Unfocused Fly Fishing

. . . it takes several years of serious fishing before a man learns enough to go through a whole season with an unblemished record of physical and spiritual anguish.

Ed Zern, Are Fishermen People? (1951) Quote taken from Nick Lyons, The Quotable Fisherman

No truer words have ever been spoken! Ask any unsuccessful angler what happened and you’ll get a double earful. Too sunny! Too cloudy! Too hot! Too cold! Rising barometer! Leaky waders. The list goes on and on. Why, to hear them talk, the day was doomed from the moment they started, and tomorrow . . . . . . . well, tomorrow is even worse.

We’re not going to catch fish every time we hit the water. That’s a given. Some days, for whatever reason, you just suck! The first cast you make spooks 5 trout you didn’t see. Your dry fly lands 4 feet wide left, and leaves rings because your presentation was so “light”. Your jig nymph, even inverted as it rides, seems to find every submerged branch in the river. You pop flies off on your back cast, or snap so hard the indicator flies off. You drop fly boxes in the river, and lose your forceps. Again. Every mosquito seems to be telling you, maybe I should be on the golf course, or cutting the grass.

And you can’t fall back on your standard reason any more. You’ve been at this for a while. You’ve done your research, reading books and online with the Mangler’s Resource Pages. You fish 50 days a year, and know things now. You’ve tasted the heady champagne of success, and it was good! What happened?

You’re not a novice anymore! You can’t say I’m just learning. You’ve climbed that hill. Of course, you never do stop learning, that’s the joy of this sport. But the days of everything being new are gone. You no longer rejoice at tying a Surgeon’s Knot on the first try .You know it’s PMD’s on the water, the Goldens will be there later, and if you make it, the Pale Evening Duns fly at dusk. You have the knowledge to succeed. What a double edged sword!

We all know mid summer clouds are magic. (Cloud Day)We plan our days to be on the water when conditions are perfect. Yet the sum of our day is measured in single digits, in both fish length and count. We pounded the water to a frothy lather, we delved deep in the vest for last years magic, changed tippet, leader and tactics. We got squat.

And then the knowledge starts to come out, slowly and painfully! It’s a full moon- the fish were feeding all night and now they’re sated and not moving in the day. I knew that! Why wasn’t I out last night!! A new weather front came in, and trout hate barometric change. I know this! I had oatmeal for breakfast. I never catch fish when I have oatmeal for breakfast! How could I have been so stupid!

The list grows. Every minute on the water seems to reinforce another reason for tiddlers, one dink every three hours. You’re sunburned, because you took the sunscreen out of the bag to make room for that new box of killer flies. You forgot to hydrate, and there’s nothing more annoying than to be thirsty surrounded by water! How can I fish with all these problems! This never happened before. I know what I’m doing. Why, just 4 years ago, I took 18 fish out of this stretch in just under two hours.

Woe is me!

And visions of 7 irons dance in your head. You haven’t had the mountain bike out for a spin in quite some time. And yes, if asked, maybe, just maybe, the garden could use a little weeding, and the garage could be tidied up. You haven’t been able to park in it for two months, so it might be time to clear a little space.

Your feet don’t listen. It’s like they have a mind of their own. They shuffle a little further up the river, taking care not to disturb the water. Your mind goes into overdrive. If the weeds are growing, so’s everything else. Last time I golfed, my idiot cousin almost beaned me with his crappy slice. And it’s summer. The car is fine in the driveway.

You twist another fly on. It comes from the box that replaced the sunscreen. You take two baby steps, and then tiny third. Flick, and the fly is air born, cutting through the air with the grace and skill you’ve worked long and hard to attain. You can see the spot 35 feet above you, where the bright silver water drops off to dark green, just below a dancing riffle. At the last moment, just as the fly is about to hit the water, you twist your wrist and make a left reach cast. The fly lands, two feet above the prime spot, with just enough slack to float exactly as you’d planned, using all the skill you’ve gained on the water, all the guile you’ve worked so hard to learn, and starts it’s float to the zone. . . . . . .

You know every reason why it’s not going to work. Too hot! Wrong tippet! Should have mended right! Full moon! Oatmeal!

Your brain, locked in the cranium and covered by a hat so ugly a guy at the put-in offered to loan you a different one, is babbling excuses like a drunk husband coming home at 3:00 AM.  But just like his wife, you’re not listening to that BS! You’re listening to your feet, you’re listening to the feel of the rod, you’re listening to that little voice, located way under the drone of non-stop negativity, saying, just one more cast. Just one more, and then I weed.

Just one more, and then I maybe I’ll get the mountain bike out.

Just one more cast. . . . . . .

Because you know every reason why you shouldn’t be on the water. All those lessons learned- some the hard way, some the easy way. All molding an angler who has savored great success, and choked down bitter failure. An angler who’s put in his time, and found out that there’s only one lesson that really counts. It’s the tenet they learned first,  the most important knowledge any angler ever gains. No matter what else is lodged in the fishing brain, screaming out one more rationalization for another fishless cast, another fishless day, fishless week, month. . . . . .


Yeah, it’s too cold. Too this, too that. But we go anyway. Because it’s what we do. Because we honor the first lesson. Because the essence of all angling, the spark that drives the first lesson home is hope. We know all the reasons not to go, but then the most powerful force in the fly fisherman’s arsenal takes over. We remember a 100 degree August day 7 years ago when we crushed with ants. A March day in a white out, with every trout in the river eating Skwalas. Shouldn’t have been out then either.

But we were