Saturday, December 02, 2006

First Time Phobias

Fearlessness, pleasure, trepidation, embarrassment, exultation, and discomfort. What do all of these have in common? These are just a few of the emotions we may experience when doing something new for the first time. For me, some of these emotions were experienced the morning I first fly fished the Salt for Striped Bass.

At an early age I was introduced to striped bass fishing and the practice of using “teaser flies” when fishing artificial lures. As I grew up, I learned to fish the beaches and rivers of the Jersey Shore primarily using spinning gear. After graduating from college I accepted a summer job in Alaska with the Forest Service and bought a 9wt fly rod to fish for salmon. I returned to NJ every winter and typically missed the best part of the fall striper run, getting in only a week or two of productive fishing. None of which was done with a fly rod. To relieve my cabin fever during the winter months, I attended several popular regional fly fishing shows, talked with professional tiers, read books, researched patterns on the web and talked with amateurs. Two books I purchased were Pop Fleyes and Clouser’s Flies authored by Bob Popovic and Bob Clouser respectively. While turning through the pages of Pop Fleyes I was completely overwhelmed by the Full Dressed Pop Lip and decided this was to be the first fly I learned to tie. I bought a vice and began amassing fly tying materials made easy by the presence of two first rate fly tying supply stores with knowledgeable and helpful staff, located in my area.(Down-N-Trout Outfitters and The Fly Hatch). I began turning out flies and gave many of them away. Soon, I was mastering patterns with remarkable likeness to their living counterparts and decided there was nothing left to do but pick up a fly rod and “Git R Done”!

I was intimidated by the overwhelming quantity of “salt-water” fly fishing products on the market. How complex do I need to be? Do I really need shooting heads, sinking lines, large arbor reels, tapered leaders, tippet construction, blah, blah, blah. Not only was intimidation a factor but embarrassment also. My casting technique is average, my line a dazzling fluorescent green, my wader suspenders made up of a continuous piece of parachute cord, and…, well you get the idea. Knowing there would be few fishing days left in the season I swallowed my pride and headed down to the Manasquan River where on the previous evening I watched small pods of large bunker migrating out to sea. I arrived at dark anticipating to fish the early dawn, outgoing tide. Several cars were parked and one guy was unloading his Kayak from a modified pick-up / flat-bed truck. I almost turned away at the thought there would be others in the are to watch my fishing fiasco but I had come here to go fishing and I was not going to be deterred now. I put on my leaky waders, grabbed my nubby boxes of flies, attached a #2 chartreuse and yellow clouser minnow tied the night before and headed out.

I walked along until I arrived at a spot where earlier in the week several anglers were catching Hickory shad. I surveyed the landscape before wading into the water. A green light moving across the river close to the water told me the kayaker was making his way to the sedge island on the far shore. I repositioned my stripping basket, stripped out some line and made a few well executed tangle free casts. I soon settled into the groove and became lost in thought taking it all in. Small baitfish began revealing themselves to me, puckering the surface of the water under my floating line. This was a good sign I thought, the presence of bait close to shore told me there was no need to wade out further. If the bait was close and well within my casting distance, then so should their predators. I grew more confident with my ability and the developing conditions and began focusing on my presentation of the fly and to something Bob Clouser describes as the “Susquehanna strip”. That’s when it happened.

It was a good cast, a slow drift, and a steady strip when the line suddenly came up tight. I instinctively shifted into fish fighting mode. A second’s hesitation occurred as I wondered if it was a fish or merely fouled on weeds or debris. A bouncing rod-tip told me differently. Reel slowly, don’t pull on the fish any harder than it’s pulling against you, and remain focused. I began laughing out loud at the absurdity that I was fighting a fish. Was it really that absurd though? I found myself on the verge of tears, perhaps in part because I had made a big deal of nothing. After all, here I was with a fish struggling on my line!! It wasn’t pulling against my line very hard so it’s a small fish at best, but what type? Hickory Shad? Striped Bass? My mind went through the possibilities. The tippet I was using was only 6lb test and I knew if I applied to much pressure on the rod the line would snap. Yet somehow I needed instant gratification in knowing what type of fish I had caught. No matter, after all I was fly fishing, I was in saltwater, and I was fighting a fish.

I saw the lead dorsal fin first with 8-11 strong spines, and then the second, well separated dorsal with many softer rays, emerge above the water’s surface inches behind where the leader disappeared into the water. As a naval officer identifies ships at a glance, so did I with this fish. A Striper! My mind reeled with joy and I nearly fell over, topping my waders. I maneuvered the fish closer to where I could remove the hook. Looking down into the clear water the fish stood out in vivid color; Olive green dorsally, ground color of side silvery, becoming white ventrally; with dusky bluish black lateral stripes. The chartreuse and yellow fly in high contrast firmly placed in the maxilla of the upper jaw. Nearly exhausted, the fish flip flop lazily from side to side in the current, the sight causing a tear of joy to well up in my eye. I removed the fish from the water only long enough to gingerly place a kiss on its head and then lovingly return it back to the water. I could not believe this was happening! I paused in the moment knowing it was a memory I’d have for the rest of my life. I looked around and took a deep breath. It had taken me almost 4 years before I successfully landed my first 26” keeper striped bass at the age of 15. Back then during the 80’s regulations for recreational size limits were smaller and my first bass measured 26” and tipped the scales at just over 8lbs. By no means a monster fish in the world, but definitely a fish monstrously significant in mine! And yet here I was; only moments ago haven released my first fly rod caught striper, less than two hours from my first foray into the realm of Saltwater Fly Fishing. It didn’t matter the fish was 18”, it may have well been 48”. The simple matter of the fact is that it was my first. I could have stopped fishing right then and there, riding high on a wave of satisfaction and bliss but I didn’t. Why get when the getting is good? Turns out, I was just getting started.

