The Covert Fraternity of Fanatical Fly-Fishermen

Part One of a Two-Part Series: I Fish, Therefore I Fib

Story and Photos by Shirley Lund

A word of wisdom to would-be wives: be aware that your normal-looking significant other may have pledged his allegiance to a close-knit, yet widespread society called the Fraternity of Fanatical Fly-Fishermen, a.k.a. Four-F’ers. Members of this bizarre brotherhood have pledged to follow uncertain leads into vast frontiers in search of virgin streams. (In case you don’t know what a virgin stream is, it’s one that still retains its native species of fish and has never been violated by a fisherman of the human species.)

In addition to his sacred pledge, your prospective spouse may also have uttered a solemn vow: once discovered, the location of a virgin stream is never to be revealed to anyone, not even to another Four-F’er. It is very difficult for these fervent fishermen to abide by this vow, however, since it is impossible for them to resist showing off their latest prize catch. In order to brag about catching the largest possible fish on the lightest possible line without giving away vital information, you will often hear the following dialogue between fishermen:

“Just look at this beauty!”

“That’s a nice fish! Where did you catch it?”

“In the mouth, of course.”

“Of course you did. I catch mine there, too.What fly did you use?”

“A Hairy Harbinger. I tied it myself.”

Other fishermen, of course, would have no idea what a Hairy Harbinger is.The first order of any bona fide fly-fisherman is that he becomes an expert at fly-tying. By doing this, his claim to fame is that he becomes the designer, the manufacturer, the sole owner of a specific specimen.The names they give these flies are almost as outlandish as the flies themselves: Sequined Silkworm, Grangy Grubworm, Latex Larvae, Cagey Carbuncle. If one is especially appealing to fish, it receives the distinct privilege of being named after its creator.The recipes for these fish dinners, (especially if a fish favorite), are known only to the cook. If it turns out to be a laudable lure it is filed away, along with other important fly-fishing trivia, in the vast tackle box of his mind.

How do I know all this? I learned it from a bona fide, dues-paying Four-F’er. During my dating days there had been no outward signs that my future husband had pledged his loyalty to this complex clan. One day in early February, shortly after we returned from our honeymoon, he dragged out a conglomeration of fishing gear and began sorting through a dozen or so boxes of unidentifiable bugs. Right away, his eyes glazed over and a wide grin spread across his face. It seemed only natural that he be dubbed “McGrin.”

“What does he mean by we?” I thought, when he mentioned that he might have to tie a few more flies before “we” started fishing. Surely he meant one of his colleagues of the fly-fishing faction. Surely I hadn’t inadvertently promised to love, honor, and be a fishing partner when I recited my marriage vows.

I decided to ignore this reference to my automatic inclusion into the Four-F inner sanctum by changing the subject.

“What’s the matter with plain old worms?”

Wrong question to ask a flyfisherman!

“Nobody fishes with worms.”

McGrin replied disgustedly. “Flyfishermen learn to match the hatch. Do you know what a hatch is?”

I didn’t, but had a feeling I was about to find out.McGrin proceeded with a long discourse on the complicated diet of fish.When he finished the lecture, I had learned that a hatch is a particular flying insect, or bug, that hatches around, or in, a particular body of water at a particular time of the year. My future on-the-ground education revealed the fact that fish have discriminating tastes and sometimes even change menus in the middle of a meal by spitting out one fly and forcing the frustrated fisherman to try another. That’s why fishermen have to carry boxes and boxes of flies and stick with them all over their fishing vests and hats. And all this time I had thought they were just for decoration.

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A member of the fly-fishing cabal caught in the act.
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A variation of the “McGrin Special” fly.
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McGrin, a member of the secret “Four-F’er” fly-fishing brotherhood.
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Evidence of why the fly- fishing fraternity operates covertly.
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An original, hand-tied flycast fly.
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The author at eastern Idaho’s Palisades Reservoir.
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By the time fishing season opened in June, McGrin had painstakingly produced a replica of every fly and bug known to man, plus a few that not even God had thought of.When I received a new fishing pole and reel for Mother’s Day, I suspected I was about to be initiated into the select Fraternity of Fanatical Fly-Fishermen. Being a novice, I had no idea what this initiation consisted of and innocently accepted an invitation to embark on a search for a virgin stream. As we bumped along rutted cracks created by a lost wagon train in the last century, I began to doubt the wisdom of my decision.

The narrow tree-lined pair of ruts, called a road on our map, suddenly came to an abrupt end at the edge of a beautiful green meadow surrounded by pine trees. What better place to find a virgin stream than in a valley called Paradise, I thought. A wide stream of sparkling cold water carved its way around the base of a steep mountain.The fish didn’t seem to be aware that we were a threat to their survival and were lolling contentedly in dark pools beneath the rocks as though anticipating the tasty treats about to be tossed at them.

I will not elaborate on the fly-fishing lesson that was evidently a necessary part of my initiation. Suffice it to say, McGrin impatiently untangled my line from all the surrounding bushes, recovered his valuable hand-tied flies from snags in the middle of the stream and the branches of the nearby trees.When he finally ran out of four-letter words, he suggested we trade my new rod and reel for trolling gear and buy a boat. Sounded like a good idea to me.

