King of His River

A tale of a forgotten fisherman and what we could learn from him.

[by Bill “Bugs” Logan]

Has it occurred to anyone that we’re almost reflexively in pursuit of what’s new? Whether it’s the latest equipment, fishing technique, exotic destination, or sure-fire fly, we’re continuously presented with a bewildering cacophony of new options. And I’m glad of it!

Fly fishing should be forward thinking. Let intuition play a role, too, along with determination and happy coincidence. Let us continue sharing knowledge. Ours is not a sport that keeps secrets well. Rather, it’s one that benefits from an especially generous common nature. Or is it restlessness? I can’t help wondering whether we’ve become fixated on progress for its own sake. Yes, I know that merely raising the question leaves me dangerously close to becoming a hypocrite; I’ve certainly contributed to odd thinking, if not refinement. I want to improve, and I hope I help others do better too. We all should have days of plenty on the stream. Yet, in this rush to devising better ways to catch  more fish, are we losing things we should hold on to? When I look inside my fly box, I can hardly see where I came from. Magical flies have gone missing. And what became of the lessons they taught?

Fortunately, there are still master anglers among us. Stick with fly fishing and you’re bound to run into a few of these guys. Some make big names for themselves; a couple even seem bent upon it. Most, however, are known locally or at best regionally, and some are a little uncomfortable with their noteriety. They often take what they do for granted. Oh, they’re not naïve; they know they’re pretty good fly fishermen. To them, however, it seems that becoming accomplished at something  comes naturally from doing something they enjoy pursuing.

In our eyes they’re river gods. Many of us have been fortunate enough to find friendships with these quiet, passionate individuals. They change us, for we see in them what we hope to become. We wish to be just like them and are frustrated when we discover we cannot imitate their abilities. It turns out that each of us must seek our own form of mastery. If we’re smart, we carry with us all the lessons they teach us, even if we don’t always understand them.

Touching the Sky

I wish I’d had more time with my first fishing hero. His name was Dick O’Connor. Of course, when I knew him, I put “Mr.” in front of his last name, and that’s how I still remember him.

Mr. O’Connor always fished in a clean white shirt. Every year he bought a stiff, new straw cowboy hat. He was a BIG man, and I was just a little boy, but we both used Phillipson bamboo fly rods. Mine was twice my height. I’d been given it not long before I met Mr. O’Connor, and it came with a demonstration. The first time I had it in my hands, myfather picked up a small twig and held it next to the tip of my rod. “See,” he said, watching me intently. Then he snapped the twig in half. “That’s all the strength your tip has.”

Possibly the last of Dick O’Connor’s own flies, tied long ago by Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop. O’Connor insisted upon making the full-hackled pattern using only one feather. Although the tiers at Bailey’s often tried to sneak in a few flies containing two feathers, our hero always caught ‘em. Both sides enjoyed this long-running game!

From that point on, you may picture me trailing along through the thick summer grass in my father’s wake, hip boots too big and a fine rod held religiously sky high. The great river of my youth, the one I measure all rivers by, still ran free then. It snaked back and forth, undercutting its own banks and eventually strangling off loops. Can you imagine having forty miles of such water all to yourself in a valley so large that from the surrounding hillsides you could almost see the curvature of the earth?

Starting in Wyoming and moving north, the great valleys are called “holes” in western parlance: Big Hole, Brown’s Hole, Fire Hole, Jackson Hole—there are plenty of them. But in the tall mountain country of Colorado, valleys are called parks. When I was young, I was sure that South Park was the center of the world. The South Platte River ran through the middle of it,  and standing there and looking up, my rod tip almost touched heaven. Mr. O’Connor’s head almost touched heaven, too. And he was the king of the river.

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