May 4th, 2009

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
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Fisherboy Becomes (Fly) Fisherman
By Bill Hilman

Gadabout Gaddis tortured me with his half hour fishing shows when I was young. For those of you wizened enough to recall, he was known as "The Flying Fisherman." My young, trout addicted brain figured that he had the most perfect career a guy could ever have. He flew all over the place fishing and making movies about it for TV.

Gadabout Gaddis was not only a flying fisherman, he was a fly fisherman and he caught a lot of big trout. So, incidentally, did my Dad and Grandpa, both of whom were avid fly fishermen. Thus at an early age I equated fly fishing as the necessary goal for all serious trout fishermen.

But I so rarely went trout fishing that I always wound up sticking with my trusty can of worms or a spinner, and I caught lots of trout with worms and spinners. But as I got older I began running into trouble vis-a-vis the stigma of using bait and lures. Catching lots of fish seemed to make it worse.

"Got fish?" They would scowl. "Sure you got fish. Used a worm! Any idiot can catch a fish with a worm!"

Once I achieved about twelve years old, that began to sting, and I realized that I was eventually going to have to learn fly fishing, or start dating.

In the summer of 1965 I finally got my chance.

When Grandpa retired he and Grandma bought an Airstream trailer and drove all over the west, stopping to camp in places where Grandpa could fish. And Grandpa fished his heart out.

Grandma put up with all of this hardship on the promise that in a year or so Grandpa would sell the trailer and they could settle into a real house, which they eventually did.

That summer found the Airstream parked on Montana's Madison River a few miles upstream from the tiny town of Ennis and I was invited for the last half of summer.

Both my cousins Tom and Ron were there, too, and I imagine that having the five of us in or around that trailer was quite an adventure. But Grandpa and Grandma were tough cookies and Tom's visit was short-lived. Soon he went home, leaving Ron and I behind, which left the two of us in charge of camp maintenance. That was, of course, the payoff for Gramps.

For example, the Airstream had a water tank that needed regular filling. The campsite wasn't exactly a trailer park. In fact, it was a wide spot on a dirt track on the bench just above the river. Directly below, in a soggy area with willows, weeds, cottonwoods and mosquitoes was a little spring from which Ron and I filled the tank.

Filling the tank was very close to actual work. Due to a character flaw I posses, this was something I avoided whenever possible. But every other morning we had to climb down the steep bank with a couple of plastic buckets to get spring water for the trailer's tank. This took about 12 buckets-full, if I remember correctly, and nothing else could be done until the tank was full.

Buckets full of water are heavy, so Ron and I worked out a system. One time I'd carry them up the bank and he'd pour them into the tank. The next time we'd switch rolls.

That worked pretty well, but sometimes Ron would get a little confused as to whether it was his turn to carry or not. Being pretty sure of the matter myself, I'd argue the point with him and inevitably a boyish scuffle would result. After a bit of a wrestle, a good headlock with an indian rub thrown in for good luck usually did the trick and I'd tote that water up the hill. One way or another Grandpa always got his water.

Now, Grandpa didn't usually go fishing until afternoon shadows began to lengthen. He could do this because he could catch his limit in just an hour or two and could well afford to lounge around all day. But Ron and I didn't have the luxury of his skill. We'd have our spinning rods out there scaring fish as soon as that darned water tank was filled.

Sometimes, after a little flurry of fishing in the morning, we'd be drawn away by the temptation to float down the river on an inner tube for a while during the heat of the afternoon. And sometimes we got distracted by snakes and stuff. But we spent most of the day fishing.

Grandpa caught many more fish in his late afternoon wades than we did all day, which I found mildly annoying. Not only that but his fish were always a lot bigger than ours. Grandpa counted on our inexperience and was not averse to sometimes catching more than his limit to make up for our failures. He caught so many fish we had trout for practically every meal.

In no time at all I found myself kind of wishing Grandpa would let some of his fish go, but that would have been like asking a cat to eat carrots. It just wasn't going to happen.

You see, Grandpa came of age during the Great Depression. Fishing and hunting were more than sport for him back then, they supplemented the family larder. Grandpa fished for food. Those years made a lasting impression on him and even so many years later he found it nearly impossible to throw a fish back if it was "a keeper." That was just the way he was and it sometimes put him at odds with a warden or two, but as long as we ate trout like crazy there was usually no problem. Plus it was cheaper to feed a couple of kids that way.

So, every evening he'd come back with his creel heavy with fish. He'd show us the teeth marks on his hands, the little cuts and rasped skin caused by his monster trout when he unhooked them.

