BY ALL RIGHTS
By all rights I should never have become a fly fisherman. By heritage I'm born of Danish, German, and Welsh parentage. My grandparents migrated to the USA in the late 1800's, or early 1900's. There wasn't a fishing gene of any kind in their background. I was born in 1942 at the end of the depression, and my father had a real struggle just keeping his large family alive. No time or money for pastimes such as fishing, or anything else. The ethic within the family was to work hard, go to church, grow up, get married, have a family, get educated if possible, and keep the nose to the grindstone. Everything else was in sixth place. The depression had made an impression.
My three eldest brothers had grown up and gone off to the military before I got to know any of them. Another brother who was four years my senior ruled the roost, and got most of the sparse crumbs that happened to filter down from above. He was the one who got to go to Scout Camp, and to own a bicycle, and got the pick of just about everything good that came our way. I was just the irritating younger brother who wanted to tag along. He dominated my other younger brother and two of my five sisters as well, although he was a lot harder on me than on them. I was jealous of his place in the pecking order, and fearful of getting "beat up" if I crossed into his territory. As a result, I was pretty reticent about forwarding an agenda.
As a twelve year old, I went on an overnight outing with a youth group from my church. We went to the mountains in the back of a grain truck with a tarp pulled across the top. It was my first camping trip and I didn't know much of anything. After spending the night under the stars we arose in the morning, and while everyone was getting ready for breakfast I fell in behind my brother and a couple more guys his age who were going for a "little" hike before breakfast. We set out at a fast pace on a trail along the hillside overlooking the Snake River, near an area called Burns Creek. We dropped into another canyon and hiked up the bottom for some distance. By this time I had to rely totally on the big guys. I knew we were going to be late for breakfast, and needed to get back because we were going to leave shortly afterward to go swimming at Heise Hot Springs. It was decided that we would take a shortcut back by hiking to the top of the ridge and dropping down into the canyon where we were camped. After topping out we saw that the north slope of the mountain was covered in more than two feet of snow. The brave hardy souls forged ahead, with me following their trail in the broken snow. After floundering to the bottom we found Burns Creek booming with spring run-off. There was a sign that said Hell's Hole. By that time I believed it. We followed a horse trail down-canyon. The only problem was that it was a very narrow canyon, with steep sidewalls, and the trail went through the booming creek. Not once. Not twice, but eleven times before we finally came out at camp. We had to link arms to get across. It was harrowing. The big guys had been telling stories of rattlesnakes in this area, further traumatizing my young imagination. We arrived about one o'clock, wet and exhausted to find our adult leaders in a state of apoplexy. They had sent someone to contact the civil air patrol to start an air search. After a good dressing down and no food, we were informed that we had ruined the trip, and there would be no swimming, breakfast, or anything else. We were loaded into the truck and taken back home. I had bad dreams for a couple of weeks afterward. That should have cured me of wading in the water, or ever wanting to go to the mountains again. It should have.
The family economic outlook had improved glacially by the early '50's, and I must have heard a friend talking about his dad taking him fishing, because I approached my father with the proposition. He relented after some coaxing, and told me to go dig some worms, which I did. He came up with a couple of old steel telescoping fishing poles and dubious looking reels and line. I don't know where he got them. We drove about five miles to where an irrigation canal dumped into the Snake River. We rigged up with worms, and cast into the canal, just upstream of the river. I remember the excitement when the end of his pole started bouncing a little. He set the hook, and after a few moments, pulled in a beautiful two pound sucker. Now my dad wasn't one to waste anything, so we threaded him on a willow and went back to fishing. I don't remember if I ever caught one by myself, but I did play and land a few fish. All suckers. All in all, I figured it was a pretty good day. I had seldom ever been anywhere alone with my dad. We had fried suckers for dinner that night. I think I still have a bone stuck in my throat!
I got my hands on an outdoor magazine, and was looking at all the beautiful pictures and drawings of TROUT, some of which were being caught on bits of feather using a long pole. I didn't have a long pole, but I had a pretty green feather. I got an Eagle Claw bait-holder hook and some sewing thread and set about tying a bit of green feather on it. No clue what a trout fly was supposed to look like. After pestering dad for what seemed like months to take me fishing again, he capitulated after promises to shovel all the crab grass out of our irrigation ditch. After the job was done, and the blisters bandaged, we got our poles and I got my "fly" (singular) and hopped into the car, and we set forth. I'd talked dad into getting a jar of salmon eggs, because I'd heard that fish really liked salmon eggs. We wound up at a different place a mile or so above our sucker hole. There was a huge check running clear across the river, with pools and pockets and rocks just below. I rigged up my "fly" with a split shot above it so it would cast. As you may imagine I came up empty. Even at that age I knew it was cheating, but I put a salmon egg on the hook with the green feather, which upon reflection resembled a piece of moss. I cast out again, and yet again, and whoa. What's this? I reeled in a shiny trout of massive dimension. Must have been eight inches long! I was riding pretty high. I'd caught a TROUT! On a fly?? Somehow I knew I'd cheated, but hey! It was a TROUT.
