Category: The fisherman’s life

Bourbon, cigars and more.


VIRGINIA LAKES: Actually a basin of lakes, their clear waters can hold elusive trout. (Credit: Jim Burns)

On the East Walker River a few days back, fishing with a bunch of longtime and new TU friends, I waited as a downstream drift effortlessly moved my tippet toward me, big Caddis on top, zebra midge below. Moving water takes on its own life when you wait. Cast. Wait. Cast. Wait, attention so focused, an electric spark of attentiveness.

Three days of fishing had yielded only meager results: Day One, skunk; Day Two, two brownies so small they both went through the holes in my net; now the last day was upon us. Late morning on one of the Virginia Lakes yielded spectacular scenes of granite majesty, made us think about geologic time, not human digital.

A lone cutty with beautiful red cheeks held so close to that lake bank, I grabbed my cell to take a shot, then, wondering what I was doing, raced to get my rod, cast the fly back in the water. No dice. The whole morning was like that, cruising fish, with no takers. My fishing bud, Rick, got so frustrated he slapped his rod tip in the water at a cruising fish, who didn’t even acknowledge the impact, so he tried again on trout’s next pass with the same result. He’d caught four-pounders at this very spot. He was generous enough to share it with me.

Late afternoon brought me back to the West Walker, as low, hot sun baked me to sweat and glare made me double blink. Enchanted by the music of singing water, no waders, yet I couldn’t help but submerge my boots on slippery rocks, just to satisfy that trout fever.

Don’t slip; set each foot down like balancing on a bowling ball; watch the bank-side scrub brush try to grab that airborne fly for its own.

CALIFORNIA FALL COLOR: A stand or group of aspen trees is considered a singular organism with the main life force underground in the extensive root system, according to the National Forest Foundation. (Credit: Jim Burns)

The guy in the town fly shop told us the “football trout,” rainbows who gorge themselves on plentiful bugs below the dam and into the Miracle Mile, were all gone. Too hot. He, himself, also thought about becoming a goner and moving out to North Dakota, tired of fire and endless drought.

In a watery burst, what draws so many of us to fishing happened to me: a flash of majesty and a solid hungry grab. A 12-inch or so football-shaped trout gleamed silver in that brutally reflective water, hooked and reluctantly riding the current toward me.

“Net!” I pleaded to another fishing bud, Bob, as I guided the trout in current to the bank. Bob was right there and then — just like that — the rainbow fatty was off my barbless hook and swimming freely away.

Over in a minute, what had consumed three days of my life, just like that.


No matter what, the skunk needs to go.

Fly fishing is certainly about catching trout, but maybe more about renewal, is it not? It’s about connecting with nature in a special way, a hunting way, a caring way that yanks us from our cocooned lives and into the present moment, maybe, into that geologic time where we can see more clearly that we are small, but our impact on nature is increasingly outsized, like that caldera spewing lava some 700,000 years ago, altogether changing the landscape that was.

As a mostly solo fly fisher, usually that burst of calm knowing called renewal comes from water, fish, weather, skill, lack of skill, patience, flashes of angry frustration and a rhythm removed from my urban life. My spiritual battery turns out to be blessedly rechargeable.

SIZE DOES MATTER: And this little Brown slipped through a hole in my net! (Credit: Jim Burns)

Yet on this trip, renewal came from group experience, new and old friends. Collectively, we laughed, got bored, got pissed, got frustrated, learned new things, forgot the old. We hiked in, we ate out, we wondered where in the hell the trout were, caught them on occasion, and tipped our hats to their elusive, wily nature. Everything, just right. We marveled together at the majesty of the Sierra, but I think secretly we marveled at how wonderful it is to be human in a time when honesty, generosity and compassion illuminate our best outcome, our path forward through the dark.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

What’s up with the cutty squeeze?

(Courtesy The Flyfish Journal)

Two years ago, I got pretty excited by the cover of The Drake, showing the ultimate in fish handling: this salt-water fav actually stayed totally submerged, with the fisher’s hands and rod in the background. I thought that was a model for handing catch-and-release fish, and one that made me question some of my own fish wrangling, especially when taking that all-important beauty shot.

Over the weekend, I received the latest The Flyfish Journal with the above cover. Doesn’t it look like this cutthroat trout is getting squeezed? The magazine features a bunch of excellent pictures from fishers in a photo article called “Rises,” but to promote this kind of fish handling on the cover I find questionable.

