It didn’t occur to me until after Kyle dropped me off at home, and after I rewound the events of the day in my head, through all the eccentricities that marked our time out on the water as memorable: a day that struggled to reach the upper 30s, gusts of wind and cold rain showers at inopportune times, all-too-curious longhorn cattle, dozens of leopards frogs found lying the streambed frozen in curious poses, and fish rising to dries when one does not expect it. I think about all this, and add to the wonder: am I the only angler who talks to the animals while I fish?
I don’t mean talking to them like Dr. Doolittle, and not quite like talking to your pet dog or cat (honestly, I think that would be a bit condescending to the wild critters). Maybe similar to talking to your five-year-old niece or nephew in that straightforward way that assumes they don’t yet comprehend all the nuances of human behavior. It’s normally an one-sided conversation, even if other anglers are around. And it’s usually small talk: yelling at beavers for spooking up a pool, asking a brown trout to settle down so I can unhook him, or—as was the case yesterday—calmly explaining to a suspicious cow that I’m approaching her only to reach my tangled fly line.
I’m not sure know what other folks think about this. To their credit my fishing buddies pretend it’s a normal process of fly fishing. I do wonder what they think about after I walk away, however.
The only other person I can recall doing anything similar is my dad. I have a memory of him freeing a deeply-hooked and bleeding bluegill, and saying with remorse, “Sorry!”, before the release. It’s probably where I get it from. I’ve given heartfelt apologies to enough fish that I’ve sworn off using bait and do my best to stay barbless on my flies. Just a bit of the hypocrisy one lives with as a catch-and-release angler.
Here’s another question: is fishing a sport? From a historical perspective it certainly isn’t, no more so than farming or baking a sweet potato pie. From a conditioning standpoint it’s suspect at best; although if Jared Lorenzen was once a professional football player, and Doc Ellis once pitched a no-hitter on LSD, then fishing can stake a claim with the standard trout bum being only slightly out-of-shape and guilty of nothing worse than fishing when hungover. Fishing does require something of you mentally, though the beauty of it (and possibly an argument against the moniker of sport) is that it does not require the same of every angler.
Some anglers will never take to the stream in brutal cold, or extreme heat. Some will never bother to hit the stream on a rainy day. Some will only tackle the water on their own terms. I once had a guide tell me about a client who became paralyzed with anxiety around cows in the section of stream they were fishing (and to be fair, I won’t touch certain stretches of a well-known water hung with handwritten signs announcing BULL IN PASTURE). Not to be outdone, I’ve always been leery of unfamiliar water—the water itself, mind you, namely its unknown depth and deceptive substrate and an unremitting fear since childhood of being sucked down into it.
The good news is that anglers need not bring their “game face” to catch some trout. But catching fish on a consistent basis is much more sporting, and it does require some level of mental preparation—what I’ll call the “angler’s confidence—to become proficient in the dark arts of the fly.
I was reminded of such while out fishing with Kyle, who took me to some new (to me) water as he was preparing for a hosted trip he is running called Trout Camp. He knew the water already, but was unsure how it handled during the early season. I knew that the blue-winged olive hatches had been coming off at a good clip lately—which I sadly learned in the middle of the 1 Fly—but today wasn’t looking like a candidate for a dry fly bonanza. In the first hour it didn’t look like much of anything. I finally hooked into one on an olive dubbing leech only to lose it through quite an acrobatic display usually only reserved for rises or tarpon.
Kyle moved ahead of me and into a number of aggressive brookies, but something seemed to be wrong with our hooks, or hookset—or both—as nothing would come to hand. I sat on the bank to watch for a little while, and then spotted what looked like a rise in the next pool above us. My focus wandered from Kyle’s adventures and then back to that pool, and sure enough: a few minutes later another rise. Kyle breaks off, I lose another fish on the leech. Again, I see that rise in the next pool.
I cut off the leech, and pop open my little yellow fly box to grab a size 18 BWO parachute tied on a Klinkhammer hook. Nothing special, just a little dubbing and hackle wrapped around a Z-Lon post. Smooge on a little floatant (that’s how gel floatant comes out of the bottle when it’s cold, in a smooge), stand along the side of the bank, and wait.
“You gonna use a dry?” Kyle asks.
“Gonna try,” I say.
The fish is rising in the far left corner of the pool, almost outside of the current, holding just at the edge of some drowned timber in a couple of feet of water, if that. The first cast falls too far right and arcs feet short of the target. The second cast is better, the third is eh. I mean, I didn’t count them all, but it took a few shots. Then I drop the dry just ahead of the bank and arcing through the left elbow of that pool so that it’ll drift across the sunken timber.
Here’s where that angler’s confidence comes in. If you’re going to fish dry flies, you have to go into every cast with the confidence that something is going to hit that dry. You have to have a mental picture of that fish rising to that fly in every moment of drift, from as soon as the fly hits the water until you pick it back up again, and you’re simply acting on a cue to lift the rod tip and set the hook. You can’t go into a dry fly cast with the attitude of I’ll just see what happens. You know what is going to happen. That fish is going to rise to that dry.
That fish rose to my dry. I brought the rod tip up and it came alive.
It was a little guy, but who cares? It’s half a miracle the fish even comes up for a tiny piece of metal and fur to begin with. The other half is knowing it will. No fish on a dry fly is anything less than incredible.
My dry fly game was strong, but the angler’s confidence works two ways: I couldn’t land a fish on a streamer to save my life. Kyle pulled more than a few nice fish out with a black leech: brown trout with deep red and copper color that filled the net. I had my shot and kept missing. I kept looking through my streamer box, and thinking I don’t want to throw this. Maybe if I had some Milwaukee Leeches or black Woolly Buggers, or anything other than oversized sculpins and drab olive and brown dubbing leeches… I had no confidence that the fish would take anything I had in my box. And I wasn’t ready for them when they did.
Kyle obviously had that confidence. He has the pictures to prove it.
The obvious question becomes, Well, why in the Hell do you carry those flies, then? Because I still know they’ll catch fish. They have before. Like a journeyman relief pitcher who relies on his curveball, sometimes things just don’t break like they should and the game heads south. Balls get up, up, outta there, gone… and so do fish.
Like any good journeyman, you gotta report to camp for Spring Training. If you’re in need of some tune-up work this spring, and you can get some time off on short notice, Kyle is running his Trout Camp this upcoming week, April 11-17, out in the Driftless, and last time I spoke with him he still had some room in his big wall tent for a few more anglers. If you’re interested, drop him a line.