School of Fish

On the Blackstone River, a fisherman leans his lesson from a master angler.

When I was a boy, the Blackstone River was excluded from my fishing itinerary. I’d heard you could catch something in those polluted waters—but it might not be a fish. Years later and from afar, I heard rumors: The river was being cleaned up. Then, prior to moving back to my native Cumberland, I read in Tom Fuller’s excellent book Trout Streams of Southern New England that the Division of Fish and Wildlife began stocking it in 1995. The water is now clean enough to support insect life and forage fish. Although Fuller describes the Blackstone as a “suburban” river, he suggests that if it were in a rural setting, the river could one day rival the famous Housatonic and Farmington rivers, places I know very well. 

I decided to test the waters. Studying the current from the river bank while I assembled my fly rod, I looked for patterns of moving foam created by the Albion Falls one hundred feet upstream. Fly fishermen call these patterns “food highways.” From a trout’s perspective, nature is his Stop & Shop and the current is his Peapod. I entered the unfamiliar water and gingerly felt around slippery rocks. Even on this balmy, early June day, any misstep could fill my chest waders with chilly water.

I slowly battled the current to find a position mid-stream. No one knows why trout fixate on one particular prey, even when other morsels present themselves. Only a trout or God can answer that question. Although I was hoping to use dry flies, I saw that the fish weren’t rising to insect hatches. I tied a stonefly nymph to the end of my tippet as my feet tangoed to stand their ground. Trout find shelter among submerged rocks while waiting for delicacies—most take ninety percent of their meals below the surface. I cast cross-stream for an hour and allowed the nymph to bounce along the stream bed. 

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a shadowy presence on the opposite bank not more than thirty feet away. Standing almost four feet tall and decked out in a stylish hairdo—quite the attention-getter—I thought him nothing more than a dandified rake. He wagged his slender head back and forth. Suddenly, his neck coiled. His head plunged into the water, emerging again almost instantly: A small silvery fish wiggled helplessly in his long yellow beak. The fish slid down the throat of the great blue heron, head first. This blue-gray angler spent no time celebrating his catch. He went back to work. I prepared for the next cast and marked the score—one to nothing.

My brother angler expressed no concerns about sharing a fishing hole. I waded in deeper parts, while he fished the edges and shallows. His stature on the water was second only to my own, but he was fishing with stealth. As he slowly worked his way upstream, one choreographed step at a time, I saw that his cunning approach minimized his profile on the water.

Most birds are wary of human presence. Even the bold, grouchy Canada goose avoids us. But for some reason, my fellow fisherman tolerated my proximity with utter
indifference.

I became fascinated: The Professor Emeritus of Angling had taken the podium. He moved his head side to side and generously returned my stare. I admired his coiffure and speculated it must be a display of status in his world. My own shabby hat placed me as one among billions.

Fly fishermen will often socialize and exchange information in mid-stream. I flattered myself with the notion that we were sharing an “inter-species moment,” although I was fly fishing and he was beak fishing. Regardless, I was getting skunked. I reeled in my line.

From my arsenal, I selected another nymph, a number-fourteen beaded caddis. My brother angler concentrated on his own technique. As his neck coiled slowly, he reminded me of a minuteman hiding behind a stone wall to watch the redcoats march within range. The hammer of the musket was cocked, a steady finger held the trigger.

His head slipped in and out of the water. The current erased every sign of disturbance, and seconds later, another fish struggled within his beak. I couldn’t restrain myself. “Bravo!” I shouted, tallying the count. Two to nothing, his favor.

I ignored my watch and let the sun keep time. Feeling a slight tug, I slowly raised the rod tip. I had one on. I reeled my line in against the current, but I could tell there wasn’t much on the hook. I lifted my little catch out of the water and held its struggling body. The hook came easily out of the corner of his mouth, and I let him go.

Meanwhile, the heron had snuck upstream. He was stalking something. I disobeyed fishing etiquette and triumphantly shouted, “Hah!” Not a feather on his body rustled. Keeping score wasn’t on his mind. Only the score he kept in his belly interested him. But my catch put me on the board. Two to one. Still his favor.

