There are some stories that I have a more difficult time deciding where to start them than others. Some come pretty obvious to me. “I got up, got dressed, and with a fly rod in hand, I headed out to the Jeep and pointed it north.” That’s always a simple but effective beginning. Or “It was -15 outside and the creek was frozen over solid, so I clamped a hook in the vice to pass the time between now and the next thaw…” Some stories are just that easy to start.
I’m not really sure where to start this one. I could start it by telling the story of how last year, around this time more or less, I was supposed to drive west, taking a three day weekend to rent a small cabin in the finger lakes from an angler I’d never met in person yet. I’d actually only known him as a profile on Facebook and Instagram. He seemed like a decent guy, and it’d been a slow winter. So I took Steve Firlit up on his offer of a cabin and directions to fish the Cohocton River nearby. Only a couple days before I was supposed to drive out there, the state was buried under a snow storm and the trip was called off. And now, a year later, here I was talking to him, finally in person, at the Fly Fisher’s Workshop at the Brighton’s Twelve Corners Middle School in Rochester. I was sitting behind a folding table hocking my book hoping to sell enough to at least pay for my gas money for the weekend, and we were laying out a loose plan for fishing the next day before I made the two and a half hour drive back home. I could start it there, or I could start it in another place…
I’d picked the 16 Stone Brew Pub in Holland Patent as my hiding spot for a few reasons. First and foremost, my cousins owned it. If I was going to throw money at alcohol, I was going to at least throw it at my family. Secondly and probably more importantly, no one besides my cousins knew me up there. And I was looking to be invisible. The idea was that I’d been going through too many whiskey bottles during the divorce, but I was smart enough still to know that if I went someplace to drink and had to drive home, I wouldn’t get drunk. I was going to a bar…to not get drunk. My own logic baffles me sometimes, but this was actually working. If I stayed home, I’d go to sleep with the room spinning and have a headache the next day. If I went up to the bar, I’d have two beers, three at the most over four hours give or take, knowing I had to drive. While the strategy worked by me not drowning my sorrows in whiskey every single night, it began to fail at the invisible part.
At some point along the way I found myself being greeted by the rest of the regulars when I walked in, kind of like Cheers. It felt good. I tried to sit quietly and stare at the television above the bar and the games I cared nothing about, and to ignore the pretty young woman who would always show up and sit a few seats away. But in the end we struck up a conversation, and now here she was, a couple months later, sitting behind my folding table with me as I tried to not be a salesman, while I tried to sell my book at the Fly Fisher’s Workshop in a school building in Rochester. Like that deep sunk hook in your shoulder that you never saw coming from your back cast, some things just happen. Of course this was much better than a barbed 4/0 hook disguised in feathers and fur stuck fast into the meat of my right arm. But all the same, I never saw it coming and now I was just rolling with it. It was good to feel alive again anyhow…
Or, I could just start this story at the Fly Fisher’s Workshop…
It was good to be set up and sitting behind the table with my books stacked in front of me. For one thing, the Jeep had made the two and a half hour drive flawlessly. The afternoon before I’d leaned in over the radiator and changed out the thermostat as snow was falling, the thermometer reading a chilly fifteen degrees as my fingers stung from contact with cold metal wrenches, my skin wet with antifreeze. (Fun fact- While antifreeze does indeed keep the coolant in your car from freezing during the winter, it in no way has any anti-freezing qualities when your hands are covered in it while outside when it’s fifteen degrees.) But now I was standing and talking to Steve Firlit about fishing the next day before Nicole and I headed back towards Utica. The prospect of fly rods and streamers and small streams with lake run fish was more than enough to lift my spirits after a slow winter. I’d only fished once in the past month. I was more than ready.
Across from my table was a young man with dirty blonde dreadlocks, that’s the color, not that he needed a shower or anything by the way, sitting at a vice, tying up some of the best streamers I’d seen in a long time. I’m a streamer junkie, so naturally I was intrigued. At a couple slow points during the day I stood at his table and learned a little about him, just enough to be jealous. Elvy Foster was twenty-two. He’d been fly fishing and tying since he was twelve, and was living life on his own terms. Guiding, tying, selling fly fishing and tying gear. His streamers were the best I’d seen in a long time. At forty-two years old, I was looking at this twenty-two year old “kid” as someone who had life by the balls whether he realized it or not. They say the grass is always greener on the other side, or as I like to say, the water always looks fishier on the other side of the river. I looked over at him talking to anglers while he tied at his vice and saw the greener grass, the fishier water. But then I remembered the nature of the sayings, and wondered for the rest of the day how green my grass was and if I could find greener, or if it was even worth the risk at this point this late in life. Green grass needs to be mowed after all, and I hate mowing the lawn. Takes time away from fishing.
I left the show having sold just enough books to pay for my vender’s spot and my gas more or less, about all I ever hope to make at most, but more importantly are the people I meet at these things. I can tell you that the fly fishing culture is alive and well, much bigger in western NY than it is over in my part of the state, and because I took the drive two and a half hours west, I finally got to shake hands with quite a few names that were previously only profiles on social media. My load of books was a little lighter leaving, but I ended up with a Streamwalker Nets Sweatshirt to hold me over while Leif Mermagen crafts my small brookie net for me, and a new book by another author set up at the show, An Affair With Mother Nature, by JW Trout. When I find books on fly fishing, especially collections of stories, they go home with me. There’s never enough fish stories after all.
