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Growing up in the mid-west, I recall still fishing for perch and blue gills at day camp when I was eight years old. It seemed magical and exciting to put a baited hook in the water and emerge with a flopping fish. A few years later the whole family went on a fishing trip to Lake Kabetogama in Minnesota where with a bait casting rig I caught walleyed pike until my arms ached. For my 13th birthday, my father took me on a trip to Canada’s Lake of the Woods in Ontario where I had a first taste of spinning. I caught a 15 lb. northern pike on that trip. It took me over a half hour to land it, trying valiantly to not tip over our canoe; I remember my father and the guide counseling me not to “horse it in”. I could barely hear them, my heart was pounding so hard. In high school there was the annual smelt run in the North Shore of Lake Michigan, where we would gather on piers with dip and gill nets and have incredible feasts at bonfires on the beach. Along the way, on family vacations to Florida, I had a taste of deep sea fishing. In short, pretty much every way of taking a fish other than with a fly rod.

Parallel to my interest in wine, fly fishing seeped into my awareness outside the family from books and magazines and travelogues. Watching an expert flycaster was like hearing the most elegant, exquisite music. The arcane history and lore of the sport appealed to me much like the world of wine. Tapping into the life cycle of fish and their prey seemed to unite the fly fisher with the rhythms of the planet in a profound and meditative way.

On a lark, I enrolled in a fly casting course while a undergraduate at the University of Illinois in 1959. I bought a mail-order tubular glass road from Herter’s, and learned the rudiments of casting. But it would be a number of years before I began to really use it.

My tastes in fly fishing are very eclectic. Living in Northern California, I’m just a few hours away from some beautiful rainbow trout. I’ve fished the Fall River many times, and have concluded that most of those trout have Ph.D’s. Long downstream drifts with 12-15 foot leaders, tiny flies, and 6X-7X tippets are the rule. Not easy. Hat Creek is close by, and has offered some excellent nymphing. Some years ago I fished the McCloud, but found the river very challenging for my beginner’s wading skills. Sure is gorgeous country, though.

I’ve had an easier time with trout in other countries. Fishing the Katmai National Park in Alaska, the main challenge in hooking a rainbow was to keep the myriad sockeye salmon away from my fly. Or to avoid being mauled by an angry mama bear. We caught rainbows up to 6 lbs., some nice silver salmon, and a surprise northern pike on a fly wading an Alaskan lake. It was a bit unnerving to reel that 12 pound crocodile in and suddenly be reminded that I was in the water with it.

And just a couple years ago, I fished the Firesteel river in northern British Columbia with some psychiatrist buddies, and found the rainbows so plentiful that at times I actually wished it wasn’t so easy. For a guy who has had his share of being skunked, this is saying something. These trout loved small Muddler Minnows, and sometimes I would hook a fish with five casts in a row. We had some great dry fly action, too. The fish weren’t huge—averaging 12-14 inches, but there were a few 16-18 inchers in there. Utterly pristine country.

My most exciting adventures with a fly rod have been on salt water flats, casting to bonefish. Click on the article if you’d like to read in detail about my first experience with these magical fish. After that first trip to Deep Water Cay in the Bahamas, I fished the Florida keys a number of times, went back to the Bahamas—this time to Andros Island, and then had my most exotic trip to Christmas Island in the South Pacific. Bonefish are widely distributed over the globe and come by their name honestly. They have survived fishing pressure largely because they are not easy to eat. They move on to the flats with the tides, bottom feeding for crustaceans. The fly fisher must learn to see their shadows beneath the surface, stalk them, and then cast to a moving target, often in windy conditions. This is as much hunting as fishing. A hooked bonefish flees the flats at over 30 m.p.h., often taking over 200 yards of line in that initial run. I wish the shape of my life lent itself to more frequent outings. My casting skills remain at an intermediate level, and I have to scrape the rust off at the start of each trip. The Florida keys are very challenging for me, since the bonefish, though often 10+ pounds, typically travel alone or in pairs, always in a hurry, and there is little margin for error in casting. I had the most fun at Christmas Island, where the fish were averaging only 4-6 pounds, but were plentiful, and often traveling in large, slow moving schools.

Over the course of these trips I’ve caught shark, trevally, some exotic Everglades fish, and Barracuda. I’ve had a couple opportunities to cast to tarpon and permit, but no hits.

I’d love to go back to Christmas Island one of these days, or try some of the other exotic locations like Belize, or Los Roques. Maybe between now and then I can practice my double-haul and learn to cast the entire fly line to some of those skittish, hard to reach fish.

Mayfly:
Soundclip from Homecoming: “A lyrical, quite classical, free improvisation inspired by the life cycle of the mayfly—the most famous insect imitated by fly fishers.”

See article: On The Trail of the Silver Ghost