How long does it take to redefine success when fishing and hunting?
By JIM MATTHEWS
In an instant gratification society, fishing and hunting can be downright boring activities. I once sat in a tree stand for three long days waiting for black bears, catching fleeting glimpses of only two bears, both of them BooBoos (no Yogis).
I was in Saskatchewan in early May and the days were already 16 hours long. The ice had just “gone out,” as they say up there, on all the lakes. After a long winter the world was exploding with fresh life. When friends would ask me what I did for those three days, I would tell them I watched the grass grow and the leaves open out of buds.
“Watching grass grow” is an old expression most of us take to meaning something happening slowly and with great boredom, and people would lose interest in my story.
But neither of those things is true in the north woods. The first day I climbed up into the tree stand, the grass didn’t reach to my ankles and there were only aspen buds on the trees. By the third day when I climbed down at the last glow of light, I stepped into a lush forest with grass to my knees and the forest canopy completely leafed out. On the first day, I could see 200 to 300 yards into the forest in all directions. By the last evening, I could see maybe 40 or 50 yards. I constantly had a wide variety of birds singing in the trees all around me, insects flying and crawling all around, and there were ducks and geese going overhead talking the whole time.
I don’t sit for long periods very well, and my activity up in the tree canopy was probably easily visible to the bears I was supposed to be hunting. I was sitting down and standing up, and riveting around to try to find the bird calling in this or that direction with my binoculars. I was constantly leafing through the pages of my bird book, squinting at an insect I’d never seen before, and making honking noises (it’s hard for a waterfowl hunter hearing birds calling overhead not to answer).
I don’t remember being bored at all. There was way too much going on.
When I was learning how to fly-fish as a teenager, my family would go camping each Easter and Thanksgiving on the Owens River near Bishop. Until I was 17, I’d fly-fish for an hour or so, and then abandon my fly rod for spinning gear and live bait so I could catch a few of those brown trout in the river. That would usually happen after seeing my dad land two or three browns from pools I’d just fished.
One year I made up my mind to stick with the fly rod no matter what. It was Thanksgiving and I caught my first brown on the third day of the trip. It was a typical brown for the river, a 10-inch fish with lovely colors, that I quickly let go. I was finally figuring out some of the nuances of fishing artificial flies on arcane gear, and I caught two more trout the next day. It was all coming together.
Over 40 years later, I am still pretty happy with a trout or two per day on difficult rivers like the lower Owens. For a TV show, that level of action wouldn’t fill two minutes of air time, and most people think fly-fishing is boring. The casting part if sort of cool, but what’s the point if you hardly ever catch fish?
Is it important that I can see a current seam I know will probably hold the best fish in a pool or know how to cast a fly above an undercut bank and flick a loop of line back upstream after the cast so the fly will glide naturally past any trout that might be lurking there? How many times did I spook trout at the tail-out of a big pools before I finally would position myself well away from a tailout to make a cast to water I suspected held a trout? How many times did I watch a trout wildly chase a big caddisfly or moth skittering across the surface before I tied a fly I could make dance and skip over the surface like an insect laying eggs or trying to keep from being caught in the flow? I have never been bored on a river. There is way too much to going on.
One time on Hot Creek near Mammoth Lakes, the trout were being ultra selective and my fly-fishing buddies had had enough after a couple of hours. It was frustrating watching fish after fish start to nose up to my fly and then turn away -- or worse was when they didn’t even budge from their holding location to look at the fly that had been placed perfectly to drift right through the lane where they were taking natural insects. You could watch their eyes bulge when they’d see the fly and then relax back into their position. A live insect would drift through that lane and the eyes would bulge. Then they would leisurely tip up and take the real deal without hesitation. I have been at Hot Creek a hundred times and watched this scenario play out. We change fly patterns, go smaller, use even lighter leaders, or reposition ourselves to get a better drift. That one time those many years ago (and frequently since) I tied on my version of the big skittering caddis or moth and started dancing it over the quiet pockets in the weeds on Hot Creek.
Admittedly it was an act of desperation, but it also pulled together 25 years of those quiet times on the water when the only thing happening was me watching the nuances of river and insects and trout. A bigger grade Hot Creek brown trout came out from under a weedy chute and nailed the skittering fly. I didn’t do it because I was bored, that’s for sure.
As I let the fish go a fishing buddy standing nearby said, “Even a blind pig can find an acorn once in a while.” And then he added that he was going back to the truck.
I have heard that expression hundreds of times, knowing it to mean that everyone is lucky sometimes. But it isn’t true. It wasn’t about luck with me -- or with the blind pig.
I have hunted pigs a lot over the years and all of them are nearly blind. Three of us once stalked to within 30 yards of a whole herd of pigs feeding in a wide-open, harvested barley field. They barely gave us second glances when their heads would snap up from feeding and look right at us. Pigs rely on their incredible noses for nearly everything. I decided their bad vision is only to keep them from running into trees when fleeing from predators, predators they likely detected with their nuanced noses and long experience with nature’s aromas.
So a blind pig wouldn’t be handicapped at all rooting around beneath an oak tree. They would find just as many acorns as a sighted pig. It became pretty clear to me that my fishing partner was the sighted pig who couldn’t smell the metaphorical acorns, or the roses.
And that, my friends, is why fishing and hunting are declining in popularity in this instant gratification world.
[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.]