The Short Game
Casting a fly rod with grace at distance is one of the greatest joys of this little sport of angling with a fly. We all like to cast free and far. We like a wide-open dream of a river with few obstructions to hinder our casting. We like an open playing field where we won’t spend half the time slogging through brush and picking our flies out of trees. These places do exist, and are a joy to fish, but they seem to attract the vast majority of crowding we see on our waters. If we want to get away from the madding crowds, or discover what the other 90% misses, we may have to choose some less mythical and idyllic locations. These may be smaller waters or even those great waters once the grasses and bankside vegetation reaches over our heads. We may be forced to restrict our movements and casts while simultaneously widening our perception and opening our minds. What we find there may make all the little Lewis and Clark exploring worthwhile. Hidden gems of water where the fish have never seen a fly.
Enter the short game.
One of the most overlooked aspects of fly-fishing is playing the short game: short casts to tight quarters or complicated waters where only a short cast will allow the fly to remain in the window of opportunity long enough to attract attention and be eaten. Casts that allow us to enter the woods and sneak a fly under a bramble filled bank where the fish are eating fallen ants; casts in tight quarters that can reach out to 50 feet without a back cast; vertical casts that can place a fast sinking streamer into a back-eddy next to a current seam where you know the biggest fish in the river is busy making its living, and where a longer cast would have your line on the water caught in the current and drag the fly out of the zone before bullwinkle can eat it.
Short casts, short or long casts in tight situations. They both offer reward. They offer a way of approach to new and familiar waters both big and small that offer a world of perception which grows bigger and wider as it grows smaller... a widening of the senses and possibilities.... proverbial stones stepped over now have to be scrutinized before we pass, for they may hold a doorway unseen to the soul of the fish and the river...
Once one’s mind is opened to all the possibilities of the short game you may never look at water the same way again, and music will become the space between the notes. You may find yourself amazed at all the waters and possibilities that you passed by, intent on riffles, undercut banks, deep pools, and other obvious structures of fish habitat, and missing the little things just at your peripheral vision.
These small things require a slow and planned approach with a cast of the proper distance to allow the fisher not to be seen, and allow the fly to hit the target with precision and with the proper presentation desired. This can often occur at 6 to 15 feet.
Several weeks ago I fished a new stream my old friend Bob told me of. I had caught a few browns in the first few pools and was about to step around a sharp and narrow corner to see what lay ahead when I glanced at the little tail-out I was about to place a precarious foot into. There on the far side of the river half hidden under overhanging grasses was a cleft of rocks with a space of no more than a foot long between them. The rocks were softball sized. The water was swift at my feet, so if I wanted to hit that little pocket and find out what lives there I needed to creep up on it. If I cast from where I was standing, the fly would most likely both hit the grasses and immediately drag due to the fast water accelerating as the river shallowed in the terminus of the pool. I snuck into position diagonal to the little pocket and flicked a quick sidearm steeple cast that placed the hopper I was fishing at the cleft with a splat! The cast was no more than ten feet. A brown trout came flying out of the cleft, made a wild grab for the hopper, and missing, went back down his hole, changed his mind again and changing direction and rocketing downstream into the fast water, engulfed the hopper. With only the leader out of the rod tip by now, the fight was short but sweet. The fish ate the hopper at my feet.
Sitting down on the bank with one foot in the cold water, I reflected on this situation and the hundreds of others like it that make up the micro-world of rivers and streams. There was no other way to catch that fish. I had simply done what was necessary to get a fly to what I saw as possible holding water, and what was necessary was an accurate cast of under a dozen feet.
On another small spring creek in the same area, I was making my way through a wooded portion full of deadfalls and flood damage, when I almost stepped on a tiny possibility created by a downed tree. The little creek poured under the log and white foam bubbled against the wood. The creek was shallow, but the hole created by the plunging water was the perfect living room for somebody. I had no room to cast due to branches, and the little hole was right at my feet anyway. Even if I had the room to place a nice cast into the little hole, I would not have control of my fly unless I used the shortest cast possible. With the leader out and nothing more, I splatted a size 12 catskill March Brown/Hendrickson conglomeration on the surface of the tiny pool and steered it with the rod tip held high until it came within a few inches of the downed limb. Out of nowhere a nice 13” brown trout appeared as if by magic and ate the fly. He was darkly colored from his months or years of dwelling in the darkness under the log and making his living picking off bugs that drifted down the stream and against his dining room. It was as if the little pool were a mirror and the wood branches and log the frame of a picture-perfect scenario of small stream angling. It was all possible because I had begun to think in smaller terms, and in the proverbial book of reading water, had realized that some of the best content was found in the marginalia.
Worlds of possibility like this exist everywhere, we just have to learn to slow down and think in order to see them. My good angling friend Joe calls it “Hunting.” ‘Stalking’ might be the better word, but it all came to me on my home waters whilst fishing the tiny headwaters. This creek of ice water seeming still melting off the glaciers that formed the geology of the region is so small as to at first appear laughably unfishable.
It was by watching Joe break down the water and then returning on my own and simply walking up the banks of the tiny rivulet pausing every few yards to sniff out the structure that may hold a trout that I learned this game for the first time. Epiphanies are memorable, and I still recall that moment when I realized that if the cover and depth offered any probability of holding a fish, then there was probably one there. If it didn’t come out and eat, I could stick my rod tip into the little cut, slot, etc., and see what lives there scurry out. I had to creep up on the crystal-clear water by hiding behind saplings and brush, spot the target area, see what the water was doing, and plan an approach. Bow-and-arrow casts offered the only solution to the tangles of brush, and the need for pin-point accuracy in the sometimes foot wide channels in the watercress, or dinner-plate sized depressions next to an undercut or log. My rod would span the entire creek here.
