Tenkara Angler was nice enough to publish "Simple Things", a short piece written by Sam, in its latest issue. As always, the whole magazine is worth a read. You can check out the summer edition of Tenkara Angler here.
Tenkara Angler was nice enough to publish "Simple Things", a short piece written by Sam, in its latest issue. As always, the whole magazine is worth a read. You can check out the summer edition of Tenkara Angler here.
By Sam Larson
The rainbow trout wouldn’t start swimming again. I faced upstream, with the current washing up over the thighs of my waders. I cradled the trout in my left hand, nose into the slow current, but it kept turning over, refusing to stay upright. I nudged it back with my thumb, but it listed to one side, like a drunk. I nudged it back and it tipped the other way. I knelt down further into the river, pushing my chest pack to one side so I could hunker down lower and shuttle the trout back and forth in the current. I waited for the gill plates to flex, or the fins to take up their fan dance. I wanted this trout to push its way out of my hand and back into the river but it wouldn’t cooperate. It spent all of the fight and energy that it had in a hat trick of tail-walking lunges across the pool. My fly rod slipped from under my arm and splashed into the water, trailing loose line. I switched the fish between hands and picked up the rod, gripping it tightly under my arm. Here in a slow pool on the banks of a narrow creek, on my knees in the gravel of the stream bed, I’d much rather this fish survived.
I’m ten years old again, standing on the shores of Morrison Creek. I hoisted a flopping brookie in the air, watching it swing back and forth on the barbed treble hook buried deep in its mouth. “That’s a keeper!,” my dad said from the bridge. He hopped down and his shoes crunched in the gravel of the bank. “If you want to keep it you’re going to have to clean it.” He dug his Swiss Army knife out of his pocket and handed it to me, then walked off down the stream to check on my brothers. The fish flopped back and forth on the sandy bank where I laid it. I unfolded the big blade on the pocket knife. I’d seen my dad do this before. I was supposed to take this blade and slide it into the vent, the fish’s asshole my dad called it. Slide it in there and then pull it hard along the fish’s belly until I reaches the jaw. Then the guts would come out, a bare handful of intestines and slime. And then a palm full of grass in the fish’s belly to keep it smelling sweet on the walk home. The damp stream bank stained my blue jeans with dark smudges of sand as I knelt next to my fish.
I held the knife in one hand and tried grabbing the fish but it squirmed around, trailing a length of mono from the hook that’s still in its jaw. I started to get butterflies in my stomach, grabbing the fish and losing it, dropping it back to the gravel where it lay awkwardly, banging its tail and body along the rocks with a dark layer of sand and gravel plastered along its flanks. I needed it to stop squirming.
Once I stood by while my grandfather’s dog retrieved a pheasant, a barely injured bird that my grandfather took on the wing with his shotgun. The pheasant was very much alive when the black lab dropped it at my grandfather’s feet, not the usual limp mouthful of feathers that the dog brought back out of the brush. With a leather-gloved hand my grandfather grabbed the pheasant by the neck and spun the bird, trying to break its neck. The pheasant squawked and flapped even more. A second spin and then a third and the pheasant continued struggling and crying. Finally, swearing obscenely at the bird, my grandfather walked over to his truck, flipped the bird to grab its feet, and swung its head twice, sharply, against the chrome bumper. He gave it a shake just to make sure it was dead and then laid the bird in the bed of the pickup.
On the banks of Morrison Creek I lay down the pocket knife and grabbed the fish with both hands. Kneeling, I swung the fish at a softball-sized rock in front of me, trying for the same sharp, “smack!” I remembered from watching my grandfather. But the fish was slippery and I couldn’t hit the rock cleanly. I swung the fish three times and only hit the rock with a glancing blow. A deep panic settled into my stomach as I continued to come face-to-face with the gasping brook trout.
I was breathing hard. I kept looking over my shoulder, hoping that my dad would wander back out of the willows and solve this for me, but I knew he was down around the next bend with my younger brothers, likely putting worms back on hooks or untangling someone’s fishing line from the brush. I wanted this fish to stop gasping at me. I needed it to stop staring at me with its black, unblinking eye. I blamed my dad for taking me fishing, blamed myself for spending the week before the trip fantasizing about all the fish I planned on catching. For all the lies I told my school friends about fishing. I lay the fish down on a flat rock, and held the fishing line tight so the brookie can’t get away from me. I grabbed a fist-sized rock from the shore and, with my eyes closed, brought it down hard on the fish’s head. It jumped once and I started to cry. I smashed the rock down a second and third time, sobbing quietly. The brook trout wasn’t moving anymore. The fish was mangled, beaten and torn. Blood and fish skin were scraped and ground into the rock the fish lay on. I retched once when the knife blade caught behind the fish’s jaw, and a second time when I felt the gluey snap of its entrails coming free in my hand. I threw them into the willows and waded ankle deep into the river with the trout, rinsing it and my hands in the water.
