Looking For a Rise
- By: Galen Mercer
- Illustrations by: Galen Mercer
jA PRIME NOTION OF TROUT FISHING has long been its supposed “arc of development.” In essential form, this begins with wanting to catch the most fish, morphs into pursuit of the largest, and concludes with a sole interest in a river’s most challenging specimens. There’s a certain truth to that observation, which neatly complements these goal-driven times, but in such a beguilingly complex undertaking as fly-fishing, why would we need a finish line?
Having fished trout for almost four decades, I’ve been pondering this quite a bit recently, for it seems to me there are as many avenues leading beyond what’s commonly viewed as Grail as there are anglers engaged in the pursuit.
For example, many seek a return to their earliest experiences of the sport, embracing open-faced streams and basic pleasures. For some, introducing and mentoring novice anglers becomes ample reward, while others find Nirvana merely being in a river’s presence. And there’s always been a segment for which the immersive experience of books ultimately trumps everything. Wonderful responses all.
Whichever course one might adopt, it appears some essential spark must remain to fan the fires of interest. These days, what gets me out the door and heading toward trout water is an enduring love of the riseform.
In a sense, what captivates you in the beginning keeps you there at the end, and since boyhood I’ve been preoccupied with the sight of a rising trout. I still recall the first I ever saw, discovered not by me, but rather my closest childhood friend who, by age 11, already possessed uncanny angling skills I envied deeply. Roving the Credit River, he’d located this fish consuming what I’d much later recognize as Isonychia drakes, and summoned me to the spectacle. Crouched in hiding, we watched as dark voids appeared unpredictably amidst a swirling cap of custardy foam. I found the sight as riveting as a car chase.
Forty years later, I remain entranced by such moments. Watching trout work up top I regularly develop a removal from fishing itself, mesmerized, caught in a state of appreciative wonder. Observation often supplants pursuit, with time passing smoothly as the current, lost opportunity trailing in its wake. Yet, I never count such periods as wasted—indeed they regularly prove the most instructive and memorable I experience on trout waters.
A signal day was the one when I anxiously awaited, then received, a copy of Vincent Marinaro’s just-published In The Ring Of The Rise. That such an esoteric survey even exists is something I continue to marvel at. I recall purchasing it at Britnells’ Books (a decorous shop in Toronto, now long gone), and the way the crisply wrapped parcel seemed to emanate secret knowledge meant particularly for me. If ever a sorcerer’s apprentice element was attained, it was here. The photos and precise, authoritative descriptions of rising trout possess me still; fish in the act of sipping minutiae, upward, sideward and back-tipping fish, rejection swirls, and the ungainly, slurping terrestrial take. Myriad riseforms previously unknown nor suspected. Dense magic.
It seemed magic because there was a near-total absence of such occurrences on the small, rocky waters I grew up fishing. If southern Ontario’s streams are charm personified, their swift, often chaotic currents afford scant insight into the advanced habits of surface-feeding trout. Forced into impetuous, sometimes lunatic efforts to obtain a passing meal, such fish provided me exciting sport, albeit the antithesis of the meditative game reverentially described by Marinaro and the British authors he, and I alike, sought to emulate.
In my case, “higher-ed” eventually arrived in the form of a literal 20-year immersion in Catskill rivers, with many other lovely and instructive waters tested along the way.
Today, having watched some tens of thousands of rising trout, I’m forced to acknowledge a slight erosion of effect. That said, many times a season I still put the rod aside to admire fish tipping up. Reviewing a year during the depths of winter, it’s invariably these memories, not the besting of slab-sided specimens, that delight me. In a way, it’s become its own pursuit.
Does viewing the rise as an end unto itself encourage a transcendent, Eastern-style disengagement? Possibly, but not in me. My hands still shake when brute trout become active and my casting mechanics predictably go to hell. This is good, I think, for activity as mere concept (as separate from art; ever notice how few decently painted depictions of rising trout actually exist?) is for gamers and monks and possesses a short shelf life. Still, the joy I derive merely observing rising trout grows and deepens in pleasure and associations.
For, like many seemingly simple things, a trout’s rise is in fact elegantly complex, factoring current speeds and depth, the size, stage and activity of available bugs, effects of air and water temperature. Pushing beyond, things really become interesting. You appreciate the variations—fish in similar currents, feeding upon identical insects, behave differently when exposed than if tucked beneath a sheltering tree. Wild trout behave wholly unlike their hatchery simulacra. A truly large fish rises in a manner subtly different from a typically large fish. Effects and direction of wind alter feeding style. Alert specimens display a nervous rigor lacking in dimwitted fish. Juniors, encroaching on superiors, eat hastily, almost sloppily, trying to make hay. Pod feeders drift and move about. Rise appearance and character change significantly from the beginning to the end of a hatch, etc. To this, add the fact there’s as much quirky individualism among trout as there appears to be in, well . . . everything else in nature. The angel, it might also be said, resides in the details. It’s captivating.
Perhaps the ideal time to experience the sight of a rising trout is at the conclusion, rather than the beginning, of a season. Spring implies something arriving, developing and improving; though marvelous, this betokens things taken for granted. Assumptions, however legitimate, remain assumptions. Autumn, by comparison, brings a winnowing of pleasure and opportunity and tends to amplify what remains.
It’s a classic example of the “signal and the noise.” In a time of less—less anglers, less bugs, less daylight, less potential—fall rivers offer a concentration of effect. Hyper-clear, their currents appear to thicken, becoming nearly syrupy. Streamside experience, likewise, seems rendered. Under such conditions, when a trout rises it’s as if the season existed to frame the event.
Late last year I was in the tail of an autumn pool chosen precisely for this type of sport. Content, munching a chicken sandwich, I waited in currents as placid as Gandhi for some sign trout might yet get going. Little was occurring, and there didn’t seem anything on the river’s surface to justify their taking a similar meal break. A good lesson from many years of over-revved fishing is to allow trout to come to you, rather than forcing the matter. It’s particularly true of autumn fish, and I was applying the principle rigorously, if with steadily growing frustration. Finally, something resembling a rise appeared, or seemed to, as the disturbance was so slight. Altering position and sight lines confirmed there was, indeed, a periodic wrinkle, but yielded little beyond this. Was it a casual upwelling, or some vagary of current derived from the bank? Then, emphatically, a trout’s back and tail broke the surface, the arc as adamant as anything sculpted by Bernini.
The impact of this in such utter stillness—only a remote clatter of leaves intruded—was like watching a silent movie, the action hyper-vivid and so compelling it generated an internal sound.
Anyway, I made my move and did not come up two hours late, as is said, and a lovely brown was soon netted. Ebullient, I proceeded to botch the next several fish running with what appeared exceedingly minor flaws of technique. Did I mention fall is also when trout appear shrewdest and least forgiving? Pleasure telescoped the day and suddenly it was cold, with light rapidly fading. Easing from the river and clambering up a steep bank, I paused to collect icy watercress from a springhead, then broke down my gear.
A long drive home prompted consideration that, gas prices aside, I had journeyed eight hours to witness a handful of rises and catch a single trout, a box score guaranteed to occasion hokey cartoons and confirm fishermen in their notorious role as crap artists. In fact, I was buoyant, almost giddy, and intently planning a sequel. The evening road conjured a river. w