“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.