A green sunfish in an anglers hands


On Not Catching Fish In a New Place

Last summer we moved to St. Louis, MO—not too far from what I understand are exceptional streams full of trout and smallmouth bass, 90 miles or so southwest of the city. But not being able to get away from my demanding new job and busy family life, I have had to make do with nearby waters and more pedestrian fish. This doesn’t bother me too much, because I love to catch bluegill and sunfish on the fly.

The waters of nearby Forest Park are full of green sunfish, which happen to be one of my favorites. They were among the first fish I ever caught as a kid, in a farm pond in southern Michigan.

And so during the fall months in St. Louis, I would take my 2-weight rod and an assortment of over-stuffed AP emergers and chubby wooly buggers and let them drift through the murky currents in the artificial lagoons that lace the park. I caught small green sunfish and very small green sunfish, and a few that were the size of my hand. They kept me satisfied.

I took my daughter Camille once in November as it was starting to get chilly, and we caught a slew of chunky ones that were stocking up before the cold months. I rigged up a bead-head nymph three feet below a strike indicator, and Camille delighted in watching the little pink bubble get yanked beneath the surface time after time. This was a high point for my new St. Louis life—the first time I felt like I had a coping mechanism, something to ground me in water.

Back in New Orleans, where we used to live, I had a different kind of nearby fishing in the disgusting yet amazingly fecund Bayou St. John, which you can read about in issue 14.2 of The FlyFish Journal. I could walk there from my home practically every day of the year and find something swimming: from Rio Grande cichlids, bluegills and largemouth bass, to foot-long ladyfish and giant sheepshead when saltier water was pushed up from the Gulf.

In St. Louis I was amazed that I could catch the park sunfish late into November—but it was admittedly an Anthropocene fall, warmer than “normal,” whatever that means anymore.

Then after a deep freeze in January, the fishing—understandably—turned off. It was too cold for my fingers, even with my new Simms mitt-gloves (5-star rating, still). But more importantly, the fish just went somewhere…else. I wonder what they do in these fake streams. Do they find the deepest pocket, even if it’s only a few feet, and hold there, slowly metabolizing their autumn feasts? Do they all travel to one of the manicured ponds with presumably deeper holes, massive schools of sunfish and bass chilling out together?

It finally warmed up to 60 degrees in late January, and we had a few nice early days in February over 50. I thought I might be able to interest the sunfish again. They must be looking to bulk up again, right? I tied some gaudy new flies and headed into the park on a Sunday afternoon.

Families were enjoying the unseasonable warmth, letting their kids drive around homunculus-sized plastic Barbie Jeeps, blaring Big Freedia (blast from the recent past), and even paragliding off the hill in front of the art museum.

People were donning new sporting gear, clad for all sorts of pursuits. And here I was with them, the only one in the park with a fly rod, but no one was paying any attention to me. I clambered down the bank of the lagoon to a spot where Camille and I cleaned up a few months ago, and I hopefully swung a weighted green wooly worm out into the deepest part of the pool. I let it drift, if it could be called a drift, watching my line dip and go limp…and then turn back toward me with that discouraging submarine reverse arc.


I threw it out again, toward a spot that had generated a lot of action three months before.

Nothing, again.

I switched to a surefire weighted black wooly bugger (with a few strands of peacock green crystal flash, come on!), conjecturing that the big green sunfish probably want a formidable meal, coming out of their slumber. I slung it out and gave the dark fly some thoroughly convincing twitches, and let it drop into the murk with abandon. Any second now…

No. These fish were not yet feeding, at least not on what I was throwing. Maybe if I had some gobs of nightcrawlers.

How long can one go not catching fish, in such a discouraging state of existence?

I watched joggers hustle past me on the nearby trails, relishing the bright winter afternoon. It made me remember my arthritic knee which was acting up, which in turn put me in mind of wishful adventurous fishing trips to come in the spring.

How long should I wait out here, casting into the void?

Occasionally when fishing there is the prescient sensation of a coming strike. Any cast now…you feel it. If not the next cast, definitely the next. And sometimes, it really happens. But not that day in Forest Park, in St. Louis.

The water will warm. The green sunfish will come back. But for now, I just live with the longest sadness of not catching fish, in this still new place.


Christopher Schaberg is the author of nine books, including Fly-Fishing (2023).


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