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Feeding the Trees at Humility Creek

Should I ever become master of this creek, I'll surely give up fly fishing.

Feeding the Trees at Humility Creek

(Al Hassall art)

This article was originally title "Humility Creek" in the Feb-March 2011 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.

Humility Creek is not its real name. It’s just a better name. Besides, if I used its real name, you might recognize the stream.

Let me describe Humility Creek and you’ll understand. For starters, casting here reminds me of throwing a thread through a straw. The trees on Humility Creek reach across to shake hands, leaving a narrow, crooked tunnel underneath. Going forward and back, your line has to unfurl inside this feathery channel of branches. Typically, this must be attempted while hunched over, peering around some obstacle, and casting across your body.

In some cases, my casts are not so much across my body as they are horizontal levitations that would have inspired Houdini. Just high enough to clear the surface, low enough to drop under branches, narrow enough to stay off the banks, and long enough to reach the fish. Houdini had it easy.

Moving your rod back and forth vertically would be like trying to cut firewood with graphite. Often, a dead branch will angle down, dry and crisp, good for kindling but horrible on a rod tip. Gnarled and bleached as bone, these branches never enter your field of view until you have a bad reason to look up. Generally, I fish rods with unconditional guarantees on Humility Creek.

To make matters even more challenging, these trees were genetically crossed—eons ago—with Venus fly traps. In particular, the hemlocks can snare the smallest fly with their outstretched fingers, closing their grasp around them like the bug-eating plant engulfs a moth. If you fish a fly with a dropper, the fingers of these branches can tie a knot with them before you can turn around to witness it. Invariably, it will be a foot beyond your reach.

I still remember my first trip to Humility Creek. I developed a metric that says everything about my day on the stream. It’s the “Tree-to-Fish Ratio.” Just divide your tree catch number by your fish number. Mine that first day was a ten in favor of the trees. It has since improved, but only because I have moved each side of the ratio slightly in the right direction.

I have come to appreciate four-inch rainbows, if not for their color, at least for their contribution to the denominator of this ratio. On a really bad day, I’ll resort to fishing small riffles where only miniature rainbows might live. Counting each fish as one regardless of size was a stroke of genius I had when developing the ratio. That way, I don’t need lunkers to bail me out. Small fish work just fine. Of course, on the flip side, going skunked runs the Tree-to-Fish Ratio to infinity.

Calling the water of Humility Creek clear is like saying Tiger Woods can swing a club. Pouring gin into it would make it cloudier. So tactics here often rely on strategic uses of poor visibility. For example, riffles help a bit, but when I feel the need to cheat, I go deeper into the woods and fish in the shadows. Better yet, I pray for rain. Surface distortion and an influx of drowned terrestrials will bring the browns out like sharks in a cheap movie. Rewarding as this can be, I know I’m cheating.

When dry weather sets in, you practically need to fish the pools from somewhere in the next county. If you set off a ripple before casting, you might as well chuck basketball-size rocks into the center of the pool. At least with rocks you have an odd chance of scaring a fish into running itself aground trying to get away.

The rocks on Humility Creek also have an interesting feature: round bottoms like a rocking chair. Whenever you step on one, it tilts first forward and then back until you overcompensate in one direction or the other and take a big sloshing step into the pool you just spent fifteen minutes sneaking up on. And if you manage to find your balance, it’s because the grinding of the rock created some traction at a decibel level that even you could hear despite the rock being two feet under the surface. The possibility of a fish not spooking would depend upon it being hard of hearing.

Feeding the Trees at Humility Creek
(Al Hassall art)

Certainly, I want to take nothing away from the fish. You would need to go back many generations to find one with a hatchery birth certificate. Multiple generations of dodging herons, scooting away from otters, and tantalizing fishermen have given them skittish reflexes and the ability to see through the speckles on their tails.


Low profile hardly describes the required approach to these fish. You’ll wear out the knees of your waders on this stream long before the boots go. At times, I’ve slithered in under a bank so low that I’ve looked up to see a snake.

To catch one of these trout, I’ve resorted to fishing flies I judge to be smaller than the one used by the guy before me. To live on bugs this small, these fish survive on the equivalent of Nutrisystems by Orvis. The good news is that you can tie a lot of midges with a small amount of tying materials. And I need to tie a lot, since trees eat small flies as readily as larger ones. But repetitive surface sippers are the mainstay and on a good day, they may just mistake my offering of lint on a hook for food.

With fish this smart, and water this clear, you need advanced math to decipher the Xs on the tippet label. Longer than my rod and finer than an inchworm’s thread, my leader is designed more for tree tangles than fish fights.

Building leaders that roll out soft and straight is not so much engineering as it is mysticism. When it happens, I would suspect angels of carrying my fly forward except I know even angels would spook these fish.

The only solution I have found is fluorocarbon finer than a frog hair. Maybe it comes from bald frogs. My fluorocarbon bill could no doubt be mistaken for a college tuition payment if I were audited. Between changing flies in desperation, cutting out wind knots, and splicing in additional tippet length when the fish seem skittish, I go through more leaders than a South American country with a coup per month.

When I fish Humility Creek, I always go alone. Not that I don’t value company, nor even am I concerned with revealing the stream to newcomers. It’s not like they could put a dent in the fish population anyway. More than likely, they would do as I do and merely feed the trees. My reasoning for fishing here alone, plain and simple, is that on a stream like this, who needs a witness?

When I can coax a backcast through the opening in the hemlocks behind me and unfurl it beneath the overhanging alders before me, I can land a size twenty-something midge larva in front of the nose of a brown trout with a weight exceeding my tippet rating. With luck, the fish will sip my midge in the same mouthful as a number of others, and chew it long enough for me to sink a tiny barb into the corner of his mouth. He will then have a number of snags, rocks, and roots to wind my leader through and will use the entire pool to do it. On those infrequent instances the fish graces my net with his presence, the sparkling colors take my breath as surely as the struggle took his. At least a few moments are necessary to revive us both. I’ve never met a pan worthy of such a fish, and could never keep a fish from Humility Creek.

So by now, you probably have an inclination why I fish here. Perhaps you would be surprised to learn this tangled trap of vegetation is my favorite stream. Not because of the challenge or even the occasional reward; I fish here for the humility it teaches. All the other streams I fish train me for this one. Should I ever become master of this creek, I’ll surely give up fly fishing, having finally become too proud to improve.

Luckily, knowing what I do about Humility Creek, I’ll never quit fishing.

Jim Mize has collected the best of his outdoor humor in an award-winning book entitled The Winter of Our Discount Tent. He lives in Simpsonville, South Carolina.

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