Monday, March 29, 2010

One toe over the line,

One toe over the line,
A fisherman's primer for middle age
By Trevor Shpeley
Photos by Travis Shpeley

Published BC Outdoors Magazine, April 2010

My doctor made a face like that of a bulldog chewing a wasp.

With the enthusiasm only a person who is sure they have an inoperable tumour can muster I detailed the physical problems that had been plaguing me. Every morning I hurt as though I had worked out yet in reality the closest I had come to a gym was picking up Blizzards from the Dairy Queen next door. My joints hurt, eyes were fuzzy, someone was regularly hiding my car keys. He let me ramble on for about 15 minutes and when I was done he asked me, “How old are you?” I had just turned 45 and told him so. He informed me with far more brevity than I had allowed him, “go home, get over it, you're getting older. It happens to the best of us” I left his office to face my life as a middle aged man.

I don't feel middle aged but my body is telling me that I am; so is the cute girl at the grocery store when she calls me sir and offers to carry my groceries. Certain irreversible changes occur in most people at around 40 years of age. Your eyes lose their ability to focus on close objects even though your long range vision might be perfect. You can't consider a hike up a lonely mountain trail without thinking about the heart you've been ignoring for four decades, and your fingers, former wizards of manipulation, start to feel like hotdogs wrapped in rubber bands. You've reached your best-before date and it's time to make a few adjustments.

If the preceding paragraphs don't describe your own recent experiences, please go back to your x-box and skinny-leg jeans, the grown ups need to talk.

I've been fortunate in my life to be blessed with exceptional eyesight. You can imagine my shock when I tried on a pair of reading glasses at the grocery store and looked at the palm of my hand only to see dozens of little lines that simply weren't visible without them. I took off the glasses and looked again just to be sure and there was no mistake, my vision was flawed. The $10 reading glasses declared it and the $75 opticians appointment confirmed it. The $75 Optometrist suggested I buy a pair of $10 reading glasses....

Cheap reading glasses work fine if you don't mind swapping them back and forth with your regular polarized glasses but why not pick yourself up one of the really nice polarized lens/reading glass combos available at your local flyshop? The optics in these bifocal type glasses are superb, but like most things in life you can expect to pay for quality. If you would rather not contend with bifocals you can get very good clip-on readers that attach to your sunglasses and flip out of the way when not needed.

These speciality lenses are available in a wide range of tints and coatings and a quick internet search will help you to find a suitable pair in your price range. Be sure to stop at the grocery store and try on a few pairs of reading glasses to find the right magnification before you order.

When you are at home tying a few flies you can't beat a large magnifier with a light around the outside of the lens. Your tying will improve, and you will tie more flies and not become fatigued as quickly due to eye strain. There are plenty of smaller magnifiers that attach to your bench and are widely available but I find it hard to beat the large unit that looks like you stole it from your dentist. In fact go ahead and steal one from your dentist, it will teach him for jamming needles the size of umbrellas into your gums for the last 40 years. When you are middle aged that's called “being a character.”

Now that you can once again tell the difference between a #12 black/red rib and a #14 black/copper rib, it's time to focus on the balloon animals you use for hands on cold days. I feel your pain, when the weather is cold I will sometimes leave an unproductive fly on my line for hours because I can't face the prospect of tying another microscopic fly on an invisible thread with fingers I can't bend. Fingerless gloves help a lot and there are some fine ones available, but the flexibility you had even 5 years ago just isn't there anymore. Fortunately, there are solutions as long as you are willing to stretch your sense of tradition.... just a bit.

The first thing you need to accept is that a tiny piece of metal is not going to turn your carefully tied fly into a hideous beast that no self respecting fish would cross the pond to spit on. We've all seen the little kid with the giant brass snap swivel bolted to a #10 Spratley out-fish everybody else in the boat. Repeatedly.

A very small clip or barrel swivel is not going to scare a fish under most conditions. Tiny steel loops that allow you to quickly and easily change flies are readily available in almost any tackle store and are nearly invisible in the water. I overlooked these little gems for years until I noticed that a friend of mine who also happens to be one of the finest fishermen I know uses them regularly and still catches more fish than me. I use them now, my fingers thank me and yours will too.

Another dexterity related problem can be tying tippet to leader. To solve this, buy a pack of barrel swivels in the smallest size you can find. (Buy them in black and pay the extra 50 cents for the good ones.) Tying on all new tippet becomes a snap and there is the added benefit of eliminating the floro/mono line cutting issues sometimes encountered with direct line connections. A swivel placed between leader and tippet will also aid in turning over extremely long leaders while chironomid fishing.

