What makes a great angler? Don't ask my friend Robert. He's an
aimless, failed actor and clue less that a great angler is
obsessed to learn and to experiment with fly-fishing techniques;
is obsessed to overcome obstacles and disappointment.
Often I see those great anglers on rivers. They spend time
reading the water before making their first cast. They often
change flies and leaders, and sometimes fish tandem rigs. They
often write notes on the flies and tactics that took trout.
Robert was a world away from being a great angler. I was an
ocean away. You see, I read my share about fly-fishing techniques
but, unlike the great anglers, I didn't measure success by the
number of trout I caught. I measured success--if you can call it
that--by how much I enjoyed being in the midst of a beautiful
river or surf; by how much I enjoyed meeting other anglers. So
instead of always changing flies and leaders, I usually tied on a
streamer and covered as much water as possible.
And yet I was like those great anglers. I too was obsessed:
at writing and at long-distance fly casting. For years I spent
countless hours studying writing and revising my stories,
studying and experimenting with fly-casting techniques. Finally,
very finally, I became satisfied with my writing and my casting.
I decided to put my obsessions behind me, and to devote my new
spare time to enjoy fishing.
It didn't happen. Soon I learned why: I was bored with
fishing and needed a new challenge. And so I decided to become a
great nymph angler. I bought Charles Brooks's classic book,
Fishing For Larger Trou each chapter and, like a college
student, highlighted the essential ideas and techniques.
According to Brooks, there are over ten different methods
for nymphing. Of the ten, he felt the Brooks Method was the most
productive. To fish the method he used a sinking line, a short
leader and a heavy fly, like a stonefly. Next, he waded into a
fast, boulder-filled pool, and cast upstream and let the fly sink
to the bottom. Finally, he followed the fly with the rod tip and
let the fly drift directly downstream.
The method seemed easy enough. I decided to try it,
especially because I thought I knew the perfect pool for it:
Waterfall Pool on the Titicus River. The Titicus was only
about a half-mile long and, in most places, about twenty-five
feet wide. Trees lined both banks. Their overhanging branches
formed a leafy, mosaic-looking roof. But the roof had gaps in it.
Hazy, different-shaped beams of light crashed on the water, and
shattered into sharp, two-dimensional flames. On a beautiful
Monday I stood on the banks of the Titicus and wondered how such
long beams could be flattened and concentrated into images so
I hiked upstream. As usual, I didn't see another angler.
Again I had the eerie feeling I was alone in the world. I didn't
like it. I reached Waterfall Pool. It was filled with pockets and
seams. Carefully I waded in, and took cover behind a large
boulder. I pulled line off my reel and back cast my fly upstream,
just below the foamy water. Holding the fly rod parallel to the
water, I followed the drifting fly. A sideways bow formed in the
line, the way Brooks said it would. The fly passed me, but
suddenly it stopped drifting. Was I hooked up on the bottom? I
pointed the rod tip up. I wasn't hooked up
Again I cast upstream and followed the drifting fly. Again
my fly stopped. Frustrated, I wondered why, then decided to try
the method about ten feet downstream.
I got the same result, again, then again. My frustration
condensed into anger. I wondered, What's wrong with me? How did I
mess up the techniques I read only yesterday?
I wasn't having fun; so I came up with an excuse to change
to a streamer and not feel like a quitter: There was no point in
fishing the Brooks Method until I reread his chapter and learned
what I did wrong.
I waded out of the river and hiked downstream to The Big
Bend. Though the bend looked promising, every time I had fished
it, always casting a dry or a streamer across stream, I got
skunked. This time, however, I wanted to erase my nymphing
failure. I decided to go to my tried-and-true method, a method
was so simple, I never told anglers it was my favorite:
dead-drifting a Woolly Bugger straight downstream in broken
I tied on a size 12, waded into the river, just upstream of
the bend. Moving the fly rod side to side, I fed line through the
guides. The current pulled my fly downstream, just below the low,
overhanging branch. I raised the rod tip up, waited, then
retrieved about six inches of line.
A take! I pointed the rod up and pulled down on the line.
The rainbow jumped. He wasn't very big, but landing him would put
me on the board, so to speak. I wanted him.
I got him. I let the trout go and thought, Maybe I'm not
such a bad angler after all.
And so I lost myself in the cycle of dead drifting and
retrieving. Though my nymphing failure still muddied--in my mind,
at least--the beauty all around me, I suddenly heard a chorus of
birds, and the steady counter rhythm of the gurgling river. Yes,
I'm enjoying being alone. Another take! Now I'm beginning to
The second rainbow was a little bigger than the first. I
released him, then methodically covered much of the bend.
Bang! The take jolted me. The fly line was plugged in. The
rod overloaded from a power surge. It throbbed and bent into the
shape of a giant crowbar. The trout felt like a cinder block. I
couldn't pry him. I lowered the rod tip and let the trout run. He
didn't, surprisingly. The fight was a stalemate at the start. He
broke for the far bank. The sound of my spinning fly reel
reminded me of roulette. Where will the trout land? In my hand?
