Fly-Fishing, Without the Fish

Fred Astaire made dancing look like a breeze in his films, but most of us are content to enjoy the experience from the vantage point of an armchair. I should have kept this in mind when I saw the 1992 movie "A River Runs Through It" and got hooked on fly-fishing.

The movie made fly-fishing in the middle of a big beautiful river look like fish-line dancing, Astaire-style. Loop the line around in the air with simple grace and elegance, enjoy the scene, and maybe even land some trout.

Fly-fishing appealed to the Eastern tenderfoot in me that embraced the "go west, young woman" folklore but was shy of life in the great outdoors. My everyday vocabulary has yet to include words like "hike" and "camp." I want to experience the West from a hotel; I want to view the grand and noble scenery from a room with hot- and cold-running water. (At least I've managed to move myself from Massachusetts to California.)

So, when I found out, to my great relief, that I could avoid hiking and camping and still fly-fish in beautiful country, I was game. Location was no problem. I lived within minutes of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, where I could practice fly-casting at the casting pools. There, I could make my admittedly wimpy entry into the great outdoors.

I called my brother, Russ, the bait fisherman, to tell him my plans. He chided me about wanting to learn how to fish at casting pools where there are no fish. I nevertheless insisted that I could find a way to enjoy the experience. Who needs fish anyway? Besides, it might be one of my only excuses to enjoy the Western scene up-close and personal.

The guys at my neighborhood sporting-goods store were eager to help. They told me to look up Armando at the casting pools: He'd show me the ropes. The local fly-fishing shop lent me a rod and reel, and threw in a few hookless flies, no charge, though I could tell they got a charge out of me.

One of them asked me, chuckling, "You saw 'A River Runs Through It,' didn't you?"

The gauntlet had been thrown down once again, but I was primed for the challenge. I didn't own a car, but no matter - a taxi would do. My first time at the fly-fishing shop had turned up a dad and his son who were going to the casting pools, too.

They offered me a ride. I accepted. fly-fishing, minus the sporting peanut gallery, felt like serendipity before I'd even tried it.

What is the big deal? I thought at first. How hard could it be to toss a line into the water with a fake fly tied on the end? When I finally found Armando at the casting-pool lodge, he warned me that people often give up because it's not as easy as it looks. I had fished with my dad as a child, I told him, and I felt confident about my casting.

But I soon found out that with fly-fishing, you have to tie the fly onto a tapered piece of monofilament, not just hook on a lure. There's no snapping your wrist when you cast, unlike the bait-fishing I was so confident about. Your arm is supposed to work like a hammer, and the fly should land on the water, not every place but! There's a rhythm to the cast, an inherent patience in every move. A patience I lost fast.

The problem was that the casting pools doubled as a hangout for a number of retired, well-intentioned gentlemen who, one after the other, offered me a slice of their "expertise." When one would leave the scene after giving me his prized casting tips, another would come along and tell me to ignore the previous "expert's" advice. After a few trips to the casting pools, I concluded that nobody was going to show me the "right" way to fly cast. I retired my borrowed rod in frustration and reluctantly shelved my dreams of being able to dance a fishing line in the air.

Until Frank, that is.

When I started this venture, my friends Frank and Marie promised to take me fishing with them at Lake Tahoe. About a year had passed when one day, without warning, Frank asked me, "Wanna go fishing with us next week?" Images of wild rivers, jumping trout, and dancing fishing lines got the better of me. Clearly in denial about the prospect and my past, I said yes. Off we went to fish the Truckee River.

For three days I fished with Frank and Marie. But it was mostly with Frank. He would wade into the river, disappear down- or upstream, and leave me behind with enough casting tips to keep me busy catching flies on rocks, shrubs, trees, and a few times on me. I'd watch Frank cast with apparent ease, letting the fly ride the wide river, reeling it in ever so artfully. The river rushed and chattered; the sun beat down on the rocks and us.

AFTER getting the fly caught several times under tree branches in the river, I would take a break before attaching another fly. It was a short wade in the chilly water to a big rock. I had a good view of my rod and reel on the riverbank while I sat on the rock and listened to the river teasing me for giving up, and hurrying to get wherever it was going. I certainly wasn't going anywhere, and neither was my fly-fishing.

The last day, we went up the Sierra Nevada high country, to Kit Carson Creek. The only thing caught was us - in a thunderstorm. When I felt my rod tingle in my hand, I knew it wasn't a fish. It was time to get out of the open field and into the car.

We never did see a fish of any sort. But I'd waded in a river and in a creek, breathed in the wide Western sky, even taken in the mountain-night star show.

When we got back to the city, I bought a rainbow trout, had it packed in ice, and gave it to Frank and Marie as a tribute to our adventure. It may not have been Hollywood, but it was entertainment! If anything, I discovered the kind of fly-fishing I'll be doing next time. I'll be sure to buy the fish first, and have it for dinner after a day of fly-casting for the scenery.

And to the tune, not of Fred Astaire dancing, but of a particular Frank singing, "I'll do it my way!"

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