Guest Blogger: Mike Vorhis, Fly Fisher & Author, FreeFlight Publishing

Fell_for_Prince_CharmingFirst let me apologize to the truly adept trout fishermen who may happen upon these notes, which probably won’t be of great value to you. I offer them more to novitiates and intermediates who have walked into the golden light of fly fishing and who love it with great fervor, but who just may not have hundreds of years in it…yet. Maybe a wayward comment here or there can stick and make a difference some day. And now on to the thought I’d like to express:

There are stupid questions people ask that prove to be a disservice to the listener–inquiries that are actually assertions, and that assume some tenet that’s just plain false.

“Do you know how fast you were going?” …as though you haven’t a clue, and as though whatever speed it was must have bent the needle well behind the plastic cowling.

“Any luck with the job hunt?” …as though landing the fabled seven-figure cigar-chomping role behind a mahogany desk with outrageously configured receptionists bringing lattes by the hour is a matter of rolling some dice.

…and my least favorite…

“Are they bitin’?”

That last one is particularly insidious.  Not the word “biting” so much as the other one–“are.”  Well, *are* they?

Ask a kid that question enough times and the youngster comes to believe that either the fish are, or they aren’t. If they aren’t, then that’s what’s going on.  Nothing.  Not a thing to do about it either…no fault of the fisherman; it’s just how it is.  Read those “solunar” fish activity forecast tables if you don’t believe me–the ones that show when they’ll be “active” and when they’ll just…I don’t know, hang around the fish equivalnt of a billiards hall I guess?

“Are they biting” is a question that teaches us to take no responsibility for increasing our knowledge, for creatively observing how nature works, and ultimately for improving our angling success. They ain’t bitin’ today, and that’s that.  Boys grow to be men believing that, and before you know it they’re out there calling themselves keen fishermen while banging the bottom of the boat with the cooler, retiring beer cans to the lake bottom and soaking their secret weapon (rainbow-colored department store play-dough) on a hook.

It took me some years to realize the truth–that there is ALWAYS something going on in a trout stream.  There’s a small, sparse hatch of something, or a crawling migration, or a breeze occasionally depositing hapless terrestrials into the drink, or subaquatic snails grazing along the drop-off…something of at least mild interest to trout. If on a given morning I haven’t found the key (which I admit is all too frequent), I’d best not look to the bio-rhythm chart, but instead under the rocks, and on the water, and in my fly box.  Because they’re feeding on something, without question.  They have to; it’s the wild, where you take any meal that presents itself, or lose out to a rival who will. With very few exceptions, I believe a trout’s feeding urge has no “off” switch. (And there are no exceptions at all for largemouth bass–I once had a three-pounder and a two-pounder in a burlap bag at pond’s edge, and found later when I pulled the sack out that the bigger one had almost half his buddy down his throat. Right there in the bag. A bass is like a guy who can’t stop himself from committing felonies even when he’s in the clink.)

Fish will take anything that pleases them at any time. The only trick is to figure out what that is.

And they know their world better than we ever will. As the sun climbs higher, they know where there are shadows–in deeper pools and under overhanging branches or banks…and what food can be found there. As the breeze picks up, rippling the water’s surface and reducing the visibility of birds of prey, they know they can move out into the current to wait for drifting nymphs with a little more safety. As night falls, they know they can sneak up under tiny winged morsels and sip them down undetected. They live and breathe (well, maybe not the latter) the nuances of their habitat, and all the little micro-variations within it, and they naturally and perpetually move to where they can safely keep an eye out for…you guessed it, food.

None of this is news to whiskery old-timers, but each of us has had to come to realize it on our own, so I thought I’d make the point for those who might find it useful right now.  There are of course some short-lived exceptions:

—  The need to avoid being seen may force trout to move to where less food comes their way. Bright sun drives them deeper, and into shadow.
—  Extremes of water temperature can affect their energy levels (but it still doesn’t shut them down; they still need fuel).
—  Some alarming event (the sound of a river otter diving in, or the sight of a human flagging the water with a piece of chartreuse string) can give them something to think about for a very short while.

These concerns overlay, but never cancel, their underlying fascination for gluttony. Make no mistake–eating is what they do. It’s their game, and they are eternally focused. They hunt; they thrive by taking smaller forms of life. If they don’t, other fish will take the food and will grow bigger more quickly, to dominate the prime feeding stations from then on.

Yes, through sloppy wading or loud noises or casting mayhem we can scare them into taking nothing, but their attention span is not very long, as anyone knows who has ever paused mid-stream to tie on another tippet and fly, only to witness a beautiful fish take a bug off the surface two feet from their hip…or who has looked down to see a nice one hiding in the shadow of their downstream knee.

There’s always something going on in a trout stream. Maybe they’re gorging themselves with abandon in the riffles, slurping up cased caddis just off the gravel and out of easy sight; maybe they’re only quietly watching for Ephemeroptera or midge emergers under the heavy-branched trees. Maybe over in the slack water they’re keeping one eye out for damselfly larvae. If the big ones are being too cagey for our skills, it’s likely that smaller individuals are still motivated, perhaps right below some little bend or rapid. The nice rainbow in the photo above (who is still in the stream today by the way) was apathetic about anything and everything…except one ratty old not-so-charming Prince Nymph that proved to be its downfall.

So leave the stream when you’ve gotta get back on the road for home, or when your favorite J.Stockard fishing hat blows off and starts an ambitious journey for the open sea, but never, ever, leave because there’s no feeding going on. You just haven’t decoded it yet.

In my mind, “are they biting” is the worst question ever asked, because there’s an ignorant lie buried within it.  (Well, I guess there may be a few other unwelcome questions too…let’s see…uh…”You forgot again this year, didn’t you?” That one might not actually be a question but I still cringe when I hear it.)


