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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Fly Fishing Through a Mid-Season Crisis

Forgot my waders, made the best of it.

Its weird getting older.  I can't tell you how confusing it is to look in the mirror and see a guy in his mid to late 30's, cause in my mind, I'm still 17.  It isn't just me.  The people around me are getting old, too.  My dad will be retiring at the end of the week.  When did that happen?  It still feels like he is in his early 40's. 

The same thing is happening with everyone I know.  The men and women who have been in the primes of their life for my entire life are slowing down.  And the people who I thought of as being old when I was 17, who weren't really old, but just slowing down, are now actually old.  Its crazy how fast it happens to them.  One day, they're physically or mentally able to do whatever they want; the next, they can't stand up by themselves anymore.  

I remember when I was living out in New York, missing my favorite northern Michigan trout streams, and doing the math.  If I live to be the average age of 72, and I can make it back home to visit them for around 3 days a year, I've only got, at most, 126 more days on my favorite water.   Then I figured, ok, if our parents live to the ripe old age of 72, and we only get to see them 3 days a year, we're only going to get to see them about 60 more times.   Those numbers weren't nearly big enough and we moved home to northern Michigan soon after. 

Its kind of a shock to the system, this feeling young but realizing you and the world around you aren't staying young forever, thing.  This must be what causes all of those midlife crises you hear about.  I don't think I'll ever have your classic midlife crisis.  My whole life has been a perpetual series of midlife crises.  I'll have no regrets on my death bed. 

Which, strangely enough, brings me back to the whole point of this post, and that was going fishing a few times over the weekend with some retired guys. 

Gary and Darcy are brothers and grew up fishing my favorite trout streams.  They've literally been fishing them longer than I've been alive.  Its cool to listen to their stories of "the good old days" and even the "bad old days."  But its even cooler seeing that many years of history on a stretch of river getting put to use during the evening rise. 



This picture looking into the back of one of their fish cars says it all.  These guys are still getting after it more than most guys half their age.  They're old school, and as I get older, I appreciate old school more and more. 

One particular spot of Gary's had a visit from some other anglers over the last year or so.  Apparently, they weren't very good fishermen because they "pruned" entire tag alders away from about 30' of riverbank so they could cast to a nice seam on the opposite bank. 

Nothing but tag alder stumps for about 30' of river

This is something I run into every season and it drives me crazy- those overhanging tags or other woody debris or vegetation are a big part of the reason many spots are good spots in the first place.  It drives Gary crazy, too.  So in retaliation, he is keeping every fish he can from that spot so when the jerk who can't fish comes back, there is nothing to come back to. Gary's revenge started with a 23" brown trout. 
 
I had a really good fish going but missed the hookset on it.  I picked up a smaller fish in the high teens a little later before the spinnerfall ended.  Had another good fish going last night, too, but a rather large beaver came by just after it started rising and did the tail slap of death right over top of it.  Needless to say, my shot at that fish was over before it started.  There is a special layer in hell for beavers who do that kind of thing to fishermen, its full of 330 connibears and petrified wood. 
 
Mosquitoes are out in force now.  Hendricksons and little black caddis are done or winding down depending what stretch you're on.  Mahoganies are going, borchers are going, and the first big show of the season (brown drakes) are right around the corner.  Two and a half weeks or so from now, hex will be going, and a few weeks after that, the peak of the dry fly season will be over. 
 
 
 
There will still be some good hatches to be had in late July and August, but its a midseason crisis we all must deal with.  June is the prime of the fishing season, and it never lasts forever.  So we'll fish every night, usually way past midnight, going on almost no sleep, chasing bloops and rise forms in the blackest of northern Michigan nights.   
 
My entire trout season is a perpetual state of mid-season crises.  As Josh says, trout season is just a bunch of two week seasons.  There is always something peaking, somewhere.  So whatever that micro-season is, I'll be trying to hit it just right on just the right stretch of river, as many nights in a row as possible.  And when the season is winding down and I am realizing that its over, there will be no regrets.





Wednesday, May 23, 2018

If You're Not Eating Trout, You're Doing It Wrong



I recently came across a post on the Trout Unlimited facebook page where someone got all worked up over TU sharing a video on how to debone trout.  I believe the comment went something like, "This isn't what TU is about!"  For the sake of protecting his identity, we'll call him stereotypical trout guy (STG).  This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that I've seen this type of reaction to anything associated with keeping trout versus always releasing them.   There are a lot of STG's out there. 

I used to be a STG.  Wait, let me say that again.  Hello, my name is Alex and I used to be a stereotypical trout guy.  I was all about the catch and release.  I loved trout, why would I want to kill one?  And then I realized the inherent hypocrisy in my outlook and practice of 100% C&R.

The act of hooking and fighting a trout causes stress on the trout.  That stress manifests itself in the form of lactic acid build up in the fish's bloodstream.  Once a fish reaches acidosis, or a point where the lactic acid buildup is so high that the trout's bloodstream can't get rid of it, the fish will die whether it swims away or not.  And that death often occurs hours after being released due to issues created during the fight and release. And that's all before that killer instagram photo session takes place.

Maybe stereotypical trout guy should be more concerned with guys practicing C&R with light rod weights and tippet?  Maybe stereotypical trout guy should be more concerned with social media feeds full of hero shots?  Maybe stereotypical trout guy should be more concerned with people practicing C&R with conventional tackle rigged with treble hooks? 

Maybe stereotypical trout guy should be more concerned with fighting and stressing trout out for his own amusement only so they can swim away and die?

So I could be a hypocrite, or I could fish for the same reason humans have fished for thousands of years...food.  I don't keep every fish I catch, and still have plenty of fishing trips where I don't keep any fish.  But I keep enough for dinner just often enough that I don't feel like a hypocrite anymore.

The crazy part?  Trout taste awesome.  Brown trout not so much, though I've heard a particular strain of lake runs on one of my local trout streams are pretty good.  Rainbows are ok, but I don't run into them very often.  Brookies are delicious, one of the best fish I've eaten and right up there with whitefish, walleye and salmon. 

