A version of this article was published in the Drake Magazine, spring 2015.
The wolves ran their way into my dream. I woke up mid-shriek. “Did you hear that?” I said to Stan, who was sleeping in the tent next to me. He responded, “Yep, that was a wolf.” As unlikely as a wolf attack may be, hearing one dash past your tent is a little unnerving. Stan had warned me about them during our campfire dinner. We’d been cooking Bulgarian sausage on a stick when we first heard them howling. I wasn’t worried at the time.
I met Stan only two weeks prior. I was in Sofia, Bulgaria, visiting my girlfriend. She and I had met just a few months earlier in West Yellowstone, Montana. Stan’s online fly shop was the only Bulgarian fly fishing website that was written in English. I shot him an email explaining that I wanted to fly fish in Bulgaria. He replied in a few minutes. He too was 25 years old and lived in Sofia. We planned to fish together. Our first trip would be to a tail-water near Bulgaria’s southern border. Colossal rainbows were alleged to live there.
Sofia is a city of contrasting scenery. The architecture of the city center is timeless and tasteful. If blindfolded and led to this section of Sofia, you might guess that you’re somewhere in West Europe. But most sections of Sofia are dominated by the bland “block” housing complexes of the Communist Era. On the outside of these buildings, it’s typical to see crumbling plaster, soot stains and rusting metal. Contrary to the rundown external appearance, the interior of a “block” apartment usually consists of a well kept, nicely assembled home.
On the streets you’ll find Gypsies and impoverished Bulgarians picking through garbage bins. By the end of the day, their horse-drawn wagons will be chock-full with recyclables. Meanwhile, pricey black sedans zip around the city, blowing by and cutting off other motorists. It’s commonplace for traffic citations to go unwritten, if the driver is carrying enough cash.
The lower and middle class make up the majority of the city’s population. They’re well informed and well educated, despite earning very low wages. Outside Sofia, the average income is even lower. Most fisherman you meet are fishing for food.
Several days after I contacted Stan, we embarked on our first fishing trip together. We headed south in his Subaru wagon, one that he had converted to run on natural gas ( a common after-market alteration in Bulgaria). The terrain in the southern part of the country was rugged. We rolled through quiet villages that sat below snow covered peaks. We saw only older residents on the streets. I got the impression that little had changed in these communities in the past few centuries.
When we reached the river, the whole valley was socked in with fog. The river didn’t have the feel of a freestone stream or a spring creek. You could tell it wasn't trout habitat until it became a tail-water. All the fishing paths were overgrown. This river clearly did not see much fishing pressure. It runs south, eventually dumping into the Mediterranean Sea.
Stan and I fished miles of water in our two days on the river. Grey as well as gold mayflies emerged in large numbers. The duns sat vulnerably on the surface for minutes at a time. Many would skitter across the water, making failed attempts to take off. Unfortunately, the trout were not tempted to rise. We were forced to fish nymphs, day in and day out. The few fish we caught were incredibly muscular. Their heads looked far too small for their bodies.
We had our best results during the one hour per day that the dam released water. Stan’s tall stature gave him great reach for tight-line nymphing. He had good instincts. You could tell that a lot of his fishing knowledge was acquired while on the water, rather than from books or learning from other fisherman.
During mid-day, we stopped on the bridges to drink yogurt and eat chunks of homemade Banitza. We spotted fish lurking in the depths, but could only make out their giant, ominous shadows. Stan and I talked about the possibility of these fish being steelhead that run up from the Mediterranean to spawn. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know. This trout population is way off the grid. Stan doesn’t know of anyone studying them, for anything.
In the closing hours of day two, Stan took me to an overgrown channel where he always saw rising fish. We weren’t the only ones using the trail to the channel. Several wolf tracks were leading in both directions.
The water in the channel was slow and technical. One fish was feeding. Judging by the amount of water moved by each rise, it was a hefty fish. My primal hunting instincts kicked in, and I crawled to the bank and slid into position. Stan crouched behind a tree. I made a 20 foot upstream cast. The leader and fly laid down delicately. I was optimistic, but my Baetis pattern drifted over the fish’s head untouched. Suddenly, there was commotion in the water. Stan spotted the two foot rainbow bolting upstream, out of reach.
I never landed one of the monster rainbows. But the challenge of that lone, brilliant riser has left me longing for more of this river. I’m fascinated by unique fish behavior, and the fact that we can’t explain why some fish are wise and others are naive. Those rainbows almost never see flies, yet they were incredibly difficult to catch on one.
Shortly after I became the victim of the showdown, Balkan folk music began echoing through the valley, seeming to signify that our time was up. We packed it in and drove back to Sofia.
