“Super Bow”

June 4, 1964

I adjusted my wader suspenders and looked back at my truck, trying to remember if I had locked it earlier. Pretty sure that I had, I slipped into my vest and picked up my rigged bamboo stick, a 9’ Dry Fly Special by the Detroit rod maker, Paul Young. It was set up with my Pflueger Medalist reel and an old, level fly line I had oil-dressed lightly before leaving home. My intrepid companion, a black Lab named Bozo, sat squirming nearby, his actions urging me to hurry.

Our short hike through the small stand of Ponderosa pine was one we had made many times. We were headed for what had become my favorite section of the upper Williamson River several miles north of Chiloquin, Oregon. When we reached the lush, grassy banks of the river, the sun was just coming up, but not yet dancing on the river. My timing was good. Or, was it? I was there to hopefully be a part of the upper Williamson’s famed Black Drake spinner fall, but I saw no evidence of that activity. In fact, I saw no flying bugs or rising fish at all. Even Bozo scanned the air for signs of insects, but saw none.

Bozo Thinking?

Discouraged, I secured a #12 Renegade to my leader and stepped into the clear waters of the Williamson. Following a couple of false casts, I dropped the dry fly near the opposite bank at the beginning of a bubbling eddy. The fly swirled around and set out on its float along the foamy track, while I mended line quickly to offset drag. The fly bobbed along proudly, sitting high in the surface tension There were no takers. I had hooked a number of chubby rainbows at that particular spot in the past, so I picked up and false-casted briefly and, once again, presented the fly at the vortex’s beginning. Just as the Renegade found the surface this time, I saw the silvery flash well below the fly. Rejection! Bozo glared at me, making it worse.

I hadn’t seen the fish well, but the flash made me think I should give him another try at the Renegade. After a half-dozen more attempts through the frothy run, I stepped out of the river and sat on the grass. I needed time to think. Bozo sat down beside me, possibly deep in thought, too.

I closed my eyes and relived a spinner fall I had experienced on this very date the year before. It was madness! Do you remember the “I Love Lucy” television show episode when Lucy and her girl-pal Ethel Mertz get jobs packing chocolates in the candy factory? The chocolates are coming down the conveyor belt faster and faster, overwhelming the girls. Funny stuff, and that’s the way it had been on June 4, 1963!

Like chocolates speeding down a conveyor belt, it was hard trying to keep up with the Black Drake spinner fall that memorable day. The fall lasted for more than hour. Wading in only two feet of the river, the colorful red sides were unaware of me, often sucking in a dying spinner just inches from my legs. I lost count of the number of rainbows hooked, landed and released in that 70 or so minutes of chaos. I fished like I never fished before or since, trembling with excitement, while Bozo cheered and danced on the grassy streamside.

But, today, just one year later was to be different. Fascinating, but different.

The Black Drake adults never showed up. I returned to the river and tried the Renegade again. I landed and released four ‘bows in the next couple of hours. None were notable, and Bozo was not impressed. Then, to end my morning, I hooked up with a sizeable fish.

He was not happy with his predicament. He rolled twice on the surface and sped away downstream, me and Bozo in pursuit. As he gained line, I left the river, finding my chase easier on terra firma. He found a deep section in the river near the far bank and, shaking his head, he bore to the bottom of the hole. I had seen the unmistakable red stripe along his chunky body when he rolled, but he was acting like his cousin, the German brown. He fought me for 10 long minutes in that deep water, letting me know of his displeasure. I loved him, nicknaming him “Super Bow” as I struggled with him.

Finally, after a total of about 20 minutes, I slid my hand net under him. I left him in the net in the river as I carefully removed the fly from his jaw. He was beautiful. He was not the largest rainbow I had ever landed, but he was the prettiest. He was about 24 inches long, with a bright red band down his plumpish body. He had obviously never missed a meal. He was what I would call an athlete….and a good old boy.

“I should take you home and eat you, Super Bow,” I said out loud. I was only kidding, but as I slipped my hand under his ample belly to release him, he looked up – and I swear – he smiled at me! I chuckled and lowered the net in the river, letting him slip back into his precious habitat.

Bozo and I walked slowly back to the truck. We were happy. We never saw one darned Black Drake, but we had shared something kind of special that day.


