Monday, 26 March 2012

Frank Sawyer and G.E.M. Skues and all that

I ran across this interesting video from the 1950's of of Frank Sawyer tying a pheasant tail nymph and a dry fly. Following G. E. M. Skues, Frank Sawyer has always been something of a hero of mine and it is quite special to see him tying - it is like seeing a ghost from a long lost time.  You can see him talking, it's too bad the sound is not here.

I recently bought a copy of George Daniel's book Dynamic Nymphing: Tactics,  Techniques and Flies from around the world.  Daniel is a product of the George Harvey and Joe Humphreys fly fishing program at Penn State.  His book provides an insiders view of the technical world of nymphing techniques developed by the competitive fishermen of the  Fédération Internationale de Peche Sportive Mouche.  In his book Daniel presents pages of leader formulas and describes the Czech, Polish, French, Spanish and American nymphing techniques. He is a US "champion" fly-fisherman.  Be that as it may, the introduction to Daniel's book was written by the English angler Charles Jardine who makes the following rather provocative claim:

I was fortunate that my first formal tutor was Frank Sawyer, the man that rocked the cozy foundations of traditional fly fishing by advocating the use of nymphs on chalkstreams. And these were deep nymphs, not those namby pamby, soft hackled, Flymphy things of Skues -- we are talking heavy metal here, people!  Sawyer's utilitarian and distinctly ordinary-looking nymphs, made of pheasnat tail and copper wire flew in the face of others' delicate creations of thread, gossamer, hackle and dubbing.  It was a bolt of fly-tying common sense, fished with  devasting brilliance, and the slimplicty and effectiveness of Sawyer's nymphs shook the polite UK-society fishing world.
Sawyer spent a lifetime as a river keeper on the Avon, from 1925 until his death in 1980. He was a great naturalist and fisherman and I recommend his books.  Here, I think, Jardine exaggerates Sawyer's influence, relative to Skues. Sawyer's books were published in the 1950's while Skues Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream and Kindred Studies was published in 1910. Sawyer was only 4 years old when Skues wrote Minor Tactics.

Color plate of trout flies from Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream by G.E.M. Skues, 1910
I first ran across Skues book when I was a graduate student in the Mann Library at Cornell University. A first edition of Minor Tacitcs. Nearby on the shelves were others by F. M. Halford, Alfred Ronalds, W. C. Stewart, Frank Sawyer, Ewen M. Tod, J. C. Dunne and others.  I checked them all out.  As a graduate student I had privileges for six months. I devoured them all and, when I tried to obtain my own copy of Skues' Minor Tactics, I discovered that I had at least eight thousand dollars worth of books checked out of the library.  Shortly there after I received a recall notice for all of them. I begrudgingly took them back.

A few weeks after the recall  I went on a mission in the hills around Ithaca, trying to find the legendary "culvert pool".  I had heard its name reverently mentioned more than once by old time Ithaca fly fishermen and, with only the vaguest impression of its actual location I set out to find it.  As I heard it, it was a large pool on a tiny creek full of native Brook trout, some as large as 16 or even 18 inches. What was not told was how insanely dense the willow and alders were along this trickle of a stream. There was no way to walk down this stream and I had to literally crawl downstream through the tunnel of brush over the tiny creek.   Eventually, the tunnel opened and the creek I was following merged with a slightly larger stream on a large slate slab which formed a small waterfall.  To my utter surprise, sitting on the rock ledge on the far side was another angler, a tall skinny Icahabod Crane character. He was wearing a fishing vest and a long brimmed hat, carrying an Orvis rod and wading wet in a pair of Chuck Taylor basketball shoes with felt soles glued on. He was as surprised as I to meet someone in this astoundingly wild place.  Our missions were the same. As we talked I learned that  he was a librarian at Cornell. I gushed about the fabulous fishing collection at Mann Library and complained bitterly about the bastard who had recalled all my books.  It was then that I learned that in fact, he was in charge of the collection had recalled all my books. Recognizing the rarity and value of the books he'd established a special collection of fly fishing which, among other things, meant the books have since been removed from circulation.  Never-the-less, we became friends and fishing partners.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Cocks and hens on the North Platte

A beautiful rainbow cock in spawning colors.