But back in the present it wasn’t going to work out with my rainbow trout. I lifted the limp fish out of the water, and walked back to the bank where I laid the trout out in the grass. I removed my chest pack and hung it and my net on a nearby tree. I’m a believer in catch and release diligently, swallowing whole all the claims about fisheries management, about sustainability, about my responsibility to future anglers and the fate of wild fish. Somewhere, generations back, an ancestor, caught netting fish by the bushel to smoke, or store, or otherwise use as a crutch on the rugged path of survival, is swearing obscenely at my dilettantism, at the years I’ve spent perfecting a survival skill only to play at it. “Why do you catch them,” my brother asked once, “If all you want to do is make them late?” I pondered what others had told me, that a symbolic and periodic culling is necessary, ifonly to remind us of the blood and guts nature of what it is we’re doing out here on the water.
With the spine of my knife I cracked the trout sharply, twice, on the skull. It bucked and then went limp in my hand. The blade, sharper than my dad’s battered Swiss Army knife, slid into the fish’s belly and the job is done quickly. I pressed a scant fistful of torn grass into its belly, to keep it fresh like my dad always told me, and it’s ready to make the trip home tucked in my cooler, wrapped in newspaper stolen from a broken machine at the gas station.
I walk back to the car and somewhere behind me a a sniffling ten year old, red-eyed, with a seven-inch brook trout in an oversize creel, squelches heavily up a dirt road in black Converse All-Stars . I trailed behind my dad and brothers, listening to them talk about the minnows they caught, the average fish on Morrison Creek settling in below six inches, with dozens even smaller. While they chatted and bragged I slipped further behind, shyly sniffing the tips of my fingers and the clean trout smell I couldn’t wash off in the creek. The butterflies I felt before I cleaned my fish this afternoon take me 25 years back to the banks of Morrison Creek. Now there were hours left before sunset, a long piece of daylight left to fish and enjoy the river, but when I sat on the tailgate of my car I knew that my day was done. It was a good fish, and a good fight. The cast was clean, the strike was aggressive, and I played the trout as capably and quickly as I was able. I’ve been told to always end the day on a good fish, to make sure I left the water on a high note. The sun, tipping towards the horizon but nowhere near setting, slanted through the pine and aspen along the road. I hadn’t seen or heard another person all day, and the river was quick, bright, and cold, fresh from run off’s annual scrubbing. The scar from a forest fire snaked down the ridge opposite, with spindly burnt matchsticks standing every which way in a carpet or resurgent green. It was a good day, either here or on the banks of Morrison Creek.
By Sam Larson
That last sip of gas station coffee goes down smooth. It’s almost entirely hazelnut flavored creamer at this point, and little more than lukewarm, but I am loving it. Road trips have rules and the first, inescapable, and utterly important rule for my road trips is a large cup of coffee from the first gas stop on the route. Why, for God’s sake, gas station coffee? It’s not my lot to understand these things, dear friends. I’m encouraged, compelled if you will, by forces greater than myself to follow certain edicts to ensure a seamless road trip. I am ready to go for five, maybe eight hours depending on the quality and availability of on-the-road snacks, restroom breaks, and the all-important gas station coffee.
There are some important steps to make sure that my gas station coffee checks the required boxes. It’s always the small cup, since large cups have assumed the proportions of a thermos and what is described as small is still 16oz too much of sugar and caffeine. But it’s the small cup, filled three quarters of the way, with three flavored creamers. I prefer hazelnut but I’ll accept Irish Cream. French Vanilla is a creamer of last resort. A quick stir and I snap the lid on, running both thumbs around the rim to make sure that I don’t dump coffee in my lap while I’m on the road, something even seasoned road trip professionals are prey to. The first experimental sip is always at the condiment station in case I need to make any last minute adjustments, adding a fourth creamer, or evening out the excess sugar with an extra splash of coffee.
