Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Sea Bass in France

The season for fly fishing was closed in France so the thought of catching any European fish had been blocked from my mind. Still, when I am around my good friend, Eric Bacon, there is no lack of discussion on the topic of fly fishing.  Eric had invited us to stay at his house in Andernos Les-Bains, just outside of Bordeaux, France, should we ever visit. 

Eric did not hold back when it came to hospitality. My family and I were half a world away, but felt right at home. When people visit France they say the best food is in Paris; however, I would have to say that it was right there in Eric’s kitchen. A lavish dinner party that included Eric’s best fly fishing friends was organized the week we were there, and the camaraderie was as rich as the food.

The kitchen table boomed with laughter as we all sat around Eric’s computer looking at his fly fishing adventures in France. A pictures flashed by with Eric standing in a trout stream, surrounded by beautiful leafy trees with an ancient brick footrace towering over the landscape in the background. I yearned to place myself into the photograph alongside Eric, surrounded by the majestic scenery.
“Ok, I have something to tell you...” Eric Bacon said over the laughter, while looking at me.
“I did not want to tell you this before, due to the fact that it is possible it could not happen.” Eric continued. “I have been keeping track of the swells in the ocean and if they are small enough then we can go fishing for sea bass. And look at this...” On Eric’s phone there is a graph showing very low waves in the ocean. “This means, if you want, we can go fishing in my boat for sea bass. HOWEVER, it will not be fly fishing, and we have to be up in the morning at five a.m.”

To think I would be so pretentious not to take up the opportunity to fish simply because it was not fly fishing is asinine. I am first an angler, and secondly a fly angler, so it was no surprise to Eric when I said yes without hesitation.

Also heading out with us to fish was Eric’s biologist friend Oliver and his wife Marie,

Violaine, Eric’s girlfriend,

and, of course, me and Eric.

Eric’s boat rocketed through the smaller swells, and the bumpy ride took me back to my childhood boating days. We stopped at a spot where Eric had luck fishing before, and he handed me a heavy, ocean-ready fishing pole.
“Okay, I have a few rules when fishing on my boat.” Eric said, attaching a blue and white plastic baitfish to my pole.
“First, only one person casts at a time, and second, every time you make a cast you do it like this.” Eric put his finger securely on the fishing line and flipped the open faced reel to release line.
“Every cast you look behind and watch your lure as you cast, this way we know for sure we will not hook anyone in the boat.”  Waaaaah! Eric sent the plastic fish soaring from the boat. The white bate fish seemed to be floating in the air as it got smaller and smaller then splashed out of sight.
Eric gave me a small tutorial on different retrieves I could try to incite a fish.

The stiff pole was nothing like a fly rod. You would think I had never fished in my life with the way I was working this pole; and here I thought spin fishing was supposed to be easy.  Off to my right I watched as practiced hands retrieved a lure like a conductor to the Boston Pops to entice fish. I tried to mimic his rhythms, but was far from harmonious. 
“There’s one!” Oliver said in English, setting the hook and bringing in the first sea bass of the day. 

Oliver’s sea bass was over the size limit to keep, and keep it we did.
“Have you ever had sea bass?” Oliver asked me.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“It is a very good fish to eat, as long as it is cooked perfectly.  Lucky for us, Eric knows how to cook.”
“He does huh?” I said looking over at Eric who was smiling at the compliment.
“J’ai attrapé un poisson!” Said Violaine holding her pole high with a fish connected at the end of her line. I don’t speak French, but I do know the word "fish" in a few languages. Eric was at Violaine’s side in a flash while Marie handed him the net.

Violaine brought in two fish that there connected to her line; one was a keeper and the other we let go. Oliver was into another fish, but judging by the fight it was not going to be a keeper.
“Oh, I got a needle fish.” He said with a laugh.
I looked over to see it squirming so fast it looked like a silver snake at the end of the hook.
Oliver went to unhook his fish, but it had done it itself. The needle fish hit the armrest of the boat before it splashed back into the water, leaving behind a rainbow of small metallic scales.

Eric rushed over with a wet rag and started scrubbing off the scales, almost working up a sweat in the process.
“The scales from that fish will stick to the boat if you let them dry. They would be almost impossible to take off if you don’t get them right away.” Oliver explained, as Eric started putting serious muscle behind each scrub. Even now the little scales were hanging on, but after a while none were left behind.
“There's one!” I yelled, but inside I was thinking, it’s about damn time I caught a fish.
Eric rushed to my side with the net ready, but then put it back after he caught sight of how small my fish was.

