Ever since I saw the film, A River Runs Through It, I’ve wanted to learn how to fly fish. The grace and beauty of those opening shots—Norman Maclean casting in the river at the golden hour, his line rolling like waves through the air—showed me it was possible to know stillness in movement. Nearly 20 years after those seeds were planted, I had my opportunity.
By Marie-Rose Phan-Lê
I believe that studying with a true master is the most efficient way to learn. I’d learned to golf in Scotland where the game was born and trekked to the Himalayas to discover the teachings of Tibetan mysticism. Now, I had my chance to learn to fly-fish on the river with a master fly guy who held a world record and several Master Angler Awards.
A 45-minute drive from Vail, Colo., led me to Paul in Rancho Del Rio. Paul runs his outfitter operation out of an old 20×10 log cabin on the banks of the Upper Colorado River marked by a little sign that reads, “Fly Shop.” The foyer walls were covered with snapshots of grinning folks holding up their trophy catches. I wondered: was I going to be lucky enough to have my mug-shot up there by the end of the day?
As Paul fired up his old whirring PC, he explained that we would be doing catch-and-release fishing. The idea caught me off guard. Catching a fish and then voluntarily setting it free goes against everything I’d been taught growing up in Vietnam—if you go to the trouble of fishing and you’re lucky enough to catch something, you should eat it! I could hear my mom admonishing me, “Troi oi (Oh Heavens)! All the starving people in the world, and you’re going to throw back perfectly good food?” I mentioned this casually to Paul, adding that if I wasn’t going to eat the thing, then I certainly didn’t want to harm it for the sake of sport. He eased my concerns by showing me the barbless hooks we’d be using and assuring me that we would take every precaution to minimize stress to the fish.
Learning something new means having to withstand the awkward, insecure feelings of being a beginner.
Our waders hung on a hook outside the cabin, next to a shelf that held our boots. As I put on my gear, the reality began to sink in. Learning something new means having to withstand the awkward, insecure feelings of being a beginner. That I was willing to do, but the girlie girl in me still wanted to look as good as possible while doing it. I was sporting a branded straw cowboy hat—something Kid Rock might wear—to keep the sun off my face, a red shell to protect from the wind, and tinted 15 SPF lip-gloss in a matching shade. Much to my disappointment, none of these attempts at looking glam overrode the bulbous effects of overall waders on a five-foot-one, well-endowed woman. As Paul cinched up the belt on the waders around my waist, he whispered, “This isn’t a fashion contest. We want you to be warm and comfortable.” As it turned out, among Paul’s many gifts was his ability to read minds, of both fish and humans.
Paul hadn’t always been a fishing guide. He’d spent time in rock bands, as a chef running resort kitchens, and making sure lift lines moved smoothly on Vail Mountain. He’d survived childhood leukemia and the loss of many loved ones, and through it all, fishing was the one constant that kept him afloat. Now, being able to call the Upper Colorado his office is a privilege that he believes comes with a great amount of responsibility for the stewardship of the river and its wildlife.
Paul explained: “Trout are a cold water species. The three main ingredients to good trout habitat is cold water, plenty of oxygen and plenty of food. Usually, if the water remains cold, the oxygen and food are a given.” But, with the threat of further flow diversion to the Front Range communities, the river and its inhabitants are at risk of the affluence being reduced to a trickle, and the waters becoming increasingly warm. Paul’s love for his cherished trout inspires him to do what he can to preserve this precious resource, whether it’s organizing community river cleanups, writing impassioned articles or educating his clients.
“That’s a four-dollar cast! Too much wrist snaps the line and you lose the fly. I’ll have to charge you four dollars for it every time!” Paul shouted from the boat launch as I was practicing my casts on shore.
Despite seeming preoccupied and being some fifty feet away from me, he could hear every miscast. “No wrist, no wrist! Quick up, 9 to 12 o’clock, pause, slow 12 to 9 . . . quick up, p-a-u-s-e, s—l—o—w forward.” I repeated the words again and again in my head, but my body insisted on doing just the opposite. It wasn’t until Paul stood next to me and demonstrated how graceful this dance is supposed to be that I could begin to imagine what he was trying to get me to do. I watched as he moved with economy, concentrated with ease, and dropped into a smooth rhythm. It was magical to witness, and something I aspired to.
The plan was for us to float downriver in the boat, get out at various points, and wade into the water to fish. Following that glimpse of a master at work, it seemed wrong that the teacher would have to row the student down the river. The wind had picked up to a howl, and even as Paul threw his entire body into each stroke, it was all he could do to keep us from being blown backward. I quickly swapped out my cowboy hat for a baseball cap cinched to the tightest notch. My carefully glossed lips began to chap.
When we finally made headway, Paul announced, “Honey holes, here we come!” A honey hole is a place known for having the greatest opportunity to land fish. It takes years of experience to know where these are because they are not always fixed locations. They are magical spots that can shift depending on environmental conditions and the current state of the fish population and its food supply.
