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Traveling with Fly Rod and Reel
By Gary A. Soucie
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1995 Gary A. Soucie
All rights reserved.
"When a trip comes apart on somebody, it's always, always because of false expectations," Silvio Calabi said recently. "People arrive at a destination with a mindset — not just about the size and quantity of fish, but about the food, the amount of game animals they're going to see, how crowded the fishery is." An experienced traveler and expert fly-fisherman as well as editor in chief and associate publisher of Fly Rod & Reel and Fly Tackle Dealer magazines, Calabi knows what he's talking about. My experience certainly corroborates his.
After reading the outfitter's or booking agent's promotional hype about the place (not to mention the breathless prose in the outdoor magazines, almost certainly written by nonpaying junketeers), it's hard not to arrive at a fishing destination with pumped-up expectations. I mean, if you didn't expect great fishing, why would you have spent so much time and money on the trip?
It's okay to be optimistic about a fishing trip; just be a realistic optimist. Unless you're a real piscatorial shut-in, one who's experienced little variety and a lot of shutouts in your fly-fishing, you can't realistically expect that a trip to some angling mecca halfway around the world will provide the fishing of a lifetime. The trip of a lifetime, maybe. But the fishing? There are simply too many variables to count on having great fishing, no matter where you are heading: weather, timing, your abilities and skills under the conditions at hand, even luck.
Yes, luck. After we've tucked a few seasons under our belt, we like to think that luck no longer plays a role in our fishing, but it does. The first time I went fishing abroad — on a writers' junket to the Scottish Highlands and the Orkney Islands — luck conspired with the calendar. Mid-May in such high latitudes, we expected the water to be cold and the salmon run to be spotty. And they were. But who could have predicted weather too hot and sunny for good fishing, two days out of three, that early, that far north? To make a long story short, nobody caught a salmon. But at least we all caught trout. All but one of us, that is. The one who went completely fishless the whole trip was probably the most experienced person among us, insofar as fly-fishing and trout fishing are concerned. You'd recognize the byline for sure, but I won't embarrass him further. Lady Luck can be fickle and perfidious. Or she can smile on those least deserving. I hadn't yet learned to fly-cast but somehow managed to catch the first fish of the trip, a brown trout from Loch Swannay that turned out to be half the first day's total catch. Believe me, it was dumb luck. Skill had nothing to do with it. Nothing.
Summing up the Scottish Highlands and Islands experience: The weather had been perverse (as it so often is when fishing is involved), we got there before most of the fish did, my fly-fishing skills (virtually nonexistent) were not up to the challenges, and luck dealt out some pretty strange hands. As I would come to learn with more fishing-travel experience, it was a pretty typical fly-fishing trip.
The least experienced fly-fisherman on that trip to Scotland, I was the least disappointed. My expectations were vague and, except for the one about catching a salmon, mostly exceeded by the particulars of the experience: seeing the Scottish countryside, watching birds, learning about flies, meeting a lot of interesting people, discovering single-malt Scotches. But I think some of the others were disappointed. Expectations and disappointment are closely related, and mostly mirrored: High expectations beget high disappointment, unreasonable expectations result in unreasonable disappointment.
Go anywhere in the world expecting to shoot fish in a barrel, and you are setting yourself up for a major disappointment. Odds are the fishing won't be that good at any given time and place. If it is, it'll be too easy to be much fun.
From hard-won experience, I can tell you that no fishing trip ever turns out exactly the way you thought it would. Sometimes the fishing is better than expected, but usually it's worse. Every famous fishing mecca has its off days and weeks, weather can turn the fishing on its ear in a minute, and both people and machinery sometimes fail at the tasks assigned them. As the Scottish poet Robert Burns so memorably put it, "The best laid schemes o' mice and men/Gang aft a-gley." If the fishing isn't off or the weather uncooperative, you almost certainly can count on something else going wrong at some point during the trip. Sometimes a lot of somethings else. I've learned that "no problem" is the last thing you want to hear before or during a fishing trip, because it usually means the person you are talking to (a) doesn't understand the question, (b) doesn't know the answer, or (c) is pretty sure you don't want to hear the answer.
Historic Drought and Hysterical Disappointment
Very recently, on Russia's Kola Peninsula, I had the misfortune to spend a bad week on a great salmon river with a bunch of rich, spoiled American fishermen. Granted, a heavy May snowfall followed by midsummer-like temperatures and the worst drought in four hundred years had put the fishing off. Way off. When the salmon finally arrived at camp, a bit later than expected, there weren't many of them. The water had fallen quickly from its preseason high levels. By the last week of June, the river was low enough and warm enough for August. The fish were almost certainly holding in the deep, lakelike sections lower down, waiting for the water to rise, then start falling again. The fishing was tough. Not quite as tough as it had been the previous three weeks, but tough enough, thank you.
