On the Sticks

Anglers who go down the river in boats
learn best the language of water.

by Miles Nolte ]

I’m plenty impressed by casting ability. Folks who can bend rods and fire loops across vast distances deserve respect. But I’m far more impressed by those few anglers who interact with rivers as though the water and their pulmonary systems share a viscous language. They don’t think through a run; they tap into it in a direct and subconscious way. 

While you’d think this ability results more from a careful attention to detail and rigorous study than to innate knowledge, it appears to be more effortless than that. A first cast that tumbles across a gravel ledge into the gathering downstream swirl without wagging or straying is harder to do than to describe. Usually I can make that cast, but sometimes I have to feel my way through with misplaced mends and overcompensated arcs before I figure out exactly where a jumble of water becomes a feedline. On a stretch of water I haven’t fished so much it’s become as familiar as my dog’s whitened muzzle, I’ll need to figure it out through a clunky process of trial and error. But in fishing, it’s the first cast that matters most, and sliding a fly through barely perceptible microcurrents without first puzzling it through is sublime. Few of us can do it.

Fly-fishing on rivers comprises many unequal aspects, and an angler must understand not just the elements themselves but also their contribution to the whole. Most people start with the technical: executing a cast, a mend, a quiet pickup; tying the knots, understanding the equipment. Then they move on to the biological: discovering what lives in the water, and figuring out what the fish are eating in that spot at that moment. Finally they acquire the arsenal: the right offerings to represent those particular foods, the right tackle to present them. But none of these aspects of fishing is as important, as complex, or as overlooked as understanding the river itself. 

Of course rivers don’t actually talk; they just go downhill. But anthropomorphizing the ways rivers display their features helps me make sense of them. If you’ve read much fishing literature, you know this isn’t unique. Perhaps the metaphor of rivers speaking helps us justify all that time spent squinting at water moving over rocks. Of course I don’t think the river is speaking directly to me. But still, I listen.

Anyone who spends time on a particular piece of water will learn a few productive spots and will have figured out some of what the river has to say. Fishing through different seasons, you’ll learn how conditions shift. You’ll get a feel for the changes, both subtle and dramatic, that occur during different flows, different water temperatures, different hatches. The fish that hunker in the depths during autumn’s cold might ascend into swift shallow riffles during the orgiastic emergences of July. You don’t need theories culled from fishing literature to figure this out on your sandlot stream. Last month you caught them by the mossy stump on the cutbank, but yesterday they were huddled beside the brisk whirl of the tailout boulder. Rivers, especially freestones, fluctuate constantly. The topography of the lines can change daily, and the cast that drifted cleanly yesterday might drag unnaturally today. This is where a keen fluency in aquatic speech comes in handy.

When I was barely into my 20s, I saved up beer money and couch change to buy my first raft. I assumed that simply having a boat would at least double both the quantity and size of the fish I caught. But after actually owning a boat, I discovered three things: One, I didn’t really catch more or bigger fish; if anything I caught fewer fish, though I did cover a lot more water in the process. Two, I did a lot less fishing, because my hands were wrapped around oar handles more often than cork; it was my friends who fished. Three, I had no clue about the dynamics of flowing water, though I’d always considered myself pretty good at reading water.

If you’ve fished much from a driftboat or raft, you’ve doubtless seen a wide range of capabilities from your oarsman. A well-rowed boat shudders slightly atop the current, holding a consistent distance from buckets and banks with a minimum of effort. Exceptional oarsmen don’t scrape blades or get trapped in subtle midriver eddies; they simultaneously focus on the flies and fly lines, the upcoming holding water, the angle and texture of the surface tension, and the interaction of blades, oars, and chines. A well-rowed boat anticipates the river rather than responding to it.

I’ve heard it said that the best anglers make the best oarsmen, but I think it’s the other way around. An oarsman with the habits of flowing water ingrained in his muscle fibers is well on his way to becoming a great angler. An angler trained to look for riffle drops and foam lines is ill prepared to pilot a river.

Over the past decade of leaning into oars on Western rivers, I’ve learned a lot about fishing. I’ve learned new spots and techniques; I’ve learned the quirks of specific places and certain times. I know the one stretch of the Yellowstone where trout consistently eat yellow sallies even though yellow sallies are common throughout the river. I know approximately which water level and temperature move the Madison’s rainbows into the riffles to feed. I’ve learned how rarely fish are actually tippet shy and how often they’re simply looking for a good drift. All of this adds to my understanding of fish behavior. But nothing has taught me more about fishing than rowing boats—big boats, little boats, hard boats, soft boats; all have helped me understand the medium where fish live.

The obvious facets of a river are visible to anyone. It’s easy to spot obstacles like wave trains and emergent gravel bars. It’s also easy to notice obvious fishing holes like logjams, big swirling pools, and eddies. But if everyone can see them, everyone will fish them. 

An angler who understands the semiotics of a river, however, notices the surface prickling that whispers the location of a streambed depression that eases down from two feet deep to three, or the subtle murmurs of indentation at the upstream point of an island where all the flow’s food recirculates in a smorgasbord. An angler who knows how to analyze the language of moving water subconsciously studies the river’s every facet, not just the obvious ones. I know folks who’ve fished for years without learning to recognize the water’s nuanced clues. And most of them don’t know how to row.

Rowing boats and fishing from them are entwined by far more than the simple fact that boats are handy tools. Working in concert, the hands on the oars and the hands on the rods can produce a rare choreography in an activity so steeped in independence and solitude. It’s one of the few times in fishing when we become dependent on others; done well, it’s satisfying to be on either end of the equation. When oarsman and angler are humming on a similar frequency, it’s a harmony Pachelbel could appreciate. When seeing the same lines, anticipating the same seams and slicks, expecting the same takes from the same fish, what was once a singular experience becomes shared.

Learning to row a boat isn’t essential to becoming a great river fisherman, and it isn’t guaranteed to double the number and size of the fish you catch. But if you want to understand trout, you have to understand moving water. Most of the people I know who have that uncanny ability to look at a section of river, strip off line, extend a cast, and know absolutely where the fly will go and why they want it to go there learned how to do that because they can make 16 feet of fiberglass do the same thing. 

Rowing is a lot like fishing, except that a mistake when casting might result in a refusal or a spooked fish. Make a mistake rowing, though, and the consequences may settle on your conscience far more heavily than the loss of your biggest-ever spring creek brown. The different level of investment, and the different level of repercussions, make for a powerful incentive to learn. 

The way I look at it, a good oarsman understands rivers in terms of language. Defining the words is only the beginning of true fluency. To really catch the whole story, you need to become as comfortable and familiar as a native speaker. 

Miles Nolte is the author of The Alaska Chronicles, a memoir of guiding in Alaska. He writes, fishes, guides, and rows boats around Bozeman, Montana. And he writes the angling column for Gray’s Sporting Journal.

Artwork: On the Snake, by Kent Lemon