Though I’ve been fly fishing regularly since we moved to Montana in 2008, and sporadically for close to a decade before that, I’ve never bothered to get particularly skilled at it. The twin revelations of tenkara rods and wilderness streams have largely relieved me of the need to develop a solid, precise cast. If I can avoid the smart fish which, in northwest Montana, tend to be found near the road I do, because that’s what I like doing anyway. I’ve caught a lot of fish this way, and gained a lot of satisfaction.
In tandem with this approach has been a willful disregard, even contempt, for much of what is most easily called traditional fly fishing gear, technique, and philosophy. Fly fishing is, above anything else, a deeply self-serious discipline, which along with the wildly expensive gear, endless rows of flies which all look the same, and funny vests makes it an easy target for derision. Over the past few years I’ve pretty much decided that around 80% of all the mumbo jumbo considered necessary to fly fishing was a bunch of crap.
I was wrong.
Dick, my stepfather, was keen to book a guide for fishing in New Zealand. I’d figure we’d put the expense to good use by hiring someone to take us way up into the mountains, some place infrequently traveled and beautiful, where like in Montana we’d have a bunch of unsophisticated fish at our disposal.
It did not work out that way. Turns out the non-native Brown Trout in New Zealand, at least in the lust, warm rivers near the north end of the south island, have such a luxurious environment that the headwaters are the most desirable environment. According to our guide, the big fish chase the little fish downstream, claim a big pool for their own, and hang out in the clear water enjoying the year-round flow of bugs, and occasional mouse. They can afford to be picky, and they have the perfect environment for being very wary. The result is fish which are very hard to catch, and a type of fly fishing where all the tricks you read about in magazines are absolutely imperative.
As you can imagine, quite a bit had been lost in translation when we were emailing with Mike the guide about this trip. By the end of the day I had committed almost every foul and misdeed in the book, save catching my backcast in a tree (miraculously this didn’t happen the second day, either) and was ready to quit and hike out. The rough terrain along the river was kicking Dick’s butt, and he didn’t have time to fish at all for the need of moving fast enough to make camp by dark. I was getting a hasty, remedial lesson in fly casting a western rod, not something in which I had much interest. The tenkara rods in my pack were clearly going to be of little use, both for lack of range and lack of a ton of backing for when the gargantuan trout went on a run. We saw nothing, all trip, which Mike thought much less than five pounds, and a few which he thought in the 12-13 pound range. (The trout pictured above was 8.5, Mike had a scale integrated into the handle of his net.) We were throwing an 18 foot tapered leader, and only having success using a double dropper rig, which is a dry fly, with three feet of tippet tied to the hook and a nymph on the end, and another three feet of tippet and nymph tied to that. I was not up to casting such a rig with anything approaching the range or delicacy necessary to not spook the browns, having previous considered such lengths hyperbolic at best.
There are many outdoor activities, fly fishing being one and hunting being another, which can be done and done richly at a wide variety of difficulties. Every activity has certain settings or modes which demand nothing less than an A game, and while submersion in an alpha environment is often intimidating and frustrating, it’s also a tremendous learning experience. I slept poorly the night we were in the field, deeply irked that I hadn’t done enough to ensure the fishing trip I had wanted, but woke up resolved to make the best of it. Dick stayed in camp reading, the helicopter would pick him up along with camp after it got Mike and me that afternoon. We would fish up river, and I would try to relax enough to work near my potential and actually catch some fish.
It almost all came together. Mike hooked a few fish and let me land them, no mean feat with big fish who have a ton of room to run. A different world of fishing indeed. I even managed to tease a fish in and set the hook on one, which I also managed to land. The practice of fishing tenkara, which requires lots of movement to land a fish, certainly applied.
The browns blended in to the dark cobbles remarkably well, but by the second afternoon I was getting the hang of it. I saw one 100 yards upstream, feeding against a white cobble. Fortunately, a car sized boulder 30 yards downstream provided ideal shelter. I got close, got line out, and made a passable cast with the dropper rig far enough upstream, and the fish slurped it up. I set the hook and the fish took off to the right and upstream. In a panic of pre-thinking, I clamped down on the line, or perhaps got it tangled in my fingers trying to let the tension down onto the reel, and with that moment of hard resistance the hook straightened and the fish was gone.
So close, and so far.
I’ll always be disappointed in myself for not sorting the trip better before we left for New Zealand, but you don’t know what you don’t know, usually until it is too late. In retrospect, I’m not certain the sort of trip I wanted for the both of us was even available when and where we wanted it. What we did get was an amazing trip into a gorgeous river valley, a fantastic helicopter ride, and a serious lesson in fly fishing. I still think a lot of fly fishing is ridiculous, and I still think the extreme catch and release ethic practiced in New Zealand and elsewhere is ethically questionable, but there’s also no question that seeing the possibilities which are out there is immensely alluring, and invaluable. I know some of what I don’t know about fly fishing, and how to go about learning it.