Riffles and Back Eddies is a collection of stories about fishing and fishermen. They are drawn from the journals that Donald Larmouth has kept throughout a lifetime of fishing on the lakes, rivers, and streams of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. He is a retired professor from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He and his wife live in Green Bay and have spent more than forty summers at their cabin in Grand Marais, Minnesota. His first book, Tarpon on Fly, co-authored with Captain Rob Fordyce and published in 2002, is still considered a must-read by Tarpon fishermen.
It was one of those brutal early April mornings in northern Wisconsin when you wonder why on earth you decided to go steelhead fishing. Snow was still hip deep in the woods and more was falling in hard, wind-driven pellets. My rod guides were icing up and so were my fingerless wool gloves. The river itself seemed to be congealing between the snow banks as if it meant to thicken into ice, while its gray-green water pressed like an insistent hand against my waders. As the snow rattled against my parka hood, I had barely enough feeling left in my fingers to strip in the line and make yet another cast, shooting the bright orange and white fly up and across, then high-sticking the line and feeling for the occasional tick-tick of the split shot as it washed downstream among the boulders and gravel of the stream bed.
Finally I just had to get out and warm up. I reeled in and waded to the bank, tripping and stumbling several times, clumsy with the cold. Once out of the water, I looked around to see if there was enough dead wood close by for a fire. After scraping away the snow to make a fireplace, I opened my Duluth pack and found matches, a package of fire-starter tablets, a metal cup, and a tea pail. Inside the pail I had a dozen tea bags, a spoon, and sugar.
Shuffling through the snow, I made my way to a spruce tree and pulled off a few handfuls of dry twigs, piled them around the fire-starter, then broke up some larger twigs and dead branches from a blowdown a few yards farther away. Several minutes later I had enough wood for a decent fire. I lit the fire-starter tablet and watched as the flames moved eagerly upward through the tinder, popping and snapping among the spruce twigs. Smoke began to rise, only to be swept by another gust of wind. The little fire held its own, and soon the larger sticks were aflame as well.
I dipped out some water, propped up a dingle stick, and hung the tea pail just above the fire. As I waited for it to boil, I rubbed my weather-beaten hands together in the welcome heat, taking care not to get too close and singe my waders.
As if signaled by the smoke, several other anglers waded out of the river. Without a word they began to gather around the fire. Then, one by one, they propped up their rods against a bare moose maple and shuffled away to find more firewood. I could hear dry branches cracking as they were kicked and broken up. As if in a long-practiced ritual, each man brought back an offering of wood. Gradually the fire grew larger and more friendly. The tea pail began to steam, while other pairs of red and shivering hands stretched out toward the flames.
Huddled in a half circle, we were all silent at first; then someone ventured, "Pretty cold." There was a growl of agreement.
Someone else asked. "Anybody do any good?"
A man I recognized as an old hand on the river said he had taken one earlier, and we could see a broad tail sticking out from the large back pocket of his vest.
"Nice one," someone said, his voiced muffled by a heavy scarf.
Another man said he caught two the day before, but was skunked today.
The water in the blackened pail finally came to a boil, and I tossed in a couple of tea bags. By now there were six of us standing around the fire.
I said, "I only have one cup, but there's lots of tea. Anybody else got a cup or something?"
Others reached into their parkas or vests, and the inventory of cups grew to four.
I filled each cup with tea, put out the sugar and a spoon, and soon pairs of reddened hands were clasped around the steaming cups. Someone passed around some sticks of jerky. As I poured refills the cups moved from hand to hand, and the tea pail was soon empty. I stepped away from the fire to fill it again.
As we began to thaw out, the grunts and nods of Ice Age men gave way to more lively conversation. One man began to tell how he lost a good fish up near the head of the run, deep down in the slab rocks, and another said you had to get moving downstream if you hooked a fish in there. A man with a large red beard told of following a steelhead across the river, only to break off in a sweeper. All of us had similar experiences-funny how we talked more about fish lost than fish landed.
