Fly Fishing Sucks

Sometimes the best way to say something difficult is just to say it. So here it goes. Fly fishing sucks.


It’s actually really hard. The visuals presented in fly-fishing films and Instagram photos are quite misleading. Sure it looks inviting, but there’s so much you don’t see…like how many mosquitoes and black flies the angler had to swat away while holding that prize trout at just the right angle, which is only slightly out of the water (like only one third of the fish). And you also have to position it at the perfect angle, with one hand holding the fish’s tail just slightly outstretched and the other arm, bending only slightly at the elbow, holding the fish’s body nearly fully extended. There’s a reason it’s called “angling.” It’s so complicated. And if you have really large hands and are naturally “big boned” then you need to really question whether or not you want to take up fly fishing at all. Trout appear smaller when held by large people, which will not make for enticing social media images.


Maybe that’s a good place to start, by questioning your motives. Why do you want to take up fly fishing? Is it because it’s niche? You’re looking for a peaceful pastime that takes you outdoors so you can spend time clearing your head while avoiding the crowds. Not going to happen. It’s next to impossible to throw a stone in the air in Montana, Idaho, or Alberta without hitting someone with a fly rod in their hand. Not that I recommend throwing stones with fly rods around. If you happen to miss a fly fisher and hit one of their rods, you’ll likely break it, which really angers these people, especially in the middle of trout season. Sure the rod is likely to have a warranty, but it takes months to get the rod fixed. And going out and buying a new rod is out of the question because the poor guy probably took out a second mortgage just to buy the first one.


If you’re still thinking about joining the fray, you’ll need to purchase the following: a fly rod for $1000, a reel for $400, waders for $500, boots for $250, a gear bag for $150, a fly box for $50, and you might as well throw in a drift boat for $8000. Try not to worry when you max out your Visa because the feeling you get the next season when you realize all your gear is outdated is…priceless.


On top of that you’ll have to buy flies, casting lessons, and go out with a guide so you can learn what’s going on (ballpark $1500 for that trio). That knowledge will be good for at least a few days, until the Ephemera simulans hatch is over. Oh, I forgot to mention that you’ll likely also have to take an online Latin course in order to enhance your entomological understanding.


Now that you’re broke your time is going to be more limited because you’ll likely have to get a second job. You’ll want to make sure the extra hours come in the evenings so you can keep your weekends free for studying Latin and for fly fishing, especially through the summer months. This is the most productive time to fly fish.


Manage your limited free time wisely because summer only lasts for about 90 days. With weekends off, you’ll have 24 days where you can get out and cast a fly to trout. Of those 24 days, let’s say six of those will be too hot to fish, for even Shakespeare knew that “sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines.” And then three of those days are likely to be cancelled because of thunderstorms. Again I’ll defer to Shakespeare’s meteorological insight: “And often is [the sun’s] gold complexion dimmed.” How can you argue with Shakespeare?


You’re now left with 15 days to fish this summer, which isn’t too bad I guess. But with climate change causing high water temperatures, there are usually quite a few river closures. Last summer in my region I think I endured two weeks of closures. If that happens, now you’re down to ONE DAY. 


I know this goes without saying, but if you’re getting into fly fishing to relax and get away from it all, you might want to reconsider. It’s going to be challenging to relax when you’re stressed about the looming academic load and the financial burden you’ve incurred for that one day of fly fishing. Realistically, there might be a reason it’s perceived as niche. You may want to take the family to the water slides instead. Even if you don’t pack a lunch and buy burgers at the park, you’ve likely saved around ten thousand dollars.


