Friday, September 5, 2014


Oftentimes, we bug chuckers measure our success as piscatorial masters of the universe in terms of personal bests: our best trout, our best cast, our best fly, even our best knot. Our continued ability to match or eclipse a previous record is how we convince ourselves that we're fine - fine fishermen. We say in our minds that if the apocalypse was to come tomorrow then we could provide needed sustenance for our loved ones, and our families would finally be forced to acknowledge and value our prowess with the long rod.

Consider the fella' in the above photograph. Tim Blair (you may recognize him from S.S. Flies and Tim's Warm Water Flies) has been fishing the Lake Ontario watershed since he was a boy. In the 20-odd years that he's chased steelhead on the Salmon River, the specimen pictured above is his best. This fish - caught on day one of a four day bender - made his trip. Tim was as happy as he was not because he bested a fish but because he bested himself (and inebriation), and demonstrated his skill at hooking and playing such a trophy before a very appreciative audience. I maintain that he's more lucky than good, given his lack of sobriety at the moment of the hook-up.

And then there's Shawn Brillon - one of the Orvis company's product developers. Shawn's best steelhead came on the same trip to the river. As you can see from the photo, the fish was a thick and powerful buck that weighed in at some 15 pounds (Boga-grip on the net ... not on the fish). That fish alone was reason enough to elicit a happy dance from the faithful employee of The Big O (he did dance ... I have it on video, and will happily sell to the highest bidder), but the quintessential icing on the cake was that the outsized buck took a traditional spey fly - an Orange Heron - on a long and slowly swinging line.

Typically, I do not catch very many big fish. My friends do, but either through a general lack of luck or skill, the river gods never seem to smile on me quite the way they do the people with whom I surround myself. And the truth is that I've come to terms with my turn of fate being what it is, because sometimes the biggest fish aren't what matters most. With all due respect to Shawn and Tim, sometimes catching just the right fish at just the right time is what most matters.

Consider another of my good friends, Ben Jose. Ben is one of the hardest working men I know. He runs his own business - Benjamin Bronze Studios - and he genuinely cherishes the little bit of time he gets on the water. Ben has caught any number of outsized fish in his day, but if you were to ask him he would almost certainly suggest that his best fish was a brown trout that came to hand at the end of his very first day on the Salmon River in New York. Ben was relatively new to fly fishing then, and the boys giving him a tour of the river did all they could to make sure he paid his dues: he was mercilessly ridiculed, made to fish the least productive parts of the run, and called on repeatedly to net fish for his "friends" as they hooked up many times throughout the day.

Through it all, Ben was resolute and never allowed his frustration to show. In the waning daylight - just minutes before regulations demanded anglers stop fishing for the day - he hooked and played to the net a genuinely magnificent fish. As impressive as it was, the brown trout wasn't Ben's best simply because of it's size. Rather, that trout remains a special fish because it was the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. That trout signified Ben's resolve, his absolute refusal to have anything but a good time, and a willingness to learn lessons born of frustration and disappointment. Such lessons are difficult lessons to learn, but they are often the most useful.

As steelhead season creeps ever closer, I find myself looking forward to learning a few lessons of my own. I've no idea what they might be, but I know they're out there waiting for me, and that they'll be difficult lessons to learn. Steelhead lessons always are, but here's the thing: difficult lessons are often the best lessons, and the best lessons always help us to catch our best fish.

So as summer gives way to fall I find that I am hopeful; hopeful for my best steelhead, but more hopeful still, for my best day.

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