Gettin’ Hooked

October 14, 2023 By: Richard Donnelly

Image by Robert Haase

For a quarter mile West London Creek flows through a campground with trimmed lawns, a swimming pond, swing sets, fire rings, and picnic tables. The local Trout Unlimited chapter has been busy, removing beaver dams and downed trees. The water runs clear and deep and tumbles through well-placed, rocky chutes. It looks like a trout creek ought to look, but never does. A sort of theme park creek.

Children play along creek banks and ogle the brown trout swimming among mats of watercress. Whole families attack the stream with bobbers and worms, catching nothing. This is too bad. We need trout anglers, and we need them to catch fish. But catching a brown trout is challenging, even doing it the right way.

Trout are always hungry. There is no mysterious “off” switch, like walleye fishing. But a trout is devilishly sensitive. If they see you they won’t bite. If you splash your cast they won’t bite. If you yell at your buddy to get up here, they’re biting they won’t bite. They’re picky. I have watched kicking grasshoppers float safely past feeding trout. They were eating something else.

I like to fish West London, even in the park. It is easy, untroubled fishing. One morning a few steps from a family eating breakfast I caught three fair-sized browns, one after the other. A ten year old girl ran into the camper, emerging with a fishing pole. She couldn’t take it anymore.

I watched as she cast a worm and bobber. The water, which “popped” with feeding trout, went calm.

It’s not my place to advise another angler. To be fair, there wasn’t much I could say. I could tell her to sneak up on them, but if you’re throwing a bobber all the stealth in the world won’t help.

Her father joined us with a hefty spinning rod. He began dragging a bucktail through pools. Occasionally this works, I don’t know why. Yes I do. The trout get fed up. After a dozen casts they say enough is enough, and attack.

I quit fishing and watched father and daughter enjoying themselves, or enjoying themselves as much as anyone who’s not catching fish.

Here’s my problem. Too nice a guy. This is a common affliction among fly anglers. More so than say, moose hunters.

“Anyone want to try the fly rod?” I held up my slender, easy-casting four-weight. The girl, named Samantha, raced over. I handed the rod to her and explained how to lift the line into the air, wait, and toss it over an imaginary fence. She hopped with excitement.

You don’t expect much from a beginner, but children have this advantage: They don’t try to overpower a fly rod. They don’t have to unlearn a lifetime of spoon chucking and reel cranking. After five minutes Samantha could generate a short, fairly consistent cast. She was ready to fish.

I knotted up the biggest Hendrickson I could find. The three of us walked up-creek, jumping a blue heron, which departed, squawking. We passed motorhomes and a volleyball court, and on the way developed an entourage. Children joined us, a dog or two, and a gaggle of adults. Something was up, and they weren’t going to miss it.

I made everyone stand back. Crouching, Samantha and I approached the water. We spied feeding trout dimpling the surface of a wide run. Samantha’s eyes were wide with anticipation. I remembered something. Fly fishing is just plain fun.

I pulled line free and handed over the rod. “Remember,” I whispered. “Lift the line way up high, hold it there, then cast.”

The first try brought a fistful of foxtail, hooked on the backcast. I told her not to worry. I do it all the time. Which is true. Samantha “splashed” the next cast, and spooled line at her feet the next. More things are apt to go wrong than right in fly fishing. And life in general, I suppose.

Mayflies wandered over the creek, now and then falling into the water. A trout took a fly with a splash. “There,” I told her.   

Sam threw a nice twenty footer. The tippet straightened and the Hendrickson dropped into an eddy. As it floated under an oak tree a trout took the fly, turning and slapping the water.

 A ten year-old girl squealed and jumped up and down, as only a ten year-old can. “Whaddo I do? Whaddo I do?”

 “Pull the line,” I said. “Bring him in.” I unclipped my net.

Sam held tight and ran backward, which proved an effective strategy. She kept the fish from escaping under mats of watercress.
“Hold the line just like that,” I said. “You’re doing great.”

The trout fought upriver, then down, jumping twice to the oohs and ahhs of the assembled campers. “Don’t let go,” her father shouted.

Dad, that’s not going to happen.

The trout slowed, circled, and made one more nail-biting run. I netted him, a fine fourteen-inch brown.   

The crowd clapped. Phones came out, and a very proud little girl had her picture taken by a dozen people, including one beaming father. “Should we keep it?” he asked.

“You could,” I said. “There’s plenty of trout. But maybe we should ask her.”

“Let him go,” she said. “Maybe I’ll catch him again, when he’s bigger.”

Spoken like a true sportsperson. Kneeling, she placed him in the water and held him there. After a moment the trout shot off.

I made my own getaway. I wanted to fish the next valley, and would be stuck all day if I hung around. About a hundred people wanted a crack at fly fishing and would have to learn the way we all do.

By trial and error. And hopefully, without too many witnesses.