Let's say you're nymph-fishing on Colorado's South Platte River. You've hiked up into the canyon where those deliciously deep potholes are -- the big-fish water -- but have found that today the trout are working the shallow, fast runs. It took you two hours to figure that out, but it's a good sign. They're hungry and, as your partner says, they are "looking up." You're fishing a scud pattern, not the scud pattern, but one you worked out yourself. The differences are minute but are enough to make it your fly and you are catching fish on it, which is highly satisfactory.
You're working the near edge of a fast rip about thirty yards above a strong plunge pool, flipping the weighted nymph rig upstream and following its descent with the rod tip. Your concentration is imperfect as you toy with the idea that this is okay, a fascinating and demanding way to fish, actually, but that too many days of it in a row could make you homesick for the easy grace of real fly-casting.
At the little jiggle in the leader that was just a hair too intelligent looking to be nothing but current or a rock, you raise the rod to set the hook, and there's weight. And then there's movement -- it's a fish.
It's a big fish, not wiggling, but boring, shaking its head in puzzlement and aggravation, but not in fear. It's impressive.
Almost lazily, the trout rises from the bottom into the faster current near the surface, rolls into the rip, and is off downstream. What you feel is more weight than fight, and the wings of panic begin to flutter around your throat. This is the once- or twice-a-year "oh-shit" fish. You should have tried to catch a glimpse of him when he turned -- the only glimpse you may get -- but it all happened so fast. No it didn't. It actually happened rather slowly, almost lazily, as you just pointed out.
You are careful (too careful? not careful enough?). The hook is a stout, heavy-wire number 10, but the tippet is only a 5x, about 4-pound test. The rod is an 8 1/2-foot cane with plenty of backbone in the butt, but with a nicely sensitive tip (catalog talk, but true). The drag on the reel is set light, and line is leaving it smoothly. You drop the rod to half-mast to give the fish his head and are, in fact, doing everything right. It's hopeless.
The trout is far downstream now, on the far side of the rip and the plunge, but the local topography makes it impossible for you to follow. The line is bellied, no longer pointing at the fish.
At some point you are struck by the knowledge that the trout -- that enormous trout -- is no longer attached to you and all your expensive tackle, though you missed the exact moment of separation. You reel in to find that he did not throw the hook but broke you off fairly against the weight of the river. You get a mental snapshot of your fly hanging in the hooked jaw of a heavy...what? A rainbow? More likely a brown. You'll never know.
Losing a fish like that is hard. Sure, you were going to release him anyway, but that's not the point. The plan was to be magnanimous in victory. You ask yourself, was it my fault? A typically analytical question. You can avoid it with poetry of the "it's just nice to be out fishing" variety, or you can soften it with the many levels of technical evasion, but there's finally only one answer: of course it was your fault, who else's fault would it be?
Your partner is out of sight and, although you would have hollered and screamed for him and his camera had you landed the fish, it's not even worth going to find him, now. When you finally meet in the course of leapfrogging down the canyon, you'll say that a while ago you executed an L.D.R. (long distance release) on a hawg, which will summarize the event as well as anything else you could say.
A trout, on this continent at least, is a rainbow, golden, brookie, brown, cutthroat, or some subspecies or hybrid of the above, though every fly-fisher is secretly delighted that the brook trout isn't a trout at all, but rather a kind of char, not that it matters.
Much is actually known about trout and much more is suspected. The serious fly-fisherman's knowledge of these fish draws heavily on science, especially the easygoing, slightly bemused, English-style naturalism of the last century, but it periodically leaves the bare facts behind to take long voyages into anthropomorphism and sheer poetry. Trout are said to be angry, curious, shy, belligerent, or whatever; or it's suggested that when one takes your Adams with a different rise form than he's using on the Blue-winged Olives, he "thought" it was a caddis fly. Cold science tells us that a trout's pea-sized brain is not capable of anything like reason or emotion. That's probably true enough, but in the defense of creative thinking, I have a comment and a question: actions speak louder than words and, if they're so dumb, how come they can be so hard to catch?
