I just started reading the 1999 John Gierach book Standing in a River Waving a Stick – I’m not all that far into it yet , but so far so good.
The first chapter is called, The Happy Idiot. In this chapter Gierach mentions a TV News program that he watched on which a monkey and an investment guru each chose stock portfolios – the monkey’s portfolio outperformed the professional’s. The comparision to fly fishing is of course the fact that no matter how much you read, practice, study, turn over rocks, cast in your back-yard, no matter how expensive your fly-rod or how many fly tying books you own, sometimes the monkey wins.
This got me thinking of those times when the monkey won. When, regardless how well prepared I thought that I was, my plans did not coincide with the fish’s – and dumb luck beat out my years of accumulated fly fishing skill and “wisdom”.
Most recently I remember a trip to Colorado’s Elk River not far outside of Steamboat Springs. A buddy and I were fishing up opposites banks of the river – I was catching fish here and there. I would have been having a pretty good time, but I couldn’t help noticing that every time I looked up my buddy was hooking, reeling in or releasing a fish. I know that I should have an internal locus of control, but…well it was getting to me. Every few casts I would turn back to the fly boxes, open and close one after another looking for that perfect fly. In between fly changes I tried to convince myself that I was just on the wrong side of the river – it was too sunny, all the fish were along the other bank.
Finally I cracked open a re-purposed Altoids container full of terrestrials that I’d gotten in a fly swap. I sorted through the ants, beetles, crickets, hoppers, and then in a sort of self-defeating irony and desperation tied on the biggest fly in the box – a fly that I would never use if anybody was watching. It was a multi-layered foam, rubber-legged affair about the size of a hummingbird, easily bigger than the rest of the flies combined. I tied on the monstrosity of trembling foam and rubber and cast it into the head of a plunge pool – it landed like a flip flop smacking the water. There was a second or two of placid drifting and then an explosion of fish and white water. I hauled back like I was trying to embed the hook into an the snout of an alligator gar – the 5x tipped did not hold. I am convinced that I would have really cleaned up with that fly. A fly that I would never have chosen based on any set of facts that I was familiar with, but a fly that a monkey would have probably picked in an instant.
Another time, I was fishing Pennsylvania’s Spring Creek in mid-summer. The section that I was on had grassy banks down to the stream with long stems of grass arching out over the water. I tied on a black LeTort Cricket and crawled up to the stream, pulled out some line, carefully rolled it out to the stream behind me before casting tight to the bank, brushing the grass. I had a nice long leader, I was careful not to false-cast over the likely bankside lies, the fly would bump into the grass and plop pleasingly onto the water. I felt like the cover of the summer issue of a fly fishing magazine. It was all so perfect…except for the catching fish part. Not a fish – not a flash, not a swirl…nothing. Time for a fly change, I let the fly line drift below me and went for the fly boxes. You guessed it, fish on. I brought in a nicely colored rainbow. released it and did what I wasn’t supposed to do. I cast the cricket downstream, let it drag, creating a v-shaped waked – bam! Another one, and another and another…the monkey won again.
I could go on. The monkey wins more often than I’d like to admit. It sometimes makes me wonder. All of those times when I did everything right and caught fish, when I was so self-congratulatory, was it all just self-deception? Is it all smoke and mirrors? Is it a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes? I guess I need to get a pet monkey and test it out.