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"So Captain Jim, How Did You Get Into Fly Fishing?"

by Captain Jim Barr on 12/01/16

One of the most frequently asked questions from new charter guests is "how did you get into fly fishing?"  I tell them that I was actually shamed into it by a co-worker in my days as a corporate insurance geek. I'll digress a bit to set the background.

Worm and bobber fishing was how many of us were introduced to fishing, whether by a parent or with a close friend in the neighborhood, that's pretty much how it began for me. My father was a businessman, a busy guy with a demanding job that had him working long hours, but on weekends beginning about 1955, he often took my brother and me fishing to a nearby lake in rural Ohio. Reflecting back on it now, it was kind of a weird place. A dairy farmer with a lot of pasture land, in an effort to supplement his meager income, bulldozed a giant hole in his "back 40" and in short order groundwater filled the hole and voila, the pasture morphed into a fishing pond. He stocked it with largemouth bass, a variety of panfish and even hornpout. He had created a pay to play fishing pond and after hanging a sign on a utility pole at the head of his gravel driveway, he was in business. I think he did pretty good because it was always busy with families. We went there often and it was fun.

Simultaneously my mother's family operated a small ranch in the foothills of Wyoming's Big Horn mountains just south of Sheridan. Most summers our family would make the long drive from Ohio to visit and vacation with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. My father would stay for a couple of weeks and then return to Ohio while the rest of us would take up residence for a couple of months before returning home. My brother and I would help with ranch chores ranging from milking cows, branding cattle, repairing fences, bailing hay, etc... but on many weekends my relatives would load their pickups and everyone would go camping in the mountains. Near our campsite we would trout fish in small creeks, my grandfather using his bamboo fly rod, and me using the equivalent of a Zebco outfit. Our trout would go into the creel and would be fried up for lunch or dinner. Catch and Release was when you screwed up.
 
Fast

"Monster" Pickerel- 1958
forward ten years that included a stint in upstate New York (we moved a lot) and more spin fishing in creeks, rivers and lakes. Our family now lived in north central Massachusetts. We lived on a lake that was loaded with largemouth bass. We had a healthy inventory of boats and motors, aluminum fishing boats, wooden rowboats (very leaky), even a plywood hydroplane that my father and a friend built and we raced against neighbor kids, and small horsepower engines that were broken down half the time. Our fishing boats always had oars and bailing cans so we were never paralyzed from temperamental outboards. Either way there was always a way to reach some absolutely pristine bass water. Tackle was very basic, second-hand fiberglass spinning rods, combined with Hula Poppers, Daredevils, Jitterbugs, Flatfish and plastic licorice flavored worms, all fished in shallow water around tree stumps, brush and lily pads. My only exposure to fly fishing were articles I'd read in Sports Afield Magazine that depicted pipe smoking anglers in goofy hats wearing plaid shirts, casting flies to willing trout in pristine trout streams
Leaky wooden fishing boat - 1964
in the Rockies. I was happy with my bass fishing, and playing high school sports. Fly fishing was way above my family's pay grade, and honestly I wasn't remotely interested.

Fast forward twenty-five years, a period that included college, a relocation to Rhode Island, weekend backpacking, mountaineering and rock climbing in The White's, a marriage, three great children, lots of personal and business golf, (very little fishing), and a demanding corporate insurance job that included (in retrospect) too much travel. 

Late in that period, on a Monday morning I'm changing-up in my company's fitness center locker room and while making small talk with Alan (one of my co-workers), he asks about my weekend.  "Yeah, pretty good I responded, I got a chance to do some canoeing and fishing on the Wood River. I caught some really nice rainbow trout." Alan's response was something along the lines of, "... so what were they hitting?"  I answered that I got them on a small black Roostertail.  A very long pause...I still remember the raised eyebrows and the grimace that overtook his face, "... a Roostertail!, are you shitting me, you fish with a spinning rod?!!"   "Well yeah, what's wrong with that?" I responded .