The myth of the smart trout was invented by fishermen as a kind of implied self-aggrandizement. To be unable to hook the wise old brown trout is one thing, but to be outsmarted by some slimy, cold-blooded, subreptilian creature with only the dullest glimmerings of awareness is, if not degrading, then at least something you don't want spread around. Trout are smart, boy, real smart.
The way we perceive trout is probably as faulty, from a factual standpoint, as the way they see us, but our folksy ideas about them are useful and are, in that sense, correct. If you tie a streamer fly and fish it in a way designed to make spawning brown trout "mad" and, in the course of events, manage to hook a few fish, then those fish were, by God, mad. End of discussion.
Let's say a fisheries biologist tells you that his studies, and the studies of others, demonstrate that brook trout are not piscivorous; that is, they don't eat other fish. To that you counter that you have caught countless brook trout on streamers (fish imitations), that many of the now-standard American streamer patterns were developed around the wild brook trout fisheries of the East, and that, further, fly-fishermen have believed brook trout to be fish-eaters for nigh on these many generations.
"Well," he says, "we all know brookies are stupid."
Thank you, Mister Science.
Finally, the things fishermen know about trout aren't facts but articles of faith. Brook trout may or may not eat fish, but they bite streamers. You can't even use the scientific method because the results of field testing are always suspect. There are too many variables and the next guy to come along may well prove an opposing theory beyond the shadow of a doubt.
The hatch is the Blue-winged Olive so common in the West. It's a perfect emergence from the fly-fisher's point of view: heavy enough to move all but the very largest of the trout but not so heavy that your pitiful imitation is lost in such a crowd of bugs that the surface of the stream seems fuzzy. Oh yes, hatches can be too good.
When the rise began you fished a #18 dark nymph pattern squeezed wet so it would drift just a fraction of an inch below the surface. This copies the emerging nymph at that point where it has reached the surface but has not yet hatched into the winged fly. Early on in the hatch, these are the bugs that are the most readily available to the fish, the ones they're probably taking even though at first glance it looks like they're rising to dry flies. The difference in position between an emerging nymph and a floating fly is the almost nonexistent thickness of the surface film of the water, and there is often zero difference between the trouts' rise forms.
When the hatch progresses to the point where there are more winged flies on the water than emerging nymphs, you switch to the dry fly, only a few minutes after most of the trout have. There are two mayflies on the water now, identical except that one is about a size 18 and the other, the more numerous, is more like a #22. The larger is the Baetis and the smaller is the Pseudocloeon. You heard that from the local expert and looked up the spellings in Hatches, by Caucci and Nastasi. It sounds good, but what it means is that you fish either the Blue-winged Olive or the Adams in a size 20, to split the difference.
The fish are an almost uniform 14 to 16 inches -- rainbows with a strong silvery cast to them, bodies fatter than most stream fish, with tiny little heads. They are wild and healthy, and you would drive five times farther than you did to fish here.
They're rising everywhere now. In the slower water they're dancing and darting, suspending for a few seconds now and then as if to catch their breath. They will move several inches for your fly, taking it matter-of-factly, completely fooled, but leaving you only a single, precise instant that won't be too early or too late to strike. This has you wound up like the E string on a pawn shop guitar.
In the faster water they are all but invisible, but they're out there because there are enough bugs to make them buck the current. They come up from the bottom through two feet of water, taking the fly with such grace and lack of hesitation that the little blip on the surface seems unconnected with that fluid arc of greenish, pinkish, silvery light in the riffle.
You are on, hot, wired. You've caught so many trout that the occasional missed strike is a little joke between you and the fish. This is the exception rather than the rule -- the time when everything comes together -- but it feels comfortable, like it happens all the time. A hint of greed creeps in. You would like, maybe, a little bigger trout, and to that end you work the far bank. Still, though the trout are now almost part of a process rather than individual victories, you admire each one momentarily before releasing it and going confidently for another.
It's late in the hatch now. Most of the river is in shadow, and the remaining light has a golden, autumnal cast to it. The little rusty-brownish spinners could come on now. This could last. But it's too perfect; it can't last.