The first thing I do as soon as the decision has been made to keep a fish is bonk it on top of the head and gut it wherever I am.  Two brookies in the 8-12" range are what I'm after.  Smaller or bigger fish will be released.  If I'm not going to eat them right there on the stream, they go into a container of some sort that will keep them cool until I get home.  I never freeze fish, they taste a million times better fresh. 

My favorite way to cook brook trout is nothing fancy.  If on stream, I cook them unseasoned over an open fire.  If I take them home, they'll get fried in butter, hopefully with morels if I have any. 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Getting Guided: A Non Politically Correct Primer on Booking a Guided Fly Fishing Trip



Just got back from a quick steelhead trip up to the U.P., fishing with Capt. Brad Petzke of Rivers North Guide Service.  We had kind of a double whammy going against us, as far as steelhead are concerned, a one day cold front and clear skies.  Luckily, Brad has been doing what he does for a long time and was still able to put me on fish and show me a good time on one of the most beautiful rivers I've fished in Michigan. 

On the way home, I thought it would be fun to write a piece helping someone get the most out of their guided fly fishing trip. 

Choosing a Guide

Perhaps I'm stating the obvious, but a prospective guide should be familiar with the water you want to fish.  They should know where the fish are, what the fish are looking for, and what to do if they're not cooperating.  They should be a capable teacher, meaning they should know how to help you get your angling skills to a level good enough to catch fish if you're a beginner, or to that next level if you're an intermediate or advanced angler.  Good guides can usually teach you a little bit about the area's history, too.  And finally, and most importantly, they should make the trip fun. 

But how do you know who can do all that, and how do you know you are going to get your money's worth?

My whole tenure as a guide was in the age of social media, and having been "behind the curtain,"  there was a stark difference between the "real deal" guides who were on the water every day and the ones who played great guides on facebook.  The worst mistake a person could ever make-- at least if they want to catch fish-- is to book a guide trip with someone because they have a killer social media presence.  You want to know who the best guides are in an area?  Ask other guides or the guys who work for fly shops local to that area (not a shop 3 hours away), they all know who is the real deal and who isn't. 



There is a respect thing amongst guides, and if a guide is worth booking, other guides will give them the respect they deserve and give an honest assessment to a prospective client.  In my experience, a guide isn't going to say anything negative about another guide publicly, so if you ask a guide about another guide and he says something like, "I've never fished with him," or, "He's a nice guy," that should speak volumes.  The two exceptions that jump out at me here are: if someone is a new guide, and word hasn't gotten out on them yet, or guides who work through an outfitter or fly shop and have someone back at the office doing the marketing for them while they are out fishing.

And I can tell you, one of the crazy things about the guides who are head and shoulders above the rest, its that they don't do a lot of posting on social media.  They don't need to, most of their business comes from word of mouth referrals and repeat business.  I won't go so far as to say a social media presence indicates someone is a wannabe, I think all guides share a pic every now and then, but if your guide's facebook page is posting multiple times a day or sharing pics of the same fish they caught two years ago over and over again, that might be a red flag. 


Setting up Your Trip

Once you've found a guide, its time to book your trip.  When you book, your guide should be able to tell you what to expect for the dates you're fishing as far as hatches, typical weather conditions, how you should dress, what to bring, what they provide, etc.  If they can't, call someone else.  If your guide is playing conditions by ear as far as what particular piece of water you're going to fish, they should contact you again after you've booked, but a week or so before your trip to dial in where and what time to meet for your trip.  This is particularly common for independent guides who won't be meeting you at a fly shop or outfitter. 



This is also where you want to tell your guide what you want to do, what you expect, etc.  Its important that you're both on the same page to get the most out of your experience.  If you just wanted to fish dry flies but you never tell your guide that, and are booking a trip in October, you might be disappointed when there are no significant hatches and you spend all day throwing streamers.  If you tell your guide you want to fish dry flies, he should steer you to a time of the year favorable for that type of fishing. 

Taking Your Trip

This is the fun part, but it can be less fun if you didn't do your homework up front or get on the same page with your guide beforehand.  I can tell you from experience both as a guide and as a client, that its really important that you listen to your guide.  If your guide keeps telling you to keep your rod tip low and you aren't, and you're missing hooksets because of it, that's not your guide's fault.  Do what your guide says to do and you will have more fun, its really as simple as that.  Not only that, but you will learn more from your guide, and you get to take that knowledge with you on every fishing trip you take for the rest of your life.  And that's the real value in taking a guided fly fishing trip-- the knowledge you gain from it. 

If your guide is chumming, he probably isn't worth booking with again.  If your guide is following other boats/anglers around all day, he probably isn't worth booking again-- guides worth booking are the ones other anglers are following.  If you aren't catching fish and your guide isn't making constant adjustments to your tackle or location to try and get you into fish, he probably isn't worth booking again.  Keep in mind, they're guides, not gods, they can't make the fish eat, but they should be doing everything in their power to try and figure out what is working on that particular day.

If your guide is talking about stoneflies hatching in the middle of the river (stoneflies crawl out of the water onto logs and rocks or the shore to hatch), he probably isn't worth booking again.  If your guide has you doing things considered to be unethical-- purposely fishing to actively spawning trout (this is unethical, but the line gets blurry, particularly when fishing for spawning warmwater species), high or low holing other anglers, etc., he probably isn't worth booking with again. 

If your guide shows you a good time and didn't do any of the stuff mentioned above, tip them.  And if your guide did a really stand up job, book another trip with them as quickly as possible, good guides book up fast, particularly during the best fishing times. 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Venison Stroganoff

Its funny how after you grow up and move out on your own, you start to crave some of the stuff your family would make for dinner while you were growing up.  You know, those staple dishes your mom would make, that you kind of took for granted or even got sick of eating your whole life.  Tuna Casserole, Meatloaf, Cream Tuna & Peas, Bunkerslunk, etc.