I fished one of the North Platte tailwaters for the last day of the Spring break.  The temperatures were in the mid 50's and it was more overcast than not. There were some brisk winds and a few moments of calm which gave the river a mirror smooth surface in the section we were fishing.  The fishing was exceptional with fish consistently taking size 20 bead head midge patterns all day.  The rainbows are starting to move onto the spawning beds.  Jeff and I avoided the shallow gravel beds with some really large fish and concentrated on a deep run.

I started with a streamer and rather quickly had two hits but no hookup. I switched to a two fly nymph/midge setup after watching a number of good fish taking emerging midges in the film.  The standard rig consists of a thingamabobber above a split-shot (an AB or two AA's) pinched on about 8" above a pair of  flies separated by about 16" of 5X tippet.  For this deeper run the thingamabobber was chinched on about six feet above my splitshot. For most of the day, my top fly was an orange copper wire nymph with an angora thorax tied on a size 14 TMC 200R. I don't fish this fly much at Grey Reef but I don't know why since the red "rock worm" pattern that I often throw at the reef is very similar pattern. The fish in the photo above shows the fly. My dropper was a size 20 mercury midge.  Almost all the fish I took went for the mercury midge but this beautiful fish took the orange wire nymph.

A nice rainbow hen.

I fished the eleven foot five weight switch rod all day throwing an 8wt bonefish line.  I fished it as a long single handed rod almost exclusively making overhead casts.  This is a great rod for this kind of fishing - the extra length gives me significantly more reach in my casting and better mends.  I still haven't settled on the right line for this rod but the 8wt is serving just fine for overhead casting - it does not work very well for double handed casts.

Same fish as the top photo - the opening in the net is 18 1/2" from top to bottom.
This is an amazing fishery for anyone willing to fight the crowds - and of course, not everyone is. We fished from about 11AM to 3:30 PM.  When we arrived, it was very crowded - around 1PM people disappeared.  All we could figure was that the Greenies had a long drive back to Denver and had to get home.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Forest Film Festival in Saratoga WY

“Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”  - Aldo Leopold (1887-1948)
P and I attended the first evening of films in the Forest Film Festival in Saratoga Wyoming. The first short film was a music video made by friend Ali Grossman of the band Oatmeal Stumble playing their song Bark Beetle Blues. I must admit that it was kind of surprising to see a series of films in a Wyoming Ranching community in which climate change and global warming were mentioned over and over again.  This is a place where most people want to deny climate change and call call the bark beetle kill off a "natural cycle". Literally millions of acres of Rocky Mountain forest have been destroyed by the pine bark beetles.  If it's a cycle, it's a long one, White Bark Pines over 800 years old are being killed by beetles.  They are threatened with extinction, a dead end, not a cycle.

The loss of the forest was addressed by the first three short films and was followed by a presentation by local forest service employees. The forest service presentation was earnest but hollow. In the face of up to 90% of the forest dying, they played down climate change. Instead,  they talked about the concrete steps they are taking in the face of the tragedy.  Last year, for example, they cleared 600 acres of dead trees in the Medicine-Bow and Route National Forest campgrounds - as a public safety measure. They'd love to be able to sell off beetle-kill timber to get some of the deadwood cleared, but there is no infrastructure to do so and beetle kill lumber prices are so low it's not worth anyone's while.  There has been some interest in using the deadwood for biomass co-generation, but again, there currently is no infrastructure in place.  The forest service speakers showed some graphs projecting pine marten and pine squirrel populations. According to their graphs, the populations will  drop dramatically within the next 5 years, to near zero, but then the graph rather optimistically rises, projecting that populations will rebound to levels higher than they currently are - the time scale was 200 years. Of course woodpeckers populations are on the rise.

