“The actual mechanics of short’line nymph… relies largely on intuition and the ability to see things that aren’t immediately evident, or rather, to see things that are evident in their own way.”
—Zen and the Art of Nymph-Fishing: John Gierach
It is Oct. 12th, 2019.
It is 7am. First light is showing on cue, as I turn off the engine. I am parked in the same tired-looking pullout from last week. There’s been just enough rain over the past week to keep the water thin and spooky like before. I have a chance to step into the same water twice. Because its my second time, I move more efficiently upstream, knowing when to walk up the left, right or middle of the stream. I work my way up, casting to the known holes I’ve previously mapped in my head. What took me three hours takes me less than an hour to reach last week’s endpoint.
As I wade past the first bridge, a spin-fisherman has just parked and is climbing down the embankment to start fishing. I continue to wade up the middle of the stream. We don’t say anything to each other; I’m sure he’s surprised to see someone in his water this early. For a brief moment, I wait for the splash of a Rapala being thrown near me. I wonder how I would react. Instead he goes downstream of me and flings his lure to the other side of the bank. The lure arcs up and then down, spinning a perfect curvilinear rainbow of monofilament as it crashes into the water on the far bank. He reels it back in. Nothing. I watch the spin fisherman, for a minute or two more.
I am finally on new water. As I move past the bridge and out of the eyesight of the spin-caster downstream, I see that there is on the other side of the creek, right along the bank, a darker patch of water. A small gazebo of branches shelters the water providing permanent shade and cover. I watch for a few minutes. Nothing is rising. No subtle surface disturbances to suggest activity. So l leave my little nymph on the line and cast downstream a few times to adjust for length. I’ve got to get under the foliage, land close to the bank, drift the nymph for a few seconds to get it down deep, keep the fly line low without touching or fouling the water, and not get caught up in the thin fingers of the branches a foot or so above. The set, if there is one, will need to be downstream and low. No gloriously skyward sets. This is not so much casting as doing the limbo.
I make the cast. I watch. I wait. Nothing. I adjust to let the drift settle a bit closer to the bank. Few things these days feel like faith but I know there is a trout there. I make another cast, and another. On my third or fourth cast, the nymphs flies cleanly under the branches and slips into the water and sinks quickly. I watch the line track just under the branches, the slightest tether to hope. Although, I am expecting a trout, I am not expecting the size of it. Normally, I fish very small streams, where the fish are no more than six to nine inches long; this one is well over twelve, maybe fifteen. It takes a second for my eyes to believe what they are seeing and I start to pull the fish in. It is already putting up more fight than any fish I had this year. It feels large and cumbersome to bring to net. The landing is clumsy, because I simply am not used to it. It is the first large trout of the year for me.
Taking out the phone, I snap a picture of the hole, the fish, the nymph/rod and mark the spot on my topo map. The Master Angler (“MA”) would also say to record water/air temperature, weather, cloud coverage, wind, myriad details that make my head spin. The fish is released and swims back across the water. And for a second, I consider my job done and I can go home. I have caught my trout. I am triumphant. I have spent two days getting this fish—it would be a good capstone. However, I am just at the beginning of this new water and it has been recommended by Ma that I get familiar with Little Pony. I am beginning to understand why. LP is wide with open sky to allow a good cast, but not too wide that much mending is needed. It can be waded from side to side without much problem. Eventually, I’ll return with clients here and guide them as I appear to dowse for trout, mystically reading the impenetrable water.
I continue wading and fishing the thin, riffled waters and find nothing until I once again hit another dark patch of water and luck into another fish. This one is bigger and fights even more. Because I’ve not had enough experience with bigger trout, I reach for my net too soon. The fish is too far away. Some slack develops in my line, in my awareness, in my awareness of my line, because I’m thinking about how to close with the fish, which is bending my rod heavily and keeping me from angling the rod backwards. The reach of my net is too short. The fish frees itself from the hook and is gone. I am too excited and stretched the moment a few seconds too long and broke it.
