Visiting the great state of Michigan this past weekend, I found myself up at the crack of dawn both days, out looking for fish.
Saturday morning I was up after a short nap of 5 hours, gulping down coffee and a breakfast sandwich. A half hour later I was at the Rogue River, a cold-water stream full of rainbows, brownies, and smallmouth bass. I hiked along the path, found a put-in, and made my way toward the water.
The very first thing I did was fell in.
There was a log I didn’t notice- I stepped right on it, it’s slippery surface taking my foot by surprise… I slid backwards, slowly, until I found myself falling backwards into the cold, cold river.
It was only for a moment; I got myself back up quickly, shook it out, and was back to the task at hand. Finding trout. I crossed the river to get to the path on the other side, and started walking.
I didn’t fish any nice-looking spots as I hiked; I was headed toward the fishiest spots on this stretch. Spots with riffles and eddies and nice scum lines, where my buddy Rob first showed me how to fly cast a couple months ago. Where I caught my first rainbow on the fly.
I enjoyed hiking through the woods, everything covered with cold dew, fog rising up and creating rays of sun like some kind of nature movie. I entered the water again, this time I was extra-careful to avoid falling in the water. I was already wet, didn’t need to get wetter.
My fly rod in hand, a hopper tied to the end, I slowly and carefully stalked toward the fishy water.
I brought only my fly rod- no spinning gear today- to do my best impression of a real trout angler. My goal was to catch a trout, this time without a guide. Could I figure out where this mysterious species would be hiding this morning? Could I be stealthy enough to to avoid spooking them? Would I pick the right fly at the right time in the right place to convince them it was food they wanted?
Trout seem different than other fish. Reading books on fly fishing, fly fishing message boards, the overall feeling I get is these fish are very hard to catch. Not like smallies, who seem easy to catch as long as you are in the general area. They don’t seem to spook like the books say trout do. Smallies don’t care if you have a badly tied knot on your leader, but I wondered if the trout would appreciate the 20 minutes I spent in my car trying to tie a damn nail knot without a nail.
I identified a spot, downstream of some riffles and obstructions, with a nice little eddy. I was pretty sure this is where I caught my first few trout on the fly. I know there is no reason they would still be there, just because they were there before… But it was a place to start.
As I always do whenever I try to fly cast, I felt like a complete amateur. The words like “graceful,” “serene” and “relaxing” that are often used to describe fly casting had no place in what was happening this morning. “Chucking,” “tossing” and “splashing” came to mind. I still don’t quite have the hang of it; my line does not line up in front of me, it piles together like rope on a poorly-run pirate ship. My flies don’t gently land on the water; usually the floating fly line slaps down first, followed by a secondary explosion of the fly.
This technique, however rough, is great on green sunfish. They seem to think of the splash as the dinner bell.
These trout, probably not so much. The internet and the books say to be gentle, so I tried to be gentle.
And then there was the whole “drag-free float” thing. Apparently, when you’re fishing dry flies (flies that float on the top of the water) you want to make sure they float naturally, as if they were not connected to your line. The trout can tell. If they notice a grasshopper or a caddis floating in a weird way, they won’t touch it, say the books. I kept forgetting to lift up my rod, getting the extra fly line off the surface to help avoid drag.
All of the sudden a trout rises for my hopper, I catch a glimpse of beautiful silver, and the fish misses and disappears into what I imagine was 10″ of water. It’s amazing how they can hide- looking at the little spot through the perfectly clear water, I was astonished I couldn’t see any fish. There was at least one there, and yet I couldn’t see it!
But I got a trout to rise!
Accomplishing my first goal, to actually find the trout, I continued trying to accomplish my second: land one. I missed another fish in that eddy (perhaps the same fish?) but after that they wouldn’t rise for my fly. I moved downstream, working the whole scum line, all the little eddies, under all the tree branches… It seems like with these fish, these wary trout, you only get one chance to trick them. Once they’re on to you, they stop biting.
I missed another two, I think they were rainbows, farther downstream in the same type of spot. Right next to very fast water, tucked in just behind a big boulder or tree limb in the water, in a tiny eddy about 3′ wide. Eventually I reached the end of the riffles and found myself in much deeper water that stretched for 100′ or so. Was that a pool? Or maybe it was a run? There is still so much river terminology I need to learn.
The pool or run or whatever it was was too deep for me to wade, so I waded to the bank to get back on the path. I hiked downstream, fished more eddies, but couldn’t find anymore fish. I decided to change tactics; tie on a streamer. You know, one of those flies that is supposed to sink and swim through the water, emulating little minnows or crayfish. I tied on my best impression of a clouser minnow, which I tied after hearing smallies on the Fox will take those. Of course I didn’t have quite the right materials, so instead of bucktail I used feathers.
Something I learned this weekend is feathers float, and bucktail does not. That explains why I had such a hard time getting my homemade streamer down to the bottom of the stream where I thought the fish were. All the feathers I added were making it float!
It was probably a blessing in disguise, however. Since the minnow floated, it nicely avoided snags and rocks that would have greedily gobbled up my handiwork.
After casting the streamer upstream and letting it drift with the current, it circled around and ended up facing me directly downstream of where I was standing at the head of some riffles. I let it sit there for a bit, hoping it would appear like a minnow trying to hang out in the current.
And then I saw a fish, this time a more tan flash, come up and grab my streamer and swim away with it downstream. The white feathers disappeared and my line started to go downstream. Fish! Fish on!
But when I tightened the slack in the line, the fish was gone. The fish, which I imagined was a brown trout, was too smart for me. He knew it was just some floating feathers and nail polish, it didn’t take him long to figure that out. He was gone; going to warn all his friends and relatives about me.
I didn’t catch any fish, nor did I almost catch any more fish. I blame that trout that tasted my streamer for a few seconds.
I hiked back to the car, completely satisfied however. I did in fact find the fish, and I did- somehow- present them with some flies they were interested in taking. At least on the first cast or two. I got a lot of casting practice in, I learned more about reading the water, and learned that little trout that grab your streamers are jerks.