The Fish I Didn’t Catch

Seth Denbo on Smith Creek

On the club outing to Smith Creek in April, I caught several fish. The morning began with a fallfish, and I ended the day with the first bluegill I’ve ever caught on a fly rod. In between I pulled in some nice rainbows on caddis pupa I’d tied myself, missed a few takes, saw some wildlife — a couple of herons and an osprey gliding over the fields, a pair of scampering muskrats, aSeth Denbo on Smith Creek water snake rippling across a pool, a turtle sunning on a log — and had a great day out with club mates on a beautiful spring creek nestled in the Shenandoah Valley. Pretty much everything one would ask for out of a day on the water. In fishing terms, it was a more successful day than I had a year ago on the same stream. Maybe I’m improving as a fly angler, or maybe I was just luckier. It’s tough to know.

But a couple of fish that I didn’t manage to catch taught me some valuable lessons and were more memorable than those that ended up in my net.

Heeding Mike Holland’s suggestion on a good spot, I caught the first rainbow in small pool overhung with branches. After the maneuvering required to fish that section with the inevitable lines and flies tangled in the trees, I headed upstream to find more open casting room. In a wider section of the creek, which had two long pools separated by a shallower gravel bar, I hooked what may have been the biggest fish of the day.

After setting the hook and feeling the tug of a big trout, I realized I’d need to play the fish carefully. When she felt firmly on, I eased off and let her run; when she slowed I fought her a bit. She took off again, so I eased off. I followed all of the recommended fighting techniques: staying downstream of the fish, keeping the rod bent, using side pressure. After a short back-and-forth battle, she crossed over the gravel bar to the deep spot near the far bank, stopped, shook her head, and was off.

What did I do wrong? Maybe nothing. I know from reading and watching videos that more capable and experienced anglers than me lose fish. But this felt like I had made a mistake. So the lesson I’ve taken away is that I was too concerned about the fish breaking off, and as a result I wasn’t firm enough.  With a big fish on light tippet, it can be a tricky line to walk. But trying to keep the right balance will be on my mind next time I manage to hook a substantial trout.

After an excellent lunch, thanks to Mike and Andy, I headed upstream again to a section of the creek I recalled from last year. Flat, shallow, and clear, this stretch had intimidated me, but now that I’ve gained a little more confidence I wanted to give it a try. In a channel where the gravel bottom is visible between the abundant aquatic vegetation characteristic of spring creeks, another large trout was holding near the bottom. Occasionally he would chase off a smaller fish, but mostly he waited, slowly moving sideways or upward to intercept some food that the current brought his way. On a couple of occasions I saw him rise and take something off the surface.

I spent a long time casting to him: watching his behavior, looking for signs about what he might be eating, and trying out different flies and approaches. It was an opportunity to work on my presentation and to see if I could figure out how to entice him to take my fly. A few times he appeared to show interest in one of the various nymphs I drifted by him, but never enough to open his mouth. After a while, I decided to give him a break, and I headed off to fish with the others for a while. But later, on the way back downstream to the car, I couldn’t resist giving him another try and see if he would come up to the surface, but had the same result as earlier.

This lesson I’m still trying to figure out. Should I have gone smaller or bigger? Tried different flies? Was there something wrong with my drift? Or was he just too savvy to take my poorly tied imitations of his everyday faire? I’ve no way of knowing. And this is part of what makes fly fishing at once fascinating and frustrating.  Since taking it up a couple of years ago, the uncertainty is a huge part of what has made this pursuit so compelling.

So next time you’re out enjoying a day on the water and don’t get the results you’d hoped for, don’t give in to discouragement. Think about what you learned, work on improving your skills for the next time, and remember how challenging fly fishing can be. But most of all have fun.  Incidentally, that bluegill put up a really good fight.

By Seth Denbo