We had to pull the drift boat back upstream to reach the pull out. It was our first day on the Big Hole River and fishing had been slow. I pushed and my brother pulled until we reached the concrete that jutted into the current and my brother handed the rope to my father and left to get his truck. It was not a far distance to move the drift boat, but combined with a slow day fishing, I stood waist deep in the cold water a bit deflated.
Two younger men were busy securing their own drift boat, already pulled from the river, and still dripping water onto the dirt parking lot. They were dressed in light pants and long sleeves. Neither a client, but both could pass for guides. I assessed they were just two friends on the river, and their smiles were contagious. Reminding me that drifting a trout stream with my father and brother was enough, and a few fish in the net was not a bad first day. And that, tomorrow, maybe the fish would be biting.
But the two fly fishers’ jovial mood tugged at my curiosity, and as one finished cranking the winch down, while the other removed the last bits of gear from the boat, I gave in and asked the question I already knew the answer to.
“How’d you guys do?”
“Pretty good.” The man who had secured the boat replied, then slipped on his second flip flop and stood by the tail gate.
“Some on PMDs in the morning. Good luck with streamers too.” He said it humbly, knowing it would be enough. His friend rested his folded arms on the bed of the truck watching through sunglasses.
“Right on.” I had my answer.
“Yeah. Pretty good day.” He waved. “Take care.”
I nodded and waved a thank you. As they drove off and my brother began to back his truck into the water, I contemplated the next days fishing and looked forward to a good meal and a whiskey that night. If we had not caught many fish today, at least somebody had. A good reminder, the fish are always biting.
Trout Have to Eat.
Trout are always eating. This phrase can seem declarative and myopic, or liberating and open ended, depending on your perspective. I am no biologist, but it must be true that trout have to eat. And they have to eat throughout the day and throughout the seasons and throughout the year. Are they eating every second and every minute of every day? Probably not. But they are eating. And while it may be true that trout stop eating from time to time and may even slow down in the colder months of the year, they still must eat to live.
The question is not if the trout are eating, but what they are eating and where.
If you assume the when is at some point or even most points throughout the day, then just being on the water puts you in the correct timeframe. The rest is finding them and giving them what they want.
The More Experienced Angler.
One of the beautiful things about fly fishing is that you can always learn and improve. If you embrace this attitude then even the bad days on the river end up being small victories, because of the lessons learned and experiences had. It is just one more day on the journey.
Of course, we are all at different places in our journey. Experience and time on the water matters. The obvious result is that an angler with more experience will generally catch more fish on the river or at last have less days with no fish. This happens over time, but it also helps if you embrace the mindset that the fish are always biting.
After all, if someone else can catch fish today, then you can to.
Going fly fishing with a guide helps prove this concept. Someone who fishes the same river year after year and gains the experience will be able to help you catch more fish than if you set out alone. And like that day on the Bighole, even though we had not caught many fish, other more experienced anglers had.
Embracing the mindset that the fish are always biting is useful because it frees your mind to try new things and engage more meaningfully in problem solving. If the day is dragging on and the fish are not biting, understanding that trout have to eat and remembering that there is probably someone out there with more experience that could be, and probably is, catching more fish than you, reframes the problem. It is not the fish that are to blame, but you!
Is my presentation natural enough? Is my nymph at the correct depth in the water column? Should I change my fly? What about the water I am fishing? All these are better questions than why aren’t the fish biting?
Also important is the problems solving that occurs in reflection after a day on the water and changing your strategy for the next day. Taking what you have learned, applying it, and trying something new.
That night, after we drove back to our cabin, we changed out of our river clothes and walked barefoot on the back deck and in the cool grass. We grilled steaks and laughed and talked about the day and our plan for tomorrow over a whiskey. We agreed to fish the same section but stop more and fish the spots where we had luck. We decided to fish PMD’s in the riffles instead of slow water. We would try different sizes of the flies that had worked. And we all agreed that the fishing would be better the next day.
But the truth was, the fishing had been good that day as well. We were together. We caught a few fish. We learned about the Bighole River. We learned what did not work and what might work the next day. And pulling the boat out after our day of drifting together, we learned what we had suspected even as we floated along hoping for the next tight line. The fish are always biting. Wadeoutthere.