Polly, Me and DMSO

Ernest  Herbert “Polly” Rosborough, the skillful nymph innovator, was born in Arkansas in 1902 and eventually moved to Oregon in 1958.  When I met him in 1963, Polly lived alone in a rental house near Chiloquin, Oregon.  The farm-style wooden structure, probably dating back to the early 1900’s, was located on Highway 62, hard on Upper Klamath Lake.

He called me out of the blue and invited me to his home following a fly tying demonstration I had done at a Rotary Club luncheon where I lived in Klamath Falls, Oregon.  Polly had not been at the demonstration, but someone had given him my telephone number.  I agreed to a meeting at his home at 10am the following morning, a Saturday.

The meeting was strange.  My wife, Mary Lou, and I showed up at Polly’s place at the appointed time.   After visiting with Mary Lou like she was a long-lost friend for about 30 minutes, he took off his shirt, sat down at his tying table and asked me to rub some liquid DMSO* into his left shoulder and upper arm.  Polly suffered from bursitis, a painful trouble for someone hunched over a fly tying vice for hours on end.  He had me “doctor” him with this unusual treatment often during our association.

The DMSO gave him some instant relief.  Because of its penetrating powers and chemical makeup, it left me with the strong aftertaste of garlic or spoiled oysters in my mouth!

Polly donned his shirt and gave us an hour-long demonstration of his tying skills.  He was a slight, balding man in his early-60s, who wore strong reading glasses when he tied.  His hands were his exceptional feature.  His fingers were quite long and slender.  The nimble fingers literally danced along the hook shank as the fly took shape.  Mary Lou and I were in awe.

Following the exhibition, Polly turned to me and said, “I have some large orders from Orvis.  Do you think you could tie the patterns you just watched me tie?”

I said something stupid like, “Maybe….with your help.”   He invited me to sit at his tying table, and carefully helped me tie the Muskrat, one of his famous fuzzy nymphs.  When he was satisfied with my work, he scurried about his house gathering up a large supply of hooks and materials for the pattern.  Placing them in a plastic bag, he handed the hooks and materials to me and said, “Here’s what you’ll need for the Muskrat Nymph.  Tie me up 36 dozen, size 10, and include one extra.  I’ll pick one randomly and dismantle it with a pen knife to make sure you’ve tied them well.”

“Crap”, I thought to myself, “433 flies.  That’ll take me forever!”   My association with “Polly” Rosborough, my new mentor, had begun.


*DMSO is Dimethyl sulfoxide, a chemical resulting from the wood pulping process.  With a low toxicity, DMSO has the property of penetrating the skin instantly, acting as a topical analgesic.  The compound is used today in many areas, including the freezing and preservation of embryonic and hematopoietic stem cells.

Why Do You Fly Fish?

Why do you fly fish?

If you asked this question of 100 fly fishermen, you’d get 100 different answers.  Each of us has a unique motive, yet, I wager that none of the responders would reply, “ Because I like to catch fish”.

While “catching fish” is the obvious result we are all looking for, fly fishing aficionados seem to offer up elaborate reasons for their devotion.  Authors of books and articles on the subject seem particularly prone to these abstract descriptions.  I’ve read a lot of them.  My favorite – because it is closest to my feelings – was written by Robert Traver.

Robert Traver was the pseudonym of John Donaldson Voelker, a lawyer, a prosecuting attorney and, in his later years, a justice in the Michigan Supreme Court.  He authored several books, some with legal themes and some on fly fishing.  His most important book on the law was the best-selling courtroom drama, “Anatomy of a Murder”, which became an Oscar-nominated movie directed by Otto Preminger and starring James Stewart.

Travers’ book, “Trout Madness”, is a collection of short stories.  It is mytrout_madness1 favorite.  In this book, Traver wrote: 

“Successful fly fishing for trout is an act of high deceit; not only must the angler lure one of nature’s subtlest and wariest creatures, he must do so with something that is false and no good – an artificial fly. Thus fake and sham lie at the heart of the enterprise. The amount of Machiavellian subtlety, guile, and sly deception that ultimately becomes wrapped up in the person of an experienced trout fisherman is faintly horrifying to contemplate.”

