28 January, 2011

Winter Wonderland

I love Winter. It seems so many of my favorite activities happen in this season. This weekend I'll be skiing on Sunday. Saturday's a toss-up between a fly tying symposium and the opportunity to get in on one of my buddy Nick's rabbit hunts. And, somehow I need to reschedule last week's steelhead trip with Jon Ray.

All a great reminder of the wealth of options the Winter affords. It's nice to love the outdoors; it keeps Winter from becoming that bleakest of all seasons. Instead it's a time I look forward to and one that's often far too short!

Whatever you're doing outside, enjoy!


27 January, 2011

Gear Geeks

I've got my sweet reels, but they're for steelhead. And, I've caught a number of trout over 16". But, we all know this guy. I try not to be him. Sometimes I fail...

26 January, 2011


For a while I've been struggling with the shotgun situation. I need an all around gun that works for a wide range of uses - sporting clays, ducks, rabbits, maybe turkey, and perhaps some upland birds. I want something I can shoot frequently enough to get comfortable with how it mounts and performs so I'm a better, more consistent shot.

None of my current guns will shoot 3" and 3-1/2" shells, so waterfowl or turkeys are out. On the other end, I would imagine I'll shoot clays more than anything, so it needs to cycle reliably with 2-3/4" target loads.

After a lot of consideration and soul-searching, I've decided that one of the new generation of synthetic autoloaders will be the ticket. While I love the look and feel of a classic over-under, a decent one is just too pricey, plus then I have to baby it when hunting. The new autoloaders feature rugged durable stocks, plus proprietary coatings that protect from the elements. I love the feel of a classic Browning Citori or Beretta, but for the uses I want to put this gun to, it just doesn't make sense.

The solution looks to be the new Remington VersaMAX. What first caught my attention was the VersaPort system that adjusts the recoil gases to cycle shells from 2-3/4" to 3-1/2" reliably. All the reviews I've read have commended this system's reliability and simplicity. The TriNyte coated barrel means I can take it out on a drizzly day for ducks and not be concerned about it rusting in 3 minutes. And it's got simple shooter-adjustable pads for length-of-pull (important when you have long gorilla arms like me) and the cheek pad for proper mount.

This gun seems like the answer to a lot of my issues with my current shotguns. My Winchester 1200 pump is a great gun. But, it will only shoot lead, won't shoot over a 2-3/4" shell, and I'm not comfortable that I can put steel ammo through it for waterfowl. My Stoeger Uplander SxS is a GREAT upland field bird gun; but that's really all it's good for. And my vintage Remington 11-48 is a gun I just can't make peace with. My mount is inconsistent and I can't hit reliably, plus it's limited to 2-3/4" ammo, and won't shoot steel. The latter will likely be sold to find it a better home.

I feel like a grown-up outdoorsman. This will be my first new shotgun purchase and I'm getting what's right for me and how I will use it. The predecessors were good guns (well, except maybe the 11-48...), but they weren't what I needed.


24 January, 2011

Just in Case

Scored one of Simms relatively new Headwaters double rod/reel cases this weekend. Recently I've sort of rediscovered the rod/reel case as a solution to protect expensive gear, while keeping it ready for action. I wanted something to hold a couple of standard 9' 4-piece sticks. This would be ideal for a summer weekend on the AuSable or PM where I might want to bring a 4-wt. for dries and a 6-wt. for nymphing or terrestrials. Grab one case and go. And everything's safe and sound during transit.

I own several other rod/reel cases, but all are singles. The best of breed is my Sage Switch case. A wonderfully designed case, but it's very purpose-specific. Great for a longer, bulkier switch rod with a big reel like the Ross Momentum V. The worst is a generic Scientific Anglers case for 2-piece rods -- functional, but clearly not pretty.

Like most of Simms other products, this one's better designed. It starts with a unique Simms orange color. Orange is a weird color to get right -- too yellow and you look like a Sunny D ad, too red and it's quickly looking like rust. Simms just gets it right. The reel pouch is also well-executed. Rather than a simple oblong shape that sorta' fits most reels, this one has a triangular profile that looks sleek, and hugs the reel. I'd initially thought it would be only for smaller gear like my Ross CLA 3's. Surprisingly, it easily swallowed the aforementioned Momentum on an 8-weight. Bonus!

