In the coming weeks, I’m writing a little about fly-fishing basics. Let’s say a series from a lifelong novice for a novice. To begin, if you are inclined, I’ll share my story in the sport….
In the summer of 1989, months before turning fifteen years old with no credit card or cell phone, I took my first solo plane flight, taxi ride, and spent the night in a downtown hotel in Denver after figuring out the mini-bar. The next morning I loaded onto a bus into the Snowmass Wilderness for a month with the Colorado Outward Bound School. In a fashion very contrary to previous parenting, Mom and Dad put together this adventure. It was a combination of punishment and therapy for a wild acting and creative boy in the throws of adolescent hormones. My parents went as far as to embellish my age to enroll me into a session with higher adventure and a longer stay. I’ll never fully understand what foresight my folks had that inspired them to send me there, but it was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. Needless to say, everything about this summer adventure was novel for a small town boy with a deep Southern draw— deep in the alpine with strangers. True to the mission, I discovered myself there. I found self reliance, confidence, leadership- and a passion for the outdoors that never seemed to come together with the local Boy Scout troop.
THERE…. I saw someone cast a fly rod for the first time as we hiked along a stream- the beauty of that sight made an indelible mark on my amygdala and set me on a path.
The summer following the Colorado trip was full of little weekend trips with older friends that could drive up to the mountains to hike and camp. One afternoon while rock climbing in the New River Gorge, I stumbled upon two men from a nearby campsite trout fishing. While I was only able to briefly observe that fisherman in Colorado, I broke off from my pals and quietly sat on the bank to watch these guys cast flies all afternoon. I hung around long enough to make their acquaintance. They gave me a primer on casting out a flyline, river bugs, and trout. I was sure that I wanted to learn. There has always been a fly fishing subculture in the Appalachian Mountains, however, prior to the mid-1990s, unless your father taught you to do it, fly fishing was a rather obscure sport.
Like anything in life that you desire, the key success is setting your heart to the pursuit, asking the right questions, and relying on a willingness to learn. Asking around, it wasn’t hard to find a fly fishing mentor. One was right in front of me, literally, a local doctor that sat in the church pew in front of us our whole life. He helped me, along with my father, into the sport. In those days, pre-internet, there were magazine articles to teach and get you excited. There were VHS tapes to watch, but nothing was more valuable than having a mentor to guide you into a sport that was complex. Curiosity ranged from where and when to go, what to fish with and how to fish with it. Etymology, habitat, casting- the list went on. Failure was as eminent as success. When you are just getting started, the old adage: “Trout don’t live in ugly places” goes a pretty far, but the excitement of successfully catching fish can really make the venture stick. In those days, getting outfitted meant borrowing a few things at first, but then shopping from catalogs. It could be overwhelming and also very expensive for a young fellow. (The same holds true today). Perhaps nothing was more valuable than the simple list the good doctor prescribed me. It reminded me of the scene in Platoon when Elias picked through Chris’s heavy pack and essentially said, “you’re humping too much weight…. you need this, chunk this.”
I over the next few years, I developed a pretty tight loop, a mean roll cast, caught a few fish, and was magnetically pulled to all the empty rivers right up the road from my home. Approaching my senior year of high school, I was addicted to fly fishing and a few things came into motion that would change the sport forever. I will attribute this renaissance (or emergence) to Robert Redford’s River Runs Through It and the proliferation of Orvis. Suddenly, fly fishing wasn’t obscure, but rather romantic. Everyone wanted to do it. Folks were trading in tee times for days on the rivers and the rivers were getting full. I didn’t look at this negatively at the time because riding this wave of enthusiasm opened more availability to me as a novice. I surfed this wave hard and became a very talented traveling fisherman as I went through college. It could be argued that this explosion of the sport, from 1992, has never stopped and built a hobby industry into a major one today. I have very mixed feelings about the growth of the sport. Selfishly, it is difficult to see rivers crowded and overfished. It is difficult to see stream etiquette break down with commercial competition and very difficult to see public waters posted and privatized.
Today I’ve fished all over North America, East and West. I was guilty of sneaking away from my college studies to drive, sometimes just for a long day, across North Carolina to streams. I was blessed that my in-laws live in the far reaches of Western Virginia, at that funny intersection with Tennessee. I was blessed to be able to see the Rockies with my Dad and that he had a little cabin in the North Carolina Mountains. As outliers have it, two dear friends have homes in Jackson and West Yellowstone respectively. I did nothing to earn the honor of being their guest regularly- but man it has been a gift and they are both gracious hosts. I’ve broken more rods and lost more flies than most folks will ever touch. This sounds like a macho statement, but it is the mark of a lifelong novice. I have put more flies in trees in my life than in the lips of trout. I learned through the school of hard knocks.
I now have four kids and their birth cooled down trips to the streams for awhile, but I’m back. So many things look the same, but so much is different. I can learn to tie any fly from a two minute YouTube video, I can look at any Instagram fishing celebrity’s high def pictures of hundreds of fish caught daily in a short visit to the toilet. Supplies and tackle that I had to wade for hours in mail-order catalogs for are now at your finger tips online and delivered in two days. Fortunately, there are great flyshops everywhere and with them many of them great guide services. I still really believe you still need a good mentor. I’m no professional, but I’ve realized I can be a pretty good friend to go fishing with and thought that I might be able to share that in a writing piece. My intention in providing this series is to give a few startup tips that might help a seeker or novice find their way into the sport down a path of least resistance. Good fly fishing has always been an individual pursuit, but the ecology and culture of the sport is highly undergirded by a rich fraternity of sharing. The future of trout fly fishing depends on folks doing it well, fully enjoying everything it has to offer, and highly respecting how delicate it is.
In the coming weeks this series will have lists, very similar to the advice my fishing mentors gave to me. I don’t intend to name brands or get on any “pro staff” lists. Expect topics ranging from what (and what not) to put in your basic bag, rod/reel/line considerations, building a flybox, to simply figuring out how, where, and who to get your feet wet with for the first time. I’ve screwed up enough to save you the trouble. Stay tuned!
Part I: The LIst: The Basic Vest/ Bag Tackle (see link below):
Part II: Rod/ Reel/ Line- non product driven, all around rigs, and speciality rigs
Part III: DIY fishing, destination fishing, Hiring good guides
Part IV: Building a flybox
Part V: “Subjects of the discipline”: Developing a cast 101, Stream reading/trout habitat 101, Fly Etiomology 101, Flies 101