North America's history is underlined with colorful sportsmen, men who stand above the rest in their particular expertise. The art of flyfishing is not without its man gods. In this rarefied stratosphere one man stands alone. Walton Powell internationally noted Bamboo Flyrod maker and man most feared by Trout, Salmon, Bass and every other aquatic creature who injests flies. In these times of media character assassination, Shakespear's lament " The purest treasure mortal times afford. Is a spotless reputation." perfectly describes the sum total of Walton Powells position as an American Sportsmen, innovator, Bamboo Flyrod maker and keeper of the sports artistic flame.
As an avid fishermen, hunter, free-lance writer, looking forward to fifty more wonderful years wondering around America's streams and rivers. I can count only a hand full of fly fishing opportunities more exciting then spending two days Trout fishing with Walton Powell on the equally famous Fall River in Northern California. Powell now in his early 80s and local Mountain Valley Hunting & Fishing Club Director Guide Page Miller and I, would spend two days trolling wet fly streamers, casting dry flies when possible. The Fall River is situated where Shasta and Lassen Countries intersect in upper Northern California. This area includes tributaries of the world famous Mcloud River and the Pit River drainage system nestled below Mt. Shasta, whose breath taking profile fills the skyline. This still virgin sports utopia where Bing Crosby hunted and fished for years, is known as an exclusive playground for the well heeled sportsmen. Today many famous outdoorsmen, including Clint Eastwood prowl the pristine wilderness and waterways. The reason this sports paradise is so popular with migrating ducks, geese, and native trout is the artesian fed waters. The purity of these waters create the perfect habitat for all game.
In California as in much of the western states, waterfowlers and fly fishermen are slowly running out of truly unspoiled areas to indulge their fantasy's. The last vestiges of near wild lands now exist only in upper Northern California. The drive is long from the San Francisco Bay area. The six plus hours needed to reach this little piece of heaven is perhaps the main reason its still relatively free of crowds. During holiday weekends, one might find small bands of city dwellers. In the last few years before the new millennium, avid hard-core sportsmen, who seek solitude and exciting scenery, not to mention the finest remaining fly fishing and duck hunting. Would be well advised to take the six hour scenic ride to what's left of gods country. Local duck and fly fishing guides can be reached through the Lassen or Shasta county Chambers of Commerce. Those who wish to go it alone will find the streams easy to access until winter.
A once in a lifetime moment is difficult to describe, let alone experience. I had the time for the long six hour drive from Sausalito California to the Fall River. As most anglers are aware, incredible numbers of Trout call this part of California home. On the way to Fall River, one can throw flies at the many rising rings on the Pit River drainage system or fabled Hat creek, this area is fly fishermen heaven in California. The next two days would include the pristine wilderness and emerald artesian fed waters of one of the most beautiful rivers in the state. Wildlife, especially birds, ducks, deer are in abundance. Because of El Nino, this place is rolling and stretching in all its glory! Wildflowers are big and bright, the water level is high and will remain so all summer.
Fly fisherman can enjoy either dry fly or trolling for good size wild and planted fish. The water is clear enough to see down to 25 feet in most areas. The PH balance is almost perfect, with plenty of natural food and optimum water quality, translate to many rotund Trout removed from these waters by those with the right knowledge. If a more perfect place to toss flies at wild Trout exists, it must look and smell just like the Fall River. When Page Miller Boss of the Mountain valley Hunting & Fishing Club called and asked if I had any free time to spend a few days with Walton Powell and him fishing Fall River. After picking myself off the floor, restarting my heart and reaching for my favorite fly rod - I was in heaven!
Page Miller known as the local man responsible for the annual decline in both Duck and Trout populations, has fished and hunted every inch of the area. His new hunting and fishing club sits on the Fall River in a sparsely populated area. It would be just the three of us in a 22 foot jet boat, which allowed us to move in supersonic hyperdrive from one bend to the next faster then Demi Moore can take her clothes off. I had somehow been allowed to collect good karma bonus points. Two days fly fishing with one of the most famous fly fisherman, Bamboo Fly rod maker, sportsmen in America, upon one of the prettiest rivers in the state, that's about as good as it gets.
