30 December, 2013

Goal Setting

I love the idea of a New Year. An opportunity to capitalize on opportunities missed in the old year, to try new things, and to set goals that remind you that you're alive. I don't think outdoor pursuits require "resolutions" (though some of my personal resolutions overlap with these goals). Here are a solid dozen I'm shooting for in 2014:

  1. Land a musky on the fly. I had three on last Fall, but nothing in the net.
  2. Swing more for steelhead. I learned a lot more on the December trip to NY on how to actually fish a swing rig. My tying skills are solid, so now I just need to put in the hours.
  3. Complete a full Century ride. I met last year's Metric Century goal quite easily (in fact, I did 3 of them). I'm pretty certain that with an earlier start this season, I can do hit this one. Overcoming my dislike of riding while cold has certainly helped me in this regard.
  4. Shoot more sporting clays. Last year, I'd made exactly zero outings prior to duck season. And my results showed it on my first hunt. I've already made two outings since that hunt (including yesterday) and my performance is already up. So much of shotgunning is muscle memory.
  5. Learn to shoot a shotgun with both eyes open. Crack shots that I know swear by this. In my mind it makes sense. And yesterday when I did it, the results were solid. Now just to work this into #4 above.
  6. Ride my bike over 2,500 miles. Last year, even with a weak start, I hit 1,738.5. With an earlier, stronger start, I know I can crack 2,500 and maybe even get over 3,000.
  7. Ski more days in Michigan. Last year's total? One. Yup, you read that right. And that's only due to getting some lucky late season snow. My love of Winter steelheading, my day job, and having a household to maintain don't help. Having my first day on snow be in Colorado last year was NOT a solid plan. By day three, I was pretty solid again, but getting there was painful. Hoping to hit Utah, or head back to Colorado this season. This time I'll be ready.
  8. Touch my toes. Yeah, OK, this one sounds stupid. But I've always lacked flexibility. One nice surprise from last year was that cycling actually improved this considerably. I think with some more miles, I can do this. I literally halved the distance last year.
  9. Build my rowing skills. I learned to row a drift boat last year at age 47. And I friggin' love it. It's forced me to learn about currents and their effects. I got very comfortable on bigger water, especially when it was slow. Now I want to learn to be comfortable in tighter spaces and faster water.
  10. Use my gear more. I have a gear addiction. I've always loved gear-intensive outdoor pursuits. In recent years, I've been fortunate enough to acquire PLENTY of gear to cover nearly anything. Now I need to stop buying it and start USING it more.
  11. Improve my fly casting skills. My overhand cast, especially with a floating line, SUUUUUCCCCKKKKSSS. But I took a lesson last year and learned some good base skills. Now I'm committed to doing the one and only thing that will improve my skills - practice.
  12. Try something completely new. I've added a lot of activities in recent years. I've tried some things that really weren't for me, and others I loved. The key to finding things you love is trying new ones. Last year it was turkey hunting (pretty fun - but not sure it will become a core passion). Who knows what it might be? Is this finally the year of deer hunting? Or, maybe it's golf. No, it's probably not golf...
Hope the Holiday Season found you playing outside a little bit and that you're looking forward to the coming year as much as I am!


19 December, 2013


Hours spent out in below freezing temperatures. Piles of feathers, flash, and fluff. Elaborate attention paid to knots. Complex layering strategies. Endless study. That goofy cocked-head look when you tell people that no, you are NOT ice fishing, the rivers are open and you stand in them all Winter.

Why do we do it?

I've had chrome on the brain these past few days, perhaps as a reaction to the flurry of Holiday and year-end activity around me. Yesterday, in a moment of clarity I realized why I love chasing steelhead, especially in Winter. The connection to the power.

From the first strike - whether it's the tap-tap while Indy fishing, or the grab on the swing, every neuron in your body seems to fire simultaneously. If you can not blow this first 30 seconds, your odds go up exponentially. Then once you feel the weight of fish on line, the real rush starts. Through a slender bit of graphite, a skinny fly line, and finally a microscopic bit of tippet, you are connected to a primal beast. Every leap thrills, but also brings the potential for disaster. Every run reminds your muscles that you're one-on-one with a powerful beast.

I suppose this has fueled my love of click-pawl reels. With such a simple drag, you gain such an intimate connection to your fish. There's no elaborate piece of technology providing "tippet protection" -- it's all you.

Then there's the moment you realize that you have the upper hand. Maybe you've finally turned the fish upriver. Or suddenly the run are a bit less violent. But instinctually, you know. You're not done yet, but the game has changed in your favor.

After a successful landing comes another opportunity. To grip that thick tail and feel the raw, muscular power of a perfectly evolved swimming machine. An even more intimate connection to the visceral energy of Mother Nature. Then the fish revives, first wiggling a little harder before eventually a hard tail thrust draws a cold (but happy) splash in the face for the angler.

If you've never caught a steelhead on a fly before, put it on your bucket list. It's a rush like few others.


12 December, 2013

NY Steelhead Alley - Fun Firsts

Mighty fine first trip to New York's Steelhead Alley region last week with Cattaraugus Creek Outfitters. Really an awesome program -- rustic, but clean cabin with over 80 acres of river access in the beautiful Zoar Valley. Owner Vince Tobia, and guides Mike and Tom couldn't have been cooler guys to fish with. For me, bigger trips like this are opportunities to hit milestones. And on this one I scored a trifecta!

