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FAT of the LAND by Langdon Cook [Book Review]

Posted on 18 January 2010 by Cork Graham

Long after I realized there were better ways of making a living than getting shot at, a few years after I had an epiphany about wildlife management being so much more than just about hunting, fishing, foraging, and sound wildlife conservation and ecology in Alaska; I entered outdoor writing through the more traditional forms of print magazines, books and newspapers, and was quickly likened by reviewers to Aldo Leopold.

Having graduated to outdoor writing in the new and burgeoning form of multimedia, I’m still leery of labeling a new author in the same manner as I had been so early in my career, not because of that boost to one’s career (Knowing how hard it is to succeed, I wish every writer the best in their career!), but because of how much it’s also an incredible weight and responsibility, and even for some, can be like a TV or film actor’s typecasting that is almost impossible to get out from under. Yet, when I read Fat of the Land by Langdon Cook, I couldn’t help but think how much, in relation to the urbanized society we’ve largely become in the United States, Cook, 42, is the Henry David Thoreau of his generation.

When I review a book, I’m in search of a number of offerings in that writing: education, entertainment and escape. Few authors can offer all that consistently and keeping it going throughout a book. When they do, it’s a great book!

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Cork Graham subsistence hunting moose and Dall sheep on the Kenai Peninsula, 1990

As someone who lived in Alaska as a subsistence hunter, angler and forager, I’m always impressed with a writer who can take me back to the only place in the world, that I’ve lived in that I can say I’m truly homesick for, much less in a book that isn’t even about Alaska. With nice touches of a personal history reaching back to the East Coast, and often simply because of his beautiful poetic form of honesty, Cook was able to transport me to all the places I love through the window of Oregon and Washington.

Through Cook’s writing, that never once takes the reader over that sickeningly sappy poetic license that amateur writers often attempt, my voyage of escape from the flu I was fighting last week, was amazingly easy. At the open of “Honey, Get the Gun”, I was back on the shores of Clam Gulch, Alaska, in the middle of December, with my then girlfriend, a longtime resident, digging up razor clams. Some would be fried. Others would end up in my favorite “Razor Scampi”. Many were smoked and canned, enjoyed later as boat lunches during commercial salmon season.

For those who may be wondering if Fat of the Land will only appeal to someone who has “gone and done it”, worry not. I was never a fungi fan (but because of his “Confessions of an Amanita Eater”, I am now), nor have I been “Fiddling Around” for fiddleheads; yet, I was still with Cook, rooting for him and his gang when they succeeded, though appalled when he did something that just made me cringe. Yet, through his eyes, I saw what’s really happening for those now starting out in the world of hunting, even underwater, and even when he brought up a controversy in the arena of wildlife conservation that at times seems clichéd: from chapter one to its end, I was still completely vested in the book!

That heart and mind investment started with the hunt for the wild dangerous creature known to many a forager who prowls the shores of Puget Sound, (my great uncle would regal us with how many there were when he was a salmon fisherman out of Seattle just after WWII). If you think I’m being factious, try going after clams with your hands, like the new-to-Alaska, Cheechako I was. All it takes is a finger or hand split to the bone on the sharp edge of the shell to appreciate the common name for siliqua patula, and the practicality of an elongated clam shovel or a tube gun.

Cook talks with authority on the subject of clams, their history, and sadly, their possible future, a topic that can easily be spread throughout other flora and fauna speared, hooked or gathered in Fat of the Land, and which has put me in a quandary as someone who not only enjoys hunting, foraging and fishing, but also teaches others how to do it for themselves—can the wild flora and fauna populations support this, especially as a a human population sees that same wild bounty as an opportunity to overcome ever-increasing prices of food, or draw an income through foraging, in this horrible economy?

Moving deeper into the water, albeit still connected to land by the deck of a pier, was a lesson not only in how to fish for squid, but also how to start learning from those more experienced, and why it behooves everyone to learn an extra language—this hit home when I was eighteen, unlucky, and under harsh interrogations in a Communist Vietnamese prison, unable to string more than three words together from the Vietnamese I spoke fluently as the result of having been an American expat’s young child trying to survive in a Vietnamese-dominated French Catholic kindergarten in Saigon.