If you're looking to keep your gear from bouncing around the back of your buddy's truck getting scratched up and/or broken, the Simms Headwaters series of rod/reel cases seem to be a better solution.


21 January, 2011

Quiet Favorite

I've noticed another brand sneaking into my outdoor arsenal -- Mountain Hardwear. I've noticed that when I'm considering an addition of an item, that's become a go-to brand. It started with a fleece hat and gloves. Last year I added a SubZero for the really cold days. When it's seriously chilly, this is the only jacket I reach for. With one layer, I'm instantly warm below 10 degrees. This year I scored an Octans fleece on sale that's stylish, well-built, and surprisingly warm for its bulk. I've also got another of these mid-weight grid fleeces that's an older model.

All of the Mountain Hardwear gear I own is an excellent product. When you consider the very competitive pricing, it stands out even more. I'm sure as I add gear (like when I finally replace my The North Face sleeping bag that dates to Boy Scout days...) that Mountain Hardwear will be on the list.

As a marketer, I'm also a fan of the brand. It starts with an excellent and distinctive logo. The cool thing about this logo is its modularity. The threaded nut on the right become a tremendous icon (as good as the Nike Swoosh, in my opinion) on smaller goods, or as an accent on a cuff or shoulder sleeve.

The Mountain Hardwear website's as good ad the rest of the brand. Easy to use, can show as much or as little detail as you need.

As an outdoorsman, I respect consistently excellent products. As a marketer, I respect a brand that's equal to its excellent products. Well done!


20 January, 2011

I Don't Get It

"...the right to keep and bear arms"

I checked, that's how it's written in the Second Ammendment. It doesn't say, "...the right to keep and bear arms without any records.". So I completely don't get the NRA's vehement opposition to a national registry. If you are a safe and responsible gun owner, as the NRA claims as part of its mission, then a registered legal firearm would seem to be desirable.

Recent events in Tuscon and the Florida School Board shootings provide interesting fodder for this debate. Two individuals with clear mental health issues were allowed to possess firearms. Why? Perhaps because there's no way to keep track. Loughner clearly had issues, know by officials of the community college he was expelled from. Why didn't this trigger checks into his firearms ownership?

Owning a gun is a right in this country, but it's also a responsibility. And if you're not in a mental state to handle your end of the responsibility, I believe you should forfeit the right until you are. Note that I didn't say lose it forever. That's an important distinction.

I have a love-hate relationship with the NRA. It's the only force to protect us from the narrow-minded anti-gun lobby who thinks all firearms have some innate evil and should be taken from us ALL. But, the NRA seems to be the defenders of the lunatic fringe at times. I suppose this is the current state of politics - no one seems to occupy the center. All parties seem polarized at one extreme or the other, hence the gridlock we find ourselves in.

I doubt any of this changes any time soon. But it does make you wonder. What if one group conceded something like this? Would it cause the other side to stand down, even just a little?


18 January, 2011

Getting Started - Gear Up

At this point, you've been out with a buddy a time or two, done one or two days with a guide, and you've got the itch. Yes, NOW it's time to invest a bit. Unless you're laser focused on what you want to do, this post can help you save a ton of money.

Fly gear manufacturers want to get new people into the market. As such, there's been a flood of good entry-level rods and reels, including some complete packages, hitting the market. Many are surprisingly good. I started with the Ross Worldwide Essence series. For a couple hundred bucks you get a nice rod, decent reel for trout or smallmouth, and it's all set up with backing, a line, and even a leader. I still own this rod and use it to pitch streamers on a 200 grain sink tip and as a back-up and buddy rod (remember that part about teaching new folks?). LL Bean's Streamlight series look mighty nice, at a similar price point.

If you're looking for an all-around rod for trout, smallmouth that's also acceptable for panfish, I'd start with a 5/6 weight. If you truly think you're commited to the more aggressive freshwater species like steelhead or salmon, you're a special case and we'll deal with you later. Get ready to spend a bunch more money.

