Sunday, July 31, 2011

Who's Great?

Scoutmaster Tbone
This entry is a little off topic, but one that it is very important to me.  It’s about our Boy Scout Troop.  I’ve been a Boy Scout Leader for over 15 years and have accomplished just about all of the goals I set for myself.  I’ve received various awards and accolades as a scout leader but those are absolutely meaningless if it were not for the boys.  The Scouting program “is all about the boys” not the number of square knots I wear on my uniform.  Oh wait…enough about me, this entry is about the boys.

For the last 10 or 11 years I’ve been associated with Pack 438 and subsequently Troop 438.  Pack 438 has been around for about 40 years while Troop 438 was started just seven years ago when my oldest crossed over from Cub Scouts into Boy Scouts.  I spent six years as Cubmaster and I’m in my fifth year as Scoutmaster.  During that tenure there is a simple cheer we have…someone yells, “WHO’S GREAT!?” and everyone replies “438!”
I’ve noticed that as the boys get older that cheer is done less and less.  That’s ok.  Boys Scouts is boy led and they should do their own cheer.  However, our recent scout camp experience brought back the “Who’s Great!?” with a vengeance.

We attended our local council camp this year.  I like this camp because they have lots of fun contests our scouts can enter.  They also award a spirit stick to the troop that exemplifies true scout spirit each day and at the end of the week, one troop is selected as the winner of the spirit stick and gets to take it home.

My Assistant Scoutmaster, Fishy the Clown
Camp started out ok this year, but I guess my expectations were a little high since we had a fair number of older scouts attending.  Of course we also had a fair number of first year scouts and that always presents us Scoutmasters with lots of challenges.  For one, I’m a stickler for a clean camp.  We get inspected daily and our cleanliness scores have a bearing on who wins the daily spirit stick.  It was obvious with all our new scouts, many had never held a broom, let alone sweep…and I’m guessing most had never cleaned a toilet either.
Early on, our scouts didn’t seem too enthused about getting involved.  All I could do was prod them.  Remember that Boys Scouts are boy led and while I’m happy to give ideas and my opinion, I can’t do it for them.  I got tired of pushing them…because anyone with a teenager knows you can only push so far.  The trick is to push, then back off.

Then there was the homesick scout.  I’m no therapist, so it is very exhausting trying to figure out how to deal with a homesick scout.  So, by the third day of scout camp I had enough and announced to our troop that I was “done”.  This was not some reverse psychology ploy…I was literally done.  I told them it’s their camp, it's their troop.  I was there to make sure they followed the scout law and the buddy system and otherwise I didn’t care what they did.  Instead I hung my hammock and took a nap.
Amazingly my scouts decided that they would get off their collective duffs and get some things done.  They lashed together a gateway (needed to get a perfect camp score), they entered the Huck Fin race, the slushy chuggin’ contest, the flop from the dock, the photo scavenger hunt, and the tomahawk race.  In fact, they not only entered, they did their best and it showed.

Blue Man Scouts
I had a first year scout win the slushy contest…maybe not the best scout skill, but it may serve him well in college.  Three of our scouts built a raft using a footlocker and came in second in the Huck Fin race. A group of our scouts entered the photo scavenger hunt and needed a picture of a clown.  They also needed a picture of someone fishing. They convinced one of my assistant leaders to paint his face and grab his fishing rod.  Their effort paid off as they won the contest.  Once of my scouts also put his own pain aside as he won the flop from the dock...a belly flop contest where the redder your stomach and chest, the better chance you have in winning.
Then, without me saying a word eight of our scouts put together a team for the tomahawk race.  This is a scout skill based relay race.  Each team has to build a tomahawk and the participants must carry it from station to station.  I should have known we were destined for greatness by the size of the tomahawk the boys made…it was huge!  They did pretty well…not only did they finish first, they set a record for fastest time the entire summer.

Then there were the scouts that did the intangible stuff, like my Senior Patrol Leader dressing in a blue man suit to go to a campfire ceremony, or the scout that at assembly walked up and took a call…it was Lucifer he said…and he wanted his weather back.  We had boys do a great job with a flag raising one morning and we had scouts volunteer in the dining hall.  These things earned us the spirit stick for the day and I was proud.
At the closing campfire, when it came time for roll call of which troops where there, our scouts yelled, “WHO’s GREAT…438!”  I was stunned but also thrilled that they revived this cheer.  Several troops started making fun of it.  I sat and watched our scouts intently.  They took the high road.

