Corey’s green-and-yellow plaid shirt stood out like a sore thumb. The yellow was almost a neon yellow. The green? Linda Blair vomit.
As we hiked along a lonely trail that stretched between two small Madison River tributaries, the southwest Montana afternoon sky shimmered with sunlight as it sliced through pockets of storm clouds. The grass of the lowland pastures was high and deep green. Below us, miles away, we could see the Madison, shining silver in the patches of sun the clouds failed to filter out.
It was early summer. Everything was full of life. Varying shades of green soaked the landscape, with bolts of color from deep orange Indian paintbrush, bright purple sticky geraniums, and Corey’s hideous plaid shirt being the only notable exceptions.
Eventually, a couple miles later, we dropped down into a subtle valley where a small stream flowed down from the Gallatin Mountains. It wasn’t anything special. In fact, it was borderline fishable—the only reason we even bothered with it was, well … we’d come this far, and not wetting a line seemed like giving up.
The little creek dropped over lots of in-stream structure. Big rocks. Downed cottonwoods. It was shrouded by bright green willows, making casting tough. But, whenever we could get a fly on the water, we were, more often than not, rewarded by a determined strike from a small, but lively cutthroat.
As we worked upstream, we eventually arrived at the lip of a sizeable beaver dam. The pond behind the dam was deep and dark, and it looked like, if were to connect with any sizeable fish on this prospecting trip, this would be where it would happen.
I stepped up to the base of the dam—industrious beavers had crafted it using willow branches and larger cottonwood boughs, and it stood a good four feet tall. Through the branches, the creek filtered on down through the canyon, but behind the dam, water backed up a good hundred yards. Dark, trouty water.
I lifted my light, 3-weight fly rod and readied for a cast. I knew seconds into the act that this would be fruitless. As I prepped for my backcast, I saw a sizeable cutthroat dart out from under the dam in a panic. I’d been spotted.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. My red t-shirt—even in its washed and muted tone—likely gave me a way. And, let’s face it. I’ve never been much of a ballerina. Finding grace while tip-toeing over a host of thin, supple willow branches and balancing atop them in a pair of wading sandals is more difficult for me than most.
I stepped back, not casting at all.
“Let’s give it a few minutes,” I said to Corey. “I just spooked a pretty nice fish. We should let it settle.”
We did just that. We each took a swallow of water, dusted our flies and just gave things time to quiet down. I looked at Corey in that shirt that even Archie Bunker would have discarded, and I realized something.
The neon yellow and the pea-soup green, while they’d clashed with the open meadows we traversed to get to the creek, were almost the ideal shades and tones of the bright green willows that lined this small Rocky Mountain brook. He blended. And he blended well.
Corey stepped up to the lip of the dam and dropped a nice cast into the depths of the pond beyond it. His Adams landed quietly, and with a single twitch of the fly line, the dark water erupted beneath the fly. He brought a sweet 10-inch cutty to hand.
“Damn that shirt,” I said. “You’re like a ninja.”
And that, of course, is the lesson. What you wear, particularly on intimate trout water, matters. The green-and-yellow monstrosity was an ideal choice for this stretch of small water. In it, Corey disappeared against the backdrop of the willows and cottonwoods, and he was much less conspicuous.
Me? In my worn red t-shirt? I caught a few trout. But I spooked just as many, simply because my attire alerted the fish of my presence. It was a painful day at small-stream trout school, but it’s a lesson I’ll never forget (even if I don’t always practice it religiously).
A few years ago, while chasing big trout in Argentina’s Rio Filo Hua Hum during blustery weather, I had donned a rain jacket that sported a bright orange slice of fabric. While it fought off the rain just fine, it also raised the ire of Santos, my guide for day.
As we walked along the river looking for likely holding water or for holding trout in the cold, clear water, Santos looked at me, and then back at the river. Then he looked at me again.
“Nice jacket, Chris,” he muttered, oozing sarcasm in his heavily accented English. “You think you can turn that thing inside out?”
Picky trout in tough water like the Filo Hua Hum need every advantage they can get. They’ve seen their share of flies. They’ve seen their share of anglers. The best way to get at them, of course, is to not be seen at all. And that means checking your fashion sense at the door and donning attire that blends or, at the very least, doesn’t announce your presence like an air-raid siren.
Soft-goods manufacturers in the fly-fishing world are catching on, too. Some wader manufacturers have crafted products sporting a “river camo” pattern designed to help you achieve cover from fish even when there’s no real cover. Most waders and rain jackets have consistently been constructed from muted shades of green and brown Gore-tex. This helps, of course.
But don’t get too caught up in the need to blend in with the flora. Last summer, on a bright sunny day spent fishing a meadow stream, I donned a bright blue sun hoody that helped me reduce my silhouette against the sky—I had an excellent day catching fat, finicky trout.
Bottom line? Your wardrobe matters. Think about where you’re fishing. Think about the weather. Think about the time of day. The position of the sun. Consider the variables, and there are many.
Then dress smart.