Play It As It Lies

by | Aug 21, 2019 | 17 comments

On a familiar piece of river, Joey and I waded cautiously upstream. My young son had already seen a few good-sized trout that spooked from the disturbance of his boots. At ten years old, he well understood a trout’s window of vision but was still learning that pushing currents into a fish is another way to frighten a wild and wary trout.

On the deeper side of the creek, between two skinny limestone shelves, was a shaded undercut. It was guarded by dead hemlock boughs and protected by the cautions of average fishermen. That is to say, most guys pass it up. And with Joey along, I always passed it up too. But this summer morning, Joey eyed the riffled corner pocket and asked why we hadn’t fished it.

“Go ahead, Joe,” I said as I motioned to the sheltered bank. “It’ll take a sidearm cast to get under those dead branches. You only have this much space to work with . . .”

I made a three-foot vertical stack of space between my hands and looked between it.

“Anything higher than that, and you’ll be in the tree,” I said. “But it’s a great spot. I caught a Whiskey out of there one time.”

Joey nodded and carefully pushed his body through the water before settling into position. Two casts later, his fly was in the dead branches.

My son looked at me with disappointment, and I shrugged with a smile.

“That’s alright. Go get the fly,” I told him.

Joey waded across twenty feet of water and reached under the hemlock. The single troublesome branch was really the only thing causing the obstruction, because the next branch was at least five feet further up the tree. He waded under the dead limb and pulled on it. The branch started to crack as Joey yelled over to me . . .

“I’m getting this thing out of here, Dad! Then we can cast better next time.”

“NO, NO, NO!” I hollered. Joey stopped right before the branch seemed to give up its hold. And he looked at me puzzled.

“Leave it, Joe,” I said, waving my hand. “That’s the river’s decision, not ours.”

— — — — — —

At six-foot-six and built like a bulldozer, Smith usually takes the roughest water. He likes it. And I do too. I’ve always been compelled by the roar of thick waves crashing and mixing through a high-gradient, bouldered run. It’s enough volume to block out all distractions. And I’m wholly immersed in fishing while standing in a places like these.

But there are physical limitations for anyone. And I marvel at the way Smith wades heavy water. He walks in currents that would wash me away. So on the bigger rivers, Smith gets the outside bend.

That’s where he was, one fall evening, as we waded side-by-side among the leaf-speckled current. Autumn had only recently changed its colors, but near the waterline, trees lose their leaves first.

Photo by Austin Dando

I released another plump brown trout and nodded to Smith. Then I answered a question he hadn’t asked — the only one that mattered, and we both knew it.

“Top fly,” I said.

Smith bowed a slight thank you. Good fishing partners are hard to find.

Minutes later, Smith stuck his own wild trout, and he answered in turn . . .

“Same,” Smith yelled over. “Top fly again.”

Smith crossed through the heaviest current and fished toward the bank. I stayed on the inside of the seam that he’d walked through, and I picked apart the pockets formed by mid-sized boulders. One after the other, we caught fish on nymphs for a while.

Then Smith snagged up in the shade, and a series of hard pulls and tugs did nothing to dislodge the fly.

“It’s probably wood,” I shouted over.

“Yeah, I can see it,” Smith replied. And he waded through thigh-deep current, toward the obstruction.

Then he reached deep into the cold river. Smith’s arm stayed there for a while, digging around before he finally lifted a massive branch — more like half of a tree — to the top of the water.

“Hey Dom, do you think I should get this thing out of here, because . . .”

“No way!” I yelled back. “Let it lie.”

— — — — — —

Josh sat behind the oars and held the boat on a line. I stood on the front platform, and I was in a rhythm, with steady casts and blank thoughts. I banged one good throw after another within inches of the bank. With no pause and about four jerk-strips, the streamer ended up near enough to the boat to give up the drift again. Lift, backcast, deliver, strip, repeat. Nothing else.

Photo by Josh Darling

Then something unusual caught my eye downstream. A white rag near the bank came into view as we floated closer. Knotted around a limb, the dirty handkerchief sat above the sweetest spot in the river for a half mile.

There’s an obscure spring that comes out of the ground, right there, unseen and unknown until you wet wade through it one summer day. And only then might you put two-and-two together. It’s not luck that I’ve caught a couple top-tier trout in that average looking bucket over the years. It’s the spring flow that keeps fish there — season after season, noses in the trickle, cool in the summer and warm in the winter, always clean.

So it takes some local knowledge to have this spot on your radar.

Clearly someone else knew about it too. And they tied the handkerchief there as a marker.

“Oh no, no, no, no. No!” I said aloud. “Hey Josh, row me over there, man. That’s coming down.”

I slipped my knife behind the knot and sliced the cotton material away before Josh even had the boat settled.

“Do good trout hold there? Is that a nice spot? ” Josh asked.

“You bet your ass it is,” I replied.

Josh back-rowed into position again. He held the same line, thirty feet off the bank. And I kept casting.

— — — — — —

Play it as it lies

There’s a rule in golf that’s best summarized by this phrase: Play it as it lies.

I don’t golf. And, in fact, I don’t know any die-hard fishermen that are any good at golf either. Seems that both disciplines require inordinate amounts of time to become any good at swinging what you gotta swing, and life is too short for most humans to tackle both.

