The quiet flow of the river is suddenly interrupted by a large splash. I turn to see and all that remains are the outward pulsing circles from the disturbance. I didn’t see what caused the waves, but I am confident it was a trout propelling itself out of the water in pursuit of food. “Air Jaws” is how my friend Mark refers to it. 

The splashy rise of trout is often attributed to the trout eating emergers and usually it is caddisfly emergers. Studies indicate that caddisflies are one of the staples of a trout’s diet (Needham, 1938 from LaFontaine). The life cycle of a caddisfly includes an additional stage as compared to a mayfly, another common trout food. I discussed the lifecycle of mayflies in a previous blog. This additional stage is the pupa, which is the transition from a nymph to an adult.  As nymphs, many caddisflies make cases that are attached to rocks or other surfaces on the stream bottom. These cases protect the insects from being dislodged or lifted into the water column and aid the caddis in filtering food from the water column. As the caddisfly larvae transitions to an adult it leaves it’s protective case and becomes vulnerable as it drifts towards the surface to emerge from the water. It is often at the stage when the “Air Jaws” moments will occur. The trout will follow the emerging pupa to the surface with enough ferocity to leave the water. 

Caddisfly Nymph Case

As an angler, this is as good as it gets, the fish show their locations and they are hungry! But it is often a very difficult time to catch a fish. It is a common instinct for anglers to tie on a dry fly when fish are rising around you. In the case of the caddisfly hatch, this may leave you frustrated. I have flailed with elk hair caddis and caddis emerger patterns and gotten skunked and frustrated. To combat this frustration with knowledge, I recently bought and read Caddisflies by Gary LaFontaine. I also listened to a great podcast by Two Guys and a River on fishing in the film. I thought I was ready to fish the caddis hatch on my trip to Penns Creek this weekend. I was not. 

Following the guidance in the book, I tied some LaFontaine Deep Pupa and Sparkle Emergent Pupas. I had my strategy down; I would use those flies and fish in the film (just below the water surface). Driving up to Central Pennsylvania I was listening to podcasts and excitedly visualizing catching the trout of a lifetime. My camp supplies were packed up, I felt prepared and ready to go. There was a part of me that felt nervous. I would be myself for a full weekend and I was feeling tired and drained from the week. When I am stressed, it’s hard to keep my brain focused and emotionally I can be all over the place. I wanted that big fish to help me get on my feet again. 

My interpretation of a LaFontaine Caddis Pupa Emerger.

Arriving at the park and setting up my campsite had a comfortable feel. I set up camp quickly and headed to the stream. The water was terribly low and clear, making it important to be stealthy when fishing and moving near the stream. As I was slowly getting into a good position on a great run, I heard the splash and saw the concentric waves from “Air Jaws”. I had my emerger flies ready and I thought I knew how to fish the film. After the first ten casts and reasonably good drifts I changed flies, I went a size smaller. No luck. Then to new patterns and different presentations. No luck. My brain was working overdrive and steam started to come out my ears. My stressed-out mind was not finding a space to relax and reset. I was building pressure. I fished until I needed my headlamp to walk back to the truck. 

Penns Creek October 2020

Having a nice meal and a couple beers helped me settle down a little, but I was disappointed. I felt like I put pressure on myself and without someone to talk to, I was left with my own thoughts. I beat myself up and was replaying things over and over, wondering what I did wrong. Then I thought about other aspects of my life where I felt disappointed. I was having a mental spin out. 

I know that in fishing I can catch five fish in ten minutes and then not catch another fish for hours with the same approach. Sometimes it’s the right place at the right time. There are many things that can affect the feeding patterns and the ability of an angler to catch fish including: time of day, availability of natural food, size of that food, temperature, amount of flow, clarity of water, atmospheric pressure, phase of the moon, and how each of those things are changing. In life, results of plans can go sideways quickly when different moods, mindsets, thoughts, feelings, pressures, accidents, or histories can change circumstances or relationships quickly.  A loss of alignment for any of those things can be stressful and cause misunderstanding. 

I tossed and turned during the night and didn’t sleep well. I have committed to myself that I will “clean slate” my brain every morning. I try to clean my brain from stress, anxiety, disappointment and not let resentments build. I approached the stream with a “clean slate” strategy. I wanted to be in the mindset of a student and not feel like I needed to already have the answers. I wanted to try using streamers more to learn a new skill. I also wanted to try and cast my seven weight more frequently to practice using larger flies. My first few casts (were very bad casts after not having thrown a larger line in a while) produced one hit that I missed and a couple follows. I was making progress. After about an hour, I wanted to go back to something I felt comfortable with, I wanted to get rid of the skunk. I nymphed and was able to catch four fish over the rest of the morning.    

Penns Creek Brown Trout

That evening I tried new strategies for the caddis hatch and again my new strategies did not produce a fish. Again I finished disappointed. I ate a nice meal and “clean slated” my brain. The following morning I was able to land a nice trout on a streamer using my seven weight. I was getting more comfortable with the rod and line and with streamers. I didn’t master the caddis hatch but I am learning more about streamers.  

Driving home, I lamented about my lack of production on the hatch and I felt down. I struggle when I feel like I have a lot invested in something and things don’t turn out as I expected. I do see now that there are things I am good at and I can find ways to make them productive (nymphing) and I was learning to cast better and improve my presentation on streamers. I was out in nature and appreciated the changing colors of the leaves and the wildlife all around the river. 

Often in life there are moments when I don’t know what to do. I feel vulnerable and unsteady in those moments. Thinking back towards my fishing weekend I recognize I have a pattern when I feel unsure: 

I research and think about good approaches, 

I interpret and apply the research, 

I experiment, often thinking I’ll be right the first time, 

I ruminate wondering what went wrong, if something goes wrong, 

I see something I didn’t think of before,

I remind myself to be a student and have an open heart and mind,

I try to clean the slate and look to learn again.

This is an up and down process and it is entirely in my own head.  I see that through talking to people and staying connected it will likely help my process. Talking to Mark, Brain and others about fishing helps me not feel alone or like I am not good enough at fishing. I am learning and experimenting and growing. In life it’s good to have a process for when you don’t know what to do, but it’s also good when you can share things with others to collaborate and not feel alone. I feel like I’ll always have batches of things I feel confident in, things I am unsure of that I want to try and things I will need help and support to learn. I’ll try to look forward to the next time I don’t know what to do…

One Reply to “When I Don’t Know What to Do”

  1. What a marvelous setting you chose! I know it was beautiful!
    There will be better fishing experiences down the road!
    Something to look forward to!

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