My mom's beef stroganoff recipe is pretty amazing.  One of the first things I start to think about when deer season is coming is venison stroganoff, it makes my mouth water.  Except I've kind of got my own recipe, a venison version crossbred between my mom's and Paula Dean's.  Really, my recipe is all Paula Dean, except I add red wine to the pan until the smell hits my nose when I'm sautéing the onion and venison.  I also don't include any mushrooms unless I've got some morels on hand.

But that's not the recipe we're here for.  We're her for my mom's, which is admittedly more awesome.  Its good with beef or venison, but I prefer venison.  I bet its pretty good with elk, too, and hope to find out after I hunt for them out west next year.


My mom remarried after I was out of the house, and while that's a difficult thing for a family to deal with, nothing brings a family together better than sitting around the table for a good dinner-- or sharing recipes.  Her husband, Jeff, is actually a chef-- and a pretty good one-- so when I asked her for her stroganoff recipe, Jeff came through with the text message below.  Try this one out when you get a chance, its good stuff!
  1. Marinate 1.5lbs thinly sliced venison in ground black pepper and Worcestershire, (sprinkle on a couple teaspoons of black pepper and splash on a little Worcestershire and let sit lightly covered at room temp for at least an hour)
  2. Sauté a handful of sliced onion in 3 tablespoons of butter, add venison and sear, don't cook through, remove to bowl
  3. Add 2 tablespoons more butter to the pan and sauté about a pound of onions till translucent and some start to carmelize, remove from pan.
  4. Add 1.5lbs sliced mushrooms with more butter if needed and sauté till tender, add more butter, (about 2 or 3 tablespoons) and add 3 to 4 tablespons of flour, stir until brown and bubbly and flour is cooked. 
  5. Add 1 quart beef stock, 1/2 can tomato paste, two tsp dry mustard and 4 cloves of chopped or crushed garlic, add one bay leaf and add the rest of a quart of beef stock, two cans beef consommé (or another 2 cups of stock) and a teaspoon of Better Than Bouillon, bring to a bubble and stir.
  6. If not thick enough add a tablespoon or two of cornstarch dissolved in stock to the mix
  7. Once thickened, return beef, onions and mushroom to pan, stir in 1/2 cup or more of red wine, (burgundy is traditional, but use what you like). 
  8. Simmer until meat is tender, serve over buttered parsley noodles.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Au Sable Trout are Pickier Than Your Trout



Somewhere on the Au Sable at dusk
Places that have hard to catch trout have a few things in common:  high angling pressure, relatively flat water and prolific insect activity.  They're home to trout that eat a lot of food, and who know what food is supposed to look and act like.

Sewing my fly fishing oats in northern Michigan, I always considered Au Sable Holy Water trout to be the toughest to catch.  That changed when I moved out to NY for five years and got a taste of the Delaware system.  Trout on the all branches of the Delaware were a pain in the ass, particularly the West Branch.  I'm sure if you talk to a guy whose homewater is the Frying Pan, or the Letort, or insert renowned trout stream here, he will tell you his trout are the hardest to fool.

I've been told by guys who have fished a lot of those famous places, that the two toughest are the Henry's Fork and West Branch of the Delaware.  When I asked them which was tougher, they would struggle before settling on the West Branch of the D, but those guys were New Yorkers, they are supposed to say that.  And being a fellow New Yorker at the time, I wanted to believe them. 

But here's the thing, they had never fished the Au Sable. 


I'm really loving Scientific Anglers' new ART taper
Now I'm not going to make the case that the Au Sable has the pickiest trout in the U.S., cause I'm not sure I'd believe it.  But they can be tough to fool- one stretch outside of the Holy Waters immediately comes to mind and I would put it up against the West Branch of the D.  What throws the Au Sable out of whack is some of the best, most-fished hatches happen at night when our finest trout specimens have thrown caution to the wind. 

Having fished the Au Sable pretty extensively in the dark, one of the things that always amazes me is how many large trout call it home.  Never in a million years could you convince me there are so many large (greater than 20" long) fish in the Au Sable if I had only fished it during the day.  Yet, most guys who come and fish the Au Sable, but only during the day, will probably catch some fish in the 7" to 12" range and go home thinking the Au Sable is just a bunch of pretty scenery and dinks.   

I think that's cool. 

I fished the Au Sable system the last two nights.  Saw sparse Hendrickson spinners and a couple black caddis in the air on evening one.  Got a little fish slime on my hands, but it was slow.  Last night I got home from work and talked my way out of doing some stuff around the house to go fishing instead.  It was in the mid-80's, there just had to be a spinnerfall, no way I could waste that kind of weather doing chores when there was bad weather coming later this week. 

You know its getting serious when you bust the net seine out
I never know where exactly I'm going to fish until I get there, and when I got there, the air was filled with Black Caddis.  I laid my rod down on some dead cedar branches and started catching them and taking pictures and all the other stuff bug geeks do when there are bugs everywhere and no fish rising.

I found a nice log to sit on and called a friend to pick his brain on broadheads and arrows shafts.  He already has me talked into switching to the Tooth of the Arrow broadheads this year, now I'm just trying to figure out what kind of arrows I want to run behind them.  I was leaning towards Easton FMJ's, but now I'm kinda thinking more about Carbon Express Maxima Hunters.  I'm gonna think on it some more, but my goal is to build an arrow in the 500 to 550 grain range so I don't have to make any changes to my setup when I go out west for elk next year, and so I can gain confidence in it through hunting whitetails this year. 

I've got the arrow building bug bad right now.

Just as our conversation was about to end, a few fish started to rise.  I wouldn't call them happy fish, but one was close, so I put a #14 Hendrickson spinner out there for a few (what I thought were) really nice drifts.  Switched to a #16 hemingway caddis.  Switched to 6X.  Switched to one of Dennis Potter's caddis patterns.  The caddis were mostly gone, and hendrickson spinners were bobbing up and down 30' in the air.  As far as I could tell, there were none on the water but I switched to a #14 egg laying Hendrickson spinner that John ties, and that was the ticket. 