Trout are wonderfully hydrodynamic creatures who can dart and hover in currents in which we humans have trouble just keeping our footing. They are torpedo shaped, designed for moving water, and behave like eye witnesses say U.F.O.s do, with sudden stops from high speeds, ninety-degree turns, such sudden accelerations that they seem to just vanish. They seem delicate at times but will turn around and flourish in conditions that look impossibly harsh. They like things clean and cold.
They are brilliantly, often outrageously, colored (the wild ones, anyway) and are a pure and simple joy to behold, though they can be damned hard to see in the water. Even the most gorgeously colored fish are as dark and mottled on the back as the finest U.S. Army-issue jungle camouflage to hide them from predators from above: herons, kingfishers, ospreys, and -- only recently in evolutionary terms -- you and me. Then there are those rare times when the light and everything else is just right, when they're as exposed as birds in the sky, in open water under bright sun as if they were in paradise. At such times they can look black. You feel like a voyeur, delighted with a view of something you have no right to see; but don't feel too guilty -- they'll spook at your first cast.
In one sense trout are perfectly adapted working parts of a stream, a way of turning water, sunlight, oxygen, and protein into consciousness. They feed on the aquatic insects when those bugs are active, and they all but shut down metabolically when they're not. They find glitches in the current where, even in the wildest water, they can lounge indefinitely by now and then lazily paddling a pectoral fin. They have the flawless competence that even the lower mammals have lost by getting to be too smart. They operate at the edges of things: fast and slow currents, deep and shallow water, air and stream, light and darkness, and the angler who understands that is well on his way to knowing what he's doing.
In another sense, trout are so incongruously pretty as to seem otherworldly: that metallic brightness, the pinks and oranges and yellows -- and the spots. One of the finest things about catching a trout is being able to turn it sideways and just look at it. How can so much color and vibrancy be generated by clear water, gray rocks, and brown bugs? Trout are among those creatures who are one hell of a lot prettier than they need to be. They can get you to wondering about the hidden workings of reality.
Releasing trout is a difficult idea to get hold of at first. It doesn't seem to make sense. You want the meat; you want the proof.
In the beginning, catching a trout on a fly is one of those things you have to do before you actually come to believe it's possible. Those first maddening weeks or months with a fly rod make other fly-casters seem like the guy in the circus who can put the soles of his feet flat on the top of his head. Sure, he can do it. If you don't flip out and go back to the spinning rod, you eventually find that it can be done, though the gap between the first time you take trout on a fly rod and the second time can be so wide you come to wonder if it ever really happened. It's easy to lose the clarity of that initial vision. You hear it all the time: "I tried fly-fishing; couldn't get the hang of it."
You keep the early trout (anyone who doesn't is too saintly to be normal) but in time you begin to see the virtue of releasing the wild fish. The logic is infallible: if you kill him, he's gone; if you release him, he's still there. You can think of it in terms of recycling, low impact, all the properly futuristic phrases.
With some practice it's easy to do correctly. Smaller trout can be landed quickly -- the barbless hook is turned out with a practiced motion of the wrist, and it darts away, baffled but unharmed. You haven't lifted him from the water or even touched him.
Larger fish require more handling. You're careful not to lift them by the gill covers or squeeze them too much, causing internal damage. A landing net with a soft cotton-mesh bag helps. Big fish played to exhaustion on tackle that's unavoidably too light are carefully resuscitated (held gently in the current and pumped until they get their wind back and can swim off under their own steam). They seem dazed, and you know that if they were stressed too much, with too much lactic acid built up in their systems, they'll eventually die. It's something to wonder about. Some of your released fish have probably expired later, but you don't know enough about it to determine the actual medical condition of any particular one.
It begins to feel good, the heft and muscle tension of a bright, pretty, live trout held lightly in the cold water. It's like a mild electric shock without the pain. Finally, there's not even an instant of remorse when they dart away. At some point your former values change ends; the bigger the trout, the more satisfying the release. Having all but lost your taste for fish, you begin to release everything -- wild fish, stockers, stunted brook trout, whitefish, bluegills -- with an air of righteousness that pains many of those around you.