Number One: Biggest Steelhead on the Swing
Buddy Andrew and I spent Monday with Vince on the Catt swinging. Though the conditions looked tough, with a lot of stain from melt-off after recent deep snows, we stuck at the swing game. Mid-day we wandered up into an amazingly scenic canyon. Within 15 minutes, Andrew's reel is singing and shortly after we're on the board with a swung fish. Right after that, he sticks another, but loses it. Then things go quiet for a little bit. Suddenly, I'm upriver from Vince and Andrew when I feel the familiar tug that I so love. Fish ON! A quick lift after I feel the weight of the steelhead and the fight is on. This is my first fish on the new Speyco River Switch reel, so I'm curious how much palming I'll be doing. For a clicker, this reel has a pretty solid bit of drag. I put the boots to this fish, get some bend in my rod and after some jumping and antics, Vince performs some nice net work and I'm on the board, too! But it gets better -- the fish tapes out at a touch over 30"!!! This is easily my biggest steelhead on the swing; and probably among my top five ever. SWEET!

Sadly, the only photo I have is of this fish in the net. As soon as I lifted her for a photo, she found some more "go" and worked her way out of my grasp. Before we could get a net under her, she's gone. Ah well, I saw her, as did the guide and my fishing buddy.

Number Two: First Steelhead Double

Day two finds us headed to the creeks. Warm weather the day before has the Catt too colored to fish effectively. After finding crowds on the first creek, we head to the Chatauqua. I do love these creek settings of Steelhead Alley. You can step out of a neighborhood and into a little canyon that feels like a thousand miles away. The water is skinny and clear - you're sight-fishing to most of the steelhead. One my second drift, I hook up but lose the fish to a weak hookset. Note to self - this is indy fishing, not swinging. Set it like you mean it.

Fishing partner Ralph scores a couple from upstream, so our guide Tom moves me up just below a small waterfall. A few drifts later is bobber DOWN! Most of the fish we've hit today had moved into the slow-motion Winter fight. But not this one - she is pissed and fired up! So, down the river I go trying to keep her from getting an advantage in the current. Of course as I'm nearly down to Ralph, he hooks up!. Fortunately his fish is smaller and has less go, so Tom is able to net it quickly. As this is happening, I realize this is my first steelhead double - SWEET! But with Ralph's fish landed, now the pressure to close the deal is on me. By now, I've covered 50-75 yards and I'm finally getting this fish under control. A quick solid net job by Tom and I've got my first steelhead double.

Number Three: First Swung Fly Steelhead on a Fly I Tied
I've landed a number of steelhead on the swing. All have been on other people's flies. I've hooked up on a few on one of mine, but no landings. Today we're going to change that. Partner Karl and I decided we're going to man up and spend our last day swinging - to earn those tugs.

Guide Vince puts us in one of his favorite spots. And today he comments, "Let's run some of your big Michigan uglies!" So onto my line goes one of the Senyo's Artificial Intelligence flies I tied up just for this trip. I love this fly's motion in the water. Fat, shimmery, and just plain fishy.

Not fifteen minutes in, Karl's been bumped twice. Then he proceeds to hook up, but lose the fish. Shortly after that, I get a solid hit. This isn't a tug. More like a yank, followed by a solid run. The Speyco is howling and we're off to the races. I had to palm this one a little, but not much. Vince gives me a solid scoop with the net and I'm on the board with my first steelhead on the swing on one of my flies. A damn fine ending to an excellent trip.


09 December, 2013

Product Review: Speyco River Switch Reel

Two word summary?  Buy. One.

Bonus word? Now.

The Circle Spey taking a break after a battle with Cattaraugus chrome.
I first stumbled on The Spey Company and reel builder Tim Pantzlaff a couple of years back on the Spey Pages web site forum. From the get-go, these reels appealed to me. 100% American-made (in Green Bay, WI), uber rugged, and with an incredible-looking clicker drag. Add to that the amazing range of customization options, and you've got a slam dunk.

With a trip planned to the Cattaraugus Creek region of NY's section of Steelhead Alley last week, it seemed like it was time. I selected a River Switch model, in black/silver, with the Snake Roll handle option. This reel was selected to match my Scott L2h 1157/4 switch rod as the Abel Spey I had on it seemed a bit on the large side.

Before I talk about the reel, I should mention the guy. Tim is about the coolest, most accommodating guy around. This is just someone I feel good about doing business with. In this era of global conglomerate fly fishing gear, that's rare.

Now the reel.

In my day job, one of my favorite industries is manufacturing, in particular metalworking. There's just something about the craftsmanship, precision, and the whole down-and-dirty nature of it that appeals to me. And the smells and sounds of the shop floor have always intrigued me. I knew the Speyco was for me the instant I opened the box. It just SMELLED like a handcrafted reel -- this one has SOUL right out of the box.

Part of the appeal of click-pawl reels is their simplicity. While Tim's Hexad clicker design is a bit more complex than some, it more than makes up for it in performance. This clicker is nearly the best of all worlds with much of the holding power of a disc drag, matched to the sexy sound of a screaming clicker. My first fish on it turned out to be a 30" hen steelhead. This fish was plenty strong, and even for a Winter fish, she had some go. I had expected to be palming the reel more, but I almost never needed to! Cool!

And that sound...

Guitarists praise the Fender Stratocaster for its distinctive sound. Pianists do the same for Steinway. Violinists for a Stradivarius. Yes, the Speyco is in this category. It has a unique, nearly undescribable tone and pitch. Over the course of three days in New York, I scored three fish on the swing and every time that beautiful sound cut through the air. Not a high-pitched scream, but more like a throaty growl.

Every so often I encounter a piece of gear that is truly exceptional. A favorite that I know I will enjoy and cherish for years to come. My new Speyco River Switch is hands-down my new favorite reel. Thanks, Tim for an exceptional product.