My first fish.
My first love I never knew.
My first love I’ll never know again.
A first fish is an ambiguous thing. Like love. The experience is defined by a myriad of variables, all seen with eyes whose picture changes with time and evolution. The time and the place, your age, who you’re with, the surroundings, your place in life – all of these things affect the lasting image. The one you replay in your head. The one I’m missing.
A particular fish caught by an 8-year-old boy will have an entirely different impact on a man at 45. Even the same man. Think about that. The fish hasn’t changed. It’s the same elongated spear of fin and color, the same wiggling tail, the same gasping mouth. But the person…the person has changed with the seasons; every falling of leaf and every cutting of bank that the river takes and recycles and deposits somewhere in the cosmos downstream. This is the phenomenon, and it should not be disregarded.
There would be some consistencies I’m sure. Certain joys and admirations. Certain appreciations for the wild thing in hand. But the meaning can be as changing as the river or lake from which the fish is pulled. This is what I’ve come to believe about trout - that they hold a mystique about them found in few other entities on this earth. This is true for each type of fish and each type of fisherman or woman. For some it may be bluegill or flathead catfish. Others worship tarpon or bonefish. Some still are crappie and walleye addicts. The venerable largemouth bass, of course, is another. Regardless, the first experience with each will be as varied and unique as the day that gave it and the sunrise that came for that day. I’ve seen this first hand with clients, friends, and family. I’ve been the one, for better or for worse, to show these few the ways of trout and fly-fishing. There are times I feel a slight guilt that I (with my many fishing flaws) be the one to teach others how to fish. But I’m being too hard on myself. I know how to handle a fly rod and how to get into guppies. The same way my old Llewellyn Setter knew how to get into birds. She didn’t find every single hiding pheasant and I sure as hell don’t know everything, but at least I can tell which way the rivers flowing and put my waders on right side out. Well…most days.
So, I accept these assignments with honor and respect and although I have fun and joke around, ultimately, I take it seriously. No one showed me how to catch a trout with a fly rod and I’m not entirely sure anyone showed me exactly how to catch a fish at all. I remember a spattering of catfish and bass and farm ponds and perch. I remember rainbows from a hidden lake in the middle of the Oklahoma panhandle. I remember trout from a special cabin in southern Colorado. Sorely though I cannot remember my first one. This bothers me. It bothers me increasingly in my increasing age. I seem to have a growing inclination to try and time stamp my history in some sort of orderly and linear fashion, as if knowing the placement of each brick beneath me will help me know my own construction. And when I say my ‘first’ I mean my first trout. And when I say my first trout, I mean my first trout by a fly. This is in no way meant as a slight to the other wonderful fish of my life but is only due to my graduated infatuation with fly-fishing and my aesthetic gravity toward trout. I do fish for everything else in the water rather giddily. But it has all stemmed from trout - the femoral artery of my fishing viscous. And so, it daunts me this wondering of my first trout and where it was and who was I was with and what I caught it with and how long it was and how it wiggled.
It could have come from that Oklahoma oasis, but I don’t think so. I fished there later in my youth. We fished with lures and worms and cut liver. I visited the water a few years ago with a fly rod but caught nothing and even if I had it wouldn’t help me now with my virgin memory quest. It might have come from some random trip into the mountains with my family. But I don’t remember any of those. We really didn’t take trips. No vacations in the traditional sense. When we did leave the farmland, there was only one place we went to. The family cabin. This is the likely suspect. This is where my first trout on a fly must have came from, but again I do not know for sure. I dare not speak the waters name in text. Not for fear of overcrowding, as most of the water is private, but because of my baptism by it. To write its name would be blasphemous. This water was my elementary of trout learning - a small freestone creek surrounded by hairy growth and vegetation. Active entomology and eager trout. This is where I found answers to the questions my young soul asked. Yet I cannot place my first trout here. I cannot, despite my mental struggle, recall the first fish I pulled out of it.
