The Wisdom of Fishless Days

Twenty-five years ago I spent many days in my fly shop talking to fishermen. One lasting impression from hundreds of conversations was their universal derision for fishless days. Many so resented the idea of a fishless day that they chose to deny that they ever experienced them, perhaps the seed of the popular belief that all fishermen are liars.

Every angler likes to catch fish, but I learned long ago to embrace fishless days. They happen to everyone, far more often I suspect than most will admit. Such experiences are among Mother Nature’s teaching moments. Simply stated, fishless days foster greater appreciation for all of the facets of the angling experience, particularly the days when fishing is good.

I have read angling books and articles all of my life, and there is a common thread particularly when the subject matter is fly hatches. Most describe fishing a hatch as if it is a very simple and reliable affair. Go to the river when the Hendrickson’s are on and catch your fill they say, glossing over the true complexity of that wonderful trick of nature.

The truth is better illustrated by my two trips to the Catskills during the spring of 2013. The Hendrickson hatch was indeed on for the first three days as I visited three different rivers. All of these rivers are famous for their fishing during this hatch, and none of them produced so much as a single mayfly. Water and weather conditions were typical for a Catskill spring, and I enjoyed three lovely but fishless days.

On day four I returned to the West Branch Delaware to start the rotation again and fished through an absolute blizzard hatch of Hendricksons. I caught and released a number of fine brown trout on the same water where I had sat and watched the bugless surface flow gently past earlier in the week. My observations on all four days entertained me and added to my store of knowledge.

The second trip brought action on the first afternoon, one of my two best fishing days in that strange, short spring season. I stalked 5 big fish and succeeded in taking four of them, the best a 22 inch brown that seemed to think he had rainbow in his bloodline from the leaping he performed. I had fishermen up, down and across stream that caught little or nothing and were full of questions for me. Sometimes it is just your day. Your choice of flies and fishing tactics fits the conditions you are confronted with perfectly and you reap the rewards; but there was something more than luck going on.

All of those other anglers were wading from the opposite bank and fishing in the gorgeous full sunshine, casting at sporadic risers in the heavy flow in the middle of the river. Most waded to a spot and stood there fruitlessly casting. I stalked along the shaded edge of my bank where big browns were lying in the quiet, shallow water between several large rocks, sipping the smaller male Hendricksons that drifted down that edge of the river. All of my fish accepted the same size 16 CDC sparkle dun, but I cast to each of them from a different position, selected to provide the best casting angle to achieve a drag-free drift.

The calm, shallow water and the uneven bottom made my approach very difficult. I spent a great deal of time working around the boulders and chunk rock to prevent spooking the trout before I could cast to them. Patience can be difficult, particularly in the presence of large, rising trout during a hatch that might end at any moment. Three of the browns I landed were more than twenty inches long, as was the one who managed to shed the hook prematurely. My fishing tactics used the lessons learned from past fishless days.

The two middle days of that four day trip belonged to the fishless category: no bugs and no rising trout. I could have pounded the water with nymphs or streamers, but I chose not to fish that way. I waited, enjoyed the day and was rewarded on the final day of the trip.

I fished an old favorite spot and had the reach of water to myself. Around 1:30 I spied a little wink in flat water along the bank and proceeded to fish slowly and intently with a little Blue Quill. I worked over 4 or 5 trout during the next couple of hours, each sipping daintily, first taking the duns and later the upright spinners the slow current delivered.

I landed three fine gorgeously colored wild trout that afternoon: a pair of beautiful 21 inch browns and another heavy bodied specimen of 20 inches, all well earned by patience and careful fishing. It is hard to ask for a better bit of fishing than that, particularly if you are an aficionado of technical dry fly fishing as I am. In a way the good days were earned with patience and perseverance during the fishless days.

I can recount fishless days when plenty of flies appeared and the trout ate them, days when high water prevented me from approaching those rising trout to best advantage., or high winds made a drag-feee presentation impossible. I have fished often in high water where the situation offered only one spot to cast from, and that location was not the right one for me to make a successful presentation. I study those situations when confronted with them and try to learn something for the next time.

There are times when it is simply not your day. I have had days when I have approached a rising trout and made two dozen careful, perfect casts to that fish without drawing any interest, only to have a gust of wind toss the next cast off target, causing the fly to drag terribly. Concentration broken, I have dropped the rod and relaxed, only to have that difficult fish immediately smash the fly and escape when I couldn’t set the hook on time. At times I imagine the Red Gods sitting up high with a finger on the fan switch, smiling.

Sometimes all you can do is relax and laugh at moments like that. Take the positives from the day, learn from the foibles, and give thanks for each day you are blessed to spend along bright rivers. As I tell an angling friend who oft complains about sparse days astream, you have to take what the river gives you. Some days all she is willing to give is her company, and if you are to enjoy this gift we call fly fishing you must learn to appreciate that and accept that it is enough.

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