It would be a few laughs, that’s what Famous Girlfriend and I envisioned for our fly-fishing adventure in Montana. We’d be Ethel and Lucy, we thought, ineptly casting, laughing hysterically, hooking each other and getting our lines tangled in our hair.
We would be amused, we girly-girls of a certain age. We would have stories to tell that would make people laugh. After all, fly-fishing wasn’t just not in our wheel-house, we couldn’t imagine taking it up, ourselves. We were too uncoordinated.
Or so we thought.
River’s Edge Fly Shop was busy at 8am on this blazing hot July day, teeming with fishermen and women getting equipment, buying their fishing licenses and meeting their guides. Our guide, Wes, hadn’t arrived yet when we got there, so we did a little shopping.
We each bought a Buff for sun protection, hers in a camo-ey style and mine not so much. It’s kind of like a multi-functional scarf that can be fashioned into anything from a face mask to a hijab. Just about. It had been a torrid, sunny week and we knew we’d be on the water most of the day, with sun reflecting on us. Not even my 50 SPF sunblock and white, long-sleeved MIT t-shirt could stand up to it.The Buffs looked like good protection for our necks and chins. And, as my husband pointed out, perfect for holding up a convenience store.
Wes and his boat appeared shortly thereafter and we loaded up his truck for our 45 minute drive to the beautiful Yellowstone River. We liked Wes right away. He’s a skinny, 26 year old who’s had an interesting young life and knew a whole lot about fly-fishing and Montana. We talked about everything from hunting and conservation to gun control and politics, which made him the perfect guide for us. Not to mention he is an EMT. Just in case. And hella-patient.
Once we got to the river, Wes showed us his tackle box and flies, then affixed some flies to our lines, all the while explaining how fly fishing worked. We began with dry flies but he told us that at some point we’d switch to nymphs. We listened. We’re very good listeners.
The boat was a 20-year old, banged up fiberglass float boat with oars and no motor. He got it in the water, we got in and we were on our way. I’ve always loved to be on the water, especially in a small fishing boat in which I always feel closer to the water and get into the groove of the current. I took the front seat.
My Go Pro was at the ready, but it didn’t work out exactly as I’d envisioned. The sun searing and I didn’t want to go without a broadbrimmed hat. Plus, I was very into the absolutely awesome views of the northern Rockies all around us, as the current carried us downstream, Wes rowing every so often.
Shortly, Wes handed us our rods and began explaining how to cast with dry flies. The idea is to imitate the natural behavior of flies on the river. There’s a little bit of finesse involved in casting with dry flies. Initially, I tried to slam the fly into the water, but soon learned that I didn’t need to pull back quite as far or cast with as much power. Once cast, we learned to mend, which is to lay the line down in a curve upstream so the fly would go with the current and not our wake–to avoid drag and keep the fly looking natural.
To our surprise, we caught on fairly quickly. I wouldn’t call us skilled, but we got the idea and could successfully cast and mend at a basic level. It was a surprise to find that fly-fishing is an active sport that requires casting every 10 seconds or so all day. (Thank you, Hot Trainer, for all that arm work!!) Soon, nothing existed for me but the water gently carrying us downstream, casting and mending. Again. Again. And again. It was the perfect zen activity.
Nothing was biting. But to be honest? I didn’t care. Pull back, cast, mend. Pull back, cast, mend. I didn’t think about anything or anyone else. Just that. We floated gently down the river, every so often hitting some class 1 rapids. Nothing fazed me. Cast, mend, watch. Cast, mend, watch.
Before too long, Wes decided we needed to catch fish, so he switched us to nymphs. Nymphs have a little weight attached to them so they sink below the water. Wes also attached indicators–bobbers– so we could see where the line hit. Mine was orange. Some say indicators aren’t “pure.” That they’re “cheating” or for newbies. I didn’t much care–it gave me one more focus for the zen of flyfishing.
The water carrying us along. Casting. Mending. Watching the bobber. And doing it all again. And again. And again.
Casting nymphs required us to do a little more of a slam onto the water. So that’s what I did. After a while, I didn’t really want to talk. I just wanted to drift and cast.
“You getting bored up there, Carol?” Wes asked, noticing my silence.
“Not hardly,” I replied. I was relaxed, happy and into the repetition of the sport. I didn’t care if I caught a thing. I did, however, notice a dark cloud that had been following us for a while. I was pretty sure the skies would open up soon.
And then, Robin landed a whitefish. It was pretty fun and she was pretty excited about it. Wes scooped it up in a basket, we looked at it and then he let it go.
“Time for you to catch one, Carol,” Wes commented.
“I don’t care if I do,” I tried to explain. But of course, he’s a professional guide. His regular clients aren’t happy if they don’t catch fish. Me? I was happy just being there, leaving the fish alone, just casting, mending, watching the water.
About then, I hooked one, pulled it up, couldn’t stand the fact that he was out of the water (even though the hooks are special and barely hurt the fish, we’re told) and then I said “Let’s let it go! Let it go!” I didn’t want to scoop him up so we let him go before he got super close to the boat.
“We call that a long-distance release,” Wes said with a laugh. Fine with me. I looked up. We were directly under a black cloud.
Fat rain drops plopped on us and Wes recommended pulling in our lines and setting the poles down. A dramatic dark cloud dumped rain on us as the boat navigated through tiny little areas of rapids. Time passed in a dream-like state: the motion of the boat, the rain, the river, the mountains. I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to take photographs. I just wanted to drift in that zen state forever, mesmerized.
All too soon, we reached the boat ramp. Our four-hour, five-mile float was over.
Reflecting later, we realized that we’d learned something important about ourselves: that our image of ourselves as hapless and uncoordinated in the face of the sport didn’t match reality at all. Oh, sure, we’re still neophytes and only began learning a few of the basics. But we realized that yes, we could learn to fly-fish and yes, we liked it. We liked it just fine.
In fact, I liked it a lot.
We tell ourselves stories about ourselves all the time: who we are, what we like, how we respond to things. Sometimes we’re dead on. Other times, we haven’t a clue. This was one of those latter times.
I hope to return with my husband next year. We’ll stay in the park, see some critters, take some hikes and of course, meet up with Wes for some fly-fishing. We’ll be in Santa Fe for six weeks this fall. If it works out, we might do some fishing there. And of course, we have some great rivers in the San Francisco Bay area and if we can squeeze some time out, might explore a bit of that.
Me in the zen of fly-fishing. Who’d have thunk it?