A Bowhunter Goes Fly Fishing – Part 1

Cabelas flyrod and reel combo.

“So we going fly fishing Sunday morning?” A voice boomed on the other end of the line.

I was regretting this call. Not because I didn’t want to talk to my friend, but because I knew the topic and implications. I’d mentioned wanting to start fly fishing several times but never with any intent on actually following through with it. Fly fishing was something I’d read about with great interest. Two of my biggest literary influences, Ernest Hemingway and Gordon MacQuarrie, were fly fisherman and produced some of the finest examples of writing on the subject the world will ever read. I’d fished through their words but never imagined I’d attempt it myself.

“With what rod, Rob? I don’t even have waders.” I answered, knowing full well it was a half-assed excuse with little chance of acceptance on the other end of the line. Not that it wasn’t grounded in truth. Fly fishing was an expensive hobby to do correctly and I’d never dabbled in anything.

“Bah.” He scoffed. “You can get waders. Jon is going and he has a rod you can borrow.”

“Jon who? Mudry?”

“Yeah. Jon has been fishing for years. He’s got an extra 5wt you can use. Perfect for trout!”

“I don’t know.”

“Well lets at least go to Cabelas. It’s Memorial Day weekend. They’ll be running sales.”

The parking lot was filled with vehicles by the time I arrived. The majority of them were as expected – Jeeps and pickups of various makes and models with ORV stickers and an overabundance of branded outdoor decals. My friend was leaning against his example when I pulled in and we were off to the back of the store. Rob had a noticeable bounce his step, while there was an undeniable hesitation in mine. Still, curiosity drove me forward and the excitement began to mount as we hung a right at the customer service desks and moved towards the racks of tall rods in the corner of the crowded store.

“Let’s get the waders first.” Rob said, bopping toward the rubber-boot wearing mannequins. “These are what I got. They are cheap but they’ll work.”

“They’re also on sale.” I said, feeling better about the impending purchase.”

“Yep. That isn’t bad at all. What size you need?”

“Sasquatch size.”

“A 13 will have to work.” He laughed, handing me a box. I opened it up, fanned out the waders, and shimmied inside. As I changed into the waders, my mind began to change about fly fishing. I could see myself in the river, fly rod in hand. I could feel the cool current against my legs and the warm sun on my back. The hesitation I’d been feeling was washed away by eagerness.

“Let’s go look at fly rods.” I said.

“You sure?” Rob said, looking surprised.

“Yeah. I’m not going to use someone else’s gear. I’ve been wanting to do this. If I’m buying waders, I’m going to damn well use them and I won’t if I don’t have a rod of my own. That’s just how I work.”

“Yep.” Rob nodded. “Ain’t that the truth?”

We walked out with an entry level rod and reel combo and a handful of flies. Looking back, I should’ve spent a bit more and bought a better package, but we’ll save that for a future post. I had everything I needed to get my feet wet and we were going fishing.

We met Jon at Glenn Blackwood’s Great Lakes Fly Fishing Company at 5:45 a.m. It was only a few miles from the Rogue and a beloved pit stop for many an angler. Due to my novice stature, I’d never heard of it or Glenn and was thankful to have such a fantastic shop less than 10 miles from my home. I was even happier to learn that the public land surrounding the Rogue was a destination for fly fisherman and I was within minutes of all of the prime spots.

Jon suggested we check out a stretch near one of my old turkey haunts. As the only seasoned fly fisherman in the group, we didn’t argue and were in the water by 6:30.

My literature-inspired fantasies became reality the moment I entered the swirling waters of the Rogue. The corked grip and heavy line felt foreign in my hands and I was suddenly reminded of my first encounter with the riser of a longbow. The memory brought a smile to my face and hope to my heart. The bow was now an extension of my arm and I knew the rod would be as well. All I needed was a little patience and a lot of practice.

“Well, get in there!” Jon laughed. “You going to fish or what?”

“I guess so.” I said. “What should I tie on here?”

Jon looked at the water, leaned over and wetted his hands, then back at me, as if in deep thought.

“Let’s start with a nymph. We can try a dry later. Trout feed on underwater bugs all year round. You’ll have a good chance at fish.”

“What’s a nymph?” I asked, embarrassed.

Jon took the little box of flies included with my beginner’s combo and selected a small one that appeared to have a bead for a head. “This’ll work.” He said. “Thats all you brought with you?”

“That’s everything I have!” I laughed.

“I bought you a handful of nymphs, dude!” Rob barked from the bank.

“That was all that was in the box.”