The conversation then turned to yarn, Corkies, spawn bags, single eggs and other baits and lures. Soon plastic boxes were dug out and opened to show different colors, shapes and sizes. One man said he had good luck with bright green yarn, and soon we each had a few pieces to go with our other colors.
Then, as if green were a kind of signal, the group began to break up. We retrieved our rods and moved back toward the river. I kicked some snow into the fire, which was pretty well burned out anyway-hurrying a little, the way I always do when other fishermen are about and doing.
I waded back to my position in the run, unhooked the yarn fly where it had frozen to the rod, and began to cast. Upstream another angler hooked up, and I could see his long rod bending to powerful surges.
A few minutes later there was another hookup across the river, and the red-bearded angler splashed downstream, trying to hold the fish away from the sweeper.
I cast my fly up and across as I had done hundreds of times before, lifting the rod to feel for the familiar tick-tick of the split shot over the boulders, down deep where it had to be. It was hard to concentrate with action going on around me. Upstream a fresh-run steelhead had been lifted shining and thrashing in a net. Wading in waist deep, the red-bearded angler made it around the sweeper's dead limbs and struggled to beach his fish on a gravel bar.
Once again the snow pelted my parka hood as I settled into my familiar cast and drift routine. Then my rod lifted automatically to a sudden pull. I too had a fish on, a dim flash of silver in the swirling current. Turning to follow its run downstream, I glanced back at the smoking embers of our fire.
Why do we go steelhead fishing in April? Was it the silver sides and gun-metal blue back of the fish I brought to hand on the icy gravel? No fish is more beautiful than a fresh-run steelhead born wild and grown to perfect maturity untouched by human hands until our brief encounter. But it wouldn't be the same without the smoke from the warmup fire, the stark black tracery of bare alder limbs over white snowbanks, or my now wordless companions, faces hidden by their parkas, their shoulders hunched against the wind, legs braced against the gray-green flow of the river.
Crouching over my fish as she lay on the gravel, I looked upstream again. The red-bearded angler caught my glance and lifted his rod skyward in salute. I returned the gesture, following the unwritten rules of an invisible code. Then I lifted the steelhead a few inches off the gravel, looking at her a moment longer. She was a wild fish, no marks, her maturing roe still tight. There was no question of what to do next. I held her in the current until she kicked away and disappeared.
The afternoon was overcast, with light winds and a hint of humidity-ideal conditions for a mayfly hatch. I suppose every fly fisherman lives for those golden interludes when mayflies emerge, the swallows and flycatchers dip and dart, and the river is pockmarked with eager rises. After a cold spring, the hatches were not spread out as usual. They were late and bunched together. As I began to set up my tackle, I knew it might be hard to figure out what fly to use.
As I worked upstream, a few pale grayish tan mayflies began to show, so I tied on a Gray Fox dry fly and covered the first good rise I saw. Emerging nymphs were struggling to break the surface film, and as the fly floated down untouched, I had already changed my mind about my choice, stripped it in, and tied on a no-hackle fly instead, something that would float awash and might look more like the emergers.
The next cast proved this was a good guess, and I tightened to a 12 -inch brown trout, fat from heavy feeding. I moved further upstream with greater confidence, covered another rise, and soon released another trout about the same size-good ones for this stretch.
As I waded through the shallow riffle to the next pool, I saw another angler sitting on the bank, hunched over with his back toward me. Before him, in the flat water above the tailout, emergent mayflies floated down, their upright wings tipping from side to side as light puffs of wind swept over them. Among them several trout were rising steadily, almost at the angler's feet.
Since he was already working the pool, I would have to go around him, but I decided to watch for a while. It was so perfect-a smooth current ideal for a drag-free drift, a good hatch, and several rising fish. He glanced up quickly; then turned back to whatever he was doing. At first I assumed he was selecting a fly, but as the minutes ticked by, he made no move to the water.
My own approach would have had me flailing in all directions, trying to cover every rising fish, so I couldn't imagine what had so absorbed his attention. Finally I waded to the bank and pushed through the undergrowth, staying well away from the pool.
"Looks like a nice hatch," I said. "Do any good so far?"
