Haystacks, Needles and Chrome

No pictures needed for this piece, read on and you'll agree!

by Jake Hood (CFB Pro Staffer)

Guide days. First light days. Raft in the water pre-dawn. Cooler is full. Thermos is full. Rods in the holders with flies at the ready. Eating breakfast in the café with waders on as though it were an everyday occurrence because here it is. Guide day.

The air is crisp and cold. These Septober mornings all start the same , frost on the raft early but you’ll be checking for sunscreen before the day’s over so your neck and hands don’t burn.

This morning there is light fog hanging over the water as it rushes by. It holds a quiet beauty and an almost mythical atmosphere of mystery and solitude, and in reality a touch of mortality with the ice it leaves on the rocks. Those foot tractor wading boots that grant you so much nimble security in the water betray your every step on black ice. It’s far from a dancers grace in these conditions.

Customers must be warned of this peril as you make your way through the launch to board the raft. You see the momentary confusion cross their faces as they consider how wading boots could be the opposite of their intended use. Not the last dichotomy they’ll have to digest in the next few hours.

It’s a father and son today. Sam, a restauranteur from Seattle and his 22yr old son Ryan, a newly enrolled freshman at WSU. Sam is my age, mid-fifties, and breakfast gave us ample reasons to connect in conversation. Ryan is friendly but detached and aloof, almost to the point of distraction. I take this as a measure of his youth. Their first steelhead fly fishing trip and they’re excited and apprehensive in nearly equal measure. I don’t know about other guides but I prefer this attitude to start the day.” I don’t know if I can do this” goes a long ways towards getting this. We pull away and float just a short distance to the first run to get our first real taste of what getting this means. Switch rods are distributed and explained as the familiar litany of questions are fielded.

“Why are they called switch rods?” asks Ryan.

“The switch rod moniker is in reference to your ability to use them either as a short two hander or as a single hand rod” I reply.

“Why not just use a single hand rod then?” Sam queries, more than a little pensively. “We took casting lessons with single hand rods “, he added.

“Short answer, I doubt you can cast fifty feet with your single hand rod,” I offer. “And while I can’t guarantee you’ll do it today with the switch, I will bet you’ll have a better chance.” I go on to explain that their apprehension is normal and the rods feel cumbersome to everyone at first.

I put them through the paces of the rudimentary steps of casting a switch rod and patiently wait for them to discard the awkward first attempts to achieve a measured semblance of a cast and swing. As the morning passes they both progress steadily but it is obvious that Ryan has internalized the fundamentals at a deeper level. Soon he is laying out casts that defy his lack of experience just a few short hours before. I am struck by the way he not so much steps thru a run as he stalks it like a heron, alert and intent.

At lunch Ryan casts off his earlier distant demeanor and literally pummels me with questions around bites of salami and cheese. He is, quite obviously, on Fire for steelhead fly fishing and seeks every bit of information he can possibly get out of me. I welcome his enthusiasm and give as much as I imagine he can absorb.

He listens as I explain that the fish are holding facing upstream in the runs and our goal is to show the fly to as many fish as possible as we swing down through it, cast after cast. He looked at me somewhat puzzled and asked, “Are we looking for a needle in a haystack?”

That’s a question I’ve fielded many, many times over the years, I suspect every guide has. I’ve also adopted a pat answer to said question.

“No Ryan, I replied. We’re hoping the needle in the haystack finds us “

To my surprise and delight that metaphor visibly inspired him!

Sometime later that day and much further downriver, Sam came to sit in the boat and chat while we both watched Ryan continue to progress and improve as he swung through yet another run. I offered some more salami that we had shared at lunch that Sam had particularly enjoyed and while he ate and watched his son fish he began to talk. Some of you may not know the fringe benefits of being a fishing guide that are somewhat unexpected. You become a confidant at times inexplicably. This would, for me, be one of those times. Sam talked of Ryan for quite some time as he sat watching him cast, swing, and step over and over. He spoke of his high school years and how much of a struggle it was for him to even finish, let alone graduate. I divided my attention between servicing gear and politely listening but in spite of that I nearly missed the crack in Sam’s voice when he mentioned Ryan’s A.D.D.

That octave change snapped my head around and gained my undivided attention. I noticed now that even though Sam was sitting quartered away from me, I could see tears on his cheeks. He fought through the emotion as he explained how they had spent most of the past 4 years seeking anything that would offer relief for his son’s severe attention deficit disorder. I’ll offer only that I know more about this young man’s trials than I have any right to know. His enrolling in college that fall had been a major hurdle and represented spectacular progress, Sam continued to share.

Then he turned to me and said point blank, “But nothing we have done for Ryan has come close to what you have done for him today.”

“In his life I have never seen him take to anything with anywhere near approaching this measure of concentration.” Sam added “But even more than that, nothing has ever brought him this much peace”

It was now my turn to be awkward and unsettled. I know how to row a boat, cast a switch rod, tie killer knots, tie flies and tell a good joke. All qualities that lend to good guiding. But I’ve no market cornered on finding or providing peace. Trust me. But I’ve been here before, and expect I’ll be here again. Guiding very seldom has anything to do with the fish. The luckiest guides get to be witness to the real reasons for being out there. We get fed, big man size portions of the thing that sustains us.

Henry David Thoreau said;

“Most men fish their entire lives without knowing it is not the fish they are after”

Sam and Ryan learned that lesson on the first steelhead fly fishing trip of their life.