Let’s not fool ourselves though. Life is not all about saving money. Everyone knows you can’t take the checkbook with you when you go. In the end it’s all about relationships, right? Okay, this is where fly fishing gets really tricky. Any way you cut the onion, it’s going to make you cry. If you’re married and your spouse doesn’t feel the same about spending time in nature casting a fly to trout, this causes tension because of the sheer number of days you’ll be “gone.” “Ahaha,” you say, “I caught you in a lie. I knew I’d be able to fish for more than one day out of the entire year!” Well, no. What I mean is that you’ll be eternally thinking about that one day because fly fishing is addictive. You’ll run through every scenario in your mind such as what flies you need to pick up, what stream you’re going to fish, who you’re going to go with, who’s going to pack the lunch (Shoot, I almost forgot. You need to run out and buy a cooler for $500), and what rod you’re going to bring. I may have also forgot to mention that you’ll need to purchase more than one rod. You’ll need one for big water, one for medium water, and one for small water. You’ll also need one for windy days, one for calm days, and one for slightly overcast days. You can never be too prepared for that one day per year you get to go out and enjoy!


Undoubtedly, your mind will be consumed. You’ll end up spending very little time thinking about your spouse, which can have very serious consequences. Likely, the only way you’ll be able to save your marriage is through couples’ counselling. Had this need come up before your addiction, you would have been able to afford it, but now you’ll have to sell some of your fly gear to pay a qualified counsellor to help you through your issues. It’s a classic catch-22 (not 22 trout…stay focused).


I know; you’re one step ahead of me. You’ll just include your spouse in your addiction. Really? I agree it’s the most obvious and viable solution. That is, until you start to double the costs above. That’s sure to create an insurmountable financial strain on the marriage. Then…back to couples counselling, which may eat away at your one day a year.


You see, you’ve been looking at the films and the Instagram photos all wrong. You see them and you think, “I want to do this. I want to be like those people.” No. Appearances can be deceiving; remember Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (et tu Brute). See, your Latin lessons are not wasted on entomology.


I’m telling you because you are my friend…fly fishing sucks.

Just Shy of Eighteen

The logjam provided enough depth and structure to hold decent sized trout. I waded in just below it to about thigh deep and made a good cast up to where it looked like the large fish should be holding. My beetle pattern bobbed and drifted a foot or two from about the half-way-point of the jam where a few larger logs protruded into the river. I pulled quickly at the line to manage the slack as the current pushed the terrestrial toward me.


Then just like I’d envisioned, a pair of lips inhaled the beetle—a very small pair of lips. I set and a six-inch fish skittered over the surface. My anticipation for a larger trout may have affected my overly forceful hook set. I say the trout was six-inches but it could have just as easily been four or five. Admittedly, I may miscalculate by an inch or two regardless the size of the fish. I don’t often actually measure my fish because I’m quite confident in my approximate benchmark measurements.


A six-inch trout could be anything up to six inches. A 12-inch trout is usually anything between nine and 12. After that I get a little more precise: a 15-inch trout is anything an inch or so shy of that, and a 16-inch trout is actually 16…at least in my mind anyway. An 18-inch trout…well, anything that looks like 18 inches or above I usually do a quick measurement against my rod before I send it back. Oddly, a few of my 18-inch trout have actually measured 16 inches.


I say all that to say the six-inch trout that grabbed my beetle was about half way between me and the logjam when I saw a dark shadow dart out and ambush the small trout. The battle immediately transitioned from a quick land-and-release scenario into an uncertain tug-o-war.


I’d actually been in this type of situation before—the small fish takes the fly and then a large bull trout hijacks the poor little guy. Never have I ever actually landed the bull trout. He always spits his prey just a few feet from me, so I assumed the same would happen this time. But there was something vastly different about this situation unfolding in front of me—there were no char in this system.


As I brought the two fish closer, something completely unpredictable happened. I’ve replayed the event multiple times, and I still have no idea how. Without a change in tension or direction, I watched as the small fish swam away. Very nonchalantly…like he’d had enough for one day.


Somehow the little Houdini escaped the jaws of his captor and now the large trout alone was on the end of my line. At about four feet away, I reached for my net and pulled it from my backpack then promptly fumbled and dropped it just as the large fish took another run straight toward the lower end of the jam. I turned the rod to my right in order to guide him away from the submerged timber, but I was a little late. When I pulled on my rod, I didn’t feel the head shakes of a large trout, just the solid and consistent tension created by deadwood.


