A RIVER RAN OVER ME - Gunnison River in Colorado

by Lin Sutherland

Fly fishing is beyond sport, skill, and even obsession. It's a religion, and my baptism into the faith was on the Gunnison River in Colorado. I thought I was merely going to learn something new and different. I didn't anticipate the dogma, the intricate litany, the saints, the tithing, the penance. Nor did I anticipate my mother would become the Joan of Arc of fly fishing.

It started out innocently enough. I chose to take my first stab at fly fishing with Mama because she was a Bass Master of the First Order, the Blood Bait Queen of my youth. But at the age of seventy-two, Mama discovered fly fishing, and as usual, she took something complicated and learned it in about three weeks. Face it, for a woman who took eleven years of Latin in Charleston, South Carolina, anything is easy.

At first she had been skeptical.

"Buncha little snots," she'd remark about fly fishermen. "Effete elitist purists," she'd add.

Then one day she was forced to stop at a little specialty angling shop instead of her usual Live Bait Marina. It was the kind of place that displays fly fishing ensembles and the only reason she went in there was to look for a particular fishing book.

Mama stood there in the front of the store with her calico mane flying and took in the woven creels, leather belts, fifty-dollar floppy fishing hats, and six-hundred-dollar graphite rods.

"HEY!" she shouted. "What kind of foo foo fish shop is this?"

Several customers looked around at her and a pony-tailed young man wearing a very expensive fly fishing shirt with a little fly and hook embroidered on its breast pocket rushed forward.

"Yes, ma'am? May I help you?" he asked. "Where the hell are your foo foo fish books, young man?" She looked him up and down, then jabbed his chest with one big-knuckled forefinger.

"Young man, you have feathers embroidered on your chest. Just what does that mean?"

He stammered and opened his mouth.

"Nevermind!" she interrupted. "I don't want to know. Hey, here it is." She reached behind a polished wood counter and pulled out the book she sought.

To make a long story short, Mama and the young man got into a conversation, most of which consisted of her railing about how none of her daughters could fish worth a plugged nickel. The young man turned out to be John Tavenner, a well-respected fly fishing guide from Santa Fe who pulls trout regularly out of the Rio Grande, which hardly anyone could consider a trout stream. He showed my mother boxes of thousands of flies he'd carefully constructed out of chicken necks, hare's ears, and the like. He was twenty-eight but had started fly fishing with his father at the age of twelve.

As happens often to those who meet my mother, Tavenner became intrigued. Mama has a blunt exterior, but you never doubt she's a lady. A Southern lady, at that. Her piercing china-blue eyes shine with intelligence and interest . . . she simply exudes life. The two began to talk fishing, and it wasn't long before Tavenner invited her to attend one of his fly fishing clinics. And that was that. She was the best he'd ever instructed, he told me later. She had the knack.

Working relentlessly, Mama became an expert in about four months, then a total convert. There is nothing worse than a convert, you know, and the next summer she all but forced me to join her and Tavenner at the bottom end of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River known for its gold-medal waters. We camped in a delightful overhang of cliffs, where the river was crystal clear and lively and the rapids abundant.

On our first day out, I watched Tavenner land and release one rainbow trout after another. He approached fly fishing as kind of a cross between religion and reincarnation.

"You need to become the fish," he explained excitedly to me. "You visualize what the fish wants, not what you want. You let your intuitive side override the thinking part of your brain."

"Right-brained fishing?" I inquired.

He considered a moment. "Yes. You're triggering their fish archetypes which have evolved over generations to strike at a certain object. So you have to be intuitive to anticipate what they want. Thinking is a slowing-down process. Action and reaction. That's why it's spiritual."

"So what's the first commandment?" I asked.

"Presentation," he replied. "Presentation is everything."

"Ah," I nodded knowingly, not having the faintest clue what he meant. But I learned.

The Gunnison happens to be perfect for trout. It is not just one river, but a series of them layered into a single, sometimes chaotic unit. At the bottom is the river of sand, then there is the river of water above, and above that a river of air. Within those three are the rivers of life: the snails, insects, snakes, frogs, cephalopods, nutria, beaver, otter, and then the eagles and ospreys that swoop down to snatch the top of the water food chain, the trout.

Trout, as everyone knows, are wily, skitterish and fine-tasting. They are the highest predator in the river, except for the fly fishermen, who attempt to imitate what the trout are eating, often at great trouble and expense, and talk about the "hatches" as if they were Saint's Days. It so happened that the Gunnison had just seen one of the biggest hatches of stone flies, and as a result the trout had "shoulders." Anyway, that's what Mama told me.

"How can a trout have shoulders?" I asked. "They don't even have necks."

"They're hogs," she replied. "Fat and sassy." Mama goes for only two kinds of fish, hogs and lunkers. These are left-over terms from her bass days, and they're self-explanatory.

Of course, fly fishing has a language of its own -- a litany as oblique as any service in Latin. Tavenner was well-versed in the arcane terminology. He spoke to us of P.M.D., which at first I assumed was some kind of insect P.M.S., a femme fly in a nasty mood. It turned out to be a Pale Morning Dun. I was relieved P.M.S. had not invaded the bug world.

Later he announced that he was going out nymphing and invited us to come along. Visions of young things flitting through the wild Colorado woods, with Tavenner, his ponytail flapping, in hot pursuit raced through my mind.

"I'll be using a common nymph," he added, as if in explanation. Dang it, I thought, there's vulgar ones. Then he talked about the prince. I thought the prince would probably be the one after the nymphs, but no, this guy's made of green hare's ear, imitating an emerging caddis. Only a trout would go for a green hairy fake prince, I thought. No, wait a minute, I've dated a few of those myself.

