The Attractor Dry Fly

The Attractor Dry Fly
By Brian Stewart

Fly fishing for trout is a sport filled with nuance, variation, and style. Each angler’s measure of success or enjoyment can be split an infinite number of ways and is highly dependent on individual personality. Some will identify with a specific technique: Are you a dry fly fisherman? A meat chucker? A bottom dredging nymph fisherman? Of course with every different technique, variation and specialization, there is a category of fly, and within that category there’s infinite variatio.

While I generally don’t consider myself a specialist of any kind, I definitely have my preferred ways of approaching this sport. I much prefer fishing a dry fly. But I like to split the hair even finer, I prefer to fish attractor dry flies, big ones. Ones that pull fish from across a stream or up from the bottom of a deep pool. These flies defy the traditional dry fly fisherman’s credo of “matching the hatch.” The more puritanical practitioners of our sport might even call the newer, foam-based attractors abominations.

My obsession with fishing attractor dry flies started pretty early on in my fly fishing adventures. This was due primarily to the influence of one book, and one VHS video tape.The book was “Prospecting For Trout” by Tom Rosenbauer. First Published in 1993, this book was still fresh when I found it in the Red Wing library just a few years later. Tom’s book is packed full of useful information for the beginning fly fisherman. One of the last chapters in the book focuses on “prospecting” or fishing the water rather than fishing to a rising or spotted fish with dry flies. Of course most of the flies in this chapter are attractor style flies, and I learned several new patterns from it. But the most important thing I learned was that fishing with a dry fly is an effective technique. Even to this day, many fishermen do not consider using just a dry fly to search for trout and when they do, it’s used more as a strike indicator than an actual fly that may catch a fish!

The video tape was an old copy of a 3M production from 1987,  “Strategies For Selective Trout with Doug Swisher” and featured numerous dry-fly techniques. One section of the tape, titled “Dry-fly Attractors” had a particular influence on me. In it, Swisher mentioned several attractor patterns, and featured a fly pattern known as the  Madam X. After making several casts with the fly, he hooked into and landed a very large rainbow trout. After watching this video, I started tying and fishing the Madam X pretty much to the exclusion of all other attractor dry flies.

I have a very vivid memory of one of the first times I fished with a Madam X. I casted the fly into a deep corner pool that I knew held some good trout. Shortly into the drift, a good sized brown slowly rose to inspect the fly. The big brown followed my fly, its nose just under my fly for what seemed like forever. Then, just as slowly as it had come up, it went back down. Up to that point I had never seen a trout swim so far and so slowly to inspect a fly. It was mesmerizing. Since then, I’ve experienced that slow rise (and often a take!) of the big dry fly many times, but that first time is burned into my memory more than any other.

I categorize attractor dries into two general types, old school and modern. The old school patterns were primarily developed back in the 1920s and 30s and many are still available at most fly shops. These include the Wulff series: Royal Wulff, Grizzly Wulff, and Trude Style flies like the Royal Trude, Lime Trude, or even the Pass Lake dry fly. There are many more, but they all share common traits having all natural materials (feathers, fur, hair) and a traditional dry fly formula consisting of a tail, body, and a wing (either upright or trude style), and a vertically wrapped dry fly hackle. Some “newer” designs that I would also consider old school are flies such as the Humpy Series, Randall Kaufmann’s Stimulator, and perhaps even the Madam X

Modern attractor flies are much different than their old school predecessors. The most popular of these do seem to share a common ancestor, the Chernobyl Ant. This fly was created in 1990 on some famous Western River. Regardless of where it came from, it has spawned some very popular variants like the Chubby Chernobyl, Mini Chernobyl and Micro Chernobyl. Another popular, and much more recently developed attractor dry is the Hippie Stomper. All of these modern attractors share several traits such as  rubber or silicone legs, bodies made primarily of closed-cell sheet foam and synthetic winging material.

I think many fly fishermen associate large attractor style dry flies with fishing “out west” on large rivers with less selective trout, and that these types of flies don’t work on our small streams that are full of  wary brown trout. Or, they see these big flies in the bins at the fly shop and assume they are for imitating grasshoppers. I’m of the belief that large attractor dries do work well on our local streams for most of the season, regardless of what may or may not be hatching.

