Never Blame the Fish
by Scott Sparrow
Published in the January-February 2015 issue Tide Magazine
When I was about three years old, my mother was trying to potty train me, and had finally managed to get me to take a seat on the mini-throne. After a few fruitless minutes, I said to her, “I can’t grunt. This pot don’t work.” In retrospect, I had already learned the oldest excuse in the book: When things don’t work, blame anything other than yourself.
Almost fifty years later, as I poled my Stilt over a barely submerged bed of turtle grass, the young flyfisher on the bow finally spotted the redfish about 40 feet away. He began false casting and laid the Kingfisher spoon out in front of the crossing 27-inch red. The fish sauntered by the fly, which had landed just a few inches short of the mark. It was early February in South Cullens Bay on the Lower Laguna Madre, and the water was low, clear and cold. During winter, the fish are more sluggish and less willing to go out of their way to take a fly, so knowing that, I urged the caster to reposition it. Again, the red seemed unresponsive; but from my vantage point, I could see that the caster had barely missed the fish’s sight window.
Finally, the angler said, with evident frustration, “I don’t think he’s going to eat.”
“Cast closer,” I said. He complied, and the fly landed where the red could see it. Without turning or flaring its gills, the red picked up the fly and was on. If the angler hadn’t made that final cast, he would have blamed the fish or the fly, but never his slightly imprecise presentation.
The Catskill fly fishing legend, Edward R. Hewitt once said, “It’s not your fly that is the problem. It’s what is on the other end of the line.” While Hewitt’s words may sound a bit mean-spirited, they express an important key to mastering the “quiet sport” of fly fishing––that is, taking full responsibility for what happens in the encounter with the fish. The good news is, If we are the problem, then we are also the solution.
Over the years, I’ve concluded that there two errors that cause us to blame the fly or the fish, thereby limiting our successes. The first error is assuming that when a fish doesn’t take the fly, it’s because it’s not hungry, or is interested in something else. Of course, this may is often true in coldwater fisheries where trout will feed selectively, but it is much less of a factor on the Lower Laguna Madre, where reds and trout tend to be nonselective, opportunistic feeders. Saying that a fish “is not eating” on the Lower Laguna is an excuse on par with “this pot don’t work:” It brings an immediate end to any further inquiry, and if there’s anything further left to learn, we’ve opted out of that lesson.
The second error is underestimating the impact of one’s presence. Anglers may wade or pole into a sensitive area, and cast again and again to “turned” fish without realizing that they have created a problem that didn’t exist before they arrived. I learned this lesson off the water from my uncle Moody while deer hunting as a teenager. He’d left me in the woods all day, and when he returned to pick me up, I excitedly told him that I’d seen about 80 deer. He chuckled and said, “I’ll bet that none of them was heading in your direction.”
Taken together, these two mistakes result in a self-perpetuating myth, which thoroughly arrests an angler’s ascent to excellence. However, counteracting these two errors is a fairly simple thing if you are willing. First, you need to believe that fish on the flats are interested in surviving, and that means eating a lot and often, especially easy meals. Second, you need to set about to minimize the impact of your intrusion into the fish’s domain. The following ideas and strategies will help you operationalize your commitment to these two principles, and open up vistas of flyfishing success heretofore unimagined.
Go slow and depend on your eyesight. It’s important go slow enough to let your eyes fully adjust to the context. Last year, while guiding an experienced flyfisher, who regularly catches 10 or more redfish per day, I stopped the boat in the middle of departing wakes. It was a bit deep for sight casting on foot, but the fish were there, and my seasoned client preferred to wade. I knew it was possible to see the fish, even though the mid-afternoon sunlight created a glare on the water. My client got out of the boat and proceeded to cover a lot of water in his search for fish. Meanwhile, I stood the whole time within 50 yards of the boat. It took my eyes a while to adjust to the glare, but I was gradually able to peer through the glare into the clear water. I stood in the same spot and enjoyed the spectacle of about 30 reds and a few large trout meandering through the area over the course of about an hour. When my client hiked back to the boat, I asked him how he did. “I didn’t see a fish,” he said. I didn’t say anything, because no one wants to hear, “You really missed it,” even if it’s true.
There is nothing more effective than stopping and letting your eyes fully adjust to the conditions: It can take a while to perceive what’s really there. Game fish on the flats are, by nature, subtle in their movements until the moment of attack; for otherwise, they would alert their quarry ahead of time and starve to death. It may seem counterintuitive, but game fish will make less noise and create less of a visual disturbance than their tiny prey, and so you have to slow down to adjust to their unobtrusive rhythms. Another tactic along these lines is to imitate a heron’s style of hunting, which is to freeze every few steps and study the water. Not only does a stationary profile put the fish at ease, but you can discern subtle movements more easily if your brain doesn’t have to factor out the movement of your body.
The fish are almost always willing. Reds and trout have periods of active feeding, and then periods of relative inactivity, but I have found that they are almost always willing to eat––at least to some extent. You may recall your first course in biology in which your teacher discussed the firing of a neuron. Once a neuron fires, it enters an “absolute refractory period” where it’s completely unable to fire again. A bit later, it passes into a “relative refractory period” in which it can fire but not as easily as when it’s back to its state of full readiness. In my experience, reds and trout occasionally enter the equivalent of an absolute refractory period. It happens when they suddenly stop swimming and become unresponsive to anything short of a nudge from your rod tip. These are frustrating moments, because the fish may be feeding one moment, and then totally unresponsive the next. I have left such “sleeping” fish after having clients drag flies past their noses for 15 minutes.
