Tag Archives: trout

Partial to Partridge (Me, and the Trout)

Daily Gazette article
Thursday, October 25, 2012

By Morgan Lyle

Partridge-hackled flies are best choices


Photo of

I think just about any fly will catch fish at one time or another.

But I’m starting to think that flies made with partridge hackle would catch trout in the Crossgates Mall parking lot during a snowstorm. On Black Friday.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. But this is not: Unless there was a compelling reason to use another kind of fly, my first choice on any trout stream in the world would be a simple, yarn-bodied Killer Bug with a brownish hackle of vividly mottled Hungarian partridge.

This is an ancient kind of fly, usually referred to as a soft-hackle, sometimes called spiders in the U.K. The simplicity of it appeals to me — it has the parts a fly needs and nothing else. But the main reason I like these flies is that they work so well.

Back in 1924, John Waller Hills wrote in “A Summer on the Test” that “one of the softest, most compressible patterns is partridge hackle, and, whether this be the reason or not, I consider it the best sunk fly on the Test.”

In recent years, I’ve been fishing soft-hackles much of the time, and I’ve experimented with a few different kinds of hackle feather. There are several good choices for this kind of tying.

Starling, for example, has an iridescent, greenish sheen that (I’m guessing) appeals to trout much the way peacock herl seems to. Flies with peacock herl bodies have serious mojo — the micro-movement of the herl’s fibers and its ever-shifting green, brown and purple colors.

They give an impression of life, at least to human eyes, and apparently to fish eyes, too. Starling is similar. Its very soft hackle fibers wiggle and wave around easily in the water like the flailing legs of a struggling insect. It also has the advantage of being available in small sizes for size 16-20 softies.

Hen is cheap, widely available in many dyed colors and easy to work with. You can make flies that range from tiny to jumbo, and the hackle fibers are nice and uniform, which may or may not impress the fish, but looks nice to the fly-tyer.

Hen pheasant, another popular choice, has an appealing brownish tan color and nicely tapered barbules, and it, too, is very soft, with lots of movement. It’s not quite as easy to find as starling or hen, however, and isn’t much good for flies smaller than size 12.

Red grouse also is less commonly stocked in fly shops, and it too tends to be for larger flies. Its best feature is its beautiful mottling.

But partridge is by far the most popular choice for soft-hackle flies. On a natural skin — and if you want to use this stuff, you must buy a skin, rather than the little packs of individual feathers, most of which are too big or otherwise unfit for use — you’ll find good hackles for sizes from 14 or 16 up.

The pale gray breast feathers with the sharp, fine mottling tend to be the best to tie with, but there are brown feathers on the back, in the middle of the skin, that look great with any generally brown fly, if you can find them in the right size.

The mottling is key. The hackle on these things looks like the banded legs of the kind of spiders that make your kids scream. In the water, drifting and tumbling and darting around, it’s utterly insect-like.

It may look to the fish like a caddis fly pupa, or an emerging mayfly, or a drowned adult mayfly or cranefly or spider. It probably looks like all of them, and trout love to eat them all. Partridge-hackled flies did right by me again just this past weekend. I hooked seven or eight fish on the East Branch of the Croton River in the lower Hudson Valley, and almost all of the ones I landed were at least 12 inches or better.

It was midday under a bright sun, the water was a bit shallow and there wasn’t an aquatic insect to be seen except an occasional midge or tiny olive mayfly. But the trout grabbed that fly with no hesitation, and that’s been my exper­ience much of the time.

So I’m with Hills. Soft-hackle wets tied with partridge hackle are the best sunk flies on the rivers I get to fish, here in New York.

Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at morganlyle@gmail.com.


Remembering John Merwin

Daily Gazette article
Thursday, February 28, 2013
See HTML Version of article
By Morgan Lyle

John Merwin

John Merwin, founder of Fly Rod & Reel magazine and author of “The Battenkill,” was remembered as a consummate writer and editor. He died Feb. 20 at age 66. (Photo courtesy the Merwin family)


John Merwin was a private guy. You didn’t see him on TV, or hosting seminars at fly-fishing shows, or liking and commenting on Facebook.

