Monday, February 22, 2010
What Would Brook Trout Do?
Eric, being the veteran trout man that he is, walked by the large stretch of shallow, sandy-bottomed slick water without a second thought. Fred, not far behind, did the same. Both were focused on more promising habitat, real trout water, the quicker flow and plunge pools that started some seventy-five yards upstream.
Bringing up the rear, I quietly waded into the still water, figuring that I might just as well catch nothing where the fishing was easy than catch nothing where the fishing was hard.
It had been an unproductive day on the stream. Over a four-hour stretch, Eric and Fred had caught but a brook trout apiece while I had somehow netted a trio of rainbows and a brookie of my own. These guys can fish rings around me, but I was on familiar water and knew a few spots where fish could usually be found, giving me the three fish edge. But the tough fishing ultimately pushed us further upstream, into unfamiliar waters, and my advantage was lost. The prospect of continued success seemed dim.
So, when the trout guys passed by the long, still water, looking for more promising opportunities, I stepped into the slick. Actually, there was more to this decision than laziness, but it sure wasn’t good trout sense. As much of my fishing life is spent closer to home, chasing largemouth bass, I find myself looking at water differently than my trout fishing brethren. Largemouth are lazier than trout, and their choice of water reflects that. The pool looked like bucketmouth territory, and called to me.
No, even that logic gives me too much credit. What drew me to the pool was that it was where I would have been, if I were a fish.
Standing in the cool south side shade of the deep ravines and wading the cold snow runoff, I was shivering in my boots. Across from me, on the north bank, the sun was warming the slow waters. And while the bottom was mostly white sand, accumulated where the stream takes a break from its haste to get to the bottom of the mountain, there was also a dark patch of matter - sodden wood chips, detritus culled from the stream edges by the constant rise and fall of the water – a dark patch that would be absorbing the sun's thin heat. THAT’S where I would be, if I were a fish, basking in that virtual mid-stream hot tub.
So I sent a speculative cast to the sunny side with my favorite olive woolly bugger (another quirk that probably amused my trout buddies as they'd spent the day busily changing from one nymph, egg, or San Juan worm to another) and started a slow, intermittent strip, eight inches at a time. I had been swinging the bugger all day, from bank to mid-stream in the flowing water, but here, in the still stretch, I needed to give it its motion.
I didn’t strip it far. A pause, a gentle pull, a firm hookset, and a ten-inch brookie was on the line, to be followed by another, and another, and another. With a dozen casts, I netted a half-dozen fish, cookie cutters of the first, while Eric and Fred watched, perplexed, from the escarpment above. “There’s not supposed to be trout there”, they protested. “Only a bass fisherman would have tried there.” I shrugged, and pulled in another fish.
The string ended on the thirteenth cast when I sensed another strike, lifted my rod to set the hook, and felt telegraphing up my line that gut wrenching ping that announces the loss of fish and fly. I was reminded, for the umpteenth time, to check my knot after catching a string of fish (or a tree or two) and, as usual, I was reminded the hard way. By the time I threaded a new bugger, the pod had moved on. I squeezed another couple of fish from the head of the pool, in more conventional trout habitat, before the day was done, but the string of brookies made the day.
So my trout fishing education continues. I learned, or at least reinforced, a few unconventional trout, no, fish lessons today. I learned that there is no single way to chase them – that the novelty of a bugger might intrigue fish that see nymphs on a regular basis. I learned that I should cast into the least likely places now and then, just to see what happens. I learned that cold-water fish can be found in warm places, and swift mountain stream trout can be found in absolutely still water. I learned that where there is one fish, there are probably others. I learned that there are no rules.
Mostly, I learned that fish are like me. Looking for warmth, an occasional quiet place in this crazy turbulent world, the company of friends, and something just a bit different to chase now and then.
What would brook trout do? Today, apparently, just exactly what I would.
P.S. You can rest assured that Eric and Fred will fish my socks off next time we get together, which I hope is real soon. Thanks guys, for letting me come along.