Surprisingly, or maybe it’s not, because of the multitude of immigrants who now ply the waters, streams and mountains for game and fish; being fluent in Spanish, French and Korean and having the ability to at least ask someone how and where to do something in Russian, Mandarin, Lao, Thai and Vietnamese, have offered me new techniques and secret places for putting meat, fish and forage on the table. It’s also kept me from getting a bullet in my head as I quickly removed myself from a illegal and dangerous farming venture, because I heard and understood them before they had a chance to know I was there while deer hunting: the amount of wild game that the pot growers (most often kidnapped and coerced by the murderous Mexican drug cartel to sneak illegally into this country) slaughtered and left to rot that was later found by CAMP, was atrocious—Is it any wonder how hypocritical it appears when someone staunchly says they’re environmentalists and ecologists, and yet they light up a joint or bong loaded with marijuana likely grown on illegal pot farms in the national forests and other public lands, turning them into free-fire zones where every living thing is killed through boobytraps and shooting to protect those fields?

The multinational flavor of the foraging community described in Fat of the Land carried to a chapter on shad fishing, notorious for its numbers and fight. If you haven’t caught them before, by the time you’re at that moment in your life where a flyrod and the meditative quality of flycasting calls out to you, you quickly realize it’s time to use “Shad Darts at Dawn”. The stringers become long and heavy with the American shad, immigrants from the waterways of the East Coast, and a boon to those who like to fill their larder, yet not impact the indigenous; but for my tastes, the much better fight on the line and fare for the table, lower-numbered steelhead and salmon.

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Langdon Cook and a full stringer of American shad.

When I cringed it wasn’t the Christmas tree formed of a number of shad on a stringer; nor was it the catching and releasing of steelhead. Hatchery or wild, it really doesn’t matter to me as fish is good to eat from either and money aside (made from an industry that thrives only because of catch and release) when more and more research says that practice of catch and release leads to up to 63 percent accidental kill, and it becomes more and more as salmon farming increases and  the wild strains follow the way of the California condor.

No. It was when Cook and his mentor were becoming “The Inhuman”. I know a bit of what I talk about when it comes to spearfishing. I’ve been a spearo since the early-1980s spearing great seafood meals in the Caribbean, and Pacific. Repeatedly did so until my buddy, Randy Fry, lost his life to a great white shark at Kibbesillah Rock, just off Fort Bragg. The event put a stop to my spearfishing and ab-diving, until right after I returned from a teaching sabbatical in South Korea: I’ve seen people killed in combat, in some very horrific ways, but let me tell you, just imagining a good friend diving into a shark’s mouth and being bit clean through from shoulder to shoulder bring the mind back to its most primordial fears of teeth and claws—It led to a four year hiatus from entering the waters off Northern California as a freediver.

As one who tries my best to make as quick and efficient a kill as possible, and with the least amount of waste, when I read how not only Cook had gone after a lingcod with a traditional pole spear (Though Cooks calls his setup a Hawaiian Sling, a Hawaiian sling is actually a set up with a handle system, that has a hole through which a free-shooting spear is shot, almost like a slingshot), but that his “mentor” Dave, the professor, often hunted lingcod with not just a pole spear, but with the tri-pronged spearhead that pole spears normally come with—I found that atrocious!

It’s one thing, to not know. When someone who is a teacher, a professor no less, doesn’t investigate further, it’s a shame . The problem wasn’t the use of a pole spear: Master Spearo “Shark Man” Manny Puig, is well-known for his environmental work and being a spearfisherman, and especially for efficiently using a pole spear for putting fish on the table—it’s actually more efficient than a speargun, as you don’t lose time reeling in line to get your fish off your spear and on the stringer. The difference is that Puig uses a Hawaiian style barb, which flips open to hold the fish on the spear: for halibut and lingcod, even this isn’t enough.

Lingcod and halibut rank up there as the most easy to lose with a pole spear or a speargun. That’s why those who go after them use either the detachable spear tip, or 5-prong Trident spear. Mentor Dave knew about the best wetsuits to use, and Cook detailed well how it’s more comfortable and efficient to use a 4 mm suit, as compared to 5 mm, to descend, but when he didn’t tell Cook to replace a speartip infamous for losing fish, that just brought me back to how important is for this new generation of hunters, anglers and foragers to get the right tutelage, or else yet another generation will needlessly become fodder for the “antis” movement.