“That is a different kind of sea bass.” Eric said, “It is a smaller variety of sea bass, and this one is actually one of the bigger ones.”
“So does that mean we are going to keep it?” I joked.
“No! This would only be one bite.” Eric said back with a laugh.
I brought the little fish closer to me to unhook it, and wondered how I was going to manage this with three hooks in this fish’s mouth, all with barbs.
“Do you need help my friend?” Eric asked, laughing. I had placed my fish back into the water many times to let it breath, before bringing it back up again in another feeble attempt to remove the hooks.
Oliver spoke to Eric in French then they both looked at me and started laughing.
“I asked Eric if this is how you catch so many hooking one and throwing it back in several times.” Oliver said with a large smile.
To an experienced spin fisherman I must have looked like a toddler working this clunky ocean rod and, even worse, trying to unhook this minuscule fish. It was hard to stop laughing at my own expense, and Oliver wasted no time hooking into another sizable sea bass in the time it took me to release my fish.

Catching had slowed down for everyone on the boat, and it was at this time when Eric’s other bass-fishing friend caught up with us on his boat. The typical French greeting was exchanged, and after I was introduced the language turned to English. It was nice to be included in the conversations, even though they were not talking to me. It was easy for me to figure out that if I was to live in France, these people would easily be my friends.

I was able to catch one of the last fish of the day, but it was still not a keeper.  After throwing it back I was almost rocked off my feet by a big wave.  Oliver yelled to Eric in French, and Eric ran to the captain's seat and fired up the boat. 
“Hold on my friend!” Eric yelled. 
As soon as the boat was on it roared to life with a punch of the throttle. Thank goodness I was holding on!
“THE WAVES ARE GETTING TOO BIG, THIS ONE IS A VERY BIG WAVE AND WE HAVE TO MOVE!” Oliver yelled to me over the roaring of the engine and the wind caused by our sudden acceleration.  We had just crested the big wave as Eric steered the boat head on into the wave. It was at this time when I realized how big this wave was. I looked down as we skirted the top of it, and it looked to be several boat lengths down. However this was not Eric’s first big wave. Quick maneuvering had us almost surfing the wave before we splashed down on the other side of it. Salty water soaked my face, and I gave a "WHOO!" with excitement. 
Eric looked back at me, and saw I was smiling. “Yes, it is fun, but it is safer to get off the water.” 
I didn't disagree.

In no time we were back to steadier waters, which also meant deeper waters. We were fishing a shallow shelf which made the waves much bigger suddenly, Oliver explained. It was nearing the end of our fishing day, so it was also a good time to leave. As we docked the boat I thought it has almost been twelve hours since I have eaten a French macaron, and I was definitely due for a few more. And what a great treat to have after a day of fishing for sea bass in France.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Little Brook Trout

It wasn’t long before Mason was propped on my back again on the trailhead to Upper Hazard Lake near McCall, ID. I heard it was the place to catch brook trout, and I've wanted to photograph more brookies for the passed three years. With Upper Hazard lake being an easy hike while toting a kid, off we went to prospect for trout.

We had struck gold on the hike up; that’s if you count berries as gold, and we certainly do.  The grouse whortleberry was in full harvest mode and plentiful. The little berry is roughly the size of a BB and hard to pluck off the plant rather than just smash it still attached. Still, as we hiked Gracy would stop and pick twenty or so berries at a time to feed Mason, who devoured them quickly with not so much as a thank you. When the small handfuls were gone, Mase would buck his legs lightly, kicking my side muttering little "mmmm, mmmm" sounds. We took that as his way of telling us he  wanted more.

Picking those little berries takes time, a lot of time, but it made the hike up fun for Mason. I took the little guy off my back after we had reached our destination, and gave him the best view of the lake as I rigged up to fish.

Gracy took Mason out of the pack to discover, once again, that he was quite the explorer. The first thing he did was run towards the lake to get in it, but Gracy was there to lead him the other way. Kiwi followed Mason closely. Not out of love, but waiting for the opportunity to pick up an inevitably dropped lunch item.

Both Gracy and Mason were enjoying some time around the lake, as I set off to fish.

