The short answers –
NOT MUCH, and
MORE OFTEN THAN YOU THINK.
But the long answers are much more interesting, and hopefully quite useful to you as an angler, so here goes nothing.
It starts out with a history lesson, of course. Once upon a time, long, long ago, the physical weight of virtually all manufactured fly lines was done according to something called the AFTMA (American Fishing Tackle Manufacturers Association) Standard or the AFFTA (American Fly Fishing Trade Association) Standard. Those standards were developed around 1959, to ideally bring some standardization to an industry which had, according to accounts I’ve read, run rampant for a while, creating confusion among anglers and manufacturers alike. The idea was that the physical weight of the first 30 feet of a fly line (excluding level tip) would conform to an industry standard for the given line rating. For example, this would make all 6-weight fly lines, in theory, more or less the same weight for the first 30 feet. In a perfect world, this system would also serve to bring some standardization to the labeling of fly rods, making rod/line pairings (more on this later) easier. As far as fly line taper, head length, and overall head weight, though, all bets were off. But in the early days of synthetic fly lines, double taper lines were king, and our modern complex tapers were barely a dream, so it didn’t matter much.
The AFFTA Standard for single hand fly lines (not Spey lines or shooting heads) remains the same to this day. Here is the table. If you are like me, you’ll want to print one of these out for your wallet or save the image in your smartphone. You’ll see why in a minute.
Where are we now?
The standards were developed in the late 1950s. I didn’t come around to fly fishing until the early 1980s, and didn’t really get into the nitty gritty until the 1990s. So, for some of this history I’m relying on second and third hand accounts. An engineer by training, my brain desperately hopes that the industry strictly followed the standards, at least for a while. One thing I do know for sure is that line manufacturers no longer follow that standard in most cases. It is actually rather challenging to find a modern fly line that conforms to AFFTA Standards. And, if you are like me, who typically really likes how rods cast when lined at or near the AFFTA Standard, just buying a fly line based on a product description and a numerical line rating on the box NO LONGER WORKS MOST OF THE TIME!
What the… ?
When is a 6wt line really an 8wt?
I do a lot of research on fly lines, both for myself, my friends, and for Big Sky Anglers. As a result, I’ve been exposed to a wide variety of fly line designs – tapers, 30-feet weights, total head weights, head lengths, cores, and coatings vary WIDELY from line to line and brand to brand. I love taper diagrams, tables, and spreadsheets that might give me a hint about how a line will cast when paired with a given rod for a specific fishing approach. The more research I do, the more variations from the standard I find. Even for someone who likes this stuff, it can be downright confusing. For most folks that I know who just want to get a smooth casting outfit that is fun to fish with, it’s just black magic.
Why doesn’t the industry follow the industry standard? It’s a good question. There are more than a few answers that I’ve heard. One or more of them may be the reason for the divergence. Or not. It’s basically a game of finger pointing. Some say that modern, super-fast action graphite fly rods have become so stiff that a rod rated as a 6wt, really casts and flexes more like a 7wt or 8wt, despite its super light feel in hand. And, as a result, line manufacturers have altered their numbering just so that their 6wt line feels right on that aforementioned 6wt rod (even though it’s really a mislabeled 8wt rod). Many in this camp would like to see a full revision of the AFFTA Standards that conforms more with our modern fast action graphite rods that it did to historical fiberglass and cane rods with slower actions that were the norm at the time the original standards were developed. Others blame casting ability, and the common desire for instant gratification without effort. Those pundits say that poor casting ability among the masses has forced line manufacturers to create heavier and heavier fly lines so that those without the skills needed to properly load a fly rod at typical casting distances can actually FEEL something and get a cast out past the end of the driftboat oars.
