“One great thing about fly fishing is that after a while nothing exists of the world but thoughts of fly fishing.” Norman Maclean
Suppose you’re somewhat of a fly fishing ‘Newbie,’ excited about this new sport but inexperienced, and you find yourself standing among three seasoned fly fishermen.
Intimidating? Definitely. But you listen intensely trying to absorb every tidbit of information, even if the conversation sounds like a foreign language. Grandpa used to call that “stealing with your ears!”
Newbie had been wading the river and flailing casts all morning with no luck. He had seen several fish rise, dimpling and feeding on the surface. Newbie tried to entice them with a dry fly, but no luck.
Later, he switched to nymphs and used split shot with multiple flies trying to pick up a fish deep. He had only been fly fishing for a few months and was excited about this new passion; one that he hoped would last a lifetime. At this rate, he thought it would probably take a lifetime to learn. But he was determined to crack the code to success. Newbie was totally hooked on fly fishing. If only he could hook one fish on a fly that day. Surely, he had a fly that would make a trout bite.
Tired, discouraged and needing to take a break, he waded around a sharp turn in the river. As he walked upstream around the bend, he noticed three fishermen resting against a mossy boulder, chatting nonchalantly. They looked to be experienced judging from their attire, and he thought he could probe them for some fish-catching tips.
As he neared the group gathered by the water’s edge, he noticed several flasks of spirits being passed around. Each fisherman would take a sip, then interrupt the others, bragging about a particular fish that had succumbed to their fly. They were oblivious to Newbie’s approach.
He thought this small group of veteran fly fishermen reeked of knowledge that should be probed. The two oldest fellows had long grayish-white hair that protruded from dirty, sweaty long-billed hats, one tipped back on his forehead and one hat cocked sideways. Their sunburnt and unshaven faces showed long days spent wading rivers.
As he walked closer to them, he became more intrigued when he peered closely at their fly rods, all gently sandwiched into small limbs of a laurel bush nearby to prevent them from falling over and being stepped on. He noticed that one was an old bamboo two-piece rod with a Hardy Princess reel. The second one appeared to be a brown fiberglass rod with an Orvis Madison reel. The third was extremely long, probably 10 feet, made of graphite or boron with a small reel filled with brightly colored line.
Their conversation seemed intense, but Newbie decided this was a perfect time to gain local knowledge.
“Hey guys, how was fishing today?” he asked. Noticing a gap in their circle, he eased into the opening, hoping to soak up information and a sip of whatever was in the flask.
“Pretty good,” said one of the older more crusty-looking fellows.
Realizing his entry into the conversation had caused an awkward silence, Newbie quickly fired off another question.
“Whatcha catch ‘em on?” he inquired hopefully.
The youngest in the group, a 70ish fellow affectionately referred to as the Kidd by the others, spoke up and began bragging that they all should have been Euro nymphing as the Sexy Walz Worm tied behind the heavier Frenchie with 2mm tungsten beads was the ticket. Wearing a vest adorned with miscellaneous gadgets hanging in all directions, he looked like a gaudily decorated Christmas tree.
Before anyone else could get a word in edgewise, he continued explaining that he originally started fishing with Newbury’s Dirty Hipster and a Blowtorch. Finally, after fishing hard and only landing a few fish he decided to change his entire rig up, add a longer Sighter piece, and 4 feet more tippet. Then he changed flies over to the Frenchie and Sexy Waltz worm dropper and caught more fish consistently.
As he was catching his breath, preparing to continue his soliloquy, the heaviest, and probably the oldest, member of the group, known simply as Reverend, joined into the conversation. His voice had an aura of fly fishing knowledge, assurance in his skill, and confidence that exuded from his persona. He looked like a man who had pursued trout his whole life.
Even his vest was different from The Kidd’s. His was tattered, stained and floppy with pocket corners probably resewn by his own hand. Underneath, the armpits were split open and resewn with shoelaces. There was a fly holder made of string connecting old wine corks dangling down, all littered with flies and hooked on the same loop as his fingernail clippers.
