Thursday, September 16, 2021
Thursday, September 16, 2021
I’m sitting in my living room reading an archived Sports Illustrated story on my iphone (google “he’s got a very fishy look si”). Though written in 1979, it tells of a time when something resembling an iphone wasn’t even the stuff of Star Trek reruns . . . because the series wouldn’t appear for another five years. The story features a former intelligence officer who used to sit at the bottom of the Madison River, breathing through a length of shower hose, watching insects and trout.
That man was Charles Brooks.
I never saw this story when it was originally published. I was in ninth grade, and my trout fishing was limited to one weekend each year when my father would take me to Loon Lake in the British Columbia interior to troll flatfish and worms for pan-friers. But one trip I saw a fly-fisher, and knew someday that’s what I would be.
Ten years later I was a high school teacher suddenly able to afford my own fly tackle. I lived in a little town in eastern British Columbia, only a few hours drive from Calgary, Alberta, which I later discovered was the spiritual center of western Canadian fly fishing. I was lucky enough to have relatives there, and would visit a few times each month. Soon I was spending every other Saturday hanging out at Country Pleasures, the iconic Calgary fly shop.
A little shop with big character, “the Pleasures” featured paintings of tarpon and trout, many by the late Jack Cowin. A rack of Sage and Orvis rods sat just over there—mostly too expensive for my meagre salary. And in the middle of the store, beneath well-stocked bins of hand-tied flies, was the book case. Here I discovered Gierach and Gingrich, Schwiebert and Swisher, and a fellow west coaster named Roderick Haig-Brown. Maclean was there too, along with one of anglit’s newest heroes, a fellow named Duncan. Oh and McGuane. There was always McGuane. One of the proprietors was named Jim McLennan, and he turned out to be that Jim McLennan. Despite the misgivings of one of his co-owners, a crusty fellow convinced that only a dry fly was fishing, Jim introduced me to nymph fishing and the works of Charles E. Brooks.
On McLennan’s recommendation I bought Nymph Fishing for Larger Trout, and read it cover-to-cover. Right there on page 4 was where I first read the shower hose story:
“In 1961,” Brooks wrote, “I felt I might learn more about nymphs, both real and artificial, if I went down under the water. I had a face mask; I rigged a tube from an old shower hose, hitched up my jeans, and went down for a look.”
Brooks relates how he noticed that a drifting artificial fly would “turn and roll over and over.” The real bugs didn’t. Brooks noted that “almost always, only the back of a natural nymph would be visible [to a feeding trout] as they drifted along a few inches above the bottom.”
These careful observations led him to create the Brooks series of nymphs, stonefly patterns tied “’in the round’, unflattened , and without different back and belly colors.” No mater how much these flies tumbled and spun, they looked the same to the trout. Brooks claimed that flies worked better that way, and I believed him.
The Brooks Method
Nymph Fishing for Larger Trout covers all of the great nymphing strategies. Within its pages you’ll find Skues, Hewitt and Sawyer, and the Leisenring Lift. But the method that really grabbed me was the one that shares the author’s name. The Brooks Method was “Danger Close” fly fishing in fast, heavy water. Put the sneak on a trouty looking spot, and high stick a full sinking line with a short leader through the currents, feeling for the take, and taking care not to lose your footing.
Though I tried this method, I never really took to it. The gear wasn’t versatile enough. Where I fished in southern Alberta, a day on the stream might require several tackle changes: deep nymphs in the morning; dry flies midday; an indicator nymph on a big deep flat after lunch; and streamers in the evening. I already carried way to much stuff in my vest to add another reel outfitted with a full-sinking line. So I learned the high-stick floating line technique from Jim McLennan, and later realized that it was much like the Brooks Method minus the full-sink line. It took a long time, but eventually I discovered the black magic that allowed me to randomly lift the rod and pull big trout off the bottom.
In the Round
I’ve always been a rather hasty tyer. Fly tying was a means to an end rather than anything I might actually enjoy. Those quaint visions of winter evenings spent sipping scotch in my tying parlour were always lost on me. But once I adopted Brooks’s tying strategy I actually became interested, because my efforts were met with almost immediate success on the water. It turned out that Brooks was right: flies really did work better when tied in the round.
