Anything Fly Fishing

A Disgruntled Fly Fisherman Finds His Groove 

11 Mins read

“And this is our life, exempt from public haunt, their tongues in the trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in the stones and good in everything.”

As You Like It, Act I
Scene 2 William Shakespeare

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I wake up at 7:00 AM after a night’s sleep that was anything but restful. I look out the small window of my motel room at the parking lot, which has overnight, filled up with cars and trucks sporting all sorts of fly fishing paraphernalia. Many have trailers hauling drift boats and rafts waiting to be dispatched to the river. Ugh… All I can think, competition to be avoided. I have every reason to be grumpy.

Sometimes I wonder why I bother to do this. The answer always comes back the same: but I can’t help myself. Almost forty years ago, I found myself peering into what is now a long out of business storefront, selling everything related to fly fishing. I see myself standing there mesmerized by a mannequin before me which is fully dressed in boots, waders, belt, net, shirt, and hat with fly rod and reel in hand. A stunning portrait in advertising. At the time, I had absolutely no idea as to what fly fishing was all about nor anyone to show me any of the whys and wherefores. All I knew, in that very instant, this was for me. As if by some medieval incantation a mysterious force reached out and beckoned me to come inside, resisting would be futile. As a result, over the years, by an uneasy combination of pluck, grit and determination I have turned myself into a fly fisherman.

I get into my car for a short drive over to the local diner which I imagine as the nerve center of this small upstate New York town. Entering I am immediately greeted by a fly fishing guide I know. He’s sitting in his usual corner booth with a client and his son. I sit alone at a table across from them as he turns his attention towards me.

“How are we fixed for dates?” he says.

I tell him we are set for mid-July.

“What about steelhead season?” as he gets out his calendar and rapidly flips through the approaching days and months as though they don’t matter. “What about three days early December? I got mid-week.”

“OK”, curtly I responded. He knows me, I have the luxury of being flexible, and fishing midweek is best to avoid the crowds.

“I booked your dates, now make sure you show up. I can sell these days in a heartbeat.”

“What about March?” he says, a few moments later. March is nine months away. He’s already planning for the following year.

A snippet from an interview with Alfred Hitchcock flashes through my mind. When asked what his favorite film has been, he responds, “my next one.” The same is true here. It’s all about the next time out on the water. No past, no present, it’s all about future trips. Afterall, from his perspective, it comes down to the fact that he’s running a business and I am his customer. His business depends on his reputation as a guide and the willingness of his clients to hire him repeatedly. He needs his clients to keep coming back. The dates are his pipeline, his accounts receivable.

Being a fly fishing guide is a tough demanding job. People will pay a guide hundreds of dollars per day fully expecting to catch a fish. That expectation puts a lot of pressure on the guide. Finding fish is hard, catching them is something else. The trick is making finding them look easy. As the fisherman tries to fool the fish into taking a fly, the guide is fooling the fisherman into thinking how lucky they are, their timing is just right, their presentation is spot on, the fish is there practically waiting for the fisherman. Everybody is tricking everyone.

This guide is a master at doing just this and that’s why he is in great demand. He has a cadre of very loyal clients who fill up his calendar year after year. Getting on his dance card and staying there is hard. He’s a taskmaster with a reputation for firing clients for their lack of seriousness. He’s quick to criticize, slow to praise. When praise does come he means it and the client knows it. But once again, there is a trick at work – the grab and the grin. The fish gets caught. In the net with the fly gently removed, the tail grabbed with one hand, body supported with the other, lifted out of the net and posed with a grinning fisherman. Snap, click and then release unharmed back in the water all in less than a minute, advertising at its finest. He takes this one step further. Immediately the photo is posted to one of the social media websites along with a comment of praise. The client feels good, money is being well spent, There’s a photo. It’s all documented and the trick is completed. His job is done for the day and a return client for the future, tricked into his pipeline.

“OK,” I say, “mid-week is fine.” We settle on dates.

The guide starts urging his client to finish up. They’ve got to get moving as he wants to avoid boat traffic. I am thinking “how do I avoid you.”

Everybody wants to avoid everybody else. They get up and leave. I know I won’t be seeing them for the rest of the day.

