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MY QUARRY EYE TO EYE
Roderick Haig-Brown
October 19, 1964
A renowned angler who thought he knew something about catching trout and salmon goes beneath the surface to spy on his favorite game fish. There among them he is astonished to learn that fish behave in ways he never dreamed of when he was simply casting flies
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October 19, 1964

My Quarry Eye To Eye

A renowned angler who thought he knew something about catching trout and salmon goes beneath the surface to spy on his favorite game fish. There among them he is astonished to learn that fish behave in ways he never dreamed of when he was simply casting flies

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For several weeks there were two large fish that held station close under the dam, both rainbows, each about 14 inches long. The larger was a firm, bright, deep fish, the other a slender fish with a marked red stripe along his side. They seemed entirely different types, and I suspected that the slender one was a river resident, used to shallow water and uncertain feeding, while the other, from his brightness and condition, had grown in the wider waters and the abundance of the estuary. If the river was not too high both fish preferred stations near bottom in the heavy current just beyond the point of the dam. When the river was high they often moved back and forth between the runs that broke over the dam and sometimes remained facing downstream among the larger boulders, searching the drift that came back in the underwater eddies. Even in this position they would allow me to approach very close, provided I did not seem to block off the obvious way of escape from among the rocks. The moment I showed any sign of doing so, they darted past me into the open water of the pool.

Needless to say, I became fond of these fish, and I like to think that they got used to me, or at least became satisfied that I was harmless. As a fly-fisherman I was impressed first of all by their readiness to move about in response to comparatively slight changes in river height and even, it seemed, to range back and forth between preferred stations in search of the best one. I had supposed that stream trout held rather closely to precise feeding positions. On occasion, these fish did hold, and hold very firmly, especially in the violent turbulence just off the point of the dam. The boulders here are quite large, some of them three or four feet in diameter, and the current has dug a deep rock-floored race just beyond them. Bubbles break down in intermittent showers from the buildup behind the shoulder of the dam, and nothing is constant except movement. But one can find a handhold on one or another of the big boulders readily enough and cling there, tossed and tumbled like the fish themselves.

For they are tossed and tumbled, lifted and dropped, by the swirls and eddies and surges. I had imagined trout holding in such a place well down on the bottom, taking shelter among the round rocks and darting out to intercept drifting feed. These fish did not. They held just above the tops of the boulders and accepted the current with their whole bodies. They held station with the power of their bodies, even as I held with my hand's grip, and they were twisted and turned and battered by it, even as I was. But they were able to move in it as I was not—up or down or sideways with little effort, intercepting and swallowing things too fast and small for me to see. How long a fish may hold in such an active area I do not know, but I have watched them for 15 or 20 minutes at a stretch, and when some clumsy motion of mine displaced them they returned almost immediately.

While these fish can move with a flick of their tails from the strong current into the easier flow behind the dam, I doubt if it would normally have occurred to me to search such heavy water with a fly. From now on, of course, I shall do so. A deeply drifted fly would be the most likely to bring a faithful response, but drifting it accurately would not be easy. A wet fly hung from above would be the next choice, but I doubt if the chances of hooking the fish securely would be better than 50%. A good, big dry fly cast upstream would almost certainly produce a rise, but again the chances of hooking the fish would not be good, since he would be responding through some four feet of very fast water. And so I began to learn what the river had to teach me. Once started, I could hardly keep myself away from this new world, and I can only assume that—masked and goggled—I became a familiar sight both above and below the surface.

"What are you doing down there?" small boys would ask me from the river's edge. "Getting lures off the bottom?"

"No," I answer, "looking for fish."

"Find any?"

"Sure, lots."

"What do you do when you find them?"

"Just watch them."

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