The angler turned, peering suspiciously over his half-frame glasses, and I spoke quickly to reassure him. "I'm going on upstream. There's another good pool around the corner."
He looked up again, more friendly this time. "I'm just about ready. It's a Stenonema fascum hatch, size #14, but there are some subvaria duns out there too." He nodded toward a piece of insect netting stretched over his landing net, which lay beside him. "I collected a few."
Moving a bit closer, I realized he was not putting on a fly or a new leader-he was tying a fly. He had a neat little hand-held vise, and spread all around him in the matted grass lay several plastic envelopes of dubbing, hackles, feathers, and hooks. I could see he was in the process of winding a hackle.
"Oh, damn!" he said, as the hackle broke off and unwound in a loose spiral. He reattached his hackle pliers and tried to wind on the hackle again. Apparently he didn't get a very good grip, because the hackle stem broke off again. Smiling grimly, he unwound the tying thread a few turns, let the bobbin dangle, and reached for a packet of hackles. He selected a new one, held it up to the light, and deftly tied it in place.
All this while, several handsome trout continued to rise to the mayflies drifting down the current. The angler knew this as well as I, and I dared not interrupt his concentration as he wound the hackle and whip-finished the fly.
"There!" he said, holding up his creation. Then he rolled to his feet and reached for the fly rod propped against a blowdown behind him. As he stood up, I saw he was wearing a large vest stuffed with fly boxes, but apparently nothing they contained was suitable for this occasion. Flipping down a magnifier clipped to his hat, he tied on the new fly and spritzed it with the floatant. Then he carefully placed his vise and all his materials in a canvas pouch and slid it into the back of his vest.
He seemed to have forgotten I was there, and I said nothing as he moved the water's edge, stripped line off his reel, stepped quietly into the shallows, and began to false-cast. I decided it was time to move on, not wishing to distract him at this critical moment. I watched as he worked his way out into the pool, still false-casting.
"Very impressive," I thought. "The guy comes to the river, sees what is going on, and whips up a fly on the spot. Now he should really nail 'em." I was admiring and envious of such expertise. It made my own fishing seem clumsy and haphazard. I started upstream to the next pool, then looked back one last time.
The fly-tying angler was no longer false-casting. Instead, he was staring upward. His backcast was hung up in a leaning spruce tree, well above the water and far out of reach. He tugged on the line and shook the rod for several minutes, which brought down a sprinkling of twigs and needles, but not the fly. Meanwhile, several good trout continued to rise all around him, ignoring his predicament.
Finally he broke off, and with the heavenward look of a martyred saint, he waded ashore and leaned his now flyless rod against the blowdown. Then he spread out his fly-tying kit, sat down among his envelopes of materials, and picked up his vise once again.
It must take real commitment to be an expert.
The river was running high, and as I waded up the first riffle, I realized the relentless push of the heavy current would wear me out long before the evening rise. Spey-casting two wet flies downstream would be easier and still effective. With no hatch in sight, the trout would be feeding opportunistically-prime targets for a well-placed wet fly.
Giving in to the march of time and the laws of physics, I re-rigged with two wet flies and began to work downstream instead. But there was a nagging little voice inside, reminding me that in my youth I would have ploughed upstream regardless, making it a test of strength and skill, like shooting a rapids instead of portaging.
Then a good trout grabbed the Coachman dropper on the second drift, and I forgot my unsteady legs and other infirmities in the excitement of bringing it to net-a well-marked brown trout, nearly 14 inches. I waded into the slack water to release it and had the satisfaction of feeling it push out of my hand after a few moments' rest.
Moving down the foam-speckled run, I soon had another hit but missed the fish. I tried several more drifts but it wouldn't come again, so I moved along toward the tailout. As the current quickened, I lifted the long rod to skitter the dropper in the surface film, drawing it upstream and letting it drop back in front of a big boulder, where the water pushed its way upstream and formed a cushion -a good spot for a fish to rest and watch for food.
Another trout took the tail fly, a Dark Cahill, as it swung past the cushion. I pulled him out of the main current before he could get organized, got him coming, and quickly had him in the net-another good one, not so big as the first, but a chunky 12 inches.
