From the irrepressible author of Trout Bum and The View from Rat Lake comes an engaging, humorous, often profound examination of life's greatest mysteries: sex, death, and fly-fishing.
John Gierach's quest takes us from his quiet home water (an ordinary, run-of-the-mill trout stream where fly-fishing can be a casual affair) to Utah's famous Green River, and to unknown creeks throughout the Western states and Canada. We're introduced to a lively group of fishing buddies, some local "experts" and even an ex-girlfriend, along the way.
Contemplative, evocative, and wry, he shares insights on mayflies and men, fishing and sport, life and love, and the meaning (or meaninglessness) of it all.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
John Gierach is the author of numerous books on fly-fishing, including A Fly Rod of Your Own. His work has appeared in Field & Stream, Gray’s Sporting Journal, and Fly Rod & Reel, where he is a regular columnist. He also writes a column for the monthly Redstone Review. He lives in Lyons, Colorado. Visit JohnGierachBooks.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Sex, Death, and Fly-fishing
On a stretch of one of the forks of a small river near where I live in northern Colorado, there is, in the month of July, a fabulous Red Quill spinner fall. As near as I can tell, it consists of at least three different species of these reddish-brown mayflies ranging in size from number 12s down to 16s or 18s. The fall lasts for weeks -- sometimes more than a month -- on and off, coming and going, overlapping, hardly ever the same twice.
No, I don't know which specific bugs are involved and, at the risk of insulting the entomologists, I'm not sure how much it would matter if I did. When the fall comes off, you fish one of the Red Quill or Rusty Spinner patterns in the appropriate size. When it doesn't come off, knowing the Latin name of the insect that is mysteriously absent lets you piss and moan in a dead language, but otherwise doesn't help much.
And there are plenty of evenings when this thing doesn't work out from a fishing standpoint, even though the bugs are at least in evidence on an almost nightly basis. As spinner falls go, this is the spookiest one I've seen, probably only because I've seen so much of it. Usually it has to do with the weather.
Here on the East Slope of the Rocky Mountains midsummer is the season for hot, clear, bluebird days punctuated by late afternoon thundershowers. Mayfly spinners -- most of them, anyway -- like to fall in the evenings when the light is low, and the air is cool and maybe a little damp. That's a little damp; a full-fledged rain can put them off, depending on the timing.
If the rain comes early enough in the day, it's over before the spinner fall should happen, and it has actually helped things along by chilling and humidifying the air a little. It's part of the local lore that an early shower can mean a good spinner fall later on.
If a thunderstorm comes late enough, after the flies have already formed up over the stream -- and suddenly enough, without announcing itself with too much wind or cool air -- it can flush the bugs into the water where the trout can get them.
This can make for some great fishing, provided the rain is heavy enough to knock the flies down, but not so heavy it makes the water too rough for the trout to see them -- in which case the fish won't feed on them after all.
When that happens, you race downstream in your rain slicker to where the current pools out at the head of a small canyon reservoir in hopes that when the storm passes, the bugs will be collected down there and the trout will rise to them.
That's assuming the rain doesn't last too long, and doesn't muddy the water so much that the trout, once again, can't see the bugs on the surface of the stream, and, once again, won't eat them.
When the rain comes at its more normal time -- a few hours before dusk, before the spinner fall should start -- it may cool the air in the canyon too much, and cancel the event, although you might just hike up there anyway because some nights the weather clears off, warms up just enough (but not too much), gets very still, and the spinner fall is unusually heavy.
And I am not being sarcastic when I say that trout are known to be particularly fond of spinners.
On rare overcast, drizzly afternoons, the Red Quill dun hatch can last late, and the spinner fall can come early, giving you hours of good fishing with a transition point when both forms of the bug are on the water at once. Many trout can be caught on dry flies then if you're smart enough to notice what's happening with the weather, drop everything at home, and get up there early. Under gray skies and drizzle, dusk is usually too late.
Wet, gloomy summer days are unusual in semiarid Colorado, and this has only happened three times that I know of in something like ten years. I missed it once, although I sure heard about it later from some friends who were there. They caught lots of trout, including some big ones. It was great, they said, in a not so subtle tone of accusation.