The thing is, the reason for the departure from the standards isn’t important when it comes to picking the right line for you. Fly line and fly rod manufacturers aren’t all of a sudden going to change how they label things just because there are guys like me that wish they would. And there are still plenty of folks who own and enjoy fishing with glass, cane, and fuller flexing graphite rods. So, what is most important is that you, as an angling consumer, are informed about this topic well enough to be able to make the right choices when it comes to your next big $ fly line purchase. At a baseline, you should be informed enough to be able to ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS when you are talking to an employee at a fly shop or a line manufacturer.
What are some things you need to know in order to get this right?
First, the good news is that modern graphite rods are typically designed with a progressive flex pattern, and are able to accommodate a variety of line weights both above and below their labeled rating, assuming the caster has a reasonable level of skill. So perfection is not required to achieve functionality. The bad news is that your rod might not FEEL as sweet as you want it to without the right line on it.
In the past, there was always a lot of talk about up-lining stiff rods to get more flex and feel out of them. In many cases with modern lines, the manufacturers have essentially done that for you by creating a line labeled as a 6wt that meets the AFFTA standards for a 7 or even an 8wt rod. Be aware of this trend, because if you were used to up-lining in the past based on the AFFTA standard, and do that with a modern line that is already up-lined at the factory, you may end up with something way heavier than you wanted.
When you decide to buy a new fly line, at baseline you should go to your local fly shop and talk with the in-house fly line nerd armed with an understanding of:
- What fly rod you own, and what the rod’s action is (fast/stiff, medium-fast, medium, slow). If you aren’t sure, bring it to the shop. If you are sure, also bring it to the shop!
- What type of fishing you do, and at what distances. If you are a small water angler, nympher, long distance dry fly guy, lake specialist, streamer junkie, etc it will influence the line you choose.
- Your casting ability level, currently, including power application, tracking, typical amount of line you like to carry in the air when casting, etc. Be honest with yourself.
- Your goals for improving your casting ability. Everyone can get better.
- How you like to achieve distance. Do you like to shoot line for distance or carry more line in the air and shoot less for distance?
You should also go into the fly shop ready to ask some questions about the fly line that they might suggest for you. Fly line manufacturer websites can also be a good source of this information. At baseline, for weight forward fly lines, be prepared to ask:
- What is the head length of the fly line?
- How much does the first 30 feet of the head weigh (aka, the 30-feet weight)? And, how does that relate to the AFFTA Standard for that line weight.
- How much does the total head weigh, assuming it is longer than 30 feet?
- How does the fly line taper relate to my preferred fishing style and skill level? This is another can-of-worms topic that may need its own blog post. Just remember, even if the manufacturer names a line something like “salmon and steelhead” or “indicator”, it doesn’t mean those lines are necessarily bad for the fishing you do which doesn’t involve those things. Go at it with an open mind.
- Do you have any demo lines that we could cast on my rod out in the parking lot? This is the consumer’s ace in the hole. If you can cast a line before you buy, DO IT. Understand, however, that it is impossible for a shop to have demos of every line they carry on the shelves.
Without going down the rabbit hole of fly line taper design, if you can answer basic questions about your rod and your casting (the first list), and can get the answers to the questions about fly line choices (the second list) from your local fly shop, the line manufacturers website, or from the CIA, then you are ready to make an informed decision. I would recommend following these general guidelines to start, and remember, if you can cast the line on your rod before you buy it, DO IT, and do it with a fly on leader rig that you intend to fish.
This is your brain on AFFTA Standards
When to Consider a Line “Way Heavier” than the AFFTA Standard
By “Way Heavier” I mean something like a 30-feet weight equivalent to 1.5 or 2 line sizes above the AFFTA Standard. Consider a line of this type when you are:
- a beginner level caster, and own a fast/stiff action rod
- a caster who needs or likes to feel a lot of rod loading in order to cast your best, and own a fast/stiff action rod
- an intermediate or advanced level caster, own a fast/stiff action or medium fast action rod, and fish almost exclusively at very close range
- any level caster, and like to load the rod very quickly with minimal line out of the rod tip, and shoot to achieve distance (As a side note, using a short, 30-feet long head flyline the equivalent to 2 lines sizes heavier than the AFFTA standard is essentially the definition of a “shooting head”). You will sacrifice the ability to carry longer amounts of line in the air as a result of this choice.
