Jelly Water

This is an old article of mine, spruced up a bit for an upcoming book in the 20-title “Fly Fishing” series (it is likely to show up in The Angler as Predator). Figure that I might as well give a (very) advanced preview of that book here on the blog. Hope you like the read, and once Long Flies is finished later this year, The Angler as Predator will get underway.

Oh, and for those waiting for Reading Waters, I have it on good authority that it will ready later this month. An order page will be up shortly.

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I must admit to being a spring-creek junkie. I have been known to drive 19 hours—one way—simply to scratch a particular spring-creek itch. I just find spring creeks to be such a complete and challenging fly-fishing experience. I had a very memorable spring-creek challenge a number of summers ago, in the form of the jelly-water puzzle.

I was fishing a small Western spring creek regarded for its tricky drag/presentation situations and touchy trout. I had located a big fish feeding near the bank on a gentle bend in the creek. A decent mayfly hatch had the fish rising at the surface, pushing a small wake every time it rose. Having spooked a rather large rainbow earlier in the day with an approach that was too close, I decided to hang back, and fire a long Puddle Mend up-and-across to the fish.

Several casts and drifts later, the fish was still rising, but not to my fly. On every cast, my leader was acting strangely, causing my fly to drag. And since the drag was neither where nor how I expected it, I knew that something odd was going on, but I just couldn’t see exactly what it was. I finally decided to move slightly more across from the fish (still remaining a bit down-and-across), and risk a cast that landed closer to the fish’s position. It worked. The fly seemed to do a strange little hover for a moment, and then it slid sideways, over and down, directly into the fish’s feeding lane. A moment later, a nose poked out and my fly disappeared. I set, expecting a big fish, but not quite the New-Zealand-class brown that popped out of the water.

I ran toward the fish, gathering line as fast as I could, and then the fish turned and ran downstream toward me. As it passed my position, I followed, keeping the brown on the shortest leash possible. For the next couple of minutes the fish and I eyed each other. I pulled, he pulled, I took line, he took line. I finally got the fish worked into a shallower area where I could control his movements fairly well. I waded in to bring him to hand, but misjudged the trout’s readiness.

The brown bolted back upstream, and I stumbled after him. At first, the fish seemed to be aiming for his old feeding station, but then he took a right turn toward a jumble of half-submerged bank-side bushes. I put all the pressure on that I could, not wanting to part the tippet or straighten the tiny hook. The tippet stretched to the maximum as I inverted the rod to keep the line out of the branches and at a better angle to the fish. No good. The tippet popped abruptly and the rod’s recoil tossed the line into the grass beside me. The brown had terminated our connection somewhere in the twisted black below the bushes—so close, yet so far.

Anytime I hook a fish from a tough spot, I like to have a look at the spot to see close-up what the conditions were. In this case, a significant, sudden differential in bottom structure next to the bank had created a situation were currents were sliding out in a fan shape above the trout’s position. As the currents spread out, the water almost appeared to “shimmy,” like a tub of jelly, before continuing on its way. The brown had been parked on the far side of the fan of “jelly” water. My first set of casts had landed in the right spot for a straight downstream drift to the brown’s lane, but the jelly water had shimmied my leader (and thus fly) out of alignment and away from the trout. Once I made a longer cast, the fly and leader landed more on the far side of the jelly and slithered down to the fish.

Despite the loss of the big brown, I had pieced together the puzzle of the jelly-water, which in itself was quite satisfying. I had dealt with jelly water a number of times before, but that fish and that situation really stuck in my mind. It is such moments that shape us as anglers, and remind us that the puzzle is ever changing as we take our respective fly-fishing journeys.

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