Becoming a Moving Target

Becoming a Moving Target

For many retired fly-fishers, a motor home and a drift boat are the key ingredients to a great lifestyle. Just add water.

  • By: Pat Case
  • Photography by: Dusan Smetana
The silence is occasionally interrupted by the screech of an osprey on the hunt or the voices of anglers in a passing drift boat. At nightfall, these sounds are replaced by the distant howls of coyotes and haunting calls of barn owls. "Pat, are you in there?" someone calls. I recognize the voice as that of Dan who, with his wife, Lynn, owns the beautiful Prevost motor home parked next to us. They also own a custom-built wooden drift boat, which makes Dan an especially valuable neighbor. In fact, I jokingly told him that when Helen and I first arrived at the RV park, we drove through to see who had a drift boat parked at their site.And, since Dan and Lynn had the nicest boat in the park, we asked the park manager for the spot right next to them. Another great thing about Dan is that, although he likes to row his boat, he isn't crazy about fishing. It certainly would be hard to find a more perfect RV-park pal… "What's up, Dan?" I ask. "The river is still off-color today, so I suggest waiting until tomorrow to take the boat out. What do you say?" he announces in the form of a question. The river has been muddy since a torrential thunderstorm went through Yellowstone Park three days ago. "Sounds good," I reply, as if it would even occur to me to argue about it. I feel absolutely no pressure to get out fishing: When you are RVing full time there are always plenty of tomorrows. Besides, the trout in the Yellowstone are usually voracious right after the water clears, so tomorrow promises to be a really good day… When and how to "retire" from a day job and embark on extensive travel in an RV--maybe even full time--are decisions people arrive at in myriad ways. Many people approaching retirement age spend years planning and preparing for the day they finally roll away in their RV. Some of these folks actually end up living out their dream, while others get sidetracked by one thing or another--ill health, family problems or just their own fears. Other people just jump right into the lifestyle; that's what Helen and I did. In early 2004 I found myself with an unexpected opportunity to sell my majority interest in a civil engineering firm. If I accepted the offer, it meant that for the first time in many years I would not have the responsibility of running a company, dealing with employees, insurance, payroll and so forth. Having diagnosed myself with burnout at least two years previously--I didn't even enjoy working with my employees anymore--I did not need to think very long about the chance to sell out. Coincidentally, runaway real estate prices in San Diego were beginning to plateau, and I had the chance to cash out of my house, which had doubled in value over the previous four years. Our dream was simple: Travel full-time and fly-fish, photograph and write--all passions of ours. We figured that one of these activities would be working for us at any given time. That is, if the fishing was off, we could write. Writer's block? Then we'd take pictures. Meanwhile, I also thought I would provide part-time consulting in civil engineering along the way. We put the house on the market and went shopping for a motor home. Thanks to the Internet, we quickly found just what we wanted: a four-year-old Country Coach--a manufacturer widely respected for the quality of its motor homes and its service. Fortunately, the house sold quickly, giving us the money to buy that Country Coach. We outfitted it with a printer, a copier and fax machine--an all-in-one unit about the size of an old microwave oven--and we were set. It was time to hit the open road. We started out by heading to Redding, California, and the lower Sacramento River. The lower Sac is the most under-appreciated fishery in California, probably because it is overshadowed by the better known blue-ribbon rivers--including Hat Creek and the Trinity, McCloud and Fall rivers--north of it. We pulled into the JGW RV Park just south of town and found a space right on the river. If there is an ideal location for the RVing fly fisher, this place comes about as close as you can get for a suburban park. A strung-up rod leaning against the coach, wading boots sitting next to the steps and waders hanging from the awning became permanent fixtures for our stay. My favorite run was a 10-minute walk from the coach. The trout were biting and a size 16 or 18 Pheasant Tail Nymph and just about any small dropper proved to be the ticket. On any given afternoon, in an hour and a half of fishing I consistently pulled from two to four feisty 14- to 16-inch rainbows out of the seam between the swift current and slower water. We also made numerous ventures into the Sierra Nevada, and were extremely grateful for our coach's diesel engine, which performed like an unflinching workhorse. You hear plenty of