Up at our family cabin we had a commercial coffee urn until recently and my grandfather would brew a one-gallon pot of Yuban within half an hour of arriving. That coffee pot would sit on the burner for two or three days, each cup getting more syrupy and raw until it tasted like kerosene and so deeply bitter that you shivered with each swallow. But my grandfather kept drinking it, fifty years of coffee habits helping him through the bottom of the pot. The final cup was poured into his travel mug as he was cleaning and getting ready to leave. That final cup of coffee was totemic, a powerful ward against trouble on the road ahead. It sat in his cup holder, oily, dark, murderously bitter, with a thick scum of grounds at the bottom of the mug, rocking and swaying with every bump in the road. I never saw him drink it. It would sit untouched until we reached Kremmling or Steamboat Springs where it would get splashed out on the side of the road to be replaced with a fresh cup from the gas station. Because, as he still says, there’s nothing like a fresh cup of coffee.
Rituals being what they are, I still abide by gas station coffee when it comes to road trips. I may have the rod cases and waders heaped in the back of the car, I may even have remembered to pack clean clothing and sunscreen, but the real road trip, the part where you’re not just turning out miles on an interstate but charting a path to absolution, or enlightenment, or the kind of free-rambling conversation that underlies the best fishing friendships, doesn’t start until I get that first cup of gas station coffee. 7-11 is the best since they tend to have the freshest pots, though I’ll accept a Conoco. On a truly long haul on the interstate Loves reigns supreme, though TA can get me through. Nameless small town gas stations are iffy. I’ll blame it on questionable coffee freshness, inattentive attendants, and the side-eyed stare you get from locals in a failing mountain town that’s strayed a few decades past its mining glory days. And while the ever-encroaching forces of Starbucks ensure that we’ll never stray too far from our caramel-flavored, $5-per-cup comfort zones I prefer not to frequent them unless there’s no alternative.
Give me a foam cup of gas station coffee, three hazelnut creamers, and a playlist of road trip sing-along favorites and I’m ready to go, a madly spinning human maelstrom of caffeine and barely contained excitement for the road ahead. The rod cases clatter with each one-handed, coffee-gulping turn through the canyons and as I tip the last syrupy sip of coffee from the bottom of the cup I know that it’s going to be a good day.
There’s no real gray area about fishing in town. You tend to either love it (well, maybe be ok with it. Love is a strong term), or you hate it. It’s a difficult position to find yourself in, knowing that you may have great fishing in town but that the surroundings definitely won’t be the pristine river environment that you prefer on the weekends. But when it comes to squeezing in a couple of mid-week hours after work? It’s hard to ignore that stream running through downtown. I particularly like that on summer mornings, before the heat and the tubers, and the kids, and the dogs find the river that I can go there just about dawn. It’s quiet, no cars and no people. And there’s this beautiful creek right in town, filled with feeding trout.
We’re lucky that we have such good fishing in town. It means that getting into a few trout on the way home is as easy as pulling out into almost any city park and dropping a line in. The creeks and streams of the Front Range aren’t necessarily hidden gems. There are those as well, but a lot of the local stuff are the same waterways that curve through the grass alongside the city soccer fields, or link green space within the urban sprawl.
I’m an advocate for fishing in town but even I’ll admit that there are distinct downsides to the practice. You’re rarely ever alone, especially in Boulder where the Boulder Creek Path provides a convenient way for you and a few hundred others to access the creek banks. And you’ll likely spend more time than you’d like explaining what you’re doing to curious walkers, cyclists, and kids. That gentleman leaning over the bridge above you will almost surely ask if you’re catching anything. And that pack of children will insist on wandering straight into your back cast. And then there’s the trash, a woefully large amount of trash that people toss into and around city waterways. But all of that stuff isn’t bad, it’s just a part of it. Well, the trash is pretty bad. But the rest of it? It’s just part of the scene. Fishing beaver ponds means stinking muck and tamarisk. Fishing in town means people all around you. It doesn’t change the essence of the thing, there are still loads of trout and you still get to cast to them. Think of it as doing your part to increase fly fishing awareness and bring to someone’s attention that the creek they rollerblade along every morning is a living, breathing thing that is full of life despite your community’s best efforts to ruin it. Most of the time the people I speak to have no idea that there’s fish in Boulder Creek, or that it’s one of the better local rivers.
