A Treatyse on Fysshynge like the Bad Boys we used to Be.

[by Trigg White]

Like every human pursuit, fly fishing has its heritage—and its baggage.

I took up fly fishing for trout when I moved to Colorado in the 1980s. There was much to learn—the casting, the flies, the fish, reading moving water. Having grown up in south Louisiana, I found novelty in any water clear enough to see into. 

While I struggled to acquire the skills to take trout on the South Platte and Frying Pan Rivers, I also absorbed the ethos of the sport. Although tweed jackets are now optional, real fly fishers stand in moving water, surrounded by snow-clad mountains surmounted by a sapphire sky. They cast to difficult fish in demanding rivers. I learned that dry flies are preferred, but if no fish are rising, one can fish a small nymph under a discreet “strike indicator.” I knew big trout were better than small trout, but I learned that wild trout are better than stocked trout and that finicky tailwater trout are better than what I could get to take my fly for the first couple of years. I acquired a split bamboo fly rod—a Phillipson Pacemaker made 60 years ago just up the road in Denver. And of course I learned that a game fish is too valuable to be caught only once.

There’s a certain theme park quality to these lakes as well, if you like your theme parks sage covered and windswept.

This is the image of fly fishing that emerges from our art and literature, and I quickly adopted it as my personal code of fly fishing conduct. That’s why I find myself a little uncomfortable with a detour some of my trout fishing has taken lately.

A few years ago I acquired a pontoon boat. Banish images of those floating patios chugging about with partiers gulping beer and grilling brats. Picture instead a pair of eight-foot inflatable bananas with a lawn chair lashed between them. I bought it to float Utah’s Green River below Flaming Gorge Dam—a stretch I’ve come to think of as the world’s largest fly fishing theme park. I did that, and I still do. But I began hearing reports of large trout caught in a cluster of lakes harbored in one of the great intermountain prairies Colorado hides just behind the sweeping Front Range. 

There’s a certain theme park quality to these lakes as well, if you like your theme parks sage covered and windswept. The banks are barren save for a few scattered willows hanging over the water. The nearest mountains are miles away. The wind, unencumbered by hills or trees, spawns whitecaps with no notice. And while there may be a sapphire sky up there somewhere, many days it’s obscured by gray and black clouds that bring the wind and enough sudden rain to drown ducks. 

But . . . The lakes are weedy and rich and grow trout food by the ton. Colorado Parks and Wildlife manages them as a “trophy trout fishery.” The fish begin life in a hatchery, but once stocked, special regulations protect them as they grow large in the food-rich environment. Thumbing through my accumulated fly fishing ethos, I quickly came upon big trout are better than small trout, so I threw my ‘toon in the truck and turned down one of fly fishing’s side roads.

Unfortunately, the road had a few bumps in the beginning, among them: I didn’t know how to catch the fish. I trolled a Woolly Bugger. I cast and stripped nymphs along the bank. Seeing the occasional fish rise, I flung a dry fly out onto an indeterminate patch of water and waited. And it was all an indeterminate patch of water—flat expanses of what John Gierach called a “featureless disk.” As an uninitiated lake-fishing newbie, I didn’t know where to start. Through sheer persistence, I caught a few. But I noticed that other fisherman, each anchored in one spot, some far out in the lake, caught more. Sometimes many more. 

Brown on Blocks, by Josh Desmit

Then I met Z.D.—a tall, lumbering man with a full white beard. “Chironomids,” he patiently explained, and showed me his rigged fly rod. It was a 9-foot 6-weight with a floating line and a 20-foot leader. Tied to the leader, below a hefty split shot, was a pair of flies practically identical to the midge pupae I fished to especially fussy trout on the tougher tailwaters, but three or four times larger. “Fish ’em just off the bottom under a bobber. Watch the bobber.”

Sure enough, eight feet up from the flies was an orange piece of hard foam formed around a short stick. Though a diminutive fly rod size, it was clearly a bobber. Standing on the bank, he lobbed the unwieldy rig in a looping roll cast 40 feet into the lake. The bobber lay on its side for a few seconds. Then, as the lead shot sank the full length of the leader, the little bobber popped upright as though waving a jaunty orange flag.

