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On the Fly

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

If it’s true that the journey is at least as important as the destination, if the process
matters as much as the result, then I can say in all honesty that I am a good fisherman.
I’ve casted for rainbows and for browns in the snow-melt alpine lakes in California’s
eastern Sierras; I’ve watched a tippet float by the nose of a silver salmon on a pristine
river in British Columbia; I’ve gone after redfish and speckled trout in the brackish water
of Louisiana’s Calcasieu Lake; I’ve plied various streams, rivers and lakes in Montana,
Wyoming and Utah. I’ve fished these places and others with enthusiasm, enjoying the
outdoors, the company and the sport. If, however, catching fish is the sole measure of
whether one is a good angler, then I’d be exaggerating if I told you that I had a clue.
Sure, I’ve landed many fish, some of them rather nice, in fact – a four-pound brown on Rock
Creek in Montana, a five-pound rainbow in California’s Lake George. For the most part, I’ve
dabbled, tinkered, futzed and foundered. And I haven’t regretted one minute of the time
I’ve spent fishing. The saying, “it’s called fishing, not catching,” is certainly apt, but
the world is a better place, I’ve found, when I actually achieve what I set out to do.
Which is why I made sure to stop by St. Peter’s Fly Shop in Fort Collins, Colorado, before
I set out to land my first Colorado trout. Located in one of the oldest homes in Fort
Collins, the shop has been around for about 13 years and provides anything a fly-fisherman
could need, including guide service on local and not-so-local waters. Dave Cook signed on
as my guide, a thankless gig he certainly did not deserve, since he is a kind,
accommodating man, and I have been known to snag hooks in my earlobes. On a fine September
morning, as we left the shop at a reasonable hour and headed for the Poudre River, I asked
Dave if we shouldn’t have left earlier. In as pleasant a manner as he could, Dave said, “In
fly-fishing, and most kinds of fishing, you can generally follow the Happy Time of Day
rule. And that rule states that the most pleasant time of day for you to be out is the most
likely time that you’re going to catch a fish … in the middle of the summer, the most
pleasant time of day is going to be very early, and then in the evening. In spring and
fall, the most pleasant time of day is going to be in the middle of the day.” These simple
words made me wonder why the heck I’d spent all those early mornings freezing my common
sense off. As we wound our way up Poudre Canyon, next to Colorado’s only Wild and Scenic
river, past sheer, salmon-pink rock walls and rustic campgrounds galore, Dave continued to
educate me in the Tao of trout. I learned about their feeding habits, about the parasite
called whirling disease that affects the rainbows and that 12- to 14-inch fish are
considered fine catches on this walk-and-wade river. I listened to all I didn’t know and
then, after we stopped and started to suit up, I proved I knew nothing by attempting to
force my boot into the boot-included wader. Ah, the fish don’t stand a chance, I thought.
Dave proved to be as graceful as he was gracious. Of course, his graciousness threw me,
since he outfitted me to the hilt but didn’t bother to take a rod of his own. This was not
a good sign. How was I supposed to hide my spastic casts if he was never making casts of
his own? My technique doesn’t need an audience – it needs the cover of darkness. Dave
directed me down the hillside toward a large pool known by locals as “The Aquarium,”
because it’s filled with large rainbows – all of which seem impervious to being caught. It
had been a while since I’d held a fly rod in my hand, and I tried to replicate the
technique that had landed a few fish in the past, keeping my right elbow against my side
and snapping my arm forward and back between the imagined clock stations of 10 and 2. I
watched the line shoot forward, the fly landing an impressive distance away, then drifting
downstream as I mended line. I felt the incipient tugs of pride. Then Dave asked if he
could show me something. What he showed me was that I was an octopus trying to knit. His
form was so fluid, his resulting casts so long and accurate. But he didn’t get a single
bite. He delivered time and again with the splendid touch of a surgeon, yet not one rainbow
rose to the bait. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so bad. That evening, having promised to return
the fishing gear the next day, I made my way back up the canyon to the low-key resort and
RV park called Sportsman’s Lodge. Before I spent the night there, I ventured back into the
Poudre, where I did my best to replicate Dave’s supple style. The line soon zipped, where
once it had zapped; I picked out distant targets and managed most of the time to get within
a yard of them; I attempted repeated backcasts and kept the line aloft for a few seconds at
a time, before shooting it toward a pool in the gathering darkness. Then I snagged the line
on a rock. I went to free the fly, and as I gently finagled the hook free, I felt an odd
sensation, one that was completely unfamiliar to me. Is this what it feels like to be at
one with nature, I thought, to be doing something at an elevated level of proficiency? Is
this what it feels like to be a true fisherman? No. I had squatted too low, and the river
was pouring into my waders.

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