Generally speaking, I consider May to be the month that these flies really start to produce. I believe there are three basic reasons for this. One is that the water temperatures are getting into the ideal range for the trout, so they are just more active than earlier in the year. Secondly trout at this time are more prone to looking up for some of their food. Various aquatic insects have been hatching pretty regularly since March, with April bringing significant hatches of Blue Winged Olives, some Hendricksons and even some Caddis flies.

A third reason for May being a good time to start trying attractor dry flies is an increase in terrestrial insect activity. As the ground warms, more and more of this incredibly diverse range of bugs find their way into the water. Many attractor style dry flies are designed to mimic this abundant food source. If you ever harvest a full-bellied trout in mid-summer and examine its stomach contents, you may find a wide array insects of different sizes and shapes. Commonly, many are terrestrial insects. 

Because I simply find joy in casting and drifting the large, rubber-legged dry fly, I tend to fish them anywhere and everywhere along the trout stream. That being said, I find them to be most effective in flat water pools and along the stream banks. Trout will often move several feet to take the big dry fly in these circumstances. If you’d like to see a trout make a V-wake to take a dry fly, tie on a big Chubby Chernobyl and go fish that shallow looking flat pool you always walk past to get to your favorite riffle.

Much like most “imitator” dry flies, attractor dries, large or small, are best fished on a dead drift. While there are occasions where twitching or dragging/skittering the fly will bring a strike, I have found that just the “splat” of the fly hitting the water is enough to attract the fish, and any “unnatural” movement of the fly after that has a negative effect.

Fishing a dry fly allows the angler to fully enjoy the fly cast itself. In my opinion, it’s the pinnacle of the sport of fly fishing. Line, leader, rod and fly working together in the most elegant way. It’s also simple. Many fishermen tend to use these attractor dry flies as a strike indicator in what has become known as the “hopper dropper” set up. Every time I give in to this particular temptation, it doesn’t take long for me clip that damn dropper off and go back to the simple attractor dry fly set up. You may not catch quite as many fish, but do you really need to?

The Thrill Is Not Gone

The Thrill Is Not Gone

By Greg Olson

I let out a loud groan and with outstretched arms, threw my head back and looked to the heavens. I don’t know why, perhaps I was asking for some divine intervention. None forthcoming, I just as quickly dropped my head and with slumped shoulders reeled up and slogged back downstream to my car.  On this warm, early September morning, I had suffered a beat down of epic proportions. After two months of eating tricos almost every morning, the trout were experts on trico appearance and were not having any of my imitations in the low, clear, slow water. I rose two fish the whole morning. For the first one, I had finally got my fly to float into an eddy under an overhanging bush using a lot of slack in my cast. When the very large head of a brown trout came up to sip my fly, that extra slack and an excited hook set conspired to break the fly off so quick, I wouldn’t think the fish even noticed. It must have, however, as it never came up again. 

After another hour of putting dozens of fish down while trying upstream, downstream, across stream presentations on 7X tippet, I emitted the groan, eluded to at the start of this story. Another large fish, sipping trico spinners under a tunnel of streamside grass, slid downstream with my fly just under its nose, then let it go by. My heart sank. Suddenly it turned, chased my fly down and sucked it in. I tried so hard to wait. I didn’t quite get to the end of the sentence,”God save the Queen”, but I got close. My forearm started to come up. Wait! The fish had dropped to the stream bottom, but had not turned back upstream! In my head I screamed at my right arm to stop! I did slow it down, I think, but you know – physics; an object set in motion, tends to stay in motion. With the fish facing me, I pulled the fly right out of its mouth, eliciting the groan. It amazes me that I could have so many thoughts in an event that took a few seconds. 

I was beating myself up pretty good on the way home. All these years fly fishing and hundreds of trout later and I was still breaking off flies and striking too soon. I had switched primarily to slower/softer bamboo and fiberglass rods to off-set my over exuberance, which helped some, but shouldn’t I be one cool customer by now, instead of a 5 year old on Christmas morn? Before I got home, I recalled a story my high school best friend’s father, Jack, told me.

