Surprise Takes

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

I was about fourteen, and after corn-on-the-cob and chicken and tossing baseball in the sun, I had become bored of the heat or perhaps the relative inaction of the family picnic. I wandered down to the midwest lake’s edge, where a short rickety pier no more than 6 or 7 feet long jutted out from shore in water that went from 2 inches to 18 inches in warm cloudy depth. I pulled a little spooled hand line from my pocket (a kid always carries one), tied on what amounted to a fuzzy little wet fly to which I had attached a tiny spinning metal blade at the hook-eye end, and began to drag it mindlessly along one side of the pier. As I watched a duck swimming far out in the lake’s middle, my flashy wet fly snagged on something, which turned out to be the mouth of a huge 6-pound carp, the largest fish I had ever landed up to that point.

Another time: I was about sixteen years old and my Dad had driven us up to Ohio’s Rocky Fork Lake one late November afternoon. It was nippy, and we got there with really not enough time to do much of anything, but as a very rare treat the family had planned to make it an overnight. November is late for fishing in those parts, but kids will be kids, and instead of helping with stuff I put reel to rod and tied one of those “L&S Mirro-Lures” to the line. There was a marina there, and a low cement wall along the top of which I could walk–the water was probably 20 inches deep at the wall. I dropped the lure into the drink at my feet and attempted to get away from my siblings, who were following me asking what the heck I was doing…so I walked away from them. They followed. I walked faster. The lure dragged along in the water. Suddenly there was a lurch, and I landed a very nice 2-pound bass, by far the largest game fish I had ever caught up to then.

Yet another time: As night descended I sat on a Washington state pier…can’t even remember whether it was Bothell or Mukilteo…jiggling a hand-tied black marabou streamer-like thing up and down in the water directly below the tarred planks on which I sat. Yachts and working boats were slipped either side of me and I was pretty sure I wasn’t really supposed to be fishing from this pier, so was far more concerned with whether I was visible than with what I was doing. Besides that, being a cheapskate, I didn’t want to lose the one marabou thing I’d tied, so was paying what was left of my attention to finding a drop position that might not be near any of the pier’s submerged steel cables. I had already snagged such a cable twice and felt lucky to have managed to get the hook loose, one of the two times by poking my rod tip all the way down to where the snag was. Not exactly stealth fishing…but then I was more hungry than anything else and was just going through the motions anyway. I dropped it a foot to the right of where I’d dropped it before and let it sink, then raised it just a few inches and let it sink again…trying to determine how deep it was and how deep it could go, without losing the streamer. Deciding that this was a colossal waste of time, I started to crank it up permanently.

Suddenly the rod bent double, as though a horse had laid on the fly. A moment later the line began to move under where I sat, and the 20-pound monofilament snapped like a human hair.

More recently: When I first “discovered” a stretch of river within reach of my house, I had already found it using online maps, and had read that fly fishing for trout was sometimes done there. When on New Year’s Day my wife went off with a friend to some outlet mall, this was my opportunity to get a few hours to myself and I decided to drive out and scout the place. I tossed fly gear and old cheap leaky waders into the car and followed the maps.

Now, I was intending to fish, and yet the concept of a legal fishing season had somehow never occurred to me, since it had been so long and I was so desperate to find wadable water. So it was to my great good luck that on arrival I found a bunch of guys from a local fly fishing club there. Turns out this stretch of river uniquely opens on January 1 each year. I assembled my rod, chose an elk-hair caddis of all things, and got in the water where no one else was. I fished that thing until I could think of no other way to fish it, then let it drag in the water while I arm-pitted my rod and pulled out the fly box to see if I had anything else there that might inspire some hope. I found nothing, but did manage to drop the fly box in the water. I tried to rake it back toward me with the rod tip before it could float further and further out of my reach…and where my now thoroughly drowned elk-hair caddis dragged and dove near a small rock I somehow hooked a nice fat little 8-inch rainbow trout. I netted the fish, then had to hike a quarter mile downstream before I finally spied the fly box where it had snagged on a mid-current island to which I could wade.

Figure 1.  Fat Little Rainbow

Another more recent time: My wife spent the day with a friend of hers doing something or other, and I asked my little 6-year-old daughter if she wanted to go have some fun. Naturally that meant going to Daddy’s favorite stream for some fishing. I set up her worm-soaking rig, then quickly assembled my own fly rod and stepped into the water a few yards down, where I had subtle take after subtle take on a wet fly under a nice tree overhang…but never hooked a single one of them.