"Years of experience," he'd say. "You boys'll pick it up eventually. Now, take these fish down to the river and clean them. Yer Grandma's waiting to fix dinner."

Cleaning Grandpa's big browns (or 'lochs', as he called them) and rainbows motivated persistent requests for instruction in the art of the fly, to which Grandpa eventually succumbed. One morning he took me down to the river for the first lesson.

"You flick it back, then you flick it out in front of you. Don't hook yerself and try not to splash the water too much when you do it."

He demonstrated the technique for me. A couple of casts later I saw a trout come up and splash at his fly, which prolonged the demonstration.

Finally, he gave me the fly rod and stepped way back out of the way to watch.

I flicked the line back and caught a bush on the bank behind me. Then I flicked it out front and snapped the fly off in the process. So far, so good.

Grandpa shouted some encouragement and then left me alone to practice, chuckling as he departed. I retrieved the fly from the bush, tied it back onto the leader, and for the next half hour or so I caught every inanimate object within a radius from me exactly equal to the length of my fly line, plus leader. I also managed to snag the nearest animate object a few times, which hurt, and I learned that the trick to fly fishing was to duck real low on the forecast.

Soon my arm got tired and my casting got worse. Then I lost the fly again, permanently, and quit.

Grandpa frowned when I came back without his fly. He thoughtfully suggested that the next time I practice maybe I should do it without a fly attached, at least until that loud snapping sound behind me went away. So for the next few days I practiced like crazy. Without a fly attached I was far more confident and my posture got better. Eventually my forecasts began placing the line pretty consistently out in front of me.

One afternoon Grandpa suggested I might try putting a fly on again and, with my rudimentary skills now taking shape, he undertook giving me another lesson.

"See that trail that goes down to the river?" He pointed up the bank a ways. "Every day fishermen get in the water there and wade across over to that island to start their fishing."

I proudly proclaimed that I did exactly the same thing, which brought rolled eyes and an audible sigh.

"Watch this," he said.

He started casting the fly to the water along the bank upstream a few feet from where he stood and then worked his way 40 feet up to where the aforementioned trail hit the water.

Grass overhung and partially covered a swift, narrow, knee deep strip of water there. A gravel bar shallowed the water to mere inches deep just a couple of feet out from the bank, which rendered the 'hole' insignificant in my young eyes.

I watched dubiously as Grandpa worked his fly at the edge of the grass, but a few casts later a fat brown trout grabbed his fly and made for a very impressive demonstration.

"There", he said handing me the fly rod. "Clean this fish when you're finished practicing." And he walked back to the trailer.

The upstream-right-next-to-the-bank technique didn't work quite that well for me, though I practiced it diligently for a while. Bushes and grass kept rearing up and grabbing my fly before it ever got to the water. Freeing the line kept spoiling my approach and I didn't get a single bite.

Furthermore, fishing this way made my arm tired so I crossed over to the island and began fishing across and downstream, flashing occasional guilty glances at the distant trailer.

Every cast hit the water with a splash, then the fly would water ski downstream and drown on the surface at the end of the line with a wake a canoe would envy.

Still no bites, and after a while I got discouraged. But so it went until early one afternoon when Ron and I were wading in tandem, he with his spinning pole and me with a fly rod. He got a trout or two on his Thomas Lure and released them, smiling smugly.

"Sure you got trout," I said hiding my envy. "Any idiot can catch a trout on a spoon! Say, you wanna try fly fishing?"

No, he didn't.

A while later we noticed some trout feeding in a big pool directly downstream. The water there collided with an outcropped bank and became trapped in a deep little eddy, the surface of which was fairly calm. Some small trout were making enticing splashes as they chased insects there.

Eventually I got close enough that my fly surfed into the hole at the end of it's drift and then floated around aimlessly in the eddy until I retrieved it.

About the second time this happened I saw a splash and felt a quick tug.

"I got a bite!!!" I shouted at the top of my lungs, but it took me completely by surprise and I missed him.

A couple of casts later another one grabbed my fly and actually hooked himself. After a brief battle I flopped an eight inch loch up on the bank where he lay panting on the grass, his colorful spots practically glowing in the sunlight. I admired him so much that he died right there on the bank and I realized with a groan that I was gonna have to eat him. And Grandpa was in danger of being over his limit again.

But with that little trout I achieved a real milestone. Ever since then I find myself looking down my nose at lesser fishermen who fish for trout with lures and bait, especially when they have fish and I don't.

I know that, while I may never be one, great fishermen are now my peers. I have entered a prestigious club occupied by some of the world's best: Grandpa, Dad and Gadabout Gaddis.

And that's just fine. ~ Bill

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