I'm new to fly fishing but not new to fishing. When I was in Afghanistan, I wrote an essay called I Used to Be Fisherman, where I vowed to return to fishing and I did. Growing up catching crappie from a bamboo pole when I was three, to fishing for trout in the Black Hills with worms and corn, to fishing for trout everywhere with my secret suite of rooster tails, I've caught enough trout in my life to feed everyone I've ever met at least twice over. But those are numbers and I guess when you get to my age, numbers no longer matter.
What matters to me is the contest. Right now, I feel confidant that I can walk up to any trout-laden body of water and catch a trout within minutes using a rooster tail. I've caught them from thirty inches on down, in streams no wider than the desk I'm typing this on, to wide rivers I can barely see across, to lakes that seemed more like oceans. Sure, I can catch them, but it's just no contest. I want to challenge myself. I want to put myself in the most difficult position to catch a fish then do it. Little did I know I'd have to embrace both poetry and science to do it.
What matters to me is the science. I asked my friend Kurt what flies I should bring when we fished the Nisqually. He didn't know and that he'd see what sort of bugs were on the river. Bugs. I've loved playing with bugs since I was a wee tyke and now I get to play with them again. Kurt's response reminded me of Paul in Norman Maclean's semi-autobiographical novella A River Runs Through It-- that fabulous tale written about a family living in early 20th century Montana whose true religion was fly fishing. Paul believed in having the generals, those flies that are are the most common because nine out of ten times, those are what you're going to need. But there was a part in the novella also where the narrator (the author) began catching heaps of trout, leaving Paul skunked because the narrator had some exotics. As it turned out, there was a stonefly hatch and the narrator happened to have some with him. I can't tell you how much time I spent researching online what magical flies to bring and use on the Nisqually, and in the end, the science of it was nothing more than observing the nuances of nature... something the old spinner fisherman in me would have ignored on my quest to achieve a number.
What matters to me is the poetry. Some might call it technique, but to me, watching a fisherman manipulate the fly through the air along thirty feet of fly line is pure poetry. I could stand and watch it all day. In fact, at the end of our fishing day, I watched Kurt fish a riffle I wasn't good enough-- poetic enough-- to reach through my technique. I was satisfied to stand back and watch, part in admiration and part in learning, experiencing his slower poetry in motion. I remembered the first half hour on the river. I thought my line was messed up, but he came over and showed me that I was casting too quickly. By the end of the day, my improvement was such that I'd probably tripled my casting distance... but it still wasn't enough. But that's okay. There'll be another time and another after that where I can try and perfect my poetry.
The Nisqually presented itself to us that day as a rumbling slash of silver through moss-covered Washington forest beneath mottled gray skies. We were still on the military base, so access was restricted to the area. As such, we didn't see another fisherman all day. I remember standing on the bank and staring at the river as a whole and seeing it as one thing. Then once I stepped into it, I saw it completely differently. Places I'd thought unfishable, suddenly became possible lay-bys for fish. I crept into the river, careful not to splash and found my first spot. After a life lesson in how to cast terribly, I soon figured out how to get the fly out about twenty feet. For most of the day, that was the best I could do. Still, in the second hour, I floated a rather small bi-color caddis with black on top and brown on the bottom over a promising riffle and was delighted when a trout shrugged into it, ran with it, then graciously allowed me to catch it, snuggling itself into my net, both of us hyperventilating. I actually let out a whoop! That nine inch rainbow was the first fish I'd ever caught on a fly rod in my life. At that moment, whether it had been three inches or three feet, it would always be my first and as such, I let it return to the river with its own life lesson.
I fished for another forty minutes, trying different black colored flies because I saw black fly hatches in the shallows. Kurt was sharing a new fly with me when I had a strike on a gnat I was running. Had I been paying attention, I might have landed it. I probably should have kept fishing with the gnat, but I switched flies to what Kurt gave me and BAM. Within two minutes, I had my second fish of the day. This one almost eleven inches. After landing it, I held it in my hands, coddling it until it regained its bearings, then it floated a moment, then shot for the depths. Over the next several hours I had several more strikes, but my inexperience kept me from landing whatever fish I'd temporarily fooled.
My final fish of the day hit like a locomotive. I was certain this one was twenty or maybe even twenty four inches. But then it shot into the air and I laughed aloud. Perhaps one day it might reach those legendary lengths, but today it was a mere six inches with the heart of a lunker. It fought me harder than the other two together. I let it run, enjoying the moments where a fish was dancing at the end of my poetry. When it finally tired, I landed it and the two of us stood there, in the gray Nisqually, rain pelting us, me laughing, the fish too exhausted to join in. Eventually, it got its wind back, and it left my hand, life lesson learned.
Poetry and science. That's what fly fishing is to me. That day on the Nisqually will forever be in my mind, not only as the day I first caught a fish fly fishing, but the day I truly felt I'd learned that fly fishing was more than just waving a stick about... the day I finally became a fly fisherman.
|My friend Kurt being poetic on the river|
Gear: Simms Waders. Korkers Redside Boots. Echo Four Piece Travel Rod 9 ft 5wt. 9ft 4lb leader.
Note: That essay I mentioned in the opening paragraph is now available in an expanded version in the new book called Taut Lines: Extraordinary True Fishing Stories.
Lesson Learned the Hard Way: I left my felt bottoms to my boots at home and discovered that wading on mossy rocks with rubber boots was akin to roller skating in an ice skating rink. I fell down too many times and in the end, not having the right gear limited me in my fishing choices.