A Numbers Game

It had been a while since I was out fishing last. Summer, in all its glory, has found one obligation after another for me, and a day on a weekend that I could justify spending the entirety of out mucking around on a stream has been rare.

With the Fourth come and gone, it’s hard not to feel like summer is already on the wane. So, with a Sunday my own and despite the fact that I didn’t get to sleep until about 2:00 last night, I set the alarm for 6 a.m. and heeded its call (and Rosie’s nudge) as gray light seeped into the bedroom this morning.

I have developed something of a strategy for early morning departures with trout stream destinations. It starts the night before: Get stuff in car and in front of my nose for the morning. Clothes, whatever. Then, get to bad ASAP. In the morning, no “snooze” button. Just get up and point myself toward the door. Get into clothes en route. Maybe some water. Just get on the road so as not to waste the benefit of such an early, and painful, awakening.

When I got to the river it was 7:30 and I was feeling pretty good after a big cup of coffee and some breakfast on the way. I went to a favorite old access point on the Stinging Nettle River, a bridge with a name that always makes me wonder about its history. It was a bright day by the time I got there, but when the road dipped down toward the river and into the trees, it suddenly became cool, damp and shady.

It’s a good time of the year to fish, even though the water is low and clear, the fish smart and spooky, and the bugs hatch at godawful early hours of the day. The reason it is a good time to fish is that not many people do. When I got to this bridge, there were two other cars there; I have seen the same parking area full at earlier times of the season, 12, maybe 14 cars jammed in. I have even fished it at those times of the year, but I have walked miles along the bank to get a stretch of my own.

Today, after rigging up, I walked down to the river, saw fish rising, and fished there for three or four hours, only seeing one other person the entire time.

I didn’t just see fish rising in that pool below the bridge, I saw the surface of the water boiling with their rises. I had really never seen anything quite like it. A certain hope had been fulfilled a thousand times over: Tricos (Tricorythodes). Little tiny mayflies that do their business in the early hours of late summer mornings and then collapse to the water in great blanketing numbers. When I saw the fish going crazy in the tailout of the riffle, I looked immediatley to the sky downstream and saw a cloud of bugs like I had never seen before.

When I say the fish were going crazy, it is no understatement. The only word for it was “frenzy.” They were swimming around frantically, literally with their open mouths protruding from the water as they inhaled the bugs on the water.

I tied a Trico spinner onto some 6x tippet and crept down in the water. I was prepared to be stealthy, but it ended up seeming completely unnecessary. The trout were so obsessed with their breakfast that they never seemed to notice my presence, or even the occasional member of their pod being violently pulled from their midst.

As you may have picked up by now, participating in a hatch of this magnitude was a pretty new thing to me. I’ve fished tricos before and it had been a good time but had also lived up to its reputation for challenge. Today, my biggest challenge was one of numbers, specifically the sheer number of natural insects on the water. My fly just couldn’t stand out in the crowd and it was only by a little luck and persistence that I managed to convince a few fish to eat mine instead of the millions of others that were on the water.

Luckily, the advantage I enjoyed also came from a matter of numbers: the number of fish feeding. Standing where I stood for the whole morning, I counted dozens and dozens of fish in front of me, moving up and down the pool as a pod, feeding incessantly. If my fly passed by five snouts that chose one of the naturals on the water, the sixth fish would take mine.

Though the taking of fish wasn’t as intense as the activity in the stream, mostly due to the “Where’s Waldo?” effect I described above, I did all right. What was as surprising as anything this morning was the size of the average fish I was hooking. I got a couple that went to about 15-16″ and a few in the 13-14″ bracket. For a river that produces so many fish in the 10-12″ size, it was a lot of fun to have that kind of bend in my rod.

With its sheer intensity, it was hard to imagine the hatch ever ending, the water ever calming. I noticed it slacken a little when I paused to sit on the bank finally and have a smoke. I could still see several fish, but they were beginning to drop back, hanging under the surface a few inches, darting up to grab the occasional morsel. When I resumed fishing, I got a couple more, but they were smaller than before and I realized that the fun was over for this morning.

I stayed there for another hour or so. I tried some subsurface tactics to no avail, and, without the compelling site of active fish, my interest waned. As did my energy levels, the reality of the four hours of sleep hitting home. I didn’t mind at all when I headed back up to the car and it wasn’t yet 11 a.m. I ate a snack and had some water on the bridge, watching a few little trout clean up the leftovers on the surface.

I didn’t bring the camera along and I was okay with that. I released all my fish quickly and efficiently, without the hassle or guilt of snapping their picture. It was a beautiful day, with blue skies and the lush greens of summer, a day to simply enjoy and remember as best I can, and to hope I’m fortunate enough to repeat again sometime.

4 thoughts on “A Numbers Game

  1. cK

    Lord. I haven’t fished in ages, don’t even keep gear here. (It’s all at the cabin becoming as much a part of history as the lamps and saws and such my great-grandparents owned there.) I think the last time I went out was seven, maybe eight years ago to an old, flooded strip mine seam in Southern Illinois. A reclamation crew was at work farther down the way. Jim and I had to drive around a barrier to get into the area, but none of the crew minded. They’d sneak in fishing down there too. It was a nice day. We’d gone out early and stayed a couple hours.

    Thank god we didn’t catch any gar, for there were a number of them in that stream. I hate those prehistoric bastards.

  2. the dharma bum Post author

    ck, thanks for the tale. what would you guys have been fishing for while avoiding the gar?

    the thing i probably love most about fishing (well… beside the bend in my rod with a decent fish on) is the stories that come out of it. some days on the stream are “mundane” though still perfect in a timeless way, some days create a story (whether it’s a big fish, sneaking into a mine, nearly getting shot, or a million other things that can happen)… you never quite know what will happen when you depart, and that’s often the thing that draws me out the door.


  3. lene

    Great reflection, bum. Glad to hear you got out on the river. :)

    I’ve only seen fish move once the way you described them. When I saw an extended feeding frenzy, it was for a cream midge hatch.

  4. GerardH


    Great stuff as always. Tricos are magic: size 22 flies, spiderweb tippets, sipping trout…that’s what fly fishing is about. Late August / early September is a good time — cooler temperatures cause the spinner fall to occur later in the morning, a hint of autumn is in the air, and the opportunity exists to harass the fish later in the day with hoppers. But as all things in life, get out when the opportunity presents itself. Those early morning outings in July with the dank, moist air are special times, too — by the time the sun gets high enough to become uncomfortable it’s time to reel up and retreat into the shadows until the next outing.

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