The Legend Lives
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Written by Ernie Schwiebert   

By Ernie Schwiebert
Introduction by David Klausmeyer

It's not every day that you get to publish the work of a fly-fishing legend. And Ernie Schwiebert is legendary.

In the 1950s, Schwiebert coined the phrase “matching the hatch,” and used it as the title for his first book. Matching the Hatch (1955) not only enriched the angling vocabulary, but also ushered in the era of carefully applying entomology to fly fishing. Schwiebert forever changed the way we view our sport, the way we fish, and the flies we tie.

No fishing library is complete without Schwiebert’s two-volume set, Trout (1978). How do I begin to describe this monumental treatise? At more than 1,800 pages, Trout touches on everything related to catching these remarkable fish: history, lore, biology, tackle, and flies.

The bibliography alone runs for more than 30 pages. Never, in one place, has so much been said about catching trout with a fly, and never has it been done with such wit and charm.

Schwiebert traveled the globe in search of good fishing and good fishing stories. In his collections of tales Remembrances of River Past (1972), Death of a Riverkeeper (1980), and A River for Christmas (1989)— he shares some of his favorite fishing experiences about Montana, Patagonia, New Zealand, Norway, Iceland, and beyond. But these are more than just fishing stories. When reading Schwiebert, you can taste the good food, smell the fresh air, and hear the voices of the ghillies and his companions. 

Perhaps, in a small way, Ernie Schwiebert ushered in another era in fly fishing: the age of the modern angler-poet. His writing and storytelling are that good. The only difference is that where some of today’s authors catch their first trout and seem to have the need to tell us all about it, Ernie was a bona fide fly fisherman who could draw on several decades’ worth of experience. (We are especially proud of the fact that he was one of this magazine’s first contributors in the 1970s.)

Before he passed away in 2005, Ernie wrote and illustrated a new edition of his groundbreaking book, Nymphs. This two-volume set, which is being published by Lyons Press, is filled with recollections from his innumerable days on the water. Many of the characters from the 1973 edition reappear in this one, but often in much more detailed and remarkable stories that describe Schwiebert’s philosophy of fishing and living, and serve as mini-histories in the development of fly fishing through the latter 20th century. The following excerpt is a tale of the author's attemt to catch a big brown trout on a dare from a Colorodo hotel bartender. The story is vintage Schwiebert.

Look for Nymphs this summer in your local fly shop or favorite bookstore. Or, CLICK HERE TO BUY NOW!

JAMES POOR WAS AN EXPERT FISHERMAN
Poor operated the principal fly-fishing shop in the Denver metropolitan region some twenty-odd years ago, and was also a famous Colorado fly maker. His durable commercial patterns included a generic stonefly nymph dressed with lengths of lead fuse wire seated on both sides of the hook shank with working thread and cement to form slightly flattened bodies. Poor dressed his short tails of coastal deer hair, and used the same material to shape a well-humped pair of wing cases with legs of soft grizzly saddle barbules wound through the thorax. These nymphs were dressed in three sizes, and when I asked the veteran fly maker about the naturals he had imitated, Poor confessed that he did not know.

But he had caught enough fish on such imitations in the narrow defile of the South Platte near Deckers, in the early season, and in other watersheds of the Front Range like the Big Thompson, Saint Vrain, and Cache la Poudre to know that these nymphs were important in these watersheds of Colorado.

Some of their popular success was attributed to their lead fuse wire, which fished these nymphs deeper than conventionally dressed patterns, but in size 10 with a 3X long shank they were a workable imitation of Taeniopteryx occidentalis. And dressed in sizes 4 and 8, with hook shanks 3X long, they imitated the Pteronarcys princeps nymphs plentiful in the South Platte.

