Updated: Jan 7
Fishermen and fisherwomen are odd creatures. We are obsessed with information and any new insight into fish behavior, diet etc. We consume it in our everyday life in tidbits. A quick article or video at lunch about the finer points of fishing bwo emergers during a snow storm in December. It seems that most people rarely sit down and read a complete book anymore about whatever subject (thank you for the suggestion Mac about The Mind of Trout!), but I digress. I can’t imagine what it is like for a new fisherman right now. It must be overwhelming trying to wind your way through all the social media platforms out there and having so much knowledge at your fingertips but not knowing how and when to apply it, what is important and what is not. The funny part is, even when we have the knowledge, we as humans often fall back to our gut feelings rather than the science. I am no different and often rely on my gut when I am in the field. I know I shouldn’t, but I do. I try to go about my fishing and hunting scientifically but more times than not, fall back on previous experience, my own inner confidence and what a gnawing feeling is telling me. This begs a question: When do you listen to the science and when do you follow your intuition? Can you do both?
I admit it, I read scientific data and studies for fun, mostly about fish….and out of fish, mostly about Columbia Basin Redband Trout. I am not a very good scientist but do know that to understand the fish, you have to first understand their environment. Some of us become amateur biologists, geologists, entomologists and limnologists(I have always wanted to use that word) and it has improved our understanding of fish and our fishing without a doubt. And like scientists, we sometimes “experiment” on the water. We try and apply what we have learned in the “classroom” to the river. Sometimes with success, sometimes with failure. Yet even with failure, this builds experience and the success fosters confidence which also fits into this equation between science and intuition. However, listening to the science may not be enough to get the job done. Some days, you have to fall back on something else; a hunch.
Hunches. I learned about hunches at a young age when it came to fishing and hunting, mostly from my father. He was the type of person who liked the science just fine but fell back to experience, confidence and what his gut was telling him to get the job done. For example, I can remember as a little kid, my dad loading my brothers and I up in the jeep with our rods and heading out to fish a decent trout creek on opening weekend. Now this creek didn’t hold great big trout. It was mostly browns and rainbows and if you hooked into something over 18 inches, it was a monster. But in the spring of the year, the rainbows would run up to spawn and the browns would follow gobbling eggs as they went. By the time opening day came around, the bigger browns and rainbows would be high up the creek where we took our shots at them. The creek up high was a meandering meadow stream with the occasional big rock and lots of cutbanks and fallen snags. Sadly, it also had cows on the property for much of the year but on a positive note, the rancher kept them out of the creek for the most part. So one opening weekend, years ago, as usual, my dad loaded us up for the drive out to the creek. It had been an unusual year as far as snow was concerned. The valley where the creek ran had flooded. My father told me years later when I asked him about it, that he had a choice that year. Fish the creek, or the lake that was closer to home and had a great flying ant hatch around the time of opening day every year. He chose the creek on a hunch. He wasn’t sure what we would find when we got there. Would it still be flooded or had the waters receded? As we approached the creek by foot that opening Saturday, it became evident that winter had been pretty gnarly up in the valley that year. The cut banks had been scoured underneath and all evidence of cows had been wiped out. Frank (Dad) wasted no time rigging up a brown stone/hellgrammite nymph (we had hellgrammites in those parts and if you have ever been pinched by one, you remember it) with a size 12 pheasant tail nymph as his dropper. Now, this would have been the early 80’s so there were no indicators or beadhead flies at that time and a size 12 was small. Most people, my dad included just tight lined with heavy nymphs, a split shot on the bottom and a long leader. It was kind of like euro nymphing but most rods during that time were 8 or 8 ½ feet long and made of fiberglass. It wasn’t the most graceful thing to watch, but it worked. As for my brother’s and I, we were still a little too young to fly fish just yet and were stuck using spinning rods and Mitchell 300’s with a cast-a-bubble and split shot to get our flies or salmon eggs under the cut banks. While I was still rigging up, Frank had his first fish on and landed a beautiful brown that seemed way to large for the creek he was in. As we fished throughout the day, dad was killing it, big fish after big fish. My brothers and I are were struggling. The fish wanted nothing to do with what we had on our lines. After a bit, Frank offered up some stonefly/Hellgramite nymphs. These things were huge, like size 4 hook. I had never fished such a big fly on a creek. In a lake, sure, I had trolled big Wooley Buggers and Wooley Worms, but not when I had to cast it. Since we were kids, we weren’t coordinated enough to run 2 flies just yet. After Jason and I got rigged up (I was bottom bouncing like 6 split shot under that stonefly nymph), Frank saw we were ready and wandered up the creek 2 holes to give us our space. I wasn’t feeling very confident with my setup. I usually caught fish on an egg up here this time of the year but the egg had produced nothing so far. So I hurled my first cast upstream of the cut bank and watched the hydraulics suck my rig next to the bank in the feeding lane. The strike was violent and quick and was by far the biggest fish I had ever hooked on a stream. As the big rainbow slashed I yelled at Jason to help me. I had the rod tip up and the drag set right but this fish was nearly ripping the rod out of my hand on every lunge. I didn’t know how to land such a big fish so I did the only thing I could think of, I started to back up. I didn’t reel in any line, I just started walking away from the creek, pulling the big trout behind me. Eventually, I beached the fish and Jason and I were astounded. After letting the fish go, we each hooked into multiple big fish. Some we landed, some we did not. At that point, it didn’t really matter. We were young boys catching fish and having a grand ole time. Years later, Frank told me he remembered that day, he could here us hootin and hollering way downstream….he laughed.
We all follow our hunches when fishing. That day, Frank followed his hunch. Whether it is where to go, what to tie on and what part of the river to fish. Some of this comes from prior experience and confidence. But what about when you encounter a river or conditions you are unfamiliar with? You look for the familiarity within it. The reality is, trout are basically the same whether they be in Silver Creek , Idaho or Argentina. The environment may be different, but the fish are the same, they don’t change. Trust the science folks but also trust your gut. Always trust your gut.