Story and photographs by Dave Hughes
Recently I fished with a nephew new to fly-fishing on the small headwater reaches of the Boulder River that ease through beaver meadows just a rock’s toss from the Continental Divide north of Butte, Montana. Trevor was rigged right, because I’d rigged him myself. He had the right fly, as I’d tied on the same #14 elk-hair caddis I was using, and I was catching plenty of plump non-native brook trout that were destined for dinner. But Trevor had trouble attracting trout to his fly.
I stopped casting as we leapfrogged from pool to pool and watched him fish for a while, wondering why he was failing so successfully. It suddenly swept over me that he was casting well enough, but he was doing it with the casualness of a fellow slouching on a street corner bull-shooting with his friends. He was standing exposed to the trout and waving his fly line back and forth lazily over their heads before setting his fly on the water. He was loose as the proverbial goose and looked like he might have been trying to make friends with the trout.
We were in cougar country, and Trevor is a bowhunter. I moved up alongside him and told him to act like one of those crafty cats.
The change was instantaneous. Trevor crept into position at the foot of the next pool, kneeled and eyed the water for a minute. A trout revealed its location by bulging the surface to take a submerged insect at the tail of the riffle that fed into the pool. Trevor made a single measuring forecast off to one side of that bulge, and then placed his dry fly about three feet upstream from it. The first thing that warned the trout about the arrival of its own undoing was the sting of Trevor’s hook. There was no mercy for invasive species that day.
In a single leap Trevor made the transition that can advance you more than any other on your way toward becoming a better fly fisher, whatever species you’re trying to catch. Acting like a predator is a shift in attitude. Though it won’t improve directly any of the acts of fly-fishing that you perform—reading water, wading, casting and so on—it will change the way you execute each of them.
Becoming predaceous can be parsed into two major parts: observation and approach. Observation comes first in any predatory act. The most important part is to notice what’s going on in the world of trout before you decide how you’re going to rig and fish for them. Don’t depend on the weather report before you leave home and decide that because it’s predicted to be cool and blustery you’re going to fish nymphs or because the sun is predicted to shine it will be strictly a dry-fly day. Never decide how you’re going to rig and fish until you step streamside or lakeside and make your own observations about what is happening there and then.
I’ll give you an example. In late January I fished the Deschutes River for a day with Rick Hafele and John Smeraglio, who, among their other accomplishments, are the heartthrob leads in the “Fishing Large Rivers” series of DVDs. The weather was wintry as predicted. A frigid wind snorted. Rain that was half hail sliced at us. John and I bundled up, and then hunched in the lee of the rig and caught up on our life and times. Rick, more intensely interested in catching trout that day—obviously another crucial aspect of becoming predaceous—took his rod and trotted down to a big eddy, stood in the shelter of a cliffed bank and watched the water with a close-up view. John and I watched it, as well, but with a more distant view from up on the road.
After a few minutes Rick suddenly fumbled his rod together, strung his line and tied on a fly. He crouched to the edge of the eddy and began casting. John and I failed to pay attention until we noticed that Rick’s rod had somehow gotten bent. Then we grabbed our own rods, tumbled down there and saw that the eye of the eddy was speckled with windblown, shipwrecked #16 olive duns. Noses poked cautiously among them invisible from afar. We rigged and took turns, with Rick stinging a few of those noses. The action didn’t last long, but it was a fine way to spend a couple of winter hours. And it was far from the kind of fishing we’d have had if Rick hadn’t gone right to the water and observed it closely to see what might be happening. We’d have frozen our fingers fishing nymphs rather than casting dries to those rising trout.
The second part of becoming predaceous, after observation, is your approach to the water you’re going to fish or to trout that you’ve observed working. Obviously you won’t do well if you rush right up to the water, stand looming over those trout and fling your line over their heads before ever placing your fly where they can eat it. You usually don’t have to creep and crawl, though that could improve your chances. But you do have to honor the senses of the trout as you approach them.
Their first sense is a combination of hearing—trout do have ears, though they’re internal—and sensitivity to vibrations through their lateral lines. You can shout or, as Alfred Ronalds did in his famous experiment so long ago, fire a shotgun over their heads, and they won’t notice. Sound is not transferred well from air to water. But you don’t want to walk the banks with a heavy tread or knock rocks together when you wade. Trout hear or sense that. They’ll either flee or go tharn and become very difficult to catch.
You honor a trout’s sense of smell, which is fairly acute, in three ways. First, you simply can stay out of the water, which will give them no sniff of your presence. Second, you can wade upstream toward them—quietly as I’ve already noted—so your foul odor is directed away from them. Or third, if you approach from upstream, you can keep your waders or wet-wading legs free of any warning scents. I once lathered my legs with sunscreen on a hot day on the Deschutes River, and then stepped in at the upper end of a long line of rising trout and worked downstream toward them, feeding slack into perfect presentations. Those rises blinked out, each trout going down just as I waded into casting range upstream from it. That was when tendrils of scent from my sunscreen reached them. I backed out of the water, hiked downstream, fished upstream to the same trout and was able to catch several of them.
You honor trout’s sense of sight, which is their most important line of defense, simply by staying out of view when you can. Stay low. I won’t get into a discussion about the angle of refraction of light waves when they depart air and strike water or the influence of depth on a trout’s cone of vision into the aerial world. I will advise you that the closer you get to trout, the lower you need to be. At 40 feet stand tall. At 30 feet hunch over. At 15 feet kneel. Closer than that, be on your belly. It’s worth noting, however, that even at close range, if you keep your movements heron-like, trout might notice you, but they will be far less likely to be frightened.
In the most general way, you honor the senses of trout whenever you approach low and quietly, and when in their sight, you execute every movement as slowly as possible. It’s not an accident that a day spent casting to rising trout can leave you with an aching back. The predaceous posture is a natural crouch, a hunching and leaning intensely forward, a tightening of the muscle structure in preparation to pounce—or, as we execute it, to set the hook.
If you ache at the end of a day of fly-fishing for trout, that’s not a bad sign. Sip your medicinal whisky, and toast yourself as a person with the important attitude of a predator. You probably spent the day catching fish.