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How To Fish Moving Water

Fish face upstream with their mouths in to the current so they catch bits of food–mostly insects and bait fish–caught in the flow. They like spots where the current isn’t too strong; otherwise, they burn too much energy trying to stay in place. Fish also need a hiding place nearby, in case they sense danger.

  • Pools: Deep, slow, and wide, pools generally hold fish in the middle, where a lot of food sweeps down on easy currents. Fish also stay on pool edges, where two currents meet. Such an edge is called a “seam” and looks like a line on the water; fish generally stay on the slower side of the seam. The “tail,” or lower end of a pool, is shallow; it’s here that you’ll find large fish behind rocks and at the point where the water abruptly changes from deep to shallow.
  • Bends: On deep, winding streams, fish usually stay on the slower inside of a bend so they don’t have to fight the current. On shallow streams, look on the outside of the turn where the current makes the water deeper and funnels food to fish waiting near the edge.
  • Brushy banks: When overgrown with grass or brush, they make great hiding places. In summer the vegetation drips with insects. Muddy banks that overhang a stream are especially good for trout.
  • Deadfalls: Fallen trees break the current and provide places to hide.
  • Pockets: Areas behind rocks, which break the current and sweep food to fish. To locate submerged rocks, watch for bulges in the stream surface and small patches that look slick against the rest of the current. In slow-flowing streams, fish may be in front of rocks, where the flow has created a depression on the bottom. In faster streams, clusters of rocks often form funnels that carry food to fish waiting downstream on the edges of the current.
  • Side channels: The current generally is slower than in the main stream and the food is abundant–good conditions for larger fish that cannot afford to waste energy.
  • Riffles: This shallow, choppy water generally downstream of deep, slow pools usually holds a few small fish. Look for patches of smooth water that indicate depressions deep enough to hold fish.
  • Eddies: The swirling water gathers food and attracts fish but makes it tricky or difficult to fish.
  • Weed beds: Up against the weeds there’s plenty of fish food and places to hide.

What’s That Smell? (Hint: It’s Not The Fish)

As far as a fish is concerned, humans–particularly males–have a stink that can seriously turn off a trout. This is why in British Columbia, some professional guides use lemon-scented dishwashing detergent to remove the human smell from flies and lures. In the United States, several companies make solutions that either eliminate or mask the human scent. Using one of the biodegradable solutions before you start fishing is probably a good idea.

If you want to go natural, rub mud from the stream bank on your hands before you start fishing. Rub some on the fly, too–just enough to cover your scent but not so much that it affects the action of the fly. Applying fish attractants or crushed bait to a fly, however, is generally regarded as unethical.

The Classic Guide to Fly-Fishing for Trout

You might suppose that fly-fishing is about catching fish. But that’s not really the goal; if it were, we’d all be out on the river tossing in sticks of dynamite, which would be a lot more effective and probably less expensive. But no, the real aim of fly-fishing is catching fish in the right way, and the right way is less a matter of athletics than of aesthetics. The right fly at the right moment with the right cast is a thing of beauty. Who needs a fish?

The aesthetic of fly-fishing hasn’t been captured very well in all the vast angling literature. A few years ago Judith Dunham published a wonderful little book, The Art of the Trout Fly, in which the creations of the world’s top fly-tiers were displayed in evocative and sometimes startling settings. But, for all her talent, Miss Dunham seems to have lacked ambition; while her book is four-color throughout, it is on the small side, and my copy is in paperback, no less.

No such small-minded limitations were placed on Charles Jardine and his colleagues with the creation of The Classic Guide. This book was not so much written as produced. Mr. Jardine is the angling correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph, and one suspects his authorship was enlisted principally to lend authority, since there is very little in the prose that is either original or particularly enlightening. The real inspiration behind this book is its designer, Michael Wood.

The Classic Guide aspires to be nothing less than a compendium of everything one needs to know about fly-fishing: the habitat and habits of trout, the fisherman’s equipment, the flies and fly-tying, and the techniques and tactics of fly-casting. If it fails to accomplish such an impossible goal, it still manages to cover nearly everything a beginner needs to know.

But even the most experienced fly-fisherman will enjoy this beautiful book, thanks to its superb art direction-especially the excellent photography, which includes six of the most spectacular underwater shots I’ve seen of trout swinging up to take a fly (credited to the “Hunting and Fishing Library,” whatever that is). With its dramatic use of typography and line drawings, the design truly captures the elegance of the sport.

It also leads to some reflections on why fly-fishing is different from other kinds of fishing. Of course, the nature of the sport, the very delicacy of it, requires the fly-fisherman to be utterly attuned to nature’s rhythms: to water temperature, hatching cycles, sunlight, barometric pressure, and so on. Much of the beauty of the sport, in fact, devolves from its delicacy.

But the true aesthetic of fly-fishing is deception. The objective is to flutter a tiny, nearly weightless, artificial insect, connected to the rod by an almost invisible tippet, onto rushing water with such convincing naturalness that the world’s most nervous predator will mistake it for lunch. A trout is too stupid to be curious and too lazy to be brave. He only goes for the sure thing.

So an artistic principle lies at the heart of fly-fishing. Other fishermen-I don’t say lesser fishermen, although I’m thinking it-tend to consider fly-fishing pretentious. But that’s just ignorance. My upcountry neighbor, Joe, sells sausage for a living; if you want to know the antithesis of pretension, meet Joe. But Joe can cast a line in an arc of such consummate beauty that the mouth gapes, the senses freeze.

A thousand acts of beauty make up this wonderful sport. If you want an introduction to it, buy this book.