At some point you become an absolute snot about it. You are incensed that even staunch antihunters aren't bothered by the killing of fish, that vegetarians will bend the rules for seafood. This, you come to realize, is because trout are not seen as cute by the general population, though of course they are wrong. You begin to feel misunderstood.
That feeling can go on for years, and in some anglers it calcifies into the belief that killing a trout is murder. But maybe one day, without giving it much thought, you go down to the reservoir, after having spotted the hatchery truck there in the morning, and bag a limit of stockers (pale, sickly-looking things with faint purplish stripes where the pink stripe would be on a wild rainbow). It doesn't feel half bad.
Breaded with yellow cornmeal and flour and fried in butter, they're okay, not unlike fishsticks, but with a livery undertaste.
That same season, or perhaps the next, you take a brace of wild fish for what you refer to as a "ceremonial" camp dinner, carefully pointing out that they are small brook trout from overpopulated water. They taste good. They taste wonderful.
You come to realize that you have to kill some now and then because this whole business of studying, stalking, outsmarting, and overpowering game is about death and killing. Take two (three, if they're small) coldly and efficiently, and if you comment on it at all, say something like, "That there is a nice mess of fish."
You still release most of the trout you catch, even in waters where that's not the law, but it's no longer a public gesture. Now it's just what pleases you. When they're big and pretty, you take a photograph, with Kodachrome for the hot colors.
The river was the Henry's Fork in Southern Idaho, at a place that I have been politely asked not to describe. I'll try not to. It's not far upstream from the spot where Archie (A. K.) Best and I saw a yard-long rainbow try to eat a blackbird who was standing at the end of a sweeper picking off Brown Drakes. Honest. Biggest trout either of us had ever seen. The bird got away.
This was the following year and, hunting for the Brown Drake hatch that never materialized, we located another big trout, maybe 25 inches long (maybe longer, it's hard to tell), who was unbelievably feeding on #18 Pale Morning Dun spinners. Only on a bug factory like the Henry's Fork would a fish of that size still be interested in little mayflies. We decided it would be great fun to hook a trout like that on a dry fly and, say, a 5x tippet. I say "hook." We never discussed how we'd land it and I doubt either of us seriously considered it could be done. Still, with all that open water, slow current, and plenty of backing...It would have been something.
It was early June. The Pale Morning Duns were coming off, with simultaneous spinner falls and a smattering of Green Drakes that the fish would switch to when they showed up. Some locals and some hot-dog tourists said the fishing was "slow." A. K. and I wondered what the hell they wanted.
By day we fished in the crowd, sometimes taking an afternoon break to hit the campground, ease out, sip coffee, tie some flies. One day we went up to another stream and caught some little rainbows and brookies for lunch. As we do on the Henry's Fork, we discussed the possibility of taking a day and hitting the Madison or the Teton, or even the Warm River, but never went. We were Henry's Fork junkies on a typical extended trip.
By night (early evening, actually) we would drive to a certain turnoff and then walk to a certain spot where the impossibly big rainbow would be rising to the spinner fall like clockwork. We had Rusty Spinners, Cream Spinners, quill-bodied and dubbed-bodied spinners, spinners with poly wings and hackle-tip wings and clipped-hackle wings, and, for later, Michigan Chocolate spinners for that sharp, dark silhouette against the
We were fishing rods we'd each built up from identical blanks, old 9-foot, 6-weight waterseals. They were heavy rods, but slow and powerful, just what one would need to land that heavy a trout on a little fly and light tippet. We'd thought this out very well.
For five, maybe six, nights we showed up regularly at that spot and returned to the campground just as the last few friendship fires were down to coals. It would be too late to start anything, so we'd sit on the ground around our cold fire pit, sipping a beer before turning in and muttering arcanely about the fish, the flies, the insects, leader diameters, knots, and the hoped-for commencement of the Brown Drake hatch that we thought might give us a real crack at The Trout. If he (she, probably, but I can't help thinking of big trout as masculine) was taking the little spinners, he'd surely move for the huge #10 Drakes. The big flies would help, and their nighttime emergence and large size would let us go to heavier leaders. In our quiet madness we actually tried to quantify how much of an advantage that would give us. It was time. It could happen any night now. Exactly one year ago the hatch had been on.
