I first met John when we were school administrators in the same district in California in 1969. John was an experienced ocean and fresh water spin fisherman. He soon became aware that after work I frequently headed for the nearby Owens River for an evening of fly fishing. As our friendship grew, he asked if I would teach him to tie flies and to fly fish. Thus began a period of instruction and insight for both of us.
Lesson #1: Effective flies must be of the appropriate size, shape, color and proportion. I demonstrated at the vise several wet flies and nymphs, indicating what I thought they imitated. After some experimentation John settled on muskrat fur as his favorite tying material. In fact, it became his only tying material.
John was an outstanding athlete. Among his athletic attributes was a strong pair of hands. His fingers were the size of large dill pickles. He was an enthusiastic fly tyer, but not very dexterous. He became skilled, however, in dubbing a loose noodle of muskrat fur on the tying thread and winding it on a hook. Soon his fly book was bulging with bushy muskrat nymphs of many shapes and sizes.
John became the consummate one fly fly fisherman. He caught and released a lot of trout! He kept a few, too. He was meticulous about wading, fly presentation (more about that later) and stealth, and came to believe that if he was careful and patient the trout would take his muskrat. To my chagrin he was usually right. My fly book was stuffed with dozens of patterns, including several secret killer flies. I still don't know what the fish thought those muskrat nymphs were, but they loved them. I began to wonder if fly fishers in general focus too much on the search for killer flies and not enough on intelligently fishing whatever fly.
Lesson #2: One must become a proficient fly caster before expecting to catch many fish. John learned to cast quite well, but he usually just didn't bother. He would search out a likely run or pool, carefully wade into position, make a medium cast across stream and let the muskrat swing back across with the current. If no strike occurred on the swing he would wait a few minutes, literally, before beginning the retrieve. A little line would be slowly stripped in and then released back out. He would jiggle, strip slow, strip fast, dap and tease. One cast and retrieve might last 10 minutes unless interrupted by a take. Without moving he would rest the water awhile and repeat the process. Being impatient and impulsive, his fishing style drove me crazy.
While John was hoarding his casts, I would flog the river with hundreds of lashes. After all, isn't casting (tight loops, wild loops, double haul, etc. etc.) the epitome of fly fishing? John seemed to think it was to have fun and catch fish.
At dark I would retrace to John's spot. Usually we caught about the same number of trout with entirely different approaches. I would be exhausted. He was reluctant to quit, extolling the virtues of the trout and the muskrat.
Lesson #3: A long, tapered leader with a light test tippet is required to catch trout. The lighter the tippet the better. It didn't take John long to discover that was a lot of nonsense. He decided on a seven foot level leader with a "light 12 pound test" tippet. He reluctantly dropped to 10 pound only when the fish weren't taking the muskrat, which was seldom. Contrary to everything I'd read and been told about leader size, John reasoned that trout could see the leader underwater, regardless of size. They simply ignore it just as they ignore the exposed hook protruding from artificial flies. Otherwise, fly fishers would catch few fish. I didn't switch to his "light 12 pound test," but I did stop the 5X and 6X madness and started landing more trout quickly.
Lesson #4: To catch more trout on a stream it is best to cover a lot of water. John would fish less than 100 yards of river in an evening. I might cover two miles. Once John got into position he seemed cemented in place. I often wondered how he could stand in one spot and catch trout after trout. Everyone knows after one or two splashing, jumping trout the water must be rested before the fish get over being spooked. Quite true. John would just rested the water in place. The fish didn't even know he was there. He looked like a tree stump at the edge of the stream to them. Herons moved more often than he did.
Lesson #5: Early morning and late evening are the best times to catch trout. John started telling me of his unescorted excursions to the river at times other than early and late. I just wouldn't go except early and late. It wasn't worth it. John showed me a matching pair of 17 inch browns taken on his infernal muskrat at midafternoon, absolutely the worst time.
"You can't do that," I scolded.
"I know," he grinned, "because you told me so." John thought anytime was the best time to go fly fishing. Who knows when a five pounder will get the urge for a muskrat?
While we were in our fly-fish-the-holy-waters mode we made a pilgrimage to a famous spring creek in south-central Idaho. As we approached the stream late one afternoon we passed a back-water slough with several large trout visibly cruising by. "I think I'll try right here," John announced.
"The guy in the shop in Ketchum said these slough fish are virtually uncatchable. Don't waste your time," I knowingly advised. Upon returning to John and the slough at dark I found him resting contentedly. On the bank were two dressed rainbows of about 19 inches each. (It was legal then.) "How the hell did you do that?" I had caught and released a couple 13 inchers.
His reply: "I waited until the sun was off the water before casting the muskrat out and letting it sink, then put the rod down and waited. When I peeked through the rushes and saw a cruiser headed this way I very slowly moved the fly. He swam over and sucked it in. After all the commotion I waited about 10 minutes before making another cast. Same routine. I released four others a little smaller than these two." Simple.
After our respective retirements John and his wife migrated to the Seattle area and my wife and I landed in St. George. John and I plan a reunion of sorts at Henry's Lake, in Idaho. I'm anxious to see how the Henry's hybrids respond to John's muskrat. I imagine they'll eat it up.
The moral to all this is that some fly fishers, like John, are intuitive anglers. Their common sense sees through the myths that permeate fly fishing. They are patient, not afraid to experiment and don't believe everything they are told by the experts. They find for themselves what works and what doesn't. Thanks for the lessons, John.