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Footsteps and Fish Brains

According to the internet and common sense, fish have small brains. Eating food, making baby fish, and not being dead are really all they have/need to process. They don’t get hung up on existential hypotheticals, five year plans, or even if their new sling pack really meets all their needs. The cerebral existence of a fish is a simple one.

Yet there are some peculiar behaviors that fish demonstrate that will make you question their aptitude… or your own.

Up on the Battenkill in Vermont this past fall, I was targeting a very deep and fishy pool. I’d come across the spot the year before and saw a mammoth brown trout patrolling the greenish depths. As is the case in the vast majority of these situations, the currents and structure made getting the fly to the trout practically impossible while staying inconspicuous. As soon as my self-control waned and I got closer to the bank, the fish darted (well, swam off confidently) into the tangled mass of limbs at the bottom of the hole.

This time, I was prepared. Even in such a popular stream, I figured that the same fish – or a fish of similar stature would surely be in the pool. I entered the stream far below and waded up with heron-like stealth. The microscopic disturbances I was creating lulled water striders to sleep and drew praise from onlooking turtles. After what seemed like an hour, I was in position to cast. I had a large streamer on, and I started casting well beyond the head of the pool. Even with the amount of weight on the fly and leader, it seemed to take forever to drop down to where I could start my retrieve.

In situations like this, where there is a lot of self-assurance and preparation, whiffing on the first pitch can be quite disheartening. Honestly, if there was a fish in this hole it would have eaten this perfect fly on this perfect presentation. But I casted again, altering the trajectory of the retrieve slightly to come across the other side of the big log. Nothing.

These subtle changes in retrieve speed, depth, fly pattern, weight, and emotional stability continued for about half an hour. At that point I came to grips with the cold, hard reality that poachers unfortunately caught and killed my fish. Alas. I would have enjoyed the fight. I reeled in my line, hooked my fly through the keeper, and turned 90 degrees to my right to cross the river.

It happened on that first step.

Let me just take a brief excursus to comment on the uncanny nature of wildlife to flee a half-beat after you lay eyes on them. I know that it might border on hyperbole, but it seems like deer, carp, or turkey only flee after you become aware of their presence. To take the tangent one step further, it only occurs when you have rod or rifle in hand. I can walk up to my garden unarmed and the groundhog will just look at me and saunter off. If I am packing heat, he bolts as soon as I turn the corner out of the garage 50 yards away. I digress.

On that very first step towards the opposite stream bank, a large brown trout shot out from under a park bench-sized clump of vegetation that I had virtually been standing in for the last 30 minutes. She wasn’t bothered on my walk up, or by all the fidgeting with my gear as I stood there, or even the exasperated reeling in and sheathing of my fly. She waited until I could see her!

Now I know that fish can’t reason like that. But that has happened to me more times than I’d like to admit. On some waters, it made me act quite irrationally. One summer I’d cast 20 yards from the bank of a particular pond. In my mind I had to stay back and cast into the muddy shallows, laying dozens of feet of line on the grass, because I spooked a big bass there once. Passersby in the neighborhood must have thought thoughts about the guy who ostensibly didn’t understand how fishing works.

A lot can be said for slowing down, focusing, and remembering that fish can and will be anywhere in the water. I know that anglers often go to where people like to fish rather than where fish actually are. I know that if I see a bunch of fly fishers on one side of the river I will automatically assume that is where the fish are. I know all of that. But it is still quite frustrating to be on the Charlie Brown end of the kickoff. Especially when Lucy has the glassy-eyed stare of a hatchery rainbow.

I don’t have any solutions for this problem. Probably because as often as the phenomenon that I’ve been writing about occurs, I also catch fish that I have no business catching. I’ve had steelhead literally swim between my legs and act coolly when I kicked them out of the kind of shock that having a 30-inch animal pop up in your personal space elicits. And then they’ll even bite my fly! So then I feel like this is all too easy… until the next pool where I am outsmarted by another one.

I suppose the moral of the story is that the infinite combinations of events in wild places are unfathomable, but we focus on those that are bizarrely unique. And as those “unique” experiences happen more than once, it gives us moment for pause. It is the exception proving the rule. The outliers defining the data. Etcetera. But those are the times that we remember and recount more than any other. And as long as the organism with limited synaptic prowess isn’t the hero of every story, we can still hold our head up high to fish another day.

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