“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.