“What Amsterdam Taught Me About Fly Fishing”
Traveling to Europe during the darkest days of winter is about as far from a fly-fishing trip as you can get.
Or is it?
As our Delta 777 airliner rattled through high-altitude turbulence, my wife thumbed through her guide to Amsterdam and cranked out a long lists of Things To Do.
I watched her happily scrawl away. It’s a long flight from Seattle, Washington to Amsterdam, which is the ancient capital city of The Netherlands. We had never been to Amsterdam, but it was on the bucket list.
The plane bounced, and Heather’s list got longer and longer.
I opened my laptop, logged onto the Internet — while the plane was at 32,000 feet over Iceland — and headed for YouTube.
Just for kicks, I typed in “Fishing Amsterdam.”
Fish in the City
A bunch of videos popped right up. Most of them showed teenage Amsterdamers biking around their canal-laced city and flinging wiggly plastic lures into some tea-colored water.
Throngs of tourists and cyclists passed by as these obsessed teen anglers flogged the water. I did pretty much the same thing while growing up in Los Angeles during the 1970s — no park pond, golf course water hazard or stinking stretch of the L.A. River was safe from me — so I settled into my seat to see how these young fanatics fished in Amsterdam’s centuries-old network of canals.
Well, they fished hard.
They caught fish that looked like a largemouth bass with red fins. They also caught zander, which look just like walleye.
I admired the catches — and the stubborn persistence of Dutch anglers — but not one angler used a fly rod. I could see why — the stone canal walls are vertical, and most hookups came as the lure dropped straight down the wall.
It seemed like bridges, lock gates and nests of submerged bicycles were fishing hotspots.
Later, after we landed and found our hotel in the Jordaan neighborhood, I realized why there were so many bikes in the canals. Just about everyone in Amsterdam owns a bike, and they ride them everywhere. Amsterdam people are very polite — until they get on their bikes.
In Amsterdam, cyclists rule the damn road, and they pelt along as fast as two wheels can turn. They rarely brake for people on foot. Walkers soon learn to listen for the hiss of tires on cobblestones and the jingle of bells — which signal another wave of cyclists carrying groceries, carpentry tools, little kids, books, briefcases and other cargo.
Don’t get in their way.
Just about everyone in The Netherlands speaks English, and I quickly discovered that many local cyclists are fluent in all the swear words.
Amsterdam’s population is about 800,000 people, and official statistics show that there are over 1 million bikes in the city.
Many of those bikes land in the canals — through accidents, vandalism or the disposal of a bike beyond repair.
We spent 12 days in Amsterdam, and we walked countless miles along the canals and the Amstel River, which is part of the canal system.
I saw anglers every day, even on cold, windy, nasty days — perfect days for exploring the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk Museum…. Heather’s list had a lot of museums, and all of them were great.
One, the Anne Frank House, was more of a life-changing experience than a museum.
About halfway through the trip, I saw a kid — I think he should have been in school — hook a 20-inch zander in the Prinsengracht canal near our hotel. The kid was perched on a big houseboat moored in the canal. The kid lobbed his wiggly jig so it would drift underneath the curved hull. Hookup.
I was in serious fly fishing withdrawal at this point.
We walked down a little street full of ancient, crooked buildings to find a hot chocolate, and two big posters on a set of doors caught my eye.
“Do not wait for a perfect moment. Take the moment and MAKE IT PERFECT,” said each poster.
At that moment, my fish-starved mind recalled all the times I didn’t go fly fishing in 2019 — usually for all the wrong reasons.
One of the blessings of modern fly angling is the flood of instant information on weather, river levels, fishing reports — and even bug hatch reports. All of this is also a curse.
It’s too easy to cancel a trip because of too much sun — or too little sun. It might be too dry or too wet. The river may be too low or too high. The salmonfly hatch may be late.
So many modern reasons to NOT GO.
Yet, how many times have you hooked a nice trout when it was too hot or too cold? So what if the salmonflies are late — today may be the day when the big bugs crawl all over the bank and fall into the river. How many times have you found blue wing olive mayflies on the water during a snowfall?
No day is perfect for fly angling. But since when do we need perfect?
The world’s best nymph anglers — the wizards of modern fly angling — don’t catch fish on every cast. Failure is part of the deal, and messing up usually sweetens every triumph on the water.
You Never Know
A few days later, just before the trip ended, I spotted a small boat noodling around where a canal flowed into the Amstel River. Several guys holding fly rods were fishing the outlet. I saw they had long leaders and big wooly buggers. They cast parallel to the canal banks and let their flies drop into the dark, roily water.
A cold wind kept pushing the boat out of position. A couple of tourists leaned over the bridge and pointed at the dumb locals in the boat.
Then a guy hooked up, and his rod doubled over. A nice fish for sure. One of the tourists started taking photos.
Then the guy was pulling against dead weight. The fish had run into a snag.
“Bicycles,” said the guy.
Everyone on board laughed and bumped fists.
Only in Amsterdam. Only when you fish in Amsterdam. Only when you fly-fish in Amsterdam and cast right into the sharp teeth of winter — and hand-cramping winds, a big, ancient city and sunken masses of bicycles.
Go whenever you can. You never know what you might catch — or learn.
That’s what Amsterdam taught me about fly fishing.