Flying is nice, but fly fishing?

Posted: Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Standing in waist-high water casting dry flies for wild Alaska salmon was something that, until last Saturday, I've wanted to do since visiting Southeast Alaska for the first time nine months ago.

That changed some, though, during a four-hour fly-fishing clinic, in which I learned about a sport that requires more time and discipline than I thought.

The real rub here is that I'm an unabashed city boy who discovered that, while learning to work some 80 feet of 5-pound-test line with a 9-foot graphite fly rod, I don't have the dominant outdoor gene and will have to work to develop it, at least as it relates to hunting and gathering. A serious hook-and-bullet guy I ain't; in fact, my idea of roughing it, heretofore, has been to bunk in a metro hotel that doesn't have 24-hour room service. I'm getting over that.

If I'm to adapt to the outdoors here in L.A. (Lower Alaska) it will surely be my love of - and for - photography that draws it out. Other than that I may be, at best, a pseudo camper/hunter/fisher.

What I learned in a half-day introduction to fly fishing is this: It is, ultimately, an endeavor for those who are serious about it. While living in the Southeastern U.S., prior to moving to Alaska, I played a round of golf here and there, and that was about the extent of my desire for real outdoor involvement. The fly-fishing thing is not at all unlike spending a day on the links and that's not entirely good because either sport requires time, practice and a lot of desire ("dee-zar" in the Southern vernacular). That same practice and desire comes much more easily with a camera, with which I could spend all day outdoors.

Prior to last week's clinic I had been on one fly-fishing trip with my father-in-law in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina. The month was July, the weather hotter than blazes, the humidity high and the conditions almost insufferable. The water in the mountain stream, however, was cool and clear, the only thing that kept me on point for more than a couple of hours.

As we fished for some puny 3-pound speckled or rainbow trout, David, my father-in-law, reminded me early and often that there were no fish in the trees - his way of saying my casting skills were abysmal. That day he had the patience of Job with me. I, however, had the affliction relative to my inability to display any aptitude for rod and reel.

Last Saturday I learned much more than I thought I would during an introductory fishing course, and that may ultimately mean I spend less time practicing the art than I do enjoying what many would rate as a mediocre experience by real fly fishers.

At the end of the day I thought quite a bit about fly fishing as it relates to photography or golf, and the best thing about any of the three, I think, is just being there. I've played some awful rounds of golf that were quite memorable only because of the beauty of the course played or the company I enjoyed. Similarly, I've taken many basic snapshots that mean much to me because of where - or with whom - I was at the time they were taken.

Before summer ends here in Southeast I do want to catch what I'd consider to be a trophy salmon by fly rod. But am I likely to become a devoted disciple of the sport? Well, no, and here's why:

A great fishing trip could, for me, involve everything but the catching of fish. Consider this: Catch a floatplane to the river where you'd otherwise fish for salmon and have the pilot drop you for, say, four hours. In a fisherman's vest carry a camera body and a lens or two. And rather than a creel and fishing paraphernalia, how about a picnic basket with gourmet eats and a bottle or two of primo grape juice?

As with fly fishing, the afternoon could be spent walking pristine shoreline, photographing landscape or aquatic or land-based wildlife, and indulging yourself in some gourmet snacks. After a return trip home - one on which your pilot gives you a chamber-of-commerce view of the sunset behind the mountains, you can sit on the couch and share with your spouse what a great fishing trip you had; the fishing in this case, however, was for photos and a few silky-smooth rocks on the river bank.

I'm doing my best to transition from the city to the great outdoors. Do know, however, that for now I'm a fool for the city, one who enjoys the lights of Juneau's night skyline as much as I do the lights of the northern sky.

• Robert Hale is publisher of the Juneau Empire

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