It took 3 fly changes and 6X tippet to fool this little guy-- check out the red spot on that adipose!
While all that was happening, there was a grouse eating poplar buds 20' up a tree in front of me, and another in full strut walking the bank behind me.  The one in the tree was literally hanging upside down from the end of a skinny little poplar branch that was bowed over in the shape of a rainbow.  SNAP!  The branch broke and it fell and righted itself and landed gracefully like it was just another day in the office before flying back up for more.  Both of those birds and a third roosted in a different tree just a few yards away just before dark.

I left shortly after, giving in to the fact that the evening rise was over.



Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Backpacking for Trout Part II: Shelters & Sleep Systems

Everything needed for three days of backpacking for trout (Not Shown:  waders/boots and pack)

Note:  This is part two of a four part series, which was broken up due to length
 
Part III:  Clothing, Cooking & Hydration, Survival & Misc.
Part IV:  Fly fishing gear for the backcountry

There are a lot of things I love about fly fishing, but the thing I probably love the most is getting as far off the beaten path as possible and exploring new water.  I've always been drawn to discovering whats around that next bend or seeing what those thing blue lines on a topo map look like in person.   
 
But the thing about going further and further in is the fishing and adventure often gets better and better the further you get from an access, and just when you are about to get where you want to be, you often need to turn around so you can get back to your vehicle at a decent hour.  I could never get as far away from the car as I would have liked.  I could never spend as much time as I wanted at the destination I was going, and as a result, I'd feel rushed while I was fishing. 
 
That's when the light bulb went off.  I needed to stop going back to the car and start backpacking ina and staying where the fishing was good. 
 
Now I've always thought fly anglers were the ultimate gear heads.  No one could love gear and gizmos more than us, right?  Wrong.  Backpackers take being a gear head to a whole new level-- and for the beginner, all the stuff to consider can get pretty confusing.  So I thought I'd share a list of whats currently in my pack for a 3-day fishing trip, why I chose what I did, what I need to upgrade when I get the extra money, etc., and hopefully demystify some of this stuff for the guy who wants to fish backcountry locations but doesn't need to get outfitted to hike the Appalachian Trail. 
 
So we talked about packs, now onto the next three pieces of gear:  Shelters, Sleeping bags/quilts and sleeping pads.  We're also gonna hit on what is probably a luxury item, backpacking pillows. 
 
A brief intro to the Tent vs Hammock Debate
 
I quickly realized that backpacking tents were expensive.  That's when I remembered my buddy Ed who slept in a hammock. 
 
Hammocks had to be less expensive, I thought.  And pound for pound compared to a tent, just the hammock is.  I got a hammock for Christmas with a built in bug net and thought I'd just get a cheap rain tarp and be good to go, but I didn't realize that if I wanted to go out in colder temps- say below 45-degrees,  I'd also want to get an underquilt. 
 
Underquilts are kind of like a hammock campers sleeping pad, they are your bottom insulation.  Due to convection, you can get cold in a hammock a lot faster than you might think.  A good example are bridges which get icy before the roads leading up to them due to the cold air moving around below them.  Hammock campers without some type of bottom insulation often get woken up in the middle of the night by "cold spots" beneath them. 
 
Now you don't have to get an underquilt, some hammock campers will use a sleeping pad, but if you're going to hammock camp, you absolutely want some type of bottom insulation, and an underquilt is the way to go.  Good ones are lightweight, pack down small, and don't take up a lot of space in your pack.  The same goes for rain flies.  But when you add all of these components together-- add up their size, add up their cost, add up their pack volume-- you will find that there is little difference in size, cost or volume savings with hammocks vs ultralight tents.  Which makes the decision about whether to go with a hammock or tent more about personal preference.
 
I don't want to get too far into it, but there are many other pros and cons to each type of sleep system.  There are some situations where I think a hammock is the way to go, others where a tent is the better option.  But if I had to choose only one, I'd go with a tent.  Why?  Because I can set up a tent pretty much anywhere in the world.  You can't hang a hammock where there are no trees or the trees are too far apart, or too close together, or too small. 
 
Marmot Limelight 2P
Shelters
 
My first backpacking trip to fly fish for trout, I carried a 50lb, 10-man eureka tent about a mile into where my basecamp was going to be in the Adirondacks in upstate NY.  I basically had to make one trip in just with the tent, and a couple more for the rest of my gear.  My backpacking days were pretty much put on hold until I could afford some lighter/smaller gear, and that gear search started with my shelter. 
 
One of the first things you want to consider when choosing a shelter is how many people are going to be sleeping in it?  For me, the answer was just myself 90-percent of the time, but maybe every now and then I might be able to convince my wife or one of the kids-- or maybe a friend-- to join me; so I was looking for something that could sleep two people. 
 
Now as anyone who has ever purchased a tent knows, two man tents are usually one man tents, three man tents are ok for two men, and so forth.  Only once I started looking at the cost for lightweight or ultralight two man tents, I couldn't afford any of "the good ones" that all the cool thru-hikers were using. 
 
The first backpacking tent I bought is still my daily driver, a Marmot Limelight 2P.  To my car camping friends, its a Cadillac.  To backpackers, its a Chevy Malibu-- maybe more of an Impala.  Its a little heavy (5lbs 2oz), and would be nice if it could pack down smaller, but, I got it on sale with free shipping for $150 at backcountry.com (Regular price is currently $199) and would have had to spend at least twice that much for something like a Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2.   
 
