Trout by a Hair
Many of you are newer visitors to STREAM SIDE ADVENTURES’ web site and may not have heard or read about Norm’s quest to become a “Complete Angler” by catching a trout the way Izaak Walton had to do it using a hair from a horse’s tail as a tippet. Read how Norm meet the challenge.
Charlie and I met four years ago when we were both camping and fishing on the Encampment River in Southern Wyoming. I don't know exactly what spawned the link, but from the start we became the kind of "best friends who just met". We corresponded by letter throughout the year and met again on the Encampment the following July. We continued our pattern of letters to tell each other of our fishing exploits, and there was always our annual pilgrimage to the Encampment River.
Charlie always got the best of me in our series of fish tale letters, but this time I got the best of him on the Encampment. In June of this year, a business trip took me to Chicago, not far from where Charlie lives in Wisconsin. Of course I went to visit; brag of fishing exploits and, enjoy an evening of fishing with him on one of his favorite local streams, Black Earth Creek. While we were walking back to the car after a great evening of fishing, Charlie spotted some horse hairs on a pasture fence and picked them off. With a twinkle in his eye he asked me, "You think you could land a trout on one of these? That's how old Izaak had to do it." Our good natured rivalry wouldn't let me pass up the challenge. I told him, "Not only could I catch a trout, but I could catch a big trout". Looking back I can see how easily I rose to his bait. After a great deal of discussion over the who's, when's and where's of catching big trout, we settled on 15 inches or more as an acceptable definition of big. Back home in Prairie Village, Kansas with the horse hairs Charlie had found, I started to realize what I had said I could do and had some second thoughts about meeting the challenge. Pulling on one of the horse hairs and seeing how easily it snapped told me that even though my horse hairs had a diameter of about .008 inches they weren't typical 3X to 4X tippet material with a breaking strength of 7 or 8 pounds. That night I started re-reading the copy of the Complete Angler a friend had given me as a Christmas gift a few years earlier. I found the information I needed in Chapter XXI: “Direction for the making of a Line and for the coloring of both Rod and Line". According to Izaak, hairs from a light colored horse were the best if you could find one that wasn't flat and uneven. So difficult were they to find however, that Izaak cautioned "If you get a lock of right, round, clear, glass-color hair, make much of it". The second best hairs he pronounced are the black hairs. Luckily, one of my co-workers has horses. When I asked him if I could have some of their tail hairs, he looked at me rather strangely but said I was welcome to pluck all I wanted. A Saturday in the country gave me a lot of potential tippets.
With the dining room table cleared of everything, I started examining my booty in search of a "glass-color hair that I could make much of" and use to meet Charlie's challenge. Izaak was right! My co-worker now had a horse with a very sparse tail and I didn't have a single glass-color tippet. They were all flat, uneven and broke with the slightest pressure. I decided that I'd always liked black tippets anyway!
Armed with a sandwich bag full of black horse hairs, my 4 weight rod, and some "sponge spiders", I headed for my favorite local farm pond for some experimentation on bluegills. On my third cast a palm sized bluegill inhaled the spider, and left with the spider and half of my hair tippet. That was my first lesson. I hadn't checked the black hairs for, as Izaak put it, "galls and scabbyness". Close examination of the other hairs showed that they all had an area of "scabbyness" somewhere along the length of the hair. I could find it by grasping each end of the hair between my thumbs and forefingers and giving a quick jerk or two. The hair would inevitably break at the scab. Generally the break left me with about a 15 to 18 inch length of usable tippet. My second lesson that evening was about the brittleness of horse hair and the difficulty in tying knots which didn't break when I tightened them up. I headed home after dark that night a little disappointed. I hadn't caught any fish, and it looked like a "big trout" might be out of the question.
About a week after the bluegill experiment, the answer to the brittle hair problem revealed itself to me while I was taking my morning shower. Old Izaak had said "first let your hair be clean washed". He had been right about light colored hairs and scabby -ness; so why wouldn't he be right about cleanliness? I'd give it a try. That evening I shampooed the hairs and soaked them in conditioner. All the time I was doing it, I prayed that none of my friends would call and invite me over for dinner or to go out to the show. They never would have believed the old excuse "I'd love to but I have to wash and condition my horsehair tippets tonight". This "salon treatment" really helped to soften the hairs, but they still often parted at the knots. After attempting several combinations, I settled on a "Surgeon's Knot" for the leader to hair connection and a loose "Duncan's Loop" for the hair to fly connection.
Armed with this information about the best knots and 20 of my finest hand picked and shampooed tippets, I was prepared to head for the Encampment River for a week of friendship and fishing with Charlie and the possibility of catching a trout as a "Complete Angler" would.
