Last week while warming up before boxing class, I managed an eight-minute mile for… well, for a mile. It was the first time in 5-6-(7?) years since I’ve been able to say that. Later, while standing in front of the gym’s full-length mirror and shadow boxing, I noticed that… well, not that I had “muscle” per se, but some definition along my arms. It seems that, after a couple of months of boxing class, I was starting to see and feel some of the results.
A few days later a couple of women came into the shop. One of the girlfriends was German. I watched her pick up a handbag and she said, “Das ist schön!”
That is nice! It struck me that I knew what she just said. That is something that I struggled with mightily on our European adventure last year, but with practice I can finally recognize (some of the most basic grammar related to) the German language.
Practice, practice, practice. I drilled it into our Fly Fishing 101 students that if they want to become comfortable casting a fly rod, if they want to be confident in their knot tying, if they want to make fly fishing enjoyable rather than an exercise in frustration… practice. And if you continue doing something for long enough, consistently enough, eventually you do begin to notice that you are stronger than before, faster than before, you are able to better endure or understand.
All of the above are examples of things we can notice or feel about ourselves. I don’t feel that way when I’m fly fishing. I mean, sure, I’ve changed as an angler. I’d like to think I’ve gotten better. But I can’t look at my cast and say it’s any better than it was two or three seasons ago. I can’t say for certain if my fly patterns are tied any better, if they any more capable of fooling a fish today than they were the previous season. I don’t feel that I have changed. But every season, as I return to the vise or to a well-worn stream, I feel that the environment around me has… well, has gotten bigger.
The first dry fly I tied was an Adams… on a size 8 hook. It was a mess. Today a size 8 dry fly seems ridiculously big when I routinely put together BWOs or Griffith’s Gnats on size 18 or 20 hooks. It’s a phenomenon I remark upon in our fly tying classes (I’m sure the Germans have a word for it, but I’m not that far along in my studies yet to know what it is) and suggest that students use it as a general guideline when first learning how to tie. Start with a size 6 Woolly Bugger, and practice with that pattern until, one day, you sit down to the vise and look at that size 6 hook and think to yourself Well, that’s just too damn big! Then pull out a size 8 hook, and start again.
Years ago, when I first drove across Sauk county toward Viroqua I stopped at a public fishery to take a look. I’d heard about this stream, a much shorter drive than the trek out to the Kickapoo Valley, and wanted to gauge it’s potential. As I pulled into the gravel turnoff I had a hard time figuring out where the stream was, but sure enough, buried under a canopy of tall grasses, was a tiny trickle of water. That, I said to myself, is something to fish?
Now, two days ago, I hit that same stream with same tall grasses and without much thought worked an Elk Hair Caddis along the banks to produce some willing brown trout. It seems like a wider stretch of water now, something worth fishing, just a short drive from home. But it isn’t the stream that changed.
Even fish populations seem to explode once I become confident on a stretch of water. The first time I walked away from my favorite stretch of brook trout water it was with about three inches worth of fish and far too many lost flies and tangled tippets to count. The last time out ended with sixteen fish to hand.
And average size? Well, there are some things that are out of an angler’s hands.
All of these observations happen outside the realm of yourself. It’s the hook that seems larger, the stream easier to cast along, the fish more plentiful and abundant. Becoming a better angler is a more subtle pursuit than building muscle or running a quicker lap, and sometimes it takes a bit more insight to recognize all of that stream side practice is paying off.
It reminds me to never give up on a stream after one trip. Especially if that first trip was many years ago, when things seemed smaller, more remote, and more destitute of aquatic life.
It usually isn’t the stream that is lacking.