As anglers, we want to know where the fly is, and we want control over its path. But on the river, acquisition of these desires is fleeting. The water works against us. Currents grab the line and force the fly off on some unintended course — in the wrong direction and down a different seam. Poor light angles and water clarity take away the visibility of a leader or fly. And mixed currents fight against us, removing direct contact, control and strike detection.
Two of Five
See, hear, touch, taste, smell. Our five human senses define the way we exist in the world. And the complete angler uses all these senses to experience a day on the water.
The sounds of mixed pocket water, deep inside a limestone canyon, bordered by towering hemlocks and shaded ferns are what I dream of. Late at night, when my mind won’t stop churning over the troubles or intricacies of life and let me sleep, I imagine myself waist deep in the river. I hear the constant rumble of a rolling river mixed with the sporadic clap of falling waves over wet mossy rocks. I smell the complexity of limestone waters mixed with earth, the clean aroma of evergreens and the herbal scent of those unfolding ferns.
These sounds and smells, so familiar and present, are there for my imagination at any moment. With closed eyes, I need not elaborate with mental pictures. The creations of scent and sound in these dreams form the necessary peace to sleep — calmly. And moments later, I’m waking to daylight, rested and open to a new day.
While all five senses blend together into the rich, unmatched experience of fishing through woods and water, only two are necessary for catching trout — sight and feel. These two senses combine to tell us a story about each drift. Some of our tactics require both, while others require just one. But take away both sight and feel, and the angler is lost.
Why We All Love Top Water
The rolled wood duck tips of Hendrickson wings bounce over a riffle, cantering gently to the side and reflecting sunlight in a spray of angles. The dead drift is flawless, and time separates into slow motion. Then a golden-brown freight train charges from the undercut of shadows. Is anything more perfectly rewarding than this moment?
How about stripping a visible streamer in the top column and watching that same wild trout charge the fly? The suspense manufactured from a great cast mixes with the adrenaline of a top-tier trout attacking the fly, and we feel the take as we see it. For many, the visible streamer eat matches or surpasses the excitement of the surface take on a dry.
The dry fly scenario uses sight alone to track the fly. The s-curves, lending enough slack for the dead drift, put us out of touch on purpose. But the streamer scenario has all the same visual elements of watching the Hendrickson, with the added sense of touch — of contact with the fly.
Both are highly rewarding experiences — addictive, even. And this kind of pleasure is a good reason why fishing dry flies and streamers are arguably the most preferred methods of modern fly fishing.
These Things and the Other Things
So then, fishing dries is a pure, visual experience. And stripping a streamer off the undercut, shadowy bank is both visual and tactile. We feel the jarring hit, the killing blow of a predator trout. And if the fly is high enough in the column, we see it too.
Sight and touch, I would argue, are the favored senses. Most of us would choose these over all others, if forced to a decision. So it’s no wonder that we gravitate to tactics that reward and challenge these senses — dries and streamers.
But what of nymphs?
Nymphing is most often performed blind. We rarely see the nymph or watch the trout take. Worse yet, with many of the most common nymphing systems, we’re removed from any sense of feel. The standard bobber/indicator method uses line mends to keep the bobber drifting “naturally.” These mends introduce slack into a system that already suffers from a loss of contact. And most nymphing anglers struggle to understand where the fly is, in relation to the indicator. (Indicator fishing can be done with contact throughout, but tight line to the indicator styles are still largely underused.)
So when anglers show an aversion to nymphing styles, this is why. Without sight of the nymph and without feel — without contact — we have little sense for where the fly is. We can guess, but guessing isn’t very rewarding. Is it?
Fishing without a good sense of sight or feel deprives the angler of what is most enjoyable — control over the outcome.
Thus, the growing popularity of tight line styles and contact fishing systems is explained. Contact is feel. And a good feel for flies under the water is just as rewarding as a good visual for flies above the water (almost).
Contact systems are as old as fishing itself. Tie a hook and line to any bait, add weight for the cast, and get it to the river bottom. Then drift it, waiting for the occasional tick, tick, tick on rocks or the thud of a trout intercepting the squirming bait. Now take that up a notch. Bring it forward a few decades or centuries. Back it up with high end graphite composites. Add an advanced understanding of river hydraulics and the strike zone, and you have good tight line nymphing. The way modern nymphing is performed, with a trained eye on the sighter (or an indy in a tight line system) is a harmonious concert of contact and sight. Using our senses of vision and touch, these nymphing styles are blended with a good dose of imagination and focus to take the fly to a trout.
Is all of that as enjoyable as watching the dry fly take at the surface, or feeling and seeing the kill shot of a predator trout assaulting our streamer? Probably not. But nymphing with contact has its own rewards.
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Kicking through thin, crusty snow on fallen oak leaves sounds like winter. And the winter wind cuts through leafless trees with a low whistle rather than a flutter. The sounds of the forest are forever.
Likewise, the scent of a frozen winter wood is barren. The decay and decomposition of dying trees, leaves and animals of all forms is suspended, leaving a clean pallet. The faint fragrance of hemlock hangs in the air and stays with you. Even the next day, unpacking your gear, the scent of the evergreens trails from your clothes and recalls the river hours of a day past.
Neither sense is required for fishing, but memories are built from these scents and sounds.
The tangible experience is what connects us — What we touch, what we cast, how we set the hook, and how we hold a trout. And the vision of it all is where these moments and memories begin.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N
Really? You mean you can’t smell when there are trout in the river? Must make it a bit tough 🙂
As a dry fly guy, I would never leave home without my sense of hearing.
Agreed. The largest wild trout I ever caught was one that I heard rise, behind me and to my left.
Aren’t you glad you didn’t leave it home! Awesome tid bit. Did you name him “Slurpee”?
Ha. I wasn’t naming two footers at the time. So I just call him “The biggest wild trout I’ve ever caught.”
Please elaborate in a future article, or link if you have previously.
The story of that trout is embedded into the middle of the story of Honey Bunny. It’s here:
” the sounds of the forest are forever.”
Ditto, great line! I also like your recollection of forest smells and sounds without forming images.
Well written and illustrated. I teach school and I suppose that I read differently because of that, but you write in a simple and elegant essay style–good, attention getting introduction, well organized arguments to illustrate your point, and a reenforcing conclusion. I could use this as a good example of what an essay ought to be. English composition 101.
The photos illustrating your essays are also note worthy. Pointed and excellently executed.
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That’s a fantastic compliment that my English professors would be proud of. I learned! I appreciate the kind words and support.
I never add anyone’s email to the Troutbitten subscriber list myself. But you can do so, very easily, right here:
Dom , Nice prose ! Very creative a always. Your writing has jogged my memory of days long since passed fishing with my Dad in the late 1950’s . He would always line his basketweave creel with fiddlehead fern to keep his trout moist . We kept em 7 inches and up in that time. Today when I step into some fern along the river bank , and catch that distinctive scent , it takes me back to those good times. Regards!