Expect the unexpected

Nick navigates the unplanned-for variables of a fishing day. 

This is going to sound strange, but some of my least-memorable fishing days are the ones where I’ve caught the most fish. While that’s not to say they weren’t enjoyable, such days can quickly become a pleasant blur of a memory. In contrast, some of the most vivid recollections, permanently etched in my mind, have been single fish – caught or not caught – which stand out because of difficult situations or conditions. It’s not that I deliberately seek these situations, but it does make me think.

I guess we all choose flyfishing for our own reasons: escape from the city and a day job; the beauty of the outdoors; the technical challenges of fly casting; satisfying the hunting instinct; interacting with a wild creature, and more. And as I’ve written about recently, there are also the non-fishing elements like books, tackle, tying flies, and camaraderie. While all of these are wonderful things, to me, they really revolve around the central idea of (at some stage) casting a fly to catch a fish!

It’s easy to have a romantic notion (particularly when you are just getting into flyfishing) of ideal conditions: making the perfect cast, the fish eating your fly, the ensuing tussle, and then landing and releasing a beautiful fish. Like your own daydreamed fishing video. Your first few attempts will probably be a stark wake-up call, however. It rarely plays out that perfectly. And if anything, years of experience reinforce this. Sometimes, days do work out as you expect them too, but more often, they don’t. Screaming winds, high water, or a seemingly perfect day devoid of fish are a regular experience. Surely, part of the satisfaction in anything we do is being presented with a challenge, and rising to it?

The conditions aren’t always perfect.

Zen and the Art of…

One of my favourite books is Robert Pirsig’s ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’. I’ve learnt maybe more about rodmaking, fishing, and life in general from this book than anything else I’ve ever read. One of my favourite sections in there deals with the idea of being stuck with a problem. Far from being a source of frustration, Pirsig argues that ‘stuckness’ is a wonderful opportunity – in fact, a necessity – for true understanding, learning and improvement. Once you embrace this idea, stuckness is something you come to value, rather than fear.

This applies to flyfishing, as it does to anything, in a very real way. As a beginner, learning from a book, video or instructor is a great idea to build a skill set. However, it is only when you make your own mistakes and learn from them, that the penny really drops. As your experience grows, there will be more difficult challenges to meet, and being equipped with the techniques and mindset to overcome them, is maybe what makes those hard-earned fish so memorable.

Over time, I’ve narrowed down my own fishing to be largely dry fly fishing for trout in streams. This is simply because, after trying all sorts of fish and methods, I enjoy it so much more. And believe me, there are more than enough problems to solve within this one style. In fact, by narrowing your choice of technique, you actually introduce more challenges. Catching a fish on a dry fly in some conditions can leave you with some major stuckness!

‘Psst, hey dry fly guy, wanna buy a nymph and actually catch a fish?’

But this is a personal choice, and I recommend, especially when you start out, that you try as many styles of fishing as you can. As a beginner, fishing the same water, in a range of conditions, with different methods, is invaluable to assess their relative effectiveness – and just as importantly, to assess whether you enjoy them. You might come to prefer a single method, or continue with a few of them, or all of them. Even if you don’t persevere with some methods, the lessons learned can be very useful to draw from when you’re stuck.

When I started out, I fished dries, nymphs, two fly rigs and traditional wet flies, in rivers and stillwaters. I tried every method I heard about. I even carried a reel with a sinking line to pull streamers through the inky depths of pools and lakes. Believe me, I know from experience that a sinking line with a big fly will often drag out a fish from a dead calm pool. I also know that a twitched nymph, or dry with a dropper, or even just a single dry, cast into a corner of the same pool, can draw a strike if left for long enough. These days I’d rather keep walking and look for moving fish, or find a nice run to drift a dry down, but it certainly doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to fish any way that you like.

Location and Conditions

Before you even get to the water and choose your method, there is the decision of when to go. This is commonly based on a combination of the weather forecast and other conditions like time of season and water levels. Fishing locally, you usually have more of a choice about which days to choose. In contrast, when travelling, bookings often have to be made well in advance, so you have to manage with whatever cards are dealt in regard to the conditions. One point to make on planning a trip around weather forecasts, is that as good as they are these days, they are still far from perfect. It’s as easy to be disappointed when a positive forecast turns sour, as it is to be unexpectedly surprised when a marginal forecast doesn’t end up being as bad as expected.

Even as a local, most of us have other demands on our time outside of fishing, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I know two really good anglers who live a similar distance from their local rivers. One is self-employed, can go whenever he chooses and usually does so, based on the ‘best’ predicted weather for the week. The other has a regular weekday job and goes when he has the available time, often in supposedly less ideal conditions. I’ve had many post trip reports from these guys over the years. Often, the ‘fair weather’ guy reports that he’s had an ‘okay’ day, but he always relates it back to how good it should have been, given the conditions. The much more interesting reports come from the ‘any weather’ guy, who goes out in pretty much anything. True, he might have lower expectations to begin with, but often, he has really, really good fishing. On a bleak day, if there is even a brief window of improved conditions, there can be an intense period of activity when insects hatch and the fish take advantage of that. Also, even in horrid weather, he’s had decent hatches and rising fish in cold, wind and rain or even sleet, in the way that John Gierach writes about for his North American waters.

A rare riser hooked on an (apparently!) unlikely dry fly day.

His experiences have certainly made me question the fair weather approach over the years. When I think about it, regardless of the conditions, I don’t think I ever regretted going fishing – but I’ve certainly regretted passing up an opportunity.

