The wild trout slaughter-machine is back. Operating under its usual guise of ”native species management”, its crosshairs this time are trained on Red Rock Creek, a small stream traversing Centennial Valley, just west of Henry’s Lake. What wild trout are destined for extermination this time? Ironically, the very same species that, a mere 20 miles away in Yellowstone National Park, is revered as a crown jewel. That’s right—the Yellowstone cutthroat.
As the managers of Red Rock see it, the cutthroat are causing a decline in the Arctic grayling population, that ostensibly “native” species of fish that also resides in the creek. So in order to save the grayling, the cutthroat must go. Never mind that it hasn’t been demonstrated that the cutthroat are the cause of the grayling’s woes. Never mind that the two species have been occupying the stream together for, well, a damn long time. It’s apparently obvious, too, that of the myriad other factors that can affect population dynamics, none are important here, or they would have been subject to at least a modicum of scrutiny. Maybe I’m the one missing something, but before being handed a death sentence, I think the cutthroat deserved far more consideration than they were given. (My perspective on native species management can be read in Wild Trout Lose Again; I won’t further beat already dead trout here.)
And so the slaughter has begun. Currently, the dirty work is being performed by fishermen. The season is open, the spawning run is on, and the limit is 20 cutthroat per day. Come and get ‘em. (To give an idea of the quality of fish we’re talking about, one fellow I’m acquainted with killed his 20 fish the other day, took them home, and put ‘em on a scale. In aggregate, they weighed 62 pounds.) After the fishermen are done wreaking their particular brand of “management”, fish traps will be installed in the creek. Some of the trapped fish will be allowed to live temporarily in one of the ponds in the valley, after which they too will be killed. (I guess that’s the fish equivalent of death row).
Having worked previously in the field of fisheries biology, it’s hard for me to accept this kind of wholesale slaughter as modern fisheries management. I’m disappointed—no, actually ashamed—of my former profession. Understand that I am not against Arctic grayling. But attempting to save one species by destroying another reflects poorly on us as “stewards” of the environment. It ignores our true role in the world. It takes the hypocrisy that lies behind a decision like this and stuffs it away into the deepest, darkest place possible, never to be seen again.
Same fate the cutthroat have coming.
Note: Some folks might argue that the cutthroat in Red Rock Creek are actually cutthroat x rainbow hybrids, and use this fact to further justify the slaughter. To me, this is yet another example of the pedantry often associated with “native species management”. At what point does introgression turn a cutthroat into something other than a cutthroat? Go to the creek and see for yourself. Perhaps on a molecular level a portion of these fish are hybrids, but viewed in the practical light of day, they’re nothing if not Yellowstone cutthroat.
In a recent response to a blog reader’s comments, I noted that fast-action rods can promote the development of flaws in a casting stroke. Several readers have since written me asking if I might provide an example. Certainly. Here’s a flaw I see frequently: Using a stroke where the rod tip travels too far for the length of line being cast.
In the abstract, it may hard to visualize what that means. Let’s consider it another way. Ever made a cast where your loop was wide and lazy? How about one where your line and leader failed to straighten, especially while trying to summon an extra few feet of distance? When casting into the wind, have your leader and fly ever been blown back at you? Answering yes to any of these questions means you’ve experienced the consequences of using a stroke where the rod tip travels too far for the length of line being cast.
Now, I’m pretty sure no one sets out to intentionally incorporate this particular casting flaw into their stroke. So it’s only natural to ask, how does it happen? The reasons are various. It can happen to beginning and intermediate casters when their strokes contain other serious fundamental flaws. It can happen to any level of caster when they get lazy or tired. A third reason for why someone’s rod tip travels too far—the most insidious reason—is because their rod encourages it.
Every flycast requires a certain amount of energy. While that energy ultimately originates with the caster, the rod contributes by storing and returning to the cast a portion of the energy we impart to it. (When a rod bends, it stores energy. When it straightens, that stored energy is released.) The more a rod bends, the more energy it stores and returns to the cast. Which means less work for the caster. The opposite is also true. Rods that resist bending—think of today’s typical fast-action rod—store a minimal amount of energy. They require more work from the caster. Sometimes that work amounts to more than a caster can physically deliver. Herein lies the problem.
