The 95th Percentile

Spend a season on any given river, a hundred days or more, and you’ll find that there’s maybe five or six that stand out in your memory, days when a healthy river system is revealed for what it should be, a veritable incubator of life and fertility and energy. For the angler, such days are when the planets seem aligned to their own benefit, the momentary convergence of countless variables – barometric pressure, air and water temperature, water level, time of season, favorable work schedule – that coincide on life’s continuum to produce a day of fishing that will lead he or she to believe momentarily that they can do no wrong, at least with a fly rod in hand.

Such a day was last Wednesday on the Arkansas. From the outset, fish fed off the surface, gorging on the novelty of newly hatched caddis from the outset and did so to the end. A sunny morning gave way to a still, high overcast, the early winds of spring subsiding to a gentle downstream caress. Even the fact that I was guiding a couple of attorneys didn’t seem to trouble the Universe, such was the benevolence of the day – no broken rods, no man overboard, no glowering, rumbling displeasure from the heavens above.

Five or six days a season, you make every cast with the expectation of there being a fish at the end of each drift. On these occasions it is easy to believe the assertion of the local fisheries biologist that at any given time there are between four and seven thousand fish per mile of river of river. These are the easy days to be a guide – dip your oars in the water, crack a few jokes, let the fish do the educating. You even overlook the sacrilege of someone throwing a woolly bugger while the fish rise all around you. Even NASCAR tastes deserve to be indulged from time to time.

There’s even room in the day for the occasional existential crisis that comes with drifting a fly for five minutes or so without sign of a fish. Is my fly too big? Should I be further from the shore? Maybe the hatch is over? Invariably, such thoughts are barely expressed and the fly disappears in a toilet-flush boil and you raise the rod tip and feel OK about the world and your place in it once again.

The trick is to appreciate these days for what they are – reward for persistence, for showing up, for all the times you froze your ass off or spent your day deciphering golf ball sized tangles of flies and tippet and indicators twisted around rod tips. As Woody Allen once famously observed, ninety percent of life is merely showing up. Just step up to the plate and start swinging. Once in a while, you’re bound to connect with the sweet spot.

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