Trout Are Suckers

"Trout are dumb ... They get away because there's somebody dumber than a trout. That’s the joe who fishes for him"

ARTHUR MAYSE June 1 1947

Trout Are Suckers

"Trout are dumb ... They get away because there's somebody dumber than a trout. That’s the joe who fishes for him"

ARTHUR MAYSE June 1 1947

Trout Are Suckers


A TROUT is a fish with a tail and seven strategically located fins, including a matched set which he wears behind his cheeks after the manner of human ears. He has a spotted or vermiculated back, depending on his species. He is lovely to look at, and is highly regarded in the skillet.

So much for fact. Trout are also reputed to be smart . . . and that’s where angling’s most ancient and honored fiction begins.

Don’t get me wrong. I like trout, I admire to watch them and catch them and eat them. I’ll admit they can be capricious, suspicious, sullen and finicky. But if Oscars are ever passed out to the Einsteins of the animal kingdom Mister Speckles won’t rate. If trout were smart, if they boasted even a moron I.Q., they wouldn’t he caught. They wouldn’t even be hooked, except by accident.

Heresy, and I know it. But, brothers of the angle, before you start gathering faggot«, let me expound my thesis.

We will commence with a large and dissipated trout which once lived under the float at Jasper’s Landing on lower Campbell Lake, one of Vancouver Island’s finest. For all I know he may be living there yet, but I’m inclined to doubt it. He was even more ripe for the fool-killer than most trout I have met.

His head—he probably fell on it when young — was disfigured by a freak of coloration which gave him the appearance of having dark bags under his eyes. This dissipated air was heightened by the way he shambled out from under the float to prey on the tender Ephemeridae that danced above the cove of an evening.

It was my habit to stroll down from the logging camp in the after-supper cool and watch this piscine wolf prowling his beat. Several times I tried to estimate his weight, and to decide whether he’d go for a dry fly served to him daintily at the end of a light leader. But my tackle was all in Vancouver and, villain though that trout was, I boggled at offering him raw cookhouse beef on a codhook.

“Not Crazy, Just Dumb”

ONE EVENING, though, he lolloped to the surface so close to where we sat that he splashed us with his tail. This piece of impudence demanded at least an attempt at reprisal. I cut and trimmed a switch, tied a six-foot length of cobbler’s thread to the tip, and out of frayed rope end and a hook from my hatband I concocted what, for lack of a better name, I’ll call a fly.

The fish rose noisily again, and I splatted my creation into the circle of his rise. It sprawled there uncouthly for a moment, then doggone if he didn’t swirl up and nail it!

We played together merrily for a few seconds, both of us equally surprised, before he snapped the thread in a headshaking flurry.

The logger with me had been watching in considerable astonishment. Now he pushed his hat back from his forehead. “Well by the lovely old bald - headed yumpin’ Yudas!” he remarked. “Either this fancy tackle business is a clip, or that trout was crazy!”

Not crazy, because that would denote a departure from an original condition of levelheadedness. The trout was just dumb. His human counterpart would be the jerk who, spotting a well-stuffed crocodile wallet lying on the pavement, a small boy peeking through a fence, and a string running from wallet to boy, still dives for the wallet.

That rope’s-end fly bore no slightest resemblance to any form of edible life in, on or over the water. Yet the three-pounder of Jasper’s Landing hit it as if he had been waiting for it for years. If he’d been a denizen of unfished waters one could understand and make allowance for such naïveté. But he wasn’t at the time he rose, boatloads of American tourists were working the lake with everything from dry flies to the yard-long strings of spinners we call Christmas trees. He was a fish who’d had education practically rammed down his throat. Yet he remained a dummkopf.

If his were an isolated instance I’d willingly let myself be persuaded that my Jasper Landing trout’s behavior was a very radical straying from the norm. But I’ve talked to honest anglers who have seen the allegedly sophisticated brown trout of the English chalk streams comport themselves like simpletons when the May fly hatch was on, and I’ve seen too many lords of the water brooks, trout big enough to acquire local reputation and a name, yoicked out of their covert« by a kid with a hand line.

Also, on a certain wild wet morning, a trouting partner and I tangled with 19 of the dumbest fish that ever committed suicide by snapping their jaws on a feathered conceit. They ranged in length from 13 to 24 inches. Every last one of them came from a patch of water about seven feet: wide and 20 long.

