Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Fishing Lessons

The river valley widens in the lower section, downstream from the rod & gun club that sits on a piece of the world's most perfect real estate, on a broad sloping lawn with tall oaks and elegant willows, under a sheer, spectacular bluff, turkey vultures ever wheeling around its crest.

The river valley widens, and the character of the water changes with the lessened gradient. Above it is riffle, pool, riffle, pool, through the narrower valley where the river often runs up against limestone walls. The broader valley here is sand and gravel. The river bottom, likewise--easy wading, but the more langorous flow allows for long, flat, mirrored runs, not easy to fish.

Used to be, I didn't try. I was an impatient fisherman. I wanted action, and I wanted it now. Also, I did not want to be reminded of my shortcomings in terms of casting and fly presentation. I did not want to see trout fleeing in all directions as my line hit the water. I found that sort of thing discouraging. So I fished the faster, broken water--long raveled riffles, pocket water in the rocky canyon sections. When the surface of the river is fractured thus, the fish can't see you, don't spook. Also, they are conditioned to react swiftly and decisively--the food is going by quickly, and they can't hesitate if they are going to eat.

I fished large nymphs, and showy girdle bugs and other attractors, through these broken water sections. It is not mindless fishing, there's some technique in managing the drift, mending line to keep the fly on target, but it does not require much finesse. Or patience.

Patience was what I needed to catch that thirteen-inch brown and other fish that live where it lived, on the far side of a long glassy run, just out of the main flow of current, in a relaxed and productive lie among a few rounded rocks in just a few inches of water. You wouldn't expect to find many fish, or large fish, in water that shallow, but they are there. Trout don't always read the same books that we do about where trout ought to be.

In my earlier impatient days of fishing, I would come upon this run from below, and if there were fish rising, I would cast to them with dry flies. Most often I would put them down or scatter them. I would curse, I'd catch my backcast on a stalk of angelica, curse some more, retrieve the fly, head upstream to the next riffle.

I brought home fish, and let plenty go. I became very good at doing what I knew how to do. But over time, you know, you want things long-loved to be new again, and you want to learn again, and change, not stagnate, grow complacent. Even in fishing.

I didn't think it out, how to fish the glassy run, a perfect piece of water in many ways, with trout throughout in complex lies in layers of water, where from the hillside once a buck snorted at me, snorted again, stomped its feet, before crashing up the steep slope through the underbrush. I didn't think it out; I just tried everything, over time, many years, and what was left was what worked.

It's not complicated. It's not like sight-fishing to a nymphing trout, watching it feeding underwater, placing a sub-surface fly right in front its nose, lifting the rod to set the hook when you see its mouth open, the flash of white. I can't do that, can't see that well, frankly. And I still don't have that much patience or skill.

What I do is this: I stand facing downstream near the top of the run, on the right side of the river as I look down, and I am right-handed, and the fish I am interested in are along the far shore. There are many other fish in the deeper water of the main channel which lies between me and the far shore, but I am not interested in these fish. It is not that they are not interesting fish, in their own right, just not to me on this day.

I am holding a seven-and-a-half foot bamboo fly rod that a friend made for me. It is outfitted with a five-weight tapered silk French fly line, a new line though the material is very old-fashioned. (The line is wound on a Lightweight model reel from Hardy Brothers of Alnwick, England, though this is irrelevant.) At the end of the line there is a hand-tied monofilament leader, seven feet or so, and at the end of the leader is a length of 5X monofilament tippet, and at the end of the tippet is attached a small nymph, probably a size 14 or 16 pheasant-tail, or gold-ribbed hare's-ear, or buff-colored "bird-nest" with legs of wood duck feather.

It doesn't end there: To the bend of the hook of this fly I have attached another length of tippet, and if I am very brave or quite foolish this tippet is even thinner, 6X, ridiculous to use something this fine for nymphing. Tied with an improved clinch knot to the end of this tippet is another nymph, and this one is almost surely a size 16 gold-ribbed hare's ear nymph, and most often now it is a soft-hackle fly, with a tiny grouse wing feather wound round just behind the hook eye.

