Friday, April 3, 2009

I Owe it to My Grandfather

Fishing all started with my grandfather. He’d take me down to old Millers Farm and we’d fish under the bridge in the small creek there. There weren’t any trout just bluegill, suckers and chubs. I read one time if you’re going to get a kid started fishing and to like it, take him somewhere where he’ll catch fish. My grandfather started me out this way. Once I got used to catching fish and confident that there is fish in the water, it kept me going back for more. Eventually trout was the mainstay of all our fishing trips.

Though my grandfather didn’t directly get me started fly-fishing, he did however connect me to it. You see my grandfather always fished with a fly rod though I never known him to use flies. We’d just go fishing and he’d always used worms. He started me with the old Zebco and then I gradually stepped up to an open face reel. That same old fly rod was with him every time we would go fishing just like his L.C. Smith 16 gauge double barrel was in his hands whenever we went small game hunting. His fly rod was old. I’m not sure how old but my grandfather was born in 1901 and ever since I could remember he had used it. The rod’s a no name. There’s not a name, weight size or length anywhere to be found on it. It’s just an old brown fly rod with chips of paint off of it here and there. The cork handle is stained brown from wear and I’m sure each crevice in that cork handle holds many a fishing stories. I actually measured it and it is 8’ 4” long. The rod flexes pretty much all the way down to the first eye. I’m not sure if it’s from being worn out or intentional. I do know when I hold a magnet to it the magnet sticks to the shaft. From the cork to the first small eye of the rod it is stepped down like each short section was brazed to each other to taper it towards the rest of the rod. From the first eye to the tip-top the metal rod tapers gradually. From use, the top quarter of the rod has a slight permanent arch. When I finally inherited the rod, when my grandfather died, among the old thread wraps on the double foot snake guides, is an old piece of duct-tape wrapped around one of the foot guides. The rod now rests in its old faded brown cloth bag that also has a wooden dowel in one of the pockets to keep it from breaking. I take it out of the bag now and then, reminisce and shake my head. Boy rods came a long way since that one.

Anyhow, I remember one evening when I was about 16. Grandpa and I were standing on the bridge that crossed over the Little Shenango River. The so-called river is more like a small mountain stream, narrow, not very deep but with more of a hard mud base. We were done fishing for the day but my grandfather met another old-timer and they started BS’n about the good old days. Downstream from us were these 5 guys casting bait to about 5 rainbows in the middle of the stream. The guys surrounded the trout like a bunch of Indians surrounding circled wagons, as the trout lay in the center of the small deep pool. I had perfect vision up on the bridge as these guys continued to cast worms, salmon eggs and what not at these poor fish. Every once in a while, though, one of them there trout would swim up, slurp some bug off the top of the water and hurriedly swim back down to be with his buddies. This just infuriated the fishermen until 4 of them gave up and headed to shore. The last one swung a spinner towards the trout a few times, in which they darted out of the way. The last guy finally gave up and all five took off. While grandpa and the old-timer were still gabbing on the bridge I noticed the trout started to perk up and began feeding again on the surface. Now I have never fly fished before but I had watched fly fishermen in the past fishing. I was always intrigued with the way they handled the rod, casting and bringing in fish. In fact, because my grandfather taught me how to fish, I always did hold the line with my left hand while my right was on the handle, just like fly fishermen do. I had bought some store bought flies quite some time before that and always carried them with me. Just couldn’t figure out how to get them out there with my spinning rod and reel. I set my rod up against the side of the bridge and gently took the fly rod out of my grandfather’s hand. Went down to the sandy bank on the stream and tied on, what I remembered, looked like a black gnat. I roll casted the rod like I watched my grandpa do a thousand times. I ended up catching three of those 5 trout in less than a half hour. That was the first time I ever casted a fly rod. It would take about 12 more years to actually buy fly fishing gear and start into the sport.

