A Tough Day’s Fishing

Sometimes you form an opinion about a place before you fish it for the first time. If you assume the worst and are surprised to be wrong, you’ll be lucky to scrawl another listing in your book of fishing spots. That’s what happened to me last weekend.

I had avoided this particular piece of water for years, always seeing it on the boards in the fly shops and reading about it online. Most of what I heard was that I could catch a hog there, but probably wouldn’t due to a handful of unfortunate circumstances.

First and foremost, it was described as “technical,” which I’ve never quite understood but assume to be a fancy word for picky fish that don’t follow the hatch chart as religiously as the anglers targeting them. In reality, it probably also includes water that requires more advanced techniques to fish well, but I generally think folks hype it up too much.

This particular section of river also had a reputation for being an angler magnet. Despite being over a mile from the nearest parking at its closest, the parking lot was notorious for early fill-ups. Finding a spot to fish required more and more walking with each passing hour, and conflicts between recreational anglers and guides weren’t uncommon, as everyone vied for limited spots.

After actively avoiding this area for years, and continuously increasing my aversion to it with every new report or story I heard, I finally had to accept the grim reality that, as a tailwater, it was one of my only options close to home worth trying as snow started to fall.

After a summer spent on crutches and an early fall spent in the elk woods, and with ski season looming, squeezing in one more fishing trip took priority over satisfying a self-created grudge.

The word I kept seeing in fishing reports was “tough,” which isn’t exactly the most encouraging way to start a trip. By this point, I had set the bar so low for my upcoming trip that it would be nearly impossible for it to go worse than I expected, which is a dismally happy stage to be in.

When I arrived, I quickly found the rumors of crowds to be accurate. Unable to find a spot to park, I squeezed myself off to the side in a line of cars that must have arrived just a bit too late. I got on the trail in between waves, and though I was alone, I still couldn’t escape the effects of the crowds. What had once been a snowy trail with a few sets of tracks had turned into an icy runway, packed down by hundreds of steps over the past two days.

A river with yellow grass and snow on the banks

I slipped and fell more than once on the way to the river, luckily out of sight of other hikers, and after three miles found an available section of water nestled between early-arrivers. Within minutes, I had visitors approaching from above and below, but most seemed to respect the small bubble I had earned by staking my small claim of the river.

The shift in etiquette based on location is notable. On an isolated mountain stream, getting within a half-mile of another angler would be blasphemous, but there on the tailwater, a claim to water only spanned a few dozen yards. I resigned myself to the fact that at no point would I be out-of-sight of another fisherman.

My views on the idea that “technicality” is more of an angler’s construct than a river’s were confirmed when I surprised myself by hooking an early rainbow on a simple black midge below an indicator.

A rainbow trout in a net

That turned out to be the only fish I’d hook all day, but it made me realize the unexpected benefits of a low-set bar. What would have been a run-of-the-mill rainbow any other day became the shining light of a tough day’s fishing.

As I talked to others on my way back to the car, I learned that my rainbow was one of only a few fish that left the water that day. I began to grow a small liking to the water I’d set out to dislike from the start and accepted my single fish as a consolation prize for giving it a chance.

Although the day matched the reports I’d read, my opinion of what that meant was wholly different. Perspective matters more than outcome, and the next time I’m scheduled for a tough day of fishing, I’ll be bringing along a point of view to help my odds.



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This is a list I made and use for my own trips, and I think any backcountry angler will find it handy.