By: Mark McCoy
My grandfather taught me to fly fish, and after a 30-year hiatus, I returned to it. The past 15+ years have seen me go from dangerous amateur to avid, albeit untalented, fly fisherman. They have also brought me great joy. I usually catch fish – sometimes many, often just one or two, each beautiful and noble in its own way. And occasionally, none. Oh. I used to say I didn’t mind being let down when fly fishing – I always learn every time I’m out. Thomas Edison supposedly said, “I didn’t fail, I just developed 999 ways not to invent the light bulb. I have found at least that many ways not to catch fish.
But I’m getting old now and I know I won’t rock forever. Every fall seems closer to the last time than the first time I was on the river. Could this be what drives the urgency to see that beautiful majestic brown trout in the net?
After a hot summer and once the water cooled enough I was in the water – feeling good after a months hiatus waiting for trout safe water temperatures. I went to my nearest river. Skunked. No sign of fish anywhere. Next time out, same river, different holes. Skunked. Third time, a new river, new holes… ruined. Then a friend told me about the best fly fishing in my area. A little longer drive, but I had to go. Nothing. Frustrated, I read about the location and returned the following weekend. This time… nothing. I remembered the scene I watched a hundred times with my daughters in the movie Polar Express, when the child looks at the North Pole in the encyclopedia to see if Santa Claus is real and reads that the North Pole is devoid of life. This is how these rivers felt to me. Had someone emptied the rivers? I felt like I couldn’t get a fish in the supermarket.
One evening, as I reflected on this, I realized that during this drought my fishing stories had changed. Usually I tell an “I found a new way to be an idiot with a fly rod” story about setting the hook on a fish downstream (lost, of course) or falling out of the river or losing a fish tangled in the fly. line. Now I was telling my friends about the beautiful deer that crossed the creek ten feet from me, or the beaver that slapped its tail so hard I thought I was being shot, or the goose that just stared at me curiously for 20 minutes. as if to say, “you are not a fisherman.” I spoke of the beauty of sunsets and changing trees; I spoke of how the sound of the river varies in each part of the stream; I asked him if the “fresh” air smelled different from the summer air.
Last weekend I was out on a new stream when I found the hole God made in the ground to resurrect fishermen like me. It was a perfect hole on a beautiful fall day. First throw a giant combed coffee into my puller. Tried again, second rejection. I changed to a smaller version of the same fly and a third rejection followed by a rainbow take. And then another. And another one. I took that hole out and went up just a few feet and turned into the double nymph indicator. Rainbow after rainbow emerged, each beautiful and noble in its own way. I stopped counting after a dozen. And then something strange happened.
I stopped fishing. I sat down on a rock and looked around. I thought about my grandfather and how he seemed to let life slow down to its own pace rather than get caught up in its maelstrom. I noticed that the trees were filled with beautiful colors. I heard the sound of the river—as perfect a sound as ever was made; I smelled “fresh” in the air. After 20 minutes on the rock drinking the world in, I got out. I could keep fishing upstream – I had only covered 50 meters of water and the fish were there for the taking. But I had had enough. I wanted to make sure this trip wasn’t just about the fish.
Becoming a skunk taught me why I really fish in the first place, and I never want to lose that point. Of course, I hope it will be a while before I go through such a slump, but I will be ready when it inevitably comes. And I will treasure all the time and memories and beauty and sounds and smells that plague me are brought to my attention.
I am no longer worried about the last time I will go to the river. Between now and then, whenever my boot breaks, I’ll know why I’m here.
Mark McCoy has been a professional musician, composer, conductor, author, teacher, professor, dean and college president. He now serves as an executive coach and an avid, albeit untalented, fly fisherman. His greatest achievement was marrying Lisa and becoming a father to triplet daughters (now 17).