Streamers on Calm Waters
Streamers on Calm Waters
It's about depth, and patience.
- By: Dave Hughes
I fished the yamsi ranch last spring, in the sparsely settled and flat pine-forest country of southern Oregon, with owner John Hyde. John grew up on the ranch. He raises range-fed beef when he’s not involved in his first love, guiding folks on his home waters. He’s tall, slender; his hat and mustache are both broad.
A few miles of the spring-fed headwaters of the famous Williamson River meander through Yamsi lands. These upper reaches hold brook trout and rainbows, and are known for some of the nation’s densest hatches of Gray Drake, PMD and Hex mayflies. I was there before the earliest of the hatches started. I did a lot of kick-net sampling, found an abundance of nymphs, but at the base of the food chain came up with net after net squirming with scuds. I scooped them from beneath undercut banks, out of rooted vegetation beds, and even on what looked like barren sandy bottoms. It became obvious why Yamsi trout are so plump.
It seemed like a setup for fishing nymphs, and it was, with one minor codicil. The open runs and glides, the kinds of places easiest to fish with an indicator-and-shot nymph rig, held lots of willing trout. They were nice fish, 12 to 15 inches long. But they were rarely the kind you’d like to catch when you’re fishing a place like Yamsi Ranch.
The stream has three types of nicely defined holding water. The first are log pools, where a tree has fallen across the current, gotten lodged, vegetation has taken root on top of it, and the current has dug out depths underneath it. The second is bend pools. The outside curve of every meander has eroded the soft bottom four to eight feet deep. The third type of holding water is tucked back beneath those undercuts where I collected so many nymphs. John has stories of walking quickly out onto trembling banks, peering over the edge, watching what sort of trout dash out. It’s one of the ways he’s gotten to know the precise lies of the fish on his home waters.
The first thing John taught me about fishing his water was the importance of a clear intermediate line when fishing streamers. I consider such a line critical in stillwater fishing, and use one about a third of the time on lakes and ponds. But I have never bothered to carry one on streams, considering the same depths reachable with a floating line and weighted fly, or with a sink-tip line. Whether it’s the invisibility of the clear line, or the way it delivers a fly level with the line (rather than hinged down from it), there’s something that makes it more effective when presenting streamers at modest depths. I’ve known that for many years and have applied it to lakes, but until John sat in the grass alongside a stream he has fished for about 40 years and explained it all to me, I failed to translate it to moving water.
The trout were not leader-shy, so we stuck with nine-footers tapered to 3X. That gave us control of our casts, turning over large streamers, and also some control of the trout, which usually were led out of dangerous places before they could be fought in open water.
Tactics were the core of the matter, and that’s where the matter began to be different. Achieving depth became the objective, and patience became the key to gaining the needed depth. I had this hammered home on the first lie John had me fish.
It was a log lie, a tree lying across the stream, blocking the current on top, forcing it all to dig under. I made my first cast right alongside the log and, because the current pushed my streamer fairly abruptly toward disaster, retrieved it fast enough to keep it from hanging up. No fish took the fly, but I thought I’d done a pretty excellent job, placing the fly so prettily next to the log, and retrieving it so effectively as to avoid losing it. But apparently John didn’t consider not losing the fly to be the point of the game.
“The trout are under the log, not on top of it, Dave,” he instructed me mildly. “Cast farther upstream. Then wait until it’s almost snagged before beginning your retrieve.”
I cast a couple of feet upstream from the log, waited a beat or two, and retrieved fast enough to keep the streamer out of trouble on its way back. It still failed to move a trout. “Cast farther upstream, let it sink longer, and retrieve it slower,” John said, which as a general set of condensed instructions might add up to good advice in almost any kind of sunk-fly fishing, with wets, nymphs or streamers, over most species of fish, on any type of water.
It wasn’t until my final cast, after John urged me to place the fly farther upstream—a full 15 feet above the log— that I finally coaxed up some action. Even on that cast, John had to keep ordering, “Wait!” when I wanted to begin my retrieve before the streamer had actually made its way into the dark water directly under the log. Then, with that prescience that lets you know somebody truly knows how to read water, he said, “Now you’re going to get one.”
Toph with a pretty brookie that walloped a streamer and came to guide John Hyde’s net on the upper spring creek reaches of Oregon’s Williamson River.
And I did. It wasn’t a monster, but it was a nice brook trout. And it was the result of a formula that we then applied under a lot more logs, in the depths of a series of bend pools and along a lot of undercut banks. No matter the precise shape of the water, the secret was to first read the most likely lie of the biggest trout, second to cast far enough upstream from that lie so that the fly would have plenty of time to sink before arriving there, and third to retrieve slow enough—and in John’s eyes preferably with something of a jigging motion—to give a trout time to size up the fly, make its way to it and get surprised by the unusual stinging resistance of it.
My time fishing with John ended, but my education didn’t. John had a client coming in, a dreadlocked musician with the stage name of Toph (given name Christopher), about whom I learned little except that he was on the wild side, full of all sorts of fun, and I liked him. I asked John and Toph if they’d mind if I tagged along for a day, taking photos while they fished. They didn’t, so I did. It’s a rare type of education, spending an entire day watching somebody else get guided. I realized I’d never done such a thing before. Who among us is not too busy attending his own fishing to pay attention to anyone else’s, for more than brief moments?
What I watched was John teaching Toph the same thing he’d taught me: to cast ever farther upstream from prospective lies of trout, to refrain from retrieving for ever longer amounts of sink time, and to retrieve more slowly. I saw it all summed up in one cast, toward the end of the day, when Toph placed his fly accurately into an indentation in an undercut, on the far side of the stream. It was a pretty cast, and Toph gathered slack to begin retrieving almost at once.
“Wait,” John told him.
Ten seconds later—probably an eternity when you’re a rock musician and you’re used to a life in which the beats come a bit more quickly—Toph moved to begin stripping line. “Wait some more,” John said.
Toph did, and when he finally began his retrieve, a trout pounced the streamer instantly. It wouldn’t have been so instructive had I not watched Toph make that same pretty cast a couple of times, to the same precise spot, and begin his retrieve at once, with not even a sniff from a fish, before John leaned over and instructed him to wait, and then wait some more. Toph’s streamer probably dropped four or five feet deeper, down to where trout holding on the bottom could see it, and make a short rush to kill it.
Perhaps the statement that prodded me most to thought was one John made over steaks in the lodge house that evening. “I go on trips to other places—Idaho, Montana, Wyoming,” he told the great Toph and me. “I fish all those famous rivers, and I never see anybody fishing the slow water. They call it frog water. They pass it all up. It looks like the water I fish all the time here at home. You know what kind of trout I catch out of it.”
That is the sort of statement that opens your eyes to all the holding water you’ve passed up in your life, no matter where in the world you fish. If you listen to John Hyde, you won’t make that mistake again.