In his book, “Anatomy of a Fly Fisherman”, Mr. Traver offers up his reason for being a fly fisherman, his “Testament of a Fisherman”:

“I fish because I love to; because I love the environs where trout are found, which are invariably beautiful, and hate the environs where crowds of people are found, which are invariably ugly; because of all the television commercials, cocktail parties, and assorted social posturing I thus escape; because, in a world where most men seem to spend their lives doing things they hate, my fishing is at once an endless source of delight and an act of small rebellion; because trout do not lie or cheat and cannot be bought or bribed or impressed by power, but respond only to quietude and humility and endless patience; because I suspect that men are going along this way for the last time, and I for one don’t want to waste the trip; because mercifully there are no telephones on trout waters; because only in the woods can I find solitude without loneliness; because bourbon out of an old tin cup always tastes better out there; because maybe one day I will catch a mermaid; and, finally, not because I regard fishing as being so terribly important but because I suspect that so many of the other concerns of men are equally unimportant – and not nearly so much fun.”

Yeah, that’s kinda like I feel….

I had just finished loading what seemed like half my possessions into my truck when my friend Chuck Robbins pulled into my driveway in his pickup.  Chuck nodded a “good morning” and quickly transferred his gear from his truck to mine.   It was 3 a.m., and I was still trying to convince my body that going back to bed was not an option.

Suddenly, we were off!  From high in the Idaho Panhandle, our route took us south to Coeur d’Alene, east on Interstate 90 to Missoula, Montana, then south and back into Idaho on U.S. Route 93, to the small town of North Fork, Idaho.  We were headed to the Salmon River, and we no longer felt sleep-deprived.  Now, we were stoked!

FR 30 Near Corn Creek

FR 030 Near Corn Creek

A journey to the River of No Return is on our calendar every August, where Corn Creek Campground becomes our home-away-from-home for a few days.  Located 40 miles west of the town of North Fork via Forest Road 030 (FR 030), the campground is the staging area for backcountry hiking treks, whitewater rafting/kayaking and fly fishing adventures on the Salmon River.  This mighty river is the main thoroughfare through the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness, the largest wilderness area in the Continental United States.

Corn Creek Campground has 16 campsites with tables and fire rings.  It’s handicap accessible, has pit toilets and potable water.  Reservations are not accepted.  There is a $5.00/day fee.  If Corn Creek is full, other campgrounds can be found in the area.  Call the North Fork Ranger District at (208) 865-2700 for information or availability.

This Corn Creek area gets very busy in July and August.   That’s guaranteed.   I can’t recommend it earlier because of heart-pounding, high water.  September and part of October can be okay, but the weather is often changing quickly in those months.  I do remember, however, a mid-October day not many years ago when I hooked, landed and released scores of fish.  All of them came up to dry flies.

The Mighty Salmon River

The Mighty Salmon River

The Salmon River has its beginnings high in the mountains of central and eastern Idaho. It cuts through the gut of central Idaho for about 425 miles to its confluence with the Snake River on the Oregon-Idaho border.  For the fly fisherman, the river holds rainbow and cutthroat trout, steelhead and salmon, mountain whitefish and bull trout (actually a char), also known as the Dolly Varden.

These days, Chuck and I are “getting up there” age-wise, so we do most of our fishing for a mile or two upstream and downstream from the campground.  Most of our fly casting is done from the bank, although there are some spots we can wade.  We used to hike much further, but that gets a little tougher for us each year.   The river and surroundings are the best nature has to offer and the fish are wild.  It’s a hoot!

For dry flies, we usually rely on the Wulff series, the Humpy, Stimulators, Parachute Stones and Chernobyl Ants.  For subsurface, we toss Woolly Buggers in a variety of colors, marabou streamers, Zug Bugs and Bunny Leeches.  We have also had intermittent success with Bird’s Nest and  large Prince Nymphs.  A 6-weight, 9-foot rod works best, and you can get by with an 8-foot leader with a 4X tippet.

Bundle Up and Fly Right

As the leaves begin to fall from the trees here in the western United States, many fly fishermen leave the streams and unhappily turn to fly tying or some good books to make it through the cold times ahead.   That’s good….for me.   It opens up some superb stretches of water that had been uncomfortably crowded during warmer days.

Precious trout suck in nymphs throughout the winter months and, even better, will rise to attack a dry fly clear up until freeze-up.  It’s that cold weather dry fly fishing that I really enjoy.  Fishing is a little harder then, but in some ways, harder is better.