When a fly rod, by dint of being too stiff, requires us to work at or near our physical limits of strength and quickness, our fundamentals tend to erode. Typically, our stroke becomes too long. Our arms move over too great a distance, our wrists bend too much, or both. But no matter how it happens, the net result is that the rod tip travels too far for the length of line being cast. As we saw earlier, the consequences of that happening are multiple and not good. Our success suffers.
I’m not suggesting that, in an absolute sense, stiff or fast-action rods are bad. Stiffness is relative. Owing to differences in physical capabilities, a rod that’s too stiff for one person might, in the hands of another, work just fine. But I do want to offer a cautionary note. Many modern rods push hard the boundaries of acceptable stiffness. They encourage the development of casting flaws. So caveat emptor. After all, your casting stroke is a valuable thing, deserving of a little safeguarding.
Buying a new fly rod should be an enjoyable experience. Unfortunately, for many anglers it's a struggle. It's easy to understand why. An overwhelming number of makes and models crowd the market. The range of prices is wide. Quality varies, but not in clearly defined ways. The marketing campaigns behind today's rods are slick, captivating, hype-laden. Opinions are everywhere too, and cheap. It's just not that easy to know who or what to believe. At the risk of muddying the waters even further, here's an approach I've found helpful.
Know beforehand exactly why you want a new rod. (It will help if your answer has something to do with fishing.) If your intention is to address existing fishing problems, make a list of those problems. Perhaps you're taking up a new kind of fishing, like bonefishing or bass bugging. What requirements will that new fishing place on a rod? Be sure to find out. Conducting a little research may seem like an obvious step, yet it's surprising how often it gets overlooked. But buying a fly rod is no different than buying any other tool. Knowing what tasks need performing or what problems need solving inform the decision about what tool to buy. I mean, who buys a chainsaw to whack weeds?
Say you'd like to take up gulper fishing. This is a kind of lake fishing for large, free-rising, spooky trout. It's undertaken mostly in calm conditions, casting 35-75 feet with medium to small dry flies while using 4x-6x tippets. Line manipulation is a non-issue. With specific parameters like these in mind, you can begin to slice your way through the jungle of possible rods. Let's say, based on the longish casting distances, that you opt for a rod of 9 feet in length. The delicacy of a four-weight line seems perfect for spooky fish, but a five would work too. A five carries more energy, aiding distance while also providing extra punch should wind become an issue. So five it is, but it needs to be a five whose power is deployed smoothly and efficiently at 50 feet, roughly mid-range for this kind of fishing. The light tippets you'll employ need protecting—at distance. That calls for a rod with adequate cushion in its upper half, something approximating medium flex. Do you have budget constraints? Factor them in now. Tally it all up, and you'll find that your field of potential rods has been winnowed down nicely.
The next step, if possible, is to cast those rods that you judge as meeting your criteria (actually fishing them is better yet). Either way, the important thing here is to avoid direct comparisons of one rod to another. That may sound odd, I know, but it's important because not all rods of a given length and line weight are created equally. Their design parameters vary, often widely. So comparing one rod to another—under the assumption that they're all supposed to do the same thing—generally fosters confusion, not clarity. Remember that your goal here is to find the rod best suited to the tasks you'll ask it to perform. Do that by evaluating each rod against the criteria you laid out at the beginning of the process. By testing rods in this manner, you'll find it much easier to discern among the candidates.
When your testing is finished, hopefully one rod stands apart in its performance. If so, that's the one to buy. More likely, you'll have to choose among rods that offer varying compromises of the parameters you identified at the start. That's okay. Pick the one that most closely addresses your most important parameters. And by all means continue to keep an eye on the rod market. You might never find the perfect rod, but that's an entirely different thing than finding the rod that's perfect for you.
For anyone wondering about our gulper fishing example, here are three rods that make my cut:
Classic: Leonard Golden Shadow 9' - 6 weight. A 1970's rod, one that is difficult to come by today. Though labeled a 6-weight, at gulper distances it performs better with a 5. If you ever see one of these rods for sale, snatch it up.
Contemporary: Sage ZXL 9' - 5-weight, 2 pc. (The three piece models do not exhibit the same flex.) It's not perfect for protecting light tippets, but it's distance ability is unparalleled among modern rods. Unfortunately, Sage stopped making this model last year.
Current: Sage Circa 8'9" - 5-weight. It's not 9' and it's more powerful beyond 60' than in closer, but that's an acceptable trade-off for the ease and smoothness of its casting.
