NONCONFORMISTS - by Tony Ensalaco

NONCONFORMISTS - by Tony Ensalaco

A nonconformist is someone whose opinions or actions don’t fall in line with traditional ideas or values, while a contrarian can be categorized as a subculture of nonconformist that insists on taking a complete opposite stance from the rest of the society.


Taking an opposite approach can be the way to go at times, you just have to be selective when to know when it’s a good time to experiment. 


Most people choose to navigate through life following proven methods and common practices, while simultaneously believing that it’s counterproductive to go against traditional ideologies. Then, on the opposite side of the personality spectrum, there is a small group of free thinkers who intentionally reject conventional wisdom in favor of doing things that don’t seem to make sense to the rest of the mainstream population. You probably have encountered this type of individual. That one cat who marches to a different drummer by insisting on going against the grain for no apparent reason, other than to challenge the status quo. If you’re on a steelhead stream, you can easily pick him out of the crowd. The local river rats will be adhering to the typical protocol of using long rod drift rods equipped with like presentations, and they will be working the obvious holding water. Then, there will be that one guy that creates attention as he ambles along the bank, wielding a short rod with an oversized reel, rigged up with an off the wall bait or lure flailing fifteen inches from the end of the tip top and casting into places that no one dares to fish. He will be dismissed along the river as being naive, or at the very least, extremely inexperienced. I would view him as a nonconformist, or possibly a person who has a contrarian mentality. A nonconformist is someone whose opinions or actions don’t fall in line with traditional ideas or values, while a contrarian can be categorized as a subculture of nonconformist that insists on taking a complete opposite stance from the rest of the society. Both reject popular beliefs and pride themselves as having independent personalities who are willing to take chances. They are also stigmatized for going through life being wrong a great deal of the time. But when they’re right, it usually pays off in a big way. That high risk, high reward philosophy isn’t for everyone. Of course, we all know that nothing is guaranteed, and sometimes you have to abandon your comfort zone to achieve success. So, what are some of those situations that might require rolling the dice? Here’s an interesting example when it would be wise to examine all of the facts before jumping to any conclusions.


There is a small group of free thinkers who intentionally reject conventional wisdom in favor of doing things that don’t seem to make sense to the rest of the mainstream population.


If someone handed an illustration of a classic steelhead run to a cross-section of steelheaders possessing different levels of experience, and then were asked to diagram how they would fish it from a bank fisherman’s perspective, I’m sure the results would not surprise anyone. To describe the picture, there is a moderate current flowing from left to right with the river bending the same way at a gradual angle, and it’s a reasonable cast to the perceived holding water. The entire inside part of the bend is a shallow gravel bar that slowly tapers off until it meets a well-defined ledge that abruptly drops off to about three to four feet. The outside bend is the deepest part of the run, which ranges anywhere from five feet at the top, to over ten feet in the center before tail-ing out towards the back. There is some structure like boulders or fallen timber randomly scattered throughout the run. Most would probably describe how they would start at the top, standing on the gravel bar of the inside bend and cover the closest current seam along the ledge first before progressively making longer casts towards the opposite bank. They would be sure to thoroughly cover all of the water in front of them before systematically working their way downstream, and would repeat the process until they reach the end of the tail out. Some of the cerebral guys would draw a grid system and show how they would pick apart each section before moving to the next one. There might be some variations on how to fish the structure, but overall, the general consensus would probably come up with similar game plans. Now, I would bet that almost all of the steelheaders, especially the longest tenured ones, wouldn’t even consider starting from the outside bend commonly referred to as the “wrong” side of the river. I wouldn’t either because I was taught how to fish using a drift fisherman’s mentality of working from the inside to outside, top to bottom. Now, what if I forgot to mention that it’s the middle of the afternoon and at least a dozen anglers had already fished the run earlier, and the majority of the steelhead that were holding there at the beginning of the day have been turned, hooked, or caught? And you would have to assume that the ones that weren’t touched probably have developed lockjaw from the run getting hammered. That extra scrap of information should automatically change the plan of attack knowing that the fish have probably seen a plethora of baits presented in the same general way. This is one of those times when conventional wisdom wouldn’t have been the best option, and following an unusual approach by fishing from the outside bend, or the “wrong side” might have been a better strategy. It enables a fisherman to hit the current seams from different angles that are impossible to cover from “correct” side, and it allows him to swing a bait or lure in the opposite direction that could be the key to getting a fish to hit. Also, there are times when structure can’t be fished thoroughly if the angler is limited and can’t get in the right position. Casting from the other side of the stream could be the answer. They say their two sides to every story: The same thing could be said for riverbanks. Progressive thinking might be viable alternative in this situation.



