Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The benefits of being observant

Yesterday morning, Jonny and I decided to do some carp fishing. Conditions were far from ideal. High and turbid water made it nearly impossible to see the carp, and seeing the carp is essential for success. Or so I thought.

I had stationed myself near a patch of shallow water, in the hopes of getting a
shot at the odd carp that might cruise by. Jonny was some distance downstream.

Presently, I heard some splashing and saw Jonny land a small carp. I was impressed, given the conditions, but not terribly surprised. He is, after all, the best.

But after seeing him land a second, and then a third carp, I began to get discouraged. I had yet to make a cast, and here he had already caught three. We were too far away for me to call to him to ask what fly he was using, so I just stopped to watch him.

Oddly enough, as I watched him for about five minutes, he never once looked at the water, but instead was looking up at the sky. Other than a mental note that this was perhaps peculiar, I didn't give it a second thought, particularly when I saw him start to pull some line off the reel. Soon, he was making false casts, and moments later laid down a cast, stripped twice, and was fast to yet another carp. How the hell is he doing this!?

So, I watched some more. What else was I to do? I sure as hell couldn't see any fish worth casting to.

And again, here goes Jonny staring at the sky. A few minutes later, he looks at the water, begins false casting, then looks up again. Then at the water. A few more false casts. Then up to the sky. Then he quickly fires off a cast, strips twice, and hooks his fifth carp of the morning.

At this point, I started down towards him, but when he saw me coming, he held up his hand, motioning for me to stop. And again, all the while staring up at the sky. I finally looked up, trying to figure out what he was looking at, but could see nothing but blue sky, a few clouds, a dragonfly or two, an osprey, and a songbird or two. But something made Jonny snap to attention yet again, and soon he was making false casts, just as before.

Then I realized what was happening. I didn't believe it, but had to watch, just to prove to myself that my hunch was wrong.

Jonny was watching the osprey, which by now had gone from a relaxed soaring to an attentive fluttering. Jonny would glance at the osprey, then at the water, then back to the osprey. He was, as far as I could tell, trying to figure out where the osprey was going to dive. Indeed, this was it. Once the osprey folded its wings and began to dive, Jonny increased the speed of his false casts, and an instant before the osprey would have hit the water, he placed his fly in exactly that spot...and hooked another carp.

After he landed the carp, he looked up and asked "Having any luck?"

"OK Jonny - what the hell are you doing?", I asked him. "Don't tell me that you're using those ospreys to tell you where the carp are?"

"Well, of course I am," he replied. "How else am I going to find them? The water is entirely too deep and discolored for me to see the fish on my own."

"OK. Talk. Tell me how you're doing this.", I demanded.

And so, he explained it to me. He said, in fact, that any observant fly fisherman not only knows that ospreys eat fish (yes, I knew this), but also knows to use them to one's advantage (no, I'd never thought of this).

As Jonny explained it, he knew that we would not be sight fishing to carp this day, given the conditions. But the ospreys, because of their superior eyesight but also their higher (much higher) vantage point, can see fish we cannot. Now, explained Jonny, an osprey cannot and will not catch the larger carp that we prefer, but small carp are better than no carp. Apparently, he watches and osprey and when he sees one that seems to have eyed a fish, he watches the bird carefully, trying to judge where the bird is going to dive. The fluttering high above the water will get one in the general ballpark, but with carp you must put the fly right in front of the fish, so as Jonny explains it, you must wait until the osprey is well into its dive before you can make a cast. It's not at all unlike the way you would know that an errant soccer ball is going to hit an unsuspecting by-stander on the head, he explained.

"Huh?", I replied.

"Imagine", explained Jonny, "that you're at a football (soccer, for us Yanks) match and a wild kick sends the ball into the stands. And further, suppose that for some reason, a spectator has not been paying attention, and so has not noticed that the ball is sailing his way. Well, if the ball is on the proper trajectory, you, as an observer, will know well before this unfortunate chap does that he is about to be hit upon the head by a football. You know this because whether or not you realize it, you calculate the eventual end of the ball's trajectory, that is this poor man's head, based upon the current speed and trajectory of the ball."

And so, it seems, Jonny watches the osprey dive and makes his cast in order to put the fly in front of the unsuspecting carp (unsuspecting of the osprey high above, that is) and, if all goes well, the carp will take that fly.

"And how well does this work?", I asked him.

"Well, as you plainly saw, it can work well. But of course, sometimes the carp does not take. And sometimes, though not rarely, my cast is off. And sometimes the osprey spooks the fish before it takes the fly. But thankfully, the ospreys seem never to take a fish that I've hooked. They always seem to abort their dives if I've hooked the fish. They, too, are observant, you know."

Andrew Stoner

Friday, June 11, 2010

Comings and Goings

"All good things - trout as well as eternal salvation - come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy."

"The best fisherman I know try not to make the same mistakes over and over again; instead they strive to make new and interesting mistakes and to remember what they learned from them."

"The great charm of fly-fishing is that we are always learning."

"You go fishing because it is graceful."

"It is impossible to grow weary of a sport that is never the same on any two days of the year."

"Angling may be said to be so like the mathematics that it can never be fully learned."

"I think I fish, in part, because it's an anti-social, bohemian business that, when gone about properly, puts you forever outside the mainstream culture without actually landing you in an institution."

"Haig-Brown never wrote with a message. Happily absent from his writing is that boorish, tiresome stance of the "expert" giving his boring advice on how we might catch more fish or kill more game. Instead, he observes and informs purely for its own sake, and does it with an astounding clarity, a complete lack of hysteria, and no sense whatsoever of personal gain".

