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I’ve had fifty fish days. I’ve caught twenty-four inch cutts on gossamer tippet with a four weight bamboo rod. I’ve pounded ’em up to my own hand-tied dries when there wasn’t a fish rising for a hundred miles. I’ve floated big rivers and fished high-country headwaters and caught fish. I’ve been trapped by late spring snows and dodged summer lightning. I don’t have anything left to prove.
Anyway, that’s the kind of smoke I was blowing the other day when Appleton called to get a fishing report.
“That bad huh?”
“I couldn’t get a rise if I doped my fly with Stink Bait.” I told him. “I even thought about running a dropper.”
“Whoa! Don’t do anything you’re going to regret.”
“Look,” I said, “maybe we’ve gotten too hung up on the catching part. I mean, fly-fishing should be about the inner man, not how big or how many fish we catch. It should be about communing with a well-crafted fly-rod, finding the rhythm and poetry in a delicate cast, letting the beauty of the mountains and the sounds of the stream cleanse your soul. . . . You know, rediscovery. . . . Getting back to nature? . . . You still there?”
“. . . Who else have you been talking to?”
“Good. Call me when the fishing picks up.”
Appleton was one of the first to go with barbless hooks. He became unpopular with the river guides when he tried to get the local fly-shop to go barbless. I’ve even known him to break the hook off and fish with an impotent fly when he got tired of catching fish, just so he could see the rise. He’s caught up in the corporate rat race now, and it’s hard to get him out if the fish aren’t biting.
I often get skunked when we fish together. I usually have the place scouted and let him take the lead as we head upstream, so the fish are spooked by the time I come along. Sometimes I’ll catch up to him and he’ll be sitting at a nice looking bend pool that he’s saved for me. He’ll point his rod at the hole say, “Let’s get the skunks out of the boat.” I don’t think he really wants me to catch a fish; he just doesn’t want to be seen with a guy who isn’t catching fish.
After Appleton hung up on me, I realized the danger I had put myself in. Word could get around that I’d zened out, shaved my head, and was wandering the backcountry wearing a loincloth and sprinkling ashes. My solitary life-style and the ensuing lack of . . . let’s call it female companionship, would be blamed for my moral decline. There would be a meeting; I would get voted off the island . . . or worse. The last time my friends thought that I’d spun out, one of them tried to fix me up—it was love at 425 pounds.
The next day I had a twenty fish day and was able to abandon my new religion and start wearing pants again.
It’s in the early spring, between the first warm days and the big runoff when I usually get skunked. The creeks are running high and off color, and the trout are hugging the bottoms of the deep pools in a state of suspended animation. You can catch them if you bump them on the nose with a Copper John or Pheasant’s Tail, but I’m stubborn about using dry-flies. I figured that since I was a fly-fisherman, and thus a member of the most hated demographic among fishermen, becoming a dry-fly purist, the most hated demographic among fly-fishers, would be a natural progression.
In my fly-fishing infancy, I’d become frantic when getting skunked. The level of panic seemed to be in direct proportion to the amount of money that had been spent on stuff. I had the best in sporting equipment, and I still wasn’t catching fish. I looked marvelous, but I obviously needed more stuff.
Back then, when my skill didn’t match my equipment, I’d fish for twelve hours at a stretch without seeing a rise. I fished like that for three days once in a pouring rain, stopping only for short breaks to crawl into my tent, where I poured. On the afternoon of the third day, I found myself standing in the middle of a muddy creek with my nose running, cold, wet, holding a bleached-out, six-inch German Brown in my pruned fingers, thinking what miserable specimens we both were of our respective species.
Nowadays, early spring fishing really is more about getting into the mountains, shaking off shack fever, and picking out the wind knots that form in my head during the winter. When you hike for an hour to get to a stream and find it running high and muddy, you can turn around and hike back out, or find a good sittin’ log and enjoy the scenery. I don’t pass up a good sitting rock or log when the fish aren’t biting. I know I can tie on a nymph and catch fish, but that’s not what I had seen myself doing all winter. I look around more, and wonder what I missed while I was pawing for answers in my fly-box, or squinting at an aquarium net. I think it’s because I can go fishing whenever I want to now that my attitude changed. I can always come back and try again tomorrow. Most people can’t do that, and I remember that sense of urgency, being limited to a Saturday every now and then, or one week in the summer.
I’ve never been a lip ripping, don’t make me take my pants down, trophy-trout hunter. I’m satisfied with my little high-country cutts, so on those fishless, early spring days, I find myself going through the motions just to get the kinks out of my cast, watching young Stoneflies crawling on my leg and only thinking about changing over from an Adams, just happy to be alive and still able to make the hike in. In a few days the streams will run clear and the fishing will be as good as ever, so it’s not bad sitting in the Sun, warming the knotted muscles in my shoulders, and thinking about the good day I’m having doing no harm. Not bad at all.
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