Angie had plans. Big plans.
For my 30th birthday she had done a ton of leg work, combing the internet for ideal summer campsites all over southern Arizona. With her being pregnant and me still being crippled from my back injury our usual haunts were out of the question, but she had worked really hard anyways to find some perfect spots. All of them above 7500 ft, with fishing, and hiking, and the promise of few people. Then, after months of work, she was bested by the coldest May in memory. Arizona has a way of doing that to you.
Scrambling at the last second, we decided a cabin trip with some fly fishing on the East Verde River would suffice. Curry, Golab, and Jenna joined us to celebrate.
At dawn, Curry, Golab and I took off for a very fish-y stream. Not wanting to crowd each other, we spread out along the banks, each taking one pool. We were hopeful as we started fishing.
A few minutes later I heard the unmistakable screams of a man who just lost a very large fish. I came down the stream to check on the situation, and my suspicions were confirmed by Curry–big fish, on the line for quite a while, now gone forever. Luckily the little stockers were plentiful, which cheered Curry up.
By this point Curry had several solid takes on a copper john while all of us were coming up empty. Writing this off as luck, I stuck to my hopper-guns, because I-like-hoppers-and-tight-line-nymphing-is-boring-and-it’s-my-birthday-so-I’m-gonna-use-whatever-fly-I-want-damnit.
The fish remained unconvinced by this ironclad reasoning. Twenty minutes, and precisely zero bites later, I caved, scanning the dark recesses of my fly box for a fly I never use. Suddenly I was fishing a completely different stream.
I’m sure somewhere in this fly-selection allegory there is a lesson to be learned about being flexible, not trying to force something that isn’t working, and letting the river come to you. You can’t make the fish bite just because you want them to, you’ve got to approach them on their terms blah blah blah. I promptly ignored these thoughts. I had fishing to do.
Soon Golab appeared from upstream. He’d been on a fishing dry spell measured in years, not months, so I set him up on the honey hole. Moments later…
Golab was proud.
Again the fly fishing Gods seemed to be offering up lessons. It’s not the size of the fish, but what it means to you, that determines how good of a fish it is blah blah blah fly fishing platitude blah blah blah. Again, such thoughts were promptly ignored. We had fish to catch.
Or so we hoped. The sun was high in the sky and the bite had slowed significantly. Hungry bellies looming, we started fishing our way back to the car.
After a some lunch and a glorious nap, I woke up to find the whole crew playing cards. I don’t really like playing cards, so I opted to head to the stream’s headwaters for some technical small stream fishing instead.
And when I say technical, I mean really technical. This is the land of bow-and-arrow hope-and-pray casts. Ankle deep, with a few knee deep pools, the headwaters hold many many fingerlings (and many more snags).
I was ready to head for home when a particularly promising plunge pool came into view. It was deep, but completely covered from a downstream approach by a large fallen tree. My only hope was to stand above the pool, drop my fly into the plunge from above, and pray that I could get my fly back without snagging on the way out. This resulted in three or four fingerlings, until the current unexpected took my fly to what I thought was a less promising part of the pool. My 4 weight bent, and quickly the excitement of hooking up a real fish was overtaken by the horror of losing it to the mess of tangles downstream. A few panicked moments later, I had my hands around the 14 inch king of this ankle deep stream.
Unfortunately while focusing on keeping the fish out of the downstream tangles, I had forgotten to pay attention to my net, and even though I was using barbless hooks, the fish had managed to hopelessly tangle my cheap fabric net around the hook. I cut the net apart to free him, pulled the hook, and after a few horrifying moments he was gone.
Still, nearly losing a fish this big in a stream this small because I had brought a cheap net left me feeling like a garbage human being. I fish for food all the time, just not in little streams like this. Life isn’t easy for small stream fish, and I’ve always felt an incredible respect for the ones that make it. I’m not one to get all philosophical in a blog post about fishing (Editors Note: Yes you are) but I think we owe it to the animals we hunt and fish to bring adequate gear for the job. This lesson from the fishing gods was heard loud and clear.
Back at the cabin, people were not troubled by such things. This made me feel better.
Then Jack and I decided to go for a walk.
And this made me feel even better.
After his exhausting walk, Jack decided he wanted to be held for the rest of the night. Uncle Golab was happy to oblige.
Jack parlayed this into a rousing game of bite mom’s nose.
Which he enjoyed greatly.
But soon it was dark, and time for bed.
And quickly thereafter we all joined him.
I think a lot about what it is I get from fly fishing. Especially the way I practice it, fly fishing is objectively terrible. Wake up before dawn, drive for hours, often alone, hike for hours, often alone, find a tiny stream with tiny fish in it, snag, snag, snag, hope, repeat. Yet here I am.
There are lots of good reasons to fly fish, and I’m not going to tell you which one you should choose. I will, however, point out one that gets covered up in all the talk of self-reliance, and patience, and artistry in the why fly fish? conversations: learning. Each and every time I fly fish I learn something. Sometimes the lesson is technical, sometimes it is physical, but more often than not, it is emotional.
If I learned anything this weekend it is that I have a lot left to learn. Actually, no: If I learned anything this weekend it is that I have a lot left to learn and that is a good thing. Twenty-nine is a year I am happy to leave behind. Though I did get to experience the incredibly joy of parenting, this was paired with a horrific back injury and soul-crushing case of anxiety that have given me a surplus of time to reflect on the things I need to do better in my life. This might sound terrible but there is actually great hope here. After all, we do hard things so we can learn from them.
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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. He writes here at Lesser Places, has occasionally written for Backpacker.com, and even more occasionally written for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.