This past weekend I had an out-of-body experience
I'll share with you.
So here I am, almost fifty-one years old and fishing since
I'm old enough to hold a rod. In those days my Dad had
an old wooden 40' boat we fished from out of Sheepshead
Bay, New York. A typical weekend saw us bring in 100 bluefish,
cod, albacore, stripers, porgies, mackarel, bonito, tuna, fluke,
flounder or any combination of whatever was running at the time.
We ventured beyond the sight of land out into the Atlantic with
nothing more than a chart, compass, and ship-to-shore vacuum
tube technology radio that seemed to pick up static better than
any signal. Somehow we made it back each time and in the
interim had a great time catching fish.
To my father, the loss of a single fish was indescribable. His bark,
filled with urgency and emotion, of "set the hook" or "keep your
rod tip up" still rings in my ears. These were preludes to "keep
the line tight" and "keep that fish away from under the boat."
Landing a fish was a matter of life and death to him. Or at least
it appeared to be so to the rest of us and nothing ever gave me
cause to believe anything to the contrary. In any event, the fishing
went in monotonous waves of bobbing around in the ocean with
our lines in the water, interspersed with frenzied encounters with
hungry schools of fish. The fishing was fast and the basic
procedure was set the hook quickly and reel like hell.
Years later I moved to Seattle and discovered salmon fishing in
the salt. Beyond the fact that the ocean was on the left instead
of the right, this was a totally different game. Set the hook quickly
and your dreams of that large king were gone. No, this was a
control game where you waited beyond that 'tap-tap' at the
end of your line until you felt a strong pull. This took only a
handful of seconds, but all the while you had to control yourself
and think "no, not yet…not yet, not yet…OK, now." And even
then, setting the hook was a simple raise of the rod. The next
thing that would happen is that the fish would feel the hook and
make a long, hard run. Your job was to hold on. After a while,
the real tug of war began.
Last year I took up flyfishing for steelhead. Same game. Wait for
the pull, lift the rod, hold on while the fish runs, and then play tug
of war. So while it's taken me years, I now react to a fish striking
like the evolved, controlled, comatose angler I am. My first year
I managed to hook ten steelhead on a fly and land six, including
six winter runs. Yup. Comatose angler and proud of it.
Having endured one of Seattle's wettest winters, my wife suggested
we go someplace sunny where she could relax outdoors and read
and draw and I could fish. As you can see, she is a wonderful
woman. It is no wonder I married her. After consulting with
Deanna Birkholm on where to go, I was excited to find that we
could get a reservation at Bear Creek Lodge during the salmonfly
hatch. It didn't matter to me that I had only ever caught one trout
(anadramous aside) in my life, and that in 1977 using a live minnow.
After all, I had managed to catch steelhead on a fly. And not just
one. . .we're talking double digits here. My biggest concern was
that the river might be out of condition due to runoff or that the
fish might be 12" or even less. That was like fishin' for bait!
I had arranged to fish with a guide, Bear McKinney. I figured you
couldn't go wrong fishing with a guy named Bear. Although the
river was running high, the day before was the beginnings of the
salmonfly hatch and today was even warmer and proved to be
quite promising. We put in on the Bitterroot above Darby and
were the first boat down that section of river. There I was, 6wt
rod in hand with a 3X tippet and a monster foam salmonfly
imitation on the end, sitting at the front of the boat. I began by
casting like I was using my 9 wt custom shooting head steelhead
line with a 15' Type IV 125 grain sink tip. Bear couldn't believe
his eyes. "Take it easy up there" he would say. "You're
So after two hours of this I managed to
adjust my casting stoke from a 2 o'clock start and 10 o'clock
stop with an eye level cast, to a 12 o'clock start and 9:30 stop
and turning over the fly just above the water. This proved to
be great for casting into the wind. At around noon I got my
first rise. I was unable to set the hook. Next I had to focus
on fishing from the moving raft.
Where I fish, rafts, pontoon and drift boats are all means of
transportation from hole to hole. Fishing is done while wading,
not from the boat. So I had to learn to cast quarter down or
directly in front, all the while putting slack in the line for a
drag-free drift. When my second fish finally struck I had my
out-of-body experience. There was so much slack in the line
that I could only sit there and watch while he pulled the fly
under and then spit it back at me. This nice size rainbow
was working in 'fast forward' while I was stuck on 'pause.'
I'm sure Bear was convinced that I was subject to catatonic
seizures brought on by feeding trout. And so it went, all day
long. Pleased as I made progress, step by small step.
Frustrated that we rose ten fish to my fly, hooked two, and
landed none. All in all I learned a lot and had a good day.
It's just a good thing that Dad wasn't there to see it.
~ Bob Margulis