You recently published a book that many of us have found to be the poetic soul of the trout spey world. Can you tell us about Trout Spey & the Art of the Swing? What inspired this project and what message do you hope the reader will take from it?
Trout Spey & the Art of the Swing was a long time cooking before written down. I’d been immersed in trout spey for about 25 years as a preferred methodology for fishing my home water, the third largest river in the U.S. Also, I’ve entertained a fondness for tying and swinging wetflies long before picking up a two-hander as a tool for presenting them. From early on there were a very small group of local hard-cores that had, out of the desire for a longer cast on the big water, come to the same conclusion as myself. The local trout spey guys were/are also creative fly tyers, developing trout-fly patterns that seem to define a style suited to the swung-fly spey presentation, both aesthetically pleasing and effective. Great rivers hosting great fish speak to and define anglers who live beside them. From the time I started I saw an increasing interest in trout spey, along with an increasing array of rods and lines suitable for the game. Maybe not “booming”, but it became evident that trout spey was and is gaining more interest as well as new practitioners. Trout spey isn’t exactly like salmon or steelhead fishing, so the volumes written on those fish, though helpful, don’t apply to the specific nuances and methodologies of trouting. Things got to a point I read several people online ask if there were any books on trout spey, or someone suggest someone write a book on the subject. So. I was looking for something to write and I figured its time had come and why not knuckle down and write the first-ever book on trout spey? And along with that, create an extensive catalogue of effective fly designs for the game.
Tell us about your home on the “Shining Reach” of the Upper Columbia River and what makes this fishery so special.
Doris and I have lived in NE Washington since 1974, and in our current home, a cabin on ten acres next to the UC, which we built ourselves in 2000. We live fairly simple, grow a garden, mow the meadow, serve as staff to our two cats, Sundown and Stinky. We have a resident whitetail herd and turkey flock, and there’s grouse out back. Aside from the occasional grouse, I don’t hunt like I used to and consider the critters living around the place “the emergency food bank.”
“Shining Reach” indeed. In a perfect world long past. Or an extremely hopeful future. Sad to say, the American Reach / Canadian Reach UC fishery has not been shining since the coming of the dams and surviving salmonids – redband, cutthroat, bull trout and kokanee – have been in decline since I arrived in the early 1970s, and many vectors contributing, chiefly the introduction of non-native predators: walleye, northern pike, and more recently smallmouth bass and stocked sturgeon. Native whitefish, pikeminnow, peamouth chub and other soft-ray forage species were the first to go as the walleye population boomed. And then the cutthroat sharing the softer water walleye prefer, now pretty much gone. A Canadian survey concluded 50 to 60 percent of trout native to the UC are eaten by walleye before reaching maturity. Though there seemed to be no shortage of sturgeon, now both B.C. and Washington are introducing thousands of hatchery sturgeon into the river, yearly. I’m not sure where the science proving carrying capacity is, but sturgeon have been filmed vacuuming trout redds at Gennell, B.C. I don’t know where it’s all going, but my journal records a steady decline in both trout numbers and size, since I started recording in 2000. Sure, there are still some tanker trout in the segment, but they are becoming fewer and farther between. And remember, the truncated riverine segment between Lake Roosevelt and Keenleyside Dam is only about 30 miles altogether. The Biden Administration has granted the Colville Confederated Tribes 200 million dollars toward bringing salmon back. I’m not sure how that money will be spent. Will it go to WHOOSH siphon technology to bring fish over the Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee Dams? Or will it be absorbed in a program rearing land-locked chinook in the system (this already underway by the Tribes)? Both of these scenarios are under discussion. Meanwhile the remnant native trout population is in jeopardy from an overload of introduced fish into a truncated system, in my own view, lacking the carrying capacity to feed and support them.
The Upper Columbia also appears to be an inspiration for your best friend, Doris. Do you have a favorite watercolor of hers that captures the spirit of the place?
Doris made a set of four paintings of the river representing the seasons. I love all of these but if I had to choose one it would be the ‘Summer’ painting, viewed from what was once my favorite spot to swing over caddis hatches.
You spend your winters in a completely different location and climate. Can you tell us about the Central Coast of California and what makes that place special to you?
Well, for one, the central coast of Cali is short on fresh water, which inhibits the development you see south of Point Concepcion. It is rural and beautiful; the Santa Lucia Range following the coast through the wild Big Sur highlands, just to the north. But what really makes it special is that our grandkids live there. Also, there, I get to slow down and write and also tie flies. The homestead in Washington is too busy with both work and play to get any writing done while there. Surfcasting for barred surfperch is best in winter, so when the tides are right I get my exercise hiking the beaches with my pack and a two-hander, perfect for making long casts to the surf for big perch and the occasional halibut, striper or sporty leopard shark. While there I usually make a trip or two to Nor-Cal for steelhead. Beats driving on the icy roads up home in Washington.
Which river that you have never fished before would you most like to try?
That would be the Tree River, which flows from the Northwest Territories to the Arctic Ocean. I love char, and the Tree River hosts the largest sea-run arctic char in the world. In their spawning colors they look like giant brook trout, if you can imagine a 25-pound brook trout. John Gierach, who also loves char, has fished it and says the Tree is beautiful swinging water; the sea-runs eat the swung fly readily and fight like berserkers.
