Friday, 17 August 2012

Drifting the North Platte

Blue heron watching / Patient at the waters edge / Speared rainbow wriggles

For someone who mostly wades rivers, floating is a different approach, it provides a different perspective.  Drifting downstream, the path of the river through the landscape unfolds before you. When wading, the river passes you by, flowing around your legs as you work to keep yourself well planted to the bottom.   On a float, each bend reveals something new: an osprey dropping into the river and coming up with a large trout in its talons; a lone buck antelope silhouetted against a deep blue sky; a blue heron patiently waiting for and unwary trout. You'll see many of the same sights while wading but floating streams them to you in continuous succession.

You can't argue with results - nice rainbow hen taken on a WD40 emerger.
And of course there is the difference in the quality of the fishing.  I've always felt that carefully and successfully working a run on foot is the best demonstration of an anglers skill.  Drifting in a boat, with your line overboard, waiting for a hookup, seems rather stochastic.  Hookups come as a surprise.  It seems to me that it has more to do with the skill of the oarsman - who works hard to keep the boat tracking through the best water - than it does with the skill of the angler.  I haven't done much drift boat fishing so maybe I am not tuned to the finer points.

A boat gets you to water you could not otherwise get to but, without some superhuman rowing on the part of your oarsman,  you may not be able to fish it as thoroughly as you might like. In Wyoming we have the absurd law that, even for navigable waterways, the bottom of the river is the property of the landowner.  This means that dropping an anchor is a form of trespassing.  Notoriously, there are posses that patrol the private stretches of water.

John with a nice rainbow early in the float.
In the photo above the rectangular red sign over John's right shoulder indicates private land upstream of the sign.   The opposite side is blue indicating that downstream of the sign the banks are publicly accessible.  Sometimes this is through the generosity of a land owner who has granted access to the public (thank-you) and other times it really is public land - state or federal. Red private - blue public.

They don't call them "greenbacks" for nothing - a nice rainbow being released.

Grousing about access aside - we had a great float. We hooked, played and landed plenty of good fish. Great thanks to Jeff's friend and neighbor John D. Baker.  Aside from being our generous host, John is an artist, a falconer, a master angler, a hunter and a generous oarsman.  I can recommend his website: where you'll find an array of wildlife art.  I especially like the drawing of the stooping peregrine on the front page of his website. 

We floated from the Gray Reef Access to Government bridge.
We floated from the boat ramp just below the Gray Reef dam to the takeout just below Government bridge, a distance of 10 miles. It was a lazy trip and we stopped and fished from the bank when possible. The float times listed here is six and a half hours for a raft; drift boats times can be faster. John's boat is an RO skiff, which has to be just about the perfect rig for the North Platte. It had plenty of room for the three of us with casting stations fore and aft and with its lower sides it is less affected by wind.  We took our time, shoving off from Gray Reef at about 8:30 AM and getting off the water at Government Bridge at about 5:30. Next time I think I'd take out at Lusby - although we caught fish, the section between Lusby and Government Bridge is slower water and not quite as interesting.  This was John's recommendation - wish we'd taken it.

John with a nice cutbow.
Throughout the day we hooked up on a number of patterns.  I started out with a two fly rig, a bead-head caddis pupa and a  mercury midge on the point. Eventually I switched the point fly to a WD40 and then switched to a dark leech pattern in favor of the caddis pupa. I hooked fish on all the patterns though the WD40 was the most productive pattern. Interviewing some others who came into the ramp after us Jeff found out they'd had a rough day with few fish - couldn't tell it by us.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Wade Fishing the North Platte

I fished the North Platte river for two days as a last hurrah to summer fishing.  Jeff and I drove up Thursday morning abandoning all manner of important business that could not wait til Monday.  The water was running high out of the Gray Reef dam at 2600 cfs.  At this level wading is a challenge and many people seem to just stay away - which is fine with me,  In my experience, the fishing can be very good when the water is running this high.  

Jeff wading deep below the Gray Reef dam.
I rigged up the Sage 5 weight 11 foot switch rod with a standard two fly nymph rig with a large white thingamabobber strike indicator.  The long rod is pure pleasure on big water like the reef.  I hardly ever bother with a two handed cast there but, when you've waded out to within an inch of the tops of your waders, that extra length means a lot.  The rod is light enough to cast single handed all day and the extra length makes mending a breeze.

We hooked up and caught fish throughout the day.  My largest was about twenty inches, shown in my net in the photo at the top.  That fish, and many others, took a Mercury midge tied on a size 20 Dai-Riki #135 scud/pupa hook with a body of slightly off-white/cream thread instead of the standard white. I should give an update on the pattern I'm using now which is a bit different from the one in the previous post. This has been my go-to fly when midges are on the menu which is almost always.  Jeff had good luck with the fish taking a silver bead headed Zebra Midge tied on the same hook. 

