I knew in the time I walked the ten feet from my dorm room stairwell in Sijan Hall to his blue Land Rover that my day on the river would be cold. I wore a tattered denim coat that never kept me warm, but reminded me of my time in Montana, and beneath that, cotton long johns, jeans and a t-shirt.
I opened the door and smiled. “Hey”
“Hey there. Throw your stuff in the back.”
He met me behind the vehicle as the rear door mechanically opened. When it was halfway up, he reached in and stacked a clear plastic box from the right side onto another box on the left. His waders were neatly folded inside the top box. A fishing vest and several fly boxes were organized in the bottom. I set my crumpled olive drab waders in the space on the right, then pressed down on my vest, set my reel on top, and laid my rod on an angle across the rest of the gear. The waders were a basic, hundred dollar pair from Orvis. His recommendation.
The reel was a simple Ross he handed to me months earlier after he saw my Walmart reel and couldn’t “let me fish with that”.
The drive was mostly quiet. He drank coffee and I tried to make out the mountains through the trees as the light slowly touched the rocks.
The road to Cheeseman Canyon was chips of crushed red rocks that pooled in the mud along the side where snow had melted. The tires hummed on the hard packed dirt, spitting grit against the wheel wells as we followed the sharp curves and steep hills. Two trucks were parked when we arrived. Both had bed covers with fly fishing stickers in the windows, and rod vaults on top.
“Guess we aren’t the first ones here.” I felt the heat leaving my clothes when I opened the door.
“No. Weekends, this place gets lotta pressure.”
The back of the SUV began opening and I started working to get into my new waders. Loosening the laces of my running shoes until the neoprene booties squeezed in with barely enough lace left to tie a small knot. With the waders on, I began threading line through the guides of my forty dollar fly rod.
“Do you have BWOs?” He asked.
“I think so.” And held up my fly box. “These green guys, right? Blue Winged Olives.”
“Yup. Those will work. Tie one of those suckers on.”
I did. He waited until I pulled the fly down and secured it to my rod before he started walking. The vehicle beeped behind us as he put his keys in a pouch on his chest of his waders. I followed him.
“Is this the South Platte too?”
“Yes. Last time we came in the other direction and walked down from the dam.”
The light on the rocks above us made sharp black shadows in hard edges and lines that shot through the trees. I knew it would be hours before the warmth on those rocks reached us. I switched the rod from one hand to the other as we walked, working to keep the free hand warm with my breath and by making fists.
It was quiet, and then I heard the river. It grew louder as we walked briskly onward. There was still dew on the Earth when the path opened up to it. My hands were wet from brushing against the tall grass. Sunlight carved patches into the tops of round boulders that made the canyon walls. Some of them lay along the path and in the river where they had fallen years ago.
The water rolled over the boulders forming deep green pockets and seams that ran into crystal clear water against the colorful stone riverbeds that separated the flow and made every part of the river look as if it was made for trout to live in. And it was.
It seemed as if you could fish all day in one hundred yards of water and always feel like you were in the best spot on the river.
I stared through the river where the shapes of the rocks moved with the current and then a flash revealed a trout moving to eat the tiny insects that flowed downstream to where they hovered back and forth, sliding in the current. We kept walking.
When he stopped, we stood next to each other watching the river. I pointed where I saw two fish. They were visible in the riffles for a moment and then hidden again.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of fish in this river. And they see a lot of flies. Let’s head upstream. I’ve got a good spot.”
The path wound along the water and then back through the grass that bordered smaller trees sparsely rising up from cracks and gaps in the large boulders that littered the terrain and rose up to a blue sky. The river held my eyes.
Around a bend, two men stood waist deep and thirty yards apart. Both in grey waders and fat vests taking turns casting into water dark from the shadows. Their movements were smooth and deliberate. I had not learned the importance of how even their drift was. A cast upstream, a large mend, then high sticks and smaller mends working the drift. White yarn indicators showed me their line.
He stopped again after we had walked past and looked back at them. Speaking softly, as if they might hear him.