It is an 800 mile drive from the Kansas City area to the Bureau of Land Management campground on the Encampment River where Charlie and I rendezvous. Even with an early morning departure and the gain of an hour crossing into Mountain Time, it was early evening before my little truck and I finally got to rest. Renewing friendships and setting up my portion of camp was the pressing business. Fishing had to wait until the morning. Showing Charlie my selection of tippets and talking about fishing was a perfect way to unwind from the drive.
The trout in the section of the Encampment River where we fish are very civilized. They don't consider rising to even the best presentation until at least 8:30 in the morning when the sun has started to clear the canyon rim. This social grace of Encampment River trout allowed us plenty of time to drink coffee and prepare for the upcoming day's fishing. With all the fanfare I could muster, I rigged out my rod and ceremoniously chose my finest tippet. Besides being the best fisherman I know, Charlie is a good fly tier. It only seemed fitting that one of Charlie's flies should adorn the end of my horse hair. Newly emerged insects seem to like to seek shelter on the rain fly of a tent so we always check there in the morning before deciding what pattern to start with. The morning "tent check" said a dark brown mottled caddis, about size 16, might be the right choice. Charlie's "Woodchuck Caddis" would make a good match. As I finished my coffee, I asked Charlie if I could have a "woodchuck". With a gleam in his eye he handed me one and warned me, “Remember, this one always gets rises from the biggest trout on this river. I'm not sure you could land anything over thirteen and a half inches no matter what strength tippet you use."
Charlie and I have a very similar style of fishing. We only work the most productive looking areas. And these areas only get a few drifts of our best possible presentations before we move on. This way we get good coverage of likely lies and can spend time drinking in the sights, sounds and smells of the river instead of starring at the water as our flies drift through marginal water. Because we fish in the same way, we often fish together, each taking a side of the river. The flip of the coin awarded me the left side of the section we were going to fish, the side with the best holes. On the first series of passes, Charlie connected with a brown of about 12 inches. The day was starting out right. There was nothing for me in the first pool, but on the first drift across the second hole, a brown made a wild splashing rise. Trying to balance my strike with a force that would set the hook but not break the brown off at either the fly to hair or hair to leader knots, I raised my rod tip. The knots held and my first "Horse Hair Trout" and I did battle. I was so afraid of the knots that I played him like he was that one big fish that comes along during each trip. (You know, the "Oh shit fish.) Slowly I worked him to me and gently slid the net under him. I had caught a trout using a horse hair. As nonchalantly as I possibly could I held my 11 inch treasure up for Charlie to see before I slipped him back into the river. With a smile, Charlie reminded me that we had some good water ahead of us where I could catch a few more "practice trout" before we reached the big rocks, a place where big trout often hang out. I started feeling confident that I could land a big trout on a hair.
As we worked our way up the river, talking about life in general and what it was about trout fishing that raises our passion, we caught several more trout. None were big, but each of these practice trout told me that if I didn't try to "horse" them in (the pun is intended) the hair would hold. Trout can be categorized into two broad classes based on the way they rise. Average trout, those somewhere in the 9 to 13 inch range, tend to be rather emphatic about how they go for a fly. They generally make a spectacle out of the take, with a kind of wild, splashy rise. It reminds me of the way my sons Ethan and Dan go for the last cookie in the jar if they think the other one wants it. The other type of rise is what I call the "minnow" rise. This is the tricky one. It is just a gentle nudge of the fly. It could be a little creek chub that is having trouble getting its mouth around a size 14. Then again, it could be one of those trout that can inhale a dun from two feet away.
The big rocks are where the river's slope changes. Upstream, there is a series of long pools. Downstream, the river is composed of rocky riffles with pockets. At the big rocks the trout habitat is a combination of the best of the upstream pools and the downstream riffles. Big rocks often equal big trout. As we approached, Charlie headed for the bank and found what he must have considered the prime vantage point from which to watch me. The earlier coin flip had been for effect. I was being awarded the entire width. There were so many current seams and holes that it was hard to decide where to start casting. Spying one hole that looked particularly productive, I decided to start there. Here, as the current came around a rock, it formed a little backwater not much bigger then a skillet-sized pancake. Whiffs of foam moved along the current seam and collected against the backside of the rock along with any insects which had been fortunate enough to run the gauntlet. This hole belonged to the family of one-cast pools. If there was a trout in the pool it would probably rise to my first offering. The mystery was which type of rise would it be? Would it be a "cookie jar" rise or a "minnow" rise? I dropped my fly right on the line that separates the main flow of the current from the backwater. No sooner had it touched down when I got a "minnow" rise. My heart pounded with excitement. There aren't any creek chubs in the Encampment River. About three inches of trout head rose out of the water and then went to the bottom. A quick lift of the rod tip didn't do a thing. It was as if a trout-colored log and not a log-colored trout had my fly. Suddenly my line moved a few inches forward only to stop and then float back at me. Without the slightest effort the trout had parted my hair at the tippet to leader knot. As I waded over to the bank where Charlie was sitting, he looked at me, gently shook his head up and down, and said, "Nice one wasn't he." Walking back to camp, Charlie pulled a fly box from his vest, took out another "Woodchuck" and handed it to me without saying a word.
