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.