I wrote this essay about the one good day of fishing we had in Glacier National Park last summer.
I was hiking to fish a high cutthroat lake inside Glacier National Park with my father and my wife. Not the most orthodox of fly fishing parties, but then again I’m not the most orthodox of fishermen and fly fishing’s not the most orthodox of subcultures, so it all seemed natural enough.
When we finally scrambled off the steep hillside and down to the lakeshore, we brushed the limbs to the side for our first close-up look. At least half a dozen cutthroat trout were scattered around lazily sipping something from the surface. Unfortunately for us, a gentleman was already there casting to them. He appeared to be the only other fisherman on the lake, so we worked our way around the west shore, the eastern side being a shear slope of loose talus that we didn’t feel like tackling. Besides, the west side appeared to hold most of the shallow water when we took our first look from high above.
I found it tough to contain the jitters. Every fisherman must know something like this when there are big fish right there, and you don’t know if you can catch them. And I was far from certain. I don’t know why I have so much trouble catching trout from a lake. I mean, my whole life I’ve been catching bass and bluegills from ponds and lakes, and from streams so sluggish they might as well have been lakes. What’s so different about trout?
I suppose a lot of it boils down to me still being a swamp water bass fisherman in fact if not at heart. I just can’t get it out of my head that catching a fish from water that still, shallow and clear is impossible or at least highly unlikely. Most friends would call me an experienced fisherman, but the majority of that experience has taken place on the aforementioned ponds, lakes and muddy streams, and with conventional bass tackle instead of a fly rod. Trout are still a beautiful, exotic species. A handful of trips for trout every year just doesn’t saturate you with the confidence that comes from living and breathing fishing like I did for bass back during my early college years.
And it’s not just the lakes that continue to bother me. What is it about the bugs? I mean, with bass, you just toss something big, gaudy and meaty out there and wind it back any way you want. Eventually you’ll find a bass hungry and mean enough to eat just about anything. I’m beginning to think all that crap about the confident fly fisherman calmly identifying the correct insect, tying on an imitation and catching trout is just that. Crap. Here’s how it happens this time, which is fairly typical of my experience:
I climb out on a rock and look over the lake. There are several fish rising. What are they eating? I don’t see a thing on the water. If I didn’t know better, I’d say these fish had gone mad from hunger and were sipping at nothing, convinced they were dining on fat green drakes. Nothing’s flying in the air either. I try an old trick, that did actually work one magical day on the Lamar River, and brush the grass trying to stir any clinging insects to flight. Nothing other than a few scrawny grasshoppers, and I’m certain the fish aren’t feeding on those. I take my hat and use it like an aquarium net to seine the surface of the water. Nothing shows up in there either. So, I tie on an Adams.
Of course, I might as well admit it. I’m now firmly entrenched as one of that much-maligned group, the weekend fishermen. I’m not out there “living the life.” I have a wife, a job, a house, bills and I typically observe socially acceptable levels of personal hygiene. No trout bum here, that’s for sure. Not that I wouldn’t like to be, it’s just that I’ve made choices, and right now I’m going to see how they play out. Maybe those supposed “real fishermen,” who poke fun at my lack of dedication, really can confidently tie on the right fly in these situations. I don’t know. None of my friends are real fly fishermen either. I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever met a “real fly fisherman.”
Meanwhile I’ve had three agonizing refusals to my Adams. Finally one apparently stupid cutthroat (aren’t they all supposed to be stupid) takes it, a fat 15 incher. Then the refusals begin again. Eventually the fish just completely ignore the fly altogether. So, I stop to think on it a bit, which is probably what I should have done a bit more of at first. But, I’m sure you know how it is when big fish are rising right there in front of you. Doing something seems more importantly than doing the right thing, a principle which applies often enough to areas of life other than fishing as well.
I’ve heard this lake has good hatches of mayflies on most summer days, but I don’t see any. My first thought when fish are feeding on something I can’t see is midges, which to me is akin to them feeding on mythical ice flies from the land of Perelandra. I mean, how do you honestly know when fish are feeding on midges? I’ve heard about places with giant size 12 midges that are easy to see, but in most places I’ve fished, you can tell they’re feeding on midges only by the fact that absolutely nothing else makes sense. You’ve systematically eliminated mayflies, stoneflies and caddis flies, and it’s winter, so you know it’s not terrestrials. Hmmm, must be midges. Even if you’ve never actually seen a midge, and therefore, assuming you’re unfortunate enough to consider yourself an empiricist, can’t truthfully confirm that they actually exist. So you tie on a zebra midge, the winter tailwater equivalent of the Adams.
Anyway, that’s pretty much been my experience. At this lake, I just don’t get the feeling that it’s midges. In fishing I’ve found feelings to be just as useful as anything else. Could be ants, another of the options when you can’t see anything, but the wind isn’t blowing very hard, and the fish are rising well away from shore. I figure it must be some sort of aquatic bug, and I’m betting it’s a mayfly. I could probably tie on a streamer or nymph and get some fish, but I won’t. It’s not that I have a problem with them. It’s just not what I want. I want them on top or at least on something close enough to what they’re feeding on. Then again, for a weekend fisherman on the year’s only big trip, catching fish can begin to feel like a desperate matter, so no telling what I’d do in these situations given enough frustration, a stick of dynamite and a match.
