July 28th, 2008

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
This is where our readers tell their stories . . .

Not-SO-Great Anglers
By Randy Kadish, NY

What makes a great angler? Don't ask my friend Robert. He's an aimless, failed actor and clue less that a great angler is obsessed to learn and to experiment with fly-fishing techniques; is obsessed to overcome obstacles and disappointment.

Often I see those great anglers on rivers. They spend time reading the water before making their first cast. They often change flies and leaders, and sometimes fish tandem rigs. They often write notes on the flies and tactics that took trout.

Robert was a world away from being a great angler. I was an ocean away. You see, I read my share about fly-fishing techniques but, unlike the great anglers, I didn't measure success by the number of trout I caught. I measured success--if you can call it that--by how much I enjoyed being in the midst of a beautiful river or surf; by how much I enjoyed meeting other anglers. So instead of always changing flies and leaders, I usually tied on a streamer and covered as much water as possible.

And yet I was like those great anglers. I too was obsessed: at writing and at long-distance fly casting. For years I spent countless hours studying writing and revising my stories, studying and experimenting with fly-casting techniques. Finally, very finally, I became satisfied with my writing and my casting. I decided to put my obsessions behind me, and to devote my new spare time to enjoy fishing.

It didn't happen. Soon I learned why: I was bored with fishing and needed a new challenge. And so I decided to become a great nymph angler. I bought Charles Brooks's classic book, Fishing For Larger Trou each chapter and, like a college student, highlighted the essential ideas and techniques.

According to Brooks, there are over ten different methods for nymphing. Of the ten, he felt the Brooks Method was the most productive. To fish the method he used a sinking line, a short leader and a heavy fly, like a stonefly. Next, he waded into a fast, boulder-filled pool, and cast upstream and let the fly sink to the bottom. Finally, he followed the fly with the rod tip and let the fly drift directly downstream.

The method seemed easy enough. I decided to try it, especially because I thought I knew the perfect pool for it: Waterfall Pool on the Titicus River. The Titicus was only about a half-mile long and, in most places, about twenty-five feet wide. Trees lined both banks. Their overhanging branches formed a leafy, mosaic-looking roof. But the roof had gaps in it. Hazy, different-shaped beams of light crashed on the water, and shattered into sharp, two-dimensional flames. On a beautiful Monday I stood on the banks of the Titicus and wondered how such long beams could be flattened and concentrated into images so small.

I hiked upstream. As usual, I didn't see another angler. Again I had the eerie feeling I was alone in the world. I didn't like it. I reached Waterfall Pool. It was filled with pockets and seams. Carefully I waded in, and took cover behind a large boulder. I pulled line off my reel and back cast my fly upstream, just below the foamy water. Holding the fly rod parallel to the water, I followed the drifting fly. A sideways bow formed in the line, the way Brooks said it would. The fly passed me, but suddenly it stopped drifting. Was I hooked up on the bottom? I pointed the rod tip up. I wasn't hooked up

Again I cast upstream and followed the drifting fly. Again my fly stopped. Frustrated, I wondered why, then decided to try the method about ten feet downstream.

I got the same result, again, then again. My frustration condensed into anger. I wondered, What's wrong with me? How did I mess up the techniques I read only yesterday?

I wasn't having fun; so I came up with an excuse to change to a streamer and not feel like a quitter: There was no point in fishing the Brooks Method until I reread his chapter and learned what I did wrong.

I waded out of the river and hiked downstream to The Big Bend. Though the bend looked promising, every time I had fished it, always casting a dry or a streamer across stream, I got skunked. This time, however, I wanted to erase my nymphing failure. I decided to go to my tried-and-true method, a method was so simple, I never told anglers it was my favorite: dead-drifting a Woolly Bugger straight downstream in broken water.

I tied on a size 12, waded into the river, just upstream of the bend. Moving the fly rod side to side, I fed line through the guides. The current pulled my fly downstream, just below the low, overhanging branch. I raised the rod tip up, waited, then retrieved about six inches of line.

A take! I pointed the rod up and pulled down on the line. The rainbow jumped. He wasn't very big, but landing him would put me on the board, so to speak. I wanted him.

I got him. I let the trout go and thought, Maybe I'm not such a bad angler after all.

And so I lost myself in the cycle of dead drifting and retrieving. Though my nymphing failure still muddied--in my mind, at least--the beauty all around me, I suddenly heard a chorus of birds, and the steady counter rhythm of the gurgling river. Yes, I'm enjoying being alone. Another take! Now I'm beginning to roll!

The second rainbow was a little bigger than the first. I released him, then methodically covered much of the bend.

Bang! The take jolted me. The fly line was plugged in. The rod overloaded from a power surge. It throbbed and bent into the shape of a giant crowbar. The trout felt like a cinder block. I couldn't pry him. I lowered the rod tip and let the trout run. He didn't, surprisingly. The fight was a stalemate at the start. He broke for the far bank. The sound of my spinning fly reel reminded me of roulette. Where will the trout land? In my hand?

