Updated: Apr 24
My romance with fly fishing began two years ago. My father and brother in-law just scored some shiny new fly fishing gear for Christmas. They subsequently booked a cabin for the family in the North Georgia Mountains three weeks later. I was excited for the long weekend, but completely “gearless”. I always imagined trying my hand at the sport at some point in the future, but could never take the plunge to buy all the gear. However, I sure as hell was not going to sit idly by and merely watch them slay the wild beasts of North Georgia. So, I caved, swiped the credit card a couple times and prepared to be “hooked”™…as if I needed another hobby…
That first trip, the fly fishing gods set the hook and (by miracle) I caught the only fish amongst three fly fishermen over the entire three days, a beautiful wild rainbow. I thought I was Brad Pitt reincarnated from A River Runs Through It – only better looking. I thought I was a natural and started speaking the lingo, tying knots, spottin’ holes, and rigging dry droppers…I didn’t catch another fish for the four months following that trip.
Fast forward 2 years and several fish later… once again, I was preparing to tag along with my father and brother in-law (who – again- had just scored saltwater fly gear) as we all headed to go to the “saltwater fishing mecca”, Captiva, FL. Was I going to sit sidelined, the waterboy/bartender, as they angled the salt waters of the Gulf of Mexico? Of course not.
Saltwater is not as cordial to fishing gear as freshwater. It corrodes and eats away at the reel if not sealed. Generally, depending on what you are fishing for, it also requires a heavier weight rod (fly rods typically range from 2-12 with 12 being thickest and for the biggest fish). Therefore, to fish saltwater you must have a completely different rod and reel than the one used in the freshwater eddies of the Cumberland plateau I have learned so well. So, once again, fueled by a possible future FOMO (fear of missing out), I didn’t tell my wife and purchased a 9 weight TFO rod with an Orvis reel. A sleek maroon rod accompanied by a reel of bright colored Citron. At least, if I didn’t fish well, the setup looked beautiful overshadowing the homely aesthetics of my freshwater black rod and and beat up reel and would make for Instagram worthy photos.
I am outdoor gears worst nightmare, the quintessential “bull in a China shop” scenario. Over the course of 2 years, I have managed to break 6 rods. The first rod made it 1.1 days (cause of death remains unknown). The second rod made it just a few days longer, and the third maybe a month, both perishing at the jaws of my camper top. I'm not one to give up that easily, I persevered and learned from my mistakes – keeping both eyes on that camper top at all times when my rod was within a 20 foot radius. The fourth one fell victim to the camper jaws, but in more of an unlucky fashion rather than careless manner however and I didn’t put all the blame on myself. Strides. The fifth one came back to me “defected”, with a offset eyelet. Even though defected, this little guy made it the longest, 10 months - a respectable duration in my hands. Unfortunately, even he met his maker due to an errant and slightly weighted wooly bugger. The sixth rod is still in my possession being watched nightly by highly skilled samurais. I digress - this new rod was going to be different and I was going to baby it. Plus, since it was a heavier weight, I figured the added girth would surely make it more durable and quite possibly able to deflect all attempts to break it. I was psyched to have a rod I thought I could take to the grave with me or will to grandchildren given they didn’t think fly fishing was dumb.
Onward…Captiva is known for a plethora of saltwater angling opportunities; however, the crown jewel is the Snook. This Snook is one of the most sought-after sport fish. They are fast, elusive, beautiful, predatory and fight like hell. On top of that, they are great eating if you happen to catch one within the small slot limit during November. The three of us spent the first day fishing our spinner rods. I was able to land one smaller Snook on the spinning rod and confidence was high. The next morning I assembled the shiny new fly rod while the sun crept above the horizon, threaded the line, and walked to the bulkhead where I could comfortably cast and possibly catch a fish. As I initiated the casting process, I noticed something was awry. I looked down and saw I had a bird’s nest – a tangled mess straight from Dante's third level of Hell. There was absolutely no resistance or drag, the line just kept feeding and the reel spun frictionless. Feeling distraught but optimistic with my engineering skills, I tinkered with the reel. In reality I had no concept of how drag works and nothing I attempted helped. None the less, I paid a pretty penny for this rod and reel and I was not going to be deterred. I would make it work, dragless. I really didn’t need drag right? I thought about the plan if I hooked into a big fish and decided I would instinctively use my hand to create resistance, thereby slowing down the beast. It would be epic. I imagined an eagle flying overhead while Lynyrd Skynyrd played in the background and me holding a world record Snook overhead.