Luckily I spot a single lonely mayfly. It’s small and olive-brown. Maybe, just maybe, these mayflies are about to hatch, and the nyjmphs are actively reaching for the surface. Maybe that’s what the trout are after. Maybe a few are making it and hatching, and this is where my little mayfly came from. At least it’s something.
So I tie on a size 18 olive hare’s ear wet fly and sort of half-heartedly dab some floatant on it. You know, to sort of make it float, but not really. And it works! Two, three then four fish take the fly with no hesitation. Suddenly I’m having lots of fun and feeling a little smarter! I stand there like a heron (at least I imagine I look like a heron) scanning the water, looking for the dark shape of a cruising trout, but I usually don’t spot one until it breaks the surface. Then I cast where I think it might go next. Then there’s that rising anxiety when the fish first sees then approaches the fly. And then that indescribable exultation when it takes! And they’re taking the fly that I, the ingenious outdoorsman, figured out. It feels really good.
Then the fish just disappear, and the whole thing feels strangely futile again. Maybe the bugs quit hatching. Maybe the sun was too bright. Maybe, as Dad was wont to say when I was a kid, I wasn’t holding my mouth right. Whatever the reason, I decide it’s time to look around a bit. I tell Jacqulyn and Dad that I intend to walk on around the lake, something they want no part of, still being tired from the climb down. Pushing my way around the overgrown trail, I wonder for a moment about bears before consciously pushing the thought from my mind. Can’t let something like a grizzly get in the way of good fishing. I spot a side trail that leads out onto a small rocky point. The water drops off more steeply here. There’s nothing on the surface. Peering into the deep blue depths, I think I see, well, something. It looks like something other than the play of light on the indistinct bottom, something that tickles my not-so-well-evolved fish sense. In an instant, the something goes from black to gold to recognizably fish-shaped to a couple of large cutthroats launching themselves into the air chasing, well, something. Has to be caddis. That’s the only thing that would make trout do that, right? Or maybe they were jumping for the shear joy of it? If I was a fish living in that setting, I might. I see nothing flying or on the water. What I really want to know is why there can’t be some certainty from time to time?
Hoping for the caddis, I tie on a number 14 olive St. Vrain caddis. I can still see that indistinct something moving in the depths, this time knowing it’s those two nice trout, but neither fish rises to the fly. I continue on around to a large shallow bay. No fish are visible, but they could be hiding behind any number of large boulders. I decide on a whim to skate the caddis with a long sweep of the rod, and a nice cutt immediately materializes and slams the fly.
Suddenly everything is working, even though I can’t tell that I’m doing much different from the last half hour. I’m catching a fish every few casts, some of them darn nice ones. Doesn’t matter if I skate the fly or let it sit. It all works. I feel like a real fisherman again. When I hook one hot fish I imagine that I’m fighting it with a bit of style. I raise the old Granger bamboo rod high, like Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It, and the fish tears off some line. For a moment I try to see myself from a distance, and I don’t look half bad. No Brad Pitt, but not too bad either, especially if you’re far enough away that I’m only a silhouette. That’s how far away I went.
Then, just as suddenly as it began, it’s over. The lake is once again barren of life, and I have no chance of figuring it out. I start back toward Jacqulyn and Dad, stopping to make the occasional cast. I manage to catch a fish at that rocky point with the acrobatic trout, but it doesn’t count. I mean, I’m going to report it as a fish caught, but secretly I know it doesn’t count. I was dragging the fly while maneuvering to a new casting position when the fish hit. I’m betting that most seemingly confident fishermen harbor some secret self-doubts because of just this type of thing. And probably a few of their most impressive catches shouldn’t count either.
When I get back I report six fish caught. Finally I just sit back and enjoy the scene, the first time I’ve really enjoyed the scenery all day. The lake sits in a high mountain cirque with towering rocky cliffs all around, except at the outlet where the mountains drop abruptly, and beyond, overlapping peaks that could go on forever for all I know. The shadowy spots still have snow tucked in and clinging in defiance of summer. Even though it’s high summer, and the sun is bright, it’s only pleasantly warm with little humidity. The air feels light, like my lungs don’t have to work as hard to process it up here as they do down in lower, steamier country. The water is crystal clear in the shallows, taking on first light emerald and then deep sapphire as it gains depth. It truly is spectacular, and I wrestle with the regret that there’s not more time in places like this. But I’m just a weekend fisherman on a too short vacation, and it’s a long, steep climb out. So I soak my bandanna in the icy water, wrap it around my neck, and nod to Dad that I’m ready for the climb.
When we finally struggle to the top, Dad says this is why he likes bass fishing from his boat. I think this is why I gave it up.