A Good Day on the River

My favorite nearby place to fish is a spot about 30 minutes away from my house. This means that today, with the sun setting at around 6pm, I can get in about 3 or 4 hours of fishing on the river if I can get my work done quickly enough. I text my kids that they should make their own way home from school. As much as I miss their chubby cheeks from their early years, fly fishing wouldn’t happen nearly as much as it does if they hadn’t graduated to a higher level of self-care.

Before I leave the house I check the USGS website and notice that the river temperature is the coldest it has been in 10 days, having dropped 5 or 6 degrees to barely above 40F – about equal to the predicted high air temperature. It even snowed a couple of days ago and there’s still some of it on the ground. My favorite thing to do at this spot is to swing a sculpzilla(ish) pattern through the different runs, but I’m sure the fish are made lethargic by the drop in temperature.  My bet is that I’ll have to slap them in the face with a nymph to get them to eat. I don’t like nymphing very much, but what can you do when most of what a fish eats is under the water? I put two floating-line 5-weights in the car – one set up for nymphing and the other with a 5 foot sink tip for swinging streamers.  I know myself – after a certain amount of time lobbing a bobber around a river, I usually get fed up and switch to swinging streamers, productivity be damned.

The sexy snail fly

I arrive at the river and decide to try out a new fly I had tied the evening before.  I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s a… snail imitation.  Sexy, right?  More like a black blob on a jig hook I created by wrapping some black leg material round and round and then slopping on some thick UV for a shell-like finish.  I’m trying it out because when I open the stomachs of the (hatchery) fish I take from this river during the winter I always find a gut full of snails.  I don’t know if they eat them by picking them out of the current or if they just pluck them off the rocks when they get hungry, but I figure that matching what they eat can’t be a bad idea. And figuring out what works is a big part of the fun.

With the heavy snail fly as anchor and a size 16 S&M nymph tied about twelve inches up, I adjust the 1/2″ indicator to match the pool depth of the first run and cast out.  I cover all the lanes with nary a bump.  I swing a blue and black streamer afterwards with similar results.  This first run is pretty slow when the water is low like this, so I wasn’t expecting much, but it’s amazing how quickly my confidence drops in a fly when I don’t get a nibble.  Nothing on the S&M nymph either, but I’m thinking that could be because it’s too far off the bottom.

I move downstream a hundred yards, adjust my indicator, and cover the pool.  Nothing.  Maybe snails are a meal of last resort, and not worth it to a trout to burn calories to grab out of the current.  Twenty minutes has passed since I arrived, and I decide to bench the snail. In it’s place I tie on a new a anchor: a size 16 prince. I immediately begin hooking fish in the same lanes where the snail fly had passed through with nary a bump.  As the water is low, it doesn’t take much to disturb the pool and after hooking two trout and bringing a mountain whitefish to hand I move on to the next one.  There, again, I hook several trout on the prince.  All of them come unbuttoned before I can bring them in, which I attribute to my small hook and bad luck (and certainly not to my skill in fighting fish!).  My disappointment in not bringing the fish all the way in is more than offset by the satisfaction of having figured out the puzzle, though. It’s usually not that easy. How many times have I changed flies 3, 4 or 5 times only to remain flummoxed as to what the fish are eating?  More times than I would like to admit in print.

The last pool I fish in this section of the river is deeper and very slow. The water is glassy, and I wade in very slowly, like a crane, to avoid casting ripples through it. While I have been hooking fish on the small prince, I decide that casting an indicator rig on this water will be a pain in the ass, and switch to the rod with the sink tip.  The water is also clearer than it has been, so I remove the shiny blue/black streamer and put on an olive-green sculpzilla for a more subtle presentation.  I work downstream covering the water with very slow swings.  I’m surprised to get several noncommital bumps. After 20 minutes I have hooked two fish that quickly come unbuttoned. I guess 40F isn’t that cold, after all.  Finally, just before the end of the pool, I bring in a twelve inch wild rainbow and then release him.  So satisfying.

I exit the river and drive down a short way to the next section that I like to fish.  The lower water allows me to wade a continuous stretch of the river that has little bank access and so gets less pressure.  That lack of pressure, or perhaps that it was now late afternoon and the water had hit it’s temperature apex, brought the fish alive.  I put my nymphing rig on the bank and swung my sculpzilla through 200 yards of water, and caught 8 fish, five of them hatchery (pictured).  This is unusual, I usually catch four native to every one hatchery fish in this river.  But I’m not complaining. At 5pm I cleaned my fish and after almost forgetting my nymphing rod on the bank, I packed up and headed home, stopping at my mother-in-law’s apartment to drop off the fish.

This is what I call a “good day.”