In 30 years of fly fishing, I have tried and enjoyed all kinds of its various flavors from slinging foot long, 3/0 baitfish patterns to stripers in the Maine surf to casting size 20 chironomids on 7X tippets at tailwater rainbows in the New Mexico desert. There have been annual dates with oversized Great Lakes rainbows and browns and a coupe of feeble attempts to hook Canadian Atlantic salmon. I have an envelope stuffed with expired licenses from Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Zealand. Along the way, there have been some really great days and even a few longer stretches when I could count on reliable, steady fishing. You know, when there is no doubt whatsoever that you are going to be able to go out and catch a good mess of fish. Itís just a question of whether itís going to be merely a lot or an obscene number. The kind of days where you get enough fish that you can laugh about the ones you lose. ( I admit, I usually swear when I lose a fish. Profusely and with enough creativity and gusto to embarrass your average pirate.) The fall, winter, and spring after I graduated college when I lived near a premier western tailwater and got to fish it under a stable flow regime with limited crowds was one of those. And the summer when I moved back to Maine and the salt water was just alive with bluefish all thorough July and August. I couldnít go five casts without a knee-buckling hit in a little cove fifteen minutes from home. But it has been a long time. There is a remote smallmouth lake I fish with my dad and brother on a three day trip every spring that still gives up ridiculous numbers of big fish like that, too - when the wind isnít blowing at 40 knots, which it seems to about half of the days weíre there.
Now that Iím on the far side of the mid point of my fishing career, where and how I fish has become far more important. I like to wade and swing old fashioned Atlantic salmon and steelhead inspired patterns with a two handed rod. This would be great if I lived in the Pacific Northwest or the Canadian Maritimes, but I donít. It also limits where I can fish regularly and what I can fish for, given that I still have to go to work every Monday and keep my marriage intact. I need a place that I can fish hard for six or eight hours and still get home for dinner. My stateís premier salmon and trout waters are just too far away for that. They also tend to get too crowded for me to step and swing with the two hander for a couple of hours down a long juicy run at my own pace, which, to me, is the the best way to experience any piece of water. Every other kind of fishing is just a burger to that filet-mignon; satisfying and honest nourishment, but not what really makes me drool.
Iím sure it will strike some folks as odd, others as laughable, and a few as criminal, but the fish that scratches the itch for me is the smallmouth bass. Theyíre in rivers big, medium, and small as close as five minutes from my driveway. These are rivers where I know Iíll have the water to myself on any given weekday and most weekends, too. Every last one of those bass is wild, hard fighting, and high jumping. And they will eat a big, swung fly, sometimes even off the surface film at high noon. That isnít to say that they are total pushovers. I know they have a reputation for being easier than a two dollar hooker, and sometimes they are, especially in late May and early June. But come July, big river borne smallies can get hard to find on a consistent basis, especially if you are a wader.
So, I have spent the past decade wearing out DeLorrme atlases, tires, and a couple pairs of wading boots hacking around three major river drainages looking for my smallmouth Val Halla. I have found some gorgeous looking water. Some if it was a total bust fish wise. The rest of it has been pretty average, giving up just enough cookie cutter, small to medium fish and every other once in a blue moon beasties in the 20 inch range to keep me interested. But being a fly fisherman means by definition that you are also an optimist, someone who never doubts that the magic time and place really is out there, somewhere between just around the next bend and another 25 miles down the road. After all, you have found one or two before. Besides, who among us doesnít start every day of fishing thinking, ďThis is going to be a good day, maybe a great dayĒ? I swear, if I ever stop thinking that, I want somebody to sell all my gear and have me committed.
I think I may have found a new Val Halla last fall. If I had to, I could leave home after lunch and still get in a few hours of fishing there before dark. Itís not remote by any measure, but it is rural enough that I donít leave the car parked near pavement. In fact, itís not on the way to anyplace else. You would have to want to go there to know itís there. And though itís part of a major river system, Iíve never seen this particular stretch mentioned anywhere in print or on-line. Thatís getting rare these days.
Itís absolutely fantastic smallmouth swing water. The current pushes right along at about jogging speed, just right to move a fly, but not enough to make wading a real challenge. It has some bounce and tumble, but most of it is smooth enough to be good for skating and waking flies. And itís got all the right rocks. If you know smallmouths, you also know that as important as water depth and current speed are, the right rocks will make or break a piece of water. By right rocks, I mean a mix of everything from pea gravel to a few car sized boulders and everything in between. The big rocks break the current and provide cover and ambush points. The nooks and crannies between the smaller stuff is perfect habitat for the baitfish, crawdads, nymphs, and insect larvae that build deep bodied, broad shouldered bass. Throw in a few large tree trunks and heavy branches hung up from previous yearsí floods, and itís almost hard to know where to put the fly fist. When I stepped into the top of that run for the first time last fall, I felt like a Labrador retriever turned loose at a kids tennis camp. Best of all, itís long. In the one full day I got on it last year, I was able to work my way down through only the upper half of it. If I really wanted to, I could easily swim to the other bank (where the dry land is posted) and double the mileage.
And there are fish there. Lots of fish. I got hits in all the places where you would expect and a few in places you wouldnít. Thatís always an indicator of particularly good water. There werenít any 4 pounders, or even any 3-plus pounders, but it was late in the season - not a big fish time of year in my experience - and I was fishing a surface fly in reasonably fast, cool water. At that late date with those temps, Iíd normally be swinging low and slow in seams near softer spots, but I have an almost unhealthy addiction to waking patterns and fish them even when I probably shouldnít. Iím thinking that in summerís lower, warmer flows, the bruisers will find their way out of the deep, slow water nearby and stack up in the more oxygen rich riffles, slots, and pockets of Val Halla. Iíve seen that enough elsewhere to know that itís at least a strong possibility.
Now that the ice is off (finally!), Iím daring to daydream about it. Flows wonít be good for probably another 6 weeks, possibly more, and I wonít have time to hit it before then anyway. May and early June are the silly season in my line of work. Right now in early April when itís still snowing and Iíve been off the water for five months, just knowing that itís there and thinking about how Iím going to fish it - out of bed by three AM, breakfast in the car, rig up by the dome light, first cast with the sun still below tree line - is the sweetest form of sweet anticipation. Really, is there anything better than knowing that your Val Halla is just sitting there, waiting to be fished? I worry sometimes that the reality will fall short of expectations. But that passes. My expectations are high enough that even if the reality does fall short, itís still going to be pretty damn good.
I know what Norman MacLean was getting at when he wrote, ďI am haunted by waters.Ē
"It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing"
- Duke Ellington