Dad got too busy to go fishing after that, and it was a bit of a dry spell for me filled with school and softball, and pretending I was chasing girls. I was too shy to really chase them. A guy named Dean that lived a couple blocks away took an interest in me, and he tied his own flies. Well he tied Sandy Mites out of horse hair. He took me fishing with him on the South Fork across the river from where I was almost cured of going to the mountains. He had a glass Shakespeare Wonder rod, which was the real deal back then. He showed me how to swing a wet fly, and it worked with marginal success. But, I was really getting into this fly fishing business. He took me hunting that fall, and it was then that I discovered that he was the biggest poacher in Southeast Idaho. I was an accomplice to poaching several deer that fall, I'm ashamed to say. It was the late 50's and there were deer running everywhere, and lots fewer hunters than now so I don't think we depleted the herd much. That's my rationalization for bad behavior. At least he taught me other things besides how to get by the check stations. I was really getting into this outdoors stuff. I graduated from high school shortly afterward, and Dean and I drifted apart, which was probably a good thing. He was the one who turned me on to fly fishing, but it was a long dry spell since I did any more fishing. I went to an electronics trade school for a year, and met my future wife and became engaged. We were married while I was in school, and we had our first child soon after. Work was scarce, and it was decided that I would go to California with a brother-in-law to look for work. I found work, and my wife and son joined me, and we stayed with my brother in Simi. After living there awhile I became acquainted with several people, and an outing was organized where we took a group of scouts on an overnighter on the Labor Day week-end to a place in the Eastern Sierra near the San Joaquin River. We hiked for three or four miles up a stream that tumbled out of the mountains. I had an ultra-light spin rod, and used it with worms and eggs to catch some of the brookies in the stream. We slept under the stars that night, and the next day a friend of my brother joined the group. He broke out a bamboo fly rod and flies, and commenced to put on a clinic. He was catching golden trout along with the brookies. I started asking questions, and he gave me a fly to dap on the water with my spinning rod. I walked out on a large log over a deep hole in the stream, and dapped the fly on the surface. I watched as a trout came from the bottom all the way up to grab the fly. My reaction was to swing the rod hard, which yanked the fish out of the water and onto the bank. It was my first fish on a dry fly, and it was a Golden Trout. I didn't know at the time how rare an experience it was. I was well and truly hooked, along with the fish.
I'd like to say that my fly fishing career took off at a rapid pace from there, but it didn't. That was the only time I went fishing in the two years that I was in California. I moved back home to Idaho, got a job for the summer in Grand Teton National Park, and started trying to teach myself how to fly fish. I didn't know anyone else who did. I bought an 8.5' Fenwick fly rod, and it was for a 7 weight line. It wasn't the ideal outfit on which to learn to fish dry flies. A few years and a different job later I learned of a guy at work who tied flies during his lunch hour. I walked over to his building one day and asked him if he'd show me how to make a dry fly. He showed me some rudiments during the half hour of instruction, and I decided to buy a vise and give it a try. It was dismal. I bought a book by Jack Dennis, and started learning a little at a time about tools and materials and hackle and dubbing . (Dubbing? What's that?) A little at a time, and it started making sense. The problem was that I didn't have a clue what fly to fish, where, or when. I was determined to catch fish with dry flies, and didn't know about drag, or presentation, or approach, or holding water, and a myriad of other things. Put the fly on the water, and wait for a fish to take it was the method. No success.
My wife grew up in the Teton Basin, near Driggs, Idaho, and we'd go there often to visit the in-laws. I'd learned a bit from reading books and magazines, and armed with that information I set about trying to catch fish with dry flies on the Teton River, not knowing that it was pretty technical fishing. I hiked into an area away from the road, and started watching the rises that the fish were making. I couldn't tell exactly what they were taking, but I thought it was a PMD. I had a couple of them in my box. After rigging up, I soon learned the lesson that wading into the river amid rising fish was counter-productive. After waiting until they started to feed again I also learned that along with a stealthy approach, a proper cast was prerequisite to not spooking them all over again. I'd read about drag, and did my best to keep the fly from dragging, but I learned the hard way about mending, and puddle casting, and other ways to keep the fly from making a v-wake. I did manage to get it right a few times, which boosted my enthusiasm and allowed me to think that I might get the hang of it. It was a long road filled with trial and error, but like most things that we persevere to do I got better, and it became more enjoyable. I met and fished with a couple of guys that introduced me to upstream nymph fishing with a strike indicator, and fishing from a float tube in still water. This opened up new dimensions of the sport, and marked one of the few times anyone spent any time showing me "how it's done."
Looking back, I'd like to make a few observations. First, there are better ways to come into this sport. Second, is that the way that I was raised, and several life experiences should have precluded my ever becoming involved with fly fishing. Third, it took an adult taking an interest in me to involve me in the sport. Fourth, is that although learning the way I learned was enjoyable, a lot of it was unproductive and sometimes frustrating. I almost gave up a couple of times. So, here's the pitch!
If you can folks, (and if you're not inclined toward breaking the law) find a struggling young guy or gal, and introduce him/her to the sport. It won't take long to find out if the desire is there. If you have kids it won't take long to hook them, or to get the message that they aren't interested. Look for someone who's without a dad or underprivileged, or just somebody who needs a role model. This sport is full of role models, (and potential role models). The learning curve can be shortened considerably by someone knowledgeable. You don't have to be an expert, just interested. The sport will die if we don't draw youngsters to it. It's a great way to give back.
An improbable fly fisherman.