Fishing on the Brain

You never forget where you've caught a fish.

Field & Stream Online Editors

I was in a fly shop recently when a friend pointed out a photograph of himself that had been posted on the bulletin board. A brown trout pretty much filled the frame, accompanied by the angler's smiling face, the obligatory rod and reel, and-just visible beneath his elbow in the background-a tussock of grass beside a scrim of flowing water.

"I'll tell you where I caught it later," he whispered furtively, casting a glance at nearby customers. "You can't be too careful with your secret spots these days. Ain't she a beaut?"

I nodded toward the photo and said, "That's okay, I won't reveal that you caught that fish in the second run below the purple bridge. Left-hand side, just above the big willow. Good spot. And, yes, that's a dandy brown."

"How in¿¿¿you, you couldn't¿¿¿" he stammered, clearly astonished. "Wait, did I already tell you?"

"Nope, I know the spot. I've sat right there many times waiting for the sulfurs," I said, pointing to the grassy bank in the photo, which, I might add, comprised less than a square yard of streambank along 15 miles of a tailwater two states away. Upon reflection, my friend admitted that he might also have recognized that well-used tussock. He was, however, amazed that anyone else could do so.

The truth is that every obsessive angler has this capability. While my buddy and I were looking at that display of hero-fish photos, we realized that we could easily identify most of the dozen or so waters represented there even when we couldn't recognize a particular pool, shoreline, or some dead giveaway such as a lighthouse. Like spawning salmon returning to the imprinted scent of their home river, we held those waters in our mental files.

At the moment we anglers make that first tentative cast as children, we activate a sort of GPS that's built into our hard drives. Over a lifetime, hundreds of streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, sounds, and inlets are entered into this memory bank. We come to recognize, sometimes at the merest glance, every pool, riffle, eddy, or piece of visible structure we've ever fished-especially if we've caught (or lost) a fish there. We can often also recall what the fish were caught on, the weather, and friends in attendance.

Every piece of water has a distinctive, recognizable signature. Some clues are obvious, others more subtle. A trout stream may have rocks of a particular color or type, bank vegetation or aquatic weeds peculiar to a region, or a characteristic glitter of mica in the sand. The water itself may offer hints-a familiar primordial soupiness, a certain plumpness in the flow or sparkle in the riffles, or a tendency toward tannic stain that rings a bell.

Our personal GPS even has a function that can identify places we've never visited but would someday like to fish. Take this test. Flip through the photos in a fishing calendar, but don't look at the captions. I'll bet you say something like, "Okay, that's the Henry's Fork, Okeechobee, Silver Creek, Cape Hatteras, Baja, Beaverkill, Martha's Vineyard, the Itchen, Patagonia, the Madison, New Zealand¿¿¿humm, not sure, but that looks like a wading flat on Christmas Island¿¿¿."

You thought you were just killing time reading angling magazines in the barber shop or watching late-night TV fishing shows. You weren't. Your ruling passion was busily transferring the signatures of all these fishing holes into your permanent file for future reference.

Of course, we wouldn't have developed this capability if it weren't useful. Keen memory of the water guides us as we fish, allowing us to concentrate on spots that have proved productive in the past. Every trip adds new information. The better we know the water, the better we fish. Sometimes, the quality of information is downright spooky.

A year or so ago, my son Scott was watching a local fishing program on TV, while I was working in an adjoining room. "Come llook at this," he shouted. "Some of these bluegills weigh nearly 2 pounds. Man, I would love to fish there."

I ambled in just in time to see a fat bream being hoisted out of the water alongside a stump. "I know where that is," I said casually. "I'll take you there this weekend if you're free." As you have no doubt guessed, that stump was as familiar to me as the face of the friend who owned that pond.

I am hard pressed to think of a downside to accumulating such an exhaustive inventory of fishing spots, but perhaps that is because I have had to clear my brain of all manner of extraneous material to maintain this extraordinary database. This may explain why I increasingly have difficulty recalling birth dates, anniversaries, names of nonfishing acquaintances, appointments, or whatever-the-hell it was I came into this room a few moments ago to do.

On the other hand, what's-his-name and I sure did catch some whopper bluegills that Saturday afternoon.