by John Murtiashaw
My first fly season in over four years kicked off in a manner entirely unrelated to the sport; I sold my aging mountain bike. The steed was bolstered by a collection of new (and expensive) parts that belied a bike whose geometry was growing rapidly obsolete. I could barely meet the eyes of my bike mechanic when I retrieved it from its suspension rebuild, met with a slow headshake, and “…that seat post…this has got to be the last time.”
I was fortunate enough to unload it to a young father who was looking forward to following his little boy on some basic trails this summer. I waved as they drove away, then burned tire to the Credit Union to get that white-hot envelope out of my pocket and safely hidden from the beckons of the weekend.
A quick glance at the website of the firm that hand-builds carbon frames in Colorado showed me that new bikes were booked up for several weeks. Even if they had bikes available, the price for their most basic model would take at least two paychecks for me to accrue. Something would have to occupy my time until then… My eyes lifted from my laptop to the pair of breathable waders that had hung motionless from my closet door for far too long.
The late days of March saw App Gear Co rolling out the end of our winter line, and I ran quality control checks late while the NCAA tournament played. I could now sneak away for a couple of days to my Delayed Harvest stream while the spring line hung in the limbo of finishing and sewing.
“Those first few days on the water were unrelenting, not the least for the face-chapping conditions but also for my skill set, which had sat as motionless as my waders for the past four years.”
Those first few days on the water were unrelenting, not the least for the face-chapping conditions but also for my skill set, which had sat as motionless as my waders for the past four years. It felt like my backcast caught every tree, and seemingly always when a car drove by. I thumbed through the collection of weathered eggs and buggers, some of the aged options falling apart in my fingers and most of the dries caked in the refuse of that powdered floatant my one Sunglass rep friend is wild about. My waders too showed their age, as I quickly noticed my left foot would become sopping wet after a few yards in the drink.
Even worse was the democracy of this stream, which had apparently vaulted into popularity in my absence. Twice I was bumped from my hole as I slung on my waders, a clearly professional Tacoma or F-150 sliding to a stop, the guide dumping his hapless clients into the waters I had foreseen as my own, offering nothing but a waft of a Marlboro and an indifferent gaze somewhere behind a pair of Costas. More innocently, I had someone pull up on the ultimate pool of my beat. I hiked downstream, planning to wade up and finish where my car waited for me. As I slugged through the mire, someone slid up and hopped into the most prime water of all. Unlike the guides, at least this guy offered a goofy grin and a wave. He turned out to be pretty cool, and I made small talk with him as I convinced a single rising fish to smack a dry. Like most of this stream, the bend was placed directly aside the road, and I felt somewhat redeemed that passing cars got to see me play a fish for once rather than tearing my line out of a branch. One of these cars squealed tire and barreled into the last smidgeon of space behind my and the other guy’s car. I thought that surely no one in their right mind would think there was room for another fisherman in this hole, but the driver got out and (I’m not making this up) shouted out asking if he could take my picture. Conflicted, I agreed.
“My son-in-law likes fly fishing!”
I’m still trying to understand what that meant.
As I said my goodbyes to the guy sharing the hole with me, my eye caught a bugger mashed into the gravel of the pullout. I picked it up and saw that it remained structurally intact. I liked the size, not too big, not too little, bead-headed and black with just a hint of autumnal orange to it. I hooked it into my fly-box and hit the road.
I decided to take a break for a couple days. While getting the fish to pop a dry was a highlight, I had to admit that this was perhaps not the natural experience I had envisioned for my spring. Besides, this creek was very close to the Appalachian Trail and an outfitter I was hoping to supply, and the thought of meeting the owners of the shop and having some beers with hikers sounded like a lot more fun than elbowing in for a shot at some incredibly pressured fish.
But later on, safe from the March winds in the Iron Horse Station with a delightfully greasy cheeseburger and a hazy beer in front of me, I found myself fairly shocked at how my sunburned face and damp left calf had absolutely no impact on the rest of me feeling pretty damn good. No, I wasn’t wild about the parking politics, but I wasn’t ready to hang up my leaky waders just yet.
