I just read a book of essays about fly fishing by Thomas McGuane called The Longest Silence – a book given to me by a friend. There was a time I fly fished fairly seriously. I drove insane distances in pursuit of trout on a fly as often as I could manage it, and I knew my local stream as well as any of the regular cranks who plied it. These days I get out a few times each season, and take an occasional road-trip to streams further afield. In other words I dabble, I keep my hand in, but I don’t approach it with the kind of zeal I once did. Perhaps I will again one day. I don’t know.
I never really understood fishing even though I’ve been a fisherman as long as I can remember. As a kid there was nothing I liked more than being allowed to go along with my dad and my big brother on one of their fishing trips. I learned about trout from my father, who was an unrepentant bank-napping bait plonker of the worst order. He liked to fish with worms, hooked once, drifted under logjams with no added weight and he had an instinct for trout.
Down in the basement, my brother had a fly tying desk and it was full of marvels – threads and tinsels and feathers stuffed into old cigar boxes, bits of fur, and usually there was an unfinished fly on the vice. What a crazy world this fly fishing was. This was something I wanted to do one day.
I recall the first time I had my own spinning outfit and Dad took me to a little creek where I caught my first trout. It seemed huge to me, a beautiful, dark brook trout. In the fullness of time I realize it was only maybe 8 or 9 inches long, but that trout made quite an impression on me. It was huge in my imagination.
My introduction to fly fishing was through literature. There was my brother’s copy of Ray Bergman’s epic Trout. I loved that book. I liked to look at all the pictures of exotic fly patterns, and read about Mr. Bergman’s adventures on the West Branch of the Ausable in New York State. Then there was Trout Madness, the masterpiece by Robert Travers. When I started to fly fish one of my goals was to visit the Upper Peninsula in Michigan and and get a feel for the rivers he loved so much. Non-fly fishermen might be familiar with another work by Mr. Travers, Anatomy of a Murder, which Otto Preminger turned into a fine film, starring Jimmy Stewart. I love the opening scene in that film, Jimmy Stewart arriving at home with his fly rods and a brace of good trout. My brother had a picture book as well by Travers – Anatomy of a Fisherman. Those photos were so damned inviting.
When I was a kid, we caught trout for the table. Dad had a creel which later he replaced with a canvas bag. By the time I started fly fishing, we mostly released the trout we caught, using barbless hooks to minimize damage to the fish. As McGuane put it in The Longest Silence, we “detained” the trout.
I suppose fly fishing is about some sort of magic that happens on a trout stream, when you slow down enough to really pay attention to what’s going on around you, with the bugs and the trout and the birds and everything else. Catching a trout is an affirmation that you’ve paid attention well. It brings you to a remarkable level of focus. One September day some years ago, East Texas Red and I were fishing a bridge pool to rising trout on the Gardiner River in Yellowstone. Trout were rising selectively and we were both casting to the risers, one of us on each side of the stream. At some point I stopped watching and casting and I looked over at East Texas Red. An elk had settled down a few feet away from him on the downstream side and was watching our peculiar madness.
There was a time when I was pretty sure that fly fishing was all about catching trout, catching the most and catching the biggest. That changed for me one day on the North Tongue river in Wyoming. It’s a smallish stream there, a few thousand feet up in the mountains and it’s loaded with trout. I was there with East Texas Red and a fellow named Ken, who knows a lot of the Western streams. We could see the trout in the crystal clear stream and they had no interest in moving for any fly. That is until the mayflies finally started emerging and the stream came alive.
The trout were not being particularly selective. I had tied on a parachute Adams pattern, an all around buggy fly which did the trick nicely. Trout were rising in every pool and run and I was into a fish with just about every cast. That should be good right? After all, catching lots of fish is what I thought it was all about. What a strange experience. It was too easy. I found myself avoiding the easy trout and and casting to bigger fish in deeper cover. I don’t think I had ever caught so many consistently large trout in a two or three hour window.
It occurred to me then that fly fishing is a particularly Romantic pastime – the thrill is in the chasing, not the apprehending. How strange. I know this-after that day on the North Tongue it changed for me. I was no longer as driven to catch trout, yet my enjoyment of moments on a trout stream became somewhat enhanced. I slowed down, relaxed, took it all in.
In McGuane’s essays, fly fishing – whether to brook trout in a small stream or permit on some saltwater flat is more than a passion. It is at least a way of life. Reading his adventures on a chilly November evening, transported me to his holy places. It caused me to consider my own places where I’ve experienced that special magic.