One of the biggest brown trout of my life took my rough tie of a Brooks Stonefly nymph in a rocky, wild piece of water along a grassy bank on the Bow River south of Calgary. The fly was moving along at a good pace, and the trout must have snapped it out of the drift beside the rock I was covering, because the line suddenly jumped upstream. Once it realized it was hooked, the big fish eased its way into the current and headed downstream, with me splashing along behind it. I eventually netted it, and its tail stuck out so far beyond the frame that I realized I needed something bigger if this whole nymph fishing for larger trout thing was going to become a habit.
The Thompson Stone
I don’t know if Charles Brooks ever fished steelhead, and at the time I was studying his methods I had no idea that Nymph Fishing for Larger Trout would eventually take me to the banks of British Columbia’s Thompson River and to a strain of wild steelhead that would come to define my fly fishing life.
On the Thompson it was tough not to notice the abundant golden stonefly shucks that adorn most every rock. I’m not sure of the genus of these bugs—my friend and noted aquatic entomologist Rick Haefle could probably give them one look and let me know, but it’s fun just to think of them as golden stones, and so I do.
Coming to steelheading from a trout fishing background, I began to wonder if steelhead would take a golden stone imitation. But the problem with Thompson steelhead is that they are—or sadly were, as the river is now closed to angling—notoriously difficult to catch on a fly. So fishing a pattern for a day, or two, or even three or more might not tell you anything about whether or not these fish would take it. It wasn’t until about seven years into my time on the Thompson that I had a four-fish morning in the same run, finally convincing me that Thompson steelhead liked golden stonefly imitations a lot. And that fly was my Thompson Stone, which owed pretty much everything to the thinking of Charles Brooks.
The Thompson Stone didn’t start out tied in the round. In fact, the first versions were tied on the Partridge Bartleet Supreme Atlantic salmon hooks. When I dropped the original in the currents and watched it drift past, as I held the leader to mimic the effects of a tight line wet fly swing, I noticed it tended to fish either sideways or tipped upside down. It rarely fished as I imagined it would, upright and looking natural. At the time I was experimenting with tube flies, and I wondered if a Thompson Stone tied on a tube might be a solution. Perhaps if I used a heavier hook it might keep the fly oriented as I intended. So I did . . . and had the same problem.
I recalled something about tying in the round as a solution to this turn and tumble of a traditional tie, and so I simplified the pattern and tied it as Brooks might. In the currents the fly now looked the same from every angle, and I stopped worrying about how it was fishing and started actually fishing it.
My presentation owed something to Brooks as well, fishing a sunk fly on a tight line, feeling for the take. Because the Thompson Stone was tied with wire it wanted to sink, so I let it. Then when the line tightened the fly would rise in the currents. Steelhead took the fly most often during the back half of the drift, as the fly rose and then drifted along just under the surface. Years later I learned that none other than the venerable Harry Lemire was fishing a nymph-style fly in a similar fashion as a solution to situations where steelhead were tough to seduce.
The Thompson Stone is an impressionistic tie that looks a little bit like a stonefly and a little bit like a caddis pupa, and enough of each that steelhead seem to find it irresistible no matter where I find them. It’s one of my top steelhead producers, and one of only four steelhead flies you’ll regularly find in my vest.
Nymph fishing for larger fish, whether 20-inchers on a blue-ribbon stream or 20-pounders on a steelhead river, has become the focus of my moving water angling. And even on lakes, where I chase big rainbows spring and fall, I’m adapting the skills Brooks taught and the in-the-round tying method that gives me confidence in my flies during those long fishless days.
Becoming a good nymph fisher is harder than it looks, but you’ll know you have it when you set for no apparent reason and are rewarded with the pulse of life on the line. It’s a long drift from the bottom of the Madison to just subsurface on BC’s greatest steelhead river, but Charles Brooks pushed me off and pointed the way. Seek him out. There’s much to discover while fishing a Brooks Stonefly on a tight line.