Truthfully, I was ready for some kind of outdoor distraction. It had been a tough winter, my wilderness pursuits aside. Nighttime biking, my usual outlet to escape the winter doldrums, hadn’t really developed for me. I dragged the bike in and out of mechanics getting it in shape to sell, and when it was finally up to snuff, I didn’t think it prudent to enjoy it while it was on the market. In the march towards careers and stability, several of my close friends had moved away over the past year, something I really didn’t notice until the fun of long summer days faded and I went looking for someone to see music or have a beer with. Back in the summer I also didn’t really connect with too many friends. I was busy with someone else who also dimmed away, along with my dream trip to Europe. Those plane tickets were easy enough to cancel but the flyer miles were nightmarish to reinstate, all of which was complimented by the whipping cold of January and the ice of February (my birthday month). Those short days of snow and wind sometimes seem to last forever.
The rest of the week brought us into a series of meetings with a family who runs a boutique hiking company. We’d hoped to get our product into their shop, but the conversation evolved into sponsoring the owner as one of our pros. Sitting at a curry restaurant downtown with App Gear Co’s founder and the boutique’s owners, we chatted and laughed as we wondered to ourselves what our goals and future could be like. As a parting gift after our lunch, the owners offered me a pair of wool hiking socks. I picked the thickest ones she had, suitable for getting sopping wet in a pair of leaky waders.
“I had to find new waters. I turned my attention to a stream that could only be reached on foot.”
I had to find new waters. I turned my attention to a stream that could only be reached on foot. Cycling had drifted to the back of my mind, and my mountain biking friends were beginning to get impatient with me. As I left the highway and turned onto a long dirt road towards the end of cellphone range, one final text pinged into my phone.
“So did you order your bike yet?”
I had not. The itch just hadn’t been scratched.
As I turned into the parking lot, there were several fishermen suiting up. I wasn’t about to go home, had even packed an Ingles sub sandwich, so I started to string up my rig. Though empty it was not, I could immediately tell the vibe here was different. There was more camo and more conversation. I have to admit when it comes to fishing, I guard my (very few) secrets and successes. But the knuckle tattooed dude with the same bargain rod I used immediately offered up his early season trials and tips, a move which shocked me slightly. I resolved to myself to consider being more like this guy.
A light April rain drifted down on me as I found my way to the water. Another fisherman asked if I was fishing my beat and headed upstream when I said I was. Things were feeling a lot more natural out here. Heading towards four o’clock I hadn’t coaxed a fish to hit my garish pink egg. The rain was beginning to ease up, and I resolved myself to eat the sandwich I had brought as I watched a pair of anglers pack up their gear and hike back towards the trailhead. I contemplated following them, but I thought to myself that if I had a chance at connecting on some fish, a stream that was decidedly emptier would be that opportunity.
But I had no qualms switching flies, the egg clearly having brought no success. Opening the fly box, I saw the bugger from the pullout before. I figured, why not?
There’s nothing like being in the woods after a Spring rain. Most trees still stood barren, but many were beginning to hint at bloom with dazzling whites and yellows. The sun peaked out of the tangled clouds above, and a warm breeze unfolded up the valley as I took off my rain jacket and stowed it in my bag. Bolstered by the quick shower, the creek had risen, and I slid my indicator another foot up my leader.
“Fishing is a formula, and I had connected the dots. The first deep pocket I found boiled up a ball of hungry fish, one of which I hooked on my second cast. After that I couldn’t miss.”
Fishing is a formula, and I had connected the dots. The first deep pocket I found boiled up a ball of hungry fish, one of which I hooked on my second cast. After that I couldn’t miss. A meager attempt at a roll cast hooked a fish in a maneuver that was more of function than anything else, as I sought to fling my rig out of my way as I crossed a log. Double hauling my line found yet another fish that had attacked my bugger in a pool 10 feet behind me. I slid my indicator up even higher as I left my line in the water to slide up a slick embankment and felt the knowing weight of still another bucking and shimmering brook trout.
