The curse of the fly fisherman

Peaceful. Except for all the cursing.

(This post is rated PG-13 for strong, but entirely appropriate, language).

You’re walking down a path running along a rushing mountain river when you hear a grunting up ahead. You pause. Maybe it’s a bear or a hog of some sort. Do they have hogs in the mountains? As you draw closer, you see a man wearing boots up to his chest, a hat jammed onto his head, polarized sunglasses. He’s bent over, in some sort of distress. Maybe the nine foot pole he’s grappling with has pierced his side. There’s a pair of hemostats on the ground, almost in the water. Nail clippers, too. He’s mumbling furiously.

Closer still, you make out what he’s saying. “You piece of shit. Come on you little son of a bitch.” Over and over, weaving in worse as he goes along, sounding like The Old Man from “A Christmas Story” fighting with his furnace — except you don’t need to use your imagination to figure out the words.

You’re looking at me on my first solo fly fishing excursion. 

For a pastime that looks so peaceful, that seems to promise a contemplative sojourn on the water, I was surprised at the amount of cursing involved in fly fishing.  

I guess I shouldn’t have been. I’m a curser. I’m not exactly Quentin Tarantino-level, but if you read the Amazon reviews for my books, the biggest complaint is the cursing. 

I don’t typically curse at people, mind you, but at things. (I don’t consider bad drivers “people.”) If I had a motto based on the one phrase I said most frequently it would be — well, it would probably be “You so cute. Why are you so cute?” Because I spend a lot of time with my dogs. 

But if it were based on the second most uttered phrase it would be — and I apologize in advance — “You fucking piece of shit.” I direct it at my car. I direct it at my phone. I direct it at fitted sheets that won’t fold. I direct it at a piece of furniture or barbecue equipment I’m trying to assemble. Just yesterday, I unleashed a stream of them at my snowblower and the people at Home Depot who assembled it in such a manner that fitting it with new skids required banging and prying because they’d misaligned a hole. And anyone who sat within five feet of me during my Ad Age days, definitely heard me aiming it at the computer, the e-mail program, the print CMS, the web CMS, the newsletter tool, the budgeting system, and Quark (remember Quark?). 

The slightest thing can set me off, especially when I’m alone. And fly fishing involves a multitude of slights, especially at the beginning. 

The education

The first time wasn’t supposed to be so frustrating. I’d taken a class. I’d learned the knots. I’d bought all the gear. I’d read some books. Okay. I read part of one book. 

Something you should know about me is I don’t like flying blind into a situation. I don’t like looking like a beginner or embarrassing myself or ruining the experience for others or having those others laugh at me while I hook my own ass and cast myself headfirst into a raging river. Folks who know me sometimes peg me as someone who has no fucks to give. But I have plenty to give. I actually do care what other people think. It just depends on the situation. And you should also know that, whatever they might project to the outer world, writers hide within them a giant writhing ball of insecurities and neuroses. (Put that on a t-shirt.)

While fishing seems like a pretty simple proposition — rod, reel, bait of some kind, etc — and while I did fish quite a bit growing up, I’d never fly fished before. And from what I can tell so far, the forces who control fly fishing purposely set out to over complicate everything. Sure, they’ll blame it on the trout, but I know the truth.

Lil Kenny’s first day of class

At any rate, I signed up for fly fishing lessons at the North Fork Ranch here in Colorado. It’s right off 285 past Shawnee as you head toward Fairplay and sits on the north fork of the South Platte River. I can’t recommend it enough.

North Fork put me in the expert hands of fishing guide Ralph Merrill. We spent the first half of the day going over the basics of knot tying, fly types, and casting. There were handouts and diagrams and practice sessions. I took copious notes, none of which I can read now. The second half of the day, we spent on the water, starting out on a pond with dry flies and then hitting the river with a nymph rig. I hooked into a fish on the very first cast. I landed a fish a little later. And on the last cast of the day, I hooked into a biggish rainbow trout that put on a show. I didn’t actually land him, but I was extremely interested in fly fishing. (Bet you thought I was going to say hooked, didn’t you? But I’m a professional. I wouldn’t do that.)

