Time for One Thing: Fly-Fishing

With my father at my side, I finally learned how to 'read the water' like a true angler.


Karen Laws
September 21, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

I fished the Taylor Fork of the Gallatin River for years before I saw
the hole. Even when my father pointed right at it and said, "I got a few out
of that one," I couldn't see the difference between the hole and the rest
of the stream. I could tie a blood knot, cast a two-fly rig and play big
rainbows; but I didn't know how to "read the water," angler-speak for the
ability to distinguish between good water, where the fish are, and the parts
of the stream where your odds of finding a fish are only slightly better
than getting iced tea out of your backyard garden hose. When it came to reading the water, I was like a preschooler who turns the pages of "The Runaway Bunny" while
"reading" aloud from memory. I fished the good and bad water indiscriminately
-- until this year, when I saw the hole, and got a nice
fish out of it, too.

On the first day of my vacation in Montana, I left my kids with a sitter
and went with Dad to get my license at Gallatin River Guides, where
he knows the owner. "How's the Taylor Fork fishing?" he asks Steve. With
his arms full of waders, Steve talks about the nasty biting flies that are
terrorizing anglers on the Upper Gallatin and gives us the straight scoop
on the Taylor Fork: It's muddy. Dad and I head down 191 into the
Gallatin River canyon, and after assembling our tackle, hop over
the guardrail and hike downstream with semis roaring by about two feet to
our right. In between trucks, Dad talks over his shoulder about the
turbulence of the river, erosion of the road bank, the closing of fishing
access points. His limp has gotten worse since the last time I saw him, but
when I ask about the pain, he says only that the doctor has advised him to
postpone hip surgery for as long as he can stand it.

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Dad is far more comfortable interpreting the world around him than
talking about himself. I'm not surprised when he cuts short our conversation by pointing out a couple of guys in the river a hundred yards downstream and suggesting that I scramble down the bank to the water's edge. He'll go a bit farther and fish up behind me.

Let those other guys spend the afternoon waist deep in the current,
making elegant narrow-loop casts for truck drivers to admire. Like my
father, I stay on shore and make short casts close to shore, always
moving upstream. Instead of bulky waders, I have on stretch pants and
lug-sole boots: gear that won't slow me down as I go. After each cast, I "mend," which means picking up my line from the water so I can get a few seconds of "drag-free float" before the current pulls my fly
downstream. Then I take two steps and cast again.

Dad has taken me and my younger brother fishing ever since we were kids, but back then his own fanatical pursuit of the sport left him no time for
teaching us. Nowadays, he'll tell me, "Mend your line!" or "You're not waiting long enough on your backcast!" but in those days he expected us to learn by observing him and practicing on our own. This preference for teaching by example went way beyond fishing. Dad never made rules for my brother and me; Mom had to be the disciplinarian. As I grew older, I yearned for boundaries, limits: anything that would make it easier to know where I stood with him. But Dad went on treating both my brother and me as his buddies, a role I grew into very slowly.

Between casts, I glance up at the vivid canyon walls, then over at the
dark firs and spruces on the opposite bank. I hear bird song and see the
caddis flies swirling up from a bush. A flotilla of river rafters appears
around the bend. Despite my brisk pace, I'm hyperaware of my surroundings,
maybe because I can't walk fast over a rock slide and daydream at the same
time. There's a shout from Dad, and I turn to see him holding up a
wiggling, 3-inch trout. He loves to show off tiny fish; they seem to make
him happier than the big ones. I yodel my appreciation, then cast again.
Cast, mend, take two steps: I'm getting into the rhythm now. Dad covers the
water even faster than I do, and he's just steps behind me when a chunky
10-inch brown hits my fly. "Right where he should be," says Dad. I bring
the fish to shore and let him go, excited not just by my successful catch,
but because the water looked "fishy" there. A page of this rippling text
just became legible to me.

The next day we go to the Taylor Fork. With typical murkiness, Dad
offers me some tips: "Step down onto this and throw your line like that
near this." Thanks, coach. After a couple of fishless hours, we decide to
try the Upper Gallatin, where swarms of snipe flies chase us back into the
safety of our car. We nurse ourselves with a couple of horseradishy Bloody
Marys at The Corral, a popular watering hole where the patrons outnumber
the animal pelts, but not by much. The restrooms are labeled "Bucks" and
"Does," and if you're still not sure which one to use, look for the beaver
nailed to the ceiling above the door to the left. "I love this bar," I tell
Dad. "It's nice to be with someone who appreciates it, unlike your Mom,"
he mutters in reply. Then I do what any good buddy would: glance up at the TV and start talking baseball.