Recognition crept over me. I don’t remember the first fish I ever caught, but I’m absolutely certain it ate a worm threaded onto a bait hook, and it plunged a round cork bobber under the surface of a Louisiana river. I was too young to remember the fish, but I clearly remember the fishing. The river was the Calcasieu. The pole was a stalk of bamboo eight to nine feet long with a green braided line tied to the tip. The business end received the hook, lead sinker, and the all-important bobber. As I said, the bobber was cork. The fabled red and white plastic bobber had yet to appear—at least at the country store up on the highway where we bought our cold drinks, kerosene, and fishing tackle.

I’d like to tell you that shortly after that first fish I discovered the fly rod, acquired a tweed jacket and camo ascot, and began drifting dry flies over fussy trout. But the journey was more circuitous and led through many more years of staring at a bobber—red and white plastic by this time—waiting for it to tremble and dive. 

All that came flooding back as I watched the little orange bobber ride up over the crest of a wave and dip into the following trough. I can do this, I thought.

What followed were days spent lobbing the flies and bobber a short distance from the boat, waiting for the bobber to assume its perky, expectant stance, and settling in to stare, waiting. With no warning, the orange bobber would dive beneath the green waves, and with a sweep of the long rod, I would tighten to a surging trout, some of them nearing two feet long. 

I learned that lakes do have features—varying depths, weed beds, coves and ridges. They’re obvious to the fish but disclosed to the fisherman only through hours of trial and error, or through the graces of a generous fishing partner. I learned to seek out the fish by depth. Fish in eight feet of water. No strikes? Move out to 12 feet, 16 feet, 20 feet. 

The key to catching fish at these depths is the “release bobber.” Without it, you could never reel a hooked fish close enough to land, because the bobber—affixed 11, 15, or 19 feet up the leader—would jam in the guides. The release bobber, on the other hand, looses its grip on the leader and slides freely down to the split shot or top fly when the pressure of a hooked fish tightens the line.

There were slow days, of course. I would stare an hour or more, attention waning, only to miss the strike that finally came. And on some days the big midges or Callibaetis mayflies emerged in sufficient quantity to bring the trout slashing to the surface. I learned to carry another rod rigged with a dry fly to quickly cover nearby rises. If you buy that second-rod stamp with your Colorado license, you don’t even have to pull the bobber rig out of the water. 

As I spent more time at the lakes, I found that Z.D. was at the center of a revolving group of fly fishing pontoon boaters: Sam, Shoe, Chris and his buddy Vince, Frank, Rick and his dad, Gerry, and a dozen others. They show up late in the day in a ratty array of trucks and campers to camp at one corner of the lake or another until recalled by work or wife. They anchor at their selected spots and flip out thelong leader and bobber to watch and wait. They’re impervious to wind and weather, and they apologize to no one for being there instead of the Frying Pan. They’re a ragtag underground of fly-fishing bad boys who like their trout big and get their sapphire skies at home. 

During the day we cluster on the water in loose gaggles, close enough for heckling and shouted congratulations. Later we gather to compare notes, drink a cold one, and make plans for the next day. Z.D. seems always to be there in his camper. And the Hotel Z.D. is always open, especially if you bring a supper to share or a few bottles of Moose Drool to sip as you huddle out of the wind.

I’ve had to expand my ethos a bit to accommodate this side trip in my fly fishing journey. While dry flies are preferred, I find a certain satisfaction in unlimbering the bobber rod with its long leader and orange bobber and making those lobbing casts. The first formative experiences of our lives sustain a faint background hum in our psyche that swells to resonate with new experiences of the same frequency. A whiff of Shalimar sends my senses reeling back more than 40 years to a makeshift dance floor in a high school gymnasium. A bobber plunging under the water evokes a similar flashback, when I see for just an instant through the eyes of a small boy on a Louisiana river. 

So I keep going back. I like the fish, and I enjoy the company. I even bought a ratty old camper in case the Hotel Z.D. is full. When I make the lob and the flies reach their target depth, the little orange bobber snaps to attention—on duty—and I sense that gentle hum of expectation. And when it dives, there’s a sudden flashback to a boy I used to be and a time I barely remember. 

If that makes me one of fly fishing’s bad boys, well, that’s just icing on the cake. 

Trigg White lives, writes, and fishes in Colorado, where trout can be caught using any number of suspect techniques.