Listening to the River

Jim McLennan

Fly-fishing is simple. All we're trying to do is imitate the fish's natural food with our artificial fly. There are three steps. First we choose a fly that represents the item the fish are currently eating. Then we put the fly in a place where the fish are eating it. Finally we make the fly behave like that natural food item. Okay, maybe simple isn't exactly the right word, because each step comes with a question: What are they eating? Where are they eating it? How does it behave? Finding and using the answers to these questions is the process of fly-fishing. So where do the answers come from? These days they come from many places – books, magazines, fishing clubs, fishing friends, the Internet. There is so much information available to fly fishers today that there's no reason not to be armed with some of it when you leave home.

This pre-trip research is good and useful, but it is not listening to the river. Listening to the river begins when you are close enough to hear what it is saying. All plans and intentions should be considered starting points only. The river and the fish have the power and right to trump all plans. If the information you got from the Internet is a week old, things may have changed by the time you get to the river. Water conditions might be different or the hatch that gave the Internet reporter great fishing may now be over. Or, perish the thought, the Internet reporter may have been stretching the truth.

Observation is one of the cornerstones of fly fishing, so when you get to water you haven't seen in awhile take a moment to look around. What is the water level? Is it high, low, normal? You can get this information from the Internet too, but give more credence to how it looks when you're standing next to it. Then, what is the water temperature? I ask this question nearly every time someone tells me about a recent fishing trip, and nearly every time they say they didn't take the water temperature. This is odd, first because water temperature is a huge factor in trout's behaviour, and second because I know these guys carry every fly fishing gadget known to man, including thermometers. When the water temperature is below about 4 degrees C. trout move into slower, deeper water. When the temperature is above about 20 degrees C. they move into faster, broken water where there is a higher level of dissolved oxygen. In the heat of summer we should fish early in the morning when the water is at its coolest, and in early spring and late fall we should fish in the afternoon when the water is at its warmest.

Also consider the clarity of both the water and the sky. Rainbow and brown trout are less nervous about being seen by predators and feed more eagerly if one or the other is cloudy. If the visibility in the water is less than a foot though, it becomes a handicap to the fly fisher.

Some of the things you observe when you're fishing are obvious – a heavy hatch of big flies, a pod of rising fish. But some are subtle. You might see a swarm of mayfly spinners dancing over a riffle, for instance. The spinners are preparing to lay eggs, after which the females will fall to the surface of the water. So swarms of spinners in the air can be a forecast of rising fish in an hour or so. Or, you see stonefly shucks on the rocks along the edge of the water. This means that both stonefly adults and nymphs are probably current trout foods. You might suddenly notice birds active at the surface of the water. Watch one bird closely. If it flies low and occasionally reaches down to pluck something off the surface of the water, there are bugs there. If there are a lot of birds doing this – swallows or gulls most likely – it means there are a lot of bugs on the surface. Guess what other creatures might be taking advantage of a chance for an easy meal?

Noticing these kinds of things is good, but seeking them out is better. Shake a few bushes as you walk along the river and watch what falls out and flies away. Look at spider webs to see what insects are trapped there. Check the radiator of your car to see what kinds of bugs you drove through on the way to the water.

When you're near the stream always keep one eye on the water. You might see a rise that you didn't expect. Also learn to look through the surface and down into the water. Every now and then you'll spot a fish that you would otherwise spook. When you lay down on the bank to have a nap, keep one ear out for the sound of a rising fish.

Fly-fishing's two eternal questions are "How long should I stay in one spot?" and "When should I change flies?" The short answer to both is this: If what you're doing isn't working, change something fairly quickly. That something can be the fly, the method or the place where you're standing. Or, you can change fish by moving to a completely new spot on the stream. The worst thing to do is stand in one place for hours and repeat something that isn't working. A big part of listening to the river is realizing when it's telling you to stop doing what you're doing and try something else.

One of the most skilled fly fishers anywhere is George Anderson of Livingston, Montana. Just watching George can wear you out. He's constantly on the move and nearly always tinkering with his terminal tackle. If he's nymphing he's adding weight, removing weight, changing flies, changing his position. If he's fishing to rising fish he makes only three or four casts before changing the fly. George is a superb caster and reader of water, and as a result probably makes perfect presentations six times in eight casts. The rest of us need more chances so we shouldn't change as quickly as he does, but there's still a great lesson in this. If the fish doesn't take on the first three or four perfect drifts, the next fifty or hundred won't convince it to either.

If fish are rising, but you can't fool them with an imitation of the bug you think they're eating, use a fine screen to take a sample from the surface of the water. Catch some bugs from the same line of current the fish are feeding in and you'll get a close look at what's on the menu. This might surprise you. You might find a different stage or species of insect than you expected, or there might be something big and obvious on the water along with something small and unnoticeable. It's amazing how often trout prefer small and unnoticeable over big and obvious. Sampling the water is a simple thing, yet few fly fishers do it.

Lest you think I follow my own advice, let me tell you a little story. I fished the Missouri River earlier this summer, and the internet reports said the caddis fishing in the evenings was exceptional. About 8:00 pm I parked the van, rigged up with a size 16 CDC caddis and walked up the river. Sure enough there were swarms of caddis buzzing just above the water. I found a fish rising and cast the caddis over him expectantly, but with less than the desired result. I repeated this performance with numerous fish. At one point I did notice that although there were millions of caddis flies in the air, there didn't seem to be any on the water. The fish were feeding on something else, but I didn't change my fly because I was sure the trout had to start eating caddis at any moment. But they didn't. They didn't eat caddis because there were never any caddis on the water. By the time I was ready to accept this fact it was too dark to change flies. The next day I stopped in at the fly shop in Craig and told my sad tale. "That's too bad," the guy behind the counter said. "We went out for an hour after work last night. They weren't eating caddis, but man did we kill 'em on rusty spinners." Oops. I guess I wasn't listening.

A big part of the satisfaction in fly-fishing comes from solving these kinds of puzzles ("breaking the code," as I've heard it described by a fly fisher from an earlier era.) It's fairly easy to learn the mechanical skills of various fly-fishing methods, but the art comes with knowing when to do what. This involves gathering information, observing circumstances and listening to the river. A trout stream speaks quietly – often in riddles, puzzles, and rhetorical questions – but speak it does. Listen.