But he had friends and fans, and in the week since his death, they have remembered him as an expert angler, a curmudgeon with a heart of gold and one of the most important fishing writers and editors of his time.

Merwin — founder of Fly Rod and Reel magazine, longtime fishing editor at Field & Stream and author of 15 books, including the definitive history of the Battenkill River — died Feb. 20 at age 66 after a brief illness.

“Gruff, erudite, opinionated, tireless, and constitutionally candid, he was a force on the angling scene, pulling the levers of the industry from a lawn chair in rural Vermont,” wrote Merwin’s friend Dave Hurteau of Saratoga Springs, dep­uty editor and columnist at Field & Stream, who wrote an obituary on behalf of Merwin’s family.

Merwin’s “The New American Trout Fishing,” published in 1994, is a superb book — “the best modern book on trout fishing, period,” in the words of Merwin’s Field & Stream colleague, Kirk Deeter.

You could read nothing else on the subject and live a happy life as a trout fisherman.

It’s an ambitious, literary how-to book that treats readers to history, science and commentary along with instruction.

But for Capital Region anglers, Merwin’s most important book was “The Battenkill: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Trout River — Its History, People and Fishing Possibilities.”

There’s never been anything remotely like it written about the Battenkill, or most trout rivers, for that matter. It’s a richly detailed history of the river, and to an extent of trout fishing itself in the 19th and 20th centuries.

As one might expect, Merwin writes about the Battenkill’s most famous fisherman, the legendary Lee Wulff. But “The Battenkill” also covers Norman Rockwell and Grandma Moses and “the half-mythical (Ethan) Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, who were in fact a handful of arrogant tavern drunks, bullying New York settlers along the border both before and shortly after the American Revolution.”

It’s not a how-to book, but anyone who reads it will learn how to fish the Battenkill. Merwin will warn them he sometimes takes an hour to wade 100 feet, which drives some of his friends nuts but avoids frightening the big trout. And you can almost see him wag his finger when you read, “use a three- to four-foot-long tippet of 6X [or lighter with ultra-small flies] for everything except streamers, even if the book you’ve read says to use 4X with your size-14 Hendrickson dries.”

Hurteau, who fished with Merwin often, heard lots of stuff like that.

“I met John in 1995,” he recalled in an interview. “I was a young, new punk editor from the wilderness at Field and Stream. John was already a legend. I had no idea who he was. The first words John ever spoke to me in person were, ‘You talk too much.’ ”

But under the grumpy New England veneer, Merwin was a softie. “He showed you in no uncertain way that he cared about you,” Hurteau said. “He went way out of his way to take a lot of us young editors under his wing and take care of us. It’s something that has been lost a little bit in editing circles these days — people are just too busy.”

And Merwin, a Connecticut nat­ive who began his career as a newspaperman after attending the University of Michigan, “was the standard bearer for integrity in fishing writing,” Hurteau said. “We really looked to John for the right way to do things, and he was just adamant about that. He insisted that things be done the right way.”

Hence the great books, and the many great articles and blog posts, and the overall quality of the mag­azines he led.

Merwin wasn’t afraid to show his sentimental side in his writing, at least when he was writing about the Battenkill.

“After about 40 years of chasing trout from Maine to California and beyond, I know that the Battenkill is my favorite place,” he wrote. “The Battenkill is more like Bach; with green hills, covered bridges and white-clapboard villages forming the gently repeating steps of a sweetly insistent fugue in which rising trout play an occasional part. Perhaps you’ll develop a taste for it. As I have.”

Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at morganlyle@gmail.com.

First Trout on the New Soyokaze Rod

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a new category of tenkara rod available — one that’s not even really intended for trout fishing, but that turns out to be great for fishing small streams for small wild trout.

The model I used is the Soyokaze by Daiwa, a brand well-known in the U.S. for spinning and casting rods and reels but which doesn’t (yet) sell any of its telescoping, fixed-line rods here. Daiwa’s higher-end tenkara rods are the sweetest tenkara rods I’ve ever cast, and they can be bought (as can the Soyokaze) at TenkaraBum.com.

