Fishing for excuses to play In search of a hobby, a former desert dweller discovers Wooly Worms, Doc Spratley and what to do with all that water By G.D. Maxwell Today is the first day of forever, or so went the trite, metaphysical, live in the present message of a generation ago. I couldn’t relate to it on the level of "Be here, now." To me, it always suggested the future is a long road with a vanishing perspective point somewhere beyond my imagination. I rarely wondered what it would be like, but I did wonder what I’d be doing once I got there. As successive todays become increasingly foggy yesterdays, it’s becoming clearer to me what tomorrow might look like. The hobbies and pastimes of my more robust but waning youth are not destined to be the all-consuming focus of my dotage. Legs — and their problematic knee joints — that crouched behind home plate for too many years, scrambled up and down too many mountains and ran way too many miles are probably going to be less forgiving about hauling overloaded packs into extended wilderness trips if they ever get to be as old as I hope to become some day. So what to do with all that time? I played enough golf at a young age to know it only serves to ruin a good walk. I can’t abide the idea of passive, parlour hobbies, say, bridge. Yet, having watched my grandfather compost his mind and body through lack of any meaningful engagement with the world outside television and meals, I can’t imagine age without activity, without focus. The way I see it, there are only two choices offering enough breadth of challenge and depth of detail to keep a fellow interested between now and the end of the road: gardening and fishing. Some would argue this is an unreasonably severe limitation of choices. What about philately? What about numismatics? I said I was looking for a hobby, not a disease. I tried gardening once. It led to the only injury I’ve ever sustained requiring surgery. Of course the circumstances were bizarre. I’ll spare the details, leaving them to your collective imagination, but it pretty well eliminated gardening as a serious contender. Way too dangerous. Besides, no one gardens in Whistler. There’s no land to begin with and whatever land you might have is more suited to growing moss and fungus than potatoes and carrots which, even if you succeeded in growing, would only be ravaged by marauding slugs. So, fishing’s it. I’ve made my choice and begun traveling the long, wet road to becoming a fisherman, er, fisherperson, er, fisher. Yuck. How about fish hunter? Too violent. We’ll work on that one, write around it for now. I’ve fished before, of course. Everyone has. Before settling in TVville, Gramps trotted me out to a lake in Oklahoma once, between tornadoes, and we hunted fish. Around mid-morning, he sent me up to the car to fetch a thermos of spiked coffee. I left my rod lying on the pier and returned several minutes later. The rod felt heavy when I picked it up so I started reeling in line. After a minute or two, figuring I might have hooked the cliché boot, a big fat slug of a carp broke the water with my line and half a worm dangling from his lips. Gramps explained carp were garbage fish and told me to throw it back. I protested. After all, it was the first fish I’d ever caught and way bigger than the little whitefish he’d been pulling in. I insisted we clean it and take it home to eat. We did. That’s when I first began to appreciate the concept of catch and release. Fishing and growing up in the desert are, however, pretty mutually exclusive pursuits. While kids in Canada were surrounded by water and learned to canoe and fish and do other wet things, my buddies and I were climbing rocks, scrambling over hardpan Sonoran desert, torturing tarantulas and learning to stifle shrieks of terror when something unseen would start rattling right next to us. But water? Not much and not very close. Fishing as a real pastime didn’t enter my mind until some time after Immigration Canada said "mais oui" to my application. Wide expanses of wilderness in Canada, at least in Eastern Canada, meant wide expanses of water, broken only by mosquito-infested portages. It was time to trade desert boots for billy boots and find out more about water as sport as opposed to chaser. In the wilds of Quetico Provincial Park, I learned to scare walleye, northern pike and muskie with plugs the size and shape of small model airplanes. Quetico, on the Ontario-Minnesota border, was as close to Toronto as I felt safe fishing and not worrying about being able to use what I caught as a thermometer because of the accumulated levels of mercury in its flesh. It wasn’t until I moved to Whistler I caught the fever to flyfish though. I’d felt a small bite in ’92 when Robert Redford turned Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It into a cinemascope flyfishing extravaganza featuring Montana in a lead role. But Whistler — all of British Columbia for that matter — is flyfishing heaven, a valley full of lakes and streams, many just a walk away. Whenever I’d considered flyfishing in the past, from a position I’m most comfortable with — absolute ignorance — the poetic image of someone standing in hip-deep water, perfectly flailing what seems a ridiculous amount of line in precisely timed arcs, was both alluring and intimidating. Visions of the cocoon I’d managed to wrap myself in