Fish to match my mountains

It’s always surprised me that more backpackers aren’t anglers. Look closely at the blue lines on those high-mountain topo maps and you’re likely to find plenty of trout habitat; get your face close to the water and you’ll see the insect life that captures a trout’s attention. You might consider knocking a few miles off your next walk to spend some time in the stream you were planning to hike along.

If your image of fishing is of mind-numbing hours sitting in a rowboat, you may be justifiably turned off. But fly-fishing is a skill that depends on thorough preparation, stealth, and keen observation. A fly-fisher must understand the complex workings of a stream, and has to know how to make bits of fur and thread mimic the actions and life stages of the insects that make up a trout’s meal. A good trout angler, particularly one who wades into a stream with fly-fishing gear, acts more like a graceful heron than a bored vacationer.

Some anglers carry a piece of equipment for every possible situation. But if you keep things simple, you’ll add no more than three pounds to your gear, spend about $200, and still have a solid chance of catching fish.

A basic outfit includes an inexpensive ($10) reel and an eight-foot-long graphite rod designed for a 4- or 5-weight line (strong enough to catch mountain trout, which weigh less than one pound). The rod should break down into four 24-inch sections that you can slip into a backpack. To connect the reel and the fish, you need backing (a line that fills up the reel and functions as a reserve); a double-taper fly line designed to match your rod; a few monofilament leaders; and a tippet, a very fine piece of line that you tie to the fly. Thousands of fly patterns are available, ranging in size from tiny, nearly invisible ones to feathered harpoons that look as if they’d frighten a walrus. Start off by buying about a dozen, of two basic types: dry flies, which float on the surface and imitate the most common stream and land insects; and nymphs, which imitate the insects’ larval forms.

You need only two of fly fishing’s innumerable gadgets to round out your gear: hemostats, for mashing down a hook’s barbs (enabling you to remove a hook from a trout’s mouth without injuring the fish); and nippers, for trimming knots. To negotiate slippery stream bottoms, glue felt soles to an old pair of sneakers. Wade in your quickest-drying nylon hiking pants or shorts, or invest in a pair of lightweight nylon hip waders.

Casting is an art best learned from another angler, but you can start by practicing short distances on dry land. Lay out 15 feet of line in front of you, then raise the rod sharply back to the one o’clock position, just over your shoulder. Wait while the fly line loops behind you. Just as it straightens out and flexes the rod, bring the rod forward to the ten o’clock position without snapping your wrist. If you haven’t lost momentum or let your elbow wander, the line will loop forward and lay out straight before you. A good cast is a slow, almost stately motion that places the fly gently on the water’s surface, allowing it to drift naturally downstream.

On the water, the game is simple–in theory, at least. You wade upstream so carefully that the trout don’t know you’re there. “Read” the stream for the sheltered spots where trout can eat without expending energy. Watch especially for feeding lanes, the tongues of current between fast and slow water that funnel floating insects to waitingfish. Look for circles on the surface created by rising trout, or white flashes as the fish dart after nymphs.

Use the flies that most resemble the real insects in or coming off of the river. Because trout watch up-current, cast your line above the spot where you see or hope to find fish, and contrive to let your fly drift downstream without dragging.

When you land a wild trout these days, your response should not be to flip it into a fry pan, but to return it carefully to the stream. While wild trout are wily and therefore a true challenge to catch, they’re also declining in numbers. Save your dreams of dinner for trips when you’re fishing a stream or lake stocked with hatchery-raised trout. It’s a challenge to learn fly-fishing, and it’s equally important to respect the game.

Why do we fish?

The answer lies waiting in cold, clear water.

Shadows lengthen. My long-submerged legs, clad only in shorts, have gone blue with cold. A warming campfire beckons.

But not just yet. A twilight caddis-fly hatch has erupted, and the local lunkers suddenly rise everywhere, some leaping high and smacking the water as loud as beaver tails. Others expose only their lips to daintily vacuum the tiny mothish morsels from the polished surface. Ripples spread concentrically outward, like well-lived lives.

It will soon be too dark to fish, so with a sense of urgency I bite off my nonproductive Parachute Adams and lash on a #16 elk hair caddis. Using a nearby rise-ring as a target, I lay one out and hit the bull’s eye.

All is quiet as tense moments pass, then, kersplash/The water explodes as the lure is hauled violently under. I instantly raise my rod and set the hook. The trout sounds and runs deep and long; the scream of my reel is music to my ears.

Moments before, I was languid and freezing, but now my heart is dancing, my pulse jackhammering in my ears, all discomfort forgotten. By God, we’re alive, this fish and me!

After 30 yards, the brute abruptly ends its run and lies there, sullen as a boat anchor. I allow my opponent to rest, then apply slow pressure, regaining a few feet of line. This sends the trout into another run, only slightly less impressive than the first. And so goes the happy battle, back and forth as we play an ancient game.

In good time the fish begins to acquiesce, allowing me to work it closer, until at last I get a good look in the gathering dusk. It’s a cuttbow, loveliest trout of them all, a rainbow/cutthroat hybrid streaked hot-pink from cheeks to tail. And as big as–well, we like to pretend that doesn’t matter.

Rushing to release it, I reach into the water and slide both hands beneath the docile creature. As one hand gently encircles the tail, the other moves forward to let slip the barbless hook. I support the fatigued fish upright in cupped hands, allowing it to rest and recover. Then, with a startling and powerful torque of tail, my trout flashes away, diving for the sheltering depths. Thank you, friend.

Three hours of fishing for just one fish. And worth every minute.