cork. Don’t bend it between your hands, Dummy! If you hear or feel a soft click it’s likely that you didn’t fully seat the ferrule. Or, perhaps the ferrule is cracked. Check it out. 

Next, take the rod apart and with a damp soft cloth wipe down each section. Dry it with a dry soft cloth and then if you feel like it spray a little Pledge on a paper towel or put a couple of drops of lemon oil on the paper towel and polish your rod. Don’t do this this with a vengeance, just make it look nice. Now use a magnifying glass or a hand lens to examine your guides. (They’re lines guides, not eyelets. Jeez.) You’re looking for cracks and flat places on the guides.   Find a nylon sock or a piece of acrylic yarn and run it through the guides. If it gets hung up or leaves a little fuzz on the guides that’s an indication of a crack or sharp edge. The flat spot and consequent sharp edge is caused by a dirty line sliding through the guides, effectively sanding the inside of the guide. If you find a cracked ferrule or a guide that is cracked or has the sharp edge, pack up the rod and send it back to the manufacturer for repair because these are warranty issues. There will be a charge for shipping and handling. If your rod is in good shape, put it in its bag and slip it back into its tube. Next season you’ll want to wax the male end of the ferrule with a little candle wax or paraffin.

Moving on to the line, let’s assume that you fish quite a bit. If so, your line is dirty. Strip the business end of your line (30 or 40 feet) off the reel and put it in the kitchen sink. Examine the line for cracks. You can use the magnifying glass or the hand lens but cracks are usually pretty obvious. Think about the past season. Was your line sinking? That could be caused by a dirty line or a cracked line that’s allowing water to soak the core. Now dampen a paper towel and put two drops of dish washing liquid on it. Squeeze it around the line and pull the line through it. When you open the paper towel you’ll see two dark lines (that’s the dirt) and a pale color that matches your line. Give the paper towel a quarter turn and repeat the process. Rinse the line in the sink, dry it and put it back on your reel. If your line is cracked you’ll need to replace it before the next season. Even a cheap line is better than a line that’s damaged and sinking.

Now we get to your reel, your line storage device. Pop the spool off the frame and look at the inside of the frame and the back side of the spool. How much dried mud and sand do you see? Rinse the frame in a stream of water under the tap. Use a tooth brush on the back side of the spool. Dry the frame. Do not spray it with WD-40! A modern reel doesn’t really need lubrication, but if there’s a moving part you think needs a little help (like the release mechanism on the spool) here’s a safe method of doing it. Put one drop of reel oil or “3 in 1 Oil” on a piece of wax paper. Dip one end of a toothpick in the oil and apply it to the piece. Don’t overdo it. Pack your beauty away in a safe place and put your feet up.