The First One’s Free

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I can still remember the darkness the first morning Darby picked me up in front of my house to take me fly fishing.

Its a weird thing to remember, but it was so dark, I was struggling to see the stairs and not spill my coffee. As he opened the door at the curb, the map light from his 20-year-old BMW seemed to pierce the blackness like a beacon. I thought I was already excited to go, but seeing that light turned me into a moth who had seen a bug zapper for the first time. I was headed out on the adventure of a lifetime. There was no going back.

The dream to fish with a fly rod had been planted deep in my mind ever since I saw men shooting strange, orange lines back and forth on a creek, high in the Sierras. I had no idea what they were doing, but they looked like they could tame the river with their confidence. In those early years before the orange laser-beams got me to thinking, fishing always seemed like a game of guessing and waiting. These were two things I already hated doing as a kid. What secret did they possess with their magic, waving rods? Could they possibly know more than my grandfather, the source of all the fishing wisdom in the universe?

I learned by watching the men and their orange lines.

They showed me that using the river’s flow and casting to the fish rather than waiting for the fish to bite could produce different results than I was used to. As the morning sun warmed my brain, a fleeting thought came to being. That one idea, plus a head full of borrowed courage would equal a breakthrough in my 12-year-old life.

After clipping a two-tone, two-inch bobber four feet above my weight and worm and pinning the button on my crusty Zebco 202 down with my thumb, I “let it drift” for the first time instead of casting it. By allowing the bait to float freely, I suddenly was meddling with more fish than I could have imagined that day. I tried to keep up and glean from the men with the waving rods, but their neon wisdom quickly disappeared beyond the horizon. In retrospect, I probably caught more fish than the two of them combined that day, but they left me with a burning question that would have to wait more than twenty years to be answered.

sunrise while fishing

I wondered silently all those years until an hour into our car ride. The stars were beginning to fade when the question finally came out: “How do you fish with a fly rod?” The reply came after we had suited up and after a quick lesson in assembling and lining a rod. There was also a secondary but very important lesson on how to walk down a 50% grade in felt wading boots with an eight-foot rod without dying. Darby answered my question by showing me in the flesh, firsthand, how to fish with a fly rod.

It ended up that this man, the father of my daughter’s schoolmate, was an absolute master angler. He had given me one of his own rods and reels to learn with. He had taken me to his creek deep in the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. A place so indescribably beautiful that eagles seem to take detours from heaven just to see it up close. It is a place where the clearest water you’ll find anywhere on earth plunges from pool to pool, washing the rare insect to voracious coastal cutthroat who are both clinging to life and yet seem to stick around for a few thousand years just for the scenery. If I’m honest, most days I want to take up that job description and join them.

cutthroat fish

Lost in my fantasy, my daydream was interrupted by the splash of a trout exploding through his glass ceiling,

only to get a nasty surprise from an October Caddis which was, unfortunately for him, connected mysteriously to a wide-eyed, elated rookie angler. The laughter of the only other human to ever have caught him before is the soundtrack to every fish I have caught since. I have since repeated to friends on several rivers the words that were escaping Darby’s mouth as he handed the fish to me for a quick picture:

“Welcome to the dark side… the first one’s free.”

Ryan is an avid angler, master fly tier, and excellent fishing teacher. He used to live in Germany, but now lives in Wales where he serves as a missionary for the Assemblies of God. Find Ryan on Twitter @dryfliesforever