Let ’Em Run

Fisherman in boat with fish in net

When the guide catches your fish.

Sometimes, while floating down the river, fly-fishing guides will offer suggestions. They know the river well. They know things that we don’t know and see things that we don’t see. The guide may suggest a specific place to cast your fly. He may suggest that you make a certain type of cast to get your fly to that spot. Do a slack-line cast, he may say. He may suggest that you do a snake roll. He may say something like, “Cast toward that overhanging bush. See it there? Just past those rocks on the left. Punch it in, but put a little left-reach on it.” A little what? Punch it in? What the hell is a snake roll?

But you think, Well okay, the guide knows what he is doing. Right? So you try, and sometimes it doesn’t go as planned, and you snag your fly and lose it in the brush and you miss the spot that held the biggest rainbow trout in the river. Damn! “That’s okay,” the guide says. “We’ll get him next time.” Or, “No problem, there’s another good spot just ahead.” But every once in a while, the guide drops the anchor, ships the oars, reaches out and says, “Here, lemme show you.” He knows that there is a big rainbow in that hole or by those rocks or under that brush. He wants you to catch that fish.

Sometimes, a fly-fishing guides hesitates for fear that they might catch the very fish that they want you to catch.

“Okay,” he says. “A snake roll looks like this.” He lays the line out in a tight loop right on target and just as the fly hits the water he does an immediate downriver mend, and as the fly sweeps past some faster water he suddenly flips a big upstream mend to create a textbook, natural drift. Then he hands the rod back to you, smiling as if to say, Okay, got it?

Sometimes, though, fly-fishing guides hesitate to demonstrate how to do something for fear that they might catch the very fish that they want you to catch. So, while a guide might reach for your rod once in a while to demonstrate something, it’s handed back quickly in case a trout strikes. Otherwise, you might feel indignant. The voice in your head might think, Hey, damnit, he just caught my fish. Or you might even say it out loud for all to hear. The guide, however, is now afraid that you will feel inadequate, a lesser fly-fisher, and you might sulk and pout for the rest of the day, and no one wants that. So, the cast is demonstrated and the rod handed back quickly, just in case.

I was fishing a section of the Yellowstone River. My guide’s name was Vince. We were floating a run called Pine to Ninth. We rounded a bend in the river and came upon what is known as a back-eddy. This is where the current churns and revolves and swirls in a funny way and flows backwards, upstream. Vince said that he had caught trout in this section before, but the cast was difficult because the weird current played havoc with your drift and you had to do the opposite of what you would normally do. It was a challenging section, he explained, but could be well worth the effort if you thought your way through it. Okay, I told him, I’m game. So I tried it, and it didn’t work out too well. I tried it again, but by that time we had drifted past the spot. I admit, I’m not a fan of back-eddies.

“Let’s try that again,” Vince said, and he started rowing the boat back upstream—a not-so-easy task, working the boat against the agitated current. When he had maneuvered the boat back into position, I tried again and, just as before, it didn’t work. I didn’t mend the line quickly enough or put the proper right-reach on it, or something, so it didn’t lay out like I wanted and the fly caught in the roiling water and was immediately pulled under and began to drag. No self-respecting trout would be even remotely interested in it. Vince said he’d row the boat back into position again and show me how to do it.

I sensed that he felt bad about hooking the fish that I was supposed to catch.

He got us into position and I handed him the rod. He did three quick false-casts to dry off the fly, then he shot the line out and just before it hit the water did a slight backward flip of his wrist and laid the line out with a series of S-curves in it. The fly drifted through the weird section of river just like a real insect and he started to say something like, “See how it...” when there was a splash and a trout humped up out of the water and took the fly. Vince set the hook by instinct and the line zinged off the reel and I yelled out, “Alright! Ya got him!”

Vince made sure that the line was tight and then handed the rod back to me. “Here,” he said.

“No, man,” I told him. “You hooked him. You bring him in.” I was cool with it.

The trout was pulling hard in the fast water and the rod tip was bent over. We were both laughing. Vince kept making movements like he was handing me the rod and I kept saying, “No, he’s yours.” Then he finally said, “I gotta row the boat. Take it.” So I took the rod and the fish jumped two or three body-lengths clear of the river a couple times, and after a few minutes I brought it to the boat and we netted it. A twenty-two-inch rainbow trout. Then we slipped it back into the water.

“So,” I said laughing. “I guess that’s how ya do it.”

He was still laughing, too. “Ya wanna try it again? I can row back up there.”

I said sure and he rowed the boat back upstream again and got us into position. He quickly talked me through the cast and I actually did a pretty decent job of it, but there were no takers. We drifted down past the spot and he said, “That’s okay. We got him. Now get ready. There’s a nice, deep hole coming up.”

But I sensed that he felt bad about hooking the fish that I was supposed to catch. He didn’t intend to do that. I could tell it bothered him. It seemed to me that he was going over it in his mind and telling himself to never cast for a client again.

So, I said to him, “Man, that was a great cast. Thanks for showing me. And what a beautiful trout.” He smiled and continued rowing us downriver to the next spot.

Moral of the story? If your guide catches the trout that you were supposed to catch, who cares? What the heck. Enjoy the moment. And learn how to cast better so that the next fish will be yours.