A Game of Millimeters
The midsummer sun hung in the azure blue sky like a
red-hot ember ejected from a campfire. Three anglers
sat in the dappled shade of the streamside cottonwood
trees waiting for the sun to drop behind the western
hills and bathe the valley in the cool of evening.
Throughout the heat of the late afternoon they languished
in the shade, heads nodding, occasionally waving a hand
at an offending fly or moving slightly to remain in the
welcome shade. All of nature seemed to be lulled into
inactivity during the heat of the day, and except for
the occasional shrill of a cicada or the snap of wings
of a grasshopper, all was still.
By Neil M. Travis, Montana
The nearby stream flowed passed, its surface an azure
blue reflection of the sky, and slick and smooth like
oiled metal. The denizens of this watery world were
equally languid under the heat of summer sun, and even
the minnows and fingerlings sought solace in the cooler
water of the deeper pools. The murmur of the water
running from pool to pool over the shallow riffles
seemed muffled and still in the heat of the day.
Slowly, nearly imperceptibly, the glowing orb edged
toward the horizon, and shadows gradually extended
across the valley floor, like cool fingers reaching
from the base of the distant hills. The hot air trapped
in the valley began to rise, and the first breeze of
evening stirred the grass and rustled the leaves of
the cottonwoods. Anglers stir beneath the trees,
wiping the sleep from their eyes, stretching lethargic
limbs into activity as the magic hour advances across
The rising columns of air stir the atmosphere, and
in response clouds begin to form, rising quickly
upward. In the distance the faint glow of heat
lighting illuminates the face of a building summer
The stream is bathed in the cool shadows of approaching
evening. Swallows appear, swooping and diving over the
water, their twittering calls and erratic flight
indicates the presence of insects, mayfly spinners and
smoke-like columns of midges merge in the gathering
twilight providing a moving feast for the winged predators.
The anglers gather their gear and move off to take
their places in preparation for an anticipated rise
of trout. Already the first insects are dropping down
to lay their eggs and soon the surface will be broken
by the noses of rising trout, eager to fill their
stomachs with the bounty.
The insects are small and the best trout occupy the
most advantageous places where the currents funnel
food to them. While the younger fish may expend their
energy chasing from morsel to morsel, the larger fish
quietly sip away at the bounty delivered by the stream.
Rhythmically they stick their nose up through the
surface film and inhale the delicate morsels, unwilling
to move to the left or the right they single-mindedly
and doggedly pursue their purpose of maximizing their
intake of food, and minimizing their expenditure of
energy. Holding close to the surface their view of the
world is limited to an area just in front of their nose.
Items outside of this window pass by unseen.
At the tail of a long pool a large brown trout slips
out of the depths, and moves into the shallow water
next to the bank. Within several inches of the bank
the big brown settles into a slight depression in the
stream bottom. Slightly upstream two large rocks
squeeze the water between them concentrating the
drifting insects into a narrow strip just a few
inches wide. This narrow current tongue carries
its bounty to the waiting trout, and as he tips
up to feed, only a slight bulge in the surface
betrays his presence.
One angler has selected the pool for his evenings
angling. He enjoys the challenge of small flies,
light tippets, and pinpoint casting. This is a
game of millimeters, and success is measured not
by the number of fish caught but by the number of
fish fooled. The more difficult the lie the more
satisfaction gained by getting a successful drift,
and persuading the trout to rise to the fraud.
Timing and accuracy are the skills necessary to
produce results under these conditions.
Smaller trout staked out their positions along
the tail of the pool, and for several minutes
the angler stood along the shore surveying the
risers. A few yards from shore a weed bed provided
a break in the current, and two respectable trout
had taken up positions on its lee side concentrating
on the drifting insects that were deflected along each
side of the submerged weeds. Within minutes the angler
had hooked and released one of the fish, a fine brown
of 14 inches. The commotion created by the brief but
spirited battle had momentarily caused the other trout
to move back into deeper water. The angler stood
silently watching for the telltale sign of another
Along the bank the big brown continued his methodical
feeding rhythm. The current carried the ever-increasing
bounty of small mayfly spinners drifting into his
waiting maw. A small caddis fly fluttered into the
flow and the fish slashed at the fly as it ricochet
across his field of view. The splash created by his
movement caught the ear and then the eye of the angler,
and as he watched the spot he noticed the slight
bulging of the surface as the brown resumed sedately
feeding on the small spinners. This was what he had
hoped to find, a selectively feeding trout holding
in a difficult lie.
For several minutes the angler watched the trout feed.
As he fed the only part of his body that showed was
the end of his nose, and the angler could see that the
trout below the nose was very respectable. Mentally
the angler noted the intervals between each time the
trout fed, and carefully observed the exact location
of each rise. The tongue of current that was carrying
food to the trout was barely an inch wide where it
passed over the trout. Just upstream several long
strands of grass trailed in the current making the
situation even more difficult. The distance from
the trailing grass to the rising trout was just a
matter of inches, and for his fly to float precisely
over the rising trout it would have to settle precisely
in front of the trailing grass, float downstream on the
current without any drag, and arrive at the precise
moment the trout chose to rise.
After several minutes of careful observation the angler
moved slowly into position. He needed to be as close as
possible so he could have maximum control over his cast.
Being careful not to create a tell tale wave or to crunch
the gravel beneath his feet he spent several more minutes
getting into position. He was aware, with each passing
moment, increasing of darkness was making it more
difficult for him to see his target.
Finally he was in position, across and slightly
downstream of his target. He checked his fly,
stripped line from his reel, and began to cast.
His first was short, but he allowed it to drift
well beyond the rising trout before he picked it
up. Shaking the water from his fly, he extended
the cast slightly, and it dropped right in the
center of the flow; it floated by untouched.
The trout rose, and again he presented his fly, and
again it was untouched. The angler hesitated, trying
to get into the trout's rhythm, but each time he cast
the trout either rose before his fly arrived or after
it had passed by. Darkness was increasing, and still
the trout continued to feed.
Bending low to the water so he could see his fly,
the angler made one final cast. The fly landed
just above where the trout was holding; the water
bulged and his fly disappeared. As the hook found
its hold in the trout's jaw, the water erupted and
the big brown somersaulted out of the shallows and
made a long rush upstream. Willow whips cut by the
resident beavers grabbed at the thin leader. The
angler tried to hold the line out of the water but
the trout quickly sped upstream, and then rapidly
reversed his direction. The leader snagged on a
willow stub and as the trout raced back toward
the angler it snapped.
He reeled in his line and doffed his hat in the
direction of the now silent pool. Two masters
of the game of millimeters had met on the field
of battle, each one was leaving the field a winner. ~ Neil M. Travis, Montana/Arizona
From A Journal Archives