Saturday, June 29, 2013

HEX - trade secrets

I have fished a fair number of hex hatches over the years and I have settled on certain aspects of fly design.  There are a number of excellent patterns on the market and many more tied by guys like me who have their own secret "Hex" weapon.  But, when it comes down to the few hours a year I get to fish the hexagenia hatch, (and if I am fishing dry) I tie on one of these two patterns.

Here is what I've concluded about dry flies for the hex hatch.
1.  I like an extended body...but I don't like them to be rigid.  I've had a number of fish suck a fly down and yet I never got a hook in them.  I believe that the rigid extended bodies have kept the hook from getting into the "hooking zone".  I originally switched to a segmented body threaded onto a 5wt running line thinking that the line would add floation.  The segmentation worked well as I believe that my hooking percentage went up.  I don't think the 5wt running line was as limp as it should've been so I've since changed to doubled over 4-5x'll see what I'm talking about in the pics below.

2. I fish spinners 95% of the time.  If it's a spinner fall the spinners "match the hatch" (or more correctly the "fall".  If it's an emergence, I believe the fish see the down winged version as a cripple/stillborn or at least a healthy struggling fly with damp wings unable to fly.  I believe that fish that have spent a few nights feeding on a hex emergence see this version of the fly as easy pickings. 

I've reached a point in my Hex tying that I haven't revised this fly much in the past few years.  It's a little bit tedious to tie in terms of prep work, but once the extended body is assembled it's pretty smooth sailing.  Take a look and if you are interested, confused, or have some thoughts on improving these patterns... shoot me a message.

Salmo's Hex Dun

Old aluminum tent pole, sharpened and beveled to cut foam disks. 

Disks threaded onto doubled over 4-5x tippet

Zap-A-Gap on Tippet and then foam is slid into place. Doubled tippet left long to lash to the hook and as tails. 

Extended Body attached to the hook

Parachute wing post of relatively stiff (but not too stiff!) synthetic.

Under Thorax of foam lashed and thorax dubbed.  Add two hackle feathers.

Hackle wrapped, thorax foam pulled under and secured behind the eye.

Clip excess foam, whip finish and cement the thread.  Abdomen colored with marker (optional). 

View from below.

Salmo's Hex Spinner

Extended body attached to the hook.

Synthetic down wing + a little flash, figure 8 tied.

Top View

Dubbed Thorax

Foam Head/Thorax.  Poke a hole in the foam and slide over the eye.

Lash the foam behind the wing / in front of the extended body.

Cut foam.

Monday, June 24, 2013


It's 5:00 pm on Monday June 24th.  Ive been awake since 6:30 am Sunday June 23rd.  I fished Sunday night and took a short break only to start again at 3:00 am this morning.  At 8:45 this morning I called it quits, took a shower, had breakfast and spent the day with my family and McSteel's family doing things that make kids giggle and smile.  And then they do something that isn't giggling or smiling and I think I probably should have slept last night because my patience was left at yesterday's door.

But it's 5:00 pm on Monday and we are going back out fishing.  My brother-in-law, my father-in-law, McSteel and me.  Easy wading, a short hike, lots of mosquitoes.   Hopefully we will get some walleyes after the sun sinks.  If not, the lake has Northern Pike, Small Mouth Bass, Perch...maybe some Crappies.

We pull over to the side of the gravel road on the way and my brother-in-law jumps out of the truck to harvest some Oyster mushrooms off of a dead Poplar tree.  In the cab of the truck he shows them to me and I wonder why mine come in a foam box with cellophane wrapped over them and his come on a tree.

We get to the brushy turn off and park in a clearing that was obviously logged a number of years ago.  Rods are rigged and Deet is applied to my hair and neck and the back of my hands.  I'm careful not to get the chemical on my palms.  I'd hate to melt an $80 flyline.  I wipe the back of my hands on my ears and under my chin so that the mosquitoes will hesitate before biting me there.