The thing about a reel without drag is that you don’t need drag if you are not catching fish. The next three days were extremely slow for everyone. Nights were too windy and too dark for a fly-rod and novice bug slinger – it was difficult enough during calm and sunny days. The mornings brought a few bites, middle of days brought fewer, and afternoons brought me normally growing tired of casting and not catching fish, thereby replacing my rod for a beer (or four) and the spinning rod to drown the sorrow and lack of luck.
Since the fish weren’t biting, the three of us decided we needed serious help and trekked to the local fly shop. I could have the shop look at my broken reel while we obtained local beta on what we were doing wrong. However, predictably enough, I forgot the tool to unscrew the reel. While I had little luck in getting my reel repaired, we did meet the Edison of Snook fly fishing. Before this trip I had been researching various patterns to tie which would potentially land me the Captiva King. I kept stumbling upon a fly called the “Schminnow”. I could not take this thing called the “Schminnow” seriously so I disregarded the stories of its effectiveness and did not tie a single one. It looked like a cotton ball with eyes and I was better than that. I turned my nose up at it in regard for flashier, bigger, and fishier looking flies, which unknown to me at the time stood no chance in my hands. Well, as destiny and all foot in mouth moments would have it - here in this fly shop was the inventor of the “Schminnow” -Norm Zeigler. Norm is a true fishing legend, spending his winters in the salt waters of Captiva and his summers in the fresh waters of Montana. He chases the endless summer of fly-fishing. Norm insisted we use the “Schminow”. Through years of trial and error he had learned, Snook prefer this smaller salt-water white cotton ball with eyes. He assured me it would work. We bought 6, a copy of his book (which he signed), various other things and left the shop with a renewed sense of purpose and diminished bank account.
Day 5 rolled around as like expected. The sun came up displaying a dewy orange peel sunrise. Over the past 4 days I had become more proficient at casting the 9 weight. I became somewhat skilled at shooting line and found satisfaction in casting longer distances to supplement the lack of satisfaction catching fish. The morning rolled through just like the tides with nothing but a few shifty groupers taking my fly. They always seemed to startle me from the depths and frequently made it back to their lairs where they would burrow down like cement and ultimately break my line. That afternoon we packed up the golf cart with wine, beer, cornhole and rods and headed to the beach to watch it set over the gulf. Cornhole was competitive, and I flung my Schminnow all along the shoreline. I tried all angles and all types of retrieve with no success. My lack of skill was only overshadowed by my relentless persistence.
30 minutes prior to the sun heading west, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye - a bait ball emerged bubbling like an Aspen hot tub. My heart skipped and I bolted down the beach casting mid-stride to keep my line out and in the bait ball. WHAM – it happened - first cast, something took and I set the hook. I hooked into something which torpedoed down the beach. Here was my bridge, how was I going to cross it? I needed to manually create drag and resistance. I instinctively grabbed the reel to slow down the rotation but nope – didn’t work. The reel kept spinning like a wheel of fortune in overdrive bruising my knuckles. I switched my hand and placed my palm under the reel like originally planned and out of the reels line of fire. The rotation gradually slowed as my palm heated up, and I was able to slow this guy down, reel some, let the fish take line, then reel more. This was certainly no grouper. Finally, the fish broke water and I caught a glimpse, the whole beach was watching. I saw it slap the water quickly and daintily as my pride deflated. It was a lady fish…not a Snook.
