Windows to the Soul

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

We tell our friends we’re going out there to catch fish. Is that the truth?

In any endeavor, the progressions we adopt–the order in which we tend to do things and the different things we elect to try–belie our subliminal priorities. So it is with fly fishing. Weather and calendar and logistical constraints aside, and for the moment excepting the decisions we make that fall out of past experience on a given stretch of water, a stream angler will often tend to have an innate approach to a day’s fishing…such as:

1. Fish a particular unfamiliar glide or riffle with a dry fly first, hoping to have a good day of surface takes.

2. If that doesn’t work, try the next closest thing–an in-the-film emerger pattern.

3. If that too fails to tempt a strike, re-rig for dead-drifting a nymph through lower levels of the water column.

4. If that still disappoints, perhaps swing a soft-hackle wetfly, or a streamer.

5. If actively-worked flies come up short, well, move on upstream and circle back to Step 1.

And there may be some hybrid steps in between, wherein multiple techniques are “ganged” together to approximate one or the other.

The above-described virtual angler is living out his or her personal fascinations, putting surface action first on the list. Sight-fishing; seeing the fish take the fly. Fish size and number are downplayed in favor of highly visual delights and the heightened challenge of succeeding at the classic hatch-matching game. Other even more effective approaches are secondary.

Another angler might, on the same unfamiliar riffle or glide, opt to start with a dead-drifted nymph suspended from an indicator, entirely foregoing action that could in theory have been possible on the surface…even in the middle of a hatch. Sighting a take is of less value to this angler than mining the usually more productive deeper levels and catching more fish during the outing.

Still another angler, myself included, will typically begin and end with a wetfly, swinging it, stripping it, working mostly downstream. This fascination prioritizes the electric jolt of a take on a tight line over just about anything else. Again sighting the take is not a goal…nor, even, is matching a hatch. It’s all about that addictive wham.

I’m talking about preferences here, not about using a technique because the rod is already set up that way. Our chosen tactical progression preferences are individually defined schemes; they entirely reflect who we are and why we’re on the water. The choice of water itself does as well–some anglers will head out in the morning directly to deep pool fisheries, there to jump right into the day with sculpin or leach imitations…while others choose to spend the same day on rivers with smooth glides, thereby to work those delicate extended-body dries.

Drift boat practitioners want the broadstroke experience of covering serious distance in an outing–they approach the fish-catching game in shotgun…or shall we say a statistically ‘volumetric’…fashion. They seek to improve their odds by covering large numbers of fish-holding stretches, a cast or so each, and on to the next. They get a healthy measure of the thrill of discovery, the sating of the wanderlust gene, in their fishing experience. It thrills them, and it’s a big part of what they’re out there for.

Others feel real frustration at the very same approach, precisely because it prioritizes more and more water over the ability to carefully and precisely decode any one spot. These anglers seek a much more intimate experience, wading a tiny stream, using a 3-weight rod and a size 20 fly to ply micro-pockets, meticulously offering a tempting morsel in front of a small rock, then to its side, then directly behind, then again in front…every little seam, perhaps not covering more than 40 feet of stream in a day’s time. The intimacy, the “one angler matching wits with one fish” challenge, lie by lie, is in great measure what they come for.

We think we’re out there just to bring fish to net? I submit that we’re after something much more, and much more personal. We speak a similar language and we frequent the same fly shops and websites, but it’s very different for each of us. It is defined by, and in turn reveals, who each of us is.

And where do we draw a line? If all my best choices fail, will I then try heaving a rubber leach or crawdad pattern into the deep hole, in search of fish meat no matter the method? Or will I stick with my dry fly or wetfly, and maybe get skunked but above all stay true to the approach I prefer? How locked in are we, to our preferences? How tenaciously do we cling to our druthers? That too reveals us…and what we’re out there for. There are guys who bring a 10-weight rod and never deviate from it, no matter where, no matter what…because they like that rod–and a 2-weight guy may be on the same water on the same day. A big reason each is on the water is to use the gear they love–the delicate or powerful or classic or radical feel, as the case may be…or the rod that belonged to their grandfather, regardless of how it may perform. I’m that way, to a degree–I’ll change things up a bit, here and there, but (attempts to learn the spey cast aside) I’ll rarely migrate too far from my favorite setup…because I love that setup, and I built that rod myself according to the feel I love. So a big part of my reason for getting out on a stream is to enjoy using the much-loved equipment I’ve spent so many months and years preparing and tuning and learning to master. Yes, I’m a gearhead, and lest you shake your noggin at that, let me remind you that you probably are one too.

Who we are needs no on-water illustration, either. It’s evident long before, on the tying bench. I tie what I dream of catching fish on, and despite the solid advice that “big fish want big prey,” despite my certainty that that’s all true, I nevertheless obsess over the prospect of fooling wily kype-jawed old-timers with tiny hand-tied flies. I have to admit it’s that curious paradox that in no small way draws me to trout fishing to begin with. And so the “progressions” and choices I exhibit at the vise always begin with about a #16 or #18 wetfly, and always end with one too. I’ve cobbled together a good number of big ‘buggers on the advice of other experienced fishermen, but their creation…and their actual deployment on my tippet…remains a tangential thing for me, occasional at best. Little flies are my focus, paradox my fascination.

I think the nuances we choose in fly fishing reflect who we are. If you think your angling is fashioned by the water available to you, I beg to differ–there are far too many mountain stream addicts who live in warm-water flatlands, or near the beach, for that to be true. Yes, they get out on the water available to them, but on each cast they’re dreaming of the annual trip to the Rockies or the High Sierra where their true dreams, once per year, are nourished…and vice versa–surf fly anglers who live inland will hit their local lakes, but in their mind’s eye the invisible breakers roll ever toward their feet, and those bream are surf perch. Like stream folk, surf anglers are born, not crafted by logistics. We’re either fortunate enough to live near our heart’s desire, or we move there, or we practice our art as a stand-in experience on the water we’ve got nearby. So many could-be fly-fishing addicts drop the sport entirely. Why? I think it’s because the environs craved by their innate nature, based on who they are in the depth of their souls, are not within their reach.

We think we’re out there to catch fish? Sure, it’s the skeleton goal around which we build our experience. But in truth, I think we’re out there to have a few hours of being exactly who we are. So we don’t have to follow the reigning wisdom, or use the techniques recommended to us. We’re no demographic, no crass 2D reflection of some group into which an ad man or journalist might lump us. We’re individuals…and fly fishing for each of us is a celebration of that individual. We were born to fly fishing, one form of it or another, and we each choose what form it takes. The progressions and techniques and venues we choose reflect the very definition of ourselves.

That’s how I see it. It’s a beautiful thing, really.

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