The set-up is a little complicated, and the method is simple. I strip out line, a lot of line, for I must get the flies all the way across the stream, and at an angle across the main current. I make a couple of casts into the water directly below me, well away from the fish I intend to address. Then when I'm ready I check behind me once more for that conniving angelica stalk or other tall weeds, and then I roll cast to get my line out straight, and I slowly draw back the rod, lifting the line in the air, feeling it load the rod behind me with its weight, and I must be patient now, too, not to bring it forward too soon, especially with two flies, and I make one false cast, two at the most, and let the line go, finish with the tip of the rod at eye level before me.

As the line hits the water I quickly mend, use the tip of the rod to flip a section of line upstream so it doesn't belly downstream so quickly with the current. Now the line is on the water--a silk line does not float, but rests in the surface film held up by surface tension--and the flies are in the water, and the trout are in the water, and I wait.

More often than not it is the end of the day when I come to this run to fish it this way. The hills and bluffs make the thermals that the hawks and vultures love, and that convection keeps a steady wind in the valley on sunny afternoons. But now it's evening, and still. The river is in shade here and wears a dark glossy sheen with highlights of reflected leaves and glints of sun through the hilltop green. I'm windblown and sunburned and perfectly content after several hours on the stream; I am tired and my shoulders hurt from the weight of the vest, I'll have a good mile walk to get back to the car, maybe through the dark, through the tall weeds, and I couldn't be happier.

Now the flies are drifting downstream, and I am waiting. I may flick the tip of the rod just the slightest, mending the mend, but stillness is key.

It's like looking for mushrooms, a bit, like when that clump of brown leaves does disclose a chanterelle, you knew something you shouldn't have known, if you did in fact know it, because often when you've thought you knew something like that, you really didn't, under the brown leaves there were more brown leaves, but you hang on to those times when you did know what you shouldn't have known, and make that the norm, that and not all the empty graspings, just to keep yourself going.

It's like that, when you've waited long enough, the fly must be there, and you lift the rod and that nearly weightless filament of silk is anything but weightless, it is heavy and it is trembling with the trout at its end, an impossible connection is made inevitable. There you are. That's how it works. You knew it would be there, you just knew it.

You only have to land it now, and that's good fun, and it's good to put a trout in the creel if it's legal and you feel like it. But you can see what it's really all about.

That particular fish, in the picture above, it didn't want to admit what was happening. It took the fly and when I set the hook it made one quick downstream run, then when I stopped it, it turned and came slowly upstream, at the bottom of the main channel. I could see it very clearly, the ruddy gold flanks, those brilliant, distinct spots. It didn't leap, it didn't take any more runs, just resignedly held in the deep water until I reeled it close enough to net it. It was a deep and heavy fish for its length, put a strain on the rod as I brought it in close.

I will end with prologue. Just above that section of water there's another stretch quite similar. It is not quite as deep or complex, but I haven't really learned how to fish it yet. Toward the end of the run there's a downed tree in the river, with the rootwad facing upstream, the sort of spot where the current is directed downward by the shape of the tree and scours out a deep pocket that always holds good fish. On this day I employed my patience in this run, got the fly just where I wanted it in front of the rootwad, and was rewarded with a take. As I set the hook I could tell I had just hooked a very good fish, and this feeling was confirmed when the fish turned and went down, and the line sang off the reel (Lightweight model from Hardy Brothers of Alnwick, England, now quite relevant).

And then, as we say, I got schooled. One moment the line was tight, the rod was bent, and the fish was on. The next, the line was tight, the rod was bent...and the fish was gone. The line led my eyes down into the rootwad. I gave a couple little jerks to see if I could free it, but it was stuck tight, and there was a weight on the line but it was a dead weight. I waded toward where the line disappeared under water, reeling up as I went. I rolled up my sleeve and reached down into the tangled roots--this was a little scary, snapping turtles, I'm thinking--and freed the hook from where the big brown trout had left it when it swam away free.

Text and photo copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw


mdmnm said...


Very, very nice and just so!

Wendy Berrell said...

Brilliant write up here. Great visualization as I read through.

I still use the broken water crutch a lot, but I foresee that one day (perhaps it's happening even now) I'll want more challenges, more learning, different water and different "angles" fishing.

Trout Caviar said...

Thanks, mdmnm, much appreciated.

Wendy, I'm certainly not averse to bouncing a girdle bug through the riffles, nor do I claim, at all, to have it all figured out. Just yesterday I couldn't catch an eight-inch brook trout in a stream teeming with them, in two hours of nymphing, in the rain! Brook trout! What the hell?!

Thanks for your note. Have fun out there~ Brett