Story: “Getting The Big Picture” on an Alaskan Stream

Written by: Bob Triggs,

The author (left) shows of a Lower Talarik Creek rainbow landed by angler Bob Kuhn.
Photo courtesy Bob Kuhn

The DeHavilland Beaver lifted off of the quiet lake surface at dawn, leaving a trail of water sluicing off of the trailing edges of the floats. I was being sent out, with the float plane and pilot, and only one fishing guest from the lodge. This was unusual. Ordinarily, we would guide three, four, or more guests in a day, with one or two guides and a pilot–sometimes even two planes. But this guest was traveling solo, and he wanted his whole week-long Alaska visit that way, always fishing alone with one guide.

We flew south across Lake Iliamna, toward Katmai. The sun was just coming up from behind Mount Augustine, the volcano on Cook Inlet. I couldn’t believe my luck. One plane and pilot, and one guest, for an entire week. And we were scheduled to go to a different location every day; flying in, hiking and wading rivers, rowing a raft at times, running a jet boat at other times. My guest was Tom, a middle-aged man, retiring from a successful career in advertising. He could afford it. After an hour, we circled over our landing spot on the shore of a big lake, dipping one wing and scanning the shallows for logs, rocks, debris, bears other planes, and the like. We were clear to land.

Once we got our packs and rods from the plane, we pushed the Beaver off the shore, into deeper water, and the pilot cranked the engine. As we hiked up along the creek-side trail, the Beaver roared overhead, dripping water from the floats down on us. Beaver pilots are like that. Tom smiled at the surprise shower, which I took as a good sign. It was early June, and we were hitting this spot for the first time that season. It was dry-fly fishing time, and after their spring spawning period, the fish would likely be hungry and quick to take flies. It is a mile hike to the beginning of the better fishing, and Tom remarked how nice and wide and smooth the trail was. I told him that the bears have been using this trail for thousands of years, so it’s pretty well established. He smiled again. Good attitude.

We got to the upper run, took a break for coffee and cookies, and rigged up the rods. I tied a size 10 Hornberg on Tom’s tippet: “This is a good searching pattern.” Tom shrugged, and he began to step down off the high, grassy riverbank and into the water.

Whoa!, I said. “Let’s not disturb this little stream right away. We can fish it from the banks for starters–crouching, kneeling, even lying down if we have to. It’s only a few feet deep, and twenty feet wide here.”

Tom seemed surprised and confused. He was wearing $400 waders, and I wouldn’t let him get into the water. So he just made some easy casts to the head of the run, got a few short clean drifts, and was into a nice rainbow right away. The trout was in good shape: not as fat as it would be in August, but big enough to work Tom’s rod and wrist. We gradually worked our way down the stream, catching a fish here and there, still without wading at all.

“I have never fished with such a short line before,” Tom said.

Sometimes it pays to stay out of the water and make casts from your knees.
Photo by Sandy Hays

Then we saw a nice trout, over 20 inches, rising repeatedly to sip something small from the surface. Tom dropped the fly right on top the rise, and the trout stopped feeding. After a minute, it would resume rising, Tom would try the drift again, and the fish would shut off. This went on for a few minutes. We changed flies to a smaller Blue-Winged Olive and added a longer, lighter tippet. Eventually, Tom crept into the water, wading toward the rising trout, and he started pretty much slapping the trout on the head with the fly and leader. No dice. The trout was done. Tom was frustrated, and he wasn’t smiling anymore. That trout was right in front of him, and it wouldn’t take the fly.

I invited Tom to come out of the water and take a break, back from the edge of the stream about twenty feet, where we could sit in the shade in the deep grass. We lit up cigars and just watched and waited. I told him to try to scan the entire stream in front of him, not just studying that one trout, but taking in the whole scene in front of him. “Give them a few minutes to forget us.” He still wasn’t smiling. His face seemed tight. He wasn’t happy. He wanted results. Eventually, he began to notice that there were other trout in the run, and some of them were rising, feeding in a regular pattern. And the one big trout he liked so much was back on the feed too, but now it was a few yards farther up in the run.

Gradually, a look of wonder spread across Tom’s face. He was enthralled by all the life he was now seeing. It had been there the whole morning, but he had missed it all when he got so focused on that one fish. I set Tom up for a reach cast, still from twenty feet back from the edge of the water, and another ten feet to the fish. Luckily we had backcast room. Tom made this cast, lying on his left side in the grass, with a cigar in his teeth; one false cast, and he dropped the fly a few feet upstream of the trout. The pattern drifted just a few inches before the trout shot up to the surface and snatched the fly. I know I was smiling. Tom was astonished, and he was smiling too.

We fished the rest of that morning by crawling, kneeling, lying and sitting in the deep grass in the shade, and picking off one hungry trout after another with only a few different flies. At lunch, Tom marveled at the shift in his state of mind, once he had stepped back from his tunnel-vision perspective and taken in a broader, wider view of the stream, the trout, and their behavior. All he had to do was step back and quietly observe the bigger picture. And then go back with a lighter presentation and catch the one that was driving him crazy–and then catch a lot more.

This approach will work with just about any feeding fish, if you don’t screw it up too badly to begin with. And wild fish that have never been caught before, or haven’t been caught in a long while, will have forgotten how to avoid your dragging fly and sloppy presentations. But it won’t take them long to lose interest if you insist on bashing away at them. This is equally true of the sea-run coastal cutthroat trout that we fish for in the Puget Sound saltchuck.

If you are trying too hard, and the fish are right in front of you, actively feeding and avoiding your fly, just quietly slip away, even if only for a few yards. Give them a break. Lighten up. Give them a chance to resume their feeding patterns, without you interrupting that. Once they are back in a rhythm of their own, you can try a smaller fly, a dead drift, and shorter presentation. (Meaning: don’t whack them on the head with the damned thing! ) It’s a good idea to take the time to just watch, frequently, during your fishing day. If all you are doing is staring at the fly and casting, casting, casting, you’ll miss a lot. You just might find that there’s more going on, right in front of you, than you realized.

Bob Triggs guides fly fishers on the beaches, rivers, and streams of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. He fishes for sea-run coastal cutthroat trout in freshwater and saltwater, and in the rivers for trout and summer steelhead. Check out his blog.

3 thoughts on “Story: “Getting The Big Picture” on an Alaskan Stream”

  1. Bob is an amazing angler and conservationist. He has more character than just about anyone you will meet, and is an all around great guy.

    Thanks for the great story Bob and I’m looking forward to going fishing with you again soon!

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