vorhis choices01__Mist_at_DawnGuest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, Fly Fisher & Author, FreeFlight Publishing

4:45am…must get up if I’m to be rolling by 5:15 for the 90-minute dash out to a little tailwater that’s…well, within 90 minutes of home. The importance of 90 minutes is that I can get there before dawn on a weekend morning, spend about three hours fishing, and dash back, to be home by ~11:30 before my wife and kid are out of their pajamas. No wear and tear on anyone but me; no impediments to the pursuit of my hobby every month or so.

That I can find little-used, flowing, wade-able trout habitat within that distance of multi-million-home urbanity is itself a miracle, and I know that killing trout would be akin to killing the stream itself. So I cherish it and keep it healthy. Of course my conservation efforts include telling virtually no one how nice the stream really is.

To avoid wasting pre-dawn time I’d pre-rigged reel and line, with rod sectons needing only to be stuck together. River access starts at daybreak; the plan is to have waders and boots on when the gate opens. This time it’d been left ajar all night, and I step into the water 20 minutes before the sun has a peek at what I’m doing.

Vorhis choices 02__RiffleClarity is good and I opt for an 8-foot leader; I estimate that a foot-long 6x fluoro tippet oughta be enough for subsurface mid-riffle nymphing. I already know what fly I intend to try, so I select the stretch of water in which to begin. It’s a cased caddis pattern of my own design, with a unique…possibly heretical…feature that has been making sense to the back of my mind on an academic level for some months. And the “worm” appears a little too reckless, hanging its segmented, juicy-looking body too far out the end of its brownish case. Will it work? Will trout allow a bug to be foolhardy? I’m dying to see if anything thinks it looks like food.

It has some lead wire wound under the “case” part, but I still pause now to bite a little green lead shot onto the leader about 18 inches up. Get it down, but softly. A muskrat swims along the far bank. Local resident…which means I’m the guest. I allow myself a moment to envy the simple beauty, the honesty, of its existence.

vorhis choices 03__ShoalsI flick the leader out behind a tiny shoal, just to get it ahead of me so I can shuffle, untangled, into the current. As I take my next step there’s already a jolt on the line! That’s good news, and I like jolts, so in defiance of all “cast upstream” wisdom, I resolve to position myself at the head of the riffle and cast the wrong direction. I want to drift this larval pattern down the multiple tongues of current directly below where I stand, let it swing from flow to flow, drop it downstream progressively in stages by letting out more line…each time hoping for another of those jolts. Perhaps I’ll even strip-retrieve, to see if trout would object to a caddis worm magically piloting its case upstream against noisy, bubbly current.

Another take; this fly is getting attention! Okay, best remember that spot and drift it again, albeit after a minute or so. I keep my feet quietly in one place. From their bottom-hugging feeding stations in the slowing water below the fastest parts of the riffle, the fish shouldn’t be able to see me where I stand; they’ll be two to four feet down, and I decide that angle is too low and I can get away with the straight-downstream drifts. The disadvantage is that many takes are bumps without a hook-up, and when I can react fast enough my hook-set can pull the hook forward out of their mouths. The good news is that I don’t much care, given that my goal is more than anything just to fool them…and also each take is electric as blue blazes.

vorhis choices 04__HeronThe water is chilly and clear, and my left sock almost feels a little squishy…maybe I need more shoe goo on that place where I’d hooked my knee last year like an idiot…but the sun is now tickling the misty water’s surface from its perch on the farm field to the east. There’s a tiny hatch of just a few mayflies beginning under a branch; they’re not getting much hassle from fish, so I too ignore them, except to note that insect life in general is beginning to stir. A large Blue Heron glides in silently, to land on a nearbly log and watch me ply the waters. I work my fly a little to my left, then to right, to give each mid-stream pocket a chance to forget. Getting regular takes, amazingly even with a little stripping, which is heresy of the highest order. I land one and it’s a little guy, but pretty. Then another, same size. When I turn it loose, it hides naively behind my boot for several minutes.

Still no one but me on the stream; the sounds and rays of early light are medicine for the soul. More empty takes. The action, challenge and suspense of missed fish are equally thrilling, but I wonder if it’s happening in part because of half-hearted hits…? Not sure how that might work, unless I’m getting a lot of quick rejections. Or are they all just nibbly small fry? A startling noise behind me–two adult deer and two fawns fording the same shallows on which I’ve chosen to stand. They pause mid-river and quite close, to look at me looking at them, and we have a mutual sliding moment of doubt, consideration and finally trust, before they complete their crossing in calm grace. In that instant I decide to change flies, to see if the half-hearted hits theory has merit.

vorhis choices 05__TroutA Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear does no better but no worse; ditto a wet-fly-tied Bird’s Nest in the original color. Trying to remember all the flies that have worked here in the past…water is too clear for flash but I test a small Higa’s S.O.S. anyway, which is summarily ignored. Hey, what’s that, at the lower edge of the fly box? Oh yeah…that greenish baetis nymph I tied some months back, adding no ribbing but accidentally blobbing five times the intended amount of UV-cured resin onto the wing case. The huge globule resembles a back-pack, or maybe I should call it a hunch-back. Well, give ‘er a try, as I’ve already had enough action to make the morning. I re-lengthen the tippet and drift the nymph down…WHAM! Solid hook-up, and a bigger fish too. Wow, that was pretty decisive. I net and release it, cast again, and the same thing happens! And these are no timid takes; they’re ramming the point of the hook straight through the tops of their jaws.