ENTERING HIS KINGDOM
On the evening of the first day, by the time we got the boat fired and the gear stowed it was about 6:30 PM. A mosaic of refracted light patches blotted out some of the bright sunlight. Two hours of prime evening fishing lay ahead as the boat moved easily over the clear waters. Walton sat next to me sorting out his gear, not gear he bought at various tackle stores. The Fly rod, flies, leaders, all the delicate equipment was made either by Walton himself or his son Press. The Powell family beginning with Waltons famous father E.C. Powell, have been making, refining, innovating the finest Bamboo Fly rods for the last 100 years. Many famous politicians, Hollywood types, sportsmen have Powell Fly rods in their possession. The history of the Powell Fly rod dynasty reads like one of the great American success stories. Before this trip would end, a little of this fascinating history and the honor of listening to Walton Powell expound on his personal fly fishing philosophy would be indelibly imprinted on my mind.
As the cool Fall River spray brushed aside the hot Summer day, looking down at all the fine handmade Fly rods neatly ensconced in holders on the side of the jet boat, a rude flash of reality hit me. At some point in the next two days we would find enough rising Trout to stop trolling wet fly streamers and start throwing tiny hand tied flies. I suddenly felt as if batting practice at Yankee Stadium was about to begin and my coach was Mark Mcguire. A large portion of the Walton Powell legend known by friends and fellow sportsmen is the history of excellence and accuracy with which Walton and his father are famous. In 1936 Walton's brother Albert "Bud "Powell set a world record in distance fly casting in California at the San Jose Rod & Gun Club. Buddy shattered the old record of 124 feet - 10 inches, with a throw of 167 feet. (Buddy Powell was killed in a automobile accident in 1936) Beginning with Walton's famous father E.C. all the Powell clan became expert at both making and using their unique Fly rods. One can access a wealth of extremely accurate information on how to fly fish, proper casting techniques and general fishing information. In Essay's on Fly fishing by E.C. Powell first printing 1919, or in many other published works on the subject written by the Powell family. I asked Walton, what exactly did his father E.C. Powell discover that made his fly rods so famous the world over?
"That's a good question, most people I run into don't know the first thing about how bamboo fly rods are made? One day my dad who was also a bee keeper, was out checking his hives, he suddenly realized the configuration of the individual compartments of the honeycomb was the same as a bamboo fly rod! He used mother nature's own design and came up with the design for his rods. Within the essay written by Walton's father E.C. Powell' A Discourse on Trout Angling and Tackle" first published in 1919. One can find the original formula E.C developed and Walton improved on over many years.
HEART OF THE BEAST
"A fly rod must depend absolutely on the fiber of the bamboo for its casting power. To obtain the best possible results in building a fly rod, the fiber must be followed and not cut across as in bamboo rods that are made of machined sawed strips instead of split strips. One joint of a rod is generally made of six strips of bamboo. Each strip is fashioned in triangular shape, then glued with five other similar strips, mounted, wrapped, and varnished. The joint is now hexagonal, practically cylindrical, and tapers regularly from one end to the other. The joint must be exact and true in all dimensions. Each strip must, therefore, be exactly correct in size, shape and dimension. A strip cannot be cut down after gluing as this would destroy the better part of the cane. The fiber of bamboo is most dense near the outside and it becomes more pithy toward the inside. In making the strips only two sides are worked - leaving the original outside of the bamboo untouched."
Before we actually got into fighting Trout, I asked Walton to enlighten Paige and I on his expert technique for unwinding 50-60 feet of fly line in the direction of rising Trout, take us through a fly cast that is both poetic in beauty, yet functional in putting the fly in the Trouts eye sight. He referred back to his fathers treatise on fly fishing which states effectively what fly fishing experts are aware of, and what novices need to understand.
"If one masters the roll cast - almost any water can be fished, especially in places where hanging cover or other obstacles hinder an over the shoulder throw. The rod is brought up more slowly. At the time the line is well on its way to leave the water - the rod is given a sudden forward and downward movement causing the line to roll in a spiral out over the water." Walton explained, "Its all in the balance of the rod in your hand, feel the balance get used to the feel of your rod. You don't have to push your cast or punch through, when you understand how the rod itself provides the power for you, the rest of fly fishings mysteries will begin to slowly unravel."
The party was already in bit of trouble when the early morning light was not quite strong enough for my fifty year old eye's. I had managed to somehow create a ball of shiny fuzz instead of a perfect knot attaching the trolling streamer fly to Walton's hand made spider web thin tippet. "The boat pilot Paige Miller was imagining or hoping to see large schools of fish under the jet boat. He was really watching structure and grass, "OK you two ballerina's's, as soon as you get untangled throw those lines in and let out 60 to 100 feet or two colors. "Paige and I both looked at each other and laughed. I had the same feeling, I used to get in sixth grade, when the seat outside the principles office looked like the electric chair. We laughed and exchanged fishing tales until the next strike or fish on. While waiting for the first bite, I couldn't help but ask the question everyone who thinks they are fishermen or wish they could fly fish might ask Walton, what exactly is a fly rod? "Not many people thoroughly understand fly rods. A fly rod is a machine that converts power applied by leverage into spring power. The first and primary purpose of the machine is to propel a line on which is attached a leader and a fly to a spot in a manner that the caster wants."
