Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry, Merry

For my friends hailing from more temperate climes, a few pictures that you might enjoy a white Christmas from afar.  For my hearty northern brothers and sisters, more of the same.  Soldier on, and we'll make it till May.

For everyone, I wish you the best in whatever you have going over the holidays.  Merry Christmas, happy holidays, all hail Skadi, goddess of winter -- whatever floats your boat, I hope it floats it high and dry.

All my best,


Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Feather Touch

This one is geared a bit more toward the ladies... or, if you're a fella who happens to enjoy sporting a feather or three in your hair, well then... go for it I guess, dude.  I'm not judging.  I'm probably going to alienate a female reader or seven here in a bit, spewing stereotypes and generalizations as I go.  I don't need to lose anyone else in the first paragraph.

There are some universal truths in life -- what goes up must come down and the sun sets in the west.  A flush beats a straight and the Bears still suck (put more generically: the sports team from my geographical area is superior to the sports team from your geographical area, always and in every way).  We hold these things to be true everywhere we go.

If you're a tyer of colorful and flashy warmwater flies, another thing will occasionally happen to you that is as consistent as the seasons.  You can see it coming almost every time.  Open your boxes in front of a non-fishing woman or group of women.  Almost without fail one of them will, in that particular timbre and frequency that is somehow simultaneously jarring and oh, so satisfying to the male ear, oooh and aaah and say, "These would make cool jewelry.  You should make me some earrings!"  

I'm not a social scientist, and I only have the anecdotal evidence that is my life, but apparently, when a member of the fairer sex encounters something small and colorful and sparkly, most of them can't help but lose their mind for a few seconds.  It wouldn't be a stereotype if ... yeah, you get it.  All emails regarding my perceived anti-feminist generalizations will be ignored in the order they are received.

The trout guys are notoriously out of luck here, by the way.  Nobody other than the angler and trout gets excited over a box full of little brown creepy-crawlies, and few outside the fish has ever thought of a dobsonfly nymph as sexy or delicious.  Google one up if you don't believe me.

No, it's us warmwater and big, bitey-fish chasers who tie the flash and sparkle that looks like it might be jewelry to some uninitiated female friends.  The modern equivalent of that unboxing in front of the girls is, of course, the sharing of our pics on social media.  Maybe I'm way off base in all this, or maybe I just tie really girly flies somehow, but if you looked at an archive of my Twitter, Instagram, and (fledgling, admittedly) Facebook tying pics, you'd find quite few requests for jewelry in the comments and replies.

I believe this was the most recent winner in the eliciting jewelry hints game

It was inevitable then, really.  A while back, Randi asked me if I'd like to have a bunch of peacock feathers.  I really would, as it turns out.  That much herl will go a long way, staring a long winter of tying in the face.

I first brought up the subject of peacock jewelry being fashioned in trade for the feathers.  It doesn't really matter who broached the subject, I was almost certain she'd be flatly thrilled at the prospect.  Decades of occasionally opening fly boxes in front of females had already taught me that to be true.  Aside from that, I'm always down for the challenge of trying to make something beautiful.

The irony of putting together feather jewelry as a fly tyer is not lost on me.  Beginning in 2010, I believe, the whimsy of the behemoth fashion industry turned to feather hair extensions, and pretty much kicked the average tyer right square in the teeth.  One article I read said that a buyer for a home shopping channel called a grower asking for a weekend run of 15,000 saddles, more than twice what the grower produced in a year.  Such was the demand for rooster saddles.

Once the craze hit there were simply no grizzly feathers for most of us, and when you did find them, they were usually from a hair salon supplier and almost comically, astronomically overpriced.  To this day they are very difficult to find -- many of us often tie with substitutes or choose different patterns altogether -- but at least you no longer get salt rubbed in the wound by seeing women with perfectly beautiful saddle feathers hanging uselessly in their hair every time you leave the house.   

In any case, we committed fly tyers are a resilient bunch, always with an eye out for new and different materials we can use in our tying endeavors.  Fly shops and online fly tying retailers are, of course, our main source of feathers and fur and little shiny baubles to stick on a hook.  But the low hum in the background of our brains that is the sound of seeking new materials thrums a little louder in the art supply store, the hardware store and many other other places.

There are fly patterns out there that start with everything from flip-flops to seat belt webbing.  Me, I tie one fly with "collie dubbing."  The pooch has cool gray underfur on her rump that behaves much like Laser Dub and she was just lying there watching me tie one day when inspiration struck.  It made sense then, and it still catches fish now.  Best of all, she loves a good butt brushing.  (I'm choosing to leave that softball perched right there on the tee.)

The craft store is a treasure trove of fly tying materials.  Craft Fur, some feathers, Prismacolor markers, beads and beading wire, chenille-- that one stringy looking yarn that is basically polar chenille, only in a multitude more colors.   Eyes in particular are everywhere at the craft store, and not just the doll eyes and stick-on googly eyes (but those do rattle nicely).

The eyes above are made from the "stamens" sold to construct artificial flowers.  The bottom two flies below have eyes made from cheap stick-on rhinestones.  Those rhinestones inspired the entire color scheme, as a matter of fact.

So, I'm in the craft store at least once a month, often more than that.  They know me there.  I've always had a fairly easy touch working my few charms on the mothers and aunts (and sometimes sisters) of the world, and the cute little frosty-permed craft store ladies are no different.  

When one of them found me in the jewelry aisle, looking mildly perplexed, she approached to help.  She knows I'm a fly tyer, but when I related that I'd roped myself into making some earrings and such, she patted my arm, and said, "Oh, hon.  We get you fellas in here all the time.  Here's what you need..."

Having a craft store grandma is pretty sweet.  No snickerdoodles yet, but I'm holding out hope.

There was no more putting it off.  I had to sit down and make some jewelry.  It had been a long time since I sat at the bench (vise now pushed over to the side), and had no idea what I was doing.  Often when I'm struggling to jazz up a well-known fly pattern or come up with one of my own, I start with color.  I have no formal art training -- I vaguely know what a color wheel is, but wouldn't know what to do with one, so it mostly entails me rummaging through bags of feathers, holding stuff up together to see what it looks like.

That's exactly what I did here.  I made a glorious mess of things, hauling out every bag of feathers that had cool patterning or that I thought might look good in the color scheme.  I soon found myself adrift in pheasant skins, strung guinea fowl, soft hackle patches, and whatever else I could dig up.  My side of the mountain... of feathers.

I felt a feather overload flop sweat coming on, so I put all but my favorites away, and began to mock up some layouts.  While there were some struggles initially, and almost no sustained or consistent technique throughout, I did eventually manage to meld some stuff to some other stuff roughly approaching a state of bedazzlement. 