To wit:

"Fishermen are searchers. It is true we search for fish, at times with great diligence. But we search also, as men always have, for experiences; and there are no greater experiences than the seasons, varied and repeated year after year in our special comings and goings".

These quotes, including the one from my wife, hint at some of the reasons I go fishing, and why I agree with Russell Chatham (penultimate quote) and want to vomit in the company of self proclaimed "experts" who preach one method or another. The quotes tell of something far beyond a "sport" to be mastered; perhaps beyond the grasp of those folks striving to be best, different, or most knowledgeable. Fly fishing is the most individual, virginal, personal and effortlessly satisfying thing I do. You might feel exactly the same way for a raft of entirely different reasons. It's made to measure entirely for me - one size - with no pressure to achieve because my success is measured by me, and I don't care to. We all perceive different angles when gazing at the finest paintings, tasting different food, reading beautiful prose. This is obvious to many of us, of course. I even recognize it in my kids when they hone in on a sliver of detail that only they notice but which has huge resonance for them, unaffected by the push to compete. Sure there is commonality and brotherhood in fishing; but there are no metrics because the same things never happen twice. This is the only certainty, and what precious thing that is: to always do something new, where the lessons always change and cannot, and should not, be codified, packaged, bought or sold. Maybe this is a difficult concept for people who need order and tangible progress to feel comfortable; to feel recognition. Mercifully for the rest, there is no syllabus of fly fishing; no right or wrong. The sole prerequisite is to go outside and have fun.

Some days I catch fish and maybe from time to time I'll get some real big ones, but typically I don't. I'm only confident that tomorrow I'll stumble down the river bank, hook a tree or myself, fall in, miss every take, lose every fish, and leave my rod on the car roof as I drive off. If I get really good at this I'll laugh at myself, and I'll call that success. I take these things to be good medicine; I'm not a robot and I get it wrong repeatedly. My ambition is to use my own limited experience to understand rivers, lakes, and fish. No more. It always works because there's no template or competitor (or there should not be.) I care less and less what others think, and this is probably another barometer of progress. Trying to win at fly fishing would be like trying to win the country fair art show. The rosette and public recognition might feel good for an hour, but tomorrow my two year old son will show me a daub that blows mine away. The wind will change, and today the expert judging panel calls my painting rubbish. So I'll aspire to come last, or to have my contributions derided, disqualified or laughed at by all comers. I'll sneak away from the fete excited to know that they can't see what I see; that you cannot win at art. Plainly it is better to forgo the competition.

My fly fishing could be completely unique from yours, or it may be similar, but I couldn't write you a text book or how-to guide to save my life. I could show you how to cast a fly, or all manner of deeply mundane things to help you on your way, but I'd need to flatten and bleed the life from the best bits, and where's the fun in that? Fly fishing is better, has more depth and color, more magic, strangeness and down right cool than the world's best efforts to visualize the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or whatever the fuck passes for the next life-changing eye candy. Every time I leave my house to go fishing I get a childish buzz like I'm pushing the panel at the back of the wardrobe. It makes me feel young and I suspect it always will. Fly fishing is laughingly lumped in as "sport", but this doesn't fit its incalculable dimensions, nor the fact that the human race have access to it - a blessed relief today. Anyone can go fishing and have as much fun as me, doing the same easy things, through completely different Polaroid's. You cannot teach someone how to fish or tell them, because of your experience, what is the right way, even to tie a simple Partridge & Yellow, let alone how it works in the water. But why aspire to compress and conform, to act like we're part of some stuffy club? If I understand the beauty of angling, I understand why there is no higher aspiration. No one gets to be really good at this, because all of our comings and goings are special.

When I step into a river or lake you might as well stand right there whistling Dixie, I'm lost in a wardrobe. To everyone outside the foil is perfect; I'm just one of the multitude of boring, lazy men snoozing under a tree, fishing line tied to his big toe.

No-one will be any the wiser.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

Interview with Carp Legend T. J. Brayshaw

This is a segment from the classic interview with veteran carp fly fisherman "T.J. Brayshaw" talking about the glory days of carp fishing with his chum, the amazing but enigmatic "English Jonny", as they called him.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Sum of the Parts

The really memorable fish are rarely the biggest or the strongest, though thanks to some of my friends these attributes are forcing their way up my priority list. This film shows my favorite capture of the Memorial Weekend, where size of beast was just one of the parts.

The carp emerged from some nasty snags and overhanging branches and sat no more than 15 feet above me; a feeding fish. I'd been waiting for him, and made one leading cast perhaps 5 feet ahead, the stream carrying the fly down to him perfectly, asking little more than a slow pivot of his oblong frame for the deception to work. So far, we're text book (it happens twice a year if I'm lucky. And I do believe in luck. Other anglers credit themselves when things work, but the irony of this rather scientific achievement is that it forgoes the greater inspiration and plain, youthful romance in simple moon alignment.) Hooked, the fish would dictate the next play, making straight for the submerged brush from whence it had come. Maximum pressure on the #4 Hardy "Lightweight" was essential if I was to have this fish [watching the film again I see I mixed up the bully boy tactics with a little "soft shoe" up the sandbank!], and this helped change the fish's path sufficiently for the rest to go smoothly in shallow, snag-less water. Sighting this fish, stalking it, seeing the take, trying to play bully with a delicate trout rod, and all in perhaps a foot and a half of clear water, made for a very exciting capture. I'm glad Andrew was on hand to record it, too. -- JA