Watch Birds to Catch Fish

For the past few months I have been reading Ted Leeson’s The Habit of Rivers. The book presents a collection of well written essays and short stories about the author’s fly fishing and life experiences. Leeson grew up in the midwest but now resides in Oregon and fishes throughout the Western US. In the essay Everything That Rises, Everything That Flies, Leeson draws a strong connection between birds and fish.

The essay on birds triggered a train of thought that eventually lead to me thinking about the importance of patience and observation while fly fishing. All too often, I have watched fisherman walk up to a stream, tromp up to their thighs, and froth the water as they bomb casts to the opposite bank. On a couple of occasions, I have had someone unknowingly walk within yards of me sitting on the bank, to fish water I was resting. When I see this “grab the bull-trout by the horns” approach (and I see it all the time), I laugh out loud the moment these guys stomp out of the water mumbling something about no fish. At these moments, I scratch my head and wonder if me and the other guy are really participating in the same sport? I don’t want to come off as an elitist snob but fly fishing is called the quite sport for a reason. A huge contribution to my enjoyment of the sport is how a few hours on the river can slow my tempo to that of the water’s current, clearing my head of built up of crap, putting me in a zen-like state with a sole purpose. My brother-in-law (and best fishing buddy) used to smoke cigarettes. He once said that a positive side effect of smoking was the time it allowed him to sit on the bank and quietly observe the water. The best way for an angler to start their day is park their butt on a stream-side log for 30 minutes and watch the river flow by. Smoke em if you got em, or eat sandwich, or tie on a new leader, or play harmonica, or do nothing as long as you observe. Sit there and study the currents, look for the rise forms of feeding fish, look for bugs, and watch the birds.

As Ted Leeson points out, the connections between birds, trout, and fly fishing are numerous. Right down to the feathers used to tie flies. Where I fish in Washington State, the river bottoms are chock full of deer, raccoons, coyotes, muskrats, etc. Although I love to see these furry critters when fishing, the animals I watch most closely are the swallows, waxwings, and other “tweety” birds. Because just like trout, these birds feed on the insects that live in and around water.


There's trout in that thar stream

From Spring through the Fall these little birds are present along rivers, streams, and lakes. They are often the one indicator that fishing is about to get really good. On occasions when the mid-afternoon sun is bright, the fishing is slow, and a cold beer is calling your name, a glance up to the sky may reveal it’s not quite time to pack it in. Because that glance to the sky reveals birds feeding on bugs that will soon be on the water (most likely mating swarms of mayfly spinners). At other times the birds may be feeding near the waters surface signaling the hatch is beginning and it is time to switch flies. And every once in a while a single bird, maybe a cedar waxwing, will fly over the river and snatch a solo bug as if to say “did you see that flying ant I just ate?” This happened to me a few years ago on a July day fishing the Gallatin river. On the water were good numbers of caddis and mayflies but those flies weren’t catching fish like one would expect. I was getting more and more frustrated until a lone cedar waxing caught my attention as it flew up into the sun to grab a golden stonefly. A quick fly change to a size 8 yellow stimulator and it was on like Donkey Kong!  The dude abides. Thanks to patience and chance observation, the day went from bland to epic as trout were racing to catch my fly.

Montana Rainbow

A little birdie told me how to catch this fish

In 1653 Sir Izaak Walton wrote in his treatise The Complete Angler “angling may be said to be so like the mathematics that it can never be fully learnt”. Three centuries later, the science and achievement that produce graphite composite fly rods, waterproof-breathable waders, and laser sharpened hooks it still feels like we are figuring out 2+2 when it comes to the behavior of trout.  As true today as it was in Walton’s time, patience and observation are key attributes of every successful fly angler. Catching trout on the fly can be an exercise in frustration but if one practices the craft and looks for the cues nature provides those frustration points can be far and few between. Reading the water, knowing the hatch, and holistically observing the stream-side ecology are big parts of the equation. With exception to the dead of winter, birds species including: swallows, red wing back birds, and finches will likely be present alongside streams. They won’t always be feeding en masse but when you can see them swooping through the air you best watch them carefully, they’ll tell you how to catch the trout.