Lighter Side
July 6th, 1998
Truth In Angling,
(The Art of Creative Score-keeping)

by Chauncy Lively, excerpt from The RIVERWATCH
The Quarterly Newsletter Of The Anglers Of The AuSable

All fishermen are born honest ... but they soon get over it. --- Ed Zern

How times have changed! When I first began fly-fishing (longer ago than I care to admit) the few fly-fishers we found on the streams were generally close-mouthed and stingy with information. They didn't like to reveal where they fished but if, by chance, you already knew, they would downplay the number of trout in their favorite stream. "Not worth the effort," they'd tell you if you inquired about the fishing. And if you asked an old-timer what fly he was using he would likely answer, "Scarlet Ibis" or some equally ridiculous or unlikely pattern.

Those were the Dark Ages of fly-fishing, when many feared others would invade their streams and remove their trout. But the proliferation of the catch-and-release ethic has since changed all that and the pendulum has now swung in the opposite direction. (In fact, some would say it has swung too far!) Today, ask a graduate of one of the fly-fishing schools about a fly pattern and he'll give you its size, the scientific name of the insect it represents, the stage in its life cycle, and identify its gender. But it's in the realm of numbers of trout caught that one gets the most interesting answers.

A few years ago Hoagy Carmichael and I were sitting on a riverside log at the access below Stephan's Bridge. We had fished downstream all morning and were waiting for Marion and Martha to return from upstream. I had taken down my rod and put it in the car while Hoagy's was still strung up and balanced across his knee.

A car pulled into the access and a young couple got out. The man quickly donned his waders and strung up his rod. Seeing Hoagy's cane rod, he came over to show his own. It was a typical mass-produced rod of 1940 vintage, with a paucity of guides but gaudily wrapped, and available at any hardware store for $8.95. He proudly explained it had been his grandfather's rod and had been meticulously cared for.

"My rod may look like a solid piece of bamboo but it's actually six strips carefully glued together." He then went on to describe other features to Hoagy, who acted duly impressed. Our young friend didn't realize he was espousing rod lore to one of the finest crafters of split-cane rods in the world.

He then waded out to mid-river, made ten or twelve swoosh-swoosh false casts and let go. The big bivisible followed a wide arc and settled on the water like a wounded bird. His wife looked around at us with a knowing smile, as if to say, "See, he knows how to do it, too!"

After perhaps a dozen unproductive casts he reeled in and waded ashore. "I think we'll go over to the South Branch," he announced. "That's my favorite river. I always catch seventeen trout there."

Hoagy and I bid them godspeed, silently wishing with envy that we knew a magical spot where we could always catch seventeen trout.

Exaggeration has long been a part of the psyche of many fishermen and most of us have become accustomed to hearing the truth stretched a bit from time to time. But when a chap told me he had caught twenty-seven trout in a half-hour I had to marvel at his efficiency. I know that catch-and-release advocates want trout to be landed as quickly as possible, but ...

Seth Nidley (that's not really his name, of course) was particularly adept at creating illusions which were divorced from reality. While still in his late teens he would show up at the cast club's platforms, fly rod in hand, and seek the advice of the regulars there. Always anxious to organize a competition, the old-timers would set up a match between Seth and another young man who frequented the platforms. Seth was so consistently trounced he would eventually leave his fly rod at home and bring a spinning rod instead.

A few years later Seth began appearing at meetings of the Fly Fishers. In those days he was rather laid-back and self-effacing, a condition he was soon to abandon. The Fly Fishers had a fishing outing on Spring Creek that fall and it turned out to be one of those rare days when everything fell perfectly in place: the weather cooperated and fishing was great. Everyone caught trout; well, almost everyone, anyway.

By late afternoon Seth was still fishless and beginning to bear a forlorn countenance. Marion took pity on him and led him downstream to a pool where a spring rivulet entered the stream. She pointed out where the trout would be, showed him exactly where to position himself and gave him a couple of patterns she knew would work. By dark he had caught four or five trout and was ecstatic. Success at last! That day in late October was, for most of us, the season's final fishing trip.

Over the winter Seth purchased a couple of Leonard rods, mail-ordered several Halford books from England and by spring - without wetting a line in the interim - had become the worst snob imaginable. He had so completely absorbed the Halford chalk stream ethic even the singing of his reel took on a British accent. The people at the Fly Fishers who had brought him along were now "clods" who simply "didn't get it."