He waded out into deeper water and concentrated on a semi-circle of rocks that formed a small, gurgling pool below the falls. I questioned his approach. I was casting upstream, since trout “hold” in the current, waiting for nutrients. But the heron had reversed tactic and was fishing downstream. Could he detect activity I couldn’t? Perhaps the fish were turning downstream to face an underwater predator, lining up in a rear-guard defensive position against attack. Was the heron waiting for prey to be driven within striking range? Is a bird brain capable of this kind of reasoning?     

That graceful neck coiled slowly. I got the impression a decisive moment was imminent, but then he relaxed and stood upright. He repeated this maneuver several times. In between feints, he waited.

 

I took another small one I didn’t deserve, fishing as passively as I was. Before sending my catch back to his friends, I could have warned him to exercise a little caution, but it wouldn’t make a difference. In the stream, all diners become dinners. I entered the tally. Two to two.

I turned at the right moment. Once again, I saw that aerodynamic head waggle back and forth; he was cocking the firing mechanism. His neck coiled. I knew this was for real. His head slipped into the water, and up came a fish. I shouted “Salute!” The score climbed. Three to two now, his favor.

My brother angler stretched. I doubt he was tired. Why would he be tired? He expended energy only at the precise moment he thrust his head in the water. The time he took to strike and retrieve couldn’t have been more than a second or two. Calories are precious. He’s a saver, not a spender.

I watched the water. A hatch was starting and gaining momentum—insects were emerging. Before taking flight, they floated downstream, drying their wings in the sun. Such activity might generate some interest in the trout community. I reeled in, snipped off the nymph and tied on a size-sixteen tent wing caddis dry fly. I intended to use the heron as a fish finder and exploit his pool. After I trimmed the knot, I noticed he had abandoned his spot and was leisurely poking around on the river bank, heading downstream. He wasn’t fishing anymore.

The wind and the Blackstone have a sense of humor. A strong gust suddenly blew down from the north and tried to launch my hat into the current. I snatched at it just as it became airborne. My awkward dance probably frightened every fish within a fifty-foot radius.

The heron’s figure receded in the distance. I stayed in the water, cocking my head from side to side, carefully eye-balling the surface for signs of activity. My brother angler, this great blue heron, taught me a lesson or two. We’d been in this fishing hole for the same period of time, but he was eminently more successful with far less effort. I was fishing out of tactic and little else. He fished not only with tactic but patience, in a state of grace.

I stopped fishing and started thinking. Fly fishing isn’t about stuffing a creel. It’s about playing the classiest chess game there is, with the clever jewels of the stream. Trout live in the most beautiful places; that’s what has always drawn me to seek them out. I had come here to enjoy the hypnotic sound of Albion Falls, in waters I would have been frightened to enter forty years ago. A gracious, sunny cloak was warming my shoulders, but I was fishing with the wrong mind.

From a watery stage, the heron had delivered an eloquent lecture, given in the language of pantomime, but this student was studying with the wrong senses. I had been fishing with imitation baits, but I had devoted absolutely no thought to fishing by imitation. I slowly trudged further upstream and took an oblique position above the heron’s pool. I turned to the side and bent as low as possible. This allowed me to shorten casting distance and reduced my fish-frightening profile. The water began to move around me instead of crashing into me.

Within an hour, the heron’s pool and the water downstream surrendered three brown trout. Two were roughly fourteen inches. The third was smaller, but still a keeper. As I cradled their beautiful bodies in the water, each revived and swam away, seeking better hiding places. I doubt the experience made them wiser. Lucky me.

It was five to three—my favor. My feet were getting numb, and I waded back to dry land. I had evened up the score and then some. But my success required more time and energy. This proves by comparison that I’m a lousy fisherman. I fish to satisfy a want, and as soon as this want is satisfied, I want more. When my brother angler deploys his marvelous skills, he does it to satisfy a need. And once his need is satisfied, he packs it up and goes home.

I scanned the opposite bank. I would have been thrilled to see him peering out from under leafy shadows, giving a teacher’s approval to a student who finally paid attention. I took many mental snapshots, made movies of him in my mind, ones I will forever savor. I had the singular honor and privilege of sharing a fishing hole with one of the most stylish, and certainly one of the most elegant, fishermen in nature. I may have caught more fish, but in my heart I know that my brother angler, the great blue heron, is undisputedly the best fisherman on the Blackstone River.

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