Hookless dry flies

As I progress with new skills, techniques, and fly patterns, I keep thinking about what fly fishing means to me.  Perhaps it’s a sign of growing maturity, reconsidering my previous assumptions and desires.  In the beginning it was all about catching fish.  For the first two years I mostly lost flies and the fish I caught per year could be counted in single digits.  Eventually I figured some things out, got more successful, started looking for bigger fish, then started looking at different species.  But while there is still much for me to learn, my perspective on fly fishing is changing.

I’ve come to realize that catching fish just isn’t the real goal anymore.  Some will recall Henry David Thoreau’s quote: “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”  For me, now, it rings very true.

I love being in water, be it a flowing river or a lake, feeling my inner blue heron, being still, moving slowly, observing, focused on seeing the next fish.  The world disappears, thoughts go away, there is only the moment.  The skills I worked long to acquire help me to present the fly, to move it like a natural insect, or to dart it around, to catch a fish’s attention.  These puzzle pieces require careful thought and a fairly precise execution.

Once a fish takes the fly, I bring it to the net as quickly as I can.  Barbless hooks make the release simple.  But after I’ve caught a few fish in the same manner and I feel like I figured out the pieces to the puzzle, I lose interest in the catching.  While sometimes I change flies to work on solving a different puzzle, other times I’m happy just to be in that place and time, fish not required.  A religious person might ask if God created fish for our enjoyment – to be hooked and yanked through the water.  Another might ask if it’s fair to further stress a fish that already spends its life fighting for survival from predators and dealing with environmental issues.  Paraphrasing Beth Dutton’s words, “does the fish really need the additional worry whether every floating bit might hook it, make it run for its life, just for someone’s idea of fun?”

After years of fishing with only barbless hooks, I am starting to use flies tied on half-hooks, without any sharp points.  A dry fly that is well presented will elicit a take, but the fish can spit the fly and go looking for another morsel.  Nymphing, my favorite way to fish, isn’t as rewarding, but with a tight line I can still feel the tug.  In either case there is no harm to the fish and I can enjoy my being in the water and solving puzzles.

Catch and release, keeping the fish wet, using barbless hooks, are all very important practices, and a lot has been written about them, see https://bit.ly/tufishcr.  But maybe we can do better, and stress the fish even less?  My personal perspective is shifting.  I want to continue enjoying all the wonderful things that fishing brought into my life, but not at the fish’s cost.  Take a pair of pliers and cut a few flies at the bend, you might enjoy the experience and not have to carry hemostats or a net!

Tom’s views are his own and don’t necessarily reflect the chapter’s. 

Hookless dry flies

I made plans to join my friend and board member Jim McGannon at Spinney for some lake fishing. Usually I pack the gear into the truck the evening prior, but for a variety of reasons I didn’t get to it until 7am. I loaded the tubes, the frame, the oars, the PFD, the gear bag that has the lake flies, a reel, etc. I double-checked the items that I’ve forgotten in the past, but didn’t consult my list — it was in a notebook on the frame, already in the truck… It wasn’t until about 8am, just as I was crossing over Trout Creek pass, that I realized that I didn’t pack my fly rod — a 6wt I keep in a PVC tube.

Jim often has a spare rod in his truck, so I wasn’t too worried. By the time I got to Spinney he was on the water, and so I followed my usual routine and rowed out some 200 yards off shore. There were a lot of boats, I wasn’t sure which one was Jim, and so I decided to simplify my fishing setup. I threaded a slip bobber onto a 20′ of 15lb Maxima, which I then attached to the end of the fly line. On the other side of the Maxima, the usual setup — a swivel, and 4′ of 12lb fluoro line, with overhand knots a foot apart. I tied on three flies, each on a 4′ dropper 4lb fluoro loop knot and laid it all out into the water. Water was fairly shallow, just 10′, so I set the bobber to keep the lowest fly a foot off the bottom. I then paid out 20′ of fly line, while rowing the pontoon I figured a rod is only useful for casting and for playing the fish. The part I just circumvented, and I hoped that all the years of playing fish on tenkara rod and then delicately hand-lining the fish in would be about same. The first fish that took was a 20″ rainbow. Beautiful fish, and it came to me very gently. I find that the gentler I tug on the fish, the less effort it is bring them in. My strategy was a bit lacking though, as my net was by my hand, and it got wrapped up in all the line that I brought in. I almost had the fish in the net, when it spooked, two of the flies got stuck in the net, the fish spat the third fly, and swam away…

