Fly: Montana fly fishing

There are words and books and techniques and lessons, and then there is the river and how you enter it. Does the current push you or flow around you? Is anticipation something you learn in a library or in the water under a big sky? And did you ever pause to wonder which end of the line really holds the hook? Levin O’Connor invites you to not look like a fly fisherman in Montana

My earliest fragment of a memory is of being perched, uncomfortably, in a green canvas child carrier backpack as my father’s false casts screamed back and forth beside my ear and of being nervous over every slip and stumble as he waded into deeper water in the river. It was from this vantage that my relationship with fly fishing began.

At least partly because fishing was such an early and natural part of my life there are many aspects of the sport in which I am woefully lacking knowledge. I do not know the names of many flies, I am uncertain what weight my own fly rod is and I don’t purchase new waders until the old ones inform me—most rudely—that they have succumbed. When I enter a fly shop I am generally disregarded by the clique of experts deep in conversation.

I imagine that if I had been left to find my own way with fly fishing I might have read and researched the rivers, the gear and the techniques in a more traditional way.

But my father had already done that. So, for better or worse (I believe better) a rod was placed into my hand and that, essentially, was that. I was accountable to be able to tie a leader, to select a fly (by appearance, not name), to cast in any conditions and to see everything. All of my training was practical, wet, hands-on. There was no literature or classrooms to it. I have many thousands of hours studying rivers, flow, lies, the body language of fish and light and shadow, as well as the tendencies and patterns of both fish and water. I tell you this because if you are seeking a highly practical and academic approach to fly fishing for trout in Montana, I am not the guide for which you are looking. But if it is an experience and an approach that you are after, I can help. Here, then, is advice on how to invite criticism and how to make heads shake when fly fishing in Montana. Follow this advice and I promise that you won’t be alone— maybe almost alone, but not completely alone.

First, disappear.

When my father and I step into a river, we dissolve. Our participation more closely resembles a heron than it does a fisherman—and we rarely look anything like the other fishermen around us. Slow, careful steps. No self-awareness, no ego. Develop a non-presence, like a photojournalist or an easily forgotten painting in a bad mall store that you walk right by. We are rarely noticed or regarded, and when we are typically it is with peculiarity and pity: “Look at those two, just standing around, staring endlessly into the river. You can’t catch a fish without casting!” I’m sure these are the sorts of judgements silently hurled from guided drift boats passing by, and yet we remain unshaken. Silence. Invisibility. You have no presence, you’re not there. If others don’t identify you as a fisherman, then neither do the fish.

Next, forget numbers.

My father and I are, by choice, not a high-volume team. The goal of our day has very little to do with catching and everything to do with pursuing. The harder the conditions, the less likely the odds, the more attractive the day becomes. We hunt the rivers more than fish them; stalking, sneaking and crawling our way forward, eyes scanning for a fish that might evade us. And when we spot one we pluck a fly from our guides, make a few false casts and then the fishing can begin. Stay low—trout can see you, they can see shapes roughly six feet above the surface and so they’ll know you’re there. Crawl on your belly to approach a prime area. Fish from the bank with the sun at your back if possible, leaving the fish in the shadow of a rock or log. And if you do enter the water, do so slowly, casually, not purposefully. Clomping around and wreaking havoc on the river bottom won’t help. Imagine if a giant foot came through the roof of your house or even your neighbors’. Again, move like a heron. Like a ballerina. Grace, poise, deliberation.

Yeah, this might look peculiar, but this is fishing as I know it, and if you are willing to let go your need to catch and talk—and your need to talk about catching—there is a deep experience waiting for you, even on the crowded rivers of today’s Montana.

The next lesson: accept it.

The longest, hardest and most easily ignored lesson that fly fishing has taught me is to let go of my need and accept what the day brings. It is a lesson that applies to all aspects of life, of course, but its application inside of fishing brings immediate relief and increased joy. It was, however, not so easily learned. And here I’ll pause to talk about how this lesson came to me:

I was born lucky.

I spent my childhood learning how to fly fish on the many fantastic rivers, spring creeks and streams that braid through the area around my family’s ranch in Montana. Any evening I had the urge, I needed only to grab a box of flies, a rod and tippet and head to a beaver pond to catch brook trout.