When to Consider a Line “A Bit Heavier” than the AFFTA Standard
Here, by “A Bit Heavier” I mean something like a 30-feet weight equivalent to 0.5 to 1 size above the AFFTA Standard. Consider a line of this type when you:
- a beginner level caster, and own a medium or medium-fast action rod
- a caster who needs or likes to feel a lot of rod loading in order to cast your best, and own a medium or medium-fast action rod
- an intermediate level caster, and own a fast/stiff action rod
- a caster who needs or likes to feel some clear rod loading on shorter casts in order to cast your best, and own a fast/stiff action rod
- an angler who primarily fishes at close to medium ranges (say 45 feet or less)
- an angler who is happy with carrying a medium amount of line in the air and shooting for extra distance when it is called for.
When to Consider a Line Weighing Similar to the AFFTA Standard
Here, by “Similar to” I mean something like a 30-feet weight within the AFFTA Acceptable Weight Range in the table above. Consider a line of this type when you:
- a beginner level caster, and own a slow action rod
- a caster who needs or likes to feel a lot of rod loading in order to cast your best, and own a slow action rod
- an intermediate level caster, and own a medium action rod
- a caster who needs or likes to feel some clear rod loading on shorter casts in order to cast your best, and own a medium action rod
- an advanced level caster, and own a fast/stiff action rod
- a caster who is ok with feeling minimal rod loading on short range casts and can still cast your best, and own a fast or medium-fast action rod
- an angler who regularly fishes at medium to longer ranges (say 45 feet or more) and is capable of adjusting power application for shorter casts to still achieve good results
- an angler who likes to carry a longer amount of line in the air and shoot less for extra distance, or an angler looking to both carry a long amount of line in the air and shoot significant line for extra distance. (Note that for the latter case the overall head length and fly line taper design you choose will be of utmost importance)
And with that, I believe I have said enough. I have probably dug myself into a hole that I may never emerge from, and/or guaranteed that I will receive a series of corrective emails and texts from my casting nerd friends. At the very least, I hope that this saves some of you who are thinking about getting a new fly line some trouble, and that you are able to find the joy that is a properly paired rod/line combination that meets your casting and fishing style.
Take Care and Fish On, Matt
The shorter days of winter are upon us here in Montana. The weather is cold, but that doesn’t mean we’ve given up on spending time outdoors. We are still fishing when the conditions are right, but are also shifting attention to hunting, skiing, riding, and other snow sports. The simple fact is, though, that there is a lot fewer hours of daylight in winter, so a person needs some good indoor hobbies to get through. Filling the fly boxes is Job #1. Hanging out by the fire with a good book is another prime winter pastime, though.
We asked some of the guys for suggestions to add to your winter reading list, and here’s what we came up with.
Suggested by Jonathan Heames
- The Longest Silence by Thomas McGuane
- The River Why by David James Duncan
- Trouthunter: The Way of an Angler by Rene Harrop
- Spring Creeks by Mike Lawson
Suggested by Joe Moore
- Small Fly Adventures in the West by E Neale Streeks
- The Curtis Creek Manifesto by Sheridan Anderson
- Chasing Rumors – A Season of Fly Fishing in Patagonia by Cameron Chambers
- Bud Lilly’s Guide to Fly Fishing the New West by Bud Lilly and Paul Schullery
Suggested by Justin Spence
- Single Hand Spey Casting by Simon Gawesworth
- Instinctive Fly Fishing by Taylor Streit
- Hatch Guide for Western Streams by Jim Schollmeyer
- Modern Steelhead Flies by Rob Russell and Jay Nicholas (with a cameo by Matt Klara)
Suggested By Matt Klara
- What Trout Want – The Educated Trout and Other Myths by Bob Wyatt
- McElligot’s Pool by Dr. Seuss
- Single Handed Fly Casting by Jason Borger
- Birds of Montana Field Guide by Stan Tekiela
Welcome to the information page of the
West Yellowstone Trout Spey Days!
