** Note ** This is a story I wrote and published in 2016. It is rewritten and retooled here.
A tall man crossed the railroad bridge above me. He cautiously navigated the nine-by-seven inch oak slabs and peered through the gaps below. Then he paused at the midpoint, lingered and watched me cast for a while. I was stationed at the tailout of a hole created by the bridge abutment and casting upstream into the tall shadows of ancient stones. The man watched for a few minutes, then he bellowed downstream to me with a voice full of triumph.
“I caught a bunch! They’re taking Zebra Midges just under the surface.”
“Not with you standing there above them they won’t.” I replied in a normal voice, knowing that my words would be lost among the clamor of the current. Fishermen have to speak loudly to be heard over the dominant voice of the river, or you’ll hear a lot of this . . .
“WHAT?” the tall man boomed back, as he leaned over a bit, spooking more of the trout where I was casting.
“Thanks for the tip.” I raised my voice this time, loud enough to be heard. I also raised my hand but kept my head and eyes down on the water I was fishing. This is the universal body language for please leave me alone.
A friend once expressed the expectations between two passing fishermen in this way: “It’s perfectly acceptable to say ‘Hello,’ and it’s also perfectly acceptable not to.” Those of us who choose not to are just introverts trying to find a little river-peace in an extroverted world. I don’t want to be rude — I just don’t wish to have conversations with strangers while I’m fishing.
The tall man smiled and waved a big happy wave, scattering more brown trout as he turned to walk away satisfied.
“Yup! Zebra Midges,” he yelled over his shoulder. “You’ll get ‘em!”
The friendly type.
I didn’t want the unsolicited advice. Truth is, they were taking Pheasant Tails and smaller stoneflies just fine — quite well all morning, actually. But my fishing confidence is a fragile thing, so after a half-hour struggle with no more fish coming to net, I internally blamed the shadow of a man’s waving arms spooking the trout, and I waded up into fresh water. I continued to catch nothing. Two hours more, and I stubbornly relented to the nagging voice in my brain. I tied on a #22 Zebra Midge and was back into fish within minutes.
“Dammit,” I murmured. “Should have trusted the tall man.”
— — — — — —
The best fishermen I know have a knack for knowing what to trust and when to trust it.
When I was thirteen, a summer rain cooled the creek and raised the water level just enough to change things. I was fishing with a friend who suggested we walk upstream to a small tributary and find better fishing than we’d had all season.
“They’ll be up here about a half-mile,” he said.
Decisive. That’s a good quality for a fisherman. He explained that the good fish from the lower river would have already moved upstream to mingle in the cooler, thinner water with the brookies. It was a theory based on years of his own experience, and probably a little guesswork. He was right, and the lesson stayed with me.
A couple years ago, Burke and I took a trip to a favorite river that I’d first shared with him a half a decade earlier. We geared up and walked through the tall weeds, eventually coming to overlook the bottom corner of a long, braided island. We stood high on the hillside, strung our rods and talked over some plans.
“The pocket water on the left side is where I’ve caught the biggest fish. Lots of times they’re in the undercuts too. You take it,” I said, pointing to the far channel.
“Nah, that’s alright,” Burke smiled. “Even bigger fish are in the hole below the island.”
I shrugged. “OK, smart-ass.”
Burke pulled more and bigger fish from the hole than I did from the pocket water or the undercut banks that day. And from countless other holes, trenches and buckets, he’s brought big fish to hand from areas that I had previously thought to be unproductive, turning mediocre water into prime hot spots.
Just a few days ago, my friend Sawyer joined me to test out some of his small mouth bass fishing tactics on our friendly brown trout. And it didn’t take long for him to identify a specific trigger for getting cold, sluggish trout to commit. He recognized something, trusted it, duplicated it and found results.
Of the good fishermen I know, one thing I see in all of them is how easily they can reach conclusions about fish habits. The damned thing about a river is that it changes every day, and the habits of trout follow. If you’re observant enough to see the dynamics of a river, you can predict how the fish will respond, just by correlating their behavior patterns with the changes in water level, clarity, food availability, etc. Often, though, that’s a big leap to take. And it requires trusting in your observations enough to act decisively on them. It’s easy to say that this trust comes from experience (i.e., time on the water), but certainty is elusive, and the best fishermen will tell you they aren’t certain about anything. A fair point, yet they seem to know when to trust their instincts and make conclusions.
I’m probably too reserved about making conclusions. I always seem to find a reason to excuse a trend. If the fish are taking a pale orange Comparadun during the Sulphur hatch, I think, “So what. They may just as well take a Parachute Adams” — and so I change, just to test things out. I’m chronically inquisitive, and I don’t believe anything until I’ve seen it over and over again. I night-fished all through the winter for two years straight, just to make sure it really was slower than the summer. I still don’t truly believe it, and I keep thinking there’s a fly I can tie or a way I can change my drifts to make winter night fishing a consistently productive experience. That’s my other trouble — hope. But just imagine how smug I can be someday if I’m right.
Books, magazines and blogs seem like a great resource to build on, but it’s hard to trust the media, isn’t it? I’ve read articles telling me the only way to catch big trout is on big streamers. But that’s not true at all. Most of my large browns have come on nymphs; some were on streamers and some were on dries. A few months ago, a guy on
suicidal social media had me astounded at the size of fish he was catching around here. I later learned they were from a private trout pond. My naivete is now corrected — I don’t trust any of it anymore.
But I do trust guys who are up-front about things. My buddy, Rob, showed me his picture of a huge, gorgeous slab of brown trout, with the mass of its body spilling over and nearly hiding the wet hands that held it. My eyes widened, but Rob quickly followed with . . .
“Well, it was from Spruce Creek, and you know what that’s about.”
Yeah, I do. It’s club water full of club fish. So have fun with it, and just enjoy it for what it is. But Rob won’t compare it to a wild fishery, because it’s not even close.
I also don’t trust anyone who calls themselves an expert, or even leans that way in conversation. It’s fishing, not a physics formula, so failure is a regular thing out there. I catch a lot of fish — but I fish a lot. A friend recently asked me why I told him one thing about leaders today and another thing last year.
“Don’t trust a word of my advice,” I joked, “because I’ll probably change my mind tomorrow.”
I think a lot of fisherman are like that. Nothing is ever settled with us.
So I believe what I’ve seen and what I’ve experienced (sometimes), and I believe in the close friends and family who share the water with me. Conclusions don’t really happen because nothing in fishing is stable or static enough to nail things down and close the door. I trust enough of what I know to be decisive about what I do — and then I reevaluate. That’s life on the water.
Other times, I trust the tall man and tie on a Zebra Midge.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
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