A few weeks back I made a trip to the Niagara River with my friend Captain Christian Awe. It was a rollercoaster ride on so many fronts—from refusing to stay in the AirBnB we reserved because it was in an area where we expected to find our vehicle up on blocks the next morning, to me being briefly humbled by bead fishing, to landing the biggest lake trout of my life and pulling my first-ever steelhead from a breathtaking gorge… it was a trip I will take many more times in my life.
These memories are all special and unforgettable, but there was one diamond in the rough that stands out ahead of the catches, adventure and the good company. It was one short five-minute period where I learned something that I think can help every person that reads this to up their fishing game, regardless of species. Christian is young, in his mid-20’s, but he has a ton of experience fishing rivers from Alaska to New York (check out his article on planning a guided trip in the glossy section of this edition). As we were walking along this gentle river at the bottom of this amazing gorge Christian pointed out a tiny little spot and said, “I caught the biggest steelhead of my life right there.”
Staring at this depression surrounded by ankle-deep riffles, I couldn’t believe that a huge trout would stage in that spot. He made a few drifts and we moved on. On the way back he said, “We really should try this spot again.” I stepped aside and let the master ply his craft. I stood back and tried not to look at the spot like a camera, just capturing the scene, instead I tried to figure out why it held fish.
The main reason why a fish might hold there was obvious, a deep pocket cut under the roots of a tree, but the pocket wasn’t any bigger than a pool table and probably not deeper than 30 inches; we had passed dozens of other spots like it without giving a second look. Then I looked at the riffle and noticed a small rise in the middle of the stream, this rise diverted a ton of water and funneled it directly into this small stretch of ‘pocket water’. All at once I came to the realization that this subtle rise was no different than a tide-swept point in the ocean. This ‘bump in the road’ was not only diverting water, but it was mainlining anything edible that was drifting down the river directly into this pocket, which is exactly what set this spot apart from the rest of the spots that seemed to be the same.
I looked up just in time to see Christian’s strike indicator plunge beneath the surface, his rod doubling into a violently-bucking arc. I was so excited to see it work, to have the lightbulb crackle and glow and then look up and see my friend tight to a fish. Christian was excited because the fish ate what he referred to as a ‘really cool fly,’ a size 18 flashback pheasant tail nymph, for you fly guys.
As fishermen there are two levels of observation; one where you’re just taking in your surroundings and doing what you think is right, and then another where you’re trying to make fishy sense of what’s going on in front of you and making your presentations based on your read of the spot. I think the best anglers are always able to stay on that second level, I’m somewhere in the middle most of the time. But if you feel like you’re living in that first level, I implore you try and fight your way further up the ladder. Don’t be afraid to be wrong, because eventually you will be right and as you continue to challenge yourself to read first, you’ll get to a point where you’re right more and more often.
Getting better is and always has been, my only goal in fishing and it’s these tiny moments that help me achieve that goal – time and time again – no matter how many tides (or riffles) pass around my boots.