Some Quotes From My Favorite Fly Fishing Authors

Fall is my favorite time to fly fish. The creeks and rivers are down and the fish start rising to load up their bellies to help them weather winter. It’s been a very wet summer here in the Black Hills so it may be a different Fall but, at some point, it will be good. It always is. 

 As it gets cooler, fly fishermen start to wax philosophical. This is where the fish caught earlier in the year start to grow larger and the promise of the fish to be caught in the next year starts to germinate. Many fly fishermen feel compelled to write about it. Some of them, like John Gierach, Ted Leeson and a few others are quite good.

 Here are some samples from a few of my favorites.

 Fishing in general has always seemed to me a form of subversion anyway.  In a world that insists upon “means” and “ends,” that dooms every path to a destination, fishing elides the categories and so slips the distinction altogether.  You become engaged in the nonterminal, participial indefiniteness of “going fishing.” It exists wholly for its own sake, productive (at least in the late-twentieth-century sense of the term) of absolutely nothing. Measured against the ledger-sheet sensibility; corporate or Calvinist, it is a form of anarchy, and that legions of bottom-liners haven’t yet sniffed it out as something dangerous baffles me a little. To go fishing is essentially functionless, though that’s not at all the same thing as saying it is without purpose.

                                                     Ted Leeson, The Habit of Rivers

 I enjoy fishing too much to risk my life at it. Death can really cut into your fishing time.

                                                      John Gierach, Trout Bum

 A road trip…gets all the cards on the table…The usual hardships of getting out early, getting in late, getting lost, getting rained on, getting skunked, and all the other things you can get tend to reveal character in a matter of days. Creeps and idiots cannot conceal themselves for long on a fishing trip. 

                                                       John Gierach, The View from Rat Lake

 Fishing is a chance to wash one’s soul with pure air, with the rush of the brook, or with the shimmer of the sun on the blue water. It brings meekness and inspiration from the scenery of nature, charity toward tackle makers, patience toward fish, a mockery of profits and egos, a quieting of hate, a rejoicing that you do not have to decide a darned thing until next week. And it is discipline in the equality of man—for all men are equal before fish. 

                                                       Herbert Hoover, Fishing for Fun and to Wash Your Soul

 The purist fishes exclusively with a fly rod, which means that he owns a spinning rod and sometimes uses it, but he doesn’t talk about it much…and stores it separately from his fly tackle.

 Chances are it’s a very good rod.

 The snob is exactly like the purist except he doesn’t own a spinning rod. He used to, but he gave it away years ago, not wanting to have the filthy thing around the house. Furthermore, anyone who does fish with a spinning rod is sleazy and cheap and his parents were probably not married. This guy is not nice, or very happy either, and the time will surely come when he gets pretty lonely too. Snobbery occurs as the result of a logical fallacy. We all want to experience and appreciate something of excellent quality, but it doesn’t follow that we’re every bit as good as what we do. 

                                                       John Gierach, The View from Rat Lake

 You get over these small losses the way a lizard grows a new tail, and you end up remembering the great uncaught fish as vividly as you do the caught ones—and just as fondly too, because there’s a part of every fisherman that roots for the fish. 

                                                       John Gierach, Even Brook Trout Get the Blues

 If you’re weary, sick but still ambulatory, fed up, overworked, angry, frustrated, heartbroken, need to think things over or need to stop thinking things over for a while, you should definitely go fishing, and you should go alone so you don’t bother anyone. But then fishing, like most other simple human pleasures, is better when it’s done out of love than when it’s used as a painkiller. 

                                                       John Gierach, Another Lousy Day in Paradise

 A fish like this doesn’t count. I meant to catch it, but didn’t catch it the way I meant to—a distinction that nonanglers often find idiotic…Luck and happenstance are always part of fishing, though for the most part, I think, in small and subtle ways that an angler never notices. But the aim of fishing is to fish well, and the aim of fishing well is to make chance count for as little as possible. Much of the pleasure comes from knowing, or at least preserving the illusion, that we are agents of our own success, that we have orchestrated the whole affair ourselves, that a trout is not hooked through some quirky turn of events, but that it willingly and predictably responds to our own ideas about how it ought to behave. The accidental trout fails to satisfy because it is an unrepeatable phenomenon; it means nothing but that accidents happen…It has, at best, a sort of fluky entertainment value, like a tee shot that caroms off the clubhouse for a hole in one. 

                                                       Ted Leeson, Jerusalem Creek

 For one thing, like many fly fishermen, I enjoy watching another angler fish nearly as much as I enjoy fishing myself, and on some occasions even more…Watching somebody fish is a good deal more like watching baseball, a slow-paced game with studied aspects, than it is like watching, say, a stock-car race, where spectators may gather in the simple hearted hope of witnessing catastrophe. To split a rod with someone is a leisurely thing, and if that someone is any good, watching him lay out a cast and drop the fly and work the water feels very much like fishing, even though you’re not holding the rod. The stakes are low because you are there in part for companionship, and if you choose your partner wisely, the company is always good no matter what the fishing is like. 

                                                       Ted Leeson, Jerusalem Creek

 That Presidents have taken to fishing in an astonishing fashion seems to me worthy of investigation. I think I have discovered the reason: it is a silent sport. One of the few opportunities given to a President for the refreshment of his soul and the clarification of his thoughts by solitude lies through fishing…Next to prayer, fishing is the most personal relationship of man; and of more importance, everyone concedes that the fish will not bite in the presence of the public, including newspapermen. Fishing seems to be one of the few avenues left to Presidents through which they may escape to their own thoughts, may live in their own imaginings, find relief from the pneumatic hammer of constant personal contacts, and refreshment of mind in rippling waters. Moreover, it is a constant reminder of the democracy of life, of humility and of human frailty. It is desirable that the President of the United States should be periodically reminded of this fundamental fact—that the forces of nature discriminate for no man.  

                                                       Herbert Hoover, Fishing for Fun and to Wash Your Soul

 I agree with a friend of mine who says that if fishing is really like sex, then he’s doing one of them wrong. 

                                                       John Gierach, Dances with Trout

It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us…

Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters. 

                                                       Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It



A Couple Pictures From New Zealand

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.

J’s 28 inch brown (caught on his 59th birthday!)

J’s 28 inch brown (caught on his 59th birthday!)

My mere 24 inch brown. Check out the water clarity. Don’t let recent events scare you off, New Zealand is a treasure. Serge Bonnafoux is the go to guide in New Zealand.

My mere 24 inch brown. Check out the water clarity. Don’t let recent events scare you off, New Zealand is a treasure. Serge Bonnafoux is the go to guide in New Zealand.

Stan's Gift

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.

Stan with a big pike in Canada.

Stan with a big pike in Canada.