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Let the Line Go

Fly fishing is a sport that falls in line with dancing, golf, Olympic-level ping pong, or dare I say it… even NASCAR. Those who knock it are usually those who have never tried it, and there is a whole lot more than goes into the sport than what meets the eye.

The pastime of fly fishing, or sport if taken to that level, is one that is filled with its own intricate lingo, artistry, skills, and as I came to find out, adrenaline pumping action.

I’m writing about fly fishing for a couple reasons. One is to help reflect on and process all the information about the sport that I have learned in the past two weeks. Another is to share a recent experience that absolutely warrants sharing. And the third is just because of the absolute irony that for the next three and a half months I am a fly fishing guide at a Wyoming dude ranch who has never fished in his life.

For being a self-professed country boy (although I think my time spent shoveling poop and feeding animals on our small fiber farm on eighteen acres carries some credibility) I will be the first to admit there are some key country-boy skills I am lacking. I know far less about the inner-workings of cars than I should, I have never hunted (but I really want to), I have never owned my own truck (add that to the want list…), I don’t carry a tin of Copenhagen in my back pocket, and I have never gone fishing in my life.

I’m sure at some point during a cub scout camp-out someone gave me a spin-casting rod and I threw it in the water a few times, but never have I pursued the hobby on my own.

Yet here I am, forty miles outside of Cody, Wyoming, about to begin my summer’s work of guiding novice anglers down the prime fishing holes of the Shoshone River imparting expert advice on how to catch that perfect rainbow trout…. Or something like that.

But I am all about hands on learning and this is about the most hands-on way to learn something. It’s on the level of being dropped into a foreign country with no ability to speak the local language and landing a job as a translator. You’ll definitely pick up the language pretty quick, but there are also bound to be some awkward moments along the way.

The two other guides that I am working with have been steadfast in their determination to bring an absolute novice up to the level of passable-proficiency in just a few weeks’ time. It has been a firehose to the face with information from the different kinds of flys or nymphs as they are called such as a Copperjohn or Chernobyl Ants (honest to God names), to the difference between the forecast and the backcast and the roll-cast, to the right bubble lines or water flow to look for in a stream.

But no book learning or verbal instruction can ever beat getting out there and just givin' it a try. So the other week I finally got the chance to go out and find out just what exactly my job would entail for the summer… you know… the kind of thing you usually try to do before taking the job.

The majority of my time on the river was spent going over casting, specifically mastering the art of the roll-cast. A simple flick of the wrist will send your line up and over your rod landing upstream of your position, so that it can float down past you and the process can be repeated.

The problem was that the instructions given to me up until that point had only gone as far as the cast, which was completely reasonable. Neither the guides, nor myself, had any expectation of me actually hooking a fish between the combination of super murky water and my super low fishing skills. It would be like teaching a friend to ski and using a terrain park as the learning slope: you’re not going to give any instruction about how to stick the landing to a jump, both of you are just hoping the friend will just pizza slide their way to safety at the bottom. You start with the basics. But low and behold, your friend goes ahead and sends it off some massive kicker and finds themselves fifteen feet up in the air with no clue what to do. You can’t be blamed for choosing not to explain the extremely unlikely scenario.

I had been brought to a small hole where a fish had already been hooked so that I could have as much going for me as possible. I was doing the most basic of casts that consisted of dropping the fly and indicator in a specific location, letting it drift with the current, lifting the fly back out, and swinging to a new spot drop, drift, lift, swing, drop, drift, lift, swing over and over. I was watching that little red indicator like a hawk.

But I never went ahead and thought to ask, “So what do I do if a fish bites”, and after one final sequence of drop, drift, lift, swing, the indicator disappeared beneath the murky surface.

It took a split second for me to process what had happened. I CAUGHT A FISH! jumped into my head, which was quickly followed by, Oh shit… now what…

I sincerely wish I could have been some bystander watching the next thirty seconds unfold; I might have fallen in the river from laughing so hard.

It was thirty seconds of pandemonium as I began yelling at the guide who was with me WHAT DO I DO, WHAT I DO, WHAT DO I DO!?!?!?!, the guide started yelling back out of excitement that I had hooked a fish with sporadic words of advice shouted in between, and a massive twenty-inch rainbow trout began throwing up water as it desperately tried to escape.

It turns out that within that section of instruction I had not yet received was this one key fact: when a fish is hooked, you don’t hold onto the fishing line. Once I had the hook set, I pinched the line, took in the slack, and then didn’t let go because my gut feeling said I got the sucker, no way is he going anywhere. Turns out what you’re supposed to do is set the hook, pinch the line, take in the slack, and then let the fish run with the line to tire itself out.

With the line taught, that trout took one hard turn which ripped the hook right out of its mouth and off he went down the river. Something told me this wasn’t his first rodeo. Like it was explained to me – big fish aren’t stupid, they are that big for a reason.

But despite not bagging what would have been an awesome first catch, I felt the experience was the perfect example of learning by doing. I went into the experience with a certain amount of knowledge. That knowledge was put to the test and the shortcomings were exposed. I have now filled in those knowledge gaps and will apply them the next time.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that circular process of learning is experienced or at the very least emphasized all that much. There seems to be a common expectation of being told how to make a perfect cast followed by scoring a prized fish without experience the bad casts, accidental hooks, and hilarious mistakes in between.

I can say that I am extremely thankful for these experiences, because you can bet that next time I won’t be holding onto that fishing line.

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