Monday, November 24, 2008

Fooled Myself, Again

I tend to trust my instincts when I'm out birding, but the mind does play occasional tricks, often getting the better of me.  It happens often enough; a flash of color or the shape of a wing as it disappears into a grove of trees seems unfamiliar, somehow, or wrong - I can't quite put it into words but I feel compelled to take a second look.  Usually I end up chasing down a song sparrow, a pleasant, familiar bird with a boisterous song that I see or hear almost every time I step outside with my binoculars.  This is a part of the program: knowing all the ins and outs of the relatively common birds is essential to make any headway into the rarities you might encounter.  The more you know the song sparrows, red-tailed hawks and herring gulls, the more likely you are to take a second look at that unassuming lincoln's sparrow, distant soaring rough-legged hawk or iceland gull.  

I went out the Wachusett Reservoir yesterday, ostensibly to scout it and a nearby river for future fishing expeditions.  Wachusett is a pretty big lake north of Worcester, and it has virtually no development along its shores and is closed to boats, swimming or wading.  It does allow fishing from much of its shore, and has healthy populations of lake trout, smallmouth bass and landlocked salmon, along with a few brown trout and other fish here and there.  I had a short hike in from one of the entry gates and to my delight found that much of the shore would accommodate a fly rod.  Whether I might dredge up a fish here and there is another story.  

As I walked along the shore in a very cold, stiff wind, I saw a loon.  I immediately assumed it to be a common loon, though from the very first I was struck by how light it seemed.  I got my binoculars on it and thought that the bill looked awfully bright and yellowish, sandy even.  I wondered about yellow-billed loons.  I watched it for a little while, thinking to get out my Sibley's Guide and check out the diagnostic elements and the ranges, but somehow I just didn't get that excited about it and continued on my hike.  

After watching a paranoid group of hooded mergansers and a soaring bald eagle I left the lake and drove over to check out the Quinapoxet River, which empties into Wachusett.  I saw a couple trout swimming along in the startlingly clear water and scoped out the runs, riffles and rocks for likely spots a trout might hang.  Then I drove home.   

Eventually, I remembered to check out the loons in my Sibley Guide.  This is where my head got, well, creative.  I saw that big yellow bill.  I thought I remember the shape of the bill being somewhat upturned as in a yellow-billed.  That lighter, sandy color really spoke volumes to me. I remembered noticing the eye of the bird significantly, and saw that on the yellow-billed it was more separated from the darker colorations of the head.  I thought back and said to myself that it was a really, really big bird, maybe even bigger than the common loon's gargantuan dimensions.  Of course, I saw that the yellow-billed loon would have been a find of great rarity for Massachusetts, though not unheard of in the great lakes region (though still very, very rare).  

But any birder who pays attention knows that crazy things happen, and every year some nutty Moroccan Fish-eating Cassowary finds itself on the top of a flagpole in Government Center in downtown Boston.  I have to admit to myself that my ego played some role in this; I thought how cool it would be to find something like that and give the head's up to the New England birding community.  First I had to confirm the find.  I couldn't get it out of my head, so I drove back this morning.

I quickly found the bird, a friendly common loon in his winter plumage, sporadically diving, preening and loafing about.  It's possible that I did see a yellow-billed loon yesterday, and today saw a completely different bird; I put the odds about one in ten million.  

Anyway, I enjoyed watching the bird.  Loons are comparatively personable for birds; they don't seem very alarmed by our presence and even seem to enjoy keeping an eye on us in a generally curious, relaxed manner.  We followed each other along a nice stretch of shore for a couple hundred yards or so before I turned back.  

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Some Flies I Tied

I thought that maybe I'd share a few examples of my latest endeavors at tying flies, a particular few that I'm fond of for one reason or another.  I have to say that if I ever found that I couldn't fish I would miss having a reason to tie these things, and perhaps I'd go ahead and do it anyways once in a while.
This is a Green Damsel, an impressionistic imitation of a damselfly nymph.  This would be a good general searching fly for lakes and ponds.
This is a Stimulator, a big bushy imitation of a stonefly, though it would do for a grasshopper in a pinch.  A good fly for getting a big splash from a big trout.
The ever-popular Pheasant-tail Nymph, a good match for many small mayfly nymphs, particularly the ever-present blue-winged olives.
An Olive Scud, a sort of freshwater shrimp.  Good for weed beds in lakes and slow stream pools.
The giant killer, a Bead-head Squirrel-Tail Nymph.  This one caught my brown trout last weekend.
The Mosquito, a personal favorite.  I hope to catch a giant bluegill on this next Summer.

