Thursday, February 25, 2010

It’s all the same in the dark

I’m a recent addict to fishing for striped bass and blue fish with a fly. Being a freshwater stalwart for quite some years, I felt guilty at first: betraying trout streams for the allure of the big, sexy ocean. But I’ve made my peace with that.

My experience fly fishing the salt has been short, but patterns are emerging, fish are being caught, and I’m bathing (quite literally) in the new wonders of moon, tide, waves, sand, and baitfish. There are differences and similarities to the worlds of trout and stripers. Here’s a brief, meandering take.

Most obviously, but I think importantly, is that you must often look for striped bass in a different way. I don’t mean you should affect a particular stance and squint your eyes, nor have you the need for a beret, pipe and cape. But unlike the river, which one can readily read to have a good idea of where a trout will be, stripers move with tide. They are Here, There and Everywhere, then A Long Time Gone (forgive me: The Beatles and CSNY were my musique du jour). I can fish a river at any time of day and I might know where to catch a trout. Go to an estuary at low tide and I will be casting to mud. You get the rather messy picture.

I have a friend – “Bob” – who reckons that finding striped bass is 90% of the bother in catching them. I think he’s dead right, because when I find fish I am usually surprised at how easy they are to catch in numbers and on any lure of my choosing. Of course, there is real skill and knowledge to be brought to “just finding fish”. It ain't easy. Time and patience are required; the stomach to swallow long, fish-less nights an absolute. Time the moon, tide, presence of bait etc, but still yet I might be fishing water devoid of fish, or where those pesky smaller fish predominate (An aside, I think we all covet the big ones where stripers are concerned, but Russell Chatham suggests that fishing for small brook trout could be a more “pure” form of angling; the take, play and landing of the small char being done without the backdrop of sweat and puff required to land a monster).

But it’s fair to say that once you’ve learned where to go – perhaps multiple areas that fish well in different moods – you will probably catch stripers with your eyes closed. And happily, my experience tells that there are times when, with eyes wide open, the bass are popping all around and not one will be caught. Attention to a certain something extra is needed. A puzzle to be solved.

All fishing has this in common. The puzzle. Stripers, like trout, might want a fly presented in a very definite (and not altogether obvious) way, or to a designated lie beyond my own rather average casting reach. I know of striped bass that rise to grass shrimp carried on the tide like mayflies drifting on the Farmington. These bass ask specifically for a dry shrimp pattern fished on a “static” (not “dead”) drift. Others like the fly swung, plucked, stripped, at great depth, or fished higher in the column. How the fly achieves this is for the angler, and not the banality of his chosen tackle, to get right or wrong.

I’m confident that trout can be, and typically are, more choosy than stripers. This makes some sense: trout are comparably sedentary creatures, holding on station and moving little to visit the larder. Tidal fish are probably more opportunistic, less discerning (why else would you eat a snake fly, Clouser Minnow or multi-colored 12 feather flatwing “thing”?) My dry shrimp need not take on the accuracy of size nor the characteristics of a size 22 Trico spinner. Again, you get my drift.

Another close chum – “Brian” – has a deeply contagious fascination with fly composition and selection. His flies seek to deceive fish in yet another way. But at heart I think it is probably his enjoyment of this angle that matters most here – fishing the way that pleases him personally. Once a fish is hooked, it is the same fish with the same number of stripes on it. Another dear Fellow I know of – and probably the finest all-round angler I know – has an astounding breadth of ken about capturing all manner of fish and can work a fly rod as good as anyone, but he doesn’t tend to hang out on trout streams. (Side note: it strikes me that trout anglers are good striper fishermen in waiting, but some good striper fishermen got there independently).

All this serves to prove merely that I’m fond of the sound of my own keyboard. If you made it this far, here’s the good bit. Writing this also reminds me that, like people, no two anglers or two fish are the same. The commonality is fly fishing - for trout, stripers, or bluegills - and something about the ever-fresh wonder that any fish will be quite so daft enough to eat whatever variety of feather, fur and meat hook we throw out. I also realize that perhaps my biggest pleasure in all this is borne of the fly fishing fantasies of others. Being present to their varied and nuanced pleasures, being around to see them unlock the puzzles that we're working through, is to enjoy people as much as the act of working my own rod and line. At any rate, it’s at least a bloody good bonus.

I can tell you with certainty that I have never anticipated a fishing season – river or ocean - like the one just around the next corner.


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