There’s debate about whether rods like the Soyokaze can properly be called tenkara rods at all, since they don’t have cork handles — just a slightly fatter blank at the butt end, with a non-slip coating — and they are shorter than tenkara rods: six to 10 feet instead of 12 to 15. I gather these smaller ones are known as tanago rods and are used for anything from panfish down to minnows.

The Soyokaze model I used is an unbelievably light 9-footer that’s just right for dropping a Usual in pockets the size of a dining room table on a small, shady, rocky stream full of fallen tree trunks, where all the trout are wild. I know there are a couple spots on this stream where it’s possible to catch larger trout. I didn’t use the Soyokaze for them; I broke out the Tenkara USA Ebisu, my all-arounder, instead. (They weren’t biting anyway.)


Little six- to eight-inchers are the norm here.


The forecast was 93 in NYC. Considerably cooler here. I waded wet, just quick-dry pants & wading shoes.

ImageWon’t be fishing the pool below the falls anytime soon — it’s full of oak tree. We’ve had some hellacious thunderstorms around here this summer.

Introducing the Stewart Stone

I’m just not a morning person. A real fisherman would have been up at 4 and on the water at first light. I settled for being up at 6:10 and on the water  by 8. Fortunately, most of the Muscoot River below Amawalk Reservoir is in the shade all day anyway, so the bright July sun wasn’t a problem.

I’ve never done very well on this beautiful stream. Today, I landed two, lost two others and had a few dismissive flips. I’ll settle for that, too.

What made it interesting was the fly. I’ve come across several mentions of big tenkara flies lately, so I decided to try one myself. It’s probably not unique enough to merit a name, but I gave it one anyway: the Stewart Stone, named for TenkaraBum Chris Stewart of New York.

It was Chris, after all, who popularized the yarn used to make the Killer Bug. That stuff has some serious mojo,  and I think it’s the most important part of the Stewart Stone. In  the water, the yarn (Jamieson’s Shetland Spendrift, in sand, colored with a Prismacolor marker, also in sand) is complex stew of shades that combine to create a meaty, live-looking pink, with a fuzzy halo.

The fly that became the Stewart Stone differs from a big Killer Bug in a couple of significant ways:

  • It has a tail and a hackle, both olive-dyed Hungarian partridge. (Chris’s Killer Kebari has a hackle, but no tail.) Brown-dyed or natural partridge would probably work just as well.
  • It has a pronounced taper.

I tied the fly on a size 8 Orvis 1524 hook – a 1X heavy, 2X long nymph hook that I would normally use for Woolly Buggers. I’m not used to tying or fishing nymphs that big. Sure, I’ve always had a few big black stoneflies handy, but only used them as a last resort and never had much success (probably because by the time I tie on the last resort fly, my own mojo is on the wane.) The Stewart Stone is  not a lovely fly to cast on an Ebisu with a TenBum hand-tied line, but I can more or less put it where I want it. Yes, it makes a loud plop when it hits the water. This doesn’t seem to bother the trout. Most strikes to this fly have come right after splashdown.

I decided to think of the pattern as a stonefly last weekend, when I saw lots of big stonefly shucks on the rocks protruding from Esopus Creek. A few small, wild Esopus rainbows endorsed it that day. Two days earlier, on a hatchless afternoon at the Hale Eddy riffles on the West Branch of the Delaware, a chubby trout grabbed the fly as it swung below me, and several others nipped at it but wouldn’t commit.

I guess it might imitate a stonefly, but I think of it as more of an attractor. There aren’t many insects around right now, so maybe the trout are less fussy. At the very least I know they’re seeing it.

Tenkara is Definitely Not Dapping

Tenkara USA and its fans have been sensitive from the beginning to tenkara being characterized as “dapping.” They object because the term suggests tenkara fishing doesn’t involve casting. It does, of course – true fly-casting, with the line traveling in tight loops and the fly just going along for the ride.

