There’s a world unseen below the surface. The riverbed weaves a course and directs the currents, giving shape to its valley. Water swirls behind rocks. It moves north and south against submerged logs. The stream blends and separates, merges and divides again as vertical columns rise and fall — and all of this in three dimensions.
Few people understand what lies beneath the riffled, whitewater breakup or the smooth glide of a river’s surface. Many drive, jog or walk past the water, or they admire the winding bends from a scenic overlook, high above on the neighboring ridge. But the angler knows. He intuitively learns the push and pull of the currents as he wades upstream. She easily predicts the speed of a run by the depth of its color. Because as analytical anglers, we are forever in thought.
The fly fisher who drifts and strips flies under the surface is immersed in a mental puzzle, forming an imaginary map featuring the unseen parts of a river. That picture is colored by educated guesses. And it’s informed by things we learn with each cast of the nymph, streamer or wet fly. When our fly drifts slower than expected, we take note. And the mental map shifts a bit.
The best anglers seek every possible clue. We use all available tools. Wearing polarized lenses, shifting our light angles and gaining some elevation above the water helps fill in the gaps of our knowledge. Colored lines, sighters and bright visible flies teach us about the unknown world below, while also reinforcing confidence in our three-dimensional river map.
Next, we learn to read the surface for signals about obstacles hiding below. The tops of most river rocks are rarely dry, but their influence is seen on the surface. So we watch for surface waves, both large and small. We understand the significance of broken water, and we notice how calm slicks signal some depth, even in the middle of a heavy run of whitewater.
A new angler may easily spot three distinct currents around a midstream rock as it pokes through the surface. But eventually, we come to understand that the same divisions and mergers are happening below, behind every rock in the river, seen or unseen. This trio of flows is just as predictable, though it’s not as easily noticed. So we fish. We learn. Until finally, we target the currents downstream of every rock or obstacle large enough to be significant, whether the top of the rock is exposed or not.
These thoughts and more are the habit of every angler who is dedicated to improving their craft — intent on fishing hard. Until, eventually knowing and admiring what lies beneath is as easy as seeing what flows above.
Fish hard, friends.
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