With his duty concluded, McGrin hurried off by himself with a fish smorgasbord of flies while I proceeded to set up a reasonable facsimile of comfort and efficiency in the middle of a wilderness. An old fold-up army cot was the sole piece of furniture, and various sizes of dilapidated black pans and a campfire served as a substitute kitchen. He returned about dark with a happy grin, a full creel, and an empty stomach.

What do fishermen do between fishing time and bedtime? Sit around a campfire, talk about past discoveries and conquests of virgin streams, breathe smoke, eat charred hot dogs, and try not to be eaten by the flying carnivores of night.When the tall tales run out, you retire to the relative comfort of a tent if you have one–which we didn’t–and a warm sleeping bag if you have one–which we didn’t. It seems that sleeping on the ground under the stars and learning to survive with as few modern conveniences as possible was another phase of my initiation. I was eternally grateful for the small army cot McGrin had thoughtfully provided until I was grossly reminded that not all the carnivores of night are flying. Some are creepy, crawly.

Early the next morning, I huddled close to a smoky campfire contemplating the dreary prospects of burnt bacon and cremated eggs. A cheery voice greeted me from the middle of the stream.

“What’s for breakfast?” called this member of the maniac milieu, completely oblivious of my shivering, insect-bitten body, sunburned face and mess of tangled red hair. “How about some fresh fish?” he added, holding aloft the defeated brookie he had just caught with his latest concoction of deer hair, cat’s whiskers, and chicken feathers.

It’s too bad the rock missed him.

What members of the Fraternity of Fanatical Fly-Fishermen lack in tolerance for those outside their clan, they make up for in perseverance. The memory of the misguided missile I had hurled at McGrin as a frustrated response to his cheerful greeting gradually faded after a couple of weeks. He tentatively gathered his courage and invited me on another excursion into the wild frontier in search of yet another virgin stream.

“Things will be better this time,” he promised, remembering my very obvious disinterest in becoming a member of this fatuous fraternity.“The road is paved, and I’ve got a tent to sleep in. And an air mattress,” he added eagerly, scrutinizing my face for any sign of forgiveness for the previous debacle.

If I put him in a situation where he has to decide between his precious Four-F membership and me, I will undoubtedly be the loser, I thought. If you can’t beat ’em, you might as well join ’em. I wondered who it was that coined that other  adage: old fishermen never die, they just smell that way. Must have been a fisherman’s wife.

The road we traveled was paved, all right. Two lanes of traffic and a wide ribbon of swift running water coursed between towering cliffs on either side. Just when I thought we would run out of canyon, we spotted a sandbar left by receding water after a high runoff. McGrin hurriedly parked the car under one of two trees, donned the standard attire of fly fishermen everywhere–a sloppy fishing hat and a many pocketed fishing vest decorated with a variety of colorful flies. With fish net and basket fastened optimistically to his belt, he plodded happily away.

Content to be a passive observer of the idiosyncrasies of fly-fishing, I settled beneath the remaining tree with my favorite book. I awoke two hours later to find the sun had outmaneuvered the protective branches of the tree and my bare legs were cooked to somewhere between medium and well.

McGrin returned about sundown with a limit of nice rainbow trout. Exhausted and thirsty from his daylong ordeal of providing sustenance, he reached for the plastic container of lemonade we had immersed in the icy water to keep cool, being minus one refrigerator. The rope that held it to an overhanging branch suddenly gave way, and the fast-running water grabbed it and sent it sailing downstream.

Not about to be outsmarted by a capricious current, McGrin chased after the fleeing container, fishing boots flapping noisily in his wake. He raced along the bank, darting in and out of the thick brush and stumbling over obstacles in his path, then made a desperate, unsuccessful grab.

Catch me if you can! The bouncing bucket taunted from just beyond arm’s reach. The determined McGrin squished along for a few more yards; then, in a last ditch effort (no pun intended), made a flying tackle any football player would be proud of. A significant splash announced his victory as he grabbed the evasive vessel with both arms.He sloshed back to camp with his hard-earned trophy, blessing it all the way with a variety of unprintable words.

Our camp had been modernized from the previous fiasco by the addition of a small pup tent. That night, as I tried to sleep in the cramped space on an air mattress that wouldn’t hold air, I thought of a few unprintable words of my own. It was obvious that no amount of tossing and turning was going to mold the hard ground to accommodate my aching body. To add insult to injury, every toss and turn caused the heavy bedding to painfully assault my sunburned legs. Finally I dozed into a fitful sleep, only to be rudely awakened by water dripping on my face.

If I ignore it it will go away, I thought sleepily, and rolled over–right smack into a pool of icy water. My frantic efforts to fight my way out of the wet bedding sent down a cold shower on the sleeping McGrin.

“Where did all the blankety-blank water come from?” he shouted accusingly, hastily exiting the tent right on my heels.

The combination of hot days and cool nights had condensed the air into dew which had collected on the inside walls and ceiling of the small tent. Surely, I thought, this is enough to dampen the enthusiasm of the most ardent fisherman. Could I now stay home and enjoy all the modern conveniences invented by men to make work easier for women?

Probably not, except for the fact that we were expecting a baby in a couple of months. Not even die-hard McGrin was willing to risk the possibility that he might have to deliver a baby at some isolated fishing spot.When his son was born early in November McGrin shouted excitedly, “Oh, boy, a fishing partner!” and rushed right out to buy him a fishing pole.