The Sure Thing

A story of a miracle fly, rattlesnakes, and making memories.

[by Bill “Bugs” Logan]

Have you ever had a fly given to you that was “guaranteed”?

It’s happened to me only once, so long ago, it’s part of my first fishing memories. Casting was overwhelmingly difficult then, and the result was nothing but tangles. Half the time, I couldn’t get my fly out as far as I could spit. Did you also, as a youngster, waddle along behind your father in hand-me-down waders, as clueless as a baby duck? Do you recall the wobbly fear of trying to keep your footing in a current that was so shallow it was better suited for crawdad hunting in cutoffs and sneakers?

I remember thinking early on, Fly fishing is just plain stupid!

Sometimes I still think so. There’s always far too much to do and all of it at once. But the biggest lesson I’ve learned about this quirky sport of ours was the first one, which is this: No matter what, you have to stick things out.

I remember very long days on a stream that seemed endless. I was too little to cross on my own, so I was carried over piggyback and deposited in grass up to my armpits that was its own horror to wade through. I couldn’t see my feet and had no idea what was down there—not an unreasonable source of apprehension for a little kid—until dear old Dad’s special dread of rattlesnakes would start nagging him. Then fear became FEAR. We would have to find sticks and beat the grass ahead of us. Apparently, it was courteous to let rattlers know we were coming, but I couldn’t help wondering if whacking at them would just piss ’em off. Damn that father of mine with his silly sticks!

A half century has passed, and still there are times when I would feel better with a handy little club. I’ve seen only four rattlesnakes, and the last one thumped my leg with his tail in passing. Yep, he did. He was crossing the stream I was standing in, I felt it, looked down, and—well, yes, I’m sure I managed a strangled squeak. There wasn’t time for more, because those guys swim fast. In the frozen second it took for me to decide not to panic, he was way out under my rod tip, so you know what? I just tapped him right back!

There, I have a fine little tale to tell, and it’s another part of my first one. Do you see what I mean about sticking with this no matter what? The stories we relive and add to get better all the time. They keep circling back, and right now in this one, we belong in the world my father was trying to give me, which had spectacular payoffs.

From Deep in a Vest Pocket

His kid had faced fear and waded through serpents. He’d had one Hershey’s Bar for lunch and didn’t complain. So, as the afternoon tipped over and sunlight raked in from the west, Dad made a great show of taking out a special fly box that had been buried deep in his vest. He looked at me long and hard before he opened it—so long, I began to wonder why, and then, as if coming to a secret decision, he smiled, carefully picked out a fly, and put it in my hand. It was the most beautiful one I had ever seen or could have imagined, too fine to be mine, yet there it was, winking like an iridescent gem.

That was my first Royal Coachman, and we don’t make flies like that anymore. We make them practical and we make them clever. Every 10 minutes of an insect’s life cycle seems to have a catalog of patterns that mimic it. We’re overwhelmed with choices. Fly boxes are so packed that they quit closing tight, and then we tuck more flies in ziplock bags and pill bottles and every fishing pocket or hat brim. How many patterns are there in this magazine, or in the last one? Just as many more will be in the next, and we eat this stuff up. I love this buggy ride of ours, and I pore over each issue just as you do. There’s so much ingenuity and such good thinking. I keep learning, and it makes me a better fly fisher. There’s more to this, though.

As I’ve been telling you this story, I’ve realized I don’t remember most of the thousands of trout I’ve caught. I have a strong sense of the long span of years I’ve held a rod in my hand, but my memories are like a river sparkling in sunlight: lots and lots of flashes and glints. Here and there, riffles and rolls braid together and run a short ways before fracturing back into confusion. The patterns repeat themselves endlessly, yet are never quite the same.

The reason I keep at this is because I can read water and like connecting memories. I have a passion that ties my life together, and that’s why I can tell you as though it happened moments ago that after Dad tied on my first Royal Coachman, he said, “Come on and be quiet. You’re going to catch a fish.”

There was no doubt.

And He Was Right!

We crept up on a deep run in a river bend that was very good looking. I remember being paranoically careful to tread softly, just as I was shown, so that the fish couldn’t hear the vibration of me coming through the undercut bank. We literally knelt right on top of them. I didn’t even have to cast. I just dabbled my fly in the water.

Bango, a trout actually ate it! Pandemonium. Many attempts to lead the fish into the net. Above all, glee laced with terrible fear that it might get off. Finally, at the end, surprise was mixed with huge happiness on the river bend when my fish lay in the net. And then it was time for another hard lesson. Dad said you should always, no matter what, let the day’s first one go. It has to do with being grateful and knowing you’re fortunate.

That was hard! I was little and certain that catching was about keeping, and you couldn’t beat a Coachman for it. Nothing could, and I proved it—for a while.

You know what happened after that, because it’s happened to you, too. Slowly my fly box filled up with other patterns. The ones I first learned with were pushed into the corners, and then eventually disappeared. Fishing became complicated, but I caught my share because I knew more and more about how to make good choices. And that’s how I’ve been, happy and still at it, year after year, with no other miracle fly.

Early this autumn, a dear friend asked if I would show him how to fish a small creek. He’s pretty good with a fly rod but he’s also 86, so to begin with I was impressed. I also knew we weren’t going to be stalking skittish trout, or skulking through the brush and boulders like big sneaks. Casting would be a big problem, too. My buddy can lay some line out but not where he wants to go.

This whole thing could have been a fiasco. What I needed was the right place for beginner’s luck. And do you know what? There was one. It was obvious, once it occurred to me that I hadn’t been on this kind of expedition since, well, my Royal Coachman days. My story had turned around completely, and now I was the guy who led us to the perfect spot.

Old Friends and Young Memories

It was an unusually deep pool, and littler than you’d expect. The creek ran straight out of it, too, so there was only a whisper of room in the downstream aisle for a cramped backcast, but at least there was a flat rock to stand on.

I helped my friend rig up and rebuild his leader. As I opened my fly box, I knew just what to look for, but I didn’t choose it right away. Instead, I poked here and there, glancing at my buddy and playing it up just a bit. I’d seen how this was done and I wanted him to believe in the right fly just as much as I did, because in that moment it dawned on me that I did have a miracle fly. I’d had one for decades, actually, without thinking about it the right way. I’ve written more than once about a gray, size 16 Elk-Hair Caddis. You probably know most of what I have to say. There’s nothing royal or even pretty about it, and when a caddis gets chewed up, it doesn’t keep its looks. It sure works, though, and on a shirtsleeves day, with a brandnew creek addict in tow, it’s absolutely a sure thing.

The remnants of an old beech trunk bridged over the current right where it tumbled in. “Cast at the log,” I said. “Don’t be neat. If you hit it, the fly’ll bounce back. Be ready!”

As nervous as he was, my buddy did it just right. The moment his fly tapped the water, an orange brook trout arched over, right on top of it!

Okay, there wasn’t much pandemonium this time, but we had a moment of concern before the fly line was properly snugged up. Then there was a brief, darting fight that ended with the fish on a short leash as I held the tippet. That brookie had an old-looking head, and with all his color and flared fins, he looked something like an exotic reef fish. We had all the time in the world to admire him before we let him go. My buddy wasn’t 86 anymore. He was about eight again, and so was I.

There was no tying, but it was a damn fine story. Bill “Bugs” Logan always inspires us to grab our rods and head to our favorite streams. To see a full creel of Bill’s exceptional art, cast over to his website, www.billloganart.com.