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COL Novice fly angler's best asset: Humility

A buddy that won't laugh comes in handy, too

Despite seeing myself as a dabbler in all outdoor activities but master of none, there are a couple of distinct holes in my repertoire: I don't hunt waterfowl and I don't fly fish.

Only one of these omissions is based on experience. Having waded into chest-deep muck to set decoys on a cold October morning, and having braved near-blizzards as I waited for geese that didn't arrive, I've decided that fall is meant to be spent in a tree stand or following a flushing dog. You waterfowlers out there, don't judge me -- just be grateful there's one less guy trying to beat you to your favorite ice-encrusted spot.

Fly fishing, on the other hand, I've shunned for other reasons entirely.

For starters, it seems needlessly complicated and expensive. I mean, why spend $200 on a reel when 99 percent of the time, all it's doing is holding line? And what's the deal with how complicated the line is? Backing, fly line, leader, tippet -- in the time it would take me to get all these things tied together in the right order, I could drive out to the lake and catch a limit of crappies on my good ol' spinning rod.

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And then there's all the other gear -- the fly boxes, the vests, the dip net, the snips, the magnifying glasses and the little pliers to remove tiny hooks from tiny fish. And don't get me started on the funny hats.

And of course, there's the guy you see on TV who gets to a stream, picks up a rock, studies the muck that's on its underside, and says, in hushed tones, "Hmm, looks like a No. 26 Gimpson nymph with a brown -- no, wait -- make that a beige bead head and a squirrel-tail hackle ought to do it. Good thing I tied eight of those last night."

He catches a five-inch fish and then spends 10 minutes telling me how satisfied he is: "Boy, that makes the four-hour drive up that logging road worth every dent I put in the oil pan."

Those of you who fly fish have read between the lines by now and know that one fundamental fact has kept me away from the sport: I'm terrified.

The problem is, I'm lousy at being lousy at something. I don't mind being average, but if I truly stink, I'm miserable -- and I'll drive myself crazy trying to get better.

That's aggravation I simply don't need, so I decided not to fly fish.

Then, in a moment of inexplicable weakness, I gave in: A buddy talked me into going dry-fly fishing for trout. He provided the rod and the flies, and even tied on an elk-hair caddis -- and thus made me feel like a six-year- old whose dad was baiting his hook.

After a few tips at streamside, my mentor shut up and let me learn by doing. I missed a lot of fish, made some REALLY ugly casts, and in the end managed to land a couple six-inch brown trout on a wide-open stretch of the Whitewater River. It was amazing how much energy these small fish could transmit through that long, limber rod.

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In the weeks that followed, I spent some time -- but no money -- in the fly-fishing section at Gander Mountain.

Then, a few weeks later, my friend took me out again. We drove down a hill that would make my pickup run and hide, then hiked into a stunning ravine with towering rock walls and a clear stream. We were fishing Prince nymphs on a long leader with a split shot and a strike indicator; my pal told me that if I could fish that setup in tight quarters, then I could fish just about anywhere.

He caught two 15-inchers in the first 20 minutes, then spent most of his time watching me. I spooked a lot of fish, hooked and lost a couple big ones and lost four of the five Prince nymphs I'd been given. I stumbled a few times, banged my shins, broke my sunglasses, discovered a leak in my waders and managed to get sand in my borrowed reel.

I also caught a half-dozen acrobatic, brilliantly colored brown trout in a setting no artist could paint, including two 11-inchers that I took home for one of the finest meals imaginable.

That night, as my casting shoulder stiffened up to the point that I could barely lift my arm, it occurred to me that, as an absolutely terrible fly angler, I'd had a wonderful time.

Maybe they'll be having clearance sales on fly rods this month. And it wouldn't kill me to look at the hats.

Eric Atherton is the Post-Bulletin's outdoors editor. Contact him at eatherton@postbulletin.com

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