The Texas Ranger Who Taught Me How to Fly Fish

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It took a Texas Ranger to introduce me to fly fishing. I credit him with teaching me how to fly fish.

This was not the kind of Texas Ranger who was armed with a six-gun or a baseball bat.

He was a college professor from Texas who worked every summer as a seasonal Ranger-Naturalist in Rocky Mountain National Park. His name was Jerry Williams, and he led a weekly fishing demonstration in the Moraine Park campground amphitheater. My younger brother, David, and I attended our first one in 1977 when we were both in high school. We must have attended one of these hour-long sessions for five years in a row.

Every year, the demonstration played out the same way:

Jerry Williams began by showing us three dry flies that would work in most places in the park– a size #14 Adams, a #14 Renegade, and a #14 Royal Coachman. Then, he had us in stitches telling us how some kid with a spinning rod and a big ugly Budweiser plug for a lure caught the monster brown trout that he had been trying to catch for weeks out of a stretch in the Big Thompson River, which meandered through the meadow in Moraine Park. Next, after admitting that his favorite meal was catfish and hush puppies, he said that he had found a sure-fire recipe that would work with even the biggest, tasteless brown trout.

“Just put that trout on a pine board, put it in the oven at 350 degrees for twenty minutes. Then, take it out, throw away the fish, and eat the pine board!”

The audience, usually about thirty campers, doubled over in laughter every time.

All of this led up to the dramatic moment of the presentation.

Brookie Coaxing

For over a decade, Ranger Williams had always gone down to the Big Thompson in the meadow below the ampitheater and caught a trout. He had never failed in a decade of weekly fly-fishing demonstrations.

Would today be the day to end the streak, or would it continue? The tension was palpable. But every year he caught a fish and kept his streak alive.

His secret?

The Big Thompson River, and all of its side-channels that ran through the meadow, were full of brook trout. Even on a bright sunny day, Ranger Williams could coax an eight-inch brookie from an undercut bank to take his fly.

This inspired my brother, Dave, and I to pool our money and invest in a fiberglass fly rod. The reel set us back about $7.99, and the double taper fly line (Jerry said we needed to get a decent double taper line) was more expensive than the rod! During our high school years, we dabbled off and on with fly-fishing. Our casting was, well, nasty. Often, the slap of our fly line created ripples and sent trout scurrying.

But most of these pools and runs had ample time to recover, though, because our #14 Royal Coachman spent about as much time lighting in the branches of a choke cherry bush or a Ponderosa pine as it did on the water’s surface.

Still, we always managed to catch a handful of brookies.

Rise amid the Clutter

It was almost two decades later before I really got serious about fly fishing. But even with my crude skills, I had enough sporadic success to keep me hooked on fly fishing. The moral of the story: find a good stream or lake with brook trout. Not only are they a beautiful fish, they are forgiving. They fight like crazy, too.

Ranger Williams was right. Even when your line and leader land in a tangled mess, a brookie will often ignore the clutter and rise to take the fly in the middle of it.

The Tenuous Nature of Life in the Outdoors

Every year, Steve and I fly-fish a stretch of the Yellowstone (the ‘Stone) River near Tower Fall, a 132-foot waterfall that empties into the Yellowstone. We generally park at the General Store at the top of the canyon and hike the switchback trail to the bottom. Then we hustle up river three or four miles, trying to leapfrog any fly fisherman. The farther you hike, the better the fly fishing (and the greater the risk for encountering a grizzly bear). This is simply part of the tenuous nature of life in the outdoors.

One year, while returning at dusk, we plodded along the trail along the river and looked up to spy a herd of bison lying like lazy milk cows in the trail. Maybe eight or nine bison, including a calf or two. I’m terrible at judging distance. Perhaps the bison were 150 yards ahead of us.

“What do you think we should do?” Steve said.

There was no alternate way back to our car at the top of Tower Fall. The swiftness of the ‘Stone’ and its slippery rocky bottom was too treacherous to cross, even (or especially) with waders. And there was no route around herd to get to the switchback that would take us to the top of the canyon. There was no going back upriver. Darkness was falling.

“Let’s keep walking,” I said. “They’ll get up and move up the ravine.”

Sauntering Curiosity

We did, and they did. Well, at least all of them except one. One of the bulls.

He did not appear overly anxious with our oncoming presence and when he finally scrambled to his feet, he switched his tail and began to saunter toward us.

It is now conventional wisdom that the male brain does not fully mature until its mid-twenties and even thirties, and my over confidence simply confirmed that the prefrontal cortex brains of our late forties had more room for development.

There was an uncomfortable silence between us after we stared at each other, at the river to our right, and at the oncoming bull, who seemed curious to meet his new trail mates.

We edged our way to the few feet off the trail to the bank of the ’Stone and held our collective breath. We could wade out only a couple yards into the river before needing to turn back. There was no escape hatch.

I don’t remember who blinked. But at about 50 yards (again, I’m a lousy judge of distance, just as I am the size of trout I catch), the brawny beast simply switched its tail and turned up the ravine to catch up with the rest of the herd. Steve and I hiked in silence most of the rest of the way to the top of the canyon, which was still almost an hour away.

