Flicking a Fly into the Shoshone

Fly-Fishing the Shoshone River

Fishing the cold clear waters of the Shoshone River near Cody, WY was truly an experience I will never forget. Not only was it my first time fly-fishing but it was also an emotional roller coaster of a day. I think that in those eight hours I felt almost every emotion known to man, from excitement to frustration to peacefulness to anger to awe. I took away something I never expected to get, a life lesson straight from the hands of nature. I walked off of that river humbled and in wonder. The river is seemingly so simple just flowing through a canyon. But below the surface it is extremely complex with all of the hidden wonders. Once you step onto the bank or into the water something changes. A once simple cast of your line changes and is riddled with complexity as you try to read the water.

I began my day in the North fork of the Shoshone River. The river  flows uninhibited straight from the mountains of Yellowstone and winds through a breathtaking canyon. The night before I couldn’t sleep out of anticipation for this part of the journey. I stared at the stretch of river where I would cast my first fly and I felt like a child going to school for the first time, full of wonder and excitement. I wanted to immediately run onto the bank and flail my line in the water.

First you must setup your fishing rod, it’s a mildly complex process that involves tying the leader to the line and the tying the tippet to the leader, each sized specifically to the type/size of fish you are trying to catch. Trout have amazing eyesight so you must be extra cautious when tying the knots. If your knot is too bulky or messy then they can see it and will not strike your fly. Then comes the fly, of which there are so many types and sizes, each mimicing some stage of insect life. Terrestrials, wet flies, and dry flies are just a few types. I tied on a grasshopper looking fly and a nymph trailing off of the hopper by about three feet. The hopper floats while the nymph dives below the surface. Essentially, you are fishing two ways in one setup.

As I stepped in the icy water the river came alive. The swift currents became its lifeblood. The bends and turns its heartbeats. Moving life further down the canyon. The fish are the spirit of the river, giving life and always searching. Together the fish and the river combine to make the true soul of the wild. Thier combination is an entity that can never be truly captured, only harnessed. The fisherman is always tying to comprehend and connect with the soul of the wild within the river. This is how he catches fish. As you search for the fish you challenge yourself to look in unknown places of the river and push yourself to find more, each crevice potentially holding the catch of your life. Each cast, either a success or failure brings you closer to understanding the soul of the river.

There I stand, ready to fish, now comes another challenging step, gracefully landing the fly where I want it in the water. A proper fly-fishing cast can only be described as purely majestic. A pull back and a push forward with perfect timing will send the fly into the water without a splash. The goal is to imitate an insect landing in the water without alerting the fish to the presence of the line. My cast was definitely short of majestic, to say the least. Picture someone swinging at a bee with a cane reed and you can picture me thereon the riverside at that moment. Luckily, like everything else, practice will make you better. I continue to cast my fly, let it float down, and recast it. I watched the hopper in anticipation, waiting for any action. Suddenly I see something amazing. I see a little brown triangle of a fish’s head poke up from the water and grab my hopper. Fish on! Only I stand there confused, should I pull the line with my hand or quickly reel in the excess line  that I am holding. My choice, not the best choice, was to reel. In doing this I allowed slack in the line so the hook didn’t set and the fish waved goodbye as he splashed back into the river. This was the first set of mixed emotions. The excitement of doing something right and disappointment for not doing something right.

The day moved forward, six hours, six different spots, eight different setups, and zero fish for me. This is where the frustration began to percolate into anger. Then, on the last spot an epiphany occurred. I hadn’t learned to bait or lure fish in a day, it has taken 20 years, so how could I expect to learn to fly fish in a day.

I found a secluded spot in the river and began to contemplate the day thus far. I was humbled when I realized that this act of fly-fishing could get me so emotionally mixed up. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I was learning and the process of learning is not instantaneous. I was relaxing and began noticing the sheer beauty of my location. My mood changed for the better and transformed into enjoyment and awe. There I was, standing in a river that carved the canyon, which towered high above me. The canyon itself an amazing scene with its tans, grays, and reds, all worthy of a panoramic painting. I thought to myself, how could you be upset when you are surrounded by so many amazing things. Yes, I was not catching fish but I was finally enjoying the pursuit. After all its called fishing not catching.

I later met up with AJ and watched him reel in a nice rainbow trout and I realized what was wrong. I needed to change my focus away from trying to pluck a fish from the river. I needed to instead read and connect with the flow of the river to find the fish. I needed to put my fly where the fish would want it and where they would be waiting. Some help was provided when we ran into an older group of fly fishermen from Pennsylvania. They kindly provided us some seasoned advice and unexpectedly gave us some flies, which were best for catching fish that day. A yellow, a green, and a brown wet fly were told as the combination of the day. The thrill of a hot tip was subdued by the feeling of hunger. We had not eaten a meal since the early morning.

After a dinner break and some refreshments, it was decided that I couldn’t abandon the opportunity to catch my first fish on my first trip. Back to the river we went, to the same bend where AJ landed his fish earlier. I used the new hand tied flies provided by the fishing elders. I worked the bend well. I had found my flow. I would cast out to my left and let the line drift across me through the rocks and down on my right, letting out line as it moved in the current. I did not feel the first hit. I just noticed that my line did not drift anymore so out of curiosity I began to pull in the line. I could feel the weight of the fish. Excitement swelled as I pulled out my small, 5 inch, rainbow trout. I yelled at AJ to see and even though it was so small, I was proud. I had landed my first fish on a fly. As I returned the little guy to the water I was swept by a feeling of accomplishment. I knew there was much more to learn so I flicked my fly back into the water for more.

The next hour proved to be productive as I caught an identical fish as my first, which fit nicely in the palm of my hand. The sun began to set and it was time to head off of the river. I flicked out one last cast, watched it drift by, and thought of how much I had enjoyed my first day. The line reached my far right and I began to reel as I said a final goodbye to the river, my new acquaintance. I peered at the setting sun and suddenly heard a splash behind me. I looked over just in time to see the flash of silver just a few feet from where I stood. I pulled my line and felt nothing so I recast my line and waited in anticipation as it drifted over the very same spot. I knew the fish would hit. I could feel it in my soul so I took out the slack and gave it a pop. The fish hit the submerged fly as it drifted by the rock almost directly under my feet. I pulled tight and set the hook. The fish darted toward swifter water as I began to pull him closer to me. A splash and a flicker of white put the fish airborne as I struggled to get my net off of my back. After a few moments of fighting, I reeled and gently drew the fish in the net and looked down in amazement at my catch. The fish was a 10-inch cutthroat trout. They are green-silverish in color with a rub of deep red on and behind the gill plate, the root of its name. The cutthroat is truly sleek and graceful animal. This was the exact fish I had wanted to catch and all I could do was stare in amazement.

A similar Cutthroat Trout photographed by Latham Jenkins

The river had given me a gift I would appreciate forever. I smiled as I released the fish back into the water. I was officially addicted to the art of fly-fishing. The excitement and anticipation had returned full circle. The thought of the days emotions hung in my head as I walked back to the truck. I walked away from the river a more patient person. I didn’t walk away from that river with a basket full of fish. I walked away with a lesson that would transpire into my life. You can’t rush life just like you can’t rush fishing. You must instead find the flow and drift downstream to find the fish.

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