Learning to fish with a fly

Hoppers are popular late summer and fall patterns on the Big Wood River.
Hoppers are popular late summer and fall patterns on the Big Wood River.

by Joe Evancho

There are as many ways to learn fly fishing as there are anglers on the water. The best way is to get in the water, cast some line, snag a tree branch, impale yourself with a hook, slip on the rocks, fill your waders with water and then try not to repeat your errors.

The ability to read the water or send a size-20 blue-winged olive forty feet to a feeding fish doesn’t develop overnight and it doesn’t take a lifetime either. It does, however, take a certain mentality.

Writer and artist Russell Chatham wrote in the preface of his book, Dark Waters, “With the exception of painting, nothing in my life has held my interest as much as fishing. Fishing with a fly, a bait, a hand line; I don’t much care. Fishing, in my estimation, is not a hobby, a diversion, a pastime, a sport, an interest, a challenge or an escape. Like painting, it is a necessary passion.”

My father holds such a passion. When I was a boy he put a fly rod in my hand and explained the balance and dynamics that go into casting a fly. My first attempts seemed pitiful and worthless. I gave up too soon and continued to fish with spinners and bait. If I only knew then what I know now.

When I was twenty-four my father and I went to my grandpa’s fishing shack on the Au Sable River near Glennie, Michigan. We drove to a favorite fishing spot in the Huron National Forest and started fishing late one soggy afternoon. I worked downstream with some Panther Martin and Mepps spinners while my father worked a few of his favorite holes. As the river grew dark, I thought of leaving the river.

Joe the Hacker night fishing on the holy waters of the Au Sable
Joe the Hacker night fishing on the holy waters of the Au Sable in Northern Michigan. (Cutthroat Press photo)

The sky was thick with fog moving silently and slowly through the treetops. The roiling water took on an oily sheen yet the woods seemed vibrant and alive. I stopped fishing and had the feeling that I should turn around and leave, but I didn’t.

At the base of a steep, rock-strewn bank I watched my father weave an intricate pattern of line and fly in the misty air. The sky grew heavy and the pines on the high bank of the far shore faded into one deep mysterious backdrop.

My father stayed at his one position in the stream and worked the hole for half an hour as I sat on the sandy bank fifty yards away, waiting for the serious rain. Watching him cast through the mist, I realized it wasn’t just the fly rod, but also a centered and powerful concentration that drove the fly through the air to a gentle landing on the holy waters of the Au Sable.

I watched as he caught three fish. When it grew too dark to even imagine where his fly might be on the water we went back to the shack for some whiskey and burgers.

During the next few years I picked up a fly rod occasionally, but never with the passion it needed or deserved. I became re-acquainted with fly fishing on a trip to Livingston, Montana, but my attempts at landing a trout with a fly on the Yellowstone River were as unproductive as my attempts on the Au Sable had been.

I learned two very important lessons in fly fishing on that trip: Fish with someone who is better than you and don’t get discouraged.

Somehow through my travels I landed in Idaho and had the good fortune to meet four anglers who were willing to share some of their secrets. John Croner straightened out my cast and bestowed a double haul upon me. “A double haul is a very unnecessary cast,” he said on the front lawn of his house during one of our informal casting lessons, “but a one-iron is a very unnecessary golf club and every golfer worth his salt has one in his bag.”

Pat Reid, who worked at a local newspaper, showed me that fishing is just a matter of driving to a river and getting in. Dan Evans, a trout bum who learned to fish on the banks of the Wood River country, grew up in Hailey, Idaho and was chased by a Brahma bull while trespassing on private property at Kilpatrick Bridge on Silver Creek.

Fishing can be hazardous to your health.
Fishing can be hazardous to your health. (IDK stock photo)

He made it to the river after a 40-yard sprint while strapped into his float tube. He still carries a few scars but he hasn’t trespassed since. Dan showed me that fishing can be hazardous to your health.

And then there is ol’ Doc Peterson. He is in his seventies, blind in one eye, deaf in one ear and beset by an arthritic shoulder that limits his casting. He’s hunted and fished most of his life and was a professional guide in Wyoming. He ties his own flies and builds his rods and gets around on a river like a mountain goat on a steep slope. What’s more, when the fishing is slow and most people are opting for naps or waiting for the next hatch, he’s catching fish.

Together, with my father, these four people have taught me more than any book or video. They took the time to share some of their secrets and opened my eyes to new ideas. They also possess the passion that Chatham deems necessary in such a personal activity. And in fishing, as in any other enterprise in life, there is no substitute for passion.