This event is the brainchild of Big Sky Anglers co-owner Justin Spence, and Sage/Rio/Redington rep Kurt Kruger. This year we’re keeping things small and low key, and we’d love it if you can make it. Our hope is that the event will offer folks a place and time to meet up, hang out, share knowledge and information, and maybe find a new fishing buddy or two.
Are you already into Spey casting and fishing for trout? Maybe you have heard of it, but have never picked up a Spey rod, and are interested in getting involved in this super fun way to fish for trout? This event is open to everyone, regardless of skill/experience level, age, fly shop or industry affiliation, etc. We plan on having a selection of demo gear on hand for folks to check out, including Spey rods and lines from Sage, Rio, Redington, Echo, Airflo, Winston, Scott, and OPST.
Take a look below for our event calendar as well as a list of presenters and instructors that will be on hand. We are super excited to have none other than Spey guru Simon Gawesworth headlining our list of instructors/demonstrators. If you don’t know Simon, he is a world renowned Spey caster, instructor, author of three books on Spey casting, and a super nice dude. We will have copies of his two books (Spey Casting and the must have Single-Handed Spey Casting) on hand at the shop to purchase and have signed. If you already have his books, bring ’em by for sure.
Friday, September 29th, 4pm-7pm – At the Shop
Big Sky Anglers Fly Shop, 39 Madison Avenue in West Yellowstone
Meet a host of experienced Spey casters,Trout Spey anglers, and instructors, and get dialed in to enjoy a whole new approach to trout fishing. Everyone is welcome! Whether you are just beginning your journey with 2-handed rods and Spey casting, or you are a veteran with the long rod, please stop in and say hi, hang out, and talk rods, lines, casting technique, presentation, and flies used in Trout Spey and beyond.
Kurt Kruger, rep for Sage/RIO/Redington, will be set up with a bunch of rods and reels to check out, and will be talking about and answering questions about them.
Jesse Robbins from Sage will be covering fly presentation and general discussion of line choice, MOW and Sink Tips ( with a table of samples set up )
Simon Gawesworth will be holding court at the coffee bar in the back of the shop and talking all things Trout Spey, and maybe signing a few of his books.
Justin Spence and Matt Klara from Big Sky Anglers will be around talking Trout Spey, and sharing a few stories and tips learned over the years. These two actually started in Trout Spey together on the Madison back around 2000.
Big Sky Anglers shop staff will be on hand to help out with recommendations on where to fish locally, and set you up with any flies, gear, etc you may need.
Saturday, September 30th, 11am-3pm – On the Water
Madison River Bridge at Hwy 191
On Water Instruction and Demonstrations
Bring your own gear or try out some of ours!
List of Presentation Topics:
11:00am – 11:15am Introductions and Welcome!
11:30am – 12:00pm Keith Balfourd – Trout Spey and General Spey – The Basics
12:15pm – 1:15pm Simon Gawesworth – Trout Spey Presentation
1:30pm – 2:15pm Matt Klara – Trout Spey with your single-hand rod – Dries, Nymphs, Soft Hackles, and Streamers
2:30pm – 3:00pm Rick Wollum – “ Soft Hackles, Intruders and Tube Flies “ techniques and fly choice
3:00pm – 4:00pm Casting sessions with all presenters.
4:00pm Head back to the flyshop for the BBQ!
Click the Map for Directions
The on water portion of this event is being hosted on the public lands of Custer Gallatin National Forest. Thanks to them, of course, for supporting this event!
Saturday, September 30th, 4:30pm-7pm – At the Shop
BBQ catered by Beartooth BBQ at Big Sky Anglers Fly Shop, 39 Madison Avenue in West Yellowstone
Book signing with Simon Gawesworth.
Instructors / Presenters
Simon Gawesworth – World Authority on Spey Casting, T.H.C.I, and RIO flyline guru.
