Spend a few years wagging a flimsy fly rod and flinging clumps of feathers and fur at finicky fish and you’re bound to learn a few things. A few of those lessons will actually come on the water. Others will come during streamside chats with others who have been similarly afflicted with the fly-fishing bug.

Still others only dawn on you after spending six icebound months vowing to figure out exactly what you’ve been doing wrong.

This morning, nearly a week after the “official” open-water opening day, we’re still a month or more away from truly prime fishing conditions.

With that in mind (and the stream waters rising across the state), it’s time to take inventory of a few of the things that can be learned … even when the fish aren’t biting.

First and foremost, I suppose, is this: A man’s got to know his limitations. And the only way to know — truly know — those limitations is to try to surpass them … and fail miserably.

I would love to be able to rip my fly line off the water with a mighty snap, take a single back cast, and fling 70 or 80 or 90 feet of line toward a rising fish.

For that matter, I’d be perfectly satisfied to do so after taking three or four false casts, a double-haul or two, and praying to the fish spirits for help.

Would I catch more fish that way? Probably not. But man, it would feel good. And watching that fly line unfurl into the distant mist? That would be majestic. Just majestic.

Unfortunately, I’m no Lee Wulff. I’m no Tim Rajeff. Heck, I’m not even on par with local casting stars like Don Corey or Beau Peavey.

Therefore, I’m learning to live with my limitations … not that I’m above reaching for that elusive monster cast and failing (majestically, I try to convince myself) on occasion.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve just got to try harder to catch the fish I can reach, rather than worry about reaching the fish I can’t catch.

Another limitation I’ve discovered over the past few years?

My eyes are now officially 40 years old … OK. They’re 44. Let’s not split hairs.

The problem is simple, my eye doctor told me: 40-year-old eyes will, eventually, make your arms too short.

At least that’s what I think she told me … and as the years pass, I’ve learned that she’s right.

As a fly fisherman, that’s bad news.

I used to be able to thread tiny flies onto my tippet with ease. Then it got tougher … and downright impossible.

Some older anglers nodded understandingly at my plight. Other, younger, anglers shook their heads and chuckled.

Finally, this spring, I broke down and bought myself a (theoretically) nifty tippet-threading gizmo and some magnifying glasses that make me look a bit too much like Drew Carey.

The tipping point came at dusk one day last year, when I found myself making fly selections that made no sense on one hand … but perfect sense on another.

The fish were taking small caddis flies. I opted to tie on a monstrous streamer fly instead.

The reason: I knew darned well there was no way I could get my wispy tippet through a tiny hole in a small hook in the fading daylight. By contrast, tying on the streamer fly was manageable … kind of.

As the winter stretched on, and I thought more about my problem, the solution was clear. When you start fishing with flies you know you can attach to your line instead of with flies you know can catch fish … well … it’s time to take drastic measures. Even if it means carrying another gizmo and looking like Drew Carey.

Another thing I’ve learned (mostly by listening to others) is that as a mountain goat, I’m not very sure-footed.

“You’ve got to get yourself a stick,” my friend and sometimes fishing pal John Kirk kept telling me.

A “stick,” in his vernacular, is a wading staff; in essence, it’s a cane that anglers use when they’re working their way across a river while fishing.

The stick, it must be pointed out, can help keep you upright. It can give you added confidence. Heck, it could even save your life.

The problem: Kirk (my mentor in this case) falls down in rivers more often than anyone I’ve ever met. Sometimes he bleeds. Sometimes he breaks bones. Other times, he just swims around for a bit, cools off, and starts fishing again … and catching big fish.

He also (emboldened by the presence of his handy stick) wades into places that are downright frightening.

For years, I ignored his advice, figuring that I didn’t need any emboldening … that adding confidence to my shuffling in-stream gait would only succeed in getting me into bigger water (and bigger trouble) than I ought to be seeking.

Finally, after Kirk had me link elbows with him in order to waddle out to the perfect lie on a perfect river on a perfect day, I learned how important a stick can be.

Kirk calls that linked-elbow maneuver the “do-si-do,” and while it looks a bit foolish (picture two semi-portly dudes square-dancing in a raging river) it’s a good, safe way for two anglers to work their way through rough water.

It would have been an even better way to get back to shore after catching a fish or two.

At least, I think it would have been.

As it turned out, I never got the chance to find out.

My mentor had headed downstream in search of bigger fish, you see.

The river was still raging.

And I was up the creek without … well … without a stick (or a dance partner).

Since you’re reading this, you already know that I got back to shore. I didn’t fall. I didn’t bleed. I didn’t break any bones. And not long after that, I broke down and got myself a wading staff.

Mark it down as yet another hard lesson (eventually) learned in pursuit of finicky fish.



John Holyoke

John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their...