SI Vault
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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It is interesting to compare the numbers and availability of steelhead in the same river. Through August, September and October I had seen thousands of humpbacks and hundreds of king salmon and cohos. In the same length of time I had not seen more than 20 summer steelhead, yet when I fish the river at all regularly during these months I catch at least half a dozen, often considerably more, all on flies. It is only possible to conclude that summer steelhead, under normal water conditions, are very responsive fish.

Migratory cutthroat trout are more difficult to assess. Though I searched all of the river's pools quite thoroughly during August I saw very few cutthroats and none that I judged to be more than two pounds. In September they began to appear, scattered here and there and often in places that a fisherman would normally pass by as too shallow, too inactive or too open to hold fish. There was no precise pattern, but they tended to be near the edge of fast, deep water that offered protection, in stations that made for calm and easy resting yet usually afforded fairly good possibilities of finding drifting feed. Generally they were well down in the water, seemingly content and inactive. They were far less nervous than either salmon or steelhead, though they were watchful and would not permit a clumsy or too familiar approach. A few smaller fish were in more active feeding stations, usually close under the banks, but again in places that one might easily pass without fishing. Once I saw two three-pounders within a few feet of each other in slack water at the edge of a pool, facing toward a sloping sandy shore and within two or three feet of it. Had I been fishing I would have walked right on to them without ever knowing they were there. The fly-fisherman's difficulties would be further complicated by the lethargic mood of the fish. Most of them, I thought, would have responded to the slow swing of a silver-bodied wet fly very near them or to repeated and accurate drifts of a large floating fly. But it would be easy to disturb them with a downstream approach unless one knew exactly where they were, while the dry-fly fisherman, working up from below, would almost certainly pass over them.

A few of the big cutthroats were in more active feeding stations—the places where one usually finds them and catches them. But they were not holding at all steadily, and I am convinced that this is another difficulty that must often defeat the angler. One day I made a very successful underwater approach to watch a really good cutthroat. When I first saw the fish he was 15 or 20 feet upstream from me, within six inches of the bank, just behind a protruding upright branch on which several dead maple leaves were caught. He was well up in the water and obviously willing to feed, but his tight position was still further protected by a long overhang of maple branches. A wet fly on a long line, drifted from upstream closely past the protruding limb, almost certainly would have caused him to rise, but the risk of hooking the limb would have been considerable and while he might have moved out to a less accurate cast, the rise probably would have been short.

Though it would have been a difficult cast, a dry fly from below, placed closely against the limb, would have succeeded. But it is not the sort of cast one normally risks, or considers necessary. Most of us, I think, would have felt the run well covered by a cast considerably farther out from the bank, and we would have been wrong.

These thoughts ran through my mind as I was watching a big fish in the blue-green water of a pool, and I promised myself to remember how important really accurate placement of a fly can be. The fish seemed quite unaware of me still and I was well placed in the run, four or five feet out from a cut bank and with a firm hold on a tangle of waterlogged brush, so I decided to watch a while longer. I saw him move slightly to intercept something drifting in the water. Then, quite suddenly, he was in a new position, about three feet out from the bank and almost in the center of the run. At first I thought he was holding, then I saw he was drifting very gradually back and in toward the bank again. When he was within a foot or so of the bank he turned out again and slowly swung across the run, still drifting almost imperceptibly downstream. About 10 minutes later he had worked down to a position in the center of the run, no more than three feet from where my left hand clung to the brush. I could see every spot on his heavy golden body, every ripple and change of set in his fins, even the sheen of red just developing on his gill covers. While I watched, he raised himself some six inches through the water, opened his mouth wide and took in a small gray piece of drift, no more than half an inch long. I could not tell what it was, but he bit once on it with a fierce grip of his wide jaws, and swallowed it.

From that point he began to work upstream again just as slowly as he had worked down. There was no sign at all that he had seen me, yet there is not much doubt he was aware of me as an unusual form among the familiar shapes of the run; if I had not been there his downstream drift would have continued. I moved slightly to shift my grip on the brush pile, but there was no sign of change in his own deliberate movement. When he was six or eight feet upstream I slowly changed position and lifted my head above water to clear my snorkel. When I looked back he was gone.

Apart from the sheer pleasure of watching a fine fish in his calm pursuits at such close range, this brief observation suggested to me that it must often be unsound to assume that certain places—those where we have found fish—are the precise spots where we should expect to find them again. The run, as I have said, is quite fast, the sort of place where one would expect a good fish to hold and wait for food. Yet this particular fish had ranged nearly 15 feet downstream and some four or five feet back and forth across the stream while I watched. The lesson seems to be that a run of this sort must be fished with care and precision throughout its length and across its full width, even when one thinks one knows the best holding places.

By now, winter's edge had come to the Campbell. Fall was gone, my first wondrous season of observing beneath the surface film was over, and only some questions were left. My fishermen friends have been quick to point out that the ethics of underwater spying on fish are dubious. I agree, in part. After months of watching I find I have little desire to try to catch fish I have seen while diving; I would rather go back and have another look at them. By the time I have visited the same fish twice, he is an old friend; I do not even want to disturb him by catching him and putting him back. The more general observations about where fish lie and how they behave will influence my future fishing methods to some extent, but I certainly do not expect from them any miracles that will double my kill or trouble my conscience.

What has concerned me is the degree of disturbance caused to maturing salmon by the passing of a diver in a river. I feel I have learned a great deal about how to find the fish and how to approach them, and I use all the skill I can to avoid disturbing them—after all, the point is to watch them, count them, study them, not to chase them. Once a Pacific salmon leaves salt water, the reserve of energy left to him to complete his journey and his spawning is closely limited. So I have become a most careful invader of his world. Whenever possible, I avoid swimming directly downstream over large groups of resting fish, and it is necessary to do so only when attempting to make an estimate of the timing and numbers of a new run. The real pleasure of watching the fish is far better served by the cunning and careful approaches one can make along the edges of pools, by circling with the eddies or along the line of shelter behind large boulders. But I sometimes wonder what the effect might be if, as may well happen, a large number of divers chose to take to the rivers. Would the fish quickly become used to the passing figures, or would they waste their energy in violent flight? The answer to that remains uncertain, and as long as it does I think it is wise and proper for all of us who go beneath the rivers to remember that we are intruders, that we must treat the fish and their domain with respect and must train ourselves in subtle methods of observation. This is, of course, the naturalist's way—and the fisherman's, too, I would like to think.

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