Remembrances of Fishing the San Juan, and Questions Raised

In Jerry's piece from Tuesday, he described a client/friend of his who heard about the improvements in his golf game and said, "That’s great, Jer, but you’re bound to get better by practicing so much." Her suggestion that the TTW principles amount to little more than a call to practice got me remembering something.

Back in the summer of 2013, a little more than a year before I started working with Jerry, I went fishing with a couple of friends at the San Juan River in northwestern New Mexico. We fished an area just below Navajo Dam. The water flows from the bottom of the dam, and so it stays consistently cold all year long, making it an excellent environment for zillions of tiny little bugs and the trout, especially rainbow trout, that feed on them. The fish there get big. There's a restricted-limit zone for the first couple of miles below the dam, and in that area you're allowed to keep one fish over twenty inches per day. You can catch trout that size pretty regularly. Like I said, big.

I've been fishing the San Juan since I was a teenager, and have been many times, but it had been a long time since I'd gone, maybe approaching ten years. It was good to be back.

My friends and I got on the river by mid-morning. We did okay but not great at the start, and then, as happens at the Juan, we hit a lull and didn't see a strike for a long time. During that time, rather than giving in to frustration, I did something I'd never done there before: I stopped fishing and started really observing and thinking about what I observed.

One of the fascinating and frustrating things about fishing the San Juan is that when you wade in, the fish will come right up to your legs and use you to block the river's current. From what I understand, the fish like it there because by cutting the current, you cut the energy they require to stay in place, and the way the water flows around your legs concentrates food behind the break in the current. An upshot of this is that when you're not catching fish, you can't petulantly convince yourself that they aren't there--you can see them, just a few feet away.

So I started watching, really watching. What I saw was interesting. They'd swim in place against the current, and all of the sudden they'd dart a few inches to one side or the other, moving to get food. Additionally, I noticed what they don't do: they don't move up and down. They stay at a particular depth and feed there. If you watch, you'll see.

From that simple observation, I concluded a few things. First of all, they're constantly feeding. Once I looked for it, it became obvious. So if they're not biting what you're drifting down, there are only a handful of possible reasons why. Either you're fishing a fly that's the wrong size or the wrong color, or you're not fishing at the right depth. That's it. Those are the only possibilities.

With that realization, I started fishing again. Figuring out the right fly turned out to be easy enough--just take a good look at the nymphs that were making it up to the surface and match them as well as possible. From there, the only question was how to weight the line so that the fly would reach the right depth. So I watched and I played with different length tippets and amounts of weight and placement of the weight on the line, and each time I would drift the fly, I would visualize as best I could what that combination of factors was doing with the fly--how quickly it was sinking in the current, how long before it began to drag on the bottom, and so on. And sure enough, before not too very long, I started catching fish.

It ended up being probably my best day ever at the Juan. I was pretty pleased. I'd figured something out.

At the end of the day, my friend Coit, who is like a second father to me and taught me pretty much everything I know about fishing, said to me, "You know, I've known you so long, in some ways it's hard to not see you as the kid you were. But today I really saw the man you've become."

I took that as a very nice compliment, but I thought it also spoke to some of the benefits that come as we age, as we become a bit more calm and willing to slow down a little and really pay attention to what's happening around us.

I tell this story here because Jerry's piece from Tuesday got me wondering: to what degree are the improvements in our golf game simply the willingness to slow down and pay attention as we practice? What is it that makes what we're doing with TTW any different from what I did at the San Juan that day?

As of right now, I can't say that I know the answer. I told this story to Jerry, and he thought it was a question worth asking. In upcoming pieces, we'll strive to find the answer.

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