“You know I don’t mind going on my own. If you’ve got a cold, that’s cool, but I was looking forward to going with someone.”
I did have an inkling of a cold, a tickle in the back of the back of my throat, but the reason I didn’t want to go was embarrassment. I had spin fished for a large chunk of my life, but my fly-fishing skills were nonexistent. I had practiced casting on my back lawn, but I thought making the fly line snap was a good thing. I only knew enough to know that I didn’t know anything.
But I went. I met him at Second Dam on the Logan. It was early November. Fall couldn’t decide if it was staying or leaving. The leaves were mostly changed or gone, the water was clear and low. We started at the reservoir, casting to fish that rose to midges. I decided my best bet was to pretend like I knew what I was doing.
After my second attempt at casting, my buddy said, “maybe you should just watch for a while.”
I did. I noticed that although his fly line looked graceful and never stopped moving, his rod jerked with starts and stops. I watched my friend throw tight loops—his line would open up at the end and place the fly on the water gently. It didn’t make sense so I watched some more. Then I tried again—but I shouldn’t have.
We moved from the still water to some riffles upstream and tried nymphing. I realize now this was an act of mercy. He probably thought that I’d be able to better handle the short casts. He was wrong. We cast to a hole next to the bank where we could see fish actively feeding.
He said, “cast as close to the bank as you can without hitting it.”
I tried and hooked into a tree hanging over the hole. I had to walk right through the hole to retrieve my fly and line.
“I don’t know how to say this well,” my friend said, “so I’m just going to come out with it: have you ever caught a fish on a fly rod?”
I hemmed and hawed for a bit and eventually said no. He nodded. I think he knew the answer to his question before he asked it.
“How did you do it? How did you get so good?” I asked.
“I’m not good.” He was tying a Glo-Bug on the end of my line, and paused to put the tippet in his mouth to lubricate the knot. “You’ll see people who can throw over eighty feet of line without thinking about it. I learned by coming up here and messing up, by getting caught up in that tree.” He pointed to the tree I had just got snagged on. “And that one, and that one.” He pointed up the river.
“But you catch fish.”
“Yeah. I catch fish.”
I shrugged and waited for him to talk again.
“You’ll catch fish, too. You’ve got to catch your first. You’ve got to get the proof-of-concept fish. Then it will all make sense.”
As a response, I threw a cast that tangled onto the bank. My Glo-Bug wrapped around my indicator. When I retrieved the mess, the split shot dangled down like a broken clock’s pendulum.
He watched as I tried to untangle the jumble.
“You know what you need to do? Find an angler. Like one of those friends you mentioned. Someone who knows what they’re doing, someone who doesn’t throw a tailing loop, and you need to stitch yourself to his back pocket. Ask him questions and buy him breakfast and find out when he’s going fishing and just show up.”
He emphasized the words that distanced him from me. The ones that made me know that he wasn’t offering to be my fishing mentor.
“What’s a ‘tailing loop’?” I asked.
“Exactly. Ask things like that.”
A week later I met the same friend on the same river at the same time. My guides clogged with ice and my net froze and stuck to my back. Eventually, I caught a fish. After the first fish—a brown I caught on an egg pattern—my casts became more accurate, I relaxed and caught more fish. After an hour or two, we went to breakfast at a local diner. I picked up the tab.