Sunday, July 26, 2009

the royal wulff

What I love about fly fishing, or I suppose what I love about becoming a fly fisherman, is the history. There are so many stories in the rivers I live near and being new to this sport means I get to experience it all for the first time. I have yet to come across any sport that exhales and inhales in one place like fly fishing does in southern Vermont. Maybe I'm just being overly sentimental because it's what brought me here in the first place, but regardless of my bias, it is undeniable that a rich history bubbles up from under those stream beds. Sometimes I get to experience this history, magic, and culture all in the same night.

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.


Anonymous René said...

Good job on your first catch! I never liked fishing with live bait when I was little. I learned to fish with a bobber in my neighbor's cattle pond. After reading You Can Go Home Again, I appreciate the philosophy of returning the fish to the river.

July 26, 2009 at 12:26 PM  
Blogger Sarah Sanders said...

always love your stories,Jenna! Thanks for sharing your life! :o)

July 26, 2009 at 12:44 PM  
Blogger finsandfeathers said...

What a beautiful trout! Great story too.

finsandfeathers came from my passion for all things outdoors but primarily my love for fly fishing, fly tying and I have this bird problem too. Fair warning young lady, with you ability to fall in love “old things,” please beware of the seduction of bamboo fly rods. There’s a really great book called, “The River Why,” you might enjoy about life and fly fishing. Someday it's supposed to be made into a movie.

July 26, 2009 at 12:49 PM  
Blogger Juliette said...

While I've done a very small amount of fly fishing, my uncle is Ed Van Put, of the Wulff clan ;) It's great to hear about your experiences. I'll pass your page along to him :)

July 26, 2009 at 2:32 PM  
Blogger Michele said...

Oh, Jenna! Beautiful story, wonderfully told!
I have wanted to lean to Fly Fish for many years now, but for some reason it just hasn't happened.
I, too, live in an area where the history of the land and the history of fly fishing mingle together. If you ever watch the movie (or read the book) "The River Runs Through It"... those are the rivers I play in!

July 26, 2009 at 3:02 PM  
Anonymous Tony in Asheville said...

A few years back I too got hooked on fly fishing. I took the novice approach and eventually upgraded to equipment by your very own employer I believe (Orvis if I am not mistaken).

I even found that with a little effort and one very cool DVD I was able to tie a few of my own flies.

This DVD walks you through every step and allowed me to review as needed and even select quite a number of different flies to tie.

I highly recommend findind such a product and spending a few cold winter nights creating your own wonderful flies. A very creative and product evening in my book.

There is nothing more rewarding than catching a fish on a fly you created yourself.

I found too that one need not get fancy at first. I literally spent an entire day catching sunfish on nearly every caste. The fly was nothing more than black thread made to look like a regular house/barn/poop fly.

Trust me Jenna, fly tying is right up your homestead alley.

I hope to once again re-join the fly fishing adventure before too long.

Tony in Asheville

July 26, 2009 at 8:53 PM  
Blogger Maggie in Tally said...

Good for you! I've been fly fishing a few times, but only managed to hook an overhanging alder, and then bust my ass on a slippery rock. My Guiness that night was more medicinal than celebrational. I agree with Tony--you gotta try tying your own flies. It's a useful skill and fun, if a little bit frustrating at the outset.

July 27, 2009 at 8:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow this is a well written post, makes we want to go (and learn how to) fly fishing. I am really looking forward to reading your book!


July 27, 2009 at 10:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Jenna! Great story. I have a date with my dad in the morning to go fishing. He gave me my grandfathers pole and supplies, replaced the line and suprised me with it.(my dad says to use this pole, its better than anything they can bang out of a factory these days..its 50+ yrs old) My dad is the modern day Archie Bunker. Kinda an ass sometimes, but we love him. He taught me how to fish with a bobber, then lure fishing, now fly fishing. Only thing far only thing I have caught is my own ass. Oh well...I will get better. There REALLY is such a RICH history behind fly fishing. I am happy to be (small) a part of it. I will get better at fly fishing. My fav though is lure fishing. I snagged a nice 19inch Bass last month (my biggest yet!) here in NH. I jumped around like a total moron...but its was great!

July 27, 2009 at 2:20 PM  
Blogger Moon said...

I love the circular nature of your interests. You do realize that the flies are made from chicken feathers, mostly from the capes and saddles of roosters, but I did find that your beloved Brahma hens have something to contribute as well. Interesting site:

July 27, 2009 at 3:28 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Nothing is better than standing in a river with a fly rod. Catching is the bonus. My biggest photo grins are when I am holding a fish before I return them to the river.

July 28, 2009 at 10:51 AM  
Blogger Paula said...

I so desperately want to learn how to fly fish! But my husband told me when we got married and I said something about camping that he was "an indoor cat".

I haven't given up hope though!

July 28, 2009 at 2:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


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August 26, 2010 at 4:32 AM  
Blogger Fran Jurga said...

That's a wonderful story. I'm just learning about Lee Wulff. I wonder if his table is still there...

August 6, 2015 at 1:05 PM  

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