Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Mountain Creeks and Brook Trout

Charley casting to brookies with Flicka supervising
Our southwestern Montana rivers are finally dropping. They’re still high by normal late July standards, but there finally seems to be a light at the end of the runoff tunnel.

Right now, conditions are about prime for floaters on the Big Hole River and if our last weekend on the river is an example, people are taking full advantage of water conditions more typical of late June than late July.

Still, I’d bet that we’re still a good week or so away from good wade-fishing, and if you do find a good spot to walk along the edges of the river, you’ll be facing a long parade of drift boats and rubber rafts coming your way.

An alternative might be to explore some of those many squiggly blue lines on topographical maps, those high country creeks that have been pouring all that water down to our rivers the last couple months. That reservoir of melting snow is finally diminishing and the creeks are dropping.

Our friend, Charley Storms of Evansville, Indiana, joined us this past weekend for camping and fishing. He and a cousin from Philadelphia had spent the week at an area fishing lodge, enjoying good float fishing, but when I suggested exploring some creeks, he was ready for new adventures.

The first creek we tried didn’t pan out, though the drive up the valley was worth the trip from the standpoint of wildflowers. The mountain meadows were a riot of color from a profusion of wildflowers. The creek, however, was still too high for flyfishing.

We moved to another creek and had some action, catching a couple fish plus getting a few more rises. Still, the lower part of the stream had more water than desirable, so we drove farther up the valley.

At higher elevations, conditions were about perfect. There was plenty of water, but it was easy wading up and down the creek. The biggest challenge was finding runs that weren’t choked with willows. By walking around, however, it was no problem to find runs and pools where there was casting room.

Creek fishing is flyfishing simplified. You don’t need fancy equipment or hundreds of different flies to match the hatches. In high country creeks, the growing season is short so fish can’t afford to pass up too many tidbits of food passing by. A small, bushy fly, perhaps one already chewed up on some other trip, is just about perfect.

For better or worse, most high country creeks are overrun with small brook trout. I think of them as the knapweed of trout. They’re not native to the West and they outcompete our native cutthroat. Ironically, on many eastern waters where brook trout are native, rainbow trout, originally imported from West Coast rivers, are the evil alien invaders. On the bright side, brook trout are abundant and if you’re hungry for a fish dinner, go ahead and fill your creel, and if you don’t have a creel a plastic grocery bag or forked willow stick will work almost as well.

I have a friend in Idaho, Chris Hunt, who is a writer and a staffer for Trout Unlimited. He has a website titled,, and a slogan, “Save the west; eat a brook trout.” If you need an endorsement for guilt-free fish munching, go no further.

The fish Charley and I caught weren’t trophies, unless you consider an 8-inch fish a trophy. Despite their diminutive size, these brookies are mature fish and one of them was even full of eggs developing for fall spawning.

The final reward for a fun-filled day of fishing, however, was back in camp. I spritzed the fish with olive oil, sprinkled them with salt and pepper and put them on the charcoal grill. In a few minutes the fish were perfectly done and we ate them as appetizers while venison steaks took their turn on the grill for our dinner’s main course.

I’m looking forward to fishing the Big Hole and other waters during what’s left of summer, but I’ll reserve more time for some of those headwaters creeks.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Webley & Scott - an old name returns to U.S. shotgun market

Closeup view of the Webley & Scott Series 3000 over/under shotgun
“Are you ready to fall in love?”

That’s not the usual question I hear when walking up to the firing line on a trap range. I was at the Lee Kay Center, a public shooting facility in Salt Lake City, Utah, and operated by the Utah Division of Wildlife. It’s an outstanding facility, with trap, skeet, archery, airgun, rifle and pistol ranges. I was there with other outdoor writers from around the country in connection with this year’s annual conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, held this year at Snowbird.

People were skiing at Snowbird on the 4th of July, just before our conference started, though summer was in full bloom at the time of our conference.

Getting back to the question, however, the object of expected affection was a new shotgun just coming to U.S. markets, an over/under shotgun with an old name, Webley & Scott.

Webley & Scott, in various corporate identities, has been around since the 1790s. W. C. Scott & Sons made guns and gun components that ended up in a variety of classic shotguns back in the Victorian era. Webley & Son was known for revolvers and other sidearms. Among their customers was George Armstrong Custer, and it’s believed that Custer was carrying a Webley revolver at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

The companies merged in 1897 and Webley & Scott produced several models of handguns for the British military through both World Wars, as well as for police forces. Webley & Scott also manufactured various air rifles and pistols after 1920 when the UK began to strictly control civilian firearms.