Your first key decision will be bootfoot waders versus stockingfoot with separate boots. While the latter is more expensive and slower to put on, I would recommend them strongly. You'll have more support, which is important as you're learning to wade, and they'll be more comfortable to wear all day.

I love my Simms G3 waders and Rivershed boots. Durable, comfortable, and everything's done right. But, that cash adds up fast. For a beginner, I'm going to suggest an alternative -- go cheap. I have a pair of FrogTogs waders that I picked up for a back-up when I had issues with some Orvis waders that had to be sent back. Sure, cheap waders won't fit as well, or be as breathable, but if you're starting out and not expecting long hikes or brutal conditions, they're fine. Buy what you find on sale. Don't pay over a hundred bucks. If you're going to splurge, do it on your boots, then you can keep those when you make the move to Simms, Patagonia, Cloudveil, Redington or some better wader. I've always had good luck with Simms boots, so I tend to recommend those and you can score a nice boot for $125-175.

The Other Stuff
You'll need a few basics to get out on the water:
  • Flies - hit the local fly shop, ask them to suggest a starter selection of dries and nymphs. 3-5 patterns of dries and a couple of nymphs (I use pheasant tails and hare's ears a lot) should do you.
  • Leaders - buy a 3-pack of 4X or 6X leaders in 9'. I use cheap ones from Cabelas - $8 for a 3-pack for most of my trout/smallie fishing. You'll acquire more lengths, weights and other configurations after you figure out what you're doing.
  • Snips - cheap snips will only frustrate you with poor cuts and ragged edges. Splurge here and spend $10-20 on a decent snip. I like the Fishpond Pitchfork myself. Stay out of the bin of $3 Chinese specials up on the front counter.
  • Hemostat - the easy way to unhook a fish. Again, this isn't a good place to save money. I use primarily Dr. Slick tools and I've never had an issue.
  • Tippet - unless you want to go through a bazillion $$$ in pre-made leader, buy some tippet. I just match my primary leader weight, or splurge and pick up 4x and 6x. I'm a fan of the Rio products.
  • Fly Box - you need something to hold all those flies. I bought cheap ones and later regretted it. My standard is now the Scientific Anglers System X boxes. Cliff Outdoors makes some sweet boxes, too and all made in the USA. Plan on spending $20-30 for a decent box.
Stuff You Don't Need (Yet)
There are a vast range of other items you might think you'll need that I'd suggest you hold off on for a variety of reasons.
  • Net - when starting I lugged around nets of various sizes. They were clumsy and usually in the way. The vast majority of the fish you'll catch initially won't be anything huge and can be easily handled without a net. It's just one more thing to manage. Maybe later you'll want one when you start chasing the big fish, but I still don't carry one.
  • Vest - the fly vest may have become a cliche. There are a wide range of solid alternatives with lanyards, chest packs, waist packs, sling bags, and other options. I've been at this a while and I still haven't settled on what to use. If you tie up $150 in a vest now, you may regret it later. if you really can't manage the stuff above, pick up a lanyard for $25 to get started.
  • Wading Staff - the cheap ones are inferior and the good ones are expensive. Plus, I think they enable false confidence. At least for a while, if you feel totally uncomfortable, you don't belong there. Get out and walk around the hole.
There you have it, a reasonable start for a few hundred bucks. With this, you'll be ready to chase trout, smallmouth, and many other species in a wide range of rivers. As I said earlier, if you want to chase salmon or steelhead, you're signing up for a whole different program with more expensive reels, stiffer rods, and some more complex decisions to make.


17 January, 2011

Get Out

Spent yesterday skiing at Pine Knob with my buddy Josh. He took up snowboarding last year and the bug has now thoroughly taken hold. Every chance he gets, he's out slidin'. Pretty cool for a guy who used to not like Winter very much.

Recently I've talked to a couple of different people who were bemoaning Winter. After some discussion, they both admitted that it was likely influenced by the fact that they'd never found any Winter activities they enjoyed to pass the long, cold, dark days.

