It’s the nature of things that some of the simplest of creatures can provide you with the most profound of lessons. I think it goes to the dumber the thing is, the more in tune with Natural Law. Natural Law being that which exists in nature and therefore, has validity everywhere.
I got to explain this phenomenon to a high school kid this weekend as he sought to understand the way of things.
Nate and I spent most of Saturday in pursuit of the lads new favorite fish, the wily trout, using his new favorite technique, the fly. More especially the “dry” fly with floats on top of the water, mimicking the bodies of insects who are emerging from the stream to find love and happiness, in their 2 hours of life above water. As the caddis flies and mayflies pile up on the water, spent after some good lov’n the trout in the stream go into a feeding orgy stuffing themselves with insects. Among fly fishermen, it’s the zone.. something that you can’t quite predict when it’s going to happen, but if you’re on the water when it does… it’s awesome.
It’s also the reason that really serious, over-the-top fly fishermen soon become sort of amateur entomologists, spending their time studying the insect life of streams, trying to get a handle on what bugs hatch when, and then what colors they are when they do, so they can run around creation snipping the hair off rodents and feathers off chickens and turkeys in an attempt to replicate the same . That whole fly tying deal.. for me, at my age, I consider it an accomplishment to tie a fly ON my line without putting on a pair of high powered cheaters. Tying small hackles, snipped from a single down feathers on to a size 22 hook.. that’s ain’t happening. I think it’s sort of like the elderly male version of scrap booking to be honest.
This trip to Wisconsin included my good buddy Jon the Fly Guy. Jon, is as serious a fly fisherman as there is in the world. Jon’s been to the rivers of Yellowstone, he’s fished Hat Creek in California where the trout are so discerning that breathing wrong while casting will upset the pool and put the fish off a bite. I like to fish with Jon, if for no other reason than it’s such a kick to see what he’s going to be wearing on a given trip. This is the guy who, if he could figure out how to make a living at it, would be a professional fly fisherman and as such dresses like a walking Orvis catalogue.
The man uses only the finest gear, rods with names I don’t recognize because the guides were wrapped on the thighs of virgins while looking at pictures of English chalk streams. His waders alone cost more than my spec car.. Jon’s a hero to Nate. Jon lives in California and regularly fishes the eastern drainages of the Carson river, where Nate first picked up a fly rod. He ties his own bugs, he builds rods, we wears the latest in sun protecting bug resistant clothing, and he’s got one seriously bitch’n set of waders and boots. But, as I point out to Nate, waders keep out water, and keep in smells and that’s about all they do. When push comes to shove we all drop’m down in the out house the same way.
Jon comes out to the Midwest on business a few times a year and if the season’s right he always takes me up on my open offer to hit a river while he’s here. As one who never looks past an opportunity for new fishing experiences he’s usually brings his stuff with him. That being said, fly fishing in Wisconsin, as opposed to fly fishing in California, is quite a different experience. For one thing, the rivers here would be called “creeks” out west, and the fish are typically smaller, and typically mostly brown trout. It’s also not quite the yuppie scene that it is in Cali. That’s not to say we don’t have our share of wannabe’s out there who shop at the boutique shops and would like to believe that they’re fancy fisherman.. but around here you’re just as likely to see guys with Bass Pro or Cabelas equipment standing in rivers in their shorts and sandals happily casting away.
The nice thing about Midwest fly fishing is that, although the fish are smaller and they’re not usually as discriminating as the delicate Redwood Creek strain of rainbow that I spend my youth casting too.. they are just as fun to catch and there’s a hell of lot more of them in a typical mile of river here than there are in a typical river there. That means, you do get to participate in the “catching” part of fishing not just the “fishing”. That also means that here, as opposed to my 20 year career of fly fishing out west, occasionally fish do no survive an encounter with the big guy as such are not released back into the stream… Occasionally they are get BBQ’d on the creek side.. Which I believe is part of the experience, one that’s lost on the yuppie crowd.