With my friend, Erich, graduated, Jack and his wife, both Green Bay natives, had moved back home. After a high pressure career of getting 3M out of multi-million dollar lawsuits, he took a job with a small law practice. One of his clients was none other than Ray Nitschke, a 15 year veteran of the Green Bay Packers, a fearsome linebacker on Lombardi’s championship teams, and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This was quite the thrill for Jack, a long time Packer season ticket holder, who grew up watching Ray and the Packers. In fact, he was unable to play his trumpet as his high school marching band paraded around Lambeau Field for its dedication. He couldn’t stop staring at the magnificent structure, the greatest he had seen, save for a field trip to Madison to see the capital. 

In retirement, Ray had many business deals that needed tending to and Ray always insisted on meeting at a small café for breakfast for their meetings. Even in the late 80s, Ray drew a crowd and the meeting was always interrupted for autograph requests. Ray would even get up, run to his Cadillac, and retrieve 8 x 12” photos of himself to sign. One day, Jack asked, “Ray, you know I have to charge you $100 an hour for these meetings, including all these interruptions. Wouldn’t you rather meet at my office?” Ray waved him off, saying he would rather meet at the cafe. Jack then asked, “Ray, don’t you ever get tired of always being pestered for autographs, photos, and the chitchat that goes with it.” Ray responded that he still got excited when people asked for an autograph and it would it would be a sad day when that thrill was gone or folks forgot who he was.  I consoled myself with Ray’s words. Yeah, I get too excited with dry fly fishing for trout. I wish I could be more calm, cool, and collected at times, but it would be a sad day if it became so old hat that the excitement and thrill was gone. If that meant losing some fish and flies, so be it.

Jack gave Erich and me his Packer tickets for below freezing December games (even die-heard Packer fans have their temperature limits). In fact, we were there when the Lambeau Leap was invented by safety LeRoy Butler on what was then the coldest game other than the famous Ice Bowl. Before that game, Jack presented me with a photo. Ray had spent a minute at $100 an hour signing a photo for me. He wrote, “To Hudson High’s finest defense back [an exaggeration, I assure you]. Keep hit ‘em hard! Your friend, ol’ 66, Ray Nitschke.”

Wading Safety

Wading Safety

By Jonathan Jacobs

Nothing cuts into your fishing time like death. – A.K. Best quoted by John Gierach

After learning in a July email from Michael Alwin of the wading misadventure he eventually wrote about in the August 2023 article titled The Grim Reaper as Your Guide, I did what I’ve been doing for decades: I wrote a response to him pointing out everything he’d done wrong and what he should have done instead. Well, that’s not true; Mike has been invaluable to me as both a mentor and friend over the years and thinking about his near drowning was mortifying to me. I did respond to his email with some suggestions on wading safety and I’d like to share them with you and expand a bit on them as well:

The first consideration in wading safely is constant situational awareness. You should ask yourself this question frequently: What happens if this doesn’t go well? This may make you rethink your approach and develop a new plan, or you may have no choice but to proceed, but at least asking – and answering – this question will force you to look for contingencies. The link (https://howtoflyfish.orvis.com/how-to-articles/trout-fishing-articles/tips-for-safe-wading) to the Orvis Learning Center that Michael included in his article provides excellent advice on instream wading. Since I can’t improve on it, I’ll stress only two points regarding technique. First, one of the most common mistakes that I’ve made and have seen others make is trying to wade while casting. This is an invitation to disaster. You’re striding along, watching to see if a fish will rise again, when you trip on an unseen rock, stick or sudden depression in the bottom and plunge forward in a desperate but futile effort to regain your footing. The second thing I’ve seen, and to my misfortune have done myself, is stepping backward while turning around. It’s so easy to forget about the big rock immediately behind you, the one you waded around carefully a bit earlier, while watching a friend land a fish. This is mostly something done in shallow water, so while the danger of drowning is minimal, getting wet and cold is extremely likely. Worse, it’s likely that you’ll land hard in shallow water, which can lead to bruising and contusions if you’re lucky, or to broken bones or a skull fracture if you’re not. This may sound alarmist, but this is exactly how Datus Proper, the author of the book What the Trout Said, came to a bad end when he hit his head on a rock in shallow water while fishing Hyalite Creek outside Bozeman, Montana several years ago.

