By: Michael Harrington
There used to be a TV commercial that depicted a group of early 30’s guys helping their friend empty his apartment of things like a fluorescent Budweiser sign, a lava lamp, a fake moose head, a foosball table, and other things young men would appreciate. It said “welcome to your Carlsberg years”. Perhaps it’s a midlife crisis. Perhaps it’s the mellowing of age. Whatever it is, I’ve certainly entered my Carlsberg years. As I paddled down the river yesterday on a SUP, I was
unjustifiably annoyed by the guy on the jet ski roaring past us at full speed. Back and forth. Back and forth. I was perplexed. Not only was it annoying to watch and listen to, I don’t think even he had any idea why he was doing it. It seemed to give him little satisfaction, and it certainly didn’t give him any peace. Something that intrigued me when I was younger suddenly seemed one-dimensional, and pointless. I thought to myself, why would he do that when he could be fly fishing?
It’s probably fair to say I’ve fallen to a fly fishing addiction. I think about it constantly. I’ve downloaded books on fly fishing (a genre that begs to be wistful and melancholic, with each author trying to outdo the last in terms of flowery prose), I listen to podcasts on fly fishing, and my Instagram feed has become overrun with fly fishing porn. I don’t even noticed the beautiful women holding up the fish anymore.
Perhaps it’s a mixture of Carlsberg years and backcountry pursuits, because I just bought a small mountain of Nemo gear. I bought a Nemo Wagontop tent, because after 12-hour days of wading and bushwacking, ducking under a fly and contorting my back to get into a dome tent, or worse yet, to pee in the middle of the night, isn’t happening anymore. I bought two Nemo Nomad 6” thick mats to get a better sleep than I do at home. The foot pumps make pumping a breeze, and combined they make a queen sized bed. My Rab sleeping bag is like shooting morphine, all
warm and cozy (did it once: broken leg). My new Nemo Helio shower means I’ll go to bed clean and sleep like a baby, and who doesn’t want to go to bed clean? And the Nemo Stargazer chairs are the lazyboy of glamping. And it’s all to hit the back roads and go fly fishing. This doesn’t even include the actual fly fishing gear. New tires on the old RAV4 will allow me to go pretty much wherever I want, and I won’t have to pull a trailer. It will all be tucked up in the Thule, providing room for the dog and my son. Comparing this to the $160,000 power boat I recently rode in, it all seems rather quaint, yet limitless compared to the bizarrely redundant and stunningly expensive sport of wake surfing. Google earth is now my best friend. Where will we go next?
My dad got me onto fly fishing when I was a kid. Catching armies of small trout in interior BC lakes was significantly more fun when the lure didn’t weigh more than the fly. Dragging willowleafs with a Mepps Black Fury behind it, we caught plenty of tiny rainbows, and we just hauled them in when we got one. Sometimes you didn’t know you had a
fish on. When we moved to fly fishing, it changed the game. Catching a small fish on an imperceptible fly is way more fun than catching them on hardware. We were pretty unsophisticated fly fishers back then, mostly trolling flies and hoping something ate it. But it worked often enough, and the fish fought well above their weight class. I had no
idea we could catch more, and particularly, way bigger fish if we knew what we were doing.
I don’t know what flicked the switch here in my mid 40s. Maybe just that. My semi-competitive bike racing days are behind me. I got shingles last summer. I didn’t let it slow me down, and I paid the price. Maybe it’s my growing disdain for screen time and the incredible waste of time it is. To think we used to complain about what a waste of time TV was! Now we sit at restaurants, heads bowed in meditative addiction to a tiny screen, ignoring our children or
spouse. We bring the time sucker with us. Maybe it’s what I see society value on a daily basis in material “wealth”, which is really just a bunch of crap that depreciates quickly, like RVs and Harleys. Maybe I’ve finally begun to stop comparing myself to others. I certainly recognize the pitfalls of jonesing, the emptiness of the hedonic treadmill. Perhaps it’s fatherhood. Spending time in nature, with my child, in a cerebral activity, away from screens, allows us to
get to know each other. And the adrenaline rush of watching him catch his own fish is exhilarating and unforgettable.
