It was a late September afternoon when I received a phone call from a friend I will call ‘Spud’. “In the Driftless area of Wisconsin for the weekend… Fish?” was the question. The answer was in the affirmative, (Duh!) and the time set for late the next morning. I have not fished with Spud more than a few times for trout, our meetings usually occupied with steelhead, or a lack of them on beautiful rivers where I lead him on epic detours and short-cuts which he puts up with for some reason I can only speculate about. When I have traipsed the creeks with him in pursuit of the wily spotted trutta, I have found him to be among the best spring creek fishers I know.
Because of his expertise, I decided to take him to a tiny brush-clogged stream, and one of my favorites: intimate and complex besides being filled with challenging trout. I always feel at home here, like I passed through time and the river to a more elemental and simple place. We met at noon, and after a cup of tea, packed up his truck, and were off.
Although cloudy and cool, we timed the fishing perfectly. The water had warmed enough that a hatch of Blue winged Olive mayflies had begun. Not a major hatch yet, but enough to get the trout looking up for snacks. I tied on a little size 18 BWO dry fly, and Spud tied on a size 16 olive stimulator. Now the curious reader might exclaim “Fung Wa? What???” Yes, a size 16 olive stimulator dry, for that is all Spud fishes with for trout. You have to respect his trust in it, his determination that the fish will see it as a morsel of food, despite it being too large and the wrong shape for the hatching insects on the stream. It works too, at least in his hands, even if old Ernest Schwiebert, author of ‘Matching the Hatch’ might proclaim, “Das fool! Zat is der wrrrong kaput forlunkin fly!”
We progressed up the stream, carefully placing casts to the tight cover and avoiding all the obstacles in the form of myriad bushes and overhanging branches. The trout were cooperating too, as I discovered Spud’s Modus Operandi: simply by over hackling the stimulator, he could place it in the tightest quarters between twigs, bounce it off the water, gently pull it in and out of snags, and effectively fish every inch of productive water near trout cover without worrying about his fly getting stuck. It was almost a fly with built-in weed guard. The fly was his magic power, his cloak of invulnerability, his helmet of confidence.
We both took decent fish out of the complicated chess game the river demanded of us, and spud being a lefty, we traded off in runs based on openings that demanded either a left handed caster or right. After an hour or so, we ran out of river, as it braided out at an upper bridge, and proceeded downstream to a lower section. This is the kind of happy-go-lucky fishing I love: no pressure or worries, and a guide’s day off. Catch or catch not, pick your relaxed pace and fish the challenges with little agenda and a good friend who is as happy when I catch a fish as I am when he does.
The hatch of tiny mayflies of the dusky persuasion we were playing amongst had increased in intensity when we wet our boots in the lower water. I began catching trout with regularity, and spud briefly considered changing to a more realistic pattern, but decided instead to increase his agenda of dancing his seductive little stimulator over, under, and through every obstacle. He picked up the fish my fly didn’t tempt quite enough. The menu specialized in small olives du jour , but the blue-plate special of meatloaf and mushroom gravy with mashed potatoes found on the back page tempted up some hefty and hungry diners.
Then the impossible happened. A nice fish chewed up Spud’s meatloaf stimulator and it would not float anymore. Reaching into his vest, he opened a fly box that… you guessed it… contained nothing but size 16 olive stimulators. Alas, the horrors!… it was empty. What to do? After all, we were only halfway up the stretch of river we were fishing. It seemed that there is a first time for everything, as Spud extended his leader, and tied on a Blue Winged Olive fly similar to mine, and cast it forward into the maze of riffles and protruding flora.
The change was shocking. I had to look at him to be sure who I was fishing with. His first cast got stuck in a tree behind him. His second cast he mended into a bush. Then he stood on the line while it tangled around the tip of his rod. “What is going on Spud?” I asked. “I am all discombobulated and un-stimulated,” he replied, while placing his fly into another bush and slipping on a rock. He started teetering back and forth in an uncoordinated manner, and if I didn’t know that he was a confirmed avoider of alcohol, might have thought he had secretly sneaked a snoot-full of potables.
|Why? Why is it all happening to me?|
I began laughing, and he did too. I said carefully “You know, I am laughing with you not at you… I think this is all psychological…”
“No kidding!” he now almost shouted, “It’s like someone gave me kryptonite! Before, all I could see was water and targets, now all I can see are obstructions and obstacles!” It was like a bizarro world, a world of negatives where black was now white and white now black… targets on the water to be missed, and every branch, rock, tree, or even his hat turned into some sort of magnet… and it was all psychological. Removing that damned stimulator was like pulling out some essential piece of mental DNA, or putting his batteries in backwards. His wet flies floated, and his dry flies sank. In short, his confidence and mindfulness was short-circuited. You could almost hear the fuses popping.
I seem to fish best when being mindful yet in a Zen state… a harmony with everything… a sense of ‘Wa’ as the Japanese would describe it. If I am too distracted, or even too full of concentration and thinking, things often begin to go wrong… not to the extent of Spud’s malaise, but all of us have been there at some point in our angling, or will be.
The answer is to stop thinking of the problem itself, and return to the beginning. Sit down on the bank and close your eyes. Take a deep breath… or follow the path of one ‘Tin Cup’, the golfer and psychological disaster played by Kevin Costner in the movie of the same name. In the movie, a distracted, in love, and nervous Costner is at the practice driving range at the opening of the U.S. Open golf tournament, and keeps slicing his drives into his fellow competitors including some famous PGA pros. The other golfers start staring at him and making comments as he unravels worse and worse, and can only seem to hit the ball backwards and sideways. He had become his own ‘hazard’ on the course, and he had not even begun play yet. The solution proffered by his coach and caddy played by Cheech Marin is to tie his shoes together, put on his hat sideways, transfer his change to his other pocket, and other goofy things. Tin Cup states that he feels like a fool! The coach says “Excellent… swing away!” and Cup does with a perfect drive. “How’d you do that?” he asks. The answer: You stopped thinking about shanking and slicing your shots. That simple.
Spud’s solution was a bit different but equally effective. He went back to the beginning and cleared his head too, as he rooted around through myriad fly boxes and found one last misplaced size 16 olive stimulator, a somewhat battered former gladiator, but ready to be tied on and sent forward into the fray. He cast gracefully and perfectly, placed the fly in an impossible spot, and hooked and landed a fish… and another… and another.
When the fly finally fell apart from all those tiny teeth, he reeled up, thanked me for a great day of fishing, and we walked off the water, and had dinner. It was his closer to the trout season, and would give him all winter to replenish his box of stimulators. I am thinking of tying a few too, and putting them in a small pill box… like medication of the placebo kind for that inevitable day when I become all tangled up in my psychological underwear.
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