Learning to Fly

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By: Jim Sweeney

It felt good to be back on the water, but especially this water. It had been far too long. The last time I had fished this river I was a teenager. I’ll always remember the feeling of fighting that first-ever brown trout on my spinning rod so many years earlier. It had worked just like the elderly man on my paper route said it would, weighting a kernel of corn, then drifting it along the bottom of the hole he had so perfectly described and directed me to. I had barely pulled that beautiful ‘brownie’ from the water and gotten a good look at her when she shook violently and escaped beneath the surface, leaving me staring at a bare hook. I thought I could hear her laughing. The forgotten thrill of it all came rushing back to me now.

The river hadn’t changed much in 25 years, but I sure had. I was divorced now, the father of teenage twins, running a
24-hour local TV news startup four hours away in Philadelphia. Stressful? You bet, and I needed a break. This was an attempt to relax and reconnect with something I’d loved since I was a boy – fishing – during a trip to see family in Connecticut.

Fly fishing was new to me. I’d always liked the idea, but had now decided to jump in with both feet, so to speak. Over the winter I’d read a few books, watched numerous instructional videos, and purchased gear through eBay, including an Orvis fly rod and reel. I bought hip waders, a vest with the requisite tools, and a few boxes filled with more flies than I knew what to do with. Literally. I felt ready. Sort of.

The timing could not be better. It’s early evening after a gorgeous June day. The air is still quite warm but there’s a gentle breeze, and the sun has just started to sink in the sky. I delight in watching a mother duck and her three ducklings swim by before easing in up to my thighs in the still, slow-moving water of Mill River, finding my footing. For the first time in a long time, the world evaporates; I feel at peace. I turn sharply after hearing a loud slurp about 20 feet upstream, followed by another one downstream, then a splashy rise nearby, sending concentric circles rippling my way. The water suddenly seems to be boiling all around me with rising trout and I feel a familiar boyhood excitement. “Match the hatch,” I remind myself, trying to focus. As I quickly scan the passing water, I notice a few spent mayflies floating by. I search my fly boxes and quickly tie on a brand new Pale Evening Dun. Then, a cracking branch from the wooded bank momentarily catches my attention. A lone doe cautiously peeks out through the trees only about 15 feet away, seeming not to notice me. She quenches her thirst for a few seconds, and then slips back into the brush. What a treat. Was this really happening, or had I died and gone to heaven? I cast upstream, my loop unraveling gracefully, the fly gently landing on the glassy surface. I’m hoping to get a nice drift downstream, and with a little luck, float that fly right into the feeding lane of a voracious trout. I remember to strip a few yards of line from my reel and to jerk the rod back and forth as the fly passes me, sending out line in a zigzag pattern to eliminate any drag. Nothing. A second try, and still no takers. Am I doing it wrong? Should I change flies? On my third or fourth cast, after I watch my now-soggy fly starting to dip out of sight below the surface, I feel discouraged, wondering how to fix my presentation. And that’s when it happens. I see the end of my line jerk in the water 20 feet downstream. I strip some line, raise my rod and set the hook. The rod bows and the fight is on. It can hardly believe it! Maybe this was heaven after all. Twenty-five years after briefly meeting that brown trout as a boy, the exhilaration comes flooding back, exactly as before. What was it about feeling that tug on my line, then trying to subdue something I couldn’t even see that gave me such joy? I can’t really explain it - that electric connection of man and fish by way of a thin line - but I love it and I always will. But now that I had him hooked, how would I get this fish to surrender with all this loose line in the water next to me? I hadn’t read or viewed anything about that. I clumsily reel in the excess line so I can fight the fish off the reel. It would be quite a bit later that I would learn how to pinch the line against the pole, to cup the reel and let him run if needed, to ’steer’ and tire the fish and to strip line to bring him to the net. Heck, I didn’t even have a trout net yet. I fight him for a magical minute or so, impressed with his ‘shoulders’, then manage to bring him in and lift him from his wet world. He’s a handsome 14” rainbow with stunning spots and stripes, especially in the orange-yellow light of dusk. Then, in a flash, he gives a seismic shake and dives out of sight, leaving me staring at a bare hook. I swear I could hear him laughing.

Twenty years have passed since that day, but the memory is still fresh. I have taken many more fish on the fly since then, some - quite proudly - on flies I tied myself. I now own more fly rods and reels, vests and vices, and yes – a trout net. Oh, I still wet a worm once in a while just for kicks, but fly fishing is what truly centers me and provides peace. It immerses me in nature, literally and figuratively, forcing me to focus on the phenomena surrounding me. I slowly slip in - unnoticed - and become a part of it all, like some sort of undercover operative; an uninvited participant in nature’s delicate dance. And If I’m lucky, I succeed in fooling a fish, and for a brief moment in time, we connect and become one.

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