In my early twenties I drove a delivery van for a printing company, while finishing the last few semesters of my English degree. Life was pretty easy back then, and I spent much of my leisure time playing guitar and fishing small backcountry streams for wild trout. It was a tight-quarters casting game. And making the transition from the five-foot spinning rod of my youth to a much longer fly rod gave me some trouble. Until, that is, I received one of the simplest and most transformative pieces of fly fishing advice . . .
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Bob sat on a rusty chair, basking in the sun and surrounded by a cloud of Marlboro smoke. He watched while I backed the Ford Econoline van toward the loading dock. From the side mirror, I saw Bob wave me back before casually raising his hand to signal my stop. Then I cut the engine.
I crawled through the back of the empty van and popped the doors open from the inside, ready to take on the next pallet of posters and prints from the whining forklift. It would arrive within the hour, but I knew I had some downtime. And I was glad to see Bob on the loading dock.
He was the only other fly fisher I knew. Sure, I had a few other acquaintances who owned fly rods and fished the hatches every year, but Bob was a dedicated fisherman. At sixty-something, he’d given a large part of his life to the river. Wading and casting had been part of his daily routine for a long, long time.
I jumped from the bumper and onto the dock. Bob reached over and offered up a cigarette. Then he took his own burnt-out butt and crushed it on the concrete. He lit his replacement and tilted the lighter toward me in one fluid movement. I watched Bob fish one time, and his unique motions stuck out to me then too. Bob never moved fast, but he got a lot done. He wasted nothing. And he got the most out of life.
“What’s the creek look like?” Bob asked, looking toward the road.
“Getting low,” I replied. “Too bad there’s nothing in that water after June. I’d love to fish for trout around here all summer long.”
“Meh,” Bob grunted. “Warms up. All the stockies are gone now anyway.”
He leaned back in the chair and stroked his salt and pepper beard a few times. Bob had almond-shaped eyes and a furrowed brow that forced him into a permanent squint. Under his faded cotton ball cap, Bob always appeared deep in thought.
“Did you check out that little stream? The one I told you about?” he asked, turning my way.
Bob smiled big when I nodded and began to tell him that I certainly had checked it out, and I caught a bunch of wild brook trout mixed in with a few browns — all on top, and all on the simple Adams that he’d recommended for me.
“See, now!” Bob slapped his knee a few times. “So it was worth the wait, wasn’t it?” He took a long satisfied drag on the cigarette and nodded with approval.
It had taken a few months for Bob to warm up to the young college kid that arrived last September. He’d surely seen a bunch of delivery drivers come and go. And a full winter passed before he offered me any fishing advice. But by early spring, I’d gained the trust of a man whom I’d grown to respect. Because Bob was just the kind of fly fishermen I wanted to be. He was patient, persistent and passionate. So when he gifted me the information about our nearest overlooked wild trout water, I was grateful. And I protected it.
“Man, it’s tight in there, though.” I said to Bob, crushing my own cigarette and tossing it in the empty coffee can near the dock wall. Bob did the same with his and grunted, “How’s that?”
“I feel like a fly rod is too long for that stream,” I complained.” In some places, I mean . . . It feels like I have nowhere to swing it.”
Bob chuckled a bit as he rose from his chair and glided to the propped open door.
“Here’s the thing . . .” he said, standing silhouetted by the fluorescent light beyond the doorway. The clamoring sounds of the warehouse echoed behind him.
Bob raised his casting arm, elbow tucked comfortably to his side while his weathered hand grasped the cork of an imaginary fly rod. He gazed off beyond the treeline to a river that I’m sure he easily imagined every part of.
“Don’t cast the whole rod, Dom.” Bob took a deep breath as he put in two false casts with a crisp, effortless wrist motion. “Cast the rod tip.”
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That evening, after my last delivery, I drove far back the dirt road and deep into the woods to fish the headwaters of the same stream that ran through town — the one that was stocked too heavily and warmed too much by early June. The whole drive in, I thought of Bob’s words. I practiced my cast as he had. With my left hand on the steering wheel, I cast an invisible rod with my right hand. I made the stroke crisp, tight, short. And I imagined the tip. An hour later, when I finally shot my first cast to the ten foot wide trickle, everything about the way I cast a fly rod changed.
I felt the tip. I controlled it. Instead of focusing on where my hand held the rod, I imagined the position of the rod tip. I noticed the rod flexing and loading on the backcast. I felt it stop on the forward cast, unloading and forcing loops into the line. I was finally in touch with the rod tip. And I could control any length of rod among any tangle of trees, because I knew where the tip was.
From that day forward, no matter where I fished, no matter the size of the river, the type of fly or the length of the cast, Bob’s words were the truth — the keystone to the casting puzzle. They still are.
“Don’t cast the whole rod. Cast the rod tip.”
Thanks, Bob. That changed everything.
Fish hard, friends.
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