Remembering what I had read in Kelly Gallup's and Bob Linseman's book, I applied steady pressure and tried to lift his head. I couldn't. The trout turned and accelerated downstream. My reel screamed. Reeling in line as fast as I could, I waded downstream. I got below the trout, barely. Again I couldn't lift his head. He must be a monster!

He bolted toward the far bank, not the tail, thankfully! I pulled my elbows and arms close to my body. The throbbing fly rod seemed to pump electricity, or maybe the trout's will to live, through me. Tippet, please don't break. Why didn't I use a 3X?

The trout took more line, then turned downstream. Again I couldn't lift his head. I had no other choice but to pray he tired and slowed. He did, miraculously. The throbs eased. Maybe this really is my day. Maybe I'll land the trout!

Again he hit the gas. I squeezed the rod handle. Still I can't lift his head!

He slowed. Again I waded downstream. Breathe deeply. Catch my breath.

The trout closed in on the tail.

It's now or never. If he breaks off, he breaks off. Slowly, steadily, I turned the reel handle, expecting the tippet to break and the line to go dead. It didn't. Feeling like a weight lifter struggling to lift a dumbbell, I lifted the trout's head, finally. He was a brown. I turned him. He was about twelve feet away. Now eight. Now six.

He broke toward me. Off guard, I let him lower his head. I stopped reeling. He passed me, then slowed. I lifted his head and reeled him close to me. He's bigger than any trout I ever caught. A monster! Don't pull too much of him out of the water and let him rotate and break off.

Back and forth he swam. I kneeled down, put my hand under the trout and grabbed him. I won! I'm redeemed. Thank God for streamers! I wish I had a ruler.

"Don't worry, Mr. Monster. We all deserve to live." I let the trout go. He darted downstream. I caught my breath. My heart, however, seemed to beat harder than before. After one big fight I wanted more.

I didn't get it. When dusk thickened and I feared the dark, I headed home.

As I rode on the train, I thought of how, after spending so much time studying nymph fishing, I caught the biggest trout of my life on a simple, streamer technique. Was that ironic? I kept wondering, until I walked through my door, dropped my fly-fishing gear on the floor and reread the chapter on The Brooks Method. I didn't get an answer to why my stonefly stopped drifting. So I went online and posted the question on a fly-fishing bulletin board. Again I didn't get an answer. Maybe, I wondered, trying to become a great angler wasn't such a good idea after all.

My cell phone rang. Robert's number was on the screen. Again I thought of the time he caught a huge bass in Central Park and, instead of releasing it, he took it up the main road and looked for someone to take and send him a picture. By the time he released the bass, the fish was near death. Should I answer the call? He did have a bout with early prostate cancer.

I answered. Robert asked if I had been fishing. I told him about the monster trout I caught.

"Where'd you catch him?"

"The Big Bend."

"What fly did you use?"

"A streamer."

"How did you fish it?"

Robert, I knew, was picking my brain so he could to go to the Big Bend and repeat my tactics. As always, he was looking for an easy way to catch a big trout.

"When are you going up there again?" he asked.

"Next Monday."

"Can I go with you?"

Will he show up late again? I said, "If you want, meet me on the 12:17."

During the next few days I continued wondering why my stonefly hadn't drifted, then it hit me: Because some of the boulders were so big, after the stonefly drifted over small ones, it smacked into big ones. The answer was so simple I wondered why I, or anyone who tried to answer my bulletin-board question, hadn't thought of it. The Brooks Method, I realized, didn't work in water littered with giant boulders.

But what method would?

Again I opened Brooks's book and read. The best method to fish Waterfall Pool, it seemed, was the Rising-to-the-Surface Method. I looked forward to Monday.

Robert showed up only five minutes late. I bought a slice of Junior's cheesecake.

"It's so good to go fishing with you again," Robert said. We got on the train, and he asked for a summary of my fishing season, often interrupting me to learn exactly where and how I had caught fish. Annoyed, I was glad when we finally got off the train and walked to the river. I took a Woolly Bugger out my fly box. "Robert, tie this on."

He did. I tied on a caddis nymph. We hiked to The Big Bend. I described my dead-drifting method, wished Robert luck and walked to Waterfall Pool. I waded in, pulled line off the reel, cast slightly downstream and let the fly sink. I pulled slack out of the line and slowly lowered the rod to about 11 o'clock. Again and again I recycled the technique until the caddis was about a foot from the rod tip. No take. I waded a few steps downstream and started a new cycle. A take! The fish was close to me. I landed him without much of a fight. My studying had paid a cheap dividend.

About an hour later I won my second short fight. I released the rainbow and decided to see how Robert was doing. I strolled downstream. Maybe I'm finally on the road to becoming a great angler.

