…picking up where we left off last week…
A new fly fisherman met the Zen Master after wading hundreds of yards. He was understandably pleased to learn at the great master’s feet.
“Look at the fish swimming about,” said the Master, “They are really enjoying themselves.”
“You are not a fish,” replied the fly fishing student. “You can’t truly know that they are enjoying themselves.”
“You are not me,” replied the Master. “So how do you know that I do not know that the fish are enjoying themselves?”
The two men who taught me fly fishing basics were not Zen masters; but that first day they might just as well have been speaking in riddles. The mechanics of fly fishing aren’t incredibly complicated. If someone as ungraceful as myself can learn to decently cast fly, there’s hope for anyone interested in the sport. It’s the jargon, tactics and the eventual accumulation of the appropriate knowledge that require time, perhaps a lifetime to master, and much of that may only be learned through the act of fly fishing.
I learned the basics nearly five years ago through a class taught at the club of which I am now a member, only later realizing the value of those eight hours, which touched upon casting, gear, lines, leaders, tippets, entomology, flies, wading, venues and just about everything related to the sport. A club outing, specifically for the students, provided an opportunity to put classroom work into practice on the lower Stanislaus River. The “Stan” is one of the largest tributaries feeding into the San Joaquin River in California’s Central Valley, and offers a good, nearly year-round tailwater fishery, with topography common to moving water in the western Sierra foothills. It was on a smaller version of this type of water that I found myself trying in mid November to form an answer for the gentlemen who asked if I could tell him why Sean and I were catching fish while he and his buddy had yet to baptize their new nets.
It was in that moment that I learned something — call it “streamside enlightenment” — that could only be taught through the observation of another. I hope the bemusement I felt didn’t show on my face as it dawned on me that while I still identified myself as student of fly fishing, I’d been called upon to teach. I’ve done what I could to educate my older son in fly fishing, but that’s what a father does. The difference now was that someone, outside of family, thought that I might have wisdom to offer and that the countless trout I caught, some from spots already hit hard by other anglers, weren’t simply happy accidents.
I’ll admit that I had wondered about this gentlemen and his buddy. From my upstream position they came into view at the end of most of my drifts, and nearly every time they appeared motionless, pointing their rods at pools I knew contained fish.
My mind mulled over possible answers to the question that hung between us and, deciding that I had landed more than a fair share of fish, I secured my rod and waded toward shore and the gentleman. First, I needed to know that these two fishermen weren’t using fly rods inappropriately; after all, I have seen worm dunkers use long fly rods to extend their reach.
“Well, could you tell me what you’re using?” I asked. He held up a grasshopper imitation that would seem more at home as a model on a miniature science fiction movie set. To this was tied a Copper John wound with wire of an indescribably bright lime-green that in nature would only signal the poisonous nature of prey. Both files were at least three times too big, but these were the flies they were told to buy by the guys at a nearby big-box sporting goods store.
Silently, I selected from my fly box two size 18, beadhead Zebra Midges, flies that I tie with an extra tail of flash. The gentleman’s eyes had grown wide when I opened my fly box, then wider when I deposited the tiny flies into his waiting hand. He called to his buddy, “You should see all the flies in his box.” Then, staring at his hand, asked, “This is what you’re catching them on?”
The student frowned. At long last, the Zen Master asked, “Perhaps it would be better to begin with a simple question.”
“Please do.” implored the student.
The Zen Master began again, “This is a much simpler puzzle. What is the sound of a trout laughing?”
The student was perplexed to even think that a fish, even one enjoying itself, would laugh. Each of his answers was quickly dismissed. Finally, exasperated, the student exclaimed, “Master, I cannot solve even your simplest riddle. I am a complete idiot!”
Then the student froze. Appreciation flashed across his face. He sat down, and said, “I am ready for my second lesson.”
I don’t remember my exact words, but my explanation touched upon the idea of trying to fool the trout, and to do so one should present what they think is food, not what we fisherman think might attract their attention. (It certainly wasn’t the time to discuss attractor flies versus imitative or realistic flies.) After much nodding of heads to acknowledge some understanding, the flies were tucked away and I asked the gentleman to join me downstream with his buddy, who all this time had stood still, rod perpendicular to the stream and just as stationary.
There’s an instinctive quality that seems to overcome fly fishermen after a few years of successful outings. One stops thinking, ‘cast, mend, watch the drift, mend again, slightly lift the rod tip at the end of the drift’ while watching for anything — any movement, however small — that triggers an almost instinctual jerk of the rod to set the hook. Sometimes referred to as muscle memory, it’s something most people don’t, or at least I didn’t, learn until everything is done properly and ends with a fish on and, hopefully, in the net.
I outlined how these two should cast and present flies, describing how a fly not moving with the current is a rather unnatural presentation, as evidenced by the lack of interest on the part of a number of trout in their vicinity. Since the huge gaudy grasshopper was, in essence, the indicator in their set up, I talked the one gentleman through the process of lobbing his flies upstream. It’s not the prettiest way to move flies, I explained, but it avoids leaving them in the overhanging tree branches common on this stream.
My on-stream lesson, abbreviated as it was, included a quick outline of setting the depth of nymphs, a reminder to watch the indicator fly for movement, and a quick account of what makes a decent hookset. It’s not that I didn’t expect either gentleman to hook a fish, but if figured they could easily enough learn how to land one after everything else came together.
I never did see either of these “students” attempt a hookset, much less land a fish. Hopefully, they will someday soon, and learn that the greatest lessons for a fly fisher are often taught without words, by the fish.