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

It was going to be an epic year. Working from home would give me, in theory, time to get employer deliverables and honey-do’s done with ease, and leave time for more weekend early AM trips to the river. Look out, thou trout! I tied flies and readied leaders and gear in anticipation.

But an early summer outing handed me a disappointing skunk — two takes that strangely broke off a fly apiece (highly unusual for me, given the typical size of the fish here), but no hook-ups. Demoralized, I reasoned that they must have been steelhead “speed break” strikes, to have parted the tippet on what felt like a minor grab…yeah, yeah, dat’s what musta happened. So I re-tooled my tactics to tempt the hypothetical big spring spawn lingerers and aimed my sights at another morning outing a few weeks later, building up expectations as I always do.

But I got skunked again, dang it, and this time felt only one weak bump on the line. Now I was mad. I got out a month later, and flogged the water for 5 straight hours using every trick I could think of. Didn’t get even a half-hearted line-wiggle from a single fish.

What the…? Things had gone from pitiful to beyond all summer long, and now, with a chamber clearly empty of both confidence and lucky bullets, I was staring down the barrel of the autumn Chinook spawn. I set aside not one but two days right up against the season close date, as close to peak salmon run time as Fish And Game would allow, and did my damnedest. But…another demoralizing skunk on that Sunday!

Four days later, the last day of the season for that river, my last hurrah there for the year, water low, Chinook still nowhere to be seen, I’d again gotten no action for interminable hours. I stood out there a nearly broken man. I confess I hit rock bottom. With no future left to plan for, instead of applying the fabricated forward optimism I normally conjure up I started to think backward across recent months. That is, I finally started to use my head.

What adjustments had I made last spring? Let’s see, nice new reel, and I cleaned the fly lines, and the patch I made to a wader leak was holding well, and…I’d gone to nice furled fluoro leaders, which were a joy to use, and…I’d tied weighted flies to minimize use of split shot, thus eliminating path anomalies between rod and fly, and…wait a minute, what was that about the leaders? I’d changed the type. I’d been using “clear” fluoro FURLED leaders all year. It seemed to me they weren’t exactly clear, of course…they refract enough light on every bend of every filament (and there are a lot of little bends when line is braided together like that) that unless it’s nearly nighttime those furled leaders look translucent white in the water…like an off-white piece of thin yarn seven feet long preceding the fly down through the current. Could I be…spooking fish? For months? I’d stepped the taper down quickly from furled portion to tippet, too, so the fly wasn’t really all that far from the furled—maybe only about three feet.

With nothing else to go on, against the laws of frugality I pulled three more feet of fresh tippet material off the spool and added it to my rig, to give more separation between furled leader and fly. I heaved the unwieldy concoction into the riffle…and almost instantly got a little take, then another, and hooked one, and with the sun now high in the sky and the wristwatch screaming “gotta hit the road” I brought a four-incher to net, saving the day in the eleventh hour and narrowly avoiding five straight skunks in a row.

And I was ecstatic. Emotions were through the roof for days! I’d fooled a wild little four-inch rainbow! I was back, baby, I was back.

Over the next month I replayed the joy of catching that tiny fish (surely proof that size, in the end, is not king).  And I researched another tailwater I didn’t love but also didn’t know, because its season was still open and I was hungry for more.

The mid-November night before hitting that new water, I gave a little more thought to those furled leaders. Maybe the small extra distance I’d put between furl and fly back in October had been meaningful. I decided to make some adjustments, first going to a short 68″ furled portion instead of the 84″ I’d used before, then using single filament to step down to the tippet over a distance of at least four feet, then adding a good 15 inches of tippet. And for the coup de grace, on impulse I dug up a black sharpie and darkened the furled leader to a smeared charcoal grey tint, hoping it would reduce the light-bending properties enough to let it go unnoticed. I wasn’t sure if the ink would stay on in the water, but it was worth a shot.

Next morning I was on the stream at dawn. I chose a spot used by every fisherman and his dog to step into the drink, because I’d once caught a fish there. I tied on my favorite soft-hackle wet fly and went to work. It’s a place where to avoid tree snags one must false-cast downstream to one’s left, then back-hand the real cast upstream to water that seemed in process of being used by smaller surface-feeding fish grabbing something I could not see. I was fishing the fly near the bottom in a current so weak it was more like a pond sliding slowly past me from right to left.