McSteel and I wade in and my father-in-law and brother-in-law find a spot among the cedars to cast out into the flowing neck that connects these two lakes.  My father-in-law says it's shallow and it should be easy wading.  The bottom is covered with bowling ball to desk sized boulders that make the wading slow and deliberate.  Plus, I've been awake for too many hours and I'm not feeling as nimble as all of this requires.  I cross the narrow channel and head to the shore of the upper lake.  Pitching my fly as I stop between steps, I pull in a decent perch and then two 12" pike.  McSteel calls them snot-rockets.  Good name.

At the corner where the upper lake ends and the narrow flow begins, I double haul out and strip back.  At first I double hand strip and then, when I am satisfied that I can allow the fly to sink, I slow it down and retrieve with a single hand.

My spun deer hair streamer attracts the attention of a 16"-17" smallmouth that pulls hard against the graphite in my 8 weight.  I realize that I am pulling back hard and the fish is doing the same with some success.  Eventually subdued, the bass is healthy and dark with some bronze showing through its flanks.  A pretty fish and a hard fight.  I count this as a success.

After almost landing a 3-4 pound northern pike that eventually gets it's teeth on my leader and cuts the line as it thrashes by my side, I hear some commotion behind me and learn from my brother-in-law that his Dad has caught the twin to the one that stole my fly.

The sun dips below the horizon and lights up the remaining clouds with a pink glow.  I pause and take a few pictures and notice that the mosquitoes are buzzing in the exact same tone as my tired brain.

I am back at the bank having successfully retraced my steps from earlier.  McSteel, and my brother-law are watching my father-in-law fish.  McSteel has his buff pulled up and when he speaks it sounds like he's wearing a scarf.  Still, I wish that I hadn't forgotten my buff back at home.  I'd wipe Deet on it and pull it up over the back of my cap, over my ears, under my hood and leave just my eyes exposed.  My brother-in-law kneads his hands unconsciously and this seems to stop most of the mosquitoes from getting a bite.  I look around me and realize that I'm surrounded by a cloud of them.

The tired buzz in my brain is no match for the din of these assassins.  They win and we leave them to find an alternate source of blood for the evening.

Oyster mushrooms before

Oyster mushrooms after
Perch Non-photogenic
Evening on a secluded lake in N. MN

Back Home Up There

It was supposed to be a bucket list weekend for me and McSteel.

He finished the Birkie and then joined me in a training program that was supposed to culminate in a joint trip to Duluth, MN for the Grandma's Marathon.  (Our wives ran it last year and left us feeling like maybe we needed to step up our game.)  Two weeks before this weekend's race, McSteel shot me an email with a photo of his freshly broken ankle.  It was a freak accident that cracked a bone and broke a few hearts....tough stuff after a 374 mile training program including a couple of 20 milers.  Despite the tough break, he and his family joined me and my family and we made the trip.  The ladies ran the half marathon and I completed the full...McSteel just put on his game face and supported all of us.

My friend TP and his wife joined us for dinner that night after the run.  Drinking and eating and talking about fish (and art) was a great way to end an already successful day.   TP grew up in the same town I did and lived a life of fish and hockey and art much the way I did.  He's an interesting guy for me to talk to because though our early years were very similar, he is quite a few years younger than me and he's learned some things that I have missed.  Always a pleasure. 

We packed up the morning after the race and headed north to a place where I've spent a quite a bit of time.  It's further north than my original hometown but the roots of my wife's family run deep up here and I've adopted it as my own.  (I like it so much that my wife and I plopped down some cash on a couple of acres for the days after the kids have moved out and we fully intend to be sick of the grind.)  We settled in to a nice relaxing post-race day and McSteel and his wife put together a fantastic dinner before I suggested we grab our waders and hit the door for the shore of Lake Superior and some late evening fishing.

The lake was settling down from a day of waves and rain and the fog hung heavy.  It wasn't the ideal evening, like when the lake flattens out and you can scan the surface for rising fish, but it wasn't exactly miserable either.  We put in about an hour and half before it got dark enough that I couldn't see McSteel across the outflowing river current that was dividing our fishing water.  Fishless, we decided to call it a night and headed back up to warmth and dry clothes and cold beer.  We had covered a mile of the two mile uphill drive when we both noticed that the fog was gone.   It was surprising to see the soft glow of the sun edging the northern horizon at 11:00 pm.  There is something stunning about being far enough north that you can get at least a small taste of the midnight sun.

