Most fly fishing articles online and in print are of the “how to” variety. These are very valuable. Reading them teaches you what fly to use, when to use it, and where it should be used. That is indispensable information.
Of all the instructional content that an angler might come across, there is some that focuses on planning. Gear reviews and trip preparation are important. Tying flies might be the most basic level of preparation, and there are certainly many places where one can find direction regarding that. Setting the hook on the fish, playing the fish, and landing the fish are worth reading about. Possessing that knowledge ensures fish are caught. It also goes a long way to helping them get released alive.
A little bit of searching will yield results on knots, seasons, regulations, guides, rods, hatches, and ichthyology. If you have a question, just ask Google. There is a “how to” for nearly every moment of fly fishing.
There is one moment that I can’t recall reading about. That is probably due to the fact that it only lasts a split second. It isn’t easy to write much regarding an instant that is here and gone before you can even type those words. You can’t force it, control it, or do anything about it. The angler is a passive bystander. Watching, waiting, and feeling.
It is the moment when the fish is about to take the fly.
Whether it be a trout rising to take a perfectly drifting mayfly, or a false albacore turning to charge a thick deceiver, many fly fishing experiences involve observing the moment right before the take. This moment gets the endorphins going, the blood pumping, and the muscles tightening. There is a flash where you see the fish change it’s behavior.
Positively responding to your fly, visual cues in your quarry send you into a completely different mindset. The fish might back out just as quickly. It might strike and miss. It might get hooked. Regardless, the fleeting second before the bite has your heart racing and palms sweating in a way that few battles with fish ever could. It could be said that this uncontrollable moment before the take has the greatest impact on the fly fisher.
Stop and think. What does it look like?
Rising fish relax. They seem to just stop swimming, allowing their bodies to ascend in the water column. Used to this, they are proficient at timing their trip as to perfectly intersect their meal in the current. It only takes a second, and the fish goes from watching to white mouthed.
Predatory fish tense up. Like springs – bass, musky, and trout look like they are coiling. Fins twirl, tails twitch, and gill plates flare. The charge happens so fast. The signals must be read with the calm discernment of a sniper. Pulling the trigger at the right time depends wholly on observing the moment.
Now think: how do you respond? Joy? Anxiety? Sheer wonder?
Of course, not all fish caught are seen. At depths or in fast currents many strikes are felt with the hand before they are perceived by the eye. Many fish are still seen, however. Even if the water isn’t gin clear, shadows and rippled silhouettes of fish prompt the same response as a sharp image.
This small, singular part of fly fishing is often overlooked. It isn’t anything you can control, but it is rapturous. It is nearly imperceptible, but all anglers know it. We don’t often discuss it or think about it. We segregate it from the cast, the presentation, the strike, and the fight. Yet it is special.
No article can tell you how to do it. You can only experience it. And, hopefully, retain enough of the flame-flicker breath to appreciate it in the many, many moments that come afterward.