My record for missing fish stands at nine in a row. Bad enough I know, but I was guiding at the time. It was during the caddis hatch ten or so years ago. A sunny spring day when the caddis were just starting to hatch in earnest, and the fish, not yet sated, were pursuing the bounty with aggressive abandon.
The lady I was guiding, Samantha, was having difficulty getting the timing of her hook set right. The situation wasn’t helped by the speed with which the fish were hitting the flies on the surface. When a caddis hatches, it rises from the bottom of the river, often riding an air bubble to the top, wings fully developed and ready to fly. Breaking through the surface film, it is off, like a rat out of an aquaduct, to quote Brian’s mother.
The fish know this, and know too that if they want to have caddis for dinner, they’d better be quick. Accordingly, you have to adjust your reaction time to the rhythm of the fish. Having missed several takes, in exasperation Samantha turned to me, handing me the rod. “You do it, show me how.”
It was then I went 0 for 9 over the next five minutes. Handing the rod back to her, I shrugged and suggested the river was telling us we needed to break for a beer rather than let the humiliation continue.
This time of the year, the takes tend to be a little more languid. Fish are seeing and feeding on a lot of terrestrials. The conveyor belt passing over their heads carries lots of hoppers, beetles and ants, creatures not meant to be in the water, usually inept and helpless when they are. Fish know they have more time, so leisurely inspect their prey before committing.
In this situation, the challenge lies in not setting the hook too early, thereby pulling the fly out of a still open mouth. You get to watch the fish rise up to inspect the fly, sometimes drifting downstream with it, nudging it, before taking or refusing. The bigger the fish, the more time they tend to take. You need to discipline yourself to wait.
In New Zealand, it’s called the “God Save The Queen” rule. Downunder, until they sense something is wrong with their world, the bigger fish do everything slowly and with deliberation. No calorie of energy is expended unnecessarily. A fish rising to a dry fly will sometimes inspect it for five or ten seconds of more before deciding to take or refuse. I’ve seen them open their mouths around a fly, then drift backwards downriver for several yards, mulling their options, before backing away and returning to their station.
When they do take, it is usually so slow and deliberate that the fisherman, knees shaking in anticipation, must discipline him or herself to wait until the fish is back below the surface, mouth firmly shut, before reacting. Hence the mantra “God Save The Queen” before setting the hook.
All of this is a rather round about way of saying that on the day in question, it took me a little while to get my mojo working. For the first twenty minutes or so, and at regular intervals thereafter, I couldn’t hook a fish to save myself. I’ll put it down to lack of match practice – my other job has kept me from the river for most of this summer, which given the state of the economy over the last few years is a good thing, I guess – and keep telling myself that it just wouldn’t be as much fun if you hooked them all.