What is your favorite fly?
First answer that comes to mind is a quote from Lefty Kreh who, when asked that question, replied: “The last one I caught a fish on.” But if I was pinned to name a favorite of my own design, I’d have to say the Woodcutter.
What is your favorite two-hand rod, and what line do you most like to use with it?
O boy… Refer back to Lefty to answer that one. But favorites arise to meet specific occasions and applications. No one rod does it all. Rods are like golf clubs, you need more than one. As for lines, I’m a greased-liner at heart, but that’s only a preference, I’m flexible too. Always trying different lines and have no particular favorite. I like a line that performs exactly as I need it to in a particular situation. Like rods, lines are situational. I like a line that gets it done, and I don’t have to fight it or even think about it. I like a Skagit for salmon on coastal rivers and a Scandi-long for Eastside trouting and steelheading. Bruce Kruk recently gave me a Gaelforce Equalizer Short Belly for my 14’ #7, and I like that line a lot for Eastside fishing. Great turnover.
What is your favorite memory from your times on the water?
So many favorite memories… Again, Lefty’s answer applies. Most recent was attending the Red Shed Spey Clave, camping at Poppy’s and having the good fortune of swinging the Clearwater with Duncan Gaisewicz and meeting a 16-pound B-run buck that fought like a berserker on magic mushrooms. And shortly before that my grandson’s first UC trout on a dryfly. But even more so than the fish I’ve caught, or lost, my favorite memories are of the people I’ve met on the water — those who reflect their deep passion for the natural world and our ancient game — the memories most salient and utilitarian are the lessons and knowledge they’ve kindly passed to me.
You’ve had a long list of contributions to salmon and trout fishing, as well as two-hand casting. Is there one you’re particularly proud of?
Many thanks, yet my contribution list is actually short when I consider the unsung commitments of those who are working truly hard and those who’ve contributed lifetimes and fortunes toward dam removal and the preservation of our wild fish stocks. Other than the signing of petitions, the occasional small donation and occasional letters to agencies on behalf of fishery issues, I’ve not done near enough to deserve any recognition. Come to think of it, you could say most of my writing and fly designs are aimed more toward pestering salmon and trout than helping them. To be honest. As for contributions to casting, other than boosting two-hand fishing in my writings and occasionally helping a client with a problem while guiding, my largest contribution there was helping Zack Williams line-edit Anchor-Centric Spey Casting. But the informational genius of that work is entirely Zack.
And to answer your last question: pride does go before a fall so I’m a bit superstitious about being ‘particularly proud’ of any perceived accomplishment. We all get up in the morning and we do our work. I like to fish, I like to design flies for that purpose, and I like to write. So, along with the chores of living, I engage with those things. It’s a form of work that sometimes becomes a construct. Trout Spey & The Art Of The Swing, the first book ever on the subject of trout spey, is such. I’m close to proud of that one because it approaches the sound utility I aimed for, feedback from readers has been humbling, and it has a quality that I think will enjoy longevity.
I feel the same way about Soft~Hackle Journal, a print angling quarterly I introduced this year with the help of a very creative team, now coming on its fourth issue. SHJ is a zen-clean departure from the ad-filled photo-hype of contemporary angling magazines. Our staff writers are all golf-course-poaching soul men committed to our game. We’re featuring artists and writers capable of stretching the genre. I had to raise Dave Hughes from the dead to get him to become a staff writer. Now, without anybody to censor him, I think he’s writing better than ever.
What is it going to take to save wild fish?
What is it going to take to save the world? A world-wide paradigm shift away from growth (cancer) based economy to sustainable economy and communities designed with a mindful, less intrusive urban/wilderness interface, would be just the beginning. I fear the answer to your question may be too heavy a lift for the human race. Then I’m hopeful because I can see nothing useful in losing hope. But short of upending the winner-take-all socio-economic paradigm of the late Holy Roman Empire we are currently living, the best thing we who love wild fish (and the wild world) can do is grab a root and dig, locally. The Agency Wheel turns ever so slowly, but more shoulders against it gets things rolling. What are we rolling for? Dam Removal. Habitat improvement. Replacing hatcheries with instream rearing. Removal of invasive species from waters where they have a negative impact on indigenous species. Assuring that living systems are prioritized. And I don’t mean prioritized to the exclusion of human activity. There’s always a balance. We need always remain cognizant of what that balance is. We as citizen anglers must make our priorities known to affect agency policies and move them from management to stewardship modalities. I think stewardship of nearly perfect systems, rather than management of troubled systems, is what it’s going to take to preserve wild fish. I believe, in the long run, such an approach costs us less, raises our quality of life, and would create socio-economic gain, commonwealth, for society as a whole.
What are your plans for the next five years?
Well, I hope to get through them with my body parts still functioning and intact. I’d like to sell some books so I can buy building materials and finish the homestead while I can still hammer nails. Planning an effort to find a home for a short-story collection I’ve been working on. Accomplishing these things, Doris and I would like to spend a year in New England, and from there make a journey up through the Maritimes and all the way to where the road ends at Nunavut, at the top of Quebec. Of course sampling rivers all the way up. That’s about it for plans, though I’m sure we’ll remain fairly existential within that broad, ambiguous roadmap.