I am now at least a quarter mile away form the last easy access to and from the road, when I reach another big dark hold. I latch onto another large brown trout—they are big enough to identify at twenty feet—that once again I can’t land. My hands visibly shake from adrenaline and so I breathe and look around. The banks of the creek have grown steeper, the thorn bushes denser, the thicket thicker. The water is now knee deep and pushing steadily. A couple of tattered strips of white sheets and what looks like a solitary, white-burlap bag are tied to a nearby branch. Even out here: Trash. It reminds me of scattered beer cans and crushed cartons which at best indicate a place to fish and at worst represent every single thing wrong with the World.
I’m probably into the my third hour of hiking up this stream and my ability to concentrate on everything is lapsing as I teeter/fall into a hole hidden by the midmorning glare, scaring up a mess of fish that skitter away. I am standing waist-deep in the middle of a large deep hole, that momentarily is a starburst of fleeting shadows. D’oh. I look around embarrassed. But now there are more of these mysterious white burlap bags festooning the nearby trees and bushes, like Christmas ornaments. I notice a particular bright-blue burlap bag tied up very high, like a star and that’s when I see the perfect hole.
It starts with a flat seamless run of water that goes for 20–30 yards then narrows and deepens. The water darkens as the creek constricts, fanning in, and runs full force into a large boulder sitting in the middle of the stream. The water is both slowed and divided evenly by the large boulder. The large boulder has been worn/eroded at its waterline and below; it’s forming a natural mini-cove. The top of boulder leans upstream and overhangs the dark water. The color is a deep-sea green that looks almost emerald and impregnable, like amber.
I freeze. Breathe. Slow down, I tell myself. Breathe. Think about the distance and think about how I want the nymph to land just so and how long it will take to get it deep into the water, and how long I will let it drift and how I will follow that drift and how I will set the hook and wait…Is my net ready? It is ready. Don’t get it hung up in my belt or pack again; it is slung lose and limber like a six-shooter at high noon. I practice my draw so that I know it will be smooth and quick and then I cast.
Like a submarine surfacing, I see a large, thick, dark shadow slide out from under the rock, straight to where my nymph should be. For a moment, I forget I am fishing and just watch the fish rise… I get my senses back just in time, because the fish has slightly turned its head. I set the hook and the line goes tight and vibrates alive. I’ve hooked ‘em. My rod is flexed hard and down; the fish is running back to its subterranean hollow, but I turn its head to the left, forcing it towards the bank, forcing it inexorably to me. Instinctively, I know I have one chance to net this fish. I can’t step downstream, because I am crouched on a another rock with just a few feet of stable footing behind me. If it were to get past me, it would be gone. I keep the pressure steady as I reel him in. It jumps up out the water, bucking hard and fast; I lower and angle my rod tip further, forcing the fish’s head down into the water and towards the bank. The rod is now in full bend. I grab my net and begin to scoop from below.
The last few crucial moments are the most tense. It’s the opposite of that joyful anticipation when you first cast your lure, manipulate the drift, and if you are lucky, see the flash indicating the take, or in this case, watch spellbound as the leviathan rises from the depths (your mind’s eye infinitely expanding a moment that probably lasts but for a second) as you guesstimate the size (also infinitely expanded) and then at last, set the hook for the final payoff. No, landing the fish is the opposite of anticipation because it’s not the expectation of gain but one of loss. If it is not landed, it is unfinished business. It does not count.
For any sport or endeavor, there is a code, a set of ethics. Like any moral grounding, there are various camps—some on terra firma, some not. There’s the perennial/perineal debate between the Catch&Release crowd and the Catch&Cook crowd, even during delayed harvest. Within fly fishing itself are the “Dries or Die” purists, the “Nymphs or Nothing” statisticians, the “Woolly Buggers or Wont” hedonists, the “Eggs and Worms” heretics… I take no sides in this. There is some organizing principle at work, but the it’s hard and elusive to grasp. But every single one of us has a certain set of rules in our heads and a fish is not caught until it is landed is one of mine.