But when I concentrate my mind on those years, rather than accepting the warm, romantic glow that time wants to place upon them, I can remember days spent sulking and frustrated to the brink of tears (sometimes over the brink). Stomping along the shores of some river wondering when my father would have had enough for the day so we could just leave. I know that for a long time this was the majority of the experience. A repetition of the cycle of building excitement for the day: loading up the boat, filling the cooler, organizing the gear. We would leave before dawn to make it to whatever river we had our eyes on in time for the morning hatch. Only to have all of that excitement and anticipation crash down in a repetitive loop of wind knots, missed fish, pricked fingers and sunscreen sweating into my eyes while heavy glasses slid relentlessly down the bridge of my nose.

And yet here I am, many years later, watching the Montana landscape thaw from a long, frozen winter and feeling the pull toward my first trip of the year. How did this happen?

Surely some of my pain was caused by youthful impatience. I needed to catch many fish, or big fish, or many, big fish. It is this want that drives so many to the water and it is this want that ruins more days than rain or wind ever could.

Consider, why are you going fishing?

Why are you, given all the opportunities you have to use your time, selecting to travel to Montana and chase trout around? Is it to pose for a picture? I don’t judge you for it (maybe a little but I applaud your honesty). The photograph is an outcome that you can certainly create. But in fixating on that particular result you will be forgoing so many meaningful and pleasurable experiences. What would it mean if you didn’t return from your trip with the photo to prove it? Could you still feel satisfied? The why you are there sets the course for all that comes after.

Eventually, I grew up and much of the want has faded away. I have caught many fish and big fish and many big fish and I have pictures of some of them. My journey progressed slowly, from want to experience. But I didn’t know this was even a hurdle, and now you do. I could have saved myself so many days if I had only accepted what I am now sharing with you. The first step toward enjoying fishing is simply letting go. When you feel your blood begin to boil or shame sliding over your shoulders, remember that you are being driven batty, not by a small fish, but by your own self. I am certain you can make this progression much more efficiently than I did simply by being conscious of it. My hope is to help you shave years off the process so that you can begin to truly enjoy what Montana rivers have to offer. Simply take the day as it comes. Some days you catch many fish. Some you catch big fish and some you catch no fish at all. As I grew those needs began to quench and the real gift of fly fishing, and specifically of fishing Montana, began to open for me. It is a gift of presence and awareness that allows appreciation for the wild beauty of this country.

If you are willing to risk the absence of photographic validation your options open up considerably. As your mind quiets of this need your awareness can take root. You can begin to dissolve, as we do, allowing your curiosity to lead you. Do not select a fly because it is the right fly, choose the fly that you would eat if you were a trout. It’s okay, nobody needs to know that you nourish thoughts like these.

And when in your exploring you bolt a fish, and you will, instead of hanging on to the feeling of immediate regret, allow yourself to learn. Where was the fish lying? Why was it there? What about this swirl of current that made it attractive? Is it deeper and therefore safer? Is it darker and protected? Does the current funnel food easily to the fish? How did it see you? How can you adapt? Do not lament the loss of the fish. Instead, remain curious and learn what each fish has to teach you.

You will need to train your eyes.

Fly fishing lives in the marriage of vision and imagination, and imagination is really just another way of seeing when you can not see. I am happy to exchange volume of fish caught for the experience of catching a fish in the way that excites me most. And if you are willing to commit to it you will too, of this I am certain. I implore you, do not spend another day doing as you are told, blindly chucking and watching a bobber bumble along downstream. You are robbing yourself of the moment. For me the moments that matter are the fractions of a second of anticipation that occur when I am able to see the fish, watch as it notices, considers and ultimately takes or rejects my fly. This moment of limbo elevates my heart rate, tightens my muscles and is absolutely pure and still. In as much as catching fish is my reason for fishing, this is the experience within it that makes it all worth while. It is a moment of total connection.

If you want to be able to fish in this way you must train your eyes. You will miss fish. You will spook fish. You will experience doubt. But if you can focus on being able to look into the water and spot the next fish before it spots you then you will begin to surprise yourself at what you are able to do. You will absorb and process details of the river and the behavior of the fish within it. No longer will the day be a passive tour down the waterway. You will become an immersed member of the ecosystem. Like a heron stalking and peering along the edges of rivers. Odd perhaps, and maybe mostly alone, you will be truly fishing.

It is worth the cost.

Once you are able to experience this way of fishing you will be….hooked (my apologies). And this brings us to the last lesson of fly fishing, which isn’t a lesson at all if you’re enjoying yourself. It’s “persistence.” Your wives, children, husbands, fathers and co-workers will all wonder why you continue to fish and return without a picture to prove your mastery of the natural world. But we do not photograph our best putts or drives. We simply appreciate them and know that they are fleeting. If you can learn to apply this same rule to your fishing, then happier, more fulfilling days lie ahead. I guarantee it.

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