By Joseph Robertia
The chalky, turquoise water of the upper Kenai River murmured softly as Justin Cooley stepped into it from the smooth-cobbled shoreline. He paused a moment to take in his surroundings — thin, wispy, cirrus clouds stretching across the blue sky overhead and evergreen spruce and still-leafless birch trees behind. In front of him flowed possibility.
“Nature is part of the draw,” he said. “But so is the challenge. You ask yourself, ‘Will this work?’ and you don’t know the answer until you hear the smack of a fish bite. Then the question is, ‘Will this be a 12-inch rainbow or a 30-incher?’ You don’t know until you see it.”
Cooley spooled some fluorescent slack from his fly reel and began the whipping motion necessary to build energy to compose a perfect cast. Unlike spin casting, during which the lure’s weight pulls the line out, in fly casting the weight of the line carries the lure — a delicately crafted imitation insect. It requires timing more than strength to properly direct the energy.
“The whole thing is an art form really, from tying the flies to selecting which one to use to laying it out there. There’s a lot to the presentation, making it look as natural as possible. It’s not easy to do and definitely not as easy as just sinking bait and bumping it along the bottom.”
Elevating any activity to art takes time, though. Michelangelo didn’t sculpt David in a day. Da Vinci didn’t paint the Mona Lisa the first time he picked up a brush. The mechanics of casting skillfully and with precision take practice. And learning to apply that skill — reading the rippling surface to intuit where to drop a fly — can only come through experience.
There’s been plenty of opportunity for that this spring while fishing for rainbow trout in the Kenai River and its associated tributaries and drainages.
“I’ve been fishing since I was 10. I fished trout all over California — where I grew up — then moved to Kenai about five years ago and got even heavier into it. ‘Addiction’ is a good way to describe what trout fishing is for me now,” Cooley said.