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8:45 PM. The pond is the color of fresh cantaloupe, with crimson neon-edged clouds low in the western sky. The light is fading, but it’s as if the sun were captured in the water, its surface glowing like last night’s embers. The smell of fireworks hangs in the air, and a blue haze wafts lazily over the black treetops.
As it darkens, the blooming bursts of fireworks can be seen through the wooded county properties, accompanied by enthusiastic hollers. I pull on my boots, grab my 6-weight fly rod, and hoof it as fast as I can to everyone’s favorite brushy corner spot. I tie on a tiny brown dry fly, mimicking the flying insects hovering around my face, reading the water with my eyes and hands. Amidst the tall reeds and slimy rocks, I roll cast next to a stump sticking out of the water, letting the fly drift lazily in the current, and a bluegill hits it like shotgun recoil. I admire its metallic rainbow colors, fine size, and dense little tank of a body. When I release it into the brown, mucky shallows, it takes off with a splash of the tail that sprays me in the face with water – such attitude!
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I make my way back along the shoreline, noisily throwing a hunter-orange, rubber-legged popper. I work it with short, quick strips of the line and jerky movements of the rod. The popper looks just like the bugs floundering in the film, making irresistible ripples of distress that spread outward like a beacon. Soon I feel the explosive attack of a largemouth bass. It leaps as it fights, splashing and thrashing, quite different than the bluegill’s powerful pull. I catch and release a few more, bug-bitten, fingers burning from stripping line, until finally landing the one for the table. It’s the color of tarnished bronze, a green-gold that glows in the dying light. In its cavernous “O” of a mouth, the popper didn’t stand a chance.
Fly fishing is a hands-on sport that rewards the observant. Matching the hatch – that is, purposefully imitating not just your quarry’s natural prey but what the hot menu item happens to be at the moment– is a recipe for success. You might get a miniscule window of time in which to act, so tie your fastest clinch knot and put that fly in front of some fish! Choosing patterns and tactics based on species and setting adds another layer of interaction. You can retrieve fast for hungry largemouths or dead-drift for lurking bluegills. There’s something for everyone and every fish, whether it’s sight fishing for lazy bass in the heat of midday or taking advantage of evening activity and imitating the insects the sunfish are smashing.
But even fly fishing gear itself is significant, as the tackle tends to be light and using it demands all your attention. You become attuned to the slightest movements and changes in pressure due to constant handling of the fly line. The line itself becomes a thread that connects you to the unseen world beneath the surface, to nature, and to food. Should you decide to make a meal of the panfish you catch on fly, it is a meal well-deserved with a side of perspective. The twilight-colored heron that fishes alongside you also works for its catch; the osprey overhead waits for the perfect opportunity to dive. Every cast and retrieve underscores your kinship with them.
It’s a level of communion I have never experienced with a spinning rod, staring at a bobber or cranking in a flashy lure. I enjoy the finesse and the challenge of presenting and working a fly. Fish swallow bait with abandon but might give you a nanosecond at most before spitting out a woolly bugger. Your anticipation of and reaction to their behavior can mean the difference between hooking and landing the fish and feeling it slip away back into its enigmatic underwater world.
Few people in my community fly fish, but I hope that changes. It’s an accessible and wickedly effective method of fishing. On weekend nights, I’m fortunate to get hooked up while the conventional anglers around me get skunked. The neighborhood pond gets bombarded with every lure and bait combination out there, so maybe the fish are enticed by the sight of something different. Or maybe there’s something more to this form of angling where nothing is easy but every moment is a profound learning experience. Just figuring out how to get the fly out there and back without awkward tangles of spaghettied line is hard enough. But it’s worth the effort. I challenge anyone to play tug-of-war with a big bluegill or land a feisty bass on a fly rod and come away unchanged.