There is a very distinct sound that accompanies the rise of a big trout. Most seasoned fly fishers know that big fish don’t splash a lot when feeding. One might think that big fish make big noises, but that isn’t always the case. The movement that produces surface splashing requires energy. Furthermore, it requires an amount of energy that can’t easily be recouped by consuming tiny insects. Big trout will splash for a mouse or a baitfish, usually not a mayfly.
When an abundance of mayfly spinners are present, a lot of fish take advantage of the situation. Helpless and spent, the lifeless bugs are an easy meal. Consequently, there are splashes and sips: the sounds of small and medium-sized trout.
However, big trout gulp. The feeding sound of a 20-inch plus fish eating mayflies is unique. There isn’t a lot of urgency in the noise. Silently finning in the current, just inches below the surface, a trout like this doesn’t have to worry about other fish butting in to claim their lane. With the slightest tilt of their head, they drift upwards in the water column and open their mouths. A pocket of displaced water is created. The surface tension, carrying the bug, is broken across a plane the size of a playing card. All that mass gulps down into the mouth of the trout. The water goes through the gills, the bug gets eaten, and the fish repeats the relatively effortless process.
Fishing a particular spinner fall for the better part of a week, I’d heard a gulp a few times over the previous nights. This stream, a Pennsylvania freestone with significant spring influences, gets fished hard under normal circumstances. During a “hatch” that you could set a watch to, it was crowded to the point of deterrence. I would have been deterred, except for the fact that the fishing was phenomenal.
One step below combat fishing, best practices demanded showing up to a spot around 6:00 pm to ensure your preferred casting position come go time at 8:00. I had been where I wanted to for the first three nights. From river left, I had access to the end of a run at the 2-o’clock position, a small pool directly in front of me, and some faster water that lead to a sharp stream-wide riffle to my left. With a fifteen-foot cast, I could cover 180-degrees of diverse water. For three nights, I didn’t move and caught a lot of rising trout.
But I kept hearing that distinctive gulp. It was coming from my left. It was so audible, I assumed it was right below me. I thought it odd that a big fish would be feeding on spinners just above faster water. I thought I was just unable to make a good presentation from an upstream position. Every night I would slowly move downstream after I heard the fish begin to feed, but I couldn’t locate the source of the sound.
The fourth night, I brought someone who wanted to learn how to fly fish. I talked up the fool-proof nature of the spinner fall and walked him to the spot that I had been fishing earlier in the week. I had planned to fish just upstream, so that we’d both be in the same stretch and I could fish the run proper. As we popped out of the woods, I was glad to see that his spot was open. However, there was someone upstream where I had planned to be.
A dispensation of decorum and grace must have been granted to me, for the purposes of a good testimony before a new angler, as I quickly opted to fish downstream without showing any external signs of frustration. This put me below the short riffle and in the shallows. It wasn’t very fishy water, but I had to stay close to my guest.
Once the bugs started to fall, the trout immediately began to feed. Any thoughts of being in a sub-par spot dissipated as fish rose all around me. I caught fish and he was hooking up with some as well.
Then I heard it. The gulp was right in front of me; louder than I had heard previous nights, because now the noise wasn’t muffled by the water rushing over a few feet of rock ledge.
I saw rippling waters moving in the fading light, and that data matched the sound I had heard. I cast upstream of where I thought the fish was. The gulp seemed to occur right when my fly should have been passing overhead, so I set the hook. A fish was on, and it was heavy.
I was able to keep the big trout in shallow water. Combined with the fact that moving upstream wasn’t ideal, the fish ended up in my net within a few minutes. The fat, tan brown trout had my spinner right in the front of its top jaw. Just over twenty inches, it was the largest trout I had ever taken in that stretch of the creek.
Slipping out of my net and back into the gentle riffle in front of me, I took a quick picture of the fish in the light of my headlamp. My friend came down to ask what the commotion was about, but when I went to shine at the spot where the trout had been it was nowhere to be found. The rises had settled down, and we both were ready to head out.
I’m amazed how I didn’t do anything to put myself in a position to catch that fish except be inconvenienced. Despite my planning, a trout that I had misjudged and failed to approach properly numerous times was still caught. The beneficiary of a right place/right time scenario, I effortlessly guided a very nice trout into my net.
Breaking down our rods back on the bank, a familiar sound could be heard over our conversation. Further downstream than either of us had been standing, there was a gulp. I was asked if I wanted to have a shot at it. I did. Although it could have been from contentment or the late hour, I think an awareness of the context of catching my last fish led to declining the opportunity.
A benefit of fishing a lot is the ability to be a little choosy. Instead of splashing at every chance at a big fish, it allows for a more measured approach. With a lot of fly fishing comes an increased sample size to consider. There are more experiences, more insights, and more observations. Most importantly, it is a lot like the feeding habits of a big trout: just be there, and opportunities will present themselves that require very little of you.