The Game of Inches

By Jim Parks

Many things are considered games of inches, whether it be baseball, football, or life. Way too often I find myself having missed an automobile accident by mere inches or avoiding a more severe injury in several other methods by only an inch or two. As a lifelong football fan, I regularly catch myself laughing at how much effort is taken in measuring the exact location of a football. Never mind the spot was “eyeballed” when the chains were moved, or how on second down the ball was placed to an approximate location, only to get into the inches when measuring the results of a fourth and one. Then the replay is viewed and reviewed, as commercials are played on TV, and we come back to see the football is marked an inch from the imaginary line, as the official shows the TV audience the proximity by the distance between their index finger and thumb.

Of course, as always, my mind turns to fishing. Fish are either weighed in pounds or inches. With trout, it’s typically inches that we consider when estimating or measuring the length of a fish caught. But what about before the catch. I’ve fished for large trout with dry flies from Yellowstone to the South Holston observing trophy-sized trout sipping bugs off the surface in a feeding lane. Not only does the fly have to travel into their lane, but an inch or so off and it’s no dice. Sometimes dropping the fly on the exact spot achieves no rise, and sometimes it’s also a timing issue where every nine seconds the fish rises. So that day becomes a game of inches and seconds!

Being a heavy nymph fisher who often targets large trout, I’ve learned to fish the typically “unfished” spots where the bigguns’ often hold. To get them to bite often requires a cast placed in the exact spot. True, there are days where they will move to take your fly, but at times they will position themselves in a small hydrodynamic pocket where minimal effort and caloric burn is needed. Many times, this is beneath or beside some structure such as a rock or tree. Sometimes, this pocket will be created by something unseen such as an eddy adjacent to the current. For me, experience by examples provide the best lessons.

Here are a few: One early spring, I was driving alongside a stream when something caught my eye. Well, both eyes, meaning I had to avoid running off the road. I pulled over, grabbed my rod and began studying a long boulder along the far side of the stream. The current flowed quickly along the flat side, creating a small wall. For about three feet, the wall had a slight overhang, creating a darkened area between the current and beneath the overhanging wall. Though it didn’t require a cast of more than twenty feet, it required pinpoint accuracy, as a cast literally an inch either way and fly would not drop beneath the small overhang. Cast after cast I was so close, within a few inches at most, with no take. Instead of shrugging my shoulders and moving on because I think I’ve cast “close enough” or I’m in a hurry to fish the next obvious spot, I kept working it.

Finally, I made the perfect cast on the far side of the bubbles of the current and beneath the overhang. I’ve often said, “the fishing gods rarely reward a perfect cast.” Today, they did! With that perfect cast in the exact spot, a big white mouth opened and took my #8 Guinea Fly. After a brief fight, I measured the twenty-one-inch brown and watched it swim away.

Another example, thus lesson for future use: I was fishing up a pressured stream behind two guys about 150 yards ahead. Normally, I wouldn’t fish behind someone, but my buddy and I looked at each other and as we were still catching fish, so why move? Working our way up, I looked closely at the “unfished” areas. Sometimes, they’re the standing water against the bank beneath overhanging trees, sometimes just small pockets. This time, I was looking at the various currents flowing around the boulder strewn pocket water when I noticed a small dark area beneath a mid-stream rock. The rock was maybe three by three and submerged with a fast current flowing by it. Upon closer observation, I saw there was a small, smooth pocket between the current and the rock revealing a subsurface overhang. Ninety five percent of fishers would cast in the current watch their fly move by unbothered then move on. But that little pocket caught my eye with intrigue. Though many may have simply cast into the eddy, a cast under the rock was necessary.

The extra effort to get the fly exactly where needed resulted in a hard hit! I love the hard hits of big browns in small streams. Unlike the small fry who hit and run, the bigger fish “yawn” inhaling the fly. This time, though nothing huge, it was a nice, wild 18” brown, which put up a considerable fight in the pocket water.

I’ve heard it said a lot, when fishing a stream, SLOW DOWN. I’m fortunate to have a fishing buddy who understands and shares my slow, methodical style of working a stream. We stay even and when one gets slightly ahead, we’ll stop, taking the opportunity to check our knots and study the water ahead. Sometimes these “studies” reveal a nice fish where a careless step or motion means never getting a shot.

In a time where there seems to be less and less unfished water, getting every drop out of the stretch you are fishing can result in amazing dividends. Take time to hit more than the high percentage spots and go for the big fish in out of the way spots. I truly believe the smarter and larger fish move away from the oft-fished locations. They’ve learned over time how to stay in the same stretch, but not in the obvious lies to those casting for them.

Jim Parks, a native of Newport, Tennessee, has spent forty-three years fly-fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which he considers his home waters. Check out his book “Tails of the Smokies” in local bookstores. Jim currently resides in Kodak, Tennessee, with Trena, his wife and best friend of thirty-three years.