Our colleagues at the campground figured we had something going -- probably fishwise, possibly womanwise -- but, although they sometimes hedged around it a little, they never actually came out and asked. Night-fishers are seen as a distinctly antisocial breed and are best not pushed.
We would take turns casting to The Trout, alternating who started first on successive nights. We were perfect gentlemen about it, wishing each other well with complete unselfishness, and then cringing with covetous greed as the other guy worked the fish. One night I broke down and fished a big, weighted Brown Drake nymph and then, later, an enormous streamer on an Ox leader. Not even a bump. A.K. stayed righteous with the dry fly.
Another night a mackenzie boat with a guide and two sports came down from upriver. The guide obviously knew about the fish and wanted to put his clients over it, either because he thought they were good enough to do some business or just to blow their minds. He was pulling for the channel when he spotted me casting from a kneeling crouch and A. K. sitting cross-legged next to me waiting for me to relinquish my turn.
The guide gave us only the briefest sour look and then delivered the obligatory we're-all-in-this-together-good-luck wave.
Two turkeys on the big trout. Damn!
During the course of those evenings we each hooked that fish once and were each summarily, almost casually, broken off, causing our estimation of his size to be revised upwards to the point where inches and pounds became meaningless -- a fish of which dreams are made, known to the local guides.
You could hear him rising through the layered silence of the stream: "GLUP!" He'd start rising late, when the spinner fall was down nicely and the smaller fish were already working.
The smaller fish. We caught a few of those, measuring up to 19 and 22 inches, our two largest. Such is the capacity of the human mind to compare one thing to another, thus missing the moment and thinking of a 22-inch trout as a little fish.
Exactly what a trout is, not to mention its considerable significance, is difficult to convey to someone who doesn't fish for them with a fly rod. There's the biology and taxonomy, photographs, paintings, and the long history of the sport, but what the nonangler is incapable of grasping is that, although individual fish clearly exist, The Trout remains a legendary creature. I'm talking about those incredible fish that we see but can't catch, or don't even see but still believe in. The big trout -- another concept the nonfisherman thinks he understands but doesn't.
What constitutes a big trout is a relative thing, regardless of the efforts of some to make it otherwise. You'll now and then hear a fly-fisher say a trout isn't really big until it's 20 inches long, a statement I invariably take to be jet-set bullshit, although I'll grant you that 20 inches is a nice, round figure. Fisheries managers often refuse to consider a piece of water as gold medal (or blue ribbon, or whatever) unless it demonstrably contains x percentage of trout over x inches in length. The magazines are filled with photos of huge, dripping trout, the ones you'll catch if you'll only master the following technique.
In another camp are the fishermen who claim not to care how big a trout is. "It's the challenge," they'll say, "the flies, the casting, the manner and method. Nothing wrong with a foot-long trout. Oh, and the scenery, and the birds singing, etc." I use that line myself and, like most of us, I sincerely believe it, act upon it regularly, and am happy, but tell me you know where the hawgs are and I'll follow you through hell.
Fly-fishing for trout is a sport that depends not so much on catching the fish as on their mere presence and on the fact that you do, now and again, catch some. As for their size, the bigger they are, the better, to be honest about it, though all that stuff about the manner and the method and the birds singing isn't entirely compensatory.
Copyright © 1986 by John Gierach
While most of us fly-fish to escape from daily life, for John Gierach and his friends fly-fishing IS a way of life. They are trout bums. But John Gierach is also an exceptional writer. The essays in Trout Bum are reflective, bitingly humorous and enormously wise in the ways of fishing and men. In vivid, unforgettable detail they recount the emotional, spiritual and tangible adventures and pleasures of stalking trout in and around the Rockies—day in, day out, from season to season, with friends and alone. John Gierach’s essays join the literary tradition of angling classics like The River Why, and A River Runs Through It.
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