No Place to Hide

My wife thinks its kind of disturbing I get so excited about dry flies. Truth is, I agree with her on two counts. I do get excited, and it is mildly disturbing. If anglers in general are defined by their underlying optimism, then the dry fly angler is the one who clings doggedly to the belief there is a fish at the end of each and every drift, despite evidence to the contrary. Once in a while, sufficient in regularity to maintain the optimism, he or she is proved correct. Fish are masters of disguise. To cast to where you know a fish resides, even though it cannot be seen, and to have your certainty confirmed as it materializes from its world into yours is about as good as it gets.

There’s a little too much guess work with nymphing below the surface for my liking, a little too much “fire a shotgun into the cloud and see if you hit a goose” about it for me. A devoted nymph fisherman will quote all sorts of facts and figures to you about how much of a fish’s diet consists of subsurface feeding, and how much wider a fish’s field of vision is underwater as opposed to above. They’ll tell you all about the importance of bouncing your flies along the bottom of the river where the big ones live. And maybe they’re right, but I bet they all turn the light out before sex also.

Having lured the fish to the surface, a dry fly angler’s triumphs or tragedies reside in the public domain. When a fish rises to your fly and just as it is about to take it down you jerk it away in a fit of schoolboy nerves, it is hard to blame your ineptness on a rock or stick or some other unseen underwater obstruction as a nymph fisherman can. Best you can do is to reclothe yourself in what shreds of dignity you can muster and press on to the next success or humiliation. I once missed nine fish in the space of thirteen casts. In front of a client. I handed her back her rod.

“See, I told you it was difficult,” was all I had left.

Despite glaring evidence to the contrary, in the form of rising fish tugging, chewing, inhaling and ingesting their flies, some fishermen still try to put the blame anywhere but themselves. The guide is an obvious target. I generally point out that short of leaving them in the parking lot and fishing in their stead, once the fly is in the fish’s mouth there’s not a lot more a mortal can do. Others get more creative. Among the excuses I’ve heard, “The fish on the Arkansas take a dry fly differently than most other rivers. They seem to gum the fly, rather than take it with their teeth,” and “They seem to be just slapping it with their heads rather that biting it, like they just want to stun it,” are personal favorites.

So yes, I do get excited when fishing dries. I get excited when I get it right. I get excited when I get it wrong. I get just as excited when others get it right or wrong. I’m not sure that this is healthy in a fifty-two year old. Still, it could be worse. I could be one of those types that dream of articulated streamers. Now that’s disturbing.


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.


A Good Day to Stay Indoors?

It is a fact that the best days to find fish rising to blue wings are often the best days to stay indoors, close to the hearth. They are those days when a sullen blanket of grey smothers the peaks and a stinging wind drives flurries of snow that swirl and patter amongst the bare willows along the river bank and softly hiss at their demise on the water. They are those days when the river flows grey and metallic through a landscape still barren and brown, branches naked to the breeze, raised skyward like bony supplicants. They are those days where non-fishing spouses look at you with a mix of concern and bemusement that never dims over the years as you announce you are heading out to the river for bit. Truth to tell, they’re probably glad just to get you out of the house.

There is something noble and tragic about the mayfly, a brief flowering of beauty then demise that in the big scheme of things is not too far removed from that of our own mortal coil. Despite the forces of nature arrayed against them, despite being at the mercy of wind and water and silent predation, they follow their script with the single-mined purpose and quiet dignity that uncovers heroism in the everyday. I wonder at times if they are in some way aware of the danger that surrounds them as they bob and pirouette down the river, their sail-like wings fragile and buffeted by the breeze.

The fish, on the other hand, seem to harbor no such thoughts of sympathy or admiration for their plight, gorging themselves on the steady stream of protein that comes to them like hors d’ouvres on a conveyor belt. The challenge for the fisherman on such days is to be able to accurately cast, and then identify, a tiny grey fly on a grey river under grey skies with a swirling wind scuffing the surface this way and that. Perhaps once in five casts you see your fly, the rest of the time you play the zone, setting the hook to any rise that might be near where you think your fly is. Like a slugger swinging at fastballs, most you fan on, but every now and then you connect.

