My first trout on a fly rod was nothing to write home about. And yet, here I go.
I got my first fly rod as a Christmas present during my Sophomore year of college. A friend gave me a 15 minute casting lesson and then turned me loose to figure everything else out for myself. Needless to say my first few outings on the river proved fruitless, but the fascination with remaining dry while standing in a river awkwardly flinging fly line through the air proved to be enough to keep me coming back for more.
During my 5th or 6th outing I noticed something different: on the far seam of the current there appeared to be a small splash that to my untrained eyes sure looked like a fish rising. Looking up I saw some small, brown insects flying around and I scrambled to find the closest possible match from a grouping of flies that a local fly shop had told me would work. On my first cast through the seam I lucked into a 5 foot dead drift, and saw a small flick of water near my fly.
My bass and bluegill background took over. I set the hook as I had done countless times on the small ponds and rivers near where I grew up. The fly line flew towards me, wrapping itself around both the rod and my surprised self. “Well,” I thought, “I guess I missed that fish.”
I gathered my line and my nerves, and I moved to make my next cast. But something didn’t feel right–my line flapped through the air instead of its normal glide. It felt slightly heavy.
Dropping my line to the water, I stripped it in to see if I had snagged something in the aftermath of the previous moment’s botched hook-set. As the end of the line came closer to me, it started to dart slightly from side to side. Pulling the line out of the water, I started laughing as a 2 inch trout stared back at me while dangling from the small, brown fly. My first fish: one that I launched out of the water with my hook-set, and then unknowingly cast through the air several times before realizing he was there. “Well,” I thought again, “I guess you have to start somewhere.”
Several more fish fell for that small, brown fly that I didn’t know the name of or what it imitated. But this isn’t an attempt to brag about my first successful day of fly fishing. It’s about the beauty that is a “first fish.”
Often times when we think of a “first fish” experience, an image of a young kid with a huge grin holding a “trophy catch” in their small hands comes to mind….or possibly a “trophy catch” dangling from a line because the child is too afraid to touch the slimy thing. In those instances part of the exhilaration of the moment comes from a new part of the world being unlocked for a child who is still figuring out what all this world has to offer them. It’s a world that exists beneath the surface of the water, is unseen when looking down from above, but is a world that can be interacted with through the use of a few simple tools (each of these are complex and abstract thoughts trying to find footing in a brain that hasn’t yet developed the ability to think abstractly). The other part of the exhilaration comes from a sense of accomplishment: a “look what I did” mentality that comes pouring out through wide grins and wider eyes.
But this exhilaration isn’t only found in youth. You don’t need to look very far in the fishing world to find pictures or videos of someone catching their first permit, steelhead, tarpon, or 24+ inch rainbow or brown trout, and what you’ll see much more often than not is the same smile and sense of wonder in the faces of the now adult anglers. A new world is unlocked in those moments–a bigger world–as well as a new sense of accomplishment.
But this exhilaration isn’t only found in the catching of giant, trophy fish either. It can just as easily happen in the hooking and landing of a 6 inch cutthroat.
Within the past two weeks I’ve had the opportunity to watch three people catch their first trout on a fly rod: a 67 year old named Jerry, a 9 year old named Benjamin, and a 21 year old named Oskar. And while each of these people are in radically different phases of their life, the reactions were almost identical: surprise when the fish hit the dry fly, exhilaration at the feel of the fish fighting on the line, and marvel at the colors and markings of these beautiful little fish. In that moment there weren’t any “I wish it was bigger” reactions; there weren’t any “put it back real quick so I can try to catch another one” comments; there weren’t any “this isn’t nearly as fun as I thought it would be” responses. There was only excitement. And accomplishment.
See, that’s the beauty of a first fish. You aren’t caught up in comparisons to bigger fish or longing for different fish or wanting to speed it up to get to more fish. Your entire experience is right there, that moment, that fish. And so it might actually be best to start with a smaller fish, whether it’s a 2 inch brook trout or a 6 inch coastal cutthroat–you will forever appreciate those small fish for their beauty and their spot in your angling journey. There’s an old saying that the best thing about a small fish is that they’ll grow up into a larger one. But sometimes that isn’t true. Sometimes a 6 inch cutthroat will forever be a 6 inch cutthroat, both in the pictures of you holding it and in your mind, and there’s not a single thing wrong with that.