Things I learned about making earrings and hair clip... things with peacock feathers:

  • All the little metal posts and rings and stuff you use to make earrings are called "earring findings."  I had no idea.
  • You don't have to baby peacock eyes as much as I'd thought.  They'll generally hold together as long as you don't completely destroy them tying them on.  That said, some Super 77 spray adhesive would be nice next time.
  • I watched a lot of crafty women go through a lot of shenanigans to get their feathers attached to head pins on YouTube.  Somebody needs to introduce them to fly tying bobbins -- multiple times faster and no hot glue oozing everywhere.
  • You can't "reef" on soft earring components with the thread like you can a hook.  Somebody needs to introduce this fly tyer to a little finesse.
  • I own a number of bins of feathers that might be deemed "ridiculous" by some.  Some of the packs of feathers have never been opened, and that makes me feel slightly like a greedy asshat.

Here's what I managed to cobble together in my initial efforts, warts and all.

A little good old fashioned cherry Kool-Aid dying to get the red there.

I'll never claim to be a crafty jewelry maker, and I don't know how they'd rate in the highly competitive world of peacock jewelry making.  Or if that exists.  But I do know another universal truth in the male world...

... on the occasions you manage to craft something that makes a beautiful woman smile as above, it's often best to stop babbling about it on your blog before you say something idiotic and ruin the whole thing.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Comfort with Discomfort

It would be easy for the uninitiated reader of all the wonderful outdoorsy books and blogs out there to assume that all we do in the outdoors comes with ease and comfort.  One can read entire shelves concerning life afield, and never encounter a mention of biting ticks and mud and soggy feet.  In much of our literature there exists a dearth of reality, in which the protagonists always bag the game with ease and aplomb, and usually have some schmaltzy life-affirming quip to back up their legendary shooting.

Never having experienced the sport, a novice might wade into fly fishing, quite literally, without any consideration given to the fact that they might someday find themselves staring, rather startled and vexed, at an impromptu piece of feathery jewelry dangling painfully from an appendage they'd not intended to pierce.

It ain't always wine and roses out there.  In fact, it rarely is.  A lot of times, it's even gonna suck a little.  If you do what we do outside, you're going to sunburn and shiver, bring home scrapes and bruises along with a full game pouch.  Or end up with a fish thrashing on the other end of a crank bait buried in your leg.  Them's the ropes, but it isn't often addressed in the glossy mags or erudite literature, and I think a touch of reality is in order.

Excursions for most of us common folk begin with throwing the gear and some food in the truck. Then we do what we do all day, and haul it all back out of the vehicle, slightly more muddy than it was when we left home.  There are no dog handlers, no chefs, no maître d'.  It's up to us to power through the slogging and sorting, the cold and wet and tired, bird cleaning and deer gutting by headlamp, because this is what we love to do.  The vast majority of the time there are no panoramic vistas or transcendental moments.  Those are the rare treasures we seek but seldom find, and they are that much more powerful in their rarity after countless hours sitting in the cold or stumbling around on slippery river rocks until we take an unplanned swim.

The following is taken from an email I was forced to send to my entire contacts list years ago, as referenced in one of my very early (and pretty amusing, if I do say so) posts here -- Falling Down

It was going to be a glorious morning.

Waders on, fly rod in hand, I made my way down a slick bank to enjoy a few casts before officially starting my day.  It was then that I suddenly found myself flailing at nothing, enjoying a rather pleasant -- if unexpected -- weightlessness.  Followed immediately by a free fall to a muddy, wet finish.  I stuck the landing with my chin, and the Romanian judge gave it an 8.6 with a the full level of difficulty rating.

My phone is toast.  The screen shattered somewhere between the second and third full twist in the pike position, with no way to retrieve the contacts.  It also feels like I bruised my duodenum and sprained sixteen ribs, but that's not the point of this message.  Please reply here with your contact info if you wish your number(s) to be in my phone.  Or don't, if you're sick of me.

Of course replacements are currently backordered, so Verizon has kindly provided me with a lovely Bakelite rotary-dial eight-pound loaner to lug around in case the need to call in danger close air support should arise.

Have a nice day.

It was actually an abysmally useless early Windows phone for the sake of setting the record straight, but that isn't what we're driving at here.  This is: Much of what we do outside leads to a lot of hanging around slightly bored, getting frozen solid or cooked like a brisket.  Yes, there are those glorious moments of accomplishment, but there's also a lot of waiting around in the rain -- and trust me, there's a very fine line between the badass-ery of hunting in the freezing rain and simply sitting in a sopping duck blind like you were dropped there by a short bus.

I recently listened to Meat Eater's Steven Rinella among a panel of guests on a very popular podcast.  In the course of their discussion about the physical demands of hunting, one of the guests (I can't recall which) summed it up by saying that sometimes you just have to become comfortable with discomfort.  I'd never heard it put more succinctly, nor had I realized that was precisely what I and many other outdoorsy folks do without ever thinking about it.

Years ago I took my neighbor and friend in Madison ice fishing for his first time.  He was a professor at the UW, southern by birth, and a hell of a good dude.  An outdoorsy kid decades before, after years cooped in classrooms and meetings he was finding his way afield again in his free time, and I was frankly honored to take part.  He mentioned that he'd like to try ice fishing, so when I knew the bite was on we bundled up, and hit The Triangle on Monona Bay right downtown.

It was a steely hard mid-winter morning with blustery winds, but I didn't own a shelter big enough for the two of us at the time, so we braved it on upturned buckets like everyone used to do.  We caught a passel of fat bluegills before the whirring glow of the Vexilar, and I called it for the warmer climes of home just when I began to worry he was going to turn blue and topple off his bucket in one big frozen chunk.

Months after that, as we drank beer and told stories in my living room -- I think he often took great pleasure in escaping what he termed the "insufferable droning of academicians" with me -- he shared that one of the things he was most struck by from our day together on the ice was that I hadn't worn gloves while I fished.  His wife corroborated this sentiment, stating that he'd repeatedly mentioned it and stared at her dumbfounded when he'd returned home. 

Now, any jigger of panfish through the ice will attest that when the bite is hot, you can't really wear gloves and remain effective.  They eventually get wet and useless or gooped up with fish slime and useless, and you can't really tie a knot or bait a tiny hook with them on anyway, so you end up tossing them aside to get your jig back in front of fish faces with as much alacrity as possible.  And your hands get cold, but you deal with it.

I don't share this story through some need to express online machismo (fishing without gloves had never occurred to me as exceptionally "tough" or even "fucking crazy," to quote our shocked looking southern professor friend), but to demonstrate a reaching of comfort with discomfort.  My hands get as cold as anybody's, but we ice fishermen know that putting gloves on in that moment isn't the right play.  You just ride it out as long as you're on the school.  First your hands sting, then they ache, then it goes away.  As long as they turn pink and not blue or white, you're fine.

