Be the Blue Heron
by Jeff Beyl
Have you ever been fishing with a guide, floating along the river, taking a moment to look out over the water, basically just appreciating the view and wondering where to cast your fly next? I always love those moments. I know, I know, it sounds corny, but it’s like being one with, well, with everything around you, to loosely quote Bruce Lee. The calm before the storm, so to speak. You kind of look at everything at once. Take it all in.
We were floating along the Yellowstone River, just downriver from the small town of Livingston. My friend Vince, who’s been my guide for many years, always tells me to be like the blue heron. Which is his way of telling me to concentrate, pay attention, be aware. You know, like the blue heron.
But then, in the midst of this quiet reverie, Vince will suddenly say, “Okay, I see a rise.”
“Where?” That’s me. I don’t see anything. I’m busy trying to be one with the surroundings.
“Downriver about 15 yards.” He points with the blade tip of his oar. “Just off that rock. Hold on, he’ll rise again in a sec. There. See him?”
I don’t see him.
He points with his oar blade again. “See that rock?” I do see the rock. “He’s rising just to the left of that rock. Wait a sec. There. See him?”
I’m looking. I’m concentrating. I’m scanning the water before us. I’m trying to be the blue heron. But I still don’t see anything.
Vince says he sees him again, “In fact, there are two of them. No. Three. See ’em’?” This time I think I see something.
“Oh, yeah,” I say. “Wait. Was that a fish?”
“Yes, Jeff. That was a fish.”
This is an ongoing litany between us. Me, wondering if that was really a fish and Vince confirming that, yes, it really was. To be fair, I guess to myself, sometimes rising trout are pretty difficult to see. You might be looking directly into the sun. Sometimes it’s just a slight dimple on the surface of the water. You may not see a ring of the rise. You know, like when you drop a pebble in the water and the rings radiate outward. Trout, like orcas, have a way of pushing the water slightly upward from their snouts, without breaking the surface tension, and opening their mouths to create a downward suction and the tiny aquatic insect, such as a mayfly or a baetis, suddenly, silently disappears. Or there might be tiny raindrops hitting the surface of the water. That happens, too. There are any number of reasons why we may not see the rise.
But Vince sees it. And after paying attention and furrowing my brow and squinting into the glare, I see it, too. “Oh, yeah. There he is. Oh, hey, and there’s another. And another.”
Once I see it, well, now I’m good. Now, I’m seeing quite a few trout rising and taking tiny insects. There’s not just the three that we first saw. Hell, there are several and we can see the insects clouding into the air off the surface of the river. It’s a feast and we’re drifting directly into them. So, Vince anchors the boat and tells me to get ready. He ties on a tiny trico spinner imitation and goops it up with floatant. He tells me to pick one specific fish and cast about ten feet in front of it so that my fly will land softly on the water and float right over its head. I’m only going to get a couple chances at this, he says. We don’t want to spook ’em all away, so don’t screw it up.
“Be the blue heron,” he says.
This is pure dry-fly fishing. Some say it is fly-fishing at its greatest. Oh sure, we can cast our flies to the weeds along the edge and drift them along, mending every few feet, trying to get an unseen fish to show some interest. We can work the water, the obvious spots, that foam pocket over there or that seam where the faster water meets the slower water, or we can float our flies over that drop off up ahead. That all works, too, of course. And it’s fun. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it. But searching for a fish, seeing it, targeting and fishing directly to that fish, now that’s special. I’m not a hunter but I imagine it’s like hunting. Tracking and going after that one deer, that one bull elk. It’s like going to a high-school dance and seeing her across the room. You know who she is and you want to dance with only her.
Now’s your chance. Be the blue heron. Cast your fly.