Lots of guys fished their brains out during the pandemic. I wasn’t one of them.
I did the same predictable stuff everyone else was doing. I bought a carbon-steel wok and learned to cook Thai food. I spectacularly flopped four or five batches of sourdough bread. I binge-watched Tiger King, then watched it all the way through again. I ordered a gourmet mushroom kit and cultivated shitakes in my kitchen. I went through countless handles of gin and at least a cord of firewood. I gained 40 pounds.
My spouse became, ahem, very vocal about my new lifestyle. “Please … go fishing,” he said.
So with a quick text, I booked a morning of fishing with a friend on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., which was having a nice run of hickory shad. The night before the trip, I started fumbling through my gear — most of it neglected during and before the pandemic — to get ready. Among the mess of half-assembled fly rods and tangled leaders was a rod carrier I hadn’t seen in a while.
I opened it and immediately recognized what was inside: a 4-weight G. Loomis rod and a J. Ryall reel, the first “nice” pieces of fly-fishing gear I bought — about $600 in 1992. It was a big spend for a 20-something who peddled boat parts for a living. I looked at the rod and thought to myself, Man, we've seen some things together.
It was the only rod I packed the first September I hiked and camped around Yellowstone National Park, looking for remote and untouched streams. And, of course, the famous ones, too.
I broke in the rod and reel fishing an evening spinner fall at Buffalo Ford on the Lamar River. As the sun dipped below a western ridge, a guy upstream began frantically waving his arms. I was in such cutthroat bliss — a fish on just about every other cast — that I didn’t notice a 2,000-pound bull bison casually trotting toward me. I never ran so fast in shallow water.
Back at my tent, I enjoyed a camp pot of instant ramen by the river. I felt free and alive under the stars.
The next day, in one of the upper meadows of Slough Creek, in the northern part of the park, I used the 4-weight to launch hopper patterns bow-and-arrow-style at grazing rainbows as I hid behind a downed tree to avoid detection.
Just after releasing a football-shaped rainbow, I heard what sounded like piglets messing about in a trough of slop behind me. No more than 20 feet away was a trio of grizzly cubs. I leapt into the meadow pool with my rod, swam across and reached the other side just as their mother swaggered over a berm only feet from where I had been fishing. The bears looked at me, dripping wet, on the other side with a curiosity I will never forget.
A few years later, I hired a guide to fish the Madison River around Three Dollar Bridge, a short drive from Yellowstone Park. I was a novice at fishing big water like this. The guide hooked up a nymph pattern with a dropper and an indicator to my 4-weight, then directed me where to cast. Not seeing the indicator in the raging river, I missed take after take until the guide couldn’t stand it anymore.
I followed him downstream in my car where he tied on a soft-hackle fly, showed me how to drift it, and then left me alone on the river, where I caught tiny rainbows all afternoon. I couldn’t help but be pissed at the guide — the fly shop returned my money — but being alone on the Madison, peering into the big sky and catching wild rainbows is a memory that sticks with me today.
As I slid into my 30s, and responsibilities such as a mortgage and a “real” career chipped away at the freedom of my 20s, I took to discovering the trout streams that pepper the Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania landscapes. I discovered spring creeks with gin-clear water and jumbo rainbows dining on scuds — a few of which finally ate after hours of patient casting. I stalked native brook trout that looked like porcelain sculptures. And one fall day on Big Hunting Creek near the Camp David presidential retreat, I caught a citation rainbow and brook trout and a fine brown in one pool with nothing but a woolly bugger — all on my now 15-year-old 4-weight.
I reunited with that outfit every May for the hickory shad run on Deer Creek in Maryland, where at one time you could catch so many fish that it led to boredom, but in a good way. My trusty rod and reel have been with me on countless late afternoons, evenings and twilight mornings, the reality of everyday life slipping away, if only for a few hours, leaving indelible visions that I still remember.
There were countless evenings casting poppers on Eastern Shore ponds, pickerel fishing in the winter, spring Sulphur hatches and many other adventures during the next 20 or so years.
The morning after I rediscovered my 4-weight and tore the house apart looking for my waders, my friend Dave and I made our way to the Potomac to find it running about 6 feet higher than normal. The muddy water was essentially unfishable, but we tried anyway. Warblers sang in the distance, skunk cabbage sprouted around us, and we laughed at the cormorants riding the water downstream, taking flight, then getting on the amusement park ride over and over again.
Defeated but feeling peaceful and relaxed, we hiked back to the parking lot, popped a couple of tall cans of suds and went down by the river to soak up the joy of being outdoors, without masks, on a beautiful early-spring day. I’ve always judged friendships not only by the quality of the conversation, but also the ability of both parties to remain silent without a hint of awkwardness. Dave is that kind of friend. Politics and the pandemic vanished as the afternoon sun warmed our faces.
When I returned home, I noticed that I’d bent three guides on my rod in a tussle with some underbrush on the way back to the car. One had broken. Hearing a few expletives bellowing from my office, my spouse came to see what was wrong.
“Look at this,” I said.
“Are you going to fix it?” he asked.
“You’re God-damn right I’m fixing it.”
Another layer of happy patina on my aging G. Loomis rig. Here’s to another 30 years.