Conversations With Will

I spent last night in Richards Bay. Having finished up what work I needed to do this morning I popped by the office of a friend to check in on him. 

In the process of chatting to him I discovered something pretty profound about my flyfishing. 

He’s had a fairly crappy year by most professional standards, has my mate, and I’ve been nudging him into joining me to cast a line. By nudging I mean bludgeoning him; digging my metaphorical elbows into his metaphorical ribs. Fishing a high altitude stream is my solution to all of life’s problems. Ok, maybe it’s a distraction more than a solution, but I honestly think that if George W and Saddam had have shared a morning on a stream then middle eastern politics would have left a lot less blood in the sand. 

This friend of mine is probably the nicest guy I know. Seriously. Some people are just good people; and he’s right up there. He’s always first with a smile and an encouraging word. The world would be a better place if there were more like him on it. I would be in a better place if I were more like him. 

Ideas regarding how to make a living from our various interests ping-ponged to and fro as our discussion meandered. I don’t think that our day jobs have been real interests for a long, long time now. Don’t raise an eyebrow, we’re anything but unique in this. 

We didn’t take long to settle in agreement on the idea that sometimes you do what you have to do during the day and you use what time is left for that which actually makes your heart beat slightly faster. We talked about some plans that he has for a sideline business that he is busy registering. I like that that the name of it is so important to him. Words define us and I know that ‘what’s in a name’ is, well, everything. 

I am really looking forward to him moving up to Pietermaritzburg early in the new year. Like every conversation I have with anyone lately the topic turned to the pursuit of trout and in this case his soon to be close proximity to them really fuelled the discussion. I insisted that I take him out onto some water just as soon as he’s settled. He has a rod lying somewhere but I don’t think that it’s been cast in years. 

He went on sort of sheepishly (I’ve heard this so many times before from anglers, artists and musicians) about how he hasn’t fished in ages. The next part that comes is always to dispel high expectations and to protect the ego – “the last time I went out I just enjoyed the mist off the water at sunrise more than anything. I love the quiet. But I never got into fish.”

You hear this so much from people – include me in this – who are wary of exposing their shortcomings to a cruelly judgmental world. It’s a really natural response to what we may see as performance anxiety of some kind. “You’d need to help me out with flies and stuff.  I have an idea that you need to look at what’s going on and match it and stuff, but I’d need some pointers.”, he continued. 

I interjected assertively. I have a fragile self esteem and I understand better than most do that it’s essential to dial down the heat sometimes. If you can remove the danger you can remove the need for defense. 

“I suppose”, I said to him, “that from time to time there is some selective feeding that you need to be aware of and to adjust to. But I prefer to fish small streams where hatches are irregular and are bitterly sparse. The fish will overwhelmingly take what it sees coming by over its head – provided that it looks and behaves reasonably naturally.”

Selective feeding in these places comes in a distant second to what I call ‘preferential feeding’. I don’t know whether this is a thing that actually happens or whether anyone else has noticed it, but I think that while trout in a small stream are not terribly picky about their diet they do have their favorites. 

This brand new theory of mine on preferential feeding states that a fish will rise to just about any life form floating down a small stream but that it prefers some over others. This is harder to explain than it should be but my observation is that certain types flies just work a little better a little more frequently. It’s not to say that the others don’t work at all, but some are just more accepted by the fish. Empirically I can offer you no proof to my assertion and that doesn’t even bother me – I like that about theories on a flyfishing, they just have to be right every so often to be acceptable to us. 

I suppose that it’s a bit like a hotel buffet – the cauliflower doesn’t get hammered nearly as frequently or as hard as the roast lamb. But it does get eaten and is never totally ignored. Don’t get ridiculous about this though, nobody ever touches the brussel sprouts and they won’t touch the fly that came with a R299 rod, reel, line and fly combo. You will get fish on the rod combo but you’re best throwing those flies away. 

“No”, I rambled on (as this idea crystallized in my consciousness I suddenly realized that I was speaking more to myself than to him), “success on a small stream within reason isn’t down to flies and gear, it’s about what you do when you arrive onto it. If I can suggest one thing it’s to stop casting so much.”

I wonder whether a flyfisher’s prowess has always been solely defined by their casting or whether this is a relatively new thing. 

Don’t misunderstand me, you have to be able to pull off a good enough cast frequently enough, but I’m getting a sense that rod marketing and the need to drive sales of the increasingly repetitive cycle of new models has made it all about the cast and the distance that you can achieve. As a result everyone lately seems to be laser-focussed on casting. They seem to forget about focussing on their fishing. Honestly, how many times a season (indeed, in a lifetime) will you need to cast half a flyline with a two weight? I suppose it’s nice to know that it can do it, but nah, it’s not necessary. Ask someone what their rod is like to fish with and they tell you how well casts; it’s not the same thing. 

“Get into position to make your cast count.”, I said settling into an evangelical posture and speaking far beyond my ken. “Make that one cast as perfectly as you can. This doesn’t suggest that your cast has to be perfect, I am an indifferent caster, but get it as good as you can get it.”

“You’re going to have to be awake and hyper-engaged to pull this off but there are some things that’ll help you.”

“Get into the water. Get out of those clunky waders. Lighten or remove your pack. Jettison anything that distracts you. Go into full leopard mode. Rest frequently to keep your concentration up when you are actually fishing.” 

“Look carefully at potential lies and try to figure them out. Study the water. You’re going to need to slow right down. Look for what you can’t immediately see until it reveals itself to you.” (I said with the bearing of an oriental sage.) “Brown trout are, for example, said to hold where you least expect them to be. I’m not so sure anymore that this is altogether true. I think that we just don’t look at the stream properly enough.”

“Being in the water allows you to see it as the fish would. Perhaps it’s parallax or a trick of the light but when you’re looking straight up the throat of a run it can look a lot different to how it did from the bank. ”

“You won’t get this level of application right every time. I don’t get it right very often at all, but when I do it is incredibly fulfilling.” 

“You see”, I continued, “when you’re keyed in and you’re thigh deep in a stream seeing and feeling and sensing the flows and the topography of the bottom and are finding lanes and the edges of shadows and undercuts you just become fundamentally connected to the stream. Not to the fish; to the stream. It is a special thing and you’ll know it when it happens.”

“Oh”, he replied, looking at me oddly and then grinning, “you should write that down.”


2 responses to “Conversations With Will

  1. Nice one Andrew and I agree with all you have commented on. On our rivers and streams with only sporadic and sparse hatches, the trout seldom feed selectively to exclusion of all else in my experience and usually will eat just about any familiar bug – what it has eaten more regularly and enjoyed will be the first choice. This is why we should be carrying 6 flies – 1 nymph and 5 dries ….. just saying!

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