When Jon comes out here to fish, the amount of fishing luggage that accompanies him is impressive. It’s almost like, since they don’t really do a lot of fishing from boats in the fly world and are thus spared the $20,000 buy in the bass fisherman makes on a boat. As such, they can justify to themselves and spouses that spending $3,000 on fly fishing crap is actually a “win” because you’ve saved $17,000 over other fisherman. I can’t fault them. I’ve used the same argument myself around golf. As I’ve explained to my wife after she’s audited the credit card.. “but dear.. I don’t golf”. “But Dear” she replies, “golfing, and fishing, are not a rights.. your argument doesn’t work”
One thing that Jon brings with him when he comes is his portable fly bench. This little device sits on the dashboard of the car and allows him to whip out a few flies when he feels his currently inventory is missing something. Personally, I’ve carried the same half dozen flies into river every year and it’s always the same bunch. Elk hair caddis, parachute adams, yellow sulpher, blue thingine, hares ear and a prince nymph. Later in the summer I throw in a few grasshoppers and a nifty little beadle pattern and I’m good to go. I also have a nice supply of Royal Coachmen.. the RC is a fly that looks like nothing in creation, thereby bucking the idea that trout are picky. I like them for the bluegills and pan fish on our lake.. sort of fun to mess with them.
For Jon however, I’m sure the thought of throwing one of his precious hand-tied beauties to some pesky bluegills is out of the question. A few bass once in a while is about all he’s really interested in catching other than his precious trout. If you were to ask Nate about his favorite fish I think he’s starting to lean towards trout as well. Bass fishing is fun, it’s something that I grew up with and as such really understand it well, but at the same time, it’s a noisy pastime that involves boats and gas and electronics, expensive lures, lots of different rods and reels, and very little of the wilderness experience. My Wisconsin mentor Paul, often fishes with little more than shorts, a vest, a rod and a hat. If it weren’t for the stinging nettle on the bank I’m not sure he wouldn’t be out there naked from time to time.
With bass fishing, you miss a big part of that outside experience. Most of the time you’re fishing right off someones dock. And while that has it’s advantages, especially during the sunning season, especially at certain houses on our lake known to house coeds during the summer months.. It’s not the same as the feeling you get when you’re out there up to your ass in the fishes environment, water moving around you, wildlife around you, limestone cliffs on the side of the river… you might be 20 minutes from a metropolitan area, but once you descend into the river you’re really on another planet.
The last time Jon came out to visit we took him down to one of our favorite rivers in Western Wisconsin. The highly regarded, and deservedly vaunted Rush River. We packed up in the early afternoon, hoping to hit the water about 3:00, the evening hatches of baddis usually happening around 6:00 or so. As advertised Jon was decked out with amazing equipment. His newest toy was a 7’ 3wt Winston flyrod.. A wispy little stick with the sensitivity of torn cuticle, is a thing of beauty. Designed for the most delicate of casts to the most finicky of trout it seemed a bit much for the beer drinking cheese head trout you find in Wisconsin. Jon assured me it was “sweet” and “just right for fishing emerging midge patterns. Since I can’t even see a damn midge without a serious pair of cheeters I never fish them. Nate however was fascinated…
Parking the car, we walked down the bank to the river. I was violating Paul’s trust, as he had shown me these places in confidence. But it’s not like they were that secret, they were, after all below a highway bridge. Approaching the water Jon made the SHHH Sign and creeped up on the first little pool. There were a few rises.. bugs were in the air, and above them the swallows were swiping and diving,. We found some spots to get into the water and started fishing.
As is typical I had a hard time seeing the eyelet on my fly, which meant it was about 20 minutes before I could start casting. “You fishing or what?” Jon asked. Nate, my son, who’s been with me on a ton of these outings knew better… “He can’t see the fly, he’s going to ask me to come up there and tie him on in a minute. I’m going to make my way up ….” “NATE, Can you come here and..”
