In the late 80s my friend and colleague at the Winston Rod shop worked with Robert Redford as a fly fishing consultant on the movie version of Norman Maclean’s classic novella A River Runs Through It. Along with being a well-established guide, Jerry Siem was a champion caster before Winston hired him as a consultant and potential rod designer. From his perspective, Jerry predicted a major impact on the fly fishing industry once the movie was released in 1991; and undoubtedly, he was correct.
The sport changed dramatically after many folks were touched by the poignant story defined by the importance of fly fishing as the sole thread holding together the lives of a religious but dysfunctional Montana family. Subsequently, hordes of novice anglers flocked to the nation’s trout rivers as if looking for something missing in their own lives, and it seemed fly fishing filled that void. So, after being rewarded with a small part in the movie, the film’s impact on Jerry’s life led to his departure from Winston and a twenty-some year career as head rod designer for Sage rods.
As the number of fly anglers on Montana’s rivers exploded and related businesses boomed, many in the traditional fly fishing community felt violated by the loss of solitude on their favorite rivers along with the defiling of all their secret fishing spots as well. In the mid 90s a disgruntled soul popped into our bamboo shop on a busy morning to announce that he was selling his drift boat and leaving Montana to who-knows-where. Amid the whir of machinery as we made rods for the slew of new-age fly anglers, the fellow stated that he could no longer handle the violation of his space on the rivers anymore. Too many people, he lamented. Too many errant flies whizzing by his ear, he droned on. “I might as well be fishing for carp in a pond on a golf course,” he ironically carped. “At least golfers are more courteous when they yell ‘fore’ after hitting a ball toward your head!” As he left, he mumbled something about going catfishing for the rest of his life. We never did see him again.
Although this guy did have a point, personally I couldn’t see selling the farm just because the barn shed had a leaky roof. After a period of adjustment, many of us did find ways to compensate while adapting to the increased pressure. Additionally, with all the newfound attention given to our rivers and the related positive economic impact they were having on our region, Montana’s fisheries actually improved, thanks to more aggressive fishery management practices and hard-fought environmental regulations, which included mandated in-stream flows. During that same time frame, public access issues were challenged and upheld because of a unified public voice demanding viable access to our waters. In the end we all gained more than we lost.
If nothing else, I found myself re-evaluating how I approached my local streams and rivers. By fishing the quiet water drift boats couldn’t reach including smaller side-channels, the offside of rivers and shallow riffles, a whole new world opened up. Also, since I always wade fished utilizing Montana’s liberal stream access law, I would walk upstream from boat launches in the morning before any floaters arrived, then downstream in the afternoon after every boat had put in, thus avoiding all floating traffic in either direction. And once I was able to realistically deal with overwhelming swarms of annoying mosquitoes, I learned to love the caddis hatch that emerged on all the area rivers every evening throughout most of the summer. Consequently, I even found myself fishing more and more into dark when all other anglers, including their guides, were tucked away into their beds. After a couple seasons, I could honestly say there was nothing to complain about. In fact, the fishing could not have been better.
The years have passed since then, however, and I have retired to other lands in search of different fishing experiences, wherever the path may lead. Ending up in northern Maryland on the upper Chesapeake Bay, it was always my retirement goal to fish for non-trout species – if only for the new challenges the quest would present. In that spirit, the other day I was casting my fly to a modest group of feeding small striped bass in a nearby creek with absolutely no other anglers around. My kayak moved with cat-like stealth so as not to spook the unsuspecting prey. Then, after landing a few fifteen-inch stripers, I repositioned my craft and my ensuing cast was greeted by a substantial thump. The fight was on.
I figured that lurking below the small fish must have been a few bigger stripers prowling the depths. As the fight progressed, the fish’s tenacity was impressive, but it was not until a golden hue became evident that I realized this wasn’t a striper at all. Rather than the expected quarry I thought I had hooked, I was fooled. In fact, it seemed I got “catfished” instead!
After a few determined final runs the whiskered specimen was finally subdued beside the kayak. Slipping the streamer from the big maw of a nice size channel cat, my thoughts immediately drifted back to that unhappy angler in the 90s who left our shop for parts unknown in search of uncrowded water filled with wily catfish. Since the fish I had just landed in complete solitude put up such a good tussle, I reflected for a minute. Maybe the guy was on to something after all.