 Webley & Scott went through a number of corporate reorganizations and ownerships over the years, including the latest just a year ago, with the new management’s plan to bring the Webley & Scott name back to the American shotgunning market. Webley & Scott previously marketed a line of shotguns in the U.S. in the 1970s.

The new Webley & Scott guns are made in Turkey to W & S specifications. A lot of guns marketed in the U.S., incidentally, are made in Turkey. The main lines of guns are over/under double barrel shotguns in both 12 and 20-gauge actions. They come with interchangeable choke tubes and several configurations of barrel lengths and safety actions. The guns even come with a padded hard case. Even better, they come with a highly competitive price tag of around $1200 for the 900 series, or $2200 for the somewhat fancier 1200 series version.

They also had one 3000 series 20-gauge gun on hand, which I had only a chance to admire but not shoot. This model, which comes in both side-by-side and over/under configurations, is a sidelock gun, also available in 12-gauge, and comes with both fancy wood and metal work. The price tag is also a bit fancier at $6500, but as sidelocks go, it’s probably a bargain.

Do they shoot? Yes they do. I would have liked to have shot at a lot more clay pigeons than I did, but in my brief test they handled well and when I did my job, the gun did its job and the targets shattered. The guns weigh in at just over seven pounds and I’d sure like to see them whittle some weight off of that, though I concede they don’t weigh any more than most of their competition. The sidelock model is a slimmer 6.5 pounds.

I had a chance to chat with Derick Cole, president of the Webley & Scott U.S. branch. He said the only other people who have had a chance to give these guns a try were at a Pheasants Forever outing where everybody raved about them. We writers were just the second group to try them.

These guns are so new that they aren’t yet available at many retailers, though they’re busy talking to major sporting goods companies. At any rate, people interested in getting a good over/under shotgun without spending a ton of money might check them out now at

Maybe I did fall in love.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Backyard Wildlife: There's a lot going on out there.

One of the backyard cottontail rabbits that enjoy our garden
The sound of robins chirping is a cheerful sign of spring. When we hear the sound of robins in March we know that spring is here. Yes, the season is often elusive and we wonder whether those robins wish they’d stayed south a few weeks longer.

Yesterday, the air was filled with the sounds of robins, but these were shrieks of panic and anguish, not cheerful chirps of spring. Ascribing human emotions to birds is hazardous, but there was no mistaking these sounds. These robins were angry.

The robin shrieks were interspersed with ‘caws’ from a crow, evidently the focus of the robins’ anger.

All the noise and activity was taking place in a couple aspen trees at the back corner of our yard. Looking more closely, robins were darting in and out of the branches, and a couple times the crow flew off, escorted by dive-bombing robins intent on getting rid of this unwelcome intruder.

My black Lab, Flicka, and I walked down the alley to get a closer look at the action. Most of the drama had ended and the crow was nowhere in sight. At least I thought the drama was over until Flicka walked under the branches and out popped a half-grown baby robin, and then another. They were about the size of sparrows, not yet showing any orange on their chests, still brown and with thrush markings.

With these babies out in the open the adult robins renewed their angry calls and darting at Flicka, warning her to leave them alone. I called Flicka away from the baby robins and we left the scene, hoping these juveniles survived their little adventure.

The baby robins explain the little backyard drama. The crow had spotted the robin nest and elected to do a little raiding in search of a nice, juicy baby robin or two.

It was one of those backyard dramas that get played out on a daily basis, though usually not witnessed by humans. On a different scale it was similar to that told by friends of an acquaintance living just out of town near Seeley Lake. She had seen a white-tailed doe and fawn in her backyard, probably not an unusual sight in that community that is virtually overrun with deer.

A couple days later, however, she looked out and saw, to her horror, the mother deer running frantically back and forth, frantic but helpless as a grizzly bear dined on the fawn.

In both these cases, there is a natural inclination to interfere and come to the rescue of the baby robins or the whitetail fawn. Of course, yelling or throwing something at a crow is one thing. If you’re tempted to run off a hungry grizzly bear, you’d better think twice, lest you become the bear’s next meal.