With the first fish under my belt I felt nothing else mattered. I squared my shoulders, tucked my chin and held my head a little higher with my new found confidence. The magical prize had been attained and I felt as if there wasn’t a thing that any other fly fishing angler had on me. Not their large arbor reels, G-Loomis and Sage fly rods, shooting heads, sinking tippets, stripping baskets, gore-tex waders, and fancy wading jackets. I was perfectly content at that moment in time to be wearing leaky waders, now filled to my crotch with water. Why I was wearing them I couldn’t say for sure but it didn’t matter at this point, I continued fishing. The sky grew lighter as the sun crept higher into the morning sky and I could clearly see the water around me. It soon became apparent to me that there were small stripers in the water all around. The occasional eddy was in fact a swirl created by feeding fish. I began sight casting for stripers! No sooner did this realization dawn on me that a well placed cast landed my fly I front of some recently scattered baitfish. Strip, twitch, strip, twitch and the bite was on. A second bass attacked the fly and with the aid of sharp hooks, became solidly hooked. I was on cloud nine! Not only was this my first attempt at fly rodding for stripers but I was now fighting a second striper! Unheard of! I felt truly blessed at that moment and incredibly humble and grateful for all the things in my life that had brought me to this moment. This may sound way to spiritual for many but it’s true. The bass was well played and released without any additional stress. This second fish must have caught the attention of several other fly rodders in the area and soon were heading my way.

One angler moved down to my right and waded to the waters edge, looking my direction as if seeking permission to wade in. I had noticed this fellow earlier because of his casting style, the fly line splashing the water on both the forward and back casts, a result of moving the fly rod forward or backward before allowing the fly line to completely unfurl. I called out and asked him if he had a Clouser and he replied he did. I told him there were fish in the area and they were feeding. He began to wade out and no sooner than he stepped into the water did a striper swirl 15 feet to his left. I pointed it out and excitedly he shifted into high gear casting to it to the swirl, whipping the water into a frothy mess in the process. It didn’t matter though, no sooner did he land his fly in the area that he had a hook up! His rod was bent over pretty good and I asked him what weight rod he was using. “10 wt.” was the reply and I gauged it must have been a good fish on the end. Settling into the fish he called out to me that this was his first striper using a fly rod. What are the odds.

I continued to fish for another hour and managed to hook, but not land, a third striper. That morning there were 6 small stripers caught including my own. It was truly an amazing day and one that I would not soon forget. I then got into my car and headed off to pay the bills. On the drive to work I reflected on a publication I came across during my college years and wondered where I fit in.

The paper was published out of Yale University and identified various levels and attitudes of behavioral characteristics of outdoor enthusiasts. There is a hierarchy to these levels and outdoor enthusiasts will typically progresses from one to the next throughout the course of their lives, assuming they maintain their outdoor pursuits. As best I can remember I will identify the levels but, unfortunately cannot say with confidence the order in which they occur. That is of course, with the exception of the last two which I am fairly certain occur in the order as I will mention, the first three, not so sure. I am a fisherman and will describe these levels of sportsmanship as they apply towards fishing.

One of the first stages is characterized by the individual who’s goal is to catch any fish. There may not be a target species as opposed to any fish they can catch. This continues until the fisherman becomes adept and knowledgeable about their prey and soon desires to catch a lot of fish. This leads to the next early stage characterized by the fisherman that wants to catch lots and lots of fish. Species may or may not come into play but having caught one or two the angler becomes increasingly hungry to hone their skills by harvesting as many fish as they can. As with the law of diminishing returns, having lots and lots of fish is no longer desirable and now the angler progresses towards the next stage and what many call the “Trophy Hunter”. Here, the angler is not satisfied with many fish, but rather is focused on that one very large fish. This may lead the angler to pursue larger prey or simply hunt for the largest fish of a given species regardless of the fishes size at maturity. Eventually, the angler is no longer interested in catching the largest fish and transcends to one of the final stages of sportsmanship. Here, the angler often places technological restrictions upon themselves making their capture of their prey more rewarding. In this instance the angler reduces the technology they employ to provide a greater “sporting” chance for their prey. This may include using barbless or fewer hooks, lighter lb. test monofilament, or lighter weight fishing poles. And finally this brings us to the final stage of angler bliss. Here at last, the angler has transcended all boundaries of fishing and the physical act of fishing is no longer of concern. It may involve the angler traveling to their favorite fishing spot with the intent to fish but never actually fishing. Here, satisfied without ever getting a line wet.

I realized the only thing that could have made the day any sweeter was if I had a friend present with which to share in my excitement. I knew in my heart I would never forget the day’s events. I had accomplished something I thought would be so much more difficult. I overcame my trepidation, flushed away my embarrassment, and never felt more comfortable with my fishing prowess than I did this day. I was triumphant.


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