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Fly Fishing Is Not Always Pretty

by Clay Coppedge
Imagine the shock when I told a startled high school counselor in Lubbock many years ago that I wanted to be a fisherman when I graduated from high school, assuming that I actually would reach that milestone.

Understand that I wasn’t talking about being a commercial fisherman, or even a bait fisherman. No, I had become literate. I’d read Hemingway, Zane Grey, Isaac Walton and the sporting journals of the day and was convinced that a sophisticated and serious angler like myself could be satisfied only as a fly fisherman. An angler. A compleat one, if possible.

Wanting to be a fisherman there in Lubbock County, where fishable water was scant and scarce, was sort of like wanting to be a Jamaican bobsledder. Even otherwise good friends would say things like, “Why bother?” when I confessed my fly fishing dreams to them.

One person who didn’t react that way was the Leo Healer, the outdoors editor at the Lubbock Avalanche Journal, the daily newspaper where both my parents worked. When my father informed me it was time to get a job there wasn’t much doubt about where I would seek employment. I became an “office boy,” one of those positions, like proofreader, sadly missing from today’s newsrooms.

Mr. Healer took me to a local park and showed me the basics of casting a fly. This was no easy task in Lubbock. Aside from the lack of water, there was that wind – the wind the Kingston Trio called “Mariah’ but we called Larry.

Larry would come whipping off the Caprock at dizzying speeds. More often than not, Larry commenced to throw things when he showed up. For one thing, Larry could throw an almost weightless fly into the back of a luckless fly caster's ear with uncanny precision.
Larry was my first indication that fly-fishing was not always a pretty thing to behold, like it was on the “American Sportsman” TV show. Curt Gowdy or Ted Williams never mentioned on air that fly-fishing could get downright ugly. Neither did Walton when he wrote “The Compleat Angler.”

Of course, none of those guys grew up on the South Plains of Texas either.
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* * *

In 1975, after sojourns to Colorado and New Mexico and my first taste of life in Central Texas, I decided to take my fly-fishing act on the road, to Louisiana. Louisiana had a lot of water. The state was a “Sportsman’s Paradise.” It said so right there on the license plates.

The first sportsman I met in New Orleans was a guy named David, who worked at a tackle shop. David told me he would have to special order the flies and poppers that I wanted, but how would I like to go fishing with him for black bass. He said he knew of a little place. The little place David knew of was a swamp.

Make no mistake about it. We were dealing with a real swamp here. Lots of Spanish moss and palmetto. Lots of insects, mostly of the stinging variety. There was also an alligator that I almost mistook for a log. Pretty heady stuff for a guy from Lubbock.

At some point, David wished me luck and sloshed away around a bend, melting into the swamp, leaving me alone in what felt like a truly hostile environment. Danger seemed to lurk every which way.

My mood and outlook improved considerably once I hooked a couple of feisty swamp bass. This was more like it, I decided. Suddenly, I was digging the swamp thang.

About half an hour or so after I caught my first bass, I spied a wake behind my popping bug. It took a second for me to realize that bass generally don’t come at a popping bug in such a way as to leave a wake. Trust me that I acted with all due alacrity to get the bug off the water and out of harm’s way but it was too late; there was a flash of white – the white that gives the moccasin its common moniker “cottonmouth” – and then the snake was on the end of my line, fighting in a way that no fish can.

My goal in life at that point centered on getting rid of my fly rod so I hurled it as far as I could toward what passed for land in that Godforsaken place and waterlogged place. I might have got to dry land before my fly rod for all I know because I had performed an act of almost Biblical proportions in getting from the water, where the moccasin was, to a piece of mushy land where I hoped it wasn’t.

David came wading back a few minutes later. He had a couple of truly lunker-sized bass, as if that mattered. “Are you all right?” he asked.

“Sure, I’m all right. Why wouldn’t I be all right? I’m a man confronting nature on its own terms. And I’m a fly fisherman. I’m a damn angler! Why the hell wouldn’t I be all right!” I knew I was babbling but I couldn’t stop. “Well, I heard all this hollering and splashing and I thought a gator got hold of you or something.”

Hollering? Splashing? I hadn’t been aware of making so much as a peep.

* * *
That happened more than 30 years ago. Since then I’ve managed to get lost in San Juan Mountains looking for, as Thomas McGuane once put it, “not even a mammal.” I’ve had my share of spills and pratfalls, along with some truly wonderful experiences.
These days when I go fly fishing in Texas, even on the South Plains, the chances of seeing another fly fisher are pretty good. Fly-fishing became trendy for a while, maybe because of the good movie made from Norman MacLean’s great novella, “A River Runs Through It.” Also, a lot of people from up north moved to Texas and brought their fly rods with them.

All of this has made getting fly equipment and tips a lot easier but there are days, I have to admit, when I was I was the weirdo on the river with a fly rod, not just another middle-aged guy with a fly rod.
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Sometimes I wonder what that old high school counselor would say if he could see me now. Probably that I wasted a good portion of my life, just as he suspected I would. That’s okay. I’ve made my deal with that. I’ve even made my deal with Larry, who hasn’t managed to toss a barbed fly into the back of my ear for more than two decades.

© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
June 23 , 2008 Column


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