Column: “Another Tragic Fish Story”

Rocky Mountain News, August 13, 2007

Remaining Fishless from Fishing Stock

Fly fishing runs deep in my family.

After my great-grandfather emigrated from Germany in the 1880s, he bought a piece of land in northern New Mexico. He had planned to log the property, until he saw it sat at the convergence of two mountain streams. He bought out his partners, built a house and named it “Trout Springs.”

Every summer since then, the family has descended on Trout Springs, hooking fish large and small, frying them up with bacon grease and cornmeal and sharing tales of the elusive 2-foot rainbow which has, according to some, stalked the shadows of the Big Rock Pool since the turn of the last century.

It should come as no surprise, then, that when Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It hit the best-seller list a couple of decades ago, the book’s touching conclusion reduced even the most poker-faced members of our family to paroxysms of sentiment.

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it,” Maclean wrote. And he ended with this simple line: “I am haunted by waters.”

So are we. Fly fishing lies at the heart of our family creation myth, connecting us to our past much as the delicate, invisible filament of a fishing leader links the line to the fly.

But sadly, there’s an unseemly glitch in our proud piscatorial patrimony. We’re not happy about it, but it’s true: Not one member of my generation likes to fish.

We all tried to like it. My dad spent countless hours teaching me how to cast when I was a kid, and every summer I would slog down to the river to practice. I would catch my fly in the bushes, and in my hair and clothing, but not once, in all those summers, did I catch a fish.

I found it endlessly frustrating, and sometime after college, I gave up. I determined that I lacked sufficient stealth, patience and perseverance to become a fisherman, licked my wounds and took up mountain biking.

But the other weekend, I was invited to go fly fishing on Vail’s Gore Creek, on the gold medal waters that run past Vail Cascade Resort.

I was surprised to find myself tempted. Perhaps, I reckoned, if I could try it on another river besides the one at Trout Springs, one that was wider and not so overgrown, I might be more successful. And perhaps, if I was successful, I could revive the family fishing tradition.

So I gave it another try.

I had a good feeling that afternoon as we walked to a beautiful spot by a bridge where enormous rainbows lurked below. We suited up, picked a big, nasty-looking black fly and put the rods together.

Then it started drizzling. We hadn’t brought enough raincoats, but this didn’t deter us. I clambered onto the rocks beside the hole and started casting.

Remarkably, I could still do it, sort of. I’m sure it wasn’t graceful, but the old metronomic gesture came back quickly. The river was wide, and the underbrush was low, and my fly flew into the water without catching on the bushes, myself, my guides, my husband or my infant child.

I cast again – and once again, the fly dropped softly into the water. Without a splash, even.

Or perhaps it did splash. It was hard to tell because I couldn’t see the fly for all the other splashes around it, which were steadily building raindrops now pounding us.

Or perhaps the dreaded fish-repelling splash was hidden by the rising wind, which was rippling the water with a fury.

By my third cast, I couldn’t see the splash, or the fly, and certainly not any fish, and the clouds looked more ominous and the baby was getting soaked and we were starting to hear rumblings of thunder.

I had had a good feeling. I thought I would nab my first trout. But it was clear that the storm wasn’t going to pass, and we weren’t equipped for fishing in a deluge.

So we decided to pack it in. Long fish story short: I still, at the age of nearly 40, with fish in my blood and a dog-eared Norman Maclean paperback on my bookshelf, have yet to catch a fish.

I am taunted by waters.