I’m of the opinion that if you’ve fished one trout stream, you’ve fished them all. The hatches, species, and scenery change from one world-class water to the next, but the theory behind catching trout remains the same the world over.
At least, that’s the theory, right?
Fly fishing has been equated to numerous activities throughout the centuries – a pursuit to spirituality, a contemplative man’s sport, an endeavor for only the high-minded and high-browed – but one comparison that has weight is stating that fly fishing is, in part, a science. We study the life cycles of bugs to perfect our patterns. We learn the habits of trout and how they feed, where they hide, and try to figure out why they behave in a certain fashion. Most of what we “know” about trout is simply fly fishing theory.
It’s that theory that had me confounded a few weeks ago while fishing Wyoming’s high country. My buddy Blair and I left his home in Idaho Falls and drove nearly 80 miles on a dirt road to reach an isolated area of the Cowboy State. Our quarry was cutthroat, but so far we’d caught three whitefish between the two of us.
The river – we were now past its headwaters – is a famed cutthroat fishery. The rivers around it are nearly as famous for their populations of my favorite trout. But despite our best efforts at executing fly fishing theory correctly, Blair and I didn’t have a cutthroat to show for all our hard work. It was 1:30 in the afternoon.
Theory dictated that I fish a dry fly – probably something large, due to the abundance of hoppers – near the banks and bushes. Theory also told me to slap the fly down hard, then let it drift motionless. A drag-free drift, the very essence of dry fly fishing theory.
And what had adhering to theory accomplished for me up to that point in my day?
Not a damn thing.
Eventually, Blair and I managed a few cutthroat from the main channel of a still-too-skinny bit of water, but they were emaciated little things. Hardly the brutes we knew swam in the mountain range’s waters.
In an effort to clear our minds, put real food in our bellies, and take a load off, we turned around and drove another 80 miles back into town.
We weren’t giving up, mind you. Just regrouping. Considering another stream, further north. Or going back to the river that had, for two trips in a row now, thoroughly whipped our ass.
As Blair went to town on some fried chicken and I ate a pizza Lunchable (I can’t stand the things unless I’m fishing – I’m not sure why), a local overheard us talking about our struggles on the river.
“What were you using?” He asked after a brief introduction.
“Callibaetis, Adams, caddis, you name it, we threw it,” I said.
“Hoppers?” He asked.
He cracked a smile. “Well, you weren’t fishing ’em right, then.”
Wasn’t fishing them right? But I knew how to fish a hopper. Or, more accurately, I knew the theory behind one method of fishing hoppers.
The guy – named Jack – owned an outfitting shop in town. He’s not a guide, as they’re not allowed on this particular river, but he was more than happy to hop in the truck and head up the canyon to show us the right way to fish hoppers.
We rigged up, scrambled down a steep slope, and found ourselves on the banks of a river that Jack deemed “Too damn low, but we should catch fish.”
He handed me a size 6 Chernobyl hopper. The same fly, in a size 10, I’d fished earlier that day with zero success.
“Tie on a long leader, throw that fly out there, and twitch it,” Jack said.
What the hell?
He nodded solemnly. “Just twitch it. Like a slower streamer retrieve.”
I resisted the urge to shake my head at Jack. I hadn’t caught a decent trout yet – I decided to throw my dry fly theory out the window and just twitch it.
On my first cast, I had a cutthroat on the line – the biggest to that point in the day – and a grin on my face as wide as the valley in which we fished.
“I told you!” Jack hollered. “Just twitch it!”
We fished until dark, and when we got back to Blair’s house, I looked at him, laughed and said, “Just twitch it, Blair.”
The final joke made, we stumbled into his house, bemused as hell at how casually our theory on dry fly fishing had been disproved.
But scientists will tell you the only way a theory gets better is by disproving, then improving it. And I suppose on that Saturday in Wyoming, that’s exactly what we did.
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Spencer is a fly fishing writer and novelist from Utah. His debut novel, Learning to Fly, is on sale now at Amazon. Spencer writes for multiple national and local fly fishing publications, including The Orvis Fly Fishing Blog and Hatch Magazine. Connect with him on Twitter @Spencer_Durrant or on Facebook @spencerdurrantauthor.