May 16, 2011

The Box

Reality is a sliding door.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

I'd again chosen to fish the other side. Actually, a threatening sky and the tempermental winds out of the south accompanying my arrival had aided me in that decision. And as the hours ticked past, it turned out to be a rather wise one, but not because of the weather which was to phase into a decidedly beautiful day.
It's early in the turnover stage at the creek. Last year's ubiquitous growth of water-borne vegetation, now dead and brown, is slowly being loosened by the warming sun and longer daylight hours. The new growth helps to break it loose and it drifts downstream. As the sunlight warms the creek in days to come, the volume of detritus floating past will make it increasingly difficult to get a fly into the water without it becoming tangled in or coated by the slimy dead stuff. Casting will become an exercise in precision, seeking out those few open areas inside which a fly will at least enter the water cleanly. Trouble with that approach is that below the surface, it may an altogether different story. The flow distributes the muck evenly from top to bottom. So, even though you have dropped your fly cleanly in the middle of open water, and unless the fly either sinks very fast or continues its floating drift in the middle of that same area, you'll be shaking off the clinging dead stuff after almost every cast. And as many of you already know, especially when it involves very finicky, sun-shy trout, even the smallest particle of non-substantive material on your fly is enough reason for them to pass on it, no matter how well you have matched whatever it is that they are eating. It can be more than frustrating.
So if I decide I'm going to fish dry, I better be in one of the few areas where the flows are fast enough to isolate more than just a few open areas of water, but the trouble with this approach is that that's not always where the fish are. In fact, I've found that foraging fish often shadow these drifting hunks of goo, casually scooping up any tasty morsels that occasionally drop away from, or still reside in them. They're like mobile diners/shelters, providing cover as well as food.
This process usually takes a couple of weeks to run its course, but today I will have, until well into the afternoon, lots of open water to work with. One of the keys, as this process progresses, is to be fishing as early as possible. That allows for a few hours of relatively gunk-free fishing each day. As the passing days warm and 'turnover' reaches its peak, that optimum time span in the early morning will shrink radically.
I choose a muddy point marked by only a few tattered stands of cattails from where I have command of several feet of casting area and nearly a hundred yards of water. My usual routine of starting up much higher on the creek and ending here was tossed when I saw that the 'turnover' had begun. That and the fact that no matter how early I leave home in the morning now I just can't seem to get here before the sun comes up. That event alone takes several fly choices out of the program, namely my articulated leech. When the sun hits the water, put away the leech patterns, unless you want to search for the one fish in every two hundred feet of water that's willing to chase it. But by and large, when the sun lights up the reeds and rushes on the north side of the creek, it's too late. The fish are hunkering, waiting for the next course, which will usually be midges or blue-winged olives, while some foragers are in the meantime tearing through the new vegetation for scuds, sowbugs, and chironomids, meaning that it's time to think smaller, and more scientifically, when the sun comes.
That's why I chose the title for this post. But don't let that fool you.

Everybody's 'box' has a different shape, color, and size. There are no two that are alike. Each of our boxes fits somewhat neatly around the sets of experiences and notions (pre-conceived or not) that we have developed throughout our years of fishing for each and every place we may frequent per times of the year. Contained in our 'boxes' are not only the concrete manifestations of our experiences but also the intrinsics, the intangibles; the stuff of how we fish, how we think about fishing, what and why we comprehend what we do, and how we put it all together into our process.

There are times when, on occasion, our boxes will appear to be somewhat related. I think that this occurs more often with the accumulation of similar sets of experiences, and is usually an aggregate of many years of knowledge. But, even though we may agree in broader terms of what to use, that's just about where any semblance of similarity ends. For me, this is one of the more (if not the most) fascinating aspects of fishing with a fly. It's also the reason you'll find such a wide variety of flies, methods, and thought processes at work wherever even time-tested folks fish with flies.
But, let's get back to the fishing, particularly this day.

My choice of fly (having disregarded the impulse to strip the leech anyway despite the sun) was an easy one, based on the success I'd enjoyed with it the previous week in about the same time frame. My soft hackle. I was sure that I'd pick right up where I left off last week, hooking big fish after big fish, but after a half hour of casting and trying many styles of retrieve, I'd as yet had no action. Interesting, and yet so normal. I knew it wasn't a one-hit wonder, and so then pondered just what I use next.