Do you love or loathe Winter? If you loathe it, have you considered some activity that would make you look forward to it? Is there something you always wanted to try but held back for some reason? There's so much you can do outside when it snows. Whether it's ice fishing, skiing, fly fishing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, or even sledding, I think there's something for everyone. An activity like this can make your heart soar when snow's in the forecast.

Key to success is comfort. Nothing will make you miserable and sap the enjoyment out of outdoor fun than being cold and/or wet (the two are usually strongly linked). I frequently see this problem in two areas: footwear and headgear. When over 70% of your body's heat loss happens through your noggin', a proper hat is a must. I'm a big fan of the classic knit cap -- I like hats from both Simms and Ibex. A word of caution here, plain fleece is a no-no as it's completely useless when there is any wind. Wool is warmest, but poly knits, or fleece with Gore Windstopper is great stuff. Now on to your feet. It's cold out, so good insulation is a must -- Thinsulate or wool are solid choices. And what is snow? Yup, frozen water. So look for waterproof construction. And style's not really the point here. It's about warm, dry, and comfortable.

So gear up and get out there!


12 January, 2011

First Outing

Got out to ski for the first time this season on Sunday at Caberfae. Late snow and a busy Holiday season kept me off the slopes. Probably the latest start any time in the past few years. Although I must admit, I've not got a powerful competitor for my Winter attention in chasing steel on the fly. The fish vs. ski decision is increasingly difficult!

For me, skiing is the one activity where I don't seem to gather dust. Despite being off skis since last Spring, from my first turn it was ON. Nice feeling. By the afternoon I was ripping some bumped up terrain at full tilt.

Conditions were surprising, considering only a week before had seen rain and temps in the 50's. A week of good snow and cold conditions to enable snowmaking had most runs covered. Another unexpected -- very little ice. After a freeze-thaw, this was pretty shocking. Now we just need a couple of weeks of consistent cold and a few good dumps.

For this trip, just took my K2 Public Enemies. I'm now on my third season with these boards and I like them better all the time. Their versatility is pretty astounding. Cruise pretty well, you can push them hard in bumps and they make solid short-radius turns. And for a park-pipe ski they're solid on icy conditions.

Hope you're able to get out and play in the cold weather!


11 January, 2011

Just Do It

Spent Saturday at a memorial service and wake for a friend who lost her battle with breast cancer at 48. In the end a great celebration of an exceptional woman. But, this was a good reminder -- there might not be a next year. All those things you've been waiting to get outside and try, maybe now's the time.


07 January, 2011

Getting Started - Guide Up

So now you've been out on the river and seen what it's all about. At this point, you'll have some idea if this whole fly fishing bug has bitten. If you're like most, at this point you're itching to hit your local outdoor store and drop a small fortune. Don't. Save your dollars, I'll help you spend them later.

At this point, you want to learn, so it's time to look for a guide and do a trip or two. You'll learn, grow, and gain confidence from this investment, You'll also get a better sense for what sort of gear you'll need to invest in. Guided trips aren't cheap, but they'll accelerate your learning curve like nothing else.

But, you're going to need to make some decisions to help you connect to the right guide. What do you think you'd like? Is there a specific river or region you want to fish? A species you're especially intrigued with? A style of fishing you think is cool from what you've read or heard? Any of these things can help you narrow your search for a guide.

While most guides will fish a wide range of species, locations, and styles, most of the established folks have something they're truly known for. And, some are just known for their instructional skills. This is where your newfound network of fly fishing friend are invaluable. Much like choosing a doctor, you're looking for a combination of technical skills and a personality and style you connect with.

Once you've narrowed your selection, talk to a couple -- and by a couple I mean 2-3, not 18. The best way to leverage your investment is to communicate with your guide and let them know your skill level, your interests, and what you'd like to learn. As a personal sidenote; if you're left-handed make sure you say so. It's easier to learn with a rig you can reel properly, but we're in the minority so this gear's not always on-hand unless you say something. A good guide wants to give you an exceptional experience so you come back, and tell your friends. The more you communicate your expectations, the better they can exceed them. After a brief conversation on the phone, at a show, or a lecture, you'll likely know who's your best choice. They'll be able to help you pick a date and location.