I remember individual fish. A 15-inch brook trout from a deep pool made by the beavers sometime in the ‘90’s. I haven’t caught a brook trout here in years. I’m sure they’re all gone. It’s mostly brown trout now. But the brook that day was big and even I knew it at the time and it stole my heart in a way few fish have since - its many colors enhanced by the oxygen-rich water that flowed through its gills; much more vivant than the pictures I had seen in magazines. I named my second daughter Brook and I left off the traditional E for a reason. The brook trout is the epitome of beauty and inspiration and pure, wild spirit.
Then there’s the voracious brown trout I caught on a Parachute Adams. I was older. I stood in the middle of the river casting upstream to a flat pool below a row of rocks I laid myself long ago for the sole selfish purpose of catching trout. I hadn’t caught much that morning. In fact, I don’t think I had caught anything. I had seen a fish rise in this flat and I cast repeatedly, growing mad and obsessed with singular vision. I did everything wrong. I lined him, splashed the fly, yanked the back cast and all else imaginable to show this trout that I was a fake who fished with fakes and that he would be wise to avoid anything I offered him. My mother walked up from the cabin. She stood on the bank above me, angled to the west. It was late morning and she stood in her white robe and slippers. Sunlight danced across her. She looked like a rocky mountain guardian angel, there to guide me with my fishing as she has guided me throughout my life. My mother is synonymous with the cabin. They are part of one another. It is impossible to think of one without loving the other.
She walked up in the middle of my casting and said nothing. She only smiled and watched. The stream drowned all sound and the rolling of water over rock and the snaking of sun through the pines and the blatant disregard from the trout all lulled my consciousness into a dream state yet I cast obsessively if only to show my mother I could cast and also because I knew not what else to do. Then it happened. The small brown trout attacked my fly like a raging bull to a man holding a red flag and it made my heart jump in a manner I hadn’t felt for a long time. It truly frightened me. My mother clapped and wooed and I reeled the fish in and struggled to steady my heart. I was utterly flustered by a 10-incher as if it were a great white in a summer pool. I laughed at myself and released the little fish back into the water. Mom was as excited as I was. She walked back through the tall green grass and into the cabin. I stood in the river and caught my breath.
I wish that was my first fish. But as definitive a moment as it was it was not. I know my wife’s first. Trout that is. We lived in Idaho and spring was upon us and we ventured every weekend to a new destination. I usually picked locations with good fishing and though the family never said anything, I know they were on to me. One sunny afternoon we hiked our way up the trail alongside Big Elk Creek – a tributary to the South Fork of the mighty Snake River. Yellowstone Cutthroats jumped to my yellow hopper over and over and everyone enjoyed the action. The river was steep and the flows were fast. Runoff was still going strong. The strategy was to find calm, slack pools behind large boulders and pull the fish in before they swept downstream in the current. I asked my wife if she wanted to try and she took a break from keeping the kids out of the river and took the fly rod from my hand. A few busted casts and then a good one upstream to a large pool among fast water, one of those large boulders creating the slack. A big fish took the fly and she set the hook. She was taken aback by the pull but she kept tension on the line and walked backward like a shore fisherman with a large channel cat. An 18-inch Yellowstone Cutthroat was in the net and we marveled at its beauty. It was the biggest catch of the day and at the time bigger than any cutthroat I had ever caught – a fact she likes to remind me of. We were lucky to bring it to hand. The smile she wears in the picture I took (her in her gym-like attire kneeling beside rushing water holding a large golden native) is proof of the meaning of that day. Nothing can ever undo that.
And I’m jealous. I have no picture of my first fish to look back on. I have no proof of its existence. But it had to have happened. Although there is no evidence and I have no memory of it and I can call upon no witness, the moment must have occurred. But still, I wonder. If I really can’t remember it and I have no hard facts, did it actually happen? It’s the whole tree falling in the woods thing. I never gave the ridiculous theory much thought before but again I say trout are mystic. Who’s to say my first trout ever happened at all? Does a memory constitute existence?