Shivering, select your fly....

Shivering, select your fly....

The rivers are lower and clearer now, the previous snow pack long-since depleted.  Fish have started moving into deeper holes and runs in anticipation of the impending winter.  The trout are more wary, having seen a plethora of feathered counterfeits and scores of clumsy fly fisherman all summer long.   Finally, the hatches – which there are few of – provide scant numbers of airborne naturals.

Tiny midges hatch during cold weather in most streams and a baetis (the blue-winged olive mayfly), and even a tardy caddisfly or two can make an appearance.  On the terrestrial side, a trout rarely ignores a beetle pattern or the deadly black ant.  At these times, even a small attractor pattern can bring up a hefty fish.

Bundle up, wade carefully and throw the book at those cunning rascals.  And, look around, Lucky One.   You have all the beauty nature can offer all to yourself.

Today’s complete fly shop offers a mind-boggling selection of fly tying tools and materials.   How about that display of dubbing materials, for example?   You’ll find a myriad of natural and synthetic dubbings in darn near every hue and color imaginable in tiny, cellophane packets.  At about $1.75 average/packet, a rough inventory of the dubbing packets I own is worth nearly $800.00, accumulated over many years.

If I am anything, I am frugal.   I still prepare some dubbings for myself using techniques I learned as an associate (and student) of the nymph innovator “Polly” Rosborough.  Take natural muskrat, for example, a dubbing used to make the bodies of many of my favorite flies.  Here’s how to prepare muskrat dubbing:

Muskrat Skin

Muskrat Skin

Start with a whole muskrat skin, usually available from your fly shop for less than $10.00. Notice that the pelt is made up of a soft, dark gray undercoat, and stiffer, long hair called guard hair.  For flies requiring a tightly-dubbed body (Adams, for example), I want the dubbing to be free of the guard hairs, so I simply pull them out of the skin.  Next, using small scissors, I clip off the soft underfur close to the skin.  For flies tied with some desired animation (Muskrat Nymph and Casual Dress, for examples), I like to incorporate some of the guard hairs in the mix.

Place the clipped hair in a bowl (don’t let your wife see you using the bowl) filled with warm water and liquid dish soap.  Now, stir the mixture with your fingers.  Two things are happening.  The fur mass is being cleaned, while the fur is being blended together.  After stirring the mixture for a couple of minutes, place the soapy mass into a strainer (don’t let your wife see you using the strainer), and rinse it very well under warm tap water.  When free of any soap residue, squeeze out the excess water and thoroughly blot the mass in paper towels.  Finally, allow the fur mass to dry overnight.

You’ll end up with a tight ball of dubbing from which you can easily tease out a small amount for a perfect fly body.  Do this using the whole muskrat pelt and you may  have enough muskrat dubbing for yourself and all your friends – for a lifetime!  Use this same technique with skins from hare’s masks, squirrel, possum, fox, rabbit, and so on.

Let’s suppose you are a beginning or recreational fly tyer.  You’re sitting at your fly tying vise, the hook properly inserted.   The required materials for the fly you have selected to tie are laid out in front of you.

Royal Wulff

Royal Wulff

You have an actual example of the fly you purchased at the local fly shop.  You also have a color illustration of the fly and the detailed step-by-step instructions for the pattern.  You start – and, sometime later – you finish the fly.  You remove it from the vise and carefully check it next to your store-bought example.  As the old saying goes, “Close, but no cigar!”

Is this a big problem?  Not hardly, and I’ll tell you why.  There’s another old saying.  It’s an adage said among commercial fly tyers, who professionally prepare flies for the wholesale and retail markets:  “We don’t just tie flies to catch fish, we tie flies to catch fishermen!”

Perfection is a wonderful result when we tie a fly, but it is not as important as one might think.  Fish don’t have a lot of time to evaluate your offering.  That’s particularly true in a stream with fast-moving water.  If your imitation is the right size and colors, and has a similar shape, it should do the trick.  On the water, your fly presentation, location and drift are far more critical than the fly.  In these three elements of fly fishing, perfection has real importance.

Consider this:  When you tie up a fly that doesn’t measure up to your standards of perfection, don’t throw it away or set it aside as a “reject”.  Fish with the darn thing — it’ll likely work just fine!