It had rained a near cloudburst the night before, and when we hauled on our waders and jogged down the river trail a steady drizzle still sifted through the alder tops. The stream—clear, shallow and laughing yesterday—was now pounding down from the Big Interior Range with a whoop and a holler. It was the kind of morning when all rational fly fishermen should be mending their tackle in camp.

(Trout won’t hit a fly when the water is the color of good Demerara and the consistency of habitant soup. Trout are smart, remember!)

Not being rational where fishing is concerned. Padre and I poked on down to the elbow pool, which is something under half a mile from the sea. One look at the pool and we were sure, quite sure, t hat, we’d dine on canned beans and bacon that night . But Padre waded into the swift brown flow and tossed a Cowichan coachman into the tailrace below the angle of a log jam. The fly was an oversized affair with white wings and a corpulent belly of purple seal’s fur. It, bounced on the crested current, then a whirl sucked it down nnd spat it into a back eddy where the river had eaten a cove for itself under the leaning alders of the far bank.

Padre could have it ! I lit a cigarette and watched him indulgently where he stood with the amber current piling against his waders. His back was toward me; but I saw his shoulders stiffen and the tip of his long rod whip over like a willow in a gale. He was into one, and it was big.

This was against every law and tradition of angling. There’s only one way to take trout in a spate - roll a gob of worms down to them on a leader weighted with buckshot. Trout are smart; no trout would make any such stupid play as this. But Padre was already backing shoreward and hollering for my landing net. Five minutes later I slipped the net under a fat two-pounder, a symphony in green and silver, with the sea lice still clinging around his ventral fin.

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"Trout are dumb ... They get away because there's somebody dumber than a trout. That’s the joe who fishes for him"

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“Fluke,” I said. But Padre, working to free his fly, gave me a wild-eyed stare. “Get in there,” he told me. “It’s no fluke! Three of ’em at it together.” I got in with a silver-bodied brown hackle, and before the fly was halfway along that magic carpet of lazily spinning water, a fish whacked it.

We went a little crazy then. We hooked, played and landed trout till our arms grew wearv. We broke leaders and lost flies and tied on new ones. Size and pattern didn’t matter. Finally, just to see how stupid those trout really were, I tossed in a twoinch duck feather tied to an otherwise bare hook. A fish took it in a swashing boil.

The fun ended about the time the drizzle stopped and the shingle bars of the river began to steam in the first uncertain sunshine. We carried our heavy creels up to the scrub alder, and inspected our catch. -

About half those trout were sea-run cutthroats fresh in from Johnstone Straits. F'or them I can offer the excuse of inexperience. It was months, probably, since they’d last come roving into fresh water where any tasty bite may conceal a hook. But it was a different s tory with the others, including the long, deep-flanked, two-footer which had torpedoed Padre’s Cowichan coachman. Those fish had been in the river for weeks, if not months. The sea-silver on their sides was faded, and their bellies had darkened from cream to butter-yellow. They’d been fished for long enough to acquire wisdom.

We looked them over, and we knew we didn’t deserve them. Angling skill hadn’t brought them to our creels. If l may scramble a metaphor, those 19 fish had tripped over their own feet. They were simply too dumb to go on living.

They paid for their stupidity in the pan; and in fairness to them it must be conceded that the payment was downright handsome.

The cooking of trout is a male art.

It takes a firm approach, the by-guessund-by-gum dash which women lack, Another thing: most women, when

R»ey get a fish in hand, at once begin to think about sauces. These are all very well with cod or flounder, but with trout they’re outright desecration. Even a trout wouldn’t be dumb enough to serve himself with sauces.

But we’ve wandered far enough down that bypath. Blame it on the fact that anglers should be fishing, not writing about fishing, when the leaves are the size of a chipmunk’s ears and the wind blows soft from the south.

Can Trout Think?

It’s an amiable human tendency to endow certain other forms of life with human attributes. There’s the angler,

for instance, with his eye on the grandPHPPy trout which rules the highway pool. That trout has a name, Old Hook-Jaw or some such. He’s reputed to combine the unhurried sagacity of Confucius with the dark guile of Rasputin.

“Old Hook-Jaw,” you’ll hear frotn his devotees, “is smarter than lots of people!”

Well . . . as I’ve said, it’s an amiable self-deceit. I hope Old Hook-Jaw escapes the snares and gins, legal and illegal, that are bound to be set for him. But I’m not optimistic. His mind, if such it can be called, isn’t tuned to cope with the unexpected.