We didn't see much of him after his conversion but he was adept at spreading the word of his successes. We would occasionally hear of his sixty-trout day at Penn's Creek or a forty-trout morning during the Tricorythodes hatch on Falling Springs. But since he was usually a loner there were no witnesses to these miraculous events. Then I had a chance conversation with my friend Mike, who worked in an upscale outdoors store downtown. Mike was a very knowledgeable tackle salesman who rarely had an opportunity to fish. But one day when Seth was in the store he offered to take Mike along for a day's fishing on nearby Dunbar Creek.

Enroute to the stream Seth counseled Mike on the specific patterns he should use and when they began fishing they went in opposite directions. Back at the car at lunch time, Seth announced he had had a twenty-one-trout morning while Mike had found little activity and had caught only two trout. Puzzled by the disparity, Mike decided to tag along with Seth for the afternoon fishing. It wasn't long before he had the answer. Dunbar Creek is a gin-clear stream and the trout are generally easy to see, provided they are not spooked. Seth would cast his way upstream and occasionally, a trout would rise under his fly and return to its lie without breaking the surface.

"That's number twenty-two," Seth would say as he made an entry in his notebook. A little later a trout would move out from its ledge, examine the fly and reject it. "Twenty-three," Seth would announce.

Eureka! As Mike related this to me I began to appreciate - at long last - how twenty-seven trout could be tallied in a half-hour! Sure beats getting your hands stunk up, too.

Word got around about the new scoring system and it wasn't long before it was adopted - with a slight variation - by others. If you came across a friend on the stream, chances are the conversation would go something like this:

"How are you doing?"

"Great! Nine trout and seventeen Seth Nidleys!"

My old fishing buddy, Jean Larouche, was a championship tournament caster who had a severe aversion to misrepresentation in any form. He had been one of Seth's instructors at the casting platforms and had watched his rise in the world of make-believe angling. When Jean retired he returned to his home state of Maine but we kept in touch regularly.

Seth was an artist and during the Seventies he was engaged to produce a catalog for a mail order fly shop in Ohio. I was on the shop's mailing list and when the new catalog arrived I removed it from its envelope to find a familiar face gracing its cover. There, in a full-page photograph, was you-know-who, fly rod in hand on the casting platform, leaning into a cast. The caption read, "A tournament caster at work."

Gleefully, I inserted the catalog into a new envelope and mailed it to Jean without comment. I told Marion she shouldn't be surprised to hear the telephone explode in a few days. Sure enough, I answered the phone one evening to hear Jean's booming voice in a staccato barrage at the other end. "Tournament caster, is he?" Then the air fairly turned blue with French expletives.

Possibly the most creative of all score-keepers are those who imply without actually exaggerating. Harve exploited this technique with expertise.

A couple of years prior to our move to Michigan, Harve called me for information about the Au Sable. He was planning a vacation on the river and wanted suggestions as to where to fish, hatches, fly patterns, and all the little details one should know about. He would call me twice weekly until he made his trip in July and we went over the same details so many times I became convinced he was a more willing talker than listener.

I saw Harve following his return from Michigan and he reported he had found the fishing just so-so. As we talked I realized he had fished only a few of the places I had suggested. "I didn't catch anything over seventeen inches," he complained.

Later I spoke with Harve's friend, Bob, who accompanied him to the Au Sable, and when I told him of my conversation with Harve he laughed. "You can believe he didn't catch anything over seventeen inches," he said. "Actually, he didn't catch anything over ten inches!" Harve is gourmand (with waistline to prove it) and it seems he spent as much time searching out restaurants in the area as in actual fishing. But there is a happy ending to this tale: he found complete joy in Mary Gates' dining room.

At Falling Springs I once watched our friend Ned Leeming hook a fine brown trout which went absolutely beserk. As it roared downstream the length of a long meadow Ned had to pass his rod under a strand of electrified cattle fence and around a fence post. He then followed it around a bend and finally controlled it just above a falls. As it rested in a quiet pocket in the watercress Vince Marinaro netted it. Ned began to stretch his tape over the trout but Vince waved him off.

"Don't measure it," Vince enjoined. "You'll take away all the romance!" Ned complied and gently released the fish.

Vince was right. Had Ned measured the trout he'd have been bound to a rigid statistic. But now, each time he recalls that wonderful event the fish will have grown a little.

That's the romance of fly fishing.

~ Chauncy Lively

Copyright 1996 by Chauncy Lively


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