I saw the flash in the current below the surface and knew it was a nice fish. Big brown if I had to guess. That’s what I told myself, at least, as I thought of how to reach it. It had risen, rolled over and back down to the pool that swirled behind the boulder that made the seam across from where I’d been fishing.
Between the boulder and the flash, a wide chute of river met rocks above and below the surface that formed the smoother seams I had been fishing to. Above it all, at the head of the chute was faster water spinning around granite and churning up white water.
Casting to the flash meant putting my fly far enough upstream that it would sink and slide around the rock to present at the right time and depth. I guessed at the depth with casts further or less upstream, timing the sink with the distances I cast.
The hook up was solid. The indicator jolted down hard and I set strong. Then, this beautiful, big brown did something I wasn’t expecting. It ran upstream into the rough water above the chute and parked itself hard.
I’d seen fish make big runs downstream, but rarely up. I had a significant bend in the rod, leaned further into my angle to nudge it back but my rod only bent more. It felt like I was pulling against a rock. And maybe I was.
I broke off shortly after the stalemate began, and was left with nothing to do but reflect on what I could have done to help land this fish… again.
Yup, again. I’d seen this fight play out before and lost a nice fish exactly the same way, off exactly the same boulder several weeks earlier. A big run upstream to the fast water. Static line and a bent rod followed by a lost fish.
Was it the same fish? I think it was, and I think I’ve seen its program twice now.
The Program Defined.
A deliberate routine of fighting after the hook set, optimized through experience and natural instinct, that trout (typically big trout) execute in an almost mechanical way with the sole goal of freeing itself as fast as possible.
Example: The fish broke Jason off on a boulder in fast water after running its program.
This was not the first trout I’d experienced acting deliberately after the hook set. I always suspected that big trout have patterns in how they fight. Maybe subconsciously I’d like to think I always knew it. But truthfully I’d never fished the same spot consistently enough to really get a sense of certainty before moving to Utah.
I wish I could take credit for the labeling of this phenomenon. I first heard the term “the program” while speaking with Ben Boehmig on Ep. 66 of the Podcast. I’m sure he heard it from someone else too, but his introduction to the label made so much sense to me, that it changed the way I fish.
Ben helped me put a name to something that was previously just an idea. Now I see it all the time. A fish starts doing something smart after the hook up, it knows what it’s doing. It’s running its program.
Do All Fish Have a Program?
Do all fish have a program? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect not. It’s the big ones in my mind. The trout that have had some time to develop. The ones that have had some hooks in their lips and lived to tell. The big trout know the game and have a solid plan.
Smaller trout don’t have as much experience, and thus have less time to develop that solid program, but it’s fair to say they are working on it. That’s how the little ones get big. That’s how they survive and grow. That’s how they develop their own program. Smaller trout are almost there, but with a big fish that knows what it’s doing, the program becomes almost obvious.
I think when we catch smaller trout we are experiencing that development process. They are trying out new things and falling back on old tricks in hopes of gaining freedom. And I think being a part of that education is kinda cool.
What Are Some Programs?
What are these programs then? How do we know what we are seeing is a trout running its program, instead of the chance method a random fish chose to fight on a random day? Clues can be found in the fish’s environment and how efficiently the fish optimizes that environment during the fight.
Here are three of the most common programs I’ve seen. A fish’s program could also be a combination of these things:
- Big, fast runs up and down stream
- Jumps in certain places and patterns
- Aggressive (usually immediate) moves towards rocks, sticks, logs or obstacle
Often, I’ll realized I’ve just seen a fish’s program in reflection as well, after a lost fish:
There are really an infinite number of programs a trout could take, but they all have one thing in common. Maybe two. First, they are all meant to remove that fly in its jaw as fast as possible. Second, they all have worked in the past. That’s why big fish do it over and over.
Be Ready For It.
The first time you run into a fish’s program, you probably won’t have the luxury of having seen it before. So how does understanding this information help us? The more you fish and encounter big fish, the more you’ll see different fish’s programs. The more programs you see, the more you’ll be able to observe your environment and have an expectation about what a big fish might do.
When I fish a river, especially when I sight fish to a nice trout, I am game planning. I’m not just thinking of how to hook up with the beast, but how to land it. Predicting the program is part of that. It’s not a science of course, but it’s also not terribly difficult to look around at the water and obstacles and imagine some possible things a big experienced fish might do to break you off.
There is something that happens when we put a label on an idea. It becomes more tangible and more useful in problem solving. I like thinking of fish having a program because it helps me prepare for it. Now that we’ve labeled it (thanks Ben), it’s easier to incorporate it into our tactics.
I don’t know for certain that I fought the same fish twice in that seam off the boulder, but that’s my theory, and the more I fish, the more believing that theory has helped me land a few nice trout. So, I’ll take it. I think we all would. The next time you hook up with a solid trout, be ready for its program, then Wadeoutthere and fight back.
*When have you lost a fish that was running its program? Share your story in the comments below.