If thought and reason in the human sense pass through a trout’s hard little head, the proof is still wanting. ichthyologist can say with certainty just what a trout secs and feels down there in bis aqueous hangout, but generally admitted that his perceptions, as judged by his actions, are limited.

1 t’s conceded by most students of trout that he can, within a certain limited range, tell one color from other which is not to say that what’s red to you doesn’t appear as a shiny black to Old Hook-Jaw, peering through light shot water through specialized and lidless eye. We know that he’s sensitive to certain forms vibration but amazingly insensitive others. Your heavy tread on the bank may send him scattering for his hole. But you may wade sloshing up his pool, the stones grating and sliding under your boots, and he may not budge.

His feeding habits are no less unsettling to the purist flyman who believes that Old Hook-Jaw can tell whether a blue dun is hackled with the genuine grown-on-the-rooster article with a dyed imitation.

Understand, I lay no claim ichthyological savvy. But consider the words of a scientific angler, P. B. M. Allan, who in a book called “Trout Heresy” offers a cold-blooded survey of trout intelligence.

Mr. Allan comes out with the flatfooted statement that “the trout has no more brain than a lizard.” Elsewhere in his dissertation he goes on list the contents of one three-pounder’s stomach :

“Worms, snails, half a burnt matchstick, piece of coal three quarters an inch long, piece of an old paintbrush or shaving brush, two inches a rasher of bacon with the rind on, pieces of onion, celery stalk or hemlock stalks and what looked like bits of wax candle.”

After reviewing that conglomeration, one can only wonder that a fisherman’s lure wasn’t included, and ascribe it to dumb luck.

Pretend You’re a Trout

Earlier in this piece I made the flat statement that if trout weren’t morons they wouldn’t be caught or even hooked except by fortunate chance. Consider that brash-seeming claim further—in fact let’s for the moment submerge our intelligence and make like a trout.

You’re lying near the tail of a pool, nose to current, vest buttons six inches from the scoured gravel of the stream bottom. The current moves along the sensory nerves of your sides, playing on them like a keyboard. Your range of vision is limited, but within those limits you can see ahead of you, behind you, sideways and straight up. Above your head is the water skin, the surface film which to you, a trout, is the near-opaque window of your world.

Into this world come two moving tree trunks. They alter the run of the currents and your sensory nerves respond instantly. But what do you do, get the blazes out of there into the shelter of submerged log or tree stump? Not a bit of it! You waggle your tail a trifle faster, drop a foot down the current, sink closer to the bottom, and return to your daydreaming.

The foreshortened tree trunks are stationary now, at the limit of your cone of vision. A shadow drops across the cone; the water skin breaks, and a strand like no w’eed you ever saw before sinks slowly beneath the surface. It glints in the refracted light beams. On the end of it is a bug of a sort you’re not familiar with either, although it does vaguely resemble a drowned flying ant.

If you were a human, at this point the silly game, you’d turn away with a scornful smile, or perhaps start hollering for a cop. But you’re a trout, remember, so you dig in with your tail, swirl forward and up, gape your mouth till the white lining shows, and snap at the bug.

Didn’t figure it was loaded, eh? Well, you know it is now, so let’s do the obvious and get rid of the thing. You’re held by a tether which one swift jerk of your head would break. It has a dryweight testof twoandahalf pounds. You are 18 inches long, in top condition, and you 11 never see three pounds again.

But you’re a trout, so you never heard of horse sense. You make an abortive dash for your lair. The bug drags at your jaw corner, and you scoot off at a tangent toward a snag in the stream bed. When you’re almost there the bug drags harder, and you dash up to shatter the surface. Perhaps you repeat that gambit several times. Then you simply hang in the current while the bug continues to pull gently at you, wearing you down, sapping your strength. In five minutes or 10, you’re finning weakly in the shallows, close to those tree trunks which weren’t tree trunks, and the man above is freeing his landing net.

Primer for Fishes

Post mortems won’t keep you out of the skillet now, but here’s what you could have done.

F'irst, of course, you should have let that bug alone. It was an obvious phony. Failing that you should, at the first bite of the hook, have run like a bat out of Tophet straight for the fisherman’s legs. Ten chances to one you’d have caught him with a slack line, wrapped the leader around his ankles and smashed it. Or, if he was too smart for that dodge, you could have headed straight for the nearest snag, thrown all your weight and strength against the, drag at your jaw, popped the leader or fouled it.

