A beginner flyfisher is shocked by her first catch
When I decided to fly fish, I had been daydreaming about gorgeous, sleek-bodied beasts leaping from a stream. That was not my initial experience, though.
In 2013, I lived in Juneau, Alaska. My friend Christina and a buddy of hers, who was visiting from Montana, met me at a spot along the shore to fly fish. Christina had shiny gear, spiffy-looking waders, and boxes full of colorful flies. I had a hand-me-down flyrod and reel and I frowned at my beginner’s container of egg and wooly bugger flies. I wasn’t even sure I knew how to tie them onto my tippet.
Christina and her friend gave me a few pointers and then they waded to a depth that would have rendered me hypothermic. I stayed behind and tried to fish the shallows in my knee-high rubber boots. I’m sure I looked more like a lion tamer snapping at an invisible creature rather than someone gracefully trying to fly fish.
During the summer months in Alaska, there’s seemingly endless golden light in the evenings that makes the mountains glow orange and pink and sets the water on fire. Despite the scenery though, I was frustrated with my casting. I hadn’t yet learned to let line slip through my fingers as I cast backward and instead, I was still trying to force feed it as I swung the rod tip forward. I was pretty confident the bears and eagles were laughing at me.
But, finally, I got my line in the water and then it happened. I had a fish on the line.
I felt panic rise as I realized I’d never taken a fish off a hook. Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me I’d have to handle the slimy thing by myself. I awkwardly wrangled it towards the shore and as the fish darted to and fro, neither one of us were happy to see the other.
I pulled the 8-inch, green-tinted fish onto the small rocks that lined the shore. It had giant gills and a gnarled face. It looked more like a baby swamp thing than an Alaskan beauty. I’m embarrassed to say I dropped that poor fish a dozen times trying to let it loose. The hook was attached to the top of its mouth, and every time I tried to grab it, the thing began humming and vibrating. This witchy fish was casting a spell on me.
Finally, I gave up. I walked down the shore and called to Christina that I needed help.
“What’d you get?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But it’s not what I wanted.”
When we got to my rod and pulled the line in, she started laughing. I stared, puzzled.
“Double ugly,” she said. “It’s a sculpin. They have a reputation for being hideous.”
She helped me set it free, and not long after that, we called it a night.
It’s been about four years since that experience, and since then, I’ve caught salmon in Alaska, bass in Louisiana, and trout in Wisconsin on the fly. With some practice and persistence, fly fishing has become one of my favorite outdoor pursuits. My first experience wasn’t what I had in mind, but like many things, it was worth it to get to the good stuff.