The Global FlyFisher
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Small Fry, 1
Chapter 1: The Lure of the Little
Perfection is as illusory in fishing as it is in any other aspect of life, yet practice brings with it certain plateaus of near-perfection. Such stages in a fly fisher’s practice provide a good time and opportunity to branch out.
Rivers, like trees, have numerous branches. There is a lot of territory within all that tangle. Each feeder stream is a primal source that contributes its modest share to an ever-growing bigger and bigger picture. Time goes like these deliquescent flows, and eventually, as the fishing seasons pass and accrue, the big water’s formidable image dissolves and is replaced by a familiar face. This familiarity does not breed contempt, nor does boredom or stagnation settle in, although there is a soft call within the water’s flow that becomes ever more audible over time. I like to equate this sound to the wind speaking through tree branches. A similar breath of spirit is continually calling from the branches of the big river, calling those who will listen to turn upstream, to follow one of the branches off the main stem, to try something different, something smaller.
There is much to love about little waters and the fish that call these flows home. The miniature scale is more manageable and here a close relationship can be cultivated. I like to think this makes a fly fisher more sensitive and more skilled. These qualities -- a more refined approach, a lighter touch -- lead to a greater appreciation of, and ability on, any size water.
Much has been written about fly fishing’s relationship with things small -- high country beaver ponds, tiny spring creeks, even tying and fishing small flies -- yet lesser coolwater streams and their resident fish species remain a consistently overlooked and understudied resource. Pristine cold waters with legendary reputations draw a large, exclusive following, while huge, man-made impoundments shimmer in the heat of tournament fishing fever. Elsewhere, though, small streams flow out of the limelight, offering plenty of solitude and fine fly fishing for the average angler. These forested runs and country brooks are sometimes even anonymous, little more than short, ragged blue lines on a topographical map. These waters can become, figuratively and literally, an angler’s personal stream.
Coolwater freestone creeks have many attractive qualities. These are angler-friendly waters. The scale is ideal for comprehensive exploration and thorough casting coverage. The flow is often spring-fed, born at higher elevations, and so generally tends to run clear of clouding runoff after rain. Consistency is found in the stream’s dynamics, too. Quiet riffles meander into small pools that are usually never deep enough to turn an opaque jade green. Reading the water is easier here, as one can usually see both the rocky bottom and the extent of a shadow’s reach along the streambed. These pools can be described more precisely as depressions that add one or two feet of additional depth to the main stream’s general flow. This slightly higher roof provides the fish below a safe house of slightly slower water; a room -- a kitchen -- that gives a greater sense of ease and security, which make fish more conducive to feed.
If these creeks are pictured as the branches of big trees, then coolwater ponds and small lakes are the fruits that offer the same kind of tempting perks to the Piscator. Stillwaters of this size are often as unkempt as a trout bum, and so contain numerous coves, brush piles, and other fish-holding cover undisturbed by human activity. The hiking or biking angler can cover the circumference of such destinations in a good day’s fishing and, because of the deceptively small size, can bet that less adventurous anglers with a lunker in their eyes will be absent. The solitary fishing fan, or a single family, can experiment and explore at peace without stress-inducing competition and catch their brace of fish in the process. Small ponds throughout the country are chock full of panfish. The numerous, small, sand and gravel lakes of New England teem with brook trout and white perch. And the “thousands and thousands of lakes” region of the upper Midwest is stacked with rock bass and small smallmouth that rarely, if ever, see an artificial fly floating on the roof of their cold, clear, cobblestone homes.
These environments bring us up close to those scaled sirens that call us anglers to meet waters large and small. In the coolwater pond or creek, diversity is the main draw, far outweighing the monolith of size. This concept -- the celebration of differences -- has become more and more a part of our culture in recent years, and I can think of no other place in life where the positive benefits of diversity are more apparent than along a coolwater pond or freestone stream. This is the place for the fly fisher who respects and likes all fish. Dry fly, wet fly, streamer, or nymph: any given cast with any given pattern can result in a hookup. The list of what may be on the other end of the line is long: sunfish, catfish, white perch, or black bass. This cornucopia of species adds an additional quality of excitement to the sport; like a box of chocolates, the excitement of: “You never know what might bite next!” When this facet is added to all the others -- the scenery, the tie, the cast, the presentation, the take, the catch, and the release -- fly fishing becomes that proverbial good thing in a small package; an undisputed gem of an outdoor sport.
The fish species that reside in these waters almost always grow to a size that is in proportion to their environment: panfish that rarely exceed a pound, foot-long smallmouth bass that top the creek’s food chain, or wild mountain brook trout that grow old without ever growing beyond the length on an angler’s outstretched hand. Saltwater fishing enthusiasts may call such fish “bait,” but at the end of a 4-weight, “lightening” comes to mind. A sunfish working against the current, a smallmouth leaping a half dozen times, or a brookie holding fast beneath an undercut bank will engage any fly fisher’s skill set.
One of the big challenges is learning to target smaller species with specific techniques as precise as a soft cast on a spring creek. The fish described in the following chapters have habits and preferences that can be, at times, as hard to figure out as a wise old brown trout. Sometimes the trick is a classic fly pattern scaled up or down a few hook sizes, or matching a more unorthodox hatch such as crayfish or forage minnows. The redbreast sunfish, rock bass, white perch, chubs, and small stream smallmouth bass and brook trout are all fascinating and fun fly rod quarry. The pursuit of these fish can lead to an angling lifetime of serious study and sport; a pursuit that can turn into a passion I like to call “the lure of the little.”