Finding a spot to cast around a mountain lake can be a challenge in itself. I figured with brook trout in the lake I better tie on a smaller fly to start. The little green beetle is my go-to fly for such an occasion. The fly hit the surface of the water and out of the depths shot three little torpedo awards. A tiny mouth engulfed my fly, and a little hook-set did the trick. As the little fish fought to get away I realized I hadn’t even set my camera for underwater shots. A little slack in my line was all the fish needed to spit my fly, and off it swam as I set up my camera.

With as many fish that came up to hit my fly on the first cast, I wasn’t worried if I was going to catch another one. I fired my fly out onto the water and, of course, nothing took. I searched left and right with not so much as a hint of a fish. Where did they go? I asked myself sending my fly out again. Slam!
A hit!
This time I was ready for pictures. I took my camera out and flicked it on. The fish was going crazy as I held it out at arms length, but I still took some shots.

I easily took over one hundred shots of fish before realizing the shutter speed was still a little too fast, and my pictures were coming out dark.

A slight adjustment corrected the problem, and this time I could easily see the fish on the small monitor of the camera.

Taking pictures of fish can be a real pain. First off they don’t like to stay still, therefore 80% of the photos end up blurry or with only a quarter of the fish in the shot. However, when a shot does turn out, to me it is worth the effort.

With over a thousand shot taken, I had confidence that at least one would turn out, and there was still plenty of time left in the day.  On the hike around the lake I ran into a multitude of huckleberry bushes that were ready for picking. I knew Mason would love them, so I did something I never thought I would do. I stopped fishing.

I found both Mom and Mason not far from where I had stopped. They were on their way to come and see me when they too had discovered the huckleberries.
“Hey!” I said happily, not expecting to see them this far around the lake.
“This kid.” Gracy said, playfully.
“He won’t stop eating huckleberries. Look what happens when there are no more.”
I watched Mason happily plucked the last berry from his mom's hand and pop it into his mouth.

Almost immediately after he had stuck the berry in his mouth, Mason was looking for another one. He grabbed his mom’s hand and lifted it up to to check if there were any huckleberries underneath it. Upon discovering there were none he dropped her hand and started to shake his fist at her while making the "Mmmm, Mmmmm, Mmmmm" sound.  Gracy started picking more, but it wasn’t fast enough for Mase. He started to hyperventilate with anticipation, shaking his hand at his mom all the while.
“Jiminy Christmas!” I said, picking a huckleberry and handing it to my kid. Before this moment he had yet to recognized my existence, but with a berry in my hand I became someone of importance.

“Okay, man, come over here. We are going to catch a fish together.” I said, and brought Mason over to the bank. I held up my fly rod and Mason grabbed the cork with his huckleberry stained fingers.

With the lightest flick, Mason and I prepared a roll cast to send the little green beetle out into the lake. I was surprised that he had the patience to watch as I gave the beetle a little twitch, and had to make another cast. Still his little eyes were fixed on the fly, and finally a fish hit.
“There it is, man!” I said, and together we reeled in his fish.

Mason was happy to see the fish and went to touch it, but the little brook trout flopped itself off the hook. It landed in the tall grass near Mason’s feet, and by the time I got my fingers under its body it had to go back into the water. A little flick of my hand shot the fish into the water, and we all watched as it flicked its tail once, twice, and after a third flick it was gone. Mason struggled to get into the lake after the fish, but Gracy held him tight. The walk back to the car seemed long due to Mason's need for more berries. But I am happy to report that we made it all the way home without any berry “blowouts” from Mason in his car seat. Instead he waited until the next morning after breakfast. What a purple mess.

Friday, January 26, 2018

A Nice Calm Windy Day

“Hey man, check that out!” I said to Mason, perched on my back like a Jedi Master. “What is that?” I asked enthusiastically.
Although I couldn’t see Mason, I could hear him shifting around behind me in search of what I was pointing out. Finally his shifting around stopped, and he muttered a sound that sounded something like "daaa!" His arm was stretched out in the direction of the butterfly that bobbled by through the air. His excitement to see it made me smile; I am always amazed at Mason’s enthusiasm to be in the great outdoors.

The three mile hike kept Mason’s attention the entire time. I would point out and explain flowers, trees, bugs, and birds to keep the hike more interesting for him; however, in the end, I was relieved to set him down in the shade next to his mom and gear up for fishing.

