In 1978 I was a 12 year-old want-to-be fly fisherman that dwelled in the land of worms and snelled hooks. There was no confessional where I could profess my horrid case of scoleciphobia to be absolved. Instead, my inherent fear of worms and a naïve romanticism that was lost on my youth came together to form an irresistible force that sucked me into the world of fly fishing that I have never escaped.
Earlier that summer I had commandeered an old Shakespeare glass rod and automatic fly reel from my great grandfather’s basement. Next, I needed some flies to wave in the air. This problem was solved rather easily. After digging around the garage a dusty old round fly box appeared. It was filled with flies that didn’t look like any bug I had ever seen but I was boundless in my joy. I was high on enthusiasm and low on knowledge, but off I went to a river we called a“crick” the next day with my brother.
Becoming a fly fisherman would be easy I thought to myself as I climbed down the almost vertical trail down to the Wallowa River that gushed from the base of the old dam. Safety issues and the fear of lawyers have since encased this spot in a cage of galvanized wire that would make any prison warden jealous. “Shooting” the ancient wooden irrigation flume was one of our favorite pastimes on hot summer days. The 80-foot dam fed the flume that diverted water from the lake to the hay and wheat fields in the valley. Paralleling the river for a quarter of a mile the old roughhewn pine board flume had a plank boardwalk that made the north side of the river easier to get to. On this day my focus was on casting my Adam’s(I found the name of the fly in an old Field and Stream the night before) into the froth for rainbows. There would be no need to come up with some story of how I tore the seat of my cut-offs for my mother. I wasn’t there to have the swift current push me along the splintered bottom of the flume. I was there to fish a fly.
On my first day as a fly fisherman, my brother and I went to this same stretch of river that we had fished in since we were 9 or 10. I had always used a Mepps spinner, no worms of course unless I could pay my brother to slide a worm onto a hook for me. The lure worked well on the dumb trout that had washed through the spillway of the dam from the lake above. This made fish somewhat abundant in the first mile or so of the river. At the base of the dam, a big pool had formed from the constant huge, gushing stream that shot out of the bottom of the dam. There was always a couple of scruffy men smoking Vantage cigs with a styrofoam cooler full of Blitz beer standing on the flume fishing the pool every time we were there it seemed. That day was no different. Usually, they ignored us as we passed behind them careful not to trip on their cooler. On that day one of the men said; “What’s that thing?” referring to my rod and reel. Then he laughed as I followed my brother down the old planks feeling somewhat embarrassed and secretly proud at the same time.
After the boardwalk ended there was a trail that followed along the river. Willows and firs hid the water from our sight after we started down the trail. The growth couldn’t mute the sound of the water as it gushed around the granite boulders that formed unseen pockets and pools that were only a few feet away. Paths, almost tunnels, through the brush broke off from the main trail intermittently going to the pools and runs.
We knew which paths led to the spots that fished the best, this knowledge wouldn’t matter. On that day we headed straight for our favorite spot right off. Hope and painful desperation increased our pace with every step. My old white rod bounced like a limber lance held by some poor knight on a horse with a hitch in its gait. We were almost jogging when we arrived at the pool we always thought of as ours.
The froth and bubbles from the pocket water above slowed as it entered the pool. There was a crystalline clarity to the water that had descended from the melting mountain snow that amazed our young eyes. To this day, I am still stopped by the clarity of that water and how cold it is.
We noticed that fish were sipping bugs from the surface. We would later learn that the insects were mayflies. Pulling our eyes from the trout that were subtly feeding, we scanned the banks for flannel-clad competition and caught our breath. No one was there in the shade of the ponderosas that loomed above us. The feelings that I felt at that moment are very different than the ones that I feel as I remember that day almost 40 years later.
The immense joy I felt as I pulled the fly line off that dented old automatic reel to thread my guides has given way to an earnest sense of time and grown-up problems that wear on my daily life and the times that I am able to fish. But at that moment I was like one of the tweed-wearing tourists who splashed through the river with an expensive bamboo rod and a net framed in wood not aluminum. I often overheard the locals make fun of the “stick wavers” as they bought worms at Bud’s Hardware as I looked at the dollar fly packs that hung next to the Pautzke’s. The whole time I secretly longed to be like the anglers they were disparaging.
The Adams was freed from the plastic packaging that was labeled “Two Dozen of the Best Trout Flies Ever.” There was a smattering of fluorescent streamers, random nymphs and dries with hackles resembling afros for the bargain price of $3.99. It didn’t matter what they were really, because I only knew the names of two or three flies at the time. Most of this information was from eavesdropping on out of state anglers as they filled out their day licenses at Bud’s.
I had overheard these words the day before; “The Adams sure worked well today blah, blah, blah.” This came from a guy who looked and sounded like he knew what he was doing. I remember disliking him as he derided the fly selection while he snootily fingered the minuscule amount of fly fishing gear that Bud carried. Even though he was an ass, he had given me a valuable nugget of information and I was going to use it.
