I grew up watching John Wayne movies and idolizing his no-holds barred ‘kick open the saloon doors, knock out the bad guy, and kiss the lady before anyone know what the hell is going on’ way of doing things. John Wayne was more than an actor, more than an icon, he was a state of mind. A whirlwind of masculinity that screamed to go out and take this thing called life by the scruff of its neck and shake it until all the things you want in the world shake loose and fall at your feet. He’d ride into danger against the odds and just hope he came out on top. The Duke’s code of ethics is something I’ve taken into everything I do: from the way I walk, talk, play, laugh and love, I like to push the edge and go all out–and that includes the way I fly fish.
I suppose I got into fly fishing for the same reason many other anglers do; because I enjoyed the challenge. Trying to convince a fish to eat a jumbled combination of fur and feathers tied on a hook just seemed so much more testing than simply threading a worm on a hook. I started slowly, catching sunfish in farm ponds before graduating to bass in bigger ponds, and then eventually to trout on small streams. I was thrilled with every success, yet something in me wanted to push the envelope, to create a bigger challenge for myself.
One day I was having a slow evening during a mayfly hatch. I had heard of the big brown trout that were in that particular river, but couldn’t seem to find anything but a few eight inch dinks. I was taking a break on the bank when I saw a guy enter the river above me. He marched into the water without hesitation and started casting with what looked to me like an entire chicken attached to the end of his line. In two strips, he hooked up, landed and released a big 20 inch brown before I even had time to tell him that fly would never work. That day something was sparked in me, for it was the day I discovered streamers. Soon I found myself ignoring those rising trout in the middle of the stream and instead started ripping streamers through deep pools looking for a giant. I became a big fish junkie.
Streamers are flies made to look like fish as opposed to the more common flies made to look like insects. There’s the old saying of “big baits catch big fish,” and it’s incredibly true. While the classic imagery of fly fishing with dry flies certainly lands more trout, when they get to a certain size, the only thing they eat is other fish. When I started using streamers more exclusively, I started catching much larger trout than I had before. Streamers opened me up to other species as well, since every fish from, trout to bass, eat other fish. This gave me a new outlook into fly-fishing. I started buying flies with cool names like Kelly Galloup’s “Sex Dungeon” fly and Mike Schmidt’s “Junk Yard Dog.”
I also started coming up with my own streamer patterns, tying flies in a maddened frenzy with images of massive jaws clamping onto them as I pulled them from the vice. I started buying beefier rods too. The best streamer rod I have ever used is hands down the Orvis Helios 3D. From 7wts to 10wts, their rods that really get the job done when battling a sea monster.
Every angler knows that moment where they hook a fish and send out a small prayer to an unseen deity: “Oh God, please let me land this fish.” That feeling, that moment is where I want to live every time I go out on the water. Targeting those fish that seem un-catchable, those fish that inspire legends told in hushed whispers around the campfire. The dark caves of big trout, the high towers of musky and pike, the unbreachable walls of steelhead.
These are my fish now. Hunting for them gives me the feeling of being a warrior. I have a sudden lust for battle, only found with a bent rod and a screaming reel. Hooking a big fish on a streamer is different. They aren’t always easy to come by. Big fish have to be worked for; they have to be earned. And when the take finally happens and you’re hooked up to some monster, a fear comes with it. A fear that after all that effort, the fish might still come off before you land him. That’s a hold on to your seat, nail-biting kind of fear that makes everything else in the world fade into obscurity. It’s a fear that makes me want to do one arm push-ups, go sky diving without a parachute, and eat a rare steak that I cooked with a flamethrower.
There is a lot of sacrifice to fishing this way. The lure of “the big one” has turned me into a slightly masochistic nut job. I sometimes go days, even weeks, without a bite. I must push myself into swinging one more hole, throwing one more cast even though my shoulders are on fire and my fingers are starting to bleed from stripping line. Many times too, I go through all this and still don’t manage to hook up. Or I feel true heartbreak, missing my chance by screwing up a hookset or only seeing the fish for a brief second as he charges my fly then suddenly turns and swims away. Often it feels like I’m trying to climb a mountain that could collapse beneath me at any moment.
Yet somewhere deep within me, I find the desire to carry on. Because I remember another little movie called True Grit. A movie about being tired and scared but saddling up anyway. So now, every time I get tired of casting, every time I get tired of standing in a cold seemingly fishless river, every time I lose my chance at that big fish, a tiny voice in my mind mutters, “What would John Wayne do?” and I carry on.