Going solo

I didn’t even plan to go near a river. That’s the truth of it. I figured I’d spend the fall and winter practicing my casting either in the yard or on a couple of ponds at Staunton State Park. I definitely wasn’t going down to Cheesman Canyon or Deckers to fight the crowds and be laughed at by the folks who knew what they were doing.

Then I learned that Pine Valley Ranch Park, which is about 35 minutes from the house, has a nice stretch of river that has a few fish in it. I figured why go throw a line into still water when I can practice on the real thing. (When I’d emailed Ralph Merrill about my plans to practice, he responded with “Don’t practice. Fish!”) 

I scouted it out one day while on a hike with Cara. Then returned one Friday afternoon when I was done with work. I’d have a few hours to fish. It would be great. 

I pulled into the parking lot. I was the only one there. Because Pine Valley Ranch is in, you know, a valley, the sun already seemed a little low. No worries. I’d get set up and get a few casts in. I’d pulled my brand new Orvis Clearwater rod and reel out of my brand new Orvis rod case. I assembled the rod.

And then I spent fifteen minutes trying to pry the leader off of the spool. In an attempt to streamline things, I’d attached the leader to the line (see, even that’s confusing, isn’t it) the night before. But in the bright light of day, the leader seemed to have nestled itself under the line.

The cursing began.

After finally getting that squared away, I ran the leader through the guides. I was now prepared to tie my tippet to the leader with the surgeon’s knot. Ralph had had me practice the surgeon’s knot on lengths of rope and I found it quite easy. But I’m no dummy. I knew that working with rope was not the same as working with leader and tippet. So I’d practiced at the kitchen table before heading out to the park. I struggled some, but I got the hang of it. Or so I thought. Turns out that tying a surgeon’s knot in suboptimal light while the leader is attached to a nine foot rod and the wind is blowing and you’re standing up is a little more difficult than doing it at the kitchen table.

The cursing began in earnest. 

I was thankful there was no one in the parking lot. And, funnily enough, I heard the disappointed voice of my Aunt Sandra in my mind just saying, “Oh, Kenny.”  

The surgeon knot finally tied, it was time to get a couple of flies on via clinch knot. It had snowed two days before, so according to the experts, we were beyond dry fly season. I’d by nymphing. 

There was another robust stream of continued cursing until I got the two flies, the weight, and the strike indicator all squared away. 

Then it was time to put on the Orvis waders and boots. (Note: I’m not getting paid for mentioning Orvis. But I am totally the newbie who went out and was spending stupid money on name-brand gear until my friend Peter Melman got me onto a bunch of reasonably priced stuff that wouldn’t break the bank. I’d thank Peter for this, but he’s the one who pushed me into fly fishing to begin with, so I think these things cancel each other out.)

This turned out to be easy and required no cursing, except for the couple of times the rod slid off the side of the Subaru and onto the ground. If the rod tip had broken before even one use, the volcanic eruption of cursing that would have ensued would have drawn sheriff’s deputies and state troopers from miles around.

So, I’d probably spent the better part of forty five minutes just getting set up. The sun was now even lower in the sky. I started out on the half-mile walk, the river on one side of me and rock-face on the other. My initial thrill at being the only person out here was now replaced by fear that I was the only person out here and thus the only viable snack for bears or mountain lions.

But I persisted. I made it to my spot on the river, waded right in. I got one cast in. Nothing. This wasn’t surprising. I whipped back a second cast and then … there was literally nothing on the end of my leader. Apparently, my frustration had led to a half-assed surgeons knot. Combined with poor casting, the whole setup was likely a quarter mile downstream.

More cursing, now bordering on crying if I’m going to be completely honest. I trudged back up to the bank and spent another fifteen minutes retying everything. I got a few more casts in. I wasn’t catching anything. I wasn’t even sure there were fish there. And I felt like I’d literally forgotten every single thing Ralph Merrill had taught me. But I kept going. 

I got in fifteen solid minutes of curse-free fishing before getting snagged and breaking the tippet again. After another string of invective, I was basically out of time. So I trudged back to the car without getting eating by wild animals. Took everything apart. Got out of the waders and boots. Headed home. Texted my saga of failures to Pete Melman.

And then immediately started thinking about the next trip.


Next time in fly fishing: 25% less cursing, 100% more fish.



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