The family had always joked about ladyfish, saying they didn’t count on your weekly tally of fish. We never really discussed why, but I’m guessing it is because of the name. They are long and slender resembling a bluefish, but still skinnier. They do however fight better than they look like they would and the one I netted was indeed the largest one I have ever seen. Somewhat disappointed but still grateful, I thanked the angling gods for giving me a non-grouper and relished the minute-long fight that preceded me seeing the fish. Feeling morose, the angling gods responded to my gratitude with another bait ball! I casted again and again, reeling in ladyfish after ladyfish, satisfied with the consolation.
As the orange sky turned to crimson and purple, I wandered out to the jetty formed by chunks of rock and concrete. I casted my line a few times into another bait ball. Ladyfish I figured were better than no fish….Once more, it happened and I felt the resistance and yanked the line to set the hook. The fish ran left and right and I braced my palm against the underbelly of the reel to slow the drag. 30 seconds into the battle, I could feel the fish shake its head under the water and running towards the rocks. It wasn’t breaking water like a ladyfish would have by this point. A few tumultuous minutes in the fish surfaced and I saw it. The beautiful black dorsal line running horizontally down the fish’s body. It was a SNOOK! She continued to take my line heading towards the rocks, if she made it there, I could lose her. I pressed my palm even harder under the reel and reeled faster when able to. I was making headway in bringing her in, and then she would run. I yelled to the beach for my brother in-law to grab the net. He enthusiastically obliged. She continued to make runs forcing my rod tip towards the sea and the setting sun. After several minutes I had her close enough to net. My brother in-law leaned in and scooped her in. In that moment I let out a rebel yell even Billy Idol would envy.
Wanting to retire the night while on top, I stopped fishing and we all celebrated the snook, pilgrims, Native Americans and football with a glass of wine. That evening we ate turkey, mashed taters, mac and cheese, and a family tradition - pineapple casserole. We drank beers and rehashed stories. The fish grew bigger with every minute. We cheered Norm and his “Schminnow”. We joked about how silly it was to spend all week fly fishing for one specific fish – very similar to how climber friends and I joke about how pointless it is to climb boulders – very similar to how pointless it is to hike or run a giant loop in the woods just to return to where you started.
I learned and re-learned a lot this past thanksgiving. I re-learned to always be thankful for good food, good weather, and a wife and family who embrace your pursuits. I learned that sometimes the humblest fly is the best fly. I learned that persistence really does pay off the majority of times and ladyfish really aren’t all that bad.
People often ask me “why do you love fishing so much?”. That answer has been tough since I started fly fishing, and still I don’t have the elevator pitch to succinctly tell you why. There’s a lot I love about fishing, the feel and smell of the the water, the chance to be outside, the excitement I have to wake up before dawn, the unknown of what lies beneath, the solitude, the quest for wisdom, and of course the fish. However, ultimately, it’s the adventure. Most people define adventure in the mountains, the ocean, or enduring hardships outdoors in some way. Adventure though is defined as an “exciting or remarkable experience” which has no time limit. Fishing by that definition then is an adventure every time you cast the line or step into the water. Its a chance for an experience not yet lived. The chance to create and then rehash a story later on, creating a drawing board to inspire the next adventure and learn from. The Snook might have been the temporary destination, but the 5 day fishless journey to get there is what really matters. Every time I step out the door to string up my fly line, I get butterflies; grateful for the chance and opportunity to live another adventure, tie another fly, tell another story.
Now that I've told my tale…
The next day, my fly rod broke while casting. No apparent reason, probably just relieved after all the stress I had put on it. Probably fatigued from so many terrible casts. Probably just wanted to be in a better place than my hands. It helped catch my snook and then promptly went to the great drift boat in the sky.
Cheers and thanks for reading about my pointless pursuit.