“They were in the plastic bag I handed you!”

“Oh. I think I tossed that away.”

“Oh for the love of…”

“In my defense, they were tiny!”

Jon unzipped the front pocket of his pack and rescued a sleek, plastic container from its belly. It was an album-style box filled with insect imitations of every hook size, color, and material I could imagine. My face grew hot, as I looked at it, then back at my “cute” assortment of randomness.

“Did you tie those yourself?” I asked.

“Some of them.” He said, unhooking a small grub-like fly with a beaded head. “Throw this on there. It’s a Hare’s Ear Nymph and is pretty basic. That should get you into some fish.”

“Thanks! Do you still tie?”

“Yeah but I haven’t done it in awhile.”

“Does it take a lot of time?”

“It can. Some guys I know can whip up something like this in minutes. It takes me a bit longer. Do you make your own wood arrows?”

“Yep. Sometimes.”

“Its kind of like that. I like to do it, but don’t have the time to do it all the time. Ya know?”

I understood. Jon and I were in similar situations. Dozens of arrows adorned my walls and floors but I didn’t make them all. Arrow production screeched to a halt when my kids girls were born and I decided to dedicate the little free time I had to shooting and hunting rather than making my own tackle. I had to make the time to do so and that wasn’t always possible.

“Okay…” Jon said. “Have you ever seen someone cast a fly rod?”

“Yep. On YouTube. I binged on videos last night and did a bit of casting in the yard.”

“Well, show me what you know.”

“Shouldn’t take too long.” I laughed.

I walked to the middle of the river and performed what had to have been the worst example of a forward cast anyone had ever attempted in the history of Michigan, which was obviously amusing to Jon, who remained straight-faced despite my flailing and swatting.

“How was that?” I asked.

“Terrible.” He laughed.  “But we all had to start somewhere.”

“Okay, show me what I’m doing…”

We spent the next 30 minutes going through the motions of a basic cast. I would love to illustrate the things I was doing incorrectly but will spare you the word count. To summarize, I couldn’t grasp the basic principles of a properly working fly rod, which has to “load” to perform a successful cast.

I was breaking my wrist and not getting the rod back far enough on the back cast. The rod would never load as a result and I would overcompensate by snapping it forward like a pitcher tossing a curveball. I am certain that a video of the fiasco would’ve gained thousands of subscribers had we recorded it.

Jon was patient throughout the process and managed to teach me a mediocre cast serviceable enough to start fishing. He even snuck a roll-cast in there for good measure, which was essential to the runs we were fishing. I spent the next few hours absorbing whatever information I could from Jon and the Rogue itself. I learned about the parts of a river, reading the water, the insects nymphs imitate, and where to find trout. I also learned how little I knew about fish and rivers in general.

“The most important thing I can tell you is to look for structure.” Jon said. “Trout like to hang out where its safe.”

“Sure.”

“They like being in the shadows. Look for big rocks, felled trees, overhangs, stuff like that.”

“Okay.”

“Also…see those riffles? Thats where the bugs are. Toss your nymph upstream and let it float in there.”

“Gotcha.”

“You’re still not getting back to your roll-cast position.”

“I know.”

The morning was filled with comical exchanges. My mind was an empty jar to be filled and Jon wasn’t bothering with a funnel. It didn’t matter. I was enjoying all of it. Being in the river with friends and fly rods was something I never thought I would experience. And that was only the beginning.

Proceed to Part II

I decided to split this story up into several posts, due to length. Part II will be filled with comedy, calamity, further instruction, and trout! I’ll be mixing fly fishing up with the typical archery mix from here on out, but you’ll still be getting PLENTY of longbow content. And if you like what you read, don’t forget to check out the Traditional Outdoors Podcast!

 

 

 

 

Getting to the heart of “In the Heart of the Sea”

in-the-heart-of-the-sea-trailer-2

I recently watched a Ron Howard movie called In The Heart of the SeaFor those of you who haven’t seen the film or have little desire and just want to know why I’m referring to it in a bowhunting blog, you can find the trailer here and the plot below:

Note: the following contains spoilers. STOP NOW if you intend to see the film.