There we all were, on what should have been one of the two or three best weeks of the season, on what is perhaps the most prolific salmon river in the world, and the fishing was downright disappointing. You had to work hard for every fish, as hard as if you were fishing the well-flogged salmon streams of eastern Canada or the U.K., not a lightly fished wilderness river north of the Arctic Circle in Russia.
It's hard not to be downcast when a world-class fishing spot fails to live up to its reputation or your expectations. But that's fishing, as the saying goes. To cite another cliché, that's why it's called fishing, not catching.
Instead of trying to make the most of the weak hand they'd been dealt by fate, the Californians bitched and moaned. They didn't even give the river a fair trial. They caught a few fish their first afternoon and evening in camp, and another before breakfast the next morning. But by dinner that first full day, their chorus was in full whine. They said the booking agent who'd sold them the trip had told them he'd caught 162 fish in one week the year before. It's a good thing no one had offered them a good deal on a certain bridge in New York.
Where did these guys think they were going, Fantasy Island? Even giving them the benefit of the doubt — that they were lied to by someone overhyping an expensive fishing trip (naturally, the booking agent tells a slightly different story) — their disappointment was still out of proportion. It has been a long, long time since a single rod has caught 162 Atlantic salmon in a single week, anywhere. Even commercial netters don't do that well. The last year I fished the Whale River up in northern Quebec, the allowable commercial catch on the river for the whole season was just 500 fish.
In his New Standard Fishing Encyclopedia and International Angling Guide, surely the best-known, most often cited angling reference book in the English-speaking world, the late A. J. McClane wrote that "money spent in pursuit of Atlantic salmon ranks midway between money invested in backing a Broadway show and money invested in an Irish Sweepstakes ticket" and that "par for the course, the world over, is a fish a day, but very rare is the salmon angler who consistently breaks par." Any fisherman ought to have done at least that much easy, armchair research before plunking down $5,500 for a week's fishing and maybe another $2,500 or more for airfare, tips, booze, and nights on the town in Moscow.
Admittedly, these guys were new to salmon fishing. But they weren't inexperienced anglers, yuppies who'd only recently taken up fly-fishing, or duffers used to put-and-take casting overstocked hatchery trout. Most of them were seasoned steelheaders. Now, if anyone should know about putting in long hours and hundreds, maybe thousands, of casts between fish, it's a California steelheader. In Pavlov's Trout, the Incompleat Psychology of Everyday Fishing, the fly-fisherman and clinical psychologist Paul Quinnett — who lives outside Spokane, Washington, "near some of the best steelhead fishing in the world" — says, "Red hot steelhead fishing means the average angler will catch one fish for every seven to ten hours of fishing. Slow steel-heading means one fish every 25 or 30 hours. Even if you fish hard all day when the fishing is hot, chances are you will not catch a steelhead." By those standards, the salmon fishing on that Russian river that June was at least middling warm. In six and a half days of fishing, the eight whiners caught something like thirty fish, for a per-rod average of about one fish every fourteen or fifteen hours. Not up to their unreasonable expectations, certainly, nor even to Kola Peninsula standards, but hardly a shutout.
Traveling to Fish, or Fishing to Travel?
If catching fish — lots of fish or big fish — is your main objective, you have few good reasons to leave the continent. Our fifty states, Canada, and Mexico offer North American anglers a staggering variety of world-class fishing opportunities. Geographic nitpickers might want to exclude Hawaii from a strict-constructionist definition of North America, but that still leaves us way ahead of anyone else. On the other hand, geographic liberals might want to cede the Bahamas, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands to North America, all significant piscatorial enhancements of Florida's already considerable subtropical attractions. Either way, no other continent comes close. Put them all together, and we still give the world a run for its money.
You won't get far into your toes counting the number of places around the world that offer better fishing than you can find in North America: humongous brown trout in New Zealand and Patagonia, sea trout in Argentina and Sweden and on the Barents Sea coast of Russia, plentiful steelheading on Kamchatka, enormous pike in the Baltic, billfishing in the Azores, sails and bills off the Pacific coast of Panama and Costa Rica, two-hundred-plus-pound tarpon on the west coast of Africa, easy bonefish in the Bahamas and Los Rocques and on Christmas Island, and, yes, Atlantic salmon on Russia's Kola Peninsula. That's about it.
Is that any reason to stay home? Far from it. If exotica is your game, then the world is indeed your oyster: taimen in Siberia and Mongolia, peacock bass and payara in Venezuela, dorado in Paraguay, Nile perch in Lake Victoria, kahawai and kawakawa in Australia and New Zealand, giant trevally on Christmas Island, barramundi in Australia and Papua New Guinea (plus niugini bass in the latter), tigerfish in Zambia and Zimbabwe, mahseer in the Himalayas, huchen in the Danube, snoek in South Africa, machacas in Central America, cherry (masu) salmon and suzuki in Japan. I could go on, but I think you get the point.