Monday, November 10, 2008

My first trout on a fly in 10 years

I went up to the Nissitissit River today to do a spot of fly fishing.  It was a perfect fall day, maybe a little late in the year for indian summer but very nice nonetheless, in the low fifties with a modest breeze and a cool, bright sun staggered with erratic racks of clouds.  After I entered the woods I couldn't quite decide whether to leave my sunglasses on or off, and so they went on, then off, then on, then off throughout the morning.  The water was clear and low for the most part, showing the muted colors of the stream bed: golden, quavering yellow beds of sand, flinty gray outcrops of rock, dark green trailing beds of aquatic plants and clear brown water stained of a million decaying leaves.  

I fished a stretch that winds through a Massachusetts  wildlife management area, and though it was far from any reasonable standard of wilderness, once I was on the water I saw nobody else, I heard no cars, I heard no planes.  Which was nice, especially as it had been awhile since I fly-fished a river for trout, and being a self-conscious sort of person I appreciated the seclusion to practice my art.  I was rusty, definitely, having trouble with my back-cast snagging in the omnipresent overhanging branches, losing track of my slack line pooling at my knees, throwing knots amidst my fly, weight and strike indicator, fumbling with knots, dragging my nymph unnaturally through the water, making unnecessary false casts over skittish fish; you get the picture.  But it was very pleasant and peaceful despite several moments of frustration.  

I even caught something.  I fully expected to get shut out, but after about an hour I fished up through a short stretch of pocket water and hooked a beautiful, 14 inch brown trout.  It took a size 14 beadhead squirrel-tail nymph, a nifty little fly.  It jumped several times, coming downstream, almost running through my legs as I frantically tried to strip in the excess line, but somehow the hook stuck firm and I recovered to quickly pull it into my hands.  I let it go after a second or two of appreciation for its beauty (this was a catch-and-release only stretch of river).  

There is a powerful spell in fishing. Being out on the water, amidst nature, near to something as unknowable and mysterious as this underwater world, an ecology apart, yet engaged with the activity of knowing something of this place, confronting it, interacting with it, is a deeply rewarding activity that prods at many parts of our psyches (for some of us, at least; I know plenty of people endlessly bored by fishing).  Our curiosity and wonder at the endlessly intricate and varied workings of the planet. Our culture, the traditions, stories, strategies and tools that we develop to survive.  

In these crazy modern days I think it gives us something like a correction, a reestablishing of basic connections with nature and survival that we evolved with, yet have grown to a place where they are largely hidden from daily life (though still essentially there). For most people, in this culture at least, it has grown into an art form, a recreation, a philosophy rather than any kind of essential activity of survival. In myself, I'm afraid that the post-modern state of fishing has led me to some ethical uncertainties.  When I was younger I pretty much bought into the whole 'catch and release' philosophy, which to be fair is an essential management tool for preserving a resource like trout from the ongoing pressure of an awful lot of recreational fishermen.  But though there are different opinions regarding a trout's perception of pain,  it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are putting these living creatures through an unpleasant ordeal just for our own fun, and putting them at some risk of life as well from injury or exhaustion.  I guess I think that fishing for food is really more acceptable, as long as the habitat can support it.  

It's kind of like my thinking regarding zoos. From a reserved, rational perspective, I disapprove of the capture and incarceration of these animals just for our own amusement, yet the impact they can have on children's hearts and minds is enormous, and for many city kids, the only way they have to easily experience something of the natural world that takes them away from the little they know and encounter in their daily lives.  

Fishing did something like that for me when I was young, and it still does something important for me now.  Exactly what, I'm not sure.  I just know that I'm not ready to give it up.   I'm not too greedy; I'm usually satisfied with just an hour or two of fishing, and if I catch my dinner in the first half-hour, well, there are other things I can do with my time after that.  After all, I've usually got my binoculars with me; I can always go birdwatching.  

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Childhood Voting Woes

When I was seven years old, my class at school had a mock election. This was in 1976, and the candidates were Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. Before we actually filled out our ballots we milled around talking about who we were going to vote for. I remember that most of my friends, most of the boys, period, were vocal supporters of Ford. I pretty much ran with the current, proclaiming my decision to vote Ford to anybody who asked.

When the time came to make our final decision, I checked the box for Jimmy Carter. I remember nothing of my reasoning, why I needed to vote contrary to prevailing opinion when I knew absolutely nothing of substance on the candidates or issues. But I checked Carter and slyly, I thought, folded over the piece of paper and waited to drop it into the basket that the teacher was passing around.