(An aside ...This exchange reminded me of a vignette in the men's room at the high brow Algonquin Club in Boston while on a business luncheon about the same time. I'm at a urinal doing my thing and this prep school stuffed shirt businessman pulls in next to me, looks over in a semi-condescending manner, nods, unzips, does his thing. A minute goes by, I zip up and am on my way to the door, when Mr. Ivy League interrupts and blurts abruptly, "You know, at Harvard we were taught to always wash our hands after we urinate". Ballsy I thought.
Out of nowhere I found myself responding , "Well at UMass we were taught not to pee on our fingers".)

Ok, enough digression... back to Alan's highbrow insinuation that my fishing success was somehow beneath his dignity, that trout fishing should only to be done using an artificial fly . (...and maybe from his perspective one also had to wash their hands after handling the little trout, just like Mr. Ivy League).

So... week after week in the fitness center I would be subjected to what seemed like an unending torture from my waterboarding friend Alan.  Same question from him, same answer from me (well maybe the lure of choice that weekend was a green Roostertail ). This went on for weeks, then months . Sometimes the query would vary slightly ...."so are you STILL fishing with a spinning rod?"

I had had enough by the end of that summer ... I was going to learn to fly fish and shut this guy up once and for all . I had to make a business trip to Los Angeles in a couple of weeks. At the time I subscribed to Backpacker Magazine. Each issue contained a one page article entitled "Weekend Wilderness". I  pulled out all my back issues and low and behold I found an article about a combination backpacking and fishing excursion into the Golden Trout Wilderness situated on the southeastern flank of the Sierra Nevada mountains, a few hours drive from LA... this I thought, would be my chance.  I could pack in solo to a remote stream, set up camp for a few days and teach myself how to fly fish, hell it couldn't be that hard, I had pretty good eye-hand coordination, I could play a reasonable game of golf, how difficult could fly casting be? The fact that I would be in a remote area was also appealing... no one to watch in amusement and critique me . Perfect!

In short order I found an LLBean catalog and telephoned-in (no internet then) my order for the LLBean Beginner's Fly Fishing Kit... $100... 5 weight rod (whatever that was), backing, floating fly line (weren't they all), a leader, a few flies, and an instruction book on how to assemble the whole thing, together with basic diagrams on how to make a few rudimentary casts. Perfect!  A few days later the kit arrived. I packed my business bag and briefcase together with my backpack with the fly fishing kit strapped to it and I was off to the airport.
LLBean Starter Fly Fishing kit

F
ollowing the business part of the trip, I rented a car and drove east through the desert, 150 miles to Inyokern, then northwest on US 395 to Nine Mile Canyon Rd. to a pullout at the end of the gravel road. I strapped on my pack and hiked down several miles into Rockhouse Basin. The trail descended into a canyon, at the bottom of which lay the south fork of the Kern River (just like the article read). Paradise Found!  I added a couple of miles further downstream for extra privacy, finally settling into my camp for the next three days. It was there on the bouldered shoreline of the Kern that I unpacked my fly fishing kit, assembled it step by step according to the instruction book, then practiced my casting... and the best part, proceeded to catch many willing Brook, Rainbow and Lahontan Cutthroat trout.

 
South Fork Kern River (internet photo)
 
South Fork Kern River (internet photo)











Lahontan Cutthroat (internet photo)














I likened that fishing trip to what it felt like as a child to have my father unbolt the training wheels from my bike, and following a few crashes, suddenly experiencing the thrill of finding myself balanced and riding on two wheels. Camping and learning to fly fish, and catching trout on the South Fork of the Kern River in southern California was a unquestionably a magical experience. In retrospect, in many ways a turning point in my life.

So that's my not so short story on how and where I learned to fly fish. Since then, to say it consumed my life, would be an understatement.

When I saw Alan in the fitness center the following week and he asked if I had gone fishing the past weekend... I responded affirmatively, and then proceeded to tell him my story.  Since that time Alan and I have fly fished together many times and when we do, I often close my eyes and mentally taste those precious days on the Kern.  Thank you Alan , a debt of gratitude is owed.

Self & Alan Passante- Bighorn River- 2002

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