I like the straight side walls of the Limelight, and its a true two person tent.  My son is man-sized now and we both fit in there with room to spare.  It has dual doors so if one of us has to get out to take a piss in the middle of the night, we can do it without crawling over the other guy.  The dual vestibules are nice, too, and plenty big enough to use as storage for stuff like boots or a pack.  It is freestanding, meaning it can be set up without being staked down, which will come in handy when I'm in the Adirondacks or western UP and possibly need to camp on bedrock.  Because its freestanding, I can leave the tent part at home and just camp under the fly which is a huge weight reduction that I'm not accounting for here-- but not recommended in tick country.  The weight isn't a big deal with two guys, you just split it up into two packs and its like carrying nothing at all.
 
I think given the option, I'd make the same buying decision again.  But if I cut cost out of the purchasing decision, I'd go with the Nemo Dagger 2-person which currently retails for about $400.  The Dagger has a lot in common with the Limelight and the Copper Spur, kind of getting the best of all worlds.  It only weighs a smidge over 3lbs.  Its a great tent, and much tougher than other tents in its weight range, and backpackers might give me grief for this, but tough means a little more to backpacking anglers and hunters than someone thruhiking. 
 
My future shelter plans are to get all of the mileage I can out of the Limelight, but when it comes time to purchase another tent, I will get something like the Seek Outside Cimarron w/ Stove.  The Cimmaron is a 4-person tarp/tee-pee style tent that sleeps 4 without the stove, two with.  The crazy thing is, even with the stove, the Cimmaron only weighs 6lbs 2oz!  Basically about the same as my Limelight.  Its pricey, though-- currently at $824.
 

Sleeping Bags/Quilts
 

For backpacking, a sleeping bag is one of those items where you can really cut some weight and save some available pack volume.  I can't stress enough here how much you want a bag that packs down small.  Unless you are lashing it to the outside of your pack, your standard run of the mill Coleman sleeping bag is not going to cut it, you just don't have the room. 
 
That doesn't mean you need to spend big bucks, my first backpacking bag was a Suisse Sport Adventurer Mummy Bag off of Amazon.  I'm 6' tall, have a fairly wide chest, and I fit in that bag comfortably, yet it packs down to roughly the size of a volleyball and only costs about $40.  I still have that bag, and it serves its purpose, but I'm not a big fan of mummy bags so I upgraded to a Quilt. 
 
Quilts are basically just that, a quilted blanket filled with some type of insulation-- typically down.  Most have some type of footbox for you to tuck your feet into. 
 
After reading online reviews for what felt like months, I narrowed my list down to the Enlightened Equipment Revelation and Enigma, ultimately deciding to go with the Engima to save a little weight over the Revelation. My quilt specs are below.  I really like how the Enlightened Equipment quilts have baffles that run vertically instead of horizontally all the way up the bag.  That keeps your insulation where its supposed to be, instead of "falling" to the sides of the bag while you sleep.
 
 (Down Type (DownTek Treated): 850 fill, Temperature: 30°F (-1°C), Length: Regular - 6', Width: Wide - 58", Outside Fabric Options: Black 10D, Inside Fabric Color: Charcoal 10D) 

Being a bigger guy, I was happy I went with the wide version. I went with a 30-degree rating. I'm not a warm or a cold sleeper, but feel I'm somewhere in the middle. So far I've slept with it down to the low 20's and stayed comfortably warm (wearing a baselayer while sleeping). I think I could comfortably get down into the high teens. On warmer nights, I've had it with night time lows as high as the mid-60's and didn't need to uncover or anything like that due to overheating as I used it as more of a blanket than a bag.

One thing I kind of lucked into was going with a black exterior/charcoal interior. When the sun comes up in the morning and you aren't ready to get up, you just tuck your head inside the quilt (no problem with my height) and its pitch black again.

Weight (~16oz) and pack size wise, this thing packs down about as small as you can get- maybe half a volleyball.  I can't see myself ever going back to a mummy or traditional sleeping bag.

Sleeping Pads
 
Sure, you can just sleep on the ground or your tent floor, but you will be uncomfortable and probably cold as the ground absorbs your body heat, and that's where a sleeping pad comes in. 
 
I have the Thermarest NeoAir Xlite, which weighs a whopping 12-ounces.  It has an R (insulation) value of 3.2, which is pretty good for a 3-season pad and the reason I am able to get by with a 30-degree quilt at colder temps.  I have the regular size, which I thought I'd be rolling off of all the time when I first saw how big it was, but its pretty comfortable and I rarely roll off the side while sleeping.    It does tend to make a "crinkley" sounds when you roll around which is probably the only con I have for it.
 
Thermarest NeoAir Xlite
 
 
Another honorable mention here is the Klymit Static V, which costs less than half of the NeoAir, packs down just as small, and weighs only 18oz.  The only con of the Klymit is the R-value is much lower, coming in at 1.3.  I have one of these, too, for a backup or my wife/son to use and its also a pretty comfortable pad. 
 
Backpacking Pillows
 
So pillows aren't really a requirement, but I need my beauty sleep and wadding up some of my clothes or using my arm or sleeping pad as a pillow just isn't going to cut it.  I went with the Sea to Summit Aeros Premium Pillow which is wicked comfortable, packs down smaller than your fist, and weighs in at just 4-ounces. 
 
Base Weight So Far
 
So with my 5.1-pound pack, a 5-pound tent, 16-ounce quilt, 12-ounce sleeping pad and 4-ounce pillow my total pack weight is sitting at 12.1-pounds.  That's not ultralight backpacker class weight, by any means, but its close, and pretty light for hunting and fishing.  I gain a couple/few pounds by having a hunting pack, and I am gaining two or three pounds by having a heavier shelter, but I'm ok with that as I like the pack and shelter I have and comfort is just as important as weight on some things.   
 
My goal is to be under 40-pounds with everything including fishing gear (adds a ton of weight that normal backpackers don't have to worry about), food and water.  For hunting, I'm not sure yet where I want my pack weight to be, but I'm guessing under 50lbs with my bow/arrows, etc. 
 
In Part III, we'll talk about all the other backpacking/survival stuff that goes in my pack to get us up to that 40-pound mark. 
 

