Trout are like a box of chocolates… you never know what you are going to get
Or…Dry fly fishing and the mysteries of probability.
If this sport were entirely predictable, we wouldn’t enjoy it so much. The very unpredictability, and resulting challenges and on the water problem solving is what makes fly-fishing a thinking sport, and none more than fishing the dry-fly on a trout stream. Predicting bug hatches and a trout’s reaction or lack of reaction to them is an inexact science at best. Yes, we can hypothesize what SHOULD happen during a set period of time given the temperature of the water, cloud cover, the angles of the sun, water clarity, etc., but in reality, what should happen becomes more what could not happen. Like predicting the weather. There might be a tornado forming in that storm, or not. The squall line might drift off and miss us entirely, or we might be caught under the bridge as hail falls dangerously around us. We just don’t know. Life and fishing are not an exact science. Laws are not always universal. Theories may or may not play out before our eyes.
We all know that Blue Wing Olive mayflies tend to like to hatch in overcast conditions. Cloud cover and a drizzle might be a good indicator of a likely BWO emergence, but then again, it might not. I have fished BWO hatches in a cloudless sky with the sun directly overhead. Puzzling through this, I surmised that the bugs wanted to hatch earlier in the day when the sky was cloudy, but the water temperature had taken a plunge with a chilly cold front that passed by in the night. The sun warmed the water by a few degrees, and the bugs that were ready to hatch made a brief appearance. The trout wouldn’t take a caddis anymore, but became briefly obsessed with sipping gray-green bonbons.
Notice I used the word ‘Surmised’; for the truth is that I could be correct in my assumptions, or completely off base. Attempting to correlate the weather, stream entomology, and the behavioral psychology of a creature with a brain the size of a pea can leave you standing in the middle of the creek scratching your head with your waders around your ankles. The red-winged blackbird sitting on the branch above your head and squawking might be warning us of a nearby nest, or if we listen closely enough, might be saying “Hey you old fool with the goofy hat and long pole, don’t think about it too hard, shit just happens!”
Then we sit down on the bank and busy ourselves with searches through fly-boxes, looking for the answers to life, and quietly day-dreaming.
We think of that time on a spring-creek when the day was overcast and no bugs of notice were on the water and we had a ball catching and releasing thirty or more wild browns, finally losing count as our tattered caddis, now bereft of hackle and half the wing gets sucked under by yet another fish as we were standing on the bank swatting mosquitos, and our fly (now in name only) was dangling off the tip of our rod innocently and right at our feet. We recall we read extensively of the wise Marinaro and Flick that trout responded to hatches on the water, and that they were fussy and spooky creatures. We laugh and congratulate ourselves on our fishing prowess. We know what we are doing. We have it all figured out. The gods of fly-fishing are smiling on us.
Not so fast. He who chuckles and swells with pride and smiles should be prepared for the fickle nature of trout and bugs.
The next piece of water on the same creek is a couple hundred yards upstream, but in the time it took you to walk there and eat a sandwich washed down with this morning’s stale and cold coffee, something karmic happened. You can’t see it. Wizened old anglers might just sense it. The sun peeked out just a tiny fraction from behind a cloud… just for a few seconds. Just enough to…
In the new water you work upstream with a fresh caddis fly, popping it under branches, hanging it over a blade of grass over the stream, twitching it over little buckets and current seams, silently amazed at your casting and presentation prowess. What happened to the fish? Did someone drop poison in the river? Is this section fishless? Then you spot a riseform in a tiny riffle. The caddis goes ignored three times through. Then another rise. You put the caddis over this fish and it stops rising altogether. The caddis just worked like a charm for the past four hours, how could this be happening? You can’t see anything hatching, so you surmise the trout must be eating small stuff. That catskill BWO in a size 20 stuck in your hat might work. Sure enough, you finally catch a small 8-inch fish on the BWO, right as the sun peeks out again. This makes no sense you exclaim while shaking your head in wonder and frustration. As you sit on a log midstream and try to figure out what to do next, a pod of big browns swims lazily by. You swear that the biggest one just winked at you.