Simon’s father taught him to fish at the age of 8 and he’s been teaching fly casting professionally since the age of 16. With over 35 years of teaching experience, Simon is a highly sought-after instructor. He has written 3 books on Spey casting. He has both cast and fished for England in British, European and World Championships and was elected Captain of the England team for the 2003 World Fly Fishing Championship. Simon is A.P.G.A.I. and S.T.A.N.I.C. certified in the U.K. and C.I., Master and T.H.C.I. certified in the U.S. Acknowledged as one of the world’s leading authorities on spey casting, he has taught and demonstrated spey casting around the world. Simon currently lives in South West Washington with his family and a water-loving dog!
Matt Klara – Neighborhood Authority on Spey Fishing and other random topics, Big Sky Anglers, West Yellowstone, MT
Matt’s journey into Spey casting and fishing actually began with trout back in 2000, on the Madison River just outside of West Yellowstone. At that point, he was hitting the river with a borrowed 14 ft 8/9wt rod and an old Rio Windcutter line. And by hitting, we mean actually hitting, thrashing, cussing, and occasionally putting one out there well enough to fool a fish (his words, not ours) . Matt’s technique and understanding of two-handed casting and fishing have come along greatly since then, to say the least, and so has the equipment available for trout Spey. He left Montana at one point for a 7 year stint in Oregon where 90% of his fishing was done with two-handed rods, but moved back “home” in 2015. Currently residing in Helena with his wife and young son, Matt’s now the guy that folks here at Big Sky Anglers look to for help with their casting, gear selection, and more. Whether its trout, steelhead, or salmon, on the two-hander, he is happy to teach and share what he’s learned on his own journey.
Backside Double Spey Video
Rick Wollum – Anglers West, Emigrant, MT
Rick started in the industry back in the mid 80’s and has since guided and fished his way across many of the West’s great trout waters. He later hosted Flyfishing America on ESPN and traveled across the country fishing some great locations from Alaska to Washington. Spey casting are for both steelhead and trout are passions within flyfishing that have captivated him for awhile. In his words, “Swinging flies for steelhead or their freshwater cousins is an exciting game, it’s the grab that is so addictive!” Rick has been fortunate to have fished with many of the legends of Spey casting and fishing over his career, including Scott O’Donnell and Trey Combs. He looks forward to sharing what he has learned from them and others with you at Spey Days.
Jesse Robbins – Far Bank
Jesse has worked for the Far Bank brands – Sage, RIO, and Redington – since 2011, helping bring to market a host of Spey and Trout Spey products including the ONE and HYDROGEN Trout Spey Rods and Skagit Trout Max lines, among others. He has fished two-handed rods from New England to the Great Lakes, across the Rockies, and the Pacific Northwest up to British Columbia. He is a certified casting instructor and frequent contributor to several fly fishing magazines.
Keith Balfourd – montanaspey.com, Missoula, MT
Keith is a transplant to Montana from the Seattle area. Having “searched” the steelhead waters of the Pacific Northwest since 1976, he noticed only two things missing in Montana other than steelhead – nobody was using a two-hander and swinging flies for trout, and there was a dearth of knowledge available locally on Spey equipment and casting. That’s why he started Montana Spey in 2010 – to teach and share what he has learned from 25 years of long-rodding.
A while back I wrote a post about Callibaetis and Chironomids where the punch line was that my buddy and I wanted the fish to be eating Callibaetis but they were really on chironomids. Well that was then, and this is now…
Callibaetis and damselflies have been dominating the trout’s menu on my local stillwaters recently, so of course they are also the insects that my mind has been feasting on. In particular, the morning Callibaetis emergences have provided my friends and me with some really fun fishing opportunities. The great thing about being into a great hatch over the span of a couple of weeks is that you really get to dial things in and experiment with what works and what doesn’t work as well. So with that in mind, here are a few thoughts that I’ve been having as it refers to the nymphal stage of Callibaetis in particular.