Within a few minutes we arrived at Honey Hole #1. While thigh-deep in moving water, arguing with my wrist and getting tangled up in line, Paul landed the first fish of the day and started walking toward me with his rod. Before I knew it he’d taken my rod and I was holding his, with fish on the line ready to be brought in.
Oh, God, what do I do? Paul responded to my panic with his steady soft-spoken voice, “Tip up, tip up… don’t pull too hard, no need to force the line. You want to keep gentle steady pressure. You don’t want to muscle the fish.”Paul continued to coax me into shore, “When it fights, give it just a little slack, but not too much… easy… steady. Good, now move to safety, always move to safety toward the shore.”
On the river, I came to understand why my mother loved to fish so much. Fishing is, in essence, a nature lover’s form of gambling.
I hadn’t realized I’d been holding my breath until Paul arrived with the net and scooped up Big Beauty—an eighteen-inch wild brown trout. I exhaled as he slipped the smooth hook from the fish’s lip, all the while keeping it and the net underwater. He then began to whisper to the fish like an enchanted lover professing his affection. I learned later that a trout has not only inner ears, but also lateral lines, which are organs that allow it to sense sound along both sides of its body. I imagined what it would be like to sense those sweet nothings throughout my body.
It was time for the trout’s release. I wet my hands before touching it, so as not to disturb its natural protective film. Paul placed the fish in my hands. I could feel its power as it squirmed and fought to break free. I found myself hesitant to really get a grip on it. I worried about hurting it, and the fact that it made croaking noises as I held it didn’t help. I barely hung on to it long enough for Paul to snap a photo. The proper next step would have been to place it gently back in the water, let it get its bearings, and let it go. I, unfortunately, lost my grip and squealed like a schoolgirl as it flew out of my noncommittal grasp. I told Paul I felt like a phony having a picture taken with a fish I didn’t catch myself. “Well, now you’ll know what to do when you hook one.”
Now that Paul had shown me the first and the last steps, I now had to learn what happens in the middle. Mastering each of these steps was crucial to the art of fly-fishing. After reading the water—or, I should say, after Paul read the water and told me where to cast—I needed to strip the line, which entailed eliminating any slack in the line by pulling it in with my free hand just in front of the rod hand to ensure there was as little line on the water as possible. Seeing something as artificial as loops of line near the fly is a sure way to get fish to snub their noses at what the fly fisherman (or woman in my case) is offering. Then there is the technique of mending. Depending on the speed of the current, I was supposed to correct by either flipping the line behind the fly or in front of it. If the current took my line ahead of my fly, it would drag my fly at an unnatural speed, whereas if the current held my line back, it would stall my fly, both of which are unenticing to the fish. If I got all that right, I was to lift my arm and turn my body and the tip of the rod to follow the fly as it moved downstream.
I was so caught up in trying to perfect my form that I didn’t even realize I had gotten a tug. Paul waved his arms and screamed, “You got a hit!” In the seconds that I stood there with my jaw and pole tip dropped, the clever fish had just enough time and slack to break loose. With a flash of its shiny scales, it was gone. So started my streak of feeling like the class dunce.
No matter how many bites I got, I reacted each time as if it were a complete anomaly that a fish would actually be on my line while I was, yes, fishing. So focused was I on the casting, stripping, and mending business, that I actually tried to cast my line at one point with a fish on the other end. Paul couldn’t hide his laughter as he cheered me on I finally kicked into gear. I wasn’t about to lose face to another fish, especially in front of the paddle boarders and canoers that were rooting for me as they floated by. I dropped into the zone, lifted my tip up, and gently turned my reel. Backing my way toward shore, I nearly fell as the mud sucked my boots under. From the corner of my eye, I saw Paul hurrying toward the end of my line with the net. He was in deeper than he should have been, but he wanted to assure that he could scoop my prize up before I could do anything to let it get away. She wasn’t exactly a lunker, measuring only twelve inches, but she was my first wild brown beauty.
As exciting as the catch was, it was only the frosting on the cake. There were so many other moments of true immersion on the river that day—wading in the water, hearing the terrestrials (land bugs) waking, seeing beavers splashing in from shore, watching geese with goslings in tow, and being able to concentrate on this one great endeavor. Everything we did was done one step at a time. Paul knew when to untangle my line, replace my flies, or give me a sandwich when my blood sugar dropped; and he also knew when to leave me alone to figure things out on my own. I caught glimpses of Paul throughout the day, and I saw that even though he was mindful of his charge, he was also in a private place where he and the fish seemed to be in constant communication.
On the river that day I came to understand why my mother loved to fish so much. Fishing is, in essence, a nature lover’s form of gambling. Fishing requires you to use as much skill as possible to take advantage of the luck when it comes. On the other hand, Paul taught me that fly-fishing is not about going after the fish and trying to catch them. It is about setting up the perfect show—a drift that mimics naturally occurring phenomena, matching the way a nymph or a bug would move through or above the water. It is about creating a performance so graceful and natural that the fish are seduced by your craft. The gift of the drift is that magical place where preparation meets opportunity and where the mind can rest in the stillness of readied attention.