Updated: Apr 6, 2021
Fishing can be pretty fickle. There are great days - the ones that we will remember forever - in between a considerable number of average and even below average days. To me, the great days make up for the slow days that we all have (yes, all of us...). In fact, the great days would not be so great if they were not contrasted by the really tough days. That idea reminds me of a joke about the guy that thought he went to heaven as every cast resulted in a twenty inch trout. No matter what fly he tied on or how well - or poorly - he cast, a twenty inch trout. No larger. No smaller. Cast after cast, a twenty inch trout no matter what he did. The same thing, cast after cast, bend after bend, day after day. It was not too long before he realized he was most certainly not in heaven.
We have all had somewhat similar experiences. I know I have had good days where all the fish were cookie cutter versions of one another and the fish came quite easily. Maybe too easily. These days do not make the list of great days on the water. Instead, the days I really remember are those that friends made more special, days I experienced something unique - that may or may not be fish related, and days where the fish had to be "figured out" and figuring them out was an accomplishment. The truly memorable days - the ones we tell campfire stories about - almost certainly contain some combination of those things. Sure, we remember the "stupid" days but I contend that the truly memorable days are not always the greatest days of catching...though sometimes they are.
Nature is a huge part of what draws us to fishing. Part of what draws me to streams is that every bend offers something new and different. As we rather quietly move along the stream - either on foot or in a watercraft - we are likely to encounter some unique sights. It seems a few times each spring, I nearly step on a fawn. Or watch mouth agape as a Bald Eagle flies overhead. Or I just hold my fly rod and watch as the migrating warblers demand more of my attention than do the fishes. For many of us, the sights and sounds of nature are (almost) as important as the fishing.
Some of the most memorable on-stream sightings are the ones that send a little shiver down your spine. Fishing on West Virginia's Shavers Fork, I had a bear sow with her two cubs cross the river only a decent double haul behind me. Fortunately they had no interest in me what-so-ever. Similarly, on Colorado's Frying Pan, we experienced another sow with two cubs just off the stream thirty feet up in a tree. With a couple of grunts, she had the cubs out of the tree and hauling ass up the nearly vertical bluff. It is rather amazing - and at least a little bit scary - how fast bears can move! On West Virginia's Slaty Fork, as my attention was dedicated to tying on a new tippet, a snapping noise caught my attention. As I looked up from my knot, I locked eyes with an otter a very short cast away that had just snapped the backbone of a sucker it had just caught. It is an encounter I will never forget. To this day, I am not sure which of us were more surprised by the encounter. Those are but a few of the more memorable sightings.
For me, so much of what makes fly fishing so great is the greater experience. Of course, I like to catch fish and I would prefer them to be large, no HUGE. But if I had to catch massive trout out of a drainage ditch, it would not be my idea of heaven for long. I like fly fishing for the places it takes me at least as much as the fish I catch (or do not catch).
Memorable Days of Fishing
Catching alone does not always make for a great day but it is certainly part of the equation, I suppose. I have had a few days where the catching was great but the experience did not measure up for other reasons. On a trip to Colorado with friends, we stopped at New Mexico's San Juan River tailwater, a place we had read and heard a lot about. The catching was great. I mean, we caught a ton of fish! And some really nice ones too. I caught more twenty plus inch trout in an afternoon than I do over the course of many seasons in the Driftless. I do not really know how to explain it, it was just not quite right. The setting is unusual. We drove for hours through the desert to come to this odd, coldwater oasis. From all we read, we expected the fish to be difficult and hitting on PMDs and midges. We got to "wadered up" and nearly instantly, we were on fish. They were hitting PMD dry flies, emergers, and pheasant tail nymphs. Then, a flying ant hatch started and it just got stupid. I mean rather ridiculous.
Our expectations were shattered! We had expected difficult tailwater trout that would require small flies and tiny tippets and instead we found fish that were, well, kind of dumb. By the end of the afternoon, we were trying different flies to see what they wouldn't hit. It was my one day fishing the legendary San Juan; I'm sure if I were to go back it would be nothing like that again.
Familiarity - for me at least - raises the bar by which memorable days are measured. It is hard for me to have a memorable day on the Coulees. It is most certainly not because I do not have great days of fishing but rather that I have so many good days of fishing that it is difficult for a single day to stand out. Yes, the mid-April black caddis hatch is nearly always memorable. As is a larger than average fish or a day with several larger than average fish. The day with the complete solar eclipse was quite memorable as are any number of other days but they have difficulty standing out. After I am sure more than a thousand days on Coulee streams, having a day that stands out among the others is more and more difficult.
What stood out this past year were days on the stream with friends as they were much fewer and further between than in a normal year. Who would have known that our annual March get together would be the last big gathering of the 2020 trout season? In a more "normal" year, I am camped out with friends at the West Fork Sports Club for at least the long weekend surrounding the Wisconsin Trout Unlimited spring meeting in Viroqua. This year, a physically distanced camping trip in mid-August with a friend and his two daughters was the first - and only - camping trip of the year. Looking back on the year, the more memorable days were the rare and physically distanced fishing trips with friends and fishing partners like Chris (Riparian Life), Duke (TU-DARE), Ben (Black Earth Angling Co.), and Mike (Wisconsin Trout Unlimited). The most memorable solo trip was the one that required an urgent care visit to remove the #14 Hippie Stomper from my upper lip. Days do not have to be great to be memorable.
Gun to my head and I have to pick a most memorable fishing trip; I am choosing an overnight trip with Black Earth Angling Co. for their Crash Camp a couple of summers ago. It had all the elements of a great trip. It had friends - it was Mike's 40th birthday and he invited me along for the trip. It had a foggy morning that will never be forgotten. And it featured fishing that was equal parts fantastic and interesting. The fishing had started pretty slow but then we got on a crash. And when that crash dwindled, we would find the next one. And the next one. Hours of catching hard fighting Smallmouth Bass but it was not always simple or easy which added to the day. Your casts had to be quick and accurate or the crash would be done before your fly got there. We would pick them off on topwater flies. Then, when that would become less effective, a slow sinking subsurface minnow - like the Tongue Depressor or Murdich Minnow- would work better. Finally, we would pick up a few more with a Clouser fished a bit deeper. The next morning we got up and did it again - this time in one of the craziest fog-filled mornings I have ever experienced.
Of course the fishing always helps make a trip memorable but it is not just the fishing. It is everything that surrounds the fishing. The scenery and wildlife. The friends. The food. A great trip is a cumulative experience. I could prattle on about other great fishing trips but it is really a better conversation over a campfire with friends. I enjoy fishing by myself and I do it a lot. Rarely are the solo days ones I remember or tell stories about. But if you think about your most memorable trips - I hope you have already been doing so, I am guessing that the fishing was part of the equation but it was not the entire answer.
Is there a day for you that stands out among all the others? A day that you look back on that always makes you feel better?