Dave Micus, Plum Island Sound

August 16th, 2004

Almost Perfect
By Dave Micus

I don't go trouting much. I have striped bass fishery literally right out my front door, and the trout fishing in my corner of Massachusetts is so dismal I didn't even bother to purchase a license this year. But I'll still go on a trouting trip when the opportunity arises, and such was the case when I was invited to New Hampshire to fish the Androscoggin River with my good friend Dick Brisbois.

Dick is a retired Massachusetts state trooper who lived in a neighboring town but moved to the White Mountains of New Hampshire when he hung up the gun and badge a few years back. In his later years with the state police he was a crime scene investigator, and bearing witness to just how bad things can be has made him appreciate the outdoors and, especially, fishing all the more. Dick is the quintessential Yankee; a stoic fašade that encases a kind soul, and it would be difficult to imagine a better friend.

I usually fish the brine, and I feel comfortable saying that salt-water fishing is the antithesis of trout fishing. Almost everything about the two is opposite. The equipment for the salt is twice the size-9 or 10 wt. rods compared to 4 or 5; 20 lb. straight leader compared to 2 pound graduated tippet; and size 2/0 salt-water streamers that could eat the delicate size 18 dry flies. The technique varies too; 80, 90, 100 ft. casts compared to 20, 30 or 40 footers; splashy presentations with rapidly stripped streamers opposed to delicate presentations, line mending, and dead drifting; ferocious strip strikes instead of gently raising the rod. Striped Bass fishing is the mosh pit; trout fishing, ballet.

That's not to say that I don't enjoy fishing for trout. Streamside on a gently flowing river casting a light fast rod to rising fish can be a welcome relief to being pounded by the surf while blind fishing a ten weight on a beach at 4 am. And, though I'm hesitant to admit it, it usually requires more skill to fool a ten-inch trout than it does to trick a three-foot bass. The first thing I need to do when trout fishing is to forget everything I know about the salt. This takes time, and I'll usually double haul a few 60-foot casts into the trees on the other side of a 30 ft. wide stream, use the water to load the rod on the false cast and scare every trout within 50 yards, and set the hook so hard as to sentence an 8 inch brookie to death by hanging in a tree behind me before I settle down to the Zen of trout fishing.

And then there's the river itself. The Androscoggin is an enigma, and the larger fish are weary and well hidden. Conventional wisdom suggests there are no fish below the paper mills that line the bank of the Androscoggin, the pollution being such that nothing would survive. Yet recently it's been discovered that there are many big trout below the mills; which left unmolested by fishermen they learned to adapt to the river and grew to trophy size. And while there are pockets and riffles and runs and bend pools and everything else where the trout should be, they usually aren't. The Androscoggin is a puzzle that needs to be solved.

We moved down river, Dick out-fishing me as he always does in freshwater, enjoying the day, each other's company, and the occasional moose that would wander down to feed on the vegetation at the water's edge. It was while admiring such a moose that I saw it, the larger ring of a rhythmically feeding trout whose surface splashes hinted he was a good bit bigger than the fish I'd been taking. I approached from upstream and cast a nymph quartering and downstream, mended the line, then followed the drift with the rod tip, steering the nymph into the trout's feeding lane. My offer was refused. I tried again, and then again; still no dice. The trout kept feeding, but not on the #14 prince nymph I offered.

"It's not fly fishing if you're not looking for answers to questions," wrote Norman Maclean, and sometimes these questions are forays into epistemological dilemmas that have confronted man since he first crawled from the primordial swamp. Other times, like now, they concern a problem at hand. A trout stream is a great place to solve problems both great and small. So I analyzed the moment. My presentation did not spook the fish, a plus. The fish wasn't interested in the nymph, a minus. The question was basic: what is this particular trout feeding on, and how do I imitate it?

In an extreme lapse of character, I calmly watched (instead of whipping the stream into meringue which is my usual m.o.), and, just barely visible as it rose off the water, I saw it; a tiny, pale insect, (Latin: Smallus Whitus Insectus). Here was my answer. I lengthened the 9-foot 5x leader to 12 feet by tying on three feet of 6x tippet with a barrel knot using knowledge from a distant past that I didn't even realize I still possessed. I tied on a light colored sized 20 dry fly, smaller than the eyes on my saltwater streamers, false cast once, and placed the fly right in the trout's feeding lane. The drift was perfect, the imitation precise, and the trout rose and took the fly. I raised the rod to set the hook, felt the weight of a good-sized fish on for a second, and then the line went limp.

I usually don't go for esoteric descriptions of fly-fishing. It isn't, after all, religion, nor philosophy, and if you compare it to sex, as the saying goes, you're doing one of them wrong. But I agree with John Gierach's observation that fly-fishing "is maybe the only place where the possibility of rightness even exists." Such was the case here: right fly; right cast; right drift; wrong strike. And, on a trout stream in the New Hampshire woods fishing with a dear friend, that's close enough for me. ~ Dave

About Dave:

Dave Micus lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He is an avid striped bass fly fisherman, writer and instructor. He writes a fly fishing column for the Port City Planet newspaper of Newburyport, MA (home of Plum Island and Joppa Flats) and teaches a fly fishing course at Boston University.

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