The fly suddenly stops working and I take a look at it. The three tail filaments are matted together with green plant goo, but once I separate them I get another instant hammer from a nice plump fish. Then another fly-cleaning, and another nice fish…and most are pounding the hook point through their upper jaws. Very different strikes than before. I’ve heard the theories of upper jaw hookings with respect to how a fly rides, but never placed much stock in them, and again do not, as most nymphs will drift and turn randomly in dynamic current…and these hits are just plain more fierce. I conclude that the two most important attributes of this fly are the separate visibility of the three tail fibers and the exaggerated profile made by the hunch-back thorax, which–like silhouettes of opulent beauties gracing truck tire mud flaps–may hold some kind of primal involuntary appeal. Hey, it’s a theory.

Finally the fly stops working completely, and my time is up anyway; I pack up and head out, grinning ear to ear. As I step from the water a 15-inch rainbow of a beautiful gold color breaches to my right, in pursuit of something I didn’t see. Later I’ll put my hunch-backed mayfly nymph under a lens and see why it had ultimately failed: they’d worried the green dubbing completely off the abdomen part of the fly, leaving only the grey thread beneath, which no longer resembled the expected coloration. They’d “skinned” the thing. Well, that’s one fly for the place of honor–the cushy “fly retirement” box, reserved for heroes.

As I drive home, I think about the many choices I’d made on the water, the reasons, the results–starting hour, pre-deciding my first fly, choosing water based on fly rather than the other way around, leader length, tippet size, shot, cast direction, position in the stream, use of the angle of the light, drifts, fly selection, pausing to absorb what’s around. I wonder whether I’d have made the same ones in years past, or if I’ve grown; I try to think of the data I’d put to use that perhaps I didn’t have a few years back. I think about the ones that brought me the most enjoyment, all things considered; I try to glean more than satisfaction from my choices–perhaps insights that might help sharpen decisions in future.

And I think again about the majestic heron, the muskrat, the family of deer, the clear shoals, and that magical image of a golden-tinted rainbow leaping clean above the surface to my right.

Note from J. Stockard: Michael Vorhis is the author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller…which has some fly fishing in it…and of adventure thriller OPEN DISTANCE, based on aviation and the deep sea.

2 Comments

  1. Michael, seems like a nice little stream. Are these wild fish or holdovers from some previous years stocking? Does it fish well year round?

  2. Good question Mike; by coloration and the unbattered condition of their tails they seem to be wild, although if they were released as fingerlings they might still look that way. There is a hatchery nearby but because of the politics of attracting federal money they focus only on steelhead and salmon, giving no thought at all to the needs of the local trout population. The trout are rainbows, making one suspect that they could have come from the steelhead stocking program…except that they release the steelhead waaaaay downstream for some odd reason.

    The trout here definitely breed and multiply. If they came originally from a stocking program, in my opinion they’re the result of natural wild breeding of stockers loosed long ago. The state programs are aimed at self-perpetuating steelhead populations rather than at dumping sterile fish into the water for fishermen’s sake, so my theory holds water on that score too. I can’t speak for the local trout DNA so I don’t know how they compare to what strains may have originally been in the stream before the white man got here.

    Bottom line, they look wild, and they certainly act wild (smart, in tune with seasonal bug cycles, and the word ‘acrobatic’ is an understatement), so I like to think of them as wild.

    The stream is frequented by relatively few people (fine by me). I’ve met a couple of guys who claim to have landed nice-sized fish out of it, and they’re in there, but I’m typically really happy with a 13-incher here. That too might imply that I’m tapping into a wild population…at least in my own experience “the wild” is a place where bigger fish are a lot harder to fool.

    It can fish well year around, although the go-to flies tend to change with the season (as you’d expect). I can’t say I’ve decoded cloudy drizzly days here at all–I tend to get skunked on those days, not to mention soaked to the bone. I do better when it’s a clear morning and I can see the bottom stones. But maybe that’s in part because I tend to use mottled green/grey/brown patterns. I’ve had nice days in January, October, and all summer. There are a couple of times of year when fishing is forbidden because of runs, but I think it would fish even better in those times if fishing were allowed.

    Mike, go to my website and email me directly, and I can tell you more about why I go to this stream. I’d like to get a channel to you directly anyway, so this makes for a good excuse.

    – Mike Vorhis

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