The Approach

The Approach

  • By: Galen Mercer
  • Photography by: Greg Thomas
  • Illustrations by: Galen Mercer
Galen Mercer Fishing.jpg

In a moment of signal inspiration, the writer Richard Brautigan once mistook a woman for a trout stream. Admittedly, confusion this elegant is rare and usually the province of gifted poets. A far more common, if prosaic, error is to behold a trout stream mistaken for a sidewalk. Where I fish it happens every day. Literally and figuratively, it’s all a matter of approach.

Speaking from rueful experience, 20 years living on rivers and much guiding, it’s nearly impossible to overstate how deliberate you need to be on trout water. This is especially pertinent to dry-fly anglers who hunt fish by sight.
The approach is the first and perhaps most critical act in angling success, and yes, it is likely the least appreciated. Wretched tackle, the wrong fly, even sloppy casting, might be overcome. However, once a trout fixes you it’s time to move on.

Years ago, on a tip, I pursued one of the largest brown trout I’ve ever seen. It was high summer in the Catskills in New York, and rivers were bony. The leviathan, primarily a night-feeder, lurked beneath some slab rocks, midway up a long, broad flat. Each dawn for a week I crossed the pool well below this fish, and then quietly eased up the bank to acquire a position near its lair. Concealed and still, I waited.

This particular morning featured Tricos and fish working busily. I gave these trout a pass. It warmed steadily, and my quarry failed to appear. I’d begun to grow antsy when a distant sound intruded. Far downstream, a group of anglers was casually entering the pool’s tail, laughing, just starting their day. I discerned the wakes they made ambling up the shoreline; I heard the muffled click of stream cobble.

A hundred yards away, remarkably, trout also took notice. Slowing their rising, they gradually filtered out and dropped to the bottom and then disappeared. Activity continued among lesser specimens, but these, too, became wary. Abandoning the binge that prevailed moments earlier, they altered surface rhythms, redistributed themselves, fed slightly deeper.

Sighting these remnants, the fishermen slowed and grew purposeful. Optimistically hatching plans, they advanced cautiously, blissfully unaware that the game was long since up. This incident still resonates with me.

Of many available lessons, the central one was surely how well attuned to danger trout can be. This was heavily fished public water whose browns, apart from enduring low-flow conditions, contended daily with abundant natural predators. How likely was it such creatures would serve themselves up? That this frequent oversight is also among the easiest to avoid makes it more puzzling.

As a boy, I read (among many others; and fervently agreed with in principle) Bergman’s tactical scenarios, Schwiebert’s assiduously drawn schemas and Marinaro’s entreaties to caution. In waders, I seldom applied these lessons. Self-consciousness, impatience and inexperience made spooked fish commonplace. This changed the day I accepted that the most effective anglers seemed to accord trout too much respect, rather than the opposite.

Taken together, these seemingly minor points comprise the essential craft of the sport, mastery of which marks and distinguishes a well-honed angler. Past this is found the angler who, their day finished, takes leave of a river gracefully, granting the water a degree of attention and respect equal to that displayed upon beginning. Form this deliberate proceeds from considerable experience and thought and denotes another kind of awareness. Beyond basic approach, it announces you’ve arrived.



Galen Mercer is a writer, artist and trout angler of vast experience.  He lives in Southern Vermont.