Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana

As I think I mentioned sometime last year in my post about my cousin Matt, I fished a lot with my uncle Fred in the 1970 – 2000 era in Alabama. As Fred got older, he became notorious for repeating the same stories over and over again. “I remember the time that Waldo and I did this and that on the Warrior River ……” If my cousin Matt and I had really paid attention to all the stories over the years, we probably could have written a book about Fred’s life as a fisherman. Whether or not anyone would have read it is a different issue, but it would have been a healthy mix of colorful characters, big fish stories, disasters on the water and such—stories that were all worth repeating many times if you had lived them like Fred had on the backwaters of Alabama’s rivers and lakes.

A great many of the tasks we perform as anglers are indeed repetitive—tying flies, changing flies midstream, casting, and in my case visiting the same rivers a great many times each season. Albert Einstein had an interesting take on repetition: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Of course what Einstein was trying to say was that no sane person would keep failing at a task while never trying different approaches to a solution. To put it in a perspective closer to home, if you are constantly breaking your thread while trying to tie a fly, you are doing something wrong, so figure out what that is and stop doing it. The same thing applies to casting. If you are consistently throwing tailing loops you are doing something wrong so don’t keep doing whatever it is and expect the tailing loops to go away. However, on the river, insanity, by Einstein’s take on repetition, may be the most productive approach to success.

If you’ve ever taken a guided float trip, I suspect you’ll remember the guide saying multiple times during the float something like: “There’s a good spot coming up… Drop your fly in that seam, it usually produces a good fish. … Get your fly closer to that bank, we landed a good fish there last week.” You might ask how the guide knows about these spots, but that’s the job and the guide has probably floated past these places hundreds of times over the years with clients. The guide’s advice is not random, but born out of massive repetition where consistent success (or failure) informs where they should direct their client’s efforts. Good guides aren’t insane, but they repeat themselves on a regular basis.

As I’ve gained experience with multiple rivers over the years here in SW Montana, I repeat myself all the time; wading up or downstream with my kayak I cover water that I’ve fished dozens of times before. Every time I make a cast I have an expectation that I am going to connect with a fish. More often than not, on a per cast basis, that expectation doesn’t come true. In other words, I fail a lot. However, that doesn’t stop the insanity. I continue to toss the same fly into the same water over and over again. Where the insanity pays off is that, on par, my repeated casts go into waters that usually produce fish, not random parts of the river. When you fish the same stretches of the same river over and over again, it becomes increasingly obvious where the fish are and where they aren’t, especially when there’s no obvious hatch going on.

Not what I mean - This is Insane
Not what I mean – This is Insane

Although I don’t like to pass up the “second best” looking lies in the river, I have become more disciplined over time focusing on places in the river that I know usually hold fish. Those spots routinely are subjected to my insanity. I’ll pound a good lie with multiple casts each time expecting something different—a fish on this cast. If you are fishing dry flies to rising fish, the repetition merely involves some discipline and accuracy in your presentation. However, most of the time we are essentially hunting fish. Casting blindly too likely lies in the insane expectation our fly and a fish will connect. I said “blindly” as we cannot see the fish, but not “randomly”. We actually don’t really know where the fish are holding, but if we’ve paid attention before we do know where they are likely to be.

There’s a section of the Madison River called Valley Garden. I’ve written about it before. As my favorite channel meanders through this huge meadow it makes a number of 90 degree turns. At each of these turns there are three prime lies—the bucket as the riffle spills into a pool, a deep outside bend with an undercut bank and the deep heart of the pool. When I approach these bends, I force myself to be patient and get into position to attack these prime lies with some precision. More than once, I’ve failed to do so, randomly chucking flies into to various parts of the river, many times being surprised by a fish and failing to set the hook. If you are disciplined, and repeating yourself by attacking prime lies with some precision you should have the expectation that every cast will connect with a fish. Of course it won’t, but you are not insane to try.

Montana author John Holt has written a lot of books related to fly fishing. In the intro to his 2012 work Stalking Trophy Brown Trout—A fly fisher’s guide to catching the biggest trout of your life, he provides this insightful piece of evidence that Holt is very good at repeating himself. “In my way, I put my fly where I want it 90 percent of the time. When coupled with being able to read water almost at a glance…I know what works for large fish…If [flies] don’t work, am I doing something wrong, like fishing too fast or sloppily, both circumstances now rarities only because I’ve done this so many times over the decades while making mental and written notes on what has worked and not worked.” I suspect Holt doesn’t make a cast where he doesn’t have a strong expectation he’s going to connect with a fish. Is he insane?

blog insane 2Fishing new and unfamiliar water is always a challenge, but once you experience a new piece of water your success should improve as you fish it on subsequent occasions, especially if you are insane. When you begin fishing new water, approach every lie with the expectation you are going to catch a fish there. But at the same time pay attention to what you did with the assumption that you will return to the river again and again. Catalog the good spots and the bad. When you return, repeat yourself, especially in those lies you were successful in past trips. Make those casts with the expectation that you will catch a fish this time. Don’t fret about the insanity of it. Even if you don’t hook a fish this time, those other times when you did have told you this is a good lie. Einstein was a smart guy, but I am not so sure he knew how to fish. But he did say a funny thing about fish: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Insanity as Einstein describes it is not stupid when it comes to fly fishing.

1 Comment

  1. As you explained each spot you’ve fished I remembered every spot I’ve fished that were similar. Excellent post. Especially the reference to Einstein. Well done! Thank you.

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