Friday, May 4, 2018

Backpacking for Trout Part I: Packs

Everything needed for three days of backpacking for trout (Not Shown:  waders/boots and pack)
Note:  This one started to get a little long so I'm breaking it up into multiple parts: 
 
 
Part III:  Clothing, Cooking & Hydration, Survival & Misc.
Part IV:  Fly fishing gear for the backcountry

There are a lot of things I love about fly fishing, but the thing I probably love the most is getting as far off the beaten path as possible and exploring new water.  I've always been drawn to discovering whats around that next bend or seeing what those thing blue lines on a topo map look like in person.   
 
But the thing about going further and further in is the fishing and adventure often gets better and better the further you get from an access, and just when you are about to get where you want to be, you often need to turn around so you can get back to your vehicle at a decent hour.  I could never get as far away from the car as I would have liked.  I could never spend as much time as I wanted at the destination I was going, and I'd feel rushed while I was fishing. 
 
That's when the light bulb went off.  I needed to stop going back to the car and start backpacking in. 
 
Now I've always thought fly anglers were the ultimate gear heads.  No one could love gear and gizmos more than us, right?  Wrong.  Backpackers take being a gear head to a whole new level-- and for the beginner, all the stuff to consider can get pretty confusing.  So I thought I'd share a list of whats currently in my pack for a 3-day fishing trip, why I chose what I did, what I need to upgrade when I get the extra money, etc., and hopefully demystify some of this stuff for the guy who wants to fish backcountry locations but doesn't need to get outfitted to hike the Appalachian Trail. 
 
Before we talk about all of the gear inside my pack, we should talk about one of the most critical pieces of gear a backpacking angler can buy, the pack. 
 
The Exo 5500 in day trip mode
Packs
 
The first pack I bought was from a local department/grocery store.  It was too small, didn't fit right, and all-in-all sucked.  But it was my first pack and I had no idea it sucked so it got me by for a few seasons until I upgraded to an Osprey Atmos Ag 65, an internal frame backpacking pack that was light years more comfortable as I got it fitted when I purchased it.  I was amazed how much weight I could comfortably carry as the weight carried on my hips instead of my shoulders. 
 
Despite being really happy with the Osprey, I upgraded my pack again last year when I decided I was going to start going out west to do some backpack hunting for big game where I'll need an external frame type pack to not only haul camp around on my back, but to also transport large quantities of meat out of the backcountry. 
 
After a lot of homework, I went with an Exo Mountain Gear 5500 on their K2 frame.  I'm not going to lie, I had a little bit of sticker shock when I first saw what some of these external frame hunting packs were going for, but the more I researched, the more the cost made sense. 
 
A good quality pack can make your trip much more enjoyable and allow you to focus on whatever it is you're doing, not nurse sore shoulders or fatigue.  I couldn't imagine the nightmare of being thousands of miles from home, multiple miles from my vehicle or a trailhead, unable to haul several hundred pounds of delicious elk meat out because I wanted to save some money and buy a low end pack that failed or was miserable to carry under heavy loads. 

To help justify the expense-- as I'll only be out west for a week or two per year-- I hung the Osprey on the wall and am now using the Exo for trapping, fishing, hiking/backpacking, hunting locally, etc.  I haven't sold the Osprey yet as it will be a great backup or loaner to my son or friends to use so they can carry their own gear.   

Six Size 330 connibears being carried between the bag and the frame

The Exo is a great pack.  I was surprised that even when it was loaded with more weight than my Osprey can handle, it was just as comfortable as the Osprey.  The frame is insanely strong, it can easily handle more weight than I'll ever be strong enough to carry-- there are videos showing the K2 frame hauling over 150lbs!  The pack design has been really nice for trapping as it allows you to easily carry gear in between the frame and the bag.  This has allowed me to keep traps and beaver separate from whatever is inside my pack.  As far as fishing goes, that's a nice feature as I can do the same thing with wet/muddy waders and more easily keep muddy wading boots separate from my food/gear/clothing.  The hipbelt is customizable, too, so I've usually got a hipbelt pouch, a multi-tool and knife on one side, then my pistol holster and binocular pouch on the other.

Internal or External Frame?
 
All that said, you don't need a high end external frame pack for fishing-- unless you plan to carry heavier loads ( more than 40-50lbs), then an external frame might be worth considering.  Most internal frame packs will more than fit the bill for use on fishing trips.
 
What Size Pack Do I Need for Backcountry Fishing?
 
As far as deciding what size pack to buy, that depends largely on how long you plan to stay out there and how much gear you'll be carrying.   For a 3-day trip, assuming your camping gear packs down somewhat small, you would want to go with a bag that has at least a 3500ci capacity, and even there, you're going to be tight on space-- especially once you add food into the mix.  The Atmos Ag I mentioned above is a 65L pack and gear capacity just over 3,900ci and while it holds everything I need, it requires a little bit of elbow grease to make it all fit. 
 
Which brings up another nice feature of the Exo 5500, and that is that its capable of hauling enough gear and food for 10 days in the backcountry (goes from 5500ci to 9000ci), no problem.  But the 5500 bag compresses down well to day pack size, making it incredibly versatile.   If you wanted, you can take the 5500 bag off and just haul meat on the frame, or go to different bag sizes such as their 3500 or daypack. 
 
I've kind of got a thing for packs...
 
Other Considerations
 
If you've got ultralight or lightweight gear, that makes a huge difference as you can get away with a smaller pack size, not to mention, you'll be carrying less weight.  But don't feel like you have to have a tent that weighs nearly nothing and folds up in your pocket.  You can still have a lot of fun with gear from the army surplus store that is considered heavy by today's standards.  Just be cognizant of the fact that whatever that gear item is, you'll have to both fit it into your pack with all your other stuff and then carry it for extended periods of time. 
 