At this point, I wasn’t even trying to catch them. Figuring this was prime time to work on my form, I spoke “God save the queen” as my indicator screamed away from me into a wash of bubbles, the oft-repeated fly fisherman’s refrain that coaches poor form in a cloak of British snobbishness by interfering with novice angler’s instinct to set the hook too soon.
“I know, I know,” I spoke to the fish as it cartwheeled and thrashed in my net before I could slide the hook out of its mouth and watch it dart away into the black water that was getting darker by the minute amid the setting sun. Looking up, I found some other poor devil’s nymph and dry dangling on the branch in front of me. The rain-swollen stream didn’t scream to me dry-fly conditions, but a weighted nymph?
A lot of this article has been about my lack of fundamentals, and dropper rigs have historically led me to a whole lot of aggravation in the form of knots in leaders (and little else), two of which my lazy ass already had. But considering my rock-star bugger was also a found-fly, it seemed like good luck. I stowed the dry in my fly box but strung on the nymph below the bugger.
The creek had gotten wider at this point, giving me a fine opportunity to unfurl a series of satisfying casts. Digging through my fishing season refrigerator (re: empty) had revealed a single hard seltzer, which I had packed along with my sub. I choked it down as my stomping splashes became more reckless and I thought about heading home, unsure of exactly how much battery was left in the headlamp I hadn’t turned on since November.
Whipping another cast ahead of me, I mended a little line as I looked at the bank for a way to climb out towards the path home. A loud “Pop” - clear as if someone had smacked their tongue off the roof of their mouth - rung out, but the line drifted benignly away. It was dark enough now that I knew the fish hadn’t seen me, even if I was realistically only around a car’s length away. I cast again, same slot, same drift. It was so dark now that the indicator wasn’t capable of its job, but I thought perhaps a less audible “Pop” had sounded.
“God save the queen.”
I didn’t set the hook so much as strip in and rodtip high, but I had linked up. I don’t think I’d ever had the drag engaged with waters of this size but was terrified to see I couldn’t do anything to bring this fish to hand as it screamed downstream, unfurling a monstrous length of line that days earlier had sat comatose on an Amazon Warehouse shelf. I’d have to fight it on its own turf, and I barreled across, soaking my hair and face. In the back of my mind, I was thrilled that my surgically repaired knee could still deal out the business. What was this fish? A mass of specks that didn’t want to be contained, diving deep at any opportunity and making me question crimping down the barbs of my flies. My net couldn’t reach it, I was frantic. It finally seemed to tire, but I was nothing more than shocked to realize that a fish of this size existed in a creek barely wider than my living room. It did everything it could to tear away from me, frothing and sprinting.
“I abandoned all caution. Figuring my net was useless in this situation, I threw the rig in the water and grabbed the leader, end over end, almost scared of the mass in front of me that I swear could’ve had a pair of shoulders.”
I abandoned all caution. Figuring my net was useless in this situation, I threw the rig in the water and grabbed the leader, end over end, almost scared of the mass in front of me that I swear could’ve had a pair of shoulders. As I got tantalizingly close to the mouth that gaped out of the spring waters, buried up to my crotch, the fish snapped off, directly at the point of knotted leader that I was too lazy to replace. Inches from my hand.
If I had been a younger fisherman, it would have bothered me more. But just like when I sat in the Iron Horse Station, there wasn’t a smidge of regret, just an uncontrollable smile. Those barbless flies may very well be found by another fisherman. God willing, they may act as a divine vehicle for someone else to shed the burden of a cruel winter whose weight had grown too much to bear.
And I’ve still got the dry.
John Murtiashaw works as Sales Manager for Appalachian Gear Company. When he’s not handling innovative natural fiber gear, he gets into the woods as much as he can.