While the Mallards sliced through the Fall River skyline, Mt. Shasta snow capped stood guard over this serene still wild paradise. I realized as did my friend and faithful guide Paige Miller, we would soon have the honor and terror of Walton Powells undivided attention as we struggled to pretend we knew the secret to the air ballet, properly throwing and presenting a fly exactly where we wanted?
THREADING THE NEEDLE
Those not savvy to the watchmaker like mentality necessary to understand and master the art of fly fishing, cannot appreciate the moment. After spending years on many of America's finest Trout Streams, from Hat Creek to Yosemite. I had become a journeyman in the sport, or so I imagined... I never took any lesson's.
I can usually throw fine tapered lines up to 30-40 feet with varying degree's of accuracy. Its not the prettiest sight as my line unfurls, but I generally catch fish, always have. During the two days we would spend on the river, two prevailing conditions were at hand. The wind would pick up enough by late morning to cause a favorable ripple effect which turns on the Trout bite. During these times of consistent rippling the river gave us plenty of action. When the jet boat came to bends in the river -either going into a bend or coming out, the water might become calm and smooth like glass.
I was on constant look out for multiple rising rings. The variety of conditions were perfect for letting Powell's overall fly fishing, life living philosophy unravel like the meandering Fall River we cruised for two days. Walton provided an accurate explanation of the ripple effect on the Trout bite." Not sure if its the camouflaging or its the movement of water, seems like whenever we catch fish on this river its trolling through ripples, the bigger the better, Of course you two genius's 'know all about that right? You boys notice how much easier it is to take Trout with dry flies when the wind is up and they can't see you, especially in shallow water, like areas near the natural springs. Those high flow spring currents are deadly hangouts for fat over fed trout, Just get back far as you can throw into the head of the flow and take up slack quick or you might miss a strike, biggest mistake I've seen is people missing strikes because they can't get the concept of no slack- feel the attack."
During the nine hours of fishing that second day, we had plenty of time to listen to many of Waltons best memories fooling Trout from one state to the next. We saw as many birds and small animals that day as one could imagine. Everything from the occasional beaver to grazing deer everywhere, a tranquil paradise it is. I asked Walton what his latest plans were, "Got more irons in the fire then Clinton's got excuses, I been putting together my last series of fly rods commemorating 75 years in the business. There will be 75 rods in the series, called the Walton Powell Anniversary Rod. "I asked him if the family had enough fine Bamboo to last a while. He smiled," We got a ware house filled with some of the finest Tonkin cane, its the best for the Bamboo Fly rod, very uniform natural construction."
We fished in water any where from ten to twenty-five feet deep, trolling hand tied Muddler Minnows with silver or Olive Leeches wet trolling flies. Three rods all Powell trolling rods with three colors of seven weight line, nine foot leaders with six foot thin tippets. this kind of trolling requires absolute concentration. The leaders were assembled by Walton as was everything else. During the first hour it became evident the slightest lapse of concentration would result in Walton and our trusty guide Paige staring at me as if to say "we saw the strike, saw your rod tip jump, but you San Francisco Angler missed again! "On three or four occasions, I missed setting the hook, our education in the fine art of fooling Trout would be swift and sure. Walton quickly hooked and played several good Trout. One in particular went 18 inches and weighed three pounds. Walton had reduced this precise form of fly fishing, into several absolute steps. When the lines were let out to about one hundred feet, drags were set to the right release strength, then the tip is moved back and forth just a few inches. The strikes are fast and hard, no second chance.
If you move the rod tip too much, you loose the tension needed to set the hook, its the perfect way to allow even beginners to catch Trout. The down side is the possibility of having to wait as long as several hours between periods of excitement and hooked fish. Every fishermen knows the drill, sometimes hours or days can creep by without a bite let alone a fish! Then look out, every time you cast, a bite or a landed fish. The big mystery of when and how this fresh water drama will begin, is why the sport continues to hold the fascination of angler dreamers all over the world. This trip would have both classic periods many times. By the end of the first afternoons fishing, we had not yet had to display our fly casting techniques, caught a few nice fish and listened to Walton Powell reminisce about flyfishing with Jimmy and Rosalind Carter.
to be continued on page 2.
© Dan Fallon 1998