The assumption out here is, you should always go fishing, period. If you don't, even for what might appear in other circles to be a good reason, the suspicion is that you are getting uppity or, even worse, lazy. You get some grief for staying home, and when the fishing was great, well...
People will forgive you for missing it once or twice, but no more than that.
On other days when I was there and ready, the air got too cool, or a stiff breeze came up, or the drizzle got too drizzly, or something. Once it was looking just right until a sheet of hail drew itself across the canyon like a gauze curtain, and my friend Koke Winter and I ended up huddling in the flimsy cover of a juniper tree getting whacked hard by a few less hailstones than if we'd been standing out in the open. A big one got me square on the back of the hand when I reached out to pick a nearly ripe raspberry. By morning I had a bruise the size of a quarter.
It was all over in about twenty minutes, and the evening slid into ideal, textbook conditions -- cool, still, dusky, humid -- except that not a single swallow flashed in the air over the stream to eat the bugs because there were no flies, and not a single trout rose for the same reason. The sky was clear with stars, the air was freshly washed and thick with clean, organic smells, the reservoir was a dark, disk-shaped mirror. To anyone but a fly-fisherman it would have seemed peaceful and quite pretty.
We figured the hail had killed all the flies and knocked all the trout senseless, so we went home. Koke doesn't drink anymore, so we couldn't even stop for a beer.
For the absolutely cosmic spinner fall, it seems as though perfect conditions have to also be preceded by perfect conditions, and I don't know how far back in time this meteorological juggling act has to go. I do know that even a slightly larger dose of what would normally be ideal is deadly. I suppose there's a lesson there.
It seems like your best bet for a workmanlike, day-to-day spinner fall is a clear, warm evening with no wind. This kind of conservative weather stops short of being the model of perfection, but it doesn't court disaster either.
The more you fish the more you start seeing these things the way a farmer does: it doesn't have to be great, just, please, don't let it be awful.
On those days you hike up the stream with the last direct rays of sunlight still on the water. This is a shallow, stooped-shouldered, forested canyon with a few rock outcrops at the water, and a few more standing up at the lip. The slope is gentle enough lower down to allow for some patches of wild grass. The stream has a sand and sandstone bottom, so even when it's clear it can seem to have a brownish cast to it. Some evenings it gets amber for a few seconds just before the light goes off it.
A good hundred yards downstream from the riffle we always start at, you can see the swarm of mayflies high in the air above the stream, dipping and climbing, their clear wings flashing. At these times they look like they're spinning, hence the name.
These particular mayflies seem to begin mating about the time the light goes off them. It's not a deep canyon, and it runs roughly east and west, so the sun stays on the water longer than you'd think it should. Not that you're likely to be impatient or anything. The bugs copulate on the wing, and then begin to fall on the water right around dark.
Sometimes, as the insects dip lower and lower over the stream, the odd, eager brown trout will jump out of the water and try to grab one. He seldom gets it. Nine times out of ten this is a little fish and you ignore it, but when it's a big trout you tie on an upright-winged Red Quill and cast it over there.
He almost never takes it. I know this to be true, but I have yet to figure out why. It should work but it doesn't, that's all.
Usually the few trout you see rising sporadically here and there while the spinners are still in the air will be taking ants, beetles, the occasional midge, errant mayfly dun, or caddis fly. Whatever happens to be around, in other words. This is not an especially rich stream, so the fish have learned to eat whatever is there.
On many nights the real spinner fall, and, therefore, the real hot fishing, begins after dark when you can't see what you're doing. You stumble over rocks, wade too deeply and ship water, snag your fly in the bushes, and tie wind knots in your leader that you don't know about until you hear them whistle past your ear. The question then is whether it will be easier to retie the leader or untie the knot, keeping in mind that you can't see what the hell you're doing in either case.
When you do get a good cast on the water, hints as to where your fly is and whether or not a trout has eaten it are sometimes telegraphed back to you in terms of spreading, starlit ripples and/or soft plopping sounds. But they're just hints. You can fish for hours without knowing for sure if you're using the wrongsized fly, getting a bad drift, or if you're getting strikes you don't know about.