I suggested we head back down to the lake the next morning at 4:00 and try to be fishing by 4:30.  McSteel said that I should go and that he'd meet me there.  I went to bed at 12:30.  Lying in bed I thought about how much I love fishing up here and the beauty of the lake and how happy I was to have finished a marathon and then I looked at my watch and it was 1:30 am.

I grabbed my phone and googled a few things and read about MN fishing regulation changes and the history of North Shore Commercial Fishing from 1839-1847 and then I looked at my watch again and it was 2:30. 

At 2:45 I was downstairs drinking hot coffee and quietly washing the agates that I found the previous day.  At 3:15 am I was at the lake, waders on and pitching flies into the outgoing current looking at the glow from the Northeast and watching the "Supermoon" going down in the southwest.  I waded out to a chunk of exposed rock and stood there in a moment of complete awe.  The flat lake reflecting the most beautiful morning I could ever remember seeing.  I thought about the "Double Rainbow" guy whose videos went viral on youtube.
I felt like that guy.

As if all of this wasn't enough, at a little before 5:00 am a freight train hit my fly, tailwalked for a few feet, splashed down again and then put on a series of aerial acrobatics that made me think I'd hooked a baby tarpon.  When I finally got things under control, I fumbled with a few quick snapshots of a 25" chrome bright, unclipped steelhead. 

Perfect mornings.

At around 6:00 I went back to my rig to swap out a line.  The SA streamer line that I was heaving didn't like the temp of the Big Lake and was getting tangled in the stripping basket.  In my haste to re-string and get back on the water, I dropped the rear window of my Honda Pilot back to the closed and locked position with the keys inside.  I considered worrying about how I was going to remedy that situation when it occurred to me that some problems can wait.

This decision was made all the more easy by deciding that the fishing certainly could not wait.

At some point in the morning I turned and saw McSteel swinging the current with his switch rod.  He didn't make a production out of his arrival, just stepped in and started.  That's one of the things I like about him.  I climbed down from my perch and crossed over the river to where he was fishing and he told me that he just had a pull and was hoping to get his hands on whatever it was that had intercepted his fly.  I fished near him for awhile and within 15 minutes I watched his rod bow and jump with the tension of a hooked fish.  That fish stayed on for only a few seconds which confirmed a few things I already knew,
1. This place has fish
2. You don't win them all.

McSteel seemed more excited than disappointed and he verbalized later the thing that intrigues me most about the fishing in Superior.  He said, "I wonder what that thing was?"

I left him alone to try and answer that question and headed back to my rig where I secured a coat hanger (don't ask...) and broke into my own vehicle in less than 2 minutes.

As I suspected...these kinds of problems can usually wait.

(Note:  In a rush to get on the road I left a packed bag on my bed at home.  Inside, my fleece wading pants, rain jacket, buff and camera.  Cold and wet I can deal camera is more than I can bear.  Luckily my wife lent me her little Canon point and shoot and I tried my best with what I had.)

McSteel eyeing the flow after dark.

25" Chromer...landing and taking the picture of this hot fish was a wee bit challenging.

Sage, Hatch, Supermoon

McSteel swings the big blue.

Hatching at the time

McSteel and the incredible light

McSteel, end of the evening.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Invitation Accepted

Just to Clarify:
When a buddy asks if you want to go out and fish Muskies in his boat while he rows...Say yes.

If you offer to take the sticks for awhile and he says "no, I'm good, keep fishing", just turn around and keep casting. 

But know that you will owe him some beer eventually.

If the same guy accidentally bumps the anchor lock and rows for 30 minutes dragging the rock, while he pretends that the rowing doesn't absolutely suck...
...keep casting because you can get at least 3 shots at the good looking spots. 

But NEVER, NEVER, EVER tell anybody it happened or post it in your blog or you will risk never getting invited on board again.

Special Thanks to MK for taking me out in his Clacka and letting me cast.  We attracted (but didn't land) a few crazy bass that took on our 10" flies and otherwise had a great time trying to convince a musky to eat, chase or follow...with no success. 

A finer fishless evening couldn't have been had.