Pro Tip- Occasionally huffing and puffing on frozen hands, whacking them on your legs and cussing, or boinging around furiously with your hands thrust between your thighs like you just smacked your thumb with a hammer are all perfectly acceptable substitutions for gloves during short fishing breaks.  But you don't do any of them in front of your male Arkansan neighbor.  You sit somberly and give your best Intrepid Ice Guide thousand yard stare from behind the beard and mirrored shades.  There is a manliness protocol when taking southern guests ice fishing.

When asked how I can stand to sit on a frozen lake or hunt in the rain for hours by my "city friends" I often equate this becoming comfortable with discomfort to being hungry in a meeting or sometime when you can't eat.  You acknowledge it and move on.  Toughen up, Buttercup.  Or alternatively, if you're gonna run for the truck every time you spring a leak and spurt a little blood... or take a massive digger on snowshoes right in front of your buds Pike and Rum Runner moments after proclaiming your expertise to them on said appliances...  maybe stamp collecting is a better option for you.

I'd love to try a hunt of ease and luxury someday.  Maybe a proper English driven pheasant shoot with a scatter gun that costs more than my first car (which isn't really saying much -- almost every shotgun at Dick's costs more than my rust and powder blue Volare station wagon did).  I'd make long passing shots with grace and humble wit, then retire to the library, all herringbone and tattersall, for scotch and talk of favorite dogs in front of a warming fire, the birds and guns left to be tended to by handlers and cooks.  

But my hunt will almost assuredly never end that way.  Instead, I track mud into the house, and drink PBR while starting dinner.  Brian combs burrs out of Buddy and carps about city people.  Or bird watchers.  Or people who ride bikes ("goddamn hippies")... mostly anybody who isn't us.  The man has issues and a rare talent for colorfully entertaining vehemence, but he knows his way around the woods better than almost anyone I know.

Just occasionally though, after all the discomfort, just when you've made your peace and accepted it, there does come that perfect fish or deer or bird.  Or simply a moment of grace, a pittance of quiet understanding at the feet of the natural world.  Perhaps a short escape into that perfect panorama.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Huginn's Aerie

A wind storm came through about a week ago and left the place a wreck.  The clean-up endeavors involved a vast array of tools from weed whip to chainsaw, and most everything in between.  During the course of my chores I was reminded, once again, that there are plenty of usage and meaning voids in the English lexicon.  I think we need a term for that particularly enraging inability to get lopping shears around the branch you want to cut due to the inability to see it through the other branches or the skewed angles at which one is often forced to attack the offending branch through the brush.  "Lopper Rage" seems many degrees too banal and not nearly visceral enough for that moment of blinding white infuriation when you can't get the mother$*!#&^% blades... around this mother%$*$#(@ branch... !!  Shwew.  Sorry.

Minor clipping conniptions aside, I soon found myself wandering between a good amount of brush, piles haphazardly dotting the yard.  I decided to drag it to one corner that abuts the woods in back, and just yards beyond, a steep drop off to the forest floor deep below.  It had occurred to me in the past that this would be a nifty spot for a ground blind as it overlooks a rather open section of the forest often flooded by the creek when it overflows its banks in spring.

I hadn't gotten around to building the ground blind before now, in part, because I am not a bow hunter.  Nor am I predisposed to be one, truthfully.  For decades, autumn weekends have meant tromping along behind a good looking mutt or two, and swinging on startled birds as they claw and flap for altitude before the backdrop of standing corn or golden leaves.  I've suffered more than a moment's pause thinking about trading all that to sit in a tree waiting for a deer to walk by.  Still, with the weeknight opportunity staring me right in the back deck (I could see the blind as I sit here if I cut just two spruce trees down), that personal opinion is bound to change.  I only wish the urge had truly struck in time for me to be ready to bow hunt now.  That, of course, would involve the possession of both a bow and the ability to shoot it well, apart from a good many other things, none of which I see laying about here.

So I rearranged a few landscaping ties between a tree and couple well-driven re-bar stakes on the precipice of the the drop-off, and screwed down a scrap of plywood to give myself a fairly level platform on which to park a handy chair.  If the whole works isn't actually cantilevered out over the abyss, it's close enough to feel like it sometimes.

All that was left was to drag in my recently trimmed brush, and have a good sit., which I did almost immediately.

Huginn's Aerie- with all the eye rolling, tongue in cheek pomposity I can muster
I've dubbed this new blind Huginn's Aerie partly because, if you're gonna pose as a faux-pretentious douche bag on the internet, as I sometimes find to be enjoyable here, you have to really swing for the fences to make it play.  And, more to the point, if you've managed to pick up some Norse mythology from anyplace other than the Marvel movies, you may remember that Huginn (or Hugin) is one of the ravens that flies all over the world and brings news back to the big cheese, Odin.  The name Huginn comes to us from the Old Norse "thought," and so I chose him for a namesake because that's what you do most of the time in any blind -- you sit and think.

Sometimes you ponder the actual hunting happening in front of you, but just as often the mind wanders wherever it pleases.  In a few short evenings of sitting and cogitating, I've already seen a respectable array of passers-by including the resident pair of great horned owls (I'd guess Jacinda has flown the coop for greener patches of hardwood, but I know little of juvenile owl habits), the somewhat more secretive (but still a local denizen, I believe) sharp-shinned hawk, a red fox, a family of three lumbering raccoons, annoyingly screechy blue jays (of course), plenty of deer, and chippies and squirrels too numerous to count. The most comical and consistent visitor thus far is one spectacularly unafraid chipmunk in particular, who seems to quite enjoy gnawing hazlenuts right in the blind with me, well within kicking range were I so inclined.  I'm probably the interloper, probably built the blind right on little dude's house, but he seems happy enough for the company and we get along in any case.

Almost all the green you can see in this view from The Aerie (except the
blind itself in the foreground) is invasive buckthorn,
about the only deciduous plant still green in the woods.
I got to thinking about buckthorn while taking in the sunset the other night.  If you've ever left the gravel parking lot at the trail head anywhere in this part of the world, you've encountered buckthorn.  You can't not have.  It's as ubiquitous as it is detrimental to native plants.

One of the main "ploys" buckthorn uses to out-compete native species so effectively lies in its ability to green up first in spring and stay green longer than most other woodland plants in fall.  With just such an extended growing season, it has little trouble sucking up more sun and nutrients, growing faster and longer, and choking out the less aggressive species around it.

Check it out.  This nimrod is about to wade directly into a possibly derisive religious discussion right in the middle of his perfectly harmless little outdoor blog.  Idiot...

I am and almost always have been more of a science-y guy when it comes to explaining the universe and everything in it.  It's more comfortable for me, but due maybe to my upbringing, I do believe there is a higher power out there somewhere as well, humming along in the background.  It, this higher power, is just very much more hands-off in my mind than it is in the minds of some of my more religious friends.  It may be there, but we don't hang much.  And I don't go in the for the big beardly guy sitting on a cloud either.  If anything, I hope it's Morgan Freeman in an all white suit.  That'd be pretty rad.