It’s fairly easy to tell where the best Callibaetis action is going to happen on a lake. These insects LOVE the weedbeds. What’s really cool is that trout will often move into very shallow water to feed on the nymphs before the main hatch starts. But when they go shallow, those big trout get really spooky compared to when they are out on deeper weed flats or off the drop-offs. If you can find the travel lanes that fish use through the weedy halls of their world, you have probably hit the jackpot.
There are A LOT of commercially available Callibaetis nymph imitations out there. I’m not really interested in going into which specific ones to use here. What I can say is that there are a couple of important elements to fly selection that I have found to be rather important.
First, and most important, is size. Match the size of the most prevalent size of nymphs you can see in the water. That’s usually a 14 or 16 around here. Sometimes a 12 will do in the early season, but that may be because the fish aren’t quite as dialed in at that point, rather than because the bugs are actually bigger.
Second in my order of importance (and I think the most overlooked element) is fly profile. Mayflies in general and Callibaetis in particular are thin insects. In fact, there aren’t many fat insect in the water aside from maybe dragonfly nymphs and giant water beetles. So, those obese, poorly proportioned PT nymphs that you scored for $0.89 each in the sale bin of your local hardware store probably aren’t the best choice of patterns. Slim and sparse is what you need. In fact, some of the most effective Callibaetis nymph patterns that I’ve seen look not only anemic, but also downright absurd in their simplicity and material choice.
Third in my order of importance is color. The usual grayish-tan standard usually does just fine. On a couple of occasions, it seemed like color was more important than usual, so if you spend a bunch of time fishing or travelling to fish stillwaters that have Callibaetis hatches, you may want to carry other tones, including grayish-olive, brownish-tanish-gray, and rusty-tanish-grayish-olive. Got it?
This is a pretty big deal when fish are locked in on the Callibaetis nymphs. At least as important as fly size and profile. Maybe more important. Callibaetis nymphs are good swimmers, but they are also still tiny bugs, so that retrieve you use when fishing Clousers for striped bass needs to be left at the dock. It seems to me like they wiggle forward in short bursts that can be imitated by a series of 3-4 inch pulls, or some quick hand twists. But then, the nymphs almost always seem to stop for a bit to take a break before heading back on their way. So, a nice pause after a series of strips can be the ticket. I’ll do that most of the time, matching my flyline to the water depth – floating line and long leader in the super shallows, slow intermediate when I need a hair more depth. Fast intermediate lines seem too sinky for most of my work as I find myself hitting the weeds too soon on every cast. If you are finding fish down deeper than say 8-10 ft you may want one to cut down on your countdown time.
I’ve also heard that Callibaetis nymphs will swim up to the surface and back down to the weeds a few times before finally committing to hatching from the surface. So, a rising retrieve followed by a sink seems logical as well. I need to fool around with this more. Maybe an indicator and floating line or a short sink tip will do the trick.
Lastly, I’ve had a lot of fish eat a nymph suspended below a Callibaetis dry fly. Heave it and leave it. It works well.
Alright! I’ve got myself fired up to fish now. So, hopefully when you are reading this, I’ll be out on the lake. If you’ve got any thoughts to add, I’d love to hear them. You can reach me at email@example.com
Take Care and Fish On,
PS – Like my last post, this one is running double duty both here and at Sexyloops.com
Fishing isn’t just about catching fish for the vast majority of folks who enjoy the pursuit. For many of us, angling is an excuse to spend time on the water, in nature, reconnecting with friends, or our thoughts, and soaking it all in. It’s no surprise that so many anglers also have a bit of an artistic or literary side. On the water, inspiration is everywhere.
Big Sky Anglers shop staffer Connor Flynn is one of us who finds inspiration from his time fishing. Poetry/song are his chosen means of artistic expression, and he’s been kind enough to let us share a couple of his efforts with you via the blog. The following pieces exist in print as poems, but have also been recorded as songs by Connor, acting as his rockstar alter ego, Black Jack Davey. If you enjoy these, you can check out what else he’s up to on Facebook
Out on an evening walk tonight
I gaze into the water.
