Angler's Journal
About Chuck
The River
Guide Service
The Fly Shop
Fly Tying Bench
Angler's Journal
Contact Us

Conversations on the Tailgate of an old pickup truck... stories fo what it was all about...

Photo by Larry Javorsky


co. 10-26-01, 12-14-04 Chuck Stranahan - all rights reserved

When Larry Javorsky and I were pondering where to get some fishing photos with autumn foliage a couple of seasons back, I suggested Skalkaho Creek. I didn’t think, at the time, about not having fished there for several years.

We found the autumn foliage we were looking for. There were aspens, shaking their leaves like glittering gold coins in the gentle afternoon breeze; there were red willows and water maples - shades of burnt red and crimson mixing with the gold along the banks.

We also found some light to shoot by, at a place where the stream bent northward in its canyon, letting the long afternoon sun seep in between the branches. It was a spot we both remembered, but had never visited together.

Like most of Skalkaho Creek in the canyon, this stretch stays shaded most of the time. The undergrowth is dense. If there has been a recent rain, things stay wet for a while. There are familiar firs, with their sweet, pungent aroma on the moist air, along with moss, lichens, and dark wet rocks. And on this fall afternoon there was also the scent of autumn in the leaves. I don’t know how else to describe it. You can smell autumn in the leaves, or in the musk that rises from leaves that wash into the still edges along the creek. The grass and brush going down to the creek were wet. It would have soaked our pant legs if we weren’t wearing waders.

I rigged up a favorite bamboo rod. It was a gift from a master rodmaker, mentor and dear friend who died shortly before this outing. I hadn’t fished this rod since his death.

That rod alone carries plenty of memories - many of them tied to Skalkaho Creek. As we rigged up our tackle, other memories started to surface.

I fished. Larry shot up a roll of film. There were a few “walk into that patch of light – cast there” shots to take advantage of the disappearing sun, but for the most part the lighting and the fishing took care of themselves. The tight canopy of branches over Skalkaho makes interesting possibilities for the photographer.

Larry sees those possibilities. He has an eye for light. He sees light, streaming through a hole in the shadows from above, or softly surrounding and illuminating a subject, and he captures it on film. He stayed below me, capturing the images he saw in the patterning of light as I fished. There is a lot to this business of seeing images in light, I thought.

We were still in search of that first dark-backed, brilliant-sided Skalkaho cutthroat when the light got a little thin. Larry had finished his roll of film and we decided to do a little exploring downstream. We found a series of three long pools, one with a deep cut against a midstream rock.

We both tried it with a dry fly. Larry hooked up briefly and lost the fish. I got a couple of half-hearted rises and switched to a nymph. Larry went downstream. For a moment I was alone with my thoughts and my memories. I thought of my son Matthew - how he would appreciate the special beauty of this place, thinking that he’s old enough, now, to handle it on his own.

There was probably enough light for a shot when I hooked a ten-inch cutthroat. I yelped before I saw the fish. Larry shouted something back that, untangled from the noise of the riffle that separated us, probably meant “Wanna photo?” I saw the size of the fish, shouted “Naah” and gave a thumbs-down sign.

A few casts later I hit a bigger fish. It stayed deep and made several circuits of the pool, which now seemed suddenly small. I shouted for Larry. No answer. This was a decent photo fish. When he came in front of me I could see his dark back over a brilliant pinkish-orange side and pronounced gill slash. This was a beautiful specimen of native cutthroat trout. For a moment I imagined Matthew being there with me, and hooking it. I hollered again at Larry. Still no answer.

As the fish tired and came close, I half led him and half let him run downstream. There was an anxious moment along a log snag in the riffle. I crossed the creek, fish still pulling downstream, and found Larry kneeling over a fish of his own.

Photo by Larry Javorsky

He held it beneath his camera in a small pool in the shallows, framing his photographs with the beautiful crimson and gold leaves that soaked in the water. A few quick shots of my fish followed, with rocks and leaves, my hand, and the net as props. The light, as far as serious photography goes, was down to nearly nothing. We both knew it would be a small miracle if shots turned out, but he took them anyway. We believe in miracles.

We headed back to the truck. Larry spoke earnestly of his desire to bring his sons here. I smiled. Larry’s boys and Matthew were best friends. I continued to think of Matthew as we talked.

Shortly after the divorce, this was a spot that Matt and I had fished together. I used my little Powell rod then, a rod that someday will be his. I have a couple of slightly out-of-focus pictures of him from that day; in one he is sitting on the tailgate with his tackle, in another he is practicing his cast prior to heading for the stream. He was five years old. Those photos were taken in the place that Larry and I had parked. That had been our last fishing trip together before he was moved out of state and the contact between us was plunged into a dark abyss. I hadn’t been back here since.

Now I was sitting on that same tailgate in that same place, remembering that day and thinking of Matthew. He is eleven now, and his memories of that day and the days surrounding it are probably shaded, and a bit blurred.

All afternoon the memories had been cascading through me, like the water falling over the rocks in the creek, impossible to ignore and ever-present, like a radio in the next room that you can’t turn off. They were poignant, but not overwhelming. I expected none of it when I suggested to Larry that we visit Skalkaho Creek.

On the stream, I didn’t recognize territory that once seemed intimately familiar. The creek had changed. There was a favorite log jamb that had washed out; a nice little run had cut itself into a once-shallow riffle. The memories were like old clothes that no longer fit - outgrown or outdated since they were packed away. Other memories became sharper and clearer in that place, where a little time ago the pain packed with them would have dulled them.