Whatever pack you do get, try and get one that can be fitted to your body and torso and which has a comfortable hip belt.  The hip belt is critical as the weight of the pack will be transferred through it to your hips, allowing you to carry weight much more comfortably than your standard backpack.  Its crazy how a good fitting pack can make 40lbs feel like only 20. 
 
Both of the packs I have are compatible with hydration bladders w/c is a feature I wouldn't want to go without.  They also both have some pockets and ways to quickly access gear inside.  Exterior straps are really nice to have, too, as you can lash often used items onto the outside so you don't have to dig for them all the time. 
 
The last thing I'll mention is cost.  You can save a lot of money buying used.  A great place to buy used packs is a website called Rokslide.com.  There is a classified section in the forums there where high quality packs pop up on a regular basis.  Of course, there is also ebay and your local craigslists. 
 
 
 

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Trout Camp 2018

Early arrivals, getting settled in and chopping wood

Where are my pants?

I could hear the wheels of a truck crunching through the snow and ice on the trail into camp.  I rolled over and groggily realized I didn't have any pants on, which is a weird thing to wake up to in a camp full of straight men. 



What do you mean you don't bring a snow shovel to trout camp?
I popped my head through a small slit unzipped in the door on my two man tent to see Carl's truck rolling in and my pants wadded up next to my wading jacket outside the door of my tent.  To the left was a smoldering campfire surrounded by empty camping chairs.  An acoustic guitar leaned against the furthest, a blue pick wedged between the strings.  Behind the fire area was the kitchen, there was an empty bottle of whiskey, empty beer cans, covered up leftovers from last night's dinner, a cooler and an overall state of messiness extending to the wood pile.   


Most of our camp was still covered in six to twelve inches of snow, the only areas where it had melted were covered with tents.

My attention returned to my pants, which had light pink chunks of something-- I couldn't figure out what-- on the left leg.  The same stuff was on both the outside and inside of my wading jacket.  What the hell did I spill on myself? 


"You alive?" a voice asked from Lloyd's tent

I think so, what time did we go to sleep?  What time is it now? 

"8:15"  Carl chimed in

Shit, we've gotta get to the Tubes to cook breakfast.




Venison steaks and bacon wrapped japaleno poppers



Morels



Home brew

The night before was a bit of a blur, but the food was still vivid in my memory.  We had chopped vegetables cooked over the fire, bacon wrapped jalapeno poppers, morels, bear and venison steaks cooked over charcoal and assorted snack foods.  We were all drinking assorted alcohols and a fifth of Grand Traverse Distillery's Cherry Whiskey which circled around and around the fire as we BS'ed, sang, played guitar and harmonicas, and laughed into the night.  Apparently, it would go around the fire from man to man, untouched, until it got to me and I'd take a drink.  Then it would go back around, and I'd take a drink and pass it on, unaware I was the only one drinking until it was gone.  Suspiciously, it was the same color as the chunky substance on my pants and wading jacket.    



Who needs plates?



Protein
Like butter

"I'm gonna run to town and get smokes.  I'll meet you guys up there"  Jake said. 

At the Tubes, we cooked a free pancake breakfast for anyone out and about in the Pigeon River Country State Forest for the opening morning of Michigan's Trout season.  It was an event being put on by our local Trout Unlimited chapter, of which all of us were active members-- except for Bob, who was from out of the area.  As we flipped pancakes and rolled breakfast sausage links on the grill, grainy cell phone photos and videos started to circulate amongst us that were taken the night before.  Videos that were just a bunch of guys at trout camp having good fun, but which should be deleted if any of us ever want to run for public office. 

"Gonna tie my pecker to my leg, to my leg, gonna tie my pecker to my leg!"  A voice sang from one of the videos over upbeat guitar cords in the background. 

"You bring plates?"  Terry asked me.

Shit. 



Scott ran to get plates and we didn't miss another beat-- unless you consider that Jake never made it back with fresh cigarettes as he was busy nursing a bad hangover on the side of Sturgeon Valley Rd.

We hit camp after, geared up, and then Bob and I hit a spot that I thought could produce a fish or two despite the high, cold water.  Actually, despite it being so high, it was surprisingly clear.  We leap frogged from hole to hole with no luck, then jumped to a different stream with the same results. 



Water was a little high...

We went back to camp and got ready for night three, only I had to head out early for a prior family commitment.  This is the second year that this collection of guys have gotten together to celebrate the trout opener and its safe to say that despite the poor fishing, we're all looking forward to doing it again next year.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Dark by Nine


Its mid-April and the last rise you saw was in September, before a long winter took hold and never wanted to let go.  After that long, your brain sort of forgets what a rise looks like even though you’ve seen a million of them over the years.  When you see the first one of the season, its almost like your eyes are playing tricks on you.  Usually, you just hear it, then search frantically in the phantom sound’s direction for the fading rings of the rise.  More often than not, the sound was just a glob of water bursting up from under a bobbing log. 

There are geese honking downstream, a swan spit-trumpeting somewhere upstream and redwing blackbirds singing from all directions.  Its feels good to be wearing short sleeves and hunting rising fish again.  You scan for bugs on the water and then in the sky, and then the water and then the sky, and then the water and then the sky.  Maybe its still a little too early in the season?  You’re about to lose hope and then a Hendrickson spinner sprints through the air and the river regains your attention.  And then there are two, and three, and so forth and that was a rise!  Holy shit, that was definitely a rise!     
 
As tempting as it is to cast, you shouldn’t; it’s bad luck to cast to the first rising fish you see of the year.  Act like you’ve been there before.  Dry fly fishing is tantric, enjoy the process.  Or don’t and just wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am a cast out there and see if you can remember how a drag free drift is supposed to work.  If the fish eats you’re doing it right.  If it stops rising and never calls you back, you need to spend more time on that reach cast.  No, don’t beat the water to a froth with fly or tippet changes.  Just use 5X and a parachute adams and get a good drag free drift.  If it looks like food, they have to eat it.

