It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see.
Henry David Thoreau
There were at least three types of caddis fluttering about. They danced and bounced across the surface, hovered close by, or crawled across the lenses of my sunglasses. I know there were at least three types, because this is the number of differently-sized, shaped, and colored caddis that simultaneously perched near the bottom guide on my fly rod. The largest was a dark mottling of grays and brown. The smallest was almost black, with long antennae. The mid-sized model was a mottled light gray, almost a peppery appearance. All three of them contented themselves, as long as I held still, with crawling around and around the shaft of my rod. I had a lot of time to closely examine them in between bouts of removing other, blurry ones from my glasses, but none of them were in a hurry and didn't seem the least bit nervous about my presence.
I should have taken a cue from this behavior, and later, rather than sooner, I did. I'd just finished working my way down one of my favorite fall runs, fishing my usual go-tos; all of my now increasingly wide-ranging types of swingable caddis imitations which according to my observations, experiences, and inclinations for this time of year have nearly always provided me with some great fishing. I repeat. Nearly.
So, you wonder, why the above picture of a diminutive, classically tied baetis, Steve?
Because about an hour later, as I stood pondering, by now quite frustrated, at the bottom of this particular favorite fall run of mine bemusedly perusing those three dissimilar caddis, I noticed, perched near the tip of my rod, a perfect, quite authentic number twenty-two baetis imago. I carefully lowered my rod, and brought the tip slowly, hand over hand, closer to me. And as I performed this as delicately as is possible(taking into account my current level of frustration), rings began to appear on the surface of the water just fifteen feet or so downstream from where I stood. Hm. And as I was about to start wondering what it was that these fish were rising to, and good Lord look at just how many fish are rising all of a sudden (because indeed it was just as if someone had flicked a switch), I bent forward a little, swatted away a cluster of fluttering caddis, and focused my aging, far-sighted eyes up and downstream along the bubble line I'd just worked.
And there they were. Baetis.
Thousands of them. A veritable carpet layering the surface, spinning this way and that in the convoluted hydraulic that carried them along. A river-wide flotilla of tiny mayflies silently, discreetly, sliding past me, some of them now getting airborne, escaping the grasp of the surface tension, while others were meeting unfortunate ends in the mouths of trout.
I looked at the sky and laughed. I really did. I stood there in the midst of all the rising fish and spinning, drifting baetis, tilted my head back, and laughed.
I'd been had. Big time. And I'd been had by none other than me. All the lessons that had supposedly found permanent purchase in my book of knowledge. The careful, patient methodry supposedly stitched together through practiced, careful adherence to the rules of observation. The understanding accumulated from years of trial, and error. All this ran through my head, as well as the creeping awareness that even as I was making all this supposed progress as a fisherman, I was also slowly, but steadily, blinding myself.
The large hat, while comfortable, will eventually slip down over the eyes.
I saw, as I waded into the top of that run, what I wanted to see. And then, having had my preliminary inclinations validated by the many visible caddis, got busy with what I took for granted to be the correct course of action. Little did it matter that prior to seeing the tiny baetis on the tip of my rod I had seen no surface activity. Little did it matter that if I would have been alert, I would have sensed that a change was in the air. I mention this, and deem it important enough to do so because of what else but prior experience. I've been there, experienced the 'calm before the storm', seen the river go from eerily quiet and empty to flush and vibrant.
There was still time. I lengthened my tippet, found the box with my tiny baetis, and with humbled, shaking hands set about the task of redemption, or more aptly, salvage.
But it was already almost too late. While the sheer numbers of baetis on the surface make for easy pickings by the trout, it adds a difficult dimension to fishing. Your artificial must very closely resemble the real deal, no matter what stage you are attempting to imitate. It must sit on or in the surface film and drift in just the right way. And even if you are successful in doing this, there is the one big unknown; will my fly be the one out of hundreds of bona fides that will be selected? I guess all I can say about that is yes, there is indeed this thing called luck. You can do everything right and your chances will improve, but yeah, a little luck definitely comes into play. I think, at this point in the hatch, that you can improve your chances by looking for rising fish that are separated from the others. Sometimes, however, these fish are in lies that can wreak havoc with a good drift. But, having said that, I have often found that these fish are worth it. They can be the biggest ones in a given area.
My attempt to salvage a modicum of success was short-lived. As prodigious and well-attended as the hatch was, it was all too brief. Even before the flotilla had wended its way downstream, the trout had decided enough was enough. My fly made several perfect, albeit fruitless passes down through various channels. At one point I counted six rings that appeared in close proximity as my drifting artificial was carried along. Like tiptoeing through a minefield. I applauded its successful journey, and reeled in my line. Today's lesson was a good one. One I'll not soon forget. And in that regard, I gave myself a treat, in that after all was said and done, I'd found a way to come away with a positive.
Be aware of your hat size.