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Fly Fishing: Going Against the Grain

“The water is high; must be generating at the dam.” These words might be the bane of a long anticipated fishing trip. But it doesn’t have to go that way. As they say in the sea, “you can’t change the direction of the wind, but you can change the direction of your sail”. Time to go against the grain.

You would think it is true that trout face upstream. However, what is really true is that they almost always face into the current. Sometimes the current goes backwards. So when the water goes against the grain, so must your presentation.

Dan and I planned our escape for Friday after work and headed northeast. We arrived at the river during the night; so we set up our tent as quietly as possible. Trying not to wake our fellow campers, we even pounded the tent stakes with firewood to avoid the noise of the hammer. In the morning, we found – what we were unable to see in the dark – high fast water tumbling down below the spillway. Not wanting to turn a trout-fishing trip into a hiking and sightseeing tour, we tried to figure out familiar water under unfamiliar conditions.

The last time I had fished this same stretch of river tiny midge dries and droppers were the ticket. An ancient quote repeated by too many fishing writers, “One can never step in the same river twice” certainly came to mind. I took those first steps cautiously considering the roaring rapids. Boldly leaning against the current, I discovered it was roughly wade-able. (I say “roughly”, because of events that I will share in another story. Yep, I got soaked and bounced downstream a bit. Sign up for the newsletter and you’ll get the scoop soon.) The little pocket water grooves and plunge pools I would normally fish were spate with cold aggressive water. The river was LOUD. The rush of water sounded so powerful it drowned out all of nature’s other noises. But – where to fish?

Beginning experimentation with my previously successful rig, I quickly found the tiny dry midges unable to stay on top. They were essentially invisible in the churning water. It’s interesting how an angler tends to stick with the lure or technique from past successes, even though the conditions are absolutely different. Often, success breeds failure. Adapt! Switching to a tan, number 16 Elk Hair Caddis seemed to do the floatation trick. The old standby Pheasant Tail Nymph with a bead head, to get it deep in the water column, was added on five foot of tippet to the caddis’ hook bend. Seemed like a pretty cool fast water rig to me. I started throwing the rig upstream and “letting it ride” the wave of fast water – like an elk haired surfer. Dropping my rod tip to stretch out the drift, I’d slowly lift the rig at the end. Then I’d launch it back up to start it again. Not a thing. I kept trying this deeper version of my typical technique. Nothing. Nada. Empty set. I tried it again in the many runs and frantic flows around me. I moved upstream. Still nothing.

Where are the fish? Hmmm, if I WERE A FISH, I’d get darn tired of fighting this swift current – I was thinking. Then I noticed something very telling. I had overcast on a slick run. My fly held momentarily in the soft water beyond the seam before the belly of the line jerked it downstream. I small trout took a swirl at my fly as it pulled away. Okay, now we’re on to something. Aha! Let’s try that again drag free. Rod tip high to make sure that it stays put in the slow water. Let it swirl around in this tricky water. Fish on! A jazzy little brown with nice coloration fought bigger-than-his-britches in the tough current. I smiled as I wet my hand to release him. Caught him on the nymph. Cool. As my father says, repeating the A Team, “I love it when a plan comes together!”

In the next hour I caught seven more trout. All, but one, were browns with a saucy little rainbow in there for good measure. The biggest of the browns was all of twelve inches. Not big fish. Beautiful fish. Some I caught on the dry and most I caught on the nymph. All were caught going upstream. Yes, upstream. The little eddies behind boulders and along points with cutouts at streamside created water that was going the wrong way – going against the grain. It took a delicate cast, and even more line control to hit these hot spots. But each good cast was rewarded with some kind of action. A swirl or a movement of a fish, a near miss, or a rise told the story of trout stacked up in this same type of flow.

I am convinced that the right fly had nothing to do with catching these fish. The water is so fast that fish typically had only milliseconds to glimpse it anyway. I do know though that the PRESENTATION was the critical factor. Art Lee described it this way, “No fly is right unless it’s fished correctly.” On that point I completely agree. We spend a lot of time, money, and effort trying to match the hatch. But in water this fast, the key is going against the grain.


Source by Scott McDuffee