Fishing Without Fish
Last night I got home a little early, with enough time left to do some chores and still have a little bit of light left in the sky afterwards. It was a very mild and still evening for November, and almost warm considering that the previous week, the first few snows of the year had dusted our yard. The river out back looked pink and flat enough that I thought there might be a trout or two sipping midges out there. So I took my little seven foot three weight rod out of my shed, and walked to the end of my dock to see if there would be any tell-tale rings out there betraying the presence of brown trout.
I stood there on the edge of my dock for awhile looking for risers, and saw none. But I was so taken by the scene I forgot that I was supposed to be fishing. The sky was lit by some very high clouds catching the last rays of the setting sun, and were very pink. The river before me had long been cast into the shadow of the large rock formation across the way, a five hundred foot high fin called Sleeping Indian Mesa. In the summer, as soon as the edge of that shadow makes its way from the far bank over to mine, rising fish can be seen just into the edge of the shadow, following it across the river.
But tonight there were no riseforms, just mellow water with only the faintest amount of ripples and little spinning eddies to it. Usually I don’t bother to cast dry flies without there being fish obviously feeding on top, but it’s not a firm rule. I’ve caught many a small brown trout in my backyard just after sundown, and even when I don’t it gives me a good excuse to just stand by the river for ten minutes.
We’ve lived here for ten years, and in that time I’ve spent a lot of time in the backyard along the water. But it wasn’t until I built my dock two years ago that I really had a good central place to admire the river from. Its not much of a dock, its only ten feet long and six wide, but it cantilevers out over the water by a couple of feet. Sitting in an Adirondack chair watching the river flow by, it feels like sitting in a raft, only higher. The dock was made out of used, repurposed wood, and I don’t expect it to last forever, so the only cost I incurred in its construction was for the hardware bolting it all together. The year before I built it, the river rose to height two feet above where the dock is now, and when that happens again the dock will become a raft. But in that year, the water had been the highest it had been in twenty years, and it had been twenty more before that since the last big water. So I figured twenty years would be about what both the dock and I have left, and I’ll take twenty of both if I can get them.
I remembered the rod in my hand, held the tip out over the water, and began stripping out line. It was a rod expertly crafted by my best friend, and rigged with a long leader and two flies. The point fly was a size 16 Adams with a little orange parachute, and the second dropper fly two feet away a size 18 elk hair caddis. The Adams was probably a little too big to duplicate a midge, and there hadn’t been reliable caddis hatches on the river in the past three summers, ever since the big water. But both flies float very well, and I didn’t particularly care whether I caught anything or not, so I started making short casts upstream. The water flow was so flat that I could easily follow the progress of the flies as they floated downstream, and would mend out line after they passed me to float them a good ways down.
The sky grew deeper and deeper pink, with the chin of the sleeping indian creating a solid dividing line of black in the water. I’d cast upcurrent into the black, note the location of the flies landing on the water, and keep a close eye on them. When they’d land into the dark water, they would appear as little pinpricks of light, like two new stars in the watery firmament. When the flies passed the dividing line from dark to light, they would now look like two black specks in a undulating sheet of glowing pink bed covers. Then as they continued their voyage downstream, the flies would hopefully drift over the nose of an unwitting little brown, and get taken.
I kept my eyes and ears tuned to the periphery of the scene hoping to hear some other fish that I might cast towards, but there were no fish rising this night. But it was fun drifting the flies further out each cast, and getting a longer drift each time. The water was so flat that getting those flies to drift a long way didn’t require much on my part, just an occasional flip of the line. Suddenly I heard a small splash downstream to my left, but instead of a riseform I saw our local muskrat swimming upstream towards me. I held very still, and he got closer and closer until he was only twenty feet away, at which point he rolled forward and dove into the water with great flourish, his upstretched tail disappearing last like a submarine periscope. The muskrat swam around for a minute or two in the very water I was trying to drift my dry flies in, and then swam off to go ruin someone else’s fishing.
Now that the muskrat was no longer making waves in it, the water’s surface grew smooth again. I resumed my casting knowing without doubt that I absolutely no chance of catching anything in the few remaining minutes of light I had left. And it didn’t matter. The mere doing of the thing was enough, and no small terrified trout had to be dragged out of its aquatic paradise by a sharp hook in it’s mouth for my moment to be complete. Trout tend to live in beautiful places, and give the rest of us reason to share those places with them. Of all the joys and benefits of fishing for trout, perhaps that’s the best one. They need clean, clear, cold water to thrive, and to find that you generally have to be higher up in watersheds. The higher up you go, the less developed it tends to be. Of course, the tailwaters found below dams and the fisheries they create are the exception to that rule. But even those can be unexpected and special, like finding trout in the Grand Canyon or the on San Juan River, in the middle of deserts where no trout would otherwise be.
If a person were to simply walk up to a pretty stream and stand there beside it for an hour or three, or stand in it, doing nothing, you might think that person a little daft. But to do the same thing only with a fly rod in hand, makes you crazy, but a sportsman. Warm water fishes don’t always live in ugly places, but they often do. Trout rarely do, and that’s a major reason to pursue them. By seeking them out, we go to where they live and just being in their verdant neighborhoods is good for the soul.
When my wife and I moved up to the mountains from Denver ten years ago, I had only one non-negotiable stipulation as to where our future property would be. It had to be adjacent to a moving body of water that held a year-round population of trout. River, brook, or stream, it didn’t matter, if it were good enough for trout, it would be good enough for me. That it ended up being along the Upper Colorado River was only a bonus, but I could have been just as happy on the Crystal or Brush Creek or the Eagle.
I kept making longer and longer casts further out into the river, but it was almost dark and those two little flies got harder to see. Thirty feet of line is about all I can manage with that seven footer, but its all that's needed to reach the main current. The flies remained unmolested, but staring at them in the now-purple twilight was mesmerizing. I began to wonder if mind-altering chemicals ingested in college might still be clinging to dim corners of my brain. There were no trout to be had on this fine evening, but it couldn’t matter less. Right in my own backyard I have a portal into a very different place than the one constructed and inhabited by man. It is the natural world, the real world, a reality that preceded our “taming” of it and one that would long outlast us. Standing out there on the edge of my dock is to be able to feel and touch that reality, and know that it exists. The magic is there all the time to see, all we have to do is to open up our eyes and minds and hearts to it.