Take a passable boat fisherman, turn him loose along certai stretches of any of Maryland's trout streams and it may soon become clear that the fly rod, that curious wand, is a humbling weapon and the river-bred trout is a formidable opponent.
On Thursday, along the Gunpowder River while the temperatures were climbing well into the 60s and the water was clear and perhaps moderately fast, a couple of dozen fishermen were encountered wading or walking the shoreline. Among them, all but perhaps 10 were fishing some type of spinning or casting outfit.
The others were having mixed success with fly rods. Some were flailing the water with their forward casts. Others, myself included on more than one occasion, were flailing the bushes and trees with their backcasts.
It was, at times, enough to wish that Santa hadn't bothered to give himself a fly-fishing outfit for Christmas.
But while others flailed and snagged, one quiet fellow, bent over at the waist while wading the shallows across 35 feet of river from a pocket of deep water, was a pleasure to watch.
It appeared he had mastered the weapon.
He was fishing nymphs, positioning them in the current well above the pocket so they would sink and drift and tumble along the bottom down to where he figured the trout were holding.
He had stationed himself along the eastern shoreline so the afternoon sun would not throw his shadow on the water. He crouched so his silhouette might be perceived less easily and by wary trout.
His presentation of the nymph appeared -- to the untutored eye, at least -- flawless. The cast would be made slightly upstream, the nymph settling on the edge of a current seam, and the rod held slightly raised.
As the nymph tumbled and drifted, he would throw line in behind it, keeping the movement of the artificial unrestrained and natural.
His motions were short and fluid after he fished out a cast, capping each with a subtle jigging motion that must have made the nymph dance enticingly.
A smooth pull on the line with his left hand led into a backcast, slipping the line and leader from the water with barely a ripple.
In the 30 minutes or so I watched from a high trail on the western shore, the fellow did not land a fish -- nor did he catch a rock, a bush or a tree.
Earlier, he said quietly from the shallows, he had caught and released two trout a couple of hundred yards upstream.
Among the other fishermen passed along the Gunpowder below York Road, none had caught a trout nor had even a close encounter of the salmonid kind.
On this particular part of the Gunpowder, from York Road downstream to Bluemont Road, fishing is limited to the use of artificial lures and flies, and catch-and-release is mandatory.
Last year, fishermen were allowed to keep two trout a day from this stretch of river.
Dr. Robert A. Bachman, director of Maryland's freshwater fisheries, said last week that the changes were made to protect the trout in the stream.
"If we had kept the two-trout provisions," Bachman said, "we could have a year or two of good fishing there, but then the numbers would have started down -- fast.
"This way, we can provide challenging fishing and keep the trout population growing."
Below York Road, the Gunpowder is an inviting place. The water is slower and supposedly easier to fish than the other section of artificials-only water on the Gunpowder, from Falls Road upstream to Prettyboy Dam. Its shorelines are clean, devoid of bait cartons and hook wrappers and the other trappings of bait fishermen.
But above York Road lies a put-and-take area of the Gunpowder where baits are permitted and the paths are more traveled and more littered.
After a frustrating few hours of fly-flailing and spin-fishing, I took the leftovers from my lunch upstream, baited a hook with cheese, and set a bobber 18 inches up the line.
Within 90 minutes, two hatchery rainbows had been brought to hand and released.
Later, while recounting the events of the day, a friend who earns his living with fishing rods and word processors asked: "If fly fishing has to be so complicated, why does anyone do it?"
We both knew the answer applied to Mount Everest as well.
Mayfly hatches on the Gunpowder
The Maryland Chapter of Trout Unlimited has conducted a survey of insect life in the Gunpowder River for several years. The following is a partial listing of its findings for mayfly hatches:
Blue Winged Olive (sizes 16 to 24): Hatches usually occur from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from early April through October. Use smaller hook sizes in late season.
Quill Gordon (sizes 12 and 14): Hatches usually occur between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. from early April to mid-May.
Hendrickson (F) and Red Quill (M) (sizes 12 and 14): Hatch comes off from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. from mid-April to late May.
March Brown (sizes 10 and 12): From mid-May through the third week of June look for a hatch to come off from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Pale Evening Dun (sizes 14 and 16): From May 20 through about June 25, look for a hatch to come off from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.