- My afternoon: Rain, hail, snow flurry, sunshine, fly rod, mayflies, rainbow trout, brown trout. #
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Remember last week’s more rhapsodic post about finding solitude and fooling fish with dry flies? And then my comment about the contentedness found on that new stretch of river?
Well, the next day was a little bit different.
I knew that there’d be little or no solitude that day. This was a creek well know among the locals and regular visitors alike. A place to fill the freezer with hatchery trout or simply have fun catching.
An early riser
because of work by design rather than nature, I was on the water at sunup to find a husband and wife beat me to one of the better locations. I fished downstream a bit and after landing a few fish, ventured closer to the couple when the husband abandoned a favorite run. Pleasantries were exchanged and after asking if it would be okay, I moved upstream of the couple. They were fishing with spinners and bait but our conversation reveled them to be well-rounded fisherfolks. Today they hoped to take a limit of fish, while other days on other waters they’d favor catching and releasing with a fly rod. Fish were landed amid enjoyable conversation peppered with suggestions of other worthwhile fishing venues. Limits caught, they departed about mid morning.
During this time, I’d settled in perpendicular to a nice deep section while two older guys began to cast bait into a pool just downstream of where I was fishing. To paint a picture, I was making quartering casts about 15 feet upstream and the roughly 30-foot drift of my flies put them 15 feet below my position before I’d recast. Ten feet below that point, these guys perched on the opposite bank.
The fishing and catching was good for everyone for about an hour, then slacked off, though the trout were still responding well to flies, both on the surface and subsurface. Like the day before, a well-presented dry would lure a fish from the depths with good deal of drama and splashing that, of course, caught the attention of the other fishermen.
Then it happened. Plop.
A white and red bobber landed less than 5 feet away from me, right in the seam I was working. This would happen half a dozen times more, but since I was still hooking a fish now and again and my ‘competition’ wasn’t, I ignored the uncouth behavior.
However, when another fisherman took up position about 15 feet upstream and let his sunken ball of fluorescent PowerBait float to within a yard and a half of my feet (certainly sneaky if this was intentional), it became clear that these rude manners deserved a response. But I’m not a confrontational person. So…
Downstream but within sight of every one of the other fishermen were various pods of trout holding in pockets and depressions and behind rocks. With a new dropper tied onto a stimulator dry fly, I targeted the fish swimming closest to me and, one by one hooked, each. Slowly, I worked my way across the creek until I was casting against the opposite bank. The other guys weren’t catching, so they were watching. Like the day before, I enjoyed watching the reactions of each fish, with the ‘turn‘ telling me how I might adjust my presentation and hinting at where the fish expected to see food.
My response may not have had an impact on these guys (and yes, I knew there’d be others on this water), but after landing more than a dozen fish — then releasing them — while everyone else stood idly by sure made me feel better.
The dogwoods’ stark white blooms peeked out from behind pines as unfamiliar water teased with promise. A slight breeze carried mayflies upstream. Spring was winding its way higher and higher up the Sierra Nevada range, bringing renewal. It arrived with a beautiful recklessness.
Wildflowers popped up randomly, seeking purchase in the cracks of granite boulders. The river, though somewhat tamed by a mild winter, flowed high with snowmelt. If the warmth of the day suggested that this trout season would peak early, it was the mayflies that served notice that the spring runoff had already begun to recede.A decision to devote this year to exploration of the many streams and rivers surrounding The Cabin led me to this upper stretch of the Tuolumne River; a widely known section, until now, unvisited. Upstream, pocket water was edged by sedges, willows and horsetails, while downstream plunge pools hugged outcroppings of granite. It’s just shy of a month since the start of the season yet it was only my eyes that scanned the water that morning for any hint of fish.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that all of the time spent and distance traveled to this and similar waters is devoted to casting practice, or perfecting my presentation. It’s the fish that I’m after. Thus far this season, however, I’ve fallen under the spell of ‘the turn.’ Fly fishermen more commonly will speak fervently about ‘the take,’ and it can be exciting, but for me it’s the anticipation that builds with that telltale flash, or if sight fishing, the shift of an eye or opening of the mouth that comes before the strike or refusal. It’s the amount of this turn, lack thereof, or ultimately the take that offers the most accurate appraisal of a fly’s presentation.
It was upstream that I half kneeled behind a boulder, tossing more than casting a dry/dropper combination into a likely pocket. Almost imperceptibly the dry fly, a yellow humpy this time, skipped a beat and the hook was set. The reward was eight inches of a brilliantly painted wild rainbow trout. The fish had struck a small, size 18 red-butt Zebra midge I tied on a whim last fall, not knowing or caring if it was an actual pattern. After a quick look at the little fish, I slipped it back into the water.
My casting went unanswered for a while and I headed downstream, purposely ignoring the pool just below where I had parked the car. With the new trout season came the stocking of fish, and it really wasn’t speculation to think they’d still be there later.
It was more bushwhacking than fishing on the way downstream. Any fish that might have been there remained unseen. The same gradient that allowed for a stairway of likely pools also funneled this part of the river into a canyon. With the passing of years I have come to understand a need to balance the distance traveled in the search for fish with the consideration that an equivalent distance must be retraced to my starting point. I turned around when venturing further downstream meant following a trail too far away from the water. Less attractive was the slippery bed of pine needles and the leaves of California black oaks.
On a piece of lichen-dotted granite — not a boulder, more of an exposed part of the mountain — I sat, watched and listened. Thought not silent, there was peace in the sounds of the river washing over rocks, the breeze rocking the tip tops of the trees and chirping birds unmindful of my presence. Heading upstream meant hiking uphill and arriving at the pool previously disregarded, my excuse was taking time to watch the water while the truth was I needed to catch my breath.