I like fishing in town because it removes the sense that fishing, specifically fly fishing, is precious, rare, something that you need to crawl up your own ass about. It can be all of those things if you’re off at an expensive lodge, or you’ve trekked miles and miles to get to a lonely high alpine lake. But it can also be the stuff of daily activity, the kind of basic feeding of the soul that we all engage in when we find a path for it. There’s no need to save up your time on the water for an epic, cleansing stay on wild waters far from home. Pull over, get your gear out of the trunk, and spend an hour, maybe two, amidst the joggers and the cyclists, the kids running through the parks. Get used to the sound of traffic on the bridge as you cast to the seams trailing from the pylons. There’s still the river. Fish awhile, leave behind what you can of your day, and go home refreshed. It’s that simple.
By Sam Larson
I prefer a chest pack. I find vests to be jangly and complicated, and since I have a strong dose of Boy Scout-style preparedness running through my veins if you give me enough pockets I'm likely to fill them with something, whether I need it or not. And I find hip packs to be irksome, since I always have to spin them around my waist to get what I want. So I prefer a chest pack, where everything is handy and right where I can find it. It also places a firm limit on what I'm capable of hauling along with me, a limitation that I seem to need.
My stand-by has been the Fishpond San Juan chest pack. Tenkara Bum had some pictures and a write up about this pack a while ago and it suited my needs, especially after I modified it with a padded neck strap and a custom tippet reel. But three seasons of hard use will wear down any pack, and the hard limit on capacity meant that I had more than a few trips where I didn't have the room to carry the food or water I needed for a full day and got back to the car a shell-shocked mess of dehydration and low blood sugar.
Enter the Umpqua Rock Creek Zero Sweep Chest Pack. I went for the model that included the integrated backpack/hydration pack. I'm not a huge fan of enumerating all of the details in a review, so you can read Umpqua’s description here. I'll stick to the pros and cons as I’ve seen them.
It's slightly larger than the San Juan and offers a bit more organization. The open slash pockets on the front are quite nice and store leaders, indicators, tenkara line spools, etc., handily. It also holds two large fly boxes, features two internal pockets (one with a zipper), two external mesh pockets, and has an internal key ring. Fun fact: the material isn’t necessarily waterproof, but is highly water resistant. So if someone, for instance, dips their chest pack in the water while trying to release a fish these same open slash pockets will fill to the top and you’ll carry that water around until you reach in and find out that everything is soaked.
It has a good amount of structure. I like that it stays open and doesn't smash flat, which makes getting in and out of the bag easy.
The four-point harness is great. This alone is a significant improvement over the San Juan chest pack. Once you get it adjusted it’s a very comfortable all-day pack.
The hydration pack is the bee’s knees. I wish that it came with a retention clip for the bladder hose, but I can add that without any issue. I anticipate much fishing while still having an adequate amount of water to drink. It also has an integrated net hook and a couple of gear ladders on the sides for any extra stuff you think you may need. It is not a large pack, and I think you'd be hard pressed to get more than the hydration bladder, a raincoat, and a couple of sandwiches in there.
The Zero Sweep tool docks are really pretty cool and do tuck a lot of gear out of the way, reducing tangles and complications, as well as a lot of the swinging, jangly gear noise that I associate with vests. They also hold a Fishpond 360 Swivel retractor inside the chest pack if you prefer that kind of action over a normal retractor.
The tippet holder is a pain. It works, it holds tippet, and it's easy to reach, but it sits directly beneath the Zero Sweep forcep dock and the tippet reels and forceps tend to get caught up in each other. The tippet holder seems like it would work better if you carried four or more reels. I only carry two and they tend to get smashed sideways instead of standing up straight.
The Zero Sweep docks are finicky. The tool docks on the sides of the pack do keep your tools tucked cleanly out of the way. But the edges of the docks catch on the tools and they don't always hide away cleanly. If you just bump them with your fingertip then they settle all the way back into the dock, but it's a little odd to have to keep doing it when this is supposed to be the defining feature of the bag.
The forcep dock is fabulous as well, but you need to have exactly the right forceps. My long-time favorite Orvis forceps do not work with the Rock Creek pack. Well, they work but they’re kind of a hassle. They are too short, so you need to bury them in the forcep dock which then covers the handle, and they have an integrated barb smasher which gets caught on the edge of the forcep dock. All this means I need to get some new forceps, which is a small price to pay for the clean and uncluttered storage that the Zero Sweep forcep dock offers.
