Training Day

November 13, 2023 By: Richard Donnelly

Image by DTF

For some reason people think I catch fish. A fly rod is always in my pickup. I wear fisherman’s polarized glasses, rain or shine. I have a cap with a huge Royal Wulff stuck in it, and maybe this is the giveaway. People think I’m a real pro. The fact is I can’t get that sucker out, no way.

No one ever sees me with fish. That doesn’t stop Lance from grabbing me in Fiesta Foods (I heartily recommend the jalapeño-cheddar bratwurst, but let’s stay focused).

“Take me fishing,” he says.

“Why?” I ask. Lance teaches fly casting. He should take me.

“I haven’t caught a thing in weeks. I’m desperate.”

I inspected a bottle of horse radish, buying time. I didn’t want to offend him, it’s just that fishing with other people creates… issues. First, they want to start at the crack of dawn. Then they don’t want to fish here, they want to fish there. If it rains they want to stay and get wet, because we’re fishing, dammit, when you could be at the Plum Valley Grill eating popcorn and watching golf.
I asked Lance what he’s doing wrong.

“That’s the point. I’m doing everything right. I’m on the water by six a.m.”

I wince.

“I fish every sinking fly from two-inch stoneflies to number twenty-two beadheads. I carry four boxes of dry flies, Blue Dunns, Wulffs, Drakes, Humpies, you name it. Nothing works.”

Sometimes you feel sorry. “Meet me Saturday at Wilson Creek,” I told him. “At the bridge.”

“Six a.m.?”

“Make it ten.”

“Thanks, buddy,” Lance said. “I knew I could count on you.”

“One more thing. Don’t wear any cologne.”

“The trout can smell it?”

“No. But I can. See you then.”

Wilson is my “home” creek. It cuts through a narrow valley with a strip of crops on one side. On the other is a soaring bluff. There’s only about a half mile of good water, but that half mile is very good, with plunges and pools and lovely, quick-turning runs. No one ever improved Wilson Creek, or sawed up the deadfalls or cleared the beaver dams. It’s rough, intimidating country, and not easy to fish.

I love it. I’ve caught and released so many brook trout they are almost pets.

On Saturday Lance paced at the bridge. He’s that kind of fisherman. He had already been down to the creek. He held a six-weight rod and hadn’t caught anything.

“See?” he said. “It’s hopeless.”

I fetched my battered three-weight.     

“This is the rod you want to use.”

“Are you sure?”

“Under these trees you’ll have more options.”

“Okay,” he said, doubtfully. He took the rod and started off. Before I knew it he walked right to the water, peering in. Fish scattered like sparrows.

Gently I urged caution. Especially on the Wilson. Brook trout don’t have enemies. Not in the water. Danger comes from above, from herons and ospreys to mink and the occasional, sneaky fox. Trout won’t bite if they see anything from above.

Lance understood, but preferred fishing from banks. It was easier to see he said, and you could reach more river.

“Do you want to catch fish or be comfortable?”

“Catch fish.”

Sometimes you have to get tough.

We got in the water and crept up to a collapsed beaver dam. My rod already had a Light Hendrickson tied. Lance wanted to use a bead. He said everyone knew beads catch more fish. That’s baloney I said, and any sinking fly in the timber-choked Wilson will catch something, but not fish. We stayed with the Hendrickson.

Lance stripped line. He snapped a low, quick cast. The fly settled at the head of the pool, drifting flawlessly back. Lance lifted the line and cast again. Nothing.

“See?” he said. “I’m jinxed.”

I looked at him. He wore a bright yellow shirt. He bought his hat in Kalispell, Montana. It was red with a blue and pink trout logo.

“Lance,” I said. “We need to talk.”

Ten minutes later we snuck up to another pool. And I mean snuck, both of us on hands and knees. Lance had shucked his shirt and hat. Not a small guy, he didn’t look too good in waders. But to rising trout he would look just fine.

We poked our heads through a stand of heavy foxtail. The water tumbled over rocks and continued across a wide gravel bed. Little Baetis mayflies played hopscotch on the quick-flowing surface. I suppose we could carefully match the hatch. The heck with that.

After the third cast Lance had a splendid take. The fish burst from the water, turned tail up, and crashed back down. “I got it!” you almost heard it yell. The trout ran toward us then turned back. I stepped ahead and netted him. Measuring with my rod, the brookie went twelve inches. In a little creek that’s a lot of trout. I eased him back into the pool. Lance caught three more just as quick. “You want to try the rod?” he asked.

“I will when you get tired.”

“That ain’t going to happen.” He set the hook on another solid trout. “Fourteen inches,” I said and released him.

“It looked more like sixteen.”

“Let’s not get technical.”

It was time to get a hamburger in Zumbro Falls. Lance promised to buy a little rod and find some olive shirts. I told him that’s all he needed. We walked back to his yellow shirt, left on a creekside log, and the gaudy hat. The shirt had fallen in the water.

“I better get another,” Lance said.

“Put it on,” I told him.


“They won’t mind. Not where we’re going.”

That’s the great thing about a back-country saloon. Muddy? Soaking wet? Come on in. There’s a good story somewhere.