From that 2015 piece, something to ponder from Gordon M. Wickstrom, the author of “The History of Fishing for Trout with Artificial Flies in Britain and America: A Chronology of Five Hundred Years, 1496 to 2000,” who wrote about six periods in fly fishing for the Orvis News blog in 2011:

“In closing, allow me to play the prophet: I think that, in this New Period of angling, we are part of an important cultural shift toward a deeper humanity and mercy of the good Earth. We may find ourselves living quite differently, living better with less, with a greater delicacy, clarity, balance and honestly. Fishing a fly on a clear, cold stream may well serve as a working model and inspiration for what we want. It shows forth qualities — environmental, psychological, social, economic and political — that we need to incorporate into the future.”

See you on the river, Jim Burns

Wickstrom was right. We’re entering an age where understanding environment is the key to survival. Those who have a reverence for nature will have to set a template for the future. To what degree we learn the hard way remains to be seen.



The Drake shoots for ultimate catch and release cover

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Could this cover from The Drake’s winter, 2015, effort be the ultimate beauty shot? (Courtesy The Drake)

When this image confronted me through its plastic-wrap encasing in the mail, all I could do was marvel — and possibly feel a bit dismayed. Undoubtedly, this is the ultimate 21st Century hero shot, in which the angler completely disappears in favor of the fish, and, apparently, the fish never leaves the water. Conversely, it takes two to create this image : fly fisher and media wrangler. (Maybe better three, including the fish), not the “me, myself and I” team most of us fish.

Gone are steps most useful in careful catch and release: no dipping net and hands in water; no reviving the fish before release, in favor of total angler immersion.

Gordon M. Wickstrom, the author of “The History of Fishing for Trout with Artificial Flies in Britain and America: A Chronology of Five Hundred Years, 1496 to 2000,”  wrote about six periods in fly fishing for the Orvis News blog in 2011. He pegged catch and release to 1960-2008, his Trout Unlimited Period, and reminded us of “Lee Wulff’s famous 1939 statement that ‘game fish are too valuable to be caught only once’ that became the basis for the catch and release movement that took hold over the last two decades of the 20th Century.”

The Drake cover reminded me of an art history prof I took once upon a time who said that American painter Albert Bierstadt’s depiction of human beings in his later-1800s landscapes represented people dwarfed by the habitat in which they traveled and were no longer the center of the story. Epic nature took center stage.Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 10.28.18 AM

There’s much evidence that catch and release fishing tends to keep native fish populations healthy, especially in high-pressure areas. Who knows People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) might even grudgingly endorse this image. The organization is vehemently opposed to sport fishing.

It’s a sure bet that until GoPro invents an underwater camera on a selfie stick, not many of us will be repeating this beauty shot anytime soon. For most, the trophy mentality is still there and we document our hunt with a photo instead of going to the taxidermist or the dinner table with our catch. We are, after all, still fishers fishing, but there may come a time when we join the ancient Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu by fishing along a stream with just the pole and no line. That may be the next step after Tenkara removed the reel.

Jokes aside, it is impossible to fly fish without becoming acutely aware of the environment in which you ply your passion. After all, this blog began after years of wondering what the hell was happening to the Southern California no-kill areas I’d come to love. When the fish is the star — not the gear, or the outfit, or even the destination, I see hope.

Back to the resonating words of Wickstrom:

“In closing, allow me to play the prophet: I think that, in this New Period of angling, we are part of an important cultural shift toward a deeper humanity and mercy of the good Earth. We may find ourselves living quite differently, living better with less, with a greater delicacy, clarity, balance and honestly. Fishing a fly on a clear, cold stream may well serve as a working model and inspiration for what we want. It shows forth qualities — environmental, psychological, social, economic and political — that we need to incorporate into the future.”

See you on the water, Jim Burns


Earth Quotes: Garrett Fallon

The UK’s Fallon’s Angler is the sharpest magazine about fishing and writing to come out since Gray’s Sporting Journal in 1975. After all, it takes some braveness to bankroll a print magazine in this digital century. As he says, “Some of my friends think I’m two sandwiches short of a picnic to launch my own angling magazine.”

The writing includes some of the brightest young urban angling writers, including Dominic Garnett of the “Crooked Lines” blog, and Theo Pike, who published the highly regarded “Trout in Dirty Places” in 2012.

Each quarter, Garrett’s writers take readers to the intriguing and the far off, such as fishing for Atlas trout in Morocco’s mountains of the same name; or catching dorado by catamaran in Cuba. And I’m happy to say you can read my piece about carping in our river in this latest issue. It’s not available online, which makes it even more exotic. It’s worth a deep dive if you love longform journalism about fishing places you may only get to dream on. Better still, many of these stories may inspire you to actually pack up and go. Currently, mine would be to catch giant trout on Hottah Lake on the edge of Canada’s Artic Circle.

