Gone Fishin’ With Jane
Jane Whitson - aka Webutante - has a secret life. She's a Nashville journalist for PJM and others during the school year, but summers she's a fly-fishing guide on Wyoming's Snake River, straight out of Hemingway. For Labor Day, she takes you for a ride on a drift boat on the Snake.
September 4, 2007 - 2:00 am
Of all the natural highs legally available to mankind today, there’s none—no not one—which compares to the adrenaline rush that happens when a big, bright, ravenous yellow-bellied cutthroat trout comes roaring up from the depths to annihilate the dry fly you’ve just cast and floated on the surface above him.
Suddenly the cosmic toilet bowl flushes before your very eyes.
After hours, days, months of practicing your cast and presenting the artificial fly as if it were real, you’ve finally tricked the big one into taking it. And the best part is he’s come to you on the surface for it.
It’s called dry fly fishing and considered by many the creme de la creme of fishing in America and the world today. Only 3% of all fishermen fly fish, and only 10% of these are women. But the numbers and intensity of their passion for the sport are growing exponentially. Most if not all practice catch and release, and many use only barbless hooks, which makes catching fish more challenging, while building real skill, patience and perseverance. Most fly fishers are not in the sport for meat, except when they are rarely camping in the back country, as is the case with many spin fishermen. Fly fishermen are in it for recreation, exercise, challenge and relaxation in the great outdoors.
And they also come for the natural high….
As you watch the fish take your fly, adrenaline explodes through every part of your body. You’re Tiger Woods tied at first going for a birdie on the 18th at Augusta; you’re Lance Armstrong pumping iron over the last mountain pass to take the Tour de France, again.
An impulse shoots a signal from your brain through your shoulder, down your arm, into your fingertips, and then continues down your fly line. You instantaneously lift your rod tip with authority, but not too much power, to set the hook. If you over-power the rod now, you’ll rip the fly right out of his lips. You’ll gnash your teeth if this happens. Successful hook setting is the only way to the next round of playing, netting and releasing your fish.
As tension mounts, you hold your breath, and wait to see if you’ve set the hook.
( I won’t belabor what happens if the Big One gets away. Let it suffice to say, that you’ll go home with only one maniacal thought in mind: to come back next year and catch him, by cracky! You’ll practice your cast in the backyard in the snow or the parking lot of your office building. You’ll dream about it, talk about it endlessly. You’ll run the risk of boring allyour friends to death at every dinner party you attend and—if you’re not careful—you may even run off your spouse. If the worse case scenario should happen, and you end up alone, well then, buck up: it just means you’ll have extra time to practice your cast and watch more fly casting videos over the the winter. And who knows, your spouse will probably come home in the spring. So relax, and just keep practicing.)
In a split second you see the BIG ONE IS ON! A successful hook set, while essential, only means you’ve now earned the right to go on to greater, potentially more frustrating challenges.
Fisherman on the Snake
Even as adrenaline pulsates through your body, your task in this phase is ironically to slow things way down. Fly fishing is more about out-smarting the wily trout with your brain than strong-arming it with your body. It’s why women are often so good at it.
Once on the hook, the fish knows he’s caught and begins to thrash wildly. He turns to run—taking your line downstream, into stronger current, into watergrass, under a brush pile or log—anywhere he can get the upper hand, throw the hook and leave you in a lurch of massive frustration.
The answer to this challenge is simple but not always easy: give ‘em plenty of line, but never any slack. You can let him run all the way to Jamaica, taking all the line and backing off your reel, just don’t give any slack. And when he turns to swim back, you strip that fly line in faster than the speed of light.
At all times there’s got to be healthy tension between you and the fish: too tight a line invites him to break you off; if it’s too loose, it invites him to throw the hook and get away. Either extreme can lead to heartbreak.
No matter how terrible it can be to lose the big one now, remember this about his efforts to get away: It’s his job.
You’ve won and lost a lot of smaller fish in the past, but today you’re in the zone. All is going well so far with this big one. You let line out and strip it in, letting the fish play itself out—but never to the point of exhaustion, remember, you’re going to release him soon—and begin to bring him into calmer water, closer to you. The Big One knows he’s lost this battle and reluctantly surrenders to his fate. Still thrashing, you bring him in on your reel, while holding your rod tip up. It’s the same step, whether you’re standing in water, or fishing from a drift boat.
You finally get a good look at the big one; he’s a real beauty. Suddenly all the hours, months, maybe even years of practice and discipline are paying off. You or your guide swoop down to get him into the net.
Much ooowing and ahhhhh ensue. “Huge fish!” “Great job,” “Monster!” are some of the standard lines you hear at this point. Then, if you’re lucky, a friend or guide pulls out a camera and captures your final triumphal moments.