I land the trout. It has been maybe four, possible five hours of wading since I started. I marvel at what this trout represents. Stalking, reading the water, casting, crouching; climbing up and down rocks, sliding/falling down into the sand and mud; traversing brambles, thickets, and thorns so large and menacing that they have tattoos saying, “You Shall Not Pass,” and mean it.
Which is why photos don’t mean anything. It’s why you won’t see a photo unless you ask, because it will mean absolutely nothing to you unless you fill in the blanks with your own story, which is all one can do.
“The actual mechanics of short’line nymph [are] detecting the strike of an unseen trout to an unseen fly [which] is one of the hardest things a fly-fisher will ever have to learn. It’s a skill that relies largely on intuition and the ability to see things that aren’t immediately evident, or rather, to see things that are evident in their own way.”
—Zen and the Art of Nymph-Fishing: ~~~~John Gierach
It is Oct 6th, 2019
It is a little past eight in the morning when I park in the well-worn, dirt pullout next to the mouth of Little Pony creek, which empties into the North Fork of the New River. I feel like I’ve already wasted the day, sunrise having been an hour earlier. Already from the car, I see the water is low and clear; it’s skinny…emaciated. Any more parched and its ribs would be showing.
From the overhead bank, the river bed is clearly visible; the water is translucent—it’s the color of weak tea. The body of the small stream is open for inspection. So open it’s demoralizing, because I can see into and underneath the scarce water—the rivulets and ridges in the sand and gravel; the nooks and crannies of the stones and rocks; the carved-out crags of the larger boulders; the rotted-out cores of submerged branches and trunks—that there are no fish here. Fishing on thin waters is both rewarding and not. But let’s just get this out the way, especially for the new angler: No Water, No Fish.
I first started fly fishing in late summer, during an especially bad drought a few years ago. I hadn’t realized the importance of water then—that it could be thin, be skinny. I equated water, any water, to fish. And so I would fish waters so low that the creeks looked more like badly-maintained logging roads than river beds.
But it’s more than just water a fish will need; fish need Structure—-the rocks, the cutouts, drowned logs and anything providing refuge, cover, a safe home from things even worse than an angler: bears, hawks, herons, eagles, snakes, and other fish. And it’s only when the water is bare that a stream is undressed; its spine on display, that the structure, which can only be guessed at, is revealed.
And it’s here, fishless, you will understand why your favorite hole is your favorite hole, because now you see that the current has eroded a dark cavity into the lower half of the boulder, a trout liar. And understand why other spots that look like they should, but don’t hold fish .The bottom has been worn glass-smooth and featureless like a sand dune, and is just as lifeless; there’s no shelter from a heron flying overhead, ready to skewer them in a flash.
And it’s also during these dry spells of both fish and water, that you learn that fishing is not catching. In these slow moments, you will intuit that they are not the same thing. If a new angler doesn’t soon accept this fact, they will not be fishing, or catching, for long. If you are smart, you might get out your phone, snap a picture of the revealed design, grab gps-coords (I don’t) and come back later, when there has been a few, good rains and the water is deeper, thicker to catch fish from a featureless patch of water, past over by less percipient anglers. This is your secret spot, hidden in plain view, Atlantis-like in its obscurity and reward.
I continue my slow wade up, methodically casting to any thing that looks fishy but isn’t. At a large slow bend in the river, I see that both sides of the banks are stamped flat by countless anglers; this is a good spot to fish. Why? The low water lays bare the main channel in the middle of stream which flattens and smoothes out. Fish normally aren’t going to hold here because of the lack of structure, but right in the middle, I see three old truck-tires. Because they’re just past the bridge overhead, the tires could be mistaken for trash, hurled over the guardrails. But they aren’t laying flat on their sides, they are up on their treads, canted over and buried a quarter of the way down, past their sidewalls. The three tires loosely form an isosceles triangle pointing upstream, in hushed conversation with one another.
