Friday, July 17, 2015

Boys on the River: Imitators and Attractors

The first ten miles of our trip went quickly. Once their paddles hit the water, the six teenage boys on our Paddle the Namekagon canoe trip didn’t want to stop. Looping around wide, lazy corners. Bouncing through short sections of mild rapids. Getting the hang of steering…and learning how to duck, or how to extricate the boat from tree branches when the steering didn’t work. My co-leader (a National Park Service Intern) and I gave them paddling tips, encouragement, and a lunch break, but mostly we just hung back and let them be boys on a river.

Arrival at the campsite meant learning how to set up new tents, laying out sleeping bags, and then an eagerly anticipated swim.

With the boys cooled off and tired out (for a few minutes anyway), our guest instructor came in. John Kudlas is a long-time outdoorsman and Museum volunteer. As a retired high school biology teacher, he is a wealth of knowledge and skills. Soon the boys were off on a scavenger hunt, looking for aquatic plants, identifying forest trees, and even collecting macroinvertebrates – the insects that spend at least part of their lives in the river.

With practiced efficiency, and his usual humor, John made sure the boys knew how important those invertebrates are. Both the aquatic nymph stages and the flighted adults of things like stoneflies and mayflies are water quality indicators, as well as good fish food. At the mention of fish, I saw the boys perk up their ears. As a surprise treat, John whipped out fish hooks, homemade hook vises, spools of thread, feathers, and fur, and soon the aspiring anglers were creating artificial flies for fly fishing.

This was delicate work, and the boys’ concentration was palpable. I noticed the tip of at least one tongue bitten in concentration. The long, brown nymphs each pair soon created were “imitators,” or artificial flies that seek to deceive fish by being a lifelike imitation of their insect prey. The boys were in good company. Humans have been creating imitators since at least 200 AD, and the term “artificial fly” was made popular by Izaak Walton’s 1653 book, “The Compleat Angler.”

By the mid to late 1800s, fly fishermen had expanded from tying flies that just imitate prey, to tying “attractors” – more colorful, abstract flies that don’t look like prey, but somehow incite aggression and attract strikes from fish.

Our boys followed the same progression in their fly tying.

After an easy morning paddle, we met Ranger Jeff at a large landing site. Since the Namekagon River is National Wild and Scenic Riverway—a unit of the National Park Service—we get incredible support from a host of park rangers along our journey, as well as some funding from the St. Croix River Association.

As it turns out, Ranger Jeff provided the real “bling.” A picnic table at the grassy landing was all set up and waiting for us. Here were professional hook vises for each student, as well as brightly colored foam sheets, vivid pink and naturally colored feathers, sparkly tinsel, and scope for the imagination. Ranger Jeff has a passion for teaching the next generation about fishing, and it showed in his enthusiasm, preparation, and carefully thought-out teaching progression.

As Ranger Jeff walked the kids through the fly tying steps, I could see both their eagerness to do things right for Jeff, and their confusion over how this odd hodge-podge of materials would become an artificial fly. Cutting foam, wrapping thread, folding, wrapping again, adding feathers, and wrapping some more—both the method and a form gradually took shape. Soon we had a swarm of brightly colored, flashy artificial flies with polka dots, eyes, tails, tufts, and even a comical unibrow.

Ranger Jeff gave the boys some free time then, to stretch their legs and get out their wiggles. He also put out a book of fly-tying patterns, opened up a case of professionally tied flies, and gave the boys the option of tying a second fly. After about ten minutes of Frisbee, they were all back at the table, heads bent to the task.

With the basic techniques mastered, the boys had soon created a second swarm of brightly colored flies, this time with multi-colored mantles, artfully layered feathers, and gracefully flowing tails. Thought definitely not imitators of life, these works of art looked like they could attract a crowd, and hopefully a fish, too.

Then for the real test. Ranger Jeff rigged each of the boys up with a fly rod and an artificial fly—hook and all. We waded into the shallow water at the river’s edge, and began to cast. Back and forth, the lines arched gracefully (mostly) over their heads and out into the current. Flies landed briefly on the surface, dancing in the ripples. Once again, the boys’ concentration was palpable. Cool water rushed around their knees. Flowing sand nestled around their feet. The jokes paused. Time slowed.

Imitators. Ranger Jeff stood in the middle of the row of young anglers casting again and again. I noticed the boys glance sideways at him from time to time, then turn back to their own rods with a focus on emulating his graceful motions.

Attractors. The river is its own lure: its peace, its beauty, its constant motion; the promise of challenge, adventure, and fun. And perhaps, if you tie the perfect fly, and cast the right way, the strike of a fish on your line.

In the preface of “The Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton wrote, “No man is born an Artist nor an Angler.” That may be true, but I think that on this trip we inspired a few of each.

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Lake Alive!” opened May 1, 2015, and will remain open until March 2016.

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