I hadn’t consciously put this once-favorite little stretch of Skalkaho Creek on some sort of emotional blacklist, but the time was right for this visit. It was time to bring the memories out of the shadows and into the light. I was due to return. The fishing was good. I was with the right friend. The light was perfect.

This collection of new images, of the golden beauty of light filtering into the stream, illuminated the shadows of old memories – gave them perspective, brought hope, and brought healing.

I know that for Matthew, too, there are memories that need perspective and healing - memories of fishing and his father and questions of what it all means that need to be brought into the light.

There are plans to take Larry’s boys there some day soon. And some day, eventually, I hope to take Matt back there as well.



The leader is the most important part of a dry fly fisherman’s outfit. It is also the most misunderstood.

The leader serves three important functions: It continues the momentum of the cast to deliver the fly to its target. It keeps the line shadow away from the fish. It allows the fly to drift or swim naturally.

There are three parts to the leader: the butt, the tapered section, and the tip – or tippet. (We owe our terminology to the British.) To understand how these parts function together, we need to understand flycasting.

Casting is a momentum study. Momentum (back to sixth grade science) is the product of mass and velocity. In flycasting, the mass is carried in the line and leader. Momentum decreases as mass decreases through the taper of the line and leader.

This means that the butt of the leader (the part attached to the fly line) must be heavy enough to continue the momentum of the cast. If it is too light the leader will land in a heap - the momentum of the cast broken. \

The butt should also be supple enough to follow the arc – or loop – inscribed by the line in casting. If it isn’t, something is going to get tangled as that too-stiff butt acts as a flail and tries to jerk the remainder of the leader through itself as the cast unfurls.

The taper in a tapered leader does just that: It reduces the diameter from the butt to the tippet. This should usually happen in about _ of the leader’s overall length. Think of a packaged tapered leader, then, as a tapered section with random lengths of butt and tippet on either end. The “randomness” can vary between manufacturers.

The tippet is the part that fools the fish. It should be light enough to allow the fly to swim or drift freely, and long enough. How long is that? I usually start with about a yard - using the old Roman nose-to-fingertips measurement, executed as an arm’s length pull from my tippet spool as I hold it near the center of my body. A knot at the fly and another at the leader will reduce this length to about 30”to 32”, which is good enough to start with. I don’t measure anything. I just guess. After all, I’m just fishing, and having fun.

While the rest of the leader unfurls in somewhat of a straight line, the tippet should pile a little, or land in a serpentine pattern. As the larger diameters get caught in the current and straighten, this slack allows the fly to drift naturally. When it pulls taut, the fly is pulled with it across the water, usually looking as if it is moving unnaturally. Trout won’t eat food that is moving unnaturally any more than you would.

If the tippet is too short, it will straighten too soon and drag the fly. I’m usually pretty comfortable with about 24”, but when it gets down to about 20”, or when I see the fly dragging prematurely, I change it. Fishing with a too-short tippet is a waste of time. Stop and change instead of “just one more cast…”

You can safely tip a leader with tippet of the same diameter, or 1x finer. Or, you can use short (1’ or less) connecting strands between the tapered leader and tippet to make greater differences in diameter (i.e. 4x to 6x). The object is to use the tippet material to patch and repair your tapered leader for as long as possible. Replace the leader only when you have to. Remember, a fresh tippet costs pennies. A fresh leader costs bucks. Too short a tippet costs fish - and can spoil a vacation.

The old “rule of two thirds” needs to be mentioned here. You can safely step down to two thirds of the previous diameter when joining sections of leader. No more. Here again, guess. You’ll be close enough. You might also try to remember the Stranahan amendment to the rule of two thirds: three fourth is better.

How long should the leader be? For most trout fishing 10’ to 12’ is enough. When you need less, cut back the butt section. For flat water, be it a glassy stretch of river or a pond, 14’ to 16’ will generally be enough. Go longer if necessary, adding to the butt section.

Don’t be scared of long leaders. Remember, the tippet stays at about 30”. The rest of the leader is taper and butt, or diameters that are heavy enough to complete the cast without landing in a heap.

How to translate this information into a workable system? One that will cost you less, in the long run, to maintain than buying random handfuls of tapered leaders to accumulate in your vest? This is what I carry, and what I recommend:

  • Start with a section of .024” butt material (about 2 _’ to 3’) added to your fly line. Connect packaged tapered leaders to this permanent butt section.
  • For tapered leaders I need one to fish, one for a spare, standard 7 _’ length, in two sizes: heavy (3x) and light (4x). For flat water, add a 9’ finer (5x) leader.
  • Carry spools of tippet in 3x (read x as an abbreviation of extra fine) for #4, 6, and 8 flies, 4x for #8, 10, and 12 flies, and 5x for #12, 14 and 16 flies. Use 6x and 7x tippet for flies smaller than these if you have to. When you go finer, go longer as well. A short length of fine material won’t take much shock in striking, and adds little to your presentation.

To set up with this system is a little like buying a Maytag. You pay a little more in the beginning, but save big in the long run - especially the long run of a big fish. Replace components of this system (or add to it for special situations) when you have to. And please - remember that UV light and heat and Father Time have a nasty way with leader material. Start with fresh stuff each season. You need leader you can have confidence in.

In my days as a guide I taught countless numbers of anglers about leader and tippet. For many, it changed their whole angling experience. I watched the lights go on - and later heard the stories of their successes, successes that wouldn’t have come with their old leader setup. For me, that’s a gratification that lasts beyond a fish in the net.


To find out how to purchase Chuck's leader system, email us or give us a call at 406-363-4197.




Up-to-the-minute Fishing ReportSpend a day with ChuckHow  to get to the shop