"Of course, we could use the Girdle Bitch," Mama suggested helpfully.

"What!" I exclaimed, summoning from the past nightmarish visions of my large aunts with too-tight corsets under their cotton dresses spraddled over lawn chairs in the shade after too much pecan pie at our family reunions. Seeing my expression, Mama explained that a Girdle Bitch was just another fly -- a Bitch Creek Nymph with Spandex legs. Even the explanations were surreal.

"A lot of people don't tie Girdle Bitches with Spandex legs, but I do," Mama said proudly. "They're ugly, but I've caught fish on them."

I took her word for it.

Naturally, I made all the first-timer faux pas on our initial foray to the river.

In fact, the list of my sins is excruciatingly extensive:

1. I called the custom-built, monographed, nine-foot, lightweight, five-hundred-dollar graphite fly rod Tavenner let me use, a "pole." "Lemme see that pole," I said cheerfully. His face contorted in pain.

2. I asked Tavenner why he didn't have "a bigger bobber." "That's a strike indicator," he informed me, his voice dripping disgust.

3. I put my arms inside my chest-waders. (I was trying to pull up my socks.)

4. I fell over in the rushing water with both my arms inside my chest-waders. I needn't tell you how bad a mistake that was. The river ran over me. Baptized me. In the name of the Mother, the Sun, and the Holy Float. It would have drowned me, too, if Tavenner hadn't caught me as I washed downstream and dragged me to shore by my suspenders.

5. I hooked my hair, my leg, my backside. Mama and Tavener moved several hundred paces upriver from me.

6. I fished with moss. "Clean the moss off your fly every second cast, why don't you, honey?" suggested Mama in a kindly fashion, after noticing my half-hour's moss-casting.

7. I forgot to look at the strike indicator. I was too occupied watching my mother jerking in hogs and lunkers repeatedly. Suddenly, I had a strike myself, but the fish was gone in a flash when I didn't set the hook.

8. When we rafted downstream to fish the riffles, I actually succeeded in hooking and landing a rainbow trout, but got so excited I fell out of the boat onto my fish. It swished a lot under me. Scared me. Scared the fish, too, no doubt. I could be the only fisherman who has ever squashed her fish in the water.

But for all these transgressions and more, I did penance. All fly fishermen do, whether they sin or not. Standing in freezing water for long periods of time: that's the flagellation part of the religion. When I got to where I enjoyed it, I began to worry.

Mama, however, had risen to a higher plane, Cardinal status at least, if not exactly Joan of Arc. She cut an intriguing figure out on the river, constantly moving with the smooth, fluid motion of an expert caster. It was meditational. Every once in a while the rhythm would be interrupted with an abrupt yelp, which meant she'd caught another lunker with shoulders.

All this spirituality hadn't been free, of course. Like all sects, this one included tithing. Why, one rooster neck for making flies is forty dollars, and one packet of green hare's ear hair, twelve bucks. And when you add to it the state-of-the-art graphite rods, reels, vests, waders, hats, bags, nets, and so on, it makes you gasp.

Yet the most unique item Tavenner had sold to my mother, which she wore around her neck like a vestment and never removed, was the least expensive. This was the fisherman's tool lanyard, a tool originally used for bait rigging while fishing offshore, but adapted for fly fishermen. It's particularly advantageous for deep-river waders and floaters because all the tools you need are visible and securely fastened on a lanyard around your neck, handier than having to dig through a tackle box or vest.

The typical setup includes a Swiss army knife or small scissors to cut line, hemostats to remove hooks, small needle-nose pliers to debarb hooks, a leader straightener, a leader sink, silicone floatant, a hook file, and finally, a stomach pump.

This last item was a revelation. I've seen some pretty outrageous things done in the name of sport, like whacking off bull parts in Spain, but trout stomach pumping has to be at the top. With the first trout Mama caught, she, without warning, began to suck all the insides out of the thing.

"What are you doing to that fish?" I shouted, making her leap in alarm.

"Pumping out the little bugger's belly," she replied nonchalantly. "You have to see what they're eating, you know," she added instructively.

I hadn't known that. "There must be a better way," I insisted.

She examined the green stuff in the tube. "Shoot, nothing but moss," she muttered and dropped the dripping mess onto her shirt front, where the stain spread.

"Think I'll get another cup of coffee," I gagged.

You can renounce all these worldly goods and take your fly fishing back to its simplest state, as the ascetics do in any religion. For instance, Tavenner told us about a client he'd once guided on the river who fished with spines from the barrel cactus with a fly tied on. This man, Tavenner said, had explored the length and breadth of fly fishing and discovered its pure, natural form.

"That's the largest wad of horse crap I ever heard," Mama exclaimed, staring at Tavenner. She was about to say something else, but just then one of those Amazing But True Fish Things happened. I got a strike, a good one. All of us turned our attention to the end of my line. The fish dived straight down, then shot straight up, hit the water, and flew several feet into the air. It was so fast, I couldn't keep the tension on my line. The huge rainbow coiled high in the air for a moment, glistening, poised, droplets of water spraying outward and catching the sun. Then, facing its hunter, the fish turned and spat the fly out in my face. It was well-timed and altogether amazing. I heard Mama laugh.

"That fish has been in this game before," she remarked drolly.

"That fish just made my trip," I sighed lightly with satisfaction. Gazing at the rippling water, I reflected, "It's funny, but in all my years of fishing, the ones I remember most are the big ones I've lost."

And somehow, that seemed a perfect benediction for the day.