I would like to discuss some equipment that can help us wade more safely:

Leggings and quick-dry shorts: You hear about the value of a belt that tightly cinches your waders about your waist to prevent filling your waders with water in case of a fall. That’s true, of course, but how about, when it’s practical, ditching the waders altogether and investing in some leggings and quick-dry shorts instead? You’ll present a sleeker profile in the current, which will lessen the hydraulic pressure on you and, if you do go down, you’ll not be weighted down by the water in your absent waders. Also, I think I’m correct when I say that most of us are averse to the chilling effect of cold water on our nether regions, causing us to think twice before we wade deep enough to dunk said regions.

Wading boots: Yes, most of us already have specialized wading boots, but are they ones that will do the best job of keeping us vertical? For many years felt soles were the standard of the industry. They do work well on bedrock and on cobble, but I’ve never found them particularly grippy on large rocks or on algae-covered substrates. They’re lousy on muddy or snow-covered banks and none too good on grass. While their performance improves with the addition of studs, they’re implicated in the spread of invasive species, so it may be best to give them the go-by. There are a great many variations on the rubber sole boot. The high-end boot from the Orvis Company features a sole developed in concert with the Michelin tire folks. I’m not sure what that guarantees, but I note that the boots can be outfitted with studs, which are always helpful. The Simms Co. offers a plethora of boots with felt, Vibram and rubber soles. Many of them can be equipped with studs as well (Simms offers multiple types of studs, too). The Simms website has a chart that compares things like traction, support, and weight. You may have noted that I’ve mentioned studs several times. I think they’re a godsend and wouldn’t be without them. My personal choice for really tough wading conditions are Patagonia Foot Tractor boots with leather uppers by Danner and rubber soles equipped with replaceable shaped aluminum crossbars secured to the boots by Allen bolts. I can’t say enough good things about them. I can say that, on the downside, they are hellaciously expensive and that I was fortunate to find cosmetically imperfect ones on sale at a deep discount. In the big picture, though, at a time when top end fly rods have pushed past the thousand-dollar mark, half that amount for the most comfortable and effective boot I’ve ever seen may be a value.

Wading staff: I was fortunate to win a Simms wading staff at a Wisconsin State Council TU banquet several years ago. At the time I was just trying to get rid of some bucket raffle tickets and had given little thought to how I might use a staff. I discovered how when I ventured to southwest Montana. It was instrumental in helping to keep me upright when I found myself on the wrong side of a river with no easily fordable crossing in sight. Using the situational awareness I wrote about earlier, I picked the “least worst” option and set out. The staff hummed and throbbed in the heavy current when I leaned on it more heavily than I thought possible, but I inched my way to safety on the other side, arriving there with a stratospheric adrenalin level and a pulse rate to match. Admittedly, my leg strength isn’t what it used to be, and I’m walking around on a couple of artificial joints that don’t offer the support of the original equipment, but as the philosopher said, time and tide wait for no man, so it’s wise to be ahead of the game and to start carrying a wading staff today, even if you’re not superannuated like me. Simms sells a staff equivalent to mine for around one hundred fifty dollars. Patagonia has an elegantly designed one for ten dollars more. Former chapter president and frequent angling companion Tom Schnadt tells me that he’s taken to carrying an old bamboo ski pole with him. It’s lightweight and floats on a tether behind him. The downside here, he acknowledges, is that the pole could possibly shatter under heavy load and effectively become a punji stick on which to fall.

The dangers are not solely in the stream and a wading staff can be useful in other circumstances. It can help you negotiate a steep or muddy bank when you enter or exit the stream and it can serve as a test probe as you travel the heavily vegetated banks along it. There are often little gullies, beaver holes or even logs hidden by overlying grasses.

Stationary bike: I can picture you shaking your head in disbelief about now. What I’m getting at is that we should all do our best to tend to our most basic piece of wading gear – our legs. A regular exercise program can help you maintain leg strength, flexibility and, consequently, balance. A stationary bike is but one tool you can use. A health club or YMCA may be able to help design a program for you using additional or other equipment. Even long walks involving substantial changes in elevation are a huge improvement over doing nothing.

Now get out there and have fun and come home safely.

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. https://howtoflyfish.orvis.com/how-to-articles/trout-fishing-articles/tips-for-safe-wading

Michael Alwin

2023

The Final Stage

The Final Stage

You have undoubtedly heard the five stages a trout fisher goes through: catch a fish, catch a lot of fish, catch big fish, catch difficult fish, and finally be satisfied with the act of fishing itself – whether or not the fish decide to cooperate. 