You reach down to take the single, barbless hook out of the big one’s mouth. You look at this magnificent creature and are awestruck in the moment. It’s something you’ve dreamed of for a long time.
And then, and then, you LET HIM GO!
As freedom from the hook dawns on him, he instantly disappears.
The big one swims away a smarter, more sophisticated fish. And will be even harder to catch next time. The good news is there will be a next time.
This is the only sport in the world where you actually come intimately close to wildlife—usually in a beautiful setting—and then release your prey unscathed, back into the wild.
It’s a tough life, but somebody’s gotta do it.
It is a glorious moment that you’ll remember the rest of your life. And you did it on a dry. Streamer and nymph fishing are nice, but catching the big one on a dry, watching him rise to the surface, feeling your adrenaline surge, well, it just doesn’t get any better than this.
The scene above happens dozens of times a day from May through September in and around Jackson Hole, Wyoming where I’ve lived part-time for over 20 years and worked as a guide for a large part of it. Today I no longer work as a professional, preferring instead to take family and friends out just for the sheer fun of it. There’s nothing like being with someone when they catch their first fish, or catch their first big one.
Jackson is one of, if not, the fly fishing capital of the world; and is unarguably the drift boat fishing capital of the West. Very few places can compare with the magnificent scenery of the Snake River and its tributaries, the Tetons and Yellowstone National Park. And nothing compares with the opportunities to view wildlife in this place.
It is also here that some of the finest, most knowledgeable guides, boatmen, fly tyers and fishermen live and work. This time of year many are working 16-18 hours a day as the days grow shorter and the end of the season is in view.
So then, what do some of them say about the billion dollar fly fishing business in America today?
Scott Sanchez, one of the best known fly tiers anywhere, from Jack Dennis Sports, answers the question without batting an eye:
“Today people aren’t just fishing for trout on a fly. They’ going after everything under the sun, peacock bass, smallmouth, brim, redfish, and —-who would ever have believed it?—-they’re even going for carp with a fly. Who ever thought carp would be cool!”
“And the fish, that are getting caught this way– they’re just getting smarter, more sophisticated. This means fishermen have to get smarter too.”
Sanchez adds to the fray by tying and creating some of the best flies in the world for fooling sophisticated fish. Fly patterns with politically incorrect names like:
**Trixie the Hooker
**and Joe Burke’s famous Playboy Bunny, complete with pink flashaboo for torturing fish underwater.
(Any resemblance to former Presidents, Vice-Presidents, members of Congress or current Presidential candidates’ spouses is strictly coincidental.)
Meanwhile, over at High Country Flies, owner Jimmy Jones says business is very good and getting better all the time. And yes, there are a lot more interesting flies to catch smarter fish.
“But you’ve still got to have the skills, the know how to use them,” Jones says, adding not all the expensive equipment in the world can make up for a lack of practice and experience.
I can’t disagree with a thing he says.
Typical fly-fishing shop at Westbank
As I wind up my rounds at my favorite fly shops in the Valley for this piece, I save the best for last. Westbank Anglers, where I once worked for a summer before I started my own guide business, is my final stop of the day.
The shop is quiet as all the guides are still out on the river in drift boats with clients who are all seeking their big adrenalin rush.
“Where’s Baker,” I ask Griffin, an avid fisherwoman and store employee from Georgia.
He’s in the back wrapping a package, she tells me. I am looking for Baker Salsbury, shop owner and avid fisherman, to get my last quote of the day. As I enter the back room, he’s putting final touches of mailing tape on a cardboard box before the UPS truck arrives.
He looks up at me and starts laughing.
“Think I got enough tape on these two boxes?”
“Well, I dunno, Baker. What’s in em? Where are they going?” I say.
“Would you believe to IRAQ? I’m serious!” he said. Two packages—fly rod, reel, line, waders, boots, flies and assorted other fishing supplies—are all about to go out, half way around the world.
“Iraq?” I ask.. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Baker assures me he not.
“A Colonel in the Army in Iraq has found some kind of perch in some little pond over there and he’s absolutely beside himself to catch it on a fly rod. He’s called and e-mailed me several times. I’m rushing to get them there as quickly as possible.”
“That’s amazing,” I say. That’s it, I have my quote…..fly fishing has come to Iraq and the Middle East! Things must surely be looking up. I can just see the headlines now, “Shiites, Sunnis put down their bombs to take casting lessons with Army officers stationed along the river outside Baghdad!”
“Baker,” I say, “you know, when all this stuff arrives, this guy will be the happiest man in all of Iraq!”
We laugh and know it’s true. I thank Baker for giving me the best quote of the day. Fly fishing is truly going global.
But the center of it’s exportation is still right here in Jackson Hole. Where equipment, expertise, and, oh yes, adrenaline, is a big and growing business in the heart and soul of the Rockies.
“Webutante”and Edie – fly-fishing buddies with their drift boat