“So we going fly fishing Sunday morning?” A voice boomed on the other end of the line.
I was regretting this call. Not because I didn’t want to talk to my friend, but because I knew the topic and implications. I’d mentioned wanting to start fly fishing several times but never with any intent on actually following through with it. Fly fishing was something I’d read about with great interest. Two of my biggest literary influences, Ernest Hemingway and Gordon MacQuarrie, were fly fisherman and produced some of the finest examples of writing on the subject the world will ever read. I’d fished through their words but never imagined I’d attempt it myself.
“With what rod, Rob? I don’t even have waders.” I answered, knowing full well it was a half-assed excuse with little chance of acceptance on the other end of the line. Not that it wasn’t grounded in truth. Fly fishing was an expensive hobby to do correctly and I’d never dabbled in anything.
“Bah.” He scoffed. “You can get waders. Jon is going and he has a rod you can borrow.”
“Jon who? Mudry?”
“Yeah. Jon has been fishing for years. He’s got an extra 5wt you can use. Perfect for trout!”
“I don’t know.”
“Well lets at least go to Cabelas. It’s Memorial Day weekend. They’ll be running sales.”
The parking lot was filled with vehicles by the time I arrived. The majority of them were as expected – Jeeps and pickups of various makes and models with ORV stickers and an overabundance of branded outdoor decals. My friend was leaning against his example when I pulled in and we were off to the back of the store. Rob had a noticeable bounce his step, while there was an undeniable hesitation in mine. Still, curiosity drove me forward and the excitement began to mount as we hung a right at the customer service desks and moved towards the racks of tall rods in the corner of the crowded store.
“Let’s get the waders first.” Rob said, bopping toward the rubber-boot wearing mannequins. “These are what I got. They are cheap but they’ll work.”
“They’re also on sale.” I said, feeling better about the impending purchase.”
“Yep. That isn’t bad at all. What size you need?”
“A 13 will have to work.” He laughed, handing me a box. I opened it up, fanned out the waders, and shimmied inside. As I changed into the waders, my mind began to change about fly fishing. I could see myself in the river, fly rod in hand. I could feel the cool current against my legs and the warm sun on my back. The hesitation I’d been feeling was washed away by eagerness.
“Let’s go look at fly rods.” I said.
“You sure?” Rob said, looking surprised.
“Yeah. I’m not going to use someone else’s gear. I’ve been wanting to do this. If I’m buying waders, I’m going to damn well use them and I won’t if I don’t have a rod of my own. That’s just how I work.”
“Yep.” Rob nodded. “Ain’t that the truth?”
We walked out with an entry level rod and reel combo and a handful of flies. Looking back, I should’ve spent a bit more and bought a better package, but we’ll save that for a future post. I had everything I needed to get my feet wet and we were going fishing.
We met Jon at Glenn Blackwood’s Great Lakes Fly Fishing Company at 5:45 a.m. It was only a few miles from the Rogue and a beloved pit stop for many an angler. Due to my novice stature, I’d never heard of it or Glenn and was thankful to have such a fantastic shop less than 10 miles from my home. I was even happier to learn that the public land surrounding the Rogue was a destination for fly fisherman and I was within minutes of all of the prime spots.
Jon suggested we check out a stretch near one of my old turkey haunts. As the only seasoned fly fisherman in the group, we didn’t argue and were in the water by 6:30.
My literature-inspired fantasies became reality the moment I entered the swirling waters of the Rogue. The corked grip and heavy line felt foreign in my hands and I was suddenly reminded of my first encounter with the riser of a longbow. The memory brought a smile to my face and hope to my heart. The bow was now an extension of my arm and I knew the rod would be as well. All I needed was a little patience and a lot of practice.
“Well, get in there!” Jon laughed. “You going to fish or what?”
“I guess so.” I said. “What should I tie on here?”
Jon looked at the water, leaned over and wetted his hands, then back at me, as if in deep thought.
“Let’s start with a nymph. We can try a dry later. Trout feed on underwater bugs all year round. You’ll have a good chance at fish.”
