Sporting Life

Sporting Life

The Perfect Host

  • By: John Gierach
There are similarities between being an actual guide and just taking someone fishing, but the big difference is that when it's informal, no money changes hands. Most guided trips work out because guides have inherently generous natures (except those who have done it for too long and are nearing burn-out). Although most clients understand that fishing is unpredictable, the only thing the guide really controls is what's for lunch. Still, the blunt fact that one person is paying and the other is being paid can take on a peculiar and not altogether pleasant life of its own. In the best circumstances, it's all but unnoticeable, but at other times it becomes the central characteristic of the relationship and most of us, given the choice, would rather be a helpful friend than an employee.I took two people fishing recently: my old friend Ed Engle and Tomonori Higashi (a.k.a. "Billy") a fisherman, writer and translator from Japan. This could have looked like a business trip, since Billy had translated Ed's book on bamboo fly rod makers, Splitting Cane, into Japanese and was about to begin translating one of mine. But the truth is we just fished together for a few days and business never came up except for a discussion of the niceties of translation in general, most of which I had to take on faith because I never learned a second language. For instance, Billy said the title of Ed's book had to be changed because "Splitting Cane" came out literally in Japanese as something like "Tearing Grass" and made no sense.

We started fishing on a drainage an hour's drive north of home, up a tributary creek in the neighborhood of 9,000 feet. I've always liked this stream because it flows out of a long, narrow, roadless canyon, it's tipped at a steep angle that produces lots of luscious pocket water, it holds more fish than the larger river it feeds into and it's spectacularly beautiful. There's not much more you can reasonably ask of a trout stream.

The fishing was good for the usual high country mixed bag of browns, brook trout, rainbows and cutthroats, plus Ed's single rainbow/cutthroat hybrid. We hiked in pretty far and there was a lot of strenuous scrambling over boulders and deadfall. Billy kept right up, but late in the afternoon he finally admitted he was "feeling the altitude" and I was embarrassed for not thinking of that. Thirty-six hours earlier he'd been near sea level in Yokohama and here he was climbing around in the thin air at 9,000 feet and probably jet-lagged on top of it. Oddly enough, it was right about then that the water began to rise and get muddy from a thunderstorm upstream, so we could quit without Billy feeling that he'd dragged us away from the fishing.

The next day we four-wheeled up a dirt road along another high altitude stream (so there'd be less hiking) and did well again on the same mixed bag of fish. This was a little creek that usually fishes well at that time of year, but that also has a moody streak, so I was glad it showed off well with sparse hatches of mayflies, caddis and some small stoneflies. There wasn't the pressure of real guiding, as I mentioned, but you still want to be a good host who at least knows where and when to fish in his own back yard.

Billy turned out to be a skilled and appreciative fisherman. He said the small streams here reminded him of those in Japan except that ours were prettier and had bigger trout. (That may or may not have been strictly true, but it was a nice thing to say.) He took a few photos and several times I spotted him just standing quietly, looking around and taking it all in, which I take as the sign of a true connoisseur. He wanted to know the names of some birds, which I was able to tell him, and he was fascinated and a little worried when Ed gathered some boletus mushrooms that we planned to eat with dinner. I told him I trusted Ed's wild mushroom identifications with my life (literally) but that neither of us would be insulted if he didn't eat any. He did try a few that night and said they were good.

Billy also got along with my rescued alley cat-who is not a classically likable kitty-and was delighted by the mother raccoon with six young kits that had been visiting my back porch most evenings for reasons of their own. In fact, if there was anything about the fishing or the accommodations that disappointed him, you'd never have known it, but then he does come from a culture that values politeness above almost everything else. Of course we Americans value politeness, too, it's just that we don't practice it rigorously.

Not long after Ed and Billy headed off to try some big trout water on the West Slope, my friend Jim Babb came out to fish for a week. Jim now lives in Maine, but he arrived there by an elaborately circuitous route that began in Tennessee, where he grew up fishing the small trout streams in the Smoky Mountains. (You'll hear his travels in his accent, which can have echoes of the southern mountains and Down East Maine in the same sentence.)

By now Jim has fished around much of the world, but has never lost his sentimental attachment to the kinds of small water he grew up fishing, so although there are decidedly snazzier places to fish in Colorado, he specifically wanted to see the small, high altitude trout creeks that are my home water.

You automatically compare new water to what you're familiar with as a way ofguessing how much of what you already know might apply. After the first day, Jim said that aside from obvious differences like elevation and the surrounding vegetation, these little creeks in the northern Colorado Rockies might as well be in the Smokies back home. (I could have guessed that by the casual, efficient way he fished them.) We agreed that there's something irresistible about out of the way creeks like this that are saved from the depredations of fly-fishing tourism by being what many would call undistinguished.

