They are touched, in some way, by the object of their passion—a wisp of ether; a mere glimpse of the past—but to them it is often enough.
A few months ago I spent a couple of days on my homewater away from home. It was more crowded than I’d ever seen it before, but Dan and I found a few stretches of open water. The fish seemed skittish. Or maybe hesitant. As if they had been fished over already. Or maybe they were toying with me—trying to get as close to my fly as they could without getting hooked.
Along the grassy bank I saw a sizeable fish repeatedly rise. I clambered up his side of the river a good forty feet below him, then cut a wide swath around his lie and made my way back to the water’s edge thirty feet above him. I was afraid I had mentally mismarked his location as I didn’t see any movement where I thought he was. I slowly worked my way downstream, letting my fly swing free below me in the current. I was 20 feet upriver from him when he rose again. I dragged the fly toward me then flipped a rolling cast, landing the fly half a dozen feet upriver of him in his feeding lane.
The fly reached the target area and the fish dutifully rose to meet the fly. He gave the CDC emerger a good nose bump as I set the hook into an expanse of blue Wyoming sky. In fact, twice in three minutes I tried lassoing the clouds with a sudden jerk of the rod. The second time put the fish down for good.
I know slow takes, and these were not them. This wasn’t a case of pulling flies past teeth. Nor was it a case of beginning-of-the-season-jitters. These were complete misses. Purposeful misses. On the part of the fish.
They were getting as close to the fly as they could without getting hooked. Tempting fate and a barb they came again and again. In eddies and chutes. Through slicks and riffles. A mile upriver and two miles down.
It was frustrating as the count grew: first just a couple fish, it quickly multiplied to what seemed like a score or more of them had snubbed me and nearly as many fly patterns. Eventually I came to recognize their point—to see their game for what it was.
I swear, these fish were counting coup.
I could play the game too. I began reaching out my coup stick with the same chutzpah the fish had shown. I reached into their element, and no matter how darting the peck, for just a moment, they reached into my element. I counted myself fortunate to touch without touching something I could not hold.
And on that day, the gist of the coup was enough.