MK, I hope you feel the same.

Bonk the house.

MK on the sticks...all night.

No size 16's in here....



Sunday, June 16, 2013

What lies beneath...

I didn't intend to come back tonight.

The plan was to take a drive and fish another lake but some conflicts in scheduling at home made me reconsider.  It's a common enough problem.  Drive further for better fishing but decrease the time on the water...or stay close and get as much fishing in as possible.  It seems like I choose the latter more often than the former.

I decided to work down the shoreline and was paying attention to snapping turtle heads popping up and disappearing in the low easy waves.  I was waist deep and moving slow as I pulled out my camera and started taking a few zoomed shots.  I was hoping to get close enough to the bobbing turtles for a decent shot in the low light.  They kept popping up and then going back down.

In the back of my brain I was thinking about the story I told EB and JP the other night after fishing:

When I first moved here, my wife and I took the canoe out for a paddle on this lake to see what we could see.  Floating about 50' off shore in almost the exact location I was now standing, a large snapping turtle caught my attention as it clattered down the rocky bank, hit the water and bee-lined directly to the canoe, ramming it with it's nose.  It was obvious that it was not rushing out to make friends.

There I stood with a number of my important body parts below water line, trying to sneak up on snapping turtles...the thought was still bouncing around my brain when something rammed into my leg.  Thinking turtle but hoping carp I kicked at it and I am pretty sure I said a "word" out loud.  Whatever it was rammed me again prompting me to clear out quick. I didn't stop until my thighs were above waterline.

I headed back to my usual post on the lake.   A place where in previous nights nothing had rammed into my leg underwater.  I had a number of short strikes and popped a few small white bass.  At 10:30 after a couple dozen unanswered casts, I pointed my camera up at the half-moon, snapped a few pics, waded to shore with my lower extremities still intact and headed home.
This is the picture I was snapping when I got rammed in the leg.  Further inspection of the photo has changed my mind about the critters I was looking at.  The pointed snout suggests that they weren't snapping turtles but instead Spiny Softshell Turtles. The DNR's website says this about them "...spiny softshells are often aggressive when seized, and can inflict painful bites."  Good to know.

World Class

I called McSteel two days ago.   During the conversation he told me a story that was worth sharing.

He recently outfitted his boat with a casting platform and a set of oars and locks to turn it into a stealth fishing craft.  He spent much of that week with a friend of his from Oregon who flew back to the Midwest with the sole purpose of fishing our world-class smallmouth bass fishery.

Again for emphasis: "World-Class".

It seems that when something world-class is in your backyard you tend not to think of it in such heady terms.

But, it's true.

If you wanted to go anywhere in the world to fish a trophy smallmouth bass fishery, chances are you'd end up in one of three local area codes.

I've been to Belize for world class permit, the Bahamas for world class bonefish, out West for world class trout and to the Pacific Northwest for what I would consider world class steelhead.  Yet I never looked at the local fishery as anything other than local...until McSteel brought it up.  I don't think I'm alone in overlooking the importance of what we have.  I'm pretty certain that McSteel, although he values his water and the fish in it, may have described his local fishery in terms less grandiose then "World-Class".   But, when someone (in this case McSteel's buddy from Oregon) takes a week's vacation, books a flight and shows up with a fly rod to fish your "World-Class"'s tough to argue the point.  Especially when they leave completely convinced that they have accomplished their mission.

Fast forward a few days.  McSteel asks his 10 year old son if he wants to go fly fishing for smallmouth bass.  His son (we'll call him "H") says yes. 
H is a great kid.  He's friends with my kids and an active and healthy lad.  He is not at an age where fly fishing is more important than riding a bike, or playing video games, but he likes it enough to go with his Dad on occasion.  McSteel says they went out and of the four fish that H hooked, he landed two.

One was 19"+ and the other was 20"+. 

Take a look at the fish in the picture below and I challenge you to contest the term "World-Class".

Now take a look at the smile on H's face...

...also "World-Class".

I'm not a huge fan of posting pics of kids on the internet, so I took the liberty of cropping the photo that McSteel sent me.  I was going to crop it down and just show the fish but realized that if I did I would miss the whole point of the photo.  Check out that smile...