 The evening ended with a showing of the Aldo Leupold biography Green Fire which I had not seen and enjoyed immensely. As someone commented in the film, Leopold presented his ideas very simply but they are extraordinarily deep ideas that deserve our attention.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Elk Tenderloin in Ancho Chili sauce

Dried Ancho chiles

I cooked the last of the elk tenderloin in the freezer over the weekend.  I improvised a chili based marinade and subsequently, an earthy sauce, on the fly that P, Nori  and I thought was outrageously delicious - if I do say so myself.  Of course it's hard to mess up an elk tenderloin. I will mention that Nori is a vegan who happens to love wild meat and she's not the first one I've known; and now it's practically a movement.

For some time now I've been improvising variations on Bourdain's  recipe Salade D'onglet from his les Halles Cookbook.  If you know his recipe, this one is clearly based on it as well.

(Serves 3 or 4)
1 Elk Tenderloin - sliced into medallions about 1 1/2" thick. One tenderloin should yield about 7 or 8 medallions.

For the Marinade

2 Ancho peppers (dried poblanos)
1 smaller dried California chili (about 3" long)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 cloves garlic finely chopped.
4 tablespoons olive oil

For the Sauce

a splash of Cognac or Armagnac
2 cups of white wine
2 cups of beef stock 
leftover  chili marinade
2 tablespoons of blackberry jam
a pinch of thyme

To make the marinade dry roast the chilies and make a chili sauce.  I first learned how to make a chili sauce from Rick Bayless's Authentic Mexican cookbook.  Carefully, split the peppers and remove the seeds. I try to get the largest flat pieces I can. Anchos are dried poblano chilies and although not hot, they add an earthy smoky flavor. The California peppers add a bit of a bite. Dry roast the chilies in the hot pan and press them down with a spatula until the skins bubble up a bit.  Once roasted, put them in a small bowl with about 2 cups of water and heat, not quite to boiling.  I used the microwave for about 30 seconds.  Blend the chili and water on high speed for a minute and then pour this mixture over the elk which has been drizzled with olive oil, a tablespoon or so of soy sauce and cracked pepper.  You can strain the sauce if you like -- I used to  -- but now I don't worry about the small chunks of pepper they add texture.  Marinate the meat for a few hours or more.

Once you are ready to cook the meat - put a plate in the over set at about 220F.  Slice the tenderloin into medallions about 1 1/2" thick.  You could go thicker if you like - I don't like them too thick because I find it's harder to get them a perfect medium rare if they are too thick.  Melt a couple of tablespoons of butter in a skillet on high heat and brown both sides of the medallions well.  Once browned - put them on the warm plate in the oven.  De-glaze the pan (carefully avoiding a fire) with about 1/4 cup of cognac (I used Armagnac) and then add white wine.  I think the amount of wine (and later stock) you add somewhat depends on the size of the pan you are using.  I filled the 14" cast iron pan I was using until the liquid is about 1/4" to 1/2" deep. A stainless steel pan might be better - but I don't have one that large. Reduce the liquid on high heat until it starts to thicken. This takes a few minutes.  Once reduced, pour in any of the chili marinade that might be left and mash in a tablespoon or two of blackberry jam (fig preserves are good too) and then refill the pan to 1/4" or 1/2" or so with stock. I used ordinary beef stock this time though I often use trotter gear and a real veal demi-glace would be even better I'm sure.  Reduce this sauce on high heat again until it starts to thicken - stirring as needed to prevent the sauce from burning on the edges of the pan. It may take four or five minutes.  Do not loose heart if you think you've added to much liquid, patience and stirring will yield a thick sauce. Once the sauce has thickened back up, lower the heat and add the medallions back into the sauce and check one for doneness, they can simmer in the sauce for a minute if they are not yet cooked enough.  I would have made frites but we didn't have the oil to make them.  We served it with a salad and a robust red wine.  We drank an inexpensive Jumilla Monastell called Wrongo Dongo which I can recommend.