September 19, 2013 Updated: June 24, 2015 at 8:28 am
I caught a fish once, when I was maybe 5. The trauma of it still haunts me.
He was about the size of my fist, but I didn't want to throw him back into the West Virginia pond my uncle Dennis had chosen for our inaugural fishing trip. The fish was my prize, fair and square and non-negotiable. But I didn't want him to die, either. My solution seemed perfect: I would assuage the guilt I felt for yanking him lip-first from the water by putting him in a Styrofoam cup, taking him home and making him my pet.
You never forget your first murder.
That only partly explains why I never seriously gave fishing another try. For one thing, I suspect it's boring. I also might be really bad at it.
Yet here I am at a little after 6 a.m. on a Thursday, equipped with waders, en route to Eleven Mile Canyon for an introductory session of fly-fishing with a guy for whom the sport is a living as well as a calling. That's him driving the SUV - Jon Kleis, a seasoned fisherman and good-natured guide with Angler's Covey, where I obtained my one-day fishing license earlier this morning. We're heading to a catch-and-release section of the South Platte River to angle for cutthroat, rainbow and cut-bow trout.
"You looked scared this morning," Kleis says, as we climb west on U.S. Highway 24, adding that fear is a common sentiment among first-time fly-fishers. Many are intimidated by what they think they know about the sport from watching stunt doubles dance fly lines in the 1992 movie "A River Runs Through It," starring Brad Pitt.
I cop to some trepidation - especially after learning we'd be fly, rather than bait fishing - but tell Kleis what he probably saw was my disorientation at being awake so early.
"I'm not having you do the Brad Pitt thing today. We're just lifting our rod up and flipping our fly out toward the fish, imitating those bugs they normally eat," Kleis says. "Unless you want to get your Brad Pitt on, but I'd rather see you catch a fish."
I'm game for whatever doesn't involve me with a fishhook through my eyelid, I say.
Looking to fool the fish
Like a lot of sport anglers, Kleis - who's fished catch-and-release since childhood - isn't in it for gastronomical reasons. "If I eat fish, it's like a fish sandwich at Wendy's," he says.
What's the appeal, if we won't be keeping any trophies, then?
"It's the challenge of fooling the fish," Kleis says. "I don't think there's any greater reward in any kind of fishing than to take a lure or a fly you made to imitate nature and turn around and successfully catch a fish with it."
Trout also happen to live in stunning locales. Located about an hour west of Colorado Springs, Eleven Mile Canyon is one of the more beautiful places in the state and one of the better tailwaters in the nation, in Kleis' opinion.
"For some people, this is a spiritual experience," he says. "Me, I can think of a million worse ways to spend a day."
Learning the basics
By 7:40 a.m., we're geared up and wading through two feet of chilly, burbling river to the far bank then upstream in search of a good spot. As we walk, Kleis explains the basics.
The lures we're using are smaller than a pinky nail and made to perfectly imitate a trico mayfly at specific stages in its hyper-brief life cycle. The line I'll be using has two flies, one of which rests on the water to attract the fish and serve as an indicator and another hooked one that drops below the surface to masquerade as a "nymph," or immature mayfly.
A good cast snakes out to land upstream, then flows naturally by the target fish population in a "dead drift" with the current.
"You're trying to imitate a dead insect, and fish are smart enough to know the difference," Kleis says.
What he calls "getting your Brad Pitt on" - aka false casting - is a more advanced technique that shows up in a different style of surface-only angling, dry fly-fishing, in which the goal is to settle the fly gently atop the water. I'll be trying a basic version of that a bit later, too.
When we stop, Kleis hands me a surprisingly lightweight 9-foot soft fly rod and adjusts my grip on the cork handle - "hold it like a firm handshake, with your thumb pointed up, and lock your wrist," he says. "Pull back, then push that cast forward, letting the spring of the rod do the work. Where the rod tip is pointed at the end of the cast is where your lure is going."
I practice casting, trying to keep the rod tip up as instructed, aiming for spots Kleis indicates upstream. The wrist movement feels similar to swinging a tennis racquet or throwing a Frisbee underhand, so not completely unfamiliar. Still, swirling an invisible, weightless bullwhip affixed with a tiny, razor-sharp spike in the air around my head is not something I ever will be totally comfortable with, I don't think. More than once I lose track of the business end mid-cast and I panic, yanking the pole backward and snarling the line in the tall weeds of the bank behind me.
Kleis continues with tips and encouragement and eventually proclaims me "a natural," however - which he promises he isn't saying solely to boost my confidence.
As important as an accurate cast is, the trick to a successful catch is a quick response and "set" after a nibble, he says. This step whips the line tight and lodges the hook in the tough cartilage of the fish's mouth.
In Kleis' experience, though female fly-fishers have a natural acumen for the overall sport ("My wife out-fishes me every time," he says), the necessarily violent "set" can pose an early challenge.
"A set is not just a twitch of the rod - it has to be lightning fast - but I don't want to see you setting so hard you're breaking the line off either," Kleis says.
Still, he adds, "I want you setting on everything today. Your spidey senses tingle, you set."
Savior to a one-eyed trout
Approaching 9 a.m., the sun's fully up and the mayflies hover in thick clouds over the water. Kleis declares "Game on" and points to the roiling lee of a large, underwater rock, an area he says is laden with fish.
"There's a big one, see?"
My untrained eyes (behind non-polarized lenses) can make out only impressionistic ripples of grays, browns and greens. It's like trying to decipher a fast-moving sonogram, and watching it makes me a little dizzy. I stop seeking visual confirmation and cast where I'm told, letting the line drift tantalizingly by the indicated spot ... and nothing. I cast again, land it ... drift ... nothing.
"Maybe he already ate," I suggest.
By the fifth cast, though, I feel a definite tug - and suddenly can't remember what to do next.
Kleis: "You've got a fish on it. Set!"
I've also forgotten what he means by "set." When I finally snap back, the line's empty.
"You forgot to react," Kleis says. "You stood there and went 'Errrrr' rather than setting."
I vow to correct next time but over the next hour I manage to errrrr again and again, my tentative set denying me at least three fish who'd hazarded a test nibble.
Kleis steps in to show me how it's done and immediately catches a foot-long female rainbow trout.
By late morning, after many casts, a few more promising nibbles but still zero success, the muscles of my right arm are burning and the mayfly swarms have begun to disperse, signaling the end of prime morning angling. I've lost track of time, though, and am surprised to learn that we'll be hitting the road home soon.
Kleis tries his hand a final time. Within minutes, he catches another trout and calls me over with the net as he reels it in. It's a male with a deformed scale covering his left eye. I hold the fish under water as Kleis directs, my hand cupped loosely under its belly, and pull away the net. For a moment the fish chills, nearly motionless in my hand; I name him Patch, and give him a nudge so he swims away.
"For the story's sake, I can say I was party to catching a fish, right?" I ask, and Kleis confirms.
I'm good with that.
So, for those keeping track, my score for the day: two twigs and a seaweed flower; no prize, but no trauma and some cool memories from a pretty spectacular place. Plus, I got to play savior to a one-eyed trout, which I hope buys me a few fish karma points.
Upshot is Kleis was right: There are far worse ways to spend a morning than fishing, and sleeping might just be one of them.
Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364