Article by Bob Long, Jr.
“I like Stockers. Yes, I do.”
There, I said it.
Sometimes one wishes to ‘fess up, to testify.
Actually, I’ve always liked Stockers (here those are Rainbow trout stocked in rivers and ponds by the Illinois Dept. of Natural Resources). Even when I was in my 20s and early 30s, and possessed of an attitude that I was too hip, too snobbish and too cool for that sort of fish, I liked them.
I wouldn’t admit it in certain circles, but secretly, they were fun to catch, period. (They appealed to the child in me, I guess; the kid that simply liked catching fish, any kind of fish, with any kind of gear.) They were good to eat too – Dad fried them up with potatoes and onions. In the 16 – 20-inch range they put up a good fight in cold water, especially on my 0-and 1-weight Sage rods (told ya’ – snobbish, hip, cool).
Admittedly, at times, the crowds fishing for stockers could be a pain in the ass, but the fish were so much fun. And close to my home in Chicago, too. No driving 225-miles to get to the “real trout water” up in the southwest corner of Wisconsin, called the “Driftless Area.” I could have sneaked in short trips to Black Earth Creek, just west of Madison, Wisconsin, 180 miles from home, but in those ancient years it hadn’t been rehabbed as yet and the fish were teeny, tiny and not healthy enough to make it worth it.
So, when I wasn’t chasing big, ol’ steelhead and salmon in the Lake Michigan tributaries of Wisconsin and Michigan, I fished and enjoyed (secretly) the Stockers in Illinois. I would cast hand-tied, soft-hackle and wet flies inspired by Sylvester Nemes, small “Spring’s Wigglers,” tiny, size 12 Muddler Minnows, and my faves, size 12 Woolly Buggers (elegantly dubbed bodies only, right?).
“You are wasting those pretty flies on those fish?”, some of my “serious trout” friends would snort with derision, only half (at best) joking. I almost expected them to suggest a 12-step program for that kind thing.
In those days I was standing on the edges of fly fishing elitism; what I called the “warm-water is the Devil’s Water, look but don’t touch, touch but don’t taste, taste but don’t enjoy, enjoy but not too much,” bunch. On the surface I allowed myself to be swayed by those “accept no joy except in these limited ways” attitudes. I’d like to “Blame It on My Youth” (Heyman & Levant), but it was really just a form of “I wanna’ be with the “In Crowd” cowardice. So, for the most part, I went along.
Except for my secret, guilty pleasure; Stockers.
Today, of course, I joyfully and unashamedly fish the Rainbow trout stocked by the Illinois Dept. of Natural Resources. Only now I pursue them – proudly, loudly and openly (I have stepped completely out of the closet) – with my 12-14-foot tenkara rods. It’s even more fun than before.
And, thankfully, I’ve lost the cool, the hip and the snobbish as I’ve aged/matured, although I admit that a slight air of vanity sometimes whiffs around me as I kick butt with my tenkara rod, amidst the Sages, Scotts, G.Loomis’, St. Croixs’, etc., as well as the occasional custom-crafted bamboo.
A few of those traditional “long rod” guys look as if they are having fun, but most seem to be slumming – wearing big, floppy hats, sunglasses and fake beards – fishing for these fish until the real things come along. Or when they catch a few, they downplay it saying, “Too easy. They ain’t selective. Whaddya’ expect? Stockers.”
So then, I wonder, why are they checking me out? Is it my ultra-long, weird looking tenkara rod – with the associated downstream casts, and rod tip and fly jiggling techniques – that’s drawing glances and looks from the “western-styled,” traditional fly fishers. (“Dead drifts? Dead drifts? I don’t need no stinking dead drifts!”) Is it the fish I’m catching?
The glances are often of the furtive, sideways kind, or ones out the corner of the eye, or quick peeks stolen from under the brim of those big, floppy hats or the bill of baseball caps. Outright staring is, it seems, unseemly, so they don’t do that. And, they seldom say or ask anything. I don’t know why. They just give me looks – ranging from mildly curious to openly annoyed. (“It looks like a fly rod, but way longer than a nymph rod, and it’s got no line or reel. Is that legal? What the… Wait, another fish? He must be in a good hole (as they inch closer and closer with each cast). Can’t be the guy, Must be the fly. ‘Hey buddy, wha’cha usin’?’”)
“Ugh, I can’t stand the mob, the herd mentality,” I’ve heard.
Well here in Illinois, during the 10-days to two weeks of catch-and-release fly fishing only, prior to the full open season, the crowds aren’t all that bad. It certainly isn’t the combat fly fishing I’ve seen on YouTube, or that will come at the start of the full catch-and-keep season. We fly guys usually give each other some room (enough at least so that the frustrated mutterings of “why ain’t these stupid fish biting?” remains basically private). Midwestern fly-guy manners?
HECK, I’ve seen worse combat fly fishing on many of the blue-ribbon waters out west (including cussing, throwing things, fist fights and malicious damage to cars). We don’t take Stockers quite that seriously here. Then again, we aren’t using hard-earned vacation time to fish, and no one is paying big time for a guide and lodging.
But, make no mistake about it, while they may be Stockers, after a couple of weeks of being left undisturbed by the public (the IDNR closes all fishing for them for two plus weeks right after they are planted, to allow them time to acclimate to their new environments – at least a bit, before opening it to fly fishing only), you still have to know “something” about fish behavior and how to present and manipulate a fly so the fish will take it. They may have been raised in the hatchery eating “trout-chow”, but once in the water long enough they reject more offerings than they take. Many a fly fisher still ends up with only a fish or two to show for their four-to-six-hour efforts.
Mr. Dry Fly Guy humbled by a Stocker? “Oh Joe, say it ain’t so…”
There are a lot of myths surrounding trout; the innate, high intelligence of wild fish vs the perceived Gomer Pyle, Village Idiocy of stocked ones, being one of them to me. It’s nature and nurture in my mind – a complex interplay and mix of time, place and circumstances that govern behavior – not a simple versus that I see as affecting and explaining fish behavior over the long run (granted, your experience and interpretation may be quite different than mine. I salute you). Heck, after a few weeks in the river, I’ve seen Stockers clumsily chasing caddis flies flittering along the surface, like eight-year-olds trying to chase down and catch fly balls in the outfield. I know they never saw those in the hatchery. I’m not sure what they think they are, and they didn’t manage to catch many, but they were trying.
Be all of that as it may, my statement remains. “I like Stockers – yes, I do.”
They are close to home, available come spring and fall, good to eat and fun to pursue and catch, especially with my tenkara rods and my, still, ever-so-trusty, Woolly Buggers (elegantly dubbed bodies, of course) and Wigglers.
Stockers. It must be the child in me.
Bob Long, Jr. is in charge of Chicago’s Fish’N Kids Program which takes kids ages 8-12, teens, adults, seniors and people with disabilities of all types fishing. He also teaches many tenkara and fly tying.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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