Grasshoppers and Gladwell | Derek Bird

I want to tell you about my favorite trout from this past summer, but I face a conundrum. I’m certain I remember the day in vivid detail, but more and more over the last few years psychologists and podcasters remind me that memories are unreliable. Are memories really unreliable? The most memorable podcast I’ve listened to on the unreliability of memory was a Malcom Gladwell podcast titled “Free Brian Williams”. And since then, I’ve had to tune out a number of experts discussing the unreliability of memories.

What should I do? Should I forge ahead with the retelling of my favorite fish memory from the summer or should I simply realize that my memories are similar to the meat versus filler ratio of a McDonald’s chicken nugget (45% percent meat, 55 percent “other ingredients” for the wondering mind). Did I even catch fish this past summer? I’m so confused. In spite of Gladwell, I’ll give it a try anyway.

There’s a trip I deliberately take each summer in late August because I know the rhythms of my life are about to get quite hectic and because the emerald water of this small Vancouver Island stream has a way of reminding me to breathe in the moment. That, and because the persnickety trout that can normally only be coaxed by light tippet and small mayflies become less wary and choose to ignore the 4X tippet I use to turn over Hoppers.

The stream was filled with trout but not with anglers, because they’d joined the throngs closer to the salt in hopes of filling their freezer with Pink salmon. I tied on a Morrish Hopper and set out from my vehicle, imbued with hope and confidence rooted in the knowledge I’ve gathered from years of walking the same path at the same time. But after the first few casts, I was reminded that the trout will only ever take what they want and not what I expect them to take. Three casts and three refusals. I saw their noses come up and inspect, but none committed, so I changed to a beetle and then one of the trout moved from his lie and attacked my fly. It was going to be a good day. Not the day I’d expected, but a day I’d enjoy.

I ambled upstream, casting in every pocket and watching as each pocket that should hold a trout did. As long as I casted accurately, I mended correctly, and I didn’t lose sight of the small orange post on my beetle, I hooked and landed a trout. At one spot a half a kilometer up from where I started, I had to sidearm my cast in order to deliver the beetle under low hanging alder branches. I missed the first cast short and then placed the second cast where I wanted it. Where I wanted the beetle to land also happened to be the exact spot where a trout wanted it to land. I reached behind me to grab my net, and when I turned, I noticed what I assumed to be my net that had fallen out of my pack. I felt again and my net was in my pack. I shuffled back and grabbed the net from the rocks behind me and used it to land the trout. I recognized the net and remembered my good friend told me he lost his net on the stream a few weeks prior. The Prodigal had returned. I placed his net in my pack and looked forward to getting back to cell range so I could tell him the good news.

I moved back downstream and eventually stopped where the river widened and shallowed to ankle deep in the thalweg. On the far bank was what could be gratuitously described as a logjam. Two alders and a spindly fir lay perpendicular with the stream, with the largest in the water and the other two stacked on the first. The section of the stream flowing into the logs and branches was barely enough to cover the top of a wading boot, but directly beside the log, the spring current had carved away the gravel and now in late August the water colour indicated a depth change of maybe a foot. When I saw the colour bleed, I thought maybe…possibly?

I had to try. I stood there for a moment determined to solve the riddle of how to get a fly close to the log. I couldn’t cast directly at it. Even if I could avoid the branches, I’d spook the trout. I could move below it and cast up into it; there were fewer branches but it still looked to be impossible. Hmmm. Casting above it proved difficult because a small cluster of semi-submerged branches just above the prime lie.

I reeled up my excess line and decided to change my beetle. It had been a few hours since my first few refusals on the Moorish Hopper. Maybe it was time in the heat of the day to give it another try. I stalled hoping that in the time I changed my fly the answer would become clear. It didn’t. I decided on the most desirable of the undesirable options. I casted well above and waited patiently as the hopper floated into position. Just as I suspected, the obstructing branches didn’t let my hopper get within three feet of the log. A tiny trout with eyes bigger than its mouth came up and nosed the hopper. I pulled the fly away and false casted.

If I cast again and get dangerously close to the branches, maybe the current on the other side will pull it in close enough. I have to be ok with losing the hopper, or ruining the run by retrieving the hopper if it gets fouled up I thought to myself. I recast a few inches closer and watched as the fly bumped up against the semi-submerged branches. The summer flow lazily pushed it over. This time within a foot of the perpendicular logs. I prepared for a full 10-15 feet of drift, but it only needed two.

A trout recklessly grabbed the hopper. Explosive. Completely uncharacteristic for that time of year. I’m not sure why. Maybe because his superior shelter inflated his confidence. Maybe he hadn’t seen an artificial fly in months. Or it’s possible he just really wanted the hopper.

He wasn’t my biggest trout of the summer or even that day. He unofficially registered in my brain a healthy 15-inches. But he registered in my brain. He’ll be there for a while I suspect in spite of what Malcom Gladwell has to say about memories. I think using the word ‘unreliable’ as an all-encompassing descriptor for the way our brains store memories is irresponsible. I suspect they can be unreliable at times, like when filtered through egocentrism, panic, anger, or trauma. I get that. I even see Gladwell’s point when a memory sits on a dusty shelf somewhere in the deep recesses of the cranium. But in that case, I wouldn’t describe a memory as unreliable. The brain does something incredibly efficient. It preserves the core of the memory and releases some of the superfluous details, allowing the storyteller to use generic content to bridge the gaps.

I’m going to do something incredibly Canadian and apologize. From one Canadian to another— sorry Malcom Gladwell. Sorry, but you’re completely incorrect about memories. Come fly fishing with me one day and let your brain start to compile a long list of what’s called “unforgettable memories”.