Fishing with a Sage

All I really need to know about fly fishing I learned from Bob Granger, a veteran fly fishing guide and fly tier.

When you ask him how many flies he tied last weekend, and he says “twenty,” he means “twenty dozen.” Bob tied for Orvis for many years. Then he worked for Ted Turner, supplying Turner and his friends with all the flies they used. The people Bob has guided in his drift boat reads like a “Who’s Who” list:  Ted Turner, Jane Fonda, Jimmy Carter, Hank Aaron, and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Yes, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Russian leader.

The list makes me laugh, because Bob is politically conservative. Yet he speaks graciously, if not diplomatically about the people he has guided over the years. When I asked him about Jane Fonda, he said, “She was a very good fly fisher.” Hank Aaron? “He was a better baseball player than a fly-fisherman.”

Bob’s Pearls

I met Bob in the winter of 1996, the year I finally decided to get serious about fly fishing. My buddy, Brand Robinson, and I had signed up for a fly tying course at Montana Troutfitters, a fly shop in Bozeman, Montana. For about eight Saturdays in a row, Brand and I drove eighteen miles into Bozeman to learn the art of fly tying. The name Bob Granger meant nothing to me at the time. But he turned out to be a sage—a profoundly wise man when it came to fly fishing and to life. I can’t remember how much I paid to take the course, but the lessons I learned were priceless. Here are a few of the pearls Bob communicated.

  • Nymph fishing is most productive since eighty-five to ninety percent of a trout’s diet comes from below the river’s surface.
  • Like the rivers, you can always nymph on the spring creeks.
  • The best weather for fly fishing is an overcast, cool day. A sunny day is the worst. If you want to catch the “big boys,” try a streamer on a dark, overcast day or during times of low light in the early morning or late evening.
  • An old extension cord will provide you with a lifetime of copper wire for fly tying.
  • If you want to fish during a mayfly hatch, the best time is mid-day, between eleven and two. But if you are fishing during a caddis hatch, the evening is when the majority of these flies emerge.
  • Tie your nymph and streamer patterns with bead-heads. This will create a natural drift when your fly is in the river. If you insist on weighting your flies in another way, use a different color thread for your weighted flies to tell them apart from your non-weighted flies.
  • The more you fly fish, the fewer flies you will use! For dry fly fishing on the Yellowstone or Gallatin Rivers, an Adams or an elk hair caddis will work most of the time.
  • If fish are refusing your fly, change the size before you try another pattern. Also, check your tippet size. You may need to go smaller.

Now Mend Your Line

Thankfully, when I got my Certificate of Achievement for completing the Beginners Fly Tying Course—signed, of course, by Bob Granger—it did not mark the end of our relationship.

In the fall of 1996, my podcast partner, Dave Goetz, and I scraped together enough money to hire Bob to take us on a day float of the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley, south of Livingston. It was a perfect October day. The weather was cool, overcast, and drizzly. We floated a stretch which took us right by my parents’ home on the banks of the Yellowstone near the Mill Creek bridge.

This stretch of river had a healthy population of cutthroats and rainbows, with a smattering of browns. With Bob as our guide, I was sure it was going to be a thirty or forty fish day. Instead, it turned out to be a three or four fish day, and there were whitefish involved. Nothing seemed to work. Still, I gained more wisdom. Bob kept after me all day during the float. “Good cast, now mend your line.” Those words still ring in my ears after a cast. I repeated them to my two sons when I taught them to fly fish, and I expect them to pass on this bit of wisdom to their children as well.

The lesson in all of this is, don’t try to be a self-made fly fisher. Find a sage, a guide for the journey. That guide might be sitting behind the cast register or the fly tying bench at your local fly shop.