New Anglers are technical and deliberate, methodical in their fly selection, approach, and presentation—still too green to have been frustrated and befuddled by a stubborn river and finicky trout; in their mind, the world still makes sense, and a matched hatch will always catch a fish. They’ve not yet racked up those long days when no matter what you throw, you can’t seem to get the skunk out of the boat.
Good Anglers, however, have gained a sense of superstition; they’ve been skunked enough to know that deliberate fly selection and study of entomology still holds, but one should hedge his bets… Just in case Izaak Walton was right about a trout striking out of wantonness over hunger, and they might suspect from time to time that the river has its own rules that we mortals are not privy to, and there are forces of chaos and absurdity beneath the ripples which we do not understand. This angler calls it intuition, but we know what that really means:
“Pick that fly.”
“Why? There’s no Sow Bugs in this river.”
“Uhh… feels right. Tie it on.”
The morning routine of the “Good Angler” might consist of always putting on the lucky Buff, arranging the rods in the vault left to right in order of weight—always sticking hard to a routine. Nothing too crazy. But if you know what to look for, you can see this hard, reasonable exterior showing some cracks. This angler still believes in the law and order of nature and assumes the trout is an animal governed by very deterministic evolutionarily biology and predictable principles. Yet in spite of this, the Good angler puts on his lucky buff and has grim premonitions of a fishless day if any aspect of his morning routine is disrupted. Maybe just maybe, he or she suspects, there is mystery here too.
And then there are the best anglers…
This angler has been through the whole fly box many times over, dropping down to 7x tippet, and 15ft. leaders, casting seventy feet away and the trout hold unmoved. We’ve sat frustrated trying to make sense of the world in such cases, the beer and whiskey comes out as we compare all the books we’ve read on tactics and bug life, but it is only a matter of time before our minds, which so long to ascribe a workable system to a world that makes no sense, drift towards the superstitious and the absurd.
And then it gets weird.
A bunch of gibbering pagans, governed by primitive superstition and a situational theology which could best be compared to animism. This is what great anglers are. On land, I’m Baptist, my father Evangelical, but on the water, we belong to the church of the river gods.
You see, the best anglers have seen the rules of the game broken too many times to approach the river with anything less than a sense of baffled wonder, who trust the intuition, and don’t think but KNOW that the biorhythms matter; that if the chi, if such a word maybe used, is off, then we may as well go home.
Hurrying out the door one day, headed for the Clinch River in Tennessee, I grabbed a banana and tossed it in my hip pouch. When we’re free and drifting, I unpeeled it and hurriedly started on my meagre breakfast. The look my father and uncle leveled on me was chilling. “What are you doing with that in my boat?” “What?” I managed through a mouthful of fruit. “Throw that shit over the side, right now.” “What are you on about?” “Do not ever bring a banana on my boat again.”
And he refuses to name the boat. As surely as it is bad luck to bring a banana on a fishing boat, everyone knows it’s worse luck to have a boat with no name. He is genuinely afraid to name the boat because he feels it will affect the Juju and might mess with the fishing. He genuinely believes this. And he has landed more Gigantic trout in public water than anyone I know, and my uncle, no less the angler or acolyte of the river gods, has caught just as many Red fish, even holding a record in Louisiana. They believe in the Chi, they trust their crazy intuitions, and they have the river giants to support these crazy beliefs.
I believe this stuff too.
The boat will have no name.
And it only gets worse. After lunch, especially if it’s been tough fishing, the salty old captain fires up one of his cigars, intermittedly chewing and smoking it. And every time he opens the fly box, he exhales a cloud of the rich smelling aroma over the hackles of the flies. And don’t tell me it doesn’t play; this is the equivalent of the cleric’s blessing over his work. It might just be me, but I’m not going to take the chance to find out. The smoke dressing plays.
While on the White River hopper fishing in October, we had great luck throwing a Fat Albert tight to the banks; several 16-20 inch browns had chewed this thing for days. The UV had faded what was left of the hot pink legs to an opaque orange, and the toothy trout had left nicks in the foam back all over. The hook itself had been sharpened and reshaped working the point back to the shank. “Brother, it’s time to retire this fly.” With heavy hearts we stripped it in and stuck it in the patch next to the dry box. I tied a fresh, buggy Albert back on, and we settled in for more action.
For two hours, nothing.
We cycled through variations of the fly and different sizes and nothing.
“Let’s put that old fly back on.”
“The legs are gone.”
“I don’t care; the Chi is right on that one.”
A statement of faith and fire. I saw the look in his eye when he said it. It was going to work, for no other reason than our belief in the favor of the river.
No sooner had my uni-knot come tight, and the Hardy Zenith 7wt. sang as the textured shooting line sped through the guides, that an 18 inch Brown smashed it on the right bank.
Embrace the weird. Quit trying to explain the river. It is always best to arm yourself with experience, research, and sound technique, but when these things fail to produce and your elegant explanations have broken down, it’s time to get weird.
You’ll be in good company. The best anglers are.
Let’s get on the water, and let’s get weird.
Brian DeLoach is a High School Teacher and a coach at Lee University Anglers Fly Fishing team. He is a certified master Instructor on staff with Fly Fishers International and Associate editor at The Loop. While he keeps a five weight rigged up with a dry fly ready to go, he primarily throws heavy streamers on sinking lines. You can follow him on instagram at @windknotz88