My Favorite Gear: Sage LE 8’6″ 5 wt. Fly Rod
On Monday I launched a series of posts whose purpose is to reflect on the places and situations that come to mind when I look at some of my favorite pieces of outdoors-based gear. It is in these moments that a piece of gear’s true value is recognized. Today I offer the first full installment in this series, reflecting on the piece of gear that is partially responsible for my passion for the outdoors: a Sage LE 8’6″ 5 wt. fly rod…..my first fly rod.
The Sage LE line of rods were an all graphite, medium-fast action rod released in 2002 that were marketed towards the beginning or “cost-conscious” angler. To a 19 year old who was in fact both of those, and who had never held a fly rod before, it was simultaneously the greatest fly rod ever produced and a sheer marvel of modern technology–I mean, how could a fishing rod weigh so little short of a NASA or extra-terrestrial intervention!? My fascination with this masterpiece of human ingenuity only increased as I spent a large portion of that Christmas break in my parents’ front yard throwing twenty foot tailing loops and snagging tree branches in my self-taught backcast.
Over the 10 years that has spanned then and now, that LE and I have spent a lot of time together and have seen a lot of things: multiple species of fish, salt and fresh water, my largest and smallest trout to date, and the waters of a couple dozen rivers in a half dozen or more states. Even with the multitude of time and experiences registered with that fly rod, the one memory that immediately jumps out is of a family trip to Yellowstone in 2005 where my love of the sport was forever cemented–and I almost developed frostbite retrieving a stonefly nymph from the back of my head.
See, for a 21 year old whose 3 year fly-fishing experience had been tied almost exclusively to the delayed-harvest trout rivers of North Carolina and Tennessee, stepping into the Yellowstone region was like graduating from YMCA basketball to the NBA. Every single aspect of it felt larger-than-life. From the bison roaming nearby to the sheer expanse of the landscape to the fame associated with the names of the rivers I was wading into, just being there was 95% of the importance for me. And that was a good thing, because by Yellowstone standards the fishing was pretty lousy.
There were two things that didn’t cross our mind when planning our trip to Yellowstone in early June: run-off season and the potential for snow. The reason that these two things never crossed our mind was because neither are June concerns for those living in the Southeast. For us, “run-off season” from snow is only a 3-4 day event, and the chance of snow in June consistently hovers in the negative percentiles. Our packing for the trip reflected this: mostly shorts and Chacos on my part, with a light jacket or two, and a medium-weight coat, socks, beanie, and wool gloves thrown in at the last minute “just in case.” I had chosen to ignore my mom’s research of what weather temperatures to expect, and had left all of the heavy (read: “warm”) items back in the Tar Heel State.
Which brings me to June 1st. We had been in Yellowstone for a day or two already and had found a few rivers to be fishable in their upper stretches within the park. By that point we had made our acquaintance with some smaller browns and rainbows on the Firehole River, but June 1st was the day we would set our sights on the Madison River and all of its notoriously large trout. It would be the day that I would officially cut my teeth on a large, wild, Western trout. We loaded up the rental van that had already carried the 5 of us from Salt Lake City to Jackson Hole to the Tetons, and was now aimed at the Madison River in the heart of Yellowstone. This is where the snow enters into our story.
By the time we reached the stretch of river I had read about in a “best places to go fishing”-type book, a few snowflakes had turned into a downpour. As my brother and I stood looking at the pile of clothing and gear available to us, somewhere in the back of my brain a small voice began saying, “you realize that’s not enough, right?” Choosing to quickly ignore that voice in the name of cutting my teeth on a large, wild, Western trout, we divided up 2 pair of waders, 2 long-sleeve cotton shirts, 2 medium-weight jackets that weren’t waterproof, 1 light-weight waterproof rain jacket, 1 pair of gloves, 1 beanie, and 1 baseball cap. In case you’re scoring at home, that amount of gear would have made one person decently comfortable–and yet two of us were in need of comfort.