But golf has its own set of rules — written down. And that’s a big difference. So what I tell you here is nothing but my suggestion — my own opinion. Of course, I think everyone should do it the same way I do. But that’s the inherent bias of an opinion. Now isn’t it?

So I say, play it as it lies. Don’t change the river. Just fish it the way it is.

Why shouldn’t you change the river? Why not break the offending branch off for easier casting next time? Why not pull the log and all its tangling, fly-stealing branches out of your honey hole?

Because It’s Wild

I choose to fish wild places wherever I can.

Pennsylvania has more roads per square mile than any state in the union. So, most of my rivers are influenced by some developer’s notion of a road or railway in one shape or another.

But keeping the experience as natural as possible is important to me. More than that — being in wild places is a good part of why I’m out there to begin with.

Photo by Bill Dell

It’s why I don’t fish private water. And I don’t fish club water. Because I don’t like the setup. It’s too artificial. I want an experience as close to what nature intended as possible on this twenty-first century planet. And messing with a river’s placement of things just isn’t for me.

READ: Wild vs Stocked: The Hierarchy of Trout in Pennsylvania

Because It’s Cover

Often, areas that are difficult to fish hold the best trout. That shady pocket where Joey stuck his fly in the brittle hemlock limb held big fish for just that reason. It’s a sanctuary for wise trout, not just because anglers pass it up, but because hawks, herons and eagles are kept away too. Trout sense it. They hold there and feed. So the area becomes a prime lie.

And removing the obstacle will change the lie. It erases the shelter — strips away the protection — and trout sense that absence just as easily.

Likewise, marking a prime lie with a handkerchief draws unfair attention to such a place. It goes against nature’s flow. It cheats the river and the trout.

That kind of thing is just asking for bad fishing mojo too. And instant karma’s gonna get ya.

It Changes

The shifts and evolutions that a river succumbs to is captivating to watch.

It’s a slow motion reel in your mind, spanning twenty years of fishing around the same small island. Until one day, after the flood waters recede, you walk down the trail to find the whole island gone.

It’s the river’s decision.

Keep it wild.

Fish hard, friends.


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Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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  1. Interesting ethos, Domenick. I respect it, probably even like it. I’ll think on that a bit.

    • Oh, and for what it’s worth – I used to love golf. I was a 5 handicap (before marriage and kids). I haven’t touched a golf club in 2 years now. These days, I’d simply rather drift a tandem nymph rig through some riffles. That shift in focus coincided with my discovery of tight-line nymphing. Is there a connection between the two? Probably.

  2. Always providing perspective. Thanks for this. You’ve enhanced mine.

    • Thanks for reading, Dave.


    • Right on.

  4. I feel the same way. Leave the cover alone. The river put it there and when the river sees fit it’ll remove it or even ad to it. There’s a tree on the West Branch Delaware that looks like it’ll be coming down soon right by a very deep hole. This will be the next Whiskey Juniorville at the very least and I’ll be more than willing to lose a few flies trying.

    • Yup.

  5. Interesting article on a topic that gets little discussion. And your dislike of club and private waters really resonates with me. I’ve been invited numerous times to fish the private pond of a very old prestigious fishing club in Vermont and I keep coming up with excuses not to go. The offer is kind but I hate fishing from a boat, or on private water or with 100% stocked fish. I don’t care how big they are. I need forest, flowing water on my legs and a chance at native or at least holdover fish. Give me a 6″ brookie over a 20″ club fish any day! I need to feed my soul, not my ego.

    • Yes, that’s how I feel about club water.

  6. I get to fish a private club a few times per year. I enjoy it for what it is, and for the chance to mingle with some old-timers.

    But it is a little like golfing, right down to the scorecards.

    I approve of golf, because golfers might otherwise clutter up my trout streams.

    • “I approve of golf, because golfers might otherwise clutter up my trout streams.”


  7. I have one buddy that is an excellent fisherman and golfer, but he’s the exception to the rule. I think I’m a decent fisherman but have no interest in being a decent golfer.

  8. In the past I’ve removed some obstacles and some rags/flags also. Next time I think I’ll leave the obstacles be. I like the thought of not disturbing something wild. Keep up the good work Dom!

  9. Still one of your best….

  10. I do the same!

  11. How about this one? (from today’s fishing):
    I’m fishing at my local, very small, with VERY tight cover, stream for little browns. There’s “that one hole” that is a bit of a nemesis of mine – nice perfect little hole, that unfortunately seems to be insanely hard to avoid spooking the fish out of. I visit it regularly, and the vast majority of the time I keep spooking the fish and come up empty. So today when I get there there’s now the additional challenge of a sizable bushy branch that has lodged itself next to the hole, making casting and not snagging that much more difficult. I consider pulling it out of the way, BUT I also just read this article, and so I figure I should “play it as it lies”. Hmmmmm.
    So, I make a fews casts, some better than others, and of course on the 5th or 6th one I end up snagging on that branch. I start trying to dislodge the fly by pulling sideways and back a bit and lo’and behold, the branch itself comes dislodged and I end up pulling it out of the hole, and out of the way. So, I got my fly back, and inadvertantly got the branch out of the way in the process?
    Did I cheat? Does this somehow still mean that I “played it as it lied”? Fair game?

    Oh, and of course any fish that might have been in that hole was surely spooked and I came up empty again….but that’s not unusual.


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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