Meanwhile the diner is filling up. The locals are coming in as well as other guides and their clients. A group of four sit down in the next booth. They are all like me, gray haired and well heeled. Fly fishing is elitist and expensive. Arguably, the pastime of the one percent. It is the crown jewel of the fishing world. I can’t help but overhear bits of their conversation. It’s as though they are trying to establish their bona fides with their guide. Collectively, they tick off the places they’ve been and the species they have chased. The guide politely nods his head in recognition. They are wearing their fly fishing uniforms. Shirts and hats with various logos. Collectively, they are an advertiser’s dream team here for their weekend getaway.

I know places around this small town are being gobbled up by speculators and second home buyers, which will inexorably change its character. Not that it’s all that great to begin with and maybe could use a bit of a makeover. However, over the years, I’ve gotten used to its sketchy, raw, insular character. The locals here are hard people made hard by scratching out a living the best and only ways they can. Take the river out of the equation and there’s not much going on. The fact is, there is an uneasy truce between the locals and the interlopers such as me. The locals need what we bring, which is money. We need what they have, which is stewardship of the river.

I now have to confront the reality of my day – where to go? I certainly know where not to go but I need to find a place where I think the pressure from my fellow anglers will be minimal along with the opportunity for finding a target or two. I decide to head to a spot I am familiar with about 10 miles from where I am parked. It’s out of the way and off the central fly fishing grid. Just the kind of spot I wouldn’t even tell my mother about. I am off and remain forever hopeful.

As I drive along I spy fellow anglers standing in the water, waiting, watching, looking for targets. I turn off the highway and head up some no name state road. The water looks fantastic – clear and cold winding along its banks. It’s still early, and as I approach the parking turnoff I still see no one on the water. I come around the final turn and I see one car in the parking area. Getting out I acknowledge my fellow angler as though we are part of a conspiracy. We briefly talk about various rivers, streams and creeks we have fished. Information is exchanged but only in the vaguest of terms, saying everything and nothing simultaneously. Unwittingly, he’s another trickster in my day’s drama. He’s off. Maybe I’ll see him or maybe I won’t. I am sure he feels the same way.

I go to the rear of the car and carefully begin to unpack. The routine has slowly morphed into something of a ritual transformation. Methodically and with determined pace I slowly assemble all that I will need. As I go through these steps random thoughts are incrementally banished, replaced only with what I am about to do.

First, I put on my waders or more precisely wading pants. Mine only go up to my waist as opposed to chest waders that are more common. Having my waders only going up to my waist informs me of exactly how deep I can wade into the water. Long ago, I learned the hard way that wearing chest waders provides me with a false sense of security – more tricks and trickery to be avoided. Next are my boots. Big, heavy, clunky things where style is completely ignored. Screwed into their soles are aluminum bars designed to improve traction while wading over rocks, gravel or anything else I might find along the river’s bottom.

Next up is my fly rod. Fly fishing equipment is expensive and of all the expenses necessary the fly rod costs the most and mine is no different. The rod is practically a talisman, so important, it comes in a crush proof metal tube with a screw-on cap. Carefully, so as not to damage the threads, I unscrew the cap and remove the sock that holds four rod segments. Three of the four segments have aluminum plugs protecting the ferrules from cracking. I remove each one and put them in a specially designed sleeve pocket so as not to lose them. The pieces are carefully fitted together and once in place the rod will be ten feet long. It’s a high-tech piece of wizardry that has been transformed into my magic wand. I then take out my reel and attach it to the reel seat which is at the rod’s butt section. I begin to pull the line off the reel and start running it through the guides. I count each one as the line through which forces me to concentrate. For the final steps of the ritual, I put on a wading belt that holds my net, and over my shoulder I sling my satchel which contains leaders, tippet and flies all to be applied once I am in position on the water. My ritual of transformation is completed. I am focused, suited up, strung up, and ready. With rod and reel in hand I walk down to the river; or more precisely a small section of a huge river system, one that stretches for hundreds of miles. It begins where small mountain streams, and rivulets combine with other waters. These waters are fed by others and those by others. Connecting on and on, flowing to the sea where nice is not worth writing about.

All rivers have moods and voices, calling out depth, flow, obstructions both seen and unseen. Critically, you have to read these moods, understand these voices and determine what’s going on. It’s a mystery. A puzzle waiting to be solved.