many years ago trying to imitate Roy Rogers’ lasso twirling and the afternoon trying to free myself made me wonder if I might not lack the timing and co-ordination to ever put a line close enough to fool a fish. This led to the wise decision a few years ago to sign up for a flyfishing clinic through Whistler Backcountry Adventures. On a Saturday morning early in May, eight or so of us showed up, ready to learn or be tied in knots trying. We spent the morning discovering flyfishing was all about fooling fish into thinking the bit of fur and fluff you’d thrown into the water was just like the bugs and slugs all around them, just another dish on the smorgasbord of aquatic life. And this is the crux of the difference between flyfishing and all other fishing. Flyfishers believe they’re fooling fish. Everyone else knows they’re not fooling anything. No fish with a brain larger than a pimple would be fooled into believing those wildly painted plugs or flashy metal spoons are food. They bite ’em because they move, or because they get annoyed when you keep plonking them on the nose with one, or because they’re curious, or bored. After explaining the basic fool ’em strategy, our instructor pushed us into the free fall of flyfishing equipment: stiff rods, flexible rods, floating lines, sinking lines, lines that did both, leaders, tippets, reels, nets, and a plethora of increasingly esoteric but absolutely "essential" equipment. At about this time, I began to think the casting thing was probably not the most complicated trick I was going to learn that day. I was right. We spent the afternoon in an open field — now the site of another condo project — learning to cast. We progressed quickly from a basic roll cast to an overhead cast, added a single haul then double haul, and finished the day casting for distance and accuracy. It wasn’t until we’d all congratulated each other on our extraordinary dexterity the instructor added, almost as an afterthought, "Oh yeah, did I mention it’s a bit harder to do on the water?" Well, no, he didn’t. It is. But casting, while beautiful to watch and not nearly as difficult as I thought, is only about 1 per cent of the game. Flyfishing can be as complex as anything I’ve ever done. Or as simple as casting a fly into the water and seeing what happens. Ultimately, regardless of how you fish or what you fish for, that’s the fundamental paradox of fishing. The game spans a long continuum anchored at one end by kabobing a worm onto a hook tied to a fixed length of line on a solid pole — a place many of us started — to, well, I wish I knew how far it stretches. I only have the vaguest insight into how bizarre this game gets. I do know, if you take it at all seriously, you begin to study and understand a lot more about entomology — insects, bugs — than you probably ever picked up in school. Figuring out the equipment, the hardware, of flyfishing is only the price of admission. Zeroing in on the bugs, the software, is the ticket to enjoyment. You can have fun and enjoy success fishing imitations of fish food that never leave the water — shrimp, leeches, snails and such — but matching the hatch is the Holy Grail of flyfishers. The hatch, more often than not, is the cloud of swimming and flying insects driving you to distraction and driving fish to a feeding frenzy. What’s hatching depends on where you are, what time of year it is, what sort of water you’re on, the time of day and the temperature, just to rattle off a few of the variables. It requires at least minimal insight into the life stages of insectdom — egg, larva, pupa or nymph, and adult — how they pass from one to another, how they move through the water, and what’s on the day’s menu. Once you find yourself actually wondering about these things, there is only one inevitable outcome. You start to tie your own flies. And may the Lord have mercy on your soul. You are about to enter the anteroom of the Twilight Zone. I boldly entered the Zone last fall. Having decided it didn’t make sense to be just a little bit pregnant with this fishing thing, I called Eric Sinclair at Whistler Backcountry Adventures and signed up for Fly Tying 101. On a snowy Tuesday evening, early in November, four of us arrived at Backcountry. None of us had much or any experience at tying flies and no one knew what to expect. It didn’t help when Eric started off with a question no one answered correctly. "Why tie your own flies?" he asked. He shot down the idea tying your own was considerably less expensive than buying them from his case. He agreed it was at least as good a way to pass long winter nights as watching reruns of Seinfeld. I’m not sure he entirely understood my sentiment that once you’d been sucked into the vortex of flyfishing you might as well go all the way. He demonstrated the correct answer — match the hatch — with an anecdote about a particular hatch on a lake outside of Kamloops, trout fishing capital of B.C. He was loaded down with several suitcases full of flies, none of which seemed to be on the local menu. While everyone else around him was pulling in fish enough to feed the hoards on the Mount, he reeled in air. Until, of course, he investigated the bugs hatching, pulled out his traveling vise and whipped up half a dozen imitations close enough to fool the local trout. Once we understood why we were there, we got down to the serious