Mason was eating a cookie when I set off around the lake to find a fishable location. Where I had left Gracy and Mason the wind was blowing in my face, and off in the distance it looked like I could have the wind at my back, so off I tracked.

I carefully stepped through some slushy grass, picking my steps on the dry ground toward the bank, when a gust of wind blew me off balance.
“What the hell?” I said. I had just walked all this way to find the wind still blowing directly at me? Of course, the way the water was rippling it looked as though where I had just come from was nice and calm. It was annoying, but I stuck to my spot. I held my fly in my hand and waited between gusts of wind to roll my fly out into the lake. The fly slapped down and was quickly being blown back to the shore. I gave my fly a quick twitch before recasting.
The sudden take caught me a little off guard. I had way too much slack in my line due to the wind blowing it back towards me, but I can set a hook with slack in it like a Jedi Master. BAM! A solid connection. The fish started taking line from my reel, and I saw a quick flash before it started its run. It is a rare treat to have a nice sized fish take your fly at a mountain lake, and now my reel was screaming. For a second I started to doubt my hook set, but after a fierce take and a strong fight, it was over. I drug the fish in quickly, and snapped a picture as it sat on the lake bed, resting before taking off.

Getting into a nice fish so early in the game can mean two things: 1) fishing is going be a great today, or 2) I have just used up all my luck on this one fish. Sadly it was the latter.

All around the lake I could see fish rising in the distance. Also all around the lake the wind was gusting in my face no matter where I was. Most lakes have sweet spots so I always make it a point to cover the entire lake if it’s possible. I did get a nice hit as I fished the last quarter of the lake, and when I didn’t connect with the fish my frustration echoed across the lake.
“Hey!” Gracy yelled to me as my fishing came close to an end.
“Hey!” I yelled back.
“You'd better get over here and look at your son!”
“What did you do to him?”
“Nothing, he did it all to himself!”
“Oh geez...” I said to myself, and reeled in my line and tromped back to see Mason.

“What the hell? Where is he?” I said, looking down at this creature covered in dirt.
“He has been having fun.” Gracy said back to me.
“I would say...”
“You should have seen him earlier, I had to keep him from jumping in the lake.”
“Are you serious, man, jumping in the lake?” I asked Mason, who just smiled in reply.

“Well we better get him into some clean clothes before heading back.” I said.
“These are the only clothes he has.” Gracy said. 
“Oh no!” 
“What are we going to do with you man?!” I said, “Now we have to throw you in the lake!" 

I am not a big advocate of wading in mountain lakes, but lucky for us we had some stable lake bed right at our feet. Gracy took Mason and dipped him in the lake. He immediately started kicking his feet like he would in swimming lessons to help propel himself forward. 

Gracy did her best to get all the dirt off of him, but as dirty as he was, the bulk of it was setting around his eyes, mouth, and ears, making him look like a miniature Fester Adams.

Finally he was stripped of his clothes and cleaned up enough to be recognizable again. Gracy lathered him up with sunscreen as his pants and shirt laid on top of our packs to dry before putting them back on. No sooner than Mason was clean and had his new diaper on he bolted to jump back into the lake. Gracy grabbed him and planted his butt in the backpack for our journey home.

“Are you going to put away your fly rod?” Gracy asked as we walked away from the lake.
“No, there is a small stream that I saw fish swimming in. I want to check it out.”
“Okay, but we can't fish it for long.”
“I know that!” I snapped back, and received back a well deserved look of reproach.

Sure enough after my first cast a baby cutthroat trout grabbed my fly. All I had to do was gently lift the fly rod and the little fish was caught. It was at that moment when I realized how perfect the sun was for an underwater shot.
“Can you get my camera out of the pack?” I asked Gracy, who replied with another look...
“It'll be quick...” I whined, and she pulled out the camera from my pack.
I had already left the fish go, and quickly caught another one for a shot.

Fish after fish were being caught, and I took a look at the previous shots to see that a few had turned out great. With a few great pictures already on the camera, I decided it was time to stop.

With everything packed back up, we started on our hike. Mason sure enjoyed the last bit of fishing, making all kinds of noises when he got to see the fish up close.  His clothes dried up as he napped during the warm hike. And wouldn’t you know it, not a single gust of wind to cool us down on the entire walk home.