“What’s a nymph?” I asked, embarrassed.
Jon took the little box of flies included with my beginner’s combo and selected a small one that appeared to have a bead for a head. “This’ll work.” He said. “Thats all you brought with you?”
“That’s everything I have!” I laughed.
“I bought you a handful of nymphs, dude!” Rob barked from the bank.
“That was all that was in the box.”
“They were in the plastic bag I handed you!”
“Oh. I think I tossed that away.”
“Oh for the love of…”
“In my defense, they were tiny!”
Jon unzipped the front pocket of his pack and rescued a sleek, plastic container from its belly. It was an album-style box filled with insect imitations of every hook size, color, and material I could imagine. My face grew hot, as I looked at it, then back at my “cute” assortment of randomness.
“Did you tie those yourself?” I asked.
“Some of them.” He said, unhooking a small grub-like fly with a beaded head. “Throw this on there. It’s a Hare’s Ear Nymph and is pretty basic. That should get you into some fish.”
“Thanks! Do you still tie?”
“Yeah but I haven’t done it in awhile.”
“Does it take a lot of time?”
“It can. Some guys I know can whip up something like this in minutes. It takes me a bit longer. Do you make your own wood arrows?”
“Its kind of like that. I like to do it, but don’t have the time to do it all the time. Ya know?”
I understood. Jon and I were in similar situations. Dozens of arrows adorned my walls and floors but I didn’t make them all. Arrow production screeched to a halt when my kids girls were born and I decided to dedicate the little free time I had to shooting and hunting rather than making my own tackle. I had to make the time to do so and that wasn’t always possible.
“Okay…” Jon said. “Have you ever seen someone cast a fly rod?”
“Yep. On YouTube. I binged on videos last night and did a bit of casting in the yard.”
“Well, show me what you know.”
“Shouldn’t take too long.” I laughed.
I walked to the middle of the river and performed what had to have been the worst example of a forward cast anyone had ever attempted in the history of Michigan, which was obviously amusing to Jon, who remained straight-faced despite my flailing and swatting.
“How was that?” I asked.
“Terrible.” He laughed. “But we all had to start somewhere.”
“Okay, show me what I’m doing…”
We spent the next 30 minutes going through the motions of a basic cast. I would love to illustrate the things I was doing incorrectly but will spare you the word count. To summarize, I couldn’t grasp the basic principles of a properly working fly rod, which has to “load” to perform a successful cast.
I was breaking my wrist and not getting the rod back far enough on the back cast. The rod would never load as a result and I would overcompensate by snapping it forward like a pitcher tossing a curveball. I am certain that a video of the fiasco would’ve gained thousands of subscribers had we recorded it.
Jon was patient throughout the process and managed to teach me a mediocre cast serviceable enough to start fishing. He even snuck a roll-cast in there for good measure, which was essential to the runs we were fishing. I spent the next few hours absorbing whatever information I could from Jon and the Rogue itself. I learned about the parts of a river, reading the water, the insects nymphs imitate, and where to find trout. I also learned how little I knew about fish and rivers in general.
“The most important thing I can tell you is to look for structure.” Jon said. “Trout like to hang out where its safe.”
“They like being in the shadows. Look for big rocks, felled trees, overhangs, stuff like that.”
“Also…see those riffles? Thats where the bugs are. Toss your nymph upstream and let it float in there.”
“You’re still not getting back to your roll-cast position.”
The morning was filled with comical exchanges. My mind was an empty jar to be filled and Jon wasn’t bothering with a funnel. It didn’t matter. I was enjoying all of it. Being in the river with friends and fly rods was something I never thought I would experience. And that was only the beginning.
I decided to split this story up into several posts, due to length. Part II will be filled with comedy, calamity, further instruction, and trout! I’ll be mixing fly fishing up with the typical archery mix from here on out, but you’ll still be getting PLENTY of longbow content. And if you like what you read, don’t forget to check out the Traditional Outdoors Podcast!