One of the Encampment's main tributaries is called Hog Park Creek. Hog Park is a broad meadow up in the Snowy Mountains at about 9,500 feet. Hog Park Creek is a the nice little ten to twelve foot wide head water stream that meanders through the valley. It must not be in any hurry to make the four or five mile trip to the Encampment because it keeps looping back on itself the way meadow streams have a way of doing. With all the bends and their undercut banks, flow stabilizing beaver dams and the habitat improvements made by the Forest Service, the odds of connecting with a "big" trout are very good. Even if the odds weren't good, it is so pretty it would be worth the trip just to practice casting. We decided to make the 15 mile trip up the mountain.
About halfway across the meadow, Hog Park Creek takes a fancy for one side of the valley and flows along its edge. At the spot where it first meets the hillside, the creek makes a ninety degree bend instead of one of those lazy meandering turns. Here, the bend has formed a deep pool with a long undercut bank. It's the kind of spot where a big brown that had moved up from the river on its fall spawning run might just decide to retire. It is also next to impossible to fish unless, of course, you are a left handed caster with a great sidearm, reach, double haul cast and can get a nice "S" in your leader. If you can position yourself close enough to the hillside bank, and the wind is right, you can place your offering right where the creek drops off the gravel bar and starts toward the bend. There are about four or five feet of water 12 to 18 inches deep before the creek takes the right angle turn and the undercut bank begins. If, and that is the operative word, you can manage to make an extraordinary cast, it is almost guaranteed that you will draw a rise. Sometimes it is the "cookie jar" variety but most often it is the "minnow" type.
Charlie had a taste for brookies, rather than bacon, to go with the next morning's eggs. As he headed for the nearest beaver pond and some brookies, he looked back over his shoulder and said, "You may be a fair big trout catcher but we both know your casting is a little suspect. I know exactly where you are heading and you better hope that not only did the Gods of the Rods bless you but the wind blowing in the right direction as well." With these words of encouragement, I started fishing my way up the creek. My knots were holding. I think in part because I had started greasing the hairs with float paste before tying and tightening the knots. This provided a lubricant that must have reduced damage from friction. My hair held for several sub-big browns and a couple of breakfast sized brookies. By the time I reached the bend, it was obvious that I had not been visited by the Rod Gods. Moving in as close as I could to the hillside bank without overtopping my chest waders, I made my first cast. It fell short and wide of the mark, not a little but a lot. Thinking more about the shortcomings of my cast than the dragging drift of my woodchuck caddis, I wasn't prepared for the assault on the cookie jar. By the time I realized that some dumb trout had gone for my botched presentation, it was futile to strike and he was gone. Figuring that my first cast had been so far off the mark that it and the rise couldn't have spooked Mr. Big, I took a deep breath, mustered all my skills, and made a second cast. It was almost an instant replay of the first cast, right down to the cookie jar rise. There were, however, two differences: first, this time I was prepared for the take and secondly the trout hit so hard he knocked the cookie jar of the shelf. In one fluid motion, he took the fly and headed straight up the creek over the gravel bar with half his back out of the water. He stopped for a second to "catch his breath" in the next upstream pool and then turned and headed back over the gravel bar toward the undercut bank at the bend. Stripping in line as fast as I could, I managed to just keep him from his safe haven. Trying to negotiate to a shallower and better position, I lost a few inches of the line to him. This was all he needed. He immediately took advantage of this golden opportunity to practice his tying of tippets to roots. Of course Charlie had already caught all the brookies we needed for breakfast and had been watching the entire episode. He informed that one of the finer things associated with trout fishing is "the opportunity to see a dumb fly fisherman and a smart trout match wits". I'd had two chances for a big trout on a horse hair and had tallied two misses. I hoped the third time would be a charm.
A breakfast of brookies, pan fried in a little wild sage, eggs over easy and a cup of strong camp coffee is a great way to start any day. Warming myself in the first rays of sun which had topped the rim of the canyon, I finished my coffee and decided to hike up the river to a spot near where Hog Park Creek joins the Encampment. It is only about 5 miles up the river from camp but there is so much good fishing water nearby that not many people bother to make the trip that far up the river. The area I wanted to fish is canyon country. In this section the Encampment rushes through a steep walled flume. In a few places the flume gives way to less rugged conditions on one bank or the other. In these areas the velocity slows a hair and the river get a little bit tamer. One of these oasis in particular has always held a big trout for me during trips I have made in October in search of spawners. I always get a rise, but I don't always land the trout.