When Dad and I try the Taylor Fork again three days later, we find the
water clear and the level close to perfect. A chalkline of snow marks the
peaks to the west, and a lemon-wedge moon hangs on the rim of the sky.
Because of the late rains, the wildflowers are terrifically abundant and
diverse: Along the banks we spy sunny yellow cinquefoil, old man's beard,
mountain bluebells and sticky geranium. Competing with our rods and lines for air space are long paragraphs of insects, pages upon pages of
butterflies and robins so fat it's a wonder they leave the ground.

Advertisement:

Fishing rapidly upstream, I come to the hole. My eyes detect nothing
unusual at first; no waterfall or gravel bar gives it away. A couple of
large boulders create a channel, but boulders and channels are everywhere
on this stream. It's only when I cast that I see the difference. My fly, a
#10 yellow stimulator with a prince nymph dropper, looks good in this
water. Really good. Before I could see the stream this way, I had
to learn to execute the drag-free float -- hard to do in your garden-hose-variety water -- but now, with my fly line working for me like a highlighter pen, I'm ready for Water Reading 1A. Here comes Mr. Rainbow, up from the rocky bottom to eat my nymph. Thanks to the phonetics of casting and line control, I'm moving on to whole-language concepts like cover and depth in the Catch-22 that is fly-fishing.

We spend our last day on the Madison, leaving the house at 6 a.m. to get
on the river by 7:30. The early start is my idea, and Dad grumbles that the
angle of the sun on the water makes it impossible to see his fly. He
worries out loud about a fly box that may or may not have fallen out of a
vest pocket he forgot to zip, and I hear the fear in his voice when he
complains, "I'm forgetting a lot of things these days." Our boots sink into
the muck as we cross the low end of somebody's cow pasture, where a flock
of Canadian geese are grazing. This is the spring crop of chicks, Dad tells
me, tiny things when he first saw them a few months before. All the geese
look full grown now, but he's found a reliable way of telling the
difference between generations: The senior members of the tribe stand
guard over their young. "The parents are the only ones not eating. See?
They're watching us. They won't lower their heads again until after we're
gone."

Because I'm his daughter, I want to read fatherly tenderness into this
observation, but he's probably just talking about the geese. That's OK.
Sometimes you fish the good water without getting a strike. This is my day to fish with Dad, and I'm going to make the most of it.

I fished the Taylor Fork of the Gallatin River for years before I saw
the hole. Even when my father pointed right at it and said, "I got a few out
of that one," I couldn't see the difference between the hole and the rest
of the stream. I could tie a blood knot, cast a two-fly rig and play big
rainbows; but I didn't know how to "read the water," angler-speak for the
ability to distinguish between good water, where the fish are, and the parts
of the stream where your odds of finding a fish are only slightly better
than getting iced tea out of your backyard garden hose. When it came to reading the water, I was like a preschooler who turns the pages of "The Runaway Bunny" while
"reading" aloud from memory. I fished the good and bad water indiscriminately
-- until this year, when I saw the hole, and got a nice
fish out of it, too.

Advertisement:

On the first day of my vacation in Montana, I left my kids with a sitter
and went with Dad to get my license at Gallatin River Guides, where
he knows the owner. "How's the Taylor Fork fishing?" he asks Steve. With
his arms full of waders, Steve talks about the nasty biting flies that are
terrorizing anglers on the Upper Gallatin and gives us the straight scoop
on the Taylor Fork: It's muddy. Dad and I head down 191 into the
Gallatin River canyon, and after assembling our tackle, hop over
the guardrail and hike downstream with semis roaring by about two feet to
our right. In between trucks, Dad talks over his shoulder about the
turbulence of the river, erosion of the road bank, the closing of fishing
access points. His limp has gotten worse since the last time I saw him, but
when I ask about the pain, he says only that the doctor has advised him to
postpone hip surgery for as long as he can stand it.

Dad is far more comfortable interpreting the world around him than
talking about himself. I'm not surprised when he cuts short our conversation by pointing out a couple of guys in the river a hundred yards downstream and suggesting that I scramble down the bank to the water's edge. He'll go a bit farther and fish up behind me.

Let those other guys spend the afternoon waist deep in the current,
making elegant narrow-loop casts for truck drivers to admire. Like my
father, I stay on shore and make short casts close to shore, always
moving upstream. Instead of bulky waders, I have on stretch pants and
lug-sole boots: gear that won't slow me down as I go. After each cast, I "mend," which means picking up my line from the water so I can get a few seconds of "drag-free float" before the current pulls my fly
downstream. Then I take two steps and cast again.

