Years ago, I was fishing a small Montana spring creek regarded for its tricky drag/presentation situations and touchy trout. I had located a big fish feeding near the bank on a gentle bend in the creek. A mayfly hatch had the trout rising, pushing a small wake every time it surfaced. Having spooked a rather large rainbow earlier in the day with an approach that was too close, I decided to hang back, and drop a long Puddle Cast up-and-across to the fish.
Several casts, mends and drifts later, the fish was still rising, but not to my fly. On every cast, my leader was acting strangely, causing my fly to drag. And since the drag was neither where nor how I expected it, I knew that something odd was going on, but I just couldn’t see exactly what it was. I finally decided to move slightly more across from the fish, and risk a cast that landed closer to the fish’s position. It worked.
The fly seemed to do a strange little hover for a moment, and then it slid sideways and down, directly into the fish’s feeding lane. A moment later, a nose poked out and my fly disappeared. I set, expecting a big fish, but not quite the New Zealand-class brown that popped out of the water.
I ran toward the fish, gathering line as fast as I could, and then the fish turned and ran downstream toward me. As it passed my position, I followed, keeping the brown on the shortest leash possible. For the next couple of minutes the fish and I eyed each other. I pulled, he pulled, I took line, he took line. I finally got the fish worked into a shallower area where I could control his movements fairly well. I waded in to bring him to hand, but misjudged the trout’s readiness.
The brown bolted back upstream, and I stumbled after him. At first, the fish seemed to be aiming for his old feeding station, but then he took a right turn toward a jumble of half-submerged bank-side bushes. I put all the pressure on that I could, not wanting to part the tippet or straighten the tiny hook. The tippet stretched to the maximum as I inverted the rod to keep the line out of the branches and at a better angle to the fish.
The tippet popped abruptly and the rod’s recoil tossed the line into the grass. The brown had terminated our connection somewhere in the twisted darkness below the bushes—so close, yet so far.
After rubbing the sore spot out of my ego, I walked over to have a look at the place where the fish had been feeding. In this case, a sudden differential in bottom structure next to the bank had created a situation were currents were sliding out in a fan shape above the trout’s position. As the currents spread out, the water almost appeared to shimmy like a tub of jelly, before continuing on its way. The brown had been parked on the far side of the fan of “jelly” water. My first set of casts had landed in the right spot for a straight downstream drift to the brown’s lane, but the jelly water had shimmied my leader (and thus fly) out of alignment and away from the trout. Once I made a longer cast, the fly and leader landed more on the far side of the jelly and slithered down to the fish.
Although I lost the big brown, I had at least pieced together the puzzle of the jelly-water. It’s moments like that which shape us as anglers, and remind us that the presentation puzzle is ever changing.