I could barely make out the shape of a man fishing through the fog. A dense cloud hung over the water that morning, wrapping everything in a white shroud, and I felt water enter my lungs with every breath. Eventually, the rising sun punched holes through a white sheet, further decreasing visibility with mirrored reflections. Then within the next half hour, solar warmth provided enough heat to turn the big cloud into vapor. And as the fog dissipated over the river, Mike’s thin form came into view.
He moved like a machine in rhythm. He zigged and zagged across the pocket water, casting and catching, netting and releasing one trout after another. The machine paused to catch its breath only when Mike spent thirty seconds tying a knot. From my perspective downstream, it was perfection.
— — — — — —
My friend Mike is a numbers guy.
He starts early and stays late. When the fish are on, Mike wades all day and stops rarely. If the fish are off, he might pack it in and head across the mountain to the next valley, searching for action good enough to rack up a hefty tally. Mike’s in a constant race to see how many fish he can catch.
If you really want to learn the fish catching game, find a numbers guy. The best of them have a strategy for any situation, and in high or low water, muddy, cold, fast or slow water, the numbers guy has a plan.
For Mike, fishing is a calculation, a math equation. He’s a researcher and a scientist on the water.
Some numbers guys seem to let all that counting and calculation take the fun out of fishing, and they eventually burn out. But not all of them.
Mike carries the same clicker he uses as a doorman and bouncer. (It’s a good job for a fisherman, because the weekday mornings are free.) He’s a great dude to fish with because he keeps the clicker-count to himself and still sees the big picture. But the day’s fish count is what motivates Mike to fish often and fish hard.
The numbers guy can be tough to hang with. He doesn’t take a lunch break, and won’t hit the local bar with you when fishing slows down. He doesn’t quit. Instead, he’ll relocate, or he might buckle down and re-fish an area with new flies.
Oh yeah, the flies . . .
The numbers guy carries fly boxes full of patterns lined up like soldiers awaiting their call to action. Many of the flies look the same, with maybe five variations on the same pheasant tail, one with a copper rib, and another with a gold rib and bright yellow collar. Having these options keeps the numbers guy focused during slow times — because there’s always a new reason to believe, with every fly change, there’s new hope and another chance to dial it all in.
The best numbers guys have a love affair with efficiency, and they make it an art form — not just a math problem. Efficiency is a way to minimize movement and effect a system on the river. It’s a way to know what should work next, and it’s a plan to get there.
What about all that counting?
The numbers guy keeps an accurate tally of trout in the net, and while that can seem a little over the top, it’s the way he enjoys the game. Nothing wrong with that, as long as he keeps it to himself.
At worst, the numbers guy forgets that others don’t care to count, and he’ll volunteer his catch numbers on your home waters, unprompted.
“I was up your way yesterday and caught 64 trout. It was a lot slower than the week before.”
There’s nothing worse than fishing with a numbers guy who not only keeps track of his fish, but runs a tally sheet on your own fishing day too. Counting opens the door to competing. And although striving to outdo the next guy can be a valuable human instinct, it’s irritating on the river. I can fish with a numbers guy, as long as he let’s me do my own thing without the numbers sheet.
Mike was a competition fisherman for a while, and that’s where he learned many of the tactics that catch one fish after the other.
But Mike quit the comp scene. He says he decided to spend his weekends fishing the whole time instead of keeping score for others and waiting for the stopwatch to begin and end his session. He realized he could catch even more fish without being restricted by rules or being penned into just one section of the creek. He figured he could catch even more fish if he wasn’t involved in a competition. That’s just more cold calculation right there.
— — — — — —
I caught up to the breathing, clicking machine by mid morning, but only because Mike had started swinging streamers down and across, picking off a few fish that he’d somehow missed while nymphing, zigging and zagging upriver.
“What’s the word?” Mike asked, once we were within speaking distance. “The water’s perfect here, isn’t it?”
As I reeled in my line, I looked around and pointed toward the wooded hillside.
“Yeah, the river changed a lot when that big storm broke off a bunch of tree tops and they slid into the water’s edge. I really love watching a river grow through the years.”
“For sure.” Mike nodded and gestured toward the bank. “Seems like that right side holds a fish behind every wet spruce branch.”
Mike and I stood in the river and talked for a while. The cool water slid down the sides of our waders and back into the flow. It was a good morning, and I was satisfied.
“Well buddy, I’m gonna pack it in and get lunch at the diner,” I said. “Care to join me?”
Mike looked surprised.
“No, no. I want to walk up above the old barn and fish those flats. There’s always a few fish feeding under the willows. But I’ll catch up with you later tonight,” he said.
As I started down the footpath toward the truck, I paused and turned around to watch Mike. He was fishing again, back into the mechanical rhythm. I hesitated to break such skilled concentration, but I had to know. So I yelled across the river.
“What’s the count, Mike?”
He startled a little, then glanced at the clicker hanging from his vest.
“Twenty-six so far!” With one thumb up and the other hand casting, he bellowed back across the noisy river.
I shook my head and chuckled. He’d probably double that number by noon.
I had a good lunch at the diner.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N