One occasion with my ‘any weather’ friend immediately comes to mind, and reinforces that idea that memorable experiences don’t necessarily require lots of fish. It was early September, on a north-east Victorian small stream. We really only went in the first place to christen the opening of the Mexican trout season. It was bitterly cold – the maximum air temperature only reached eight degrees, and the water was the same. This was combined with an icy wind that just wouldn’t let up. Still, we rugged up and walked well downstream, away from the river, to slowly fish our way back. The river actually looked great. It was clear, and not running too high. On top of that, there was more than a trickle of dark slate baetid duns steadily coming off the bubble line. The fish, however, weren’t taking them. We didn’t see a single rise, and unsurprisingly, when we gave in to temptation and fished our imitations next to the naturals, the fish didn’t want them either.

It’s easy to get a bit stuck when the trout are rejecting the real duns!

About the time that we thought what we were doing was just having a nice walk along the river, we both spotted the tip of a snout clipping down a dun. It was actually really hard to see, but we both had our eyes peeled and were looking hard in all the right places for some sign of activity. The fish was tucked in a deep back eddy, shaded under a high undercut bank, sheltered from the wind by some tussocks. Looking closer, quite a few duns were circling in a little vortex. After a few minutes, when we thought it might have been a joint hallucination, the fish came up again, and a minute later, again. A consistent feeder! We realised this might be our only shot at a rising fish for the day, and we argued about who would cast for it. I won the argument, so my friend got the opportunity (“you go”, “no you go”, “no YOU go”).

It was a tough presentation, with a strong current between us and the slowly-circling back eddy. After a couple of drifts that looked good to us, but apparently not to the fish, the third time, up came the trout and down went the fly! After a brief, tight tussle, a 16 inch brown, larger than average for this stream, was admired and released. That was the last of the action for the day, but we still talk about that fish, even though it was nearly 10 years ago.

A good fish on a tough day can be remembered years later.

It did end up being a memorable day because of that one fish, but without much being different, it could have been a total blank. (I’ve my share of those too, and I’m okay with that in the big picture.) Maybe it’s a worthwhile exercise to look at this example. What might we have done once we were committed to going out on that day, if we’d got ‘stuck’ with really feeling the need to catch a fish?

While we did have a few blind flicks of the fly through the nicest runs and glides, we didn’t pound the water to a foam. That would have been the first thing to try, at least for a while. Sometimes that can work through pure persistence, but it was Einstein who is credited with saying that, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”. At least the act of fly casting and drift management can be rewarding in itself, but at some point, it can just feel like practice and not actually fishing.

Worse, is when you go through the motions sloppily without caring about your presentation and technique. It’s bad fishing and bad practice, and time to stop and be stuck for a bit.

Changing technique

Changing our method would have been the most obvious actual change. Switching to a weighted nymph or nymph under a dropper would have placed a fly down closer to the trout, given they (mostly) weren’t coming up to the natural duns. A big Woolly Bugger stripped along the undercuts could have worked too, particularly if we’d found the water had been a bit high and coloured on our arrival. Even in clear water, I know several anglers who delight in fishing big streamers in renowned hatch-based spring creeks around the world, enticing an aggressive take from reputedly selective fish.

Or if determined to stick with dries, we could have tried a large attractor dry, much bigger than the natural duns we were seeing – and landing it with a plop might have got the occasional trout’s attention. With two of us fishing, we would have also had the opportunity to each fish a different method and alternate, to double the chances of hitting the right technique.

When all else fails, an oversized attractor dry can sometimes do the trick.

If trout were coming up to the natural duns, but were rejecting our representations, we would have had the classic challenge of subtle pattern changes to get the fish to take the fly. For me, that is the pinnacle experience, and I look forward to that type of ‘stuckness’ and savour it whenever I can.

Doing nothing would have been another reasonable option (and one I think that Pirsig would approve of)! By ‘doing nothing’, I mean waiting. When nothing is happening, there is a temptation to move and fish faster, which can actually be self-defeating. Sometimes, you can be rewarded by sitting down and getting comfortable on a really nice bit of water; waiting and watching carefully for any sign of movement. It can even pay to sit on that honey hole, waiting for some micro-changes in the weather like a 15 minute sunny period on a cold cloudy day. I can’t tell you how many times that has worked for me over the years.

Reward for simply waiting as a good fish swims into view.

On the day described earlier, the fish was coming up regularly enough to make it a target, but it was sometimes a few minutes between rises. We could have easily rushed past it.

If none of these changes worked, we might have made the call to try somewhere else – backtrack to a lake, or to a different type of stream. Sometimes a small change in geography can make a big difference… and sometimes it doesn’t! One thing that does my head in a little is when you do change location, and have more success. Was it the change in location, or the change of time of day or conditions which made the difference? I’ve never been game enough to go straight back to the original location to find out, but it’s food for thought!

Other stuff

If your efforts aren’t bringing any success, all is not lost. Once your mind is open and accepting of the lack of progress, other options can open up too. A lot of us want to increase our knowledge of aquatic life, to become better anglers. Realistically, when the action is good, it can be really hard to drag yourself away from the actual fishing to turn over rocks and look for nymphs. So what better time to do some nymph-collecting or photography than when the fish won’t cooperate.

What better time to explore a water’s entomology than when the fishing is a little slow?

Similarly, when the fishing action is hot, it can lead to little if any time to get the creative photography juices flowing. When the catching is slow or non-existent, it’s a great time to explore different angles and ideas for setting up fishing shots – things like getting upstream of the angler without worrying about spooking fish, or taking the time to climb a hill to get a different perspective.

I really think that the unexpected things in fishing can be the most interesting. If we knew exactly what sort of day we were going to have before we left home, would it be worth going at all? Embracing the stuckness associated with unplanned challenges has ultimately led to the biggest advances in my fishing life; and my whole life for that matter. As Robert Pirsig said, “I think that stuckness is very good for people and that when it comes, you should welcome it, because it won’t last long”.