Throwing flies

I once dreamed of deep pools, perfect casts and plump rainbows. I even found these things on occasion, hiding beneath canyon rims, along cobbled shorelines and chest deep in icy February water.

But nearly six years ago, I untangled my last knotted leader, wound up my reel and gave up on fly-fishing. Eyes on climbing ropes and rotomolded kayaks, I figured fishing, like golf, would be my remedy for the aches of old age. I said farewell with no regrets and casually gave my reel away and easily bartered my fly rod for a pair of last year's skis.

I thought the addiction died easily. Over those six years, I rarely missed, or even gave thought to, fishing. That is, until recently, when fly-fishing came back to collect, the suppressed urge returning mysteriously and demanding justice.

Any fool can go out, buy a high-dollar fly rod straight off the rack, hear the register ring and kick off years of misery on the water. Having been that fool once before, I insisted on really getting familiar with the gear this time. Going above and beyond the call, I test-drove two rods in the alley behind the shop. After three casts with each, the courtship was over. I'd made up my mind. Like I said, the urge to fish demanded justice.

"I need this rod, a reel, line, leaders, tippeting, a couple fly boxes, some flotant, indicators, weight, waders, a vest, and a fairly complete supply of flies and nymphs."

The grinning merchant began pulling objects off the top shelf, briefly sizing me up for a pair of the latest in Gore-Tex wading wear before feeding me an estimate. I flinched away from the number, and visions of food stamps danced in my head.

"Okay, I'll actually need this rod, your cheapest reel, a handful of flies, and could I get you to throw in the line and backing?"

The merchant's grin sagged a little, but the register chimed anyway.

Armed, ready and boasting new credit card debt, my thoughts turned to good water, and I set out for what I thought would be a secret spot. On the river, I quickly realized that I should not have listened to that random urge.

In the first half hour, I blew through $12 in flies, sacrificing bits of hackle, hook and peacock plume with bad casts and bogus fly placements. Only two flies remaining, I tied one on, laid it out along a riffle, watched it disappear and felt tension on the rod.

I played the line and my exhilaration for close to a minute, trying to work my catch into calmer water. The bubble burst when I noticed a pattern. My fly had attached itself to a good-sized stick, and after a couple swift tugs, I lost that one as well.

Not to be dissuaded, I tied my final fly onto the invisible leader and approached a large section of slack water with stealth. Laying low and trying to avoid being spotted, I actually mustered something resembling a textbook cast, my Blue-Winged Olive settling dreamily onto the water. A large splash hit almost instantly and my pulse quickened. But as I applied tension, the fly and line popped right out of the water, flew through the air and piled up on my chest. Just then, another splash hit and the source became obvious. There camouflaged on the shore sat a small fuzzy man, who resembled nothing so much as a river troll. He was curled up in a cheap sleeping bag and had a 40-ounce bottle in one hand and a large rock in the other. As it turns out, my secret spot was actually his summer home, and the next splash got dangerously close. I was out of flies anyway, and managed a faint "until next time" as I packed it in.

Snags, tangles and lost bugs dominated "next time" as well. But unlike my first catch, I felt tension on the rod only after I managed to catch and land a small chunk of my wife's neck. The upside to "next time" was I didn't lose any more flies and never had to deal with the river troll; we left the river immediately.

Outwitted by trout and emasculated by microscopic hooks and feathers, I set out for a final fishing trip not long ago. Another swipe of plastic brought me more flies, and I decided it was time to fish below the hatchery.

Picking through the box, I chose my weapon, a good-sized Yellow Humpy, tied it on and sunk in icy water up to my waderless crotch. My first cast rolled nicely as bugs clouded the late summer air.

My second cast mimicked the first, and as I stood mesmerized by the motion of my bug, a silver flash erupted from the depths and nailed it.

In a perfectly lucid moment, time slowed and I watched the large trout realize something was amiss and flee for cover. The moment was broken only by the first genuine scream of my new reel and a wicked bend in the rod.

At long last, the game was on.

For what seemed like an hour, I carefully followed the fish's progress, always going easy on the tension and trying to casually tire it out. Eventually, I eased the trout into an eddy, slipped out the barbless hook and let it go.

At that moment, I started dreaming of deep pools and perfect casts again. Yes, I've dropped more dollars on flies, unknotted bunches of line and done damage to the local willow population. But I've also started to get the hang of this "old man's" curiosity again and thankfully enjoyed many more strikes, screaming reels and genuine bends in my rod.

Sadly, I also get the sense that quitting this habit won't be quite so easy this time around.

Will Sands




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