Advertisement:

Dad has taken me and my younger brother fishing ever since we were kids, but back then his own fanatical pursuit of the sport left him no time for
teaching us. Nowadays, he'll tell me, "Mend your line!" or "You're not waiting long enough on your backcast!" but in those days he expected us to learn by observing him and practicing on our own. This preference for teaching by example went way beyond fishing. Dad never made rules for my brother and me; Mom had to be the disciplinarian. As I grew older, I yearned for boundaries, limits: anything that would make it easier to know where I stood with him. But Dad went on treating both my brother and me as his buddies, a role I grew into very slowly.

Between casts, I glance up at the vivid canyon walls, then over at the
dark firs and spruces on the opposite bank. I hear bird song and see the
caddis flies swirling up from a bush. A flotilla of river rafters appears
around the bend. Despite my brisk pace, I'm hyperaware of my surroundings,
maybe because I can't walk fast over a rock slide and daydream at the same
time. There's a shout from Dad, and I turn to see him holding up a
wiggling, 3-inch trout. He loves to show off tiny fish; they seem to make
him happier than the big ones. I yodel my appreciation, then cast again.
Cast, mend, take two steps: I'm getting into the rhythm now. Dad covers the
water even faster than I do, and he's just steps behind me when a chunky
10-inch brown hits my fly. "Right where he should be," says Dad. I bring
the fish to shore and let him go, excited not just by my successful catch,
but because the water looked "fishy" there. A page of this rippling text
just became legible to me.

The next day we go to the Taylor Fork. With typical murkiness, Dad
offers me some tips: "Step down onto this and throw your line like that
near this." Thanks, coach. After a couple of fishless hours, we decide to
try the Upper Gallatin, where swarms of snipe flies chase us back into the
safety of our car. We nurse ourselves with a couple of horseradishy Bloody
Marys at The Corral, a popular watering hole where the patrons outnumber
the animal pelts, but not by much. The restrooms are labeled "Bucks" and
"Does," and if you're still not sure which one to use, look for the beaver
nailed to the ceiling above the door to the left. "I love this bar," I tell
Dad. "It's nice to be with someone who appreciates it, unlike your Mom,"
he mutters in reply. Then I do what any good buddy would: glance up at the TV and start talking baseball.

Advertisement:

When Dad and I try the Taylor Fork again three days later, we find the
water clear and the level close to perfect. A chalkline of snow marks the
peaks to the west, and a lemon-wedge moon hangs on the rim of the sky.
Because of the late rains, the wildflowers are terrifically abundant and
diverse: Along the banks we spy sunny yellow cinquefoil, old man's beard,
mountain bluebells and sticky geranium. Competing with our rods and lines for air space are long paragraphs of insects, pages upon pages of
butterflies and robins so fat it's a wonder they leave the ground.

Fishing rapidly upstream, I come to the hole. My eyes detect nothing
unusual at first; no waterfall or gravel bar gives it away. A couple of
large boulders create a channel, but boulders and channels are everywhere
on this stream. It's only when I cast that I see the difference. My fly, a
#10 yellow stimulator with a prince nymph dropper, looks good in this
water. Really good. Before I could see the stream this way, I had
to learn to execute the drag-free float -- hard to do in your garden-hose-variety water -- but now, with my fly line working for me like a highlighter pen, I'm ready for Water Reading 1A. Here comes Mr. Rainbow, up from the rocky bottom to eat my nymph. Thanks to the phonetics of casting and line control, I'm moving on to whole-language concepts like cover and depth in the Catch-22 that is fly-fishing.

We spend our last day on the Madison, leaving the house at 6 a.m. to get
on the river by 7:30. The early start is my idea, and Dad grumbles that the
angle of the sun on the water makes it impossible to see his fly. He
worries out loud about a fly box that may or may not have fallen out of a
vest pocket he forgot to zip, and I hear the fear in his voice when he
complains, "I'm forgetting a lot of things these days." Our boots sink into
the muck as we cross the low end of somebody's cow pasture, where a flock
of Canadian geese are grazing. This is the spring crop of chicks, Dad tells
me, tiny things when he first saw them a few months before. All the geese
look full grown now, but he's found a reliable way of telling the
difference between generations: The senior members of the tribe stand
guard over their young. "The parents are the only ones not eating. See?
They're watching us. They won't lower their heads again until after we're
gone."

Because I'm his daughter, I want to read fatherly tenderness into this
observation, but he's probably just talking about the geese. That's OK.
Sometimes you fish the good water without getting a strike. This is my day to fish with Dad, and I'm going to make the most of it.

Advertisement:

Karen Laws

Karen Laws lives in Berkeley, where she is at work on a novel.

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