The next morning Nicole and I met Steve at a park about fifteen miles away, and I rigged up the 7wt for her, while for myself I rigged up a 6wt. She’d never been fly fishing before, and while I thought it was great to be introducing someone new to what has now taken over everything else in my life, I explained that this was a tough place to learn because of the confined small stream with all of the overhanging trees, the undercut banks full of tree branches and roots, and the almost crystal clear water in between such narrow high banks in which large, smart and warry trout were wintering. I added that learning in the winter was just harder in general.
Steve had wandered around a bend, and I had given Nicole her first lesson the best I could on casting in such a place, when I saw a hair pin turn in the stream to our right and thought it would be a good place to explain how to approach such a spot without spooking fish. Branches reached down from the trees above, ready to grab fly line and leaders, so I demonstrated the side arm cast to keep everything low beneath the cover. I cast up into the top of the bend.
As I stripped my streamer back along the far side, a trout, as clear and obvious as watching something happen through a freshly washed window, emerged from the darkness of the undercut bank across and upstream. It was facing upstream and came out of the dark bent like a horseshoe, or like a snake turning to face you when you’ve walked up behind it. It followed the streamer, inches behind it, its mouth half open as if it just wasn’t sure if it was hungry enough to eat or not. It turned away and retreated back under the bank almost even with me, and I finally breathed.
“Did you see it!? Did you see the fish!? I had polarized sunglasses on, but Nicole didn’t so she wasn’t sure if she saw it or not. I stripped it past the bank another time but nothing. I figured that was my one and only shot. I should’ve just let her step up and take my place, but at the very second I thought it, Just downstream of where it had gone back under the bank, there it was, the beautiful trout, sitting right in the middle of the stream. The water was so clear and the stream so narrow, I could make out its spots almost as well as if it were in my hands a foot away from my face. I dead drifted the streamer to it, this time the fish back pedaled for about a foot, keeping the hook and faux fur just in front of it until just before making contact it turned and calmly moved over, letting it pass by. I should have just let Nikki step up and take my place at that point, once again.
But I didn’t want to move. The trout was still there. One step, to move to a crouching position, to back up into the brush, any movement with such clear water conditions could send the trout retreating up or down stream. Gone but never forgotten. I simply made one more cast, a dead drift with a couple twitches to correct its course to bring it closer. This time the fish ate. I felt excitement at first. The bend in the 6wt, it had been too long. Steve appeared out of the brush suddenly to see me stepping into the stream, “You’ve got a fish on!?” It was great to feel alive. Finally. Alive in the moment. The trout was gorgeous, and without a measurement I can say possibly my biggest. If it was a twenty two inch fish we’ll call it twenty-three for the sake of embellishment, which is what all anglers get caught up in at one point or another, no matter how honest of a person they may be.
And the fish had a good scar. Right on its face for the world to see. A chunk of flesh missing between its eyes and the tip of its head, right down to the bone. We didn’t linger long on studying it, trying to keep the fish in the water and releasing it quickly, but we did contemplate the origins of the scar quickly and then more so once it had swam off with a tail kick and a glide. It looked like it could have been a missed grab by an eagle, but anything we could come up with was merely speculation. But just the same as it becoming a twenty-four inch fish, I could picture the scene playing out in my head of a huge eagle on a branch above the stream, spotting the likewise huge trout below, and the ruckus ensuing as the two fought, one for food and one for survival, one talon missing all together and the other getting a chunk of fish face as the trout thrashed and fled. Yes, a great river brawl between an eagle the size of a small private plane and a twenty-six inch brown.
I owe Steve the thanks for showing us around one of his local go-to waters, and I owe Elvy Foster a round of thanks for tossing me that streamer as the show was winding down and we were beginning to pack up our stuff. I’m a small streamer fanatic, I tie them for no other reason than I’ve got nothing else to do sometimes, I’ve got boxes full of them. But that was the first streamer I’ve fished that I didn’t tie myself easily in three years, possibly longer. But most importantly, I owe Nicole a fish. It could have been hers. She wasn’t sour, and had a great morning trekking up the stream learning to cast and sliding down snowy banks in rubber booted neoprene waders. She got to see a fish rising to tiny stone flies, she got to see their little black bodies everywhere in stark contrast against the white snow and listen to Steve and I go on about how important it was to see them on a trout stream. And hikers were walking their dogs on a trail along the stream a couple times and she loves dogs, so there was that. But that fish. I owe her a fish. Anyone willing to struggle into heavy neoprene waders and deal with a cold winter morning and the learning of something new deserves the fish. Of course, of all the lessons there are to learn in fly fishing, I suppose that’s the most important one. No matter how much you deserve the fish, somedays, it’s just not going to happen. The other lesson? There’s always the next time.
Mark Usyk is the author of Reflections of a Fly Rod, available on Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, and signed copies ready for purchase on this web site, JPRossflyrods.com.