A girl who sat behind me, and I don't remember her name but she was big and had tightly-wound pigtails with brightly-colored berets, leaned forward and said "I saw you, you voted for Carter."

I turned and looked at her. "I did not," I said.

She looked around and said, louder, so others could hear, "He voted for Carter!" I just shut up then and turned back to the front and didn't say anything else, hoping that she wouldn't bring any more attention to my political sympathies, my deceit, or my cowardice.

And what is the moral of this story? Well, in the immortal words of Homer Simpson: "There's no moral to the story. It's just some stuff that happened."

Sunday, November 02, 2008

A return to an old obsession

I have been overcome, for the moment, with an obsession from my past - fly-fishing and fly-tying.  When I was in high school and for some time into college, fly-fishing occupied a pretty big chunk of my brain, along with the Clash, H.P. Lovecraft's horrors from outer space and  whatever crazed psycho I was playing in the ongoing Dungeons and Dragons campaign.  Girls came later, mostly; I was a late bloomer in that department.  I spent many an hour during class letting my mind drift along, thinking of mayflies and trout, windswept meadow streams of Idaho, my nimble 4-weight fly-rod connected to a yellow humpy or hare's ear nymph.  I wrote wholly imagined stories about getting tangled up with big lunkers that got away and spent hours in the basement poring over books full of fly patterns and tying them up as best I could.  My specialty was the 'western' Adams, which took a standard Adams pattern and replaced the hackle tail with moose hair.  
We, my dad and I, fished mostly in the West during this time; apart from an unsuccessful trip into Pennsylvania and two trips to Michigan (the Pere Marquette, where we got bageled, and the AuSable, which was very nice) all of our fly-fishing for trout took us close to or west of the continental divide.  We fished the upper Green in Wyoming, the Henry's Fork in Idaho, Henry's Lake in Idaho, the Roaring Fork and the Frying Pan in Colorado, the Bow in Alberta, the Brooks in Alaska, the Deschutes in Oregon...I can't remember all the spots (we may have fished the Umpqua, also in Oregon, but mostly I remember the first truly gourmet meal I ever had there at the Steamboat Inn - and of that I mostly only remember that the main course was lamb).  
Once I got a bit older and went off to college and did some traveling of my own, I developed a taste for high-country fishing while camping and backpacking in the Uinta mountains of Utah and the Cascade Range in Oregon.  Though not the most difficult or technical fishing in the world, I just loved watching little brookies snapping at my fly in a high-altitude lake, and then eating them, dusted in flour and fried. 
Anyway, life and my crazy mind drifted along and leap-frogged to other things, birdwatching, songwriting, novel-writing, work, relationships, cooking, snorkling, fiddle-playing, what have you.  Over the years I only made fitful attempts to get back into fly-fishing - a trip to the outer banks of North Carolina to try some saltwater fishing (a miserable failure, at fishing that is - otherwise I enjoyed myself) and a couple of days on the Beaverkill in New York - great fun but very modest success (two or three 10 inch trout on a hare's ear).  And for the last 8 years or so I've gotten up to the Lake of the Woods in Western Ontario for a week or so's Summer vacation, to swim, read, visit with family and also to do some spin-casting and jigging for Smallmouth Bass, Northern Pike and Walleye.  
The last couple of summers we've gotten out my dad's seven-weight fly rod and done some casting, with pretty decent success with the bass and the pike.  I guess it's taken a while, but it's been sneaking up on me and now I find myself tying every week, brushing up with some of my trout books (reading the water, rigs and tactics for trout, essential trout flies, etc) and researching local waters.  Apparently, there are some nice ones.  Closest to home, about an hour away, is the Nissitissit, which I went out to see today.  I didn't fish, as I haven't gotten my license yet and wasn't sure conditions would be right this late in the season, but a local fly-shop proprietor (Charlie of the Evening Sun Fly Shop in Pepperell - an excellent shop and a knowledgeable host) told me that it can still be fished up until early or mid-December.  So I just might get out in the next few weeks.  If not, well, I'll continue daydreaming and tying flies until Spring.  Or perhaps I'll get sidetracked and start playing Dungeons and Dragons again instead.

Pictures are: Above:  The Nissitissit River.  Below:  The last of the fall colors, the mighty oak.  A muddler minnow I just tied.  A few woolly buggers I tied this week.