Cool Enough For You?

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Nothing cooler than Bob Mead drinking a beer on the Madison after landing a pig

Nothing cooler than Bob Mead drinking a beer on the Madison after landing a pig

Every journey starts with a single cast.

For some reason, this morning I’m thinking of losing a fish. A big fish and, worst of all, someone else’s fish. That’s the worst kind to lose.

A hundred years ago, when I was still pretty much a Gomer, my wife bought me a guided day of fishing on a private trout stream. That’s a pretty common experience here in Georgia. I’d been catching pretty average trout on my own for some time and, like most novice fly fisherman, I had been sucked into lusting after the monster trout I saw on the covers of fly fishing magazines. In the same way that young girls get the idea that they are supposed to look like Barbie, I was dying to see a photo of myself holding some massive drooling piscivore. This obsession was just as healthy as a case of bulimia and pulling it off seemed just as likely as my looking like Barbie. My darling wife had clearly heard enough about it and sought professional help.

I’d never been guided before and was wholly uncomfortable with the idea. I’ve never been comfortable asking for help and still feel a little guilty about being waited on in restaurants. Having a guide tie my flies on was excruciating. The guide, who’s name has long faded from my memory, was great and I learned a lot from him but I was so nervous about fishing in front of a professional that I was a shit show for most of the morning.

By lunch time I was fishing like I had a brain and, with me more relaxed, my guide able to put me on some nice fish and actually enjoy the afternoon himself. He expressed an interest in my bamboo rods and I insisted he take one and fish with me the rest of the day. I’m sure that made him nervous as hell but I felt a whole lot better. For the minute.

I was a singularity. Probably the only guy who ever fished bamboo rods because he was poor. Since I couldn’t afford to buy even a modest fly rod, I had learned to split cane and make my own. I was completely unaware that bamboo was supposed to be some kind of elitist extravagance. I just fished homemade rods because I couldn’t afford anything else. I’m sure my guide didn’t know that and thought I’d handed him some two-thousand dollar wisp of a three weight, on which he was now fighting an eight pound trout. In retrospect, I’m sure he was terrified.

With his hands full, it fell on me to net the fish. I’d never netted a fish like that before and didn’t have a clue how to go about it. The tip of the little three weight was bent almost to the butt cap when I made a desperate swipe at the fish. He was still far too deep to net and still pretty green. I hit the leader with the net and succeeded only in breaking the fish off.

“What was that!” The guide blurted.

“I don’t know,” I answered, which was both stupid, and true.

He’d done a hell of a job fighting a big fish on a tiny bamboo rod and had a right to be a little hot with me. My transgression, however, was one of ignorance not stupidity. I simply didn’t have the information I needed at the time. I don’t blame the guide for this. He had enough going on and just assumed I knew how to net a fish. I was the one who insisted he fish, so I was the one that took him out of the guide roll and put him into the fishing partner role. The whole thing was on me.

He was great about it. He explained what I’d done wrong and that was the last said about it. Still, I remember feeling like a dumb ass and the fact that I still think about it is a good sign of how well that lesson was learned. I felt sure that my guide went back to the shop and told everyone how hopeless I was and they all had a good laugh. I’m sure he never imagined that one day I’d make my living in the fly fishing business.

I remember, just four or five years ago, meeting a rookie guide on a trip to Alaska. Something about this guide impressed me and we hit it off. Back home I found that we had a mutual acquaintance. I was told that just a few years ago this new friend had been the nerd hanging around the fly shop annoying the shop guys. I was told that this rookie guide was not cool and I should not be telling people we were friends.

I distinctly remember my throat tightening when I heard that. I didn’t say anything, but it made me very uncomfortable. I have always been uncomfortable with judgment. If someone judges others, they are likely judging me as well. Whether their judgment is good or bad, it is still a presumption which sets my teeth on edge. Anyway, I’ve never chosen my friends based on who was cool.

Time proved to be on my side of the argument. This rookie Alaska guide is now an international casting champion and well respected. Maybe that’s cool enough. Then again, maybe it isn’t. Was I cool when I broke off that guy’s fish? Am I cool now? Am I a different person now than I was then? So what is it exactly that makes an angler cool?