No hits through the fast water, but at the head of the next run I released two small trout and then a ten-inch brookie-just a remnant of what had once been a strong brook trout population. With deeper water ahead, I cut off the Dark Cahill and put on a weighted caddis pupa. The rise and swing of a wet fly can suggest the movement of an emerging caddis, and I thought the extra weight would get the flies down. Peering over my glasses, I was again reminded of my advancing years as I squinted to poke the tippet though the hook eye, but I also had the confidence brought on by a busy hour and a few good fish.
As I turned to cast again, I saw another angler working upstream toward me, pushing hard against the heavy current, his fly line darting out and back like a striking snake. He was a big guy, and his rod looked like a willow switch in his large, strong hand. He moved steadily upstream, casting efficiently with no wasted motion, his casts curling out, the rod tip following the downstream drift, then a roll to lift the fly, flick-flick, and another cast was on its way. Just the way it should be done, I thought.
I hesitated, then decided to roll out a short cast before backing out of the water to let him through. I swung the rod in a small arc, laid the line across and downstream, then mended the slack to sink the flies deep. I could just make out the Coachman's white wing as the flies settled, then it suddenly disappeared.
I set the hook and had another good one throbbing against the long rod. The reel stuttered briefly in protest, but then the fish turned out of the main current. A few minutes later he was in the net-another bronze-colored brown trout, the caddis pupa stuck firmly in the hinge of his jaw.
"I see you haven't lost your touch, Professor!" boomed a voice.
Bending over the landing net, I looked up momentarily, then turned again to unhook the trout. After slipping the fish back, I straightened, looking more intently at the bulky shape silhouetted against the sun. The shape was familiar, the voice even more so, but I couldn't put a name to the broad face behind the sunglasses.
"You taught me to cast, out at the university," he said, and then I remembered him. At that time he had one of those multi-piece pack rods, the kind that seem to have a metal ferrule every eight inches.
I brought along a 9-foot graphite fly rod, and after I showed him the basic casting stroke, I handed it over. Two "casts" and I leaped in to rescue my precious rod from certain destruction. Like many beginners, he thought he could get the line out with sheer strength. When it didn't happen, he cast all the harder-and with him, that meant really hard. The line whistled back and forth and snapped menacingly, and the practice fly disappeared from the leader.
We gradually worked through the basics of the cast, and as he began to get the idea, he became convinced there was some magic in my outfit that was absent from his own. This required diplomacy. There was a lot wrong with his rod, but I knew many would-be anglers who spent hundreds of dollars on rods and tackle and still couldn't cast. To spare him this frustration, I picked up his pack rod and began to work out line. It had a soft, wobbly action, but I soon found a rhythm and laid out a few short casts-enough to show him it was the technique more than the equipment.
Now, many years later, here he was again, his casting far advanced from that first lesson on the university lawn. He had become a skilled fly fisherman, and he extended his hand as he waded across through the heavy current. "I guess this is a class reunion," he said, with a bone-crunching handshake. "More like the final exam," I replied, "and it looks like you'll pass."
The Loon and the Eagle
It was one of those bright, hot early summer days that had me wishing I had decided to fish a shaded stream instead of standing in my little johnboat fishing a clear trout pond. The surface was flat, the air was still and everything else was dead quiet. Even the birds had taken time out.
The morning's fishing had been good over the shoals, which showed up bright green and amber in the sunlight. While I normally cast blind for trout in lakes, this time I could see good fish cruising, turning now and then to grab something invisible to me. There wasn't anything hatching that I could see, but I had persuaded a couple of good rainbows and a brook trout to take my olive chironomid, sunk just under the surface on a long, fine tippet. (Truth to tell, I had also broken one off on the take - a "zing-snap!" for which rainbows in particular are noted.)
For a while, the trout had been cruising nearer the surface, like the "gulpers" in Hebgen Lake out in Montana, and it was possible to spot a fish, make a cast ahead, and get a good pull if everything went right. That's why I was still standing in my johnboat instead of sitting like a sensible person, even though the trout were now a lot deeper.
