Thinking like a fish

Sam Wardle, fishing.

The author on the North Mills. Photo by Jim Kransberger

At about 5 p.m. the trout started feeding like sharks at a surf party. I was standing on the gravel shore of a remote stretch of the North Mills River, at the base of a deep canyon. The air was thick with bugs — mostly little mayflies of about a half-dozen different species, with the occasional yellow caddis and even more occasional yellow drake flitting by. The sky was gray and overcast, the temperature hovering just under 60 degrees. The water was clear and low, but not too clear and low. It was one of those afternoons that trout and trout fishermen live for.

The remoter parts of the North Mills River hold wild brown trout that get surprisingly large, and some of the strongest rainbows, pound for pound, in Western North Carolina. If you fish it right, you can have the day of a lifetime on the Mills. If you fish it wrong, well, at least you’re not sitting in a cubicle.

The bottom line is that trout don’t give a mayfly’s ass whether you perfectly match the hatch.

On the afternoon in question, I fished about two miles of the North Mills, and along the way, I developed a little philosophy. Call it biological opportunism. Permit me to indulge in a little pseudoscience while I explain it.

While many Americans spend their days trying to figure out a way to avoid eating too much, trout are trying to get their food while moving as little as possible. If a bug falls on the water a foot away from them, they know instinctively how much energy they will expend attacking it. If the required energy output is more than the energy they would obtain from the bug, they’ll let it go. Like ad salesmen, trout are born opportunists. They may have to slug it out a whole month to find that big payoff, but when they do, there’s no stopping them.

You’d be surprised at how few trout fishermen understand the significance of this fact. And I don’t mean newcomers who don’t know the difference between backing and a backcast. I mean seasoned veterans who read the books and magazines, know the scientific name of a damselfly, and tie their own flies. They know everything about fishing but nothing about fish.

The bottom line is that trout don’t give a mayfly’s ass whether you perfectly match the hatch. They don’t know the difference between a Hot Butt and an Egg-Laying Caddis. All they know is that they’re hungry and ready to eat anything resembling a bug that comes within striking range.

The fisherman’s job, then, is to give fish what they want. Fly fishermen would do well to quit thinking about fishing guru Lefty Kreh’s can’t-miss tips for landing trophy browns and start thinking about the weather, the water they’re fishing and the fish that are likely to be in it.

I find I catch a whole lot more fish when I stop trying to remember what the Latin word for yellow drake is and start looking for opportunities the same way a trout does. I once watched a heron that stood in the water without moving a muscle for 20 minutes, staring at the same spot on the surface. Then, in one lightning-fast motion, it snagged a bluegill and gulped it down whole.

Biological opportunism is really pretty simple when you think about it. Whether it’s a trout, heron or great white shark on the prowl, an animal is constantly looking for the most favorable odds to stay alive. And if they’re thinking about it at all, they’re probably asking themselves where they would most likely get a meal, how they should best go about it, and how long they should wait before trying a different tactic.

Meanwhile, most fly fishermen are asking themselves if their Winston rod will present correctly, if their Hodgman felt-soled waders will slip, or if their No. 22 Adams perfectly matches the color, shape and size of the midge coming off.

But none of these details has anything to do with catching fish.

That’s why I haven’t recommended a “killer fly” for the North Mills or a favorite spot in this article. Instead, I’ve included some tips for thinking like a predator rather than a fisherman.

Good luck on the Mills, and be sure your license is up to date. It’s the one river in WNC where you’re guaranteed to meet a ranger.

Five easy ways to get inside a fish’s mind

1. Watch for the rise: Don’t just cast where you think a fish might be. Wait until you see one feeding, and then cast to it. Chances are, if your fly looks remotely like what the fish last ate, lands close and doesn’t splash the water, you’ll catch the trout in three casts. If you don’t, cast someplace else — and keep an eye on the water to see if the same fish rises again. Repeat until you’ve caught it.

2. Matching the hatch is for suckers: You heard right. On the North Mills, there are maybe two or three days out of the year where when the fish will feed selectively on one insect. Instead, keep an eye on where the fish are feeding, and that means how deep and at what spot. Rather than trying to match the exact right fly, just pick an all-purpose dry or wet fly, depending on the conditions, and fish it. On the afternoon in question, I used an Adams, Blue Wing Olive, Elk Hair Caddis and Stonefly Nymph, and caught fish on all of them.

3. Remember the season: While hatch-matching may be for suckers, season-matching is not. Even if you haven’t seen a beetle in weeks, you can catch fish on beetles in the summer. This doesn’t require an extensive entomological catalog. Just have a basic idea of how big and what color the bugs are, and you’ll be better off than a Ph.D. with a vise could ever hope to be.

4. Adapt: If fish are rising everywhere and you can’t catch one on a dry fly, quit using the dry fly! The same goes for wet flies, nymphs, etc. Fish are looking for a meal, not a certain genus and species. You’re trying to hook a trout, not follow some stuffy writer’s advice.

5. Find the fish: This is perhaps the most important of all. If the trout are swimming the shallows, you won’t catch them in the deep pools, no matter how hard you try. Trout often move between different depths and water velocities in the North Mills River. Find out where they’re holding before you cast.

[Sam Wardle can be reached at]

North Mills River rundown

Where: Off North Mills River Road. Coming from Asheville, take the airport exit off Interstate 26. Follow SR 1419 past the airport to the intersection with Highway 191. Turn left onto Highway 191, and then turn right onto SR 1345. Follow the signs to the North Mills River Recreation Area.

Species present: Rainbows, brooks and browns.

Regulations: From Oct. 1 to the first Friday in June, the North Mills River is single-hook, artificial-lure, catch-and-release only. From the morning of the first Saturday in June on, no restrictions apply. A movement is under way to change the rules on some stretches to single-hook, artificial-lure on a year-round basis.

What to expect: The North Mills area is popular with campers, hikers, bikers and horseback riders, so be prepared to share the trail. The campground area is often crowded, but if you hike upstream a mile or two, the fishing gets considerably better and the crowds thin out. The river below the campground runs through private property and is off-limits to those who don’t want a shotgun fired in their direction.

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