Views From My Side of the Vise

Views From My Side of the Vise 

When my fly tying journey started around twenty years ago, my goal was to be able to tie up some panfish and maybe some bass flies to play around with up at our lake cabin in Northern Minnesota. I quickly found out that I really enjoyed wrapping fur and feathers around hooks in order to make a fish think that it looked good enough to eat.

After a year or so of learning to tie flies on my own, I decided that I wanted to move it to a higher level and take a fly tying class. I found a class at Bentley’s Fly Shop when they were still located in Eden Prairie.

The instructor for the class was John Mowery. I really appreciated John’s attention to the small details when tying flies.This was my first introduction to trout flies and trout fishing, so it was all new and fascinating to me.

It was at one of these tying classes that John showed us his Un-cased Kinni Caddis. This fly has been a staple in my box since that time and remains my favorite sub-surface caddis fly.

Hook: Size #16 emerger hook

Thread: 14/0 or 8/0 black

Abdomen: Ultra Wire, size Brassie in chartreuse

Thorax: Black Superfine dubbing

Collar: Starling feather

At one of those classes John made a comment about donating some of the flies he tied to Trout Unlimited. A person has to wonder if that comment had an impact on me or not?

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to reach out to me.

Paul Johnson


View From My Side of the Vice

My fly tying journey started almost 20 years ago. I had been playing with a fly rod to catch bass and panfish. I was not a trout fisherman. It was fun to tie up some Wooly Buggers, Clouser Minnows and Panfish Poppers. The more I tied, the more I enjoyed wrapping stuff around a hook to fool fish. After taking some tying classes at a local fly shop that were of course focused on trout flies, I was hooked.

As my good friend Craig always seems to remind me, I tend to be a little old school. I do not always embrace our current technology. When I started tying flies all of the information available to me was either in books or magazines. I am not sure if YouTube existed back then. If it did, I did not know what it was.

One of my go-to print media was Midwest Fly Fishing Magazine that was put out by the late Tom Helgeson. In each one of those editions there would be an article on fly tying by Dennis Potterout of Michigan. I would soak up everything he wrote like a sponge.

In one of those editions, he featured a pattern called the Opal X-Caddis and he talked about all the success he had with that fly and why you should fill your fly box with them (just like I am about to tell you!).

Based on that article, I tied up a bunch. Of course, since it’s kind of my thing, I had to make some changes to the original pattern. Not everyone agrees, but I always call my changes improvements. That’s how Mr. Potter’s original fly became my Improved Opal X-Caddis. (Thanks to my friend Mike Alwin for the clever name.)

The biggest change I made was to the head of the fly. Mr. Potter would just clip the butt ends of the deer hair wing like you would on a standard Elk Hair Caddis. I refined the head just a little by adding a touch of dubbing and 3 or 4 turns of brown hackle to finish the fly. So now it is improved! I almost always tie the Improved Opal X-Caddis on a size 14 hook, but I do size my hackle down to about a size 18 feather for the head.

Even if you don’t trust my opinion (hard to fathom, isn’t it?), you can believe Dennis Potter: This is a great fly pattern and one that you should have in your fly box this spring.

If you have any questions or comments, I always like to hear from you.

Paul Johnson

Waconia, Minnesota

Hook: Size 14 dry fly hook

Thread: 14/0 dark brown

Shuck: Improved Amber Zelon

Abdomen: Opal Tinsel, size medium

Wing: Bleached Deer Hair

Thorax: Mahogany Brown Superfine Dubbing

Collar: Brown Hackle

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 ( 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.

Michael Alwin


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.