T-USA has even sprung for magazine ads with the headline, “Tenkara Is Not Dapping.”

That’s truer than most people know. Real dapping is done with a telescoping rod typically 17 feet long, fitted with a fly reel, a center-pin reel or even a spinning reel. (Tenkara rods are also telescoping and long, but not that long.) The running line is 10-pound-test mono, which snakes up through the core of the rod and out the tip. (Tenkara lines are affixed to the rod tip.)  The mono is attached to several feet of blowline, which is an ultra-light floss that sails in the breeze. On the other end of the blowline is a tippet, and tied to that is a fly. The whole rig may weigh two pounds.

There is no casting. You let the breeze take the blowline and lower the rod when you want the fly to fall to the water. It’s usually done from rowboats held perpendicular to the wind on lakes in Ireland and Scotland.

I learned all this in a superb book called “Dapping” by Robert H. Boyle, a former writer for Sports Illustrated, stonefly expert and lion of the environmental movement who has been instrumental in halting awful ideas on the Hudson River and now, at 83, is helping lead the opposition to fracking in New York.

“The fly is carried by the wind, and in response to the dapper’s movements of he rod, gently alights, sits with feathers and fibers twitching, tantalizingly dances and prances across the surface, and if no strike results, takes to the air where it seductively hovers before landing again to start the cycle anew, its antics exactly like that of a living creature doing what comes naturally,” Boyle writes. “No fly caster, no matter how gifted, can make a fly put on such a performance.”

Of course, you can dap with a tenkara rod, sort of. If it’s real windy, just lift the rod and let the wind grab the line. In fact, if it’s that windy, you may have no other choice. But you can’t cast a dapping rod.

What most people in the U.S. think of as dapping is really just the short game that all fly-fishers, with or without reels, have always played: flicking your fly to nearby spots without using much line.  You can definitely do that with a tenkara rod – and much more.

“Dapping: The Exciting Way of Fishing Flies that Fly, Quiver and Jump” is published by Stackpole Books and retails for $24.95. It’s a delightful and fascinating book about a form of fly-fishing most Americans know nothing about, and I highly recommend it.

ImageMorgan Lyle

Addition Planned for Catskill Fly Fishing Center & Museum

Daily Gazette article
Thursday, March 22, 2012

There’s going to be so much going on in the Catskills April 1, the opening day of trout season, that it might be tough to get any fishing in — which is kind of ironic since, if the weather holds, conditions are likely to be excellent.Of course, trout season will continue for another 61⁄2 months, and there’s only one opening day, so it seems appropriate to mark it with some pomp and circumstance.

This year, the ceremonial first cast with celebrities and VIPs won’t be made at the Junction Pool where the Willowemoc Creek meets the Beaverkill River. It will be held upstream at 9:30 a.m. on the Willow, close to the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum, so that whoever shows up can just walk across the bridge and take in the groundbreaking ceremony for the center’s new 4,000-square-foot addition, scheduled to open in May 2013.

The first floor of the new building will host the The Catskill Rodmakers’ Workshop and Heritage Craft Center, said Jim Krul, exec­utive director of the museum. It will be a working bamboo fly rod shop, an homage to the legendary rodmakers of the Catskills and Hudson Valley in the first half of the 20th century.

In fact, it will house artifacts that are priceless to the many fans of bamboo rodmaking — such as the planning mill used by Pinky Gillum, a reclusive craftsman from Ridgefield, Conn., who made 2,000 exquisite rods between 1923 and 1966, and the workbench used by Hiram Leonard, the “father of the modern split-bamboo fly rod.” Much of the center’s collection of bamboo rods made the by the masters will eventually be displayed near the shop.

Best of all, these specialized tools won’t just be sitting there. The public will be able to observe rodmakers using them.

“There was always a dream that we would have a living museum like Old Sturbridge Village or Col­onial Williamsburgh, that there would be some crafting going on,” Krul said. The project has the active support of the Catskill Rodmakers Gathering and the Southern Rod gathering, clubs for bamboo rod enthusiasts, several of whom have promised to donate rods to sell to raise funds.

