Whip Finish


Ralph Long - November 6, 2011

I crouched along the little stream and gazed down into the bottom of the pool. The water was crystal clear and about 4ft at its deepest point. At the tail-out of the pool the bottom was covered with what looked like dead leaves to the inexperienced eye. But to the trained eye of a 10 year old, savvy to the ways of the wild I knew better. I stepped into the water and felt the ice cold grip as it soaked through my high-top Keds. But it was worth it, because within those leaf type cases lie the best bait one could find on a native trout stream. At the time, in our expansive knowledge of being 10years old, we had named them "Stick Worms". Once we figured out that the little white worms with their black head and legs incased within that leaf fiber could not bite us we knew we were on to something big. In short order we discovered, that a "Stick Worm" impaled on a #14 bait-holder hook would not make it to the bottom of a pool where a Brook trout lay in wait. Nosireebub! It was the magic bait. SO, we would always start downstream so that we did not disturb the waters with our wading, and gather handfuls of these worms, and then stuff them into a bait-box full of wet grass to keep them fresh. You had to keep them moist, and you didn't peel them open until you were ready to use them. You see, once you discover something good as a youth, you don't skip the fine points. Like a horse drawn mine wagon transporting nitro, we babied those little worms. No detail was too small. A valuable trai, that far too often goes by the wayside later in life.

I stepped up to the next pool and skewered a worm to my #14 hook on a 2 pound leader with no weight. Reaching out my little 7foot Diawa glass fly rod I dapped my leader only into the current at the head of the pool…..BAM! Like clockwork, a fat little 8" native brookie slammed it. Smiling as only a kid can smile over a little 8" fish, I dropped the little brookie into my creel. A half mile of stream later and my limit of 6 was safely stowed away and I was heading home. I hit the gravel road that skirted the creek, and bumped into a gentleman that was preparing to fish the stream. He looked to be about my father's age at the time, so an "older fella" I guess you would call him. He smiled and waved as I passed by, "How'd ya do son?" he asked.

"Got my limit!" I said beaming.

"Really now" he replied, "Any size?"

"Yep!" I offered, and walked over to him to proudly display my creel holding 6 fish of 8" or better.

"Holy Crap!" was his response. "Down there?"

"Yes'sir." I said matter-of-factly. "There are some even nicer ones down there too. I missed a bunch."

He shook his head with a face that looked like he didn't believe me.

"Looks like a good day for you." He said.

"Good luck!" I answered as I turned to walk up the bank on my way through the mile of woods leading to my back yard.

I later came to find out that the man I met was a good friend of my Dad's. He would go on to explain to my Dad later that week how he had been fly fishing that stretch of creek for years and had only caught a handful of fish larger than 8" in all of that time. He asked if I had regularly caught fish like that in the creek, and my Dad told him absolutely since his standing rule was nothing smaller than 8" came home, and we more often than not limited out. A fact which when received proved only to leave the gentleman shaking his head in disbelief. Looking back on things now I am certain of one thing. The man obviously failed to carry any cased caddis or caddis worm patterns. And it's quite possible that he never even knew those little worms existed in the creek. A fact which for us was only discovered by our exploratory minds and the need to gather our own bait by flipping rocks for worms and baby crayfish. Nevertheless, we neither had a need nor the desire to know the true name of the worms. It didn't matter. They caught fish. What more was needed to know?

Little did I realize at the time, but I was building knowledge that would carry me through many years of both fly fishing & tying. I learned how to tight-line nymph on that stream and how to read water on that stream. Without knowing it I was skipping unproductive water and concentrating on the feeding lies. Why? Not because I read it somewhere, but because I had already figured out THAT is where the fish were. I figured out how to handle a fly rod in tight quarters and walk a creek without spooking skittish fish. I learned to pay attention to the waters I fish, and attention to detail with my gear all on that little 8foot wide stream. Not all of this was completely self-taught however, since I had the added input and guidance of my Dad along the way. But he never stood over our shoulders, and instead chose to let us tangle our reels, fill our hip boots, and otherwise learn on our own as much as possible. I thank him for that. Allowing a child to fail, feeds in turn the personal drive to overcome that failure and learn.

I went back to that little water a number of years ago. The area is almost all private now, and the lower half of the creek below the fork of the 2 equal size branches now is funneled underground. Where there used to be a reservoir now is a dry basin. The fish are still there, though not as plentiful as I remembered. But walking the stream brought back many of the lessons I learned back then yet take for granted now. These days I seldom tie on a Caddis without thinking about that water. When I am at the bench tying a Caddis I almost always think back to those little "stick worms" in my bait box.  And one main issue always remains. To impale one of those caddis worms while still in the case was worthless on that stream. The fish ignored them completely. But remove them from the case and it was "game on". Likewise, I no longer fish cased-caddis patterns. It took me a while to get there, but after years of following the crowds I realized why we always took them out of the case. It wasn't because a tying manual existed with dozens of patterns and examples of both cased and uncased caddis worms provided us the knowledge. Nor was it, because the latest magazine came out showing us how to properly tie and fish Caddis worms or larva. It was because out of the case they caught fish every time. We didn't second guess what we learned. We went with it as a tangible fact. Why is it so much in which we learn in our youth, is lost to us as adults?

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