I have often thought that when women set their minds to it they are better fishers than men. But why this might be can lead to endless and perhaps fruitless speculation. Are they more patient, less competitive, more attuned to nature? Do they send a special vibration down the line that is less threatening or more attractive to fish? Who knows? But I have seen many examples, dating back to a family trout-fishing adventure on the Quinault River sometime back in the 1950s.
My stepfather and I were extremely competitive at everything we did, whether it be football, hunting, fishing--you name it. On this occasion we’d pitched a tent in a campground beside the river. My mother was busy fiddling with camping gear while my stepfather and I hurried to rig our fishing rods and hit the water. On the last trip he’d caught more fish than I, and this time I was determined to beat him. I headed upstream, he went down. We seldom fished together. We’d invited Mom to join one of us, but she declined. “I’ll stay here and maybe fish awhile later,” she said. Her rod was still in its case.
That day, my stepfather and I trekked miles in opposite directions flailing the water, testosterone-driven fish fools. When I limped into camp that evening exhausted, soaking wet and discouraged, my stepfather was already there slumped in a folding chair, a bottle of beer in one hand, a cheap cigar in the other, two more empty bottles at his feet. I could tell by his posture and the expression on his face that it hadn’t been a good day. But it hadn’t been a good day for me either. In my haste to cover as much water as possible, I’d fallen twice, bruised my knee, and nearly drowned myself in the river.
“How many?” I asked. My stepfather, who was normally talkative and a known teller of tall tales, held up three fingers. I had caught and released two, both about eight inches long. “How big?” I asked. He rolled his eyes, shrugged and tilted his head toward my mother who was standing with her back to us humming and dredging something in flour at the camp table--a sixteen-inch cutthroat trout.
“Jesus, Mom! Where’d you catch that? I asked her. “Right here,” she said, pointing her thumb over her shoulder, toward the river.
Three years ago, after seventeen years of sitting on the bank, reading and watching me fish, my wife finally decided to try fly fishing. We stay at Lake Creek Lodge on the Metolius each fall for a few days, and the lodge has a trout pond. I decided that was as good a place as any to give Genevieve her first fly-casting lesson. At first she made the usual beginner’s mistakes, dropping her back cast in the grass, or not pausing to let her back cast straighten out, cracking the whip on the forward cast and snapping off flies. But Genevieve is a quick study, always has been. Soon she was making presentable casts. After one of her best, the line straight and the fly a good forty feet out resting on the water, I was complimenting her when a seventeen-inch rainbow slowly rose and inhaled her fly. She tried to hand me the rod, but I wouldn’t have it. After she played the fish, with a little coaching and encouragement from me, I released it and asked, “How did it feel to catch your first fish?”
“All the time I was playing it I was afraid I was hurting it. Do you think it’s ok?”
“I just want to cast. Casting looks so beautiful, and it’s fun! I don’t care if I catch fish.”
“That’s the right attitude,” I said, conscious that I hadn’t always followed my own advice. I learned long ago that it’s not a class until the teacher learns from the student.
A couple of days later, we were at my favorite fishing spot on the Metolius, a big eddy full of rainbows that all have PhDs in entomology. Genevieve was making fishable casts, but after a number of nice rainbows rose to inspect her fly and refuse it, her attitude changed. “That gang of fish is laughing at me, I can see them, and they see me. They’re laughing! I’m going to catch one.” Genevieve does not like to be refused, and I knew better than to tell her that fish swim in schools not “gangs.”
She has yet to catch a trout on the Metolius, but last year she finally succumbed to my nagging and consented to try Spey casting. I wanted to get her started on Spey before she got too grooved in on single-hand. As any veteran single-hander knows, when you transition to Spey you have to unlearn a few deeply ingrained habits, like “too much top hand,” which has to be the next-most frequent admonition of Spey instructors after “slow down!”
I’d had a good morning on the day of Genevieve’s first Spey-casting lesson. After my third year on the North Umpqua I’d finally succeeded in not jerking my skated fly away from rising fish and had hooked two feisty steelhead and landed and released one. Our guide, Rich Zellman, is one of the best on the North Umpqua. The year before, he’d claimed that he could teach Genevieve Spey casting in an hour, and we’d decided to put him to the test. The afternoon session was devoted to her instruction.
While I kept company on the bank with Blue, Rich’s Labrador pup, Rich and Genevieve waded out to one of the notoriously slick midstream ledges in the Camp Water. Rich is a patient instructor. Sooner than I thought she might, Genevieve was making fishable casts. Using my six-weight Spey rod, she and Rich had worked the run with a skating fly without raising a fish. Rich handed her his seven-weight Winston rigged with a Skagit head, sink tip, and a tinselly blue monstrosity of a fly—a setup I thought more appropriate for winter steelhead than the summer runs we were fishing for. It was nearing dusk when they waded back to the head of the run for one last try.
Rich and Genevieve had fished down to the tailout, and I was busy untangling Blue from his tie out when I glanced up and saw Genevieve’s bent rod. She’s caught her fly on a rock, I thought. Then the river exploded and a large steelhead horseshoed skyward in a spray of water. Fish on! The color of her line changed from chartreuse to yellow to orange as the fish charged down a rapid into her backing. There was nothing for her to do but to chase that fish, or risk getting spooled. Rich was helping her over the slick spots, untangling her line from a rock outcropping, coaching her to raise her rod tip, to give line, or to reel like crazy.
I don’t know exactly how long it took. It seemed like a good twenty minutes before Rich was able to tail the fish and hand it to Genevieve for a quick snapshot and release. “How big?” I asked, after they had picked their way safely ashore across the slick basalt river bottom. “At least sixteen pounds,” Rich answered quietly. A brochure at Steamboat Lodge advises that North Umpqua summer steelhead may weigh up to fifteen pounds. The steelhead in the photo he took looks all of that and more. “You might as well quit now, Genevieve,” Rich said. But it’s too late. She’s caught the addiction, there’s no hope for a cure, and I’m going to be looking over my shoulder the rest of my fishing days.