There are a few of us who fish this thing regularly, even though the trout aren't normally very big, and even though we often don't catch very many of them. The fact is, we seem to be truly fascinated by it, and I say that based on the evidence.
When we go up there and the spinners aren't happening for some reason, we don't tie on streamers or fish ants to the bank feeders because that might trash the water if the spinners actually do come on later. Nor do we work upstream to fish the pocket water with caddis flies because the spinners might come on while we're gone. We do a lot of standing around with spinner patterns already tied to 5 or 6x tippets, fly rods under our arms, hands in pockets, waiting. Sometimes there's a big beaver to watch, or little brown myotis bats to dodge. It can be nice and peaceful.
I like to think of this spinner fall as one of the great enigmas: the kind of thing that puts all the how-to-do-it fly-fishing writing in its place. If you hit it just right, the problem is not "How to Catch Trout During a Spinner Fall" -- that's something you'll do without much trouble at all -- but hitting it right is a matter of exquisite timing and some luck. It's the kind of puzzle where the challenge isn't to put the pieces together, but just to locate all the damned pieces in the first place.
We sometimes catch ourselves getting a little conceited as we stand out there in the dark without having landed so much as a single trout between us all evening. I mean, this is the really difficult fishing, definitely not for amateurs.
Someone finally says, "I'll tell ya, this isn't something for those guys who have to have 'big fish and lots of 'em,' is it?"
And someone else answers, trying to keep the uncertainty out of his voice, "Nope, it sure isn't."
For the moment at least, we fall into that class of fishermen who fancy themselves to be poet/philosophers, and from that vantage point we manage to pull off one of the neatest tricks in all of sport: the fewer fish we catch the more superior we feel.
Part of the fascination has to do with the mayflies themselves. We fly-fishers have a historic and abiding affection for them, and it's no wonder.
First there's that seemingly magical transformation. The insects spend most of their lives as downright unattractive bugs living under rocks on the stream bottom, but then, one day when all the signals are green, they swim to the surface to emerge as these really pretty flies. Even people who aren't especially interested in bugs will admit that mayflies are quite beautiful, at least after you've explained that they're not some kind of mosquito.
Beauty from ugliness, the sudden freedom of flight after a lifetime under a rock, and all that. It really is something.
These are the mayfly duns, and, as we all know, the ones that aren't eaten up by trout or birds fly to bankside bushes where they soon molt into spinners.
As pretty as the duns are, the spinners are even prettier. Their tails get longer and more graceful, their body colors brighten, and their wings get clear and sparkly. They're lovely, and this seems appropriate to us, because now the bugs' only chores in life are to mate and expire. Scientists call the whole group of mayflies Ephemeridae, from the same Latin that gave us "ephemeral," or "lasting for a brief time; short-lived; transitory." Even "tragic" if you want to stretch it.
We seem to have a real affection for the image of a beautiful insect that only lives for a single day (more or less) and whose only mission is to make love just once. They don't even eat. Poets got off on this as symbolic of the fleeting nature of life, love, and beauty until it became a cliché and had to be dropped or turned into a joke. The last literary reference I saw to it was in an old Playboy cartoon that showed a boy mayfly saying to a girl mayfly, "What do you mean, 'not tonight'!?"
Mayflies and fly-fishing have always been inseparably connected (they're our favorite bug, after all), and that may be one reason why the sport is still seen as contemplative, even now with all our scientific and technical hoopla.
This really is kind of sweet, in a nineteenth-century sort of way, and it's not too difficult to attach religious overtones to it as well, but it's also efficient as all get out in a biological sense. Technically, this behavior is called semelparity, and it is described best by David Quammen in his wonderful book Natural Acts: "An animal or plant waits a very long time to breed only once, does so with suicidal strenuosity, and then promptly dies. The act of sexual procreation proves to be ecstatically fatal, fatally ecstatic. And the rest of us are left merely to say: Wow."
Quammen points out that bamboo trees (from which fly rods are made) do it this way, and that salmon (on which fly rods are used) do it this way, too. I think that's interesting. Could there be some wild, metaphysical connection that makes fly-fishing incredibly sexy?
I sincerely hope so.