The workshop is also expected to serve as an anchor for weekend exhibitions of various other crafts, such as reel making, writing, painting and carving, Krul said.

The second floor of the new structure will house the Wulff Gallery, dedicated to exhibits of the late Lee Wulff and his wife, Joan, who has been a key figure at the Catskill Center since it opened and still operates the Wulff School of Fly Fishing in nearby Lew Beach. Along with displays, it will have a multipurpose meeting room for seminars, film festivals, classes, programs and lectures relating to fly-fishing.

Over the winter, the center rebuilt its ground floor bathrooms and shower facilities, which will be helpful during visits and fishing trips by Project Healing Waters, a program of fly-fishing as recreation and therapy for disabled veterans and active-duty service members. The center also renovated its kitchen and named it after Agnes Van Put, mother of Catskills trout fishing historian and longtime Department of Environmental Conservation fisheries professional, Ed Van Put. Agnes’ homemade soup will be for sale in the center’s gift shop, as it is every opening day.

Hating Nice Weather

UPDATE: Catskill Streams in the 50s in Mid-March
Daily Gazette article
Thursday, March 15, 2012

Leave it to a trout fisherman to complain about weather everybody else loves.

High 60s in mid-March? Shirt-sleeves for St. Patrick’s Day? People like me go around brooding and mumbling about trout streams getting too warm and too low, too soon.

What we anglers think of as the ideal natural rhythm goes something like this: early April, streams high and cold, well under 40 deg­rees; early May, streams at good levels, water just above 50; early June, easy wading, water still under 60.

Warm, dry, sunny days are nice for the beach (if you don’t care about fishing at the beach), but the best kind of summer for trout is cool, gray and rainy, and so that’s the best kind of summer for trout fishermen, too.

Mild springs with little snow on the ground and infrequent rain make me worry that we’ll have one of those seasons where the streams are bony and close to 70 degrees by June. Summers that start that way are bad for trout.

Update: It’s March 20. The West Branch of the Delaware is flowing at 377 cubic feet per second (normally over 1,000 on this date) and is already 51 degrees. The East Branch and the Neversink are 53 degrees. This is cause for real concern.

But I’m trying to curb my ten­dency to find the cloud around every silver lining. The fact is, despite the mild winter, hydrologic conditions right now don’t seem too bad.

Most streams have flows fairly close to average for this time of year, and they’re still plenty chilly — well under 40 in the Catskills. The streams will begin to drop when the trees get their leaves in a few weeks, but the U.S. Geological Survey shows water tables across the state are at or above normal levels, thanks to all the rain we got in 2011.

So instead of fretting about the summer, I’ve decided to look forward to pretty good conditions for the start of the season.

Normally, at this time of year, fly-fishermen resign themselves to dragging heavy flies around the bottoms of cold, brown streams, hoping against hope that a trout will decide it’s more hungry than cold and bite.

This year, we may have clear water and fairly moderate temper­atures. The insects may be active, and trout may actually be comfortable enough to feed on them with some enthusiasm.

And once the fish begin biting in a serious way, the fishing may be better than average. All that high water last summer spoiled a lot of anglers’ weekend fishing plans, but it kept the trout nice and cool and ensured a steady supply of food.

“The 2011 summer was generally a wet one throughout Region 4, which bodes well for the upcoming trout season,” the Department of Env­ironmental Conservation said in its annual news release on conditions for the upcoming season. (Region 4 is generally the Capital Region and the northern and western Catskills.) “Wet summers result in better stream flows and generally cooler water temperatures which benefit wild trout populations and enhance survival of stocked trout.”

A trout-friendly summer, followed by a mild winter, with ang­ler-friendly spring conditions may add up to some better-than-average fishing in April. If things hold up, we could have a bang-up Hendrickson hatch at the end of the month and the beginning of May.

At that point, I’ll start hoping the weather clouds up, cools down and rains once a week. Until then, I’ll try to make like Dr. Strangelove: stop worrying and learn to love the nice weather.

Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at morganlyle@gmail.com.