I can clearly remember my first cast out west. It came shortly after I pulled off the side of the road on Colorado’s Route 34 along the Big Thompson River. Coming from the plains and foothills outside of Loveland, I began my first ascent into the Rocky Mountains. Every mile I drove, every step I took, I was going farther west than I had ever gone before. And this river – this scenery was unlike anything I’d ever seen.
Nearly all of my trout fishing in and around my home in Northern Virginia was small. Small mountain brook trout streams. Small spring creeks. The valleys and river currents were gentle. I was used to being able to cast, and sometimes even hop, across the entire creek.
The water I approached off that Colorado highway was bigger than nearly every river I’d fished in the Mid-Atlantic. It was like seven or eight of the high gradient streams I was used to fishing stacked side-by-side. All the while the water was moving faster and plunging deeper. There was an instinctive knowledge of where to cast, but that didn’t completely mitigate the overwhelming sense of fishing somewhere big.
The mountains towered on either side of me, with others in the backdrop that were inconceivably tall to someone accustomed to the Blue Ridge. Birds, and their songs, were different. The foliage was similar, but still different. Standing on the bank, looking into my fly box, I wondered if the trout would know that my elk hair caddis was a different elk hair caddis. An eastern interloper, not fit for consumption.
It’s happened before, and its happened since. I began to fish before I really started fishing. My mind wasn’t in it – it was taking stock of everything surrounding me. A cast to some slack water behind a big eddy produced an aggressive strike. A gold and red flash took my dry fly. Startled, my hook set was slow and all I felt was a slack line.
Throughout my time fly fishing, I feel like I’ve identified some of the distractions that keep me from being the best angler I can be. Gear and tactics are rarely the issue. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty good at reading and interpreting water. But when I come to a new river, there are some issues that pop up. I wonder if I’m even in the right place. I am easily sidetracked by unfamiliar surroundings. I second guess the decision to even try something new.
1,700 miles of distance can amplify those feelings. And I suppose I can’t rule out 7,000 feet of elevation change, either.
Marveling at the mystique and grandeur of western fly fishing is a pretty common complex among eastern fly fishers that have never made the trip. The region of big, trout filled rivers that cross all of those square-shaped states west of the Mississippi is perceived as an angling Valhalla. Three out of four magazine articles, and at least that many fly rod advertisements, feature these expansive landscapes and heavy fish.
It is a lot to take in, but there is nothing like a missed fish on a first cast to snap you back to reality. My focus became laser-refined, and I started making cast after cast to the same spot in the same pool. That strategy may very well have been just as ineffective as being paralyzed by the landscape, but the missed trout was drawing me to where I should be. Looking at pools. Concentrating on seams. Positioning the cast, fly placement, and myself to systematically work across and up the river.
Simply being out west wasn’t going to yield dozens of fat rainbows and cutthroats. I had to put in as much effort and energy into hunting trout in Colorado as I did in Virginia. But not necessarily more. You read about approaching big rivers and mentally breaking them up into smaller “rivers.” Your experience of fishing unrelated streams where you live confirms the reality that pursuing trout in disparate waters isn’t like reinventing the wheel. I had to fish for trout for the sake of fishing for trout first, if I wanted to catch a fish. Then I could revel in all of the superlatives of being out west.
I ended up catching some nice trout. Healthy, hard fighting rainbows. Feisty and familiar brook trout. (Something I was accustomed to, if not slightly disappointed at encountering there.) No cutthroats. Well, I’m pretty sure that first fish I missed was a cutthroat. There was so much gold in that flashy rise; what else could it have been? I’d have to save that triumph for the next trip.
Even now, I can’t say I’ve fallen in love with western fishing. I haven’t done it enough to get to that point in our “relationship.” You could say that I’m still in the infatuation stage. Those majestic landscapes, famed hatches, and all the fly fishing culture are fascinating. I’ve been back, and I’d go again in a heartbeat; Montana, Wyoming, Colorado. Floating down some long river for a few days while fly fishing for fat trout sounds amazing.
But even then, I wouldn’t consider the infatuation unhealthy. I’m supremely content with my home streams. A lot of my wanderlust is focused on the water and fish that I might be missing right under my nose. The sprawling west is alluring, but not in the sense that I’m willing to forsake or disparage my brook trout and their rhododendron-covered homes.
Having a present contentment coupled with an intermittent longing for exploration might be the best way to live. Being happy with “normal,” yet not falling into a rut. Finding joy in the familiar, all the while not losing the benefit of broader experiences. I’ve not perfected that balance in every area of my life, but I think I’m there with my fly fishing.
And if not there, then I’m only a short cast away from it.