If this new generation does “do the job right”, the benefits to the ecosystem will be multitude: waste will be kept down; populations of hunters and anglers will increase enough that the funds collected through fishing and hunting licensing will once again provide more habitat to support and improve numbers of game and fish on public land.

Right now, because the wealthy pay great fees for prime hunting, the only place with abundant game and fish are  lands that are privately owned. It wasn’t always this way. Before, there were more than enough people who went fishing and hunting, so much so that the departments of fish and game catered more to this group, by improving habitat and stocking. In the process, all other non-game creatures also benefited. If there’s enough good habitat, and stewarding of the land, game and fish populations can be prolific on their own.

It’s for this very reason that I’m in favor of having all coastal dams removed from Baja California to Canada. There are so many other forms of electrical power, and would free up the waterways so that the salmon and steelhead would come back on the their own. Not many know that the largest salmon run in the world was not some river up in Alaska, like the Kenai: the Sacramento River held the largest run, with salmon up to 100 pound netted on the McCloud River. In the 1856, Hutching’s California Magazine actually complained that you couldn’t navigate across the upper Delta and lower Sacramento without being overcome by the stench of hundreds of thousands of spawned out salmon carcasses. Lake Shasta and all the later dammed up rivers, like the Mokelumme and Stanislaus to name a few, ended that.

A wild, healthy salmon on the Rogue River for Langdon Cook

A wild, healthy salmon on the Rogue River for Langdon Cook

Aside from the ill-advised suggestion to use inadequate equipment, what are my thoughts? As I mentioned earlier, I’m in a quandary. When I started hunting, I was a thirteen-year-old, fresh from a previous life as an American expat in Southeast Asia. The hunting and fishing opportunities my father enjoyed at that same age in Spokane, Seattle, and the Midwest, during the early 1940s and the glory days of great opportunity resulting from hunters and anglers going off to WWII that provided a six-year break for game and fish populations, were long gone by the time I blindly searched for the guidance of those who knew what they were talking about and weren’t arrogantly talking through the romance of hunting and fishing were few.

When I found them, I cherished and kept in good friendship with them even as they aged and died. That generation that had to hunt and fish to provide for the table, and had not been barraged by divisive advertising campaigns to separate the hunter from the environmentalist, is quickly disappearing.

Chantarelle success!

Chantarelle success!

Cook has the writing skills, that’re beyond evident. And, he’s honest. He shows what life and death is about in nature, and how humankind was never meant to be removed and simply an observer in the most intimate of all settings: the cycle of life. Where his honesty comes from, is where I hope as he ventures into hunting on land, as he has mentioned on his Fat of the Land (FATL) blog, will spur him to search out the most experienced, and not just rely on those most easily accessible, wrong, and frankly lazy in their own edification (or worse, just disrespectful to the very prey that gives them nourishment), in the assessment of efficiency, as Professor Dave: 200 hundred days a year in the water, according to Cook, but evidently not interacting with those who could have taught him better.

In a nutshell, Fat of the Land is a great telling of a newbie’s entry into the world of West Coast spearfishing, fishing and foraging. It’s unlike so many books that try to romanticize the wilds, something that almost seems a crime, especially when I remember Christopher McCandless’ stupidity in Alaska, only a year after I came back to California. That honesty about Cook’s activities and those around him is what informs, educates and entertains (the humorous anecdotes are priceless and many of you who have ventured forth in your own rite, might easily recognize similar funny experiences). Through this writing, readers don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Through his writing, readers have an opportunity see if the world of living off the fat of the land is feasible or desired.

If you were stuck in bed like me last two week, you’ll feel fortunate to enjoy the escape to the wilds that a writer of Langdon Cook’s artistic ability brings to the page, making it so easy to “be there”, keeping your attention even through the blurred fog of a flu. Once I regain my sense of smell and taste, I can’t wait to try the recipes at the end of each chapter, related to the subject of that chapter, one of which I’ve enjoyed greatly in the past: oyster po’boys! Cook is so on the money, making sandwiches with those big as steaks North Pacific oysters.

As I said at the beginning, I see a new Thoreau in Langdon Cook, and with that amazing skill of capturing natures beauty like a photo, I look forward to him coming easily to the challenge of those ensuing responsibilities in his future books.