“This is a good spot. I was hoping no one was here, but that’s okay. I’ve got a better one.”
Around a steep cliff we approached a treefall from the opposite side of the river that created a steep chute of fast water between it and a cluster of boulders that churned seams on both sides. Below the tree and behind the rocks, ripples marked the place where trout lightly rose, like soft, slow rain.
“Here.” He pulled a small fly box from his vest, opened it, and pinched a tiny, black speck of a fly with scant fluorescent wings. He dropped it in my outreached hand. I held it up to my eyes.
“Trico.” He said.
He was fishing before I had started to tie it onto my BWO. By the time I finished his rod was bent against a flashing rainbow. I watched him fight and land it, wet his hands, then raise it briefly from the water and set it back. The water splashed as the fish left his hand.
He waded back and showed me where and how to cast straight upstream to the rising fish. I stripped the line quickly to keep it from becoming slack.
Over and over I saw fish bump the surface to slurp my fly and every time I missed, ripping the flies out.
“Strip that slack line and then just raise the rod tip up. It’s hard, but try not to snatch it.”
Eventually, I had a few fish on, but lost them. I should have caught a dozen.
“All you need is a tight line. The trout will do some of the work. It doesn’t take that much.” Then he let me go. After a while the fish stopped rising. I knew it was over and looked at him.
“It takes time.” He said.
He barely fished while he talked to me. The day was just beginning and so was my journey in fly fishing. I am always learning, but I learned what was possible by watching him.
The Value of a Fly Fishing Mentor.
This story is one of many experiences that taught me the importance of having a fly fishing mentor.
Whether you are just beginning or have been at it for years, one of the great aspects of fly fishing is there is always more to learn. I love the challenge, and like most challenging things in life, I have always come out better on the other side with help along the way.
A mentor can provide motivation and provide advice on everything from where to park your truck to what type of wading boots to buy, to how to set the hook. But it is not just about the right advice, it is about the right advice for you. Everyone is different. A mentor is valuable because they know you, and they know what you need to know.
Unfortunately, it is not as easy as just deciding to “have” a mentor. If you have ever been told at work that you “need a mentor”, or that you should “mentor someone”, you understand this.
Relationships develop over time and are based on trust and understanding. Mentors are like this.
It might be a family member or a close friend. A teacher, or co-worker. Even establishing connections with local guide shops or fly fishing clubs could provide someone to bounce things off and help you go and learn. There is no one size fits all answer to where to seek out this special bond but keep your eyes open and chances are you will find it. There are too many people that love the sport in the same way as you to not find them eventually.
What About the Internet?
Disclaimer: I am a fan of YouTube and Google in the pursuit of learning to fly fish. There is an endless wealth of knowledge online, much of which is extremely detailed and useful.
However, sometimes navigating to your exact topic or question can be a little tricky on the internet. It is the difference between reading the fishing report from a website or talking to your friend that fished there yesterday.
You can get very specific answers extremely quickly if you have someone who not only knows the river, but more importantly knows you and your skill level.
A good fly fishing mentor will answer the questions you do not know to ask. They know what information will help you more than you know yourself.
A True Teacher
Mike Haynie commissioned me as an officer on 29 May, 2002. He was my accounting teacher, an excellent officer and an outstanding fly fisherman. We fished the streams in Colorado while I was in school, and I learned more every time we went.
After graduation, I spent the next sixteen years of my life training for and deploying to the war. Scarce time for fly fishing, but I did my best. I could always close my eyes and be wading through a cold river on a warm day. The current pushing against my shins. Surrounded by the smells of aspen trees and sounds of flowing water below the Rocky Mountains.
He taught me hook sets, flies, drag, line management, and the importance of a natural drift. He introduced me to nymphing and strike indicators and advised me on what gear was needed and what was fluff.
Always happier to see me catch a fish than to set the hook himself, he never simply took me fly fishing, he was teaching me to be a fly fisherman.
He remains a true teacher, dedicated to serving our veterans:
Thank you, sir.