Sunset over the house - time to get ready to fish!
There's an image burned into my brain. A week ago on a partially moonlit night I was swimming a mouse along a vertical rock wall on a river clear enough to fish but swollen with snow melt. It's a wall that's been productive over the last few summers, accounting for more than one of my larger browns. So far this summer I haven't been touched along it. I mostly chalked this up to high water, figuring it may be a holding point during lower summer flows that are yet to come. Still, I stood for several minutes and many casts making sure to work the wall thoroughly. You can't reach it all from the bank. And you can't wade. It bulges out and then tucks back in out of view. So toward the end of the time I spend on it I start getting creative with long sweeping casts that I try to make wrap around the rock face beyond the line of sight. Basically just feeding line and hoping the fly rides up against the rock. I do this from a slightly elevated position, which aids in being able to cast, but also provides a fateful view of what's below.
Rainbow mouse-eater taken later in the night
It was after one of these creative casts as I brought the mouse back around the bulge and into view (well, I couldn't see it, but I knew where I thought it was) that I saw what I figured was a beaver or maybe a muskrat on the surface. It was right where I thought my fly should be. At first I was afraid I might snag it. I dropped my rod tip for slack so it could swim on by, but it exploded on the surface in response. I was confused as to why it spooked and still assumed it had been a beaver that had swirled and was diving away. Maybe it saw me lower the rod. Then I realized I was attached as my loosely-held rod pivoted toward the rock.
All of this has happened in a span of about 3 seconds. I wish my brain could have seen it for what it was and reacted sooner - but it wasted time with thoughts like "Great, I struggle to connect with fish that actually want my fly and now I'm going to lose a mouse to a snagged beaver I tried to avoid."
As I look back on various fish in my life I realize there is a common theme of missing hook-ups - particularly with big fish - when the strike is visual.
Overzealous hooksets, buck fever, broken lines, poor timing, etc, etc.
Well, add "wrong animal" to the list.
My shadow as I leave the truck
What had happened was a very large and wide fish had followed that mouse around the wall, and had actually breached the surface behind it. It had all but decided to take or was in the act of doing so when I dropped the tension to avoid snagging the "beaver." As soon as the mouse went limp, the fish inhaled it and went back down. I stood there like a numb-skull thinking a beaver had just spooked my hole. The fish actually brought my rod tight before I realized my mouse was even gone from the surface. My brain still said 'beaver' but my instincts were catching up and I gave a half-hearted after-the-fact hookset that came up empty. Like swinging the bat after hearing the ball hit the catcher's mitt.
The image of that fish on the surface following the mouse is etched into my memory. In my mind's eye, it looked so much like a muskrat or a beaver. Or in different water, like a gator would swim. A few days later Trouts Fly Fishing posted an Instagram video (YouTube version below) of rainbows eating mouse flies on a pond during the daytime. I noticed some rose to the fly in a similar way - basically breaking the surface behind the fly, then surging forward to take it. It's subtle. Nothing spectacular or unusual, but keep in mind that during the night your senses are heightened and your mind tries to fill in the gaps with the clues provided, helping you 'see' what you don't see. I saw the shape rising to eat the mouse as something else, and my brain couldn't get passed the first impression quickly enough.
Live and learn. Why can't these lessons be learned on little fish? It's always the big ones that make you look like a moron - even when you are alone in the dark with no witnesses. At least I didn't come back with a Sasquatch story inspired by my own shadow....
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