Standing at the river’s edge I survey the situation and it is not good. The water’s surface is like glass. Not a ripple, wave or current seam appear in either direction. It has all the stillness of a lake early in the morning. Worse, I don’t see any bugs. Nothing flying, crawling, creeping or floating on the water’s surface. It’s axiomatic in the fishing world, you find the food you find the fish. Conversely, no food, no fish. I observe my fellow angler upstream, a fair distance from where I am standing. He has a beautiful, long smooth casting stroke. He launches a cast almost clear across the river. I snap back at the plunk of a small fish. Stepping quietly into the river, arms folded, I am repeating patience, persistence, perseverance as though it were a mantra, waiting for something to change. Time slips by and nothing is going on. The angler above me does the reasonable thing and decides to seek his quarry elsewhere. I am unreasonable, I am staying. Anyway, with these conditions, I wouldn’t know where anywhere else would be. Walking past me we have but the briefest of conversations.

“Leaving?”, I ask.

“Yes”, he says matter-of-factly. “It’s an exercise in futility.”

“I hope you find what you are looking for,” I tell him. I am not sure he picked up on the double meaning nor cared.

I continue to wait for change which unfortunately arrives in the way of rain. First, a light drizzle which I ignore. I have no rain gear. It’s where it should be, back in the car. Maybe it will stop if I keep on ignoring it. No such luck. Steadily the rain falls harder and harder and I am getting wetter and wetter. Finally this unreasonable fly fisherman does the reasonable thing and goes back to the car. I grab my rain jacket and head right back. The rain continues and I am losing track of time. Eventually the rain stops and my awaited change comes, although not for the better, or so I thought.

The air is warm over the cool water, the sky overcast, the sun unseen, the light has changed. Mist is forming along the river’s surface, slinking its way along the river’s gentle currents, I look down at what was once seen now has become unseen, only felt. The river’s cool currents wrap ever so tightly around my legs. I become a shadow as the mist surrounding me becomes denser and denser. I look up at what was an enormous wall of conifers replete with impassable undergrowth on the far bank. I imagine them as sentinels, silently on guard watching over the river and those that share in its wealth and beauty. The boundary between the seen and the unseen is completely blurred. What was once seen has become unseen and what was unseen has become seen. I am reminded of the unparalleled joy in the here and now as the tension which has slowly been gnawing at me all day simply evaporates into nothingness.

The mist disappears as quickly as it appeared as though by some great unheard command. In its wake the air is clearer, water cooler, light sharper and the bugs begin to arrive. At first, a few here, a few there slowly floating down the river. As more and more arrive their drum beat grows louder and louder. It’s time and my wait is over. I am anticipating the fish telling me where they are, that they are hungry and will be gorging themselves with abandon. Like a relief pitcher getting ready to enter the game I start peeling the line off my reel. Slowly, at first, I raise my rod taking the line off the water as it begins to load with energy. With accelerating speed the rod moves behind me and the fly line moves briskly through the air. I turn my head and watch as I abruptly stop the rod behind me. The moment the line fully extends I accelerate forward and sharply stop the rod pulling down with my opposite hand letting out more line as I go. Repeat, repeat, repeat and get a rhythm going. Finally, I have enough line extended to reach my intended target. With authority I pull down one last time, shooting the line forward straight out in front of me with a watchmaker’s precision as the fly lands ever so gently on the water.

An unspoken, two-way communication has been established. I feel the fly as it swims through the water. It’s a trick. I am counting on the fish’s instincts to betray them. Dead is really alive. My false for their truth. I will let the current swing the line around. At the very moment the swing ends, as the fly pretends to break free the fish will strike and strike hard. There is nothing subtle about it. There is a sudden and swift jolting tug. Unseen only felt. Completely visceral nothing visual. The trick is well executed, the fish hooked.

More and more bugs are floating past me. The water is practically carpeted with them and this is not good. Why would a fish choose my lie? I have waited in anticipation for too much of a good thing. The fish are buying but not what I am selling. I keep trying but I have been tricked, again. This goes on until the bugs stop coming.

I am unaware of the hours that have slipped by. I have rolled the dice and lost. It’s very late in the afternoon, I am hungry and decide to leave. Facing the river one last time as the late afternoon sun gently warms my face, I am secure in the knowledge that size and quantity are but fleeting moments. What’s lasting is the doing and the feeling I get from doing it well. Therein lies the path towards contentment and true happiness. I walk away. After all, tomorrow is another day.

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