Even an expert’s guidance doesn’t always guarantee success in fly fishing. Still, it was a great day on the water.
When you go fly fishing for trout, it’s never a good idea to forget your waders or hips boots. But that’s exactly what I did on a warm April afternoon a few days after Delaware’s freshwater trout season opened.
Fortunately, I was wearing old jeans and sneakers. So, remembering the heroic and also-bootless Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It, I decided I would boldly wade into the only mildly chilly waters of White Clay Creek. (Unlike Pitt, however, I was without the fly-festooned floppy hat he wore in that 1992 film, not to mention his prepossessing visage.)
Joining me was Tim O’Neill, fly fishing expert, professional fly tier and lecturer. We were on the fly-fishing-only stretch of White Clay, which begins just above Thompson Bridge at Chambers Rock Road and extends to the Pennsylvania state line. O’Neill was to demonstrate his angling techniques and tools, then I was to try my luck at this demanding, frustrating, beautiful sport that I have pursued casually most of my life.
The first part went well.
From the parking lot off Chambers Rock Road, O’Neill led the way to a nearby spot he had previously fished that featured gently moving water just downstream from some riffles. Surprisingly, we were the only ones at the hole, although we could see other fishermen above and below us.
We would be “nymphing,” he announced, meaning we would use tiny flies—creations of fur and feather wrapped around a hook—designed to resemble immature forms of aquatic insects and small crustaceans. Nymphs are “wet flies,” fished below the surface.
Dry fly fishing, where the fly floats on top of the water, is far more dramatic—when the fisherman is successful—because the fish must break the surface to take the fly. But, O’Neill explained, trout strike a “dry” only about 20 percent of the time. They’re usually feeding lower, sometimes at or near the bottom, facing upstream, looking for anything edible that might happen by.
He wielded a 10 1/2-foot rod with a line on which he had attached three flies: the dropper (a soft hackle), the anchor (his own O’Neill Nuclear Caddis), and the trailer (a pheasant tail nymph).
This immediately established his bona fides for me. Most fishermen use a single fly, while a few fish a tandem rig. O’Neill is the first person I have known to fish three flies at once.
“The idea,” he explained, “is to use something bright—the Nuclear Caddis —to grab their attention and trail a small natural behind that. The bright fly gets their attention and they see the natural and eat it.”
I noted that he did not attempt to “match the hatch”—determine what insects are currently on the water, then search his fly box for a pattern that approximates the appearance of the resident insect.
“Presentation (the cast, the way the fly enters the water) is 10 times more important than the fly,” he explained, although he did spend a minute turning over creekside rocks to check for evidence of insects. Finding none, he stepped a few feet into the water (he remembered to bring his boots), and cast about 15 yards into the darker, deeper water.
The Nuclear Caddis was a beadhead, and he had put a split shot on the line to give it weight, explaining that the line needed to get to the bottom, where the fish were feeding.
For the next few minutes he repeated the cast, always starting upstream, then letting the line drift below him until it swung nearly parallel to the shore, watching his strike indicator (a fly fisherman’s bobber) the whole way.
Like most expert anglers, O’Neill rarely “gets skunked.” It’s his theory that trout are “eating all the time.” So, the old “they weren’t biting today” excuse is lame, at best.
And that held true on this day. It wasn’t long before he hooked a beautiful 14-inch rainbow. He brought it to hand, gently removed the hook, held it a moment for the photographer, Anthony Santoro, then released it. A catch-and-release advocate, O’Neill says it’s best to avoid removing fish from the water. “Get it into clean water, hold it upstream, and let it go, so somebody else can catch it.”
The Second Part
Five minutes later he landed another beauty of similar size, again releasing it—gently.
Now it was my turn. Remember how I said “the first part went well”? This is the second part.
O’Neill had rigged a 9-foot rod with a tandem rig for me—a swimming nymph followed by a soft hackle. I waded into the water and stood in the same spot he had been fishing, and, for more than an hour, attempted to duplicate his technique, moving a few feet upstream, or out farther into the creek, adjusting my casting motion as he instructed. The water was only mildly chilly—unlike the reception I got from the fish.
I missed one that hit the soft hackle fairly hard, and I’m sure there were two or three others I might have snagged had I been quicker, but at last it came time for both Santoro and me to leave for other commitments. Tim had taken the day off, so he stayed, and no doubt landed two or three more nice browns or rainbows.
I thanked him for the lesson because, despite failing to hook a fish, I had learned a few things that might help the next time I try to fool a trout with something that vaguely resembles an insect. Besides, it had been an enjoyable afternoon on a beautiful stretch of water, much like most days I have spent pursuing this demanding, frustrating, beautiful sport.
Did I mention frustrating?