Let's say you're nymph-fishing on Colorado's South Platte River. You've hiked up into the canyon where those deliciously deep potholes are -- the big-fish water -- but have found that today the trout are working the shallow, fast runs. It took you two hours to figure that out, but it's a good sign. They're hungry and, as your partner says, they are "looking up." You're fishing a scud pattern, not the scud
pattern, but one you worked out yourself. The differences are minute but are enough to make it your fly and you are catching fish on it, which is highly satisfactory.
You're working the near edge of a fast rip about thirty yards above a strong plunge pool, flipping the weighted nymph rig upstream and following its descent with the rod tip. Your concentration is imperfect as you toy with the idea that this is okay, a fascinating and demanding way to fish, actually, but that too many days of it in a row could make you homesick for the easy grace of real fly-casting.
At the little jiggle in the leader that was just a hair too intelligent looking to be nothing but current or a rock, you raise the rod to set the hook, and there's weight. And then there's movement -- it's a fish.
It's a big fish, not wiggling, but boring, shaking its head in puzzlement and aggravation, but not in fear. It's impressive.
Almost lazily, the trout rises from the bottom into the faster current near the surface, rolls into the rip, and is off downstream. What you feel is more weight than fight, and the wings of panic begin to flutter around your throat. This is the once- or twice-a-year "oh-shit" fish. You should have tried to catch a glimpse of him when he turned -- the only glimpse you may get -- but it all happened so fast. No it didn't. It actually happened rather slowly, almost lazily, as you just pointed out.
You are careful (too careful? not careful enough?). The hook is a stout, heavy-wire number 10, but the tippet is only a 5x, about 4-pound test. The rod is an 8 1/2-foot cane with plenty of backbone in the butt, but with a nicely sensitive tip (catalog talk, but true). The drag on the reel is set light, and line is leaving it smoothly. You drop the rod to half-mast to give the fish his head and are, in fact, doing everything right. It's hopeless.
The trout is far downstream now, on the far side of the rip and the plunge, but the local topography makes it impossible for you to follow. The line is bellied, no longer pointing at the fish.
At some point you are struck by the knowledge that the trout -- that enormous trout -- is no longer attached to you and all your expensive tackle, though you missed the exact moment of separation. You reel in to find that he did not throw the hook but broke you off fairly against the weight of the river. You get a mental snapshot of your fly hanging in the hooked jaw of a heavy...what? A rainbow? More likely a brown. You'll never know.
Losing a fish like that is hard. Sure, you were going to release him anyway, but that's not the point. The plan was to be magnanimous in victory. You ask yourself, was it my fault? A typically analytical question. You can avoid it with poetry of the "it's just nice to be out fishing" variety, or you can soften it with the many levels of technical evasion, but there's finally only one answer: of course it was your fault, who else's fault would it be?
Your partner is out of sight and, although you would have hollered and screamed for him and his camera had you landed the fish, it's not even worth going to find him, now. When you finally meet in the course of leapfrogging down the canyon, you'll say that a while ago you executed an L.D.R. (long distance release) on a hawg, which will summarize the event as well as anything else you could say.
A trout, on this continent at least, is a rainbow, golden, brookie, brown, cutthroat, or some subspecies or hybrid of the above, though every fly-fisher is secretly delighted that the brook trout isn't a trout at all, but rather a kind of char, not that it matters.
Much is actually known about trout and much more is suspected. The serious fly-fisherman's knowledge of these fish draws heavily on science, especially the easygoing, slightly bemused, English-style naturalism of the last century, but it periodically leaves the bare facts behind to take long voyages into anthropomorphism and sheer poetry. Trout are said to be angry, curious, shy, belligerent, or whatever; or it's suggested that when one takes your Adams with a different rise form than he's using on the Blue-winged Olives, he "thought" it was a caddis fly. Cold science tells us that a trout's pea-sized brain is not capable of anything like reason or emotion. That's probably true enough, but in the defense of creative thinking, I have a comment and a question: actions speak louder than words and, if they're so dumb, how come they can be so hard to catch?
The myth of the smart trout was invented by fishermen as a kind of implied self-aggrandizement. To be unable to hook the wise old brown trout is one thing, but to be outsmarted by some slimy, cold-blooded, subreptilian creature with only the dullest glimmerings of awareness is, if not degrading, then at least something you don't want spread around. Trout are smart, boy, real smart.
The way we perceive trout is probably as faulty, from a factual standpoint, as the way they see us, but our folksy ideas about them are useful and are, in that sense, correct. If you tie a streamer fly and fish it in a way designed to make spawning brown trout "mad" and, in the course of events, manage to hook a few fish, then those fish were, by God, mad. End of discussion.