I like this bag a lot. It is different than my old chest pack, and I did lament changing packs the first day that I used the Rock Creek, but I've since gotten the wrinkles ironed out. If it were only for the addition of the hydration pack the Rock Creek chest pack would have been a worthwhile purchase, but the superior organization, Zero Sweep tool docks, and four-point harness add even more value to the pack.
The honest truth about this fly is that I stole the pattern from Jeff, who either invented it or modified it, I can’t remember. I contributed almost nothing to the development of this pattern, except for the name, the erroneous pedigree, and the verbal abuse I offered up to Jeff whenever he was catching fish on it and I wasn’t.Read More
When I picked up a Western rod again I told myself that I’d be willing to settle for bare competence.Read More
When I was a kid I used to put on my raincoat and matching yellow plastic pants and go sit on the front porch when it rained. Every thunderstorm would find me sitting on the milkbox looking out at the falling rain. It made me feel alone, tough and self-reliant, to know that I was out of doors while everyone else stayed inside and watched the rain stream down their windows.Read More
My first fly tying vise came from a kit. It was terrible. I bought it, even knowing that I would hate it, because at the time, when my life felt like it was falling apart and things around me were lacking in sense, I needed something to grab ahold of. I’ve always fallen back on using my hands to get through the hard times.Read More
I cultivate a fly tying lifestyle of carefully curated panic. Last year’s trip to Steamboat Springs, when I was supposed to be on the road at 5am? I was up at three, in a stone-cold panic, tying as many foam beetles as I could before I had to leave. Last minute trips to the fly shop for essential materials are a matter of course, and hot-blooded tying sessions the night before I leave, or in the pre-dawn gloom, are almost a requisite part of any trip.Read More
I remember the way the swell of cork nestled perfectly into my left hand. I remember giving the rod that was going to become My Rod a pointless, ceremonial wiggle to see how it would cast. And I’m sure I squirrelled up my face so the salesman would recognize me as a savvy angler. Later I would learn how utterly perfect it felt when the line loaded that thing just right; it was my first brush with magic.Read More
By the time I return to the cabin I am dead tired. It’s all I can do to get my boots and waders off, gulp down some food, and then collapse into the bed, a mess of sweat, mosquito bites, and sunscreen. I caught fish despite myself, and a full day’s worth of jumping brookies fills my head, individual fish blurring into a long montage of strikes and releases.Read More
You’d found an unconvincing, fifteen-year-old report that there were golden trout in the lake, so after dinner, you hike down to the shoreline where you see intermittent rises blinking like radar pings.Read More
“Just wait,” another angler called without looking away from their indicator. “In another two hours there’ll be forty-five, maybe fifty people standing here.” And so it goes on Joe Wright Reservoir, where the inlet is off-limits until July 1st, and the grayling spawn draws crowds of anglers eager to stand shoulder-to-shoulder while a veritable herd of fish stampedes upstream, deep in the throes of piscine lust.Read More
It’s the kind of place where, if you start early enough—bringing well-bagged peanut butter sandwiches and full water bottles—you won’t have to leave the water until it’s almost too dark to find the cabin again. On days like this, a small group of anglers can catch so many trout between them that good-natured competition quickly gives way to gleeful confusion.Read More
Streamlined and minimalist, my Blue-Winged Olives are impressionistic, a sketchy rendering of the barest outlines of an insect: hackle, body, and tail with no fisherman-pleasing upright wing to complicate the pattern.Read More
I like to imagine that Captain Nemo would have been a fly fisherman. That he would have stood on the deck of the Nautilus swinging streamers for kraken on windless, starlit nights. After dinner, in his stateroom, he would have tied intricate deer hair flies by candlelight, carving sculpted diver-style heads with a straight razor, and whispering madly to the flies about the monstrous jaws they would eventually meet.Read More
I’ve just fallen into the river. Perched one-footed on top of a slick rock and trying to cast into the deep part of the pool was too much for my boot’s aging tread. I’ve just splashed, magnificently, inelegantly, completely, into neck deep water. A quick, gasping lunge towards the bank and I toss my rod into the willows, rip open my chest pack, and throw my phone onto the grass.Read More
The pile of fleece on the floor stirs as Baxter begins to unfold himself from his blanket fort. I say, “My, what big teeth you have.” But he shakes himself awake in a manner that indicates he is a dog, and doesn’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.Read More
The spillway of the Lake Estes dam is choked with chunks of blue-white ice. Up the valley and over the roofs of Estes Park proper, the Continental Divide is knife-sharp against the cloudless Colorado sky: stark, jagged, and cloaked in snow.Read More