Watching an obsession form can be enjoyable and often humorous — especially when looking into the mirror.
I quickly realized the benefits of maintaining my own arrows early in my bowhunting journey. It made good fiscal sense. I was shooting a lot; I was missing a lot; and the costs were mounting. I could either bring my arrows to a shop and have them re-wrapped and fletched, or I could do it myself for a fraction of the time and cost. I saved up, bought a plastic jig, some generic wraps, and a few packs of feathers. I fletched my very first set of aluminums with that setup and killed a deer soon after.
Learning to fletch was a no-brainer but I discovered more than I signed up for. I knew I’d save money by learning to fletch but didn’t expect the activity to be so enjoyable. I fed the addiction by spending money, on shafting and fletching materials, yet my appetite grew. I wanted more out of the archery experience and was ready to move to the next level — wood arrows.
I started buying discounted cedar shafts whenever I could find them and scoured classifieds and online auction sites for bulk nocks, points, and fletching. Going to the hardware store in search of wipe-on urethanes and cements became routine, as did weathering the unnatural lacquer stench that wafted through our home and soaked into our clothes. I realized my reasons for the effort were no longer monetary when I graduated to feather choppers and burners. I wasn’t saving money and I didn’t care. I had further immersed myself into the archery experience and didn’t intend on going back. I was ready to kick it up another notch, in fact and vowed to kill a deer with a wooden arrow.
It happened that very season. On a crisp, October, evening a doe passed in front of my brush blind and back to nature courtesy of one of my crudely-decorated cedars. I felt invincible. The high was indescribable. I learned that an experience, no matter how good, can be amplified through added difficulty.
Fast-forward to 2018 and my next addiction. I loved fly fishing the moment I picked up a rod and knew it was only a matter of time before catching fish with purchased flies wouldn’t be enough. I would have to tie a fly and catch a fish with it. Period. It was an inevitability.
My fishing friend’s were interested in helping me get started whenever I’d mention it, but stitched in the following disclaimer:
“You won’t save money.”
I considered it a challenge and began tying much faster than anticipated with the help of a my dear friend Thom (Jorgensen) and the lifetime’s worth of accumulated tools and material he handed over. I was a babe in the woods — we both knew it — yet he gave me very little instruction, save for a “have at it” grin and this nugget:
“Your flies are going to be sloppy and look terrible at first. Know that going in.”
My plan was to bury the treasure chest within the bowels of my workshop until winter. There was plenty of hunting and fishing to do and I didn’t need another activity. However, curiosity got the better of me. Within a week, my impulses sent me rummaging through box and Web in search of simple fly patterns. The variety of hooks, thread, furs, and feathers were overwhelming at first. I relied on my limited time on the water to help me sort out my needs and pick a pattern that would catch fish no matter how badly I botched them. Caddis fly imitations seemed like the best bet. I’d been fishing with various forms of caddis for months, understood their lifecycle, and felt them rudimentary enough to cut my teeth on.
I began with their larva form in a size #14, which was a bit bigger than what I was currently finding beneath the rocks of the Rogue, but I wasn’t ready to tie anything smaller. The results were to be expected. I struggled with every element of fly tying from threading a bobbin to mashing a barb. I stabbed myself often. I had little idea as to which hand to tie with. And I broke thread every fourth pass around the shank. The latter resulted in a grub sized olive abomination.
The setback made me try harder. I tied well into the early morning hours and had half-a-dozen olive disasters on the kitchen table before calling it quits. They ranged from too fat to too thin but I was proud of the progression. It meant I was improving. I kept tying the following morning, throughout the day, and into the evening, getting more confident with the materials and tools. When I grew tired of nymphs, I moved to dries, testing myself with an olive, deer-hair, caddis.
Tying a dry, even a basic one, was more difficult than expected. I made the wings too long, didn’t use enough fibers, used too many fibers, and kept covering the hook eye to the point I couldn’t thread it. I also found out I was trimming the wrong end of the fibers, allowing water to penetrate and sink the fly. My tying improved with those realizations and I was able make a handful of serviceable flies to test the following Friday.
I hit the river at 5 p.m., wet-waded in, tied on a small Hare’s Ear, and followed the current to my favorite bend. It was a warm, overcast day with random showers. The fishing was slow but I didn’t mind. It felt good to shoot line again. I fished for several hours, changing flies often with little luck save for a few 4-6″ brown trout.
As it began to get dark, I moved further downstream in search of greener pastures. There was a wide, shallow stretch of water there that was perfect for swinging a wet fly. I tied on an unweighted purplish prince with a yellow collar, found a seam, and tossed it into the drift where it was immediately hit by a decent 10-11″ chub. It wasn’t a trout, but it was something, and I was grateful for the action.
Everything changed from that point on. The sun went down, the bugs came out, and the fish began to rise. And when they rose they did it ravenously, leaving the water like breeching humpback whales for anything resembling a bug. Everything winged was on the menu, from mosquitoes to white/tan colored moths and dragonflies. If it landed on the water, it disappeared.
I knew these were small fish and probably planted but didn’t care. I hadn’t experienced anything like this for months and wanted to catch fish. I cut off the prince, thumbed through the sparse but coveted “my flies” portion of the box, and retrieved “the best” of my olive caddis. I tied it with shaking hands and eyes distracted by the chaos around me. Then, as I wetted the knot, the water rolled on the downstream side of a large rock in front of me. I reacted with a quick roll-cast before my brain had a chance to foul it all up. The line splashed just upstream of my target. The caddis fluttered down after and I gave it a quick skate as it crossed the threshold of the rock.
The reaction was violent and immediate. My line went tight and the caddis disappeared, as if swallowed by the river itself. The moments that followed were not nearly long enough. I kept the rod up, let the fish pull the slack from my fingers, jumped to the reel, and fought a beautiful 11-12″ brown to the water at my knees. What happened next was heartbreaking. I tossed my rod into the shallows, wrapped a wet, shaking hand around the trout, removed the hook, and reached for my only means of evidence collection. But the camera was not easily retrieved and trout aren’t fond of being captured. Right there, beneath the light of the moon, I fumbled my achievement into the murky water and traded a dramatic conclusion for a tragic comedy.
But that is fly fishing. That is what keeps you coming back to the water. I may not have a photo, but I’ll always have that moment where it matters most.
Author’s note: I don’t have the fly either. I lost it in a tree on the next cast and was unable to retrieve it. That, in itself, is a longer story I plan on including in my next book, which will be a collection of bowhunting and fly fishing short stories. Until then, there are still copies of my current book “Life and Longbows” for sale on this site. You can get a personalized copy right here or you can order an unsigned copy on Amazon. A Kindle version will be available next Friday.