When we become witnesses to these backyard dramas it’s usually best to let nature run its course. We may be inclined to think that robins and deer are good, but crows and grizzly bears are bad. Still, chances are the crows have young to feed and baby birds of one kind or another are an opportune source of food for a baby crow. Similarly, a grizzly bear at this time of year needs a lot of food to recover from winter hibernation, especially if it is nursing a pair of cubs.

There are many dramas taking place in back yards all the time. Almost on a daily basis, Flicka will freeze on point and if I look in the direction she’s facing there is usually a cottontail rabbit upwind sitting calmly in a patch of clover pretending it’s invisible. Then Flicka will begin to stalk the rabbit, going ever so slowly and cautiously, until she can’t stand it any longer and bursts into a run.

It’s almost a joke. The bunny scampers a few feet, pops through a fence or hedge and is safe, while my poor dog wonders where it went.

It reminds me of a quote attributed to Karl Marx: History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Syl Nemes, Mr. Soft-Hackle, remembered.

Syl Nemes in 1998 on the Madison River
About a dozen years ago, I served as program chairman for the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited and had the privilege of contacting people in the flyfishing world and talking them into sharing their expertise in flyfishing, just for the fun of it. No money, just fun.

A highlight was the evening Syl (short for Sylvester) Nemes did a presentation on his lifelong passion, soft-hackled flies. Al Troth of Dillon, another flyfishing legend, came to Butte for the evening and Al and Syl exchanged a number of viewpoints, some of which were rather pointed. Judging by the grins of people enjoying the exchanges between these two legendary characters of the sport, I knew that booking Syl Nemes was a home run.

The next day I met Syl and his wife, Hazel, for breakfast and the opportunity for an interview, and out of this conversation came an invitation to go fishing with Syl on the Madison River a couple weeks later. Subsequently I occasionally ran into Syl at fishing shows where he did flytying demonstrations or promoted new books.

It came as a shock when I belatedly learned that Syl Nemes died at his home in Bozeman on February 3, 2011, at age 88.

Syl grew up in Cleveland, Ohio where a barber introduced him to the basics of flyfishing and flytying. He enlisted in the Army at the beginning of WWII and in England met Hazel, his future English war bride, who waited anxiously as Syl went to Normandy, just four days after D Day, to direct Air Corps fighters in the push to Germany. He returned to England after nine months and married Hazel, bringing her to the U.S. after the war, where Syl went to Kent State University on the G.I. Bill.

Syl worked as a copywriter for major advertising agencies a number of years and also freelanced as a photojournalist, though when possible he arranged vacations and weekends around flyfishing, always using soft-hackled flies.

In 1975 he published his first book, “The Soft-Hackled Fly,” which re-introduced the all but forgotten English-style wet fly to American anglers.

In 1984, Syl and Hazel moved to Bozeman and, in retirement, built a life around flyfishing, designing new variations of soft-hackled flies, and writing more books and magazine articles promoting variations on soft-hackled flies. Syl became known worldwide for his work; there is even a flyfishing club in Japan that is named after him. In 2008, the Madison-Gallatin Chapter of Trout Unlimited in Bozeman honored Syl with their “Legends of the Headwaters” award.

In the brief time that I got to spend with Syl I learned to appreciate him as a humble and gentle man, and for his love of learning new wrinkles of entomology and fly design, including his 1998 book, “Spinners,” highlighting a then mostly-overlooked part of the mayfly life cycle, as well as demonstrating formidable skills in macro photography.

Syl could be a bit stubborn about his flies, however. On the day we fished together, he commented, “A fly company sent me a whole bag of bead heads and synthetic stuff for me to try out and design some new flies. They’re still sitting in the garage. I don’t want anything to do with that stuff.” Syl believed in the traditions of soft-hackled flies, and natural materials, such as silk and partridge feathers.

In an interview with the Bozeman Chronicle, Hazel commented, “Syl didn’t like to fish too much with people he didn’t know,” so memories of that afternoon on the Madison River seem all the more precious.

Hazel told me that in Syl’s last couple years he had mostly lost interest in fishing, possibly due to subtle changes in his health, though just last October a friend took him out for what turned out to be Syl’s last day of fishing, on a favorite stream, DePuy Spring Creek.

I have autographed copies of several of Syl’s books, including that first 1975 edition of “The Soft-Hackled Fly,” now a collector’s item, as well as some flies that he tied. They are treasured reminders of a memorable friend.