My 3 Most Humbling Fly Fishing Moments

Humility is not something I necessarily seek out. But this past year, I had three moments while fly fishing that put me in my place. I don’t fancy myself an expert. Far from it. But I have fly fished for a lot of years. Doesn’t that count for something? Apparently not.

Here are my three most humbling moments while fly fishing this past year.

1. Nymph fishing with a guide in Yellowstone National Park

This past year, we (Steve, my podcast partner, and I) hired a guide for a half day. We needed some intel on the Gardner River. We didn’t want to waste an entire day exploring the two- or three-mile stretch of river that we had planned to fish.

The guide (as most are) was terrific. Young. Energetic. Specific in his instructions. And dead right.

About mid morning, we hit the trail, moving from a spectacular run to another upriver. While on the trail, he said, “Let’s stop and hit this little run for a few minutes.” The run was against the far side of the bank and flowed towards us at a quirky angle. I had to cast my two-nymph rig from left to right, almost an over-the-shoulder toss. And to hit the hot zone required a modicum of precision.

I tried six or seven times. Nope. Couldn’t make the cast. I even moved closer to the run, almost on top of the spawning browns. It wasn’t more than a 15-foot cast. Not even close. The one time I hit the general vicinity of the hot zone, I couldn’t get a decent dead drift to save my life.

Finally, in disgust, the guide said, “Let’s just move on.” I felt the sting of his non-verbal rebuke the rest of the day.

2.Mentoring a newbie fly fisher at 12,000 feet

I took a friend on a long day hike into the Colorado’s Collegiate Wilderness. We hiked four miles into the lake, the last mile a lung-bursting climb.

This was his first time fly fishing. I had coached him in buying his first rod, reel, and the rest of the paraphernalia. As soon as we arrived at the high mountain lake, just several hundred yards from the Continental Divide, I began setting up his rod and reel. I tried out his new rig first, made a cast or two, and immediately caught a rising cutthroat.

I handed him the rod, made a few suggestions, and within minutes he had caught a nice cutthroat. And then another. And another.

He was one of those natural athletes. I saw no difference between how far out I was able to cast (and I had just purchased a new Sage rod!) and how far he was able to cast. At the end of the day, we caught about the same number of cutts. I was reminded that for some, fly fishing isn’t all that challenging. At least not for him. On his first day. I truly felt excited for him.

I had, though, a simultaneous emotion – a touch of grumpiness. I wanted to warn him that fly fishing can only go downhill from here, that this kind of day was an aberration. But I didn’t. I swallowed my sense of importance as the veteran fly fisher and cheered him on.

3. Hiking (er, sliding) down an avalanche chute

It was stupid when I was 34. And irresponsible at 54 years old.

On the way back from the high mountain lake mentioned in the previous point, I called an audible that could have been a disaster. I remembered that there was shortcut down the mountain, an old avalanche chute now overgrown with brush and young (25-year-old) pine trees.

I had taken the shortcut twenty years earlier and forgot (or had suppressed) how steep it was.

As soon as we began to wind down the chute, sliding a few steps and then stopping, often by grabbing small trees, I felt the fear that registers deep in your soul. I snaked my way down slowly and deliberately, occasionally glancing over my shoulder to make sure my friend was making progress. About an hour later, emotionally and physically exhausted, we arrived at the bottom of the chute. We still had another couple hours of hiking left before we reached our truck.

Nothing is more humbling than stupidity in midlife. Maybe the male brain never fully matures.

4 Replies to “My 3 Most Humbling Fly Fishing Moments”

  1. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you having the humility to write an article like this. If you spend too much time online reading other people’s posts, you could reach the conclusion that no one else ever gets skunked and 20″ is the average size of most trout.

    For me, the two most humbling fly fishing moments this year: I took my first big trip to Montana this summer and I really struggled with my hook set; the more I told myself to slow down, that these rainbows and cutties are not Appalachian brook trout, the worse it got; I kept ripping the fly out of their mouths (I did work through it, but not as quickly as I should have). The other moment and the one that still makes me wince came just a couple of weeks ago, as we were leaving a stream I backed my new car right into a tree.

    1. Oh man, that is painful! I don’t know which is worse – not catch trout or backing one’s new car into the tree!

      Thank you for the comment. I really appreciate it.


  2. I appreciate your candor. The ability to reflect accurately on a situation (usually by laughing) makes a world of difference. I will share my two most humbling experiences fly fishing.

    About 12 years ago, I was fishing the Connetquot River on Long Island (NY) with my buddy in two beats (private fishing sections for four hour periods) above the hatchery. Typically that location held great numbers of smaller fish mid-summer and we simply wanted some dry fly action. The fish (smaller specimens) were stacked like a Sockeye run across the small river and were in feeding mode to be sure as practically ever other cast resulted in a strike. However, I simply could not set the hook and after two hours of fishing the score was John 25 – Gary 0. Happy for my friend but infuriated by my incompetence I sat down by a tree and rested my rod on a wooden guard rail on the fishing platform across from me (no wading in the upper stretches). It was then that I saw my yellow humpy had no hook and I recalled snagging that tree branch on my first cast.

    Fast forward to 2016 and I was fishing the Esopus after a long break from fly fishing. The casting came back quickly but the timing did not. After I missed the third hookset, I looked over at my buddy (a fly-fishing guide) and said “My timing is off. I keep missing the hookset.” He looked over at me, smirked, and said “Yea; by about a minute.” SHOTS FIRED. It came back by the end of the morning and I did land two browns and a bow.

    1. GREAT stories. Oh my. The one on the hookless humpy is priceless. Thank you for posting!!!

Comments are closed.