Nor was I ever much of a "be one with the forest" crystal-wearing spiritual New Age type, until one day when I thought about it through the prism of the periodic table.  If you look at the most populous elements in the universe and the most common materials in us as people, it's the same stuff.  Excepting helium which doesn't really do much for us at the temperatures we hang out in, you check off the list of stuff floating around out there... hydrogen, oxygen, (hi, we're predominately made of water), carbon... we are quite literally one with the forest, not to mention everything else that ever has been.  It's all from the same box of Legos.  Everything that is ever gonna be was puked out in a few seconds or so, and that's it.  We're molecularly one with most everything... or at least the four percent of the universe that isn't dark matter.  That's a different blog entirely.

So as I sat there, elementally at one with the roley-poley raccoons and brave little chipmunk, wondering how many gallons of  Roundup I'd need to put a dent in the local buckthorn population (now is the time of year, after all), it occurred me that maybe it was "meant to be" in some grand plan.  Maybe God or whoever is in charge has decided that buckthorn should take over this corner of the world, and that's just how it is.  And that kind of thinking brought me to thinking, in a roundabout way, of the classic God of the gaps conundrum.

God of the gaps, simply stated, is the practice of inserting God into any situation that science cannot define or explain.  It is taking the holes in our understanding of the world as proof of God's existence.  I have no problem with that on the face of it, except that it leads, without fail, to one massive problem.

Think about when there was a lot more stuff we could not understand scientifically.  Gravity, Newtonian physics, the motion of the stars and planets, self tanning lotion.  Many of them were given to God of the gaps through the ages -- the universe revolved around the Earth because God said so.  Fair enough.

Until we are able to put the observations to a thing, to formulate hypotheses, run ever-evolving experiments and prove scientifically why or how something happens or doesn't.  When that happens to a phenomenon previously attributed to God of the gaps, that deity becomes, by definition, nothing more than an ever-receding shadow of the unknown.  I don't like the thought of that.  It's jarring to me.  I much prefer the Morgan Freeman model, as a matter of fact.

This is what happens when you get some time in a new blind to hash things over.  At least it is when I do.  I'm old enough now that I can occasionally have upwards of five to seven complete thoughts before boobs pop in again, and put everything else back on hold.  I'd be babbling about even more random topics here if it weren't for the one thing I'm most excited about in The Aerie.

There are deer here.  Seemingly lots of them, to my frame of reference.

I'm used to deer hunting in the much larger, much thicker northwoods where deer have not been nearly as common as they are down here for quite a few years now.  There are wolves and bears and inexorably long, cold springs up there that often lay waste to the deer herd.  And there aren't thousands of acres of corn and soybeans for the deer to leisurely grow fat and abundant on up there, as there are down here.

I saw 5 deer the first evening I sat in Huginn's, and that was mere hours after I'd been in there stomping around, raising hell with the chainsaw and stinking the whole place up.  I've gone entire rifle seasons up north without seeing that many deer.  Hell, I think I've gone entire consecutive rifle seasons without seeing that many deer.  Not that you'd ever convince me to hunt during gun season anywhere but The Camp as long as they'll have me, but it is rather exciting, even somewhat startling, to actually see deer every half hour or so while sitting on a stand.  What a novel concept.

I may have to get into this bow hunting thing, after all.  And quickly.

Buckthorn about to block the vitals.  Imagine that.  Call in the Roundup truck.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Techno Feely Ya

Old guys gripe -- probably always have, and probably always will.  It's their prerogative.  They've been around long enough to have seen some stuff and, at the same time, not give much thought to what other's think of their opinions.  So they say what they think, sometimes with a good deal of artful snark.  I can't wait until I've reached the magical age where experience and lack of social imperative meet to suddenly grant me the right to bitch about whatever I like.

I once heard one of the guys in camp cheer for a Clay Matthews sack emanating from radio as we sat around the table tossing cards and shooting the bull, and in the very same breath, murmur something derogatory about the man's chosen hairstyle.  Mr Matthews had just blown up, in his manic way, what might've been a game-winning drive for the opposition, and my close friend of receding hairline and ready opinions was muttering something about goddamn hippies.

Now don't take me the wrong way, I love me my old guys, and I actually enjoy their griping most of the time.  Often it's said with a little implied wink, a snappy jab to let it be known they aren't quite ready to be pushed out on the ice floe for the good of the tribe.  And funny.  Pour a couple PBR's into the old guys in camp, and they'll rip into fly fishermen, golf, sit-coms, hot dogs... whatever... with a gleeful abandon that often leaves any novice onlookers in presumably stunned silence before the head-shaking laughter erupts.

One of the favorite topics for old guys to rip (after politicians and people from Illinois, of course) is the use of technology.  Kids these days and their... yadda yadda...  I'm positive there existed, at least one time in all the timeless generations of history, a Neanderthal elder huddled around a fire outside modern day Prague, muttering under his breath about these soft kids and their fancy-pants woven flax sandals.
Little should be taken seriously after the boot begins its circuit

I remember once professing, with no small bit of self-important authority, that every bit of technology used in the field served only to remove the user one step further from the true and honest experience of being in the woods.  It should be noted that I made this mildly idiotic proclamation while passing the boot at the Essen Haus in Madison, and therefore should be taken with the proverbial grain of brewer's yeast.

Of course technology aids us all in our every outdoor endeavor.  If it didn't, if we were true Luddites, we'd be walking to the river and bashing fish on the head with a rock -- which, come to think of it, would be a helluva lot cheaper.

We all have our own line of demarcation as to what we consider "too much" technology in the field, usually connected closely with age, experience, and personal proclivity for the use of such devices.  In fly fishing alone there exists the never-ending and sometimes heated debate between the pros and cons of using bamboo, fiberglass, or "modern" graphite and boron rods.  All choices have their moments of beauty and usefulness to varying degrees, but the truth is, if you're using any of them, you ain't rock bashing.  You've allowed technology to seep into your fishing.  For shame!

I have a buddy and extremely accomplished fisherman who states emphatically that, "if it uses batteries, it's a toy."  Implying that it's not a tool, and therefore has no place in the field.  This repeated statement comes to the fore most often in discussions concerning the use of GPS because he's an old school proponent of map and compass.  I tend to agree with him in this particular case, having been brought up with the topo and Silva myself, but I can't go so broad as to state emphatically that nothing which uses electricity belongs afield.  I have used hand-held GPS units in the past, but only to mark hot spots on the ice, never in the woods.

The mind fairly boggles when considering lists of things brought to use through modern technology that avail themselves to the current outdoorsman and woman.  It's absolutely everywhere.  Forced to narrow a list of technological advancements that have most impacted me in my life afield to a very spare few, they would be these.

