To this day it is still important to me to be invested in my fly fishing. This could mean many things to different anglers. To me it was tying my own flies, building my own rods (I no longer do this), learning to cast and teaching thousands of people over the decades these same skills. When I first got intensely interested in fly tying and fishing, I got an aquarium, caught some aquatic bugs and put it all on my tying desk so I could observe the movements and actions of the bugs. I even had a small hatch of damselflies in my home one day. I learned so much from that aquarium. It helped my tying and fishing. I always feel that fishers who don’t do this (or something like it) are missing something from their sport.
My first fly-caught steelhead was hooked on a fly that I tied (I think it was a Skykomish Sunrise); with a split cane rod that I built from scratch and a leader I built from the old 60% (butt), 20% (transition section) and 20% tippet. The over-the-counter leaders of that time (1972) were terrible and unreliable. I can’t tell you how many hundreds of those leaders I tied. I could almost tie the knots with my eyes closed. I spent the last two years of my service-time in the Coast Guard in Mobile, Alabama. While I loved fishing the creeks, ponds, lakes and salt water nearby, I longed for the crystal clear rivers and streams near my Seattle home. I really started fly fishing in earnest while in Alabama fishing for bream, goggle-eye, speckled trout and bass (some of the locals called them green trout). When the Coast Guard relieved me of duty and I had returned to the Pacific Northwest, little did I know how difficult catching more than a few small (I mean SMALL)trout in our close-by moving waters would be. So much so that I decided that if I was not going to catch a decent fish, I might as well NOT catch a steelhead. I had just finished building the cane rod and was anxious to fish it.
I drove to the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River, north of Seattle) to Fortson Hole. In 1941, the North Fork was the first ever designated fly-only steelhead river (during the summer-run season). A great place to start fly fishing for steelhead. From Fortson Hole I waded and cast my way downstream quite a ways to a great pool. I had never fished this river before and every bend and turn was new and exciting for me and my rod. It, by the way, was casting beautifully and felt good in my hand. There was a fly fisher on the other side at the head of the pool. I waved and asked “How was the fishing?” He told me that the fishing had been very good downstream two or three bends. I said thanks and headed downriver. After the second river bend and below a beautiful pool with a huge overhanging maple tree, where the river narrowed and took a wide turn to the right, I cast my fly into the top of this run. BAM! The fish was on and dancing its way downcurrent. I beached and dispatched it quickly (this was 1971 and I wasn’t releasing steelhead, yet). Words can’t described how thrilled and excited I was. My first fly-caught steelhead, with a fly I tied and with a rod I crafted. I was proud and wore a shit-eating grin that couldn’t be wiped from my face. When I reached the pool with angler who gave me such good info earlier, I could see on his face that he really wasn’t trying to help me before. He just wanted “his” pool to himself. I yelled “Thanks” and showed off my fish but I knew he wasn’t near as thrilled as I.
A good portion of my steelheading enjoyment comes from the hours spent at my tying vise before each trip. Every fly I tie hooks a fish (in my mind) as I finish it off and before it goes into my box. I understand how many fishers don’t do this (I make my fishing and hunting money tying flies for others), but it is an essential element of fishing to me.
There weren’t many fly fishers casting for steelhead in the 70’s, so we were pretty much on our own to “figure it out”. But I think this is what epoxied me to the sport and still does. I love the problems and questions that accompany each river and body of water I fish. After fly fishing for chrome for over 40 years, you would think I had pretty much answered all of the questions and solved all the problems. I swear, though, I have more questions now than when I first started. I still believe what I’ve said for decades: “The day I spend with a fly rod in my hand and learn nothing is the last day I fish”.