Thursday, July 27, 2017

Hammocks, Wasps and Trout, oh my.

It’s been far too long since I last wrote a post, and this past weekend’s overnight trip to Switzerland’s central alps provided the perfect fodder and inspiration. First, a little background.. in exactly a month, I’ll be leaving with my fishing buddy Mark for our 8th annual trip. No ordinary fishing trip this time, as we’ll be dropped off via heli in the Swedish backcountry and left to our own devices for 5 days. Although Mark possesses countless admirable qualities befitting his influential role in international commerce, he’s also the kind of the guy who shows up for an alpine fishing trip in loafers. So when he sent a text message saying he was all set with a headlamp and a yoga mat, the weight of responsibility already on my shoulders got slightly heavier. Not only was I now in charge of the trip planning, it also fell to me to make sure this hirsute husband and father of two returns to Singapore in one piece. I needed to spend a night in the woods and test some of my gear, and why not combine a night in the woods with a little much needed exploration of some unfamiliar waters?

When I arrived Sunday, I immediately went to Sascha’s restaurant to say hi and get a cup of coffee. He suggested a good spot for me to sleep, and as soon as he was done with work, we headed over and I set up my hammock in a mossy grove of pines on the banks of a beautiful river. He graciously invited me to dinner at his place, so I left my hammock (this is rural Switzerland, it’s not going anywhere) and headed to his house for a delicious couscous dinner and a bottle of wine. Sascha’s cooking never disappoints, and it isn’t every day you get a chef cooking privately for you. Around dusk I said my goodbyes and headed back to my hammock in the woods. I should have spent the last few minutes of daylight more productively by hanging my tarp, but I couldn’t resist hopping down to the river and taking a few casts at the rising fish in the fading light. I grabbed my bamboo 4 weight rod and tied on a winged ant because, to be quite honest, I only give much of a thought to fly selection when I really have to. I didn’t bother with waders, so I rolled up my pants and chased some rises in the chilly alpine water barefoot. The winged ant ended up being the right choice, and I quickly landed two nice browns of around 13 inches, a good sized fish in this river. 

Setting up my Hennessey with a nice view.

All set, except for the tarp.

Nice brown on a winged ant at dusk.

I grabbed a previously stashed ice cold beer from the river and headed back to my hammock to end the day. Rain wasn’t forecast, but I didn’t want to take any chances so I staked out my hex tarp and as I pounded in the 4th stick with my hatchet, I felt a searing pain on my hand and arm. I must have pounded the stick directly into a wasp nest. In the dark. I ran from the wasps, tripped over the guy wire, spilled my beer, and got tagged by the wasps on the back of my neck, and my side in the process. I was now standing a good 40 feet from my backpack and my hammock. I googled “how many wasp stings will kill a human” and read some encouraging articles about people being stung to death by wasps before deciding I could probably handle one or two more, so I ran back and forth, grabbing everything I could and quickly and mercifully located a new pair of trees. I hung the hammock, my arm swelling to the point that I had to remove my watch. Dejected, puffy and beerless, I sat on a tree stump and decided to make a cup of tea. Another good friend of mine, also named Mark, (let’s call him Mark K.) very generously gave a me a cool little white gas stove that he ordered from a company called White Box Stoves. A nifty little recycled aluminum canister, you basically fill it with white gas, let it burn, and wait a minute or so until the vapor inside the canister ignites and sends flames out of all the holes in the side. It worked great both for coffee/tea as well eggs the next morning, and it’s tiny, light, and uncomplicated. Its definitely found a permanent home in my kit. Testing out a new piece of gear improved my spirits somewhat, and though I was still in considerable discomfort thanks to the wasp stings, I crawled into my hammock and under my surplus Swiss military wool blanket and let the sound of the river below and the distant jangling of sheep bells lull me into a fitful sleep.

My second hastily selected campsite. Thankfully I had a hammock, as a quick relocation
would have been much more of a pain in the ass with a tent...

Somewhat irritated and still in pain, but warm and cozy under a wool blanket in my hammock.

I was up early the next morning. Earlier than usual, which for me, is really early. Around 5:30 I crawled out of my hammock and made a cup of coffee with my aeropress, and some eggs cooked in olive oil. I scarfed down the food, and immediately made use of the two hours I had before I had to go catch minnows for transport to a high alpine lake. (As a member of the local fishing club, we’re required to help out occasionally, something which I always find rewarding anyhow)

I put on my waders and boots and scrambled down to the river at this obscenely early hour. I don’t think I’ve ever wet a line before 6 AM before. The first cast with a flying ant and I hooked into a keeper-sized fish. And the second. And the third. I should fish at dawn more often, I thought. I moved carefully through a long section of pools in this smaller gorge with good success, and then headed back to camp to pack up and head to my car. Thanks to my hammock and gas stove, I literally left no trace of my night there, just the way I like it.