Besides a lack of fish in a river system, fishing pressure is a steelheaders biggest obstacle to overcome. Anybody with minimal fishing experience, placed in the right spot, and equipped with the correct gear can hook fresh, undisturbed fish—but that whimsical scenario isn’t always the case. Unless you have an empty calendar during the season and are privileged to have private access to a remote river (if that’s the case, please give me a call, I’ll bring the bait) there is no need to read any further. For the rest of us, sharing a stream with several fishermen is a reality in the twenty-first century. The average angler can only get to the river at predetermined times, and if it doesn’t coincide with a fresh push of steelhead, it can be a challenge to persuade any fish that have spent a fair amount of time in the stream into biting. It only takes a few days of relentless fishing pressure before steelhead become inundated with a cornucopia of tackle whizzing past their beaks, which will eventually cause the fish to lose their aggressiveness. When a new batch of steelies enter the river, everything works, and everyone is getting into their share of hookups. But then, that limited window of opportunity begins to close as the river gets pummeled. The action slowly deteriorates, and the bite gradually gets tougher. One of the best solutions I have found for turning stale fish into biters is showing them something, or doing something, that completely stands out.


The most important takeaway is to keep a bait in the water, but don’t be to apprehensive to experiment. 


When I started fishing for steelhead, it usually involved some sort of crowd fishing. The unsolicited camaraderie that I was exposed to every weekend turned out to be a blessing because I was able to learn from watching others. One of the things that I noticed was when someone new would show up, and more often than not, he would yell “Fish on” shortly after arriving. That seemed to be a fairly common occurrence, and the reason, I believe, for the fast action was because he intentionally, or inadvertently introduced something different that caught a neutral fish’s attention. Sometimes, it was a simple change in a bait’s size, color scheme, or profile. Or, it could also have been something less obvious like the length of the leader the fortunate angler was using which caused the bait to travel at a different level in the water column, or the weight was different, altering the speed of the presentation. Maybe, it was where he stood or where he placed his cast which will dictate the path of the drift. Then, there were occasions when a new guy would do something totally unconventional, or could even be classified as outrageous, but somehow, he managed to accumulate a stringer of fish by the end of the day.



On one of those chilly mornings in January, I witnessed something extraordinary that I swore I would never forget. I was holding my place with about twenty other guys, all who had arrived before sunrise. But despite the early insanity, the fishing was poor since none of us had hooked, much less landed a steelhead. The current was super-slow and the water was gin-clear, so the general consensus was to drop down to an extra-long, two-pound test leaders and use some sort of micro presentation. About three hours after first light, one of the regulars decided to finally show up. He was carrying two thermoses of coffee and a box of doughnuts to contribute to all of the weary fishermen who have been at it since dawn. Because of his unexpected hospitality, we offered to let him try his luck in any spot he chose, while the rest of us took a much-needed break. After all, the area has been assaulted for hours by several competent anglers with nothing to show for their efforts. He quickly surveyed the surroundings and saw all of the single plastic eggs embedded on size 12, light wire hooks and mini flies that everyone was drifting and decided to tie on the largest nymph pattern the world has ever seen. That sucker must have been six inches long from the eye of the hook to the end of its tail. If there was such an enormous bug existing in nature, it would have morphed into a mayfly the size of a pelican. What happens next…Do I really need to go on? I still remember the faint tint of pink and purple flawlessly air-brushed on the ten-pound hen’s gill plates. That day taught me a couple things. One, fishermen like free coffee and doughnuts, but I also learned that thinking way out-side of the box can be applicable at times.