Then the awards were handed out and it seemed that every other one announced was won by our troop or one of the boys in our troop.  It was amazing to see these guys, some I’ve known since they were in first grade, hoot and holler after each award we received.  In addition to the events listed above, we did enough to earn Honor Troop and then it came down to the last award for the week…they coveted spirit stick.
There were two other troops I thought had been outstanding all week.  Certainly my scouts had already earned more than anyone thought they would.  Excitement was high…there was a drum roll…there was lots of discussion by the spirit committee.

“And the winner of the spirit stick is…Troop….438!”
I screamed at the top of my lungs, “WHO’S GREAT!?”
Record Setting Tomahawk Relay Team

The boys responded, “TROOP 438!”
It was amazing…those scouts acted as if they had just won the Super Bowl, and maybe they had.  They accomplished this, and they did it without me pushing them every step of the way.  That was a better feeling than any award I’ve ever received.

And as we left the arena I heard a scout from another troop say, “Hey…I guess they are great.”  Yes there are…all of my scouts are great and I am thankful for getting to be a small part of their lives.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Summer Heat and Late Day Thunderstorms

Summer heat and late day thunderstorms often play havoc with my favorite outdoor activities. On an evening earmarked for mountain biking, a late day thunder boomer shut down my local single track. Once the storm had passed, the coolness of air begged me outside. I was still in need of some sort of outdoor fix to release tension of the day. I turned to my other outdoor passion, grabbed my five weight and headed to a local pond.
When I arrived, the pond was alive with activity.  Dragon flies buzzed and hovered, small bugs skirted across the water, turtles grabbed a breath, then headed back under the water.  As I watched, I noticed dimple after dimple…rise forms…caused by what I surmised were big bream. “A hatch,” I giddily said to myself. Something was definitely happening…there were some pushes from what looked like really big bream…probably bluegill or as the big ones are called “bull gills.”
I grabbed a flybox and looked through it.  I had to find a match for the hatch. There were some winged ants on the water and I guessed that’s what the fish were taking.  Several casts proved me wrong. I went with a small black and brown popper to match the small dragon flies I noticed, but again no takers. I was getting anxious…this was not a good way to relieve my stress.  I HAD to figure out what these fish were taking.
I decided that these fish were indeed feeding on the small dragon flies, but using some of my trout stream tactics when fish won’t take the dry fly version, I went with the “emerger” pattern. I figured that these fish were feeding on the bug as it was “hatching”. So I tied on a small black and brown wooly bugger and cast to a rise. I put the first cast right in the middle of the rings left from the rise. My line tightened immediately, but I wasn’t quick enough on the set. I casted at another rise and this time my timing was perfect. The rod bowed under the weight and for a moment I thought I was “under gunned.” Big bluegills fight well for their size…there’s an old adage among fly fishers that says, “if bluegills (or shell crackers, long ear, red breast or any other sunfish species, we often refer to as bream) got any bigger, I wouldn’t fish for anything else.”
After a few minutes I had the fish in hand…well not really…he was much bigger than my hand, nearly dinner plate size!  For the next hour I continued casting to rise forms and whacking the heck out of huge bluegills and shell cracker sunfish.  Now when I say big, I don’t mean “hand size.” I mean rod bending, drag pulling big ‘ole bream that use their dorsal fin spines, not as protection, but as a weapon! I couldn’t get my hand around most of these fish. On average they weighed a pound and a half, and a few were even bigger!
I don’t know how many of these fish I caught…I didn’t bother counting. I don’t know how long it lasted…I didn’t bother with my watch or cell phone. I just fly fished and it was just as rewarding as any trout stream or salt water flat I had ever fished. As the hatch ended and the dimples disappeared, I thought I had experienced fly fishing nirvana. I was wrong…nirvana was yet to come.
While the stress of the day had long left my muscles and mind, I was in fly fishing predator mode and was ready to catch more fish. As I pondered what to try now that fish had stopped rising, I realized that not a single largemouth bass found my fly…not even a small one. Something told me that the bass in the pond were ready to eat, now that the bream had left the buffet.
By now, the sun had set and darkness was making its way to the pond.  This is magic time for sportsmen. I tied on a stealth bomber…a surface bass bug I learned to tie earlier this year.  It has proven to be quite effective…this night proved no different.  I started working the fly along edges, near structure and even in the middle of the pond. Bass were apparently cruising.  Bass were apparently hungry.
The strikes ranged from subtle slurps to thrashing gulps. These were healthy largemouth bass…nice color and the iconic football shape.  While none of these fish put my biggest bass record in danger or fight quite as hard as their buddies that live in my revered Eno River, they did like to jump and pulled hard. I easily caught over a dozen in this thirty minute twilight period, the biggest going four pounds.
Then it was done. It was dark. I was thirsty. I headed home where my wonderful wife had kept back some dinner for me, which is no easy task with three teenage boys in the house.  Equally wonderful was the magic elixir of malted grains that accompanied my late dinner, a great way to end the day. And while I probably didn’t burn as many calories as I may have shredding single track, it was good to be blessed with such a great fly fishing evening.
And that’s the point of this story…I feel blessed every time I’m lucky enough to catch a fish on the fly. I don’t even need pictures to prove it. Fly fishing is always exciting, whether it’s bass and bream from a local pond or bones and big permit from an exotic flat. I don’t bad mouth any fish I catch on the fly, it’s bad karma.  Maybe that’s why I’ve been on a roll this year. As long as I get to fly fish, it will always be a great year fishing, but so far this year has also been a great year catching.
I hope it continues especially when I head off to one of my favorite fly fishing trips of the year when I get to combine biking on the New River trail with fly fishing for river smallies!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Having Fun with Will Baker and the Sticky Wickets