  • Synthetic Clothing.  I've covered the use of modern clothing here to the point of beating a dead horse (with the aforementioned rock, of course).  Gone are the white waffle cotton base layers and felt-lined Sorrels of yesteryear.  We wear poly-pro next to our nethers now, and we are much more comfortable for it when it comes to working up a lather in the cold.  Down sucks as an insulator when it gets wet, nylon fleece does not.  And unless you work with the little yellow dude on the box of fish sticks, Gore-Tex or the like now goes on the outside in inclement weather, not PVC or rubber.
  • Fly tying materials.  As you've seen here for a couple years now, I can't tie a single fly in my preferred style without immediately and constantly reaching for materials that flash and sparkle, that were extruded through some process unknown to me in a factory somewhere full of modern polymers and glitter.
  • Real Time Sonar -- so called "Flashers."  I'm a Vexilar man, myself, but no matter the brand the modern ice man chooses, the flasher is most often his single most important, well-loved piece of gear.  Tip-up fisherman can bear to go without, but I don't know a single serious jigger of panfish or game species that would now fish without a flasher.  They're a clear and real window into what's happening below the ice.  I should mention, for the sake of being thorough, that ice fishing cameras cross my personal line of acceptable technology in the field for the rather nebulous (even to me) reasons hinted at above.
  • Social Media.  Here's a favorite gripe of the old timer, but for every time they mutter and kick at the dirt about the use of Facebook and YouTube contributing to the death of the true outdoorsman, I believe there is another instance in which some guy or girl out there is using them to learn how to fish or hunt.  Some peoples' dads didn't or couldn't teach them how to huntfishforagecamp for whatever reason, and for those folks, the internet is an invaluable recourse, a nearly bottomless font of information at the fingertips.

There are still innumerable times when the old way is the better way, or more often, the more enjoyable way.  Sometimes it's just cooler to go old school.  

If I ever find the time to add bow hunting to my still-growing list of outdoor pursuits, it will include, at least at some point, chasing deer with a traditional bow.  I'll probably start with a modern compound bow in a tree stand both because that will be the natural continuation of my rifle hunting and because that appears to be the easiest way to go; but at some point, I hope to find myself on the ground, face darkened with schmutz, stalking with longbow or recurve in hand.

For a recent evening meal, I chose to go old school with venison in cast iron on a matchless Swedish fire torch, simply for the joy of practicing a little backyard bushcraft from my teenage years.  You can now actually find Swedish fire torches (also sometimes called Swedish candles) in stores, pre-cut into the signature wedges with a chainsaw from seasoned hardwood.  They come cocooned and clean in plastic wrap for those less likely to have a hatchet or saw handy, which never fails to elicit a little mocking eye roll from yours truly.  I understand not everyone wants to be out there grubbing it up, but getting dirt stains on your knees is half the fun for me.

For the purposes of remaining a tad less yuppie-fied than that, and to keep things feeling more retro, I went with a grubby little white pine stump I'd cut during spring clean-up, and left out in the rain and weather for half a year.  If you're gonna practice a little roughing it, running out to Williams Sonoma simply won't do.  A quick buzz with the chainsaw to square up the notched end left from felling, and a few well placed whacks with the hatchet to split the log into quarters, and we were under way.

I don't think we have to wander into profound firecraft excitations here, but I will note that when it's been raining for a few days, and you're found to be coaxing a fire without matches or a lighter (whether through choice or necessity) mature milkweed seeds make for great tinder in season.  They remain dry encased in those odd rubbery pods, and catch a spark very well when properly floofed up.

Once you have your small fire going in the normal fashion, building the torch is simply a matter of smushing up the quarters of your log around it so it begins to take on the form of a reassembled chunk of wood.  Kindling can then be crosshatched up in the open spaces to bring the fire to the log.  Things will go much better for you here if everything you're working is as square and level as feasible from the start.

While the appeal of the store-bought Swedish fire torch is purely that it looks cool and burns well, it's true utilitarian roots lie in the fact that it is at once a great stable cooking surface and is also easily moved.  Once you get to this point, you can pick up the quarters individually, and as long you don't dally, move your cooking fire wherever you'd like.  The fire level is controlled by simply adjusting the proximity of the quarters to each other.  There is always sweet spot, depending on the conditions and wood, that allows the torch to get enough air and still remain close enough to burn.  That's the Goldilocks zone you want to find.

Then it's simply a matter of perching your pan on top, and getting to the business of making some grub.  I'd cut and parboiled the sprouts and sweet potato in the house here.  Seasoned them too.  I'm not a damn heathen.

  A splash of Oktoberfest for steam and sauce, some additional kindling if things are really damp.  Perfectly acceptable steps when needed.  Even though the fire burns from the inside out, as you can see here, as long as you don't flail about too much, things remain perfectly stable.  No cheffy sauté flip thing here -- use your tongs to stir.  Or a pocket knife, in this case.

I prefer my venison very rare.  Still snort-wheezing, as it were.  Under normal circumstances, I simply set it in the general proximity of a mild heat source for a few moments -- a 60-watt light bulb, say.  In an extraordinary show of selflessness, however, I actually laid my marinated steaks in the pan quickly for the purposes of this post. 

That dog'll hunt.

That wasn't exactly hanging unseasoned steaks on a forked stick over the fire, but neither was it making use of the latest and greatest technology in camp cookery.  Which, by the way, would've made me just as happy to do.

You want to go all space-age with your hunting, fishing, foraging and cooking?  I'm fine with that.  You'd like to chuck homemade darts with an atlatl?  Go nuts.  I'm just pleased you're out there doing it.  You may want to check local regs on bashing fish with rocks before you try that one.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Tracer Round Tutorial

I was struck by the muse in the bottle last night, sipping bourbon and staring at the vice, when the color of my Buffalo Trace in the glass inspired a new pattern.  It's been a while since I did a fly tying tutorial, and I've never done one here on A Tenderloin, so here we go... Introducing, The Tracer Round.

"New pattern" being a relative term, of course, and a bit of a stretch in most cases -- including this one.  Almost all flies in the modern era are revamped iterations of previous patterns.  With very few exceptions (I'm looking at you and your Game Changer, Mr. Chocklett), most of us tie directly on the shoulders of, and in concert with, our contemporaries.

I do bristle a bit when one among us throws a different set of legs (head, wings, etc.) on a well-loved pattern, and calls it their own.  But barring the occasional leap forward in creativity at the vise, that's how these things most often evolve.  If you can't see the Wooly Buggers in a Sex Dungeon, you need your eyes checked.

Try that as a pick-up line at the bar sometime.

So we watch what the other guys are tying, and add our own twist to the mix.  More presciently, some of the more observant and intuitive among us attempt the fill a void in our repertoire or more completely appease the "needs" of certain fishing conditions with a certain pattern.  The latter is partly where I was coming from with the Tracer Round, alcohol-fueled inspiration aside.

