The quiet snip of scissors was enough to awaken me at 5:15 one morning as my friend and resident fly-fishing expert David Mulligan worked at a vise clamped to a table in the Inn at Soap Lake. In the barely lit room I could make out piles of feathers everywhere. Wings and feathers from game hens and pheasant, even fur from a rabbit. Dave hoped the maids wouldn't object to his odd assortments spread out on beds, table, chairs, even air conditioner.
I think fly tying is just in Dave's blood. Some fly fishermen get more pleasure from making flies than from catching fish. The wings, feathers, and fur are selected for making the valuable hackle (feathers or plumage of birds) that simulates wings on artificial fishing flies and allows the fly to float. The last three quarters of an inch on a feather tip provides the best hackle.
We had driven there the day before from Seattle. The scenery had changed ever so gradually—from Washington's rain-soaked coast east through Snoqualmie National Forest, and again through mountain passes along the Yakima and Cle Elum rivers, crossing the mighty Columbia to, now, the arid conditions in the center of the state, near Moses Lake. Our final destination was Rocky Ford, Washington, a spring creek lying just below a hatchery. Rocky Ford is an oasis of phenomenal natural springs bursting through the earth at precisely the temperature preferred by rainbow and brown trout.
With a hook clamped firmly in the vise—“Always buy the best vise you can”—Dave patiently wound fine dark thread around the hook shank and added the hackle. As he tied, the hackle began to stand upright on the hook. Before wrapping the final 4 inches of thread, he added dubbing fiber, which would simulate the insect body. At home he had gathered packages of dubbing (synthetic or natural fur) materials in colors ranging from yellow to olive and dumped them into a blender. What came out, he assured me, would most exactly “match the hatch” of emerging insects.
As he worked that still morning, a simple metal hook slowly took on an abdomen, thorax, legs, even a head (a hollow metal cone). The fly's appearance was truly lifelike, but how would it act in the water? Would it imitate a real insect or nymph? Could it stand up to repeated casts, yanked off the water repeatedly, splashed down just as often, mauled by fish? That's why Dave was so focused.
Critical to fly-fishing is how flies are made. A quick way to test the quality of a dry fly is to hold it flat on an open palm (not clamped between thumb and forefinger) with the hook shank parallel to your palm. If the point of the hook touches your skin, the fly will float poorly and not simulate a real insect. This test also indicates whether the fly will hold together well. It's not an expensive fly rod that attracts fish but the fly you cast on the water. Another test is to drop the fly onto a hard counter top from several feet above. If the fly bounces, it indicates good hackle quality, usually a sign of a well-made fly.
Rising out of bed that crisp summer morning, I asked how many fly patterns Dave had ready. He had six scuds (freshwater shrimp), two damselflies, and a handful of leeches. Long before we hit the water that day, we readied our gear: a collapsible case for wet flies and a firm plastic case for dry patterns, two sizes of fly rods packed protectively in 5-foot tubes, foam-wrapped reels, fishing vests, pliers, sunglasses, sink and flotation liquids, extra braided leaders, several spools of tippet material with various break strengths, and fishing licenses.
After a quick breakfast of coffee and granola bars, we set off for Rocky Ford. Excitedly, we slowly made our way to the water's edge. The streams, cool and whispering, beckoned to us. A heron took flight, ascending ever so gracefully from a shoal. And then we saw them, some 26 inches long, black-spotted on top, pink and green flecks on the sides, and the constantly swishing black and silver tails. Rainbows streaked up and down the streamside as we approached. Occasional flashes of white underbelly caught the sun. It was magic.
Though anxious to wet our lines, we studied the fish for a while in their crystalline environment. The brook ran clear and cold and teemed with life. Scuds dove for cover in the thick weeds. Minnows scurried near the edge. Flecks of food and vegetation floated by. All the trout were facing forward, positioning themselves in various areas along the current.
Stocked with thousands of rainbow and brown trout, Rocky Ford is a haven for fly fishermen. Aerators in the hatchery above keep the fingerlings alive during cold winters. In the warmer months, Rocky Ford becomes a smorgasbord of food for the fish, with hatches of chironomids, leeches, scuds, and beautiful blue damselflies—all replicated by tricky fly tiers.
Back at our truck we assembled the sections of our rods, making sure the snake guides lined up properly, then attached the reel solidly to the reel seat. After threading braided loop connectors and joining tippets to braided leaders, we selected flies. I selected a scud and Dave, a leech. We made certain to crush the hook barbs, leaving the bigger fish for other fly fishers. The joy of releasing fish unharmed back into their lair is expressed by fishing veteran Lee Wulff, one of America's most famous fly fishermen: “A trophy fish is too important to catch only once.”
The Zen of Fly-Fishing
It's difficult to match what Jerry Dennis wrote in his book River Home: St. Martin's Press, 1998.
“Fishing makes us alert, pulls us out of our thoughts, and engages us in something bigger than ourselves. It's a restorative that cleanses us when we've become muddied and makes us healthy when we've become sickened. It's a brace against pessimism.
“Fishing, I should have explained, teaches us to perform small acts with care. It humbles us. It enriches our friendships. It cultivates reverence for wild things and beautiful places. It offers relief from overdue bills and endless chores and appalling world events. It makes us participants in nature instead of spectators, a crucial distinction because participants tend to become passionate and protective and spectators tend to become indifferent.”
