fish envy | fiSH ˈenvē

noun (pl. fish envies): a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s fish
andros island bonefish
A saltwater flat (photo: Chad Shmukler).

I’m not usually afflicted with envy or jealousy, at least not when it comes to angling. I guess I’ve caught enough fish over the years that I root for other folks to be successful regardless of whether I’m sticking a few myself.

A few years ago, though, I fished British Columbia’s Elk River with a guy I’ll call “B” and found myself just a wee bit jealous. Before I explain, allow me to backtrack for a second. If you’ve read my stories over the years, you know I typically write about trout, steelhead and salmon. It’s not that other species of fish — bass, say, or pike, or muskie, or bonefish — aren’t worthy of your attention, or mine. They are. But I live in Montana, which is Trout Central. We literally have the best wild trout fishing in the Lower 48, and its hard to turn my back on such incredible angling.

B, on the other hand, was both a neophyte when it comes to trout and an exceptional saltwater angler. While we were in British Columbia we talked about the Gulf of Mexico, and about B’s favorite saltwater flats, and about how some of the fish he targets — tarpon and tuna being just two examples — are big enough to eat your average rainbow trout and still have room left over for dessert. To be frank, it’s a little strange to hang out with a guy who, under slightly different circumstances, would refer to the largest fish of our BC trip as “bait.”

All of which led to a fascinating shift in my perspective. For the first time in pretty much forever, the guy pulling on his waders next to me didn’t automatically share my passion for trout. He was new to the cold water game, while I, for reasons I can’t quite explain, spent a fair amount of time trying to imagine what trout fishing might look like through the eyes of a seasoned saltwater angler.

And that’s where envy begins to raise its head. If I’m jealous of anyone on the stream, it’s the folks who are just starting out. They’re getting to experience the essence of trout fishing -- the excitement, the challenge, the passion — for the very first time. It’s almost as if they’re little kids on Christmas morning and those of us who’ve been around the block a few times have the good fortune of watching them open their presents.

Where B was different — and it’s hard to overstate this — is that he walked into the game with serious skills. Most beginning fly fishers are just learning how to cast, or how to handle a fly line. Their early successes are the result of trial & error, and dogged determination, and perhaps a touch of good luck.

B, on the other hand, had most of the necessary tools right off the bat. He might not have known how to read a trout stream, or the difference between a mayfly and a caddis, but the guy could fish. It was almost unfair how easily he picked it up, and if I’m going to be honest, then I should probably admit that fishing with such a talented neophyte made me just a tiny bit jealous. I kept thinking about how much fun it must be to walk into a brand new angling experience and enjoy almost instantaneous success.

So now that I’ve seen a saltwater angler jump into trout fishing and shine, I have a confession to make. I have never, ever fished the salt with a fly rod. Not for bonefish, or blues, or tarpon, or anything else. It’s never really been a priority — when you think about it, it’s hard to fall in love with something you’ve never experienced -- and I always knew that fishing Belize or the Bahamas could get me in trouble with my better half. Molly, bless her heart, already puts up with my trout fishing. I’d rather not return home from Andros Island to find the divorce papers drawn up and all my stuff sitting on the front deck.

After watching B, though, I have to wonder whether I should throw caution to the wind and give bonefish and tarpon a shot. If a saltwater guy can fly north, jump on a trout stream and have a blast, who’s to say a trout fisherman couldn’t reverse polarity and do the same thing?

There’s something awfully alluring about the idea of becoming a beginner again, with all the joy and uncertainty that entails — and without, I should add, having to start completely from scratch. I don’t have the foggiest idea about how to read a tide, or fish a flat, or catch a tailing permit, but after fishing with B, I’m wondering if that may actually be a good thing.

So if you find yourself wading a pristine flat when the pandemic is in the rear view mirror, and if you bump into a guy with a big smile on his face yet no clue what he’s doing, there’s a chance — maybe not a big one, but a chance — that I snuck out of Montana long enough to stick my toes in saltwater. At the same time, if there’s a style of fly fishing you haven’t tried yet, or a particular species on your bucket list, take a cue from B and give it a shot.

After all, who doesn’t want to be that wide-eyed kid on Christmas morning?