The fish, doubling over in gill-splitting glee, watch my first attempts to fly cast. For practice, my guide and instructor, Steve, has knotted surveyor’s tape to the end of a line. It looks as if I am flinging an orange moth from a strand of yellow yarn.
What appeared so easy and elegant in “A River Runs Through It” seems impossible to duplicate. I whip the line back and forth in a series of false casts. When I finally release it, the pseudo-bug darts anywhere but to the water. At least without a hook, I avoid snaring my own pants.
I do not pretend to be a fisherman, but I have friends who are. They think that an ideal day involves donning thigh-high galoshes and standing knee-deep in a cold stream. Somehow, they’ve lured me to a Colorado fishing and hunting resort ranch.
The site of my fishing fling sits in North Park between Muddy Pass and Walden. Rolling hills, quilted with woods and meadows, surround the property. Its log structures stand at the edge of a 400-foot bluff. Below flows Little Grizzly Creek, one of the ranch’s fishing areas.
“We have exclusive rights to 1 1/2 miles of Little Grizzly, 4 miles of Beaver Creek, 5 miles of Roaring Fork and 5 miles of the North Platte,” brags Doug, the owner. “I’m quite certain no one else in Colorado controls that much water.”
It’s more than we will get a chance to sample. Our group of five runs a gamut of experience. Dan has been hookin’ ’em for 30 years, Meggen about eight, Nancy a half-dozen times and Stacy only once before. This is my first time out with flies I don’t swat or zip.
Our first morning, we and two young guides pile into a minibus and head for Beaver Creek. The willow-lined stream meanders through the center of a broad valley. Mountains dominate one side, a plateau the other.
We spread out, and the guides alternate among us. Steve wisely starts with the more-experienced quartet. Hayes gets stuck with me.
In his 20s, mild-mannered and quiet, Hayes is a member of the Shoshone Tribe from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. When he interviewed for the guide position, Doug asked if he could catch fish.
“With my teeth!” he snarled.
Today, we will settle for hooking one. We walk upstream, and Hayes stops below a meandering bend.
“There’s a fish by that tuft of grass,” he whispers, pointing.
I look but see nothing. A minute later the surface breaks with a quick gulp. A trout has snatched a floating morsel.
Hayes ties on a fly, and I prepare to cast. I whip the rod back, and the line flies overhead. On the rebound, it stops dead.
“You have your first catch,” Hayes grins. “A willow.” He walks back to unsnag the mess.
“Maybe you should try it over here,” he suggests, moving me to where nothing stands behind for a half-mile.
I cast again. This time the fly lands midstream and slowly floats in the current. No action. Another try. Nothing. Demonically obsessed, I continue casting. Like Ahab and the whale, the challenge has turned personal.
The siege breaks at noon. We drive to a spot overlooking the stream where lunch awaits on portable, cloth-covered picnic tables. On the hillside, we sip wine from stemware and devour pasta served on china plates. This part of fishing I could learn to love.
After lunch, we return to the creek as a group. Steve affixes a fly and tells me exactly where to present it. On my third try, the line lands close to the intended target. Nothing happens, so I begin to reel in for another cast.
Before I can pull the fly from the water, the stream erupts in splashing fury. I have a strike.
Shocked, I jerk and somehow snare the brute on the barbless hook. My rod bends in a crescent arc as I brace to battle the subsurface brawn. Water frothing, the fish contests its capture with a fight that would make Mike Tyson proud. After 45 seconds of man against beast, Steve extracts his net and we land the thrashing leviathan.
“A 2-pound, 16-inch, deep-bodied rainbow,” Steve announces.
MY GOD! It looks like Moby Dick to me.
Steve removes the hook, returns the trout to the water and we watch it swim away. The angling here is catch-and-release, so the fish will live to be caught another day.
We cross the stream and, with Steve’s guidance, I catch a small brown trout. Late in the day, we drive back to the ranch.
“How’d it go?” Doug asks.
“Caught ’em right and left,” I honestly report. “One on the right and one on the left.”
We retire to our rooms, shower, then meet for cocktails and fishing fibs in the ranch lounge. A five-course dinner follows. Then it’s sips of Cognac and cigars, thankfully smoked outside.
There is no television, so Steve, a university engineering student, provides the evening’s entertainment. Using elk hair, feathers and thread, his flying hands convert a small hook into a bug-like creation.
“Doctors buy flies,” he boasts. “We engineers tie them.”
We try Steve’s imitation insect the next morning at Roaring Fork. From road’s end, a quarter-mile walk takes us to Red Canyon Falls, where the creek cascades through a narrow chute, then skirts down into a choppy pool. Steve says this Eden-like setting contains some big ones.
After spending the morning here, we lunch at water’s edge, then explore downstream. By Miller time, I have managed to land only one cutthroat and two small brook trout.
Our last morning, Steve offers a choice and we decide to return to Beaver Creek. The group scatters, and, for awhile, Dan and I fish opposite ends of the same beaver-dammed pool. When he casts, his line zings and the fly wafts to the water. When I do it, the line caterwauls, and the fly strikes with a thud. If it actually landed near a fish, it would probably give it a headache.
Lunch arrives by pickup and the tables soon appear in the streamside grass. Bellies filled, we spread out again. A thundershower drives us back to the vehicles, but it’s short-lived and we’re soon back by the stream.
Meggen strolls to the closest water and casts into the slow-moving current. Wham, she has a strike. Steve releases the catch, and she casts again. Another hit follows. Then another.
Meggen yields the spot to Nancy, whose first attempt yields the same results. Stacy and I soon join the fish-barrel free-for-all. Casting from slightly different directions, we try not to tangle lines.
My first pitch lands short of the target, but the next zings into the still water by the opposite bank. A fish strikes. I jerk the rod to set the hook, but the line jumps empty from the water.
“Sometimes they grab from above,” Steve explains. “Other times it’s from below. You’ve got to set your hook according to how they hit.”
Just what I need – more complications. I try again. The fly drops to the creek. The water quivers and I pull back. I’ve hooked a rainbow.
We spend the rest of the afternoon, casting, catching and complimenting each other. Freed from frustration of failure, I practice in earnest. More of my casts actually land in the same zip code as the target, and the fish just keep on biting. I hate to say it, but I’m having fun.
Back at the lodge that afternoon, we join Doug on the deck. Reminding us that this is also a hunting resort, he invites us to try trap shooting. One by one, I watch the others blast clay pigeons to smithereens.
My turn comes, and I yell “PULL.” The disk flies. I fire. The target falls to the bushes, totally unblemished. Subsequent attempts meet with similar results. I hand the shotgun back to Doug. As I walk away, I hear a cooing sound coming from the bushes where my unbroken targets landed.
The clay pigeons are laughing.