I have lived in Colorado my entire life. I have been fishing since I was probably five or six years old when my father and grandfather would wake me up at 4 a.m. and drive us 45 minutes west of our home in Grand Junction to the Grand Mesa and its hundreds of small mountain lakes and streams. They would string a worm onto a size 12 Eagle Claw hook, top if off with a couple salmon eggs, put enough sinkers on the end to make the rod bow when you held it out in front of you, and launch the whole mess out into the middle of the water. We would sit at the shoreline with our pole (that’s what we called them back then – not “rods” like respectable fishermen) sticking through the fork in a branch sunk into the mud, waiting for the tell tale twitch signaling a trout had become interested in the bait. The only element of anticipation was whether or not the fish we reeled in would be a stocker rainbow or a sucker. If it was the latter, we simply tossed it up into the woods, for they were the enemy. If it was a “keeper”, it was rewarded by getting bashed against a rock until it died and tossed into a cooler full of ice. It wasn’t exactly science and it definitely wasn’t art, but it was a beginning, a launching point for me.
More often than not, I would become impatient and want to reel my line in to see if some fish had stolen my bait or to cast it out there just one more time, because, after all, that was the second most exciting part of fishing – the first being when you actually got to reel in a fish. No matter the reason, my impatience led to a gentle scolding from my generally patient yet firm elders. They knew that fishing was about waiting and, regardless of the crude methods we were using, outthinking a creature whose brain was roughly the size of a marble, so that we could achieve our desired goal: catching a fish that we would bludgeon to death, fry up on the grill, and consume. The casting, and any other form of moderate exercise involved, was simply an unfortunate byproduct associated with the catch.
I continued to fish primarily in this manner well into my teens, thinking that the more fish I caught, killed, and ate, the better fisherman I was. Of course, this thinking eventually led to my chucking a lure – a red Daredevil or rooster tail – out into some lake inlet and retrieving it with differing action and depth until I got an idea of what the fish were taking. Not nearly as crude, a lot more casting practice, a little more skill, but generally the same results.
Then, at 14, I bought my first fly rod outfit. It was a cheap Eagle Claw fiberglass rod and Medalist reel purchased from a local sporting goods store. I believe a 7 or 8 weight. I had a rudimentary understanding of how to cast it. I had seen my father cast flies on the small creeks near our home, and he actually took me with him on a handful of occasions, but I had no idea which flies to use or how to really rig the setup. And I do not remember ever landing a fish with him. But he was pretty decent at it and I watched and learned what I could. By the time I was 10, my father and I rarely fished together: his job kept him too busy; my teenage independence did not permit me to ask him to go. So, I had no real guidance in this new, and frustratingly difficult, sport. But, I experimented and watched others and eventually hooked and landed a handful of brookies one day, undoubtedly the dumbest fish in that stream. But it was enough. I kept coming back. When my friends and I would head up “the hill” for an overnighter, I would always pack my fly rod and wander off alone for an hour by myself to explore some small tributary, getting lucky some times and other times not.
Even with such poor equipment and such small waters, I distinctly remember feeling the athleticism inherent in the fly cast more to my liking, being the typical American three-sport athlete. I felt more like I was actively hunting a creature rather than casting blindly into deep water and waiting for a fish to make a fatal mistake. I enjoyed the walking and wading, the interaction with nature when you step into a stream, no matter how small, the force of the current against your body weight, the slipperiness of the rocks under foot, the chill of the mountain water on your legs. I knew that I was closer to being a part of the natural world than I was sitting on a cooler with a twig holding up my rod waiting for some divine fish god to bless my baited hook. I became enthralled with the level of concentration that a flyfisher must have in order to hook a fish – take your eye off the fly or indicator for a moment, and you have missed your chance; set the hook a half second late, and the fish, with his marble brain, spits out your admittedly pathetic attempt at mimicking its prey and you look like the stupid one. It is half inspiration and half meditation. I still knew very little of insect life, fish behavior, stream flows, fly selection, rod weights, and fly fishing techniques. I didn’t even use tapered leader, just four feet of 6 pound test monofiliment. But I fished. I put in my time on the water. I watched other fly fishermen. And I began to get pretty good.
I began to frequent larger rivers: The Roarking Fork, the Frying Pan, the Colorado. I landed a few bigger fish. Had double-digit fish days. Filled my fly box with a larger and more appropriate assortment of patterns (still primitive by today’s standards – a Royal Wulff, size 16, was pretty technical).
And then one day, as it has a habit of doing, life took over and I became too busy to fish as much as I wanted to. Sports, school, job, family, a move to a different part of the state where the waters were unfamiliar and I had nobody to fish with. Soon I was rarely fishing at all. And for four years, I never even bought a fishing license.
When I resumed the sport in the late 90s,, so much had changed. Equipment was lighter, stronger, more responsive, and more expensive. The flies were barely recognizable – where was my Royal Coachman, black gnat, and mosquito patterns? The rivers were mostly tailwaters, had far more regulations, smarter (or fewer) fish, and far more fishermen. But I studied, I learned, I adapted. I grew to view flyfishing as a pursuit for perfection that will never be obtained, and a beautiful walk that can only be spoiled by a poor attitude. I found new people to fish with (even got my wife involved, and boy is she a natural), found bodies of water that I would come to trust, found the peace of mind I had stumbled upon on some tiny creek in the Western Rockies some thirty years earlier.
I am not an elitist. I hold no grudge against people who find pleasure in throwing a lure into a stretch of water or bait a hook with scented cheese to sit and wait. I do not harbor ill feelings for those who legally snag a salmon or troll from a 20-foot pontoon boat. I believe that those who eat a fish they have caught are better off than if they bought one from a supermarket or ordered one off a menu in a restaurant. I am no better than any of those people just because I fly fish. In fact, I find I can have a conversation with any one of these outdoorsmen because we all find joy in a sport that has a variety of different techniques but one large chunk of common ground. I just know what I love.
I love to cast a tandem rig to a riser at dawn, mend the line just so, and fool him into thinking he has an easy meal. I love to feel the line go tight and to see the fish breach the water with a spasmodic shake of his head and then dive deep searching for a rock edge or sunken log to break off my line. I love the play. The give and take of force felt throughout nine feet of graphite. Judging the size and strength of the fish, watching the current and obstacles under your feet out of the corner of one eye, remaining mindful of the fine tippet and precarious system of knots that can break off if too much muscle is applied. It is the quick adjustment of a drag knob – just three more clicks should do it – the maneuvering into position down stream, seeing the head come up, and applying the net that I love. It is the fish in my hands, the glorious silvers and browns and oranges and reds reflecting in the sun, the careful hook removal, the gentle release and the quick flip of a tail fin as my counterpart swims back to resume his own pursuits, his own hunt.
I love the fact that it rarely happens exactly like this, that it is unpredictable and imperfect. This is what I truly love.
It is probably why I have never left Colorado and the reason I have never been to therapy. I have logged many hours searching for trout in the mountains and parks of this state, sloughing off the stress of our complex world with each cast. I worry that our waters and the fish that inhabit them are steadily declining. I feel that the good old days are long gone, that words like “whirling disease” and “mud snails” and “stocking programs” have taken the shine off the sport. But then, just when my middle-aged skepticism has sufficiently clouded my vision, I see my second cousin, nine-year-old Skyler, land his first six-inch brookie on a fly rod in a beaver pond and realize that it probably wasn’t ever as good as I remember it, and will probably never be as bad as I can imagine.