In 1850, author Herman Melville visits innkeeper Thomas Nickerson, the cabin boy and last survivor of the whale ship Essex, which sank somewhere in the Pacific ocean after being stoved in two by a gigantic, albino sperm whale. Several sailers are killed in the attack and the survivors are forced into the sea in their whaling skiffs. Tragedy follows as they traverse miles of open ocean, are attacked by the whale (who is now trailing them), and escape to Henderson Island. Tragedy strikes again, as they run out of food on the tiny island and realize they aren’t going to last long if they all stay. Four men decide to remain for various reasons. The rest decide to leave with the hopes of finding land. After months of being adrift the men are in dire straits and resort to cannibalism to stay alive. Just when you think things couldn’t get any worse, the whale approaches a third time. Master whaler Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) has a chance to kill the whale as it offers it’s flank, but cannot bring himself to do it after looking in the animal’s eyes. The whale then leaves (without attacking) and swims off into the sea. Chase is scolded for not killing the monster and the boats drift apart in the current. One boat is rescued following their separation. Chase and Nickerson are in the boat that isn’t rescued and end up drifting into a South American harbor. (Go here for a more detailed rundown of the movie.)

Moby Dick is one of my favorite works of fiction and I’m a sucker for movies featuring huge, supernatural monsters. I didn’t expect the movie to have a strong plot or change my life in a profound way. Rather, I approached it with a mug of beer and the expectation of being entertained. This was true for the most part. The movie held my attention from beginning to end and the scenes featuring the whale were incredible but I walked way in deeper thought than expected.

Fist, I loved the Owen Chase character and Hemsworth’s portrayal of him. He’s a seasoned hunter and an adventurer, but also a family man with a young son and a pregnant wife at home. He loves his family but cannot resist the pull of the sea and thrill of the chase. Any hunter who has left his/her family for a hunting trip can relate. The draw to the woods is irresistible. Leaving the ones that love you most is wrenching. “Hunter’s guilt” is very real and evident in Chase. It was a trip to get inside the head of a professional whaler in the 1800s, as well. While barbaric in nature, whaling was a necessary evil and a business. It was also a very dangerous pursuit for the men involved and taxing for their families on shore. I found myself relating to Chase as he kissed his family goodbye and joined the crew for the hunt.

Once at sea, there were two scenes that really struck me. The first is Chase and crew’s first hunt and successful harvest aboard the Essex. They encounter a herd of sperm whales and immediately set out after them in their skiffs. Chase comes alive in this scene, as the boat glides amidst the giant mammals. You can tell this is his favorite part of the hunt and what he lives for. Hemsworth does a fantastic job selling the raw excitement of what it feels like to be a hunter pursuing an animal, which couldn’t have been an easy feat, considering the whales around him are CGI.

The climax of the scene is the harvest. They separate a large bull and Chase does what he is paid to do. The whale puts up a fantastic fight but eventually tires itself out and is finished off by Chase and crew. This part of the scene isn’t for the feint of heart and is quite sad, but that is what is special about it. You notice a change in Chase when the whale surfaces and he delivers the killing blows. The excitement has wained and the reality of what he has done has set in. You can see it in his eyes, the blood on his face, and in his body language. It is obvious he has a deep respect for the animal and the pursuit is what matters most to him. The killing is simply an ugly means to an end.

Hemsworth deserves major kudos for capturing this moment. It is one any bowhunter can relate to and appreciate. The resources an animal provides are fruitful but it is the thrill of the pursuit – the challenge – that drives us to do what we do. If we didn’t have a special bond with the animals we hunt, we wouldn’t be using sticks with strings at intimate distances to get the job done.

The second scene is Chase’s sparing of the albino whale. I’m sure an entire post could be dedicated to why he let the monster go, but I’ll summarize with a few of mine:

1) He was near death and knew the whale would kill him in the aftermath of being harpooned a second time.
2) He suspected this was no ordinary whale and couldn’t be killed by a man.
3) Karma. He believed they had provoked the whale and deserved it’s wrath.

These are all viable reasons with plenty of evidence to back them up, yet I’m more inclined to believe there is another possibility that stayed Chase’s harpoon – the respect of a worthy adversary. Any bowhunter who has been at it long enough has encountered an animal that took their absolute best and walked off without a scratch. These always make the best stories. A hunter does all the prep work, puts in the time, does everything right, but is repeatedly bested by the animal (my hunting buddy Steve Angell wrote a wonderful example here). Experiencing such a thing is quite special. There is no greater illustration of the bond between hunter and game. The scene addresses the bond quite well and probably could’ve ended it right there, despite drawing on another 20 minutes to wrap up the necessary loose ends.

Overall, I enjoyed the film immensely. I think that any bowhunter (traditionalists in particular) will find it entertaining and will probably have some of the same thoughts I expressed above. Feel free to share in the comments if so.

In the Heart of the Sea is the movie adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s book of the same name. You can check that out on Amazon or Kindle here. I intend to.