Now that you've hired a guide, get out there! Embrace the day as a learning opportunity. If you picked the right guide and the planets align you'll likely get to experience catching some fish. While hiring a guide isn't a guarantee -- a lot of factors are beyond their control -- your odds go way up versus trying it on your own. I put in a LOT of river hours before I caught fish solo. I got my first steelhead on my first ever guided trip and all subsequent days.

Pay attention during your day. Part of what you paid for is to learn and you will if you're listening and asking follow-up questions when you're not clear. An experienced guide has thousands of hours of experience. Whether it's a stronger, more easily tied knot, or a suggestion of a good learner rod, they'd been there, done that.

Did you have fun? Good. That's the point. Perhaps during the day you talked with the guide about something you wanted to try. If so, and you can afford it, you might do another day in another location or fishing a different style. This will give you some background that will help guide your subsequent purchases as you gear up for yourself.

Finally, tipping is part of the guide experience. But don't base your tip on results. A good guide with a skilled client will usually catch fish. You're not a skilled client. It's your guide's job to maximize your opportunities, it's your job to land fish. Plus, don't become a "counter". Nobody wants to fish with that guy. So base your tip on the guides efforts, their teaching style, and how they worked to make your day a success. Also, factor in your economic situation. If you roll up in a Range Rover, smoke a $20 cigar, and hit the guide with a ten spot at the end of a great day, that may not be well-received.

Congratulations -- you're on your way. Up next? Gearing up with the basics.


06 January, 2011

Carry A Big Stick

With a little more time on the water, I am loving fishing a switch rod. Until last week's outing I'd only swung with it using a Skagit line, but I got to put in some time running indicators on the PM. Sweet!!!

I ended up with not one, but two switch rods. It's a long story. But now I have both a TFO Deer Creek, and a switch offering from my personal favorite, Scott. There were lots of reasons driving that decision that I'll get into in another post highlighting the differences.

The benefits of a switch rod for swinging are obvious -- more stick to move a larger line, a larger arc, etc. Where the switch is too cool is line management when fishing the float. That extra 2' over a "standard" nine-footer makes a phenomonal difference. Effective line mends that clean up presentation, without altering drift are super simple. Let the bobber drift until it's roughly across stream, mend, and then drift it out. In a river like the PM with its short, steep holes where getting set-up correctly quickly is critical this is outstanding.

But I found another unexpected benefit. Winter wade fishing takes a good bit out of you. Just the calories expended and extra effort in cold conditions means that by day's end, you're fairly tired. With a two-handed rod, when you need that extra little bit in your cast, simply grab that lower handle with your non-casting hand and give it a little snap. Boom. You're covering lots of water with less physical effort. Super cool.

Sadly, I can't yet speak to the switch's fish-fighting abilities on indy -- I missed couple takes, but no solid hook-ups. However, I did get a fish on the swing last Fall and found the switch had some great backbone for manhandling a pissed off 8# male!

If you're a Winter steelheader who hasn't given a switch rod a few casts, try it out. I think you'll like it.


05 January, 2011

Frosty Wheels

I've had the odd itch for some cycling lately. Especially curious due to my feelings about riding in the cold -- I won't do it. While I'm more than willing to stand waist-deep in a river in January all day, I'm an absolute wuss on the bike. If it's below 50 degrees, forget it.

But somehow everytime I pass my road bike hanging in the basement, there's that little pang of, "Can't wait to ride...". I have no clue what's fueling it. We're in the throes of Winter here in Michigan (well, OK, except for the New Year's Eve warm-up). It's time for some of my faves -- Winter steelheading, skiing, and small game hunting.

This is a positive sign, however. Last season road riding never really took hold for me. And my overall fitness (and waistline) suffered for it. I hate gyms, so my best opportunities for a good workout happen when I can integrate a calorie-burning aerobic exercise session into my outdoor pursuits. Riding seems to be very much a habitually based activity and it just never clicked last year. Too bad, as in previous seasons I've been able to average 75-100 miles per week. Hoping to re-connect with that level this year. Meanwhile, the latest issue of Bicycling is in my reading pile. I can drool over the Scott CR-1 full carbon object of my affections...


