Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Distracted Take

Huh? What the…? Zzzzz ZZZZZ!!

Anticipation. Expectation. Hours of repeated confidence reminders. The Zen zone. Nothing, and more of nothing. Wading practice.

You see an eagle, osprey, owl, or fumble in your wader pocket trying to locate that half of a granola bar. It is then that we are most vulnerable. Mr. Steelhead often picks this very moment to strike.

The first occurrence happened on my first large steelhead. It was bank side squirrels rioting in a crunchy, leaf blanketed back yard that pulled my attention away for just long enough to… BUMP! TUG! WhirrrrrrrrrRRRRRRRR ZZZZZZZ!

My knuckles still hurt from getting in the way of that reel handle. I must have looked like a panicked juggler as I frantically did everything possible to lose that fish, but somehow failed.

My first steelhead on the west coast came when the sun rose above the canyon walls and I fumbled for my sunglasses. I actually had them half out of the case when the fish pounced on my spey fly. Glasses and clip-on sunglasses in one hand, rod in the other, I blindly squinted down river at the blurred scene of a chrome fish jumping and spitting the fly.

The typical scenario on a river goes like this. All full of coffee and in that zone of concentration, I fish for a few hours like a studious heron. I crouch, lift and reach my rod, mend attentively, and follow every nuance of the water. If a midge landed on my rod tip, I would feel it. I know exactly when and where that jolting take is going to occur. My fly tracks through the water like a poem on a mission.

Then slowly, after endless casts through productive water fail to produce, my mind starts to wander. I make a cast, and with my fly still swinging, take a photo, fumble with the wading staff, talk to a buddy, or watch wildlife.

There is also something about moving water, and the light patterns and reflections off the bottom that tend to mesmerize me. As the day wears on, I spend more time looking into the water than I do watching my fly.

One of the cardinal rules of fly-fishing is this; “If your fly is in the water, you are fishing.”

We all know this to be true from the times when suicidal or mentally challenged trout, panfish, or bass have hit our fly as it dangled in the water at our feet while we were picking out a wind-knot, or rooting around through various pockets.

A number of years ago, a partner had just landed a spectacular steelhead from a western river. I stepped up to the plate and began to strip out line. The fish had taken his fly on the other side of the river. It was going to be a long cast for me. I rolled out the fly, leader, and sink-tip, and stripped off more line. Suddenly all hell broke loose, and I was attempting to fight a steelhead just twenty feet from me with line everywhere. The fish came off of course.

The moral here is about that cardinal rule, but also that one should cover the water properly. Lord, all the things I have learned the hard way. However, perhaps those lessons stick in our brains better. A kid that reaches over a hot burner tends to equate fire and pain quite effectively after one lesson. I on the other hand am the kind of idiot that has a pebble in my wading boot for six weeks. With every step I mutter “Ow, ow, ow…” and so on. It never occurs to me to actually remove the offending pebble.

This past year I had a couple of wonderfully jarring takes when my mind and tongue were dedicated to something else. A nice hen almost yanked the rod out of my hand as I was asking a friend where his new puppy sleeps. “Does she sleep in a little box or in a cage by the …? *&^%$#@!!!!!! ZZzzzzzzZZZZZ!!!! Man, those Hardy reels can ratchet up a complaining song!

The same thing happened to me on my home river. Once again, my head was turned and I was yakking about some inane topic when my reel decided to play a Wagner overture at 125 decibels. The look on my face was one of shock and confusion.

I often wonder if there is something to this. Perhaps it might have something to do with being relaxed, or not trying so hard. In addition, the distracted take seems to lead to a higher landing percentage. This may be due to our inability to react and ‘screw it up’ at the time of the initial pull or take.

On the other hand, perhaps all the anthropomorphism is apropos; steelhead may have a sense of humor after all.


  1. I think this happens because people don't understand that the amount of time they aren't paying attention generally falls into the "most of it" category. So when that fish hits it's always "Oh man, I was totally looking at my shoes, or putting in a dip, looking at that chipmunk, scratching my arse, etc..." I spend probably 70% percent of my overall time in the water doing these exact things.

    Also, though careful scientific testing, I have found that purposefully acting out these distractive behaviors when fishing is slow does nothing to improve hit counts, but will make people look at you strangely from the shore.

  2. Good stuff Erik! Man oh man does that bring back some memories. A few years ago I was showing a young friend of mine the "ropes" as they related to swinging for steelhead. He didn't want to invest in real steelhead gear and was fishing a six weight Sage DS-2. Awesome trout rod, but for steelhead? Not so much... Anyway, he had had limited success that winter and was really fightin' the blues. However he made it "over the hump" mentally one evening and was giving an impassioned speech on inner stillness, poetry and all that. The last rays of the setting sun peaked out from under the clouds and he started fumbling in his vest looking for his sunglasses. With his rod tucked under his arm and the fly hanging down below him, he was using both hands to root around while saying (and I remember this very clearly) "I really don't expect to catch a fish anymore, I just like being out here"... Well we all know what happened and I'll spare y'all the details. However, we were fishing the "ledges" across from Spaulding Mission and the water was up. I basically had to wade down below him and tail a fifteen pound fish that he couldn't get to the bank on that damn six weight. I had the fish but I slipped on the slick basalt, the leader broke, the fish made a frantic bid for freedom, I went swimming... Oh yeah it was February.
    Jack Ohman claims that trout always have to be the center of attention. As long as you are focusing all your willpower on them, they feel free to ignore you. However, the minute your attention wanders they feel slighted. I assume this must hold true for steelhead as well.--AJ

  3. Alex,
    Good points. I forgot about the concept of trying to 'fake' distraction, but have tried that too. Never works. You are correct.

    Dangle at a ledge rock outcrop? He was begging to get hit. Congrats on surviving that swim. Nasty in February. You amaze me at how you recovered enough to help land the fish. I would still be laughing. I almost swam in that water myself a few times.

  4. So funny the other morning ,i went out .I got to the river early ! i sat there for awhile waiting for the light .I got myself togeather and let out a little line .I aways start out short now because ive had these grabs before right at my feet and had those nice misses or lost fish .So ive decided ok fish short and work it out slowly .So now im doing this and im watching the fly line swing about twenty feet in front of me .I do a single spey and get about thirty feet out mend the head and do the swing ,this has taken less then a minute i do it again now forty feet ,watch the swing BAM the fish hits the fly ,im paying attention this time .but in my disbelief I dont set the hook the fish takes of and in my mind for one second im like what the heck was that ? the next second im like thats a fish dumby so i lift the rod back slightly .The fish runs takes a leap and ten mintues later I land it .It was that moment of dibeleif that is in my head .the shock of him hitting ( which was a slam like no other ive had by the way ) I lost the fish at the bank ,i didnt care though the battle was awesome and ill neve forget the take !


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