business of confusion. One of the reasons I don’t have a clue about how weird flyfishing can get is because each stage along the journey is weirder than the one it follows. If they get much stranger than fly tying, I’m not sure I’m going to have the mental capacity to keep at it. I may have to revert to something less complex, theoretical mathematics for example. Eric had us dig into our tying kits and explained the tools of the trade: a vise to hold hooks; a bobbin to hold and tension thread; the sharpest little pair of scissors I’d ever seen to cut all the bits of fluff; hackle pliers to hang on to tiny feathers while you twist them around the hooks; a hair stacker to, well, the name pretty well says it all; a whip finisher to tie the final knot; and a bunch of really unusual tools he said are nice to have but not essential. Of course, all of these come in models of greater and lesser sophistication carrying price tags that reminded me of nothing so much as buying stereo components. "You get what you pay for," he explained. I’d paid for the beginner kit and was anxious to begin. But first, we had to take a side journey into the wacky world of hooks. Hooks are hooks, right? Wrong. Like virtually everything else associated with this pastime, hooks are a Rubik’s Cube of choices. Hooks come in, oh, about a million different size/weight/shape combinations. They’re sized on a numeric scale with size 4 being pretty large and size 20 being tiny. This is, naturally, just the opposite of fly lines where a #2 is thin and light and a #15 is chairlift cable. I think they do this on purpose. There are standard hooks, long shank hooks, short shank hooks, hooks with up eyes, down eyes and straight eyes, viking hooks, sproat hooks, and limerick hooks, thin hooks and thick hooks. We glazed over the issue of which hook to use for what purpose with the assurance it would all become evident as we proceeded and went on to talk about what goes into a fly. The short answer is pretty much anything you can think of. Just to give us a much needed break though, fly materials can pretty much be classed into one of two categories: things that float and things that don’t. Things that float go into making dry flies. Dry flies float on the surface tension of water. Things that sink are used to make wet flies. These are fished below the surface and mimic critters that swim or ones fighting their way to the surface to become bugs. With that simple explanation, Eric spent about 10 minutes showing us how to tie a Woolly Worm. Woolly Worms pretty much look like their name. Their bodies are made of fuzzy string called chenille and they have little red feather tails and grizzly hackle wrapped — palmered, you gotta love jargon — around their body. They sink. Eric can tie a Woolly Worm in about three minutes. When he sent us off to our vises, we tied ours in about 33. With a lot of cussing. And a little blood. Hooks are sharp. We left with homework: six Woolly Worms for the day after tomorrow. Better get started right away. The next session Eric graded our homework. A passing mark consisted of him mumbling, "That’ll catch fish." In the following evenings, we were introduced to additional materials and different techniques, each more bizarre than the one preceding it. A shell-back scud — shrimp — included a bit of Zip-Loc bag as part of its body. By the time we got around to serious dubbing, bits of plastic bag seemed almost normal. Dubbing is the fuzzy material making up many flies’ bodies. You can buy dubbing, like chenille, but real tiers roll their own. We had to make our own to tie a Doc Spratley. To do this, we took coloured fuzz, maybe fur, maybe synthetic, and spun it around waxed thread. Then we wrapped it onto the hook in roughly the shape of a bug body. It gets weirder. To tie a Hare’s Ear Nymph, we made different dubbing. This consisted of bits of fur from a hare’s facial area, trapped between two quickly twisted strands of waxed thread. You don’t want to know all the details. I’m not making this up. As the course progressed, the flies we tied and the techniques employed became more and more complex and bizarre. By the time we got to Dark Cahills, we were creating two ephemeral little wings from bits of wood duck feather. Eric admonished us as he graded our homework, "I want to see tight butts and dainty tails." Yeah, don’t we all. Over the four evenings we met, we learned enough about basic techniques to pretty well tie most of what we see. The rest is practice, refinement, investigation, curiosity and imagination. I don’t know where it leads but I know I’m hooked. Just the other night I tied a Vince the Cat special. Needing some white fuzz to fake a head on a little nymph I was tying, I found none in my supplies. Vince the Cat now has a couple of new dimples on the white fur around his neck. He didn’t seem to mind — actually, he didn’t even wake up — but I find myself looking at his contribution to the household in a whole new light. They say there are five stages fish hunters go through: just wanting to catch fish; wanting to catch lots of fish; wanting to catch big fish; wanting to catch lots of big fish; and wanting to catch uncatchable fish. Right now, I’m in the stage where I’m happy if I just avoid driving the hook through my earlobe while I cast. But from where I’m at, it looks like a long strange trip indeed.