For those of you who didn’t catch my feeble attempt at being clever with my headline, it’s an admittedly weak play on my favorite Heart song from their 1976 Dreamboat Annie album. Great song, though it has absolutely nothing to do with fly fishing. Regardless, just click the play button and listen as you read – at least that way the music will be good.
Against my better judgment I found myself once again floating the lower canyon of Washington’s blue ribbon Yakima River (which really is not a blue ribbon river based on my experiences) with Marck and Erique (not his real name). It was the third week of August, which is was prime hopper time on the Yakima. The Yak flows are artificially high during summer months in order to supply the agricultural Yakima Valley with the necessary water to grow an assortment of crops in what would otherwise be a desert filled with sagebrush. As the growing season tapers to a close, the high summer flows (around 4000 cfs) are cut off and the great annual “flip flop” commences. By September the flows settle to somewhere around 1000CFS. As the flows drop, the fish know what’s happening: Winter’s a-comin’, so they’re on the lookout for food. OK, they’re always looking for food, but like bears and sorority girls, they need to increase their caloric intake ahead of winter hibernation (not that fish hibernate, but their metabolisms do shut down considerably as water temps plummet to near-freezing).
Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. And so on this trip the water level was beginning to drop significantly. I’ve heard it told that the best hopper fishing on the Yak occurs at this time of year, so I was giddy when Marck called to say we’d be fishing on this day. It would be good to spend the day with Erique as well, as he is in his own right a very accomplished angler and good all around guy, even if he made a bad choice in the college he attended.
Unfortunately, the day didn’t exactly turn into a catchfest. A couple smallish 10 inch trouts were landed, though nothing worth writing home about. One event worth writing about was the fact that Erique rose a 7 inch whitefish to a hopper. Now, before you make fun of both the fish and the fisherman, it should be noted that this was no small feat given the fact that even a much larger whitefish has disproportionately small mouth, which means that a 7 inch whitefish has a mouth so tiny that someone my age would need reading glasses just to see it. So, nice job hooking that fish on a size 10 hopper, Erique! Not surprisingly, Marck had already landed the Fish of the Day (a 13 inch bruiser), which gave him bragging rights (again). Par for the course.
Things were looking dour for me, so when I finally hooked into a solid fish that bent my 4 wt to the cork, everyone onboard got excited in much the same way that everyone cheers for the uncoordinated kid when he finally scores a point. Immediately after I set the hook, Marck (in an uncharacteristically excited manner) proclaimed, “NICE fish! That could be your best fish on this river!” (Note: To date, my best fish on the Yakima was a 19 inch rainbow I caught 3 years prior while drifting with my brother Hal and guide Johnny Biotano of Red’s Fly Shop.) At any rate, it took some time to bring this beastly fish to the net, and as it was played closer and closer to the boat, two things were missing: (A) The typical acrobatics and (B) typical coloration one might expect of a rainbow trout. Enter into evidence Exhibit W: a 17 inch whitefish. Marck was partially correct in that it was my best (white)fish to date and, unusual for me, the biggest fish of the day. Braggin rights, baby! Had the fish been a trout I’m sure I would have been an insufferable braggart the rest of the day, but being that it was a whitefish I didn’t find much satisfaction in the whole thing. The remainder of the float wasn’t much for the memory books: The hopper action we had anticipated never really amounted to much and the evening caddis hatch let us down. Blah, blah, blah. Oh well, there was still the cold beer and greasy burgers waiting for us at The Tav, and all we had to do was put an end to this forgettable float and drive the short distance to Ellensburg.
There was, however, one small matter preventing that from happening: the keys to Erique’s Suburban were not inside the gas filler door where we had instructed the shuttle driver to leave them (as they were the only set of keys). We searched every likely and unlikely location where the keys might have been incorrectly placed, but they were not to be found. Marck and I were in denial – it was almost a year to the date of our last fiasco (Dude, where’s the car?). Surely this sort of thing couldn’t happen again! After the desperate search that fell just short of removing body panels, we concluded that lightning had indeed struck for a second time. To wash down the bitter taste of the bad situation, we borrowed a couple beers from a cooler that had been unintentionally left behind at the ramp by some generous and very intoxicated rubber hatchers. We then contemplated what our next move would be.
Ted and Troy, a couple of guides who work for Red’s, were hanging around the launch, talking shop after having pulled their boats out of the water. They’d had a great day putting their clients on fish and when they asked how we’d faired, the collective reply was “Great! Fabulous! Slayed ‘em we did, by golly!” We then told them of our precarious situation and they kindly placed a call to The Boss, who in turn made a couple calls. It was discovered that the shuttle driver had safely locked the keys inside the vehicle, under the floor mat, where they were secure from anybody who might want to drive off in the car, be it some low-life car thieves, or in this case the owner of the vehicle and his two very hungry, very thirsty fishing companions. I offered a simple solution that was met with a lukewarm reception: smash the window and presto- we’re in! It was decided that Erique would make use of his roadside emergency service and call a tow truck. Seemed pretty simple and straightforward, but in actuality it was far from either. After walking 37 paces to the southeast, standing on one leg with his left arm outstretched at a 47 degree upward angle, Erique finally manage to get a cellular signal. He then spoke with an operator in Maylasia, who connected him with the dispatch center which was, I believe, in Bostwana. From there the dispatcher consulted the yellow pages and within an hour and a half we had a towtruck en route from Yakima, which was twice as far as had they sent a truck from say, Ellensburg, which was about 12 miles up the road. The important thing was that the tow truck driver was able to unlock the Suburban, and by 9:30 PM we were on our way home, way behind schedule. As we sped past Ellensburg, I pressed my nose against the window and gazed to the north: I could just make out The Tav in the distance. I was hungry and parched. If you’ve ever been struck by lightning, you know that it leaves a bad taste in your mouth that only a greasy burger and a cold beer can wash away. Oh well, maybe next time – I’ve heard that lightning never strikes three times. Knock on wood, and please pass the cheese: This Unaccomplished Angler is whining.
