Backed comfortably into a corner and sitting contently beside a crackling fireplace is the old expert. For sixty of his seventy-plus years of roaming the woods and water, he has fished for trout — fifty of those years with a fly rod, and thirty dedicated to sharing his vast, accumulated knowledge.
The old expert helped shape an industry, but he remembers a time when there was no fly fishing industry — no fly shops or umbrella companies in a niche market, a time when a breathable raincoat meant unzipping at the collar and loosening the drawstrings of a yellow vinyl hood.
The old expert reminisces about flies purchased through a mail order catalog. Some were also selected from a cedar box, separated into four-inch-square bins inside a gas station that sold a handful of wet flies and two dries — one dark, one light, both #10.
He remembers traditions that are long since lost, of anglers with a common, respectful river code and a time of killing your catch rather than catch and release, when the largest trout were shown off dead — in black and white pictures, fish hung vertically, with the angler’s full hand behind a gill plate.
In a lifetime of fishing, there was a decade or more, somewhere in his prime, when everything clicked for the old expert, when all his practiced techniques were refined through extensive time on the water — when it all locked in. He caught more trout than anyone else. He fished more than anyone else. And he became a local legend. The books and articles followed. Classes, clinics and lessons were given. Trout were caught, and word was passed beyond the region of a fly fishing expert.
Around him and others, around commercials the romanticism of movies, around parallel lines drawn above the river, an industry accelerated. Large companies poured money into what was once a mysterious hobby, and new anglers sought out the old expert. He taught and wrote and shared more. And through this adoration, the old expert reaffirmed his conviction that his way was the best way. He rejected synthetic materials on a fly. He looked sideways at new methods of fishing modern flies, and he refused many of the advancements of an industry teeming with new ideas from fresh-faced anglers.
The old expert became comfortable — complacent, disagreeable and cross in the midst of so much change. With a closed mind he built walls that boxed him into just one way of approaching the river — his way.
At best, the old expert remained a generous teacher for those who deferred to him. To those with nodding heads and reverent smiles, the old expert was an earnest instructor.
At worst, the old expert was a closed door. And he discouraged students who came with questions about new ways and novel ideas.
The legacy of the old expert remains. His contributions, his discoveries and his influence is undeniable. Through him, generations of anglers learned to appreciate wild trout and protect the rivers they inhabited. Those anglers, in turn, passed these traditions on to their children, forming family bonds and building deeper relationships, all centered around the act of catching a fish.
And perhaps one of those children will become an expert in his own right. Then maybe, surrounded by a world that moves faster than ever, this new angler will understand that there is no end to such learning — that change will forever offer the next opportunity — that expertise dies when it refuses to grow.
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This story is not about any one angler. Instead it’s a composition of what many of us have witnessed in our aging mentors. Maybe this is your grandfather. Or maybe it’s you.
In truth, the difficult side of this old expert is what I’m determined not to become. Now in my early forties, I have a long way to go (I hope). And I’ll continue searching for new ideas for as long as I cast a fly rod.
It’s easy to become set in our ways. We cling to the familiar, because we know the things that worked before. Life passes quickly, and holding onto our past is one way to slow things down. Fishing is the perfect model for all of this. We can find success in a handful of tactics and shut out everything else, or we can continue our exploration into the twilight.
No one reaches the end of learning — at least they shouldn’t. And staying open to what comes next is the key to a lifetime of interest and happiness.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N