We saw their tails first, walking up the river with hands on boulders, and watching the water with each careful step a little further ahead. They swayed in the current. The river bottom was gold pebbles. At first squinting helped pick out the black spots on their backs. A touch of blue swirling in the seam just behind the eyes and then long red that waved like flags planted in the stones. I cast to them while my friend watched. Beautiful rainbows in a beautiful canyon. He moved back to the sand along the bank and watched while I made my casts. Standing there, he waited, then moved upstream around the bend.
They were not far. Maybe ten feet away from where I stood in the river. It required a light cast upstream of the fish, into a crease of water that made a chute between the large round boulder the fish hovered below and the rock that formed the chute. With enough weight to get the fly down early through the fast water, then pick up the line and high stick through the fish.
Varying the target of my cast to show the fish slightly different presentations. Keeping my rod high and the line off the water. The rainbows moved beside each other and in and out of the shadow next to the boulder.
The trout’s soft sway, out of rhythm in the current with the others, timed with the indicator was enough for me to set on. The jolt of the foam ball came next, and the bent rod, and the stiff dig of the butt end into my forearm, and the thrash of a fight that was as good and strong and violent as a fly fisher could want. Good fish.
After the release I stayed crouched in the cold water and let it curve around my ankles and tug at my pants so that little riffles flowed downstream from me. I looked at the break I made in the river and wondered if I stayed still long enough, would a trout wander into my seam? I looked up towards the boulders and the bend in the river. I stood and moved back to where I had cast and lost track of time trying to repeat it all.
Eventually, he came back.
“Yeah. Nice one.” I was proud to have landed a fish here. It was his home water, and the day was fresh.
He waded halfway to me and I picked up my line sent it out to the fish.
“Let’s keep going. There’s lots of river to fish.”
I looked at him and then back to the fish.
“Yeah alright. One more cast.”
After my second cast I reeled in and looked upstream, but he was already gone.
“There’s lots of river to fish.”
Truth. So why can it be so hard to move on?
Part of what I love about fly fishing is the dynamic environment of wading the river. The movement of it all. Pushing legs through water, moving along trails, the cold feel of the water as I wade deeper. Around boulders and through currents. Across gravel chutes and around deep holes. Everywhere casting and changing flies, and thinking what to do to catch a trout. All of it becomes part of the dance. The ever flowing problem to be solved as long as the river that flows from the mountains. This cast? This spot? And when you are sight fishing, this fish?
Sight fishing is different. We see the fish, yes, but it is the knowing that draws us in and that in itself can become the challenge. Harder for some than others, moving on when you find a good spot but then nothing. It is not always about catching that fish. Sometimes you have to pick your battles.
For me leaving trout I am sight fishing to is about letting go. Letting go of my competitive nature that I bring to fly fishing. I am not always proud of it, but I cannot deny it is there. I am trying to get better, to progress, and I certainly want to catch more fish. Sight fishing is the same. I want to catch that fish.
Remembering the journey into fly fishing and the joys of moving up and down these rivers helps. And also, “there’s lots of river to fish.” Keep moving.
Of course, there is more to it than just a personal battle. Enough presentation may not “spook” the fish you are after, but it sure clues in a smart trout that somethings not right. And the smart ones, the big ones, are those we most often target when we can see them. You may have limited presentations, whether you like it or not. The only real way to know is stay and fish to it for the rest of the day. Which is probably a good way to learn the lesson of “keep moving.”
Look for Feeding Fish.
Feeding fish makes the battle you choose a whole lot easier. I will stay and cast to trout longer if I think or know that they are actively or aggressively feeding.
Later that day, my friend and I spied a pod of rainbows from a huge boulder on the opposite side of the river. They were tucked into the clear cushion of water ahead of another large rock before it flowed down and around either side in fast chutes.
We stared for a long time and he spoke without looking at me, “Those fish are feeding hard.”
We both knew what was required. Shimmy down the granite. Hold my lumbar pack above my head as I wade across the water. Crawl up and around and through the rocks on the bank to get aft of the fish without spooking them. But we knew it could be worth it. Because these trout were “feeding hard.” And it was.
Feeding trout can be obvious or subtle. A rising trout is easy to see, but when fish are feeding on nymphs it is less apparent. I look for fish that will sway a little out of its way. An abnormal motion usually roughly timed into some kind of pattern. The fish may swim a certain way and then every ten to twelve seconds move to the side, then back. The more you see it the more it will become apparent. And of course, sometimes it is obvious. In either case, when you are sight fishing and find feeding fish, it is a good time to stop and consider fishing to them a bit longer.
Looking at fish from different angles on the bank can give insight into whether or not it is feeding. Just be careful not to spook them.
Hard to Reach Places.
Epic? When it works out, it can be. When it does not. Well… it is not.
What happens when we see the trout that is in a hard to reach place? Each of us has our own answer to each individual situation. My going-out-the-door game plan? Wadeoutthere and catch it! But it is not always so easy. In fact, it rarely is.
Trout can be tough to reach for several reasons. Physically getting into a position to cast, the cast itself, and the ability to present a natural drift that flows into the narrow band the fish is feeding are all possible barriers.
Sight fishing tempts us to push ourselves to fish to places we would never normally attempt. This can be good because it challenges us. It can also make for a long day of lost flies and killed leaders (heard this from a friend).
The draw of a nice trout within reach always pulls me in. I used to go for it all the time, but the more I realize that simple idea, “There’s lots of river to fish”, the more I understand there will be another chance.
It is a balance. If you must wade across fast water, then climb over a steep rock bank to get to a spot where your only option is a cast left handed, with a mid-air mend, to reach a fish that is not feeding, inches from a log, tucked deep under a fir tree – it may be time to pick your battle.
Sometimes It’s Worth It.
There are times when I know it is worth pursuing a difficult to reach or stubborn trout that I see in the river. Usually, it is the size of the fish that makes me pause. Other times it just becomes what I want to do. A challenge. There is joy in figuring it out. And there is nothing wrong with dedicating a large portion of time to catching a fish, but there is usually a trade-off. That battle becomes the adventure.
Fish: one. Jason: zero. It does not have to be the final score.
Just because you strike out sight fishing to a specific trout, does not mean you cannot catch it. There are two methods of re-targeting a fish you are sight fishing to. First, fish to another area close by and then come back before moving on. Second, move on entirely and fish to it when you come back downstream. This could be at the end of the day or when you drive on to a new section.
The fish may need some time after you showed your cards or you might catch it when it is more interested in eating, including your flies.
More Than a Good Day.
I want to thank Chris Hanson for a great day sight fishing the South Platte River up Cheeseman Canyon. It started as a day to meet and talk about fly fishing on my podcast and ended with laughs, tight lines, and waxing philosophy while wading through a masterpiece of rock and water.
The South Platte was my beginning in fly fishing, years ago when hooking up with the large bows we saw in “The Canyon” was rare. More wonderful than the joy of returning and wading through those memories, was the experience of fishing it with someone as kind and passionate about fly fishing as Chris. And as time goes on, knowing I made a friend.
There is a difference between giving up and picking your battles. Just as fly fishing is a long journey if you choose to make it, the day on the river is long. Or can be.
How many times have we caught the best fish of the day or had the best fishing when we decided to move on? Even that first spot we stop at is a move from where we were, separated from the river. And we come back. The truth is we are always moving on if we are trying to progress. And one fish is never the end, so pick your battles, and Wadeoutthere.