Remembering what I had read in Kelly Gallup's and Bob
Linseman's book, I applied steady pressure and tried to lift his
head. I couldn't. The trout turned and accelerated downstream. My
reel screamed. Reeling in line as fast as I could, I waded
downstream. I got below the trout, barely. Again I couldn't lift
his head. He must be a monster!
He bolted toward the far bank, not the tail, thankfully! I
pulled my elbows and arms close to my body. The throbbing fly rod
seemed to pump electricity, or maybe the trout's will to live,
through me. Tippet, please don't break. Why didn't I use a 3X?
The trout took more line, then turned downstream. Again I
couldn't lift his head. I had no other choice but to pray he
tired and slowed. He did, miraculously. The throbs eased. Maybe
this really is my day. Maybe I'll land the trout!
Again he hit the gas. I squeezed the rod handle. Still I
can't lift his head!
He slowed. Again I waded downstream. Breathe deeply. Catch
The trout closed in on the tail.
It's now or never. If he breaks off, he breaks off. Slowly,
steadily, I turned the reel handle, expecting the tippet to break
and the line to go dead. It didn't. Feeling like a weight lifter
struggling to lift a dumbbell, I lifted the trout's head,
finally. He was a brown. I turned him. He was about twelve feet
away. Now eight. Now six.
He broke toward me. Off guard, I let him lower his head. I
stopped reeling. He passed me, then slowed. I lifted his head and
reeled him close to me. He's bigger than any trout I ever caught.
A monster! Don't pull too much of him out of the water and let
him rotate and break off.
Back and forth he swam. I kneeled down, put my hand under
the trout and grabbed him. I won! I'm redeemed. Thank God for
streamers! I wish I had a ruler.
"Don't worry, Mr. Monster. We all deserve to live." I let
the trout go. He darted downstream. I caught my breath. My heart,
however, seemed to beat harder than before. After one big fight I
I didn't get it. When dusk thickened and I feared the dark,
I headed home.
As I rode on the train, I thought of how, after spending so
much time studying nymph fishing, I caught the biggest trout of
my life on a simple, streamer technique. Was that ironic? I kept
wondering, until I walked through my door, dropped my fly-fishing
gear on the floor and reread the chapter on The Brooks Method. I
didn't get an answer to why my stonefly stopped drifting. So I
went online and posted the question on a fly-fishing bulletin
board. Again I didn't get an answer. Maybe, I wondered, trying to
become a great angler wasn't such a good idea after all.
My cell phone rang. Robert's number was on the screen. Again
I thought of the time he caught a huge bass in Central Park and,
instead of releasing it, he took it up the main road and looked
for someone to take and send him a picture. By the time he
released the bass, the fish was near death. Should I answer the
call? He did have a bout with early prostate cancer.
I answered. Robert asked if I had been fishing. I told him
about the monster trout I caught.
"Where'd you catch him?"
"The Big Bend."
"What fly did you use?"
"How did you fish it?"
Robert, I knew, was picking my brain so he could to go to
the Big Bend and repeat my tactics. As always, he was looking for
an easy way to catch a big trout.
"When are you going up there again?" he asked.
"Can I go with you?"
Will he show up late again? I said, "If you want, meet me on
During the next few days I continued wondering why my
stonefly hadn't drifted, then it hit me: Because some of the
boulders were so big, after the stonefly drifted over small ones,
it smacked into big ones. The answer was so simple I wondered why
I, or anyone who tried to answer my bulletin-board question,
hadn't thought of it. The Brooks Method, I realized, didn't work
in water littered with giant boulders.
But what method would?
Again I opened Brooks's book and read. The best method to
fish Waterfall Pool, it seemed, was the Rising-to-the-Surface
Method. I looked forward to Monday.
Robert showed up only five minutes late. I bought a slice of
"It's so good to go fishing with you again," Robert said. We
got on the train, and he asked for a summary of my fishing
season, often interrupting me to learn exactly where and how I
had caught fish. Annoyed, I was glad when we finally got off the
train and walked to the river. I took a Woolly Bugger out my fly
box. "Robert, tie this on."
He did. I tied on a caddis nymph. We hiked to The Big Bend.
I described my dead-drifting method, wished Robert luck and
walked to Waterfall Pool. I waded in, pulled line off the reel,
cast slightly downstream and let the fly sink. I pulled slack out
of the line and slowly lowered the rod to about 11 o'clock. Again
and again I recycled the technique until the caddis was about a
foot from the rod tip. No take. I waded a few steps downstream
and started a new cycle. A take! The fish was close to me. I
landed him without much of a fight. My studying had paid a cheap
About an hour later I won my second short fight. I released
the rainbow and decided to see how Robert was doing. I strolled
downstream. Maybe I'm finally on the road to becoming a great
Robert was sitting on the bank.