My camp in the morning..

while boiling water for some much needed coffee..

followed by some eggs.

First fish of the morning..

I’ll spare you the details of the awkward hours spent chasing minnows at a scenic mountain lake and skip straight the evening’s fishing. Nonetheless, a big part of the reason for my trip here was my obligatory work for the local fishing club, in my case, catching minnows destined for transport to high alpine lakes as trout food.

My minnow catching companion.

I was able to wear my watch again the next morning, but the swelling was still visible.

After depositing the minnows in a prepared tank, I had a decision to make: fish a river I’ve fished before and love, or explore some of the other many, many waters of our fishing club? I opted for the latter. I made my way to a smaller tributary and immediately lost a fish in the first pool. I fished upriver for a few hours, the bright sun didn’t dampen the trouts’ enthusiasm for dries, but I did spook more than I normally would. Nonetheless, many browns up to about 12 inches were caught. This section ended in a beautiful and very deep pool, impassable for someone without ropes and gear. The pool held an appropriately sized (read: big) brown that smashed my ant.

The last pool of the day.

 I took a few photos, drank in the sights and the sounds, and headed back downriver and home, sunburned and tired, but very content. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Review: Elkhorn Side Bag, from Emerger Fly Fishing

I love bags. No, you don't understand,  I really, really love bags and I like to think my obsession translates into expertise. I've long since given up on the vest as a viable fly fishing accessory, waist and chest packs don't really do it for me, and while the backpack certainly has it's place, the sweet spot for a normal day of fishing is a sling or side bag. I tend to like bells and whistles like attachment points and pocket dividers, and handmade, rugged products are always a plus, so at first glance, the Elkhorn Side Bag seemed like a good candidate. But how would it work on the water? Every fly fisherman knows that ideas that seem great on paper sometimes don't work so well in practice, so the only way to really know is to get your hands on something and (ab)use it.

So that's what I set out to do. Two years ago, out of a desire to provide lasting, handmade gear, Chris Freeman started producing handmade fly fishing bags from their home in Colorado. The son of a seamstress, Chris sews the bags himself and then does the leatherwork by hand.

My first decisions were either a dark olive green or a brown, and left or right side. The side you choose determines not only the placement of the net sleeve, but also the orientation of the optional leather creel-style strap. After some hemming and hawing, I chose a right side bag in brown. It wasn't so easy to decide, on the one hand, I wanted to get the bag away from my casting arm, and on the other, I didn't want it to interfere with stripping streamers, something I like to do regularly.

A few weeks later, the bag finally arrived. The first thing I noticed was the thickness of the canvas. I didn't even realize they made canvas this thick, and it was treated with a waxy coating that Chris later explained was Martexin Wax. The straps are a beautiful buttery brown vegetable tanned English Bridle leather, the clips and fittings are all solid brass, and the zippers are high quality YKK brand. The craftsmanship is very impressive, and clearly no corners were cut. The bag isn't lightweight by any means, but a classic bag like this isn't meant to be. It features one large compartment with 2 pockets on the front and the back for a total of four smaller pockets, perfect for a phone, small fly box, streamer wallet, leaders, etc. The separate front pocket was a perfect fit for my Umpqua Day Tripper fly box. Two versatile leather attachment points and two grommeted canvas on both sides of the bag allow for plenty of creative options to attach zingers, tippet spools, and the like.

I didn't have to wait long in order to put the bag to the test, albeit a somewhat unfair one. I was headed up into the Swiss alps for a scouting trip with a bit of fishing thrown in, a total of around 8 hours of hiking with 5000 feet of altitude gain, all in relatively lousy weather. More of a trip for a conventional backpack with a hip belt and padded straps, but I was eager to try out my new bag.

I filled the Elkhorn to the brim with a fly box, spare reel, leader wallet, phone, camera, wading jacket, an apple, sandwich, a 700ml water bottle, an aluminum net, EDC knife and my ever-present first aid kid/necessities bag of considerable size, slung the bag over my shoulder, and was off. Four hours of uphill marching later, I was pleasantly surprised at how the bag didn't shift while scrambling over rocks thanks to the creel-style strap and frankly amazed that my 28-inch long net never poked my legs or got in the way. It got the point where I kept reaching back to see if it was still there. The bag stayed nicely out of the way behind my back until I needed it, and when I did, I just unclipped the creel strap and swung the bag around to access tippet and flies. The creel strap also prevented the bag from swinging around while bending over to land a fish. (The creel strap is an optional upgrade to the bag, but I can't imagine not having it). We spent the entire day in a light drizzle, and the outside of the bag was soaked after a few hours. Inside however, was a different story. The  main compartment was dry while the outer compartment with the fly box was a little damp. I wouldn't be surprised if the water worked its way through the top zipper instead of the canvas. Had the bag been conventional nylon, I imagine my things would have gotten substantially wetter. My shoulder was a bit sore at the end of the day, but that was to be expected considering how much I packed into the bag. A week later I took it on a weekend guiding trip back up into the alps, got caught in a torrential downpour, and used it to shield my head from golf ball sized hail. Normally I baby new stuff a bit, but that simply wasn't possible on these last few trips with all the climbing and hiking and inclement weather.
Bags swinging around the front of my body when I lean over drive me nuts.
The creel strap kept the bag where I wanted it.