Once on the water, we pulled out the bright orange fishing line and started false casting (flicking the airborne line forward and back without lowering the fly) to shoot out the loose line. After we had about 20 feet of line flying through the air, we gently set the flies upstream, took up the slack and began stripping (pulling the line back in by hand) in the line. Through polarized lenses we patiently watched the trout appreciate their two new watery additions. Would they take what we had served up? Was it even lunchtime? We knew the best presentation is made just ahead and to one side of the trout so that the fly drifts into their field of binocular vision.
Throughout the day we moved up the length of stream, sometimes crossing over as the winds changed. The current slipped and braided as it moved through a variety of pools and weed-filled runs. Boulder-hopping, we threw flies into various eddies, branch overhangs, and rock areas. Dave and I tied and retied various flies, hoping to interest the trout. What are the trout gorging on today, we wondered? We watched damselflies hover above water and scuds scurry below. We served up various flies in an attempt to match the hatch.
Sometimes we would strip a dry fly back in subsurface, hoping to arouse some interest. At the head of a pool I made a pile cast (casting such that the line lands in a loose pile of coils) so there would be plenty of slack in the leader and the current could take the fly as it pleased. Occasionally the splash of a muskrat broke the steady lap-lap of the cool, clear water against the shoreline reeds.
Then it happened. A big one grabbed at a red damselfly. Exhilarated by my first catch of the day, I reminded myself out loud to hold the rod tip up and keep the line taut. Dave produced the net while I zigged the fish right to left, then back again. He made a 180-degree turn several times, took the line and I let him do it. The hooked fish desperately sought help from the current. Repeatedly, I maneuvered it to shore, only to be met with further resistance. More than once the fish seemed to be dead, its whole body limp. Then it set off again. Finally, its energy exhausted, the rainbow capitulated headfirst into Dave's soft mesh net.
Dave held the stunned but uninjured fish for a long time while it regained its strength. We were careful to touch our finned friend as little as possible so as not to remove its protective mucus. Too many anglers are careless about how they handle caught fish. Internal organs are easily damaged if fish are not handled properly.
When I was first exposed to the world of fly-fishing, a buddy of mine said: “Fly-fishing is a way of life.” One of our first trips was to an area where the limit was one fish and on barbless hooks. At that time, after years of fishing lakes with treble hooks and floating cheese, I thought the one-fish concept ludicrous. But my paradigm has shifted.
Fly fishers, for the most part, don't leave trash. They pick up after themselves, they pack everything out. Tackle and tools stay in vests, and jars of bait or hooks are pleasantly absent. Other anglers leave behind a trail of tackle victims. Countless birds, turtles, and other animals swallow fish hooks and become entangled in fishing lines, suffering debilitating injuries. Officials with the Virginia Marine Science Museum Stranding Team say fishing line is one of the top three threats to aquatic animals.
I think my paradigm shift came after I studied the great trout cruising the clear brooks and streams. They got to be large because responsible fishermen returned them to their natural habitat after enjoying the sport of catching them. Fly fishers care about the environment and the fish inhabiting it. The large German browns and cutthroats found in U.S. waters today are a rare breed, objects to be appreciated, not hunted. I gave up my idea of fishing for food in favor of a greater, transcendent appreciation for the fish in their own milieu, at one with nature, carefully concealed among the waving weeds.
“… looking down into a lake, an ocean, or a river is like looking up into the night sky, that both water and sky are filled with mysteries, and when we stare deeply into them we connect with every man and woman who has ever sensed the tugging vitality of the universe. We become part of a larger community, united by mysteries so vast that they make our differences of opinion and philosophy seem very small.
“Anglers are people who want to get beneath the surface of things…. Fishing is simply a way to open our hearts to the world.”
—River Homeby Jerry Dennis,St. Martin's Press, 1998
Perhaps the most satisfying part of fly-fishing are the breezes shimmering through the birch leaves, hearing streams gurgle, loons lament, the splash of a cormorant skittering across the water. Imbibe it all, for fishing is more than catching fish. Fly-fishing may be the only kind of fishing that can completely capture the soul and brain of intelligent people and imprison them for life. The buzz of locusts, puffy cumulus clouds overhead, and the thrill of rising, splashy trout are addictive.
Like so many things in life, serendipity seems to come when least expected. Frustration seems to kill good fishing fortune, so plan on picking a spot to enjoy, one that is calm and peaceful. The continuously changing environment will cause you to alter your on-the-stream strategy. But that's the most exciting part.
Successful fishing requires a connection to nature. It may be the buzz of insects, the swish of cattails in the breeze, a red-winged blackbird on a swaying limb. Maybe it's simply the tranquil gurgle of the brook that touches you deep inside. Whatever your spiritual connection to fishing, enjoy the moment and be patient. There is so much to see, to hear, to smell, and to feel near the water. As fishing prodigy Tom Meade writes: “Whether you catch a fish or not, the water will always give you a little of its strength, some of its energy and much of its peace.”
You can be successful at fly angling if you're willing to spend the necessary (but not inordinate) time getting to know the subject. The more you learn about fly-fishing, the more you have to learn and the more you want to learn it. I agree with whoever said, “The greater the island of knowledge, the longer the coastline of mystery.”