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Fishing Dogma Can Blind Us to Exceptional Opportunities

Nelson - the one-eyed-trout

Catching an exceptional fish, means doing something out of the ordinary, something outside the 'rules'.

Sometimes, it can take years for lessons learned on the water to filter through the dogma and cant that getting older seems to build up in brain cells.

One of those lessons is ditching fishing dogma can increase catch rates .

My nearly teenage observations of trout swirling on the surface to take insects, moths and other unseen critters had sparked a lot of reading on the subject of dry-fly-fishing.

Armed with a borrowed outfit I haunted the banks of the Waimakariri River, (just North of Christchurch, New Zealand) trying to match the promise of the books to the reality of the river.

The Waimakariri is a classical shingle-bed, ribbon-streamed river of the South Island's Canterbury Plains in New Zealand. Rivers like these did not fit the mould established in the dry fly books of the day. The chalk streams of the 'Old Country', were a far cry from the Waimakariri.

I discovered pockets of water that bore some resemblance to the literature by riding along the banks of the river on my bike. The regular cycle of floods had cut semi-permanent channels alongside willow-overhung banks.

One such channel was about 10 to 15 meters wide. The left side ran alongside a high bank. The middle of the stream was littered with the remains of willows, toppled by the erosion of floods. At its deepest, the water was about 3 meters deep. The current moved relatively slowly.

This pool had sparked my initial interest in dry-fly fishing.

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In the late afternoon, I had regularly seen trout rising to take insects off the surface of the water.

My attempts to take these fish ended in failure. Using a wet fly produced too many snags for my meagre allowance available for flies and leaders to bear. But now armed with a light rod, a floating line, a dry fly, and the confidence of book-learnt knowledge, I headed for the pool.

Because of the high bank on the left side, too high to fish from, I cautiously approached along the shingle bank on the right-hand side. As I approached, I could see the regular rises of fish, hard up against the high bank. There were irregular rises in midstream.

My reading had convinced me that 'lining a fish', (allowing the fly-line to drift over a fish) was a cardinal sin, which would almost certainly make the fish dive for cover. My experience had taught me that my casting skills were not of the standard required to fish the far side of the pool. The combination of these two factors forced me to target the mid-stream risers.

Royal Wulfe Dry Fly

For some time I sat very still and watched for some pattern in the rises.

Toward the middle of the pool was a thigh-thick branch lying along the bottom, in-line with the current. A trout was rising regularly to the far edge of a thin smear of "suds" (a narrow stream of foam and bubbles usually indicating where currents join and concentrate food) travelling parallel to, but slightly on the far side of the sunken log.

Some further concentration finally revealed the fish, tucked in behind a short branch coming off the main log. I made a fly selection, settling on a Royal Wulfe.

It was not a truly inspired guess; it was all I had.

I pulled some line from the reel, enough I guessed to land the fly some 3 metres ahead of where the fish was lying. My first cast could not have been better. The fly dropped gently down some 3 metres ahead of the fish and perhaps half a metre to my side of its lie. The drift was good, but the fish showed no interest.

Another cast, not as good as the first, but in roughly the right area, was treated with the same disdain as the first. Cast followed cast with no result. Throughout, the fish continued to rise, regularly.

Frustration grew rapidly, but the fear of 'lining' the fish overrode everything.

I suppose I spent an hour on the fish, before I admitted defeat and moved down to the lower, narrower, reaches of the pool. 

Here, I achieved some small success. Twice fish rose to the fly.

My excitement overcame my book learned instructions, to count to three, and then strike. On each occasion, the fly disappeared my young, finely tuned reactions succeeded in pulling the fly into a near perfect back-cast - without the fish. 

It was approaching the time for me to return home, but I decided to take one last look at the fish I had spent so much time on. It was still there, still feeding.

Carefully, I pulled line from the reel and made a cast. It was too long, and the fly ended up about half a meter on the far side of the foam line.

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I decided to let the fly drift as I thought that picking the line off the water would be worse than 'lining' the fish. It seemed like minutes before the fly, and the line, drifted down close to the fish. At any moment, I expected the fish to bolt. It did not bolt.

It rose straight to the fly.

At the very last moment, it swung away and down. I lifted the fly and cast again, this time back into the slot on my side of the foam line. Not a movement from the fish. I cast again and again, with no reaction from the fish.

I cast again, this time again, too long. The fly drifted down the far side of the foam line, (another name for 'suds').

Again, I waited for the line to spook the fish, but it rose, the fly disappearing in a swirl. This time I ignored the book advice to count to three, but took my fishing mentor, Uncle Norm's advice, and said, aloud, "bloody hell, its a fish," and then struck.

The reaction was immediate and spectacular. The trout rose from the water, flashing in the low-angled sunlight.

The fight was a short line, no quarter affair that soon had the trout safe and sound on the shingle. I lifted the fish to inspect my prize, and it was then that I noticed the fish was blind in one eye. Nelson was blind in the eye that had been facing me as it lay in its lie.

Since this episode, I have noticed that if the fly-line drifts naturally, and the key is the word 'naturally', over a trout, often trout will not be disturbed.

All kinds of rubbish, weed, branches, etc. drift past trout, without disturbing the fish. However, any movement out of the ordinary, or perhaps more accurately, unnaturally, will send the fish scurrying for cover.

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I am struck more and more often by the realization that we humans love to make and apply rules to all sorts of activities, and fishing is no exception.

Trouble is; we extend this desire to apply rules, to try and cover creatures who have no knowledge of our rules.

More damning of our arrogance is that we try to imbue wild animals, such as fish, with human traits that derive from the human ability for abstract thought. Abstract thought, the ability to link disparate things together to form a whole, is supposed to be the thing that separates us from animals.

So we go on perpetuating the dogma, cant and rules, forgetting one rule that has no exceptions. To do anything that is exceptional, requires by definition breaking the rules. Catching an exceptional fish, means doing something out of the ordinary, something outside of the rules.

Abraham Lincoln had a good view of this: "I never had a policy that I could always apply. I have simply attempted to do what made the greatest amount of sense at the moment."

Or as Douglas Bader (British Legless World War II pilot) said: " Rules are for the blind obedience of fools, but merely guides for the wise".

I will try to remember this, on the water, while too often doing the usual, trying to catch the exceptional.

trout illustration

Article written by Tony Bishop (Bish)

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My first trout fishing book Fishing Smarter for Trout is now up on this site and free to read. Includes regular updates and new stuff.

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