Figure 1. Fishing Hole and Fly

The single fish I’d caught here two years prior had been, shall we say, dainty in its table manners, and I remembered that. I kept the line as direct to the target as I could without making the fly move too abruptly, and watched the fly line where it sat on or broke the water. I stripped that fly in soft winter-like cold-water strips of an inch or two at a time, so that the soft hackle would wave. Any line movement out of the ordinary I decided to assume was a possible take. I had trouble seeing the furled leader’s butt end in the dark clear water, too, which was good. I got a couple very weak bumps over an hour’s time, and I tried to imagine what might be going on ten feet upstream of the fly line portions I was watching.

To call these fish noncommittal would be an understatement. If they could breathe on stuff I’d say that’s all they were doing to my fly. I began to get a rough sense that there must be a little deeper oblong “hole” here, maybe 4 to 5 feet in depth at most. And then…well I won’t say the line darted or even eased upstream…the most I can say is that it didn’t NOT ease upstream. I snugged up the line in a soft quiet hook-set move, just before the surface erupted about twelve feet out from my tip guide.

It was a good fish, and it jumped at least 40 inches into the air. It ran with real power downstream, then up, then deep, then down, then back up, and then jumped high again. At 4x I was using a much stronger tippet than I’d used in prior seasons (another decision I’d made the previous spring), which was good because I could snug up on this strong fish and meet power with power — so I could really feel those runs! Yet still it had a real fighting chance because it had power of its own, and because the rules here had made me go barbless. My adversary kept my rod bent double as it made its runs, and I was nervous like anything.

This fish fought hard for minutes! It was spectacular. It boldly ran a full circle around my position, darting behind me between me and the bank (a narrow 4-foot gap with only about 18 inches of depth), and jumped a third time back there, so high that it splashed the top of my head! That was the jump I didn’t get to see.

Eventually I took a chance and brought the thing more forcibly toward the net, and got away with that, and managed to scoop it up. At 16″ it might not sound like much to some, but I have to say it was about the best stream rainbow I’d caught in years, what with the subtle way it took the fly and the guts it showed in the fight.

Figure 2. The Nice One

I released it to fight another day, although I have to say that this was the only time I could remember across several years when the fly did not fall out of the fish’s mouth once it was in the net. The micro-barbs I normally use barely stay in, yet unhooking this filed-off micro-barb from this fish was no fun for either of us. All I can think of is that the weight and pull of the fish somehow must have embedded the hook point deep into its side jawbone. Anyway I managed to get it out, and the fish appreciated that and swam away wiser but unharmed.

I caught five more fish that morning — smaller, but truly beautiful fish. Two took the fly with a little more authority and the other three as timidly as had the big one.  That wet fly was a hero that day.

Figure 3. Smaller Beautiful Fish

I came away (re)learning a number of things: First, I got a lot of practice watching that line and detecting the most subtle takes imaginable; that’s what’s required in overfished or off-season quiet water. Indicators aren’t needed and aren’t necessarily the best way in such places either (more on that in a subsequent article), and they’re definitely not the most satisfying. Second, I gained more familiarity with this little stream, which is basically a creek, and reminded myself of how good fish can live and lurk in places that seem unlikely what with how much those places get fished.

Most importantly, I remembered the vital importance of one primary aspect of a leader: Its invisibility. The great Lee Wulff said that in his opinion the most notable fly fishing technology advancement of the century was tippet…and it wasn’t for its strength, per se, except insofar as that stronger material can therefore be thinner and less visible. It was because modern tippet is harder for fish to see. That critical priority extends to the whole leader. Fluoro is fine, but if it’s thick or braided such that it refracts light, it’s still likely to shut things down. Dulling that effect and adding more separation from the fly was the ticket for me.

I still want to stay with furled leaders because their consistent coil-free flexibility makes leader path predictable and thus strike detection more achievable…and because of the other advantages, such as tangle resistance, wind knot elimination, no coils to stretch out when it’s cold, natural shock absorption, etc. But I’ll be using the shorter less-than-six-feet ones so I can keep total leader-and-tippet length no more than about eleven feet (for manageability in tighter places)…and I’ll be “tinting” the furled leaders from now on, unless I can find some made of fluoro but already tinted enough to go unnoticed; so far I haven’t found any I like, so the permanent marker personal touch will suffice. (By the way, if sharpie ink goes on too black, isopropyl alcohol on the fingers can help smear it to a “smokier” tint for a less overbearing opacity).