The competent angler loses few fairly risen trout. He knows what they’re going to do, and even if he’s no mental ball of fire, he can outthink and outsmart all but a very few of the breed.

There are smart trout, of course, but these are merely the exceptions that prove the rule. Now and then arises a veritable Napoleon among the spot sides, a fish which, if he had hands instead of fins, could probably tie a better fly than the men who float their lures over him or swirl them past his nose. But even these supertrout come croppers in the end. With surprising frequency they’re caught by a boy or complete dub. Why? Because they’ve become too smart. They can tell a Hardy-tied fly from an Allcock, but they’ve entirely forgotten that a hook may be concealed in a bouquet of angleworms or a helping of chicken innards.

It’s a Contest of Equals

But it’s an axiom of the sport that the big trout get away? Certainly, although we won’t overlook the converse axiom which states that trout which get away are always big. Trout get away because there’s somebody dumber than a trout. That’s the joe who fishes for him.

I’ve often thought that, short of a racket or a winning ticket on the Irish, the quickest way to get rich quick must be to own a tackle store. You think those pretty flies in the counter trays are to fool the fish? Partly: but their prime purpose is to fool the fisherman. They cost anywhere from one to three four dollars a dozen. Each pattern has its name, and there are literally thousands of patterns. Any seasoned Continued from page 62

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angler knows he can get through the season successfully with a dozen patterns in three sizes, but does he act on this knowledge? »Not he, not me. When I go trouting I carry at least three aluminum fly boxes and usually five or six. i know one man, a successful architect, who carries seven. They stick out all over him, and the rest/of his gear is in keeping. Waddling along a stream he looks very much like a donkey under panniers.

1 was afield with this good fellow one summer day, and we spotted an aldermanic two-pounder dozing under an overhanging alder. The water was so clear that we could have counted the speckles on that trout’s back.

“He’ll take a ginger quill,” m y companion announced. He tied on a miniscule size 12 ginger, and the big trout up and took it.

I was thoroughly impressed, until the next day. Then, under identical conditions, I took an almost identical fish on a bucktail royal coachman half the length of my little finger.

I’ve known just two fishermen of whom I can say with complete truth, “He was brighter than a trout.”

One was a gay lad, who, when we arrived at the country inn on which our

expeditions were based that season, would unload all tackle from his creel and replace it with bottled beer and cheese sandwiches. He could then jog downstream to the first sun-warmed shingle bar, take off his shirt, settle his shoulders against a log, and while the sun rolled across the heavens, stir only to eat another cheese sandwich or uncap a fresh bottle. At the close of the day he’d amble back to the bridge, pausing for a casual cast or two with whatever fly happened to be on his leader. Usually he came in with at least a brace of trout.

The other exception was a little priest from a parish in the wild Queen Charlotte Islands whom I met while he was down on the business of his flock. 1 was conducting an outdoor column at the time, and he wanted to tell me about his river.

It was the T’Lell, and the T’Lell is a stream of which even the most blase Pacific-coast anglers speak with awe and yearning. There in season run such rainbow trout and coho salmon as few other rivers know.

My caller was a fisherman; he was born to the game as some men are born to be hanged. And he fished the T’Lell with the cheapest and coarsest of tackle a steel pickerel pole and, Ixird

save us from all such, a cotton line. He tied his own flies. Whether they were good flies or bad, I don’t know. But he wasn’t bewailing his lot. He just wanted to talk about the T’Lell, as a lad in love’s first flush must talk about his sweetheart. The details of his tackle slipped out casually as he talked.

In a shop, three minutes’ walk from where we sat, were 70-buck fly rods in 1 aluminum cases, fly reels such as only the master craftsmen of England can j produce, trays of trout flies spread like j a rainbow garden to snare the angler's eye.

Would he like to drop down to the ! tackle shop for a look around? Not he!

If he saw such tackle he might yearn after it, and if he did, he would no longer be happy by the T’Lell. He I went back to his piscatorial Eden unj bitten by the snake; and there, thought I, walked one fisherman who was wiser than a fish.

Trout, then, are stupid. Experience teaches them no true wisdom, and the men who fish for them are not a jot, or tittle wiser. But that’s as it should be. It makes for the establishment of a rapport which, like a well-founded marriage, mellows with age.

Anyway, you can’t fry a golf ball!