We had 11 days set aside and a wide open road ahead of us. My husband, Ben, and I took off before the crack of dawn on a fly fishing trip that would take us all over South West Montana. It was my first fly fishing trip and I was more excited for it than I could ever begin to explain. I had spent the past year practicing casting in the backyard. I had taken an excellent fly fishing class through Creekside Angling Company [www.fishcreekside.com] and I had been avidly following the incredible April Vokey of Fly Gal Ventures [www.flygal.ca]. I was ready. Armed with my new Redington rod and reel [www.redington.com] and Fishpond chest pack [www.fishpondusa.com], I expected to step out into the river, throw out one of the nifty new casts I had been taught in my class and land a monster.
Ben has been fly fishing all of his life and he is (and I’m not being biased here, I swear) nothing short of exceptional. He has a gift and I have watched him weave magic with a rod, reaching far out into the flowing expanse of a stream, laying the fly just so on the slick film of the surface. Nothing is more thrilling than that moment when a trout, drifting against the current deep below and upon gazing upward sees the fly that was so intentionally presented before it, acts upon it, surging up and seizing that fly in its mouth. It has taken the bait. It has been fooled. I have seen Ben do this time and time again. He had coached me and encouraged me and helped build my excitement. Now was my chance. It was my turn to show off my new skills and join the elite league of dry-fly fishermen.
We reached our first destination, the family cabin, around dinner time. The cabin sits off the beaten path, way back in the mountains outside of Missoula. My father-in-law and mother-in-law live at the cabin for about six months out of the year and they were waiting for us when we pulled up. We were ready to pass out from exhaustion. It is about an eight-hour drive from our home in the Pacific Northwest to the cabin and we were beat. No fishing for us that night. We scarfed down a home cooked meal, courtesy of my mother-in-law and hit the sack.
The next morning we woke up bright and early. My excitement was through the roof. This was it. We geared up and hit the river. The family cabin sits on a blue ribbon fly fishing river. I stepped into the water, all April-Vokey wannabe and began unfurling my line in the way that I had practiced so many times back home. I tried desperately to imitate what I had seen my fly fishing instructor do; what I had seen Ben do; what I had seen April Vokey do in her videos. Nothing. My line kept getting tangled, I kept hearing Ben and my father-in-law yelling at me from down stream, “Keep moving!”. Cast, pull in line, take two steps up river, repeat. After a few hours the sun was high over head and it was beating down with an intense heat. My father-in-law and Ben had each already caught several fish and I was still 0 for 0. My hands were sore and blisters were starting to form. I was getting a sunburn on my arms and I was starving. My bubble was completely burst. Ben made his way up to me and asked how it was going and if I was about ready to head in for the day to await the evening hatch. I felt tears stinging my eyes (I know, I know, pathetic) and I looked at him and said, “I don’t think I have what it takes!”. Ben smiled and laughed at me gently. He put his arm around me and reassured me that I did have what it takes and that we would try again that evening. Reluctantly, I allowed myself to be led back into shore and we began the long hike back down along the riverbank towards the cabin.
I was beat. Defeated. Discouraged. Disillusioned. I felt betrayed by April Vokey. By anyone who made fly fishing look easy. It was NOT easy. I had been as fooled as a fish buying into the illusion of a fly drifting peacefully on the surface of a creek. Dumb. I ate a big lunch, tried to take a nap, but ended up laying awake for about an hour dreading having to face defeat on the river once more that evening.
The air got cooler, the sun got lower. It was time. We trekked back out to the river and I will admit, my attitude was less than positive. But, upon entering the waters nestled between the mountains in a quiet, tranquil valley…something felt different than it had that morning. It was just me and Ben on the river that night. My father-in-law had stayed back at the cabin with my mother-in-law. Ben let me get up-stream of him a ways. All I could hear was the sound of the river rushing around me. The sky took on a pinkish hue as the sun set lower and lower. I cast my line out, pulled it in, took two steps up-stream, repeated. I felt myself beginning to relax. I was enjoying myself. I was still not catching a dang thing, but I was loving the feel of the rod in my hand and the pull of the smooth line against my fingers. A bald eagle soared lazily overhead, low enough in the air for me to see every detail of its beautiful body and the contrast of its stark white head. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, took two steps upstream and cast out my line.
*Bam* The next bit is a tad fuzzy, it all happened so fast. The thrill of feeling a trout hit the line, the rush of the dance, wrangling that powerful, squirming body out of its watery lair. I was squealing uncontrollably and hysterically. Ben began making his way as quickly as possible upstream towards me shouting, “Stay calm! You’ve got this, bring the fish in close to you!” Well ladies and gents, after a few life-changing minutes I was sliding my hand down the line, grasping that dear, blessed Purple Haze [a type of dry fly] and lifting a 13-inch rainbow trout out of the water. I took the fish in my hands, grinning stupidly from ear to ear while Ben laughed and congratulated me. I have never seen him so proud of me and THAT alone was the best thing in the world. I removed the fly from the trout’s mouth and stared at it, gripping it (undoubtedly a bit TOO tightly) in my shaking hands.
Ben snapped a few shots of my first conquest and then I gently lowered the fish back into the river, facing it up-stream, holding it loosely until it found its strength and powered its way out of my hands and out of my sight. It was the start of a beautiful obsession and a damn good fly fishing trip during which many more fish were to be caught and now I officially have the fever. The fly fishing fever, that is.