My imitation is adapted from those early stonefly patterns tied and sold in Poor’s little shop at Littleton, between the center of Denver and the Deckers Canyon water on the South Platte, which still offers fishing despite its proximity to more than a million people. Such western tailwaters are open to fishing throughout the year, which has introduced Colorado anglers to midwinter hatches they never encountered before because the trout season was always closed. Anglers familiar with the tailwaters below Grand Lake, on such private ranches as Sheriff’s and Chimney Rock, have fished Pteronarcys imitations throughout the winter with great success. Other popular tailwater fisheries in Colorado include the Eleven Mile Canyon on the South Platte, the Blue near Breckinridge, the famous Frying Pan at Basalt, the pretty Taylor above Gunnison, the Gunnison itself below the Black Canyon near Delta, the San Miguel below Telluride, and the sagebrush and piñon reaches of the Dolores near Cortez. Edison Engle knows these southwestern rivers, including the Rio de las Animas Perdidas, which once surrendered the record Colorado brown trout at Durango. Most fishermen simply call it the Animas, unaware of its Spanish heritage, andof the venerable meaning of its historic colonial name.

“We’re lost souls all right,” Poor once observed. “And that’s what the full name of the Animas means—but the Dolores was once the Rio de Nuestra Madre de los Dolores, and all the fishing widows around here believe Our Lady of the Sorrows has got the fishing around Cortez and Durango about right.”

Poor and I had a memorable encounter with these large Pteronarcys nymphs. We were on the headwaters of the South Platte near Hartsel, on the McDannald Ranch in southeastern corner of South Park, when Poor introduced me to his weighted stonefly nymphs, and I happily added a dozen to my sheepskin fly book. The flies were flat-bodied and heavily weighted, and I bounced one in my palm, a bit surprised at its heft.

Our party included Martin Bovey, Michael Owen, Peter Van Gytenbeek, Leigh Perkins, Philip Wright, Donald Zahner, and Charles Meyers, the popular new fishing columnist for The Denver Post—a group providing plenty of good talk and colorful storytelling on that spring weekend. Such men would all become much better known in fly-fishing circles in the years to come. There was fresh snow on the Mosquito Range, which shelters the Pleistocene bottoms of South Park, between the old mining camp at Fairplay and Trout Creek Pass, and they were still storing water at Antero. The impoundment at Spinney still lay in the future. Morning sun glittered on the immense riffled length of the Eleven Mile impoundment downstream, although spring storms obscured the snowfields at the summit of Pike's Peak.

I had fished Eleven Mile in the years that I was involved with design and construction of the United States Air Force Academy, and had first crossed South Park with my parents, bound for a family-owned ranch near Malta. But on this visit to Hartsel, I had just been a speaker at a banquet held by Trout Unlimited at the venerable Brown Palace Hotel in Denver, and Bovey was retiring as its second national president. Owen had succeeded Bovey, with TU headquarters moving to Denver, and Van Gytenbeek would lead TU in the future. Wright still lived in Aspen, where he owned the Aspen Country Store, and was a national director of TU. He would later pull up stakes for Montana and start his Compleat Angler on the Big Hole at Wise River. Perkins had recently purchased the C. F. Orvis company of Vermont from Clark “Duckie” Corkran and his financial partner, Bert Akrell. Zahner still lived in Saint Louis, laying out a fledgling magazine called Fly Fisherman on the kitchen table, although he would subsequently move its operations to Vermont. Myers still writes for The Denver Post, but largely about skiing and ski resorts and exotic travel. The venerable railroad hotel at Hartsel is still there.

Wright and I fished together the first morning, where the little South Platte winds through cordgrass bottoms toward Eleven Mile. There was a migration of spawning rainbows from Eleven Mile that spring. Good fish were holding in the shallow riffles between pools, and many were already shaping their redds. We saw a few Baetisflies emerging, from time to time, but the big rainbows had largely ignored them.

Some winter stoneflies were also hatching, but I saw only a single splashy rise, as a large rainbow attempted to capture one of the fluttering adults. Clearly the fish were seeing good numbers of nymphs because several took our flies with a surprising aggressiveness. The pattern that proved most effective was Poor’s generic stonefly nymph, dressed in a size 10 with a 3X long shank. We caught and released a dozen handsome rainbows between fifteen and twenty inches. It was a good morning’s work, and we were satisfied as we broke for lunch.

