FLIES AND FISH AND FREEDOM--AND FOOLS
By Andy Weddington
Friday, 07 May 2010
April Commentaries focused exclusively on the sign that greets all boarding the U. S. Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina. Such was not the plan but ever-developing circumstances required such. There is one more Commentary to write about that sign but not until the final piece of order is realized. Until that day comes photographs posted left will remain.
There's plenty around the country and globe ripe for commentary but not today.
This Commentary is a day or so late because this past week I waded the special trout waters of the San Juan River in northwest New Mexico--on the 'Road Atlus' a little more than spittin' distance from Durango, Colorado. Armed with a fly rod, a 3 weight beauty my brother built--to spec--a few months ago, I once again donned chest waders and a vest fit with tackle to try my hand at landing rainbows and the easily spooked brown trout.
Other than family, only one other matter crossed my mind the entire week--and it was always in the back of my mind. It was not a distraction. Rather a comfort. More on that later.
If you're unfamiliar with fly-fishing, my sympathies. If you've seen the movie, "A River Runs Through It," you're still unfamiliar with fly-fishing. As for all my decades with a rod in hand, I've yet to see a trout impressed, much less caught, by the fancy dancing of the line before fly hits water. There is one most elemental requirement for catching trout--the fly must be in the water. Hollywood fly-fishing is not fly-fishing. If you've seen the old comedy, "Man's Favorite Sport," starring Rock Hudson then think of serious fly-fishing somewhere between the two flicks.
If you know something about fly-fishing, how wonderful.
There is nothing quite as intoxicating as standing--mid-calf to waist-deep--in ice-cold water fly-casting for trout. The solitude; surrounded by mountains, wildlife, and peaceful quiet--except for the calming sound of crystal clear water flowing and gurgling over a bed of stones; amongst which perfectly camouflaged trout swim.
And the fly fisherman is alone with his thoughts--assessing time of day, temperature, cloud cover, wind, depth and flow of water, and more all while studying a compact foam box of artificial flies and settling on one that will, with high probability, momentarily fool a trout in its natural habitat. Good luck.
Then to tie the fly--so small a dozen or more of them will comfortably rest on the face of a quarter--with a cinch or Orvis knot to a leader that is about the diameter of a human hair; but considerably stronger. Try threading a human hair through a hole not much more in circumference than the hair itself. It's not so easy. Then try it when your hands are wet and cold and you're a little hungry. Yes, of course, old eyes require magnifiers--it's not cheating.
Trout are finicky. The food they may be feasting on could be a plain black nymph 3/16 of an inch or shorter. And they can't get enough. If your fly happens to mimic the food, you're in luck. But, if the fly has a touch of color or is 1/16 of an inch too long, even if plain black, the trout may not be interested. And, to further complicate matters, the trout may just as suddenly turn their attention to red worms or brown nymphs or olive larva and ignore the black ones; not bothering to so inform the fisherman and saying so much as, "Catch me if you can." Humans cannot think like trout.
So goes the cat and mouse game between man and fish. Even more complicated that a chess board as fisherman tries to figure out what fish is eating. It can be maddening--tying on dozens of flies with nary a strike, and never solving the problem. And it can be exhilarating when finding the right fly and hooking up and landing trout as fast as you can net one, release it and recast. A fly-fisherman knows. And when you stumble upon the right "bug"--it's rewarding. And a closely guarded secret; except among family and close friends.
A couple of years ago, while wading the same river with my Dad and brother, Ken--my fishing mates again this trip--no one was hooking up; except for a guy within raised voice distance fishing upstream from my Dad. My Dad, a fly fisherman of the first order, hollered to the guy, "Looks like you found what they like" to ever so tactfully "test the waters," sort of speak, to see if the guy would give up his secret. To which the savvy angler replied, "Yep." End of conversation. And he returned to his business of casting and landing trout.
That day our frustrations, if you want to call the challenge that, continued. It was the other guy's day--but it may not be tomorrow. And such was the case. We found the right bugs this trip-especially on Friday; olive green. So goes fly-fishing for trout. (Photos of a rainbow and brown posted left)
Oh the challenge and excitement of casting upstream so the fly precisely catches a small riff and waifs its way downstream teasing trout--who have mere flashes of time to make a decision to strike or not. It's known as "getting a float." All the while the concentrating, unblinking fisherman is zeroed in on a discreet, small strike indicator riding the surface and waiting for an unnatural bump or dunk as signal to set the barbless hook. Day dream and be a split-second late and the fish spits out the fly. So recast, mend line, and try to momentarily fool another trout--maybe--cast after cast after cast.
And the joy of dealing with a "woof"--a tangled mess of line that happens with a careless cast, flick of the rod, a gust of wind, or attempt to set a hook with a little too much enthusiasm. Some can be quickly untangled--and that's rare and usually dumbass luck. The quicker remedy is to re-rig using the reliable double-surgeons knot to splice together three or four varying lengths and sizes of leader. "Woofs" are inevitable. They happen to the best wielding a fly rod. Best advice to a beginner--know your do's, don'ts and knots so as to minimize fly out of water time. It's a good reminder for veterans, too.
While in the water, nothing else matters. Nothing. No cell phones, iPods, mePods, peePods, or computers. No newspapers. No television or radio. Nothing.
A basic fishing lodge room--where "remodeled" means a new towel bar was installed near the 1950s vintage bathroom sink (original equipment not retro or chic) just above where the other one once was (and old holes not plastered)--to rest at night, prepare equipment, swap stories (some backed up with photos) and discuss strategy for the next day. And sometimes to tie a handful of flies that may be tomorrow's hot bug. And for "grits"--a simple restaurant for breakfast and dinner where lumpy gravy--white or brown, diner's choice--smothers nearly every dish. It's filling and the price is right. And a fly shop next door completes the urban development.
Politics, oil spills, earthquakes, tornadoes, illegal immigrants, stock market scams and all the other nonsense of daily life are momentarily absent from the mind. No matter how big or seemingly important when out of the water they do not matter in the water. For they have nothing to do with hooking up and landing trout. Nothing. Those matters and all other problems vanish. They may as well be a universe away.
Landing trout requires knowledge, skill, creativity, perseverance and patience. And a lot of luck. And even that may not be enough. For if the trout decide they are not hungry--or at least not hungry for what you have to offer--it can be a long day. Yet even the longest day in the water with fly rod in hand beats the worst day anyplace else.
And that last sentence brings me to my closing point--the only other matter that was on my mind while fishing...
that being of fellow countrymen who have voluntarily placed themselves in harm's way--whether on a training range in the United States, a ship patrolling distant waters, or operating in a combat zone in the Middle East--so that I may fly fish; something I do not ever take for granted. And many others likewise can go about their lives in relative peace and safety.
And to that segment of our populace completely clueless to or off-handedly dismissive about the correlation between a strong, capable military and our freedoms, I unabashedly and unapologetically think of you as fools--more foolish than the trout suckered by an artificial fly. I know none are readers of this Commentary and that's too bad. They just may learn something about country. And fly-fishing.
To those in uniform (and those who served), with whom I and my fishing mates share a kinship, God speed.
Fly-fishing with your brother and Dad (who taught us a long, long time ago)--one of life's best pleasures. Ken, thanks for hosting; again. And, Dad--thanks for not letting age keep you out of the water and continuing to teach us a thing or two about fly-fishing.