Learning to Fly by Mark Usyk

It was said half-heartedly in jest, but with the truth of sincerity that I thought would be missed for sure. Holly would make the comments to her friends in my presence “He’s running off to go fishing again, he doesn’t want to hang out with his wife,” while shooting me a sly grin as I headed down the stairs, fly rod in hand. “You can always come with me.” I’d grin back and then be out the door to chase scales, Bass or Trout or Pike, something calling to me like a compass leading the way to itself instead of to a destination.

And then one day it happened. Our 12th anniversary approached and I found that Holly had booked a room at the Tailwater Lodge on the Salmon River. Just slightly early enough that to find Salmon in the river would be possible but only in very small numbers, and to expect to hook into one would be high hopes at best. But not being a Salmon Season fisherman, it bothered me not. Instead I was more than delighted that she was now asking me about waders and how warm or cold the water might be, what types of fish could be found in the river and what rod I would use there…Because she was looking forward to me teaching her to fly fish! “Just be patient with me is all I ask” was what she repeated several times. I’m not a patient person when it comes to most things, and to teach someone to fly fish seems to be one of life’s patience trying activities. I’ve been told, even for an instructor to teach ones spouse is one of the hardest things to do… I looked forward to the challenge. I felt confident I could pull it off without losing my cool, simply because it’s fly fishing. With many other tasks I was likely to swear and toss things into the trees, but not with fly fishing, and not with Holly. The chance to share it with her, for her to have an understanding of the one thing that can set my mind at ease when nothing else will, I couldn’t let my temper blow that. To chase her away from it would be one of my life’s greatest failures. I taught myself to cast, but had no idea how to teach someone else. I told myself “Just fish. You’re just showing her how to fish. Keep it simple.”

We stood waist deep in the Salmon River on a Saturday morning and I did my best to explain the cast as simple as I could. When I thought I was repeating myself too much, when I was beginning to ramble on, trying to say the same thing over and over in different ways I stopped myself. I taught her the best I could to lift the line off the water and accelerate to a stop, letting the rod load up and using the energy on the forward cast. Back and forth over her shoulder. Some casts were good and the line would fall gently to the water. Others were not so good, the rod changing directions to early and sending the line into a pile several feet in front of her, each time whether good or bad I tried to remain mostly quiet, letting her get a feel for the flex of the rod and the weight of the line as it came tight at the tip of the 7wt. An olive Wollybugger would drift at the end of her cast and I would have her strip it in after it’s swing across stream back to our side.

For twenty minutes she had been standing there in the river, casting well and casting not so well, alternating between them, but I could see more better casts than worse after only a short time. Just downstream from us in the Schoolhouse Pool fish were rising now and then lazily. I could see the same ones in their holding patterns, time after time just dimpling the surface. Something small and brown flitted here and there above the water, and so I cut off the Wollybugger and tied on a small Elk Hair Caddis. I’m not much of a dry fly fisherman, so the fact that I had something that remotely matched the bugs I saw made me smile.

I explained the drifting of the dry fly as simply as I could and stepped to her left. On her third drift of the dry as she turned to say something to me the fly was sucked under in a tiny splash and the line went straight with the tension of a life on the other end. Hoisting a six inch Fall Fish from the water she thought my excitement was fake, a show to downplay the size of the fish. I quickly explained that what she had just done in twenty minutes, hook a fish on a dry fly, had taken me about 6 months, a box of lost flies and many broken leaders, thanks to snagged back casts in trees and underbrush. It didn’t matter the size or the type. The first fish on the fly rod, especially the first fish on a dry fly was something to celebrate. It was the only fish she caught. I managed to catch another, slightly smaller than hers, and a little later on showed her the proper way to wade out farther and farther until you are almost up to your armpits in the current and still not be able to reach the fish you can see rising on the opposite side of the river.

When I asked her over dinner that evening in the lodges restaurant if she had liked it she said she had. I think she may have been more impressed with the fact that I had remained calm through it all, never so much as raising my voice in frustration. Many times through any given day I find myself “biting my tongue”, shaking my head in disgust over something said, something done, frustrations in trying to raise two young boys and dealing with a job that is less than “my dream job.” But on the water things are different, and my wife got to see first-hand what it does for me, and I hoped that she felt some of it too.

The conversation changed from one subject to another during the course of the meal, and when she brought up me taking her up north the following week on one of her last days of vacation to fish a Brook Trout stream I had written about I knew that I had done something right. I was on to something…And so was she.