Several others had experienced good fishing too, and we were not the only anglers late for lunch, according to the cook’s schedule. But somebody suggested the little hotel at Hartsel, and we were off in a small three-car caravan, trailing rooster tails of chalky talcum, until we reached the main gate. The highway led straight west through the immense hay fields and meadows, along the roadbed of the abandoned Colorado & Midland. Its old right-of-way led toward the only settlement in the middle of South Park.

I wondered about what the country must have been like when free trappers like Ceran Saint-Vrain, Christopher Carson, and William Bent first explored the lushness of its grassy Eden. Elk, buffalo, and antelope had shared the unfenced riches, and their plenty sustained a population of grizzlies and wolves. The immense alpine basin was once a volcanic caldera, before its fumaroles and fissures were drowned in the postglacial melt of its vast Pleistocene shallows, but there were echoes of volcanism.

Hartsel is sheltered from its unceasing winds in a cluster of theatrical batholiths and outcroppings that rise from the emptiness of the South Park, and high winds are not uncommon in its treeless amphitheater. Scattered ponderosas were also found in such sheltered places. The South Platte wound through a narrow S-shaped defile in these curious formations. The forgotten roadbed of the Colorado & Midland Railroad, which once reached almost straight across the South Park toward Trout Creek Pass, maintained a water stop and small train-crew hotel at Hartsel. Its service connected Colorado Springs with Buena Vista, before climbing north toward the rich silver strikes at Leadville and Aspen.

James Hagerman was a man who had bold dreams for the unpretentious water stop on the South Platte, where he had located a small hotel to feed his passengers and to house his train crews and maintenance workers. Hagerman envisioned a great gingerbread hotel beside the hot springs, with a glorious view back toward Pike’s Peak. But when the railroad ceased its operations shortly after the First World War, Hagerman’s dream of a major hot springs resort died too, and his little hotel at Hartsel was shuttered and closed. It later became a house of ill repute for the cowpunchers of the South Park.

It is still the only saloon for more than fifty miles in any direction, and the proprietor was more than willing to make us lunch in the middle of the afternoon. Nobody planned to fish until evening. One of the patrons at the hotel bar, an old cowboy, became quite curious about us out-of-towners, and that eventually set off the bartender.

“You boys been fishing?” the cowboy asked.
“We’re fishing the Cap McDannald Ranch,” Wright said. “Had a pretty good morning.”
“You boys famous or something?”
“What makes you think so?
“Well, ain’t many folks get to fish the McDannald,” the veteran cowboy said. “So you boys must be famous.”
“Not really,” Wright said.
“Well, since you boys are such big-time fishermen,” the bartender chimed in, “why don’t you catch the big trout in the bend at the highway bridge?”
“Got a big fish there?” Wright asked.
“Pretty big,” he said.

I was not part of the exchange, as I sat quietly nursing a beer, but Zahner and Wright volunteered me. They badgered me for shaking my head and refusing the bartender’s challenge. It was a bright afternoon with no wind, and any fish facing the current was probably looking directly into its increasing glare. I had just eaten lunch, with two bottles of beer and an enormous serving of fried potatoes, and was contemplating a nap. But the talk soon became a clamor, and there was no backing down.

Zahner later described the challenge in the anthology Anglish Spoken Here, which recounts the events that followed with hyperbole and poetic brio. The crowd that followed me to the bridge was described as a hundred onlookers, when there were only five or six. I rigged my tackle with the caveat that no one had ever caught a big trout in a chalk stream like the upper South Platte under such unlikely conditions. Zahner pictured the trout as a seven-pounder in this outrageous tale, which added a literary thumb to the scale, and he reported that the fish was rising. He added another fairy tale about dressing an imitation while lying in the grass beside the bend where the brute had staked its claim. The only truth in his account was the fact that I stalked the fish on my knees before I was in casting range, but the fly was one of Poor’s big nymphs.

I knew there could be only one cast, in the smooth currents of that glassy bend, where the tangled jam of bleached logs filled the emerald depths of the bend. The whole thing seemed like a snipe hunt. Who knew if the big trout actually existed? Arnold Gingrich once observed that the best fishing is always found in books and saloons, and such stories were three-o’clock-in-the-morning myths.