That guy had a reputation for doing things that could be classified as “unusual,” but there was a much deeper method to his madness. He was an excellent fisherman who spent countless hours fishing in shoulder-to-shoulder combat situations, and understood that being different can make the difference. In retrospect, it became clear that any fish that was holding in the area became immune from getting repeatedly barraged by subtle, non-threatening ideas being tossed at them. Then, when there was a drastic change (i.e., the gigantic nymph), it caused a positive response.

I think we can all agree that the previous example was probably a fluke, but there might be a valuable lesson there as well. Steelheaders understand that there will be plenty of days when the fishing will be slower than desired, and they will eventually have to decide when to start making some minor adjustments, and how to identify situations when a more extreme approach might be the best way to go? Personally, I don’t condone taking things it to an extreme—at first, like a true contrarian would. I prefer to make incremental adjustments before making any severe changes. Whenever I fish a crowded stream, I observe what everyone else is using and doing by paying attention to what colors, size, and type of baits they are throwing. I make several mental notes of where they are anchored or standing, while focusing on where they are placing their casts. Then, I would go through a checklist of what I could do differently. If the surface current is inundated with bobbers, you know damn well I’m grabbing a drift rod and skipping some lead off the bottom (us older folks call that drift fishing). If the river is pre-dominately infested with bead junkies, I’m breaking out the hardware, pulling plugs, or maybe hanging a chunk of skein behind a jet diver. If there is any structure in the stream, I’ll be sure to get a bait as close to it, or into it, without the fear of hanging up and losing some tackle. Most fishermen despise breaking off and dread retying, but I have accepted it as a part of the game and have hooked fish in places that guys refused to try because of the risk of losing gear. I will be sure to exhaust all of my reasonable options before I start resorting to more drastic measures.



Now, do I abandon my learned beliefs and cross over to the dark side by becoming a full-fledged contrarian? Not very often. It takes a lot to compromise my convictions, but whenever I appear to be going off of the deep end and begin doing things that are uncharacteristic of my style of fishing, it will usually mean that I have been struggling, and now I’m acting out of desperation. You might see me running three plug rods tied up with unmatched lures in offbeat colors or unorthodox sizes. Or, I’ll be chucking some freaky-colored drift bobber or outrageous colored yarn fly combination slathered with a mixture of scent attractants. I might even start fishing areas in the general vicinity, but not in the actual perceived holding water. Most of the time, these acute changes rarely work out—but sometimes they do. Either way, whenever I do go to those extremes, I don’t believe I’m looking to become radicalized as much as it’s a cry for help!


Changing things up too early can cost you some hookups, but sticking within the playbook too long can be a disadvantage as well. 


And even though I’m not a huge risk taker, I do have one fishing partner who likes to zig while the rest of the fishing community is content on zagging. I don’t know if I would label him as an official nonconformist, but he definitely likes to veer from the beaten path. For instance, if bobbers and bait are knocking them dead, he’ll prematurely ditch the float gear in the middle of a hot bite and start swinging a spoon. Or, there will be a pile of active fish holding in an area, he’ll leave the bucket to hike fifty yards upstream to fish a small wad of overhanging brush looking to hook a few strays. I’ve been storming the streams with him since I was a teenager and I’ve picked up on some things over the years that allowed me to form some unconfirmed opinions. Whenever the fishing is cranking on all cylinders, he will initially land his share of fish, but the action normally slows down for him before the other fishermen who stuck with using more main-stream tactics. When the fishing is average, he typically won’t get shut out, but overall, he seems to not do as well. Now, when the fishing is slow, or just plain sucks, it’s a good bet that he’ll be the one to salvage the trip. He might not catch the biggest fish or experience the greatest battles, but one thing is for certain, every fish he encounters will be memorable and special because of the unique circumstances.



Taking an opposite approach can be the way to go at times, you just have to be selective when to know when it’s a good time to experiment. Changing things up too early can cost you some hookups, but sticking within the playbook too long can be a disadvantage as well. Overall, I think its best to fish hard with confidence until you have exhausted all of your options before making acute changes. The most important takeaway is to keep a bait in the water, but don’t be apprehensive to experiment. The thing about fishing is that there are no rules that are carved in stone, and there are times when the fish will respond to something that doesn’t make sense. Fishing is entertainment, so why not try to have some fun by discover-ing something new to add to your bag of tricks?



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