I had almost made up my mind to fold it up and wait until evening when I saw a loon pop up across the little bay. There were quite a few loons in the neighborhood, and they seemed to prefer the trout lakes. Maybe the hunting was better for them in the clean water, or maybe they just like trout better than other fish. (I can understand that.) I've noticed that ospreys like the clear lakes too, but then, good visibility is critical for their success.
I looked away from the loon, retrieved my little chironomid, and made another cast, letting the fly sink deeper on the long 5X tippet, then creeping it up very slowly, almost vertically, hoping that one of the cruising fish would notice its tiny movements and take it.
I should have been concentrating on the floating part of the leader, but I glanced down, alongside the boat, which was anchored at both ends so it wouldn't swing. The white anchor lines showed up plainly, and I could see the bow anchor sitting half buried in the bottom muck, ten feet down.
Then I saw the loon, swimming strongly about four feet down. It passed right under the boat, then turned hard right, graceful and swift like a seal. I had never seen an adult loon swimming underwater before, its huge gray feet churning, its wings pressed tight to its body. It was so close I could see the necklace of white spots around its neck, which was thrust straight out. The loon turned hard left, and there was a flurry of movement I couldn't follow, but I saw a silver flash in the water and realized the loon had struck a trout. Then it disappeared into the deeper water.
I don't know why the loon turned away, but I could see the trout plainly, its white belly and silver sides bright against the green of the bottom, and it began to rise slowly to the surface, probably 20 feet from the boat.
Then I heard a raspy whistle, looked up, and saw an eagle gliding just over the treetops, the sun bright on its white head and tail. It whistled again-one of the most stirring sounds of the North - and lighted in an old jackpine across the bay.
The eagle's yellow beak was pointed directly at the stricken trout, which was now just below the surface. Its bright, baleful eye was fixed on the feebly moving fish, and I realized the eagle wanted to pick it off. I watched and watched, motionless in the johnboat. I was close-perhaps too close for the eagle to come. I tried not to look directly at the trout. It was a good one, maybe 16 inches.
We were all a frozen tableau - the trout, the eagle and myself, against the flat calm of the pond. Then the eagle swept down from its perch, and I thought for sure it was going to snatch the trout. But it flew over several feet above my head and landed again in a bush behind me. Perhaps it was afraid. After all, it wasn't that long ago that people shot at hawks and eagles-and some still do.
I didn't dare turn around, but after several more minutes of waiting I was growing unsteady, so I sat down very slowly. I was afraid I might tip the little boat. Then I heard the rush of wings sudden and close and felt the hair rise on the back of my neck.
The eagle swept past me at eye level, plucked the trout from the surface with one talon, like a dowager taking a sugar cube at high tea, and was gone over the tree line.
Some minutes later, rowing in, I remembered I had brought my camera.
The pond was flat calm in the summer heat, perfectly mirroring the treeline-no swirls, no rises, nothing but the spiraling of whirligig beetles and the footprints of water striders in the quiet shallows. This unrevealing surface concealed an abiding mystery: what were the trout feeding on? Or were they feeding at all? Were there any good ones left after the early season assault on the spring ponds?
A discouraged angler rowed in as I rigged up, momentarily distorting the perfect mirror of the pond. To my unspoken question he replied, "Not a hit since early morning. They just aren't biting today."
I murmured sympathetically, secretly glad to have the pond to myself. Then I stepped into my float tube and finned my way to a dropoff. I anchored just off a weedy shoal and straightened an extra-long fine leader. I could see several fresh pupal shucks on the surface-a good sign. Tying on a tiny olive chironomid pupa, I made a cast to the deep water waited as the fly and leader sank.
Some minutes later, in the middle of a slow retrieve, I saw the line move, tightened up, and a good trout burst through the calm surface like a rock hurled through a window. It was a thick, prime rainbow, nearly 17 inches and fat from heavy feeding, and it jumped twice more before coming to the net.
