When I first started fly fishing back in the ‘80s, I used to drive forty five minutes to a lonesome stretch of river, leave the pavement behind for a bumpy dirt road that twisted through the maples and oaks of rural New England, park, and then hike a half mile or more down an overgrown trail through the briars and brambles that paralleled the river’s edge.
As you can imagine, very few folks fished that particular stretch. It was tough to access, and the river was deep and hard to wade, and it didn’t hold nearly as many trout as the more popular catch & release water a couple of miles upstream. Which meant it was perfect for me. And not because I was looking for easier trout or because I was hoping for a backcountry experience, but because I was convinced that if an actual fly fisher came along and saw me thrashing the water he would no doubt consider it an affront to America’s storied angling tradition. I honestly believed that anyone who saw me on the river would have to avert their eyes lest my bumblings be burned into their memory forever.
And no, I’m not kidding. I was so ashamed of my casting and my general lack of skills that I invariably picked my fishing holes based on my odds of running into other fishermen. If I was likely to see someone on a given section of river, I simply wouldn’t fish there ... and that self-consciousness lasted for at least my first year with a fly rod, which encompassed a minimum of 80 or 90 after-work and weekend excursions. Fast forward a few years and it’s hard to believe that the original poster boy for ugly casting ended up guiding fishermen on the Henry’s Fork and the Madison.
Fortunately, I kept running into people who inspired my growth as an angler. I can’t tell you how many fly fishers - including some of the true giants of our sport - took the time to share their wisdom and experience with me, but I received way more helpful advice than I deserved. Which is one of the reasons I started writing. When you’ve been the recipient of as many valuable fishing lessons as I have, it would be incredibly selfish not to turn around and share at least some of that information with other folks.
Of course, not all of those lessons were easy to learn. Back in the ‘90s a handful of the best anglers I knew used to sit on the eastern bank of the Henry’s Fork and play the “10 Cast” game. We’d wait for the hatch to start and then pick out one of those oversized PHD fish rising on the flat water in Last Chance. We each had 10 casts to hook that fish, with no fly changes allowed. If you didn’t get him in your allotted window, you sat down and someone else took your place. And to make things even harder, the anglers waiting their turn on the bank would comment on almost every cast and drift and hook-set. If you couldn’t keep it together while some truly stellar fishermen critiqued your skills, offered advice and and shouted the occasional insult, you were in for a rough time.
So now, with 30+ years of fly fishing in the rearview mirror, I thought it might be helpful to share some of my all-time favorite fly fishers - my dream team, if you will - with the hope that folks who’ve come to the sport more recently would benefit from learning about some of the all-time greats. With a little luck, you’ll be inspired to learn more about the true giants of our sport.
Lee always seemed like the ultimate explorer. He jumped in his plane and pushed the boundaries of what was possible for a fly fisher, then wrote about it for those of us without the means to travel so freely. I remember Lee, who was known far & wide for the Wulff series of flies, describing how he caught a 20 lb. steelhead on a size 20 fly. The idea that anyone could catch such a huge fish on such a small fly simply blew me away.
I had the opportunity to spend a few days with Leon, who was known far & wide as “America’s fly fishing ambassador to the world.” While he told me incredible stories about synchronized fly casting in front of huge crowds to the music of a live orchestra, the thing that truly impressed me was how warm, generous and kind he was. I’ve met a lot of amazing people in my life, but very few have cleared the bar that Leon set. He was not only a supremely talented angler, but also a true gentleman.
Joe, like Lee Wulff, was another fly fisher who opened my eyes to the possibilities of travel and exotic destinations. He made places like Argentina seem real to someone who’d never fished further away than the county line, and he helped awaken an angling wanderlust that has served me well for my entire adult life.
When I was a kid, I used to read Ted Trueblood’s Field & Stream stories under my blankets with a flashlight. When Ted wrote a column about the time he fished my favorite local stream, I literally couldn’t believe it. It was as if Mickey Mantle or Sandy Koufax was playing ball at the local field. Trueblood, with his gentle humor and engaging wit, showed me what Oz taught Dorothy; be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.
I have a passion for steelhead, an itch that, no matter how many times I try, I can never quite scratch. Roderick Haig-Brown, who wrote with understated elegance about his love for, and connection to, steelhead, was literally the man who opened my eyes to the fish of my dreams.
If there’s a better fly fishing writer than John Gierach, I’ve never heard of him. His books Trout Bum and The View From Rat Lake pointed me towards the fly fishing mecca of the northern Rockies. In a very real sense, Gierach showed me it was possible to live a life immersed in fly fishing.
Rene` happens to be one of the finest anglers and fly tyers alive, and I’ll be forever in his debt for the many, many, many hours that he and I talked fly fishing, and fly tying, and life in general, on the banks of the Henry’s Fork.
Gary was the John Coltrane of fly fishing. He saw things other people didn’t see, and made connections that other anglers never even thought to consider. His books Caddisflies and The Dry Fly: New Angles advanced the art of angling by leaps and bounds.
I learned more about fly casting from Mel Krieger and his “Essence of Fly Casting” videos than anyone else I’ve ever met. I used to watch those videos over and over and over, to the point that Mel’s instruction eventually became an intrinsic part of the way I cast.
Andy was one of fly fishing’s true Renaissance Men and he had a real knack for teaching the sport in a way that clarified and simplified an incredibly complex endeavor. Andy passed a while back, but when I visit the Henry’s Fork I can still hear his rumbling laugh and see him pointing towards a rising fish with his pipe.
Simply put, Nick showed the world that fly fishing has a subtle, innate grace and that, if we slow down and immerse ourselves in the moment, we might even brush up ￼￼￼￼￼￼against that grace ourselves. His book Spring Creek remains one of the finest collection of fly fishing stories ever published.
There’s not much I can say about Maclean that hasn’t already been said. The man, whether through inspiration or perspiration or sheer, overarching talent, showed us the truth and the beauty of what we do. I read A River Runs Through It years before the movie came out, and I was left, as Jim Harrison once wrote, with the feeling of walking around for days with the wind knocked out of me.
Finally, keep in mind that these are just the anglers who influenced me. There are a ton of other folks, from the Dettes and the Darbees to Art Flick to Bud Lilly to Vincent Marinaro to Ernie Schwiebert to Joe Humphreys to Lefty Kreh, who helped pave the way for the current generation of anglers. Regardless of who you are or where you fish, you’re standing on the shoulders of giants.