Putting this together, I realize they have been deliberately placed and partly buried. Had it been normal water conditions, they would be underwater, unseen. Sunken into the gravel bed, the three, old truck-tires provide a small yet safe habitat for trout. The tires are the hidden reason why the banks are stamped flat. They appear to be so expertly placed, it makes you wonder if some fisheries-biologist savant went about planting tires like a J. Appleseed of trout holes. And if there is, do they keep a map? And can I have it?
After 3 hours or so of wading, I reach the first bridge and start the climb up for the walk back. I have covered less than a quarter of a mile. Fly fishing both contracts and expands time and space. Ask any angler who can’t figure out how five hours have passed in a flash and that the endless, winding creek is but a short half-mile walk along the busy roadside, back to the car. I look upstream and see that it continues, a perfect width for wading and that I will return.
~~~~~End of Part I.
August 13th, 2019
I accidentally found out about The Curtis Creek Manifesto from Huge Fly Fisherman and one of his characteristically snarky but sweet comments on reddit.
I googled the term and discovered Sheridan Anderson the author. There’s pitifully little written about the author, who grows more impressive as I continue grok the magnitude of what he accomplished.
Like all true works of art, it will take you a while to unpack just how much is packed into this slim volume. At first glance, it looks like something out of a 1960’s time capsule (published in 1968) but as you spend time with the book, and reread it, you will see that it holds more information per page than any fishing book ever written, despite the fact that more than half the page is usually covered in cartoon drawings. I’ve re-read it several times now and this author achieved exactly what he set out to achieve.
Mr.Anderson states his intentions right from the outset:
The major difficulty with most How-to Fishing books is that of trying to figure out what the author is talking about–The beginner is assaulted with page after page of text which he must translate into visual images before he can even begin to understand it. Also, most primers fail because they are so highly overwritten that the novice becomes hopeless buried under an avalanche of information, much of which is only vaguely incidental to a firm grasp of the basics, and thus serving only to confuse the issues…In actuality, most anglers learned how to fish in spite of the textbooks, rather than because of them.
And then he both shows and tells the hows and more importantly, The Whys to the strategies and tactics of fly fishing that feel as fresh and as applicable to modern day euronyphing as they were to Joe Humprey’s Trout Tactics, back in the day; another book I highly recommend but I urge you to first read The Manifesto first and then you will get so much more out of Humprey’s book when you get to it.
So you may asking yourself, why are you recommending a book published in 1968 that has more to do with the Haight-Ashbury in SF then some Appalachian mountain stream? Why aren’t you recommending George Daniel’s Dynamic Nymphing or Devin Olsen’s Tactical Fly Fishing? Because while both are great books and are as up to date as anything in the competitive fly fishing world, they are not for beginners, because they make way too many assumptions on what the beginner angler already knows how to do.
Having read both books, I can tell you that The Manifesto repeats what is important in clear and bold text, and with elegant, amusing cartoons that stick in your head and form a better mental map (at least for me) on what to actually do when you are fly fishing;
I implore you to grab a copy if you are at all interested in learning how to fly fish, or buy one for someone you know that is interested, and you will give them the best, most humorous start in the art of fly fishing possible.
The Belt, The Net, The Stick
Gear Update July 17, 2019
Please see Recommend Gear for the complete list
Again inspired from Troutbitten who made made me think about the wading belt.
First of all, wear one. Especially if you wear waders, because in a pinch, they hold enough air in you waders to keep you a float for a few moments to allow you to correct possibly disastrous mistakes. Two: this beld is wide and thick and provides good lumbar support which is essential to support all the core-use your body is going through holding you steady in moving water and casting. Three: It serves as the basis for vital gear, that should go here and not your pack. Primarly, I am referring to your landing net. More below.