Feeding city dulled eyes
that see in the stillness.
Left by the wind
which perhaps went chasing the cloud’s pagodas.
The clouds that billow in the water.
But looking up,
my real eyes see,
it’s the small waves.
Far away from the dissipating mountains
that lingers till it’s return.
A drifting fish out on an evening float
to gaze up into our world.
At the trees, and the mountains, and the clouds.
And the occasional rambler,
who only through peace can chase the clouds pagodas.
And the occasional rambler,
who only through peace can penetrate the surface.
“Time Is But The Stream”
Written in the Frank Church Wilderness, Fall 2015
Time is but the stream
I go fishin’ in.
Everyday I dream of you,
but time keeps drifting’ along.
When I see you in my dreams
I know there’s something wrong.
When you speak to me
you know just what to say.
So why don’t we turn back time?
I can’t take this current alone.
Time is but the stream
I go fishin’ in.
History is the bedcarved by the river of life.
I’ve been in this place way too long.
I’m beginning to question what is real.
Soon I know I’ll be next to you.
When that time comes I’ll certainly know.
Till then,I’ll keep singing’ this song.
Time is but the stream
I go fishin’ in.
Best Book of 2014: Wait for Signs, by Craig Johnson
Good books mark my life by chapter and verse. I own many of them. We moved last spring, a little deeper into the forests of Horse Butte. When we bought our new place, I refused to consider living there until I found a place for my bookshelves. Joe and I packed up Pony, Stella, and Oscar, along with everything else which makes up Big Sky Anglers: rods, reels, hackles, hooks, flies, hoodies, hats, wading boots, computers, printers, fax machines, boats, kayaks, oars, old Toyotas, scanners, filing cabinets, waders with holes, waders without holes, rod tubes, books about trout, photos, articles, cameras, bird dog collars, kennels, shotguns, the Dirty Harry pistol (which Joe used to hide in my magazine basket until I pitched a fit), fishing shirts, Joe’s dress shirt, socks, jackets, leaders, tippet, fly lines, and two broken guitar cases. In addition to my books, I brought along a small suitcase of clothes, two NPS flat hats, and 24 pairs of skis.
Almost as important to me as my books is Wyoming. The land speaks through sagebrush, cowboys, broken china tossed off Conestoga wagons, and abandoned sod dugouts in the middle of the prairie. Wyoming is full of elk, pronghorn (antelope), cows, cowboys, deer, and wind. Lots of wind. Mountains, bluebirds, and crisp fall mornings soothe the wounds created by its harshness. Since a lot of great authors also enjoy the state, I possess a fine collection of Wyoming writers, including Craig Johnson, Annie Proulx, Mark Spragg, Gretl Erlich, and CJ Box. They write about the rowdy surroundings and the survivors who call it home.
Between Meeteetse and Thermopolis, Highway 171 cuts through the rough country in a futile attempt of control and symmetry. All around are ridges of rock hiding coulees, dips, and valleys full of antelope, red-tailed hawks, and golden eagles. Geology takes precedence over the engineering egos of the WY Department of Transportation, as the narrow road winds its way south. I love this stretch. Austere in its presentation of natural wonders, it’s a far cry from the in-your-face drama of Glacier or Yellowstone. Wyoming begs you to look for the unknown, hidden at first among a seemingly boring setting of dirt, sagebrush and drab color. But watch for morning sunlight or evening fade, and the earth turns pink and purple. Walk around until you stumble upon the Legend Rock petroglyphs, where people used stone walls into artistic canvases for thousands of years. Hear the stories of the people of Wyoming, hacking a life out of the wilderness and bearing their children along the way. And wait-just wait-until you meet Wyoming personified, Sheriff Walt Longmire.