Saturday, June 15, 2013


 I was planning to write a post about how EB and I had a bad night on the water when one of the pictures I took from earlier in the evening gave me a little perspective.

So, here is the revised post:

EB and I didn't catch much tonight, but we had a good time trying.

This guy had a bad night on the water:


Friday, June 14, 2013

Winding down

My friend JP drove by the house today and I suggested that he meet me out at the lake for some evening fishing...which he did.  EB was originally slotted for some alternate activities but he had a change of plans and ended up making it out as well.

A well worn old man looked at me quizically or drunkly (or both) when I asked for his blessing in allowing us to wade slowly and quietly through the edge of the water he was spin-fishing in order to get to our preferred shoreline for the evening fish.  I'm not sure what he said in reply, but he didn't seem to mind and it occured to me that if he disagreed with our intentions he was in no shape to protect his real estate from any one of us...never mind the three of us together.  Don't get me wrong, we didn't bully him...I just assumed that what he was slurring was some form of "Yes".

The fishing was great.  Soft breeze, midges in flight, 70ish degrees and a bright waxing crescent moon bouncing light off the rippled surface of the lake.

The catching was not so great.  EB wrangled a walleye early on and few white bass were hooked, landed and released.  My fly was also intercepted by a freshwater drum that croaked when I was working to free the hook from his mouth.  I snapped a quick pic and noticed only after downloading the image from my camera that in exchange for yanking him out of the water...he crapped on my hand.

At 10:30 with very little in the way of fish sign for the previous 30 minutes I decided to call it a night.  EB and JP must have had the same vibe because they followed me out and after shining the shallows from the bank to see if we had missed any fishing opportunities in close, the three of us headed back to our rigs and stowed our gear.

After the shared experience of a relatively uneventful fishing outing, we stood around kicking gravel and burned through another hour (in the dark) in the kind of unplanned BS session that occasionally takes root and flowers when a "Plan A" is less than what you had hoped.   We covered some ground in the conversation but eventually the moment happens when you've made enough casts and shared enough stories and laughed at enough jokes and bitched at enough of the worlds stupidity... and you head home to bed.  It's called winding down,

and it's the best way to end a day.

EB prepping a walleye for release


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Night Shift

EB and I headed back out tonight on the night shift.
Water clarity was still decent this far into the summer.
The hatch was slow in getting started but the midges finally made a showing accompanied by another hatch of flies known by the latin taxonomic name of: "Tiny little white flies".

We fished well into the evening and the fish started to show themselves at around 10:45.  We pounded through an extra 45 minutes on the shift catching a few (but seemingly larger) whities.

Before heading home we turned on our headlamps and investigated a ruckus in the branches of a low hanging willow on the shore behind us.  We found a female mallard and her kids hanging around and also a critter that I at first thought was an otter until we saw it shuttling branches around and discerned it to be a beaver.  Where I come from, a beaver will slap it's tail hard on the water's surface before diving if it is startled or feels threatened.  This beaver apparently took our close proximity and blinding headlamps in stride and kept on about it's business.

***Update 6/14
EB emailed me today with a news article and video of a guy who got a little too close to a beaver while filming it.  Long story short, the beaver charged the guy (this all happened on dry land) bit him in the leg, and the guy bled out and died.

I'm pretty sure EB was suggesting that we give the critter a wider berth tomorrow night...

EB working the night shift #1

EB working the night shift #2

Sunday, June 9, 2013

North Shore 3

My older brother and I had made some plans to fish this evening and I was happy to see that despite a little rain he was still game to sling some line.  The calm seas had given way to a slight chop, though it wasn't much considering the fury this lake is capable of.

My brother took up position and I claimed my rock.  The gray sky, scattered rain and cool wind made this place seem completely different than it was just this morning and the evening before.  Even though the mood had changed, my conviction had not.  I felt that a fish could (and would) seize my offering at any time.

After a while, the Pike from the evening before, or at least an exact replica of it, smashed my fly in close near the rock.  She struggled hard and I walked to shore so that I could beach her.  

I decided to have more fish for dinner this week.

