“A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring”
– Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism
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Technical fishing is the dream. Magnificent vistas are a perk. But the characters you meet in these adventures are what I truly love. The creeks may get all the glory, but the people at McCoys are…well, they are the real mccoy.
The moment I met Steve Bielenberg, I liked him. He was larger than life — and not just because he was so incredibly tall. And I mean tall. Ironic, really. Here was this titanic figure juxtaposed against these delicate streams. Steve cut his teeth on the fabled rivers in his home state of Oregon, went on to become a football hero at Oregon State, and ultimately migrated to Montana.
Steve manages the fishery at McCoy’s which consists of two creeks that run for about three miles and are home to rainbow, brown and brook trout. He knows every twist and turn, every seam, and every pool in these waters.
Now there is always a ramping up phase when fishing with someone new. But out of the gate Steve offered a warm, genuine welcome and was extraordinarily charming. That said, it was a late start, and we didn’t have a cushion of time for the proverbial pleasantries and benchmarking of my capabilities. We had to jump right in. The Professor claimed a spot on the bank for himself, while Steve set me up on a first-rate pool with feeding fish.
Right away I knew my role was singularly focused. I was not in charge of fly selection or rowing a boat or handing out lunches or picking the spots. Once Steve tied that bug on I should have been nicknamed Silver Platter, because my one and only job was to serve it up right.
Okay, no pressure. Wow, it was so quiet out there.
First cast was in the zone but the still water near me slowed down my fly line. Drag. Fish moved back, we inched down with him. Next cast the fly was sitting a little funny. Fished moved back, we inched down with him. Cast, cast, cast. The foam line caught my tippet and created drag. I was out of the fish’s feeding rhythm. Fish refused the fly. Argh!
The Professor caught a fish.
It was pretty obvious the closest fish knew I was there. So with Steve’s instruction I tried for a few feeders on the far bank, which by the way was suddenly starting to seem very far away, if not literally then figuratively. A funky eddy was preventing a decent mend so I used a reach cast. I was just behind him. Then right on top of him. Right on top of him again.
Oh, shoot! I led him too much. In that glassy water the fish had all the time in the world to see that fly as if he were inspecting it with a jeweler’s loop. The fished moved down, so did we.
The Professor caught a fish.
Steve changed my fly and we waited for the pod to get back into a healthy feeding pattern. I tried for this one. I tried for that one. I aimed shorter, longer. Good drift, bad drift. Too much drag. Not enough slack. Darn, my extra fly line was getting caught up in the grass and messing with my cast. Reel some up, scoot over a little bit. Stay low, stay quiet, stay calm. Oh hell, now I didn’t have enough line pulled off my reel to feed, feed, feed line, feed, feed, feed line, feed, feed….Aaaaww! He ate right next to it.
The Professor caught a fish.
I was so close to these fish I could name each of their spots, but I could not catch one of them. I could literally look these trout in the eye and see their blatant disregard for me. It was as if I were a homeless person sleeping in the street and they stepped over me without commentary, all the while sucking on an ice cream cone and chatting with a friend.
And that’s when I got it. The magic of fishing a spring creek had nothing to do with muscling a large fish out of a small stream. It wasn’t about feeling the weight of a giant trout on a light rod. It was about witnessing the fish up close, in its purest place of power and glory. Most of the time we see the fish when it is on the defense, jumping and running, in the net, or recovering from a tough fight. But this was a chance to know the fish in its prime. No longer a blind wrestling match of grit and brawn, this was like venturing up to Mount Olympus and sitting across a chess table with the gods themselves.
I garnered whatever vanity remained in my system and shot it out onto the water with my best possible cast. The fish were unwavering, and I was left standing on their bank with nothing but a profound sense of humility.
This was really, really cool.
The Professor wandered our direction, seemingly done with fishing. Between you and me I think he was being gracious, not wanting to catch more fish in front of me since I was obviously getting schooled out there.
We stayed in the same spot a bit longer, and then decided we had pressured this pile of fish long enough. It was getting to be about that time anyway. Should we head back in? I was genuinely happy with the experience, and really grateful for it all. Hey, I had actually put some decent casts through there so that felt pretty good.
But Steve was undeterred by sinking sunlight. He wanted to take me to another spot. So off we trotted, with the Professor cheering me on as we hiked over to another part of the creek.
Again, there was a pool of fish that were feeding voraciously. But the bank was a little flat so we had to sneak up very carefully and stay low on our knees so as not to spook them. Hmm, this was a little more tricky. I was crouched low, with tall grass behind me and a breeze coming into my face. Yikes.
It’s as if we were kneeling at an altar, awash with humility. Both on our knees, Steve with his hat off. Offering the fish our utmost in flies and respect.
It took me a few casts but I got into a rhythm. Although it was tough to get a drift because there was a profound foam line and a multitude of subtle currents.
About this time a truck rolled up. It was the Professor’s good friend who had also retired from fishing for the day and was bringing the happy hour to us. He and the Professor sat well behind us, drinking beer and watching me grind at the fish altar.
I’d never fished with such an audience, it was unnerving. It was like I had my own Greek Chrous chanting away back there, only the beer was flowing freely so it had a bit of a Nascar undercurrent. They weren’t heckling me, mind you. They were actually heckling Steve.
“Good heavens, Steve, could you have her in a more difficult spot?”
“Geez, glad that’s her and not me! Whew, I’d hate to have to try and make that cast!”
Steve stared straight ahead at the fish and whispered authoritatively, “Don’t listen to them, just listen to me.” And so I did. I listened intently. I blocked out the spectators, kept my breathing calm and purposeful, and adjusted my cast each time based on Steve’s input. I was worried about getting caught up on my backcast, and my knees hurt as they were digging into the gravel. But I kept putting it out there. Again and again and again. Decent drift, good drift, better drift.
But apparently, it just wasn’t my time.
As fate would have it, eventually we did tip our hats to those fish and concede. I had these three really sweet guys all trying to boost me up, and I just kept trying to tell them I was ok – and I really was! I wish I could have made them understand what a great time I’d had. And truthfully I was so incredibly pleased that I never bungled my cast or completely embarrassed myself that I felt like a complete hero.
The group assembled for dinner al fresca as we shared steaks and wine and stories. There was so much laughter even the mountains could hear us and were likely a tad envious they weren’t closer to all the fun. The camaraderie was sublime, truly one of my favorite post-fishing celebrations.
Inevitably the conversation flowed back to my day on the creeks, and Steve expressed regret on my behalf that I wasn’t able to catch a fish. He urged me to come back later in the summer should I have another opportunity.
I had arrived at McCoy’s that afternoon ready for a new challenge – and that’s precisely what I got. I mean, I’ve been skunked on the water before, no doubt. But not when there were so many feeding fish in casting range. Not when I actually put the fly right in front of them, tied up with a bow. Clearly this experience was meant to humble me and stretch my mental fishing faculties. And it was a damn fun ride. Against this gorgeous backdrop with feeding fish, old friends and new friends, I gave it my all and maintained my casting composure in spite of my lack of tangible success. Truly, a beautiful day.
But setting aside all the esoteric mind games that we tend to inject into fly-fishing, stripping away the philosophy of a challenge and the chest-beating elitism of keen mental acumen and the ability to focus….putting all of that back in Pandora’s fly box for just a moment….at the end of the day, aren’t we really just hoping for a fish?
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This is the second of three posts on my experience on these spring creeks. If you simply can’t wait, you can go ahead and contact McCoy’s at www.mccoyspringcreeks.com to schedule a visit. In the meantime, I will post Part III tomorrow…