Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Fly fishing for Frustration

As humans emerged from the mire of the Middle Ages in the Enlightenment, they began to feel rather sure of themselves. In response, God first invented golf to frustrate the upstart species.

Perhaps he was concerned that life was getting too easy as feudalism faded into memory. So he decided that trying to hit a little white ball over great distances, into a hole in the ground, would sufficiently confound any hubristic impulses that humans might have.

Apparently not fully satisfied with the result – those darn humans kept thinking they were God – he retaliated by inventing Izaak Walton and his infernal pursuit, the fine art of fly-fishing.

Everything about this masochistic endeavor is designed to humble humans, by make it impossible to actually catch a fish.

Just getting the fly attached to the line requires the knot-tying skills of a surgeon. Properly casting a fly takes the hand-eye coordination of a major league pitcher.

On the rare occasions when the fly is properly tied and the line is correctly cast, it’s inevitably floating in a spot where there are no fish.

Or in a spot where the fish look at the fly and say to themselves, “He thinks I’d want to eat that piece of garbage?”

The classic example of the philosophy behind fly-fishing is “matching the hatch.” You want to bop trout on the nose with whatever creepily emerging bugs they’re consuming at the moment.

Stoneflies are the current favorite. They look like miniature dinosaurs, and they leave behind exoskeletons that resemble bad tattoos. But trout love them, along with the mayflies, caddis and other creatures that make up piscatorial haute cuisine.

As a result, fly fishermen spend countless hours and dollars tying and buying flies that resemble larval, crawling and flying insects. Some flies are even tied to look like mice that have fallen into the water, and are meant to attract trout that are more than foot long.

The kind of trout, in other words, that no longer exist in Vermont. Except in the telling.

Normal, sensible fisherman – those who use a spincasting rig that doesn’t require a year of practice to learn how to cast -- solve the challenge of luring fish by using tasty worms. Better yet, they employ concoctions such as the almost-irresistible Powerbait, along with shiny, spinning lures that turn fish into attack machines, thinking they are biting into a tasty minnow and not a deadly piece of barbed steel.

As for the barbs themselves, of course, truly dedicated fly fishermen debarb their hooks.

This practice is designed to remove the last likelihood that a deluded fishermen will ever actually land a fish -- should a fish be so stupid as to try to ingest a fly tied with deer’s hair, chicken feathers, or the fur from a rabbit’s face.

As if these normal humiliations were not sufficient to remind me that I have no place on a river, once a year my friend Ross comes up from Washington, D.C. and hauls me out onto our local streams.

Ross is one of those rare fly fishermen who actually know how to catch trout on a fly. God, you see, looses a few skilled fishermen upon the world to drive the rest of us poor suckers crazy.

Just to make the point again and again, Ross has hauled me out into waters in or near Gettysburg, Pa., Camp David, Md., and the Dordogne region of France.

But his specialty is proving to his doubting friend Greg, year after year, that there are actually fish in the Middlebury and New Haven rivers.

As is our custom, this year’s foolishness began on the New Haven. I’ve been watching Ross catch fish out there since well before the Dog Team turned from restaurant into ruin.

The Dog Team is a convenient spot for both of us. Fishing there means Ross can arrive at dawn’s early light and I can sleep in, meeting him there after breakfast and a hearty cup of tea.

By the time I get out on the water, he’s invariably caught a couple trout and nearly caught several more. He describes them in great detail: how he cast to them, how they took the fly, and the hour-long battle that ensued until he finally overcame the mighty struggles of his prey and pulled in a 42-inch rainbow. As I said, it’s all in the telling.

The culmination of last week’s flagellation occurred on the Middlebury River.
Ross had already landed seven rainbows there a couple of days earlier. He’d left me behind in the office to try to make a living, so I could afford to pay for all the flies I was about to lose under rocks and hanging from tree branches.

We had arranged that I would catch up to him at a spot along the Middlebury that he’d never seen before.

But when I came down the road last Thursday morning an hour after Ross had first begun fishing, I found his car parked at a turnoff where we’d fished four years ago.

I was astonished to see he had the courage to park there. Last time we’d fished the spot, we were airlifted out by several million mosquitoes. They finally grew tired of flying us around and dropped us somewhere near Swamp Road, so the blackflies and vultures could finish off our carcasses.

We soon decided to drive to a spot upstream. Entering the water, we found a raspberry bush whose fruit had just come into its July sweetness. We fortified ourselves like bears and headed out on the water to rip some lips.

I proceeded to spend most of the morning wrapping my fly around the delicate tippet to which it was tied, then snarling the whole thing around the rod itself.

In between these Chaplinesque screw-ups, I managed to get a fly or two to actually land in the water. Then the trout proceeded to do their usual laughing thing.

Ross, of course, was hauling in one fish after another. He had the exact fly they wanted, the one I came to think of as the Magic Bug. I tried several similar bugs but lacked both that exact pattern and his facility at presenting it to the fish, just so. (Remember, God was on Ross’s side, not mine.)

I consoled myself by listening to the river’s gurgle and watching the play of light on its roily surface. As the saying goes, for me the fishing was great even if the catching wasn’t.
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