Here, an excerpt from Garrett’s 1994 musings:

     “I like to take my fishing very seriously, planning everything down to the last detail and hoping in the process to catch some fish. Yet occasionally, for reasons unknown, the fish just don’t bite, and so I am consigned to hours of fruitless labour. But during these times I have earned some of my fondest angling memories, as I find myself lapsing into a state of closeness with the environment around me. I have sat there, on the banks of the canal, watching my float and wondering why on earth it has not dipped or slid under the surface in the past hour or so, when suddenly my eyes catch something moving at my feet, and a field mouse makes its way across my shoes. Once, when I was sure there wasn’t a fish within a mile of me, the biggest tench I had ever seen cruised from the depths to browse for offerings beneath my feet.

     “The English writer Tom Fort has a theory about fishing, believing that somehow (using some super sixth sense), the fish waits for a lapse in the angler’s concentration, and in this moment of weakness, bites, removing the bait from the hook. There isn’t an angler alive who, during a fruitless session, hasn’t left his rod fishing by itself in order to empty his bladder in the local shrubbery, only to turn around and witness his (fishing) tackle sliding away into the depths, pulled by a great fish.

     “I find sinking into the background of my surroundings deeply satisfying, but you only reach this point if you’re not thinking about it. Izaak Walton ended his later versions of The Compleat Angler with the words “Study to be quiet,” and surely these resonate with all anglers? The fact he was quoting Thessalonians 4.11 shouldn’t be held against him. He successfully makes his point with all the effort of a gentle kiss blown from the lips of a milkmaid.”

See you on the river, Jim Burns

A Los Angeles River tale

As riders and their horses enjoy this idyllic January scene close to the L.A. River, others are not so fortunate. (Jim Burns)

Every once in a while, you have one of those days, days of insight, days when whatever glasses you usually wear are plucked off and replaced by the new.

And, I have to add, insight — the new — is not always wanted.

Let me explain. Friday, I finally got some time off, so I tied on a new bread fly, hoping not to get skunked. Readers of this blog have followed my fruitless progress, so far.

I was excited. I mean growing up in Chicago, I still can’t believe it when the January weather graces us with Santa Ana wind-warmed temperatures in the 80s. Plus, would you rather fish the glorious L.A. River, or be working? (That’s a rhetorical derrrrr).

Stopped at the freeway entrance on my way, I pulled out my wallet to give a couple of bucks to a homeless woman. If you live near Pasadena, you’ve probably noticed that their numbers seem to be increasing. I debated for so many years whether to give/not give that now whenever I see someone in need, I give what I can.

As I handed her the money, she launched into a rant about how the guy in front of me had given her coupons to Union Station, but she didn’t want to go, because there you had to play the “boy-girl game,” and that she wasn’t out here begging for money because it was such a good time. Anyway, engrossed in what she had to say, I missed the light. In L.A. that’s a major offense, but nobody honked. As I waited for the next green, we talked more and she explained how her friend had contracted scabies at the city-run shelter and she’d taken her to the doctor.

But it was the next part that got me: “You people,” she said accusingly, and I can’t remember what else she said, but I do recall vividly how she looked at me. Maybe you can see it in your mind’s eye.

To the homeless, I now had a moniker. “You people.” From my perspective, they were/are “you people,” so I suppose it cuts both ways. Anyway, I couldn’t shake our conversation, and it rolled around in my mind, still does.

Once parked near the river, I spend the rest of the afternoon searching for carp. Several hours elapsed without a sighting, when, suddenly, I came upon a pool of a half-dozen who spotted me almost as quickly as I saw them. Like trout, carp have excellent eyesight. Picking one up, you’d think that their eyes focus only on the bottom. Not so.

Frustrated after about 10 minutes of casting to likely spots they might have fled, I turned to the concrete bank, calling it quits. About 10 yards in front of me were clothes drying on the chain-link fence, a faded but functioning bicycle, a pair of tennis shoes, a sleeping bag covered by a makeshift tarp. I stopped. The passing water was calm, as was the setting sun, calm, even the repetition of traffic on the I-5, calm. But interiorly I hardly was, as not one, but two residents emerged from the tent, not seeing me in my sheltering thicket.

“You people.”

For a moment, I felt all sorts of emotions, from fear (Would I be attacked?), to stupidity (Why would I be attacked?), to anger (Hey, I’m just trying to fish here, gimme some space.), to empathy (It must be awful to live out here.), to aversion (How am I going to get back to my ride?).

“You people.”

Eventually, I moved quietly to another hole in the fence and climbed through, dipping my nine-foot rod.

As I walked into the park I saw:

a man walking his eager pooch

a couple riding their horses with English saddles

a student gliding on a bicycle

a teenage girl, also on horseback

a locked men’s room

a locked women’s room

my parked car


See you on the river, Jim Burns