stories of gas engines burning up--my favorite was from a fellow who parked next to us in central California last spring. He recounted how he had burned up not one but two gas engines in RV's--and also managed to total both a pickup truck and a fifth-wheel tow, and at one point had watched helplessly as his first motor home was consumed by flames in a matter of about 30 minutes as it sat by the side of a highway. "But you know," he said as we were about to part company for the afternoon, "I just love RVing." Our next stop was the Eureka area of northern California so Helen could visit her daughter. While we were there, the Eureka Fly Shop turned me on to a couple of local surf- fishing spots where I could drive my Jeep right out on the beach--an act that would draw a prison sentence in San Diego--and I enjoyed fishing in the solitude of virtually deserted beaches immensely. Surf fishing with a fly rod--of which I did quite a bit with modest success in San Diego--is best done with no expectations. You do it because you enjoy being on the beach, feeling the strong force of the surf swirl around your legs, watching the morning mist clear with the rising sun, admiring pelicans skimming the surface and other sea birds diving for their breakfast, and making hero casts with shooting heads. And sometimes you even catch a fish or two. Offhand, I can't remember exactly when we arrived at the Yellowstone's Edge RV Park--it's been about two months--and we don't know exactly when we're going to leave. I told a local firm for which I was doing some part-time consulting that I would be happy to help them through the summer, but that I would be out of here before the first snowfall. Such is life for full-time RVing fly-fishing bums: You live where you want to, when you want to, and move on when the mood strikes you, from one river to another. We are finding, however, that we don't really need to move all that often, or all that far. When you are camped on the banks of the Yellowstone it is easy to get lazy about driving to other streams. In addition, there is a lot to love about Montana besides the fishing. The liberal speed limits are cathartic for those of us who have lived a lifetime under the oppression of the California Highway Patrol. And there are other freedoms as well. Auto accessories here consist of gun racks, rod racks, bike racks and boat racks; and ammunition in the sporting goods stores is displayed at the check-out counter as, perhaps, an impulsive-purchase item: "Oh, say, go ahead and also throw in a couple of boxes of .30-06 shells while you're ringing things up." Inevitably, however, no matter how much you like a place, there always comes a day when it's time to move on. A subtle feeling comes over you that says you have been in one place long enough. Things have begun feeling a little too permanent--I have termed this feeling "Trailer Trash Syndrome." Helen and I are already making plans to head to New Mexico for some late-season pike and bass fishing in Navajo Lake and some trophy trout fishing in the San Juan River. Along the way, we are going to try a small river in southern Utah that I discovered a couple of years ago, and after that our friend, Byron, will join us for a few of days at Lee's Ferry, on the Colorado River in northern Arizona. When we're done with New Mexico, we have a loose plan to travel to our newly adopted state of residence, Oregon, to catch the phenomenal steelhead and chinook fishing on the coastal streams there. Gary Lewis, a terrific guide out of Roseburg, introduced Helen and me to some wonderful shad and smallmouth bass fishing on the Umpqua River the last time we passed through. Gary also talked us into joining him this fall on the Sixes and Elk rivers to fish for the big guys. How long will we be there? Probably until we get our fill of the bone-chilling dampness of the Oregon coast. All in all, we have been on the road for nearly a year now, enjoying the life of semi-retired fly-fishing bums, and the time has flown by. We have fished, and seen and experienced more than most people do in a dozen yearly vacations. We have also seen how RVing is fast becoming a sophisticated, burgeoning subculture of retiring Baby Boomers, and the RV parks are responding with Wi-fi, cable and all the conveniences the Internet generation has come to expect. Our friends Dan and Lynn left for their home in Scottsdale today. Although we'll miss them, I am looking forward to standing knee-deep in the San Juan River. It was on the San Juan that I caught my first truly big trout many years ago--a 22-inch rainbow that took me downstream and deep into my backing. It certainly was an exhilarating experience for a novice fly fisher. When I finally got the opportunity to hold my trout for the required photo, my guide, Mike Crowley, said, "Pat, you looked like you were about to cry." In fact, I almost did. Living out of my RV, with no set schedule and no one to answer to, I'll have plenty of time to try for another experience like that.