I spend a fair amount of time watching the birds as they feed at the birdfeeder out behind our home in the morning, and it occurred to me several months ago that I could learn a lot from them as their behavior relates to fly fishing for trout. After all, they both live in a wild environment. They both have the same basic survival instincts as trout do, all predicated on self-preservation. And from all appearances, they have behavioral cycles that effect when and how they feed that may or may not be effected by the weather, sun light, or lack thereof, or the presence of predators. And of course, birds have the same obvious physical limitations that trout have; they do not have hands, and so must test food items with only their mouth (beaks), along with sight and smell. None of this should come as a surprise to us, as birds likely evolved from fish.
One of the things I notice is that when I go out to refill the feeder, the birds naturally move away from the deck and feeder area to what for them I assume is a safe distance from me. They view me as a threat. Trout feeding on the surface often do the same thing when we step into a pool to fish to them; they stop feeding and stay near the stream bed or move to deeper water. After I go back inside the house, sometimes the birds return quickly to the feeder, and other times, it takes an hour or more before one or two return to feed. Again, trout tend to be just as unpredictable; step into a pool one day and they keep rising, and on another day you step into a pool and they stop feeding as though someone flipped a switch.
When the fish will start to feed again can vary from a few minutes, to sometimes longer than you can wait them out. We would like to think that there is something we can do to get them to start feeding again when this happens, but it sure escapes me. This is the moment when many anglers begin changing flies at a very rapid pace, or worse, they tie on a big, ugly streamer and start ripping it through the pool thinking that the faster it moves the more it might piss them off enough that they will chase it and grab it in a fit of anger. Perhaps this is a form of transference – we’re pissed off, so maybe we can piss off our quarry, too. This is also known as stupidity, and there isn’t an angler that hasn’t been there done that.
For both the birds and fish, it seems their behavior can be as capricious as ours, but for different reasons. Although I can’t help but think that like humans, there are external factors that affect the birds and fish much the same way. I wonder…….when the sun comes up, are there some nights the fish didn’t sleep well? Do they mope around the stream the next day barely eating and just being grumpy? Or maybe they eat something that doesn’t “agree” with them. Maybe they had bad fish dreams about herons trying to stab them with their long, sharp beaks, and then the next day feel like crap, so they don’t feed. Or their lack of shut-eye maybe makes them tense and nervous, so they freak out when anything enters their realm, bird or man. One never knows, does one?
Well, we do know. Trout do not have cognitive brain function; they behave in order to survive. More likely, when the birds are skittish to the point my presence is clearly sends them packing, something probably occurred before I went out to refill the feeder. Maybe a cat was nearby, or a bird of prey, and my coming outside was the last straw and they bolt for a long while. And so with the fish, it’s just as likely a predator puts them on edge sometimes before we get to the water. The gliding shadow of a large bird overhead, a furry paw entering the water nearby, or maybe a large, dominant alpha trout has been asserting itself. So when we enter the stream, the sound of our boots on streambed rocks or surface ripples, become the last straw for the fish. They shut down. Enough is enough.
In fly fishing, like much of life, timing is everything. And something we often don’t have any control over. So, if you can get out and fish, relax and enjoy it…..and move your ass to another stretch of water if the trout don’t cooperate in the one you’re in at the moment.