The daily program was to four-wheel into a stretch of stream remote enough that we were unlikely to meet another fisherman and leap-frog up it using a neat system Jim had taught me on a previous trip: When you start fishing, the first thing you do is build a three-rock cairn in some obvious place-like a mid-stream boulder-so the guy coming along behind you knows where you started fishing. When you come on one of these, you kick it over to avoid confusion at some later date, hike upstream above your partner to fresh, unfished water and build your own temporary landmark as a signal to him.

In fact, it was this system that tipped me off that I'd lost Jim one day. I'd passed him up and had given him plenty of leeway before getting back into the stream, erecting my little rock pile and starting to fish again. The trout were biting well that day and I was engrossed, so it was quite a while later that I realized I hadn't come to a cairn and hadn't seen Jim pass me. He's not the type to either pound any one spot for long or to rush far ahead thinking there's something better. In other words, his fishing pace was entirely familiar and it was clear that I'd somehow gotten way out in front of him.

I reeled in, got out of the water and hiked back downstream to look for him. I was just curious at first, but when I walked all the way down to my last cairn and found that it was still there, I started to worry. It was probably an hour and a half since I'd piled up those three flat rocks, and at the time Jim couldn't have been more than 15 minutes behind me.

I hiked downstream to where I'd last seem him and then made my way up to the logging road we'd come in on and walked back to the truck, since that's always the default position when there's either trouble or confusion. That's where I found him.

It turned out that right after I'd passed him the last time, he'd used a downed spruce log as a step going down a steep bank, but it was rotten. It gave way under his full weight and dumped him several feet into the creek, where he landed thigh first on a pyramid-shaped rock. The leg wasn't broken, but it hurt as much as if it were (he learned later that the bone was bruised) so he had slowly hobbled back to the truck. As an afterthought, he said he'd managed not to break the irreplaceable 50-year-old F.E. Thomas bamboo rod I'd lent him. Believe it or not, I hadn't even thought about that.

The short version of the story is, Jim turned down a visit to the doctor, accepted some Ibuprofen and insisted on fishing the next day, even though it hurt like hell to put weight on the leg. For that matter, it was painful enough just to watch, but I understood what he was up to. If you get a little sick or slightly injured on a fishing trip, but you're not actually debilitated, you simply cowboy-up and keep fishing, usually more out of stubbornness than actual bravery. From my own experience I can say that a bad back makes you hike slower, stove-up knees keep you from wading confidently, tendonitis of the elbow buggers your casting and a dose of giardia can send you dashing into the bushes 15 times in an afternoon, but although none of this is fun, it's discernibly better than not fishing.

The only change in plans was that I bagged the big finale I was quietly saving for the last day. It was a lovely little willow-choked, high altitude cutthroat stream, but the sweet spot is at the end of a long, grueling uphill hike and I didn't think Jim could make it in his present condition. Maybe I should have discussed this with him and let him decide for himself. After all, he was limping badly and wincing now and then, but otherwise getting around OK and catching the hell out of fish. But in the end I never even mentioned the stream's existence. It was an executive decision for which I take full responsibility.

I'd pictured Jim going home at the end of the week where he could rest and recuperate, but it turned out he wasn't going home; he was flying on out to Oregon to fish with a mutual friend for awhile. It did seem to make a kind of sense: Why cancel the next leg of a perfectly good fishing trip just because you can barely walk?

A day or so after I dropped Jim off at the airport, my neighbor, Dana, came over and asked me if I'd teach him how to fly-fish.

"Oh, sure," I said, "No problem."

The fact is, I owed the guy at least that small favor and couldn't possibly say no, so why bother telling him I suck as a guide and casting instructor?

Luckily, Dana turned out to be a natural. He immediately grasped the principle that you're casting the line and the fly just trails along. Beyond that, he watched, understood and followed directions, which is all it takes. It probably didn't hurt that he's studied martial arts for years and is a harpsichord maker by trade, so he was fully capable of both athleticism and delicacy. By the end of the lesson he was double hauling.

After a week of practice (he actually practiced!) it was time to go fishing. By way of formulating a strategy, I thought of some of the great, wise, patient guides I'd fished with, as well as some of the dimmer bulbs, but when we got to the stream I still didn't have much of a plan. The moment to be generous had arrived and I could only hope it would come naturally.

There was that awkward moment when it becomes obvious that casting on a stream is not like casting on a lawn, if only because the lawn isn't moving, but after a few tries Dana took to it easily. He caught his first trout ever on a fly rod (a 10-inch brown) then his second and so on. I thought, This must be what it's like to have a star pupil, although that warm glow usually comes after considerably more effort from the teacher.

On the drive home Dana asked about tackle and I tried to explain how complicated the sport can get if you let it. He said he wasn't worried; that he only wanted to fish the local creeks and figured a rod and reel, a few flies and a few other odds and ends would get him by.

I told him he was absolutely right: that with just a little attentiveness, this one little corner of life can be kept simple. I didn't say that I'd kept it simple, just that I knew it could be done.