Our resolve for keeping our social distance while fly fishing was of the highest caliber.
Alas, instinct was more powerful.
Wayne Bartz has been my fly fishing guru for decades. Over the past few years, we and about a dozen other fly fishing crazies have met weekly at Dunn Brothers to eat, drink coffee and talk about fishing, travels, fishing, how we’re doing, best bamboo rods, finest fly fishing reels and life. I need to talk with others about fly fishing, a serious outdoor passion of mine, just like others might spend hours talking about football or hockey.
COVID-19, however, ended that gathering.
Bartz and I decided to still get together to fish and chat because, after all, state officials are saying we do need to get outside for health and sanity. Besides, that stream probably had a terrific gray caddis hatch going and it’s a remarkable sight.
Social distancing? No problem. Even when fishing together fly anglers tend to fish separate pools. If we move and see the friend, or another angler, we often keep going. If we stop to chat, stream etiquette dictates announcing ourselves and asking if it’s okay to come closer.
We drove separately and met, saying hi from more than 6 feet, then decided how to proceed. He was going to fish and I was going to take pictures, then join him in fishing. The hatch was incredible. Trout were slurping and chowing down on caddis. “This is the first big meal trout get in the year,” Bartz said. It was clearly a feast.
As we stood several feet apart, a Jeep drove up, down went a window and Tom Guntzel of the Twin Cities, an old friend of Bartz’s, greeted him.
Instinctively, they shook hands. It’s not COVID-19 correct, it was just Bartz being his friendly self. It was Bartz being Bartz.
Six other vehicles were there. No surprise. Reports from around the region are that streams are getting heavy pressure because the regular trout season has just opened, people had more time, streams were in great shape and anglers needed the outlet from COVID-19.
“Everybody wants to fish and the walleye season isn’t open,” Bartz said. “People are not taking vacations.”
The Department of Natural Resources reports a major increase in sales of angling licenses for the whole state and trout stamps were about 30 percent higher.
Bartz began to cast with his 4-weight bamboo rod but with so much food on the water, his fly was one of a few dozen floating past trout all at once. But he’s good and caught some fish.
I began to take pictures and slipped into a photo fixation — I’m never satisfied. Forget the fish, shoot. New angle? Shoot. Better light? Keep shooting.
Bartz switched to a smaller fly because when trout are feeding on a hatch, they will focus only on that size of food. The smaller fly worked better. Bartz landed another fish and I instinctively got within a few feet of him for a close-up of the fly in the trout’s mouth. Again, it was not COVID-19 correct, it was instinct. It was me being me.
When I’m in Rochester, I’m on coronavirus alert. I’m beginning to instinctively move over more than 6 feet when meeting someone in the neighborhood. At a store, I wear a mask, shop and get out fast, sanitizing hands after then washing the clothes.
In the outdoors, however, it’s a challenge to think of coronavirus and economic recession. It’s my place of joy and I’d rather not have to let the new reality muddy the day. That’s the challenge.
Bartz certainly wasn’t thinking of it; he reveled in the hatch. Hundreds of caddis were in the air or on the water all the time. “This is what I call a crawling-all-over-you caddis hatch,” he said. “I have seen hatches hundreds of times and it never gets old. … I tell you, John, you are seeing something that doesn’t happen much any more.”
After a while, he just sat on the bank, grinning, and enjoyed the sight, casting now and then. It was one of the 10 best caddis he’d seen in at least a half century of trout fishing. “Ha, ha, I love it,” he said, rejoicing in the spectacle.
Finally, fishing slowed. “I think they’re full,” said Guntzel, who had been fishing nearby.
They quit fishing to chat. I took out my fly rod and tried to see if any fish were still hungry. They were but not for my dry fly. Finally, I thought about a 180-degree change in tactics, going to an orange scud, a nymph bounced along the bottom. Bartz agreed it was a good idea, further cementing it for me. As I watched the drift, caddis began to crawl all over me, some going up a sleeve. They tickled me. Finally, I hooked a nice trout. It gave a good fight but spit out the hook. It still felt sweet.
We were done.
P.S.: About 10 days later, we fished again, this time seeing if we could tangle with redhorse suckers that might be spawning in riffles. I used the lesson from the caddis hatch to remind myself about social distancing.
We stayed at least 6 feet apart, and when two friends drove by and stopped to chat, we kept our distance, too. It’s frustrating not being able to shake hands.
It’s the new COVID-19 world, even in our beloved outdoors. We’re learning.
John Weiss is a Post Bulletin outdoors reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com