Our Outdoors: Cues & Clues

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The author’s mentor, Einar watches the Rolla River for rising grayling.

Half a world away from home, I made my way down to the crystal waters of the Rolla River behind my fly fishing mentor, Einar.  I stepped lightly in his tracks as we wound through his uncle’s farm which marked the halfway point between his residence in Oslo and his family cabin near the 67th parallel in the northern reaches of the country.  Once on the river’s edge, I began running the yellow-green line through the guides of the R.L. Winston fly rod he had borrowed me (the “Rolls-Royce of rods” as he had put it).  I looked over and saw him sitting on a rock staring out into the bend, a man transfixed on the glassy surface with his rod still unassembled in his left hand.

“What’re we waiting for,” I asked with the impatience of a first time angler who had flown 10 hours to fish; instantaneously he lifted his right hand as if to silence me, but instead, he angled it out to a small riffle behind the rocks.

“There,” he said with a smile and tipped his forefinger out over the water.
The ring was a dead give away that a fish was rising on something small, and he studied the flow further as I followed his lead.  A small swarm of the tiniest insects swirled off and about a small rock protruding from the riffle.  They were midges, rising fresh off of the edge of the rock and those that didn’t make it to the launching pad were swallowed by the purple-finned arctic grayling swimming in the pocket just downstream.

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A Fish Out of Time.  The author with his first grayling from a Central Norway stream. 

We tied on size 18 and 20 Griffith’s gnats and Einar’s special silver-winged grayling fly and dropped them behind the rocks which broke the surface of the water.  The fish obliged as if our offerings were the real thing and I landed my first grayling and a dozen more before the afternoon was out.

It’s been over a decade since that day in the snowpack-fed Norwegian stream where I learned to watch the world around me for clues and cues on what to do to make my fishing more successful and my time outdoors more enjoyable. Sometimes the pattern is daily – like when the midges rose from the rock in the mid-day sunlight – and other times it is seasonal, like knowing the midges and mosquitoes around here are the first to take flight each spring, followed by caddisflies of late spring, then dragonflies of early summer, then mayflies around midsummer.

Sometimes the clues are easily seen, and other times they’re a chance occurrence – like hooking a walleye that belches up baby white bass in late August, or a smallmouth that spits out two-inch crayfish in the boat in July.  Sometimes the targets themselves provide clues as to what’s going on, and all it takes is a moment or two, or ten, to pause, look, study and follow nature’s lead.

Too often, we’re all the impatient angler that I was in the above experience – rushing to the bank, firing off a cast just a moment too fast, spooking fish and turning what could have been a sure thing into nothing at all.  Maybe it’s an obvious piece of structure, like a felled tree leading out from shore, or one that’s less obvious like a boulder that can only been seen with polarized glasses while lazily drifting around for pre-spawn largemouth. Or maybe we just misjudge the size of the school of silver bass and drop our offering into the center, spooking them or we just don’t count down every cast to find where crappies are holding before sunset brings them up to the surface.  Finding that moment to pause and take stock of what is happening and how it figures into the fishing equation might seem to slow the process down, but in my mind, it IS the process.

Doing so should never be considered a lost moment that’s going to detract from fishing success. Quite the contrary, since that day in the grayling stream, I’ve found that the time spent observing, learning and understanding natural cues, what’s hatching, who’s eating who, and where they’re doing it provides far greater dividends than rushing into the flow without knowing what’s going on…in our outdoors.

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