Mayflies mate and die en masse (it's been referred to as an orgy, but never as a mass suicide) probably at least partly for the same reason that large numbers of them hatch all at once: because hungry trout eat great numbers of them at these times and, with lots of the bugs making a break for it at once, some will get away to finish the business. It's a kind of suicidal diversionary tactic, and it works just fine in a system where the individual doesn't count for much.
The spinners mate and lay their eggs a little upstream from where the duns hatched, usually over a riffle, thus ensuring that the new eggs, as they wash downstream, will land on the bottom more or less in the same place the last batch did. If they hadn't always leapfrogged upstream like this; that is, if they'd mated and laid their eggs each season where they'd just hatched, they'd have slid downstream a few yards each year, and by now they'd have washed out to sea and become extinct.
And they don't all hatch or fall on the same day either. These things usually stretch over periods of days or weeks, and may start earl...
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Book Description Simon and Schuster 1990-01-01, 1990. Softcover. Book Condition: New. Softcover. Publisher overstock, may contain remainder mark on edge. Bookseller Inventory # 9780671684372B
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Book Description Simon Schuster Ltd, United Kingdom, 1990. Paperback. Book Condition: New. 216 x 137 mm. Language: English . Brand New Book. From the irrepressible author of Trout Bum and The View from Rat Lake comes an engaging, humorous, often profound examination of life s greatest mysteries: sex, death, and fly-fishing. John Gierach s quest takes us from his quiet home water (an ordinary, run-of-the-mill trout stream where fly-fishing can be a casual affair) to Utah s famous Green River, and to unknown creeks throughout the Western states and Canada. We re introduced to a lively group of fishing buddies, some local experts and even an ex-girlfriend, along the way. Contemplative, evocative, and wry, he shares insights on mayflies and men, fishing and sport, life and love, and the meaning (or meaninglessness) of it all. Bookseller Inventory # BZV9780671684372
Book Description Simon Schuster Ltd, United Kingdom, 1990. Paperback. Book Condition: New. 216 x 137 mm. Language: English . This book usually ship within 10-15 business days and we will endeavor to dispatch orders quicker than this where possible. Brand New Book. From the irrepressible author of Trout Bum and The View from Rat Lake comes an engaging, humorous, often profound examination of life s greatest mysteries: sex, death, and fly-fishing. John Gierach s quest takes us from his quiet home water (an ordinary, run-of-the-mill trout stream where fly-fishing can be a casual affair) to Utah s famous Green River, and to unknown creeks throughout the Western states and Canada. We re introduced to a lively group of fishing buddies, some local experts and even an ex-girlfriend, along the way. Contemplative, evocative, and wry, he shares insights on mayflies and men, fishing and sport, life and love, and the meaning (or meaninglessness) of it all. Bookseller Inventory # BZV9780671684372
Book Description Simon Schuster Ltd, United Kingdom, 1990. Paperback. Book Condition: New. 216 x 137 mm. Language: English . Brand New Book. From the irrepressible author of Trout Bum and The View from Rat Lake comes an engaging, humorous, often profound examination of life s greatest mysteries: sex, death, and fly-fishing. John Gierach s quest takes us from his quiet home water (an ordinary, run-of-the-mill trout stream where fly-fishing can be a casual affair) to Utah s famous Green River, and to unknown creeks throughout the Western states and Canada. We re introduced to a lively group of fishing buddies, some local experts and even an ex-girlfriend, along the way. Contemplative, evocative, and wry, he shares insights on mayflies and men, fishing and sport, life and love, and the meaning (or meaninglessness) of it all. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780671684372
Book Description Simon & Schuster. PAPERBACK. Book Condition: New. 067168437X *BRAND NEW* Ships Same Day or Next!. Bookseller Inventory # NATARAJB1FI768674
Book Description Old Tappan, New Jersey, U.S.A.: Fireside, 1990. Soft cover. Book Condition: New. Dust Jacket Condition: No Dust Jacket. 5th or later Edition. new unread later printing. Bookseller Inventory # 22.952
Book Description Simon & Schuster, New York, New York, 1990. Soft Cover. Book Condition: New. 238 pages. Clean & tight. A very nice new copy, never used not read. Bookseller Inventory # 0004331