Another half hour passed, and the slip bobber dipped! This fish was more of a fighter — I had to keep dumping the line of the reel as it ran, spinning my pontoon around, and even pulling me at times! I don’t know how long it took for me to bring it in — maybe 10 minutes? A beautiful fish appeared from the depths just between my feet — I knew it was close, as I was at the end of Maxima, but without a rod to direct the fish, I was rather at its mercy. It swam a few small circles, then I scooped it with the net. It was a 24″ fish, nice and heavy, with a kyped jaw. I was going to keep it for a 83 y/o friend who doesn’t get out to fish much anymore. A fish like this would make 7-8 dinners for him — cut into steaks, seasoned, and baked.

Alas, the catch-and-release is so ingrained in me that I leaned forward to keep the fish and the net in the water, and to untangle all the flies — those #18’s, wrapped around a big fish, stuck in the rubber net. I was doing well for about 30 seconds, when the fish summoned some last energy, flipped out of the net, and swam away! If I were a better “meat angler,” I would have strung it up right away and only then dealt with the hooks… But I was happy for the fish, it was a beautiful specimen :)

I had offered to stock any lakes that the usual chapter effort doesn’t cover — I enjoy hiking, and this has been a fun (and hopefully helpful) way to get a look at new places. This year I stocked four different lakes, from Monarch Pass to Hagerman Pass.

Arthur Lake is a beautiful lake near North Fork Reservoir. I had wanted to fish it for a few years, but always got distracted (or detained?) by some of the other lakes in that area. CPW had 700 golden trout to stock there, and I jumped at the chance. I rode my motorcycle to the North Fork Reservoir, crossed the dam, and took a bushwhack route to the lake. Along the way I naturally ended up on some game paths, by now covered with light snow. It was great to spot so many animal tracks, from rabbits and squirrels, through deer and elk, to bear! The bear tracks I spotted were pretty fresh, but I never saw any animals directly. Arthur Lake is beautiful, nestled in a bowl of rock, looking like an infinity pool — one shore opens up over the valley, merging with the color of the sky. A beautiful spot.

On my way back from Arthur Lake, I fished another body of water (you’ll have to discover it for yourself), and caught some nice cutthroats. Nothing over 14″, but all very pretty.

A few days later CPW had graylings to stock in both Pomeroy lakes. I had been eyeing an alternate route to those lakes, following the goat tracks over a ride from Billings Lake, and glassed it while I was at Arthur Lake. A storm moved through the area a few days prior to my trip, and there was another storm moving in. I thought I’d have enough time to ride my motorcycle back up to a few miles past North Fork Reservoir, hike up and over the ridge, stock the fish, and make my way back. Alas, that turned out to be an overly optimistic outlook. I had two sets of fish, with 700 graylings for the upper lake, and a 1,000 for the lower lake. CPW managed to fit them both into a single insulated bag, so that I could strap it more easily onto my bike. The road up was snowy — a lot more covered than I expected, and much slicker. My bike spun out from under me at least 5 times on the way up, and I got to a point where I could no longer ride it. I pushed it, driving it in first gear, the last quarter mile or so, to where the road to Billings Lake branches off. I parked the bike on the side of the road, and continued on foot. A mile or so later I realized the folly of my plan — the ridge was fairly snow covered, but most importantly the ridge I glassed earlier dropped off to Grizzly Lake. To get to the Pomeroys I’d have to get over a bit of a hump, and with the storm it just wasn’t a smart idea. Snowflakes were swirling in the air, thick storm clouds just over the ridge. I ended up turning around and walking back to the North Fork Reservoir.

Having discussed backup plans with CPW earlier in the day, I had the option of driving the fish back to the hatchery, or stocking them in North Fork Reservoir. I put all 1,700 graylings into the reservoir, where hopefully they will prosper and grow. I find it exciting that we’ll have another place to pursue them — I have never caught any graylings over 8″ out of Pomeroys :)

You can watch a movie of my attempt to reach the Pomeroy lakes below: