Pinching worms in half is the grossest part of fishing. My Fearless and Knowledgeable Guide pinched nightcrawlers in half or thirds with his thumbnail. Quick, efficient, and disgusting.
So one of the many useful things I learned on my first ever, gear-laden fishing trip is that it's easier to cut worms in half by closing the lid of a plastic worm box on them. A worm guillotine. Skewering them on the hook is slightly less gross and, since I was usually thigh-deep in water, washing up afterwards was easy.
I also now suspect many people trout fish because they like to fuss and play with all that gear. Waders are a truly wonderful invention, and I can't imagine any substitute for those clever, multi-pocketed vests. In the vest I borrowed from my guide, I found extra hooks, sinkers, nail clippers, worms, line, sunglasses, a net and something neon in a small glass jar. I opened it once, took a whiff and never opened it again.
Even though I could see into the water better with the sunglasses on, they were too big. I felt silly wearing them, especially because they had little side flaps that my Erudite Guide assured me kept out even MORE glare. They kept falling off my face, so I put them in the same pocket with the neon ick.
It seems if you have grown up playing any kind of sport -- softball, golf, a little tennis -- that casting a line is no mysterious physiological feat. Fly fishing, I'm told, is different. But with the rod and reel I used, I found that after a half hour of practice and a conscious effort to avoid low tree limbs both in front and behind me, I was pretty happy with my casting abilities. Control -- and perhaps finesse -- is much more of an issue than strength. Of course, there's always room for improvement.
Never let anyone tell you trout fishing is hard work. Granted, there is all that loading and unloading of the car and the exertion of pulling on a pair of limp rubber pants with boots attached to them. But aside from the preparation, how can standing in the crisp, white water of an Ozark river hemmed by trees and solitude be called hard work?
Floundering through thigh-deep water in search of the next set of rapids -- or as my Visionary Guide called them, "the next event" -- can be tiring. And people do fall down. Their waders suck water, and they are somewhat uncomfortable for the rest of the day.
Solutions: Have a change of clothes in the canoe. Fish when the weather is warm. Make a decision not to care. My borrowed waders leaked, the right boot. Wool socks help a little bit because wool tends to draw moisture away from skin and retain heat. Mainly, I decided not to care.
We fished from sun-up to sun-down, longer than I've ever fished before. I learned that trout like fast water. They nestle in front of and behind lodged rocks and then dart out into the current for food, such as crayfish, small prehistoric-looking fish called sculpins and the occasional worm with a hook in it. Enticed by the latter, they often swim downstream, which can be confusing. I know I missed one or two good-sized trout because I didn't feel them right away and didn't set the hook fast or hard enough. A swifter, surer tug back on the rod -- the set -- and I may have brought in more nice fish. As it turned out, I caught 14 fish, almost all trout, ranging in length from 2 to 13 inches.
Number 14 was a 2-inch long sculpin that ate my worm as it lay in a shallow riffle while I dinked around with a hopelessly snarled mess of line. Fishing line is terrible stuff when it's not wound up neatly. An autonomous loop began to unwind itself from my reel, tangle everywhere around my ankles, snag the gadgets hanging from my vest, run under the canoe and instigate one long and colorful string of expletives -- foul enough to even capture the attention of my Feckless Guide, who did nothing to help.
I finally had to collect myself, sit down on a rock and deal with it. It took about 20 minutes. Harmony and bliss returned in about 30. Euphoria came in 45 when I caught a brown trout that was about 12 inches long. These fish are not brown. They are red, white, pink, orange, blue -- rainbow -- but in addition to all the spectacular beauty of a rainbow trout, these have splendid orange polka dots. "Brown" trout? Whose idea was that?
Grasping a trout for the first time is hard and a little weird. They are wet, slippery, strong and don't like to be out of the water. But just like handling an unruly child, trout require a confident, firm grip. Not so hard they become injured, but not so loose that they defy your well-intended wishes.
I set all my fish free, because we chose to fish a stretch of the North Fork of the White River managed by the Conservation Department for trophy trout fishing only, meaning all trout under 15 inches must be released. Had I caught one greater than 15 inches, I would have gleefully kept it. As the youngest of three children, I will probably never grow too old to show up at my parents' house once in a while, unannounced, for dinner..
It was the first time I'd ever heard "feckless" used on a trout stream.
But it didn't bother me much, at least not until later, when I looked up the meaning of the word.
I love trout, and I know my river -- every sweeper and every rock. I mostly fish alone, but this woman in the office said she wanted to learn to trout fish. She insisted -- you know how they can be -- so I agreed to guide her.
I don't mind showing children how to fish. They just take things in and pretty soon they're doing them. Adults are something else. If they don't know something, they sometimes pout and sulk and refuse to learn.
Anyway, I figured to teach her the basics of a rod and reel in a few minutes, point her at the water and that would be that. I would fish nearby, but not too close; stream fishing never was meant to be shoulder to shoulder.
This lesson plan conforms exactly to my theory of education. I believe people learn by doing and not having done for them.
Our fishing was delayed a bit when she took nearly a half hour to figure out that you had to flip the bail on the spinning reel to get line to release from the spool.
When she finally was able to overarm the split shot half way across the trout stream, she pronounced herself a natural athlete. I gave her some worms and didn't say anything.
You can't easily spoil a day on a trout stream; you have that cool water massaging your legs and the ripple of the current drowning out all the rest of the world and, wherever you look, you see flowers or vines or tree-lined bluffs.
Folks in big cities would pay a bundle for the kind of tonic a river provides, but they can't buy it, thank Whomever for that.
As it turned out, though, we couldn't quite take advantage of the river's restorative until we addressed a few of what she called "issues."
I'd always considered worms as bait -- good bait -- but just as a hellgrammite grows into a dobson fly, our nightcrawlers shucked their skins to become our first issue.
Give her points for not puking at threading a hook through a worm, but trim her score for grossing out when I pinched the nightcrawler in half with my thumbnail.
You can't buy half crawlers and you'll hardly hook a trout if you put a whole one on the hook and just what the heck are thumbnails for anyway? What did she expect me to use, pruning shears? I finally offered her my plastic worm box so she could slice the crawlers in half with the lid. I suppose she thought that was more humane.
And get this: Everyone knows polarized sunglasses cut the glare from the water and let you see deep water, rocks, logs and, sometimes, fish. So, they're a pretty good thing to have while trout fishing. I mean it's either that or watch shiny water all day.
She chose shiny water. Seems my old sunglasses didn't flatter her enough -- as if a trout cares what she looks like.
After we'd spent a few hours in the current, things were placid again. The river has a way of making that happen. We worked downstream, mostly wading and using the canoe as a camel to carry sandwiches, gear and a cooler.
Fishing was good all day. I was nabbing them right and left and I saw that she caught a couple, too. Mostly though, I maintained some distance downstream of her. That was for her safety. I figured if she fell and came floating by, I likely would notice her and could pull her from the water before she drowned.
Several times during the day, I heard a faint whining sound over the gurgling water, but I told myself it was katydids and just kept fishing.
One time, though, there was no ignoring her. Seems she had a bit of a snarl in the reel and she threw a tantrum, right there on the gravel bar.
Words I'd never repeat spit over the water like spray from a canoe paddle. I had to do something, so I stayed away, figuring it would be better to just let the eruption happen, then come back and build on the lava, after it'd cooled.
It took a while, but after about a half hour, the tangled line was bunched into the bottom of the canoe, and she was oohing and aahing over a brown trout, which she thought was a stupid name, preferring "splendiferous trout" or something like that.
In the end, I guess it wasn't a bad day. Her waders leaked, but whose doesn't? She says she fell in the water, but all I've got is hearsay evidence for that. And she kept complaining that she couldn't get the fish smell off her hands.
But we did catch some nice trout.
I was surprised to learn that she'd landed 14 fish, which proves, I think, that trout fishing isn't hard. Except for a few basic fishing skills, she learned everything by herself through trial and error. You don't have to study for trout fishing; you don't need a tutor; and there is no final exam. It's just a matter of going out and enjoying it.
What I did try to impart to her was the spirit, the flavor and the culture of trout fishing, although she won't admit I taught her anything.
That's understandable, but as she fishes some more she will in time come to see the wisdom of both sunglasses and pinching worms. I guarantee it.
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