Whatever it is, the switch is flicked, and I daydream of crawling on my hands and knees through devil’s clubs and thistles to a deep pool, and arcing a big foam hopper into the middle, my heart stopping and breath bated as I watch a brown trout lazily emerge from the depths, his camouflage incrementally betray him as the sunlight bounces off
him. His mouth opens and I can see the white of the inside and my hopper disappears. Did I actually hear him suck it in, or was that my imagination? His mouth closes. He turns his head to descend. The fight is on. He leaps once out of the water, then dives for the bottom and starts running downstream, line screaming off my reel. Sometimes it’s
a rock wall on a river’s headwater. I see it from a distance, and I approach it cautiously. This isn’t fishing. It’s trout hunting. Crouched down, I slowly advance, careful not to spook anything. I sit down on the rocks and and check my watch. I’m going to wait 15 minutes. That should be enough to let anything I’ve spooked settle. I watch the water. If it’s bull trout, I might see dark shadows at the bottom. If it’s cutthroat, perhaps they’ll rise. I see a rise. Then another. Then like popcorn, the pool begins to percolate with steady sips. There’s a hatch. I scan the water and the shore for bugs. A flying ant lands on my leg. Seriously? I tie on a flying ant, and cast upstream of the rises. My fly is tiny, but I can still see the white tuft acting as a strike indicator. A rise. A take. It’s all about the take.
That’s the thing with fly fishing. It’s not how many. It’s not how big. It’s not a fight to the death. I don’t know a fly fisher who keeps anything. A friend of mine stammered with disbelief how stupid it is to fish and not keep them. “What’s the point!?” she asked. She asked me what the limit was, and I said I don’t know. I never keep anything, so I never checked. She was exasperated by my lack of logic. I was quietly stunned by her entitlement. They aren’t “mine”. I’m not keeping them. And I’m not going to hike all the way back out with one or two fish just to eat them. It’s so far from the point I couldn’t even formulate a response to her. It really is about the journey, not the destination. Our biggest concern is hurting the fish. I know, it’s ironic. We do all this work to catch a fish, and then fret we’ve injured them. But that’s why fly fishing is different than spin casting, or god knows, sitting in a lawn chair with a pickerel rig. Fly fishing is trout hunting. It’s a cerebral game of mimicking nature with nature. We use a stick (OK, a composite fly rod), and feathers to
tie imitations of actual insects, both aquatic and terrestrial, in order to fool a fish into thinking this is actually food. And then we try to deliver it to the fish in a manner that looks completely natural. If we do this, we may catch a fish. Oh, and we have to find them. The hydrology is perhaps the most important part of it, and I’m actually starting to get pretty good. Now I read water, breaking it down into smaller and smaller sections, until I am confident that I
know not only where the fish live, but what species, and how big. That also explains the addiction to fishing rivers vs lakes. On a river, I generally know where the big fish will live. On a lake, it’s pure fluke.
It’s not about filling the cooler. It’s not about how many. It’s entirely about the take. It’s the drug. It’s the addiction. The beauty is, it never gets old. It’s always as powerful as the first time. And there is nothing like sharing it with others, especially children. It’s also delicate. Any fishery worth fishing is delicate. It could be wiped out in a week of poaching, or even just fishing within any jurisdiction’s rules and keeping your limit. In a province with minimal crown land, and a lot of money, everything is under so much pressure. OHVs. Random camping. Species at risk. Forest fires. Habitat
being chewed up for mining, timber, oil, gas. Our fisheries are in trouble. The government is working on it. Industry is helping, but we’ve got a ways to go, and now it’s the general population with their motorized toys and ability to access the inaccessible with OHVs that are stressing our fisheries. And it always comes back to overfishing – keeping what we perceive to be “ours”. Entitlement. We are plagued by it. It is the ailment of our time. What will my child fish if we
destroy this? It’s a delicate dance.
A large owl lives where I regularly fish. I usually see a snake or two. Often they’ll be swimming. Mink leave clam shells, and I once caught a large brown with a chunk out of his nose. I suspect the mink. I saw him the other day. He saw Stella, my lab, and I round the corner, and he took off. There are moose, and cougars. In the prairies. There is no cell access. And even if there was, I’m too focused on the small mountain of information I’m processing to care. I’m fishing. It can wait a few hours. When is the last time you rid yourself of your electronic leash?