It took so long I think because I was always conscience of money and didn’t want to spend it on something I might not use. This might have been because of my grandfather also. He grew up in the depression and lost a lot of money when the stock market crashed. Ever since then he kept me aware to make sure I spent my money wisely. For instance, on the way back from many bunny-hunting trips, he’d ask me how many times I shot the shotgun. He figured out what each shell would cost per box, multiply that by how many times we shot. He’d add in a little extra for the gas it took us to go hunting and back, divide that by how many rabbits we got and figured how much each rabbit cost us. He didn’t do this to discourage me but I believe this made me a better shot each time we went out!!

When I finally got the determination, I finally bought a fly rod and fly-fishing gear at a fishing expo. I didn’t know exactly what I needed for my kind of fishing but after explaining the situation to a custom rod maker he sold me a rod. I bought a fly line, backing, leader and tippet material. Bought a VCR tape on how to tie the knots needed and how to cast a fly rod. Amazing to me it came naturally. Casting really did, I don’t remember having any major trouble. I practiced a lot in the front yard and down on the lake. It was now time to figure out what fly to use and when.

I began buying those oversized hackle department store flies. I’d hear someone on the stream tell someone else what the fish were biting on and go buy them at the local sporting department. I’d get a local fly fishing paper magazine which told which fly on what creek should be coming off for the month and try to figure out where to get the flies. The guys at the nearest fly shop in those days kept their heads up too high and if you didn’t wear expensive fishing wear or talk their lingo they practically snubbed you off. That didn’t discourage me though, I’d go in, get what I wanted and be off. On the stream, I’d catch flies, check them out, tie on a look alike and catch fish. The only problem I had was when someone asked me what fly I was using I’d comment, a gray bodied fly with light gray wings, or maybe a small white fly. After those answers the guy wouldn’t ask me anymore about what flies I use. Heck, I started collecting flies and had so many by now in my fly box I couldn’t remember what the proper names were of most of the flies! This became a problem when word came down the creek that the fish are biting on lets say Hendrickson’s. I had no idea what a Hendrickson looked like, so it took me longer, if at all, to tie the right fly on my tippet. The flies were starting to get expensive and I was due for a new hobby anyhow, so I decided to tie my own flies. This in turn was the best thing I’ve done since starting to fly fish. After buying a VCR tape on how to tie flies, buying a vise and fly tying manual with actual colored pictures, I was on to my next phase of being totally committed. With the tying of patterns I learned and remembered what each fly was called. What size I was looking at along with what characteristics a so-called caddis fly had that differed from a mayfly to a stonefly when I held a real one in my hands.

My expense was low in buying material so this kept me happy. My best friend duck and goose hunted so I had lots of duck and goose feathers. The expensive wood duck feathers were no problem as long as they were in season. He also trapped muskrat and I hunted rabbits, squirrels and deer. I knew how to tan hides so I was in good shape with fur dubbing. A few pheasants, grouse and turkeys kept costs at a minimum. It took a while for me to break down to buy the expensive high quality hackle but once I got the first one and seen the difference in quality the money was well worth it.