My journey started in the 4th grade, fishing Trout Brook in Hudson every morning after finishing my paper route. I eventually caught my first trout by pegging a worm on the bottom of a hole coupled with a big split shot. Despite only processing 5th grade educations, by the next year, my mates and I invented euro nymphing albeit using long spinning rods and garden hackle. Now we were catching a lot of trout in water not known for great numbers and an added benefit was our bycatch of suckers and carp greatly decreased. The following year, the nightcrawlers on the lawn of the old Hudson courthouse their nightly sojourns after a summer rain were never bothered again by my flashlight wielding buddies and I. We changed our tactics and used Mepps and Panther Martin spinners (spin fishers don’t overlook a floating #5 Rapala either). Overall, the fish got bigger (especially at night) and the rough fish were eliminated.

During junior high, my parents bought a camper on a lake in Siren, Wisconsin chock full of pike. Sadly, I abandoned trout fishing and became a big pike fisherman using my paper route money to buy a boat. It wasn’t until many years after college, marriage, and kids, that my brother-in-law introduced me to fly fishing and I again fell in love with trout and the rivers they inhabit. 

Forgetting all the trout knowledge I gleaned in grade school, I floundered mightily with the fly rod and was undone by poor casting and new enemy, drag. Needing help, I enrolled in a fly fishing class taught by Mike Alwin. A light bulb went on when Mike described how to swing soft hackles. This seemed to be a method that could disguise my inaccurate casts and luckily drag was actually integral to the method. When the class hit the upper Kinni for our “final”, I found success! BWOs were coming off in a riffle and swinging my new favorite fly, a partridge and yellow, I caught 11 trout! All that spring, I was swinging my way down the Kinni, covering surprisingly long distances (only discovered upon the slog back upstream) and encountering quite a few fish. 

After a season of swinging, I decided to work on my nymphing game. If 90% of what a trout eats is subsurface, I figured this is how to rack up the numbers and I was right. The discovery of the water load cast was crucial to me doing more fishing and less untangling of double nymph/thingamabobber rigs.

I have never been a dedicated streamer junkie, but I have connected with some big fish, hitting the banks with streamers while fishing back to the car after an evening hatch is done. My biggest trout have come steelhead fishing on the Brule by chucking eggs and legs (Superior X-leg nymph with an egg pattern tied off the bend of the hook) all day long or fishing the hex hatch on the White and Brule rivers. Dry flies the size of hummingbirds bring the big browns out of hiding and makes braving the hordes of mosquitos worth the effort.

For my next stage, I decided to take on the tricos a few of years ago. This hatch of insects, size 20-26 occurs daily from late July through early September, so the trout get very, very picky – they know exactly what a trico is supposed to look like. The water at this time of year is low and clear and to top it off, much of the feeding is for the spinners in the slow water below riffles. Dead spinners don’t move at all and the trout can get a good long look at the fly before committing. It took quite a bit of scouting to find areas with good hatches. Then it took a couple of years to figure out techniques, patterns, and leader set-ups that work for me. It was truly a challenge. 

Well, that takes us up to this past season. Was I content to just get out, regardless of the results? Almost there! I wouldn’t be upset with a skunking, let’s call it “mildly irked.” One fish sure would have been nice. Being quite competitive in nature, I did not think I would get this far when I first started, but here I am, free to trout fish any darn way I chose. Very early in my journey I read every trout fishing book in the Washington County library system and purchased a good deal more. Some of the books, written across the pond, expounded on the requirement in some local streams to only fish dries flies upstream, to rising trout, which struck me as utterly ridiculous. And yet I stand here today, not as a dry fly snob — please trout fish any way you choose — but certainly a dry fly enthusiast. Without the need to rack up numbers or size, I no longer feel the need to fish from dawn to dusk. I fish whatever is emerging at that time of the year. During the hex hatch I will sleep in and wait until 8 pm before leaving the cabin. Conversely, if it is trico time, I will be on the water at first light and off the water enjoying a late breakfast by 10:30 am, when the spinner fall is over. My overriding rule, however, is that the best time for trout fishing is whenever you can go — and often that is when nothing is hatching — so I always carry a fully stocked nymph box.

