As the days between fishing trips grow more numerous, my thoughts wander. Thoughts coalesce into an inexact catalog of flies that need to be tied and new patterns to be attempted, the fuzzy details of the rod to be built during midwinter, and a rough outline of next year’s fishing trips, mostly of the multi-day variety to out-of-the-way or unfamiliar water.
Then there are the memories. Recent thoughts floating to the surface center on How It All Began.
Flying fishing came later in my life. Prior to that, my limited exposure to the sport was the occasional, distant fly fisher who seemed less fisherman and more of an aerial artist using fly line as his brush. Having more than once employed the fly-and-bubble technique with my spinning rod, I knew that this technique mysteriously allowed the casting of impossibly small flies.
Fly fishing snuck up on me. It was a conspiracy of the fishing gods to bring together opportunity and motive.
My son and I had made an impromptu late August trip to a small stream in the Eastern Sierras. Still an hour or so away from our destination, as can happen in the high mountains, a torrential rainstorm obscured the view of Mono Lake. The spirit of youth overcame the concern of age, and we found ourselves seeking a campsite at least moderately protected by aspens.
I was left to lash a tarp between the trees and the minivan while Christopher bounded though the rain towards the somewhat swollen creek. He’d later tell of how folks he met along the way dismissed his chances of finding any willing fish.
He proved them wrong. Casting a now unknown fly and allowing it to drift below overhanging bushes, he found his first trout with his new fly rod. It was a decent brown, a trout that neither of us had the pleasure of meeting face to face. He returned with a contagious joy. The campsite didn’t seem so damp after all.
Again, as can happen in the Sierras, the next day dawned bright and cloudless. The storm had passed, leaving behind a freshness. Vivid green aspen leaves sparkled with water droplets. From the damp ground wafted a pleasant earthiness. The creek ran clear.
A couple of miles along a graded dirt road, among yet more aspens quaking in a light breeze, is a bend in this stream; upstream, where it emerges from tangled braids of nearly impenetrable brambles. It’s one of those typical Sierra streams, small enough to wade across in three or four strides without getting your knees wet, peppered with small, rounded granite rocks and flowing with gin-clear water under dappled sunlight filtering through pines and aspens. This day, trout were stacked up in riffles near the opposite bank.
Small, lightweight Panther Martin spinners got their attention. In a relatively short period I had landed more than my share by tossing a spinner on the opposite bank, gently pulling it into the water, and letting it drift almost haphazardly downstream to the pod of rainbows. Despite using an ultra-light, 5’6” Fenwick rod the thrill of fooling these trout abated after an hour and half of non-stop catching.It was time for something a bit more challenging. I asked and borrowed my son’s L.L. Bean fly rod with God-knows-what fly attached to a leader that was probably too short. Though it was more akin to lifting and dropping a wet noodle than a real cast, I got the fly onto the water and floating downstream into promising riffles. I cast again. And again.
A quick splash was the first indication of a decent cast. A few more casts. The fly drifted further into the riffles and nearly out of sight. Another splash and I hooked my first trout on a fly rod. It wasn’t big, maybe six inches. It was one of the most beautiful brown trout — and the first — I have held in my hand.
Thinking back, it wasn’t so much the landing of the fish that first sparked my interest in The Contemplative Man’s Recreation. (For the antithesis of meditative fishing, see Unaccomplished Angler’s “Sturgeon on a dry fly.”) Despite the numbers and statistics thrown around by yours truly, it was the contest between me and the fish — the act of attempting to fool a fish with what it thought might be real food — that hooked me.
As many trout as I’ve been lucky enough to land, each time I’m on the water it becomes clearer that I won’t live long enough to truly understand these fish. They remind me of this with their unpredictable reactions to my best presentations, and baffle me with their willingness to take a poorly presented fly. In that lies the challenge that lures me back.