cutthroat trout
Lessons Learned (Stories)

Fish All the Way to the Takeout

“Whatcha thinking?  You want to keep fishing or just row through this last little bit?”

You might think the answer to that question would be an easy one. 

Of course I want to keep fishing. The sky is blue, the water is cold, and there’s trout to catch. 

But my friend knew the answer wasn’t that easy.  That’s why he asked.  And he let me ponder it in peace while we drifted along the slow wide section of river before the takeout. 

I looked at my watch. 1815.  Fifteen minutes to float the rest of this section, get the boat loaded on the trailer, pick up our “shuttle scooter”, and drive the two and half hours home.  Any chance of pulling into the driveway before six thirty, as I had proclaimed confidently to my wife was the latest I’d be home, was long past caring.  But it wasn’t the time of day that made me hesitate.

We had put in a little after sunrise, floating slowly and stopping often.  We’d worked for every fish.  It was just that kind of day.

It’s not that the fishing had been bad.  It just wasn’t great.  And that’s a wide gap when you’ve been fishing ten hours in high July temps, out of beer and water, and nothing left to eat but the Pringles.  

About the only time the fishing picked up was when we found a pocket of whitefish that seemed mildly excited at what we were offering.  I’m no big critic of whitefish.  They can be exciting – for just about as long as you think you’ve hooked up with a solid brown trout.  After that, well, without a positive mental attitude, it can lose its luster.

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | In Defense of Whitefish

“That’s the takeout up there.”  He nodded to the bank and beyond where the river doubled back on itself.  The bend in the river ahead rose into a cream rock bluff dotted with sage and mud bird nests.  

“See that telephone pole?” he said.

I saw it above the bluff.

“That’s pretty much it.  Probably another thirty minutes of fishing, forty tops.  Or we can just row down and get heading home. I know you said you weren’t looking to get back too late.”

 “Yeah.” I took a deep breath. “I’m way past that now.”

 “Up to you. I’m good either way,” he said.

“Dude, let’s just fish it,” I said.

What Have We Learned?

There had been some victories throughout the day.  Some mini sprints and some rewarding fish, but what drained us was how we couldn’t crack the code.

Not five minutes into our day, a big brown chomped down on my white indicator, causing an immediate change in game plan.  We fished big white winged hoppers on and off for most of the day.  

My friend caught a few, but the hopper bite never really took off.

We’d anchored up in a section and sight-fished to a riser with a big chubby and got a solid take, fight, and fish out of the deal.  I got the bonus of a boosted ego for rowing my new fishing buddy over close enough to get a good drift, while talking him on to where I’d seen it rising. We both agreed it was a great fish, and our luck was changing.  

My turn with the big dries.  Nothing. 

I pulled a couple decent cutthroat off a shelf my friend knew held fish.  I’d put more split shot on than I needed then bit down another bb for good measure. We figured deep pools off rough water and flashy nymphs were the ticket.  

After another thirty minutes it was back to the drawing board.

We even snagged a fish in a quick, riffly chute that looked so good, we couldn’t wait to pull the boat over, hop out and get to high sticking.  The water that slid past the stoney shore of the island was probably the fishiest looking braid of the day, and like every other promising tactic, we fished it hard.  

No success.

There comes a time when it feels like you’ve tried everything.  We had fished fast and slow water. Skinny runs and deep pools.  Off the banks and in the middle.  Dries and wet flies, both big and small.  Nymphs,  emergers, dry droppers, hopper droppers, two flies, one fly, weighted flies, with and without split shot.  Swinging, stripping, tightlining, dead drifting.  Up and down, left to right, and all over that water, you name it, we’d fished it! 

All we discovered was how to catch one or two fish, and then start all over.