First of all, who gives a shit? Cool, is just someone else’s opinion of you and is worth exactly nothing. Secondly, the minute you start thinking of yourself as cool, you aren’t. I don’t mind telling you a story about stupid shit I did before I knew better because we’ve all been there. We’ve all been the Gomer who broke the fish off. We’ve all been the nerd annoying the shop guys. It’s just part of the process.

If there is something that makes an angler cool, it’s a thirst for knowledge and a willingness to learn. That’s what makes an angler great. It’s not a snapshot of that angler at any given point in his or her journey. Time means nothing to character. It’s the angler who is bent on self improvement who is cool. It is that same angler who realizes that ego is the greatest impediment to knowledge and that other people’s judgment of them means nothing.

If that’s you, then you’re on the right path whether you’re a Gomer or a badass. There is something to be learned about fly fishing every day, whether it’s your first day or your last. And more important than whether or not it makes you cool, that’s what makes it worth doing. If all we hoped to accomplish any given day on the water is to catch a fish, then we are involved in a sad pursuit. Sadder still if what we are concerned with is being cool.

Eternal self improvement. That’s worth our time. Learning, not about fish, but about ourselves through fish. That’s a journey. Leaving the river, and the world, better than we found it. That’s a valid pursuit. Helping others become better anglers rather than judging them.

That’s cool.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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17 thoughts on “Cool Enough For You?

  1. i am that guy…the guy who hangs out at the fly shop and asks all the questions! i live at the Fishhawk in Atlanta…I actually met you there…Learned more from those guys than i could have ever learned on the mimimal time i have on the water…Thanks for sharing..

  2. Louis,

    Really dig the post. We have all been there. And as a Gomer myself, I can’t tell you how valuable all the screwing up has been over the last couple of years. For me experience is the best teacher and those mistakes with fish are hopefully not repeated.

  3. Great write up there Louis. I totally agree. It’s interesting to watch people pass through the journey of fishing – especially the super “cool” ones 😉

  4. Damn Louis…..good post.. I had to copy the last paragraph for future reference in the event I find myself sideways on my own journey…. Something I am often prone to do when faced with limited time on the water or an impending “last day” of a planned trip….


  5. Bravo. I’ve come to love guided trips – I trust they’re going to put me in the right place… and I always tell the guide they are welcome to help improve my game! Usually makes for a great day.

  6. Louis – you’re cool enough for me man! Hell, everyone is cool enough! I love this piece, touches on so many issues as I see (read: feel) the sport and industry is taking on a high school like clique mentality.

    Look bro’s we are all out here to enjoy the resource, stop making it a class struggle – help someone else out and improve your own karma. We all need it.

  7. Great article! As anglers, I think we’ve all experienced something similar. Fortunately, there are many terrific guides out there who don’t judge and are interested in helping you out in any way possible.

  8. Very nice post Louis. Those who do not consider themselves cool are a lot cooler than the elitist snobs who think they know better than anyone else. This is true of everything in life. Those who think they are hot stuff often stop learning because they think they know it all. Fishing is also rather subjective and constantly changing, and you ignore learning new things at your peril. I try to read, listen, and learn every day, and some of the neatest things I have learned have been from unlikely sources.

  9. Louis – Sweet post – reading it today was one of those weird kizmet moments. This morning I was searching for a fishing quote and came across something William Tapply wrote

    “A bad day fishing is the day I don’t learn anything, I’ve had very few such days”

    Keep up the good work, we appreciate it!

  10. Awesome post Louis. Like John, I really like that last paragraph as well. Teaching others is a huge part of why I love fly fishing. So many people are curious about the sport, but have this belief that its impossible for them to learn. Of coarse I get a great deal of satisfaction when I catch a big trout, or a meaningful trout. However, I get the most satisfaction when someone I’ve been guiding, or teaching, catches their first trout on the fly. It’s a great feeling.

  11. Very well said, Louis. The sport IS about self-improvement, a quest for knowledge, helping others into the sport and teaching those that desire to learn — and it’s especially about enjoying the rhythms, sights, and sounds of being on the river.

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