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Trout: End and Beginning
Sparse Grey Hackle
April 06, 1959
The exhausted trout shining in the mixed colors of the stream is the quarry that attracts a million anglers to the trout waters of 44 U.S. states. As usual, this spring the greater share of the reward will go to accomplished anglers who know how to find and take fish. On the following pages the veteran angler and writer, Sparse Grey Hackle, describes the various skills that make up the perfect fly-fisherman
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April 06, 1959

Trout: End And Beginning

The exhausted trout shining in the mixed colors of the stream is the quarry that attracts a million anglers to the trout waters of 44 U.S. states. As usual, this spring the greater share of the reward will go to accomplished anglers who know how to find and take fish. On the following pages the veteran angler and writer, Sparse Grey Hackle, describes the various skills that make up the perfect fly-fisherman

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THE PERFECT ANGLER

I never saw him; if anyone else ever did it has not been reported. I don't believe he exists. But if he did, what would his attributes be?

If we accept the little girl's statement that piano playing is easy—"you just press down on those black and white things"—and apply it to trout fishing, all it involves is:

1) finding a fish
2) deceiving it into taking an imitation of its food
3) hooking, playing and landing it.

The first requirement is the most important; my guess is that finding a fish is anywhere from 50% to 80% of catching it. Overwhelmingly, the reason why so many experienced and well-equipped fishermen catch so few trout is that most of the time they aren't fishing over fish.

Fish-finding is done by sight; by knowing the kinds of places in which fish harbor or feed; or by the simple hammer-and-chisel process of fishing one stretch so often that eventually one learns where the fish are, without knowing or caring why. The first method is the rarest, the second the most difficult, and the third the easiest but most limited.

Really fine fishing eyesight is a gift of the gods, the rarest and most enviable attribute a fisherman can possess, and I have never known a truly great angler who did not have it. Edward R. Hewitt had the eyes of an eagle right up to his death at 90; George M. L. La Branche still has a keen and piercing eye although he is past 80; and Ray Bergman's ability to see fish is so instinctive that he never could understand why everyone couldn't do it.

The hawk-eyed angler sees not only the fish themselves but the faint, fleeting signs of their presence—the tiny dimple in the slow water next the bank which indicates a big fish sucking down little flies; the tiny black object momentarily protruded above the surface which is the neb of a good, quietly feeding fish; the slight ruffling of the shallows by a school of minnows fleeing from the bogeyman. The gauzy wings of a small insect lying flat on the surface, exhausted after having laid its eggs, are invisible and its body may be a mere speck no larger than an eighth inch of pencil lead. But given any luck with the direction and amount of light, the keen-eyed angler can see this "spent spinner" well enough to determine its approximate size and color and thus learn not only what type of food the fish are taking but which of his artificials will best imitate it.

George La Branche claimed in The Dry Fly and Fast Water that the knack of seeing fish under water can be learned by practice, but I incline to believe that either one is born with sharp eyes or one is not. On the other hand, there is a mysterious mental aspect of eyesight; sometimes it seems to be a quality separate from mere keenness of sight—visual acuity. Resolving power, the ability to see what we look at, seems to be a mental as well as a physical attribute. How else can we account for the almost incredible ability of the great British angler-writer G. E. M. Skues to discern whether trout were nymphing immediately under, or taking spent flies in, the surface film, when we know that he was virtually blind in one eye and had impaired vision in the other. Of course, knowledge plays a part. "The little brown wink under water," as Skues called it, means a feeding fish to the initiate but nothing at all to the tyro, just as that Pullman-plush patch in yonder bush, 18 inches above the ground, means a deer in summer coat to the woodsman but is never noticed by the city yokel looking 16 hands high for a hatrack spread of antlers.

The second method of finding fish, by learning to be "a judge of water," is to my way of thinking the highest attainment in this aspect of angling. Anyone who is willing to do the work can make himself a fair judge of water; like piano playing, a little of it is a simple thing to acquire. But mastery of the art is granted to but few, and a lifetime is not too long to achieve perfection.

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