Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Hidden Run

As I approached the river and turned my car slowly down the winding access road, my sense of anxiety grew. Would there be anyone in my hidden secret run? Would anyone trespass on my last privacy on the water? I was relieved to see the opening through the bushes marking the way to the river unguarded by another car, and carefully nosed mine into the nearby scrub a hundred yards short of the access point. I retrieved the magnetic sign I had made and attached it to the side of my car. ‘Biohazard! Feces collection and vector study vehicle’ it read. That should keep people away! I hopped into my waders and ran for the opening before anyone could spot me, dropping toy rubber rattlesnakes and spiders as I went. I would rig up the rod later on the river. Less time for somebody to spot me by the road and find my hidden run: my only sanctuary.

Then I woke up from the dream….

 For that is the irony… The hidden run does not exist. At least as much as it is truly hidden. It is there for all to see and is not secret, it only lies obscured by the lack of ability in reading water and breaking with common convention. Later that day I pulled into the hidden run. There were people walking their dogs on the road, and anglers driving past to other destinations on the river. Even if they found my hidden run, it would still be hidden for they would not fish it.

Why not?

On our tributaries to the Great Lakes and especially my local river, fly anglers pursue anadromous fish such as Steelhead and large Brown Trout the same way they pursue the salmon, that is in general one of two methods is used. The first is sight-fishing: find a fish spawning and fish to it until you catch it, frighten it off, or foul-hook it. The second method is even more productive. Dams and waterfalls have a habit of slowing the progress of fish up the river to spawn. Often they pool up or congregate the fish for several hours and even days. In some instances, the obstacle is too difficult or high to jump over at all, and the fish reach an existential and real dead end right there. Here is a good spot for lots of good catching. Note I didn’t say good fishing, that might be something different if we are sport fishing and not gathering for subsistence. Both of these methods place many fish on the end of an angler’s line, so they are the most productive method, if not questionable in a sporting sense. In this case, what is productive and common convention does one other thing: it prevents our metaphorical ‘Hidden Run’ from ever being discovered by the madding crowds.

Why? Because there are no waterfalls or dams, and only the top head of the pool may have the occasional odd salmon struggling to spawn with its back half out of the water. Beyond those obvious signals and signs, the water is a confusing tumble of boulders, riffles, pools, slack water and fast shoots. In other words, it needs interpretation or reading, it takes analysis. It takes more effort to find fish in holding water than to just shoot deer in a petting zoo. Opening that page opens the world’s longest book. A book and a study so rich with promise and eye-opening that hidden runs are suddenly everywhere, and this is the second irony, the hidden run both does not exist unless it remains hidden by lack of wisdom, and it exists everywhere afterwards when that knowledge is gained and placed into practice.

Still reading?

Lets give a few examples. In spring when the water is high on our tributaries, anglers walk the banks and almost always ask each other the same question like a ritual: “Have you seen any fish?” Last year I had a nice conversation with another angler in a parking lot while rigging my gear. He went down to a shallow riffle, wandered around the water looking down and peering for twenty minutes or so, and then left. I started working a sweet piece of water that fishes best when the river is high and clear. Twenty casts later, I hooked a screamer of a steelhead in the boulders at the tail out. The other angler had been within 50 yards of this water, but instead of unlocking the possibilities, began putting into operation the common convention of looking for fish. Then this spring two anglers were walking down the river in this very spot, actually walking through the good water when one of them recognized me and asked if they were in good water. “Is this featureless water O.K. too?” they asked. I looked at the run with a hidden Rosetta-Stone of little clues as to boulders and pockets, scallops and spits and told them that indeed they were in good water. Then after they left ten minutes later, I proceeded down the run and briefly hooked a fish exactly where they were standing.

Trout too:

The same quagmire of convention and ease of path taken also happens on trout streams to all our detriment. Often trout anglers concentrate their efforts of two distinct things in the water. LUNKER structures or artificial undercut banks providing cover, and riffles at the head of pools. Smart anglers too, for the riffle is a hatch factory providing broken water and cover, and the LUNKER structure holds the majority of fish in a given pool in most situations. However there are a lot of other targets out there. Fishing to a rising fish with a dry in the true English style will tell us where the fish intercept the bugs, but what about when they don’t? Do we pass by the log sunk in the side of the tail-out for the obvious ten-incher rising in the riffle above, or… would it be a good time to explore that water with our fly? If we never depart from our common path, we may never find new avenues of discovery and knowledge, and yes… pleasure. But that might mean taking that strike-indicator and bead head nymph that has been glued to our line for the last ten years, and placing on a Sawyer style lightly weighted nymph and working it actively and with thought and planning. On my local trout stream I have meet some great anglers, some characters, and everything in-between. Once during a hatch of mixed Hendricksons and March Browns, I came across two guys who were fishing prince-nymphs downstream on a dead-drift. They were working down the stream as I was working up. I greeted them politely, they told me they had not hooked anything yet, and I asked them if they had any mayfly imitations around a size 12. Nope, they both always have used size 12 prince nymphs with a split-shot or two. They continued on their way shackled by their own convention. The hidden run that day was all around in the air, and had wings.

If we walk the same path everyday we see the same scenery, only differently in hues, never a different view entirely, and if we follow the hatchery truck, always fish the same 3 flies, or ask everyone else what they do so we can ‘bah’ like sheep in the same language, the hidden run will remain locked tight. We have to get away from the dams and waterfalls, and think beyond the riffles.

Being skunked is part of the process of learning the keys to opening those doors to the hidden run, as is stubbing one’s toe or getting lost.

So what is the lesson or the take-away? Perhaps it is simply that by taking the path that leads to the initial success of fish caught consistently, and not breaking with that tradition at some point in our progression, we have taken a short cut to a closed book and a dark forest. In order to find the path again, we may need to go fishing and not worry about the catching. Then the discoveries amongst the little riffles and eddies may lead us to the hidden runs and the spaces between the notes where the music is sweetest. The funny part is that it has been there all along, but how fragrant is the flower when finally uncovered. Asking about the secret spot may bring answers, but finding one’s own will bring fulfillment.
The door is right there, and there is no footpath…. Just look out for my rubber rattlesnakes!


akovia said...

" If we never depart from our common path, we may never find new avenues of discovery and knowledge". The key to a rewarding life. We both seem to have found it through fly fishing. Wonderful thing.

Anonymous said...

In Western Wisconsin I've had two of my best big trout hidden runs "improved" out of existence by a team of DNR and TU people doing "habitat improvement." They saw rocky shallows in places where I was catching my best fish.

Erik Helm said...

Anon. Alas... sometimes the best of intentions lead to the path of.. well.. you know already. I too have had times when I wondered WTF? Do you want this all to look like a golf course with fairways and groomed runs? Read my essay 'Home Waters' for more detail here. I uphold these efforts at stream improvement, I support them. But... sometimes I wish we could recreate what nature creates with simple in-stream structure and bank-stabilization. Not lunker-structure goofy-golf.