New Zealand is a renowned trout fishing destination. Even as a less than renowned trout fisherman, I can say it’s different from other places I have fished for trout. It is definitely a matter of quality, rather than quantity. My buddy J and I fished three days and each caught one fish (OK, J caught two but one of them was only about 14 or 15 inches and that doesn’t really count in New Zealand). But it is exciting, challenging fishing with a big (literally) payoff. Crystal clear water allows you to watch the fish take your fly…if it hasn’t seen you too.
When I told my first boss Stan that I was going backpacking in Wyoming with my father, Stan said, “There should be good fishing up there. Take this fly rod with you.” With that, I was on my way to being a fly fisherman.
The backpack trip happened sometime in the late 1980s. I took the 5 weight Orvis rod with me and tried it out on a high mountain lake. I grew up with spinning rods and did not know the first thing about how a fly rod worked. In both law and fly fishing, Stan was big on providing opportunities for experience but not particularly enamored with providing instruction. Just as he would send me into court or negotiations as a young lawyer with little idea about what I was doing, he did the same with the fly rod. My mental image of that first time is standing on a rock with fly line tangled about my feet. My first few trips to court were not that different.
I landed a few fish that afternoon, all by retrieving line hand over hand like a longshoreman hauling rope rather than using the $200 reel that clearly had a function that I had yet to discern. But, I did notice that when I could get one of the flies that Stan supplied me with to rest on the water, the fish readily gobbled them up. I was intrigued but not sure what to do next with the fly rod (this was before one could pull up a Youtube video to show what people actually did with a fly rod).
I told Stan that I appreciated the use of the fly rod when I returned it to him. I fudged a bit and said it worked great and I really enjoyed it. I suspected Stan was pleased to think he had a new convert. He told me to keep the rod and reel. I protested but ultimately thanked him and sheepishly took it home wondering how long it would be before he discovered that I was a less than deserving recipient of his largesse.
Not long after that, I received an offer to join a company as an in-house lawyer and had to tell Stan that I was moving on. A few days later Stan said he was going to take me out with a fly fishing guide as a going away gift (even though I wasn’t “going” far since my new office was just across the street). I responded enthusiastically while silently pondering the fact that Stan was about to find out how hapless I was with a fly rod.
A couple weeks later, Stan and I joined a couple other lawyers in the firm, some clients and two guides on the Colorado River. Todd was the guide assigned to me. By the end of the day, I not only understood the mechanics of the fly rod (and reel!) and had caught a couple fish, I began to grasp Stan’s passion for fly fishing. Like so many trout guides I have met since, Todd was both a marvel of knowledge and patience. And he cooked the best stream-side lunch I’ve ever had.
I knew that Stan would welcome fishing with me but not until I reached a reasonable level of competence. I did a very small amount of research and was told that there was great fly fishing in Cheesman Canyon. The Canyon was about an hour and a half drive from where I lived at that time in Golden, Colorado. I started going to Cheesman Canyon at every opportunity, often leaving the house at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning so I could be first on the trailhead leading into the river.
My first few times in Cheesman Canyon were not exactly successful. I used the techniques that Todd taught me on the Colorado River to no avail, despite being able to see very large fish in the water. After a few trips I mentioned to my new boss Gary that I was trying to learn fly fishing but I was finding it harder than expected. It turned out that Gary had recently decided he wanted to learn to fly fish as well and had purchased equipment to that end. We started meeting in Cheesman Canyon from time to time or reporting in to one another when one of us would go solo.
We quickly discovered a few things. First, what works on one river rarely is of much relevance on another river. Second, starting one’s fly fishing career in Cheesman Canyon is a bit like trying to learn piano by playing Rachmaninoff. To this day, I have yet to fish a more technically challenging river. We learned to use leaders that made thread look like cable and flies that were best viewed through a microscope.
Gary and I were clearly in over our heads (not literally, that’s dangerous in waders) but we persevered. After a couple years of regaling each other with alternating stories of victory or stupidity that was only revealed with the clarity of hindsight on the drive home, we began to consider ourselves quasi-experts on Cheesman Canyon. Feeling emboldened, I worked up the nerve to ask Stan if he would like to go fishing. He readily agreed and said to meet him at the Colorado River to fish the stretch he took me to with Todd a couple years before.
I found that the Colorado was less challenging than Cheesman Canyon. I held my own just fine with Stan, even catching a large rainbow near the end of our day. Stan showed me how to do a reach cast that day which helps manage slack in the fly line when the fish you want to catch is on the other side of the river, but there is fast water between you and the other side. Now that Stan knew I was committed, he gave me many more valuable tips on fishing trips in the ensuing years.
Stan was a man of few words right up until the subject was trout and their ways. I was never sure whether he was happiest on the river or talking about the fishing over a beer at the end of the day. But I knew those two options outranked everything else by a wide margin.
Ultimately life took me away from Colorado but I have been blessed to continue to fly fish in some incredible places. I rarely fish when I don’t think of Stan and how, as both a fly fisherman and a lawyer, he gave me tools but knew that the passion would have to come from my own effort.
When Stan died a few years back, I went to Iowa for his funeral. A few of us from the old firm were there along with some of Stan’s family. Stan had not stayed in close touch and I was struck by how little his family knew about him. I flew home feeling a little melancholy. I regretted that none of Stan’s family had stood knee deep in a river and watched Stan chuckle while he played a trout with the sun reflecting off the water and his aviator sunglasses. We’re all capable of moments of beauty. Those moments were Stan’s.
Last summer, my son and I backpacked in Wyoming and did a little fishing. At the end of the trip, I gave him the Orvis rod that Stan sent me into the backcountry with three decades ago. My son does quite a bit of backpacking. There should be good fishing up there.
I have always loved to fish. I only took up fly fishing about 30 years ago. Check here for fishing reports, pictures, observations and book reviews. Tight lines!