04 January, 2011

Getting Started - The Buddy System

Always wanted to try fly fishing but thought it was too intimidating? Well, it's only complicated if you make it that way (and eventually you probably will, but that's for another post).

Nearly every outdoorsy type I know is willing to share their knowledge to bring someone new into the fold. I think we all know this growth is critical to survival of our passions and protection of ecological resources. So, your first and simplest step is to find a fly fishing buddy. Ask around work, listen up at parties, post to social media sites like Facebook or LinkedIn that you're looking to give fly fishing a try. You'll find someone willing to take you out. Or perhaps someone's putting together a group trip that's newbie-friendly and you can wrangle an invite.

Your goal is simple -- to get out there and have some fun. Don't get fixated on perfection; this isn't a skill set you master in one outing. In fact, your first time might just be a quick casting lesson on your buddy's lawn before a visit to the river. If you can make a few decent casts and learn to wade safely, your first outing was a success.

Speaking of this first outing, perhaps the most important element is that you have some fun. With that in mind, I'd stick to warmer conditions. Learning to fly fish chasing January steelhead is like taking driving school in a Formula One car. Spend your first time out on a pleasant summer evening chasing some little trout or smallmouth bass on a moderate sized stream or river.

You'll notice that not a word has been written about CATCHING fish. If the stars align on this first outing and that happens, good for you. If not, welcome to the quest. You won't catch fish on every outing, and if that's your benchmark for success, pick up something simpler like mini golf.

Lastly, show your host gratitude. Buy the beer(s) and/or dinner. Thank them, and perhaps most importantly, ask questions. Questions show the teacher that you're processing the information they've invested the time in presenting to you.

Now, the big question -- did you have fun? I predict you'll know within a few short casts. You'll arrive home blabbering about the rhythms of the river and other such nonsense. If not, don't give up yet. But more than likely you'll have found a passion for a lifetime.


03 January, 2011

Outdoor Resolutions

Well, it's that time of year, right? Here are a few on my list:

  1. Get back up to 50-75 mile per week average cycling program. I slipped off last year mostly due to not forming the habit early in the Spring. This year, I'll rectify that.
  2. Catch a steelhead on the swing on a fly I tied. Had a chance to fish a couple last week and  I'm definitely starting to more clearly understand the variables that make them attractive and properly "swimmy".
  3. Do at least two multi-night camping trips. Did one last Summer and really enjoyed unplugging and disconnecting from the outside world. The true meaning of Down Time.
  4. Resolve the shotgun conundrum. My Winchester pump is fine, unless you want to shoot steel or shells larger than 2-3/4". My Remington 11-48 just isn't working out; can't seem to hit anything. And my Stoeger side-by-side is pretty much only for upland birds. I'd like a gun suitable for clays, waterfowl, and rabbits. My guess is that looks like one of the newer synthetic autoloaders like the Remington VersaMax.
  5. Fish at least two new rivers. Finding time to get away can always be challenging. So, when I do, I want to ensure a good experience. Last year I spent time on both the Escanaba and AuSable and discovered more about why they're legendary streams. I have a couple in mind for this year already.
  6. Learn to row a drift boat. I've been considering buying a boat. Would probably help me make the decision if I'd ever rowed one.
  7. Ride at least one longer mountain bike loop per month. I did more short rides last year, but never did make trails like Island Lake's longer loops.
  8. Try at least two new outdoor things. Last year that included duck hunting and swinging for steelhead. I greatly enjoyed both. No specific goal this year, but when I stumble on something, I'll pounce on it.
  9. Finally learn to properly adjust modern indexed shifting on my road bike. I read an article last night that started to de-mistify it for me. In Ye Olden Days (when I was a mechanic at a shop) the limit screws were key and cable tension wasn't especially important. It would seem that has changed.
  10. Ski I-75 at Caberfae. The toughest run at my primary ski area is seldom open. And when it is, it's not for long -- an hour tops. Last year, I had one chance. I didn't take it as I was on my second run of my second outing of the year. Didn't feel loosened up for it. When I was -- CLOSED.
There are mine; how about you? Have some in mind? Hope the Holidays were good to you and you got some chances to play outside.