I taught my kids to fly fish which was very satisfying, and I now find that helping out a stranger at streamside is a joy as well. Having a new friend catch a fish is more rewarding now than catching one myself, something that would have never occurred to me when I first started. 

My son, Brian, is following the same path, as I did. He sits at the vice tying huge pike flies often with gobs of yellow bucktail and red hackle feathers, replacements for the Five of Diamonds spoons I used to hurl out with my spinning rod when I was his age. He is also looking for big trout too using these streamers and fishing the hex hatch.

In contrast, my daughter reached the final stage before I did! She went from catch a fish, to just happy to get out on the stream. I realized this, one night when the trout were tearing into sulfurs like stripers in a school of menhaden and I was laser focused on my #18 comparadun bouncing down a riffle. She tapped me on the shoulder and told me to look up to see an incredible sunset that made my jaw drop. I felt sheepish knowing that I would have never noticed it had she not been there. She has become almost a brook trout purist and claims to only need one fly to catch them, a #18 CDC Caddis. She is out in the world now and I don’t get to fish with her much anymore but I can’t doubt her. Her fish photos are all of brook trout and unless she is secretly hitting up the fly shop bins that is the only fly she asks me to tie for her. She has no need for big fish, as the small brook trout are “so cute” and their small bodies “concentrate all their beauty.” When she reports catching no fish, I ask what was hatching and did she try a different fly say a nymph, streamer, comparadun, or soft hackle. No, she didn’t try those, but then I’ll receive photos of what she did “catch”; the deer that came streamside to get a drink, the beaver cruising up the opposite bank, the bald eagle watching over her, and the wildflowers. She is on to something. She never gets skunked. 

Big Paul

Photos by Mike Edgerly

Sometime early in the century when I was helping out – or so I claim; Mike may have a different view – at Mike Alwin’s Bob Mitchell’s Fly Shop, a guy named Paul Wiemerslage, would drop in, usually near the end of the day and usually accompanied by his pert and perky wife, and just sort of hang around, often well past closing time.  By that time of day my supply of bonhomie had run low and I found him kind of irritating.  He obviously came to talk to Mike and didn’t seem even to notice me, which, when you get down to it, is likely why I found him irritating.  I learned that he was a high-level executive at a large local manufacturing concern and presumed that with that came a certain level of disdain for the help.  I have never been more wrong in my life.  I had mistaken a sense of respect for disdain.   Sometime in the Christmas Holiday season in my days as a putative Lutheran, probably when my daughter was participating in a Sunday school show, Paul, who was a co-parishioner, stopped me in a hallway and asked me how my steelhead season had gone.  I was surprised that he knew I’d been fishing.  That one question breached the metaphorical levee between us and led to a conversation so long that I was, much to my wife’s consternation, late to my seat for the performance.  Subsequently Paul and I forged a friendship that led us on adventures with venues as disparate as Paul’s home kitchen, the north woods, and the famous trout streams of Montana.

Paul had held many different positions with his employer and had excelled in all of them, but the job he had liked most, and was certainly best at, was in sales.  He had a preternatural ability to earn people’s trust and to put them at ease.  This wasn’t some sort of technique or act; it was simply and genuinely Paul.  The first time I traveled with Paul we took his travel trailer deep into Wisconsin’s Driftless Region and set up at a campground on the upper reaches of Timber Coulee Creek.  It had been a wet spring and the water table was high.  The campground was soggy in many spots, but we’d parked the trailer in a high and dry spot.  One afternoon I heard a group of campers talking.  One of them was grousing loudly about where and how we’d parked and what jerks we must be.  I told Paul about it.  He shrugged and said he’d take care of it.  He strode out to where the men were talking, introduced himself and asked them where they were from.  “La Crosse,” the chief grump replied.  “Me, too,” said Paul, “My father worked at Heileman Brewing for years.”  This established Paul as a local and within minutes the entire group was laughing at Paul’s storytelling.  There was no more grumping.  I saw Paul build or reinforce relationships wherever he went.  When we traveled, he brought along good bottles of wine and blocks of aged Wisconsin cheddar cheese from the Cady Cheese factory.  He presented these as gifts to fly shop workers who gave him good information and to campground hosts who treated him well.  Some of this was done, of course, as a means of ingratiation, but the real driving factor was Paul’s genuine respect for the knowledge they possessed and the effort they put in.  These folks never forgot Paul, either.  Perhaps they recalled the gifts, but I always felt it was more likely that they remembered Paul’s big heart and even bigger personality.