If you've read here much at all, you know I'm a proponent of the big, meaty articulated streamers.  They're fun to tie, fun to chuck, and they work.  They've also left a hole in the spectrum of the flies I like to tie and fish.  In my boxes you can -- concerning size and profile -- reach for either a #8 bugger or the like on the small end... or ginormous, honking articulated streamers of all manner on the big end.  And there ain't much in between.

Hopefully a smaller and lighter articulated fly like the Tracer Round, downright dainty as it is compared to its steroidal streamer brethren, will help fill that void.  To my mind, it can, um... trace (sorry) its lineage to a bunch of Hog Snare, some Voodoo Squatch, with a little Sex Dungeon and Peanut Envy thrown in.  Not to mention a good dose of Kentucky firewater.

Enough with the yapping.  Nobody cares.  Let's tie.

The Hardware:
Gamakatsu B10s #2
35mm Fish Skull shank
Uni 8/0 - Light Cahill

The Software:
Marabou - cream, tan, burnt orange
Fire Fly - gold
Krystal Flash - root beer
Mallard Flank - "wood duck" gold
Dubbing - Awesome Possum, light yellow
Mini Speckled Centipede Legs (Orvis) -  orange, tan
Craft Fur -  cream, tan
Sculpin Wool - tan
Fish Skull Living Eyes - Earth

Tie in a sparse cream marabou tail the length of the shank.  I'm pulling off the "waste" pieces near the base of the quill here, so as to not use an entire plume for something that's gonna be pretty buried.  Just need a little color here.

Tie in a tan marabou plume by the tip, and make 2 wraps forward.  Like a wet fly hackle.  Secure.

Add a few strands each of gold Fire Fly and root beer Krystal Flash.  Trim just longer than the tail.

Tie in a burnt orange marabou feather by the tip, and make 2 wraps forward.  Like a wet fly hackle.  Secure.

Tie in the gold mallard flank by the tip, and dub forward about half the shank length.

Palmer the mallard flank forward to the end of the dubbing and secure.  Repeat with another, larger mallard flank and round of dubbing.  Palmer forward to within about a hook-eye distance of the eye.

Center tie one each of the orange and tan centipede legs, folding over to secure so you end up with 4 legs per side.  Trim just shorter than the tail.

Reverse tie 2 clumps of craft fur.  Cream on the bottom, tan on top.

Fold back the craft fur (the body of a ball point pen works great here), and secure over the body of the fly.

Insert the open end of the articulated shank through the hook eye, and secure with your thread.  Hit it with some cement.

Repeat the exact same steps on the shank, tying the same fly twice and leaving room for a head.

Center tie the sculpin wool on top and bottom, and fold back over the body to form the head.  Secure.

Glue on some peepers.  I went with the spares you get with the sculpin helmets here.  I was thinking "light and small" this entire fly, but you can certainly go bigger with the eyes.

Sip bourbon and admire.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Stop Sucking

Holding expertise does not always result in good teaching.  We've all had the express displeasure of being taught by less than stellar educators.  Not just in the classroom, but also in life, and for the purposes of this blog, in the field.

I've been told many times that I should've been or still should be a teacher.  The numbers are probably skewed simply because I know a lot of teachers and everything looks like a nail to a hammer, but it happens fairly often that somebody says, only half mockingly, "Dude, you shoulda been a teacher."  I disagree.

Even in the few areas in which I hold a modicum of expertise, my teaching style often leaves quite a bit to be desired.  Holding the knowledge is not the same as being able to express it in an articulate and useful manner.  I can easily recall more than one instance in which a session showing somebody how to tie a fly or make a roll cast devolved into near-silent charades, ever increasing in intensity until both of us were frustrated almost beyond caring.  Monkey see, monkey don't.  When I get flustered in a demo situation, my usually acceptable command of the language largely sublimates into the wind, and I'm reduced to mumbling idiocy.

Stop sucking, just do the shit like this! may have actually passed from internal mantra to verbal exhortation on occasion, though only with the buddies I know can take it while happily pointing out everything I stumble over.

Pro Tip: if you ever get the urge to teach your significant other to fly cast, just slam your head in the truck door a few times, and get it over with before you start.  The only time I've bickered more intensely was the time we tried to put plastic film up on the windows together in an old apartment.  That stuff that probably saves three nickles on the gas bill, but takes a year off your life due to the stress of putting it up together -- divorce lawyers should sell that stuff in bulk.

Zeke gives spinning a shot on my vice by lantern light
I will say that when it goes well, introducing somebody to a new skill can be very gratifying.  A while back I was in New York for a fishing vacation with some friends from an internet forum.  My buddy Zeke and I sat down at the vice for a lesson in spinning and stacking deer hair on the hook.  I managed to remain coherent and somewhat informative, he didn't get frustrated, and all went swimmingly.  As it ended up, a line of people formed at the table to take their turns at spinning hair, and I had to rush at the end to catch the evening bite out on the lake, grateful and humbled to have been looked to for a bit of instruction in something I am fairly practiced at.

It doesn't always go so smoothly.  I once found myself watching late night baseball with an inebriated Argentinian college student in a dorm room in Portland, Oregon.  You heard me.  We'd returned from a long night on the town with a group of students, and I was none too sober myself.  I don't recall now what happened to the rest of the group, but there we were, suddenly alone with the Mariners on the tube.  Saturday night rock stars.

While I'm no baseball expert, I am a patriot and fan with a comprehensive understanding of the rules.  Twenty-some years of fandom, however, did little in preparation to explain the simplest of baseball regulations to a wobbly South American struggling mightily to understand the game and remain upright on a bean bag chair.  Our little vignette here opens with a foul ball down the third base line.

"So, nothing happens if the man hits the ball outside those white lines?" slurred our foreign friend.

"Not exactly. It counts as a strike unless he already has two strikes.  If he has two strikes, then nothing happens.  Then it's basically out of bounds and a do-over."

The catcher then immediately fielded a foul pop to end the inning.  Slowly assuming the form and posture of a garden slug in the bean bag, "I thought you said nothing would happen?"

"Yeah... unless the defensive player catches it on the fly.  Then it's an out."

"What's 'on the fly'?"

"... so... you play soccer?"

Which goes to show there comes a point in our understanding of any subject or activity wherein we are able to pass over the details to take in the entire picture.  The little stuff becomes given that the big picture may play out.

Experts hold "conditionalized knowledge," meaning the knowledge they hold reflects context and situation, and they can retrieve it quickly without much additional effort in the corresponding instances.  Novices, by definition, cannot be so lucky.  They have to slog their way through seemingly important patterns and facets that may mean nothing in the big picture, but appear to hold the key to cracking the code at any moment.