Today I was asked what it is about fly fishing that has me so engaged. I explained that I’m asked that regularly, and it’s hard to find an answer. Maybe it’s because trout live in the most beautiful places. So, fishing for them means spending time in those places, in mountain streams where it’s hard to believe places so beautiful are even still available. Maybe it’s because it’s highly cerebral, so you lose yourself in it and don’t have time to churn on the garbage that so often bangs around in our heads. It’s also not typical fishing. It is the furthest thing from mindlessly vegetating in front of a pickerel rig only to winch the fish in when it eats your neon power bait pellet. The equipment is delicate, and takes finesse to master. The technique has to be exact, or you won’t get a strike. You have to find the fish, and you have to present it with something it eats in nature, not a bait pellet from the farm. And if you do, you still have to land the fish on a barbless hook not much bigger than a pencil lead. There is beauty in the simplicity. I don’t think there is anything so easy to romanticize, yet so difficult to over-romanticize. It’s the thinking man’s outdoor pursuit. It is patience, technique, critical thinking, problem solving, observation, listening, all in a beautiful setting, with a very obvious reward should you put it all together correctly. Even now, after all these words, and all this embarrassing romanticizing, I feel like I fail to do it justice. It has the meditative power of yoga, but you get to catch fish, and you get to be alone.
My store is the only one in the VPO chain to sell fly fishing gear. I know fly fishing is seen as snobby. I’ve heard ridiculous statements like “If it doesn’t say Sage on it, and doesn’t cost $1000, it’s not worth buying.” I don’t even sell Sage. And I don’t sell any rods that cost anywhere near $1000. I try to make it a practice not to sell brands who are nothing more than marketing vehicles, like Oakley. What happened was pretty simple. I fly fish. I don’t rock climb. I live on the prairies, and you can drive a shorter distance to fish, and that fishing is better than the climbing. I sell Patagonia, and they make perhaps the very best fly fishing waders, boots, packs, and slings there is. Big Sky flies is a local fly distributor. I found a distributor who sells me all of the accessories I could ask for, and Temple Fork Outfitters rods. Voila. I wouldn’t call my store the best fly shop with outdoor gear I’ve ever seen, but I would call it the best outdoor shop with fly fishing gear. I’ve never seen another store where you can get outfitted soup to nuts for camping, glamping, backpacking, packrafting, kayaking, traveling, footwear, stoves, merino, socks, hatchets and knives, fun t-shirts, sandals, and find essential fly fishing gear. I’m pretty proud of that. It’s also who we are. We aren’t a Hardy crowd. In defense of $1000 rods, my friend just bought one, and his logic was, what’s the big deal? I’ll use this rod hundreds of times. Realistically, it won’t be long before he has it down to $1/day of fishing. He sees people spend $1000 every single month on a truck payment. There is no fuel, no insurance, no maintenance. It makes him happy. And he’ll give it to his son one day. When you think of it that way, it’s not a bad purchase. Fly fishing is his jam. He wants a nice rod. Fair enough.
I read an article tonight about a guy who was researching public access to rivers. It said that “his actual concern for the river caught up with his theatrical defense of it. It got under my skin, he said. All those hours of measuring tides, sitting in the sand – I found that I really loved it.” Perhaps that’s what happened to me. I have become so worn down by social media, marketing, advertising, princess pickups, McMansions, land barges, Harleys, Harley costumes, generators in campsites, online shopping, Cancun all-inclusives, Jetskis, power boats, that I found myself sunburned, bug bitten, exhausted, dehydrated, covered in ticks, hungry, and yet fulfilled and fully alive. When did you last feel alive? When did something last take your breath away? Fishing has become more than a geographical place. It has become an emotional place, a place of peace, or introspection, of catharsis, and yet I cannot think of a time while
fishing where I every tried to find that place. Perhaps it’s just an excuse to be alone in nature. Sometimes I don’t catch any fish, and I’m still delivered to that sacred place. It is the act that brings you there. Perhaps there is no other way to the fish than through that place. I hope you find that place too. Maybe yours won’t be fishing, but I hope you find it. You won’t want to see me there, or anyone else, yet there is room for everyone.