I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, but I know that I have stayed home when I could have gone fishing because a friend has had to pull out of the trip. Sometimes my day away has been quickly filled with the “honey do” list around the home and yard. Sometimes the day is spent on the couch watching sports. Always, I am left wondering how the fishing day would have gone if I had made a different decision. Regret is a terrible feeling. I keep on doing this to myself despite the many excellent days I have spent fishing alone.
When I fish alone, I am a different fisherman. When I get to my fishing spot, I rarely, if ever, race to get my waders on and my rod strung up. I usually put the tailgate down, take a seat and take stock of my surroundings.
I’ll take a sip of my coffee, look around and let the memories of past trips creep into my mind. It doesn’t take long for the persistent thoughts about work, family, and bills to be pushed aside by bugs, runs, and perfect drifts. I’m not sure why, but when I am fishing with friends the arrival at the river leads to mad dashes to get ready and on the water as quickly as possible. Even though we all pretend to be gentlemen, we still press to be the first to crack the river’s code that day and catch a fish. Rarely, if ever, do we stop to discuss about the last time we were there, what bugs were popping this time last year, and how the current temperature must be affecting the fish. When I am alone I approach the river differently. I’ll often sit by the river with a couple of fly boxes open and watch for clues as to what to tie on.
I’ll pick a fly out of the box and weigh it on my palm and think about the successes and failures I have had with it at the end of my tippet. Invariably, I will put the first few flies back into their boxes before finally settling on the one that just feels “right”. When I am finally rigged and ready I’ll start my systematic covering of the water. Alone, I’ll carefully work as much of the water as possible. This is in stark contrast to how I tend to fish with others. Fly selection is less about feel and more about precedent or even about what was left tied to the end of my line at the end of last trip. I’ll quickly choose a fly that should work or has worked recently. Once I am ready to fish, I usually give only minimal attention to the marginal water and tend to move quickly to the more choice holding structure. When I fish alone I am a slow fisherman. I move at the speed of molasses in January. I don’t mean to be slow. I merely move when I need to move and stay put when I need to stay put. I cover as much of the water as I can and I will stop fishing for a few minutes when I think I have moved a fish that didn’t commit or if I might have stung a fish but am not sure. With friends, I rarely, if ever, take the time to really look at my surroundings. I am too focused on the fishing, or the teasing, or the laughing. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of fun fishing with friends, but it’s a different experience. When alone I often see unexpected wildlife like bears, moose, deer, eagles and more.
I’m sure I have seen those animals while with friends, but it has been much less frequent. I think with friends, the focus of the day tends to be numbers and size of fish caught. At the end of the day we can all agree that it was a really good day if many or exceptionally large fish were caught. When I fish alone, I still want to catch fish and lots of them. However, I don’t count fish, as there is no one to compare numbers with. Most of the fish are quickly forgotten, but the ones that stand out at the end of the day stand out for reasons beyond their size. The memorable fish could be the one that refused six flies before finally taking the seventh. It could be the fish that was feeding under the overhanging bush that made the cast almost impossible. It is sometimes the fish that felt like a submarine at the bottom of the river that I never really got a good look at but that left my hands shaking after it broke me off.
When fishing with friends we will often fish as long as possible. Darkness or deadlines force us off the river still trying to get one last cast in. When I fish alone I usually finish my day early. I reach a point in the day where my fishing “soul” is filled and I feel content with the day. My batteries feel fully charged and I feel more alive. I have tried to convey that feeling to others after a day of solo fishing. People always ask if I caught anything. I can give them an easy answer with a best estimate of numbers and kinds of fish, but that never really translates into the day. Numbers seem like a hollow and one-dimensional description of the experience. When I fish with friends I usually will have several hero shots of fish and fisherman to share, but alone I rarely take photos of fish (mostly because I do not have coordination to operate a camera and corral a fish!). When I do manage a picture it usually turns out like these.
Fishing alone reminds me why I love fly fishing. I don’t plan on giving up on fishing with friends – as long as they don’t give up on me! I hope they don’t mind it when I say I can’t go fishing with them this time as I have a trip planned already with me, myself and I.