All fishermen take pride in their ability to tie knots; not just any knot but the right knot for the right application at the right time. That sounds great in theory, but once the age-train starts building up steam and chugging up the long hill towards checkered pants and bad hairpieces it's time to accept a little help in the knot tying department.

Knot tiers have been around almost as long as knots, and are well worth the frustrating few minutes of fiddling required to become proficient in their use. Whip finishers in particular are very easy to use, once figured out and nail knot tools are absolutely indispensable on the river when your leader gets so short the fishes teeth are actually cutting your flyline. Fly shops carry many varieties and the proprietors will be happy to point you in the direction of the models that are the easiest to master.

In true frontier fashion and in light of an almost legendary reluctance to spend money on things I can build myself I put together a real nice boat rack that allows me to load and unload my boat by myself. Unfortunately this process is usually accompanied by a lot of grunting, swearing, slipping and back wrenching twists as the boat teeters between peacefully resting on the top of my rack and violently tumbling back down to the water leaving nothing but a dented truck and a fisherman shaped smear in it's wake.

Of course there is no need to put yourself through that kind of annoyance, (and danger.) When you absolutely must put your boat on top of something by yourself, automatic boat loaders take all the grunt work out of getting your boat on and off your vehicle. These devices work from the front, back or side of your vehicle and generally work very well. Autoloaders don't run cheap but how much is six months recuperation from injury worth to you? After you decide which type of loader suits your needs your local boat or RV dealer will be able to set you up and your days of fearing the end of day pack-up are over.

Once the boat is on the ground, you need a decent set of wheels to move the cumbersome beast to the water. These come in a number of varieties from the type that permanently attach to the transom of your boat to those that attach with brackets to the sides. Very light dollies that make long treks to the water with a fully loaded boat nearly effortless are also available.

Don't forget that although your boat moves like it's weightless on a good set of wheels, it still has mass. If that boat has your motor, battery, lunch, safety equipment, fishing gear, dog, etc loaded into it then it has a whole lot of mass, and if the path to the lake is steep you better have a friend to help you or at least have a total disregard for personal safety and property loss.

It's hard to believe when you look at me now but I used to race mountain bikes; I could hike all day into far away lakes and many times I did. The farthest thing from my mind was the family history of heart disease and diabetes but I think about that a lot now that I'm pushing 50. In fact it's a factor in every decision I make these days. I've learned to enjoy multi-grain bread, I try to avoid fast food, I walk to the store and I no longer think vegetables are something food eats. I look at every hill I walk up with an eye towards it's survivability, and I think a lot about how long it would take an ambulance to find and rescue me given that I spend most of my free time as far away from pavement as I can manage. If you are over 40, it's time to add a new dimension of safety to everything you do outdoors.

When far away from civilization everybody should have a reliable method of communication. Satellite phones are nice but not really practical due to cost. Normal cell phones have range limitations but are still better than nothing in a pinch as small bands of coverage can be found in the oddest places.

The best bet for my money and it really doesn't cost a lot of money is the “Spot Messenger System.” For the price of a good flyline you get a small waterproof satellite messenger unit, and for about that much money again you receive a year of Spot's monitoring service. With the Spot unit you can send messages such as: “I'm OK”, “send assistance”, “a prerecorded special message,” or “send search and rescue, emergency!” Your messages go to whomever you want and they get a google earth map with your location pinpointed on it; they can even follow your progress online if you choose to allow it.

OK, I know that the last time you were able to get a good look at your legs they were like mighty tree trunks. Well, guess what? Things have changed over the last few years. Your legs may turn to jelly halfway across the river you used to cross at will and before you know it you'll be swimming and shedding gear like a sinking shopping cart full of pop cans . The old tree trunks just ain't what they used to be and you'd best take some precautions before you tackle the flow.

Firstly, you'll need a wading staff; your favourite tackle shop will have plenty to choose from. A good wading staff should be collapsible and have a good long loop to wrap around your wrist. It should be longer than a typical hiking staff or ski pole, and about shoulder height will allow you to get some decent triangulation when the river starts to push.

You will also need a good inflatable vest or harness. The type that auto inflate when they hit water are the best and they should all have a manual inflation valve in case of propellent failure. Vests typically have roomy pockets, and harnesses can be quite comfortable on hot days because of their open design. This is not an area where you want to try to save money so you should go with a vest that your dealer or fellow fishers recommend. When the water starts tickling your nose is a lousy time to find out your fancy new vest is useless.

So is middle age a big deal? Not really. It would be foolish to ignore the fact that your body is changing with age, but you're not going to fall apart like a cheap lawn chair the day after you turn 40. As long as you are willing to make a few changes in your normal routine and maybe pick up a few gadgets designed to make your life easier there is no reason why you shouldn't be buying cheap licenses and telling outrageous lies about the fish you never caught for many years to come.

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