Tenuous Reality

Like many, I’ve always found a greater sense of the grandeur of God while in the outdoors than while sitting on a pew in a church. The pew has its role, though maybe more of a kind of Puritan stocks to force discipline on my restless mind than anything else. And while feeling close to God in nature is always pleasant, there is another dark and important narrative to the outdoors. Beauty is over-rated when you think you’re going to die. I really could die out here.

There is the bison, the grizzly bear, the snow squall, the slip of your boots while wading into the ‘Stone, the rattle snake bite with no bite kit, or the turn of an ankle four miles upriver with no cell coverage.

It’s not morbid, just a reality that strangely helps me see the tenuousness and beauty of life.

Episode 3: Wildlife Encounters While Fly Fishing

A River Runs Through It

Wildlife encounters while fly fishing are quite common. What makes the sport so unbelievably wonderful is the unpredictable nature of the great outdoors. In this episode, we tell a few yarns about running into a wolf, a herd of bison, and other animals while fly fishing America’s great rivers and streams. Listen to Wildlife Encounters While Fly Fishing.

Listen to our episode “Wildlife Encounters While Fly Fishing” now

At the end of each episode, we have a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” We read a few of the comments from this blog or from our Facebook page. We enjoying hearing from our readers and listeners, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experience.

Do you have any strange encounters of the wildlife kind while fly fishing? Please post them below.

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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.

Episode 2: Five Ways to Catch More Trout

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Catch more trout? That’s a no brainer. Who doesn’t want to catch more trout? However, it’s one thing to buy a fly rod, watch a video on how to cast, take a class on hatches, and read a book on how to read a river. It’s another thing to catch fish. Catching fish is why we took up the sport, right? In this episode, we discuss five big ideas on catching more trout. The ideas are simple, but profound, if you’re an aspiring fly fisher. Listen to Episode 2: Five Ways to Catch More Trout

Listen to Episode 2: Five Ways to Catch More Trout

Great Stuff from Our Listeners. At the end of each episode, we often include a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” It’s the last segment of each episode, where Steve reads one of the comments from our listeners or readers. We enjoy hearing from you, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experiences.

Be sure to post a story or comment about techniques or ideas to catch more trout.

By the way, we’d love for you to refer our podcast to a friend, your TU chapter, or fly fishing club. Be sure to pass along our podcast to others.

Other Articles on How to Catch More Trout

    When to Cast Your Fly Downstream

    Finding the Hot Zone in the Run

    5 Tactics for Deeper Trout

    Deeper Nymphs, Better Results

    The Reel Truth about Fighting Fish

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Or you can simply subscribe to the RSS feed here:

Subscribe to 2 Guys and A River2 Guys and A River

To see every episode that we’ve published, click on “Fly Fishing Podcast” on the top navigation.

The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists

For this episode, we are the Sponsor!

We’ve published a book called, The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists: Life is short. Catch more fish.

We like to say it is a book of bite-sized snacks. Maybe even like a handful of potato chips. It’s an entire book of lists. The goal is to help you find practical help quickly and in an easily digestible format!

Visit Amazon to get your copy today!

Episode 1: My Best Day on the River

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Best day on the river – it’s almost impossible to reduce all the great days to only one. In this inaugural episode of 2 Guys and a River, we discuss our best day ever fly fishing. Of course, the day involves catching trout. But it’s always much more than that. If you watch fly fishing videos or read the literature, you may begin to think that every day on the water should be a banner day. Most days are not. But that just makes the great days on the river all the more enjoyable. And all the more memorable.

Listen to our inaugural episode:”My Best Day on the River”

Great Stuff from Our Listeners. At the end of each episode, we often include a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” It’s the last segment of each episode, where Steve reads one of the comments from our listeners or readers. We enjoy hearing from you, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experiences.

Describe one of your best days ever on the river? What made it so special? Why is it burned in your memory?

By the way, we’d love for you to refer our podcast to a friend, your TU chapter, or fly fishing club. Be sure to pass along our podcast to others.

Other Similar Episodes

    One Fine Morning on the Little Jordan

    One Fine Evening on Wisel Creek

    One Fine Day on Canfield Creek

    One Fine Day on the Blue River

    One Fine Day on Willow Creek

    One Fine Day on the Gardner River (Day 1)

    One Fine Day on the Gardner River (Day 2)

    One Fine Day on the Madison River

Download a Podcast App on Your Smartphone

Be sure to subscribe to our podcast feed. You can do that on your smartphone or tablet by downloading a podcast app. The most common app used by 2 Guys feed subscribers is “Podcasts.”

Or you can simply subscribe to the RSS feed here:

Subscribe to 2 Guys and A River2 Guys and A River

To see every episode that we’ve published, click on “Fly Fishing Podcast” on the top navigation.

The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists

For this episode, we are the Sponsor!

We’ve published a book called, The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists: Life is short. Catch more fish.

We like to say it is a book of bite-sized snacks. Maybe even like a handful of potato chips. It’s an entire book of lists. The goal is to help you find practical help quickly and in an easily digestible format!

Visit Amazon to get your copy today!