It took some patience, but the writer finally caught this Guadalupe bass on the Colorado River in Texas. (All photos: Courtesy of Bill Fink)
By Bill Fink
“Fly-fishing really isn’t that hard,” the guide said as our raft bobbed down the Colorado River. “If you can count to three and have a thumb, you can do it!”
I promptly cast my hook into a tree, while my dad at the front of the raft had wrapped his line around his leg, Wile E. Coyote style, and looked at risk of casting himself right off the side of the boat. The guide sighed. “OK, we’ll go back to basics.”
Father and son were light on fish but heavy on bonding.
The plan had been to do some father-son bonding, with perhaps a hint of competition, on a fall fly-fishing trip to Texas. My dad, a self-professed outdoors expert and the “youngest Eagle Scout in Illinois history,” had often regaled me with tales of his Comanche-level exploits in the wilderness. As a veteran adventure traveler, I felt well-prepared to show off my own skills to my dad. But in a tangle of fishing line, hooks, and poles, and the rolled eyes of our patient guide, it looked like we were both going back to the basics of the somewhat mystic art of fly-fishing.
A good place to start was a Fly-Fishing 101 class. Particularly since the sum total of my fly-fishing experience consisted of two viewings of the movie A River Runs Through It. And my dad admitted as an aside that he hadn’t actually done it since he was 10 years old. The course, offered by the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa, where we were staying outside of Austin, was taught by Mike Morphew, a genial British transplant who looked like he had just stepped in from a jaunt in England’s Lake Country.
The fly-fishing guru tells them how it’s done.
He explained that tying nearly weightless “flies” to lines to attract fish had been documented since ancient Roman times, but, of course, it was the English who perfected the art in the 1700s, finding the ultimate combination of feathers, hairs, twine, and hook to create the fly and inventing the best rods and reels to catch river trout. Mike carefully laid out the tools of the trade on a table and showed how to create a “Woolly Bugger,” a fly consisting of a rooster feather and rabbit fur and wire, which has been in use for centuries. “I just used this up in Arkansas,” he boasted, “and the locals with all their fancy store-bought flies weren’t catching half of what I did.”
Fun to fish with, and fun to say: Woolly Bugger.
With newly tied fly in hand, we marched outside to practice at the resort’s pond. With an 8-foot rod and about 50 feet of line, Mike flicked the fly effortlessly to the center of the pool. “Move your arm like hammering a nail into a wall, as simple as that,” he said. If it had been a hammer, I no doubt would have broken something, my line landing in a tangle at my feet. Like a strict father to a wayward son, Mike strapped my arm with a piece of Velcro to the rod to keep my wrist from bending, and I began to get the hang of it.
Where do the fish hang out around here?
But out on the river, my dad and I discovered that what works fine in theory still takes plenty of practice. We each cast dozens of times, seeking that satisfying snap when the fly rebounds off the backswing to zip right to a targeted fish-hiding spot by the shore. We snuck looks at each other checking to see that our competition was still safely tied at zero.
“Don’t worry, I’ve been guiding for 25 years, and I still learn something new about fishing every day,” said Kevin, our day’s guide from Hill Country Flyfishers. He untangled my line then cast the fly between overhanging branches to a shaded eddy like he was pinning a tack to a board. “It’s not the rod, it’s the technique,” Kevin said. “Hell, I can cast a line 60 feet with a two-by-four,” he chuckled, “really pisses off the fancy guys with their $800 graphite rods, too!”
How to tie a fly.
As we floated down the river, my dad and I began to settle into a rhythm. He, sitting in front of the raft, me in back, both silent, aside from the repeated whoosh of our lines overhead, light splashes of the flies into the water, and a few softly muttered curses as our hooks caught on a lily pad or overhanging branch. As we slowly progressed under the thick tree cover in the crisp fall air, it brought back memories of our father-son walks from decades ago in an Illinois autumn countryside (minus the curses).
Except now, rather than my dad teaching a little kid lessons about nature and the world at large, we were here on the river as equals, like a couple of friends or brothers sharing a new experience. Or perhaps it would have felt more that way if my dad could have just stopped telling the guide all about changing my diapers as a baby.
Dad shoots skeet at the range at the Lost Pines Resort the day before the fishing trip.
After four hours of floating down the river casting our lines, alternating between meditative silence and shared old stories (including the obligatory “When I was a Boy Scout… ”), we both began to feel like bonding is nice and all, now how about an actual fish? It wasn’t like the prior day when we went to the resort’s shooting range and blasted away with shotguns at skeet targets. All smiles then, with the instant gratification of shattered targets and an easily measurable tie score (along with my dad’s inevitable “When I was in the Army” stories).
Here on the river, the guide tried to comfort us with excuses about a slow season and colder-than-usual weather keeping the fish away. But he encouraged us to keep casting into target areas, assuring us that if we dropped the flies into the right spot enough times, a fish was sure to bite. “It’s not rocket science. Fish aren’t that bright. If fish were really as smart as all these supposed experts say they are, they’d be driving cars.”
Still waiting for that fish…
Almost on cue, I felt a sharp tug on my line. But unlike all my other snags, this time it wasn’t a submerged branch. After a brief struggle to the shouted encouragements of guide and father, I pulled a shining Guadalupe bass from the river. Appropriately enough, I had caught the Texas state fish, which had been lurking right by the shore just like the guide had promised.
As I released the fish back into the water, my dad began quickly and quietly casting with redoubled speed at the front of the boat. Still without a bite, he was confronting a shutout and had no further time for the niceties of bonding. As I chatted with the guide about my dramatic catch, already spinning up the size of the fish (“Maybe almost a foot long? Kind of close? No?”), my dad let out a shout.
Dad comes through with a small catch near the end of the day.
“While you guys were screwing around, look what I got!” His rod bent, the line taut in the water, a hidden fish fighting for survival. With a flourish, my dad reeled into the raft a dainty 6-inch bluegill.
“OK, yeah, this is a little embarrassing,” he said, the mighty hunter posing with his catch. “But I GOT one!” High-fives all around, and a good excuse to wind up our day on the river.
The real catch of the day.
Back at the resort, we retired to more familiar family territory: in front of some TVs showing sports, with beers in hand, talking about the woeful fortunes of our Chicago teams. The fish we had caught weren’t good eating, so we instead settled in for some fine Texas barbecue, along with the real reward of any fishing trip, particularly one between a father and son: the shared stories. “Now that fish today may have been small,” my dad began, “but back when I was in the Scouts…”