Five Loaves and Two Fish
Updated: Apr 27
I waded into the murky waters of fly fishing later in life, when my older son, Kyle, decided he wanted to learn, and requested a rod for his 12th birthday. We set off to test the Pere Marquette River, not far from our summer place in Michigan; so green we didn't even realize how iconic this tributary that we’d traveled over so many weekends actually was. He didn't catch anything during those first few outings, and I was relegated to observing from the bank, shrugging my shoulders – no fatherly wisdom to impart.
And then, by complete happenstance, I met a friend of a friend at a trade show in Chicago. We got talking about kids and hobbies and one thing led to the next. It turned out that her boyfriend was a high-school football coach and an avid angler – calling the Pere Marquette his home water. One of his life passions was teaching kids how to fly fish and, she said, he would be glad to meet up with us and show Kyle a thing or two.
Meeting Matt quite literally changed the trajectory of our fishing lives. Guiding us to one of his go-to holes, he instructed Kyle. Still unsure, I watched from afar – intrigued but not yet infected. As Matt patiently coached, Kyle worked the water and, by the end of the night, managed to trick a few small brown trout. Even I felt a little shaky from the adrenaline of the moment.
The following spring I was no longer content to be a mere observer. My competitive side was kicking in. So, I pulled a few bucks together and bought my first fly-rod combo and ordered a pair of hundred-dollar waders online.
At that point I didn't know my ass from my elbow, but Matt invited me to join him and a few buddies on their annual spring trip to the Holy Waters of the Au Sable. I rolled in with my combo set and waders still in the box. No leader. No tippet. No flies. No goop. No knowledge. No shame. Matt helped me rig up and we headed downstream to attempt what he called swinging nymphs. Sure, I thought, nymphs sound exactly right in this situation, Matt.
And then, after a lot of embarrassing flailing, I actually landed a fish. Holy hell, I couldn't believe it! An eight-inch planter that to this day remains my greatest trophy. At that moment, I unwittingly moved into "Stage One" of what, in angling circles, is known as the “five stages of fly fishing” – the pernicious path through the sport from the beginning, where the goal is simply to catch a fish, any fish, of any size, to the end, where you are just damn glad to be fishing.
But, like anyone who experiences a taste of success, I wanted more, and didn't tarry long in this early stage. The situation spiraled downhill rapidly, and "Stage Two" developed into a full-blown infection before I could even get a proper diagnosis. I exhibited all the classic symptoms of the "numbers stage," wanting to catch all the fish all the time, and Matt was more than happy to nurse me through it.
I hit the local rivers with a fervor, fishing whenever I could, with anyone who was willing, for anything that was biting. From blazing hot summer nights chasing smallies to sub-zero winter mornings searching for chrome. As many hours and fish as possible. And you're damn right I was counting; I could tell you precisely how many I had for the evening, for the week, and for the year. My God, I mused, I am a tremendous fisherman. Can you believe these numbers? I must be some sort of piscatorial prodigy.
Stage Two was spellbinding. But, as man is wont to do, rather than be delighted with some success, I craved more, and, almost imperceptibly, slid headlong into "Stage Three" of the journey.
Stage Three is what I think of as the "Freudian stage,” and I suddenly became aware of angler envy. Sure, I was catching a lot of fish, but my friends were catching bigger fish, and I couldn't help but notice I wasn't measuring up. Regardless of what consoling ex-girlfriends insist, size does matter. You call that a fish? That, my friend, is bait.
Numbers no longer satiated my ravenous appetite. I wanted monsters. Trophies worthy of a magazine cover. Trout that broke the 20-inch mark. Soon two feet became the goal, and 30 inches was just around the next bend. This led to an obsession with streamer fishing which, to my addled mind, was the only proper way to hook the big boys. I quickly outgrew the five weight, and the six, and, by God, even the seven. I can't huck meat on anything less than an eight, are you crazy? I began employing flies whose very names should have been a red flag: Sex Dungeons, Butt Monkeys, and Barely Legals, and never gave it a second thought in the sultry heat of the Freudian stage.
Now, it wasn't only about size at this point. For example, plucking a giant out of a stocked pond wouldn't entirely cure what ailed me, but it sure helped stem the bleeding. And catching native fish became more important, not that I could ever get past my obsession with browns. I even began to recognize some small satisfaction in pulling off a particularly difficult cast or tricking a more wary fish. I was slowly gravitating towards "Stage Four.”
Stage Four is best summed up as the "harder is better stage." This sadistic stage forgoes quantity and even size and simply esteems the greatest challenge. Dueling genius-level fish, in the least ideal conditions.