My 'box' is full of the systemic interactions of 'what ifs' played out against the experientially immediate reality of now. A scud seemed to be the logical next step, so I went to my vest pocket, pulled out a box and opened the scud section, but then stopped. Sitting on the back of my hand was a midge. My attention turned back to the water, and after a moment or two of observation, I respooled my line and played on a hunch, moving downstream several hundred feet to a section of faster water broken by a series of rocks. A perfect (in my eyes) place for a chironomid, a brown one with a silver rib, drifted under an indicator. Put the fly upstream just above the rocks and let it drift down, with the current pulling it around the rocky outcropping.
The indicator bobbed and then submerged. I lifted my rod, but felt nothing. Another cast, and the same result. Tentative takes, I deduced, based on what was in my 'box'. I then stepped out of it a bit, deciding that I'd add another chironomid to the mix. I tied a similar, albeit slightly darker one below the first. Maybe there's success in numbers, a theory I'd frequently entertained, but had been reluctant to subscribe to up until now.
The next drift had barely begun when the indicator suddenly disappeared. I felt the weight of a good fish, and battled him carefully. Three-pound test tippet will demand that; patiently absorbing his runs and head shaking until finally bringing him to hand. Another cast, and the same result. It went on like this for a good hour. I hooked, landed, and released many fish, all the while being sure after every other fish to re-tie my set-up. But, eventually, I got lazy, chose not to re-tie, and lost my bottom fly. I wondered if two really were better than one, and cast the lone chironomid several times, not surprised that the takes were fewer and much less violent before again adding a second chironomid similar to the one I'd lost back into the equation. I was again rewarded consistently for the next half hour.

And then, as is so often the case, it was as though some one (or some thing) had suddenly flipped the switch. It was palpable.The energy level had changed. Dropped right off the scale. Drift after drift with no activity.

I respooled my fly line, observing the water again. There were still thousands of midges in the air, clustering in the air where it was out of the wind, but I sensed that a change in location and fly were in order. I returned upstream to my original location, using the travel time to ponder my next move.

I'd all but decided to drift the same set-up through the slower, deeper water that ran by me, though I had reservations about this method now, especially here. I could see many trout cruising upstream and then down again, occasionally darting this way and that, their mouths opening and closing...

Scuds. I clipped off the light tippet, returned the chironomids to their section, went again to my scuds, and had an idea; if two chironomids had proved more attractive than one, could the same be true for scuds? Hm. I got to work. A larger, more lightly colored scud on top (point) with a smaller, heavier, much darker one on the bottom, about a foot apart. I cast short, slightly upstream and waited for them to sink. I didn't have long to wait. It was crazy. For the next couple of hours it was crazy. Fish after fish. I fished from this one position. And they all ate the bottom, darker scud. Most of the takes were within eyesight. I was able to see the scud, see the take. And even when I couldn't, the takes were so aggressive that nearly all the hook-ups were solid.

My 'box' had been expanded a few weeks ago when I'd been forced by the brutally hard winds that day to abandon fishing. I'd then taken some time to search out and hopefully collect specimens of some of the food sources available to these trout. My findings, for the most part, were in accordance with what I'd surmised without having first-hand knowledge. But, it was what I had not known until I took the time to see for myself that provided the structure for this success. I'd hit upon this in an earlier post, but the real significance didn't make itself apparent until I finally leaned on that new-found knowledge hard enough to actually put it to use. The color of the scuds was infinitely darker than the color I'd long thought was right. It was incredible, the difference. My choice of colors was the product of my limited success here with scuds, and mostly (I hate saying this) the result of looking at too many imitations of scuds that I'd seen in many fly shops and read about in several publications. Turns out that they were not even closely similar in color (or size) to what I'd found in my 'research' here. And, to take that a step further, even after tying several scuds with 'correct' color, I was hesitant to implement them, choosing marginal success over change. The 'box' imprisoned me.

In a few weeks, mother nature permitting, I will be back in my river. But I think I will be fishing it with a better 'box' now. The lessons I've learned in my time away from there will be of inestimable value. They will extend far beyond the locale and the specific realm with which they dealt. And, it seems that finally I have acquired the patience necessary with which to deal with the idea that indeed I have as much still to learn as I have already learned. For that I am grateful, because I am also, maybe because I am finally old enough to really see, that even though the gift of fishing consistently well with a fly can be either bought or acquired, I'll take the latter. I'll gladly take the latter. It's so much more satisfying.
Every box is different. I'm proud of mine. I built it myself.

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