Rusty Flies

Mark Strand teaches himself how to cast to stream trout, after nearly 20 years away from the sport.Breckenridge, Colorado – It was never intended to be a retirement, but my life drifted away from fly fishing about twenty years ago, largely because I have owned a string of boats and I love fishing for muskies and northern pike and bass and walleyes and crappies and other fish that live in lakes. And partly because I don’t live in the American West, surrounded by trout streams. There was a time when trout fishing in rivers dictated where I lived, what I spent my meager disposable income on, and I was on that moving water whenever there was nothing more pressing to do.

To support the notion that this was not a retirement, I had continued to acquire fly-fishing gear through the years, knowing that any day could be the day I went again. So when our friends Fred and Gerri Ann moved to the Denver area, we rekindled the talk of driving out West – something I had been promising Jill since the day we met, something that was so overdue as to be almost tragic, given the importance of Montana and Wyoming to my early adulthood. These were the places I had lived after college graduation, working for small-town newspapers and fishing my brains out at every river that looked promising.

After setting a departure date, modern life being what it is, I wound up carving out about two hours to go through my fishing stuff. The original plan was to get everything set up and take a day and go fishing on the Kinnikinic or perhaps in the Whitewater area of southeastern Minnesota, to remember how to cast, make sure the waders didn’t leak, and find out what else I needed in the way of leaders, tippet material, fly floatant, stuff like that.

No such luxury, as it turned out, and the stuff got packed into the truck without being field tested for current performance. Over the years, I had bought new waders, wading shoes, vest, one rod that had never been rigged up, and more. What a picture this was going to be, an old guy with brand new gear that was actually 20 years old, trying to catch fish with eroded skills.

You have to start someplace, even if you’ve been there before.

When I got out to Colorado, in between all the other things we did to make it a family vacation, I stole away for several hours on several days and reconnected with the way a river wraps you in its pace and peaceful clarity, until you feel like you’re breathing the water and the air, and an hour goes by before you look up and remember you’re in the mountains and should look up more often. My ability to read the water and cast where I was aiming was as rusty as the hooks on my old flies. At one point, I got four takes in about ten minutes on a small ‘Kinni nymph’ as we call it, before thinking to check it. Sure enough, there was no hook! It either dissolved in the water like a sugar cube or fell apart on the first hookset, leaving me with nothing more than a bundle of drab brown dubbing material on a metal shaft.

I couldn’t recognize rise forms, and I sure as heck couldn’t see to tie on flies without the 3x cheaters taking up one vest pocket. My hands were shaking so much that even when I could see the eyelet it was a major challenge to put the tippet through it. But man, it was fun, and in time I recovered the ability to spot silvery sides shimmering well below the surface as nymphing fish were eating in a deep, slow outside bend.

Too many sporting options, and way too little time to pursue them. In some ways, you’re either in or out when it comes to fly fishing for trout, and at this point I’m wanting back in. So hopefully, you’ll hear more from me on this subject in the coming years. This sport has so much to give. There’s a way of walking and looking and staying low and mentally checking the current speeds across the river to see how far out you can cast and be able to mend and stand a chance.

One of the main things I was reminded of out in Colorado is that trout don’t hate you for casting badly. They just don’t buy what you’re clumsily trying to sell them.