Like the man in the rowboat, I used to think trout had meal times, just like people. The pond was either pocked with rises from feeding fish or it was dead quiet. Now I know better. Although there are quiet times, except for extreme temperatures or the distractions of spawning, trout are usually feeding. It's how they make a living. At times, a certain type of food may attract their attention and ours-something visible like emerging mayflies, flying ants tumbling to the surface, the dance of egg-laying caddis-which prompts us to "match the hatch." The rest of the time, their feeding is invisible to us.
For a while I used a stomach pump to find out what the trout were eating. The most recently ingested food was obvious, sometimes still alive. But everything else was a hodgepodge of nymphs, snails, scuds, and chironomids, or midge pupae, the latter often looking like an olive-colored paste.
Reading more about lake ecology, I learned chironomids were often the most abundant and available food item, particularly the pupae, which rise vertically from the bottom sediments, often in deep water, to emerge as tiny two-winged flies similar to mosquitoes. This was interesting but no help until I fished several of British Columbia's Kamloops trout lakes. The first few days my usually reliable Muddler Minnows and Woolly Buggers failed miserably, while other anglers fishing from small prams caught big silver rainbows. All the while I saw nothing break the surface. Now and then one of them would stand up, false cast several times, lay out a cast, and sit down again. Using floating lines and long leaders, 16 feet or more, they cast their tiny chironomid imitations, waited several minutes as they sank deep, then s-l-o-w-l-y inched them toward the surface. When I finally got the idea, used the right fly, and followed their example, business was brisk.
It's hard to imagine large trout swimming through clouds of chironomids, inhaling dozens of pupae, but in many lakes this is exactly what they do, the only evidence the white-gilled shucks of the pupae that made it through the unseen carnage to the surface. Trout can grow very big on such tiny insects because they are so abundant and they don't have to spend much effort to catch them.
As I released the trout, I heard a commotion behind me. I turned in the float tube and saw two young fellows launching a johnboat, dragging the protesting metal hull over the rocks and dumping it in with a crash. After they loaded up the coolers, tackle boxes, rods, bobbers, and a radio, they cranked the motor and headed straight for me.
"Whatcha usin?" the guy running the motor shouted, shifting into neutral and tipping back the visor on his cap.
The other one was wearing cutoffs and a "Get Naked" T-shirt. He grinned and chimed in, "We seen ya get a nice one."
Bobbing up and down in their wash, I felt a little foolish looking up at them from my float tube as they drifted closer.
"A chironomid," I replied.
I tried to explain. "Midges, little flies that come up from the bottom. They look like this." I held up the leader tippet, exhibiting the #14 fly, just a long, thin abdomen and a little clump of peacock herl and white ostrich herl at the head. It looked like an elongated comma.
"Shoot!" (or something like that) said the one running the motor. "I can't even see it." Then to his friend, "Let's go over by the point." He shifted the motor into reverse, and I bobbed in a blue cloud of exhaust fumes as they sputtered over to a marshy point about 30 yards away. A kingfisher rattled away from a dead snag as their anchor plunged overboard.
I watched them untangle their rods, bait up, and cast out their bobbers. I knew it was only a matter of time before the radio started blaring. As the lake settled into calm again, one of them caught a small trout, so they became more intent, and I made another hopeful cast.
As before, I let the chironomid pupa sink deep, then inched it upward in tiny hand-twist pulls, trying to ignore the other boat, hoping things below the surface would quiet down.
The attentiveness that follows a caught fish soon faded, and before long I heard a snap as a beer can was opened, soon followed by another. The radio started a few minutes later, wailing of honky-tonks and lost love, and two red-and-white bobbers lay immobile, embedded in the glassy surface.
Grimacing at the noise but not yet willing to leave, I made another cast to the deeper water, waited a few minutes for the fly to sink well down, and began a slow retrieve. It took a long time, but finally the leader butt twitched slightly, and I tightened to another good fish. Fly line leaped through the guides and the old Hardy reel began to screech.
"Fish on," I said-probably too triumphantly-trying not to look toward the anglers in the johnboat. Far out, another heavy rainbow boiled at the surface.
"Shoot!" said the one in the "Get Naked" T-shirt-or something like that.