We often forget how important our eyes can be for fishing. Sometimes I rush to the river and start casting impatiently, thinking that the more my fly is in the water, the more fish I’ll catch. There are times in which this method is most productive, but I will certainly restrict the amount of fun I have while fishing. I enjoy casting to risers, sight fishing or blind casting to areas that I have recognized as fine lies for trout. Fly fishing isn’t just about catching risers, it’s also about watching insects, finding good water, paying attention to the weather and everything else that goes into creating a connection between yourself and the natural world.
Some fishing topics will be discussed until the end of time. One such topic is about how much enjoyment one can get from “blind” or “search” casting. For our purposes, these terms refer to when we cast dry flies and nymphs into pieces of water that we think hold fish. If you asked Craig Mathews about this topic, I think you’d hear him say something like “ I’d rather take a seat on the bank, watch for risers, and see how things develop, than blind cast my way up a good portion of the river”. I think I’m a bit old school too, and tend to sit and observe the river for a while. This tendency to watch is probably why I noticed Cam Coffin doing some particularly intriguing blind fishing on the Madison.
One afternoon Cam took Garrett and I down to the river to fish and teach us a bit about guiding. It was early season, and dry fly fishing would be unlikely. When the three of us split up, Cam cast his indicator and nymphs into an area of water that I would never have thought to fish. A very smooth and wide slick was coming out from behind a log, and it looked like a sandbar had been created. Cam was very focused on the bobber, waiting for the subtle twitch that is the only indication of a strike in such strange water. He ended up landing four fish in this unsuspecting spot.
It’s been over a year since that day and only now do I fully understand how Cam could have been enjoying himself enough to be so focused on a bobber. We establish a connection with a rising trout, we watch it, we’re curious what it’s eating, we wonder when it will rise again, we hope it will rise when our fly drifts over it. A similarly intimate connection is created when an avid angler is blind fishing. Cam saw that piece of water and became curious, he was wondering what size fish might be there, how deep the hole was, whether he could trick them into eating, he anticipated the twitch of the bobber on each cast. For someone that enjoys blind or search casting, the challenge of a certain piece of water is no different than the challenge of a certain riser.
Luke and I were fishing the Gallatin the other night and having minimal success. We were blind casting the bank, blind nymphing the runs, and catching next to nothing. After becoming tired of blind fishing, I looked up stream to the next big pool. It was far away, so when I saw a large head rise, I questioned whether I saw a ripple or a trout. I waded up to the pool and saw no more rises. While I was waiting for Luke, I saw a little rectangular black spot in the swirl at the head of the pool. It was only there for a split second, and was just out of place enough for me to notice it, so I didn’t really think much of it. Right as Luke arrived at the pool, a fish subtly rose right where I had seen the head earlier. I made a cast with an X-Caddis and hooked a beautiful brown trout. After we landed the fish, Luke worked the remainder of the pool with blind casts. These casts produced nothing. In a last-ditch effort, Luke made a cast precisely to where I’d seen the rectangular black spot. A fish inhaled his fly. We sat there for a half a second, until we realized what had happened, then Luke set the hook. The fish was lying in the swirl, facing downstream. It seems we were unprepared for a fish to rise facing the opposite direction of the current. This brown trout gave Luke a hell of a fight. If I hadn’t taken the time to look, these unforgettable moments of fishing may have never occurred. Interactions like these are so meaningful to me that I would rather spend my time seeking them out, than blinding casting productive or intriguing water. But I fully understand how anglers can receive the same joy from blind casting as I do from spotting a riser. An intimate connection with nature will always be the essence of fly fishing, no matter how we fish. In a matter of days I will be guiding a fisherman that has become completely blind. I imagine that he’ll be using his senses other than sight to have a fishing interaction that is no less enjoyable than fishing to risers or search casting.
Lisa cannot cast a straight line. By that I mean she cannot coerce her line, leader, and especially not her tippet and fly to straighten out as she makes a cast. Most of her casts end with the leader collapsing into a pile just beyond the tip of the fly line. In this, she is not alone. Anglers who can cast a straight line, on demand and in the presence of wind, are few and far between. Yet this is a basic skill. It’s what we should all be taught when we first start in the sport. Our journey to competence would be so much easier then, so much more informed. And while real world fishing may seldom require a straight cast, the ability to make one is the cornerstone of all good flycasting.
Lisa cannot cast a straight line. She apologizes for this, sensing, I think, that after years of fishing it’s something she ought to be able to do. I assure her that this problem is not unique to her, and that we’re going to rectify it in the hour we’ll spend together. Lisa’s casting stroke is in need of fundamental adjustment, and so we spend a good bit of time making changes to the path that her hand and arm travel along. I explain what each change is intended to accomplish, the effect it will have on her line and leader. As she incorporates each adjustment, her casts immediately improve. For perhaps the first time since picking up a fly rod she casts a perfectly straight line—intentionally. Her loops tighten up, become more powerful, angle low to the ground. She’s delighted, excited. So am I.