Around five we ate what passes for food at the sadly unbearable Sunset Grill in Alcova. I've sworn this place off more than once and I end up there again and again, it's the only place to eat in Alcova.  The Sunset reeks of stale cigarette smoke which is embedded in the very structure of the place. The food is almost as unbearable as the air. Having previously eaten hamburgers there, I ordered the fish and chips. The freezer burned fish tasted no better than fried breaded cardboard.  In contrast to the Sunset Grill, we stayed in the newer cabins rented out of Sloane's General Store. Can't miss it, it's the only place to buy gas in Alcova. For some reason, they call the cabins The Inn at Alcova but they are commonly known as Sloane's cabins. They are clean, they have fully equipped kitchens and gas grills and run $90 per night for two.  If we'd known we were going to stay there we'd have brought our own food to cook for ourselves.
Bead head caddis pupa pattern proved very effective both days.
After we choked down our dinner we geared up to fish again below the dam until after dark.  Just about the the sun went down, caddis started coming off the water and, in the failing light,  I managed to tie on a bead head caddis pupae.  I started hooking up right away and landed eight fish before I started to get too nervous about wading in the dark through the deep trough that was between me and the shore.  A headlamp would have been an excellent idea.

We met up with John in the parking lot who had driven up from Laramie with his drift boat.  We made plans to meet in the morning to float the river which I've only rarely done before.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Beginings: guns and shooting

My taste in rifles and shotguns was largely formed from reading Stephen Bodio's book Good Guns Again: A Celebration of Fine Sporting Arms. Surprisingly, it is currently not in print (Steve we need an updated edition) though used copies are available.   I did not grow up in a family of hunters and we never had a gun in the house when I was growing up so I learned most of what I know from books.

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My grandfather in Louisiana had a side-by-side shotgun for shooting quail, armadillos and stray cats. He also had owned a Smith and Wesson revolver for protection.  When we would visit, the guns were stashed away, still in view, but up on a high shelf. My grandfather was not a particularly friendly man but he did once let me shoot his revolver, I don't know what caliber it was. I must have been about five or six. We went out behind the house where there was a huge pecan tree stump. He propped up a Coke bottle at the base of the stump.  I was supposed to shoot at the bottle from about 10 feet away. I could barely hold the heavy revolver so he stood behind me and helped me hold it. Pulling the trigger was no easy matter and in the process of doing so I lifted and when the gun went off, surprising the hell out of me, the shot passed over the top of the stump, across the fence and into the pecan grove behind.  Some of Lucille Watson's cattle were out in shaded pasture below the trees.  My grandfather grabbed the revolver from my hand and spewed profanities and then told me what would happen to him (and me) if I'd shot one of Lucille's steers.  That was the end of my training in the use of firearms until I went off to boy scout camp.

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This business of taste in firearms is rather subtle and turns on some mighty fine points that are only learned by spending a lot of time looking at and handling a lot of old guns and rifles.  There used to be some excellent gun stores where large selections of used firearms were out on the racks for customers to handle. Among others I'm thinking of Green Top in Richmond VA and Creekside Gun Shop in Bloomfield NY. Creekside is gone now but the son of the owner is Doug Turnbull does some amazing restoration work. Today, most Cabela's stores have fine gun rooms and there is a similar gun room in the Denver Bass Pro Shop too. These places tend to function more as mini-museums with families of gawkers scurrying around trying to find the highest price tags but not paying much attention to the actual firearms they are attached to.  I don't have much patience for these mega-stores or the knock-off goods they sell but they do offer the serious student of fine firearms a chance to study them up close.  The staff can usually recognize a serious aficionado and will allow you to handle the guns you might be interested.  Don't bother to ask to handle the $100,000 items in glass cases - at least I don't.

1903 Mannlicher Schoenauer chambered for the 6.5x54 MS cartridge.
Of course, the internet is an amazing resource and a snapshot of the sites like Gun Broker, Guns International and Guns America will essentially show you everything that is available worldwide at that time. Looking at those internet sites it may seem like there is an unlimited supply of fine old firearms.  That illusion disappears once you start to look for something particular, say a 1903 Mannlicher Schoenauer in 6.5x54 with an elegant peep sight integrated into the top tang.   In the larger scheme of things, there were only a relatively small number of fine firearms ever made and each one is unique in its own way. If they didn't start that way, they become so through the passage of ownership with dings, nicks and scratches, pluming of blue and deepening of patina, and from updates and repairs and the general passing of time.