Teaching fly fishing requires enthusiasm. Teaching it well requires a bit more. A little curiosity helps.
It was my brother who provided the curiosity. Not openly, but in that tone of voice we’ve all heard before.
We were discussing ideas for his first visit to California in eight years and our trip to, up and over the Sierra Nevadas. “I’d be willing to try fly fishing if you have some gear I could use,” he said over the phone.
I’d thought plenty about offering such an opportunity but hadn’t mentioned it. Everyone has a story about how they were introduced to the sport. Mine surely isn’t unique, but it did imbue me with a belief that a curious mind opens the door to the best first fly fishing experience.
Along with the gear, I’d bring considerable enthusiasm. (It’d help to understand that my sister’s family has given me the nickname of “The Herring Merchant.”*)
That’s how Mark, Sean and I found ourselves on “Hatchery Creek,” not too far away from the cabin, just as sunlight touched the top of the hills. With borrowed waders, boots and a wading staff but minus an overloaded vest, Mark looked just about as silly as I. (It’s a tenant of fly fishing that fish don’t care how one looks.)This creek tucks against a hillside and, controlled by a powerhouse, is nearly always fishable regardless of spring runoff. Though near a main highway, it’s sheltered by heavily treed banks, and — except for the occasional burps of a Jake brake — the outside world is easily left behind. Though the outcome of our day had yet to be determined, the absence of other fisherman was a welcome sign.
After gearing up and giving a primer on the creek, I led Mark toward one of my favorite runs. It’s the same piece of water on which I educated both sons as to the nuances of hydrology. On the surface it looks fast, and most would call it too fast for fish. The most obvious (and dependable) spot for trout here is near the far bank, where the water’s velocity is slowed by friction. Perhaps because of constant shadows and the lack of light, it’s difficult to see the nearer telltale seams that suggest hidden trout. As both sons learned years ago, a little bit of patience and a passable drift in the proper location will surprise you. It’s also a great spot to swing a fly at the end of the drift.
We were rigged up with nymphs under an indicator. It was too early for dry flies, and to my knowledge this creek is devoid of any real insect hatches, with only occasional dry fly takes in the afternoon.
There’s nothing more conducive to learning than doing, and my strategy was simple: talk, walk, fish and hope that Mark would get into at least one fish while doing so. I would take on the role of guide. I’d assemble leaders, tie knots and select flies. It would be Mark’s “job” to focus on hooking and landing a fish.
It Ain’t Pretty, But Works
For those who haven’t fly fished, casting nymphs (often heavier, underwater flies) with an indicator (yeah, like a bobber) is an inelegant affair. In this case it was more of a lobbing action. After a bit of discussion about this technique and a quick demonstration, Mark made his first casts. Occasionally I’d offer a bit of advice. The suggestion of a casting target that’d offer a better drift into a good trout lie. A recommendation to keep a tight line between the rod to the indicator, then a gentle admonishment to keep an eye on the indictor for any movement that didn’t seem “normal.” A description of the slight lift the rod should be given at the end of every drift.
It was that last piece of advice that gave Mark his first surprise. He’d made a good drift with no takers. Toward the end of the run, the rod tip was raised, the movement of the indicator slowed, and the flies below rose toward the water’s surface, as an emerging insect might do.
That’s how Mark hooked his first trout on a fly rod. Just as quickly as it was on, it was off.
It didn’t matter that we didn’t land that fish. It’s the confidence and faith that washed over Mark’s face that mattered. His big brother wasn’t just blowing smoke. An unseen fish had risen to take a fly presented just as he had advised. Without any encouragement from me, the training wheels were off.
Heading upstream, Mark stopped at a suspect pool while I ventured toward a stretch where riffles tumbled into a long, deep run that abutted a boulder, which in turn created a pool that offered a long tailout. Sean had fished the area earlier, but had since headed downstream.
When Mark moved to the pool behind that boulder, just below me, I futilely tried to keep an eye on my indicator as well as Mark’s. I needn’t have. Before I knew it Mark had set the hook. Encouraging him to keep the rod tip up, a bend in the rod and to allow the fish to tired ever so slightly, I
dropped set aside my rod, grabbed my net, and headed downstream.
Mark was broadly smiling as the rod tipped danced. Not an acrobatic fish, it splashed enough to put on a bit of a show. Soon Mark turned its head and we had a decent trout in the net.
Mark waded over for the obligatory fish photo. Excitement shifted to quiet contemplation. We talked of wetting hands before handing trout, the ease of removing a barbless hook, and keeping the fish in the water until all were ready for the photo. Photo taken, we let it rest in the net. It was a remarkably clean, deep bellied and heavily dotted hatchery rainbow trout measuring an honest 13 inches; a admirable first fly rod fish.
It quickly recovered and, as discussed, Mark softly cradled the trout as I lowered the lip of the net. Often, it seems to me that time slows in the minute or so before a trout finally swings its tail and darts for the familiar safety of deeper water. I never asked Mark if he felt that same sensation, but the look on his face confirmed that he had discovered the magic of catch and release fishing.
The Lesson Learned
At that moment I got it. A curtain parted ever so slightly, giving me privileged insight into why fly fishing guides, those who truly enjoy what they do, do what they do.
More could be written about that day. About the other fish that Mark stalked, hooked and landed, and his amazement that he could do so while hardware and bait fishermen struggled for even a single fish. About Mark’s discovery of trout in places he previously might have dismissed as holding fish. About a simple enjoyment in finding that sharing of one’s love of fly fishing can spark the beginnings of such a passion in another.
But looking above, there’s not much else to worth writing about Mark’s first fly fishing experience and how it rekindled in me renewed appreciation for the little things, beyond the fishing, that bring such joy to the sport.
* From “the Valve: A Literary Organ” blog —
[In the movie “Love and Death”] Boris is in love with Sonja, but she is unhappily married to Voskovec the Herring Merchant (“his mentality,” she complains, “has reduced all the beauty of the world to a small pickled fish“). She takes lovers. (“She takes uppers?” Boris repeats, incredulous, when he hears this news). Voskovec, preparing his pistols to fight a duel in defence of his wife’s honour, accidentally shoots himself. Sonja goes to his deathbed in the company of a couple of doctors. In what is, I think, my favourite exchange in all film, Sonja talks to the expiring man…Here’s the tender deathbed scene:
SONJA: You were a kind and loving husband. Generous and always considerate. (To doctors) What’s he got? About eight minutes?
DOCTOR: (consulting his watch) I think I’m slow. He’s got about three.
VOSKOVEC: Swimming out! Swimming out to the open sea like the great … wild … herring! [Dies]
(You can find more photos here under “The Brother’s Visit – Tuolumne Meadows, Eastern Sierra, First Time Fly Fishing”.)