Except for when they are in this state of stupor, reds and trout will exhibit some willingness to eat, albeit at varying levels of readiness. After a full moon, for instance, redfish will spend the first few hours of the morning in a highly sensitive state, and will often spook before your fly hits the water. They can be caught, but they resemble a hung-over partygoer to whom breakfast may seem like an assault. Trout, on the other hand, spend most of their day in a “relative refractory period,” since they feed only two hours out of every 24. Indeed, they spend most of their time digesting the last huge meal.
So how do you get reds and trout to take your fly when they are in a state of relative shutdown? By using small flies and putting them directly in the fish’s path. Trout may feed on six-inch mullet and attack huge flies when they are actively feeding, but they will more readily take a tiny fly during their periods of relative inactivity. Understanding that big fish will take tiny flies almost all the time accounts for why flyfishing legend Bud Rowland––who holds the Texas state record trout as well as three of the seven IGFA tippet-class world record trout––can truthfully assert, “I can get a big trout to eat at any time.” Bud typically ties his favorite fly, the “numero uno,” on small (size 4 and smaller), short-shanked hooks. So when people repeat the popular formula, “Use big flies for big fish,” remember that big flies may not work as well as a small fly during periods of relative inactivity.
If the fish doesn’t react at all, it’s usually because it hasn’t seen the fly. In my previous article (see Tide, March/April, 2014), I cited several top saltwater flyfishing guides who said that their clients often overestimate the degree to which a redfish will perceive the fly. As bottom feeders, redfish tend to be focused on what’s beneath them, and will thus overlook flies that pass nearby, especially overhead. I have often said to my clients that redfish will react one way or another when it sees the fly––either to attack it, or to spook from an unnaturally “aggressive” fly. Similarly, while big trout will sometimes seem to ignore a a fly, master flyfisher Tom Kilgore––who once caught 10 trout over 8 lbs. apiece in a single day––told me that the key to catching a trophy trout is getting the fly in front of the trout at the same depth. I have seen actively feeding trout go out of their way to attack a fly, but Kilgore’s experience suggests that a well-fed trout may require an “in-the-face” presentation to unleash its oppportunistic aggression.
Tame your aggression. It has been said that every great angler possesses the urge to “capture and to conquer,” but this source of success must be tamed. Indeed, most anglers approach visible fish much too aggressively, and thus they end up spooking or turning the fish before they can cast effectively to them. Remember, the fish on the flats are always moving, and if you’re patient enough, they will come to you. Even if you are convinced that you have to cover some distance between yourself and a visible redfish or trout, it’s important to move slowly enough to prevent sending a “pressure wave” in their direction. Most fin fish can perceive changes in water pressure in their air bladders from quite a distance. They may not seem alarmed, but when they perceive the pressure of your approach, they will simply turn away from you. So tame your aggression, and become as unobtrusive as one of them. When I guide wading flyfishers who don’t need my help, I will play a game while waiting for them to return to boat: I will see how close I can get to the feeding fish before spooking them. Since I’m not casting to the fish, all of my effort can be channeled into becoming as stealthy as I can be. It may seem surprising, but I am often able to come within a few feet of tailing redfish before they spook, and big trout will become so acclimated to my presence that they sometimes ignore me after a while. So there’s no reason that you cannot get within casting distance of feeding redfish and trout, regardless of your casting ability,––but only if you can tame your impulse to approach the fish aggressively and cast too soon.
Get down. On some days, casting from the bow of a skiff is clearly the best way to catch reds and trout. But the fish can see you better, too. And once they turn from the sight of you, their willingness to take a fly drops by at least 80%. If you don’t acknowledge the impact of your intrusion, you may believe that they are unwilling to eat, when it’s really much simpler than that: They are annoyed. Real success can be measured, not so much by how many fish you see, but how many were unaware of your presence before your fly hit the water. When you achieve the goal of casting without “giving prior notice,” you will discover that reds and trout are surprisingly willing to take your fly.
Depend on Short Casts. A survey was once done among expert Catskill flyfishers to see what accounted for their prodigious successes. One thing that distinguished them was their reliance on short, precise casts. But flyfishers in saltwater often seem to believe that they should cast as soon as they spot a fish, even if it means casting short of the mark. Your first cast is an announcement of your presence, and the fish will often turn before coming into range if you insist on casting too soon. Reds and trout behave differently when they perceive you. A redfish will flee at the first sign of your presence, while a big trout may make you believe that she’s still “in business” by remaining in the vicinity. Never believe that a big trout is unaware of you! Her apparent nonchalance can be just as “terminal” as the blistering retreat of a redfish.
In summary, you can dramatically raise the ceiling of your success by refusing to do the angling equivalent of “blaming the pot.” If, instead, you will accept the notion that the fish are always willing to take your fly, and that it’s up to you to do the rest, you will never cease to grow as an angler, and the elusive ideal of mastery will finally come within reach.