“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.