We woodsmen look at the woods and see individual species.  How they might be useful to us or relate to the species we're chasing, be they feather, fur, or fungus.  We see systems and interconnectedness and where we'd build the lean-to if we had to spend an unplanned night.  The novice can't see that.

On the other hand, if I look at a spreadsheet full of numbers or a malfunctioning carburetor, my brains starts to go all soft and tallowy.  I hear the Benny Hill theme, and feel the need to go fishing.

No matter our level of teaching proficiency, it is our duty as outdoorsy folks of all stripes -- fishers and hunters, foragers and wanderers alike -- to teach.  To get outsiders involved in our favorite activities.  Not only to bring to them the same joy we feel out there, but to preserve our outdoor way of life.

I used to bristle at that thought.  My personal manner of getting outside involves a lot of getting away from, well... everybody.  That's not the right way or the wrong way, but often when I head out there, I'm hoping to pass my time without seeing another soul.

The thought of bringing others into it only to clutter up the joint once seemed so counter intuitive.  Why would anyone ever want to see more chuckleheads clogging up the trout stream?

The answer has become obvious with age and accumulated knowledge.  If we don't encourage others to partake, vast libraries of personal knowledge and experience will be lost forever.  Not only that, but when there's nobody left to practice our lifestyle it will be deemed outdated and inconsequential, ancillary at best.  It will wither on the vine.

The proliferation of technology as it pertains to our outdoor pursuits is a massive subject due an entire blog entry of its own here (and much more), but I will say that there are many examples of how it can be used for teaching and learning in the arena.  For me, YouTube plays a very large role.

I watch a lot of fly tying demos.  I have shelves full of fly tying books, and while they remain both useful and sometimes beautiful in their compositions, nothing beats seeing it happen right in front of your eyes, sometimes in high definition, with the ability to pause and rewind at will.

There are all sorts of fly tying teachers floating around out there in the YouTube ether.  They range in style, quality, and teaching ability across a wide spectrum -- from Brian Wise, whose videos of chunkalicious streamers are played back on fast forward to thumping music for those of us who have existing knowledge of the materials and techniques used, to Davie McPhail.  His very comfortable pace and euphonious brogue lend themselves to in-depth and relaxed, comprehensive instruction.  If you ever zoned out to Bob Ross and The Joy of Painting on PBS back in the day, that's the neighborhood Mr. McPhail inhabits to me in the fly tying world, and his videos are as mesmerizing as they are instructive.  A happy little pine tree lives right here...

This post is sort maundering out of control at this point, but I think what we're driving at here is that if you know how to do something, especially something outdoorsy where this blog lives, I think you should teach others how to do it.  Don't mind the fumblings and stumblings if your teaching style is as abrupt and stilted as mine sometimes is.  They'll be happy for the instruction.

Brian has been shooting woodcock since before I could dress myself.  When I think of proficiency in an outdoor activity, I often think of him.  The way he powders a bird, then thumbs another shell into that ultralight pump gun as an afterthought.  I'm grateful for his years of instruction, and happy to report that the young buck here can now often hit the bird before he does when we swing on the same one.  Sucks getting old, I'm told.

Of course, all the experience in the world, mountains of teaching and learning, can do little when the birds simply aren't there.  Sometimes you just have to follow the old guy's lead when he says...

... Piss on it, dude.  Let's go get a burger.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

This is Nuts!

I dumped out my morning haul of hickory nuts today, and they just landed like that.  I swear!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Zoning Out

I played golf once in college, and that was about the third time I'd ever been on a course other than to float tiny "boats" down streams and generally stomp around in winter.  I don't remember the circumstances that lead to me suddenly finding myself, squinting slightly dazed and out of place, on a driving range with my buddies Ace and Dean, but there I was giving it a shot.

I had an excellent teacher in the Aceman.  He was a single-digit handicapper at the time with the long, flowing swing employed successfully only by those of athletic grace unknown to most of us.  (An athletic prowess, by the way, that also allowed him to almost casually throw at extremely snappy velocities.  I can easily recall that distinctive rocketing hssssss of an Ace-thrown baseball -- the hiss you only hear when a ball has been fired from a serious arm cannon.  And the startling mitt POP! that would make people stop and look while we threw the ball around in the green space now occupied by the Kohl Center.)

There we stood on the recently rain-soaked range with a bucket of balls and a teacher whose very moniker had been earned through achieving a hole in one not once, but twice.  Ace is a good friend, so with undying patience he instructed me from the ground up.  Tips and pointers I don't remember about hips and elbows.  How this should feel and that should look.  Keep my hands here, pause there, and remember to breath.

I was headed for the PGA, and I hadn't even hit a ball yet.  After absorbing all the instruction I could hold, I stepped up to the tee for my first colossal hack, and unceremoniously buried the face of the club deep in the mud about a foot behind the ball.  A ball that remained frustratingly inert on the tee, completely unmoved by my ungainly thrashing.  It was then that I further considered dedicating my free time to becoming a mediocre fly fisherman rather than an awful golfer.

Somewhere in the midst of our later 9-hole round a wholly unexpected thing happened.  I'd hit a decent drive (one that didn't fly off on some oblique trajectory, actually landed in the fairway to the amazement of all),  and under Ace's instruction, I lined up my iron shot.  In that mystifying and elusive moment that happens only so rarely, I swung easily and made a fine shot.  More importantly here, I felt it almost immediately on the strike.

It landed pin high, on the left edge where he had told me to aim, and followed the natural slope of the green down so near the cup even I could make the putt.  I walked up, read the break correctly, and put it in the hole.  The remainder of my round was an ongoing and unmitigated catastrophe the likes of which they should've written brooding Norse sagas about, but for the briefest of instances, I'd known what it felt like to be "in the zone" on a golf course.

I don't think we really know what "the zone" is.  The fact that it may be different for everyone or may come in varying degrees of intensity for the same person make defining it even more difficult.  For me it involves a full immersion in the activity at hand.  Complete focus and control in that time span also play roles.  And the infamous time distortion people mention.  It felt like everything was happening in slow motion -- we hear and say that a lot when we talk about the zone.

It's a rare and beautiful thing to find oneself in the zone.  Even rarer to suddenly blip into existence there right out of the gate.

I took a walk in the woods behind the house this past weekend, armed with my much-loved bolt action .22 and thoughts of fried squirrel.  Hunting seasons had just opened that morning in Wisconsin, and I was primed and pumped to gather some protein.  A shotgun is often a more logical choice for early season squirrels, often obscured from the shooter with all the green still up, but my first tree rat hunt of the year will be with that nimble little Savage rimfire until one of us is in the ground.

I grew up shooting that peep sight, and had a bit of a tough time adjusting to scoped rifles when it became clear I was going to get more shooting opportunities using them in the low light conditions when bucks often appear.  I got comfortable enough eventually, but there still exists a smidge of hesitation and adjustment when I put my eye behind a scope that isn't there behind the Lyman.