It is at this moment of soul-searching in our attempts at a symbiosis of fly, nature, water and fish that madness can take hold. We all have been there. In times past we raged and swore. We told wives and fishing partners that we had a lousy fishing trip. We let it get to us. Somewhere in the progression from wanting to catch all the fish in the river and prove a point to ourselves that should never have needed to be proved, to a quiet and calm appreciative angler we learned to laugh at it all; to laugh at ourselves.
Remember the guy we used to fish with ten years back? The guy who seemed possessed of an inner-fire to catch fish? The guy who always had an agenda? Who had no sense of proportion or humor? He doesn’t fly-fish for trout anymore.
We get up off the log, give a big hearty laugh, and walk the bank of the stream with our fly hooked to the keeper.
Don’t you just love it? What a sport!
Perhaps sometimes having no plan, other just to have fun and wet a line, may be a better approach than having an agenda set in stone. Sometimes we might have to just let go. I always try to ask an angler after they tell me a story of success or woe, “Well, did you have fun?” A goofy day fishing and learning the hard way the immensity of natural probability and Murphy’s law still beats a day at the office.
Given the fickle nature of trout and bugs, I like to be prepared. In my old waxed cotton stream bag nests seven or eight fly boxes jammed with imitations of every conceivable winged thing. They are all meticulously organized in rows like toy soldiers waiting for the call to arms. Crane fly hatch? Check. I got that covered. Caddis? Yes sir! I have Goddards, Henryvills, CDC, comparaduns, Elk hair, X-caddis etc. etc. Boxes of midges and blue-winged olives, march browns, hendricksons, etc. etc. etc.
Am I the over-prepared angler sinking into the creek bottom from the weight of all those tiny hooks? Do I look like the dungeons and dragons adventurer with an absurd collection of gear weighing me down? Remember this all fits neatly into a small stream bag.
It always amazes me how anglers can approach a multiple day trip by going to a fly-shop and requesting “Three or four flies that are good now.” Three or four? I lose more than that in a day just to bushes, trees, and carelessly tied knots. What would happen if a major hatch occurs and you have only two flies matching the bug on the water? The answer is that you are screwed. Better hope that you don’t get bitten off by a big boy! Time now to go to a heavier tippet that may save your fly, but also brazenly advertise your presence to the fish. Let’s see, $600 in plane fare, $300 for the motel, $450 for the rental car….. and six dollars on flies.
Back to the chocolates…
I finished a recent trip to the driftless area of southwest Wisconsin by half-heatedly fishing my way more or less in the direction of home. I had to leave by four P.M. in order to get back in time for life. The day was bright and sunny without a cloud in the sky. After driving around for an hour looking for a half-remembered piece of water, becoming lost, and having my car attacked by a stray dog, I found myself on a stretch of a creek I had never fished before. Another angler had just left the pull-out. Looking at my watch I realized that this would be my last fishing of the trip. I put on a caddis fly and hoped for the best. I call this prospecting for trout. Exploring and snooping being as important as the fishing. Poking and sniffing at the chocolates to try to guess if I would get a mint crème or a cocoanut filling. Looking at the water from a crouch behind the tall grass I noticed the lack of insects other than the ever-present deer-flies and gnats. No trout were rising.
One of my eccentric faults is to fish the dry over the wet under any condition if possible. Yes, it is my own choice, and not an affectation. I just love the visual senses involved, and the challenge. Under that bright sky with no bugs on the water I had a ball finding the one or two (or none) fish in each pool or run that would rise. Caught or just raised and missed, it didn’t matter. Getting back to the car in time for the three-hour drive back, I watched as a car slowed up and stopped. It was the other angler wanting to know how I did. When I told him he was filled with wonder. He had used a nymph with an indicator and had caught a few fish too, but he was amazed that I had used a dry in those conditions. The only reason I caught fish on a dry was because I was using a dry. You never know what you are going to get when you reach into that box of chocolates.
Be prepared though for anything to happen, and just have fun. Be dogmatic or pragmatic. Fish the same fly stubbornly or switch flies until something works. Spend more time watching the river than fishing, or shotgun the water placing your fly in probable spots and moving on. It is all good. Just remember that you are not in charge here. The trout are…
And anything can happen…