This is a quick and dirty method to tie things together until you are happy with it and then use something more attractive like nylon but it works—it’s quick.
A key system in your landing net system. This magnet allows for a quick release to allow you to land that trout and if you place it well, you can automatically lock it back into place without much effort.
The one of the magnet should be attacked to your belt. I’ve seen competitive anglers do this; I think it is far easier and faster to get a hold of you net and just as easy to reattach when you are done. I’m right handed so I land with my left hand, so the magnet is connected to the left side of my belt, and not the pack. I used to hold my net on my pack but I found trying to reach way back, took time, was awkward and made me lose my focus on keeping the hookset nice and tight. So now once I’m ready, I reach down to my side and easily unattach the net and I’m ready to land that fish.
I attach the other magnet on the net so it balances nicely when hanging freely (PICTURE TO COME)
The Landing Net
I’ve had various nets including very nice Fishponds. Unless you are guiding or your kids like to net the trout while you catch them, I think the Frabill fits the bill. They key thing is that your net should be rubber. You’ll find that once caught, trout tend to unhook themselves and that if the net’s not rubber, you’ll spend a lot of time, trying to unhook your hook from you net. I’ll repeat again: I think you should wear your net at your side where it’s easily accessible, so you can fish focused.
The Gear Retractor
Perfect for attaching to your wading stick. It’s not too strong that keeping it extended will tire you but it’s strong enough to pull your wading stick back to you side, when you drop the pole. Again, I’m right handed and atach this gear retractor to my right side of my wading belt. They also make a mini which I’m thinking of getting to replace my zingers because:
- I’ve now had a couple of zinger failures even by “good” brands
- I can not afford an Abel Zinger
The Wading stick
Probably the best one is a nicely worn stick that you have found and kept with you through hikes but these collapsable hiking poles have been great and do the trick. When you don’t need them, they fold up and ride safely out of the way on your hip. Note: They are not easy to attach to you retractor and require that you remove the tiny compass in the handle, and remove the straps and punch a hole to feed your ziptie or nylon cord through, which then attaches to the gear retractors. I carry two of these poles. One is ziptied permanently to my belt, while the other one is clipped on and easily removed if I have to lend it to someone else or just be removed when not needed. But it’s good place to store my poles so i know where they always are.
Temperature and fish –
If you’ve read any trout-fishing books, you’ve noticed that they always seem to begin with temperature. If you are like me, you’ve skipped them to get to the more ‘improtant’ stuff.
However there is a reason they put water temperature at the beginning fo the book—It’s because it’s one of the most, if not the most important thing to know when you are trying to fish: If the water is too warm for trout and you don’t know this singular fact, then you will waste your time slapping the trout-empty waters, instead of moving on and covering more promsing waters. Just know if the water temp is more then 65º, then its time to move on.
I’ve tried several thermometers and this one seens to fist the bill. Compact, sturdy and has a magnet to boot for finding wayward tiny flies.
Good, Inexpensive, Flurocarbon Tippet that works
So its no secret that this page is inspired by troutbitten.com. The combination of fly fishing and philosophy just strikes the right chords with me. To that end, the is site is not only philosophical, but practical.
One of the most useful and money-saving recommedations was using Seaguar Fluorocarbon instead of buying mondo expensive tippet.
At its thinnest, its close to being 4.5x tippet which i’ve used multiple times and it works quite well. Its not 6x or 7x (although I wish they made thinner diametes) but for the waters around here, it seems to work quite well. At about 20$ for 130 meters it’s hands down beats any guide-tippet i’ve come across for price and workss quite well for even tiny flies.
Try Seaguar Fluorocarbon , I think youll quite like it.
Ps as an aisde, I store it on my tippet spool and use one of my wife’s scrunchies to hold the tippet in place.
A site to formulize everything I’ve learned to help you catch more fish. And a fish blog of sorts, a flog if you will