Not every cast is a good one. Not even close. Realizing that it’s now being asked to make real, permanent change, Lisa’s body digs in, fights back. Her muscles are not much interested in being retrained; they like the status quo, could care less about learning anew. And they certainly don’t give a damn about helping her improve as an angler. But what Lisa’s muscles don’t realize—not yet—is that there’s no going back. Her mind has already glimpsed what’s possible. She’s made casts she never thought she could. She’s felt the pleasure that comes from putting a fly right where it’s aimed. Perhaps most important of all, Lisa has learned to recognize problems as soon as they occur, and learned the corrections necessary to fix them. Cause and effect have become clear.
When our time is up, Lisa has made 367 casts (I know this because I’ve counted them with a clicker). I hope she makes a lot more. Hundreds upon hundreds more. But that’s up to her. She knows what she needs to do, how to do it, and how to fix it when things go awry. She knows how fun flycasting can be. Lisa has put a lot of work into this lesson; I appreciate that and thank her for her efforts. And as with all the students I teach, I’ll be pulling for her. Hard.
Value Your Taste
When I started working at Blue Ribbon Flies, I noticed that all of us fly fisherman are influenced by other anglers. Since then, observing people’s angling styles and beliefs has become a hobby of mine.
Some anglers exclusively fish soft hackles, even in the middle of an epic hatch. Others won’t tie on a fly until they see a rise. A growing group of fisherman are convinced that a tug on a streamer is the supreme thrill in fly fishing. Many anglers have found the way they love to fish without learning much from anyone. But most of us can trace pieces of our fishing character back to specific people or groups that we’ve learned from.
If you spend a lot of time in Last Chance, ID, you might think that technical, dry fly fishing is the best way to fish. And that smart fish are the most fun to catch. If you learned to fly fish in Europe or Central Pennsylvania, you might feel that tight-line nymphing is the best technique, because it’s an efficient way of catching fish. Or maybe you grew up in New Zealand, and you’re happy to fish nymphs, or dry flies, as long as you spot the fish before you cast to it. The “best” way to fish is the way that brings you the most enjoyment.
Learning from other anglers is a crucial part of becoming a competent fly fisherman. I would argue that it is essential for anyone who’s life isn’t devoted solely to fly fishing. Many facts of the sport can take decades to discover while fishing. Those same facts might be learned in a single conversation with a wise angler.
The fly fishing sources that we find credible have an enormous amount of influence on the way we see the sport. These fly fisherman, no matter how distinguished, can only tell us what they enjoy about the sport and what beliefs they find to be valid. The information that they share is most valuable when we take it to the stream and test it. This way we can determine what methods we personally find fun, or what assumptions to be correct.
If we perform our own thorough evaluations of ideals, methods, insect information, and etc., I think we will always form our own fishing “vision”. A unique way to engage in fly fishing that is best suited for each individual.
What we don’t want to do is attempt to make the vision of our heroes, influences or friends our own vision. Fly fishing makes us happiest when we experience it in a way that we love, rather than experiencing it in a way that others have told us we should love.
Fly fishing knowledge, whether offered by a novice or a legend, is best grasped with a healthy amount of skepticism, so we can discern its strengths, and make them our strengths. Rather than be consumed by it, so that we share its weaknesses as well.
Two magazine covers; one from 1982, the other from 2014.
Both are pretty typical of their respective eras, and illustrate how differently fly fishing is portrayed today.
Some of the tag lines used in the advertisements from each year shed further light on the generational differences in zeitgeist.
1982 Tag Lines:
Whatever the conditions, we've got the right line for you. (Scientific Anglers)
Your fishing rod. It's only as good as the blank. (Fenwick Rod Co.)
Longer casts, less effort. (Cortland Line Co.)
By which others are judged. (H.L. Leonard Rod Co.)
Scott—There's a difference. (Scott Rod Co.)
2014 Tag Lines:
Helios 2. Feed Your Addiction. (Orvis)
Crafted for Chaos (Abel)
Feel the Pull (Cortland)
Blow that weak-casting, no-feeling, strike-missing, energy-sucking, bungie-stretching fly line out of the water (Rio Products)
Success is Never Overrated in Fly Fishing (R.L. Winston)
Nature's a Mother (Yeti)
One of the beauties of fly fishing, at least to me, is that everyone participating in it is free to choose for themselves how to engage with the sport. From how to think about it, how to approach it, how to participate in it—each of us decides what feels right. Are you a "Longer casts, less effort" or a "Feel the Pull" angler? Either way, I think there's room in the sport for both.