After gearing up we quickly began moving towards the water in hopes that our walking would fight off the chill that was already creeping in. Now you might say that our best plan of action, considering our lack of forethought in the bringing of suitable gear, would be to fish until we were cold, and then use the van as a warming hut to regain feeling before heading back out to fish some more–and you would probably be right. Only, we didn’t plan that out very well either. After gearing up and heading out, our parents and my sister-in-law left to visit West Yellowstone, leaving my brother and I alone to fend for ourselves.
Even though it didn’t take us long to recognize the miscalculations in our plan, it did in fact take us a few minutes too long: the van was already out of sight by the time we realized that this wet snow and wind was going to zap our warmth quickly. My brother and I devised a plan that the one of us without gloves (myself to start with) would fish as long as possible without them, he would then retrieve the gloves from the person wearing them just before numbness completely set in, and he would then attempt to quickly re-warm his hands while the other person began the process of losing all feeling. The same would go for the beanie if need-be. Trust me, even today the ridiculousness of that plan is blatantly obvious, but did I mention that the Madison has notoriously large fish that we really hoped to catch?
Upon picking out a spot in the river that looked promising, I was able to put the lack of warmth out of mind just enough to focus entirely on the task at hand. Every drift held the potential of a fish of a lifetime, so every portion of my brain that wasn’t essential to fly-fishing was turned off. That bought me roughly 20 minutes.
Now, there comes a time in being cold that no matter how much distraction you put in front of yourself, there’s going to be something that snaps you back into reality. For me it was an errant cast caught by the wind that sent my large and heavily weighted stonefly nymph crashing into the back of my baseball cap-wearing head. It felt like a brass knuckle-wearing toddler had punched me in my upper neck, and I could tell that the fly was stuck on something–my jacket collar, my hat, my (at that point) almost shoulder-length hair, or maybe even my scalp. Part of me didn’t want to reach to the back of my head for fear of finding a hook embedded in a place a hook has no business being embedded. The other part of me was waking up to the fact that my hands were going to be useless in this process no matter where the fly was.
In my 20 minutes of being “in the zone,” my right hand had frozen to roughly the shape of a fly-rod cork handle while my left hand had frozen with only my thumb and index finger extended in order to strip in fly-line. None of my 10 fingers were going to move without a lot of effort, and neither hand was frozen in a shape conducive to locating and grabbing a fly the size of a Jolly Rancher. A few moments of attempting to awaken the nerve-endings in the general area I believed the fly might be led me to believe that the fly hadn’t found skin, but was instead frozen into my hair with snow accumulating on top of it rapidly. Since my hands stood no chance of removing the fly in their present state, my only hope was that my brother’s fingers were still functioning properly.
I managed to reel up my line and make my way down to where he was fishing, yelling out, ” I need some help” as I got close. He turned, looked at me, and yelled back, “Yep–it sure is cold.” “No,” I yelled. “I need help getting my fly.” At that, his face turned to puzzlement. His response of “where is it?” came at roughly the same moment that he was able to trace my line from the tip of the fly rod to the back of my head, thus answering his question. His laughter was met by my laughter a split-second later, and in that moment we realized how absolutely ridiculous June 1st, 2005 had become.
To keep a long story from becoming ridiculously long, I will say that shortly after he managed to untangle my fly from my tangle of frozen hair, our family returned from their shortened trip to West Yellowstone and we moved towards the warmth of the van as quickly as our extremities would allow. In the middle of our thawing, the snow stopped and the sun began peaking out from behind the clouds. Once we had warmed enough to have proper usage of our fingers and toes, we restrung our two fly rods and gave the Madison one more shot.
While no epic fish were landed, I did manage to land one decent brown, and was able to share the experience of fly fishing in this beautiful place with both my brother and our dad–a combination that has only happened on this one particular trip. Because of this connection to family in a season of change in our lives (I had just graduated college and was about to move 3,000 miles away to Seattle, while my sister-in-law was pregnant with their first son), this family trip to Yellowstone in May and June of 2005 will forever be the memory that comes to mind when I think about, or fish with my 8’6″ 5wt. Sage LE.