Its dark by nine.  You wade back to your car, strip your boots and waders off and toss them into a heap in the trunk.  There’s some good blues playing on the local public radio station and you’re driving home with the windows down, left arm hanging out the window in the warm breeze.  There are spring peepers going in the marshes you pass on the way.  You’re off the water, but this is all part of what you love about being a fisherman. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

On Grayling Reintroduction in Michigan

Its no secret that the Michigan DNR and local Tribes are in the midst of arctic grayling reintroduction efforts in the northern lower peninsula.    I'm a native species guy.  I'm a staunch supporter of doing whats best for native over introduced or non-native or invasive species.  I feel robbed that grayling were extirpated before I was born and I never got the chance to fish for them on my local streams.  I wish they were still here, I really do.  But I have a really hard time supporting arctic grayling reintroduction efforts in northern Michigan streams, starting on the upper Manistee. 

The reason is pretty simple, I'm a brook trout guy, brook trout are also native to many northern Michigan streams, and I learned Gause's Principle in college ecology-- no two species can occupy the same niche.  They can share the same habitat, but eventually, one will go extinct. 

While logging and overfishing tend to get most of the bad wrap for the extirpation of grayling in northern Michigan streams, what really did them in was the natural expansion of brook trout, whether brookies naturally colonized new waters that grayling previously dominated, or if they were stocked in them by man.  Grayling were in decline before logging and overfishing.  I know this from reading historical accounts, but was recently reminded of it while doing some research on an unrelated subject.

I was reading a paper written by RE Vincent in 1962, "Biogeographical and Ecological Factors Contributing to the Decline of Arctic Grayling, Thymallus arcticus pallas., in Michigan and Montana."  In it, Vincent writes:

"Exotic trouts were early introduced into grayling waters.  In some streams grayling populations were already low; in others they were still high.  In nearly all grayling streams, exotic trouts flourished and grayling declined. 

Accepting Clements and Shelford's (1939) definition that competition is a demand by two or more organisms for the same resources or conditions in excess of immediate supply and realizing the validity of Gause's Rule (Gause, 1934), which states that an ecological niche cannot be occupied simultaneously and completely by a stable population of more than one species, it is apparent that trout introduction into grayling communities would necessitate community adjustment.  As trouts and grayling are in many ways ecological equivalents, when the introduced population reaches a high enough density both species would be utilizing the same environmental resources.  The eventuality that one of the species will become extinct is shown by Frank (1957), Gause (1934), Park (1948), and others.

Competition may be direct, as active antagonism, or indirect, as a species monopolizing a given resource needed by another.  The more closely ecologically related the species, the more intense the competition.  Degree of competition changes as environments fluctuate to favor one or the other competitor.  Along an environmental gradient whose extremes favor two species, there would theoretically be a point on either side of which each species would be superior (Crombie, 1947). 

Competition has been repeatedly suggested as the major cause of grayling decline (Brown, 1938a; Creaser and Creaser, 1935; Henshall, 1916; Thompson, 1925; and others).  According to Brown (1943), the absence of competitive trouts seems absolutely essential to grayling survival.  In nearly every watershed it is difficult to separate effects of competition from other simultaneous influences.  In many places where exotic trouts have been introduced, the grayling has declined, but often other changes were involved."

In 1841, Hubbard wrote that there were no brook trout until you crossed the Mackinac Straits.  I find it questionable that he fished every northern Michigan stream extensively enough to make such a claim.  I doubt its validity even more when you consider that just 15 years later, Lanman (1856) reported an abundance of large trout in the tip of the northern lower peninsula.  Around the same time and even in accounts written a few years earlier, others reported abundant brook trout populations in the Traverse region-- not in every stream, but some.  The streams where brook trout were abundant, grayling were not, and vise versa.  (Starting to notice a pattern here?)

Still, there is no doubt that brook trout were rapidly expanding their range into northern lower peninsula streams.  By 1869, it is documented that they inhabited streams as far south as the Manistee flowing into Lake Michigan and as far east as the Ocqueoc which flows into Lake Huron.  This is all before brook trout stocking got going in the northern lower around 1879. 

There is a great table in Vincent's paper (Table 6) that documents historical accounts of both grayling and brook trout populations in the Jordan River until grayling were extinct.    It goes from the Jordan being a grayling stream with a few trout in 1857, to trout being the primary species caught in 1875, to grayling almost being gone in 1877, to grayling being nearly extirpated in 1879.  Similar timelines exist on the Boardman and Boyne Rivers.  In the Au Sable, logging might have played a bigger role in the decline of grayling than what was happening naturally on other northern Michigan streams.

Whats my point in all of this? 

We can't bring grayling back without killing all of our trout.  Gause's Principle says so.  It all comes down to survival of the fittest, and if grayling can't compete with brook trout, how are they going to handle 25+" brown trout that are thriving where the State plans to reintroduce them in the upper Manistee?

It all boils down to this:  we are either wasting our time and money for a "feel good" story that will eventually fail.  Or we are going to have to kill all of our wild trout in the upper Manistee to help grayling reintroduction permanently succeed (and even then, it might not succeed).  These are trout that government and conservation groups have spent bajillions of dollars and volunteer hours conserving and protecting for the last 125 years.  Are we willing to throw that all away for a fish that by most accounts isn't as good to eat as trout or as fun to catch, ? 

And what happens if I'm wrong (and over a hundred years of science are wrong) and grayling reintroduction efforts are successful, but they gain classification as threatened or endangered, and say, my local TU chapter wants to add some large woody debris in the Deward Tract on the upper Manistee or maybe plant some cedars or take out a beaver dam there to help trout?  Will the government let us? 

What if its determined that streams with reintroduced grayling need to be closed to fishing to prevent accidentally catching grayling-- will they close trout fishing on the upper Manistee? 

What streams are next on the list for grayling reintroduction? 

Why are we doing this again?



Fishing Needs More Liars

I hit the restaurant at Gates Lodge the other day for lunch.  My friend says you don't go to a place like Gates to order a turkey sand...