Jerry Kustich—At the River’s Edge
The fly angling world has become more crowded. More people are fly-fishing in a variety of waters. More information about where to fish and how to fish is shared freely. Because of the way we share information, the community of fly fishers has the potential of being brought closer together. In all things on and off the water we should learn to share our understanding, the resources, and most importantly ourselves. However, it seems that the very thing that could bring us together has distanced us. The phrase used in a lot of the literature I read as I grew up in the sport, “the fraternity of fly fishers,” seems to be disappearing.
Car rides to the river have their own mental rituals for me. I always run through the mental checklist: gear, where to fish, what flies I’ll use. The anticipation can brew a strange mixture of expectation of fish rising and the steady and strong pull of a good fish. After about ten minutes, I can catch a half dozen good fantasy fish in those special places with that certain fly all placed by perfect casts in the slow motion only my imagination can supply. Turning off the highway onto the dirt road to the river I get pretty wound up, and an odd feeling of entitlement starts to grow within me.
I don’t think anyone starts a trip to the river with the idea of getting into any conflicts. To assume that all fly anglers are righteous people is naive. If we believe, only a few muddy the waters for the rest of us, we are being equally naive. The growing lack of civility in the world and the conflicts it breeds is also evident in our sport. It certainly isn’t just the actions of “those other guys.” The rest of us have to take responsibility for a growing lack of civility that has emerged (pardon the pun) on our waters.
The parking lot was empty when I arrived. Late July fishing on this river is mostly an evening affair. I wanted to get to a series of turns in the river that started at a wide sandy spot and to fish down through the turns then walk back to the car after dark. The high banks all through this stretch of the river valley grow stands of red pine. The under story near the river is punctuated with cedars and alders, willow and sweet gale, and ferns. The turns in the river cut deep bank holes that are littered with sunken logs and rock. The long shadows of the setting sun, the sounds of the river settling into dusk, the smells, of humid earth peppered with sweet pine resin, invigorated the car ride’s mixture of anticipation, expectation and daydream.
Even though it is thought of as the quiet sport, there are a few recognizable sounds in fly-fishing. The sound that a rod makes as it cuts the air can carry a good distance in the right conditions. Hearing it halfway to the river was the most unwelcome sound. I was angry.
I’ll call it anger because I am not sure what else to call it. I know this moment well because over the years as a fishing guide I’ve witnessed it in the actions of other fishers and myself. A frustrated boot kick in the shallows of a back eddy, a rock thrown into a pool of holding steelhead, a canoe purposely paddled over a fly line are just outward manifestations of strong feelings. I know we all have been to this place where our behavior should take a right turn, but it doesn’t.
I was frustrated and disappointed as I stood watching what turned out to be a father and son fishing through the spot that I had already mentally claimed during my drive to the river. Father and son were enjoying their moment on the water, catching and releasing trout. The sight of it made me upset. How different would it have been had I arrived fifteen minutes later and they were out of sight? No trace of their being in the same stretch of river but a few current eroded wader prints.
The passion that we bring to our sport is often our undoing. We often fish by ourselves to be in those places where our solitude and the flow of the river can renew us. I wanted the chance to catch a “mermaid” as the poet of Frenchmen’s Pond once said. While I watched the father and son disappear around the bend of the river, I came to realize that it is not just about the desire to fish. It is about the disappointment when the fantasy-fishing daydream doesn’t match reality. This sets us up for conflict.
In my mind I owned that stretch of the river. Finding myself in an odd feeling of territorial encroachment, I decided to wait silently and quiet myself. I sat on the high bank looking down on the currents and “read” the water, to rest it, to watch and listen as the Bible instructs us to. Tom McGuane in his book, The Longest Silence, notes “...the best angling is always a respite from burden.” Why had I come out to the river in the first place? Over the years of fishing and guiding fly fishers, I have personally gotten away from the pursuit of catching every fish in the river and the pursuit of the monster trout. McGuane also points out that fishing is a source for renewal. When we go to the water, we should, of those uglier motives we carry around in the world, “Leave as much behind as possible... if we expect to be restored in the eyes of God, fish, and the river, which reward you with hollow waste if you don’t behave.”
We are visitors regardless of the notions of ownership that we bring to the water and in that sense our best behavior is expected. Expected not because it is written in the fish and game laws but because it rises above law and helps us gain a deeper insight into why we fish.
Fly-fishing has evolved through the hard work of some its more ardent proponents. As a whole fly anglers have grown up. Progressing beyond the “put and take” ethic of perhaps a generation or so before, our collective understanding of the sport has been made richer because we have recognized the contributions of those who came before us and learned from them.
A generation ago fly anglers were primarily brought to the sport by mentors--a family member or friend who showed the way. Much of my early development as a fly fisher seemed mysterious. A fisher’s mentor took the time to demystify fly fishing and to pass on much more than “how to” information. The traditions of the sport and the rivers we fished were incorporated along with casting and presentation instruction and yet an understanding of how to conduct oneself on the stream was never left out.
We come to the sport differently today. Fishing clinics on DVD, the local fly shop, and a whole host of regional and local publications have revolutionized the way a whole new generation of anglers discover fly fishing. We are knowledgeable and skilled fly anglers today. The Internet has helped in ways that my mentors in the sport could never understand. Message boards and blogs, e-mail and web sites, have elevated the amount of information available to fly fishers. As a fishing partner of mine said, “You can’t be too ignorant about how to catch trout with a fly these days.” There are very few secrets and that includes where to fish. GPS devices and guidebooks have all helped pull back the curtain on the secret locations. In the rush to get the latest new technique, hot fly (don’t forget to trademark them), must fish locales, and the absolutely “cannot do without” new product, we’ve forgotten to pass along how to conduct ourselves on the water. Humanity and civility can’t be taught on a DVD or weekend class. It is the relationship with the rivers and the people who fish them that teach us over time. How to conduct ourselves, wisdom and civility take time.
