Five inches forever: The small fish that left a big mark.
I’m now deep into my fly fishing conversion. At this point, I comfortably speak the language and can decipher rod, reel, line and leader equations - a feat that seemed insurmountable when I first followed the white rabbit down the fly fishing hole. My content consumption is at an all time high. I’m a compulsive obsessor by nature. Pair that with a pandemic-induced global shutdown and my search history has propelled to a level I can only describe as manic. With all of that being said, I’ve spent a limited amount of time on the water putting theory into practice. Reading, listening, and watching video certainly helps you grasp the concepts, but you really only learn by doing. That is remarkably true when it comes to fly fishing.
My fixation with the sport is founded in its aesthetics. I first started focusing on fly fishing early last year. I love the look of a spooled reel, the poetry of a perfect cast, and, of course, flies in all of their feathery, fluffy goodness. If you follow our @chasingtidesco account, you’ll see there’s an abundance of fly fishing content. Ryan, aka the Newt as we affectionately refer to him, is our in house fly guy. A lot of my influence came from the Newter. Eventually, Ryan gave me a rod to test out. It took me about 5 minutes of casting in my backyard to realize I needed to do this. So I bought some flies and I spent time casting in the yard and at local ponds and rivers. Some flirtatious fish gave me entertainment but none decided to pick up what I was putting down.
My luck changed this past winter. With the help of a friend, Chris Sobrito (@thefinfinder),
Ryan and I took a trip to a lower section of Shenandoah National Park. The mission; small stream brook trout. I was stoked. This was the first time I was chasing trout with a fly rod. For most of my life I’ve fished conventional gear primarily in the salt and brackish water tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. To head west and fish smaller water in the mountains was a welcome change of pace. So we discussed logistics, made our plan, and hit the road about 5am one late winter Sunday. The trip took about two hours heading West of Richmond on I-64 through central Virginia wine country. Born and bred in the Old Dominion, I still get the warm fuzzies every time I get in sightline of the Blue Ridge’s rolling hills.
We scaled the unpaved inclines of the lower Shenandoah, and my eyes were unrelentingly fixed on the small mountain stream that paralleled us. Our wheels rolled eagerly north as its waters flowed patiently south. I was thinking about trout. Trout are the universal language of fly fishing. Picture a fisherman wading in a river and drifting dry flies for fish. That is the image of the sport. My mind wandered to the history behind fly fishing, and the countless other anglers who had found meaning on the mountain. A lot of what you see in fly fishing media right now is huge game fish, and destination trip glory. Don’t get me wrong, I would absolutely love the opportunity one day to fight a Tarpon in the Florida Keys, or wrangle a Golden Dorado somewhere in the jungles of Bolivia. I've got a lot of learning to do before that, and in this moment I was consumed by the thought of my first fish on a fly rod being a trout in the small streams of Appalachia. I didn’t want anything else.
We parked, filed out, and geared up. Our plan was to walk south and work our way back up through the morning. The anticipation was really building as we hiked down the mountain. I was wearing a dimwitted grin and shimmering like a blunt peacock in my new waders. Any time I’m on the water I get like that, but this was a whole new experience. After a mile or so we strayed off to an inviting pool at the base of a small falls. There were some large overhanging rocks shooting shadows on the water and providing a safe haven for spooky brook trout. Our plan was to start out using nymphs and fish below the surface, but we quickly realized fish were rising to small bugs on top of the water. Equipped with a small purple Parachute Adams, I crept along the bank until I was about a 20 foot shot away from the base of the falls. I was jittery. My initial casts were poorly aimed, and the first thing I caught was the sapling behind me.
My fourth cast placed the fly perfectly where the running water from the falls married the calmer water below and bubbled slowly. The small fly drifted idly through the interior of the pool, and just as I went to pull it out of the water and cast again a flash of white propelled from underneath. Holy shit. I know that tug. Fish on. My right hand lifted the rod tip towards the sky as my left hand tightened around the line it was holding. I looked over at Ryan who was screaming and smiling in animated support. My head jerked back towards the fish. I felt the line loosen and watched the rod snap back straight. Dumbfounded and frozen, that old familiar feeling all anglers know too well took over. Just like that, as quickly as it emerged, it was gone again. It’s funny how time can manipulate a moment to both slow down and speed up simultaneously. After a few seconds in disbelief, the words “God dammit dude,” ejected from my mouth. We laughed, I took some advice, and kept fishing. For the next couple of hours we worked our way upstream towards where we’d parked the truck. The fish were definitely feeding, and willing to test our flies, but we didn’t have much luck landing anything. It was about 10am when Chris finally corralled the first fish of the day. Thankful to avoid a skunk, we waded on.
We came within sight of the truck, and there was a nice spot at the base of a five or six foot drop-off that Ryan and Chris were fishing. I climbed the rocks to a small upper pool above it. This was the last section I was going to try before we regrouped at the truck. The pool was only a few feet wide and about 12-18 inches deep. It could have easily been passed over without much thought of any fish holding inside. I noticed a submerged rock angled up from the bottom, directly under where water was flowing in from the stream above. If I was a trout, I would be under that rock. So I took a shot and drifted my fly right over top of it. A white dart came out and hit the fly immediately, but I wasn’t able to set the hook. As I've learned, hungry brook trout will often give you a second chance if not hooked. I mad another cast that wasn’t accurate enough and drifted unnoticed about 6 inches away from where I had placed the first. The margin of error in this type of fishing is infuriatingly addicting. I tried again and dropped the fly exactly where I wanted it. I watched as it followed the same drift that had enticed the fish moments ago. Boom. He came right back out and smashed it. This time I set the hook. After a few seconds of playing the fish I swung him onto the rocks beside me. Ecstatic, I sent a “Yew! Yew!” down to Ryan who sprinted up to join me. The level of excitement a five inch fish can give a grown man is inconceivable.
Finally, after months of obsessing, I held in my fingertips an absolutely beautiful native brook trout. We admired the fish quickly and then released it, making sure it fully recovered before we took off. I am so thankful for that fish. I hope it lives forever. It’s incredible how such a small animal, entirely unintentionally, can provide something so meaningful for a human. That feeling, that memory, will stay with me forever. My 10 month old daughter will know that story, and I sincerely hope she cares enough to create one for herself.
The three of us met at the truck, collected ourselves and drove a little further up the mountain. For the next couple of hours we worked an awesome section of the same stream. We all caught fish. I learned so much that morning, and it triggered something in me that I can’t shake. Our hope, and the reason we started Chasing Tides was to encourage everyone to discover something they love, and live a life that keeps them connected to it. Landing that fish was such an important reminder of that for me. So, when it’s safe to do so again, go land your first fish...so to speak. Keep chasing the moments that last, and be thankful for the opportunities you get to do so.