The fish and I were both stunned and disbelieving to find ourselves connected by a line. – from The Armchair Angler by William Humphrey (1924-97), American novelist
Fish are, of course, indispensable to the angler. They give him an excuse for fishing and justify the fly rod without which he would be a mere vagrant. — from An Honest Angler by Sparse Grey Hackle (pen name of Alfred W. Miller, 1892-1983) American outdoor writer
The temperature was 7 degrees, and the northwest corner of the farm yard was covered by 18 inches of snow, but I was out there mid-morning fly casting. A couple times a week in the heart of this frigid winter I am practicing, as best I can, the art of casting a fly line, book tucked under my right arm, sweeping the rod forward and back through the time-honored 10-to-2 o’clock arc and feeding out 20, 30, 40 feet of fly line from the reel, dropping the false fly within a foot or so of the tree stump that is my target.
Maybe this is the summer I will actually catch a trout.
When I retired three years ago I put trout fishing on my life list of outdoor skills to master, or at least try to master. After months of study and comparative shopping I acquired all the suggested accouterments of the game: graphite fly rod, aluminum reel, fly line, backing, leaders, a leader straightener, waterproof fly box with a dozen flies of various patterns, bobbers, forceps, nippers, a knot-tying device, some pieces of split shot, a bottle of fly floatant – plus a chest pack to tote the gear and a couple spring-action spool retractors to make it easy to access the forceps and nippers when I am standing in the fast-rushing waters of a trout river in Colorado or Argentina.
The rod and reel purchase included an impressive looking hard case to prevent them from being damaged in transit to and from trout streams by a ham-handed buffoon like me. A free accessory was a DVD that showed how to properly use the fly rod to cast the bright yellow line, tie flies on the leaders using the basic six or seven fisherman’s knots, handle the landing net to snare the enormous trout I would catch, and choose the proper fly for the fishing situation.
I already had a pair of chest waders, albeit they are a relic of my duck hunting days, insulated and colored in a marsh grass camouflage pattern instead of the fashionable beige-tone of the fly fishing models of waders displayed in the angling magazines. Any real trout fisherman would know at a glance that the blood stains are from a final brace of mallards taken on the Mississippi River in 1997, not from a lunker Atlantic salmon caught on the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia. Hanging inverted on the wall of my clubhouse the waders do not appear to have cracked, split or developed leaks over the course of 20 years of disuse, but their watertight integrity is uncertain.
Looking over this assemblage of equipment (most of which I can properly use – in a tyro fashion – after much experimenting and practice) anyone would assume I am fully prepared for and on the road to amazing trout fishing adventures. But to date I have not waded into the waters of a North Country cold water creek, let alone the crystal clear and icy cascades of the Blackfoot River in Montana.
The barrier is my reputation as a fisherman among the members of the Over the Hill Gang. At least three of this group of old coots have promised, admittedly under the influence of alcohol and friendly cajoling, to take me trout fishing and teach me the intricate and complicated techniques and conventions of the sport, which has its own sacred rites and rituals and traditions, the violation of which would, as I understand it, make any beginning trout fisherman an outcast, a pariah, the object of the ridicule and disdain of all veteran fly fishers. Using a wet fly or a midge when trout are rising to dry flies, for example, or failing to know the difference between an elk hair caddis and a woolly bugger while rummaging around in one’s box of flies.
The OTH Gang’s fear of my causing them extreme social embarrassment is well-founded. They have years of bad experiences fishing with me in boats on Minnesota lakes, using a casting rod and whatever bait or lure is within easy reach: leeches, minnows, worms, eye-catching artificials, what have you. They no longer offer me crankbaits, spinner baits, spoons or even jigs from their tackle boxes since I have lost so many to underwater snags, weed patches and overhanging tree limbs. I have also used a landing net to knock loose from their lines several good-sized walleye and northerns, and I once lost an anchor.
Well, these sorts of accidents can befall any fisherman, but mine are apparently made worse by my attitude: I do not really care if I catch a lot of fish during a long day on the lakes. In fact, I do not care if I catch even a single fish. Almost all the OTH Gang are serious fishers. They know how to catch fish and they go about it with a no-nonsense, businesslike approach, employing tried-and-true methods that are precise and measured, using well-honed strategies and tactics that would humble many a military operation.
They all wear t-shirts printed with slogans like “Fishing isn’t a life-and death matter. It’s more important than that!” or “Walleye Fear Me” or “My wife said I had to choose between her and fishing and I miss her a lot.” Their rods and reels and tackle boxes, though worn and battered from much use, are of best quality and in good order. And they have so much of this stuff! I’m surprised Bass Pro Shops does not send a limo for them whenever they meet for a day of preseason shopping.
I, on the other hand, have a rather casual attitude about fishing. I mean, we do not train dogs to help us bring home a stringer of crappies or bluegills, so how important can it be? Unlike bird hunting, this is not the stuff of the gods of the chase. Despite my best attempts to seem more enamored of the sport, my companions know that down at my core I think it’s just a pastime, not an avocation.
The cat was out of the bag years ago when Dave asked me, “What is the most important thing to remember about fishing for walleye?” I gave the obvious answer: “Put two six packs of beer in the cooler.”
Now I regret my frivolous and flippant approach to fishing with the OTH Gang because it may have scotched my chances to join them in this fly fishing madness. I’ve tried to convince them that I’m really, truly serious this time and I won’t do anything playful or foolish, like that time I tipped over the canoe trying to catch frogs with the landing net. The Senator says he will take me to a pond where some bluegills will be spawning this spring, if no one else is there to see us, and Click promises to take me out on some of the nearby put-and-take stocked streams later in the year because most of the people we would encounter don’t know anything about real trout fishing and would not identify me as a lightweight and a fraud.
The longed-for trip to the Blackfoot in Montana? That may be a long ways off.
More stories about hunting and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, and Coot Stews , and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com, and in paperback edition at the North Country bookstore Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.
I hate eating fish, which makes me a pretty lackadaisical fisherman as well. My dog isn’t a welcome addition (though he would like to be) and I don’t want to eat it who cares if I catch fish?
But fly fishing… fly fishing is different.
Shortly after we were married I was accused of keeping my fly fishing addiction secret. Something about refusing to come back to the campsite for dinner even though it was pitch black because I wanted to catch, “just one more.” Not that I get out that often and not that I’m great at it. But I love the challenge of trying to master the cast so that even when the fish aren’t biting there is something to think about and work on. I love fishing the little mountain streams looking for pretty little trout. Working up or down those streams and seeing what wildlife you find around the corner. And I love seeing a school of fish and seeing if I can be sneaky enough to trick them into taking my fly.
I hope you get out there, and don’t worry, if I’ve been their first I put all mine back for you to catch! 🙂
Jessie – you’ve inspired me. I’m going to make that Montana trip one of these days. In the meantime, the coldwater streams of northeast Iowa and southeast Minnesota will be my proving grounds. But I won’t get a fly-tying kit until I’m much, much better at this.