Paul had a close friend, John, a brilliant architect and businessman.  John, a giant of a man, had an appetite and a lust for life that equaled Paul’s.  John had  an expansive cabin on what was essentially a private muskellunge lake in northern Wisconsin and another utterly primitive cabin in a vast lake-dotted landholding in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  We fished hard on trips to these midwestern paradises, but we ate Paul’s gourmet cooking and drank John’s French wines prodigiously as well.  John was never happier than in these settings and Paul once said to me, “I just love to watch that man have fun.”  The feeling, I’m sure, was mutual.  The only problem for me was keeping up with these two characters and I soon learned that I was a better observer than participant.

In essence, Paul loved to watch all the people he liked and admired have fun.  In the last few years of angling author Jim Humphrey’s life, Paul hosted a mid-winter get-together at his house with Jim as the guest of honor.  Paul didn’t know Jim particularly well, but, again, he admired Jim’s work and what he’d done to help others through his writing.  These were titularly discussion groups with specific topics pre-selected by Paul. The guests ranged in age from Jim at the oldest to anglers Paul’s son’s age with several of us in late middle age in between.  Everyone’s input was welcome, but Paul made certain that everyone understood that Jim’s word was gospel.  There was food and drink, of course, with typically three different varieties of Paul’s delicious chili served as entrees.  Paul put hours of work into those soups, expecting nothing more than the obvious satisfaction of his guests.

Paul was a born organizer.  We (Friends of Paul and friends of friends – Paul subscribed to the idea that his friends’ friends were also his) made trips every spring to Cottonwood Camp on Montana’s Big Horn River for several years.  The fishing was superb and the camaraderie was excellent, but the best part was that everything was taken care of!  Paul secured the lodging, planned the menus, and did the grocery shopping.  In almost everything Paul did he started at wretched excess and went on from there, so while it took half the crew risking hernias and ruptured discs to haul his massive Yeti cooler from the truck to the cabin, we could be certain that we’d dine like kings throughout our stay.

One of the very best adventures I ever had with Paul was a trip that the two of us made to Montana in the late summer of 2012.  Paul asked me to go along with him to pick up a gorgeous, custom-made wooden drift boat he intended to buy.  I had been downsized from my job that spring and felt that I ought to stay home and be responsible, but Paul worked his salesman’s charms on me, made an offer I couldn’t refuse, and it was off to Montana we went.  We took a southerly route through Wyoming, country I hadn’t seen, staying overnight in Sheridan before heading up across the Big Horns and on to our lodging at the historic Chico Hot Springs Resort.  Eventually Paul took possession of the boat and we fished out of it on both the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers before returning home.  However, it looked for a time as though details might block the sale and we were both nervous.  When the details were resolved and the deal done, Paul drove us back to Chico and produced a bottle of sixteen-year old Lagavulin single malt scotch whiskey he’d brought along in case a celebration might be in order.  I’d somehow made it into my seventh decade without ever having so much as had a nip of this delightful potable, but I rapidly developed a taste for it and it took a couple of hours of soaking in the hot springs and several cups of the resort’s potent black coffee to make me whole the next morning.

I was to have another memorable experience involving Paul and scotch. Late in the afternoon last December 20th, Paul called and asked the name of a smoky Scotch I’d told him about.  I told him it was Ardbeg.  He asked me if it could be found in any of Hudson’s liquor stores.  I suggested he try Casanova’s.  Not two hours later there was a knock on the door.  It was Paul.  He thrust a bottle of Ardbeg into my hand and told me that he’d bought a bottle for himself, too, and intended to go home and drink a glass of it and suggested that I do the same.  He turned and walked out to his Jeep and out of my life.  Paul died of heart-related issues sometime late that evening or early the next morning.    If you knew Paul only casually or only by reputation, it was easy to think of him as a sort of Falstaffian character – which he was.  Paul was a man of huge appetites and interests, but he was also one of the kindest, truest, and most generous friends a man could hope to have and I will miss him always.

Paul loved the outdoors and he loved fly-fishing for trout.  He was a long-time member of Kiap-TU-Wish and once served on the board of the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust.  His family has asked that memorials in his name be directed to those two organizations.