I have yet to fully embrace this stage, and to be honest, I still think of any success in the fly-fishing department as pure dumb luck on my part. Or dumb luck combined with a stubbornness that gets and keeps me on the water as often and as long as possible. Kind of the blind-squirrel-and-the-nut theory. Throw enough bad casts and you're bound to hook into something... eventually. There are always a few gullible fish in most any water.
But I have acquaintances that reside in Stage Four.
Like my buddy Geoff, who is a dry-fly purist and delights in taking me to some of the most nerve-racking locations possible. Places like Silver Creek, where the fish are so damn smart, the drifts so damn slow, and the micro-currents so damn impossible to read that I don't dare blink for fear that my presentation will offend these most snooty of trout.
Or Landon Mayer.
I spent some time on the water with Landon this past year and, let me tell you, this guy lives in Stage Four. It was spring and the insects that were out were tiny – as in size 24-to-28 tiny. Dust-particle tiny. And the water was low and clear, holding fish sporting IQ's in the upper 170s. You could see them, sure, but casting without putting them down was another matter entirely. And this is what he lives for. Tying on microscopic flies with 7x and making perfect drifts to fool spooky fish. I could barely find the fly when I was holding it in my hand, let alone on the water. And tying on 7x? Forget it. I managed it once, made a few drifts with my Baetis-shaped dust particle, and gave up. Then proceeded to secure a streamer and flog the water with righteous indignation.
But watching Landon do his thing was a work of pure Stage-Four art. I could appreciate it, but wouldn’t be taking up residence any time soon.
I also had the chance to fish with Jeff Currier recently.
You'll find Jeff in books, on TV, and lecturing around the world. He's a Catch and Release IGFA World Record holder, a National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame record holder, and has well over 400 species of fish on the fly to his name, from parts of the world I can’t even pronounce. Exotic fish. Terrifying fish. Gigantic fish. Magazine-cover fish.
But, on a drive out to the Henry's Fork, he shared with me that his most-prized catch of all time was a small, unassuming trout he managed to stalk, pattern, hook, and land while representing the U.S. Fly Fishing Team in Spain, leading them to their first ever top-ten finish in the World Fly Fishing Championships. Legitimate Stage-Four stuff.
In Jeff I could also glimpse "Stage Five," the stage in which you just want to go fishing. For all that it is. Where catching becomes secondary to simply "being." And I find myself here more often lately. I haven't earned it the way Geoff or Landon or Currier have, and I'll admit to a slight detour around Stage Four, but Stage Five is a fabulous place to spend some time.
There are two key elements to Stage Five – additives that make it even better.
The first is setting. More and more I'd take a quiet, beautiful place with few other anglers and a couple small fish over a less alluring, and perhaps busier, location that holds bigger ones.
Give me the bucolic beauty of a less popular river in Northern Michigan, or an alpine lake tucked well into the Idaho or Wyoming backcountry, or the small stream in Montana that doesn't get a lot of press, but offers stunning vistas, quiet solitude, and every now and then gives up a respectable resident.
On the opposite side of solitude is the final, and perhaps most important, ingredient, and that is with whom I fish. It’s the smoked paprika in a perfect chili. Good without it, but so much better with it.
Like ugly places, I'm just too old to endure ugly personalities. Unlike in my younger years, the hours and minutes no longer seem limitless. So, the recognition that each one matters – that each grain of sand in the hourglass is precious – makes me carefully consider who I fish with.
I still enjoy chasing blue lines in solitude on occasion, but, more often than not, I savor spending these moments in these beautiful places, fish or no fish, with a small circle of close friends and family. Folks who see it the same - maybe not the world, but at least fishing's place in it. Who no longer feel the need to fill the quiet with empty chatter. Who may, in fact, speak very few words at all. But when we do talk, the conversations are deep and meaningful or, conversely, light and hilarious – somehow these curated companions intuitively understand what is needed at the moment.
I recently read a Gierach quote that said this: "I never looked for perfect people to be my friends for fear of going through life friendless. It's just that we get along, see most things the same way, and can disagree peacefully. Some of us can talk politics for hours and get mad as hell, though not at each other, but with others it's a lot easier to travel and fish together if we don't talk politics, except maybe in the most general terms. I mean the fate of democracy is one thing, but someone you can fish with is another."
And this describes my circle. Not perfect people, real people, willing to give some of the sand in their hourglass to another, imperfect person. These friends and family members are multipliers, increasing each experience exponentially. Almost Biblical in their ability to take my five meager loaves and two small fish and miraculously materialize a feast fit for 5,000. To slow, for a brief time, the sand in the hourglass, and help me see, with a clarity only found on a river together, what really matters.