It was a “teachable moment,” to use a parenting cliche, and the teachers were trout (or, ‘the fishing gods,’ or whatever you’d like to call them). It was a cool morning in early summer, about 25 years ago, on one of my (still) favorite trout streams in Michigan. Brookies and browns were rising to one of those rare, blanket hatches of… I have no idea what they were rising to. No idea whatsoever.
I was a beginner. I’d been fly fishing for several years, but I was still terrible, especially when it came to entomology. Most of my successes at this point involved a Clouser Minnow or an Elk Hair Caddis, and those successes were relatively few. I had a box full of flies that I’d bought at the local Orvis retailer, with the help of the very patient manager of the fly fishing section. (I may or may not have asked him if they had “any mayflies”). He’d pointed me in the direction of a variety of midwest staples and standards, which I bought in every possible size and color. Now, surrounded by rising trout on a postcard-perfect Michigan stream, I was determined to ‘match the hatch.’ I scooped some of the naturals off the surface with my hat (I’d seen someone do that on a fly fishing TV show once) and inspected the contents closely, to identify what the trout might be gorging on.
Bugs. They were bugs. Very small ones.
Now my hat was soaking wet (and full of bugs) and I was still clueless. I tried my best to match the size and color of what I saw fluttering around my face. I even made a few relatively good casts and mends. I didn’t spook the 30-odd trout rising around me, but I didn’t catch one either. I changed flies over and over, inspecting each fly before tying it on, comparing it to the naturals in the air and on the water. I was determined to solve this puzzle. This was what fly fishing was all about!
Twenty minutes went by, with me switching flies every dozen-or-so casts. Then thirty minutes. Then forty-five minutes. An hour. The missing puzzle piece eluded me and the fun of this puzzle waned. There were trout here, and they were still actively feeding, although the intensity was beginning to die down. I was sure I was going to miss my window. So… I gave up. I chickened out and tied on a small wooly bugger— olive, with a red tail. I turned around, faced downstream, and swung the bugger through the riffle. The brook trout that I caught on that first cast (well, first cast after the hundreds of other casts) is still burned into my memory as one of the most beautiful, wild, native brookies I’ve ever seen, and still one of the largest I’ve landed in Michigan. Big-shouldered and the length of my forearm, it had coloring like a 64-box of crayons, even this early in the season.
Better anglers than myself have since told me that this approach has a name. It’s called “Un-Matching the Hatch,” and it’s a tried-and-true method of catching finicky trout when you don’t have precisely what they’re looking for. We’ve all had days like that, and it’s a frustrating truth that trout will often reject your closest approximations. A shade of olive that’s just a smidge too dark. A hook-shank that’s just a bit too short. A tail that doesn’t fork enough, or forks too much. Somehow, in stained, flowing water, they can spot discrepancies that we can’t detect under a magnifying glass. And so, we give up and throw them something entirely different. Something that looks familiar, like food they’ve seen before, but not like the food that’s currently floating all around them. And it often works.
For some trout anglers— the “purists”— my “Un-Match the Hatch” story is one of defeat, and that beautiful brook trout was ill-gotten gains. I understand that, I really do. The singular challenge of “matching the hatch” on a trout stream is one of the finest pursuits in the outdoors. When you succeed, there is no better feeling, and those days are poetic and beautiful. I love a good puzzle.
But sometimes the missing puzzle piece is from a different puzzle. Sometimes it’s from a different game entirely. Sometimes you just need to dig that lead top-hat out of the Monopoly box and jam it into the empty space in the puzzle and catch some damn fish.
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