For pretty much as long as I can remember, I had been fishing. I have vague memories of going out on my dad’s boat when I was probably no more than 4 or 5. I also more vividly remember walking across the bridge on Thomas Street in Wausau to head down to the Wisconsin River. Somewhere, there’s a photo of me and Josh with our fishing gear when we were both five or six.
But, when I got around high-school age, I had something of an estrangement with fishing. It’s not that I didn’t like it. For one, I wasn’t great at it (which never really stopped me before), but more importantly, the clique I hung out with just wasn’t made up of outdoorsy folks. So, I traded in my fishing rod for a video game controller, or football, or baseball, or tennis racquet. And, other than the very rare trip, I just didn’t fish.
After high school, I attended the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse. Despite being right on the Mississippi, I never fished. And, unbeknownst to me, I was in a place not only filled with great natural beauty, but I was a very short drive from some of the best trout waters in the state – if not the country. Like most college students, I spent a majority of my time on or around campus. But a few times I ended up driving past some of the beautiful, small streams in the area. I was totally clueless about trout fishing, and didn’t even ponder that those tiny streams might be full of fish.
After graduating from UW-L, I was lucky enough to find a job in the area and I ended up on a team of great people who would occasionally gather outside of work. One day, my co-worker Greg hosted a cookout at his house.
At some point during the event, somewhat out of nowhere Greg asked me, “Have you ever cast a fly rod?” I hadn’t, but said I was interested.
Greg went downstairs and came up with a rod tube. We went in the back yard and he put together the rod, explaining the process as he lined up the guides, attached the reel, and thread the line through. He gave a short demo and then handed the rod to me.
I don’t remember much after that, for some reason. I’m quite sure I was so focused on what I was doing that I sort of went into that catatonic state you can get into out on the water when you’re so dialed-in on what you’re doing it’s almost like part of you just shuts off.
Apparently, I did well enough with my initial lesson to stave off my own personal frustration (I wasn’t the most patient guy back then) and well enough that Greg thought it reasonable to invite me on a fishing trip.
I’m pretty sure it was a warm, but not hot, day in May or early June. The grass was still very green, but hadn’t yet overgrown with a summer’s worth of time. Greg pulled to the side of the road next to a barbed-wire fence. There was a break in the fence with two vertical log pillars and two horizontal log pillars that made a small ladder allowing fishermen through.
When we arrived, it was fairly sunny, though there was the hint that rain might be on the
way. Greg took me to a spot on Bohemian Valley Creek – a tributary to the well-known Timber Coulee Creek. It was a spot that I have revisited countless times since then.
Greg’s choice of venue was quite well calculated. This particular spot runs through the heart of a pasture, so the grazing of cows helps to all-but-eliminate long grass or other plants that have a habit of snatching your fly on the back-cast. This is critical, because Bohemian Valley creek is probably about six to eight feet wide, on average, through this stretch. And, with its many bends and curves, there aren’t a whole lot of runs where you could have a nice lane behind you for casting.
Greg had loaned me a pair of his boots and some breathable hip waders that I had on over my cargo shorts. As we walked through the pasture, and over a neat wooden plank board, I peered into the creek in amazement that water so small and shallow could be a place to catch trout. The further we walked, the more my hip waders began to pull down into my boots, putting a little strain on my belt. I felt like a woman pulling up her nylons as I tugged at the top of the waders to get more slack.
Once again, I don’t remember too many details of the outing from there. That same focus I had in Greg’s backyard probably caused partial shut-down of the part of my brain that records memories.
I know I struggled, as most novice casters probably do, to get the fly where I wanted it to go. Though the venue was great for the back cast, the narrow creek required some level of accuracy. With only my brief backyard lesson at the cookout, I didn’t have a ton of practice to hone my rhythm. At some point I began to hit the water, at least, and I’m pretty certain that Greg complimented me on how quickly I came along as a novice.
Greg and I took turns fishing. He demonstrated and talked through his process as he fished. Though it wasn’t a gangbusters-type day, Greg pulled out a fair number of small, beautiful browns as I watched. I had never caught a trout before, and just seeing the fish that Greg caught was enough to make the trip a success in my mind.
He coached me on finer points of casting and setting the hook while I tangled my line or missed the clues on my indicator that something had struck my nymph.
I can’t recall which spot I was at when I finally hooked and landed my first trout. But I do remember that I felt the rush that fishing provides. I hadn’t felt that rush in years. My heart beat a little faster and left my chest burning ever so slightly. In my excitement and inexperience, I quickly unhooked and released the seven or eight inch brown, barely taking the time to give it more than a cockeyed glance. Greg quickly coached me that I should take time to appreciate the fish. When Greg would catch one, he’d take at least an extra moment to look over the fish, perhaps even admire it, before he gave it back to the water.
At times when I fish now, I’ll catch myself going through the motions and think of Greg’s lesson. Then I’ll stop and appreciate things a bit longer for the rest of the outing.
I caught one more trout that day and was giddy about it. Greg seemed somewhat impressed that I managed even one trout on my first trip. Shortly before I caught that second trout, darker clouds had started to move in and it started to sprinkle. After the fish and a few more casts, it was clear that the rain, though not hard, wasn’t going away and we decided it was a good time to call it a day.
As we took off our waders and packed up his gear back at his car, I’m pretty sure that Greg asked whether I’d go fly fishing again. There was no doubt in my mind. As much as I should avoid this cliched pun, it is fitting. I was hooked.