Updated: Jul 10, 2020
How in the hell am I supposed to see this thing on the water? I asked. You’re not, was the reply. If you see a rise within 3 feet of where you think the fly is…lift the rod. 3 feet, I laughed. Good one. Seriously, how’s this work? Dude…just start casting.
I grew up bass on Canandaigua Lake. And growing up bass meant pitching lures with some backbone. Minus-4 crankbaits and 6″ senkos, rattle-traps and double-bladed spinnerbaits. You don’t get after fish in brush covered cut-banks, stump fields and blow-downs with fru-fru artificials. I guess that’s why, when I first took to chasing fish with a fly rod, more often than not, big flies were along for the ride.
2/0 Deceivers and crease flies, lead-bellied crayfish patterns and deer-hair poppers the size of field-mice. I like the aggression big flies attract from fish. Crashing the surface, torpedoes from submerged logs or weedbeds, brawling like someone hit on their girlfriend. Even the runts get tough, throw haymakers and go brag to their buds about how they’re not gonna take crap from the pickerel anymore.
But truth be told, any fish on the thin end of a fly line has got his jaw set for the next bend, valley or other end of the lake anyhow…regardless of fly size. A fight’s a fight.
And so it was I went to the Cohocton River for the first time to fish for browns and rainbows with flies much smaller than I was used to casting. Blind casts to mid-current pockets. Invisible drifts through steady rises. Guestimates and shots in the dark. I wanted to learn, and a friend of mine was willing to broker the introduction.
He supplied the flies. Black gnats…22’s and 24’s. I supplied the doubt that they could hold enough meat to actually bring a trout to hand. I had heard of big fish, over 20″, caught on flies size-20 or smaller. Catches like that ran counter to my run-and-gun belief in big flies/big fish. Seriously, what use does a bruiser have for a fly that’s size is the equivalent of broccoli in my teeth? Of course, the Cohocton wasn’t going to be giving up any 20+ inch fish. 15″ maybe. But a 15″ trout is a nice fish.
We hiked our way to a likely stretch of water and got to work.
Unlike their hefty brethren, casting small flies takes stealth. An effortless delivery that drops the fly on the surface like a whisper. After several hundred casts, I had snapped at least a dozen flies off the line like a bull-whip crack. Whoo-tish! Big-fly muscles slow to ease up.
After several hundred more casts the flies stopped taking their freedom-flights into the woods and brush that lined the banks and started finding my aiming points…landing on the surface more like mumbles than whispers, but my stealth was in full effect. I took to stalking runs and riffles and pools as purposefully as a Shaolin monk takes to infiltrating an enemy camp.
I laid a cast up and across the current to slick stretch along the far bank, choked with brush. The drift was right. The rise was unremarkable. But when the line went taut as I lifted the rod, hot-damn-and-hallelujah, that fish ran like he stole something. The gnat stayed put and after a time, the fish settled into my hand. Cold, sleek dynamite.
Kneeling in the shallow water near the shore, the brown in my hand was the truth of delta blues on a summer breeze, one giant new fly fishing door flung wide open. I felt like I needed an Amen.
Holy crap, I said, smiling. On that tiny fly. Man that is too cool. Big fly. Small fly. Doesn’t matter much, my friend replied. As long as they’re biting.