My first daughter’s first trout happened. I was there and I saw it. And this wasn’t one of those: dad sets the hook - hands rod to child - child pulls back - dad nets fish and takes picture of child holding it, kind of catches. We fished Warm River in eastern Idaho, a small but beautiful tributary to the Henry’s Fork. It’s a tiny creek with tiny brook trout. She fished a hopper imitation with a pheasant tail nymph inches underneath it. She cast surprisingly well in the narrow quarters and I watched her play the drift and set the hook perfectly when an 8-inch brookie stopped the hopper by striking the nymph. She managed her line and soon we had a beauty in hand and a picture to prove it. She was a natural that day, as I hoped I was the day I caught mine. She smiled as I hope I did. She is me and on her face I imagine my own, years ago, somewhere along singing water, pulling on the ends of fish. Again, the picture freezes that hour and I cannot help but envy her. Where is mine? I don’t have a picture of my first trout and at the risk of coming off like a whiny millennial (which apparently, I qualify for by one year) I’ll admit it’s beginning to piss me off.
My friend Eric caught a really nice rainbow his first time out. He grew up in Idaho and he caught many fish on the western side of the gem state but all with spinning rods and bait or lures. He showed interest in fly fishing and I eagerly offered to take him to a spot I loved. We fished below Ashton Reservoir on the Henry’s Fork. This proved to be a bit more challenging than I was used to. After all, you can’t really hold your buddies’ hand and stand behind him to help him cast, like you might with your wife. And as I mentioned he was experienced in fishing so I found myself balancing the rope of constructive complements and blatant instruction. Soon we were fishing apart from each other. It’s always best to let beginners sort things out on their own for a moment. If I remember correctly, I had caught a couple of small rainbows and he had missed a few strikes. Then he hooked a solid fish on a Pat’s Rubber Leg fished below an orange indicator. I walked upstream to see it. I netted the fish and he held a thick shouldered 17-inch rainbow with two hands - a real beauty for any fishermen on any day and twice as big as anything I caught that trip. This was his first fish. He has a picture of it. I was holding the damn camera. My first trout laughs at me from his ghost haunt.
My father-in-law also found his first trout in southeastern Idaho. While my mother-in-law spoiled our kids with delicious, home-cooked pastries, I convinced him to buy a fly rod, which wasn’t that difficult to do. We snuck out of the house for a day.
Side note: it always bothers me when we use such subservient vernacular to explain our pursuits.
“Snuck out of the house.”
“Asked the old lady for permission.”
“Don’t tell the Mrs. what I spent on that fly rod.”
I find this language increasingly futile and self-deprecating and I vow here and now to never use it in writing unless it’s a direct quote.
So, after coordinating time and location respectively with my significant other in order to alleviate concern and communicate effectively my future inclination to fish again sometime in the near future we left early one morning and drove to the Teton River north of Driggs. I had been looking for an excuse to ignore the crowds of the South Fork and a new fisherman on small water sounded like the perfect justification. We parked and walked through a private easement, something I always find admirable because I doubt any of us self-righteous sportsmen would be so generous if the land were ours. Maybe I’m only admitting my own selfishness, which is fair enough, but thank God for private landowners who give access. Anyway, we reached the water and it was clear the flows were low but it was still a gorgeous river in a meadow setting with a backdrop rivaling perfection. The Tetons loomed behind us like luscious peaks of a Greek goddess. The day was clear and the sky oozed smurf blue.
Again, I couldn’t hold the fisherman’s hand but only instruct and critique. But this is the father of my wife, mind you, so my words were short and my leeway great. The low, slow water proved unworthy of holding fish. We cast and cast and saw nothing. I offered single bits of guidance and encouragement about his technique, hoping to toe the line. Finally, I found a single overhanging willow on the opposite side of the stream, the only cover in the featureless stretch we found ourselves on. I cast a few feet upstream with an orange hopper and a caddis larvae dropper and a rainbow attacked the hopper just before it reached the branches. It was a thick 14-inch beauty and I showed it to Theron. Then I kicked myself for not thinking to have him cast to that spot first. I’m still not evolved enough to completely forgo my own fish lust. I can only hope to maintain it without coming off like an outright, troutoholic asshole.
