March 03, 2022
This essay is an excerpt from the book Fly Tales: Lessons in Fly Fishing Like the Real Guys (Barclay Creek Press, 2010).
I’m getting better at this hatch business. In the old days I used to just show up and go fishing, catch some fish one way or another, and when a hatch came off I’d frantically try to figure out what was going on and usually end up with a few fish more. Later, someone might mention Blue-winged Olives, or this or that kind of caddis, and I’d think “Yeah, something like that.”
It all seemed sort of hit and miss. Probably because it was. I prided myself on being a generalist, or genericist, one who didn’t need to get fussy about details because, after all, these were just fish and bugs, and this was just fishing. I suffered frequent humiliations, but such moments seemed balanced out by instances of remarkable sport as well. Which proved, of course, that I was right: It was just fishing. Any fool could get it right.
But if you keep at it long enough, fly fishing will eventually lead you to the conclusion that whenever you see rising fish, fish that are feeding on the surface as insects either leave or return to the water, you should be able to catch those fish. It’s that simple. That’s the name of the game.
Simple, that is, as an organizing principle of the sport. Fish are feeding, coming to the surface to eat bugs, you should be able to fool them with a fly. Should, of course, is the operative word. You should be able to fool rising fish. Anything else is just an excuse.
I know. I’ve used them all.
This is a story I like to tell. The part about catching fish doesn’t much matter, because by then you can see it’s inevitable, the problem’s been solved. Up until then, even though it’s a fish story, so you’re pretty sure how it’ll turn out, there’s the element of mystery, which every good story demands. There’s also a lot to be said for telling a story in which, on the brink of failure, you stumble on an answer so obvious—yet previously unseen—that no one can bark at you for hotdogging, even though there’s always a little of that when things work out in your favor in the end.
Of course, I wouldn’t tell any of this if I came off looking like a complete idiot. I’ve tried that. Just doesn’t work. The screwball act makes people nervous.
Anyway, this was in March on one of those rivers we all have in our lives that’s a little too far away to visit any weekend you choose, but not so far away that you have to mount a full-scale expedition to get there. On your own, these places can take years to sort out. That’s part of the beauty. You’re never there long enough to see hatches come and go, and as soon as you learn a couple of good drifts, you’re reluctant to do much exploring during the prime hatch hours. Also, there’s the simple matter that when a hatch does turn on, you can’t be ten places at once, which means you’re never really sure what’s happening anyplace but where you are—a fairly profound perspective, although certainly no different than that of a lowly trout.
But this time I ventured upriver, determined to try someplace new. I stopped in town for a boot-sized draught of coffee, drove east a half hour on the interstate, then wandered around the edges of a revitalized hamlet, looking for access to the water. Later, wadered and casting, I settled into that slightly daffy mood of methodically covering a series of likely looking pools and runs, waiting for something to happen without a clue of the existence of a single trout in the water.
Two hours passed. By now I was checking my watch, nervously scanning the water. Could the Blue-winged Olives I’d seen in such numbers downriver the day before fail entirely to materialize here? I rejected the impulse to plunge off to a new stretch of river. On both sides of me a shallow feeder creek gurgled over a broad tongue of bread loaf-sized freestones, spilling into a deep run where the river swept back into a single channel after separating above a narrow island. I could have prayed and not devised a better trout hole.
I mean, come on, I thought. If there are fish anyplace, they’re here.
Then they were. They started up in the usual sporadic fashion, although right away I could see the good fish were positioned along a pair of tight seams in the conflicting currents, as precisely as sequins on a plunging bodice. Confident, because I had been waiting for this to happen, I lengthened my leader and knotted on the prettiest of my little Parachute Duns; then, for good measure, I tied on a slender CDC Emerger that had worked so well the previous day, cinching it to the tag end I had left, for just this purpose, on the blood knot to my tippet.
Fish began to rise in earnest. Along a faint, jagged foam line, where dead water pooled between the currents, bright trout plucked at the surface, starting visible waves that drifted downstream. Here and there I saw bugs on the water. I got my flies in amongst them, retracing the good drifts I had found and been practicing the past hour.
But nothing happened. I adjusted my cast, my position, the angles of my drift. Nothing. By now fish were feeding in steady rhythms, coming up with confidence. I tried a half-dozen more casts. A dozen. Two.
Now at this point, the sage advice is to stop casting and try to see what in God’s name is going on. And on this occasion I took that advice, a practice I’ve finally adopted with some regularity, against a tendency toward insidious flailing. If we return to our original thesis—feeding fish can be fooled with flies—then casting to said fish and failing to entice them to bite your fly suggests that you should change your fly—as long as you can say with absolute certainty that your presentation is also adequate.
Or, another way to look at such moments, when fish are rising and you don’t stop, is the trite but not inaccurate definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again expecting to get different results.
Anyway, this time I stopped. There were bugs drifting through the pool, the fish were rising, but as is often the case, I couldn’t keep my eye on a single bug long enough to see one actually get eaten. Yet while trying to track a fly here and a fly there, I began to notice that not all of them were the same. They were all mayflies, with those distinct, upright, sailboat-sail-like wings, except some of them were about twice the size as the predominant Blue-winged Olives. Hmm. Not only were they big mayflies, they were brown, or maybe kind of rusty tan, but they certainly weren’t that cloudy gray that makes the little Baetis unmistakable, if only because I’ve studied it so many times on failing, in the past, to catch fish during a Blue-winged Olive hatch.
Now, this is the part of the story I really like. It’s silly but so what? You think anything about fly fishing isn’t? I kept looking at those big brown mayflies, and I thought Brown. . . . March. . . . March Brown.
I get it.
I didn’t have an actual March Brown pattern. But I did have some size 12 and 14 Parachute Adams that I had tied the previous summer for stillwater Callibaetis. The trout didn’t seem to notice the difference. I like a post on my parachute flies tied out of deer hair, and on a size 12, that sucker stands tall. Amidst the little Blue-winged Olives, it looked like a flagship surrounded by a bunch of pleasure craft—until a flash the color of flesh swirled against the current, opening the surface of the pool, and that big fly quietly disappeared.
The hatch didn’t last as long as I would’ve liked. Does anything that’s that much fun? Four on the beach, just as many missed grabs, one that slipped the hook at the end of a blistering run, a couple more half-hearted rises after the bugs had all but disappeared. Say an hour, tops. Of course, if you could bottle this stuff, or put it in a capsule, available whenever the mood strikes, you could make a killing online. But I guess that’s pretty much what’s already there.
While I was making a few last casts, trying to hold on to what had just happened, a drift boat came by with a guide and a client. They stayed out of the good water. We exchanged greetings. Below the pool, the guide let the boat swing round in the eddy.
“Did you see any March Browns?” he asked.
“I did,” I said. “A whole bunch of them.”
The guide looked at his client. They both had those silly looks on their faces like they had just been into fish. I’m sure I must have looked the same.
“You don’t see that every day,” added the guide.
“I don’t, that’s for sure,” I agreed.
Pulling on the oars, the guide nodded toward a seam in the currents. “Did you try right here?”
Scott Sadil is the author of Lost in Wyoming, Angling Baja, Cast from the Edge, and Fly Tales. He lives with his family in Hood River, Oregon.