I didn't break up with fly fishing

Ticks, waist deep mud and nymphing rigs
Photo: Jess McGlothlin / Jess McGlothlin Media

In February, I sat on the couch opposite of my boyfriend and muttered something vaguely resembling “This just doesn’t feel right. You know what I mean? I don’t know. You know?”

In the days that followed, through simultaneous feelings of regret and relief, I asked myself whether I had made the right move — would I ever find someone I feel even remotely as comfortable with as I felt with him? Would I ever feel okay seeing him with someone else? Would I ever be able to set up a nymphing rig without him?

Fly fishing is complicated for a relative beginner. It was made significantly less complicated by having a boyfriend who was a guide. One who loved teaching. He’d call me to go fishing and I’d grab my rod and wait for him in my driveway. He’d take me where I needed to go and he’d tell me what to fish, where to fish, how to tie my knots and that I needed to clean up my roll cast or that we had only a few more minutes until the spinner fall. All was right and easy in my fly fishing world.

That is, until the whats, wheres and hows of fly fishing were suddenly all on me.

After we split, I no longer had the luxury of having on hand not just a guide, but knot-tyer, professional line untangler, net handler and casting coach that I also happened to call my boyfriend. Instead, knots, matching hatches, buying equipment without the guidance of a live-in gear tester and learning to tie the flies that had been given to me for years — the most basic elements of fishing — had me stumped. I was a beginner for the first time, complete with all of complications that come with being one.

At first I was hopeful. I’d buy some materials and learn to tie my own flies, I figured. I’d spend all my free time on the river. I’d fuss over tippet, hatches and river reports. I’d set up nymphing rigs. I’d catch fish.

Turns out things aren’t that simple. My naive hopefulness waned. I was lost.

Literally lost. Being too stubborn to ask for help, I resorted to physical maps, websites, blog posts or anything else with any semblance of the knowledge that was once so readily imparted on me, but which I didn’t commit to memory nearly well enough. Once, after 15 miles of overgrown two tracks, my search for new water led me to what appeared on Google Maps to be a river crossing but in actuality the track simply descended a under cedar swamp filled with frogs and salamanders and spring run off. I regretted it then, on that skinny, waterlogged two track. Accepting defeat, I maneuvered a 16-point turn and drove to a spot I was familiar with — one of “our” spots.

I pored over Google Maps endlessly, hoping to find new places that weren’t where we had fished. I’d explore the landscape from the comfort of my desk, slide on my waders and hop in my car, hoping that things were as clear and easy to navigate in real life as they appeared on my computer screen. This, of course, was never the case.

A few weeks later, in the early summer, a smug but helpful shop employee offered some guidance as I inquired about hatches on a nearby river that I had never fished. “Flyfishing isn’t rocket science,” he said in a friendly tone while poking through the various dry flies in the tray in front of us. I had spent months losing fish to lousy hook sets and bad knots, and had read every how-to article about fishing streamers and casting more effectively that I could get my hands on. I wanted to tell him that fishing definitely feels like rocket science sometimes, but I refrained, protecting my already bruised ego.

I thought of where to go next, of what to try next, of how to improve my casting. I watched YouTube videos of guys tying Borcher’s Drakes, replicating their movements with painstaking focus. I Googled more effective ways to fish streamers, lamented high water and spooky fish to largely uninterested friends and still couldn’t escape the skunk.

I needed some universal love, a sign to keep going out, to keep tying bad knots, to keep breaking off on big fish and doing all those things that come with learning to fish but from which I had been so sheltered — the things that define fishing for most anglers but which had never truly defined it for me.

I practiced my roll casts. I finally (sort of) learned how to tie green drakes (“It’ll fish, I guess,” said a friend who prefers a spin reel) and bushwhacked to sections of river I would have never bushwhacked to if I had known what I was getting myself into (waist deep mud, no rising fish, ticks). I got snagged and tangled and broken off and stuck in so much mud I momentarily thought I was going to be stuck there forever. It was entirely experimental, and in that I had found what had been missing before — authenticity perhaps, but also the adversity that makes fishing so alluring.

A few days after my breakup, someone asked me whether I’d keep fishing or if I’d give it up because I was no longer dating the guy who taught me how to do it. Perhaps in spite of it, and amidst all the regret and overthinking, I made the conscious decision to not break up with fishing.

With frustration and fishless weeks only fueling the fire, I think it’s safe to say I haven’t.


Good piece. Glad you didn't give up/breakup with fly fishing. It can be intimidating but sounds like you're bright, curious, and able to figure it out. Congrats.

Thanks Tom. I'm trying. Going out tonight to get snagged on some logs and maybe JUST MAYBE hook up with something alive. Maybe. The journey is the destination, though...right?

Keep try'n. You'll be glad you did. It's not just about catching fish, but the process of learning something new.
Not only about fly fishing but about yourself too.

I loved this article because it really describes the challenges of being an outdoor woman in today's society, many of which are self-imposed. Every ordeal can instead be viewed as an adventure which will certainly lead us to a better place, even though we may go through many tangles getting there. (That's my problem; tangled leaders! Lol-gotta keep practicing!)

What you just described is all called fishing. The day you get that fish on your own fly with good knots is the most memorable day of your life. Nothing in life is easy fishing shouldn't always be easy you set yourself free when you left your guide now you can set yourself free to find the world of fishing welcome

When I first started fishing & for some time after that, I lived so many of your challenges. When you learn to fly fish, first one learns to untangle masses of knots! But, despite the knots, the snags, getting lost, and the many consecutive, fishless days, I could still feel how good it would feel when I actually got better! I really sensed what it would be like and that is what it is like! While I now also fish for salmon, smb, pike & musky(& hopefully carp, soon!), trout remain my greatest challenge. Go figure. But, if I didn't appreciate a challenge I wouldn't fly fish. Networking helps, esp as a woman, because from my perspective it is harder to find others to fish with. This gets better in time, too! I've met a lot of good people at fly fishing shows & at our local f.f club. No local f.fishing shop here but I now do business with many good ones via mail. If you ever come to Iowa - yes, Iowa- you can come fishing with me -- your adventurous ways are right up my alley! And yes, I really enjoyed your article. (: Stay fishy.

Thanks Twitch...glad I'm not the only one with the seemingly endless learning curve! And I agree...much harder to find women to fish with. So yes, if I'm ever heading through Iowa, I'll have to track you down!