Some of the greatest memories of childhood, particularly for boys, come from fishing. How it usually plays out is father and son heading down to the lake or a nearby farm pond, spearing a worm at the end of a hook and then casting into the water, waiting for the bobber to plunge under the surface or for the tell-tale jerk of the pole tip saying, “fish on!”
Cherished memories, to say the least. But then there are other memories of fishing, those that don’t just stick with you, but affect you deeply. If you’re an angler of any sort, you know what I’m talking about: times when fishing went from being a passive outdoor activity to some more akin to a passion.
I’ve fished since I was a kid, but it wasn’t until I was a teen that fishing went from something fun to do to something with much greater resonance.
I think I was about 14 years old, and I was hiking around a river upstream of Taylor Park Reservoir in central Colorado. I was with my brother-in-law, Mark, who had long ago learned a thing or two plying Rocky Mountain streams for trout.
By then, I’d been plopping bait and lures into rivers and streams for some time, but probably in an uneducated, random fashion. Then something clicked.
Suddenly, I looked at the water a little differently. I examined the surface, the bend in the stream, the current. I began to understand how the manner in which the water flowed, and what it flowed past, would have a direct impact on where a fish’s food might be, and how it would get there.
It was as if the river were speaking to me.
Thinking along those lines, I directed my casts accordingly.
When most people talk about fishing for trout, they’re thinking of fly fishing. I don’t fly fish. I just haven’t learned it, and quite frankly, I’ve had enough success with spinners that learning the art of fly fishing hasn’t been real high on my priorities. Not that there’s anything wrong with fly fishing, the people who do it, or the potential enjoyment it might bring me. But for me, it’s somewhat like telemarking. I’ve already learned how to ski, and while telemarking looks artful and interesting, I just don’t see the need.
What I’ve learned, however, is that angling in mountain streams has certain properties that are rather universal, bridging the gap between baitcasting and fly fishing rather nicely. It’s good to know the fish, good to know what they eat, and good to know what they don’t like.
But it’s equally important to understand a trout’s habitat. If you can unlock the secrets of how the environment of the stream works, you can learn more than just what brings a trout to the dinner table. You can also learn just where the table should be set.
It wasn’t like I’d never caught trout out of a stream before, it’s just that in times past it was either by dumb luck or, more often, Mark or someone else pointing and saying, “Cast over there.”
At this point, he was somewhere else, looking for his own sweet spot along the riverbank. Here I was, just me and the river, communing silently. No one was pointing anything out, but I felt I was being told things as I looked it over. A bend in the river slowed water in one section, creating a deeper pool. Further downstream, the river straightened, had more riffles and became shallower. And then a boulder in its midst caused its own features: fast moving current to the sides, with a slow-moving, deep eddy in the rock’s downstream side.
It was a quiz. The river was asking me, “So where are you going to cast? Where do you think the fish are?”
Thinking it over, I made my choice.
One of the things I’ve learned is that the nature of a waterway will determine the behavior of a fish to a large extent. Like any wild animal, fish are consumed with eating. Every meal is crucial, and every calorie burned finding food is one that has to count.
This means that when picking a place to cast, you want to think, “Where are trout going to find their food?” The answer is that they will lurk in places where they can do as little chasing and as much eating as possible.
This puts trout in deep pools near the riverbank, in deeper pools immediately downstream of faster currents and in eddies caused by bends in the river or behind large objects, such as a boulder or a fallen tree.
Obviously, all bets are off in beaver ponds or other pond- and lake-like bodies of water. Other rules apply in those places. But in streams, the fish have a bounty of places to wait for bugs and smaller fish to stumble into their lairs. Each watery haunt needs a different strategy to reel one in.
Rather than casting into a calm-looking pool and hoping the shiny Panther-Martin would attract a fish, I decided to play the currents. I cast directly into a fast portion of the stream, then let the spinner drift quickly downstream, past the boulder, then down to the tail of the eddy formed by the presence of the rock.
A large enough obstacle in the water will force water to move around it very quickly, but the water immediately behind it has a sort of “vacuum” where a lack of pressure (caused by the current) makes it calmer. To me, it seemed like that might be a place where a fish might be waiting for smaller prey to come rushing past on the faster currents to other side of the boulder.
As soon as my lure swept past the eddy to its tail, I began my retrieval, giving it an uneven path through the eddy.
And then it struck.
Fishing on the Gunnison a few years ago, I was given ample opportunity to use my imagination. The Gunnison flows through the Black Canyon quickly, with many bends and turns. Being deep in a canyon, it’s also littered with the flotsam of fallen trees and geologic erosion.
Submerged trees and rocks do wonders in terms of creating trout habitat.
I found myself using three casting patterns for the Blue Fox Vibrax I had at the end of my line. On fast straightaways, I’d cast downstream in the middle of the current, let the bait drift toward the bank and then begin a slow retrieve, occasionally giving my rod tip a small pop. Fish pointed upstream will hear the struggle behind them, wait silently to get a side view of what’s coming, then pounce.
When fishing around those boulders, I’d cast straight across the river, then let the bait drift on the current before starting a moderate retrieval as the lure reached the tail of the eddy. The spinner presents itself just as it breaks out of the rapids and into calmer waters where hungry trout congregate. I think I’ve caught more fish this way than in any other manner.
But one of my favorite techniques happens in broader sections of the river where you might find multiple obstacles stuck in the middle of moderate currents. Here, I won’t bother trying to sneak up on the fish. I know they’re pointed upstream, hovering, and waiting for hapless prey to tumble their way either on the surface or just under. I’ll cast upstream, then immediately begin a fast retrieve. This is risky, as any slowdown in the retrieval will fail to activate the spinning action on the bait. Keep it fast enough, though, and all the fish sees is dinner barreling down at them from upstream. Predator instinct takes over, and then…
Boom. Fish on.
Somewhere in the depth of the eddy, a pan-sized rainbow trout rose, then took my spinner. It’s not like I hadn’t caught trout in a stream before, but having solved the puzzle of the river and hooked one of its shiny denizens made a real impact on me. I’d fished for years, and all that time the river had been speaking to me but I’d failed to hear.
This time, however, I listened. The river told me its secrets, and I comprehended the message. I did what it told me to do. And then it gave me a reward.
It’s hard to describe what such a revelation does for you. It’s not unlike the time when you’re a teen and you finally figure out what a woman wants to hear, deliver, and then it’s you, and not some other dude, who finally gets the girl.
I had a good day that day. That one lone rainbow wouldn’t be my last that morning. And the lessons I learned stuck with me. It’s rare that I go fishing in the mountains and not catch something. Some days are better than others, but some days – like that day on the Gunnison – are truly spectacular.
And not because I caught scores of fish or hauled out a trophy. Nope, definitely not that.
It has more to do with the fact that when the river speaks, I listen. And all these years later, I still understand.
On Twitter @RMHigh7088