For you to enjoy your own copy of Fat of the Land!

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Through the Smoke a Delicious Rainbow

Posted on 10 January 2010 by Cork Graham

Cork Graham on the upper American River with a fresh rainbow trout.

Cork Graham on the upper American River with a fresh rainbow trout.

Before you think I’ve been playing with those funny mushrooms collected in a cow pasture under a full moon with that “delicious rainbow” title, let me tell about our show production last summer…

We were lucky in that we had shot the raw footage so quickly for the episode that would become the acclaimed, bowyer-edifying Baser Bow Traditions episode, so my cameraman and I decided we had time to fish the American River. Bill Lentz, who owns Cat Creek Outdoors, was all too happy to take us to a place where he was sure we’d get into some German browns if not some rainbows.

My setup was a Super 180SX that US Reel had just sent me to try out, mounted on my trusty 10’6″ Fenwick HMXS 105XL-2R steelhead and trout float noodle rod.

The hike down to the river from the highway bridge quick, and I was surprised that aside from construction workers on the road, only the three fishermen we were stood on the gravel bank of the American.

We tried spinners. We tried small marabou jig under a pencil float. Then, I moved away from the deep pools, upriver to the whitewater feeding the string of green emeralds, and tried on a never-say-die, single Pautzke’s red salmon egg on a light line-2 lb line in this case-that the worm turned.

Casting it up into a feeder flow, with a two small lead split-shot squeezed onto the line a foot-and-a-half above the single egg hook in a dropper, it tapped along the bottom with that morose code of communication that a steelheader searches the river for messages: either a solid take, or a silence of the tapping of lead along floor for tumbling waterway, hopefully…

In this case, it wasn’t a 10-pound steelhead that I might have hooked into later in November, below Folsom Dam, but a monster of a fish no less!

It pulled out so much line, with such veracity, that it felt like a salmon, not only in its immediately shooting downriver, but how it never jumped the whole 100 yards it took me over 20-foot boulders and rock outcroppings–I was thinking it was a big carp or river sucker.

–You can be sure I’ll be writing about the adventure in an upcoming column about how to fish effectively for trout in a freestone stream…

When it was all said and done (Lentz climbing 30 feet down to shore to lip the trout, while I kept tension on the line), I’d caught my largest landlocked, stream trout–I was finished for the day (I prefer to just take my catch for the table, instead of practicing catch-and-release with a multitude of fish, risking them to the statistical bracket of 63-percent unintentionally killed: this research by Texas Tech University was collected with the hardy largemouth bass and not the delicate trout) and wondering how to offer a trout, with such beautifully pink, almost sunrise-orange, flesh…culinary respect: this rainbow was to be smoked!

SMOKING TROUT

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Freshly smoked American River rainbow, about to be enjoyed with a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon

Smoke then salt; these are the first solid signs of civilization. With this knowledge of food preparation, Man was able to move from one area to another in voyages of discovery. Migration led to mixing of cultures and building of societies.

With the advent of refrigeration, the need for salt curing and smoking lost its importance. Were it not for how much smoke and salt, and now sugar, not only preserve, but also improve the taste of game such as deer, game birds, and fish, these skills would have been lost to history. Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Scottish, German, French, all centers of culinary invention have retained the process of putting salt and smoke to meat in order to not only preserve, but make a meal better.

For many, the process can be a trial in “getting it just right.” To brine or to dry cure is often the call sent out.

DRY CURE

Having tried both, I really don’t have a preference, other than that dry curing enables me to use less room in the refrigerator.

My favorite salmon and trout cure is one inch of salt over a fillet and let it set for five hours. Then, wash off the fillet with cold water. After patting it dry with a paper towel, layer it over with brown sugar for 6 hours. You’ll notice a nice deep brown shift in color. Again, you’ll have to wash off the fillet.

This time, though, pat it off and let it sit for at least one hour to air dry. This will enable a skin to develop, called a pellicle. A good pellicle enables great adherence of smoke to the flesh, giving that deep smoky flavor for which we enjoy the results.

Two hours on a grill or rack with a fan set next to it does fine.