By the time I reached the area I wanted to fish, it was nearing noon and the sun was at its fullest. Nothing seemed to be emerging and I didn't see any rises. With the angle of the sun it would be hard to see my fly on the water, even with polarizing glasses. Since nothing seemed to be going on, I figured I might just a well use something like a size 14 Royal Wulff that I could see fairly easily. Experience with my lucky pool told me that my best chances were at one of two spots. The first is about half way up the pool near a boulder which is just below the surface. The second is in the eddy that forms where the tongue of fast water races past the ledge on the left side of the river. Slowly working my way upstream, I covered the boulder area from every angle. Each cast floated back toward me without stirring the interest of a single fish. It looked like the tongue was my last opportunity. Stopping just short of the best casting position, I tested my knots and regreased my fly and horse hair. With my hands cupped to the side of my face to eliminate as much glare as possible I scanned the water for some tell-tale flash or movement that would reveal a trout's position. The water was too deep and the surface too choppy and broken for me to see anything.
Just as it had been at the boulder, every drift of my fly passed through the tongue and over a potential lie as if it was barren. Discouragement and hunger for the squashed peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my vest pocket were getting the best of me. I decided to take one more desperation cast, and then I'd have my sandwich. Without thinking where to cast, I just did it. It took my Royal Wulff to the very heart of the current, the fastest water. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of motion as my big trout shot up from the bottom like an arrow toward the fly. Without even rippling the surface, he took the fly and plunged to the bottom with such authority that setting the hook was unnecessary. He did it for me. Once at the bottom, he turned and rocketed back to the surface and through it. Reversing direction, like a spring board diver, he fell back and sliced into the water. In what seemed to me to be slow motion, he repeated his performance for a second and third time. As he entered the water after each jump, I was certain that I had seen the last of him. You could almost feel his anger and frustration at not being able to throw the fly. With a burst of energy and using the current as his ally, he made a run for the mid-stream boulder. Afraid to put to much strain on the horse hair, I lowered my rod tip and pointed it at him. Pulling my line to the start of the backing, he reached the boulder and shot into its shelter. I had to get him out from behind the rock before the chaffing wore through the tippet or the leader. Reaching out across the current with my rod parallel to the water I was able to apply enough lateral pressure to lead him out from behind the boulder. Though he still had some fight left in him, it seemed that evicting him from behind his rock had broken his spirit. As quickly as I dared, I moved him toward me in the slower and shallower water along the bank and into my net. For a moment I just stood there and looked at him. The realization that I had in fact caught a "big" trout on a horse hair suddenly hit, and I spontaneously started doing a little jig that my sons call "Dad's happy feet" and shouting "I did it, I did it".
If catching him had been hard, deciding what to do with him was even harder. I generally release most of the fish I catch. I ate so many trout when I was a kid growing up in New Hampshire that I don't have much of a taste for them anymore. Charlie would have kidded me a little but he would have believed me if came back to camp and told him I'd caught my "big trout" and released him. This trout had fought like hell, a very worthy adversary. I don't know if it was pride in my trophy or the primordial instincts of the hunter as provider, (probably a lot of both) but I decided to bring him back to camp.
I didn't fish anymore or even eat my peanut butter sandwich. Carefully taking my prize from my net, I broke off the horse hair tippet from the leader, leaving the fly and tippet mated to my trout. Plucking some grass from the stream bank I ceremonially wrapped him and placed him in the back pouch of my vest for the trip back to camp.
The walk back down the canyon didn't take nearly as long as the trip up had taken and I don't think that was entirely due to the downhill grade. I don't know if it was the bounce in my step or the ear to ear grin, but as soon as Charlie saw me he shook his head and said, " You did it didn't you. I knew you would sooner or later. It was just a matter of time. Well let's see this treasure of yours." Slipping out of my vest, I removed my prize and laid him out for Charlie to see. After admiring him and teasing me about leaving the fly and tippet in his jaw, he said, “Well to make it official I better get a tape out and measure him." I think Charlie always measures trout a little short , at lest when he is measuring mine, so when he pronounced my prize as officially big at sixteen inches I knew I had easily, at lest as far as size goes, met his challenge. Halfway through my recount of the catch, Charlie excused himself, rose from the log he was sitting on and headed for his tent. He returned with an old blue book in his hand. As I finished my story, Charlie was thumbing through his book. Having apparently found what he was looking for, he looked up at me and said "Well you did it. But you did it the hard way. Your copy of the Complete Angler must not be the Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton edition. Here in Part II of my copy, "The Second Day, Chapter V - Of Fly Fishing", it says "But he that cannot kill a trout of twenty inches long with two deserves not the name of an Angler." Walton and Cotton twisted two hairs together for a tippet. They didn't use a single hair like you did. I think a sixteen incher on a single hair is equal to a twenty incher on two." Walking toward me he extended his hand and said "Hey Angler, why don't you take my copy of the Complete Angler for future reference."