North Shore 2

I got back last night and stayed up talking until 12:30 in the morning.  I set my alarm for 4:30 and when it sounded I pulled on my fleece wader pants and grabbed a 7 oz Coke from the fridge instead of waiting for the coffee. 

The lake was still calm though I'd read that there was a chance for rain today so I wasn't sure how long the peace was going to last. 

I would have made a beeline for my rock except that I saw noses popping out of some foam in the lake and decided to pitch the streamer in for an exploratory probe before settling in for some deep water lake work.

On the third casts I connected briefly with 14 inches of fish that went airborne before denying me the the stick of the hook.  I think it was a brook trout which would mean that I may have to take a paragraph to explain what 14 inches of Brook Trout translates to in real fish size/numbers (for the uninformed).

But nah...

I gave up on the foam noses and headed out to my rock basking in the predawn light thinking about all of the fish that were swimming in front of me and wondering which would open their mouths for a deceiver.

I couldn't tell you how much time I spent casting but I can say that I was back at the kitchen table drinking coffee with my beautiful wife (by 6:30 am) explaining to her that I had caught and released a nice 26" post-spawn wild steelhead and almost got a great photograph of a Timber Wolf before she had even rolled out of bed.

Summer Steel

Saturday, June 8, 2013

North Shore 1

My wife's grandfather died at a good age after a long life.
He was the son of a Norwegian immigrant who settled Minnesota's North Shore of Lake Superior.

I didn't know him very well, but I enjoyed talking to him.

I once tied him a dozen marabou jigs after he told me a story about how they were deadly on walleyes.  I'm sure he never fished them, but I was happy that he got them from me.

He died in February and the decision was made to have a memorial service in June instead of a conventional funeral the week of his death.

The memorial was this weekend so my wife and kids and I piled into the car and drove North.

This "North" is the place of my own birth and childhood and I am connected to it.
I still feel, after all of these years of being away, that the lake is mine...or perhaps I am her's.

After the service today,  I walked through my in-law's house to their deck and looked over the Lake.
It was calm.
It was unusually placid for the afternoon hour and the high sun pierced the glassy surface.  I felt compelled to walk down to the rocky shoreline to the edge and peer in.  I was thrilled that the wind and the sun conspired to betray the Lake's depths.

After a while I rejoined the celebration of this man's life as the sweet early summer day turned into early evening. Eventually, with my fly rod, I took my leave of the family and made my way to a stretch of Lake Superior shoreline that has captivated me for over 20 years.

Wading out to a familiar rock with a freshly tied Deceiver knotted on, I stripped a boastful pile of line into my basket and started casting.   I plied the depths of the Lake with my fly as fish appeared on the surface.

Close in they were sipping and far out the were rolling.
My guess is that the fish near shore were whitefish or maybe herring...
possibly brook trout and maybe even suckers...
the fish in the distance...
I couldn't say.

My fly line came tight briefly and I felt confirmation for the confidence that the this place gives me.

A few casts later I landed a Northern Pike of about 4 pounds and I was happy for the tussle.  I pulled the fish onto my rock and removed the hook before letting her slide back into the water.  I came for trout or salmon but had trouble being disappointed in catching the pike.  The amount of water in front of me and the size of the fly I was casting into it made any connection a small miracle.

I varied my retrieve, paused to allow the fly to sink and cast at different angles off my rock.  The only thing I didn't do was doubt the possibility of another connection.

And then, stripping my flyline back into my basket with a two handed striped bass retrieve (the technique borrowed from my friends on the East Coast and brought here, by me, to the North) my fly was eaten.

The fish, a hatchery bred non-native, Kamloops Steelhead, or "Looper" tugged and twisted and would have probably made a run or two except that she had recently spawned and was lacking the energy and acrobatics of a prime fish.

I was surprised.  Even this far North, June is a late to find these fish where I found her.

And so, in the name of science, my personal ethic and the tradition of old Norwegian settlers, their sons, and their grandsons, I killed her with a rock, ripped her gills out and bled her out in wave pool on this rock....
...and made another cast, never doubting.

From Left to Right: Rugged, Calm

My In-law's House

Old fisherman's steps
Looper on the Rocks