BRINING

Make a brine of:

  • 1 gallon of filtered water
  • 1 cup of Kosher salt
  • 1 cup of extra fine granulated white sugar

Put the brine and fish in a non-reactive container, i.e. metallic, (plastic Tupperware is perfect) and refrigerate overnight.

Wash off the fillet in water and then pat dry. Like the dry cured fish, put it on a rack in front of a fan for drying.

Now, you’re ready to smoke.

SMOKERS

You can start small or grand, that’s a Smokehouse Little Chief or Big Chief to start, or a large smokehouse in your backyard. While I like to smoke birds in my CookShack smoker, or now my Big Green Egg, I leave my fish to my Smokehouse smokers.

If you’re a smoked foods fanatic like me, you’ll have a smoker collection in no time. I started with just a Little Chief and one Big Chief.

In fact, I just got a French oak wine barrel from our friends Bruce and Ben at Papapietro-Perry Winery in the Russian River Valley, that I’m going to be turning into a smoker this month: I’ve just received an advance review copy of Forgotten Skills of Cooking, Darina Allen’s masterpiece (an understatement, I’m sure you’ll agree with once you get a copy yourself when it comes out in March), and will be preparing my favorite Scottish breakfast from scratch: fried eggs and kippers…what else with a very old Scottish name like Graham?

…Stay tuned for the magic of herring kippering like back in the “Ole Country” and the crafting of a smoker from a wine barrel (you can bet it’s going to do double and triple duty on smoked Teutonic and Slavic sausages this spring)!

BEST WOOD

I prefer to smoke fish with those having less bite, such as apple. Alder is wood I learned about during my year’s cabin pilgrimage to Alaska in 1990, which makes it my go to wood for smoking all salmon, char and trout. It gives the fish a smooth sweet flavor.

If you’re getting it yourself from a riverbank, be sure to remove the bark, or you might get sick. That was a trick I learned from my BBQ buddy Rick Sanchis, of Anchorage, who owned one of two BBQ pits catering to tourists and those working the Spit down in Homer, AK. Those who were heading to the visiting Texan’s pit were always complaining of bad stomachaches, if not outright vomitting after a meal. Sanchis was the one who taught me about removing the bark, which is what the summer bird pitmaster from Texas didn’t do…

SMOKED TROUT PAIRINGS

Though many like to use smoked trout as an ingredient for something else, like stirred into cream cheese, or a garnish for a soup, I prefer to eat smoked trout in a manner that best brings out it’s smoky flavor and that’s with a Ritz cracker, perhaps a little sliced red onion. Perhaps even a light sprinkling of black pepper. That’s it!

The perfect wine I learned for anything smoked is a good solid Pinot Noir, as I enjoyed in a 2007 Papapietro-Perry, and 2006 12 Gauge Cabernet Sauvignon suggested by my friend John Putnam, a fellow game and fish enthusiast at Gauge Wines.

That’s the thing about some meats, unlike chicken and fish, that go better with a white, smoked and spiced meat marry best with the deep earthy red wines.

FINAL NOTE: In the open of the New Year, I had promised to keep this column running at two, at least one, column a week. The mega-monster flu of the year hit me this week that basically took me out of a number of hunting and fishing opportunities and nearly made me miss my objective…by hours.

My apologies. I hope by next week I’m much better for typing and hitting the field, like an Ever-Ready Energizer rabbit that I am, to bring more helpful, reliable Tuesday and Thursday rollouts as I used to do with my weekly newspaper column.

Actually, weekly column was only once a week, so this is much better!

And we have lots of things to do: I’m now the equipment review columnist for e4Outdoors, and will be attending the ISE Show at San Mateo, and conducting a number of interviews, not the least of which will be with my friend Michael Riddle of Native Hunt, who will be releasing a special and tasty food product related to wild game!

…And don’t surprised if there’s also a special, secret guest, a partner of Michael’s…Hint: Do you love the early 1970s song Free Ride? I do, especially every time I watch one of my favorite films: Air America.

…And final quick note, on how I’ve been seeking solace in reading while recovering with Langdon Cook’s Fat of the Land. Cook is a writer of such great skill, that he brings me back to the emotionally vested writing style of old that drew me to become a writer in the first place: Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, and Remarques’ All Quiet on the Western Front. I look forward to next week and delivering to you my review on Langdon Cook’s great memoir of refusing to leave life experience to only reading about it, and venturing forth to enjoy personally what the Earth and Nature has to offer.

