I don’t remember how it was learned. There has been a lot of trail and error, fishing trips and advice from guides and fly fishing friends. It certainly wasn’t during my first year of fly fishing, when it was all new and mysterious — and happiness was fooling a single wild trout. Mistakenly filled with a dream of never being skunked again, all virgin water held promise, particularly without the knowledge that is only gathered with time on the water. Maybe, at first, this knowledge is founded upon a dog-eared book authored by Whitlock, Humphreys, Cutter or Rosenbauer. But over time, those written words merge with experiences to become more instinct than reason.
Only lately did it become clear — while reflecting on fishing an Eastern Sierra river a bit more than a few weeks ago — that my approach to water, at least assessment of it, was without conscious thought that day. A first trout that came to the net early that morning would be the only fish for a period of time longer than I liked. But there was a lot of water to fish. It wasn’t too long before the burble of the river, the lowing of cattle and the rhythm of casting encouraged giving in to just being there and trusting in my strategy.
I no longer feel frustration (I’ll admit to a bit of irritation) when the net remains dry and the fish don’t respond to sound tactics. Digging a bit deeper often reveals a smidgen of an idea that I may be employing the appropriate tactics, just not in the right place. If asked, I usually can’t describe the right place, but I’ll know it when I see it.
I saw that right place that morning on the Upper Owens River, but it wasn’t until long after the fact did I recognize my knowing that it was the right place. At the moment, it simply felt right. It was a small bend where the water tumbled over and through a few polished rocks, with enough speed to carve underneath the bank a small undercut. Above this bend, a confluence of two braids would funnel any food to where fish should be waiting.
What those books don’t tell you, and can’t if they hope to find new readers, is that as insight is accumulated, at sometime it’ll be a gut feeling telling you that you’re in the right place, at the right time, casting the right fly with the right technique. With a lot of luck, you may even feel that a drift is so right that a hook up is almost — almost — guaranteed. That day half a dozen trout from that bend would end up in my net.
It took some thinking about that day before I realized that it was following a feeling, a learned intuition perhaps, and that not overthinking worked out pretty well.