“I noticed some larger Dark Hendrickson’s hatching in the eddy when I first got here,” Reverend recounted, “so I tied on a dry and eased up to them. I managed to catch a few small natives on top, and they really were acrobatic when they discovered I had ‘em hooked.”
“A size 16 dun caddis was hatching with lots of hungry fish feeding in a run above, so I eased up to them. The fish were splashy and feeding on emerging pupa. This makes it tough to catch ‘em sometimes.”
“During this caddis hatch, I fished the “X “Elk Hair caddis in size 16. When I tie that fly, I loop the poly yarn at the tail and add a twist to the bottom and spread the material out into a bubble. I tie a palmered grizzly saddle hackle-clipped flush so it would lay flat across the water. Fish find it irresistible when caddis are popping out. Find you a good piece of muskrat fur for body material and use the dark portions to tie both these flies. It’ll make a difference.”
Reverend looked at Newbie and continued, “I tinker with my flies and take a good pattern, add or subtract things, and then go catch fish with them.” As he was talking, he pulled a scratched-up aluminum box out of the top vest pocket jammed with what seemed like a hundred flies. He fingered through them like an Osprey looking for an injured fish and then handed a fly to Newbie.
Newbie stood there holding his new fly, totally absorbed in the conversation.
The other gentleman, they called Forrest, grabbed the flask and took an unusually large gulp, as if trying to finish the liquid refreshment. With a slight grin, he politely turned, handed the almost empty flask to Newbie, and told him to enjoy.
Examining the fly intently while taking a baby sip of liquid courage, Newbie began questioning the older gentleman as if he had just made a new friend.
“So dun is actually the color of gray and not referred to as mayfly adults?” Newbie asked. “I always thought there were only nymphs and adults and now I discover there are emergers too. That’s a lot of insects to imitate. I will never learn them all. How do I know what to fish? This is more complicated than I ever imagined. And now all the different fly names! I have fished hard all morning and caught zero.”
They could tell there was a hint of frustration in his voice.
“What do I fish with now? How do I even know what to fish with?” he kept asking.
One of the less talkative fellows, Forrest, finally turned back toward him and spoke while at the same time magically revealing a third flask. He politely offered Newbie the first sip and instructed him to pass it around. His threadbare vest pockets were bulging with assorted fly boxes, pill boxes, and anything else that could hold at least two flies. His rubber Red Ball waders had a dry rot, innertube look. They’d been mended with tire patches in several places but were still holding strong.
“Learn how to read the water well and don’t get caught up with all the hyperbole and jargon junk,” he said gruffly. “Trout get particular from time to time but are opportunistic feeders overall. Just concentrate on understanding the currents and where the fish live, then get the fly down to them drag-free.”
Reverend and The Kidd grunted and nodded in agreement while the flask was double-dipped several times as it was passed around in circles. Newbie felt as if he was developing a true kinship.
The sound of squirrels rustling in the branches above woke Newbie. He had stopped to eat lunch and the music of the river lulled him into a peaceful slumber. A thick bed of moss shaded beneath a towering hemlock invited a quick snooze. As he woke and began stretching his stiffened muscles from the morning wade, he realized dusk was soon approaching and it was time to head home. What a great afternoon nap he thought.
As he laid there and pondered the day’s events there seemed to be a sense of clarity on how to fish the river and what he needed to do to catch fish. He thought about every detail of his dream and wished it wasn’t a dream at all. As he talked with the men it seemed as if time had stopped. He would have loved to stand in cold water, fish alongside those old guys, and become a part of their circle of friends.
As he squeezed his hand shut something pricked his palm. Opening the hand, he found a sweaty bit of elk hair wrapped around a number 16 hook. The fly, he thought?
He smiled, arose, and walked around searching for evidence of the others, only to find one set of boot prints on the sand bar below the boulder. He grinned and gently laid the fly in a rusty, old aluminum container he noticed half-buried beside his fly rod.
Even though he left the river without catching a single trout, the river gave him a gift that would prove its worth in days to come. And that made this a great day after all.