I yelled, "How'd you do?"
I walked up to him. The monster trout lay at his feet.
"Too bad you didn't bring your camera," Robert said.
"Why didn't you release him!"
"A beauty like that? I want a picture."
"I didn't tell you how to catch him so you could kill him."
"It's legal on this river--I think."
"I don't care if it is."
"When we get back to the city you can get your camera and we
can go to Riverside Park. With the right background no one will
know where we are."
"I'm not taking any pictures or ever again telling you how
to catch a fish." I marched downstream.
"Wait for me."
I glanced over my shoulder. Robert put the monster brown
into a plastic bag, then into his backpack.
I came to the long, narrow Bridge Pool. I tied on a
streamer. Robert walked past me and told me he was going to fish
the slow water below the bridge. I didn't answer, and I waded
into the narrow run just upstream of the pool. I dead drifted my
streamer straight down; but instead of seeing the beauty all
around me, I saw the monster trout lying at Robert's feet. Then I
saw him finally releasing the near-dead Central Park bass.
I didn't like the images, but couldn't flush them from my
mind. My fishing day had turned sharply, like the Big Bend, but
for the worse. I decided to leave without Robert. I looked
downstream and didn't see him. I sneaked out of the river.
Robert called that night. I didn't answer. He left a message
asking why I had left without him, and asked me to call him when
I went trout fishing again. I didn't, even though I often went
back to the Titicus and the Croton and experimented with new
nymphing techniques. As the end of the trout season neared, I
caught more and more fish, but almost always hooking them close
to my feet and having one-round, low-voltage fights. And often,
so often, I hooked my nymph on the river bottom, and had to wade
in fast, rocky water to free the nymph. Sometimes, however, I got
so disgusted I just broke the nymph off.
Still, as winter set in, I bought more books on nymphing.
The more I read, however, the more the techniques seemed to merge
into each other. I couldn't tell where one ended and another
started; then they started throbbing in my head. Instead of
aspirin, I gave myself slack and stopped reading. My mind felt
free. Should I close the book on trying to become a great angler?
During the next few months I kept wondering.
I checked my voice mail. "Randy, it's me, Robert. Guess
what? My prostate cancer came back, but the doctors say it's
nothing they can't handle. I'd certainly love some company."
I called Robert and told him I would stop by that night. To
get him a get-well present, I went to Orvis. I scanned rows of
books that could help Robert become a better angler. I remembered
Robert was Robert. I turned my back on the books and bought him a
new fly box.
He smiled like a boy when he saw it. His apartment was the
way I remembered it: dirty, white walls, cheap furniture that
didn't match, piles of newspapers all over the place. How can he
live this way?
The framed photograph of Robert holding the monster trout
jolted me like a take.
"My neighbor took the picture for me."
"I can hardly tell that's the Hudson River behind you. I
like the blurred background. And the spots on the trout are so
"Being that I'm spending so much time home, and trying not
to feel scared--well I just can't help staring at the picture. It
reminds me of how much I love fishing, how much I want to put
this cancer thing behind me. That was some heck of a fight that
trout gave me; yet sometimes, maybe because often I think of
death--maybe I should have let him go. I hope we'll again go
"We will. I promise."
We ordered in Italian food, and as we ate with plastic forks
and knives, we reminisced, one by one, some of our old fishing
adventures, like the time we went striped-bass fishing and,
within a half-hour, bluefish bit off three of my five-dollar
poppers. As we reminisced, the adventures became, in my mind at
least, as vivid as a movie on a screen. Neither of us recalled
Robert looking for someone to photograph the big, Central Park
Yes, in spite of my differences with Robert, I'm enjoying
being with him.
After the hockey game I said good-bye. A few minutes later,
as I rode uptown on the bus, and watched the streets flow,
seemingly downstream, I thought it was sad Robert, at his age,
was so insecure he needed to show people, and himself, photographs
of big fish he had caught. Suddenly I was glad I had helped Robert
catch the monster trout. Turning from the window, I looked into
my mind, and saw myself struggling at nymphing, then having
short fights with fish. I saw myself not having fun, until I saw
myself covering a lot of water with streamers.
So maybe Robert's easy-way-out approach to fishing is as
good as anyone's. What made me so unfair, so self-righteous, that
I expected him to live up to my standards? Is it because I'm also
insecure and still can't accept myself? Is that why I want to become
a great angler? If so, I should I at least focus on myself and not
The answer, like dead drifting a streamer downstream, was
simple. Because it was, I wasn't going to let it pass by; so that
in my upstream years, when it came to imperfect people, and to the
black-and-white world, I promised myself to always try to see the
good instead of the bad.
The next day I went to Orvis and bought an equal number of
streamers and nymphs. ~ Randy Kadish
Randy's historical novel, The Fly Caster Who Tried To Make
Peace with the World, is available on Amazon. DLB