But even if you aren't into casting flies at exotic species, consider the spectrum of opportunities affording to fly-fish for Salmo trutta in, say, the braided channels of Montana's Madison, the Ulvsparre water on Sweden's Em, the little Carmans on Long Island, Bhutan's Mochu, the Test and Itchen and other storied English streams, the Atlas Mountains of North Africa, Tierra del Fuego's Río Grande, the eastern slopes of the Urals, the Transvaal streams of South Africa's Drakensberg, the Norfork in the Ozarks, Iceland's Stadara, the Carpathian Mountains of Slovakia, the Mataura on New Zealand's South Island, Connemara's Ballynahinch water or Lough Corrib, the Karup Å in Denmark, Bulgaria's Stara Planina, the high Pyrenees of Andorra, the Firehole during an October snowfall, the Transylvanian Alps of Romania, the San Carlos on East Falkland, the Stockholm and Åland archipelagoes in the Baltic, the Tarsus Mountains of Turkey, the Vale of Kashmir. All just brown trout fishing? I think not.
What the rest of the world has to offer, and which North America can't match, is just that: the rest of the world.
Unless you enjoy suffering expensive disappointment, you need to prepare yourself adequately for a trip. And that begins by looking inward. Don't spend so much time lusting over the images in the magazine ads and travel brochures. First, know what it is you hope to get out of a trip.
Datus Proper, the author of What the Trout Said, saw a lot of fishing in his career as a U.S. State Department foreign service officer. His third overseas posting (following assignments in Angola, where he caught a two-hundred-pound tarpon, and in Brazil, "where there was at the time some pretty good trout fishing") was to Ireland. Proper says the Irish assignment was "wonderful: very difficult fishing for very wild brown trout, big ones, and all waiting-for-the-hatch. It was the kind of fishing I like best." Now, if matching the hatch and "very difficult fishing" are not your cup of tea, you might find the same experience other than wonderful. You might be better served heading for Alaska, Labrador, Argentina, or Chile rather than Ireland. The way you like to fish is more important than how "wonderful" the fishing is supposed to be in some far-flung fly-fishing Valhalla.
"The most important thing is that fishing destinations are very different," says Don Causey, the editor and publisher of The Angling Report. "People's tastes, desires, and special interests in fishing are very different as well, and you simply have to find the right fishing opportunity for yourself."
I've fished three different salmon operations in Alaska, all members of the same cooperative, and they were as different as morning, noon, and night. Except for a heavy run of humpies, the fishing was way off, and the kings had developed lockjaw at the lodge I wound up liking best because it was so well run and the setting was so wild and lovely. I caught the most fish (lots of silvers between eight and twelve pounds) at a poorly run lodge on a wide, muddy river I doubt I'd return to. You might have ranked them in a different order. Different strokes, as they say. That's why asking when the "best" time to fish a given place is not necessarily a good question. I want to know when they're hitting Hendricksons, say, not when every fish in the stream will take Woolly Buggers. You may prefer something different: the caddis hatches or the rusty spinner fall.
My good friend and sometime fishing and traveling companion George Reiger, conservation editor of Field & Stream, contributor to numerous other fishing and outdoor magazines, and the author of several thoughtful books on the outdoor life, recently dropped me a line I'd like to share:
What traveling anglers must realize is that if they make a commitment to five days of fishing in some remote place, that's it! There's seldom anything else to do. For me, dawn-to-dusk fishing along one short stretch of river, or even a patch of flats, gets boring awfully fast. Especially when just one species is involved, and all the fish are pretty much the same size.
Know thyself. Before you commit to a week at some remote camp, be sure you and your companions have the temperament for such isolation. Some anglers are quite content to go to a Labrador lodge and fish all day, every day, for a week, catching 4- and 5-pound brook trout, or to Christmas Island to catch 4- and 5-pound bonefish for days on end.
For me, that's like sitting down with a 10-pound bag of Hershey's chocolates until they're all gone. I'm a Whitman's Sampler man, myself. Ninety percent of what makes fishing fun is the travel, the people, and the land — the geography and the history. It's the bird life as much as the fish life. It's the serendipity of discovering something new and trying something different every day.
I think you've got to have a certain curiosity, a certain perspective, to get the most out of a fishing trip.
Now, if you're not a Whitman's Sampler kind of guy, you just might relish the idea of catching three-pound rainbow after three-pound rainbow, ten-pound coho after ten-pound coho, day in, day out. As George says, Know thyself. Before heading off on a megabuck, megamile fishing trip, be sure you know what it is you are after. Is catching big fish, or a lot of fish, important to you? It isn't for everyone, not even some of the big names whose published exploits feed your angling wanderlust.
"I don't like not catching fish," Datus Proper says, "but I don't need to catch a lot of trout. I keep hearing people talk about fifty-trout days and one-hundred-trout days, which is not the kind of talk I like to hear. I can't imagine still wanting to run up big scores on trout after you've been fly-fishing a few years."
Excerpted from Traveling with Fly Rod and Reel by Gary A. Soucie. Copyright © 1995 Gary A. Soucie. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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