In frustration and with our time running out, I limited myself to five more casts.  Nothing. Okay one more, because, you know, that last one didn’t go quite where I’d aimed it. Nothing. Okay one more for good measure. Nothing. Was that really five?  Better try just three more. Nothing.

Eventually I threw in the towel…but had to let the current take the line out straight so that I could wind it in snug and complete my defeat. I flicked the wet fly into the current tongue nearest me, and as it swept three feet past my boot, while I was busy winding the line evenly on the reel for later storage, a rainbow took it right there and I dodged the skunk.

Figure 2.  The Fish That Un-Skunked Me

Some years later: On a family camping trip near the Upper Sacramento River, we hiked the river trail and spent time at the only easy water access we could find.  There were a lot of rather large bright green cased caddis worms in brown algae cases in the water by this time of summer, but we saw no fish.  Next morning I tried my best to locate other access to water where I might make a few casts, but again found only that one gravelly spot, so I set up and tied on…you guessed it, the reliable old elk-hair caddis in about a size 14 or 16.

A man with a cheap spinning rod came down onto the gravel bar and started dabbling his department store spinner in the water as close as four feet behind me. I walked a few steps toward the head of the pool and he followed me, hot breath practically on my neck. I glared and he pretended not to notice. I tried to scare myself a little elbow room, with back-casts wherein the rod itself was just about whacking him on the head, but he ignore that too–his goal was of course to drive me to go elsewhere and leave this pool to him. It worked; I’d had enough of him and packed up my stuff and left, although not before landing a nice wild rainbow trout that hit my sunken dry fly while I was glaring at that idiot.

While each of the above tales differs drastically in species, tackle, environs, reasons, kind of water, season, and time of day, all those memorable strikes and takes share one commonality:  They all happened while I was daydreaming.

My all-time favorite: I was teaching my then-fourteen-year-old daughter fly fishing, helping her traverse the volcanic bottom rocks in her brand new waders and wield her sweet little 4-weight 8-footer on a blue ribbon stretch of water called the Hat Creek Powerhouse Riffle last year. I taught her to turn and cast up over the bushes behind her, then backhand-cast out over the riffle and let the wet fly settle into the water to begin its drift. I taught her how to load each new backhanded cast with the current that was flagging the previous downstream drift. “Now watch it, and keep the line floating lightly on the water…flick the line upstream a little now and then if it starts to drag,” I advised.

“Well it’s kinda hard to,” she said.

“Well just keep at it. We do it all day long, almost every cast. You get used to it. See that there, how it’s dragging in the current? That’ll pull the fly; that’s no good. Kinda raise the line with your rod and flick it up there to the right.”

“Well I can’t.”

“Why?”

“Because something seems to have the other end of the line.”

“WHAT??!!”

It jumped just then, out there in the trough of a small frothy standing wave–a beautiful 16-inch wild rainbow with a deep olive back and bright rosy sides, like live in that stream. She worked the powerful fish to within four feet of us, just out of reach of my outstretched net, but as it charged upstream in the swift current before our eyes the barbless hook gave way and the wild thing melted back into the world from which it had come. It was a magnificent near-catch, especially for a fourteen-year-old student of the game, and it had taken the dark wet-fly that bore my daughter’s name at a moment when our attentions were distracted by my verbose tutelage of the line-mending concept.

Thus I conclude, based not on any kind of logic except the irrefutable kind served up by statistics, that “not paying attention” is one of the key techniques we have in our arsenal. In the vein of the watched pot never boiling, I have found there’s a curious phenomenon at work in the universe–that when all else isn’t working…when intense focus on every nuance of my fly’s drift and location and speed of retrieve comes to no good, I should whip out the secret weapon: The devilishly clever Short Attention Span.

I’ll let the outing evolve from one of laser-sharp commitment to a gentler more meditative state of absent-mindedness, wherein the past week’s and month’s and year’s more delicious events replay in freeform streaming style through my mind, and I’ll reflect casually on whatever ideas pop into my head. I’ll watch that squirrel scrambling across a thin sapling branch, or that Goshawk reeling and plying a weak thermal above. If driven to it, I’ll even put the rod under one arm and pull out the camera, to snap a memory of the mountain to my right in the morning sun, or of the leaf-filtered light glinting off the bottom stones. That’s when a take is most likely–when I’m momentarily ill prepared to set the hook.

So if you lack for action and can think of nothing else, and when every pro trick in your quiver sums up to naught…let that mind drift. Get careless.  Go stoopid on ‘em. They’ll never see it coming…and then wait for those fortunes to turn.

Yes, leveraging the improbable also counts as skill.

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