There's one thing about flyfishing that I didn't consider when I signed up to spend a day on the river last summer: You have to want to catch a fish. After all, that is very clearly the goal when you step into your chest-high waders, don the waterproof boots and set out, very long pole in hand, in the direction of a trout-filled stream or lake.
It started out innocently enough: a day spent in the great outdoors, a glorious blue sky, a bucolic river rolling through the beautiful foothills of Steamboat Springs, Colo., and the chance to try something new.
My guide, Steve Henderson, co-owner of local outfitter Steamboat Flyfisher, sets me up with the required one-day fishing license ($9) and a pair of gangly Simms waders, orders us lunch to go from the deli down the street and ushers me into his pickup truck for the 20-minute drive to the private waters we'll be fishing. (One of the major perks of hiring guides is their access to the often pristine, trout-filled portions of rivers on privately owned ranches.)
With the Yampa River gurgling in the background, Steve and I walk to a nearby field to practice casting. With 14 years of guiding experience, Steve, of course, makes the fluid back-and-forth motion look deceptively easy, unfurling the line perfectly above his head, then shooting it out just as effortlessly in front of him. Every time. I've seen A River Runs Through It, so I think I can do this. He puts the eight-and-a-half-foot-long rod in my hands.
Trying to mimic Steve's virtuoso performance, I pull out about 20 feet of line and hold the rod parallel to the ground, my thumb pointing along the spine of the handle. I lift the rod to about 10 o'clock, then snap it back over my head until my thumb is at about 1 o'clock. The goal, Steve explains, is to let the line lengthen fully in both directions. I peek behind me just in time to see it fall to the grass.
We troubleshoot. "Don't flick," Steve reminds me. I try to imagine that my wrist is on rollers. After a few tries, I successfully pass Steve's test, and we saunter down to the water's edge.
It must be time to get serious, because Steve breaks out a small box from his pack and reveals an impressive selection of ersatz dead bugs. As for me, I lost my fascination with dead insects somewhere around my 5th birthday. But to each his own. He's got mayflies, stoneflies, caddis, midges, pheasant-tail nymphs, copper johns, hare's ear nymphs.... A helluva show-and-tell for a third-grade class. Steve selects a copper john, affixes it to the line on my rod and off we go.
My first cast is decent, technique-wise, Steve says, but doesn't go far enough down the river. My mission is to let the fly move at the same speed as the current, so as to trick the trout into thinking it's being tempted by a live fly. I let out more line. My second cast falls just short of the swirling pocket of water I'm aiming at about 50 feet upstream. My third cast gets tangled in the bushes behind me. I smile sheepishly and hand the rod over to Steve for detanglement. And so go the next few hours, the September sun beating down on my wide-brimmed hat, the river gently gurgling away, and the fish deftly—and consistently—avoiding my fly.
Steve confides that my experience is not at all unlike that of most other beginning flyfishers (not that this makes me feel much better). Flyfishing, he explains, isn't really a sport; it's a mentality. And this mentality is something that's cultivated and nourished, like a fine wine, over several years. Kind of like skiing. True, there's not as much adrenaline. (Though I'm told that, for a flyfisher, successfully "setting the hook" is a moment like no other. Sort of like nailing the nasty mogul field you've been eyeing from the lift all morning?) But like skiing, once you master the basic motions, you'll start to see results fast. It might take you a lifetime to perfect it, but then isn't that the beauuty of both sports?
As for me, I'm still working on my snowplow. I've got the fundamentals down—the rolling wrist, the fluid shoulder, the line that spools out fully behind me before I snap it forward into the fast-moving current. It's just a matter of combining these three components into one cast. And after hours of coming so close, there's finally the telltale tug on my line. I glance at Steve, a look of "now what?!?" clearly on my face. "Hook it," he reminds me. "A fast right." He tries to help me salvage the catch, but it's too late. I reel the line in. No fish. No fly. Who says there's no such thing as a free lunch? I know one Colorado trout that begs to differ.
I don't dare mention it to Steve, who's now taken over the responsibility of catching a fish for me, but secretly, I'm relieved. Don't get me wrong: I'm no tofu-eating PETA member. I wear leather, have been to the circus and indulge in the occasional elk tenderloin. And any chance to spend a day outside on a beautiful babbling river is inherently a good thing. But maybe next time around, I'll go hiking. Because the truth of the matter is, it's hard to be a good angler when you're secretly rooting for the fish.
SET THE HOOK AT THESE SCHOOLS
Steamboat Flyfisher knows how to set the hook: free casting lessons every Wednesday and Saturday. A half-day of guided fishing for one person is $210, $285 for two; full-day one person is $325, $400 for two; float-fishing trips cost $400 for two.
The two-day Orvis Fly Fishing School at the Equinox Resort features beginner essentials such as fly-casting technique, choosing your gear and reading water. Classes include fishing license, lunch and all gear. Course costs $430 per person; special lodging rates at the Equinox available.
>Big Sky, Mont.
Gallatin Riverguides specializes in beginners for both wade and float trips. Full-day walk and wade trips for one person, $310, $335 for two. Lunch and rod are included. There are casting lessons ($40 per hour) behind the shop to hone your skills.
>Jackson Hole, Wyo.
There may be no more beautiful spot in the U.S. to fish. Teton Troutfitters offers a full day on the Snake River or the Green River ($400 for 1—2 people). Yellowstone trips cost $500 for 1—2 people, $70 for a third person. Gear and lunch are included.