Looking forward to spring? 'Strike Out' with fly-fishing

Catch-and-release game something to anticipate as snow deepens and wind howls

Posted: Sunday, March 04, 2007

"That's strike three - my turn!" Lynzey Culver, 13, yelled at her little sister. They weren't playing baseball. Lynzey was excited about a different kind of strike.

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Misha, 11, handed over the fly rod and stomped her foot a couple of times, grumbling something about sneaky fish.

Dim as they may seem during the snow and mist of early March, the days are getting longer and the time until fishing season is getting shorter.

And my daughters have already been straightening out the tackle box in anticipation of the year's first game of "Strike Out."

It's a catch-and-release contest we like to play with Dolly Varden. The game was invented by fishing guides in the mid-80s at Clearwater House, a lodge and instructional school on Hat Creek in Northern California. Here's how it works:

Everyone draws a number to determine the order of fishing. The first person gets to choose the starting location along the stream.

The objective of the game is to snag a fish on an unbarbed hook and land it before getting three missed strikes. After a player lands a fish or strikes out, it's time for the next angler to step up.

Lynzey, Misha, and I have added a twist. In our version, the spectator is not only a cheerleader, but also the fish handler and releaser. This keeps everyone involved.

We've played Strike Out along Montana Creek. Dolly Varden are abundant in the creek once chum salmon begin to spawn, usually by the middle of July.

We also drift salmon fry patterns or single egg patterns for feisty dollies throughout the Canyon region and Community Garden areas.

Last season, the last time we had a chance to play, the girls were really into it.

Having struck out, Misha stepped aside while I gave Lynzey a bit of instruction. We hastily stripped line from the screaming reel and prepared to cast.

Gently turning her shoulders, Lynzey rolled out a delicate cast that landed slightly up and across stream. Misha huddled next to her, and they watched patiently as the poly yarn indicator caught the current and began to drift slowly through the glide.

It didn't take long before the little red-and-yellow tuff dipped quietly and then vanished.

"Now!" yelled Misha yelled as I pumped my fist.

There was a sudden flash of silver in the stream and a quick downward pulse of Lynzey's fly rod.

"Got 'im!" hollered Lynzey, her face covered with a smile that seemed to touch her ears.

Without warning, the metallic-looking dolly got airborne, leaping twice, leaving both Lynzey and her sister speechless as it tried to toss the fly.

With each leap, however, Lynzey skillfully lowered her rod. After several bursts to deeper water, the 18-inch prize was carefully maneuvered to the creekbank.

Without instruction, Misha quickly hopped over the rocks and through the riffle like a Water Ouzel before embracing the Dolly Varden.

She gently removed the barbless fly from the corner of its mouth.

"She's a real beauty, Lynzey!" Misha hooted. Lynzey was literally shaking with excitement.

Misha cradled the fish with both hands, holding it carefully into the flow of the current. She paused briefly to admire it one last time.

"This is the part I like the best," she said. "I love to release them. And then I love to watch them swim away - back to their homes."

After a round of high fives, Lynzey proudly handed the rod back to her sister.

Over the past decade, the art of fly-fishing has become recognized as the fastest growing segment of recreational sport fishing.

It appeals to men and women of all ages. More recently, through the contribution of industry organizations such as Discover Fly

Fishing, the sport is also experiencing an increase in popularity among families and youth groups.

As an industry professional myself, I believe there's more behind its popularity than just going out and reeling in fish.

True, fly fishing may be one of the most effective methods of harvesting a quality meal from one of our local watersheds here in Southeast Alaska. But it also offers more than just a fish on the grill.

To borrow a quote from Roderick Haig Brown: "Many times catching fish is the least important part of fly-fishing."

Having fly fished for well over 40 years, I must admit that I am only now beginning to fully understand and appreciate that profound yet simple statement.

On one end of the spectrum, fly fishing offers a calming of mind, a form of relaxed concentration and focus. It's an opportunity to enjoy and observe our local wildlife or a chance to take pleasure in hiking along a stream lined with spruce, hemlock and tangled devils club.

On the other hand, fly fishing is a constant challenge: to become a better angler, a more technically proficient caster or a more innovative fly tier.

It's an art and a sport and, in my family's case, a game that brings us together.

Does it seem like fishing season will never arrive? Don't worry. It will. And so will the dollies.

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