This was one of those long, wide pools that suggest fish and are often quickly fished out. Grabbing my attention on the opposite bank, however, was what looked to be the tip top of a pine tree, out of which sprung gnarled branches extending into the water and above its surface. It was prime shelter just off the fastest seam. Not fishing means not catching, but in my few short years of fly fishing I’ve learned from my quarry to maximize reward with efficiency, so I waited and watched. First it was only a nose prodding the water’s surface inches away from the branch, then a small splash. A fish finally crashed through the surface. Though its prey was unseen, I tied on a black-bodied caddis and stripped line for a cast.
A simple quartering upstream cast put my flies just out of sight of the fish but in a current that would pull them just past the ripples of another rise form. The first look at the dry fly was only a tentative bump. Readjusting and allowing my back cast to go high over the willows behind me, I would cast a few more times before appetite overwhelmed caution, and a decent rainbow came to the net.
This was the game played over the next hour or so. I’d periodically examine my knots and flies, taking my time and only casting again when the trout’s feeding fell back into a natural rhythm. Half a dozen more fish were fooled and more than a few of those netted.
I’m not a great caster, and often label my casting skill as ‘simply adequate.’ Normally a difficult-to-reach fish would be ignored. That wouldn’t be the case today.
What caught my attention was a couple of regular rises, slightly downstream and on the other side of the tree, underneath a branch extending about three feet above the surface. The tree top seemed to end somewhere below that branch, allowing for another couple of feet of clear water before a boulder diverted the river back into the main part of the pool. In hindsight it’s hard to tell why I tried the cast, though in the moment there wasn’t much thinking involved, only action. The fly fell right where intended and travelled no more than six inches before it was inhaled.
This was one of those rare moments, and a sense of wonderment washed over me. A decent rainbow trout and I exchanged looks. I released it, but it lingered between my boots before slowly disappearing upstream. More casts were made, most on target. Hook sets were missed, but some connected and I would be eyeball-to-eyeball with three more fish.
There was an unusual contentedness within when I left about noon, happy to have found fish, and happy they were willing.
Twas an imployment for his idle time, which was not idly spent; for angling was after tedious study, a rest to his mind, a cheerer of his spirits, a divertion of sadness, a calmer of unquiet thoughts, a Moderator of passions, a procurer of contentedness, and that it begot habits of peace and patience in those that professed and practice’d it.”
— Izaac Walton, The Complete Angler, or Contemplative Man’s Recreation: Being a Discourse on Rivers, Fish-Ponds, Fish and Fishing (1653, 8th ed.)
We knew the weekend warriors were gone. We also knew they’d have hit hard a creek that’s always fun in terms of catching. Our plan was to find all the fish too smart for everyone else.
As we geared up that morning, the count favored Sean, and I trailed by a considerable margin but refused to bring up the excuse that I had relied on a dry fly for much of the previous day while he
took the easy way out used nymphs.
We go to this creek when we want to catch something, enjoying our tax (and licensing) dollars at work. The rainbow trout stocked here are generally of the Eagle Lake strain, a hard fighting fish that often entertains with acrobatics. Fishing here stacks the deck if you’re measuring success by the number of fish caught. I’ll admit to also enjoying the look of astonishment on the faces of other fishermen, the ones not using flies, when in 15 minutes Sean or I pull out three fish to their one. So, please, shelve any debate about “missing the point,” this is a place of pure fun.
As we walked down to the creek, it was clear that we’d have it to ourselves. Sean headed upstream. We’d both be nymphing — I’ve not known stocked trout to look up much — and this section offered plenty of deeper runs and pools. It didn’t take long for either of us to hook up.
With the intensive fishing over Opening Day weekend, I expected the catching to be a bit slower. I wasn’t disappointed. With a bit of work and a change to a favorite red chironomid, I regularly elicited strikes, particularly with a slow lift at the end of a drift. Catching had slowed for Sean, so he headed downstream to a fast run.Though a bit later I saw Sean’s rod go “bendo,” I knew the water he was fishing was fast and a fish of nearly any size would have an advantage in the current. I had no worries. Over the years during the too infrequent trips with me, Sean has become a better fly fisherman, enough to venture out on his own last year to find success on some streams in Yosemite’s high country. (There’s some fondness in my memory of a Reno telephone number showing up on my caller ID, only to find it was Sean resorting to a pay phone to call me with the news that he had landed his first wild brown on a fly.) After I saw him bend down with the net, I refocused on my fishing.
In the meantime, Sean had started upstream, and when I finally looked up, even at a distance I could see that the fish on his stringer wasn’t a cookie cutter stocker. With a grin to match, he held up a rainbow that measured an honest 18 inches. After the obligatory photo, he headed back downstream.
As often happens, I became lost in the fishing. Testing every edge and riffle, rewarded with strikes where expected and others that came as a total surprise. A bait fisherman took a seat on the opposite bank, asked about the fishing, then, after telling him it had slowed down, I landed three decent fish in less than ten casts.
Sean had returned while I was distracted. Suspiciously happy, he announced that he decided that first fish wasn’t big enough and hoisted up a 20-incher that had been added to the stringer.
If our little father-son competition was to be measured by inches, those last two fish would put Sean over the top.
However, we weren’t measuring in inches, and my count had long ago surpassed Sean’s. Nevertheless, this was probably Sean’s best Opening Day. Ever.
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