Here's just a short video from our last Bean & Barrel gig.  We will be playing there again next Saturday, July 16th.  That's me wailin' on the harp...more music, fly fishing and mountain biking stories to come!

A Trip of a Lifetime?

I dreamt of an exotic fly-fishing trip all my life. I woke early wondering if this would be the day I realized that dream. I was fully rested, not weary from travel. The accommodations of my lodging provided a restful nights sleep. As I opened my eyes on the dawn of this new day, the aroma of fresh brewed coffee filled the air. I was greeted with a cup in my room. Over a hearty breakfast my partner and I planned our day…I would ready the gear while my partner took care of the rest.
The species of fish I was targeting had just about all the qualities you would ever want in a sporting fish on the fly. It’s beautifully colored, more striking than a spawning brookie; eager to take a fly both, surface and sub-surface, often with aggressive strikes much like a peacock bass; on the hook, this fish fights as if it is three times its size, exhibiting tenacity like a smallmouth bass; don’t forget spines that can inflict painful injuries if not handled correctly; and in clear water, they can exhibit similar spookiness of the most wile trout.
While not a cold water species, this fish does best in rocky, cool, flowing streams that often have the look of a beautiful trout stream found in our very own North Carolina Mountains. Yet this environ is not too hospitable to say the least. The very water where we seek this aquatic adversary is guarded by some formidable creatures that we humans must respect. I was educated prior to embarking for the water how to avoid things like the Ixodes and the Trombicula. These dangerous creatures are not to be taken lightly. The Trombicula can inflict extreme pain for an animal its size, while the Ixodes’ bite in rare circumstances can be fatal.

