Subtle disturbances to the water surface are first perceptible by sound. The sounds are often hard to interpret. Is that a fish rising? A beaver? Did something fall into the stream? Rising fish are always my first thought and my hope. Catching a fish that is rising to eat something from the water surface is visually thrilling and it is often a challenging puzzle to solve.
It is incredibly difficult to determine the location of the sound and if it is a fish, what type of food the fish is taking. There are books with several chapters on fish rise forms and many YouTube videos to help explain the sounds and disturbances created by fish taking insects either rising from the water column to the surface or falling to the water from the air. As I am on the water, the sound I hear is not a solid splash like something falling from a tree into the river. It sounds as if someone is reaching their hand into the water and quickly pulling it out. Looking across the water searching for the source of the sound I see the concentric rings created from the water disturbance. The rings dissipate quickly. It is a fish rising. Woohoo!
Within a minute I see similar rises sporadically in front of me. I fight the urge to tie on a fly and immediately cast to the location of every rising fish and I focus on one location. In an interval of every two to three minutes I see a dark shadow rise and gain color as a yellow sliver of light with a dark back and head moves efficiently upwards. Only the back and dorsal fin of the fish breaks the water surface. In the Ring of the Rise is a famous book by Vince Marinaro where he describes how fish see, swim, and eat. His documented observations helped advance fly fishing and the understanding of what behavior is indicated by certain rise forms.
When a fish rises but its mouth doesn’t break the surface it typically represents a fish feeding on insects emerging from their nymphal form to adults. Surface tension of water can be broken by an ice cube, but it is very difficult for an insect, only a few millimeters in size, weakened during a metamorphosis to break through. Often fish prey upon these vulnerable insects and anglers have adapted with “emerger” flies that sit low on the water surface, breaking into the surface film.
I have found that fishing flies riding in the surface film can be very successful during a hatch, when many insects are trying to emerge as adults. Keeping flies buoyant is a challenge as you fish with emergers. As the materials sit in the water longer, they become more saturated and stay afloat less and less. I use small microfiber towels, floatant, or desiccant to dry the flies and extend their drifts. Emergers can also be harder to see with a lower profile on the water. But when a fish rises and takes your fly, it is exhilarating.
Finding consistent success in dry fly fishing is aided by understanding rise forms and knowing when to fish flies in the film. Learning these techniques and matching our observations with the knowledge we gain takes time, commitment, and experience. It also struck me that in nature, vulnerability means opportunity. Opportunity for a meal or the opportunity to emerge as an adult and continue your species. As the fish rises to eat the insect, it reduces its camouflage and opens itself to predation from birds and animals.
The opportunities are worth the risk. The risk is necessary for growth. I wondered what surface films may be trapping me. What could be waiting on the other side? Are you stuck in the film? Can approaching a vulnerable moment lead us to a new breakthrough?