The author, geared up in her fly-fishing waders. (Photo: Erica Bray)
“Hold the rod as you would a French princess who has never lifted a finger in her life,” said Geoff Stevens, my fly-fishing guide.
My immediate reaction to this: laughter. Princess analogies seemed a sharp contrast to my surroundings, the wild and rugged landscape of middle-of-nowhere Wyoming.
I was standing calf-deep in a stream, sporting waterproof waders, casting a rod to-and-fro, with a can of bear spray dangling from my belt. Not exactly a scene befitting a French princess, much less a cosmopolitan princess from Chicago.
But that’s the magic of travel: seizing those moments when you truly are in the moment, recognizing just how far out of your comfort zone you are, embracing the lessons from people you never fathomed you’d meet, and laughing about it.
Fishing with Geoff Stevens. (Photo: Erica Bray)
I was in Dubois, Wyo. (population: 995) to meet Geoff Stevens. In addition to being a professional fly-fishing guide, the 42-year-old is a married father of five and a preacher. In fact, the local sandwich shop features a sandwich named after him. It’s called “The Preacher.”
Stevens did what most of us dream of doing: He turned a lifelong passion into a career. He’s been fishing since he was 4-years-old and today runs a business called Teton Fishing Co. He has a giant fish on his truck and even his website is on a fish: www.wyoming.fish.
As for me, I never fancied fishing. Casting lines into oceans, lakes, and streams, waiting for a fish to bite, seemed a bit too dull for my adrenaline-seeking spirit. Boring, in fact.
But Stevens exerted an infectious, boy-like enthusiasm when teaching me about trout, a fish that inspires an enduring giddiness among fly fishing enthusiasts. It was hard not to get swept away in the excitement and respect that he had for this fish, which he called “the smartest fish in the world,” and for the sport of fly fishing.
WATCH: Meet Fly-Fishing Guide Geoff Stevens
Geoff Stevens, on location in Wyoming.
“I’ve been drawn to fly fishing because it combines art and beauty and science and a sport all in one,” Stevens told me. “With fly fishing, every day on the river is a new day. There are so many variables that are involved that go into this grand formula to figure out if I will be able to catch a fish: the temperature of the water, whether there’s cloud cover, air temperature, what bugs are in that part of the river, whether you’re in riffles or you’re in a slow section of the river.”
Stevens knows what it takes to hook a fish. He’s so confident, in fact, that he guarantees you’ll catch a fish with him, or you get your money back. He guides novices and experts alike along the Wind River, which is roughly two hours from Jackson Hole’s more popular Snake River. For the day of our excursion, we saw just one other fisherman.
“I take trips out and we don’t see anyone else,” Stevens says. “It’s just wild country, and you feel like, ‘Hey, I’m not fishing water that has been all picked over by everybody else.’ These fish have never seen a fisherman.”
Unlike other styles of fishing, fly fishing uses an artificial fly, as opposed to a live worm or “power bait,” to inspire trout to bite. Stevens has hundreds of flies, of all shapes, sizes and colors. They resemble a menagerie of strange-looking bugs, and most in his collection are made by hand.
All those crazy flies. (Photo: Erica Bray)
“Trout have incredible eye sight,” explains Stevens. “You can be fishing for them all day long and if you don’t have the right size fly, the right color or you’re not presenting it in the right way you won’t catch a single one.”
Another major difference with fly fishing versus other styles of fishing: When the fish is caught, it is almost immediately released. No eating what you catch, in other words.
This catch-and-release policy inspires a special reverence for the fish — which kind of blew me away, since I thought most fishermen like to catch fish to either eat them or mount them on the wall.
There was a beautiful irony in watching a fisherman help a fish escape back into the wild, as I did with Stevens on a few occasions during our time together. When he noticed that one fish wasn’t swimming away as quickly as it should have, he walked across the stream to rub its belly and gills, then waited for it to swim onward.
It was a poetic thing to witness — this fatherly nudge from a fisherman to a fish.
Have waders, will fish. (Photo: Erica Bray)
To get a trout to bite, of course, requires a great cast. Fly-fishermen are world-renowned for their ability to create graceful loops in the air, in a lasso-like motion, before casting the line gingerly atop the water to mimic a fly landing. It’s a beautiful aerial ballet and absolutely mesmerizing to watch — just not so easy to do, as I learned.
After a few lessons from Stevens on dry land, which included my line getting snared in nearby shrubs and trees, I proceeded into the stream to give it a shot.
“The whole beauty is in just the rhythm,” Stevens told me. “Your timing has to be just completely perfect or you’ll be a huge mess.”
I, unfortunately, was a huge mess. At least, at first. My first few attempts were clumsy and awkward. I couldn’t find that rhythm that I had observed in Stevens’ demos. I got nervous and frustrated and figured that the fish below could probably sense this. Stevens certainly did.
That’s when he threw in the princess comment. Despite my initial laughter, something about it clicked. I softened everything, loosened my grip and allowed the rod to do its job. I stopped trying so damn hard.
A few minutes and several casts later, I had a bite. I freaked out. With Stevens’ help, I reeled in my first catch ever: a 19-inch rainbow trout.
Caught a fish! (Photo: Erica Bray)
Apparently my catch was the kind that most fly-fishermen achieve only every few years, or so I was told. Truth or embellishment, it nevertheless was an adrenaline rush — the same kind that no doubt motivates Geoff Stevens each day on the river.
But before I could do a victory dance, it was time to let the fish go. With fly-fishing, you only have a few precious moments to savor the thrill of the catch before respectfully returning the fish back to nature, and Stevens was pretty strict about this. This fish would roam free, versus wind up on my dinner plate.
I took an extra few seconds to cradle that rainbow trout in my hands, knowing it would soon swim free. I gave it a kiss, released it into the stream and watched it swim back into the wild.
“You’re a bonafide fly-fishing woman now, Erica,” said Stevens.
I laughed. Those are words I never thought I’d hear, ever. If Geoff Stevens can teach a city girl like me to fish, he can teach anyone.
WATCH: Floating Alive on the Dead Sea