But I tested the length of the cast over the grassy promontory, keeping the traveling line well away from the pool, and moved into casting position. The primary current eddied deep into the logs, and there were no more credible excuses.

The audience stood watching at the bridge, about a hundred feet upstream, but there was a large sagebrush hillock behind them so they were not silhouetted against the afternoon sky.

I studied the pool a bit more, and decided to end the entire charade. The weighted nymph would arrive with a noticeable plop, and I decided to place it upstream, mending as it settled into a patient drift along the logs.

The tactics worked and the nymph dropped on target. I rolled two or three subtle mends, watching the tip of the line, as the drift worked into the shelving throat of the pool. It seemed obvious that a trophy trout might have the entire bend to itself, and would hold and feed there. Nothing yet. I was worried that the fly might hang up on some shadowy snag, and when the line bellied tight, I was sure the worst had happened. The nymph seemed like it was fouled in the deadfall, and there was a sense of being hopelessly hung up, until the unseen snag appeared to move upstream.

“Snagged?” somebody yelled.
“I don’t think so,” I shouted back over my shoulder. “I’m into something, and it feels pretty strong.”
“The big brown?”
“Can’t tell yet.”

The fish inexplicably moved farther upstream, away from its threatening deadfalls, and its struggles near the shelving throat of the pool erupted in a heavy splash. I had my first glimpse of the fish. It was a brown trout and it was large.

“You’re not going to believe this,” I yelled over my shoulder, “but I’m into the fish!” “You’re joking,” Meyers shouted. “No, I’m not.”

The crowd on the bridge erupted like a platoon on liberty. They swarmed down from the highway, and came whooping and yelling over the fence. Zahner tore his good twill trousers. The fish soon surrendered much of its initial strength in mindless splashings above the pool, and when it finally attempted to reach its sanctuary under the logs, I was able to check its efforts. It had sensed the arrival of an audience, and seemed to get a second wind that spelled trouble. I waved the crowd off, and stayed on my knees, hoping to wear the fish down before it finally saw me. Patient lateral pressure held the big trout away from the drowned tree, and I finally worked it back into open water, where it bulldogged deep and shook its head. But its wild strength was nearly spent.

I slipped carefully into the smooth tail shallows, and unhooked the net lanyard from the collar ring behind my neck. I wetted the net meshes until they popped and blossomed. Meyers was taking pictures now, but the fish surrendered after one more half-hearted run, and it slipped into the meshes of the net. Its head was pinioned deep in the crown of the landing net, and its spotted tail waved with fatigue, well above the wooden net frame.

“Get a tape measure and a scale!” Zahner yelled out.
“Hold him up for posterity,” Meyers said, taking our portrait. “What do you think he’ll measure?”
“Twenty-three inches,” I said, a guess.
“Look at his girth,” Wright said, leaning over my shoulder. “Should go five or six pounds.”

The tape measure confirmed our estimates. We weighed both net and fish without taking it from the meshes, and then I lowered the big trout gently in the quiet shallows, facing its head into the current. Its eyes were still rolled down, well away from the light, and its big gill covers were working steadily. Zahner weighed the net without the fish, and confirmed its weight at slightly better than five pounds. Its strength was returning, with no trace of unsteadiness, and it finally bolted off with an impressive splash.

“Great story,” Meyers said, rewinding the film. “What were the odds on pulling this gambit off?”
“Pretty thin,” I said.

Both black and bitter-chocolate imitations may prove necessary in the imitation of the Pteronarcella nymphs, depending on their palette of color in a particular stream. My longtime friend Randall Kaufmann, of Oregon, dresses a simple and effective Pteronarcella imitation in both colors that he has christened the Simulator. I have preferred a more specific dressing through the years.

The western species called Calineuria californica is handsome and important, and measures as much as 38 millimeters in length. Its large nymphs are the most common and abundant of their kind in the rivers of the Pacific Northwest, and their zoogeography also includes most of the Rocky Mountains. These stoneflies may commence hatching in late April, in the coastal streams of northern California. Hatches occur sporadically until midsummer, but most are found toward the last weeks of June.

 
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