There comes a time in life when you question everything. What is the meaning of life? What’s my purpose? Where am I going? Why do I suck at fishing all of a sudden?
That last one has been creeping up in my conscious for the past few months. Following a series of disastrous fly fishing outings – no fish, broken rods, lost fly boxes, ripped waders, shattered dreams, and soggy undies – I began to doubt not only my ability to catch fish, but my ability to go fishing without hurting myself and/or others. From river stripers, to smallmouth, to trout, I repeatedly came home with my tail between my legs and having to search for a warranty card. I’ve been fishing long enough that being skunked and alone is nothing new for me, but this was an unprecedented string of miscues and miscalculations that had me at rock bottom with no felt and a dam release on its way.
At its core, fly fishing is an exercise in frustration. There are way easier and more effective ways of catching a fish. For me, and most fly fishermen, the point is not to catch as many fish as possible. No, the point is to get out on the water, cast the fly, watch the drift, see the take. Bringing a fish to hand and safely releasing it is the bonus, like hiking to the top of a mountain AND catching the sunset. Heck, I’ll usually take time to just sit on a rock and take in the beauty of the river, even if the bite is hot. That being said, there is only so much disappointment a man can take, and going fishing without catching fish, while that may not be the whole point, is certainly disappointing. Not because of the lack of fish, but the lack of skill to fool the fish. Fly fishing technique is rooted in experience and skill with enough variables to drive a person insane. The mistakes to be made are virtually endless, and you usually only get one shot at it. That is usually why the best fishermen are older and have a patience that can only be accumulated from a lifetime of missed takes, spooked fish, and tangled leaders.
My lifetime of patience was being tested; so much so that I almost lost interest in fishing in general…almost.
I had the chance to fish the upper Jackson River outside Warm Springs, Virginia, and reluctantly packed the car in the chilly autumn pre-dawn. The Jackson River below Lake Moomaw is well known as the best, albeit controversial, trophy trout tailwater in Virginia. The river above the lake is a glorious fishery in its own right with beautiful water, easy access and careful management. I’d fished there several times with marginal luck, so I was not expecting much on that fall morning. As I pulled on my waders and rigged up, I thought about what useless fly I was going to snag in the bushes first – yes, this was my mindset, as I said, rock bottom. I had recently come across a wayward box of about 15 muddler minnows of various design, and vaguely remembered reading somewhere – probably on the internet – it was a solid fall trout fly, so I started there. I had never fished a muddler minnow because a) I didn’t have any and b) despite their versatility, I thought they looked stupid and would never work. So I hit the water with an obsolete fly and no expectations of success, but at least I had good scenery and a backup plan: a morning beer I was saving for when things got really bad. This is pretty much my backup plan for everything.
But then something unexpected happened. I caught a fish.
Not just any fish. This was a nice, colorful 14-inch brown out of the first riffle I came to. Not only that, he took the fly on top like it was spring instead of fall.
IT WAS A MUDDLER MINNOW MIRACLE!
All of a sudden, my entire outlook changed. What was once a barren river lined with fly-craving bushes and trees became a sparkling, fish filled paradise with plenty of room to cast. What was once a silly looking attractor pattern, became the best fly of all time. What was once the worst fisherman in the world, became a mediocre angler. That last one was about me.
Isn’t it surprising how things can turn around in life? Month’s worth of frustration wiped away in 10 minutes. I spent the next three hours stalking browns, bringing a few more to the net on topwater muddlers, and one on a dropper nymph. By most accounts, this would be a so-so morning of fishing, but on this day it was life changing. I lost zero flies in the brush, didn’t break a rod, and that if-all-else-fails morning beer turned into refreshing victory ale. Although, I guess any cold beer consumed before 10 am is a victory. At least in my book.
More importantly, I once again believed that if there are fish in the river, I can catch them.