At this point I faced a conundrum. Do I wade deeper toward the jam in order to see if a slightly different rod angle frees the line and possibly the fish if he was still on, or do I run downstream after my net, which was now getting dangerously close to a slightly submerged stump? I chose the latter because it appeared more attainable. I sprinted down the river and got to the end of my unspooled line then lunged for my net just moments before it became part of the unretrievable mess around the stump. I picked it up and put it under my left arm and reeled in my line while trekking back toward the snag.


When I arrived near the bottom of the logjam, I was able to comfortably wade another two feet beyond my original position and then another couple uncomfortable feet beyond that all the while angling my rod upstream as far as I could. To my surprise, I felt the line release from the submerged log and immediately felt the headshakes from the large fish. He was still there!


I reeled him up as I moved back toward my initial casting position. Then I took the retrieved net from under my left arm, raised the tip of my rod toward the slightly overcast sky and watched as the heavily spotted, yellow-bellied cutthroat slid over the side of the net.


I’m really not sure how it happened, but the beetle was embedded in the corner of the jaw in the very same way as if he’d taken it himself. I removed the hook and slid my hand under the fish’s belly and lifted him toward my rod. This one, by my closest estimation needed to be measured. My mental yardstick placed him on the larger side of 18 inches.


When I placed his tail at the butt of the rod, his nose stretched well beyond any logos or weight hashtags. This one’s got to run a solid 20 I thought as I slipped him back in the water and held him for a moment before he decided to splash with his tale and swim quickly toward the chaotic ball of trees and branches.


The rest of the day I fished each of the deep pools with dries first and then made a second pass with streamers. I caught lots of fish on both but none rivaled that trout’s size. On the way home, I reminisced about the one…or more accurately the two. I’ve been fishing now for four solid decades, mostly for trout, and to that point I’d never had a cutthroat ambush a six-inch trout at the end of my line.


The only explanation…maybe I overestimated size of the trout that rose to the beetle. I guess he could have been four inches just as easily as he could have been six. That’s a possibility. Regardless, a trout eating another a third its size, then the beetle transferring from the smaller to the larger mouth, and then the trout running me into a jam and me getting the trout off the jam…he’s likely a trout I won’t soon forget.


When I got home, I grabbed my gear from the vehicle and placed it in the garage. I rummaged about for a tape measure and then stretched it from the rod butt to where his nose reached. By precise calculations, the trout measured just shy of 18. Hmm. I overestimated by two inches—glad to see even in the mayhem of a moment some things never change.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go…Fishing

Outwaiting a fish has never been a problem for me. Patience of this variety is not a superhero’s quality, but if it were, I’d be fighting crime rather than writing about fishing. So when I first stumbled upon Dr. Seuss’ book Oh, the Places You’ll Go! as a university student on a late-night outing to Chapters, I couldn’t understand why he portrayed “waiting for the fish to bite” with all the other negative aspects of waiting, like “waiting for a train to go / or a bus to come.”


Waiting to go fishing, on the other hand, requires an entirely different kind of patience, which admittedly I don’t possess. I realized this when my good friend Chris and I took off in a floatplane one stormy Friday, embarking on a summer weekend trip we’d been planning for months. The pilot wasn’t optimistic about reaching the destination, but he did everything he could to get us to the lake as scheduled by flying low through the valleys under the heavy cloud cover. He navigated us within about 15 minutes of our destination before we ran into a wall of impassible cloud. Shortly after the midair U-turn, the pilot came over the headsets and said, “Sorry guys. We can try again in the morning.”


Because of the excitement created by the lengthy build-up to the trip, the announcement created a more crushing disappointment than any middle-aged man should feel. But that knowledge didn’t stop me from sulking a little before I mentally readjusted by telling myself we were only missing the late evening fishing and the early morning fishing.


The storm did what the forecast predicted and cleared at about the same time we reloaded our gear into the Cessna. And on this flight, because the clouds did not confine the plane to the low valleys, we were able to fly beside a number of peaks before the pilot located the correct valley and eventually the lake that would double as our landing-strip.


