I was reading some Gierarch the other day and he was describing his approach to writing. After getting home from a fishing trip, he’ll often wait a few weeks before reflecting on the experience. The story—if there is one at all—should naturally bubble to the surface. It might be a story about the fishing, but it might be something else completely. I love the way Geirarch can write about ‘fishing’ but not about the fishing part of fishing. Fishing people will hopefully understand what I mean.
I figured this approach was a good idea after our Tassie trip back in September, about which Hamish wrote a lovely little post here. Heading to Europe for five weeks after Tassie was also a good excuse to think about the experience for a while. Hamish’s post was a nice gaze at the navel about observing an angler, hunting his quarry, and it got me thinking about what another angler would think if they had been watching us for those few special days on the Little Pine Lagoon. It was the fact that we were being watched at one point that provided the inspiration for this story.
It was our first experience of fishing for tailing trout. After many hours of trial and error, we finally figured it out, but it was a precipitously steep curve in often difficult conditions. The most fulfilling thing for me about this trip was this curve. My first experience of Little Pine Lagoon was in a howling gale. After donning six layers and enjoying a not-so-wee dram of whiskey (which can also be ‘donned’), we made our way towards my namesake, the “Lee”. I was too eager, and thinking that the gale would be blowing the food towards the windswept bank and attracting the hungry trout, I jumped into a few foot of choppy water and started casting back towards the bank. I noticed a portly, red-faced angler further around the lagoon. He was sitting calmly on a rock, watching the water and glancing at me from time to time.
I continued in this fashion for a while; wading the shallows, punching casts towards the bank, and was lucky enough to have a good strike on a black woolly bugger. Sadly, I didn’t connect. After almost losing my footing a few times I thought it timely to head around the bank and catch up with Hamish. As we met, the portly chap came towards us and, as flyfishermen should (and most often do), had a chat. ‘Old mate’ had been casting to tailing fish in the shallows and had landed three beautiful trout, one of which was pushing an honest 5 pounds. We listened intently as he told us about watching for the dorsal and tail fins, carefully studying the beat, and then casting a little green nymph with an orange head ‘a foot and just to the side’ in front of the feeding fish. We expressed our gratitude as he left us, and quickly sat down to study the flyboxes, have a nip of whiskey and find some green nymphs with orange heads.
It wasn’t long before we started to spot the cruising fish. We spooked a few to start with, and quickly learnt that crouching back around 10-15m from the water’s edge was crucial. I saw two fish cruising along the bank and made an approach. What did the man say again? Have I got the right fly? How far out should I place the fly? These were the questions that went through my mind as I crept through the waterlogged rushes, adrenaline pumping every time the fish showed themselves.
I had spooked them. Or had I? I couldn’t see their golden fins, but was that a hint of movement on the water? I convinced myself the fish were still there, and made a delicate cast with the fly landing about 1m from the bank. The water was only 10cm deep; surely you can’t catch a trout like this!? My leader started to move off and I struck to set the hook. No pressure, no weight, just two solid ‘V’ lines through the shallows, heading quickly out towards the deeper water. This was to be the closest I would get to catching a fish for the afternoon, but I had learnt a lot and was pumped for the following day. We spent the evening sipping whisky and tying our best impersonations of the little green nymph with the orange head, eager for the following day.
Morning came, and despite the warm glow from the whiskey the night before having turned into a clammy hairiness, we were back on the lagoon before 8am. The weather was a little nicer than the previous day, with the sun making the odd appearance through the fast-moving grey clouds. The fish were tailing and we had our eyes in. Similarly to hunting, once you see a visual profile you know what to look for. Your brain develops a template against which you overlay your environment. Anyone who’s experienced it will know what I mean. Now that we were seeing fish, the opportunities to catch them seemed to increase exponentially. We had walked a long way around the lagoon and had come across a small lee, which presented a section of bank with a small sliver of glassy water, close to shore, which extended for a few metres into the lagoon before the wind created a ruffle. There were fish feeding all along the bank.
Hamish was first to hook up, as evidenced by his ‘WOOHOO!’ echoing across the lagoon. I would have run over to him to take some photos, but had two fish feeding actively in front of me, and had to make the difficult decision to stay put and have a cast. It turned out to be the right move. I had been fishing the little green nymph but hadn’t had much luck and had switched to a small black woolly bugger. My cast was poor, with the fly landing about 15cm from the bank. Far too close, or so I thought. A moment later and there was a bow wave heading towards my fly. The trout’s back broke the water as it rolled on its side and devoured the fly. I lifted the rod and was connected to a good fish. Hamish made his way towards me and managed to get a few photos, for which I was very grateful.
As we were fishing, I noticed a few anglers that I’d seen the previous day heading around the bank towards us. As I watched them approach the feeding fish, they jumped into the water to wade (as I had done the previous day), and proceeded to spook fish after fish after fish. ‘Idiots!’, we mused. How could they not see that they were spooking the fish? We could even hear them saying ‘There’s one!’, ‘Just spooked a monster!’, ‘Wow, did you see the size of that one?!’ and so on as they made their way around the bank. It was painful to watch, but I remembered the fisherman watching me the day before, and willed them to come over for a chat so that we could share some of our newfound wisdom. They didn’t make it, unfortunately, and headed off back towards the carpark. Fishless.
I landed another fish before things went a bit quiet and we decided to head back towards the hire car. As we peeled ourselves away from this magical place, with a spring in our steps, an old, handsome man and his black hound emerged from the heath on the high bank behind us and made his way towards the water. We stopped to have a chat. He’d be sitting up there and watching us and the other anglers for some time, and he had given us the courtesy of fishing the bank for the tailing fish. After a cordial exchange, with him congratulating us on our fish and joking at the misfortune of our eager counterparts, we knew then that this is what this fishery was all about. It was classicly challenging fishing in a beautiful spot, with particular nuances and idiosyncrasies. It took time to learn what to do, and we cracked it: to some extent. It was this that made it so special.
As we wandered off, we looked back as the old man and his well-trained hound crept to within 10m of the water and proceeded to watch the fish. He didn’t make a cast, and appeared to be considering which fly to use. It is this patience, observational skill and stealth that makes fishing for tailers so much fun. We finally went around the corner and lost sight of him, but I would like to imagine that he sat there for a few more minutes, hound waiting patiently at his side, before tying on a little green nymph with an orange head, making the cast, lifting the rod, and connecting with a beautiful trout.
It’s the constant cycle of learning and adapting to the conditions that makes flyfishing (and fishing in general) so fulfilling. At times, you are forced to slow down, sit back and observe your environment. And I think Gierarch is right; it’s nice to let the story, whatever it may be, bubble to the top. In a serendipitous, circular coincidence, observing one’s observations is analogous to fishing itself, whatever that means.