Fisherman must make adjustments

Life sometimes requires making adjustments.
So does fishing. Some of the adjustments are small. Some less small. But large or small, a failure to adjust can result, well, in failure.
Yesterday morning, the second to last day of family vacation in Maine, I headed out to spend a couple hours fishing a nearby stream. It is a stream I know well, and have fished dozens of times over the past 35 years.
It is also a small stream. By “small” I mean that it is ankle-to-calf deep in the summer months, with only a few scattered pools that run deeper than the knees. It isn’t much wider than 15 feet in most places, with a canopy that complete closes overhead. The canopy, along with plenty of springs and small streams flowing in from neighboring hillsides, keeps the stream cool enough year round for trout. And an abundance of food supports an abundant population of both native brookies and imported browns.
Though I was not fishing with my smallest fly rod — I had my 5-weight travel rod, rather than my 3-weight seven-foot rod that does not break down for travel — I was casting small flies. There were a few places where the river straightened out and opened up, and I could cast 30 feet to a distant pool. For the most part, however, I was flipping my fly just 15 to 20 feet, with a light flick of the wrist or just a bit of forearm strength.
The trout in that stream are also small; a 12-inch fish would be very rare. Brook trout typically run six to eight inches, and browns seven to 10. Catching three- and four-inch brookies is common. I managed to land only two, one about seven inches and another only four.
Now if you have ever fished for trout that small, you know you cannot set the hook hard when a fish strikes. A hard set on a six-inch trout is likely to send the trout flying through the air into the brush behind you. Since I’ve been doing a lot of fishing for small trout lately, I had the technique down; I did not toss even a single fish into the trees behind me.
This morning, however, I had to adjust. I awoke at 3:30 a.m., had a quick bite to eat, stopped for some coffee, and drove 90 minutes over to the coast. I was being taken fishing by John Sterling, a former Middlebury College student whom I had helped teach to fly fish 15 years ago. His boat was already in the water at the Yarmouth Boatyard when I arrived, and we were fishing by 6 a.m.
Once on the water, my first adjustment was to the gear itself. It took several casts to adjust to the much heaver 8-weight rod with sinking line, and from little dry flies that might attract a six-inch fish to big saltwater flies that were about as long as the trout I’d been catching. Casting the big saltwater rods takes the whole arm, and some of the body, too. Though I did make the mental and physical adjustment and was eventually able to get enough line out to be somewhat effective — and I even made a few very nice casts over the course of the morning — it took all my concentration, and my casts frequently piled up in a pool of line 50 feet in front of me.
An equally difficult adjustment was setting the hook. The same little wrist-lift of a light rod sufficient to set the hook on a six-inch trout that is 15 feet away will not set a big saltwater hook on a striper that is 60 feet away. Setting a streamer hook on a big cruising fish 50 feet away is a two-handed affair: The rod hand has to lift quickly and smoothly, while the other hand pulls the line hard. This is known as a “strip strike,” and I was very out of practice. Of the first five fish that took my fly, I landed only one. The other four got off, or simply never got on, because I failed to set the hook because I was slow to adjust.
Did I also mention that over-adjusting can be just as bad? I was determined not to lose the next fish. And the next fish was the biggest striper I’ve ever hooked. It was certainly in the over-30 crowd, as in over 30 inches. We saw it cruising the flats, and I made a very nice cast in front of it. I watched it surge up and hit my fly hard. I did the strip strike and lifted my rod.
And then, since I’d lost the last couple fish because I hadn’t set the hook, I lifted the rod and tugged again just to make sure. I did this just as the behemoth did a vicious head toss. Then I watched the biggest striper I’d ever hooked swim away with my fly in its mouth, while I reeled in my line, broken off at the end of the tippet.
To my dismay, adding insult to injury, that was when the fish stopped hitting. For the next two hours, the water was dead. No action. My failure to adjust and then my over-adjustment had sunk me.
As we got ready to motor back to the docks, we took one last look around the point where we’d been fishing. Even as we gazed across the flats, the water began to boil with the tell-tale signs of stripers chasing bait-fish. John cranked up the motor and got over as quick and close as he dared without spooking the fish. The water had stopped boiling by the time we were there, but we knew the fish were around. We spotted a medium sized striper and I cast.
My line landed too close to the fish and spooked it. Which meant that the bigger fish just behind it had a chance. It hit hard. I gave a quick strip strike — firm but not too hard. The strike held. So did the line. And the dance began. Five seconds later and the striper was a 150 feet away, deep into my backing. Fifteen minutes later and we were landing a 30-inch striper.
So now it’s back to Vermont. Back to my small trout rod. Back to small flies. But if you see me standing by the bank looking over my shoulder at a trout dangling from the trees behind me, you’ll know why.

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