So my comeback was sweet, and became history…then legend, as I retold increasingly embellished versions to all my pals. And I went forward with head held high once more, and repeated the feat two weeks later with another very nice fish, to prove it wasn’t a fluke. I just hope writing this account doesn’t jinx me again.

And I think those classic images of fly fishermen should really depict the well-equipped angler with rod in one hand and permanent marker in the other…for “completeness.”

 

Figure 4. A Complete Angler

 

2 Comments

  1. I enjoyed your saga. I am a beginner slightly over the starting hump but i can relate to the doldrums.

    Especially when fishing with my buddy that has never seen a bad day on the lake. I do exaggerate he occasionally has a bad day but there was a tornado warning in effect or the temp was so high you could almost see the water level going down and the water was so muddy that you could not see the bait. incidentally we both fish worms and crank baits. He changes baits every 10 minutes and i change when he finds the magic bait of the day or i accidentally catch the magic fish and then i usually stay with the one bait.

    I took a fly fishing class a little over a year ago and i caught a 3 pounder and it was the biggest of the day. On the down side i had a rather large water moccasin that kept trying to get in the kick boat with me. I almost broke my new Sage rod over it’s head.

    I have only been out a couple of times since but I have caught several nice Large mouth since. I could brag but I wont.

    I fish the area west of Fort Worth, Texas and surrounding areas. I am always looking for fishing buddy or some one to swap fishing stories with.

    1. Hi JC, welcome to the bright side! An adaptation of an ancient Phoenician proverb gives us the claim that “the gods do not deduct from Man’s allotted span the hours spent in fly fishing.” But normally I start by describing our pursuit to the completely uninitiated this way: “The point of fishing is to catch fish. The point of fly fishing is to catch fish the hard way.” It’s not true, but then it is.

      In truth, fly fishing can present practically any kind of prey imitation to fish…with the sole qualification that fly fishing presents an imitation to fish THAT IDENTIFY FOOD BY SIGHT. We could also add sound to that statement, if we’re plopping the imitation along on the surface, but it’s primarily a sight game. I showed a fly I’d tied to a colleague at work once, and he asked whether I squirt something onto flies “so when the fish come up and sniffs it, they might take it.” I had to very gently tell him what an imbecile he was.

      Other than that, and also excluding 200-foot casts, fly fishing can do it all. A given setup and technique has its limitations but one way or another we can put feather and fur in front of fish, and trick them into thinking it’s a meal.

      You’ve taken up an obsession for which there is no cure. In your final moments you may confuse your children’s names, but you’ll still recall the exact pattern of fly you used to catch that first 3-pound bass you mentioned. Fly fishing will coax so much more understanding of the ways of fish…and bugs…and crawdads…and every other stream or lake denizon…into your head that you’ll look back and wonder at the naivete of your former bait-soaking self. We all still soak bait once in a great while, maybe out in the 100-foot-deep part of the sound or when teaching a little one what fishing is all about, but fly fishing is who we are and what we dream. And make no mistake, ALL of us are beginners; Nature humbles us all–we just try not to talk about it. I can personally attest–I think I have a perpetual season pass to humility class.

      …and then there’s the Steelhead…the Sagittarian-wanderlust-infected factions of the rainbow trout, whose legendary feats and finicky smarts will reduce a man to a shivering, cursing, demoralized perpetual failure–but a failure who comes back again and again and again, like the classic fool who tries the same failed thing over and over again expecting it to work. Obsession.

      As you suggest, a fishing buddy is a great addition to the picture, at least some of the time–might depend on the buddy. While fishing we don’t tend to have time for beer and gabbing, but it’s still social, and again as you point out a pair of anglers can team up to home in on the method that decodes the day. If it hasn’t already happened, you should convert your bait-soaking friend.

      Tying flies easily doubles the rewards of fly fishing. There is no better source of materials on the planet than J.Stockard. Tie, and invent, flies…and then feel the thrill of fooling wild things on them. Beyond compare.

      So thanks for reading and sharing. If I lived anywhere near Texas I’d go hit those lakes with you. Enjoy, write and post here please, and welcome to our blog. We have a lot of fun here.

      – Mike

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