the royal wulff
Last night was one of those nights. My friend Phil (who also happens to be a gifted fly fisherman and seasoned guide) took me out on a river at dusk. Under a waxing crescent moon (and his patient watch) I learned to improve my casting and choose the proper flies. Thanks to this adventure I caught my first ever trout on a river. The feeling of watching a wild animal thrash and jump from the water on your taunt line is like nothing I've ever experience outdoors before. This was nothing like raising livestock or spotting a deer on a hiking trail. This was me, waist-deep in a fast river, actively participating in the hunt. On the end of my line: a native brook trout. I landed her with a famous dry fly called the Royal Wulff.
The Royal Wulff is used by fly fisherman all over the world. But what I didn't know until last night was this fly was tied by a man named Lee Wulff, a renowned sportsman and conservationist. Lee also happened to be a former Sandgate resident (Who's kitchen table somehow became the main back table at the Wayside Country Store where the locals gather for coffee every morning...I find this fact particularly wonderful) Anyway, this man Lee was a fairly big deal in the history of the sport, and while I know very little about him, his legacy as a resident in my little mountain town rang loudly last night. I felt special, and a little honored to be using some local history to catch fish with a good friend.
I've been fly fishing since the first spring in Vermont, but always by myself, and always a little haplessly. Fly fishing is not like bait fishing. There isn't any waiting around, bobbers to watch, or cans of worms. You're not trapping fish by luring their noses to bloody hooks—You are actively hunting by making a small fake bug on the end of a clear long line look like a living thing just landing on the surface of the water. Now, I took a weekend course with a guided river trip, read books, tried... a lot. But my efforts were all fruitless. I needed to learn from real fisherman over and over. This was not a sport you learned from paper.
When you fly fish you are a puppeteer, tracker, and animal all at once. You do this while always thinking, and moving, and casting, and scrambling up and down the river like a waterlogged nomad. There are no lawn chairs on the banks here. You wear waders and a vest and act like your own boat: your waterproof lower body the vessle and your fishing vest full of gear the haul. You do this mad dance while trying to find the right eddy or pocket where the trout live and will buy your story.
Obviously, this takes some skill. After a year of trying and never landing a single river trout on my own, I decided to start asking for help. Pride is dead. My friends (and bandmates) Steve and Phil came to the rescue.
Over the past few months Steve and Phil have been taking me out to their favorite fishing spots and teaching me. Talk about lucky. These are seriously talented people who have been kind enough to help a friend learn their passion. Just last Thursday Steve leant me a rod to take out on the water this weekend. A very nice fly rod he himself helped design called the Helios. The rod costs more than several of my car payments, but getting to fish with it was like learning to drive on a Bentley. So last night while Steve was away in Maine, I took the Helios out on the river with Phil. Now in the company of an angler and gear far more advanced than I, the three of us rambling up and down the river Lee Wulff himself once fished.
We fished for a few hours and it was wonderful. I caught five! I reeled in brown and brook trout over and over. Phil did the same. I'd hand him the Helios and he'd cast like an artist as I watched from a boulder, letting my feet dangle over the fast river, watching the sun fall away. It was beautiful. Lee once said "The finest gift you can give to any fisherman is to put a good fish back, and who knows if the fish that you caught isn't someone else's gift to you?" and so in the tradition of most fly-fisherman around these parts, I let all of our catches go. Phil kept saying how happy he was to see the river so healthy, the fish thriving in their native waters. I was proud to be outside along a teacher more interested in keeping the experience than the fish. We returned every trout back to the river. I will catch them again someday perhaps, or maybe you will.
I saved the Royal Wulff and will frame it alongside a sketched watercolor of a brook trout. It is now dirty, and the hook broken, but it is special to me now. A little talisman. Call me sentimental but that little fish hook tied up with hair and string was the culmination of generations of conservationists, neighbors, friends and a river. It's the avatar of a perfect Vermont summer night that started hip-deep in cold water and ended with a celebration glass of Guiness in a Bennigton pub. And it's the drug that made a recreational beginner fly fisher into what will certainly be a lifetime of scrambling up rivers and watching trout rise, a fly rod in her hand and a fiddle on the bank.
So last night a famous kitchen table, a crescent moon, patient friends, and a river made me a very happy woman. That water has not seen the last of me.