As soon as the plane dropped us off, Chris and I hauled our gear to an accommodating looking spot on a small delta. Impatiently, we left the camping gear and started to set up our rods. Since neither of us really knew what to expect from the lake, I brought three rods, all different weights. The largest was a 6-weight, which I assumed to be too much, but it was a “just in case…who knows” kind of grab on the way out of the garage.


Looking out at the water, I took hold of my leader and fumbled through a loop knot to attach my secret searching fly. In a rush I scurried over to the drop-off between the small delta and the water and that’s when I saw a large shadow, which was so large I initially didn’t believe it was a fish.


It couldn’t have been more than seven feet from where I was standing. Though it barely moved, it repositioned enough for me to question whether it sensed me. I foolishly knelt down and began casting, and proceeded to pull the fly past the fish twice before I acknowledged I needed to actually relocate and let it rest.


I walked down the shoreline another 15 feet and backed up five feet before kneeling again. I waited. Then I cast at a 45-degree angle about seven feet in front of the shadow and 20 feet past it. I let the fly sit for five seconds then I started to strip, fast. The clarity of the water allowed me to see the brightly coloured streamer as it streaked along. Just as the fly moved past the shadow, the fish tilted up then lunged to the left, causing my fly to disappear.


I felt the rod strain beneath the cork, far beyond what even a large trout should do to a 6-weight. The fish pulled away from shore and then leapt and cartwheeled three times before my backing exited the last guide. I was so shocked by the fish’s size I forgot to steer it. Not until my backing started peeling from the reel did I angle the rod to the right. The fish immediately responded by swimming quickly toward me. I struggled to keep pace and gave up on the reel and instead controlled the line with my hand until the fish stole it all back and re-peeled line from the reel.


This tug-o-war repeated a few times before I brought a bright, silver 12-pound coho to the net. Its colour indicated it had left the ocean only a day or two prior and found its way up to the lake, awaiting fall rains before continuing up the small inflowing stream. I held up the fish as Chris snapped a photo with his phone. Then I placed the fish back into the lake and watched the broad shoulders disappear to the depths.


Before we heard the muffled sound of the Cessna approaching the valley the next day, we caught a number of coho, cutthroat and even a few juvenile steelhead. But this fish stood out, above the others from the trip and also above the others from the angling year. It was more than the size of the fish. On occasion, I’ve caught small trout that are memorable. And it was even more than the surprise of catching a bright silver salmon while standing on the shore of a freshwater lake. I’ve caught “surprise species” fish before. I suspect it had to do with all of that, plus the buildup to the moment.


We’d had to fight through conflicting schedules just to get the trip on the calendar. Then the storm created a great deal of uncertainty as to whether or not we could actually go on the trip. And after all that, my reckless enthusiasm caused me to spook one of the largest fish I’d ever seen in a lake.


I know I criticized Seuss for his placement of waiting for a fish to bite, and I won’t waver from that position. He does, however, make a number of valid points in the rest of his book, so valid in fact that it makes me wonder why Seuss has never been considered a great amongst modern philosophers. Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is more about who a person is when they end up at certain places in life, and less about the places themselves. Seuss essentially says sometimes you’ll get out ahead and sometimes you’ll get left behind. Sometimes you’ll move forward quickly and sometimes you’ll have to wait. Sometimes you’ll be surrounded by people who adore you, and sometimes you’ll feel completely alone.


Like all good philosophy, it can be applied to most areas in life. In fly-fishing terms, sometimes you’ll have the trip of a lifetime and it will go seamlessly, and sometimes you’ll be fully packed and ready to go and you’ll have to delay or cancel. Sometimes you’ll tie unbreakable knots, and sometimes your knots will let go. Sometimes you’ll have to wait for a fish and then you’ll get it, and other times you’ll rest a fish and never see it again.


Regardless of where I end up, be it lake or river, flats or fen, I must always remember to ask myself this question: Can I recognize a situation for what it is and adjust to the reality of the circumstance? If the answer is yes, then I will succeed. In the words of Seuss, “Yes! [I] will, indeed! 98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.” Wait…maybe not quite that high for any honest angler.