As fly fishers we know problem solving is part of the joy. Of course we want to catch fish, but that’s not the point. Maybe one day I’ll reach a truly enlightened state of fish fishing where I honestly don’t care about catching fish. A place my previous podcast guest and author, Chadd VanZanten, describes as a way of being on the river he has labeled “Post Fish” in Episode 127 of the WadeOutThere Podcast:

If that problem solving is what makes a good day’s fishing, then is the opposite true? Does not solving the problem make it a bad day?  I wouldn’t go that far.  After all, a day on the river is better than a day at work, right?

But reaching into my fly box, I felt a quiet sense of hollow resignation.  The same feeling I’d been acutely aware of in my time flying A-10 Warthogs, when finding myself on the losing end of a BFM (Basic Fighter Maneuvers) engagement with no more tricks up my sleeve.  A scenario similarly frustrating and described by those who’ve been there as, “Out of airspeed and ideas.”

A New Fishing Buddy

“ You sure you don’t want to fish?” I said.  

Of course I wanted to keep fishing, but that’s not the point. The point is to not mess up a good thing.  I was keenly aware of the situation I was in.  On new water, in a new friend’s drift boat.    The priority is never what you want in those situations.  The priority is to be value added.  To share, to help, to row until it’s your turn, and to try to row better than I’d rowed that day.  

My friend had fished this water many times before.  He had experienced the amazing days of fishing we were shooting for.  He knew how good it could be, and the calm expression on his face came from enough good days on the water to know that today was good enough.

When you’re a guest, and the fishing is good, you’re into something special.  The precipice of greatness. 

Great water and a great new friendship.  Because “fishing buddy” is by definition a great friend.  

“You go ahead.  I’m good,” he said.

Hail Mary Problem Solving

Something beyond hope pushed me forward.  Something closer to hubris, and definitely fueled by ego, moved the fingers that opened my fly box in that moment.  

I thought we’d tried it all, but we hadn’t tried this, and that’s all I was looking for.  I wasted some of my thirty minutes with a bad knot that slipped when I pulled it tight.  I shook my head and glanced back to observe my friend on the sticks smiling and looking around happily.

That’s a guy who loves being on the river.

I didn’t want to mess with split shot, so I tied on a big tungsten bead head stonefly that I knew would sink fast.  I told myself the stubby rubber legs would give it a bit of life.  That fly hadn’t caught a fish yet, but I needed it more to get down.  I had some slightly below average looking R2S’s that I’d tied in gray that also hadn’t caught me any fish, and I tied that onto the bend in the hook of the black stone.

I had fished the RS2 and other emergers both on a dry dropper and as a tag fly above the lead fly at various depths and sizes and water types, but not along the very bottom.

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Emergers. Four Ways to Fish the Forgotten Fly

I had to dig deep for that combo, and I forced myself to fish it deep too.  If you had seen it you would have known how clumsy it looked.  I didn’t have much choice of where to fish it.  Deep seams off boulders that were about one to two feet submerged.  I could feel the heavy lead fly bumping on the bottom.  

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | A Dozen Techniques for Getting Your Nymphs Down While Nymphing

It didn’t take long.  I watched the indicator dip and instantly I knew I had a nice fish on.  

The fish stayed deep making runs in all directions.  My friend swiveled our vessel every way required to match the fish and keep the line free.  I eventually worked it close enough to the boat and he netted it like a pro.  

The second fish was only about fifty yards from the take out.  Another beautiful cutthroat.  Not as big, but more significant, because the second one meant it wasn’t an accident.  At least we told ourselves it wasn’t.

All the Way to the Takeout

That last thirty minutes (much of which was spent fighting fish) transformed a long, frustrating day of “pretty decent fishing” into a satisfying day of “great fishing.”

Had we figured it out?  Maybe.  I suppose there’s a chance that if we had swapped seats and fished another two miles, we’d have fallen back into the same false sense of excitement we’d reached so many times throughout the day when nothing was working, then something worked, and then it didn’t.

But it doesn’t matter because we had figured it out long enough to make it stick.  We didn’t need all day.  We just needed to fish all the way to the takeout. 

WadeOutThere friends.

VR- Jason

What’s a “hail mary” fly set up that’s caught you fish? Share in the comments below…

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