After conquering the dry fly phase the nymph phase was next. I was able to tie nymphs but I needed to see just how trout took a nymph. About a half hour of where I lived was a fly-fishing only project area, a small clear creek with plenty of brook and brown trout. You’re only allowed to keep up to three trout from June 15th to Labor Day. Before or after these dates the creel limit is zero. The state stocks this usually early spring, late spring and for fall fishing. I had left my rod in the van and brought with me a cup of maggots. I found a small school of trout hugging the edge of a downed tree trunk. The water was slowly flowing and clear as glass. I tossed a few maggots up stream, they sunk, and I watched the current take them into the trout’s feeding lanes. I did this quite a few times and came up with these results. When the food drifted right to them they simply opened their mouths and stayed stationary. Many times they would spit the food out in front of them once or twice and finally munch them motionless. When they had to swim to the food they again would swim calmly to the food, suck it in and again spit it out one or two times in front of them, keeping it in and then swim back to their original lay. Very few times did the visible trout attack the food aggressively and dart away. On the other hand, every once in a while a trout would dart from under the log, or come up in a flash from down stream, suck in the food and dart quickly away. I was sure these aggressive trout would be well noticed taking a nymph on a fly rod. What about the calm unwary trout?
Not to spook the trout any farther I waited until two days later, again on a clear day, and this time brought my fishing rod and tied on a white latex caddis. The trout were relatively in the same area. I casted upstream and kept an eye on a trout taking my nymph and watching where my fly line and leader met. The second a trout took the nymph there was just a slight slow down on the drift of my line. No sharp jerk or pull, just a gentle slow down of the line. I waited until the fish finally let go of the nymph, which sometimes of course was longer than others were. I felt it only depended on when the trout felt the line in the crease of it’s mouth that it spit the nymph out, the current had already took the drag of the line beyond the fish and then took the nymph along with it. Very, very seldom did the trout follow the nymph after it had washed down stream from where the trout lay. It seamed the trout wanted it on his dinner table and wasn’t going to follow it once it rolled off. The hidden trout of course darted after the food, grabbed it and took it back to its hiding place. Every once in a while a trout would follow the nymph by back tailing, keeping the nymph in front of its nose until he would either take it and swim upstream or refuse it. This experiment taught me to closely watch my fly line where it actually started to sink in the water. The slightest hesitation in the drift in the line told me a trout had the nymph in its mouth. The line didn’t have to sink at all. Just a hesitation is all it took sometimes to disrupt the drift of my fly line that let me know a fish was mouthing the nymph.

My grandfather quit fishing a few years before he quit hunting. I think the cane was more of a problem trying to fish with then sitting and hunting. We were up camp the Sunday before the first day of antlerless deer season and decided to take a ride out to where we would be hunting the next morning. This was in December, the weather was chilly and only patches of snow were here or there on the forest floor. We drove down to a place called Ward’s Ranch. The huge house sits down a long lane behind a gaited fence. We had driven down from Vowinkle and parked just before the bridge that crosses over the small stream that leads into Ward’s Ranch Pond. A dam holds back the water to create the pond. Two small streams feed the pond and I’m sure by run off and maybe underground springs. The excess water from the pond simply flows over the dam wall. From below the dam the water creates Big Coon Creek in which it flows for some miles to the Golinza bridge. The pond is stocked with trout for the season and also stocked in the lower part of Coon. Below the dam native brook trout inhabit the water down to the mouth. Grandpa and I were standing on the bridge taking in the fantastic scenery and talking about hunting. It was mid afternoon, the sky was a hazy gray but with enough light that I could see minnows and a couple of chubs swimming below the bridge. I told grandpa to stay and I walked to my van and took out my old yellow spinning outfit, tied on a black Rooster tail and headed back to the bridge.

“You’re not going to catch anything in there” grandpa said
I casted the lure downstream into the middle of the creek from the bridge. I watched my spinner fall and methodically reeled in to keep the spinner just above the stony gravely bottom. My next cast was towards the left bank just beyond some dried brush and overhangs off the bank. I kept my rod facing straight down off the side of the bridge. With the water being only about ankle deep I retrieved the rooster tail fast enough to keep it from hitting bottom but slow enough for any lethargic trout. As the lure spun close to the brush a native trout darted out and grabbed the lure. I reeled him in, up the side of the bridge. Grandpa and I looked at the colorful native brookie and I let him go back into the creek.

Grandpa spat a wad of tobacco juice onto where the pavement met the bridge wall. Looked at me with that closed lip grin, with that little stain of tobacco in the crease of his mouth where his top and bottom lip met.
“You can catch a trout in a puddle in a parking lot!” he murmured with pride
“I owe it all to you grandpa!” I said
I put my hand on his shoulder and we walked back to the van.


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