…Until next then, good hunting, good fishing and cooking–enjoy the Bounty of the Earth, and practice Sound Wildlife Conservation!

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Two in the Can…Two More This Weekend!

Posted on 03 April 2009 by Cork Graham

Ziggy's first half of hunt birds.

Ziggy's first half of hunt birds.

If I could only shoot and not have to deal with editing, creating episodes would be a complete slam-dunk: but it’s in the editing that shows are made or destroyed!

And sometimes it just fun going out for a hunting or fishing trip and enjoying it for what it is. Two weeks ago Ziggy and I went to Birds Landing Hunting Preserve to make sure the Zig-meister had a last chance at pheasants during their shoot-out. First time trying the place: great place to hunt, with nice folks…but make sure your pup has its Frontline–ticks galore!

For an 8 months old pup he pointed 8 birds, two of which were dead. As can happen, other hunters lose their birds, either because their vest is flimsy or the bird falls out as they’re bending over. Or, more often, a bird is crippled and never found–if you’ve ever wondered why a good bird-dog can cost so much this is why… If a bird is killed that day, I have no problems adding it to my bag.

If you feel the same, feel free to pick up those birds and add them to your limit [this was an end of season “Shoot-out”, so there was no limit, hence 8 birds!] What I do is smell the bird to make sure it’s fresh, though.  And as a sign of age, if I see maggots already at work, I know for sure it’s been a day since the bird was killed and that’s where I don’t retain the dead bird. 

Funny part was that I’m now getting an idea of what he’s pointing. If Ziggy’s tail’s up, it’s a live bird holding. If his tail’s down, it’s a dead bird, time of death not yet determined. Needless to say we’ve got a lot of birds to work smoking and BBQ recipes with. Just did a couple birds in the 10 year old Model 8 Cookshack smoker: bulgogi marinated and applewood smoked–came back from my year working for the ROK Army to find it kaput, but a replacement of the heating element and that’s all it needed!

As for other show’s we’ve getting ready for release, we’ve been editing the wine-poached steelhead that we used a wonderful  Papapietro-Perry Chardonnay on. It came out very well as you’ll see in the coming how-to episode.

Hope your turkey opener was spectacular! I was the cameraman on the lastest episode we shot for our friends at Mathews last weekend. Started off with a perfect ground blind setup, but devolved into a call and run and shoot: wait ’til you see how Marv DeAngelis shoots at 15 yards, if that!

Marv DeAngelis with his trophy gobbler

Marv DeAngelis with his trophy gobbler

For this weekend’s shoot, our friends at a Rvfshr Products and Kramer Tackle and Guide sent a collection of lures to try on steelhead. So, we’re dedicating a couple episodes to jigs and pink worms, and spoons and spinners. Can’t wait to try them! They look fishy and you’ll notice that many lures meant to catch fish, as compared to anglers ,can seem very muted when you use them, jigs and worms aside. More on that later in an actual feature article…

It’s kind of a bittersweet as we move into later parts of the season. The Russian is lowering and we’ve probably just got another two weeks left of steelheading there. The American is still on, and perhaps another two weeks after than and it too will be done. Then it’s trout and bass and halibut and spearfishing and so many great activities to do in the outdoors that put  you in the thick of it as a true conservationist–preservationists need not apply… ;)

As for hunting, we’ve definitely got many opportunities for turkey, mainly Rio Grandes, but a few Easterns in the mix through cross-breeding. Briley and Kick’s Industries sent us their special turkey chokes to try on my trusty Remington SP-10. You may be surprised to know that I actually enjoy shooting the SP-10. It’s more enjoyable to shoot than many 26″ barrel 12 gauges. Yes, it’s heavy, but as you know from my comments about shooting heavy-kicking firearms, I’ll definitely take the weight any day. And what I love most is when that load from a 10 hits, it’s lights out: turkey or geese–perfect load/perfect pattern! It’s the magnum shooter’s 16 gauge…

More on program scheduling: my favorite, wild pigs, is still on the menu this spring, though with the rapid heating/non-winter and lack of water it’s a question of what it’ll carryon to be…

Well back to the Russian for steelies on jigs, pink worms, spoons and spinners!

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