  1. Michael, your assessment of the “Stupid Question” is indeed accurate and you defend it well. I tried to think of other “Stupid” questions I’ve encountered while fishing. One that comes to mind was asked of me a few years back. I had just finished fishing the lower Gardner River in Yellowstone and was making my way back to the car. The lower Gardner is a steep gradient stream that displays fast current and lots of whitewater. As I started across the Rescue Creek bridge about mid-day, the father of a family of 4 (5) tourists standing on the bridge asked me the usual question. “How was the fishing?” I replied that I had had a good morning. Then came the stupid question. “How do the fish stay in the river, you’d think they would wash down the stream in this fast current?” I am sure that I assured them in some way that the fish had no problem living in this fast river (little anchors on their tails or small caves in the stream bottom, etc.). But I’ve always thought about the question as reflecting some extreme naivety about nature. If indeed, fish couldn’t hold their position in the river, I wouldn’t have caught any. If there were no fish to catch I wouldn’t be walking around in fly fishing gear, there would be no need for fishing regulations and I wouldn’t have had to answer his question. I am not sure what the guy was thinking when he asked the question.

  2. That’s hilarious Mike! It’s like asking, “You mean fish can live in water that moves?? You mean birds can…uh…deal with a breeze?!” I’ll have to remember the little anchors on their tails, and the caverns; forgive me if I plagiarize those replies from you.

    I always get the usual, “Why’d you let that one go…what’s the point?” and “couldn’t you get it out there farther if you put a big lead weight on it?” and “don’t they smell you when you get in the water?” and “what do you do if a big one pulls you into a whirlpool?” and “why do they want to eat feathers?” and “why not gob a few real bugs on the point of the hook?” and “ever try putting some of that special fish attractor juice on your fly, for when they come up and sniff it?”

    And of course, “Why not just buy Powerbait? My cousin says it’s the best,” to which I reply that it’s such a natural part of a wild trout’s diet that I just squeeze it out of their bellies and use it again.

    Stupid questions abound, and I guess we fishermen probably shouldn’t feel any more oppressed than anyone else. I used to get a lot of them in the sport of hang gliding–even went so far as to put together a Q&A…went something like this:

    Q: “How do you hang on up there?”
    A: “We train for years with those springy grip strengtheners.”

    Q: “How do you know you won’t hit a tree?”
    A: “Just blind luck…no clue where the damn things are pointed.”

    Q: “Never tried this, but I wanna…where’s the rental office?”
    A: “Hey, let me first take your picture while you can still wiggle your toes.”

    Q: “What do you do when you need a bathroom?”
    A: “Same thing you do when you drive your car–we explode and die right then and there.”

    Q: “I see those guys all going in circles..totally out of control, right?”
    A: “Yes and it’s just amazing coincidence that they’re all climbing at over 600 fpm.”

    Q: “How can you land…ever get stuck up there?”
    A: “Sometimes a fire truck has to get us down with a ladder.”

    Q: “Don’t you fall when the wind stops?”
    A: “See those guys circling out over the valley? We have a fan set up down there.”

    Q: “Isn’t this really some kind of sick death wish?”
    A: “You nailed it, bub; worst part is driving here on the freeway. Hey, how did you get here today?”

    Q: “Well, dude, I jump open jungle cat cages on a dirt bike in the circus. Is hang gliding as much manly thrill as that?”
    A: “Dirt bikes are for pansies, dude.”

    I took my family to visit Hearst Castle last spring (very interesting by the way…it was bequeathed to the govt…they take groups by special bus up to the incredible themeless-but-opulent mansion and grounds way up on a remote mountain’s crest, away from the concerns of the world, where the history of an era unfolds). The tour guide said someone had recently asked her, “But why did Mr. Hearst build it so far from the Visitor’s Center?”

    Naivete about nature, as you so aptly put it, is never hard to find. Hollywood has been making movies for years wherein bears ravage through campsites for no reason whatever, ripping canvas and smashing pots and scattering firewood like a creature gone mad. Not too tough to spot a story written by city slickers.

    I went fishing on the North Fork Stanislaus just after dawn last Saturday with a buddy…together we caught a total of three tiny little beautifully colored rainbows each about four inches long. Prince and Hotwire Caddis and Red-headed Stepchild nymphs each had their moments. The water was moving, so how the hell those three small fry could live in that river is beyond me. 🙂

    – Mike

  3. Thanks. I vVery much enjoyed your post. “Are they bitten’ today?” It gives those of us who are still in the steep part of fly fishing’s learning (or re-learning?) curve pause to consider: If I wasn’t successful on the stream this day, or perhaps more importantly, even if I was successful, then did I still learn something new?

    So, even the question: “Did you catch the big one?” still misses a more important and fundamental question that a day on one’s favorite stream offers to those who of us love the sound of riffled waters and the thrill of a stealthy trout stalked, hooked, netted and released. That big question is: “Did I learn something?”. Taking time to learn and appreciate both success and failure is the key to the enjoyment and addiction to the sport of fly fishing. The converse, of course, is the key to boredom, frustration, excuses, or worse — never having the chance to truly enjoy fly fishing to the fullest.

    God gives each of us a lifetime limit of memorable fish and really great days in the trout stream. With respect and thanks for that, may we each still learn something new and thus also learn to enjoy every moment spent on the stream even more, whether the fish are bittin’ or not. Thanks again for the post.

  4. Right you are, Tommy! My wife always asks, on my return, whether I brought any fish home. And I always claim they were too small, and add, “But I’m learning…I am, I’m learning.”

    The eternal dance…. 🙂

    – Mike

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