by William G. Tapply
[Editor’s note: When I was the editor of American Angler, I had the pleasure of working with William G. Tapply for ten years before his death in the summer of 2009. Bill’s wife, the author Vicki Stiefel, has graciously allowed me to reprint some of his columns and articles here. So, once a month, I post a piece of Bill’s outdoors wisdom or angling know-how. If you are not familiar with Bill’s work, I encourage you to check out his website and the links below.]
Trout can appreciate a change of menu, if it’s presented nicely.
High noon on the Bighorn. The August sun was blazing down from a cloudless Montana sky. By midday, the pale-morning-dun hatch had petered out, so Andy and I pulled our drift boat against the bank and tossed the anchor up into the grass. I sat in the stern, catching some shade from an overhanging cottonwood and eating a tunafish sandwich. Andy, who considers eating to be a waste of precious fishing time, climbed out and began stalking a pod of sipping trout upstream from where I sat. I was admiring his stealth, when a soft slurping noise made me turn to look behind me.
A good-size rainbow trout had moved into the eddy created by the drift boat, about 20 feet downstream from where I sat. As I watched, his head twisted to the side and his mouth winked white. A minute or so later, he did it again.
Idly, I broke off a bit of tuna from my sandwich and dropped it into the water.
The trout moved into the tuna’s path and sucked it in.
I fed that trout several bites of my sandwich. Each time he ate, he finned a couple of strokes upstream, moving closer to the source of this tasty new nourishment, until he hovered almost in the shadow of the boat.
Why not? I thought.
Moving very slowly lest I spook him, I picked up my rod, unhooked the size 18 PMD dry fly from the keeper ring, and impaled a piece of tuna on the hook. I dropped it over the side. As it drifted toward the trout, a little surge of current caught the leader and jerked it sideways, and he turned away to let it pass. I stripped some line off my reel, shook some extra slack out through the guides, and tried again. The trout ignored it as it passed over his head.
So I dropped my Tuna PMD a bit farther upstream and guided it so that it drifted directly to the trout’s nose. This time he opened his mouth and ate it.
I remained sitting in the stern as I played, netted, unhooked, and released him.
“Nice one,” yelled Andy, who had turned to watch. “What’d he take?”
“Nothing you’ve got in your fly box.”
I was, I admit, a bit embarrassed. Bait-fishing is for barefoot boys with cane poles and worms and more time than skill, which, presumably, is why grown-ups give up dunking bait in favor of casting flies.
Catching trout on bait–even with something as exotic as a chunk of white albacore lightly dressed with mayonnaise, salt, and pepper, and even though impaled on a size 18 dry-fly hook tied to a 14-foot leader tapered to 6X–is generally thought to require luck and patience, not skill and knowledge. (Most of us would rather be considered skillful than lucky.)
And yet, to catch that big rainbow, I had to locate him, avoid spooking him, and present my bait so it would drift to him in a perfectly natural manner, all of which required the same skills that fly fishermen value.
“Okay,” I said to Andy. “It was a short cast, but a tricky presentation. He took a tunafish sandwich. And I’m proud of it. You got a problem with that?”
“Nope. I think it’s kinda cool.” He grinned. “You know, even with your expensive graphite fly rod and your fancy waders, you’re still a barefoot boy at heart.”
* * *
Back when I was a barefoot boy, the only fishing outfit I owned was a hand-me-down 8-foot South Bend fly rod, a Pfleuger Medalist reel, and a kinky HDH floating line. I could cast, if that’s the word for it, anything with that rig–bass bugs, streamers, dry flies, spinners, miniature Jitterbugs. Mostly, though, I fished with worms. Trial and error taught me how to roll cast so that the worm would not come unhooked, and how to lob a bobber or split shot a considerable distance.
When I fished for trout in our lazy local brooks and streams, an unweighted worm usually did the job. I figured out how to flip the worm up into the head of a pool and steer it through the fish-holding lies. I intuitively understood the importance of keeping my line off the water so that the worm would tumble along with the currents. I had never heard the word “drag,” but I could have explained it to you. I watched the place where my leader entered the water, and the slightest hesitation or twitch triggered my hook-setting reflex. Sometimes it meant I’d hung up on a rock or sunken log. More often, it was a trout.
In heavy currents, it made sense to clamp a split shot or two onto my leader to get it down to where I figured the fish were lurking. I wanted to feel the lead bounce and tick off the bottom. The fish I caught that way told me when I was doing it right.
Back when I was a barefoot worm-fisherman, I kept most of the trout that I caught. When I cleaned them, I liked to poke through the gunk in their digestive systems. Most of it was unidentifiable, but I always found bugs in their various stages of metamorphosis–nymphs, pupae, larvae, and adults. The scientific studies I’ve read confirm my personal, nonscientific conclusions. Aquatic insects make up about 95 percent of most trouts’ diets. The remaining 5 percent is composed of small fish, crustaceans, and what the scientists call “other inert materials,” stuff like pebbles and twigs and cigarette filters.
I don’t recall ever finding an earthworm in the belly of a trout I caught on a worm, nor do the scientists report that earthworms are a significant part of trout menus.
And yet the history of fishing proves that trout eat worms whenever they come tumbling along–not to mention San Juan worms (which apparently imitate something that most trout have never before eaten), Glo Bugs (which anglers like to believe imitate salmon eggs, but which I’ve found effective in waters where no salmon live, and in midsummer, when no fish of any description are spawning), and inert materials such as feathers and fur arranged on fish hooks to resemble, at least to the angler’s eye, mayfly or stonefly nymphs.
Why do trout eat earthworms–and twigs and pebbles and Glo Bugs and tunafish sandwiches? Why, for that matter, do they eat our clever imitations of subsurface aquatic insects? In the case of worms and tuna, perhaps it’s because they smell edible–although in neither case can the odor be familiar to the fish.
Glo Bugs, San Juan worms, and nymphs, we like to believe, look like actual trout food. When we catch trout on these lures, we congratulate ourselves on successfully “fooling” them by imitating what they like to eat.
When trout are feeding selectively, as they sometimes do (though probably less often than we think), it may help to imitate what they’re eating. Most of the time, though, I believe any barefoot boy who can drift a worm, or even some inert material, onto a trout’s nose without drag will catch it. Trout use their mouths the way we use our hands–to feel and test and explore their world. They are always hungry and always curious, and they’ll bite down on anything that looks remotely edible.
I’m positive that Bighorn rainbow had never eaten canned albacore tuna before I shared my sandwich with him. But he was curious. So he tried it, and he liked it, and he looked for more. Still, when I impaled a piece of tuna on a hook, he refused to eat it until I managed a perfectly drag-free drift.
I’m rather pleased that I persuaded him to eat a piece of my sandwich. It reminds me that I haven’t forgotten what I learned as a barefoot boy.
* * *
For a list of great books by William G. Tapply (many available on multiple formats including iPad, Kindle, Mobi, etc.), click here. Don’t miss Sportsman’s Legacy: A Rich Memoir of a Man’s Life with His Great Sportsman Father, His Beloved Family, and His Adored Brittany.