Cycles of the Stream: Musings

Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

From time to time I give a little thought to some of the repetitive cycles that are observable on a stream. There are many, each with its own unique periodicity–daily solar-based cycles, lunar/tidal cycles that occur in deltas but come to affect the complete watershed, lunar/monthly cycles, seasonal cycles, annual cycles, fluctuations that ebb or flood across multi-year stretches, migration cycles…the list is endless. They manifest themselves through other life form transitions, water temperatures and levels, predator behavior, water quality variations…and sometimes they include human impact.

<Figure 1 >

Taken en masse, they’re collectively enough to boggle the mind; in total they present a near-incomprehensible tangle of changing conditions and reasons for fish behaving this way or that. If on a given day an angler attempts to understand or predict the “truth” of a stream by gazing into the beam of the complete picture, he or she will go quickly blind; the complete picture is thousand-dimensional–a pulsating matrix of subtleties so complex, so intertwined, that not even our arrogant human cerebral engines can parse it. As long as we’ve been on the planet, we still grasp only a handful of the more obvious mechanisms of a stream and its inhabitants.

No, it takes the collective intelligence of a diverse ecosystem of instinct-driven creatures to make a stream “happen.” None of them in singular understand the full picture, and yet they are part of it, each as necessary as the next, each dependent on all others doing their parts. And collectively the stream is like a single organism, and a kind of self awareness is achieved.

In my own mind, the fact that the simultaneously adaptive and fragile salmonid species continue to thrive across the eons is testament to a belief that even very-long-term fluctuations in weather and conditions are still all part of a larger natural “climate.” We and our measuring gear have been around only a little while–our own impact is measurable but still quite transient; it can degrade our own experience but the cycles are ultimately more powerful than are we…and more eternal.

That doesn’t absolve me from taking care of the stream in any way that I can…if only for selfish reasons. I want my own experience to be a good one and I want my child’s to be as well. I simply understand that I’m not as eternal as the cycles of the stream.

<Figure 2 >

My Dad, whom I miss terribly to this day, once asked me to travel across the country to spend a week of my vacation helping him paint the family farmhouse (stay with me now, because there’s a point here that will come to be relevant). I was aghast by midweek to find we’d accomplished nearly nothing. We’d walk around the large old building and he’d spot a little blemish in a plank of siding, and walk up to it and apply a bit of sandpaper to it, then nod, and we’d mosey some more. “Dad! It’s a house!” I blurted. “It’s the size of a battleship! Shouldn’t we be slapping some major paint on it by now?! I mean, I have like, uh, three days left!” But he didn’t see something the size of a battleship; he saw a little spot that needed a swipe of sandpaper, and then another.

My week ended and I retreated west; he took months to complete the house-painting job. But he got it done. He never once confused himself or scared himself by looking at the daunting size of the project; he saw only a collection of little manageable, understandable, achievable micro-tasks, and with that approach he understood what to do in any given moment, and got the whole thing done.

As anglers I think we can gain little by staring unblinkingly into the multi-wavelength beam of total stream cycle knowledge. Neither our database of lore nor our brains are big enough. Those of us who seek understanding instead do what engineers do–we take an unmanageable problem and break it down. We look at this little stream cycle, or that little stream cycle. We try to understand how snow runoff affects fish migration. Or we study Blue Wing Olive hatch events and see when they happen and how the fish respond. We count whitefish populations, or we seek to limit fishing pressure, in attempts to understand or improve the impact something like that may have on trout. We consider the stream cycles a small one at a time, and juggle maybe one or two of them in our heads at a time, tops, and do our best with those thoughts. We ignore the big house and see the small spot that could use a bit of sandpaper–we look at the big picture by not looking at much of it at a time.

It seems that a lot of avid fishermen out there do limit their attention to mostly on one kind of cycle–but it’s an “origins unknown” supposedly-lunar chart of some kind that purports to predict fish “activity.” Okay, perhaps this might be a kind of cycle that may show a useful correlation…I guess…although I’ve met so many anglers who’ve shared tales of excellent catches “despite it being a bad time on the fish charts.” I don’t know about the credibility of such guidance; I think fish will feed anytime as long as I can figure out where they are and what will tempt them…and I guess I just don’t prefer to rely on newspaper charts as my primary knowledge trove. I believe in cycles, but I enjoy thinking and trying to understand–trying to learn a little more each trip, not only from observation but from the thinking process itself.

<Figure 3 >

(And of course there are also a lot of line-casters out there who mostly track another cycle: the fish-stocking truck’s schedule. I’m not even going to dignify that one with a comment….)