After a couple of hours, it was time to head home. The hatch was still in full swing, the fish still rising, but I’d seen enough. A particularly strong gust of wind almost blew me off my bouldery perch into the river, and I somehow contrived to break my fly off on a back cast. Faced with the choice of retying or heading home, I chose the latter, leaving the river to its business.


Diary Of A Dry Fly Tragic

While there is an element of optimism inherent in any style of recreational fishing, I like to think it is heightened amongst the ranks of dry fly tragics. The dark arts of nymphing may be viewed as an acceptable, at times necessary, method of fooling fish in the long, cold winter months where navel gazing and bouts of introspection come to the fore. But spring is the time for optimists, and in fishing circles, none shines brighter than the dry fly angler.

At least that’s what I told myself driving to the river one recent afternoon, unseasonably warm and typically breezy. My sense of certainty in the goodness of my quest had been heightened earlier in the day, on a family hike with our new pup along a riverside trail. While she charged and cavorted, barking at the strangeness of the water, spooked yet continually drawn to it, I was scanning the far banks, searching the seam lines under the willows. My vigilance was rewarded with the sight of a couple of risers, not a prolific number by any stretch, but enough to convince that at least there existed a few fish who were, like me, looking up.

There’s always a nagging doubt when fishing dry flies on a slow day, as to what might be going on in the river’s depths. Does the lack of feeding activity above the surface mirror that of below, or is there an orgy of feeding of catholic proportions  going on that I’m missing out on due to stubborness and a deluded sense of superiority?

I’ve found it pays not to think about that too much. Instead, I pressed on upriver, and after fifteen minutes caught my first fish, coincidentally aided by the very wind that had made accurate placement of my flies difficult. Drifting the upper reaches of a pour-over, where a side dumper emptied into the main body of the river, an errant gust blew my flies a couple of feet to the left of where I’d intended. Despite thinking the water too slow and shallow to hold a fish at this time of the year, I resisted the urge to pick up and cast again and was rewarded with the nice, aggressive take of a lovely rainbow, charging about under water like my pup on the river bank earlier.

There followed a long drought, drifting my pmx trailing a caddis over the top of some lovely structure – riffles, pockets and eddie lines – but the sense of doubt didn’t return. I’d caught a fish on a dry, teased it from its world briefly to mine, and the rest of the afternoon could pass by fish-less for all I cared. And it nearly did. Late, the sunlight softening and the air calming, I spotted a fish rising in a glassy run against a sheltered, grassy bank. Several changes of flies were required, each smaller than the last, until it finally rose to a sprout baetis, technically a dry fly although some nymph fishermen will tell you 75 percent of it hangs below the surface.

Two hours on the river, two fish landed, beer in the fridge. It was time to head home. I have no idea how many I’d have caught with a nymph – maybe less, maybe more, but since when has counting been the point?


The Dog Days of March

In a way I feel cheated. Cold spring days battling wind, snow and sleet on the river are as much a part of the fishing calendar as the t-shirt weather of August, the glory of fall in the high country or tromping through the snow to nymph January’s noon-to-two window.

I enjoy the cocoon-like feel of wrapping up in fleece and goretex, the knowledge that there is a warm hearth and hot shower at day’s end making the difference between gutsing it out and despair. Such days help connect you to the cycle of birth and rebirth, as you witness the river and its inhabitants awaken from their seasonal slumber.

So I’m not too sure what to make of this spring. There is a surreal quality about floating the Ark in shirtsleeves in March, the fish as active as it were a summer’s day. I guess I would feel more comfortable if there was more snow in the mountains, but it is also a reminder that you take what nature, through the river, gives you. It seems a waste to not enjoy it for what it is on account of what might happen later in the season.

Maybe April will revert to type, and we’ll see the peaks shrouded again, and the blue wings blown into the nooks and crannies along the rocky shore where the fish sit and sip while flurries swirl. Or maybe we’ll continue with the balmy temperatures and the fish feeding like its July. Either way, might as well get out and enjoy, for who knows what tomorrow brings?