It's to the point now, using that .22 with the peep on shots that test the limits of both gun and marksman, that it becomes nothing more than a matter of feel.  Meat conserving head shots are paramount to me on small game such as squirrels.  When Mr. Fluffy Tail appears before me at such a trying range that he is almost completely obscured by the front sight post and I lean the barrel against a tree for support, I hold on the center of his body, and give the slightest nudge with my cheek or left thumb as I take out the last bit of trigger creep. (I actually clench my teeth when I need to push left, making that little knot pop out on the corner of my jaw, and that does the trick).  I settle there, and with the lightest, almost inadvertent addition of pressure to the trigger, when I'm in the zone, the lead is well on past my dinner's far ear before he even begins his tumble to the forest floor.

I gave up, and contented myself with stealing his dinner.
It doesn't always happen that way, but it did twice on Saturday morning.  A welcome and surprisingly abrupt return to the sweet spot in a breeze barely hinting at the cold to come.  Monday morning I missed a much closer squirrel twice with a scatter gun.  Though, as if to present a convenient excuse for me which I'll gladly employ here, he was bounding along up in the thick green tops.

Comfort, and even a little time in the zone, did eventually come with the scoped rifles.  I remember the first buck I shot when I used to hunt over by the rifle range years ago.

I had a tree stand parked on a thickly poppled knob overlooking a beaver pond and the game trail that encircled its perimeter, supported by an aspen roughly the diameter and tensile strength of overcooked rigatoni.  It was a nice spot, but there was plenty of pucker factor in that little tree on windy days.

I'd grown comfortable enough with the scope by that point, but by some happenstance unknown to me, I found myself running through the process of the shot in my mind all through the season that year.  Even on the drive up, I concentrated obsessively on sight picture, trigger pull, and follow through.  While hunting, I ran the imagery through my mind on a near-constant loop like an athlete would do before a contest, as a way to remain alert on the stand.

Quit making me laugh, ya bastards. This is serious.
When that massive northwoods buck (OK, it was just a little forky) stepped into view, I was prepared.  For the first time in my brief career as wielder of a scoped centerfire, there was no need for pause or adjustment.  It was about the only time I've ever set the crosshairs immediately and precisely where I wanted them on an animal.  One of the very few times I pulled smoothly and saw the impact happen through the scope, saw the insides explosively become the outsides on the other side of his rib cage as clearly as if it had happened five feet away.  I guess sometimes you can pick the locks, and force your way into the zone.  I don't know why I don't more often.  I miss often enough that I certainly should.

That sweet spot of perfect execution is not limited to shooting, of course.  I most often encounter it at the fly vice and sometimes in the kitchen or sitting here spewing forth these tales of outdoor triumph and failure.

The doing of repetitious small tasks often leads me there.  Anything from spinning repeated gobs of deer hair on a hook to peeling a pile of spuds, the activity in question doesn't matter.  If I'm in the right mindset I'll make it a game, imagining myself in a contest to become the fastest and cleanest tater peeler this side of the ol' Mississip.  Soon I'm on autopilot, hands functioning with almost no thought given to their actions.

We used to talk quite a bit about that state of "rigorous autopilot" in drum & bugle corps (insert collective moan from the DSO fellas, I know.  Bear with me, gentlemen).  At that activity's highest levels, the search for perfection leads up a path that eventually comes to extremely small degrees of differentiation at the apex of a huge scale.  Minutiae and exacting detail rule your every performing thought at those tiny spans of separation.  Fractions of pitches and inches and seconds.   After hundreds of hours of rehearsal on a single piece of music and movement, so much information concerning technique and execution has been wedged into the soul of the player that he or she cannnot hope to perform at an acceptable level outside that near-mystical level of precision autopilot.  You just line up and twelve minutes later, panting hard and dripping sweat, they're screaming in the stands.  Deep in the zone.

The place I often find the autopilot zone most fleeting and frustratingly elusory also happens to be one of my favorite pastimes -- fly fishing.  More specifically, the glorious and terrible art of casting.  Much like the golf swing, fly casting is all about rhythm, timing, and feel.  And much like the golf swing, you can learn the basics in a short time, then spend decades working out the kinks to perfect it.  It's all long flowing loops and the poetry of physics in motion until it isn't.  Then it's tripping on line, strained epithets, and ugly coiled heaps on the water.

I have dipped a toe in the cryptic pool of flycasting zone on occasion, and a particular cast and fish stands out in the recalling of rare moments basking in that gentle glow.

A couple years ago I was invited to take part in a shakedown smallmouth trip on a Michigan river with my buddy Flockshot and his guide friend Aaron.  Even though we caught fish numbering somewhere on the north side of sixty that day, Flock may remember this particular fish when he reads this.  I'm not a whooping and hollering Fish On! type when I latch in to a big one.  Instead I usually go silent in concentration, but at the moment of this particular bite in the zone, I startled myself and everyone else by sharply bellowing, "Holy shit!" loud enough to shatter the gentle sussurations of a pleasant trip down the river.

My float had begun spectacularly far outside the zone.  Casting with a guide rod, on an unfamiliar river, standing at the bow of a raft I'd never been in, I was a towering beacon of suck.  Flailing like a crack monkey.  I couldn't see the solar system containing the zone with the Hubble Space Telescope.  With time and a couple smallish fish, I slowly improved.  Eventually, I got my wits about me and my act together, and began to fish like a moderately competent human being.

It was an odd day on the river, for me at least, in that we started with dink smallies, and the fish got progressively larger as we neared the end.  Maybe Aaron used his double secret guide mojo or the power of the beard to home in on the proper fly selection and boat positioning as the day played out.  Or maybe the fatties were too lazy to swim upstream to our launch.  I'm not sure.

Somewhere around the midpoint of the float, I found myself approaching an event horizon of imminent zonage.  Still in the bow as a guest, my cast had un-bungled itself into something resembling an effective fly presenting tool.  I spied a perfect lie -- an underwater log, barely visible from behind polarized amber shades, jutting into the current with that slick of pillow water behind it that denotes a washed out hole.  Overhanging brush provided both shade and cover for the hole, and a formidable defense against probing flies.

You forget to grin like an idiot when stumbling down out of the zone. 
Everything slowed.  I took a breath, a double-haul false cast, and laid a long, low cast perfectly just upstream of the log.  A quick mend gave the streamer a moment's pause, and it disappeared into the deep.  The instant my offering vanished from clear view I witnessed that slightly eerie signature apparition, that thing we're all chasing out there waving sticks around -- the torpedo flash and shadow of Darwin's own predator crushing the life out of a fly.

It was a great fish, though not my biggest of the day.  Probably not even the biggest that hour.  But it remains clear to mind (and heart) among countless other catches before and since because it happened when all things came together, when focus and motivation collided with loss of self consciousness at the zenith of control.

It happened in the zone.    
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