Tied on we started the art part of the sport. I may not be able to see flies so well these days, but I can cast like a demon. My favorite part of the sport, right after landing a good fish, is throwing big sweeping casts to fish, real or perceived, as far upstream as I can, just to see the line descend on the water, and watch the fly drift down the slick. It’s as fun as dropping those ½ oz jigs inches from docks fishing for bass.
I wasn’t doing to well, but Jon seemed to be on to something. He had a couple small fish on his emerging midge nymph whatever thingie. Seeing my buddy catch fish while I enjoyed casting, Nate dropped all family loyalty and headed up the river to Jon. One of the great things that happens on rivers in the afternoon is the passing of time. It’s amazing how such a mundane activity at home, or in the office, can become a religious experience on a stream. The shadows of the day get longer, the colors of the afternoon take on more pastel hints and the light begins to fade, the activity on the river picks up.. fish bugs starts flying and the swallows above began to be replaced by the bats.
I hate bats. I especially hate fly fishing when there are bats around because I’m certain one’s going to take my fly on a back cast and I’m going to catch one of the little rats. Then what cha gonna do.. I’m not touching it. My understanding is breathing air near a bat brings about plague and rabies.. no good bats.
As I was moving up the river Nate came running down to me… DAD… There’s some huge fish in this pool and Jon went to the car.. I need your keys.. “What’s he doing?” “Tying flies”… Catching up to them I learned that there was a blue thing hatching and Jon needed something other than the 200 patterns he had in his fly box. It’s amazing to see a guy who can whip out a fly in a 30 seconds in the back of a car… He tied up a half dozen and came back..
“There’s a whole ton of fish up there…” Up there was big pool upstream from where I’d been fishing. Jon had been casting to them with some dry flies with no luck. The fish where rising but he wasn’t able to get a hit. Even worse, they were doing that thing trout like to do to piss you off, where they rise to0 your fly, look at it and decide they don’t like it for some reason and drop back down to the bottom. Apparently that’s what had been going on with Jon and Nate… fish were coming up and looking over their stuff, but they weren’t committing. Jon, after skimming the water with yet another gadget, a fancy little net and a magnifying glass, had determined that the problem was the flies they were using were missing a critical color.. in this case blue, found in the wings of the bugs now floating on the surface.
Nate and Jon started casting their new bugs.. with the same results. “finicky little devils” was about all Jon could come up with. By now it was the sun was starting to set on the bluff, we still had a couple hours of light, and I was pretty confident that the best fishing was about to come. Actually, the locals also know when the best time to be on the river is, and as it got a bit later, we started to see the occasional angler walking along the river. Seeing the “good” hole was taken they’d nod, wave and move on to the next stop. I was enjoying watching my kid casting, and really wasn’t all that motivated to get back in the river.
As I sat and watched the guys, who by now had thrown several dozen different patterns at these fish, a old guy with an old eagle claw rod and spinning reel came wandering down the bank. Exchanging pleasantries he remarked on Jon and Nate standing the river.. “There’s some big fish in that hole”. “yeah, we know, that’s what they’re trying to catch.” “They’re tough.. don’t take flies too good”. About that time a fish rose with a splash that sounded like someone throwing a rock into the water. “That’s a good one!” Jon looked up.. “I have no idea what they’re rising too.” We’ve tried caddis, dunns, attracters, terrestrials.. not a clue, they’re pretty picky.
The fellow I was with laughed. “watch this”. He reached into vest and pulled out a tub of garlic flavored marshmallows. With a wink, he tossed one of the marshmallows up stream.. as it drifted down there was an explosion as a fish attacked the yellow blob…
Jon and Nate looked up.. “What the heck was that”. “Sugar Jon. .they’re hitting on sugar.. garlic flavored.” The old fellow laughed and threw in another one, with the same results. “I guess they get sick of bugs after a while. They’ve been eating marshmallows since I was kid”.
Turns out the fish are pretty picky, but what they aren’t is finicky. The lesson for Nate here, and Jon for that matter.. don’t over analyze, and never underestimate the wisdom of experience.