We continued fishing downstream and the water got worse. Very shallow and very slow. Stagnant. I found a small riser in a foot-deep pool created by a sharp east bend in the river and Theron was too far below me to get to it so I switched to a BWO dry and cast. He was small and he struck at it several times but I finally irritated him to the point of utter closed-mouthedness. I think he refused to open out of spite more than wariness. We went a few yards further downstream and Theron was beginning to show signs of disappointment as was I. We silently agreed to start back toward the truck. On our way upstream the same trout (or at least one in the same location very close to the same size) rose a couple times in quick succession, glaringly giving away its position as the water rings reverberated around him on the flat glass surface. Theron had a mayfly dry tied and I stood beside him as he cast to it. It was the first time I stopped myself from doing anything at all and only watched and offered advice. He snapped the fly off but the trout still rose so I gave him my rod with the small Blue Wing Olive and told him where to cast. It was calm and intense and the two of us stood as one in one river speaking with one rod to one trout. There was only the sound of hope and the whispers of the Tetons at our backs. On the second cast, the trout rose and took the fly and Theron set the hook excitedly. We laughed and I congratulated him as he held the little rainbow. I took a picture.
And so again I was part of a virgin trout handling and again the fisherman has a photograph of it. It was a special day but I would be lying if I said some part of me didn’t find it a bit irksome. Not because of Theron’s trout or that I wish it were mine. Not in the least. I was and still am very happy for him. But I want to know where in the hell I was when I caught my first trout on the fly and what the hell the fish was that took it.
The unknown identity itself may be what thorns me. I can place no imitative cloak over it because I don’t even know if it was a rainbow or a brown trout or a brook or a sucker fish. I could guess. Does it matter? To me it most certainly does. It keeps me up at night. Is this ridiculous? Probably. Maybe it bothers me because I know the answer will never come. Unlike the 30-inch brown trout which I know exists and can at least hope to hold one day, my first fish is forever unattainable. Any proof at all evades me. And still, there may be some reconciliation if I could at least conjure a realistic imitation. If I could only think long and hard enough. If I could only…but no. I cannot. And save some metal miracle I never will.
I went on to guide many others to their first catch while working as a guide in New Mexico. All of them have pictures. I took most of them.
If you have a picture of your first trout God bless you. If you can only remember it, still I nod my head to you and your recollecting treasure. But if like me you have no proof and you have no memory then I pity you. All we can do now is remember and study long upon our future catches. Like green eyes they are gifts to a mortal shell and like worms they will turn to dust but if you remember them and you stamp that memory to your exasperating cortex they will live forever. As long as rivers run and fish rise.
But God help us all who have only the ghost of a first trout and the hauntings that follow. Like some random lover of old they nag at our imagination. Like some deed undone they wake us from our midnight-moon slumbers. They speak to us from that mystic enigma, those rivers we’ve never set foot in and those bends that don’t exist. And for those of you who say that’s a little heavy-handed for a slimy bug gulper, for those of you who are unable to stretch your metaphors of the water dwellers to us humanoids, for those of you who think this too deep a vex for any human heart, know this: the scientific name of the rainbow trout is Oncorhynchus mykiss. The name comes from the Kamchatka Peninsula in Siberia. Mykizha was their word for fish. Mykizha. Mykiss. My kiss. Maybe those ancient hunters and gatherers knew something about the mysterious attraction of fish. Maybe they fell in love with them. Or maybe it’s all a coincidence. Either way I advise you to remember the lips of your first.
My first fish.
My first love I never knew.
My first love I’ll never know again.