Prior to its seasonal closing on March 1, I spent a couple of days wandering the banks of the Madison with a friend. Our intentions were simply to have a look around, and perhaps to take some pictures. We had no plans for fishing. On both mornings we encountered exceptional midge activity. Most of the midges were mating and egglaying, but minor numbers were emerging too. Both mornings, the rise of fish was nothing short of stunning. I was actually taken aback—not only by the number of fish rising, but also by the numbers of large fish. We spent several hours each day just watching them.
Thinking about it now, I can't recall seeing any rises comparable to these since the early '90's, a heyday on the river for both insects and trout. I'm still sort of in shock. So in spite of all the concerns about the repairs to Hebgen Dam—valid concerns, I might add, which still exist—I feel more sanguine about the river than I have in a number of years. The fish are there. (Of course, I suppose it's possible that we saw every fish in the river on those two days, but I doubt it. Even if we did, the numbers were still impressive.)
I don't know what this portends for the coming season. Just because the river is full of fish doesn't necessarily mean that the fishing will be great. Many other factors—water flows, temperatures, weather and hatches—will have a say in that. But what I saw was encouraging. If you're planning on fishing the river this year, I think you have good reason to be optimistic.
While rummaging through some boxes in my basement, I came across a copy of the 1981 spring issue of Fly Fisherman magazine. One of the featured pieces was about the Firehole River, written by Ernie Schwiebert. In his inimitable style, Ernie provided a fine overview of the character of the river and its fishing. Sprinkled in along the way were a number of observations about how the river had changed over the thirty-five years he had fished it. This gave me pause to think about my own experiences on the Firehole, and the changes I've seen in the thirty-seven years I've fished it.
By all accounts, the Firehole of Schwiebert's day held a remarkable head of trout. It still does. But the population today contains nothing like the number of large trout it did when I began fishing it in the 1970's. Back then it was common to see big fish throughout the river, both browns and rainbows (catching them was another matter). The large fish taken these days—those measuring over 17 inches—are rare, and invariably brown trout. I've neither seen nor heard of any large rainbows in the river for quite some time. The few big browns caught these days all seem to be taken on nymphs or streamers; finding a large fish feeding on top just doesn't happen anymore. Which suggests to me that there simply aren't many of them around.
One reason for this, I think, stems from the fact that Iron Creek, a major tributary of the Firehole that enters the river in Biscuit Basin, no longer runs cold. This has hurt the river in several ways. One, the overall cooling effect this stream provided to the upper river is now gone. During late summer hot spells, Iron Creek itself also served as a thermal refuge, safe-harboring many of the Firehole's fish (especially its larger specimens) until the main river cooled down in September. Warmer water temperatures accelerate the metabolism of trout, and it's been shown that while Firehole trout grow extremely fast, their lifespans are short. With rare exceptions, it appears that they're just not living long enough to grow big.
The Firehole's fly hatches have changed over the years, too. For example, Baetis punctiventris (a small olive mayfly) used to be of major importance to fishermen, but over the last thirty years its population has declined to a point of irrelevance. Conversely, Nectopsyche caddisfly numbers have burgeoned. This caddis has gone from playing no part in our fishing to assuming the mantle of most important caddis on the river. It's worth noting that Nectopsyche is a caddis that favors warmer water. On balance, I think the river has lost more important hatches than it's gained, and the hatches that remain don't seem quite as heavy as they once were. But I say that cautiously, since insect populations are prone to natural—and often dramatic—fluctuations. Time will tell if these observations are blips on the radar, or whether they signify some kind of permanent change in river conditions.
There are more people fishing the Firehole now than there were thirty years ago. At least during the months of May and June. Memorial Day weekend (when the river opens) and the following week or two can occasionally be a bit crowded, but that's pretty much the only time. Even then, owing to the exceptional numbers of ten to thirteen inch fish present throughout the river—most of them more than happy to take a fly—there's never a shortage of opportunity. It takes very little water here to keep an angler occupied. September and October, with their excellent if occasionally fickle Baetis and caddis hatches, provide delightful fishing experiences, almost always in solitude.
The Firehole has long been a favorite of Yellowstone anglers. Including me. I've loved everything about the river since I first laid eyes on it on a cold September morning. And if it isn't quite the river it once was, well, I still think it ranks among the greats. Come Memorial Day, there's no place I'd rather be.