Sam surprised me.
“Let’s do it,” he blurted out when I answered the phone. “Let’s go fly fishing.”
The way Sam spoke the sentence was already awkward, as though he was uncomfortable with the words themselves. He slowed down every time he put the word “fly” in front of fishing, and then he sped up again.
“We’ve been talking about it long enough. I’m gonna buy that fly fishing kit — the one with the pole and reel and thick line and flies and all that other stuff that I need and . . .”
I tried to slow him down. “No, no. Don’t buy a starter kit, Sam. It’s better to find a good rod and . . .”
But Sam kept talking. He was an explorer now, set out for a new adventure, with all the world of possibilities ahead of him and the energy to take him there. I’ve learned it’s best to stay out of the way of someone with stars in their eyes. Why try to tame wonder and fervor with the reality of better gear choices? No, sometimes the best course is to stand back and let enthusiasm find its own direction. I was happy for my friend’s excitement.
Sam neared the tail-end of a run-on sentence about why he wanted to get into fly fishing. He finally slowed a bit, and I interjected.
“Sam, buy a pair of waders.”
“What?” He asked. “Are you sure I need those right away? I might not have enough money left over after the other stuff.”
“Okay,” I said. “Buy a pair of rubber hip boots with felt soles. You can get ‘em for fifty bucks.”
Sam paused, and I imagined him scratching his head at the other end of the phone.
“What are felt soles?” He asked.
I’m consistently surprised by the lack of river sense that’s missing in so many anglers. I mean that literally and not condescendingly. Just as a city kid marvels at the sight of deep darkness on a moonless night, fifty miles deep into a state forest, the country boy doesn’t give it a second thought. It’s experience. And that’s all it is.
People who are new to fishing just don’t know much about rivers. And I never really get used to that. Because so much of what a river does, and what fish do in response, is organic to me. I grew up fishing and playing in small streams. As a kid, I was drawn to every runoff ditch within walking or biking distance. I couldn’t stay away. And like anything else, you grow into your surroundings. I don’t think that can be changed, whether we’d like it to be or not.
Anyway, those without that same history with rivers see the water differently, and sometimes I have trouble remembering it.
On a cool April morning, Sam and I hit the water with all his new gear. And I was immediately thrust into the role of fishing expert, or as Sam kept calling me, the fly fishing expert. There’s no such thing as a fishing expert. The fish won’t permit it. But I knew a lot more about river fishing than Sam, and that’s the point, I guess. I helped him rig up, pointed to some good water, positioned myself nearby and pretended to fish as I watched him.
Sam wasn’t a city kid. He was raised in a woodsy part of northern Pennsylvania, but he’d somehow avoided an education of trout streams. He was a stillwaters guy who grew up fishing small lakes and ponds, from the banks or in a rowboat, catching “whatever swims,” as he put it, with a bait caster or spinning rod.
So when he first set his felt-soled rubbers into the river, his unmitigated greenness was glaring. Sam spent the morning unsteady (and I’m being generous with that term). He waded up and across the shallow water with the tentative wobble of a newborn fawn, and he glanced at me repeatedly, wide-eyed and doubtful. I really believe Sam thought he might somehow drown in eighteen inches of creek water.
But he stuck with it. He caught one trout which undoubtedly hooked itself by the divine mercy of the trout gods. And really, that’s all he needed. About five hours later, Sam and I walked the gravel road around the long bend, through a mix of shade and sunlight on our way back to the truck.
Sam was soaked with sweat, and I realized just how hard he’d been fighting to stay upright and not fall in headfirst. He had no wading experience. He’d never experienced the power and push of a river’s current against his legs, never felt pebbles and sand washed from under his boots, taking away the very base of his stance and shifting his position a half-foot downstream. The next day, Sam’s thighs probably felt as overworked as mine had the one (and only) time I went snow skiing. After I struggled and fought to stay upright on those two sticks for half a day, I could barely walk for the next three.
Back at the truck, Sam slung off his new fishing pack and we joked about how clean it still was. He wiped down the shiny, scratch-free rod and put it neatly in the branded aluminum tube it had come with.
“Man,” he said. “I really have a lot to learn out there.”
I smiled and nodded.
It’s been a decade since I introduced Sam to trout fishing with a fly rod. And he still fishes, although that was the only time we ever shared the river together. Some months later, Sam took a job in Oregon, where he now chases wild steelhead and Chinook on the fly.
I think he stuck with the fly game because he approached it with humility. Sam didn’t try to skip any steps. He asked a lot of questions at first, and I sent books and things with him to Oregon. He studied, learned and experimented on the water. Sam still fishes a lot — because he loves it, and not because it’s fly fishing.
We’re all rookies at many points in life: a new job, the first classes for a college degree, an unfamiliar sport, or a new way of fishing.
At best, the rookie with a fly rod is a voracious learner. Eager. A sponge in a river. Ambitious and open minded.
At worst, the rookie covers up his greenness with foolish boasts. He takes fishermen’s lies and storytelling too far. As a defense, he tries to hide his inexperience and becomes what a friend of mine calls a lifestyle poser.
Sometimes it seems like there’s a lot of that in fly fishing. But it’s probably no more than anywhere else in life. People are people. So trying and failing at something new brings out the best or worst, depending on your disposition, I suppose.
The anglers I call friends have stuck with it because they enjoy the challenges, the frustrations and the rewards, because they love the way the hemlocks smell in April, and not because the fly fishing stickers on their car windows look cool. (Even though they do look pretty cool.)
There’s an authenticity that you can distinguish in the most unseasoned of rookies. Some have a motivation to learn and create a life on the water. And when it’s there, you know the fishing game will be part of who they are for a long, long time.
Gotta love the rookies.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N