My Fishing Hero
Mr. O’Connor was modest and quirky; you could even call him eccentric. But rest assured, he saw himself with humor, so you know he had clear vision. Spectacularly clear, in fact. He spent a great deal of time watching water.
Mr. O’Connor once told me it was a bad year if he didn’t catch at least two trout weighing more than 8 pounds apiece. Imagine the effect that had on me! I desperately wanted to learn how to spot fish. We would stand together, and starting upstream, he would talk the river all the way past us, making me see into it through his words. He’d point out over-looked nooks and dark cubbyholes that surely held fish because they had the promise of cover and some current—he called it a “conveyer belt”—that carried food past the waiting trout.
I guess you’ve figured out that my teacher was a big-fish man. In the days before catch-and-release, it was rumored he made as much money leasing the taxidermied mounts of his best trout to sporting goods stores as he received from his pension. Perhaps this was a tall tale, but it doesn’t matter: the best myths are those we don’t want proven false. I know for a fact that some of Mr. O’Connor’s fish hung in New York City on the walls of the old Abercrombie & Fitch.
After pointing out the places where he thought the lunkers might lurk, Mr. O’Connor would tell me that trout are stupider than we think. It wasn’t that you didn’t have to fish correctly to fool one of them; instead, he said that when most of a big trout is hidden, it feels safe and might forget where its back end is. Mr. O’Connor searched for tails. He’d watch for tiny movements around the edges of shadows and undercut banks. If you managed to look long enough and hard enough, those flickers meant everything you hoped for.
“He Didn’t Even Have a Vest”
We once had a valley called a park, but it was really the size of a small state. Through it ran the river Mr. O’Connor and I fished together for a few years. Even now I’m still learning from him.
Lately, I realized he knew that to become a great fly fisherman, you have to stay put. Don’t get me wrong: my idol fished the world before many of us were born into it. He knew Iceland, Africa, South America, and even New Zealand—all more than half a century ago. He was no rube, and he liked to travel. But he always returned to the Platte. Just look at him in my old photograph with that nightmarish brown trout. He’s where he was happiest, and he’s hoisting up proof of the fisherman he had become. Nothing is false or fancy. He didn’t even have a vest.
Let’s be Sherlock for a moment and study his jacket. You can tell he has odds and ends stuffed in his right pocket; there’s sure to be a Hershey’s bar or two, and probably some leader material. There might also be some split shot, but I doubt it; he disliked using weight, believing it inhibited a fly’s natural movement. He passed on floatant, too, and he used his teeth as nippers. Now you know everything he took with him except for his fly box. You can tell by the wrinkles that it’s in his other pocket, behind our dream fish.
Mr. O’Connor needed just one box.
And he used just one fly.
O’Connor’s Rio Grande King, as our friend liked it tied, doesn’t exist anymore, probably because no one else can make it work as well. It was unimpressive; it had little more than a black body, a bit of tail, some white calf hair for the wing, and a brown hackle collar. It imitated nothing, yet he made it act like everything; there were once a lot of flies like that.
O’Connor’s Rio Grande King
Hook: Mustad 9672 or equivalent, sizes 14 to 8.
Thread: Black 8/0 (70 denier).
Tag: Flat gold tinsel.
Tail: Golden pheasant tippet.
Body: Black chenille. The old-fashioned, twisted kind is best.
Wing: White calftail.
Success in fly fishing has as much to do with faith and presentation as with anything else. We all know that. Few
of us can cast flies into any square inch of a river from side to side or top to bottom. Even if we could manage it, do you think we can make a single pattern act like anything a trout wants to eat? This was my mentor’s simple mastery, and he did it without using gimmicks. It was just skill, honed so long and patiently that it needed no edge. And there was contentment. That man loved every minute on his stream. I wish my mastery ended up being something like that. Don’t you?
One Season—One Fly
Maybe I should be a one-fly fisherman for a season. Even if it’s a bit foolish to consider, it does have lunatic charm. I’m sure it would be temporary; well, almost sure. So much of my enjoyment comes from ingenuity, particularly when tying flies.
There’s plenty of time to think about this. I know now that I don’t want to lose track of where I came from. If I can settle down and pay rapt attention, if I learn to look into the water and find small movements, if I keep things simple and present my flies like I was shown, one day I might again feel like I have a stream that’s all mine.
Once, in the close darkness before dawn, as we twisted and turned up into the mountains on the drive to our river valley, my dad coaxed me into asking Mr. O’Connor about the secrets of his fly. Mr. O’Connor said it had to have not one, nor two, but precisely three wraps of gold tinsel showing under its tail for the correct amount of flash. The hackle had to be slightly webbed and very full. And you could use only one long feather. Mr. O’Connor was certain that the fibers from different feathers vibrated with a slightly different resonance in the current; if more than one hackle was used, the discordance put fish off!
Mr. O’Connor glanced back at me from the front seat as he told me these things, open faced and honest. He looked just like his photo, minus the hat. There was the grin. Perhaps his gaze held the smallest bit of mischief and a dash of perpetual surprise at how things worked out. It was as if he was always close to asking, “Can you believe this?”
Bill “Bugs” Logan is an artist, good guy, and fly-fishing poet. (Not an actual poet, he’s just a damn fine writer.) You might catch him in his studio in New Jersey, driving west to fish in the Rockies, or at his cabin in Norway.