If these two animals were not bad enough, the vegetation leading to the water is as thick as any on earth. Rubus and Smilax, both armed with thorns can leave clothing in tatters. In fact, a small trip of the feet and a painful Rubus thorn found its way underneath by thumbnail. When I tried to extract the curved thorn, the pain was so intense I knew that I would need to seek help. So I simply bandaged it and went on…it was on my non-casting hand, thank goodness. In addition to these plants we mustn’t forget the Toxicodendron that emits an oily substance that can cause severe contact dermatitis in some folks. And last…there are the fly eating thickets along some of the stream banks where large riparian trees gave up their life.
There was another consideration in traveling to the water, the indigenous people. While they were not hostile…they were curious and almost smart alecky as I passed them on my way to the stream with the long-rod in hand. One of the local elders, even stopped me and as I understood him, tried to convince me that there were no fish to be caught and so I would fail in my endeavor. Undaunted, I continued onward and soon reached the rocky stream, with only a brief encounter with an Ixodes.
The water was clear and low, and occasionally I saw a fish scurry for cover as I approached the waters’ edge. I watched intently for signs of feeding fish. I clutched my fly rod firmly as I scanned the water. Soon, I saw a significant rise in an area that simply looked fishy. I pulled some line from the rod, crouched behind a rock and readied myself for a cast.
It was important, I learned, to match the tackle to the quarry. I had exactly what I needed, so I thought. As I gazed across this large, rocky pool I noticed a flash. I made a cast and “wham!” the line came taught and the rod bowed. After a short fight I had my first fish of this trip in hand…a strange character to say the least, heavy scales…bronze in color, with strange protrusions on a bluish head. Later I was informed that this fish, known locally as a “bluehead” was considered a “trash” fish by many sporting anglers, but there was at least one legend from the locals describing a horned fish king.  So perhaps it was not a trash fish at all. It did take a fly after all and put up a good fight.
After catching and releasing a couple more of this funny looking fish, I moved upstream to another nice pool. I examined the pool intently as I stayed motionless behind a tree. The pool was nearly perfect. Water plunged into the head of the pool then formed an eddy behind a sizable rock. Thanks to the low water, I could see many cracks and crevices made by submerged rocks.  Right along the current seam the water deepened forming a nice little drop-off, an edge, where surely I could hook the fish I traveled here to catch.
I watched intently to see if anything was feeding.  I heard a small plop and looked up to see a strange greenish black bug that haplessly fell from an overhanging tree. Struggling it gently drifted into the pool. I saw something slowly move up from the drop-off…pause and then take the bug.
Excitedly I rummaged through my fly box and found something that was about the same size, shape and color. Nervously I tied it on to my leader hoping to remember to tie the knot correctly.  I took a deep breath, checked the knot and made a false cast to the side to gage the distance.  I shifted slightly, felt the backcast load and delivered the fly right into an overhanging branch.  Under my breath I cussed a few times, but didn’t panic.  I slowly pulled the slack line and the fly dropped into the water right where I needed it to drift into the strike zone.
As the fly drifted to the seam, I saw a fish move up the water column, hang briefly, and viciously attack my bug!  I set the hook but there was really no need to…the fish had hooked itself and the fight was on!  The fish turned itself sideways and headed for the drop-off…I managed to turn its head only to have the fish take off in a different direction. Before I could react, the fish was under a log and I could almost hear my leader starting to break from the abrasions.
Undaunted I stuck the rod butt into my belly and put some side pressure on the fish.  Fortunately, these fish are not leader shy and you can go fairly heavy tippet.  I managed to get the fish out from under the log and the fish was growing tired, but he had one more little run.  I had wished I had brought heavier gear but matching your gear to this quarry makes for terrific sport.
As I landed the fish I was amazed at its beauty.  It had fairly heavy scales, colored dark iridescent green with fins that were tipped in a reddish hue. The brilliant reddish orange belly was really indescribable…a gorgeous fish by anyone standards, and a bigger than average sized one to boot.  Carefully, I handled the fish remembering that its spines could be painful should they puncture my hand. Using my forceps I removed the hook and released the fish back into the water.  I managed to repeat this scenario throughout the day.
That evening as I enjoyed a cold draft of a local brew, I reminisced about the day. It was a satisfying trip, worthy of the preparation.  I will always remember this day…they day I brought my first Lepomis auritus to hand.
A Trip of a Lifetime, Redux
Hopefully you realized that this story was about waking up at home recently one Saturday morning. My wife greeted me with a cup of freshly brewed coffee and asked what I was planning to do with my morning. I told her I was going to hike down to the Eno to catch some red breast sunfish.  On the way I ran into a neighbor who thought I was nuts…“Fly fishing the Eno?” he asked, “That’s a waste of time.”  I ignored him as I fought my way through the chiggers, ticks and brambles. Despite those little obstacles, I had a blast catching chubs and sunfish on my 3-weight. Back home that afternoon, a cold beer, brewed locally certainly tasted good as I cheered on my favorite collegiate football team.  And there lies the moral of the story…I’ve been lucky enough to go on some grand fly fishing trips…bonefish, tarpon, albies, stripers, and big wild trout to name a few, but none have been grander than my short jaunts to the Eno.  Remember it’s not just the big trips that make fishing trips grand, it’s the fly fishing itself that is grand.