One of two attachment points for zingers and forceps and a closeup of the leather and the canvas.

The net sleeve in action, keeping the net out of the way until I needed it.

The bag on a sunnier day in the alps.

The complete package.
Fishing in a downpour without needing to worry about my phone inside the bag

Head protection from gold ball sized hail? Check.
And the matching streamer wallet....

Without a doubt, it's my new go-to fishing bag. It's comfortable, beautifully made, and I love the fact that it's a unique, handmade bag of impeccable quality. I can't wait to see what it looks like when it's well and truly broken in, but that'll take many years and even more fishing trips, so I had better get started....

Monday, June 6, 2016

Exploration and solitude in Bern

If there's one thing I miss about living in the U.S., it's the ease of getting away from it all, but lately I've been able to find that feeling in Switzerland too. Bern is only an hour and a half drive from my home outside Zürich, but when I'm clambering upriver over slippery boulders in a deep gorge, I feel the sense of isolation and solitude that I only rarely experience in this beautiful but densely populated country I call home. While much of the fishing opportunities in Switzerland are restricted to smaller leased beats, some areas still offer a sense of exploration, and here in the Hasli Valley we have the best of both worlds. A big chunk of the area is private, meaning low fishing pressure and good fishing if you're lucky enough to have access, but the leased section is big enough and included lots of little tributaries that would take the average fisherman years to fully explore. The fish might be a little smaller, but they're plentiful and eager to take a dry, and this is the style of fishing I think I love more than any other. The clear blue pools, the deep gorges and the plunging waterfalls require thoughtful fishing and will punish the rushed and the careless.

I was in Bern with Sascha from Fishing Swiss Alps and my partner Mark from Firebelly on opening day, and the weather and the scenery was beautiful, but the water was ice old and the fish were few and far between. We had a little tour of some of the more scenic waters in the area, the Aare River, the famed Reichenbach, and the beautiful little Urbach. The scenery was so pretty we didn't mind struggling through thigh deep snow for the occasional small fish.

Good thing waders can double as snowpants...

The Reichenbach, made famous by Sherlock Holmes.

Mark hooked into a brown on the Aare.

Spotting fish from above...

Sascha casting to wary fish.
We fished all day, and warmed our cold bones with one of Sascha's delicious burgers, and headed back to our respective families, already planning the next trip and rehashing the day during the long drive home.

Fortunately things were a little different the next time we met up. Although the forecast looked so grim that we almost decided to cancel, we arrived at the river on a perfect sunny day. The very first pool we saw held close to a dozen fish, with the largest being a good 15 inches. We took turns pulling the fish from the rear of the pool, but the big one eluded us. I started out with a black nymph and caught well, but switched to a bushy dry once I realized the fish could be coaxed to the surface with relative ease. We made our way upriver, alternating pools, every one of them holding a handful of fish. The going was slippery and not without an element of danger. We fished for hours and we both genuinely enjoyed taking it easy and watching the other catch fish, a sort of prerequisite for this type of river where you're trading off pools and can't make your way upstream without spooking fish.

Looking down on the first heavily populated pool.

Fast chutes, plunging waterfalls, and deep pools.

Sascha working a pool

And the result. A beautifully colored brown.

On a fish...

And another...

With scenery this nice I didn't mind putting down the rod and picking up the camera.

We made it to one of the few places where you could climb out of the gorge, and walked and talked our way back to the car, making plans for next time. As always, there are just too many rivers, and too little time.

Friday, May 6, 2016

A second chance in Slovenia...

