According to the fishing author John Gierach, when the fishing is slow and people wonder about how good the river is, the old timers invariably respond: “They’re in there”. That seems to happen a lot with the Rio Grande, which is considered, hereabouts, a very fickle river. There are times when the river is “dead”, meaning that you’re getting no action whatsoever, and you wonder what’s going on.
Before commenting further, I should mention which fish I’m talking about. Most of the sport fishermen are after trout. Of course there are no longer any Rio Grande cutthroats in the Rio Grande main stem. There are stocker rainbows, which generally get cleaned-out pretty quick … and there are browns. These browns, like most encountered elsewhere, are wild fish. Although introduced from across the Atlantic way back when, they are now very “native”, in that they maintain their numbers very well without any help from Game and Fish agencies. They are also very resilient, being able to subsist under conditions that other trouts find intolerable. They can “live in a cup of coffee”, according to one local expert on the matter. Now, browns are thought to be “smart”. But they’re probably no smarter than any other trout, everything else being equal. What may distinguish them from other trout is how often they feed. They seem often to be afflicted with what my friend John Lopez describes as “lockjaw”. Perhaps they feed only when there is an abundance of food available. Who knows?
Lately, we have been seeing great “hatches” on the Rio, along with water levels that make it possible for fishermen to locate feeding fish. The hatches mentioned are occasions when multitudes of the winged forms of aquatic insects appear on and above the water, to mate and die. There are many families of insects that may appear together, including different species of caddis flies, mayflies, stoneflies, crane flies etc. and they are all emerging now. The fish (not to mention the swallows) are loving it, and have abandoned all caution, to get in on the feast.
Yesterday afternoon I returned to a piece of water that had recently rewarded me with good dry fly fishing. I had caught a number of brown trout on that occasion, and although only the very little ones were rising (to caddis), I wondered whether the bigger ones were “looking up”, and discovered that they were. But I didn’t use a fly pattern that corresponded to caddis. Instead, I used my favorite “attractor” pattern, a fly that looks very “buggy”, and that could be mistaken for any number of insects. When I first arrived yesterday I didn’t see many bugs in the air, and started with a weighted fly called a “Bitch Creek”. I caught one brown on that fly and then waded to the opposite side of the river, hoping to see bugs coming off the water. Soon there were all kinds of bugs flying around, especially a rusty-colored mayfly that was hovering close to the water’s surface. And then I saw trout leaping out of the water to grab these mayflies. I was in luck (as they say). I tied on the very same fly I had used last time and started to catch fish – all brown trout. I caught the ones that were leaping and I caught ones that were sipping bugs directly off the surface, occasionally on consecutive casts. I caught some that were rising directly under the grassy banks. I probably hooked twelve in all, within the space of an hour.
No, these brown trout were anything but smart. They were greedy (just like you and me). The dinner bell had rung, and they responded. Soon enough the main insect activity was over, at about the time I had fished myself to the head of the riffle. I waded back across and walked the hundred yards to the car. Now I was thinking about dinner.