In Craig Johnson’s Wait for Signs (2014), twelve short stories give personal profiles of America’s favorite sheriff, Walt Longmire. Walt is the main character in a series of novels, recently adapted into A&E’s Longmire. Johnson originally wrote these short works as Post-Its, annual Christmas gifts to readers that subscribe to his email newsletter. Amidst a wintry holiday backdrop, Walt rescues hitchhikers on Christmas Eve, hands out presents from the back of a wrecked Toys-R-Us semi, and investigates miscreant residents of the local old folk’s home. Like the main character in any good crime series, Walt Longmire is always in the thick of a case, even if his jurisdiction is the middle of nowhere, Absaroka County, Wyoming.
Several years ago I first met Walt Longmire one cold night in Lamar Valley. Actually, I was attending a weeklong course at the Yellowstone Association Institute-Lesser Known Scats of Porcupines, Mating Calls of Bison, or some other such awkward and intimate animal knowledge. While wolves howled outside, I huddled in my tiny log cabin with a headlamp and a bottle of wine and read almost all of The Cold Dish. I laughed, I cried, I had to replace my headlamp batteries, and I fell in love with Walt and his perspective of the world. Thankfully I know a thing or two about Yellowstone, because the next morning I was worthless. Walt says, “It wasn’t that revenge was a dish best served cold, it was that it was a dish best not served at all.” Cold Dish is the first of ten in the Longmire series. Set in the fictional town of Durant, Absaroka County, Wyoming, his jurisdiction covers the least populated county in the Lower 48. Born and bred in Durant, Walt was elected sheriff shortly after playing all-state tackle at USC and serving with the Marines in Vietnam. He’s a big man, nearly 6’4 and 240, although his intimidating physical presence is often balanced by a friendly smile. He wears blue jeans and a cowboy hat with his sheriff’s star and sidearm. His department includes Ruby, who mothers Walt as much as she dispatches calls; Double Tough, a former oil rig welder, the Ferg, who ties flies and scouts good fishing holes while on duty, and Vic, who gave up a fast-paced career with the Philadelphia police department to follow her engineer husband for job in the Bighorn Basin oil fields. Henry Standing Bear, Walt’s best friend since childhood, steers Walt true with constant companionship. Walt’s daughter Cady is an East Coast trial lawyer and constant reminder of her mother Martha, who dies of cancer before we ever meet Walt for the first time.
Longmire is a hero, a comic, a ladies’ man, a lawman, a father, friend, and completely infallible. Propelled by a clear sense of right and wrong, his heart usually finds the right way to get there. In my favorite story, “Ministerial Aid,” Walt confronts a domestic abuse situation. A few things are a little odd about his approach- he’s hung over and wearing a bathrobe. Its New Years day and Walt finds himself in between the troubled couple, all the while still confronting his grief about Martha’s recent death. His own redemption emerges from helping others besides himself. He thinks, “Just then, I thought I might’ve caught sight of that first ray that shoots over the edge of the earth like a hopeful thought, and maybe, just maybe I might’ve felt something. ‘Well, like the rest of us…’[Walt] sighed. ‘She’s just waiting on something.’”
Walt’s way with women follows him on most cases. In the “Divorce Horse,” he and fellow Absaroka County heartthrob and his best friend Henry Standing Bear look for a stolen pony. Walt muses, “The much-storied case of the divorce horse was the kind of situation familiar to most rural sheriffs, one of those disputes you ended up getting involved in even thought it had nothing much to do with law enforcement.” Johnson inserts hints of his involvement with Undersheriff Victoria Moretti, who is half Walt’s age and moves twice as fast.
Faithful BSA readers might feel tricked by my post, as they realize I’m not reviewing a book full of fish. Ha! Gotcha. In a scene from “Messenger”, Henry and Walt catch a few creels full of brookies, with designs on releasing them into the frying pan for dinner. Ok, so it’s not Isaaz Walton. But it is full of wit, humanity, and most importantly, Wyoming. Not ready for a full book of Walt just yet? Dip in slowly with Wait for Signs.