Let's say a fisheries biologist tells you that his studies, and the studies of others, demonstrate that brook trout are not piscivorous; that is, they don't eat other fish. To that you counter that you have caught countless brook trout on streamers (fish imitations), that many of the now-standard American streamer patterns were developed around the wild brook trout fisheries of the East, and that, further, fly-fishermen have believed brook trout to be fish-eaters for nigh on these many generations.
"Well," he says, "we all know brookies are stupid."
Thank you, Mister Science.
Finally, the things fishermen know about trout aren't facts but articles of faith. Brook trout may or may not eat fish, but they bite streamers. You can't even use the scientific method because the results of field testing are always suspect. There are too many variables and the next guy to come along may well prove an opposing theory beyond the shadow of a doubt.
The hatch is the Blue-winged Olive so common in the West. It's a perfect emergence from the fly-fisher's point of view: heavy enough to move all but the very largest of the trout but not so heavy that your pitiful imitation is lost in such a crowd of bugs that the surface of the stream seems fuzzy. Oh yes, hatches can be too good.
When the rise began you fished a #18 dark nymph pattern squeezed wet so it would drift just a fraction of an inch below the surface. This copies the emerging nymph at that point where it has reached the surface but has not yet hatched into the winged fly. Early on in the hatch, these are the bugs that are the most readily available to the fish, the ones they're probably taking even though at first glance it looks like they're rising to dry flies. The difference in position between an emerging nymph and a floating fly is the almost nonexistent thickness of the surface film of the water, and there is often zero difference between the trouts' rise forms.
When the hatch progresses to the point where there are more winged flies on the water than emerging nymphs, you switch to the dry fly, only a few minutes after most of the trout have. There are two mayflies on the water now, identical except that one is about a size 18 and the other, the more numerous, is more like a #22. The larger is the Baetis
and the smaller is the Pseudocloeon.
You heard that from the local expert and looked up the spellings in Hatches,
by Caucci and Nastasi. It sounds good, but what it means is that you fish either the Blue-winged Olive or the Adams in a size 20, to split the difference.
The fish are an almost uniform 14 to 16 inches -- rainbows with a strong silvery cast to them, bodies fatter than most stream fish, with tiny little heads. They are wild and healthy, and you would drive five times farther than you did to fish here.
They're rising everywhere now. In the slower water they're dancing and darting, suspending for a few seconds now and then as if to catch their breath. They will move several inches for your fly, taking it matter-of-factly, completely fooled, but leaving you only a single, precise instant that won't be too early or too late to strike. This has you wound up like the E string on a pawn shop guitar.
In the faster water they are all but invisible, but they're out there because there are enough bugs to make them buck the current. They come up from the bottom through two feet of water, taking the fly with such grace and lack of hesitation that the little blip on the surface seems unconnected with that fluid arc of greenish, pinkish, silvery light in the riffle.
You are on, hot, wired. You've caught so many trout that the occasional missed strike is a little joke between you and the fish. This is the exception rather than the rule -- the time when everything comes together -- but it feels comfortable, like it happens all the time. A hint of greed creeps in. You would like, maybe, a little bigger trout, and to that end you work the far bank. Still, though the trout are now almost part of a process rather than individual victories, you admire each one momentarily before releasing it and going confidently for another.
It's late in the hatch now. Most of the river is in shadow, and the remaining light has a golden, autumnal cast to it. The little rusty-brownish spinners could come on now. This could last. But it's ...
Thomas McGuane Trout Bum
captures the passion, confusion and left-handed poetry of modern fishing, having his heart to the rivers he fishes, John Gierach conveys the power of his experience without pretense.
John Nichols author of The Milagro Beanfield War, The Magic Journey,
and American Blood Trout Bum
is one of those delightful funds, like Norman McLean's A River Runs Through It.
John Gierach is simply one of the more wonderful outdoor writers to come down the pike in many a season. I laughed out loud on almost every page, and found much of what he has to say very lyrical and touching. This book is a treasure trove of fishy witticisms, outright belly laughs, and enough technical lore and love of nature to keep the most avid (or even the least avid) outdoors person turning pages relentlessly.
Gierach obviously loves deeply and cares for this world he has chosen to make his stand in. It's a beautiful book, humorous, sly, rich, and touching. Once you read the first page, you'll be hooked...and love every minute of it...I promise!Rod & Reel
A brilliant collection of narrative essays about flies, fly rods, float tubes, and just plain fishing. Trout Bum
will be a classic of angling literature, not because it adheres to an ancient model, but because it updates a tradition....The way Gierach tells a story is an act of pure generosity....Rocky Mountain Streamside
If you enjoy incisive comment, wry humor, and some inventive insight into trout and trout anglers, then Trout Bum
is just the book for you...this is highly intelligent stuff indeed, but it is masterfully tempered by Gierach's polished and congenial style.