Monthly Archives: November 2011

An Act of Mercy

Photo for "An Act of Mercy"I nearly bailed the first time I was invited to fly fish with a buddy. I told him I had a cold, but he guilted me in to it anyway.

“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.

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I want to believe

Photo for "I Want to Believe"

Two fishing buddies, two flies.

First buddy: call him Bret. He’s a devout adherent of a fly pattern he calls the Blood Nymph. The fly and its name have yet to enter common usage, so I’m not sure where to send you for the recipe or even a photo. I’ll say it’s got a tungsten bead head, collar of red silk, black thread body (tapered), and a red wire rib. The wing is a pair of white biots, the tail a pair of black biots. No dubbing, no hackle. This on a scud hook size 12 down to 16. Picture a severely malnourished Prince Nymph with a bead head, or maybe a Zebra Nymph wearing a tuxedo. Nothing elaborate, but it catches fish. I have seen the Blood Nymph save Bret from blank days and I have seen it outfish other flies three fish to one. Bret catches trout of all varieties on this fly in every season from practically every waterway in Cache Valley and beyond into Wyoming and Montana. When I hold a Blood Nymph in my palm, I half expect it to emit a mystical humming or maybe a faint glow, like Frodo’s sword in The Lord of the Rings.

Second buddy: call him Jeff. While fishing on the Blacksmith Fork the other day Jeff showed me a fly he’s been fishing lately. He wasn’t supposed to show it to me; he swore to one of his other fishing buddies he wouldn’t. The way Jeff tells it, he had to sign some documents in the presence of a Notary before his friend would let him see this fly, and I picture shot glasses and vodka to solemnize the occasion. Only after Jeff ushered me to the middle of the stream, where the noise of current and tittering kingfishers covered our voices, would he show me the fly, which for legal reasons I cannot describe here. Jeff looked around, checked to see that not so much as a beaver was listening, and said, “I’ve caught fish every time I’ve used it.”

This is your basic fly angler—as superstitious as a New England villager at a witch trial. Lucky hat, lucky rod, streamside rituals, talismans. Do we believe in magic? No. Actually, we spend a lot of time trying not think about why things work. Bret’s Blood Nymph catches fish and so does Jeff’s fly. They’re not sure why; they don’t want to know why. If they knew I was writing this they’d say, “Quit, dude. You’ll jinx it.”

It may not be magic, but the real reasons aren’t exactly rational. Is Bret’s Blood Nymph deadly because it’s perfectly conceived? Does it so resemble actual aquatic forage a trout can’t resist striking? No, that can’t be it because Jeff’s top secret fly looks like something one of my kids tied using the debris swirling around under my fly bench.

It’s not magic and it’s not some form of perfection. It’s something a lot harder to come by: confidence. For whatever reason, certain flies engender our confidence. Maybe this fly hooked me a big fish one time. Maybe that pattern was passed down by a mentor. Whatever; that part doesn’t matter. What matters is that when I fish with confidence, I fish better. I fish diligently. I fish in the zone.

In a way, Jeff and Bret are right. You can jinx it. Subvert your confidence and it’s over—go back to the truck, head home, and watch TV. Because you’re always moving toward the zone or away from it. It’s hard to stay in one place, but when you have confidence in your fly, you’re at least moving in the right direction.

If I could figure out how to fish all my tackle with complete confidence, I guess I could fish in the zone at will. For now I’m satisfied with the occasional magic fly. Right now mine is the Surveyor, size 12 or 14, with pink crystal dubbing, purple hotspot, and a silver tungsten bead head. This fly catches fish, period. It has saved me from blank days and has fished well all over the valley. On the Logan River a few weeks ago the Surveyor pulled three fish from a single bucket-sized hole, almost on consecutive casts. In a few weeks or six months, something will change, and the Surveyor will return to its status as an ordinary fly, a mortal fly, pinned between my Hare’s Ear Nymphs and Pheasant Tails.

Until then, if it isn’t magic, it’s close enough.

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