Robert was sitting on the bank.

I yelled, "How'd you do?"

"Great! Look."

I walked up to him. The monster trout lay at his feet.

"Too bad you didn't bring your camera," Robert said.

"Why didn't you release him!"

"A beauty like that? I want a picture."

"I didn't tell you how to catch him so you could kill him."

"It's legal on this river--I think."

"I don't care if it is."

"When we get back to the city you can get your camera and we can go to Riverside Park. With the right background no one will know where we are."

"I'm not taking any pictures or ever again telling you how to catch a fish." I marched downstream.

"Wait for me."

I glanced over my shoulder. Robert put the monster brown into a plastic bag, then into his backpack.

I came to the long, narrow Bridge Pool. I tied on a streamer. Robert walked past me and told me he was going to fish the slow water below the bridge. I didn't answer, and I waded into the narrow run just upstream of the pool. I dead drifted my streamer straight down; but instead of seeing the beauty all around me, I saw the monster trout lying at Robert's feet. Then I saw him finally releasing the near-dead Central Park bass.

I didn't like the images, but couldn't flush them from my mind. My fishing day had turned sharply, like the Big Bend, but for the worse. I decided to leave without Robert. I looked downstream and didn't see him. I sneaked out of the river.

Robert called that night. I didn't answer. He left a message asking why I had left without him, and asked me to call him when I went trout fishing again. I didn't, even though I often went back to the Titicus and the Croton and experimented with new nymphing techniques. As the end of the trout season neared, I caught more and more fish, but almost always hooking them close to my feet and having one-round, low-voltage fights. And often, so often, I hooked my nymph on the river bottom, and had to wade in fast, rocky water to free the nymph. Sometimes, however, I got so disgusted I just broke the nymph off.

Still, as winter set in, I bought more books on nymphing. The more I read, however, the more the techniques seemed to merge into each other. I couldn't tell where one ended and another started; then they started throbbing in my head. Instead of aspirin, I gave myself slack and stopped reading. My mind felt free. Should I close the book on trying to become a great angler?

During the next few months I kept wondering.

I checked my voice mail. "Randy, it's me, Robert. Guess what? My prostate cancer came back, but the doctors say it's nothing they can't handle. I'd certainly love some company."

I called Robert and told him I would stop by that night. To get him a get-well present, I went to Orvis. I scanned rows of books that could help Robert become a better angler. I remembered Robert was Robert. I turned my back on the books and bought him a new fly box.

He smiled like a boy when he saw it. His apartment was the way I remembered it: dirty, white walls, cheap furniture that didn't match, piles of newspapers all over the place. How can he live this way?

The framed photograph of Robert holding the monster trout jolted me like a take.

"My neighbor took the picture for me."

"I can hardly tell that's the Hudson River behind you. I like the blurred background. And the spots on the trout are so clear."

"Being that I'm spending so much time home, and trying not to feel scared--well I just can't help staring at the picture. It reminds me of how much I love fishing, how much I want to put this cancer thing behind me. That was some heck of a fight that trout gave me; yet sometimes, maybe because often I think of death--maybe I should have let him go. I hope we'll again go fishing together."

"We will. I promise."

We ordered in Italian food, and as we ate with plastic forks and knives, we reminisced, one by one, some of our old fishing adventures, like the time we went striped-bass fishing and, within a half-hour, bluefish bit off three of my five-dollar poppers. As we reminisced, the adventures became, in my mind at least, as vivid as a movie on a screen. Neither of us recalled Robert looking for someone to photograph the big, Central Park bass.

Yes, in spite of my differences with Robert, I'm enjoying being with him.

After the hockey game I said good-bye. A few minutes later, as I rode uptown on the bus, and watched the streets flow, seemingly downstream, I thought it was sad Robert, at his age, was so insecure he needed to show people, and himself, photographs of big fish he had caught. Suddenly I was glad I had helped Robert catch the monster trout. Turning from the window, I looked into my mind, and saw myself struggling at nymphing, then having short fights with fish. I saw myself not having fun, until I saw myself covering a lot of water with streamers.

So maybe Robert's easy-way-out approach to fishing is as good as anyone's. What made me so unfair, so self-righteous, that I expected him to live up to my standards? Is it because I'm also insecure and still can't accept myself? Is that why I want to become a great angler? If so, I should I at least focus on myself and not judge others.

The answer, like dead drifting a streamer downstream, was simple. Because it was, I wasn't going to let it pass by; so that in my upstream years, when it came to imperfect people, and to the black-and-white world, I promised myself to always try to see the good instead of the bad.

The next day I went to Orvis and bought an equal number of streamers and nymphs. ~ Randy Kadish

Randy's historical novel, The Fly Caster Who Tried To Make Peace with the World, is available on Amazon. DLB


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