Old Duck Hunter: Catching the bug of fly-fishing

By Steve Meyer, for the Redoubt Reporter

Brad Pitt taught me to fly-fish.

Photos courtesy of Steve Meyer. The results of a morning of lake fly-fishing.

Well, not really, but I did see “A River Runs Through It.” The truth is, I have seen fly-fishing in magazines and books, mostly from the past when I was a kid and had some thoughts of someday being a part of that honorable outdoor tradition. But then we moved to Alaska and I quickly was swallowed up in the hardware and bait fishing that most everyone else does. Never being as much of a fisherman as a hunter, I just never seemed to have time to pursue this grand outdoor tradition.

July 1, 2010, changed that. My fishing partner and I, in an annual tradition, headed up to our favorite mountain lake for the opening of grayling season. We have a spot that we fish and have had no difficulty catching all the grayling we wanted using hardware — Mepps and Vibrex spinners, Rooster Tails, small Syclops and Pixies were all we ever needed. But last year the fish were being stubborn and wanted nothing to do with what we were offering.

Digging through the small tackle box I produced a fly of questionable origin. I don’t know what it was or what it was supposed to look like, other than it resembled a ratty insect. I tied it on, put several split shot on the line of my small bait-casting outfit and let it go. Two seconds later I hooked the first grayling of the day. After that it was just a matter of casting it out and waiting for the hit. My fishing partner and I took turns with that fly until we had enough and called it a day. But that sold me; we were going to be fly-fishers.

I don’t mean fly-fishing in the sense of using the spinning or bait-casting gear that is common here, especially for sockeye. This only resembles true fly-fishing in that a hook with some form of ornamentation is used. I mean the fly-fishing where you use a fly rod and reel, floating or sinking fly line with backing, a leader, a tippet and a fly. The kind of fly-fishing that, for an easy description, was epitomized in the Brad Pitt movie.

The kind of fly-fishing that, when first attempted, makes you look buffoonish and incompetent. Oh, it looks easy, just whip the rod back and forth while you feed out line until you have the right distance swirling back and forth by your head to drop the fly right where you want it, if you do everything right. If not, then you have knots in the leader and tippet. Maybe you’re being choked by the line and your fly. Instead of settling on the water like the insect it is supposed to represent, the fly makes a big splash, which means you may as well have thrown a rock.

So there we were, July 1, 2011, at 8 a.m., standing on the shore of our favorite fishing spot in the mountains. My fishing partner got her gear set up first and was ready to try this new adventure.

“Now, what, exactly, is it I am supposed to do?” she asked.

Christine Cunningham shows off a grayling caught fly-fishing July 1.

“Just do what they did in the movie,” I said.

Which was, of course, not the answer she was looking for. But me being just as much of a novice as she, it was the best I had. I was blessed growing up in the outdoors of North Dakota and Alaska with a father who believed the best way to learn was to do. He believed all you really needed to succeed was a want to, and I’ve found that to be true of most things in life. So, with that, she sallied forth and by God, conquered that fly rod. Before long she had that fly line singing back and forth through the air, looking like a pro. Our English setter, Winchester, and Labrador retriever, Cheyenne, sat to the side of her in rapt fascination of this bizarre behavior. But no fish were coming to heed. She had tied on a gnat-looking fly that certainly resembled the kind of bug a grayling might eat, but they ignored it. I decided to go a bit different and tied on a larger pattern that was supposed to mimic a bee.

Moving out from shore to allow room for the back casts, I peeled some line down and started whipping the rod back and forth — 2 o’clock, 10 o’clock, 2 o’clock, 10 o’clock, and so forth until I had 30 feet or so sailing through the air. I dropped the fly to the water as gently as I could, pulled some slack with my left hand and waited for the tug.

Didn’t happen.

After about four attempts, bam, the grayling hit and was on the run. We had chosen 5- to 6-weight rods, which is a bit heavy for grayling, but the 17-inch fish still put a nice bend in the rod and made for a grand struggle between man and fish. With Winchester’s assistance, I beached the grayling and found it has swallowed the hook. No releasing that fish, which meant I had one to go.

“What the hell am I doing wrong?” was my fishing partner’s comment on my catching the first fish.

I didn’t think she had been doing anything wrong and suggested she switch to

A grayling breaks the water’s surface.

the pattern I was using, which she did. A short while later she was fighting her first fish with the fly rod and having a great time doing so.

We spent maybe an hour fishing. By that time there are usually other people arriving and we get out of the way to let others have the spot. But we spent enough time and caught enough grayling to know we are hooked on this fly-fishing business.

It is sort of like upland bird hunting with an English setter. Even when there are no birds, watching the beautiful dog work is always worth the trip. Fly-fishing in the traditional manner, even when there are no fish hitting, is great because you can work on that perfect cast, that most gentle of arrival of your fly to the water and have a great time doing it.

As we were walking out of the mountains, watching the dogs run across the gorgeous flowered fields so pervasive in the high country, a floatplane came overhead and dropped into the lake we had just left. We looked at each other and thought aloud, it just wouldn’t be the same flying in.

Which is how we view the rewards of hunting and fishing — it is so much more about how you take the bird or fish, the effort you put into it and the homage you pay, than the catch or take itself. We don’t belittle others who chose to do things differently. If it is legal and you enjoy it, then have at it. But for us, when selecting the equipment for the next fishing trip, there is little doubt that we’ll choose fly rods, and hike them in to our destination.

Steve Meyer has been a central peninsula resident since 1971 and is an avid hunter, fisherman and trapper. He can be reached at oldduckhunter@gci.net.

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2 Comments

Filed under fishing, outdoors

2 responses to “Old Duck Hunter: Catching the bug of fly-fishing

  1. Shane Blumentritt

    WHICH LAKE IS THIS?! that grayling is a FATTY! Is this on the Peninsula?! PLEASE respond!

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