It's hard to believe how quickly time passes, but for our 7th annual fishing trip this year, Mark and I decided to revisit Slovenia. We had a great time last year, but we wanted another chance at a marble trout, something that eluded both of us in 2015. Again, we flew into Ljubljana, Mark from Singapore, and me from Zürich. We wasted no time in stopping at the local grocery store and grabbing some unpronouncable snacks and beer and headed directly to the Idrijca, where we had some luck last time. Sadly, it was slow fishing all afternoon, and the only thing we managed was a lone rainbow on a streamer to get the skunk off. Creatures of habit that we are, we had a plate of calamari and some beer, and headed to Kobarid to meet Matt Calderaro. Some may remember that we stayed at Soca Fly last year, but the beautiful little lodge and fly shop in the town square of Kobarid sadly no longer exists. Matt has had a rough time of it the past few months, but the indomitable spirit of the Soca Cowboy is apparent, and he's already on his way to bigger and better things. We chatted and drank, and headed to our B&B in the small town of Prapetno, had a glass of whisky, and called it a night.

Mark on the Idrijca
An Idrijca rainbow
The meat room at the B&B

At 9 AM the next morning we met Matt for a thick cup of coffee, and headed down into the Soča Canyon on foot. We immediately saw a good sized fish rising, but we put him down as we approached too closely. (Matt thought it was my height that scared him off, I blame Mark)
Car sized boulders and a fast current made progress slow, but soon enough I came across Matt watching a feeding fish. We lost sight of the fish but Matt generously gave me first crack, and after I bounced a royal wulff off of a boulder into a pocket, I set the hook into a nice fish. It didn't take long for us to realize it was a marble, and a nice one at that. Matt netted it, and Mark took some photos, and I was on cloud nine. I did what I came here to do, and everything else was just gravy. Now I just wanted Mark to hook into a marble as well. Alas, these two fish were the only active ones we came across. We exited the river for a cup of coffee, and Matt headed back home to Austria, and Mark and I headed back down to the Soca. We threw streamers as there was no surface activity in the drizzling rain, and I ended up hooking a few rainbows and another marble, while Mark hooked a few bows as well, and we called it day and headed back to the B&B for a simple yet hearty bowl of mixed grilled meats and vegetables and good Slovenian beer.

Casting to the fish...

And a nice marble is the result.

A Soča Marble with a compley twist bugger

The next morning, we decided to visit the Bača River.  Lousy weather was predicted, but we were pleasantly surprised by some warmth and the occasional rays of sunshine. We dropped into the river and started working our way up. I dropped a black magic nymph in a likely looking hole and hooked a decent Marble, while Mark stuck with a dry and was having luck there as well. Shortly we came across what looked like a small fish feeding a few inches off the bank, but when Mark cast to it and hooked it, I quickly realized it wasn't a small fish after all and Mark landed a big, beautiful brown on his 4 weight.

The Bača River

The Bača River

Mark hooked into a brown

Mark's dry fly-caught brown
Another Bača Marble

We worked our way upriver slowly, methodically spotting rising fish and fishing the pools carefully, trying to leave the fish at the head of the pool undisturbed while we peeled off the ones from the rear. In some cases we succeeded, in most, we did not. These fish are wary, they see lots of flies and fishermen during the season. Another memorable moment came when I spotted what I thought was a fish in a riffle, I dropped a nymph next to him a few times, then asked a perplexed Mark if I could borrow his dry-fly rigged Morgan for a moment and handed him my H2. I dropped a fly over the fish, and brought a nice marble to hand. Shortly afterwards, Mark took the next rising fish and it was a beautiful marble. The pressure was off, and we wound our way through the beautiful Slovenian countryside, catching visible rising browns and marbles as well as coaxing fish from likely looking spots on dry flies. Mark came across a World War 1 artillery shell casing, not an uncommon occurrence around here, as this region suffered greatly in the first World War. The Soča Valley was one of the bloodiest fronts of the war, 1.7 million died here as the Italians tried to drive into Austria repeatedly over a span of two years. It was hard to imagine this valley as anything other than a verdant and serene angler's paradise. The sun set and we made our way back to the car, grateful to have enjoyed one of those days that makes a trip memorable.

The scenic countryside

A fire salamander.

Streamside beer.

A WWI artillery shell.

The next morning we decided to revisit the Bača and try to recreate some of the magic of the previous day. Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate. We spotted a few rising fish during the occasional break in the driving rain, and Mark spotted, cast to, but unfortunately spooked a monster of a fish, with a head as thick my fist, and I managed to catch a rising marble and a grayling, but other than it, the fish stayed down and weren't interested in what we had to offer. We loaded our soaking wet gear in the car, and headed back to the airport, already plotting 2017...

A Bača grayling

Once again, Slovenia was great. Last year we went during the summer, and we caught more fish to be sure, but I'd say the quality of fish was much better on this trip. As we did last time, we found Slovenia to be a beautiful, clean country full of friendly and hospitable folk. We won't be back next year, as we've already decided to mark the somber occasion of my 40th birthday with a week in the Swedish wilderness, fishing as far as away from civilization as we can get, but for 2018, who knows?