Sometimes it’s better to sit and watch the river move on, let the water rest and see if something will happen. The father and son were around the turn and the smaller fish in the run had started to work again. A few of the larger fish showed themselves chasing smaller fish in the shallows on the far side of the river under the overhang of an ancient cedar.
I had taken my time to string my rod and tie on a leader and fly. I like fishing small streamers just under the surface. The low light of dusk is perfect for it. Easing into the river and slowly moving into a good casting position, I stripped enough line to get the streamer to swing under the cedar. One false cast down stream to check the distance ... a stick snapping in the bank down stream and noisy entry into the river... a pile cast short of the cedar and a large trout racing through the sand shallows and into the deep snag filled hole up stream.
The son, from the father and son pair, had crossed over the hog’s back on the opposite side of the river, proceeded down the path and marched into the river. He crossed the river and took up a position twenty-five yards downstream from me. While I watched with mild interest, the boy started fishing up stream toward me trying very hard not to make eye contact. I got the impression that he really didn’t believe I was standing up stream. When his cast got within range of the end of my drift, I reeled up and backed out of the stream. I noticed his father watching his son from the top of the path on the hog’s back. I am not sure if I was angry or just deeply disappointed.
Rules of conduct don’t always apply in every situation. The unique nature of each fishery sometimes helps to develop local etiquette. The Atlantic Salmon Fisheries of the world are notable for their regulations and their own unique fishing protocols. Our local rivers often develop their own unique protocols as well. In Minnesota on the North Shore of Lake Superior, the rivers run a short distance up stream from the lake before encountering an impassable falls. Migratory trout and salmon running into those streams stack up in a small number of holes and holding spots. Over the years anglers there have developed an understanding that they fish very close together, helping each other to net fish and reeling up and getting out of the way of an angler moving down stream to play a trout or salmon. These are understandings we come to as a community.
Distances that on other streams would definitely result in harsh words are not a problem for these North Shore anglers. However, miles south of the North Shore of Lake Superior, on the Bois Brule River in Wisconsin, distances anglers give each other are considerable by comparison. How much space we’d prefer giving each other on the water is relative to the situation and the region. One fisher’s too close could be close enough but not a problem for another. Damian Wilmot, a guide on the Brule and a good friend and fishing partner said it best, “If you think you’re getting too close you probably are.” We can’t know every nuance of etiquette for every new stream we encounter. We can however try to discover them through the same resources that anglers today use to become more skilled and more knowledgeable about the fisheries we visit. We could try a novel approach and talk to each other.
I watched the father and son pull a canoe out of the brush. They both ignored me as they paddled past. I tried to make the best of the situation by waving. No response. The hull of the canoe and the paddle stroke of the father in the stern were the only visible movement. Making the turn, the canoe left only a thin visible wake as it too faded into the darkening backdrop. As the canoe disappeared it came to me that I had encroached on the water they had left. Although no heated verbal exchanges took place, being ignored was a bitter pill.
In a phone conversation with a good fishing friend the other day I heard a similar tale. This time the conflict was between two old friends. My friend on the other end of the phone drove to a series of holes in an S-turn of the river. The familiar truck in the parking lot indicated that his old friend was there already. Instead of moving on, he pulled in thinking friends share.
It is a big place with enough space for two even three anglers to fish sometimes out of sight of one another. My friend was surprised when his old friend shouted his disapproval instead of a greeting—apparently feeling he should have the place to himself. The story of their verbal exchange made me wonder about where the fraternity of fly fisherman had gone.
After further thought I realized it was still there, fly fishers have to keep encouraging it. Relationships need to be maintained. We can take for granted almost anything that gets too familiar. I have to believe that when we are agreeable and show respect and try to be inclusive we are maintaining the relationship we all have as the result of being involved with the sport. Regardless of what level of development we may find ourselves, we should always remember to share.
Fishing the Buffalo Meadows section of the Firehole in the late 70s, I felt overwhelmed by what I encountered on the water. Elk and buffalo grazing directly across the river and mountains in the background not to mention the phenomenal caddis hatches that occurred every evening the week that I was there. I struggled the first day. Wading, reading the water, casting in the wind, it all took getting used to. Though I tied my own caddis patterns, none that I thought would work actually did. I didn’t want to bother anybody or embarrass myself by exposing my ignorance. These were obvious master anglers who didn’t need to be disturbed by the likes of me. I finally mustered up and walked to the closest angler while he sat on the bank tying on another fly. As I approached he looked up and smiled and asked how I was doing.
“Not good,” I replied.
“Really?” the question had a little disbelief in it. He must of sensed my lack of self-confidence and offered to show me what he was using. It was about a size 16, dark-brown elk hair caddis. The first I had ever seen. He demonstrated how to fish it in the complex currents using a series of up stream mends. When the fly rode high in the water, the rainbows took it greedily. He gave me a few samples, and I went back to the river and caught fish. My first trip west was made memorable by the sharing of a little time, a little knowledge and a few flies.
I haven’t lived up to that example of generosity and kindness very well. I will try to honor all acts of kindness I have received from other anglers. These simple offerings have stayed with me and have remained woven among my life experiences. They have contributed to my development as a fly angler and in retrospect made me a better person. I hope I can be worthy of all those unselfish attempts to give back to the sport that has given me so much.
If you have comments for me please feel free to post them.
Keep a tight line,