I’m going to go out on a limb and make the general assumption that we all like opening presents on Christmas morning. It’s the kid in all of us that enjoys the surprise of discovering what’s inside that gift wrapped box under the tree, or revealing what special little surprises cause our stockings to swell as they hang by the chimney with care. And even if it’s not what we had hoped for or thought it might be, it’s a surprise nonetheless. As kids, I’m sure we all faced a certain disappointment on Christmas morning at least once because what we had asked Santa for had apparently fallen on deaf ears, like the time a young boy asked for a Billy Blastoff and instead received a new pair of Sears dress slacks (hypothetical scenario only). As we get older, we realize that it’s not what’s inside that counts so much as the thought that goes into it – that’s part of being an adult. And it’s that same sort of rational maturity that allows us to actually believe in sayings such as, “It’s not the destination, but the journey that counts.” Another one comes to mind as well: “There’s more to fishing than just catching fish.”
Fishing is a lot like opening presents because fishing is all about surprises as well. Sure, you might head to a lake known to have just been stocked with trout, but you’re never guaranteed success so catching a fish is a gift. That first cast into a river may or may not result in a hookup (it seldom does in my case), but you keep at it, hoping that the next cast will produce some action. Catching is one thing, but what you catch is another surprise in and of itself. Unless you’re at a fishery that is known to produce one and only one species of fish, what that gift will be simply adds to the surprise factor. You may be fishing for bluegill, but hook up with a fat bass. Rainbow trout might be the intended goal, but you may find an unexpected steelhead on the end of your line (and if you do, good luck with that). Or maybe you’re fishing for cutthroat trout on a mountain stream, but wind up dealing with a bull trout instead (make sure it’s not a Dolly Varden, by the way). There are many possible surprises when you’re fishing, and sometimes that surprise is so glorious that you can’t believe your good fortune. But as it is with material gifts, mature and rational adults are thankful for the gift no matter what it is.
For the most part.
Sometimes, try as we might, that surprise on the end of the line is beyond (or below) our abilities to keep it in proper perspective and appreciate it for what it is: A wild creature perfectly suited for it’s natural environment that, in a moment of poor judgment, actually fell for the imitation food item that we placed in the water for the sole purpose of fooling the fish into accepting our false advertising and engaging us in a bit of sport. It’s called success. A bend in the rod is better than the alternative, right? What could possibly prevent anyone from being pleased with about that?
Well, self-righteousness, for one thing.
It seems that all too often we focus too narrowly on our goal and become blind to the possibility that the fish we catch, while perhaps not what we intended to catch, is worthy of our admiration, respect, and maybe even a hero photo. OK maybe that’s a stretch, but shouldn’t we at least pat ourselves on the back for any successful catch, even if it wasn’t our targeted species? Specifically, you ask, what are we talking about here? Oh, you know – “garbage fish”: Whitefish, suckers, carp, squawfish and the like. If you fish the salt, the list grows to include a whole bunch of maligned by-catch species (dogfish, just to name one).
Who determined that these poor, disrespected species were somehow beneath our approval? Yes, some species are known to feed on juvenile salmonids and others compete for food with the popular fishes on the block, but isn’t that what they’re supposed to do in order to survive? Anglers are like politicians in this regard: Special interests and partisan opinions keep us from being able to objectively see the big picture: Fish are, in the end, fish. The Great Creator of Fish made them all equal, and it was only we high-browed upright walking mammals, with our large brains and opposeable thumbs, who applied a status to the different species (which started by giving them names that sound bad to begin with). Certainly some fish may not make for the best table fare, but if we’re out to practice catch and release, as most fly anglers do, then why not be pleased with an unintended catch? I recall once fishing a section of an Idaho river known as the “Whitefish Hole”. Imagine my surprise (and disappointment) when I actually caught a whitefish there! Looking back, what a snob I was. Sheesh, I’m just sure.
I’ve caught my fair share of whitefish, and a couple squawfish. I’ll readily admit that I’ve been disappointed when I’ve incidentally caught these bottom-shelf species, because I was out to catch a noble gamefish at the time. I thumbed my nose at these disgusting creatures rather than admiring them for what they were: Fish. I even tried, intentionally mind you, to catch some crap- I mean carp, once, but they would have none of it. When those oversized pond guppies wouldn’t show me the love, I judged them immediately for being stupid, worthless, trash fish. As I walked away, I hollared back over my shoulder to the fish, “Yeah, well, I didn’t want to catch you anyway cause you’re…stupid. And ugly!” Reflecting back, as I look forward, I see that this sort of negative attitude puts me into the same camp of doubting Thomases that in other walks of life always see the glass as being half empty: Dwellers of negativity. I strive to be more positive as an angler in the future: To be thankful when I catch something, even if it wasn’t what I was targeting. I mean, with my catch record, who am I to be selective? My new motto is going to be, “There’s more to fishing than just catching what you intended to catch.”
I need the odds in my favor, and if I embrace anything that will hit my fly I’m going to be a lot better off. So no more “garabage fish” for me – from this point forward they will be described as “unexpected treasures”. By embracing this new, positive philosophy I am reducing the amount of inevitable disappointment I’ll encounter as I fish the future.
So, what are you fishing for this Christmas? I hope it’s a good surprise. And if upon initial inspection it appears to be a lump of coal, maybe you can make a diamond out of it.
Merry Fishmuch to you and yourn.