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Watching for trout, actively

I have always been an active angler. I don’t like passive fishing. I like to move when I fish. I like walking or wading, casting and retrieving, going after the fish and not waiting for them to come after me. I like to cover lots of water. I don’t like to just stand around and watch.
That’s one reason I prefer fishing rivers and streams to fishing lakes. It’s also why I prefer fly-fishing and spin fishing to trolling or bait fishing. The first two of these require regular, at times constant, activity: frequent steady motions of the shoulders, arms, hands, legs, eyes.
Though bait fishing can be active (I used to cover a lot of miles of water worming a stream), it’s more often a sedentary activity: throw out the live bait and let it float under the bobber, sink to the bottom, or swim around of its own volition. Trolling, too, is still. Passive. The boat does all the moving. The angler just sits there. When trolling with downriggers in the summer, you don’t even hold the rod in your hand.
It’s not that I think fly-fishing is in any way superior. It’s certainly not universally more effective at catching fish. (In some places and times it certainly is, but in others it’s certainly not.) It’s just a personal preference. A matter of taste. I spend enough time sitting at my office. I don’t want to sit when I’m fishing. Fishing is most restful and relaxing and refreshing for me when I’m moving.
It may have to do with upbringing. My father grew up fishing the lakes of Michigan. To this day, he loves trolling lakes. It’s his favorite way to fish. He likes the peace and quiet of just sitting in a boat, rod in hand, not having to constantly change places or reel in line. He might argue that he is more patient and more willing to wait for a fish strike. Fishing is supposed to be a patient activity.
I didn’t grow up with regular access to any lakes. I grew up near a small trout stream and a small bass pond. A morning or afternoon of bass fishing for me often meant working the entire perimeter of that pond, or at least half of it, casting to every structure I knew of under the water. A morning fishing the stream usually ended in a mile or longer walk home afterwards.
So I was surprised one year when I went fishing with my friend Keith Kelly on a small river in west central Vermont. Keith is a bit like me. He’s a fly fisherman and a river fisherman. He was a professional guide in Montana when he was still in high school. He’d probably caught many thousands of trout before he was 20 years old, and I’m sure not one was ever hooked trolling or with live bait.
Keith is one of the few fisherman I can fish with and not get impatient waiting for him to keep up with me as I move upstream, and he has no qualms about drifting a nymph through every good-looking hole without waiting to see if there is any activity there or not.
But when we got to the first nice-looking hole on that river that day, and I made to cast a fly to a likely looking spot, he told me to just wait and watch for a while. He wanted to see what was rising. He wanted to feel the rhythm of the pool before we blindly cast into it, and risked spooking whatever was there. So we waited several minutes. We finally saw a fish rise. I cast to it, and hooked a fat rainbow trout that would turn out to be the nicest fish we saw that day.
That’s still not my usual approach to fishing. And — having just spent two days fishing with Keith in Montana — I know it isn’t the approach he always takes. But it did teach me a lesson. It’s a lesson that I am particularly inclined to put to practice in the fall.
Brown trout and brook trout are autumn spawners. In particular, these are the months when the really big brown trout start moving up river. These are the fish measured in pounds, the ones that have spent the summer under a log in some really deep hole, only coming out at night to eat a frog. The ones that moved downriver in May, down to the large, slow-moving Otter Creek where they got fat and healthy on an abundant food supply.
In the fall, they start moving up the Middlebury River or the New Haven River, and even into some smaller tributaries, looking to spawn. Fall is also when these rivers are especially low and clear.
Splashing up the stream in late May, when the water is high and has a bit of color, I can approach most good holes or swift riffles without spooking the fish. Covering lots of water can be a big advantage. In September and October, by contrast, those big trout are often right out in the open in shallow water, where they spook very easily. (I’ve learned this the hard way.)
And so this is the time of year I take a fishing approach that is a bit more like deer hunting. I am much more inclined to just sit down on the riverbank over a good hole, lean my rod against a tree beside me, and watch for a while. I may cover a lot less water this way. I may miss out on catching a few extra smaller fish. But I’m ready when that big shadow starts moving toward the head of the pool.
I like to think of it as active sitting and watching.

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