Bats on Hoppers

It was almost full dark. Chirping bats flitted and circled above the Merced River, skimming the long pool where I was casting my hopper pattern. I was hoping for that big brown that has so far eluded me. You know the one: the fat lunker that only stirs from his lair after sundown, to feed ruthlessly upon hapless trout, mice, and small children. Fish were rising. I heard a small splash downstream, cast toward it and hooked, landed, and released a spunky little smallmouth bass.

I dried off the imitation hopper and cast again. As my line unfurled, a tiny black shape swooped down and intercepted my fly. I couldn’t see very well, but soon I knew the awful truth: I had hooked a bat.

Poor little thing. He weighed no more than a feather, but tried his best to fly away as I retrieved my line. As quickly as possible, I grabbed my spare shirt and gently covered him with it. Fortunately, a bat scoops up its prey not with its mouth, but with a membrane that stretches between its tail and its wing. The barbless hook came free easily and the bat flew off. Feeling lousy, I packed up and headed home.

As a reforming spin fisherman, I’ve seen how fly fishing can be relatively more humane to the fish you catch. Spinners and spoons have huge barbed treble hooks that can damage eyes, gills, even the brain. A barbless fly, on the other hand, is usually embedded in the lip of the fish and backs out easily. The same is true of accidental hookings—whether it’s your earlobe or a non-target species.

A few years back, we were casting spoons for silver salmon at a creek mouth in Hope, Alaska. The main street of Hope is lined with a few old buildings and ends at a tidal meadow where horses graze at the edge of Turnagain Arm. We felt like we had entered a real, live episode of Northern Exposure. It was a bit early for silvers, but the creek was packed full of spawning humpies that made for good sport, and there was always the chance of hooking a sea-run cutthroat.

As the tide came in, we stayed right at the head of the salt as it moved up the riffles of the creek. I caught one bright, beautiful silver but that was all. I was casting the heavy spoon hard—all the way to the far side of the creek. Suddenly, there was no splash at the end of the cast. The spoon stayed up in the air. Bad news: seagull on the line. My heart sank as I reeled in the struggling, squawking bird.

I quickly discovered how tough is the skin of a seagull—and how sharp the beak—as I worked to loosen the big treble hook from under the wing. I was standing in thick, sticky tidal mud that grabbed at my boots. The water was rising by the minute. People have actually drowned on Turnagain Arm when they got mired in the mud and the 20-foot tide engulfed them. It was time to end the flapping, the pecking, the squawking. I cut the line, leaving the gull to fly off with my spoon, thinking that the bird could work it loose himself. Or die trying.

Collateral damage. Friendly fire. These are terms used in time of war to describe unintended targets and accidental death. I don’t think of fly fishing as being anything like war—it’s more like worship, really. Worship at the altar of Nature. But once in a great while, our best-laid plans go astray, and someone gets hurt. Call it the collateral damage of our sport.

At least I know the tiny bat survived. May he live long and feast well on the bugs of the Merced River.

Text and images 2001 by Stuart Helmintoller @Streamside.

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