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.