Monday, November 9, 2009

Outsmarting the Master

Tim Landefeld, Keith Oakes, and I stood huddled around the old man, waiting for his latest pronouncement. The old flyshop owner looked around to make sure no one was eavesdropping and then whispered, “There are a few Drakes showing up on the East Prong.” He looked around again, leaned even closer, and said in a barely audible voice, “It’s about to get cosmic.” Then he slowly backed away so as not to attract attention, as if he’d just revealed a valuable state secret and would now be hunted down by the CIA. (Dick Cheney is a fly fisherman, so it could happen.)

For many years, if the flyshop owner told us to go to the East, we’d go dutifully to the East Prong of this fine trout river. We knew that the Drake Mayflies typically would hatch first on the West Prong for a few days before their hatch moved to the East Prong, and finally after a week or two to the Main Prong. If the fishing would be cosmic on the East, then that’s where we wanted to be. Standing right in the middle of cosmic is every fisherman’s dream.

The problem was that we’d usually get skunked, or close to it. The main bugs would be mosquitos, not Drakes. We’d have plenty of bites – mosquito, not trout. Definitely not cosmic, unless you are a bat.

Given fly fishing’s legacy of secrecy, I suppose I can’t blame the flyshop owner for misleading us. After all, he has a staff of river guides who take paying customers out to the river to catch big trout. His guides go to the hotspots, the places where the mayflies are hatching prolifically and the fish are feeding recklessly. I can’t really blame him for saving the best water for his guys. On the other hand, my buddies and I have spent a few dollars buying flies and other equipment from him, so he does owe us at least one or two small favors.

All that changed last year when he told us to go to the East, but for some reason we went to the West Prong and saw millions of hatching mayflies and caught some good fish. At that moment we finally understood what he’d been doing all these years. He’d been using us as his unwitting scouts. He’d send us not to the spot where it was cosmic, but to the place where it was about to be cosmic. If we came back with a report of lots of bugs and fish, he’d know where to send his guides and clients the next day. If we came back with tales of failure, he’d know that it still wasn’t cosmic on the East Prong yet, and he’d keep his guides on the West.

Clever, very clever. He’d been playing us like a fiddle – a stupid, na├»ve fiddle. But this past year we discovered a flaw in his plan, a weakness to be exploited. We found a way to outwit the wily master. The secret is his sign by the road.

During the hatch of the Sulfur Mayflies, the sign displayed some poem like: “Fish with Yellow if you’re a wise fellow.” But as soon as the Brown Drake (a larger, higher-status mayfly) hatch began on the West Prong, he’d change his sign to read: “Fish with Drakes for Heaven’s sake.”

The sign! The sign is the answer! It’s the clue that was out in the open, right under our noses, so obvious that we didn’t notice it. So, now we simply ask around to find out when, exactly when, the sign changed from Sulfurs to Drakes. If it’s been within the past 3 or 4 days, then we fish the West Prong because the Drake hatch would still be in its early stages. If the sign changed to Drakes about a week ago, we fish the East, but at the first rumors of Drakes on the Main Prong we’ll move there.

To tell you the truth, we still need to test this strategy a few more years to work out the kinks, but I think we are well on our way to successfully outwitting the flyshop owner. He’ll have to entice other, less-experienced anglers into become his unwitting accomplices. Keith, Tim, and I have unlocked the mystery. We have outsmarted the old master.

But if our new plan doesn’t work, we’ve decided that we’ll just hide in the bushes by the flyshop and follow the guides to the river. Desperate times require desperate measures.