Fly fishing might be labeled the quiet sport, thought it’s anything but when you’re looking for enough footage to populate a half-hour fly fishing show.
To get that footage, you might find yourself climbing up on a rock in the middle of a flood-stage river, casting into a tiny gap in the trees, then throwing a weighted streamer back over your shoulder.
At least, you would if you’re uber-fly fisherbum Frank Smethurst:
Crazy Uber-fly fisherbum Frank Smethurst doing what it takes on the McCloud (kids, don’t try this at home)
At times I’m reminded why I’m much happier writing about fly fishing than shooting video of it. Writing leaves you in complete control of the story (history, after all, is defined by those who write it), and writers are famously good at forgetting the embarrassing details.
Video leaves you at the mercy of the universe, your own shortcomings, and makes little allowance for conditions bent on handing your own ass to you on a platter.
Welcome to the Flood. Now Here’s Your Ass.
I invested last Saturday getting pounded by the McCloud’s record-high flows with Frank Smethurst and a Barrett Productions video crew, shooting an episode of Trout Unlimited’s “On The Rise” TV show.
How’d you like one of these looking over your shoulder? Smethurst did, but I didn’t…
Nobody with a firm grip on reality would hammer out a quality fly fishing show on a river running high enough to flood the footpaths running alongside, but Smethurst and the video crew were on a mission.
TU’s On The Rise is unique in that it prizes fly fishing footage, but also highlights hot-button conservation issues.
Smethurst travels the country in a trout-painted Airstream trailer (which they left at home, damnit), and this time, he was looking into the threats to the McCloud River (perhaps the best-loved river of the assembled Undergrounders – and one of the prettiest).
That’s why the effette, low-modulus, dry-fly fishing me found myself standing on the banks of the fast-moving, Nature Conservancy section of the McCloud (running at historic highs due to a broken PG&E powerhouse), 9′ 6wt Orvis Zero-G graphite fly rod in hand.
Attached was a streamer that weighed approximately the same as a Trident nuclear missile sub, which in all likelihood was more dangerous to the man casting it than it was to the trout (note to Undergrounders: when depth-charge streamers are involved, wear a hat, and fish something with a warranty.)
This, my friends, was not going to be pleasant.
Welcome to the World of Video. Now Here’s Your Ass.
Complicating matters was the presence of a two videographers and a sound man; people whose express purpose in life was to tape every embarrassing move, bad cast, odd utterance and trout I farmed.
While waiting for me to screw up (and tape it), the crew shot the pretty stuff.
Well, OK. Maybe that wasn’t what they said they were doing, but it’s clearly what they were trying to accomplish.
They also foolishly believed I’d be able to talk intelligently about Nestle issues while I fished, when instead I mostly was focused on not soiling myself on camera.
Expectations, it seems, are rarely our friends.
Clearly – with Smethurst capable of busting out a couple good trout even under awful conditions – they were looking to the Underground for something else, like… comic relief.
Welcome to the McCloud. Now here’s Your Ass.
Ultimately, Smethurst – a fly fisherman with more than two decades of guiding experience – pounded up good half-dozen nice trout and few smaller ones using techniques I’m willing to classify as “manly.”
Meanwhile, your hero acquitted his comic relief role beautifully; at our first stop, I got one ponderous wiggle from a nice fish on the streamer, didn’t hook up, and got halfway through the big fish temper tantrum before remembering the camera.
Later, I had another “feelgood” on the streamer, but figured I had the world by the tail when we found a couple rising fish.
This, my friends, was the kind of fishing I’m supposed to be good at; a hand-to-fin confrontation with the wily trout at the intersection of our native habitats.
Welcome to Rising Trout. Now Here’s Your Ass.
In one sense, I set the stage for my own humbling; we were headed for a spot I thought would fish well at high flows, but found another angler already fishing it. Turns out he was an Underground reader (therefore, his sanity is suspect), and he rather urbanely left when he saw us coming.
There my Underground friends, we found fish actually working a foam line, and while Smethurst went headhunting with the big stuff, I watched a big trout roll on (but not actually take) my first cast with an October Caddis.
My confidence swelled. I was going to catch nice trout while somebody recorded it for the rest of the world to see.
I stepped closer to the edge….
Welcome to Greek Tragedy. Now Here’s Your Ass.
Anyone with a working knowledge of Greek drama knows what’s coming; hubris is always rewarded with disaster (thus concluding today’s highbrow literary reference).
First, I lost my footing and narrowly avoided a swim.
Then I missed two grabs on the October Caddis.
Then switched to a small parachute (closer to the bug they were really eating).
Then missed four of those. Then hooked a small trout… briefly.
Then hooked another small trout… briefly.
Suddenly, soiling myself on camera was looking a lot better, and probably wouldn’t have been as damaging to my reputation.
Ultimately – while Smethurst landed a handful more nice trout on the big, heavily weighted October Caddis nymph – I banked exactly one ten-inch trout, an act which only made me feel like the dullard cousin at the family reunion.
No way that tiny McCloud rainbow trout makes the show.
I did, however, distinguish myself nicely as the day’s netman; apparently, netting an already-hooked fish is more within my skill horizon.
So Mom, break out the VCR – I think I’m going to be on TV.
Welcome to Television, Nestle. Now Here’s Your Ass.
Comedy aside, the conditions sucked and the crew was really cool (thought apparently underpaid to the point they were foraging in the blackberry bushes for food), and yes, I did get a kick out of the chance to talk about the McCloud River, Nestle, and some of the other water-related issues facing my area.
After all, within an hour’s drive of our meeting point, I’m looking at three significant trout-and-water-related problems (McCloud/Nestle; Klamath/Pacificorp; Shasta Dam/Westlands).
Still, the always-gorgeous McCloud River and Nestle were the main topics of conversation, and it’s nice to know both will get the recognition they so richly deserve come next June or July, though for entirely different reasons.
Fall color on the McCloud kept the crew busier than the fishing.
Welcome to On The Rise.
My first review of the On The Rise TV show was lukewarm; it felt stiff and unnatural, and yes, my expectations for the conservation angle were probably unrealistic.
Still, it was promising enough that I taped the whole season. Sure enough, as the season progressed, the shows got better, with Smethurst relaxing and enjoying the fishing.
The episode on the Gunnisson was pure fun on a stick; watching Smethurst laugh his way through an electro-shocking survey might be one of the better moments in fly fishing broadcast history.
I don’t know what the next season holds for On the Rise, but I give Trout Unlimited (still the other, less-famous TU) credit for mixing in a conservation angle.
That’s why – when Smethurst asked me exactly what the Trout Underground really was, I told him it was originally just one writer’s perspective on fly fishing – but that it had morphed into something bigger pretty quickly.
And yes, I did say it was time for fly fishermen to step it up a little on the conservation front, and that the Internet offered far more opportunities for that than did a magazine or even a fly fishing TV show, quick action being impossible with the latter two.
Welcome to the McCloud… Well, Wait...
My recent encounter with the McCloud suggests it’s not very much fun, and that despite fishing the few hand-picked spots I thought would offer the best chance.
Until the flows drop, I’d stay the hell away from the McCloud – something Smethurst heard me repeat several times. I was dying to put those guys on the Upper Sac October Caddis hatch, if only because you could actually stand in the river.
Then again, the Upper Sacramento’s been pretty crowded the last couple weeks, and though I’ve busted out a couple of big evenings there lately, it’s possible I’d have spent the day letting video nerves drive a way-too-fast, way-too-soon hookset – and without the existence of a handy excuse (say, raging flood waters).
See you on TV, Tom Chandler.
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