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.

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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?

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Missed fishing, missed fish….

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.

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Thou shalt not live by fish alone

Being inclined towards laziness [ I feel some of us have to act to counter the damned Puritans and their work ethic ] I am naturally drawn towards fishing, with it’s emphasis on patience, stealth, standing  in one place for a long time, and sitting around drinking beer. While in a perfect world this would be enough to maintain a physically healthy equilibrium, alas, science tells us it is not so. So a couple of times a week I try to think of my physical well being and  go mountain biking.

Now, I want to make it clear here and now: I am in no way some fearless young hotshot adrenaline junky. Au contraire, I am 49 years old, a bit of a wimp, know my limits [ which doesn’t mean I am beyond testing them from time to time ] and learnt several years ago that the body takes a lot longer to heal than it used to. However, for an aerobic work out, combined with the odd heart in the mouth moment and the fun of a real life video game, few things can come close to tearing down the side of a mountain on two wheels.

Of course, first you have to get to the top of the mountain. There are a couple of ways to do this: California style, i.e. get someone to drive you, or crank your way up the honest way. The nice thing about living on the valley floor is that you usually get your workout early in the piece, and once you get to the top, the rewards are all down hill from there. So it is with this ride. From home, about two and a half hours in the saddle, with about eight miles and a little over 2000 feet of combined vertical, followed by about ten miles of largely downhill single track.

Of course, my mind works in mysterious and at times counter productive ways. After a workout like that, it is easy to convince yourself that you have earned a beer and a plate of wings at Bensons, thereby undoing some of the good achieved on the ride. But to be honest, I would have probably eaten the wings anyway, so it all balances out in the end.

And a special thanks goes out to Doug Green for carrying a well stocked first aid kit.

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