As limited a creature as I am, there are stream cycles I notice and think about, including water level and water temperature and migration and other cycles. We all notice them. Some are more obvious than others, and some seem to appear but don’t pan out under more scrutiny, and some are subtle and unsung but there’s still perhaps something to them. On the water, I look at them one or two at a time; no more. I find that keeping the concept of a “cycle” in mind can occasionally open up new understandings I didn’t have before. And if a theory fizzles out, well, so be it.

If we’re tempted to boast that we understand most of the stream cycles that matter to a fish, I would submit that we only have a handle on a few. For the many anglers who may feel overwhelmed by the complexity of such lore, I’ll offer the consolation that this is expected–this is reality–accept it with a grin and a hungry mind. From time to time I’ll share some of my own thoughts on one “cycle” or another, naturally welcoming reader thoughts as well. Focusing on one at a time makes a concept sharable, keeps me from frying my cognitive retinas, and now and then may yield an opportunity to consider something actionable, be it a tip, a technique, or a test.

For now I share the above musings on the myriad cycles of a stream.

4 thoughts on “Cycles of the Stream: Musings

  1. Joshua C. Mahoney

    Thank you so much! this is a great article that confirms my way of thinking, to some degree, and showed me more to work on.

    Reply
  2. Michael J Vorhis

    Thanks Joshua, for reading and sharing. There must be a thousand different ways to think about streams; seeing them in terms of cycles is one of many, but one I like, both due to its potential to yield productive fly fishing tactics and just because it’s intriguing and satisfying to think in such terms.

    In fact given that such a wide array of species thrive for eons in and around a stream, each needing to have a life strategy so each needing to be able to “predict” conditions, it follows that cyclic phenomena cannot help but be the core reality–else all of those species would have very quickly died out. They can’t, after all, be expected to ad lib their behavior perpetually. They can make it through cyclic condition variances, and often through changing times and changing periodicities, but being creatures of born-in (rather than self-acquired) knowledge they’ve gotta be able to count on familiar conditions returning–conditions for which they already have a successful strategy in their skill set, a proven arrow in the quiver.

    That said, and knowing that each species doing its pre-programmed part in the ecosystem by following its established strategy helps the whole ecosystem cyclically survive, it’s also true that part of each species’s role includes them “learning” and changing and trying to game the system. That is, each is doing its thing but also trying to evolve an improved strategy that yields them an advantage. At what point did stoneflies “decide” to try crawling up vegetation stems to mature and mate? At what point did mayflies and caddis “decide” that doing it in the air was a better way? When did trout figure out they oughta hang out in front of a stream inlet en masse? When did bears start skewing their foraging efforts toward waterfalls right around the time of each salmon species’ spawning run? What new adaptations are in slow progress as we speak, which will ultimately change some cycle in some way, forcing most other stream species to adapt or slowly lose advantage and perhaps disappear, to create a void filled by others waiting on the bench for their chance to thrive as a major player within a now-modified cycle?

    It’s all interesting; I like thinking about a stream in these ways.

    Of course there’s also the “how often should I clean my floating line” and “what time of year might that reel go on sale” and “how many times per month can I get away with going fishing” cycles…those matter too. : )

    May 2019 be a great fly fishing year for you Joshua!

    – Mike

    Reply
    1. Jim Truelsen

      Wow! what a writer, a depth of thought I have never approached for the few times I have been out there exploring the thousands of streams just in the few states around me!

      I wonder if someone booking a trip to a stream he or she always wanted to wade in would ever follow through w/ the booking if they started to ponder the effects of just a few additional conditions that might make this trip worthwhile and productive. How many guides even get into 1/2 of these pearls of analysis to better explain, “Here’s what we are going to do today”, I wonder.

      Jim, a rookie, by one any other description.

      Reply
      1. Michael Vorhis

        Hi Jim, thanks for your comments. Yes, not sure if anglers would be put off or appreciative of their guide going all gooey on this stuff. It may be that such thinking is mostly just the brain’s busywork, but it can be fun to look around while fishing and think about the cycles that make what’a happening right now occur. We all notice and share the obvious, such as how dropping water levels throughout a cyclic drought affect where fish hang out, or how warming water temperatures in early summer change the size of the nymphs that work best for us, but I suspect almost anything going on in and around a stream can be considered as part of repeating cycles, and that grasping more of it, little by little, makes for better fishing.

        Of course our brains might start wandering like this mostly when we’re getting skunked. : )

        You sound like you have access to a lot of streams; glad to hear it. What region are you in?

        – Mike

        Reply

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