An Angler's Quest for the Grail
By Sam M. Stroder
This story includes references to the "handicap" conditions of the author (angler)
and his quarry and references the fishing access ramps constructed for the physically
impaired at the San Juan River. It is definitely not the author's intent to make light of
anyone's physical, mental, or emotional problems. The story has been written to
capture the humor (hopefully there is some) in the irony of the situation portrayed,
not in the condition of impairment of any of the story's subjects or readers.
I can't envision ever tiring of catching fish, yet I frequently find myself abandoning a
successful fly-location combination in pursuit of a new method, nymph, etc. for my repertoire.
Hey, Ponce de Leon had his "fountain of youth" and Coronado his "Seven cities of Cibola." I
reckon I'm entitled to search for my own "Holy Grail," that special fly or technique just
waiting to catch those monster trout in minnow-like numbers.
I undertook such a quest on this past February's trip to the San Juan River of northwest
New Mexico. Three friends and I had been fishing the Lower Flats for the better part of a day
when the typical afternoon hatch started. Now I don't profess to be a San Juan River
professional, but I have fished the river enough to know that its prolific hatches can drive you
bonkers. You know the kind; the myriad of converging ripples from countless rising fish giving
the appearance of an afternoon rain shower on the river's placid surface (I've been working on
my verbal painting…more work needed, huh). Ignore the rise, you tell yourself. To do
otherwise leads to first intrigue, then infatuation, next infuriation, and finally insanity. You
know the trout are feeding on those subatomic-sized black midges, but you just can't help but
think that there's got to be some way—short of using fish-shaped plastic explosive, a la the
movie Caddyshack—to trick those 'stupid' fish. After all, how can I, as a self-proclaimed
genus genius, accept defeat at the fins of mucous-covered aquatic vertebrate? Answer is, I
So I scientifically unleash my vast mental arsenals of biology and thermodynamics in
assessing the trout's caloric intake vs. energy expenditure associated with each rise to a
microscopic midge; the net gain just can't be much. So what happens if you up the ante? If I'm
a fish fighting the current in pursuit of thousands of itte bitte bugge and something big and
juicy drifts by, well I'm on it.
Such was my mind set when I entertained the idea of interrupting the San Juan trout's size
32 afternoon buffet with a bodacious, size 6, attractor pattern. So I proceed upriver toward a
location that I know holds numerous visible trout, the famous Kiddie Hole. In route, however, I
pause at one of the handicapped ramps overlooking Texas Hole to consider how best to
implement my new strategy. (These ramps are not limited to exclusive use by the physically
impaired angler, but the handicapped fisherman has preference.) This particular ramp overlooks
a calm pool that is separated from the main river channel by a long sandbar. Looking down,
I'm surprised to see a large solitary trout in the water below me. What better laboratory in
which to perform my experiment than one affording me a perfect vantage point from which to
clearly observe the fish's reaction to my approaching fly.
So I tie on a nuclear irradiated-looking hopper pattern, calculate my aerial approach, and
let her rip . . . only to see my prominent fly literally splash-down a good three feet from the
targeted feeding lane. But my prey remains undaunted and even turns, ever so slightly, in
apparent interest in the approaching pattern. The trout eases toward the hopper, hmmm.
It begins to rise—oh be still my fluttering heart. It, it . . .takes it! (Johnny Most's "Havlicek stole
the ball!" comes to mind.) I set the hook; the fight's on.
Only then did I fully realize that I'm some seven feet above the trout and enclosed, on
three sides anyway, by the guarded platform. Yet I somehow succeed in maintaining pressure
on the fish while working back off and around the ramp down to the river's edge, where I'm
actually able to land the rainbow. The commotion of the fight and my audible enthusiasm
apparently caught the attention of anglers on the sandbar, for I notice their glances—fly fishing
protocol prohibits its elitist members from "staring"—and proudly overhear their comments (no
doubt awe-inspired) to one another regarding my improbable catch. That divine chalice is
I had discovered that the true secret to catching trout is the adoption of a tactic diametrically
opposed to conventional fly fishing wisdom. When the rainbows go small, I'll go big. Hey, I've
scientifically proven my hypothesis in the real world laboratory by testing a typical trout in its
natural environment and controlling fly type as the only variable. I can't wait to share my
discovery with the world; it rates right up there with electricity, gunpowder, and sliced bread.
I'll probably end up on the cover of Fly Fish America, National Geographic, Scientific
American, maybe even Mad Magazine. I bend down to remove my fly and pause to admire the
beauty of this "milestone" fish, a rather thin, yet very colorful, 17" rainbow trout with…only
one eye. No kidding; one eye was completely gone, and had apparently been for a little while.
That explains why the fish was residing in the calm water. Having only one eye
apparently limited its ability to locate the minuscule insects upon which its brethren were
feeding. This trout was relegated to more visible prey, the likes of which would normally be
found closer to the bank. He may have been surprised to see such an ugly bug, particularly at
this time of year, but really wasn't in a position to be a picky eater—so much for my controlled
experiment, now invalidated by my unintentional selection of a non-typical subject. I stopped
worrying about what to wear for the Fly Fish America cover shoot.
The irony of this entire development was not lost on my friends. They've suggested all
along that my fly fishing is handicapped by my unusual tactics, not to mention my unattractive,
splash-down casts, so they enjoyed summarizing this particular adventure of mine as a
handicapped fish, caught from a handicapped ramp, by a handicapped fisherman. That may be,
but that one-eyed fish and I have persevered in meeting our own unique challenges. And what
better place to display our mutual victory than at a fishing ramp constructed for physically
challenged anglers, individuals well versed at having to overcoming obstacles.
Someday I'll find that magical fly or technique, and then I'll really show my fly fishing
friends! ~ Sam M. Stroder
all rights reserved by Sam M. Stroder
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