But first I had to pick up the aftermath from the inevitable explosion that had strewn flies across the river bank from wrestling open the indestructible, hermetically sealed plastic packaging that had held the “Two Dozen of the Best Trout Flies Ever”. After I got the flies picked up and into my old fly box I started to tie my fly on. If I hadn’t been looking up at the rising trout every three seconds my trembling 12 year-old fingers would have secured the Adams on my leader in less than the two minutes it took me. Fortunately, a clinch knot magically appeared and I was ready or thought I was at least. With a child’s visualization that bordered on a daydream, I envisioned my first cast to the closest rising trout. I was ready. But dreams rarely come to fruition in the way we see them playing out. This is the first lesson learned on the perilous path to adulthood. It is also the first lesson of learning to fly fish.
I had read an article in Field and Stream about the basics of casting. Taking what I had read as gospel, I practiced my casting in the front yard religiously that summer between the morning and evening sessions of moving irrigation pipes for a local farmer. On those hot summer days, I picked up the old, cracked double taper line off of the grass over and over again with a quick snap of my elbow. Visions of monster trout taking my fly pushed out the thoughts of the coming sweaty afternoon of lugging pipe that was to come. On this morning my dream of gently placing my fly on the water with a flick of my wrist ended with my brother’s masochistic sense of humor being unleashed in full hurricane force.
Timing is important to cast a fly. My brother’s timing was just a little better that day. I had spotted a trout that was rising about 15 feet from where I stood. I pulled three or four strips of line off of my reel as I stared at the spot on the water where the trout was feasting greedily on mayflies. My fixation on that fish would make the first trout that I would catch on a fly a vivid, laughing memory almost 40 years later.
Brothers’ pull tricks and gags on one another. The closer to mean the gag is the better it ends up being in the eyes of the trickster. My brother is, and was, no different than any other brother in the world when it comes to this truth. Now we are to the part of the story where my rather severe case of scoleciphobia becomes relevant and how it made me a life-long fly fisherman.
With my shoulders squared towards my target I started my first non-front yard cast. With a snap of my elbow, my rod went to 2 o’clock just like the magazine article said to do. For what seemed like an eternity, I waited to feel the line load the limber glass rod. I didn’t want my first cast to end up landing in a pile on the water that would scare the fish so I didn’t start my forward cast until I felt the slight bend of the rod tip. Joyous amazement surged through my body as the fly landed perfectly on the water and began drifting towards my fish. Yes, that was going to be “MY” fish I thought to myself.
The last thing I had noticed my brother doing was tying a hook onto the line on his spinning rod. He had been sitting on a rock, his pole across his lap with his worms in a margarine container on the ground next to him. While he was getting his gear ready, he harassed me continuously, as he had done in the front yard when I was practicing. Not thinking, I had turned my back on him to cast. The surge of sudden silence should have alerted me that all was not right. But my fly floating towards where I thought the rainbow lurked had mesmerized me. The myopia of the moment had me so focused that I barely noticed a slight pulling on my t-shirt collar as the fish slurped my fly into its mouth. What I did notice was the fish that was bending my rod and the wriggling mass of two or three dozen worms that my brother had just dumped down the back of my shirt.
If terror and ultimate joy can be felt simultaneously, I was experiencing both at that very moment. The fish, all 12 inches of him, was tearing around the pool going from bank to bank. The frenzy was interspersed with several jumps that I still can see when I close my eyes. The only problem was the gob of wet, slimy nightcrawlers that was now wriggling its way down the back of my t-shirt into the waist of my cutoffs. This I can still feel when I close my eyes.
Crying, smiling, screaming and shaking I mixed together in an emotional soup for almost three-quarters of the next minute as I struggled to keep the biggest-little trout in the world on my fly as I tried to get the worms out of my shirt. Tears rained from my cheeks as I yelled words at my brother that would have gotten me grounded for a year. I was jumping from foot to foot like a monkey happy to find a banana as I tried to get my brother’s bait out of my shirt. Deciding which was more important, keeping my line tight or ridding my shirt of worms, fluctuated with each run by the fish or wriggles by the worms. Meanwhile, my brother was rolling around the rocky bank of the small river, laughing so hard that he choked a couple of times so badly that tears came to his eyes and he had to catch his breath so he could start laughing again.
The wad of worms, or most of them, finally splashed into the knee-deep water that I had mindlessly splashed into. Feeling the rush of the cold water on my shins had calmed me down. My eyes followed the leader into the water and there was the trout with its red gill plate and dark green back hovering just under the surface in front of me. My brother was over his laugh. Instinctively he must have recognized the significance of the moment because he plunged into the river and was soon standing beside me. For that moment there was nothing around us but the echo of the water as it flowed almost silently by us. Sunlight was trickling through the pine boughs, dappling the river in glowing golden dots as the breeze shifted the pine needles with a whisper. Quietly we stood in the river, freezing below our knees and sweating above, looking at my fish.
In his right hand, he had our ninety-nine cent green net. I lifted the rod tip up and he scooped up the Rainbow into the tiny net. Handing it to me he said; “Nice fish. My turn.” We have been fly fishermen since that day in 1978.