This discovery changed my perspective and outlook on all rivers. I wanted to discover what I was passing by, and what I was missing. I began to slow down. Before I placed a cast into the top riffle, I looked at the whole pool and read every piece of current and structure looking for the hidden within the unseen.
Then, when I found myself on a sizable freestone river fishing for smallmouth bass, I began to break down the water very differently then I had before. I love to cast, and the habitual cannon of a 6 wt rod I used to fire big casts across the river and present flies to the bank got left in the car in preference of a lighter full-flexing rod that could both cast at distance, but more importantly, cast a large fly with accuracy with ten feet of line out. I still fired casts to the fells, cuts, and rock gardens on the banks, but I also began to approach some structures from a shorter distance using less line and controlling the fly much better. At a spot that I had fished from a raft two weeks before due to higher water, I waded and put the short cast and line control theories to a test.
When fishing from the raft, my casts to the downed log and short dark pool directly under the log were ineffective. My fly kept being pulled away by the current no matter what I did. By getting right on top of the spot and using a short cast, my big sculpin/crayfish fly was able to dance right under the wood where a nice 16” smallmouth ate it with gusto. A week later I returned to the stretch of water and watched two fly anglers stand within ten feet of the structure and cast to the shallow riffles in the middle of the river where they were having a ball landing small riffle bass. They never saw the marginalia. It was like looking at a before and after picture of myself. As I sat on a boulder and tied on a fly I reflected on all that I missed these years of angling, and thought how humbling but joyful the process of discovery and learning can truly be.
On a different piece of water on this same river islands of limestone and others of earth and rock covered by woods cause the water to form braids. Three separate channels form and reform, only to deviate again, split into more braids, and finally reform into the main river. I had fished the smallest of these braids only once or twice before, and was unimpressed. Now I made my way down into this cover rich and over-hanging branch choked portion and approached it like I was fishing a spring creek. What I had not seen before became immediately obvious. There was structure everywhere. I simply could not fish it before due to having a rod that would not bend with a short cast, and not having realized that such micro-structure could hold big bass. In the next two hours I had the time of my life steering crawfish patterns next to logs and undercuts, kneeling and flopping my fly over downed trees and hearing the splash of a fish eating my fly without ever seeing it. I used single-hand spey casts to keep my line out of trees, splatted the fly with no more than the leader out when necessary, bow and arrow casting, roll-casting, steeple-casting, and doing anything possible to get my fly in the right place and slow it properly. I made casts up. Throw it between the two branches while pulling down on a third branch to allow a field of fire and pop the fly forward. I caught fish. I caught some very memorable fish. They came out from cover and any deeper and slower part of a pool and clobbered the fly just like a trout would. My rod bent dangerously to the cork as I tried to keep these sluggers out from the salvation of tangles that they so desperately wanted to go back into.
A word about casting and gear. In an essay regarding slower or softer fly rods, I touched on the subject of what they allow one to accomplish on the water. Many rods used for fly-fishing these days are made to be fished on big western rivers where big casts are necessary every day. Unfortunately these super-stiff rods are also intended to be used for the very type of situations I have been describing. That is like using a drill-press to hammer a nail; not the best tool for the job if you will. In order to play the short game, the rod needs to bend with ten feet of line out. That doesn’t mean it still can’t cast far, although if distance is the intent, then a soft rod might not be the best for everyone. All my rods for use on small streams and brushy closed in situations where the short game is a necessity are full-flexing. I place a line on them of the appropriate weight to allow me to cast in close as well. That might take some experimentation, and even over-lining a rod might be in order.
We are all taught to cast on a straight plane, stopping the rod high on the back cast and stopping again on the forward cast to allow the line to loop horizontally and fire straight forward. For the short game, we have to throw that book out the window. The structure of the water and confined area determine the cast we must make, and we need to think on this a bit before simply firing out a cast that gets tangled in overhead branches. Roll-casts and spey type casts shine here due to their use of line on the water to form a loading loop on the backcast and not get caught up. Steeple casts are necessary to hit a dime at your feet, and flicks and flops take the place of double-hauls. The artistry is not in the beauty of the cast, but in the utility of getting your fly where it needs to be and keeping it there long enough to be eaten.
Leaders may have to be adjusted as well. I go shorter in order to allow control and ability to bow-and-arrow cast with just a foot of fly-line outside the tip. Save the long leaders for wide-open spaces.
One inherent problem in the short game is landing of the fish. This poor creature just ate what it took for a giant meatball sandwich with extra cheese, and has just felt the pull of the hook and the panic. We have to have a plan. Approach the water. Find the mini-holding lie. Plan the cast. Then plan what you are going to do if you actually hook something. Do you have sufficient room to move? Can you play and coax that fish out from beneath an undercut without getting your rod and line helplessly tangled in the brush. Can you jump or run to another position quickly to allow angles to be applied? Is there a safe place open enough to cradle the fish and unhook it? Before disaster strikes, have a landing plan.
The short game is both sight-fishing and not sight-fishing. It is as different from fishing to rising trout in a wide gravel riffle as one can get. You are not looking for a fish, You are seeing what possibilities exist in the form of cute little situations, and then just flicking your fly in and seeing what happens. The sight-fishing part is in being able to discern the infinite possibilities the short game offers, and take advantage of them through ‘seeing’ the space between the notes. Close your eyes and pause. Take slow breaths of clean air. Listen to the sounds of the water and the creatures that live abound it. Hear the wind in the trees and a hoot of an owl, the chatter of a kingfisher, and then open your eyes again to a new world.